One of the most important lessons I learned my first year at HBS is that uncertainty is not a bad thing - uncertainty means options. The day you have no uncertainty in your life is the day you have no more choice. The more one can embrace this concept and manage rather than avoid uncertainty, the easier it will be to excel, albeit in a more uncertain direction.
Uncertainty can be very scary in the same sense that the unknown tends to be scary. It's so scary that we put a lot of effort to eliminate it from our lives by pursuing stability and safety. We like to know where our current career and relationships are taking us and where our lives will generally lead. We pay a cost for this certainty however - we severely limit our potential.
Upon arriving at HBS, my options in life opened up like I had never imagined. Although most everyone around me was in the same overwhelming situation, the constant talk about changing the world or becoming the CEO of this or that company in 10 or 20 years left me constantly wondering where I will be in 10 or 20 years. Will I be good enough?
I didn't have a problem picking goals, I had the problem of too many goals. Too many lives I wished to lead. Too many things I wished to do. Ultimately I have to make decisions in a specific direction, and I really didn't like the uncertainty of it all - let alone the chance of failure.
That all abruptly changed with a simple and random thought experiment. I imagined Bill Clinton on January 21st, 2001. At 54 years old, the man had served two terms as President of the United States, and arguably still had at least 30+ full years of life ahead of him. I tried to imagine what was going through his mind when he took his last flight on Marine One from the White House. The dishonor of his impeachment, and his entire legacy as the first two term Democratic President since FDR must certainly have been on his mind. Would he be remembered for his sex scandal? For his failures? Or would he be remembered for economic prosperity? For his triumphs? Would he live the life of a respected statesman, or as a vilified and impeached President? His future must have seemed extremely uncertain at age 54. Where does he go from here?
Whether one likes Bill Clinton or not is not the point; he certainly accomplished an amazing amount by his mid-50s... and if a two term President can be completely uncertain about his future and his legacy, it would be ok for me to feel uncertain about my future as well.
I could become the CEO of a Fortune 50 company and my next 20 years could still be just as uncertain as they are today. The only way they won't be is if I stop dreaming of what could be. In other words, I accepted that uncertainty does not lessen with achievement, it actually grows.
The future is cloudy and difficult to see through. A person fearful of change and uncertainty will therefore take one step at a time, feeling the ground beneath him with every step, reaching out with his hands to feel the way. The person who embraces the fog will take calculated but intelligent decisions and run forward into the unknown. History is shaped by the men and women who leap into the unknown and don't slow down to feel the ground with every step. We may get bruised and fall along the way, but that is the means of all great progress. Just make sure you are heading in the right direction!