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On this episode of Dare to Lead

I am talking with Dr. Maya Shankar, a cognitive scientist who served as chair of the Social and Behavioral Science Team during the Obama administration and served as the first behavioral science adviser to the United Nations. We talk about what happens when change knocks us off our charted path. How do we get back up? How do we figure out who we are without that path? And how do we start building a new way to walk through the world? We connect on all of these questions and more in this meaningful conversation about the science behind change, how change affects our identities, and what it means for the way we live, love, and lead.

About the guest

Dr. Maya Shankar

Maya Shankar, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist who served as a senior adviser in the Obama White House, where she founded and served as chair of the White House Social and Behavioral Science Team. She also served as the first behavioral science adviser to the United Nations, under Ban Ki-moon, and as a core member of Pete Buttigieg’s debate preparation team during his presidential run. Maya completed a postdoctoral fellowship in cognitive neuroscience at Stanford, got her Ph.D. from Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, and received a B.A. from Yale. She has been profiled by the New Yorker and been the featured guest on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” “Freakonomics,” and “Hidden Brain.” She is the host of the podcast A Slight Change of Plans, inspired by a major change in her own career path when, at the age of 15, she suffered an injury to her hand that ended her concert violin career—one she had fostered under such greats as Itzhak Perlman, and at the Juilliard School. Now on her podcast, she interviews famous and fascinating guests about the major changes they have seen in their lives, through the lens that only a behavioral scientist with her background could apply.

Show notes

A Slight Change of Plans with Maya Shankar podcast

A Slight Change of Plans podcast with Dr. Maya Shankar

“I’m all about a good hook.”


Brené Brown: Hi, everyone. I’m Brené Brown, and this is Dare to Lead. I have a really beautiful, powerful conversation for you on this episode. I am talking to Dr. Maya Shankar, a cognitive scientist, and we are talking about everything from the science of change, what it means to lead, we’re talking about love, and what we’re really digging into is what happens when we are so sure-footed on our path. We’re so sure-footed in fact that we’ve built identities around what we’re accomplishing and what we’re doing, and all of a sudden life happens and we’re not just knocked down on the path, we’re knocked completely off the path. How do we get back up? How do we figure out who we are without that path, and how do we start building a new way to walk through the world? It is just truly a meaningful conversation. I’m so glad you’re here to be a part of it.

BB: Before we jump in, I want to tell you a little bit about Maya. Dr. Maya Shankar is a cognitive scientist who is the creator, executive producer and host of the Pushkin podcast show, A Slight Change of Plans. Beautiful conversations. Maya was a Senior Advisor in the Obama White House where she founded and served as chair of the White House Behavioral Science Team.

BB: Just the story of how she landed there is basically the lesson from our conversation in a nutshell. She also served as the first behavioral science advisor to the United Nations. Maya has a post-doctoral fellowship in cognitive neuroscience from Stanford, a Ph.D. from Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, and a B.A. from Yale. This woman’s gone to school, y’all. She is a graduate of the Juilliard School of Music’s pre-college program where she was a private violin student of Itzhak Perlman’s and performed alongside of him at Carnegie Hall, which is another story that’ll just… This is a podcast about mastery, love, and courage. Let’s jump in.

BB: I have to say, Maya, that you have been on our podcast list since we imagined the podcast, so welcome to Dare to Lead.

Dr. Maya Shankar: Oh my gosh. That’s such an honor to hear. And I’m a huge fan, so thanks for saying that.

BB: We are very grateful that you’re here, and we always start our podcasts with the same question, will you tell us your story?

MS: So I would start my story at the age of six, when my mom went up to our attic and brought down my grandmother’s violin that she had brought with her all the way from India when she immigrated to this country in the 1970s. My grandmother had played Eastern classical music in the very traditional Southern Indian style, and my mom just opened the violin case, just eager to show her young daughter the instrument. She had shown my older three siblings the instrument, and they were like, “This isn’t cool.” But I thought it was very cool, and I was enraptured by the instrument so quickly, and it was stunning for my mom because I so quickly asked for a pint-sized violin of my own, it was a quarter-size instrument, and she never had to tell me to practice. Even as a six-year-old, and I assure you, Brené, there are many things I did not want to do as a six-year-old, but violin just felt like it was such a core part of me, like it spoke to me in an important way, and it’s overwhelming to think about how emotionally close I felt with something so quickly, you know.

BB: That’s incredible. Was it ancestral? Was it… You just saw it and thought, “Yeah, this is me.”

MS: Yeah, I loved the way that it sounded, I loved the way that it felt, and I loved the process of getting better at something. It was just so motivating for me to feel like there was an input-output model of sorts, which we don’t always get handed in life, right. But I always felt like, “Oh, by and large, the more I practice, the better I get.” And when I was nine years old, I had big dreams really early on, Brené, and my parents did not know how to translate their daughter’s dreams because my dad is a theoretical physics professor, and my mom helps immigrants get green cards to study in this country, and so they had no ins in the Western classical music space. I was always telling my mom, “Oh, I want to go to Juilliard. Juilliard’s the pinnacle for me.” And she’s like, “Well, I don’t quite know how to make this happen.” So one day, my mom and I were just on a trip to New York and I happened to have my violin with me and we were walking by the Juilliard School’s building, and my mom said, “Why don’t we just go in?” And I was like, “What do you mean just go in?”

MS: She’s like, “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” And I’m thinking, “I’ll tell you the worst thing, security guards escorting us out of the building. That’s the one thing that can happen.” And she’s like, “Okay, let’s just go in and see what happens.” So we walk in unannounced, my mom strikes up a conversation with a fellow musician and says, “Oh, do you mind if my daughter meets your teacher after your lesson?” And they very generously said, “Yes.” I continue to be in awe of how many times people are willing to just say yes if you ask, right?

BB: Oh my God, it’s incredible.

MS: And I auditioned for this teacher on the spot, he accepted me into a summer music program, basically a boot camp, and I ended up auditioning and getting accepted into Juilliard in the fall. And that was such a critical learning experience for me because it taught me life might not always hand opportunities to you on a silver plate, sometimes you have to make the damn plate. You just have to walk into the building or cold call or cold email or whatever it is, and that fearlessness is ultimately what got me to a point where I was even good enough to get into this school and it really changed my life forever. That began an extremely intense violin life for me. So starting when I was nine, every Saturday, I lived in Connecticut, so every Saturday, my mom and I would get up at 4:30 in the morning, take the train from Connecticut to New York and I would engage in 10 hours of classes. And again, this was the remarkable part, she’d wake me up at 4:30 and she says I would just jump out of bed. And she didn’t have to be like, “Maya, come on. Get ready, it’s time.” I just couldn’t wait, I felt like those are my people, musicians are my people. And then the greatest honor came when I was a teenager, when I was 13, and Itzhak Perlman, my violin idol, asked me to be his private violin student.

