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Featured image: Embracing Radical Optimism for a Future-Ready Mind State

Embracing Radical Optimism for a Future-Ready Mind State

Dr. Frederik G. Pferdt, Author: What's Next Is Now, Google's First and Former Chief Innovation Evangelist

“We live in very dynamic times. But ask yourself, ’What can you control?’. And the only thing you can control is your way of thinking. And if you feel a little bit more optimistic, a little bit more open, I guarantee you're going to have a chance to invent that future that you always wanted to see happen.”

In this captivating episode, we welcome Dr. Frederik G. Pferdt, Google's first Chief Innovation Evangelist and author of the insightful new book, "What's Next is Now." Frederik shares his profound philosophy on cultivating a future-ready mind state, highlighting the importance of radical optimism, unreserved openness, and compulsive curiosity. Join us as Frederik delves into inspiring stories from his book, including the remarkable journey of Seth, an activist and artist whose innovative spirit led to the creation of Google's largest community and volunteering program. Discover how embracing what you can control and fostering creativity can transform your personal and professional life.

Tune in to explore how you can shape your future with a mind state that sees opportunities in every challenge. Don't miss this chance to learn from one of the leading voices in innovation and creativity. Listen now and start building the future you envision!

Below you will find the full transcript for the episode.

Cultivating a Future-Ready Mind State

Chris: So, Frederick talking about things that are within your control, things that are out of your control. In your book, I guess it's called “What's Next is Now”. In that book, you tell the stories of some well-known personalities and how their state of mind actually helped change the direction of their lives. Can you maybe share one of those stories that impressed you?

Frederik: Sure, yes, I could tell all these stories because they're all very inspirational. So I really had the fortune to work very closely with all of those and had an opportunity to coach them and train them and just did some remarkable things. Let's take Seth. Seth is an activist and an artist, and you know as a high school student he was living in Quito Ecuador. And he shares this story where one day he was on a bus with strangers. He wanted to go to another city. And imagine that bus just full of people, like it was overfilled, probably people sitting on the roof. There were animals on the bus. People came from markets, and they needed to go to other markets too. And so he was squished in the middle, right in the middle seat. It was hot, and very humid, in the middle of the summer. And he started to feel nauseous, right? He started to feel sick, and he was on the brink of passing out. And so what he then decided was, “I need to change the situation”. Because there were too many people not leaving the bus. So there was no way to stop the bus or to change the weather conditions or even like, you know, turn on an AC, cause there was no AC in the bus, right? So what he did is, he took the chance to climb out the window, climbed on the roof. And he just then sat on the roof, right, for the rest of the ride, which gave him some fresh air and more space as well between the luggage and all the other stuff that's on the roof. So this seems like a very small thing, but what he shares is that it had a tremendous effect on his life because he's always thinking back to when he's in a situation that feels crammed like you're feeling sick, or feeling like something is not right. Think about what you can control and think about what you cannot control, right? And then make the move, right? Get out or change the way you think about something, or whatever you can do. It's a remarkable story because that led him to at Google to start a program that became the largest community and volunteering program ever run at Google. Every employee had four weeks to dedicate to community service and volunteering. Imagine 200,000 Googlers with the extended workforce, that's a lot of time and a lot of energy that everybody could dedicate towards doing good, right, and volunteering. And Seth started that program. He started it as a small experiment with a couple of people from his team and asked them, should we do some volunteering over the weekend? And everybody loved it because it helped them to apply problem-solving skills. It helped them to apply their skills in different contexts and just do some good work right outside of Google. And he always thought back about what he could control and what he couldn’t. And getting out of the bus and onto the roof helped him to get into that spirit of “just let me do something and start something in a large organization and see where it might go”. Because he could control starting this program, making people engage in the program, getting them excited, and so forth. So he's now an activist and an artist doing incredible work for all sorts of communities that are underrepresented, individuals that could just learn from his story as well because they could be the next person in a large organization to start such a wonderful program as Seth did. And with his approach to taking control of what you can control and then choosing your destination, I'm deeply inspired and impressed about how that really resonates, not just with me, but like resonates hopefully with lots of people as well. And there are more stories from remarkable individuals in the book that I highly recommend to check out.

“Think about what you can control and think about what you cannot control. And then make the move. Get out or change the way you think about something or whatever you can do.”

