Change is not always easy, but it’s something everyone experiences. You can spend your time and energy trying to avoid changes, only to have them catch up to you in the long run. Or, you can learn to embrace change gracefully.
In this article, Jay Shetty sits down with the Senior Director of Behavioral Economics at Google, Maya Shankar, to discuss how her life took a dramatic turn at age 15 after an accident stripped her of her identity and left her questioning who she was.
Shankar’s expertise on human behavior landed her a place in Obama’s White House. There, she founded and served as chair of the White House's Behavioral Science Team, a group of scientists tasked with improving public policy using research insights gleaned from human behavior.
Forced to pivot from her dream of becoming a professional violin player, Shankar realized the human connection is what sparks her passion. In this article, Shankar shares with Jay Shetty how she learned to accept the changes in her life and move through them with grace to find purpose.
A Musical Prodigy
When Shankar was six years old, her mother showed her a violin her grandmother brought with her as one of the few possessions she carried when she immigrated to America. Shankar was instantly smitten with the instrument and asked for a violin of her own.
Once she had the pint-sized instrument in her hands, Shankar was hooked. She tells Jay Shetty that she rushed home from school every day to play, and she never had to be told to practice. She was a natural.
Shankar began to have big dreams for a future as a professional violinist, but she had no idea how to reach them. Although her parents didn’t have connections in the music world, her mom did have one thing—reckless abandon. She was a fearless go-getter who wasn’t afraid of taking chances.
During a trip to New York when she was nine, Shankar and her mother walked past the Juilliard School of Music. On a whim, her mother suggested they walk in and ask to audition. What was the worst that could happen?
Shankar’s nine-year-old mind objected to that idea. What if they thought she was terrible and rejected her? Her mom, however, wasn’t waiting for an invitation, so they went in and asked for an audition.
“They were so generous and kind,” Shankar tells Jay Shetty. “I auditioned for the teacher and he accepted me into a summer program. Six months later, I auditioned for Juilliard, and got accepted.”
Shankar has never forgotten the lesson her mother taught her that day. You cannot always wait for opportunities to come your way. You need to go out and create them yourself. As Shankar’s passion for the violin grew, so did her ability–so much so that famed violinist Itzhak Perlman asked her to be his private violin student when she was a teenager.
“When you're in a deeply competitive environment like Juilliard, you don't really know if you have what it takes to succeed,” Shankar explains to Jay Shetty. “So when a prominent teacher took me on as a student, it was the vote of confidence that I needed to believe I had what it takes.”
Tragically, her dream was shattered in an instant when she tore a tendon in her finger at age 15. She was devastated at the premature end to a promising career.
“Up until that point, I felt like I was first and foremost a violinist,” Shankar said to Jay Shetty. “It was my identity. There is a concept called identity foreclosure that refers to the fact that we can get fixed on certain identities, especially in adolescence. It can carry through into adulthood as well, and I fell prey to that.”
A New Direction
After resisting her diagnosis for a time, Shankar accepted the fact that she would never become a professional violinist. She realized she shouldn’t have attached her identity to one specific activity. Instead, she decided to focus on the traits that passion had brought out in her.
“I love the violin,” she says to Jay Shetty. “I love the instrument. I love the way it feels. I love the sounds that it produces, but the thing that got me thinking is the fact that my instrument allowed me to forge a close emotional connection with people almost effortlessly.”
Imagine being on a stage with thousands of people you have never met, and within moments your music allows them to feel things they have never felt before. Shankar tells Jay Shetty that the music created an emotional intimacy and bond with the audience.
“When I look over the course of my life, my way of connecting with other human beings, trying to understand what motivates them, what pains them, and what brings them joy is the common thread,” Shankar explains to Jay Shetty. “It's my deep desire to emotionally connect with those around me, so I've just tried to find that in other pursuits.”
Playing the violin was a platform for Shankar to share her message with others, but her purpose is the intentions and actions that she put into it. Once she discovered that the connection with other humans created her drive for excellence, she was free to pivot and channel that passion into other areas.
We all have traits that are complicated and complex, and each one has pros and cons. The key to embracing them all is to find the silver lining.
Shanker believes that one of the biggest challenges a person faces is growing into themselves. For her, accepting certain parts of her personality she wished were different and learning to manage her life despite them was challenging.
“I'm incredibly impatient,” Shankar tells Jay Shetty. “I want everything to have happened yesterday. Impatience can have lots of negatives, and I've always seen my impatience as being a negative thing. Then I think about the parts of my life in which that impatience has served me well.”
For example, while working on her Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience, Shankar had an “ah-ha” moment.
She tells Jay Shetty she was sitting in a lab studying a man’s brain when it suddenly struck her that she knew nothing about his background. Did he have kids? What was he passionate about? What was his favorite food?
