Living Past the Death Lines with Dr. Karen Tilstra


In this episode, Dr. Karen Tilstra joins me to discuss ‘The Death Lines’ and how it impacts the ways in which we show up as leaders of ourselves, our teams, and our businesses.

Dr. Karen Tilstra

Karen Tilstra, co-founder and director of Florida Hospital’s Innovation Lab, (FHIL), is passionate about helping people discover their own innate creativity.

She is an Educational Psychologist who holds a doctoral degree in Creativity, Innovation and Leadership. She has worked in both secondary and higher education in Asia and the United States. She believes she has learned more from students than they have learned from her.

Karen enjoys writing, spending time with family and friends, and watching a great movie.  She is also known for her idiosyncratic pets, including the pet donkey who taught her that nothing is impossible and her stray dog who resembles a cross between an opossum, raccoon and weasel.  She currently lives in Florida with her artist husband and three sons.


We talk about:

  • [0:00] Intro

  • [3:10] How her work start in the realm of creativity

  • [8:35] Creating Design Thinking Innovation Lab

  • [11:50] What does The Death Line mean and why she choose that as the title of her book

  • [16:25] How the pandemic changed the death lines

  • [25:00] Comfort zones vs. panic zones

  • [26:20] ACES to manage your death line

  • [29:20] Space & The Tollbooth Technique

  • [32:30] Leading with Grace

  • [34:15] Operating on more than one pace

  • [39:55] How to pull these concepts together

  • [49:00] Where to find her book

  • [50:40] Rapid fire questions

Show More Show Less

Carolyn: My guest today is Dr. Karen Tilstra. She is a published author, a founder, and president of the Creativity Effect. And she’s a real driving force in the innovation sector. She’s got two TED Talks. We’re going to include those links in the show notes as well. And she’s got 14 years under her belt. She’s established, established innovation labs for healthcare, sports, government, universities, and This includes Fortune 500 collaborations.

I wanted to bring her on the show because innovation is something we all strive for in our workplaces, and it’s a word that is thrown around a lot, and it’s not just a checklist. Karen’s written one book in particular called The Death Line. We’re going to be talking all about it in the show. And she’s also got a new book that was just released in August.

You will hear us talk about her methodology. What is the death line? Why did she use such a provocative term? And by the end of the show, you should be walking away with some really practical insight that can help you be more creative. I hope you enjoy the show. Well, today’s evolve podcast brings us our guest, Dr. Karen Tilstra, Karen, welcome to the show. 

Karen: Thank you very much. It’s an honor to be here,

Carolyn: Well, I believe you’re, you’re tuning in here,

from somewhere in the Southern U S if I’m not mistaken. Correct. 

Karen: Orlando, Florida. And I always love talking to Canadians and you’re probably in a cooler climate right now. So I love that.

Carolyn: Well, I’m actually not in a cooler climate because even though it’s October, it’s like 28 degrees out and I’m just kind of giggling because I’m wearing a tank top and you’ve got like a sweater on. 

Karen: Like, yes, I do have a sweater on because my husband 

Carolyn: Put the air conditioning on. 

Karen: it at 69 in the house. And I’m, I’m always kind of cold. So I thought, okay, I’ll act like it’s really nice fall all the time. But if I step outside, I got to take the sweater off. 

Carolyn: Yeah. no, it’s unseasonably hot here. 

Karen: Oh, wow, 

Carolyn: We’ll take it. 

Karen: but actually it’s cooler here than normal, even though it’s still hot.

Carolyn: Yeah. Yeah. So, I don’t recall where we met. Or how we came together, but I know we talked several months ago and you shared, your book with me. The death line. And that’s what we’re going to talk about today and, and the death line, bop, bop, bop, right? I know there’s a reason you called it that.

But before we, before we dig into the content of this book, I’d love for you to share, innovation, cause I know you work in the space of innovation and creativity. How did your work start there and why did you want to do work in that space? 

Karen: well, that’s a fun journey for me to recall and think about. I was an educational psychologist for years, working in all levels of education and eventually getting to universities where I worked 10 years as a university educational psychologist. And it was during that time that I think I. I had a culmination of all my experience up to that point that I saw at the University level.

Students, faculty members, even parents came into my office and there seemed to be a central theme. I’m just doing this major just to make money. I thought I’d like teaching these courses and I’m just so tired and I know it’s not my passion. Parents saying I’m so, Excited. My student or my child is going to college because they’re going to be able to start a new career.

I just wish I could do that. I kept hearing things like living for the weekend. I’m just getting through if I’d only known and I thought, wow, my interventions for as an at site did not meet those needs. It just fell short. Even in some career counseling. I felt there was something way more. That people needed and that there was a.

theme running through everybody. I want to be who I really am. And then I had this unique, I’d gone to a new university. My husband had had the opportunity to work in a large healthcare system. And then, so we moved from the North to the South and I was in this new university and the president asked me to go back up to Chicago and attend a, this Seminar on the transformative power of creativity, and I thought, Oh, wow, that sounds awesome.

So I went and I had no idea that my quest of that. I was feeling so inadequate in the Ed psych field was soon to be answered. So I walked in because Dewitt Jones was the keynote speaker. Dewitt Jones was a National Geographic photographer forever. She wasn’t in his later years. And I walked in just at the, just as he was starting, and so I was all, this huge auditorium I was sitting in.

I was all the way at the back. In fact, I was resting my head against the wall so I could just, I had a vision of the whole place. He entertained us with all kinds of stories from balancing in trees to get pictures of lions, to hunkering in canoes in Africa to photograph hippopotamuses, and it was scary and it was.

Everything he wanted to do, but it was so scary and he had to push past that. He said, I used my creativity, my inner creativity, my creative drive, my passion to show the world these awesome photos. I had to really embrace my fears. And he went on about that. Then he said to the audience, and we’re talking about thousands of people.

He said, those of you who would like to embrace your creative self, your true creative passion. Stand up. So everyone just stands up. I stand up. And then he pauses and looks around and says, This is awesome. He said, This is amazing. All you people. Then he said, No. Those of you that actually are doing it remain standing.

