Awake at the Wheel

Exploring the intersection between work, play, and the creative process.

Playing With Fire

Success in business and life is largely about your relationship to fire.

Success in business and life is largely about your relationship to fire.

At some point in every career, relationship, venture, quest, you will find yourself walking into the fire. A place of deep discomfort and uncertainty. Joseph Campbell’s famed abyss.

You’ll be working like crazy, putting everything you have into making it succeed…and looking for signs. Please, God, tell me whether this is for real or it’s a fantasy.

Is this the fire that steels, or the fire that burns?

Is it worth the [insert synonym for your handpicked version of hell] I’m going through, or is that perpetual feeling in the pit of my stomach telling me to fold?

Inevitably answers come. Bits of data. Some hard and verifiable, but more often soft. Those intuitive hits, visceral responses to people, actions, circumstances and scenarios.

Sometimes, they’re clear as day. Most times not.

What are they telling me? Hold or fold?

I’ve asked some of the smartest, most accomplished people in the world how to discern the difference. And never left with a satisfactory answer. The closest I’ve gotten is “you just know.” Which is sometimes true. Sometimes not.

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No doubt, my mindfulness practice has made it a lot easier to see through the haze of the inevitable fire every creator must embrace. To tune into what the world, my intuition and the data are telling me. But the smoke doesn’t always clear enough to see what’s on the other side.

Maybe, there’s no simple test because anything resembling the truth isn’t pat. It’s not simple. Those moments and the quests that give rise to them are laced with dynamism and complexity. And, so must be the answer.

I actually explored this question in some detail in my last book, Uncertainty, and recently revisited my own thoughts on the issue (I know, I’m weird like that) as I wade deeper into a new fire of my own creation.

So, I thought I’d share the excerpt here with permission from the author, of course. It’s a bit long, but I’ve been getting a lot of questions about, well, these questions lately. I figure it’ll help to share the fuller conversation below:

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Moments like this happen all the time in every creative process, when we ask some variation of the following:

  • Is this project, idea, or quest still worth pursuing? Do I need to either shut it down or go about it in a radically different way?
  • Is what I’m feeling just resistance, the lizard brain, anxiety, and fear that needs to be leaned into, or is it the accumulation of enough experience and data to tell me the smart move is to move on?

…We start by asking, “What was your inciting motivation?” What made you undertake this endeavor to begin with. Was it, in some form, the expression of a calling? Was it something to keep you busy? Was it about serving a group of people, solving a problem, or serving up a delight? Was it about money or doing anything you could to get your parents off your back and avoid grad school? Begin by going back to the time surrounding your decision to create whatever it is you’re creating and answer this question. Then move on to the next question.

In light of the information and experiences you’ve had along the journey to date, does that original motive still hold true? Are you still equally or even more determined to make it happen? And given what you now know, do you believe you can make it happen?

In his book Getting to Plan B, Randy Komisar suggests setting up what he calls a dashboard. You create a grid that identifies all of your major data points, assumptions, and leaps of faith on day one, then revisit it at regular intervals to assess what remains valid. Komisar’s system helps identify at a sooner point when your initial plan may be starting to go off the rails and gives you an objective set of data to help decide what your next move should be. For entrepreneurs, especially in start-up phases, it’s a great tool to help answer the big questions and decide whether, as more data comes in, to hold, change your hand, or fold.

But I’ve also found that these decisions can’t be made entirely on data. It’s also important, especially for solo creators and bootstrap entrepreneurs, to add a more subjective exploration to the process—one that dives deeper into whether, data aside, there are other reasons to consider soldiering on, adapting, or jumping ship.

The following additional questions will help you go one level deeper and will prompt you to explore what’s really happening in these critical moments. They’ll help you understand, on a level that adds clarity to the decision, whether you’re reacting to an inability to handle fear and uncertainty or to real data and constructive intuition that’s telling you to stop.

