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Creativity

408: Nourishing Creativity so It Can Nourish You with Dr. Alton Barron

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Dr. Alton Barron discusses the importance of creativity, how it influences your health, and how you can resurrect creativity after it has been stamped out.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The scientific link between creativity and health
  2. Why boredom is good for creativity
  3. The role of clutter in creativity

About Alton

Dr. Barron is a fellowship-trained shoulder, elbow, and hand surgeon. He is an Associate Clinical Professor of Orthopedics at NYU-Langone and the Univ. of Texas Dell Medical Centers, practicing in both Austin and Manhattan. Dr. Barron has been surgeon for thousands of competitive athletes (a team doctor for Fordham University for 15 years) and professional musicians, including the NY Philharmonic and Metropolitan Operas in New York for over 20 years. He publishes and lectures extensively nationally and internationally. Founder/director of the nonprofit Musician Treatment Foundationhttps://mtfusa.org/. Co-author of The Creativity Cure with wife Carrie Barron published by Scribner in 2012. https://www.facebook.com/TheCreativityCure/ Founding member, Team Continuum cancer charity https://www.teamcontinuum.net/

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Dr. Alton Barron Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Alton, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Alton Barron
Pete, thanks so much for having me. I’m very excited to speak with you.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, me too. Well, you’ve got a lot of interesting things going on in terms of your professional life. You do some work with creativity and you’re also an orthopedic hand surgeon. I understand that sometimes these worlds come together when you are treating musicians’ hands. How often does that happen and how is that a special experience for you?

Alton Barron
Right, that is super special. It’s been a significant part of my entire career, my 20-year career. But it’s very frequent because I’ve been kind of a team doctor for the New York Philharmonic and Met Opera for 20 years really and see a host of other musicians from all walks to music from jazz to blues to rock n’ roll. It ends up being a big part of each day actually.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. I imagine that there’s some extra intensity associated with doing that treatment because of what’s at stake. Everyone wants great use of their hands, but even more so if it’s your entire livelihood to be able to have great precision there.

Alton Barron
Right, that’s true. I think it’s two-fold. One is clearly in our culture and in many cultures, musicians can often be at the very highest level but struggle to actually be able to pay the bills. Some of the highest level musicians really live relatively hand-to-mouth. That leads them to become highly anxious and upset if they lose function in their upper limb, which is what they typically use to make music. That’s one component of it.

The other component of it is that unlike people who may do very creative work at a keyboard, that can be – not a musical keyboard, but a typewriter, a typing keyboard, those people can often use voice recognition software and other things to get through their day in whatever capacity they’re doing it, continue their work. A musician who is creating the music with their hands needs that both for their psychological wellbeing, but also to produce what they give to the world.

Those two components are so undermined potentially by whatever injury or condition they might be suffering from.

Pete Mockaitis
But you deliver the goods.

Alton Barron
I hope I do. I think I do. I try to.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good, that’s good. Well, we’re going to mostly talk about creativity, but while we’re talking about the use of a keyboard for typing as opposed to pianos and music creation, right now as we speak actually, one of my podcast teammates – shout out to Vida, who’s been doing a lot of great work – she’s having some wrist and finger pain. My wife gets that a lot too.

Could you give us your quick pro-take on what are some of the top do’s and don’ts for office professionals who do a lot of typing and mousing to not find themselves in a painful situation?

Alton Barron
Right, well, there’s a couple of things. One that’s most important is that you say office professionals, but what has become much more common if not ubiquitous around the world is people working on the move or from home or from the coffee shop where they live, etcetera, etcetera. There are all sorts of ergonomic snakes in the grass that we can suffer from.

I know that my wife, who’s a great writer, sits up in her bed kind of propped to one side with her knees up and wrists flexed down and working on the small laptop. That’s a disaster waiting to happen with regard to creating some of the typical tendonitis and nerve compression problems, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, one of the biggies, that I’m sure most everyone who’s listening is aware of. I know you are.

But one of the cool things is that so many people come to me and say, “I think I have carpel tunnel syndrome,” and the vast majority do not.

One simple way to know is that carpal tunnel syndrome only affects the nerves and ultimately some of the muscles of the thumb, but the key component to it is numbness or tingling, especially when you’re doing the activity and also at night. If you don’t have numbness or tingling, then it’s highly unlikely that you have carpal tunnel syndrome. That’s an easy layman’s way to just rule that out for yourself.

But really these positions that we get ourselves in and do repetitively day in and day out are the real conundrum. That is because one, they are not physiologic positions. They are often crunched up with the wrist flexed, the elbow flexed, the shoulders tight in. That creates a lack of movement and a lack of stretching that can then lead to a lot of the tendonitis type problems, the cramping, the overuse strains that I see so ubiquitously.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, so watch out for the tensing and the flexing. What is, would you say, the optimal position to be in and some of the best tools that can help you get there easily?

Alton Barron
Yes, the best position is to be in the position of whether you have only taken one or never taken a piano lesson but just you’ve seen plenty of pianists. Generally the position would be at that level of height, where your elbows are slightly bent, your wrists are in a neutral position, meaning not bent down and not stretched up too much as if you’re playing at a keyboard.

That’s a nice flow position that keeps your shoulders up and out, your elbows slightly bent, and that’s a beautiful, fluid way to be able to maintain many, many hours of typing. But also more importantly is to take little breaks all the time and really stretch your arms out and jump up and down and move around.

Standing desks are fine and there’s various types of ergonomic things, but mainly it’s that position where your hands aren’t too high, your hands aren’t too low, your wrists are in a fairly neutral position, and your elbows are slightly bent.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Now I’m reminded of my own piano lessons, so I need to be on a bench sitting perfectly straight.

Alton Barron
Posture is important, which we may talk about. That’s an important part I think of productivity and creativity actually, but it was in areas of my book. We talked about that because it is important. Yes, posture, one of the great things about music lessons in general is the teachers are usually pretty ferocious about maintaining and teaching posture.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m sitting up straighter right now as we speak.

Alton Barron
Me too actually.

Pete Mockaitis
I think my chair encourages me to slouch because of the way it goes. But anyway, thank you. We’ve got our ergonomics lesson from the good doctor. Thank you. Now I want to hear a little about your book, The Creativity Cure. What’s the main story here?

Alton Barron
Wow. That was a culmination of a lifetime of work on my wife’s part and a lifetime of my work that then helped to influence parts of it. It was her brainchild and my contributions as a good editor, but also knowing a little bit about the hands and about creativity through the hands and so forth.

It was a really fun partnership, where I was lucky enough that she did the bulk of the writing and the hard work and I was able to kind of walk in and do some editing and some thinking. We discussed it over many glasses of wine and long walks and so forth.

But it was a culmination – it kind of morphed as many I think creative projects do. It started out as sort of her philosophy of trying to find an alternative treatment regimen, if you will, for mild to moderate anxiety and depression that was not the psycho-pharmacologic agents that have obviously a lot of side effects and have been written about to a great extent.

Again, I emphasize mild to moderate because the medications provide a very critical role for many people, but there are also a number of people who may not need them. It was an attempt to provide an alternative to that. That’s how it started.

That’s what excited the publisher and so forth, but then – of course, because it was a new idea about using creativity, and we can go through that in different forms in our life, to combat anxiety/depression and to generate more, frankly, just a happier existence, not a purely happy existence. That’s impossible to achieve, but more happy moments in our days.

But then as the book, once it came out and we were on a book tour and giving a lot of talks and we still give some talks, it was interesting because it morphed into a little bit of a social commentary on where our culture had been and where we have gone. A big part of that is the meaning of our hands, what our hands meant to us maybe 75 years ago versus what they mean to us now. That’s not just an indictment of culture, but it’s actually an observation of culture.

I’m 58 and my childhood was very different than my children’s childhood. That’s something that started bubbling up from this. Again, sort of we learned from the people asking questions and it would generate incredible discussions.

Then we became involved in the maker movement, meaning we were asked to speak about that and the vogue knitting and all these different hand-based really creative activities that can be so life enhancing and life affirming. That’s kind of how it evolved. It’s been a really fun exciting road, really.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool, certainly. Well, I’d love to get a bit of a picture for the why here to start. Can you share some of the most compelling evidence that you’ve gathered or seen and would that suggest creativity is really a critical element to health and success as opposed to just something that’s just kind of fun to do when you have some free time?

Alton Barron
Right. I think there’s several ways to look at it. Some very, very extraordinary writers, researchers, but also artists have been quoted to understand the importance of creativity in our lives. One of the greatest, of course, was Picasso.

One of the maybe little bit sardonic almost observations he made was that everyone is born creative and then it is gradually taught out of us or it is leaked from our soul and we don’t maintain that. Then we become maybe worker bees, maybe preoccupied with the exigencies of life. That is a huge impediment to some of the beauty that maintaining creativity in our life can generate.

There have been many books written about the – John Ratey, a Harvard psychiatrist, wrote the book Spark. That looked at the actual brain science and effects behind not just – but physical, manual activity and what it does for the brain.

There was a great study out of the University of Virginia that looked at children. It seemed like a simple study. It was comparing handwriting versus working at a keyboard for adolescent children. They were given a writing assignment. Then their brains were monitored. Half of them were handwriting that information and half of them were working at a keyboard.

Quickly, what became evident was that the kids who were handwriting were generating longer sentences, using bigger words, having more complex ideas, and writing more volume. They were given the exact same assignment as the kids who were typing at a keyboard. That showed that handwriting, which is widely known, especially through calligraphy, is an art form, is an art form. We’ve eliminated that, in fact, from many, many schools.

This type of cumulative scientific data that book is replete with that gives us these – sometimes it’s saddening to me, sometimes it’s exciting because it gives us somewhere to go, it gives us something to do, something to achieve, which is to in a way go back to the future a little bit.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Thank you. All right. That’s pretty compelling stuff. You also have some content that suggests in some ways creativity or lack thereof can in some ways be life or death. Can you unpack that a bit for us?

Alton Barron
Wow, yeah. Once you have been exposed to the possibilities of creativity and most of us have been given crayons, have been given LEGOs or erector sets or something and it’s in us. We feel that joy, that extreme joy.

An example is that my son, who liked to do things, I went down to the basement and I heard a bunch of clatter down there. He was sort of beating up on a broken CD player, beating up on it and trying to see how it was made. I said, “Nicholas, let’s take it apart,” and so we took it apart. We found the speakers and the different component parts of this little speaker.

Once we took it apart, it was already broken, at that time we didn’t have the capacity to fix it, but he took those component parts and he made an amazing robot. We put some casters that were sitting in a corner and so forth. It ended up we still have it in our house. People comment on it all the time. It was just put together from the broken pieces of a box. He is still – every time he sees it, he becomes happy.

I, frankly, I didn’t do enough of that with him. One of my shortcomings of working too much, is that I didn’t probably do enough of that. But they did also get it from exposure to their grandparents, my parents.

That is a critical thing is being able to tap back into something that is intrinsic in us all and probably is lying there latent from not having been stimulated enough because of standardized testing and trying to make the best grades, and moving forward, and trying to get the best job, and so forth and so on, and we forget that.

I think the biggest thing to hold on to with regard to creativity is the fact that it’s still there in everyone and you just need to find your unique ways to tap back into it because it can be a huge improvement on your day-to-day happiness and in feeling okay.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. It’s funny you share that story about making the robot. I’m reminded of there was one day I was just hanging out with some buddies after we had had a party at our apartment the previous day.

Lying around we had some extra bamboo skewers from some appetizers or desserts. Then there were some balloons hanging around as well, as well as some rubber bands. We ended up making a crossbow out of the bamboo skewers and rubber bands. I’ll tell you, the moment we successfully launched a bamboo skewer from this crossbow into a balloon and heard it pop, we were just elated.

Alton Barron
Yes, yes, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
It was the coolest thing ever. Then it got me to thinking, I was like we used to do this sort of thing as kids all the time, just in terms of it’s like, “Hey, I’ve got some random idle time, got some random items in front of us. We’re just going to do something and see what happens.”

It just got me thinking, I’d say, not to be that old guy, “Like kids these days,” but I imagine if you have the problem quote/unquote of boredom and ubiquitous iPhones, iPads, apps, games, infinite Netflix, etcetera options, you will likely address your boredom in ways that require a lot less effort and creativity just because you can.

Alton Barron
Yes. I’m so glad you said that. I’m so glad you mentioned boredom because boredom is the engine for creativity. If we are hyper-stimulated, and certainly there are many, many great things about technology. I was an engineer. I had the first Mac that Steven Jobs invented. I bought it. It was 128 K hard drive.

Yet, now we are so technologically supersaturated, there’s just so much information coming at us. In our elevator in my office building, there’s a little window that gives information about the weather but also about new studies that have come out. It’s everywhere. We have it always at our fingertips. That’s great.

Everyone, especially kids, knows so much more information than I knew as a kid, but the price you pay for that is no downtime, no allowance for being bored and not hyper-stimulated because that’s when ideas sublimate. Just like they did, you all were a little bored. You had the day you found these bamboo things. You said, “We’ve got to do something because we’re a little bored.” Sure enough you came up with a cool invention.

What’s funny is that they did a study looking at award-winning scientists and these were Noble Laureates and so forth and winning all the major prizes in science. They were trying to find the common denominator for that level of success in scientific research and innovation.

The single criteria or denominator that was ubiquitous for all of them was they all had a little workshop and a place where they puttered, a place where they just played with gadgets and gizmos and maybe repaired watches or lawnmowers or whatever.

They had that mental freedom of using their hands, doing something that wasn’t intensely mental and education-based, but they were doing something that was allowing the sublimation of new ideas to come. This was where they were actually having their sometimes their eureka moments, which is just super cool.

It’s where they were getting flow too, which you know in jazz music and so forth, flow is where improvisation comes from. It comes from improvisation, where you lose yourself. Time becomes immeasurable. It feels like you’re just in another world. It stimulates brain chemicals as well as the soul.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well that’s cool. I like that notion of the puttering and the non-intensity. We had a previous guest, Bruce Daisley, mention that. Aaron Sorkin, the writer, found he had his best ideas in the shower, so he had a shower installed in his office and took something like six-plus showers a day to get more of these ideas. I love that kind of just extremeness. It’s like, “This works. It’s a little odd, but I don’t care. I’m going to do it.” And it worked for him.

Alton Barron
I’m going to do it six times more than everybody else.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Alton Barron
That’s great. I like that.

Pete Mockaitis
Then you sort of lay out a bit of a specific game plan in terms of a five-part prescription in your creativity cure. What are these five parts?

Alton Barron
Yeah, so the five-part prescription or the five PP, as we call it, are insight, movement, mind rest, your own two hands, and mind shift.

Insight, if you’d like for me to just go through them quickly, insight is based on why we make good decisions, why we make bad decisions knowing ourselves. How we got from point A to point B.

Often it’s some hindsight involved and some wisdom gained from failures, from successes, from putting that all together and really looking at having that – one of the psychological terms is observing egos, where we can step out of ourselves and look objectively at ourselves and say, “Okay, well, I was kind of a buffoon when I said that or did that. That’s a pattern there,” or, “I have a tendency to always to want to support the underdog.”

