1 Big Idea to Think About

  • Learning is a lifelong pursuit. When we are open to truly learning, the way we understand the world changes and evolves as our knowledge increases. This leads us to both be impacted by and impact the world around us. 

1 Way You Can Apply This

  • Instead of constantly distracting yourself with technology or entertainment, take time to observe the world around you. It could be as simple as the bark of a tree, or the blades of grass. Then get curious about something. Ask yourself questions. Explore why things are the way they are. This will lead you to reexamine the world around you and open your mind to new learning.

1 Question to Ask

  •  When I engage with others, how good are my questions? Are they surface level or do they encourage deeper conversation and learning?

Key Moments From the Show 

  • The essential importance of life-long learning (0:07)
  • Reexamining our beliefs: Solid and dotted lines (4:36)
  • Learning to ask the right questions (7:11)
  • Your ratio of statements to questions (19:58)
  • How to frame your conversations to make them deeper and richer (21:37)
  • The genius and design of Jeff Karp’s lab (31:02)
  • Turning to nature for inspiration (35:32)

Links and Resources You’ll Love from the Episode

Greg McKeown:

You know, I’m picking up sort of one thread from this. What you’re, I think you’re encouraging, and I think that you have embodied this in your own life is lifelong learning, which, as a term, doesn’t necessarily spark the imagination. It’s not like, “Oh yes, my goodness. Lifelong learning! It’s what I’ve always wanted.” But it is something that has been life-changing for me, and it is something that my wife, Anna, and I have worked really intentionally and repeatedly to try to encourage in our children and particularly to remove the things that would shut that down in them. Well, like, frankly, some of traditional school that seems to almost universally suffocate the natural curiosity in children and a natural interest in reading, for example. I mean, those are just tangible examples, but this idea it is its own paradigm that we are to learn as a perpetual experience.

One of the things that that’s done for me is that I now think of myself as a late bloomer, and it’s not because everything didn’t work well in my teenage years or in my 20s, but suddenly things that didn’t seem possible to me in my 30s now seem possible to me, things that I didn’t think I could learn, I’m learning, and I don’t know. That’s something like the closest thing we have to magic. The closest thing we have to magic because it’s a perpetual manifestation of the discovery that there is a space between thinking and acting. And once you enter it, you say, well, what else can I learn? What else can be upgraded? And I think I want to just share one additional thing that I think is interesting.

It keeps coming to my mind that Steve Jobs, who was clearly someone who was a lifelong learner, clearly somebody who was trying to create space between thoughts and actions and challenging not just all the thoughts that were embedded in all of that software, but his own thinking and Jony Ive talks about how he would get frustrated with his own mind that Steve would get frustrated with the limitations of his own thinking, which I think is a very distinct kind of highly elevated, enlightened, meta way of looking at yourself that you have examined your thinking enough and that you go, “Why is it still thinking like that? Why can it not upgrade itself and think at a higher level so that I can actually grow into a better person, a better leader, make a greater contribution,” in his case through Apple and through his family, but for all of us, in all of the contributions we’re trying to make.

There’s something in that, even though it’s a frustration that I think is inspiring and brings us, really, I think, full circle back to that question that was posed to you, that I love it so much, this question: How did you think about?


Jeff Karp:

One thought that jumps into my mind is even just this sense that, like, when astronauts go into space, I’ve heard they need to point to the earth and say, “That’s down.” You know, like they need that reference, right. And so the question is, you know, we can have the conversation here and be like, “Wait a moment, is that really down? Like where is down and is there a down? And is down just some sort of concept that humans created to survive?”

Because, you know, we need to have constructs in our minds. You know, it’s almost like we need to have constructs in our minds; it’s almost like we need to build that house or that structure in our mind so we can kind of keep building from it. But then what happens is, is that I think we constantly we need to go back and look at the foundational bricks and say, are those just little twigs holding up the whole structure, or are these really, you know, the strong, sort of connected, you know kind of foundation is our foundation? Like super strong? 

