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Podcast: Learn to Think Outside the Box by Eliminating Fear

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Podcast with Dr. Wanda Curlee, Program Director, School of Business and
Dr. Steven Wynne, faculty member, School of Business

Why aren’t people always thinking creatively? What is this “box” people reference that must be thought outside of and how did it even get there? In this episode, Dr. Wanda Curlee talks to APU business professor Dr. Steven Wynne about why he thinks the “box” represents fear and insecurity. Learn why he believes fear is not actually real, how people can train themselves to eliminate thoughts of fear, and how education must change to stop focusing on conformity so that the “box” no longer exists.

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Dr. Wanda Curlee: Welcome to the podcast. I’m your host, Wanda Curlee. Today, we are going to be chatting about thinking out of the box. My guest is Dr. Steven Wynne, a JD and MBA, who is an Associate Professor in the Business Administration Program at American Public University.

He has 30 years of experience in international law and global business consulting. Has worked in more than 80 different nations and has been working with nonprofit global aid groups for more than 15 years. Steve also has more than 20 years of teaching experience at the graduate level. Steve, welcome to the podcast, and thank you for joining me.

Dr. Steven Wynne: Thanks, Wanda. Pleasure to be here.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Steve, we are going to discuss thinking out of the box. What do you mean by that expression?

Dr. Steven Wynne: Actually, Wanda, if you don’t mind, I’d like to turn the tides a little bit and ask you what you believe thinking outside of the box means.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Well, as a project manager with over 30 years of experience, I have found thinking out of the box is trying to see a problem from somebody else’s shoes and putting it in your aspect as well. And this helps to provide for creative solutions to problems that seem unsolvable.

Dr. Steven Wynne: I absolutely agree with you. It’s about thinking creatively and I hadn’t heard the thinking in other person’s shoes, but in ways you’re right. It’s thinking from different perspectives, thinking about things creatively.

But I always ask myself this simple question, “Why aren’t we always thinking creatively? What is this box? What is it made of, and why is it there?” If you ask me this box that we all talk about, that we’re all somehow placed in, is another word for fear, it is insecurity. To think outside of the box means, turn your creativity back on because at some point in your life you’ve turned it off.

We can see this somewhat easily because kids do not have this box. No one has put restrictions or limitations on them yet. A kid would be happy to draw a purple tiger because a purple tiger is cool.

But most adults would never draw a purple tiger, they would feel constrained to make that tiger orange and black. They would be afraid to do something that is outside of the norm because we may be judged or somehow considered an outsider if we do things differently. So to me, this box that we all talk about is either society or ourselves allowing fear to be placed on us.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: That’s interesting because as adults, as we come up in school and as we come up as adults, we don’t want to fail. And so we tend to stick to what we know worked. So if I know that this worked before, I’m going to use it again and you’ll keep on using it until you don’t. So why do you think schools, parents, and everybody else puts this around us to have us fear failure?

Dr. Steven Wynne: I think it’s part of the human condition and that we want to fit in. If we look at different societies like Japan, they say they lack the ability to create things. They’re great at innovating things, but they really can’t create things and the reason is because throughout their entire life, they are taught to conform. They are rewarded when they conform to the rules of society and they are in fact punished when they step outside or they’re creative.

Here in the United States and most Western cultures, we believe that we are creative, that it’s all about the individual so we do have that freedom.

But I think when we are children, we reach a certain age and we become desperate to fit in. We don’t want to feel like an outsider. So in fact, we allow that box to be placed on us by society and unfortunately we never seem to release it later in life.

We’re still telling professionals out in the workplace think outside of the box. But my proposition and entire reason for doing this podcast is the simple fact that there is no box. There literally is no box but that which we put on ourselves.

And as said, I believe that box is made of fear. And we will get into this a little bit later, but fear, the greatest lesson I have ever learned in my life is that fear is not real. Danger is real, but fear is a choice.

