Shining the spotlight: Thinking about researchers and uncertainty (Jasmine Croll)

Image by Christopher Burns |

How do we deal with uncertainty? How do we manage uncertainty amidst a global pandemic?

These were some of the points we discussed in a recent RED Research Now session (contact RED to be added to the zoom invite).

When asked the question, ‘how do I deal with uncertainty?’, I remembered a presentation I attended several years ago with guest speaker, Emma Murray (here’s an example of her style!). She is employed as a high performance mind coach at Richmond Football Club, and her approach contributed significantly to the team’s 2017 and 2019 premierships (there’s more info on Emma here). Now, I have to confess that my football knowledge is scant at best, but the presentation has lingered in my memory. After all, who can predict what happens in a football game?

The premise is that we are always conscious of uncertainty. Moreover, our focus is such that we are likely to envision the worst possible scenario. To perceive disaster seems to be our default. Are you familiar with the Monday morning panic: Will I get stuck in traffic? What if I miss the meeting? As researchers: what if we fail?

To assist in visualising the idea, Murray uses the metaphor of the ‘flashlight’. I imagine a sort of a spotlight. The light represents our focus and has the capacity to illuminate one area at a time. Murray posits that our flashlight is constantly drawn to the shadowy precincts of uncertainty and fear, which is our effort to mitigate disaster. She attributes this tendency to our primal need to defend ourselves.

What I found most powerful, however, was Murray’s argument that the mental energy we spend ‘shining our light’ on uncertainty is actually us playing our ‘B game’. Exertion of this kind is bred from negativity and, from the footballer’s perspective, is one that is riddled with misgiving, error, and increased uncertainty. Crucially, it is an exhausting inferior counterpart to our A game, where we are our skilful and more productive selves.

What is our A game, then, and how do we play it? How were the ‘Mighty Tigers’ able to regain their celebrated moniker after 37 years of defeat? How did they bring their A game instead of the dreaded B game? Murray says it was all about shifting the spotlight. She asserts that individuals must visualise their successes, and break these achievements down into smaller skill sets and ‘inhabit’ them. For a professional footballer, it might involve reimagining how they positioned themselves for that all-important goal in their youth.

As a researcher, remind yourself of your strengths. Maybe start with your unique ability to contend with complex information. Think about positive feedback you have been given over the years. Break this into skills. Consider what your A game is, specifically.

Now, think about your next academic challenge. If you find yourself staring down the barrel of uncertainty and all that comes with it, take a moment to check your flashlight. Sure, acknowledge those fears; note them as typical but unhelpful. Try not to spend an inordinate amount of time on them. As quickly as you can, work on mentally shifting your spotlight back to your skill set: your A game. Apply one of your skills and just do that. Continue to reignite other skills, sustain your focus, and the productivity will grow. According to Murray, this is ‘best execution’; it’s you playing your A game.

What if your A game doesn’t cut it? Richmond FC spent a lot of time addressing this fear, too. The emphasis was again to put the B game thinking aside - accept that mistakes and disappointments will happen. As a team, they were not to dwell on this. Additionally, it was understood that despite any setbacks, the team would embrace the individual. Beyond their hours of training, the team were consistently reminded to get out there, stop worrying about the pressure, enjoy playing football again – enjoy playing their A game. If their zest for the game was clouded, refocusing was ever more important.

When discussing uncertainty with the RED team, I was reminded of another analogy and it is one you might be familiar with: the speck on the blank page. How many times do we come home from a relatively productive day and just focus on that one anomaly? It diverts our attention from a nice clear space and, left unchecked, can build to exasperation and exhaustion. It seems again to have something to do with our focus, our spotlight.

Given what we are witnessing on the news and around us, the years ahead might be the most uncertain that we will ever experience. When you can, it might help to take a moment to check your flashlight and, wherever you can, refocus on your A game. As researchers, it might be one of the most certain things we can do.


Jasmine Croll is a Graduate Researcher at La Trobe University: Screen and Sound, School of Humanities and Social Sciences. 

She has an MA in Global Film Studies from the University of Hertfordshire, UK.