Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All

David Kelley & Tom Kelley

304 pages, Crown Business, 2013

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“Creative Confidence” is a new book that shows anyone in any profession how to unlock their creative potential. For three decades at the helm of the iconic design firm IDEO, brothers David Kelley and Tom Kelley have helped thousands of people gain confidence in their creative abilities. Their firm designed the first mouse for Apple and the first laptop, and has won more awards than any other design firm for innovations that have transformed business, government, social problems and healthcare. In Creative Confidence the Kelley brothers tell stories of creative confidence ranging from how an army captain who rallied 1700 people to petition for a pedestrian mall, to how four Stanford students turned entrepreneurs developed an inexpensive infant warmer that is saving thousands of babies in the developing world. With scores of stories of these, and a clear process, the Kelleys show how you can develop and apply “creative confidence”: the self assurance that you can create change around you and come up with breakthrough ideas. Find out more at


Ever travel to a foreign city? We’ve all heard that “travel broadens the mind.” But beneath this cliché lies a deep truth. Things stand out because they’re different, so we notice every detail, from street signs to mailboxes to how you pay at a restaurant. We learn a lot when we travel not because we are any smarter on the road, but because we pay such close attention. On a trip, we become our own version of Sherlock Holmes, intensely observing the environment around us. We are continuously trying to figure out a world that is foreign and new.

Too often, we go through day-to-day life on cruise control, oblivious to huge swaths of our surroundings. To notice friction points—and therefore opportunities to do things better—it helps to see the world with fresh eyes.

When you meet creative people with lots of ideas constantly bubbling to the surface, you often come away feeling that they are operating on a different frequency. And they are, most of the time. They have all their receptors on—and frequently turned up to eleven. But the fact is, we are all capable of operating in this mode.

Try to engage a “beginner’s mind.” For kids, everything is novel, so they ask lots of questions and look at the world wide-eyed, soaking it all in. Everywhere they turn, they tend to think, “Isn’t that interesting?” rather than “I already know about that.”

At the, to demonstrate the power of rediscovering the familiar, we often take executives to places like a gas station or the airport. They assume they know exactly what an airport is like. So we have them sit down and watch how the passengers are lining up, how they get their bags off the carousel, how they talk to the airline representatives. Most leave the airport feeling surprised at what they noticed for the first time. Like the passengers sitting alone at a gate who had arrived for their flight four hours early “just in case.” Or the busy mom who is paying all her bills as boarding begins. Or the “safety rituals” people perform, like tapping the side of the plane three times as they step on board.

Rediscovering the familiar is a powerful example of how looking at something closely can affect what you see. So apply a beginner’s mind to something you do or see every day: commuting to work, eating dinner, or preparing for a meeting. Look for new insights about familiar things. Think of it as a treasure hunt.

By adopting the eyes of a traveler and a beginner’s mindset, you will notice a lot of details that you normally might have overlooked. You put aside assumptions and are fully immersed in the world around you. In this receptive mode, you’re ready to start actively searching out inspiration. And when it comes to inspiration, quantity matters. For example, part of what makes venture capitalists so business savvy—and ultimately so successful—is that they see a lot more ideas than ordinary people. Young, enthusiastic entrepreneurs come to them every day with new-to-the-world business ideas in search of funding. In the VC business, it’s called “deal flow.” All other things being equal, the better your deal flow, the more successful your venture capital firm will be.

What’s true of deal flow for venture capital firms is true of idea flow, too: the more fresh new ideas cross your field of vision each day, the greater your insights will be. As Nobel laureate Linus Pauling famously said, “If you want a good idea, start with a lot of ideas.” At IDEO, we try to keep a fast-running stream of conversations going about provocative new technologies, inspiring case studies, and emerging trends.


One way to find inspiration is to ask questions in an unexpected space, either online or in physical locations. In our San Francisco office, we have a floor-to-ceiling chalkboard in one of the restrooms. It serves as an informal forum and gives us a quick read of what’s going on and what’s on people’s minds. Questions like “What fun things can we do this year?” or “What healthy snacks would you recommend to a friend?” adorn the board. Sometimes an unfinished drawing—an empty aquarium, for example—may inspire visual additions.

To create your own community chalkboard, here are a few tips from IDEO senior experience manager Alan Ratliff:

Experiment first. Try out different sizes and placements before you commit to changing the walls. We started with a small chalkboard and then scaled it up after the idea took off. We now apply black chalkboard paint directly to the walls for maximum flexibility.

Choose a medium. Although we use whiteboards in most of our meeting rooms, chalk on a chalkboard is a fun alternative. It is inviting and easily erasable, so people don’t think twice about adding to or changing what’s there.

Prompt for ideas. Blank slates are intimidating. So get things rolling with a leading question or a drawing that people can build on.

Refresh regularly. Like the contents of a refrigerator, what’s up on the board usually goes bad in about a week. Then it’s time to erase and start over.