  • Is this something you can’t not do, regardless of whether you ever earn enough to live well in the world doing it?
  • Are you more connected to the medium and your solution or your desire to serve a market?
  • If you believe in your heart that what you set out to accomplish is highly likely to happen in the full glory you first imagined, would you still want that result?
  • Would the data or feedback you’ve gathered to date require you to change the endeavor in such a substantial way that, while it may be more likely to succeed, the final creation, process, or career will no longer satisfy the needs and desires that drew you into the quest to start with?

That last question is big, especially for entrepreneurs. It’s not unusual to begin an endeavor with a strong sense of what you’d like to offer and who you’d like to serve, only to have your market eventually tell you that you’ve missed the mark. For many entrepreneurs and creators, that’s not a death knell. Its just a signpost that it’s time to pivot the model, the solution, or even the culture and vision.

Behance CEO Scott Belsky’s Action Method products are designed to help make creative professionals more productive. They work exceptionally well. If any given product they bring to market bombs, it’ll hurt, but it’s not game over. The entrepreneur just needs to figure out how to better serve the market with the next round of solutions. Belsky’s vision is not to create the current line of Action Method products, but rather to create tools and processes that make creatives more productive. What those look like will change over time. And that allegiance to a market, rather than a specific product, gives him a lot of leeway to continue to test, build, bomb, and evolve.

All too often, that’s not how start-ups or even established product-development teams operate. They are wedded more to their particular solution than to the notion of serving a market. When they start to have problems with that product, ones that aren’t fixable with easy tweaks, they have a very difficult time moving through these moments.

Without a willingness to pivot your solution and model, the endeavor is likely to come to an end. One of the big lessons for entrepreneurs and solution-development teams is to think very seriously about the inciting motivation for their endeavors. Is the vision connected to a single product or the desire to serve a market? The latter is far more likely to set in motion a quest that is sustainable, especially if the market evolves over time. Which sends us squarely back to that final question: Even if you could adapt and move forward, should you?

It’s one thing to evolve your quest in response to new data in an effort to create something that’s better aligned with what your market needs and wants. But it’s also important, at that moment, to ask whether that pivot will so substantially change the nature of the endeavor that it makes you no longer as intimately connected with it.

If evolving to meet your market means stripping away the things that drew you to the quest in the first place, you’ll end up on track to create something everyone else loves . . . except you. And that will eventually cannibalize your soul. You’ll end up hating what you do every day and looking for ways to get out, even if what you’ve created appears to be outwardly successful.

This happens all the time, in business and in art. Many actors are drawn to the craft because of the opportunity to tell stories, illuminate the human condition, and stir souls. But somewhere along the line, compelling stories and gravitas give way to a stable, yet incrementally less-fulfilling reputation as the perfect actor for consumer goods commercials. The market is telling you, “That’s where we want you,” so because you have bills to pay, that’s what you do. You’ve found a way to make the business of acting work, but the way you’re doing it is gutting you. You’re outwardly successful in your chosen field, but inwardly empty.

You have a choice to make: You can either keep doing what you were called to do, but in a way that no longer honors the call and fills you up. You can work like crazy to redefine the box you’ve built and potentially try all manner of unconventional approaches to making what you want to do work. Or you can surrender to the notion that to act in the roles that honor your calling, you’ll have to spend the better part of your life earning the bulk of your living some other way and be okay with that.

These are all tough decisions. These questions can be incredibly helpful in sussing out whether what you’re feeling is just fear and uncertainty or a failure of your initial assumptions that will require you to either change how you’re pursuing your quest or end it.

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So, now I’m curious. What about you?

How do YOU figure out whether the fires you walk through forge or burn?

What tools or questions do you rely on?

Are you in the fire…NOW? If so, what’s going on?

With gratitude,

Jonathan

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Jonathan Fields is a serial-entrepreneur, business strategist, speaker and author. His latest book is Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt Into Fuel For Brilliance. Fields writes about performance-mindset, innovation, leading and entrepreneurship at JonathanFields.com

Jonathan Fields is an attorney turned lifestyle-entrepreneur, speaker, and author of Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt Into Fuel For Brilliance.

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