Facing the Unknown: Perspectives from the Past and Present

facing the unknown

The Unknown. Uncertainty. Randomness. Fate. Regardless of the name given to it, this force can alter our lives with a flick of the metaphorical wrist. It permeates all aspects of our lives, whether we’re aware of it or not.

Personally, I have an awkward relationship with all things unknown. When confronted with a situation that has no clear precedent, missing information, or an otherwise complete lack of clarity, I obsess. I obsess a lot. In fact, I’ll usually obsess to the point of misery.

Many types of uncertainty cause anxiety for good reason: health issues, job stability, national crises, etc. It’s quite fair to say that these situations warrant anxiety and extreme attention to their proper resolution.

In this post, I’m more concerned with uncertain, anxiety-inducing situations that should otherwise be exciting moments in your life:

  • Choosing a college (and subsequently, a major)
  • Launching your career
  • Finding a life partner
  • Moving away from home for the first time
  • Starting a business
  • …the list goes on

Again on a personal note, I’ve noticed that these exciting times in my life were often tainted with a sense of misery from the unknowns and uncertainties they brought along with them. Here are a few examples; can you relate?

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On Being Comfortable in the Gray

The color of truth is gray.
—Andre Gide

Moving to San Francisco was quite a jump for me. My friends, family, and other loved ones were all based in the New York area; I had a great job in the heart of New York City; and I could count all of the people I knew on the west coast on one hand. Leaving everything behind was tough.

But I moved. And roughly one year later, I couldn’t be happier with my decision.

There’s something rejuvenating about pushing the reset button. The feeling is not unlike your first day of college – a clean slate and near infinite ways to craft yourself into who you want to be, rather than what people have always known you to be.

One theme that’s been present in my life since pressing the proverbial reset button is living comfortably in life’s shades of gray. Or, as a close friend has put it, living in the colors between black and white.

 

Type-A personalities, take note.

As a stereotypical type-A personality, I seek comfort in clearly defined boundaries. If I couldn’t define right and wrong when presented with a situation, I’d become anxious and try and coerce the situation into a simpler, black-and-white version of itself. A version that was easier to handle, mentally and emotionally.

While this did a great job of reducing mental burden, allowing me to make a decision and move on (something us type-A personalities crave), it did so at the expense of a fuller understanding of the situation.

You see, when you prematurely force your circumstances into their simpler black-or-white counterparts, you miss out on the full story, and, potentially, the opportunities that become apparent from a fuller understanding of the situation. I’ll spare you the details, but I’ve certainly missed out on plenty of opportunities in both my work and personal life as a result of my inability to navigate ambiguity properly.

If you’re like me, and dislike when you’re kept in a state of ambiguity, take note. I’ve been working to better handle life’s many gray areas, and while it hasn’t been easy, I’m beginning to notice significant benefits from doing so.

 

Some benefits I’ve noticed.

Since making an effort to be comfortable with the unknown, the unclear, the blurry lines, I’ve noticed three benefits:

1) I’m better able to take advantage of opportunities. When you keep your mind open to the fact that you’re navigating through gray zones, you prevent yourself from locking into one mode of thinking. Confirmation bias is a tried-and-true phenomenon that causes people to narrow their thinking when they’ve already locked on to an expectation.

When I used to coerce situations into black and white, I’d do so in order to latch on to the course of action I deemed as the better approach (hence relieving my mind from the burden of pending decisions). However, the black and white version of the situation wasn’t the real version. So although I’ve made my decision, I’d usually learn in retrospect that being more patient with the situation would’ve yielded a better course of action.

2) I’m easier to work with. When you become comfortable with the uncertainty that the gray areas of life bring, you become more open and tolerant to last-second changes, plans that keep shifting around, and various other unclear circumstances in your life.

