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Why is Uncertainty Such a Buzz Kill?

"Life is either a daring adventure, or it is nothing." Helen Keller


We’ve all been there. We have an inspiration, a great idea that came out of nowhere, something we can’t wait to dig into, our friggin’ Eureka moment!!! And then, after the excitement wanes a little, something kicks in to make us unsure, and we wonder where our idea wandered off to? We thought we were in this together… Here we were, ready (at last) to take on the world, to show everyone exactly why we’re here, what we’re made of, to express our genius for god’s sake, and….crickets.


The terrible twins of the creative death yard have been at it again: doubt and uncertainty. Doubt is an easy way out of not realizing some of our most innovative dreams (I doubt I can climb that mountain, so I’m certainly not going to risk my life trying”), but uncertainty…..that leaves us wide open for hope, and hope prolongs our pain (“I’m uncertain I could climb that mountain, but I’ll do more research to at least see what my chances are”).


Of course, uncertainty, and our negative reaction to it, is evolutionary. Our brains do not like not knowing, and in fact it drives us kind of nuts. If we’re uncertain in the moment, what could that possibly mean for the future? Humans like to know what’s going to happen, to not know seems dangerous and makes our stomachs feel icky, and could ultimately mean our demise. Why can’t someone just tell us what to do or think, so we don’t have to agonize over the decision?


One of my sons is in business development, so he learned early in his training to use spreadsheets for decision making. Now, everything he has to decide, whether business related or not (what brand baby diaper to buy, what changes to make to the house) gets spread-sheeted out, and whatever the result, that’s what he does. Not a bad system, but when it comes to creativity, is that the best way, or even a way? It seems to me that these business types have no room for uncertainty, being driven by their bottom line, and therefore, creativity is relegated to the back burner. I’m curious: how can that work for corporations if they intend to innovate?


When I’m preparing a piece of music to perform as a soloist, can I put on a spreadsheet how I’m going to add vibrato to this note, hold that note a little longer, or start my crescendo earlier? I suppose I could, but that would lock me into something that in performance might not actually work, that would keep my expressive self from spontaneity. It would be fine if we could go into a recital with the comforting thought that we’ve covered all the bases, it will go just how we planned. But will anyone enjoy listening to it? In other words, in art, uncertainty is most often a good thing, because in art, we constantly experiment and search for better ways to express ourselves. And yet, our human selves fight against that, because the last thing we want to be is uncertain.


Actually, in any creative endeavor, the whole point is in not knowing. If we knew how it was going to turn out, would we bother going down this creative road? Frankly, no…..too boring. One of the points of creativity is to see where it leads you, as opposed to someone else. So if you’ve arrived at expressing your creative self later in life, this may come as a shock: you need to embrace uncertainty, and as comedienne Gilda Radner once said, revel in its “delicious ambiguity”.


I remember reading about the actor Paul Giamatti’s guest stint on “Saturday Night Live”. One of the cast ran into him backstage mid-show, and he reportedly said, “This is a fucking nightmare!” Of course it is - live television with no guarantee of the outcome, what’s coming up next, how it will turn out. Most people would feel the same way when thrown into a ball of chaos. “Let’s go before millions of people, make stuff up, and see if anyone likes it.” Yikes.


But I’ve come to believe that embracing uncertainty is the only way to get to creative genius. If we look at any of the great discoveries, performances, stories, etc., we’ll find that they all began with a creative spark that someone decided to follow with no guarantee of success. Uncertainty had to be a large player in the process. Of course, many failures have begun that way as well. It’s a risk.


There actually is a natural way to decide what to do if we’re still uncertain after calling Mom and everyone else on our trusted support team. We have a built in choice maker, and submitting our uncertainty to that choice maker can help us decide what path to take. For most people, this is located in the heart, for others the solar plexus. But wherever yours is, you will get a definite answer to your question if you’re quiet and alert. This is a way to override our brain, when it is freaking out about the unknowns of uncertainty.


If you think back on the high points of your life, I’m willing to bet that uncertainty was probably part of them. Something uncertain happened to challenge you and your everyday concept of your path, and you had to react. One of mine was chasing a relationship that ultimately didn’t work out, but I proved to myself that I could get a job and support myself in a strange city, something that was a first for me. Talk about a confidence boost!


The next time you’re uncertain about anything, consciously step into that unknown space, ask your questions, and you will learn more completely who you are and what you’re capable of.


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