Book Review-Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All

I’ve been wandering around the land of innovation lately. I wrote a chapter for the Ark Group book Smarter Innovation: Using Interactive Processes to Drive Better Business Results. That chapter really followed up on the chapter I wrote for Unlocking Value: KM as a Strategic Management Tool. Of course, I read and reviewed Unleashing Innovation about Whirlpool’s transformation into an innovative company. So reading Creative Confidence is trying to move upstream. I describe innovation as an idea that has been implemented. (Perhaps from my study of Diffusion of Innovations.) It’s great to work on the plumbing of sifting through ideas and ultimately converting them into innovations – but there has to be a source somewhere for these ideas. That’s what Creative Confidence focuses on – how to encourage, enable, and support the creation of ideas.

Boxes that Define Us

Everyone is born creative. Everyone is born with innate ability to be creative and to create something new. You see it in children all the time. They dance unapologetically. They color outside the lines – and sometimes off the page. They’ve not learned to be creative, they were born with it. Many adults, however, have unlearned how to be creative. We’ve learned that it’s wrong to color outside of the lines. We’ve learned to fear rejection and scorn as we do something that others don’t understand or approve of.

It’s the guilt and shame (See Daring Greatly) that begin to separate us from our innate creative nature. A small comment about how we’re not good enough is replayed over and over in our minds, leading us to believe that we really are not good enough. We’re not worthy. Faced with a wave of negative emotions and a shrinking personal value our ego defenses kick in and create a split in our personality. (See Change or Die for more on ego defenses.) We suppress the pain rather than dealing with it directly. The result is that we fragment our identity. On the one hand there is the minimizing comments which create a negative image of ourselves, but there is also a positive ego we create through our ego defenses and our belief that we are different than the comments that harmed us. This is the identity that we project. This identity is what Anatomy of Peace would call our must-be-seen-as box. That is we must be seen as someone different than we really are – or who we really, deep in our core, believe that we are.

From my perspective one of the keys to rediscovering our creativity is in integrating these two self-images. That is that we should resolve the internal schism that created the separation in the first place. I’ve spoken about integrated self-image in The Inner Game of Dialogue (part of my series for the book Dialogue.) I spoke about the need to eliminate boxes through this integrated self-image, but I’ve not spoken much about ways to reintegrate the image. I want to focus on this topic in this review.

Discover the Truth

Malleability and Fear

A prerequisite for reintegrating our self-images is the belief that we’re able to change. It’s what Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset. We have to believe that we can change who we are, where we are, and our potential. That’s something that Dweck explores at length in her book Mindset.

If we believe that we’re able to change, the trick becomes how we do it. Redirect speaks about cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), and its effectiveness at changing the internal monologue that we hear. However, so does Emotional Intelligence and How to Be an Adult in Relationships. Clearly, CBT is an important technique. It’s been proven to be one of the most effective psychological therapies created. (However, a book that I’m not finished with, The Heart & Soul of Change, discusses many of the issues with testing psychological treatment regimens.) One key to actually making the change once you believe it is possible is to change that inner monologue from a negative confirmation to a positive confirmation. (See The Science of Trust
for positive and negative sentiment override.)

With the belief that change is possible and that you’re capable of change it’s time to do what Albert Bandura, in the context of conquering fears, calls the process of guided mastery – taking small steps to overcoming a fear. Bandura’s goal was the development of Self-Efficacy – that is the belief that we can reach goals or complete tasks. The process of guided mastery involves the development of a series of small steps to reach a goal. Desensitization is a variation that is specifically designed to reduce the impact of negative responses to stimulus. By repeatedly creating safe interactions it’s possible to reduce the fear response in animals and humans.

To repair a fragmented self-image we’ve got to go back to what fragmented the image in the first place. You’ve got to find the hurt – or more likely set of hurts that created the split in the first place. Often the hurts are caused by people who are closest to us. In my post Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy I linked trust, betrayal, vulnerability and intimacy. Because we trusted someone (even if it was only a little bit) and we felt like they harmed us (a betrayal) we were harmed. Our vulnerability due to trust created an opportunity for sufficient harm that our identity became fragmented – or at the very least cracked.

How many of us have been deeply wounded by a comment made by a friend? The comment may – or may not – have been true, however, the comment harmed us greatly. For me, personally, I have been harmed by how my friends see me – because it didn’t match the person I wanted to be or the person I saw myself being. I know that for me the reconciliation process for those comments is a very difficult process. I can dismiss the comment out of hand – indicating a lack of trust and therefore vulnerability – or I can process what they’ve said and hope that they’ve said it in both truth and love.