Sherlock Holmes was an infracaninophile, one of my favorite early words. That is lover of the underdog. I find that when I turn on – unless I’m a rabid fan of one particular team, if I turn on any sports thing, I generally am supporting – I want the one who’s losing to win. That’s just a weird thing.

But the point is that’s who I am. That’s part of me. That’s some insight. That can be great or it can be not great if you’re making business decisions and so forth and so on.

Movement is, as you would imagine, is based on the enormous body of evidence that shows that how important psychologically, cognitively and physiologically exercise is. It can be any form. It doesn’t need to mean we need to be running marathons every day. It doesn’t mean we need to be doing Pelotons and everything else. It just means that we need to be moving our bodies.

We can be walking, especially if it’s in nature it’s even better. But we need to be moving our bodies. We can’t be sitting sedentary and expect to have a bountiful and curious life both physically as well as cognitively and psychologically.

That very good study came out of Harvard that showed that just doing household chores, home improvements and if you do that consistently on a daily basis, you had a much better health index and much better longevity with better quality of life during that longevity.

Pete Mockaitis
I’d love to get your take, when we talk about movement from a creativity perspective. They say studies have shown that walking’s great and nature and such. I’m wondering if you’re doing upper intense movements, like sprint intervals or deadlifts and squats, I think that does plenty for your body, but does that do as much for you creatively or is just me? When I’m sprinting, it doesn’t seem like I’m getting the same great ideas I get when I’m ambling along at three miles per hour or slower.

Alton Barron
Yes, I think you’re absolutely right. You’re absolutely right. I think it’s a very, very good point. If it’s too intense, then it’s probably going to become more core physiologic, almost primitive. You go down to your primitive reflexes, your breathing and you stop thinking.

However, the upside to the more vigorous exercise if you’re capable of it is the beta-endorphin factor. You can actually stimulate the brain with the beta endorphins, which are also pain killers. Those are stimulants. That can kind of play into that. That can become a form of addiction.

Haruki – what was his name – Murakami wrote that book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. It’s really not what he talks about when he talks about running. It’s really about the mental freedom and the thinking that goes on when he’s doing not sprinting, but the longer distance running, as you deduced.

Many, many people have talked about walking their books, jogging their books, whatever they’re coming up with that that’s the way that they really stimulate the new thought and the new chapters and the new ideas for any creative project that they’re doing.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, cool. What’s next?

Alton Barron
Yeah, so mind rest, that’s kind of the opposite really, but not always. Mind rest is where we must, must give ourselves that downtime, that unplugging, that boredom, that ability to create the space for ideas to rise up and bubble up and help us with our insight and so forth.

Mind rest can take many, many forms. As you know, yoga is an excellent, excellent expenditure of time for that regard because it is so body/mind linked and based to relax you and allow the ideas to come up.

I know that there have been times – and I don’t do much yoga myself. I’d love to, but I just don’t really have the time for it – but there have been times when I’ve been doing yoga in a random class somewhere and I’ll just start crying. I’ll just start crying. It just does something. It makes something rise up. It’s not like I’m having a specific thought or a sadness or anything, but it will happen. So it’s really cool.

But mind rest can also come from just this unplugging. As you may know there’s the science that talks about the dopamine release when we get pings and pongs and various notifications coming from our devices. Every time that happens, especially for younger people, it actually releases biochemicals in our brain. That can actually become an addiction.

The ability to step away from that and give yourself that respite from that intensity of the constant onslaught of information and connectivity is critical to one’s psychological and physical wellbeing.

That brings us to what I think was probably the most original part was Carrie’s and my ideas on your own two hands. We did a huge amount of research – Carrie did more of it than I did by far – looking historically and then up to date on what is the importance of your own two hands in terms of mental and physical wellbeing and cognitive health.

The coolest pure neuro-scientific fact I can give you is that when you’re in medical school you learn about something called the homunculus, which is this funny little person, cartoon figure, that shows the mapping of the different parts of our body on our somatosensory cortex, which is the upper, bigger most important part of our brain that grew when we started making tools in prehistoric times.

Sixty percent, fully sixty percent of all the neurons in our somatosensory cortex are devoted just to our hands, just to our hands. We stimulate that by touching, by tactile, by something as simple as folding clothes, washing dishes, reading a book, handwriting, calligraphy, knitting, all sorts of hand-based activities, carpentry, gardening. But what’s interesting is we do not stimulate that part of our brain when we are typing at a keyboard or texting on a smartphone.

Pete Mockaitis
How about that.

Alton Barron
Yeah. It’s just weird because it’s not one of the primitive hand-based movements that how we evolved. Maybe one day in another 200 years, maybe that will be stimulating our brain, but it’s not now. That’s why it’s so important to do other hand-based activities.

It was really cool when people sort of latched back onto this idea. It was extraordinary the stories that people would tell thinking back to recent times when they did something that just made them super happy and so often it was something random and hand-based.

I know that one of the things that my dad used to do with the kids is take them, find a piece of driftwood. They would come back and they would sand it down. They would clean the dirt off. They would sand it. They would stain it. They would build a little base for it. They would use a router to go around the edge of the base.

It would be a day-long project, but that involved the human connection of doing that. It involved being outside in nature. It involved using their hands meaningfully. It was kind of the whole package. It was really bountiful for them in that regard.

But the hands are critical. Anaxagoras I think said the “man was given hands because he was given spirit.” That is a really cool idea. It’s true because they become our way of touching, feeling, interacting with the world, but also giving back to the world. Of course, the most beautiful example of that are the artists and musicians amongst us, who produce such beautiful works that make us better people and happier people.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s lovely. Thank you.

Alton Barron
Then mind shift is the last. Mind shift, you can think of it more as the wonderful pie you’ve made from all the ingredients of the other four. It’s that actionable, if you will, who we become if we can really deeply go into the insight, movement, mind rest, and your own two hands. We shift our minds. We feel differently. We behave differently in the world. We treat ourselves differently. That’s really the culmination of that and the hope.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a lot of fun. Thanks for orienting us to the big picture that. Could you give us your take in terms of boy, if there’s something that just seems to really release a lot of creative new idea brilliance per minute of effort on our part, what would some of those very top practices be?

Alton Barron
Well, I think that it really is different for everyone, so what I would say the exercise would be to think back to something you did that was hand-based. It could have been last year, it could have been 30 years ago, it could have been 10 years ago. Think back to something that you remember that created a strong sense of pride, freedom, self-esteem, happiness, joy, glow, something like that.

Think back to that one thing and see if you can reclaim that. Reclaim that and see if you can’t start incorporating that in little bits and pieces into your life.

What’s cool about any project and art form is that it doesn’t have to be great; it just has to be from you. It can be objectively the ugliest thing around, but if it made you happy to make it, who cares? Who cares? It’s about the process and the project. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a very well-known researcher, said “Show me a happy person and I’ll show you a project.”

It can be – oh, one of the most recent things is cleaning up clutter, decluttering. That’s a really interesting idea about tending to your space, tending to your space.
But honestly, I wish I could give you one, but it’s so different for everyone. Everybody has that. Just it’s taking the time, giving yourself the mind rest to – but do the actionable thing, which is to think about it. Think hard on it and figure out one or two things that once brought you great pleasure and try to reproduce them.

If not, just go out and go to a maker fair or go start drawing something or building something or take a cooking class. Cooking is a wonderfully creative and manual-based activity that many of us don’t think about when we’re doing it. I think that’s what I would say.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s lovely. Thank you. I do want to hit that clutter point in particular, Marie Kondo on Netflix now, very popular. We went to town decluttering a baby closet and it was quite satisfying to have all those container store bins neatly labeled, etcetera. What is the impact on clutter and creativity?

Alton Barron
My wife and I spent all this weekend talking about that. All this weekend we talked about Marie Kondo. She is so excited about her and her work. She knew about her before, but somehow since she’s now on Netflix, it’s just, she’s a really special person.

It’s really cool because the impact is that yes, there are stories about – I use the term very loosely – but the mad scientist. The image, the caricature, if you will, of someone with just stuff everywhere, not knowing – piles of papers and manuscripts and everything everywhere and tools and beakers and so forth and not knowing where anything is and somehow inventing. But in reality that doesn’t happen that much.

But we need to be careful, if you see a perfectly pristine desk, there may not be anything happening on that or someone may be extra obsessional about that. That may not be stimulating creativity in any way. On the other hand, an overfull desk, where you can’t remember where you put this or that, can be frustrating. It’s balance. It’s about balance.

Now, Marie Kondo carries that to one arena of extreme. I don’t use the term extreme in a negative way. It’s really organizing your life. There is great peace and almost quietude that can come from your space being tended to and being organized. It’s not just about being able to see things and find things; it’s about the act of doing it.

That’s a mechanical, manual activity, organizing your space, whether you’re throwing out, putting in boxes, or putting all your shoes in boxes or putting all your tools and organizing them and all the little random nuts and bolts and so forth, it’s a form of tending to you and your space in your home and wherever you might live.

There’s no question that it’s I think very similar to weeding a garden. I think it’s very similar because you’re allowing things to grow, ideas, your space, your life and so forth.

Look, she’s far smarter than I am, but I’m fascinated by it. I think it’s a really cool way to start the process of creativity. Start it by just what you did, clean out that space. You have the connectivity, the familial connectivity of doing that, the side-by-side doing a task, but you also have – it’s a clear task that’s somewhat disconnected from technology, from the buzzes and bings and so forth. It also makes you feel just frankly good afterward. Good, more power to you.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. I guess in my experience when it comes to being surrounded by clutter or not clutter is that the – I forgot the scientific term for it. It’s almost like SIDI or something like that, the notion that my resources are limited.

It’s similar to not having enough time or money or energy or manpower to complete something that’s important to you and you feel a little bit of that stress, that tension, that anxiety, that “I don’t know if this is going to happen,” and thus that kind of can short-circuit some creative resourcefulness in the brain.

Likewise, if the space as a resource is non-conducive to accomplishing that, which is important and top of mind to you, I think in my experience that further contributes to the stressed, uncomfortable position of feeling resource constrained. It’s sort of like not just the process of tidying, but the end result of “Ah, what a lovely clear space,” puts me in a better state of mind to feel resourceful and creative.

Alton Barron
Yeah, that’s a great way to put it. That’s very eloquent. I like that because you’re saying space becomes a resource, a raw ore that can be used to build on and build with. Space as an emptiness can then be filled by a feeling, by ideas, by whatever. The clutter can be a distraction.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, I like the way you put it. You’ve got more poetry on there.

Alton Barron
Well, anyway. It’s cool. It’s just funny that you brought that up today, it’s perspicacious because that’s all we talked about this weekend.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’d be curious, Alton, anything else you want to talk about creativity and getting more of that flow in in the work place before we shift gears to talk about some of your favorite things?

Alton Barron
Right. I think we’ve said a lot. I love the way you covered it. But I hope that one of the biggest components to creativity I believe is curiosity, and it’s also humility, and being willing to just entertain anything, be open and curious and humble enough to think that something else can enhance you and make you feel better, make you better. I think that’s a big part of creativity is that curiosity and that humility to take on new ideas.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Thank you. Now could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Alton Barron
Oh gosh, well, my wife gets tired of hearing my quotes. I have so many quotes that I love because of the people that wrote them and so forth and really who those people were. One of my favorite was from Voltaire in his short novel Zadig or Man’s Fate, where the quote is that “On such slender threads as these do the fates of mortals hang.”

You think, “Oh, well that’s dark,” but it’s actually not. It was a guy who was accused of having an affair with one of the sultan’s mistresses or wife or whatever and he was about to be executed. Then the parrot, who happened to be in the room, actually parroted and spoke and basically showed that he had not had an affair because he spoke about who had had the affair, so Zadig was freed. It was “On such slender threads as these do,” as a random parrot.

But the fact is that I think that was metaphorical for so many things that can happen in our life. It goes back to creativity is just you never know who you’re going to meet, what you’re going to hear, and what you’re going to find. I think allowing yourself the mental freedom to explore and absorb and be open to and be curious about is I think critical to a fairly bountiful existence in my opinion.

One of my favorite quotes of all time was by Winston Churchill. I happen to collect books. Every book I’ve ever read basically I’ve collected a hardbound version of it. I’ve been doing that since I was kind of an adolescent, but now I don’t have enough time to read.

He made me feel better because he said, “Always surround yourselves with books. Even if you don’t have time to read them, just fondle them once in a while.” It’s true. I’ll do that sometimes. I’ll just open it up and just read five lines of some book I’ve read before.  It just makes me happy.  It just takes me back to a different place. Those are a couple of I guess fun ones that I like.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. Could you share with us a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Alton Barron
Wow. Of mine or just -?

Pete Mockaitis
Just anything that you’ve encountered that made you go, “Wow, that is amazing insight from this research.”

Alton Barron
Yeah. Oh gosh, because I’m steeped in this, it’s hard to separate from the research that I work with day-to-day and talk to patients about versus what in the book and so forth. I think that one of the most exciting ones really was the Kelly Lambert did a significant amount of research on lifting depression and showed that the meaningful hand use actually changes the brains biochemistry.

That to me is so profound, not just about making you happy and making you feel satisfied and making you feel productive and so forth, but actually changes the brain’s chemistry, actually changes serotonin uptake, changes dopamine release. It’s just fascinating to me that we can change our brain chemistry by using our hands.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, thank you. Amongst all these books you fondle and have read, do you have a favorite?

Alton Barron
Well, my all-time favorite is Don Quixote. I read it too many times. I don’t know, for some reason it has been – it just continues to fascinate me. It’s part about fantasy, part about just living in a dream and having goals, whether they’re achievable or not. I think we should always have goals for that. That’s one of my all-time favorites that I still talk about.

And Of Human Bondage spoke to me greatly, Somerset Maugham, because it was about a boy who then went to medical school and had a bad leg and so forth. It spoke to me. I ended up going to medical school, but I don’t think it was because of that book, but it influenced me greatly in terms of the trials and tribulations that one can work through and persevere through and still achieve.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. How about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Alton Barron
Favorite tool. This may not seem like a tool, but it is to me and that is the ability to make true human connection. What I mean by that is the ability to make a true human connection I think involves empathy. It involves creativity. It involves a curiosity about that other person, more curiosity about that person than you are about yourself.

If you show those capacities along with being honest and telling the truth, I think that the power that that can engender in you is that you then can take that person and a piece of that person and use it, use them – I don’t mean use them in a derogatory way – but use that to build your foundation of life because we need people.

We are intrinsically social creatures. We need to have people around us that we understand, who understand us, who trust us, and whom we trust. You cannot do that without making a true connection with them.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite nugget, something you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks when you share it?

Alton Barron
Well, you mentioned posture. Studies have been done on it. I’m saying this half-jokingly, but it’s true because I end up talking about it with a lot of people, a lot of patients because it can generate muscular-skeletal problems if we have poor posture. But also posture is so critically important to how the world perceives us and how we interact with the world.

I’m always telling my kids, I tell patients, especially younger patients, our culture because of our involution of our bodies from reaching down and hugging our smartphones, which are close to our bodies, and our heads our down, we tend to close ourselves off to the world.

Posture, and I mean that in the broadest sense, opening up not just our breathing, but it opens up our world to us. It makes other people perceive us differently. Posture is the most important thing in a certain way. As long as we are already taking care of character and truth-telling and taking responsibility for our own actions.