The Role of Creativity and Innovation

Chris: Absolutely. Well, a company such as Google, is obviously a global pioneer in many products that are used by billions of people. How do you get to choose your role as a chief innovation evangelist and design it? I'm curious.

Frederik: So I started when Google was about 3,500 people. What I always took seriously was that you can create the role you want to pursue, and you're passionate about. And so everybody has that ability in the job they're doing or in the work they're doing that they shape how they want to do the work, with whom they want to do the work. And when they want to do the work, right? If you consider all these three factors, and you feel like, “I cannot choose when to work, or I cannot choose whom to work with, or I cannot choose what to work on” ask yourself, “What can you change, right? What can you control?” And I think these are important questions to ask yourself because it's your life, right? It's something that I think you need to also take very seriously when doing your work, considering what you want to work on, who you want to work with, and how you want to do the work. And so I had this front-row seat to innovation and the future as a chief innovation evangelist at Google. I was always curious about how people like to innovate. How do people come up with new ideas? How do people put out something into the world that potentially could change many people's lives? And that curiosity, led me to just an exploration inside Google, right? So I traveled to about 27 offices in my first six months at Google. I was traveling around with a suitcase packed with some Post-it notes and some markers and Play-Doh to try to understand in every corner of the organization how people come up with new ideas. How is creativity helping them to come up with these ideas? But also, how do they put these ideas out into the world? Like “What are the mechanisms that I could find?”. And what I found was that there is not ONE common approach. There is not one single thing that you can then take and scale and distribute to everyone. It's a multitude of different things. And so I used what I discovered, but also my own experience and understanding of how creativity works, how people innovate, and how new ideas are born. And I understood that I needed to combine this to develop an approach that could help build this new culture or develop this culture at Google to realize more ideas. And I think that was one of the most rewarding things I could ask for working in an organization.

“Being a dot collector means going out into the world, gaining insights, connecting with people, and finding new ways of thinking about things. The more dots you collect, the higher the chances that you can make new connections.”

Chris: Absolutely. And with the recent advances in technology, for example, AI and all that stuff that's happening, the conversation around creativity is front and center. I guess it has always been front and center in all things innovation, specifically corporate innovation, and the future. But recently, there has been some accelerated form of conversations around creativity. What actually is creativity? How is human creativity different from machine creativity? Is there even machine creativity and so on? And I believe that everyone is and always has been creative in some way. I mean, just take it back to the days when we were kids, obviously. What systems and environments are in place at Google to amplify that sort of creativity and create an environment where those people can be creative and innovative and also bring ideas to life?

Frederik: Yes. It's a super interesting question, and thanks for asking that. When you look at, for example, Rick Rubin's work, The Creative Act, suggests, and Neil Strauss' work, both put this remarkable book around The Creative Act. And when you look at that, they say it's a new way of being, right? There are many insights in there, but for me, what's always been interesting is that creativity is not so much about the thing, right? I think we mostly confuse that. Even for me, it's also not an act, I have to say. So I would slightly disagree a little bit with Rick. And I think he's doing tremendous work. But for me, it's not about the thing or an act. It's most importantly, a way of being. I think that's why I agree with Rick. But it's also a process. It's the how. How do you really create something? Other famous people like Steve Jobs said it's all about connecting the dots. And I think that is something that a lot of people can agree with. And I do too. But more importantly, if you look at creativity and this notion of connecting the dots, what's more important is collecting the dots first. Because if you are a dot collector, and you go out into the world and literally try to gain insights, and new information, connect with people, try to find new ways of thinking about things, new approaches, and new questions, you're collecting dots. And the more dots you collect, the higher the chances that you can make these new connections, right? And your creativity will increase. And you can train yourself to see more dots, right? What I mean by that is your creative input. If we look specifically at organizations, we always look at the creative output, right? What's the thing people are producing, right? The technology, the product, the solution, whatever it is. But for me, the most important is “what I want to help people with is the creative input. How can you, as a human being, be a dot collector, go out into the world, and collect as many dots as possible? Because again, my promise then is that the more dots you have collected, the more dots you can connect. And the more creative output, the more creative acts you can pursue. And now maybe some of our listeners ask themselves, how can I be that dot collector, right? And one way of looking at that is that our mind is mostly on autopilot. Autopilot means that we like to do the same things over and over again. That gives us comfort. It saves our brain energy. And that autopilot guides us through the day. It sometimes happens that you reach a destination, but at the same time, you actually forget the journey, right? Because you were on autopilot. You forgot what you were doing, what you were listening to. For example, if you're in a car or take public transportation, and you forgot because everything was on autopilot. I would suggest going off autopilot, which means that if we take a new route to wherever we want to go if we talk to someone new, or if we work from somewhere else, all of these things help you to get off autopilot and help you to collect a couple of new dots. So the next time you get off the subway or the bus, and you walk to your office or a friend's place, try to take a different route and see what you can find as dots that are new to you. What is some new information that you haven't considered? Listen to a conversation some people are having, right? What are some of the colors you see that you haven't noticed before? All of those things are helping you to collect more dots. And I think if you are a dot collector, you're going to be an even more creative human being and individual, which helps you to solve problems in a better way too. And one last thing I want to share with you - because you started with new technologies and AI and all these things - is that it's really interesting that with the work that we've done at Google to provide the best answers and organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful, we're now seeing a critical capability emerge that people need now and in the future, which is to ask better questions. And that curiosity around asking really good questions. Some people say it's prompting - which is a new term for it. But asking a really good question is becoming more and more important in our times because the answers are going to be provided by technology. So asking the better question is now probably one of the competitive advantages you can have as a human being compared to technology.

