This is not the article I was planning to write.
My plan was to write about POPRally’s TEN, an interactive game put on at the Museum of Modern Art here in New York City. I bought tickets a few weeks ago. I researched the game designer. I familiarized myself with the artists’ past works. I built up anticipation for the event with each passing day.
On Saturday night, my husband and I got dressed up, braved the heat, and hopped on the subway uptown. About halfway into our 11-stop journey, my husband began to feel sick. We got off at Canal Street to find a restroom, but after sitting down on the platform for a bit, he felt better. We took the next train, which arrived just a few minutes later. A minor setback, but everything seemed like it was looking up.
We made it to our subway stop, just five blocks away from the museum. And a minute after coming above ground, my husband became violently ill. I’ll spare you the gory details, but needless to say, it was a pretty messy situation. Fortunately, his office was in the neighborhood, so we took refuge there until he felt well enough to head home.
On the long, miserable ride back to Brooklyn, a variety of thoughts swept through my mind. The one that kept coming back to me was:
All our plans mean very little in the face of life’s uncertainty.
At first, this thought kind of bummed me out. But as I kept turning it over in my head, I found myself inspired by this truth. While the story I had planned to tell probably would have been a good one, the one I ended up with was far more memorable. And it’s one I never would have discovered using a planned, methodical approach—the approach we creatives are all-too-often asked to follow in a business setting.
So that’s what this article is actually about: How uncertainty is a core part of the creative process (even though we might wish otherwise), and how to use it instead of fighting against it.
The Value of Uncertainty
When I did creative projects as a kid—writing, painting, drawing, etc.—I never sat down and mapped out a detailed project plan before I began. I just dove in head-first with an idea and splashed words and colors around until I was happy with the outcome (or not—a large portion of my projects went straight into the trash bin).
It seems very strange, then, that when I reclaimed my creative self after college and began to write fiction again, I followed a very structured process. I would map out my characters, plot points, story arc, and chapter structure in detail before beginning any project. I would write in a linear fashion from Once Upon a Time to The End, without deviating from the flow. Only when I got to revisions would I allow myself to make changes to the plan.
After writing for a couple of years following this approach, however, I started to feel… itchy. My predefined roadmap started to seem too limiting. Knowing every detail of every character left nothing to discover along the way. And, because I’d committed to writing a certain story following a certain structure, I didn’t feel like I could change things mid-process, even when I knew my work would be better for it.
Eventually, I came to realize:
Certainty kills creativity, at least when there’s too much of it.
So I threw out my well-defined plans, and I started having a lot more fun. I knew what my story was and what I was trying to achieve, but the pathway to get there could take any number of twists and turns. This gave me a ton of creative freedom while still providing a solid touchstone for my vision. Even when this uncertainty led me down the wrong path for awhile, I gained valuable insights from my wandering.
I haven’t stopped to quantify the value of uncertainty in my creative process. To be honest, I’m not sure how I would even begin to measure the value of things like creative freedom, discovery, and room for failure. I do know that these things are valuable—incredibly so—and they have the power to transform creative projects into unexpected masterpieces.
Using Uncertainty to Unlock Creativity
The problem with uncertainty, of course, is that it doesn’t like to play by our rules. While I can structure my creative process to allow for a safe, fun kind of uncertainty (such as scrapping a rigid roadmap), I can’t control the scary types of uncertainty that happen (like having my husband fall ill on the way to an event).
I used to rage and rail against the universe when this second type of uncertainty happened in my life. Over time, I’ve learned to embrace it and use it in a variety of different ways: both in my creative process, and in my process as a human being searching for meaning and wisdom.
Here are 4 different approaches I’ve used to leverage uncertainty on the creative side.
Approach 1: Roll with the Unexpected
Sometimes, an idea goes completely off the rails. And sometimes, it kind of works. When this happens, my advice is just to roll with the unexpected. Use it to make a strange new wondrous thing. This thing may be just what you need for your current project. Even if it’s not, save it for later—there may be a time and a purpose for it somewhere down the line.
Approach 2: Find Clarity Through Uncertainty
Uncertainty often rears its head at a pivotal moment in the life of an idea. Often, the process of fighting through the uncertainty, forcing yourself to answer hard questions, and reevaluating your assumptions about the original concept, can help you clarify your vision and approach.
Approach 3: Amplify Your Original Concept with New Ideas
An unexpected tangent or factor thrown into your creative process doesn’t necessarily mean you have to scrap your initial approach. Instead, you can tweak your idea to accommodate the new stuff while still using the same core concept you had before. It’s like that additional challenge they throw in on cooking shows to keep things interesting halfway through the countdown—it amplifies the original concept while making it more robust.
Approach 4: Throw a Creative Tantrum
Ideas, when born, take on a life of their own. They grow bigger and become solid over time. At some point, they take on a personality all their own. When uncertainty intrudes and kills an idea, you grieve it like the death of a loved one. You deny it at first, and then you get angry. Really, really angry. Because no amount of wishing or planning or revising will bring it back to life.
When this happens, it’s okay to throw a creative tantrum. Use all of that rage and disappointment and helplessness and loss, and make something with it. It doesn’t have to be usable; it doesn’t have to be good; it doesn’t even have to make sense. It’s purpose it to help you process, to let go, to mourn, and eventually, to move on.
My adventure over the weekend was a valuable reminder that life, like creativity, is messy. It doesn’t follow a linear trajectory, and even when it does, there are usually unexpected surprises along the way. Instead of letting these unanticipated occurrences derail you, learn to use them as part of your creative process. Not only will you be a more resilient creator—you’ll also have a more expansive, interesting journey as an artist.
So the next time a project doesn’t go according to plan, take a deep breath and tell the world: Bring on the uncertainty.
How do you deal with uncertainty in your creative life? Tell me in the comments.