Responsive YouTube Video

Listen or watch on your favorite platforms

Many of us resist stepping into the unknown, clinging to comfort zones that stifle creativity and self-discovery. We shy away from new challenges due to a deep-seated fear of failure or embarrassment, missing out on invaluable learning opportunities, and limiting our capacity for innovation.

In this episode, we shine a light on the power of embracing the unknown to discover our true creative potential. We discuss the challenges of starting and continuing creative projects, examining the fears and uncertainties that often arise. We introduce strategies for overcoming these challenges, emphasizing the importance of being present, practicing with intention, and navigating fear through mindfulness and breath work.

Join me as we dive into the opportunities that lie in the moments of uncertainty, and as we explore the beauty of learning to trust our ability to stay present in the unknown.

Topics Covered

  • Understanding resistance in creative projects
  • The role of uncertainty in creativity
  • Exploring your edges and blind spots
  • The power of embracing messiness
  • Learning from the archetype of The Fool
  • Developing trust in the unknown
  • Staying present in the moment of creation
  • Leading with breath in the face of fear
  • Embracing the unknown in the present moment

⏱︎ Time Stamps

00:00 • Introduction to embracing the unknown

00:22 • Understanding resistance in creative projects

02:09 • The role of uncertainty in creativity

02:39 • Exploring your edges and blind spots

04:47 • The power of embracing messiness

11:24 • Learning from the archetype of The Fool

15:36 • Developing trust in the unknown

17:19 • Staying present in the moment of creation

20:04 • Leading with breath in the face of fear

22:29 • Conclusion: Embracing the unknown in the present moment

📄 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 stepping into the unknown with our creative project, with whatever you're creating in the world. And the resistance that comes up in the middle of that, what that's all about, how to transform that into something amazing and open, and then how to actually start to practice with it.

So let's talk about resistance. When we, let's say, have a book project to do, or some kind of creative art project, or some kind of content you're creating, and you're noticing that you're not actually showing up for it, you're resisting it, you're putting it off, weeks have gone by, maybe months or years.

What's going on there? What happens is that we have resistance when we try to step into the unknown. Resistance is a sign that we don't know exactly what we're doing, that we are actually going into unknown territory. If it's something that we already know how to do, it's easy, right? We don't have a lot of resistance. "Okay, I can answer quick messages. I can do things that are really easy. I can scroll on social media or consume content." That's all easy stuff that doesn't require me to step into territory that I don't know how to deal with. I don't already know exactly how it's going to go.

So, this is any place where we are creating, where there's some kind of meaningful work, where there's a relationship, where there's something we don't know if we can do it as well as we like. So, resistance will show up when we step into unknown territory, and we don't always have a conscious awareness of that, that we are stepping into the unknown.

We don't usually phrase it in that way, but resistance is a symptom that will tell us like, "Oh, I must be entering into unknown territory here." Even if you've done something for a while, maybe you're doing it in a new way or with a new audience or at a new level, or there's something different about it that you don't feel completely in control of.

So, this is stepping into the unknown. And what we can see is that we are unsure, of course, when we're in the unknown. And it doesn't matter how often you have done this in the past. I've worked with people who are like, "Yes, I am good at dealing with uncertainty. I embrace uncertainty," and I'm like, "That's amazing. I really love that you can acknowledge yourself. You have that kind of trust."

And yet, are there areas where that's not true? Where are your edges? If you don't see your edges, that's a blind spot. It's "Oh, I think I'm amazing at this, but you don't see where you're resisting. You don't see where you are keeping yourself safe, where you're like, 'Oh, I'm going to stay in my wheelhouse here. I'm not going to go over there and do this new thing.'" So, it's hard to see. It's hard to see when we're doing it.

Sometimes it's really obvious. Like, "I've been wanting to do this project for a long time now, and I am just not doing it." What can we see what's going on here?

First of all, this is a property of the unknown. It's something that's expected. If you go into the unknown, you will have resistance. You will feel some uncertainty, but also instability in the ground under your feet. You'll feel some unsureness in yourself.

So, that's what's going on here. And you can see that in the unknown, what we're really afraid of is to have something go badly. So that we will then be proven inadequate or we don't know what we're doing. This is where imposter syndrome comes up. Imposter syndrome is exactly this: "I'm stepping into this unknown and people are going to see, I don't know what I'm doing." Yeah, of course, you don't know what you're doing. It's the unknown. That's expected.

