Unique Human Needs: Uncertainty

I am energized to spend this week reflecting on Tony Robbins’ list of unique human needs. Here’s the list in its entirety followed by a brief reflection on the quality of “Uncertainty.”

Unique Human Needs

1. Certainty: assurance you can avoid pain and gain pleasure
2. Uncertainty/Variety: the need for the unknown, change, new stimuli
3. Significance: feeling unique, important, special or needed
4. Connection/Love: a strong feeling of closeness or union with someone or something
5. Growth: an expansion of capacity, capability or understanding
6. Contribution: a sense of service and focus on helping, giving to and supporting others


Part 2: Uncertainty

How fitting that this list begins with a contradiction so perfectly descriptive of the human experience! We don’t want certainty, we need it. And we don’t want uncertainty, we need it!

We need the known and the unknown, the predictable and the unpredictable, the reassuring and the exhilarating. All of this is subjective to our own preferences, of course, but the degree of need does not change the fact that we long to live in the world in two distinct and complementary ways.

When I launched my business in 2013 my son was 13 years old. I explained to him one day after school that I had quit my job and would be going to work for myself. He rejected the notion, explaining that I was “supposed to have a job.” I was stung at first, assuming I’d get an enthusiastic response instead of a rebuke.

What I didn’t appreciate until later is that my fairly sudden change of circumstance hit him as a wave of uncertainty. In the already uncertain period of adolescence he was experiencing, my career change was a threat to the stability and safety to which he had grown accustomed. At a time of dramatic personal change, my professional change only added to his stress.

What I remember feeling in those tentative early days of my new endeavor, and what my son helped to punctuate through his reflexive reaction, was the feeling of being wrapped within a paradox of both certainty – confident that I had made the right decision – and uncertainty – but, how exactly is this going to work out?

The tension between these two qualities continues to remind me of the early days of parenthood, certain of my love for each of my children and certain of my commitment to their well-being, with the exciting and unnerving uncertainty of all of the forces beyond my control.

This dynamic is also lived out in organizational life every day. Team members need the reassurance of a clear company vision, predictable resource availability, thoughtful plans and capable teammates, while also needing challenging assignments and new learning opportunities to feel fully engaged.

As I reflect back on my career what I notice is that I appreciate the experiences of certainty I was able to enjoy – steady income, long-tenured and trustworthy teammates, healthy economic realities – but it’s the periods and moments of uncertainty that had the most to teach me.

When I was laid off from an early job with a start-up, Theresa and I didn’t have much in the bank and our son was just a year old. I was provided a seven-week severance payout and was employed again in six weeks. And not just employed but given a chance to join the company from which I can draw a direct line to every professional opportunity that came after.

What I learned is to never be ashamed of my circumstances and to ask for help as quickly and openly as I can. Doing so opened up a path to that new role in a way that never would have happened if I had failed to let my network know that I needed their help.

A few years later, my aspiration to become an accomplished speaker tucked neatly and quietly into my pocket, the CEO of my company declined a speaking engagement and encouraged me to take his place. I heartily agreed, though my false confidence was reduced to abject fear when I learned that my audience was to be a group of Navy admirals and Marine Corps generals.

After flying cross-country to a prestigious executive education school and getting settled in my room, I called home to tell my wife that under no circumstances could I pull this off. I was overwhelmed with anxiety, barely able to sleep; completely certain that my speaking career would both begin and end on the same day.

Spoiler alert: I survived. And as the uncertainty I felt about my capability to deliver in a high-stakes situation receded in the coming days, I pocketed another degree of confidence and a deeper commitment to preparation. That would never have happened if I had demurred.

These stories remind me that the experience of uncertainty is primarily painful in the anticipatory stage and dramatically uplifting after the fact. In both cases, the drama of the circumstances led to the experiential knowledge that I could achieve outcomes I did not dare imagine being possible.

Today, at a time in my life where the allure of certainty grows only stronger, I am working hard to counter its influence. I want to try new things, learn new skills, meet new people, all of which will force me to confront the uncertainty of not having done it before, not knowing how to do it and maybe even meeting people who don’t think and act like me! Oh, no!

The thing is, I know I’ll be the better for it, just like I’ve always been.


night building forest trees

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