Full text of How To Build Your Creative Confidence by David Kelley at TED Talk conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: MP3 – David Kelley on How to build your creative confidence
I wanted to talk to you today about creative confidence. I’m going to start way back in the third grade at Oakdale School in Barberton, Ohio.
I remember one day my best friend Brian was working on a project. He was making a horse out of the clay that our teacher kept under the sink. And at one point, one of the girls who was sitting at his table, seeing what he was doing, leaned over and said to him, “That’s terrible. That doesn’t look anything like a horse.” And Brian’s shoulders sank. And he wadded up the clay horse and he threw it back in the bin. I kind of never saw Brian do a project like that ever again.
And I wonder how often that happens. It seems like when I tell that story of Brian to my class, you see, a lot of them want to come up after class and tell me about their similar experience, how a teacher shut them down or how a student was particularly cruel to them. And they some kind of opt out of thinking of themselves as creative at that point. And I see that opting out that happens in childhood, and it moves in and becomes more ingrained even by the time you get to adult life.
So we see a lot of this. When we have a workshop or when we have clients in to work with us side-by-side, eventually we get to the point in the process that’s kind of fuzzy or unconventional. And 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. When we track them down and ask them what’s going on, they say something like, “I’m just not the creative type.” But we know that’s not true. If they stick with the process, if they stick with it, they end up doing amazing things and they surprise themselves just how innovative they and their teams really are.
So I’ve been looking at this fear of judgment that we have. That you don’t do things, you’re afraid you’re going to be judged. If you don’t say the right creative thing, you’re going to be judged. And I had a major breakthrough when I met the psychologist Albert Bandura. I don’t know if you know Albert Bandura. But if you go to Wikipedia, it says that he’s the fourth most important psychologist in history — like Freud, Skinner, somebody and Bandura. Bandura’s 86 and he still works at Stanford. And he’s just a lovely guy.
And so I went to see him because he has just worked on phobias for a long time, which I’m very interested in. He had developed this way, this kind of methodology, that ended up curing people in a very short amount of time, like in four hours he had a huge cure rate of people who had phobias. And we talked about snakes. I don’t know why we talked about snakes. We talked about snakes and fear of snakes as a phobia. And it was really enjoyable, really interesting. He told me that he’d invite the test subject in, and he’d say, “You know, there’s a snake in the next room and we’re going to go in there.” To which, he reported, most of them replied, “Hell no, I’m not going in there, certainly if there’s a snake in there.”
But Bandura has kind of a step-by-step process that was super successful. So he’d take people to this two-way mirror looking into the room where the snake was, and he’d get them comfortable with that. And then through a series of steps, he’d move them and they’d be standing in the doorway with the door open and they’d be looking in there. And he’d get them comfortable with that. And then many more steps later, kind of baby steps, they’d be in the room, they’d have a leather glove like a welder’s glove on, and they’d eventually touch the snake. And when they touched the snake everything was fine. They were cured. In fact, everything was better than fine. These people who had life-long fears of snakes were saying things like, “Look how beautiful that snake is.” And they were holding it in their laps.
Bandura calls this process “guided mastery.” I love that term: guided mastery. And something else happened. These people who went through the process and touched the snake 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. They just gained a new confidence. And 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.
Well, meeting Bandura was really cathartic for me because I realized that this famous scientist had documented and scientifically validated something that we’ve seen happen for the last 30 years. That we could take people who had the fear that they weren’t creative, and we could take them through a series of steps, kind of like a series of small successes, and they turn fear into familiarity, and they surprise themselves. That transformation is amazing.