The rest of you sit down. So there was just this slow slumping of people. And there was such a significant change. What had been an exciting jump to the feet. People were saying, Yes, I want that. To, Oh, no, I don’t have it. So in that moment, it was just like a gestalt. I just said, wow, that’s it. I need to learn this whole world of creativity.

The theories, what does it mean? Why is it transformational? And I was so excited. I just got up and left, went out and called my husband and said, I know what I need to do. I need to really learn creativity and what it means and how it affects the human spirit and all that. So, I was able to enroll the doctoral program and create, actually, we had to kind of create a program because there was not really a doctoral program at that point on creativity and innovation.

So we were under the umbrella of leadership. Anyway, I went to the program. It was awesome. I studied partly at University of New York, University of Alberta, Stanford and University of Denmark. And it was just an awesome journey. And I learned so much about creativity. And it’s. It’s complete and that it’s in our DNA.

It’s everything we are is creative. 

Carolyn: Right. And, and we can adapt to change and we can, we can learn and grow. And so, so you did that doctorate and then you left the educational world and went into the business sector. I understand. 

Karen: And that was just an interesting, because I didn’t necessarily plan to leave the educational world, but when I was done with my doctorate people had been hearing about what I was doing. And so at that time, a large healthcare system was just wanting to get into. Innovation and I had learned by that point that innovation was the outcome of creativity and we say innovation.

Everyone says innovation. If you say creativity, it’s like, oh, I don’t want to color or finger paint. 

Carolyn: Right. But innovations, like the leadership, like the corporate way, we can say it. 

Karen: Yeah, it’s like, well, I’m innovative, but, I learned from all the research and there’s a lot of lots and lots of research on creativity that. We’re all creative. So I felt this mantra that is everybody’s creative with leadership potential.

And people say, not me, not me. I said, no, everybody’s created with leadership potential. Everybody across the board, no matter what. So, this healthcare system and heard what I was kind of in the field and they came to me and said, what could we do? And so we started to create a Design thinking innovation lab kind of modeled at Stanford.

They were just getting theirs going and it was so it was so exciting and dynamic because we based it on the fact of the idea that we were going to be low barrier and easy access when let’s let it be a place where anybody could come and bring a challenge or learn and that kind of thing. Pushed against the got a lot of corporate thought that a lot of the decisions and knowledge just sits at the top.

But this is how can we get everybody involved that it’s supporting the aspirations to the goals of the organization and it was so Inspiring the journey was just full of learnings and connections and collaborations and the wonderful things that that lab was able to produce and allow people to produce and the culture change it brought about and so then I started to realize If people can learn the theories or some of the simple things of creativity, they can open up their teams or their families or themselves to collaboration creativity that leads to innovative change.

Carolyn: And so, and so people were physically coming into the innovation lab to do this work, 

Karen: And it sounds 

Carolyn: some of the work in here, which we’ll get to. 

Karen: Yeah, . 

Carolyn: And, and so, and so I just want to like, cause I, I’m, I’m really, I want to put this into context for the folks who are listening. That, you know, your work was sought after by corporate health care.

and I know into some other corporations to help solve the big problems that they needed to moving ahead. And there’s no shortage of problems or need for creativity and innovation out there Right, Yep. 

Karen: right. right. And we have in, since then I’ve worked with government agencies, pro sports universities, NGOs. You name it, everybody has the same desire, we got to be innovative, but just because the way the Western world kind of operates, because we’re very much getting things done and profit driven and capital, which is maybe not a bad thing, but it also sometimes creates blind spots into how we can be creative.


Carolyn: sometimes. 

Karen: I’m being gracious.

Carolyn: Yeah, I won’t be. It creates blind spots. 

Karen: I’ve always said, you know, when you get involved in innovation and creativity, you could create comedy shows left and right. There’s just so much humor in it. So many ways.

Carolyn: Yeah. and so that led to you, like your, your model here with the four aces and the death line. And so we’re going to talk about the title in a, in a second, but can you just describe yeah. Describe the death line. Cause you know, your title is called the death line stopping the number one all time killer of human potential.

So you know what? Let’s just go right there. Why did you call it the death line? I know you were provocative on purpose, but can you share with people what is the death line and why did you call it something so jarring? 

Karen: Yeah, people say, what were you thinking, Carol? I was scared to read your book. No, the death line, I’ll describe it very simply. The death line is an imaginary line we draw and vow we’ll never cross it. Because if we cross it, we’re going to get rejected, be embarrassed, get fired, all whole, just tons of things that we don’t want to experience.

But in reality, it might not happen. But we have created these lines, invisible lines, either consciously or subconsciously, that we believe keep us safe. And maybe they do if we don’t want to create anything new or we don’t want to live to our full potential. But, in reality, these lines… Inhibit us, they block our potential and we begin thinking once we create these lines again, either subconsciously or consciously, we begin thinking that’s how we have to be and we stay safe and we’re going to be successful.

But really, these deadlines block us and they block others too. 

Carolyn: I love the point that you said they block others as well. They not only block herself, but they block others. 

Karen: And they put defenses up And again, I want to really emphasize it’s invisible and we believe we’re doing the right thing. 

Carolyn: Right. 

Karen: The reason I called it the death line is because I saw things died there. 

Carolyn: Hmm. Say more. what kind of things die there? 

Karen: potential opportunity, collaborations, maybe.


Karen: New ideas culture innovative culture or a collaborative culture all dies at the death line. and I had started developing a theory about this death line, working with lots of different organizations and top leaders, middle management, middle managers, frontline staff. And I started to notice when we took them through, say, a design thinking experience or help them facilitating them through a challenging project.

Everything was great until comfort zones were exited and it’s like, then all of a sudden, you know, that idea we had no, we better pull way back. That’s never going to work. Or we tried that and I started seeing people shut down and top leaders shut down frontline staff shut down. And then I also noticed that closer.

Conversations or groups or the activities we were doing got close to people’s death lines, the worse their behavior became. They opted out, they shut down, they became defensive, snarky, they blocked things. And so I just started noticing it. And then I started experimenting with different groups, kind of pushing them to the edge and seeing what would happen.

I mean, pushing him to the edge in a safe zone. Let’s think of the 

Carolyn: Yeah. 

Karen: we better not, that’s scary. I mean, not pushing him like to the edge of a precipice, but it was just the same. They felt the same. Like, I can’t, I’m going to fall over. And, and then when I was able to create the name, when I got the name, I saw it so clearly.

