How to Thrive Through Uncertainty and Setback on Your Creative Path | Dandan Liu | Skillshare

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How to Thrive Through Uncertainty and Setback on Your Creative Path

teacher avatar Dandan Liu, Filmmaker | Contemplative Creative

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.

      Course Intro


    • 2.

      Revisiting the Success Story


    • 3.

      Intro to Techniques


    • 4.

      Short-circuiting Our Reward System


    • 5.

      Cultivating Patience


    • 6.

      Dropping Expectations


    • 7.

      Permission to Pivot


    • 8.

      Ending on an Upnote


    • 9.

      Cultivating Clarity through Meditation


    • 10.

      Creating Anchoring with Routines


    • 11.

      Zooming Out and Taking Stock


    • 12.

      Staying on Track


    • 13.

      Course Wrap Up


    • 14.

      My Teahouse of Wonder


    • 15.

      Guided Meditation


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About This Class

 “Everyone has talent. What is rare is the courage to follow the talent to the dark place where it leads.”

 -Erica Jong

While there are lots of advice out there on “goal setting” and “productivity,” they all overlook one essential part of a successful creative venture: the uncertain middle phase. There’s this common lifecycle to creative projects, where after the energetic beginning, this challenging middle sets in. This part is full of uncertainty, doubt, setbacks, anonymity, deserts of progress, and those tedious, boring days.

It's here where most creatives give up or rush through the discomfort with relentless productivity, both of which rob them of the potential joy, growth, and sustainability needed to reach their goals. 

This class is entirely dedicated to this uncertain middle phase and how to thrive through it. Sharing 7 techniques and framework shifts, I will show you how you can cultivate peace, joy, and clarity through this challenging, uncertain terrain and grow the longevity needed to reach your dreams.

Near and dear to my heart, these techniques are what allowed me to successfully navigate many challenging middle phases in my life, going from someone who was stuck in an unfulfilling career to someone who now lives a spark-filled creative life, doing what she loves full time. I hope that they will help you shift your perspective of this middle phase from one based on fear to one based on possibility.


  • Anyone facing uncertainty in their creative ventures or life.
  • Anyone who has left the shores, but not reached their destination yet.
  • Anyone who wants to create their own path.


  • How to develop the momentum needed to keep going, despite setbacks, lack of recognition, and deserts of progress.
  • How to short-circuit your reward system.
  • How to connect with yourself to gain clarity.
  • How to structure your days so they counterbalance the ambiguity found in this middle phase.
  • How to stay on-track when faced with unexpected events and pivots. 

So, if you are set on reaching your aspirations, come join us in this class!

And if you'd like more support, sign-up for my one-minute newsletter, where I'll share more curated inspiration, high value insights, and updates designed to enrich your creative journey.

Meet Your Teacher

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Dandan Liu

Filmmaker | Contemplative Creative

Top Teacher

Hi there! I'm Dandan, an Emmy award-winning filmmaker and contemplative creative living in Italy.

As a self-taught filmmaker, I love foraging for unique stories around the world that illuminate the interconnections among us. I started making films while on a 4 year journey living in monasteries around the world. One film led to the next, and after persevering for many years, I found myself working full time on film crews and streaming my films on Roku, Apple TV, museums, trains, and airplanes.

My highest work is helping others craft an authentic, creative, and mindful life- your unique work of art. I believe that knowing who you truly are is the foundation for flourishing in every area of life. So, I founded Unravel, a playful journey of self discovery, which has... See full profile

