342: Getting Creativity to Work with Thomas Heffner

By September 7, 2018Podcasts

 

 

Thomas Heffner says: "To get one really good idea, you're going to have a lot of ideas."

Thomas Heffner shares how to improve creativity, group brainstorming, and innovation.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The seven rules for effective brainstorming
  2. How to solve the hippo in the room problem
  3. Three improv comedy tips that help you innovate

 

About Thomas

Tom Heffner is a design strategist at The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory,  podcaster, author, speaker, and innovation expert.  His goal is to help people thrive at work and in life. Tom believes that every day, purposeful habits and practices are vital to this pursuit. He shares these ideas and learnings through his weekly podcast (Next Year Now), blog, and speaking engagements.

 

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Thomas Heffner Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Tom, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to Be Awesome At Your Job podcast.

Thomas Heffner
Pete, thank you so much. I can’t tell you how excited I am for our conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, me too. I’ve been very impressed by you, meeting you at Podcast Movement and with all the amazing guests you’ve gotten on your show. I was like, “Oh, that person turned me down and that person turned me down.” Tom, what are you doing?

Thomas Heffner
Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I think maybe part of is that connection with the – is it the masters in Positive Psychology? Is that the name of the program at U Penn?

Thomas Heffner
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. I told my wife if we ever have more money than we need, this would just be something fun I’d love to do is to go to that program. How did that work out for you?

Thomas Heffner
I always tell people it was – outside of getting married to my wife and having my three amazing children, it was the best decision I’ve ever made. I was really fortunate, I’ll just say this upfront, that my work, my organization paid for the whole thing. I probably – looking back on the experience, I would have paid the tuition that I paid. At the time, I wouldn’t have paid it just because I didn’t know.

Pete Mockaitis
The outside looking in. Sure. Cool. Anyway, that’s a good decision you made. Another interesting decision or caper, I don’t know what we’d call it, but apparently it happened in your life at one point that you kissed Alyssa Milano. Tell us all about this.

Thomas Heffner
I wish this was a really cool story where I was like, “Listen, Alyssa and I were in the back seat of the Corvette,” but really it’s a little bit less cool. It’s still cool, but a little bit less cool.

When I was younger and I was 12 years old back in 1992, I was a wrestler on the base of Quantico, Virginia. We had a private wrestling club there and it was a very competitive one. We were selected to go to the Great American Presidential Fitness Workout. We got to go to the White House. At the time it was, I guess it was 1992, it was probably George Bush.

But we got to go there and do a little exhibition. There was other people doing and other groups of people doing exhibitions. Arnold Schwarzenegger was there. That was when he was still known as The Terminator. Lots of celebrities were there and also Alyssa Milano, who was still pretty big at that time. Still big I would say.

I’m doing my thing. We’re doing our little wrestling exhibition. She comes along. Of course, everybody wants to get her autograph and talk to her. I go up to her and say, “Alyssa, Alyssa, can I get your autograph?” I’m 12 years old. I’m old enough to know that she’s pretty hot.

She says, “Well, listen,” she gets down on – bends down and whispers into my ear, she says, “Listen, if I give you an autograph, then I’ve got to give everybody an autograph, so how about I just give you a kiss instead?” Well, listen, I didn’t have to wait long for that one. I planted one right on her. That’s the story where I got to kiss Alyssa Milano. One of my cool, fun stories in life.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s interesting. You initiated the kiss after she said the words, “What if I gave you a kiss instead?”

Thomas Heffner
You can’t let that go by, man.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like, just in case she’s kidding, you don’t want to –

Thomas Heffner
Can never let that opportunity pass.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s interesting. By her logic though, if you had waited and then she kissed you, then she might need to kiss everybody, which would be probably worse.

Thomas Heffner
It’s true.

Pete Mockaitis
You come back with kiss a bunch of 12-year-olds, you’d probably have some kind of a cold or … with that.

Thomas Heffner
She was probably safe with our group.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, because you’re super physically fit. You’re examples of good health.

Thomas Heffner
That’s right. Lean, mean, fighting machines.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. In addition to your physical prowess, you have what strikes me as a super impressive sounding job for smart people is a technical categorization for the industry I guess. You work at the John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, which just sounds super smart. Tell me what does that mean and what’s your role there?

Thomas Heffner
It means I’m the most interesting man – no, I’m kidding. What it means is it’s a – the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory is a UARC. That stands for a University Affiliated Research Center. Really what it means is we’re a Department of Defense research center. We do applied research for the DOD, for the military, largely for the Navy. We do it for other services as well, Air Force and Army.

But really it’s a huge organization. There’s almost 7,000 people that work there. We do everything kind of under the sun. I always tell people if you ever see when satellites go up into space—just recently they had solar probe, the Parker probe, go up into space—well, we build and design satellites. We do secondary mission control and NASA does primary mission control.

My buddy actually designed the communications system for it. This is the first every satellite to go the closest ever to the sun. We build missile systems, defense systems, cybersecurity systems. We do health and bio.

