Berthold Gunster is the founder of the Omdenken, or Flip Thinking, philosophy. After studying at the Theatre Academy in Utrecht, he worked as a theatre director and writer for years. Since 2001, he and his team have offered pieces of training, workshops, and shows about Omdenken to companies and individuals. Berthold has written thirteen bestselling books about the Omdenken theory. His latest, Flip Thinking, is available now wherever books are sold. Berthold joined host Robert Glazer on the Elevate Podcast to discuss his career, how he transitioned from theater to leadership, and Flip Thinking. Learn the importance of Flip Thinking in our lives by tuning in to this episode with Berthold Gunster today.
Listen to the podcast here
Berthold Gunster On Flip-Thinking
Our quote for this episode is from Harry Cloud, “Ownership is the essence of leadership.” My guest, Berthold Gunster, is the Founder of Omdenken, or flip thinking philosophy. After studying at the Theater Academy in Utrecht, he worked as a theater director and writer for years. Since 2001, he and his team have been offering training workshops and shows about this philosophy to companies and individuals. He has written thirteen best-selling books about the Omdenken theory, and his latest Flip Thinking is available wherever books are sold. Berthold, welcome. It’s great to have you on the show.
Thank you very much. It’s great to be here. Thank you.
Tell me a little bit about your early years. I know you have a theater background but what were you interested in? Was that one of your first love as a kid?
I loved theater in my childhood years. My father made money by selling on a marketplace. He was a self-made man in a way and he was for me a great example that you can achieve everything in life or what you want to, which is not true, I found out. However, you can achieve a lot if you pass the fear and when you have clear goals. You also need a lot of luck in life and talent too which is a gift. If you have talent, you can use it.
For me, he was a great example. I wasn’t busy with what I wanted to be later on in life. When I finished high school, I thought I’d become a teacher. I had a very nice geography teacher. I studied geography but I didn’t find this very interesting. My girlfriend that same period visited the school in Utrecht, the theater school. They were educating people about their culture in the field of theater. It’s not an actor or director but a teacher.
I stepped into this school because I like the people there and the atmosphere. This is what I became. I became a drama teacher but I never worked as a teacher. I worked as a drama director and with people in Utrecht in socially deprived circumstances, the unemployed, and homeless people. Also, the runaway kids. This was the start of my career in a socially engaged environment. I was thinking that I would do this for the rest of my life. This was the starting point of my career so to speak.
What was your first directing experience?
The first one was with a neighborhood group in Utrecht. It’s close to a steel factory. A lot of people worked in this factory. It was a very close community. Together with them, a group of eight people created a theater play about poverty and how to deal with poverty. The people that were on stage were also the people that experienced poverty. The actors were in essence the people that lived in his neighborhood. What I did was ask questions, listen to stories, and make theater scenes or performances out of them. That was my first experience with the world so to speak.
I have to assume that directing has a lot of parallels to other forms of leadership. You’ve got to set a vision, build the team, execute, and motivate them as you dream. Keep practicing more than you play. As you train organizations, what are some of the lessons you share with them that directly came from directing?
The most important thing I see is to be honest and open about everything. Be curious. Ask people what their motives are and what they want. If you want to have a collective, you need everybody to step in. Also, have a clear way of where you want to go to. As a leader, we have to be very clear about telling this in a visual and have a roadmap but you need people to step in too because you can’t be a leader if you don’t have followers. Also, they don’t have to follow you. They have to follow the common idea. It’s not about you.
As a leader, you are at the bottom of the pyramid supporting the whole system instead of leading the troops. Still, you need this common tune, goal, and aspiration. I’ve worked with homeless people too, which is an even more difficult group because some of them were partly on the streets. I made a theater play in Chicago the US too with homeless people there.
What I noticed is that this group was a loose end. People didn’t connect but as soon as the deadline for players came nearby, people believed that they could do this. People were interested in seeing a play of homeless or former homeless people, in this case. What happened, and this was very miraculous, was I found that the members of the group started to take responsibility for one another.