“Asking good questions is becoming more and more important in our times because the answers are going to be provided by technology. So asking the better question is now probably one of the competitive advantages you can have as a human being compared to technology.”

Shaping the Future and Finding Happiness

Chris: Many of us, perhaps most of us, and I include myself here as well, we're asking questions such as, “What does the future hold?”, for example. I think it's natural for us to want to understand what's next, what's after that, and how can we adapt. Maybe that's coming from the past, right? Observing and adapting is something that humans are quite good at. It's a skill that we've evolved over millions of years, adapting to threats and to ourselves and the community we're in. So we've always been on the lookout for what might threaten us. It comes with some sort of negativity bias, giving more weight to the negative things because they might be threatening us. So we may be a little bit more tuned to the negative side. And we've seen many very impactful events in recent years stacking up on top of each other that we have seen the pandemic. We've seen technology advances. We are going to see much more of it in the future. And that's, of course, creating a sense of accelerating change. So it's not surprising that we want to understand the future and what the future holds for us as individuals. But still, many do think of it in a negative sense, like “What's coming, and how can I protect myself from what's coming?”, “How can I be resilient?” versus “How can I be anti-fragile and benefit from it?”, “How do you think about the future?”. So Frederik, what's your way of thinking about the future?

Frederik: Yes. Every human being is thinking about the future all the time, right? It's just natural, as you described. And it's important. I think that's a good thing, right? For me, when thinking about the future, I ask myself “How do I feel?”. And I want to shoot that question back to you and our listeners, “When you think about the future, how do you feel?”. Like, “How do you really feel at this moment?”, “What's the word that comes to your mind that would describe your feeling?” Is it anxiety? Are you scared? Are you hopeful or optimistic? Rather unsure or do you feel out of control? All of those things appear in our mind over time because one day we might feel very excited, and very optimistic if we have a plan for the future. For example, when vacation is coming up, and we have everything planned and everything sorted out, and we've booked everything, right? And that gives us a sense of security, right? Then we feel good about the future. We can't wait for that day to come when we go to that destination or whatever the travel might be about. And there are other times when we wake up, and feel unsure. We feel like, “Oh, I don't know what's going to happen today.” And we are seeking that security. Right? We look for this, “What will the future bring?” And then the worst thing you can do, is to check your phone, and you look at the news, or you look at social media, or you look at some type of information platform that gives you a sense of security, right? That gives you an indication of like, oh, this is going to happen. So what I think we need to change first is that question. We need to change the question from what will the future bring to what future do I want to create? Because that might lead to the first act you're doing in the morning, not being on your phone, but being in a state of mind that is probably more open, that is more in control, but also, engages in stuff that you want to do, that you feel like is going to create the future you want to see happening, right? Do you want to say a couple of kind words to your partner, or do you want to hug your kids, or do you want to call someone and tell them how grateful you are for something they've done, or do you want to engage in some creative work, right? Like writing or all of those things. And that's where you take control of your future a little bit more, right? And so... Again, it's normal to feel nervous, when we think about the future. We feel sometimes excited. We feel fearful. We feel hopeful. All of those things come to mind because the future, by definition, is unknown, and it makes us feel out of control. But it doesn't have to be scary. It doesn't have to be that way. And if you change the question towards “What future do I want to create?” and “How do I want to be in the future?” I think you are starting to move towards something that I describe as a future-ready mind state that allows you to see more opportunities, but also to allow for more opportunities that you find, and how you create that state of mind, that future-ready state of mind.