And so, just like the astronauts go up into space and they say this is down, I think in our lives, we tend to draw solid lines around everything. It’s like, you know, but in reality, most of them are just dotted lines, and so it’s like, how can we? I think when we start to realize that, when we start to sort of have that perspective, we see almost everything is a dotted line, and it can be. It can end up being. If you think about it too much, it can actually go wrong. You know, I think of everything as like a pendulum, right? So I feel like it can become…


Greg McKeown:

It can become destabilizing. The conversation we’re having can be destabilized, can become destabilizing.


Jeff Karp:

But, and so to me, it’s a balance, like it’s like the yin and the yang, you know, like it’s, like there’s there’s the two sides, and I think that sometimes it’s good to think about these things when we’re in these phases when we, you know, we got the car in the shop, and we’re remodeling the engine or whatever it is where we’re the car, and sometimes we’re out just driving along and just cruising or speeding or whatever we’re doing in our lives, but we have to bring the car to the shop every once in a while to check in and see are our solid lines really the solid lines we want to draw? Like, is this how we really want to see the world? Are my opinions on these topics really aligned with the new knowledge that I have, and does it really feel like that?

Or, you know, in some ways, I don’t know, like I like to think, I really like to try to think of having, like this interconnected mindset, you know, like in terms of just like we are part of this wondrous web of life which we depend on, which we contribute to, and so, yes, I have a religion. I’m not a religious person. Yes, I’m, you know, I’m part of, like a community where I am. Yes, I’m part of a research institution, and all of these things define me in some way. But I like to step back and say the greatest definition of me as a contributor to and sort of taking part in this and taking from this interconnected web of life, and when I do that, when I sort of think about it in that context, it helps me to remove myself from having very polarized opinions about things, because I’m more seeking. You know the curiosity of like. You know like, when someone has such a strong view, I try to say like, “Okay, this person really cares about this. I don’t really see or understand their point like I don’t, but maybe I can if I ask the right questions.” 

And to me, that’s the other part of this thinking about thinking, and I’ll just give you one example of maybe just to bring this back to one part of my life, another part actually that was very foundational and transformative, which is when I was in, when I got to graduate school. I mean I felt like I knew how to ask questions.

My whole life was now about asking questions and I went to a seminar, and the speaker got to the end of their talk, and it was the question and answer period, and the questions start flying right, and they were unbelievably important questions like right, just like you know, almost like in the scientific you know, you almost get into a bit of an attack mode. Sometimes, in these scientific meetings, people were asking these fundamental questions that were putting the speaker on the spot, and some they couldn’t answer, some they could answer, but I was like, “Wow, why are these questions not coming to me? Why am I not thinking of these questions?” 

That’s what I was thinking about.


Greg McKeown:

That’s a great question.


Jeff Karp:

Right? And so what happened was I started thinking, “Okay, anything that I’m not good at or can’t do, it’s not inherent. It’s because I’m not engaging the right process.” 

I’ve kind of come to realize that in my life that I may never get to be an Olympic X, Y, or Z, but I can get on the path to improve, you know, and sort of develop you know, any skill really. And so I was like, “Okay, well, how can I develop the skill of? How can those questions become my questions?” 

And I had played chess with my dad when I was younger, and you know, we start thinking about what defines an amateur chess player from an expert chess player pattern recognition, right? That the expert players can see ahead, you know 10, 11, 12, whatever moves. And so I started thinking, “Okay, maybe I could apply that here. Maybe there’s some aspects of pattern recognition.”

So the next seminar, while everyone was focused on what the speaker was saying, I was focused on the questions that the audience was asking, and I started to write them down. And I wrote pages and pages of questions after maybe six to eight weeks of going to these seminars, and then one day I looked at them, I opened up my notebook, and I just started flipping through and almost just like I don’t know what I’m going to find here, like whatever, like what am I doing, right? And I started, and I was like, ”Oh my God.” 

