Full PreFrontal

Ep. 102: Dr. William Stixrud – Recreating the Personal 2.0 Self

March 05, 2020 Sucheta Kamath Season 1 Episode 102
Full PreFrontal
Ep. 102: Dr. William Stixrud – Recreating the Personal 2.0 Self
Full PreFrontal
Ep. 102: Dr. William Stixrud – Recreating the Personal 2.0 Self
Mar 05, 2020 Season 1 Episode 102
Sucheta Kamath

All parents want their children to grow up, be independent, and find happiness. Their conventional wisdom says, let me push my child to do well in school, work hard on stuff, and take part in various activities to “find” themselves. Because to a parent, the path to success has a formula “Education + Passion + Excellent Performance = Career” which equals to a life of bliss! And well-meaning parents want their children to find a career and then through that connect to their passion. But what if the formula runs into a glitch?

On this episode, guest Clinical Neuropsychologist and co-author of The Self-Driven Child, William Stixrud, Ph.D., discusses effective psychological approaches that are likely help parents reset their “reality”, help teachers adjust their task specific support, and help learners understand and accept that reinventing one’s self is a lifelong process.

About Dr. William Stixrud
William R. Stixrud, Ph.D., is a clinical neuropsychologist and founder of The Stixrud Group, a lifespan neuropsychology practice. He is also a member of the Adjunct Faculty of the Children’s National Medical Center, and he holds a faculty appointment as Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at the George Washington School of Medicine. Additionally, Dr. Stixrud is a frequent lecturer, and he has authored scientific articles on Transcendental Meditation and book chapters on meditation and the integration of the arts into education. Dr. Stixrud has been quoted often in publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times of London, Scientific American, Time.com, NPR, The Wall Street Journal, Business Week, Barron’s, and Vogue.

Dr. Stixrud holds a doctorate degree in School Psychology from the University of Minnesota. He did his training in neuropsychology at the Children’s Hospital of Boston (as a fellow of the Harvard Medical School) and Tufts New England Medical Center. Dr. Stixrud is also a rock and roll musician and plays in the band Close Enough.


  • http://www.theselfdrivenchild.com/


  • The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives
Show Notes Transcript

All parents want their children to grow up, be independent, and find happiness. Their conventional wisdom says, let me push my child to do well in school, work hard on stuff, and take part in various activities to “find” themselves. Because to a parent, the path to success has a formula “Education + Passion + Excellent Performance = Career” which equals to a life of bliss! And well-meaning parents want their children to find a career and then through that connect to their passion. But what if the formula runs into a glitch?

On this episode, guest Clinical Neuropsychologist and co-author of The Self-Driven Child, William Stixrud, Ph.D., discusses effective psychological approaches that are likely help parents reset their “reality”, help teachers adjust their task specific support, and help learners understand and accept that reinventing one’s self is a lifelong process.

About Dr. William Stixrud
William R. Stixrud, Ph.D., is a clinical neuropsychologist and founder of The Stixrud Group, a lifespan neuropsychology practice. He is also a member of the Adjunct Faculty of the Children’s National Medical Center, and he holds a faculty appointment as Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at the George Washington School of Medicine. Additionally, Dr. Stixrud is a frequent lecturer, and he has authored scientific articles on Transcendental Meditation and book chapters on meditation and the integration of the arts into education. Dr. Stixrud has been quoted often in publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times of London, Scientific American, Time.com, NPR, The Wall Street Journal, Business Week, Barron’s, and Vogue.

Dr. Stixrud holds a doctorate degree in School Psychology from the University of Minnesota. He did his training in neuropsychology at the Children’s Hospital of Boston (as a fellow of the Harvard Medical School) and Tufts New England Medical Center. Dr. Stixrud is also a rock and roll musician and plays in the band Close Enough.


  • http://www.theselfdrivenchild.com/


  • The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives

Support the show (https://mailchi.mp/7c848462e96f/full-prefrontal-sign-up)

Producer: Alright, welcome to back to Full PreFrontal where we are exposing the mysteries of executive functions. As always, I am here with our host Sucheta Kamath. Good morning, my friend, looking forward very much so to this coming conversation.

Sucheta Kamath: Yes, Todd, so great to be with you, and I’m going to get started with a wonderful story about a boy and this boy was born and raised in Cincinnati to a restaurateur, I guess, and a concert pianist mother and an electric engineer father who encouraged him to join boy scouts and get all the merit badges he needed to, and because he was interested in photograpy, he worked on earning a photography merit badge by creating a tiny film that he called The Last Gunfight which was about nine minutes long and that worked really well, he continued with his boyhood and turns out that he eventually kind of created a 40-minute long film which won a prize and by 17, he had written and directed a few, first, independent kind of science fiction movies and by the time he was ready at 18, he entered California State University in Long Beach but only to drop out and he said to his parents, “Parents, I’m going to quit college and pursue a career in entertainment.” So, my question to our audience and you, Todd, is if Leah and Arnold who were the boy’s parents who heard their kid declare that he is going to quit college, what should they think and what should they do, right? I mean, I can imagine if this was a 21st-century parent, they will panic.

