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
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
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
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
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.
*Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership