The Discomfort Of Uncertainty

The Discomfort Of Uncertainty

Are goals an example of discomfort in uncertainty? How does Stoicism approach the approach to using goals and rules to cultivate success?

Success has many definitions and it can be hard to be definitive about what it means, especially when talking about goals. Is the success of goals determined by meeting a numerical requirement you set for yourself or is there more to it?

Let’s say you wanted to lift 180 kg on the deadlift in 12 weeks time, but you only managed 17;  does this mean you failed?

Well technically no, but you were successful in increasing your strength. Should this mean you are disappointed or celebrate the accomplishment of strength increase anyway?


Why Do We Experience Uncertainty?


At the end of the day how you dichotomize success from the accomplishment of goals is up to you, there is no right way.

What you must understand is whether you are ready to deal with the negative emotion that can follow with your own self-inflicted disappointed, when you technically didn’t accomplish a number or any other quantifiable variable, such as the weight on the deadlift.

There’s an uncertainty about most things in life, goals included and to focus on not achieving an arbitrary number in spite of your full effort being given can almost seem as a dishonour to the merit of your work.

We set goals because we are uncertain of the future.

This uncertainty is an uncomfortable feeling, many people will obsessively write to do lists to cultivate certainty for every step of their day. This can give one an almost robotic-like nature. Planning every step of yourself is unnatural inauthentic and this can lead to little to no satisfaction with your journey.

Saying goals are only good and have no negative consequences is dangerous itself. The discomfort of uncertainty describes the anxiety of ignorance of future outcome and fear. We all experience this no matter who you are, accept that you may feel this right now.


Why Not Embrace Uncertainty?


The Stoics viewed uncertainty as something they called “reserve clause”.

From Seneca:

The Sage does not change his decision, if everything remains entirely what it was when he took it …. Elsewhere, however, he undertakes everything “with a reserve clause” … in his most steadfast decisions, he allows for uncertain events.

From Marcus:

Do not disturb yourself by picturing your life as a whole; do not assemble in your mind the many and varied troubles which have some to you in the past and will come again in the future.


Your attempt was always subject to reservations, remember; you were not aiming at the impossible. At what, then? Simply at making the attempt itself. In this you succeeded; and with that the object of your existence is attained.

Very simply a Stoic has the understanding that events which exist out of a man’s control are always inevitable and will always exist.
This occurs in the case where execution was perfect.
Having goals reduces your ability to be flexible. Of course, this is subjective to the type of goal, but generally, there is no circumstance where you have as much freedom to explore new opportunities and options as having no goal whatsoever. 

Rules Instead Of Goals?


The cool thing about rules is that they make life simple. To understand virtues is good, but to live by them allows one to live a simplistic life with clear boundaries, directions and intentions. 

Whatever moral rules you have deliberately proposed to yourself abide by them as they were laws, and as if you would be guilty of impiety by violating any of them. Don’t regard what anyone says of you, for this, after all, is no concern of yours. How long, then, will you put off thinking yourself worthy of the highest improvements and follow the distinctions of reason? You have received the philosophical theorems, with which you ought to be familiar, and you have been familiar with them. What other master, then, do you wait for, to throw upon that the delay of reforming yourself? … Let whatever appears to be the best be to you an inviolable law.(50) – Epictetus, The Enchiridion (c. 135)

When you have rules to live by it makes decision-making simple for the small things, which allows the mind to ponder on topics of greater importance.

How can we relate rules to goals? As people we are goal oriented, as said before our innate discomfort of uncertainty drives us to constantly set objectives so we cultivate an almost fake, but convincing sense of comfort in the present.

This isn’t necessarily a positive trait but it’s something that is hard to avoid without feeling lost.

The Stoics were interesting in sets of rules for living life rather than manifesting goal after goal. We can learn some important lessons on their rule manifesto and live a more virtuous life.


How To Create Effective Rules


I can’t give you suggestions, this is up to you. But tying back in with goals, your goals are going to be leading you in a certain direction, whether it be getting stronger in the gym, waking up earlier, whatever it may be.

You should always have one singular, dominating goal and with that goal in mind, your rules formulated around that goal and supplement its progression.

A great way is to start with one new rule a week, see how it goes and then go from there. Keep it simple.

Currently, I have some rules for myself. I’m trying to write this book and at this very moment; I have three rules.

  1. 3 hours of writing a day
  2. 1 hour of reading
  3. 7 hours minimum of sleep

These are supplementing my goal of finishing the book and keep me accountable towards my goal of finishing it; for you, an example may be gaining muscle. Your rules may then be:

  1. 3 weight lifting sessions per week
  2. 500 calories over your maintenance per day
  3. 8 hours of sleep

Make it a practice of setting rules to help you achieve any goal you have. By doing so you will make it routine to set boundaries in your life and understand the important of prioritizing your own needs sometimes.

Don’t bother overthinking rules, understand your intentions, set your goal, understand the when, where and how and from there create a simple set of rules that you know are going to take you from point A to point B in the most efficient, balanced and harmonious manner.


The Destination Is Not The Goal


Begin working on a goal and enjoy doing it. Remember that if you’re not satisfied with your position in life, reaching a certain goal, in terms of deep fulfilment, will translate to nothing more than an inflation of the ego.

You must be satisfied along the way.

This is easier said than done, but it’s an important lesson to remember; the more time you invest in thinking about the result itself the more you lose track of what’s actually important.

Let’s take the example of me writing this very book.

Where do you think I get the most satisfaction and reward internally from this action. Is it the writing itself or the attention and validation I get from posting it, through the receive comments, etc.

You may think it’s the latter, but the truth is the satisfaction comes from the writing itself, the act which grounds me and pulls me into the present.

This is the journey and I want you to have this mindset in whichever goals you are trying to achieve.

Put your soul into the journey, enjoy it, because this will be what you treasure and miss the most once you have actualised the goals you have set for yourself.

Learn to love the uncertainty and welcome it into your life, learn to be flexible, adaptable and rid yourself of fear which you cannot control.

Don’t be the person that sets a goal, tries to do it and attempts to predict the rate at which you’ll progress. Fully accept the fact that you have no idea of the circumstances that may arise in the future. You only have the ability to influence rather than control.



Key Points


  1. Goals are not useless. They have their place but understand it’s not an answer for the long-term.
  2. Learn to love and welcome uncertainty as a part of life. You cannot control how your goal plans out and you have no ability to control external influences that may affect your ability to accomplish something.
  3. There are things that we can never control, but we can influence them. Don’t underestimate this power.
  4. Set rules for yourself to keep you accountable and on track to the goals you have set for yourself, use them as an aid to moving you forward and set strong boundaries for Internalize

  5. Internalize your goals. Control them, influence variables as necessary, but don’t forget to focus on the effort, not the goal. 

A good traveller has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving – Lao Tzu.

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