Alan Alda Wants Us To Have Better Conversations

You know, I was interviewing a researcher at Columbia University. Her name is Xiaodong Lin, and she’s done a lot of work looking at trying to get children interested in science. And she finds something really fascinating that speaks to exactly what you just talked about, which is the traditional way we have of teaching science is to tell people, you know, there was this great physicist, Albert Einstein. And he was the greatest genius the world has ever known, and he came up with theories that, even today, many people struggle to understand. So that’s the classic way we tell science stories.

And what she found was that instead of doing that, if you tell a story which says something along the lines of, you know, there was a time when Einstein was working on a problem, and he got so stuck that he couldn’t figure out the math. And he needed help to figure out the math, and he reached out to somebody else, saying, I can’t figure out the math to this. Can you please help me? When you tell stories that involve struggle and obstacles and failures about scientists, not only does this hold people’s attention, but kids are now able to say, I could see myself being a scientist because I need help with math. I turn to somebody else to get help for math. And this idea that the obstacle, in some ways, is what makes the story the story is, I think, what you mean by the middle.


.. Because when I left the science show, I realized that the reason that the show worked was because we had a real connection between us. It wasn’t an ordinary interview. I never went in with a set of questions – not after the beginning. I went in just being curious and really good and ignorant. It’s good to be ignorant as long as you’re curious – not so good if you’re not curious. So I would be willing to reveal my ignorance to them, so they knew where I was in my understanding of their work. And then if I didn’t understand what they were saying, I’d grab them by the lapels and shake them. Tell me again. What do you – so they forgot about the camera. They forgot about the lectures they had given on this. They were just trying to make me understand it. And I realized that what I was doing was relating to them, and they were relating to me in the same way two actors do when they let each other in to their field of consciousness.

So I thought the best way to train people to do that is through improvisation training. And I tried it out with a group of engineers. And after three hours, they were so much better talking about their work.


.. And what this – what the improvising work does is it actually builds up your empathy. You get very good at being able to figure out what the other person is going through emotionally.

So now, this cab driver pulls over. He says, where are you going? And I start to get crazy mad. Where am I going? You’ve got to take me no matter where I’m going. But instead of that, I think, wait a minute. It’s the day – it’s the time of day when he’s switching shifts. He’s got to give the cab to somebody else. I understand why he’s saying it. And it helped me accept it.


.. And I’ve noticed that the more empathy I have, the less annoying other people are.

When Did Marriage Become So Hard?

No one will deny that marriage is hard. In fact, there’s evidence it’s getting even harder.

Eli Finkel, a social psychologist at Northwestern University, argues that’s because our expectations of marriage have increased dramatically in recent decades.

“[A] marriage that would have been acceptable to us in the 1950s is a disappointment to us today because of those high expectations,” he says.

The flip side of that disappointment, of course, is a marriage that’s pretty amazing. Those of us who can meet the high expectations of modern marriage, Finkel says, may find “a level of marital fulfillment that was out of reach until pretty recently.”

This week we go back in time and look at the history of marriage and reflect on where we are today. We’ll also ask Finkel, author of The All or Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work, for some tangible ways we can improve our love lives — including by asking less of our partners.

Hidden Brain: Life, Interrupted

David Brooks, the columnist, and I might be paraphrasing here, but basically he pointed out this observation that great, creative thinkers approach their time like accountants; that this is this great disconnect is that they’re very structured and systematic about their time and produce the most unstructured, brilliant, creative insights. So it’s a key paradox to point out because I really want to emphasize it. Adding structure and control to your time really can be the key to getting the biggest insights and most interesting work produced.

VEDANTAM: I’m wondering if part of the tension comes about because we actually think of inspiration as being the thing that strikes us unexpectedly. And I think the case that you’re making is that inspiration actually can be scheduled to arrive on command.