Chris: I guess this is the centerpiece of your book that you have written. And I was able to get a sneak peek into that. And I can tell it's worth reading. And we're going to make sure we link this book in the show notes of this episode as well. And in the book, one of the things you do is, as you said, make a clear distinction between what is audio control For example, there might be technological advances created by open AI that are not within most people's control, except for maybe the people that work in there. But then some things are within your control, right? So what do you think, and how do you feel about change? How are you going to respond to it? And how do you think of your future self and your future? Now, I guess on one of the front pages of your book, you document you have three children, right? How do you teach this mind state to your children?

Frederik: It's a great question, yes. As mentioned, I’ve worked with remarkable people over more than a decade and even longer than that, at Stanford at Google and in other organizations, and just around the world. Everywhere I've met incredible people. And all that I found, I tried to synthesize and put into a format that gives people access to their own, let's say genius, right? Their way of creating the future. I like to see that mind state not as a framework, right? Because life is not a framework and the world is not a framework. And so what I mean by a mind state is our moment-to-moment perspective, right? It's that dynamic lens shaped by our current thoughts and feelings that guides how we interact with the world. And this is short-term. It's moment to moment, right? So it's also changeable and trainable. Becoming aware of your mindset is the first step you can take. But then trying to shift those mind states or what I call dimensions of your mind state is something that has always been proven to help you to find more opportunities in the future. And that's what I found in my work with all these great people. And I distilled it down into five dimensions. And these dimensions are, radical optimism, unreserved openness, compulsive curiosity, it's perpetual experimentation, expensive empathy, and dimension X, which is the sixth dimension. And those five dimensions of optimism, openness, curiosity, experimentation, and empathy are all deeply human qualities that we have. But what I found is that whenever people dialed these qualities up, when they're elevated, they always found new opportunities. They always discovered something new and more opportunities found them. And so those five dimensions really paint a vibrant picture of someone who is eager to embrace life's possibilities, right? They always find new opportunities, and opportunities can then find them. And before I go to that question on how to teach that to your children, which I think is an important question, and I am happy to answer that, I think being optimistic means you'll approach the future with hope and confidence, right? Seeing opportunities in every challenge. Then being open suggests you a readiness to experience new ideas cultures and perspectives and really enrich your understanding of the world. And being curious keeps that spark of learning alive, right? That we talked about, asking questions, driving you to explore, and asking these things that you always wanted to know. Being experimental indicates your willingness to try new things learn from successes and failures, and truly innovate. And lastly, being empathetic shows a deep understanding and compassion for others, fostering a strong and meaningful relationship with them. What it makes so powerful is that combination of these dimensions, when they're fully amplified and dialed up. They form a way of looking at the world and interacting with it that reveals potential all around you. You literally start seeing more opportunities. Now this sounds, in the first place, too good to be true, right? But what I've done in the book is, I featured 14 remarkable individuals that I've all worked with, trained, and coached over the years at Google. And these individuals just embrace those dimensions in a very specific way. And I think when you read those stories, you feel very inspired, but you also feel very empowered because you see that these people could be you and me, right? Christian, it could be you, it could be me, it could be like your neighbor, it could be your co-worker, your team member, it could be anybody. And I think that the power I wanted to share is that anyone can shape their future. If they're a little bit more optimistic, a little bit more open, a little bit more curious, a little bit more experimental, and a little bit more empathetic. And combine these five, not as a framework, but just being aware that these are all dimensions that we already have when we look at the world. You just need to shift your mindset towards activating those. We can maybe go into a quick exercise or example that I like to use with my children a lot because it shows how we can use language to activate openness and optimism. Let's focus on those two, right? In a