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Big Ideas

Uncertainty, Innovation, and the Alchemy of Fear

Great creative inventions don't come from betting on a "sure thing." They come from facing our fears and working with uncertainty. Here's how to train up.

The ability to live in the question long enough for genius to emerge is a touchstone of creative success. In fact, a 2008 study published in the Journal of Creative Behavior revealed tolerance for ambiguity to be “significantly and positively related” to creativity.

Explaining the results, lead researcher, Franck Zenasni, argued tolerance for ambiguity “enables individuals to not be satisfied by partial or non-optimal solutions to complex problems. People who tolerate ambiguity may be able to work effectively on a larger set of stimuli or situations, including ambiguous ones, whereas intolerant individuals will avoid or quickly stop treating such information.”

Problem is, with rare exception, when faced with the need to live in the question, most people, creators included, experience anything from unease to abject fear and paralyzing anxiety. And there’s a neuroscience basis. According to fMRI studies, acting in the face of uncertainty lights up a part of the brain known as the amygdala, which is a primary seat of fear and anxiety. That sends a surge of chemicals through our bodies that makes us want to run.

So, what do you do if you’ve been put upon the planet with an insatiable jones to create, but not the ability to handle the potential angst that goes along with leaning into the unknown?

I spent the last few years interviewing everyone from Mullen Chief Innovation Officer, Edward Boches, to The War of Art author, Steve Pressfield, and devouring reams of research that spanned neuroscience to decision-making theory in a quest to find out. What emerged surprised even me.

There may, in fact, be a very thin slice of creators who arrive on the planet more able to go to and even seek out that uncertainty-washed place that destroys so many others. But, for a far greater number of high-level creators, across all fields, the ability to be okay and even invite uncertainty in the name of creating bigger, better, cooler things is trained. Sometimes with great intention, other times without even realizing it.

And what surprised me even more was that so many creators, field-wide, work in a way that is in direct contradiction to the way your brain functions best. Not because it works for them, often it doesn’t, but because “that’s just the way it’s always been done.”

It’s possible to effectively build “uncertainty scaffolding,” practices that allow you to do what you do (a) without ending up a psychotic mess, and (b) giving you access to an often untapped reservoir of creativity.

This uncertainty scaffolding tends to fall into three different areas:

  • Workflow adaptations
  • Personal practices
  • Environmental/cultural shifts

Here are five examples to get you started:

1. Single-Task.

The part of the brain that helps keep fear and anxiety in check — the prefrontal cortex, or PFC — is also tasked with managing working memory. Problem is, it’s easily overloaded. Doing too many things as once lessens its ability to keep the discomfort that tags along with moving into uncertainty at bay and makes you more likely to shut down. Only by rejecting multitasking and focusing on a single task at a time can you harness your full brainpower for optimal performance.

2. Exercise Your Brain.

Meditation and exercise have well-documented mood-enhancing, stress-management, and disease-prevention effects. What you may not know, though, is that they also have a profound impact on creativity, decision-making, and problem-solving. Recent research even shows certain approaches increase brain mass, something that’s always been thought impossible.

Also, these two daily practices bolster your ability to go to that edgy place where the good stuff happens and stay there long enough for next-level innovation to emerge. Together, they combine to create the single most powerful mindset, creativity, and innovation force multiplier on the planet.

But not all forms are equal. High-intensity, cardiovascular training, for example, has a greater effect on the brain than moderate level activity. And mindfulness training has the added benefit of training creators in the art of observing, then dropping storylines, which creates the space for more empowering patterns of thought to emerge.

3. Reframe.

Reframing is the process of asking questions that allow you to change the storyline around a particular set of circumstances. We often become so close to a project, we lose objectivity about its viability and start to tell ourselves stories that not only stifle action, but stunt creativity. Reframing is a process that allows you to see an identical circumstance in a way that motivates action and fuels creativity. And, as noted above, one of the most effective tools to build the awareness needed to pull back and reframe is a daily mindfulness practice.

