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SeroTunein Epidose 6: The Power of Appreciative Inquiry


This week’s episode focuses on showing appreciation in our lives in order to build a better life that leverages the positive aspects of our given circumstances. We link the concept of appreciative intelligence to personal development by exploring the opioid-ridden, yet culturally rich region of Central Appalachia. In this episode, we learn about George Mason University Professor, Tojo Thatchenkery’s insights on the strengths of Silicon Valley in creating a highly innovative community. We then hear from Head Luthier of the Appalachian School of Luthiery, Doug Naselroad, and how he’s transforming the lives of recovering drug addicts through stringed-instrument making.


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Kurien: That right there was the theme song to the Knott Downtown Radio Hour, a live radio show that showcases traditional and original music performed at the Appalachian School of Luthiery in Hindman, Kentucky. The show is hosted by Doug Naselroad.

Doug: After looking at the community and the infrastructure that was basically sitting there unused, I thought I had better try this or I am always gonna hate the fact that I didn’t. So in 2012, I started to work down there. Building the Appalachian School of Luthiery.

Kurien: I met Doug on a class trip to Appalachia back in January. He had curly white hair, thick-green frames, and wore button-down denim. As the Master Luthier and Lead Instructor at the school, Doug has been making stringed instruments ranging from guitars to harps for a very long time while training others in the craft.

Since heading up the school in Hindman, Doug and his team of luthiers ran a whole bunch of stringed-instrument projects— especially the famous Mountain Dulcimer… a traditional Appalachian trapezoidal-shaped fretted sound box.

Doug: Our first job was to build the Hindman Dulcimer project to create the museum of the mountain dulcimer and create a festival called the Hindman Dulcimer Homecoming…(fade out)

Kurien: As Doug and his colleagues made these instruments they soon realized their craft could have a much larger impact beyond just the Appalachian music and culture it preserves.

Doug: Really early on we were approached by a guy he needed to find a way to busy his hands while setting a goal of kicking uh heroin addiction. Long story short, he did. We learned something from it, and in 2017 we proposed what we call the Culture of Recovery. Where we’re able to bring people into our studios…

...It’s beneficial, we’ve come to understand that someone really being engaged with labor-intensive work that demands...mitigating recidivism with people who are trying to recover.

Kurien: Unfortunately, recidivism, or the tendency to relapse into criminal action or unhealthy behavior, is pretty common in Kentucky and the rest of the Central Appalachia region which includes Southwest Virginia, Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia.

The region has deep and profound cultural contributions to American music such as bluegrass and old-time.

Doug: The musical roots of those instruments of what we’re doing...I mean...those the instruments that used in bluegrass bands know...old-time music….it’s built into the mindset of the people who apply themselves to building these instruments.

Kurien: But these strong cultural roots are tested by the opioid crisis that scourges Eastern Kentucky. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there were more than 1,000 opioid-involved deaths in Kentucky in 2017 and Knott County had over 27 drug overdose deaths between 2012 and 2016 which is near twice the national average. These problems have only grown worse since the decline of the coal industry has brought even more economic hardship to Appalachia.

It might first seem like Hindman and Appalachia altogether is hopeless… at least at first glance.

Tojo: Normally our mindset is what we call a deficit mindset. To look at what is wrong in a situation— how do we fix it. So that’s called a deficit mindset. And most of us are trained in that.

Kurien: That’s Dr. Tojo Thatchenkery. He’s a professor of Public Policy at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. Tojo has spent over twenty-five years teaching at various Public Policy, MBA, and Organization Development programs across the globe. After studying the phenomenal growth of entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley since the late 1980s, he became one of the leading authors in the field of AI. And I’m not talking about Artificial Intelligence. I’m talking about Appreciative Intelligence.

Tojo: The definition of appreciative intelligence by the way is that...once you reframe and see an opportunity, then you have to think about how to make it happen.

Kurien: So, how do you make it happen?

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Kurien: Kurien Thomas and welcome to another epidose of SeroTunein. Today on the show: how identifying the bright spots of a situation can help create positive change... especially when the circumstances may not be in your favor.

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Kurien: When Tojo was studying this phenomenon of Appreciative Intelligence in the growth of Silicon Valley in the late 1980s, he started to analyze why we have so much innovation coming from companies like Google and Apple in the Bay Area as opposed to the rest of the country.

What he noticed was that a major reason was the culture of risk-taking and diversity among the kinds of people that made up its entrepreneurial community.

Tojo: I found that the entrepreneurs get a lot of support there...Uh Silicon Valley…the Bay Area had a different culture….they were free to talk to one another. The cafe culture...really encouraged a lot of innovation. So, I got really encouraged by this concept that...some people look at business situations differently and see opportunities there.

