How I regained my creative confidence

I originally posted this story as a inspiration for OpenIDEO’s challenge – “How might we inspire young people to cultivate their creative confidence?” I’m expanding it here because it seemed to connect with a lot of people.

Tom and David Kelley defined creative confidence as the ability to come up with new ideas and the courage to try them out. In other words, the confidence to change something about the way the world is.

The assumption is that we’re all creative. When we were young, we all imagined new worlds, had bizarre thoughts, and often had the courage to say it out loud. We played stupid games together that made no sense to anyone else. We explored. Everything was filtered through our own weird lens.

Every single person I talked to can recall memories like these, where their creative energy was humming inside, barely contained. But it’s always recalled with bittersweet fondness for something long gone, and this loss is accepted as if it’s a universal passage that we all go through as we mature.

The truth is, we’re all just as creative when we’re older. The only difference is that most of us lose creative confidence, and it can feel like we lost our creativity altogether.

I know this, because I’ve gone through the entire spectrum of creative confidence.

When I was growing up, I was the poster-child of lack of creative confidence.

I never raised my hand in class, engaged in discussions, or seriously pursued any of my creative interests, even though I had many. I loved doodling, making stuff out of construction paper. I remember making a giraffe out of a empty tissue box, empty toilet paper rolls, and a plastic bottle. When I looked through my old textbooks, every page was filled with random pictures – stick figure wars, deformed animals, and people with beards.

I kept all those creative pursuits to myself. Almost never shared it with anyone. Slowly, my creative interests withered and died as I grew older. Looking back, I realized that this was a symptom of my lack of creative confidence.

A big part of this was caused by the environment where I grew up – in the affluent suburbs of San Diego. It was a place where the status quo was deeply entrenched, because the status quo served most people in the area pretty well. It felt like nothing could be changed, and didn’t need to change in the first place.

Even though I want to blame it all on my surroundings, I can’t. I had friends in San Diego who were brimming with creative confidence. They pursued their own interests only for the sake of interest, looked past their immediate surroundings, and tackled awesome creative endeavors.

But I wasn’t one of those people. Being naturally timid made me reactive to my surroundings. The horizon ended at the neighborhood that I grew up in. It was so much easier to just go with the flow, to follow the safest path possible toward what was defined as success growing up – suburban home ownership. Why bother with creative pursuits when I had so much more to worry about – like tests and homework and getting into college? Both my personality and my surroundings made it hard to engage in my own creative potential, to go against the current of business as usual.

Before I could regain my creative confidence, my perception of the world around me had to change. That happened when I moved to Berkeley for college, which was almost the complete opposite of San Diego. Berkeley is notoriously liberal, fiercely progressive, and very active in trying to create change.

Berkeley has the highest wealth inequality in the Bay Area, because the wealthier citizens were willing to finance generous social programs that made it a attractive place to live for people that are low-income or homeless. This meant that the harsh realities of poverty were right there in front of our faces. The problem wasn’t conveniently masked or hidden away

During that first year, I saw social issues all around me that I failed to see in my little bubble in San Diego. It was a huge eye-opener. I finally realized that the status quo that worked so well for some people was not working for most others. San Diego started to resemble a static fairy-tale land, and that blanket image was eroding. I joined Habitat for Humanity, partly to find friends, and partly to get involved in something big, something that changed the status quo.

During a Habitat for Humanity trip in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, I helped build a house for the first time. When we arrived, there was nothing except for a foundation:

By the time we left a week later, there was an entire house standing right there, in the plot of land that used to be empty:

It was the first time I built something with my bare hands. It didn’t matter that I was timid, never raised my hands in class, or participated in discussions. Anyone can hammer a nail. Or raise a wall. Or saw plywood.

I made a positive impact on my environment, just one small good thing for someone else, and it felt incredible. It was the first moment where I saw that I can make a tangible positive difference. I wasn’t being reactive, but active in solving problems that I saw. For the first time in my life, I could point to something and say, “I helped build that”. This was the initial spark of my creative confidence – the courage to change the way the world is.