Pete Mockaitis
If folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Alton Barron
Well, look, I think my wife is pretty wicked smart and I’ve learned so much from her in life. She was the brains behind the book. It’s not a silly read and it’s not a quick read. It takes some time to get through it, but it’s based on a lot of science. I have to say that that would be important.

But beyond that I would say reading anything that stimulates you and takes you away is what – I hate to generalize in that sense rather than giving you specific books, but I believe in that.

The other great book that I would recommend to anyone who has younger children would be the Last Child in the Woods. It’s about the importance of nature and the importance of getting back to the basics. It’s based on a great body of research.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Alton, thanks so much for sharing this good stuff. I wish you and your wife much luck in your medicine and your speaking and writing and sharing and creativity and all you’re up to.

Alton Barron
And cleaning out our closets.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. You may need some luck for that.

Alton Barron
I’m going to need some. It was really, really a pleasure to talk to you, Pete. It’s very stimulating and it made me think in ways that I haven’t thought in a while. I appreciate the time and the interest.

404: Overcoming Your Creative Blocks with Michael A. Roberto

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Professor Michael A. Roberto explores the mindsets that hinder creativity.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The six mindsets blocking your creativity
  2. The advantage of putting your idea out there in its early stages
  3. Best ways to spark more creative ideas

About Michael

Michael Roberto is the Trustee Professor of Management at Bryant University. Previously, he’s served for six years on the faculty at Harvard Business School. His research focuses on how people solve problems and make decisions.He’s a bestselling author of case studies and several books. He’s created courses on The Great Courses Plus. Michael has developed a number of innovative Multi-media simulations for students, including the Everest Leadership and Team Simulation. His latest book is called Unlocking Creativity.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Michael Roberto Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Mike, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Michael A. Roberto
Thanks Pete. It’s great to be with you today.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’d love to start maybe early on in your life and hear about your childhood dream as it relates to Monday night football.

Michael A. Roberto
I love this. People ask me this, say, “What did you want to be when you grew up?” I said, “My gosh, believe it or not, I wanted to be Howard Cosell’s successor.” I grew up listening to Don Meredith, Frank Gifford, and Howard Cosell doing Monday night football. I thought, “I could do that.” That didn’t quite work out. But some would say there’s some similarities between being a professor and being a color commentator.

Pete Mockaitis
Was it the specific love of football or something about his style in particular that resonated with you?

Michael A. Roberto
I do love football. I am a fan – I know the rest of the country probably doesn’t want to hear this – of the six-time Super Bowl champion, New England Patriots. Sorry, Pete.

But honestly I loved that Meredith, Gifford and Cosell, just had this rather odd sort of but amazing chemistry. Meredith would start singing. Cosell was super serious. Gifford was the former player. It was just this kind of real mix that I just loved. Back then Monday night football was a major event. I was lucky if my parents would let me stay up to halftime and then send me to bed. That’s probably why. It was kind of a thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yeah, that’s fun. That’s fun. Well, I want to hear a little bit about one of your latest things, which is your book, Unlocking Creativity. What’s the main message here?

Michael A. Roberto
The main message, Pete, is that I talk to companies and say the question around creativity and innovation, which I think they all want more of it. Many of them feel they desperately need more of it. The question is “Why don’t you have enough creativity in your organization? What stands in the way?” I say, “Do you have a people problem or a situation problem?”

I don’t think it’s a people problem. I think there’s plenty of creative talent in organizations. It’s a situation problem, meaning there’s something in the environment in these firms, in these enterprises that is inhibiting the creativity of these very talented people that are already there.

The job of leader is to clear away these obstacles, these paths. The obstacles I focus on are not things like bureaucracy and hierarchy, although they are obstacles, but instead a set of mindsets that I think are getting in the way of creativity in organizations.

Pete Mockaitis
You mentioned six in particular mindsets. Could you orient us to each of those six and how we can escape?

Michael A. Roberto
First mindset is the linear mindset. We’re taught many times in school to approach problem solving in a very linear way, research and analysis, the generation of options, the choice of a course of action, and then the execution of that plan.

But the creative process is fundamentally nonlinear. It involves a fair amount of iteration. Great creative ideas don’t just drop from the sky like a bolt of lightning. They often emerge through a challenging process of trial and error and of getting feedback from customers or users and iterating. It’s nonlinear. Unfortunately, we don’t really like to iterate. That linear mindset, trying to force things through a very linear process is the first obstacle I talk about in the book.

Pete Mockaitis
I’d love to get your take, you said we don’t like to iterate and maybe that’s because we’re impatient. We want a result, whether that’s revenue or something right away. But what are some of your pro-tips for iterating quickly instead of investing a boatload of resources into something and then being disappointed months later when it’s not quite hitting the mark?

Michael A. Roberto
I think one of the big things is getting comfortable with this idea – I had a chance to interview Ed Catmull for the book, the long-time president of Pixar and then head of Disney Pixar animation. He talks about this idea of letting people call your baby ugly, which I love the phrase.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s very visceral. I have a one-year-old and I don’t like that idea.

Michael A. Roberto
The way I like to interpret what he means is that when you have that new baby and you’re a new parent, you are really careful about unveiling the baby to the world because you want everyone to say your baby is handsome or beautiful. You don’t want anyone to call your baby ugly.

But the key to the creative process is to get your idea out there raw early so that you can get feedback. You need to be willing to let people call your baby ugly so you can make the baby prettier. But that’s hard for us to do. We don’t like feedback. We fall in love with our original idea. Psychologists call this the sunk cost trap. We throw good money after bad because we fall in love with what we’ve already invested all our time and energy in.

It’s difficult to iterate for a variety of these reasons. We look for data that might confirm what we already believe instead of being open to perhaps disconfirming feedback or data. Getting that baby out there, I know it’s hard to think of it that way. It’s a powerful, powerful image, isn’t it? Letting people call your baby ugly.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. You’re putting out an early version in terms of a prototype or a concept or a pitch and getting some trusted advisors to poke all sorts of holes and then you can iterate and make it better. Very nice.

Michael A. Roberto
And Pete, it helps to put more than one idea in front of them because it turns out there’s some research suggesting that people will be more candid with you if you ask them “Which do you like better A, B, or C?” versus if you say, “Do you like A?” Then they’re hesitant to say they don’t like it because they don’t want to crush your feelings. If you give them some choices, “Here’s a few rough ideas,” they can compare and contrast them, you’re more likely to get productive feedback, by the way.

Pete Mockaitis
That is brilliant. I think I’ve known that, but I haven’t heard it articulated and I haven’t used it with consistency. I’m a part of a number of Facebook groups and folks might want some feedback on say a logo.

If you just have one logo, it really is, you get a lot less as opposed to when you say, “Okay, I’ve got three choices,” and then boy, people just light it up in terms of “I like A better because of this,” “I like C better because of that,” Hey, can you take the colors from B and use it with these icons of A.” It really does get flowing.

I think maybe, if I were to speculate, some of the psychology behind that is it’s like, “Well, hey, well if you’re not too committed to one of them, then I can tell you what I really think instead of worrying about whether I’m hurting your feelings by unloading on your one option that I hate.”

Michael A. Roberto
That is exactly the mechanism. It’s exactly right. If you keep a few options alive, you also protect yourself from falling in love too much with one of them. If you put all your eggs in one basket, you’re likely going to fall in love with your idea and stop listening to others too.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I’ve been guilty of falling in love with my ideas.

Michael A. Roberto
We all have.

Pete Mockaitis
They’re so fun. If everyone else would just realize, Mike, how brilliant they were, then we’d be fine. Okay, so that’s a mindset, linear. How about a second?

Michael A. Roberto
Second is what I call the benchmarking mindset. In organizations, we’re obsessed with the competition. We need to keep abreast of them and one of the key ways we do that is benchmarking. I’m not against. I think you do need to keep your eye on your rivals obviously and study them. But it turns out that in many cases, unfortunately, studying your rivals closely leads to copycat behavior.

What we really want to do when we benchmark is learn from others and adapt those lessons to our own context, to our own culture, our own industry, our own strategies, etcetera. But it turns out we get a lot of copycat behavior.

I kind of pick on Hollywood a little bit in the book and talk about how you get a lot of copycat behavior in Hollywood. Survivor spawned 300 imitators. The emergence of cop shows in the late ‘60s spawned a million imitators. We see retreads, bringing back the same show again 20 years later.

This happens when we benchmark. We study. This mindset of studying the competition leads to what psychologists call fixation. When we study something closely, unfortunately we fixate. We get a little closed-minded and we copy even though we don’t intend to copy.

Worse than that, in many cases in business we copy badly because we don’t actually understand what made the success, what were the real causes of the success we see. We’re just superficially really studying them. Not only do we engage in copycat behavior, but we copy badly and get poor results.

We’ve got to be able to overcome this. One trick – I talk about a couple of tricks in the book – but one of them is to study related industries or fields or analogous experiences, where because it’s not your industry, you’re forced to adapt and learn. You can’t copy.

An example, if you’re a hospital trying to improve the inpatient experience, you could go study the Four Seasons hotel. You’re not going to copy the Four Seasons because you’re not in that business. You’re not a luxury hotel, but you might learn something, so you put yourself in learning mode and not in this mindset where you could get fixated. But, boy, benchmarking – there’s so much pressure to keep abreast of your rivals, but it really does crimp creativity in so many ways.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, understood. I’m intrigued. You said hospitals to the Four Seasons. Can you share some additional ideas with regard to benchmarks? I guess in a way you could almost benchmark anything to anything, although you might have mixed results, like a hospital will benchmark a dishwasher manufacturing plant.

Michael A. Roberto
Right, right.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess if you’re trying to make your processes efficient, that may very well spark some cool ideas. But any other kind of excellent, unique stimuli comparison points that have proven fruitful?

Michael A. Roberto
Well, it’s interesting. I tell the story of the Reebok Pump sneaker.

What they did there, it wasn’t so much that they went and said “Let’s go study a bunch of –“ what they did is they brought a bunch of designers in who had experience in health care, people who’d worked on things like splints and other things. They used what they knew about those things and they drew ideas and inspiration from it and that helped them build this better sneaker and the pump idea.

That’s an example of one where really was just tapping into people who had some experience in another field and say, “Hey, can you help us think about how to build a different kind of sneaker?” They were able to take some related knowledge and apply it to this other thing they’d not worked on in the past. It worked.

Pete Mockaitis
Can you still get pump sneakers? I haven’t seen them lately.

Michael A. Roberto
I don’t know. The story I wrote about, obviously, is from 20 – 30 years ago when it first premiered in response to Air Jordan taking a lot of market share away from Reebok. Reebok rather than copying the Air Jordan, came up with this pretty creative innovation of the pump and it took off. It took off.

Some people have talked about examples of if you’re trying to speed up service, if speed really matters, you’re running a fast-food drive through, for example, go study race car pit crews because they have to be able to turn something around really fast. Again, it’s not to say you’re not studying your direct competitors, but you’re just also reaching beyond for some new creative ideas in a way.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. How about a third mindset there?

Michael A. Roberto
The third one I talk about is prediction. Especially, in large companies, someone has a cool new idea, we say, “How big is the idea? Is it a big market?” Basically making people predict. Tell me how big this is going to be. The problem is we’re terrible at prediction. There’s a lot of data showing that even the best of experts are pretty bad at predicting the future.

We’re putting people in a – when they’ve got this really nascent idea that’s not well formed, we’re asking them to predict. Because the idea is we’re a big company. We’re really only going to invest if it’s going to move the needle. If it’s a niche product, we’re not interested because we’re a 20 billion dollar company and we’re going to grow 20% a year, 10% a year. We need billions of new revenue. We’re not investing in your product if it’s going to be a 10 – 20 million dollar niche product.

The problem with that logic is in history the research is clear, in the early stages, people are terrible at predicting how big a product is going to really be. I argue instead stop worrying about predicting how big it will be, go nail a niche, nail the niche. Then often, you can find ways to take that brand and take that experience you’ve created and broaden it to a broader target market.

The one that I’ve been following lately actually is Yeti, who started out making this niche product, these immense incredible coolers for really avid fishermen and hunters, an incredibly narrow target market. Not even all fishers and hunters, but really people who are out in the wilderness for a long period of time, really need to be able to keep something cold for extended periods of time. Wildly expensive coolers. Way cooler than everything else on the market.

But what happened? They nailed that niche. Now every kid at every high school is walking around with a Yeti water bottle in their hand. In a big corporation, that original business plan would have probably been killed because they would have said “Yeah, 700 dollar coolers for avid fishermen and hunter? We’re a 20 billion dollar company. That might be a cool idea, but that’s not going to move the needle here,” and it gets quashed.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, understood. That’s intriguing how one thing can very much lead into many. Boy, I guess I could really see it both ways in terms of you don’t want to get involved in something that’s a dead-end with regard to the maximum revenue opportunity, but you just have no idea where you can take it.

Michael A. Roberto
The data is incredible. I cite some studies, for example, in a variety of industries, pharmaceuticals, others, where people’s ability to predict how big it’s really going to be is just so wildly off. What ends up happening is you’re asking the creative purpose to either over promise and then they run the risk of under delivering or they are modest in their prediction, and you give them no resources because you say it’s not worth it. It’s tough.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, understood.

Michael A. Roberto
The next one is the structural mindset. This is the notion that people have come to believe in this very simplistic formula that says just change the organizational structure and you’ll get more innovation. You’ll get more creativity, particularly, the flatter the organization, the better.

Basically, the argument I make is that that is a very simplistic view, that it’s not nearly as deterministic, that structure doesn’t drive performance in that kind of clear cause and effect manner. In fact, there’s some research that shows there’s benefits as well as costs to hierarchy. It’s not simply something that’s always evil. Some level of hierarchy and structure can be important in a company.

But more importantly than that, what I say is really all the focus on structure is because it’s so easy for leaders to move boxes and arrows on an org chart.

People had this view that says I try to drive more performance. I want more creativity, I’ll reorganize. I argue they fall back on it because it’s an easy solution to reorganize, but it often doesn’t work. In fact, again, the data is littered with the pre orgs that don’t lead to higher performance and don’t lead to innovation.

What I argue it’s the harder stuff, changing the climate of the organization, creating a safe environment where people will speak up, where they were willing to experiment where they’re not afraid of failure, building shared norms, enhancing the intrinsic motivation, building a better culture and climate is really where you’re going to drive creativity, not moving boxes and arrows. But the boxes and arrows get a disproportionate amount of the attention from top leaders often.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. This notion of the climate and this psychological safety and ability to speak up has come up again and again. I’d love your take on what are some of the top do’s and don’ts for if you’re the individual contributor or the manager of a team to shift that climate in some good ways?

Michael A. Roberto
One of the biggest things I think that you can do as a leader is that you can show some vulnerability yourself. If you’re willing to sort of acknowledge what you don’t know about a topic, acknowledge where you might have failed in the past, show a little bit of humility and vulnerability, people get a lot more comfortable speaking up.

