61: Finding Inspiration Through Continuous Curiosity with Karen Brown

Karen Brown keeps reinventing herself by using a “spark of inspiration”. Do you know anyone else who has competed in the Ironman, taken on 60’s and 70’s rock on the electric guitar, and transferred that success to their work?

Karen employs scientifically-based methods to help leaders identify and address their blind spots by understanding how our brains function.

She’s also the author of “Unlimiting Your Beliefs.” Welcome to Episode 61 with Karen Brown.

Mentioned on the Show

CORE Process Tool

CORE Process Tool

Quotes from the Show

“Sometimes you win. Sometimes you learn.”

“What if I have what it takes to do that and I don’t do it?”

“We learn the most from making mistakes.”


Connect with Karen

karen brown headshot

More Episodes

Full Transcript of Episode 61

Aaron Lee  00:00

Karen brown keeps reinventing herself by using a spark of inspiration. Do you know anyone else who has competed in the Ironman taken on 60s and 70s Rock on the electric guitar and transferred that success to their work? Karen employs scientifically based methods to help leaders identify and address their blind spots by understanding how our brains function. She’s also the author of unlimited your beliefs. Welcome to Episode 61 with Karen Brown.

Jay Smack  00:29

Welcome to the new generation leader podcast, we’re giving you the tools you need to lead in the digital world ready to reach your true potential. This is the new generation leader podcast.

Aaron Lee  00:46

Karen, you mentioned just before we started recording that you’ve had a recent spark of innovation, completely unrelated to leadership, tell us about the journey you went through to pick up this new hobby.

Karen Brown  00:59

It was a very short journey was the spark of inspiration. I was standing in the spare bedroom of my new house that I moved to about 14 months ago where I literally thought prior to buying the house and moving in, why am I moving? Why am I bothering with this I had lived in the suburbs for 23 years and was perfectly happy there. And all of a sudden it came to me because I want to expand my life. I want to spread my wings bigger, do bigger things. And so I was figuring out what to do with this spare bedroom. And all of a sudden, boom, this idea popped in my head out of nowhere, which was this visual of me riffing on an electric guitar. I literally turned around like wondering, okay, who’s that meant for because it’s not me, I’m not a musician, never played a musical instrument in my life. And a lot of people would say, including my guitar instructor, you got no rhythm. And so after I got done looking around, I thought I just sort of sat there and tried it on for a second and thought, yeah, I can do that. I can take that on. That sounds really fun. I was 55 at the time, I’m 56 now and I thought that’s going to be a great way to celebrate and bring in 55. I love that and I’m having a blast with it.

Aaron Lee  02:11

So no musical background, never played an instrument flunked

Karen Brown  02:15

out of the recorder in grammar school. Yeah, I could not play that to save my

Aaron Lee  02:19

life. Yeah, we’ve just gotten through the recorder, the ukulele and the rhythm. My kids are middle school and elementary school. And so they’re right in the heart of that, let’s try all of the instruments. You know, it’s actually fun watching my youngest just had the ukulele concert. And it’s fun watching them try something. She actually has one she got for Christmas a couple of years ago. She doesn’t play it often. But watching that as a way to tinker and play around and try something and explore something I just actually saw yesterday, Lego has just come out with a new study on creativity and kids, especially girls, and I think music is a great example. We aim for perfection. But even as you’ve described how, where you want to take this electric guitar playing in the next little bit. It’s not about perfection for you. It’s simply an outlet. How does that reconcile in your mind? Have you had to push upstream against perfection?

Karen Brown  03:14

Oh my gosh, yes, my whole life continued to learn that lessons there. Gosh, from an early age perfection was instilled in me that that’s how I’m valuable. That’s my unique contribution to the world right to be perfection. One of my first businesses companies was called service perfection. And I realized that was the reason why I was always striving for perfection. However, what I learned along the way, particularly in my Iron Man journey, and then with other businesses, my current business and in the guitar very pointedly, there really is no such thing as perfection. Even when you think you’ve played a song perfectly, you haven’t, it’s really not possible, there is no such thing. So stop striving for it and find value find my unique value and creativity in that spark of inspiration that trying trying try again, because all the time I come up with different sounds and different riffs that I never would have come across if I hadn’t screwed something up.

Aaron Lee  04:11

I’m curious, I want to go down this path just a little bit as a woman in leadership, how have those competing voices influenced you? And what did it take to get to that posture of what you just described that screwing up something can lead to a positive?

Karen Brown  04:27

Well, two things. Number one, we learn the most from making mistakes, we might call them failures, even I think that’s at the extreme side of that spectrum. But think about it. We really don’t learn much from successes. We barely even acknowledge them before just flying right past them and moving on to the next thing that we’re going after. So early on in my leadership career. And then when I’ve started to gather certifications in leadership, development and coaching, and specifically behavior, I came to realize, oh, wait a minute. This is how our brains work. And it’s like getting to know your operating system and then getting the most out of it, hacking it, if you will. And that was one of the earliest things that I learned that first of all, there is no such thing as perfect or being perfect, and that we learn the most through making mistakes, because it stops us dead in our tracks, and forces us to really look within, Hey, why did that happen? What went wrong? What went right, you know, forces us to stop and take stock and evaluate and then find where we can make changes or pivots. And then to make those changes and keep going forward, I would say that’s also the second thing, which is drive that perfectionistic drive is frankly, what propelled me to number one take on the Ironman World Championships as a super no one not athletically talented recreational amateur athlete. And to pursue this thing that very few people on the planet get too many strive for, it’s very difficult for pro athletes as well. And what it did, though, was proved to me that there is this great balance that can be struck between drive and inspiration and motivation and making mistakes and learning from them. I don’t remember who it was. But an early mentor of mine said something about sometimes you win, sometimes you learn, I love that the learning is honestly to me the most important thing in our life. For me, if I’m not learning something, I feel like I’m stagnant. I’m not growing, I’m not expanding, I’m not seeing new things. I’m not doing new things. And I also feel like we weren’t put here to do what’s already been done. So that’s the pathway to being able to continuously incorporate the learnings from mistakes being okay was saying, Hey, I screwed up, and maybe even laughing it off. That doesn’t mean I don’t take them seriously. Nor should we, as leaders take those seriously. But there’s also been a, I guess, an updating, I’ll say modernizing of our culture that is rather than one of keeping score, keeping track of mistakes that you’ve made, or your direct reports or your teammates have made, let all that go and celebrate mistakes. Because within that mistake, as long as the learnings are being incorporated, it’s learning growth and expansion and forward movement. And that’s what we’re all after.

Aaron Lee  07:24

There’s two books that come to mind. One, my friend Matt gave me the infinite game that reminds us of that idea. There’s not wins and losses. It’s not binary. And just this morning, I finished the Alliance, which is another book that’s not new, it’s not hot off the presses. But strangely, the 10 year old copy that I got from our local library looks brand new. So I’m not sure why people haven’t been reading it. But the alliance is talking about the employer employee relationship, and that it’s not a loyalty permanent allegiance. Like we used to think back in the industrial age. And so there’s so many things that seem like they used to be binary either or, but there’s probably a third way, there’s probably a new way to explore that. And like you said, try something new continue this journey of growth and development. So we kicked off with your fun, new hobby spark of inspiration. But you’ve mentioned it a few times. Take us back to this quest to pursue the Iron Man. How did that spark of inspiration come to mind?

Karen Brown  08:27

14 years of age watching TV on a Saturday, and I’m flipping through channels back then there were only four and wide Wide World of Sports was on and this is gonna

Aaron Lee  08:38

say, yeah, it must have been the Wide World of Sports. Oh, yeah. It was a wide, wide world. Uh huh.

Karen Brown  08:43

And they were covering the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii. I was stunned. I literally remember walking around with like a dust rag and pledge in my hand because I was cleaning and I stopped dead in my tracks. And I watched and I sat down and watch this thing unfold. And at this time, I didn’t know what triathlons were. I had never heard of the Ironman. I was athletic. But I was recreationally athletic. So I didn’t know what on the green earth this thing was. And the year was when Julie moss and Kathleen McCartney were competing. Now for anyone who doesn’t know that story. Google it, it is amazing. And it’ll come full circle in a minute in my story. So I watched this drama unfold of Julie Moss who did not fuel properly that day, even though she was the favored competitor and she would literally drop onto the ground from exhaustion and couldn’t get back up. And then she would crawl hands and knees and then push herself back up to standing she would start walking and then do a little jog and then repeat the whole process again and again. She also during this time, because of extreme exhaustion and heatstroke, she lost control of her bowels so that That was a picture, let’s just say and yet she never stopped. And I’m not going to spoil the ending. So listeners out there Google what happened, she never ever gave up, even though it was nighttime, and she had to crawl her way to the finish. And I just I was stunned. It was like watching a train wreck that you couldn’t tear yourself away from. And I thought, What the heck is this? First of all, what would compel this person to put themselves through that, and then I felt this huge wave of emotion well up inside me. And I noticed I was crying. And what I later realized is the reason I was crying is because I thought, what if I have what it takes inside me to do that, and I’m not tapping into it. And all at once I saw this pathway laid out and thought, This is the road to my potential. And then I held myself back from it for 24 years. And I held myself back through something called limiting beliefs, which is nothing more than a behavioral pattern, but every human struggles with them. Ultimately, I wrote a book about how to eradicate limiting beliefs and all of us and turn them around into unlimited beliefs, which support and propel us to do big giant things like this. But that was a very real thing that held me back for a long, long time until I was studying how the brain works. And I learned about limiting beliefs and how to transform them. And I did it on myself. So this was in June or July of that year, in 2010. And by September, I had hired a coach purchased to try bike which I had never written. I had never even written a road bike. I was a horrible swimmer. And I had never run a marathon. And here I was embarking pursuing the Ironman World Championships. Yes, there were plenty of people who thought I was absolutely nuts and told me sell. Well, that

Aaron Lee  11:48

kind of reaction. The reason I think people say that is partly in themselves, their own limiting beliefs. And they think why would you be so crazy to pursue an unlimited belief, and so many people do the easy thing, and not the hard thing. A few weeks ago, I was sitting across from two executives and one said, I’m going to do the polar ice bath every morning Polar Plunge, do that ice bath as part of a regimen and his executive across the table looked at him and said, that’s crazy. I’m just gonna take a hot tub. And clearly one is comfort and one is stretching, how did you push through developing the habits and getting into the physical condition to do not just one of those three things you had never done before, but to do all three of them together.

Karen Brown  12:37

So a couple of ways. Number one, this was the center of my motivation, this dream had permeated to my core, because it had to do with bringing out and realizing my potential as a human being. So that was the driver. And I had always been raised by a single mom until my mom got remarried. But this was in the late 60s, early 70s. When there were not a lot of single moms around. And if you were a single mother, you were relegated to one of maybe three, four jobs a secretary, which is what they were called at the time nurse teacher, otherwise, all other moms were moms at home raising kids. So this was an anomaly in and of itself. However, what my mom showed me doing that is number one, and she always used to tell me this, she said you can do anything you want absolutely anything, nothing can stop you. All you need to do is decide what you want to do. And then she would also give me the biggest challenges that were probably too young for them. And she told me that later, that was part of her strategy that she gave me more than maybe others felt I could handle at that age, but she knew that it would land for me. And it would spark that drive and that desire to do bigger things and to do challenging things. And then that morphed into doing the hard things first, and I just I picked that up along the way in always loving taking on bigger and bigger challenges, the seemingly impossible things like that just lit me up. And so that really carried me to where I would do the hard things. I would sit in an ice bath regularly in training because that’s something that you have to do. I mean, there were plenty of other really uncomfortable, very difficult things that I had to learn to do. And one of them I say, I think in my book, or in other interviews I’ve said I learned how to run and cry at the same time, how to swim and cry at the same time. And it wasn’t necessarily tears of pain, although sometimes it was often it was but it was learning how to make friends with that pain and turn the pain into An Ally how to really just dig in, lean into it and let it propel me through that challenge.

Aaron Lee  14:46

Let’s take a leap from your experience in that journey. How do you see that translating into the leaders you’re working with putting that into practice in their leadership and professional context?

Karen Brown  14:58

Excellent question. Couple weeks So first one is I think everyone would probably agree that when you’re a leader, regardless of whether you’re leading yourself, or you’re leading a team, or you are on a team, and you’re leading each other, because all of those are forms of leadership, okay? So regardless of who you’re leading, I would say we would all agree that the hardest part is looking inward, doing that self discovery, looking within and asking yourself tough questions, basically confronting your own thoughts and actions pay. Well, why did I do that? Why did I do it this way? Why did I choose not to do that? Or why am I choosing not to do that? What was my contribution, or what is my contribution to the current situation, or the current results or the lack thereof, and then taking some responsibility for those things, this is a self aware leader. And I hear it and see it all the time, that that is the most challenging thing to do, it’s much, much easier to just point the finger at other people, others on your team direct reports, well, they didn’t do their part, right, or they’re not operating at a high enough level, or they dropped the ball or whatever that might be true. However, in every circumstance I’ve ever seen in a coaching or leadership capacity. And this is over almost 30 years now, whether I was a direct leader, myself, or I’ve been working with clients, every situation, we have a unique contribution to it, there’s usually no situation where we have no contribution whatsoever to the outcome. And it was just from other people,

