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Uncertainty - Jonathan Fields

Every now and then, I invite cool people who have written books to share their knowledge directly with my readers. Jonathan is a friend of mine, and you’ll find his research into the benefits and detriments of uncertainty very useful, regardless of what you do for a living. Here are Jonathan’s personal notes on the key ideas in Uncertainty.


About Jonathan Fields

Jonathan Fields is a lawyer turned serial-entrepreneur, speaker and author of Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt Into Fuel for Brilliance. He’s been featured in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, FastCompany, Inc, Entrepreneur, USA Today, Reuters and thousands of websites, TV and radio shows that don’t impress his daughter. Here’s ()more about Jonathan.

Here are 10 big ideas from Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt Into Fuel for Brilliance.

1. Too much confidence kills innovation.

It’s great to be self-assured, but overconfidence or certainty can also stifle creativity and innovation. When you have a high degree of confidence and are certain in your ideas and plans, you tend to close the door on the possibility that there’s something better to be created or discovered. So, the more certain you are, the less likely you’ll be to see the myriad of paths, ideas and alternatives that present themselves along your creative journey.

You may well get to your specific vision faster, but you’ll also very likely have ignored opportunities that would have made your endeavor substantially better than the original vision. Confidence can be a great catalyst for action, but it can also be the source of “idea blindness." Be confident, but always stay open to the possibility that you don’t always know best.

2. There is a direct connection between your ability to handle uncertainty and creativity.

Your ability to dance with uncertainty has actually been shown in research to be strongly correlated with creativity. Great ideas, solutions and businesses require percolation. You work hard, you research, explore and act, but often it takes time and space for the big insights to bubble up.

The longer you’re willing to live in the question, the more likely you’ll be to come up with better answers. And, the better a position you and your business will be in to then leverage those ideas and solutions to excel and more effectively differentiate what you do.

3. Without intervention, uncertainty causes pain.

While action in the face of uncertainty is a necessary part of every creative endeavor, our brains experience this as suffering. The reason is simple, recent fMRI studies show that your amygdalae, a part of the brain involved in fear and anxiety, lights up when you’re required to make choices in uncertain circumstances.

In an entrepreneurial or business setting, this makes most people either slow their progress to a crawl or race to the end in an effort to eliminate the discomfort. Problem is, this response also often paralyzes or stunts the potential of the endeavor.

The better response is to train in the alchemy of fear: to learn the strategies and practices that allow you to harness and ride, rather than hunt and kill the butterflies. Then, go at a pace determined more by information, intuition and intelligence than by fear and anxiety.

4. We all have strong creative orientations for either insight or production.

Most of us arrive in adulthood with a strong creative orientation. We’re either blank white page creatives - we come alive though insight, ideation and disruption - or we’re more drawn to refinement, expansion and production.

When we find work that allows us to spend most of our time in the orientation that feels natural to us, we hum along pretty happily. But, when we are forced to cross over to “the other side," we feel huge resistance. Problem is, unless you are in absolute control of your organization, work allocation and culture, at some point (if not often), we all have to spend time in the part of the creative spectrum that battles with our creative orientation.

Thankfully, there are a lot of ways to reclaim your sanity and quality of work when you’re forced to operate in that place. We’ll explore a number of them below.

5. Most endeavors don’t fail because we don’t know the field, they fail because we don’t train our minds to succeed.

How much time, money and energy have you spent learning your specific craft, deepening your knowledge of the field you operate in? Thousands of hours, tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars (maybe even millions)? Think about it.

Now, how much time, money and energy have to spent developing the specific mindset skills, personal practices and workflow strategies that will allow you to operate on all cylinders under demanding situations, push through and even harness the endless waves of challenge and uncertainty that are a part of every quest to do something great?

Success isn’t just about mastery of field-specific content, it’s about mastery of your mind and your environment. Train that side of the equation equally if not more.

6. Your mood has a significant effect on your brain’s ability to create and solve problems.

Not only is being grumpy, irritable and anxious an overall unpleasant way to exist, it also makes you “situationally stupid."

In a series of experiments, groups of individuals from toddlers to doctors were primed to create a mood that was either positive and upbeat or negative and disparaging, then given problems to solve and challenges to create.

Across all ages and education levels, the negative primes significantly hurt performance and creativity. Even more recent recent research shows that positive mood increases the ability to solve problems via insight, while anxiety does the exact opposite.

Translation - your bad mood isn’t just making you unhappy, it’s making you dumb and poor.

7. Ritual can help counter the anxiety and fear that rides along with creation.

Without intervention, most people default to fear and anxiety in the face of uncertainty. Creating rituals around not only your work, but your life outside of your work allows you to drop “certainty anchors," things that happen every day the same way, things you know will always be there and that create a series of mini opportunities to touch stone throughout the day.

These certainty anchors help you float higher up into the creative ether and stay there long enough for the good stuff to come, knowing that you’ve got enough tethers to solid ground in other parts of your life to create a foundation of baseline calm to return to.

Rituals can be as simple as eating the same thing for breakfast or, in the context of work, sitting down to write at the same time every day.

9. Mindfulness and exercise are extraordinary mindset and innovation force-multipliers.

For decades, meditation was viewed as something wacky koombaya types did and exercise was seen as something to be suffered in the name of rock hard abs, looser-fitting clothes and disease prevention. Over the last 15 years or so, though, a substantial body of research on both modalities has revealed a set of benefits that not only move meditation out of fringe-cultures, but position both activities as critical to an optimally functioning brain.

Meditation exercises not only help decrease anxiety and fear and increase mood, they also enhance executive function, problem-solving, creativity, reaction time and, very new research now shows they may even be able to generate new brain cells. In light of this, it’s hard to understand how anyone who wants to perform at their potential might justify not bringing these practices into their daily lives.

10. With rare exception, great creators are trained, not born.

There might be a very thin slice of the population who were put upon the planet with a genetic predisposition that allows them to not only tolerate, but invite and even amplify uncertainty in the name of creating great things, without also having to endure the unease that most other feel.

Most of us, though, including many world-class creators aren’t members of that thin slice. We love to create, but we feel like we pay an emotional toll for the quest to go big.

Thankfully, there exist a set of personal practices, workflow optimizations and environmental and culture adaptations that effectively build uncertainty scaffolding, allowing anyone to go to that place where genius is birthed without feeling like they’re hanging on to their emotions for dear life.

Your challenge, if you want to do great things in the world, is to build scaffolding strong enough to allow you to soar.

If you liked this post, be sure to pick up a copy of Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt Into Fuel for Brilliance today. Also, be sure to take Jonathan’s Creative Mindset Audit.

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