Take a scroll through my Instagram page and read my bio on this very site and you’d be forgiven for thinking I was nailing the whole freelance thing. I write for some of the country’s top media outlets and I get to travel in the name of work. But that doesn’t stop me freaking out every time I check my bank balance.
I forfeited the security blanket of a regular pay check last year and have been struggling to deal with the uncertainty of my new direction ever since. January, in particular, was a tough month for me. I was ready to start the year with a bang, but every door I knocked on was firmly closed. My self-esteem dropped as rapidly as my bank balance, creating a nasty loop of anxiety that made it twice as hard to go out there and find the work I desperately needed.
“Uncertainty can be kryptonite to the budding entrepreneur, who faces the unknown every single day.”
Fast forward to March and it was (thankfully) a whole different story. A feature I had pitched was picked up, a big editing job came through, and suddenly I was busy again. More than that: I had purpose again.
I remember driving home from a café and musing over the serendipity of my new life, thinking how lucky I was to be able to write about topics that interest me and create my own hours and stretch myself in new ways when it hit me: the exact thing I disliked about being my own boss was also the reason I was inspired to follow this path. It’s just that when I was feeling down I called it ‘uncertainty’ and when I was on a high, it was ‘possibility’.
My epiphany that day was a game-changer – I realised I held the power to avoid future unproductive freak-outs with this simple mind-shift. But it’s not surprising that fear of the unknown tripped me up in the first place, says Mary Hoang, principal psychologist at The Indigo Project (who is also a winner of our Lexus Start-up Competition).
“The human brain is not designed to deal with uncertainty, as we have an evolutionary mechanism for survival,” she explains. “Anything that is uncertain, scary or new is perceived by our brains as a threat and sends a stress signal to the brain to fight or flee. This can be so overwhelming psychologically and physiologically that we tend to abandon new ideas to literally ‘stay safe’.”
Translation: uncertainty can be kryptonite to the budding entrepreneur, who faces the unknown every single day. Learning to love this uncomfortable feeling is the key to thriving when you’ve just chucked in your sensible job and poured your life savings into a new venture.
“Embracing uncertainty as a certainty in life can be comforting for many, as we have this notion that we should be ‘in control’ of everything,” says Mary. “Understand that uncertainty is a beautiful opportunity for us to explore new avenues in life, that it forces us to utilise our creativity to solve problems, and ultimately we get to see our resilience, determination and character as we move through difficulty.”
Of course, getting to this sweet spot takes some work. Mary recommends talking to a mentor or psychologist, developing a mindfulness practice to better handle negative thoughts, regularly reconnecting with your vision and values, and making an effort to focus on self-care during times of stress. For me, getting back into exercise and confiding in some close friends went a long way towards pulling me out of my slump. But after suffering some serious self-doubt in the process, I’m also keen to try Mary’s suggestion for combating the confidence-killing aspect of uncertain times.
“It’s important to learn how to regularly celebrate your wins and feel proud of yourself for what you have already accomplished,” she says. “Having a ‘wins jar’ where you regularly add the things you’ve accomplished on slips of paper helps to remind you of your milestones and achievements, and is great to read when you’re having a particularly bad day.”
Corny? Yes. Crucial? Absolutely. So, am I best buds with uncertainty now? Not quite – I’ve found myself here again, in another slow spell, nervously wondering where my next break will come from and what to do about those invoices that still haven’t been paid. Except this time, instead of spiralling into despair, I’m reminding myself that what I’ve lost in financial security has been more than fairly compensated for in opportunity. I can pitch out all those exciting ideas swimming around my mind, to titles I’ve always dreamed of writing for. I can work on passion projects that I never had the energy to pursue as a full-time magazine staffer. I remind myself that there is no cap on my salary, and there is no end to possibilities.