Conversations: Nomad Interview | Varyer

Time to Grow

Frederik G. Pferdt, First and Former Chief Innovation Evangelist at Google, explores empathy as a profound human skill and reveals how it can shape a better future for all of us, in this excerpt from ‘Nomad Interview’ magazine.

The fourth volume from Nomad Interview - Future Mindest, is about preparing to adapt to the changing future. In this issue, a transformative journey from San Francisco to Paris engages with visionary individuals who share their insights on the future mindset. Editor and publisher, Seo Beom-sang sat down with Frederik G. Pferdt, Chief Innovation Evangelist at Google, to explore empathy as a profound human skill and reveal how it can shape a better future for all of us.

Where does creativity come from, and how does it manifest itself? Frederik G. Pferdt, Chief Innovation Evangelist responsible for the creation of Google’s culture of creative innovation, established Google Garage, a place that supports hackers, designers, and developers to work together and test new ideas. To Pferdt, the seed of creativity is found in radical optimism, empathy, curiosity, and experimentation, and creativity is to empathize with others’ thoughts, to be curious, to look at opportunities, and to create the future through experimentation.

But many enterprises and individuals suffer from the fear of failure, which constrains their thoughts and actions and prevents them from attempting new things. Pferdt says that it is important to create an environment where one can feel ‘psychological safety’ if one is to engage openly, feel respected, and be free to exercise one’s thoughts. People feel a sense of belonging, pride, and safety in a community where one can dedicate one’s love and heart to. In Google, Pferdt uses the ‘Penguin Award’ to applaud small successes and failures made by taking risks. He also encourages people to train their minds so that taking risks can serve as important experiences in one’s growth. “Just as one trains one’s body, one can train one’s mind to think of new thoughts, which lead to new cultures.

This creates a culture that promotes risk-taking in Google, which goes from individual acts to the collective consciousness, and then, forms the basis of Google’s identity.

Empathy is one of the most deeply human skills that we have because it really helps to understand yourself. That doesn’t just apply to human beings. You can also have empathy for the planet. Empathy involves going beyond that because it helps you to shift your perspective. We can even train ourselves to be more empathetic. Doing so helps us to build better solutions in the future as well.

What inspires Frederik G. Pferdt? What informs your personality, attitude, and thought process?

That’s a good question. I’ve been involved in thinking about a future mindset for quite some time now. As the Chief Innovation Evangelist of Google, I try to understand the future. I have discovered a lot of things in myself as well that are kind of like I would say simmering and waiting for me to try to bring them out again. And those are some of the characteristics, attitudes, mindsets, or maybe dimensions of our mindset that I described as a future mindset as well. It starts with what I call radical optimism.

I’m generally kind of like a very optimistic person. Looking at situations always with an eye toward the positive, like “What’s the opportunity here?” One example was when we had to actually leave the house here two years ago because of the wildfires. They were actually close by, like a mile from here. You could see them from here. We had to evacuate. For me, instead of being fearful and anxious and translating that onto my children, I was trying to see the opportunity here, like “What’s the situation, “and what can we make out of it?” So what we did is we decided to take a ten-day road trip with our little VW Vanagon to connect as a family. When we had to leave, I asked the children what they wanted to take with them because we didn’t know if we were going to return, and they said, “We don’t need to take a lot because we have everything. We have our family, we have each other, and we have our shared love and so forth.” And that was kind of like a really fascinating moment for me because it showed me that the future is not about a thing. It’s not about a product or a technology.

As humans, we have an optimistic mindset. We are trying to really shape whatever is going to be happening tomorrow. So we actually used that situation – the problem of climate change and the wildfires and so forth – as an opportunity to ask “How can we live a more sustainable lifestyle? How can we have maybe a net positive impact on the environment? Instead of like always just taking from and destroying the environment, how can we have a more positive impact on nature and live more in line with nature?” And that’s why, about two years ago, “we started building all these things. There was basically just a hill there, nothing was here, and so we built a greenhouse where we now have like our own food growing, and we have our own water supply that gives us water. It’s just that there were times when we really had to leave. We realized climate change is something very important to us, and we want to help with it. You just have to have an optimistic mindset about it.