Producer: Yes, they would have a coronary.

Sucheta: Exactly, so all parents want their children to grow up and be independent, and find happiness. Their conventional wisdom says let me push my child to do well in school, work hard on stuff, and take part in various activities to find myself. Because to a parent, the path to success has a formula which is education plus passion plus excellent performance equals a career which means a life of bliss. So, well-meaning parents want their children to find a career, and then through that, connect with their passion, so I think they get a little bit backwards in mind, at least. So, if Leah and Arnold had freaked out when they heard their son Steven dropped out of college and prohibited him from committing such a disastrous stop, would we have the movies called Jaws and ET? Well, that turned out to be Steven Spielberg, you know.

So, on today’s podcast, we have a very special guest who is here to burst the myth like Harvard or McDonald’s, or Yale or jail, so let’s find out what is the sweet spot when kids get to embark on a meaningful journey as they become self-sufficient and self-directed. So, it such an honor and privilege to welcome Dr. William Stixrud. He is a clinical neuropsychologist and a founder of the Stixrud Group, a lifespan neuropsychology practice. He is also a member of the adjunct faculty of the Children’s National Medical Center and he holds a faculty appointment as Assistant Clinical Professor of psychiatry and Pediatrics at the George Washington School of Medicine. Additionally, Bill is a frequent lecturer and he has authored scientific articles on transcendental meditation and book chapters on meditation, and the integration of the arts and education, and as I understand, he’s getting ready tomorrow to leave for India for another immersive experience. Can’t wait to hear about that as well if he gets a minute to talk about that, but finally, he has amazing publications or he has participated in amazing publications, he has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Times of London, Scientific America, Times.org, he has been a guest on NPR, and he has written for the Wall Street Journal, and I myself have heard him speak on many occasions but last time was of the learning and the brain conference.

So, with great joy, I would love to welcome you, Bill, to this podcast.

Dr. William Stixrud: I feel welcome.

Sucheta: Fantastic! So, this is a question I ask of all my guests. This podcast is about executive function which entails goal-driven self-guided behaviors to obtain self-determined success in an adaptive way and without losing your mind, without losing your focus, and without losing your emotional centeredness, so in short, executive function is what helps people maintain their life’s equilibrium, so do you mind if you start with your own executive function skills and it were you attuned with your strengths and weaknesses at a young age, and were you inventive when it came to formulating strategies for learning and finding your passion?

Bill: So, in relation to this story, I finished college and I was a pretty good college student but I had trouble keeping up with stuff. I probably took 12 maybe incompletes in college, but I did well enough, I got myself into this very top PhD program in English literature at the University of California Berkeley, and I went for 20 straight weeks without turning in a single assignment. Yeah, when I worked with [crosstalk] –

Sucheta: Oh, really?

Bill: 20 weeks, nothing – top that. I set the underachieving bar high, but I think it was largely because two or three people told me when I was at Berkeley that I was the most nervous person they’ve ever met, and I was drinking caffeine to stay up and smoking pot just to kind of sleep, and I couldn’t concentrate for more than probably eight or nine minutes at a time before I distract myself. I didn’t finish anything, I was too anxious, insecure to turn any work in, so I felt like I eventually flunked out and certainly, it took me about two months to realize that it was the best possible thing to could have happened to me — no way should I have been an English professor, but also, one of the people of Berkeley who I was roommates with said, “If there’s anybody in this planet that needs to learn to meditate, it’s you,” so I learned to meditate and within probably three weeks, my foot stopped tapping. I mean, my foot used to tap unrelentingly. Within a month or so, I could sit and focus for an hour or two hours at a time as opposed to eight or nine minutes at a time. Yeah, and my experience regarding executive function, my personal experience was so much about how stress undermines the ability to focus and think clearly, and to plan and to organize, and put things into perspective and get stuff done because I tell you, for 20 weeks, I was a master of not getting stuff done, and I don’t really think that I have an attention disorder, I tend to lose stuff but I’m pretty organized and pretty planful, but under stress, the great stress scientist Amy Arnsten stress mimics ADHD and I was just a laboratory example of that in my early 20s.

Sucheta: Wow. Thank you for being so candid about this, and it’s so interesting, I hear this again that again from all the experts that I have interviewed that their self-discovery came to its fullest actualization in college and we are expecting our young minds to achieve that at a very young age, and we are withholding some support in hopes that they show independence, and in some places, we are completely taking away their agency, so that’s where we are now, to talk about your expertise. So, let’s start with this: do you believe that the way kids are being raised and taught, are they being denied a sense of agency or control over their own lives?

