Creative Confidence

Summary Written by Rex Williams
"Everything in modern society is the result of a collection of decisions made by someone. Why shouldn’t that someone be you?"

- Creative Confidence, page 32

The Big Idea

Give Yourself Permission to Fail

"The surprising, compelling mathematics of innovation: if you want more success, you have to be prepared to shrug off more failure."- Creative Confidence, page 41

Take more shots on goal. Knock on more doors. Write more drafts. We’ve heard it all before. If you want to succeed, you have to do more, and that means experience more failures. The Kelley brothers refer to Thomas Edison, one of the most famous and prolific inventors in history, who said, “the real measure of success is the number of experiments that can be crowded into twenty-four hours.”

Not much ‘genius’ in that. Just sounds like work and an insatiable desire to learn.

The Kelleys maintain that the fear of failure is “still the single biggest obstacle people face to creative success.” The real key to overcoming that fear is to work hard at failing. It is changing our mindset from avoiding failure to seeking it as much as possible or necessary to obtain the success. In other words, if we want to be creative or innovative, we need give ourselves permission to fail. And organizations need to do the same for individuals or teams.

Failing is learning. As they say at the Stanford Design School, “Failure sucks, but instructs.” In Creative Confidence, Tom Kelley tells a story about his teenage son opening a Christmas present of a Tony Hawk skateboard video game, and having the family watch failure after failure as the son repeatedly crashed into walls, skidded off railings, and collided with other skaters without phasing him one bit. He continued to play with what the Kelleys coined as ‘urgent optimism’. In the context of the gaming world, he wasn’t really failing, he was on a path to learning, in fact “the only path available to gaining expertise.” He was so optimistic about his eventual success that failures were quite okay, and even necessary.

Maybe we ought to look at life more like a video game and try to master the highest level quickly, blasting through the failures as fast as we can.

Insight #1

Choose Creativity

"To be more creative, the first step is to decide you want to make it happen."- Creative Confidence, page 74

Over the years, the Kelley brothers have discovered several effective strategies that can get you from a blank page to insight. The first one is simply to ‘choose creativity.’

It comes down to a choice. If you don’t do this first, you definitely won’t be creative. You know creativity when you see it. The problem is, we often compare extreme creativity with what we usually produce and think, “I could never do that.”

But the reality is that creativity is relative. What’s creative for you may not be for someone else. That’s okay. Start from where you are. Do something different or creative from your perspective. It doesn’t matter if it’s been done before, or it isn’t pretty. You can build off of others ideas. “Being creative doesn’t have to mean starting from scratch or being the sole originator – it’s about adding what you can, about making a creative contribution.”

The Kelley brothers reference research done by psychologist Robert Sternberg who says creative people tend to:

  • redefine problems in new ways
  • take sensible risks and accept failure as part of the process
  • confront obstacles
  • tolerate ambiguity
  • continue to grow intellectually

Being creative is a mindset, one that starts with a choice.

My choice is to think of something creative to do every day. Whether that’s standing on one leg for a while or drawing a picture in my meeting notes, it doesn’t take much to choose creativity. Then, when I have the habit or mindset, I’ll consistently apply it to the more difficult problems.

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Insight #2

Stop Planning and Start Acting

"If you want to make something great, you need to start making."- Creative Confidence, page 123

People with creative confidence are not passive observers. Even in tough times they don’t act or feel like victims. “They believe their actions can make a positive difference, so they act.” Instead of waiting for a perfect plan, they move forward, optimistic about their ability to make course corrections down the road if necessary.

It’s okay to be sloppy, at least at first. Perfectionism slows you down. When we over plan and procrastinate it is a sign that we’re afraid, that we just don’t feel ready. I should know. I feel it all the time. But I also know that the greatest feeling comes from accomplishment or progress, from knowing you took action. The more you act, the less fearful it becomes.

When it’s hard for us to act, the Kelley brothers suggest some ‘action catalysts’.

1. Get help
2. Create peer pressure
3. Gather an audience
4. Do a bad job
5. Lower the stakes

They also suggest using ‘creative constraints’ to fuel action. Everyone wants more budget, more time, and more people to get things done, but if you create specific constraints, it’s amazing what ideas people can generate. Instead of a month-long project, do it in a day. Instead of large funding, what could you do with $100?

Creative Confidence was one of the best books I’ve read all year because it combines motivation and practical steps for being more creative, along with plenty of interesting stories and research that validates their concepts.

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David Kelley

As founder of IDEO, David Kelley built the company that created many icons of the digital generation—the first mouse for Apple, the first Treo, the thumbs up/thumbs down button on your Tivo’s remote control, to name a few. But what matters even more to him is unlocking the creative potential of people and organizations so they can innovate routinely.

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