It was not the leader asking for responsibility for the group but it was the group themselves that wanted to achieve this goal. You then are together on a train that moves out of itself and flow becomes a process. Everything becomes natural but it takes a lot of time building trust and vision. Also, being interested in people before such a momentum can take off.
The first thing you said there interestingly was it takes honesty. What is honesty in leadership? I understand that and transparency. What does dishonesty look like in theater directly? I know what it looks like in leadership but what does it look like in theater in theater?
It’s like acting you know it all which affects your hand but you are panicking inside. I see it as there is this audience that has an opinion. It’s a very vulnerable feeling to achieve goals or be successful. What is success? You don’t know this for sure. When you are insecure about your qualities about the play itself and what you want to make together, you act as if you know it all. People notice and see through you. They know when you are insecure.
As soon as they know that you are the emperor without the clothes and they keep silent, then this is bad leadership because they act as if they go along with you but in essence, they don’t because they know you are insecure and you are acting as if you are, which you are not. Be honest about your vulnerabilities, the things you don’t know, and the things you need them for. Everybody needs one another. This is what you should send out as a message, “I need you.”
One of my vulnerabilities is making sure I pronounce things correctly. Where in this process did Omdenken come from? Did it come out of the theater? Did you start using it in the theater first?
The nice thing about the theatre is it’s like an improved scene. I am on stage and my colleague is entering the stage. He says, “I’m a bear.” This is the start of a scene. Where do you want to make a scene? It’s nice to be afraid of the bear because if you are afraid, then there’s no scene. There’s no problem. These things need problems. What you learn as an actor and as a director is to embrace problems as you can do something with them. They are material. They’re raw energy.
When on stage and somebody else enters and says, “I’m a bear,” and I say, “So? Now what? I’m not afraid. I have a gun. I’ll shoot you,” then the scene is dead. Actors have to learn to improve that problems are nice things you can do something with. They can lead you the way to opportunities. If there’s a problem, you have to learn a basic new instinctive intuition but an uncommon reaction to say yes to the problem and embrace it.
Whereas in normal life, our parents teach us that when your ball is going to the other side of the street, you can cross the street but first look to the left and right. Be careful. Problems might hurt you. This is useful in normal life. When there’s a problem, be aware. A problem is in essence a threat. Whereas in theater, a problem in essence is a possibility. This intuitive approach to problems is what you can learn in theater but you can translate this knowledge to normal life.
Everybody encounters a lot of problems every day. The first instinctive reaction, which we are trained by our parents is, “Solve it. Get rid of it. Minimize it. Control the problem.” The best thing is to get rid of it. There are a lot of problems you can solve like a flat tire and you can repair a flat tire but life becomes more complex. You are a leader of a city or organization with a lot of people and then problems occur that are stubborn, difficult, or complex. You have to learn as a leader to create something new out of it to stay calm. Explore the problem, look at the facts and your expectations, and then try to figure out a way to make this problem a gateway or a stepping stone to a possibility. I would not have made up without the problem itself.
The translation, which is the title of your book is Flip Thinking. Can you give us an example from your work of how you used flip thinking? It makes sense. I’m sure people who are hearing it for the first time are saying, “Should I lean into the problem or the solution? Is it about acceptance?” It’s a little more intricate and differentiated. Maybe an example would help eliminate it.
I’ll give you the simplest example. I live in the North of Holland in the Netherlands which is a very flat country. In the rural areas, it’s windy. If you want to organize a bicycle tour, this is a problem because most of the time you will encounter a fierce wind against you as an opponent. The wind in this case, when cycling a tour, is a problem most of the time. What did they come up with in Groningen which is a province in the North of Holland which is flat as a pancake? It was very windy out there. There is a so-called Ride With the Wind Tour.
What is the idea? Does everybody get a specific time and place? This is set in stone where the tour starts but they prepared two for every wind direction. That tour is chosen that day that fit the direction of the wind. Everybody like a sailboat is blown to the finish in there and there’s the clue of this story. Buses are waiting to bring you with your bike and your luggage to the beginning. They exist in Holland with the Wind Tour. The wind isn’t an opponent or an enemy anymore but an ally because it’s always in the back.
