Bernard Roth: An interview by Bob Morris

RothBernie Roth is the Rodney H. Adams Professor of Engineering at Stanford University. A longtime veteran of the Stanford design scene, he first came to the Stanford Design Division faculty in 1962. His most recent activities have moved him more strongly into experiences that enhance peoples’ creative potential through the educational process. His primary intention as an educator and person is to empower his students, colleagues, and friends to have fulfilling lives.

Bernie is a co-founder of Stanford’s and is currently its Academic Director. He brings to the a wealth of experience in teaching design, an intimate knowledge of the functioning of Stanford University, and a worldwide reputation as a researcher in kinematics and robotics. Together with Doug Wilde and the late Rolf Faste, Bernie developed the concept of a Creativity Workshop. This has been offered to students, faculty, and professionals around the world. These same techniques have been made available to students and are described in his new book The Achievement Habit: Stop Wishing, Start Doing, and Take Command of Your Life. He has found that these types of learning experiences enhance students’ ability to make a meaningful positive difference in their own lives. He is especially pleased that his activities at the have contributed to creating an environment where students and coworkers get the tools and values they need for realizing the enduring satisfactions that come from assisting others in the human community.

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Morris: Before discussing The Achievement Habit, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Roth: It was a Stanford colleague, Bob McKim. He was my first close friend after I arrived at Stanford from New York. He grew up in the San Francisco area and had attended Stanford so he was very hooked in to the California scene. He introduced me to the concepts associated with the human potential movement and to the people associated with the Esalen Institute in the mid-1960s.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Roth: That would be the late Ferdinand Freudenstein, my thesis professor at Columbia University. He was a serious scholar and at a very young age one of the world’s leading researchers in kinematics, the science of motion. By example, he showed me what it meant to be a serious scholar and to develop an in-depth knowledge sufficient to propel me from a young student into a strong contributor on the world stage

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Roth: When I came to Stanford I was a fairly traditional engineering professor. I was interested in teaching my technical subjects and in doing research with my PhD students. My interests and energies were devoted to recreating, for my students, the experiences I had had as a graduate student. Then my colleague Bob McKim invited me to join a weekend he had arranged for faculty at the Esalen Institute. That experience opened my eyes and my heart to the idea that there was more to being a good teacher than giving students technical content. From then on, dealing with the whole person became one of my major teaching goals.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Roth: I feel the main benefit I got from my formal education was learning how to get the job done. I was a fairly irresponsible teenager. When I almost flunked out as an undergrad, the shock was a wake up call, and I learned to always do my work, even if it meant not getting any sleep. Then when I got to graduate school I was poised to absorb the habit of studying on my own and learning new and difficult concepts. These experiences made me the person I am today and gave me the self-efficacy to tackle new challenges and take control of my world.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Roth: I love this quote. I believe I operate in a similar manner in dealing with my students, colleagues, friends and family. The first parts of the quote contain the elements of what we call empathy in the problem definition phase of design thinking.

Morris: From Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

Roth: Absolutely correct. In my experience a lot of time and resources are wasted in blind meaningless pursuits foisted on organizations by leaders that should have known better.

Morris: From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

Roth: I certainly agree. The material in my book is a good example of this. When I began teaching this material in the mid-1960s, it was considered completely far out and subversive for an engineering student to deal with these human centered concepts. Today, courses of this type are the rage, and are heavily oversubscribed. I am certain that in a few years there will be so many different versions of these types of courses that the concepts will be viewed as cliché.

Morris: From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”

Roth: Yes, this has been my experience. Understanding what is going on when something seems wrong has led me to breakthroughs in my research. Interestingly, this quote can also be linked to the design thinking idea of learning from failure.

Morris: From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Roth: This one is bit tricky. Vision can lead to a lot of things. Some times it is hallucination. However, other times it can provide inspiration. I would reinterpret this to say: Decide if your vision is actionable or if you just want to keep it as a comforting pipe dream.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Roth: This reminds me of another saying: “If it is not worth doing, it is not worth doing well.” This was one of the favorite sayings of Rolf Faste, one of the people my book is dedicated to. It is one of the curses in our society that children grow up with the mantra: if it is worth doing, it is worth doing well. Yet, the schools rarely deal with the issue of how to decide what is worth doing.

Morris: In one of Tom Davenport’s recent books, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Roth: I agree with Davenport and Manville. In fact, I even go a step further. I think even great leaders (of which there are not as many as is usually assumed) could profit from tapping into others to enhance themselves by using the wisdom of a collective.

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

Roth: Yes, this is very close to a basic design thinking principle, learning from failure. We often construct a trial balloon, usually called a prototype, of an action in order to test a concept. It is usual for there to be failures involved. If the failures reveal a previously unrecognized truth, we consider the “failure” a great success. We have a saying; fail early and often in order to succeed more quickly.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Roth: If it is true, it makes sense. Stories can be inspirational. And, in order to tell a good story it is useful if one understands more than the isolated events. One needs to fully understand the big picture and how the story can appeal to the listener’s psyche. These are all tools a great leader finds very useful.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to The Achievement Habit. When and why did you decide to write it?

Roth: I have been developing this material since the late 1960s. I use these ideas in my life, in my teaching, and in my workshops on creativity and problem solving. Over the years, many people have asked me if I have written material to supplement my teaching. Three years ago I had a sabbatical leave and decided it was finally time to put the material into written form.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Roth: Originally I envisioned a book closely tied to the structure and format of my Designer in Society class. The book’s original working title was Yellow Eyed Cats. As the book developed it went through several iterations and title changes. The final version relies much more heavily on the design thinking vocabulary than did the original.