And we will go into that further, but you did ask about society and education and why they try to put us in a box. And I think sadly, K-12 education really has two specific purposes, to get the students to regurgitate back exactly what has been told to them. If they do not regurgitate it back exactly the same way, they have points deducted. So it’s learning to conform to what we’re told, whether that’s accurate or true or not. We have to regurgitate back exactly what we have been told.

And the other thing that K-12 teaches us is to conform to the rules of society, to show up on time, to not make a disturbance, to not speak unless spoken to, and to in face conform to the rules.

Now the benefits of this to society are that we can all communicate with one another, we can all do basic math, and we can go out into the workforce and move forward with our lives. And in fact, we value education so highly in this country that if an adult was to not get their child the proper education that it need, according to the state or federal guidelines, we would literally put that parent in jail for truancy, for not properly educating their child.

Yet if we want to get an education that allows us to critically analyze, to not just regurgitate back and conform, if we want to learn how to think, we have to go to college. And quite often we have to put ourselves in a financial jail to do so in ways that they still are able to control us and keep us conforming to society, because we owe so much on our educational loans that we’re still stuck in the same roles of working for the society.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: That’s interesting. So as an adult, which I hope I am one, how can I limit my fears so that I can think out of the box?

Dr. Steven Wynne: I think the best way, again, fear is an odd subject because most of us think it’s necessary for survival, but that’s not true because we have fear and then we have a natural instinct. What we call fear is just a chemical dump in our brain. It is designed to heighten our awareness so that when a dangerous situation presents itself, we have the ability to deal with that situation more easily.

But we always hear about fight versus flight, right? If something’s coming at us and we’re strong and brave, we fight it. And if something’s coming at us and we’re afraid, we run away from it. But we really need to add a third category to that called freeze, because if a runaway bus or a boulder is coming down a hill, no one would be wise to stand and fight that runaway bus or that boulder, it would be wiser to run away from it.

So in both of those situations, whether I’m fighting it or running away from it, I am using that chemical brain dump to do something that helps propel me away from the danger. The category that they forgot is freeze, if that bus is coming towards me and I do nothing to get out of the way, I freeze because my fear takes over my body, then that chemical dump is not a natural instinct helping me to get out of it, it turns into fear. It freezes us. It keeps us from doing what we should to protect ourselves.

Yeah, a natural instinct is, we all have it, we’re born with it. If something comes at us, we naturally put our hands up to protect ourselves. And I don’t consider that fear, I consider that a wisdom of using those brain chemicals to propel us to protect ourselves.

But if we get so overwhelmed by those chemicals because we think fear is normal and real and right and part of our society, then we lose the ability to protect ourselves.

Easiest example of this is a burglar breaks into a house and there is a five-year-old child and a combat-hardened veteran in that house. The five-year-old child most likely will run, hide, scream, or do something that puts them in worst danger. Whereas, the combat-hardened veteran will simply find a weapon, will do something to incapacitate or kill the intruder until the police arrive.

So with the child, it’s fear and it puts them in more danger. With the adult or the combat-hardened veteran, they’ve worked through that fear. They understand that there’s really nothing to fear here and if I let fear take over, I harm myself rather than help myself. So they actively use the chemical dump to heighten their awareness, to grab the weapon that works best for them, and to solve the situation.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: That makes a lot of sense. But that has to be difficult for somebody that might be a very fearful person for whatever reason. They might’ve had a bad upbringing or they had some bad situations in their life. But I understand that Einstein and Tesla use some tricks to tap into creative thoughts and let’s face it, they were very creative. Do you know some of the tricks that they used?

[Podcast: The Past and Future of Artificial Intelligence]

Dr. Steven Wynne: I absolutely do. And one of the tricks I like to bring up, which is about fear as well in idea generation is, it’s called the “worst idea.” Where we are asked by our superiors to come up with the worst possible idea that we can find.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: That’s an interesting thought. Okay.

Dr. Steven Wynne: Exactly. And we know that most likely the worst idea will never help us solve the problem we have. But we asked for the worst possible idea so they know that there’s no judgment, that there’s no way anybody could ever possibly laugh at them or say that their idea is stupid because in fact, they were asked to come up with the worst, most stupid idea.

So we take all of the fear out of the process of presenting an idea which could be judged by others. And then eventually we get to ideas that are workable because people feel comfortable.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Interesting concept. Are there any other tips or tricks that Einstein or Tesla might’ve used or is that the one?

Dr. Steven Wynne: Well, and that’s just a general management technique, I don’t know if Einstein or Tesla used that. But the one that Einstein and Tesla used was called, “out of the blue.” They didn’t necessarily call it this, but each one of them admitted later in life that they did not come up with the ideas that they presented. Both of them admit that they got the ideas from an outside source.

Now what that outside source is, we can debate until the end of time. Was it God? Was it the Akashic record? Was it some tapping into a universal consciousness? Was it an alien coming?

Again, I don’t know the source of this material, but two of the most brilliant men we have had in our society both admitted and stated outright that they were given these ideas by someone else. They said they both go into a type of not dream state, but just a waking meditation where they try to literally tap into whatever outside force there is. And Einstein said the mathematics came from that source and Tesla said many of his ideas came from that source as well. In fact, they were like, “I really didn’t come up with these ideas. I don’t know if I should take credit for them because they came to me.”

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Interesting. I’ve heard other creative people say the same thing, that whether it’s a painter or somebody who’s writing a book, they say that the ideas just came to them. So that’s interesting. It would have been nice to talk to Einstein or Tesla in trying to pull out that, how did that idea come to you?

But let’s switch a little bit back to K-12, because you talked about education in the K-12 area. Do you think the way we do it in Western cultures and maybe in many cultures, should the education be changed so that we can have kids thinking out of the box and creative?

Dr. Steven Wynne: Absolutely about the creativity. Now I understand there is value to teaching people to conform to society and the rules of society. And there is some value to teaching people to regurgitate back that which has been told to them.

But I also know that most students, and I was one of these students, all through grammar school up to high school, they said I was too smart and not interested but I was always able to get good grades without doing much. And my reason for staying in high school was the extracurricular stuff I did, the arts, the ceramics, that kind of stuff really engaged me. It really allowed me to be creative and not have to regurgitate back what things were told to me.

And now it’s even worse because we’re taking all of those programs away. We’re taking away sports programs, which may be the one reason a child goes to school and puts up with all the other stuff they hate about school, just to do that one activity.

So I understand the balance and the problem of the fact that we really do need to teach them to conform to the rules. We need to teach them to communicate with one another, to do basic math. I’m not sure I believe with the regurgitation back of exactly what they say to us, because I think we should start challenging students at a younger age.

First, let’s not put them in a box. How about that? How we start there, where we don’t ask them to conform, we don’t make them feel foolish for creating a purple tiger because a tiger is supposed to be orange and black. I guess that would be a more difficult task because everybody still deals with their fears.

And the funny thing about fear is we think that courage is the opposite of fear, but courage is really walking forward in the face of fear. To me, the actual opposite of fear is love. And I don’t want to get to, I know this is an academic podcast, I don’t want to get too touchy feely with you, but love is the only thing that would push any of us to jump in front of a moving train to save someone else.

None of us would ever jump in front of a bus because we could die. But if a loved one was in front of that bus, without thought, without hesitation, without fear, we would instantaneously save that person, even if it made giving up our own lives. So in ways, fear is not really about courage and love is about the absence of fear.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: A very interesting concept. So Steve, we were talking about K-12 education and you talked about love and tried to get not too philosophical on me.

But in my opinion, no matter what level of education you’re in, education should be fun. And I think technology has helped that a lot, but why do you think Western education is based on fear and not more on fun?