Bill: So, I wrote a book, it came out in February 2018 with my friend Ned Johnson called The Self-Driven Child, and the thesis of the book – really, it’s a book for parents and educators but the basic idea of the book is that a sense of control, having a sense of control over your own lives is arguably the best thing we can give kids, other than the message that we love them unconditionally, the sense that this is their life and we respect that, and we support that, so that they have this healthy sense of control or autonomy, or agency is arguably the best thing we can give them because it’s associated with everything you could want for your kid, this healthy sense of control, and there’s a very interesting line of research by Jean Twenge at University of San Diego —

Sucheta: Yeah, I love her work, yes.

Bill: Yeah, yeah. She demonstrated that young people’s sense of control has become much more externalized, much more cI am kind of upon the universe, there’s not much I can do about it’ over the last probably 50 years, and we know that kids’ sense of control in their own lives diminishes every year they’re in school, and because the stress scientists say that a low sense of control where you feel helpless, you feel just overwhelmed or there is nothing I can do about it is probably the most stressful thing you can experience and one of the insights that Ned and I had was that when we are looking at this unprecedented level of anxiety and depression, and loneliness in young people, and these are all stress-related problems, and if a sense of control, a low sense of control is the most stressful thing you experience, this must be a really big deal. So, I’ve been thinking for the last two or three years a lot about this idea of a sense of control or agency, or autonomy because it’s so important for mental health, it’s the key to self-motivation, and it turns out it’s good for everything. If you have a sense of control over your own life, if you got a parent in assisted-living, they live longer. If you simply, if you ask them, “Do you want to have dinner at 4:00 or 4:30?” They live longer.

Sucheta: Yes, or water the plants if they were given the chance to water the plants.

Bill: That’s right. From just a scientific but from a brain point of view, from a mental health point of view, a motivation point of view, an achievement point of view, it’s huge which is why we wrote this book and spending the last year and a half going around the country talking about it.

Sucheta: So, can we dive slightly deeper about what is the psychological phenomenon of self-agency? Is it a belief system? Is it a character, your constitutional characteristic, what is it?

Bill: So, I think that certainly, there is probably genetic basis to if you come out, so say people more inclined to receive that I have agency, I can make things happen, and then other people are more passive. Some of your listeners probably know the work of Carol Dweck. [inaudible] kind of just got it born, they seem to have a growth mindset where I get better through my own efforts. A fixed mindset, there’s not much I can do about it and yet I think that child rearing plays a huge role as does simply how we care for the prefrontal cortex. One of the guys who helped with this idea, made this idea so popular and so, so powerful, this idea of a sense of control is Steve Maier who actually some of your listeners know about the concept of learned helplessness and he was one of the two scientists who kind of came up with that idea of learned helplessness in the 1970s, but his basic research on sense of control, the paradigm is there’s two rats, Rat A and Rat B, and they’re in a cage, their tails outside the cage and there’s a little wheel in the cage, and the rats get shocked, their tail gets shocked and it’s not painful, it’s just annoying, and Rat A finds if he turns the wheel, the shock stops, and what happens when he turns the wheel is his prefrontal cortex activates like crazy and that activation dampens down the stress response, so that Rat A just goes into coping mode, he’s not that stressed because he’s coping, the prefrontal cortex is driving the rest of his brain and he’s coping, and Rat B turns the wheel and nothing happens. With his kind of experience over several times, Rat A basically becomes almost impossible to stress, so you can put him in a cage with big rats and he just goes into coping mode, he doesn’t freak out, he doesn’t try to get away, he doesn’t cry, he just goes into coping mode, and Rat B becomes just incredibly easily distressed, and what Steve Maier says, that experience of being able to control stressful situations, being able to handle something stressful, and deal with it successfully with your prefrontal cortex activating, dampening your stress response, that inoculates you from the harmful effects of stress which is partly why this is such a big deal.

Sucheta: Such a big deal.

Bill: Ned and I think about this sense of control in two dimensions: one is where you are saying that subjective experience of agency or autonomy, this is my life and frankly, I love the idea where kids are thinking this is really a kid’s life, and so it’s that accepted experience of this is my life, I’m going to get out of it what I put into it, and I’m not helpless, I’m not hopeless, I’m not passive, I’m not resigned, I’m not chronically overwhelmed, I’m not obsessively driven, I have a healthy sense of control and ability to direct my own life, so that’s one dimension. The other dimension is the brain functioning the support stat, and when we are in our right minds, when our kids are in the right minds, and we have that healthy sense of control, we are engaged, we are motivated, we’re working on staff, and we aren’t overly stressed, our prefrontal cortex basically regulates the rest of the brain, and once you start to get stressed —

Sucheta: Beautiful, yeah.