The distinction for people is probably clear in that case or it might be easier in that case where stopping the wind is a complicated multi-billion dollar problem. What you’re saying in these other situations is we can stop the problem. To use a pun analogy, how do you put your sail into the wind rather than trying to stop the wind? The case is there’s probably more ingenuity in cases where you know you can’t change the problem.
This is the cornerstone of Omdenken or flip thinking. It starts with facts you cannot change. This is an important distinction. A lot of people take Omdenken as optimistic or positive but in essence, it’s not. Omdenken starts with the things you cannot change in life. You might say that the Zen Buddhist or stoic cornerstone of Omdenken accepted life isn’t makeable. You cannot change everything. Sorrow, pain, and loss are all part of life. Accept it, which is difficult but as soon as you are able to accept it like new peace, then you might and then open a wider view of, “How can I make a new possibility out of this situation?” Accepting the unchangeable is the cornerstone of Omdenken.
Is there a four multi-step process that one goes through that you outline?
It’s not the kind of mythology 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, or 7. In my book, I have described fifteen different strategies of how you can deal with their problems but there are two basic steps that you can apply to every problem if you want flip thinking. The first step is to go from problems to facts like the example I gave about the Ride With the Wind Tour. The wind is wind. You cannot change it. You can see things as a problem.
When you are losing your hair as a man, you can see it as a problem but you cannot change it. You see it as a fact. Go from problem to facts. In my language, it’s gone from but to yes. If it would be restricted to this only one step, then it was something like acceptance or you’re bowing to reality. This is not what Omdenken is. The next step follows by saying yes and adding something to the fact that in some cases you can go from effect to a possibility.
Step one is to go from problem to fact or from yes but to yes. Step two is to come from facts to possibility from yes to yes. We might also say go from how it should be to how life is and then go from how life is to how life could be because the world of how things could be is a different world from the world of how it should be. There are two steps.
What’s embedded in there seems like an exercise and we’ll talk about this in terms of if you’re leading a team and how you get them to this model. I’ve heard the shared different versions in the past and people say, “We can’t do something.” “Why can’t we do it? Give me five reasons.” “1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.” With the same group, how could we mitigate or overcome each of those things and put it back on the team? Is that something that would be part of the process as an exercise?
If you want to flip think reality or Omdenken, what it takes is that you can stay with a problem, carry the frustration that’s in a problem, and stay there. This is what coefficient, innovative, or creative people do. When there’s a problem, they regard his problem as creative energy.
It’s not something to fix but something to solve around.
People have to learn in a team. When there is a problem, stay calm. While you are angry and frustrated, when all these emotions are going through your system or a team and everybody’s educated, stay calm. There’s nothing wrong with being angry or frustrated. All these emotions can be there but stay calm and at the same time, investigate the situation. What is exactly the problem? This is a very difficult question because a lot of problems are very complex and systemic. It’s very difficult to determine, “What is the problem right now?” However, stay calm and see problems as creative tension. Also, use ways and take your time to create a new possibility.
The problem is there’s a constraint. Some of the greatest innovation comes out of constraints. We have had a collapse in a lot of companies that grew up with no constraints over the last decade. They had money. They could do everything. There were no difficult choices. As soon as that evaporated a little bit, they didn’t know what to do versus companies that grow out of constraints tend to be stronger or more creative otherwise. The problem is that they think of it as a constraint.
This is a very important distinction. If you are going smoothly and calmly with no problems, then you don’t have to be creative. You expect life to continue as it did but it doesn’t because, with life, there’s always an ending. Whatever you do, there’s an ending and there will be problems. Problems can make people stronger, creative, and more intelligent. This is what the cornerstone of Omdenken is. “How can problems benefit my life?”
