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Art and entrepreneurship

Feb 26 2012 10:50 *Ian Mann

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Uncertainty: Filling fear and doubt into fuel for brilliance by Jonathan Field

WHAT most courses on entrepreneurship miss is the similarity between the entrepreneurial endeavour and the process of creating art. In both cases there is an inner struggle going on that all too often has the would-be creator abandoning the endeavour.

The author Jonathan Fields, himself a serial entrepreneur, writer, painter and musician, surfaces this creative challenge and provides some practical advice on how to respond.

The similarity between the act of entrepreneurship and the act of creative writing or painting lies in the reality that visionary innovation and creativity cannot happen with every variable, every outcome, every permutation known, tested and validated in advance.

If everything is known and certain, it is because it has been done before. Creativity is not about repetition. Creativity always starts with a question, not an answer.

The problem this causes is best encapsulated in the experiments known as the Ellsberg Paradox. Asked to draw a white ball from one of two urns, where one urn has an equal number of each colour and where the other has an unknown ratio, people opt for the urn with the known colour split.

Mathematically and logically, there is no reason to choose the 50-50 urn over the other, so why do we do it? Magnetic resonance imaging studies of subjects undergoing the Ellsburg Paradox trials showed that the aversion to uncertainty is hardwired into most people and the one urn, erroneously, appears more certain.

Additionally, the more you move into uncertainty and the greater the risk you take to create something that doesn't currently exist, the greater the potential to be judged and criticised. In studies that eliminated possibility of evaluation by others, the uncertainty aversion disappears entirely.

When a set of great works of art by 23 painters was studied by experts those that were commissioned, in other words would be criticised by others from the beginning, were judged inferior to those that were not commissioned.

Uncertainty attached to the risk of loss and attached to criticism leads to inferior creative work at best, or abandonment at worst. It is as true in the creative act of building a new business as it is in painting or composing a piece of music.  

With our natural tendency to eliminate things that cause us pain and discomfort, Fields recommends a set of practices that will make it easier to lean into uncertainty, to actively pursue uncertainty, where valuable creativity resides. A 2008 study led by Professor Franck Zenasni revealed a tolerance for ambiguity significantly and positively correlates to creativity.

Rock climbers talk of the "crux move", the hardest move on a route. In the creative process this is the negative feedback that is so necessary to the production of a great result. Nothing new is ever linear, it always involves false steps that need correction, large corrections at first and then ever smaller ones until a great product emerges.

Each of these corrections is a crux move, a judgement on the creator's ability and the creative needs reframe this from "judgement" to "“necessary feedback".

A great boon to the entrepreneur is having context that facilitates creativity, what Fields calls a "hive" and ditto for artists. Many such incubators are springing up in South Africa as elsewhere, but they are also available in virtual form on the internet for those not fortunate to have access to the physical version.

Google produces the same effect internally. It doesn't allow, it expects employees to spend 20% of their time on projects that interest them.

Paul Buchheit, Google employee #23, worked on a programme to scan emails and serve up ads relevant to content – clearly a crazy idea, but one that grew into Google's biggest success. Innovation requires that people are able to work on ideas that are unapproved and generally thought to be stupid.

Like the medieval alchemist whose secrets could turn base metals into gold, creatives need to transform uncertainty, fear, and doubt into fuel for creation.

A technique Fields recommends is to have daily rituals which have the psychological effect of providing an anchor in the day amid the uncertainty. But daily rituals also help train you to sit down when what we most want to do is stand. Fields also recommends slipping away from work and doing things that calm mental chatter.

This is a useful book that parallels many similar works on the inner life of the creative artist. It is Fields' understanding of business that will make this book particularly appealing to entrepreneurs.

Readability:  Light --+-- Serious

Insights:     High -+--- Low

Practical:    High +---- Low

*Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy. 

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ian mann  |  book review
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