technique that's called reframing. So first, I help my children to move away from saying no and trying to say more yes. Sounds easy? It's probably the most difficult thing you can do. Because again, our brains are just hardwired to go with a no immediately, right? Because the “No” is a very safe place. And our brain likes to be in a safe place, right? Because if you say “No” to something it might be a new idea, a new technology, a new restaurant you go to, a new vacation destination, a new workplace, right? Or a new person you're going to meet. “No” puts you into a safe space immediately, right? And you're like, “Oh, I don't have to talk to that stranger.” or “I don't have to work with this person I've never worked with.” or “I don't have to try new food.” or “I don’t have to check out this new destination.”. So “No” is the immediate answer that comes to our mind when anything new is happening. It's a protection mechanism that you have built-in. And what I'm trying to do is give my kids an opportunity to say “Yes” more often, right? Because as soon as they say “yes”, they open up to new possibilities. It's risky. I agree. And our brain doesn't like risk a lot, right? It likes to protect us. But as soon as you say that “yes”, you agree to something and you step into something new. Right? Something is going to happen. And so I took that to the extreme and I did a couple of “yes” days with my kids where I role-modeled saying yes to everything they were asking. So we agreed it's 24 hours and pick a kid. And I said, okay, today is the day where we as parents say “yes” to everything you're asking for. Sounds risky in the first place, right? Because we always go to that. It does, actually. I was thinking about it. Yeah. First, it's really fun, right? Like what the kids want to ask for, but then you really model that and what the kids find is that they find what they value. So of course they're asking for everything, like what they can do or what they want to have and so on. And as soon as you say “yes” and say, “OK”, let's do it, they might immediately see there's not so much value in getting a big thing or a big item or whatever it is. But there's more value in maybe doing a family experience that we've never done. And so just practicing saying “yes” to everything gets them into a mode of discovering something new and seeing new opportunities and, and trying something new as well. That's the interesting thing, I highly recommend. And you can do that as a team lead as well, right? Or as a person in a relationship, right? Just trying to say “yes” to more things and see where that takes you. But then there's a second technique that I want to share with you, which is trying to replace the word but with “an”d. In our language, we like to use the word “but”, right? I give an example briefly in a minute, but it's also a stop sign in our minds, because “but” really is where it says, “OK, but don't go further here”. And it permits you to not proceed. Let me give you an example. So if I would ask you, Christian, remember the last time you said a sentence with “but”. And I would ask you to write that down. Now, probably you're thinking, “OK, I have that sentence.” but you're also thinking, “Oh, I'm now in a podcast and I have great technology around me, but I don't have a pen.” So you say to yourself, I would like to write that sentence down, but I don't have a pen. I'm just assuming.Tell me if I'm wrong. So your mind immediately goes with a “but”. And here you are, your mind giving you an excuse to not do something because you don't have a pen. Now swap the “but” with an “and”. So you say, “I would like to write that sentence down, and I don't have a pen”. See the opportunity. Now you're open to, “Okay, now I'll find a solution.”. It's not an excuse now, because the “but” is an excuse to not proceed. Now you have permission to actually find a solution. You say to yourself, okay, I'm going to find a pen. So if we broaden that, and we say like, “Oh I would like to get more physically and mentally fit but I don't have much time.”, right? Excuse number one. Swap that “but” with an “and”: “I would like to get more physically and mentally fit, and I don't have much time.”. It's such a simple but powerful reframe that allows you to now go into a solution space where you say, “Okay, and I don't have much time, what can I find as a solution?”. So the “and” eliminates the excuse and puts a light on what you could or should be doing. And I think that's a very powerful thing. So swap the “but” with an “and”, first a great start, but then proceed or swap the “but” with an “and” and then proceed with a “yes” and, and try to build on the ideas of others. So that's an even more advanced technique, but start with yes, swap the “BUTs” with “ANDs”, and I think we are on a good way to being more optimistic and more open.

“We need to change the question from ‘What will the future bring?’ to ‘What future do I want to create?’ because that might lead to the first act you're doing in the morning not being on your phone but being in a state of mind that is probably more open.”