4. Pulse and Pause.

Though we often tend to work in 2-4 hour chunks of seemingly uninterrupted time, our brains are really only equipped to productively focus for a max of about 90-minutes. Beyond that window, we may feel like we’re cranking, but in reality our attention, creativity, and cognitive function decline rapidly. So, rather than push through and watch your frustration levels skyrocket while the quality of your output craters, rework your day into intense, 90-minute bursts with refueling periods in between.

5. Drop Certainty Anchors

Certainty anchors are repeated daily experiences where the decision-making aspect has been removed. They can be as simple as eating the same thing for breakfast every day, wearing only black t-shirts, or walking to work the same way. The key is removing the decision-making element from the experience and, in doing so, turning these moments into repeated occasions where you know in advance that you’ll be able to drop out of the creative ether and land on firm ground.


These five are a sampling of strategies and practices that can make a tremendous difference in the way you experience your time leaning into the unknown.Explore them, then watch what happens to your ability to create better things faster and improve your mindset along the way.

What Do You Think?

What strategies do you use to deal with uncertainty?

More Posts by Jonathan Fields

Comments (49)
  • Grant Wragg

    Steven Pressfield didn’t write The Art of War.  I do recommend his The War of Art, excellent,

  • Noel Ferron

    I like your article, it light my desire to acquire your book. I am currently practicing the path proposed by the “Mind Master Map”, an App on my iPad, which invites you to practice living with uncertainty in order to change your habits and patterns of running away your fears…
    There are similarities with your views.
    Best regards.

  • Thomas V DiSilvio

    This has been extremely helpful.
    I have resisted “Certainty Anchors” because i thought it made me uncreative to have that structure. However i have noticed the brain has other plans. One example is always starting the razor in the same spot on my face!
    thank you 

  • Jonathan Fields

    Thomas – I had a similar conversation with a lot of highly-creative people, while researching the book. One of the things I found was that often times people would end up dropping certainty anchors and ritualizing not so much around the work itself, but around many other more “mundane” parts of their lives. Joe Fig’s great book about the lives and routines of many famous painters revealed a similar pattern. Best advice – try it.

  • Deskthoughts On...

    Fear was stopping my brain from working many times in the past. The first thing to cope with it was actually realizing that it was fear/stress. I did a little research what to do with and the best way to get free from that was to take it off brain: do breaks while working, thinking “on the paper” and focus on one task. It seemed so simple, but in fact I realized I barely followed it. Now these are my habits and serve me well (however, I still catch myself on “avoiding” these little helpers…)

  • Billy

    This is very interesting.I wonder how many creative people on the level of Creative Director or the like find that they are doing these activities naturally? For me it was about confidence and goal setting to help me along the way. I know several very creative artists who fall into this same rut and don’t even realize it. They end up blaming the job or their boss without realizing it could be their lack of actually being creatively productive.

  • jkglei

    Thanks for the proofing note, Grant. The title of Pressfield’s book is now fixed.

  • Lissette

    Mr. Fields, I just recently finished reading your book. It’s by far the most helpful book I’ve read in a long time. I’d felt that taking care of myself (ie, taking breaks, exercising, etc) and ‘getting things done’ were opposed. It always felt like I had to choose one. Your book finally made see that taking care of myself leads to living and creating and getting things done at the highest quality, and gave great tip on how to do it. Telling all my creative friends about it. And glad to see you on the 99%.

  • Pourquoi

    A thoughtful view that really resonated. I have many creative friends who struggle with anxiety and stress – and don’t link it to the fact that they don’t meditate, exercise regularly or eat properly. Having observed high-performing executives over many years, I’ve been impressed by their commitment to physical and emotional health. Why should creative work be any different? To focus – to create that clear space for insight – requires discipline and commitment regardless of the field you’re in.  

