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As creators, we often find ourselves entangled in a web of indecision, perfectionism, and self-doubt, which prevents us from fully unlocking our creative potential. To liberate ourselves, we need to embrace the unknown, confronting and accepting the risks of failure, judgment, and feelings of inadequacy. But how can we transform our fear of the unknown into a playground of creativity and discovery?

In this episode, we explore the challenges and fears that hold us back from stepping into the unknown of our creative projects, and how adopting a stance of playful curiosity can lead us to unexpected discoveries. We examine how fear, resistance, and the quest for a "safe middle ground" affect our creative journeys and introduce the archetype of The Fool as a guiding principle in creative exploration.

Join me as we explore how the practice of stepping boldly into the unknown, armed with curiosity and a sense of adventure, can transform the creative process into a journey of self-discovery and meaningful expression.

Topics Covered

  • The importance of exploring the unknown in creative projects
  • Confronting and understanding the fears that prevent us from creative exploration
  • The archetype of The Fool as a metaphor for embracing uncertainty and risk in creativity
  • Overcoming indecision, perfectionism, and the fear of judgement
  • The illusion of a "safe middle ground" in creativity and its pitfalls
  • The role of curiosity, play, and adventure in transforming the creative process
  • Adopting The Fool stance in creative endeavors
  • Choosing a stand and stepping into the unknown with confidence and purpose

⏱︎ Time Stamps

00:00 • Diving into the unknown: The creative journey

00:34 • The power of embracing 'The Fool' archetype

00:57 • Identifying and overcoming creative blocks

05:45 • The trap of seeking safety and avoiding the unknown

07:16 • Finding the middle ground: A delicate balance

08:33 • The insignificance of inadequacy and embracing discovery

12:38 • Adopting The Fool's stand: A path to growth and learning

17:18 • The drunken toddler: An analogy for creative exploration

21:08 • Choosing your stand in the creative process

22:37 • Conclusion and invitation to share your journey

📄 Transcript

Welcome to the Zen Habits podcast, where we dive into how to work with uncertainty, resistance, and fear around our meaningful work. This is for anyone who wants to create an impact in the world and cares deeply enough to do the work. I'm your host, Leo Babauta, creator of the Zen Habits blog.

Okay, so in this episode, we're going to talk about exploring the unknown as we create. As you take on a creative project, what is it like to actually step into the unknown and explore that with a sense of curiosity, discovery, exploration, adventure. And what trips us up? What gets in the way of that exploration? How this typically goes, and then a new way of tackling it.

The new way that I'm going to talk about is a stand that I am taking this year, which is The Fool. So, I'm going to talk about The Fool and that archetype, and how I'm standing as it has, how I've chosen into that stand, and how I'm working with that, how that's working in my own creative projects.

So, I'll talk about all of that. But at this point in the season, I'd really invite you to notice where you are in relation to creating and pouring your love into your creative projects. If you've chosen a project to play along with, how's that going? What are you noticing at this point? Where is your edge? Where are you really challenged? Resisting stepping into the unknown.

It might be just showing up each day for your daily writing practice, or whatever the practice is that you are doing. It might be that you're struggling with sharing it with people and getting feedback. Maybe you don't want to put it into the world. Maybe you're getting caught up in indecision, perfectionism, or self-doubt.

Maybe you're not even starting. Maybe you just keep procrastinating on starting anything or choosing anything. So, there's a place here where, I've mentioned a number of common things that come up for people. There's a place where you are hitting the edge of the unknown and really resisting stepping into that.

So, if you can identify that, this episode will have a lot more meaning for you. And if you are thinking about this in the abstract, it will have a lot less meaning. So, even if you're not playing along with a project, choose some place where you've committed to something, and there's a struggle. Whether it's changing a habit, starting a business, creating more intimacy in your relationship, or leading others in some way.

Let's talk about the unknown. So, in each of these areas that I've just pointed to, we are talking about stepping into an area that is unknown. If you are not doing your daily writing practice, or music practice, or sketching practice, or whatever it is you've committed to, this is an area where you're like, "Oof, I'd rather answer emails, clean my kitchen, check my messages, scroll on social media, watch YouTube."

These are common things where they're not unknown. Checking messages is not hard for the most part. Maybe for some people, there's unknown there, but for a lot of people, it's just, "Oh yeah, check, check, check. Maybe give a little thumbs up or whatever it is that I do. A heart something. Scroll on Instagram. Quickly answer a few emails."

These are not unknown for a lot of people. For some people, they might be, but for a lot of people, if you're doing this to avoid doing something else, like writing, then you're moving away from the unknown towards something that feels safer for you. Now, sometimes email or messages can have a lot of unknowns. So, that might be an edge for some people.

