Sam Conniff is the founder of Livity, the multi-award-winning social enterprising marketing agency and Don’t Panic, an activist agency. He’s also the author of ‘Be More Pirate’, a book (or rather a movement) about shifting your mindset, change-making and even a bit of rule-breaking.
Sam’s work has been widely recognised. He won UK Social Entrepreneur in the EY Entrepreneur of The Year Awards in 2010 and a Big Society Award in 2011. His agencies, Livity and Don’t Panic, went on to receive numerous business awards. And in 2020, Sam was invited to become an MBE for Services to Young People – which he turned down in an open letter to the Queen, suggesting an update to the honours system to move it away from its ‘colonial past’.
Most recently, Sam founded the Uncertainty Experts, an interactive documentary designed to help entrepreneurs embrace uncertainty and use it to create thriving businesses. We interviewed Sam to discover more about the Uncertainty Experts and how it can help creative entrepreneurs at any stage of their business journey. Here’s what he had to say…
Q: What made you start the Uncertainty Experts after reaching great success with Livity, Don’t Panic and Be More Pirate?
These businesses are all kind of related in that their continuum is change. Don’t Panic was my first company and still is a very activist agency. It led to the end of the relationship between Lego and Shell; it really makes a big difference in the world. And Livity took that further and was about change for young people, about harnessing brand power to make a difference.
We seemed to have won lots of awards and met several prime ministers, but that’s not where I thought it would lead. I wanted to make a difference, to make things better. I became a bit disillusioned with change and innovation. And I realised there’s an argument that a little bit of responsible rule-breaking is the responsible thing to do. That’s when I wrote ‘Be More Pirate’.
I’d just about pieced together this new role of being an author and what my business model was, and I was being taken up all over the world. I really needed it. I’d gone through a lot of emotional turmoil in my life previously, and just when I thought I was on the precipice of some stability – and this new world was offering me great opportunities – it all came to a crashing close.
Mine was a business that relied on travel, conferences and events, and that just disappeared overnight. Because in early 2020, with the arrival of the pandemic, real change arrived. I asked myself, “Are we really ready for the unknown? Are we going to harness the opportunities it could present?” The answer was no, and I had to look at what change meant amidst great change.
I went back to the young people of Livity, who’ve always been a source of inspiration. I learned about the work they’d done in the criminal justice system and with refugee groups around entrepreneurship. And in these groups, I found the most inspiring stories of innovation.
I saw so many traits that I wrote this one-off blog post called ‘Uncertainty Experts: are we looking in the wrong direction for leadership in uncertain times?’ It took off, and on the back of that, I started interviewing people around the world who represented a story of change that I thought was never heard.
I talked with three ex-offenders who now have really thriving businesses. Then there were certain people who’ve had to migrate through countries or navigate homelessness; they were really responding in a very different way. I realised that this is the talent we’re overlooking, often patronising, misunderstanding. And I thought, “Why the heck aren’t we listening to these guys instead of people who’ve never really experienced uncertainty?”
Think about this: being a successful gang leader is a sophisticated and demanding role, although not generally an acceptable one. But to survive and navigate your way through prison, you might draw on resources that you wouldn’t ordinarily. Likewise, someone going through homelessness or addiction is presented with tough choices that many of us don’t have to face.
Succeeding in these environments is a different nuance of success, but success nonetheless. What was interesting was that these individuals had then migrated to a mainstream and more recognisable world to you and I. They’d become CEOs, leaders, headteachers and activists. Their stories are a world away from the likes of Elon Musk’s. These experts are relatable even though their circumstances are unusual.
Q: How does the Uncertainty Experts work?
There are three dimensions to the Uncertainty Experts. If you’re going through the experience, it’s designed to feel like you’re watching an interactive documentary with the most remarkable characters. You meet three ex-offenders in every episode, and each one takes you through a journey. You sit and watch three weekly episodes, and at the end of it, you respond to a few challenges on your phone. I managed to get some support from Netflix to produce the screenings to a very high standard. That’s the first dimension.
