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From NPR, this is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. You don't need me to tell you that 20/20 has been a year of change and disruption, the covid-19 pandemic and the recession have upended many people's lives and will continue to do so in the months to come. So this year for our annual U. 2.0 series about reinvention, we are focusing on the ways in which change comes into and out of our lives.
We might not be able to control some of the things that happen to us, but we can shift the way we perceive and respond to them.
I was really devastated to lose something that I was completely in love with and so passionate about, and that had really constituted such a large part of my life and my identity.
You know, I was first and foremost a violinist. Loss and renewal this week on Hidden Brain. This message comes from NPR sponsor TD Ameritrade, everything's customizable these days. Your trading platform can be, too, with thinkorswim. You can customize screener's charting and stock forecasts. So the market is always tailored to you. You can get started at TD Ameritrade, Dotcom thinkorswim. My grandmother was an Indian classical violinist, and so my mom had her old violin in our attic for many years.
This is Maya Shankar, each of my three older siblings had rejected the violin, saying that it wasn't cool enough and my mom finally gave me the instrument and I was immediately taken kind of by the tactile sensation of the instrument, I mean, the wood and the bow.
I just loved the feeling of playing the violin.
Even as a child. Maya immediately loved everything about the violin, the way it looked, the way it felt, the way it sounded. Maya's mother didn't know much about Western classical music, but she signed up her daughter for lessons using the Suzuki method.
The focus was on playing by ear and making beautiful sound. Maya practiced constantly. I had a special scheduled school to lump all my classes together so that I come a little bit early and get a little bit more practice and and especially with all the traveling.
Most days were devoted exclusively to music. She got good. Very good.
Now the part of her musical education that was missing was the formal part.
She didn't know how to read music very well, but she had a fine ear and she had ambition in the pursuit to find a teacher who would take her to the next level. Maya's mother did something quite daring.
Yeah. So my mom, she was really a go getter when it came to my violin life because, like I said, she didn't really have a lot of experience or exposure to the music community and kind of had to innovate in order to find opportunities.
They were in New York one day close to the Juilliard School, one of the world's most famous and exclusive music institutions.
When her mother came up with an idea, she said, why don't we just go to Juilliard? I mean, why not? Right. What can we lose? Just walk in the door, walked in.
So we walked into the building. And just by happenstance, we happened to run into a student in the elevator who studied with a music teacher. And my mom talked to that family in the elevator and said, would you mind if we just had about five or ten minutes at the end of your lesson where Maya could play for your teacher? And they were really gracious and they said, sure, no problem.
Of course, you know what happened next? Maya played for the other students music teacher while the teacher and got accepted into a summer program. Soon she was taking classes at Juilliard. She was playing with other talented musicians. She was even being featured on NPR. Joining us now is the Juilliard Bricolage Violin Quartet.
They are 17 year old Emily Gendron from Glastonbury, Connecticut, 15 year old Maya Shankar from Cheshire, Connecticut. Maya, by the way, is a from the top veteran. She's been with us since the early 50s.
That was Maya on NPR's From the Top. She had found her classical music home. She was talented, hard working, and the path before her seemed clear. I really wanted to be a violinist, I was so passionate about it, I never felt more comfortable than when I was performing.
For some reason, that's where I experienced flow and, you know, the ability to spend a lot of time, you know, practicing and trying to perfect the art. And then you go on stage and you kind of just surrender and, you know, you play to the best of your abilities.
There's just something beautiful and elegant about that process. And I just really, really loved it. She was so good and so enthusiastic that opportunities kept presenting themselves one day a teacher at Juilliard arranged for her to play for a famous violinist, a very famous violinist.
I nearly fell over in my seat because no, no reasonable musician thinks they're going to get the opportunity to meet Itzhak Perlman, let alone play for Itzhak Perlman. Do you remember what you played? I played the Barber Violin Concerto, played the first movement. Perlman decided to take her on as a student in addition to Saturday, as I was also going to New York multiple times during the week, either for studio classes at his home in Manhattan or for private lessons or chamber music lessons.
And at that point, it was very clear to me that I wanted to become a concert violinist.
Well, I remember that she sounded she she had a very lovely way of making music. And that's for me, really the most important thing to concert violinist Itzhak Perlman.
