If we could predict the twists and turns in life, we’d never be confronted with the unknown. But things like cancer, death, or a sudden job loss are often beyond our control—they thrust us into an unknown world with little or no warning.
Whether we land on our feet, however, is something we can control.
As a new agent at the FBI Academy, I spent four months immersed in uncomfortable challenges. Whether it was training in firearms, defensive tactics, or physical fitness, I was confronted with the unknown all day long.
In the process, I learned many things about how to confront conflicts and unexpected challenges. The most important was this: If you want to increase safety, you must move toward the challenge.
This may sound counterintuitive since we often have a physiological reaction to sudden challenges as our forehead starts to sweat and our stomach gets knotted. No one wants to step into a situation where the outcome is unknown.
Often we forfeit control by succumbing to the fight-or-flight syndrome. It’s an automatic reaction many of us lean into when confronted with the unknown.
Here are three ways you can prepare for the unknown and safely move toward your uncomfortable challenge:
- Be Curious. Most successful FBI agents are curious by nature. This curiosity motivates them to look beyond the obvious and notice their surroundings.
One of the best examples in literature of the importance of noticing what’s going on around us can be found in the Bible. Perhaps you’ve heard of the story of Moses and the burning bush? Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up” (see Exodus 3:3)
This verse is relevant because each of us tend to take great efforts to avoid the unknown, and this burning bush was certainly an unknown to Moses! Instead, Moses shows us the way: Turn. Aside. And Look.
- Turn: a change of focus, direction, and attitude.
- Aside: pulling away from other things that have previously held our attention.
- Look: embracing the new and different with the spirit of curiosity, not fear.
Moses kept a safe distance from the burning bush but he was curious about it, and this curiosity prodded him to take a step forward.
- Take Small Steps. Every journey begins with baby steps. A coach shows you how to hold a golf club. You feel awkward and inept. You have to think about every movement of your body as you swing the club. You grow impatient.
At about this time, you’re wondering why you chose to learn golf and whether it’s the right game for you. But a good coach will take you through the pace slowly so you gain confidence and build on your achievements.
- Make each small step concrete. Mountains are climbed by one step at a time, not by giant leaps.
- Locate the smaller problems within the larger situation. We are less likely to feel out of control if we can tackle individual issues.
- Acknowledge the small accomplishments and savor them before moving on to the next.
Big steps can produce fear and your brain begins a self-protective lockdown. Taking small steps, on the other hand, is a stealth solution to approaching the unknown.
- Learn Mastery. Genghis Khan conquered the largest empire in history with bows and arrows. Accurately hitting a target from the back of a galloping horse is not easy. Genghis mastered his art by doing three things:
First, he developed the power to pull back the thick bow so he could aim his arrow.
Secondly, he understood the movements of the horse he was riding. When a horse is galloping, there is a moment when the horse is air-borne and all four hooves are off the ground. In that split-second, as he sat in his saddle and sailed through the air in smooth flight, he could shoot his arrow with enough accuracy to hit the target.
And third, he understood not only his own strengths and weaknesses, but the strengths and movements of his horse as well.
Genghis Khan can teach us several things about mastery:
- Cultivate the strengths within you—and your team.
- Uncover your weaknesses—they are as important to know as your strengths.
- Train for the day in combat. It takes an estimated 10,000 hours to become a master. With enough training, you will know yourself well enough to predict how you’ll react when confronted with a crisis.
Leaders who embrace the unknown have a great capacity for facing challenges. They have the resources, mental skills, and physical capabilities to be curious enough to take the small steps needed to master their skills.
You can’t always control what happens to you. But you can control how you react. More importantly, you can prepare for the unknown and lean into it.