Primers on creativity and mental toughness

Hosted by Neil Amato

Two featured speakers at the AICPA & CIMA CFO Conference, Josh Linkner and LaRae Quy, are sharing previews of their conference sessions in this episode. Linkner discusses how organizations can foster creativity, even in supposedly noncreative jobs, and how that creativity can lead to everyday innovation. Quy, an author and former FBI agent, shares details on the importance of mental toughness.

What you’ll learn from this episode:

  • Keynote speaker and innovation expert Josh Linkner’s explanation for calling himself a “creative troublemaker.”
  • Why Linkner believes we shouldn’t link creativity to someone’s job title.
  • The harrowing story of an FBI agent’s first ride-along and how it underscored the importance of mental toughness.
  • The reasons our cerebral brain and emotional brain must work together.
  • Updates on new treatment of excess premium tax credits, an extended comment period for an AICPA Auditing Standards Board exposure draft on quality management, and the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program’s rough start.

Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:

To comment on this episode or to suggest an idea for another episode, contact Neil Amato, an
FM magazine senior editor, at


Amato: Josh Linkner is a keynote speaker at the AICPA & CIMA CFO Conference, kicking off the event on May 5. He’s joining the Journal of Accountancy podcast to share a bit more on his topic, which in one word is innovation. Josh, your bio says among other things that you’re a creative troublemaker. What exactly does that mean?

Josh Linkner: Neil, thanks for having me today. To be a creative troublemaker doesn’t mean you’re doing things that are illegal or immoral or unethical. But rather, you have the willingness to confront existing systems and approaches and imagine something more. Instead of being focused on what is, it’s a willingness to accept what’s possible. And so we can make trouble in very responsible ways. It’s not about taking irresponsible risks, certainly. But it’s about being an everyday innovator and pushing the boundaries and looking for new ways to discover better paths to serve and to lead and to win.

Amato: So, your past includes time, and I guess your future, you’re still a jazz guitarist. So you’re kind of in that creative mold already, have been I think throughout your life. Is creativity a skill that can be learned, especially by people who might not think they’re all that creative?

Linkner: I’m so glad you asked that. And, yes, I do play jazz guitar, I’ve been playing for over 40 years. But I’m no more creative than anybody else, and I’ve done literally two decades of research on this. Because the age-old question is, is creativity born or developed, is it nature or nurture? And what the research shows crystal clear is that all human beings, I mean all, in all professions, et cetera, are creative. In fact, creativity is 85% learned behavior. And really, I like to say it’s much more like your weight than your height. As much as I may try, I won’t grow a foot in the next 12 months. But my weight I can control based on my behavior. Your creativity is exactly the same, it’s valuable.

So, we can grow and build creativity skills, build up our creativity muscles, and use them in really effective ways. Just real quickly, too, I think that often people misperceive someone’s job title with their levels of creativity. They think that jazz guitarists are creative and perhaps that accountants are not. And the truth is that couldn’t be more off. In other words, we can use creativity, again, not to do something inappropriate, but we should absolutely use creativity in accountancy in that we can interpret reports and read between the numbers and gain insights so we can be creative in the way we manage interactions with one another and our clients. And so there are many ways that we can use creativity appropriately in accounting as much as we do in jazz guitar or painting on canvas or anywhere in between.

Amato: Your keynote at the CFO Conference is about small everyday innovations driving oversized results, at least that’s the summary of the title I saw. Can you give a preview or a brief example of what those small everyday innovations might mean to you?

Linkner: Yeah, another misconception that I just love dispelling this myth is that innovation is only for — it only counts if it’s a billion-dollar idea or if it changes the world. And a lot of times people also think that it only counts for certain roles. And, obviously, many people in accounting think that their job is not to be creative. That it only applies to someone wearing a lab coat or a hoodie. My session with the group is going to flip those premises upside down. And we’re going to reveal a really pragmatic approach to cultivating everyday innovation, which are small daily acts of micro-innovation, little creativity, that are not swinging for the fences irresponsibly, but rather, they make this opportunity accessible to us all.

It reduces risk, it cultivates skill, and it allows us to be creative in our own ways. And so to me, a big little breakthrough is something that we can all get behind and really to drive meaningful impact in our careers and in our families. One playful example of this I recently saw, so there’s a guy named Frank Serrato, and Frank lived in Saint Louis. And he woke up one day, and noticed there was a pothole outside of his house. And he said, well, that sort of stinks, and he called the city and the road commission to complain and they promptly did nothing. So he called again and he sent an email and went on social media. And after three months of nagging and no pothole fix, he decided to get creative. He used a big little breakthrough. It didn’t require a billion dollars, it didn’t require regulatory approval.

Here’s what Frank did. He took a big piece of birthday cake, set it on the pothole, lit a candle to celebrate the pothole’s three-month birthday, sang it happy birthday, filmed it, and released it on social media. People chuckled and shared and chuckled more and shared; before long it gets to the road commission and within 24 hours the pothole is fixed. So, the point is that we can use little acts of daily creativity to attack the things that matter most to us in our business and our lives in a really thoughtful way. And what’s happening is we literally have a superpower inside all of us.

