“And I realized that I’m free. I realized that I’m me. And I found out that I’m not alone cause there’s plenty people like me.” — Lecrae, “Outsiders” from the album Anomaly.
The most difficult thing to do is to go against the grain — to stand in opposition to popular thought while defining a path that leverages your strengths and exposes your weaknesses.
Some rejoice in the midst of difficulty because challenges produce perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. Then, with hope comes a sense of comfort in failure which is validated from the meaningful lessons learned and the relationships that are built along the way.
Each relationship adds another building block to the foundation of an individual’s creative confidence. Currently, I have the pleasure and honor of being surrounded by seven of the world’s most motivated and prolific thinkers. They are dreamers, doers, thinkers, builders, healers and agitators of the status quo. They are all fueled by an insatiable desire to leave the world in a better state than they found it and have added significantly to my confidence over the past couple of weeks. Each d.school fellow — or d.fellow — has decided to see me for who I am and celebrate that which the world chooses to commoditize. Simply put, creativity is teachable, scalable and transferable. Passion and authenticity is not.
“Passion, that elusive rare natural resource, has been the fuel that has fed my desire to become the first me rather than next anyone else and because of that passion and curiosity, I have jumped feet first in to becoming a d.school fellow.”
Passion, that elusive rare natural resource, has been the fuel that has fed my desire to become the first me rather than next anyone else and because of that passion and curiosity, I have jumped feet first in to becoming a d.school fellow.
Upon arriving at The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, aka the d.school, I was overwhelmed with a wide range of questions and potentially derailing emotions:
“Am I in the right place, for this point in my life?”
“How did I sneak into Stanford for a second time… There must be a flaw in the admissions process?”
“Why would a professional designer need to learn about design thinking?”
All of these are valid questions that would prove to be completely irrelevant and nonsensical as we began to dig into why we were here.
I found the purpose of the d.school fellowship became evident after the first few days of our orientation. First, they aim to identify emergent and/or established leaders who are looking to scale creative thinking across small-, mid- or large-scale organizations. Second, they aim to take all of us away from the seriousness of being who we are in our respective fields and reintroduce us to a world of limitless potential and abundant joy. The last time I felt as free was during recess in elementary school where creativity, mischievousness and lunchtime bartering came alive. Gone are the days of “I’ll trade you my slice of pizza for your Fruit by the Foot.” That sense of elementary economics has been replaced with a newer and more fulfilling barter system — one based on the exchange of ideas and encouragement, which of course is significantly better for your body and your brain than a slice of pizza and the devilishly delicious Fruit by the Foot.
But I bet you are wondering, how is this applicable to you, the reader? Well, my friend, the answer is simple: creative confidence is derived from a mixture of fear, experimentation, and a deep connection between failure and fantasy that allows us to be free of intellectual confinement. Over the past few weeks, I have learned some valuable lessons that can be leveraged at any stage of your creative journey. Whether you are a high school student who dreams of designing Jordans as I did or if you are a mid-career executive looking for the spark that will ignite your passion for your craft once more, we all can benefit from more recess and less reluctance.
“Creative confidence is derived from a mixture of fear, experimentation, and a deep connection between failure and fantasy that allows us to be free of intellectual confinement.”
A couple tools for unleashing your creative leadership potential:
Let Your Body Do The Talking
This simple but often unattainable tenant is one of the core pillars of being a confident and effective creative leader. We learned this very valuable lesson in the most atypical way possible: having a face to face conversation with a horse.
I know this may sound ridiculous to some, but the experience of letting go and trying to connect with a being that cannot verbalize how they feel was truly an eyeopening experience for me as a creative leader. I was immediately put into a position where I had to be aware of my energy, my disposition, my non-verbal tone and my cognitive centeredness. My equine companion for the day, Magic, was clearly aware of the stress and concern that I carried in my spirit.