Kurien: Since forming the Culture of Recovery initiative back in Hindman, Kentucky, Doug and his team of luthiers had recognized an opportunity to train the many individuals affected by the opioid crisis in Appalachia to craft wooden stringed instruments. They did this by starting a nonprofit called the Troublesome Creek Stringed Instruments Company.

Doug: ...Where we’re able to actually open a factory...where we’re able to employ people...and despite the fact that they have drug arrests and they may have felonies on their records, uh we’re able to give them really cool jobs.

Kurien: The Troublesome Creek Stringed Instruments Company helps former addicts reframe their drug-infused past by bringing in people both from the local recovery center and the Hindman community to build these stringed instruments and sing about their struggles. Doug says it’s not only therapeutic, but it also helps remove the stigma from people who have gotten really sideways by virtue of their addiction by reconnecting them with the region’s resilient artistic heritage.

Kurien: What are some of the other characteristics that make people...allow people to see things in a positive light?

Tojo: When I think about various communities….you may see a lot of things that look depressed. Or you could reframe and see the resilience of the people there. That their concept of wellbeing and happiness is different than what many of us might be used to...and they’re experiencing that in a different way...versus what’s right here. What’s happening that’s good here that I can build on?

Kurien: You were able to see this process of recovery...Can you explain that a bit more? What do you see with the people that you work with...when they’re making music with you?

Doug: These people are very capable of doing fine work with their’s...uh...miraculous process.

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Tojo: Once you reframe and see a new have to act on it....that doing something with it is done with the mindset of seeing as if it already happened...Accepting the present as good….the best it can be. Therefore, you’re not anxious about what’s going to happen next. So that’s what I call comfort with one's own self.

Doug: We’re already seeing the world...sort of …. Beating a path to our door…. A little piece of the lives of the people that made them. So, in the end result, these instruments are full

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Kurien: How do we apply these principles of appreciative intelligence into a particular community? … How do we apply these principles into something like that?

Doug: I see a lot of small communities...especially in the mountains...Hindman is 700 people. A lot of towns despite limited resources and small on the infrastructure that may be a vacant or cultural heritage that may be unexplored...Find out what your people need and address that at the same time.

Tojo: ...but I found that people who live in those communities are resilient...but enable them with small amounts of support.

Kurien: How is trust implemented in appreciative intelligence? Is there something that’s an underlying framework? Or is it just something that’s an effect?

Tojo: You’re being’re sharing what you’re feeling...that is how trust happens...You’re not acting, you’re not showing off...because you care about the community and they can feel it in you.

Kurien: What do you say is special about Appalachia? Why do you think it’s so influential in the pieces that you guys make?

Doug: ...Appalachian Craftsmanship is not a should be looked at as a badge of honor. It’s not despite the fact we’re in’s because we’re Appalachian...and we take a lot of pride in the work of our hands.

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Tojo: Seeing the mighty oak in the acorn that was a metaphor that when you look at an acorn, you don’t really see an oak, but what if you could see it. You know, the whole future?

Doug: Part of the magic I get to do for a that you start out with big old, moldy logs...and you drag them out of the mud….and at the end of the process, you have music. That’s magical...It’s a wonderful thing to be associated’s a pleasure...with people who are just starting to see daylight.

Kurien: What’s a scenario or what’s an example of how an individual can use appreciative inquiry to make a change in his or her life?

Tojo: There’s a concept called learned optimism...the application of an individual is how do we look at failures in failure an opportunity?

Doug: I’ve heard a quote...that no people are truly lost who have not lost the story of themselves. And if you take that as a starting point, I think you can do just about anything.

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Kurien: So, there you have it folks. Just to are the steps you can take to practice appreciative intelligence and make change to your life or to the lives of those around you.

Tojo: The first thing is reframing. Second is seeing the positive. And the third is bringing the future to the present.

Kurien: Reframe. See the Positive. Bring the future to the present. Got it. Building off of what you already have can be incredibly valuable when you start appreciating what makes

Thank you guys so much for listening, that wraps up another epidose of Serotunein. Once again, my guests today were Doug Naselroad and Dr. Tojo Thatchenkery. You can check out the work of Doug and his team of luthiers at and tune into their radio show, Knott Down Radio Hour, every Tuesdays and Wednesdays at

Dr. Tojo Thatchenkery is a professor at the Shaar School of Government and Public Policy at George Mason University. You can check out his articles and scholarly work at or with a simple google search. The links will be provided in the description.

SeroTunein is recorded, edited, and produced by myself. If you like this show, you can find the podcast online at, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, and iTunes. Please be sure to subscribe to the podcast, and please be sure to rate it and leave a comment to share what you enjoyed or how I should improve. It helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing this show with a friend or family member who you think will get something out of it. You can follow the show updates on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or on my website which is also linked.

Until next time, this is Kurien Thomas. As always, thanks for tuning in.

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