URSABLOG: Accepting Uncertainty

It was a post on my LinkedIn feed – hidden between the useless life-affirming and inspirational quotes that are supposed to energise our days – that triggered a thought process that is only now reaching some sense of a conclusion, if it can be called that. The thought process was all about finding an answer, a reason, a sense of why I am doing what I am doing, and whether it is the right or the wrong thing to do, and how I can control my life more, make it better, stop it becoming worse, in fact  all the stuff that I suspect a lot of us carry around in our mental baggage, guilty that we are not living purposeful and meaningful lives, or that despite our best efforts we are being blown off course.

The summer of course is a time for these thoughts to bubble up to the surface of our consciousness. We escape from our daily routines, exhausted and stressed, and go off to find release, to relax, unwind and recharge. If we are lucky we are able to, if not we may find ourselves as exhausted and stressed by the challenges of adjusting to this freedom that we come back worse than when we went away.

I was half lucky. I had chosen to explore three islands in the east of the Aegean which did not have airports, or even direct and regular ferry contact with the main Athenian ports. I was rewarded by empty beaches, excellent food, and time to read and think. However, being alone, I had perhaps too much time to reflect and whilst I came back refreshed, I also came back with more questions than answers.

This bothered me. I had this feeling that I am missing something: a magic key, a sliver bullet, something that would allow me to rise, and achieve greater things. This is combined – of course – with the fact that there must be something wrong with me, something that is holding me back, something I could fix, that would allow me to take my place amongst the greats. I do not think I am alone in this.

The fact that when I returned to Athens it was more or less empty of people didn’t help too much in my quest for truth, for righteousness, or more realistically, some positivity on returning to work. So how did a post on LinkedIn help?

The post in question, by Roar Adland, Global Head of Research at SSY, asked whether shipping is becoming more ‘science’ and less ‘art’. Briefly summarising, he thinks of shipping data in three layers: geospatial, commercial and human behaviour, and it is the complex interaction of these which, as he says “keeps data-driven analysis hard and professional life interesting.”

I could not resist replying to this more or less immediately:

If you have a gut feeling, take it as a hypothesis and then using data and conversations rigorously and dispassionately attempt to prove or disprove it. Try and work out why you have that gut feeling remembering that sentiment is an extremely important factor in the market but ultimately unquantifiable. Then make your decision and live with the consequences trying hard not to blame others if it turns out badly or think that you’re a superhero if it works out well. No one can control the markets.

Just writing this made me feel good for a while, but didn’t do much to change my general mood. In fact, I thought, forget about the markets, no one can control life. A visit to see Εκάβη (Hecuba for those reading in different languages) at the Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus carried me further down this dangerous line. I went alone, and my thoughts as I reflected on it were “you see, even the ancients knew this eternal truth, that whether you do the right things for the wrong reasons, or the wrong things for the right reasons, it is more or less out of your hands. What’s the point in trying to do anything? Leave yourself – literally in this case – subject to the demands of the gods.” I could have done with someone to talk me out of this particular rabbit hole over drinks afterwards.

Except this is obviously defeatist. It is perhaps our own arrogance, or at least a misreading of what the world is, that makes us think we can ever control anything, let alone everything. But an alternative to this – the “the world is crazy, you are alone, you are born alone, live alone, die alone, and as you only live once, you should do what you want as long as it makes you feel good” may be liberating in its hedonism (and probably helps you sell more ships) but is fraught with the threat of unintended and unpleasant consequences. And I suspect, even if I were to live my life this way, I would not be much happier, simply because I am not made that way.

I suspect few of us really are. We are seduced by the temptations of those futile posts on LinkedIn or self-help books that tell us that we can have control, and can succeed, as long as we – I don’t know – do something differently, or change how we think, or be lucky enough to be born into a perfectly happy and supportive family, with no issues of their own, and lots of cash and time to devote to us alone. It helps, in this world, to have started from a different place than you did.

But all of us started from where we started, and as well as our own histories, we have the backstories and influences of those that came before us and raised us. And – as the Greek tragedies have taught us – we may be finished with the past, but the past certainly isn’t finished with us.

So after the summer, and holidays, and rest, and fun, or whatever we did with our time, we start again from where we happen to be. In shipbroking terms this means reassessing the markets, and trying to work out what to do and where to go, where to concentrate our time and effort. A reborn desire to conquer the known world, even with determination, energy, guts and guile will end, inevitably, in disappointment. The markets, life itself, will prove that to us soon enough.

But as the roads of Athens fill again, and people – beautiful, tanned, refreshed looking people – drift back into the offices, and normal life starts to recommence, I am struck by a number of things that are lifting my mood.

Firstly, it is that however much I thought I needed peace and quiet, and solitude, I also need people around me, perhaps the very same people that were making me think that peace and quiet, and solitude were such a good idea.

Secondly, rather obviously, but driven by the thought process after reading – and replying to – Roar Adland’s post, is that in trying to find an answer to an impossible question, or the silver bullet, or what to fix about myself, will obviously lead to further questions. This is not bad in itself as long as you do not expect to find all, or indeed any of the answers in a world of uncertainty. This does not mean that I cannot change how I do things, and where, but I should worry less about trying to control, fix myself or others, or find a magic key, but instead doing what I can do, where I can, knowing that although this is the limit of what I can do I have not even really tested what those limits actually are in my own way.

I have uncovered an uncomfortable, although rather obvious truth: I am who I am, for better and worse. There are things I can do, and things that I can’t. I am almost embarrassed at this late age to make this admission. What was I thinking all this time? I have also found that asking questions for the sake of it leads to more questions and fewer solutions. It helps sometimes to just listen: to the waves crunching away against the pebbled beach, to the breeze through the pine trees as the sun sets, to the children playing in the shallow sea, screaming their delight at the simple pleasure of being alive, and in the water.

It also helps to listen to your heart, your soul, your mind, gut, wherever the real you is hiding out. If you listen hard enough, and pay attention, and don’t try and ignore what it is saying – even if it doesn’t fit with your idea of yourself, your plans, your ambitions, your way of thinking, or what your family, partners, friends expect of you – you should pay attention and acknowledge it. As Emily Dickinson wrote to a friend: “The Heart wants what it wants – or else it does not care.” Accepting what your heart – or whatever – really wants, and making peace with it, and understanding why some efforts – in shipping and in life – always seem futile and frustrating, and why others are simply full of the joy of being alive is, as I have found, liberating.

The conclusion of my thought process is that in a world of uncertainty knowing this certain thing, however disruptive it may be, however it may shake and alter the foundations of who I, and the people around me, think I am, is strangely comforting even if it brings more challenges ahead. I am learning to accept it, and start living with it. And it’s as good a place as any to start. 

Simon Ward