Finding, and Solving, the Puzzles Around Us: How the Rubik’s Cube Speaks to Identity with Jennifer and WTC Producer, Doug Foresta

Jennifer Brown | | , ,

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This special episode features an interview with Jennifer ahead of the release of the 2nd edition of her best-selling book How to be an Inclusive Leader. Jennifer shares how the Rubik's Cube provides a rich metaphor for wrestling with identity and how identity came to be such an important part of her work. To learn more and order the 2nd edition, visit

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

JENNIFER BROWN: The ability to not just tolerate, going back to the non-answers, going back to the, "I don't know" and asking maybe powerful questions, like, "How would I solve this? What does solve look like?"


JENNIFER BROWN: I also think the destination of completing the Rubik's Cube, to your point, it's just the end of a circle and the circle begins again. It's not a linear thing where "Oh, I'm done," and I put it down.


JENNIFER BROWN: You're right. As humans, I think we do seek the growth. I hope we seek the growth. That's what I'm encouraging leaders to really, just get comfortable being uncomfortable. Live in that. Live in the unfinished Rubik's Cube. Or maybe, you know what? Complete one side. I remember, Doug, I don't know about you, but I can always complete one side.

DOUG FORESTA: Yeah, me too. Yes, me too.

JENNIFER BROWN: So maybe completing that one side with identity is, "Okay. I understand this part about me. I'm level four in the inclusive leader continuum."

DOUG FORESTA: Addressing systemic inequities has become a defining challenge of our times. Leaders' understanding of their role and responsibility to others and to society is being questioned. On October 4th, Jennifer Brown will release the second edition of her best-selling book, How to Be an Inclusive Leader. She will share insights from over 20 years of experience working with organizations to create workplaces where everyone thrives and belongs. Her widely acclaimed Inclusive Leader Continuum provides a framework to lead individuals through the personal learning journey they undertake to become inclusive leaders. New stories, strategies, and discussion guides equip leaders at any level to take action and step into their role in affecting change.

Whether you're already a fan of the book, or a reader who considers themselves an advocate for equity and inclusion, or just starting to understand how uneven the playing field is, this book is a must read and essential tool for leading into the future. Visit to pre-order your own copy or access special bulk rates.

The Will to Change is hosted by Jennifer Brown. Jennifer is an award-winning entrepreneur, dynamic speaker, bestselling author and leadership expert on how organizations must evolve their cultures towards a new, more inclusive workplace reality. She's a passionate inclusion and equity advocate, committed to helping leaders foster healthier and, therefore, more productive workplaces, ultimately driving innovation and business results.

Informed by nearly two decades of consulting to Fortune 500 companies, she and her team advise top companies on building cultures of belonging in times of great upheaval and uncertainty. And now, onto the episode.

Hello and welcome back to The Will to Change. This is Doug Foresta. And in this special episode of The Will To Change, I interviewed Jennifer ahead of the release of the second edition of her best selling book, How to Be an Inclusive Leader, which releases on October 4th. And in the episode, Jennifer discusses the concept of a Rubik's Cube as a metaphor for identity.

For those of you who may be too young to remember a Rubik's Cube, I encourage you to Google it. You can see a picture of it. It's a six-sided cube with individual colors on each side of the cube. The cube can be manipulated and moved in various ways. And as you do that, the colors then are mixed up across the cube. And then the challenge is to move the pieces of the cube. As they get mixed up, you then have to move them back to try to put the cube back together, so that each side is simply one color, which is quite challenging. I was never able to successfully put together all the sides. Although you'll hear in the episode that, as Jennifer says, she was able to at least put one of the sides together.

And I want to share with you a quote, actually this quote is from Erno Rubik, the inventor of the Rubik's Cube. And he says, "Curiosity means that we do not take things for granted, that again and again, we question even the fundamentals. If you are curious, you will find the puzzles around you. If you are determined, you will solve them." I think it's a great, great quote, and I think a good place to start. And now, onto the conversation.

