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Surfing the Wave of Chaos

What to do when you don't know what to do

Life, it often seems, is chaotic and full of uncertainty. In an ideal world perhaps we'd be more comfortable if things were more predictable, but that's not the way the world works.

Determinism is the philosophical position that asserts that every event, including human actions and choices, is causally determined by prior events or conditions. In a deterministic universe, everything that happens is the inevitable result of antecedent causes. This view suggests that if you could know all the relevant conditions and laws of nature, you could predict with certainty how events will unfold, including human decisions and actions.

Free will, on the other hand, is the capacity of individuals to make choices and decisions that are not entirely determined by external factors, but are instead influenced by their own thoughts, desires and intentions. Free will implies that individuals have the ability to deliberate, make choices and take responsibility for their actions.

There's a fundamental clash between these two points of view. In a deterministic universe in which everything is preordained by what has gone before, what scope is there for anyone to make their own, independent choices? In such a universe my choices have already been made for me. I am not in control of my own destiny so I may as well stop thinking about it and just go with the flow.

If you look around the world today you'll see that large numbers of people are apparently doing just that: going with the flow, not thinking about where that flow is taking them, and certainly not doing anything to either challenge the flow or to extract themselves from it. They are flotsam and jetsam, being carried helplessly along. They're like corks bobbing on a vast ocean, swept here and there by the wind, waves and currents.

Observation suggests that what goes on in and around us is a mix of convergence, in which everything happens for a reason, and contingency, in which random events can and do occur for no readily apparent reason. The universe is not completely deterministic. Sure enough the laws of physics have a great deal of influence and introduce a lot of convergent predictability, but that isn't the end of the story. We each have the capacity to think for ourselves, to exercise our free will to make choices and take actions to steer our own path through the complexities of life. If we choose to we can extract ourselves from the flow. We can choose our moment, get up on our board, and surf the wave of uncertainty.

Doing that, refusing to go with the flow and instead making our own decisions about how we're going to lead our lives, is challenging. It requires us to expend mental energy. It requires us to be confident in ourselves and in our own wisdom. It requires us to persist in the face of resistance from those around us who are comfortably numb in their thought-free, deterministic, going-with-the-flow little worlds and who would prefer us to be the same. When we do our own thing we make waves and we disrupt the status quo. We're like a sudden shower of cold rain that disturbs someone who was dozing on a park bench.

Unfortunately, perhaps, once you wake up to the truth of who you are and what is going on, there is no way back. You can't simply doze off again and go back to drifting along with everyone else. You're now in an uncomfortable place. You're awake, you're aware of your freedom to make your own decisions, and you're becoming increasingly aware of the responsibility that comes with that freedom.

What if you wake up disoriented, knowing that there must be more to life than this but clueless about how to get it?

What do you do when you don't know what to do?

First, you must understand that being in this situation is your own choice. You are here because you chose to be. You are now in charge of your own destiny. That's a much better prospect than simply being a helpless victim of circumstance, isn't it?

Your first task must be to figure out who you really are. I'm not asking your name, or where you live, or what you do for a living or what football team you support, because those are part of your story, part of what you do, not who you are. I'm asking who you are in your heart, and you're going to have to do some deep self-reflection to figure that out. What are your personal values? What do you believe about yourself and about the world and your place in it? What are your strengths and weaknesses? What are your hopes, your fears, your dreams? What makes you uniquely you?

Next, you must figure out what this freedom - the freedom to be yourself and to live authentically - actually means. What do you want to be, to do, and to have in your life? What is your vision for yourself? Think big! Never mind how you're going to do it, that's not important right now. What is vitally important is that you think deeply, dream a little, engage your creativity, use your imagination, and discover that big, hairy, audacious goal (the BHAG) that is your purpose in life.

Having done that, you can turn your thoughts to practicalities. You want to make your vision a reality, but how can you get there from where you are today? The answer to that is, one step at a time. "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step," as the old saying goes. You must figure out what that first step is to be, and then the next, and then the one after that until you have charted your course.

Now you know three crucial things. You know who you are, you know what you want, and you know how you're going to get it. You're not stuck any more. Now there is only one more thing to do: get out there and just do it!

It sounds very simple, doesn't it, and it is. But don't confuse "simple" with "easy." They are not the same at all. If understanding our life's purpose and then attaining that purpose was easy, the world would be filled with happy, fulfilled people and we wouldn't see the unhappiness, ignorance, exploitation, greed, cruelty and conflict that's so prevalent today. Being an authentic individual in a world such as this is not easy, but it is necessary both for you and for the world at large.

As you work towards attaining your life's purpose, life itself will intervene. Shit happens! So does good stuff, and you may be surprised to discover that random events of good fortune occur just as frequently as doses of bad luck. There is such a thing as luck and if you're smart you'll be on the lookout for opportunities to exploit the good luck that comes your way whilst avoiding the bad, or at least being resilient enough to not be derailed by any of it.

Much has been said elsewhere about "the best laid plans of mice and men," and of course something may happen that means your plan will no longer work. In that case, what do you do? Well, you make another plan. You simply reaffirm your vision, take stock of where you are, and figure out how you're going to get there from here taking into account the new circumstances. If that sounds like going back to square one, it isn't quite like that, because you're not starting from the same point and you've learned a lot in your journey so far that will help you to avoid making the same mistakes again.

I can't emphasize enough the importance of engaging with others who are awake and aware and who have taken control of their own lives in just this way. Hanging out with them, exchanging ideas, supporting each other and, dare I say it, sharing a good laugh every now and then will be a huge boost to your energy that will help you to keep going through the tough times. Find your tribe and stick with them; your chance of success is much greater if you do.

Life isn't entirely convergent but it isn't entirely contingent either, it's a mix of both of these things and it's up to you to decide what you want and to navigate your way towards achieving your goal. It's up to you to get on your board and surf the wave of uncertainty.

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