Chris: So now imagine you have the typical Joe or the typical Jane that wakes up the next morning after listening to your podcast and probably reading your book for some time. They get breakfast, they get coffee, they get matcha tea, whatever they like. Then, after saying bye to the family, they commute to the desk, wherever the desk is, could be in their home, it could be in their garden dome, it could be in the office, in the cubicle, whatever it is, and then they get to work. And probably in the majority of cases, it takes five seconds, and “boom”, they're back in their muscle memory of working towards the goals they were asked to work towards, being - and I'm phrasing this a little bit negatively - being bombarded with requests from their co-workers, from the bosses, from the leaders, from the team leads, from everybody. So, of course, sometimes they say “No”. But if you combine that with the idea of corporate innovation, there are probably thousands of opportunities for people in companies, even the big companies, to have a career, to be creative, and to contribute with ideas. And then they might hit a roadblock because some other people say, “Well, no!”. Or they say, “But we have to deliver quarterly goals.” or “We can't pursue this thing because we really need to report progress on this quarter.” because sales numbers are not these stories, probably from your corporate background as well. So one thing is, you have this personal perspective on the mindset for sure. And that's a very practical thing and very small but with a good compounding effect. The thing that you could do like the ones that you just shared on the company side, on the corporate side, what is something that both leaders, but also, you know, companies as a whole that want to move forward, want to stay ahead of their competition, and want to outperform the competition? What are some of the steps that they can take? Is it that they just train their people in this future state of mind because the company is just a collection of people at the end of the day? But how do you make the connection to innovation and being a future-ready company as a whole?

Frederik: Yes, wonderful question. And I think you already answered it, right? Organizations are collections of individuals, of people, right? And it's really hard for me to change somebody else, right? So if you have this colleague who always says "no" or you have this boss or leader who always says "no" or is not open to new ideas or doesn't like innovation or just talks more about the past than the future. And we all know these people, and you can change them. But I don't think that's an effort you should make, right? What I think you can do is train your own mind, right? And see what happens because that's the only thing you can change is yourself and the way you think. And I'm not saying you need to change who you are, because that's not true. It's not changing who you are. It's about changing what you see. So the focus and how you perceive what you see. Is it an obstacle or is it an opportunity? So the thing itself isn't changing either, by the way, right? You are changing your relationship with the thing by looking at it differently. Let's use an example from my past, when I submitted my PhD thesis, which I, really, worked hard on for five and a half years. So when I submitted it, the advisor said, “No, we won't accept it, right, it's declined.”. And even today when talking about that story my heart still beats faster. You have a specific emotional reaction to it, right? You literally feel like you freeze, right? I had a lot of anxiety because I thought the future was going to be horrible because all the dreams I had, which I built up to that day, were squished and destroyed. So how do you get out of that, right? There are a couple of techniques and ways you can get out of that mindset of first anger, and also blaming others. You feel like, “Oh, this is a horrible person. Why can they decline this thing and reject it?” And you have to deal with all of these emotions and thoughts that are coming up in such a moment. So one easy trick in such a situation is to get into your body. Go for a walk, get some fresh air. Walking helps with your creativity, and walking helps with changing your mind state. It's a very simple thing, but there's a tremendous amount of research now coming out that literally getting into your body when you even focus on your breath and kind of like take a couple of deep breaths or like go for a walk helps you to literally change your perspective. So that's what I did. And then I saw this actually not as an obstacle to my future, but as an opportunity. Because, you know, this helped me to spend another six months of deep work on making this the most remarkable work for myself. And what I then found is, that when I resubmitted it, right, after six months of days and nights of hard work I scored an A, or a one, or a magna cum laude in the language of academia, which is outstanding work. And would I have just gone with the first attempt? That would have probably not led me to that grade or that outcome, right? And blaming others is not helping. You can only change the way you think about these things. And then you approach it, and that ended up being like probably the best thing that could have happened to me at that time because that led to even better work and a better outcome. And so if we put that into the context of like an organization or a corporate, sometimes we feel like, “Oh, we have to ask for permission.”, for example, to do something, to pursue an idea, to run an experiment, to try something new. Don't ask for that permission, just give it a try. And if people are rejecting it or pushing back on you, that might be a great opportunity to give it another try, to use another angle, to make it even better. And that also helped me to move forward. In organizations, what I found specifically at Google and what I invested a lot of time in building a culture around were two things: The first one, is a culture of freedom. Give people the freedom to pursue their passions, experiment, try new things, and really find that excitement about the new stuff, about the future. The second one is about psychological safety. People need to feel a sense of safety and security to really feel that they can try something new and are allowed to make mistakes. And if things are not working out the way they intended it to work out, that's totally fine. You give it another try. And that psychological safety is something that you can role model as a leader in every organization and every team. Where you share what you've tried, what you've learned, what didn't work out, what worked out, and so forth. And with me sharing my story of my PhD thesis being rejected, I'm admitting that my first attempt didn't work out. So I'm vulnerable, I'm open and I show that this is okay. And as soon as you do that, others might feel the same and they might follow you. And so you start slowly building that, psychological safety in an environment where people like to take risks again, where they like to step out of their comfort zones and like to try something new as well. But it always starts with you.