Be alert for good ideas that cross your field of view. The more ideas you brush up against, or even butt heads with, the more you can give yourself the venture capitalist’s leverage of seeing a lot of ideas so that you invest in only the very best. Create an eclectic portfolio of short- and long-term ideas, with varying potential for risk and reward. Keep track of them in a folder on your digital device or post them on your wall.

Ask yourself, what can you do to increase your “deal flow” of new ideas? When was the last time you took a class? Read some unusual magazines or blogs? Listened to new kinds of music? Traveled a different route to work? Had coffee with a friend or colleague who can teach you something new? Connected to “big idea” people via social media?

To keep your thinking fresh, constantly seek out new sources of information. For example, we watch dozens of TED Talks a year, scan our favorite news aggregator every morning, and subscribe to expertly curated newsletters like Cool News of the Day. We also have more than six hundred IDEO folks in seven countries selectively sharing new ideas they think are “too good to miss.” If all that sounds overwhelming, it’s not. Once you’ve found the right data streams for you, it can be incredibly energizing.

Another place to find inspiration is to look for new ideas from different cultures or different kinds of organizations. This kind of cross-pollination between departments, companies, and industries can be particularly useful for individuals who have been working at the same job for a while. Even if you have kept up with the industry blogs and trade publications or studied up on the best of class, it’s hard to gain competitive advantage if you and your competitors are consuming all the same data. So why not keep an eye out for new sources of information and learning?

The head of the pediatric intensive care unit at London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital got inspiration from watching a Formula One pit crew on television. He was amazed at the precisely sequenced performance of the well-orchestrated team as they serviced a race car in a matter of seconds. In contrast, the hospital had been struggling with chaotic patient handoffs from surgery to the intensive care unit. So he took the extraordinary step of asking a Ferrari pit crew to coach hospital staff members.

The doctors and nurses translated the pit crew’s techniques into new behaviors. For example, they now map out tasks and timing for every role in order to minimize the need for conversation. And they step through a checklist to relay key patient information. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, the Ferrari-inspired changes reduced technical errors by 42 percent and information errors by 49 percent.

When ideas are in short supply, it’s tempting to become possessive or territorial and limit your options. If you have only a few ideas in your idea bank, you’re more likely to settle on one of the few you have and defend it fiercely, even if it’s not optimal. But when ideas are plentiful and easy—if you (or your team) have a dozen a day—then there’s no need to become territorial about them. And if an idea you had gets blended with others, it’s not a problem. The whole group shares the credit. After all, there are more ideas where that one came from. Business guru Stephen Covey called this attitude an “abundance mentality,” and if you or your team has one, you’ll find it much easier to go from blank page to insight.

As Sternberg says, you can choose to be creative. But you have to make an effort to stay inspired and turn creativity into a habit.

    Confront the obstacles that arise when challenging the status quo.
    Tolerate ambiguity when they are not certain that they are on the right path.
    Continue to grow intellectually rather than let their skills or knowledge stagnate.

“If psychologists wish to teach creativity,” says Sternberg, “they likely will do better to encourage people to decide for creativity, to impress on them the joys of making this decision, and also to inoculate them for some of the challenges attendant on this decision. Deciding for creativity does not guarantee that creativity will emerge, but without the decision, it certainly will not.”

Creativity seldom follows the path of least resistance. You need to deliberately choose creativity. One person who demonstrates how powerful that choice can be is Jill Levinsohn. Jill joined IDEO’s business development team after working for six years in the advertising world, where “creatives” were a clearly designated group—an exclusive club to which Jill did not belong. “There were creative aspects of my job, for sure,” Jill explains, “but there was a hard line between ‘creatives’ and people like me who supported them.” One day at home, Jill chose to be more creative. She signed up for Pinterest, a social network for visually collecting and sharing online content like fashion ideas, recipes, and DIY projects. Before a friend’s Cinco de Mayo party, she “pinned” a recipe for piñata cookies. Made of three layers with space in the middle one for a hidden cache of mini M&Ms, the colorful cookies captured people’s imaginations. Within a week, her idea got repinned more than five hundred times. Jill kept at it, and to her surprise, people really liked her curation style. When her followers grew to over 100,000, she caught the attention of Pinterest itself. They featured her on the site, and by late 2012, Jill had attracted a million followers.

Jill says the experience has awakened her creative confidence. As an enabler of “creatives” in her advertising days, she used to see herself more on the sidelines of creativity. Now she sees sites like Pinterest as powerful tools for creative expression because the barrier to entry is “awesomely low,” giving everyone the chance to exercise their creativity. “I’m taking more ownership of the fact that I’m doing something here, something to be proud of,” says Jill. “Even if what I’m doing is not the most amazing or creative thing in the world, it can still be valuable.”

Today, Jill sees her work with clients to be creative too. She recognizes that 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.

Reprinted from the book Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential within Us All by Tom Kelley & David Kelley. Copyright (c) 2013 by David Kelley and Tom Kelley. Published by Crown Business, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company.