If you come across as infallible, if all you do is talk about your success, it’s unlikely you’re going to create a safe climate where people are willing to speak up. But also, making sure you exercise some restraint. Don’t put your ideas out there first. Ask some of the junior people, who might be hesitant, ask them to speak first. Bring their ideas out before you dispose what your thoughts are. Give people a little room to generate their own ideas.

These are the kind of things it’s important to do. Then if somebody is bold enough, courageous enough to speak up, applaud them, celebrate it, welcome it, even if you don’t agree. It doesn’t mean you have to do what they said, but you can express your appreciation for diverse ideas and talk about how important it is that you get those. It’s not a one-off.

Then, of course, the don’ts, the most important thing is don’t shoot the messenger when someone comes to you with an idea you don’t like or tells you some bad news because you only have to do that once and you’ve tarnished your reputation as a leader for a long time and destroyed any kind of climate that you’ve been trying to create.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. Okay. The next one?

Michael A. Roberto
The next one is what I call the focus mindset. There are lots of companies where the mindset starts out correct, which is boy, multitasking is getting in the way. It’s true. We don’t multitask well. The research is clear.

What we must do is focus. We’ll create an innovation hub or we’ll create a war room and we’ll put a team in there and we’ll strip away their duties and just ask them to focus intently because boy that’s the way for us to get some breakthrough solutions. I think the image – I  talk about the image in people’s head is of a rock band holed up on a mountain top or in a castle or in the basement somewhere isolated from everybody recording this incredible revolutionary album.

I actually talk about how U2, the Irish rock band led by Bono, when they recorded the Unforgettable Fire, they actually went off to Slane Castle in Ireland and isolated themselves, living there, recording there, eating there, sleeping there. The idea was to kind of get away and really focus and really experiment with a new musical style.

But actually, the research shows that in fact, breakthrough solutions often come about not through simply intense focus, but through oscillating, if you will, between periods of intense focus and occasionally some unfocus, if you will. Sometimes you need to get some distance from a problem to really be more creative.

Mark Twain once said, “When the tank runs dry, that’s when I leave the manuscript, put it away for a bit, so as I can go and develop some new ideas.” He would go off and do some other things.

This runs counter to sort of the notion I think a lot of companies and a lot of people have begun to believe. Well, multitasking’s bad and it is bad. I’m not talking about multitasking. I’m talking about periods of intense focus and then intentionally stepping away in some way and gaining some distance from a problem.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. I’m intrigued then, what are some of the best ways to step away?

Michael A. Roberto
It turns out one of the ways that’s really interesting is being able to imagine someone else facing the same problem or imagine yourself as someone else. Roleplaying the competition or roleplaying how someone with different functional expertise would face the same problem, turns out to be really effective in doing this.

We call that social – psychologists call this social distance. Getting out of your own skin and getting in someone else’s shoes in a way or walking a mile in your customer’s shoes.

An example I give is of am IDEO designer who in designing a new wing in a hospital didn’t just interview patients, he actually pretended to be a patient, faked a foot injury and checked himself into the ER, and then experienced the hospital as a patient. By stepping into the patient’s shoes in that way, sparked all kinds of new ideas. That’s one.

Another one is temporal distance, sort of imagining yourself in the future, not today. Stepping out of the moment, can help you be more creative. Amazon actually kind of does this. They’ve kind of invented time travel, if you will.

What they do is they ask teams at AWS, which is their cloud business, when they’re working on a new product or service, they ask them to imagine when this thing would be – they haven’t started yet. They’re just kind of beginning to work on the idea – they say, “Imagine you’re done and you’re rolling it out. What will the press release look like?” and actually write the press release.

Then they work backward they call it, back to today to kind of develop their idea. Imagining themselves out there, they have to imagine what need are we solving for the customer, what are we saying to the customer, what is this about, what’s the value we’re creating, now let’s go make this work, let’s deliver that. Pretty cool.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is cool. We talked a little bit about some have called it red team thinking or a time machine approach in that sometimes that can really help you anticipate obstacles in a great way, like, “Hey, let’s go back in time and imagine if we have a real mess on our hands, what happened?” It’s like, “Oh, well, we didn’t check in with so-and-so.” It’s like, “Okay, well, let’s make sure we check in with so-and-so.”

It can work well when you’re imagining an exciting positive future or a dystopian-worst-case scenario future.

Michael A. Roberto
The name is pre-mortem. Gary Klein coined the term, where you imagine that what we’re going to do today is going to fail. What does that future scenario look like? It’s exactly right, Pete, it can indeed spark some new ideas and really help you.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that. Cool, all right. Then we’ve got five mindsets down. One to go.

Michael A. Roberto
Last one is the naysayer mindset. We’re all familiar with this. Finding naysayers in organizations who can always find a reason why a new idea won’t work rather than asking why might it work.

What I talk about is the fact the difference between a constructive devil’s advocate and a dysfunctional naysayer. Devil’s advocates can be good for organizations. They can help sharpen our thinking, but when they become the chronic naysayer, then we tune them out. They become a broken record and they’re not very effective for us.

I’d argue that what we really need is constructive devil’s advocates, not dysfunctional naysayers. Constructive devil’s advocates are people who first of all, don’t weigh in too early with their criticism. They give ideas room to breathe. They let people generate some options before they start attacking them.

They practice what in improv comedy we call yes and rather than yeah but. They build on ideas rather than saying, “Yeah, but that will never work,” or, “Yeah, but we don’t have the resources to do that,” or, “Yeah, but the boss will never go for that.”

They ask questions more than they pound the table and put forth their own plan. They’re really teaching more about the Socratic Method rather than lecturing at people about what’s wrong with their ideas. If we can make that shift, I think we can really help spark creativity, but unfortunately, we’ve all heard the broken records. We’ve all had the naysayers get in the way in our organizations at times.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I’m intrigued then. What is the appropriate time and place and approach to provide the critiques, the feedback and the concerns about the genuine shortcomings of an idea.

Michael A. Roberto
Yeah, so my earlier work I talk a lot about the value of constructive conflict and debate, so I’m a big believer in conflict debate. But I’m a believer that in the early stage when you’re doing alternative generation, when you’re trying to generate a series of options, that’s where you’ve got to keep the devil’s advocate at bay.

Once you’ve got a set of options, then yeah, it’s time to critique those options. Then it is time to probe the assumption and the like, but we’ve got to do it in a constructive way. It can’t just be why those ideas won’t work. It’s got to be asking also, how might we alter those ideas to make them work.

We’ve got to have that positive spin, not just the negative spin of let’s explain all the reasons why that will never solve our problem because you really beat people down if all you do is poke holes. It’s important.

Also the other job of that devil’s advocate is not just to tell me what’s wrong but also say, “Okay if these options are not attractive, then help the group generate some new ones and ask some questions and probe a little.”

It’s not just about tearing down the plan that’s on the table, it’s about saying to the group, “Hey, here’s another way of thinking of this that might help us generate some new options,” or maybe the devil’s advocate can help the group reframe the problem at times, which can be really helpful.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. I like it. Well, so Mike, I’d love to get your take if you right here right now needed to generate a bundle of options what would be some of the top tactical things you’d do to spark some stuff right away?

Michael A. Roberto
Well, one thing is I’m a big believer in empathy. Get out there and find ways to empathize with the customer, to really stand in their shoes. Get out of your own shoes, go somehow stand in their shoes in some way to really alter your perspective. I think that’s so important.

I think look for related fields and industries or analogous experiences for inspiration. That’s really important too as well. I think that can help generate some new ideas. But the other one I want to share with you, Pete, is one that I really like is – I thought of this as I was studying the company, Planet Fitness.

Pete, I don’t know if you belong to a fitness center or if you follow the industry at all, but it’s a terrible – it’s a very unprofitable industry it turns out. It’s just really unprofitable. It’s really tough for a variety of reasons.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m just thinking about all the gyms. That’s just so depressing because gyms already the majority of their members, subscribers don’t actually use it very much, so even with all of the money they’re earning from people who don’t show up and use it-

Michael A. Roberto
They’re still can’t make money.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s a bummer.

Michael A. Roberto
There’s a whole lot of reasons for that. Part of the reason is there’s no barriers to entry. Anybody can open a gym. They do all the time. There’s always competition. Customers are incredibly fickle. One year they’re obsessed with SoulCycle. Now they’re obsessed with Orangetheory. Two years from now they’ll be obsessed with the next big thing and that’s another problem.

This could be a longer conversation of this very strange industry. But what’s interesting about Planet Fitness is if you watch their commercials, they mock the bodybuilders.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Michael A. Roberto
It’s the judgment-free zone.  What they’re CEO says is that their competition – they’re not going after the 20% of people that go to their competitors. They want the 80% of people who’ve never belonged to a gym. He says, “We don’t think about it as who our competitors are.” They think instead about who their substitutes are. A substitute is what’s the alternative to joining a fitness center. It’s working out at home.

Pete Mockaitis
Do it yourself.

Michael A. Roberto
Right. But he defines the substitutes much more broadly. This is a cool technique. He says, “Wait, is it really just working out at home or is it the movie theatre and Chili’s and Uno’s?” Is it these other things?

Pete Mockaitis
That sounds nice right now, Mike.

Michael A. Roberto
They’re a hell of a lot more enjoyable than going to the gym, Pete, right? So how do you convince people to do something that for many of them doesn’t appear to be very enjoyable? They’re choosing these other more enjoyable experiences. What could we do to create an environment that might attract these people? What a cool idea, define your substitutes broadly.

Southwest Airlines, Herb Kelleher used to say, “My competition isn’t the other airlines. My competition is the automobile.” How to create an airline where I can fly someone from Austin to Dallas cheaper than they can drive. A-ha. Pretty cool. This idea of thinking about your substitutes, not just your competitors, I think is a pretty cool idea for sparking some creative ideas in a company.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Thank you. Mike, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Michael A. Roberto
No, I think this has been a great conversation. I would just say that one of the things we all have to overcome – I use this example a lot. It’s actually not in the book. It’s one I’ve begun to use in presentations. I was sparked by this because with my kids we were watching the movie Matilda.

If you’ve watched the movie Matilda or if you’ve read the book by Roald Dahl, the great book, you know that there’s this mean headmistress, Miss. Trunchbull. I found this picture of her in her classroom. She’s got this set of rules: sit still, be quiet, etcetera.

I think in some ways companies have emulated the mean headmistress, which sort of create environments where we say we want creativity, but we’re really looking for compliance and conformity. Then we’re shocked when we don’t get creative ideas and innovation.

I kind of think we need to think back and go, “Huh.” Think of ourselves as some of our favorite teachers and not the mean headmistress and say, “Hm, what kind of environment do I want to create that sparks intellectual curiosity of my employees rather than asks for strict compliance and conformity?” Just a parting thought maybe for people to think about in terms of creativity.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely, thank you. Well, now could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Michael A. Roberto
“If you have a yes man working for you, one of you is redundant.” It’s a quote from Barry Rand, who sadly just died this year, a long time CEO of AARP and Avis Rental Car. Boy, is it right on the money. You’ve got to have somebody who’s willing to tell you that you’re all wet sometimes. That’s hard to hear, but just surround yourself with people who agree with you, not very effective.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. How about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Michael A. Roberto
One of the early things that I read in graduate school that I still found to be some of the most influential work was Irving Janis’ great work on groupthink. I just think that – that was not experimental studies. He did do some other kinds of studies, but he wrote these great case studies of very famous historical decisions and looked sadly at how group think had led to some really flawed choices. I always found that to be pretty incredible to see.

On the experimental side, not on the experimental side, but on the more modern side, we mentioned psychological safety. I’ve had the privilege of getting to work with Amy Edmondson a few times. Amy’s work on psychological safety is just top rate. She really has had a tremendous impact in fields like health care, getting to really rethink the climate of hospitals by studying them closely, doing many studies in health care showing how having a climate where people fear speaking up can literally cost lives.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Thank you. Tell me, how about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Michael A. Roberto
I love podcasts, Pete. How’s that?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a good one.

Michael A. Roberto
I spend a lot of time when I’m on flights, this is when I read and I read voraciously. I’m a professor. That’s what we do. Podcasts have been great in terms of using my commute more efficiently to hear new ideas. I love doing that. It’s been really great.

But I think the other thing at my job as a professor, what I benefit from in many ways, which I think business leaders could benefit from is I get to spend my days around 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds. While they can be a real pain in the butt sometimes, they give you new perspective. They look at the world differently.

I sometimes think that would be really good for CEOs to go spend some time with their frontline employees who are 22, 23, 24, get some fresh perspective. They know things that 60-year-olds don’t know. They look at the world differently. I have this great tool at my disposal, which is I get to talk to 20-year-olds all the time. I don’t think we should mistake that. There’s some real benefit to that.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite habit?

Michael A. Roberto
I am a coffee addict, Pete. Oh my goodness. I gave up caffeine many years ago, but I just love coffee as a routine in the morning, so I’ve made the folks at Starbucks very wealthy I think because I do enjoy my coffee. It’s a great habit.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with your students or readers?

Michael A. Roberto
I tell my students this little anecdote that my father used to share. My dad was an immigrant from Italy. He’s 91 now. When we were young he used to say that he came to America to provide us greater opportunity and education being the avenue to get there. He was going to do whatever it took, work as hard as he could to give us those educational opportunities. We didn’t have to pay him back.

He said we just had to return home and knock with our feet someday. I didn’t really know what that meant. What he meant, which I learned over time, was that our arms should be full such that we had to knock with our feet. At first our arms had to be full because we were carrying a loaf of bread or a bottle of wine to go share with him. Later it had to be because we were carrying our children to go share with him.

And if we knocked with our feet, that’s all the gratitude we needed to express. That’s all we needed to give back to him. I tell my students. I tell them that there’s actually research that says expressing gratitude can be a powerful positive thing for people and not to forget to do that. It’s easy to kind of get so busy that you don’t take enough time to do that.

Anyway, knocking with your feet is my favorite little nugget I like to share with my students. Many of them remember that years later. It’s unbelievable. I had a student just a short time ago show up at my office door and kick it with his feet. He had a bottle of wine for me. I was just blown away.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. That’s a good setup you’ve got there with people coming bringing you wine.

Michael A. Roberto
Yeah, how about that? I didn’t really think about it that way, but it’s worked out okay.

Pete Mockaitis
If folks want to learn more, get in touch, where would you point them?

Michael A. Roberto
Sure. They can visit my website at www.ProfessorMichaelRoberto.com or I’m on Twitter @MichaelARoberto. It’s a great way to get in touch as well. They certainly can drop me a line and either via the website or directly through Twitter. I love to interact with readers and hear their questions, hear their comments and feedback. I promise to get back to people as much as I can.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. Yeah, do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Michael A. Roberto
Boy, I think if I could say one thing about this, I’m fortunate in that I do something I love. Getting up and teaching every day is something I really love. But the one thing I would say is I have this little quote on my shelf, my bookshelf in my office. It’s in Italian. It says “Ancora imparo.” It’s purportedly said by Michelangelo centuries ago. It means I am still learning. I think that’s – I don’t think I need to say anything more. I think the meaning is evident. But I look at it every day.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Mike, this has been a lot of fun. I wish you the best with your Unlock Creativity and students and all you’re up to.

Michael A. Roberto
Thanks Pete. This has been a great conversation. I appreciate it.

