I will never forget the first day I ever shot a gun. I was on the firing line at the FBI Academy and holding a Smith & Wesson .38 revolver. My heart raced as I wiped the sweat from my palms. I was filled with uncertainty and worried that I wouldn’t shoot well enough to qualify.
Experiencing uncertainty is different than taking a risk. Risk involves a known probability that something will or will not happen; uncertainty, however, indicates the probabilities are unknown. Therefore, we cannot predict an outcome.
How many of us have missed tremendous opportunities and experiences because we’ve chosen to walk away when faced with uncertainty? When we avoid challenges because we’re scared of failure, it’s a form of self-sabotage. We’ve held on to a self-limiting belief about what we can do in life.
Mental toughness is the ability to break unproductive patterns of behavior. It is managing your emotions, thoughts and behavior in ways that will set you up for success.
(Are you mentally tough? Take this free assessment.)
Here are five ways you can be mentally tough and not let uncertainty hold you back:
1. Learn to override the brain’s innate fear of uncertainty
Our thinking cerebral brain and our emotional limbic brain are hardwired to react with fear when confronted with uncertainty. Neuroeconomics is the study of how our brains shape our economic behavior and it seeks to explain savings trends, stock market fluctuations, consumer confidence, etc.
A study by a Caltech neuroeconomist used a brain scan to show which parts of the brain are active when people engage in gambling — similar to the gambles taken in business on a regular basis.
It turns out that the less information the subjects of the study had to go on, the more irrational their decisions. Common sense might nudge you to think that the opposite to be true: The less information we have, the more care and rational we become in the decisions we make. Not so.
Neuroeconomists explain that as the uncertainty of the scenarios increased, the limbic brain took control of the slower thinking cerebral brain. The limbic brain engenders emotions such as anxiety and fear. In the caveman days, this response kept us safe from saber-toothed tigers. In modern life, it hinders our ability to overcome uncertainty in both business and life.
Since uncertainty makes your thinking brain yield control to your emotional limbic brain, you need to engage your rational brain if you plan to overcome the unpredictability of modern life and the anxiety it produces.
How to make it work for you: Label every fearful thought that arises in the situation that confronts you. Write it down. Remind yourself that the fear comes from a primitive part of your brain that wants to take over. Tamp down each fearful thought so you can look at each one in a rational manner. At that point, begin to generate positive thoughts on ways to overcome the fear and move ahead.
2. Never confuse memories with facts
We can overcome uncertainty to become successful if we recognize that our recollection of the past is not always accurate. Our memories are fallible, and yet we often treat them as more reliable than current observation or data.
Our memory does not store information exactly as it’s presented to us. Instead, we extract the gist of the experience and store it in ways that makes the most sense to us. That’s why different people witnessing the same event often have different versions.
Psychologists have found that once we’ve formed a viewpoint, we embrace information that confirms that point of view and ignore, or reject, information that is contrary to it. Confirmation bias suggests that we pick out bits of data that make us feel good because they confirms our own opinions.
The same applies to our memories. If we have a self-limiting belief about what we can do, we hold on to memories that confirm our low self-esteem. Our memories are not always fact; instead, they can be forms of self-deception if we’re not careful.
How to make it work for you: Remember that your confirmation bias stores information that is consistent with your own beliefs, values and self-image. Recognize that memories do not always provide you with accurate information. Revisit the facts of a memory freighted with self-limiting beliefs so you can gain a more accurate perspective on the event.
3. Be smart about generalizations
Many of us are hesitant to make generalizations about people. Most definitions of stereotypes portray them as inaccurate and negative over-generalizations. The only problem with this popular perception is that it is very often wrong.
Researcher Daniel Kahneman describes how we can think fast by using stereotypes, rules of thumb and jumping to conclusions. Thinking fast is incredibly efficient, usually accurate and essential to our survival. Most importantly, it frees up our thinking for other things.
However, it’s also important to be careful because thinking fast can create errors in specific situations. If our brain becomes so wedded to stereotypes that we rely upon them even when they defy logic, we need to take a step back and re-evaluate our belief system. It’s important to seek out new information to determine whether it still corroborates the rules of thumb that have served us well in the past.
New information may mean you need to update a way of thinking. This is particularly true if the stereotype is a self-limiting belief about ourselves.
How to make it work for you: Recognize that much of the way in which you categorize and sort information is accurate. Evaluate your rules of thumb, however, on a regular basis to ensure that your information is up to date and non-prejudicial. Be alert for stereotypes that place limits, either on others or yourself. Be aware of potential pitfalls when making snap decisions and judgments.
4. Learn how to become more agile in your thinking
Successful people prepare for all possible outcomes. If you are smart, you will always test the ground before taking a step into the unknown. That is not lack of confidence; that is old-fashioned self-preservation.
This is not the same as “expect the worst” because it’s reminding yourself that you can handle whatever difficulty comes along. Ask yourself, “What is the worst that can happen?” It is a powerful question because it prepares you for the worst so you can plan how you’d handle it.
This question challenges us to look at all possibilities. When we do, we expand our ability to cope and adapt to different situations, thereby making uncertainty look more manageable.
How to make it work for you: Bring your team together before the project is launched and announce that it failed. Then ask, “What went wrong?” A pre-mortem like this will expose potential outcomes that might have gone unexpected otherwise. Adapt to new information as it comes in and change your course of action if needed. This is not pessimism; instead, it is being prepared for all that could go wrong.
5. Focus on what matters
Almost every important decision we make contains at least a small amount of uncertainty. That’s why it’s essential that we focus our energy on what matters most to us.
Most of our really hard decisions come down to values and how we weigh the ones that are most important. It’s in the weighing of our values that we struggle to see things in a clear and concise manner. The reason is simple: We are continually assaulted by bad values every time we turn to social media or the TV. You know, the ones that bring white teeth, lots of money and eternal happiness.
Poor values are superficial, selfish and dependent on external events. They lie outside of our control, which means we continually struggle to attain them. Material success, the need for adoration and our desire to be popular are examples of how poor values can influence our behavior in negative ways. As a result, we set low standards for ourselves.
Good values are honest, considerate of the greater good and controllable. They are achieved internally and not dependent upon anyone else. When we choose good values, we choose good things to pursue. We make better decisions because we pursue things that provide value and meaning for us.
How to make it work for you: When you focus on what matters, you remain in touch with your values. When you prioritize them, you’ll see which ones are worth suffering for and which ones are crap and should be thrown out. Don’t lower your standards and ask “What is easiest?” Instead, ask yourself, “How can I be a better person?” The answer to this question will help you make priorities and define what success means to you. When you encounter good problems, it makes uncertainty easier to overcome.
LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years. She exposed foreign spies and recruited them to work for the US government. As an FBI agent, she developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty, and deception. Quy is the author of “Secrets of a Strong Mind” and “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths.” If you’d like to find out if you are mentally tough, get her free 45-question Mental Toughness Assessment. Follow her on Twitter.