Episode 248 – Creativity: The Key to a Remarkable Life

Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to all of our Becoming Your Best podcast listeners, wherever you may be in the world today. This is your host, Steve Shallenberger, and we have an international guest with us today, hailed as the modern equivalent of Dr. Zeus. A fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, he was named one of the world’s 50 most talented social innovators and has received more than 112 awards, including the prestigious Peabody Award. That is fantastic! Firdaus Kharas, welcome to our show today. 


Firdaus Kharas: Thank you, Steve. It’s a pleasure to be here! 


Steve Shallenberger: We’re so excited to have you. And before we get started today, I’d like to tell you just a little bit more about Firdaus, and then he’s going to tell us about himself, I hope, as well. Let me just indicate that he founded the Chocolate Moose Media in 1995, to create human-centered mass communications to influence hundreds of millions of lives across the world. Over a billion people in 198 countries via 390 languages – pushing 400, maybe he’s already hit that – I didn’t know we, Firdaus, had that many languages in the world. 


Firdaus Kharas: Yeah, we have a lot more actually. 


Steve Shallenberger: Oh, great going! Well, many people have seen his work, it’s going to be fun to visit together with him. To get us going today, tell us about your background, including really any turning points in your life that have really led you to where you are today. 


Firdaus Kharas: Well, thank you, Steve. I was born in India, in Calcutta, and I think one of the big turning points in my life is meeting Mother Teresa when I was about eight years old. I met her several times because my mother was the head of a national non-governmental organization in India, and she used to work with Mother Teresa long before Mother Teresa was internationally famous. And so, I remember meeting Mother Teresa and going into this room where many people were dying on cots and that gave me – looking back on it – I think gave me my first impression of working outside of one’s comfort zone for the benefit of others.  


Firdaus Kharas: I then left India after high school, I came to Western Pennsylvania, did an undergraduate there – a four-year degree in three years. I interned for the UN Information Centre in Washington and worked for gas representatives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and then came to Canada to go to graduate school. I then started traveling, went to Africa for the first time after graduate school, worked for a while doing my own consulting work. Then, at the age of 26, I was appointed executive director of the United Nations Association in Canada, which is the world’s second-largest. Then worked for – after doing that for five years – worked briefly for the Minister of Employment and Immigration as a policy advisor on immigration refugee issues. And then Canada’s refugee system had collapsed and it developed a backlog, so I was put in charge of clearing the backlog, which was 128,000 refugee claimants from 115 countries. I did that as an Assistant Deputy Chairman of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, which is Canada’s largest Administrative tribunal. And then, I set up a company in 1995. A media company with a difference, a media company that doesn’t really do for-profit work. It’s a social enterprise and it’s called Chocolate Moose Media. That’s moose the animal, not mousse the dessert. Chocolate Moose Media creates – as you said in your introduction – human-centered mass communications to better the human condition. 


Steve Shallenberger: Is Chocolate Moose Media operating today? 


Firdaus Kharas: Oh, absolutely! You can go on to my website, and you can see my work and you can go onto my Vimeo channel and download any of my work. There are several thousand videos there and you’re welcome to look at them, download them in any language you want, and use them free of charge. They’re on issues like disease prevention, on human rights, children’s rights, things like that. 


Steve Shallenberger: Oh, it’s fascinating. I happened to listen to one this morning. 


Firdaus Kharas: Oh, okay. 


Steve Shallenberger: It was fabulous! I mean, very impressive, so I’m excited. I didn’t realize you had such a vast resource there. I’ll look forward to going back into it. 


Firdaus Kharas: Yeah, absolutely. You’re welcome! Anybody, any of your listeners can go and watch my work. Over 90% of the world’s population can go to my Vimeo channel, and download and use at least one series in their own language. It’s universally accessible, and, of course, it’s free of charge. 


Steve Shallenberger: So how have you built that up over the years, Firdaus? 


