WASTE NO POTENTIAL - EPISODE 2
Be Four Forever.
Discover how our reaction to the unexpected can provide us with the clarity to become the best versions of ourselves.
Be Four Forever
Kristina Libby is acting like a 4-year old — and she couldn’t be happier about it. In a world where we often convince ourselves we can’t do certain things, Libby (who isn’t 4, btw) is giving herself permission to follow the weird thoughts that pop into her brain and question life with a sense of wonder, much like a child would. Even though this fresh approach to life came to her unexpectedly, Libby discovered she is becoming the most true version of herself.
At Traction on Demand, the mantra “Be Four Forever” is used often. After all, the brain of a 4-year old is a magical place, full of curiosity and wonder, and perceives life with an unbiased perspective. In the world of business, this mindset benefits innovation and progress.
Libby is CMO at Hypergiant, a company proving that artificial intelligence is shaping our future for the better. And how does machine learning software develop? It absorbs as much information it can with an unbiased perspective, much like — you guessed it — a 4-year old. It’s easy to see why Libby gets excited to go to work.
No stranger to childlike wonder, Tanya Jarrett is the Chief People Officer at Traction on Demand. Jarrett is someone who asks a lot of questions: in particular, “why?” It’s a word many of us don’t use enough.
Like most Tractionites, Jarrett has passions outside her work: she and her husband started a dance school focused on high-end professional Russian ballet (whaaat??) Experiencing the development of young dancers, going from toddlers to being accepted to attend the top ballet school in the world, Jarrett witnessed dreams come true. It was heartwarming and inspiring — yet it was her daughter’s curious and emotionally-intelligent approach to life, and unexpected decisions, that couldn’t have made Jarrett more proud.
In this episode, you will hear how unexpected circumstances can offer us the most clarity in our lives. Libby’s breathtaking journey after she was forced to reboot her life is one that proves keeping an open mind — even when your world feels like it is closing in around you — is the key to harnessing your true potential.
That and tapping into your inner-4-year old and asking, “why?”
- 06:35 - 7:29 : “Kristina on the start of her journey to try and change the world. ”
- 12:00 - 14:54: “Exploring the wonder of four year-olds with Tanya’s Ballet Russe ”
- 17:29 - 19:39: “Kristina finds her way back to her four-year old self through the floral heart project.”
[00:00:01] Alexandra Samuel: Do you remember being a four-year-old and just having so many questions? Not knowing how everything works, but being full of curiosity and wonder
[00:00:25] Kristina Libby: Knowing that I was sort of like this creative, kind of child who like was always found just like reading books and random places like climbing a tree, reading a book, you know, like living in these creative imaginative world. Um--
[00:00:38] Alexandra Samuel: But then--
[00:00:39] Kristina Libby: and then now...
[00:00:43] Alexandra Samuel: we grow up.
[00:00:49] I'm Alexandra Samuel, and this is Waste No Potential. Today we're going to be exploring the theme of curiosity, wonder, and most importantly, the need to be asking why. As a writer and a researcher, it's the backbone of what I do. But sometimes as adults, we lose that sense of fascination, the sense of wonder that leads us to explore new things, to discover new ideas.
[00:01:15] And so I spoke with somebody who I think might be a walking exception to that rule. Kristina, thanks so much for joining us today.
[00:01:23] Kristina Libby: It's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
[00:01:25] Alexandra Samuel: Kristina Libby is the Chief Marketing Officer for a company called Hypergiant. They're a tech company based in the U.S. Kristina's in New York and their bread and butter is developing artificial intelligence software, better known as A.I.
[00:01:39] Kristina Libby: We're really focused on how do we accelerate towards the intelligence transformation.
[00:01:47] Alexandra Samuel: AI is advancing companies to a place that was imagined in science fiction decades ago. With Hypergiant, Kristina helps deliver software to companies in space travel, to the U.S. military, and to all kinds of businesses that are embracing more tech in their operations.
