Embrace the Unknown
Sage wisdom advises us to live in the moment. Embrace the now. Be present. But in order to be present, we must relinquish the desire to be in the future. And so to relinquish the desire to be in the future, we must minimize the desire to control it. And in order to minimize the desire to control it, we must embrace the idea of uncertainty. And in order to embrace the idea of uncertainty, we must learn to prefer it.
The tale of the Chinese farmer
Once upon a time, there was a Chinese farmer whose horse ran away.
That evening, his neighbors came around to commiserate. They said, “We are so sorry to hear your horse has run away. This is most unfortunate.”
The farmer said, “Maybe.”
The next day, the horse came back, bringing seven wild horses with it, and in the evening, the townspeople returned and said, “Oh, isn’t that lucky. What a great turn of events. You now have eight horses!”
The farmer again said, “Maybe.”
The following day, his son tried to break one of the horses, and while riding it, he was thrown and broke his leg.
The neighbors then said, “Oh dear, that’s too bad,” and the farmer responded, “Maybe.”
The next day the conscription officers came around to conscript people into the army, and they rejected his son because he had a broken leg. Again, all the neighbors came around and said, “Isn’t that great!”
Again, he said, “Maybe.”
What can we learn from the Chinese farmer? Perhaps he can show us that our desire to label an outcome as “good” or “bad” is a fool’s errand. Without the benefit of hindsight, we are attempting to solve a puzzle without all the pieces.
The Chinese farmer is a powerful example because it shows us that if we can’t determine whether something that just happened today was a good or bad thing, we absolutely should not be wasting our time and energy agonizing over things that have yet to happen–or, more importantly, events that we cannot even control in the first place.
The parable poignantly illustrates the choice that all of us face: embrace the inevitable uncertainty of life or give in to the impulse to rush to judgment about every occurrence. We can choose the peace of the farmer or the erroneous certitude of the crowd.
Welcome to the human condition!
Synonymous with–and a bit less abstract than– “embracing the unknown” is the act of “letting go.” When you let go of something, you are relinquishing possession, like releasing the string of a balloon from your grasp and allowing it to float away in the wind. You are renouncing ownership of the outcome.
We reasonably hold on to things that are tangibly in our control…from the task at hand to our feelings about relationships and even to lessons we learned from past life experiences.
But can you possess that which has yet to happen or something that is yet to become yours? Can you affect the outcome of that which you do not control?
Let’s talk about the weather
Consider the idea of an outdoor wedding.
What if it rains? The guests will be soaked! The dress will be ruined! The day will be ruined!
Or maybe it won’t rain. Maybe it will be a beautiful spring day with a soft breeze and perfect lighting for photos.
Instead of fixating on the unknowable, perhaps it’s best to acknowledge that weather cannot be controlled. With that acknowledgment and acceptance, one could take necessary precautions to provide shelter in the event of rain–in other words, an alternative plan. Once you have that, your worrying about the worst-case scenario is no longer helpful. The only thing you know for sure is that the weather will be what it is no matter how much you agonize.
This is what it means to let go.
A dash of optimism is useful, too. That’s because even if the rain does ruin the dress and soak the guests, the image of that couple standing in the rain, captivated with each other, caring only that they were together in that moment will be unforgettable. What will be will be, and either outcome offers its own unique memory.
This is what it means to embrace the unknown.
Letting go is easy to do in the abstract or when thinking about someone else’s problems. But it’s very hard to “let go” of the things that we care about that are out of our control.
This is true for our relationship with money, too. We dedicate years of our lives to building careers, saving money, and delaying gratification in order to manifest the life we want to live in the future. And as we work so hard to build this future, we also work very hard to anticipate everything that could go wrong.
Herein lies the anxiety, fear, and pessimism that all of us battle. We fundamentally aim to control that which we cannot control. And in doing so, we overlook the joys of life that are here today in exchange for the idea of living our dreams tomorrow.
We could all use a little more Chinese farmer in our lives.
What to do…
Thoughtful introspection and a clear vision of the life you wish to live are key for meeting the challenge of future uncertainties. And when you can accept the aspects of life that are out of your control, you can reserve your energy and attention for each day as it comes.
For financial fulfillment, you will also benefit from accepting uncertainty and the forces you can’t control, like stock market performance and ever-changing tax legislation. Instead of trying to control short-term events that have little impact on your long-term success, we focus on maintaining the correct mix of investments for each of our clients, harvesting losses prudently to offset unnecessary taxes, rebalancing investments during times of volatility, and generating safe, reliable income in down markets. These are factors within our control. And time has shown that when we get these things right, we can weather almost every storm.
The image below is one we’ve shared before in previous Viewpoints and is worth calling out in this piece.
The first step to becoming more fulfilled is identifying what you can and can’t control–and accepting this reality. Then, with self-reflection and the support of those you love and trust, you can craft a plan to tackle what you can control and let go of the rest.
In mastering this skill–which can be learned regardless of nature or nurture–you will find yourself in the present more than ever before. Acceptance will slowly turn to the preference of the unknown, and then, as they say, you’re cooking with gas.