Creativity & Imagination

Pressure really blows


Dr. Anthony Paustian is the provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines and the author of "Imagine" and "Beware the Purple People Eaters." His upcoming book, "A Quarter-Million Steps," will be available early next year.

I recently saw the movie "Deepwater Horizon." Since the movie is based on actual events, I’m not spoiling anything by describing how it chronicles the 2010 oil well explosion in the Gulf of Mexico that caused the largest oil spill ever in U.S. waters. What struck me the most was how I could actually feel the gradual, yet massive buildup of pressure ultimately released from the ocean floor more than two and a half miles below the surface — pressure that literally blew apart the entire structure.

It got me thinking about how pressure can also affect our everyday lives. Except in a few scientific and engineering contexts, intense pressure is seldom a good thing. However, people often think they actually perform better under pressure, despite the research showing just the opposite: No one performs better under pressure.

“The idea that people perform better under pressure is a myth,” says psychologist Dr. Tim Pychyl, director of the Procrastination Research Group and author of "Solving the Procrastination Puzzle." To his knowledge, there is not one study that supports the claim that people perform better under pressure. The resulting stress makes it harder for your brain to function, basically overloading it.1

Often, this overload and the subsequent pressure created by it come from either trying to do too many things at once (multitasking) or from putting something off because we have too many things to do (procrastinating). And as with most things, an overload tends to burn out what’s being overloaded.

Our brains are complex organs. The average human brain uses the equivalent of 20 watts of power (enough to power a light bulb), and although the brain only makes up a mere 2 percent of our total body weight, it consumes more than 20 percent of our daily caloric intake — more than any other organ in the human body.2

Research has shown that our mental energy related to decision-making is finite, and once depleted, the quality of our thinking begins to dramatically suffer. As average people, we tend to spend a large percentage of our mental energy on relatively meaningless stuff that really doesn’t have any real impact on our lives, good or bad, like streaming through countless posts on Facebook and watching television. Once our brain has used its energy, we tend to miss the relevant stuff and other important details necessary to be more successful, creative thinkers within the limited time we are given.3

Studies of very efficient people show they rid themselves of distractions and the unnecessary, miscellaneous choices that deplete mental energy. They frequently eat and meet at the same places; they turn off their smartphone app notifications and look at their apps when they’re ready to see them; they stop dwelling on things that occurred in the past and don’t obsess on things that might happen since it’s impossible to actually do things in the past or future; they frequently wear the same clothes (think Steve Jobs); and they remove the clutter that surrounds them.4 This “freed-up” energy allows them to focus on what’s truly important.

Being at our creative best requires gas in the mental tank, gas that will only be available if we aren’t going full throttle every day. Also, as with any machine, the brain, or even an oil well, going full throttle for too long creates intense pressure that will be released, one way or another.

©2016 Anthony D. Paustian

PaustianHeadFor more information about Dr. Anthony Paustian, provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines, please visit his website at 

The not-so-secret secret


- Dr. Anthony Paustian is the provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines and the author of "Imagine" and "Beware the Purple People Eaters."

Over the years, I’ve been asked a number of times how to creatively develop and maintain a competitive advantage in an environment marked by rapid changes in technology, fluid delivery systems, intense competition, real-time communication and instant (and often brutal) customer “experience” reports through social media.

A day doesn’t go by that I don’t hear about someone bemoaning a poor customer service experience. In fact, I believe customer service has gotten so bad that some people generally seem to expect a bad experience. As a result, I believe we have lowered our bar to the point where we now just tolerate being treated poorly.

Although I do think it’s becoming more difficult to maintain an advantage, I believe there is a solution … perhaps even the solution. Here’s the “secret” competitive advantage solution, especially if you’re trying to build a positive personal or organizational image: Create a culture of above-and-beyond service. This will immediately place you ahead of most, if not all, of the competition.

Success comes by helping others get what they want. Go beyond the Golden Rule. In other words, treat people BETTER than you would want to be treated.

When I was a child, my father regularly told me that if you borrow something from someone, always return it in better condition than when you received it. Then others will be willing to help you again if you need it. When people come to you for what you provide, they are investing their time and possibly their money. Give them back something of greater value.

If people believe you truly care and will take care of them first and foremost, they will follow your leadership, believe in your ideas and give you their business, even if what you’re offering doesn’t have all of the latest bells and whistles. Bottom line: Regardless of anything else, people’s perception of an experience still comes down to how they feel.

Recently, my wife and I took a short vacation to Telluride, Colorado. We went there to relax, do a little hiking and enjoy the beautiful scenery (which was breathtaking). Without any prior experience, we booked a room at the Inn at Lost Creek in the adjacent town of Mountain Village. We chose this property only because they were pet-friendly, because we had our dog in tow. We knew nothing else about it.

From the moment we arrived, the staff was “over-the-top” friendly. They asked us for our names (including the dog’s), and NEVER forgot them. In fact, every time we walked by, they would say “hello” and address us by name. Whenever I walked the dog, they treated her like she was their own, also addressed her by name and offered her treats. (They even provided us a special pet basket at check-in full of treats, a mini-flashlight for night walking, and waste bags.)

A member of the staff provided us with a short tour of the property to ensure we knew where all of the amenities were located. He made sure we also knew that all snacks and bottled water were free and emphasized that if we ever needed more or anything else to let him know. The complimentary breakfast was incredible, and large, fresh-baked cookies were always available in the main lobby (something I overindulged on because, frankly, they were awesome).

Every time anyone saw us over the course of our three days there, we were asked how our stay was going and if we needed anything. And it didn’t matter who was working at the time. Everyone had the same exceptionally positive attitude and treated us with the same high level of care and respect. They even made sure we had bottled water, snacks and a package of dog treats for the road when we departed.

The staff made us feel extremely special – almost as if we were the only guests they had. We were so taken aback by the experience, we found ourselves talking about it the whole time we were there and even after we had left. It was incredible, and because of this level of service, this is now the ONLY place we will ever stay when we return. And, of course, we will now tell everyone we know about the Inn at Lost Creek and perhaps even blog about it.

People value most how you make them feel. They will ultimately act based on those feelings. So give them something worth their investment of support, time and money.

If you make them feel special, they will reward you with their long-term loyalty. By proactively building an image of service to others, you will create a sustainable competitive advantage, despite what others ­– including your competition – are doing.

©2016  Anthony D. Paustian

PaustianHeadFor more information about Dr. Anthony Paustian, provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines, please visit his website at

Think big, execute small


Dr. Anthony Paustian is the provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines and the author of "Imagine" and "Beware the Purple People Eaters."

Too often, people have a tendency to view the primary role of creative leadership as having and setting long-term direction, while letting others figure out how to get there. However, effective leaders are not only able to visualize which mountain to climb but also the individual steps necessary to climb it.

In the 1991 comedy What About Bob?, Bill Murray plays Bob Wiley, a character suffering from some serious “issues” (the clinical diagnosis given in the movie was an extreme case of multi-phobic personality characterized by acute separation anxiety).

When Bob’s current psychologist pawns him off on Dr. Leo Marvin, an egotistical psychologist played by Richard Dreyfuss, Bob shows up at Dr. Marvin’s office for an initial interview. As Dr. Marvin is getting ready to leave on vacation for a month, he shoves a copy of his new book, Baby Steps, into Bob’s hands and sends him on his way.

The premise of the book is to help people achieve larger goals by visualizing much smaller, reasonable goals and then take a series of successive baby steps to get there. To the eventual dismay of Dr. Marvin, Bob totally takes the doctor’s words to heart. He is able to visualize and take each necessary, yet very difficult, step towards “sharing” Dr. Marvin’s vacation with his family.

Bob’s actions include walking to the bus terminal, getting on the bus, riding the bus to Camp Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, finding Dr. Marvin by yelling for him in the middle of town, and then hijacking Dr. Marvin’s book interview with Good Morning America. Bob humorously “baby steps” his way into every aspect of Dr. Marvin’s life and psychotic breakdown.

Although they desire a different outcome, strong leaders are like Bob. They are able to “see” a big leap, some potential great outcome or challenging opportunity, and then visualize and implement each baby step necessary to achieve it. With laser-like focus, they accomplish each required step in sequence while keeping the big picture and ultimate outcome in mind the entire time.

They realize that 20 percent of their effort accounts for 80 percent of their success (Pareto’s Principle) so they don’t allow themselves to be overcome by distractions and irrelevant daily minutia. Able to manage many steps simultaneously while keeping the appropriate priority on each, leaders also recognize forward progress is a process. They are patient; sometimes great things may take considerable time to accomplish. In the Old Testament of the Bible, King Solomon says, “It is better to finish something than to start it. It is better to be patient than to be proud.”2

Strong leaders will assemble great teams of doers who are able to execute. They will find, and nurture, those who can work both individually and collaboratively. They know that individual effort impacts the outcome of the entire group, so leaders are willing to work with doers to improve individual performance. Effective leaders are also willing to reorganize tasks and people to gain maximum output or remove people altogether if necessary.

Imagine a snow globe. As long as each snowflake continues to fall, the desired effect is achieved. Sometimes, however, after the “snow” settles, the globe needs a good shake to reenergize it and keep things moving. Strong leaders are snow globe shakers. Have you shaken yours recently?

©2016  Anthony D. Paustian

PaustianHeadFor more information about Dr. Anthony Paustian, provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines, please visit his website at





  1. Ziskin, L. (Producer), Williams, B. (Producer), & Oz, F. (Director). (1991). What About Bob? [Motion Picture]. United States: Touchstone Pictures. Used with permission.
  2. Holy Bible, New Century Version. (2003). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.

Bring out their creative best


- Dr. Anthony Paustian is the provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines and the author of "Imagine" and "Beware the Purple People Eaters."

One day, a pedestrian stopped to admire the skill of two men who were laying bricks. She asked the first bricklayer, “What are you making?” In a somewhat gruff voice, the bricklayer responded, “About $20.00 an hour.” At a loss for words, the pedestrian stepped over to the next bricklayer and asked, “Say, what are you making?” The second bricklayer happily replied, “I’m making the greatest cathedral in the world!”1 Same activity, same question, two totally different responses. A positive attitude will change one’s total perspective of something, and a good leader chooses to see problems as opportunities to do great things versus mere labor. 

Leadership is a daily process, not a destination. Before you can effectively lead others, you must first lead yourself. In other words, a strong leader leads by example and knows their personal character will set the tone for everyone else. You must "walk the talk" and consistently display the character traits required by everyone to ensure success. Dependability, patience, self-discipline, integrity, confidence and a strong work ethic become daily expectations of you. Others cannot be expected to do what you are unwilling to do, and a good leader knows a consistent, high level of character is critical, whether one “feels” like it every day or not. Character can’t be faked. One’s character is reflected when no one is watching, and others will see through insincerity.

Not only should effective leaders set the bar of expectation, they should try to do “a little bit more” and consistently exceed expectations each and every time. Most people tend to value how others make them feel and will attempt to acquire the feelings they desire by associating themselves with those who exhibit them. We like to be around others who make us feel better about ourselves. By accepting a leadership role, you commit to a higher standard, one that not only requires a strong character but also demands a positive attitude.

If you have ever ridden a roller coaster, you know a wide variety of attitudes are exhibited on any given ride. Some close their eyes, hold on for dear life, and can’t wait for the ride to be over, while others ride with eyes wide open, arms outstretched, and love every second. Same ride, two entirely different emotional responses, but those in the latter group typically take the lead by sitting up front.

Attitude is a game changer. It often reflects the tone of leadership and dictates the response to failure. Babe Ruth had to strike out 1,330 times in order to hit 714 home runs (both once records in professional baseball) and lead the Yankees to multiple championships;2 Walt Disney was fired from his newspaper job for a lack of creative ideas;3 Thomas Edison was pulled out of school as a child after his schoolmaster called him “addle-minded” and “slow;”4 Michael Jordan missed over 9,000 shots in his career, lost 300 games, and missed 26 final game-winning shots on his way leading the Bulls to six NBA championships;5 and Lee Iacocca, having been fired from Ford after 32 years of service, went on to lead Chrysler back to success after the company was on the brink of bankruptcy.6

Attitude is an outward expression of the heart. If you truly want others to be successful, maintaining a consistent positive attitude is paramount. People can easily become discouraged by any one of a large number of aspects in their lives. A positive attitude by those in charge – as well as the creation of a positive environment – can help them overcome those feelings and develop a renewed sense of energy. Strong leaders strive to exhibit a positive attitude every day to help others exhibit one on most days.

For my next few posts, I will be focusing on leadership and its role in bringing out the creative best in people.

©2016  Anthony D. Paustian

PaustianHeadFor more information about Dr. Anthony Paustian, provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines, please visit his website at





  1. Zabloski, J. (1996). The 25 Most Common Problems in Business (and How Jesus Solved Them). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
  1. Babe Ruth. Retrieved December 3, 2010, from the Baseball-Reference website:
  1. Rosner, B. (2005, February 25). Working Wounded: Getting Pink Slipped. Retrieved December 3, 2010, from the ABC News website:
  1. Beals, G. (1999). The Biography of Thomas Edison. Retrieved December 3, 2010, from the Thomas Edison website:
  1. Michael Jordan Quotes. Retrieved December 3, 2010, from the Brainy Quote website:
  1. Lee Iacocca. Retrieved December 3, 2010, from the Encyclopedia of World Biography website:


Work HARD, not SMART


Dr. Anthony Paustian is the provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines and the author of "Imagine" and "Beware the Purple People Eaters."

