What We Discuss with Maya Shankar:
- How Maya’s love for the violin and sense of playfulness — not flawless technique or prodigious talent — gave her the opportunity to learn from Itzhak Perlman at Juilliard School of Music when she was just nine years old.
- The unfortunate mishap that derailed Maya’s aspirations to become a career violinist and forced her to experience what psychologists call identity foreclosure — during which she realized she had built her life around the violin and didn’t have a plan B.
- How Maya came to understand that human connection is the quality that attracted her to the violin in the first place, and adopted this as her throughline as she’s pivoted to careers in academia, public policy, and podcasting.
- Why Maya advocates for approaching change with humility so we understand its nuanced and multifaceted nature instead of being disappointed by inaccurately optimistic predictions.
- What you can do to cultivate a healthier relationship with life’s uncertainties and roll with the changes they will inevitably force you to make.
- And much more…
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When change is forced upon us by life’s incalculable circumstances, our sudden loss of control over what seemed like a certainty can feel like a personal failure. We may have spent years of our lives planning for something that’s been cruelly booted out of reach — to the point that our very identities become untethered. So what can we do to reclaim a sense of purpose instead of spending the rest of our days mulling over what might have been?
On this episode, we’re joined by Maya Shankar, a cognitive scientist and host of the podcast A Slight Change of Plans about what she did when a fluke accident nixed her plans to become a career violinist — a dream she’d been pursuing since she was nine years old. Here, we discuss Maya’s unorthodox path to becoming a student of the famed Itzhak Perlman at Juilliard School of Music, the throughline of human connection that allowed her to pivot from violinist to academic to Chair of the White House Behavioral Science Team to podcasting, and her advice for those of us who need to adapt when life throws us a “slight change of plans.” Listen, learn, and enjoy!
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Miss our conversation with spooky mentalist Derren Brown? Catch up with episode 150: Derren Brown | Using the Power of Suggestion for Good here!
Thanks, Maya Shankar!
If you enjoyed this session with Maya Shankar, let her know by clicking on the link below and sending her a quick shout out at Twitter:
And if you want us to answer your questions on one of our upcoming weekly Feedback Friday episodes, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Resources from This Episode:
- A Slight Change of Plans with Maya Shankar
- Maya Shankar | Website
- Maya Shankar | Twitter
- Maya Shankar | Instagram
- Maya Shankar | Facebook
- Indian Carnatic Music Playlist | Spotify
- The Juilliard School
- Frozen | Prime Video
- Itzhak Perlman | Website
- Identity Foreclosure in Adolescents | Verywell Family
- Stuck On You | Prime Video
- Looking Back on the Worst Chapter of My Life, Four Years On | Jordan Harbinger
- Quinn Lewis: Losing Dixie | A Slight Change of Plans
- Uncertainty Can Cause More Stress than Inevitable Pain: Knowing That There Is a Small Chance of Getting a Painful Electric Shock Can Lead to Significantly More Stress than Knowing That You Will Definitely Be Shocked | ScienceDaily
- Tiffany Haddish Discovers Her Superpower | A Slight Change of Plans
- Kacey Musgraves on Psychedelics | A Slight Change of Plans
- Hillary Clinton Changes on Her Own Terms | A Slight Change of Plans
- Affective Forecasting | The Decision Lab
- Laurie Santos | Practical Lessons from The Happiness Lab | Jordan Harbinger
- The Life-Changing Diagnosis | A Slight Change of Plans
- Thomas Kalil | Wikipedia
- Malcolm Gladwell | Imperfect Puzzles and Mismatched Demeanors | Jordan Harbinger
- Michael Lewis | Website
- Adam Grant | Why Helping Others Drives Our Success | Jordan Harbinger
- Research: For Better Brainstorming, Tell an Embarrassing Story | Harvard Business Review
- Ethan Kross: The Problem with Venting | Character Lab
- Maya’s Slight Change of Plans | A Slight Change of Plans
- When Face Masks Signal Social Identity: Explaining the Deep Face-Mask Divide during the COVID-19 Pandemic | IZA
- We Saw a Game! | MIT Media Lab
- “Does Labeling Myself Hurt or Help?”: A Journey in Identity | THIRA Health
- What I Learned Spending the Day in a Maximum-Security Prison | Jordan Harbinger
- What is the Goal Gradient Effect? | Choice Hacking
- The Value of Setting Mid-Term Goals | Four Pillar Freedom
- Sam Harris | Rationally Confronting the Irrational | Jordan Harbinger
- Taylor Swift | Twitter
- Megan Phelps-Roper | Unfollowing Westboro Baptist Church Part One | Jordan Harbinger
- Megan Phelps-Roper | Unfollowing Westboro Baptist Church Part Two | Jordan Harbinger
- Leaving a Religious Cult | A Slight Change of Plans
- The Power of Nudges: Maya Shankar on Changing People’s Minds | Knowledge at Wharton
- How to Stop Procrastinating and Boost Your Willpower by Using “Temptation Bundling” | James Clear
733: Maya Shankar | Adapting to a Slight Change of Plans
[00:00:00] Jordan Harbinger: Coming up next on The Jordan Harbinger Show.
[00:00:03] Maya Shankar: We are social creatures and we gain a lot from the group membership. I'm not here to villainize the fact that a lot of our beliefs are rooted in our group membership. As we walk about in this world and we're inundated with information and just hundreds of thousands of decisions to make, it can actually be a really helpful heuristic to just look to the groups that we identify with and say, "Okay, well what do you believe? Like I'll believe that too," because that's easier than having to put in the cognitive work to arrive at every single decision myself.
[00:00:34] Jordan Harbinger: Welcome to the show. I'm Jordan Harbinger. On The Jordan Harbinger Show, we decode the stories, secrets, and skills of the world's most fascinating people. We have in-depth conversations with scientists and entrepreneurs, spies and psychologists, even the occasional legendary Hollywood director, neuroscientist, hostage negotiator, or a cold case homicide investigator. And each episode turns our guest's wisdom into practical advice that you can use to build a deeper understanding of how the world works and become a better thinker.
[00:01:03] If you're new to the show or you want to tell your friends about the show, I suggest our episode starter packs as a place to begin. These are collections of our favorite episodes organized by topic that'll help new listeners get a taste of everything that we do here on the show — topics like persuasion and influence, disinformation and cyber warfare, abnormal psychology, crime, and cults, and more. Just visit jordanharbinger.com/start or search for us in your Spotify app to get started.
[00:01:29] Today on the show, Dr. Maya Shankar. Now, there's a lot I can say about Maya because her bio is so impressive, but here's just a little taste. She entered Juilliard, which is essentially the Harvard of music and performance at age nine, age nine. Imagine the talent and early work ethic that this takes at that age, just unbelievable. She's also got a PhD in neuroscience. She also founded the White House Behavioral Science Team, AKA the nudge unit. Did a little postdoc at Stanford. The list goes on and on. But the important thing is that this conversation is not only fascinating but also loaded with practical tips and advice on navigating big changes and using our own psychology to get things done, nudge ourselves in the right direction. We'll also explore why seemingly small things like the way our choices are laid out in front of us affects the decisions that we make. Of course, we'll also learn how to hack this process for ourselves so that making the right decisions is that much easier.
[00:02:23] Now, here we go with Dr. Maya Shankar.
[00:02:27] I'll start where a lot of people start, which is how did you discover the violin so early? Because it's quite unusual unless you have parents that are like, crack the whip, make her play a stringed instrument and the piano and sing.
[00:02:40] Maya Shankar: Yeah, it's a great question. Neither of my parents had had a classical music upbringing.
[00:02:45] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:02:45] Maya Shankar: My dad is a theoretical physicist, and my mom also studied physics. So when they came to this country in the '70s, my mom, she felt a few things. One, she felt very lonely and was really eager to kind of build out a tribe around her. So she had four kids. I'm the youngest of four. And two, especially for her daughters, she wanted to make sure that we were exposed to as many extracurricular activities as we could be growing up. Because her upbringing was very different from the one that I had. She spent most of her time engaged in domestic duties, and that was mostly what was expected of her.
[00:03:18] And so when she's trying to break out of that, she's like, "Oh, how do I make sure that my daughters get exposure to everything?" So my mom's approach was kind of dangle a bunch of things and see what sticks. And when it came to the violin, my grandmother had actually played Indian carnatic-style music with the violins. It's a completely different setup and totally different style of playing. But when she was a young girl, she had played the violin. And so my mom had actually brought the instrument overseas with her and it was sitting in our attic for years.
[00:03:47] And one day, she went up to the attic and brought down the violin to show to me. And I had a very, very close relationship with my grandmother for the summers that we would spend together. We were completely inseparable. And so I think when my mom showed me the instrument, I must have felt some special connection to it because I was only six years old.
[00:04:06] Jordan Harbinger: Sure.
[00:04:06] Maya Shankar: But because it had been something that my grandmother loved. And so I very quickly asked my mom if she could get me a miniature-sized violin for my six-year-old hands to navigate.
[00:04:17] Jordan Harbinger: Wow. It's very fortunate to find something that you really love at any age actually, but to find it that early is really, really something special and pretty much just a matter of luck. Would you agree with that?
[00:04:31] Maya Shankar: I totally agree. Believe me, there were many things I did not like doing, Jordan, that my mom or dad would've to push me to do. But with the violin, I just had such a different relationship with it. And my mom would say that, you know, while she did have to ask me and nudge me to do lots of stuff, she never had to ask me to practice the violin. I would rush home from school as soon as I was done eating my snack, I would go upstairs and just start practicing away, you know?
[00:04:55] Jordan Harbinger: Wow.
[00:04:55] Maya Shankar: I look back as an adult and I'm like, "Where did Maya get all that grit from?" Like, I'm not sure I have it today. There's an interesting feature of my musical upbringing that I think actually helped me fall in love faster with it even as like a hobby, which is that I had a pretty untraditional pedagogical experience, I guess is the best way to put it.
[00:05:14] So my parents didn't have many connections in the classical music world. And so my mom just went backstage at a local orchestra concert and just asked a bunch of violinists whether they'd be willing to teach a young child and one of them agreed. And he'd never taught someone before. So the one challenge was he was kind of going to figure it out as he went along. And what that meant is I didn't actually learn any of the foundational, really important technical aspects of playing the violin. Instead, I was just listening to what he played and trying to imitate it and just using my ears as a guide.
[00:05:46] Jordan Harbinger: Wow.
[00:05:47] Maya Shankar: And on the one hand, that left me in a somewhat precarious position when it came to building my technique later on. On the other hand, all of the kind of arduous stuff that kids don't like doing was kind of cut out for me.
[00:05:59] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:06:00] Maya Shankar: I just got to do the fun stuff. I just got to play pieces rather than actually play scales and etudes and all these exercises. And I do think that allowed me to fall in love faster with this thing that, you know, it does require a learning curve—
[00:06:12] Jordan Harbinger: Sure.
[00:06:13] Maya Shankar: —and those early stages can be quite difficult. But I just kind of lucked out in having, just jumping in and getting to see the benefits and the joy of actually hearing music produced.
[00:06:22] Jordan Harbinger: That makes a lot of sense. There's something that adults tend to do with kids. A kid will be like, "I saw Frozen and now I want to learn how to sing." And they're like, "Great, here's a textbook with all these music notes and you got to learn how to read these scales." And it's like, "I just kind of want to sing the songs after listening to the songs. That's all I really want to do." And then adults are like, "Cool. But if you want to get really good at it, you kind of have—" And it's like, just stop ruining it. But we just can't help ourselves. Right? We're like, "Oh, you like banging away on the piano and trying to play things you hear, let me hire the mean old lady from down the street who's going to yell at you when you don't sit up straight and play the piano."
[00:06:59] Maya Shankar: Yeah. And I think, you know, my orientation was different as a result of learning in this way, which was rather than relying on my technique on the tools that I had at my disposal with my hand to guide my music, it really is a different orientation to feel like your heart and your mind and your ears are guiding you.
