21—Creativity, banishing inner critics, impostor syndrome, and systemic racism (ft Denise Jacobs)

In which Peter and Jesse talk to creativity consultant and author (and former front-end developer!) Denise Jacobs about just what is creativity, how to maintain being creative as a leader, banishing your inner critic, taking charge in how you get feedback, and how impostor syndrome is probably a means of keeping historically disadvantaged groups down.


Denise: Feeling so full of what I was capable of, and so in love with what I was capable of that I thought, well, what else can I do? If I can accomplish this major thing, what other major things can I accomplish and can I give to the world of myself? And when I had that experience, I was like, that’s what I want to help people with.

I want to help people feel like this.

Peter:  I’m Peter Merholz.

Jesse: And I’m Jesse James Garrett,

Together: And we’re Finding our Way…

Peter: …navigating the opportunities and challenges of design and design leadership.

 Jesse: On today’s show, author and consultant, Denise Jacobs joins us to talk about maintaining a creative culture, how leaders can keep the creative spark alive in their own work, fighting imposter syndrome, banishing the inner critic, and a lot more.

Peter: I have a question for you, Jesse.

Jesse: Yes?

Peter: Why did you invite Denise on our podcast?

Denise: He said, “I have questions.”

Jesse: I do have questions. I have questions for Denise. So, Denise Jacobs… actually, you’re going to do a better job of introducing yourself than I am. Denise Jacobs, who are you and what…

Denise: Oh, you think so?

Jesse: Do you do? I do.

Why don’t you describe the areas that you work in.

Denise: So my springboard area of expertise is creativity because I’ve been doing a lot of work on creativity since 2011 and, doing keynotes and workshops and whatnot on it, but then came out with my book, Banish Your Inner Critic in 2017, which was all around creativity.

But the interesting thing is how some piece of work starts to put you into a new direction. And so now I’m focusing a lot, not just on creativity specifically, but more around how people can do better work through silencing that voice of self-doubt, so what you are able to accomplish and what you’re able to do, whether you’re at what I call the producer level, if you’re a UX designer or a developer, but then when you get kind of more to the managerial level, or even to the leadership level, how can you do what you do better through acknowledging that inner critic and having tools to be able to combat it so that you can actually show up more powerfully.

Jesse: One thing that I love about the book, that you touched on a bit here, is that it does go broader than simply issues of creativity.

Denise: Absolutely.

Jesse: Although it definitely is through the lens of being a creative professional and has a lot to say about the specific tactics for creative professionals, the principles there are really, in a lot of ways, about self-actualization.

Denise: That’s totally it. Definitely, I feel like the true goal of my work, and actually the reason I even started working around creativity in the first place, was to get to that place of self-actualization, because I had had this experience where I had this amazing creative flow state, and I felt so empowered and I felt so like, full of myself, in the respect of being full, like not needing anything else, you know, not needing the external validation, not needing somebody else to tell me it was okay, feeling so full of what I was capable of, and so in love with what I was capable of that I thought, “Well, what else can I do? If I can accomplish this major thing. What other major things can I accomplish? And can I give to the world of myself.”

And when I had that experience, I was like, that’s what I want to help people with. I want to help people feel like this. And at the time, because what I needed was to reconcile myself and to come to terms and embrace and acknowledge and recognize my own creativity, the answer for me was creativity. But now that I’m along this path of a breadcrumb trail that led me to inner critic work it’s just like, “Oh, this applies to so much more than creativity.” And it affects people so profoundly, it’s such a universal affliction.

Jesse: So our audience is design leaders, and a lot of these folks find themselves awarded responsibility in their organizations, because they were really good at the creative part of their job, they found a way to create for themselves that creative flow and that energization that you’re talking about.

And then people looked at them said, “Wow, you’re doing so great at this. We should give you more responsibility so that you are now doing less of that. And you’re doing these other things instead.”

Denise: ”You’re doing so great at this, that we’re going to make you do something completely different, that you have no idea how to do. And of course you’ll naturally be great at that because….” What?

