Kristoffer KC Carter on Finding a Fully Integrated Life
Kristoffer Carter, K.C., as he is known to everybody, is head of learning and development for Centro, a Chicago-based marketing and advertising digital media firm. That’s where he launched The Pause, a mindfulness & meditation program that has helped shaped Centro’s corporate culture. He helps entrepreneurs and rapid-growth start-ups create their deepest possible impact, and has an obsession for enabling individuals and organizations create integration between the virtues that guide them, and the business objectives that drive them.
In this conversation, Michael and K.C. discuss:
- How to create a personal value statement
- Why a value statement is an evolving mantra
- The secret to starting strong, and keeping up the momentum
- The role of “non-negotiables” and how to build your life around them
If you are strapped for time, download it as a free podcast on iTunes and listen later or scroll below for extended notes.
Michael Bungay Stanier: So all of you listening know that many of the guests, or a good number of the guests, that we’ve had on the Great Work podcast have come to us through the angle of meditation and mindfulness: Eric Klein, Sharon Salzberg, a bunch of other people have brought the importance of presence and how you show up in your life and at your work into these conversations, and we’re continuing that theme today.
I’m lucky enough to have Kristoffer Carter, K.C., as he is known to everybody, except apparently his mom, who calls him Krissy, but we’re going to call him K.C. And K.C. is head of learning and development, sales education and development for a rapid growth digital media firm called Centro based in Chicago. And he’s been a great champion for meditation and mindfulness, and he has brought that perspective into an organization that is absolutely thriving and flourishing in Chicago.
But I actually know him through a colleague of mine, Karen Wright, who I’ve interviewed on this podcast. He’s done a ton of work with Jonathan Fields and the Good Life Project, who we’ve also talked to on this podcast. So K.C. is kind of like a missing jigsaw puzzle in all of this. He’s got a fantastic manifesto that I’ve read called This Epic Life. I’d encourage you to check that out. We’re going to dig into that. He’s a rock and roll musician. He’s got three awesome kids, a tattooed, awesome wife. This is going to be a fun conversation. So, K.C., welcome to the conversation right now.
K.C.: Oh, that’s great. I’m so happy to be here. What an intro. Thanks. Thanks a lot, Michael.
Michael: Well, if anything, what would you add to that intro so people have a sense of who you are?
K.C.: Yeah, I’d say when I describe who I am, because on paper I am so many things, you know? I’ve kind of held on to all the different roles that I’ve pursued over my lifetime. And as you know from doing Great Work, that’s the secret, is to commit and keep doing those things so you eventually hopefully become proficient and pursue greatness.
But when I describe myself, I think at my core I’m a yogi and I’m a householder, so I’m somebody who has one foot in the spiritual side of life and one foot in the, all of the beautiful, inspiring trappings of the material world: family, career, all those things. So, yeah, I’m a yogi householder.
Michael: I love that. And so, when you say you’re a yogi, how does that—what do you mean by that term? I mean, it’s a term I’ve heard. But I’d like you to just unpack what you think it means.
K.C.: You know, if you would have asked me ten years ago what a yogi was, I would have said somebody who does happy baby and downward-facing dog and all of the postures and asanas of hatha yoga. And as I’ve come a little bit further on my spiritual path, yogi by its purest definition just means “divine union.” So it’s somebody who applies kind of scientific processes through meditation to pursue a just kind of—like, a more deeper relationship, spiritually, with the divine aspect of life. So I’m up at 5 to 5:30 every morning doing lots of meditation, just trying to pursue that.
Michael: So I took some time to read The Epic Life manifesto that you wrote, and kind of you unpack some of what’s taken you to that place of up at 5, 5:30 in the morning to pursue that discipline through that. And you know, really you talk about these kind of three key parts to the manifesto as I understand them. The first is basically understand your lens and then upgrade your lens.
Secondly is defining what your non-negotiables are, and then this piece, this is kind of how I think of you, this kind of being a champion for full-life integration. Which is how do you take these non-negotiables and make them threaded through your daily routine? Kind of as you were saying, that part-yogi, part-householder. So why don’t we just kind of unpack that? Why don’t we start with this whole lens perspective? What do you mean by what’s your lens and how do you even upgrade it?