There’s a frequently used acronym related to creating goals––SMART––which stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic (or Relevant) and Time-based. As a college professor, I taught for over 20 years a variety of concepts required to attain a desired goal or future vision. I frequently discussed the importance of creating SMART goals and how they were absolutely critical in order to accomplish this desired end.


It’s not that SMART goals are necessarily bad, but I now believe they’re flawed if what you are trying to achieve requires a behavioral transformation or major proactive change. Specific, Measurable and Time-based are all fine attributes and should automatically be built into all goals. It’s the Achievable and Realistic (or Relevant) parts I’ve been struggling with for some time now, especially after reading a piece in Forbes discussing how SMART goals can sometimes be dumb.1

In the author’s opinion, both Achievable and Realistic actually act as impediments and don’t really enable genuine movement or progress. I completely agree. Those attributes smack of phrases like “Don’t bite off more than you can chew,” “Stay within your available resources,” “Be careful what you wish for,” “Play it safe,” “Don’t do anything stupid,” and “Keep your eye on the ball.”

Because of the Realistic (or Relevant) attribute, Yahoo decided to pull out of purchasing Facebook during its early years because of an overreaction to a short-term market dip2 (an article in CNN Money now predicts Facebook will at some point have a $1 trillion valuation3 while Yahoo continues to suffer); the company Digital Research passed on partnering with IBM for the creation of an operating system (after Bill Gates sent them there in the first place––the result was Microsoft creating MS-DOS, and Digital Research is now long gone);4 Kodak failed to embrace digital photography because it didn’t require film (and subsequently filed bankruptcy); and the list goes on.

A great many poor decisions have been made by people based on “unrealistic” or “non-relevant” views––views often rooted in how things currently are as compared to where they will or should be because they were unable to imagine something different.

Thankfully, John F. Kennedy didn’t listen to the pundits in 1961, who claimed going to the moon was unachievable. If NASA had used SMART goal thinking in the '60s, we would have never gone to the moon, especially within the “unrealistic” context at the time: less than nine years to complete, over $25 billion cost (about $144 billion in today’s dollars), and less than 20 percent of the necessary technology required to do it. Also, over 50 percent of the country didn’t even want to fund the project, especially since we were involved in the costly Vietnam War. But this project was absolutely necessary and relevant in order to stay ahead of the Russians.5 As part of a 1962 speech given at Rice University, Kennedy proclaimed:

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” 6

The result was not only one of the greatest achievements of mankind, but also the staggering development of thousands of products and industries (such as microwaves, purified water, polarized, scratch-resistant lenses, lithium batteries, kidney dialysis, NASCAR cool suits, solar panels, etc., and companies like Intel7), not to mention the inspiration of an entire generation and the creation of worldwide optimism during a difficult time in our history.

My point is this: Any goal that requires transformative thinking––thinking required to change deeply entrenched behaviors, habits and modes of thought––isn’t SMART. It’s HARD.

HARD goals require a total change in thinking––a recognition that transformation is difficult and realized through intense focus, effort and tenacity. Our greatest accomplishments in life weren’t easy. Therefore, I believe HARD goals include the following attributes:

  • HONEST: One of the biggest reasons that many goals are never achieved is because people do not honestly, deep down, believe in them. Often, they are the goals of someone else, such as a spouse, parent, physician, supervisor or the organization as a whole. They could also be the goals that have been deemed “good” by a majority of society. Regardless of origin, unless they are your goals––goals you totally believe in, desire above all else, and have built into the very core of your being––they will never be realized.
  • ACTIONABLE: These goals must be something you can begin taking immediate action toward … not someday or at some future point. If these goals require something in addition to or other things to occur first before you can begin working on them, the likelihood of success is diminished. The NASA moon program began the moment Kennedy shared the goal with Congress.
  • RADICAL: Most goals related to change frequently require some form of radical or significant shift in behavior. Typically, a minor or slight change in thinking is inadequate to achieve transformative change. For example, effective weight loss requires a sustainable, permanent change in diet from what you previously considered normal, acceptable eating. Eliminating debt requires a sustainable but substantial shift in your spending patterns, purchasing behavior and saving.
  • DETAILED: HARD goals require a plan of attack. This is where desired action is specifically detailed, time-based and measurable. This plan of attack should be incremental in nature since the power of progress is typically found and achieved through daily activity. Again, NASA had an extremely detailed plan with a series of very specific short-term objectives required to land on the moon in less than nine years.

Research shows that fewer than 2 out of 10 employees strongly agree their goals will help them achieve great things, and even less strongly agree their goals will help them maximize their full potential.8 Goals that truly lead to transformative change, the kind of change that will help you achieve great things and maximize your potential, require a HARD focus. A desired goal must be honest and true to both who you are and where you want to be; it should be immediately actionable and not something you have to wait on if you’re ready to go now; it should be radical in that to get there requires a sharp shift from the behavior that’s obviously not working now; and it should be detailed so it’s extremely clear as to the steps, resources and time required to achieve it.

A HARD goal doesn’t necessarily mean it’s extraordinarily difficult to accomplish. But it does require a higher level of intensity to achieve the desired transformation than a SMART goal. If you truly want to proactively change your behavior, you will need to change your mind––a change in thinking that directly affects your daily behavior.

©2016  Anthony D. Paustian

PaustianHeadFor more information about Dr. Anthony Paustian, provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines, please visit his website at




1Murphy, Mark. ‘SMART’ Goals Can Sometimes Be Dumb. (Jan. 8, 2015) Retrieved May 25, 2016, from the Forbes website: - 131ed902142c

2Tynan, Dan. 10 of Tech’s Biggest Missed Opportunities. (Aug. 19, 2009) Retrieved May 25, 2016, from the IT Business website:

3La Monica, Paul R. Why Facebook Could One Day Be Worth $1 Trillion. (April 28, 2016) Retrieved May 25, 2016, from the CNN website:

4Tynan, Dan. 10 of Tech’s Biggest Missed Opportunities. (Aug. 19, 2009) Retrieved May 25, 2016, from the IT Business website:

5Wilford, John Noble (1969). We Reach the Moon: The New York Times Story of Man's Greatest Adventure. New York: Bantam Paperbacks.

6John F. Kennedy Moon Speech – Rice Stadium. Retrieved June 4, 2016, from the NASA website:

7Benefits from Apollo: Giant Leaps in Technology. Retrieved May 25, 2016, from the NASA website:

8Leadership IQ Study. Retrieved May 25, 2016, from the LeadershipIQ website:

It's ok to ask


Dr. Anthony Paustian is the provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines and the author of "Imagine" and "Beware the Purple People Eaters."

I’ve made a general observation concerning millennials – at least one within my limited context. Young people seem less inclined today to ask for help or assistance related to either professional or personal needs. Twenty-five years ago, many of my college-aged students frequently asked for help. Many have stayed in contact with me over the years, still needing occasional tips or advice. But despite offering this to every class or workshop I’ve ever taught, students – or even the young professionals I work with now – rarely take me up on it.

When having coffee recently with a group of “seasoned” friends and colleagues (seasoned being defined as someone old enough to have gained enough life and professional experience to have learned some lessons along the way), I jokingly shared this observation with the group, thinking that millennials just didn’t want my help. To my surprise, everyone in the group agreed with my general observation and shared similar stories and experiences.

Assuming there’s some validity to this, the next obvious question is “Why?” When I was young I frequently asked for help.

For example, in 1976, I read an issue of Popular Electronics that featured some basic plans on how to build your own computer based on a new RCA microprocessor. At the time, there was no such thing as a personal computer. So the prospect of building my own computer didn’t just excite me, it energized my seventh-grade mind. I used money I had saved to buy many of the parts from Radio Shack, but I had two very large problems: not enough money to purchase the expensive microprocessor and a very limited knowledge of electronics.

What I did have was a neighbor, Bill, who was an electronics technician. I then did what any passionate kid my age would have done. I asked (or more accurately nagged) Bill for his help – something he graciously gave me. Bill even used his connections to secure some free samples of the microprocessor and other components. I learned a lot from Bill. And of course after I constructed the computer, I then wanted something bigger and better. Despite being a busy man, Bill was always there to help. He was my first mentor.

While in high school, I took the knowledge I gained from Bill’s assistance and knocked on the door at Archives, Inc., Iowa’s only computer manufacturer. I asked (nagged) the CEO, Hal, for an internship so I could learn even more. I then spent a couple of years working as a paid intern in the R&D department working with the lead design engineer, Bob. He not only taught me about Archives’ systems, he often helped me on my personal computer project, which by that time had gotten pretty complicated for the limited knowledge of a 17-year-old.

This pattern of asking for help and guidance has persisted throughout my life and throughout the lives of most of my colleagues and friends from my generation. We’ve all had numerous mentors over the years who, when asked, have graciously provided their precious time to help when needed – help that often had a direct impact in developing our thinking and problem-solving skills.

But now that we’re at the point where our age and corresponding knowledge and experience are ripe for helping others, few seem to be asking. Now, I’m not saying my friends and I have all of the answers­ – although our experience has taught us a few lessons – but something has changed. We want to give back by sharing the wisdom we’ve gained over the years, but few millennials ask for it.

I know young people are busy. Social lives, social media, families, and working a variety of jobs all take their toll. With a continuous influx of new books dealing with the phenomenon of “busy” like Smarter Faster Better and Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Living, it’s apparent that people can still perhaps use a bit of advice, or better yet, some personal support from a mentor now and then.

Why is having a mentor so important?

First, we shouldn’t have to learn everything through personal experience or direct observation. Life is and should be a collaborative experience. It shouldn’t be scary and overwhelming, especially since we’re all surrounded by the cumulative experience and learning of people who have already “been there…done that.” Mentors can help us deal with frustration, give constructive criticism, deal with disappointment, and celebrate success.

Second, we all need people we can confide in. True mentor-based relationships are built on trust and meaningful commitment because most mentors are truly there to help, and they take pride in seeing us succeed. Each relationship should be honest, confidential, flexible, and one that strives for mutually defined outcomes.

Mentors want to be mentors. As Lori Greiner from ABC’s Shark Tank said in a recent interview, “I’m paying it forward. I believe in karma. I think it’s important [to mentor others], and I enjoy it. I feel like I’m doing the right thing.”1

Find at least one good mentor - someone you believe has the knowledge and experience you can learn from along with the personal character you hope people see in you. The worst that can happen is they say no, but like Greiner also said, “People are flattered by being looked up to and asked for advice.”

You just have to ask.

©2016  Anthony D. Paustian

PaustianHeadFor more information about Dr. Anthony Paustian, provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines, please visit his website at



1 Shark Tank's Lori Greiner on the Importance of Mentorship (April 10, 2015) Retrieved April 10, 2016, from the Entrepreneur website:

ciWeek: 13 speakers, 5 days, 3 takeaways


Dr. Anthony Paustian is the provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines and the author of "Imagine" and "Beware the Purple People Eaters."

Our annual Celebrate! Innovation Week (ciWeek 7) recently concluded at the Des Moines Area Community College West Des Moines Campus. Over the course of four days, 13 unique individuals descended upon the campus to share their personal stories and put their unique talents on full display. The theme for this year’s event was “Free to Dream.”

Whether it’s debunking myths, advancing digital music, chasing tornados, turning actors into our favorite monsters, writing best-selling novels, creating high-tech art, building confidence, advancing travel in space or in our own world, helping people fulfill their dreams, or just being “Iowa Nice,” the abilities of these people ran the gamut.

However, as I sat through all of the presentations, I couldn’t help but notice a few common threads that ran through all of them despite the wide variety of people and topics: identifying your passion, asking for help, and laser-like focus.

At the age of 13, Howard Berger knew he wanted to do make-up and visual effects for movies. So, he knocked on the door of the great Stan Winston and told him he would work for free just for the opportunity to learn. When Howard began in the field, there were 55 shops in Hollywood doing what he was learning to do. After years of intense focus, mastering his craft, and winning some hardware (two Emmys and an Oscar), there are now only four shops and his is considered one of, if not “the,” best.

Fresh out of college, Kari Byron knew what she wanted and she knocked at the door of Jamie Hyneman at his M5 Industries, begging for the opportunity to work as a free intern. After some persistence (and maybe even a little stalking), she prevailed. Her first day turned out to be the beginning of Mythbusters and ultimately a career in television. Kari spent a decade on the show and has turned that success into starring roles in other shows, such as Head Rush on the Science Channel and Thrill Factor on the Travel Channel.

Homer Hickam grew up in a coal-mining town in West Virginia where every male ultimately became a coal miner after high school (unless they happen to be a star athlete and received a college scholarship). As a high school kid, Homer knew what he wanted the minute he saw Sputnik fly over his house in 1957. After Homer nagged a few men who worked in the mine’s machine shop to teach him to weld and work with metals, he and some of his friends began building rockets that continued to improve after repeated attempts. Homer’s efforts ultimately won the National Science Fair, winning he, and all three of his friends, college scholarships. Homer went on to work as an engineer for NASA and write numerous NY Times #1 bestsellers. His memoir, Rocket Boys, became the basis for the movie October Sky, starring a young Jake Gyllenhaal as Homer.

Dr. Reed Timmer always knew he loved weather. He was actually quite obsessed with it, and as a young child he chased storms on his bicycle. He loved science and math while in high school and became fascinated with the science of storms. Once he received his driver’s license, and with the support of his parents, he purchased cheap, beat-up vehicles so he could more effectively chase storms. Over time and with the help and support of others who shared his passion, those beater vehicles turned into what are now known as the Dominators, a line of armor-plated, tornado-resistant research vehicles. His passion ultimately placed him in the path of over 250 tornados and in the starring role of Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers.

