Loss and Renewal | Hidden Brain Maya Shankar was well on her way to an extraordinary career as a violinist when an injury closed that door. This week, we revisit our December 2015 conversation with Maya, in which she shares how she found a new path forward after losing an identity she loved.
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Loss and Renewal: Moving Forward After A Door Closes

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Loss and Renewal: Moving Forward After A Door Closes

Loss and Renewal: Moving Forward After A Door Closes

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SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:

This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. The turn of the year is a time when we set the old aside and welcome the new into our lives. And so today, we bring you a tale of loss and renewal from December 2015. It appeals to me for two reasons. The first is it's a universal story.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MAYA SHANKAR: 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.

VEDANTAM: The second reason is that this is also about social science research and its applications in the real world.

SHANKAR: What we found was a 9 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Today, we're telling you a story that begins in the attic of a home in Connecticut and ends at the White House. And on our theme of loss and reinvention, we'll bring you a poem I came across from Elizabeth Bishop read by musician Aimee Mann.

AIMEE MANN: (Reading) Then practice losing farther, losing faster, places and names and where it was you meant to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

SHANKAR: My grandmother was an Indian classical violinist. And so my mom had her old violin in our attic for many years.

VEDANTAM: This is Maya Shankar - no relation.

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.

VEDANTAM: 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.

SHANKAR: I had a special schedule at school to lump all my classes together so that I'd come home a little bit early and get a little bit more practice in. And especially with all the traveling, most days were devoted exclusively to music.

VEDANTAM: 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.

SHANKAR: 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.

VEDANTAM: 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...

SHANKAR: Why don't we just go to Juilliard? I mean, why not, right? What can we lose?

VEDANTAM: Just walk in the door?

SHANKAR: We just 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 10 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.

VEDANTAM: Well, of course, you know what happened next. Maya played for the other student's music teacher, wowed 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRISTOPHER O'RILEY, BYLINE: Joining us now is the Juilliard pre-college violin quartet. They are 17-year-old Emilie Gendron from Glastonbury, Conn., 15-year-old Maya Shankar from Cheshire, Conn. - Maya, by the way, is a From The Top veteran. She's been with us since the early '50s.

(LAUGHTER)

VEDANTAM: That was Maya on NPR's From The Top. She had found her classical music home. She was talented, hardworking, and the path before her seemed clear.

SHANKAR: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: She was so good and so enthusiastic that opportunities kept presenting themselves. One day, her teacher at Juilliard arranged for her to play for a famous violinist - a very famous violinist.

SHANKAR: I nearly fell over in my seat because no reasonable musician thinks they're going to get the opportunity to meet Itzhak Perlman, let alone, play for Itzhak Perlman.

VEDANTAM: Do you remember what you played?

SHANKAR: I played the Barber "Violin Concerto." I played the first movement.

(SOUNDBITE OF BARBER'S "VIOLIN CONCERTO, OP. 14")

VEDANTAM: Perlman decided to take her on as a student.

SHANKAR: In addition to Saturdays, 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.

ITZHAK PERLMAN: Well, I remembered that she sounded - she had a very lovely way of making music. And that, for me, usually is the most important thing.

VEDANTAM: 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.

PERLMAN: You know, it's more important for me to have somebody musical. And let's say that technique-wise - 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?

VEDANTAM: 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.

SHANKAR: I remember at lots of lessons where instead of telling me, Maya, OK, clearly, you're unsatisfied with that phrase, here's what you should do to make it better, he would instead say, Maya, clearly, you're unsatisfied 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 (laughter), you know?

VEDANTAM: Just tell me what to do.

SHANKAR: Can please just tell me what to do, and make this easier for both of us?

PERLMAN: 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.

VEDANTAM: It was all going so well. When Maya was 15, she was practicing at a program run by Itzhak Perlman.

SHANKAR: And I was playing a passage from a very challenging Paganini caprice. And I simply overstretched my finger on one note. And I felt a - kind of a popping. And so I overstretched the tendon. And it didn't really heal as expected.

VEDANTAM: And so how did you spend the next months? What did you do?

SHANKAR: Well, Mr. Perlman was such a gem. Because I'd 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 bow arm. And I would just play open strings in every lesson. And he would teach me about how to produce a beautiful sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PERLMAN: 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 do - so if you've got your left hand and there's a problem, then you work on the right hand and vice versa.

She was good. 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?

VEDANTAM: Maya's hand didn't heal. Doctors finally told her she had to stop playing completely.