Chris: It does. And I was just thinking, there is, for example, a different school of thought, getting it right the first time. And yes, this might be more applicable to I don't know, if you, for example, build a machine for health care purposes, and you fuck up the machine and the first 50 patients die, well, probably that's a problem, right? There may be fewer margins for error and experimentation. But that's not the majority of people working in corporates today. I mean, sure, it's important.

Frederik: Can I interrupt you for a second? It's exactly that example I heard a lot. I was talking to a lot of pharmacy companies and organizations in that industry, and everybody provided me with that excuse. We can't experiment because there are lives at risk. Exactly. My challenge to you would then be: Try to find different experiments. Maybe your approach to experimentation is then not the one that allows you to make safe-to-fail experiments that are cheap, fast, and that provide the learnings that you want to learn as quickly as possible. Then your experimentation is just not the way of finding the right learnings quickly enough and safely enough. And so you have to change the approach to experimentation. And don't use that as an excuse to not try something, because the worst thing is, that you don't try, because if you don't try, you will never come up with a new solution, a new idea, or new technology that potentially will actually save people's lives. And it's a very good example that you're providing, and sorry for interrupting, but I think it's totally going towards that notion of our mind just giving us all these excuses for not doing something. It's the “no” that tells you, “no”, I can't experiment because… And then you have like a list of reasons why you shouldn't do that. What I wanted to shift people towards is thinking, I can try an experiment. I can try something different, and I can learn something quickly here so that I understand how this actually will work in the future.

Chris: 100%. This is exactly the issue, right? So you have all these people. And actually, that could be senior leaders. That could be anyone in a company that's saying, well, this is something we just have been doing this forever since the way we're doing it right now. It kind of works. It produces operational results. Why should we change? Why should we start experimenting? Maybe I want to secure the next five years in this corporate chair that I'm sitting at. Maybe I'm climbing up the corporate ladder for some time. Why should I create an environment for experimentation, risk, and failure if I'm OK? So you have all these resistances in organizations driven by people. It's not the organization that is resisting. It's people, as you rightly said, it's people in the organization. So there you are confronted with all these things.

Frederik: Yeah. Absolutely. And that's why people have a choice. Everybody has a choice. If you want to be that person who doesn't invent the future for yourself or others, totally fine. You know, if you feel like you want to be in a comfortable place doing the same things over and over again, talking more about the past and the future, it's your choice. You can do that. But if you feel like, “Hey, I have an opportunity to shape my destination, to shape my path forward, to shape the future, and want to create a better future for myself and others.” You can choose that, and you can do that. And we shouldn't engage in brainstorming or finding the most excuses. Or the best excuses. Why not do that? I think we should engage in a brainstorm. Like, what can I do right now at this moment that helps me to create a better next? And I shared a couple of those things that you can do, right? Be more optimistic in the first place, right? So you see an opportunity, and you can see opportunities in everything, in every situation. Sometimes situations are out of our control, as we discussed, right? I can't choose if an accident happens to me. I can't decide if a pandemic is happening. You mentioned the example of we couldn't choose that an AI is launched that is changing a lot of things in our world, but we can choose our response to that. Are we optimistic that this provides an opportunity? Are we open to these ideas? Are we curious enough to ask the right questions? Are we using experimentation to give those things a try? Either pandemic, experimenting with different ways of working or living. Or when November 2020, asking you that question, how did you feel on that day, right? When OpenAI launched at GPT, their first model? Were you kind of like anxious or afraid or scared or, did you feel excited and see lots of opportunities? You can decide. It's the situation you can't change, but you can change the response to it and decide how you want to move forward. And I think that's what's where the power lies. If we stop complaining and saying “I can't decide what's next because of my partner, my boss, government, technology, climate change…”, you know, every crisis, you name it. The list is long. The list is very long. And we live in very dynamic times. Totally agree. But ask yourself, what can you control? And the only thing you can control is your way of thinking, right? What do you think about those things? And if you feel a little bit more optimistic again, a little bit more open, and the other dimensions that I shared, I guarantee you're going to have a chance to actually invent that future that you always wanted to see happen.