The other thing is that, for me, something that probably defines me is curiosity – that curiosity where I always try to explore and discover. For me, when I go on the ocean in our sailboat with our children, we get into that explorer mindset where we’re curious: “What’s the weather going to be? Where is the wind going to take us?” You’re really kind of like in that curiosity mode, which is something children have really had since they were born, like crawling around on the floor, putting everything in their mouth, tasting it, and seeing if it tastes good or not, spitting it out again, or grabbing things and seeing things and smelling things. So that curiosity is something truly fascinating. I want us to keep that curiosity, even when we grow up. So that’s another part that defines some of my attitude.

Another idea that I really kind of live by is endless experimentation, which means always trying things – taking bigger risks and trying different things and seeing what you can learn from them. We didn’t know how to grow fruits or vegetables, but we experimented with it and learned it. We didn’t know how to build a geodesic dome, but we tried it and experimented with it. And even doing something like online education; our kids had never experimented with it because they always went to school and technology was just a small part of it, but now they tried online learning in a way that helped them to really see the benefits of it as well. So experimentation – trying new things – is something that I’m always passionate about.

And my last bit is around empathy. For me, empathy is such a core value for really understanding people’s perspectives, shifting your own perspective to see other people’s problems and other people’s views, and using that empathy as an advantage. In this way, you can shift your perspective to really understand their needs. And I think that’s something I’m also very passionate about.

I’m curious about how our lives are changing as we experience the COVID-19 pandemic. How are we preparing for the future based on these changes?

Great question. Over the last decade, I think we saw many big problems and challenges in the world. For me, it’s kind of like the things you mentioned but also social injustice and inequality. We have problems related to climate change and manifesting a war. And the pandemic is just another global problem that we all kind of experienced. But for me, all those challenges also provide opportunities where we can learn something. My hope is actually that we move out of the pandemic or move forward but with everything we learned over the past two years and actually apply them instead of feeling that we should go back to what was normal back in the day. I think we should actually make progress, using all that we’ve learned to shape a better future. And I think that’s the exciting part. There are many things we probably wouldn’t have discovered so quickly if the pandemic hadn’t happened. I also see that there’s a lot of suffering, a lot of loss, obviously. But, at the same time, humanity learned a lot. We learned the value of connection, the value of relationships, the value of education and continuous learning and growth. “We also probably learned the value of technology again and what it can bring into our daily lives if we use it the right way. So I think all these lessons can be helpful for moving on to a better future and shaping that future.

Again, I think the problems won’t stop. I think they’re getting more complex. I think they’re probably going to be even bigger in the future. But what we can change is our attitude and our mindset toward those problems – how we see those problems, the way that they create opportunities, and how we use them as a means of learning. Hopefully, we can turn the problems into something where we all feel better and we all kind of shape the future we want for the world.

The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us the importance of maintaining a healthy work-life balance. When you are not working, what do you usually do? How do you spend your time?

I think we also discovered a new relationship to work. I think work and life have always been seen separately, but I think they are now more interconnected. That’s how I see it. I think we must change our attitude toward what is work and what is life. It’s not just black and white all the time. Having that new relationship with“work is actually exciting; if you see work as something where you contribute to society, you’re having an impact on the world. When you’re doing something you’re passionate about, you approach work differently as well. I think that can translate back into your life as well – how you see life. Work does not have to be something that is a burden, something that you have to do. It should be something you want to do and you really enjoy doing.

For me, I think what I’m spending most of my time doing is experimenting. Trying new things and trying different things. So that gives me the learning I need to continue growing. That’s where our family model comes in, based around finding time to grow, which can be seen differently. It can be seen as “Take your time to grow” but also “Now is the time to grow.”