The key – I believe – to repairing a fragmented identity is to learn to trust again. We see this in desensitization and in what Bandura calls guided mastery. It’s all about making life safer. In How Children Succeed research was shared that spoke about how important it was to feel safe to be vulnerable – but more importantly how children who felt safer (because of fewer adverse childhood experiences (ACE)) were more well-adjusted and more inclined to take risks. In the context of creativity it’s feeling safe to be creative without fear of ridicule.

I still remember a comment that an English teacher made to me in passing. She didn’t mean anything by it, and I hold no malice to her for it. She told me that I shouldn’t consider a career in writing. My grammar was – and is – often awful. I don’t spell well. I sometimes get ahead of myself in my writing. (I know you’re saying “Duh”.) I carried with me for a long time that perception that I shouldn’t be a writer. As it turns out my journey to writing came from writing presentations – something a former boss nudged me into. It wasn’t writing. It was producing slides so it was OK. It also came from a friend who encouraged me to be a technical editor – editing for technical accuracy –and then eventually encouraging me to write a chapter. Now I’ve got author credit on 24 books and hundreds of articles. That would have never happened if I hadn’t been able to work through that part of my fragmented self-image – the one that didn’t care about writing and the one that enjoyed it but which was hurt.

When it comes to creativity one guy to look at is Walt Disney. As I mentioned in my review of Primal Leadership, I had the pleasure of visiting the Walt Disney Family Museum. One of the striking things about the museum is that you have the ability to see not just the end result of Disney’s life, which is quite remarkable. Instead you get to see the progression of things that he did to become the man he was. You got to see how he was able to do what people thought was impossible simply because of his dedication to his craft. You got to walk through the short stories that lead to longer features. You got to see whole new techniques that he and his team invented for creating animated movies. The other component to the Disney story that is compelling here is that he had plenty of setbacks, rejections, and failures. Bankruptcy is just one of those ways that he failed. So he was always trying to figure out how to be successful at his creativity while accepting failure as a natural consequence of trying. This is Walt Disney I’m speaking about, someone who has arguably done more to entertain people than anyone else who has ever lived.

Learning More than Fear

So what was it that drove Walt Disney and Thomas Edison to move past their failures and their fear? Some call it an innate desire to create. Others reduce it to the fundamental element of learning. They wanted to learn how something could be done. They wanted to see what the possibilities were, and how to make it really work. They had already seen what it was like to be a failure. They didn’t need to fear failure because they had been there, and they realized that the only way to remain a failure was to stop trying. Failure was a stop along the road. The trick was to not build a house and live there.

Interesting in the review of my notes from all of the books that I’ve read is that the word “lifelong” is most frequently (and nearly exclusively) used when speaking about learning or developing the habit of learning. There’s no clear pointer on what gets the process kicked off. It seems like the key is buried somewhere in research around Flow – that is that great leaders found a way to get into a state of high productivity when learning. They enjoyed it. Learning wasn’t the means to an end. Rather the ends – the tangible outcomes – were a means to learn more. Said differently they created a target, which created the need to learn.

When fear of failure moves out of the center spotlight, and it is replaced with the desire to learn, it becomes safe to be creative. When fear has to take a back seat to anything, it is weakened. It’s stronghold over our lives begins to falter and we can regain our creativity. It doesn’t have to be learning that you want more than fear, but learning creates opportunities for new places where fear has no hold.

Compassion and Empathy

Buddhists hold, as a core part of their beliefs, that they should have compassion for every living thing. Christians have a fundamental belief that they’re supposed to love their neighbor. (Including the Greek words Agape – God’s love – and Philos – brotherly love.) Fundamentally both believe in creating a connection – a shared experience – with another human being. It’s this connection that allows you to experience their world and to be creative for their needs.

Consider for a moment the plight of the average traveler in the 1960s. They were just beginning to have air travel available. The luggage of the time was big, heavy, and clunky. However, passengers and baggage handlers had to move this luggage around. It was around 1970 when Benard Sadow created the innovation of the wheel on luggage. His patent in 1972 for “rolling luggage” was, at the time, innovative. It was different than how luggage had always been done. However, by experiencing the plight of a traveler trying to move their luggage through an airport, Sadow, realized the opportunity to make luggage better. This is deep empathy to the plight of travelers.

Having compassion and empathy for others is necessary to create solutions that really resonate with them. All too often people design solutions for the surface issues that people see. Solutions are targeted at creating a bigger bag because of all of the things that people need to carry. It’s the creative person that creates ways for the items they carry to be less bulky – or to create a situation where they don’t need to carry them at all. From deep empathy comes innovative solutions. From a love of others comes a desire to create something that is harmonious with their lives.