Firdaus Kharas: I have built it up because I believe in applying creativity to better the human condition, and that’s what I’ve done over the last 25 years. Let me tell you what creativity is, in my opinion – creativity is the ability to think differently via a mental process of original thoughts that leads to the creation of new ideas. So, who’s the most creative person you can think of, in history? For me, it was Leonardo da Vinci. He was an unparalleled creative genius. And Leonardo da Vinci, I think, set the stage for the whole world in history, for his creative thoughts that actually have influenced us through the generation, right down to today. So, creativity is not logical thinking – I go into my book on what creativity is not – creativity is not a product, creating the best creative ideas don’t come from individuals, creativity is not what it’s called groupthink. But neither is creativity loneliness – you can be a very creative thinker with somebody else, as well. My whole book is based on trying to get individuals to realize that they are already creative thinkers, and then to expand their creative thinking because creativity is a transformational thought process that you can apply to both your professional and your personal life to better your life. 


Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, I did have a question. What led you going from mass communication on issues throughout the world to writing a book on creativity? 


Firdaus Kharas: Because I wanted to give back to people. I want people to understand. Now, think about the issues that I’ve worked with. They’re very difficult issues. And the most recent one that I worked on, actually is, I created a video for a client in the US on how to interact with the police in the United States. I worked recently on COVID-19 both prevention and to deal with the stigma felt by COVID-19 healthcare workers. I’ve worked on rape, sexual violence, and all kinds of very difficult issues. You need to apply a lot of creativity when you’re thinking about these kinds of issues, how you tackle them, and how you get around the barriers that separate us as human beings. You know that we have a lot of barriers to communication that all of us carry around with us, in us. So, our backgrounds, our beliefs, our culture, our education, our ethnicities, our fears, our genders, our intolerances, nationalism, religion, our stereotypes, our temperament, our values, all of these make up an individual, but I have to get around these barriers to communication when I reach across borders, to reach hundreds of millions of people on extremely sensitive issues. And the only way I could do that without creating a storm is in fact applying a lot of creative thinking over the last 25 years. And so, I wanted to write a book that put all this down so that people can understand how to get around these barriers, how to speak and write with creativity, and how to expand their creative thinking. It doesn’t mean that everybody needs to tackle huge global issues, you can use creativity, in something as simple as finding your lost keys. It really doesn’t matter. It can be a small little thing, or it can be a massive global problem. You can still use creativity. 


Steve Shallenberger: Okay, well, great. Well, I’m glad that you wrote the book. We’re excited to hear more about it. And just as you said, whether you’re a parent, struggling on how to solve problems and raising your children or a grandparent of how to become your best if you will, or you’re running a large corporation, or you’re at the end of the road, and you can’t figure out what to do, creativity is so critical. What are some of the barriers to creativity? 


Firdaus Kharas: Well, the biggest barrier, I think, is that people don’t understand what creativity is. People saying that creativity is something that some lucky people are born with – like an ability to paint or write or compose music. That is artistry. Artistry is not the same as creativity. We all apply creativity in our daily lives already. The extent to which we apply creative thinking is what I’m talking about. I believe that all of us are creative human beings. And if you want evidence of this, just think back to your childhood. Did you sing? Did you dance? Did you paint? Did you use your imagination? Of course, you did. All children are creative human beings. We lose that ability later on in life, to think highly creatively because of the education system, and because we then fear peer pressure. We fear in our professional lives, our personal lives what other people think. Part of creative thinking is the ability to take a risk. You must have the ability to absorb risk, you must have the ability to fail, you must embrace risk-taking. And that I think is what stops us from being creative thinkers when we’re adults – which we all were when we were children, but then we get worried. We get worried about, applying our creative thinking because we worry about what other people might think if we fail. And that I think is one thing that we need to get over. We need to be able to absorb failure and get up and go on once we have failed – and it is, in fact, creativity not only that allows you to fail, but in fact, will get you going again after you fail. 