I think that’s probably one of the most important things that we can do in work and in life – simply experiment. That also means trying out the future. With experiments, you can actually try out the future and see what it feels like. Instead of just thinking about it, “you can run a small experiment, teach a couple of friends, teach your students to see how the future could look if you’re going to be like a full-time teacher or professor in the future. I think that approach is something very exciting, and I’m trying to do it in work but also in life. It’s just having that attitude toward the future, that we need to experiment and try things out in order to understand how they work.

Many people have taken an interest in routines and rituals in order to maintain healthy bodies and minds throughout daily life in the COVID-19 pandemic. Google has also been paying attention to rituals and is dedicated to creating purpose and consciousness for its members. In your opinion, what is the difference between a routine and a ritual? And how can one create their desired life through rituals?

I think the difference between a ritual and a routine is that a ritual is intentional. You’re creating something with purpose, whereas, with a routine – you can basically use cleaning up as an example. Cleaning up could be a routine. I have to clean up from time to time at our house. But if you make that a cleansing ritual, you create an intention around that as well. I think the intentionality is something very interesting and specific. For me, I explored rituals in an organizational context as well because every organization agrees to certain values. But values only work in a certain way. You agree on something that is a value to you, but, if you create a ritual, you can actually bring that value to life. For example, if you value risk-taking, how can you build a ritual that allows you to be more intentional about risk-taking?

At Google, what I try to do is create a ritual around risk-taking as an experiment, which was the Penguin Award. The Penguin Award was really a helpful ritual because it has an artifact – a penguin – that is handed over to a person who took a risk. They tried something new and something different. As we learned from nature, there’s always one penguin that jumps into the water first. They don’t know if there’s going to be fish or if there’s going to be danger. So creating those rituals is something very powerful. You can see it looking at different cultures. For example, the Japanese culture has what is known as the Daruma doll. You paint one eye, and you make a wish about the future; then, as soon as that future as soon as that future happens, you paint the other eye. I think it’s a very intentional ritual about visioning and future. And there are many other rituals that are just as inspiring.

I think our task is now to come up with future rituals. Like what can we invent now or create as rituals that help us to bring our values to life. That’s very interesting work. We all can do more to create our own rituals but also create rituals for our teams, for our organizations so that we can bring more of our values to life.

Our brains have evolved in a way that minimizes energy use and encourages energy preservation because the evolutionary process designed them to pursue safety. However, in order to discover new things, we need to take on challenges and explore, resist our instincts, and change ourselves. Apart from conscious training, what efforts is Google making to encourage individual team members and leaders who want to challenge themselves?

One of the aspects that we are focusing on at Google is psychological safety. So that means that you can be vulnerable in front of each other. You can take risks. And, if mistakes happen, it’s seen as a learning experience. You can learn something from it. So, as a leader of a team, you can be a role model. Say that you start the team meeting by mentioning what you’ve tried in the last week or over the weekend; it can be something from your private life, your personal life, your relationship – whatever it is – and what you’ve learned from it. You can be role model, just like how others can also speak up and say “I’ve tried something too. I took a risk, but it didn’t work out. I failed, but then I learned something from it, which was great.” So I think role modeling is one of the things you can do.

You can also create an environment where people feel safe enough to take risks. Encourage people to try something new and try something different. This is very important because we all need to take risks. We all need to try something different and new. Throughout most of our education, this is not rewarded or recognized. Just recently, someone told me they had an English teacher who basically always said “You have to speak English correctly first before you actually speak it with others,” which is the worst thing you can do because then children will never start speaking it out of fear of making a mistake. That’s the worst outcome. If you never feel encouraged to try something, you’re going to fear any mistake because you might be punished for it. You’ll never want to try something new. And, if we come back to the law of impermanence – that everything is changing all the time – that also means there are always new things happening. There’s always something different happening. That means that we always need to experiment, always need to try something, and always need to take risks as well. I think it’s one of the most important things for corporations or teams or even governments. You create environments where people feel safe enough to take risks. Because that’s how you can actually prototype the future. You can see how the future will actually look. And then we can say again, do we own the future or does the future own us? If we are in the future, if we decide how the future is going to look, we have to take a risk. We have to experiment and try out a technology, a process, a relationship “– whatever it is – to see how that future would actually look. If we don’t do that, the future owns us.