BB: Okay, let’s just pause for a minute here. Let’s just let that soak in for a second. How many people in the world do you think can say, “When Itzhak Perlman asked me to be his private violin student”?

MS: It does feel remarkable to say and I still pinch myself about it and I still question it, I actually… I asked Perlman’s wife recently, we were just hanging out having coffee and I said, “Toby, we both know I was not as technically gifted as my peers, why the hell did he take me on as a student?” And she said, “Because he felt you had something to say.”

BB: Wow.

MS: And that moved me so much because it is so true, I had so many insecurities about my technique. As I mentioned, my parents were not steeped in the classical music world, they were having me work with graduate students who had never taught someone before, I didn’t even know how to read sheet music when I got accepted into Juilliard, that was a big secret. I was just make-shifting my way into this world, and I loved that he felt like I had these emotions that he wanted to tap into through my music. I love that he did feel I had something to say because I felt like I had something to say, that was in large part why I loved the violin. Reflecting back and trying to figure out what is it that I loved about the violin, as a kid, if you’d asked me, I would have said, “I feel like I loved how it sounded and I loved the phrases I could produce,” but I think actually what I loved about the violin is that I could go on stage and within moments, I can make a room full of thousands of strangers feel something that they may never have felt before. We could forge this deep emotional connection and that was intoxicating. And so that’s really what made me tick, and so I felt like Perlman saw that, he saw the craving that I had within me to connect with other people and he saw that thirst and that desire, and I felt so heard hearing Toby tell me that, because I never really quite understood why it is that he gave me his vote of confidence.

BB: Yeah, it’s just so beautiful. I just want to sit in it for a second, it’s just… I don’t know what that unnameable thing is that makes you pop up at 4:30. It’s like love. It’s like you loved what you were doing and he had to have seen that, it’s just incredible. So you become his student.

MS: I do and I’m on the fast track, like I’m convincing my Indian-American parents that I’m not going into the liberal arts college that they’d hoped I’d go to and have a well-rounded education, but instead I’m going to go to a music conservatory. And so finally, everyone’s on board with this whole plan, my older three siblings had gone to normal colleges, my parents, I think, had always hoped that I would have that path, but Perlman taking me on, I think was that vote that everyone in the family needed to get behind this. So when I was 15, I was studying at Perlman’s Music Camp and it was… Oh gosh, these moments, you never forget. So I woke up, it was a July morning. It was very cold, it was on Shelter Island, and I woke up and went to my practice room, and I was playing a very challenging piece, it’s by Paganini, Paganini Caprice No. 13. For any musicians out there, you know Paganini’s stuff, and I just overstretched my finger on a single note and I heard a popping sound. And I knew in that moment that something was terribly wrong, but I was also 15, Brené, so I entered denial mode immediately. I was like, I can play through the pain, there’s no issues here, ignore it.

MS: And I kept resisting doctors telling me, “Sorry kid, you’re not going to be able to play the violin anymore.” And…

BB: Oh my God.

MS: Yeah, and my dreams just ended like that in a moment, and like I said, I resisted it, I played through pain and I kept performing in concerts, and suddenly, I had to confront the harsh truth that everybody else had accepted before I did, which is this huge dream that I had, that I’d poured everything into, like to this day, Brené, my right shoulder is slightly higher than my left because of all the years that I spent in the violin position. My spine is slightly curved, my body literally grew around the ergonomics of this instrument, it was an extension of my body, and now suddenly, it was no longer a part of my life. And I think the best way to describe it is like I was thrown into this existential spiral where I was asking myself all sorts of questions like, “Who am I? Who am I without this instrument?” And I think as kids, sometimes we can lay it, at least for me, maybe precocious kids aren’t like that, but we can live in this unreflective mode where we just go about our business and we do the things that we love and we don’t take the time to ask ourselves, “What defines us? What makes me Maya?” And suddenly I was forced to ask myself the question and it’s like I didn’t like what I found because every answer didn’t involve the violin.

BB: Were you just untethered? Was it an untethered feeling, was it like you had lost your mooring, like what… I mean, you’re young too, you’re in the height of adolescence…

MS: Yeah, I think I was despondent. I was impatient. I’m an extremely impatient person. I was listening to you and Angela Duckworth, she and I share this trait, deeply impatient and want things…

BB: As do I, yeah.

MS: Yeah, and you too. I want things to have happened yesterday, so I felt this huge urgency to find the next thing. And of course, you’ve already picked up on the depth of my love for the instrument, it’s hard to even put into words, you’re not going to find that right away, and it was this like push and pull in my mind of acceptance, acceptance of the loss and then also trying to figure out, I need to move on, I need to find something else, but not wanting to and that’s what created this tension in my mind.

BB: So then what happens? Do you stay at Juilliard?

MS: Oh yeah, this is a little known story, but Itzhak Perlman actually continued to teach me and I would play open strings in my lessons. That’s how dedicated a teacher he is. I could not use my left hand, so I just rested on the instrument and we would just focus on making a beautiful sound for lesson upon lesson. It’s remarkable, right? And then finally, he also had to accept that my violin dreams were over. We both did, it was a joint process of acceptance and I stopped playing entirely. And then there was another turning point, I was helping my parents clean out their basement the summer before college, as a dutiful daughter does, Brené. But in the counterfactual world, I was supposed to be in China touring with my musical classmates, so equally cool summer situation going on here.

MS: And I’m just exploring their bookshelf and I come across a book by Steven Pinker called The Language Instinct, and it detailed a remarkable ability to comprehend and produce language. And up until that point, I had completely taken my language abilities for granted. I never even really thought about them, and what Pinker did is he pulled the curtain back for me and he revealed the complex cognitive machinery that’s at work behind the scenes fueling this mental ability. And I felt in awe, awe is the best word to use to describe that, I thought to myself, “Oh my gosh, if this is what’s behind language, what is behind the ability to do complex mathematics?” And I can’t do complex math, but my dad can, right?

BB: Right.

MS: Or falling in love or high level decision-making or pondering about philosophical questions, like, what’s behind all that? And I just became insatiable. I wanted to read every book there was on the mind and I ended up studying cognitive science in undergrad, and I was really lucky because my undergrad institution had a cognitive science program. It’s more common now, but back in the day it was a relatively new program and it’s an interdisciplinary program that blends psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, Computer Science, anthropology, basic biology, like you’re studying the mind from multiple different angles to try to arrive at some conclusion. And that’s where I studied non-human primates and non-verbal abilities and language and visual perception. Again, I just had the time of my life. I was… we were doing research in all of these labs and I ultimately got my Ph.D. in cognitive science and ended up getting a postdoc in Cognitive Neuroscience, so it was very much on the academic path at that point.

BB: I love the thread of passion and purpose. I bet if you had to go study cognitive science at 4:30 in the morning on a Saturday, you would have popped right back up too, just like going into the city.

