Learning To Embrace Uncertainty And Ride The Butterflies

In his new book, Uncertainty, creation, marketing and innovation expert, Jonathan Fields, lays out the path that everyone can follow to embrace the increasing ambiguity that pervades our lives and work daily. Uncertainty breaks down the steps that help you not only survive but thrive, personally and professionally, in a world where the unknown is the new normal.


In the early ’90s, I turned my back on a successful banking career to go to business school and become a work+life strategy consultant. This was before most people had even heard of telework or flexible hours. Yet I walked the halls of Columbia Business School in 1993 confidently stating this seemingly crazy goal. 

Many, many people thought (and said) I was nuts. Armed only with incomplete information, intuition, and support from key people, I did achieve my goal, and more. But it would have been much easier if someone had charted the course for me. Now someone has.9-28-2011 8-12-51 AM

In his new book, Uncertainty, creation, marketing and innovation expert Jonathan Fields, lays out the path that everyone can follow to embrace the increasing ambiguity that pervades our lives and work daily.  Uncertainty breaks down the steps that help you not only survive but thrive, personally and professionally, in a world where the unknown is the new normal.


Recently, I spoke with Fields about his important, timely new book (see an excerpt here). It’s the guide that I wish I had when I jumped, feet first, into the abyss of ambiguity.

Cali Yost: Jonathan, let’s get started with why it’s so important to embrace uncertainty today.

Jonathan Fields: We live in a world where uncertainty is now the rule.  It’s all around us.  Either we learn to live with it or we suffer.


Nothing unique is created if you wait to have perfect information. Great art, new and innovative ideas all happen in the face of uncertainty. If you wait to get all of the information before moving forward then you aren’t creating.  You are just repeating because someone else has done it before.

According to the research throughout the book, we avoid uncertainty even at our own expense. I loved how you reframed the two aspects of uncertainty that trip us up most often–fear and butterflies. Can you talk about the concepts of the “alchemy of fear” and “riding the butterflies”?

Research shows that when we experience uncertainty, the parts of our brain related to fear and anxiety light up. Often we experience it as the sensation of having butterflies. But butterflies are not comfortable. In fact, we want to hunt and kill the butterflies! We back away from where we’re trying to go and shut down. But instead, as I discuss in the book, we need to harness and ride those butterflies toward our goal.Buttterflies


In terms of fear, you need to train your mindset to succeed in the face of that fear in the same way you would pursue mastery in a particular field. It’s what I call the “alchemy of fear.” You do this by focusing on four key areas that I describe in the book:

  1. Workflow optimization, through single tasking, etc.
  2. Personal practice, like exercise and attentional training
  3. Environmental and culture change, by creating “hives” and judgment-leveling opportunities
  4. Outlook optimization or behavior, by reframing and growth. 

(Click here to learn more about how to get one of Marty Whitmore’s limited edition Ride the Butterflies or Alchemy of Fear illustrations–like the one pictured above–commissioned by Jonathan Fields for free.)

I’m glad you mentioned judgment leveling opportunities. I realized as I read your book that you gave me the gift of a judgment leveling opportunity a few months ago when we had lunch. You patiently answered all of my most basic, potentially embarrassing questions about marketing.  By allowing me to test ideas and clarify my base knowledge, you gave me a foundation from which to take what I learned to the next level, and then the next. How can others create judgment leveling opportunities for themselves?


Judgment is important because you want and need the data to guide your mission. What you don’t want is the emotion that too often goes along with the data. That’s what causes people to stop experimenting.

You can either join an existing group or create the environment yourself that gives feedback without the shutting people down. The good news is that today you can even do this online. There a many stories and examples in the book but here are a few things to look for:

  • People who are working collectively and not competitively. There’s no zero-sum game.
  • There are regular periods where everyone exposes what they are doing and gets feedback, expressly with the goal of getting better.
  • Mentors are brought in to share information and give constructive feedback. 

This goes back to the power of collaboration that you talk about in Uncertainty, whether it’s with a “hive,” your heroes, mentors, fans, and life partners. Why are all of these different levels of collaboration so critical?


The right people will give you really good feedback that you are on the correct track. This is important when you are choosing to move forward with the incomplete information that’s part of uncertainty. Plus, collaboration normalizes what you are doing. You feel like you are less off-the-wall.

Why is it important to create a routine around the mundane, day-to-day activities to embrace uncertainty and ambiguity?

By ritualize the day-to-day activities of our lives we are dropping what I call “certainty anchors.” You can go out into the unknown because you know that all of the other parts of your life are going to be a particular way. This gives you more space to float up into the ether and do the work.


In the book you talk about the rigorous routine of the prolific choreographer/dancer Twyla Tharp–awake at 5:30 a.m. every day, take a taxi to the gym, work out with the same trainer, shower, eat three hard boiled eggs. What are your certainty anchors?

One example is my morning meditation which is a mindfulness practice. I do it like clockwork, and it sets the tone for my day.

That’s part of the attentional training you talk about in the book. What is it and why is it important?


Attentional training improves your overall life experience, but it also helps you access better, more creative solutions.

We are wired to react to uncertainty with anxiety and fear. One way to lean into that anxiety and fear with comfort is attentional training. For me, I use a mindfulness practice (which is just one of the aspects of attentional training outlined in the book). It also unlocks a level of cognitive thought and creativity that lives at a deeper level and is often not accessed or used.

That’s true. I’ve maintained a regular meditation practice over the past 20 years. I directly attribute the creativity that led to my career switch, my first book, and now my second book to the insights experienced when I slowed down and paid attention, regularly and consistently. If it’s so powerful, why don’t more people try attentional training, like meditation?


Coupled with exercise, it’s one of the most creative sources on the planet, but people want instant results. With attentional training, you do the practice, and over time it will make a huge difference. It may not happen immediately, but when you do tap into that source it’s profound.

What’s the main point that you hope people take away from Uncertainty?

When you are exploring and trying to create something new in art or business and you get to the butterflies, instead of backpedalling, listen to what they are telling you. Train in the skill set that prepares you for the emotional side of the quest and move forward to achieve your goal.


Thank you, Jonathan! 

For more:

See more from author Cali Williams Yost on her Work+Life Fit blog, or connect with her on Twitter @caliyostFor more leadership coverage, follow FastCoLeaders on Twitter and LinkedIn.


[Top image: Flickr user purplemattfish]