I said, these are just lines you guys die on. It’s just, and you believe that you’ve done the right thing, but a lot. A lot died at this moment. Then as I’ve gone forward, when I say we block others is our death lines then activate other death lines. And pretty soon we have a web of death lines going everywhere.

And that’s why I’ve seen creativity gets hampered. Innovative ideas never get launched. Conversations that needed to happen, never happened. People stay stuck. They become critical or Cynical. And I think that we all have innately in us, born with curiosity, compassion, and courage.

As you see children, little children, go from laying on their stomachs to crawling to walking. That, that’s curiosity and courage. And somehow we, it’s easy to lose that as we go along the way in life.

Carolyn: It is. It really, it really is. You know, I was, I, I know when we talked about it, I was like, oh, this sounds great. 

And then I caught the book. I’m like, whoa. But I will say it as it, it does, it does make it real really fast and not in a morbid way in a very like, damn. This is a death line and it just it’s so Yeah. like kudos to you for sticking with it I’m gonna guess many people tried to convince you not to

Karen: Yeah. They said, Darren, this is, this book, well, they said, it’s going to look like a novel. It’s good. I said, you know what? Actually, I had to combat my own death lines, honestly, writing the book, naming the book and publishing the book because it’s like people, what if they don’t like it or what if they tell, I was too morbid.

And I said, so I said, you know what? It’s fine. Move on. And then writing the book, it’s like, this is, this seems so stupid. Everybody knows this. And, you know, you have to, you actually really do have to combat death lines all the time. You get rid of one death line, another one comes up. And so then I thought, no, I’m going to go ahead and put it out.

And I beta tested it. Well, I’ve been using this theory for several years before I wrote the book, and testing it out on lots and lots of people. But then when the book published, I just said, Oh, well, I can’t even think about what, what bad reviews I’m going to get. I mean, it’s so crazy to me, to me, to think I was so focused on myself that people would even take the time to write a bad review.

People can hardly take time to write a good review. 

Carolyn: Yeah. 

Karen: just at that time, I had heard a interview on on a series Jim. Kaczynski, you know, the guy that used to be on Jim on 

Carolyn: Oh Yeah, John Kaczynski. Yep, 

Karen: and when he created the movie, the quiet place, it is kind of a horror movie, a little quasi horror. he talked about how scary it was when he had the idea.

He said, I was certain everybody would laugh. And so I held back and then they didn’t laugh. And then we got the movie together and then the day it was launched in theaters. I’m not sure which one it was. He said, I could hardly go out of my house. I was so freaked out. What if I got criticized? What if I was, you know, shunned from ever making another movie?

He said it was so real. I had to, so his wife, Emily Blunt, evidently encouraged him, you know, it’s Jim again, even if they do, it’s not the end of the world. So, or John, his name is not Jim. I think, yeah. And I, that actually, that interview gave me a lot of courage. In fact, I wanted to write him a letter and say, it really gave me courage what you said, because.

It just, it was just very encouraging.

Carolyn: It’s such a good example that when we put ourselves into, when we, when we move through the fear and we put something out that we believe in, it inspires other people, whether or not they let us know or not. And, and so when we cross our own death lines and we learn how to navigate through them. It does bring a momentum and a shift for everyone around.

And so that’s I think that’s, it’s just power to know, powerful to know that when we can face our own fears, others come along with us. 

Karen: And the language giving, I found that when people have the word death line it gives them a way to talk about it that’s in front of them. 

Carolyn: Right. Yep. 

Karen: It’s kind of outside of them in a way, like, oh, that’s my death line. I was working with a large government agency and I was teaching this thought and.

They said, well, we’re using that word a lot in our meetings now. Is that your death line or you’re activating my death line? I did not know that at first, that it would give people an easier way to talk about their vulnerability. And I said, wow, that’s interesting. So then I got the idea. I wish we could get the word death line in our vernacular all the time, because I think it would help us move past those places where we’re really vulnerable and afraid that it’s too risky to move forward and cross the

Carolyn: Yeah. And comfort, you know, you used an interesting term there to exiting out of our comfort. You didn’t say comfort zone. it was a fun way to say it. 

I’m curious if you’ve seen before we dig into the aces, cause I want to go there next to the aces. I’m curious if since 2020, you know, the year the world changed with so many different things.

Have you, what, what impact on death lines have you seen? 

Karen: Oh,

yeah. Okay. Well, both ways. I’ve seen people become more polarized over issues around COVID vaccines.

Carolyn: mean like putting their deaf line into place earlier or like they’re, they’re just unwilling to cross over it when you say polarized. 

Karen: I think it could be both. 

Carolyn: Okay. 

Karen: So, what I saw is there were people that didn’t know what was happening. And so some became curious. Let’s find out. Let’s let’s Keep abreast of everything and keep open and I saw other people become so This is a fake or this isn’t true or this dr. Fauci is a total Fraud whatever the case is I would encounter people that would really share with me, you know This is just all crazy and I noticed two things.

I noticed that

when a situation confronts them like never before, like COVID did for us, there are people who will step into it and say, let me find out what’s going on. So they, I think they have a, probably a healthier, I don’t want to say healthier. They have more skill in pushing out of their comfort areas and say, let me learn.

There are people when a scary situation comes that they’re. Either preconceived death lines or their that they didn’t know they had or their fear. So curiosity, compassion, encouraged collapses because I got to be safe and this is all new to me and I can’t, I can’t do it. So the natural response was, I’m not going to accept it.

I’m not going to change. I don’t want to learn anything. So what I noticed, it was really more of one world view, whatever the view was. This is how I’m going to be, and everyone else is wrong. And I didn’t notice anyone that was a bad person. I, I saw what was happening was out of, I am protecting myself, my family, and I don’t have to learn because this is dangerous, and I already know it’s dangerous.

And I guess that’s what you could say was a death line. But again, but I, the reason I called it a death line is because People at that point of stress, we’re not saying, Hmm, let me see, how can I be better at this point? Because you really can never during a crisis. So when the crisis happens, don’t try to teach.