I noticed that there were groupings, there were categories of questions, four or five of them. One was people were asking is the experiment working? Did the scientists set up the experiment the right way? They want to make sure it’s working properly. A lot of the time, it doesn’t work well. It’s not like the actual they miss them.


Greg McKeown:

The experiment itself isn’t designed well?


Jeff Karp:

Exactly. Then there was another group of questions, which was around are the results important? Are they relevant, like, for example, do they matter?


Greg McKeown:

You’ve got the right experiment. The experiment worked, but does anybody care? Does it actually have an impact?


Jeff Karp:

Exactly. For example, let’s say they’re trying to develop a better therapy for some heart condition, but they didn’t compare it to the current medical treatment, so you don’t know if it’s actually better than that treatment or if it’s worse or the same. You have no idea, so you can’t say whether it’s important or not. Or if the people are, let’s say, someone’s developing a diagnostic blood test, but they did all the results in saltwater, and they didn’t do it in blood, then you’re kind of like, wait a moment, these results look great, but you haven’t done the key experiment yet.

So there were these categories, and when I started to see. 


Greg McKeown:

More, more, what other categories were there? 


Jeff Karp:

So, okay, other categories. So, was the experiment working? Were the results important? There were a lot of questions around the statistics as well. Did they use the right way of defining whether there was a difference or there wasn’t a difference? Because sometimes, the results are so highly variable that it looks like one bar is way above the other, but the error bars are so large and overlapping that they can’t claim there was a difference there.


Greg McKeown:

Okay, so do you know what you think you know? 


Jeff Karp:

Yeah, exactly.


Greg McKeown:

Any other categories? 


Jeff Karp:

I think there were also questions like kind of like, what would be the best, like what would be the first application of this, like if this was to, like, you know, like does the, will this actually be useful one day for something?


Greg McKeown:

Which speaks to the idea of “Does it matter?” But it’s a slightly different question to that, because it’s saying make it tangible for us. What’s the use case for this? Are you just lost in your head, in your wonderings, in your experiments, rather than attached to the actual world that everyone’s living in? Okay, so, attached to the actual, you know, the world that everyone’s living in? Okay, so these were the categories, and then and then the, the. You know, there’s a point beyond that that you’re driving towards.


Jeff Karp:

Yes, which is the next time I go to this seminar, right? I have my detective hat on. I’m going there trying to poke holes in the presentation. Now I’m like super alert. So now I’m like laser-focused on what they’re saying. I’m like, there trying to poke holes in the presentation. Now I’m like super alert. So now I’m laser-focused on what they’re saying. I’m like taking notes. Questions are coming into my mind as they’re speaking because I’m like, “Wait a moment, they didn’t have this control,” or like they didn’t show the control. I wonder if they have it. 

So now those questions that others are asking are now coming to me because I know the motivation behind why these questions are being asked, and I’m also able to take the information in my mind and connect dots with what they’re saying and come up with ideas for next experiments. So now I’m actually not only just totally zoned into my curiosity, but I’m also now becoming creative. I’m thinking of the next experiment they could do. I’m thinking of another way they could apply their results.

You know, and through this process, I realized that asking questions is a skill that I can get better at and, by the way, I can also in social settings. I can go to an event and I can watch what questions other people ask each other. You know, there’s usually a few people who are really good at schmoozing and I can be like, wow, that person’s just really good in the social setting. What questions are they asking, you know, and I can start to learn. 


Greg McKeown:

Did you do that? 


Jeff Karp:

I have done that. Yeah.


Greg McKeown:

What do you find that people that are really good at that sort of, let’s say, first phase of conversation, you know what kinds of questions do they ask?


Jeff Karp:

What I found is really it’s the questions that get at people’s personal evolution. Like it’s questions that get at something you know, like there’s the standard questions that you think to ask like, oh, what’s your name, when are you from? Like you know, what do you do, what’s your job.


Greg McKeown:

I hate those.