Although I could continue to show this pattern with most every one of our presenters, I believe that the takeaways for all who listened to them are clear (regardless of age or one’s position in life):

  1. Dream and figure out what you want to do in life (determine where your passion lies).
  2. Seek out people who are doing what you want to do and ask them for help. Most people are usually more than willing to help others achieve their dreams.
  3. With laser-like focus, learn, practice, improve, and master your craft.

Through these three basic steps, you can achieve your dreams. However, basic doesn’t mean simple. It won’t be easy, but nothing great in life ever is. And who knows, perhaps in some future ciWeek you could be telling your story and helping others achieve their dreams.

©2016  Anthony D. Paustian

PaustianHeadFor more information about Dr. Anthony Paustian, provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines, please visit his website at

Focus lessons from a dog (Part 2)


Dr. Anthony Paustian is the provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines and the author of "Imagine" and "Beware the Purple People Eaters."

In my last post, I introduced you to my springer spaniel, Sydney, who does four basic things in life and never at the same time: eat, play, poop, and sleep. You can’t ask for a more simplified life, one free from the temptations created by technology. But most of all she’s happy, as evidenced by the continuous side-to-side gyrations of her little tail.

As humans, we also want to be happy. Most of us believe it’s a basic human right. Unlike the simplified road to happiness taken by Sydney, we have a tendency to try and use whatever we have at our disposal to acquire it. Whether it’s through status, stuff, or other people, we have a desire to feel valuable in our own eyes and in the eyes of others.

The challenge is to know what it means to be happy. Although I know a number of people who think happiness is complicated and dependent upon a large number of factors, I tend to believe happiness is nothing more than a function of both expectation and reality––the relationship of two independent variables that ultimately affect our feelings of happiness. A mathematician, or any one of the dozen or so people in the world who aren’t afraid of math, might view it like this:

Happiness = f (Expectation, Reality)

As long as someone’s reality—perceived or otherwise—is above their level of expectation, they generally tend to be happy. However, when those pesky expectations start rising too high or even stay the same while our current state of reality declines, unhappiness typically sets in.

I believe that as average people we have the most control over, or can more directly impact, our levels of expectation. Life’s outcomes and subsequent realities are typically not in our direct control, since rewards and other positive changes are frequently at the behest of others.

So let’s focus on a few aspects in life today that can directly impact our expectations:

Hedonic Adaptation: “Hedonic adaptation” is a psychologist’s way of saying the novelty wears off. Eventually, that new house, car, or smart TV you had to have becomes just another thing you own, or the job you worked so hard to get becomes just part of your daily grind. Your lifestyle adapts, and you’re back to wanting more.1 I’ve now come to embrace that happiness related to “stuff” is a choice, and there’s nothing tangible that can “make” me happy in the long-term. No matter what we work toward or feel like we must have, typically the happiness attached to it is only short-term. Each time you receive that “must-have” thing, it only serves to raise the bar of expectation for the next must-have thing.

Social Media Image Crafting: We are always trying to put our best foot forward and want to look good to others. It’s human nature. With the advent of social media, you can take it to an entirely new level and present yourself any way you wish, and it’s usually positive. According to a piece on (a health and quality of life website), “Our social media feeds read like a modern-day fairy tale, where every moment is wondrous, every interaction with our family is more precious than the last, and even the mundane (Coffee with the girls! Look at my lunch! Stuck in traffic!) is a magical experience.” 2 Social media image crafting tells everyone that a perfect life is not only attainable, it’s normal. So when everything about your social media “friends” seems perfect, it naturally raises the bar of expectation related to your own “imperfect” real life; thus, the gap between expectation and reality is potentially widened causing increased levels of unhappiness.

Technological Overdependence: Frequently, happiness is thought to be the natural result of success. Although an extremely subjective term, “success” for many of us often revolves around the feeling of being busy, as “busy-ness” implies productivity. Technology helps to provide this feeling of busy. And naturally, we expect our technology to always work the way in which it was designed. When it doesn’t, it causes stress and anxiety. I was once at a busy grocery store when their computer system suddenly went down. Check-out registers could no longer take credit cards. People had to use cash. Since most people today typically don’t carry much cash, there was a mad scramble to the ATM machine, which was quickly emptied (it was on its own, separate system). Chaos, anger, arguing, yelling, and frustration all ensued. Much unhappiness was present. By the way, I did happen to have cash, so I got to watch and be entertained—and a little scared—by it all.

Future-Focused: Too often, we overly set our sights on the future, and we can only see the present after it has become the past. Being goal-driven isn’t a bad thing, unless we are too future-focused, and then our expectations of future joy can blind us to the joys and value found in the now. We may frequently find ourselves absent from the moment as any one of a great number of distractions pulls our attention in a variety of directions, all with the intent of getting or achieving something else “down the road.” If getting older has taught me anything, it’s that time is finite. There’s never enough. I’m amazed at the growing frequency of what I call “time-lapse realizations” that occur the moment I accomplish some goal or objective. While I’m happy I achieved what I set out to do, a sudden realization often follows: getting there came at a great price. A feeling of emptiness often overtakes me, as if I had been transported into the future with little memory of the daily joys from the actual act of doing. I realize how fast time raced by, and because I was so goal-oriented, I was unable to fully enjoy the experiences related to the process.

Childhood Letdown: My good friend and author Adam Carroll frequently talks about how we as parents can sometimes actually love our children too much. It happens in a variety of ways: giving them things they should have had to work for, not helping them to understand the true value of something, or by setting high expectations for them that are impractical once they become self-sustaining adults. Sometimes, in our efforts to “encourage” or “inspire” them to become successful or achieve greatness, we provide motivational but unrealistic guidance. How many parents have told their children that they can be or do “anything” they want when they grow up? According to the Book of Odds, the probability of becoming the President of the United States is 10 million to one. The probability of becoming an astronaut is even greater (believe it or not) – 12.5 million to one.3 The unfortunate, negative side effect to all of this is the potential of setting children up for failure and disappointment because expectations were set too high. When I was a child, I was doing some pretty amazing things as compared to other kids my age. I was able to represent the United States in the International Science and Engineering fair and worked in the research and design department of a computer manufacturer, all while still in high school. Needless to say, many in my family were convinced I would become the family’s first multi-millionaire; a view they often shared with me. I’m now in my fifties and am still working on that millionaire thing. Not to say that I haven’t been successful in life, but those words still haunt me a bit today, making me question, “What could or should have been?” and “How have I possibly fallen short of my potential?”

Happiness is a state of mind impacted by where we set our expectations. While these and many other factors directly affect those expectations, we are ultimately in control of where they’re set in relationship to our current state of reality.

While “strategic” and long-term goals are definitely not bad in and of themselves, they will seldom ever be achieved if set at levels requiring too much time to realize. The gap between reality and expectation will be too great, and ultimately, results in unhappiness.

Think tiny. Ideally, our expectation bars should be set at short, attainable levels so both growth and happiness are incremental. Small, short-term accomplishments will not only serve as a motivator towards the future, they will help you maintain an achievable level of ongoing happiness. After all, isn’t that what everyone wants?

Practice Challenge: Think about what you want long-term…what you really want. Then, break that down into very tiny, incremental steps. Once done, while keeping in mind all of the aspects mentioned above, focus exclusively on achieving that first step, and only that first step. After you accomplish it, move on to the next. Not only does this keep your expectations at manageable levels, it keeps happiness within reach.

©2016  Anthony D. Paustian

PaustianHeadFor more information about Dr. Anthony Paustian, provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines, please visit his website at




1Is $50,000 Enough to Buy Happiness? What about $161,810? (April 2013) Retrieved January 11, 2016, from the Fast Company website:

2The Dangers of Image Crafting. Retrieved January 11, 2016, from the Whole9 website:

3 Shapiro, A. & Campbell, L. (2014). The Book of Odds: from Lightning Strikes to Love at First Sight, the Odds of Everyday Life. New York, NY: William Morrow, Inc.

Focus lessons from a dog (Part 1)


Dr. Anthony Paustian is the provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines and the author of "Imagine" and "Beware the Purple People Eaters."

If you’re like most people, odds are you’re swamped - so much to do, so little time to do it. We wade through our days trying to balance ever-growing responsibilities, and when we do them simultaneously, we feel more productive. We call this “multitasking,” and we believe the better we are at it, the more effective and efficient we will be. We tend to view multitasking as a positive, frequently sought-after attribute. In fact, as many of you read this, you’re likely responding to text messages, checking emails, eating lunch, reacting to app notifications, and thinking about the rest of your day at the same time.

But multitasking is a myth. Sure, you can chew gum while walking, listen to music while vacuuming, eat lunch while reading, or fold laundry while talking on the phone. But these activities don’t require higher-order, problem-solving skills or much brainpower of any kind. Psychologists who have long-studied the concept of multitasking have found that the brain is unable to focus on more than one higher-order function at a time. When people multitask, they actually shift their attention from one thing to another at fast speeds, and each time they switch focus between tasks, their minds must cope with the new information.

What is actually occurring is “switchtasking.” According to Earl Miller, a professor of neuroscience at MIT, “People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves . . . Switching from task to task, you think you’re actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you’re actually not.”

There are several reasons for this, but one is that similar tasks compete to use the same parts of the brain. For example, talking on the phone and writing an email are nearly impossible to do concurrently because of what neuroscientists call “interference.” Both tasks involve communication skills and contend for similar space in the brain. Multitasking doesn’t actually make us more productive; in fact, the quality of our effort suffers. Another major downside to multitasking is the negative effect it has on our stress levels as we try to balance a multitude of simultaneous activity. As a result, we feel overwhelmed, drained, and anxious.1

So why has multitasking become so important? It hasn’t always been this way. I can remember a time not too long ago when people were pretty content doing just one thing at a time and living much slower lives. What’s different? I believe the answers can be found by looking at two distinct yet interrelated aspects of everyday life: technology and our level of happiness, the latter of which will be addressed in my next post.

When I was in high school, personal computers were barely in their infancy. Way too expensive for the vast majority, PCs with any real productive power were only found at the corporate level. Some high schools and colleges were beginning to use them, but for the most part, the average person still had little to no personal contact with a computer. Cell phones didn’t exist, let alone anything remotely resembling today’s power-packed smartphones.

In other words, by today’s standards, people were pretty disconnected. To communicate, you either made a call from a bulky telephone connected to a wall, talked face-to-face, sent letters, or fired up your CB radio (if you were born after 1980 you may need to ask someone older about this).

The lack of accessible personal technology resulted in a slower life; one that required more planning and coordination to maximize productivity, stronger interpersonal skills, and greater levels of patience.

Current technology demands an entirely new context: one where people spend less time planning their days since most things can now be done on the fly; one where the need for interpersonal skills between people continues to diminish as a larger percentage of our communication is now virtual; and one where expectations of “instant” are now the norm. Be honest, after you send a text message or leave a voicemail, how long are you willing to wait for a response before feeling frustrated . . . even a little?

This change in thinking - especially for younger generations who only know this type of thinking - combined with the ubiquity of personal electronics has resulted in daily expectations of immediacy and convenience. Ultimately, we feel like we’re doing more in less time, and thus create and perpetuate the concept of multitasking.

Unfortunately, while technology has definitely become more capable, our minds still basically work the same. And the result of this ongoing pursuit to do more in less time is ultimately the diminished quality of our efforts with increased levels of stress and anxiety.

I own a beautiful liver and white springer spaniel named Sydney. Sydney does four basic things in life and never at the same time: eat, play, poop and sleep. You can’t ask for a more simple life, and despite that, she’s happy. And she’s always present in the moment.

We need to be more like Sydney and simplify our lives and stop trying to do everything simultaneously. Research has shown that our mental energy related to decision-making is finite, and once depleted, the quality of our thinking begins to dramatically suffer. As average people, we tend to spend a large percentage of our mental energy on relatively meaningless stuff that really doesn’t have any real impact on our lives, good or bad, like streaming through countless posts on Facebook and watching television. Once our brain has used its energy, we tend to miss the relevant stuff and other important details necessary to be more successful, creative thinkers within the limited time we are given.2

Studies of very efficient people show they rid themselves of distractions and the unnecessary, miscellaneous choices that deplete mental energy. They frequently eat and meet at the same places; they turn off their smartphone app notifications until they’re ready to see them; they stop dwelling on things that occurred in the past and don’t obsess on things that might happen since it’s impossible to actually do things in the past or future; they frequently wear the same clothes (think Steve Jobs); and they remove the clutter that surrounds them.3

To illustrate the power of simplification, consider the high school equivalency GED exam, which has been around for over 70 years. Recently, the exam shifted from paper to a computerized format. Unlike the paper version, where multiple questions along with multiple answer slots were all visible at once, the computerized version removed the clutter and only showed one question at a time. The passing rate on the computer exam rose to 88 percent, compared with 71 percent for the paper version (a 17 percent increase).4

Being at our creative best requires gas in the mental tank, gas that will only be available if we aren’t going full throttle every day. Be like Sydney. Simplify your life.

Practice Challenge: Keep a journal consisting of one full week’s worth of decisions. Document any and all decisions you make from the most mundane (e.g., what clothes to wear, what food to eat, etc.) to the most critical and important (e.g., financially-related, strategic, etc.). Following the week, look back through the list and determine which decisions could become routine with little or no thought given to them. Predetermine how those decisions will be made ahead of time and shift your focus towards those most important. You should feel a greater sense of energy when addressing them.