We want to feel like we are on top of it. We know what we're doing. People can see that I'm good at this, but that really means that we are never allowing ourselves to be newbies, to be beginners, to really be bad at something, which is what we have to do to go through the unknown and start to create something new. We have to suck at it.

And if we can only be good at something, then we are going to stay in safety. We'll never be expanding our boundaries, never be trying stuff where we don't have a hundred percent certainty and trust. And so, if you are always feeling good at stuff, that's a sign, actually, that's another symptom that you are actually resisting the unknown. You're not taking on anything pushing you to new territory.

One of the things that we can do to transform this is to allow ourselves to be bad at something. Allow ourselves to be messy, to make a mess, to fall on our face. And if we can start to embrace this kind of mindset that "I am going to just go in there and make a mess." You can see this for people who are fearless with learning something new. Let's say a language or an instrument. There are some people who are like, "I want to watch a bunch of videos, listen to a bunch of things so that I can know how to speak the language and then I'll try it."

And then there are others, I have a friend, his name is Benny Lewis, an Irish dude who created a site, I think he still does it, a blog called Fluent in 3 Months, something like that. It's a controversial take, but the great thing about him is that he encourages you to just start, right away, start speaking.

And that's a controversial approach, but something I really love about that is that it's just saying, "I'm gonna mess this up a bunch of times, and that's actually how I'm going to learn by fearlessly trying out some phrases on day one, going to a grocery store in a new country and saying, 'I don’t know what to do here, but how much is this apple, right?' Try that out. And then, if you're like, 'Ah, I don’t know what that was,' you look it up, but you try first and then you say, 'How much change can I get from this?' You go and actually try and do a task and speak.

And this is a modeling of what we're talking about here. Can you embrace trying something out on day one before you know how to do something? Go out and make a fool of yourself. And if you're learning a musical instrument, this would be the same thing. It's okay, do you need to watch 20 hours of YouTube videos telling you how to play a guitar before you start, actually trying out playing some notes?

That's a really simple example, but there's always going to be the next level of that, like, where are you practicing something over and over again, without actually trying something new? I can do these scales perfectly, but I'm not trying a song that is going to require me to mess up, or maybe I'm doing a messing up, it's okay for me to mess up when there's no one looking, but I can't do it in front of others. So that would be the new messiness. Can I actually stand in front of others, play my musical instrument or whatever it is, and be a freaking mess?

This is in the work of Brené Brown, where she talks about the power of vulnerability. This is vulnerability, a willingness to expose yourself, risk looking inadequate, expose that and it's not just sharing your deepest secrets, that's obviously vulnerability that leads to connection like sharing all the difficult things you've gone through, but there's also a vulnerability of just standing in front of others and being willing to be a mess, to make a mess, to get it wrong.

So, that's what we're talking about here, is how can we embrace the idea of making a mess?

I'll give you an example in my life. I've talked about this in the past, I think in Season One, but something I'm doing as part of my Zen studies is I am preparing to take some vows, some precepts. And part of that preparation is sewing a thing called a Rakusu, which is just a little square that you wear around your neck. I have to sew by hand, right? And it's really simple if you know how to sew, and I am terrible at it.

And so I remember when I first started, it's just, "Oh crap. Even just sewing, like how to tie a knot in the thread, was totally unknown to me and doing the first stitch like this feels so, I don't know what I'm doing here. And like they're all crooked and all of that kind of stuff." So every single thing that I was doing, it felt like I was doing it all wrong, and I don't like that feeling. I don't like to feel like I'm doing it all wrong. And so this created a lot of resistance in me. I didn't want to do it.

And this feeling persists to this day. I've actually been working on this project for a few years now, something like that. And, every once in a while, I'll take it up and I'll like actually take it on and I'm doing it right now. But, there's a lot of times where I'm just unwilling to be terrible at something.

And I realized this, that I like to be good at stuff, but I don't like to go through the phase where I'm bad at stuff. And this is not just with sewing, it's with a bunch of different places where I'm like, "Ooh, I'm really fascinated with this, but I'm unwilling to be really bad." And that resistance comes up and then what happens is I just don't do it.

Whereas someone who has a fearlessness around sewing, they're just like, "I'm going to sew a bunch of ugly stuff, like stuff that just looks like a huge mess and it's all crooked. And I'm going to ask questions, or figure it out as I go." And they, within a month or two, would have been really good at it if they had that fearless attitude to sew bad stuff for a while.

