The futility of certainty

I can think of no more boring a thing than to be right. All the time. Every time.

Quite seriously, what would that be like? If you knew, at every second and every hour, how it would all turn out, today, tomorrow, the next 10 years, exactly how many days you would live, which day you would get sick, which day you get better, who would die, who would live, what country would go to war, which economy would collapse, who would win the election, who would commit an act of terrorism, which child would become an Olympian, which Olympian would be caught illegally doping…

Where is the fun in that?

I think it would be a form of consignment to a living death. It feels like the worst possible of all states.

Therefore, I ask, why do we try?

We live in a culture that loves being right! We love to put percentages and measures on things; we love polls, we love upvotes and clicks, we love assessments of how introverted we are versus extroverted, we like quizzes and statistics and–

We like certainty.

And yet, would you not agree that certainty, while it feels great (will this person respond if I text, will I win this trophy, will I get this job, etc.), in utter and complete practice, it would be a misery because you truly would have nothing to look forward to: you already know, and so the surprise (which is where the joy really comes from) is already gone.

But, okay, let’s play along. Maybe we don’t need certainty in everything, perhaps just in a few things? Relationships, career, finances, health, those are all good things to know in advance, right?

Let’s diverge a moment and talk about time travel. It’s my favorite vehicle for these sort of discussions because certainty, in the aspect of knowing that you are right and always right and won’t be wrong, is a form of knowing the future.

What do time travelers always try to avoid doing when they come back to the past? Changing it. Unless that is their stated mission, but often, they try not to cross their own timeline, because the act of knowing your future tends to influence you in ways, often unintended, that change that future.

In other words: if you already know it’s going to work out, are you going to do the hard work necessary that caused it to work out? Probably not. Or it will constrain your decisions in ways you don’t even intend (if I know in 5 years I’m going to live in a house in Texas and I’m right, I’m always right, I won’t take this job in Chicago… but, I didn’t know that by taking that job in Chicago, I would have met this random person at a bus stop who became my very good friend and who introduced me to this other person who got me into this early-stage company that asked me to move to Austin after a few months–)

And round and round the paradox goes.

Our lives are made up of tiny moments that never take place in isolation. Our relationships are not isolated from our jobs are not isolated from our health, and most importantly, are not isolated from the relationship, jobs, health, and finances of other people. We are all connected, deeply so, and this search for individual certainty, to the grand exclusion of the unfortunately and anxiety-producing knowledge that almost all of it is out of our control, hurts us all.

Our pursuit of individual certainty is both irrational and harmful, and frankly, it’s also just boring.

(I’m not saying this from the throne of mastery of acceptance: I have been that boring person. It’s also exhausting. It’s just not fun after awhile. Some days I still try it, though. It remains a futile endeavor.)

So, can all of us resolve to be a little less boring, a little less right, and a little less focused on figuring out what comes next? Instead, can we just try to be a bit more present and open to the wonder of serendipity?

It would make for a grand adventure, and doesn’t that sound fun?



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