MS: Maybe 4:45. I’ve gotten older…

BB: 4:45, yeah. Yeah.

MS: Yeah, I’ve gotten older by this point, okay?


BB: So then tell us what happens, you finish your postdoc and you’re on… Your trajectory is probably an academic position…

MS: Absolutely. Yeah, I’m gunning to be a professor, right? That’s what you do when you’ve just spent 10 years studying something, and I think it’s so common sometimes I felt like finally, “I’ve got it all figured out.” Well, that’s an elusive feeling that we all aspire for and it’s a fiction. I’m like, “Okay, finally got it all figured out. My dad’s a professor, I’ve always wanted to be a professor, I admire professors.” And then there’s this, again, turning point where I’m sitting in the basement of an fMRI laboratory, so I’m doing brain scans. It’s at Stanford, that’s where I was doing my postdoc, and I’ve been scanning people’s brains all morning in this windowless laboratory, and this guy comes in and within moments, I’m looking at his amygdala. And I don’t know…

BB: So personal, so quickly.


MS: Yes, it’s like…

BB: I mean, are you happy to see me or is that your amygdala? It’s kind of funny but…

MS: It felt…

BB: It’s probably funny for you and me, like party of two, we’re laughing, the nerds are laughing, but it is kind of like you…

MS: Oh, absolutely. I mean, your point, that was exactly the challenge for me, which is it felt like the order of operations was off given my personality, because I wanted to know what does this person love to do? Do they have a family? Do they have kids? What’s their favorite ice cream flavor? What’s their favorite book that they’ve read? Those were the questions that I was so excited… How do they make decisions? And instead, it felt like a de-personalized version of the process. Now, kudos to neuroscientists everywhere, we need them out there, but I just knew in that moment, this is not a good match for me, this is not a good match for my personality. I want to be working on teams, I need to be in a windowed office, not in a dark Stanford laboratory office. And so there were just things like that where I just realized, this is not quite right, but I felt so much inertia because again, I poured… It was similar in some sense to the violin, I mean, this was on my own volition, maybe that was departing, but you still feel that same pull like, “Oh my gosh, I’ve just spent so many years doing this thing and now I’m not sure that I want to do it anymore.”

BB: God, you’re… It’s like sunk cost hell.

MS: Absolutely. Oh, my gosh. And I was studying the sunk cost fallacy at the time, but man, I fell prey to it, Brené. None of us are immune. None of us are immune.

BB: Yeah, it’s really something. You would explain it real quick for everyone that’s listening that doesn’t know it.

MS: Yeah, we tend to overvalue the investments we’ve made in stuff and we cling on to that stuff far beyond when it’s rational too, and it’s deeply painful to incur losses for the things that we’ve poured so much time and energy into but when actually we should just cut our losses and move forward. Right?

BB: Totally, yeah.

MS: And so I had this moment, I think this was around… Yeah, 2012. So behavioral science was just kind of like a burgeoning field at that time, and I didn’t know what my options were. I thought, well, what does a cognitive neuroscience post-doc do? They either become a professor or they become a general management consultant, like those were the only two options that I knew about.

BB: Yeah, that sounds right.

MS: Yeah. So I called at my undergrad advisor, Laurie Santos, who’s known me since I was 17, and I said, “Laurie, you know that thing I’ve been doing for a long time? I don’t want to do that anymore. I’m thinking of trying to apply for a general management position, consulting position.” And she’s like, “Okay, Maya, before you do that,” I can see her clinging on to the student that she’s coached for so long, being like, “I don’t want to lose you in the field.” She tells me about this remarkable work that’s happening in the federal government at the time, so this was in the Obama White House, where they were leveraging insights from the field of behavioral economics, from the stuff that I was studying in real time, to help feed hungry children.

MS: So long story short, the government offers what’s called the National School Lunch Program, and despite the fact that millions of kids are eligible for the program, millions of kids were still going hungry at school everyday because their parents hadn’t filled out the application form for the program, and a behavioral audit of the program revealed that the reason for this is the application process was extremely burdensome, it required referencing multiple tax documents, it required going to the post office at a certain moment in time, and oh, if you fill out something wrong there’s a potential penalty that you might incur. And put yourself in the shoes of a single mom who’s working three shifts to make ends meet, who’s trying to make sure that her children thrive at school and we’re putting these demands on her just to make sure that they get access to lunch. That’s unreasonable, right?

BB: Yeah, agree.

MS: And then another barrier was that there was a stigma associated with signing up your kids for a public benefits program. And later on when I was at the White House, I talked to principals and parents who said, “Look, I work really hard for a living, I don’t want my kids depending on the government.” So what they did in turn was they leveraged the power of the default option, and basically what that means is they turn the program from an opt-in program to an opt-out program. So now all eligible kids were automatically enrolled in the school lunch program, and parents had to only take a step if they actively wanted to unenroll their children, and as a result of this very elegant change in the behavioral design of the program, twelve and a half million more kids were now eating lunch at school everyday and I was blown away.

BB: It’s amazing.

MS: The emotional resonance of this example, just, oh, my gosh, it lit me up and I thought to myself, “This is what I want to be doing with my life. I actually want to be a practitioner of behavioral science.” I didn’t even know that was a thing, but if I can make that into a thing, that would be awesome. And so…

BB: I have to stop you here because I’m looking at my sister who’s sitting across and it’s like every time I want to do something, I’m always like, “Hey, can you Google if this is a thing or not? Am I allowed to be doing this? Like, I want to be a social worker with a Ph.D., but I really want to do this kind of… Is that a thing? Is anyone else… Where’s the blueprint for this? ” And sometimes there’s not a blueprint, right?

MS: Yeah, there had been this seminal book written by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler called Nudge and some work that was happening overseas, but the federal government was not hiring for a behavioral scientist, and so I so desperately wanted this role but the role didn’t exist. And so what do I do? I recruit my mom’s Juilliard method, the cold walk-in method.

BB: I was going to guess that you pulled your mom’s Juilliard.

MS: I pulled the mom Juilliard method. So what I did is I ended up sending Cass Sunstein, author of this book, Nudge, and a former Obama official, a cold email in which I basically said, “Hey, I’m Maya, I’m a postdoc who’s published nothing of significance and I have no public policy experience, but I’d love to work in government at the intersection of behavioral science and policy.” It was just like seeping with insecurities, Brené. I even wrote, “I know I’m not cool enough to work with the likes of Obama, but if there’s a state or a local government opportunity, please do let me know.” And thankfully for me, Cass ignored all the insecurity and he wrote back within minutes saying, “So great to hear from you Maya. I’m connecting you with President Obama’s Science Advisor. Let them know I passed you along.”