[00:02:03] Kristina Libby: We just recently started working with a company. They are a surgery company that uses artificial intelligence to help surgeons be more effective. It effectively uses like computer vision so that surgeons can see what they're doing in a different way. So thinking about in battlefield situations with the Department of Defense, because the government is spending $150 billion to deal with combat injuries and the fallout from in the field injuries.
[00:02:30] And so if we're able to help facilitate really advanced medical care in the field, that saves a lot of lives. It saves a lot of government dollars and is actually hugely impactful on longterm mental health of soldiers who often have a limb amputated, because that is the best way to offer field medicine, and sort of change the future of the way businesses operate.
[00:02:53] Alexandra Samuel: That's just one example of what Kristina's company is working on. Full disclosure: I am personally fascinated with A.I., but it's not exactly what I want to focus on today. One aspect of this technology is teaching a machine to learn, to evolve, a lot like a kid learning to grow up. This episode is called 'Be Four Forever.'
[00:03:17] Well, what do we mean by that? Well, when you're four years old, your brain is firing on all pistons. It's like a switch flipped on. Your eyes open, and you look at the world in a new way. Your curiosity drives you. It becomes the lifeblood, the force you harness to help you understand the new and exciting environment around you. And it's that incessant need to find conclusions to answer questions that ultimately help begin the journey of building your life.
[00:03:53] To help me explore the power of the four-year-old’s mindset I have brought in Tanya Jarrett. She's the Chief People Officer at Traction on Demand. So I just love to hear a little more about what kind of four-year-old you were yourself. Can you just tell me a little bit about yourself at that age?
[00:04:08] Tanya Jarrett: Um, so the first word that comes to mind is just inquisitive and probably the second word is probably annoying.
[00:04:14] So a lot of times, uh, growing up I just, I was very, I just entertained myself. I was always curious and always trying to find new ways to run experiments. And I grew up in 70's and, uh, carports were much more common than garages. And so we had this kind of this yellow nylon rope, the very common rope you can buy at any kind of hardware store.
[00:04:35] And I would say, okay, what am I going to do with myself today? So I'd go downstairs and I would tie a rope to one of the car and to one of the posts. And then I'd pull it as tight as I could to go tie it to the other post. And then I would try to imitate Bugs Bunny, because that's what I watched growing up. And I would unscrew the mop end of my dad's mop or, or whatever it was- broom. And then I would use the stick and I would go," Okay, I'm going to learn how to tightrope walk." So I would step on the rope and it would go 'Nyun' and it would just hit the floor, like "okay." I would put my stick down. I would go try to tighten the rope. And this would just keep me entertained for like literally hours.
[00:05:12] I'd try to figure out ways to imitate or understand through experiments why certain things were the way that they were. So it's very much a theme of my track. For me, the whole, 'why' really came into play when it came time to graduate and move into the next step of my life, which was university. I found myself sitting in these university courses, wondering ‘why?' Why am I in this class? I don't really even like math. Or why-- what is, what is it that I'm doing here? It costs money, it cost your time, and it costs a lot just in terms of the sacrifice that it takes to learn something.
[00:05:50] Alexandra Samuel: So there are a couple of things I want to single out. As a kid, Tanya entertained herself by being inventive, making contraptions, asking herself questions. What we can learn from that is this role of how asking questions leads to innovation. Even if it's just making your own fun. The second thing is when she entered university, a lot of us go off in our life following a direction that feels right, and sometimes we don't stop to ask why. And it's so important to do that because we're making the decisions that will shape our future and scope out the possibilities of what we can achieve. It certainly happened that way for Kristina. We're going to pick her story up from the same place Tanya left off: right after university.
[00:06:35] Kristina Libby: So I started out, uh, I have a undergrad degree in English and, international development studies. I was really interested in the changing world and how we think about it — how do we tell stories. And then I got a master's degree in international security, and then I went actually to work for the government and I realized I don't have the temperament for government work that I like to do things a lot more quickly. I want to see results really quickly. And that sort of led into a moonlighting career where I did social media consulting. And then that led into a job at Microsoft where I oversaw consumer PR across all of their technology products. And that's when I got like super hot on tech. And I started to realize this idea that,
[00:07:23] "Oh, technology is changing the world. It is dictating where we're going."