I tell that to parents, teacher when you just get through the crisis, then teach in a calm time. So that was a crisis and teaching for a lot of people couldn’t happen because they were, their death lines were so activated. I’m not crossing it. I’m pulling back everything. I know. I already know. And I’m not going to learn anything new because it’s too scary.

No, I don’t know for a lot of people what the scary things were, but what happened in covert is just a very on a very grand scale. What happens in a lot of people’s lives in different times of their lives. I’m just thinking of like something like most all parents face at one point in time, if their kids are in normal development, their kids getting driver’s licenses.

I’ve seen parents freak out and delay and a lot of stress. Other parents I’ve seen, this is a new thing for us. We’re going to do everything we can to make it safe. And we’re going to take all the precautions and then we’re going to celebrate our child driving. And so I think every point in life, everything, death lines.

Can be there. And it’s our, it’s depending on what kind of life we want to live. What level of curiosity, compassion, and courage we want to bring into our lives is related to how we encounter and manage or remove death lines.

Carolyn: Yeah. So I’m, I’m hearing a few things there, Karen, just to summarize. We are unable to access courage and compassion when we are in a state of fear or when we’re chaos is ensuing. 

Karen: Well, yes. 

Carolyn: we can’t extend that graciousness. 

Karen: Right, but I would say, so I bring out the book that we always are operating at our top of our skill level and if we have skill in learning how to manage when crisis has come, our curiosity, compassion and courage is a different level. It’s just really 

Carolyn: And, and that’s, that’s where I wanted to go next. So, and then the second thing is, is that death line goes into into action to protect us and if we don’t feel safe and we haven’t learned how to move a little bit out of a comfort zone, not into panic zone, but a little bit out of comfort zone, we’re unable to learn the skills to move through our death line. right?


Karen: Right. And so they, their friends become more and more entrenched and, and the weird part to me is they, we begin to see them as safety nets. These are safety. I’m not going to cross that line because. I won’t be safe and so death lines, we start viewing them as our friends instead of our limitations are limiters of our potential.

And, you know, I think it’s impossible for people sometimes to see that if they, that’s why, that’s why I’m such a believer in education. When we educate people that we can always be curious, compassionate courageous. It doesn’t mean that you’re going to skydive tomorrow or bungee jump. But it does mean maybe I’ll be able to stop and just ask the simple question of what I bring up in the book.

What’s going on here? Because that itself is just a big step. Like I’m not going to close down. I’m just going to pause, breathe and ask the mother of all questions. What’s really going on here? What I call the tollbooth technique.

Carolyn: Yeah. So why don’t, why don’t we go there? Now I know in your book on page 32, got it highlighted. Highlighter is my best friend. You talk about ACEs. Now these are ACEs that you’ve created to help people manage their death line. So can you tell us, what does ACE stand for? And then how did you find those four ACEs? 

Karen: Okay. Yeah, I would love to. So it’s not like childhood aces, like, you know, the trauma of childhood aces. It’s really the last four letters of space, grace, pace, and place. So, A C E. Well, then the S is plural, but pace words, A C E. And what I loved about those four words is, They stand for always create engagement in my thinking, because if we want to move, we have to engage.

And, you know, that’s really movement is where creativity happens, where innovation happens, where forgiveness happens. We need movement, just like the body needs movement. My nephew’s a physical therapist and he always says, motion is lotion. 


Carolyn: I love that. That piece really stood out to me because when I, you know, when I saw, So,

again, the four aces space, grace, pace, and place, I’m like, Oh, that’s where ace came from. But then when I read always create engagement and that whole thing about movement, right? I 

Karen: yeah, 

Carolyn: what gets us stuck we’re not able to move.

We’re not able to tell our body that some discomfort is okay. So I just love that. I just 

Karen: yeah. Oh, well, thank you. And you know, I, I, I got it only from my work and noticing with hundreds of people and noticing these things and a lot of times in, in a corporate setting, our propensity is not to have movement outside any kind of pre described zone. You have to stay in these zones. And so, but at the same time, companies want to be innovative.

So we create this conflicted state and so that’s, see, that’s what I was so passionate about these death lines because I just saw it over and over. And I’m not talking about just the one place of the organization. I saw it top leadership, middle management, frontline staff. 

Carolyn: Yep. 

Karen: They just were different kinds of death lines.

I see them with parents or just myself just, and so the ACEs, well, I didn’t come out originally thinking that create. The four ACE words, because I wanted to have a word that meant always create engagement. It was after I had those words that I said, Oh, this is perfect because we have to always create engagement if we want to really move past our death lines and live the life we were intended to live.

Carolyn: Right. 

Karen: So yeah, and I, the words came from just my experience and knowledge and what. Has to happen for transformation to take place or for change to take place.

Carolyn: So, now let’s talk about the Tollbooth. I know the Tollbooth related specifically, maybe we talk about in the of the first Ace, which is Space. 

Karen: Yes.

Carolyn: So, can you talk a little bit about Space and the Tollbooth? 

Karen: Yes. So what I’ve learned in my it’s like work and also in all, all the work we started doing in. The field of creativity and innovation. And I’ll say there were four things. It was just to kind of give a context for this. When I started working in the field of creativity, innovation, creative leadership, I was teaching straight up teaching concepts and theories.

I was facilitating projects innovation projects, design thinking projects, and I was consulting, consulting organizations on how to bring an innovation initiative in or how to set up a cultural based innovation lab. So those three things from those three bits of work with hundreds of people and lots and lots of organizations, I noticed the first thing we need is new mental space, space for new thinking.

Carolyn: Yeah. 

Karen: Now, I know people say, well, of course, that’s what we need. That’s obvious. Well, just because it’s obvious doesn’t mean we know how to do it. And so, then I, how do we do that? So I came up with this concept of a toll booth technique. Cause I say in the book only because I had an experience with a toll booth and it just inspired me that when we go through a toll booth, we have to slow down,

change lanes, change lanes, slow down, stop and pay the toll. And in this case, my toll was only a dime, a silly little dime. I just laughed out loud. But anyway, I thought, wow, this is, this is what we have to do when we need new mental space. We have to change the lane we’re in, slow down. And pay the toll. So I call the toll booth technique is to pause, breathe, and the toll is ask the mother of all questions, what’s really going on here?

Carolyn: Right. 