A big thing that we’re known for when returning warriors come back from war, a lot of times, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan wars, they were injured. Unfortunately, a lot of them were injured. You had Marines and Army grunts coming back that were – they didn’t have a limb.

One of the things that we designed was a nerve enervated 26 degrees of freedom prosthetic arm, which is to say, it’s nerve enervated so that means if you think it, it does it. If you want your prosthetic arm to pick up that cup of coffee, then it picks up that cup of coffee.

Pete Mockaitis
Whoa.

Thomas Heffner
Yeah, really, really cool stuff.

Pete Mockaitis
That is wild. 26 degrees of freedom. Explain. Well, maybe don’t list all 26, but I mean-

Thomas Heffner
Yeah, so in space – what that means is it’s still probably not going to be artificial – a future world where it’s like, “Wow, this is better than my real arm,” but it means it gives you a lot more articulation, a lot more freedom to move and use that limb as if it was your own.

It’s not going to be quite the same, but they keep getting better and better. They add more degrees of freedom. They add more – miniaturize those electronics, etcetera, etcetera.

But I think what it does and what it shows is kind of the breadth and level of expertise that we have at our organization where really we can do end to end systems engineering all the way through down to microelectronic engineering and everything in between.

It’s a really fascinating place to work. I’m really blessed to work with just the smartest engineers in the world. I always tell people I don’t know how I got in. Maybe I snuck in through the backdoor, but-

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is really cool. Then part of your thing is innovation, design thinking, making new cool ideas happen. You do that both at work as well as teaching other organizations and teams how to do that. I’d love to hear maybe if you could orient us to just a fun story of a nifty new idea taking off and how it came to be.

Thomas Heffner
Yeah, let me back up just one moment. My background is originally in electrical engineering. I did that for like ten years before I switched over doing innovation and design thinking, design thinking being kind of one method that you can drive innovation in an organization or a project, etcetera, etcetera.

That’s what I’ve been doing the last five years, both using design thinking to solve these really tough challenges, but then also to teach it in organizations, be it military organizations or other organizations. If I’m thinking of a really cool project, innovation project, there’s a few to pick from here. What would I pick?

So, one that I think is really neat and I think – this is going to sound self-serving because this one of the ideas that I had – I think it’s really impactful because it changed the way fundamentally that we did business or that we solved problems at the lab.

A while back, about five years ago, our director said, “Hey listen, we want to come up with something to help us do better – to be more innovative at the lab.” He said, “Come up with something.”

We proposed this idea of innovation space. That in and of itself was not necessarily not that revelatory, but what we ended up coming up with was this pretty big space, I think there was maybe 10 or 15,000 square feet – I can’t remember the exact number – of different little areas or pods, if you will.

We had a maker space where you could 3D print. We had an application space, where you could test – where you could create and develop and test applications, so mobile applications and electronic based applications and things like that. We had a design space where you could run design sprints like Google runs or Amazon. We had – we even had a space where people could come in and learn how to sew on sewing machines because we build and design tactical parachutes and things like that.

Building that little petri dish of innovation, if you will, was a real sea-change for us because we had historically been an organization that was very conservative and traditional. Engineers kind of just went into their office and did a lot of engineering.

They sat down with their books and their mathematical equations and differential equations and Maxwell’s equations and all these different things to solve really hard problems, but they did it oftentimes in isolation or siloed communities and things like that.

What we did here is we created this community and started to build a culture from the ground up where it was okay to go and brainstorm on a topic or an idea that we didn’t have business in. It was okay to go and try out new ideas and to prototype ideas really fast. I’m talking in a day or two. I’m not talking breadboarding, which is for all us engineers, we understand what breadboarding is.

It was a way for us to build in engagement opportunities to invite everybody, not just engineers, but program managers, support staff, admin staff, etcetera, etcetera to be part of that ideation process, to generate new ideas and then to test those ideas out.

In and of itself, like I said, it may not sound that amazing, but it was a real sea-change to allow us to be more open-minded to how we do business, to how we solve problems because traditionally that’s just not something we did. It was very kind of linear and waterfall and just “We have these analytical tools. We’re going to spend our time and we’re going to crunch those numbers and that’s it.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s cool. Just what I’m visualizing is just sort of the physical elements and dimensions of it with the 3D printing and the app development area. I don’t know what that would mean.

I’m imagining that you would have lots of different devices, like, “Hey, what’s it look like in iPad? What’s it look like on a Kindle? What’s it look like on a Kindle Fire? What’s it look like on a Samsung Surface?” Is it Microsoft Surface? Samsung Galaxy. Well, I don’t know. All of the devices is kind of what I’m imagining that looks like.

Thomas Heffner
Yeah, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like, “Oh, that looks sort of screwed up on this size screen. Let’s fix it.”

Thomas Heffner
Yeah, it was really neat actually. I’ll double down on that as well. We had drones in there so people could use drones and try out different things.