Bill: And once you start to get stressed, the amygdala, this primitive part of the brain that senses and reacts to threat basically starts your fight or flight response and stress hormones flood the prefrontal cortex with dopamine and norepinephrine and then you can’t think, so the amygdala runs the rest of your brain. So, the concern for young people is we want young people to be in their right minds, we want them to have this brain state where their prefrontal cortex is regulating the rest of their brain and they aren’t overly stressed. Something stressful happens, they cope with it as opposed to getting really anxious or avoiding, or angry, then we think by supporting the sense of control that we help children develop the subjective sense of agency, and also, we culture a brain that’s used to being in its right mind. As you said in the introduction, executive functions help you to create a life that’s challenging and meaningful but not overwhelming.

Sucheta: So, are we living in a high-stakes world or is it our perceptions that have gone haywire? Why is there a great sense of fear and anxiety on everyone’s mind about the future, not the future of the country as such or future of the globe, you know – I mean, of course, granted, we have greater access to the information about what’s happening in the rest of the world, but even for a child who is bright whose future is manageable, why is every parent and every school feeling that ? What’s the difference of the 21st-century, so to speak?

Bill: It’s a great question, yeah, and most of us, probably most people listening to this podcast are living the safest time and place in human history and the experience of the world is such a rare dangerous –

Sucheta: Nobody will believe that sentence you just said.

Bill: They won’t believe? Well –

Sucheta: But Steven Pinker wrote about this whole evolution that violence has gone down, right?

Bill: Right, right, right, oh, yes! And there’s a guy out in Oregon, I think his name was Barry Glasser, we mentioned him in our book who made this conclusion that most of us are living in the safest time and safest place in human history, and yeah, parents are probably more anxious than they’ve ever been, young people are more anxious than they’ve ever been, there’s a lot of hypotheses including income inequality, including the fact that we sleep so much less than we used to, including the effects of technology making life more stressful, and I’ll just mention that when I was in graduate school, the first time that I flunked out, I did read part of this book called The Causes of Increased Nervousness in Americans, and it was written by a physician in 1881.

Sucheta: Oh, my goodness!

Bill: 1881. The hypothesized causes of what he perceived to be this increased nervousness were things like the railroad and the telegraph, and the pocketwatch, things that make life go faster and made us more attentive to small increments of time, I do think about how that’s morphed over the last 150 years and that life is so fast-paced, and with the 24-hour News Cycle report that most of the money is in negative things happening, and they reported that kids get abducted, we hear about it like we never used to before, and even though child objections are very rare and the most common circumstance is a divorced parent will take the kids. Abductions by strangers haven’t increased in the last many years but our perception that the world is physically more dangerous and psychologically more dangerous has certainly changed a lot.

Sucheta: Yeah, and I read even a Jonathan Haidt book about the Coddling of the American Mind and the sense of emotional safety issue which is again feeling unsafe which is a brand-new phenomenon, at least in our culture, that didn’t exist, like I remember — I mean, growing up in India, of course, if you fussed about or complaint, it was always considered your fault which has gone too bad, to one extreme, but yeah, so do you think that also is playing a role of feeling that there is somehow psychological harm waiting, a sense of challenge comes your way or a sense of threat because of lack of skills comes your way?

Bill: Yes, yes, and I think that many parents have the idea and understandably, nobody wants to see our kids suffer, but going back to that Rat A and Rat B, one of the implications that we talk about in our book is that we want kids as much as possible to solve their own problems because that experience, if a kid comes home and is really upset about something and they got dumped by their girlfriend or they flunked a test, or [inaudible] didn’t get invited to a party, but when we ask parents to ask themselves, whose problem is this? Whose problem? And it’s so hard as parents to remember that actually, these are kid problems and that our job is to really provide support if necessary with some suggestions but not to try to solve the problems for them because the way kids become resilient and the way kids develop high stress tolerance is in part through managing – it’s in dealing with their own problems and solving them, so they have that experience of the prefrontal cortex activating, figuring out what to do and coping, dampening down the stress response, and that trains the brain to just go into coping mode and certainly, many of the kids that I’ve worked with who are going out to elite colleges have not had very much experience. There’s been so much kind of interference in trying to protect them from challenge that they haven’t had to deal with it themselves and I think they do become more fragile, they have lower stress tolerance, and what we want for kids, and what Ned and I say in our book is we want kids to have high stress tolerance. We don’t want to be chronically stressed all the time but we want them to be able to have the nervous system that can function well in stressful situations.

Sucheta: Yes, and I think this dovetails with one of the concepts you have written about which is the idea of the acronym NUTS which is coined by, I guess, Sonia Lupien, and you told us a little bit about and you beautifully connect that to this idea as you’ve mentioned when we are telling kids to tolerate stress but the stress has many shades, and tell us a little bit about that.