It doesn't matter what area we're talking about here. If you want to go create content online, YouTube videos, a podcast, like I'm doing here, a blog, and newsletter, short form videos on TikTok or wherever you do it. These are all places where we don't like to look bad. But the people who are willing to just, "Ugh, this is just the mess that I'm in right now, I'm just not good at this and my videos are poorly lit and all of this kind of stuff." If you watch their YouTube channel, they started out crappy and they got better and better. If you look at their blog, this is, every blogger, they always start out terrible. And it's embarrassing, but they get better and better as they go.

People who are willing to fall on their face, be a mess in public, and embrace that kind of attitude of, "I can be terrible at something for a little while and it's okay." Those are the people who are going to get good at something.

And as we talk about a creative project or what you're creating in your life, in the world, I really love for you to look at, "Where am I not giving myself permission to be a mess, to make mistakes, to be a newbie, to be bad at something?" And could I start to give myself that permission? It's really powerful permission.

I'm going to share a couple more things that I think are really important around this topic. And one is a stand that I've chosen for myself this year. The stand is "The Fool." This is, if you look at, it's an archetype, but if you look at tarot cards, I'm not a tarot card guy, but if you look at tarot cards, there's one of the tarot cards is "The Fool." And this is often depicted as someone who is naively about to, like, step off of a cliff, doesn't see it.

So, this is someone who, in some ways, is about to naively fall to their peril. But what "The Fool" really is, is an example and archetype of someone who is willing to have the rug yanked out from under their feet. They are willing to do that. And this is in service of their growth, because "The Fool," unlike the rest of us, knows that growth, transformation, learning, the deepest, most intimate relationships, love, all of our meaningful stuff, is only acquired, only accomplished if we allow ourselves, we're willing to have the rug yanked out from under our feet, over and over again.

And so "The Fool" is an archetype that really is a model of that, of "Can I be a fool? Can I be bad at something? Can I step into the unknown? And know that I am going to fall on my face and make a mess." I hold that for myself as an archetype, but it's not that it's a perfect thing that I need to be. It's a model for myself.

And this is what I am choosing to come from in my life: to be "The Fool." To let myself make a mess. To let myself have the rug yanked out from under my feet and just look like a complete fool. And so that's the stand that I'm choosing for this year.

And as I take on my projects, it's "Let me learn. Let me be bad at this. Let me make a mess. And as I do so, be willing to say, 'Oh, that was interesting, right? Like, why did it go that way?' As opposed to 'Oh my god, I suck,' and I start to beat myself up. It's more 'Oh, what happened there? What can I learn from that? How could I have fun with this?'"

So "The Fool" is a stand, and I really wanted to bring that out here in this episode because that's what we're talking about here. Stepping into the unknown, where our resistance is, where we don't want to be a fool, and then letting ourselves be a fool, and modeling that for others. Just being that permission, not only for ourselves but for everyone else.

I mentioned fun, having fun with it. Play is another thing that we can do. "Can I bring a sense of play into the unknown so that I don't have to get it right? I can just play with it and mess it up."

I have this young relative of mine who I think is an amazing model. He's really good at some things. And I was like, "I wonder how he got good." So I started studying him. And the way that I studied him was challenging him to do something that he wasn't already good at. And I watched him play with that. And the funny thing about what he does is he just messes around a bunch of times and just has fun and does things because he thinks it's hilarious. But doesn't have to be good at it.

Unlike me, who are, let's say I'm playing a video game, I'm like, "I'm trying to get it right and do my best." He's just like doing a bunch of really stupid things. And it's funny to watch, but if you watch him long enough doing this kind of playing around, being a fool, being a troll kind of thing, he actually will get better way faster than me. And not just because he's a lot younger. That's part of it, I'm sure, but it's also because he's willing to just be a total idiot about it. I love that.

Okay, so what we're doing here is we're not only being a permission for being a fool, being, bringing play, being a permission to make a mess, and be a newbie, and be bad at something. What we're really doing is trusting ourselves, or learning to trust ourselves, developing a trust in ourselves in the unknown.

And that trust always has to be earned, over and over again, so I might be really good at something and feel like I have a lot of trust in myself, but when I step into the unknown again, a new place, a new arena, I won't have that trust. I'm going to have to earn that trust again and again.

Even those of us who've earned a lot of trust in ourselves and we're like, "I trust myself so much," in this new area, we will see "I don't have trust in myself... yet." We have to earn that trust by practicing in the unknown, playing, making a mess, and seeing how we deal with it. It's not that it's not trust that we won't make a mess or make mistakes.