It was OK that Maya had learned to play music by ear rather than by reading music. The technical stuff was important, but it could be learned.
You know, it's more important for me to to have somebody musical. And let's say that technique wise, as you know, you have to work on the technique. But the important thing is the music. And I felt that she had a very lovely way of phrasing and so on and so forth. And so we worked on that. But then we also worked on, you know, how do you accomplish technically certain things? For example, the Barber Concerto, the last movement is a little bit tricky.
So how do you practice that?
But Perlman didn't just teach Maya how to play the violin.
He taught her something much more important, how to teach herself to play the violin. I remember lots of lessons where instead of telling me Mirek clearly are unsatisfied with that phrase, here's what you should do to make it better. He would instead say, Maya clearly aren't satisfied with that phrase. What do you think you should do in order to make that phrase better? Let's talk about it. Let me hear what your aspirations are for the arc of this musical phrase.
What tools do you have at your disposal, either with your bow arm or your vibrato or your tone in order to make it beautiful? And it's really frustrating.
I mean, in the moment you're thinking, OK, man, like you're the expert here, you know, just tell me what to do. Please just tell me what to do and make this easier for both of us.
So the more you learn to think for yourself and to try and solve problems on your own, the better it is for you, for the future.
It was all going so well when Maya was 15.
She was practicing at a program run by Itzhak Perlman, and I was playing a passage from a very challenging Paganini Caprice, and I simply overstretched my finger on one note and I felt like kind of a popping.
And so I overstretched the tendon and it didn't really heal as expected.
And so how did you spend the next months? What did you do? Well, Mr. Perlman was such a gem because I had injured my left hand. He continued to teach me violin just with my bow arm. So for over a year I went to him and we just worked on perfecting my BAAM and I would just play open strings and every lesson and he would teach me about how to produce a beautiful sound.
You know, you always feel that, you know, it will resolve itself, so usually what happens if one hand doesn't particularly, you know, respond or anything like this? You work, on the other hand, just, you know, not to waste time just to see if you've got your left hand. It's there's a problem. Then you work on the right hand and vice versa.
You know, her attitude was, you know, I mean, obviously she wasn't I mean, I'm sure that she was feeling good about it, but it was never like, what's the use?
My husband didn't hear. Doctors finally told her she had to stop playing completely.
I was really devastated to lose something that I was completely in love with and so passionate about. And that had really constituted such a large part of my life and my identity. You know, I was first and foremost a violinist. And so I was anxious because I was worried that I would never find something that I felt as passionately about as I did with music.
Just like that, Maya's dream to become a concert violinist was over. Back home for the summer in Connecticut, she started to ask yourself how she could pick up the pieces, would she ever find anything that could make her as happy as the violin? To find out what Maya did. Stay with us. This message comes from NPR sponsor Western Governors University, G.U. offers online bachelor's and master's degrees in business, I.T. education and nursing. Their innovative competency based learning model was designed specifically to fit the lives of busy adults with WTU.
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This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. This week we are looking at loss and renewal. We're zeroing in on the unexpected moments in life that shift our trajectories.
Before the break, a young violinist named Maya Shankar learned that she could no longer play her instrument because of an injury in her left hand.
Up until this point, her whole life had revolved around music, not knowing what else to do. Maya retreated to her parents home in Connecticut. Her life felt in disarray.
The summer before, doctors basically told me I had to stop playing completely and just by luck, I was helping my parents clean their basement in Cheshire, Connecticut, and I stumbled upon an old course book of my sisters. It was called The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker.
Maya started reading, and the more she read, the more excited she became.
It was remarkable for me to learn about just how complex our minds were and just what was required in order for us to have our day to day experiences. And so it really whet my appetite for learning more about the mind and for exploring in more depth kind of the brilliance of the brain.
She started to study cognitive science. She went on to get her Ph.D. at Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship. She got a postdoctoral fellowship, a promising career in academia lay ahead of her.
But here again came another unexpected turn.
So over Thanksgiving break of the final year of my postdoc, I was at home and I was visiting my undergraduate advisor from college named Laurie Santos. And she was telling me about the U.S. Department of Agriculture's efforts to get free and reduced price lunches for school lunches into the hands of more eligible students.
