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.