2-13: "The Explorer" - Kara DeFrias

Kara-DeFrias.jpg

"The Explorer"

It would take a longer podcast to describe all of the places that Kara DeFrias has worked - the Oscars, the Emmys, the Women’s World Cup, The Super Bowl, and the Obama White House, to name a few.

She’s passionate, funny, caring and a survivor. A three-times survivor. She was fired once two days after starting a job. 

So this week’s theme is Curiosity.

And this week’s episode is called, “The Explorer”.


Three Takeaways

  • Turn failure into success.

  • See new situations as learning opportunities.

  • Put other people at the center.


"FEARLESS CREATIVE LEADERSHIP" PODCAST - TRANSCRIPT

Episode 2-13: "The Explorer" - Kara DeFrias

Hi. I’m Charles Day. And this is ‘Fearless’.

It would take a longer podcast to describe all of the places that Kara DeFrias has worked - the Oscars, the Emmys, the Women’s World Cup, The Super Bowl, and the White House, to name a few.

She’s passionate, funny, caring and a survivor. A three-times survivor. She was fired once two days after starting a job. 

So this week’s theme is Curiosity.

And this week’s episode is called, “The Explorer”.

“I have a personal belief that the world is so big and there's so many things to try. In my opinion, focusing on one of them would be the most boring life. So I'm of the opinion, like I want to try all of it, and that's what I've been trying to do for the past 15, 20 years. I've been trying to try all of that.” 

Woody Allen once said that ninety percent of life is just showing up. I’m not sure that Woody Allen is a personal reference for much of anything that I think is important in life - though Play it again Sam was pretty great, and Midnight in Paris made me rethink romanticizing the past. 

But in this case, I think he’s onto something. Leadership is a lot about showing up. It’s about being curious about yourself and discovering what sparks the fire within.

 And it’s about showing up for the people that work for. Being curious about them. That’s when they get engaged and bring all of themselves, emotionally as well as physically, to work.

As the leader, it’s hard to find the time - day in and day out - to prioritize curiosity above things that don’t have a direct line to your schedule today . The tsunami of meetings, and decisions that come at the leader every day, fill a calendar to overflowing. And that’s before anything goes wrong.

But being curious about the people that work for you, finding out what matters to them and motivates them, will take you and your business further than any strategy meeting.

Or put another way, Curiosity powers culture.

And as we all know, culture eats strategy for breakfast.

Here’s Kara DeFrias.


Charles:

Kara, welcome to Fearless. Thank you so much for being here.

Kara DeFrias:

Thank you for having me, Charles. This is exciting.

Charles:

What's your first memory of creativity? When did you first recognize creativity as a thing in your life?

Kara DeFrias:

Oh, that's a good question. The first time I remember embarking on something that I had thought of on my own and I was really proud of the outcome was when I was about three-years-old. My parents took me down to Disney World before my little brother was born, and as part of the trip we went to SeaWorld. And I remember after the whale show where Shamu does the big splash on everybody, we're getting ready to leave and my parents go out of the aisle and they make a left. And I decided I was going to show them I was a big girl and I was going to go to the right, and then I would meet them out at the main gate because I knew how to get there and I wanted to show them, like, "Look, I can do this on my own."

Needless to say, by the time I met back with them, they were less than pleased I had decided to leave them, so that was probably my first memory of going out on my own, deciding to do something and just doing it.

Charles:

Were you a risk-taker growing up? Was that typical for you?

Kara DeFrias:

I was. I climbed trees as high as I could, I played a lot of sports. I really didn't ... I wouldn't say I got into the traditional way we define creativity till probably college. But before then it was always, "I'm going to go try this thing, and who knows if it's going to work out or not but at least I tried."

Charles:

Did your parents support that, or what was their reaction when you were climbing trees as high as you could reach?

Kara DeFrias:

It was, "Just don't get hurt." I spent a lot of time in the hospitals with broken bones and blown out knees and things like that. But I will say, my mother always instilled in me, from a young age, that I should always ask and I should always try, because the worst they can say is, "No," and the worst that could happen is you learn something.

Charles:

I think that's such good advice. I had a great faculty advisor at college. I didn't do very well in college but I did listen to this piece of advice. He said, "No is just an invitation to start a different conversation."

Kara DeFrias:

Oh, you know what? I have a friend, in that vein, Marissa Fenton and her thing is, "Never take a no from somebody not qualified to give you a yes."

Charles:

That's good. That's good. How many businesses are built on that premise?

Kara DeFrias:

Right?

Charles:

It's extraordinary how many people in any given room have the ... somehow mastered the power to say no. But you look around and think, "Who in this room could actually say yes?" It's not often. It's not often very evident, actually.

Kara DeFrias:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Charles:

So, childhood led to education. Where did you go to school, where did you study?

Kara DeFrias:

So, funny enough, I had spent my entire childhood, from probably five till senior high school, playing soccer. I played club soccer, in school I played on the team for the school, and I thought I was going to go to college and play soccer there, and eventually go beyond. And I got to college freshman year and I didn't make the team. And I was devastated because I didn't know what to do, because soccer had been in my life for so long. And I was walking down the student center hallway and I saw a flyer on the wall for a Brendan Behan play called The Hostage. It's an Irish playwright, he's an Irish playwright. And I thought, "Well, I have nothing to do this fall now other than studies, so I'm half-Irish, I can do a great accent, I'll try out."

And, Charles, that changed my life. I made the play, I got cast, I was also asked by the director who was the head of the theater program to come on as the dialect coach, to teach everybody how to do different Irish accents. And in that black box theater at Elizabethtown College in a little town in the middle of Amish country in central Pennsylvania, that is where I found my voice. That is where, I would say, the true creativity started because I realized I could do or be anything in that black box theater.

So I decided, I had come into college as a physical therapy major, obviously with sports. It was something that was very near and dear to my heart, and I think I got a two-one-eight my first semester, a 2.18 GPA, and I realized it probably wasn't for me. So I switched to English and theater, so both programs. And in theater, you're supposed to pick either the acting track or the tech track, and I loved both so much I couldn't pick, so I did both.