385: Unlocking New Ideas by Asking Better Questions with Hal Gregersen

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Hal Gregersen explores methods for asking better questions to address your biggest challenges.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to ask better questions
  2. The four-minute Question Burst method to spark new ideas
  3. How the most creative organizations use questions wisely

About Hal

Hal Gregersen is the Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center and a Senior Lecturer in Leadership and Innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management where he pursues his vocation of executive teaching, coaching, and research by exploring how leaders in business, government, and society discover provocative new ideas, develop the human and organizational capacity to realize those ideas, and deliver positive, powerful results.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Hal Gregersen Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Hal, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Hal Gregersen
Thanks Pete. Wonderful to be with you today.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m so excited to dig into this good stuff. Thanks, Janika, a listener, for connecting us. That’s pretty cool.

Hal Gregersen
Janika is exceptional at asking questions. Years ago she was a research assistant worked with me and helped me push the edge in some of my work back then and still does that today.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Well, I want to hear about different boundaries, if you will. You’ve lived in ten different states and five different countries. What are some of the key things you’ve learned from having been around?

Hal Gregersen
Oh, where do you start? Have you ever lived in – have you had the chance to live in more than one country, Pete?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, lived in is probably a strong word. I purchased groceries and I was there for a week, but I don’t know if it counts.

Hal Gregersen
I love it. I love it. As you well know traveling to a country and living in a country are two different things. The power of living in a different country is that – or even living in a bicultural family is that it doubles the probability that we’ll ask another that otherwise we wouldn’t ask and get a valuable new idea that otherwise we would never get.

All of that happens because we’re able to see the world through completely different values and lenses. One of the greatest gifts that we can give to ourselves or to those closest to us is actually a chance to live in a different place, a very different culture. They’ve been profound.

Part of that seeing the world through a different lens comes from being pushed to the complete edge of your experience. When I moved to France, I didn’t know French. At every level of my life, I was pushed to the edge. In work it was a completely new work routine. In our village and community, it was very difficult to get integrated. In our church context, it was similarly difficult to integrate.

To be truthful, Pete, for probably two or three years I was moderately to severely depressed, sometimes just wanting to pull the covers over my head and “I don’t want to get up and go to work today.” It just completely flattened me out, pushed me down. But sometimes it’s from the dirt of the earth that we sort of rise.

Out of that came some grounding, some very different ways of looking at the world and gratefully so. I never would have said that in the middle of it, but you have people who are around you who help you rethink and re-ask and reframe in ways that we’ve walked away from these five countries always with friends who are so close and deep that you can meet them 5 – 10 – 15 years later and it’s like it was yesterday.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. That’s cool. What a blessing. Cool. I’m speechless. Well, let’s talk about right now your work role is the director of MIT Leadership Center. What is that all about?

Hal Gregersen
Well, the leadership center was started over a decade ago. It’s a leadership center for all of MIT, including the business school, but even beyond. I came here four or five years ago.

When I landed I ran across this Foundation report, which basically said that the alumni from MIT have launched over 30,000 active companies. They employee close to 5 million people. They generate almost 2 trillion of revenue in the world, which is like between a ninth and tenth largest gross domestic product by county in the world. I’m like how do they do that.

We for several years literally studied MIT alumni and graduates to figure out what is it they’re doing that enables them to create this enormous change in value and approach to the world. What we landed on, Pete, was we call it problem-led leadership.

Leaders at MIT don’t step up to follow people. It’s all about what’s the challenge, what’s the problem you care so deeply about that I would love to work with you on it. That’s just how they operate. They pick big, huge problems. These are incredibly bright, smart, analytical people.

But they pick problems that are so big they cannot solve them themselves. As a result it’s this fascinating team dynamic of you’ve got this skill, I’ve got that skill. You step up; I step back. You step up; I step back. We just iterate and we bump into deep conflicts. Over time we actually solve things that other people often don’t.

It’s a fascinating way of looking at leadership. It’s all about waking up and showing up in the morning with what challenge and problem is so interesting to me that I can’t not solve it. Now contrast that with people who wake up and go to work in the morning wondering what’s the politics of the day in the workplace. That’s the antithesis of the problem-led organization.

That’s why I love MIT. This place just thrives on trying to figure out what are the world’s biggest challenges to solve. You and I both know there are big challenges out there. What’s really fascinating is that for the most part these folks are deeply engaged in actually solving some edges of the biggest problems.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s really interesting because you think of people at MIT, there are associations in terms of utter brilliance and then also maybe some of the pejorative associations of some of that if you think about a computer engineering person. I’m sure that’s pretty unfair for a large swath of the population there.

But it’s really intriguing you think that you’ve got those brains and it’s almost like the only way you can get a rush or to have some real fun with that brain is to get a problem that’s just gigantic and go after it.

Hal Gregersen
Well, one of my former executive MBA students recently I bumped into him. He works at Metro Biotech. You’ve probably never heard of the place, but they basically take blood samples of cancer – people in cancer – who know they have cancer and they’re going to get treatment, but we have to figure out as oncologists, what treatment should we give them. Historically, it’s like a guessing game.

He and others at Metro Biotech, they literally have used some of the questioning techniques you and I are going to talk about, but they are just problem solvers and questioners of the core to the point that they’ve created this ability to draw the blood of someone that has cancer and to test it rapidly in a few days with different protocols of different chemotherapy protocols and they can pretty much nail it that this is the one that will work.

At one point, they were just stuck trying to figure out a better solution to what they were doing with their technology. They literally asked nothing but questions, a method he had learned from me in class and his team. It actually unstuck in a way that got them to get a better, more accurate answer and a quicker answer.

The cool thing about that is that one of his relatives was in cancer treatment or preparing to as they were doing it. It was one of those just-in-time solutions that came by asking a different question that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. We may look at MIT people as nerds. They’re certainly bright and they’re smart, but they really do solve problems that make our lives better.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. Not to slam any MIT people. Huge respect all the way around. I’ve got plenty of nerdy tendencies myself.

Hal Gregersen
No, I didn’t take it as a slam, Pete. On the one hand they’re really good at that and on the other hand, the Achilles heel often is some empathy and perspective taking and figuring out what’s going on in the room beyond the problem being solved. There are challenges too that come of it.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m fascinated by this. This cancer treatment selection knowledge that has been created, is this kind of widespread and common practice now?

Hal Gregersen
More so. They are doing it around the world. The colleague of mine, the former student, he’s running the India operation now. They’re trying to do that all over.

Another guy named Jeff Karp, who’s affiliated with the MIT system and runs Karp Labs. He was trying to figure out how can you heal a baby’s heart when you’re doing an operation when it’s moving and wet and sticky, but you’ve got to hook it together and hold it together. He actually learned by looking at slugs and other different things in the real world how to create this gooey substance that actually holds the sticky thing together. It’s amazing.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. That’s cool. Well, let’s dig into this approach in terms of nothing but questions. You unpack a bit of this in your book, Questions Are the Answer. What’s sort of the broad thesis of the book?

Hal Gregersen
At the very core it’s so counterintuitive because usually when we’re stuck, we just double down and dig deeper and deeper for what’s the right answer here, what’s the right answer here. Counter intuitively, when we are operating at the edge of uncertainty, when we’re trying to figure out what we don’t know we don’t know, by definition there are not answers on that edge. We’re looking for something that isn’t there.

But asking a different question will actually unlock a new answer that we otherwise would never have seen. It’s almost by definition when we’re working in a world or on the edge of uncertainty and the unknown, questions are the answer. When we’re stuck, whether it be at work or in life, when we’re stuck, we’re just asking the wrong questions. The path out of that stuckedness, the window, the door to something better is actually that key of asking the right question.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, very intriguing. Can you maybe give us an example?

Hal Gregersen
For example, I met, when I lived in France, Andreas Heinecke, who 30 years ago – plus years ago, he’s a reporter in Germany working I think at a newspaper. His boss brings a new employee in and says, “This guy got in an accident. He used to be able to see, but now he’s blind. Andreas, could you help him figure out how to be a reporter?” Andreas is like, “What? What do I do here?”

But Andreas when he was a little kid had a hearing disability. It made it a little hard. Kids made fun of him, so Andreas was sensitive to this man’s situation. His first question was, “What kinds of tasks could this person do as a reporter,” which is a good question. It opened up some opportunities there.

Then he worked it and worked with this guy and worked the question to the point that it became a different question, Pete. The new question was “Where could someone without sight thrive at work? Not just do a few tasks, but thrive.” When he asked that question, he thought about it and he realized they would thrive at a workplace that’s dark, pitch black.

He created Dialogue in the Dark, where literally people like you and me, they pay an amount, we go to one of their exhibits all over the world and we go through the dark space guided by blind people, who are adept and professional in the dark. You and I have to learn how to cross streets, navigate restaurants, navigate buying food, navigate walking in the park, all in the dark.

What he’s done with that is he’s created this experience where as we interact with the dark-sighted people, we gain deeper empathy for others who don’t have what we have. We learn things and we have our assumptions challenged. This has happened with ten million people now. They’re one of the largest employers of blind people on the earth.

All of that came from Andreas reframing a good question, which was “What could this blind person do as a reporter?” to “Where could a blind person thrive?” Then it turned into this social enterprise that literally has made a big impact, especially for those working in it as the blind folks, but also the ten million-plus visitors who genuinely walk away having seen the world differently.

Pete Mockaitis
This is fascinating. You said the question evolved. How can we facilitate/accelerate this question evolution?

Hal Gregersen
Well, this is the tricky thing. You haven’t done it yet. Maybe you will. I think you just might. But most reporters ask me the question, “Well, Hal, what are the questions I should be asking?” which is not a bad question at one level.

I can say, “Well, Pete, I think you should start with trying to figure out what’s going on in the situation? What’s working, what’s not and why?” Then once you understand what’s really going on, it’s like, well, let’s try some prescriptive future … questions, like “What if this?” and “Why not that?” and “How might this?” and so on. Those are giving you a list of questions.

But what I discovered in interviewing 200-plus of some of the world’s most creative leaders. Jeff Bezos at Amazon, Daniel Lamarre, the CEO of Cirque de Soleil, Ed Catmull, who is the CEO and the founder of Pixar and now Disney Animation Studios, Diane Greene, who founded VMware. I can go on with a list of just amazing people, who are sustainably innovative and creative.

When I ask them, “How do you find the right question when you’re stuck?” They didn’t give me a list of questions. What they said was, “We intentionally put ourselves in situations over and over and over so that the right question for the context emerges and opens up doors and windows that would never have opened.

Now that probably sounds like, “What are you talking about? That’s just some big theoretical blah, blah, blah,” but that’s what it was. They put themselves in conditions where questions came to them that otherwise wouldn’t. They were so unique to the situation, like Andreas Heinecke’s was, that it often led to the creation of the business, some of which today are worth billions of dollars.

Pete Mockaitis
You’re putting yourself in that situation, that context, what does that mean exactly? It’s just sort of like taking on a challenge bigger than you have any idea of what you’re doing or what does that context insertion look like?

Hal Gregersen
It starts with either having a challenge or it starts with a problem or an opportunity, but then it’s putting myself in situations where I’m going to ask different questions. Here’s the conditions, at least that I discovered with these 200 people. Put ourselves in conditions where we’re wrong, not right, where the situation makes us feel a little bit uncomfortable, in fact maybe quite uncomfortable.

When most of us are wrong and uncomfortable, our instinct is to run from it, but these folks embraced it in a way that they were reflectively quiet. As a result, the question emerged that unlocked doors that otherwise weren’t there. It’s being wrong, uncomfortable and reflectively quiet. What kinds of situations do that?

I can give you a quick example. Literally, over a decade ago, it was my first interview with Marc Benioff, who founded Salesforce.com. He’s originally a sales person for Oracle. He’s doing a great job. He’s incredibly successful. He’s always at the edge of the organization, constantly bumping into customers, getting positive and negative feedback about what’s working and what isn’t.

By the end of 15 years, he’s slightly burnt out while he’s incredibly successful and he’s got this challenge that he’s been trying to figure out, which is “How on earth can small- and medium-size enterprises take full advantage of this large enterprise software when they can’t afford it?” That’s what he’s trying to figure out. Part of that comes from his own family history of small and medium enterprises.

Anyway, he’s trying to figure it out. But he doesn’t have an answer. He takes a year-long sabbatical, but he doesn’t sit around on his behind. He does what he’s been doing for the last 15 years. He gets up, he gets out, he talks to people all over the world, rich people, poor people, government leaders, business leaders, religious leaders, just a whole range of folks from different perspectives.

He’s constantly bumping into himself being wrong and a bit uncomfortable about answers that he’s hearing and questions that are getting asked, but he’s reformulating and reformulating and trying to figure out this issue of small – medium enterprise and large enterprise software. Then he’s swimming with the dolphins and he finally gets the question, which is what if we sold enterprise level software like Amazon sells books on the internet.

He did not find that question looking in a book of questions to ask. That question today seems inevitable. It seems self-evident, but back then they thought he was an idiot when he asked it. But he’d done that hard, wrong, uncomfortable, quiet homework over and over to where the question emerged that otherwise wouldn’t.

Pete Mockaitis
The homework, when he’s talking to these people, what’s he asking these people?

Hal Gregersen
It would range from – some of those questions I mentioned earlier, Pete. I’m not exactly sure what he was asking, but my hunch would be he’s trying to figure out first of all what’s the terrain. “What’s working in your world? What isn’t?” And trying to create a safe enough space that people actually give him honest answers. That’s the tough thing.

Those are simple questions, Pete. What’s working, what’s not, and why? But creating a safe enough space for people to give you the honest answer, that’s a tough one.

When I met Marc a few years ago walking through the World Economic Forum meetings, I was visiting with him. I said, “Mark, how do you ask the right questions?” He looked me right in the eye – he’s about my same height at six foot four-ish – and he just said one work, “Listen.” Then he was quiet.

I’m like, “What’s he doing here?” I think what Mark was doing was figuring what kind of listener is Hal Gregersen. Is it just ears? Is he all here? Is he 100% present? Then after a few seconds, he waited and then we had a 15 minute or so conversation about what does it mean to listen, ranging from Jewish Kabbalistic traditions to the whole – it was a worldwide kind of conversation about what does it mean to listen.

I think that’s what he was doing. He was posing questions. “What’s working around here? What are you frustrated with?” Then he shut up.

One of the diagnostic questions of whether or not we’re good in these conditions of raw, uncomfortable and quiet is when we ask a question, how long do we normally wait on average for someone else to answer. 1,001, 1002, 1003, 1,004, 1,005. If people are answering our questions within one to two seconds, or we’re filling in the space with some follow up question or our own answer, pretty much everybody in the room already knows the answers and the question is probably not even worth asking.

The real question are ones where it causes someone else and/or us to step back, think twice, reflect a bit. It’s usually a three-second pause rate. Then we start a conversation. It’s not just a back and forth. It’s a conversation to try to figure something out.

I’m live here in Massachusetts and one of the former governors, Deval Patrick, he once told me in an interview I had with him, he just said, “It’s the power of the pause, Hal.” He said, whether it’s working as a consultant when he was young as a Bain consultant or whether it was – I think he was at Bain – whether it’s being the governor, he said “It’s always that last one or two seconds after you ask a question that if you’re just quiet and listen and people know you care, people will start offering you information.”