©2016  Anthony D. Paustian

PaustianHeadFor more information about Dr. Anthony Paustian, provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines, please visit his website at




1Hamilton, Jon. Think You’re Multitasking? Think Again. (October 2, 2008) Retrieved October 28, 2015, from the NPR website:

2Vaughan, Michael. Know Your Limits, Your Brain Can Only Take So Much. (January 24, 2014) Retrieved October 28, 2015, from the Entrepreneur website:

3Bradberry, Travis. How Successful People Make Smart Decisions. (October 7, 2015) Retrieved October 28, 2015, from the Forbes website:

4Building the Educated and Employed Communities of Tomorrow. Retrieved December 28, 2015, from the GED Testing Service website:

5-star thinking


Dr. Anthony Paustian is the provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines and the author of "Imagine" and "Beware the Purple People Eaters."

Imagine getting out of a cab at the entrance of a five-star hotel. You immediately notice the smell of fresh-cut grass, the beautiful landscaping, and flowerbeds. As you enter the lobby, you can feel the elegance of the décor. The staff is dressed quite handsomely. The property is very well maintained. You hear enticing music and laughter from the lounge. The smell of hot chocolate chip cookies at the front desk masks the slight smell of chlorination from the nearby fountain while you listen to the soothing tone of the clerk’s voice.

After a few audible yet pleasant sounds emanating from the insertion of the card key, you enter your room, taking immediate notice of the spectacular view through the window. The high thread count of the sheets is apparent to the touch. A mint was left on the pillow. A little sign guaranteeing freshness sits next to a handwritten thank-you note from the housekeeper. You can’t help but run your hands through the soft, plush towels. And of course, the ends of the toilet paper are nicely folded into a point providing reassurance that the bathroom has been “sanitized for your protection.”

Now consider this.

You get out of a cab at an old, roadside hotel. You hear the sounds of traffic and nearby construction. After paying for your room through the protective glass separating you from the clerk, you grab your key attached to a large plastic identifier. After dragging your bag up two flights of stairs, you make your way down an open corridor exposed to the elements.

You enter the room. It has a musty smell. There’s a large “tube-style” television bolted to the cabinet on which it sits. The carpet looks like it was originally in a now-razed Vegas casino from the '60s, and the bed permanently sags inward from overuse. The wallpaper sports a mixed display of fruit and flowers, and the bathroom smells of bleach. As you lay in the sunken center of the bed, you can hear the steady drips from the bathroom faucet in between the voices of people arguing in the room next door.

In the 1990s, Motel 6 began displaying solid black posters in their lobbies with the following phrase: “All hotel rooms look the same with the lights off.” Although technically true, we do our most productive work in the light, and the surrounding environment is critical to its success. Location matters. Regardless of what we do and where we are, it’s almost impossible not to have a psychological and emotional experience based on the elements within that space.

We all have a tendency to spend much of our time in some very unproductive locations loaded with distractions. Both my home and office are decorated with purposeful, tangible aesthetics intended to improve my mood and make me “feel” more creative and motivated. However, people, the fridge, the television, and sometimes the dog, frequently interrupt my stream of thought and thus, productivity.

To effectively complete tasks with higher levels of both creativity and imagination, I try to do it at one of my “sweet spots,” a secondary place where I can disconnect from the world and feel completely relaxed and energized. For me, these places tend to revolve around local restaurants and vacation spots. Restaurants work well when I’m simply trying to focus on something specific. People generally ignore me, and the surrounding activity serves as white noise to help me stay mentally locked in on the task at hand. I wrote my entire doctoral dissertation at Applebee’s, my first book at Chili’s, and my most recent book - Beware the Purple People Eaters – and this blog at Subway. Most of the creative thinking, outlining and research were done while relaxing poolside in Las Vegas. For whatever reason, these places work for me.

Our emotions directly affect our focus and creativity. A secret to productive thinking is the ability to identify those personal, five-star sweet spots where you can feel your emotional, intuitive best. Go there – whenever you can – when you want to be most focused, energized and creative.

Practice Challenge: Think back to when you felt the most happy or relaxed. What were you doing? Where were you doing it? What was it about that place that allowed you to experience something positive? Try to identify similar places, both nearby and far away. Use the nearby locations as your go-to “sweet spots” when you want to focus and finish a specific task. Plan trips to your distant locations and set aside that time just to think and process in a relaxed environment. You’ll be amazed by the outcome.

©2015  Anthony D. Paustian

PaustianHeadFor more information about Dr. Anthony Paustian, provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines, please visit his website at

When old school is new school


Dr. Anthony Paustian is the provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines and the author of "Imagine" and "Beware the Purple People Eaters."

I once had the opportunity to observe professional drag racing firsthand at the NHRA Nationals in Brainerd, Minn. As part of the experience, I got to walk the U.S. Army Top Fuel car to the starting line and stand behind it as it launched down the track. What I didn’t expect was to be physically knocked backwards by the shock wave created by the 8Gs of force generated when the car took off. I couldn’t see the shock wave, but I definitely felt its power.

Change, too, can be difficult to see, but its effects can have a profound impact. The ability to see either something that doesn’t yet exist or the oncoming effects of change requires imagination, or the ability to mentally visualize and elaborate on abstractions.

Someone once imagined a future where food is prepared in Star Trek-like replicators, humanoid robots walk and interact with people, and 13-year-old gamers work to cure cancer. As a result, 3D printers are now able to print edible food,1 and the Robotic Challenge through DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) has created androids that walk and move like humans.2 Speaking of DARPA, they run a public computer game through social media called Foldit where young gamers try to fold proteins, one of the most difficult biochemistry barriers to curing disease.3

Imagination is a fundamental trait of an effective leader. While history is loaded with people who lacked this invaluable trait, successful organizations are most often led by those who have vivid imaginations. These people are able to see where the world is heading and to develop products and services that anticipate the transformative change (think Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Elon Musk).

While it’s often tempting to react to change and make rash moves to adapt to it, newer doesn’t always mean better. Change doesn’t always have to be transformative. For example, following the release of Windows 2000, it quickly became apparent the upgrade wasn’t an improvement and most people reverted back to Windows 98. As a child, I never had to wait for Gilligan’s Island to buffer; and the battery in my HP-12C calculator purchased in 1988 lasted for 25 years before it had to be changed. Today, I’m lucky to get a few hours of battery life out of my iPhone.

When new, “game-changing” ideas are introduced, companies are frequently quick to jump on the proverbial bandwagon, often with what seems like an adapt-or-die mentality. They incorporate the ideas into their own products with the hope of remaining competitive – easy to see when looking at the rapidly changing landscape of smartphones, tablets, app development, and content distribution over the last decade.

However, when the world does embrace change, it can leave opportunities behind.

Despite trying to fully utilize a Palm PDA in the early 2000s and then a smartphone, I’m still more efficient and successful using an old-fashioned paper planner – and new, stylish paper planners continue to line the shelves of most retailers. Speaking of paper, the tablet computer and eInk readers were supposed to mark the end of the traditional book, yet paper book sales are as high as ever. Despite desktop publishing and an array of high-quality, low-price color printers, print shops using archaic letterpress machines – those that use wood and steel type – are popping up all over. After years of improving food production through genetic engineering, food trends are giving way to organic and old-fashioned, farm-to-table production.

While I continue to be a huge advocate for the creation of new ideas and awareness of the possibilities those ideas bring, I believe it’s more important to stay true to your own values, core competencies, and the passion that ultimately fuels them. New and different isn’t always better. Sometimes, as those new ideas shape the world around you, it requires imagination to see how your old school ideas can become new school thinking.

Practice Challenge: Occasionally when the world around you shifts, it creates an opportunity. Can you reapply some “old school” ideas or practices that made your company or organization great in a new school way? Perhaps it was people-centered, very personal customer service as compared to using overseas or automated service, or perhaps it was the laborious, handcrafted approach to production used to make your products as compared to new state-of-the-art production techniques. Whatever it was that differentiated you and formed the basis of who you are today could become the new school idea that launches you into the future.

©2015  Anthony D. Paustian

PaustianLargeHeadFor more information about Dr. Anthony Paustian, provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines, please visit his website at


1Doering, Christopher. (2015, June 24). “The New Dimension of Food.” Des Moines Register.

2McMahon, Bucky. (2015, November). “These are the Droids We’re Looking for.” GQ Magazine.

3Easton, Nina. (2012, January 16). “Fortune’s Guide to the Future.” Fortune.

Sweet dreams and the power within


Dr. Anthony Paustian is the provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines and the author of "Imagine" and "Beware the Purple People Eaters."

I once took a long road trip with my college girlfriend. There was little that I didn’t like about her except for one irritating behavior. Whenever we took any kind of a long drive, she almost instantly fell asleep while I sat in silence listening to the radio.

It was spring break, and I happened to be in the middle of a very interesting psychology class where we were learning about the subconscious mind and how it affects our behavior. So, like any young, naive college kid trying to apply what he had learned, I decided to conduct an experiment.

I picked a random item –– in this case the color green –– turned down the radio, and softly whispered into her ear, “You HATE green. Green is EVIL. Green is BAD. Green causes PAIN.” I then turned the radio back up, waited a couple of minutes, and repeated the entire process.

After about thirty minutes, I changed the dialogue. “You DON’T LIKE green, green causes you immense PAIN, green is the favorite color of the DEVIL, green is UGLY.” Like before, this went on for about thirty minutes.

I then shifted the dialogue to something positive. I purposely picked a color I knew she would never pick on her own and probably didn’t even really know what it was––Indigo. “You LOVE the color indigo. Indigo is HAPPY. Indigo is SWEET. Indigo is PRETTY.” This went on until she awoke.

After giving her time to fully awaken, I decided to spark up a conversation. “Sweetie, when you were asleep, we drove by a ton of green grass.” She didn’t respond, but I could see a slight frown. I then followed by saying, “If you could pick any color for grass other than green, what would it be?” Without any hesitation and a smile, she responded, “Indigo.”

In my last post, Yellow is the New Blue, I discussed how conscious social influences affect decision-making and ultimately creativity. But what about something as simple as what enters your subconscious? When I asked why she chose that color, she had no idea why. My experiment, however twisted, was a success. I confirmed what I had learned in class––our subconscious never sleeps and picks up information 24/7.

Have you ever woken up to find someone standing over you who hadn’t made a sound in the process? If you consciously set your alarm to wake up the same time everyday, do you find yourself waking up on your own before the alarm sounds? Our subconscious serves as a protection mechanism. It’s aware of our internal clock. And it takes in information that affects our conscious thinking.

Have you ever been driving down the road listening to the radio, and a 20-year-old song comes on that sends you down memory lane? I believe our minds are like immense storage devices that retain everything –– every event, every smell, every sound, every feeling, everything. However, retention is not recall, and recalling past information can be a bit of a challenge.

Back when all of those events were taking place, odds are that particular song was frequently being played on the radio. Your subconscious connected the two, and the song became connected to the address in your brain where those memories are located. Those memories came flooding back because of the subconscious connection to the song. 

While the subconscious can have an unintentional influence on our thinking, it can also be a powerful tool to recall information and solve problems. After spending time trying to solve a problem without success, have you ever moved on, only to have a random “Aha” experience about it later? That’s your 24/7 subconscious working the problem behind the scenes.

Proactively using our subconscious mind not only helps with memory, it can also help create solutions to problems that our conscious thinking can’t address. Even Albert Einstein once said, “Why is it I always get my best ideas while shaving?”

Practice Challenge:  Your dreams are frequently the result of your subconscious trying to process both old and new information –– which is why the buzz of the alarm clock can be interpreted as a fire alarm in your dream. However, dreams also provide a place for great ideas to problems to come to the surface. To harness those ideas, try this: each morning when you awaken, immediately write down anything you can remember from your dreams. Over time –– and that time will vary among people –– you will train your mind to be able to freely recall the details of all the dreams and ideas you had the night before. It could be a game-changer for you.

©2015  Anthony D. Paustian

PaustianHeadFor more information about Dr. Anthony Paustian, provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines, please visit his website at

Yellow is the new blue


Dr. Anthony Paustian is the provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines and the author of "Imagine" and "Beware the Purple People Eaters."

I once taught a graduate class in marketing comprised of working adults who were somewhat older and wiser than typical college-aged students. There was one exception –– a 22-year-old who showed up to class at least 15 minutes late, week after week.

Jim (not his real name) always quietly came into class, sat at his regular seat, and attempted to determine what he missed, occasionally disrupting one of the students sitting next to him by asking questions.

We reached a point in the semester when it was time to discuss the psychological effects of product attributes and the power of influence. To illustrate the concepts, I brought in a large yellow boom box, sat it on the table in front, and explained to the class how the color blue affects perception, mood, and purchase choice. I explained that I wanted to use an entertainment-related product, but the only one I had available to show as a visible prop was in yellow. I asked the class to “pretend” and “imagine” the radio was actually blue. I told them the color was critical to our discussion and implored them to always refer to the radio as blue. They all agreed.

Our discussion began and everyone played along. Eventually, Jim arrived, late as usual. He sat down and began listening to the discussion. “Will the radio’s blue color have a positive net effect on sales?” “What shade of blue are people most drawn to for outside activities?” “What if the radio was a darker shade of blue?” I watched the expression on Jim’s face change as it quickly became apparent that what people were saying didn’t jive with the visual object before him.

