The Deep Uncertainty of Meaningful Work

By Leo Babauta

A man I know wanted to create a non-profit organization that was going to help give people a voice who don’t have that voice in our society.

He felt really strongly about this issue, and knew that this would have a big impact on people who he cared deeply about.

But he kept putting off starting.

He was like a million others who want to do meaningful work: write a book, fight for those who are powerless, create a startup, code a phone app that could change lives, volunteer at a charity, launch a business that has a heart. We put off doing this work because of deep uncertainty.

This man, like many of you, wasn’t sure if he could do it. He wasn’t sure how to go about doing it. He was worried that people would judge him, worried about what they might say. He didn’t know what path to take, was overwhelmed by how much there was to do, discouraged that he kept having to start over.

These are just a small subset of the doubt, fear and uncertainty we all face when we think about doing something meaningful.

So this man made a list. Everything he had to do. He picked the first thing on the list, and told himself he’d do it tomorrow.

Tomorrow came, and it turns out he needed to organize all the files on his computer. Oh, and clean his desk and also his bedroom and kitchen. Once these things were done, he’d be all clear to go.

He started the next day, but wondered if he was using the right tools. He did a search and spent the day researching the best tools for what he needed to do. That lead to a lot of other research, so that he didn’t feel he was procrastinating.

The tools research led him to research a bunch of other things, and he felt good doing this research. He spent weeks in the research phase — not tackling the things on his list but just reading and searching and taking notes. He told himself he was doing the meaningful work.

He decided he needed to get back to that first task on his list, so he told himself to do it tomorrow. Tomorrow came, but he decided to check his email first, to see if anything important was in his inbox. He also answered messages, checked some news websites, answered some more emails, started organizing all the things he had to do, and paid some bills. That lasted several days. If he got all these things clear, then he’d be ready to work on the non-profit.

You can see where this is going. He found lots of reasons not to actually do the meaningful work. He was feeling worse and worse about himself at this point.

But the people who he wanted to serve are those who continued to suffer. He himself was in a pretty comfortable life, other than the angst of not taking action. But those who he wanted to help were still suffering, because he couldn’t face the uncertainty.

The story isn’t over yet. He’s still avoiding the uncertainty … but it’s possible he’ll turn and face it. Practice with it with full mindfulness. Be absolutely courageous and present with it. And then begin to open up to it, letting it transform him like a fire transforms metal. It’s difficult at first but he can relax into it and fall in love with it.

The key is to open up to the deep uncertainty of the meaningful work. Recognize it as a necessary component of that work, not something to be feared or hated or avoided, but embraced and loved. It’s like the uncertainty of falling in love — how boring would a relationship be without the shakiness of that uncertainty? We can learn to recognize the uncertainty of our meaningful work as the thrill of exploration, falling in love, adventure, learning, creating, playing, or serving those we love.

Devoting ourselves to those we love helps us to open up to the uncertainty, to relax into it, because we allow our minds to open beyond the smallness of our self-concern. We see that there’s more to this than worrying about our own comfort, and realize that the most meaningful moments in our lives were achieved with discomfort, and that wasn’t a coincidence — the uncertainty and discomfort are a necessary component for us to do anything meaningful.

We can train in this. With love.

This is the training I’m doing myself, and helping more than a hundred other trainees with in my Fearless Training Program. The deep uncertainty of meaningful work. It’s the best place to train, because your own transformation can help you do the work that impacts thousands of others.

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