He zoned in on my watch and immediately leaned forward and tried to remove it from my wrist. This motion was followed by a series of gentle nudges on my pant pocket that was quite alarming to say the least. In my mind, I thought to myself, “I may be the first person in history to be robbed by a horse. Why is he patting me down and trying to remove my watch?” But what became apparent to me after a few minutes of awkward interaction was that he was simply encouraging me to be present in the moment and let go of the thoughts and stress that came from my full schedule, and to simply forget the time and be at peace in my surroundings.
Upon this realization, I removed my watch and put it in my front left pant pocket. Then, Magic decided to place his head on my shoulder and match my breathing cadence. I was shocked, because in an instant I learned a very valuable leadership lesson. How you present yourself, meaning your body language, is one of the key enablers or derailers to building trust and respect from your team and your colleagues. Too often we celebrate the image of the authoritative leader who puts herself in front of her team, but in that moment I realized that true leadership is not displayed in our confident speech but in our ability to maintain a calm and centered demeanor in the midst of life’s daily chaos.
“I realized that true leadership is not displayed in our confident speech but in our ability to maintain a calm and centered demeanor in the midst of life’s daily chaos.”
Embrace Conflict as a Form of Cultural Innovation
After being accosted by Magic the previous day, we made our way to the epicenter of human centered design — IDEO. So much of our current design lexicon is shaped by the brilliant minds that roam the non-hierarchical halls of IDEO’s offices. Currently, they have a global staff of over 600 multidisciplinary designers who have backgrounds that range from biomedical computing to private equity. But somehow they all seem to have found their way to the field of design in an authentic and meaningful way.
While at IDEO, we had the pleasure of meeting with several of their core creative leaders. As one could imagine, topics of conversation ran the gamut. We waxed poetic on everything from social innovation to the origins of design thinking. But I was not interested in their ability to continuously reinvent how we discuss, learn and ultimately practice the art and science of designing for man. I was extremely interested in how so many brilliant people were so genuinely void of egos.
I was searching desperately for the “gotcha” moment where they revealed that everything was not perfect in IDEOville. I hoped to learn that they also dealt with the stress of organizational politics and water cooler drama. It became obvious, though, throughout the course of the day, that this was not the case.
“They continuously challenged their own assumptions, they never settled for the obvious/easiest answer path, and they never forget the people they creatively serve.”
As my colleagues finalized their round of Q&A, I slowly leaned forward, raised my hand and asked a very simple question, “How do you deal with conflict during the creative process?” I was certain that they would not have a satisfactory answer to my deceptively simple question. The answer I received was both clear and concise, but more importantly it was extremely timely and relevant. They described creative conflict or tension as a form of cultural innovation. Tension was embedded into their framework in a seamless manner. They continuously challenged their own assumptions, they never settled for the obvious/easiest answer path, and they never forget the people they creatively serve.
I sat back in my chair, pondered their response, and started to connect the dots to how great civilizations withstood the test of time by surviving conflict and forming alliances forged in a common sense of struggle and monumental accomplishment. This lesson holds true for any new creative team. What may seem like a potential political minefield can be leveraged as a chance to embrace collective struggle through strategic points of planned creative conflict.
Yes, I know this also sounds ridiculous, but accepting that everyone will not necessarily agree but can align is one of the most liberating leadership tenants that I have learned throughout the past few weeks. Through conflict and tension we begin to understand how we will face adversity from competitors and unforeseen market forces. Through conflict, we learn that not all people who appear to be intellectually competent have an equal and ample amount of emotional competence.
“True creative leaders understand that the value of a company cannot be solely measured by their portfolio of products, but rather their portfolio of people.”
Great leaders must leverage conflict as a catalyst. They do not rest on their assumptions. Instead, they willingly seek out people who will challenge and in some instances completely dismantle those assumptions. True creative leaders understand that the value of a company cannot be solely measured by their portfolio of products, but rather their portfolio of people. The team is the asset and the people that aggregate their collective skills, talents, gifts and passions into a team must constantly be encouraged to push beyond their fear, to never settle for what is but rather strive for what could be. It is the job of a great creative leader to facilitate an environment of constant cognitive and creative growth.
My journey at the d.school has only just begun, but I can definitely feel my creative confidence slowly starting to emerge once again.