Bill: So, Sonia Lupien is one of the great stress scientists in the world and she’s in Montréal, and she basically says you can summarize what makes life stressful with the acronym NUTS. It’s Novelty Unpredictability Perceives Threat at a low Sense of control. The S is a sense of control, and so it’s new situations which are unpredictable, anything that could be potentially threatening to physically or to your ego, fear of being embarrassed or the low sense of control is going to activate your stress response, your fight or flight response, and again a lot of the stress scientists say it’s really that sense of control, that low sense of control that’s most stressful because you could be in a new situation or even an unpredictable situation or even a potentially threatening one, but if we had a sense I could handle this, I could call my dad or I could – it’s not as stressful. It’s that not knowing what to do about it, feeling helpless, feeling I don’t know what to do. And I was struck by — there was a cluster of suicides in Palo Alto three or four years ago and there’s an article written in The Atlantic about it when we were writing the book and a couple of the experts who were asked about these kids, these kids were just overwhelmed. They said, how do we understand these kids? And one of the experts said, they feel existentially impotent. Another one said, I used to do therapy, Madeline Levine who you know, Madeline Levine, The Price of Privilege.

Sucheta: The Prize of – oh, my God, I love that book too.

Bill: Right. Oh, yeah, and she says, I’ve done therapy with these kids for 25 years and 15 years ago, they used to fight back. Now, they don’t fight back. They just kind of resign that their life is just life of constant trying to achieve the highest level possible so they get into elite college, and it sucks but there’s nothing they can do about it. So, every place we’ve looked, I try to understand, how do we help kids achieve a high level with how – being unduly stressed and miserable? It came back to increasing the sense of control.

Sucheta: That’s so sad, makes me really, really sad that they feel so helpless or they feel that the stress or that life’s calamities are larger than their capacity to fight it.

Bill: Well, I know, and part of it is they just have a worldview, kind of a delusional world – many kids, at least, they grew up with a kind of delusional worldview about what’s important and about what adult life is really like or what it takes to find your place in adult life.

Sucheta: Tell us a little bit more about that. That’s really fascinating which is I think that’s why I love that your perspective is to challenge this perception of the world. You need to do something called resetting it, right?

Bill: Well, that’s my sense. It just seems to me that I just wish we could tell kids the truth, and so many kids, at least in the area where I live in many of the areas that I’m speaking at around the country, have the idea — well, I’ll just first mention that I gave a lecture a few years ago, just a little talk to an 11th grade AP English class at a pretty academic public school at Bethesda, Maryland. When I finished, and the kids were really nice and they’re polite and they asked questions, and at the end, the teacher came up and whispered and just said, “These kids all think it’s either Yale or McDonald’s.” And if you actually look at the research, the researchers compared kids who get into Ivy League schools but then choose not to go, they become as successful as kids who go to Ivy League school. All the research suggests it doesn’t really make very much difference, at least for most kids, and there’s some advantages clearly to go to elite schools but more for graduate school, probably, than undergraduate that so many kids grew up with the idea that the most important outcome of their adolescence is where they go to college, and from my point of view, that’s just absolutely crazy when you actually look at it, and I’ve asked for years. I had an article in Time Magazine last year, why don’t we just tell them the truth? Why don’t we just tell them the truth that it doesn’t seem to make very much difference? And so, if you want to go to Princeton or Yale, or Stanford, go for it, but then so much of mental health is transferring I have to to I want to. I don’t really have to do it but I want to do this, we are running on our prefrontal cortex, our motivation or drive rather than fear. There’s so much focus now on getting into the 1% or the top 5%. Why don’t we just tell kids that after you make about 75,000 bucks more or less depending on where you live, more money just doesn’t make me happier? I just think we have delusional idea that top students are inevitably more successful than kids who aren’t good a student, and we know that valedictorians, by the time they’re 25 or 26, they aren’t more successful than anybody else. If we just took the attitude that I want my kid to work hard to develop himself so as something useful to offer this world, I think that’s the healthiest kind of way to think about how we want to help our kids and support their development, and not saddle them with this crazy idea that somehow, the most important thing is that they always do well in school and they achieve the highest level so they get into an elite college, and if you look at the mental health problems in elite colleges, they are off the charts. They can’t hire in mental-health people fast enough and the people in college say it’s what the kids had to do to themselves, basically, to get in these schools.

Sucheta: You know, I think what you just said, I’m seeing one more variation of this behavior which is, so either you go to, as you mentioned, McDonald’s or — I mean, you go to, of course, an Ivy or McDonald’s, I mean, there’s nothing in between, but the second thing I’m seeing is this weird belief that you can be Kim Kardashian or you can be Mark Zuckerberg — you can quit school without any skills, so the skills are not emphasized. Developing this ability to learn intentionally, take agency of your effort, kind of understand, take the time to understand yourself is almost like a second rated behavior or set of skills, so that’s also a cultural emphasis that may not be coming necessarily from their parents or teachers, but they see that like — PewDiePie is my favorite example, this is a dude who plays video games and his earning last year was reported to be $3 million, I think, or something like that, who plays video games, records it, and the kids watch him play the vide games — they’re not even playing the games. So, kids are really caught in this dilemma that if I quit school, I can be successful because some people have done it, but then they don’t have the discipline or they don’t have ideas, or they don’t have the skillset that support the success.