The key to happiness

Chris: So Frederik, I couldn't ask for a better summary of what we just discussed in the last hour or so. So this has been a fantastic conversation. But before the conversation ends, we do have a new tradition on this podcast. It's a very simple one. So the previous guest leaves a question for my next guest without knowing who my next guest is and what we're going to talk about. So I had my previous guest posing the following question, and the question is for you. It's a very simple question. It only has three words, but it's maybe not as simple as it appears at first sight. The question that has been left for you, Frederick, is: “Are you happy?”.

Frederik: Oh, wow. That's a powerful question that is definitely on my mind all the time, and I believe it's probably on everybody's mind. I would answer it with a strong “yes”. And there is a reason for it. I just recently connected with a good friend of mine, Robert Waldinger. He is a professor at Harvard University, and he actually conducted the longest study on happiness. He's also a Zen master. So we spent hours talking about mindfulness and meditation. But what he came up with really impressed me. And this is kind of my answer to your question about why I'm happy. What they've found in 80 years of happiness research, and I think it's the longest study ever done on the subject, is that social connections have a profound effect on our well-being, which means that close relationships, actually more than money or fame, keep people happy throughout their lives. This study, one of the longest of its kind, again, has shown that individuals who are more socially connected to family, friends, and community are happier, physically healthier, and live longer than people who are less well-connected. And also the quality of these relationships really matters. So high quality, warm, and supportive relationships linked to better health and happiness I think is a convincing argument for me to invest every day a good amount of time or probably the most amount of time in these connections, right? So I'm here with my three kids every day and with my wife. I invest very much time in talking to my friends, connecting with them, have them over at our place. And just spending time with friends and in your community and, really nurturing these connections, I think is a great source of happiness. And I think the interesting thing isn’t money or fame, right? What used to be probably on many people's lists. It was never on my list because I really early understood that this is not providing any happiness. It's actually the opposite. And more and more people feel like these relationships can actually be a great source of happiness. And this gives me a lot of hope that the more you reconnect with your friends, the more you establish new connections those new connections and empathize with each other, how wonderful of a place that would be. And if we show a little bit more kindness to each other, I think we are on a good way to also create a better future for everyone. And I think it's an outlook that makes me really radically optimistic.

“Social connections have a profound effect on our well-being, more than money or fame. Close relationships keep people happier, physically healthier, and living longer.”

Chris: So your answer is a clear “yes”, I guess. And you gave some reasons for that. I guess everybody who's listening to this podcast episode now can, maybe in the next five minutes when they don't go on autopilot, actually think about this themselves. Frederik, it was a pleasure for this episode. Thank you so much for being my guest on this episode and sharing your background and also your recent work on the book. Again, very nice piece of work. Congratulations on this. And we'll make sure we are going to look at the show notes and maybe leave one or two copies on the table here around in our offices. I guess it's worth it. So, thanks for your time.

Frederik: Thank you so much, Christian. Thanks for having me, and see you in the future.

Chris: And to our listeners, if you haven't subscribed to this podcast yet, please go ahead and do so. It's a small thing, and it will help us continue to make the show better and better. So my promise to you is that we'll continue to do our best to deliver exceptional value at no cost to you. So if you're already not a subscriber, please go subscribe now. Thanks for listening. Take care and bye-bye.

Check out Frederik's book we talk about in this episode: "What's Next is Now." 

About the authors

Dr. Christian Mühlroth is the host of the Innovation Rockstars podcast and CEO of ITONICS. Dr. Frederik G. Pferdt is Google's first Chief Innovation Evangelist and author of the insightful new book, "What's Next is Now." 

The Innovation Rockstars podcast is a production of ITONICS, provider of the world’s leading Operating System for Innovation. Do you also have an inspiring story to tell about innovation, foresight, strategy, or growth? Then shoot us a note!