One of the worst things about not having confidence was that I didn’t have the confidence to directly tackle my lack of confidence. But going into community service naturally made me think expansively toward the people around me. The feeling that came with that mindset was so amazing that I became completely wrapped up in it. It was easy for me to take on responsibilities without actually thinking about confidence, creativity, or leadership. I was just going out and doing stuff.

I became more involved in Habitat for Humanity. I facilitated committees of people who were also passionate about affordable housing to collaboratively dream up and implement outreach events, fundraisers, and service trips. We were building things not just from physical materials, but also from ideas.

The moment we saw our ideas become tangible experiences that people can touch, feel, and experience, was a huge moment for regaining creative confidence. It felt amazing to see people experiencing and enjoying an event that we had been brainstorming and planning for months. It became something that couldn’t be taken away or trivialized – even by my own internal voices – because it became something shared and enjoyed by everyone in the physical environment.

My attitude toward reality itself started to morph, so slowly that it was unnoticeable until a few years later when I reflected back on who I had been, and who I was now. Today, everything around me seems malleable, and I have confidence that my thoughts, ideas, and actions can actually mold reality. The world used to look like a giant wall that I had to fit into, but now it’s a full of possibilities and opportunities to make change.

The initial spark of confidence in Mississippi really changed my life.

Gaining creative confidence might have been the most important thing that happened to me. Having creative confidence wasn’t just about being able to express my creativity. Creative confidence encouraged critical thinking, questioning the way things are, and imagining how things ought to be. It gave me a positive outlook on life because I could see that I have the power to shape my own life. It gave me the ability and confidence to make a positive impact on issues that I care about.

These skills and mindsets are necessary to navigate through life in our own unique path, instead of being forced to fit into someone else’s.

The best thing about creativity is that we all have it. It’s part of human nature. But we’re currently not doing a good job of creating a world where everyone can live up to their creative potential. Almost all of us can recount the moments when our creative energy hit a wall.

How many people passed through life with world-changing ideas stuck inside their mind? How many people’s unique creative brilliance is being smothered at this moment?

We’re constantly surprised by the ingenuity, creativity, and open curiosity of kids. At the same time, it’s becoming obvious that the way we’re doing things right now is not working. The most pressing challenges of the world today needs empathy, curiosity, and fresh perspectives that come with creative confidence.

We need to allow the innate creative talents of everyone to shine through, and enrich everyone’s lives through its positive impact.

You can contribute your own ideas for cultivating creative confidence of youth right now at OpenIDEO!

If you’re interested in learning more about creative confidence, you should read Creative Confidence by Tom & David Kelley.


The world surrounds us

How much of our lives are controlled by forces completely out of our control? By forces we can’t see, or even begin to understand?

What if we could see every invisible push and pull that molded the lives of everyone around us?

What if we could see the entire universe of complex thoughts and emotions that make up everyone that we pass by, as vivid and visceral as the thoughts and emotions that dominate our own perceptions?

How would that change how we interact with someone?

How would the world change?

What if every thought, every intent, action, mistake, ambition, sorrow, joy, brilliance, stupidity we’ve ever had, were laid out for everyone to see?

Could anyone hate us?

Could anyone love us?


Leaving home

I hugged my mom tightly, squeezing her until my arms trembled. If I held her tightly enough, maybe I wouldn’t have to leave?

It was the logic of a kindergartner, but unfortunately I graduated from college. I was already late for my flight, and I knew I had to let her go, so I said my goodbyes. I quickly turned around so I wouldn’t have to see my teary-eyed mom, and walked away from the drop-off zone toward the airport terminal.

Goodbyes always sucked, and this wasn’t the first time I left home. I’ve left San Diego and my life and family behind when I headed off to college. But college was just another structured thing, just another step in the fake world, and trips back home were guaranteed during summer breaks. This time, I didn’t know when I would come back.