Jeff Karp:

Those tend not to go very well, but you don’t get too far. But if you start to ask questions about I don’t know where I gravitate towards through this process, is I like to know where people started their lives and how did they get on this journey to where they are today. Like, what was their path to get there? Like, I am fascinated by that, and I find that what I’ve realized is the people who are engaging the motion of these social settings are leading with true curiosity. They really want to know.

And so, to me, what I got out of it is, if I want to do well in a social setting, I have to glue into, tap into my own curiosity. If I’m asking questions I’m not curious about, I’m not going to listen to the answer, right? I’m not going to be able to, the conversation’s not going to flow. But if I tune into myself and start, what I realized is I love learning about people’s paths and pivots and, where they went, and how did they make it. Like it was like, oh, you were in this job and then you chose to go here. But like, how did you decide that? Like, what came to you? Like, what was that process? Like, I want to know all of that, and when I ask people those questions, I deeply connect with them.


Greg McKeown:

I mean, first of all, these inane questions where do you live? What do you do? They remind me of that Sting song. You know, Still Know Nothing About Me. You can ask those questions, you don’t know anything. People can ask those questions to me, they don’t know anything. I mean, of course, someone can ask those questions and you can answer them in a way that they do know something about you. If you want to do that and if you want to be open and be vulnerable, you can use the very narrow surface questions and just share more. But if a question is an inquiry to gather knowledge you don’t have, right, so that you could measure the effectiveness of a question by how much knowledge you gain and how much understanding you gain compared to what you had before you asked the question, right? Like that’s a reasonable way to think about the evaluation of one’s question effectiveness. Then these questions: oh, where do you live? It’s like people think they know something after these questions are answered, but they don’t know anything.

There’s a huge difference between someone who is living in X versus someone who happens to be in that place on the way to somewhere from somewhere else, and this idea of trying to construct the strategic narrative of a person’s life is a completely different orientation, and it makes for extremely rich interactions and connections with people Even in a very short period of time. I’ve actually done it in workshops with people where I give them a strategic narrative process, and they have eight minutes, and within eight minutes, they will learn from birth till the moment that they’re having this conversation about key you use the word pivot points, key moments in their life ups and downs, and so that within eight minutes everyone will admit that they now know a complete stranger better than people they’ve worked with for 10 or sometimes 20 years, literally. 

And you think about the idea that someone could be working around, someone working with them for 20 years and know nothing about them compared to someone in eight minutes. It shows you how rich the questions can be and how skilled we could become in it. 

But there’s just one more thing I want to say about this and your reaction to it. There is something else in my mind recently about questions, which is just the ratio of questions to statements. There’s some people that I talk to them, and I have this sense that they’re talking at me, and that can go on for a long time. Maybe they start telling a story about themselves, or they took something that they read recently, you know, show that they watched, and they can monologue. I mean, they, they, they could monologue for 15 minutes, 20 minutes more, just. And I’m like, I don’t think this is to me, like I don’t think this is, I don’t think this has anything to do with me, and it’s not because I’m not interested, it’s just because you could just put someone else in my place right now and it wouldn’t make any difference. You want to, and not a single question. The entire conversation might take place. You could have dinner with somebody for an hour or two hours, and they will never ask a question.

And I am now curious about what research exists about the ratio of questions to statements. And then this is different than the quality of questions; it’s just the existence of them. There are some relationships I’m in. I’m not kidding, Jeff. There’s some people that I think they’ve never asked me a question, and even though we’ve known each other for years and even though I’ve asked them many, many questions like they just never ask a question. It’s just not. I don’t know what that reveals or what that is, but I want to understand that more, and I was curious about what your thoughts and reactions were to that.


Jeff Karp:

Yeah, no, I think it’s a. I mean, what sort of jumps into my mind? Is you know this the type of social? I mean? I think there’s, there’s in some ways there’s like a social hierarchy right that exists in certain settings, you know, people come in and they sort of and you know it’s all in our minds, right. So it’s like they sort of see somebody, and they frame them a certain way.

