What I learned from Jad Abumrad About the Secrets of Creative Risk Taking | Beth's Blog

What I learned from Jad Abumrad About the Secrets of Creative Risk Taking



I’m very honored to be giving the ending keynote and facilitating a design lab on self-care and avoiding burnout  at the National Arts Marketing Project Conference.    Because I started my career in the arts field and wanted to do some active listening to the audience before speaking, I came in for the whole conference.

Yesterday, I was participant in a convening called the Arts Brain Trust, a leadership group that will participate in the design lab later in the conference.  This session was expertly facilitated by Jennifer Edwards who is an organizational development consultant, dancer, and teacher.   I learned lots of new facilitation tricks that I will save for a trainer’s notebook post next week.

Today was the opening of the conference, and Jad Abumrad of Radio Lab gave the opening keynote.   He shared many secrets to overcoming creative struggles, trusting in the power of risk-taking and little bets, and human companionship — all of which lead to moments of revelation and inspiration.   His talk provided inspiration overload – in a good way.

As many readers of this blog know,  I’m about to embark upon a creative process, my next book, “Happy Healthy Nonprofit, with co-author Aliza Sherman.    Starting a creative process like writing a book is both exciting but also scary, so Jad’s stories, insights, and advice was incredible relevant.

Here’s my notes:

  • He was awarded a MacArthur Genius Award for his work on RadioLab.  All of his colleagues wanted to know how did this.  He started to talk about his strategy, plans, but knew it was hollow.  “Honestly, I didn’t have a plan. What I remember is that it started with “Gut Churn,” that queasy place when you don’t know whether your idea will survive or what you’re doing.”    He told us that this is a normal part of the creative process.
  • As a radio storyteller (and this advice holds true for almost any other career), it is important to have your own, authentic voice.    The process of finding your voice is uncomfortable, but in order to find it you have to sit with the discomfort.


  • He shared a clip of Ira Glass talking about the “Gap.”  The gap is that point when you know what you are making isn’t that great because you have good taste.    The point is to make enough work so that you start to close the gap.   He referred to a Stanford study that showed that successful, brilliant creative people go through a game of ping pong in their brains as they create:   This is good!  This is terrible!   The researchers found that by being able to hold those two views and not get stuck in the negative.


  • He shared some napkin drawings of NPR story lines, including Radio Lab.   He pointed out that those spaces in between are the gaps of their stories.    Where they don’t know whether the story will pan out or where to go next.  The dotted vertical lines are moments of clarity.  The structure of their storytelling is, What? Oh!; What?? Oh!!; What??? Oh!!!.  He said that not all stories pan out.
  • So what types of mental tricks do you need to play to keep going in face of uncertainty?  To take risks.     He told two stories.  The first was Chase the Antelope to illustrate the point that the goal is really the question, not the answers.  And, not just to ask the questions.  But the question must possess you, in other words you must be the question.
  • He also talked about the power of idea grenades.  An insight that you get that explodes and get you to think about a problem in a different way.   He told this story about a poker player placing small bets based on the odds and why she takes risks.   He related to this to the question, “How many stories do I need to chase to make sure I get four that work on a radio show?”    He chases 15 stories that have 26% of working out.
  • He talked about the theme of adjacent possible, from a Stuart Kauffman.   It is a theory of evolution.  He illustrated with an example of how Bertha the Squirrel evolved into a flying squirrel – it was from a moment of fear from a hawk chasing her.  The squirrel had skin flaps between her arms and body, but she didn’t know she could fly until that moment.    This was a metaphor about risk taking – it is scary but there is a payoff.
  • He shared a long story about a piece he did on Wagner’s the Ring Cycle.   This was a long and difficult creative process.    He also people creating high expectations for him that created more fear around the creating the story.   He shared the Cherokee approach – if there is fear, you kill it.  You don’t negotiate it.  There is the practice of lucid dreaming – you dream about your fear and kill it.
  • He talked about how Wagner Operas use a metaphor of the “German Forest” and how this a frightening and terrifying place.    He said this is like risk taking in the creative process.  The first time is frightful, so is the second and third and even fourth time.  But by the 5th or 6th time, you’ve made out of the forest.  It is uncomfortable, it makes your stomach churn.  On RadioLab, every 3rd story is a walk in the German Forest.
  • He also said that in moments of fear, it is great not to walk alone into the German Forest and do it with others.

All in all a fantastically inspiring talk, especially for someone who is about to take a six month walk into the German Forest to discover insights about self-care in the nonprofit sector.    Don’t let us wander alone – come along on the journey! Share your story about self-care and avoiding burnout here.

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