K.C.: Yeah. So the lens, as I define it, has the power to either enhance or diminish all you experience. And I think that that’s much bigger than just cultivating a happy-go-lucky attitude. We know plenty of Pollyanna people, especially in the corporate world, who will smile through, you know, a very sketchy, unconvincing smile, and say, “There are no weeds in my garden! Nothing’s falling apart, everything’s fine!” “You know, I just got to get to this board meeting.” And lens was really kind of given to me by, or the idea was given to me by my grandfather, who was kind of like this Walt Disney character in my life. And he had one of those just kind of—and I would argue that you have a very similar type of lens, Michael. You have that child-like fascination with people.
Michael: Thank you.
K.C.: Yeah, and I find it’s easier to be inspiring when you’re easily inspired, you know? So my grandfather’s lens was one of, “This is tremendous! This is magnificent! Can you believe that we’re talking over the Internet right now?”
So I define the lens in the manifesto as kind of an opportunity to align your actions with your highest virtues that you’re pursuing. So that the lens statement that I recite to myself every morning after meditation, it’s kind of like a personal mission statement, but it feels much more powerful to me than any empty corporate mission statement I may have heard over my career. You know, because it’s designed to align your highest virtues and values.
Michael: So would you share your statement?
K.C.: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. You know, and it’s funny. When you say this to yourself, you know, for instance, running down some trails nearby, saying it to yourself aloud so you could actually hear it, you may, you know, appear schizophrenic or scary to passersby at first. Especially if you have a maniacal grin on your grill as I tend to have.
But maybe after, you know, the next few hundred times you say it to yourself, you start to believe it, so I’ll share mine. “I serve God and others through my creative and inspired example. I remain humble in the miracle of my circumstances. Sobriety and integration guide my destined outcomes. I consciously pursue excellence. I joyfully expect everything to work out. I have fun, and on a daily basis I cultivate the discipline necessary to rock all of the above.”
Michael: Love it. So as I hear that, what I’m hearing is a way of being, kind of what you aspire to as how you be. But a sense of impact as well in terms of how you want to have the world be different by your being present in the world.
K.C.: Hmm, thanks. That’s a … I got to pass that on to my grandfather’s legacy. That was his deal, you know? And I always, when I describe it or when I do this workshop exercise with people, I just say, “The lens statement should be inspirational to you but it should be aspirational.” And there’s plenty of things in that statement I just said that are truly hard to pursue.
But when you stretch yourself, as you know, you start to—every once in a while you trip over and say, “Wow, maybe this is who I’m becoming, you know?” But it’s an ongoing process.
Michael: So how did you find the content for that lens for those statements? Because you know, you and I have both had the experience of maybe in corporations coming up with vision statements or value statements. And having a certain amount of skepticism about the value of that, you know?Because they’re often banal, lowest common denominator. You know, it’s just, “Laminate the hell out of it and slap it up on a wall and then we can forget about it.” And to craft a statement or to connect to values that are powerful and motivating and I guess almost timeless in the sense that they will resonate if you’re a 30-year old or a 50-year old or a 90-year old. It takes more work. So I’m curious to know how you uncovered that for yourself.
K.C.: Hmm, it’s a great question. You know, first of all, the thing that pops into my head is I had really good role models, like the CEO and founder of Centro was raised a Mennonite, which if you know the Mennonite culture … I describe it as Amish that can party and use technology. But people of very, very high virtues and high moral standing and values. And so, the corporate manifesto for Centro is based on four core principles of self-improvement, humility, idealism, and integrity. So I’ve worked in that closely and that is laminated and framed all over the office, but when you walk the halls there you truly feel it coming off of the people. There’s something different and tangible there.
So I knew that that was kind of stewing around. I wanted to kind of create that on a personal level for myself. And then as I was—so I went—you know, I did what anybody did. I Googled “virtues,” a list of virtues and put them all in front of me. And the way I think of virtues, you know, in the ancient Greek sense, is that those are capital Vs, and values are amazing, too, but values seem to be lower case vs next to those virtues.
I started with virtues, and then I just started circling, you know? So humour, humility, ambition, consciousness, discipline. Discipline I added, so when you asked about upgrading the lens, I’m constantly evolving that statement to take me to hopefully a new level.
And I realized about sometime last year that discipline as a yogi especially is a core, core component that I was just never really hip to as a young musician who was used to doing anything he wanted. So I do incorporate new virtues as needed.
Michael: I love that. I think that’s important to hear because, you know, people listening to this may be interested in this discipline of creating a lens, creating a kind of vision, virtues statement like you’ve created. In a sense, then once it’s written, it’s not written; it’s an evolving, living mantra … that will change and be refined as new wisdom gets revealed and you grow beyond certain sort of structures that you set yourself.
