On uncertainty

“ Brady, I’m thinking of pursuing an educational path and I don’t know if it is the career that I will be doing in the future, but for now it seems right. I like being certain about these things, so I weigh my options, especially with something as big as my career. Any advice on being sure of your educational goals?”

Dreaming of the future, and the career you want to build, as well as the life you will inhabit, can be as exciting as it is cloudy. That future can appear even cloudier when the decisions you are making revolve around what it is you think you want to study and learn, or phrased more succinctly, it is hard to see with certainty what is actually uncertain.

Pursuing an education, whether in finishing high school or getting a doctorate, and becoming more knowledgeable in a given area, is a wonderfully scary process that I wholeheartedly support. What you learn can change you as a person, it can discard ill-fitting ideas you previously held dear, and it can reveal aspects of yourself that you didn’t know existed. Gaining any kind of knowledge, then, is a kind of lottery wherein what you want to win you think you know, but what occurs in that process of winning is entirely unexpected if unknown.

It is easy, especially in my position as a shrink, to build up a fragile sense of certainty and say: every educational path is equally valid and you will enjoy your chosen educational path, and it okay if you are nervous. It would be careless to offer these words, not simply because I don’t know more about the goals that you are referring to, but because I recognize the weight that I carry in saying them. Having the exact words, the precise thought, or the nuanced idea, that can still someone’s clumsy anxiety and instill certainty is something that I, as a clinician, am assumed to hold, but I, in truth, do not. I can’t make you more certain of your goals, but what I can offer you is the idea that uncertainty is necessary for your education.

A difficult teacher of mine challenged my own desire for certainty in my growth and education by saying: find the ground you are walking on in your feet, not in a map.

I disliked that challenge, because I approached my own education from an idea that I knew exactly what it was I wanted to know; I was given that advice when I quickly realized my ideas of what I wanted to know did not match reality of what I could know. That advice helped me become more open with my goals, to study an academic area that confused and challenged me, and it allowed me to be uncertain and to learn at the same time. This advice is something that I would like to pass along to you. Find your feet in the ground you are walking on, not in a map.

In learning to find my feet along my path, and letting go of idealized notions of where I should be, or what kind of education my career depends upon, I became more participatory in my education and learned more than I could have imagined in the process. Even the entrance exams and preparation programs that supposedly indicated I was ready for any rigorous educational path simply demonstrated my test taking ability, and did not prepare me for embracing uncertainty. Those tests discouraged uncertainty and relied on the idea that I already had enough knowledge to be successful, even before I began to learn. In embracing the inherent uncertainty of the educational process, I became prepared and was equipped to find my feet along that path. Paying less attention to my ideas of where I should be and being open to where I am in my own process has given me a gentle spaciousness to handle and integrate that uncertainty. It is something that has pushed me further along my educational path than any other idea or approach to learning.

Pursuing an educational program, being open to learning, to growing, to evolving, isn’t a smooth or easy process, and it can change you if you allow it. That said, the goal of an education, at least to me, is a two-fold process: developing certainty in a body of knowledge and developing a capacity to not know, so that there is room to discover. If there is a part of you that wants a particular education, and a part of you that is uncertain if this is the right field or right area to study, then I’d say you are in a wonderful place to be. Carry all of those feelings with you as you move toward what confuses, challenges, and intrigues you.

Some paths are there so that we can go down them, only to see another path, unnamed, that we can walk upon, and wouldn’t have discovered if we kept our eyes fixed upon a map.

(Originally written February 2, 2013)

About the Author


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I'm a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice down in the greater Long Beach, CA, area. I've been in the mental health field, formally, since 2005, and I consider it a deep and rewarding honor to see other people grow and live the lives that they want. If I'm not sitting on a couch with a cup of tea in hand, I'm probably on my bicycle, or lost in my own thoughts on the beach; meditating, tweeting, blogging, and talking into a video camera are also known to happen.

BradyOn uncertainty

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