Again, it might be information that can make you feel really uncomfortable and really wrong about how you’re looking at the world, but it’s the stuff that changes things.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s lovely, thank you. Now I’m curious. Let’s talk about listening well such that the other person is feeling safe. I guess one of the key is just be okay being silent for more than three seconds. That can take you fairly far. What are some of the other best practices in terms of listening well and creating that psychological safety such that folks will really tell you the truth about what’s working, what’s not working, etcetera.

Hal Gregersen
Can I come back to your question-

Hal Gregersen
-from a different angle, Pete, which is there’s this method that I discovered 20 years ago called the Question Burst. I was with a group of people. I was stuck in a challenge. We were stuck collectively. It was about some gender diversity and equity issues in the organization.

The energy was low in the room. We were just languishing. I think you know those moments. I had this instinct from what I’d been reading from some things from Parker Palmer and other folks like how – just stop everything and ask nothing but questions. That’s what we did.

It was the days of blackboards. We had three or four blackboards in the room we were operating in. I said, “Let’s just fill these blackboards up with nothing but questions for the next 10 – 15 minutes. No answers to them, no explanations as to why we’re asking the question, just questions.” By the end of that process, it was like, “Whoa, what happened here?” The energy rose. Ideas to actually solve the problem surfaced that otherwise weren’t there.

Ever since then I’ve used this Question Burst method sometimes in four-minute bursts with individuals or with pairs or with trios or in groups of five or six, where it’s even longer than four minutes at times, but the rules are no answers to questions, no explanations of the questions for a very fixed period of time.

When we do that, we get to the end of that process and 80% of the time we’re emotionally in a better place, 80% of the time we have at least one new idea, 80% of the time we’ve reframed the challenge at least slightly. It’s like an amazing vehicle by which we see things differently.

That question burst is what I did with the senior executive at a company that was trying to listen better. That’s where I’m coming back to your question on how do you listen better.

I was talking with him about a challenge, which was one of their distribution facilities, where people were packing and shipping stuff, the workers felt like they were being treated inequitably. The reality was, they were being – with their pay. The reality was they were being paid higher than market rate for that region and area.

We did this question burst. I said, “Okay, let’s set the timer, four minutes, nothing but questions, no answers, no explanations.” We got 20 questions at the end of that. Then we looked through them. I asked him, “Which questions really resonated for you that they might help you solve this challenge?” These are two of the ones that were really crucial.

First question was “How often are you in that facility,” that packaging facility. His answer was he couldn’t remember the last time he visited it. The second question was “What do you see in their eyes when they’re expressing this sense of unfairness about pay?” He didn’t know, but he knew he needed to know. The good news is he got up, he got out, he got into the world, he got into their world and he started building the trust by which he could get answers to those questions.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yeah.

Hal Gregersen
That’s one of the biggest things is that we rarely get a catalytic question, a transformational question, we rarely get an idea that changes the world or it’s breakthrough. It rarely if ever happens sitting in our office.


Sitting in our office is a great place to be isolated, to be comfortable, to be right. That’s what offices are for generally. But getting up and out, where the situations would put us in front of people and places where we’re provoked and wrong and uncomfortable, that’s where the better questions surface.

Pete Mockaitis
I really like that. That really made it clear in terms of the being wrong and uncomfortable in terms of saying, “I don’t know and I feel like I should. I have done wrong by not getting there often enough. I’m uncomfortable by the fact that you’ve exposed this shortcoming or inadequacy in my management.”

Hal Gregersen
Yeah. Can I show you a personal experience about that?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yeah.

Hal Gregersen
Here at MIT they invited me to do a questioning workshop or seminar with some of the local administrative staff from the floor that I’m on in the area. I did and we sat down and it’s this, again, part of the workshop is this Question Burst method. We sat in trios. We each took two minutes to explain our challenge and then four minutes to generate questions. I was the third person in the trio.

It came my turn and I explained my challenge, which was, “It’s just really hard for me to work with administrative assistants. I’m not quite sure what to ask them to do or how to get them meaningfully involved with my work?” Then it was quiet. Okay, four minutes nothing but questions.

The first question that one of the admin assistants in this trio said to me, Pete, she said, “Hal, do you have control issues?” I’m not kidding. It was like this hot dagger that just got jabbed into my heart. I felt a bit flushed. I felt awkward. It was like, man, she went right to the issue, didn’t she?

What’s beautiful about this simple process of asking nothing but questions is that it forces us to be quiet. We can’t answer. We can’t respond. We have to live with the question. By the end of it I realized I need to rethink some things that I’m doing.

Pete Mockaitis
With the question burst approach – you mentioned your situation associated with administrative assistants. Other chimed in with their questions. Are you not generating questions? Are you just receiving questions?

Hal Gregersen
You want to try it, you want to give it a run.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s go for it. Yeah.

Hal Gregersen
Why don’t you explain to me a challenge? Here’s how it works. We explain a challenge to somebody. Here’s my opportunity or challenge. We have no more than two minutes to do that. That’s purposeful because if we explain it for more than two minutes, we start walking other people into our stuckedness. We tell them too much. It’s a two minute rule, just explain it in two minutes. Then at the end – if it’s less than two minutes, I get it, fine.

But then we just for four minutes ask nothing but questions about the challenge. Do you want to give it a run?

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, sure thing. Now what I’m clarifying is, you are the sole question generator or are we both generating questions?

Hal Gregersen
I actually do this myself alone. If I’m doing it with somebody else, both of us, Pete, generate questions.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, both of us.

Hal Gregersen
But if it’s your challenge, on average you’re probably well off to listen mostly to my questions.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, so I’ll you do the majority. All right, well, let’s go for it.

Hal Gregersen
Okay.

Hal Gregersen
The best use of this method is to pick a challenge that is really important to you, that you’re really stuck on and that you might feel a little awkward telling the world about.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Hal Gregersen
So go for it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think this counts. I do feel somewhat awkward, especially telling this world about it because I want to talk about the podcast itself in terms of I’ve observed in terms of the data from the number of downloads or the engagement in terms of how deep into an episode people listen, it’s rather clear that some episodes are hits and other yeah, okay.

I’d like them all to be hits.

Hal Gregersen
Yeah, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, how can I make that happen?

Hal Gregersen
Okay, so the challenge is how I can make everything a hit?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Hal Gregersen
Okay, here we go. I’m going to set my timer, four minutes and we’re going to launch into it. Are you ready?

Pete Mockaitis
I’m ready.

Hal Gregersen
Here we go. Here’s the other rule as we start. I’m inviting you to write all the questions down verbatim, word-for-word because sometimes if you switch the words that I say to your words, you miss the question.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, I’m going to typing going because I type faster.

Hal Gregersen
Okay, just type as fast as you can. Here we go.

Can every podcast be a hit? Is that realistic? What makes you uncomfortable when podcasts don’t work? What kinds of people generate the most interest? Is there any commonality across it? Whom do you most care about as an audience member? If you could influence one person on planet Earth with your podcast, who would that be? Why does having a perfect hit rate work or high success rate, why does it matter? What is success on a podcast?

Pete Mockaitis
I’ll throw out a question. What’s the mix or breakdown of guest sources in terms of where are they coming from and what proportions?

Hal Gregersen
What podcasts hit emotions the hardest? How might you create better stories? What is the arc of interaction on a great podcasts versus a not so great? Does anyone you know as a podcaster have a perfect track record? How might the podcast format make a perfect track record impossible? What metric of influence matters most to you? There we go, four minutes, done.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. That’s cool.

Hal Gregersen
Let me ask you a couple of quick questions. Do you feel compared to before we started four minutes ago, do you feel the same emotionally? A little bit better or a little bit worse?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I definitely feel better because a number of the questions get me thinking, “Yeah, okay. Does anyone you know have a perfect track record?” It’s like, well, no. I can see it the iTunes popularity little icons associated with their episodes is some are definitely 5x others in terms of what iTunes calls popularity. I feel better there in terms of okay, 100% is not something that I should feel bad about not hitting. There’s that.

Hal Gregersen
I hear you. I hear you.

Pete Mockaitis
I feel better there. Then I feel kind of reflective in terms of whoa, yeah, that’s heavy. Also, I’m excited about sort of ideas associated with – we talk about what generates the most interest.

It’s sort of like, well, shucks, I can just sort of put two things together in terms of we tagged every episode by the topic, subtopic and competency covered just recently. I’ve also gotten a bit more savvy with the Apple engagement data in terms of how to make real sense of it. It’s like well, why don’t I stick these two things together and we’ll see what we see in terms of some themes and commonalities.

Hal Gregersen
Okay, okay. You sound like you slightly reframed the challenge. It sounds like you got some ideas to do it differently. This is what I’m talking about. This Question Burst never solves the problem, but it creates progress and movement and that’s the point. It helps us move to a better and better question. Were any of the questions emotionally uncomfortable?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, some of them when it comes to “Well, how might you create better stories?” That gets me thinking to top, top podcasts that are really sort of narrative-story driven with sound beds and stuff.

Hal Gregersen
Right, right.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like oh man, those guys are like the best in the world and we’re just chatting. I’m just chatting with professors. How might I create better stories? Boy, it seems like there’s quite a gap.

Hal Gregersen
I hear you. There are ways of closing that. My suggestion, Pete, around this is what you just experienced, if you did this two or three times with other people, you would not only continue to get better questions and answers, but you would also engage in a very productive way more and more people who would care about your challenge and help you do something about it.

It’s really powerful not as a sort of one-time experience, but as a pattern by which we actually create these conditions where people are wrong and uncomfortable and quiet. It’s an artificial way of doing it, but nevertheless it creates those conditions because my bet is you wanted to answer some of those questions. Am I right?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh sure.

Hal Gregersen
I hate to say it, but probably every answer you would have said, it was not going to be helpful, useful. It’s probably wrong anyways. Anyway.

Pete Mockaitis
And it’s cool, you mentioned earlier, it’s like “Hey, in four minutes, we generated 20 questions,” I was like, “Really? That’s a lot of questions for four minutes,” but sure enough I’m counting this up. We got 15 there.

It’s so funny you mentioned four minutes because I’ve just recently been noting that to be a great amount of time to sort of challenge myself to say straighten my desk. It’s short enough for me to not be intimidating, but also long enough to make some genuine progress and maybe even really feel like I’m in the zone and want to keep going. I’ve recently found four minutes to be kind of a magical time line for some stuff. How did you land on four minutes?

Hal Gregersen
Two ways. One is our sustainable attention span with full attention is a little under four minutes as adults. To me that was part of the four minutes.

The other part of the four minutes is there’s a project I found – it’s just in its nascent, early stage, but it’s called the 424 project, where literally if you or I spent just four minutes once a day trying to ask better questions about challenges and opportunities we care about, over the course of 365 days, we’ve just gifted ourselves 24 hours of our time, one full day, of just asking better questions. That to me is the other part of it.

Part of it is just sustained attention. Four minutes tends to be in one sense an upper end, but it’s also it’s kind of how might we help nudge the questioning capacity of others in the world forward.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. With that challenge then, you’re trying to find a new buddy each day?

Hal Gregersen
Absolutely. I was sitting down with someone who’s not only a friend, but we were doing a bit of coaching about some issues. He’s a CEO of a big organization. But his issue was quote personal. It was basically “I’ve been very close to my oldest daughter. She’s now a teenager, early teen and she’s starting to pull away with friends. How can I keep this relationship strong?” That was his problem definition.

We’re sitting at lunch having this coaching conversation and we got out some napkins, did a Question Burst, four minutes later, 22 questions later, just hear a few of the questions that we asked or I asked or he asked.

Do I listen enough or tend to act too fast? Do I push too hard? Do I helicopter too much? Do I recognize and praise what she’s best at? What talents complement yours as a father? When was the last time – what do her eyes say when she expresses concerns? What are her greatest worries? Who would she be if her last name wasn’t yours? What’s uniquely independent about her? What will you do when she gets married and moves out? What are her greatest areas of independence? These were tough questions.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. What I also love about these questions is that Question Burst is kind of quick and some of them I guess I’ve heard elsewhere like, “Oh, a powerful question is not one that has a yes or no answer.” Some of these do and that’s okay.

Hal Gregersen
It is okay. Some of them do, some of them don’t. They each can have their provocative element in one form or another.

At the end of this questioning process, this guy he realized – he actually got a little bit teary. He just said, “I’ve been focused on how not to lose her, but now I’m realizing that the real question is how can I support her growing and flourishing? How can I let her find her?” That’s a totally different question, but it ended up being the one that opened up a much better relationship.

The real issue just becomes how do we either at work or at home, especially at work on a productivity sort of logic, it’s not only how do I ask better questions, but how can I create a space where other people are regularly asking the tough questions to move what we’re doing forward. That’s the bigger issue.

Pete Mockaitis
This is beautiful. Hal, tell me, anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Hal Gregersen
It’s the point I just mentioned, which is whether it’s Ed Catmull at Pixar having a room called The Brain Trust, where directors get complete unvarnished full of candor feedback about their movies when they’re building them, where they learn that it sucks or it’s the Lion’s Den at Cirque du Soleil that does the same thing or it’s a working backwards process at Amazon, where people read documents about new ideas for 15 minutes, they shut up and be quiet and then they know the questions are going to fly about the idea.

At these innovative organizations with innovative leaders, they systematically in their own unique way always create spaces and processes where the tough questions get asked and people know what’s going to happen. When that happens, we start moving the needle. We start doing things better. We start changing the world.

It’s not just about us, but it’s about are we creating safe enough consistent spaces for our team, for our organization, for them to feel comfortable being wrong and uncomfortable and quiet so that we can ask the toughest questions, because those are the ones that unlock our biggest blind spots, the things we don’t know we don’t know. That’s the key to the future.

Pete Mockaitis

Beautiful. Now could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Hal Gregersen

I love Elie Wiesel’s quote, “In the word ‘question’ there’s a beautiful word ‘quest.’ I love that word.” End quote. The questions that matter are the ones that we have to work hard for. Once we find them, they are a quest, but once we find them they open up doors that otherwise we’ll never see and it can benefit us and others.

Pete Mockaitis

How about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Hal Gregersen

Actually, way, way back, Stanley Milgram’s study on obedience to authority, where common people like you and me once we get in positions of authority. In that particular study, they gave electrical shocks to people that were life threatening just because their role expected them to do that. That’s a short version of the study.

I’ve learned over my lifetime, it’s really easy for power to go to my head. The biggest inhibitor of asking questions is power and privilege. The challenge for me as a human being or for me as a leader is how do I get beyond that isolation of power and privilege and get out into the world in a way that I don’t get trapped in my bounds of authority.

Pete Mockaitis

How about a favorite book?

Hal Gregersen

I absolutely love Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc. He is so thoughtful about how do you build a sustainably creative organization.

There’s another book that’s a close second, if not first depending on the day, by Parker Palmer called Let Your Life Speak. It is a powerful inward auto-biographical look at his figuring out who he was and how to be whole with both the good and the bad that made up this person called Parker Palmer. It’s a profound book.