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1. Course Intro : I want you all to close your eyes. Now, when I say the words, success journey, what shape comes to mind? Is that a line? Is it a curve? Is it a staircase? If you look at the most common responses, you'll see that success journey is most frequently thought to look like this. There is an inspirational beginning. There is a few bumps along the way, and then it rises to a triumphant end. However, if you zoom in and gather the untold parts of the story, you'll see that the journey actually looks more like this. Most published stories of our creative heroes either skip or largely shorten this long middle phase because it is mostly filled with nothing exciting. It is characterized by bouts of not knowing, self-doubt, deserts of progress, ups and downs, boring days, heaps of messes, setbacks, dry logistics, and sheer anonymity. Ironically, as much as this part hasn't been talked about in advice columns or the media, it is precisely here where most people give up on their projects or life ventures. That is why I'm so excited to bring this class to you. We're going to cover everything from simple book tricks through larger framework shifts that will help you navigate through this time wisely and elegantly. These are the techniques that have allowed me to successfully navigate multiple challenging middles my life. From someone who found no fulfillment in her career to someone who now does what she loves full time as a professional. My hope is that by the end of this class, you'll be able to cultivate a more constructive, joyful relationship with the uncertain middle and be better equipped to navigate through it to reach dream. Let's get started. 2. Revisiting the Success Story: The first thing I want to do is to revisit the success story. Because it'll dispel a lot of myths that cause a lot of our anxieties when we face the uncertain middles in our endeavors. You probably grew up with this idea that a successful journey looks like this. This makes sense. Considering the media portrayals of successful creators mainly focus on the inspirational beginning and a triumphant end, give or take some challenges along the way. Overall, it gives this idea that our journey should be linear. The process should be fast and clean and we should always know how things will unfold. However, if you go deep into the stories of most successful creatives, you will see that the creative venture looks more like this. First, a romantic, rose-colored beginning catapults this journey with lots of clarity and energy. Once this honeymoon period of starting something new dissipates, reality hits. Slowly, but surely, we enter the long, dry, messy middle, the wild west. This part is characterized by a pass of doubt, not knowing, slow-growing mundaneness, challenges, setbacks, getting lost, ups and downs, and sheer anonymity. The sad reality is, most people don't make it to their goal because they don't know how to survive this middle period. The few, however, who are able to persist through this middle terrain are the ones who reach their goals. The first thing I want you to take away is this, if you're feeling doubt and uncertainty now in your venture, it does not mean you're failing. It does not mean you're not cut out for what you set off to do. It's a normal part of the process, a healthy sign that you are embarking on a brief path towards your dreams. To further drive this point home, here is your assignment. Do a deep dive into the stories of your creative heroes and learn about their middle phases. When you do this, I'm sure you will find comforting validation in the realization that you are not alone. A great repository of these stories is, How I Built This, podcast which features the hidden stories of entrepreneurs and their journeys. Try to catch glimpses of what their day to day was like in the middle phase. 3. Intro to Techniques: Now, that we've gained a clear perspective on the success journey, let's go into the techniques to help you navigate through this uncertain middle. 4. Short-circuiting Our Reward System: Because this middle phase can feel really uncomfortable. We often pull those through the discomfort with relentless productivity. We work morning to night, setting lofty to-do lists that make it hard for us to feel satisfied with our day's work. This approach, while providing a short-term sense of relief and control, usually costs burnout and robs us of the joy found in this middle journey. What should we do? I'm going to propose a hack that'll allow you to feel progress and satisfaction in a more sustainable, joyful way. Short-circuiting our reward system. What do I mean by this? Well, starting at a young age, we are trained to be covered by short-term rewards. This conditioning is so ingrained that it's more realistic to go with it, then try to defy it. When you have no recognition, no product to show for and only heaps of Haven nurses.. The greatest motivators in the form of rewards have to be manufactured by yourself. In this case, it means you lowered the bar for how you define a win and celebrate every little one. What does a win look like? It could be gaining one new loyal follower who is not your friend or family member. Learning one you think about your craft. A win can even be a more intangible thing, like reframing a disappointment rather than following in your old habit of wallowing. There are many ways to celebrate, but the most important thing is that you associate a feeling of accomplishment with each small win. This might feel awkward at first because we are so used to associating satisfaction with a big goal. But the more you practice, the more natural this will become. Because you now notice and feel these victories, you gain confidence, motivation, and momentum, which are rocket fuel for your middle journey. 