Morris: Apparently you agree with Yoda: “Do or do not, there is no try.”

Roth: Actually, I do and I don’t. I believe there is a “try.” It is an OK state to be in. It can even be fun. However, it should not be confused with the “do” state, which is what Yoda is talking about. In my world, you decide if you want to do something or if you want to try to do something. These are two completely different intentions. If you are trying, an obstacle can easily stop you. If you are doing, you will succeed regardless of the obstacles. Unfortunately, people often think they are doing when in fact they are only trying. Yoda speaks to people who think they are doing and are, in fact, actually trying. It is important to ask ourselves when we undertake something whether we want to be doing, achieving, or merely trying. It is also OK to decide to change from the trying to the doing state of mind and also from the doing to the trying state. Just know which purpose is being served. Both are important…but not the same.

Morris: Why are excuses, even legitimate ones, self-defeating?

Roth: Using an excuse, often disguised as a reason, lets you off the hook. You are not taking full responsibility for your behavior. If you do not take responsibility you will never change. The excuse makes it is easy for you to ignore the truth about dysfunctional behaviors. I believe it is best to never use excuses and to use reasons for explaining human behavior as little as possible. Just do what you do, and then tell yourself the truth about what you did without reasons or excuses. If you do that, your life will work better.

Morris: By what process can someone change their self-image into one of a doer and achiever?

Roth: The best way is to do it is a little at a time. Succeed at something small. Then take another small step. After enough steps are completed, you have some positive momentum and can look back and see you have made a sizable journey, and are now some place you never thought you would be.

Morris: You suggest that subtle language changes can resolve existential dilemmas as well as barriers to action. For example?

Roth: One of my favorite examples is if you say, “I have to phone my mother,” you may never get around to it, and you will probably be a drag to talk to if and when you do phone her. However, if you say, “I want to phone my mother,” you will probably make that call sooner and have a much better experience when talking with her.

Don’t take my word for it. Next time you use the words “have to” in a sentence, repeat the same sentence with the words “want to” substituted for “have to” and see what happens.

Morris: How to avoid or ignore major distractions?

Roth: It is a matter of knowing what your intention is, and then giving the execution of that intention the attention it requires. Stay focused on your intention and don’t lie to yourself.

Morris: How to become open to learning from personal experience and the experiences of others?

Roth: This is what I call mindfulness. Look at what you do and what others do. Then think about what worked for you and what did not work. Keep doing what worked and stop doing what didn’t. Of course, simply stopping a behavior once may not make it go away. However, if you keep stopping it, eventually – you gotta be patient but determined — the troublesome behavior will disappear from your life.

Morris: There are dozens of passages throughout your narrative that caught my eye. For those who have not as yet read the book, please suggest what you view as the most important point or key take-away in each of these passages.

First, The Familiar Unfamiliar (Pages 26-30)

Roth: If you learn to look at your surroundings in a different way, you will have a richer more creative life.

Morris: Moving to a Higher Level (64-70)

Roth: When you lose sleep over a recurring issue in your life you can get a resolution by reframing the problem using a very simply procedure. I say this reframed problem is at a higher level than your original problem. Once you are at the higher level you will see that the original issue was not the problem you should have been solving. I think that was what Drucker was talking about in the quotation you cited a while ago.

Morris: Reframing (70-75)

Roth: If you change the way you look at an issue, we say you have reframed the issue. By reframing you will see a lot about how to handle it.

Morris: Twenty-Two Ways to Get Unstuck (80-93)

Roth: There are many useful simple tools you can use to broaden your problem-solving toolkit. I include a beautiful drawing by Rolf Faste that visually presents 22 of these methods.

Morris: The Curse of Networking (100-101)

Roth: Networking can be a cynical self-serving activity. If it is not genuine, don’t do it.

Morris: Acting Under Pressure (114-118)

Roth: When something stressful happens in your life you might be surprised to find your reaction is very different than what you would normally expect.

Morris: The Gift of Failure (121-122)

Roth: What at first seems like a reversal in your life may in fact turn out to be a great gift. This has been the experience of many people.

Morris: Context (137-138)

Roth: Words only have meaning in context. It is very important to be sure that you and the people you are communicating with have the same context and are not talking about different issues and different circumstances.

Morris: Constructive Criticism (154-156)

Roth: There are ways to give criticism that promote further positive action from the person receiving the criticism. Such criticism really is constructive.

Morris: Life as Chance (219-223)

Roth: The idea of a planned and programmed life is tenuous. Most of the important developments in many people’s lives happen by chance.

Morris: An ancient Hebrew aphorism suggests, “Man plans and then God laughs.” Here’s another passage: The Blessing of Work (226-230)

Roth: If properly structured, our work can be one of the greatest sustaining and nurturing forces in our lives. It is important to arrange work so it is a blessing, not a curse.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in The Achievement Habit, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Roth: I find that different people find strong resonance with different aspect of my material. In addition to being owners/CEOs, these are distinct individuals. I hope everyone will find much in the book that resonates strongly with them. I do not mean to dodge your question. However, when I think about it, I think about my table of contents. “OK, which of the ten chapters are most important for owners/CEOs?” My honest reaction, frankly, is to recommend they read the entire book.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Roth: “Did you enjoy writing this book?” Yes, I loved every minute of it!

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Bernie cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

The Achievement Habit link

The Stanford University link

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