Hi, Jennifer. It is always great to be with you. I'm looking forward to this conversation about the Rubik's Cube and identity and the new book.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thanks, Doug. So glad to be here with you. We've been working together so long, so I'm looking forward to some revealing dialogue here, because you always make me smarter.

DOUG FORESTA: Oh, thank you so much. So let's start with, we're talking about diving into identity today and the concept of the Rubik's Cube. In your new book, you talk a lot about identity and how identity shape our view of the world. Can you say a little bit about, why is... Or, maybe I should say, how did you come to understand that identity is such an important thing to you and, not just to you, but beyond, to everyone?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Coming out in my 20s, which was in the '90s, obviously, but even before then, I began to do women's studies and gender studies in college, and was just floored, shock and awe, for sure, discovering just the impact of gender norms and expectations on myself, and realizing what was going on and how I was not okay with it, just to put it bluntly. That really, I think, was a huge coming out in a way, in many ways, bigger than discovering my sexual orientation, was really my existence as somebody who's in a female body in this world and identifies as female and realizing I would need to really rewrite that narrative and write a new narrative for myself that felt liberated. And that obviously was not just a decision that happened and I did, it is a lifelong pursuit, but that was a bigger discovery of an identity and the implications of that identity that I would then work at carving my own path through that would not be dictated by anybody, certainly not those with more power than I have in the system.

So I always say that was a bigger moment for me actually. So that when I then came out subsequently a couple years later, it felt like, not a footnote, but a sort of subtitle to that because it does, again, get back to this identity that it you're going to have to struggle to defend. You're going to have to find your own path around. And it felt, again, very energizing to me. It didn't feel like a burden or heavy thing to carry because I've discovered subsequently that there were so many protections afforded me by the other privileged identities that I carry. And I never had the words for that until the last couple of years when I started to, again, as we do put our story together. But for me, it was so organic, but the reason it was allowed to be organic was that I was protected in so many other ways.

I could still fit into the system around me and pick and choose when I would disclose, when I would come out. I could pass as straight. So all of those things, I now have the language for, but I didn't at the time. But all I knew was honoring the heart and what the heart wants is the most courageous thing we can ever do, and to not be afraid of carving our own path. I was raised in such a way that I felt I had the freedom and the resources to do that. So I'm extremely grateful for that. And I think it accounts for how I am able to use my voice today.

So those were two identities. And then as I navigated through the DEI space over the last, nearly 20 years, discovering so many other identities and learning the implications of those on the individuals that I loved and worked with and work with today and taking those on board and really, not just having empathy around it, but feeling activated to do something about, and feeling a sense of community with others whose identities led to marginalization and aggressions of all kinds and stereotypes and exclusion and worse, just the deep, deep empathy, and feeling that I'm here for those journeys.

I'm not experiencing those journeys directly, but I'm here for them and us, them and us. I switch back and forth. I always say we, because there is, I think a community that's striving to be heard, that's striving to update the world, update the workplaces that we work in and update them to see all of us, to hear all of us, to celebrate and value all identities in a way that they haven't historically.

So now we have a conversation about intersectionality. We have a more sort of 2.0 conversation about the diversity within the diversity, the identities within the identities, the multiple identities that we all carry and adding onto that the identity is of privilege and the different ways in which that shapes our life as well. And now I think we're having this really fascinating discussion about how do we hold all this at the same time? How do we parse our identity? And how do we both find our community of identity and name that because it's so important when you are on the outside and have a certain experience to find that support, to solidify your foundation and your home base, if you will.

The LGBT community has always been a home base for me. It's a place of comfort. It's a place of automatic understanding, even though there's so many diversities that make us different and unique within that community, there is such a common language and a common conversation and empathy that we can have. So that does feel like a foundation and a home base. But I always tell people these days, fine for the home base, very important. But what we know now is that we have to activate the allyship that we're all capable of. And the allyship in all of us comes from these places where we step outside of the community. We realize that we are actually accepted and we're insiders in other communities too, and that we're acting from that place. So I do think we're capable, Doug, of acting from multiple places. We just have to hear it clear about which place we're acting from.