That's where it really ... this pushing my limits even more. Because I think growing up, and the stories we were talking about earlier, it was more physically pushing myself. It wasn't mentally or intellectually. And the theater really brought all that out in me, and just sparked this flame that continues to this day. But whenever anybody asked, "How are you such a good speaker," or, "Why do you do so many talks?" or, you know, "You're always in front of people." And I just say, "It's theater. The black box is where I found my voice," and I tell the story that senior of high school and advanced English we were all supposed to write a graduation speech, and then the teachers were going to pick the best one. It had to be five minutes long, so I wrote a five minute speech that, when we got up to deliver them in front of the class to get graded, I delivered in about 48 seconds. I was an awful speaker.

So when I say I found my voice in the black box, I truly did. I learned how to stand, I learned how to project, I learned how to use vocal variety to my advantage, and to coax that out of others as well. That is truly, if you look at the phases of your life and the huge impactful moments of change, the director of the theater, Michael Sevareid, he changed my life and he changed the trajectory forever.

Charles:

So if you had made the soccer team, none of that would have happened.

Kara DeFrias:

If I had made the soccer team, we wouldn't be talking right now.

Charles:

But on a serious note ... to your point, that's a massive transition, to go from your entire focus being athletically oriented outside kicking a ball on grass with other people, to suddenly being inside performing on a stage, more often than not by yourself. Was there anything in your past that suggested to you that that was a path to take, or was this really a moment of, "I'm going to do something utterly different. Here's the thing I might try."

Kara DeFrias:

That's a great question. No one's ever asked me that.

I think I've always been the ringleader. I've always been ... I think that's why the tech side of theater was so appealing to me. I've always been a ringleader, I've always been an organizer, I've always been the person arranging all the things down to the details, which I think is why, in a later career when I started doing experience design, that's where all that came in handy, as well as when I worked in entertainment.

But I can't look back and say anything other than perhaps sharing my favorite book growing up was Anne of Green Gables, because she was a redhead, she talks a lot, she's often misunderstood, she's the person who, in her heart, she thinks she's doing the right thing, and sometimes she screws up. So I've always closely identified with Anne Shirley, to a fault.

Charles:

What's your relationship with fear?

Kara DeFrias:

I am terrified of heights. Oh, wait, let me back that up.

My friend Indra pointed out, I'm not terrified of heights, I'm terrified of falling, because I'm okay in planes, but anything else ... I'm terrified of falling and I think it's one of those where, if I talk to my friends about the trajectory, especially the past six years of my life has had working in government and then back to the private sector and then back to government again and then back to the private sector, I will try anything once. I will do bungee jumping. I will try some weird food, but probably not chocolate-covered crickets, that's just too weird.

But I will try anything once. You know, one of my mantras is, "Always say yes," but the things that scare me are more human-oriented about the people who are in my circles or who I care about or who I'm working for, like the people that I come to work to do work for. Not literally a boss or something. I'm thinking like customers. When I worked for the government, you know, people in the country. I get worried about that we're not doing enough for them and so how can we do it. So those are the things that worry me.

But personal fear, I don't know. I've beaten three different cancers so it takes a hell of a lot to scare me.

Charles:

Have you really?

Kara DeFrias:

Yeah. Yeah.

Charles:

How old were you when you got the first attack?

Kara DeFrias:

Well, the first one was in October of '99, the second and third one were both in 2010. I started off 2010 with uterine cancer which ended up in a full hysterectomy and I had to do in vitro fertilization to save my eggs, and then I finished off the year with another cancer, but luckily I just ... December 23rd, I celebrated my eight year anniversary of being cancer-free.

Charles:

Congratulations.

Kara DeFrias:

Thank you so much. Thank you so much. I think, so, when you asked the question about fear, I think so much of it comes to perspective, because both having worked in government and having had cancer, are things where I'm like, "When things come up, it's more of a ... but what's the really important thing here, and what's the thing that ... what should I actually be worried about?"

Charles:

When you were diagnosed the first time, what was your instinctive reaction to that?

Kara DeFrias:

Oh, that's a great question. I was actually working at a PR firm at the time. That's a great story that I've never done PR in my life but I had just moved to San Diego, I just gotten laid off two days after I got there, because I was working for a national company, so they didn't care where you lived. But I got laid off two days before I got there. The company had known for six weeks I was moving so I'm pretty sure they were not human and did not have hearts.

But I picked up the Yellow Pages and I went to publications, because being an English major I figured, you know, I can talk a dog off a chuck wagon, I can write really well, I'll just see if Marcoa or somebody in town, because I was living in San Diego at the time, was hiring. Nobody was. And next in the Yellow Pages are public relations. The first place I called said, "We just decided to hire a new senior PR manager today. You want to come down for an interview?" And the next day I had it.

So, when you talk about fear, there's also the flip side of fear-less, and that was an example of, “I’ll just call. All they can say is no.” So about four-and-a-half months into that job, I was sitting in my office, I had a mole on my arm that I had been watching since I was about 12, and I was in my mid-20s. And the mole had started to change so I went to the doctor. The doctor said, "It's nothing. Keep an eye on it." And I said, "You don't understand. I've been looking at this thing for 12 years. It's something. It used to be just light brown, now it's purple," and she said, "I'm not writing a referral for you." And I looked at her and said, "I am not leaving this office until you do." And she said, "I can call security." And I said, "I work in PR. I can call the local NBC affiliate. Which one do you want to happen?"

Charles:

Wow.

Kara DeFrias:

So, thankfully, I stood my ground because it was ... that was the first cancer.

Charles:

Wow. What was her reaction when she ... Did you see her again after it was diagnosed?

Kara DeFrias:

Oh, no. No, no, no, no.

Charles:

Well, that was it. So she was just the gateway to get you to the right person.

Kara DeFrias:

Yup. Yup.

Charles:

So you had to knock that door open. Good heavens. What a story.

Kara DeFrias:

I know. I know.

Charles:

What was your reaction to discovering it was cancer?

Kara DeFrias:

Oh, yes. So, I'm sitting ... they do the biopsy and I'm sitting in my office and they called to say, "We have the results. It's malignant." And I just remember, it felt like a wave crashed over me that was just heavy and I couldn't breathe, but I knew I had to write everything down because my mom's a nurse and she'd want to know exactly the terminology they used when I called her, because I knew in that moment she was the next call.