Journeying to Mastery

Daniel Pink, in his book Drive, discusses what drives people. We’ve all seen Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the carrots and sticks model of rewards and punishments, but Pink exposes another model that focuses on the intrinsic motivators of autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Mastery is an interesting motivator since mastery is an asymptote. That is that you can never really reach 100% mastery, you can only get close to mastery. Thus you’re always in a journey towards mastery – never arriving. I spoke about the impact of journey in my review of Changes That Heal.

Creating a deep desire to become a master at something – or achieve some level of mastery on many different topics. Mastery, as I discussed in Sources of Power – the mental models that masters create are different. They’re richer and by nature of their mastery people can see things that others simply cannot see. In Efficiency in Learning they call the mental models schemas. However, the message is the same. Masters just see the problem differently. Things that others can’t see from the noise masters pick out with ease. They can locate the salient information – the most important – quickly and they’re able to act on it. In terms of creativity the ability to see and know what’s most important, and to be able to create solutions based on that knowledge, means better solutions with less effort.

The journey to mastery is not a short road. In Outliers, Malcom Gladwell asserts that it takes 10,000 hours of intentional practice to become a master. The process of developing mastery may in fact take longer – or shorter but the message is simple. Developing mastery in a topic takes a great deal of dedication and effort. Paradoxically the greatest value may come in learning from many different disciplines. Some of the most important masters in history were polymaths – they had developed mastery in multiple disciplines. These folks showed a desire to learn, a fearless quest for doing something more, and very little concern for failure.

Acting with Intention

If you were to ask most people about a characteristic of a good designer what would they say? Most folks wouldn’t have an answer for you. However, what if you asked a professor who teaches management? Well, if you ask Roger Martin at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management you’d hear him say that designers act with intention. Designers and creators see the world the way it is, and they want to make it better. They’re always analyzing what they’re doing, and try to improve the experience.

In my office I have a rather steep set of steps up to the video studio. I put laminate floor in, and was disappointed to find out that the way that the stairs were created to work is a bull-nose. That is that the stair noses are taller than the laminate itself. I felt like this would be a tripping hazard. So I had custom pieces of metal bent to form over the laminate and screw into the end of the stair’s plate. I ultimately decided on stainless steel over aluminum because I observed that most people put their weight on the edge of the stairs, and the stainless steel – because it’s much harder – would hold up better. It’s a tiny thing, but it’s important to me as I walk the stairs nearly every day.

Crawling Your Way Through Fear

I made a conscious decision one day to not live in fear. I need to clarify. I’m not saying that I’ll never be in fear. I mean I’ll never live there. It will never be my home. I recognize that fear can be an appropriate emotion. If you’re face-to-face with a bear, lion, or other wild animal fear may be the appropriate response – unless you’re at a zoo and there’s a barrier between you. With the decision to not live in fear, I had to figure out how to live that out. One of the ways that I decided to live that out was to go caving. (Spelunking if you want to get technical.)

I’ve never liked tight spaces. I don’t know that it would cross the line into phobia or not, but I know that I didn’t like the idea that I could get stuck or not have enough room to move. I don’t know if everyone has the fear – and I certainly don’t know where it came from, however, I know that for me it was very real. So when a friend asked if I would be interested in going caving with her and some friends, I said yes. Certainly there are many people who would wonder about my sanity. Why would I intentionally do something that I knew I was going to fear and struggle with – of course the answer is that this was entirely the point. I didn’t want the fear to control me.

We ended up going to Buckner Cave. While it didn’t require rope or special gear, the belly crawling wasn’t something that I was particularly thrilled with. As I remember it the cave wasn’t awful. There was a large set of people who were with me and were encouraging me. The belly crawling though it felt like it was forever wasn’t really. It was probably only a few hundred feet.

What I learned out of the situation is that I didn’t have to be afraid of tight spaces. I realized that I could – in this case – crawl my way through fear. I could become more comfortable by realizing that my fears weren’t justified by reality.

Unlearning and Relearning

Mark Twain said “It’s not what you don’t know that gets you into trouble, it’s what you know that ain’t so.” In other words, it’s what you’ve learned that is wrong that is much more risky than just not knowing something. You see, the world is split into the known-unknowns and the unknown-unknowns. The known-unknowns are things like not knowing how much gas is in your car. The unknown-unknowns are those random events that you can’t predict. Most people don’t worry about a thermostat in their engine failing or a timing belt failing. We simply just don’t know that we need to be concerned with such things. The challenge with this point of view is that incorrect knowledge is an unknown-unknown. You can’t see the place where you’re standing until you move. You can’t know that something you believe is wrong until you start to look at it from another point of view – and few of us do that.

However, being open to being wrong removes one of our greatest challenges to see how to be creative.

Creative Endings

I don’t know how to be creative in how I end this review, but I know that if you want to be more creative, you need more Creative Confidence.