Navigating Uncertainty: Creativity and Meaning Amid a ‘Triple Pandemic’

The illustration, “Love Life,” by American cartoonist Adrian Tomine appeared on the cover of the Dec. 7, 2020, issue of New Yorker magazine. It depicts a young woman sitting in front of her computer. She’s presumably on a date. She wears a white blouse, lipstick, hoop earrings and bracelets. She sips a fancy cocktail.

The rest of the illustration depicts her living conditions — her surroundings not picked up by the computer camera.

“One of the things I love about this illustration is that it has so many scrumptious details,” said Natalie Nixon (pictured above) last month as she began her opening keynote session of Capture Higher Ed’s virtual conference, INNOVATE 2021. “In fact, each time I revisit it, I see a new detail. For example, the young lady, who is on a Zoom date of some sort … you can see that her legs aren’t shaven. Her bedroom is a hot mess. Her kitchen is full of dirty dishes. She’s got several bottles of wine on top of the fridge.”

Navigating Uncertainty

“Love Life” by Adrian Tomine, The New Yorker, December 7, 2020

Nixon — a creative strategist, global speaker and author of the book, The Creative Leap: Unleash Curiosity, Improvisation and Intuition at Work — was speaking to higher education enrollment and marketing professionals about “Navigating Uncertainty” … something the enrollment management industry was coping with even before the pandemic.

“The past 18 months or so have been a time — a chapter in our world and our lives — when we’ve had to navigate increasingly blurred boundaries,” she told conference attendees. “Blurred boundaries between work and home. Work and learning. Learning and play. And work and play.”

For Nixon, the illustration depicts the uncertainty we have all suddenly experienced and foreshadows what awaits us. “Yet, hopefully, we’ve learned some incredible lessons about ways we can navigate this uncertainty — these blurred boundaries — in ways that won’t make us feel as unsettled as I’m sure the young woman on this Zoom date is feeling.”

In the opening moments of her presentation, Nixon also referenced a March 2020 interview in the Harvard Business Review with David Kessler, one of the world’s foremost authorities on the topic of grief. The two takeaways Nixon wanted to share:

No. 1: Kessler says the five stages of grief that we typically think about — denial, anger, bargaining, sadness and acceptance — are non-linear.

“So, if you’re like me, and have been feeling like an emotional ping pong ball, you’re not alone,” Nixon said. “It’s totally normal to feel yourself one day feeling accepting of our new normal, and then the next day going into denial or bargaining, then sadness, and then you’re OK again.”

No. 2: In the interview, Kessler recommends adding on a sixth stage of grief — “meaning.”

“The reason this really resonates with me is because, as a creativity strategist, I know that creativity is all about the business of meaning making,” Nixon said. “Creativity is what helps us identify purpose. It helps us to identify our next normal.”

Identifying purpose and the next normal can be daunting during, what Nixon refers to as, “a triple pandemic” — a “health pandemic” with the worldwide spread of COVID-19; a “social pandemic” with the social justice protests last summer and the events at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6; and an “environmental pandemic” with the profound strains being caused by climate change.

“There’s a lot we’re having to navigate,” Nixon said. “There’s a lot to grieve. There’s a lot of loss. And if we realize that during the process of navigating these blurred boundaries we can really end, not on the plateau of acceptance, but on this uptick of meaning — that is everything.

“And the great news is that creativity helps us navigate that uncertainty. It helps us identify a new true north. And a new way forward.”

By Kevin Hyde, Senior Content Manager, Capture Higher Ed