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‘Creative confidence’ trumps historical indicators of future career success

Photo: Associated Press

As one group of students prepare to leave college and another batch of high-school seniors prepare to take their place, the importance of technical knowledge takes center stage.  Whether you’re talking about undergraduate or post-grad admission offices or potential employers, GPAs and test scores that demonstrate students’ abilities to get the one “right” answer are seen as the primary determinant of future potential.

David Kelley — the IDEO chairman, not the legendary creator of great TV dramas — recently energized the Stanford d.school during the opening of the design school’s new building by arguing that while technical knowledge has its place, it is far more important to teach our future leaders how to work on solving challenging problems where nobody knows the answer.  As Bob Sutton, a Stanford d.school professor who attended the speech explains it, the Stanford d.school teaches creative confidence — “the ability to keep pushing forward, observing the world and the people in it, identifying unmet needs, brainstorming solutions, and trying to develop prototypes that work and failing forward through the disconcerting process.”   He went on to say that the d.school process — which I discussed in a January post on its publication of the Bootcamp Bootleg — encourages people to “have the energy and will to keep pushing forward, to be undaunted when ideas don’t work, to keep trying new ideas, and even when the deadline for the project comes and they do not have  a decent solution, to believe that if they just had another few days, they would have come up with a great solution.”

Kelley has added a great personal-branding phrase to our lexicon.  Even without the benefit of a Stanford d.school education, I think there are a lot of people with have struggled to describe a similar skill set on a resume or interview without the benefit of the “creative confidence” phrase.   It’s a skill that many displaced corporate executives are using as they look at consulting or 1099 contract work, whether they use the phrase in the sales process or not.

But Kelley’s Not Alone In This

Yale’s Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeff Brenzel imagined what he’d say if asked to speak to this year’s class of graduating seniors in a posting on the Huffington Post.  He also speaks of looking beyond the GPA and the job that awaits and judging oneself on a different set of criteria that mirrors this concept of creative confidence:

“What matters, and this is the heart of what I want to say today, is not how I might assess what you have done, or how your professors graded you, or what your friends and family might say, or even how a professional school or employer is going to view you, but rather how you would now evaluate yourself.

I wonder if you have thought to do this as yet, to measure yourself by standards that you would have to justify and explain, not to us, but only to the man or woman in the mirror. Not only are you the only one in a position to make a full and candid assessment, but you are the one to whom the assessment ultimately matters.”

He goes on to list some questions that might help in that self-assessment; most focus on the intangible.  It’s a right-brain approach, which as Daniel Pink and others have argued in recent years is taking on increasing importance over the fact-based left-brain emphasis that has driven business for many decades.

All this resonated with me because I believe creative confidence is a more elegant way — with a bit more structure — of saying Bulldog Simplicity.  I believe schools and corporations both need to spend more time focusing on developing creative confidence.  And for those who have it, they need to spend more time documenting it as a skill and how it enables them to make a difference in their companies’ or clients’ success.