Jim whispered to the student on his left. The student looked at him and said, “Shhhhh.” Jim looked puzzled, squinting his eyes at times. For a while he even looked angry, but that ultimately turned to concern. After an hour and a half of discussion, the class concluded.

The professor whose class was scheduled for the room next was standing in the doorway talking with a student. She knew what I was doing and was prepared for it. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched Jim get out of his seat, walk over to the professor, and ask her about the color of the radio, to which she replied, “Blue.” Jim then walked over to me and asked, “Professor Paustian, if somebody is colorblind, how do they know?” I responded, “Why do you ask, Jim?” “Well, I’m not sure if I’m seeing blues correctly.”

I just smiled and explained to Jim how he was set-up as a result of being late to class. After we both laughed a bit, I told him I was going to use this as a teaching point related to the power of influence at the beginning of the next class. Jim was never late to class again.

Whether Jim truly believed he was colorblind or not, at the very least, he began doubting himself and what his eyes were telling him. People are constantly influenced by others, whether it’s advertisers trying to mold your views on a particular brand or product, a politician trying to gain your support, or just a friend or co-worker trying to sway you to their point of view. And unlike the conscious “Red Pill–Blue Pill” decisions we make (see my last post Red Pill or Blue?), these influencers frequently guide our decision-making without us even realizing it.

Sometimes it’s easier to just accept something as fact, rather than taking the time to verify its authenticity. And while I acknowledge there are some things we have to just accept on faith as there is no way to tangibly verify its truth –– such as a belief in God ––  the act of researching, studying and learning is an “opportunity” to build our mental databases. This ultimately provides more material from which we can make connections and become more creative. Also, influence is a two-way street. The more you know and learn, the more you will be able to influence and lead others toward desired outcomes and higher levels of success.

Practice Challenge:  Do you ever think about what you simply accept as truth or fact? Do you do any research to verify your beliefs? The more you dig into the basis of things, the more you will learn, which provides opportunities to make more connections resulting in greater creativity. How are you influencing others? Since creative thinking has been identified by leaders at all levels as one of the most important traits a worker can have, how are you influencing those around you to become better, more creative thinkers?

©2015  Anthony D. Paustian

PaustianLargeHeadFor more information about Dr. Anthony Paustian, provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines, please visit his website at



Red pill or blue?


Dr. Anthony Paustian is the provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines and the author of "Imagine" and "Beware the Purple People Eaters."

In the 1999 movie, The Matrix, Morpheus, played by Laurence Fishburne, holds out his hands, both containing a single pill: one red and one blue. Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, has to make a choice –– take the red pill and free himself from life’s current limitations or take the blue pill and return to the status quo.

Life frequently presents us with both red and blue pills. The red pill provides the opportunity to imagine something different and create new ideas that will hopefully result in the change we desire. The blue pill typically keeps things as they are, regardless of a potential negative outcome. This red pill/blue pill choice is presented to us daily, with varying degrees of importance or outcomes.

When I was an undergraduate college student in the early 1980s, a couple of friends and I were driving back to campus in my 1974 Mustang Ghia after a long weekend at home. To say that this particular model of Ford’s flagship brand was by far its worst ever would be an understatement. However, I bought it myself, and I was proud to have it (or at least a used version of it).

As we drove down the road, the car began to vibrate ever so slightly. At first, we just shrugged it off as the result of bad pavement. But as we continued, the vibration worsened, and it became obvious it wasn’t the road causing it. After discussing it, one of us suggested that perhaps one or more of the wheels had loosened. So, we pulled over and checked all of the lug nuts––they were all tight. We got back into the car and continued onward having eliminated that idea. The vibration worsened and began to turn into a mild shimmy. We knew something was wrong, but we also needed to get back to campus for upcoming exams.

Like Morpheus in The Matrix, two hands were stretched out, each holding a pill that would result in a different outcome. RED PILL: Pull over at the next service station and let someone who is qualified examine the car and determine the problem. If the car had to stay for repairs, we could then find an alternate way back to campus. If necessary, we could even find an inexpensive hotel room for the night and proactively make some creative decisions as to how we address the current situation. BLUE PILL: Press on and deal with it later (the status quo).

We knew in our guts what had to be done, and we chose the blue pill instead. We chose poorly. After driving about 20 minutes or so down the highway, the shimmy became violent, and the stick shift, which I was holding in my hand at the time, disappeared. The transmission had fallen off the car while at high speed, causing an array of serious problems, not the least of which was that we were now stranded in the middle of nowhere.

We are frequently presented with red pill/blue pill moments, and yet we continue to take the blue pill –– whether it’s continuing to spend money resulting in greater debt, pretending the conflict you have with someone at the office will just go away, continuing to take unnecessary risks when the rewards just don’t justify them, or wasting time watching Breaking Bad when that project sits unfinished on your desk.

Red pill options provide us the opportunity to be creative –– to create new and hopefully better solutions to problems that aren’t going to go away by themselves. By taking the blue pill with my Mustang, it not only negatively affected my life but the lives of my friends and all of our parents as they had to spend time and money to rectify what should have never occurred in the first place.

Choosing the red pill can be scary at times because of the unknowns involved, but it’s those unknowns that provide us opportunities to become creative thinkers and make better choices.

Practice Challenge:  Do you have a tendency to keep making the same mistakes over and over? Are you doing things that you know in your gut you need to change? Then stop and take a pause. Take out a piece of paper, and at the top write a statement of the issue or problem at hand. Below that, create two columns with the words “Red Pill” and “Blue Pill” at the top of each column. Start with the Blue Pill column and create a list of probable outcomes if you continue treating the issue or problem the same way. Once complete, create a list in the Red Pill column of specific changes that could be made to address the issue or problem along with any and all possible outcomes resulting from each. Once done, take an honest look at both lists. Make a better choice than the one I made with my Mustang. It may not be easy, but it will ultimately yield a better outcome.

©2015  Anthony D. Paustian

PaustianHeadFor more information about Dr. Anthony Paustian, provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines, please visit his website at

Steady as SPAM


Dr. Anthony Paustian is the provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines and the author of "Imagine" and "Beware the Purple People Eaters."

Lawn darts were all the rage in the 1980s. Released with good intentions of providing family-oriented outdoor entertainment, lawn darts were in essence foot-long spears tossed between opponents with hopes of hitting the inside of a small plastic ring positioned on the ground.

Scientists estimate the darts hit the ground with over 23,000 pounds per square inch of force.1 As a result, tossing these steel-tipped projectiles back and forth would ultimately send about seven thousand people to the emergency room over a ten-year span, three-fourths of which were children. In 1987, after a seven-year-old girl was struck and killed by an errant dart launched from the neighbor’s house, the Federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) reacted and officially outlawed the use of lawn darts.2 What began innocently enough as a family-fun idea changed into something destructive.

Years later, the game ultimately changed into something much safer—what is now the popular beanbag toss frequently found at football tailgates.

For over 165 years, the Arm & Hammer® name has been synonymous with baking soda and ultimately change. During its first century, baking soda was used primarily for what its name implied…baking. As that use declined, A&H began marketing its baking soda as a method to keep food tasting fresh by absorbing food odors in the refrigerator. As new refrigerator designs eliminated the need for it, A&H changed baking soda’s purpose yet again by adding it to a variety of laundry detergents, cleaning supplies and personal hygiene products. Each time consumer needs changed, A&H would proactively reinvent itself as a key ingredient in something else.3

Anyone who’s been alive for any length of time knows that things change. Sometimes change comes as the result of a proactive idea designed to add value to our lives. Other times, change occurs as a reaction to something that no longer meets the needs it was originally designed to serve. Either way, change happens, whether it’s through adding something new and useful or removing something old and unnecessary.

On the other hand, some things never seem to change. The mysterious meat product known as SPAM® has sold over eight billion cans of the same basic recipe for over 80 years.4  TWINKIES® have been around in their same form for over 85 years, and contrary to urban legend, their ingredients are like any other modern packaged food with a shelf life of only 25 days.5  By staying true to their core concepts while making consistent, minor alterations along the way, both have managed to maintain a steady path of relevancy despite the changes surrounding them.

So why do some things change while others don’t?

I believe the answer to that question can be found in the old axiom, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And when it breaks, or runs its course, or the current outcomes are no longer desired, the opportunity for a little imagination and creative thinking finally come into play. In other words, the driver of change is too often the need to create a new solution to a problem when the current, accepted solution no longer works.

I’m convinced that people in general actually like the “idea” of change, although they sometimes resist or choose not to accept it. People today seldom ever seem content, and they always appear to be trying to find their “happy” — that “something better” in life. The idea of change makes us believe we have power or control over our situations in life or the circumstances surrounding it.

Although we may think about changing something for the better, we tend to wait too long, until we have no choice because the pain attached to the current situation is now greater than the pain of changing it. This shows up in all areas of life—whether it’s related to personal finances or relationships, or something job-related such as issues with products, services, or personnel. By this point though, it’s often too late, or at the very least won’t result in the most creative or imaginative solution to the problem. Reactive is never a good substitute for proactive.

Always be aware and on the lookout. Waiting until the storm is already upon you isn’t the time to batten down the hatches, and it definitely doesn’t allow time to develop a good, creative solution to the problem. Change before change is necessary isn’t just being proactive, it’s often the key ingredient in the recipe for a steady, happy life — like the recipe found in SPAM.

Practice Challenge:  Do you find yourself frequently reacting to problems or situations? Life is full and complicated, but we all have to allow time to think and process. Regardless of how busy things can get, challenge yourself to set aside quiet time to think, process and plan — in other words, allow yourself the time to prepare for life’s storms before they hit. 

1Soniak, Matt. How One Dad Got Lawn Darts Banned.  Retrieved February 4, 2015, from the Mental Floss website:

2The Awful Truth About Lawn Darts.  Retrieved February 4, 2015, from the Democratic Underground website:

3The History of Arm & Hammer.  Retrieved August 24, 2015, from the Arm & Hammer website:

4The SPAM Story.  Retrieved February 4, 2015, from the SPAM website:

5Grabianowski, Ed. How Twinkies Work.  Retrieved February 4, 2015, from the How Stuff Works website:

©2015  Anthony D. Paustian

PaustianLargeHeadFor more information about Dr. Anthony Paustian, provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines, please visit his website at

Five minutes of absolute terror


Dr. Anthony Paustian is the provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines and the author of "Imagine" and "Beware the Purple People Eaters."

As someone with an intense fear of open-air heights, I’m not exactly sure how I rationalized standing, tethered to a “pilot,” in front of the open door of an aircraft 2 and 3/4 miles off the ground.  Although I took slight comfort knowing the pilot was one of the best in the world––a U.S. Golden Knight with over 9,000 jumps––I seriously questioned my decision in that moment. 

Perhaps I wanted to prove to myself I could let go of my fear.  Or, maybe, I felt baited into it by my Army friends who kept calling me a wimp, among other things. Whatever the reason, there I stood, terrified and mentally frozen, with my heart pumping like it would explode in my chest.

I had no choice but to trust my pilot, a man half my size. As I hung out the door while he held on to make final preparations, I resisted looking down for these few seconds as I had absolutely no control. I tried to ignore the sudden urge to clutch something––anything––to save my life; especially since grabbing something at this point could cause serious injury.

The pilot tapped my shoulder indicating we were about to jump.  After three forward lunges, we began our free-fall descent of 9,500 feet at about 120 miles per hour.  Breathing was difficult, and my cheeks flapped from the massive intake of air.  Because I was traveling so fast at such heights, I didn’t realize I had allowed myself to flap my arms like a large, prehistoric bird. Perhaps it was the lack of context. When I saw the curvature of the earth, the ground looked like a blurred mass of color and undefined features. At 5,000 feet, the pilot deployed the main chute. Our speed and descent slowed, which allowed us the freedom to circle, twist, and glide as the pilot wished.

Then came the most terrifying question I’d ever heard: “Would you like to take the controls and fly the chute?” 

When the main chute deployed, I had clenched my straps for dear life; the decreased speed and increased clarity of detail on the ground below reminded me of my fear of open-air heights.  No way was I going to let go and grab the steering controls.  Letting go of the straps would have meant abandoning my false feeling of security. I was convinced if I let go, I would certainly fall to my death.

Of course, that thought was ludicrous; I was skydiving with an expert. Yet we all struggle with “letting go” of what feels safe at times, whether we’re clinging to unnecessary fears, flawed thinking, insecurities, bad habits, or something as simple as a parachute harness. 

Creativity is about making connections––sticking things together in new ways that frequently deviate from the norm. At its very essence, creativity is typically at the center of change, which often brings about a variety of emotions in people, not the least of which is fear and all of the “what if?” scenarios that come with it. Fear is typically a function of the unknown, and our inability to let go of it keeps us from experiencing new things or taking advantage of positive opportunities––in this case the opportunity to control the chute and the direction we were taking. Once we are able to take a first step forward, however small, the unknown becomes a little less so, and each step thereafter builds confidence to take the next.

While the skydiving experience didn’t cure my fear of open-air heights, I did grow as a result. If nothing else, I took another step (albeit a 2 and 3/4-mile one) toward facing—and letting go of—my fears, one of many steps to come.

STAY TUNED! Over the next few blogs, I will be addressing the various aspects of change and its relationship to creative thinking.

Practice Challenge:  What do you fear? What keeps you up at night? The next time you find yourself up against it, take a baby step. Challenge your fears one at a time by continuously reducing the unknown surrounding it. The more you know and the more experience you have with it, the less you will fear it.

