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Why Entrepreneurs Need to Be Optimistic About Uncertainty

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When I was 8 years old, I broke a bowl.

It wasn’t the first thing I’d broken, but that bowl was supposed to be unbreakable. I remember Mom explaining to Dad that it was worth the money because it was “guaranteed not to break.” It was the ugliest thing ever, a mottled pattern of muddy colors that might have been someone’s plastic idea of imitation granite, but that was OK because you could take a hammer to it and, supposedly it would not break.

Except, I broke it. I didn’t use a hammer. I just dropped it. On concrete. I suspect that the designers did not anticipate one imaginative little girl filling their “unbreakable” bowl with strawberries from the garden, then walking up the sidewalk trying to balance it on her head while pretending to be an Egyptian slave bearing gifts to Cleopatra.

No matter how much we crave the sure thing, there will always be that one thing that was not, and could not have been, anticipated.

Related: How to Manage the Stress of Uncertainty

We live in uncertain times.

I’d finished my presentation to a group of entrepreneurs and invited questions from the audience. The event organizer started it off with, “I think we’re living in uncertain times, and as entrepreneurs we have a lot of fear. Can you speak to that?”

I looked out on the room and every face as far as I could see was turned intently in my direction. A lot of heads were moving up and down. I felt for them. No, I felt with them. I’m an entrepreneur, too, and I’d really be glad of a few “sure things” in my life. But I told them the truth.

“I’ve never lived in certain times, I don’t expect I ever will. And I’m OK with that.”

I came into the workforce in 1981. Those were not certain times. I’ve been a self-employed consultant and coach for 20 years. None of those years have been certain times. No futurist I’ve read or heard speak is forecasting certain times. If I had a crystal ball, I doubt it would show any certain times. 

But then, people have gone broke in good times, and gotten rich in bad times. It's not about the times!

When you base your idea of “uncertain times” on the national or global economy, it’s easy to think we are living in more uncertain times, but your personal economy is only more or less certain because of the choices you make, not the way the world’s cookie crumbles.

Related: Lessons from Seth Godin on Embracing Uncertainty

Being alive, in business and happy requires you relish uncertainty.

Here’s the thing most of us forget about uncertainty -- it isn’t always BAD!

That referral that came out of left field, the crazy idea you had in the middle of the night that turned out to be your next major product offering, the client who opted for the premium package when you thought they weren’t willing to spend a dime on your solution. That’s all part of uncertainty.

When you ask for a guarantee you don’t really mean you want a sure thing, because a sure thing means it has to be exactly what you ordered, what you expected, what you paid for. A sure thing leaves no room for better than you could have imagined.

When you ask for a guarantee, you don’t really expect that the unexpected won’t happen. You expect that if an unexpected BAD thing happens, you’ll be compensated. You’ll get a new bowl, or your money back. But that doesn’t mean the bowl won’t break.

Life doesn’t come with money back guarantees. No one is going to give you a refund if a choice doesn’t work out the way you hoped, but neither can they demand money back if you make a choice that pays off beyond your wildest dreams.

It happens.

No, I wasn’t avoiding a four-letter-word. The idea that anything unexpected that happens equates to excrement is one of the most destructive memes we’ve adopted, and it didn’t need Social Media to catch on.

Lots of things happen. Because there is always something you didn’t, and couldn’t, anticipate. But it isn’t always the equivalent of the broken bowl. Sometimes it’s the idea, the solution, the opportunity, the accomplishment that you thought was impossible. Until it happened.

Entrepreneurship is both ultimate uncertainty and ultimate opportunity.

If that doesn’t thrill you, just a little bit, maybe entrepreneurship is not for you. Or, maybe, you’ve been buying into the idea that uncertainty is something to be scared of instead of something to embrace.

The fully alive, happy, and successful entrepreneur wakes up each morning knowing that nothing is certain, but certain that what happens will always depend on the choices they make. And they go to bed each night owning their choices and determined to make even better choices tomorrow.

Related: 5 Tips for Turning Uncertainty Into a Competitive Advantage

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