MS: And within days, two days later, I’m buying a business suit because I have an interview with White House officials where I’m pitching them on this idea of creating a new role for me, a role that is dedicated to the translation of behavioral science into improvements in public policy. And I remember I had the meeting, I had this interview and… Can I just share there was like a Michelle Obama moment?

BB: Yeah, let’s do it. Oh, come on now.

MS: That just totally blew me away. So I had been waxing poetic for some time about the potential virtues of applying behavioral science to policy, it had been mapped out by many researchers, we were all getting excited about the translation space. And I remember I was pitching the person who would become my future boss on some changes I would love to see in the messaging around Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Initiative. And his response was, “Oh, yeah, I know Michelle Obama and her team. We can make that happen.” And I was like, “What?”

BB: You’re like, “Oh, shit.”

MS: Oh, shit. Okay, I guess this is a real thing now, and it was in that moment that I was filled with that same excitement and adrenaline and joy that I felt when I was playing the violin, I was like, “Wow… ” It felt like a sky’s the limit situation. And so at the end of the interview, he said, “Maya, I love talking to you. I’d love to stay in touch.” And I’m like, “By stay in touch, do you mean like, ‘Don’t call me, I’ll call you. Like, we’re going to be besties, hang out on the weekends, we’re going to work together,’ do you mind just clarifying?” And so he says, “Well, there’s just a couple of things that need to happen. One, Obama needs to get re-elected in a few weeks,” this was in October of 2012. “Two, I need to run this up the chain and make sure that everyone’s on board. And three, we need to make sure there’s a desk for you.” And that’s also when my West Wing dreams were kind of shattered, I’d imagine the White House as this resource-rich environment and it turns out everyone’s really scrappy in there. We’re all just trying to make ends meet.

MS: And so I end up moving to DC with a very informal verbal offer. So before I even have a formal offer, I packed my bags, I’ve sold everything in California, except for my bike just in case, and I move across the country, I sign a one-year lease in DC, and I essentially just show up on the door steps of the White House and I’m like, “I’m here, let’s make this happen.” And sure enough, the job gets secured and I started at the beginning of Obama’s second term.

BB: So one of the things I want to do, because I want to know the rest of the story. We’re in it, but I know there’s more.

MS: Sorry, there’s a lot there.

BB: Yeah, no, it’s great. But I want to pause for a second and say something. I want to share a thought and then get your feedback on it. The walking into Juilliard uninvited, unannounced, the calling folks and saying, “Hey, I’d really love to do this.” I’ve had some real sliding door moments like that in my career, like moments that were not supposed to work but they did, but there was a shit ton of work. It’s not like you picked up a violin on Monday and on Friday, you thought you should be at Juilliard. How many hours do you think you had practiced from the time you first picked it up to the time your mom said, “Let’s just go in”?

MS: Thousands.

BB: Right. Right.

MS: Yeah. You raise an extremely important point that I think is sometimes easy to overlook, like these moments only work when you come immensely prepared. So the minute that I get this potential White House interview, I’m spending 48 hours in the most intense prep mode of my life, like every minute is accounted for in terms of prepping for this interview. Of course, now, I don’t want to make it seem like I did all the prep in two days. I had done years of work as an actual cognitive scientist so I obviously knew all the research stuff, but certainly with the violin, it wasn’t enough to just show up and have the audition, I had to do a good job in the audition, I had to show up having done the hard work.

BB: Yeah, there’s just a super powerful combination of competency and just ballsiness and love and passion that is just the swirl of it is so powerful. But it all has to be there, there has to be a passion and love for what we’re doing, there has to be the work, the competency, the mastery, and then there has to be some really courageous, “Anyone seeing what I’m doing right now would think I’m nuts to even ask” moments, but I think it’s very easy to become magnetized to an idea without understanding every variable that’s at play.

MS: Well said.

BB: Do you know what I mean?

MS: Absolutely.

BB: It’s complicated for people to, I think, sometimes… I’m thinking, I just interviewed James Clear for the Dare to Leadpodcast, which will air in December, and talking about habits and change, and we were talking about this thing of consistency over intensity, and I’m thinking about the consistency in your violin playing, the consistency in your academic preparedness, it’s there, right? It’s not just the intense moments of reaching out and trying something ballsy.

MS: Yeah, and in many ways, there’s this positive feedback loop, which is when you put in the hard work, it fuels you to make these courageous decisions because they actually feel less courageous, because you think you deserve it, you think that there could be a chance because you have put in the hard work.

BB: Yeah, that’s really interesting.

MS: And so I almost see them as really interconnected. People will say sometimes, “Why did you and your mom walk into that building?” Because I felt like I could have what it takes. I didn’t feel I had it, but I felt like I could because I had put in so much hard work and I had seen progress.

BB: It’s funny that you say that because one of the things that’s been really important for me is this idea of mastery over success, always learning, and one of the questions I ask when I’m getting ready to do something really… May feel outrageous in an area of mastery for me is, “If not me, who? Why not?” It’s not like I’m walking into Juilliard never having held a violin in my life, it’s just the relationship between the two things, between mastery and courage is really interesting, don’t you think?

MS: Absolutely. It actually reminds me, one of my favorite movies is Free Solo because… I don’t know if you’re familiar with this movie, but it’s…

BB: Oh, God, yes.

MS: Alex Honnold, just for the listeners who haven’t seen the movie, but Alex Honnold free solos El Capitan in Yosemite Park, and free soloing means literally no gear, no ropes, you’re on your own. And the reason that I loved the movie is that I think it taught so many viewers that they were laboring under a false understanding of what it is that Alex does. So a lot of people say, “Oh, my gosh, do you have a death wish? Why are you willing to put yourself in these insanely high-risk situations? Are you out of your mind?” But what the movie does is it teaches you that Alex saw his climbing essentially like a choreographed dance; every single move was mapped out in his head with incredible detail and precision and practice. He had redone all of these moves with ropes countless times such that by the time he decided to actually make the ascent, it no longer felt risky to him. Now granted there are exogenous variables that play a role when it comes to free soloing, you can’t solve for the rock falling from whatever.

BB: The wind gust, yeah.

MS: Yeah, of course. So yeah, I’m never going to be a free soloer. Also, I probably don’t have the athletic ability, but that’s another… That’s an aside. But that illustrates to me, I think, what you’re getting at and what I felt with Juilliard, which is you get to the point where you have such mastery, it no longer feels as risky to do the outrageous thing.

BB: What’s interesting too, there’s something balletic about it for me as well because sometimes true mastery is perceived as easy, and that’s because it looks easy because of the level of mastery. Does that make sense?

MS: Absolutely. Yeah, I was talking with Angela Duckworth about this where we were talking about grit and deliberative practice and all these things, and exactly those same themes were emerging from our conversation, which is in the same way that you see only the success stories and not the failures, when you see the mastery, it’s really hard to see all that went into it.