Karen: And

Carolyn: it’s fair to say though, Karen, to, for those of us who travel on a toll highway, we can get transponders that allow us to zip through and not have to pause. 

Karen: No, and that’s, that’s such a great, great comment because that, as I was going down a 408 here in Florida and I realized the transponder was out. Of the car for that was when we still had these trends somehow. I don’t know when my boys took it or something. And I thought, darn it, I’m going to have to go over the toll, the toll lane.

And I just change lanes, slow down. And then after I had that kind of, it was while I was working with this death line book that I, and that the death line theory that I thought, Oh, this is a great metaphor for what we need to do to create space is we’ve got to change lanes, slow down, pay the toll, pause, breathe.

That’s the mother of all questions. And now every time I go through one of the, I, the transponder, go through the express lane, I think, wow, I just shot through that. What did I miss? Because I, and I think in life, we’re always looking for the express lane. I

don’t want to miss. 

Carolyn: And, and I think of, of just life in, in, in the business world, it’s like, it’s about. And so, you know, what I took from this is we need toll booths, maybe not like a toll booth all the time, every 

Karen: Yeah, yeah. Right, 

Carolyn: we, when we’re too focused on using that transponder to get us through everything we miss.

an opportunity. 

Karen: and I like that you said we don’t need it all the time. So, my kind of instructive point is, when you’re trying to create something new, change something, do something different, that’s when you’re going to hit death lines. And that’s when you need new mental space. 

Carolyn: Right. 

Karen: So yeah, space. People need new mental space.

And we, we actually know that intellectually, but like all innovation, like I said, there’s not a company around that doesn’t want to be innovative. But research shows that most companies and leaders don’t know how to make that happen. Not that they don’t want it to happen. And so that’s what keeps me busy.

But, also a lot of times when I am asked, it’s like, can you teach my team the theories of creativity or how to be creative? And we only have like, let’s see, it’s Thursday, we have two hours. Can you do it? Yes. Well, 

we can maybe. We can try. Yes 

Carolyn: now what’s the second, what’s the second ACE? I think it’s grace. Right. 

Karen: it’s great. And I started the idea after being in the field of Probably my third year, I worked with a lot of people who had already created one lab and I was working with the pro sports team, creating a lab for them. And I noticed that we had to forgive each other for, you know, people making mistakes or miscalculating, whatever.

And I started realizing, if we don’t have forgiveness, we’re not moving anywhere. And so I thought, you know, the core of creativity is forgiveness, grace. Without grace, there is no movement. And you just start thinking about it. You notice how many times people like, well, just yesterday I went, was it a restaurant?

And it was kind of restaurant where you would get your food and pay, and then you go sit down. And the lady, right when we were getting, my husband and I were getting to pay, a lady came up and said, you didn’t give me my right change. Why didn’t you give me my right change? And there was of course a teenager working behind the counter, which I thought, they probably don’t use cash that often, 

so she’s saying, I’m sorry.

And she was trying to figure out what change to give the lady. I felt compassion for the lady as well as the, the teenager behind the cash register because she said, I don’t know why you did this. How come you didn’t give me the right change? I don’t understand it. And the girl just froze there. She was looking at her like, I, I, I, I wasn’t stealing it.

I didn’t try and I saw everything freeze. 

Carolyn: Right. 

Karen: that’s just an example of when there’s change or when there’s something that doesn’t go our way and we need to modify our viewpoint. Grace is the oil that makes it happen. And without grace, the world’s pretty grim and people extended us grace. I mean, we’ve all been extended grace.

And I’ve come to see grace, AKA forgiveness is the core of so many things and a core of creativity and innovation because nothing is innovated. Just the first time, right? That’s it. Our first idea, right? We’re going to do the whole thing smooth. No, it’s lots of bumps and bubbles and mistakes along the way that are actually learning points.

Carolyn: Yeah, it’s I, I remember reading a book, I think it was by Desmond Tutu and his daughter 

Karen: Oh, 

Carolyn: forgiveness and you’re right, like we can’t, we all know intellectually, we’re not perfect but yet we can very easy stay in a place of judgment or hold on, get stuck in these death lines, 

Karen: right. 

Carolyn: And, you know, grace, forgiveness, what also came up for me there too, is a little bit of like compassion or generosity as well.

That are a big piece of that. 

Karen: I wanted to put a story in the book, but my publisher thought, well, we have enough, Karen. So there’s a story about this. My husband and I worked, taught at a university overseas. Well, I taught, he did, he had another job overseas in Indonesia and I love this part. Indonesians are wonderful, friendly people and they also kind of have a, you know what?

It’s going to work out. Like, like, don’t worry, be happy song that came from Jamaica, but this we’re talking to Indonesia. And there was a airlines, Garuda airlines, very fabulous airlines, very safe record. Well, they had this rule that if it was storming tropical storms, they weren’t going to fly.

And if you were scheduled, we just didn’t fly. Well, my husband and I got to kind of a humorous view of the, when you get to an airline, you see that. The list of flights, we said, these are just suggested things that might happen, and I would get a kick out of English people, Australians, Americans would come to the counter and be told, we’re not going out today.

You got to come back tomorrow. It’s like, wait, no, it says we’re going out, but we’re not going. This is before American flights became more, used to delays and all that, and then they’d say, well, then we need a hotel voucher or we need meal vouchers and they’re like what are those? We just come back tomorrow.

And it’s like, they have a saying in Indonesia, Indonesian, which means, you know, basically it translated as know what, what, but it’s like, you know what? This too shall pass, just move, move on with it. 

Carolyn: Right. Right. 

Karen: Foreigners would get so mad. It’s like, no, you’re not understanding. You’ve got to give me a hotel room, or you’ve got to fly out today.

And they’re like, yeah, sorry there’s a bigger picture here. It’s not safe. So, I, I, I just thought that was such a great example of two ideas clashing where grace was needed. To understand that you’re in a culture that that’s what they do, these planes. I mean, it was kind of just a DNA part of their culture too.

Carolyn: Right. 

Karen: And for Americans, we, all the Americans that I knew working over there, it’s like, yeah, that’s something you got to learn. You just have to learn it. what I found in working in the world of creativity, teaching people the creative theories and innovative practice, grace was a big part of it that we had to learn.