So, you might just look for where is your edge and where are you resisting stepping into that unknown. And the unknown is a place where you don't know how things are going to turn out. You don't know if you're gonna fail or succeed. You don't know if you can handle it if you fail or if you succeed.

You don't know if you're gonna do it right, do a good job, or look like an idiot. You don't know if things are gonna get messy and chaotic if you're gonna be disappointed or face heartbreak. There's a lot of unknown, the uncertainty of stepping into meaningful work, of creating anything. So, this is us wanting to step into the unknown and resisting it. I want to create something, but I'm resisting it.

So, why do we step in, and why do we resist it? Hopefully, you can get, I've talked already about what is unknown, which is, "I don't know if I'm going to succeed. I don't know how this is going to go. I don't know if I can handle it." That's the why. "I don't know if I can do those things," means "I'm afraid that it will turn out badly. I'm afraid I'm going to fail, be inadequate, fall on my face. People are gonna judge me, or people are not gonna care." That's my fear.

So, the unknown carries with it fear, which we've touched on before, but that's the why. "I'm afraid that I'm gonna be inadequate," is a shorthand in a lot of cases. It's not maybe always that way. Maybe I'm afraid I'm gonna be too much for people. They're gonna be like, "Ah, who is this person? Too crazy, too weird, too much energy, too woo, too spiritual, too powerful," whatever it is.

In some way, we're afraid that the thing we're most afraid of about ourselves is going to be proven true here in the unknown. That's why we resist it. The cost of that, though, of keeping ourselves safe by not stepping into the unknown, the cost of that is actually the thing that we care most about in the world gets prevented.

Maybe there's an offering of who I am, the expression of my gift in the world, through this creating, doesn't get fulfilled. And that's heartbreaking. And in that heartbreak, we start to feel judgment of ourselves and feel inadequate, which is exactly what we didn't want to feel. This is why we didn't step into the unknown. We kept ourselves safe from feeling inadequate. Actually, what we're giving ourselves is more of it.

By refraining from stepping into the unknown, refraining from creating what we really want to create in the world, from refraining from our commitments, fulfilling our commitments to ourselves and others, we are actually giving ourselves exactly what we didn't want to feel, that inadequacy. And so, we didn't avoid it. We actually get more of it. "I'm just feeling terrible about myself," which is the trap. "I'm going to get inadequacy over there if I step into the unknown, or I'm afraid that I will. I'm going to get inadequacy over here if I keep myself safe and avoid."

There isn't a safe place to be adequate, right? To avoid this feeling. And actually, there is a safe place. Our hope is that there's a safe place, which is the perfect little middle spot between the unknown and the safe. Putting myself way out there into the unknown where I might risk everything and fail and be inadequate, and keeping myself safe and avoiding and feeling inadequate there.

So, the perfect middle, at least the hope is a perfect middle, is I'm going to put myself into the unknown, but just a tiny bit. I'm going to write three words today, which actually might be a way into the unknown, but maybe I just stay here. I'm doing something, so I'm proving it to myself, but I'm not doing that much where I might risk something. I'm never going to share it with anybody. I'm just going to sketch for myself and not show it to anybody. And then I'm doing something, but I'm not risking anything.

And that's the hope. But actually, if you practice that, you won't actually hit that safe spot because as you do it, you're going to be judging yourself for not putting it out there. "I'm doing it, but I'm keeping myself small," which is a feeling of inadequacy. Keeping myself safe. I'm not risking anything. You don't actually get that feeling of adequacy. You get the inadequacy even there, but just doing a little bit, not risking anything, but not avoiding. "I'm doing it, I'm doing it, I'm doing it," but I'm not actually risking anything.

This is the trap. How do I avoid this feeling of inadequacy? And the answer is, you don't. The feeling of inadequacy is actually not that significant. It's just a feeling that we get sometimes. "Ah, am I good enough? Am I worthy of love? Am I adequate? Am I inadequate? Do I suck?" It's an uncertainty. It's a shakiness. It's a fear, but it's not that meaningful. There's nothing really in it. "Am I adequate? Who knows? Who cares?" Of course, we care, but is that an important question?

It's if someone was like, all of a sudden, they had in their mind that they were supposed to be the right shade of orange. I don't know why they would want that, but let's just imagine in this hypothetical universe, they're like, "I need to be orange." Someone told me that I'm not orange enough. And so, they're like, "Am I orange enough today? Look at my skin. Maybe I need to put some more bronzer on there. I need to put some orange in my hair. Did I dye it enough?"

And they start asking people, "What do you think of my orange? I'm wearing a bright orange shirt and socks, but should my pants be orange? What do you think?" And what people are going to be wondering is, "Why is this person asking me about how orange they are? Like, why do they keep looking for reassurance about their orangeness?"