[00:07:29] Alexandra Samuel: Kristina's life turned to tech unexpectedly. When you're in tech, you often end up surrounded by world-changing innovation. But the industry often fails to truly consider the implications of what it's building.
[00:07:45] Kristina Libby: The other problem related to that is the fact that technology can be extremely detrimental. That is largely because people who run technology companies are not steeped in our political, social, cultural, contextual history. However, we give them sort of this massive leadership role, we give them sort of this iconic status. We have, in essence, gone to pledge at the church of technology.
[00:08:12] There is a lot of problems with that though, which is, I think a large number of technology leaders are extremely idealistic in what they think their technology can do. Doctors have been trained in ethics, lawyers for hundreds of years, bankers for the last hundred years, these other industries that had a really big impact on sort of different parts of our lives that required ethical training.
[00:08:35] If I went to be part of conversations about our future or thinking about what human architecture looks like, right now the place is really with technology. And so that was a think a big sea change moment for me. And then a number of other things happened and eventually I landed here at Hypergiant. Which is extremely interesting because it is a company that is very focused on the future, what's next, how do we build towards that? And using all of this sort of cutting edge of the moment technology to ask those questions, but it's run by people who have really strong technology chops but are really, I call them humanist in perspective in that there's a lot of internal question asking about what kind of world do we want to build?
[00:09:17] What kind of world do we want to be part of? Is the technology that we're building in service of that world. And so it is really an interesting hybrid of sort of that whole history.
[00:09:30] Alexandra Samuel: Kristina was used to working in tech by now. But one day things changed for her. A little bit about her. She's an active person. She likes to go kite surfing. If you don't know what that is, I didn't know it myself, it's basically a hybrid of surfing and parachuting. You take a surfboard, a parachute, you strap yourself to the pair of them, and then you go after heavy winds in the ocean to get really massive speed and end up kind of sailing through the sky. For someone like Kristina surfing the waves and the sea was typical. Until one day when this happened.
[00:10:10] Kristina Libby: I fell 15 feet from the sky while kite surfing and chose to fall, or to risk being sort of run over, in this extremely big highway. And the result of that was this extreme brain trauma where I effectively spent six months severely isolated and alone because I couldn't stand sound or light or physical contact. I couldn't look at you and talk to you at the same time. It was too much stimulation overload.
[00:10:45] Alexandra Samuel: Now this was obviously a really difficult time for her, but what started happening to her next is where I feel our story of curiosity truly begins.
[00:11:00] You are listening to Waste No Potential, a new podcast about incredible stories of spotting untapped potential. The show is brought to you by the good folks at Traction on Demand. And I'm your host, Alexandra Samuel. If you're enjoying the podcast, don't forget to follow us wherever you're listening from. You can also find us at tractionondemand.com.
[00:11:27] So, as I was saying, Kristina was recovering from a serious head injury after a kite surfing accident. But instead of ruining her life, something unexpected happened. Her life began to change and that childhood wonder switch? It got flipped back on. I'm going to tell you about that in a second, but first I'm going to call in Tanya again, Traction on Demand's Chief People Officer. There was a moment in her earlier career that really captures this theme of 'Be Four Forever' and brings it to center stage.
[00:12:00] Tanya Jarrett: I grew up studying classical ballet and classical piano my whole life. And of course my daughter fell into ballet as well. So I ended up wanting to open up a ballet school here that taught really high-end professional Russian ballet, proper Russian ballet. And so I had a conversation with my husband, many conversations actually, and we decided "you live once, let's give it a shot.”
[00:12:23] Alexandra Samuel: What age range did you have in your 175 students?
[00:12:28] Tanya Jarrett: Anywhere from three and a half up to 18, even 19.
[00:12:33] Alexandra Samuel: You had students starting just on the verge of four. You saw them as they're taking literally their first steps into the world of dance.
[00:12:42] Tanya Jarrett: You just gave me goosebumps all the way up my neck. You know what comes up? The immediate thing is wonder. Their eyes are just full of wonder.