I sat in one of the chairs in the rows of black leather seats at the gate, waiting for my departure. The airport was really crowded today. A stream of people rushed toward their destinations. They looked so sure of themselves, of where they were going, and what they were supposed to do. I looked around at the older adults sitting around me, bored, passing time by immersing themselves in a book or a smartphone. I listened in on someone shouting at their co-worker for screwing up an important meeting and how he didn’t have time for this shit because he was catching a flight soon.

I looked at all these adults, and, even though I was also an adult now, the chasm between me and everyone else felt as big as it did when I was in elementary school. They all seemed grizzled, hardened by the world, even cold. I felt jealous. Even the angry guy shouting at someone on the phone at least seemed sure of himself, and he somehow made adulthood look easy. I felt the urge to go up and ask them questions.

What was it like when you left home? Did you feel scared? Did you feel sad? Does it ever become easy to be an adult? Does it ever become as good as the old days? Is it possible to find a new home, a real home, somewhere in the world? Have you found it already?

Even in college, all my friends seemed so sure of themselves. They didn’t look back even once. Only excitement filled their souls as they moved forward to the next stage in life. I knew that the idea was ridiculous, that everyone has to look back from time to time, and that everyone was just hiding it, shielding the perceived weakness from the world. But still, it felt lonely sometimes.

I walked through the aisle on the plane. I couldn’t help but look for glimpses of the warmth and connection I’ve taken for granted for the past two months at home. All I got were rows of bored faces and a short warning that no electronic devices are allowed during take-off. It was hard not to look after being with my brother and my mom, who I shared experiences with for the past 22 years of my life. The total understanding between us, mostly unspoken but tangibly real, was something I wasn’t going to find in that plane. Maybe I would never be able to find it anywhere else.

The plane took off. The lights of San Diego, floating in darkness, became smaller and smaller until they faded.

Memories from my post-graduation visit came flooding back. Riding perfect waves with my brother in the midst of the Pacific Ocean, glinting in the sun. The long conversations I had with my mom as we took our dog for a walk every night. Watching my twelve-year-old Golden Retriever light up and start exploring the same beach that he’d been exploring since he was a puppy. They were all moments that I took for granted as I was growing up, but now appreciated every second of it because it might be coming to an end.

My family wasn’t perfect, and we definitely had our share of problems. But at that moment I realized that it might be the closest thing to perfect I will ever experience in my lifetime. I never appreciated it as much as I should have growing up, and now I felt I was going to be searching for it for the rest of my life.

Change is always associated with fear, but not many people talk about the sadness. And sadness is so much worse than fear.

By the time the plane landed in Oakland, San Diego was already a vanishing dream. It took about thirty minutes to get to the train station in Hayward, my new home for the year, and there, waiting in the night for me, was my girlfriend. As I walked toward her and hugged her as tightly as I hugged my mom, I felt a familiar warmth, and things started to feel right again.

Maybe home can be found away from home. Maybe it’s waiting for all of us, somewhere out there.


Let’s go to space

Imagine you’re high: you’re 238,900 miles from Earth. From here, your entire vision is the green, blue and white of your home planet. You look beside you, and you can see the stark white of the lunar landscape. Now you’re higher, and you can see the whole of the Earth. From here, you can actually feel how fragile, how inconsequential our little planet is. It makes you cherish it even more. Life is special.

Now zoom out even further. 3.7 billion miles from home. You look behind you, and you see a pale blue dot, a mote of dust, just suspended in a beam of light. Everyone you ever met, everyone that you never met, billions of invisible interactions you missed. It’s all right there, on that pale blue dot. It’s a humbling experience.

Europa is somewhere near you. One of the many moons of Saturn. You remember that this is where humanity first found extraterrestrial life forms. You chuckle to yourself. You wonder how humanity could have ever wondered if we were alone in the entire universe.