Steve Shallenberger: Right, okay, well, that was a great answer. You know, in our book Becoming Your Best: The 12 Principles of Highly Successful Leaders, what we did is we had 40 years of research of what set apart high performing individuals from all the rest. And what we discovered is that although leaders weren’t perfect – none of us are really perfect – we observed that there were 12 things that were typically present for people that were very successful or organizations that were very successful. We didn’t invent them, we just observed them and have communicated those, that’s what we put in the book. But you’d be interested to know that one of the things we’ve observed over and over and over is that the highly successful individuals were able to innovate consistently through using their imagination. And this is exactly what you’re writing about. It’s creativity, it’s imagination – and this is one of the things that set people apart from everybody else. 


Firdaus Kharas: Absolutely right! Innovation results from creative thinking. You can’t innovate if you don’t apply creative thinking, it’s impossible. That is the result of creative thinking and highly successful individuals – it really doesn’t matter in what field you are in. It really doesn’t matter what you’re trying to do, whether it’s, you know, change the world on a global scale, or just make a little impact in your own family. It really doesn’t matter the scale of it. You need to apply creative thinking, you need to innovate. And throughout my book, I make the point, like you have in your book, about the importance of applying creative thinking and having innovation. To give you an example, almost all the research that has been done on successful couples, couples that have stayed in love for many, many years, it’s because they have applied creativity in their relationship. Nothing is static. So, they’re always thinking of new ways to amuse each other, to support each other, to have a good relationship. So, it’s just a one to one, but you’re still applying creative thinking.  


Firdaus Kharas: There isn’t a company in this world that hasn’t been founded by a creative thinker. There isn’t a company in this world that isn’t led by a creative thinker. Because if you don’t apply creative thinking, that company is going to die. And the best example I always cite is Motorola and Apple. Motorola was the company that first had the mobile phone, the cell phone. Now, where’s Motorola today? Nowhere! It’s because they, in fact, applied creative thinking at the beginning to come up with the mobile phone, and then they lost the ability to keep applying creative thinking because Apple and Samsung and everybody else obviously came up and they took over the mobile phone space. And Apple is a great example of a company that was founded by a creative thinker, or two creative thinkers, and that continues to apply creative thinking all the time, otherwise, they would be overtaken by somebody else. So, whether it’s dealing on a one to one basis with your spouse, or your partner, or your children, or whether you’re leading a global company, or whether you’re dealing, like I do, with major policy issues around the world, you have to apply creative thinking. 


Steve Shallenberger: Excellent. And one of the things I really liked that you talked about is everybody has this basic human endowment, if you will, of imagination and creativity. In other words, they’ve got it, it’s just the stoking it up, right? 


Firdaus Kharas: Absolutely. So, do some experimentation to expand your mind. I don’t know what the wildest idea is you can think of but I give some examples. I have a problem with tying my shoes. My shoelaces never stay on and this has been going on for many years. Now, there are actually if there are six holes in a shoe, there are actually more than a trillion ways – mathematically – to tie your shoelaces. So, next time I tie my shoelaces, I want to try a different method. And then the following time, I will try another different method. I quite often wear two different socks. Why do I wear different socks? Well, it’s just to apply creative thinking. Do you have a pet, Steve? 


Steve Shallenberger: Well, we’ve had a lot of pets, not now. 


Firdaus Kharas: All right, give me the name of one of your pets.  


Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, Sady.  


Firdaus Kharas: There you go. That’s a creative name. So, you applied your creative thinking when you named your pet. You came up with the name for your pet and you said, that’s okay, that’s a pretty good name for that particular pet. We all apply critical thinking all the time it’s just we simply need to expand ourselves, our thinking. We need to understand that creative thinking is the most important element in our lives.  


Firdaus Kharas: For example, LinkedIn, which is a platform that looks between employers and employees, they do an annual survey of employers asking them, what is the one factor that you want to find in your employees. And out of every possible answer, the last five years the top trait that people want in a new employee is creative thinking. So, the top one in the last five years, it’s been proven over and over again. It’s not your knowledge, it’s not your education, it’s not anything else. It is the ability to think creatively, the ability to apply your mind to get through problems, the ability to come up with new innovations to come up with new products to come up with new ways of doing things, to come up with new marketing to come up with new whatever.  