One of the things that was really neat was we have this – basically it’s kind of a competitive innovation program, where people can submit ideas and based on the popularity or the merits of the idea, they get X number of funding.

Somebody said, “Listen, I want to come in here and test out guidance and control software for a satellite.” Well, obviously it’s pretty expensive to go and put a satellite up in space and then test out your software. You have to do things before then.

So why don’t I just port it to a drone, one of these parrot drone and just try it and see if it works. That’s a lot cheaper than building some fancy software simulator or worse yet, putting it up in space and actually learning while it’s up in space.

That was something that we had in there because we just wanted to see what can people do with drones. What can people do with, like you said, with iPads? What can people do with – we had a Connect in there, a Microsoft – we still have it – a Microsoft Connect in there. People were using that for mind flight, which is building a flight automation system or a flight navigation system where you can control flight with your mind.

There was lots of different things. Just putting it in there, it forces people to say, “Well, I don’t know what that is,” especially if you’re somebody that’s like “Well, I’ve got 30 years of expertise in radar. I don’t know how to use this Connect. I don’t know how to use this parrot drone,” or whatever it is, but go in there and learn what it is to use a 3D printer or a parrot drone and what can you do new and different.

Just forcing people to be a little bit outside of their comfort zone or inviting/encouraging I guess is a better way to say that.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s really cool. That’s really cool. I was just thinking recently my wife and brother and I, we’ve invented a couple things with baby, which – just little things in terms of “Let’s put a mesh fabric and Velcro and there you go. This will be handy.” It was just really fun to just like physically make stuff.

I just think – I don’t know if this exists somewhere in a college course, but I think that would just be one of the coolest courses ever, like how to make stuff. We got a couple weeks on drawing, on sewing, on coding, on woodworking, on 3D printing, electric circuits, on welding.

It’s just like, oh hey, I know how to make things. That would just I think activate a different part of the brain and it seems like that’s exactly what you guys are seeing there is it’s sparking all the more good ideas and successful evolving of ideas.

Thomas Heffner
I 100% agree. I think what it also does is it allows you – all innovation is, is really hypothesis testing. You have an idea, you have some hypothesis of how that idea is going to exist in the world and so what’s the quickest, most effective way that you can test that idea.

Using things like Play-Doh, using things like parrot drones, using things like 3D printing, all these different mediums, if you will, is a way for you to prototype those quickly and efficiently so that you can learn what’s working and what’s not working in terms of how you – the assumptions you have about that idea.

And that’s really, really important to learn early on while it’s still cheap versus “You know what? We’ve got this idea. We’re going to build it. We’re going to spend a lot of money and design.”

Pete Mockaitis
Make 100,000 of them.

Thomas Heffner
And software. Yeah, and make 100,000 of them and then all of the sudden it’s not what you thought it was because you didn’t get that feedback early and often when it was still cheap.

I always point to the example of Amazon’s 3D phone. There’s 500,000 to a million of those things sitting in a landfill somewhere because they didn’t do a good enough job of doing that rapid prototyping to say, “Okay, would people actually want this thing as you envision it.” They didn’t, so you’ve got about 500,000 phones in a landfill somewhere unfortunately.

Pete Mockaitis
That is a bummer. Yeah. Okay, noted.

Okay, let’s talk about design thinking. It’s a hot topic. It’s a cool phrase. We’ve had a couple guests speak to it a little bit. Could you define what does this mean and who might want to use it?

Thomas Heffner
Yeah,  design thinking I don’t like that term in some ways because it’s jump the shark a little bit. I use human centered design, but for all intents and purposes design thinking, human centered design, they’re interchangeable. What it really is for me and how I define it is it’s a discipline of developing solutions in the service of people. Let’s break that down a little bit.

Discipline , that means what? Practice. Something you do every day, i.e., it’s not a one shot vaccine. So many times people, organizations are like, “I just took this course on innovation,” or “I took this course on creativity and now I’m an expert.” Well, no, it’s a discipline. You have to keep practicing it every day.

Then  developing solutions. If I asked everybody in the room to raise their hands, how many people consider themselves a designer, nobody would raise their hand or very few people, unless you’re in a room full of designers. The truth is is that we’re all designers. This is something that we do implicitly and explicitly every day.

As  a parent if my kid, if my nine-month-old is crying, all right, well, let’s give her a toy. Maybe she won’t cry. I’m designing a better situation. We have to get out of that mode of thinking, “No, no, I’ve got to be some tech entrepreneur. I’ve got to be some technologist.” Anybody can design.

Then  finally, it’s in the service of people. I think this part is really, really important because we’re not designing for things. We’re not designing for widgets. We’re not designing for the heck of it. We’re designing for people to make their life appreciably better in some way. I think yeah, that’s how we define it. It’s the discipline of developing solutions in the service of people.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, very good. Very good. So then, I’m curious when it comes to doing some of this stuff, I think that much of the benefit, or at least my perception, is that suddenly people are getting way more good ideas and those ideas are actually getting to take some shape and some life. How does this unfold?

