Uncertainty. It’s a terrifying word.
Living with it, dangling over your head like the sword of Damocles, day in day out, is enough to send anyone spiraling into a state of anxiety, fear and paralysis.
Like it or not, though, uncertainty is the new normal. We live in a time where the world is in a state of constant, long-term flux. And, that’s not all. If you want to spend your time on the planet not just getting-by, but consistently creating art, experiences, businesses and lives that truly matter, you’ll need to proactively seek out, invite and even deliberately amplify uncertainty. Because the other side of uncertainty is opportunity.
Nothing great was ever created by waiting around for someone to tell you it’s all going to be okay or for perfect information to drop from the sky. Doesn’t happen that way. Great work requires you to act in the face of uncertainty, to live in the question long enough for your true potential to emerge. There is no alternative.
When you find the strength to act in the face of uncertainty, you till the soil of genius.
Problem is, that kills most people. It leads to unease, anxiety, fear and doubt on a level that snuffs out most genuinely meaningful and potentially revolutionary endeavors before they even see the light of day. Not because they wouldn’t have succeeded, but because you never equipped yourself to handle and even harness the emotional energy of the journey.
But, what if it didn’t have to be that way?
What if there was a way to turn the fear, anxiety and self-doubt that rides along with acting in the face of uncertainty–the head-to-toe butterflies–into fuel for brilliance?
Turns out, there is. Your ability to lean into the unknown isn’t so much about luck or genetics, rather it’s something entirely trainable. I’ve spent the past few years interviewing world-class creators across a wide range of fields and pouring over research that spans neuroscience, decision-theory, psychology, creativity and business.
Through this work, a collection of patterns, practices and strategies have emerged that not only turbocharge insight, creativity, innovation and problem-solving, but also help ameliorate so much of the suffering so often associated with the pursuit of any creative quest.
Here are 5 starter-strategies to help get you going:
We tell ourselves stories all day long. I’m skinny. I’m fat. I’m talented. I’m stupid. This is genius. This is awful. I will succeed. I will fail. I’m terrified and anxious. I’m confident and proactive. It turns out, the storylines we create around a particular circumstance are far more determinative of success than the circumstance itself. They affect not only our willingness to act, but the quality of our ideas and solutions.
If you create a story that empowers action and innovation, that’s great news. Unfortunately, our brains have a strong bias toward negativity, leading most of us to create stories around circumstances that require action in the face of uncertainty that are more likely to paralyze and stunt creativity than fuel action.
Reframing is a process that asks you to suspend negative storylines, explore if the story you’re telling is the only one and, if not (which is inevitably the case), construct or frame a new storyline that empowers you to experience an uncertain circumstance not as a prime for failure and inaction, but as a signpost for meaning and opportunity.
For example, if you’re disabling storyline is around the risk of failure, instead of just asking “what if I fail?” and creating a doomsday scenario, you also ask “how will I recover, what if I do nothing and what if I succeed?” Then build new stories around those questions.
2. Practice Mindfulness.
Reframing is an immensely powerful tool in the quest to lean into the unknown. But it also requires a certain equanimity; the ability to pull back and see what’s really going on, re-center, then breath into that uncomfortable place long enough for amazing things to bubble up. Over time, a daily mindfulness practice goes a long way toward equipping you to do just that.
Plus, it cultivates the sense of persistent grounding that makes living and acting in a world where there is no new normal far more enjoyable. And it trains you in the practice of dropping thoughts, among those, destructive, limiting-beliefs.
3. Exercise Your Brain.
We’ve all seen the research on exercise and health, weight loss and disease prevention. But, did you know that certain approaches to exercise also have a profound effect on your brain?
Daily cardiovascular exercise, for example, especially with high-intensity bursts mixed in can improve mood, executive function, decision-making and creativity and decrease anxiety and fear. The latest research even reveals the possibility that exercise can grow new brains cells, something that until only a few years ago, was thought to be impossible. It’s also strongly correlated with decreases in anxiety and increases in mood, which are directly connected to improved creativity and problem-solving.
Multitasking is out. Turns out this badge of honor from the ’90s is more fiction than fact. Our brains don’t multitask, they just rapidly switch between tasks, sometimes fast enough for us to believe we’re doing many things at once. Problem is, every time we switch, there is a “ramping cost” in your brain, it takes anywhere from a few second to 15 minutes for your brain to fully re-engage. This makes you feel insanely busy, but simultaneously craters productivity, creativity and increases feelings of anxiety and stress.
Multitasking also requires you to hold a lot of information in your working memory, which is controlled by a part of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex (PFC). But the PFC is also responsible for will-power, and for keeping fear and anxiety in check. Multitasking increases the “cognitive load” on the PFC, overwhelming it and effectively killing it’s ability to keep fear, anxiety and the taunt of distraction at bay.
Simple solution–just say no. Do one thing at a time in intense, short bursts.
5. Get Lean.
Instead of creating in a vacuum, explore the possibility of bringing a “lean” or “agile” approach to your creative process. Focus on maximum learning, create the simplest version of your idea possible, then bring a select group of those who’d potentially enjoy it into the process earlier in name of soliciting and integrating input into the next iteration. This not only minimizes waste, it changes the psychology of creation by adding more certainty earlier in the game and encouraging consistent, incremental action.
These five strategies and practices can change the way you experience the creative process in a profound way. They’ll not only allow you to tap a reservoir of previously hidden creativity, they’ll also allow you to experience any creative endeavor with a far deeper sense of equanimity and joy.