Now you’re 120,000 light years away. You can’t even see Earth anymore. Instead, you just see a dim glowing band across the black expanse of space. That’s Milky Way, our galaxy.

2.5 million light years away. You’re in Andromeda Galaxy, one of our neighbors. Along the way, you’ve seen beautiful things. Clouds of stars, glimmering in every spectrum of color you could imagine. Asteroid belts, with rock and ice clashing and shattering into tiny pieces. Serendipitous events occurring at a rate so tiny, it could have been said to not have occurred at all.

You’ve seen horrifying things, too. A black hole, the remnants of a dying star. You see another kind of a death of a star, a super nova. When the entire density of the planet compacts, then explodes outwards in a single explosive burst, with energy as high as the amount the sun will emit in its entire lifetime. This is a violent death for a star. But this is also the beginning of us. This is where we came from, because the building blocks of life are made of atoms that were produced in the heart of this planetary explosion.

Now you’re 46 billion light years away. You’re really starting to know the universe now. You’re starting to know yourself, for the first time. You’re reaching the edge of the known universe. Finally, you’re starting to see the boundary of human understanding …

There. This is why we need to keep advancing as a species. This is why NASA needs to get the funding it deserves. This is why we need science-literate politicians. This is why we need to invest in good science. Because that is what we will be able to experience, or at least the future children of humanity. Can you imagine how amazing that would be? It would be fucking awesome.

I could also have talked about the fact that funding in curiosity-led science led to the discovery of some of the most fundamental technologies we have today, like transistors, which is the basis of information technology and the modern economy. I could have talked about how watching rocket ships land on the Moon inspired generations of scientists, engineers and technologists that pushed us forward.

But no, I don’t need to talk about any of that. Because reaching for the edge of the universe, reaching for our full potential as humans, to see what lies beyond, to satisfy the urge of the explorer, an urge that will always exist inside of us, is worth striving for as a species.

Let’s see where curiosity takes us. Let’s go.

Edit: My friend informed me that Russia is allocating $50 billion in space spending through 2020, while the budget for NASA in the U.S. keeps declining. And the GDP of the U.S. is eight times that of Russia. Come on.


Embracing absurdity

One of my closest friends and I spent one last day together before he left for grad school. We parked the car next to the ocean and watched the sun disappear, like it was signaling the end of a chapter in our friendship. We were listening to Daft Punk on the car stereo, with the rhythm of crashing waves as the backdrop. Suddenly my friend said to me, “The ocean made me uncomfortable for a long time. I actually got used it only recently.” Then he went silent.

He looked as if he wasn’t sure that he wanted to let the next words come out of his mouth, but eventually he did.

It was a story from his childhood, about a day at the beach in the Philippines where he grew up. He went swimming a little too far from the shore, and got caught in a dangerous riptide.

He was eventually saved by a local, but afterwards he found out that his uncle, who had swum out to save him, had drowned. He was devastated, and the horror of that day seemed to live vividly in his mind. I’m not sure why he decided to tell me that story at that moment. Maybe it was the finality of the day lingering in the back of his mind. But it got me thinking, and it took me, almost comically, far away.

I imagined cosmic dust. On a unassuming blue rock, floating in a infinite sea of darkness, this cosmic dust was arranged into life. Dust that can experience itself. Then, maybe for the first time, dust evolved into something that could look up and contemplate the cosmic ocean where it came from.

Nothing reflected back.

I can imagine how scary it must have been. When I was little, I got a gut-wrenching feeling every time I thought about our planet spinning in blackness, like that empty void was pushing down, trying to crush me.

I thought about our journey. An odyssey full of tension caused by consciousness existing inside an indifferent universe. For as long as we’ve existed, we tried to fight back against the horrible void by desperately searching for meaning, in any way we could.

But we’re constantly reminded of the void, pressing down on us. It always creeps back in, through the tedium of our daily lives and stories of tragedy.