.. NEWPORT: Well, as, you know, Chuck Close said – the artist – inspiration is for amateurs. I think we overfocus on the inspiration piece. If you’re systematically pushing yourself and your knowledge and your craft, you will have inspiration. It will happen in the shower. It’ll happen while you walk to work. What’s important is, you know, setting yourself up to have that inspiration and then giving yourself the time and structure you need to act on it, to actually produce something of value out of it.  So I downplay the importance of inspiration and I emphasize the importance of creating a life where inspiration as possible and you’re well suited to act on it.

.. I’m wondering if some people might say your advice is really advice for people who are, in some ways, are at the top of their food chains. So if you have an author who basically is able to say, I’m going to disconnect from the world for 18 months, I’m just going to focus on writing this book. You know, someone else is probably picking up after this person in all kinds of different ways. If Cal Newport says, you know, I’m going to close the door in my office, I’m not going to answer my phone, I’m not going to check my email, but someone needs to get in touch with you in an emergency, that person is probably going to reach an assistant of yours.

And that assistant doesn’t have the same luxury of deep work as you do because he or she needs to be available to hear what the emergency is or to hear what the request is. Does having a group of people who are engaged in deep work necessarily mean there must be essentially a second tier of workers who are engaged in shallow work to allow the deep thinkers to do their deep thinking?

NEWPORT: It doesn’t require that, but it usually requires some type of reconfiguration of communication channels and expectations.


..  I think a big part of it is lack of metrics. So if we look at two parallel case studies, two different industries – let’s look at the Industrial Revolution and the rise of mass industrial production. This was a world where the metrics for productivity were very clear. How many cars per hour is our factory producing? And what we saw in that world – where bottom-line value is very easy to measure – is that very quickly, the structure of work moved away from what was convenient for the workers and towards what produced more value.

It moved away from the old system in factories where you had people work in teams at one spot in the floor to assemble the car towards things like the assembly line, which are incredibly inconvenient. It’s very hard to manage an assembly line. It’s very hard to get it right. It causes lots of issues. It’s annoying. But it produces a lot more value.

You move to digital knowledge work – we don’t have those metrics. It’s much harder to measure, OK, what’s the cost to our bottom line if you’re more distracted or less distracted? And so my conjecture is that without those metrics, we are going to fall back on these interpersonal or cultural biases. We’re wired to be social. We don’t want to upset someone. These type of biases take over because it’s much harder to measure, in this new world, the impact of different behaviors.


.. I’m wondering if that might be a psychological driver in people being unwilling to actually cut themselves off because not only might they discover that they are more productive, but they might also discover the world does just fine – thank you very much – without you.

NEWPORT: Yeah. I think that’s one of three big psychological drivers that have led us to this world we’re in now of the sort of constant-connectivity business. So that’s certainly one, I think – this notion of, we get a sense of meaning and usefulness out of constantly being involved in interaction. I think the other two psychological drivers – one is just, we’re wired to be tribal. And it’s very difficult for us psychologically to know there’s an email waiting that we’re not answering. And even if we know for a fact that the person who sent that message does not need a fast response, it still feels like we’re at the tribal fire, and there’s a tribe member standing there tapping you on the shoulder, and you’re ignoring them. We just have a very hard time with that.

And I think the third driver is, knowledge work is much less structured. And so how do you prove to your organization or to your boss that you’re valuable? And busyness as a proxy for productivity is something that a lot of people have defaulted to.

.. Well, at the very least, if you see I’m sending lots of messages, you know I’m working. And so I think those three different factors are all intertwining to get us to this place where we find ourselves just constantly sending messages as opposed to thinking hard thoughts or producing new things.

Personality Tests: The Sorting Hat

despite the widespread popularity of the Myers-Briggs test, it’s generally not held in high regard by top psychologists who study personality.

.. VEDANTAM: Validity and reliability – these are two of the most important scientific factors to consider when judging the value of any psychological test.

GRANT: Reliability is about whether the test measures what it claims to measure. And so you could look at that in terms of, do you get the same result over time or if different people rate you, did they give similar answers?

VEDANTAM: So if you have a test for HIV, does the test actually give you the answer that you have HIV every time you use the test?