Firdaus Kharas: And the one thing that I think has come out of COVID-19 that might be good, is the fact that we have had to – in COVID-19 – had to rethink everything. Companies have had to rethink their supply chains. Companies have had to rethink how they reach customers, how they market to customers, how they deliver their products. In individuals, we’ve had to – if we have school-aged children – we’ve had to rethink how they’re going to learn. We’ve had to understand how you stay at home and work. Everything has had to be rethought. It has been forced on us this year. So, I think that 2020 has seen an explosion of creative thinking that has been forced on us, because of COVID-19. And COVID-19 changed our way of doing things. I think that if there is any good that’s come out of this year, it is the fact that we now are probably attuned to becoming more creative thinkers. COVID-19 has taught us that we are ultimately one human family. Yes, we have all these barriers we talked about earlier – the religion, the culture, and the economic status and values and tribes and traditions and so on – but, at the end of the day, underneath all that, we are one human family. We are a species. And there are things that go transnationally, that don’t take into account all these other factors that have separated us. We need to come back to this notion of one human family. And I think World War II probably did that. When the whole world was in conflict, and then suddenly you realize everything is interconnected, because we are one human family, well today COVID-19 has spread to almost every country, if not every country in the world, and has reminded us that we live on this planet altogether, despite the differences that we have. 


Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, indeed, that’s a great point. And, you know, as I’m just sitting here thinking about our discussion today, in your book, the stakes have probably never been higher for the need for creativity. And whether you have a problem, a personal problem, or a professional opportunity or challenges you’re working through, the stakes are so high. So, I’m excited to get and read your book, Firdaus, this will really be helpful. I mean, just think of the value of continuing to hone this skill. So, what are some things that you mention in the book, and from your experience that helps people really stoke up their creativity and use it? Because, you know, when you have a challenge, sometimes people just get down and they get paralyzed. So, if they’re using this creativity, they’ve got a way forward. What’s your recommendation? 


Firdaus Kharas: My recommendation is – the whole book actually is designed, is geared towards answering your question; all 130 pages of it. So, I go through what creativity is. Basically, creativity is having an open mind. Creativity is fun, creativity is expression, creativity happens all around you, it’s what grabs you, it’s being different, it’s being unusual. And then, understanding creativity, what it is, what creativity is doing, the requirements for creativity, and then applying your creative thinking so that you can broaden your horizons, understanding that you have limits to what you can do. And then, understanding how you become a human-centered person, trusting yourself to apply creativity. And I go through in great detail also what creativity is not. Because people misunderstand what creativity is, and they look at a product and they think that’s creativity. They think that logical thinking is creativity or brainstorming is creativity and none of those things are. I talk about communicating with creativity, how you get around the barriers, and the biggest application of creativity which is problem-solving. And how you find new approaches, how creativity leads to the unknown, how you can solve your problems by looking at every angle to a solution, how creativity promotes flexibility and solves the most difficult problems.  


Firdaus Kharas: And then I say creativity, you are a creative human being, you just need to realize it. You need to expand your thinking you need to get around the boxes that may limit the way you think, you need to step outside of your comfort zone, you need to go to new places. And you definitely need creativity. You can use creativity at any stage in your life. It doesn’t matter how old you are, it doesn’t matter how rich or poor you are. You can actually use creativity to design your life, your ideal life. And that’s why I call my book, Creativity: The Key to a Remarkable Life. So you can use creative thinking, expand your creative thinking to write your own life story from this moment on. 


Steve Shallenberger: What a great overview! That’s wonderful! Now, what’s your experience? Because we’ve all heard about the role that the right brain plays to the left brain. Do you talk about that at all in creativity and is there anything to that? 