Dr. Steven Wynne: I think it’s about the fact that we want students to conform to the rules of society and we put that above their actual education. We can see that in the standardized testing. We can see that in that they’re taking away these programs that make kids actually want to go to school, like music and sports and art. If take away the things that make, as you say, that makes school and education fun, they’re going to be less involved and less looking towards finding value from the education itself.

Now you had spoken about how can we overcome this fear if we already have it, if it’s already built in? And I think the first thing, I’ve studied the martial arts for 35 years now, I’ve trained in more than 12 different countries, 12 different systems. And I will admit it took me a while to get to this realization and part of it was my greatest fear was getting beat up. But if you study how to fight, you understand that getting beat up is not that big a deal. You understand that you can learn how to stop it. And again, it’s all about knowledge. It’s about overcoming that fear.

Anytime we have an issue in our life that we’re afraid of, we should walk directly towards that because we come to understand that it’s not as big a fear or even an issue at all like we thought it was. We should step up to our fears. We should look at it in the eye and then we realize that there is no actual fear.

But in doing this, a lot of people have that fear. And if we’re caught in that fear moment, there’s a martial arts breathing technique, which I have employed my entire life, has absolutely no side effects whatsoever and it reduces the stress rate, reduces the heart rate, reduces the blood pressure, increases helpful brain chemicals, helps oxygenate our entire system and it provides us with greater lung capacity. And there are absolutely no side effects. This technique is called nine breaths and it takes less than five minutes. And if that’s too long, we can even break it down to three breaths.

But basically what we do is we breathe in, counting to nine, we hold that breath for a count of nine and we breathe out counting to nine. We repeat this nine times. The reason this technique works so great is that people in the West have not been taught to meditate the way people in other countries have been.

In fact, in most every other country on this planet, in every other culture, they teach their children to breathe properly through yoga or martial arts or some other meditation. Whereas we seem to think if our kids are having a trouble, let’s put them on some type of medication, as opposed to teaching them to breathe and exercise and do these things.

But if we go back to the way the kids deal with it, if you get to that fearful point and you just breathe deeply. Even all of Western medicine, if you go to your doctor and say, “Doctor, I’m uptight. I’m upset.” What’s the first thing they say to you? “Breathe deeply.”

So the doctors here know it, but we don’t teach it to our people. In less than five minutes you can all that stress and get rid of it. And the reason why nine breaths is so helpful to Western minds is because we think that to meditate, you have to think of nothing, but that’s not true.

Meditation is about focus and yes, you can focus on nothing or empty your brain. But if you focus on the counting, breathing in, counting one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine. Breathing out, counting all, and you count throughout the entire five minutes of the breathing, then that is your focus. All of those problems, all of those stresses are falling away because you are focusing on counting to nine with each breath.

So in ways, it’s a trick. We’re supposed to focus on nothing, think you’re in an empty room and that’s the way you meditate. But the reality is its just about focus. So if we focus on counting, it has the exact same benefit.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: It seems to me that that would also help somebody to become more creative as well once they master that technique of breathing.

Dr. Steven Wynne: Absolutely. And again, once we master that technique of breathing, and once we overcome our fear in our mind, and once we face some of those fears out there, every time we do that.

The only thing good about a comfort zone is that every time we step outside it, we expand that comfort zone. And if we’re wise, we’ll continue to step outside it so that the entire universe is our comfort zone.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: So what are some of the types of fear in society that you see?

Dr. Steven Wynne: I am going to state that every single problem that humankind has is based in fear. If we look at greed, what’s greed about? Greed is about the fact that I’m so insecure that I won’t be able to make money in the future that I need to take more now.

Why is a person racist? Because they are afraid of people that are different from them. Why does a person commit murder? Because they’re afraid that that person would hurt them, that person has done something to them and they’re fearful of that. Why do we have war? Because one territory is fearful of another territory’s ideology, or the fact that they may attack them.

So if we break it down, every single problem that humankind has or in ways creates itself, is based in fear. Every single one of them can be broken down to fear.