And so, they wrote down it was malignant melanoma, .33 millimeters I think was the size. I wrote down a bunch of other things and I just hung up the phone and collapsed on my desk. And I'll never forget my manager coming in and he said, "What's wrong?" And I told him through the sobs, and he said, "Well, you might as well stay at work because if you go home it will just make you think about it more."

I will never forget how small I felt at that moment, because that was the worst possible thing he could have said to me. So, I shut the door, got on the phone with my mom, I told her everything, and I remember saying, "Mom, I don't remember much about high school latin, but mal- is the bad one, right?" And she told me it was, we worked on a plan, she flew out. We cut it. I was cured. It was Stage 1, and then we went out to Catalina Island to celebrate for the weekend. They'd gotten it all.

Charles:

Wow. Were you suddenly conscious of your mortality? I mean, were you getting to that point in some of your thought process?

Kara DeFrias:

You know, the mortality didn't kick in until the third one. It doesn't really kick in on the first one, at least for me. I mean, everyone's going to be different. It wasn't so much mortality as a "Why me," moment. I thought, "I'm a good person, I try to do good in the world." I had been doing pro bono work for years. I'm a big person and I love volunteering to give back to my community, so it was more of a, "What did I do wrong?" Not to deserve this, because I don't think people deserve things. It was more like, "Did I not put enough good in a bucket somewhere? Was I not, like, not being a great enough human somehow." So it was more of that than mortality.

Charles:

It's funny, isn't it, how we sit and instinctively look at the world through the lens of being judged by something or somebody or-

Kara DeFrias:

Yeah.

Charles:

... and that somehow if we were different, things would be different.

Kara DeFrias:

Yeah. Yeah. It's kind of crazy, isn't it?

Charles:

Yeah. It's a strange ... it seems to be built into a lot of us, I think. It's a strange perception. It's a strange reality to walk around with, I think.

Kara DeFrias:

And I don't think any of us do good, or pro bono, or volunteering, because we want good to happen to us, right? I think it's because it's the innate want to help others. But in that moment my brain was like, "Well, did I not do enough?"

Charles:

Yeah. I can completely understand that.

Kara DeFrias:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Charles:

As you said, when you got to the third diagnosis, and you were now confronting ... to your point, you were now confronting your own mortality, how did you deal with that? How did you put a push through that?

Kara DeFrias:

Yeah, it was 2010, it was hard, because you start with it and it was a big one, and then you end with, "It was another malignant melanoma, this time on my foot, the first one had been on my arm, what was it, eleven years prior." This is one of those, and I haven't told this story publicly before, so ... For me, once you've had three, and I've had a couple of scares, a breast cancer scare and they found a tumor in my back at one point, it was the size of a golf ball, and those both came back benign, thankfully. But there's some days where, you're like ... am I just ...

If you look at statistical significance, right? Like, you get it once in your life, that's enough. You get it three times. But then there's a point, it's like, "Am I just sitting around waiting for the fourth one?" And that was the first couple of months after the third one, was like, “Am I sitting around waiting for the fourth one?” And now you're looking at 2011, and finally I said, "No, I'm not. There's too much good in this world and there is too much beauty in my friends, my family, the country, to have that kind of thought." So that's when you just kind of double down on doing the best you can and being the best person you can be, and trying to make the biggest difference you can in the world.

Charles:

So, from that standpoint, you changed your behavior or you became more conscious of what you were going to do and how you were going to show up?

Kara DeFrias:

Yeah, I did. I approached ... I looked at opportunities markers. Up until that point, the mantra had been, "Always say yes," and it was like, I worked in entertainment, I worked in pro sports, I worked like ... up until that point, I had done so much and so many varied things. So, after the third one is when I really started looking critically and saying, "With my unique set of skills and abilities and talent, instead of just doing something where it's a paycheck, am I doing things that I truly believe align with my values?"

Charles:

And the answer came back.

Kara DeFrias:

The answer came back about a year later, and I saw a tweet from Todd Park, who was the US Chief Technology Officer at the time looking for a few good women and men to serve their country in the first class of Presidential Innovation Fellows, and that was it. I knew it. That was the thing. And so, that was an opportunity to do exactly everything we just talked about.

Charles:

You said, as you mentioned, you've done an extraordinarily diverse number of things, and had a lot of impact in a lot of different places. When you came out of school, how did that journey start to materialize for you? What were you drawn to and why?

Kara DeFrias:

Coming out of undergrad, I don't know what it was but I decided I didn't want to be 30 and not have tried California, because I was living in New Jersey at the time, because I was supposed to be a high school English teacher and I got to my final semester of student teaching and it just wasn't ... I didn't like the paperwork. I loved the students, I loved drawing out these ah-ha moments and getting them to this moment of clarity and fun and enjoyment, but I just didn't like the paperwork side, so I went into adult education in the sense of learning and development at companies. That was my true first career. Towards the end of college I had thought I was going to be a reporter for a while. I interned my final semester where I was a photojournalist, not a reporter.

I actually got offered a job to be the first full-time sports reporter at the paper upon graduation, and about two weeks before that I got called into the clips room, which is where, you know, back in the newspaper days before everything was digital, you would literally like clip out everything and file them. And the sports editor called me in and said, "You know, one of our former employees is moving back up from Florida. We're going to give this spot to him."

And I was so naïve back then because I didn't understand him. "Well, no, you said you're giving it to me. What do you mean, you're ... what is this, takesies backsies?" And so that kind of thwarted what I felt was going to be my first career, which I thought was going to be journalism, and instead became running a development, and I really enjoyed, again, working in a training department at a large company because I got to do things I found joy in, which is bringing out the best in people and helping them learn.

And like I said, two days after I got to San Diego, they laid about 75% of us off.

Charles:

So, has your spirit always been one of, "Let's just try this," and being conscious of things you want to experience? Is that always what has been part of who you are?

Kara DeFrias:

I think the desire and the curiosity to try new things has been there from the beginning. I think the story of leaving SeaWorld and going, "I'm going to chart my own course," was there. I think where ... it's been interesting because I've never decided that I had to be in one industry, or at one company, or one particular thing. I have a personal belief that the world is so big and there's so many things to try. In my opinion, focusing on one of them would be the most boring life. So I'm of the opinion, like I want to try all of it, and that's what I've been trying to do for the past 15, 20 years. I've been trying to try all of it.