[00:07:17] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:07:18] Maya Shankar: Like, the only signal I would get back was, does this sound beautiful or not? And I think, you know, later on in my career, again, I always lagged behind technically, but I do feel like a lot of my teachers and people would comment, "Oh, she has a lot of musicality. She's really bringing a lot of emotion to her pieces." And I feel like that's because that's all I had. That's all I had to rely on. So it was almost like, scarcity helped me in that situation.
[00:07:41] Jordan Harbinger: How did you end up at Juilliard? Did they invite you to audition or how would they have found you at that point?
[00:07:48] Maya Shankar: This is a funny story. I started playing at six, right? And my mom, you know, she got me this little violin, quarter-sized violin, and very quickly she realized that I had big dreams for this whole enterprise, right? It wasn't just going to be hobby for me. I started—
[00:08:02] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:08:03] Maya Shankar: —imagining myself going pro, becoming a concert violinist. And she was realizing that the limited connection she had in this world were kind of falling short in terms of matching her daughter's ambition to what she had access to. And so my mom had made a couple of phone calls to people in our community and learned that there, you know, was this Juilliard School pre-college program that was in New York. It did teach kids who were enrolled in elementary schools or middle schools or high schools on Saturdays. So it was like an all-day Saturday program. I just had no shot of getting in, Jordan, at that time because, like I said, I had a very atypical background. My technique sucked. I loved playing the violin. I think it was clear that I had some talent for it, that there was just no way in hell I was going to be able to get in based on how I was playing at the time.
[00:08:46] And so, one day, my mom and I were walking by the Juilliard School's building in New York and I had my violin with me and she said, "Why don't we just go into the building and see what happens?" I'm like, "What are you talking about?"
[00:08:57] Jordan Harbinger: This is like the Harvard of music schools and also you're — what you? How old are you? 10.
[00:09:02] Maya Shankar: I was nine at the time.
[00:09:03] Jordan Harbinger: Nine. So it's like walking into actual Harvard and going, "Hey, my kid's pretty smart. I think he should probably be in your physics program." And they're like—
[00:09:11] Maya Shankar: Yeah, looking back, my mom had a lot of guts.
[00:09:14] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:09:14] Maya Shankar: She was pretty bold and fearless. So we go in and she just tells the security guard. It's like, "Hey, I just love it if my daughter could see her dream school of close." And so we walked in and very quickly my mom struck up a conversation with a mother and her daughter, and the daughter was about to go see her violin teacher for a lesson. And my mom said, "Hey, would you mind just making an introduction to this teacher after your lesson's over?" And kindness of strangers, they said yes. I mean, I'm sure you've experienced this so many times in your life where you're so afraid to ask and you realize people are so generous, so exceedingly generous.
[00:09:46] Jordan Harbinger: Sure.
[00:09:46] Maya Shankar: And so they made the introduction and I played, I auditioned for this teacher on the spot, and he invited me to join him, essentially for a summer boot camp where he was going to level me up to try to even have a shot at the Juilliard audition that was going to happen in the fall.
[00:10:01] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:10:02] Maya Shankar: And so I ended up going to the summer festival for five weeks. You know, even as like a nine-year-old, you're practicing hours a day.
[00:10:08] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:10:08] Maya Shankar: I mean, that was just a dream come true for me, right? Because I was finally getting that kind of teaching that I so needed. And then I auditioned for Juilliard in the fall and was accepted. But it was just, it was such a long shot. And again, I say that with no false humility. Like when my mom asked my teacher later, "What was the deal with Maya?" He literally said, "I did not think she had a shot but I liked her personality."
[00:10:32] Jordan Harbinger: Wow.
[00:10:33] Maya Shankar: And so again, he really, he changed my life just by saying yes in that moment.
[00:10:37] Jordan Harbinger: It's so incredible to hear, you know, you think like, okay, that happens in movies, but it doesn't happen in real life. And the fact that you — I've heard you say in interviews, people have asked you like, "Oh, were you a child prodigy?" It's like, "No—"
[00:10:49] Maya Shankar: No.
[00:10:49] Jordan Harbinger: Child prodigies were really, really extra. And—
[00:10:52] Maya Shankar: Yes.
[00:10:53] Jordan Harbinger: —in a way that was an advantage for you, right? Because you weren't held captive by the violin. You had a more or less normal life. I mean, you found things you liked early on. You were precocious or whatever the word is, but you weren't like, "Well, he's 10. He can't have friends that don't play chess all day because he's a chess prodigy." And he also hates chess, but he wants to make his parents love him, so he does it anyway. It wasn't like that.
[00:11:17] Maya Shankar: It wasn't like that at all. And yeah, I was definitely not prodigious. And I know that because I actually saw what a true prodigy sounded like and I was not them, and how quickly they were able to learn things and I was not them. But I do think, again, and this kind of hits on an earlier theme that we discussed, which was because I was not beholden to it, right? And my parents were not like shoving it down my throat, a really natural love emerged.
[00:11:40] And what that meant is I was able to experience the love of the violin, but also the love of so many other things in my life. Like I auditioned for the school play and I played soccer, and I had sleepovers with my friends. And I think when it comes to music, like what is our ultimate goal, it is to express something through—
[00:11:57] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:11:57] Maya Shankar: —the notes we're playing, and ideally to connect with people emotionally through that process. and if you don't have other experiences outside of the violin to bring to the music playing, there's this huge void. I mean like what are you even able to share, right?
[00:12:11] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:12:11] Maya Shankar: And so I feel it was a gift for me to have this like very well-rounded young life because I actually feel it made me a better musician in the longer term. I just had more to say through the music I was playing.
[00:12:22] Jordan Harbinger: That makes sense. Versus a kid who's essentially imprisoned practicing 10 to 12 hours per day and is just maybe doing what his teacher says to do, or imitating things or going through the books. I don't know. As you can tell, I have very little experience with that type of dedication to the violin especially, but it seems like a lonely existence too, which can't really be good for, well, I guess it'd be great for making sad music, but maybe not great for making music that kids want to be doing all day.
[00:12:50] And you end up being the private student of Itzhak Perlman, who's like — is it fair to say the Michael Jordan of violin?
[00:12:56] Maya Shankar: Yeah, it is fair to say that.
[00:12:58] Jordan Harbinger: So how did that happen? That seems also like, okay, you say you're not a prodigy, but then this guy's like, "You are my student now." Like the Yoda of violin picks you.
[00:13:07] Maya Shankar: So when I came to Juilliard, I was basically like a sponge, and I think I've always had, I've always had a profound amount of humility when it came to my violin and the way that I played, just because, again, I did have this untraditional background, so any wisdom, any insights, anything anyone would teach me, I would just clinging onto and absorb. And so even to this day, I'm excellent at taking criticism because I thrived in that environment, even as a little kid being told I had to improve things. And so I did actually get better very quickly once I got into Juilliard. So I started off at like the last chair in the second violin section of the orchestra. And like slowly moved my way up to the point where eventually I was a concertmistress, eventually ended up becoming quite good, which was exciting.
[00:13:52] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:13:52] Maya Shankar: And then at one point my teacher said, "You know, I think let's make it happen." You know, my mom and I had been talking with her about my potentially meeting Perlman. It was just meant to be a one-off lesson. It's the dream come true, right? It's like, "Can I play hoops with Jordan—?
[00:14:03] Jordan Harbinger: Sure.
[00:14:04] Maya Shankar: —for half an hour? And that's the only vision we had for this. And I still remember, Jordan, because you know teenage angst will get everyone. This was when I was around 13, so slightly less enchanted by practicing at this moment of my life—
[00:14:17] Jordan Harbinger: Sure
[00:14:17] Maya Shankar: —than I was when I was like nine because I had gotten wind of this thing called MTV and—
[00:14:21] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:14:21] Maya Shankar: —Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. And so I was spending a lot of my recreational time not practicing and watching tv. So again, I was in that like angsty first year of high school phase of life. But I went to this audition and I just played this song for him, and we had a lesson and it was over. And then the next time I met with my teacher, she told me, "Perlman wants to take you on as a private violin student."
[00:14:44] Jordan Harbinger: Wow.
[00:14:44] Maya Shankar: And I was like, "What is happening in my life? This is crazy." He only taught a handful of students at the time, and I couldn't believe that I was one of those students that he chose. I mean, still to this day, I just cannot believe that I was able to learn truly from the greatest.
[00:15:00] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:15:00] Maya Shankar: Yeah. It's such a gift.
[00:15:01] Jordan Harbinger: It's really incredible that — and don't take this the wrong way — he picked you out of hundreds of super genius child prodigy kids running around Juilliard. That's a really big compliment, right? He saw something in you that wasn't just, this person will practice for 14 or 15 hours a day. He was like, "Oh, I like you for a reason that isn't just because you're going to make me look good for working hard." It was almost like there was less of an ego validation in it for him — I don't know him. So I don't know if that's ever a motivation for a guy like that, but a lot of teachers would just pick the person that they think would show up and be the best and make their legacy right? But he just liked being around you or something.
[00:15:37] Maya Shankar: Yeah. It was so interesting to see our dynamic form. I think it's almost a situation where we became friends first.
[00:15:43] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:15:44] Maya Shankar: And I'm just reflecting on this live, right? I've never really thought about this, but I remember going into this lesson, and for me, again, because there's a cap on my ambition about whether or not this is going to lead to anything at all. I think this is a one off, and so I'm thinking to myself, well, this is the coolest experience of my life.
[00:15:59] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:16:00] Maya Shankar: And I'm just going to have as much fun as I possibly can with it. And I think for that reason I brought a lot of irreverence to the lesson. Like a lot of playfulness. We were joking around and I think we just had a lot of fun creating musical ideas together. I imagine a world that's is much of a pressure cooker as the Julliard world is, and like the kinds of students he interacts with, that like small modicum of levity was maybe refreshing, right?
[00:16:24] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:16:24] Maya Shankar: And the fact that I was willing to push back on ideas or like really have thoughtful conversations about stuff, I do wonder whether that might have been a difference maker because, you know, I did ask his wife later on — I've stayed in touch with the Perlmans over the years and I said, "Why did he choose me at that point in time? Because I could hear that my violin peers were crushing me technically." And by the way, they've all gone on to become internationally renowned—
[00:16:50] Jordan Harbinger: Sure.
[00:16:50] Maya Shankar: —concert violinist. So like the track record is fantastic for Perlman.
[00:16:54] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. He's like, "Oh, she became a neuroscience PhD, but you can't win them all."
[00:16:57] Maya Shankar: Yeah. And she said, "Because he felt that you had something to say." Again, everything we've been talking about up until this point, I think sheds light on the fact that there's lots of ways to try and excel at something.
[00:17:10] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:17:10] Maya Shankar: And sometimes the best way to try and excel at something is to like live a full life
[00:17:15] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:17:15] Maya Shankar: So that you do have something to say and, and you obviously, you interview for your show, incredible talents all over the world, and everyone has their own recipe for success.
[00:17:25] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:17:25] Maya Shankar: But I think especially in the arts, there's something about, again, being able to call upon experiences to bring into your art form that really makes it special.
[00:17:34] Jordan Harbinger: I think that's true, and I think that some of the most incredible people that we've had on the show are not just the people that have spent 20 hours a day thinking about something for the last decade. It's often the people, yes, there's an element of talent, of course, and there's an element of deliberate practice as there is to anything. But there's also the idea that they do bring in other fields because that's what makes something really special. I mean, it's really hard to be the number one or number whatever, best single digit, best person at something. But if you can skill stack and you bring in something else, even if it doesn't come through in the performance directly, like your soccer skills may not have directly translated to violin, but the fact that you had a life outside of it and maybe could come in and the stakes were a little lower because you weren't like, "Uh-oh. Every hour I spend playing soccer is an hour I'm not practicing for Carnegie Hall." You just came in and went, "I love playing the violin and this is going to be great. And this is the peak for me, practicing at Juilliard." So you're in that flow state rocking, and the other kids are like, "I hope I don't screw this up and mess up my chances of something else in 10 years."