Bill: Right, right, right. I personally think, what I tell kids is you become succesful by working really hard in something that comes easily to you, that you find something you’re naturally good at, then you work really hard to get good at it. There are a few kids in my career where I’ve actually encouraged them to drop out of school — I encouraged them to think about it, in part because I want underachieving kids, and certainly many of the kids I see with executive functioning problems are underachieving and by the time they’re in high school, they often had been told so many times how important it is that they do better because their grades are going to follow them the rest of their life and that kind of thing, that they’re just so discouraged, that the first thing I tell them is you can flunk all your classes and if you decide that was a bad idea, you want to get an education, you can go to your local community college for two semesters and get 30 credits, and then you can apply to most of the colleges in this country without showing your high school transcript, and actually, what happens when I say that is it motivates kids to work hard, and because they figured, what’s the point of trying? I’ve never really had a kid drop out but I’ve had many kids where they’re just so discouraged about school that I want them to have an accurate model of reality. An accurate model of reality is that you don’t have to be in school after 16, and for many kids, just knowing that, knowing that they don’t have to motivates them to stay in school. There’s a story in the book about a kid who I saw — I’m a neuropsychologist, I test kids for a living — all the kids I see at [inaudible] have executive functioning problems, and I saw this kid who was getting like a 2.4 grade point average in high school, he said, “I do no work,” and I was just talking to him, he wasn’t my client — well, he was — long story — but in any case, I didn’t test him, but I spent an hour talking with him and he was passionate about his local rescue squad, he had studied that the test, he passed the test, that he loved being part of this rescue squad, but he spent no energy in school, said, “I do no schoolwork at all,” and I talked to him about dropping out of school and he looked at the options and it turned out, as soon as he looked at it, he had to stay in school to stay in the rescue squad, and then his mother called me three months later and said, “Thank you so much for telling him that he could drop out because once he looked into it, he realized that ‘I need to stay in school,’ ” he had the idea that there was a fire science program in the University of Maryland, so if I don’t have better grades, I can go to community college and then I can transfer into the fire science program in Maryland, and this mother called me three months later and said he’s got a three-six. I love your point about kids who just have the idea of there’s an easy way to be successful like these people who open presents or play video games, or something, and I tell kids that the really key is finding something you’re good at and something you love to do and then just work really hard to get better and better, and better at it.

Sucheta: Yeah, I mean, I think in my practice, I have seen so many kids exactly the way you see with executive dysfunction, underachievement, and just not in the zone of their passion, and I also find and I often encourage students to consider this, that it is not until you’re in sophomore year, end of sophomore year you have a choice in terms of the courses you take, so if you do pursue this academic path, the choice is, of course, is take that creates a career doesn’t come your way until you fulfill the prerequisites, and a lot of kids that I work with struggle with the prerequisites because they hate it or they’re not good at it or they haven’t cultivated the habits that allow them to actually work hard at things that are boring, annoying, or difficult.

Bill: Yeah, right.

Sucheta: You know? So, for them, I do recommend that you should take a sabbatical, an academic sabbatical, like just a gap year or do some service, like having connection with your community and one of the young men that I work with, he was extremely fond of rescue animals and then he started working at a local pet store, then eventually started working in a non-profit and the way he blossomed by taking care of somebody else’s needs immediately then — not immediately, but that was his way of knowing his own needs and give that kind of attention and care to his needs where he was not performing well, so that empathic perspective he developed by doing something but nowhere in his academic time that he could have offered that kind of attention to animals and rescued them because he was just so busy doing homework. It’s just meaningless to him, you know?

Bill: Yeah, yeah. And we’re starting a book about a girl who’s in eighth grade and she had learning disabilities — she’s actually in a school for kids with learning disabilities and her mother came to consult with me and she did periodically about the fact that the kid didnt have any passions, and the mother’s kind of worried about it and six months later, she came and talked to me about something else, I remember we talked about the passions, where is that? She said, “Oh, God, I forgot to tell you that after we talked,” somehow, that this girl found out about the Washington Animal Resuce League and she got incredibly involved in it and within a couple of months, she knew all the rescuable animals in DC, in Maryland, in Virginia, and just as you were saying, Sucheta, that morphed into passion for early childhood education. What I tell kids once they’re 15 or 16, I want you to really pay attention to what you love to do, what you just truly enjoy doing, and also, I want you to know that you can do better than most people or at least as well or better than most people because that’s really that conjunction of what you love to do and what you do well that really can guide us. And there are people like me, I didn’t know I was going to be a psychologist until I was 30, I failed as an English Literature graduate student, but I went into teaching but I was a terrible teacher because I had no [inaudible] management skills. I needed to work on kids more one on one, that’s gone pretty well, but I see a lot of kids who aren’t working hard in school, and I ask them, I say, “What do you work the hardest at?” and if they say sports or art, or music, or rock climbing, or coding, almost anything other than video games, they say that, I say, “I don’t worry about you because I know you’re sculptin a brain.”  A guy named Reed Larson who studies adolescent development was writing in the late 90s about his research where he’s trying to figure out how do children become self-motivated adolescents and adults? And he concluded it’s not through dutifully doing your homework. He concluded it’s through the passionate pursuit at past times, and even the late 90s, he was saying video games probably don’t count — we could talk about that if you want but the idea is this: when a little kid is completely engaged in building with Legos or imaginative play, or a kid is really working hard at music or sports, or art, or dance or drama, or coding, or rock climbing, whatever it is, working hard to get better and better, and better, they’re in that flow state — they spend a lot of time in that flow state where your complete engagement, that combines high energy, high attention, high focus, high determination, and low stress, and from my point of view, that’s where we want to be, that’s where we want to be as adults most of the time. We want to be focused, engaged in the present, we want to be motivated, but we don’t want to be highly stressed, and so we talk in the book about one of the ways we culture motivation in kids is by supporting that passionate involvement in past times where they’re getting better and better, and better in something through that complete absorption. That’s so good for the brain.