Charles:

Does that come with a filter for you? Is there any limitation or restriction or areas of focus that matter to you? I mean, not to get too esoteric, but Simon Sinek talks about not just now company purpose or organizational purpose, but individual purpose. Have you got a purpose?

Kara DeFrias:

Yeah. You know it's funny, I work with Simon. I got invited ... I got involved with TEDx back in 2010 when it came to San Diego. I'd been a big TED fan for years, watching the talks online, and I heard we were getting a TEDx in San Diego and so I went to the website and I hit the volunteer forum, and in the box I said, “Listen, I don't know if you need any help, but I'm a huge fan. I'm willing to be your janitor. I don't care.” I said, "But if you think it matters, I worked on the Oscars, the Emmy's, and the Superbowl halftime show." And then five minutes later, the organizer called me, and he asked if I could direct the show. And I thought that was what an incredible opportunity. Not only to take my entertainment experience from Hollywood, but also to bring back my old theater days. But Simon, to bring it full circle. Simon was one of our speakers that first year. And it is one of those-

Charles:

You did that talk?

Kara DeFrias:

He was a speaker on our stage. I directed that show.

Charles:

Right, the one that he got famous for.

Kara DeFrias:

I think ... No, the famous one was Ted at Puget Sound. TedX Puget Sound. But we were one of the next shows after that one, where people were starting to really totally dig what he was screaming. But to your point, being involved with TedX and helping people tell their stories. And spread their ideas. That moment of moving to San Diego in '99, that's when it started going, what are my values? And what's important to me? So for example, growing up for me - if we went out to eat, you equated the quantity of food with the price you paid. Right, so if you got a $20 entrée, it better be a lot of food on the plate. And San Diego and California is where I really started learning it's about the quality. Is it coming from nearby? The three raviolis on your plate, they were made in the kitchen that morning. It's also when I started paying attention to shopping at small businesses. And giving back in my community.

So I would say it was probably mid-twenties and definitely the move to California from New Jersey where I started kind of formulating what is important to me about where I'm putting my time and effort. I started doing a lot pro bono in my mid-twenties. My criteria was has to be preferably women owned. Has to be LGBT friendly, and has to have a good presence in the community. So that's, I would say mid-twenties is when I really started shaping my perspective. And then in my mid-thirties is when I kind of came upon that aha moment of wait a minute, what's most important to me? And it was at the end of my fellowship. So I was in the first class of White House Presidential Innovation Fellows. And I had to make the decision if I stay in DC and try to find a gov job or go back to California and go back Intuit where I was working. And I was sitting in Ted's Bulletin on Barrack's Row. A dear friend, Andreas. And he said, "What do you want to do in your heart?" Like, what is your heart telling you?

And I just, I looked, and I said, "Andres, I want to be where I can do the most good for the most people." And it was one of those moments of like, Charles, like that's it. That's my purpose of being here. My purpose of being here is to make sure that as much as possible, I am putting myself in places and setting myself up for opportunities where I can do the most good for the most people.

Charles:

So everything now is filtered through that lens for you?

Kara DeFrias:

Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it doesn't always work. Right? I was just talking to a friend today that I think so much in life we have these black and white filters of the extremes, when in reality it's on a spectrum. Like I'm trying to be more pescatarian this year and not eat as much meat, but there's going to be times I want a chicken breast. But I shouldn't think of myself as a failure because I did it the one time. So I think it's about striving to do your personal ideals as much as you can. But then not beating yourself up if you can't do it all the time.

Charles:

Right. I think that's right. I mean, you have to have a standard to hold yourself to. But you can't sit there and shrink away from who you want to be because you're not always perfectly able to do that.

Kara DeFrias:

Right. Totally.

Charles:

As a quick sort of side bar, since you're talking about Ted. Obviously you've been around a lot of great speakers and a lot of not so great speakers. What are the best speakers bring to the table? How do the best speakers show up?

Kara DeFrias:

It's a great question. I think for me I always get a lot of energy around helping drill down to what is the actual idea worth spreading? What is the nugget? You know, I think people want to get up and tell their whole story? And if you can get them focused in on one part of their story that's impactful to them, or meaningful. And then blowing that out into a good talk, that's where I see people shine. And you know, the talk, the actual being on stage is one aspect of it. I think the other aspect it's what's behind you. And I really try to get people away from having PowerPoint or you know, doing too much. 'Cause I think people just think, oh let's put everything out there. And that's not the best experience for the audience. In fact, my favorite Ted Talk is Brian Stevenson's, We Need to Talk About an Injustice. He has nothing behind him. And it's so powerful to watch him. And focus on him.

Charles:

Yeah, that's an interesting reference actually. I did some work for a year or two with Ken Robinson. And traveled around with him a bit. And saw a lot of his different talks. And I think he's still got, what, the number, the first or second most watched Ted Talk of all time. The first one he gave. And to your very point actually, I mean, Kent has polio. He's had polio since he was four or five. And so getting on stage for him is a thing. And when he gets on stage, he just plants himself because his left leg is essentially useless. And so he can't move around the stage. So it's just him. No PowerPoint, nothing. And delivers this mesmerizing 18 minute conversation about how the education system is killing creativity in kids.

Kara DeFrias:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Charles:

And it's magical, right? I mean, to you your point, the power of the story, the power of the charisma of the speaker to be able to just capture the audience and hold them in their hand for 18 minutes. Which I actually think is the other aspect that Ted has brought to public speaking for anybody in any guise, which is it has proven that you can deliver world changing ideas in 18 minutes. And when I'm working with leaders, some of my clients, and I help them put together presentations and speeches and so on, one of my reference points for them these days is this should be shorter. Right? You can change the world in 18 minutes on Ted. Why do we need 40?

Kara DeFrias:

Well, and one of my little super powers when it comes to producing TedX events is when I first meet with a speaker, I'll know probably by the end of the call how long they need. Sometimes I'll say, oh, this is a 12 minute talk. This is a seven minute talk. This is a 15 minute talk. Rarely will I say this is an 18 minute talk.