[00:18:40] Maya Shankar: Yeah. And you know, that's not to say that I was like invincible when—
[00:18:43] Jordan Harbinger: Sure.
[00:18:43] Maya Shankar: —it came to this mindset. Of course, I was also worried about messing up a passage or, you know—
[00:18:48] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:18:48] Maya Shankar: —screwing up or having a memory lapse or whatever it was. But I just think like my North Star was fundamentally different, which was my goal was to produce beautiful music to emotionally connect with my audience and to create a special experience. And it wasn't, I want to be the best violinist in the world. And it's almost because I just had the humility to know that that's never going to happen. So, there's a cap on my willingness to dream that big, right? And so I think that just, that makes you focus on a different set of things when you're pursuing something.
[00:19:20] Jordan Harbinger: This is by no means a great analogy here, but when I first started podcasting, they didn't really have podcast stats. You couldn't tell how many people were downloading your show. You could look at these server logs and stuff in 2006, 2007, but you really didn't know how many people it was or anything. So I didn't really check. I checked my stats every three or six months and go like, "Oh, okay, this thing isn't broken." The machine that Ted Howie's thing isn't broken.
[00:19:43] But I couldn't tell what anything was, so I didn't focus on, "I've got to increase the reach and I want to get these different demographic areas." I was like, "I just want to get better at the talking part and not be as nervous and figuring out how I can prepare better or have a better, I don't know, microphone technique where I don't get all the air blowing in it and it sounds bad." I got to figure that stuff out. So I focused on all that and then years and years later I was like, "Oh, I should probably market the show. People are doing that. It's working for them. Let me figure that out."
[00:20:10] But I'd already built fundamentals because I was just enjoying it and I really think that if I'd had good statistics in the beginning, and then I thought, "Oh, I better monetize this because there's ads." There weren't ads in the beginning either. You couldn't monetize it. I just did it because I liked it. I think if there were ads in monetization, I would've quit because I would've gone, "Wow, this is going to be really hard." I'm only at point A and I thought I'd be at point G by now. I'm going to switch to something else. I would've just quit most likely. But I didn't because there wasn't enough information for me to know that. I probably wasn't talking to many people and yeah, I was never going to make any money doing it. That's what I thought.
[00:20:46] Maya Shankar: Yeah, I think that's a great analogy. I see so many parallels, in terms of what we were chasing after. Yeah. And obviously again, that led to a great product—
[00:20:54] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:20:55] Maya Shankar: —in your case, right?
[00:20:56] Jordan Harbinger: Thank you.
[00:20:56] Maya Shankar: Because you're focused on the right things.
[00:20:58] Jordan Harbinger: So how did it all end for you, the violin? Because, spoiler alert, you're a PhD in cognitive neuroscience and not in violin. What happened?
[00:21:05] Maya Shankar: Yeah, so, you know, I was on the up and up, I was studying with Perlman.
[00:21:08] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:21:09] Maya Shankar: I was able to convince my Indian-American parents that maybe I was destined to go to music school for college—
[00:21:15] Jordan Harbinger: Wow.
[00:21:15] Maya Shankar: —versus regular college, which is a big victory. Everyone on the fam in the family was getting on board with this plan.
[00:21:20] Jordan Harbinger: Cool.
[00:21:21] Maya Shankar: And then I just overstretched my finger on a single note when I was at summer camp. I was at Perlman's camp. I woke up early in the morning. Ambition was running high at the camp. I was eager to excel and just one note. And I just remember hearing a popping sound and feeling like this is not good.
[00:21:38] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:21:38] Maya Shankar: In an industry where people literally buy insurance for their hands and avoid—
[00:21:43] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:21:44] Maya Shankar: —all kind of recreational sports, like playing volleyball at school or what have you. I can tell that this is not good. But I was a reclusive teenager and I resisted everything the doctors were saying and I kept playing through pain for weeks and then months and was basically just in denial about the fact that my violin career was over and I was the last person that I was going to admit that too, right?
[00:22:07] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:22:08] Maya Shankar: And so, what ended up happening is, you know, after playing through pain, after having a surgery that was unsuccessful, finally doctors just laid down the law and said, "Look, your career's over, you have to stop playing the violin."
[00:22:19] Jordan Harbinger: Ugh, it hurts to hear. Well, it hurts in two ways. One, the popping sound, that makes everyone cringe when you hear that because everyone kind of imagines what that feels like. But then to have that pop, not be, "Hey, you can't play your recreational volleyball league for a couple of months while this heals." That's one thing. But this pop was — and I hate when podcasters do this, they try and draw like some sort of amazing connection to something else. But the pop was your identity, right? As a human, as a musician at least, popping away from the rest of you and gone forever.
[00:22:52] Maya Shankar: Yeah. There's a concept in cognitive science called identity foreclosure.
[00:22:55] Jordan Harbinger: Mmm.
[00:22:55] Maya Shankar: And it does refer to the idea that we can exclusively attach ourselves to one identity, often very early in adolescence, but that can persist into adulthood. And it prevents us from being exploratory about all the other identities we might have. And you know, even though I was playing soccer and auditioning for the school play, you're absolutely right. I was first and foremost a violinist. I mean, I feel like, you know, when I was in an airport and I didn't feel that strap around my right arm, I was like, "Oh my gosh, I forgot something."
[00:23:25] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:23:25] Maya Shankar: Like, where's my violin? It was an extension of my body. My body has actually grown around the ergonomics of the instrument. So I had a doctor told me, you know, about a decade ago that my spine has actually curved a bit.
[00:23:36] Jordan Harbinger: Oh my gosh, yes.
[00:23:36] Maya Shankar: Because of all the hours I spent bowing on my instrument and my right shoulder is slightly elevated compared to my left because of all the hours I spent playing the violin. And—
[00:23:44] Jordan Harbinger: Wow.
[00:23:44] Maya Shankar: It's not an overstatement to say that like my body grew around the violin, right? It was such a core piece of me. And so as you can imagine, Jordan, when something is you and you're also just like a kid, so you haven't been that thoughtful about all the other identities you might be able to take on. I was just at such a loss. Like I expected to grieve the loss of the violin, but I did not expect to grieve the loss of myself. And I'm sure a lot of people listening to this can relate to this moment where this thing you love so much, this person you love so much, this activity you love so much, they're no longer in your life and it's devastating for your sense of self-identity.
[00:24:26] Jordan Harbinger: Have you seen Stuck on You with Matt Damon and somebody else who's escaping me right now where they're conjoined twins and they have a surgery?
[00:24:32] Maya Shankar: Oh no, I haven't seen that.
[00:24:33] Jordan Harbinger: Okay. It's pretty funny if memories. I saw it a million years ago, but I remember it being pretty funny. Their conjoined twins and they get a surgery to separate and at least part of the movie is about Matt Damon sort of dealing with the fact that this part of him is gone and it's also like his best friend. And there's a scene that, the only part that I remember, scene that I remember is there's this some sort of statue on a park bench somewhere in New York or whatever, and you can sit next to them and he's always pushing up against it, just thinking, because he wants to feel the other person, his brother with him during this. And it's a comedy, It's not super depressing, like the part that I just explained to you. But it reminds me of that because he just felt like something was missing and it's like he just can't deal with it. He's always trying to figure, and I think there's like bed scenes where he's like, "Hold on, I got to have a pillow here. That makes me wrench up in this awkward way because I've spent 25, 30 years with this person literally attached to me."
[00:25:30] And this really, it makes sense, right? You define yourself primarily as a violinist and people suffer change or loss like this all the time. They have a business breakup like I've had in the past. They get divorced from someone maybe they were married to when they were really young, especially. Yours is worse, but it would be like me losing the ability to speak or something like that. I think it would be my situation where I lost my old show and I had to start over, it's almost like that's more like you losing your violin and maybe a bunch of music you wrote, but it felt at the time like I couldn't talk anymore. Does that make sense? Felt bigger.
[00:26:06] Maya Shankar: I think it's just this general idea of like when things change.
[00:26:08] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:26:09] Maya Shankar: One of the reasons why it's so painful, one of the reasons why we have so much anxiety in the face of change is because we often have to relinquish certain identities, right?
[00:26:17] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:26:18] Maya Shankar: On my podcast, A Slight Change of Plans, I talked with Michael Lewis's daughter Quinn Lewis, and she talks about the tragic death of her sister, Dixie. It's a heartbreaking episode, but I learned so much from her and what we kind of realized together is that she was mourning the loss of Dixie. She was also mourning the loss of being Dixie's older sister. Like in that moment, she lost that identity, right?
[00:26:39] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:26:40] Maya Shankar: When we view change through this lens, it helps us better grasp why the change is so confusing and disorienting and painful and complex because there's loss happening at so many levels when things change. Even a good kind of change necessarily involves some kind of loss of the former identity or the former status or role. And so I think as humans, just to create these simple narratives so that we can navigate the world successfully and not feel overwhelmed by our surroundings.
[00:27:11] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:27:12] Maya Shankar: It's easy to cling and attach ourselves to specific identities because then we can make sense of the world and we feel like we belong. And so that part's irresistible. It's just the challenge happens when the thing is taken away from you. I share this because I'm hoping it can help listeners who are going through a big change have a more sturdy, stable identity. But what I learned from my experience of losing the violin is that our human desire to attach ourselves to identity, as I mentioned, is not going anywhere. So then there's this big question, which is, well, what should I have done? Should I have just been less passionate about the violin? Should I have put my eggs into 15 different baskets? And like, never really, you know?
[00:27:47] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. Don't get good at anything.
[00:27:48] Maya Shankar: Don't deep dive into the violin.
[00:27:49] Jordan Harbinger: Don't ever get good at anything and focused on anything because you might lose it.
[00:27:52] Maya Shankar: Yeah, yeah. Should I not have fallen in love with it? And it's like, no, of course, those weren't the right solutions. And knowing my personality, I'm kind of a "go big or go home" type of gal.
[00:27:59] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:28:00] Maya Shankar: And so what I realized is that it has been more sustainable for me to attach my identity, not to any specific pursuit, like being a violinist or being an artist, or being a runner, whatever the things are that you can be, a lawyer or doctor, whatever identities people have, but instead to the underlying features, the traits of that pursuit that really light you up, that really make you tick, that make you feel energized in this important way.
[00:28:29] And so I had to do some digging and figure out, well, what was it when you strip away all the superficial features of playing the violin, what was it that really made me fall in love with the instrument? And what I realized is that underneath all of it was human connection. Like my desire to emotionally connect with other people. And I felt this when I would play chamber music with my peers and we would have these beautiful moments of like musical synergy.
[00:28:53] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:28:54] Maya Shankar: I felt this when I would go on stage and perform in front of strangers and we would have these shared moments of understanding, even though I'd never met these people before. I felt it when I was playing with Perlman and I looked over and he was like, swing his arms at one point, like a conductor would as I'm playing my music. And it just felt like we were gelling. And so I realized, "Ah, okay, human connection is my thing. That's the Maya thing. And so now let me see. If I can find that thirst for human connection in these other places, in these other spaces." Because I can't play the violin anymore, that's off the table, then maybe that can be my throughline.
[00:29:31] And so even though since then it seems like I've had a very disparate career, right? Like I've been in academic for a while, doing my PhD and my postdoc, and then I was in public policy in the Obama White House, and now I have this podcast, A Slight Change of Plans. There is actually this throughline, which is all of them in some way had been my effort to either unlock the science of human connection, unlock how it is that we make decisions and move out in this world, or actually connect with people through my podcast, through my work in public policy to actually affect change, right?
[00:30:01] And so, yeah, I guess I would just urge everyone to ask themselves like, what is my throughline? Because then you have this more sturdy place to land when the very specific thing you've been doing goes away for whatever reason
[00:30:14] Jordan Harbinger: You're listening to The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest Maya Shankar. We'll be right back.
