Asking Not Asking #10: Unsure
TINA ESSMAKER / Creative Coach
I have been trying to figure out what I want to be doing in 10 years for quite a while now. I am an art director in advertising and worked in ad agencies for many years. I quit the agency world to start working with film/commercials, moved to a different country, had a child, and started doing freelance graphic design.
In the past year, I’ve learned that I am resourceful. I’m trying to figure out what I really love and should invest energy on. I want more purpose and fulfillment in my life, but I don’t know exactly what I am good at anymore. I took time off to have a child, which I’m proud of. Right now I am trying to get back to doing what I know, which is advertising and art direction. I’m also doing therapy once a week to find out what really moves me.
In addition, I’m reworking my portfolio, taking a bunch of online courses on Digital Marketing and Visual Storytelling, and looking for freelance work in advertising as an Art Director mainly through Working Not Working and direct contacts.
Hope we can chat more about it.
Let’s start with what you know to be true. In his book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life, Mark Manson notes:
“It’s the backwards law again: the more you try to be certain about something, the more uncertain and insecure you will feel. But the converse is true as well: the more you embrace being uncertain and not knowing, the more comfortable you will feel in knowing what you don’t know.”
Sure, it’s easy to connect the dots in hindsight, but for many of us in creative work, ambiguity is part of the process as we look ahead to what’s next. Instead of resisting, it can be helpful to accept ambiguity and learn how to navigate it.
Let’s jump into an exercise. Grab two sheets of paper (or use separate pages in your journal or notebook) because you are going to make two lists. Name the first list “Everything I Know to be True.” Now, set a timer for one minute and list everything you know to be true about your career thus far. Jot down the facts of your work history, what you enjoy, what you are trained for, the skills you possess, your education, special knowledge you’ve acquired along the way, and anything else that comes to mind.
Now switch to a new sheet and name the second list “Things I Don’t Know.” Set a timer for one minute again and list everything you are unsure of related to your career. These are likely the things causing you stress and anxiety, so be sure to name all of them in detail on your paper. When you’re done, look at each item. You can’t do anything about any of them right now. Let them go. Crumple up the list and throw it in the trash. Your energy is too limited to spend on what you don’t know. Doing that will paralyze you.
Keep your list of “Things I Know to Be True.” Put it somewhere where you can reference it on a regular basis. Commit to spending your energy building upon what you already know. Surprisingly, as you build upon this foundation, you will uncover answers to the things you formerly did not know. Picture it as a circle you are standing inside of. You and everything you know are inside the circle, but with more time comes more exploration, experience, discovery, and knowledge. Concentric circles will grow around you, expanding into your future.
Most of us are unsure most of the time. A few months ago, I spoke to one of my mentors on the phone about my future. Like you, I was unsure of a litany of things that seemed so important to figure out before I could move forward. But here’s the thing: we don’t have to have everything figured out to put one foot in front of the other and move forward. What’s the next right step for you? Take it and then reflect and plan the next step, and the next. As my mentor pointed out to me on that call, most of the things we worry about take care of themselves over time. His words were enough to get me moving.
Not knowing can open us up to possibility—or luck. Richard Wiseman, a British psychology professor at the University of Hartfordshire, focuses his research on how luck plays a role in our lives. In one experiment, he gave participants newspapers and asked them to count the number of photographs. The self-proclaimed “unlucky” people took two minutes to correctly count the photographs. The “lucky” people took seconds. The clincher: on the second page of the newspaper, there was a message that said, “Stop counting. There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.” The lucky people were merely more observant.
Wiseman goes on to make additional points about luck, saying, “Lucky people generate their own good fortune via four basic principles. They are skilled at creating and noticing chance opportunities, make lucky decisions by listening to their intuition, create self-fulfilling prophesies via positive expectations, and adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good.” You can read a more in-depth summary of his key research points here.
Let’s recap: I’ve asked you to let go of what you don’t know, accept ambiguity as part of the process, and acknowledge what you do know as a foundation for moving forward. Now it’s time to take the next step. I can’t tell you what that step should be, but my guess is that if you listen to your intuition, as Wiseman notes, you will know what to do. Trust your gut. Choose to expect positive outcomes. If you struggle with defaulting to all of the negative outcomes that could result, make a list of all the ways a decision could turn out positively after you imagine the worst-case scenario!
When things feel disappointing—and they will, because life ebbs and flows—use your resourcefulness to forge ahead. Remember, you are standing in the circle of everything you know right now, but as you move forward, concentric circles will grow, encapsulating new experiences and knowledge like rings on a tree rooted strongly in the earth. Each ring marks a complete cycle of seasons, or one year, in the tree's life. Growth takes time.
You are in the process of adding another ring to your life, which will require you to experience seasons of abundance and fallowness. In every season, keep moving. Don’t become distracted with worry about what your life will look like in a decade. Dedicate this season to the work at hand. You are redoing your portfolio to reflect the kind of projects you want to do, you are exploring interests through multiple classes, and you are looking for freelance work as an art director in advertising. You are engaged in the process.
Growth might not be visible now, but it rarely is when we’re in the middle of it. Stay engaged in the process of doing the work, exploring your interests, recognizing opportunities, and following your intuition. Keep connecting the dots and your future will emerge.
This is the paradox of creative work and why we are both drawn to it and repelled by it. We long for mystery and certainty, newness and security, predictability and surprise. Keep connecting the dots and your future will emerge.
To embracing ambiguity,
Submit to the column:
Asking Not Asking is a bi-monthly column written by Tina Essmaker, a New York City-based coach, speaker, and writer who helps others live into their possibility. To be considered for the column, send and email to email@example.com with a short note about where you're at and where you want to be, and make sure to include the following:
- What you want more of in your work and/or life.
- Your biggest challenges to having more of what you want.
- What opportunities exist for you right now.
- What you've learned about yourself in the past year.
- Include your name or submit anonymously.