Building Your Creative Confidence


[TED Talk, 11:47″ – watch on YouTube]

A few years ago I talked to a recruiter who was seeking connections to talented candidates on behalf of her client, IDEO. My first reaction was, wow, I would love to work there. She thought the position was for a more junior person… so although we made a connection at a personal level, the opportunity went to someone else.

IDEO is the place where some of the creative professionals I have been following for quite some time have found a home. Working with positive, “can do” people reinforces our sense of possibility. There is an unspoken permission to be creative in the air that is energizing. This is also one of the many reasons why I love to be located physically with my team.

When I watched David Kelley tell the story of his best friend Brian back in third grade school in Ohio, I thought about the main reason why we stop believing in our abilities.

Brian was working on a project — he was making a horse out of the clay the teacher was keeping under the sink. At one point, one of the girls at his table, seeing what he was doing, leaned over and said to him “that’s terrible. That doesn’t look like anything like a horse.”

Brian’s shoulders sank, he wadded the clay horse and threw it back into the bin. He never saw Brian do a project like that never again.

How often does that happen? Has it happened to you?

I bet if we were having this conversation over coffee, or in person, many of you would share similar experiences of how someone shut down something — a teacher, a particularly cruel peer (they get more cruel every time we tell the story or think back, by the way) — and then somehow opted-out of thinking of yourself as creative from that point on.

Several examples from my first grade come to mind, all the way to this week. In fact, if you factor in seagull-style comments thrown over the fence in social networks, I’d say we encounter that kind of dismissive judgment quite frequently.

When that happens in the formative years, it is much harder to come back from it because it becomes engrained in our memory at a time when we’re particularly vulnerable, then an automatic reaction.

A teacher once told my mother I would never amount to anything. Good thing my mother had confidence in me. My sin was asking too many “why” questions, in case you were wondering. Didn’t deter me, did it?

[Plus, consider how limiting it is to carry around thoughts like that about others.]

For many, creativity is a risk, a sort of thing we don’t have time for in business. This is holding us back.

Kelley has been looking at this question of how to build creative confidence and overcome the fear of judgment we have. A lot more energy goes to judging and talking about stuff with little first-hand experience than in creating something.

When we err, we err on the side of silence.

This is precisely why I approach questions with a spirit of inquiry, look at business with new eyes to understand how to combine things in ways that are more appropriate (and more effective) to a changing context, a new situation.

It’s a process of deconstructing what you know to reconstruct it differently.

And it’s uncomfortable at first, because you replace the connections you think you made at individual level — and by and large accepted practice by everyone else (where social proof becomes social pressure) — with new mechanics.

I’d like to emphasize that part. It’s not about a magic number or pixie dust. It’s about using a process to uncover opportunity where you would have not thought of looking.

This process is harder in environments that operate under stable conditions, like the corporation. Processes and systems honed over years of practice to support scale dictate how things are done. Newness is by virtue of being unproven (yet) a shock to the system.

It can be a lonely proposition to challenge the status quo. Especially when your premise is a hunch. So you probably opt for making all the right moves and dream your move secretly — both with anticipation and fear.

Things do seem scarier and more daunting if we don’t find a way to confront our inner fear.

Kelley talks about “guided mastery” and “self-efficacy” both in the context of leveraging the process, a series of steps to allow individuals and teams to build their creative confidence. Through experience, people learn to think about themselves differently — they change the story they tell themselves about being creative.

We all wrestle with uncertainty and doubt to varying degrees.

How we go about doing things anyway, trusting the creative process and giving ourselves permission help us build confidence. Then success creates success — anywhere from completing a tough project, to finding that the snake is actually a beautiful creature as in the example in the talk.


How do you tap into your creativity with confidence?

[edited from archives]

Conversation Agent – Valeria Maltoni