Sucheta: I love it. You know, I have had Bill Damien come in and talk about the path to purpose, the idea how to discover and one of the things that I hope the listeners got out of that is this idea that parents are so desperately trying to shove a passion into the child.

Bill: Yes, yeah.

Sucheta: And that, by definition, is not passion. It should be self-discovered. Somebody else cannot tell children that you should be passionate about and I see this so much in my practice. I see highly successful — and of course, it’s a private practice in the most affluent part of Atlanta and what happens is the parents say, “Look at me, how successful I am, I used to be like him or her,” and then secondly is you know, it doesn’t matter, why do you care that the teacher is asking you to do math? Just do it, and they’re expecting that becoming good at something will come from doing it more and they are missing the point. The life of a child is so structured that I feel that this whole beautiful thing that you just said that cultivating a culture where the child’s discovery process is given a little bit more time, like to find out what I love. What if I need to try at least 10 things or 100 things, maybe?

Bill: Well, yeah, and certainly, it’s becoming clear that children, when they’re adults, will have multiple careers and I think that many people, certainly myself included — I mean, I had no clue when I was in high school that I’d be a psychologist. I had no idea at all, I’m sure I knew there was such a thing, and I think that life for many people is long and interesting, and has turns and I think that we are kind of naturally good at some things. I think about wanting kids to pay attention to what are you kind of naturally good at? And hopefully, that parallels with what they like to do.

Sucheta: So, talk to us about this idea of inventing yourself. So, in this context, I love this invitation for every person to reinvent themselves over time and shape their interest as they grow, mature, and as you mentioned, even in career, one of the devastating things about growing up in India was that at 17, 18, when you graduated from 12th grade, first of all, in 10th grade, you had to take a track and they were called arts, math and science, or commerce. Commerce was looked down upon because it was considered a field for accountants — we are very boring — so a lot of stereotyping as you can hear in my voice, and then secondly, by 12th grade, you had to decide a career and you were supposed to die in that career, so when I came to US and I did my second masters, in my class, I was barely 25 and there was a person in my class who was 45 and he was a lawyer, and it blew my mind. I said, “What does your mom say?” He said, “What?” I said, “You’re giving up your lawyer career?” So, I’m so grateful for this American culture at least promoting that you have an opportunity to reinvent yourself. So, what do you think of that concept?

Bill: Well, I think that the Indian idea and many traditional cultures, that you do what your parent did. I mean, in some ways, there’s some wisdom to that in the sense that yeah, I think we inherit tendencies. I’ll rarely see somebody who’s really good in something but one of the parents is also pretty good at it. I mean, I think that yeah, we probably inherit our brains that are wired in a certain way, but I do think that ultimately, what I love about America is the idea that you’re really free to create a life that you want, and there’s a lot of experiences that I had early in my career that really supported this idea of autonomy and encouraging from early age, giving kids the message that this is your life and I want you to figure that, I want to help you in any way I can, but really, you get to kind of get that figured out. One of the experiences, how often, I’d sit down, I used to do a lot of psychotherapy early in my career, I’d sit down with a 35 or a 40-year-old, the first session, I’d say, how can I help? And they’d say, “Well, I feel like I’ve set the first 35 years of my life trying to live up to other people’s expectations. Now, I’m trying to figure out what’s important to me,” and I’m inside thinking, I think, let’s get an earlier start on this, let’s get an earlier start on helping kids figure out who they want to be, and one of the wisest things anybody ever said to me about raising kids was — and I don’t remember who it was, they said, what I love about teenagers is when they come home from school, you need to see who they are deciding to be, and I love that perspective, rather than as a parent or an educator, I’m supposed to make my kids turn out to be a certain way, and if you have that idea that that’s your responsibility, it’s a pretty thankless job because you really can’t make kids do stuff and you can’t make them want what they don’t want. You can’t put a passion in that, and so I love this perspective that we can invent ourselves and we can reinvent ourselves.