Jesse: People who were previously very confident in their jobs, find themselves in these new roles, and find that confidence has been taken out from underneath them because they’ve been cut off from the creative practices that connected them to that sense of power that you’re talking about.

Denise: Absolutely.

Jesse: So I wonder what thoughts you have on the challenges of keeping creativity alive in your work, when your work is no longer strictly creative work per se.

Denise: Okay. So I actually have two things that I want to say. I’ll answer that question in a moment, but before I go into that, what I want to say is, that whole process that you just described is one of the key times that the inner critic becomes so loud for people, it becomes so prominent, and it’s become so in their face and forward. And that is exactly the work that I am focusing on now is helping people with their career confidence. Because it is in that transition that all of these mechanisms go into play that trigger the inner critic. Having said that, the interesting thing is that the same tools and the same practices that you use to silence your inner critic, to unblock creativity, are the same constellation of tools that you can use to counter that feeling. And in doing so get back to your creativity.

Jesse: So, I’m an independent leadership coach now and one thing that I say to people is that leadership is a design problem.

Denise: Preach it.

Jesse: And, you’re working with different materials and often the materials that you’re working with are your relationships with other people. And it’s in relationships with other people often that this inner critic stuff gets kicked up for people.

Denise: I actually just finished reading a great book that’s going to be coming out by a friend of mine his name is Mark Pitman. And his book is called The Surprising Gift of Doubt. And it is how uncertainty can help you become an exceptional leader.

And one of the things that he talks about is the other problem with moving from a role where you were doing something really well, and it was creative and everything, to being a leader, is that you think that there’s a certain way to be a leader. And there’s not a lot of support, I think, about giving people the space to discover how they lead, and have the exploration and the journey that people have to go on to be able to discover all those things about what works for them.

Like, if you’re not extroverted, then being a loud, extroverted leader is not going to work for you. And then you’re going to feel even more out of sorts, you’re going to have even more of an inner critic dogging you, et cetera. And so, it is this design problem. And then it’s also this journey of discovery, which a design problem basically is. Solving a design problem is a journey of discovery.

But very few people contextualize it that way.

Peter: Creativity is one of those funny words.

Denise: It is a funny word.

Peter: Just to make sure that we have a common understanding of what you mean by creativity: How do you define it? How should we be thinking of creativity?

Denise: My main working definition of creativity is bringing something new into being.

Peter: I think so often creativity is associated with things like the arts or writing and those types of practices, which are clearly creative practices. What is the connection you make, if any, between those expressive forms of creativity and the kind of creativity you’re encouraging through career confidence, through designing your own future?

Denise: Because my background, as a front-end developer and somebody who used to teach HTML and CSS and work with software engineers, I’m always very careful to, very point blank, say that art and creativity are not the same thing. Making art is not the same as being creative. You can be creative in anything. You can be creative as a social organizer. You can be creative as a scientist. You could be creative as a CEO.

Creativity basically is problem solving, whatever this problem is, however it needs to be solved. If you come up with a solution to a problem, you’re exercising creativity.

So, when people are trying to cultivate their confidence, trying to step into a new position, expanding themselves, getting to self-actualization, all the things that we’ve been talking about previously, they are using creativity because, first of all, they are bringing something new into being, and second of all, they are problem-solving.

You’ve got an issue. “I’m where I am now. I don’t want to be here anymore. I want to be in a different place. What do I need to do?” And then you go along the process of figuring out what you need to do and taking the steps for it. I truly believe that that is exercising creativity as well.

Peter: Thinking about working with design leaders, I don’t have a formal coaching practice, but I work with design teams and design leaders as well.

If I want to be encouraging creativity appropriately, for both them as individuals and maybe a team, what does that look like? How do we know that they are hitting enough creative cylinders? How do I look at something and go, That is appropriately creative!

Denise: That is actually an outstanding question. And I will give you an answer that probably is not substantive for you. It’s not based on metrics or anything like that, because, I feel like first of all, when you start to get into, How creative is it on the spectrum? Is it zero? Does it go to 11? Then you start getting into this judgment about creativity, and then that will set up a whole other thing that’ll trigger your inner critic. “I’m not creative enough.”

