Creative Confidence | Not Just for Artists

“Creativity” is not the sole purview of the artistically inclined. “Using your imagination to create something new in the world,” is the definition of creativity-evangelists Tom and David Kelley1. Researchers formulate new explanations, invent new products, conceive methods, and originate insights. Unquestionably creative.

Most of us, sadly, don’t see ourselves as creative. The truth is, say the Kelley brothers, “we are ALL creative.” We have deep reservoirs of creative potential waiting to be tapped.

Confidence, the feeling of self-assurance and trust in one’s ability, is a key ingredient. “Creative confidence is like a muscle,” they assert. With effort, experience, and deliberate practice, your confidence can grow. At the same time, your ability to be innovative and take risks will expand. In their book, Creative Confidence, (and a related TED talk) the Kelleys offer encouragement, examples, and practical tips.

Confidence grows with practice.

Step One: Decide to be Creative

creative-confidence-dust-jacketRecognize that you are creative. Really. You are.

Creative people share the trait of having actively made the decision to be creative, emphasizes psychologist Robert Sternberg, who spent much of his career studying creativity.

In childhood you might have been told you were not creative or artistic. Do you have these beliefs? For now, suspend them. Set them aside, just for the moment. (You are not alone in having had your creativity squashed in early life: Sir Ken Robinson, argues in his TED talk that schools killing creativity.)

This is an experiment. For just a few days, a few weeks, think of yourself as creative. Wear this new identity for a little while.

Creativity has many outlets and forms of expression. Do you “know” you can’t dance, draw, or sing? So what? You can juxtapose unlikely ideas, imagine impossible innovations, and add a ridiculous extension to another’s idea. Remind yourself every couple of hours that you have creative potential and prowess.

Reinforce Your Identity

Shut down your inner critic (this also helps fight the impostor syndrome). This will help reinforce your new self-identity as a person brimming with creativity.

Pillow embroidery project I did when writing my dissertation proposal in 1994

Pillow embroidery project I did when writing my dissertation proposal in 1994

Suspend your fear of judgement by others. Ideally, of course, those around us encourage our creative attempts. Creativity can wither when nascent efforts garner “That’s stupid,” “How ugly,” or “What are you thinking?!?”

Your fear of negative comments may be unwarranted. Your peers and advisors may well respond to your ideas with “That’s interesting,” “Tell me more,” or “I haven’t heard that before, keep going.” Even if they don’t, it is unlikely that truly disparaging comments will be made to your face. (Fear of the dismissive tribunal is implicated in Perfectionist Gridlock, too.)

Step Two: Take Action

“In our experience, the best way to gain confidence in your creative ability is through action—taken one step at a time—through experiencing a series of small successes,” is the Kelleys’ recipe. (p. 246)

Try one, or more, of these starter activities. They will give you easy wins. You will start building your creativity muscle.

1. Do one novel thing each day for a month2

Improved Lego Calendar Front by Bill Ward @flickr, Creative Commons License

Improved Lego Calendar Front by Bill Ward @flickr, Creative Commons License

For 30 days, try something new every day. You take risks by stepping, just a little, out of your comfort zone. By doing this daily for a month, you will get stronger.

  • Talk to a stranger
  • Walk home a different way
  • Watch you tube video or TED talk
  • Listen to a randomly selected radio station
  • Eat a new food

2. I like / I wish3

Practice offering positive comments and useful feedback to others. Just what you want to get. The format “I like/I wish” (also called “plus-delta”) structures responses—to a writing draft, a research idea, an event, a poster, a lab meeting—in two categories. First, what is appealing, and could be kept or amplified (the “I likes”). What could change or be improved (“I wish”). Neither should be framed as “you should.” The shift in phrasing is critical. “I like/I wish” keeps responsibility with the responder. The owner of the idea can accept or not. “I wish” invites the recipient to ask “Tell me more” or “Why”? rather than responding defensively or shrinking in shame.

3. Capture one new idea or inspiration in a daily journal for a month4

All you need is a notebook. Anytime an idea occurs to you, or you hear something noteworthy, write it down. Think of this as your daily 15 seconds of brilliance. Defer judgement, embrace wild ideas, go for quantity. Keep your notebook (or phone) with you at all times; ideas are notoriously fleeting. Just like #1, doing this for a month builds a new habit and increases confidence.

4. Seek out new experiences5

Novelty can inspire. Take an activity class on campus to explicitly engage your creative side, learn a new skill, or try something that makes you anxious: painting, rock climbing, improvisational theater, a new language, cooking, or memoir writing.

Attend lectures and performances on your campus. Most universities are hubs of culture and intellectual sharing with the community. Celebrities, intellectual pioneers, and artists are visiting all the time. Volunteer to be an usher and see the show for free!

5. Mind maps6

Mind Map of "Privacy" by Jessica Mullen

Mind Map of “Privacy” by Jessica Mullen via Flickr under Creative Commons license.

Mind maps are a visually based strategy for unleashing divergent ideas about a problem (hosting a memorable dinner party, writing more productively) or an idea. Sort of like brainstorming alone. Some people also use them to take notes at lectures or meetings.

Start with a large sheet of paper and colored pens. Center the main topic. Write related ideas and link them; connect more concepts to those, radiating out from the center. Think divergently. Draw little pictures. As you move further along, you will open up unexpected connections, and wild new possibilities.

More advice about mind maps are at LifeHacker and at Tony Buzan’s website (Buzan popularized the idea). GradHacker reviewed mind mapping software tools.

Next Steps

Are you hooked? There are plenty of books and articles about creativity to keep you on your path. Some of my favorites:

Developing confidence takes time, effort, and repetition. But it is a self-reinforcing loop. Think about a child on the playground. The first time on a slide is terrifying. But once the feeling of flying takes hold, it is pure joy.


1 Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within All of Us. By Tom Kelley and David Kelley, © 2013, Crown Publishing, p. 3.

2 This is the only item on the list that did not come from Creative Confidence.

3 Page 225.

4 Pages 217, and 248.

5 Page 250.

6 Page 212. 


Posted June 7, 2016

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