[00:12:56] We always left- there was three studio spaces within the school. And when students and parents would enter in the reception, we often had the door just open a little bit of a crack. Saturday mornings, which is when the little ones would come often. Those morning sunbeams would come into that studio as the older dancers were warming up. And dancers are typically quite eclectic. They'll have one leg warmer up, the other leg warmer is mismatched and it's in tatters by their ankle because their ankle is sore. They have mismatched body suits and whatnot. They're oftentimes, they'll be in very odd positions, stretching, they have their water bottle or they'd be warming up in their own ways. You can see people just getting into the zone and getting ready to work and sweat. My favorite thing was when the music would start to waft through the walls. The teacher would come in and clap, clap “okay, girls!” or you know, “okay, boys!” or whatever, the class was. And all of a sudden, you'd see 'pop-pop-pop' in the crack and you'd see a little head, and then a head on top and then a head on top. And it was like the whole crack would fill with young children just with wonder in their eyes going, "I can't wait till that's me one day!" Because it's just a picture of magic when you see that artistry and that passion and that hard work and that grit come together in one mix. It was just incredible.
[00:14:21] Alexandra Samuel: The life cycle of some of these dancers in Tanya's studio, where those who started as four-year-olds and then passionately carried on dancing throughout their life, motivated continuously by that same sense of wonder.
[00:14:36] It's time to come back to Kristina. Remember, she's just suffered a serious head injury and a brain trauma and she's now recovering at home.
[00:14:45] Kristina Libby: Being alone for a very long time gives you space to think about a lot of things. I think in the COVID-19 pandemic for those people who are alone in this period, we have to sort of have this collective enlightenment moment about who we are in the world and what we want to be and what we want to do. And I think that period for me was so interesting because my whole world changed and I could have just said "this sucks. I have lost my ability to remember names. All of these things are awful." But instead something happened. And in that moment, I developed this weird ability to recognize patterns.
[00:15:34] Alexandra Samuel: She was spotting visual connections she hadn't noticed before. Shapes, patterns, which colors compliment one another. That's when, in those moments of quiet and isolation, she picked up a paintbrush.
[00:15:50] Kristina Libby: And then I started to paint because it was the only thing that changed my headaches. And all of a sudden, I was realizing that the trauma that impacted me was enabling my life to change in a whole different way.
[00:16:10] Since then I have like been featured in a gallery show. I just got into this really prestigious art show in New York city. My artwork has been in the Arizona historical society museum it's been in a few other museums. I got profiled in the New York Times. I, two years ago, didn't have an art practice. Now I have a rapidly growing art practice that is like so satisfying and exciting. That I think is more of what came out of my brain trauma than anything else was that every sort of thing we come against gives us an opportunity to be malleable and being malleable means that we're opening up a bunch of other opportunities.
[00:16:46] Alexandra Samuel: As she mentioned before, it was a time for lots of contemplation and recovery. Something she says was not unlike the meditative isolation some of us felt at different points during COVID. While spending her time healing and painting, Kristina decided she wanted to do something to help others. So she started the Floral Heart Project. It's an initiative to create huge flower installations in remembrance of those lost during the pandemic. And the thing is, for her, it's an idea that goes back to when she was that curious four-year-old.
[00:17:20] Kristina Libby: There is one story that has been told to me my whole life about being four years old and being outside our house with my grandpa and going to pick flowers and give them to my grandpa. Now I went and found all of these flowers and made these giant hearts and gave them to my community. And like nothing has felt a truer representation of who I am that I have ever done. And it is such a very clear line to being four and thinking, "well, maybe my grandpa wants to pick me up. Here's a flower." And me being now, "maybe the world needs a little bit of like love and compassion and a pick me up. Here's like a giant floral installation for them." I was so scared to do that, it has sort of created all of these things, and I think that point around narrative, I was so focused on, I must prove I'm smart. I must get a master's degree. I must overcome being a blonde woman with a high pitched voice. And I spent 15 years trying to show the world that I was really, really smart. And I have done a lot of things in the effort to do that. And then the thing I am most proud of is creating this COVID Memorial movement and knowing I had people come up to me and just be like, This was the first time I feel like anyone recognized my mother's loss. I have had people just break down and sob in front of these hearts. And I am so proud of that, which is a thing that said nothing about my intellectual capacity, not even really about my artistic capacity, but it's just a totally true representation of my four year old self.