Space affects the way we think and behave. Space can be seen as a combination of psychological attitude and physical space. That’s why innovative companies are making every effort to create an environment that can stimulate creativity and provide happiness for workers. However, the pandemic has led to the normalization of remote work, reducing the role and importance of physical space for a company. In this situation, there is a need to reestablish the role and perspective of a company’s space. What are Google’s thoughts and directions regarding these trends?

That’s a good question. I’ve always been passionate about spaces, like building the Google Garage – our hacker-designer-maker space and now headquarters. There are just spaces around here where you can connect with nature in the geodesic dome, in the greenhouse. You can connect with materials and friends and others through technology in the geodesic dome or with yourself in the little meditation space, in the A-frame, or in A school. Since the pandemic, I think our relationships to spaces have changed, but they’ve actually increased in importance. We realized that coming out of sleep and trying to go straight into work – that space shift where you usually went from getting dressed and going to work and then starting work in the office – that in-between had totally shifted. There was no commute to the office, so the office moved basically into your bedroom or onto your kitchen table. I think that helped us realize the importance of our mindsets remaining unchanged due to the location. Because we still were in a different mode, for example, preparing food or whatever it is while also thinking about work. I think that shift in spaces is big; we said “Okay, now move from the bedroom to a different space” and that has helped to actually get into a different mindset where you say “I’m focused on work” or “I can do collaborative work with people online” or “I can do focused work” – whatever you want to do. I think that space shift was very important. You could see people around the world, how they decorated their environments in different ways, how they created their office space, how they moved chairs around and so forth. This “helps them to experiment with spaces in ways they previously probably hadn’t even considered. Basically, they were more intentional. I think about building spaces and creating spaces, where they moved from a preparing-food kind of mindset to a getting-to-work mindset. And maybe these factors combined even more.

So I think the importance of space has actually increased. And now we’re seeing online spaces too. If you connect with people online, how do you communicate with people? How do you create a sense of belonging and connectedness if you’re connecting online and not in a shared physical space? I think those are interesting questions that have arisen over the past two years. And I think it helps us to really understand the importance of space and also how we can shape the spaces so that they influence how we think and feel.

What kind of “future mindset” will help us prepare for the future in a changing environment?

The first thing that comes to mind is the question “Do we own the future or does the future own us?” I think that’s an important question. What’s the distinction between you proactively shaping your future and the future shaping you? Whatever situation is coming your way, you can choose your attitude toward that situation, which is basically the definition of mindset – your inner attitude toward everything that comes your way. If there’s an opportunity coming your way, how do you approach this opportunity? If there’s a problem coming your way, how do you approach this problem? The mindset basically leads to action, and action leads to the future.

Let’s say we all suffer from a negativity bias; if a situation comes our way, we mostly look at the negatives, the things that are wrong, what’s not going to work out, and all of those things. That leads to a specific action, which then actually determines what the future is going to look like. Imagine that you are driving on a road, and there is someone approaching behind you and wants to pass you because they’re in a hurry. We can have the “mindset that this person is annoying, or we can have an empathetic mindset, trying to understand why that person is in a hurry. Maybe they need to go to the hospital, or maybe they have an urgent situation to which they need to attend. Our actions then could be staying where we are and not letting the person pass or moving over and letting the person pass because they might be dealing with important matters. Our mindset determines our future. In one situation, there might be an accident because we didn’t let the person pass. Maybe we even stepped on the brakes and put both of us in danger, which could lead to a future where we might be in the hospital. Or we let the person pass since they might have something important going on. That might lead to a future where that person can reach their destination, and we don’t end up in a hospital and can continue our travels as well.”“But, most of the time, our monkey brain takes over. If we’re faced with a situation like that, we usually kind of react with our impulses – very negatively – or we make assumptions about the other person. But, when we kind of step back, take a deep breath or two or three, think about the situation, and let the human brain kick in, we can look at different choices. These choices will then hopefully determine a better future as well. I think working on your mindset helps you to determine the best actions, which then determine your future.

