Turning Fear and Doubt Into Fuel for Brilliance — An Interview With Jonathan Fields

Summary: I recently talked with Jonathan Fields about the concept of using "uncertainty" as an opportunity rather than as a source of fear and anxiety. I asked him to share concrete daily practices and strategies freelancers can employ in the pursuit of creative, artistic and entrepreneurial greatness in the face of great uncertainty. This is a transcript of our discussion.

Whether in business, in art or in life... how do you create on a world-class level in the face of great uncertainty?

For most of us, uncertainty leads to fear, anxiety... even paralysis. It can gut creativity and stifle innovation. And it can keep us from taking the risks necessary to do great work and design a deeply rewarding life.

Unless you know how to use it to your advantage.

In his new book, Uncertainty, Jonathan Fields has tackles this issue head on. Jonathan draws on leading-edge technology, cognitive science and ancient awareness-focusing techniques in a fresh, practical, nondogmatic way. His approach enables creativity and productivity on an entirely different level, turning the once-tortuous journey into a more enjoyable quest.

This is a pivotal book, especially for freelancers, solopreneurs and entrepreneurs. It has the potential to really change your work performance and your life in a very meaningful way. And even though I'm only halfway through it, Uncertainty has already become one of the most important books in my library.

I recently talked with Jonathan about this concept of using uncertainty as an opportunity rather than as a source of fear and anxiety. And I asked him to share concrete daily practices and strategies freelancers can employ in the pursuit of creative, artistic and entrepreneurial greatness.

What follows is a transcript of our discussion.

ED:     For those of my readers that don't know a lot about you, why don't you start by telling us a little bit about yourself and you've done, especially over the last ten years or so.

JONATHAN:    I started out as a securities lawyer in a large firm in New York City and literally ended up in the hospital after very little sleep and a huge amount of stress perforated an intestine and created a pelvic abscess. So I ended up in emergency surgery. Thankfully, that went okay, but it was a real wake up call for me. When your body starts to tell you that what you're doing is making it fall apart, you kind of have to step back and listen.

So I looked at that and I pulled back and I started to make a list of cool things that I wanted to do with my life, and I realized that most of them had nothing to do with the law. In fact, none of them had anything to do with the law. A lot of them had to do with entrepreneurship, because that was really where my roots were.

So I plotted a course slowly away from being a lawyer, saved up a whole bunch of money, because I knew the next path would basically take me to a place where I'd have to learn a whole new industry, and that was the fitness and wellness industry.

I went from making a nice six figures and having a job with great prestige to earning twelve bucks an hour as a personal trainer. That's because my goal was really to just learn the industry. I just kind of devoured as much I as I could possibly devour. And after about a year, I opened my own place. I went through a couple of expansions, and two-and-a-half years after that I sold out my interest to an investor group.

In the middle of all this, I got married. I also had a little girl, which is the absolute center of my life. So it became really important to me to just focus on building my living around my ability to be present with my family and also to do things that really energized me-and to make an impact on the world while also earning enough to live well in the world and support my family.

I really became fascinated with the yoga world, yet I had no experience in that industry. I had no following. I hadn't taught a yoga class in my life, but I said "you know, this is a really interesting opportunity!" Basically, I saw a big gap in New York City for a studio that would make people from the world that I came from really comfortable.

So I literally was walking down the street in Hell's Kitchen, and I saw a space on the second floor there, and I said, "this is it!" I signed the lease on that studio on September 10, 2001. The next day we all know what happened in New York City.

You can imagine what I was feeling then. It was an emotional time on so many different levels. Starting a business in the wake of 9/11 with a three-month-old baby and a whole new set of responsibilities. But at the same time, starting a business that served to help heal people. It was this tremendous sort of blend of emotions and experiences.

It turned out that the business succeeded. In fact, over the course of seven years it grew that into one of the top studios in New York City. And towards the last couple of years there, I really became fascinated more with writing, with the online world, with blogging, with marketing. I started to do a bunch of consulting with people starting businesses and companies.