As a matter of fact, one of ways that I got to some of these forms of the inner critic that I talk about in the book, are from this exercise that I’ve done at conferences, workshops, where one of the things that people said very frequently is, “I’m not creative enough.”

What does that even mean?

If you’re creative at all, like you’re winning, right? If you’re doing anything you’re winning. So I feel like then trying to quantify it like that is dangerous and that it needs to be more of a qualitative analysis where it is, How do you feel when you’re in this process? Does it feel good or does it not feel good?

I would say that, because it feels good, then that means that you’re being quote, more creative. And I think when you’re working with teams at the end of the day, what they create is important.

But the experience of working together and everything, is going to have more longevity and more importance to the functioning of the team than the actual thing that they produced. And the dynamic within the team will also affect the quality of what they produce. So if they’re having a good experience, if they’re connecting with each other, that will be something that they can all feel and experience. And when that’s not there, they will also be able to recognize its absence.

Peter:  Calling me out on my desire to reduce or, quantize things that aren’t quantized… There’s a history of that Jesse’s and my conversations. I’ve done the same with the concept of trust, trust is one of those things that the moment you try to start defining it, you kind of lose the plot, right there.

And I think that’s what you’re saying about creativity. If you try to put it in a box that you can look at and study it, then you’ve kind of lost the point of that energy, that flow, that forces that the creativity is providing.

Jesse: It’s almost by definition, if you can capture it in a box, it’s not the thing you’re looking for.

Denise: Right. And it’s also like, how do you know if you’re really in love? Because it feels good.

Peter: No, no, no, no. You write long lists of pros and cons. Isn’t that it? And then you…

Denise: You rate it on a scale of one to ten…

Jesse: You weigh them all and you build your spreadsheet.

Denise: Exactly. Does it feel good? If it feels good, then you’re in good shape. If it doesn’t, you know, you gotta leave.

Peter: Okay. I know Jesse’s probably itching, but I got to follow this one up. Because one of the challenges that design leaders, design teams face within organizations is working often with peers–engineers, product managers, marketing folks–who are highly quantified. They want everything to be metric-ized, and they want everything to be A/B tested or somehow proven.

And I’m wondering how you’ve been successful in bringing this force and energy into organizations that might not have been ready for it. Because their mindset had been so analytical, mechanistic. What have you done to make that kind of change?

Denise: The interesting thing is, if I’m in an organization, it’s because they want something different than that, what they’re looking for is that ineffable quality or thing that they can’t put their finger on, or quantify or anything.

They’re looking for the energy and the spark of creativity and flow and connection that they weren’t able to achieve through the more analytical means.

Jesse: A lot of this comes back to creating and maintaining a culture of creativity for the design organization, and then being able to hold that boundary, and shelter that creative culture from whatever the larger culture is that people find themselves in.

Denise: Yeah. Or to even, try to get the leaders on board so that they are instrumental allies and even champions of this culture.

Jesse: Right.

I think one of the challenges in creating that culture of creativity is having a culture of constructive critique rather than criticism.

It’s something that a lot of design leaders find a hard time striking the right balance, creating enough support for creative exploration on their teams, so people can try new ideas and play around at the edges, while also being able to provide constructive feedback to teams that channels that work in a way that brings it to fruition.

And in a lot of cases, I feel like our inner critics take their cues from the outer critics, the people around us and the culture of critique versus criticism in how creative work is handled.

What are the tactics, for encouraging that balance?

Denise: Yeah, I think our inner critics really are responding to outer critics, and our inner critics literally developed because of outer critics. Our inner critics developed as a psychological construct that came as a protective mechanism to help us deal with and potentially even try to subvert having any outside criticism come in. You know, you get those early on and you’re like, well, I don’t even know what I did, but I’m going to be super hypervigilant now to try to prevent something like that crap ever happening again.

Very, very few people have ever been critiqued properly. Have never been given feedback in a way that is actually supportive or good or positive. And then we learn that, and then we think that’s how you do it.