Because to that person, the question of, "Are you orange enough?" is just a weird question. "It's if you're fine in your orangeness, you could go without orange today and I wouldn't really care." So, for that person, the orangeness is not even an important question.

And that's what I'm trying to get to here. This is a kind of a silly example, but how adequate you are is like asking how orange you are. It doesn't matter. It's a wrong question to ask. What we really want to ask ourselves is other questions, like, "What would be meaningful for me in the unknown? If I risk something, if I put myself out there, what would be amazing about that? What do I really care about that's over there? What experience would I like to have in the unknown?" Maybe it's adventure, for example. Maybe it's play. Maybe it's curiosity"

These are different experiences than "Am I adequate? Am I good enough? Am I failing? Am I...?" Those are not relevant questions when your question is "Can I bring my curiosity about life into the unknown". So, we want to forget about that question. It'll come up. We can notice it's coming up and just, "Oh yeah, you're orange enough. Don't worry." That's not the question here. "I care about curiosity. I care about meaning. I care about serving people. I care about spirituality. I care about deep interconnection with the world or oneness and divinity." Whatever it is that you're actually wanting.

And so then, we practice stepping into the unknown, and we're going to notice that we get tripped up someplace. And then we notice where the question of, "Am I adequate enough?" is coming in again. "Oh yeah, I totally feel you. And where can my curiosity come in here with this worry about inadequacy?" It's there's a fear that's twisting around inside of me. "What is that like?" Curiosity can be turned inward to the fear.

Maybe it's adventure. "Okay, you're feeling some fear. Let's take that fear and bring it into adventure or let's play with it. If what you're wanting is more play, let's use it in my creation. Let's take it and be creative with that fear. Let's put it into the short story that I'm writing, this fear of adequacy or inadequacy."

And so, stepping into the unknown could be a place of play or adventure or curiosity or love. And so, this is what we get to start to create in the unknown, not just, "Am I adequate enough? Am I a failure?"

Okay. The other thing I want to share with you is the stand that I've chosen, and you don't have to choose this, but I wanted to give you an example. So, curiosity, love, adventure, these are some places, play that I've pointed to as a new way to be a stand, to bring in here. Like "I stand as love in the midst of the unknown."

But for me, what I've been standing in is an archetype, the archetype of The Fool. Now, The Fool is often represented, if you look at tarot cards, I'm not a tarot card dude, but if you look at tarot cards, The Fool is represented as this kind of wanderer who is oblivious to being about to step off of a cliff.

And as we think about that image, "I'm about to obliviously step off of a cliff," you can imagine that this fool doesn't know that the ground underneath him is about to be taken away, and they're about to fall and experience the shock, the surprise of the ground not being solid under them.

And what that really is like, "What I thought I knew is not actually real. What I thought I knew gets yanked away from under me." And The Fool is someone who is willing to have the ground taken away from them in service of something else. Having the rug yanked out from underneath you over and over in service of growth, of learning, of exploration and discovery, of transformation and change, of a new version of themselves.

That's what The Fool is. It's a willingness to be a fool, to make a fool of yourself, to be wrong, to discover where your knowledge has gaps, or was off. That's where real learning lies. Not in improving what we already know, but in realizing, "Ah, I thought it was this, and I was completely wrong." That's discovery.

Discovery isn't "Ah, I'm right about everything I thought I was right about." Discovery is, "I thought it was this, and I was completely off, and now I've learned something new," and that can be joyful. And of course, it can also be heartbreaking and embarrassing. We can feel shame when we have discovery like that.

But actually, the deepest learnings are available only in this place of discovery when we step into the unknown and say, "I think it's this." Or maybe we confidently say, "This is it," and then the ground gets yanked out from under us, and we're like, "Ooh." So that's the stand that I'm in. What does it mean to be standing in that? What it means is that I choose to be The Fool. And not purposely make myself look foolish, but be willing to be The Fool. Risk looking foolish. Be willing to look like I don't know what I'm doing.

And so, with the project that I'm working on, what that means is I'm willing to experiment and try and find out. And I resist it because I don't want to look like I don't know what I'm doing, but actually, this is what I want. This is what the process of growth looks like: being willing to try something, fall on your face, and learn from it. Be messy in this process.

And so, I had this stand, and I actually have a picture of a tarot card on my phone, The Fool. I have a couple of versions of that. I have this, and yet, I found myself going through the motions of it but then still resisting. And I realized, through getting supported by my coach, that I was actually not standing as The Fool in some places. And so, I had to be willing to fall on my face, even with this standing as The Fool, which sounds so joyous to me, but there was still resistance.

So, I had an experience in a coaching call where I felt like I was stumbling around like a toddler learning how to walk. You know how a toddler is just unbalanced and constantly catching themselves with their feet as the next step and then trying the next one and sometimes falling down. A toddler learning to walk is stumbling but catching themselves sometimes, falling down others.