  • Jonathan Fields

    Funny thing is, I’ve known and interviewed a fair number of people in creative fields who feel they “must” be in a somewhat bad place to experience the emotions needed to create the really good stuff. They confuse fully engaging in life with being in a state of physical and emotional decay, not realizing those very states may give you grist for your creative mill, but they also lead to dramatic drops in creativity and productivity. it’s okay to experience life’s ups and downs fully, it’s not okay to stay down because you feel bound by some ethos that tells you “that’s where great work happens.”

  • Matthew

    Another commendable article. Thanks for getting inside my head and telling me how it works!

  • JoeRayCr8iv

    Good take on creative thinkers and problem solvers. What works for some may not work for others, the point is to keep moving, keep growing (plus it keeps the cobwebs off your head), and experiment. If something works for you, go with it. If it doesn’t, you’re not wed to it.

  • Davidgravelives

    Thank you.  I never called them Certainty anchors, but I have worn only plain navy blue or grey t shirts and the same kind of pants and shoes for a few years now.  It’s hard to pull back out of that creative Hellfire sometimes.  It definitely takes it’s toll if you don’t pull out in time.

  • Debra Cazalet

    Maybe this will make sense to you – my black moments are when I write best, my energetic highs are when I like to paint… I think you can change your creative output to suit your mood.  Reading through the  5 points, I do 4 of them already. I work off of my instincts and what they dictate equals 4 of the points above. The single task thing I need to work on though. Thanks for an interesting and affirming read

  • Debra Cazalet

    LOL my whole life was about resisting certainty anchors, which was an experience for a while, but I realised I wasn’t ever settled enough to create from all that experience! So now I allow routine’s to enter my life (eating the same food throughout the day and wearing only certain colours, etc.) and keep the spontaneity for my work only… it seems to be working!

  • Nate Salciccioli

     Thanks for the great article. I’m just starting my own business, and it’s always helpful to hear best practices like this, especially from people in the creative industry.

  • Mel Gordon

    I’ve started blocking out 90 min increments in my calendar and forcing myself to take breaks. And by taking a break, I mean getting up from my desk and maybe walking around the block. 

  • Ben Wilkinson

    is it me or is this article the exact opposite of this other 99% article

    which i just opened from the same email newsletter………

  • Ben Wilkinson

    apart from the 90 min thing, thats good advice

  • jasonsack

    Two insanely great creative thinkers come to mind immediately. Both reclaimed some of these decision-making moments by wearing the same thing everyday; Albert Einstein wore the same black suit every day, and Steve Jobs wears his black mock turtleneck and jeans. Tells you something about where their focus is. Also makes it harder to understand why a lot of creative professionals spend so much time and money on expressing themselves through the clothes wear. Why not put that energy towards solving design problems and understanding the universe around you?

  • jkglei

    Hi Ben. I don’t think it’s the opposite. I think they share some sentiments in fact. But I don’t think some overlap on 99% articles is an issue, bc it’s often HOW a point gets articulated that makes advice resonate with people or not. 

  • Cosmic_Hawke

    You’re sort of on the right track, you just need to realize that not everyone is equal and that some people are better suited to being innovative than others. Only a hand full of people are badass enough to be innovative.

  • Danielle A

    I actually think they touch on a lot of the same points… single-task (multi-tasking is harmful to productivity and creativity), use willpower less and instinct more (like not using your creative mind for rituals such as attire and breakfast, but only when you really need it… same with willpower), work in sprints (90-minute spiel), and Health (food, sleep, exercise…).  I found the two very closely related.  And it makes sense that creativity and productivity are stimulated by the same forces. 

  • Trevor

    I live in Zimbabwe – a society characterized by fear and anxiety. I m trying to launch a new project and my fears about financial and creative capacities have indeed paralyzed me in the last few months. Go to the stage where I wondered if I was the main impediment to progress on it and should get out of the way! This article has lifted my spirits enormously and given me some understanding of why indeed I think certainty is the enemy of progress and creativity!

  • Robert Mayers

    Why “apart from the 90 minute thing”?

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