How to Stay Motivated in the Face of Uncertainty

Do you crave certainty?

Most of us do. We want to know if the thing we're about to try is going to succeed. We like to have the perception of control.

At the same time, we love to experience the unknown. It's easy to get bored when we have control. Variation and novelty are exciting to us.

My favorite example of this paradox comes from the show Family Guy.

In one of the episodes, Peter is confronted with a decision. A salesman offers him the choice of receiving either a boat or a mystery box. Which should he choose?

Here's what Peter says:

A boat’s a boat. But the mystery box could be anything. It could even be a boat! You know how much we’ve wanted one of those. We’ll take the box.
— Peter Griffin, Family Guy


This reasoning seems idiotic on the surface (which is why it's so funny). But it also highlights how most of us make decisions - we want the excitement of uncertainty without any of the risk. We want to be able to imagine exactly how things will turn out.

If you stay at the job you're in, you pretty much know what you're going to get. Or at least you think you do. It feels more certain.

But if you start a business, anything could happen. You could become a billionaire. You could end up homeless.

The same is true of moving to a new state, doing public speaking, writing a blog post, or asking someone out. I bet most of the major decisions in your life started off uncertain.

When our minds can't quantify the potential reward of doing something, it's hard for us to stay motivated. We don't like to sacrifice our time, money, or energy for things without first knowing whether or not they will succeed.

Most of us can work hard at something when the path is clear (i.e. college). Or we can go along for the ride as long as it's not too demanding (i.e. a wacky vacation). In other words, we can either work hard or deal with uncertainty.

Very few people can do both at the same time.

And that's why so few people end up succeeding as entrepreneurs. Because entrepreneurship requires moving forward consistently towards an uncertain outcome. One that sometimes only you believe in.

So - how do you stay motivated in the face of uncertainty?

By being curious.

When you're curious, uncertainty becomes part of the fun.

Something incredible happens when you finally say, "Fuck it, I don't know if this thing is going to work out. But if I don't try, I'll always wonder what would have happened."

And when curiosity isn't acted on, it usually leads to regret. Regret is a killer. We almost always regret the things that we didn't do more than the things we did.


It turns out that Peter doesn't get a boat. He gets a pair of tickets to a cheap comedy club.

Does that make him stupid? Maybe. But you have to be a little bit stupid to be an entrepreneur.

Of course, if you want the boat, just choose the boat. But if you want something else, don't be afraid to take the mystery box. Allow yourself to be curious.

Certainty is an illusion. Even if you decide not to change, there will be things that happen unexpectedly. So you can pour your heart into something that might not work, or you can hold back and wonder what might have been, while still being out of control.

It's your choice: risk failure or risk regret.

(Photo credit: Arian Zwegers via cc)