Where creative limits come from

Stefano Bellucci Sessa
6 min readNov 19, 2021


This is an edited transcript of Episode 009 of Design, In Confidence, mindfulness & design podcast with Stefano Bellucci Sessa’s learnings on creative confidence, emotional intelligence, and mental health.

In confidence, many times I felt limited by an environment.
Like society, family, or a workplace.

But other times, I realised those limits didn’t really exist.

Mindfulness and design help me differentiate these two scenarios.
I used to blame it all on myself unfairly undermining my confidence.
Or blame it all on my employee or manager, worsening the relationship with them.

If you feel you aren't part of a creative culture, whether you are a leader of a team or not, you might find useful my learnings on where limits come from.

The jar and the fleas

My father told me a story:

In an experiment, a scientist placed a number of fleas in a glass jar.
They quickly jump out.

He then put the fleas back into the jar, but closed with a glass lid.
The fleas began jumping, hitting the glass lid and falling back down into the jar.

After a while, the scientist removed the glass lid.

But the fleas learned they weren’t able to jump higher than the jar.
They limited themselves, even if the limit was removed.

Even their “baby fleas” imitated their parent’s behaviour.
They didn’t jump higher than the lid, even if they’ve never seen it.

Our ability to jump is our creative confidence.
The lid all the rules, values, and behaviours incentivized or not in a community: whether it’s a family, team, organisation, or society.

Sometimes those limits are there, but sometimes it isn’t.

Let’s look at this.

When creative limits come from

As children, we have the creative confidence to just do anything.
Growing up, we are told what we cannot do – because we are “not allowed” or “not able”.

As a child, you were “naive” – unaware of rules or limits.
You had the creative confidence to feel “allowed” and “able” to imagine and do things in different ways, learn by trying, grow and change.

Growing up, society’s jar and its limits come in.
Sometimes, limits are explicit, like rules.
Sometimes they are invisible, like examples or conventions.

For example:

  • feeling “not creative” without that word in the job title.
  • a demographic group is not represented in a sector
    (e.g not seeing female doctors, makes women think that’s not for them)
  • an organisation celebrating only specific types of behaviours
    (e.g. extroverted or loud employees, making shy people feel not welcome)
  • an organisation without clear policies and ways of working
    (e.g. how to ask for a salary review, a promotion, or help)

Let’s look at all this more in detail.

Being mindful about your limits

I’m not suggesting breaking the law or removing any sorts of limits, but to be at least aware of where they come from and exist.

If limits are explicit in the system, try to work within them or push them to change the system. Like Rosa Parks did by sitting were not allowed to.

If limits are implicit (or in your head) work within you.
Like many women who were the first in their profession, in cultures where that wasn’t considered for them.

How do you understand if the limits exist or not?

Try. You need to try to jump higher and see what happens:

  • Sometimes, the lid is there.
  • Sometimes, you break the lid.
  • Sometimes, the lid wasn’t there at all.

I have a really privileged life compared to Rosa Parks and many women.
But for example’s sake, I share how I felt limited in a not explicit or existing way when:

  • not applying for jobs
  • asking for a pay rise or promotion
  • starting my freelance career
  • writing blogs
  • speaking at conferences

But most of all, coming up with ideas on how to innovate or change something.

Being creative means thinking outside the box – most times you will think of something that nobody else has thought about yet.
So nobody probably has decided whether that’s allowed or not, yet.

If you are a leader, it’s your responsibility to clarify where the lid is.
Because removing it, might not be enough.
Let’s talk more about this.

Be mindful of how you limit others

Like the fleas that don’t jump higher even if the lid is removed, your team might not dare because used to limits in their background.
As a leader, you should consider those invisible limits.

For example:

  • if you are changing the culture of the workplace, invisible limits of the previous culture will still be in peoples’ heads
  • no matter how you might stand for equality, people might carry with them the bias and discrimination that lives outside of your company

In projects and workshops I led, it took time to create a equitable safe space. People felt limited by the presence of someone paid more, or someone more vocal, or the feeling of not fitting in (e.g. they came from a team where they are not allowed to fail or say things in meetings).

Make clear limits and behaviours.

A good example of that is the dress code – we are unsure on what to do when starting a job without indication on what to wear.

Imagine that lack of confidence, but applied on:

  • being able to share ideas on how to improve your organization
  • taking the time to learn something new and work better
  • collaborate with other teams by asking for help or helping them

A mindful leader is aware of the invisible limits that make team members insecure on whether they can be creative. And control the limits by making them as visible as possible.

Not everything is allowed. People know that.
But they might think there are more limits than you would like to.

Limits aren’t in black and white but in shades of grey. Clarify what is:

  • forbidden.
  • tolerated
  • welcome
  • incentivized
  • expected

Help people to understand what they must/mustn’t do, what they should/shouldn't do and what they can/cannot do.
This helps them wonder what they might do, which is where creativity lives.

And accept the surprise that will follow.

You might see behaviours that, in future, you wish are forbidden, tolerated welcome, incentivized, or expected.
But in future, not retroactively – otherwise you will punish people for being creative by breaking rules that didn’t exist.

Building a creative culture takes time and trust.

Talk openly about problems of forbidden and tolerated behaviours.
Promote welcome examples from outside your company.
Reward incentivised and expected behaviours.
But most of all, lead by example.

One solution for everyone will not create an equitable creative culture.
People are different and society treats them differently, undermining their confidence in different ways.

As a mindful leader, manager, facilitator, teammate, you are responsible for creating, nurturing and inspiring an equitable creative environment by being mindfully aware and in control of why people feel limited.

Let me know how you inspire an equitable creative culture. Or remove the limits to your creative confidence.

Or if this blog gave you the confidence to do so.
Reply, share, or give a few claps.

Subscribe to Design, in Confidence wherever you listen to your podcast.
Or follow me for future transcripts.

Please review, and share it with others.
Tell people why you found this valuable, and that you are a safe space to find support in building their creative confidence.

If you got this far, I’m sure you’re a great listener — which I thank you for.
And now, it’s time to listen to your thoughts.
And remember to thank yourself, for the time you spent to learn, and grow.



Stefano Bellucci Sessa

Innovation consultant and design thinking evangelist, helping organisations create experiences that improve the world we live in.