This is strange because we don’t like problems to be there but as an Omdenken guy, I have learned that when there’s a problem, stay calm, laugh, and make joy. Be curious. Why is this a problem for me? The question is, “What do I want,” in which I’m not successful because there is a problem. I want something. If you don’t want anything, you don’t have problems. A problem is always a desire and something you want, which isn’t successful yet. Grant your desire and stay calm.
There are two groups and I’d love to hear your perspective on this. The first is parents. I don’t know how bad it is where you are but I’ll say American parents have become chief problem-solving officers for their children.
In Holland, we call it the helicopter approach.
We’ve moved on from that. We are on the snow plow because a helicopter would apply that you’re hovering. This implies that we move obstacles and get them out of the way. Flip thinking would seem to be very contradictory to that. A kid calls from school and says, “Mom, I forgot my soccer cleats. I have nothing to wear.” What would a flip thinking response to that other than, “I will rush your soccer cleats over to you and leave work? I don’t want you to feel any discomfort in this thing that I reminded you 100 times that you needed to do.”
I wrote a book about parenting and education. I have three children myself. The example you gave sounds quite familiar. The first thing is to laugh. You are panicking. This is a good sign because you want to go there. If you are bored or you don’t care, then you are not motivated to go. First I would laugh, “That’s great. You are motivated to go. What can we do? What can I do?”
There’s nothing wrong with solving problems but the best thing is for children to have their problems. A friend of mine said, “Every child was meant to fall on because it makes them stronger.” You have to allow your children to make mistakes. I agree with you. The more problems you solve for them so that they even don’t know that are problems weaken them. It doesn’t make them stronger, creative, or better. It makes them more dependent on you.
This is what they call in psychology as learned helplessness. In healthcare, it’s called hospitalization. If you take care of people who can do things for themselves, it has a backward effect. This is what I call stuck thinking which is the opposite of flip thinking. Stuck thinking is a way of trying to solve a problem but the way you solve it makes a problem worse.
I’m not going to let you on the hook on this. You said the first thing. “Are you going to bring me the cleats?” Let’s preface that this child has been reminded 100 times to bring their cleats. What’s the next step?
I would say, “I love you. I do so. It’s great that you are in a panic. Maybe the next time, you’ll take care of them yourself.” There’s nothing wrong with love and taking care of. In this example, you gave me the child already knows that something should have been prepared so your child will be more alert the next time. In this case, I would say yes.
I might say, “Figure out how to borrow cleats, find cleats, talk to the coach, or do something like that.” You have the kid to fix the constraint.
All very good questions but in this moment where the training is beginning, it would go for a more problem-solving approach, not the Omdenken approach.
It’s two days later and I forgot them again.
It has become interesting. Say, “I forgot them. I’m sorry. I don’t know,” and then leave the room. Let panic to be there. Children have to find out. If you feed them, give them a computer, do everything for them, and pay everything for them, they won’t learn anything. How long will they stay at home? It could be 20, 25, 30, or 35. There’s a day where they should make their money and do their things but you don’t put this burden on them when they’re 3 or 4 years old.
I was picturing a teenager and not a three-year-old in this case.
Teenagers can do a lot of things themselves but they are stupid. They make mistakes. Their prefrontal cortex isn’t grown yet. It’s only been 30 and they’re mature anyway. You have to create situations that are stressful for them. Don’t solve them so they can learn it themselves. I agree with that.
Flipping them, leading a team, a person comes with them and says, “We’ve got this huge problem. Here’s the problem.” How does a leader approach that getting them into the flip mindset?
The first thing is it’s always important to know that a problem is a contradiction between facts, things as they are, and your expectations about reality. With expectation, I don’t mean prediction about the future but I mean something you think that should be there. It’s your expectation and how things should work, how people should do, or how customers should behave. When facts don’t match the expectations, then the facts are a problem like rain. What is rain? Rain is rain. It does not have an opinion. It does not have a million rain. It’s there. It rains. However, when you go camping with your children and your spouse, and for two weeks, it’s raining, then the rain is a real problem.