And intellectually, again, we know it, we know we’re supposed to be nice and pleasant people and workable people, collaborative people, but it’s hard when our. Death lines are hit and we’re, our entitlements are challenged. And, and I just think to not, again, stop taking ourselves so seriously. Take the work seriously, but not ourselves.

And it goes so far. There’s so much more that can happen when we have grace. The, the sky’s the limit when there’s grace. When there’s no grace, 

Carolyn: So true. 

Karen: not much can happen. It’s just lines are drawn and we’re stuck.

Carolyn: Wow. Now the last two, let’s move on to the last two. Cause they sound similar. There’s a one letter difference, 

Karen: Yes. Yeah. 

Carolyn: the next one is pace 

Karen: Yeah. 

Carolyn: which hit me pretty, pretty smack between the eyes. Can you, can you talk about pace? 

Karen: Right. And I would not have thought this before I’ve worked with so many organizations and people pace, we seem to have one pace. We’re going to get it done now and it’s going to be, we’ve got to get as fast as we can. Sometimes that’s great, but it’s always in the context of when we’re trying to create something new or make something better or solve a problem.

Fast might work, but also slow might be the answer. To be able to ask that question, what is the proper pace we need for what we’re facing right now? Is it fast? Is it slow? Is it pause? And just to ask the question. With all these, I think they, I put a question with all of them, like for space. What new space do I need, Grace?

Where do I need to expand, Grace? This one is what should be our pace for, for the optimum of what we’re trying to do. And it’s funny several people have said to me after reading this book who I’d worked with before, It’s like, wow, that is so simple, but not often asked.

Carolyn: Well, and here’s what I find, Karen, is there is a fear of saying anything but fast. 

Karen: Oh my gosh, that is so true.

Carolyn: Like I can’t like, Oh, how dare I say this is going to take six months. When in fact, you know, that’s what we need to hear and we need to bring that reality into 

Karen: Right. 

Carolyn: conversations. 

Karen: But, and I found that on the PACE one, which became really important to me, is so many people were afraid to actually address it. Like you said, or say, okay, we have this challenge. We got to get solved. But. It’s going to take us a year probably. How can we tell that to our boss or we didn’t tell it to our boss?

We just squirted the issue and now we’re in trouble because we, we’re not even close to being done. And so that’s what for me with dealing with death lines, managing death lines, becoming aware of death lines, is to be able to ask these questions. What pace is needed for the optimum outcome we want? 


Carolyn: That’s the important part. The optimum outcome. 

Karen: and actually you can say it for everything. What new mental space do I need? And, and 

Carolyn: Yes. 

Karen: I get it seems so it just seems so like obvious that we know it, but it’s, it’s embodying it. So what new mental space do I need? That’s quite a question when you stop and think about it. Where does race need to be applied here instead of just firing people or taking people out projects or whatever there’s we could talk about that for a long time because I have a whole theory on.

How grace extending grace is one of the best professional developments you can give and how people because without grace again, we’re stuck, but then also pace. It takes courage as that question, so I’m so glad you said that because I saw it too and or people say, Karen, you know, we need you. Can you can we get it done this fast?

And I’d say, well, so my answer is to a lot of corporate, gigs you might say we get. I just, we’re going to try to get as far as maybe to a new idea to explore. Will you be happy with that? And maybe create a prototype, a rough prototype about that new idea and explore that idea because then iterate the idea forward, prototype it, get feedback about it.

That seems to be something people can stomach. But otherwise, it’s like, we got to get this solved. We got to get this solved yesterday. So I do tell people, well, what kept you from solving it yesterday? I mean, it, it’s like, it’s that easy to solve it, 

but these are just ways we get into thinking these mind traps.

What I like to call mind minds, like, you know, landmines, we have these mind, 



Carolyn: then as I read in a little bit more, I was like, Oh, okay. This isn’t as obvious. 

Karen: am so glad you said that. Yes, because I thought the same thing too, at first, doesn’t matter. But place informs behavior and when we created the the first innovation lab I ever did, it was, it was kind of a deliberately kind of scrappy on Disney because the 

Carolyn: Okay. 

Karen: hospital that it was in was very, very beautifully, beautiful, fancy, everything just beautiful.

So we did it the opposite because we wanted people to go into a different space, a different place. Sorry, go into a different place, experience that. So we get comfortable with places. Let’s just meet in the boardroom, or let’s just meet in my office. To challenge that always, where is the best place we can be for optimum outcome?

Oh, you mean we gotta get up and walk down the hall, or we gotta walk out to the garden, or we gotta drive over here? Well, that’s too much work. Well, when we talk about the optimum outcome, is it too much work? It’s not too much work. Because to get optimum outcomes… means we have to change things. And so, that’s why I came up with those four.

It’s interesting. Someone read my book and sent me a message and said, Karen, I have another one. To put before space, is why don’t we have face? Face. You have to face who you are. 

Carolyn: Oh, 

Karen: I thought that’s awesome. I said, yeah, okay, I’ll tell my publisher. We got to do addition two. No, I’ve gotten a lot of ideas from people.

Carolyn: Yeah. 

Karen: And 


Carolyn: lot of creativity. Your death. Look at that. It created, it, it created new things. 

Karen: actually, and I’ve been so touched and honored when someone reads the book and then sends me a message. I think that’s so, I love it. So I wrote back and said, you know, I, I love that idea of face. And then another thing that someone who read this book, I had taught, taken them through a a seven week course I do on the people that want to work in innovation lab and the book had just come out.

So I, gave everybody a book and I said, read it and let’s, let’s apply the concepts and about the second to the last week one of the group members came. Her name was Arlene. She had just been promoted two weeks before within her group within her department. She was so excited. And her first department meeting, she was so excited and she came in and there was kind of a coolness to the team and they kind of, they didn’t respond to her very well.

And she went back to her office, she was so discouraged and she tried again and there was a coolness. And so she told her friend, Julia, who was also in the group, I don’t think this was right for me. I’m going to send a message to my boss and ask him to give me my old job back. 

Carolyn: Wow. 

Karen: Julia, her friend said, no.