But the biggest joke on humankind is that fear is not real. All of these problems could be instantaneously eliminated if we, as a society and we as a species, came to understand early that fear is not real, that it is just a dump of chemicals that pushes us to act in normally the wrong way.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yeah. So let’s go back a little bit and we’re talking about fear and adults being able to think outside of the box. So in school and professional settings, we always want to do our best. We want to do the best for the company, for my teacher, for getting a good grade in school. Is this a type of fear when we fail to do that? And should we accept this failure as thinking out of the box?

Dr. Steven Wynne: I think that the desire or need to do extremely well on everything is a form of insecurity in and of itself. What’s wrong with getting a B? If you have learned a great deal of material and you have benefit from that experience, who cares if it’s an A or a B? Nobody. Okay?

Well, actually you do while you’re in school and this is what I tell my students all the time. That, yes, your grade point average is extremely important to you right now but after that first job, if you have a summa cum laude or something like that, it looks good. But after that first job, no one really cares about your grade point average or what you got in any specific class.

It’s really about how much you learned from that class and how much you can use that information in the future. If I’m spending all of this time worrying about, well, I want to impress my instructor and if I ever get anything less than an A then that’s unacceptable.

I think that’s in ways, fear itself. It’s insecurity. It’s you assuming that if you do lesser in one class, that you’re a lesser human being. But in fact, you may learn more in that class that you get a B in than you ever learned from another class where you got an A.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: I would totally agree, but I’m sure you’ve had students and I’ve had students that if they get a B, they said, “You’ve ruined my grade point average.”

Dr. Steven Wynne: Oh, far too many times. And I try to explain this to them. I’m like, “First off, it’s one assignment, so if you improve with what I asked you to improve on.” And then they come back with you with the old, “Well, every other professor has given me an A and I’ve done it this way.” And I’m like, “Well, listen, I’m not in every other class. I just know what’s required of this class.”

Dr. Wanda Curlee: So without fear, do you see education and working at a corporation being different? Do you see it being more thinking out of the box and creative?

Dr. Steven Wynne: Absolutely. Because the worst managers manage through fear. We follow a manager because we have to, we follow a leader because we want to. A leader goes above and beyond, they care more about the team and the results than they do about themselves. They give all the credit when things go right, and they take all the blame when things go wrong.

So the true leadership really comes from that sacrifice, that self-service, that not being afraid. But too many managers manage through fear, do this or you’ll be fired, do this or you’ll get a negative this, some type of report on you.

I guess we can be motivated by fear, but it’s never in a way that truly makes us want to be part of that organization. If we go to work and we’re afraid that we’ll be fired that day, it really does not make an enjoyable working experience.

For example, Steve Jobs, some people consider him one of the most successful people on this planet. But everybody he worked with, according to the people he worked with and even his family, felt that he was a horrible tyrant, an arrogant person who would come in and ask some ridiculously random question that had nothing to do with your job and if you got that answer wrong, he would fire on the spot.

I guess Apple has become a success despite this, but can you imagine how well it would have done if people enjoy going to work and people were not afraid of losing their job.

And I guess in ways it comes back to that worst idea projection that we did, that if you feel comfortable, you are more likely to give up your ideas, you’re more likely to be involved. And in ways, if you understand that your company cares about your ideas, you’re more loyal to that company.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: I would totally agree with that. There has been some situations where I was wondering if I was going to have a job the next day, so I went out and found a different job.

Dr. Steven Wynne: Exactly right. I had the same situation. I worked for a lottery company, which was doing online lotteries in more than 80 different nations. And one morning we came in to work and half the staff was met by two security guards and an empty cardboard box. They were told to go to their desk, clean it out and leave. And the rest of the people that were there that day were like, “Okay, this could happen to me in the future. Let me start looking for a job today.”

Dr. Wanda Curlee: It’s portraying the wrong message to everyone, yes.