Thomas Heffner
Yeah,  I think that’s the kind of the very public-facing benefit of design thinking. I think it accelerates collaboration. It accelerates decision making. Ultimately, it accelerates innovation.

One  of the ways that it does that is by generating a lot of ideas in a short amount of time. I think people have to just accept that to get one really good idea, you’re going to have a lot of ideas most of the time.

One  of the ways that we can do this is through brainstorming. Brainstorming gets a bad rap a lot of times. People say it’s not effective, it doesn’t work. A lot of times that’s true; it doesn’t work. That’s because two things. One, whoever is doing the brainstorming, they don’t set kind of rules and expectations for how this is going to unfold and they don’t have a plan for it.

There  are different ways that you can mitigate that. One way is to just set rules, brainstorming rules ahead of time. There are seven rules that we use and that are pretty popular or common across the community.

One  is – I’ll just kind of list them here: defer judgment, encourage wild ideas, build on the ideas of others. This one’s a really important one because oftentimes if you ask people “Are you creative?” or “Are you innovative,” people say, “No, I’m not. That’s for Jack over in graphic design.” The truth is is that one of the easiest ways to be creative is to build on ideas of others.

Think  about the Post-It note. When the Post-It note came out, it was a yellow Post-It note. It was square. That was it. Then somebody said, “Well, what if we made a rectangular one or what if we made multi-color Post-It notes or what if we made Post-It notes that pop up by themselves after you pull it off,” and on and on and on. There’s a variety of ways that you can build on the ideas of others.

Then  there’s stay focused on the topic, one conversation at a time, be visual and go for quantity.

If  you follow these, it’s kind of like going out on the road and getting your license. You wouldn’t just send your 16-year-old out on the road without any kind of rules of the road. You’d say, “Hey, here are the rules of the road. When you stop at a stop sign, if you’re the first person there, you get to go. You have the right of way,” etcetera, etcetera. You give them rules of the road. For me, this is a really important piece.

Pete Mockaitis

It’s funny you talk about building off ideas. The first thing that comes to mind, I think it’s from the movie Bridesmaids, were talking about different potential themes for a shower like Pixar … “Ah yes, and building off of that idea, also Fight Club.”

Thomas Heffner
Sometimes there’s close relationships and sometimes there’s far afield, so it runs the gamut.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. These rules, one of the failings of brainstorming is that these rules don’t get established in the first place. I imagine another failing is that even though we articulate these rules, something in practice shows that these rules are not for real. Could you explain how sometimes that unfolds?

Thomas Heffner
Oftentimes  you can have what I call the hippo in the room, if you’ve ever heard that term, the highest paid person in the room.

One  of the reasons why if you ever see design thinking or human centered design in practice, you will see Post-it notes everywhere. The reason why you have Post-it notes is because the hippo in the room. People don’t want to come up with ideas, especially if it’s something for – something politically sensitive.

I  was just teaching a class and doing some coaching with somebody and they said they were trying to come up with ways to better manage their team and they had Post-it notes. This is another problem that can happen. But their boss was in the session with them. They were sharing out the Post-It notes.

The  beauty of Post-it notes is if you come with an idea and you capture it on a Post-it note and then you put that Post-it note up on the wall, well, now it’s just an idea with everybody else. Even if you do have the hippo in the room, then it democratizes that participation. That is to say, the boss in the room doesn’t know who that idea came from.

Oftentimes , if you don’t do that, what happens is if you come into a brainstorm and the boss is in there and he says, “I’ve got this idea. I have idea X,” well suddenly everybody in the room likes idea X because they’re not stupid.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yeah, that’s great.

Thomas Heffner
They  know that – yeah, that’s brilliant. That’s amazing. They know everybody – they know that the boss wants to hear that his idea is brilliant. By having Post-it notes and capturing your ideas on Post-it notes, it allows for anonymity. It also allows for the movement of ideas so that you can start clustering ideas and you can start deriving and synthesizing themes or insights from that data.

I  think the hippo in the room can be problematic. If you’re not using some tool – we use Post-it notes – but if you’re not using some tool to democratize the participation, then that can make it difficult for the process to work.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. I guess one implication of that is make sure that the Post-it notes are sufficiently randomized in color or all the same color because if the hippo has blue and Tom has green and Pete has red, well, then pretty soon I’ve defeated a bunch of the purpose.

Thomas Heffner
Right, right. No, you’re 100% right.

Pete Mockaitis
Good to know. I love that very specific tactic that gets a cool result in terms of more creativity flowing through there is Post-it notes such that it’s no longer clear who had the idea and it’s an idea that’s democratized and it’s sort of all of ours, which can then be rearranged. Any other favorite tactics, tips, tools, stuff that gets used here that makes a nice impact?

Thomas Heffner
I  like doing improv exercises. I like pointing to a specific quote from a great improv expert, Stephen Colbert. Maybe you’ve heard of him. Stephen Colbert, I used to be in an improv group as well before I had my third kid and my wife said, “Listen, that’s cool that you like to play improv, but we’ve got a third kid. You should come home.”

