How to Maximize Your Potential with Karen Tilstra, PhD

Maximize Your Potential by Crossing Your Deathline

On this week’s episode of The Leadership Habit podcast Jenn DeWall talks to Dr. Karen Tilstra about her book, The Deathline: Stopping the #1 All-Time Killer of Human Potential

Meet Karen Tilstra, PhD

Dr. Karen Tilstra is the founder and president of Creativity Effect. For over a decade, she has created innovation labs and developed design thinking teams for healthcare systems, government agencies, universities and Fortune 500 companies. 

Tilstra and her team have facilitated more than 610 design thinking projects for over 37 companies, winning three innovation awards. Dr. Tilstra has also presented two TEDx talks and given national and international presentations.

After years of working as an educational psychologist and an innovation consultant, Dr. Tilstra coined the term “Deathline” to describe the mental lines we draw and vow never to cross, believing these barriers will keep us safe. However, deathlines actually trap us in our fears and assumptions. 

Episode Summary

As the episode opens, Jenn introduces Dr. Tilstra, and they discuss how to maximize your potential by understanding your “deathline.” Dr. Tilstra explains that a deathline is the imaginary line we draw in our minds that we think we cannot cross. If we cross that line, we might be criticized or punished somehow. This deathline kills our potential by making us afraid to do certain things that might lead to our success. 

Then, they examine how these deathlines can be subconscious and formed in our youth. Dr. Tilstra shares a story about how her grandmother would criticize anyone who seemed to be showing off by saying, “Who do they think they are?”. This created a deathline in Dr. Tilstra’s mind about never wanting to be seen as arrogant or showing off in any way. She had to overcome that fear to reach her full potential. 

How Fear Kills Your Potential

Later, Jenn shares that many leaders, including herself, fear appearing imperfect. This deathline holds many achievers back from maximizing their potential. Dr. Tilstra agrees, sharing that many leaders she has worked with struggle with imposter syndrome

Dr. Tilstra believes that fear is the number one killer of potential. She shares that “It can be debilitating for people. Oftentimes I’m doing workshops or leading a class, I’ll say, you know, we all are creative with leadership potential. They will say, oh, not me, not me. I said, no, everybody is creative. There’s just no way around that. And I honestly believe even though some people don’t agree with me on this, I honestly believe everybody has leadership potential.“

When leaders are afraid to be authentic or afraid to be wrong, it prevents them from fully engaging their team. Jenn agrees that these deathlines cause people to hold back their creativity and innovation

The Four Words You Need to Maximize Potential and Cross Your Deathline

Next, Dr. Tilstra shares the four words you need when you find yourself at a deathline and want to cross it. 

  1. Space – When facing fear, creating a space for new thought is helpful. 
  2. Grace – When we activate a deathline, we often need to extend grace or forgiveness to begin overcoming that deathline. 
  3. Pace – Leaders usually only know how to move fast. However, sometimes we need to slow down to see the big picture. 
  4. Place – Find the right place for your best work. Some people get their best ideas in a conference room. Some people gain clarity by going for a walk. Find the right place to maximize your potential. 

Jenn and Dr. Tilstra agree this is excellent advice and stress the effectiveness of taking a pause or deep breath when you feel afraid. 

The Power of Admitting Your Mistakes

Later in the discussion, Jenn and Dr. Tilstra discuss another common deathline for leaders and employees alike: admitting mistakes. She shares a story about a leader she had who readily admitted when he made a mistake in any situation. 

That leader created a workplace where employees were not afraid to admit their mistakes. They weren’t afraid to say they didn’t have all the answers. This allowed everyone to be creative and innovative and feel confident about sharing their ideas. 

How Crossing Your Deathline Improves Brainstorming

Dr. Tilstra advises making the term deathline part of your workplace vocabulary. When teams are afraid, they get stuck. If we can feel comfortable saying what we are afraid of, we can deal with it and move forward. 

Another technique she uses is what she calls “stinky fish”. She asks her team to write down their biggest fear about a project or their “stinky fish”. When they get the fears out on the table, they can then work as a team to turn the “stinky fish” into a “catch of the day”. 

Taking small steps to cross your deathlines and overcome your fears will allow you to focus on the big picture to maximize the potential of your team. 

Where to Find More from Karen Tilstra, PhD