And when you frame somebody a certain way, then I think you interact with them in a more linear fashion. And so, for example, let’s say, if I go to dinner and I’m meeting with, I don’t know, the CEO of some company or something like that, and I see them in a certain light, even though I don’t know them. I’ve framed them like that, and I sort of see them in a certain light, even though I don’t know them. I’ve sort of framed them a certain way. Right, I frame them a certain way. And so I go into the conversation not with an open mind. I go in with the conversation with a very narrow mind of this is who they are, and so that sort of like confines the questions or how I’m going to interact with them because I’m sort of entering the space in a narrow-minded fashion. I mean, I think that’s what happens is people enter, whereas we have this opportunity, like if people practice various and there’s all kinds of practices. 

When I meet with, let’s say, a student, before I meet with a student, I say to myself this is the most important person in their lives that I’m meeting with. And one of the reasons why I say that right is because I notice I bring the energy of what I was doing previously to what I do next. So if I’m heads down working on something and, you know, have a deadline, blah, blah, blah, and then all of a sudden there’s a meeting, I’m going to bring that sort of anxiety, that energy, to my next meeting and that’s going to impact, it’s going to create this domino effect. I’m going to take that stress; I’m going to put it on that person. That person is going to bring it to their people in their lives. And so I just think that to me, there’s practices that we can engage in that will help us to. 

So it may be that some of these people like it’s just, they just need practices or to get to a place where they can before they enter a social setting, and I was there too at times in my life where I would just do things back to back and I, you know, I would enter social settings and be unable to speak because I was so exhausted with like my mental like it’s sort of like my cognitive capacity was like almost zero because I had just spent it on the thing I was doing before, right? And I enter in, and I think that you know. So there’s, I think there’s so many different reasons why people might not be asking questions. But I mean to me, I think everybody can unlock it. 

And I just want to say one other thing. I want this kind of jumped into my mind that I think is um, just to me, when I look back, it’s super fascinating. So I brought my son on. I love, love to travel with my kids kind of throughout life and I would take them on individual trips. When I was going to conferences and things like that. I brought my son. I mean it’s just, it’s incredible.


Greg McKeown:

It’s pretty rare. It’s rare. It’s not often that I meet someone else who does that, so carry on, please. 


Jeff Karp:

Yeah, so I did it since my kids were four and five, and I had a blast with them. Part of me also validated that, okay, if I did that, I could work in between like crazy and not see them as much. And I, you know, I’ve kind of I talked about that a little bit earlier, but but I did take my kids on individual trips, starting when they were four or five. And so once I went to this conference, it was in Lake Louise, Canada, a beautiful, beautiful location, and my son was there, and I arranged for a couple of meetings, like just a breakfast meeting or a lunch meeting. And we start meeting, and my son turns to the person that we’re meeting with and says the following, “Have you ever been to the ER?” 

Right, that’s what he says. Have you ever been to the emergency room? And all of a sudden, you know it’s kind of quiet and the person we were meeting with was like, actually, yes, here’s a couple stories. The entire meal we were talking about medical stories, right, I mean, it was just such an in-depth, like fun conversation.

And then the next thing is we meet with somebody else and my son, you know, I’m like, okay, Josh, do you have any questions? And he says, “Yes.” He goes, “Tell me about your craziest travel experience.” 

Right? Like where things went wrong, and it was like the whole conversation we were talking about. You know, times when you know, like, let’s say, one time in Europe, I went to the wrong airport, you know, and I was like, where’s my flight? And you know, there’s all these sorts of stories we all have, and to me, it was just incredible how this young kid he was probably, I don’t know, 10, 11, 12, somewhere in that range, I think 10 or 11, that this one question can unlock this, you know, really connecting conversation. You know, coming from a child, right? You know, I think that when I think about those types of questions, I start seeing them more. Like a good friend of mine, Michael Gale, he asked me a question yesterday which I thought was fascinating. He said, “Do you think a caterpillar knows that it’s going to become a butterfly?” 