BB: So interesting. Alright, so tell us… As you can imagine, I’ve got a 5 gajillion questions. What have you learned about change and how we change, how we resist change, how we approach change? What have you learned about change that still shocks you?

MS: Yeah, that’s a great question. I’m having a new thought in this moment, which is, I think the reason why we can have so much discomfort in the face of change is because it threatens our sense of self-identity.

BB: Say that again.

MS: I think the reason why we can have so much anxiety or trepidation in the face of change is because it can threaten our sense of self, it can threaten our self-identity.

BB: So if change is threatening our sense of self or our identity, what’s it whispering? What is change telling us that feels threatening? What’s the messaging?

MS: Let me call upon my own experience to help unpack this a bit, which is, as you and I know from my story, I lose the violin, and I don’t know who I am, I don’t know what my value is in this world, I don’t know what I’m going to attach myself to next and what that taught me, the lesson that I learned from that experience is that it’s much more sustainable to attach my identity to the features of pursuits that light me up and make me tick, rather than a very specific activity or thing. And as I mentioned to you, what I learned is that the actual thing that made me light up about the violin wasn’t necessarily the violin itself, it was an instrument, there with the puns, but it was an instrument for forging emotional connections with other people. So I learned, “Ah, okay, that’s a trait of the violin that I loved, let me see if I can now find that trait in other things, because life will present barriers and obstacles and twists and turns that many of which are out of my control that deny me the ability to pursue certain things that I love, let me see if I can find it elsewhere.”

MS: And I was able to find it elsewhere. So I found that same desire for human connection in studying cognitive science, I literally study how it is that we relate to other human beings and we make decisions and move about in this world. I found that kind of same connection when I was working in the Obama White House, and I was on the ground in Flint, Michigan, working on the lead in water crisis and talking with residents of Flint about how decades of disenfranchisement and racism led to this problem in the first place and they needed help. And I feel that human connection today with my podcast, A Slight Change of Plans, which is all about connecting with other people who have gone through extraordinary changes in their lives, and I feel like I have license through this podcast to go into a room with Hillary Rodham Clinton or Tiffany Haddish or Tommy Caldwell or Kacey Musgraves or Riz Ahmed in to say, “Hey, so I know we just met, but what was the most challenging moment of your life? What’s your deepest darkest secret?” It’s another way of forging intimacy.

MS: And so for those people who are listening who are struggling because life has thrown them a change of plans and they feel this loss of control and they feel like they’ve lost the thing that they love, near and dear, just do an assessment, ask yourself, “Okay, I know I can’t have that thing, but what about that thing did I love?” And then mine the world for other places where you might find that.

BB: I’m really just taking it all in, I just… I just have to warn you that we call this the pause cast sometimes.

MS: [chuckle] I know, I love that.

BB: I feel no need to fill in just open air sometimes, because I think you’ve just said a lot of really important things that I think is worth sitting with and also worth unpacking a little bit. What you’re saying to me reminds me very much of some purpose work that I’ve done before, where every time I tried to figure out, like in these exercises, “What’s my purpose? What’s my purpose?” The question was always deeper, deeper, deeper, and then I got to this really core thing of using images and words to connect the seemingly unconnectable to help people live braver lives. And then it’s so weird because that, what you’re talking about, that thing that is just part of me can survive unwelcome change, because I can find that and express that through a myriad of things, and when I choose to do things that are only surface level connected to that bigger thing for me, that purpose for me, I freaking hate them, I end up hating them. I end up having no passion for them.

MS: Can you give an example?

BB: I can… I mean, weekly examples. I have a team of 30 people and we go through a lot of incoming requests to do things, and there are a lot of bright and shiny things, and we ask a simple question of everything I do, “Does it serve the work?” And for me, the work is using words and images to connect the seemingly unconnectable to help people better understand their lives and be braver. And if it’s… So, when we ask, “Does this serve the work?” and the answer is “No,” I normally don’t do it. Does it serve the ego… Maybe I’ll do something that doesn’t really serve the work, because it sounds fun, but I don’t think in the past five years I’ve done anything mistakenly thinking it would serve the work and it wouldn’t just because we’re so… To use your word about Free Solo, there’s so much precision in our vetting of those things. When I think about the violin and being on stage and connecting to people yourself, there’s something that just makes sense to me just intuitively about the violin and the Free Lunch Program, it’s about inextricable human connection, and music does that, and making sure that kids are eating does that.

BB: It says, “No one’s full until we’re all fed.” And what are the barriers to that? So let me throw something at you. Just kind of going. So like you, I go into organizations a lot, and we work with leadership teams and we work with teams to better understand what’s going on in culture, what’s getting in the way of innovation, what’s getting the way of productivity, and I want you to diagnose something from your lens that we have found in our research. The greatest shame trigger at work is the threat of being irrelevant. And in the midst of change, whether it’s a merger and acquisition, digital transformation, reductions, in the midst of change people get very scared, they double down, and irrelevance almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for them, because instead of leaning in and learning what’s new and how are we changing, they get territorial, shut down, “This is bullshit, this is not the way we’ve always done it.” What’s happening in that situation?

MS: Yeah, it’s so interesting you share this story because I think it really does trace back to identity and self-worth and how much people are defining their identity and self-worth in their particular jobs, which is very understandable. We have lots of research in labor economics showing what a morale boost just being in work gives you, I think that’s a beautiful thing. I will say that by and large, even though I’ve had guests on A Slight Change of Plans with so many diverse stories, the connective tissue between all of them is that they’ve been able to see their identities as far more malleable than they otherwise would have.

BB: Say more about that.

MS: So what I mean by that is they have allowed themselves to embody new ways of being, new ways of moving about in the world in the face of a big change, which has allowed them to navigate that change with less anxiety and less fear, or in this specific case of the work, like less fear of “irrelevance.” So the story that’s screaming out to me is around this notion of identity specifically… There’s this guy named Scott who I interviewed, he’s actually just a colleague of my husband. He is in his early 30s, he’s a cancer researcher, he’s built breast cancer detection tools and he’s a self-proclaimed health nut. So he’s spent the last decade of his life trying to optimize his life, so I’m talking, intermittent fasting, High Intensity Interval Training, Chia seeds, turmeric, the whole shebang, and last year, in 2020, he gets a Stage 4 bone cancer diagnosis.

BB: Jesus.

MS: That within weeks leads him to have to amputate his right leg, move to MD Anderson in Texas, receive 18 administrations of chemotherapy, and remove a vertebra from his spine and multiple other surgeries.

BB: Oh God.

MS: Now, Scott is telling me, “I have this identity as a fit person, as someone who is super healthy and can conquer the world and who’s got all of the potential in the world.” And he said, “And I’m sitting here now six months into my chemotherapy, having a cup of coffee, and I’m realizing that maybe these parts of my identity are more negotiable than I thought.” That’s the word that he used. Negotiable.

BB: He used the word, “negotiable”?

