Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

You are the creative type

By David Kelley, Special to CNN
July 15, 2012 -- Updated 1301 GMT (2101 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Kelley: Creativity isn't something that only a few can do, it's natural human behavior
  • He says sometimes creativity gets blocked and we lose the confidence to create
  • A series of small successes can help people develop creative confidence, he says
  • Kelley: Creativity can turn the world around, as it did at an MRI unit for sick children

Editor's note: David Kelley founded the global design and innovation firm IDEO and led the creation of the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University. He spoke at TED in March 2012. TED is a nonprofit dedicated to "Ideas worth spreading," which it makes available through talks posted on its website.

(CNN) -- Creativity, the ability to see things differently and come up with new breakthroughs, isn't some God-given gift to be enjoyed by the lucky few. It's a natural part of human behavior. Unfortunately, sometimes creativity gets blocked and we lose confidence in our own ability to create.

Albert Bandura is one of the great psychologists: Only Freud, Skinner and Piaget have been cited more. Bandura is 86 now and he still works at Stanford.

One day we met on campus and got to talking about this methodology he'd developed to cure phobias, called "guided mastery." I mean, Bandura's methodology didn't just cure people with a lifelong fear of snakes; it affected other parts of their lives.

Watch David Kelley's TED Talk: How to build your creative confidence

How you can be more creative

First Bandura would invite the person with the fear of snakes into a room and say, "You know, there's a snake in the next room and we're going in there." To which they usually responded, "Hell no, I'm not."

Then he'd have the person stand in front of a two-way mirror looking into the room where a friend of theirs was holding a snake. Gradually, the person would start to feel more comfortable. Many small steps later, eventually they wouldn't just be in standing in the same room as a snake, they'd be wearing leather gloves, getting ready to actually touch one. And as soon as someone with a phobia of snakes actually touched a snake in that room, they were fine. Better than fine.

TED.com: Elizabeth Gilbert on nurturing creativity

In fact, the people who had touched the snake ended up having less anxiety and more success elsewhere in their lives. They tried harder, they persevered longer, and they were more resilient in the face of failure. They had gained a new confidence in their ability to attain what they set out to do. Bandura calls that confidence "self-efficacy," and it could possibly change the world, one person at a time.

Well, meeting Bandura was really cathartic for me, because I realized that this famous scientist had scientifically validated something we'd been seeing for the last 30 years. At IDEO and the d.school (Stanford's school of design), we meet people from all kinds of businesses.

A lot of these highly skilled people have spent years honing their analytical, practical mind -- but they can't remember the last time they created something new. They say things like, "I'm afraid I'm just not the creative type." We've found that we can help people regain their creative confidence through a series of small successes that take fear and turn it into familiarity.

Even better, when people regain this creative confidence -- and we see it all the time at the d.school and at IDEO -- we've found that they start working on the things that are really important in their lives. They go in new directions. They come up with more interesting, more prolific ideas, so they can choose from better options. And they make better decisions.

TED.com: Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity

To me, that journey to creative confidence looks like Doug Dietz.

Doug Dietz is a technical person. He designs life-saving, award-winning medical imaging equipment, MRI machines, and he's had a fantastic career at GE. But at one point Doug had a moment of crisis. He had come to a hospital to observe one of his MRI machines in use and met a young family whose little girl was so terrified of the MRI that she had to be sedated before getting a scan. Then Doug found out she wasn't the only one. Nearly 80 percent of the pediatric patients in this hospital had to be sedated in order to deal with the scary MRI machine.

Around that time he was taking classes at the d.school, learning about design thinking, about empathy, about iterative prototyping. And he decided to take his new creative confidence and do something quite extraordinary. He decided to redesign the entire experience of being scanned.

He painted the walls and he painted the machine, and he had children's museum people retrain the operators, and he turned the MRI experience into an adventure story for kids. Now when a kid comes in, they're in a story, not a machine. The operators say things like, "Okay, you're going to go into the pirate ship, but be very still because we don't want the pirates to find you."

Because of Doug's MRI redesign, this pediatric ward went from 80 percent of the kids needing to be sedated, to something like 10 percent. The hospital and GE were happy too, because less anesthesiologist time meant more patients could finish in one day. So the quantitative results were great. But the results that Doug cared about were much more qualitative: He was waiting with a young family one day when a little girl came out of her scan, ran up to her mother, and said, "Mommy, can we come back tomorrow?"

TED.com: 5 dangerous things you should let your kids do

Doug's story takes place in a hospital. I know a thing or two about hospitals, too. A few years ago I felt a lump on the side of my neck, and it was my turn in the MRI machine. It was cancer. 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 and you're waiting for your turn to get the gamma rays, you think about a lot of things. Mostly you think about, "Am I going to survive?" But you think about other things, too, like, "What was I put on Earth to do?" At this point I knew that if I survived, my purpose was to help as many people as possible regain the creative confidence they lost along their way.

So I hope you'll join me on my quest. Let's not let people divide the world into the creatives and the non-creatives, like it's some God-given thing. Let's help people realize that they're naturally creative, and they should let their ideas fly. Achieve what Bandura calls self-efficacy.

Find the belief that you can do what you set out to do. Believe that you can reach a place of creative confidence. Touch the snake.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Kelley.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 0102 GMT (0902 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1228 GMT (2028 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT