How to Unlock Potential You Never Knew You Had | Jeff Karp

Jeff Karp

Have you ever felt stuck in a rut, unable to break free from the repetitive motions of each day? What if the solution was right in front of you – waiting to be unlocked through the power of curiosity?

My guest today, Jeff Karp, knows this frustration well. As a child struggling with learning differences and ADHD, Jeff was on the verge of being held back in second grade. Yet despite his challenges, Jeff tapped into his innate curiosity to develop a set of unconventional tools and processes that allowed him to not only adapt, but flourish and accomplish stunning things in life, science, and industry.

After earning his PhD, Jeff went on to become a celebrated professor at Harvard Medical School, a distinguished chair in anesthesiology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors. Fueled by what he calls “Life Ignition Tools,” Jeff turned to nature for inspiration, transforming lab practices in remarkable ways.

The results? Jeff has co-founded 12 companies that have raised over $600 million, secured more than 100 patents, and received 50 awards for innovations like a tissue glue that can seal holes in a beating heart.

Now Jeff is sharing his profound lessons in his new book, LIT: Life Ignition Tools: Use Nature’s Playbook to Energize Your Brain, Spark Ideas, and Ignite Action. Jeff believes tapping into our innate curiosity holds the key to living an extraordinary life brimming with creativity, connection, and purpose.

In this conversation, Jeff and I explore the tools and mindsets that helped him overcome learning challenges and transform cutting-edge research into real-world solutions. Discover how embracing curiosity could take your life from stuck to sparked.

You can find Jeff at: Website | LinkedIn | Episode Transcript

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photo credit: Gary Higgins


Episode Transcript:

Jeff Karp: [00:00:00] In the moment, there’s ways that we can disrupt our own thinking. In the moment, there’s ways that we can disrupt us living in a single possibility. And there’s tools that we can use to bring in new energy and new ideas and new frames of reference. And it changes everything. It just opens things back up. And so I see failure and setbacks and challenges now as an opportunity to be creative. And that’s really exciting.


Jonathan Fields: [00:00:30] So have you ever felt stuck in a rut, kind of unable to break free from the repetitive motions of each day? What if the solution was right in front of you, just waiting to be unlocked? Through the power of curiosity and a very special set of tools? My guest today, Jeff Karp, knows this frustration well. As a child struggling with learning differences and ADHD. Jeff was on the verge of being held back in second grade. It despite his challenges, he tapped into his innate curiosity, helped by a question from a teacher who saw something to develop a set of unconventional tools and processes that over the years have allowed him to not only adapt, but to flourish and accomplish stunning things in life and science and industry. After earning his PhD, Jeff went on to become a celebrated professor at Harvard Medical School, a Distinguished Chair in Anesthesiology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors. Fueled by what he calls life ignition tools, Jeff turned to nature for inspiration, transforming lab practices in remarkable ways and the results. Jeff has since co-founded a dozen companies that have raised over $600 million, secured more than 100 patents, and received 50 awards for innovations like a tissue glue that can seal holes in a beating heart. And now Jeff is sharing his really profound lessons in his new book, Lit Life Ignition Tools use Nature’s Playbook to energize your brain, spark ideas, and ignite action. He believes that tapping into our innate curiosity holds the key to living a truly extraordinary life, brimming with creativity, connection and purpose. And our conversation. Jeff and I explore many of these tools and mindsets that helped him overcome learning challenges and transform cutting-edge research into real-world solutions. You’ll discover how embracing curiosity and using these tools to make it real could take your life from stuck to spark. So excited to share this conversation with you! I’m Jonathan Fields and this is Good Life Project.


Jonathan Fields: [00:02:45] I think an interesting starting point as we speak. You’re a professor. You founded a dozen or so companies, raised over $600 million. Inventions include a photocurable adhesive tech for tissue restructuring, a nasal spray that neutralizes everything from Covid to flu, pneumonia, E coli, RSV, targeted therapy for brain disorders, osteoarthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, needles that automatically stop at their target to deliver gene therapy, and a bioengineered material that temporarily coats the intestine, reducing blood sugar spikes. That’s kind of being hailed as a potential replacement for bariatric surgery. And yet, when you were a kid, your teacher wanted to hold you back in school. Yeah. Take me there.


Jeff Karp: [00:03:30] Yeah. Let’s go back to the second grade, uh, Westmount Public School in Peterborough, Ontario, about an hour and a half northeast of Toronto. Nothing was sinking in. Nothing. I wasn’t connecting socially with anybody. My mom tried flashcards, she tried phonics. Nothing was working. And I was frustrated, I was angry, I felt like an alien. I felt like I didn’t belong, I was misunderstood, I felt in some ways I was almost like placed in a world that was different than the world I should be in, really, you know? And, um, at the end of the year, the teacher held a conference with my parents and said, I’d like to. It’s like Mr. Steadwell, I remember his name. He, uh, he said, I want to I want to hold Jeff back or to repeat the grade. And my parents negotiated that. If I spent the summer with tutors catching up, that I could go on to the third grade. And so all my classmates went on vacation. And here I am in summer school. And, uh, I’ll never forget one day I went in and the tutor read a passage. I gave some answers and she was asking a bunch of questions. And then for one of them, she paused and she looked me in the eye, and she said, how did you think about that?


Jonathan Fields: [00:04:44] Hmmm.


Jeff Karp: [00:04:45] And nobody had ever asked me that question before. And it was almost like this portal, this canvas kind of opened in my mind into this heightened state of awareness. Like it’s hard to describe because I’m, you know, looking back, looking back on it. But it was transformational like that.


Jeff Karp: [00:05:03] It made such an imprint. And what it did was, I think it allowed me for the first time to think about thinking, to think before I spoke. You know, teachers are always telling me to think before I spoke. And I really didn’t know how to do that or what that meant. But when I was asked that question, how did you think about that? And I was almost like, I didn’t know how to answer it at the time, I didn’t know. But that created this irritation in my mind that, okay, maybe I can sort of have these constructs in my mind before I start speaking. So what happened was, is I started taking this awareness and it started growing and I started applying it everywhere in my life. And it was really a survival mechanism because, you know, I was getting C’s and D’s and just, you know, doing horribly in school. One example is I started to notice that any time I asked a question, I would be able to hyper-focus. And anything that was said in those few moments after would imprint in my mind, not just short-term memory, but I’d actually be able to kind of store it in my long-term memory, and I’d be able to recall it later on. And I started to realize that here I am, sitting in class a super distracted. I mean, I had undiagnosed ADHD and learning differences, and I didn’t know it. My parents didn’t know, my teacher certainly didn’t know it, and I realized that asking questions was going to be key to my learning process. It was really the only way that I could learn.


Jeff Karp: [00:06:27] So I started to ask and started to experiment with asking questions. And I started to what I would say is like engage in pattern recognition. I would ask things or say things and watch people’s reactions to them and use that as a way to figure out the world. And so my life has literally been a living laboratory my entire life still to this day, even though I did get identified with having learning differences in the seventh grade, my mom actually had to go up against the school system to do it because they just were under-resourced and she put a file together, went to the Board of Education, got me identified my grades, went from season D’s to straight A’s because I had been developing all these tools, you know, from the third grade to the seventh grade to try to learn. And I’ll just give you one example, like when I saw the movie Terminator, there’s one scene in the movie where this screen kind of pops up in his computer system, whatever it is, and it’s like he has to give a response. And there’s four options and he picks one. And it was like, that’s how I felt and still feel this day in, like most of my life, I see so many possibilities when I’m asked questions. I’m never sure what the right answer is. And and it makes. Ted actually very difficult for me to help my children with their homework because they like, just they they they they refuse. When I offer to help, they always refuse.


Jonathan Fields: [00:07:54] Just – Just give me the answer already.


Jeff Karp: [00:07:55] Yeah, yeah. Because I’m trying to figure out like, what is the teacher really want? And I see multiple possibilities because a lot of questions are open-ended or there’s multiple answers. And so I struggled with that my whole life. And therefore I’ll just say one more thing is I feel like a lot of my life kind of getting back to that living laboratory. I’ve experimented with so many things and road-tested things where it’s almost like I need to feel what I’m not to know what I am. So a lot of people say, just be yourself. And to me, the reason that’s unhelpful to me is because I don’t have a process to be myself. And when I think about what is my process, what has my process been? It’s really been to try things out that I see other people doing and then feel if that really connects with, you know, does this feel right to me? And if it does, I keep it. And if it doesn’t, I start trying other things.


Jonathan Fields: [00:08:50] Yeah, I mean, that makes so much sense. You know, it’s so interesting because part of what you’re what what this brings up also is this idea. And you actually speak to this at the very end of the book, but it also really brings in the idea of, of cultural norms around typicality or quote, normality. I think the, you know, the phrase neurodiversity has become, you know, this a much more topic of conversation. But for so long, the idea of a kid being, quote, different, you were either average or, you know, quote, normal, and that was the vast majority of the kids. Or you were labeled gifted or you were labeled different. Different was generally not considered in a, quote, good way. And as much as cultural norms have changed and we’ve adopted new language around neurodiversity and honoring that, and I still feel that so often, you know, like the kid who shows up, who just can’t quite wrap their head around the way that everybody else is told to experience everything. And there’s no sort of like early pathway to say to that kid, oh, cool. So like, you operate differently. Let’s figure that out so that you can navigate the world in a way that really works for you until things melt down, until things really fall apart on the level where either the kid is just left to figure it out themselves and oftentimes ends up struggling for years or decades, or somebody steps in and recognizes what’s happening. Do you feel like there’s been a meaningful shift in the way that we approach this, or it’s still kind of same old, same old, but with different language?


Jeff Karp: [00:10:16] Well, what jumps to mind, as you’re saying? That is really how we have this massive push in our society to do things at scale. It makes me think that if you look at the education system, the education system in some ways could be seen as learning at scale. And when typically you start to scale things up to, you know, increase the numbers and try to, as people say, maximize the impact, I think you lose. You kind of approach more of like catering to the average. It’s harder to hit the extremes. And if we look back at sort of where education began, you know, hundreds and hundreds of years ago, where you had some of these greatest philosophers of modern time, what we find is that they had, you know, one or 2 or 3 students at a time. And so it was really in small numbers, and a lot of it was learning how people learn so that they could be good mentors and that they could be good guides. And I think that what happens is, is that the education system, you know, we’ve just had increase in number of students per teacher, has just been on the rise and underfunded and under innovated and, you know, all these kind of things.


Jeff Karp: [00:11:32] And so I think that you’re exactly right, that the average sort of catering to the average is a problem of doing things at scale. And I think everybody’s on a spectrum, like everybody has their own unique sort of aspects of neurodiversity. We all have had different experiences. We all have different genetics. We think about things differently. We actually observe the world differently in terms of how we explore, you know, with our senses. And I think that my mind always drifts back to like 12, 15,000 years ago when we were hunter-gatherers and, you know, like just that kind of that kind of sense when we’re we’re in small groups working together, we’re conserving our energy. We’re getting a lot of contact time with the teachers, with the people who know we’re getting a lot of contact time with nature and a lot of experiential learning. And so I think that kind of fast-forward to today. I think the education system, I mean, there are a lot of good things about it, but I think a lot of people fall through the cracks and it ends up harming people for their entire lives because they believe that they’re not. Capable. They believe that there’s fear that’s instilled. I mean, even questions, I mean, questions have been so, so important in my whole life.


Jeff Karp: [00:12:51] And I feel everyone’s been shamed for asking, you know, a stupid question at some point in their life. And that creates hesitation, that creates fear, that sticks with you. And then beyond that, for me, someone who’s just always engaging in process and trying to evolve out of necessity, really, I think the fact that we’ve been shamed for asking a question now, we’re not actually improving our ability to ask questions, which I think is just innate in our adaptive, you know, how we all have the power to adapt and and our neuroplasticity, you know, the ability to rewire our brain? I mean, I’ve looked at questions and been I strategically finding ways to improve the asking high-value questions in my life. It’s just been super essential. So I think, yeah, there’s a lot of a lot of challenges, I think, in the education system. And I think that there seems to be some movements happening around the world to sort of break free from some of the conventional approaches of modern society for education and trying to do things in smaller groups. And I think it becomes a lot more meaningful when we when we move to do that.


Jonathan Fields: [00:13:56] Yeah. And I totally agree. And I see there’s, there’s really interesting movements around experiential learning as you were talking about. And it’s such a weird time as well because kids are also they’re doing this dance between trying to actually navigate the IRL world in real life world around them, while also functioning in no small part in the virtual world, and you’ve got just the complexity that that all brings. You know, for you, I know a lot of this experience is what led you to, as you described, develop basically a toolbox of skills, of practices, of ways of being that in the early days, it sounds like it was largely a survival mechanism, but these then really became a toolkit that informed not just your ability to survive, but then your ability to step into an experience and truly flourish, truly understand how do I operate in a zone of possibility and just do amazing things and become who I want to be, which eventually becomes this toolbox, which becomes actually the center of your new book, lit. So I want to walk through some of those tools because I think they’re really interesting and probably really valuable to a lot of folks who are in a moment in their lives where they’re the kind of stuck and trying to figure out, how do I get from where I am now to where I want to be. One of the opening concepts in your in in this toolbox is something that I guess you kind of borrowed from physics, the notion of activation energy. So take me into this.


Jeff Karp: [00:15:21] Absolutely. So I learned about activation energy many years ago in school and and actually when I discovered it, I was like, oh my God, I could apply this to so many areas of my life as a tool to be helpful, to evolve and to develop skills and things. So let’s say you have a beaker of, of water and you put two molecules in it, and those molecules can react, but they need certain conditions to react. And so you add a bit of heat and they start moving around. But you know, not too much is happening. You add more heat and they move around more, and then you add more heat. And all of a sudden they bombard, they collide and a reaction occurs. So the amount of heat that you’ve put into the system is the activation energy. It’s the amount of energy that was needed as an input in order for a reaction to take place. And as soon as I learned that, I thought, wow, you know, there’s so many things in my life that feel low activation energy and there’s so many things that feel high activation energy. So a low activation energy could be flipping on the TV or watching a show or grabbing a snack or just sort of lying down, you know, for example. I mean, it really doesn’t take much energy to do these types of things or to go, let’s say, on social media, you know, and just sort of look around a high activation energy type thing may be, let’s say I haven’t ridden my bike in a while and I want to go ride my bike again.


Jeff Karp: [00:16:47] That’s going to take me more energy, because I’m going to have to make sure there’s air in the tires, you know, make sure it’s safe. I want to make sure that, you know, it’s in good working order. I have to find the time to go out. I just, you know, I’m not going to go out just for two minutes. I need to go out for a certain amount of time. So actually what? I’ll give you an example, a bike example. My friend Michael Gale called me last summer when he was riding his bike and he just said, Jeff, he’s like being on my bike is my happy place. And I immediately I could hear the wind going by and, you know, kind of his voice kind of fading in and out. And I was like, wow, you know, like, I totally could relate to that. And immediately in that moment, I was almost like living vicariously through him. I was like, wow. Like, I know it feels so good to be on on a bike. I was like, okay, but I know that if I say I’m going to go home and ride my bike, I’m setting myself up for likely not doing it.


Jeff Karp: [00:17:38] And then this cycle of self-shame. And I think that people generally they set the goals too high. High and then they don’t achieve them. And now you start practicing not achieving your goals. And so what I did was I kind of held myself back because I think there’s a tendency to just try and go for it immediately. But I held myself back, which I think kind of pressurizes the system and actually lowers the activation energy. And I said, okay, today I’m just going to wash my bike up. I’m just going to clean it. That’s it. Tomorrow I’m going to put air in the tires, and then the next day I’m going to hang my helmet on the bike. So now I’m like, I’m kind of feeling like I really want to go, but I’m not letting myself go. I’m just doing one thing at a time, and I’m lowering the activation energy to be able to get on the bike. And then I put it in a location I go by every day. Now the only thing I need left is ten 15 minutes to get on the bike and go around the neighborhood. And last summer I biked over a thousand miles.


Jeff Karp: [00:18:32] You know, I just was able to lower the activation energy enough and then keep that activation energy low so that I would continuously just get on the bike. And I wrote into my lab, which is about four miles or so from my house. Not that far, but I love the bike ride there. Part of it’s through like a forest, and I think we can break things down like that for anything in life that we want to do, we can just think about it as how much energy is going to be required, and is there a way that we can lower the activation energy but not try to lower it all in one step? Think of it as sort of multi-steps and in some ways almost hold ourselves back. Like I think you know, the analogy that I’ve maybe a lot of others I’ve seen in other places is if you want to go to the gym, one of the steps could just be you walk by the gym, you walk around the gym, you go in and you just talk to them. But you choose specifically not to go work out that day. So there’s ways that we can tap into our psychology to help us be motivated and create the momentum to do the things that we really want to do.


Jonathan Fields: [00:19:32] Yeah, I mean, it’s really interesting what you’re describing. Also, I don’t know if you’re familiar with BJ Fogg’s work, but he has a behavioral model that basically says, like any new behavior as a factor of motivation, ability and a trigger. And, and he says, you know, like when people think about like, oh, I want to do this new thing. I want to go, like you said, I want to go work out. You know, I want to ride my bike every day, whatever it may be. That’s the new behavior. And and most people focus on the motivation side of it. How do I motivate myself to do it? How do I pump myself up? How do I say the affirmations? How do I have a friend who’s like, go do it! Yay, yay, yay! But he said, the research shows and you’re sort of supporting this, and it’s the ability side that actually is the much, much more powerful thing that actually makes you do the thing. And oftentimes that’s just, do I have the ability to do this thing? You know, and he says it’s a matter of removing friction.


Jonathan Fields: [00:20:21] And part of the way that you do that is what you’re describing to is sort of like, how can I chunk this down into the simplest thing? So it’s almost impossible not to do, you know, it’s like, oh, please, how can I not do that? It sounds like that’s what you’re describing. But, you know, BJ Fogg’s model overlaid with yours is kind of like most people would say, well, if something has a, quote, ‘high activation energy’, it requires a lot of energy to put into the system to like, get it to happen or to make me do it. I just need to motivate myself to overcome that level of activation energy. And what sounds like both of you are saying you could try that, but that’s probably not the thing that’s going to make it work long term. Like really look at like, how do you lower what it takes to be able to say yes to it in the first place? That’s the sustainable way to actually go from inertia to actually inaction. Is that right?


Jeff Karp: [00:21:08] Yeah, I know absolutely, absolutely, 100%. And to me, I think what I found in sort of iterating and experimenting with various processes from time to time, I just need to reframe something completely differently. And so, you know, one of the reframes is just breaking things down into steps. And, you know, that worked for me for a little while. But but it was what has really resonated and worked for me for a long period of time is just thinking of things in terms of the amount of energy required. It’s just something I feel like can connect with. And I think the thing is, is like I found that there’s tools where I feel like a lot of people use them, and then I try them and it doesn’t work. And so I feel there is this sort of experimentation that’s required. And I think, you know, there’s a lot of I feel there’s just so much hesitation in experimenting or even just taking the first step in anything. And one of the ways we’ve kind of reframed that in my laboratory is to think like, instead of thinking that a step is going to lead us to an outcome, a tangible outcome, we do a reframe where we say the step is going to help us learn something. It might be tiny, but together these tiny things become important. And so what kind of first step can we take where we might just gain an insight, or have the possibility of gaining an insight that others don’t have, or something that might lead us towards a solution, or tell us to not go in a particular direction. And I think when we start to reframe from these expectations of a particular outcome to rather learning, and even if it’s learning on like the nanoscale. Then it becomes easier, I found, to take that first step to lower the activation energy to create momentum.


Jonathan Fields: [00:22:51] Yeah, that makes so much sense because then, you know, there’s no success or failure in those micro steps. It’s just, did I learn something? And if you did, you’re always going to learn something. If you’re paying attention, then that is a success. And then it gives you this sort of like the momentum, the confidence to move on to the next one. One more thing to.


Jeff Karp: [00:23:06] Add to that, which is something that just recently has been really helpful for me, and it’s thinking of things in terms of generations. So I’ll give you an example. I recently was invited to give a talk at Stanford on Lit the book, and I haven’t given a talk on lit before. And so, you know, I have kind of a standard talk that I give, and I’ve been evolving that through my career and I’m, you know, updating it as new data and new projects, you know, things like that. But I really wanted to create a brand new talk, a whole new lecture, and really get into some of the details of the tools that I’ve just found really useful. But I sort of set this expectation for myself that I really wanted to just hit it out of the park, right? Like I felt myself gravitate towards, like I just, I need to really, like, crush this. I have to, you know, and I practice in front of so many people and go over and over. But what I was able to do was kind of bring myself back and say, Jeff, this is Gen 1.0, I’m going to probably be giving this type of a lecture and evolving it and iterating it till like generation 20, and then maybe once it gets to 20, maybe I’ll be just tweaking it here and there, but maybe the first, you know, five, ten, 15, 20 times I give it, I’ll be making some major changes based on sort of sensing the room, sensing myself being open to the cues to kind of help guide me towards am I really connecting people? Is this the right order? Do I need to illuminate certain things more or not? And so I was able to go into that talk with that mentality that this is I’m going to do the best I can at this moment, but this is generation 1.0, and I’m there to serve and to tell people what I’ve done and share it in the most authentic way.


Jeff Karp: [00:24:50] But I’m also there to learn how can I, how can I improve on it for the next time? And that to me, just really it becomes exciting because I’m it’s again, it’s part of the laboratory sort of like model or mentality that kind of like constantly iterating and trying to improve on things and that there really is no sort of endpoint where you just never change it, you know, like it’s always going to change. There’s always things you’re going to want to add. There’s new perspectives that you’ll gain and you’ll want to add it into the talk. And so I just have found that that’s been incredibly useful in my life to think of things in terms of like Gen 1.0, 2.0, 3.0 for almost every new thing that I do.


Jonathan Fields: [00:25:31] Yeah, that’s such a great reframe, and I think so helpful for folks who, like, step into something and basically say, oh, I have to succeed immediately. I have to make this work. You know, it’s not realistic. And also it puts a level of pressure on you that probably builds underlying anxiety. That actually makes it harder to even do that thing that you want to do. It’s interesting too, because you’re describing this as almost like a scientific process. You know, like, this is this is what you do in science, but this is also the process of stand-up comedy. You know, like there’s no stand up comic who gets up on stage the first time and says, I’m going to be the best comic ever. I’m just going to knock this set out of the park. Everybody in that space knows it’s going to take years of you take one bit, and you’re probably going to be testing it and refining it for years until you finally are at a point where like, oh yeah, like that’s it. And that’s one bit out of maybe like an hour’s worth of work. And it’s so interesting to me that we do have these domains in life where the expectation is that that’s how it’s going to go. But then like there’s a whole rest of things where people just we step into it with these wild expectations that we’ll step in and out of the gate. We’re just going to be the best that we can be, which can be such a brutalizing experience and make us run away from something that. But for the fact that we had expectations that were really defeating could have been an amazing part of our life.


Jeff Karp: [00:26:48] Yeah. It’s so I’m so glad you brought that up because, um, you know, I was listening to Jerry Seinfeld talk about, you know, on some podcast, and he talks exactly like, you know, he goes to certain places and he road tests it. And me, I’m sort of step back and I’m thinking about this like, you know, he’s one of the greatest comics of all time. And in my mind, it’s almost like I’m projecting myself to be like, if I was in his shoes, my expectation would be that I wouldn’t need to road test things. But you do. Regardless of how proficient or how far you get in something, you always need to road-test and it. To me, I see a lot of parallels in nature and just how ecosystems evolve and how nature, you know, in some levels, when you kind of look at it, maybe from a holistic perspective, you see that nature is really experimenting constantly, like nature is just one big laboratory and, you know, some. Creatures become extinct and die off and others don’t. And it’s hard, sort of as humans looking through human lenses to kind of predict what’s going to survive, what’s going to make it, and it seems as though just the force of nature which is within all of us. And if we can kind of look at it that way, it could be very empowering because it’s a very experimental process. And so I think that by engaging this way, we’re really engaging in a natural process.


Jonathan Fields: [00:28:12] Yeah, that makes so much sense. One of the things that you this is a whole focus of yours in the book, but also you sort of keep bringing it up in different ways is the role of questions in, you know, our ability to actually really come alive in life and do amazing things. And when so many of us think about questions, right, I feel like gloss over the question part. We think we know the question and we focus on, oh, like, want to be amazing? What? Try and figure out the answer or the end state or the outcome. It’s all about, you know, like, okay, so we know the question. Let’s not spend too much time on it. It’s it’s quote obvious. Let’s just get to the like the process of getting to the answer. And you have a really interesting reset. This isn’t it. Not so fast. Like let’s actually really spend a lot more time on the questions themselves, because not only are they determinative of everything that will happen, that will get you to a potential answer, but the questions themselves have so much to like living in the question. Your language, right? Living for the question is there’s so much that you can get just from that process.


Jeff Karp: [00:29:20] Yeah. Wow. I mean questions. Um, okay. I’ll give you I’ll give you a couple stories, I think kind of illuminate how questions have just become so critical in my life, and not just the questions that I’ve asked, but also the questions that I haven’t asked have really led to all sorts of twists and turns. Maybe I’ll start with what happened to me when I got to University of Toronto graduate school. And, you know, by that time I was tuned in to questions. I was asking a lot of questions. I felt like I was pretty proficient in questions, but I was about to learn a whole new level of questioning. So I went to I would go to these seminar speakers, you know, they’d have them come in once a month or, you know, a couple times, like once, once every other week or whatever it was. And, um, you know, I’m kind of like fading in and out, trying to, with my attentions kind of, you know, all over the place and get to the end to the, um, to the question period. And all of a sudden the arrows start flying. So it’s like in, you know, in academia, I was amazed. I couldn’t believe it. Like right to the heart of the question, right to the heart of the, uh, the talk. So the person who spoke like it was like people were just asking the most important questions, and I just saw them as arrows because it was like, you know, people were just lined up, like shooting them bull’s eye every time.


Jeff Karp: [00:30:37] And, um, you know, I didn’t have any arrows. I didn’t have any of these questions. They weren’t coming to my mind. And I started to kind of shame myself, like, what’s wrong with me? Why am I not thinking of the questions that others here are coming up with? And I quickly sort of transitioned to a different frame of reference, which was, okay, how can I learn to ask these questions? Because what I’ve realized in my life is that if there’s ever something I’m not good at or I can’t do, it’s not forever. It’s really I’m just means I’m just not engaging the right process that works for me. And so I thought, okay, I need to engage a process here. It’s not going to happen by just going to these lectures. So I used to play chess with my dad when I was younger, and I started thinking about chess and how what separates an amateur chess player from an expert chess player is pattern recognition and being able to think ahead, you know, ten, 11, 12 moves. It’s all patterns. And so I thought, okay, well, how could I bring that to questions? And so what I did was the next seminar I went to, everybody was focused on what was being presented. I was focused on something completely different.


Jeff Karp: [00:31:47] I was focused on the questions that people were asking at the end of the seminars. In fact, I wrote them all down, and so I would start going to seminars to hear the questions, and I wrote pages and pages. And so after a couple of months, I started to look over those questions and I noticed patterns, and it was like a light bulb moment for me when I started to identify these patterns, because it gave me a sense of the motivation that people had for asking these questions. So I’ll give you an example. There were like 4 or 5 key categories. So one group of questions that often get asked is around was the experimental setup like was the experiment actually working properly? There’s a lot that goes involved in doing an experiment and a lot can go wrong. And so the experimenter needs to have all sorts of different controls to figure to make sure that the experiments are working properly. So there were a lot of questions around that. There were also a bunch of questions around the importance of the work. So somebody, let’s say, is doing an experiment to develop a diagnostic device for blood. And they did all of their experiments in salt water saline. Then the results, even if they’re spectacular, may not yet be important because they haven’t done it in this complex system. That would represent the final goal of the project.


Jeff Karp: [00:33:08] And there were questions around statistics as well, you know, whether the results were actually led to meaningful differences. And and there were. Do other things. And so when I started to clue into that, I was like, aha! Like, wow. So now I wasn’t thinking of the questions per se. I was thinking about the motivation behind them, you know? So I went to the next lecture and I almost was like, I had my detective hat on, because now I was paying attention to what they’re saying. I’m trying to find holes in their work. Right? I’m trying to see, like, okay, was their experiment like, I’m going in? I’m like, was their experiment working? Like check, check, check X? No, they didn’t have that control. Are their results important? And I’m sort of thinking about it from that angle. I’m looking at their statistics. And so all of a sudden I was able to start coming up with these questions. And not only that, because I was now more focused on what they were saying, the information was sinking into my mind a lot better. So I had was able to then connect it to the knowledge that was already there. And I started being able to do lateral thinking, to come up with new ideas for the next experiment for them, or another application where they could apply what they were doing. And so that kind of fueled into creative creativity. And so to me, it’s like I see questions as a skill that anybody can improve on.


Jeff Karp: [00:34:27] And for example, you know, if you’re at a social event and you kind of feel like, and this is happening many times, you kind of feel like, oh, I want to talk to people. But I don’t, you know, and I know questions are like a way to go in, but what question do I ask? And so I’ll actually observe the people who are really good at schmoozing and listening to what questions they’re asking. Because when I start to do that, I start to understand how to really connect with people. And then I think when you listen to the answers, you deepen those connections. So I just I really feel and one other point I think is just so important to bring out is just that idea. I think we spoke about a little earlier, just that people have been shamed for asking the stupid question or at some point in their life. And questions are a skill, and I think everybody can practice them, and they’ve been transformative in my work. I’ll give you one more example. At almost every lab meeting, I will ask the following question, which it took me a while to figure out to ask this question, but it’s key, and it creates a North Star for pretty much every project in our lab. So we are focused on, in my lab the process of medical problem-solving in the functional sense.


Jeff Karp: [00:35:39] The goal is not to just publish papers. Rather, we want to take what we develop and bring it to patients as quickly as possible. That’s the main goal of my laboratory, and I realized that I needed to ask questions that would help with that process, to shepherd towards that end goal. And over time, I realized there was one question that I could ask that was essential. And I asked this question what is the bar that we need to exceed to get others excited? In other words, what’s the best result anyone has ever achieved in a particular model or experimental system? How much better do we need to do in order to claim that we’ve really moved the needle enough that investors might come in and be excited that our scientific colleagues are excited about this advance that we’ve made, and by making that the North Star. And it’s not an easy question to answer, but it’s a process of thinking about how to answer that question and conducting experiments towards supporting an answer that to that question that I think is one of the major reasons why almost every major project in my lab has turned into a company and, you know, bringing technologies to patients. So I really feel like questions are just untapped in many ways. And there’s simple steps we can take to get to these high-value questions in all aspects of life.


Jonathan Fields: [00:37:08] Yeah, I mean, it really brings forward the importance of not just rushing to try and like, dial in the most basic question and then pursue the answer, but really, really spend time on what are the better questions before we even get to it. And as you’re describing that, I’m thinking somebody who’s listening to this, there’s probably so many different applications. You know, so many people have shown up at a dinner party. I felt really uncomfortable not knowing anybody in the room or a meeting or a business event. Or maybe, you know, so many people have started new jobs and new companies or entire new industries. And over the last couple of years, you drop into a new work setting and maybe you feel confident in your domain expertise, but but like, it’s entirely a new place. And on the one hand you want to, quote, prove your worth and contribute. But on the other hand, you’re sitting around a table on a regular basis, or maybe working in a team where you don’t know the dynamic, you don’t know the social dynamic, the power dynamic, like what the actual work has been within this context. And what you’re describing. Is this like a process of really paying intense attention to a the question.


Jonathan Fields: [00:38:16] That are being asked on a regular basis, be the underlying motivation behind those questions to then potentially see can I categorize these to understand like what are people trying to elicit on a regular basis? And then the other part of it that that I’m curious about is whether you paid much attention to how both the person being asked the question responded not verbally in terms of what the answer was, but actually like what the contextual response was. Was it a physical eye roll? Was it a like or like, did others around the table or in the room? Kind of like how people responded, which I would imagine would also give you data about whether the person being asked the question and those in the the immediate community, how they valued that question, and whether it was something that you thought you would put into a bucket that says, let me understand this more, or let me kind of put it off to the side as not something that is really, you know, makes a lot of sense to try and emulate or figure out or deconstruct.


Jeff Karp: [00:39:18] Well, I yeah, no, I think you’re on to something big here. Um, I think that I have found myself in many instances watching for cues from people in terms of, yeah, their eyes, their reactions, the visceral reactions that they’re having when they’re asked certain questions. Because my life really has been this, this laboratory. And I feel I’ve asked questions early in my life that I think have made people feel uncomfortable and have been dead-end questions and have, um, weren’t the questions that I and like, maybe it didn’t come out the right way and, you know, went in a direction that I didn’t want to go in that direction. I want to go to another direction. And so I feel there’s a lot to it when you make the intention to focus on the cues, the, the nonverbal cues, as, let’s say I’m interacting with other people, it’s just been really important because I have, especially earlier in my life, had such a difficult time connecting with people in meaningful ways. And I think, you know, I really had to pay attention to those cues. And I had to experiment with like, what to say, what not to say, how to say it, how not to say it. And so now when I say things in ways, maybe the tone of voice is not, you know, right. Maybe I’m like rushing towards something and I’m too fast, like I know it in that moment. And it just I have that awareness now because I’ve paid so much attention to it.


Jeff Karp: [00:40:46] And it’s something that I’m constantly working on, is, is trying to find ways so that I’m connecting with people through my questions and other ways of interacting in the most genuine, kind of meaningful ways. And I had this anticipation, I think, for a long time that it would just be natural, like, you know, people say, be yourself or just be authentic and you just sort of say it. But I realized that it really depends on what I was doing the moment before. Like if I was heads down in my work and things were really like, I’m pushing myself, maybe there was a deadline. I have all that sort of energy built up that anxious energy. And then let’s say I go spend time with my family or friends. I’m bringing that energy to them, and I feel I never used to really be able to to clue in to that. But now I do because I’m cluing into the reactions that people have. And you know, my family now is so great with me for this because I’ve been working really hard on it. But they’ll they’ll actually, you know, like in the car a couple of weeks ago, I was working, working, and I just, um, you know, I did something that I didn’t want to do, which was, you know, I brought my laptop into the car. I’m sitting in the back seat, my wife is driving my sons in the front seat.


Jeff Karp: [00:41:58] My wife’s asking me a question, and I’m sort of like trying to get something done. I respond, but I don’t respond the right way, and my son calls me out on it and he’s like, he literally just stopped, busted. He’s busted. Busted. And I think back, you know, a few years ago, whatever, my ego would just sort of cause me to like, say something in return and try to equalize it or try to, you know, redirect it or try. No. Like, that’s, you know, I’m fine, blah, blah, blah. But now I sort of got into the place where I can hear it. I can feel the emotion sort of rise in me, and I can feel that my need to say something, but I’m able to just not say it. I’m able to just let it go and just process it. And I find, you know, after a few moments, a few minutes, you know, ten whatever minutes, it sort of subsides and I’m like, you were right. You were exactly right, you know? And so, um, yeah, I know trying to be receptive to cues and also not just the cues of other people in terms of what I’m saying, but also trying to, in more real time, get in touch with how I am being received by the world and sort of listening to my own voice and feeling in that anxious energy state, or am I in a calm state where I can really connect with people?


Jonathan Fields: [00:43:14] Yeah. I mean, that really speaks to. Awareness in the process of both understanding how to ask or how to seek really good questions, but also how to understand. And part of the reason I asked also is about the question about like also observing how people respond when you’re trying to categorize the different questions is I think we’ve all been in the situation where people are asking questions. You’re kind of like, wow, great question, great question, great question. And then somebody poses this long question and it becomes really clear really quickly to everybody else in the room that this is not a question in search of an answer. This is a question designed to try and exert dominance or like status. You know, like, I know more than you, I’m better than you. And I’m going to demonstrate it by either showing you how wrong you are or like asking you a question that tries to trip you up or like shows you that I have data that’s better or different than yours or more valuable. That comes up all the time. It comes up in meetings. I’ve been on stage and like there’s a Q&A afterwards and there’s somebody who comes up and like asks the question like that. And I remember looking at the audience and literally seeing in their body language and in their faces like everybody kind of like transmitting like, oh, I know this person. This is what they do every time. And can we just sort of like get to the next person? Um, so it must be interesting because if you’re paying attention, it would also let you probably create a category that says maybe types of questions to catch myself before and not ask if I have this tendency towards them.


Jeff Karp: [00:44:45] Yeah. No, absolutely. I feel I have tendencies towards saying a lot of things at times where when I really think deeply about my intention, I don’t want to be saying things like, for example, when I’m spending time with my children and, you know, it took me a long time to get to this place. But when I’m spending time with my children and let’s say they’re speaking and I have something jumps in my mind like that, I just feel like I have to say, um, maybe just to connect with what they’re saying, or maybe an example of my life that connects to something, you know, anything. I now am at the point where I can pause and think, is this going to shift the energy from them to me? My kids are both teenagers, so 15 and 18, and I feel like just from my experiences when, you know, my children are speaking to me, it’s like a blessing, you know, that they’re actually talking. And so I find myself sort of almost like biting my tongue. Many situations where I realize that if I say something that there’s a good chance they’re going to stop speaking, they’re going to stop creating, you know, through their voice and finding their voice, and that my role is really just to be supportive and find ways for them to continue to talk and for me to just listen rather than to interject and say something because I notice that shift that occurs. So what you’re saying, I notice a lot like when I’m interacting with my family and my friends, is that I’m a lot more sort of pausing in my mind, even though I feel that urge to say something, I really feel it.


Jeff Karp: [00:46:21] And sometimes even like questions like in the middle of like when someone’s talking, I’m really good at interjecting and saying things. I think, you know, you get to be really good at that. In the academic setting, I’m kind of at a place where I just can hold it, and I also carry around like notepads and things so often I’ll also, you know, write something down. So I feel like I can bring it up later if I don’t have a notepad, I feel, oh, what if it this is so important, what’s on my mind if I don’t say it now, it’s gonna, you know, we’re not going to make it to the next thing. And I find myself constantly, every day sort of holding back and using that as a strategy. And I find when I do that, I now tell myself, and this is more recent, I say that’s a win. That’s a win. And it actually feels really good when I say that. And I’ll say one more thing that I do. There’s this app called Mind Jogger, a really simple kind of primitive app where you put in a sentence like you write in a sentence, and then you say, okay, between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., how many times it’s going to randomly ping you. So like three times, ten times, whatever it is. So sometimes what I do is I put in, you can do it. I just put that there. And so randomly throughout the day I get this ping and I look and I’m like, oh, what’s pinging me? And it says, you can do it and I can’t tell you like how good that feels in the moment.


Jeff Karp: [00:47:40] Even though I’ve written it, I set it up and I feel these. There’s so many things we can do in our life to, to, to infuse that kind of positive energy and to, you know, help us to to get over the hesitation and the fear. And I have other lines that I’ve done like one is, who are you judging in this moment? So I put that and then another one that I learned actually on another podcast that I was listening to, it is I forget who it is. So I’m not going to credit this the right way. But it says, are you above or below the line? Meaning like, are you in a good like a positive sort of mental? State or in a negative mental state. And because I felt at some points in my life I needed to, I felt like the negative when I kind of in a negative state, it feels like it’s all the time. But when I use this app to ping me randomly, I realize it’s very infrequent. So it’s like, wow, things are really good. Why am I focused on the negative? So it was a way to sort of get into the little like tool to, to help me gain awareness of sort of where I’m at, you know, throughout the days in general and what I need to work on and, and things.


Jonathan Fields: [00:48:48] Yeah, I love that. As you’re describing that, I’m like, oh, I have to go check out that app. But also, um, you had two questions popped into my head. One was what’s good about this moment? And the other is just simply like, what do you notice? You know, just a prompt to actually bring you into the present moment to get you back into your senses. And instead of spinning in your head or maybe thinking about the future of the past, like, what do you notice, like right now? Like about yourself, about like the world around you, the person you’re talking to? I love sort of like being able to leverage simple tech like that in a way that just randomly keeps bringing you back to states that you know you want to be in, but we don’t necessarily default to them automatically. I want to talk about one other topic that you go into as well. And it’s the notion of failure, because this is something that comes up so often in so many contexts. Personal failure, like business failure, you know, like fitness goal, whatever it may be. And it’s something that we have this sort of, um, built in. But unless you live in the tech world or in worlds where failure is fairly normalized, you know, it’s a part of the process, or in the scientific world where it’s like you’re going to run a thousand experiments and you know that most of them aren’t going to work out, but you learn something outside of those domains in sort of most people’s day to day life and work life.


Jonathan Fields: [00:50:07] And we experience failure viscerally, emotionally, and we do anything to avoid it. You have this fascinating example of writing something like 100 grand, and I think about two and a half years, most of them being rejected. But you didn’t walk away from science. So my curiosity there is I think we can all acknowledge that actually putting in the reps, doing the experiments, that to a certain extent, everything is a numbers game that you have to keep moving through and iterating and learning. That’s part of the process. But what are the strategies that you have discovered that allow you to stay in it, to move through like failure after failure after failure, whether it’s a micro failure or a macro failure long enough for you to get to that place where you’re like, ooh, we’re starting to figure something out.


Jeff Karp: [00:50:53] Hmm. Yeah. Failure is is definitely something that I have gotten up close and personal with on many occasions and in some spectacular ways. And I think that, you know, there’s a number of a number of situations in my life where, I mean, the grant thing is a good one because, you know, here I am, young faculty member, just got out of my postdoc at MIT, and I want to do new things. I don’t want to continue what I’ve been doing. I’m really excited. I have so many ideas. I’m like, so fired up. And I ask around some advice and people say, okay, just do something that you’ve already done, but just extend it a little bit. And I just didn’t feel right to me, I just didn’t I wasn’t excited about that. And so I started writing grants about just coming up with these wild ideas. And you’re right, like, I got rejection after rejection after rejection. In fact, I would be almost coming back home every other day or so telling my wife that I have another rejection. And she at one point said, are you sure this is the right career for you? I distinctly remember exactly where I was when I asked that and the moment, and you know all those things about it. But what made it feel right during that time was as I was writing these grants and getting these rejections, and they really felt like punches in the face every single time, like I put my heart into each one of these grants and I really, you know, I would even sleep in my lab some nights just to get the grant in on time.


Jeff Karp: [00:52:25] And the key for me was that a bunch of these grants, I would get feedback. Now when I got the feedback, I would get really angry and I would be irrational about it. You know, how could they say this? It’s not true. It was. They’re on page three. Like, you know, they didn’t read my grant. Like, you know, I would just come up with all these things. But what I noticed was, is that after a couple of days, you know, if I got a good night’s sleep or two that those emotions would go away. They were just transitory. And I started to think like, wait a moment. Now I can actually go back and look through this review, and maybe there are certain things I can pull out that would be helpful. And I started to look at that feedback, and I started to get more and more and more feedback, because I had lots of rejections and I started to get excited about it. Like, I don’t know, I just feel like there’s this excitement that I’ve been able to tap into in the process of failure, because in some ways, I’m actually being told how to do better the next time. How can I increase my probability that the next grant might be funded? And so as I was going, I started to I was like, oh, that’s so interesting because I, I made it into like this learning process.


Jeff Karp: [00:53:36] Like I feel learning is really exciting. It really does. Like our brains are wired to get excited about learning. And I think we can tap into that, like by just noticing the nuances, noticing how we feel when we learn something, even if it was a mistake we made or, you know, just something that someone is schooling us in some way or another. But it’s like, okay, now I can add it to my next grant. And likely reviewers are not going to attack that point because now this part is now more bulletproof. And I just did that over and over, and I started to just keep my antenna as activated as possible, you know, trying to be receptive. And eventually at the two-and-a-half-year mark where, you know, most of the grants were I think it was over 100 grants, maybe I had a few that were funded just for small amounts of money. And this was high pressure too, because my my faculty positions through the hospital, which means it’s 100% soft. Money position, meaning that I have to pay myself through my grants. And I was given a startup package that only lasts for three years. So if I wasn’t able to bring in enough funding to support my salary after three years, it was.


Jonathan Fields: [00:54:45] A break, right?


Jeff Karp: [00:54:45] I was out. And so there was that pressure too. Um, but in there I was just able to see the silver lining of just learning. And so I got better and better and better at writing grants and at the two-and-a-half year mark, I had two I had three grants simultaneously funded to the tune of like a few million dollars. My lab tripled in size and we were off to the races. And there’s just so many situations in my life where things like that have happened. I’ll just give you a couple quick examples, like one is I go to give a TEDMED talk. I forget what year it was, maybe it was like 2015 or 14 or something like that. And here I am, the Kennedy Center in DC. I’m on the stage and there’s five high-definition cameras on me. It’s being live-streamed throughout the world, and I’ve practiced that thing. I hadn’t memorized anything since elementary school. I’ve put months and months and months into this of memorizing it, practicing. I rented out the Kresge Auditorium at MIT, the biggest lecture hall. I practiced it there. I practiced it in front of the head of communications at my institution. I practiced in front of my family and my lab and just all over the place and refining, refining, refining. And eventually it was I just made it robotic, you know, I could just I could just say it and think about different things. Actually, the night before I went up, they said, okay, here’s the clicker to advance, by the way. It doesn’t go backwards. They said, if you want to go backwards, you have to yell out in the middle of your talk to, oh, go back a slide.


Jeff Karp: [00:56:15] And I was like, okay. So my level of anxiety just like went up. And then they said in previous years, people, when they stop, you know, they’ll stop on stage, they run off or they start crying. And they said, don’t do that. You know, like if you stop in the middle of your talk, just stand there and smile and hopefully it’ll will come back to you. So I’m going through my talk and all of a sudden I realize I forgot a line and I can’t get over it. My mind is stuck, focused, hyper-focused on. I forgot a line and then all of a sudden I stop in the middle of my talk. Kennedy Center of D.C., all these people watching all over and I’m like, oh my God, oh my God, what do I do? And I’m like, okay, I can’t run off the stage, I can’t cry, just smile, just smile. And so I have the clicker and I’m trying to like, use my arm as, like a lightning rod or my I’m trying to just get energy somehow and I don’t. I’m like I’m like, oh my God, oh my God, am I God? And then eventually I’m like, okay, just advance the slide. So I advance the slide and it’s a blank slide. And I’m like, oh my God, why is there a blank slide? And then I advance to the next slide. And then I realized the blank slide was a cue for me to say something. But then I knew what to say.


Jeff Karp: [00:57:27] And so I said it and I was like, just go, go, go. And then I continued, continued on. And as I’m walking off the stage, the stage coordinator said, we can easily edit that part out. And so if you watch it online, you won’t see it. But I’ve posted this. I stopped for 15 seconds, which feels like a lifetime in the moment. And the reason I’m bringing this up is because I was able to recover. And that brought me a newfound confidence with my presentations, with my ability to even interact with other people, because it just made me realize that while I might stop me, I might lose my train of thought. I might, you know, be distracted, but I can find a way to bring it back and then get back on track. And so it’s almost like every time I’ve had these spectacular failures or setbacks, there’s like this energy that I’ve been able to tap into that then has like elevated everything else I’ve done from that moment. And I feel unless we encounter failures and setbacks, we can’t access that energy. And I really feel its energy because it’s almost like it elevates. Like all my presentations going forward, I’ve just more comfortable and and I think that in school we learn failures like on one side and successes over here. But in my experience, failure precedes success. It’s like a step towards progress, and it’s where we really gain our greatest insights and opportunities for growth. And it’s just such a chart, energy-charged opportunity for us to learn and evolve in everything.


Jonathan Fields: [00:59:06] What would you say would be a frame, a state of mind, or a strategy to bring to those moments that somebody might adopt to help them not only embrace it or even get through it.


Jeff Karp: [00:59:20] Well, one thing that I’ve done is I’ve created a list of my most spectacular failures in life. I’ve not just created the list, but actually reflected on each item on that list and what happened as a result of it. And every single example on the list, there’s something positive that has come out of it. There’s sort of like a new opportunity that’s been unlocked. There’s a new sense of confidence that’s been gained. There’s a new sense of increased number of possibilities in, you know, opportunities. I mean, it’s just it’s led to and so to me, that’s something that everybody can do is to just create a list of previous failures, setbacks, challenges that you’ve encountered, and then to go through that list and think about what was the positive that came out of it, how did it positively impact your evolution, or your development of a skill, or your ability to connect or interact with others, or, you know, do what you want to do? And to me, it’s sometimes we just have to look back to we often hear like trust in the process, right? Trust in the process. And it’s for me, I’ve heard it so many times, I’m like, but how do I trust in the process? By realize to trust in the process, we have to look backwards to see how so many of the things we’ve done have actually worked out, even though.


Jeff Karp: [01:00:45] But but we really have to remember those moments of uncertainty. It’s almost like our brains forget about that and then just think like, oh, it’s the failure, the challenge of today. But we forget how many times in our life we’ve been in situations where we’re in complete uncertainty about what to do next, what step to take. We feel like every the world is crashed down and this is the end of our life, or this is the end of this project or the end of that. There’ve been so many times when I’ve been in that situation where it literally seems like polarized towards this is never going to work. This is a dead end. And yet every single time some sort of new idea or new insight or there’s some something that was learned sort of takes me in a slightly different direction towards something really great. And so I feel like we if we just pause and take time to get in touch with that, we can gain the confidence to take bigger risks in our life and to be open to embracing failure as an opportunity for gaining insights and, um, a great opportunity for personal growth.


Jonathan Fields: [01:01:53] Yeah, I love that. I’ve heard the concept of failure resume in the past, but but this adds to that concept of like, don’t just make a list of these things, but identify what door has been opened because of this. Like what advance? What next great thing has unfolded because of this. And I would imagine, you know, for somebody who’s sort of like in the midst of some big rejection or perceived failure, like literally as we have this conversation, it may be a little bit hard to actually like do the the postmortem when you’re like, still in the mortem, you know, or when you’re in the moment. But even if you could plant the seed in the moment. I’m curious what you think about this. Like even if you could just, like plant the question, you’re like, what possibilities might now become manifest because of what’s just happened that I didn’t know about, or that weren’t available or I hadn’t thought about beforehand, maybe not even trying to answer in the moment, because you may just be kind of dealing with, you know, like, oh, this is just really evil, but just like to plant the seed and let your mind, like, set that in your mind for it to sort of like noodle in subconsciously. So you have something there. Do you think that that would be worth exploring?


Jeff Karp: [01:03:02] Absolutely. I think I don’t know, I just I find myself thinking so linearly, linearly at times like where it’s like I feel like there’s just the one possibility. But then when I sort of do this reflection backwards, I realize that there were many possibilities that existed. And so I feel, you know, kind of related to what you’re saying. It’s sort of this sense of that maybe in this moment, our attention is focused on a single possibility, which is the emotions that we’re experiencing from this catastrophe that we’re within, but the actual experience itself and the like, if we were to sort of look at the three-dimensionally, you know, and the entire experience and all the various facets and aspects of it, we start to realize that our attention is focused on like a pinpoint of the whole experience and what that experience can, how it can help us and how it can transform us and change us. And so I think it’s like, yeah, it’s I think over time we can develop this skill if we commit to it so that we can sort of widen the lens, that we we see things and we can kind of be open to, like it’s like when we’re planning a project, it’s so there’s this, this tendency to be like, okay. We’ll do this and that’s what will happen. And then that will be next and that will be next.


Jeff Karp: [01:04:23] And you know, and for presenting funding like writing grants, we kind of have to present it that way. But it never goes that way. And yet, you know, so we kind of sometimes I’m like, oh, it’s so silly to write this linear path, but at the same time it’s not, because even just getting that down on paper and thinking about it can be helpful, because you bring your best thinking to the moment, I think, when you’re planning. But what I’ve realized is that we learn more along the way that we don’t know in the beginning when we’re starting out, and what we learn ends up being more essential to anything. Like if we’re developing like, say, for example, we have this project in my lab where we wanted to we were working with this cardiac surgeon at Boston Children’s Hospital to find a way to seal holes inside a beating heart. So one in 200 or 300 children that are born have a congenital heart defect and a percentage require surgery. And Doctor Pedro del Nido, the chief of cardiac surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital, reached out to us because we’d been developing some tissue adhesives. And so we brainstormed and we’re like, oh my God, this is really hard because how are we going to get a tissue glue? The idea was kind of make a patch that had a glue on it that would stick to the tissue around the hole and then would close it, and then what would happen is cells would grow, would kind of migrate on top, form new tissue, and then the material would degrade and the patients left with their own tissue sealing the hole, which could naturally grow with the, with the heart.


Jeff Karp: [01:05:54] Because these were very young children, babies and the heart’s expanding, you know, 60 beats per minute on average, you know, so expansion-contraction cycles, you have the rush of the blood. Every surface is covered with blood. And, you know, we had some ideas and we’re like, yeah, this, you know, we have some ideas. This could work really well, but it dead ended a dead ended, dead ended. And we’re just like a moment where it was like, oh my goodness. Like, whoa. Like, is this the end? Like are we? And it literally it gets to that moment in every project where we feel like, okay. But because we’ve been there so many times, we’re I think this speaks to what you’re saying. We’re sort of open to possibilities and you can’t see it in the very moment. But if you just wait a couple days or a week or, you know, you kind of press pause and just sort of let things come in and look from different angles.


Jeff Karp: [01:06:41] And so what we noticed was there was a fault in our thinking, because what we recognize is that we would approach the problem with one sort of way of thinking, and it wouldn’t work. And then we’d step back and we’d approach with the same thinking and expect different outcomes. So what we did was we said, okay, well, how can we intercept our thinking? And what we did is we turned to nature for inspiration. So this idea that evolution is the best problem solver, millions and millions of years of research and development happening all around us. Anything that’s alive today, every plan, every animal is here because it solved insurmountable number of challenges, right? Like evolution is a problem-solving process. And we’re surrounded by ideas that we could potentially, you know, solutions that we could bring into the lab, you know, as, as ideas. And so we said, okay, creatures exist within wet, dynamic environments, right? Because inside the heart it’s very dynamic. It’s very wet. And we found some creatures and we started to study them, and we started to understand how certain sandcastle worms stick to rocks. And the waves hit them and they remain put. And, you know, other creatures have similar mechanisms. And we learned some things from that. And then we brought it into the project, and we were able to then advance it.


Jeff Karp: [01:08:01] And eventually we developed a surgical glue that could seal holes inside a beating heart. We were able to get regulatory approval in Europe for that glue for vascular reconstruction. And now it’s in two clinical trials, one for nerve reconstruction and one for hernia repair. I think the main sort of theme here is just how in the moment, there’s ways that we can disrupt our own thinking, how in the moment there’s ways that we can disrupt us living in a single possibility, and there’s tools that we can use to bring in new energy and new ideas and new frames of reference, and it changes everything. It just opens things back up. And so I see failure and setbacks and challenges now as an opportunity to be creative. And that’s really exciting when you start to get a sense for what the problem might be. Sometimes we don’t even know. And what we’ll do to keep to sort of rejuvenate the excitement is we’ll bring somebody into the project who has someone new, who has a different expertise than we have, and then they look at it through a different lens, and then all of a sudden we start brainstorming. We come up with a new idea, and all of a sudden the excitement is back and we’re off to the races with another shot.


Jonathan Fields: [01:09:20] On goal. Yeah. Such a powerful way to reframe failure or rejection or any kind of stumble. And really, you know, it’s almost like zooming the lens out and saying, yeah, like, this hurts right now, but let me let it breathe for a minute and let’s come back to it. But differently. Like what possibilities exist now that we’ve said, we’ve sort of closed the door on this. There’s so many interesting ideas and techniques and strategies. Clearly, you’ve referenced nature a whole bunch of times in our conversation, so that plays a role. I’m a huge fan of nature, as you know, like a friend. To me, it is a salve. It is a problem-solving medium. I live in Boulder, Colorado, so I’m in nature on a very regular basis. You talk about things like the power and the importance of pause and how it affects us, and so many other things. So definitely if you’re listening in, you’ll want to dive into so many of these different topics that are embraced in the book. You know, I feel like this is a good place for us to come full circle in this conversation. So in this container of Good Life Project., if I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up?


Jeff Karp: [01:10:24] To live a good life to me is really all about. Tapping into my curiosity. I just found it to be such a gateway to connect with other people, to connect with nature, and to really do my best work, to find the best questions to learn. And it kind of goes beyond learning. I feel like it’s almost like I feel when we’re tapping into our curiosity. We’re not just learning, but we’re maximally exciting our brains by what we’re learning. And I think that, you know, for example, in relationships with my wife, we’ll have conversations, and she has very different perspectives on things than than I do. She owns a Pilates studio, and she’s very much into mind-body connection, which I think is such an important element that I have only brushed the surface of. But when she’s speaking, I found if I really sort of pinch my brain and listen to what she’s saying, and as she talks about her clients and talks about how she’s helping people to connect really, truly mind and body, I find my curiosity, it just picks up on it. And I have so many questions. And I feel when I ask the questions and then I listen to the answers, it deepens my relationship with her. So to me, that’s really, I don’t know, the essence of of a good life is finding ways. You know, it all comes back to the questions, right? Finding ways to cultivate our curiosities. And, you know, the other thing too, is, is that that I’ve had this transformational experience over the last several months, even, you know, I’ve always had a close relationship with nature, but I feel it’s kind of taken it to a new level.


Jeff Karp: [01:12:20] And what I’ve done is when I walk, we have two dogs and I walk them around the neighborhood, and I’ve been practicing cycling through my senses as I walk through the neighborhood. And so I’ll just say like site, and I’ll just look at the bark on the trees and, you know, the leaves and the birds. And then I’ll say hearing and I’ll listen to the birds chirping or the wind rustling the leaves and sort of going through my senses. And as I and then touch, you know, I’ll slow down, I’ll kind of feel my feet hit the ground and the wind hit my face. And I feel, as I do, that I’m now paying more attention to each sense. But not only that, I’m tapping into curiosity. I’m thinking about the patterns a little bit more in the barks of the trees, and I’m now sort of questions are coming up and I’m like this. Or, you know, like I’m accessing or through curiosity. And to me now, every walk that I go on, it’s not just to take the dogs out and for them to get the exercise or for me to get the exercise, I actually feel like I’m connecting with nature. I just think that, yeah, at the root of a good life is is really our curiosities. And I think it’s such a powerful source of energy that we can all tap into. It’s our evolutionary inheritance.


Jeff Karp: [01:13:40] We all have access to it at any moment, and we can develop it over time through asking questions and through practices. And I feel it’s also led to gratitude as well in my life. You know, I’ll just give one one example on that, too. Someone recently told me that the microbes that these millimeter submillimeter creatures in the ocean, the phytoplankton, produce over half of the oxygen that we breathe. Right? It’s not from the trees, from the ocean. And when I heard that, I mean, just my curiosity. It just started running wild and sort of thinking about the interconnectivity of everything and how there’s this wondrous web of life which we all depend on, but yet we’re contributing to. And I think for me, it’s like just elevated gratitude. And I’ve heard, you know, gratitude is important. I’ve for a long time tried to figure out, well, what’s the process to practice gratitude? I’ve actually come up with some practices to do that. One of them is cycling through the senses and sort of resensitizing my aliveness through through paying attention to what’s around me, and then also being open to understanding and seeing the interconnectivity that we all exist within this, this web. And so it’s kind of nice once you start thinking about that, because we have this support system that’s all around us, that’s everywhere. And I think it’s, you know, people talk about sort of elevating the level of consciousness. And to me, this is, you know, the curiosity, embracing your curiosity is a route to elevating consciousness.


Jonathan Fields: [01:15:16] Mm. Thank you.


Jonathan Fields: [01:15:21] Hey, before you leave, if you love this episode aafe bet you’ll also love the conversation we had with Ozan Varol about drinking in life and making big things happen. You’ll find a link to Ozan Varol’s episode in the show. Notes. This episode of Good Life Project. was produced by executive producers Lindsey Fox and Me. Jonathan Fields Editing help By Alejandro Ramirez. Kristoffer Carter crafted our theme music and special thanks to Shelley Adelle for her research on this episode. And of course, if you haven’t already done so, please go ahead and follow Good Life Project. in your favorite listening app. And if you found this conversation interesting or inspiring or valuable, and chances are you did. Since you’re still listening here, would you do me a personal favor, a seven-second favor, and share it? Maybe on social or by text or by email? Even just with one person? Just copy the link from the app you’re using and tell those you know, those you love, those you want to help navigate this thing called life a little better so we can all do it better together with more ease and more joy. Tell them to listen, then even invite them to talk about what you’ve both discovered. Because when podcasts become conversations and conversations become action, that’s how we all come alive together. Until next time, I’m Jonathan Fields signing off for Good Life Project.

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