Uncertainty by Jonathan Fields – Summary

January 2012

in Bookshelf, Self-mastery

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This article contains my book notes for Uncertainty by Jonathan Fields (2011).

We all suffer from uncertainty and doubt, especially when creating something new. It’s certainly something I have issues with.

Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance is a book by Jonathan Fields that addresses this situation.

If I were to summarize the whole book in one sentence, it would be this:

Your ability to endure, amplify, invite, and exalt uncertainty – then reframe it as fuel – is paramount to your ability to succeed.

Overall, I think Fields’ book does a good job of highlighting the importance of uncertainty – especially feedback and criticism – and the value of behavior changes (such as exercise and changing your mindset). It has some good general advice for using uncertainty to your advantage as fuel.

I found the book to be short on clear, actionable things to do. For example, being told to have “triggers” to signal to yourself when you need to take breaks sounds like a great idea, but how should I do that? An more detailed example or suggestion would be helpful. This could be a smart thing in that he may be intentionally avoiding advice that is too specific and that won’t work for everybody. So, in terms of general changes to make, it has much advice.

There is a lack of footnotes, endnotes, and bibliography, which is a big downer for me, and raises my suspicions of false popular psychology, rather than real psychology, making its way in there. Even when specific studies are referred to, there is no full citation, merely the name of the scientists or the University where study was conducted. This doesn’t mean he doesn’t have good advice, both from personal experience in the creative industry and from others he knows in the industry. I’m probably just spoiled from reading journal articles. :-)

With those caveats out of the way, what follows is a summary of the key ideas and suggestions in the books. Note that the word “uncertainty”, as used in this book, is sort of a container that includes the “three psychic horsemen of creativity”: uncertainty, risk of loss, and exposure to criticism. 

Uncertainty is important, useful, and unavoidable.

If uncertainty doesn’t exist then it means you’re creating something that has already been done.

Judgement of our work is often experienced as an emotional sludge of pain due to tactless delivery or the creator’s own hangups. But judgements are useful feedback data! Creators need it; without it there is no verification of the work completed, and no opportunity to make it better.

Risk of loss must also exist. Without it, we lose meaning in what we do, which is a core motivation for action.

Tolerance for ambiguity is strongly correlated with creativity, because as it increases you become much better at coming up with solutions, ideas, and creations. To tolerate ambiguity is to endure it, which is a willingness to embrace the unknown.

Uncertainty hurts for social and biological reasons.

The amygdala, at the base of the brain, is where we feel uncertainty as suffering. Fear of the unknown is a very basic and beneficial survival tactic that we evolved to keep ourselves alive. There is also a social component to uncertainty, because people are less risk-averse when they think they won’t be evaluated.

Judgement comes from a three-layered cake: those whose approval we seek, those whose money we seek in exchange for our creation, and ourself. These judgements are wrapped around two big questions, Is this good enough? and Am I good enough?

There are no fearless creators.

Those who have overcome their fears and doubts in their creative pursuits have done so by making situational changes, shifting their mindset, and developing personal practices – not through genetic luck.

In other words, success at overcoming uncertainty and being creative happens by building risk, exposure, and uncertainty “scaffolding”, and then turning them into fuel.

Routines and rituals anchor you to a firm psychological bedrock.

“Certainty anchors” are practices and processes – routines and rituals – that add something known and reliable to your life, when you may otherwise feel you are spinning off in many directions, thus creating a psychological “bedrock”.

General life routines and rituals include things like when you do your laundry, when and how you prepare your food, and what your daily schedule looks like. Within the creative process they can be things like where you work, when you work, what you do before and after working, and when you brainstorm.

Willpower is a limited resource. By turning activities into habits they use much less willpower, leaving more available to deal with uncertainty. Also, by limiting the amount of work your do at one time and taking genuine breaks, you can rapidly replenish your willpower.

Here lies one of the most beneficial ideas I got out of this book. Tony Schwartz is a big proponent of doing bursts of work that are a maximum of 90 minutes long. Between bursts, do whatever it takes to replenish your fuel, such as exercise, meditation, napping, eating, or walking. I’ve been using this method for the last month and it’s working great.

Surround yourself with mentors, champions, heros, and friends (a creative hive) who can provide efficient feedback and support.

Find or create a creation hive that will efficiently level judgement and feedback.

Mentors are great, but often hard to find. Champions are people you trust completely (such as a significant other), who are deeply invested in your work and equally devoted to seeing its completion. These can also be hard to find. Heros are accomplished individuals who can inspire you by example without having to provide individual feedback and support. Friends are those whose feedback and judgement you trust.

Socialize the creation process by involving others.

Bring the very people you are creating for into the process while you create. This way you can learn what works and receive insight rapidly and from the beginning.

Create a “minimum viable product”, a bare-bones basic version, and get some feedback on it. That way you do the least amount of work necessary to start learning. Use the rapid prototyping method – prototype, release, feedback – and repeat as needed. One additional benefit of this is that your repeated exposure to criticism will build up a tolerance to it.

As a caution, use customer feedback to contribute to and improve the product, but don’t let it dilute the process or devolve your project into chaos. Keep in mind you main motivations for what you’re creating, who it’s for, and why.

Train your brain.

Exercise. The amount of science behind the benefits of exercise is overwhelming! Find a form of active exercise that you enjoy and get to it (rock climbing, anyone?). The enjoyment part is key, because if you don’t the chances you’ll stick with it are slim. Indefinite fun exercise is much better than “efficient” but short-lived exercise.

Perform attentional training, which is basically some form of mindfulness or awareness practice. Fields breaks down attentional training (AT) into four forms:

  1. Active AT that is driven by novelty, speed, and an intense state of concentration – e.g. trail running.
  2. Active AT that is repetitive, deliberate, and done in an environment that provokes comfort and few changing circumstances – e.g. road running.
  3. Mindfulness AT (in the non-dogmatic, streamlined, and practical sense), often in the form of focusing on breathing and allowing thoughts to come and go. See one of my posts for an example of how to do this.
  4. Transcendental Meditation (TM), which generally focuses on the repetition of a sound given by a teacher. These tend to be highly standardized courses.

Try out some different forms of AT, see what you enjoy and what works, then make it a habit.

Shift to a growth mindset. This is a big one, and I think deserves a larger piece of the credit pie for dealing with uncertainty than Fields gives it. A fixed mindset sees your talents, character, and abilities as fixed, unchangeable things (which they are not). The growth mindset acknowledges that change and improvement is almost always possible through effort and hard work.

Spend time visualizing your goals and how you are going to achieve them. Specifically, simulate the process, not the destination, by visualizing your “daily creation ritual” – your process and method for creating whatever it is you create, be it blog posts, code, bridges, or art.

Remember the big picture.

Take time to step back and revisit how you’re doing and why you’re pushing forward. Remind yourself about your main motivations.

Recognize that sometimes you need to hold out while keeping at it, adapt to the situation while keeping at it, or fold because it’s not going to work.

Reframe your situation and circumstances.

Accept worst-case scenarios. Imagine that everything goes wrong and you hit rock bottom. How bad will it really be? Will you survive?

See critics as team members who are helping you. Failures are opportunities to learn and do better. Worse-case scenarios really aren’t that bad.

Remember and act on all of the above.

Finally, remember that all of the above will only be useful for you if you go out and give it a try. See what works and what doesn’t, and make uncertainty a resource you can use. Running away from uncertainty is running away from life.

And remember:

Your ability to endure, amplify, invite, and exalt uncertainty – then reframe it as fuel – is paramount to your ability to succeed.