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How To Build Your Creative Confidence

How to build your creative confidence | David Kelley

The following article is derived from the accompanying video. It is provided as an additional resource for your reading convenience


David Kelley tell his Ted Talk audience, “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 —  you know, like Freud, Skinner, somebody and Bandura.”

“Bandura is 86 and he still works at Stanford. And he’s just a lovely guy. So I went to see him, because he’s 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 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 a step-by-step process that was super successful, Kelly explains.

He continues his story by saying, “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. 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, 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 lifelong 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”, Kelley says.

“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”, Kelley shares with his audience.

He continues by saying, “To me, that journey looks like Doug Dietz. Doug Dietz is a technical person. He designs large medical imaging equipment. He’s worked for GE, and he’s had a fantastic career. But at one point, he had a moment of crisis. He was in the hospital looking at one of his MRI machines in use, when he saw a young family, and this little girl. And that little girl was crying and was terrified. And Doug was really disappointed to learn that nearly 80 percent of the pediatric patients in this hospital had to be sedated in order to deal with his MRI machine.”


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Kelly says this was really disappointing to Doug, because before this time, he was proud of what he did. He was saving lives with this machine. But it really hurt him to see the fear that this machine caused in kids.

“About that time, he was at  school at Stanford taking classes. He was learning about our process, about design thinking, about empathy, about iterative prototyping. And he would take this new knowledge and do something quite extraordinary. He would redesign the entire experience of being scanned. And this is what he came up with. He turned it into an adventure for the kids.” Kelley says.

“He painted the walls and he painted the machine, and he got the operators retrained by people who know kids, like children’s museum people. And now when the kid comes, it’s an experience. And they talk to them about the noise and the movement of the ship. And when they come, they say, “OK, you’re going to go into the pirate ship, but be very still, because we don’t want the pirates to find you.” And the results were super dramatic: from something like 80 percent of the kids needing to be sedated, to something like 10 percent of the kids needing to be sedated. And the hospital and GE were happy, too, because you didn’t have to call the anesthesiologist all the time, and they could put more kids through the machine in a day”, Kelley explains in detail.


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He continues saying, “The quantitative results were great. But Doug’s results that he cared about were much more qualitative. He was with one of the mothers waiting for her child to come out of the scan. And when the little girl came out of her scan, she ran up to her mother and said, “Mommy, can we come back tomorrow?” And so, I’ve heard Doug tell the story many times of his personal transformation and the breakthrough design that happened from it, but I’ve never really seen him tell the story of the little girl without a tear in his eye.”

“Doug’s story takes place in a hospital. I know a thing or two about hospitals. A few years ago, I felt a lump on the side of my neck. It was my turn in the MRI machine. It was cancer, it was the bad kind. I was told I had a 40 percent chance of survival. So while you’re sitting around with the other patients, in your pajamas, and everybody’s pale and thin –you know? — and you’re waiting for your turn to get the gamma rays, you think of a lot of things. Mostly, you think about: Am I going to survive? And I thought a lot about: What was my daughter’s life going to be like without me? But you think about other things”, Kelley tell his audience.

“I thought a lot about: What was I put on Earth to do? What was my calling? What should I do? I was lucky because I had lots of options. We’d been working in health and wellness, and K-12, and the developing world. so there were lots of projects that I could work on. But then I decided and committed at this point, to the thing I most wanted to do, which was to help as many people as possible regain the creative confidence they lost along their way. And if I was going to survive, that’s what I wanted to do. I survived, just so you know”, Kelley says.

As his ending point, Kelley states to his Ted audience, “I know at TED, you’re supposed to have a change-the-world kind of thing, isn’t that — everybody has a change-the-world thing? If there is one for me, this is it, to help this happen. So I hope you’ll join me on my quest, you as, kind of, thought leaders. It would be really great if you didn’t let people divide the world into the creatives and the non-creatives, like it’s some God-given thing, and to have people realise that they’re naturally creative, and that those natural people should let their ideas fly; that they should achieve what Bandura calls self-efficacy, that you can do what you set out to do, and that you can reach a place of creative confidence and touch the snake. Thank you.”


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David Kelley is an American television writer and producer. He is the creator of the TV shows Picket Fences, Chicago Hope, The Practice, Ally McBeal, Boston Public, Boston Legal, and Harry’s Law.  Kelley is founder, chairman, and managing partner of the design firm IDEO and is Stanford University professor.


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