The Illusion of Certainty: Embracing Life’s Unpredictable Path

You can choose choices, but not outcomes.

This thought has stuck with me since I recently read the book, “Midnight Library,” yet is a concept I’m familiar with from movies (The Family Man, A Christmas Carol, Serendipity) and songs (Unanswered Prayers, This) — just to name a few. 

I believe what resonated with me the most this time is how that statement sums up the concept so simply. 

One thing I tell my students at NYU every semester is that nothing is guaranteed. No matter how certain you are about something, there is never 100% certainty that it will happen. Now, you can get pretty close, but again, the outcome is never guaranteed – not even your next breath is a given.

As an aside: I often show the students a video from the 2019 Andy Ruiz Jr. vs. Anthony Joshua boxing match at Madison Square Gaden. Joshua, the heavyweight champion of the world, was expected to win by everyone, even knocking down Ruiz in the third round. A few seconds later, the tide would turn and Ruiz would win by TKO in the seventh round.

This is not meant to be sad or depressing. If anything, it should be used to inspire you to move past regrets, accept previous decisions (whether they were made for you or by you), and recognize the life you “dreamed of” may not have turned out to be the dream life after all. (Okay, so to be fair, it could have been even better!)

We’ve all heard the statement the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. That, too, summarizes what we’re talking about here — your choice based on an expected outcome may not deliver that expected outcome. 

Unlike the books and movies, you will never find out whether your choices left you in a better — better being so generalized as it could be financial, love, appreciated, etc. — position than the path you avoided. We can’t go back in time and if you try to correct the past in the future too many variables have already changed. The intrinsic value of the outcome is already altered.

We make choices based on what we know. It’s the reason that kids want to grow up to be astronauts, baseball players, nurses, policemen, etc. They are unaware of all the other roles in sports, medicine, law enforcement, etc.

I’ve had times in my life when I was left devastated by a breakup or a job I didn’t get. Living in the “then,” my heart was broken and I couldn’t see someone or something more perfect in my life. I was wrong.

I’ve also made choices to turn down jobs and break up with people though. And we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t think “what if.” In some of those cases, I’ve had the opportunity to revisit the decision down the road, and you know what? The one I traveled to was the right one after all.

Having gotten that opportunity to revisit regrets is rare. I would be naive to not recognize the thought “what if” could still be there if I hadn’t. But, as I stated earlier, variables changed over time and the outcome was not the one I originally wanted.

One of my favorite quotes comes from theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

The best way to accept outcomes is to recognize the choice you made and the outcome that happened is the life you’re supposed to live. You can’t change what happened, but learn and adjust moving forward. Idealized versions of what could have been are often distorted.

A book I recommend to people is Ryan Holiday’s “Obstacle is the Way,” which explores the concept of Stoicism (the key to happiness and fulfillment lies in understanding and accepting the natural order of the universe, including the inevitability of suffering and adversity) and how obstacles are not hindrances but opportunities for growth and success. Leaning into and looking for challenges gives you a perspective that’s widely different from the way most people think.

That client that you didn’t land. The sale that fell through. The school you selected. The investment you made in your uncle’s frozen yogurt business in Alaska. We learn from our mistakes because nothing is guaranteed. So we adjust the choices we make and get closer to certainty than we were before.

Mistakes are the outcome of choices made by either you or someone else. Regrets are the same thing. But the outcome in both cases has already been decided. You and/or the other person have an opportunity to make different choices next time – that’s the power of moving forward.

Ed Sheeran has talked about how, for many years, he would sing some of the songs that made him popular today to the backs of people in bars. Sheeran may have wanted to become an international superstar, and envisioning it may have led him to make choices to help him get recognized as an amazing singer, but success was never guaranteed. (Luck is the derivative of decisions — putting yourself in a position to be the recipient.) He knew though that if he stopped singing, the outcome would never be possible.

Life is also about embracing unexpected outcomes though. They lead us to serendipitous moments and opportunities we could have never foreseen – sometimes good, sometimes bad. It’s why life is inherently uncertain and often doesn’t make sense until you reflect upon things down the road.

But the amazing thing to recognize is it’s a choice of how you want to live. It’s a choice of how you want to reconcile the good and bad outcomes. And it’s a choice how you respond when one is made for you.

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