Charles:

And what are you looking for? What are the clues?

Kara DeFrias:

The clues are how broad they're going, and how much of a story they have to tell. And then just listening to them tell me their story is a huge clue on how they phrase things, how they put sentences together. Whether they're going to go long winded, whether they're going to be shorter. And you know, I think the saying is creativity loves constraint. So getting people, you know, you have some people come in, whether it's a Ted Talk or other shows I've done. Where sometimes they do their talk and it's an eight hour workshop. Or it's three days of training. And I'm like, okay, great. You have to tell all of it in 12 minute! And they're like, wait, what? But I've never done it less than 40! I'm like, we're going to work together and you're going to do a great 12 minute talk.

Charles:

And why do you think so many people do need the ... Have the security of PowerPoint slides, aids? What do you think people are feel like they don't bring that they need that?

Kara DeFrias:

I honestly think it's because they've always seen other people do it that way that they think they do. Right? 'Cause I've seen so and so give a talk. And they used PowerPoint. And so I think as we get more people ... And hey. There's times PowerPoint is completely valid. Or any slideware. Or showing a video. If it aids in telling the story and doesn't distract from it. Right? Or if it complements the story and doesn't take away from it. And so I think it's just like anything. You always see somebody do something a certain way, there's almost a bravery in saying, I'm actually not going to do that. And that could apply to so much in life.

Charles:

Yeah, that's for sure. Absolutely. Have you ever read Edward Tufte's little eight page manuscript on how PowerPoint blew up Challenger, the spaceship?

Kara DeFrias:

Oh yeah. When I was ... My first career was instructional design. And as a good instructional designer, of course I went to Tufte's workshop when it came to Philadelphia because you got all four books. And you got to hear the man in person. So I got to hear that story the first time in person. And that was ... wow.

Charles:

Amazing, right? And not wrong. I don't know about the Challenger specifically. But he makes the argument in an incredibly powerful way. And it's made me look at all of those kinds of tools differently ever since.

Kara DeFrias:

And I think the-

Charles:

Did he show you the-

Kara DeFrias:

Oh, go ahead.

Charles:

Sorry. After you, go ahead.

Kara DeFrias:

Well, I was going to say, and I think the watch point in all of this, Charles, is again, kind of going back to the beginning of our conversation is, not everything's black and white. Not everything's a silver bullet. What works for someone else may or may not work for you. You've got to do what fits your personality, what fits your type. So I'm not here to vilify PowerPoint. Graphics are very powerful. I mean, so I go to Sundance every year, right? The visual medium of storytelling is extremely powerful. But just like every other choice you make, down to the words you're using in your talks, make sure it's there for a purpose and serves a meaning.

Charles:

Yeah. Yep. That's really well said, you're absolutely right about that. Talk to me about your experience in government. You mentioned your time at the White House a couple of times. What's it like trying to unlock original thinking inside an institution that is A, that large, and B, that bureaucratic, and C, at best, that inconsistent?

Kara DeFrias:

You know, I learned so much my first stint in government back in 2012. And the biggest secret is, so there's two million federal employees. And the first lesson we learned is that none of us are coming into government with any original ideas. These people are smart, they're dedicated. They've been there long before us, and they're going to be there long after us. And the unfortunate part is they either don't have the resources, the time, the money, or the overhead to do these things that they know are right. And good for the country and good for the people who live here. So all we did when we came in was we unlocked that. And we came in, you know, we were the new, shiny kids. And the way we succeeded and why we succeeded was because we found the career civil servants who were our champions in the agencies and on the ground.

And when you can find that person who's been wanting to do what you're coming in to do. And you partner with them. And you throw shine on them. And you lift them up. And you bring them along for the journey? That's how we succeeded by doing this experiment of bringing in outside folks to government, is because we couldn't do it alone. And I think there was a lot of cynicism. Not a lot, that's dramatic. There was some cynicism coming in that oh, the government's broken and you know, Silicon Valley's going to come in to fix it. And that could not be further from the truth. Government is flourishing. We have wildly talented, smart, passionate civil servants who, once you find them a partner with them, there's so much good that can happen. And that's the first thing I would say.

The second thing I would say is there is a lot of red tape. There is a lot of bureaucracy. We spent the first cohort of the fellowship running into brick walls and getting bloody. But then about three quarters of the way through, and then with the second, third, and following classes, you realized, you know, once you find those champions, they can show you how to climb over the wall or get around it.

Charles:

And how do you maintain people's focus in those kinds of environments because there are so many ways that effort can get derailed or diluted. How do you keep showing up in a way that says, you know, we're doing the right thing. It's harder than we want it to be, but ... What's your leadership role, or what are your leadership philosophies in that situation?

Kara DeFrias:

So the way I look at it is you find the right people. You get them rallied around a vision. You give them a great mission to go tackle, and then you figure out a plan together, and then you let them go do their jobs. You let them go do what they signed up to do. And you get out of their way. And that could mean providing air cover. That could mean additional resources or budget. It could mean introducing them to people they might not have known. One of the things we did for the cancer moonshot for Vice President Biden is we brought a bunch of agencies together. Who traditionally may not have talked because no other reason then there wasn't a need for them to. But the cancer moonshot brought them together to do some great work.

And so from a leadership perspective, for me a lot of my work is connecting dots for people. And saying, you're doing this here. Do you know this team's doing this over there in this other agency? So I think about being clear around the vision and mission so that you're not getting derailed by the million little things that come up every day and could potentially derail a project or derail a team.

Charles:

So I'm always interested when talking to people who are bringing different teams together. About what they have found is necessary in order to make that work productive. You know, within an organization you'll have different motivations within different groups. In an organization as complex as the federal government, those must be even more complicated. How do you keep rallying people towards the same vision? Defining a vision that's clear and powerful absolutely, I get that. How do you day in, day out just keep bringing people back with the same kind of energy?