Firdaus Kharas: I do talk about that. Creativity is not logical thinking. And that’s one of my insights. So, the book is designed is broken down into 100 insights with 100 takeaways at the end of every insight. And I say that creativity is not logical thinking. The brain is certainly divided into two hemispheres, there’s no question, the left side, and the right side. Scientists disagree on whether one side can be dominant over the other side, but they do know that different parts of the brain control different types of thinking. So, things like analysis are associated with logical thinking, and logical thinking is supposed to be on the left side of the brain. So, creativity is a different kind of thinking, it is right-brain thinking. And closely associated with creative thinking are the right-brain thinking processes, especially the two major ones associated with creative thinking and that’s imagination, as you mentioned, and intuition. So, those are both right-brain thought processes. I don’t know I’m not a scientist, I don’t know whether one side or the other can dominate. But I do know that you probably need both sides in your life, you probably need both logical thinking and you need the creative side. 


Steve Shallenberger: Being aware of that, Firdaus, have you found a way to get into that right side more? 


Firdaus Kharas: Oh, absolutely. I do exercises all the time to expand my creative thinking whenever I go out, whenever I look around. let me give an example. You might be taking photographs of somebody – your spouse, or your children, or whatever – you want to take a photograph of that person. Okay. Take the normal photograph you would normally do, put the person in front of whatever you want, and take that photograph. Then apply creative thinking to expand your mind. So how would you do that? In that example, I would say zoom in and take a picture, a photo of just their eyes, or just their nose or just their ears, or zoom out and put them very far away, or go and get something funny for them to hold, go and get the toilet brush and tell your child “Hold up this toilet brush!” And that’s creative thinking, that’s having fun, that’s getting out of normality. That’s applying your creative thinking, and you’ll do so and have a lot of fun and you’ll get something unique that you haven’t done before. That’s a great application of creative thinking. 


Steve Shallenberger: Well, this has been a lot of fun today. And we’re at the end of our show time is flown by. Any final tips you’d like to leave with our listeners today, Firdaus? 


Firdaus Kharas: Well, Steve, I want to thank you, first, for having me on your show. And secondly, I want to assure your listeners, every single one of you can become a greater creative thinker than you already are. Accept that you have creativity innately in you. You were a creative person when you were a child – now’s the time to change your thinking, expand your thinking, have a transformational moment in your life, and become a more creative thinker. You will be rewarded throughout your life by becoming a more creative thinker you will reach success no matter how you define that success, and you will lead a remarkable life. 


Steve Shallenberger: Okay, now that is great advice and as I mentioned earlier, this is one of the 12 principles of highly successful leaders of Becoming Your Best. And Firdaus it’s right on. I mean, this makes such a difference, and I’m so excited to hear about this resource that he’s providing, that he’s provided to the world. So how can people find out about what you’re doing? 


Firdaus Kharas: Well, they can order the book on Amazon or any other platform online. It’s called ‘Creativity: The Key to a Remarkable Life’. They can also go to my website to see my work and to order the book. If you go to – it’s short for Chocolate Moose Media – if you order the book there, you pay the same as you do on any other site, and you get a personally signed copy of the book from me. If you want to see my animations and want to download them and use them, go to my Vimeo channel and you can see and use anything free of charge. We don’t ask for your email address or anything like that. If it’s helpful for you, please download it and use it. And I intend to keep going on my work and new things will be added all the time. I have no intention of stopping as long as I’m physically able to work, I intend to do that. So, look for new things as they pop up. Thanks very much, Steve for having me on your show today. 


Steve Shallenberger: Oh, you bet. Well, thank you, Firdaus! Firdaus has done a great job. Congratulations on being such a positive impact on the entire world and making a difference. That’s inspiring. We appreciate your efforts, Firdaus! 


Firdaus Kharas: Thanks very much, Steve. I appreciate that too. And those things come about because you applied creative thinking and you and all your listeners can do exactly the same. 


Steve Shallenberger: Okay! And by the way, for the record, it’s Firdaus. That’s how we say it, right? 


Firdaus Kharas: That is how you say it, but I answer to any permutation, believe me, I get a lot of that. 


Steve Shallenberger: Well, great, it’s been a lot of fun! We honor our listeners, they are such an inspiration to us. We appreciate their creativity, their innovation, their efforts to keep moving the bar up. And we wish every single one of you the very best. And may this be a great day for you! This is Steve Shallenberger with Becoming Your Best global leadership, wishing you a great day! 

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