Touch a snake & slap a pirate

When was the last time you touched a snake?

Whatsa matter, Joan?

image: RKO Radio Pictures

Having grown up in Florida, slithery little serpents have never really freaked me out that much, nor have bugs or even spiders, which seem to have a significantly higher “ick” factor for most people than their short-legged counterparts.  But believe me when I say I’m terrified of plenty of things.  Failure.  Success.  Public speaking. Looking stupid.  Awkwardness, which makes no sense at all since I practically invented it myself.  Tons of things make me want to crawl into the carpet and hide on a near-daily basis, which is why I was riveted by this particular TED Talk I stumbled across earlier this week.  It was given by legendary designer David Kelley, and in it he tackled the notion of creatives vs. non-creatives and pretty much crushed the fallacy that creativity is some sort of finite, predetermined thing that’s rationed out to some of us but not to others. Even though the subject matter was specifically about finding creative confidence, I walked away from it with a fire lit underneath me about conquering fear in general.

He talked about his experiences in creative workshops with his clients — top-level executives who tend to excuse themselves from the most critical points of such meetings to “take important calls” when really, they’re simply intimidated by the creative process and secretly don’t think they’re capable of taking part in a meaningful way because they “just aren’t the creative type.”  He talked about helping people build upon their successes, starting small and gaining ground over time until they become aware of their own power.  He likened it rather seamlessly to the phobia treatment process established by an esteemed Stanford psychologist named Albert Bandura.

So, Bandura.  This guy — yes, I’m calling him “this guy” even though his name is often bandied about alongside the likes of Freud, Jung and other high-rollers in the psych world… I call him “this guy” because he sounds like someone I would totally buy a beer if a) he’s in fact still alive and b) I were to run into him in a random bar somewhere and magically know who he was — anyway, this guy developed a methodology that cures people of their deepest fears within a matter of hours through something he termed “guided mastery.”  We’ve all heard of his process — you have legitimate phobias of, say, snakes and flying, and a therapist guides you through a series of actions that bring you closer and closer to dealing with both until you realize with horror/glee that OH MY GOD YOU ARE HOLDING A MOTHERF*CKING SNAKE ON A MOTHERF*CKING PLANE AND NEITHER OF THESE TWO THINGS IS KILLING YOU.  Tada!  Cured.  And also badass.

But really, the example Kelley gave that got deep into my bones and took up residence had to do with little kids and their fear of an MRI machine.  He told a story that I hope I’ll never forget, which is partially why I’m writing about it here — for my own selfish purposes.

The story goes something like this: Doug Dietz, a highly technical medical imaging equipment designer with an engineering background, was standing in a hospital watching one of his MRI machines in use.  Unfortunately, it involved a terrified little girl who was gravely afraid of the monstrous piece of equipment in front of her and who was rightfully pitching a royal fit about it, crying and pleading not to be forced inside.  He learned that the little girl was a prime example of the typical MRI experience at that particular hospital: 80 percent of kids undergoing the MRI process there (and probably everywhere else, too) had to be sedated in order to get through it.  The prospect of being put inside this godawful metallic coffin was petrifying, particularly for someone so young.

At the time, Dietz was attending Stanford’s design program and learning about things like empathic design and iterative prototyping, and thanks to the little girl, ye olde cartoon lightbulb blinked on over his head.  With kids like her (i.e., kids in general) in mind, he redesigned the machine to look — convincingly, I might add — like a pirate ship.  As a result, the entire imaging room now looks like something straight out of the imagination of Walt Disney himself, and the sedation rate has plummeted from 80 percent down to ten.  Dietz apparently always gets choked up when he tells the story of his creative journey and its results, including the fact that he once saw a little girl finish her scan, go up to her mother and ask, “Mommy, can we come back (again) tomorrow?”

That’s the thing about overcoming scary stuff — it strengthens us and makes us more fearless over time.  Bandura called the result “self efficacy,” or as Kelley describes it, “These people who had lifelong fears… ended up having less anxiety about other things in their lives; they tried harder, they persevered longer and were more resilient in the face of failure.”  He explains how we walk away from conquered fears with “the sense that you can change the world — that you can attain what(ever) you set out to do.”  The little kids that walk away from the “pirate ship” having totally conquered the experience… Dietz melding his technical background with newfound creativity he didn’t know he had until a child’s fear moved him to find it… even Kelley’s own bout with cancer, after which he decided to spend the rest of his days not just teaching design, but talking to large groups about the fact that we’re all capable of doing more than we realize… of creating great things… these people are all heroes in their own right.  These people illustrate for me with perfect clarity just how limiting my own fears and complacency can be.  These people make me want to grab a damn snake, get on a plane and go apesh*t on some pirates, like maybe even this weekend if I can find a coachwhip and a decent fare.

Screw fear.  Screw intimidation.

I’m ready to rumble.

Are you?



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