Blame the amygdala, but then lean into uncertainty

“Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one.” – Voltaire

Maximize Your PotentialI’m a big fan of 99u, Behance’s website and rich content offerings that help empower creatives to make our ideas happen. I just finished the second book, Maximize Your Potential, in their three-part series on making ideas happen. I was again impressed with the quality of writing and advice in this book of essays. The book is organized into four sections:

  • Creating opportunities
  • Building expertise
  • Cultivating relationships
  • Taking risks

Today I want to focus on taking risks. I’ve never been shy to take risks and embrace failure; my career and personal life are full of those examples, and I’ve even left roles where I was not allowed to be an active change agent. I’ve been struggling with a subset of taking risks: uncertainty. Ever since my employer announced a major acquisition (the largest in tech history), I’ve been quite uncomfortable with the uncertainty and ambiguity such an endeavor creates. This has manifested itself as fear: fear that my team’s work won’t live on in the new organization, fear that my role (which I love) will change or be eliminated, fear that I won’t make the right decisions for my career and family during this intense period of flux.

I’ve been in high-tech marketing and sales for 20 years, so why, after so many years of living with constant uncertainty and ambiguity, am I filled with such anxiety now? While this is a “go big or go home” type of uncertainty, it’s really not that different from other scenarios I’ve successfully lived through. I have felt the same three fears I describe above many times in my career, so why am I not used to it by now?

Maximize Your Potential and the much-needed respite provided by the holidays have helped me figure this out. Psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson call this anxious state “impact bias”:

“…people consistently overestimate the negative impact of such events. And since we expect such failures to be more painful and drawn out than they actually are, we fear them more than we should.”

In the past, this has turned out to be true. Acquisitions, mergers, and reorgs were not as painful or drawn out as they were feared to be in the beginning. Essayist Michael Schwalbe affirms that humans underestimate our resilience and ability to find silver linings, rationalize actions, and find meaning in setbacks. We also find it hard to imagine the pleasure we will get from our next venture and other daily activities when we are in the throes of fear.

Essayist Jonathan Fields confirms I’m not alone. He says that most people are wired to have a low tolerance for uncertainty, and he describes what happens to us physically: We experience it as pain, fear, anxiety, and doubt. The primal fear center in the brain, the amygdala, lights up when we are faced with the need to coexist or act in the face of great uncertainty, sending chemicals through our body that make us physically and emotionally uncomfortable and fatigued. Yup, that pretty much describes me.

What does Maximize Your Potential advise? Lean into the uncertainty. It’s the only way to keep creating great work. Anxiety and inertia are the enemies of creation.

  1. Understand the psychology of the process so you can be more mindful. There are powerful chemicals at work and knowing this can help you move from inertia to action at a pace right for you.
  2. Reframe uncertainty as possibility. Fields writes, “Nothing truly innovative, nothing that has advanced art, business, design, or humanity, was ever created in the face of genuine certainty or perfect information. Because the only way to be certain before you begin is if the thing you seek to do has already been done. In which case, you’re no longer creating, you’re replicating. And that’s not why we’re here.”
  3. There is no formula that tells you how to move along the uncertainty curve. What’s more important, Fields says, is that you clearly define the resources and constraints; cultivate the mindset, workflow, environment, and lifestyle needed to fuel action; then act, and elevate learning as a core metric.

My anxiety has greatly lessened as I recall and appreciate how quickly I adapted in the past to these types of situations and how I have the power to make the outcome of any decisions a success. How have you dealt with the anxiety, fear, and doubt that organizational uncertainty and ambiguity can cause? I would love to hear from you in the comments.



4 thoughts on “Blame the amygdala, but then lean into uncertainty

Add yours

  1. As always Teresa, a wonderful, insightful and useful blog. I can relate as I am entering the same organizational flux (and it is related to your company). I wasn’t lying when I said that yours is the only blog that I read and I can see how much time you put into it. Don’t think it’s wasted. We WILL get together next month 🙂 Vanessa


  2. When any event or anticipated event rains down anxiety or fear or doubt I counter by formulating a plan to cope with the event. It doesn’t even have to be a good plan! Just a plan to remind me that there is a way to overcome the event, should it happen. The anxiety is reduced, the fear goes away and the doubt no longer exists. A plan works for me and I hope it will for you too. Carry on… ~jack


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