MS: Negotiable.

BB: Wow. Okay, say more.

MS: “That I’m still Scott at the end of the day, that the things that I find joy in, I can still find joy in. I still love that bite of food, I still love that sound of music. At the moment, I can’t walk, I can’t run a marathon, but I’m realizing that Scott… ” In many ways, he was telling me, Brené, that Scott was bigger, was more robust than maybe the Scott he had thought he was before. That Scott inhabits a much broader array of wonderful traits and characteristics and ability.

BB: He’s transcended a very small identity.

MS: He’s transcending, so I do want to pay homage to the fact that he’s in the middle of this process and it’s not complete, but he’s in the throes of it, and he’s realizing, for the first time ever, that he needs to start seeing his identity in this way. And another thing that really surprised him is, this guy’s worst nightmare came true. And he’s also sitting there having this cup of coffee telling me, “I feel like the psychological thermostat has prevailed. My psychological immune system has prevailed, because I, more or less, feel as happy as I did before.” And he said, “Sure, the lows are lower, the treatments are deeply uncomfortable,” he described having civil war pain with the amputation, “But I, Scott, feel whole and I feel more or less, again, just as happy, and I am stunned by that.” Because this completely ran counter to his old model of himself, how Scott would respond to this experience. And so look, this is not everyone’s experience with illness or disease or any kind of change, but it is Scott’s experience.

BB: What a beautiful story. I send all my good prayers and just thoughts to Scott in this process because what an incredible story of… I love how you caught me and said, “He’s transcending.” Like, he’s in process. And sometimes that lasts three days and sometimes it last 30 years. Sometimes every morning we recommit to transcending, I think, after a big change.

BB: So let me ask you this question, the podcast is fascinating, and I can’t help it as a qualitative researcher, think, “What are the themes and patterns that I’m hearing here that are saturating across the interviews? Which you’re sharing with us. Help me reverse-engineer into what we can do or think about on a daily basis to become more malleable, to become bigger than the identities that we rest in often. How can we… What is the word I’m looking for? Build resilience to change now as opposed to trying to build it in the midst of it?

MS: Yeah. It’s a great question. I think it is to appreciate what complex ecosystems we are just by virtue of being human. And the reason I say that is, any given change in our life doesn’t happen in a vacuum. So I think we tend to think, “Oh, I’m just going to be… I’m going to be me, Maya, but it’s as though I’m going to walk through this magic mirror, and this one thing will have changed about me,” but that’s not actually a human’s work.

BB: No.

MS: There’s all sorts of unexpected spillover effects on other parts of our lives and our sense of self that we simply can’t predict. Again, we do fall prey to this cognitive fallacy, like “Oh, I’m going to change this one thing, but everything else is going to stay firmly intact and constant.” And I think when we appreciate that we won’t have the whole equation figured out, kind of ironically, it might lead us to embrace change more than we otherwise would have. Because…

BB: Oh God, yeah.

MS: We’re constantly going to surprise ourselves. And we might surprise ourselves in the wrong direction. So for example, there was a woman I interviewed named Elena, and her lifelong dream was to become thin. She really felt that if she could lose the weight, all of her big dreams would come true, and she achieved that goal through very unhealthy means id five and a half months, she lost over 100 pounds.

BB: Jesus.

MS: And for a while there she did think that she was living her dream life until she started to realize that she was becoming a worse person. She was actually losing her self-confidence, she felt less emboldened in situations, she felt more judgmental, she felt more superficial, she was losing these core parts of Elena, again, that she felt would almost certainly stay intact. Again, she’s walking through The Magic Mirror, where she’s Elena through and through who was before this transition, extremely bold, audacious, outspoken, and all of a sudden she feels like she’s losing these parts of herself.

MS: And so that’s an example where she was willing what she thought would be a positive change, and then all of a sudden it turned out to be a negative one. But then you take Scott’s story, which is, he so anticipated that this was going to be the worst change of his life and he’s now realizing there’s all these positive spillover effects in terms of how he’s developing as a person and how he’s seeing himself. And so that unexpected element, the richness of the change experience, the multifaceted nature of the change experience is hopefully more appealing to people than the black and white model of change they may be carrying in their minds. It’s going to be hard, but it is going to be transformative and filled with growth of some kind, and you can always hold on to that.

BB: It’s powerful. Yeah, I think people don’t think about the physics of systems. One small change reverberates in places you can never even anticipate.

MS: Absolutely. And look, we know from research, Brené, we’re typically very bad cognitive forecasters. We are really terrible at predicting how we will respond emotionally to things and… Look, change circumstances are no different, they’re falling into the same camp.

BB: Yeah, it’s interesting. It’s really interesting. Like change is coming, maybe the best thing you can do is get in emotional, spiritual, physical shape for reverberation.

MS: Yeah. Another thing that you’re making me think of just in terms of advice for embracing change is to share a personal experience. So in 2020 I was feeling absolutely overwhelmed by the change that was happening. There was the pandemic, there was racial injustice upheaval, there were personal losses I was experiencing in my own life, miscarriage, and I just felt overwhelmed and disoriented, I felt like all of this is so new and I don’t know how to manage any of it, but then I put on my cognitive science hat and I realized, while the specifics of what 2020 is throwing my way, throwing our way, maybe unprecedented, our human ability to navigate change is absolutely not unprecedented. We’ve done this rodeo so many times before as a civilization, as individuals, our minds are wired for change because it’s such a core part of the human experience.

MS: And so what that taught me is, it is possible for us to recruit learnings and insights from our prior change experiences, from other people’s change experiences. I mean, in many ways, this was the genesis for A Slight Change of Plans, I’m like searching the world for people with the most fascinating change stories so that I can learn as much as I can, so listeners can benefit as much as they can, and to see that while you might be intimidated by the specific nature of the change, don’t forget that human psychology can often transcend those specifics. There are many episodes where people have reached out to me, and the recent divorcee is finding more resonance in the cancer patient’s story than they are in a story about someone who’s recently divorced because, again, it’s all about human psychology, it’s about how we respond to change and so that fills me with optimism and hope for a few reasons: One, when I’m confronted with a change, I build my confidence by saying, “Maya, you’ve done this change thing before. Fear not.”

MS: But number two, “Try to dissociate yourself from the specifics of the change for just a moment. Try to see it with some distance and try to figure out, what are the psychological strategies that you can recruit, that you’ve learned from your own guests on A Slight Change of Plans to help you navigate this moment.”

MS: I’m sorry, I’m going to get emotional for a second. This played out in my own life recently, where my husband and I lost identical twin girls to a miscarriage by a surrogacy, so it’s our third pregnancy loss, and it happened recently. It happened like two months ago, it happened in September. And I was so overwhelmed again, and I started feeling those things like, “Well, I haven’t gone through this before,” you know?

BB: Right.