5. Cultivating Patience: Instead of ramping up our productivity, which as we saw, has a lot of opportunity costs, I recommend cultivating a deeper relationship with patience. Because this journey is not linear but full of unexpected twists and setbacks. It's often the case that we tirelessly put in the work, but don't see results for awhile. Because we're so used to instant gratification these days, this void of visible results can make us suffer. The antidote to the suffering is patience. Gifting yourself more space for your venture to bloom, which in turn allows for more peace when you face setbacks and more joy and sustainability in the process. Here is a fun exercise that'll help you rekindle your relationship with patience. This is a quirky exercise, but one I find really effective and endearing, dedicated to my fellow plant lovers out there. Unless you grew up growing things in a garden or farm, it's easy to lose touch with how long it takes for something to grow in the natural world. For every project you start, I encourage you to plant a seed in a part of soil, preferably something that bears fruit and label that pot ceremoniously with the name of your venture and the date, then tend to the seed and observe it every day. You'll notice that there are many days where nothing shows up, day after day after day. Just barren soil. Then one day through your diligent watering and care, something appears, sprouts and usually after several months bears fruit. Doing this always reminds me of how much time it takes for things in nature to fully express themselves. Consequently, it brings me peace, knowing that the time is taking from my venture to bloom is natural. It's a wonderful practice because you literally have a buddy growing alongside of you, like Tom Hanks, Wilson volleyball. It'll teach you how patients is not passivity, but kindly gifting yourself and your venture with the full time needed for its blooming. Another helpful exercise to cultivate patients is to look at the timelines of your creative heroes. I'll start you off with some examples. Zadie Smith spent two years on the first 20 pages of her first novel, on beauty. Oscar award-winning film director, Ang Lee, spent 10 years in obscurity as a stay-at-home dad studying films before he made his first movie. The founder of Diesel, Renzo Rosso, persevered through seven failed businesses that went bankrupt before launching his successful clothing company. When you do this, you'll find that to create a success often takes many more years than what our current stories convey. Your assignment. I want you to reflect on and pinpoint any areas of your life where you seek instant gratification. We're giving it the gift of patience will do wonders. Then plant a seed in a pot of soil in honor of that element. This will be your accountability buddy, reminding you of the beautiful effects of patience. Please post a photo of your patience's buddy on the projects page so we can cheer each other on 6. Dropping Expectations: One big thing you can do to remove these middle phase anxieties is to drop your expectations. What do I mean by expectations? People define this differently, so here is my definition. Expectations are our attachments for something in the future to turn out a specific way. Notice they're different from goals. Goals are what you want to achieve. Expectations are conditions that say, if this doesn't happen then I will not be okay. Notice how these expectations usually come from a scarcity mindset because we believe there's only one way to our goal or happiness. We end up worrying whether things will fall in line with our plan. If they don't, we get disappointed, and even if they do, we start pretty worrying about meeting the next set of expectations. That mix for a stressful journey. The reality is that even given our best work and planning, we don't have total control over how things will play out. Life is more expansive than our limited constructs or timelines. Instead of expectations, focus more on cultivating unconditional acceptance, whatever happens, I'll be okay. Whatever happens, I'll be able to solve it. No matter what, I'm going to keep doing good work. To demonstrate what happens when you switch your mindset from expectations to acceptance, try this exercise. I hope, I wonder for every one of your hopes, I want you to replace the I hope with I wonder if. For example, I hope my film will be accepted by this film festival, turns into, I wonder if my film will be accepted by this film festival. I hope she'll call, turns into, I wonder if she'll call. I hope I'll get my big break next year turns into, I wonder if I'll get my big break next year. See the switch that happens? You will notice how