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

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Unique Human Needs: Certainty

Not long after I began my career in organizational learning and development, I came across a list of “unique human needs” compiled by Tony Robbins.

I remember thinking, “Well, there it is, the roadmap for my work with adult professionals.”

I felt a strong sense of assurance at 29-years-old that my unfolding career would always make sense, would always be “on purpose” if I could stay close to this list. That is, if I could assist leaders and teams in creating and sustaining environments in which these needs were consistently met.

Over two decades of work I know that I have stayed close to the list as a guide for my endeavors. What I don’t know, and what is so difficult to measure, is how effectively I have helped my clients to build and sustain those environments. We’ve known some clear victories, some painful defeats and, most of all, lots of that messy middle ground where we’ve bounced between the highs and lows together.

That the work has been full of challenges and contradictions is an understatement. That it remains rewarding beyond measure is a fact.

As I continue to move through my own experience of liminal space, I am energized to spend this week working with one element of Robbins’ list each day, and sharing a brief reflection on what it means to me.

Here’s the list in its entirety followed by a brief reflection on the quality of “Certainty.”

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 1: Certainty

My relationship to “certainty” today is nothing like it once was. Since I have dedicated my professional life to working with change I long ago catalogued certainty as simply a fantasy of the misinformed. Of course, I was wrong to think of it that way, but that impulse suggests something important about an old pattern of polarization.

There was a time when certainty – control – was the warmest blanket I could find and I wrapped myself in it as a shield against connection, pain and loss. That my work is so decidedly focused on the opposing aspiration – to thrive in the face of change – speaks to how deeply engrained I was in the old pattern and how I am still working to find comfort in the relationship between the two.

I remember feeling certain when I finally married my wife, Theresa. I am more certain of the strength of our relationship today than I have ever been.

I remember feeling certain about my commitment to my children, their birth days a revelation to me of the capacity for human love. I am more certain today of that love, through so many painful lessons, than I have ever been.

And I remember feeling certain nearly seven years ago, as uncertain as I was, that my new endeavor as a sole practitioner would not only be successful but would open doors I didn’t even know existed. On both counts I was right and it is such a pleasure to be able to say so.

The early days were interesting however in that the aforementioned Theresa had understandably gotten used to my biweekly paycheck. While she never expressed serious doubts, she occasionally voiced her need for reassurance that there would, indeed, be a check in the mail someday soon.

Finally, a couple of years in, when those checks were coming in repeatedly if not consistently, I suggested to her that she could feel certain that I was on the right path in my career and that we were on the right path as a family because of it. It was a moment in which I could say with confidence, this is working and will continue to work.

Today, I do not say that I am certain my business success will continue unabated because, in fact, it has not. And I do not say that I am certain of any specific future outcome regarding clients, family, health or anything else for that matter. To do so at any level would be wishful thinking at best.

What I am certain of has grown simpler; more refined, and sets the parameters for how I choose to live my life. Here’s a brief list:

I am certain that hard conversations lead to an easier life.
I am certain that exercise makes me feel sane.
I am certain that poetry helps me reimagine myself and the world in which I live.
I am certain that I can rely on a small group of extraordinary people I am blessed to call family and friends.
I am certain that I am not alone.
I am certain that I will always reload a poorly loaded dishwasher.
I am certain that I feel more fulfilled by holding a book than by holding a phone.

And I am positively certain that if I am going to be at my best for my clients, my wife or my family than I must always be at my best with and for myself.

Twenty more years on, I imagine it will be an even simpler list. For now, this.


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The Human Paradox

The need for certainty. When we meet this need too well, life becomes predictable, routine and stagnant. We end up sort of dying in place.

The need for variety. When we meet this need too well, life becomes chaotic, an endless chase for the next, the more interesting, the more stimulating. We end up sort of dying on the run.


It’s been a strange summer around our house. Since I set up my business and a home office 6 years ago, summers are always a bit strange – and stressful – for me. Mid-June arrives and the kid’s schedules make a hairpin turn into late nights, later mornings, and just a whole bunch of them being around…like all the time. This summer we have the addition of a college student returning to the nest for a few months. It’s an adjustment for all of us, needless to say.

On top of that, we had no plans for any kind of family trip this year, nothing that required reservations or flights or extended planning, anyway. And with some extended getaways on the calendar this fall an implicit agreement was made to stay put this summer.

But I don’t stay put very well. After a couple of months of the certainty of my daily routine being displaced by the variety of summer’s randomness, I heard myself saying that, “If we don’t plan a getaway, I’m going to take one of my own.” Not as a threat, simply as a statement of need. The familiar has become too familiar and, with the squeeze of three teenagers, the fine attributes of the “staycation” no longer seem so fine.

We’ll be making our way north soon, some expected spots on the itinerary and a few unexpected ones as well. Really, it’s the going that’s the thing. It’s the chance to experience the chance encounters that rarely come unless we set out to meet them. And it’s the knowing that, all being well, we will return to the certainty of a home ready to hold us as we settle in again, anticipating what comes next.


white vehicle traveling on road

Photo by Lukas Kloeppel on Pexels.com

The Certainty / Sincerity Divide

Many people still subscribe to a mythology of leadership that speaks of singularity, certainty and strength. This is not a relevant model for how change actually happens. In fact, it’s just bogus.  If and when you are a leader of organizational change, your most valuable currency will be your sincerity.

If we need to get out of the burning building and you know where the exit is, by all means, express your certainty. The less dramatic, in fact the laborious, repetitive, incremental, daily grind of any significant organizational change will benefit most from your sincere efforts to listen and to learn while cultivating that same kind of attention in others.

To be certain in the face of systemic change is to default to a kind of fearful simplicity. How can you know exactly what must be done and exactly how it will end up when it’s humanly impossible to do so? The fully formed adult human beings who walk through the door every day are quite good at recognizing when someone is stating something they have no right no state.

Crises like the burning building are often survived due to heroic individual efforts. Those lessons are easily romanticized and then liberally applied where they don’t belong.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

Convicted

I found myself feeling particularly certain about something today. I didn’t just feel certain about it, I felt convicted.

And once ‘conviction’ was in my mind I couldn’t stop thinking about being found guilty and sent away to prison.

I realized that my convictions sometimes lead to self-incarceration. When I cross over from certainty to conviction I end up in a prison of my own making, so securely guarded that I can’t even find the key.

I’ve heard that parolees often have a difficult time adjusting to life outside of prison. The chaos of the “free” world is no picnic compared to the patterns of captivity.

When we normalize imprisonment, freedom is lost. And freedom is everything.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.