Right, I don’t know if that has an answer. I mean, we don’t know, but we can talk about it and there’s lots of really. I mean that to me, those kinds of questions also sort of they just they can connect people, right, because you can learn about people, you can learn how people think, you can build off each other’s thinking. Like you know that question, just for an example. 

I was like, “Wow, that’s really interesting, I don’t know, I don’t know what to say.”

And I said, “Well, what do you think?” 

And he goes, “Well, I hope not.” He goes, “Because I don’t want the caterpillar to know it’s going to turn into a butterfly. I want that caterpillar to live, you know, its fullest as a caterpillar.” 


Greg McKeown:

Live in the moment. 


Jeff Karp:

You know it turns into a butterfly, but you know what I mean. You can just like we can experiment with these types of questions; we can do that. And I’ll one more thing just on this topic.

So, something that we do in my laboratory that fuels this point. I really think it deeply fueled this, and again it kind of speaks to the point of not doing what we’ve learned but sort of doing what feels right to us. And so, as my laboratory, you know, started going, I was like, you know, I don’t know if people really know each other that well. And then it just seems to me, like, you know, people have so much potential, but how can we? I create the conditions in my laboratory for people to unlock that potential.

And I just had this idea come to me one evening, which was what, if, what if I set up a presentation competition where everybody in the lab presents for three minutes. They’re encouraged to not present on their science but to present on something they’re curious about, something that they want to learn about, or one of their hobbies, something they love, and they’re going to come in, and they’re going to be encouraged to give the best three-minute presentation they can and to take risks and to experiment with their presentation style. And then everybody afterwards is going to say what they liked and what they didn’t like about the presentation. What were the strong points, and what were the weak points? How can people improve? So critiques, and then at the end everyone’s going to vote on who gave the best presentation and who gave the best critiques of the presenters. And I can’t tell you how much of a bonding experience this has been because people get up they start presenting about their passions.

We had someone talk about hamburgers. They made a rap on hamburger restaurants in Boston. We had someone break dance. We had someone play a guitar with slides going on behind them. We had someone talk about surfing and show up in a wetsuit. We had someone talk about the bakery that their family ran and that got shut down during COVID, and they wanted to fire it up again. I mean, the stories are just unreal. Someone who set up a permaculture in their backyard and had like 500 different kinds of plants and that whole process of doing it. It was like people started to learn about each other, and it just led to people asking, becoming curious about each other, you know, and asking questions and bonding, and so I feel like we can create these conditions for us to cultivate questions that can connect us to other people, and then you know, when we start listening to the answers because we’re curious, it deepens the connections.


Greg McKeown:

So final question, from my point of view, is this. We’re ending where we should have begun. Can you tell us more about this lab? What is the lab that you’re leading? What is the work that you are doing on a day-to-day basis?


Jeff Karp:

Sure. So, my laboratory is based at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital. I’m literally right in the hospital. My faculty position, the academic appointment, goes through Harvard Medical School, and then I’m also an affiliate faculty at MIT, the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, and the Broad Institute, and in my laboratory, I decided to commit to. Our focus is on the process of medical innovation. It is process-focused, and it’s about evolving a process to make scientific discoveries that can then be turned into therapies to help patients in the shortest period of time. That is the North Star of the lab. And the other North Star. We have two North Stars. The other is mentorship. How can I create the conditions in my laboratory to cultivate an environment where people feel empowered where people are willing to go all in? And so what I’ve done in my laboratory to sort of fuel those two north stars one is I’ve populated the lab where there’s minimal overlap in the expertise. So we’ve had engineers, chemical engineers, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, biologists, immunologists. We’ve had a gastrointestinal surgeon, a cardiac surgeon, a dentist, constantly changing. 