MS: And then I called my producer and I said, “I need the show right now. Like, I need A Slight Change of Plans for me right now.” And so he turned on the mic and two days later, he interviewed me about my change story and I shared that with everyone and I processed out loud. I did the thing that I’d asked my guests to do so many times with me, to be raw and vulnerable and to process their own change experiences out loud, but I had never done myself. And as I was doing that exercise, I was realizing, I have learned so much about the psychology of change from people who have gone through wildly different experiences from my own that I’m using right now.

MS: And one of those had come from a close friend of mine, Michael Lewis, he’s obviously an extremely famous author and podcaster. He has a heart of gold, he is an incredible human being. And the Lewis family tragically lost their daughter. Michael lost his 19-year-old daughter in a car crash earlier this year and… Michael and I talk often, but when this happened, we were talking about grief, and he was telling me, “Maya, no one knows shit about grief.” Everyone’s telling me… ” I was visiting his house shortly after the passing of his daughter, “Everyone’s telling me how to feel and what to read and which therapist to see and that I should journal this and I should journal… No, that shit’s not working for me. I need to figure out the Michael Lewis plan.”

MS: And he figured out his own plan. He figured out what brings him joy, he figured out what brings him healing, and he structured his own plan because he was realizing that a one-size-fits model does not work. And so, Brené, when I was going through this traumatic experience of my own, I called upon that wisdom, I said, “I have to create a Maya plan. What does healing look like for me specifically?” And it turned out healing for me looked like trying to turn my pain into something good and that meant sharing my experience with all my listeners so that the person out there who has felt stigma around a miscarriage, the person out there who has felt the pain of loss can feel less alone. And so, I just feel like we have so much to learn from one another.

BB: It is a brave and breathtaking episode.

MS: Oh wow, I didn’t know you’d heard it. Thank you for that.

BB: Yeah. First of all, let me say, I’m incredibly deeply sorry for your miscarriages. That is a huge loss. Was it hard to be vulnerable and share on the “other side of the microphone”?

MS: It was and it wasn’t. In many ways, I saw this sharing as almost a love letter to my surrogate, Hayley. We can’t work with her anymore, as I describe in my interview, but sometimes a surrogate can get relegated to the footnotes of these sorts of experiences. Creating families is complicated and hard and sometimes you have the gift of having an amazingly generous, magnificent woman enter your life who tries to help to make your dreams happen, and so much of this episode is about her and how much I love and admire her, and so that part felt easy. That part felt joyful. I was sharing with the world about this special person that I’d gotten to know in this extremely intimate way, and I wanted everyone to recognize how wonderful she was, but the parts that were really hard were that I was processing several grief layers all at once, and I myself didn’t know what my conclusions were. It’s scary to go into an interview when you don’t know what you don’t even know, it’s like… When I go to interview my guests, I do my homework, Brené, you know. I spend hours practicing the violin, I’m spending hours studying my guest, listening to every interview they’d done, I come prepared, and I did not come to this interview prepared, I came a total mess.

MS: And one thing that was beautiful about it is I had this really important insight in real time that I’d love to share right now, because I do hope it could help others, which is, I think we tend to see life as an outcome-oriented process. I do. I have. I often see things as, achieve the goal… And to summarize my experience for listeners, we had a surrogate, Hayley, and she was pregnant with our baby and miscarried and then she was pregnant with our identical twins and miscarried, and so we had these losses and we did not get the outcome that the three of us wanted in this relationship. And I think the insight that I gleaned was that life is about more than just achieving outcomes, it’s about creating space that invites these unexpected gifts into your life, and that gift for me was Hayley. And all I needed to do is just make room for that and to see that in and of itself is value. You cannot get the end goal, but you can get so much love and growth and enrichment and humanity from experience and that is enough. And I just want people to hear that that is enough, that can be the finish line sometimes, and it’s really hard for me to say that sort of thing, I’m that type A personality, as I mentioned, I’m impatient, I want the thing to have happened, but this experience taught me that that beautiful relationship that my husband and I formed with Hayley was enough and it was beautiful. It was something that I will cherish forever.

BB: The Maya plan for grief, it sounds like is a love-based plan.

MS: Yeah, I guess that’s right. Never thought about it like that.

BB: And I don’t think there’s anything more different than an outcome-based plan, than a love-based plan.

MS: Yeah, and the love… I was, of course, scared like anyone when this was going out into the world, I didn’t know how people would respond, and Brené, I have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and care and virtual hugs from all over the world and people sharing their experiences of loss with me, and it’s a wide-ranging loss, to our earlier point, that our circumstances can be very different, but the same psychology might come into play and that has felt like a true silver lining in all this, to feel in some way like I’ve helped people heal, so many people heal. It’s been overwhelming.

BB: What came back was love.

MS: Yeah, what came back… Wow, well said, what came back was love, and I guess I just didn’t know that I could expect that and I’m so glad that that’s what came back.

BB: There’s so much wisdom that you’ve shared with us today, it’s really interesting, it’s… I bet you were really good in that lab at Stanford, but I’m so glad you’re not there anymore, do you know what I mean?

MS: Me too.

BB: Yeah, I just… There’s got to be something core to you that’s about connection and love between people, there’s just got to be something there because that’s what radiates, I guess. You know, maybe that’s that thing that you were describing that Itzhak Perlman saw.

MS: I love that. I think that’s so true. I think that’s so true. I’m the one who’s writing this effusive love letters to the people that I love in my life all the time, they don’t get enough.

BB: That doesn’t surprise me.

MS: They don’t get it… They don’t hear it enough. They can’t hear it enough because I do feel that effusiveness, I’ve always wanted to share that, so I think you nailed it.

BB: You’re ready for some rapid fires?

MS: Oh yeah. Okay, let me pivot. [chuckle]

BB: Well, bring your love with you because it’s…

MS: Okay. Bringing love.

BB: Fill in the blank for me. Vulnerability is…

MS: Okay, I’m saying this from the vantage point of being a woman in particular, but being willing to admit when you’re good at something.


MS: Does that resonate?

BB: First time for everything. Yes it does. I don’t like it, but it’s true. Okay, what’s one thing that people often get wrong about you?

MS: Okay. So I’m a petite woman, like 5’4” on a good day, 5’3” and three quarters, you can probably tell I have an abundance of enthusiasm. I tend to have a very cheerful exuberant, smiley disposition, and I love that about myself, but I also think it can lead people to underestimate just how much I’m willing to fight for things and how much I’m willing to stand up for other people and to stand up for myself. I may be small, but I’m fierce inside Brené. [chuckle]

BB: Yeah, I’m clear on that.