This has the potential to make you easier to work with, both at work and in your personal relationships. Have you ever had to work with someone who was impatient and insisted on premature decisions? These people cannot navigate uncertainty well, and seek solace in decision, when often it’s advantageous to wait for additional information to reveal itself.

This same logic sometimes applies to people who jump into relationships too quickly, for example, when it would likely be advantageous to go on a few more dates to check for compatibility.

3) I’m happier. In order to be more comfortable with gray areas, I’ve found that you need to stop obsessing about the future and live more in the present moment. It goes without saying, but adopting a mindset where you obsess less about the future and focus more on the present tends to make you happier. It’s one of the core tenets behind meditation, after all.

 

Want to try this too?

For any readers who have the same mentality as me (overthinker who feels a sense of comfort from clearly defined boundaries), here’s what I’d recommend:

1) Look for the gray first. No need to take action yet. Simply keep your mind open to the possibility that certain situations might be better served if you deferred a final decision. Perhaps if you sleep on it, talk to a someone you trust, or just wait a few days, the situation might reveal more information that can aide in the proper decision.

2) Journal to wrap your mind around the gray. I’ve found that either journaling or talking through the situation with someone you trust helps you adapt to unclear circumstances. Especially for those of us who crave the simplicity of black and white situations, it can be easy to back track and prematurely decide on something simply to release the situation’s mental burden. Make it a point to deliberate more on these situations than you might’ve in the past.

3) Meditate, if necessary. My mind is so overactive, I had to start meditating to better keep myself in the present moment. When I wasn’t meditating, I’d still obsess over gray areas, and tended to narrow my thinking on one course of action, even if somewhat arbitrarily chosen due to the uncertainty of the situation. Meditation is a very handy tool for those us who wish to be more comfortable with ambiguity.

 

A caveat and a conclusion.

While this all sounds good on paper, I’ve found that you can’t be this deliberate for all of the gray areas in your life. Some are time sensitive, in which case you must act with imperfect information. In other cases, it might be too much cognitive load to address every gray area in your life with this much attention. Sometimes, you have to pick and choose.

Nevertheless, by approaching certain gray areas in your life with a more open-ended, mindful approach, you’ll find yourself extracting more value from these situations, as you’ll be able to avoid premature decisions and confirmation bias, and adapt more quickly when new information becomes available.

Do you have any experience with navigating the ambiguity of gray areas? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Why some people will never be happy (and what to do about it)

The problem is that the brain is very good at building brain structure from negative experiences. We learn immediately from pain—you know, “once burned, twice shy.” Unfortunately, the brain is relatively poor at turning positive experiences into emotional learning neural structure.

—Rick Hanson

So true. It’s a shame it took me 24 years to fully recognize this.

At some point or another, we all get caught in the future trap. “If I could just earn X, or achieve Y, I’ll be happy.”

We all know, at a logical level, that superficial things (money, status, power) give fleeting, temporary happiness. Yet, like many people, I believed that once I achieved the “real deal” (good friends, a sense of community, job satisfaction, etc.), I’d experience a lasting increase in happiness.

This was put to the test in 2013. After gamifying my way to a more fulfilling job, moving to a new city, meeting many wonderful people, and knocking off quite a few items on my bucket list, I expected to feel noticeably happier as I went about my day-to-day life.

That never happened.

Why? Because of the trend that Rick Hanson – neuropsychologist and member of U.C. Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center’s advisory board – described in the quote above, and in this interview with The Atlantic. When you don’t actively pay attention to the good, the negative memories are in a better position to triumph. Over and over and over.

I’m sure this differs from person to person, but I’m quite susceptible to the negativity bias Hanson describes. It’s almost as if I have a leak in my “positive memory” tank. I’ll remember a negative experience for years, but forget a positive experience within a week. Can you relate?

Rick Hanson, in his book Hardwiring Happiness, talks about this trend in excruciating detail. From his years of research, he’s come to the conclusion that going out of your way to be just as attentive to the positive as the negative can physically re-wire your brain to better hold on to the good. Obviously, this has a large range of benefits, ranging from physical health to emotional well-being.