When you minimize the overlap of expertise, your reach is actually much, much further because when you’re sitting around a table brainstorming, everyone can bring a unique perspective. Everyone has access to different knowledge, and everyone has access to different skills and tools that they can use, and it just maximizes the potential. For because solving medical problems is really hard, and we got to bring all the different thinking to the table. We’ve had people from 30 different countries. Every country there’s a different education system. People think differently, so diversity really powers the lab. Diversity in thought and, people’s upbringing, and education systems all of that really powers the lab.

And then what I did is there was a few things, and again there’s stories where I ran into walls, failures, encountered all these challenges and things, but then, through being able to step back and sort of gain insights, I realized, coming out of my postdoctoral experience at MIT, that I wanted to not just publish papers in academic journals, which is kind of the standard way of kind of going about academia, but I wanted to find a way to move those into patients, and I had mentors who showed me that that was possible to do.

When I came out of my postdoc and started my faculty position, I had a holy crap moment because I realized I didn’t know how to do it. I wanted to translate technologies, but I didn’t have a process for doing it. I’d just seen other people do it. I felt I could do it, but I realized I can’t. At that moment, I couldn’t do it. I didn’t have the process. So what I did was I spent 10 years, literally 10 years every two to three weeks, meeting with people in the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Boston: patent lawyers, corporate lawyers, reimbursement regulatory experts, manufacturing experts, people in biotech, medtech, consumer health, pharma and I started developing relationships with them.

What that led to was, and I didn’t design this from the beginning to be this way. I just sort of like it was an evolving process. But what this led to was something remarkable, which was? It led to an informal advisory board for my lab of people who know how to take something in science and turn it into a product. And so very early in every project in my lab, I turn to the outside people that I know that I have relationships with, and I start asking them questions: If this worked, could it be manufactured? Do you think we could get a patent on this? If this went to a clinical trial, what would we compare to? Because we want to test that early in our experiments to show that we can do better because if you can’t do better than what already exists, then why are we doing it? And so that is kind of, you know, this sort of, I would say, the cornerstones of the laboratory.

And another thing that we do, I just mentioned one other thing, is we turn often to nature for inspiration, and it’s this idea that I often, kind of basically our whole conversation. I think, if we were to sum it up, I think, like you know, one big part of it is that we get into these patterns, and we think the patterns define who we are, and it sort of defines our thinking. And so what I realized is that, as we started trying to solve medical problems, that the way we thought about them actually helped us at first to gain momentum, but then hurt us because we hit walls and we couldn’t get beyond them. And I realized one of the ways to get beyond them is to turn to nature for inspiration, this idea that everything that’s alive today, every plant, every animal, is here because it has overcome insurmountable hurdles. It has solved an unbelievable number of problems, you know. And if creatures, like certain plants or animals, can’t solve the problem, they become extinct; they can’t adapt to their environment. And so we’re surrounded by solutions.

And so we asked students like, if we’re we made a glue that can seal holes inside a beating heart, how do we do it? We looked to nature and said what creatures sit on surfaces where there’s a lot of movement, like you know like sandcastle worms sit on rocks and waves are hitting them, and they’re staying put. How does that work? And so we looked, and we got ideas, and then we brought it, those ideas, into the lab and it helped us overcome these challenges, and so that’s what’s kind of led to. You know, almost every major project in my lab has turned into a startup company, and those companies have brought a number of products to the market. And there’s a number that are going through clinical trials right now, like the surgical glue that I just described got regulatory approval in Europe for vascular reconstruction, and it’s also being tested for nerve reconstruction in a clinical trial in Australia and another one there for hernia repair.


Greg McKeown:

Well, this has been rich conversation. By every measure, If there’s a single specific behavior from everything we’ve talked about, that you and everything that you’ve written about, that you would suggest to people you know like I mean a micro behavior, something they can do in just a few seconds, what would that be?


