Embrace Uncertainty, and Ride the Butterflies

In the early 90’s, I turned my back on a successful banking career to go to business school and become a work+life strategy consultant.  This was before most people had even heard of telework or flexible hours.  Yet I walked the halls of Columbia Business School in 1993 confidently stating this seemingly crazy goal.

Many, many people thought (and said) I was nuts.  Armed with incomplete information, intuition and support from key people, I did achieve my goal…and more!   But it would have been much easier if someone had charted the course for me.  Now someone has.

In his new book, Uncertainty, creation, marketing and innovation expert, Jonathan Fields, lays out the path that everyone can follow, and not a moment too soon.  The level of ambiguity that pervades our lives and work seems to increase daily.  Uncertainty breaks down the steps of how not only to survive but thrive, personally and professionally, in a world where the unknown is the new normal.

Recently, I spoke with Fields about his important, timely new book Uncertainty.  It’s the guide that I wish I had when I jumped, feet first, into the abyss of ambiguity.

Cali Yost:  Jonathan, let’s get started with why it’s so important to embrace uncertainty today?

Jonathan Fields: We live in a world where uncertainty is now the rule.  It’s all around us.  Either we learn to live with it or we suffer.

Nothing unique is created if you wait to have perfect information.  Great art, new and innovative ideas all happen in the face of uncertainty.  If you wait to get all of the information before moving forward then you aren’t creating.  You are just repeating because someone else has done it before.

Cali Yost: According to the research throughout the book, we avoid uncertainty even at our own expense.  I loved how you reframed the two aspects of uncertainty that trip us up most often—Fear and Butterflies.  Can you talk about Alchemy of Fear and Riding the Butterflies?

Jonathan Fields: Research shows that when we experience uncertainty the parts of our brain related to fear and anxiety light up.  Often we experience it as the sensation of having butterflies.  But butterflies are not comfortable.  In fact, we want to hunt and kill the butterflies!  We back away from where we’re trying to go and shut down.  But instead, as I discuss in the book, we need to harness and ride those butterflies toward our goal.

In terms of fear, you need to train your mindset to succeed in the face of that fear in the same way you would pursue mastery in a particular field.  It’s what I call the Alchemy of Fear.  You do this by focusing on four key areas that I describe in the book:

  1. Workflow optimization, through single tasking, etc.
  2. Personal practice, like exercise and Attentional Training
  3. Environmental and culture change, by creating “hives” and judgment leveling opportunities
  4. Outlook optimization or behavior, by reframing and growth.

(Click here to learn more about how to get one of Marty Whitmore’s limited edition Ride the Butterflies or Alchemy of Fear illustrations commissioned by Jonathan Fields for FREE)

Cali Yost:  I’m glad you mentioned judgment leveling opportunities.  I realized as I read your book, that you gave me the gift of a judgment leveling opportunity a few months ago when we had lunch.  You patiently answered all of my most basic, potentially embarrassing questions about marketing.   By allowing me to test ideas and clarify my base knowledge, you gave me a foundation from which to take what I learned to the next level, and then the next.  How can others create judgment leveling opportunities for themselves?

Jonathan Fields: Judgment is important because you want and need the data to guide your mission.  What you don’t want is the emotion that too often goes along with the data.  That’s what causes people to stop experimenting.

You can either join an existing group or create the environment yourself that gives feedback without the shutting people down.  The good news is that today you can even do this online.  There a many stories and examples in the book but here are a few things to look for:  (Click here for more)

(This post originally appeared in FastCompany.com)