Some experience with uncertainty

· September 16, 2013

I’m a big proponent of trying to live with and take embrace of uncertainty when you can. I’ve been saying “It’s just how things are - try to cope with it instead of fighting it”. Inspired by Dan North and his excellent talk: Embracing Uncertainty.

But lately I’ve been on the other side… where I was craving more certainty. As often before I found myself screaming for things that’s been asked of me before. “Give me a status! Give me a plan!” I heard myself begging.

I realized two things: it’s hard living with uncertainty and the smallest status (however uncertain) is better than no certainty at all.

No status = all statuses

As you might or might not known I’m in the process of moving to Indonesia. Right now we are waiting for the work permits and subsequently the visas to get into Indonesia. We sent all the paper work to get those permits to the Indonesian embassy in June and was told that it could take about 2 months to get them back.

So we started to prepare for leaving in September; Elin quit her job, we have 3 months period of notice on our apartment and have discontinued it to last october, the kids are out of kindergarten (again a long period of notice) and I have started to cut down on my assignments to be able to get out quick.

As September closed in and we still hadn’t heard a single thing from the Indonesian embassy or the Indonesian immigration office, we started to grew impatient and worried.

Since we didn’t had any status all options were open. That is, it was equally likely that we got a letter the next day stating:

  • All clear - please start moving
  • “We haven’t even started to work with your matter, because you filled the forms out with a black pen instead of a blue.”
  • “Mr Who? We haven’t even heard of you?” [papers gone in other words]

We were in a Schrödinger cat situation where both these (and every other possibility) was equally likely. This drove people around us (and us) mad. The most common reaction was actually that people couldn’t take it in at all. When I explained the situation, as above, a common question back was: “Ok, but when are you leaving?”

It’s very demanding living in such a state and it tired our family and the people around us. We could make no plans. We could commit to nothing. Everything was up for grabs.

Very slight status and what followed

Yesterday (Sunday 15 September) we got an email from our workplace (the Salvation Army HQ) in Indonesia. It was short and didn’t state that much but the difference for us was profound:

We still have no status for when this is complete, but you can count on not leaving before middle of October.

Notice that theres’ still no status, we still don’t know when we’re going to leave. But (and it’s a big butt… did that come out right :)) there’s still facts in there that we can start to use. We’re not leaving in September. That means that:

  • we can start commit to work and other engagements throughout September and the beginning of October.
  • we can relax on making plans for how to pack down our stuff in the next week.
  • we can plan for things within this timeframe

And finally: our pulse and shoulders went down a bit, just from the fact that they have started to look into our matter. They have our paper and have started to process them. No risk of them not even having our papers.

Add to this that we now have a channel from which we can get more frequent status reports.


This little story taught me a great deal about uncertainty, from both sides of the coin. Living in uncertainty is hard. A small status can make a big difference in how stressful the uncertainty is experience. You probably don’t know how much for your stakeholders.

The best you can do is to keep a tight feedback loop and be honest with what you know now. It’s probably more than you understand. It’s very seldom that we know absolutely nothing about the situation. The small status you can give might be comforting for your stakeholder, especially if you report your progress often and transparently.


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