[00:30:19] This episode is sponsored in part by Land's End. I attend a ton of conferences. I always come home with a bunch of promo items. Actually, sometimes I just don't even come home with them because it's cheap stuff. It should just be called landfill supply because that's where most of it ends up. It's really a shame. Promotional items can be a powerful way to break through the clutter of conferences and leave attendees with a clear, memorable experience. But none of that is possible by stuffing your swag bag with thoughtless low-quality items, create an extension of your brand with high-quality custom apparel from Lands' End Business. Get fully customized clothes, accessories, and promo products featuring your logo and colors elevated by decades of experience. Furthermore, thousands of businesses from major airlines to mom and pops use Lands' End Business for their uniform needs. Whether you're a carpet cleaner, a mechanic, moving company, corner pizza shop, they've got you covered literally with branded apparel. Use Lands' End for holiday gifting. Jen gifts their open-top canvas tote bags, customized with a monogram or logo, fills it up with goodies, high quality and useful. And fun fact, I had a Lands' End backpack growing up and I had my initials on it. That was the rage back then.
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[00:32:45] Jordan Harbinger: If you're wondering how I manage to book all these amazing folks for the show, it's always about my network. Everybody I know comes through a warm introduction and I'm teaching you how to do the same thing. Look, I know you don't have a podcast, probably, but this will be great for your personal life, for your business life. It'll work in your office. It'll work in your social circles. Check out our Six-Minute Networking course. It's a free course, jordanharbinger.com/course. The course is about improving your networking and your connection skills naturally, but also I want to inspire you to develop personal and professional relationships with people that you can help and that can help you in a non-schmoozy, sort of non-gross way. It'll make you a better networker, a better connector, and most importantly, a better thinker. That's at jordanharbinger.com/course. And by the way, many of the guests on the show subscribe and contribute to the same course. Come join us, you'll be in smart company where you belong.
[00:33:34] Now back to Dr. Maya Shankar.
[00:33:38] This is probably a dumb question and quite a non-sequitur, but I'm going to do it anyway. If you injured one hand — and I promise we'll get back on track because that was amazing, and I'm going to ruin it, but if you injured one hand, why could you not switch which hand you played with? Or was the injury so bad you couldn't use your hand to do much of anything at all? Obviously, I have no idea what goes into playing the violin, but my knee-jerk reaction is like, "Eh, just stop using the finger and switch it onto the other side."
[00:34:03] Maya Shankar: Yeah, so one, the injury was very severe.
[00:34:05] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:34:05] Maya Shankar: But secondly, it is an acquired skill, so it would be like asking Michael Jordan to like just change hands and that already sounds like an extremely challenging thing, just—
[00:34:16] Jordan Harbinger: Sure.
[00:34:16] Maya Shankar: —mechanistically to like reprogram your brain to do everything on the other side, but with the violin in particular, the skills you're using to like put your fingers down on strings is very different from the skills you're using to bow on your arm.
[00:34:28] Jordan Harbinger: Okay, that makes sense.
[00:34:29] Maya Shankar: Even like the neuro programming behind both of those are just so different between left and right hand that I think it would've taken me years to develop that same kind of agility and muscle memory with my right hand. And also it would've made playing and concerts quite challenging because then you'd be back facing the audience when you play.
[00:34:46] Jordan Harbinger: Oh.
[00:34:47] Maya Shankar: I'm just trying to do it right now. I'm like, oh, I'd be bowing in kind of an interesting direction.
[00:34:50] Jordan Harbinger: Right. Okay. Yeah, they'd have to like put you on the end so that you don't bump into the person next to you. Yeah, that's a good point. I knew it was a dumb question. I just couldn't really pick out why exactly.
[00:35:00] Maya Shankar: I love the question. It's very quirky and fun.
[00:35:03] Jordan Harbinger: So how do you start to process this, right? If someone listening right now is going through some big change like this, what do they do to even start wrapping their mind around this? This new life, this new person that they might feel like they are and maybe they don't want to be that person right now. Not yet, anyway.
[00:35:20] Maya Shankar: Yeah. The first thing is recognizing that one of the reasons we struggle with change, we talked about the identity piece, but another reason that we struggle at change is that we really feel uncomfortable in the face of uncertainty. And so when a listener viewer is going through a big change and they're like, "I don't even know where I go from here."
[00:35:41] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:35:41] Maya Shankar: "I'm not ready to take on that new identity." What are their minds filled with? It's filled with a bunch of uncertainty, and that is just fundamentally uncomfortable for us as human beings, right? There was this study showing that people who had a 50 percent chance of getting an electric shock were more stressed out than those who had a 100 percent chance of getting an electric shock. So we would rather be certain that a bad thing is going to happen than to have to cope with feelings of uncertainty, right? And so we have this resistance towards it. Even again, when it's a self-initiated change, right? That's why we feel like—
[00:36:13] Jordan Harbinger: Sure.
[00:36:14] Maya Shankar: —adrenaline or excitement, but also anxiety in the face of a change that we initiate. I think the biggest lesson that I've learned from interviewing a range of guests on A Slight Change of Plans, and I'm talking about like, you know, notable people like Tiffany Haddish and Kacey Musgraves and Hillary Clinton and others, but then also just regular people, right? Like my friends, who have gone through challenging times—
[00:36:35] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:36:35] Maya Shankar: —that have shared a similar psychology is that, I'm sure you're very familiar with this research on happiness showing that we're bad at affective forecasting, right? You've talked to Laurie Santos—
[00:36:43] Jordan Harbinger: Sure.
[00:36:43] Maya Shankar: —on the show and others, so we're bad at like predicting what's going to make us happy. What I'm learning from A Slight Change of Plans is that we are equally bad at forecasting how the big changes in our lives will change us. And so I think there's a few cognitive fallacies, like a few biases that drive this bad cognitive forecasting. One is that when we think about how a change will affect us, we tend to think about the specific change itself, almost as though that change is operating in a vacuum of sorts.
[00:37:15] Jordan Harbinger: Okay.
[00:37:15] Maya Shankar: And so we think about like the most obvious things that are likely to result from that change. But what that fails to appreciate is that our lives and our psychology are so complex and change in one area of our lives often has spillover effects into other areas of our lives that are much more difficult to predict. And so what I've learned from this, I think prior to making A Slight Change of Plans, I would've given different advice to someone who was going through an unwill change versus a will change, an undesirable change versus a good change. But what I've learned from my guests and learned from the science as well, is that good changes, what we code as good changes are often far more complex. They have lots of unexpected, sometimes negative consequences, and the reverse is true as well. And so approaching change with humility so that we understand just how nuanced and multifaceted change is, I think is a better way to approach the category altogether because we're just not going to get all of it right. We're just not. We are going to be incapable of figuring out exactly how we will evolve in the face of the change.
[00:38:19] Jordan Harbinger: You mentioned, it's funny, I had this exact question. Would the advice you give to somebody be the same, whether they're going through a change they want to go through or something they don't want to go through, why is that different and what primarily would that difference be?
[00:38:31] Maya Shankar: Our expectations are wildly different.
[00:38:33] Jordan Harbinger: Okay.
[00:38:33] Maya Shankar: So when a change is forced upon us, We feel a lack of agency, we feel a lack of control. We feel like—
[00:38:40] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:38:41] Maya Shankar: —okay, life is going against our best-laid plans. And so our orientation feels different than a change where it's like, "Well, I've been gunning for this promotion. I've been gunning to get married or get this job," or whatever the thing is that you're striving for. But that ladder's mindset of like this is on my own volition, can sometimes set us up for failure because we assume, "Well, I will the change. So of course, it's going to be great across the board." Almost like I'm walking through a magic mirror and I'm Maya and I'm unchanged. And the only thing that happens as I walk through this mirror is that I get tenure at the university, or I have a successful IVF procedure and I get pregnant, or I get promoted, whatever the thing is that you're chasing after.
[00:39:25] And I think that when you have that mentality, what you're not appreciating is how that one narrow change, that magic mirror change is going to have all kinds of subtle effects on the other parts of you, the parts of your personality that you might not have thought about it might have negative effects on your growth. Like there's stories from A Slight Change of Plans where someone willed a really good thing to happen and then they started to notice that they were becoming a shittier person, or it was having all of these unexpected—
[00:39:51] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:39:52] Maya Shankar: —negative impacts on them. And those are fascinating stories because again, they show that were bad at this change forecasting thing. And along similar lines, there are stories of people for whom their worst nightmares happened. This diagnosis, this loss in my life, this is literally the worst thing I could ever have imagined for myself. And yet, you see in their stories, these surprising areas where there were silver linings or opportunities for growth, and they just did a bad job of predicting how their psychological immune system would respond. And they're pleasantly surprised by the outcome.
[00:40:28] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. There was a story on your show of a — I'm paraphrasing, of course, cancer patient who, he had a leg and part of his back amputated or part of his spine amputated, right? And now, he just finds like, "Hey, after all that, I'm basically as happy as I was before." And when I heard that, I was like, "What? How?" But that's also really empowering and really a huge relief because it's almost like, okay, psychologically I'm going to be okay because that's just how our brains work if we let them.
[00:40:56] Maya Shankar: Yeah. I think the phrase he used was like, the emotional thermostat has prevailed.
[00:40:59] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:41:00] Maya Shankar: Yeah. Scott, in this episode called The Life-Changing Diagnosis on A Slight Change of Plans, shares with me how he had spent the majority of his adult life optimizing for his future health. So we're talking intermittent fasting, high-intensity interval training, vegan, carried turmeric around with him and chia seeds. He would like toss them onto his food. I mean, this guy was doing everything imaginable to basically avoid the cancer outcome. And then at the age of 32, he gets this devastating stage four cancer diagnosis that requires that he gets his leg amputated below the knee, has a vertebra removed from his spine, has to get surgery on his other leg, and then 18 administrations of chemotherapy. So it basically has to uproot his life—
[00:41:43] Jordan Harbinger: Oh my god.
[00:41:43] Maya Shankar: —and move to Texas at MD Anderson. And you know, to our earlier conversation, Jordan, he talks about the fact that in addition to grieving parts of the future that he thought he had and grieving the present as well, because of all the pain he's going through, the loss of identity was really devastating for him at first. He said, "I'd always identified as this really fit person."
[00:42:03] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:42:04] Maya Shankar: And I remember there's this stirring moment of the interview where he says, "Maya, like, I just have to admit that there are many days where I'm far more afraid of losing my six-pack than I am of dying." Because that's how tethered fitness was to his identity. And so he's navigating all of these identity changes, he's navigating these physical changes that he was unprepared for, and yet months later, he's sitting outside having a cup of coffee thinking, "The bad moments might be worse. I'm going to say that, right? Obviously, you know, I've experienced—"
[00:42:34] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:42:35] Maya Shankar: "—unimaginable physical pain, but the good moments are just as good." To hear that from him, like going to an interview, I couldn't even relate to how this person could have this psychological response. But because Scott's my friend, I also know that our psychology is actually not that different from one another.
[00:42:50] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:42:51] Maya Shankar: And so it felt like when I was talking with Scott, this mental buoyancy and resiliency was within reach. That's the best way I would describe it. Because I had the same reaction as you, Jordan, I was like, "How the hell could anyone feel this way," right?
[00:43:04] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:43:04] Maya Shankar: But then when I saw my friend feel that way and I knew that we shared some of these traits, I thought, oh my gosh, I think this actually just might be this feature of what it means to be human, which is this, you know, incredible ability to adapt. And not to say that's everyone's experience. I think that's so important to clarify. You know, for some people, they won't have the exact response that Scott had, but it was Scott's response. And that was so meaningful to him because it ran counter to everything he had predicted for himself.