[00:19:05] Alexandra Samuel: The thing is when we're young, we can see that potential in ourselves. If we're able to hold onto that, maybe it can be the very thing that guides us forward through those really profound moments in our lives. It's something Tanya saw in her own daughter while running her ballet studio.
[00:19:24] Tanya Jarrett: Our daughter always wanted to study. What she came to realize through somehow, and I don't know how she did this, but she managed to balance her academic requirements with this strenuous, like we're talking 30 hours a week, of really hardcore training. And then every summer these kids would go study at professional ballet schools in Europe and all over. But what she realized is that when she wrapped up her training at the Vaganova Academy, she said," you know, I feel like I want to now say I did it. Give myself a high five, and now I want to focus on studying."
[00:20:04] I'm like "What?" Because for years it was all about ballet and I only want to be a dancer and that was just her whole life. But we had many conversations as she was deciding which university to attend. She says, I want to go into business. I really want to go into business. But also I just thought what a great, what a very mature thing to be able to say that this is something that I want to pivot towards. And it was something that wasn't expected. But through that kind of- she absorbed what we were talking about, which is you only live once, this isn't a practice. You get one shot at life. If you find yourself in a role where you're just like, "God, I feel like I'm just going through the motions. I just am knuckle dragging to work every day."
[00:20:47] Stop for a moment and reflect and just think about, is there anything that you love about this role? Is it the culture? Is it the environment? Is it the schedule? What is it? And then it's okay to make changes. It's okay to pivot. You don't have to go the traditional route where you go to university- you get- and I'm not saying it's a bad thing cause it works great for some people. But it's okay to just hit pause for a minute, have a bit of an internal reflection, have conversations with people and then go get’ em. Just go.
[00:21:19] Kristina Libby: That's that mindset shift is something that I wish more people would think about. Right after my brain injury, I lost a lot of impulse control and that sort of filtering that we naturally do based on my like 35 years of living. I filter my brain in various ways, right? I believe I can do this or can't do that.
[00:21:39] And the injury was so profound removed my filtering capacity and my impulse control. And I found that there were just things I wanted to do, things I was just interested in that didn't make any sense. And so in the past two years, I've really given myself permission to like, do the weird thing that is in my brain.
[00:22:03] And that is also something that I think we do at Hypergiant, which is giving you permission to go out and try these weird things. We all are driven by those little senses of things "oh, well, what if I tried sculpting? Oh, what is a black hole? Why is there light behind a black hole?" You know, "what would it be like if we went to Mars," right?
[00:22:28] And those questions are actually what propel profound change. But I think so often we deaden ourselves to the questions or we think, oh, I'm not an astrophysicist, so I'm not going to study this. And it's like, it gives you a really interesting insight to, I don't know, your managerial issues with an employee, right?
[00:22:48] And I think we forget that we become so deep in our industries, in our spaces, that we forget the beauty of contextual living.
[00:23:00] Alexandra Samuel: So whether it's with your business or in your life as a scientist, or as an artist, go forward in the world with that inner four-year-old. Your curiosity and wonder may be just what unlocks your potential.
[00:23:20] Today, my guests have been Kristina Libby, Chief Marketing Officer at Hypergiant, as well as Tanya Jarrett, the Chief People Officer at Traction on Demand. It's been a pleasure talking with both of them. I'm Alexandra Samuel, and this is Waste No Potential brought to you by Traction on Demand with production support from JAR audio.
[00:23:40] I want to ask you something: have you ever felt like work or social media was taking over your life or getting in the way? Well, join us in our next episode, when we'll be talking with somebody who's found a way to change that. So don't miss it. Subscribe to us on Apple podcasts, on Spotify, or wherever you're listening from until then.
[00:23:58] Thanks for listening.