And that's why the Rubik's Cube came to mind because there's multicolor squares that we start with a scrambled mosaic of colors and cubes, and then we sort it out. We put like colors with like colors and then I guess success in the game is to make each side one color, which is interesting. Then I think the metaphor is sort of... We can continue beyond that, but I think it's just fascinating to think, we have got to find each other. We've got to find our common brown, but then the beauty of diversity is the scrambled-ness of these things too. And also the what we see and what we don't see and how we make sense of our reality. But at the same time, once we make sense of it, we need to step outside of it and say, but hold on, it's not so simple. To name one community or to name this as a red color doesn't account for the blue and the red, the green, the yellow. So I just love playing with the metaphor. Maybe we can play with it a little more together.

DOUG FORESTA: One of the things, as you were saying that I was thinking about... Well, first of all, one thing that came to mind is what you said about identity as home base. And I think that was traditionally, that was the first step in identity was finding our identity, finding our home. And for me, like you were saying, mine has been being Jewish as the home that I'm most comfortable in. But as we were chatting a little bit before, A, there's not only one. That that isn't just one thing. And then also at some point, you got to step out of that because there's other identities that we have. It's not incorrect to say that I'm also a white man and that I have part of that. And then I'm able bodied and I'm... There's lots of places where I could be.

You talk about the Rubik's Cube, one thing that's interesting, I think about is, I never solved the Rubik's Cube. I don't know about you, but I was just never that kid. I always envied the kids. They were big in the '80s and I never solved it. But when the people did solve it, I remember kids would solve it. And the first thing they would do after they solved it, after they showed everyone that they solved it, was scramble it up again.

JENNIFER BROWN: You're right.

DOUG FORESTA: There's something in us that isn't happy with just the sides being all the right colors. That's not the fun of a Rubik's Cube.

JENNIFER BROWN: Good point. Good point. Yes. That's why think, now that I think about it and pull that thread of this metaphor, that can't be the end. You're right, because, okay, I'm going to scramble it and do it again and scramble it and do it again. And each time, I think the process of growth, perhaps building the skill of identity, is that not just tolerance of the diversity, but the seeking of the mishmash, the creative abrasion. Sometimes I think of it as it's really the potential of diversities together. What do they create when they're adjacent to each other? And they're adjacent to each other in each of us. And that adjacency is the beauty. That's the one plus one equals three of identity. It's when we can both hold it and transcend it.

DOUG FORESTA: And that the growth really is, I think the Rubik's Cube metaphor really is a great deep metaphor because the growth is really, it is in the, each time you scramble it up, it's a little bit different. You learn something different. And the growth really is in the... I don't know anyone who, if they did solve it, they just threw it away. And they're like, "Okay, well that's done." Yeah. It's the scrambling and putting it back. I can put it back. Okay, it's here. All the pieces are all the monolithic sides, now I can go back and I can see where they end up. I can do it again. And each time I do it, I learn something from the coming together and coming apart.

JENNIFER BROWN: I love that. And the fear of the messiness. When we talk about the inclusive leader continuum in the book, the messiness is uncomfortable. It's awkward, it's uncertain. And that's a lot like leadership right now. The lack of a playbook. The fact that I can't lead with the tools and the norms and the behaviors that I used to because those aren't working anymore. So returning to that chaotic state, to the messy state, to the unfinished state is almost what we are asking leaders to do, because that is leadership today, is literally showing the messiness, showing the fact that I haven't completed the cube, like you and me trying to. I never finished it either, trust me. And I was like, "How did those kids do that?" We're such '80s kids too. That was all we had to play with.

DOUG FORESTA: Right, right. Exactly.

JENNIFER BROWN: There was no TikTok. But just to continue that, the ability to not just tolerate, going back to the non-answers, going back to the, I don't know, and asking maybe powerful questions. Like, "How would I solve this?" Like, "What does solve look like?" I also think the destination of completing the Rubik's Cube, to your point, it's just the end of a circle and the circle begins again. It's not a linear thing where, "Oh, I'm done and I put it down." You're right. As humans, I think we do seek the growth. I hope we seek the growth. That's what I'm encouraging leaders to really just get comfortable being uncomfortable. Live in that. Live in the unfinished Rubik's Cube. Or maybe, you know what? Complete one side. I remember, Doug, I don't know about you, but I could always complete one side.