[00:43:30] And I just wanted to add a quick follow-on on Scott because this was so interesting. This was a case where he put out an episode into the world, the world fell in love with Scott. And so I would hear from all these listeners in the intervening months, "Tell us an update about Scott. How's he doing? How's he doing?" And so I actually brought him back for a second interview and I'm so happy to report that his scans show no evidence of cancer today, so unbelievable.
[00:43:51] Jordan Harbinger: Wow.
[00:43:52] Maya Shankar: And we were talking, again, I asked him this question, I said, "You know, part of your evolution with your changing identity was needing to relinquish control," right? Because this is a guy who had his hands—
[00:44:03] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:44:04] Maya Shankar: —firmly on the steering wheel. As I mentioned, he was like he's managing every single part of his day, like how many minutes he's slept at night, and—
[00:44:11] Jordan Harbinger: Oh my gosh.
[00:44:12] Maya Shankar: —you know, where he was eating and whatnot, and suddenly this event happens in his life where he just has to loosen his grip entirely, right? Because all of these outcomes no longer are in his control. You know, we all fall prey to the illusion of control, which is like, actually the reality is Scott's life before, he did not actually have nearly as much control as he thought he did.
[00:44:30] Jordan Harbinger: Sure.
[00:44:30] Maya Shankar: But at least his brain fooled him into thinking he did have more control. So he's talking to me about his relationship with control and I was saying, you know, I can imagine that when you were first reckoning with this diagnosis, you got more comfortable with the idea of not really being in the driver's seat, right? Not really having the control in life. We all like to believe we have for the sake of our own mental sanity. But then I can also imagine that when you successfully come out the other side of cancer treatment and you are free of cancer, there could be a relapse back into that old way of thinking, which is like, 'See, I worked really hard—'"
[00:45:04] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:45:04] Maya Shankar: "'—and I followed all the rules and I did all the things, and now I don't have cancer.' And so do you sometimes find that you're like seduced back into that old mindset where—"
[00:45:12] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:45:12] Maya Shankar: "—you again feel like you have control?" And he said, "Yes. It's such an interesting tug of war because I do want to feel like I'm in control of things, but at the same time, you know, I have to kind of like my prefrontal cortex has to keep reminding me that I actually am not." And there's this moment of growth that he shared with me. And this is again, months and months later after the initial diagnosis and treatments where he has this fun getaway plan with his friends and they're going to go to this like pastoral area and all of a sudden they're confronted with a rodeo that's going on that weekend.
[00:45:45] And old Scott would've been so pissed off about this because again, this was meant to be this like meditative weekend away and now there's like this rodeo right next to the complex where they're staying. He has this moment of enlightenment where he thinks, "You know what? Like maybe my best-laid plans weren't the best-laid plans. Like—"
[00:46:05] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:46:06] Maya Shankar: "—look where I am in my life right now. I made lots of plans and I didn't make lots of other plans and like look what happened. Maybe it's okay if life occasionally throws me that slight change of plans."
[00:46:15] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:46:16] Maya Shankar: And it was this beautiful moment of growth and acceptance where he said, "I would've been so frustrated before, and I found myself in this moment with this rodeo showing curiosity, kind of being a little intrigued by what life was handing me in that moment." And I loved seeing that from someone who, again, has been like so cerebral about their existence, just throwing caution to the wind a little bit.
[00:46:38] Jordan Harbinger: Sure.
[00:46:38] Maya Shankar: And surrendering to what life is going to hand him.
[00:46:41] Jordan Harbinger: So, I mean, I guess cut to Scott drinking a beer with rodeo clowns. Did he go to the rodeo at least?
[00:46:47] Maya Shankar: I think he engaged a bit.
[00:46:48] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, I hope so.
[00:46:48] Maya Shankar: All I know is that unlike some of his friends, he was a lot less bothered by it and he embraced it more than the other folks, but—
[00:46:55] Jordan Harbinger: Sure.
[00:46:55] Maya Shankar: Yeah. I just love, I love that story because again, just so unexpected in terms of his growth.
[00:46:59] Jordan Harbinger: It's funny because if you were going to make up a parable, a rodeo is exactly the thing you would use in the parable of things going on in your life. Like if it life throws you rodeos—
[00:47:08] Maya Shankar: Yes.
[00:47:09] Jordan Harbinger: —something, something, drink a beer with rodeo clowns.
[00:47:13] I know you've had some incredible mentors in your life — Itzhak Perlman, Laurie Santos of the Happiness Lab, who, as you mentioned, had been on this show. That's episode 554 for people who want to check it out. Tell me more about this because it seems like you believe in the idea that strong connections with great people leads to great things or, well, I don't want to put words in your mouth, but so far so good.
[00:47:33] Maya Shankar: Yeah. I feel I've benefited so profoundly from the mentors that I've had in my life. Like you said, starting with my violin teachers. Certainly, when I was in the Obama White House, I had an incredible boss. His name is Tom Kalil. He really took me under his wing and allowed me to build out this behavioral science team that was just a dream for a long time and like helped me see it to reality. And then, Laurie was a mentor of mine from the time I was 17 years old, so we've known each other forever.
[00:48:01] Jordan Harbinger: Wow.
[00:48:01] Maya Shankar: I worked in her monkey lab for the first time and she actually lit me a love of cognitive science. And then even with this podcast, I mean, look, the leaders at the company that, you know, I work with Pushkin Industries at A Slight Change of Plans so like Malcolm Gladwell, Michael Lewis is a dear friend of mine. I've learned so much from him about what it means to make a great show and what it means to tell a good story. I think when it comes to mentorship, like I've never deliberately sought someone out as a mentor. It's always come from a place instead of just wanting to be friends with them and wanting to surround myself with that person because I feel really inspired by them.
[00:48:36] And so with Laurie, for example, as a 17-year-old, I just remember thinking, "Okay, this person is so cool, I want to bring them in close. I want to learn everything I possibly can." And over time a natural friendship formed where by the end of it, we felt like we were colleagues, which is amazing. Yeah, I never was like, "Hi, would you be my mentor?" It was more, "I'm going to ask you lots of questions because I think you're fascinating." And I remember my dad had given me advice when it came to my future career, which is he said, "Find people you admire and then kind of reverse engineer how they got from point A to point B, and then you can kind of figure out what that life could look like." And so I think just natural organic friendships have been the path. Like I'm friends with most of the people that I've worked with in the past.
[00:49:18] Jordan Harbinger: I like that outlook because I get a ton of emails from people asking me to be their mentor, which, okay, it's flattering — well, first of all, shoot a little higher, people, but also it doesn't seem like a natural way to do this, right? It's like, "I hereby anointed you, my mentee. Let's just commence mentorship." It doesn't really land with me. And the process, the way you're supposed to do it, I suppose, seems more organic. I suppose I have mentors, but they're more like, yeah, people I've worked on something with or met in a friendship context who I end up leaning on for a lot of advice or wisdom throughout the years or something along those lines.
[00:49:54] I never really think, "This person is now my mentor," they are on this elevated plane where I extract something from them. And I think a lot of people look at mentorship as this kind of extractive process where one party gets something from the other. And it's not really this even, level plane where maybe you're sharing more.
[00:50:14] Maya Shankar: Mmm.
[00:50:14] Jordan Harbinger: It seems like your philosophy on this is similar.
[00:50:16] Maya Shankar: Absolutely. Yeah. I think in the ideal world with any relationship, there's bidirectional learning.
[00:50:21] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:50:22] Maya Shankar: So I think that that's always going to be nice. I like to think that Michael and I talk, chat about stuff. There's learning and enlightenment in both directions and you should feel not scared to share your point of view on things. I also think you know what makes for a good mentor. They really need to give a sh*t about you.
[00:50:37] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:50:38] Maya Shankar: That's what actually makes a mentor good. Good mentorship is not about checking boxes, it's about thinking about your mentee. You know, when you're cooking breakfast because you realize that there's actually this really great opportunity that they might be interested in. Or you're conducting an interview and you realize, "Oh my gosh, I should tell Maya about this person," because a good mentor is someone who's willing to go outside the bounds of any structured format because there's no job description, there's no transaction—
[00:51:02] Jordan Harbinger: Mmm.
[00:51:02] Maya Shankar: There's no like contract between me and the person. They just need to really care about you. And so looking back again, none of this isn't, was intentional. I wasn't like, I wasn't so precocious that I was able to be strategic about the fact this happened. But I think the fact that I naturally just brought people into my life as my friends led us to both naturally care about each other. And that has led to more meaningful mentor-mentee relationships.
[00:51:27] Jordan Harbinger: I've heard you say that sharing an embarrassing story can help us brainstorm better, work together better. Maybe that increases transparency or trust and rapport. What's going on here? Because I love that idea. I love the idea of starting a meeting with like, "Okay, here's this ridiculous thing that happened to me, everyone, go," and all pretenses out the window because they're hearing a story about how I got, I don't know, arrested when I was 20 for doing something stupid.
[00:51:51] Maya Shankar: Yeah. So, you know, vulnerability is a catchphrase right now.
[00:51:54] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:51:55] Maya Shankar: And I feel like it means everything to everyone.
[00:51:57] Jordan Harbinger: Sure.
[00:51:58] Maya Shankar: But there is actually evidence to support the value of vulnerability. So there was a study done, organizational psychologists like Adam Grant talk about this kind of work where in advance of a brainstorming session, there were two different groups of people. One group was told to share something they were very proud of, something they were very attached to. And the other group was asked to share something they were really embarrassed by. Maybe a time that they messed up or a time that they found themselves at their foot in their mouth, or whatever it is. And what they found is that the latter group, the one that was asked to share something embarrassing with their colleagues, had a much more productive brainstorming session.
[00:52:35] So not only did they produce more ideas, not only were they more generative, the ideas actually spanned a more diverse range. The ideas were richer and fell across a broader spectrum. And so, that's great evidence that when we bring at least part of our silly selves to the table, and we're willing to kind of — and I've always been willing to do this all of my mentors, which is like, you're going to see the seams with Maya. There's no pretenses here. Like, I will let them know when I'm not doing well, or I don't understand something, or I don't know something. Like, I think I don't bring a lot of pride to the table, so I'm often just naturally expressing my weaknesses and insecurities to people. And so that might relate to this experiment that you and I are talking about, but I think that's really good.
[00:53:19] On the other hand, there's a flip side, which is when it comes to vulnerability, you know, there's some research I've talked about with Ethan Kross, psychology professor at Michigan, showing that you also don't want to just be venting about negative experiences.
[00:53:31] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:53:31] Maya Shankar: Because that can have a negative effect on wellbeing, especially when that person you're telling is just trying to empathize and just trying to bring you emotional comfort versus giving you strategies from say, cognitive behavioral therapy that will actually help you reframe your situation or see it through a new light. They're instead kind of like egging it on, like, "Yeah, that coworker does suck." And like, "Aren't they terrible?" And then all of a sudden you have the negative loop on spiral.
[00:53:54] So anyway, there's always, as with everything, right? There's a course of balancing act and there are trade offs. But yeah, no, I love this research.
[00:54:01] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, it's a good excuse to share something that you normally wouldn't get to share and then sort of draw — I feel like it's one of those, you know, those icebreakers where you bounce a ball to someone and you try to remember the name. This is like the next couple of steps after that. It's like, okay, we're going to be together for a week on this hiking trip or whatever. Let's dispense with the, "I'm the cool guy, you're the cool guy," like, get rid of that and talk about the time that X, Y, Z happened. And then it just seems like a lot of the walls would come down based on that.
[00:54:29] Maya Shankar: Yeah. And I think you. It's easy to say like, be vulnerable.
[00:54:33] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:54:33] Maya Shankar: I think for me, in—
[00:54:34] Jordan Harbinger: Total cringe.