I know people who look at the weather constantly. If you’re trying to decide whether you want to go to the beach that day, I get it but if you’ve booked a nonrefundable vacation, it’s not going to change your behavior why you want to suffer through it versus like, “We’ll figure it out. On that day, we’ll go to the movies and do something.” It’s a thing that you don’t control.
In essence, what you’re saying is to make something out of it. It’s not the card you are dealt but the way you play it. When someone in a team comes up with a problem, the first question is, “What are the facts and expectations?” When it’s raining, it’s a problem when you’re camping but when you are a farmer and there has been a drought for months, two weeks of rain is a blessing in disguise. Rain doesn’t mean anything. It’s a problem when you have a contradicting expectation.
When somebody in the team enters, the first thing I should do as a leader is to very precisely determine what are the facts and expectations because, with your expectations, you find the problem. I can only know why you experience to fix this problem when I know your expectations. The question would be, “What is your expectation?” What is my expectation? What is the expectation of other people in a group? You can agree on the facts.
If you look at different expectations, then you see a different problem. If I want to know what problem you experience, I have to be motivated to find out what you expect. As long as your expectations differ from mine or as long as we don’t agree about the facts, which is even more frustrating, then we talking about different problems.
It might be that the actual problem is that your expectations were you expected someone to behave in a way that was not rational and then it’s not alive.
In a lot of cases, this is a problem that the expectations are the problem. Solving is easy because you can let go of your expectations or change them. The problem is gone or maybe it’s flipped but it’s easier to change your expectations because you have a lot of influence on your expectations and less influence on the facts. When the expectation from making it a circle changes into making it a straight line, then the problem is gone.
The expectation is that bike tours are never windy or bike tours are always easy. In a hilly country, you don’t schedule an uphill bike tour unless it’s a super advanced one nor do people want to go on a super downhill one. You might build things around that.
In Holland, there are sorts of tours. These are against-the-wind tours for cyclists who want to train to cycle against the wind. There’s a hard competition in this. It’s a very famous event. It’s all depending on your expectations and how you look at reality.
Are there any objections to flip thinking or as someone starts to take this approach, what are the types of things that they might hear or struggle with?
Sometimes in life, you cannot change the facts but you cannot change your expectations too. Let me give you a difficult problem. Let’s say your spouse dies or your child has a chronic disease. It’s an illusion to say, “Change your expectations because you want your child to be healthy.” However, you can change anything about it. You have to live with him like a little stony issue. It hurts and it can hurt a lot because stone is a little pain but sometimes the pain is immense.
How to deal with problems that you cannot change at all? This is a question that I have been asked a lot of times. What happens then is what I call frustration on the frustration. We have a problem. We want to solve it. We don’t manage solving it so we make a problem up. “We have a problem.” This happens a lot of times. We started to complain and talk with everybody. “I have a problem. I can’t do anything about it.”
How can you get yourself out of this circle of misery because every attempt to deal with the problem, let go of it, or solve it makes the problem worse? It’s an example of stack thinking. It’s frustration on frustration. It’s making a problem out of the fact that you have problems. I’ve made a life rule for this. It’s called the ISP or It Sucks, Period. It is a real problem. It hurts.
That is stoicism at its core.
My neighbor lost her husband after more than 40 years of happy marriage. He went on a bicycle tour. He had a heart attack and died immediately. It’s a big disaster but she was supported by her children, her family, and the neighborhood. This first year that she was a widow, she felt supported by the people nearby and loved so she managed to come through. However, after this year, she wanted to be happy again.
She was sure that her late husband would have wanted her to be happy again. She was frustrated about this. She was frustrated about being happy at once. This is frustration on frustration. She already had a big problem and she expected herself to be happy. She just didn’t manage but she didn’t find a way out until a good friend of hers, a woman who experienced the same thing said to her that she had lost her husband too. It hurts so much and the pain won’t go away for the rest of your life.
When she heard this, he told me. At first, it was the most horrifying sentence anybody had ever said to me. When I look at it closer, I realize there is a lot of truth in this. Accepting the pain is very logical because how naïve would it be to be like, “I’m happy again. My husband died. Things in life happen. It rains now and then.” The pain was the flip side of the love for men.