K.C.: Yeah, I would say that the—you know, as hard as it is, writing the piece is probably the easy part next to putting it into practice and trying to walk the walk. So what I do, what I really push on my students, especially my meditation students, is to cultivate the meditation habit because it’s so foundational. To me, it’s the foundational act of showing up for yourself before you show up for everybody else. And once your channels are open a little bit and you’re more in a state of self-compassion and aware, then you recite that lens statement to yourself and it just starts to connect at a much deeper level. It kind of gets through that ego static that says, “Oh, come on, are you really saying a mantra to yourself? Who are you, Stuart Smalley?” You know?
K.C.: But it starts to feel, you know, a little bit more real and tangible at that point.
Michael: Let me take the leap to this disciplined meditation which is, you know, as you say, a foundational discipline for your work and the people that you lead and teach. So here’s my question. When somebody comes to you, say, his name is Michael. And says, “I have good intentions around meditation, but when I fall off, I fall off hard and fast and I vanish. And it’s hard for me to get back, you know, on the literal or metaphorical cushion.”
How do you coach or guide or support people who start strongly and fade fast? Let’s just pretend his name is called Michael.
K.C.: Yeah, just pretend. Just hypothetical.
Michael: Yeah, exactly.
K.C.: Just ask for a friend.
K.C.: Yeah, so what I do, especially businesspeople, especially high producers, high achieving people, is to really tie it to the why it’s so critical and crucial. And the why for people like us is that it, meditation, creates discernment. Discernment, so you could really tell your, what I call signals from static, that truth that bubbles up inside you, your intuition, your higher truth, from all the static in the marketplace, feedback, you know, people telling you what you should be doing, the ego telling you what you should be doing. So it creates this discernment that I think is so key, because as you have less and less, quote unquote, time to, you know, prepare for things or to get these massive projects off the ground… your action becomes so important, you know? So we see all over HBR, you know, for decades now that you can’t manage your time, you can only manage your energy.
And what people usually thank me for is the energy I bring to things. And I’m not trying to, you know, be like a major—I’ve never been a major time manager or, like, a get things done kind of guy. But when you’re meditating, even on a small level, like five minutes a day, I always tell people it’s not the duration, it’s the consistency. So if somebody like you is saying, “Okay, no matter what, I’m taking the 30-day challenge. For five minutes a day, ten minutes a day, the goal is to eventually get up to fifteen minutes a day, every single day, no excuses, no matter how much you’re travelling.”
But when you cultivate that habit, your discernment really starts getting activated over time. It’s like a compounding interest kind of thing, and then you start being able to identify right actions versus just actions for actions’ sake. You know, we’re used to jumping into action every single day, but what if we took a step back, a little bit more chill, and maybe while we’re in the shower after we’ve meditated we think, “Wow, what are the three major actions I need to take today? I’m only going to focus on those” But that, to me, has been the real differentiator of having a practice.
Michael: I love that. You know, and for me, you know, one of the things I talk about all the time in the context of Great Work is, you know, the question at the heart of Great Work is what will you say no to so you can say yes to the things that matter the most? And that’s exactly what you’re talking about here. Which is around, you know, if you want to use business language, it’s like how do you be strategic, you know? I remember reading Steve Jobs maybe saying, “Strategy is saying no to the stuff you want to say yes to.” And at the heart of that is this kind of deeper discernment that you’re talking about, the space that meditation can bring.
K.C.: You know what’s so funny, is you just said Steve Jobs’ name. I got these goosebumps of serendipity because I had the good fortune of talking about Steve Jobs at this Wisdom 2.0 Conference last week. And he was a notoriously difficult person to work for, as you may have heard.
However, he left this staggering legacy of things we can’t live without that will live on, but he was somebody who had a very, very serious meditation practice his whole life. And not only that, but he read this book by the guru whose teachings I follow, Paramahansa Yogananda, he read this book every single year of his life from the time he was 17 and then gifted it to everyone at his funeral.
So I’m always wondering, what’s that deeper connection? If we respect these companies like Apple solely on the basis of, you know, the things they put into the world and their, you know, financial returns, I’m not saying they have the culture in the world, but I would say they have a, you know, perfect culture of innovation.
You know, what’s that connection between the leader sitting in reflection practices and really, you know, cultivating fierce, fierce levels of discernment?
Michael: Yeah. Love it. So part of what drives that discernment is not just the discipline of reflection and meditation, but it’s actually having got clear on what your non-negotiables are. And in your manifesto, you talk about what your five are, which are soul, vitality, family, art, and work.