[00:54:34] Maya Shankar: —2021 and in 2020, I had to really internalize this lesson, actually walk the walk versus just talk the talk. So long story short, my husband and I were navigating multiple miscarriages with our surrogate and we lost a baby girl, and then we lost identical twin girls in 2021. And I remember feeling like an excruciating level of vulnerability and loneliness and pain and sadness. And I had to make a choice at that moment, which was, "Well, I'm going to be out of work for a week. What do I tell people?" And it was really hard in that moment—
[00:55:09] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:55:09] Maya Shankar: —to actually just come forth and say like, "I am hurting so much right now." Here's this kind of taboo thing that we as women aren't supposed to talk about that's happening to me right now in my life. And I have so many feelings that run from guilt and sadness to just like longing and loss and so many. And I ended up writing a long letter to the 500-person org that I work within and just sharing my story. And it was incredible for me to see the response back to that because you're touching people, not just who are maybe navigating fertility challenges or your message is resonating with people who are just going through a crappy time, right?
[00:55:50] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:55:50] Maya Shankar: And just need to feel like they can open up about the challenge they're going through. And that one experience for me of seeing how much positive impact it could have to share my story led me to end up recording an entire episode for A Slight Change of Plans two days after the second miscarriage where I flipped the mic. I had my producer interview me, and it's called Maya, Slight Change of Plans. It was obviously totally unexpected. We were not planning to add this episode, obviously, into our line of episodes last year, but I ended up just processing my change out loud, and it was the most vulnerable I've ever been.
[00:56:25] And what I found from that experience is, you know, I had asked of my guests so many times before to bring their vulnerable self to the table—
[00:56:34] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:56:34] Maya Shankar: —to share these deeply personal, challenging things with me. And yet I had never done that myself, right? I had never done that. And so it was challenging, but like the response again to that episode, the messages that I received from people all over the world, still to this day about how the episode may have unlocked healing for them, is the most beautiful therapeutic silver lining that could possibly exist.
[00:56:58] I heard from a woman a couple of months ago who shared with me that she lost her son to a drug overdose in 2020, and it was this episode, my story that helped her rethink her relationship with her son and like actually get on a path to healing. And it's like, oh my god, when you hear something like that from one person, Jordan, right? You can imagine like there's the payoff of vulnerability.
[00:57:18] Jordan Harbinger: Sure.
[00:57:19] Maya Shankar: Like that's where it is.
[00:57:20] Jordan Harbinger: The thing with podcasting as well is for every one person that writes in with their story, there's — I would imagine literally a hundred or more that go, "I don't, I'm not going to email her. She doesn't know me. It's fine. I can't find her address easily, so I'm not going to bother. I'm just going to enjoy this and let it go." So, I try to remember that when I say something and I'm like, "This is going to get a huge response." And they're like, three people send me a message. I'm like, okay, maybe that's actually 300 people. That's good enough.
[00:57:45] Maya Shankar: Yeah, you're right. Those are just the people coming out of the woodwork—
[00:57:48] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:57:48] Maya Shankar: —who were willing to express their thoughts. But they have meant so much to me when I've gotten these notes from folks.
[00:57:55] Jordan Harbinger: I've also heard you say that — this is a total right turn here, but we don't make decisions based on facts. We make decisions based largely on our group identity. And I've heard this kind of thing before on my show and your show that people make decisions emotionally and then use logic to rationalize the conclusions to which they've already arrived. And you mentioned 2020 and 2022, and I was like, that's what's been happening in the last three years. There's a lot of that going on, there always was, but now it seems like there's even more where we see people's beliefs form their identity, which then transforms their perception of reality. We've seen that happen, well, live on Twitter, basically. Okay. And you've discussed this experiment where they showed team fans controversial calls by the referee. Can you explain this? Because I really think when you know this, you look at your crazy Uncle Frank and you're like, "I get it. I don't like it, but I kind of get it."
[00:58:47] Maya Shankar: Yeah. I think in so many ways, one of the reasons that I am still a cognitive scientist, and I love this space so much, is I actually think when you understand how the human mind works, it is the greatest empathy builder that exists.
[00:59:00] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:59:01] Maya Shankar: Because look like you, I get so frustrated, right? I'm like reading the news and I'm like, "Oh my god, just wear a damn mask. Like it's a piece of cloth," right? What's happening here? And then you understand, oh my god, I understand their tribal membership, their group membership is attached to not wearing masks.
[00:59:19] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:59:19] Maya Shankar: And so if they were to wear a mask, it would actively threaten their group identity. And then again, it just increases empathy. So the study that you're talking about, there were two different groups of people who had allegiances to two opposing teams in this football game. And they were shown video footage after the football game was over of just a select number of controversial calls. And it was amazing to see where people landed on those controversial calls, depending on where their group allegiances were. Spoil alert, of course, it was in favor of the team that you liked going in.
[00:59:50] Jordan Harbinger: Sure.
[00:59:50] Maya Shankar: And what this shows me is that the biases, the group membership, the group allegiance that we feel going into any situation can literally change our perception of reality. It's changing what our visual systems are telling us happened, right?
[01:00:05] And so if it can happen at that level where literally I see a ref call differently based on whether I like team A or B, and you know, there'd be another interesting experiment where they play those same clips and now they just flip it. They tell you that the other teams the other way, and then maybe you see that effect reverse.
[01:00:21] And so I feel if that's the case, well then, of course, we can understand. When we are at that Thanksgiving dinner with that uncle who doesn't seem to take in evidence and change his mind, it makes so much sense, right?
[01:00:35] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[01:00:35] Maya Shankar: Because we are social creatures and we gain a lot from the group membership. I'm not here to villainize the fact that a lot of our beliefs are rooted in our group membership As we walk about in this world and we're inundated with information and just hundreds of thousands of decisions to make, it can actually be a really helpful heuristic to just look to the groups that we identify with and say, "Okay, well what do you believe? Like, I'll believe that too."
[01:00:58] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[01:00:59] Maya Shankar: Because that's easier than having to put in the cognitive work to arrive at every single decision myself, right?
[01:01:04] Jordan Harbinger: So, yeah, that's something, Can you repeat the last line? That's brilliant, right? We look at other groups, I'm going to paraphrase and then ruin it, and then you can correct me. We look at the group that we're in and we look at their beliefs and we say, "Maybe I'll just believe that too because it's easier than coming to our own conclusions based on evidence that we take in. It's less work." That is a tweet that sums up a potential tweet that one's going to make a ton of people angry but also sums up what is going on with so many people.
[01:01:31] And I always use the example of crazy Uncle Frank at Thanksgiving who's like, "It's a conspiracy," and then fill in the blank. Or it's about this, it's about control, and the government's trying to do this, or whatever it. It's really a lot harder to judge people for their views when you realize the neuroscience behind it, whether it's talking about masks or votes or guns or abortion or any of the controversial, I should say, contentious issues that we're dealing with today.
[01:01:56] When you start looking at it like tribe membership, neuroscience of belief group identity, yeah, it's harder to go, "Well, this person's evil, and that's why they believe that. Of course, that's it." Well, actually it's a tribal thing and as much as you want to demonize the other tribe, now you at least understand what's going on and yeah, that opens up the door to a little bit more empathy.
[01:02:16] Maya Shankar: And realizing we all fall prey to the tribalism effects, right?
[01:02:19] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[01:02:20] Maya Shankar: So it's like, I like to think of myself as a fairly rational evidence-based person, but when I'm looking for that shortcut to be like, Wait, what are my thoughts on this particular aspect of climate change and what policy solution exists?
[01:02:32] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[01:02:33] Maya Shankar: I'm going to defer to the Democrat in the corner who's done the research on my behalf and has a smart solution. Because again, I just don't have the, like we as humans don't have the space and mental bandwidth and time to really litigate every single open question that's out there. And so when we realize like, okay, we just think that we are, you know, within our own tribes, right? Like we respect, we have reverence towards certain groups like scientists or policymakers or whoever it is, and that will guide our decision-making. But I do think we're all relying on those snapshot judgments that were given by other people. And we tend to believe in the ones that are coming from a messenger that we trust for other reasons.
[01:03:13] Jordan Harbinger: This is The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest Maya Shankar. We'll be right back.
[01:03:17] This episode is sponsored in part by Thuma. Bed frames are so important. We had one that actually collapsed. We moved a couple of times with it. It just didn't survive the last move. We had a premium mattress, but of course, we skimped on the bed frame and I'm like, "Okay, fine. That's not touching me. Why does it have to be good? Right?" But well, that's what happens. So we upgraded to The Bed by Thuma. It's sturdy, solid, handcrafted from eco-friendly, high-quality upcycled wood. We got the walnut color but now, that they also have an espresso color, so we're trying to upgrade other beds in our house. Basically, think of an excuse to go grab these. Thuma features modern minimalist design with Japanese joinery. No screws, no tools. Jen did it herself, took like five minutes. The Bed will last you for life. It's also backed with a lifetime warranty, so they literally mean that, I suppose. Along with The Bed, we also got The Nightstand and Thuma has The Side Table and The Tray. Plus we love that Thuma plants a tree for every bed and nightstand sold.
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[01:05:59] Now for the rest of my conversation with Maya Shankar.
[01:06:03] It's funny you mentioned you had looked to the Democrat, who's over there that you worked in there. When you said that before that you worked in the Obama White House, I was like, cue people listening, going, "Well, I don't like some of the things that she's saying simply because she worked for Obama and I don't like him." And I'm thinking, "Ooh, how do I get people to not do that?" And the answer is, you kind of can't because that's the whole point of what we're discussing right now.
[01:06:28] Maya Shankar: It's so interesting you mentioned this because we're having this conversation and I'm like, "Should I just say that I work in government so it's not alienating?"
[01:06:35] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[01:06:36] Maya Shankar: And at the same time I'm like, no, because my whole mission is to try and foster mindset change. And so I'm hoping that there are people listening who are thinking, "You know what? We have very different political views. But at the end of the day, she said some stuff about science that rings true for me. And so we can at least align on that front," right? And so I feel like we have to be forthcoming about whatever our personal allegiances are and just hope that there's some points of connection. None of us should be hoping for total overlap with really anyone, right?
[01:07:07] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[01:07:08] Maya Shankar: But you're hoping that you're just like allowing them to keep the door open just a teensy bit to allow in, you know, something else I share that might resonate.
[01:07:16] Jordan Harbinger: Exactly. Yeah. And I was worried about that too. But then I thought, how am I going to come in here and be like, "Can you not mention — because it might make some conservative people annoyed?" Because I don't do that with anyone else. And I thought, what's the point of that?
[01:07:28] Maya Shankar: And maybe that's perpetuating the problem—
[01:07:29] Jordan Harbinger: It is.
[01:07:29] Maya Shankar: —which at the end of the day it's like, okay, so then we had this conversation in which I'm towing the apolitical line. And then they go later, they go to Dr. Maya Shankar on Instagram and they suddenly realize, "Oh, she worked in the Obama White House."
[01:07:40] Jordan Harbinger: I've been tricked, yeah.
[01:07:41] Maya Shankar: Now I'm going to negate everything that I just heard. Of course not. . Again, it's very possible, and this is the world that I'm hoping we can all live in, where we are able to share, okay, these are the beliefs that I have, but I'm also the kind of person who's like open to new information, open to changing her mind with delight in having a conversation with someone who disagreed with me because I now know about some evidence-based strategies that are more effective for actually changing minds, which we can talk about as well. Yeah, I do think that like sometimes the right call actually is like leaning in a bit to our realities and then figuring out whether we as humans can still connect in spite of it. Otherwise, we're like creating a distorted version of the world that doesn't really exist, right? Because everyone's kind of aware that each carry, you know, a set of beliefs.
[01:08:24] Jordan Harbinger: Speaking of which, let's talk about identity labeling because I've seen this used both for good and also, well, I've seen it mostly hold people back. So, I've done some volunteer work in prison and I took a bunch of listeners on my 40th birthday to a maximum security prison where we were doing like mock job interviews and things like that for inmates. And one of the tricky things with a lot of these guys, they're all men in this particular case, is they have to explain a resume gap that might be like four or eight years, depending on—
[01:08:54] Maya Shankar: Yeah.