Arlene, you’re getting caught in the web of all their deathlines. They can’t deal with the fact that you got promoted because I’ve heard them say it. They were upset that you got promoted and they didn’t. So their coolness to you is their deathlines. You’re getting caught up in the web of their deathlines.

When they shared that with me, I thought that was so powerful. 

Carolyn: That is, 

Karen: has to be in the book too.

Carolyn: yeah. Getting caught up in other people’s web of death 

Karen: And then they activate our death lines and then, so she was such an awesome, or she is such an awesome person. And so she said, it took a lot of courage for me. She said, so I took the book here and I went back and I thought, where are my death lines? I have to identify them. And she said, I could not be rejected by my group.

I could not bear that they wouldn’t like me. And so she said, I almost pulled back and stepped down from this job. So they would like me and then she said, that’s crazy because it was really nothing to do with them and she’s really a wonderful person. And she said, that helped me so much. I said, well, you helped me by sharing that story and I want to share that story with others.

So they gave me permission to share the story. So, but it’s not interesting. We get caught in the web of other people’s lifelines and then ours get activated and then we’re all, we all get stuck. And 

Carolyn: then we’re just stuck in this loop and then burnout 

Karen: yes, 

Carolyn: and all of these other outcomes that we don’t want. 

Karen, is there anything to wrap up all of your aces or, or anything to sort of share with the listeners or watchers about how to put this all together? 

Karen: I think for me. What I’ve noticed is when we stop and celebrate our gifts, our actual innate gifts that we have, and our personalities, and commit to sharing them with the world, because if you don’t share them, no one else will be able to share them, because they’re unique to you, and the world will be lost to them.

So by using the concept of the death line to commit to Saying, I’m going to notice when I get upset or defensive or pull back, what’s really going on here? Asking that question so that you can rise and live at your highest potential because it’s so easy not to in a world where it’s fast paced and we’re very focused on profit and we got to get things done yesterday.

But to realize you have a gift, everybody has a gift. Two, three, four gifts. And if we can create a mental awareness that our death lines keep us from sharing our gifts. And I’m not talking about breaking out of what you’re doing and doing everything differently, but slowly merging into what might you become or what might you change to open pathways to let your true potential show.

Carolyn: Yeah. 

Karen: And I, I think it’s very exciting because everybody’s created with leadership potential. And so one of my team created this awesome little soundbite that said, Knowing your death line is your lifeline. So I love it. I, I just 

said, that is so cool. 

Carolyn: way to wrap that Knowing your death line is your lifeline. 

Karen: Yeah, I, Richard, our our, that is on our team. I said, Richard, that’s awesome. He said, Karen, that’s what we have to say. Knowing your death line is your lifeline. So I said, oh, 


Carolyn: And now Karen, where can people find your book? How can they get their hands 

Karen: Amazon, you know, the great, the great bookstore, Amazon. And it, but yeah, if you put the death line, you might get some fun, other books. You put Telstra death line or Karen or just put Karen Telstra, if this will come up and the other 201 activities to ignite collaboration, boost creativity and fuel innovation, this is fun.

These are drawn so much from our experience. 


Carolyn: one just came out, right? 

Karen: Yeah, it came out August 4th. Yeah. In fact, it was really tight because we were, we’d asked to come to Phoenix to do to a teacher’s convention to present this book. And I said, okay, I’m just going to face it. It’s going to be out because Amazon kept saying, we’ll have it done.

And they delivered it to me on the morning of August 6th, 

August 7th was our presentation. They actually sent it out to Phoenix. We were in Phoenix. Can you believe it? In August, we were in Phoenix, but yeah, the death line stopping the number one, all time killer of human potential. One thing I want is just one of the thing that it’s, I’m going to make a bold statement about this that I’ve learned since getting the book out.

You can learn all the best leadership techniques. You can learn all the skills and tools, but if you don’t have the mindset that you have death lines and are committed to addressing them, those leadership tools will always be They’ll be minimized. They will never reach their full potential within you if you don’t deal with your death lines.

Carolyn: I love it. I love it. Agree with you wholeheartedly there, Karen. Thank you. I am going to, I’m going to go by after we get off this, your new book. Cause I think anytime we can bring new new activities and support each other with, with the work. So, I 

Karen: Awesome. 

Carolyn: that. Now we wrap up every call or every podcast with three questions.

Are you game to answer those 

Karen: Yes. 

Carolyn: And these are three questions that are out of my book evolve the path to trauma informed leadership, three elements that. Definitely relate to death line. And so they have to do with self awareness, self regulation and co regulation. So when we are aware of those three skills that will help us navigate our death line, if I were to combine our two, our two approaches.

So first question for you, Karen can you share an experience or a lesson that you learned that really gave you a heightened awareness of yourself? 

Karen: Okay. I can think of several things, but one when my boys were in high school, they all were involved in dramas, the theatrical presentations, and I loved it and I always volunteered and helped. And one particular year was cheaper by the dozen that we decided to do a dinner theater. So if you want to ramp up a high school play, add a dinner theater to it.

And so the parents who, so we got the whole group. This drama teacher was good. She was very specific. She was very, she had high standards and she tolerated no nonsense. So, the, the kids were ready. And the parents who were involved in the cooking fell below the, Standard of what this drama teacher felt and she was very, very upset by it.

during the serving, one parent dropped a whole platter of food and it just was very, very upsetting, this drama teacher. So after the, the production was all done, us parents who had helped got, were getting together, or there was a core team of us parents, and we were gonna, we were writing thank you notes for everyone that participated, that helped, and all that.

And The drama teacher said, we’re not sending anything to the parents that cooked. She said, I’m so furious with them. They did a terrible job. They ruined the night. In her mind, it was a big deal. And it took the parents back because there was five of us parents there. And she was, the drama teacher was a big personality.

And so everyone just stood, sat there and stared. They started to move on and, okay, we’re not going to thank them. And I’m sitting there thinking, no, you know, we need to thank them. Okay, so what big deal? The meal didn’t come off as something like from the Ritz Carlton or whatever. And so I just kept thinking, we can’t just leave it at this.

But none of the other parents, nobody else pushed back. And I was a lot younger then. So, I was more intimidated. But I said, No, we got it. We got to do something. So I said, We need to thank these parents and the drama teacher said, No, we don’t care. And I’m not interested. I’m not going to thank him. And so I said, Well, I’ll just think of myself.

