How to Advance Your Goals Through Uncertainty and Doubt
Transform reactivity into creativity via curiosity, intention and wonder.
Posted Nov 23, 2020
In these uncertain times, it’s only natural to feel unmoored. Among political strife, social upheaval, economic instability, and widespread health concerns, there are a lot of unknowns in our futures.
Unfortunately, much of the human brain is not comfortable with uncertainty. When the facade of life’s predictability crumbles and our illusion of control collapses, anxiety creeps in. Fear and doubt can take over like obnoxious house guests whom, after a few years, we’ve unintentionally allowed to move in for the long haul.
Granted, there’s good fear and good stress that propels us to our creative edge. But more often than not, fear and doubt hold us back from making headway on our creative endeavors. Our lizard brains become too preoccupied with catastrophizing, while our bodies are worn down by the chronic stress of a sustained “fight-or-flight” response.
Crises destabilize us. But they also strip away our illusion of control and our complacency in order to reveal new paths and creative insights. Rather than flee from the uncertainty that crises create, what if we could take advantage of this opportunity to challenge our assumptions about the world and about ourselves? What if, instead of catastrophizing, we could train our brains to imagineer novel solutions?
Fortunately, research has shown that we can train ourselves to respond to crises and challenges with greater openness, flexibility, and fluency so that we can advance our creative work and find innovative solutions to the unprecedented challenges we face.
Here are four tactics I’ve been practicing and sharing with students, audiences, and clients:
1. Adopt a Questing Mindset.
You can’t always change your circumstances, but you can change your mindset. Changing your mindset doesn’t mean that you’ll suddenly wake up loving life and the new challenges you face, but it will help you to adjust your perspective and place agency in your own hands so you have the keys to thrive.
The Questing Mindset begins with a quest. A quest, by definition, involves seeking and being curious. If you’re seeking, you’re curious and open to pursuing your own obsessions and projects, one day at a time. You’re embarking on a path of purpose defined in part by your own initiative. A quest awakens a desire for meaning, for mastery. It also awakens your own agency instead of passivity. A quest requires you to step out into the unknown. To face uncertainty. To tackle challenges rather than shy away from them.
As you begin problem-tracking, not problem-fleeing, you begin to shift your attitude. Instead of facing each problem and hurdle with frustration or anger or disconnect, the Tracking Wonder mindset will help you push yourself to adjust, to problem-solve, to overcome.
2. Turn reactivity into creativity.
When deeply confused or paralyzingly uncertain, you want to glimpse the big picture. But reactivity and negative emotions constrict thinking and narrow perception. Creativity can be a powerful asset for working through fear and uncertainty because it encourages an exploratory and curious mindset rather than a reactionary one. It is especially important in times of crisis because creativity allows us to adapt to and survive momentous change.
So, how can we switch from fear to wonder, from reactivity to creativity in confusing times?
Try to monitor your daily reactivity meter. Notice what daily occurrences – whether it’s a slow driver or a disheartening email – push the needle into the red. Note what makes you trigger-happy (or trigger-miserable). By observing the mind’s often visceral reactions, you can witness and thereby choose to mitigate the reactive loop.
Next, assume creative agency and direct the current of your life towards your idea of fulfillment. As executive coach Paul Napper and cognitive-behavioral therapist Anthony Rao describe in their latest book – The Power of Agency – we all have different areas of our lives where we exert more or less agency. For example, some people are better at controlling the distracting or distressing stimuli in their environments while others are more self-aware and as such are better able to identify strong emotions and beliefs that might misguide them.
Once you define the areas where you can assume more control and actualize your own happiness, you can better track your reactivity and transform it into creative solutions. In a chaotic world that makes learned helplessness an easy default choice, assuming agency can also be a creative, deliberate choice to stand up for your ideas and ideals, rather than shut down.
3. Set a focus intention.
I asked the remarkably imaginative and skilled fiction writer Charles Baxter how he got through writing the novel that raised the most self-doubt, Shadow Play.
“I just focused on the sentence. I just focused on writing really good sentences.”
Baxter took out the context. You too can remove the self-absorbed context of your creative work and make real progress by setting a focus intention.
A focus intention is a simple but effective tool to anchor the mind with its time-specific task. You don’t sit down to write a book. You sit down to write a page. You sit down to write into a scene. You sit down to write sentences. You can focus your mind on such a limited task by using clear, concrete internal language, “For the next hour, I am making three sketches for this client’s design project.” “For the next hour, I am sketching the rough topic outline for my five-day workshop.
Behind the worry is wonder. Remember that. Forget the rest.
4. Infuse your work with more wonder.
Too often, our “breaks” from work are just other types of “work” in disguise or brain-draining distractions that leave us more depleted than when we started. Instead of defaulting to social media or mindless email sorting on your breaks, design your breaks with intention, and disrupt your work with wonder interventions.
Wonder interventions are practices that can momentarily dissolve habitual patterns of perception, open your mind with surprising delight, and train you to glean fresh insights to daily, spiritual, and creative challenges. Wonder interventions can clear the mental debris that often makes us immune to change and wary of the unknown. And we know that the unknown is the province of true wonder and enchanting creativity. Take walks around your neighborhood or in a nearby wood. Virtually volunteer to help your community. Engage in meaningful conversations with the people you are sheltered with, or schedule regular video calls with colleagues, friends, and family to increase your other-focus and expand your awareness of the world during this insular time.
Actively pursue elevating activities that bring you joy, stoke your creativity, and prompt your appreciation and gratitude. This, in turn, will help encourage creative problem solving, novel ideas, and exploratory thinking.
Amabile, T., FG. Ashby, A., PA. Bachelor, W., SA. Chermahini, M., Cropley, A., Davis, G., . . . Yamamoto, K. (1983, January 01). Enhancement of Creative Thinking Skills Using a Cognitive-Based Creativity Training. Retrieved November 20, 2020, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s41465-016-0002-3