DOUG FORESTA: Yeah, me too. Yes, me too.

JENNIFER BROWN: So maybe completing that one side with identity is, "Okay. I understand this part about me and I'm sort of level four in the inclusive leader continuum." Whatever, "I have a kid with a disability since they were born. So I know, I just know about the community. I know what to say. I know how to make noise. I know how to challenge the system. I'm unafraid." And so that would describe that I think competency and, in a way, expertise of allyship for that.

But then the incomplete or in process sides of who we are. So I'm still unpacking this, or this is my immigrant story and I'm slowly but surely unpacking that intergenerational trauma or I'm slowly but surely unpacking those norms that I was raised with and realizing that those were really limiting or they weren't true to who I am. So I think we can be working. And then you work on your privilege. So let's talk about the pieces of the Rubik's Cube that we don't want anybody to see on the backside. The, "Oh, Hey, I completed this." So this is what you see. So this is this nice package about me where everything aligns, but really nothing ever aligns completely.

DOUG FORESTA: Right. You just show the one side of the Rubik's Cube.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. And look at me, look how great I am. Look what I did. And I think for inclusive leadership... This is not bad to judge anyone on where we are in our learning journey, but it is to celebrate finishing one side. That's huge for a lot of us, just to find that home base and be like, "Oh, okay, this is what it feels like to feel seen and known. To feel this is something I know deeply on a cellular level." That's work that even, I think some people have never really been able to feel what that's like. And that's why ERGs, for example, employee resource groups continue to exist because there are many people that are coming into things for the first time.

But then I think the work is to complete the other sides. And I might ask people to think about what are those other sides of you? What are the sides that you have none of the colors aligned? Maybe one. Maybe you just know one and one cube. We talk about the iceberg a lot. What is just emerging above the water line? What is just, when you're peeking through the clouds, the clouds are parting just a little and you can begin to glimpse a truth. You could begin to reckon with that truth. You could begin to scaffold that truth. It takes sometimes years to put it together and say, "Ooh, that was really powerful for me and made a big difference, but I haven't had the words. I haven't known how to lead from that. I would be scared to lead."

When something is uncertain and messy and we don't have all the answers about it, we certainly hesitate. It's very human to hesitate to share that. But I think putting the pieces together of privilege is a huge awakening for so many of us to be able to put it together, find that home base, not judge it and say, "Okay, whatever I was born this way. I earned this, or this was something I accomplished," fine. But I think what's really fascinating about that journey is, so what am I doing with it? How am I turning it to the front and showing it? And then how am I putting that out into the world as a instigator of change? That's what we do with that piece. But we have lots of steps to go as we put it together and get it ready to use in the world.

DOUG FORESTA: The other piece, as I think about that is the idea that it doesn't matter what side you start on in a way. It's what you do. It's how you move the cube and being intentional about... Because we can't choose. We don't the circumstances of our birth and our identity may change. Our identity may change from birth, but we don't choose many of the circumstances of our identity. Some we do, some we don't, but certainly when it comes to privilege, a lot of that is just society values one thing that we happen to have, or present than another.

JENNIFER BROWN: Doug, you bring up a really good point. want to pause on that.


JENNIFER BROWN: So for me, you're making me think about the order I did things in. That was just the way my life unfolded. The order that many leaders probably need to do this in is beginning with privilege actually, because the question I get is, "Well, Jennifer, I can't relate to all these other identities that I am working to understand, working to lead around and support, but these are lived experiences that I don't have, that I'm not even adjacent to." So it's a bit abstract and that's very fair. If you've never known a trans or gender non-binary person, it's going to be abstract for a while, until these pennies drop in your own understanding. So I think that what you just said is really powerful. It's like, what can you start with?