I guess one of my curiosities was this. Do you feel that those are the five non-negotiables for everybody and that we all have our version within that? Or are they kind of K.C.’s non-negotiables?
K.C.: Yeah, as I positioned them in the manifesto, and it’s been out a couple years now, those were always mine, and when I do exercises with people in rooms, what I tend to find after doing this for a few years is that they usually do fall pretty close to those buckets. If not, they should on some level. You know, because people’s—how I define non-negotiable, just so people know, it’s sacred life ingredients that cannot be removed or substituted. And I think soul practice and vitality absolutely should be mandatory for everybody.
Just based on what we know about, you know, research in neuroscience and, you know, positive psychology and the science of learning and, you know, I know you’re very hardcore about having meaning in your work. I mean, if you just had the soul non-negotiable, chances are you would have a lot of meaning, but when you take all of that into your work, your work tends to, you know, hit at a different level.
But yeah, so to answer your question, the more I travel down the path of doing this work, I never wanted to put that out in the way of saying, like, “My non-negotiable should be your non-negotiable.” I wanted people to explore and to really see what that meant. But what I’m finding is when people say, “You know, I’ve always been into this crafting thing and I’ve left it,” or, “I was a painter in college and I hung it up because of the corporate world,” I don’t believe at this point that our corporate work is benefitting from us leaving that gathering dust in a closet somewhere. I believe that companies need us to show up as our fully integrated, whole selves.
Because the fact that we’re painters and the fact that we play with our Box of Crayons makes us more creative and innovative. Yeah, it’s a tough one, though. When I’m in workshops, I don’t want to push my non-negotiables on people. But the more data I gather on people, they do tend to fall in those buckets.
Michael: Yeah, they’re certainly useful signposts. So within—let’s pick one of them. Let’s say, let’s pick the fifth one you’ve got there, work, because we know a number of people listening to this have that as the context for their lives. How do you find your non-negotiables? I mean, how do you know, you know, “This is non-negotiable,” versus, “Well, this is my strong preference.” Versus, “I’m kind of inclined to go that way rather than this way.”
How do you go, “This is adamant. This is unbreakable. This is where I will draw a line in the sand,” as opposed to, “Oh, I’m kind of flexible on that”
K.C.: Right. Well, the things that tend to hang around over the course of our lives, no matter how many different directions we take, the line in the manifesto is something like, “You’ve already disproven all the non-believers and straight up haters, you know, by saying, like, it’s right there in the name, non-negotiable; it tends to stick around.” These tend to be things that people thank you for or maybe are in a little bit of awe of. You know, your commitment to your work, your commitment to your family. You know, a lot of us, parents especially, will say, “We know that family should be on our non-negotiables list. Whether or not it truly is or not, that’s TBD by the individual.”
But I define it as things that people are kind of already thanking you for that you know just have to be a really core piece of your life. And what I struggled—when I created the framework, I was really worried about what my company was going to think about me putting work as the number five non-negotiable behind all these other things versus the number one.
And what I’ve realized is that it’s there for a reason. It’s work, to me, is your amplifier. I come from a touring musician background. It is your amplifier into the world where you exchange your time and value for compensation, so why shouldn’t it have the benefit of the fact that you’re an artist or you’re a family person or you’re—you know? So it’s not a question of priorities in the order, it’s kind of a strategic piece to kind of build towards that work piece.
Michael: And so, let’s just drill down on that a little bit. I mean, we’ve defined what non-negotiables are. Can you give an example for you what—I mean, pick any one of the five that—work or whichever of the other four. What is a non-negotiable? Give me an example of a non-negotiable. Give me an example about how you build your day and your week and your life around that.
K.C.: Yeah. So the one that I’ve been a little bit obsessive about lately is vitality. I have this notion of radical self-care, meaning that the degree to which we work—we could work harder on ourselves than we allow anyone or anything to work on us. We could become, I don’t want to say impervious because we’re human, but we can become stronger in our ability to adapt. So with self-care and vitality, my typical work day, like what I’m doing right now, I am having this great conversation with you, walking, standing.
I’m not sitting at a desk. I’m not looking at a screen. I have my computer up on my standing desk that also has two barbells under it, so when I pull out my standing desk from the closet, it has barbells there, and I see them; I trigger myself into saying, “Okay, I got to do this.” And sometimes when I’m on long conference calls, I’m doing curls in my office.