The second dimension is that it’s been co-produced by the world’s first empathy designer. It’s a learning journey that takes you from a start point to a final point, which is measured. UCL put in place a series of scientific assessments before, after and six weeks on, which measures the participant’s uncertainty level. They get a score in the programme for core entrepreneurial traits such as decision making, open-mindedness and preference for predictability.
The third dimension is that it’s built on the best, most interesting neuroscience and behavioural psychology I could find. I worked with a couple of really remarkable scientists who’ve been studying this for quite a while at the Centre for the Study of Decision-Making Uncertainty, a niche lab at UCL. They’ve got ten years of research and theory; they provided me access to their research and best brains, and they built and put together the measures.
One extraordinary neuroscience specialist, Katherine Templar Lewis, got behind the project and gave me a lot of her time and energy. She has an understanding of the creative sectors and is an incredible science communicator – she ended up co-presenting the show with me.
Before the launch, I interviewed around 3,000 people: headteachers; front line workers; entrepreneurs, employees and leadership at all levels. One question I asked was, “What’s the negative human emotional impact of uncertainty?”
Many people talked about fatigue or exhaustion, or I’ve run out of my mojo, or it’s hard to make decisions, or I’m having trouble sleeping, or my anxiety seems high. Not many people identified that uncertainty is the interconnecting thing between all these things. And unlike all those problems, uncertainty becomes a skill set if you can increase your tolerance to it. It becomes a trait that leads to greater creativity, decision-making and problem-solving.
Out of the hundreds of responses, it came down to three things, fear, fog and stasis. Fear of change, or things not changing. Fog being confusion, and stasis, a loss of energy. These are conditions that most entrepreneurs will recognise. Because the journey of an entrepreneur is a perpetual state of pushing yourself back into uncertainty, into the unknown.
The three episodes of the Uncertainty Experts explore fear, fog and stasis. Then I interview three different experts, e.g., John Peters, a prisoner of war in the Iraq conflict, or Dr Vivienne Ming, who nearly took her own life before going through gender transition. They take the audience on the journey they’ve been through, and each of them presents the audience with a question for them to reflect on via their phone.
Q: Why does uncertainty freak us out?
It’s hardwired into our sympathetic nervous system – also known as the flight or fight response. That’s a release of adrenaline or cortisol – the stress response that allows us to run faster, feel stronger and have a heightened sense of the world around us (which thousands of years ago was designed for our short-term survival).
People in high-performance sports or who regularly work in conflict zones – or entrepreneurs – these types of people show cortisol release as a regular feature in their bloodstream. Cortisol is a killer. It does everything from deteriorate your teeth to kill your sex drive.
Your body picks up on stress quicker than your mind. There are six million senses in our body. But our brains can only process 50 or 60 of them. So our bodies are picking up loads more than our mind is capable of.
Entrepreneurs get used to uncertainty; it’s something they’re very familiar with – burnout, that strange sense of feeling alone even when you’re in company, that prolonged state of indecision, then these incredible bursts of adrenaline, of focus, of energy. We’re constantly in these states of the unknown, and it causes irregular chemical responses in the body.
The way to regulate this reaction is through the parasympathetic nervous system, an alternative within the body that controls rest and digestion. This is the counterbalance to fight or flight. And these two systems can be synthesised. You can do activities such as mindfulness techniques or breathing exercises to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system.
Q: What opportunities does uncertainty bring?
There are many studies, most recently from Yale University, looking at cognitive development and brain growth. Two known flow states stimulate neuroplasticity, which is the ability to grow new neural pathways.
These two states allow us this incredible growth, this element of new ideas, taking on board whole new concepts, really reforming cognitive behaviour. In these states, the brain lights up, and blood flows around at a very different pace.
These states can be achieved through microdosing psychedelics, and the other, more natural way is through uncertainty. If you can handle uncertainty, if you can stay in a place of ambiguity and discomfort longer, you arrive in a place that helps your learning. Even in a panic situation, even a phobia, your brain is alive, it’s working faster, and you can take on board more information.
