Fragments around the pain of uncertainty, fear, failure, and anxiety.
The most stressful times of my life have been those with uncertainty. It doesn’t matter if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, a period of uncertainty where you can have no impact on the outcome is absolutely horrific.
When interviewing for new jobs, seeing if you’ll keep your own, or even just waiting for a confirmation email after hearing back from a recruiter, the uncertainty is the painful part. Applying is easy. Chatting to other professionals is easy. Waiting an unknown period of time to see what direction your life is going to take? Not easy.
Engineers that interview at multiple places at once clearly do not feel the same way. Perhaps there is an element of diffusion, where being involved in multiple processes divides the same level of stress between each.
When buying a house, or even renting, having to just wait for all the offers, paperwork, surveys etc is somewhat stressful, but slow. It took ~3 months for my purchase, but having a competent conveyancer that clearly showed me the current status removed most of the stress.
Reducing uncertainty is the only reliable way to make a stressful experience less stressful. Whether that’s quick feedback, online portals with current statuses, or just having a quick process in general, it makes such a difference.
As someone who quadruple checks by default, and doesn’t trust anything that’s not “static” (e.g. paper, an email in my inbox, a downloaded file), reducing uncertainty is a core part of my life. I plan for unlikely outcomes, plan next steps for both paths when waiting for an answer, and Google train station maps in advance when I need to make a connection.
I would rather a stable outcome than a 30% better unstable outcome. I simply cannot handle the uncertainty. This is also why I will use email / messaging instead of a phone call 100% of the time, I can plan and predict my own responses in text!
Regardless of the cause of this wait, the stress of waiting for a call or an email is absurd.
Recently I had (and am still having!) the most painful uncertainty wait yet, waiting to hear about a potentially negative outcome. I was amazed what an impact it had on me, and I wanted to reflect on why it’s been such a negative experience.
I’ve interviewed for plenty of jobs, each obviously with multiple interview stages, and the stress had a distinctly different flavour to my current experience.
So what does this shitty experience feel like, and what is it?
Well, I reckon it’s good old anxiety. Without Googling, the symptoms are fear of the future, inability to enjoy anything, trouble sleeping, and inability to focus.
Looking at the NHS page for anxiety, it lists symptoms including:
- feeling restless or on edge
- being irritable
- getting tired easily
- having difficulty concentrating or feeling your mind goes blank
- having difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep
- having tense muscles
Close enough. Whilst I have elements of this usually like a lot of people, the exaggerated symptoms interestingly negatively interact with the thing I am waiting for.
Essentially, without providing too much info, I am in the situation where the more stressed I get about something, the more likely the negative outcome. This is an absurdly vicious circle.
I wake up early and am unable to get back to sleep because I am anxious about the uncertainty. This then impacts my decision making ability, and actually makes the negative outcome more likely. This makes my sleep worse. This makes the negative outcome more likely. You get the idea.
In addition, I’m unable to “disconnect”, because I could theoretically be doing something that makes the positive outcome more likely. Gaming? Reading? Writing? Why aren’t I trying to influence the outcome? Weekend? Wasted time. This lack of downtime then prevents full focus on improving the chances of a positive outcome. Which then makes it harder to disconnect. You get the idea.
Finally, any form of planning for the negative outcome will actually make it significantly more likely, meaning I cannot even reassure myself that I’m prepared for either outcome. The two outcomes are either a positive outcome I am prepared for, or an unplanned disaster. You get the idea.
These three nasty characteristics make the vicious circle into more of a vicious downward spiral. Bad begets bad.
When I was younger, I sometimes abandoned an ambition entirely (a girl, an application form, a project) rather than deal with the uncertainty. Even just knowing something could be escaped from reduces the stress.
My current scenario cannot be expedited, regardless of outcome. Usually someone can be chased, a decision can be made, an application can be withdrawn, something can be done to pull the escape chute on uncertainty. This might even be preferable, since at least it is a planned action under your own volition.
In my scenario I merely have to wait. Day by day, mini-meltdown by mini-meltdown. At least the lack of time control means it has a guaranteed deadline date, uncertainty over the end date itself would perhaps be a step too far.
Oh well, chin up, fingers crossed, touch wood, right? Fuck.