MS: Yeah, there were many times in government where these older dudes would be like, “Oh, Maya, the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed energetic woman” or girl or whatever they use and then would say. “You know, I could tell she has big dreams, but I’m not really sure if she can really make it happen,” that sort of thing, and I have resisted dampening the enthusiasm, I won’t do it because that is so core to who I am. So instead I listen, but then I really show it to them on the other side. I’m like, “Nope, actually, you can’t talk to me like that, because bullied as a kid, not willing to be bullied as an adult.” Mic drop.

BB: I would love to observe this just once with an old white guy, especially, just… Yeah. Okay. What is one piece of leadership advice that you’ve been given that’s so remarkable, you need to share it with us, or so shitty you need to warn us?

MS: Oh, I love these questions. Okay. Alright, this one’s coming from my White House boss. Always think like an entrepreneur, no matter what circumstance you’re in. So quick aside, when I was in the White House, the challenge just didn’t stop just in getting the job, I made it my goal to build out a whole team of behavioral scientists, and I didn’t have a mandate and I didn’t have a budget to do so, so I couldn’t just be like “Obama says we should do this,” it was, “Maya says we should do this.” And it was a really hard, scrappy process moving forward, where I felt like I was building a start-up in my parents’ basement, but I really tried… He called this policy entrepreneur, so I really tried to see this job as though I was creating my own company within the federal government, and I was trying to do the equivalent of fundraising and getting quick wins here and there and it was a crucial change in mindset.

BB: Yeah, scrappy, hungry. I think that’s a great advice. What is the hard lesson for you that the universe just keeps putting in front of you over and over and you just have to keep un-learning and relearning?

MS: Wow, okay. Yeah. Okay, I’ve got one. It’s also recently relevant. So I have intermittent vocal strain issues, and it apparently emerges from a condition in which I get so excited when I talk, I forget to breathe, this is literally what a doctor told me once, and so what that means is that I can very easily strain my vocal cords and there have been long stretches of time where I have had to be on complete vocal rest, I’m talking like Adele, Celine Dion style vocal rest.

BB: Jeez, that’s hard.

MS: It’s very hard. I felt like this new, zen meditative Maya came out, but what I learned from that experience was so valuable, Brené, because you really do learn how to be a good listener in those moments. And because there were times where I could talk a little bit, but not a lot, for the first time ever, you could tell I’m a total chatter box, right? I had to be so judicious about what it is that I chose to say, in meetings, in conversations, and it made me, I think, just a better human being. Because I tend to talk in this kind of unfiltered way a lot, I just say everything that I’m thinking and it was just… Yeah, it was just a very different experience for me to have to really be… Like, is this worth saying? That’s a question we should all ask ourselves as leaders.

BB: Every time we open our mouths.

MS: It’s like, I can say it… I mean, I lead this team, I can technically say it, but is it worth saying? I think that’s such an important question that we should ask ourselves.

BB: God, dang that’s good. That’s a good one. Alright, what’s one thing you’re really excited about right now?

MS: Okay. Well, I’m all about the small stuff. So I’m a vegetarian, and this local ramen place that my husband loves now has a vegetarian-based broth and it will knock your socks off. In fact, my meat-eating husband… Well, he’s trying to be vegetarian, he’s like a pseudo-vegetarian, he opts for the vegetarian version over the meat version, that’s how good it is.

BB: That’s impressive.

MS: I love just, you can tell from my answer, I love food. I feel like it was implicit in my marriage contract that I loved food and then I love my husband second, so that’s well agreed upon understanding in our home.

BB: Hierarchy?

MS: Yeah, absolutely.

BB: What’s one thing you’re deeply grateful for right now?

MS: Oh wow. You know, I’m honestly really grateful for A Slight Change of Plans that I’ve created because it was there for me when I needed it most, like I need it as much as it needs me, if that makes sense, and it is such a gift to have this artistic endeavor that fuels you on an emotional level, it’s like feeding all the parts of my brain from various parts of my life. It’s like there’s the musical side of my brain that’s working on the soundtrack and actually recorded… I picked up my violin for the first time in forever recently, actually recorded music for the soundtrack, and just like the artistic qualities of piecing together an episode, and then there’s the cognitive science part of my brain that’s weighing in with questions and insights and everything. And then there’s the human emotion connection part, which is just like through the roof because I get to meet these incredible people, and so I just… It’s hard for me to remember something that I love as much as this thing. I would wake up as the 35-year-old that I am at 4:30 in the morning on Saturdays for A Slight Change of Plans, and it’s been a while since I felt that way. It’s been… Yeah, it’s been an utter joy.

BB: I love how you light up when you talk about it, that’s what we need. Alright, we make mini mixtapes for all of our guests on Spotify, and we asked you for five songs you can’t live without, this is what you gave us. “The Leaves That Are Green,” by Simon and Garfunkel, “Blinding Lights,” by Weeknd, “Forever and Always,” Shania Twain, “Slow Burn,” Kacey Musgraves, and “Halo,” by Beyoncé. In one sentence, what does this mini mixtape say about you Maya?

MS: One sentence. I’m all about a good hook.


BB: Says the cognitive behavioralist.


BB: That was… You’ve got to tell me that you thought of this before. Did you come up with this line right now, sitting right here?

MS: I did, I didn’t know this was the question. [laughter] I just thought you were going to load up the mixtape.

BB: Oh my God, that was the best answer. This has been such a… Just a joy. Thank you so much for joining us on Dare to Lead.

MS: Thanks for having me, Brené. I love it when an interview is just a conversation and that’s what this felt like, so thank you so much for having me.

BB: Yeah, you really radiate love and joy and it’s so powerful.

MS: Thank you for saying that. That’s the highest compliment that I can receive. So if I’m giving that off, awesome.

BB: You’re giving it off and I’m receiving. You can see my amygdala any time, let me just say that.



BB: I hope y’all enjoyed this conversation as much as I did, and again, thank you so much for being a part of it. You can find Maya’s podcast, A Slight Change of Plans, wherever you like to listen to podcasts. We’ll also post a link to it on The Dare to Lead episode page on And if you haven’t visited, we have a brand new, it is so beautiful and so many people worked their asses off. I can’t even tell you months and months and months of sprints and designs and redesigns and testing, and it’s gorgeous, and I hope y’all love it as much as I do. You can find Maya at She’s also on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn, and we’ll have all those links on the episode page as well. Really appreciate you being here, very much appreciate you being a part of Dare to Lead. I just… Learning by ourselves is not as effective as learning together and having conversations about what we’re trying to learn, unlearn, and relearn. Thank you. Stay awkward, brave, and kind y’all.


BB: The Dare to Lead podcast is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown, produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, and Tristan McNeil and by Weird Lucy productions. Sound design by Tristan McNeil and the music is by The Suffers.

© 2021 Brené Brown Education and Research Group, LLC. All rights reserved.

Brown, B. (Host). (2021, November 8). Brené with Dr. Maya Shankar on Courage in the Midst of Change. [Audio podcast episode]. In Dare to Lead with Brené Brown. Parcast Network.

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