©2015  Anthony D. Paustian

PaustianLargeHeadFor more information about Dr. Anthony Paustian, provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines, please visit his website at

Confessions of a Comic Con rookie


Dr. Anthony Paustian is the provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines and the author of "Imagine" and "Beware the Purple People Eaters."

I first publicly admitted to being a “geek” during a keynote address on the concept of change. My speech served as an introduction to a presentation by LeVar Burton, who played the character of Geordi La Forge, Chief Engineer on the Starship Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation. He also directed about 30 television episodes for the various Star Trek series.

A geek and Trekkie like myself has watched all 703 episodes of all six television series dating back to the '60s (multiple times), watched all 12 motion pictures (multiple times), read books like The Making of Star Trek and the Star Fleet Technical Manual, and even visited the Star Trek Experience at the Las Vegas Hilton back when it was a permanent exhibit.

Like a good Trekkie, I bought my ticket to Comic Con with only one purpose in mind: to meet William Shatner, the original Captain Kirk. I really wanted a nice picture with him. I wore a sport coat and a nice white button-down shirt––and I really stood out. In fact, I was asked eight different times if I was a security officer. I also realized I was surrounded by nerds.

Now, the difference between a “geek” and a “nerd” is that as a geek, I’m willing to dip my big toe or perhaps even sit poolside with my legs dangling in the water, but a nerd jumps in doing a full-on cannon ball. So while nerds have also done all things Star Trek, they do it while speaking Klingon and wearing a Star Fleet uniform.

A large percentage of Comic Con participants were deeply involved in cosplay (costume play). I saw one entire family dressed as crew from Star Trek: The Next Generation­­––the grandparents were admirals, dad was a captain, mom was a commander and the kids were lieutenants (the fact that I even know these rank insignias adds to my geekness). Bright colors abounded, merchandise changed hands at a furious pace, comic book illustrators had their works on full, brightly-lit display while they spontaneously created some of the most incredible “doodles” I’ve ever seen, active gaming was in play everywhere, and most of all…people were genuinely happy.

Like many people, I spend the bulk of my life in some very unproductive locations. Whether it’s my office at work, my office at home, or home in general, these locations tend to be ground zero for dealing with a constant stream of distractions. When I speak and write about the concept of focus, I discuss the need to work at a “sweet spot,” a secondary place where you can feel completely at ease, creative and energized in order to effectively focus on the task at hand. Attending Comic Con helped me see the same is also true when it comes to being inspired and allowing our imaginations to run wild.

While I typically prefer spending hours at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum studying and observing the artifacts from actual spaceflight and talking to real astronauts, I’ve come to realize that regardless of personal taste, the key to imagination is the ability to allow yourself to be absorbed into the essence of the moment, to be engaged with the context of your surroundings.

I began the weekend as an outsider to this world who had only ever engaged on its outer fringe. But I got a taste of what it’s like to completely immerse myself in a unique experience and subculture; one where the primary focus is imagination and the willingness to completely saturate yourself in worlds that don’t really exist anywhere except in the minds of the people who created them for comic books, television and movies. The event was so full of energy, motivation and excitement that by the end, I was sold. Imaginations did, in fact, run wild, and I, too, wanted to be a nerd.

I truly believe that people need to “get out of normal” in order to see things differently, and Comic Con was anything but normal. It was a giant playground of fantasy where you could become anyone you wanted to be, whether it was a superhero, Star Fleet officer, or even a security guard.

We all need a special place to “escape” to in order to open our minds to new things and inspire us to greater levels of imagination and creativity––whether it’s heading to Comic Con as a Klingon, jumping on a Harley and heading to Sturgis, or just allowing yourself to get lost in a good book. 

Practice Challenge:  Where and when do you feel most at ease and relaxed? Where and when do you feel most energized and motivated? Wherever those places are, whether real or not, go there and often. Whether you need to focus on a project, come up with new ideas, or solve a problem, the best place to do it is away from “normal.”

©2015  Anthony D. Paustian

PaustianLargeHeadFor more information about Dr. Anthony Paustian, provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines, please visit his website at

White canvas


Dr. Anthony Paustian is the provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines and the author of "Imagine" and "Beware the Purple People Eaters."

The knowledge we gain from learning and life experience continuously shapes and molds our perspectives, which creates a variety of predispositions. Some might call this gaining wisdom. However, these predispositions may alter our thinking in ways that could overly narrow our scope or even distort how we view things.

Take a moment to solve the following problem, which is typically solved by children in less than a few minutes: 

6020 = 3        3305 = 1        8809 = 6        7777 = 0        1970 = 2
2321 = 0        7783 = 2        2022 = 1        3928 = 3        5588 = 4
9999 = 4        1111 = 0        1619 = 2        7175 = 0        7756 = 1
3333 = 0        5395 = 1        6666 = 4        5531 = 0        2253 = ???

Did you struggle with it? Did it create anxiety or stress? I’m sure many of you viewed it as a math problem, and when you saw that children can easily do it, you may have assumed it would be fairly simple to solve. But why? 

Our education has taught us that numbers and equal signs reference mathematics, and since we as adults are so much smarter than children, it must be easy to solve. Yet, the problem has nothing to do with mathematical equations, only shapes and counting. If you count the closed loops in each number, you arrive at the solution. In this case 0 = 1, 6 = 1, 8 = 2, 9 = 1, and all other numbers equal 0. Therefore, the answer for 2253 is zero. 

Our predispositions affect how we look at everything from numbers and shapes to art. Many years ago, I visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. While observing the creativity on display, I came upon a “painting” that was nothing more than a plain white canvas. Fittingly, it was entitled, “White.”

I laughed as I thought about the absurdity of this piece. Thoughts like “Seriously?” and “They actually hung this here?” and  “Anyone can do that!” filled my head as I stood and stared at it…and continued to stare at it. My emotions shifted from laughter to surprise to irritation and back to laughter.

Over the years, I have conversed about this piece with many people––often jokingly, but also inquiring as to why and how someone could get away with calling it art. The conversation would frequently shift to the definition of art and its ultimate purpose. 

I’ve come to realize that despite all of the great works on display that day in the museum, I can’t remember a single one of them other than this painting. Despite its simplicity, it has caused me to think at length about what the artist was trying to do or say. Perhaps that simple white canvas was created so anyone could fill it with their imagination, without predetermined limitations. Perhaps it was a metaphor to represent the emptiness which exists in all of us. Perhaps it was nothing more than an ode to simplicity and minimizing the clutter that surrounds us. Or, perhaps the artist just ran out of time before the deadline and threw up a white canvas, which was better than nothing at all.

I will never know the artist’s intent, but I do know how it affected me. When I start feeling overwhelmed when trying to solve a problem, it serves as a mental image to help me regroup and begin the creative process with a clean white canvas, so to speak. It’s become a personal metaphor about having an open mind without limitations, and realizing that creativity is nothing more than how we choose to think about something. 

Ironically, what began as the subject of a personal joke I now see was actually the most creative piece of all––a piece without limitations or constraints, opening the endless imaginations of those privileged to see it, a piece without detail and the predispositions attached to it. 

Practice Challenge: The next time you struggle with chaos or feel overwhelmed at a time when you need to be creative, close your eyes and picture a clean, white canvas. Challenge your predispositions by focusing on the simplicity of the canvas and open your imagination to filling it with something new.

©2015  Anthony D. Paustian

PaustianLargeHeadFor more information about Dr. Anthony Paustian, provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines, please visit his website at



Dr. Anthony Paustian is the provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines and the author of "Imagine" and "Beware the Purple People Eaters."

I recently saw Tomorrowland, a movie loosely based on the Disney attraction that dates back to 1955. There was a scene in the movie that took place at the 1964 New York World’s Fair (a place where Walt Disney featured a number of his new rides and concepts) that got me thinking about the nature of today and what inspires people to expand their minds.

Truly imaginative and creative people were once heralded as the rock stars of their eras. People travelled from great distances to get a glimpse of Edison’s latest invention, the Wright Flyer, one of Tesla’s experiments in electro-magnetism, or one of America’s first astronauts. They visited World’s Fairs (prevalent from 1851-1960s) that were long, two-year events designed to inspire, enlighten, and entertain people from all walks of life. In a single location, a World’s Fair showcased and celebrated the world’s new ideas and innovations. Compare that with our own state fair, where the primary focus seems to be the various types of food one can get “on a stick.”

Today, people seldom travel just to see an idea or new invention, and the luster of the World’s Fair has diminished along with its frequency and attendance. The last fair held in the U.S. was the New Orleans World’s Fair in 1984, more than 30 years ago. Attendance at this fair was less than spectacular––7.3 million compared to the 51.6 million that attended the World’s Fair in New York twenty years earlier.1  While World’s Fairs have declined, a growing emphasis is now placed on the tabloid exploits of celebrities, athletes, and the current winner of the “How Can I Be the Most Bizarre and Obnoxious Award” in both music and reality television.

A short time ago I had the opportunity to converse with Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon during Apollo 17. During the discussion, he talked about the one thing he was most proud of…and it wasn’t having walked on the moon. He was most proud of how he helped to inspire countless young people. Because of his time in the space program, those he inspired went on to accomplish a great many things. However, shortly after expressing his pride in how his efforts had a direct, positive impact on people’s lives, he went on to express his sadness that having gone to the moon no longer inspires young people today. In fact, he sees little else that does, especially in the long-term.

I believe that for a large and growing number of people the words “imagination” and “creativity” are at risk of becoming nothing more than just words. They frequently appear in media, schools, television commercials and presidential campaign speeches, but do they truly inspire someone to action? The Internet is incredible in its ability to make information readily available and often accelerates the rate of new advances. But it has also resulted in people becoming just a little more lazy in their thinking. Why memorize something when you can just look it up?

Imagination and creativity have always been game-changers. They change how people communicate. They change how people travel. They change how homes and businesses operate. They allow people to visit other worlds. They ushered in the atomic age and provide the potential for unlimited energy. They provide food for the growing masses. They add convenience and improve the standard of living for many.

Our society requires more than just words to grow, flourish and lead. It requires direct calls to action that both motivate and drive people to think differently. We are all responsible for creativity and the subsequent innovation that serve as driving forces for our future, both collectively and as individuals. And for those who have come before us, the spirit of their imaginations and creative efforts should be celebrated, and their stories shared again and again to inspire future generations to new creative thought and action.

What inspires you to think creatively and then actually do something with it? How do you help others? In 1955, Walt Disney dedicated Tomorrowland by saying, “A vista into a world of wondrous ideas, signifying Man’s achievements…A step into the future, with predictions of constructed things to come. Tomorrow offers new frontiers in science, adventure and ideals. The Atomic Age, the challenge of Outer Space and the hope for a peaceful, unified world.”

Tomorrowland needs to become Todayland.

Practice Challenge:  When do you feel the most inspired to use your imagination and be creative? Where do you feel it? For me, it’s when I visit the Smithsonian, Kennedy Space Center or the Chicago Museum of Science & Industry. Sometimes, it’s just watching a great documentary about how something was made or done at the IMAX or on History Channel. Wherever it is, try to do that more often. Sometimes, helping and supporting others’ activities may have an even greater impact on developing new ideas. Is there someone you can mentor or support?

1World’s Fair History.  Retrieved January 27, 2011, from the EXPO Museum website:

©2015  Anthony D. Paustian

PaustianLargeHeadFor more information about Dr. Anthony Paustian, provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines, please visit his website at

One’s treasure can be another’s trash


Dr. Anthony Paustian is the provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines and the author of "Imagine" and "Beware the Purple People Eaters."

Some time ago, I was watching an episode of History Channel’s American Pickers, where the pickers, Mike and Frank, were at a home in California. There was an incredible amount of junk strewn over the property. As I watched them climb through it, I noticed a tiny little sign nailed to a tree that said, “Trash is a lack of imagination.” 

That statement stuck with me. I’m sure it was meant to reference the growing repurposing industry where creative people take one’s junk and turn it into something new and unique. However, it got me thinking about origins, and how we have a tendency to give little thought to something once it has been “destined” for its future purpose. This applies to everything, whether it’s a tangible object or something as simple as an idea. 

For example, I wrote a book about creative thinking published by Prentice-Hall that went out of print in early 2002. Pearson, the parent company of Prentice-Hall, has a policy that states: “Pearson does not issue royalty checks if the amount due is under $25.00. Earnings under $25.00 will be carried forward to the next royalty statement.” I’m sure the intent was to minimize costs associated with issuing checks for small amounts, and it probably made perfect sense at the time the policy was put in place.

Since the book no longer generates royalties, I’ve been receiving the same monthly statement for over 13 years detailing how Pearson owes me 52¢. The statement consists of four sheets of multi-colored paper in a 9 x 12 inch envelope, which costs $1.19 in postage. Based on all of the costs involved, including the labor to stuff the envelope and mail it, I estimate they’ve spent approximately $600 to date telling me this. Unless someone within Pearson chooses to reimagine the current policy and create a new idea going forward, I estimate they will spend another $2500 (accounting for inflation) over the next 30 years telling me the same thing. Odds are I’m not the only author receiving statements like this.

In Imagine! (ironically, the book I just discussed), I wrote that imagination consists of two-part thinking: the ability to see an idea in the abstract and then be able to elaborate on the idea going forward. It’s the ability to visualize an idea in the mind before it becomes “real,” followed by the ability to visualize the effects and outcomes of the idea after it’s implemented. 

