One of my sons has problems dealing with situations involving uncertainty.
Or tasks where he just thinks isn’t sure he has the right answer.
He can sit for many minutes when deciding among many imperfect choices or when he’s in a situation where there’s no specific right or wrong answer.
Like he’s frozen.
This behavior has puzzled me for several years now. No amount of coaxing, threatening or pleading seems to help.
Yesterday, I think we had a bit of a breakthrough though.
The Summer Project
First a bit of background – my boys are about to start summer break, and I’d like to have them work on some long-term creative projects of their choosing.
When I queried my first boy about what he wants to work on, he had no problem at all. He quickly exclaimed, “I want to work on my Mr. Monkeys video game using Scratch!” For those interested, Scratch is a free visual programming language developed by M.I.T and geared toward kids. You may ask “What the heck is Mr. Monkeys“?
Don’t ask. You wouldn’t understand if I explained.
So my first boy and I went about setting up his plan – what did he need to complete the task?
He needed to know how to program Scratch. He also needed how to use a drawing program. What did he need to do to accomplish both of these things? In both cases, he needed to take an online course where he’d run through lessons as well as some practice programs and drawings.
Sounds good. Boy #1 was set and ready to go.
Moving on to boy #2.
“What project do you want to work on?”
“Do you want to work on a game like your brother?”
“Well, for now, let’s just start there. What kind of game do you want to work on?”
A game about “Fireman”. (This isn’t “fireman” the occupation, rather it’s referring to Fireman, the superhero he created and has periodically drawn. Based on the name, you can imagine what he looks like and what his superpowers are.)
“OK great. Do you want to do that for sure, or maybe try something else?”
At that point, I had an idea. I opened up an online mind-mapping program and proceeded to put “Project” in the center bubble, then a bubble off of that called “Games” and beneath that a bubble called “Fireman”.
Perhaps seeing things all laid out visually would help.
“OK, so I’ve drawn things out. Let’s see what else you may want to work on. What types of other projects might you want to do?”
“OK, at least tell me what kinds of things you like.”
At this point, I was got frustrated. How could he not even know what he likes? Sheesh, he like Legos, soccer, swimming and a dozen other things.
Yet he seemed stuck for some reason. Frozen.
After several more back-and-forths with him and we had a tiny bit of success plopping ideas down on the mind map so I decided that was enough for today.
But I was troubled.
The Need for Certainty
Why the heck did he have such a hard time even coming up with a few simple ideas? I’d seen him struggle like this before and I was confused then as well. I’ve had the theory that it had something to do with perfectionism but could never really crack that nut.
He has really neat handwriting. He is very careful and slow with what he does.
That’s kind of normal perfectionism or just neatness. No big deal.
But he’s also had this tendency to all-out lock-up when he is confronted with things that he may fail at or don’t have a clear ruleset. When it’s hard to tell what’s the right or wrong answer, or if even such a thing exists.
Picking a creative project falls into this category.
I speculated what may be going through his head, although he didn’t specifically divulge any of it to me.
I was thinking that he was thinking: What if I choose the wrong project? How do I know what the right project is? What’s a good project at all? There’s just so much to choose from! What do I do?
Although I’m not a hyper-perfectionist, I do sympathize with this line of thought.
A quick sidetrack related to my own background is relevant here before I go on with the story.
Lessons from Entrepreneurship
I’m an entrepreneur with my own software business – but I’ve only been in this role for the past five years.
Before that, I was a corporate software developer for 18 years. All that time I worked in many companies both large and small. My tasks on the job varied but the commonality between them was that things were highly predictable.
- I was guaranteed a paycheck every two weeks
- That paycheck was always a set amount
- I was assigned a specific set of tasks to complete and I knew what was expected of me
Now that I work for myself, I have none of these things. If we have a very bad month, my paycheck may be very low or even non-existent. As for tasks, I can do anything and everything, or nothing – it’s completely on me to assess and execute.
I frequently say that I have a huge number of tasks I could do on a given day, but I have to choose only the top %1 most impactful ones and forget about the rest.