Aaron Lee  16:21

we use the acronym of the core process. And I liken the steps of that acronym, to what it’s like watching a TV commentator after a major sporting event, because our typical response is the C and the are of the acronym, call it name the situation. Here’s the problem, we can point out the problem. And then we say, here’s the solution, the response what we need to do, but the steps that we skip, are owning it. What’s my place in this? What’s my tendency? What’s my drive, and then what’s my execution plan, making sure and you said this, having the resources you need a coach a bike, all of those tangible assets and resources, the people and then a game plan to go make it happen? Oh, and we gloss over that and skip it, we miss actually moving. And one of the things I’ve sent in your story and a lot of the anecdotes and life stories you’ve shared already, you have had continual movement, even back to a kid the motivation from your mom, make the decision, do something, setting up your training regimen for the Iron Man play in the electric guitar, all of those have led to hey, I have a game plan. I’m going to put this into action. I’m not just going to think about it, though, at times you did pause and spend years, let me decide not to Yes,

Karen Brown  17:37

accurate. This is what I found over the journey thus far is that this is how our brains work. I’ve studied how our brains work, first of all, naturally curious. And I like finding answers to things. And second, when I was an up and coming leader, I was trying to figure myself out, I had to find how to bring out the best in team members that I was leading. They were looking to me to lead they were counting on me. And I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have a clue back then I was just this high performer that got promoted. And then it was like, Okay, now what do I do? Shoot, I gotta figure this out fast. And so it was in that trying to figure myself out that I came across this. And I just started asking people questions, team members, questions, what motivates you? What gets you out of bed every morning to come in and work? What do you love about what you do? What do you despise? What stops you from doing something? What gets in your way? And then it’s like, the doors open. And people just began to flourish. And I would just remove roadblocks and get out of their way. And then I began to question what is it that I’m doing? Why is it working? And then I realized I was coaching people, and I loved it. Oh, man, I still it is the best day ever. When I’m coaching someone and the light bulb goes on. There’s a big aha and it is life changing. It is game changing for them. And I see everything out in front of them changing because of that one, aha, that one discovery, nothing is ever going to be the same again. Ah, that gets me soaring. I’m on top of the world when that happened. So that’s what I found back then in being a new leader and having to learn how to lead myself well. And that stayed with me that curiosity and that wanting to continuously learn about how our brains work, how they drive us how they stop us, and then really get inside there and work with people on that. And I still work on myself Good grief. I’ve always been a work in progress always will be.

Aaron Lee  19:40

I think that’s one of the dynamics I’ve recognized is just how often and it’s not just young leaders is any leader doesn’t see themselves as a continual work in progress. They don’t see that they’re on this endless journey of curiosity and exploration and growth and all that does is it stifles them. And so you’re a little ahead of me in the life journey at 56. What would you say to your peers and leaders in their 60s who maybe have lost that curiosity,

Karen Brown  20:13

I would say find your motivation, find your motivation, what is uniquely motivating to you to self discover, to go within and learn more about yourself. It’s these leaders that you’re talking about that I see often. And it’s like they’ve spent the last probably 20 or 30 years learning about the world and business and companies and financials and all of that, which is great. However, the real work and the real growth and the real expansion is inside, it’s all inside. Because the other stuff, the outside stuff, the external stuff, we can read about that learn about that every day, at whatever length we want to that’s always going to be there. And the world changes every day, too. And so do we. So I would say, Yeah, find your inner motivation to do that self discovery work. That’s the key to it.

Aaron Lee  21:04

I think the human dynamic really is interesting, and you just hit on this that we’re changing, the world around us is changing. So if we’re changing, and every single one of our team members is also changing, and the world around us is changing faster and faster than ever before, we’re constantly facing something we haven’t seen before. And so we can’t take that one size fits all approach, we’ve got to have that curiosity. I’ve jotted down so many one line quotes and words in our conversation today, because I think there’s so much gold in your reflection and what you’ve gleaned throughout your own journey of innovation and curiosity. But as you sit at this point in your career, and look back, what do you wish you had learned earlier in your career?