Imagination should never be a one-time process. Like with many tangible objects that end up in junkyards because they’ve “played out” their purpose, a great many intangible ideas solidified into plans, policies, procedures, instructions, guidelines, rules, and a litany of other “ways of doing” continue on into the future, with little imagination or consideration as to how they fit into changing contexts and environments.

At least on its surface, one would think it is fairly painless to consistently reimagine the “why?” behind the “what” each and every day. I believe that most people like the concept of change primarily because it makes us feel as if we have power or control over our life situations. But despite this “power to change,” we tend to continue behaving just as we always have because it’s hard to say goodbye to well-established patterns and habits. Combined with the overwhelming amount of daily minutia we all deal with thanks to technology, it’s easy to see how we might simply revert to our comfort zones and fail to take the time to reimagine anything that’s already in place.

The danger of failing to periodically reimagine an idea can range from a simple future inconvenience, to spending thousands of dollars to inform someone that you owe them 52¢, to something much worse. Imagination is a process that should be done daily––not in one day.

Practice Challenge: When was the last time you thought about the “why?” behind the “what,” either in your own personal life or in the organization where you work? Taking a look at how you spend your time is a good place to start; our biggest time-eaters tend to be ideas that were once good and have now grown stale. Try to reimagine those ideas and allow yourself the time to mentally elaborate on their ultimate outcomes.

©2014  Anthony D. Paustian

PaustianLargeHeadFor more information about Dr. Anthony Paustian, provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines, please visit his website at

Kids can be so annoying

Dr. Anthony Paustian is the provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines and the author of "Imagine" and "Beware the Purple People Eaters."

Recently, I got to hold my grandson, Emmett, shortly after his birth. As I was looking into his little face while he slept, I thought about how absolutely beautiful he is with his tiny features and more hair than I’ve seen on my head in 15 years. It occurred to me that life really couldn’t be any more straightforward or simple.

As I looked into Emmett’s face, I suddenly realized he literally knew NOTHING, and it was only a matter of time until he started asking the most annoying question that a child could ask––“why?”

I imagined our conversation would go something like this. “Grandpa, why is grass green?” “Well Emmett, the green color allows plants like grass to help us breathe.” “Why?” “The green color is created by something called chlorophyll.” “Why?” “Well, chlorophyll is used during photosynthesis.” “Why?” “Photosynthesis allows plants to use sunlight to turn carbon dioxide and water into sugar, which the plant needs to live.” “Why?” “Well, when you breathe, you breathe out carbon dioxide which is poison to us, but the grass likes it and uses it to survive.” “Why?” “So we don’t die.” Long pause. “Grandpa, why is the sky blue?” Sigh. “Ask your mother.”

Although it can be frustrating to get the third degree about things we as adults might think are random (and if you’re a parent, you know exactly what I’m talking about), this is exactly how children learn, answer questions, and solve problems. This is how they begin to understand the world by making connections and sticking things together in ways that make sense to them. This is why children are so creative.

In the 1988 movie Big, Tom Hanks played a 12-year old boy named Josh who made a wish he was an adult. When he awoke the next morning, he had an adult body (played by Hanks) but his mind was still that of a 12-year old. He ultimately found himself working for the development department of a toy manufacturer. Unlike the adults who worked with him, he couldn't help but constantly ask “why?” That question not only caused the company to see great success, it caused the president of the company to show his pleasure with Josh while the other adults at the company took notice (and some became very annoyed).

Unfortunately, asking “why” is also how children learn the rules in life that ultimately kill the questioning that helped them be so creative in the first place. It’s rules like:

“Sit still and behave.”
“Don’t color outside of the lines.”
“That’s not how it’s supposed to be done.”
“There is no such thing.”
“Do it this way.”

It was one of those rules 45 years ago that put me on the path to writing Beware the Purple People Eaters. My first grade teacher told me to stop using a purple crayon to color people and instead use a “proper” one.         

As we age, asking “why” is discouraged, and over time people stop asking it, conform, and deal with the daily grind of their lives. Ironically, though, whenever we learn about a cool new product or great idea, this is exactly what the people behind them are doing––asking “why” just like a child. By repeatedly asking “why” we can get to the core of a problem or situation and true creativity can occur.

I once knew a chiropractor who was not only a professor at the Palmer College of Chiropractic, he was a master at asking “why?” He told me a story about a patient who came into his office complaining of having constant headaches. When he asked “why,” he found the headaches were a symptom of a shifted spinal column which was pinching some nerves.

When he asked “why” again, he found the shift in the spinal column was caused by an unconscious, natural adjustment in how the patient walked in order to compensate for having one leg slightly longer than the other. After being fitted for shoes with a built-in lift on the short side, he began to walk normally and the headaches disappeared. Most people today would have just handed him a bottle of ibuprofen, but it wouldn’t have solved the problem. Instead, he kept asking “why” until he got to the root cause of the problem.        

Perhaps it’s time we stop acting like “adults” and start acting like 12-year old kids. Maybe it’s time to start asking “why?” more frequently. People might think you’re a little annoying, but remember that the intent is to be more creative and strive for better results.

Practice Challenge: For the next week, ask “why?” about everything in your life. The answers may surprise you. Some inquiries (perhaps most of them) may end after the first answer. However, you may find yourself asking “why?” again and again until some long-term issue or problem gets resolved.

©2014  Anthony D. Paustian

PaustianLargeHeadFor more information about Dr. Anthony Paustian, provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines, please visit his website at

One can make a difference

Dr. Anthony Paustian is the provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines and the author of "Imagine" and "Beware the Purple People Eaters."

In 2008, singer and songwriter Dave Carroll was flying from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Omaha, Nebraska, with a layover at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. While there, he noticed how the baggage handlers were abusing and throwing guitars around on the tarmac, specifically his $3500 Taylor Guitar that he wasn’t allowed to carry on to the plane. After arriving in Omaha, he discovered it was broken.

For nine months, Dave tried unsuccessfully to have a claim paid on the broken guitar. After exhausting all of the normal and “required” procedures, Dave resorted to something he knew––music––and created a song and video entitled, United Breaks Guitars.1

The video went viral and received 150,000 views on YouTube in the first 24 hours, 500,000 views in the first three days, and over 12 million views in about 60 days. It became a public relations nightmare for United. After the first 150,000 views, United offered payment to Dave to make the video go away. It was too late for United, as Dave was now trying to make a point. Ultimately, Taylor offered two free guitars to Dave, and whether directly connected or not, United’s stock value declined by 10% ($180 million) shortly thereafter.2

This story illustrates how one inspired person can make a huge difference. Dave Carroll’s creativity and imagination allowed him to singlehandedly take on a huge corporate giant and win. In my various roles in life, I frequently see many people today who truly suffer from a lack of inspiration, the kind of creative inspiration that drove Dave Carroll to create a new song. Therefore, I became inspired myself.

In 2010, we created what would ultimately become Celebrate! Innovation Week (or ciWeek) at the West Des Moines campus of Des Moines Area Community College. Short of personally taking on a corporate giant, I feel the best approach to inspire others is meaningful storytelling through direct interaction with the people who are the stories–current, living creators of new ideas and the latest innovations. Through direct engagement with the “who behind the what,” the stories come alive and can have a direct, emotional impact on those fortunate enough to hear them. 

Through our annual ciWeek, one week each year is set aside to provide students and the community as a whole opportunities to directly engage with people (some famous, all inspired), who have dreamed, created, and accomplished. It’s a thought-provoking and highly interactive week that lets attendees listen, absorb, and engage directly with people who, under normal circumstances, they wouldn’t have the privilege to meet. The event is entirely paid for by a number of generous sponsors, making it free to all who attend. ciWeek 6 recently concluded a few weeks ago. 

Previous ciWeek presenters have included two of the 12 men who walked on the moon; the father of the personal computer; television personalities who focus on science, invention and ideas; explorers who have been to the Titanic and the furthest depths of the ocean, to the highest mountain peaks and most dense jungles; engineers who are developing the growing commercial space industry; inventors of incredible bionics, robotics and animatronics; Academy Award-winning visual effects creators and animators; nationally known artists and even connoisseurs and creators of wines and cheeses.  

People frequently ask me why invest the large sum of both time and money to make this happen every year. It’s because following every event, a wide variety of people personally share how the experience has had a direct, positive influence on them and changed their lives.

It only required Steve Jobs to be inspired to begin Apple Computer, Henry Ford to develop a new method of production to bring automobiles to the masses, Jonas Salk to create a vaccination for polio, Hedy Lamarr to invent spread spectrum technology (which is now the basis of today’s cell phones), Fred Smith (founder of FedEx) to envision a world with overnight shipping, and Gene Roddenberry to imagine a technological future in Star Trek that inspired others to bring much of it into today’s reality. 

Thousands of people are touched each year by ciWeek. Any one of them could be inspired to create or invent something new to change our lives for the better. Isn’t one enough?

©2014  Anthony D. Paustian


1Dunne, David. (2010, November 10). United Breaks Guitars: Case Study for the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto. Retrieved January 30, 2015, from the Right Side of Right website: 

2United Breaks Guitars. Retrieved January 30, 2015, from the Wikipedia website:


PaustianLargeHeadFor more information about Dr. Anthony Paustian, provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines, please visit his website at


Create. Destroy. Repeat.


Dr. Anthony Paustian is the provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines and the author of "Imagine" and "Beware the Purple People Eaters."

I recently watched the movie The World’s Fastest Indian. It was a true story of New Zealander Burt Munro, played by Anthony Hopkins, who took a 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle and highly modified it through ingenious methods, often using very unconventional and homemade tools. After defying the odds and a number of limitations, he found himself at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah in 1967 at the age of 68, breaking the world record for the world’s fastest motorcycle under 1000cc. It’s a record which still stands today.

In the movie, Burt was asked why he went through all of the trouble to do this at such an old age. His response: “The reward comes from the doing of it.” That statement immediately got me thinking about a period in my childhood that has, in many ways, become the benchmark of how I approach most everything in life today. 

When I was eight years old, my parents bought a new home in a new housing development surrounded by active construction. Being an enterprising young man, I went to each of the construction sites and received “after hours” permission to remove the scrap wood that was piled on the ground, as well as the nails that were dropped on the dirt. I believe most of the carpenters saw this as a way to rid the site of excess “trash,” since houses at that time weren't built as efficiently as they are today.

Having watched and learned from the various carpenters constructing the houses, I designed and built all styles of forts including ranches, split-levels, ones with two- and three-stories, ‘A’ frames––some in trees and others on the ground. Each time I built one, I would briefly admire it, think about how I could improve it, and then destroy it so I could begin constructing something bigger and better. My mother found this behavior unnatural and frequently proclaimed, “You build these beautiful forts, but you never play in them. I don’t understand you!”

Prior to high school I was by no means a good student, and I could be somewhat challenging at times for my parents, teachers, neighbors, and just about every other adult figure. Despite this, most thought me to be “creative,” but they never really understood what that meant or how to help me harness it in such a way so as to succeed in school. Without realizing it, they were doing just that each and every day by supporting me in my many endeavors, not the least of which was fort building.

In a results-oriented world, the final product or outcome typically gets the majority of attention and praise. What usually goes unnoticed is the “process” that goes into getting there, which is the primary aspect of creative thinking. Creative people are all about the process, and truly “the reward comes from the doing of it.”

Thomas Edison, thought to be an addle-brained youth and most noted for inventing the functional light bulb, had to experiment with thousands of possible filaments before he found one that worked––a daunting task. That success wasn't enough, however. He went on to help design and create a method to distribute the electricity needed to power the bulbs in the first place. He designed the first commercially available fluoroscope (a machine that used X-rays to take radiographs), the motion picture camera, the phonograph, and many more devices that led to him holding 1,093 patents in the U.S. alone. For Edison, it was about the process of improving.

Apple Computer had the best computer available in the late 1970s, the Apple II. However, Steve Jobs wasn’t content and pushed Apple forward with the development of the Lisa, and ultimately the Macintosh, before his release as CEO for having been too aggressive on these developments. After his return in 1998, he continued on with his process approach that led to the development of the color iMac, iPod, iPhone, MacAir, iPad, and a variety of innovations in between.

For creative people, it’s seldom about the destination. Although the outcomes along the way can frequently lead to wealth and success, the stories of these and a great many other creative people always have one thing in common––the key to their success was the drive and passion related to the process, not necessarily the end result.

Practice Challenge:  What do you enjoy doing? What about that activity brings you joy? I believe that for most of us, it’s the actual act of doing it––the process. Determine what is most important to you and then do more of it. Edison invented because he loved inventing. Jobs pushed the envelope on design and function because that was his passion. Life is short. Spending your limited time engaged in an enjoyable process can be a huge source of happiness in your life.

©2014  Anthony D. Paustian

PaustianLargeHeadFor more information about Dr. Anthony Paustian, provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines, please visit his website at



The great steffano


Dr. Anthony Paustian is the provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines and the author of "Beware the Purple People Eaters: A personal look at leadership."

Before becoming an Army cavalry scout in the harsh climate of northern Alaska, as well as a husband and father, my son, Steffen, was an aspiring magician. He began developing his craft as a young child, and by high school had mastered many of the skills necessary to amaze and entertain his audiences. I was frequently his audience, as he would often "test" new tricks with me. He believed that if a magic trick somehow worked on me, it would work on others.

Frequently, and especially during the early years, I would spot the sleight of hand or figure out the basis for the trick. But by his late high school years, it became increasingly difficult. He had one trick that, to this day, still has me mystified –– and a bit angry, since I have yet to figure it out. My only explanation is that something supernatural is going on.