You start with what you have access to. Look, if we were smart and strategic about change, we start with the low hanging fruit. We start with the most accessible. And if identities of privilege are what you start with, and that's the side of the Rubik's Cube you're working on, your blue, whatever it is. And you're trying to put it together. There's a lot there. I continue to discover pieces of those tailwinds that have sped me along in my life. I continue to notice, and there's so much more that I have yet to notice. And that's why it's actually also really powerful to be around people that perhaps look like me or share some of my socioeconomic background or education or whatever it is, who can help me put the pieces together, who are sharing with me in our group, our closed door identity group, sharing with me, "Oh, I noticed this about my life," or "This doesn't happen to me," or, "This is something I take for granted," or, "This is the way that I'm utilizing my privilege in a creative way." It is illuminating for me.

I can take those things and add them to the puzzle pieces of that side of the Rubik's Cube. So I think we need to start where we are. And maybe where we've gone astray with accelerating DEI conversations is that we haven't described it in that way. Instead, we've made assumptions that that side of the Rubik's Cube isn't important to finish. And it also, we've judged that side and that process. We've said, "Well, why would you need to do that?" Or, "What does that even mean?" Or "Why does it matter?" Or, "What kind of impact could you have?" But it's like, we each have our own puzzle to figure out and having a win, remember what it felt like to finish that one side. It's like, "Ha, okay. This is a piece that I finally understand. I'm beginning to understand. And this is a piece also that I can show."

So we as leaders, if we feel like we don't have anything to work with, we have a lot to work with, but it may be a lot from the privilege perspective. But to me that is still a lot to work with. And it's something to complete. It's something to show. It's something to begin dialogue around. It's something we can use. And then we can take that time we need, whatever, to complete the rest of the puzzle pieces on the other sides. And look, we may not have a cube that looks like everybody else's. None of us really does. But the question to me is what can I complete? What can I put the pieces together of? What can I get together? What can I show? What can I lead with? What can I role model so that others will feel encouraged to go down the same path and feel that it's doable, feel that it's something that they can actually accomplish, which is so important. We're not just doing this for ourselves.

DOUG FORESTA: You bring up a really good point, which I was thinking about too, about the Rubik's Cube. And one of the dangers of the Rubik's Cube was, like you, I remember I could always get one side. And that did feel good. I was like, "Oh, I did this thing." And I think one of the dangers I would imagine is you look at this mixed up Rubik's Cube, it's all mixed up and you go, "Eh, that's too hard. Why try? I can't do that." And I love that your work is like, "No, you can. Let me show you. Maybe you can't solve it all right now, but you can do something. You can't just put the Rubik's Cube down."

JENNIFER BROWN: Right. Right. Even if it takes you a month to make one move. Leaders are always like, "How long should this take? How do I know?" Because we're so addicted to action and forward movement and accomplishing goals and objectives. One could argue, this is ripped from the white supremacy playbook, which is another episode, Doug. But even just looking critically at that way of thinking, the way that we think about task accomplishment, the way that we think about taking something that is causi complete and scrambling it up again, as a discipline, as a muscle. Just to continue the muscle metaphor, muscle confusion. I love that. Why do we cross train? Why do we more than one thing? It's to protect ourselves from injury, to strengthen ourselves in different ways, to get to those muscles that we don't normally get to. So the balance here is completing what I can, that low hanging fruit, that accessible piece, and then continuing to invite forward the stuff that's behind the clouds for us.

I also think about, in the book, we have a inner circle inventory. So it's a chart we invite readers to use to assess the diversity within their go to people. You could argue, those other sides of your Rubik's Cube, that you have no clue how to start on and just feel that they will never sort themselves out. I think that maybe getting that one piece could be that friend that you develop a trusted relationship with or that colleague where they can share their lived experience with you, that you are moved by that. It's a cube that you can at some point say, "Okay, I have this. I understand this. I understand where this belongs. I understand that this is the first piece of a many pieced puzzle about another identity." And maybe I share it. Maybe I don't. Maybe I'm destined to be an ally around it, whatever it is.

