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Cox: Three Life Lessons on How to Embrace Uncertainty

Life is uncertain. While we all understand this, we often do all we can to pretend it isn’t true.

We plan, schedule, forecast, estimate, model, and visualize how we want the future to be. We want to know all of the answers and to delineate all of the potential risks before we commit to an action. Despite all of our best efforts to control, predict, and avoid any discomfort associated with the unknown, life simply doesn’t turn out as we imagined—and that’s actually not a bad thing.

I came to understand the value of embracing uncertainty while attending a “boot camp” for the blind. At age 11, I was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease. By the time I was in my 20s, I had lost enough vision that many of the daily tasks like reading, walking safely or using a computer were out of reach for me. After falling into an open manhole in a construction zone while walking home one cold wintry day in Baltimore, Maryland, I knew I needed to seriously upgrade my skills.

Soon after my fall, I took advantage of a residential training program that the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) was offering to a small group of us. The training required that we live on premise for the duration of our four-­month training and wear sleep shades the entire time—even on the weekends. Most blind people have some residual vision and will easily default to using it even if it is unreliable or ineffective. NFB believed sleep shades forced us to immerse ourselves in exploring and believing in the abundant alternatives that exist to access information and to navigate the world without vision. Equally important, sleep shades allowed us to confront some of the stereotypes and misperceptions about blindness that we ourselves labored under without always knowing it.

The training set out a bold agenda for us to tackle, including the expectation that by the end of the program we would be able to travel where we wanted and when we wanted independently. To prove this point, the instructors explained the “graduation” expectation held for us when it came to cane travel. Specifically, we would each take our turn lying down on the backseats of a van while it drove around town with music blaring. The driver would stop and let us out without telling us where we were. We were expected to find our way back to the training center on our own, we were only able to ask one question of a passer­by, and we could take a Braille compass.

To prepare for this event, we would spend time every day learning the techniques of good orientation and mobility skills for the blind. My instructor, Tony Cobb, would teach me a principle and then stand back and let me learn it through practical application—even if it was sometimes messy.

One day, he took me to the park across from the training center. The park was riddled with a criss­cross of winding paths that randomly intersected one another. Time and time again I got turned around and felt like I was walking in circles. I simply couldn’t find my way out of that park.

Filled with frustration, I stopped because I no longer knew where to go. After standing still for a few minutes, I heard Mr. Cobb coming up behind me. He had been observing me from afar and saw that I was stubbornly stuck.

He leaned into my ear and quietly said, “Kristen, you have to learn to walk through your fear and confusion. You won’t gain any new information by standing still.”

I knew he was right. Standing still was not a long­-term option. So, I took a step, and then another, and then another. Eventually, I found my way out of that park and learned important lessons that day. I knew that I would continue to encounter new environments and circumstances throughout my life. The key was to have the courage to walk through the unknown.

The lessons I learned during my four months of training were invaluable—each day reinforcing new insights or principles. That day in particular captured three lessons that I continue to embrace today in all aspects of my life.

Commitment has power
If we wait to commit to something or to take action before we have all of the answers, we will miss out on a lot of amazing opportunities in this life. Doing our due diligence is important, of course, but often the power of commitment is the catalyst that will bring us the answers we need as we walk forward towards our ultimate goal.

Opportunity exists in what we don’t know
New information and knowledge comes when we walk out into the unknown. Playing it safe and limiting my travel only to those places that I already know would mean that I would miss out on so many experiences that make life rich and worth living.

Practice makes perfect
Like anything else, learning to live with uncertainty becomes easier with practice. Today, I travel by myself across the United States on a regular basis. While I sometimes may get temporarily lost, I now know I will ultimately find my way. Uncertainty is simply a part of life we can get used to with practice and repeated exposure.

Kristen Cox is the Executive Director of the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget for the State of Utah. She has also served on the cabinet of three Governors and was a Presidential appointee under the Bush Administration. She can be contacted at kristen.cox@comcast.net.

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