These were all questions Shankar felt were important, and she knew she would never be able to find out the answers. The encounter left her questioning her direction. She needed more connection with people. She shares with Jay Shetty that she realized she was too social to spend hours on end in a windowless room studying the brains of people she knew nothing about.
Shankar reached out to her mentor to express that she no longer wanted to continue down the path she had been on for 10 years. She also sought advice on what to do next.
It was then that her mentor told her about the work happening at the White House. Through legislation, the default setting in the school lunch program had been changed from an opt-in to an opt-out program for low-income families. This eliminated the stigma associated with signing up your kids for a public benefits program.
As a result of this small change, 12.5 million kids were now eating lunch every day. By using insights from the science of decision-making fields, lives had been changed.
The light bulb went off for Shankar. She wanted that job. The only problem was, the job didn’t exist. There was no role for a behavioral scientist.
Drawing on her mother’s lesson from that day at Juilliard and her lingering impatience, Shankar created an opportunity for herself.
“I sent a cold email to an Obama advisor,” she says to Jay Shetty. “I basically had an interview with a White House official two days after I sent this email. I moved to D.C. without having a formal offer letter. I sold everything except my bike, signed a one-year lease in D.C., and embraced the moment. I had this big grand goal to build a team of behavioral scientists. I wasn't given a mandate or budget to do so, but that impatient personality really helped me thrive there. I refused to take no for an answer, and I pushed people every day.”
Shankar learned to accept the parts of herself she didn’t always like, and she found the silver lining in the process.
Have you ever tried to get someone to change their mind about something, but they just wouldn’t budge? Jay Shetty and Shankar believe society as a whole has become divided more than ever—so much so that we can’t even sit down to a holiday meal without disagreements or arguments over climate change, gun control, epidemics, or politics.
It is tempting to state facts about the issue, thinking if others know the facts, they will see your side of the argument, but it is hard to change someone’s mind.
“We know from research that giving people information is not what works,” Shankar shares with Jay Shetty. “The piece that's missing is people do not generate their attitudes and beliefs just based on facts. They develop their attitudes and opinions about the world, in part based on their membership to different groups and the values those groups hold.”
Instead of throwing facts around, Shankar recommends Jay Shetty and his listeners try a technique called moral reframing. Moral reframing is a way of presenting your position in a way that affirms the other person’s values instead of threatening them. This can be a much more effective, and kind, way of expressing oneself in a discussion.
“If you're trying to convince a conservative to care more about the environment, you might frame it as caring about the environment means preserving our nature's beauty,” Shankar explains to Jay Shetty. “It is patriotic to care about the environment. If you're talking with a liberal, you might focus on the fact that investing in climate change reform can help elevate those with socioeconomically underprivileged status, helping them to thrive. In both cases, it's the same policy objective. You're trying to get people to care about the climate, but you are taking into account what their existing value systems are.”
Exercise is a change that Shankar had to adjust to. She explains to Jay Shetty that she doesn’t do it so much for fitness reasons but rather for her mind. She applies a behavioral insight called temptation building into her workouts. This strategy pairs up an undesirable activity with a desirable activity. You're only allowed to do the desirable activity if it accompanies the undesirable one.
For Shankar, her love of music comes into play. Her passion for finding new music to listen to is her reward for when she is on the treadmill or lifting weights. She only listens to the new music she finds when working out.
Fresh Start Effect
Life can be overwhelming, leaving you feeling like you are just spinning your wheels and not going anywhere. If you feel that way, maybe it is time for a fresh start. A fresh start can be a new job, a new home, a new town, or even something as simple as creating a Sunday routine, says Jay Shetty.
According to Shankar, the “Fresh Start Effect” is the idea that life changes like moving to another town, buying a home for the first time, or having children, can serve as breaks from the past and the habits we used to have.
A fresh start provides the motivation and impetus to reset and take on a new identity. Research shows that people are far more effective at introducing a new consistency or sustained behavior change when their surroundings are physically different.
If you are looking to build a new set of habits aligned with your long-term goals, look for moments in life where you are breaking from your past and can re-establish yourself and redefine who you want to be.
A Slight Change of Plans
Inspired by her life and the changes she went through, Shankar launched a podcast called A Slight Change of Plans.
“I was eager to marry the narrative storytelling part of my life with the cognitive science part of my life,” Shankar explains to Jay Shetty. “I thought to myself, ‘Why don't I try to find people who have been through extraordinary changes in their lives? They can share their reflections, their stories for insights and lessons, that we as listeners can take back into our own lives to help us think differently about change.”
Change is an inevitable part of life. When you embrace change gracefully, as Shankar and Jay Shetty have done, you will find the silver lining you need to make the transition successful.
More From Jay Shetty
Listen to the entire On Purpose with Jay Shetty podcast episode with Maya Shankar on “How to Embrace Change Gracefully” now in the iTunes store or on Spotify. For more inspirational stories and messages like this, check out Jay’s website at jayshetty.me.