David Kelley initially imagined that the d.school he founded would help law school students become more open-minded lawyers, and MBA students more innovative business people. And that has been true. But we’ve been surprised at times to see former students actually switching their fields as they engaged their creative confidence.
That was what happened with biophysics PhD candidate Scott Woody.
After four years of bench work studying motor proteins and point mutations in DNA, Scott had grown weary of the lab. “I’d work by myself on one thing and maybe occasionally, every couple months, come up for air and talk to someone, but then I’d have to go back,” he tells us. “I was like a drone. It felt like there was no room for thinking outside of my narrow focus, and it really started to drag me down.” Looking for something to shake him out of his funk, he went in search of inspiration as far from the lab as possible, signing up for courses including an English literature seminar and even a synchronized swimming class. At a business workshop, he heard about our d.school studio class called “Creative Gym,” aimed at helping people from diverse backgrounds exercise their creative muscles.
Each two-hour class is filled with a fast-paced succession of hands-on exercises that hone foundational skills for creativity: seeing, feeling, starting, communicating, building, connecting, navigating, synthesizing, and inspiring. Activities range from the playful and seemingly silly (such as making a piece of wearable jewelry out of tape in just 60 seconds) to the extremely challenging (such as expressing a moment of disgust using only squares, circles, and triangles). The goal of the class is to get students more attuned to their intuition, and to heighten their awareness of their surroundings.
“I’m a pretty reserved person, but that class was so much fun,” Scott says. “It was a chance to be a little weird, to go nuts. It was the highlight of my week, every week. It opened a lot of creative doors that I had left closed for a long time and that my analytical training had kept shut.”
After that Creative Gym class, he realized that he was no longer afraid to explore different approaches. He developed a new willingness to try things that he wasn’t sure he was good at—experiments that might not work. “So many of us lack the courage to pursue a new idea or skill,” Scott says. “Just by taking action you're better off than 99 percent of people.” At his lab, he suggested a new format for their weekly meeting. To introduce informal discussion, he asked everyone to prepare a single slide for a succinct update, breaking their norm of having one person presenting an hour-long PowerPoint deck.
He later applied to the LaunchPad class, without any prior experience in entrepreneurship or engineering. Inspired by job-hunting friends, his initial entrepreneurial idea was a tool that helps you create custom versions of your resume to use in applying for different positions. To increase his chances of getting into the class, he forced himself to go door-to-door down Main Street in Petaluma, cold-calling business owners to gather insights about their hiring process in order to improve his pitch. “It was so painful,” Scott laughs. “One, because most of them didn’t want to talk to me, and two, because I was really nervous.” After he got into the class, he continued pushing himself to do things he had never done before: presenting his ideas to venture capitalists invited to the class, interviewing customers, and rapidly iterating his design.
Scott’s newfound creative confidence, coupled with the growing realization that science research was not his true calling, gave him the courage he needed to set out on a bold new path. A year or two away from earning a distinguished biophysics doctorate degree, he decided to step away from the lab, quit his PhD program, and pursue a startup related to how businesses recruit talent.
Back home, his parents were less than enthusiastic when they heard the news. His mother felt sure that Scott was making the wrong decision. This was particularly hard for Scott to hear, because he felt that he had to do it anyway, with or without her blessing. A month later, when she saw him in person for the first time since he broke the news, Scott’s mom had a change of heart. She could see in his face that her son was happier than he’d been in years, and told him he was doing the right thing.
Two years later, Scott is CEO of his own venture-backed startup, Foundry Hiring, which helps companies manage and analyze their recruiting process. Scott says he hasn’t looked back: “I thought work was supposed to suck, that work was work. Now I am doing a job that I love and that is fun.”
This post is an excerpt from Creative Confidence, a new book by IDEO founder and Stanford d.school creator David Kelley and his brother Tom Kelley, IDEO partner (pictured above).
Image courtesy of IDEO