At the end of 2008, I sold the yoga company and really started to focus much more of my energy in the online world, online entrepreneurship, consulting, and writing. I started writing books and speaking, and I just developed a real fascination with mindset. And when I say "mindset" I was more interested in that from a practical standpoint. I wanted to know what allows certain people to do things in their lives that so many other people tried but end up shutting themselves down?

So interestingly, while a lot my writing has a very strong business focus to it, there's more and more of sort of a broader lifestyle approach to it ... and that's where a lot of my energy is focused these days.

ED:    And that's what I really love about your work. I think that a lot of us freelancers struggle when it comes to maintaining a high level of emotional performance throughout the week, not just every once in a while.

JONATHAN: You're right. And you know, one of the things all of us face every day-whether you're a freelancer, an entrepreneur or an executive-is the need to constantly put yourself out there and take action without having all of the information you need. Because you never have all the information. And the moment you do have all the information, it's already too late. So you have to take action and just have a certain amount of trust. And that just kills a lot of people.

There's a lot of advice and information about how to overcome that. But most of it just didn't resonate with me. I have sort of science-based mindset. I love to know the "why" of things. So, why does it work? Why doesn't it work? What's the science behind it? I'm just voracious in terms of trying to understand the science of psychology, especially when you get into the way that people behave.

ED:Tell us more about that, because one of the things you've been talking a lot about recently is this whole aspect of "uncertainty," and how truly successful people are using uncertainty as fuel for creativity rather than a source of fear and anxiety.

JONATHAN:  That idea has been a deep exploration of mine for some time now. The question is, how do you take consistent bold action in the face of the unknown, in the face of not knowing how something is going to turn out? Because that's required. That's absolutely mandatory to create anything great, whether it's art, whether it's business, whether it's life. You have to go to that place repeatedly. That's just the way it is. We'd all love for it not to be that way, but it is. So once you accept that, the big challenge with that is it kills most people.

Taking forward movement, acting in the face of uncertainty-most people experience those things as pain, as anxiety, as suffering, and it literally trips the fear centers in our brain. It lights up the amygdalas in our brains, sort of that lizard brain, that flight or fight center, and makes us want to run.

In prehistoric times that was probably a really good thing, because if you're walking by a dark cave and you don't know what's inside of it, it's probably a good idea that you not just casually walk into it. But these days that same impulse stops us from taking action on so many things that would fill our lives with magic, with genius, with amazing creations and experiences.

So part of my quest became to look at the world-class creators in business, in art, in writing, and as I looked at each I realized that it seems as if all of these people have some sort of ability to just constantly engage in creative activity-to constantly innovate and create new things and bring them to life and share them with the world on a level that most other people don't.

So I started wondering: Are they just blessed with some odd genetics that allow their brains to go to that place and not feel the pain? Or have they developed practices or changes in environment or workflow that allowed them to go there and give them enough sort of a baseline "calm" to be okay in that place?

And increasingly, what I started to find as I interviewed all of these really high-level creators was that there may be a very, very small slice of people who arrive on the planet genetically inclined to handle really strong, consistent action in the face of uncertainty, and to be able to do it better than other people. But for the most part, people aren't "born" that way.

I mean, I'm a perfect example. I've created and launched and sold a number of businesses. I create. I paint. I write music. I do all these different things, and I share them. I was put on the planet with this deep desire to create. I love doing that stuff. I was not, however, put on the planet with a really strong ability to handle the anxiety and the fear and the doubt that goes along with all the steps needed to create that stuff.

So over a period of years, I started really just developing a lot of my own skill sets and practices that allowed me to be okay with that. And I didn't even really realize that I was doing some of them until I started asking all of these achievers how they did this.

So this exploration really turned me on to a set of personal practices, a set of environmental changes, and a set of workflow adaptations that anyone individually can implement to make a decent change in the way that they experience uncertainty in the context of trying to create something really cool.

When you start to add a couple of these personal practices, a couple of the workflow adaptations, a couple of the environmental changes, they start to have a magnifying effect and they become these "fear alchemy force multipliers" that allow you to go to that place where the magic really starts to happen and not suffer so much. And that was the amazing part of the discovery process for me in writing this book.