Students were going hungry because the process of getting certified for the lunch program was cumbersome. The Department of Agriculture came up with a simple idea. Instead of having a multistep sign up system, states could use information they already had about poor families to help enroll children in the lunch program.
And it's just a matter of data matching and cross enrolling these students. But as a result of this common sense reform, you know, twelve point four million students as of 2015 were automatically enrolled into the school lunch program and had access to lunches and were able to thrive at school.
And I remember being so moved by this example to Maya, it was magical.
It was just like a light bulb went off in my head and I thought, OK, this is what I need to be doing with my life.
I want to be taking research, insights from the behavioral sciences and allowing them to find their way into public policy so that they can be in the service of Americans and people around the world.
So how do you break into the world of policy when you're just a lowly postdoc? Maya knew nothing of politics.
She didn't have connections in the world of government, but she did remember a lesson her mother had taught her standing outside the Juilliard School years earlier, she tracked down an email address for Thomas Carlyle, who was helping the Obama administration with its science policy.
I sent Tom again a cold email.
This is the Juilliard method. This is my mom's Juilliard. I got to give her full credit for this. She is totally fearless and kind of inspired this trait. And I went over to his home and he asked me to pitch to him ideas that I had around interventions where behavioral science could improve public policy outcomes. What did you tell him? I talked to him at a number of things, like the importance of using social norms to motivate behavior. So we know from research that if you tell people that their neighbors use less energy than they do, right, they're more likely to use less energy.
And there's a lot of domains in which just telling people what the data show is about people's actions and decisions can actually drive, drive actions that are more in alignment with people's long term goals or with policy objectives.
And something that struck me about that conversation is I had been talking for years with my academic colleagues about the potential applications of using behavioral insights to improve people's lives. And this is the first time that when I told him an idea that I had, his response was, oh, well, we can find a way to do that.
Maya joined the White House. She was asked to put together a team that could marshal ideas from social science research and apply them to public policy challenges.
So we had been working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and also local school districts to redesign communications that they're sending to families to help promote the verification process so that their kids can stay on the benefit. So we've done a few things. So there's a few behavioral insights that we've used.
One is we've taken a very long list of action steps required for verification and condense them into three easy to understand steps that you can take to. We've worked with school districts to translate the communications into multiple languages in order to support comprehension among the diverse population that this program serves. One issue is that at present, families might only think the way to recertify or to verify their information is to send snail mail back to their home, to the school district. And instead there's the opportunity for them to take a picture of their information using their mobile phones and actually email it back.
And we simply notified people of the opportunity to go through that process. And then in other instances, we included prepaid envelopes to help ease the process of verifying eligibility.
So I'm trying to think about why it is we often have trouble sort of thinking about programs like this, because as someone who has been interested in human behavior for a while, it seems to me that programs like these really are, you know, no pun intended, a no brainer, that this is really something that we should be doing. It seems obvious that we should be doing it.
But but I think part of the issue is that I think many people might say if you want to stay in a program that's giving you benefits and these are the steps you need to do in order to get the benefits and you deserve those benefits, rationally speaking, you should be willing to do those steps in order to get the benefits.
And I think it fails to take into account the difference between how human beings are supposed to behave as rational creatures and how they actually behave.
And I feel like that's the central divide that your work is trying to bridge.
And I think additionally, you know, the onus is on the government to present information clearly, to present choices clearly so that people understand what program exists and what their options are and can make the best decisions for themselves and their families. But there's one example that I wanted to point to, which is a phenomenon known as summer melt.
This is the phenomenon where talented high school students who are on track to go to college at the start of the summer somehow lose their way and don't show up at college in the fall. Maya and her team have worked on simple, low cost interventions that can help these students get to college. Their idea send the students eight text messages over the summer reminding them of impending deadlines.
What we found was a nine percent increase in college enrollment rates as a result of eight text messages. I mean, that is really profound.
Eight text messages is what I send my best friend on any given day. It seems to me that what you did and what happened to you is actually happens to lots of people all the time where doors close and they feel like it's unbearable that this door has closed because this is where I thought I lived.
And then another door opens and you realize there are actually many, many houses in which we can live.
I think that's exactly right. And I think, you know, one thing, that violin, one of the great blessings of playing the violin is that it allowed me to see what it really felt like to be in love with something and to be really passionate about something.