Pete Mockaitis
Three is the threshold.

Thomas Heffner
Three  is the threshold. Two, you’re okay. Three, you’re done. But what Steven Colbert had said was, “You’ve got to learn to love the bomb.” What he meant was that you have to embrace failure. You have to embrace this idea of just looking stupid to other people or falling flat on your face because if you don’t, then it’s really hard to do something really impactful. It’s really hard to do something really amazing or just to be successful because we all fall at some point. We all fail at some point.

Truth  be told, when you’re trying to come up with a new idea, most of your ideas are going to suck. That’s just the reality. I always know that to generate, like I said, one good idea, I’m going to have to have maybe 100 ideas that – of which 90% are going to be bad and maybe 10% are things I can work with.

One , just sharing that quote and kind of where it comes from, but then two actually having them practice some improv exercises where they – a couple of examples.

You  can tell a story. If you have a group of people, you can have each person submit a word, so if you start ‘once upon a time’ and each person picks a word and you go around in a circle until you tell a story. Sometimes we’ll do this as “Hey, write a letter to your favorite celebrity.” It becomes quite comical, but it also sets the norm and expectation that “Okay, I’ve got to come up with something here.”

Or  you can do the ‘yes, and.’ I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the ‘yes, and’ principle. ‘Yes, and’ is basically saying instead of oftentimes when we come up with an idea in practice, whether at work or with our friends, somebody says, “Yes, but it sucks because of this,” or, “Yes, but it won’t work.”

Using  this principle from improv called ‘yes, and’ when you’re on stage, whatever your improv partner throws your way, you’re mentally saying “Yes, and,” and you’re building on that idea.

Doing  an exercise of ‘yes, and’ where you tell a story or you build off an idea can be really, really impactful and a way for them to just start to learn kind of the norms or expectations of how to be more innovative, to be comfortable looking silly, to be comfortable making mistakes or looking stupid. Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
It really does. I think that’s well said, loving the bomb and being comfortable looking silly or stupid. I remember I did a – I’m in Chicago, so we got Second City here. I did an improv intensive, they called it. It was four-ish days just before Thanksgiving a couple years ago. It was really fun.

What was interesting was I remember the first day I was like, “Okay, let’s see what this is all about,” and after being humiliated repeatedly, like the second day I was like, “I don’t know if I want to go back,” but I did. Then my third day, it’s like, “Oh, let’s do this.” It was like I kind of got over that hump. I really enjoyed it.

I was sharing with my friends and family like, “I really kind of liked that. It’s like I got loosened up.” They’re like, “Did you need to be loosened, Pete? You seem pretty loose to me already.”

Thomas Heffner
You’re  kind of already loose. No, I always encourage people that I teach to go and take an improv class because I think even if you don’t want to do improv for the rest of your life, which most people don’t, it’s just a really great experience of learning to become comfortable being uncomfortable.

You  have to do that when you’re doing something new and different, new and innovative because by definition it hasn’t been done before, so there are going to be a lot of times when you’re trying to build something new, where you’re like “I don’t know if this is the right thing. I think-“ or people tell you, “That’s stupid. That’s a dumb idea.”

You’re  going to have that bomb moment, where you can either lean into it and say, “Okay, back to the drawing board,” coming up with some new ideas or iterating on this idea or you can retreat and say, “Okay, I’m not doing that again.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good stuff. Now you also do some training. You’ve trained a number of US Army folk on resilience. Can we hear a couple pro tips in that realm as well?

Thomas Heffner
Yeah.  I’ll give a quick backstory of why we’re doing this. This comes out of the Iraq and Afghanistan war, where basically we have a long history studying pathology and disease. That history tells us we’re not really that great at treating depression, at treating anxiety, at treating PTSD. This goes back decades through all the different wars.

The  idea here was well, what if we could treat or train – what if we could train soldiers, not unlike Jonas Salk and the polio vaccine, what if we could inoculate against the psychological ills of war by teaching them the cognitive tools of resilience. That’s where this came out of. There’s a really great book called The Resilience Factor that dives into a lot of the insights of this. Definitely check that book out.

But  one think that I think is just really, really important is helping people understand a couple things. One, thinking traps. Thinking traps are these things that our brain does every single day for us because we have millions of pieces of data coming our way at any given moment that our brain is filtering. If we didn’t have these kind of cognitive shortcuts, we would go crazy because it would just be too much data.

We  have things like jumping to conclusions. Well, that’s good for a lot of things, but sometimes it can get us in trouble. Can you think of a time when you jumped to a conclusion that might have gotten you in trouble, Pete?

Pete Mockaitis
Well usually I don’t say them out loud. I was like, “Wait, hold a second Pete. That has not been proven. Let’s hold on for just a moment.”