Steffen, or "The Great Steffano," as he would often refer to himself, would pull out a deck of cards, fan them out, and show me both sides of the cards in order to verify their authenticity. He had me pick a card, look at it, and place it somewhere back in the deck, which was then shuffled again. He then pulled a clear plastic sandwich baggie from his pocket that contained a single playing card –– the joker. I would verify that it was the joker, and that there were no other cards inside the baggie. Next, I’d put out my hand, and he would lay the baggie on it with the joker face down. He would then instruct me to place my other hand on top of it.

After a half minute or so of dramatic magic stuff (waving the deck over my hands, blowing on them, etc.), he asked me to tell him the initial card that I had drawn from the deck. After I confirmed the card, he would ask me to remove my top hand and look at the card inside the baggie––which had somehow "magically" changed from the joker to my card.

To say that I've had Steffen repeat this trick for me several times over the years would be an understatement. Each time, regardless of the card I draw, the result is the same.  Despite how hard I focused and paid attention to everything happening around me, I came no closer to figuring out the "logical" basis for it.

Obviously, there was some kind of misdirection going on––what the eyes see, the ears hear, and the hands touch...the mind delivers. In other words, what I think is occurring may not always line up with what is actually occurring, which is the basis of perception.

View the images below. In the first, a perfect square is placed over a series of concentric circles. In the second, black squares are arranged in a four-by-four grid and spaced the same distance apart.




What do you notice? Do the sides of the first square appear to be curved inward? When you look at the second image, do you see “shadow-like” images where the four corners of each box come together?

Both of these images illustrate how what you "see" is not always reality. Our senses–in this case, our eyes–can play tricks on our minds. When trying to properly identify or define a problem before we apply sticky thinking–creativity–to find the solution, it's essential to try and look at it from as many perspectives as possible. The initial view may have been distorted and may not provide the complete picture.

Have you ever dropped something small on the floor and then had a difficult time finding it? When this happens and I start to get frustrated, I remember this "varying viewpoint" principle and immediately drop to the floor to look across it––a new perspective that usually yields better success.

As human beings it's easy for each of us to view something and come up with very different views as to its intent or meaning. We all perceive ourselves and the world around us in ways that reflect our individual values, experience, knowledge, and personalities. We each select, organize, and interpret the stimuli around us in different ways. 

There are many ways to view a problem, and thus many solutions that come with each view. Sticky thinkers know this and have become accustomed to stepping back from a problem prior to solving it in order to see it from as many different perspectives as possible.  More perspectives allow for more connections and a greater opportunity to get creative. 

By the way, despite trying a variety of tactics to get him to show me the secret to that trick, ranging from cash rewards to threats of potential punishment, "The Great Steffano" held true to the creed that a magician never reveals his secrets. 

Practice Challenge:  Each time you have to generate an idea or solve a problem, try stepping back for a moment. Shift your viewpoint and get a totally different perspective. It may or may not change the resulting solution, but over time you will train your brain to look at every problem from a variety of perspectives. 

©2014  Anthony D. Paustian

PaustianLargeHeadFor more information about Dr. Anthony Paustian, provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines, please visit his website at

In one ear, out the other


Dr. Anthony Paustian is the provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines and the author of "Beware the Purple People Eaters: A personal look at leadership."

Years ago, I heard John Falconer, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Colorado, tell the following story:

A student and his professor were backpacking in Alaska when a grizzly bear started chasing them from a distance. They both started to run, but it was clear that the bear would eventually catch up to them. The student stopped, took off his backpack, got out his running shoes, and began to put them on. His professor said, “You can’t outrun the bear, even in running shoes!” The student replied as he took off, “I don’t need to outrun the bear; I only need to outrun you!”

I believe the moral to this story is the importance of understanding the true nature of the problem at hand. John Dewey, the great educational theorist, once stated that a problem properly defined is half solved. When you apply sticky thinking (creativity) to a properly defined problem, your odds of a timely, improved solution are greatly enhanced. However, (and there’s always a “however”), properly defining a problem is typically much more difficult than it sounds. Doing so is impacted by two different, yet closely related concepts: active listening and perception. We’ll focus on active listening now and on perception in my next piece.

I was the oldest of three children, and according to my parents, I was also the most challenging to raise (I like to think I “taught” my parents how to better raise my younger sister and brother). In fact, I can remember my father frequently using the phrase, “You’re not listening! That went in one ear and out the other.” As human beings it’s easy for all of us to listen to a question and come up with very different views as to its intent, meaning, or importance, which in turn leads to different answers. That’s why it’s important to ask good questions.

Let’s say I’m sitting in the living room, probably being a bum and watching football, and my wife is preparing dinner in the kitchen. I ask her, “What time is it?” She may respond by saying, “It’s 6:00,” or “It’s time for dinner,” or “Ten minutes later than the last time you asked,” or “The same time it is in there.” Although all are technically true, they don’t get to the same answer in the same manner. Perhaps a better question would have been, “What time does it show on the clock on the microwave in front of you?”

Becoming good at sticky thinking requires not only asking good questions (see my last piece Golfing with Bananas), but also actively listening to the answers. Hearing is not listening, and research indicates that most people retain as little as 25 percent of what they hear.1 Active listening is an intensive mental effort to maintain focus while observing and concentrating on the details of what’s being said.

Our minds are so busy processing the information bombarding them from so many sources, like our ringing smartphones, text messages and email notifications. It’s easy to mentally move ahead of the speaker, and we may find we’ve let information enter one ear and exit the other. When you’re introduced to someone new, how well do you remember what they said, or even their name? Through active listening, a greater degree of awareness, understanding, empathy and clarity will emerge that will serve to enhance sticky thinking and make the connections stronger.

Let’s boost our creative, sticky thinking and improve our listening. Here are a few tips to get you started:

•  Allow for silence. If you rush to fill momentary silences, you cease being a listener.

•  Ask stimulating, open-ended questions to facilitate connections and sticky thinking. Avoid questions that require only a yes or no.

•  Use attentive eye contact and verbal and physical cues to show you are listening, such as “uh-hmm,” “yes,” or a simple smile. Reflect emotion.

•  Occasionally repeat or paraphrase the speaker’s main points in your mind, or even verbally, to help you remember them.

•  Know your biases and try to avoid premature judgments (remember that everything is perceptional–something we’ll discuss more in my next piece).

Practice Challenge:  The key to sticky thinking is to continually ask questions and actively listen to the answers. Start by selecting a few important people in your life and strive to be an active listener with them; your spouse and boss might be good starting points. Remember, practice makes permanent.

©2014  Anthony D. Paustian

1Active Listening: Hear What People are Really Saying.  Retrieved December 28, 2014, from the Mind Tools website:

PaustianLargeHeadFor more information about Dr. Anthony Paustian, provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines, please visit his website at

Golfing with bananas


Dr. Anthony Paustian is the provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines and the author of "Beware the Purple People Eaters: A personal look at leadership."

After his college wrestling career ended, my uncle, Terry Paustian, became a high school teacher and coached wrestling for 17 years. Two-years after what he thought was the end of his coaching career, the high school athletic director asked if he would consider becoming the coach for the boys' golf team, a decision that was likely driven by desperation (the previous coach had suddenly resigned). 

My uncle wasn’t a golfer. He knew very little about the sport, and he had a wrestler’s mentality––a mindset which is 180 degrees different from those who golf. Reluctantly, he accepted the position.

After selecting the team following tryouts (which he did by simply selecting the 16 players with the best scores), Terry began to watch and observe them during practice. He could tell that many of the players had already established their games through private coaching and the help of others far more qualified. That was a good thing; he didn’t feel he had anything of “real value” to teach them that would improve their swing or putt.

But through simple observation, he came to the realization that golf is a mental game as much as it is a physical one, and his sole job as coach was to teach these kids to keep their minds out of the way of their performance. He decided to apply some of the same psychological techniques he had once used with his wrestlers.

As the team prepared to play for the conference championship––an event the school had not won in over a decade––Terry could see they were all quite nervous. When they stood up and grabbed their clubs to exit the bus, he yelled, “Hey! Who told you to get out? Sit down!” The boys immediately sat. He then reminded them that the school had not won this event in a very long time, but he knew why.

My uncle paused, and said, “In the past, this team has been in it to win right up to the last few holes, and then everyone’s game starts to slide. It’s not that anyone lacked the talent or desire to win. Your bodies just started giving out after 15 holes. What you need,” he paused again for dramatic effect, “…is potassium! It will lift you up, and I guarantee you will play great for the last three holes.” He held up a bunch of bananas, began tossing them at each player, and said, “Bananas, full of potassium and natural steroids; you won’t believe how this works. Trust me!”

Throughout the match he continued to toss bananas to his players. Before his golfers began teeing off on the 16th hole, Terry looked at them and said, “Banana.” They would look at him and nod.

The boys’ golf team won the conference championship. They finished undefeated in duals. They won three additional tournaments and the district match. But they only finished second at state. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that my uncle forgot the bananas for that particular meet. 

Sticky Thinking (or creativity) is frequently the result of a question, in this case the question of how to best coach. By sticking with an approach used to help his wrestlers with the need to distract his golfers, my uncle was able to help his team overcome a huge psychological barrier to success––themselves.

A simple question led to the sticky thinking behind the invention of the Polaroid camera, after a 3-year-old girl asked to see a photo of her that had just been taken. A simple question also led a group of watermelon farmers in Zentsuji, Japan, to come up with a more efficient way to ship and store them––the creation of the square watermelon.

Let’s get sticky and start asking questions. Here are a few to get you started:

- What would the company look like that had the ability to put me out of business?

- What words would I use to describe myself? What words would others use?

- If I wasn’t already doing this, what field would I go into today?

- What do people really care about today?

- Is there a better way of doing this?

- What if I were to challenge all of the assumptions in this field (or business) and do something that sounds truly crazy?

Practice Challenge:  A key to sticky thinking is the natural ability to continually ask questions. Like a little kid to an adult, ask again and again. Question the why or what behind everything. Practice makes permanent.

©2014  Anthony D. Paustian

PaustianLargeHeadFor more information about Dr. Anthony Paustian, provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines, please visit his website at

Let's get sticky!


Dr. Anthony Paustian is the provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines and the author of "Beware the Purple People Eaters: A personal look at leadership."

What do bank checks, package shipping, church bells, water, ballpoint pens, deodorant, computers, fashion, steering wheels, and a revolver have in common? Nothing…or perhaps everything. True discoveries seldom happen today by finding something new. Most often they are the result of “sticky thinking,” which occurs when people connect or stick things together in new ways for different or improved outcomes.

Born in 1944 with a bone socket hip disorder called Calve-Perthes disease, young Fredrick Smith had to walk with the aid of braces and crutches for most of his childhood.  But through a high level of dedication and hard work, he was able to overcome the disease. In the early-1960s, Fredrick attended Yale University majoring in economics. For one of his classes, he wrote a paper detailing an idea he had after realizing that a future “automated society” required a completely different system of logistics. His professor didn’t like the idea since, at the time, it wasn’t economically feasible, but that didn’t stop him from thinking about its future possibilities.1

After graduation, Fredrick went on to serve two tours in Vietnam as a platoon leader and narrowly survived a Viet Cong ambush. Upon returning from war, he wanted “to do something productive after blowing so many things up.” Fredrick took an inheritance from his father, raised an additional $91 million in venture capital, and used the idea from his paper at Yale to create what is today known as “FedEx.”

Fred Smith’s story is arguably one of the greatest entrepreneurial successes of the last century. He’s currently worth over $2.3 billion, and FedEx now ships more than 10.2 million packages daily in 220 countries.2 But for me, the most amazing part of his story isn’t the outcome or even the incredible company he founded. It’s how he got to the idea in the first place.

I believe that Fred Smith’s idea represents the definition of creativity: the act of “sticking” one thing with another in new ways. By sticking how the Federal Reserve processed checks in the late 1960s (a clearing process for an enormous quantity of checks drawn on a large multitude of banks) to the logistics necessary to “automate society,” he created an entirely new way of shipping packages overnight that didn’t previously exist.

This process of sticky thinking has occurred throughout history. Sam Colt stuck the design of a ship’s wheel to the invention of the revolver; Helen Barnett Diserens stuck the concept of the ballpoint pen to a new method of applying deodorant (the Ban Roll-On); and Steve Jobs stuck fashion design to the boring world of personal computing.

Creativity (or sticky thinking) is like a sport, in that it requires hard work to perform at a high level. Mastering the necessary skills requires a dedication to practice, practice, and more practice. Becoming a creative thinker requires the same level of dedication.

In future articles, I will provide a number of tips, tricks, methods, and ideas about how to improve our creative thinking skills. Like anything, a person’s success is often tied to their level of commitment and effort.

So, are you ready to get sticky?

Practice Challenge:  Over the next few weeks (whenever you have a “free” moment), select two completely random objects around you and attempt to force connections between them (like trying to jam a square peg in a round hole). Don’t judge the quality of the ideas; just have fun with it and bring out your inner “MacGyver.”

©2014  Anthony D. Paustian 


1(2008, October 9)  Fred Smith: An Overnight Success.  Retrieved November 9, 2014, from the Entrepreneur website:

2Brown, Abram (2014, January 23)  10 Things You Might Not Know About FedEx Billionaire Fred Smith.  Retrieved November 9, 2014, from the Forbes website:

PaustianLargeHeadDr. Anthony Paustian is the provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines and the author of Beware the Purple People Eaters: A personal look at leadership. For more information, please visit his website at


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