Playing With Fire

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Success in business and life is largely about your relationship to fire.

At some point in every career, relationship, venture, quest, you will find yourself walking into the fire. A place of deep discomfort and uncertainty. Joseph Campbell’s famed abyss.

You’ll be working like crazy, putting everything you have into making it succeed…and looking for signs. Please, God, tell me whether this is for real or it’s a fantasy.

Is this the fire that steels, or the fire that burns?

Is it worth the [insert synonym for your handpicked version of hell] I’m going through, or is that perpetual feeling in the pit of my stomach telling me to fold?

Inevitably answers come. Bits of data. Some hard and verifiable, but more often soft. Those intuitive hits, visceral responses to people, actions, circumstances and scenarios.

Sometimes, they’re clear as day. Most times not.

What are they telling me? Hold or fold?

I’ve asked some of the smartest, most accomplished people in the world how to discern the difference. And never left with a satisfactory answer. The closest I’ve gotten is “you just know.” Which is sometimes true. Sometimes not.

No doubt, my mindfulness practice has made it a lot easier to see through the haze of the inevitable fire every creator must embrace. To tune into what the world, my intuition and the data are telling me. But the smoke doesn’t always clear enough to see what’s on the other side.

Maybe, there’s no simple test because anything resembling the truth isn’t pat. It’s not simple. Those moments and the quests that give rise to them are laced with dynamism and complexity. And, so must be the answer.

I actually explored this question in some detail in my last book, Uncertainty, and recently revisited my own thoughts on the issue (I know, I’m weird like that) as I wade deeper into a new fire of my own creation.

So, I thought I’d share the excerpt here with permission from the author, of course. It’s a bit long, but I’ve been getting a lot of questions about, well, these questions lately. I figure it’ll help to share the fuller conversation below:

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Moments like this happen all the time in every creative process, when we ask some variation of the following:

  • Is this project, idea, or quest still worth pursuing? Do I need to either shut it down or go about it in a radically different way?
  • Is what I’m feeling just resistance, the lizard brain, anxiety, and fear that needs to be leaned into, or is it the accumulation of enough experience and data to tell me the smart move is to move on?

…We start by asking, “What was your inciting motivation?” What made you undertake this endeavor to begin with. Was it, in some form, the expression of a calling? Was it something to keep you busy? Was it about serving a group of people, solving a problem, or serving up a delight? Was it about money or doing anything you could to get your parents off your back and avoid grad school? Begin by going back to the time surrounding your decision to create whatever it is you’re creating and answer this question. Then move on to the next question.

In light of the information and experiences you’ve had along the journey to date, does that original motive still hold true? Are you still equally or even more determined to make it happen? And given what you now know, do you believe you can make it happen?

In his book Getting to Plan B, Randy Komisar suggests setting up what he calls a dashboard. You create a grid that identifies all of your major data points, assumptions, and leaps of faith on day one, then revisit it at regular intervals to assess what remains valid. Komisar’s system helps identify at a sooner point when your initial plan may be starting to go off the rails and gives you an objective set of data to help decide what your next move should be. For entrepreneurs, especially in start-up phases, it’s a great tool to help answer the big questions and decide whether, as more data comes in, to hold, change your hand, or fold.

But I’ve also found that these decisions can’t be made entirely on data. It’s also important, especially for solo creators and bootstrap entrepreneurs, to add a more subjective exploration to the process—one that dives deeper into whether, data aside, there are other reasons to consider soldiering on, adapting, or jumping ship.

The following additional questions will help you go one level deeper and will prompt you to explore what’s really happening in these critical moments. They’ll help you understand, on a level that adds clarity to the decision, whether you’re reacting to an inability to handle fear and uncertainty or to real data and constructive intuition that’s telling you to stop.

  • Is this something you can’t not do, regardless of whether you ever earn enough to live well in the world doing it?
  • Are you more connected to the medium and your solution or your desire to serve a market?
  • If you believe in your heart that what you set out to accomplish is highly likely to happen in the full glory you first imagined, would you still want that result?
  • Would the data or feedback you’ve gathered to date require you to change the endeavor in such a substantial way that, while it may be more likely to succeed, the final creation, process, or career will no longer satisfy the needs and desires that drew you into the quest to start with?

