Tag Archives: 99u

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.



Four things I learned in an offsite with myself

I’m so glad that May is over. It was a month in which I lost control of my schedule and time to an unprecedented extent. I felt stuck in a “create-on-demand” twilight zone, reacting and responding to almost hourly urgent-but-not-important requests and attending last-minute meetings that hijacked my thinking and real work time. I had to work late nights on the project that really mattered, leaving me drained and resentful. Another month passed with no progress on a painting I had begun, a study of Rouault’s “Head of Christ”, a painting that is so full of passion and so moving that it requires the student be in that frame of mind also.

The constant heavy rain in Austin meant the Memorial Day holiday weekend would be spent indoors, so I had an offsite with myself to pause, take stock, and figure out how to make some improvements. I sought answers online and in conversations with friends. My questions were met with agreement and empathy, but everyone seemed resigned to feeling this is just the way life is now. Technology seemed to get most of the blame. Dissatisfied with the acceptance of the status quo, I kept searching and finally stumbled upon a website that claims to provide the “missing curriculum” for making ideas happen: 99u.com.  99u says they don’t want to give you more ideas – they want to empower you to make good on the ones you’ve got. I was intrigued: I have lots of ideas, but lately I haven’t been able to make them a reality, particularly in my art of oil painting, but also at work. I enjoyed reading the articles and watching the videos on the site, but the real breakthrough came when I downloaded Volume One of their three-part book series “Managing Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind.”

Manage Your Day-to-Day from 99u

I devoured the book on my Kindle app in just a few hours on Memorial Day, highlighting key passages and taking notes and making significant changes based on what I learned. The book is divided into four chapters and is comprised of essays from various creatives and thought leaders. I love this approach because it’s not a one-size-fits-all recommendation. It’s a playbook of best practices for producing great work and focusing on the things that are important to you.

The preface summarizes the dilemma so perfectly that I felt the 99u editor-in-chief Jocelyn K. Glei had been observing me: “Creative minds are exceedingly sensitive to the buzz and whir of the world around them, and we now have to contend with a constant stream of chirps, pings, and alerts at all hours of the day. As these urgent demands tug us this way and that, it becomes increasingly difficult to find a centered space for creativity.” She goes on to explain the organization of the book into four key skill sets that must be mastered to succeed in this new world:

  • Building a rock-solid routine
  • Finding focus in a distracted world
  • Taming your tools
  • Sharpening your creative mind

I highly recommend this book and cannot do it justice with a review, but I do want to share the advice that resonated with me and that I am trying to put into practice so that you may be inspired to pick it up, order it, or download it this week. I’ve chosen to highlight one key practice from each chapter listed above.

First and foremost, great work must happen before everything else. I continue to do morning pages very early in the morning to observe habits and thought processes. This five-year habit wasn’t affected by the May Madness – that’s how ingrained it has become. The big change is that I’ve blocked my calendar from 8:30-11:30 AM each day to get my most meaningful and important work done, leaving the reactive work (email, anyone?) and meetings for later. I hope I am able to respond to requests for meetings during those blocked times with a sincere, polite, and firm “I’m sorry, I’m booked at that time, but I could meet after 11:30.”

Second, turn off phone, apps, email, and other technology unrelated to the project or task. The only way to respect the first habit is to ensure that the distractions of the modern world don’t sabotage the time I’ve set aside to get real work done. It’s so much easier to answer an email or look at Twitter than it is to create something, so resisting the distractions by turning them off is something that I think will work for me. I admit that I might feel anxious if I don’t look at email for three hours, but I figure someone will call me if it is truly important.

Third, breathe. I learned a new term from one of the essayists in the book: screen apnea. I’m a long-time sufferer. I hold my breath or breathe shallowly while sitting in front of a screen, no matter the size of the screen. The writer described how unhealthy this is: The body becomes acidic and inflamed and there’s a tendency to over-consume in this state as we become less aware of when we’re hungry or sated. Breathing decreases stress and helps you make better decisions, the author says. It sounds very strange to say “I’m going to try breathing”, but I guess I’m not alone in having trouble with this basic human function.

Finally, practice unnecessary creation. This is the art of using personal creative projects to explore new obsessions, skills, or ways of working without the pressure of the real-world work environment. For work, this means keeping a notebook to record questions I have, ideas I want to pursue, or demonstration projects that I’d like to try. For my art of oil painting, it means setting aside the time to paint, to write about the creative process here, and to explore.

This new day-to-day starts today, and I will report back on the progress here. The frequency with which I post will certainly be an indicator. I’ll leave you with a quote from one of the passages by Todd Henry that is as inspiring as it is scary: “Consider the opportunity cost of spending your life only on pragmatics. You dedicate your time to pleasing everyone else and delivering on their expectations, but you never get around to discovering your deeper aptitudes and creative capacities. Nothing is worth that.”

Have you been feeling like your day-to-day has drifted to accommodate your surroundings rather than meet your preferences and goals? I’d love to hear about your frustrations and changes you’ve made to your routine, how you tame distractions, tools and technology, and how you sharpen your creativity. Thanks for reading!