Most everyone is born creative. As children, we revel in imaginary play, ask outlandish questions, draw blobs and contact them dinosaurs. But after a while, due to socialization and formal education, a lot of us start to stifle those impulses. We learn to be warier of judgment, more cautious, more analytical. The world appears to divide into “creatives” and “noncreatives,” and too many people consciously or unconsciously resign themselves on the latter category.
And yet we understand that creativity is important to success in any discipline or industry. According to a recent IBM survey of chief executives worldwide, it’s essentially the most sought-after trait in leaders today. No one can deny that creativeness means the increase and continued success of various companies, from start-ups like Facebook and Google to stalwarts like Procter & Gamble and General Electric.
Students often come to Stanford University’s “d.school” (that was founded by certainly one of us—David Kelley—and is formally called the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design) to develop their creativity. Clients assist IDEO, our design and innovation consultancy, for a similar reason. But in the process, we’ve discovered that our responsibility isn’t to instruct them creativity. It’s to enable them to rediscover their creative confidence—the natural capacity to come up with new ideas along with the courage to test them out. We do this by providing them strategies to work through four fears that hold many people back: concern with the messy unknown, concern with being judged, anxiety about the first step, and nervous about losing control.
Easier said than can be done, you might argue. But we all know it’s feasible for people to overcome even their most deep-seated fears. Consider the work of Albert Bandura, a world-renowned psychologist and Stanford professor. In one group of early experiments, he helped people conquer lifelong snake phobias by guiding them through a compilation of increasingly demanding interactions. They would start with watching a snake through a two-way mirror. Once comfortable with that, they’d progress to observing it through an open door, then to watching somebody else touch the snake, then to touching it themselves via a heavy leather glove, and, finally, quickly, to touching it using their own bare hands. Bandura calls this procedure for experiencing one small success after another “guided mastery.” The people who had it weren’t just cured of the crippling fear they had assumed was untreatable. They also had less anxiety and much more success in the rest of their lives, taking up new and potentially frightening activities like horse riding and speaking in public. They tried harder, persevered longer, along more resilience facing failure. They had gained a fresh confidence in their capacity to attain what they got down to do.