Techniques for being more mindful of the good in your life have been around forever. Meditation practices, gratitude journals, you name it. But it’s great to see this backed by solid research.

I’ll keep this post brief, with the following takeaway: If you’re like me, and find yourself with a significant negativity bias, do yourself a favor and start working on that ASAP. Whether by reading Hanson’s book, meditating more often, or starting a gratitude journal, pick your methodology and get at it.

You’ll thank yourself later. Promise. :)

 

 

After Ten Months of Coding: Re-thinking Online Dating

Back in February, I wrote a post describing the pains and pleasures of learning to code. When I wrote that post, I was a mere few months into the process.

Eight months after writing that post, I’m happy to announce that most of the frustration has faded away as I started getting a handle on my frameworks of choice (AngularJS, jQuery, AppEngine). Since then, I’ve tackled web development projects at work, and even took on a personal project.

The hardest part of this process was transitioning from beginner lessons to a project that actually meant something to me. I did this through a project I’ve  code-named Datebot. After ten months of learning to code through this project, I’m happy to announce it, in the hopes that it might benefit some others out there.

 

What the heck is a ‘Datebot’?

Well, I’m glad you asked. To be honest, a more appropriate name would be ‘Online Dating Helper’, but the name Datebot stuck early.

The pain point addressed by Datebot is tightly knit to sites like OKCupid or Match.com. On one hand, online dating sites are showing promising results on the marriage/relationship front. On the other hand, the experience for individual users of these sites is still quite sub-optimal.

On sites such as OKCupid.com, guys spend a significant amount of time reading profiles and drafting messages to women, many of which will never respond (in my experience, response rates range from 10% to 50%).

Unfortunately, because of the time and focus requirements for crafting a high quality message (not to mention the average response rates on these sites), many guys revert to spammy messages that they can copy and paste from profile to profile.

On the woman’s side, she’s bombarded with tons of messages from guys. Many are spammy, sleazy, or otherwise unappealing messages. As such, she spends a lot of time slogging through these low quality messages, in the hopes that a quality guy is sitting somewhere in her messages inbox.

Having used OKCupid myself during my time working in New York – not to mention hearing the many stories of friends who have used it – I saw how prevalent these pain points were.

Rather than reinvent online dating with another online dating app, I chose to develop Datebot as a companion to those using OKCupid. The goal of Datebot is to reduce these pain points for everyone.

 

How does it work?

It’s quite simple.

For guys, it helps you read a girls profile and lets you know ahead of time how many interests you have in common (we’re not talking about a silly Match % ranking here. I’m talking real, mutual interests, plain and simple). And if you choose to send her a message, Datebot can help you out there too by suggesting talking points based on your shared interests.

For girls, Datebot will come loaded with a database of sleazy, spammy phrases to watch out for, and will go about deleting messages for you if those phrases are contained within. That way, by the time you return to your inbox, it’s squeaky clean, containing only high quality messages from high quality people.

The vision:

Guys and girls using online dating should spend a majority of their time communicating with quality matches, rather than crafting messages to unresponsive people, or slogging through and overwhelming number of spammy messages from creepers. If successful, people using online dating websites will find quality relationships more quickly, contributing to a happier life.

Feel free to check it out on Github if you’re interested in contributing to the project. It’s in super early stages of development (only the guy version is ready right now, and only for OKCupid users), so it’s not quite ready for primetime. However, the Chrome extension is ready for use, if you want to check it out here: bit.ly/datebot.

 

What’s the takeaway from all of this nonsense?

When you experience a pain point in your life, don’t just sit around complaining about it. If a solution doesn’t exist, make one! Although I chose to solve this problem by flexing my coding muscles, there are usually many ways to go about solving a problem, many of which can leverage your natural strengths.

So go out there and start taking on those pain points in your life!