Pete Mockaitis

Thank you. How about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Hal Gregersen

I love the Headspace app. It’s a mediation app. It’s been super powerful for helping my head, my heart, my hands be more reflectively quiet. I can sometimes let anxiety and toxic worry just take over my life and Headspace has been a godsend to be able to not let that happen quite so much.

Pete Mockaitis

When you’re using Headspace, you just kind of march through the sequence that’s on there?

Hal Gregersen

Sometimes. Sometimes I start, but this isn’t one isn’t grabbing me. Right now I just started regrets because one of my challenges is holding onto regrets too long. I’ve still got to do the first exercise, which is write down all my regrets and then think about them briefly and cross them off before I go to section two. Some of them I work through, some of them I struggle with.

Pete Mockaitis

Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks that you’re working with?

Hal Gregersen

I love this one. I heard it from Tiffany Shlain. She founded the Webby Awards. Her father was an amazing physician. When Tiffany was growing up, her father told her over and over and over, quote, “If you’re not living on the edge, Tiffany, you are taking up too much space.” I think it’s just this invitation to push ourselves and others to the edge of whatever’s possible.

Pete Mockaitis

I love it. If folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Hal Gregersen

Easiest way is HalGregersen.com. There’s a contact space there. Or come visit me at MIT.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Hal Gregersen

At the end of Stephen Hawking’s recent book, Brief Answers to the Biggest Question, his final chapter is on super intelligent – AI becoming super intelligent. He has a dystopian view of the world that it will take over.

My challenge and it’s why I’m not doing what I’m doing, it’s my next project, how can we nudge the questioning capacity of the world forward so that we as a human race, we will always ask the better questions compared to AI or super intelligence. Because if we don’t learn how to do that, we will lose that game. But I’m convinced somehow or another, we can continue to ask the better question.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, Hal, this has been a ton of fun and powerful, transformative. I think that a lot of question bursting is going to be popping up across the world. It’s been a delight. Please keep doing the great work you’re doing.

Hal Gregersen

Thank you Pete. You too. I appreciate it.

348: How to Achieve Anything through Curiosity with Diana Kander

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Diana Kander unpacks the importance of curiosity and the role it plays in the success of individuals and companies.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why uncovering blind spots is such a rapid path to progress
  2. Four key questions to expand your curiosity
  3. The importance of failure metrics

About Diana

Diana Kander is a sought-after keynote speaker who has trained many executives and Fortune 1000 companies to be more innovative and to inspire employees to think more like entrepreneurs. She’s the author of the New York Times Bestseller All In Startup, a novel outlining lessons for launching a successful business. The book has been used in over 70 colleges to teach innovation and entrepreneurship. She’s also the author of The Curiosity Muscle. Diana lives in Kansas City, Missouri with her high school sweetheart and husband, Jason, and their awesome son, True.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Diana Kander Interview Transcript

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

Diana Kander
I’m pretty excited to be here. Any chance to become more awesome is a great thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Agreed, agreed. I understand you’re doing some work in becoming awesome at doing a handstand. What’s the backstory here?

Diana Kander
That’s right. Actually the backstory is writing the book that we’re going to talk about today. But I learned that there’s a simple process to allow yourself to do pretty much anything you can set your mind to. And once I accomplished one task of doing a plank, where you’re on your tippy toes and your elbows, as part of writing the book I did a plank for 11 and a half minutes.

Pete Mockaitis
No kidding!

Diana Kander
It was a crazy thing for me. I couldn’t do more than a minute and a half before I started. And so then, once you accomplish one impossible feat, I was like, “What else can I do? What’s the next most difficult thing I can think of?” And for me, that was doing a handstand, so my 2018 goal has been to do… I’m a very uncoordinated person; I’d fall in just from sitting before. I have trouble just walking. So for me, being able to find inner strength and center like that was just a very exciting opportunity. So that’s what I’m doing in 2018.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s fascinating. Why don’t we start right there? What is the process by which you can learn to do anything?

Diana Kander
So, I learned in writing my second book that if you want better results, you just have to ask better questions. And the way that most people approach a task or a goal is, they’re going to try their best and hope for the best. And that is not how you get exceptional results, that’s not how you get to a 10-minute plank. That’s never going to happen if you just decide that you’re going to practice planking every day. Even if you have the habit down, you’re not implementing the right practice. And so, what are the questions that you can ask in order to implement the right questions?

And what’s funny is, I didn’t write a personal development book; I wrote a book on how big corporations can stay in business once they’re successful. But all the lessons that apply to large organizations – trying to become more curious and understand their customers and reach their own large goals – they’re just as applicable for individuals trying to reach crazy goals like doing a 10-minute plank, or a press handstand, which is what I’m trying to do.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. Okay, so if you want better results, ask better questions. And so, the book is called The Curiosity Muscle, just to orient everybody. And so, let’s continue this thread for a bit. So, what would be some examples of lame questions and what are great questions, and how are you upgrading the questions you’re asking in the instance of the plank or the handstand?

Diana Kander
Sure. So, like I said, most people start out, they’re going to do their best and hope for the best. And the very first and most important question you can ask is, “What are my blind spots? What do I not know about what I’m doing that I should be doing?” And for my planks, it was going to people who are professional plankers and have done world-breaking planks, which do you know what the world record for planking is?

Pete Mockaitis
I sure don’t. What is it?

Diana Kander
It’s 8 hours and 10 minutes. Just crazy, right? It makes 10 minutes sound like nothing. So, what are those people doing that I’m not doing? And what I learned from understanding the routine and their practice was that there are certain muscle groups involved in holding a plank that I didn’t know had anything to do with it. So your glutes are very involved in holding a plank. It actually is super important, but that didn’t make any sense to me. Your shoulders are a very important muscle group.

And so, in addition to practicing planks, I started working out these specific muscle groups, and it doubled my time without even really doing anything different. And then understanding other blind spots that I had, like things that I didn’t know about when I was trying to hold a plank, of what these people were doing that I didn’t even know about – that was a very important question. So, that’s question number one.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, so, “What do I not know that I should know?”

Diana Kander
Yeah, most people think of their blind spots as their weakness, like, “Oh, I know I should be doing this, but … work. I know I’m not good at this.” But that’s not what a blind spot is. A blind spot is something that you think you’re already doing well, that you’re actually doing terribly. And all of us have blind spots in our professional practice; it’s just that we don’t have the guts to get the feedback to find out those things that we’re doing that are actually sabotaging our professional growth.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And it’s interesting – you mentioned guts, and that’s what it takes to get that. But in another way, it sounds like it’d be more fun to learn some things that you had no idea, than it is to just beat yourself up about not doing the things you know you should be doing.

Diana Kander
Well, the thing about blind spots is finding out about them. It’s super fun when you’re planking and like, “Oh, that’s interesting”, but when it comes to your professional skills and what you’re doing that is frustrating your customers, it is not fun. It actually is quite painful and embarrassing, because you’re going to people and you’re saying, “What is it that I’m doing in my business that is unsatisfactory, that actually I thought I was doing well but isn’t good enough?” Or, “What is it that’s frustrating you about whatever it is that I’m doing?” And hearing those responses can be quite crippling.

In fact, as I was writing the book, one example of trying to understand your blind spots is, I sent out a copy of the book to some close friends who I could trust to be honest with me. And the email I wrote to them was, “There will be a time when this book is published and I need you to give me positive feedback on it. But this is not that time. Your gift of friendship to me right now would be to tell me all the parts that don’t make sense, that are confusing, that you don’t like these characters, you don’t like the storyline, you don’t understand the point I was making. And tell me all of those things.”

And then I went around town just collecting one insult after another. And I had this one really great friend who wrote me this email that while I was reading it, I subconsciously started getting into the fetal position, because it hurt so bad, the feedback that I was getting. But every single one of those feedback sessions made the book a much, much better product in what it is today.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Alright, maybe we should get oriented to the big picture here, and we’ll pursue some more of these practices. They’re just so fascinating, they get me hooked in. So, what’s the main point behind The Curiosity Muscle?

Diana Kander
Sure. The main point is that our success sabotages our future growth. We get very comfortable when things start working, we feel like we’re getting control of something, and we know what we’re doing so now we just need to become more efficient at it. And once we let that success kind of go into our ego and grow our ego, we stop being curious. Success is the main thing that kills curiosity.

And once you lose curiosity, you lose that relationship with your customers and you start losing relevance, because now even though you’re still innovating and you’re growing, you’re not doing it in the right direction, you’re not creating value for your customers. You’re still doing things, you’re creating output in a very efficient way, but it’s not what they want, because you’re no longer curious about what they want. Because you’ve been so successful, you think you know what they want better than they do.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, if we’re no longer curious but we’re still doing things, what’s fueling our doing instead of curiosity? So I guess curiosity was getting us there before – you’re fascinated, “What do they need? What do they want? How could I be of great service to them? How could I crush it for them?” And now what’s fueling the next stuff?

Diana Kander
Think about getting to the peak of a mountain top. And what’s fueling you at the top of the mountain top is the fear of falling down, the need to keep achieving and to keep growing. For a lot of organizations they become focused on quarterly results, or just growth for the sake of growth, and those are the kinds of things that sabotage real curiosity and customers.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Yeah, that makes sense. It’s sort of like, you’ve got something to lose at that point. When you’re at the top of the mountain you could lose your life, or if you’re a huge business you could get sued for millions of dollars. So let’s put in all kinds and processes and rules and requirements to mitigate risk and what not. Or you could have your stock price plummet because you didn’t hit your quarterly earnings guidance. So, you’ve got all these fears that are fueling you, instead of the curiosity.

Diana Kander
Sure. Every dollar you make is a reason not to changing anything. So, as long as you keep making money, you’re like, “Let’s just keep this gravy train going.” And that’s where the danger is – you’re not constantly looking to disrupt yourself or the next thing that customers want, and their wants and needs are constantly evolving. And they’re going to evolve away from you and you won’t recognize it because you don’t have that kind of relationship that you once did.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, understood. So then, what’s the antidote? How do we keep curiosity alive and flowing, and getting the good questions going?

Diana Kander
Sure. So, think about curiosity – the best definition I’ve ever heard of it is “the space between what you currently know and what you want to know”. So, when you first start running a business, that space is rather large, but then once you become successful, there’s nothing there. You just walk around all day being like, “I know everything I need to know. I’m pretty awesome.” And the secret to becoming curious is to increase that space between those two things – between what you know and what it is that you want to know.

And so, my co-author Andy Fromm and I came up with these four questions that you need to master in order to increase the size of that space. So, the questions are: “What are your blind spots, as they relate to your business and the things that you’re creating?”, “Are you spending your time on the right things?”, “What can you experiment?” I know you’ve been very careful deciding what you’re going to spend your time on, but how do you know if you were wrong in that decision? And number four is, “How can you engage others to help you get to your goals?” Because a lot of people, once they become really successful really concentrate decision-making power at the very, very top and they stop engaging their employees, their customers in helping them solve big problems or come up with new ideas.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. The third one you said you’re experimenting and you’re also assessing whether or not you’re right. Can you expand on that a little bit?

Diana Kander
Sure. So, almost every company has a process to decide whether they’re going to take on a new initiative. They have some kind of a meeting, they have some kind of a business case that they write up. And then what happens once they approve the project is, they never revisit it again. Unless it’s a horrible failure that just explodes, nobody’s ever going to stop it. It could be a mediocre project that’s just siphoning resources away from the company, but there’s never a process to revisit approved projects six months after they’ve started or a year after they’ve started, to figure out if you were right in making that initial decision. We just assume that everything we decide is going to work out.

And as you know, the vast majority of the things we decide to do are not the right things. So what’s the process that you can implement in your business and in your personal life to decide, “This thing I decided to do was actually not the right thing, even though I was acting on the best information that I had at the time.” So, there are two questions that we introduce as part of this, which are, “How will I know if I’m wrong?” and, “When will I know?”

So, just to give you a super silly example – there are all kinds of things you can try to do to improve your plank time. In fact, if you Googled it, there are over 3.5 million results on Google of what you can do. So let’s say you choose very carefully which of the things you’re going to try. You can’t try them all, but you pick the first one you’re going to try. How do you know if that’s the right thing to do, and when will you know if it’s not the right thing to do?

So for me, I like to create as many objective metrics in the things that I try, so for me I said I’m going to give it two weeks every time I implement a new process, and if my time doesn’t go up by 30 seconds over a two-week period, then I’m going to try the next thing. But in most businesses, they never implement those kinds of stop caps. They have success metrics; they say, “These are all the things that we’re going to accomplish”, and it usually takes years to accomplish the success methods, but they never think about failure metrics, which are much shorter in time span. You will know much sooner if something’s not going to work than if it is going to work.

So what are those failure metrics and are you assessing them for the projects that you’re selecting to choose to spend your time and your resources on? And the most successful companies, the ones that never peak – they have really great process to kill things that just aren’t working.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I really dig that. And you reminded me of some lean startup stuff, with regard to the experiments and what you’re seeing there, as well as I’m just fascinated by Nielsen’s consumer product research process, associated with, “We’re just going to benchmark the survey responses about your potential brand of pasta sauce against the hundreds of other brands of pasta sauce that we’ve studied before, to assess if it’s good enough to be unlikely to fail.” It just fascinates me that that exists and it’s done in the world. So, can you share with us some of the best examples or quick ways to get an early failure assessment on something you’re trying?

Diana Kander
Sure. Well, I can give you some examples of my favorite company that is really, really good at this kind of an assessment, is Amazon. And whenever people talk about Amazon, they talk about all of the incredible things that they’ve invented. And now they’re doing one-day delivery, which is just unbelievable. They’re just constantly coming up with ways to wow you, and that’s part of what’s fueling its growth.

But what nobody ever talks about are so many projects that they’ve lost lots and lots of money on, and things that never worked out. Like the Fire Phone, which was the phone that they introduced, which was supposed to be the phone to end all phones. They lost $175 million on it and a few months after it came out, they couldn’t sell them for $0.99 at most. That’s crazy. And one nobody really talks about is Amazon Destinations, which was their travel booking website that they created and shut down six months later. They put a lot of resources into making it the place where you book your travel, and then within six months knew that it wasn’t going to work.

Nobody ever talks about Amazon Local, which was their hub for local deals. It was like a Groupon that they started in 2011, and then shut down three years later. Nobody ever talks about Amazon Wallet, which was a way for you to put all of your credit cards into one place, that they shut down six months after launching it. They had Amazon Local, which was a way for you – not a square or a PayPal triangle, but a rectangle that you could use to accept payments. They had Amazon Music Importer, which was a way for you to house all of your music online, and Amazon Test Drive, which was a way for you to try all of these games before you actually committed to buying them. I can keep going on and on and on.

Pete Mockaitis
And they don’t have the Statistically Improbable Phrases anymore on the books.

Diana Kander
What do you mean?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that used to be one of the ways you could kind of check out what’s unique or fresh, or the content, as a means of searching for and identifying book content called the Statistically Improbable Phrases, or SIPs. And I was a dork for the data; thought that was the coolest thing, as a means of seeing books that are similar to other books, based upon their overlap there. But I guess most people don’t care about that level of stuff, and so they’ve killed it.

