In September 2000, I was in my early twenties and living in the UK when something unusual happened. After some years of gradual, yet persistent, increases in the cost of fuel, a group of farmers snapped and finally decided they’d had enough.
They blockaded a fuel refinery in the north of England and stopped any fuel from leaving the facility. They were soon joined by others and within a few days all transportation of fuel to gas stations across the country was essentially at a standstill. Unsurprisingly, this led to panic buying and everything grinding to a halt in the country as people tried to conserve what fuel they had in their vehicles in case of absolute emergency.
As you might well imagine, this caused a great deal of consternation in the general public, businesses and government. Everything completely stopped for about a week until the deadlock ended.
I got thinking about this because for me at least, there’s a feeling I have right now that is quite like the feeling I had during those events that occurred 20 years ago: Uncertainty.
Humans hate uncertainty. Hell, as metrologists we dedicate our lives to quantifying and proving measurement uncertainty in intricate detail. As businesspeople we do all kinds of analyses of our business, our sales pipelines, our budgets, our plans in an attempt to reduce its effect as greatly as possible (spoiler alert – when was the last time you got any of these plans 100% correct?)
In fact, studies have shown we hate uncertainty more than we hate the actual outcome of what we fear. It’s just how our brains are wired. It’s an amazingly unifying, yet potentially destructive human trait that comes from our natural instincts to survive but can at times be counterproductive.
And that puts us all in a bind when we are faced uncertainty on a global scale the likes of which we’ve never seen. As I write this, I wonder what changes we will see in policy, strategy or reaction to this pandemic tomorrow, let alone next week. Uncertainty abounds.
But if we take a moment to stop and think about the situation, perhaps we can do ourselves some favors. Rather than focusing on the elements of the situation that are uncertain, let’s instead focus for a moment on the certain parts.
I thought I would share what I’ve viewed as some positives in the conversations we’ve had internally in our company in the hope that you can take some positivity from them, too:
The world isn’t coming to an end
It might feel like the world is coming to an end right now, but we need to remember that this is only temporary. Everything feeling like it is stopping in its tracks isn’t something we’re used to, but a wonderful positive trait of humanity is how adaptive we are as a species. We’ll adjust to this quickly, and once we overcome it we will also have learnt some valuable new skills
Financial Uncertainty Isn’t the Same as Financial Ruin
For many of us, the danger of financial uncertainty weighs heavy on our minds, perhaps even more so than the medical implications. That’s not surprising given that we spend so much of our waking lives working and relying on the money we make to survive. An uncertain financial outlook is deeply disconcerting. It causes stock market crashes, people to cancel plans, economies to stagnate. If we stop and take a look at the reality, though, maybe it’s not as bad as we think.
During the Great Recession of 2008, GDP dropped by 4.3%. That’s obviously not good – but another way to look at it was that 95.7% of the GDP was still there (and yes, I’m sure that’s probably badly expressed, but I’m not an economist so give me a break!) I’m not trying to belittle the situation by any means… I remember the global economic fallout and it wasn’t fun: There will be some that are hit more than others in this situation, but there is a way through, and being as adaptive as possible will create the smoothest path.
Your Loved Ones Stand a Very High Chance of Being Just Fine
Another concern is the wellbeing of our loved ones. I can relate. Most of my family lives in Europe. In practical terms it seems very unlikely that I’ll be able to see them until the situation becomes more stable both in Europe and here in the US. That’s a hard pill to swallow when you want to be close to the ones you care about to make sure they are OK. Again, though, the numbers support that the vast majority will survive. At the time of writing, people over 80 are the highest risk group with a mortality rate of up to 21.9%. That means they have a survival rate of 78.1%. Overall, the mortality rate is currently estimated at 3.4%. That means the survival rate is estimated at 96.6%.
Now of course these numbers are serious, and why we must all act as a society. But they also bear testament to that fact that – if we follow common sense guidelines – we have every reason to be optimistic. Our actions now are to protect those that need protecting most, and that’s important to remember. My natural instinct right now is to jump on a plane, fly home and check my mum is OK. Somewhat counterintuitively, though, the best way I can ensure she is OK is to follow advice and stay here in case I am carrying infection. And the odds are that the sacrifice will be worthwhile: In a few months’ time, I will be able to fly back to Europe safely, give her a hug and catch up on all that’s happened in the time since I saw her last. It is a sacrifice worth taking.
Optimism is the best antidote to uncertainty
What does this mean to all of us as we move forwards? Well, beyond ensuring we follow best practices in terms of hygiene and social distancing I think it’s important that we remain aware of our mental health, and that of those around us.
If you’re a manager or supervisor, check on those who report to you. Not just check if everything is OK professionally, but really check. How are they feeling, how are they coping? If people are struggling, share some optimism with them. If you see someone nervous as you go about your daily life, give them a smile and say good morning to remind them that we are all going to get through this together.
Take away some uncertainty from those around you. Because, if you take a step back there really is more certainty than uncertainty in front of us.
And finally, if you’ve got some stories or words of certainty to encourage me, I’d definitely welcome them, so connect with me on LinkedIn and let’s share some certainty together.
Wishing you positivity,
John Kane is President of Wyvern Industrial Technology (and as you might have noticed, an optimist).