When to Lean in to Uncertainty and Trust Yourself

Many years ago, my younger sister Anne volunteered with  Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), a French medical humanitarian organization – also known as Doctors Without Borders. Anne was not long out of medical school but wanted to heed a long-held desire to help people in places where there was a deep need for medical care. Much to her surprise (and overwhelm), they sent her to an Internally Displaced Peoples camp where 40,000 people lived in temporary shelters with little food, basic amenities, and under the constant threat of the rebel attack. 

Anne’s role was to run the 80-bed hospital that was powered by generators, which could only run four hours a day. Needless to say, the work was relentless, at times overwhelming, and the needs of the people far exceeded the capacity of the medical center.

Understaffed without anyone to relieve her, Anne was unable to take any breaks during her 6 months. So she worked 7 days a week, supported a small team.

Upon finishing her time there, Anne came to stay with me in the US prior to returning to Australia. As you might imagine, she needed time to decompress and renew.

I remember taking her out for coffee and asking her what was the most compelling lesson she’d gained from her extraordinary experience. She sat there for a minute and then she said:

I now know that I can handle anything.

I have held that insight close to my heart ever since.

While Anne’s circumstance was unique, the challenging situations I’ve found myself in have held a similar lesson: That we’re capable of more than we think.

When I moved from Australia to Texas a few weeks after 9/11 with three small children – 3, 2, and an 8-week-old baby – I felt overwhelmed. Reflecting on that time and the years that followed—having a fourth (Texan) child and launching a new career/business in a new country with no network—I’ve realized that when we have a deep commitment to a higher vision we can tap latent potential to achieve more than we ever imagined.

Of course, no worthy endeavor – from growing a business, leading change, to doing good in the world in any form – is comfortable starting out. The fact that it increases our uncertainty and demands disrupting the status quo is innately unsettling. Change always triggers our fear of what could go wrong and dials up self-doubt. And clearly, there will also be setbacks and road bumps as no plan ever survives its first encounter with reality.

Yet here’s the deal:

Just because you don’t know exactly what you’re doing doesn’t mean you don’t have the innate capacity to figure it out as you go along.

Too often, when we look at people we admire, we mistakenly assume that they always knew what they were doing. Not so. Nobody knows what they’re doing before they do it. So if you’re starting something new, cut yourself a little slack and give yourself permission to figure it out as you go along.

Our brains are wired to prioritize short-term certainty over long-term possibilities, to overestimate the risks and underestimate ourselves. 

Whatever vision inspires you is no accident. So ask yourself:

What would you dare to do if you trusted your ability to figure it out as you go?  

Embrace the uncertainty of the new and trust yourself that you have everything it takes to learn new ropes and meet new challenges… one day at a time.  

Lead Bravely!