This is what it feels like to walk around as The Fool: trying something out, trying it right now in the moment, and catching myself from falling, taking the next step, not knowing if it's the right step. It's a feeling of disorientation, a feeling of unfamiliarity, of awkwardness, of stumbling, and this phrase of a drunken toddler learning how to walk. I really like that phrase. It came up in my mind.

Now, of course, I don't advocate that toddlers get drunk. I actually think alcohol is not an appropriate thing to give to a toddler. And if you are trying to literally reproduce a drunken toddler, please don't. I'm not advocating drunkenness in any minors or really anyone, but definitely not toddlers or anyone in that realm.

And so, a drunken toddler is really about the kind of drunken nature of their walking. It's what it looks like to stumble around trying to catch yourself, being awkward, and not knowing how to do it. And they like wobble and they tend to teeter at the brink, at the precipice of disaster.

That's what it feels like when you are stumbling around, trying to figure something out that you don't know in the unknown. It feels unfamiliar, and there's a willingness to stay in this unfamiliar place. This place that's a little bit uncomfortable. I don't mean intensely uncomfortable but at least a bit, maybe five out of 10 uncomfortable, and unfamiliar, maybe a seven, but not more than that.

So, just be willing to think, "Oh, I don't know how to do this. And I feel weird. Often I feel like I don't know what I'm doing." This is the experience of a drunken toddler. I was stumbling around like a toddler. The phrase that's resonating for me right now is "stumbling around like a toddler". And that's what I'm doing here on this episode of this podcast. I didn't have a lot prepared for you. I just had the idea that I wanted to talk about the unknown and discovery and The Fool and toddler.

But I'm stumbling around in this episode, figuring it out as I go. And luckily, I actually feel like I'm making my way alright here in this episode. But if I didn't, I could delete it, or I could just let you see me stumble around. That's what I'm doing right now: letting you see me stumble around in the unknown, trying to discover something as I find my way.

And this is what it's like in our creative projects. We're discovering something new by being willing to go into the unfamiliar, into a place where we don't know if the ground underneath us is solid, but being willing to have that ground yanked out from under us and discover something new that we didn't know before.

And this means I'm going to try writing something where I don't know how it's going to turn out. I'm going to try drawing something where I don't know if there's anything here. Maybe it's just a weird sketch of The Fool stumbling around like a drunken toddler. Maybe. Maybe there is something here, but I don't know, and I'm willing to discover it.

So, what would discovery be like for you is something that I'm really curious about. What would it be like to risk something so that you can discover? And I'm not going to give you some concrete steps here, but what I will give you is a practice of noticing where you're resisting the unknown.

Notice what the unknown is for you right now, especially with your project. Notice what it feels like to resist that and to want to keep yourself safe from risking something. And then notice that the things that are most meaningful for you are in that unknown.

And then choose a stand. A stand could be a way of being. "I want to be curiosity as I step into the unknown. I want to be discovery. I want to be play, exploration. I want to be learning. I want to be adventure. I want to be joy. I want to be savoring deliciousness. I want to be love. I want to be divinity."

You can choose that. You could try The Fool or a stumbling drunken toddler—whatever it is that would feel amazing to you. So, choose a stand, write it down somewhere, have it as the lock screen on your phone. Definitely put a post-it note or some other note to yourself right where you would actually practice your creative project, and then actually practice what it would be like.

And you'll notice yourself going back to that question of, "Am I orange enough? Am I adequate enough? Am I good enough? Am I whatever enough?" You'll go back to that, but then choose back into it. You'll go back into the old way, and then you'll choose back into the new way. You have to keep choosing back into it, and notice when you're pulled out of it, into the old thing, and then choose back in again.

And through this, you'll be creating a new experience of yourself in the unknown. And you're going to be stumbling through creating that new experience like a stumbling drunken toddler.

Okay, that's what I've got for you. Please let me know what this practice is like for you. I would actually really love to hear from you: [email protected]. It really means a lot to me when you write to me. I get and read every single email of yours, and I reply to most.

I can't always reply to all of them, but I reply to most of them. And I just want you to share with me what your journey is like. What it's like to stumble around in the dark, like a drunken, stumbling, delirious, delicious toddler.

Have a great one, my friends. Thanks for listening and watching.

If you haven't already, please subscribe to this podcast in your favorite podcast app. If you found this episode useful, please share this podcast with someone you know, who cares deeply. That would be really meaningful to me. And, if you'd like to dive deeper with me into this work, please check out the blog at or get in touch at [email protected].

Thanks for listening, and I hope you'll join me every Wednesday for more episodes of the Zen Habits podcast.

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Music: Salem Belladonna & Robrecht Dumarey

Editor: Justin Cruz

Post-production: Diana C. Guzmán Caro & Amanda Goddard