My friend’s story hit me harder than most because it revealed the void so plainly. A man swimming into the maw of an uncaring ocean, drowning while trying to save another life. The universe didn’t care who he was, how many people loved him, or how noble his actions were. Just a collection of particles following a set of physical laws.

It’s almost unbearably absurd.

We collectively have to go a little crazy just to exist. Insanity is the true universal birthright.

All these thoughts kept on swirling in my mind while my friend and I sat in the car, getting lost in our heads. Then I looked out of the car again.

I watched the smoldering sun melting into the horizon, like ice cream made of fire. Remnants of daylight broke through the sprawling clouds, its edges tinged orange and red. It took my breath away.

I looked beside me, to one of my closest friends and felt a mix of emotions. Appreciation, for being so lucky to have known him at all. Sadness, because I knew this was probably the last time we would be able to hang out together like this (I hope I wasn’t creeping him out right then.)

How do I reconcile deeply human experiences like these? It feels more real to me than anything else. Does the lack of meaning in the universe render my personal experiences, thoughts, feelings, and emotions equally meaningless?

I don’t think so.

To me, the empty canvas that we’re born into isn’t an end. It means we’re free to paint it however we want. This is where we can begin.

The only way to deal with an indifferent universe is to look deep into our unique human experiences and create our own meaning, so that our very existence transcends the void. Creating meaning is the most human thing that ever existed. It’s how we can be as human as possible.

If you think about everything this way, the immensity of the universe only accentuates our existence.

We all found each other in the never-ending expanse of space by pure chance. We all found each other, on this unimaginably tiny point of light. We can create, and share our own meaning with each other, even in the short time we have to exist. We’re the beginning and the end – a self-sustained loop.

Thinking from this perspective makes even the most mundane parts of life insanely vivid. It makes moments like last goodbyes among friends even more meaningful.

So, what about my friend’s uncle?

I don’t know how he lived, but I do know how he died. He died fighting against the current of indifference. In that moment, he was risking his life to save another. He put his entire being into the blank canvas that he was born into, and created meaning out of a meaningless void.

This legacy lives on through my friend. Witnessing an act so profoundly human, deeply shaped the kind of person my friend wanted to be, and the kind of career path that he wanted to pursue. It became a powerful motivator to always strive to be someone of value to others – to take care of people who need it.

That’s something powerful, and it’s something that every single human being can do. We can all push back against indifference.

In the end, it’s the only thing that matters.


Thanks to my friend for letting me write and share something so personal. Let’s hang out again real soon.


How to become a legendary teen sensation

For a day. At a water park.

Like most 22 year old males, I have a healthy appreciation for Justin Bieber and his music. But that doesn’t mean I understand the insanity of the legion of beliebers that worship him like a demigod.

This is a topic that’s been keeping me up at night for years. I think we can all agree that at some point in our lives, we asked ourselves: how can I also become a massive teenage sensation like Justin Bieber?

Well this summer I discovered my own foolproof way to become god among adolescents, and you don’t even need to take a dump in a pair of purple leopard-print pants to do it.

Step 1: go to a water park

Just go. This is where all the cool teenagers like to hang out.

Step 2: find a water ride

It has to be a scary one, with a bunch of teenagers on the side making sure people aren’t dying before they go on it.

I chose this half-pipe water slide thing. It was really scary.

Step 3: accidentally shut down the water ride

You need to cause the water ride to shut down by doing something that seems badass to a bunch of teenagers.

Personally, I chose to accidentally fall off the tube at the peak of the half-pipe and go tumbling down.


Pro-tip: The best way to do this step is the way where you don’t die.

Step 4: pretend you didn’t almost poop your pants

This might be the most important step. As soon as you hear the gasps of the shocked crowd, pretend the whole thing happened because you’re just extreme like that.

Get up, smile, put your arms up in the air, and scream “YEAH! THAT’S WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT!”

Make sure people don’t see that you’re just trying to mask how embarrassed you are.