Dr. Steven Wynne: Exactly. If you want loyalty from your employees, you have to show loyalty. You have to give them trust. At that same company, like at Google and other companies, we were allowed to take an hour a day and either go play in the game room or just think creatively or do nothing.

And people were like, “Well, that wastes time. If all the employees at Google spend an hour a day and get paid, they’re wasting millions of dollars a year.” And honestly, that’s true because not every employee is going to come up with a great idea, but some do and they make money off those ideas.

But all of those other employees are really happy to work there. They feel valued. They know that they can take that hour a day thinking about the fact that they broke up with their girlfriend or boyfriend and sort of waste the time that day if they have to, or they can come up with something creative that works great for the company. Either way, we’re making that employee feel valued and that normally comes back to us in loyalty and in profit as well.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yeah. I always talk about trust in many of my classes and I talk about how in corporate America, and I’m going to reveal my age here a little bit, in the late 70s and 80s downsizing started. And that’s when trust eroded in corporate America, because people no longer stayed at the same company and retired and got that gold watch and the pension.

Dr. Steven Wynne: And downsizing is a buzzword that says, “We’ll get rid of you for any reason whatsoever. We don’t care about you as a human being. You are a number to us and the numbers aren’t working out. Goodbye.”

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Right. And so that trust between leadership and employee was eroded, which created fear in some people because they expected to retire from that company and now they aren’t. And I think creativity went out the window a whole lot when that started happening in corporate America.

So this has been fascinating, and I’m glad we talked about thinking out of the box, because I think we need that more in education, and we need it more in corporate America. And I want to thank you very much for joining me today and sharing your ideas of thinking out of the box. Do you have any last words to impart to us?

Dr. Steven Wynne: Well, just to show my age too, have you ever seen the movie The Matrix?

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yes, many times.

Dr. Steven Wynne: Okay. One of my favorite all time movies, because it was one of the only movies that really made me think, “Oh my goodness, this could actually be true.” But in the matrix, the key for the hero, Neo, because he was living in a computer simulation, was to understand that the simulation was not real.

He was taught this lesson by another gifted person in the movie who told him—he was trying to bend a spoon—and the kid told him, “Don’t try to bend the spoon because that’s impossible. You try to bend the spoon with your mind because that’s impossible. Only realize that the spoon is not real.” And to me, that is the essence of fear. If we live thinking that fear is real, it can control us our whole lives.

But the key to escaping fear is understanding that it’s not real. It’s a choice. We have that chemical brain dump due to a dangerous perceived situation, but what we choose to do with those chemicals either makes it fear or makes it something that helps us.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: And thank you very much, Steve. And thank you to our listeners for joining us.

Dr. Steven Wynne: Thanks everybody.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: You can learn more about this and other interesting topics on similar blogs. Stay well and stay safe.

About the Speakers

Dr. Wanda Curlee is a Program Director at American Public University. She has over 30 years of consulting and project management experience and has worked at several Fortune 500 companies. Dr. Curlee has a Doctor of Management in Organizational Leadership from the University of Phoenix, a MBA in Technology Management from the University of Phoenix, and a M.A. and a B.A. in Spanish Studies from the University of Kentucky. She has published numerous articles and several books on project management.

Steven Wynne is a faculty member in the School of Business at American Public University and has taught global business strategy, business ethics, and international law courses for more than 15 years. He has been a global strategic planning consultant for more than 25 years, devising international entry, operational and legal strategies for companies seeking to go global. He has worked for a variety of high tech, nonprofit and entertainment firms including the Department of Justice, the Environmental Protection Agency, Textron, General Dynamics, GTECH, Plan USA, the ONE Campaign, and Stock and Roll.

He earned a Juris Doctorate with a certificate in International Legal Studies from Loyola School of Law and a Master’s of Business Administration with a specialization in Global Business from the University of the District of Columbia. He is also the founder of a new internet music company called Stock and Roll, which allows fans to directly invest in bands.

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