I actually had a manager at Microsoft, where… I go into my one-on-ones with my manager and he was like, “You were in that meeting, that should have like triggered your localization ear.”

And I was like, “I literally don’t know what I’m supposed to be listening for. Can you tell me what it is I need to listen for?” And he was like, “You know, Microsoft is a sink or swim environment. So either you’re gonna sink or you’re gonna swim.” I was like, “Not helpful, manager.”

When you go in to get feedback, structure the feedback as much as you can, so that you get what you need, and through doing that, you essentially train the person who’s giving you feedback, how to give you feedback.

Like you’re gathering information for a friend and then you’re trying to find specific information as much as you can. Asking for this information in a certain way, this is not about their character or whether they’re good enough. I’m trying to give them information so that they can do their job better.

Jesse: I really like this idea. I think it’s interesting from a couple of angles. One is that in critique situations, the person whose work is being critiqued, often adopts this very passive powerless stance in the meeting. And what you’re advocating is really for them to act like it’s your meeting, not their meeting, and take control of the process.

And I think broadly for design leaders, as they are often engaging in processes that they have limited influence over, wherever you can find ways to take back control of your processes from people who don’t understand your needs, those are places where you can expand your leadership, and those are leverage points where you can get farther.

Peter: Something I think I’m realizing as you talk about silencing that inner critic, if you can separate your sense of self-worth and your identity from the work you’re producing, you will, frankly, no longer feel the criticism because it’s not about you.

So much of the challenge with this fear of criticism is it feels like it’s about you as a person, an entity, your identity, your worth in the world. And helping people create a bit of healthy distance between them and what they produce, and make it about that thing that you’re producing, and anyone can criticize that all they want—is that thing achieving the goal, is that thing, based on whatever rubric, working—but it’s not about, “Am I a better or worse person because I made that thing,” and one of the challenges I’ve had throughout my career is people get so caught up in their identity with respect to their work. It becomes a reflection of themselves.

Denise: That’s been one of my own personal struggles, when I create something it’s like, “This is my baby. This is a piece of me,” and getting to the place where there is the ability to practice some of that distance.

Jesse: I want to talk a little bit about the inner critic because it can be a bit of a slippery concept and it certainly can look very different for different people.

Tell us a little bit about some of the different forms that this shapeshifter, the inner critic, might take, that people ought to be watching out for.

Denise: I feel like the inner critic does show up in a lot of different ways. And a lot of times people will talk about imposter syndrome as its own thing. I personally believe that imposter syndrome is a form of the inner critic. Perfectionism is a form of the inner critic. Being highly self-critical is a form of the inner critic.

Being afraid of being judged, comparing yourself to other people. Fear of failure and success can be a form of the inner critic, and procrastination/self-sabotage can also be a form of the inner critic.

And those fears that we have, those fears of not being enough, or those fears of being found out, are these kind of deep fears of who we are afraid that we are, they kind of get in the way. And they keep us from being who we can be.

Jesse: For leaders, I think there is this additional challenge of supporting their people in contending with their own inner critics. And what are some of the things that a design leader might want to watch out for among the folks on their team that indicate that somebody might be struggling with this and it might require the leader to step in and provide some support.

Denise: A lot of times, I feel like in creative, collaborative environments, what happens is people tone themselves down. People silence themselves. There was a great article on 99U by Matt May, that refers to “ideacide.” And I love that term, the concept that you’re killing your ideas before they have the opportunity to come out and really see the light of day, and sprout and blossom. And maybe they are kind of non-starters, but you never know until you actually give them an opportunity to come out.

And so often people will be in meetings… Talk to them one-on-one and they’re just like, “Well, I was thinking this,” and you’re like, “Oh my God, that’s a great idea.” And then there’s the meeting where the perfect opportunity for the person to share that idea, and they don’t say anything and you’re practically kicking them underneath the table.

Like, “Say the thing that we’ve talked about…!” “No, no, I don’t think, no.” And I feel like that happens so often with a lot of people that it’s become second nature. And what I think would be helpful for managers and people leaders is to recognize where that’s happening.

