Career Advice Career Books Recommendations

Free the spirit

New twists emerge in the debate on how to enhance creativity

When I was a “tweenie”, my passion was for those wonderful illustrated Tin Tin books. So when I noticed that Tom and David Kelley, the authors of Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All, looked uncannily like Thomson and Thompson – two bungling detectives who cropped up in just about every far-flung Tin Tin adventure – I was intrigued more by their faces than by the uninspired title of this work.

After all, it’s an overworked theme: is creativity inherent or can it be learned? Most titles that address this question flounder in a morass of inconclusive personal observations and trite truisms. Can the Kelleys, from the US state of Ohio, succeed where so many others have fallen short of expectations? I say yes, with some qualifications.

The older Kelley, David, is an entrepreneur, designer, and a professor at California’s Stanford University. Tom is another high-flier – a business consultant, acclaimed author, and public speaker of global renown. The siblings have generated a great deal of synergy in this useful book.

Their over-arching message is that the long-standing assumption that creativity and innovation are strictly the domain of the “creative types” is wrong.

Educators, behaviologists and other researchers have been countering this misconception for decades. It is this misconception, however, that gives the Kelleys a springboard from which to make important points about creativity and innovation, and how these can be enhanced and harnessed to improve a business and its profitability. It also allows the examination of how certain behaviours can be applied to personal development, to fulfil goals and attain greater confidence.

The authors also identify the principles and strategies that they believe will allow readers to tap more easily into their creative potential, both at work and in their personal lives.

The Kelleys also hit on something that many other authors who address the creativity issue miss. It arrives in this line: “Creative confidence is a way of seeing that potential and your place in the world more clearly, unclouded by anxiety and doubt. We hope you’ll join us on our quest to embrace creative confidence in our lives. Together, we can all make the world a better place.” There it is. Fear: the enemy of creativity and innovation. For the fearful – of what others may think of your boat-rocking, which is how creativity is often viewed in the office – this book is a godsend.

Many messages are contained in these pages, delivered through narratives and case studies that are breezily engaging. Quite a few are self-evident, but still worth reiterating.

The Kelleys posit that the mathematics of innovation dictate that if you desire more success, you have to be prepared to shrug off more failure. Success and failure are flip sides of the same spinning coin.

Mass-patentee Thomas Edison and his approach to his innovation and discovery is cited, along with another famous pair of Ohio siblings, the Wright Brothers, who piloted the first powered flight over a century ago.

The Kelleys also encourage readers to be on the lookout for the sometimes almost-imperceptible sparks that trigger remarkable innovation. This they illustrate in the story of the “embrace infant warmer”, an elegantly simple medical device that costs over 90 per cent less than a conventional incubator and has saved the lives of countless newborns in developing nations. This began as a routine assignment at Stanford University. A few sparks from students’ restless brains generated an extraordinary product.

Ample space is also given to the “sweet spot between passion and possibility”. The Kelleys argue that arriving at this wonderful destination requires getting into a mindset that Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (another expert in the field of positive psychology) calls “flow”. This is the creative state where time seems to dissolve and you are completely immersed in an activity for its own sake. The temporal world around you falls away, you’re fully engaged – and your endeavours get a chance to nurture extraordinary results.

The authors concede that societal pressures and corporate rules and expectations force us towards behaviours that are blandly “appropriate”, thereby stifling creativity. But they contend that the rewards for creativity and individuality are still worth striving for.

Here my brow furrowed. The corporate world that I’ve worked in on and off for some two decades is so fiercely configured against individual creativity that the authors’ battle-cry to “think different” are hard to take seriously. Office dissidents are often placed in exile until they learn to conform again.

I have a message for the Kelleys. Can you get to work on a sequel to this rather impressive and uplifting work? What the market needs now is a book on how workplaces and office mindsets can be liberalised, in the interests of creativity. This is a bigger challenge than explaining how we can tap inner creative potential, as important as that message is.

In the view diametrically opposite to the Kelleys’, the world is strictly divided into creative types and functionaries, and both are equally vital for the harmonious working of businesses. A few straddle both camps uncomfortably, and even fewer straddle them with ease.

I used to hold to this view, but after reading Creative Confidence, my thinking is a little less rigid. Whatever your take on the topic, this is still a good, life-affirming read, with a slew of inspirational success stories. Maybe you’ll set the world on fire after reading this; maybe you won’t. In any event, it’s a few dollars well spent for some well-expressed wisdom. A better tome on the topic won’t come around soon.



Shenzhen-based computer games programmer and designer Frank Zhang says: “Creativity is at the core of my work. Here are five tips on how I optimise it.”

Take a break “A rest for the brain after heavy mental activity leads to a fresher mind and more likelihood of idea-sparking insights. I meditate when I feel like I’ve overworked my brain.”
Observe others “Fellow humans are endlessly entertaining. People-watching is rewarding and can enhance creativity. Gaze at those around you and seek cues to give you new ideas.”
Use your ears “Listen to what people around you say. Their discourse may ignite your next creative idea. Or see how to apply what’s being said to a project that you’re working on.”
Join the dots “Seeing patterns and making connections can lead to creative insights and ideas. Sometimes when I’m stumped, I try to connect two objects in my vision, and consider what they have in common.”
Talk to yourself “No, it’s not the first sign of madness. It is something many creative people have in common. Hearing my own voice can affirm the worth of an idea.”