The Uncertainty Principle: 3 Ways to Embrace the Unknown for Career Success

This post is based on a Lightning Talk delivered at the GovLoop Career Energizer event this past Tuesday night by Jessie Babcock, the Country Director for Chile and Uruguay with the Department of Defense.

Let me start with a shocking statement: we live in an age of uncertainty. This comes as no surprise. The Golden Age of Employment, when jobs were plentiful and working hard was the only requirement for success, is long gone now. Our world now is one where economic recession is a recurring reality and unemployment a distinct possibility, even for those of us in the government sector. Thank you, sequestration!

So what should an ambitious, hardworking, career-minded person do in this new environment? Conventional wisdom would tell you to be strategic, make a life plan. Plot out every move for the next five years! If you want to beat the competition, you need to have the right skills, the right schools, the right positions in your field. Right? Wrong.

Let me offer another shocking statement. In an age of uncertainty, the best career strategy is not to plot out every move but to embrace what I call the Uncertainty Principle. No, I’m not talking about quantum theory. The Uncertainty Principle I’m referring to is the idea that to work towards a career that is satisfying and meaningful to you, and one that compensates well, you need to cultivate uncertainty in your life. Why? Because by opening yourself to uncertainty, you open yourself to new ways of looking and thinking about your career.

Let me give you an example. In 2008, I was living in Kenya, finishing my MBA in nonprofit management, and deciding my future. I had gone to Kenya with the goal of starting a nonprofit organization to work with women entrepreneurs. For the previous five years, I’d devoted myself to learning about the nonprofit world and international development, and starting a nonprofit seemed like the “right” path forward.

But I had serious doubts about starting my own organization once I was in Kenya and saw how hard it was to effect any lasting change. I felt like I was pushing myself down a path that wasn’t right.

So when I heard that I had become a Presidential Management Fellowship finalist and had the chance to apply to a PMF position in the federal government, I went for it. In fact, I chose to apply to a PMF position in the Department of Defense. Why? I knew nothing about defense or the military. I had no idea where this position might lead, but I wanted to challenge myself by taking a leap into the unknown.

Miracle of miracles, I was hired to work at the Pentagon. Over the next two years, I had the opportunity as a PMF to work on the USG’s Haiti earthquake response, fund programs to help refugees in East Africa with the State Department, and learn about issues like peacekeeping and stability operations, as well as a host of opportunities that I never thought possible. Was apply to DoD’s PMF program a strategic move based on where I was? To most people, the answer is no. Yet taking that leap into the unknown was, for me, the best professional choice I made.

So how do you put the Uncertainty Principle into practice? Let me offer three ideas.

First, cultivate curiosity. Look for opportunities to pursue your interests at work. What fascinates you? What have you been putting off because it’s not directly related to your current job? This is true even if you’re in the middle of your career. When you look for challenging opportunities to gain new knowledge and skills – whether through travel, volunteer work, or going back to school in a new field – you open ourselves to career possibilities beyond what we ever could imagine.

Second, embrace smart risks. It can be risky to contemplate moving to a new field or take on a project that you’re not certain will be successful. We all have obligations, whether it’s to family and friends, paying off school loans, or something else. And I think most of us would prefer not to fail in our careers. But when you embrace smart risks that may be difficult but not impossible, you challenge yourself to reach beyond your perceived limits, and you discover that you are able to rise to the challenge. I did this when I went to DoD. I was petrified of being a fraud, of being discovered to know nothing about the military. But you know what? I knew how to analyze and synthesize information, I knew how to write, and I knew how to read. Those were the baseline skills I needed to be successful.

Finally, trust your instincts. How many times have you been faced with a situation where the smart move is to do X, but your gut tells you to do Y? For example, you’re offered a job at a higher salary but the job is not all that interesting to you. Or you’re contemplating getting an advanced degree and your best friend tells you, “Why would you go back to school? You already have a job!”

Too often, we make decisions based on fear. When we trust our instincts – not be impulsive, but trust our inner voice – we free ourselves to make what to some might seem to be a crazy decision, but is in fact exactly what we need to advance our careers to the next level…whatever that level might be.

In closing, let me offer the radical proposition that in the midst of instability and the unknown, the path to a satisfying, challenging, and meaningful career is through uncertainty. By cultivating uncertainty, you invite in possibility. Who knows what great things await?

How has uncertainty had an impact on your career – both positive and negative?

When was the last time you pursued – and embraced – uncertainty?

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Jay Johnson

That’s some great advice in times of change. Fighting against the unceratinty will not work. Move with it and you’ll go further.