Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Uncertainty, Innovation, and the Alchemy of Fear

The ability to live in the question long enough for genius to emerge is a touchstone of creative success. In fact, a 2008 study published in the Journal of Creative Behavior revealed tolerance for ambiguity to be “significantly and positively related” to creativity.

Explaining the results, lead researcher, Franck Zenasni, argued tolerance for ambiguity “enables individuals to not be satisfied by partial or non-optimal solutions to complex problems. People who tolerate ambiguity may be able to work effectively on a larger set of stimuli or situations, including ambiguous ones, whereas intolerant individuals will avoid or quickly stop treating such information.”

Problem is, with rare exception, when faced with the need to live in the question, most people, creators included, experience anything from unease to abject fear and paralyzing anxiety. And there’s a neuroscience basis. According to fMRI studies, acting in the face of uncertainty lights up a part of the brain known as the amygdala, which is a primary seat of fear and anxiety. That sends a surge of chemicals through our bodies that makes us want to run.

So, what do you do if you’ve been put upon the planet with an insatiable jones to create, but not the ability to handle the potential angst that goes along with leaning into the unknown?

I spent the last few years interviewing everyone from Mullen Chief Innovation Officer, Edward Boches, to The War of Art author, Steve Pressfield, and devouring reams of research that spanned neuroscience to decision-making theory in a quest to find out. What emerged surprised even me.

There may, in fact, be a very thin slice of creators who arrive on the planet more able to go to and even seek out that uncertainty-washed place that destroys so many others. But, for a far greater number of high-level creators, across all fields, the ability to be okay and even invite uncertainty in the name of creating bigger, better, cooler things is trained. Sometimes with great intention, other times without even realizing it.

And what surprised me even more was that so many creators, field-wide, work in a way that is in direct contradiction to the way your brain functions best. Not because it works for them, often it doesn’t, but because “that’s just the way it’s always been done.”

It’s possible to effectively build “uncertainty scaffolding,” practices that allow you to do what you do (a) without ending up a psychotic mess, and (b) giving you access to an often untapped reservoir of creativity.

This uncertainty scaffolding tends to fall into three different areas:

  • Workflow adaptations
  • Personal practices
  • Environmental/cultural shifts

Here are five examples to get you started:

1. Single-Task.

The part of the brain that helps keep fear and anxiety in check — the prefrontal cortex, or PFC — is also tasked with managing working memory. Problem is, it’s easily overloaded. Doing too many things as once lessens its ability to keep the discomfort that tags along with moving into uncertainty at bay and makes you more likely to shut down. Only by rejecting multitasking and focusing on a single task at a time can you harness your full brainpower for optimal performance.

2. Exercise Your Brain.

Meditation and exercise have well-documented mood-enhancing, stress-management, and disease-prevention effects. What you may not know, though, is that they also have a profound impact on creativity, decision-making, and problem-solving. Recent research even shows certain approaches increase brain mass, something that’s always been thought impossible.

Also, these two daily practices bolster your ability to go to that edgy place where the good stuff happens and stay there long enough for next-level innovation to emerge. Together, they combine to create the single most powerful mindset, creativity, and innovation force multiplier on the planet.

But not all forms are equal. High-intensity, cardiovascular training, for example, has a greater effect on the brain than moderate level activity. And mindfulness training has the added benefit of training creators in the art of observing, then dropping storylines, which creates the space for more empowering patterns of thought to emerge.

3. Reframe.

Reframing is the process of asking questions that allow you to change the storyline around a particular set of circumstances. We often become so close to a project, we lose objectivity about its viability and start to tell ourselves stories that not only stifle action, but stunt creativity. Reframing is a process that allows you to see an identical circumstance in a way that motivates action and fuels creativity. And, as noted above, one of the most effective tools to build the awareness needed to pull back and reframe is a daily mindfulness practice.

4. Pulse and Pause.

Though we often tend to work in 2-4 hour chunks of seemingly uninterrupted time, our brains are really only equipped to productively focus for a max of about 90-minutes. Beyond that window, we may feel like we’re cranking, but in reality our attention, creativity, and cognitive function decline rapidly. So, rather than push through and watch your frustration levels skyrocket while the quality of your output craters, rework your day into intense, 90-minute bursts with refueling periods in between.

5. Drop Certainty Anchors

Certainty anchors are repeated daily experiences where the decision-making aspect has been removed. They can be as simple as eating the same thing for breakfast every day, wearing only black t-shirts, or walking to work the same way. The key is removing the decision-making element from the experience and, in doing so, turning these moments into repeated occasions where you know in advance that you’ll be able to drop out of the creative ether and land on firm ground.

***

These five are a sampling of strategies and practices that can make a tremendous difference in the way you experience your time leaning into the unknown.Explore them, then watch what happens to your ability to create better things faster and improve your mindset along the way.

What Do You Think?

What strategies do you use to deal with uncertainty?

Jonathan Fields

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Jonathan Fields is speaker, serial wellness-industry entrepreneur and recovering S.E.C./mega-firm hedge-fund lawyer. He is the author of Career Renegade: How to Make a Great Living Doing What You Love.
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