People define success in myriad ways — financial stability, fulfilling marriages, good health, career achievement, daily happiness, and helping others, among many others. However, one or all may be the definition of success to someone, or it may be something else entirely. But in order to achieve your own personal idea of success, science says there’s one universal thing that everyone must overcome. Many may guess it is setbacks, negativity, or other constraints, but it’s not.
It’s the fear of the unknown.
Humans as a whole like to feel secure and know what is ahead of them, literally and figuratively. While that is helpful, the true key to resilience and success is being able to deal with uncertainty or what is not known, according to Inc.
In a study that took place in March of 2016, researchers from University College London had 45 subjects guess whether there was a snake under different rocks in a computer game. Those who guessed incorrectly received a minor shock to their hand. The odds of finding a snake under a rock became more or less certain as the subjects learned where the snakes were more likely to be. Their levels of stress were monitored, and it wasn’t being wrong that scared them the most — it was when they literally did not have a clear idea if a snake could be under the rock. When they surmised it to be 50/50 chance, their stress levels were highest. Those who thought there was a 100 percent chance or a zero percent chance of a snake being under a rock had a much lower stress level, even if they turned out to be wrong. It was the uncertainty of the game that made it stressful, not the shock.
The science of uncertainty equating to stress likely leads back into evolutionary history, where real dangers to humans were much more plentiful. While most people don’t face true physical danger every day anymore, our brains are still wired to hate uncertainty, and therefore we may do everything in our power to avoid it.
Senior author Dr. Sven Bestmann says there was a real benefit to this reaction in days when humans lived in physical danger.
“From an evolutionary perspective, our finding that stress responses are tuned to environmental uncertainty suggests that it may have offered some survival benefit.”
However, avoiding uncertainty in modern times is a very different thing. Most of what we fear is not physical danger but emotional or financial danger, and that may lead people to stick to safer choices, which may mean they miss out on reaping big rewards that could lead to success.
On the flip side, people are often quick to ignore possible uncertainty and become over-confident as a defense mechanism against stress. Therefore, they will not make prudent choices and sometimes make wrong choices when all information should lead them to believe that the outcome will be disastrous. They don’t want to face uncertainty, so they pretend it does not exist. In business and career, as well as health and relationships, this could easily spell failure. There is even a term for this phenomenon called “toxic certainty,” which is “when what you know isn’t so,” according to consultant Susan Battley.
“Toxic Certainty is deadly to a leader’s success because it involves more than just over-confidence in a workable solution. Rather, it involves an unshakeable belief in a solution that is erroneous at its core. Denial plays a role in Toxic Certainty, since the affected leader refuses to consider alternative scenarios or interpretations, and will not or cannot process disconfirming information.”
Scientists say the way to be successful is learning how to manage uncertainty – acknowledging that it exists and understanding that nothing is a sure thing. Then, one must research and carefully weigh the options, using statistics about the dilemma or situation if possible. The final step is to plan for several different outcome scenarios based on decisions you make so you aren’t completely caught off-guard if something goes differently than what you had imagined would happen. This leads to planned decisions and coping mechanisms no matter the outcome, all which contribute to success.
[Featured Image by Fox Photos/Getty Images]