For me, there are five dimensions necessary for the future mindset. One is a radical optimism, and then there’s curiosity. You need to have something like an openness with no reservations, instead of being closed off and not trying to explore or discover something. You must be open. You try to allow the situation to unfold, and then you explore it. You need to embrace experimentation, meaning that you continuously experiment in your life with your work, with your relationships, with your career, with your environment that you live in, with your spaces.

Experimentation is something that always leads to learning. Lastly, having deep empathy allows you to shift your perspective to see problems from different perspectives, viewing the situation differently. Think back to that car situation. With empathy, you can probably try to understand what that person needs at that moment. They may be trying to get somewhere very fast because there is an emergency, and it has nothing to do with you sitting in your car. The person doesn’t know you. They don’t want to put you in danger. They basically have something that they need. And I think that deep empathy is something that we all need in the short-term. For me, it is part of a future mindset. In the long-term, we don’t know what’s going to happen. Even in the short-term, the definition of the future is uncertain. I think that’s just a realization that we all need to have, but it would probably help to start understanding the law of impermanence, which means that everything is changing all the time. We must accept that.

That is something I learned in the ten-day silent meditation retreat I did in December. When you meditate ten days for ten hours each day, you realize that you are body that is changing, your mind is changing, your thoughts are changing, your feelings are changing. Nature is changing all the time. Our environment and our relationships are changing all the time. Just accepting that is important – saying there is no permanence, there is nothing that will not change. Understanding that is a helpful approach because then you’re more ready to change. What I can do is prepare myself better for these changes. Whatever is coming our way in the future, I can be prepared by being optimistic, curious, and open and by experimenting with different things and showing deep empathy.

If you train your mind, you will have a new way of thinking in the long-term; new thinking for individuals leads to a new culture as well.

Let’s set a future mindset based on what is necessary from the perspectives of the government, corporations, and individuals.

What is actually happening is that we can bring it down to the individual level because individuals are forming corporations. It’s like you take the smallest part of an organization, which is the individual, and then start asking how the individual influences the formation of a corporation. And it’s the same truth for government. There is no such thing as the government. Government basically exists based on different individuals who form the government and make the decisions. So I think we always have to bring it back to the individual: what’s the individual mindset, and how can we train our minds to prepare for tomorrow? And I would add a long- and short-term plan in that aspect of training. So that might be a long- and short-term plan because you can do it in the short-term, but you have those long-term effects. It’s actually fascinating to me because, in the 60s (I think that’s a long time ago), jogging and running was not part of everyday life. Exercise was not seen as something useful. When they saw somebody running, people would ask the person “Who are you running away from?” And that changed. In the 70s, 80s, 90s, and even today, people are running all the time. They’re exercising. There are actually more gyms in the world than restaurants, and every hotel has a gym. I’m seeing the same development for the mind. Nowadays, you see people sitting silently in a corner, meditating because they want to try to understand what’s happening within themselves, trying to train their mind and prepare themselves. For some, it feels awkward, and they ask, “Why are you sitting in the corner while the world is changing around you?” But what that person in the corner is actually doing is trying to change their inner game to have an impact on the outer world. All you can do is prepare yourself for that change in the future because the law of impermanence ensures that everything is changing.

So I think it’s the same effect. We had people in the 60s looking at runners and asking them, “What are you doing?” But now every doctor is prescribing exercise, and, in the future, they will prescribe mindfulness and meditation because that helps your mind become stronger and more prepared for the future as well. So I think that training the mind is going to be part of training on an individual level that is very important in the short-term and long-term. And we’re going to see its effects on corporations and governments.

For corporations, I think it’s interesting because we are trying to search for belonging. How can we create a culture where people feel like they belong? They feel belonging in terms of belonging to the community and feeling like they belong. They want to make an impact and contribution here as well. So that is probably something in the short-term that more and more corporations are seeking. The search for belonging, which, in the long-term future, means basically creating a new culture.