Thomas Heffner
Yeah . Just last night when I saw the dinner plate on the table after we were supposed to clean up I’m like, “Dang it, did my son leave his plate there again? How many times do I have to tell him?” It turns out it was really my wife. Quickly I jumped to a conclusion that got me in a little bit of trouble.

Another  one is all or nothing thinking, which is one way you can operationalize this or visualize this is say you’re in college and you just took your calculus exam and you failed it. You say, “Son of a gun, I failed that math exam, just like I failed all the other math exams. I suck at math because I’m always going to suck at math.”

Well , if that’s your thinking trap in that moment, then yeah, you’re always going to suck at it because you jump  – well, you’re making that cognitive shortcut, when maybe that morning you got up early. The neighbor’s dog was barking and you went to bed late or you missed breakfast. Maybe there was other things that were contributing to that poor result.

What  it’s really doing, these thinking traps, these are a couple of them – me, me, me thinking or you, you, you thinking are some others – but the takeaway here isn’t the thinking traps themselves, those are important to know, but you need to slow down your thinking. This is a way to do it, so being aware of those thinking traps, it slows down your thinking so that you’re not automatically jumping to a conclusion that might be incorrect. That’s one.

Another  component that I really think is important for resilience training is what I call strengths-based learning or strengths-based – understanding your strengths. Have you ever heard of StrengthsFinder 2.0?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Thomas Heffner
Yeah,  so Strengths Finder 2.0 or values in action survey. Helping people to understand – well, one, to identify and then to understand their strengths and how to use them more is really, really important to being resilient. When I say resilient, I think it’s important here to just kind of define what that is. It means your ability to bounce back and push through adversities.

One  of the ways that we can do that is rely on our strengths, but most people, it turns out, don’t know what their strengths are. Walking around if you asked ten people, the majority of them would not know what their strengths are.

It  turns out that’s really, really important to know because if you know what your strengths are and if you use those strengths every day and get better at them and flex them ad cultivate them and use them, you perform better at work, you perform better in school, in sports, you’re happier, and more importantly too, you’re more resilient. That’s another one that’s really, really important as well.

Pete Mockaitis
That is a nice lineup there. Then the teaching is just largely about “Okay, recognize this pattern and see how it doesn’t serve you so well and here are some sort of interrupts or alternative thought patterns to go to instead so that you can bounce back all the better.”

Thomas Heffner
Exactly  right. Help them become aware of those things and then help them to practice getting better at them. Right.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Then I’m curious what are the sorts of results that come from this? What’s really encouraging is if you think about boy, the challenges you see in combat are just massive and very high potential for big stress and tragedy and trauma as compared to many of my work day stresses on a totally different lighter scale. What kind of impact does this make in terms of the results, the data, the outcomes in doing the resilience training?

Thomas Heffner
It’s a really great question. It’s still early in the data they’re deploying. What I will tell you is this data or this program was not built as a standalone originally. It was built off the back of resilience programs for – it’s called the Penn Resilience Program. In Philadelphia they developed this program for at risk kids in schools in the inner city.

What I’ll tell you is from that data, it’s positive in terms of yeah, kids are less depressed, they perform better in schools, they’re less anxious, etcetera, etcetera. The data for the military is still kind of – the jury is still kind of out.

In part because this type of study, it’s a really big, large study because guess what? When you’re in the military, people can just tell you what to do and that’s one of the great things about being a psychologist in the military, you get a lot of data. It’s a longitudinal study, which means it’s over a long period of time.

What they’ve found so far is that – and this was a really important point, so I don’t say this lightly – is that it does no harm, which is really important because there are a lot of psychologists that when we first started this program they thought, “Hey, you’re kind of playing a little bit of God here. You’re introducing this intervention and you don’t know if it’s going to negatively impact somebody.”

To which I’d say they’re right. We didn’t have the data yet to show that it wouldn’t harm them, although it was built on a program, a very similar program, with similar concepts and verbiage that was rigorously tested and that hadn’t caused any harm, but fair enough, fair criticism.

The first thing was, okay, let’s evaluate, make sure that we’re doing no harm. For sure, no harm was being done, which was really good. I think over the next I’ll say three to five years, the data will come back and say probably fairly definitively whether it’s helping or not.

I think anecdotally, just speaking with people that we’ve taught that we’ve stayed in touch with or that have become part of the training programs later, it’s been life changing for those people, but the jury is still out on the military side, at least on the domestic side, where teaching in schools and things like that, the same program, that has been a positive result.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, cool. We’ve had a lot of good stuff here. I’m curious, you’ve got a podcast called Next Year Now, which is how we met over at Podcast Movement. What’s that show all about? Do you talk about design thinking, innovation, creativity, reliance or what’s sort of like the main idea over there?

Thomas Heffner
Yeah, no. Thanks for asking. The show, the tagline I like to say, it’s based on the belief that everyday purposeful habits and practices are vital for us to thrive at work and at life. We interview world-class experts in what they do and try to uncover the habits and practices that have fueled their success.

I’d say it kind of spans three major areas. One being health and wellbeing, one being business and entrepreneurship, and then another one being personal development. What I would throw into personal development as well is creativity, innovation and things like that.

