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One bad childhood experience where our creativity was mocked can inhibit us as adults. It can plant the idea that we’re practical people, not creative people, and can grow into a full-fledged “truth” about ourselves later.
But creativity can be coaxed out of people, if approached the right way.
That’s according to David Kelley, who is certainly one to know. Kelly is founder and chair of the design firm IDEO and creator of the “d.school” at Stanford, formally known as the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, where students studying everything from business to medicine work on building their creativity to collaboratively solve complex problems.
In a recent TED talk, “How to Build Your Creative Confidence,” Kelley explained his thinking about creativity (a video and a transcript are at the TED site). Some highlights:
We can be inhibited by fear of judgment. Kelley says he hears from people all the time about “how a teacher shut them down or how a student was particularly cruel to them” in a creative endeavor. It’s at that point, he says, that “some opt out thinking of themselves as creative.” Kelley sees the fallout with IDEO clients, especially when they’re asked to work side-by-side with IDEO staff. “Eventually these bigshot executives whip out their Blackberries and they say they have to make really important phone calls, and they head for the exits. And they’re just so uncomfortable.”
We can break through phobias with “guided mastery.” Kelley met with his Stanford colleague Albert Bandura, a psychologist who studies phobias. Bandura has a step-by-step methodology for working through phobias by slowly introducing people to the thing they fear. “Bandura calls this process ‘guided mastery,”” says Kelley. “I love that term.” What Bandura was doing turned out to be similar to what Kelley was doing in business with his clients, taking them through “a series of small successes.”
A little confidence in creativity leads to a lot of confidence in everything else. People who go through Bandura’s guided mastery process “ended up having less anxiety about other things in their lives. They tried harder, they persevered longer, and they were more resilient in the face of failure,” says Kelley. “Bandura calls that confidence ‘self-efficacy’ — the sense that you can change the world and that you can attain what you set out to do.” Kelley sees that same thing at the d.school: People who think of themselves only as analytical end up “totally emotionally excited about the fact that they walk around thinking of themselves as a creative person.”
Case study: turning an MRI machine at a children’s hospital into a pirate ship: Kelley tells the story of Doug Dietz, who designs medical imaging equipment. “He was in the hospital looking at one of his MRI machines in use when he saw a young family. There was a little girl, and that little girl was crying and was terrified.” It turns out that nearly 80 percent of the pediatric patients had to be sedated to deal with the machine, which crushed Dietz. He was at the d.school at the time, “learning about our process about design thinking, about empathy, about iterative prototyping.” His solution: Turn the MRI machine into an adventure. Dietz painted the walls, painted the machine, got the operators retrained by staff from children’s museums. “Now when the kid comes, it’s an experience,” says Kelley. “They talk to them about the noise and the movement of the ship. And when they come, they say, ‘Okay, you’re going to go into the pirate ship, but be very still because we don’t want the pirates to find you.’” Result? Only about 10 percent of children need sedation, and some even look forward to coming back.
Kelley’s closing admonition to the TED audience: “I hope you’ll join me on my quest, you as thought leaders: It would be really great if you didn’t let people divide the world into the creatives and the non-creatives, like it’s some God-given thing, and to have people realize that they’re naturally creative. And those natural people should let their ideas fly.”