Sucheta: Do you have a separate messaging for an educator versus a parent, or is the message the same? And what would that sound like if you were advising them?

Bill: So, our message — you can summarize this one — certainly one of the big ideas in our book is that we suggest that parents and educators, as kids get older, think about themselves more as consultants to the kids, not as the kid’s boss or manager, or taskmaster, or homework police where our job is to help kids figure out how to make their life work, how to create a life that they want, and so in this consultant role, we offer help, not try to force our kids through them. We offer advice rather than try to jam it down a kid, and as I said earlier, we want kids to solve their own problems, and we also place a big emphasis on kids making their own decisions, and I felt my whole career that the best message you can give a teenager besides I’m crazy about you is I have confidence in your ability to make decisions about your own life and learn from your mistakes, and I want you to have a ton of experience doing that before I send you to college, and so much, I think, of what we see where that very high percentage of kids not making it in college first year – I had an article in the New York Times Ned and I did in November because at that time, when you ate kids, by November first who had started college and were already home, they had already given up, and I think those kids, by definition, did not have sufficient experience in running their own life. So, we want to support kids in making decisions and helping them make good informed decisions with our advice and our support, and support of other people is necessary, but we think that that for educators and for parents, this idea of thinking — think about yourself more as a consultant to the kid as opposed to somebody who always knows better than the kids necessarily or knows what’s right for the kids, or if somebody’s job is to make a kid turn out a certain way.

Sucheta: Yeah, I love this message that you were giving everyone, this unconditional acceptance along with trust that mistakes are inherent to living a full robust life, and I see, I detect potential in that’s such an assuring message to come from people that you love and respect and that kind of mentorship, if you’re surrounded by such kind of mentors, you will feel quite confident to make great mistakes.

Bill: Well, it is, and my experience is that when we tell kids that I’m not going to try to force you, this is going to be your call, and you talk stuff through, that kids make good decisions for themselves and they often make decisions, the ones we want them to make. I was lecturing about our book maybe a year ago and somebody came up to me afterwards and said, “My family is Jewish and my son is refusing to do his bat mitzvah. It’s a really big deal, we’ve been fighting about it for the last year,” and so she said, “I can guess what you would advise me but can I come in and just have a session with you?” She came in and explained that he just doesn’t believe in God, he doesn’t want to do it, and so I said, “Here’s what I suggest saying to him. I’d suggest telling him that obviously, you couldn’t make him do it, you couldn’t make him learn his portion from the Torah, you couldn’t drag him up in the stage and move his lips to read it. Obviously, so force is off the table, you couldn’t make him do it, and also, tell him just how much you respect the integrity. He’s only 12 years old and he’s thinking with great integrity about I don’t want to be a hypocrite. I really respect that so much and also, I want you to know that it’s really important to me, it’s really important to your dad, it’s really important to your siblings and your grandparents, and your aunts and uncles, and your friends who want to welcome you to the Jewish community, and I hope you’ll find a way to do it,” and a couple of days later after resisting for a year, the kid said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” And then he negotiated with them, I want to do it this way or that way, but my experience is that if we assume that kids, that they want their life to work. They got a brain in their head and if we treat them respectfully and we try to minimize the extent to which we use force, and this applies for educators as well as parents, it goes well in my experience. Now, there are times where kids can’t make good decisions for themselves, they are drug involved or they are extremely depressed, and we have to use force, we have to get them to treatment or put them in a program or do something. But short of that, I think our motto, Ned’s and my motto is let’s encourage kids to make their own decisions and go with the kid’s decision unless they are crazy, meaning unless almost anybody would say that’s a terrible idea because it’s expressing that kind of confidence that he gets, it just matures him in the beautiful way, and also, the way that wisdom, they say that wisdom comes from making bad decisions, that kind of experience, I learned from that, I don’t want to do it that way and we don’t want to protect kids from bad experiences because that’s how we learn.

Sucheta: Well, Bill, this has been such a fantastic discussion and I can see you are the kind of person I can talk to for hours. This was very, very informative and most importantly to me, assuring that there is a way in spite of all the pressures that every person, even I don’t know how people are finding to listen to this podcast but the fact that they did, they have somehow found the motivation to listen to this important topic, but I think they are going to get a great sense of assurance from you that when we take the steps, it’s going to work. So, I truly thank you for that, and thank you for coming on the podcast and sharing your wisdom with us.

Bill: Thank you so much for having me, I really enjoyed it.

Producer: Alright, that’s all the time we have for today. If you know of someone who might benefit from listening to today’s episode, we would be grateful if you would forward it directly to them, so on behalf of our host, Sucheta Kamath, today’s guest, William Stixrud and all of us at Cerebral Matters, thanks for listening to today and we look forward to seeing you again right here next week on Full Prefrontal.