And of those tasks, many times those things take longer than I expected, shorter than I expected, or end up being a waste of time because I made some faulty assumption.
I can’t afford to wait for certainty because it’s not going to come.
I have to exist with a mentality I’ll try my best, see what happens, and move on from there mentality all the time and be ok with that.
When one owns such a business, one has to learn to deal with uncertainty and making mistakes simply because 1) There’s no one to tell you what to do ahead of time 2) Many times after you do something you really aren’t sure if that was the right thing to do until the results are positive or it blows up in your face.
So, basically, this type of job requires skills my son is showing no affinity for. He wants things to be predictable and with clear answers. My job has very little of that.
Because of the requirements of the business, I’ve had to grow quite a bit myself. I’ve struggled with lighter-weight versions of the habits my son is struggling with.
I’m not a natural risk-taker, and having to deal with a lot of unknowns can stress me out.
But I’ve realized that clinging onto certainty and avoiding failure is the can cause you to fail in the long run and bring on a lot of pain.
Clinging to Certainty Feels Safe, But…
I’ve known many people who have clung onto certainty for much too long. Never wanting to step out and do something risky because it was frightening, or the way wasn’t clear.
Adults can make a habit of this that goes on for years. And the results can be absolutely devastating.
Knowing this, I realize that it’s important that I do what I can to help my son out now. Right now his habit of freezing just seems kind of annoying and results in frustration, but it’s not catastrophic.
However, over the long term, this habit has the potential to really shut down his life. Fears and reactions like these can easily spiral.
So with this realization, I talked to him about it.
I asked, “When you just sit there not answering, is it because you’re scared?”
He nodded timidly.
“Are you scared because you don’t know the answer? And you just aren’t sure what the answer is or if there even is a right answer?”
At this point, I had a clear idea of what to do.
The Document that Helped My Son
I sat at my computer and typed up a quick, one page Word document that I’d give to him. A document based on my knowledge of myself and how I have now view uncertainty and what works with me, along with some philosophical lessons I’d picked up throughout the years.
After I typed it up, I handed him the letter and asked him to read it out loud.
He read it.
And after he did, he simply said: “Thank you, Daddy, for writing this paper.”
The fact that he made a point of thanking me makes me think that it hit the mark.
Here’s what I wrote:
The Choice is Yours
Suffering is part of life.
That’s part of being human, it can’t be escaped.
You can only choose which suffering.
One choice leads to an expansive life, while the other leads to a small, frightening one.
Make the right choice.
Choice #1: Be willing to try and fail. Be willing to try when you don’t understand, but still try. Accept the pain of defeat and possible failure but pick yourself up over and over again. This is the only way to grow and make your life big. You will have many physical and emotional scars but you will be better for it. Willingly take on your dragons.
Choice #2: Be too scared to try when you may fail. Freeze when you aren’t sure. This seems to keep you safe – but it’s a trick. It keeps your life small and makes you fragile (not tough). Your life stays small and will get smaller the more you make this choicer. This choice is easier to make, but it will crush your life in the long run. Avoid this choice even if it means pain and embarrassment in the short-term because it will hurt a lot in the long-term.
I realized that what was making him freeze was the idea that freezing was safer than pushing himself forward. Sure it was safe in the immediate term, but that type of response comes with some very negative long term consequences.
Once he understands this and lets it really sink in, I speculate he’ll be more willing to push himself even when he’s scared.
I also think it’s important from a philosophical standpoint. Too often, we think we can have it all – we think we can avoid the scary things in life and it will be nothing but upside.
But that’s rarely, if ever, how things work.
To draw on my earlier article on the harsh realities of life – we’re human. Suffering is part of the game. We can’t get out of it. The more we avoid it, the worse it becomes.
So you’re better off owning it and pushing forward.
We’ll see how it goes with my son. I’m encouraged though. Ten minutes after reading this, he came into my room completely excited. “Daddy! I thought of a game I could make! There’s this ball and…..”