Step 5: walk away

At this point, the ride is completely shut off. People in line are wondering who wasted their time, and the water park police are coming to see what the hell happened. You don’t want to get tangled in this mess so get out of there.

Step 6: accidentally run into the group of teenagers

By the time you run into them again, you’re already a legend among their group of friends.

Reinforce it by acting like it wasn’t a big deal.

Pro-tip: Try not to talk to them as much as possible. It minimizes the chance of them finding out you’re actually just an idiot, and maximizes the chance of you becoming a local high school legend.

Step 7: enjoy

Enjoy yourself as a bunch of teenagers follow you around giving advice on how to sue the water park, and shouting your name and screaming “GOOD LUCK!” before you go on every water ride for the rest of the day.


Waves and revelations

I had one of the best days of my life today, on a wave crashing on the shore of the Pacific Ocean. It was a touch of heaven. Maybe you felt something like this too.

Waves are nature’s roller coaster ride. The rush as the ocean effortlessly sweeps me up and drops me down is one of the most terrifyingly awesome experiences I’ve ever had.

But it’s more than just the adrenaline rush that keeps calling me back to the sea.

Waves also draw out the deepest sense of who I am. The meeting of water and land is a force of nature that makes me confront myself in a way that nothing else can, and sometimes rewards me with the purest sense of being alive.

The ocean has a different personality each day. Some days, the ocean is actively trying to kill me. It chews me up then spits me out. Other days, the ocean is bored with me. It leaves me rocking gently up and down.

Today, I experienced a side I get to see only on rare occasions.

It started out just like any other beach day, by paddling out against crashing waves furiously trying to keep me out. I eventually broke through to the calm side, far out where I could wait for the big swells.

When it came, I immediately knew this one was going to be a monster. I paddled as hard as I could until I was picked up by the looming giant. The houses lining the shore became smaller and smaller, as the wave rose higher and higher, until I could see above the rooftops.

This is the point where I experience fear in its most visceral form, where riding a wave becomes an act of faith. To get past it, I need to accept my insignificance as a speck in the midst of the full force of the sea, but at the same time, jam every ounce of belief I have in myself. I have to go all in.

As the wave began to crash, I felt the familiar rush of the drop. But today, the sea rewarded me with the most supreme kind of pleasure. It swept me down the barrel so smoothly, as if nature itself was cradling me, gently carrying me across the surface.

As I glide across the wave, nothing exists but me, the barrel, and the wind fluttering through my hair. It’s the purest form of freedom and focus.

My mind takes a few minutes to come back down to reality as the wave carries me back to the shore.

It was a touch of heaven.

Once you feel it, you can never go back.

It’s not just riding waves. I can immediately tell anyone that experienced it – extreme surfers, base jumpers, athletes, painters, designers, craftsmen, entrepreneurs, chess players, psychonauts – it doesn’t matter.

These are people that completely devoted themselves to furthering their evolution as a person. They’ve felt that touch of heaven, and they have no choice but to keep reaching for it, no matter what.

Laird Hamilton, considered to be one of the greatest big wave surfers of all time, said it best. When asked why he risked his life riding on extreme waves he replied,

“I don’t want to not live, because of my fear of what could happen.”

What unifies all these experiences is that they are all beautifully, completely subjective. You can’t break them down, explain them, or put a price tag on them, and you can only experience them yourself.

I’ve been riding waves all my life. It shaped a lot of who I am, but I’ll always be most grateful for having the chance to experience revelation first-hand.

Knowing that these moments are possible at the edge of human experience, made me look out for more of them in all corners of my life. It gave me the motivation to go all in, every time.

This outlook led me to some of the most meaningful, life-changing experiences I’ve ever had, such as my trips to the Navajo Nation (which I will write more about).

I know my days in the ocean are coming to an end. There are things I want to do that will take me far, far away from the beach where I grew up.

No matter where I go, or what I do, that wave will always be there with me, gently carrying me so perfectly, to the touch of heaven.