Uncertainty, Discomfort, and What Makes a Good Life
How a single sentence from a mentor made me re-think how I evaluate what it means to be strong and live well.
I have been studying philosophy for well over decade now, and I even taught the subject for half a decade. So I like to think that I’ve heard all of the best principles for doing the right thing and living a good life. But it wasn’t until I took a job as a full-time salesperson that I received the simplest and most profound analysis of what makes for a good life that I’ve heard to date.
I have a mentor at my day job who just recently became my official boss. He is helping me become accustomed to a life in full-blown sales — a life where you are almost like an independent contractor. You are judged on results, and your results are basically how many new customers you can get on the line and get to generate ongoing revenue for the company. It is simple, but as any salesperson can tell you, it can be difficult and frustrating at times.
For most other jobs in an organization, there is a process that you can follow, and if you perform all of the steps in the process, you’re doing your job well. But sales doesn’t have anything like that. Sure, there best practices, and suggested methods, but even those who follow them can come up short when it comes time to close the deal. And when that happens, they don’t get the sales, and they don’t get commissions. This should be no surprise, because sales is about human psychology. It’s about persuasion, collaboration, cooperation, trust, and all of the things about human interaction that are difficult.
In other words, the world of sales is riddled with uncertainty. And the thing about uncertainty is that it tends to make us humans uncomfortable. Which is why a particular piece of advice that my mentor gave me sticks with me to this day.
The quality of your life is directly related to the amount of discomfort and uncertainty you can handle.
It’s a ridiculously simple maxim, but boy is it ever true. Those two things: discomfort and uncertainty are the causes of some of the worst atrocities in human history. Wars, genocides, mass incarcerations, you name it — they tend to be caused by fear, a fear of what makes people uncertain and uncomfortable. This is true not just for groups of people, but also at the personal level.
The more extreme the discomfort (i.e., pain) and the more extreme the uncertainty (i.e., anxiety about what could happen), the more extreme the actions that we tend to take. But that is the opposite of how it should be. When we are uncertain and uncomfortable, we should refrain from taking swift action. We should refrain from lashing out in both word and deed (speech and action). We should take time to calm ourselves, and act from a place of calm, with an eye toward speaking and acting constructively. But that is difficult. In involves a lot of mental and emotional maturity and control.
Less Like Rock, More Like Water
For centuries, people have talked about strength as being the most sought-after quality to have. They use metaphors for strength that have to do with solidity, rigidity, and hardness. But with rigidity and hardness comes brittleness — the tendency to chip, crumble, and break beyond repair under the right kind of pressure.
But perhaps it is not strength — at least not in the classical sense — that we should seek.
In The Art of Peace — which is the short treatise that forms the foundation of the martial art Aikido — Morihei Ueshiba addresses the seemingly reflexive need we feel to attack in times of uncertainty or discomfort:
“If your opponent strikes with fire, counter with water, becoming completely fluid and free-flowing. Water, by its nature, never collides with or breaks against anything. On the contrary, it swallows up any attack harmlessly.”
Water has been used numerous times by Eastern writers as a metaphor for the kind of effortless way of moving and being effective, and it’s easy to see why. Water yields so easily to any pressure or movement, and absorbs it. But water also contains the unrelenting power to erode rock, knock down buildings, and move entire groups of living beings. If only we could be more like water — absorbing the challenges we face, and flowing around them — how much more effective could we be?