Creative pursuits like art and music feel inherently risky to most people, so they avoid them as career choices.  The common portrayal of the “starving artist” doesn’t do much to sell the idea either.

What we know is that most people want more opportunities to be creative in their careers.  Jonathan Fields‘ book Uncertainty speaks to that desire, though you may not initially like his solution.

I don’t do a lot of book reviews because honestly, there aren’t too many nonfiction books that impress me.  Fields’ book happens to be one of them.

The basic premise of the book is that you must embrace fear (as opposed to overcome it) in order to really spark your creative fire.  In addition to summarizing a lot of research on the subject, he also provides an abundance of case studies, highlighting how creativity is at the heart of brilliance in nearly any career field: science, entrepreneurship, even investment banking.

In this post, I’ll highlight a few of the big ideas introduced in the book and some of the tactics he proposes to put this all into practice.  I’ll also reveal how a few fear-embracers can read it for free.

You are a creator (yes, you)

I love the case studies in this book, because they really bring home the point that everyone, regardless of profession, can benefit from more creativity.  For example, Starbuck’s Frappaccino wasn’t the result of some big new product development team, but an enterprising manager who thought, “I bet we could do something more and something different than we we’re doing now.”

The manager had to push hard to get the beverage tested in her store before senior management would approve it.  As Fields’ points out, this was a turning point for the company.

So you have to ask yourself: what turning points in your career could you be creating with a little more creativity (combined with a little more persistence and belief in your ideas)?  What new products or ideas could you usher into the world if you embraced creativity as a fundamental part of your job description?

Can I learn it?

Probably my favorite case study comes from the investment bankers.

In a three year study, a researcher looked at newly hired bankers at two firms.  One firm was noted for their traditional approach, and the other for their belief that every situation was unique.

At the traditional bank, the senior partners were the leaders, showing more junior bankers the standard protocols for creating solutions for clients.

At the more innovative bank, there were no best practices or formal training.  Junior partners were often asked to lead the efforts, with the idea they would bring fresh ideas to a new problem.  The young bankers at the more innovative firm learned they couldn’t rely solely on their own abilities, a striking observation for those who are used to excellence and probably over-achieving.

When times were good, both firms did well.  But when times were bad, the traditional bank collapsed while the more innovative bank continued to prosper.

The important thing here is that the research showed no difference in personality or disposition for uncertainty in the new hires at the different banks.  It seems clear that the junior members at the innovative bank learned over time that risk and uncertainty bring their own benefits.

But the most fascinating outcome was that when people left the more innovative bank, they often left the field of banking entirely.  This could be because they were burnt out on anxiety, or as Fields’ suggests, they had learned skills that allowed them to thrive in any field of their choosing.  For my money, that’s a theory worth testing.

The skinny on fear (it’s not what you think)

Economists are always looking at ways to quantify risk, but in real life, it’s usually not possible to understand what all the risks are, much less quantify them.

Since the 1960’s, experiments seemed to suggest that humans were hard-wired to avoid uncertain situations.  That such a trait was a survival mechanism held over from our earliest evolution, even in situations where survival was no longer a threat.

That’s true, but only to an extent.  Recent studies showed that if you remove the possibility of evaluation (that is, no one knows whether you got something right or did well on a particular task), the aversion to uncertainty disappears entirely.

For me, that little insight was worth the price of the book alone.

Because what it tells us is that we’re so worried about what other people think, we’re all so caught up in our reflection through others, that it’s stifling the very trait (creativity) that helps us stand out and do amazing work.

So if you want to be more creative, you don’t need an art class.  Just work on dealing with your fear of judgement.

Why you need fear (and this book)

One of the things that really hit home for me was this quote from the book

You cannot solve a problem better if every solution has already been defined. […] Genius starts with a question, not an answer.  Eliminate the question and you eliminate the possibility of genius.

The point is that trying to overcome your fear may not only be impossible, it may be detrimental. Fields urges us to invite, amplify and exalt uncertainty–and better yet, he spends much of the book telling us exactly how to do it.

The rest of the book is tactical: how find certainty anchors, how to establish a network of like-minded people to support you when you go out on a limb.  And perhaps most important of all, how to know when to give up and when to persist.

I think this may be one of the most important books my readers can have at their bedside table.  It’s quite possible that if you get this right, everything else takes care of itself.

I’m giving away two free copies.

To enter, leave a comment discussing  a situation you’re struggling with and why you think this book would help you.  On Friday, Oct 7, at 9 AM London time, I’ll choose two winners and ship them a free copy of the book.

Due to the sensitive nature of the situation you might want to discuss, you’re welcome to use a pseudonym instead of your real name.  Just make sure you put your real email address in the comment form (no one sees it but me).

If you don’t win a free copy, I urge you to get a copy of Uncertainty anyway (affiliate link).  Like me, you might end up buying copies for all your friends, your readers, or at least those you want in your creative hive, as Fields’ calls it.

Dare to shine!