That last question is big, especially for entrepreneurs. It’s not unusual to begin an endeavor with a strong sense of what you’d like to offer and who you’d like to serve, only to have your market eventually tell you that you’ve missed the mark. For many entrepreneurs and creators, that’s not a death knell. Its just a signpost that it’s time to pivot the model, the solution, or even the culture and vision.

Behance CEO Scott Belsky’s Action Method products are designed to help make creative professionals more productive. They work exceptionally well. If any given product they bring to market bombs, it’ll hurt, but it’s not game over. The entrepreneur just needs to figure out how to better serve the market with the next round of solutions. Belsky’s vision is not to create the current line of Action Method products, but rather to create tools and processes that make creatives more productive. What those look like will change over time. And that allegiance to a market, rather than a specific product, gives him a lot of leeway to continue to test, build, bomb, and evolve.

All too often, that’s not how start-ups or even established product-development teams operate. They are wedded more to their particular solution than to the notion of serving a market. When they start to have problems with that product, ones that aren’t fixable with easy tweaks, they have a very difficult time moving through these moments.

Without a willingness to pivot your solution and model, the endeavor is likely to come to an end. One of the big lessons for entrepreneurs and solution-development teams is to think very seriously about the inciting motivation for their endeavors. Is the vision connected to a single product or the desire to serve a market? The latter is far more likely to set in motion a quest that is sustainable, especially if the market evolves over time. Which sends us squarely back to that final question: Even if you could adapt and move forward, should you?

It’s one thing to evolve your quest in response to new data in an effort to create something that’s better aligned with what your market needs and wants. But it’s also important, at that moment, to ask whether that pivot will so substantially change the nature of the endeavor that it makes you no longer as intimately connected with it.

If evolving to meet your market means stripping away the things that drew you to the quest in the first place, you’ll end up on track to create something everyone else loves . . . except you. And that will eventually cannibalize your soul. You’ll end up hating what you do every day and looking for ways to get out, even if what you’ve created appears to be outwardly successful.

This happens all the time, in business and in art. Many actors are drawn to the craft because of the opportunity to tell stories, illuminate the human condition, and stir souls. But somewhere along the line, compelling stories and gravitas give way to a stable, yet incrementally less-fulfilling reputation as the perfect actor for consumer goods commercials. The market is telling you, “That’s where we want you,” so because you have bills to pay, that’s what you do. You’ve found a way to make the business of acting work, but the way you’re doing it is gutting you. You’re outwardly successful in your chosen field, but inwardly empty.

You have a choice to make: You can either keep doing what you were called to do, but in a way that no longer honors the call and fills you up. You can work like crazy to redefine the box you’ve built and potentially try all manner of unconventional approaches to making what you want to do work. Or you can surrender to the notion that to act in the roles that honor your calling, you’ll have to spend the better part of your life earning the bulk of your living some other way and be okay with that.

These are all tough decisions. These questions can be incredibly helpful in sussing out whether what you’re feeling is just fear and uncertainty or a failure of your initial assumptions that will require you to either change how you’re pursuing your quest or end it.

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So, now I’m curious. What about you?

How do YOU figure out whether the fires you walk through forge or burn?

What tools or questions do you rely on?

Are you in the fire…NOW? If so, what’s going on?

With gratitude,

Jonathan

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15 responses

15 responses to “Playing With Fire”

  1. Vincent says:

    I often have self-doubts and it’s difficult to shake off. I’ve been lucky though, because every time I began to doubt myself I had an amazing opportunity show its head which reconfirmed I’m focusing on the right things.

    What I’ve begun to do is realize that I have a tendency to question the usefulness of my work. When I realize that it’s simply a habit that does not properly reflect the quality of what I am doing, I can then begin to examine everything logically.

    So to answer your question, I decide which to walk through based off of self-reflection and measuring progress.

  2. Susan Kuhn says:

    Good thoughts hitting on a reflective day. Thanks.

  3. I call this dilemma the “sound of one hand clapping”.

    Here you are – out there on the frontier of your idea, dream, vision, project, …and you’re doing all you know how to do and doing it to the very best of your ability, fully committed to the vision, and still…

    your idea makes no connection; or not enough of a connection to scale in the marketplace in ways that make you and your idea economically sustainable.

    What to do?

    Unlike predictable gestations periods for human beings to come into form…ideas take their own sweet time. There is no predictable, quantifiable method for predicting the outcome you desire. It takes what it takes.