And so if anything, you you see sort of features are traits that are extracted in you from engaging with that pursuit.
And then your hope is that in the new explorations, those disciplines or those areas can extract those same qualities from you.
I'm wondering, as you think about your own life, do you feel that your career now has been said this is the house you're going to live in forever? Do you actually believe, on the other hand, that there might be many other houses you will one day come to live in?
Well, certainly never been happier than I am right now, working in public service and using my background to help improve people's lives. So I think that that will continue to be a common theme of whatever it is that I end up doing and working in.
That said, I think there are so many ways in which that passion can manifest. Right.
And I think that one thing the past has taught me is that there, you know, the world has endless opportunities to positively impact people's lives.
And, you know, along the way, I might explore various different paths in order to get there. But as long as I as long as I stick to that core value of trying to help people and improve people's lives, I think that there are many ways to do that.
And of course, you have the cold call Julliard method to. Yeah. So I think that yeah. Again, thanks to thanks to my mom, I think that there is always that foolproof method of the standard coldcocked. That was Maya Shankar. She served as senior adviser for the social and behavioral sciences at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under President Obama.
Since then, Maya has left the White House and become Google's first head of behavioral insights. Now, not all of us are going to be a concert violinist or Rhodes scholars or presidential advisers. But I don't think any of those things are the real point of my story. The reason I wanted to tell you the story is because all of us have chapters in our lives that close, and when they do, especially if it's a chapter we have known and loved for a long time, it can feel like the whole book is over.
But there's nothing left to do, maybe even nothing left to live for. But I think each of us has stories in our lives that reflect the fact that the people we are today are not the same people we were a few years ago. We often underestimate our capacity to reinvent ourselves. I was talking some years ago with Rick Potts at the Smithsonian Institution's Human Origins Program. He's a paleoanthropologist and something he said stuck in my head. He told me that the thing that distinguished early humans from other species was our remarkable capacity to adapt to different conditions.
Uniquely, humans live in very cold places and very hot places at altitude and sea level. Some of us live long periods underwater or even in outer space. Most of that isn't about our physical abilities.
It's really about the mind. There's a lot of truth in that old saying. When one door closes, another opens.
I want to leave you with a lovely poem by Elizabeth Bishop. Singer Aimee Mann happened to be at NPR and we asked her to read the poem for us. One Art by Elizabeth Bishop. The art of losing isn't hard to master, so many things seem filled with the intent to be lost, that their loss is no disaster, lose something every day except the fluster of lost door keys. The hour badly spent. The art of losing isn't hard to master.
Then practice losing father, losing faster places and names and where it was you meant to travel. None of these will bring disaster. I lost my mother's watch. And look, my last or next to last of three loved houses went the art of losing isn't hard to master. I lost two cities, lovely ones and vaster some realms, I owned two rivers, a continent, I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster even losing you. The joking voice, a gesture I love.
I shouldn't have lied. It's evident the art of losing is not too hard to master, though it may look like right.
It like disaster. That was Aimee Mann reading One Art by Elizabeth Bishop, Amy was at NPR with Ted Leo to perform for the All Songs Considered podcast. This episode was produced by Maggie Penman and Cara McGirk, Alison Atim includes Jenny Schmitt, Patricia Raina Coen, Laura Corale, Tara Boyle, Thomas Lou and Kate Shogunate. Our unsung hero this week is someone who helped me reinvent my own life. Paul Ginsberg is a longtime NPR supporter in December 2013. He came to me and told me I should be doing more than just weekly stories for radio.
What about a podcast? He asked. Paul did more than just simply toss out an idea, he had to make it a reality. He raised funds to help launch head and brain, and he's been a trusted friend and adviser ever since. More than time and money, Paul gave me what might be the most valuable gift one person can give another. He helped me see something in myself that I had not seen on my own. Thanks, Paul.
For more hidden brain, you can find us on Facebook and Twitter, if you like this episode. Be sure to check out the rest of our You 2.0 series all this month on the podcast and radio show. I'm Shankar Vedantam and this is NPR. Here at Life, Kid, we know that getting your financial house in order can feel painful. Now there's this whole coronavirus pandemic to deal with. Our Personal Finance TuneUp series will help you feel more confident and get you on the right track.
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