Jeff Karp:

Okay, so something that I was experimenting with this morning when I was walking my dogs which is, I noticed that when I’m outside walking my dogs, my eyes are moving all over the place. All over the place, right, and I’m thinking to myself why is that? And I think the reason is is because I spend a lot of time on the screen, and there’s stuff happening. Our eyes are constantly moving around, right? We’re constantly everything in the digital world. But yet what I realize is when I, let’s say, stare at the bark of a tree, right, I stare at like I’m getting close to a tree, and I just look at the bark, and I look at the texture, and I look at the colors, and I’m just sort of like zoning it. You know, I’m just looking at it. Then I start to notice, my curiosity starts to unlock, right, I’m like, oh well, what? Shape like the bark of the trees, like why is it that way, right? And shape like the bark of the trees, like why is it that way, right? And, like, parts of it look like they’re falling off, and like, why is this falling off? And how does? Does that harm the tree? Or what’s going on? Like you know, I just like all these thoughts start going through when I stare at the one thing. But if I’m walking down the street and my eyes are kind of going everywhere, it’s almost limiting my ability to unlock my curiosity. And that was just something that I noticed this morning, you know, like a simple thing that we can do.

Another thing related to that, which I think is also very simple what I try to do when I go around on these walks is I cycle through my senses. So it’s very similar to what I just said, but kind of extend on it. So I’ll say sight, and I’ll just look at the bark on the trees, I’ll look at the leaves, I’ll look at the squirrels, I’ll look at the leaves, I’ll look at the squirrels, I’ll look at the birds, I’ll try to not just sort of look and then move my eyes, but I’ll actually look, and I’ll try to watch what’s happening. You know, even if it’s just like a rock on the ground or blade of grass or, you know, whatever it is, I’ll try to look at it and then try to go just a little bit deeper and just say like, just think of something about that. You know, like just to think like, oh, like you know, people are stepping on the grass all the time and then like, but it’s not, it’s going back up, like you know I don’t know like you would think of anything right? Like, “Wow, the grass is so mechanically robust to be able to withstand. You know, like, like all these things.” 

Or you know, hear the wind rustling in the leaves, and then I’ll say touch, and I’ll feel my heels hit the ground and my toes, and I’ll feel, you know, the clothes on me and the wind hit my face. And so, you know, it’s sort of like.

I feel it’s a way to resensitize ourselves to our aliveness, and I think our powers of observation, it’s a skill, and we can practice it, and even if we just inch a little bit forward, it becomes easier to do another couple inches, you know, and it just, it just kind of it just spirals from there.

And to me, the more we can observe the world, the deeper we can have in our experiences, the more connected we can be to other people, the more creative, you know, creativity we can tap into and get like transmissions to really, you know, like to really thrive, I think, just everything.

So to me, it’s like that, just like the scent, to really think of our senses, each one as a superpower that we, when we’re walking outside and just you, you know it’s to kind of focus our attention in on individual senses and just connect, even when you’re eating, start to think like, “Okay, my intention,” I do this all the time, “my intention is to sense the flavors, the textures.” 

Right, I can’t do that if I’m on my phone, you know, I can’t do that if I’m having a conversation with somebody, right when I’m eating. So if I’m eating my phone, I can’t do that if I’m having a conversation with somebody when I’m eating. So if I’m eating and I wanna sense the flavors and the textures, then maybe one meal a day or whatever it is, I’m just gonna try to do that, and what’s that gonna do? That’s gonna alive in that sense. That’s gonna really allow me to then bring that to other areas of my life, which deepen experiences and, I think, help us to feel that sense of wellness that we’re all seeking.


Greg McKeown:

Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote famously, “Earth’s crammed with heaven and every common bush of fire with God, but only he who sees takes off his shoes.”

Jeff Karp, I think that feels like the spirit of lit and the very essence of our conversation to notice, to see the miracles that are all around us, the magic that is all around us. Dr Karp, thank you for being on the show today.


Jeff Karp:

Thank you, I’ve loved this conversation. Thank you so much.