    If you can see it in your imagination, then it is possible for you to experience it in the physical world. There is always the posssibility of potential becoming achievement.

    It gets down to a few simple questions:

    How much do you want it?
    What are you willing to risk losing in the process of acheiving it?
    How uncomfortable are you willing to be bringing it to life?
    How open are you to chnaging your thinking or point of view?

    Anything worthy of your life energy will require unending faith and belief… it’s easy to have these things when all indications are positive… however, when current circumstances point in a different direction, are you willing to continue to believe and have faith that what you desire is “in the making” and not yet ready to come into form?

    Here’s what I believe will hold your faith and belief:

    Know what you want, decide to pursue it, expect that it will be delivered to you!
    Never desire what you don’t expect to experience, nor expect to experience what you don’t desire.

  4. Amy says:

    So true and relevant for me at the moment, it was almost scary reading it!

  5. Jonathan,

    I’m on fire at some point most days. Thank goodness for a meditation practice! I don’t know that the fear really goes away, but discernment speeds up and it’s easier all the time to know what isn’t real.

    How I figure it out for myself is to first sit with the feelings and observe without being consumed. Often I will see that this feeling is an old familiar threat of harmful fire based on the past. And, since it’s hard to see clearly without a mirror, I often use a trusted friend as my sounding board.

    Thanks Jonathan!

  6. […] 2013 – I recently read the article “Playing With Fire,” by Jonathan Fields. He posed the following questions, “So, now I’m curious. What about you? How do YOU figure […]

  7. Tova says:

    Thanks for the post Jonathan. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately and have come up with another question, and it’s about Love. Are you still in love with your project/dream? If you’re just going through a rocky part, but deep down you feel that love(and you cant be left-brained for this one 🙂 Than you know to KEEP GOING. Just like any good relationship. But when you fall out of love with your project,that’s a serious wake up to move on. So if the project is not succeeding the way you wish it would/want it to in this moment, but you’re still in love with it, I’m convinced the hard work alone will make you a stronger better dream creator. The benefit manifests from the work and love alone.

  8. A thought-provoking post. I think it’s human nature to have self-doubt. I think anyone who doesn’t have these feelings at all (at least occasionally) is probably slightly myopic. But on days when I am consumed with such feelings I try to focus on the real reasons I am doing this. It’s so easy to lose sight sometimes of your original plans and your original motivations and it helps to look back and re-focus on these. Like Robin, it’s great to have a good friend too, as a sounding board!

  9. Hi Jonathan, This post is so timely for me as I’m currently in the midst of a BONFIRE. Previously, my A-type entrepreneurial self would have picked up and gone into OVERDRIVE, but this time I’m approaching it with a welcoming pause as the fire roars. I’ve realized “pushing through” is not always the most fulfilling approach long-term. The lows provide great insights and invaluable lessons if we have the courage to see it that way.

  10. […] I’m absolutely convinced that Jonathan Fields is a mind-reader. LOVE his latest post on how to discern the different feelings swirling around indecision or uncertainty: Is This The Fire That Steels Or The Fire That Burns? […]

  11. Kevin Rhodes says:

    Funny, I almost always read your posts the day they come through, Jonathan, but this one has been patiently waiting in my inbox until today, when reading it was of course perfect timing. I spent a couple of those sleepless 3:00 a.m. hours last night as another wave of “OMG, am I really going to do this?’ rocked through my soul. Reading your post with its usual articulation of resonant insights and then also reading everybody’s wonderful comments makes me feel I’m in awesome company, and maybe have actually learned a few things from following this path for many years that will help me embrace (or not) this new invitation to a new opus. I’m reminded of that Mark Twain quote: “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” I think we don’t answer that once and for all, but over and over again as these invitations to create come to us. And then we answer (or not) that, right now at least, THIS is why I’m on the planet. In my case, at least, that awareness often comes with a volcano surge of feeling and affirmation from somewhere so deep it’s scary.

  12. Artful links says:

    […] Playing with fire: Jonathan Fields advises on making sense of the mess of data and emotions at tricky points in the creative process. […]

  13. […] step of the way, pay attention to our motivations—Are they still valid?—and keep our energy up. Jonathan Fields has a great post which speaks to this, with some good questions to ask ourselves periodically about […]