the pressure about the future is relieved when you live in a wondering world. Now, go one step further. For each of these wonders, add the statement, If this doesn't happen, I'll be okay. Notice how when you replace expectations with curiosity and acceptance, you cut the worry mechanism and get to enjoy the process. To recap, dropping expectations does not mean becoming passive or giving up on new goals, but becoming more open to the possibilities of how your journey will unfold. If you find that it's hard for you to drop your expectations, lower them, you can always reuse them later. Your assignment. List out all of your expectations and see whether any are causing you anxiety or robbing you of the joy that can be found in this middle phase. Then for each expectation, do the, I hope I wonder exercise, and say to yourself, if this doesn't happen, I will be okay. For more resources on how to cultivate acceptance, which I believe is a lifelong practice, check out these two books. Awareness by Anthony De'Mello and Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach. 7. Permission to Pivot: [MUSIC] As you can see, 99 percent of the time, this middle journey is not linear. The route we think will take us from A to B is different from the route that actually guide us from A to B. Usually B is very different than our original idea. As obvious as it sounds to be flexible with our plans, it's easier said than done. Diverging away from our plans can intensify the feeling of groundlessness we feel from not knowing. Most times, even when we see situations shifting from our original conceptions, we hold onto our plans even tighter. If you take a look at the middle journeys of most successful companies, you'll see that they all had to make major pivots and go back to square one. Our beloved Instagram was originally made as a game called Burbn. YouTube was originally made to be a dating site. Twitter was originally a podcasting network called Odeo. If these companies hung onto their original plans and did not embrace the mess that came from their pivots, they are not having the success they are today. In other words, diligence or sticking with something isn't always a sign of strength. I like how Scott Belsky puts it, "Make a plan, but don't plan on sticking to it. Plans should be approached as thought processes, not a map." So give yourself permission to pivot, even if that requires a bigger mess in the short-term. 8. Ending on an Upnote: As you may sense now, a lot of the previous techniques we've covered are all about generating momentum, one of the most important elements needed to survive this middle journey. However, oftentimes when we have a bad day or face a problem that's hard to solve, we end our work session on this low note. This trench of frustration and self-doubt that makes us dread going back to work the next day, sucking away momentum. In my experience, I have found that it's invaluable to end every work session on an upnote. Even if something disastrous happened, it's super helpful to frame it in a way that empower you to revisit it with ease. Here is a great framework used by Scott Belsky, founder of Behance. Number 1, acknowledge the trials and uncertainty you're facing. Number 2, reiterate your plan of how to climb out. Number 3, remind yourself what you're aiming to achieve. Number 4, remind yourself why you're doing this, and number 5, add your own enthusiasm and confidence. For the past four months, I was stuck on an edit for my documentary. No matter what I did, the story just did not pick up momentum, and at the end of the day, I would feel frustrated at having spent hours in front of my screen getting nowhere. This is how I approached this frustrating experience and ended on an upnote. I feel frustrated that the story is not taking shape. After spending months endlessly cutting and recurring, scrapping out drafts one after the other. My plan will be to take an extended break, send the film out to trusted peers for their review, and come back with a fresh pair of eyes. I'm trying to tell the story of an elder who lives in New Mexico and share her wisdom. I'm doing this because I believe it's important to preserve the life lessons of elders, especially today where so many people seem lost. I know hardship is a normal part of the process, and that I'm going to come stronger out of this. I know I will learn valuable lessons that I can apply to make the next film even better. When I do this, I find it's so much easier to go back to my edit the next day. 9. Cultivating Clarity through Meditation: So in this middle phase, we face times when we are unclear over our next steps. While we usually look outside of ourselves for answers, whether that is doing research or asking for other people's advice. I have found that most of the times the clue or answer already lies inside of us, that there's this instinctual intelligence that knows where we should go. The only thing is that we have forgotten how to listen to it. When we make decisions we rely almost exclusively on our rational thinking brain but don't take into account this instinctual intelligence that emanates more from our body which center around the heart and gut. In times of uncertainty however, I have found that this instinctual intelligence, what I call