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Turning chaos into success

By Jonathan Fields, Special to CNN
November 4, 2011 -- Updated 1704 GMT (0104 HKT)
Uncertainty is the new norm, and disruption the new black. But this can be harnessed into opportunity.
Uncertainty is the new norm, and disruption the new black. But this can be harnessed into opportunity.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Three years after the economic crisis began, we live in a very different world
  • Uncertainty is the rule, and disruption is the new black
  • Great work is capped by a capacity to make decisions in difficult times
  • But we can go into the unknown with greater ease if we have the right strategies

Editor's note: Jonathan Fields is a lawyer turned entrepreneur, author and speaker. He aims to help people and organizations become more agile, creative and innovative. His latest book is Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt Into Fuel for Brilliance.

(CNN) -- It's been three years since the economic carnage began and though the darkest hour is arguably behind us, we live in a very different world.

Uncertainty is the new rule. Disruption is the new black. We have two choices: Wish it were different and give in to overwhelming anxiety and fear -- or own this new reality and learn how to harness the opportunities it can offer.

Through good times and bad, your ability to do great work is capped by your capacity to make decisions and take action in the face of uncertainty. That challenge is now magnified in a world where nearly every element of work and life has become increasingly unpredictable. Current worth is often measured not by your body of work, but rather by what you've done in the last 90 minutes.

Jonathan Fields
Jonathan Fields

We are largely hardwired to experience decisions and actions that move us deeper into uncertainty as fear and anxiety. But that can lead to a huge amount of personal suffering and organizational dysfunction.

A recent University of Pennsylvania study showed that despite the constant rally cry for more creativity, corporate supervisors regularly reject new ideas. This is not because they're not creative enough, but because, in all likelihood, the need to act on these ideas would cause more anticipated anxiety than that created by the existing current state of stagnation.

Operating in a space defined by constant flux can stifle the process of ideation and stymie motivation, creativity and action. It's also a huge source of friction, dysfunction, stagnation, fear, anxiety, unease, sub-par creative output, client dissatisfaction and financial struggle on an organizational level.

Question is -- what do we do about it? Even better, how do we benefit from it?

First, accept this fundamental truth -- uncertainty may make us uncomfortable, it may make us want to run for the hills and slaughter the butterflies in our stomachs.

But the other side of uncertainty is opportunity. The potential for growth is astonishing when you learn to harness and ride, rather than hunt and kill those butterflies.

So, how do we do that? How do we embrace a state of being that most people would prefer not to experience?

I've spent years exploring the link between mindset, creativity, innovation and action. Through this process I have been able to distill a set of strategies and practices that not only till the mindset soil for genius, but allow creative professionals and organizations to experience the uncertain edge of possibility with a far greatest sense of equanimity, ease and even joy.

Here are four strategies and practices to get you started. They will make a serious difference in the way you experience action in the face of uncertainty, and equip you to power forward in uncertain times:

1. Pulse and refuel. Contrary to the way most people work, our brains are only capable of functioning optimally for about 90 minutes at a time. After that, our ability to get quality work done plummets. At the same time, the part of the brain that controls willpower, executive function and creativity gets fatigued, leaving the more primal fear and anxiety center to take control. To counter this, retune your workflow. Commit to short, intense bursts of attention of no more than 90 minutes, interspersed with windows of rest that allow your brain to refuel.

How do we embrace a state of being that most people would pay not to experience?
Jonathan Fields

2. Practice mindfulness. Once the domain of Buddhists, yogis and others with an eastern orientation, this simplified meditative practice can now be learned and explored devoid of any underlying dogma or ideology. And the benefits, over time, are extraordinary. Not only does the practice help reduce anxiety, fear, stress and elevate mood, it also improves cognitive function and creativity.

3. Keep a gratitude journal. According to positive psychology founding father, Martin Seligman. Ph.D, journaling three to five things you're grateful for every day can help you shift from stressed, angry and edgy, to calm, upbeat and better able to tolerate an uncertain world. This improved mental state is also positively correlated with increased creativity and insight based problem-solving, not only making you happier and nicer to be around, but also better able to perform and innovate at your highest levels.

4. Drop certainty anchors. Create rituals or routines around the more mundane things in your day. Remove the decision-making element and create a set of moments and activities you can always count on being the same. Examples include eating the same thing for breakfast, or wearing black t-shirts every day. These moments act as psychological tethers to certainty that allow you to float a little higher during those moments where your work requires you to act with less than perfect information.

In the end, uncertainty is a key element of any quest to create something from nothing -- and build a deeply meaningful career. It has to be there. And the world we now live in seems to be serving up ample helpings on a daily basis.

But, armed with the right strategies and practices, we can learn to experience going into the unknown with far greater ease. In doing so, we potentially invite even more in the name of creating bigger, better careers, businesses and lives.

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