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Adjusting Your Mindset When Facing the Unknown

Turn your fears into possibilities by changing your mindset.

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Investor and entrepreneur Ray Dalio has been ranked one of the most influential people in the world (Time) and one of the wealthiest in the world (Forbes). Surely such a person has built his fortune and philosophy of life and of innovation on a foundation of certitude. He must be someone who knows a lot and builds his success on that knowledge. Right?

“Whatever success I’ve had in my life,” he writes, “has had more to do with my knowing how to deal with my not knowing than anything I know.” Imagine fostering a comfort with not knowing how your great vision or endeavor will work out.

If the 20th century prepared us to come into a meeting with certitude and confidence that we’re the most knowledgeable person in the room, the 21st century is teaching us the art of moving forward in the face of not knowing.

I call that art “fertile confusion.” John Keats called it “negative capability.” Keats, an English Romantic poet, believed that the secret to creative greatness stemmed from intuition and uncertainty, not reason and knowledge. He encouraged artists to pursue grand ideas that might lead them more into mystery and doubt about how they might pull off or resolve their artistic idea. Negative capability in our context means that when you are faced with not knowing how certain big ideas will turn out, you don’t readily jump to certainty. You don’t quickly try to find ready-made solutions. In fact, when faced with contradictory ideas and contradictory data that defies reasoning, you still are capable of staying in that “negative” state.

It seems simple, right? But how often do you come up with an innovation, a new project, or a new business idea, and then wonder what if —what if this fails? What if this doesn’t work? What if this isn’t as great as I believe it could be?

Launching a business, embarking on a creative endeavor, or leaving a job can leave you feeling stressed and defunct. In these pivotal moments of new beginnings, we are faced with utter uncertainty. How do we push ourselves past the discomfort? The easiest response is to retract, to return to a place of comfort, or to resort to the safest possible solution, but there’s a better way to not only tolerate but to actually navigate through uncertainty, as you make complex decisions . How? Start with introspection.

Identifying Your Response to Stress

It’s often in times of change that you have the greatest opportunity to grow, but being on the brink of success—or failure—can escalate the pressure, especially when you don’t know what you’re doing or where exactly you’re headed.

Stress or fear of the unknown can impact your mental and physical well-being, so much so that you become sleep-deprived, anxious, and emotional . As a creator, business owner, entrepreneur, or leader, you are continuously making advancements and choices, which likely means you’re confronting stress and uncertainty on daily, especially in the early stages of your project or business.

Consider your emotional and physical responses to stressful situations. For instance, when you were in school and in the middle of finals, under what circumstances did you produce your best work? Did you try and pull all-nighters , only to realize how damaging they were on your mind and body? Did you get angry? Did you retreat into yourself or did you reach out to others for help?

In business, as in life, you are constantly faced with the uncertainty of the future so you must learn to focus on your behaviors, your habits, and your emotional and physical responses. Only when you know them can you begin to change them.

Changing Your Mindset

Changing your perspective on fear, uncertainty, and stress can help you change your response and ultimately propel you through times of potential failure. Dr. Carol Dweck, one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of motivation and the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success , has spent decades studying achievement and success to understand why some people thrive in the face of obstacles and why others retreat.

In her studies, she has found that people with a growth mindset are more successful than those with a fixed mindset . A fixed mindset is believing your attributes and abilities are fixed (and unable to be changed), whereas a growth mindset is believing that your attributes and abilities are flexible and can be easily changed.

When faced with uncertainty and the potential of failure, keep in mind: you choose your response . Regardless of whether your idea, endeavor, or business succeeds or fails, you are the one choosing to give up or to grow from the experience, even before it begins. In a Harvard Business Review article , Dweck explains that having a growth mindset, as an individual and a business, encourages appropriate risk-taking. It also helps you better understand yourself and where you’re headed (regardless of whether you know the outcome of a decision or not).

Engaging in Productive Questioning

Failure happens. It happens to CEOs and billionaires and best-selling authors and Fortune 500 companies, but failure doesn’t predict success. A project may fail, but a business may thrive. A business may fail, but a business owner may thrive. Rather than fearing the “what ifs,” consider the possibilities of what might happen, no matter if it’s good or bad.

Ask yourself the deeper questions:

  • What if I bring my idea to fruition?
  • What makes this idea unique, long-lasting, impactful?
  • Why not follow through with this idea or project or business?
  • How will I handle the stress of the unknown?
  • What if this idea or project or business succeeds?
  • What if this idea or project or business fails?
  • What other options do you have, should this idea plan not work?
  • How will you succeed in spite of failure?

Reverse the negative thoughts. Reverse your fears. Turn your fears, instead, into possibilities. Being in a state of uncertainty is advantageous, if you choose to face the unknown head-on, but understand that failure may happen and that’s okay. The key to embarking on the journey is to adjust your mindset, learn effective stress-reducing strategies, and ask more productive questions, as you prepare to bring your vision, your idea, or your business to fruition.