Yeah, we’ve interviewed a few people on innovation and creativity. One in particular that had a pretty big impact on my life is Adam Grant. He is the author of Originals, which is a book all about understanding how people become innovative leaders and thought – basically icons. People like Elon Musk and those cats. Yeah, we cover the gamut from that.

Also people that help out with – in some way with your health and wellbeing, so I would throw resilience in there. We interviewed Cory Muscara, who talks about – sorry, who talks about meditation and kind of the impact that that can have on your ability to be resilient or not. Cover a lot of ground there, but it’s a lot of fun.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s awesome. Very cool. Kudos on your top-notch guests and I’m excited for the future wherever it takes you.

Thomas Heffner
One thing that might be of interest for you all is that when we just talked about meditation and resilience and things like that, is we have a book review of a book called The Upside of Stress by Kelly McGonigal. It’s a fantastic book. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend you read it. Lots of really great tips and insights on how to get better at stress, how to combat stress, counter stress, but also work with it.

I think that’s pretty useful information in there, but if you want to get some of the high-level insights and things like that, you can go over to NextYearNowPodcast.com/Awesome, so for your listeners. They can download the free book review and it’s just a nice way to pick up some tips and tricks to help with stress.


Pete Mockaitis

Cool, thanks. Well, now could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Thomas Heffner
Favorite quote. You might remember this one. I don’t know if you were in this session at Podcast Movement, but it was – I’m going to paraphrase it because I can’t remember exactly, but “If you don’t build your dream, then somebody else is going to hire you to build their dream.”

When I first heard that quote at Podcast Movement, it kind of blew me away in part because I’ve spent 15 years working for somebody else until recently in starting my own business.

I think that’s just a really – we’re not all meant to be entrepreneurs, we’re not all meant to go that route, but I think it’s just a nice way to remind us that we all are – we all have that ability, we all have that possibility to create something special in our lives. Yeah, I think that’s my favorite quote.

Pete Mockaitis
That is cool, yes. Within that I would say that – well, I guess entrepreneurship worship is something that I feel like I encounter in the podcast.

Most of my pitches that I receive are for guests who have built a business or done something impressive in terms of going from ten million dollars or to ten million dollars in just two years. Wow, interview this guest. It’s very impressive. That’s cool and I’m happy for them, but it’s not quite as much of a fit here.

But what I dig about that dreams perspective, is that I think it’s very possible to be building a dream or a contributing towards the achievement of your own dream as an employee, either because you’re developing skills that you’re going to go use to go off and be on your own or just the nature of what you’re doing requires a whole lot of people to create.

I’m thinking about movies, TV, or sort of building a rocket ship or inventing an iPhone or something. It’s sort of like this is going to be a collaborative with a ton of people and you have a part of it.

Yeah, I think that quote’s a nice challenge totally for “Hey, is your career really bringing you forward on your dreams or is it not?” Not that the reaction is, “Well, if not, you’ve got to quit and start your own company,” but to gut check it and say this is really what is possible for you earning a living.

Thomas Heffner
Yeah. I think it’s just – if nothing else, if you take nothing else away from that, just be more intentional about what you want to do, because if you don’t – and like you said, this doesn’t have to be an entrepreneurial perspective, just in your career – if you’re not intentional about it, your career will just happen to you.

When it just happens to you, sometimes good things happen, but sometimes good things don’t happen. Just being more intentional about going after your dream. That can be within the context of working in an organization or working for somebody else. It doesn’t have to be entrepreneurial.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good, your career happens to you. Hence the title of the podcast Happen to Your Career. We had Scott Barlow on the show.

Thomas Heffner
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
It was – that’s a good one, happen to it. Awesome. How about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Thomas Heffner
I mean I would be remiss if I didn’t say positive psychology. I spent years studying positive psychology. I think that’s my favorite thing to dive into. When I read books it’s typically around something positive psych oriented whether that’s gratitude or compassion or etcetera, etcetera. I think positive psychology is probably my jam if you will.

Probably my favorite practice or one of the things that I think is just really, really important is what I call – you’ve heard it in different things – but I call it hunt the good stuff, which is basically the three blessings exercise, whether you do it by yourself or whether you do it with your family. I like to do it with my family at dinner time, where we say, “Hey, what are three good things that happened today and why did that happen?”

That’s something that’s based out of research from positive psychology. It turns out that it has a pretty robust and lasting effect on your wellbeing, i.e. that makes you happier. It’s just something that we do every night. I love reading about those types of pop psych, social psych data, and research.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite book?

Thomas Heffner
Book. Apropos of nothing that we’ve talked about, a book called Shantaram. Have you heard of it?

Pete Mockaitis
I don’t think I have. How do you spell this?

Thomas Heffner
S-H-A-N-T-A-R-A-M.

Pete Mockaitis
No.