Diana Kander
Well, I think I’m probably happy that that doesn’t exist anymore, for my own books. Nobody talks about all of these things that they had and then shut down. And what they think is that Jeff Bezos is some kind of genius who comes up with these big ideas, and that everything that he says works out. But he’s not a genius; he’s a human being just like all of us, and a lot of his ideas and the ideas of the people working at the company don’t work out. What they have that most companies don’t have is a process to kill projects when they’re not working. And most organizations – over 80% of public organizations – have no process to revisit projects on a regular basis, after they approve a business case.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. It seems like for the most part it’s just like a new executive comes it and it’s like, “Alright, we’re evaluating everything. Oh, all these things should no longer be happening”, as opposed to a regular, ongoing basis.

Diana Kander
But they shouldn’t have been happening for years and years. That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
Totally. That’s cool. So, could you give us maybe a window into what such a process might look like, in terms of, “At X months ahead of trying out this thing, we’re going to look at Y metric and it needs to be at least Z value”, or how does that unfold in real life?

Diana Kander
Sure. I’ll give you one of my favorite examples, which was this company that was an online mortgage lender and they had this marketing program where they were going to be a very large, successful mortgage lender. And their process was, people express interest in a loan, then they send them paperwork, then those people send paperwork back, and it opens a file. And so on and so forth, until they get a house and sign all their paperwork.

So, the marketing department was like, “You know what we should do? We’re going to send everybody who expresses interest in a loan a nice gift in order to move them down the funnel. We want them to send paperwork back to us, so let’s do something nice for them.” And so what they sent them was this really nice, delicious, beautiful cupcake. It was a $25 cupcake, all said and done – very delicious, in a glass jar, it had sprinkles with the company logo on it. Genius, right? And the initial results of sending out all of these cupcakes were people taking photos with them, posting them on social media, they were like, “This is the coolest company ever.”

And so the marketing department, all the evidence they were getting back was, “This feels like it’s going really, really well.” And for most organizations what we measure is, how does it feel? We’re going to spend this much money on marketing efforts; do we feel like it’s working? How many impressions did we get? That’s what they’re testing. But that’s not really how you create value in an organization.

And so, it came time around bonus time, and the marketing team went to the data department and was like, “Can you help us quantify just how much money we’re making for the organization? We think that more people are sending in their paperwork but we’re not quite sure.” So the data team says, “Tell me the names of the people who got the cupcake and the people who didn’t get the cupcakes, so we can compare.” And they were like, “That doesn’t make any sense. This is such a genius idea. We sent out 100,000 cupcakes.” So if you’re doing the math, it’s a lot of cupcakes.

And the data team is like, “We’re going to have to send out a couple of thousand more because we can’t tell you whether the experiment was successful or not.” And again, this is something that almost every company does, in that they create programs that is impossible to measure whether it’s working or not, because everybody gets it so it’s just based on how it feels. So, the data team sends out a couple of thousand – some people get them, some people don’t – and they start comparing the results.

And what they learn is, the people who get the cupcakes actually send in their paperwork in much higher numbers, which is fantastic. But the data folks kept watching what happened to those people, and the ones that got the cupcakes sent in their paperwork in much higher numbers, but actually closed their loans in lower numbers. And in total, there was actually no difference in their total closes between whether they got a cupcake or not.

So, people who got a cupcake – they felt bad that they got this really, really nice, expensive, delicious thing, so they were going to do something. And that something was send in the paperwork, even though they weren’t planning on taking out a loan. And it wasn’t just the money that the company spent on the cupcakes, but every time somebody sent in a file, a case was opened, somebody manually entered all that information in. Then this loan officer was assigned, and that loan officer was researching the neighborhood, the school district, all that stuff. So, this company was spending millions of dollars on a project that felt really, really good, but it was actually siphoning resources away from the company.

And so, this is a perfect example of how you should also be measuring failure metrics. So, we’re going to implement this new initiative, it’s going to help our customer. Great. How would we know if It’s not working, and when would we know? So, those are two important questions that you would add to any business case process, and then revisit every time. If you have those meetings on a quarterly basis or a monthly basis, you just revisit projects that you’ve approved before and look at the failure metrics to see how they’re going.

Pete Mockaitis
I love that. So, we talked about the questions, we talked about process, we talked about thinking about it differently and ensuring that you’re ongoingly revisiting stuff and seeing if it needs to get killed. So, I’d love to revisit the point associated with just being able to stomach it, what’s coming back. Do you have an pro tips on how you develop that resilience or thick skin, or whatever you’d call it, so that you can go there?

Diana Kander
So, there’s nothing I can say that’s going to make it hurt any worse. I literally teach on this stuff and write on it, and it still hurts me a lot. I still like getting compliments every time I speak, but I know that I’m not going to get any better if I don’t hear the “do betters” or the blind spots. So, I try to think about that kind of feedback like weightlifting. So, if you go to the gym and you pick up a set of one-pound weights, and you do all of your exercises with those one-pound weights, you’re going to feel really good, like zero strain, zero sweat. Right?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Diana Kander
You’re not going to feel anything and you’re not going to get any stronger. If you want to get stronger, what you need to do is pick up weights that hurt your body to pick up, eventually. So, I try to think about that kind of feedback and those kinds of blind spots that I’m learning about as things that actually make me stronger.

So, even though they still hurt, I might … like, “She’s getting stronger”, some kind of a comic book character. In your brain, that’s how you improve. The worst thing that somebody could tell you is, “You’re doing fine”, because that is not a way for you to improve or change anything. The biggest kindness that somebody can offer is to say, “There’s something that you are not aware of that’s sabotaging everything that you’re doing.”

So, I’m a professional speaker; I speak on innovation and curiosity. And I had a good friend who’s a standup comedian, and I wanted to add some jokes to my routine. I thought it would be really funny. So I had her watch my speech and I thought she’d help me come up with some stuff. And she was writing the whole time, and when I get done, she puts her pen down and she was like, “Hey, you’re really bad at breathing.” And I was like, “What?” She was like, “Yeah, you are horrible at it.” And I was like, “I don’t know, I’ve been breathing for a pretty long period of time and I feel like I’m doing it okay.”

And she’s like, “Do you ever lose your voice after giving a speech?” And I said, “Almost every time, but I think that’s a professional speaker thing.” She’s like, “No, it’s not. It’s a thing for people who don’t know how to breathe.” She goes, “Do you ever get lightheaded when you’re on stage?” And I said, “Yeah, when I’m giving a talk for an hour, I think I’m going to pass out up there.” She’s like, “See, you don’t know how to breathe.” I was like, “Wow.” To me that was a huge blind spot, something I never knew about.

And I said, “Okay, let’s keep talking about this, but can you give me some jokes? What else did you write down?” And she’s like, “Is that how you walk on to a stage? Because you walk very apologetic.” I was like, “How do you walk apologetic? That seems really weird.” And she goes, “What’s that weird thing you do with your eyes when you’re talking? I couldn’t even hear what you were saying; your eyes were freaking me out so much.”

So, I walked into the room thinking that I wanted some jokes. Just like all of us in our lives we’re like, “Here’s what I think I need to improve.” And there was this whole other category of very serious faults that I had in my presentation style, in my delivery style that were actually sabotaging my professional speaking career. And it was learning about those blind spots that made me 10 times better than any jokes that I could have introduced into the talk. And that’s the power of getting really curious to elevate your game to a whole new level.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s awesome. And I want to get your take on how you frame and prime the people you’re asking these questions of. You mentioned with your email and how, “Being a friend to me is really telling me what’s wrong with this book and how it’s troubling or it doesn’t make sense in certain places.” So, that was a handy way you did it there. Do you have some other perspectives on when folks are asking for feedback, how could they ask for it in a way so as to actually get it?

Diana Kander
Sure. I think this is a super important question. Actually I wrote a whole article on why people lie to you whenever you ask them questions. And they’re lying because they’re good people are they’re trying to be nice. Most people don’t actually want the answers. Most of us, whenever we give a presentation, we walk out of the presentation and we turn to the person with us and we say, “How was that?” That’s the generic thing that people say.

And then all of us lie when somebody says that to us. And we know that we lie when somebody asks us, but we still ask that question because we want them to lie to us. It’s just a terrible circular thing that happens, but we want to hear that we did amazing, because we need that for our ego, and people know that. So they will lie to you unless you create a safe place for them to be honest.

And you really have to tell people several times that this is what you want. What you want is critical feedback. And even sometimes when you say it, they won’t believe you. So, number one – you need to create a safe place; you need to show them that you’re very serious. So, rather than saying, “How did I do? Really, be honest.” Don’t say that; instead you say, “Hey, I’m really trying to improve and grow how much I’m charging. I would love for you to give me three things I could do better.”

And then they’re like, “You know, it was awesome. I really enjoyed myself.” I’m like, “No, really. I really appreciate you saying that; that means a lot. But I’d love for you to dig deep. I promise it won’t hurt my feelings, I promise I’m just trying to learn how to be better. Any three things that you can think of, of how I could have done better, the things that didn’t really quite add up.” So you’ve really got to go a couple of rounds with them, number one.

Number two – you need to make sure you’re asking the right people. So, I wouldn’t play this game with my mom, because she would be like, “I hate your outfit”, which is zero helpful to me. You need to ask professional speakers; you need to ask people who have created value in the area in which you’re trying to create value. So, either your customers in your business, or other people who have reached the peak of wherever it is that you’re trying to go – those are the people whose advice you want.

And then number three – you want to make them feel like putting themselves at risk and being honest with you is worth it, that you’re actually going to act on their advice. So, when people give me advice, then I come back to them and say, “Hey, you gave me excellent advice and then I changed this as a result”, so that when I come back to them for more advice, they know that I mean it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. That’s great, yes. So think about it not as sort of a “one and done”, but rather, “Oh, cool!” They feel helpful and like they got to make a positive impact, and they appreciate it because it’s like you’ve showed them some honor, or it’s like a compliment. It’s like, “Oh, you seriously listen to me and take what I say seriously. Cool.” It gets them totally primed to do it awesomely even better the next time.

Diana Kander
It’s just like any mentoring relationship in your life. You need to make them understand that you value the advice and you’re going to act on it.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. Well, tell me – anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Diana Kander
I think curiosity is the secret to accomplishing anything. What I learned during the process – I kept being like, “What else can I apply this process to? Yeah, it works for planks, and keeping companies in business. What else can I do with it?” And I found that you can do three things with it.

Number one – you can use these four questions to significantly improve your relationship with your customers, or any kind of relationship. Actually it works for spouses as well. Any relationship you want to improve, you can use these four questions. Number two – if there’s a persistent problem in your business that you’re trying to solve, this is a really good way to look at it in a different way. Or number three – if there’s a big, hairy, audacious goal that you’re trying to reach, these four questions are going to help you think about it in a completely different approach. So, those are really … cases that I found so far, of using these questions.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something that you find inspiring?

Diana Kander
Yeah. So, one of my favorite quotes actually has to do with curiosity. And it’s by Mark Twain: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” For so many of us, we walk around very comfortable, thinking that we know all these things to be true about our business and our customers, when we’re just walking around – I think about blind spots – like having food in your teeth. You walk around very confidently with food in your teeth until you get to a mirror.

And if you haven’t been surprised and in a little bit of pain from feedback that you’ve gotten from customers or employees or your boss within the last 12 months, then I can guarantee that you have blind spots in whatever it is that you professionally do. So that’s kind of my gut check – if somebody hasn’t told me something painful and surprising, then there are blind spots that are stopping me from growing to the next level.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome, thank you. And how about a favorite study or experiment or a bit of research?

Diana Kander
I like all those studies that show that you’re the average of the five people you hang out with the most, and how that works for your GPA and your income level, and a lot of things in your life, that they can measure in objective ways that it actually isn’t just your personality or your achievement level. All of these things that are true about the people that you choose to surround yourself with.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And how about a favorite book?

Diana Kander
The book that I have been recommending for so long is Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi. I just saw it at the bookstore, and it’s been reworked and remastered and it’s got an extra 200 pages that I haven’t seen. But the reason I love that book so much is because it’s about creating real relationships with professional contacts. As opposed to thinking business is a networking or a tool, really creating real, meaningful relationships. And that book just always spoke to me and has been a secret to so many of the relationships that I’ve been able to continue for so long.

Pete Mockaitis
Are you a conference commando?

Diana Kander
What does that mean?

Pete Mockaitis
That was one of the chapter titles.

Diana Kander
Oh, like how to do it, yes.

Pete Mockaitis
He was just talking about this hardcore stuff, like, “Volunteer for the conference, then you get a list of all the attendees in advance, then you research all the attendees, then you invite a select segment of them.”

Diana Kander
I don’t even bring business cards, so I’m obviously not a conference commando. But I do look through the list and if there any people that I really want to get to know on a deep level, then I’ll find the people that I want to meet, figure out who we have in common, reach out and say, “Would you like to get a cup of coffee?” So yes, I’m definitely still using stuff from that book, but again, it’s not about how to meet as many people as possible, but how to really create deep relationships with the people that you do meet.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Diana Kander
My favorite tool. My iPhone

Pete Mockaitis
Is there an app that you love and you think is underrated, because it’s crazy useful?

Diana Kander
Headspace. I know it’s not an underrated app, but it’s an incredibly powerful tool for me personally. If I’m having a crazy day, I just take 10 minutes and it works like magic.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit?

Diana Kander
Well, besides collecting feedback? My favorite habit is to tell people that I’m doing awesome or fantastic, which I am. That’s how I feel, but people seem really, really surprised by it. It always takes people back, like, “Oh, I haven’t met anybody who is doing awesome or fantastic today.” And it’s just a funny interaction that I get to have a couple of times a day.

Pete Mockaitis
That is fun, as opposed to “Busy” or, “Fine, thanks.”

Diana Kander
I feel fantastic, so that’s what I say. And people frequently are like, “Oh, well, nice to talk to you.”

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. And how about a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect, resonate, gets retweeted, etcetera?

Diana Kander
“If you never settle, then you will never peak”, which is kind of the thesis behind this book and what I’ve been working on. But if you never settle for being good enough at what it is that you’re doing, you’re going to continue growing. If you’re constantly curious of how to get to the next level, there’s never going to be a time in your life when you peak and get on a downward slope.

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

Diana Kander
I have a website – DianaKander.com, where you can read a lot of my articles, see videos of my talks, and get bite-size nuggets of all kinds of this information.

Pete Mockaitis
Alright. And do you have a final challenge or call to action you’d issue to folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Diana Kander
I would love for them to choose one big, hairy, audacious goal, and it doesn’t have to be at work. What I found in doing the plank challenge and handstand challenge is, if I am curious in my personal life and doing something physical, then I will be more open in my professional life. And if I put myself in a beginner mindset, not like, “I know what I’m doing”, where I’m trying to learn at one of these tasks, then I will be much more open in my professional life, and curious and creative. And so, I try to constantly have a thing in my life where I’m totally out of my element and I’m trying to learn as much as possible, because I find that it affects all of my work in a very positive way.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Well, Diana, this has been so much fun. Thank you for bringing the goods and a multitude of Amazon examples – that was intriguing. And please, keep doing what you’re doing, and I wish you tons of luck with The Curiosity Muscle and your speaking and all you’re up to!

Diana Kander
Thank you so much, Pete. It was awesome to chat with you.

 

342: Getting Creativity to Work with Thomas Heffner

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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.