Karen Brown  21:47

Is this what I would tell my former self? Or is this just what I’ve learned? What would you tell your former self? First, I would say eat better junk food is not sexier or more fun, being healthy and feeling good is and in all caps, I would say don’t put all that baby oil on your skin and lay out in the hottest part of the day, what are you nuts. And then I would say, do the work to figure yourself out earlier, it’s okay, even though it will be scary. It’s the key to find your unique difference maker in the world. And we’ll give you more time to help more leaders. I really wish I had done that, in my opinion, it was late. By the time I really started diving internally and doing my own work to figure myself out that’s another 10 or 15 years that I could have been able to work with other leaders and make an even bigger difference in the world. That’s my whole purpose. And so it’s a little painful, you know, to look back and realize that go, Ah, I wasted 10 or 15 years. So now I feel like I’m making up for last time, I liked

Aaron Lee  22:52

the fact that you included a health and wellness component to that because one cannot happen without the other. And we can be a lot more productive and at peace when the physical side of our world is operating at a better efficiency. And I’m sure training for the Ironman helps with that. Yeah,

Karen Brown  23:10

and here’s the truth of it. I spent probably the majority of my triathlon and then after Ironman World Championships, I became an ultra level athlete at an international level traveled the world for eight years doing that had a ball and the majority of that whole time as if I was trying to prove to myself and the world that I could eat whatever I wanted. I could ingest whatever I wanted junk food, processed food rich food, I could drink whatever I wanted. And as long as I would train enough workout enough that it would make it Okay, nope, what I found was, that is not true. As my coach used to say you cannot outrun the fork, it’s absolutely true, I would do 100 mile plus races and train for them. I mean, I was working out 40 5060 hours a week, think about that. Think about the caloric burn of that. And still, you cannot outrun the fork. What goes in here is going to come out here. And that is what we are faced with today. You know, I often say whatever you ingested last year is responsible for the state of your health right now. It’s absolutely true. So I would have also been a lot healthier. I mean, I’m really healthy now. But same thing. I spent 25 years at least being rather unhealthy and forcing my body to perform at a really high level without great fuel. I feel bad about that.

Aaron Lee  24:38

Well, like you’ve said, sometimes you win, and sometimes you learn so we take those lessons and we keep moving forward. All right. I’m curious one final question. You’re on this journey of continued curiosity and innovation in your personal life. What’s next? you’ve conquered the electric guitar. You’ve done the Iron Man, any inspiration been striking of what you’ll take on next. Oh

Karen Brown  25:00

gosh, I take on stuff all the time. So unveiled three new programs for the business team coaching succession planning, like comprehensive succession planning with companies, because all too many times I’ve worked with senior leaders who say that they’ve prepared their successors. And then their successors step in and they fail, or rapidly growing companies that are doing battlefield promotions because of the rapid growth and everything just starts to implode because those leaders aren’t ready. They’re not even leaders, yet. They don’t even know what to do yet. So comprehensive there, and also a program for new leaders for brand new leaders and whether they have direct reports or not, they are new in the leadership seat. That means something very different today than it did 30 years ago when I was a brand new leader. And so really excited about those programs. And they are stretching me Oh, I love it. It’s something new. It’s something difficult. It’s something challenging. Ah, man, that’s where my joy is also doing other physical things like I take boxing fitness classes that are asked kickers and remember I said at the beginning of the show, I’m not a naturally talented athlete. Honestly, I’m not naturally talented at anything, I just worked my tail off, because I’m so interested in it, and I want to get good at it. I want to be good at it. So do that. I took up skate skiing a couple years ago, Google that if you don’t know what that is, it is phenomenal. A full body workout. It’s immersive, you’re out in nature. It is the best fat biking, mountain biking. I mean, I live in Colorado. So that’s my playground. And also I’m a voracious reader. I love like I said over and over. I love to learn. So I’ve always got 123 books going or podcast that I’m listening to about how our mind works, the latest discoveries, the latest research, because I’m really rooted in science, because I know that works every time for everybody. It’s not just hey, I thought this up and it worked for me. And I hope it works for you. Now not prescriptive like that. Yeah. And I also am a huge movie buff. So I love Oh, I can’t wait to go see the new dune as soon as seats are available. I love a good story because I’m also an author. So yeah, all of those things just really keep me going and honestly to find my best self at every age 56. And I want to live to be 100. And I want to do that in a healthy way and still really enjoying and contributing to a great life.

Aaron Lee  27:24

Well, that’s great. Karen, thanks so much for giving us a peek inside your world your story for leaders who want to connect with you. Where do you hang out online? Where can people find you

Karen Brown  27:33

mostly on my website, which is your exponential results.com. I’m sure there’ll be in the show notes. And also on LinkedIn. Feel free to direct message me there or through the website. Both work Karen brown all one word is how you’ll find me on LinkedIn.

Aaron Lee  27:50

All right, well, we will link to all that in the show notes. We’ll highlight a bunch of these quotes, the incredible quotes you’ve had. And Karen, I hope you continue to find the inspiration and let it spark within you and I can’t wait to hear more stories of what’s coming next for you.

Karen Brown  28:04

Oh, thanks so much, Aaron. It’s been such a pleasure being on your show today.