Kara DeFrias:

Yeah. You know, what they ... The smartest thing they did with the first class of fellows in 2012 was they didn't put us all together in one place. And they didn't put us in a place that was high profile. So I was on project mygov, and they stuck us in the sub-basement at the Office of Personnel Management, OPM, in DC, a couple blocks from the White House. So no one ... You didn't just walk by and happen to see the team. Like you not only had to get down to the basement below the basement. You had to go down this corridor and know what doors to go through and what hallways to go down to find us. So I think part of it is sheltering the team from a lot of the day to day distractions. So when you look at a lot of mission teams or tiger teams that are put together, they're often put in a random building on a random floor that's away from the hustle and bustle and distractions of everyday.

Because you know, I think one of the biggest derailers is the whole swoop and poop mentality when you know, a leader might come in and say, Hey, did ya try this? And you're like, well we totally did, and here's why it didn't work. But if you know, then you get in to the power dynamics of who said it and what did they suggest? Okay, we have to go chase that down and try because so-and-so said it. I don't see that as much anymore. But I'd be silly to say it doesn't happen. So I think you know, the way you protect the team is you give them the space, literally the space to do the work.

Charles:

And keep reminding them of why that's important.

Kara DeFrias:

Yeah. Well, you know, honestly, people are smart. And people who want to do good work are motivated. So that's where if you got a clear mission and my word, in government we had the clearest mission. Like you are coming to work everyday to make your country better for your friends, your neighbors, your families, your loved ones. Like how does that not get you up and out of bed and ready to go every day?

Charles:

And what about in today's environment where that's not necessarily so evident?

Kara DeFrias:

You know, there's a lot to be said for the careers on the ground. So you know, there's the career civil servants who, like I said, have been around for decades and will be around for decades. And these political appointees who are in positions now. Like, they're going to change in the next administration. And so that's where you know, when the employees aren't being paid right now due to the furlough, I think the furlough actually ... The shutdown actually, a couple hours ago it was announced that it'll be lifted for a bit. You know, those are the ones my hearts break for, because they're not ... They don't make millions of dollars doing what they do. But our country could not function without them. They are heroes. Every single one of them. And again, when the mission is clear and you know that President Obama, when he had his Farewell Address at Andrews Air Force Base on January, 20th of 2017. Inauguration happened, he came over to Andrews, and he had a speech that he said to a couple hundred of us who were there. And I'll never forget his words. He said, "This is a comma, not a period." Right? So, if you look at our 200, almost 300-year-old ... Almost 300 is being very ... I'm adding a couple of decades, but in the 200 plus years of us being around, this is a blip. And the people who have been in government for a long time know this is a blip, and they are going to keep doing their jobs knowing that this too will change.

I'm looking forward to getting back pay, because missing rent, missing mortgage, you want to talk about fearless, these are the people who have my most respect, our federal employees, our military folks, they're the true fearless ones. The rest of us are out here just playing and having a good time, but they're the ones who, they go in and do the hard work every day.

Charles:

So, you think the sense of mission, and purpose, and wanting to make a difference, and believing in ... I mean, I think what you're describing is believing in a higher calling, essentially, that that will provide the reference point for them and the guide by which to, A, keep focus on what's important today, and also be able to be inspired again quickly when there is a different point of view.

Kara DeFrias:

Yeah, and honestly, we all took our oath of office. I took it twice and I cried both times. It is the privilege of a lifetime to do that work. And these folks know that, and they go in every day. And so many of them are going in without pay, but they are so clear on their mission.

Charles:

It's really powerful.

Kara DeFrias:

Right?

Charles:

Yeah, really powerful. In doing a little bit of background for our conversation, I see the one of the things you've done is you acted as the Director of Experience Design for Vice President Biden, what did that entail?

Kara DeFrias:

Oh, that was so much fun. That was so much fun. And well, and now that, you know my cancer history, you can understand why it was even more impactful, right? To be able to do that for the cancer moonshot. So a little background for your listeners at the State of the Union address in 2016, President Obama announced that we were going to be the country that cured cancer. And he turned around and said he's putting Joe in charge of Mission Control. So we only had 11 months left before the end of the administration. So we quickly spun up a team of 10 of us, and we knew that the person who was his Director of Digital knew that they wanted to do something from a technology perspective, but she needed a creative technologist to come in to help with that. So that's how I got brought onto the team.

And our specific focus area in the whole project was cancer clinical trials because only four to 6% of adults who get cancer sign up for trial. So if we want to make 10 years worth of advance in the next five, we have to increase that. And so I was brought in as the director of experience design. And we started off with a two month discovery sprint, where we went around the country talking to cancer patients. We talked to their family members. We talked to their sidekicks, doctors, nurses. We talked to advocacy groups, we talked to technology companies, and we wanted to figure out where's that moment that we would have the biggest opportunity to get someone to consider a clinical trial. And after all that research going from Dana Farber and Boston, and actually, when we went out of Dana Farber, we went to a community medical center close by.

You could actually, if you stood on the roof of the community medical center, you could see Dana Farber, yet the organizers and the doctors at the medical center could not get their patients to go there when they got a mammogram test or something that indicated a cancer because these people couldn't take off of work. Or they knew if they got cancer treatment, the chemo would mean they miss three days. And even if they got the chemo on a Thursday, they couldn't go back to work until Monday. And they couldn't afford that. Or like how we went to Albuquerque, New Mexico to talk to Navajo Nation about cancer treatment and trials and how they see it, and to know that when the University of New Mexico was building their new Cancer Center, they brought in folks from Navajo Nation to help co-create and co-design the cancer center. And one of the beautiful outcomes of that is now instead of a cold chemo room with no windows, the chemotherapy center has floor to ceiling sliding glass windows, so when they're getting their treatments, they can roll out and look at the mountains and be outside.

So that's what it means to apply a human centered design approach to the work, and we've figured out through all that research in the two months and the hundreds of interviews we conducted that the biggest opportunity to increase someone's likelihood to consider trial is the 'oh, shit' moment, the 'oh, shit’ when they're sitting in the doctor's office and they are told they have cancer. And it was a great project. We built it in a way so that the work continued regardless of who won the presidential election that year. And we just learned so many great stories, you're story guy, one of the stories from this that I learned is at the Walter Reed Cancer Center, we work really closely with Colonel Craig Schreiber, who heads that up. And from a human centered design perspective, when he got there on the day that a patient is being seen for cancer, they would go around about six rooms to each doctor, because there was a different doctor in each room, and he's like, "Wait, wait, wait, this makes zero sense." The patient stays in the room and the doctors switch.