[01:08:55] Jordan Harbinger: —the situation. And you have to come clean with the story because you don't want to say like, "Oh," when someone asks about that because then they feel like you haven't owned it. But also what we don't want to do is have people label themselves or be labeled by others as, "Well, I'm the ex-con," because it's bad for, well, it's bad for their sense of self worth, first of all, that this is like this label that's going to follow them around forever. And it's very limiting if they think, "Well, this is me, I'm a prisoner, and then when I get out, I'm just a person who's been in prison and that's it."
[01:09:27] Maya Shankar: Yeah. I saw the realities of this again when I was working in the Obama White House.
[01:09:32] Jordan Harbinger: Yes. In government.
[01:09:36] Maya Shankar: We were actually working to help support people who were leaving the prison system because it's a very fraught change, right? To re-acclimate to civilian life and it can be accompanied by all kinds of challenges — mental, getting access to work opportunities, you know, facing stereotypes, what have you. And so we were working with the Department of Justice to create these re-entry guides so that people in prison would know, "Oh, okay, this is the week where I should try to register for a driver's license," and like, "Oh, I'm going to need my social security number—"
[01:10:06] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[01:10:06] Maya Shankar: "—in order to do X, Y, Z. And that way you're setting them up for success. And then there's a series of steps you take when you leave. And what we realized is when we were looking through the guide, that there was some harmful backwards looking language that was being used in the guide, so ex-convict and ex-prisoner.
[01:10:21] And what we know from cognitive science research is that the labels that we give one another and the labels we give ourselves can have a huge impact on our behavior. We tend to act in ways that align with our social identities. And so if I think of myself as a voter, I'm going to be more likely to vote. The Red Cross ran an experiment showing that when you remind people of their status as former donors of the Red Cross, they were not only more likely to donate in future fundraising rounds, but they actually increase the magnitude of those donations. They became more charitable as a result of being reminded that they had this identity.
[01:10:55] So, we can see that these labels are powerful and can be used for good in those two contexts, but we also know it can hold people back, right? Because if people are leaving prison and they have this identity of being an ex-prisoner, an ex-convict—
[01:11:06] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[01:11:07] Maya Shankar: —they might not act in ways that align with their aspirational future cells. And so we ended up scrubbing the guide of that backwards looking language in favor of more forward looking language, more positive language like job seeker and community member. Those labels can be far more helpful and assistive, right? At actually helping people achieve their long-term goals. And so I think it's so important in so many different settings, medical settings, job settings, to be just very mindful and thoughtful about the labels that we're giving other people. The biggest self-compassion one is the labels we give ourselves because they can actually be subconsciously holding us back, depending on how we hold onto them.
[01:11:47] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. You know, this is a very sort of pedestrian example, but a friend of mine is a wheelchair user. And in my head, I was thinking, "Well, I grew up saying handicapped, which I know is not right," but I was like, "Oh, what's the difference what I say in my head." And then, one time I was talking with her and I said something and I was like, "So you're a — oh, how do I say this?" And she goes, "A wheelchair user?" She knew exactly what I was—
[01:12:07] Maya Shankar: Mmm.
[01:12:07] Jordan Harbinger: I didn't even have to preface that. There was no context. She just like knew that I was about to say the wrong word. And then I went, "Oh, you know what? Actually, this is definitely affected the way that I've looked at you for as long as I've known you. And I just didn't even realize it."
[01:12:19] Maya Shankar: Yeah. Yeah. There you go. And so, this traces back to the beginning of our conversation, which is again, it is irresistible as humans to want to attach ourselves to identities.
[01:12:29] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[01:12:29] Maya Shankar: But we have to be really thoughtful about what they are and we have to allow them to be malleable concepts, right? So the identity I have today should be something in theory that I'm willing to reassess tomorrow as I ask myself, like, "Is this still consonant with the goals that I have for the future, the way that I want to be living my life? And in some cases it actually might be very motivating to hold on to a former identity that was negative because it keeps you in line, it keeps you working towards a goal that you really care about, right? Like, let's say it's important to you to remember that you are an alcoholic in the past because that's helping to keep you sober today, right? So there's no one-size-fits-all prescription other than just being conscious of the ways in which the social identity labels can affect our behaviors.
[01:13:13] Jordan Harbinger: A lot of people — back to changes for one second, and then back to persuasion, a lot of people go through hard stuff, right? They go through big changes. This is probably the wrong question, but I'm going to do it anyway, when do we expect to reap the benefits? Because a lot of people are probably listening right now and thinking, "Okay, I'm in this world of sh*t right now. My life is falling apart around me. When do I get the nice gift with a bow on top as a result of going through all this? Because it sounds like that's supposed to happen at some point."
[01:13:40] Maya Shankar: Yeah, I mean, of course, it just depends on what the change that you're going through is.
[01:13:44] Jordan Harbinger: Okay. Of course.
[01:13:45] Maya Shankar: But I think one technique that can be helpful is when you break that long-term goal, which will have this, you know, in the research we call it delayed discounting, which is that we kind of discount the future value of things.
[01:13:57] Jordan Harbinger: Sure.
[01:13:58] Maya Shankar: One thing that can be really helpful is when you take this long-term goal and you break it up into these mini milestones that will lead to more immediate rewards and kind of give you that boost of motivation along the way. So again, when I was working in public policy, one of the studies we came across had to do with people who were looking for a job. And this can be such a devastating process, right? You're unemployed, you've maybe been on unemployment insurance for some time, and it can be so psychologically daunting to think, "Okay, I have to go from a state of unemployment to a state of employment, right? And like, I don't know when this is going to pay off all this hard work that I'm putting in.
[01:14:33] And so these researchers looked at carving out, kind of parsing this big process into these small mini milestones. Like on Thursday, I'm going to edit the top lines of my CV. On Friday, I'm going to go get a business suit. Next Monday, I'm going to reach out to two possible employers. And that way you are getting some of those more immediate rewards to help you sustain your motivation. Also, to help you overcome what's called the middle problem. So you know, motivation tends to be quite high at the outset of starting in goal pursuit. And then you tend to see a decline as you approach the middle, and then there's a swing up again at the end of the goal, right?
[01:15:11] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[01:15:11] Maya Shankar: That's partly what's called the goal grading effect, which is that there are monotonic increases in motivation the closer you are to accomplishing a goal. But in order to overcome the middle problem, you can actually introduce some of these milestones that make you feel like you've actually accomplished something along the way.
[01:15:27] Jordan Harbinger: I like that idea. You're almost, you're just inserting something that keeps you going, even if it's sort of arbitrary from the sound of it.
[01:15:34] Maya Shankar: Yeah. I mean, I don't know if arbitrary is exactly right, and the only reason I say that is it should be a meaningful accomplishment, meaning it is chipping away at the long-term goal. However, it can be a very small thing. It can be a very small accomplishment, as I mentioned, just like revising the top lines of your CV.
[01:15:52] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[01:15:52] Maya Shankar: And that can count, but all of them should in some way be meaningfully contributing to the longer-term goal.
[01:15:58] Jordan Harbinger: Sure. So I suppose if your goal is to be strong and lose a bunch of weight, your intermittent goal could be like, "Hey, don't miss more than one of your workouts each month for three months." And that's like, "Great. I did that. I showed up. That's something measurable. I didn't lose 25 pounds yet, but I'm doing the right thing to get there. And the milestone I've set for myself is something along the way that's achievable.
[01:16:20] Maya Shankar: Yeah.
[01:16:20] Jordan Harbinger: And keeping me motivated.
[01:16:21] Maya Shankar: Though another thing that's interesting for the motivation research is that framing our goals in terms of approach language versus avoidance language can actually be more motivating. So you'd given, in this example, like, "Do not miss a workout," and instead it might be better to say, "Do your workout 27 times this month," and you're giving yourself that three-day slack reserve or whatever to not go.
[01:16:41] Jordan Harbinger: Great.
[01:16:41] Maya Shankar: When you're chasing towards the goal, you're not only feeling more inspired because you know that like it's a thing that you are actually trying to reach. Also, the absence of feedback is not that motivating. So when you don't do something, it's the absence of information.
[01:16:56] Jordan Harbinger: That's a good point.
[01:16:56] Maya Shankar: And so you're kind of like, "Okay, I've abstained from not, not going to," or whatever the thing is, right? And so it's actually better to frame that in terms of approaching in certain contexts.
[01:17:05] Jordan Harbinger: I see. So if we're trying to quit smoking, it's, "Go one-month cigarette-free," not, "Don't smoke for a month.
[01:17:11] Maya Shankar: Or you can focus on the replacement behavior—
[01:17:13] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[01:17:13] Maya Shankar: —for smoking, right? So do go on a walk every single time you have an instinct to pick up a cigarette, something like that.
[01:17:20] Jordan Harbinger: I like that. Yeah. There's a lot here and I'm sure, look, you're amazing at persuasion and nudges and behavioral science.
[01:17:26] Maya Shankar: There's so much here.
[01:17:28] Jordan Harbinger: There is, I know. I wonder, and I know this is probably somewhat of an annoying question, but I'm going to do it anyway. Do you use this on your husband and your friends? Because I think it's probably also annoying when people are like, "Are you using that science on me?" When you're like, "No, I'm just being a normal person. I'm not doing it consciously. Stop asking me if this is a trick.
[01:17:45] Maya Shankar: Yeah. I don't think I consciously do it a lot. I mean, my husband, even though he's a software engineer, he really likes behavioral economics and behavioral science. So I think he would be in on any of the tricks. Sometimes we do joke about it though. He'll be doing like the dishwasher and I'll be like unloading the dishwasher. I'm like, "Ah, you're a dishwasher unloader."
[01:18:04] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[01:18:04] Maya Shankar: And he is like, "Are you a social identity priming me?"
[01:18:07] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[01:18:07] Maya Shankar: And so there's a little bit of that in our house, but yeah, I mean look, you can know a lot of the science, but it's also hard to actually like live it all out day to day. That's a kind of herculean task. So yeah, my bar's a little lower for my own existence.
[01:18:20] Jordan Harbinger: So if I want people to support the sponsors of this show, I would — what was the thing you just mentioned? What I say, like, "I love the fact that all of you are the type of people that would go to my sponsors."
[01:18:30] Maya Shankar: Well, so one, you have to hear the facts.
[01:18:33] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[01:18:33] Maya Shankar: So you'd want to make sure, you'd have to see like what percentage of the population actually does support your sponsors. And then, you could just maybe — if that number is sufficiently high, given your hopes or expectations, literally just messaging that as a social norm. Like, "Hey, just so you know, 60 percent of you have articulated that you support our sponsors.
[01:18:51] Jordan Harbinger: That's good. You know what's funny?
[01:18:53] Maya Shankar: But I don't know if that number's true.
[01:18:54] Jordan Harbinger: 68 percent of this audience has indicated that they support our sponsors.
[01:18:59] Maya Shankar: Yeah. A hundred percent, say this was the most brilliant version of The Jordan Harbinger Show they've ever heard.
[01:19:05] Jordan Harbinger: Right. And they want to go to jordanharbinger.com/deals and look for a way to support our sponsors using the discount codes at jordanharbinger.com/deals. That's great. Yeah, I like that. I'll have to remember that one.
[01:19:15] There have to be limits to behavioral science, right? Because people freak out. They're like," This is brainwashing, it's too persuasive. You got to be careful who you teach this stuff too." And I'm like, "Well, it's hard to convince people of things that they don't want to do if it were that easy, we would have fixed a lot of problems in our society by now.
[01:19:32] Maya Shankar: That's exactly right. I mean, a lot of people see behavioral science as a silver bullet and it's just—
[01:19:36] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[01:19:36] Maya Shankar: —not the case. I'm constantly humbled by how limited the impact of these tools can be. At the end of the day, in terms of the work that I've done to apply behavioral science in public policy context or the design of products and programs, you're really only going to be able to successfully change people's behaviors who want to change their behaviors.
