Kierkegaard: Creativity Must Master Dread of the Unknown

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

Kierkegaard: Creativity Must Master Dread of the UnknownThis 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 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.

Related Blog Posts

Photo Credit Addy Clarke 031-365 Tunnel

Images from Randall Munroe (XKCD) for “Efficiency” and “Is it Worth the Time?

1 thought on “Kierkegaard: Creativity Must Master Dread of the Unknown”

  1. Good one Sean, so true! As Heisenberg observed, we can’t know it all. Essential to strategy is to develop and articulate a point of view about an uncertain future that’s clear & convincing, both to oneself (to avoid analysis paralysis) and to others (to tilt the odds that together you can invent the future). In other words, get comfortable with the fact that you’re probably not going to get it right, yet it doesn’t matter. Just do it. Consider the quotes: “Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”; also ““If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” that are mistakenly attributed, respectively, to Goethe and Henry Ford (or Steve Jobs). Savvy marketers have learned from the past four decades of research in cognitive science / behavioral psychology regarding how we humans, when faced with the unknown, make our decisions. I suspect the field remains ripe, especially with a good AI layer, to exploit via any number of business models. If only I could pick one to run with.

    Mark thanks for your insights. I think formal education’s reward structure tends to drive out the entrepreneurial mindset because you have to be right better than 80% of the time to advance. Entrepreneurs iterate and refine so that any one decision may only be “right” 20-30% of the time they converge on a solution that has a lopsided payout.

    I have blogged about the “boldness” quote attributed to Goethe in “Burn Your Boats But Not Your Bridges” and “Welcome to 2009.” I have blogged about the “faster horses” quote attributed to Ford in “Interview Prospects To Find Unmet Needs, Persistent Problems, and Goals at Risk” and “Entrepreneurial Passion and the Science of Startups.” In the latter I concluded the quote was falsely attributed to Ford based on a reading of his “My Life and Work

    “A horseless carriage was a common idea…ever since the steam engine was invented…”
    Henry Ford in “My Life and Work

    Here is the full paragraph for more context; this makes it seem very unlikely to me that he ever said “if I had asked my customers what they wanted they would have said faster horses.”

    “Even before that time I had the idea of making some kind of a light steam car that would take the place of horses–more especially, however, as a tractor to attend to the excessively hard labor of ploughing. It occurred to me, as I remember somewhat vaguely, that precisely the same idea might be applied to a carriage or a wagon on the road. A horseless carriage was a common idea. People had been talking about carriages without horses for many years back–in fact, ever since the steam engine was invented–but the idea of the carriage at first did not seem so practical to me as the idea of an engine to do the harder farm work, and of all the work on the farm ploughing was the hardest. Our roads were poor and we had not the habit of getting around. One of the most remarkable features of the automobile on the farm is the way that it has broadened the farmer’s life. We simply took for granted that unless the errand were urgent we would not go to town, and I think we rarely made more than a trip a week. In bad weather we did not go even that often.”
    Henry Ford in “My Life and Work

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