ED:     That's fascinating, Jonathan. Because you're absolutely right that you have to go to that "place" if you want to accomplish anything great in any aspect of your life. Yet most of us are not really born with the ability to press on despite our fears. And that stops so many from reaching their full potential.

JONATHAN:    Correct. So here's the thing: When we decide we want to be a writer or a painter or an entrepreneur or an investment banker, we spend all of our time training in the content and the process of that field. We learn how to work with oil paints. We learn how to craft language. We learn how to build companies and form corporations.

But what we never realize is that it's equally important-if not more important-to take a step back and also train in a much bigger process. Specifically, the process of developing the mindset that allows us to create really cool stuff in that particular field. And that becomes a limiting factor, no matter how much your knowledge base of a particular field is.

ED:So here's what I'm wondering, because you did something that a lot of people don't do. You went from being a lawyer to quitting that profession to go into a business you knew nothing about. There's a romantic side to making that kind of "snap" decision, but there's also a big practical consideration. If you've got a family and you got responsibilities, sometimes taking that sort of leap of faith when you know nothing about that business can be a foolish step. So what would you tell someone who wants to make such a bold move, even though doing so would require taking on a lot of risk?

JONATHAN:You know, and I love that question, because not enough people bring it up. They're like "Oh, just go do what you love and the money will just show up. Or if it doesn't, you'll be so happy doing what you love, it really won't matter." I don't think so! Trying living in a city and supporting a family and see what happens to your relationships when you just do it like that. I'm sorry. I'm a little more of a realist. That's one of the reasons why I love your book also, because you're so realistic about this same point. You're like, you know what? Let's talk about how to do this in a progressive, incremental way, and my approach is really the same thing.

I was unusual in that I'm married now and have a family, but when I made that very first jump from the field of law, I was dating my wife and I didn't have a child. Plus, I was making a lot of money, so I had the ability to bank a serious amount of money knowing I was going to take a really big hit, and that would provide a cushion for me to sort of like carry me through until I figured out the next part of my journey.

But most of the people who I've interviewed for the last book and for this book haven't done it that way. The real way that people tend to it is they start something on the side, and they commit to it. So they'll stop watching TV for two hours a day when they come home. They commit to working on that venture when everyone goes to sleep and first thing in the morning, by waking up a couple of hours earlier.

One of the guys from my first book, Career Renegade, was an orthopedic surgeon in Orange County, California, and it took him twenty years to build his next business to a point where he felt comfortable enough completely leaving the field of medicine and moving into it ... and he stayed with it for a full twenty years, and now he's the happiest guy on the planet because people know him as "Kona Joe," and he's a coffee grower in Kona, Hawaii.

ED: Let's talk about the practical side of creating something big or going after a big goal, and how to overcome the paralyzing fear that can come with this. What can we do as freelancers to help us move forward despite our fears?

JONATHAN:    There are several things, but one of the things I found as I interviewed achievers in many different fields is that most of them seemed to engage is one or more daily rituals that served as "certainty anchors." A certainty anchor is a practice or process that adds something known and reliable to your life when you may otherwise feel you're spinning off in a million different directions.

For example, one of the things that some really prolific writers do and creative writers do is they ritualize a certain amount of their workflow. Steven Pressfield, who wrote The War of Art, is a classic example. He's meticulous. He sits down at the same time and incants the muse and does the exact same thing because this is what pros do.

And that makes total sense, that the more you ritualize things, the more you're creating these certainty anchors. And the more of these mundane things you create in the structure of what you do, the more they allow you to go to that place where there's less certainty in the actual creative part of what you do.

But here's the cool thing. A lot of creatives, especially writers, are aware of the fact that they do this. In fact, they do it deliberately. But what they don't realize is that they often completely ritualize and "routinize" their lives outside the creative process. So they wake up at the same time every day. They do the exact same thing for every meal. They take breaks at the same time. They work out the same way with the same people. They listen to the same music and the same shows. They wear the same exact clothes.