[01:19:55] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[01:19:55] Maya Shankar: So you can help people get over things like procrastination, confusion, desire for someone to just kind of light the fire under them and be like, "Go make the decision."
[01:20:04] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[01:20:04] Maya Shankar: "Are you going to sign up for retirement savings or not?" But you're just not going to be able to make a difference for people who don't want to do the thing. And it's probably healthy. I think it's good that we don't quite know how we would actually do that, because that preserves total freedom and autonomy when it comes to decision-making.
[01:20:20] Jordan Harbinger: Right. And what is it? like free will which is, I guess, a philosophical question. Someone's going to write in and be like, "We don't have that. I don't want to hear that."
[01:20:26] Maya Shankar: Exactly. And, you know, verdicts out on free will but that's another conversation.
[01:20:30] Jordan Harbinger: I'll ask Sam Harris. That's a Sam Harris episode. So you're a violinist who made it into Juilliard before age 10, worked in the White House, have a PhD, postdoc, and a very complex field. What is something that you are actually not good at, at all? Have the decency to leave the rest of us feeling okay about ourselves, at the end.
[01:20:47] Maya Shankar: Okay. Well, first of all, I should mention that like, that's the equivalent of sharing like an Instagram highlights real.
[01:20:52] Jordan Harbinger: It is.
[01:20:52] Maya Shankar: Right? So when it comes to reading someone's CV, you don't see the denominator, you don't see all the things that they tried and were very unsuccessful at. Like I can't sing for my life, even though I love music. It's a terrible thing that it sounds like when I sing. And you know, I also wanted to be a Bollywood dancer at one point in my life.
[01:21:11] Jordan Harbinger: Aah.
[01:21:11] Maya Shankar: I never were able to do that. I can't compose music. That was something that I'm so in awe. It's like when I hear a Taylor Swift song, I'm like, "Holy crap, how does someone actually write music like this?" And I have no ability to write music. And look, I mean, there's so many failure points in any given process, even the successful ones, right?
[01:21:27] So just a little bit of backstory for people who are interested in checking out A Slight Change of Plans is this came from a very organic place of like, I never thought that I would be a podcaster. As I mentioned to you in 2020, I was going through a lot of heartbreak and I was feeling overwhelmed by change that was happening in the world around us — COVID, racial injustice, I mean, it was just so overwhelming. And I was just trying to figure out like, okay. I feel overwhelmed by this moment right now because everything feels so novel and unprecedented. But then I put on my cognitive science hat and was like, "Oh, but actually as humans, we've done this change rodeo so many times before. Like even if the specifics are different, certainly our minds are built for change in a lot of important ways. And if I were to mind people's stories for wisdom and insight, we could learn something meaningful about how to navigate this moment right now." because again, I think it's really easy to feel intimidated by novelty, right? Like, but I haven't gone through this specific change.
[01:22:22] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[01:22:22] Maya Shankar: Not recognizing we actually have a lot of the mental architecture and a lot of the mental tools to navigate change successfully. So as a result of all of this thinking, I realize like, "Oh wow, I should just create a show in which we're marrying the science of human behavior with storytelling." And that became The Slight Change of Plans.
[01:22:39] The one small wrinkle in all of this, Jordan, is that I had never conducted an interview before. And so actually I know Megan Phelps-Roper was on your show. She was my first interview ever.
[01:22:49] Jordan Harbinger: Oh, that's a good one to have at first because she's so nice.
[01:22:51] Maya Shankar: She was fantastic.
[01:22:52] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[01:22:52] Maya Shankar: And so I had to learn so much. Like you literally start from — I mean look, you are like tried and tested podcast or you're a veteran of this field. Like you've been doing this for years. I was a total newbie come 2021, right? And so I've had to learn like all the ins and outs of podcasting. In addition to being the host of the show, I also executive produce it. You know, I write the show and I'm involved in even like music placement and stuff like that because—
[01:23:19] Jordan Harbinger: Sure.
[01:23:19] Maya Shankar: I'm a musician. So I love that stuff. So I'm involved in so many parts of the show. Everything I'm kind of learning from scratch. And so, I think part of it is just being like, it's okay to not know anything at the outset and to just be really curious and try to learn, right? And so I feel grateful that, you know, you were saying early on like, "Oh it's such a gift to be giving something that you love at any point in life."
[01:23:41] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[01:23:42] Maya Shankar: And I think it's fair to say like, and I know you experienced the joy of podcasting, right? Like I followed your work and I know you've said there are — like when you interviewed Malcolm, you were like, "This is one of those moments where I'm like, I have the best job in the world."
[01:23:54] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[01:23:54] Maya Shankar: I feel exactly the same way about podcasting. I think it's the one thing in my life that is rivaled playing the violin, playing music because it is so intrinsically rewarding and there's so much beauty and there's so much joy that comes from it. So I think actually the feedback is more about like it's okay to start from zero too.
[01:24:12] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[01:24:13] Maya Shankar: And to not have any skills and just to try to build them quickly.
[01:24:15] Jordan Harbinger: I love the fact that you equate this with almost as being as good at the violin. Because I was always, I've always wondered what is it like to be so good at something like that. Well, I'll never know. So you're like, "Ah, Podcasting's close." I'm like, "Well, I'll take it." This is as close as I'm going to get to being a musician in any way. So good. I have somewhat of a clue of what it might feel like to be able to knock it out of the park during a concert, I suppose.
[01:24:35] Thank you so much for coming on the show. This has been a really interesting conversation. I knew it would be. I know we tried for like a year to get it done because the timing is always a thing but I really — I'm glad we finally made this work.
[01:24:45] Maya Shankar: Yes. Thanks so much for having me, Jordan. It was really fun to chat.
[01:24:50] Jordan Harbinger: I've got some thoughts on this episode, but before we get into that, here's what you should check out next on The Jordan Harbinger Show.
[01:24:56] Derren Brown: I was walking from one hotel to another quite late at night. It was at a magic convention in Wales. I was wearing a three-piece velvet suit—
[01:25:06] Jordan Harbinger: Because why not?
[01:25:06] Derren Brown: Because why not. So this guy is, you know, he is really drunk and he is clearly, yeah, looking for a fight. And he's with his girlfriend and all his adrenaline kind of, you know, up here. And he starts shouting at me and says something like, "What are you looking at?" or, "What's your problem?" or something. In that situation, you can't respond with, "Oh, I'm not looking at anything because then you're on the back foot and they've got power," or "Yeah, I'm looking at you. What's your problem?" because either way, you're going to get hit, but you can just not play that game right from the outset.
[01:25:35] So I said, "The wall outside my house isn't four-foot high." So his reaction to that is a bit of a pause. He's like, "What?" I said, "The wall outside my house isn't four-foot high. When I lived in Spain, the walls there, they were quite high, but here they're tiny or nothing." So, he just went, "Oh f*ck," and started crying. His girlfriend walked off and he sat down by the side of the road. I sat down next to him and started asking about what had gone wrong that night. I think his girlfriend had bottled somebody. They'd been some fight. And it's so weird that I'm giving him advice.
[01:26:10] I was talking to a friend of mine about this thing, and he's an artist and he used to walk home from his studio late at night through a rough bit of London, and there were always these kind of like gangs on one side of the road. So he'd always cross over away from them. Of course, they'd always see that and it'd always be this horrible, uncomfortable, intimidating thing. So we spoke about it and then the next night he crossed over the road to them and said, "Good evening," as he walked past them. And of course, they left him alone because he just seemed like a strange—
[01:26:37] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, actually, he's crazy.
[01:26:39] Derren Brown: He's just weird.
[01:26:40] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. Who wants to see a magic trick?
[01:26:45] For an inside look at the levers in our own brain alongside Darren Brown, one of the world's most legendary illusionists and mentalists, check out episode 150 of The Jordan Harbinger Show.
[01:26:57] If you like this episode of the show, I've got good news for you. That's what her entire podcast, A Slight Change of Plans is really about at its core. We'll link to it in the show notes. I feel like I've learned a lot more about myself by doing things I don't like and finding out that I don't like them versus trying to figure out what I do like as per our earlier conversation.
[01:27:15] For me, being a lawyer, working in finance, working at SiriusXM Satellite Radio, starting a coaching company, these were all sort of horseshoe that were close to something I wanted and then finally resulting in The Jordan Harbinger Show and running my business and life the way I am now. This is the result of going through these big changes, sometimes painful in those phases of life. And again, some of them were kind of traumatic, getting laid off from law, getting sued a couple of times, breaking with my previous business. I mean, none of that was really easy, but all of it was kind of necessary to get where I am now.
[01:27:49] Also, I found it interesting that we can design our environment to nudge us in directions we want to go. I've been doing this for years. I never really called it nudging, but I guess it totally makes sense. Healthy snacks in the kitchen that are more accessible than junk. Putting my Xbox away, so I have to actually set it up and plug stuff in to play instead of just picking up the controller right in the couch in front of me.
[01:28:08] Also, the power of defaults, when something is the default option, more people will go with that option. So a school lunch program where kids are opted in rather than opted out. Something like organ donation, people should have to opt out of that, not opt in, and we would end up with so many more organs. Why we don't do that is a mystery. I know some states and jurisdictions do that. It seems like we should have that as universal. There are many ways we can set up the power of defaults in our own life to make sure that we are doing the right thing or the thing that we want our business or our family to do by default.
[01:28:42] Another practical that I liked that didn't quite make it into the episode, temptation bundling. So I used to have a hard time exercising. Now, I actually look forward to it. I like it. But I used to say, "Okay, I can only watch this show on my phone or iPad while I'm on the treadmill, or I can only listen to music while I'm on a walk outside." So it'll trigger me to go for walks because I'll say, "Oh, I want to do this activity I like," and I would bundle that with something that is good for me. Kind of like putting cheese on broccoli to get kids to eat it. So I would encourage you to figure out where you can utilize temptation bundling in your own life.
[01:29:14] Also, remember, whenever we ask people ourselves or our family friends to change their beliefs, we're often asking them to change their identity. That's one big takeaway from my conversation, and that's a heavy lift. There's a lot of emotional valence with some choices. Think about masks. You know, we talk about weight and exercise but think about masks. I mean, just over the pandemic, just the mere mention of masks is going to trigger people to email me about it, and other people are going to go fly off the handle about other people not using it. It's just a whole thing. There's a lot of emotional valence around some of these choices because we equate some beliefs with our actual identity, which by the way, is kind of dangerous because then we're, of course, resistant to changing our beliefs even in the face of new evidence, but that's a whole different show.
[01:30:00] Big thanks to Dr. Maya Shankar. Everything Maya will be linked in the show notes at jordanharbinger.com. Transcripts are in the show notes. Videos are up on YouTube,. Advertisers, deals, and discount codes, all at jordanharbinger.com/deals. Please consider supporting those who make this show possible. I'm at @JordanHarbinger on both Twitter and Instagram. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn.
[01:30:21] And speaking of connecting, I'm teaching you how to connect with other great people and manage relationships using the same systems, software, and tiny habits that I use every day. I've got the Six-Minute Networking course. It's a non-schmoozy, non-gross way to create and maintain connections. jordanharbinger.com/course is where you can find it. I'm teaching you how to dig the well before you get thirsty. And look if it helps push you over the line, many of the guests on the show actually subscribe to the course. So come join us, you'll be in smart company where you belong.
[01:30:49] This show is created in association with PodcastOne. My team is Jen Harbinger, Jase Sanderson, Robert Fogarty, Millie Ocampo, Ian Baird, Josh Ballard, and Gabriel Mizrahi. Remember, we rise by lifting others. The fee for this show is you share it with friends when you find something useful or interesting. If you know somebody who would benefit from a nudge here or there, or is just interested in the science of this, please share this episode with them. The greatest compliment you can give us is to share the show with those you care about. In the meantime, do your best to apply what you hear on the show, so you can live what you listen, and we'll see you next time.
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