Improve Your Appetite for Uncertainty

Posted by: Molly Herber on 5/15/17 8:36 AM

“Happy campers aren’t the ones with the fewest problems…They just have more positive attitudes and better coping strategies.”

NOLS Leadership Educator Notebook, 5th ed.

Tolerance for uncertainty

Photo by Brad Christensen.

When I find myself in an unfamiliar situation, my whole body goes into stress mode. Knots form in my stomach, my heart rate picks up, and my cheeks flush bright red. 

On my NOLS course mountaineering in Wyoming, I felt this way almost every day: when it was my turn to be the designated leader, when I tried to light the stove by myself for the first time, and when I settled into a new campsite almost every night, trying to make that new place home. 

Frankly, I didn’t like the discomfort. I didn’t realize it was a part of my learning process until I returned home, when I was describing the experience to my family. I told them about the uncomfortable times, but also about the quiet in the morning when I woke early to cook breakfast and the exhilaration when, after weeks of effort and practicing our skills, my group topped the summit on Gannett Peak. 

It was then that I realized the discomfort was part of the experience. That by learning to be uncomfortable, I was preparing myself for the uncertainty of my everyday life.

I also realized I had gotten better at dealing with stress when I came up against a new experience, and I saw what my instructors knew all along—that tolerance for uncertainty is a skill you can learn.

Here are a few of the tools NOLS instructors use to teach students about managing uncertainty, and they’re ones you can practice, too:

Break the challenge into Manageable steps

Break down what’s causing your anxiety into manageable steps. Before teaching my first NOLS course, I was nervous about presenting classes I hadn’t taught before, and identifying that helped me make a plan to practice my classes ahead of time. I wasn’t able to make the uncertainty go away, but I made it more manageable. 

Practice self-awareness

This is what helps you understand how and why you respond to stressful situations. After a significant event, take time to think about it on your own or talk it over with a friend or the folks who were involved. Be honest about your strengths and areas for improvement so you can prepare for next time.

Practice adaptability

Try thinking of multiple solutions to the problem in front of you, even if they seem absurd—like brainstorming all possible ways of avoiding traffic on your commute, including bicycling and hang gliding. Ask questions about the challenge and be curious.

Accept what you can’t control and change what you can

Learn to identify the factors that you can and can’t control. You can’t change the fact that it’s raining, but you can decide to put on a rain jacket or find shelter. This works just as well for interpersonal conflicts, too: you can’t control someone else’s behavior, but you can control the way you treat them. If your tentmate snores, what can you do about it? 

Learn from mistakes and successes

Create a culture where it’s comfortable for you and your teammates to talk about mistakes, fix them, and learn from them. At NOLS, we gather together with leaders in the industry, even our competitors, each year at the Wilderness Risk Management Conference to discuss risk management practices. We want to foster a culture that values learning rather than punishes people for their mistakes. You can do this every day by being open to yourself about yours and others’ mistakes and successes, and by focusing on the learning process over the outcome of their behavior.

Take care of yourself

It’s hard to respond to new challenges when your body and mind are already under stress. When you notice yourself reaching your limit, do what you need to do to rest your mind and body—maybe that’s exercising or napping or going for a walk. That way, when the unexpected happens, you’ll be alert and energetic enough to meet the new challenge.

Help your team prepare for uncertainty on a customized NOLS course.

Tolerance for uncertainty practices from the NOLS Leadership Educator Notebook.


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Molly is a NOLS instructor and writer. She loves the smell of her backpack and does her best writing before 7:00 am. When she's not scouting the next post for the NOLS Blog, she's running and climbing on rocks in Wyoming.