The more she had loved him, the bigger the pain would be. She could flip think her pain as the flip side of the love. She told me from that moment on that the pain could be there. “If I feel overwhelmed by grief, I sit in a chair and cry. I let my tears pour down and I feel so happy in that moment.” This is what moves me because pain and lack of joy can be there at the same time. They can help one another. They are friends in pain and being joyful at the same time.
Is there a problem in the world that you think that flip thinking could help with or maybe change the narrative around it?
When we are having this conversation, there’s a war going on in Israel. I feel very touched by how incredibly stupid the human race is now and still is. Here in Europe, we are relatively close to the war in Ukraine, too. I have friends in Ukraine living there and they send me pictures of the building they live in which has been bombed. This feels like, “Isn’t this a second war we are experiencing? Is this happening in 2023?” In these complex situations, what we need are leaders who can have a dialogue and listen to one another.
We are not thinking in terms of enemies but in terms of we’re all part of the human race. In a way, we are all the same. Although we differ in views and interests, we still can find a way to live together but you need leaders who have this way of thinking. You also need followers and people who vote for leaders who want this same dialoguing way of managing life. It isn’t that complicated at all. However, we make a mess of it because we think in terms of enemies, interests, war, and anxiety. If you are in the train of hatred, it’s very difficult to start.
We could solve all those problems. I agree with you. It feels like you’re watching history in a very almost unexplainable way. Also, look at pictures and stuff of things that you hoped only happened in history books.
It’s a colorful world. These images come through us in colors via television and social media but it feels like they’re black-and-white pictures. Why is that coloring them? It’s an ancient right.
This is the last question. I’m going to change what I ask a little bit. I’ll customize it for some guests like you. What’s a personal or professional mistake you made in your life or on reflection flip thinking could have helped you?
I’ll tell you about a problem I encountered as a leader because this is all about leadership too. I made this joke to one of our female employees working for us for years. She’s she feels like family. She is like my sister. We have a small company of 25 people and the core of the company at the office is about 11 people. We are very close. We know one another. We know our children. We have a very informal way of behaving together. I made this joke. I won’t repeat a joke. It’s a bad joke. It’s sexist but she makes all these kinds of jokes.
I’m feeling a little bit embarrassed telling this but I like to share my shame. I owed her some money. It was €20. We were on an outing with our company. We had informal drinks and everybody had fun. I gave her the money and I said, “It was a great night last night,” which could be a nice joke and she laughed because she’s making all these kinds of jokes all the time. I tell you, it was a very innocent joke, I thought. I wouldn’t remember this whole situation if she wouldn’t come back to it a year later.
We had a very good conversation together. She told me, “Berthold, this joke you made I know is a joke. You don’t mean anything with it and I don’t feel offended because I know it’s just a joke but I have some bad experiences in this field.” Why I tell this is it took her a year before she had the guts to tell me. For her, it was very vulnerable. She didn’t accuse me. She knew it was a joke. What I’ve learned is that leaders who say, “My door is always open. You can tell me what you want,” don’t come to you.
An open door is not enough. If you want to know what motivates people, what they want, what their desires are, what their expectations are, and what their problems are, you have to go to them. Win their trust, take time, and be aware of the fact that you don’t know a lot of things that your employees experience. It’s like in a speed boat. You’re putting this goal behind you. Leaders look forward but they have to learn to look in the mirror. “Look at what have I done in the past. What is still following me?” You have to be aware of the future and the past too. This is the lesson I learned.
Berthold, thank you for joining us. You have an amazing story.
Thank you. It was nice to be here.
I look forward to your next chapter and wish you a ton of success with the book launch. To our readers, thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this episode, make sure to follow the show to be notified about new episodes and have them downloaded automatically. Thanks again for your support. Until next time. Keep elevating.
I have a podcast in Holland and we have it in English too. The concept is I have a guest who has a problem and we try to flip think the problem in one conversation.