We can’t fly, we don’t have x-ray vision, we’re not bulletproof, but all of us have this capacity to be creative. We’re hard-wired to think that way. And when we bring it to the surface and when we deploy it in thoughtful ways, amazing results ensue.

Amato: From a company angle what are two or three ways that companies fail to innovate, or how can they avoid those innovation failures?

Linkner: Well, the biggest blocker of creativity and innovation is not natural talent, it’s fear. The fear is that poisonous force that restricts our best thinking, and it’s a natural force. But I think the best thing that leaders can do is to remove the fear. The thing is that creativity and fear cannot co-exist in a meeting, let alone in an organization. So as leaders if we can create a safe environment where all ideas are celebrated and not shunned, then we can get on with the important work of being creative. If you have an accounting firm that is 500 people or five people or 5,000 people, what a shame if only two are being creative and the rest are just simply doing what they’re told. On the other hand, if we liberate the natural resource of dormant creative capacity, our firms and our organizations can truly soar.

And so, the best suggestion that I have is, besides creating a mindset around and importance around leveraging this important natural asset, is using better technology. And here’s what I mean, Neil. So in 1958 a number of new technologies came on the scene. There was the magnetic tape, there was the first video game, there was the Rolodex, and this new technology that extracts ideas came out called brainstorming. Here we are years later, it’s 2021, and we don’t use magnetic tapes because we have thumb drives and we don’t use a Rolodex because we have LinkedIn and our video games are more realistic than the real thing. Yet we’re still using that same ridiculous, outdated, ineffective technology called brainstorming.

So, I’m going to share with the group — and I’ve developed a pretty extensive toolkit — of think about it as upgraded technology. Better technique to bring our best ideas forward. And so when leaders embrace the innovation mindset and when they arm people with the right technology, they’re able to very quickly elevate the overall creative output of an organization.

Amato: That is an excellent preview to the session May 5 at the CFO Conference. Josh, thank you very much for being on.

Linkner: Truly my pleasure, thanks again.

Amato: That was Josh Linkner. Another featured speaker at the conference, one of the closers on Friday, May 7, is LaRae Quy who will speak on mental toughness. I asked LaRae first to tell listeners a bit about her background and why she had to be mentally tough.

LaRae Quy: Thank you, Neil. I was an FBI agent for 24 years. And for me, mental toughness really started in the FBI Academy. If our instructors weren’t pushing us into our discomfort zone, pushing us past success and into failure, they weren’t really doing their jobs. And at first, I thought I had joined a bunch of sadists. But later I realized I’d need a mindset that could push through failure and push through obstacles and barriers. I think I first realized how important the right mindset would be in my first arrest, which was right out of the academy. The squad planned to arrest a criminal who was considered armed and dangerous. And the FBI SWAT team was the one to actually make the arrest, and I was just along to observe.

And for a series of reasons, we followed him in his car and planned to arrest him at the first red light. But he hit a bunch of green lights, the traffic was heavy, and one by one, the SWAT cars were cut off. Now, I was with the case agent and he was determined to not lose the suspect. We needed to get him off the streets. But when we finally came to a red light, Ron was driving, and he pulled up right next to the suspect’s car. I looked back and no SWAT car in sight. Ron just looked at me and said, “You have to make the arrest.” And I’ll be honest, absolute fear washed through my body.

You change the mindset, you change the behavior, you change the outcome. I needed to find a way to move forward, and my best chance was to surprise him. I took off my FBI raid jacket, I pulled my sweater over my gun. I’m tall and thin and I don’t really look like your typical FBI agent. I got out of the car. And he was in the lane right next to me, so I tapped on his window and then I waved and I smiled. And he sort of waved and smiled back, I motioned for him to roll down the window, which he did.

His huge stomach just pushed up against the driving wheel. I focused on the job ahead of me. I pulled out my gun and said, “FBI, you’re under arrest.” And his jaw dropped, his foot slipped off the clutch, and his car stalled in the intersection. Now, I heard horns blowing and tires screeching but I kept my gun pointed at him as I followed the car. He kept his hands up where I could see them. And by this time, the FBI SWAT team were running up the street with their guns and raid jackets. And they did find a loaded gun under the front seat. Those were my first encounters with the need for mental toughness.

Amato: Wow, yeah, that’s a great story. Certainly, there are some of us who maybe want more excitement in our job, maybe not that much. But for those of us who are not working in a criminal justice job, how can mental toughness best translate to being effective at work?

Quy: It’s a great question, we all need to be mentally strong. Mental toughness is managing our emotions, our thoughts, and behavior in ways that will set us up for success. So, no matter where you are in your career or in life, a strong mind is able to overcome obstacles. And this is just a fact of life, life is hard. Pain is inevitable, but growth — that’s optional. Mentally tough people learn from their failures, they learn from their disappointments or setbacks. They learn how to cope when things don’t go as expected. And truly, a weak person needs things to be a certain way. A truly unstoppable person loves it all because they can make the most of it.

Amato: You’ve written two books on mental toughness. What are a few ways people can develop that quality, especially those who might not consider themselves mentally tough to begin with?