intuition, is the best guiding compass. While the brain can trick us, the body doesn't lie. The best way I have found to connect with this intuitive intelligence is through meditation. There are many ways to meditate but the essential practice is to focus on your breath, feel rooted back into your body and sense what is happening without judgment. When you continue to do this, you'll find your instinctual intelligence pulling you towards what you need to do. If you've never meditated before, don't fret. I've included a guided meditation for you that you can listen to in whatever quiet space you find yourself in. 10. Creating Anchoring with Routines: One of the foundational building blocks of bringing peace to our times of uncertainty and flux is to structural days with routines. The structure, they provide counterbalance, the mess, and ambiguity found in this middle phase. Even when things are out of your control, which is often the case in the middle phase, you know that you can always rely on your routines to keep you grounded. There's so much advice now on creating effective routines. I'll just add my two sense in what I believe is misunderstood and important. Unlike commonly held notions, I find routines most effective when they are light, flexible frameworks instead of rigid schedules, a metaphor I like to use is that a good routine is like an interchangeable ikea closet. You can have small compartments, medium-size ones, vertical ones, and horizontal ones. They can easily shift but they still add structure and organization to your day. For example, my weekday routine looks like this. Wake up, mindfulness exercise, breakfast, morning slot, lunch, afternoon slot, physical fitness, dinner, post dinner slot, sleep. I can put whatever activity I want in these slots, but I still have this overarching framework to organize my day. One thing that's commonly overlooked is adding negative space to your routine. Negative space is a fundamental element in beautiful design, and it also makes our day's beautiful. This means gracing the routine with empty spaces, which you can spend doing whatever feels right at that moment. Whether that's tending to something you've put off or looking out a window for five minutes. It invites you to connect with the present moment and address whatever needs are calling. I find that inspiration like's to fill a void, so this is a space where I often get my best ideas. Your assignment, if you don't have a routine, now is the time to create one. Keeping in mind the balance of stability and flexibility. If you already have a routine, I want you to re-examine them and see whether it's either too rigid or too loose, assign that it's too rigid is, if it brings you stress and unrealistic expectations, and assign if it's too loose is, if you find yourself aimlessly wandering through your day and constantly having to decide what to do. What can you do to make your routine look more like an interchangeable ikea closet? 11. Zooming Out and Taking Stock: Oftentimes, when we feel like we are in the trenches of disappointment, it's helpful to zoom out and see the larger picture of our journey. When you do, most likely, you'll see that what you're focused on is a local minimum, which in the grand scheme is a dip on the rising slope of your journey. After every month or so, take a moment and zoom out your perspective, you'll likely see that you're not giving yourself enough credit for how far you've come. Related to this. When we feel days of nothing growing, we can forget all the good things that have happened to us. A final exercise you can do is creating a goodness jar, like a piggy bank, but with notes and reminders of good things that have happened to you. Like small wins or helpful coincidences. Put this jar where you can always see it. Likewise, writing your goodness list on a white board, works wonders. 12. Staying on Track: Because this middle phase is filled with variables, messy bits, and unexpected twists, it's easy to get distracted and fear completely off course from our original intention. So definitely make sure, that you routinely revisit your intention, since it's so easy to forget. Where do you want to go? Notice that is different than saying, how are you going to get there? Even if you don't know what you want to do in life or nothing is clear, your intention could be to actively explore and reflect. Another question you can ask yourself, that will help you stay on track is, is it my strength or fear that motivates me to perform this act? It's so easy to grasp at solutions that alleviate fear in the short term, but brings us further away from our intention in the long run. So if your motivation for an act is out of fear, it's probably best to hold off until you get more clarity. 