And the other thing too, especially in light of Black Lives Matters movement and a lot of what’s going on, people of color, women, anybody in a disenfranchised group, is going to have a stronger inner critic because society literally makes them have a stronger inner critic. And so then that self-doubt is going to be even stronger. And so, if you’ve got women on your team, if you’ve got women of color on your team, if you’ve got people in the LGBTQ community, they may not have that strong sense of self. They’re not going to share their ideas.

And, it’s also very common for white men, or men, to talk over these people, to discount their ideas to start. So this is kind of a hot mess. I think that’s the technical term.

Jesse: Well, definitely in my own coaching work, I’ve worked with number of women, and the challenges that they face, in particular of feeling like they have to adopt masculine communication styles in order to be heard, it really ends up driving them into this deep place of self-doubt about their own instincts. They stop trusting themselves.

 I want to get your take on introverts though, because this is a topic that’s come up previously on the show. And my hunch is that many, maybe most, people who self-identify as introverts are actually hostages of their inner critics, who have developed a robust case of Stockholm Syndrome and have fully internalized that sense of being trapped into their own identity.

Denise: Hmm. So, I found this tweet not too long ago that was pretty profound and insightful. And it was more about imposter syndrome, but I can see this having a direct correlation with introversion as well.

And it said, “I wonder if what’s called imposter syndrome is just a way to rationalize how women and people of color have been treated all of this time.”

Oh my God. Like, just amazing, right? And I feel like that could totally be true, too, of introverts. That there is this thing that, you’ve been talked over so much.

So here’s one that says, “Maybe you don’t have imposter syndrome. Maybe you’ve been treated like an imposter your entire career.” And then here’s the one that I was looking for. “Sometimes I wonder if imposter syndrome, originating from the 1978 concept imposter phenomenon, is just another example of making racism and sexism and professional spaces appear as a psychological myth rather than a structural reality of how people get poorly treated.”

Jesse: That’s great.

Denise: It’s amazing, right?

Jesse: Whose words are those?

Denise: Tamara K. Nopper.

Jesse: Alright, thank you, Tamara.

Denise: Again, it’s like you said, this internalization of, “I think differently, I like to think before I talk, not think as I’m talking, and I actually want to find out what’s going on before I weigh in on something.” And then it’s like, “Oh, that makes me an introvert.”

Yeah, or you just haven’t had the setup and the structure for you to be able to be.

Introversion is definitely a spectrum. I like to say that I’m like 60, 40, or 40, 60, depending on the day. I would say that I’m an ambivert. But, you know, when I’m really tired and everything, everybody out of the pool. And I just want like a cup of tea and a book and like a cat on my lap, like out, I don’t want to talk to anybody.

I’ll turn the phone off. I’m like, “That’s it, it’s over, cancel Christmas.” So, what ends up happening is that if people were in an environments where they felt more comfortable, and they were given the space, that they would probably be super-talkative. They would probably be more like a typical extrovert, but they’re not given the space for it.

And extroverts take up a lot of space.

Peter: I’m reading the book Caste, that just came out, by Isabel Wilkerson. She hasn’t really addressed work contexts. It’s much more societal.

However enlightened and sensitive we’re trying to be even within our offices, and as we’re embracing matters of diversity and inclusion as companies, and as individuals, I mean, Jesse and I, as white men, have talked about this on this show, how we’re trying to practice being better, more supportive, in these regards.

In her book, she has this story of going to a conference in India, I believe, about caste, which is essentially a critical discussion. These are folks who are trying to do away with or understand it so as to repair their society. And afterwards, she approaches someone and asks them, “Are you in what would be considered the dominant caste?” and the woman that she says this to is aghast, because she’d been trying to be as woke and as sensitive to her standing as she could. And Isabel’s like, “Yeah, I could tell by the way you interacted with other people and they interacted with you that you were in a dominant caste and those other people were in a subordinate caste,” even though everyone was trying to be explicitly not caste based in this structure.

And it just shows how deep it goes. And one can only imagine this is true in the workplaces we are part of, however, again, sensitive and D&I-oriented we’re trying to be.

