In the past few days I have had several conversations with friends, clients and colleagues all trying to make difficult decisions in this climate of extreme uncertainty.
It occurred to me that I might have a bit of relevant experience.
In September 2017 my husband and I lost our home and almost the entirety of our personal belongings in a category 5 hurricane. At the same time our business sustained extensive damage and had to be closed for what we thought at the time might be several months.
Two and a half years later we are still owed 75% of our insurance (a story for another time). For the past few years we have lived with the uncertainty of not knowing if or when any, all or none of that money might be paid.
I tell this story not for sympathy (overall we have been pretty lucky) but to set up the background for why I have some experience of making decisions in the midst of uncertainty.
In the days and weeks immediately following the hurricane we were faced with a mountain of seemingly critical decisions and almost no information or experience on which to base them. Nor did we have anyone who could advise us. No one we knew had ever experienced anything even remotely like this.
Some decisions had to be made very quickly. We were not on the island when the hurricane hit and there was no way for us to return immediately so we were communicating with our team via satellite phone on what we could do to help them (they had also lost their homes), what needed to be secured, salvaged or repaired on the property and how to arrange care for our animals. We also had to figure out how to care for ourselves now that we were effectively homeless and unemployed. We had tens of thousands of dollars of reservation deposits to refund (our business was a hotel) and no way to access our bank accounts because all communications were down. The island was cut off from the world.
It was a stressful time. Some things seemed incredibly clear. Others were unreachable in a cloud of missing facts and doubt. We threw ourselves into the immediate tasks and binary choices — things that we could strike off the list quickly and move on. The bigger stuff we just had to park. We assumed that most of the uncertainly would eventually begin to clear. It did not. Much of it still hasn’t.
The longer we have lived with this uncertainly the more it has become our new normal. I wouldn’t say it’s easier — we are still utterly overwhelmed by it from time to time — but I think we have become practiced at operating around it.
The truth is we all live with a high degree of uncertainty all of the time. It’s just that mostly we are not aware of it. We never know what accidents or Black Swans might be about to befall us.
The kind of overt uncertainty that accompanies big, traumatic changes —such as the ones we are all living through right now — over time sorts itself into a set of ‘known unknowns’ which somehow become manageable. Parts of your future rise into view. There are big chunks missing but you learn to manoeuvre around them. You may not be able to do anything about the known unknowns but at least you can see where they are and move ahead with other stuff.
So I’ve been trying to think what advice I have that might be helpful. This is what I came up with.
Do something. Separate out critical, short-term choices, make them quickly and move on. Don’t sweat them. There is probably no wrong decision. The only mistake is paralysis. It will swallow you whole.
Make a plan for the medium-term even if some of the details are missing. Circumstances and information will change and you can make adjustments accordingly. We found that all the broad-strokes planning we did in the few weeks immediately following the hurricane remained largely unchanged. It felt good to have some steps plotted out in front of us and it was very reassuring to our friends, family and team that we seemed to have our act together.
Disaster happens fast but recovery is slow. Making broad medium-term plans helps you fill out the time ahead of you and mitigate some of the frustration that will accompany the lack of control you have over the speed at which things will start to improve.
Think around the uncertainty. Imagine the chunks of missing information as obstacles you can move around rather than black holes you might fall into. Ask yourself, “What will my life look like if I never get these answers?”
Try to cut out the noise. They are your decisions not anyone else’s. Nobody else has lived your exact experience. Listen to advice but don’t get hung up on what people are telling you you *should* do. There is almost always hidden advantage in plotting a unique path.
It’s OK to not have answers. "What will you do?", “Where will you live?”, “When will you reopen the business?”. We found everyone’s questions stressful and overwhelming. We appreciated that they were asking because they cared but it worried us that people seemed to expect us to have these answers when we did not. Calmly responding “We don’t know yet. When we have more information we will share it with you” got people off our backs and made us feel more in control.
Adjust to the new normal. If the life you thought you had falls apart suddenly you have the opportunity to ask yourself if you really want to rebuild it exactly as it was. These sorts of clean slate moments rarely present themselves. I wouldn’t recommend it as a strategy but good things can come from massive, unplanned change.
Hope that helps.
Kate Leury Nielsen
20th March 2020