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“What separates the successful from the unsuccessful is perseverance” with Kris Oestergaard and Chaya Weiner

Having worked with startups for many years, there’s no doubt in my mind that what separates the successful from the unsuccessful is perseverance. In the startup world, and increasingly in the corporate world, it’s popular to talk about failing as a positive thing. I understand what people are saying with this: There’s no innovation without […]

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Having worked with startups for many years, there’s no doubt in my mind that what separates the successful from the unsuccessful is perseverance. In the startup world, and increasingly in the corporate world, it’s popular to talk about failing as a positive thing. I understand what people are saying with this: There’s no innovation without the risk of failure. But I actually think it’s less about failing than about learning from failure and persevering in spite of it. Perseverance is also necessary when it comes to writing. There’s a lot of bad writing before there’s good writing.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Kris Oestergaard, author of Transforming Legacy Organizations: Turn Your Established Business into an Innovation Champion to Win the Future. Kris is a researcher, author and globally sought-after keynote speaker on innovation, corporate culture and the impact of technological change. He is co-founder and Chief Learning & Innovation Officer of SingularityU Nordic, the Nordic entity of Silicon Valley-based Singularity University.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?

The one common denominator of my path in life has been curiosity and a passion for learning. I’ve always been a big reader and there are two books that have played pivotal roles in my life. The first, The Experience Economy, by B. Joseph Pine II and James Gilmore, brought me to enroll into a master’s program on experience management that became key to my personal and professional life. The second, The Singularity is Near, by Ray Kurzweil, led me to Singularity University to educate myself on exponential technology. That was the first step leading to where I am today with SingularityU Nordic.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

In 2008, I enrolled into the master’s program on experience management, which ran on weekends so I could still do my job as a manager in a research company. The class was set up in a horseshoe fashion so everyone could see each other. I sat in one corner. This really interesting person sat on the opposite side of the classroom. All the interesting conversations seemed to be initiated from either my or their area of the class. After a few weeks, I saw there was a seat available next to that person and I took that seat. It turned out to be a smart move. She became my partner in writing a thesis, and some of the research we did laid the foundation for a business we created and a book we wrote together. She also became my wife and gifted me with a daughter 8 months ago. How lucky can one person be?

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

A story that comes to mind wasn’t funny at all, but a strong life lesson. The first 10 years of my career I worked in market research. Six months into my first job at the top qualitative market research company in Denmark, I was put in charge of a large project spearheading the conduction of more than 50 in-depth interviews for a lifestyle brand in a foreign country and writing the report. I naively felt I understood the psychology of consumption and consumer behavior. But, when I met the client to present the key findings of the research, I immediately learned I didn’t as they began to probe and ask questions about my conclusions. The clients quickly realized I was out of my depth. One went for my jugular to expose my ignorance. Another one, thankfully the senior person in the room, understood that, although my analysis wasn’t good enough, the research was valid and they could still get value from it. So he offered me the opportunity to go back home and rewrite the report. It taught me to never become complacent or arrogant about my knowledge. It also taught me a valuable leadership lesson to always go after the ball and never the person.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I’m very excited about planning and running a series of Future of Governance conferences in a collaboration between SingularityU Nordic and the Human Rights Foundation. We have many complex challenges in the world and we need to find long lasting solutions — such as how we ensure privacy for people in a world that’s increasingly digital and driven by data; or how we ensure prosperity for the many and reduce inequality in a world that favors winner-takes-all strategies. We have invited some of the world’s foremost experts and leading decision makers of the Nordics to start having these difficult conversations and find the right solutions.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?

Having worked with startups for many years, there’s no doubt in my mind that what separates the successful from the unsuccessful is perseverance. In the startup world, and increasingly in the corporate world, it’s popular to talk about failing as a positive thing. I understand what people are saying with this: There’s no innovation without the risk of failure. But I actually think it’s less about failing than about learning from failure and persevering in spite of it. Perseverance is also necessary when it comes to writing. There’s a lot of bad writing before there’s good writing.

Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

I’ll share the most shocking one. While researching the reasons for lack of innovation in larger, established corporations, I came upon a magnificent research study conducted over 10 years. The social scientists George Land and Beth Jarman followed 1,600 children and tested them for divergent thinking — the ability to have original ideas. Their data showed that at ages 3–5, 98 percent could be labeled creative geniuses. In the adult control group, that percentage was 2! This means that our school systems actively make us unlearn our inborn creative abilities. The good news here is that if we can unlearn creativity, we can also relearn it.

What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?

That innovation is much more about mindset and design than it is about money. It’s easy to say that you can’t do x, y or z because you don’t have the resources others have. But time and again we see David beat Goliath — not because he’s stronger, but because he dares to tackle problems in a different way.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming a bestselling author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?

Somewhere I heard that the reason writers don’t become successful is because they don’t write. It sounds absurd, right? But I know from myself that writing can be daunting. Self-doubt can hold writers back and create writer’s block. It’s key to establish a good writing practice and, ideally, write every day. I learned a great hack from bestselling author Steven Kotler: Start early in the morning when everyone else is sleeping and can’t interrupt you. Drink two glasses of water to eliminate dehydration, listen to focus-enhancing music, then read what you wrote the day before and edit it. This warms up your brain’s pattern recognition before writing something new. This has worked wonders for me.

How do you think your writing makes an impact in the world?

I hope that people apply practices and principles from my writing to their own worlds. That’s the ultimate I can hope for.

What advice would you give to someone considering becoming an author like you?

Start writing today!

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1. What’s the purpose? My wife once commented on a piece I’d written that it showed cleverness, but that it was unclear what I was trying to achieve with it, which, of course, is the important part.

2. It’s not about you. I’m only a channel for the message. That insight, shared with me by a seasoned actor, is what made me a better public speaker. Too much poor public speaking stems from people being so caught up in their own ego that they forget what value they are trying to create. This principle also holds water when it comes to writing.

3. Edit, and edit again. I think Churchill is credited for saying, “I wanted to write a shorter letter, but I didn’t have time.” Good writing comes from editing. The first draft of my latest book sucked.

4. If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room. A primary reason why I became an entrepreneur was so I could be free to work with the people I wanted to and seek inspiration outside normal circles. I’d never have written anything of interest if it hadn’t been for all the insanely smart people who inspired me.

5. Don’t worry so much. I don’t mean this in the sense that nothing can go wrong. A lot of things can. I’ve been divorced, had something close to a depression and also had cancer and went through chemotherapy. And I don’t consider myself unlucky. That is just life. Also, some people are luckier than others. I was born in Denmark, Scandinavia. That is extremely lucky and made my path in life far easier that if I had been born in many other places of the world. But I used to be really anxious, insecure and afraid of everything and if my current self could give one advice to my younger self it would be: Don’t worry so much. It will all turn out pretty well for you..

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’m fortunate that my day job is teaching people about technological development and its ethical implications, and how to improve innovation. As I become more knowledgeable about the state of the world, I feel an increasing sense of urgency to spend time on really important things, which is why I am now working on the Future of Governance. Hopefully these initiatives will lead to actions that play a part in building a better future for us all.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kris2/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/KrisOestergaard

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!

Thank you so much for having me. It has been a pleasure!

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