I think a lot of people only associate the future with technologies or products. For a photographer as well, you always want to look for the next thing. What is it? Google Glass? Is that the future? Is it a new technology or a product? I think that’s an incorrect view of the future because it depends on what we make out of these things in the future. What is something we make out of glasses or a film or whatever it is? A phone can have a tremendous impact on your relationships. That’s where I’m most excited; we’re trying to understand more and more about our mindsets. By training our minds – for example, through meditation or mindfulness – we can prepare ourselves for a better future, and we can actually start shaping a better future as well. It’s like training our bodies. For like 50, 60 years, the science has been very clear that exercise helps to train your body and makes you feel better. Now you can actually see the same results from training your mind. That actually leads to more happiness and a more fulfilling life as well. This gives you more potential and actual superpowers to really shape a future that’s going to happen tomorrow and in the next few weeks, months, and years to come.

“We must try to experiment with the relationship between humans and technology to figure out how life looks if we coexist with robots in one household, for example. We can bring it back to deep empathy. The starting point has to be empathy if we want to really understand the needs of human beings and how technology can help those needs as well.

What kind of mission should we have based on the future mindset interviews?

I really like to focus on not just coexistence but also exploring the relationship between technology and humans. If we go back, that relationship has been in place with every kind of technology. If you see fire as a technology, we had to discover the relationship between fire and something burning and humans. Some used it for something good, such as cooking and keeping warm, but others use it for destructive purposes. I think it’s going to be an ongoing question – that relationship between humans and technology. I think the relationship is going to go deeper and deeper and show up in our everyday lives more and more. If we’re optimistic that technology is something helpful for us in the future, we’ll use technology to connect with people and to build useful things. We will use technology to do some basic work for us in the future as well. That optimism is very important. We should be curious about it, imagining the possibilities, like what if we all live with our own robots in the future? That could be something that our curiosity basically helps to explore, and then we need to be open to it. We need to actually say “Let’s see if this actually works.” We can’t tell if we don’t try it, which leads us into experimentation.

So you mentioned on the slide you showed me that it’s about redefining, but I’m going even beyond that. We need to reimagine everything, which is probably the biggest opportunity we have now.

In many interviews, “empathy” and “altruism” were commonly emphasized as parts of future mindsets. How are these abilities manifested in the work being done?

It’s great to hear everybody emphasizing and focusing on that because I think it’s such an important future skill to have. For me, it’s probably one of the most deeply human skills that we have because it really helps to understand yourself. Having empathy for yourself and compassion is important, but so is having empathy and compassion for others. That doesn’t just apply to human beings. You can also have empathy for the planet. You can have empathy for what plants need – just basic things like water, for example – or what animals need and so forth. Empathy involves going beyond that because it helps you to shift your perspective. It’s such an important thing that we all have empathy.

We can even train ourselves to be more empathetic. Doing so helps us to build better solutions in the future as well. For example, at Google, one of our teams is focused on working with accessibility issues for people who are, for example, blind or deaf. They discovered how the relationship between humans and technology is if you can’t see or you can’t hear. So how do you use a computer or a phone if you can’t see or can’t hear? And based on the empathy work they did, they basically developed solutions like we now use with Alexa, Google Assistant, and so forth, which is kind of like ambient computing where you can talk to a technology and interact with it through your voice. This is such an important breakthrough because now we all use it, even though it was developed specifically for a very small group of people. Now it’s helpful for everybody. And so that’s the power of empathy. If you can really understand people’s needs, you can develop something that is hopefully helpful to everyone. And I think empathy just makes you better at whatever you consider yourself to be. It makes you better in your relationship. It makes you a better leader, better teacher. It makes you a better parent. It eventually makes you a better human in all dimensions, basically. If you use it in your role – if you’re a teacher or a politician, whatever you do – you’ll see that, when you’re more empathetic, you’re also going to be a better human and you’re going to have better solutions eventually.

Bringing that back to what we’re seeing now in a world that is seeing a war in Europe, if we would have more empathetic humans, they would probably understand each other’s points of view, would understand the different needs of different people, and would probably react in a different way, therefore shaping a different solution and future. And a lack of empathy is leading to all of these problems.