Imagine you’re skiing. After a while, it’s pretty hard to ski freely because there are so many pathways that have been formed by skiers that have gone before you. You’re automatically guided in the tracks they’ve left behind. Until the morning comes, and there’s fresh snow. Uncertainty is an opportunity to re-lay fresh snow. It defrags the mind. It throws off everything that you thought was possible, and suddenly, new things are possible.
Most people view uncertainty as negative with the effects being risk, anxiety and not liking new situations. In contrast, the positive effects of uncertainty include excitement, a sense of opportunism, opening new doors and reaching new levels of innovation and creativity.
Communities or companies with a low tolerance to uncertainty struggle with new ideas – and new people. It affects diversity and innovation. How will you come up with great ideas if you don’t learn to embrace uncertainty?
Q: What traits do we need to develop to accept and thrive in uncertain situations?
I think it’s a state of not knowing. A difficult truth of leadership in the 21st century is that the right answer is, “I don’t know.” But that’s a hard answer to give your investors, team, or customer. Our political leaders can’t get away with saying they don’t know. And neither can the biggest names in business.
You’re constantly swimming towards some sense of surety. And when you get there, if you find yourself treading water, you need to once again be back out of your depth. It’s a tricky balance, that constant release of cortisol – because it’s bad for you! But, what’s bad for your business, is treading water.
It’s a fine line; every single day, walking in the deep end of your life. But if you’re in a place where you can answer all the questions, and you’re not saying, “I don’t know,” at least half the time, then you’re not far enough out there.
The holy grail is reconciling that uncomfortable paradox and presenting confidently that you don’t know, but you’re going to work it out. John Keats summed it up brilliantly when he coined the phrase ‘negative capability’.
Q: What tools would you recommend to help creative entrepreneurs tackle uncertainty?
If you’re not ready to go through the Uncertainty Experts programme, take the free test on the website; this will give you an idea of your current tolerance to uncertainty. You’ll also find helpful resources there – I’ve linked to loads of books and articles that I’ve read that have helped me along the way.
One radical idea worth learning about is ‘embodied cognition’. This relates to our emotional gut instinct being not only as powerful but as accurate in decision-making as our normal positive brain function.
I’d always viewed the emotional decision-making process as a secondary feature. So to consider that they’re as equally accurate, that when you combine them – that’s the notion of embodied cognition – your body picks up on the signals around it and informs the decisions the brain is making… this is really interesting.
It’s been shown that AI can compete with the human brain. But no technology on earth can beat us at making embodied decisions. The importance of dual-bodied decision making shouldn’t be underestimated.
Q: What does the future hold for the Uncertainty Experts?
We’re going to run five cohorts this year, then I’ll move into something else. I’d really like to see what I can do in other mediums around this topic, be it a podcast or book. So this current format, with the live events, is a limited opportunity.
I have a real belief in entrepreneurship, and I’ve always been a long invested believer in social change. I think there’s more chance of breakthrough ideas coming from entrepreneurs and startups than there is than coming from traditional forms of power. But what this requires is for entrepreneurs to hold onto their thinking, mindset, energy and the process they had when they started.
Out of the proudest success stories, my favourites are the ones where people have gone and discovered themselves. That’s the bravery that I think the world needs and is often found in our community. It makes me incredibly happy to think that the Uncertainty Experts could be the dynamo for creative entrepreneurs, the thing that helps people take that leap.
If you’re intrigued by how you can leverage uncertainty to help your business thrive, there are still a few places left on the next cohort of the Uncertainty Experts.
The price has temporarily been reduced from £149 to £99 – and Sam has kindly offered our community a further 25% discount, making it half price overall! Buy your tickets online today and enter the code ‘CREATIVE’ at the checkout to get the extra discount.
If you’re going through tough times at the moment, Sam has a nice surprise in store for you when you go through the checkout… You could get your ticket price reduced by around 80%!
Wondering what to read next? Browse the Journal for tons of articles and features designed to help you succeed in business. Join our membership programme for even more exclusive content, like our Masterclasses and Founder Files.