And then the drama teacher is kind of staring and the other parents kind of looked at me and said, You know what? Yes, let’s thank him. Everyone then agreed, we’re going to thank him. Well, on the way out, parents said, Karen, thanks so much for speaking up. You know, we didn’t think it was right not to thank him.

Okay. That sounds like such a silly little minute experience, but from there, I took away a lesson that sometimes we have to speak up when. Our heart is telling us to, and that I was right what I did, even though I went way out of my death lines to actually in front of her. And um, it just taught me I had that sense, maybe I’m a more empathetic person than she was and for me speaking up changed, changed.

Now, here’s the outcome of that because the parents were thanked Two of the parents came to the principal and said that they had felt bad, they kind of messed up and they gave a big donation to her department and they said, she was so gracious and wrote us a thank you letter. Is that hilarious? So I, I, I have taken that with me and thought, you know, sometimes, you know, we have to trust ourselves even though it doesn’t feel safe to trust ourselves anyway.


Carolyn: Yeah, that’s a great example. Thank you. Thank you, Karen. 

So the second question what is a practice or ritual that you use to help you stay regulated or to bring you back to a place of calm? 

Karen: Well, I try to use my tool booth technique. 

Carolyn: Nice. Okay. 

Karen: Breathe and ask what’s really going on here with me, but around me. So pause, breathe and ask the mother of all questions. What’s really going on.

Carolyn: Yeah. Oh, I love it. Love 

  1. And now last but not least, what is a song or genre of music that makes you feel connected to something bigger than yourself? 

Karen: I love music. There’s so many, but okay. This is kind of a random

input on this. I have come to love Randy rainbow. Do you know who he is? 

Carolyn: I don’t. No. 

Karen: Okay. He grew up in the, his dad worked in Broadway. He grew up on Broadway. And so he knows all the Broadway songs and he’s been making little music videos his whole life. And so, he started making political music videos that just either side could appreciate probably the Democrats more than the Republicans, but still he’s had a big, big, this all happened during COVID.

So he’ll say something happens and he’ll. Put some Broadway song to it. Like, How do you solve a problem like Maria? From Silly Music. How do you solve a problem like North Korea? 

I mean, 

Carolyn: wow. 

Karen: It’s silly. You might always think it’s crazy. But I have gotten such a kick out of him that sometimes I’m thinking, wow, there’s the political scene.

It’s like the world over has gone kind of crazy. Anyway, so listen to him. He, he animates it all out. He’s a one man show. He’s been on 60 Minutes now. Just, he has done a World tour or North America tour, and I just really appreciate his creativity. Now, I’m not saying any political side. I’m just saying he actually I, I guess, I mean, I love all kinds of music, but if I were to say at the top of my head, I’ve Rabeau has done with music.

He’s taken music, songs from musicals and applied them to situations that are difficult in life. And make it these hilarious yeah, just hilarious things. 

Carolyn: Oh, cool. I’ll have to check it out. It sounds, 

Karen: Yeah, 

Carolyn: in it, I mean, it’s such a great way to wrap up 

Karen: right. 

Carolyn: we’ve been talking about creativity 

Karen: Yeah, oh right. 

Carolyn: like Randy, Rainbow

Karen: Randy, and that’s his real name too, that is his given name. But, a little warning, he can be crude. 

Carolyn: Okay. 

Karen: be crude sometimes.

So if that bothers you, just be prepared. But if it doesn’t bother you, you have to appreciate what he’s done. He was the first one to ever, two years ago, to be nominated multiple times. for Emmys off of his YouTube. No one ever had been nominated for an Emmy off of YouTube 

stuff. He’s just, he’s a nice guy, too.

He’s just I’ve read about him, and he’s kind of young. But yeah, so. 

Carolyn: Cool. 

Karen: guess that’s why I love Randy Ramos. What’s 


Carolyn: I’m gonna have to look him up. 

Karen: Yeah, be prepared to laugh. You can cringe a little too, but still. He has been very creative with music. 

Carolyn: Oh 

Karen: And I love musicals. 

Carolyn: Karen, thank you so much for coming 

Karen: Oh, no. 

Carolyn: all of your insight and practical knowledge around really how we can create, innovate, and really just show up as the best version of ourselves in our workplaces. 

Karen: Well, it’s been so fun talking with you. I’ve loved being here and thank you for inviting me and, and for also sharing with me that the book was insightful to you. It’s very meaningful. Thank you very much.

Carolyn: Yep. And, and I will say for people too, there are some books that are, I’d say heavier to get through. I found this very practical and also very easy to read and get 

Karen: Oh, good.

Carolyn: person, personal connection there too. So yeah, it really, really provided some, some great insight and, and it was a good.


Thank you. 

Karen: Well, thank you so much. This was an honor to be here.

Carolyn: All right. And if you are listening to this episode and you liked what you heard, please leave us a comment. Well, you know what? If you didn’t like what you heard either, leave us a comment. We’ll hear it either way.

Karen: Anything back this way. 

Carolyn: And we look forward to seeing you again on our next episode. 

So I’m thinking of all the times in my day that being innovative or more creative or less stuck would serve me and the people I work with better. I hope that you gain some insight from listening to Karen’s methodology, the death line and in particular the four aces to help us move through these invisible yet powerful.

blockages that we all have, be it space, grace, pace, or place. They all can help us find ways through to push through that little bit of discomfort. And on the other side comes some really amazing things. So I know for me, the one that sticking with me is pace. Does it really, what requires, what pace is required for the optimal outcome?

Which one is sticking? Let us know. Thanks again for tuning in to the podcast. It’s. A real pleasure to be bringing this work to you. And if you have any suggestions on topics or guests, please send me a note either on my Instagram. You can reach out to Carolyn at carolynswara. com. I’m interested in guests who are Bringing new levels of self awareness who are integrating self regulation and co regulation practices or philosophies into how they lead.

This is the future of where leadership needs to be more consistently. It’s what’s going to help us find the new solutions to this new world that we live in. Thanks again for tuning in.

EVOLVE Podcast Episodes

Lindsay Harle-Kadatz
Karin Hurt

Welcome to the Evolve community

Skip to content