Thomas Heffner
It’s by a guy named, if I get the name right, Gregory David – David Gregory Roberts or Gregory David Roberts. I can’t remember. But it’s a really cool – it’s a fictional book, but it’s kind of autobiographical as well.

It’s about this guy who was in academia. He was a Ph.D. student in philosophy. He gets into drugs like heroin and other things. Then he starts robbing banks. Gets caught, this is in Australia, and he flees – well, he gets caught, he goes to prison, then he breaks out of prison and he goes to Bombay and becomes –

He lives in the slums and runs in this world of the mafia, but also almost kind of like this patron saint, if you will, becomes – because he had some EMT training, there’s no doctors there, so he would help the people in the slums. He became this person everybody would bring their sick children or people to. It goes through this whole story.

There’s a lot of writing about you don’t know if it’s truly auto-biographical or what parts are fiction, but I think what’s really cool about it is – so being a psychology guy and being a positive psychology guy, this will come as no surprise, there’s a lot of philosophy that’s laden in this book with just gold nuggets of what does it mean, what does good and evil mean really, what does it mean to live a good life.

Just a really fantastic book. Great writing. Word of warning, it’s also I think about 999 pages long, so it’s not a short book, but I love the book.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, cool. Thank you. How about a favorite tool?

Thomas Heffner
Favorite tool. I love – I dig Canva. I don’t know if you ever use Canva.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, right the graphics.

Thomas Heffner
Yeah. For somebody that – I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to use Adobe Photoshop or Adobe InDesign, unless you have a Ph.D. in graphic design, I feel like those things are impossible to use or maybe it’s just me.

I really like Canva because I have to make different graphic designs and things like that periodically and I think Canva is just a really neat tool that in a way democratizes the graphic design for the rest of us non-designers.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. How about a favorite habit?

Thomas Heffner
Favorite habit. Here’s probably my favorite habit. I would say meditation or if meditation is not your jam, I also do coherent breathing. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of that.

Pete Mockaitis
I don’t think I’ve heard that exact pairing of words. I can guess what that means, but I’ll let you take it away. What does that mean?

Thomas Heffner
I say meditation because I’ve had a lot of great results and it’s helped me tremendously both kind of my psychological wellbeing as well as my physical wellbeing. But a lot of times people are like, “Look, I don’t like – I’m not a yogi, I’m not a Zen master. I don’t really want to do the whole meditation thing.” I just tell them, “Look, if that’s not your bag, if that’s not your jam, well then, just do some deep breathing.”

Just the act of deep belly breathing can be tremendously positive for your physical and emotional and psychological wellbeing. It’s called coherent breathing. If you Google coherent breathing, you’ll find different patterns and things like that. There’s a four-seven-eight pattern. You breathe in for a count of four, you hold for a count of seven, you exhale for a count of eight.

That’s not as important. I think the most important thing there is just you breathe out longer than you breathe in. It forces you to have these deep belly breaths that calm your nervous system and just – I’ve seen it first-hand where people are just really nervous.

I was up on a ropes course and the lady was freaking out. Her legs were shaking so much the platform was shaking. She was like, “Why is the platform shaking? Why is the platform shaking?” The instructor says, “Hey, well, take a look down.” She looks down. He’s like, “Your legs are shaking.” She’s like, “Oh.”

She’s super nervous. He says, “Look, just take some deep breaths.” She did that for two and a half minutes and I’m sure she was still nervous, but she wasn’t freaking out anymore.

That can be really, really helpful to help de-stress you, to help set the stage for a really good day if you do it in the morning. I always recommend do it the first thing when you wake up, do it may be over lunch time and do it right before you go to bed.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Tell me, is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks and they tend to repeat it, retweet it?

Thomas Heffner
I don’t know if it gets retweeted a lot, but I think one that connects with my listeners a lot is this idea of essentialism. You’ve probably heard of it in some fashion or form. But the idea of cutting out the non-essential in your life.

So many – now more than ever there is no shortage of things we could do, ideas we could pursue, etcetera, etcetera. Being able to cut through the non-essential to that one or maybe two things to pursue is really, really important if you want to be successful.

Pete Mockaitis

Tom, if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Thomas Heffner
Yeah, you can go to the Next Year Now Podcast website, which is NextYearNowPodcast.com or if you’re interested in learning more about design thinking and innovation, you can go to TomHeffner.com, which is my consulting site where I talk about the work that I do and the teaching that I do with design thinking and human centered design.

Pete Mockaitis
Do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Thomas Heffner
I would really say embrace that quote from Steven Colbert, “Learn to love the bomb,” because it will help you in all aspects of life, whether it’s work, whether it’s in relationships, whether it’s in friendships or sports or whatever it is. When you can embrace that – when you can embrace failure, when you can embrace bombing, you will be more successful than other people who can’t.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Well, Tom, this has been a ton of fun. I wish you and the Next Year Podcast tons of luck and keep on rocking.

Thomas Heffner
Pete, thank you so much for having me on the show. I loved this conversation. I can’t wait until we get to catch up in person again soon.

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