But the job of any leader I think is to be plugging in these pieces and to be completing the puzzle as we go. You get this piece and you get that piece, you get this from reading that book, you get this from watching this show, you get this from knowing somebody, you get this from reading a piece of research and having an aha moment or hearing a powerful story. These are all pieces you put together. And at some point, you sort of have enough to run with and as you run with it, you will get more as you go. So I do think too, the showing how the sausage is made, the process, not the finished product, but the process. And by the way, flipping my Rubik's Cube to show you an unfinished side. Think about the metaphor of that. Think about-

DOUG FORESTA: The vulnerability. The vulnerability of that, that I'm willing to do that.

JENNIFER BROWN: It's sort of, "I have this piece, but I don't have nine other pieces or eight other pieces, but here's what I'm trying to do. Here's what to fill in for myself in my own understanding."

DOUG FORESTA: Well, oh my gosh. We could go on for days. We're going to continue these conversations. I just want to give you... If you could give us a minute or two last word about, big takeaways, about identity for our viewers, listeners.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. I'd say relish and value the home base of community, first of all. And if you've never felt what that feels like, you have a community, every single one of us does and multiple ones. But really, I think seek that out unapologetically. And if it means you're, I don't know, a white straight man and entering D&I work, maybe your community is other white, straight men. Maybe it is gathering that community and having open, vulnerable dialogue about identity. Maybe that is a beautiful first step. And I think it's an important one, actually. Somewhat controversial, perhaps something you want to do quietly, personally, one on one, I don't know. There's still a lot of feelings about that. And sadly, look, everybody needs a community. Everybody needs to be able to relax with somebody and say, "This is happening to me. This is happening to you. How do you deal with it? What do you think about it? How can I support you?" Just the naming of that is so powerful.

And I believe every human deserves that. We need it on a basic level. Then I would say though, have that. But embark, leave the safety of that harbor, and embark into the ocean. And begin to collect these pieces and don't be afraid of the unfinished. The unfinished is the beautiful in each of us. It's the evolving. It's the becoming, I think you are so not alone in the incomplete parts of who we are. Each one of us has those. The opportunity of our lives is to complete, to add those pieces together and make something that feels that it holds together, something that is a story. It's a narrative. It's an understanding. Eventually, as the work of this enables us then to be that empathetic, inclusive leader, human, parent, colleague, friend, this is us preparing to show up in the most kind, loving informed way for all the humans around us in whatever system we happen to find ourselves.

So if it feels unpleasant, I would just sit with it because growth is unpleasant. It's a stress on us, but not all stress is created equal. Some of this stress is really good. Some of this stress is really good for us. Pressure makes diamonds, what do they say? I love that. I think about their pressure and sometimes we need to put it on ourselves. It may not be coming from the outside world necessarily, but can we be intrinsically motivated to be working on our Rubik's Cube? What does that look like?

And Doug, I would love to hear what people do with this metaphor, how it speaks to them. What visuals come to mind as they listen to this conversation. I would love to hear that because you just gave me 10 new ways of thinking about it and you and I are two people, but let's crowdsource this. Let's think about if this really works and helps people understand things and make peace with their process and with their journey. I would love to hear that.

DOUG FORESTA: Beautiful. Well said, Jennifer. Look forward, like I said, to continuing the conversation. So much to think about, and I'm going to order a Rubik's Cube today. It's a great thing to physically have in front of me to remind me of this.

JENNIFER BROWN: Isn't the '80s getting cool again?

DOUG FORESTA: I think so. Thank you so much.



Hi, this is Jennifer. Did you know that we offer a full transcript of every podcast episode on my website over at You can also subscribe so that you get notified every time a new episode goes live. Head over there now to read my latest thoughts on diversity, inclusion and the future of work and discover how we can all be champions of change by bringing our collective voices together and standing up for ourselves and each other.

DOUG FORESTA: You've been listening to The Will to Change, Uncovering True Stories of Diversity & Inclusion with Jennifer Brown. If you've enjoyed the episode, please subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. To learn more about Jennifer Brown, visit Thank you for listening and we'll be back next time with a new episode.