And you can imagine when that started, doctors were like, "Wait, wait, what do you mean I have to move?" But then when they saw the results with the patients, it changed everything. So there's so many pockets of good in government of people trying to do the right thing, and in many cases doing the right thing. So that was I was just fortunate enough to be in the right place the right time, and be brought on the team, and then I created, with the Director of Digital, we did this medium.com publication for the Cancer Moonshot where I use a lot of my time to get people from around the country to tell their stories. And then we used the megaphone of the White House to amplify their stories. So that was one of my favorite parts of the project was helping get stories out of everyday Americans, and people who live here, and who are somehow touched by cancer, and what that means to them. So that's probably some of the stuff I'm most proud of with that work.

Charles:

So a lot of the work that you've done has placed creating experiences for audience at its heart and at its center. I mean what you just described obviously is as fundamentally human centric as anything can be. You've done, as you said earlier on, you've worked at the Oscars, you worked at the World Cup, you worked at the Super Bowl, you've worked at TEDx. What have you seen that is true for unlocking creative thinking in each of those environments? Are there consistent practices? Are there consistent themes that come up for you as you as you look across that set of experiences and say, "We unlock creativity best when we do these things?"

Kara DeFrias:

So the consistent thing across whether it's sports, entertainment or government, there's a basic human desire to tell a story. People want to tell their stories. And the way I approach my experience design practice, regardless of the industry, is I always start by boiling things down to the root emotion. How do we want people to feel? So if it's sports, it's not only the players on the field, it's the fans and the staff. For entertainment, it's the audience members, and the speakers on stage, and the crew backstage. And so I always start all of this by starting how do you want somebody to feel? And it's all the players involved. And once you've got that, then you start building back up, that's when you've got the vision. That's when you've got the mission. That's where you've got your principles and your plan.

But to me, the consistent in my practice is I always start with feelings. I'm a humanist, that's what I learned in grad school doing a bunch of … my Masters as an instructional design and adult learning psychology. And so that's when I was like, "Oh, I'm a humanist." That's who I am unapologetically. So if we can start with how we want people to feel, then every else that comes out of that comes from that pure place.

Charles:

And then how does that translate into how you lead?

Kara DeFrias:

Well, I think about how I want my teams to feel. And if I want my teams to feel appreciated and empowered, then I will make sure that the way I plan things or the way I set up, even the way the team or the project or the plan is run, honors those.

Charles:

And is there other specific obstacles that you have to overcome in making ... in allowing that to happen? I mean, that resonates with me powerfully, but the reality of running business on a day to day basis also means that there are times where taking people's feelings into account as the primary reference point isn't always possible.

Kara DeFrias:

No, it's not. And I think it goes back to what we're talking about earlier, right? You can strive for the ideal, and you're going to know there's going to be times when I screw up. And those are the times that aren't going to feel great. Those are the conversations that aren't going be comfortable. And those are the days where, I'm a big believer in having tribes, you have your tribe at work, your tribe at home, my TEDx tribe, and I've got go-to people in each of them that if I need a pick me up, or I need to have a hard conversation, I'll reach out to somebody. Because I don't think one person could or should be your everything, because you're going to burn that person out quickly. So knowing and having a self awareness as a leader, both of what your blind spots are and when you're not ready or equipped to handle a situation or have the answer at the ready.

I think there's a power and saying, "I don't know, but I'll get back to you." I definitely feel like the live events are easier because there's no time when you're standing on the field of the halftime show, to have three meetings and create four decks to make a decision, right? You got to decide in that moment. So that's where the live event stuff for sure was easy because there's no time. But the, to your point, the office setting or the other ones that aren't the live setting is ... that's when it gets a little hairier.

Charles:

Yeah. My wife is an Emmy Award winning producer for Oprah for a number of years before we met, actually. And also worked at Good Morning America before that, and she said to this day, there is still nothing more thrilling than live television.

Kara DeFrias:

Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I have a great story where, so it was Women's World Cup '99, Rose Bowl, Pasadena. I just moved to California, and that was the replay, China, Brandi ripped off her jersey. And crowd went wild, 90,000 people, July 10th of '99, but to your wife's point, there was a hairy moment where President Clinton came to the game. And so the whole building when on lockdown, and they're nagging everybody, and very tight on who's in and out. And they're getting ready for the game to start the pregame festivities, and players coming out and whatnot, and the press officer for the women's national team is in the press box with us because I was on the press ops team, and he had to get down to the field or things couldn't start. So in the moment, I had done my walk through the day before, like you do when you do live events. And I knew there was a one stairwell that would go from the press box down to the top of the stands, and you open this little door, and then you're in the stands, you get down to the field, right? You go down through the bleachers.

And so I was like, "Aaron, I can ... come with me, I got this." And we open up the stairwell and there's a secret service person on every landing. I just looked at him I was like, "Listen, this is the press officer he has to get to the field game can't start without him." And so they kind of just one of those, they flick the hand and said, "Do it quickly and make it happen." But that's one of those, "You can't have seven meetings to decide that." like, you had to figure that out in the moment. That was to this day is still one of my favorite stories to tell.

Charles:

Yeah, yeah, talk about being by life and death choices. What are you afraid of?

Kara DeFrias:

Gosh, I'm getting to the age where I'm starting to think about my parents mortality. So you'd asked earlier about my own mortality, but it's like, oh, I start thinking about wills and houses and what happens when they get sick. And that's something that, my father used to say when I was little. And even now as an adult. "I never worry about you. I worry about your brother," he said but, "I'm concerned about you." So I think even in fear and afraid there's a spectrum. So there's just a worry like, "Oh, you're getting older. There's new things to think about." As far as me being personally afraid I can still ... I don't watch horror movies. Those things actually legit scare me. Even though I know they're fake. Even though I worked in the industry, I can't, I'm scared. I'm a big scaredy cat. I cannot watch horror movies.

Charles:

Yeah, I’m like you. I watched a film with my father when I was about 11 years old and it terrified me. It's scarred me for life.

Kara DeFrias:

You know what it was for me?

Charles:

[inaudible] and I can't do it. Yep. I’m with you.

