Coping with Uncertainty

As the 2011 winner of 800-CEO-READ’s best in category for personal development, Jonathan Field’s Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance grabbed my attention. I’d been listening to his Good Life Project podcasts and enjoyed the content. I’d also read his 2016 book How to Live a Good Life. So even though I wasn’t looking for entrepreneurial advice, I figured he’d have something interesting to say.

uncertaintyFields asserts that creativity and a tolerance for ambiguity go hand-in-hand. When attempting to bring something entirely new into being, the initial concept may or may not work. You may or may not build the team or acquire the resources to reach the finish line. The market may or may not rally around the product or service. Yet Field’s core message is: “The more you’re able to tolerate ambiguity and lean into the unknown, the more likely you’ll be able to dance with it long enough to come up with better solutions, ideas, and creations.”

While I’m not hankering to bring the “next big thing” to market, I’m standing at the crossroads of the next chapter in my life. I understand the temptation to lock in on a safe course to ease my anxiety about what comes next. Fields suggests that I build some “risk, exposure, and uncertainty scaffolding” to give me an extra boost of calm as I move forward. Here are his suggestions:

Build and practice daily rituals that accord with the ebbs and flows of energy throughout the day. He deems such practices the “psychic bedrock” that keeps you grounded and productive even when you feel anxious or simply don’t want to get down to business. It defends against the urge to procrastinate. And when supported by your natural biorhythms, you take full advantage of your peak hours of productivity.

Intersperse bursts of creativity and productivity with rest periods. As Dr. Baba Shiv of the Stanford Graduate School of Business discovered, willpower gets depleted via heavy thinking, working memory, concentration, and creativity. Our brains need to re-fuel periodically to function properly. Forty-five to ninety minutes of work followed by light exercise, a short walk, meditation, a cat nap, or the like should do the trick.

Find a mentor or a champion to provide support and encouragement on your journey. His or her advice and confidence can be an antidote to unfavorable internal or external judgment. If the right person has not surfaced, find and study a hero whose journey inspires you.

Learn to pivot. Be willing to make and own mistakes. Give yourself permission to course correct if the available evidence, constructive feedback, and/or your “gut” instincts suggest a new direction.

Engage in attention training – e.g., meditation, mindfulness, or other contemplation-driven spiritual practice. Fields notes: “Through daily repetition, they create both physiological and psychological changes that can profoundly alter the way we experience and handle nearly any challenge or endeavor… They also open channels to insight and innovation.”

Practice process visualization to gain traction around the steps and actions needed to realize a goal rather than simply the outcome to be achieved. In so doing, you end up engaging in those processes with greater regularity and increase the likelihood that you’ll get to the finish line. (Greatness is largely about work!)

Take care of your body by exercising, eating healthy foods, and getting plenty of rest. Exercise elevates mood while easing anxiety. It’s also correlated positively with brain function. The key to sustained effort is finding activities in which we genuinely find pleasure. While it may seem counterintuitive to take time away from work for self-care, the payback in improved spirits and cognitive function more than compensates for this investment.