13. Course Wrap Up: I want you to congratulate yourself because finishing this course is a huge accomplishment. I hope that it has helped you re frame the uncertainty you feel from this middle phase. From one based on fear to one based on possibility. Think about it. It would spoil the movie if you knew the ending, and it'd be boring story if there were no twists and turns. It's the same thing with your own journey. The fact that you are feeling the butterflies from this uncertainty it all, is a good sign. It means that you're actively reaching for your dreams, whereas most people would just stay in their comfort zones and not grow. Just remember, when you have days in the middle that feel like a monolith of fear, here's what thriving looks like. Breathe deeper. Be kind and gentle with yourself. Resist devastating conclusions. Remember that progress is quiet, messy, and slow. Pivot when needed. Keep going. Enjoy the journey. Thank you all so much for joining me on this mini adventure, and know that I am cheering you on. Until next time. 14. My Teahouse of Wonder: [MUSIC] If you enjoyed this class, I invite you to leave a review and sign up for my newsletter. This is not your ordinary newsletter, but instead, a virtual teahouse of wonders where I share curated inspiration, behind the scenes, updates, and more high-value resources on the art of authentic creative living. It is my most intimate space to spoil my readers with delight. Sign up to receive on my course instructor page. [MUSIC] 15. Guided Meditation: Welcome everyone. Welcome to the safe space where we're going to connect and reground with our center. If you're feeling anxiety now, whether it's because of uncertainty, lack of progress, or hardship, know that way you are feeling is normal and that you are not alone. As scary as they feel these feelings are not signs that you are failing, nor are they signs that you are not good enough for what you are pursuing. They form a totally normal experience when you're in the middle phase of your venture. One that everyone who courageously pursues an authentic life goes through. This meditation is intended to guide you in recollecting yourself back to your calm center. So you will be ready to serenely carry on with your journey. Meditation can be a fancy word. I like to approach it more as a relaxation, as a coming home to yourself. There's no right way or wrong way to do this. All I ask you to do is to relax, breathe and let this gentle guidance undo all the knots inside of you. So first, settle into a comfortable position, either sitting on a cushion or a chair. Hit pause if you need some time and play again when ready. Now that you are comfortably seated, slowly sway your spine back and forth, side to side until you hit that sweet spot where your spine is comfortably upright. Imagine a string attached to the top of your head, being pulled upwards and enjoy the small stretch for your spine. Now gently close your eyes and with your hands placed comfortably on your lap, take three slow, deep breaths. On the inhale, fill the oxygen quenching your thirsty lungs with peace. On the exhale, let go of your stress and feel the relief. Now, start to feel the firmness of the ground beneath your sit bones or feet. Feel the support and drop into the support, letting the ground hold you up. Know that even when you're feeling groundless, you are always being held up by the earth. Drop into this knowing and feel pushed up by the ground. Gently bring your attention to your skin. Feel the air making contact with it. They air slightly cool touch like a soothing sooth. Notice the sounds around you. Whether it's a spatial silence of your room, a bird chirping outside or the soft hum of cars passing by. Let the sounds melt into you. Become one with the sound. Now we are going to relax our body, loosening any tension from our head to our toes. As we travel down our body feel the center of gravity moving from your head down to your belly. First, let your eyeballs gently soften in their sockets. Let any furrows in your forehead relax. Unclench your jaw and relax every tooth. Feel the hair on your scalp go slack. Gently feel your throat. Is there something unspoken stuck there? If so, relax. Imagine every vocal cord at rest in peaceful stillness. Sensing into your shoulders like any tight and soften, drop your arms as if they were made of lead and sink them down onto your lap. Relax your wrists and fingers. Now gently move your attention to your belly. Feel the rise and fall of your belly with every breath. Focus your attention on your navel about an inch down from your belly button. Breathe into this point as if you're shaking hands with it, you might even feel this inward pressure there. This is the seat of intuition. We're now going to stay here for a few minutes and sense what messages it has to give. If you hear something or feel a pull towards something, try not to charge and remain open to whatever arises. If you don't that is totally fine, just keep breathing. Now, we're going to resume our relaxation. Relax your pelvis, loosen your thighs, your knees, your ankles, all the way down to your feet and let this relaxation ooze into your toes unwinding each one. This groundyness you feel, this peace, let it all soak into your being as if you were a sponge. Know that this feeling of peace is the ground state of your being that never goes away, like the ground beneath your feet always supporting you. This peace is also always there, ready to welcome you back whenever you need it. Now we're going to gently awaken. Slowly open your eyes, wiggle your toes, and raise your arms up and take a big nourishing stretch. Thank you all for joining me in this space. I will leave you here knowing that you have what it takes to joyfully move forward in your journey.