K.C.: I certainly hit the juice bar. I have the luxury of working from home, but I have these things called commutes. One of my commutes is I put my running shoes by the back door and I’ll say, “It’s a five-mile commute to work today.” So I’ll run five miles before I get to the garage behind my house. I’ll stop at the juice bar, you know, to make sure I give myself that vitality at the cellular level. You know, these little—and a lot of those tricks, I lifted or borrowed from our friend, Charles Duhigg, who wrote The Power of Habit. Wonderful book, you know? And in it, he says over and over, it’s like if you want to form a habit, you really have to trip over it. You can’t just put your guitars in the closet and expect to ever play them. So when I look around my office, I have all my guitars perfectly tuned, ready to play, hanging on the wall. So if I’m going to practice my art; you know, so that’s—but vitality has probably been the best example.
Michael: So it strikes me that the way you talk about it is the non-negotiable, the insight, is vitality. Then there’s a statement about, “I’m committed to work on myself harder than I can be worked on.” That sounds like the non-negotiable. And then it manifests itself into different habits, different rituals such as the barbells or the commute or the juice bar.
K.C.: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. It’s creating rigorous support structures in your life to support the things that you know you should be doing, anyway, or the things—you know? Like, I know that vitality for me is a differentiator because it drives my energy and energy drives everything, so I have to engineer that into my work day because, like everybody, I mean, I have a few jobs. They are very busy. If I don’t engineer that in, days or weeks could go by, then all of a sudden you’re out of energy and you’re, you know, moving backwards.
Michael: Yeah. We’re almost out of time, K.C. But I want to pull you back to your kind of organizational life. And you know, the work you’re doing at Centro.
How … I can imagine people listening to this conversation and going, “Well you know, this is all well and good for the kind of self-help crowd or the life coaching crowd or the touchy-feely, HR crowd. But for real people who have a real job and a real life,” you know? Whatever. So what are your thoughts in terms of going, “This is why this stuff matters to work.” But more importantly, how have you made it something that resonates and kind of imbues a culture at Centro?
K.C.: Sure, sure. Well like I said, I’ve been lucky to work in a real petri dish for culture, award-winning culture; we win a lot of awards. We’ve won Best Place to Work in Ad Age, Crain’s a bunch of times, Fortune magazine. And the thing is with our culture, it’s a young culture, you know? A lot of companies are up against that now. It’s Gen Y – I’m a Gen X and I’m all of a sudden an old guy– and Millennials and what I’m finding in terms of inspiring our people to have meaning and, you know, pursue mastery, stick around, is that the best thing you could do is kind of walk your walk and try to be your best example. So when I was a sales director a few years ago, I was kind of burning the candle at all ends. You know, crazy travel, not the best food choices. And so, now that I run sales training and development for, you know, 100-plus sales people, I was one of 40 sales people when I started; now we have 110.
K.C.: And in doing that, what I find when sales people come up to me at our conferences, they’ll say, “Gosh, like, how do you …” And this is going to sound egoic, but I swear it’s not. They’ll say, you know, “Are you Benjamin Buttoning? Are you getting younger? Your energy is changed. And you know, how do I find that balance and how …?”
So what I’m always trying to do is to inspire their best performance and best work, but do it from a place of don’t neglect your family, create a meditation practice. You know, it’s interesting that some of our superstar sellers are quiet yogis in their personal lives now. You know, that, to me, is the intersection of soul and business that I’ve always kind of been chasing. I think that, you know, as difficult a character as Steve Jobs was, he ended up landing on that. But so, the people that say it’s touchy-feely or whatever, we all know that people drive business and there’s a million and one ways to motivate people, but by trying to be an authentic example and trying to instill that in others, that creates kind of this catalytic effect, what I call catalytic leadership, that really just goes through the organization.
Michael: Fantastic. K.C., for people who want to find out more about you and your work and what you’re bringing to the world, where can they find you on the web?
K.C.: Yeah, I appreciate you asking that. Thisepiclife.com is my new site. It just relaunched and it has a ton of resources for consciously high impact people. It’s kind of that intersection of soul and business, This Epic Life. And then, all my guided meditations, I push out a ton of free meditation resources because I truly believe that should be open and available to everybody. Those can be found in an app called Insight Timer. You just search for me as a teacher – it’s Kristoffer Carter.
Michael: Lovely. K.C., it’s been a real pleasure, so thanks for your time today and bringing your epic life to all of us.
K.C.: Yeah, I really appreciate it, Michael. Thanks for the conversation.