Kierkegaard: Creativity Must Master Dread of the Unknown

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 2 Open for Business Stage, 3 Early Customer Stage, skmurphy

Entrepreneurs can be paralyzed by the rich set of possibilities they face. It seems almost paradoxical that when you have one choice you can start immediately, when you have two you can flip a coin, but as possibilities multiply the desire to make the best choice can paralyze you. To fully embrace your creativity you must master your dread of the unknown.

Kierkegaard’s “Concept of Anxiety”

“The concept of anxiety is almost never treated in psychology. Therefore, I must point out that it is altogether different from fear and similar concepts that refer to something definite, whereas anxiety is freedom’s actuality as the possibility of possibility.


Anxiety may be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down the yawning abyss becomes dizzy. But what is the reason for this? It is just as much in his own eye as in the abyss, for suppose he had not looked down. Hence, anxiety is the dizziness of freedom, which emerges when the spirit wants to posit the synthesis and freedom looks down into its own possibility, laying hold of finiteness to support itself. Freedom succumbs to dizziness.”

Soren Kierkegaard “The Concept of Anxiety

This translation of anxiety might as well substitute unfocused fear, dread or angst for anxiety. I think “dread” may capture the sense in English. Here are three ways to avoid getting trapped exploring the possibility of possibility:

  1. Concentrate on avoiding ruin, playing for “good enough” and long run sustainability over the best possible outcome. This has the advantage of keeping you in the game and continuing to learn.
  2. Satisfice: define what would constitute an acceptable choice and pick the first alternative that satisfies your criteria. This has the advantage of speed, which can be very useful in competitive situations if your strategy is one that compels a response (or at least cannot be ignored).
  3. Consider the “expected value of perfect information” as an upper bound on what you can learn from continued exploration and analysis. This helps avoid analysis paralysis.

“If you choose not to decide
You still have made a choice”
Rush in “Free Will”

Entrepreneurial Creativity Must Master Dread of the Unknown

Entrepreneurs in a startup are faced with the simultaneous challenges of creating

  • a new product,
  • a new business, and
  • themselves as developers, managers, and sales people.

These three degrees of freedom can create a myriad of possible directions, a startup team can feel trapped at a very large crossroads.  The desire to make the best choice is one source of dread, but so is the need to let go of other possibilities. When you are starting out you can feel full of possibility–for the product, for your business, and for what you can make of yourself. The act of mentally letting go of possibilities can cause more pain than some can stand. In terms of personal growth, letting go of an old expertise to learn new methods and skills can also be more than some can face.

“Change is the essence of life; be willing to surrender what you are for what you could become.”
Reinhold Niebuhr

Even a Fork In The Road Can Paralyze

A two way choice can be especially difficult if the team is split more or less evenly. Normally the way a team faces this is as the choice between continuing on the trajectory you are on or making a change. Here inertia and the fear of leaving the known but increasing uncomfortable is balanced against having to start over in one more aspects of your strategy. One way this is often resolved is to stick with plan A until it’s not just incredibly painful but no longer viable–you are facing ruin. The key here is to regularly track your assets–in particular your cash flow and team’s morale–so that  you retain the ability to execute a new strategy and survive the transition before Plan A leads to ruin. One way to maintain your viability is what Peter Drucker called “organized  abandonment” where the question of whether to abandon Plan A based on the team’s current state of information is asked at regular intervals.

Be Careful of Sharpening the Saw Down To The Handle

Another risk in that you continually pick a “better” Plan B but never stick with it long enough to harvest enough of the benefits to pay for the transition costs. The chart from Randall Munroe’s XKCD offers a compact analysis of the trade-off between improved performance and the learning curve needed.

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