Quy: I would like to share three things today with you and your audience about some of the components of mental toughness. And the first is the importance of positive thinking. And let me just take a moment to define positive thinking. It’s believing you will prevail in your circumstances rather than believing your circumstances will change. And that is the difference between positive thinkers and optimists. Optimists really do think things will change, and for the better. Even pessimists can be positive thinkers because here’s the thing, our brain has an innate bias toward negativity.

Our brain will always process bad news faster than good news. Because all it knows is that you’re in discomfort and you feel anxious. And it starts to scream fight or flight, so you know nothing good will happen. And that was really important in the caveman days, and it kept us safe from the saber-toothed tigers. Our brain just wants to keep us safe. So, while positive information is nice, it’s the negative stuff that really gets and holds our attention. But not everything new or different is a threat to our safety these days. Positive information is like Teflon, it’s nice but it slides away very easily. Negative information is like Velcro, it sticks whether we want it to or not.

So, when it comes to positive thinking, we have to hunt the good stuff. Like the arrest scenario I described, I needed to hunt for a way to get this guy’s attention so we could make the arrest. And positive thinking is a cornerstone of mental toughness because positivity creates a mindset that can adapt to the challenges and obstacles that show up every day in some form or another. And that’s everyone, not just FBI agents.

The second thing I’d like to mention is standing firm, to have the determination and the grit to stick with it. If something is important enough to us, we will have the grit to follow through on what we’ve started. To take a firm stand we need grit. We must believe in what we’re doing. Otherwise, we’ll just give up when the going gets rough. And science is actually proving that grit is a far more reliable predictor of success than intelligence. If you have grit, you’re brave and strong enough to do what it takes to succeed in business and life. It’s a powerful force that allows you to stand out from the crowd even though your skills may not be exceptional.

If you want to develop grit, it’s important to connect with your higher purpose. Despite all those slick advertisements and what you see in movies, it isn’t all about the fastest car or the biggest paycheck. Purpose will require you to find value in yourself and discover what you can contribute to the wellbeing of others.

So in other words, we live according to our values, what’s truly important to us, what fulfills us, what gives us joy and contentment, not just short bursts of happiness. When we connect with our values, it does two things. Values give us a reason to keep going and values give us a direction to keep going. Now, when I interviewed with the FBI, I knew it was the right move. And yet, I couldn’t articulate why. Only afterwards did I realize that internally FBI stood for fidelity, bravery, and integrity. Something fell into place both in my head and my heart because those were values that were important to me. And that’s one of the reasons I could stand up before that guy in that arrest, because it was important to me. He was a criminal, and we needed to take him down.

The third thing is conquering the fear factor. Now, it’s natural to resist facing down what scares us, the thing that prevents us from moving forward. And as we already know, our brain is survival-driven and has an innate bias toward negativity. But we can actually break it down further. There are many regions of the brain, and an MRI scan can show what parts of the brain light up when you think. If you make a fist your hand would represent the cerebral brain, the thinking part of the brain. But the moment something creates fear or discomfort, we move into another part of the brain. And the thumb under your fist would be the limbic system. And that’s the emotional part of the brain.

The limbic brain system is small but powerful because it controls our emotions. And our emotions control our behavior. The feeling, emotional brain is 100% self-protective. So, it’s not a good place to be when we need to make decisions. But it’s really important for those two brains to work together. And here’s the thing, though, empathy is the only language the emotional brain understands. And as inconvenient as it may seem, it’s important to understand that the emotional brain won’t respond with words, only feelings. Until we’re honest with ourselves, acknowledge what we’re feeling, the two will never agree on anything.

And that is why it was important for me in my arrest story to be honest with myself about how truly scared to death I was in that moment. And that’s why the two brains could start working together and I could come up with a plan.

Amato: Thank you to LaRae Quy and also Josh Linkner for their time and for sharing more about their background and expertise. In the show notes for this episode, we’ll post links with information on the AICPA & CIMA CFO Conference, which is May 5-7 online.

Organizations are more apt to hire fully remote staff as a result of the pandemic, but they should consider benefits and challenges of hiring outside their geographic area. Onboarding, salary, and other factors are in play. An article in the Journal of Accountancy has advice from CPAs and others on how to hire someone who might be one or more time zones away.

In other news, the AICPA Auditing Standards Board has extended the comment period through Aug. 31 for an exposure draft of three proposed standards that would change the way firms manage quality in their accounting and auditing practices.

The board issued an exposure draft in February for the proposed standards, which are based on the International Auditing and Assurance Standards Board’s quality management standard and include a new risk-based approach to quality management systems within firms.

Also, the IRS said it would no longer require taxpayers who received excess advance premium tax credits for 2020 to file Form 8962, Premium Tax Credit, after the American Rescue Plan Act retroactively exempted those amounts from being taxed.

And the U.S. Small Business Administration opened its new application portal for the $16 billion Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program Thursday, April 8, but almost immediately had to shut it down due to technical difficulties. As of recording on Wednesday, April 14, the portal remains closed.

The links to our coverage of these stories will be in the show notes for this episode, or you can visit for more news. Thanks for listening to the Journal of Accountancy podcast.