GRANT: Exactly. Does it give you an accurate score? And then validity is essentially, does the test predict anything? So, you know, can it predict what kind of jobs I’ll be happy in or what kind of person I should marry?

.. VEDANTAM: And your thesis about the Myers-Briggs test is what?

GRANT: Well, it doesn’t do very well in reliability or validity. It falls well short of most conventional reliability standards, and the Myers-Briggs proponents themselves will tell you that it doesn’t predict anything.

VEDANTAM: The thing that concerns me about personality tests is less the stuff that might be inaccurate but is mostly just fun, and more the stuff that is increasingly being used to gauge who should be doing what in the workplace, who is best suited for which career to select the people who you want to rise within an organization.

GRANT: It’s a great way to weed out all kinds of diversity. There was a company in Canada not long ago where there was a major acquisition made, and the CEO gave every single person who was acquired the Myers-Briggs and then fired everyone who didn’t match his type.

.. VEDANTAM: Many personality researchers put greater stock in a test known as the Big Five. It measures things like how much you care about the opinions of others versus your own judgment. It also measures qualities such as introversion and extroversion. At first glance, there are similarities between this test and the Myers-Briggs and other personality tests. But Adams says the Big Five has large amounts of peer-reviewed data to back it up. That data, he argues, makes for better predictions.


.. According to Chinese tradition, there’s no better year for a child to be born than the Year of the Dragon. Dragon kids are destined for greatness. Xiao-Qi was a doctor at one of the province’s largest hospitals. He knew it was going to be a crazy year. Pregnant women were already pre-booking rooms at the hospital. Births were going to skyrocket. It was the same all across the country. It seemed that pregnant women were everywhere, dreaming of the greatness of their coming Dragon babies.

.. VEDANTAM: They decided to prove their hypothesis that Dragon kids would fare worse than other kids at school. As it turned out, the Chinese government has a treasure trove of data – the academic performance of middle schoolers, demographic surveys, interviews with parents about their own education and household income. And so the two economists collected all the data, controlled for different variables and crunched the numbers. And they found that in middle school, Dragon kids did better than their peers.

MOCAN: They actually have higher test scores in middle school.

VEDANTAM: These kids also outperform their peers in high school.

MOCAN: Even at the standardized nationwide university entrance exams, Dragon kids score better.

VEDANTAM: And they did better in college.

MOCAN: Individuals who were born in the Year of the Dragon – they are 14 percent more likely to have earned at least a bachelor’s degree.

VEDANTAM: This was not the outcome that the economists expected to find.


.. MOCAN: So if everybody tells them, oh, you are superior, you are smarter than everybody, you are destined for greatness and good fortune, you know, they may believe that this is the case. And their self-esteem – you know that from other research that self-esteem is important in learning. People – kids who have more self-esteem, they do better in school.

VEDANTAM: But when they looked at how children reported their own beliefs about their IQ, there was no difference between Dragon kids and kids born right before and right afterwards.

MOCAN: And Dragon kids are not more confident about their own abilities or about their own future.

VEDANTAM: In fact, the Dragon kids weren’t really smarter. They scored the same on IQ tests. So what explained their success at school?


.. VEDANTAM: It turns out, the success of Dragon babies doesn’t lie with the schools, or the teachers or even with the kids themselves. It’s because of parents like Xiao-Qi and Yangcheng.

YU: (Speaking Chinese).

VEDANTAM: From the moment Han was born, his parents had sky-high expectations for him. That turns out to be the case with many parents of Dragon babies.

MOCAN: The parents of these Dragon children, they are actually more likely to believe, in comparison to other parents, that their children will obtain at least a high school education, at least a college degree. And Dragon parents are more likely to believe that their children will become a leader in professional life in the future. So Dragon parents are different from other parents in the way they sort of believe in their kids’ future.

VEDANTAM: These beliefs become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Parents who believe their kids are destined for greatness act in ways that help their kids achieve greatness. Han’s parents pushed him, giving him master’s-level textbooks in middle school and telling him as a toddler that his goal in life was to get a Ph.D. in America. As Han chatted with his parents, I asked if he could translate a question for me.