Kara DeFrias:

I'd love to hear which one was for you. For me. It was Poltergeist. When the clown came out from under the bed.

Charles:

I never watched Poltergeist...

Kara DeFrias:

Don't do it.

Charles:

... because I'd been scarred at 11 so I didn't have to worry about thereafter. I've never seen Halloween movies I've never seen any of that stuff. Although I understand that Jason on and Michael Myers are still alive, 19 movies in.  Somebody ... right. Didn't Halloween ... didn't just remake Halloween again? Make it Halloween seven with Jamie.

Kara DeFrias:

Oh, yeah. I guess so.

Charles:

Somebody else said something that Jamie Lee Curtis got something like $2,500 for the first Halloween movie.

Kara DeFrias:

Oh wow.

Charles:

It’s her first movie.

Kara DeFrias:

Wow.

Charles:

Last question for you. As you look back, can you point to a moment when, you are so afraid of something that you didn't do it? Has your life always been about taking the opportunities in front of you?

Kara DeFrias:

I'm going to ... I'm actually going to take that from a wide aperture and go super narrow. Where I get paralyzed now, and I was just talking to a friend about this the other day. It's not so much the big swings, the big swings I find are the easier ones. It's the day to day things. Like if I have a project and I know I need to start, and I know I need to start this project. But I come with all these reasons like the procrastination squirrel shows up. And I find ... it's almost like I paralyzed myself even though I have all the materials I need. I know exactly what to say that could be a day or two or a week where I'm just going to keep putting it off for no known reason. So that's more of the stuff where it's the ... it's not the biggest weakness it's the little like singles and doubles and triples that I just get totally tripped up in.

Charles:

Yeah, the somebody gave me a book a few years ago. ‘Writers On Writing’, fabulous book actually. And talk to probably 30 different writers, some extremely well known and some lesser. About the writing process and one of them said I get up in the morning I make coffee, I make the kids breakfast, I take them to school come back I have another cup of coffee. I clean out my study, I clean the kitchen. And when my self loathing reaches a certain level, that's when I sit down and start.

Kara DeFrias:

Right. I mean, it's just this moment of it's almost self paralyzing.

Charles:

Yeah, it’s strange, isn’t it-

Kara DeFrias:

Right?

Charles:

...how often we are drawn to sitting. ‘I could do this now I could or I could worry about it for another couple of days.’

Kara DeFrias:

Right. And then of course you feel great once you've done it. You're like, "Oh, why did I do that to myself for so long?"

Charles:

Yeah, exactly. I will never give birth but there are those days where you feel like you just have, right? Because you produced this thing finally, finally. I wrap every conversation with three takeaways that I've heard. So let me throw this at you in terms of how I perceived that you show up and how you are able to lead an unlocked creativity in yourself and others. First, I think is you have this innate ability ... willingness I should say, to turn a failure into success. It seems to me that moments that would have thrown other people back you have been able to confront head on and create other opportunities from them. So that seems to me to be endemic to how you show up in the world. Second, and I think not unrelated to that is just a natural willingness to jump in. To see an opportunity and say, let's try what might we learn from that.

And then I think third is you articulated so well and so clearly, your willingness and need I think in many ways to put people first the fact that you are a humanist means that they are always at the center of your thought process and of your leadership. Do those three resonate with you?

Kara DeFrias:

Two and three 100%. I'm still chewing on number one my head like, "Oh, okay, maybe." But two and three 100%.

Charles:

Oh, interesting. Interesting. I was struck by the couple of stories in particular, I think, the notion that not making a soccer team. Which, after the number of years you had done that, would have been pretty ... I was thinking back to my own childhood, teenage years and the amount of time I spent trying to get into different sports teams. And, and if that had happen to me how devastated I would have been, and I'm not sure I would have reacted the same way and seen and noticed for something else and decided that was an opportunity.

Kara DeFrias:

Okay, I can see that. Yeah, I could totally see that. That's a that's a nice way to frame it. I like it.

Charles:

Yeah, I think it's a rare attribute. Most of us are wallowing in self pity for so long that we can miss the next opportunity.

Kara DeFrias:

Oh, don't get me wrong. I fully endorse people having pity parties. Now, again, I think, especially with men and boys how we teach them not to get in touch their emotion or how crying is bad. I am always down for pity party. If you want to call me over, we can have whiskey and some good pint of ice cream. I think it's healthy.

Charles:

I think it is too I think getting that stuff out. It's interesting actually the ... as a closing thought, I was for three or four years I was a member of a psychodynamic leadership advisory group, 16 or 17 members. And of the 16 of us at the time there were I think 12 or 13 who were clinical psychologists or psychoanalysts. And the first time I went to one of their retreats, a number of them in describing situations they were dealing with, with various clients, obviously, not naming the clients, but just describing the situations used the phrase murderous intent. And I kept hearing ... I probably heard it three or four times I mean, once is enough, right? It makes you sit up, but when you hear it three or four times over a couple of hours, it really makes it ... it sort of rings in your head. So I went up to one of them at lunch, and I said that phrase murderous intent, that's a psychiatric piece of terminology that second of a theoretical medical frame of reference.

And they said, "Well, yes, but it's more than that." They said, "We fundamentally begin this person's case for sure." He said, "I fundamentally believe that human beings are at their core are animals with instincts and there are times when we perceive a threat or we become so territorial that when we say I could kill that person, that if you remove the morals and rules of society, that that in many cases is something that we would like to actually act out. We would like to remove that other person. And we feel that and when we don't act on it, it creates physiological issues for us which manifest in different ways. Because we have no way to get it out except to say it, and then have to not act on it." And he said, "Many times it manifests itself through not being able to sleep at night."

And so you need to go and see a psychiatrist or a psychoanalyst to be able to talk out these issues and get them out and get them surface so that you can actually release them. And, so you can actually go back to sleeping. But I think to your point, when we create such narrow bands of expectation about how somebody should behave, and we repress those instincts so fully, it does create real world consequences for how people show up and experience the world themselves.

Kara DeFrias:

100%.

Charles:

Kara, thank you so much for taking the time to do this. I really appreciate it; this has been a fantastic conversation.

Kara DeFrias:

Oh, what a joy. This is a lot of fun. Thank you for having me.