And it's kind of funny, because when you start to point these things out and you ask them why they do it, they don't really know. They don't even realize that they're doing it. But when you start to see the same pattern across so many high level creators in different fields, you start to realize that what they're really doing to a certain extent is they're dropping these little "micro certainty anchors," which act like "psychic bedrocks." So that when they go to the place where they have to create really cool, risky and different stuff, they feel like they have more freedom because they know that they can always return to all of these little anchors for the rest of their lives.

That's just a small example of how some people will adapt both their workflow processes and their daily routines to be able to actually invite, and even embrace, more uncertainty-and going to that place on a deeper level within the creative realm.

ED:    Let's talk more about that. How can you create more of these certainty anchors in order to counter the pull of fear, anxiety and resistance?

JONATHAN:    I would take a step back and examine the following ideas: First, look at your life outside of your primary creative endeavor and see if you can create routine around the mundane, day-to-day activities.

Also, when building your creation rituals, limit your bursts to no more than 45 to 90 minutes, at least in the beginning. You may be able to train yourself to stay focused longer over time, but start with shorter bursts.

Finally, between those bursts, make sure to exercise, meditate, nap, walk, eat or whatever helps you refuel. These activities help to power up your cognitive abilities and refill your will power tank, which allows you to stay more committed to your ritual with greater ease.

ED:    I don't think that the timing for these ideas could be better. There's certainly a lot of uncertainty and fear out there right now, and it is paralyzing and destroying many solo businesses. So if we want to survive and thrive in this tumultuous environment, I think we need to find repeatable and practical ways to deal with uncertainty, and maybe even leverage it for our own good.

JONATHAN:    That's right. A lot of people are asking themselves, "How do I survive in a world where there is no new normal right now? How do I wake up every day and take action knowing that I have no idea what's coming next in this world?"

There's so much uncertainty all around us. And one of the really cool things is that the same exact practices and strategies that allow you to actually proactively and deliberately create really cool stuff are the same things that just give you this really solid level of baseline calm and peace of mind and centered sense in a world that's awash in uncertainty.

ED:     What would you say to a freelancer who might be in a very difficult spot right now after years of smooth sailing? Any ideas or thoughts?

JONATHAN:    If you can just focus on one thing right now, it would be learning about this thing called "mindfulness," and developing just a very simple daily fifteen, twenty-minute-a-day practice around this technique.

In fact, the core of my ability to do what I do these days is the mindfulness practice. And I talk about it a bunch in the book. There's a guy named Randy Komisar. He's kind of a legend in Silicon Valley, and he's now a venture capitalist. He owns a couple companies, and he's a very, very committed mindfulness meditator. And he completely attributes his ability to build stuff and constantly go out there in the world and just survive a constantly changing world, never knowing what's coming next to his daily practice-and I have to agree.

It's not something that will change your world on the first day you practice it. But after a period of weeks and months, it really changes the way you exist in the world. It allows you to be much calmer, much more centered. It opens up creativity. It literally opens creative veins in your thought processes. It changes the way your brain operates. It allows you to see the world much more the way it is rather than through a filter and an overlay of fear and doom-and-gloom. So in doing that, it allows you to see options and passing opportunities that very often people just aren't open to seeing.

ED:    That's great advice, Jonathan. Where can people find out more about your new book? Where can they grab a copy or a sample chapter?

JONATHAN:    If you go to www.theuncertaintybook.com, you can download the first two chapters for free. You'll also find some really cool stuff there, including a number of "preorder experiences" you'll get if you preorder the book in the next few days. For instance, we created these amazing hand illustrations around the concepts in the book with this really cool illustrator named Marty Whitmore. And if you preorder the book, I'm giving away some really cool training experiences and some of the back stories and interviews that were conducted with some of the coolest creators I feature in the book. All of this is posted and explained on the website.

You'll also see a video trailer that I'm actually really proud of, because it took me to a place I wasn't that comfortable going. I didn't know if we'd actually put it up or not. We did, and it's gotten an amazing response.

ED:    Make sure to check out that website, everyone. I think you'll be impressed. If anything, watch the 3-minute video trailer. It's truly moving.