What approaches or strategies or tactics can be taken to allow as many voices in a room to be heard and, to be able to contribute?

Denise: Another great quote that I saw, which I spoke about it in a conference that I spoke at, the Enterprise Experience conference, and it said something to the degree of, “Racism won’t end until white people stop looking at as an issue that they need to be sympathetic towards, and look at it as something that they need to solve.” And I was like, yes, exactly. White supremacy won’t die until white people see it as a white issue they need to solve rather than a black issue they need to empathize with.

And I think that’s really true. Castes, racism, sexism, everything, it can’t be solved by the people who are the recipients of it. Or who were on the low end of it. It has to be solved by the people who put it in place.

And I think the more people see these issues as, “Oh, this is something I have to do something about,” rather than, “Oh, I feel so bad.” You know, like, “Oh, I feel so bad about that. It’s so wrong that you have to experience that.” It’s like, “Yeah, it’s really wrong that you benefit from it all the time. That’s really sad too.” And that it becomes more like everybody working together to try to address this issue, rather than “good luck with that,” right? All of the awareness and everything has been so long overdue, but as a black woman,  has also been exhausting because it’s just dredged up so much.

But, you know, at least, now if I say something, it’s not going to be people being like, “That’s not an issue. That’s not a problem. I don’t— Why are you so upset? Why are you so upset? Why are you so angry?” I’m, like, “I’m angry because this is some bullshit. That’s why I’m angry.”

I’m angry because this is ridiculous and it should have gone away. It should have been, you know, I grew up in the seventies, like we were under a false sense of security that it was just going to keep getting better and better and better. And then like just crazy things just keep popping off.

We really need to do this collectively. Like you think you benefit from this, but you don’t. All the things that have been an outcome of racism and white supremacy, okay, so great, you are able to buy a house more easily and all this stuff, but then you end up going and being in suburbs that are completely, homogenized and then you don’t get the culture. You think you’re safe, but you don’t feel safe when you go into other neighborhoods.

But what if you could just be safe everywhere? What if you could just have everybody everywhere all the time didn’t have to be afraid? Like, I kinda think everybody would benefit from that. Other people don’t feel the same way, but, I’m biased.

Jesse: I think we all are. Yeah.

Denise, thank you so much for being with us. It’s been a wonderful conversation.

Do you have anything to plug? Where can people find you on the internet?

Denise: Yes, the interwebs. So you can find me at denisejacobs.com is my website. On Twitter and Instagram I’m @denisejacobs. On Facebook, you can follow me at denisejacobsdotcom all written out. On LinkedIn, I’m Denise R. Jacobs.

And actually, I am going to be launching an online course on career confidence. It’s called Amplify You: Cultivating Career Competence. And so you can go to http://amplify-u.com and check that out. And then finally, I have several courses on LinkedIn Learning, and so you can go and look for me as an instructor on LinkedIn Learning and go and check out my Banish Your Inner Critic to Unleash Creativity course, the Creative Collaboration course, the Creativity for All: Hacking Creative Brain course. And then coming out, I think in December, is going to be the Business Case for Creativity to help leaders champion their cause for creating a creative culture in their organizations.

Peter: Hmm. And there’s the book.

Denise: Oh, right. And then there’s my book, Banish Your Inner Critic, which you can buy on amazon.com. I mean, you can also probably roll into most Barnes and Nobles and find it right when you enter the store in the bargain book section. I know, but still it’s in hardback and it’s wonderful. So you can get at a Barnes and Noble. If it’s not there, you can just ask for them to order it or you can order it on Amazon.

Jesse: Wonderful. Thank you, Denise. This has been great.

Jesse: And with that, this has been episode 21 of Finding Our Way. You can find the previous 20 episodes as well as this one, as well as probably some future episodes, too, that I don’t even know about on our website at https://findingourway.design/, where you’ll find audio and transcripts for every episode. Plus, there’s a way to send us feedback on our website.

Please send us feedback. We love your feedback. You can use our website or you can just write to us on Twitter. I’m @jjg he’s @peterme, or you can find us on LinkedIn under our real names as well. We’ll see you next time.

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