Most folks are born creative. As children, we enjoy imaginary play, ask outlandish questions, draw blobs and refer to them as dinosaurs. But after a while, as a consequence of socialization and formal education, many people begin to stifle those impulses. We figure out how to be warier of judgment, more cautious, more analytical. The world seems to divide into “creatives” and “noncreatives,” and so many people consciously or unconsciously resign themselves on the latter category.
And yet we know that creativity is vital to success in a discipline or industry. According to a recent IBM survey of chief executives all over the world, it’s one of the most sought-after trait in leaders today. No one can deny that creative thinking means an upswing and continued success of countless companies, from start-ups like Facebook and Google to stalwarts like Procter & Gamble and General Electric.
Students often arrived at Stanford University’s “d.school” (which was founded by one of us—David Kelley—which is formally called the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design) to build up their creativity. Clients work with IDEO, our design and innovation consultancy, for the similar reason. But as you go along, we’ve found out that our job isn’t to instruct them creativity. It’s to assist them rediscover their creative confidence—the natural power to think of new ideas and also the courage to use them out. We do this by offering them strategies to get past four fears that hold many of us back: nervous about the messy unknown, concern with being judged, concern with step one, and nervous about losing control.
Easier said than actually doing it, you might argue. But we understand it’s practical for visitors to overcome even their most deep-seated fears. Consider the work of Albert Bandura, a world-renowned psychologist and Stanford professor. In one compilation of early experiments, he helped people conquer lifelong snake phobias by guiding them by having a series 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 with an open door, then to watching someone else touch the snake, then to touching it themselves by way of a heavy leather glove, and, finally, in a few hours, to touching it using their own bare hands. Bandura calls this process of experiencing one small success after another “guided mastery.” The people that had it weren’t just cured of your crippling fear they'd assumed was untreatable. They also had less anxiety and more success in the rest of these lives, taking up new and potentially frightening activities like riding and speaking in public. They tried harder, persevered longer, and had more resilience facing failure. They had gained a whole new confidence of their capacity to attain what you attempt to do.