SHANKAR: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Just like that, Maya's dream to become a concert violinist was over. Back home for the summer in Connecticut, she started to ask herself how she could pick up the pieces. Would she ever find anything that could make her as happy as the violin?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

O'RILEY: Our next guest appeared as a violinist on a pilot episode when she was just 12 years old. She's now 23. And during those intervening years - well, brace yourself because what she's accomplished is a little humbling to us mere mortals. Please welcome Maya Shankar.

(APPLAUSE)

VEDANTAM: To find out what Maya did, stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. On our last podcast of the year, we're exploring the idea of closing the book on one chapter of your life and opening another. We're doing it through the story of Maya Shankar. After learning she could no longer play the violin due to an injury to her left hand, Maya retreated to her parents' home in Connecticut. Her life felt in disarray.

SHANKAR: 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, Conn. And I stumbled upon an old course book of my sister's. It was called "The Language Instinct" by Steven Pinker.

VEDANTAM: Maya started reading. And the more she read, the more excited she became.

SHANKAR: 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.

VEDANTAM: 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.

SHANKAR: So over Thanksgiving break of the final year of my postdoc, I was at home. And I was visiting my undergraduate adviser from college. Her name's Laurie Santos. And she was telling me about the U.S. Department of Agriculture's efforts to get free and reduced-price lunches - school lunches - into the hands of more eligible students.

VEDANTAM: 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.

SHANKAR: 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, 12.4 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.

VEDANTAM: To Maya, it was magical.

SHANKAR: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: 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 Kalil, who was helping the Obama administration with its science policy.

SHANKAR: I sent Tom, again, a cold email (laughter).

VEDANTAM: This is the Juilliard method, again.

SHANKAR: This is the - this is my mom's Juilliard - I need to give her full credit for this.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

SHANKAR: 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.

VEDANTAM: What did you tell him?

SHANKAR: I talked to him about 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 shows about people's actions and decisions can actually 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 was the first time that, when I told him an idea that I had, his response was, oh, we can find a way to do that.

VEDANTAM: 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.

You had a chance in your current role to actually work on this project that started you on this mission, the school lunch program. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

SHANKAR: So we have 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 that benefit. So we've done a few things. So there's a few behavioral insights that we used. One is we've taken a very long list of, you know, action steps required for verification and condensed them into three easy-to-understand steps that you can take. Two, 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 - 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.

VEDANTAM: 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 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.

SHANKAR: 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.

VEDANTAM: 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.

SHANKAR: What we found was a 9 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: 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.

SHANKAR: 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 see sort of features or 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.

VEDANTAM: I'm wondering, as you think about your own life, do you feel that your career now has been set? This is the house you're going to live in forever. Or do you actually believe, on the other hand, that there might be many other houses you will one day come to live in?

SHANKAR: Well, I've 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 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 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.

VEDANTAM: And, of course, you have the cold call Juilliard method to aid you.

SHANKAR: (Laughter) Yeah. So I think that - yeah, again, thanks to my mom, I think that there is always that foolproof method of the standard cold call.

VEDANTAM: 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.

I told you at the start of this episode that Maya's story is a universal story. Now, not all of us are going to be concert violinists or Rhodes scholars or presidential advisers, but I don't think any of those things are the real point of Maya's story.

The reason I wanted to tell you the story, at the turn of the new year, 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, that 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: I was talking some years ago with Rick Potts. He's a paleoanthropologist and the head of the Smithsonian Institution's Human Origins Program. 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, different situations. 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. And each year, around this time, we need to remind ourselves that as one door closes, we have the ability to find other doors to open. 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.

MANN: "One Art" by Elizabeth Bishop - (reading) 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 farther, 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 shan't have lied. It's evident the art of losing's not too hard to master, though it may look like - write it - like disaster.

VEDANTAM: That was Aimee Mann reading "One Art" by Elizabeth Bishop. Aimee was at NPR with Ted Leo to perform for the All Songs Considered podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: This episode was produced by Maggie Penman and Kara McGuirk-Allison. Our team includes Jenny Schmidt, Parth Shah, Rhaina Cohen, Laura Kwerel, Tara Boyle, Thomas Lu and Camila Vargas Restrepo.

Our unsung hero this week is someone who helped me reinvent my own life. Paul Ginsberg (ph) is a longtime NPR supporter and donor. In December 2013, Paul 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 helped to make it a reality.

He raised funds to launch HIDDEN 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.

From everyone at HIDDEN BRAIN, we wish you new paths, new dreams and much reinvention this coming year. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

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