It's not trust that we won't look bad or fall on our face. It's trust that if we do, it will be okay. We can clean up the mess. We can pick ourselves up off the ground. We can comfort ourselves, and then learn something from it, and give ourselves some grace, and then try again. That's the trust that we're developing, and we have to develop it in each new area. It doesn't just come with us from the last area where we developed it. We have to redevelop that trust.

And so wherever you are taking on here in your project, wherever you're taking on, this is an area where you probably won't have trust in yourself. And if you do, if you're like, "I trust myself completely," then you might not be looking at your edge yet. So you might look at like, where don't I trust myself? Where am I not a permission to play or make a mess or be a fool?

A couple more things I want to share in terms of practicing with this. One thing we'll notice when we step into the unknown and we're feeling resistance and we don't want to make a mess, is that we will be thinking about the future. And so we're thinking about "Ooh, if I do this and I make a mistake, they will see how bad this is. And they're going to judge me, or I'm just gonna look like a total idiot. And this is something I don't want. I don't like the way that's going to feel."

And so I'm resisting it because I don't want that to happen, but that hasn't happened yet. It's in the future. Now, maybe it's happened in the past, there might be some evidence for it. We might have gotten teased about it or laughed at or whatever, but because of what's happened in the past, we are now anticipating this future scary thing and we're trying to avoid it.

This is us getting ahead of ourselves, but what if we could just stay right here in this moment? In this moment, we can look at what's happening, and when I'm writing, actually, none of that judgment has happened yet. I'm just playing around with it, making a mess, playing with some words, just seeing what emerges in this moment.

And I don't know if it's going to be any good. Who knows? That's the future. Whether something's going to be good or bad, first of all, is a construct, but second of all, is a future concern. I don't know if it's going to be good or bad because I haven't done it yet. "Why don't I just try it? And then we'll see. At that point, I can deal with if it sucks, okay, great, let's revise it. Let's try something new. Let's toss it completely out. Let's riff on it."

There's a lot of possibilities that can happen at that point. But right now, that's not my concern. Right now, if I slow it down in the present moment, my only concern is getting some stuff out onto the page, seeing what can emerge, being a permission to play and be a fool.

What I want you to notice if you're practicing with us is when you are looking towards the future. When you're anticipating some future embarrassment or pain or something scary. When you're anticipating something being bad or some kind of judgment. That's all in the future. And what if you could just slow down and be right here with the actual act of creating?

The moment of creation is just when something emerges. "Could you be playful right now? Could you be curious? Could you bring your heart into something and love? Could you be messy? Could you be a fool?" So, these are things that can happen right now. The other stuff we're talking about is in the future, so you might notice, "Oh, my mind is anticipating the future." Just come back and be one of those things in the present.

The last thing I want to share with you for this episode is if you are practicing this and you're feeling some fear about making a mess, being a fool, some future problem, one way to lead ourselves when we are afraid is with the breath. The breath is a portal into leadership.

And when I say leadership, I'm talking specifically, in this case, about leading ourselves. We are afraid. We are resisting the unknown. We don't want to step into the unknown and make a fool of ourselves. And so, when we are afraid, it's not like that's bad. The fear is something we don't want to have. It's just that it's there. We have some fear. It's simply true that there's fear that's present.

And if we can just notice this, "What if we could honor the fear by just being present to it?" And we can lead the fear with some breath. And what that means, what that might look like, is "Let me deepen the breath. Not just up here, the shallow breath in the upper chest, but down into the lower chest." This is where the sternum is. As you can see, we're expanding the rib cage, expanding the sternum.

And then we can deepen the breath even further by expanding the belly button.

And then we can deepen even further by expanding the breath down into the pelvic area. Expanding the balloon of your breath downward towards the earth.

That requires a relaxing of the lower belly, which is hard to do when we're resisting the unknown. But if you can relax that lower belly, breathe deeper down into the pelvic floor, into the hips, into the ground, what happens is we start to lead the fear through the breath, and the fear starts to slow down.

It's okay to feel fear, and then we can let ourselves step into the unknown in this moment. Not the unknown of the future, but the unknown of right now.

That's what we're talking about here. The unknown of the present moment. Stepping into that over and over with permission to be a fool, make a mess, be a newbie, be an idiot, and completely suck. That's what we're talking about practicing. Can you practice that?

Thanks, my friends.

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.

Connect with Leo


Zen Habits

The Fearless Living Academy

Fearless Mastery


Music: Salem Beladonna & Robrecht Dumarey

Editor: Justin Cruz

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