Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

You are the creative type

By David Kelley, Special to CNN
updated 9:01 AM EDT, Sun July 15, 2012
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
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:48 PM EDT, Sat October 25, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
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
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
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
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
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
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
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.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
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.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
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
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
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
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
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.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
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.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
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
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
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
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
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
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
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
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
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?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
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
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT