October 8, 2021
What is positive psychology? What is the PERMA model? From a creativity standpoint, is there a connection between music and writing? In various artistic fields, how hard is it to be creative without first achieving some level of technical mastery? How can one hone the skill of creativity? How useful is optimism for achieving happiness? What are the different sources from which humans derive pleasure? To what extent is western culture conscious of ageism? What does positive psychology have to say about interpersonal relationships? What is the value and purpose of extended education generally and degrees specifically? What is wisdom?
Georgia Shreve is a composer, fiction writer, playwright, and poet. She holds degrees from Stanford, Brown, Columbia, and PENN. Her poetry and fiction have been published in magazines such as the New Yorker, New Republic, and New Criterion, and her short story, "The Countess of M-", won the Stanford Magazine Fiction award.
JOSH: Hello, and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, the podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, the producer of the podcast and I'm so glad you joined us today. In this episode, Spencer speaks with Georgia Shreve about positive psychology, multidisciplinary practice, and education and creativity.
SPENCER: Welcome, I'm so glad to have you here.
GEORGIA: I'm glad to be here. It's very exciting.
SPENCER: So one of the things I find really interesting about your work is how you blend different creative areas. Tell us a little bit about your background and the different kinds of creative work you do.
GEORGIA: Well, what I tell people is that I'm multi-passions, I literally have a passion for three different fields; visual, musical, and verbal. And I'm just very blessed and equally passionate about them. But it came about because early in my life, my parents really encouraged me to play the piano, to act, to write plays, as did my teachers. And I was very blessed because I developed this love of things early and just carried on from there. I did have a discouraging teacher who told me I didn't have a good enough voice for the choirs, so it just kind of propelled me to want to do better. And eventually, I started classical singing for professional use. And now I usually work in three media at the same time.
SPENCER: And tell us about what are the three mediums working?
GEORGIA: Well, I often for a long extended piece, I might write the whole libretto, which is a better 42-minute piece than I just did. So I wrote the entire libretto, all the words.
SPENCER: So this is classical music?
GEORGIA: Classical music, yes. And then I wrote all the music. And when it's performed, it will have a video behind it, which I will create and edit. For instance, I'm doing this piece in the Byzantine era. So I'm going to use a lot of motifs from the Byzantine world which has a lot of gold and rich tones of red and blue. So I think it's going to be very powerful and beautiful. I've done this before I even worked with David Hockney at one point, using his artwork as a backdrop.
SPENCER: So basically, you're combining words, and you also write fiction and poetry, together with music, and then add the visuals on top.
GEORGIA: Yes, well, I always have visuals in mind when I'm working on the words and the music. But words are very inspiring to me. Sometimes, I write almost all verbal music, almost all music for singers, because I get so inspired by words. And that comes from a long history as a poet and writing poetry and publishing poetry, which also comes from loving words, to begin with. So I just had such strong feelings about words that they practically generate the music, I find it very hard to read a piano concerto. It was really hard. Because there was no verbal sort of propulsion by that interested in the verbal part.
SPENCER: I've heard the different musicians do differently. Some will read the music first. And then they'll give it to someone to write their words, or they'll write the words and others it sounds like for you. It's the other way where the words come first. And the music's generated from that.
GEORGIA: It's very rare that I would have music existing and then write the words. But I am working on a musical now that has over 22 songs for it that are going to be premiered in a virtual way. And I wrote the words in the music almost simultaneously. Because they just came to me that way. I really worked hard on words, but it was almost as if they were creative at the same time. I mean, the truth is, I didn't go to the piano until later. But I just knew how I wanted to reflect those words.
SPENCER: Let's talk about others you're passionate about just positive psychology. Tell us a bit about that.
GEORGIA: Yes, I was very, very blessed to get a degree master's degree under Martin Seligman, who I admire greatly. And I think that if there were a great award for psychologists was there aren't like, well, Daniel Kahneman got the Nobel Prize. I would definitely give it to him because he's bright. It's been 20 years since he had this conference.
SPENCER: Martin Seligman?
GEORGIA: I mean, yeah. And it's Yeah, exactly. And it has grown exponentially in 20 years. It's gone all over the world. When I go to conferences, there are people from all over the world there are thousands of people who come to these conferences. It's very popular and prevalent in academia. It's gone into medicine and many other fields which have been helped by it. So it's both increased in depth and breadth. And there are 1000s of peer-reviewed papers that have contributed validity to it over the years.
SPENCER: So can you tell us though, what is positive psychology?
GEORGIA: Well, that's a little difficult, but I'm going to use Martin Seligman's definition, he has a saying, which is called PERMA. And PERMA is positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment. And you and I were talking about people who are unemployed doing their jobs being eliminated by AI in various things. And you can see how it wouldn't be a good situation because they have no meaning in their life. They have no direction in their life, they don't see their co-workers -- this is going on with COVID. They're not engaged because they have really nothing to be engaged in. So meaning and accomplishment, relationships, and engagement are all lowered for the unemployed people.
SPENCER: Right. So you can see how unemployment, hits a whole bunch of these five areas.
GEORGIA: Exactly. People think it's just that they don't have the money. Of course, that's extremely important. But there are huge emotional elements to the situation.
SPENCER: Going back for a second to the definition of positive psychology. I've heard some people describe it as refocusing psychology on how to go from neutral to having a great life rather than the traditional focus of psychology, which was about how to go from a really negative state to a neutral state.
GEORGIA: Well, Martin Seligman grew up in psychology that was focused on taking people from the bad to the better. And he wanted to conceive of a situation of taking people from not as deeply bad, like not hospitalized, to much better.
SPENCER: Right. And even someone who might have a totally fine life, helping them flourish and not just have a fine.
GEORGIA: He believes everybody can be helped to flourish. He really does.
SPENCER: What are some of the ways you feel like studying positive psychology has improved your life?
GEORGIA: I think there are great ways. Well, first of all, I wrote my thesis on positive creativity, and it's inspired me in my own work. And I've also talked a lot about positive creativity and helped other people I think, positive creativity is about not sitting there, dredging, trying to dredge up ideas. And cursing yourself, "This isn't coming." It's more about thinking about how joyous it is to be creative, and how much you can accomplish through it to help other people. So yeah, I think creativity has been of great interest to Martin Seligman. He founded the Imagination Institute. For instance, I was on a panel on creativity in music, and I wrote a paper about it. We talked about every different kind of music person, whether their head of an institution, or their violinist, or librettist, how it comes to them differently. But that music has been an inspiration for them from the beginning of their life. And they've had amazing, really encouraging teachers.
SPENCER: Another thing that comes up in positive psychology is a video doing generous acts.
GEORGIA: I believe that Gen X is important. I mean, I know you believe in a different kind of giving than I do. I mean, I give to the arts, which some people would say is not as valuable as say, given to a food kitchen. But I think that we can do everyday acts of generosity. I mean, I think someone who, when you just smile at someone, or as you're walking along, or be kind to someone who's helping you in a store, but I also think that I'll give you an example, a friend of mine, who's an artist, fell in love was a painting by Barnaby Fitzgerald. She'd seen one in my house. And then she started exploring his work. And she's absolutely in love with this painting. So I got in touch with Barnaby Fitzgerald and told him she adores your painting this particular one, but she can't afford it. Is there any way you could give her a really serious discount? He said, I'm writing to the gallery right this minute, and telling them to take 50% off.
SPENCER: That is so nice.
GEORGIA: And it's hanging in her living room and his brother's great joy. So I happen to be kind of shy and not very aggressive, so she is also. So I used some of my connections to the art to make myself brave enough to ask for that.
SPENCER: I think it's really interesting how sometimes we can be braver on other people's behalf than our own.
GEORGIA: I think that's true.
SPENCER: Like, would you have asked for a 50% discount for yourself?
GEORGIA: No, never.
SPENCER: But somehow you're inspired because it's for this other person.
GEORGIA: But it seems more genuine to ask for someone else. I mean, he seems more generous. And I think if I ask it for myself, he might not have done it, but I was able to paint this picture, so to speak, of her joy in this painting, and how might change your life, and it's a large painting, and it's on the whole wall for a dining room. And it does change your life. And she's a painter. So she's been now inspired to go back to painting.
SPENCER: That's wonderful. So one thing I want to ask you about is what you see as the connection between writing and music when it comes to creativity? Do you find these are totally different forms of creativity? Or do they have a lot in common or what's your thought on it?
GEORGIA: Well, as I said, I was in this symposium about creativity, music. And one thing we made very learned that was very clear, is that creative music requires mastery. Anybody can write four words when they're three years old, as long as they can learn to write. But instruments take a high degree of time investment, to reach mastery. And it's very hard to be, well, I work particularly in the classical music world, but I also work in theatrical music. Everyone in every role, the librettist, the dean of the music school, the violinist said, they couldn't do what they were doing if they hadn't studied, studied, worth studied, taken lessons gone to school practice and practice and practice. They practice every single day of their lives, the musicians. So it's very different than writing and, two years old can draw a picture. But to be seriously involved in music, you need some kind of technical mastery.
SPENCER: That's really interesting because, with writing and art, you can certainly build up to it right? You can draw a simple drawing, and then certainly better drawing over a period of years worth of music, I think you're saying is it's hard to even be creative until you have that technical mastery.
GEORGIA: Exactly. And the great composers had, generally, the ones who were prodigies were able to achieve the technical mastery on the piano, which is, to my mind, the most difficult in some cases, 88 keys. At a young age, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms were phenomenal pianos. And they've now studied it nice. They perform on an instrument and pianos especially difficult, require immense intellectual resources at the moment you're doing it, and draw on every kind of energy in you. And so I just think that it takes a lot of courage to put the time in and faith in the outcome.
SPENCER: So related to that, do you think that young kids, let's say when they're learning an instrument, should be encouraged to be creative early on? Or do you think they should take the time to build a more technical mastery before they even explore creativity in music?
GEORGIA: Well, I can give you a good example, I wanted to write music when I was five and six. And my teacher said, you too young and ignorant, you should not write music. And that stayed with me for quite a long time. But it was a challenge to me, which I was challenged. And I knew I wanted to write music. And I was going to do it. My choir teacher said I didn't have a good enough voice to be in the choir. So it empowered me in a way to go and get classical training. And I studied for four years. So it depends on how you respond to a mentor or teacher.
SPENCER: I think you and I both share the view -- that creativity is something that can be learned and trained, like a skill or muscle. Whereas I think a lot of people view creativity as something that's almost like a form of magic, you know, inspiration for me is it just comes to you, not sort of something that you work at. Whereas the way I think about it is the more that you practice creativity, the better you get at. Do you have any thoughts on that?
GEORGIA: I believe that practicing it does make you better. I do believe and I'm not a brain scientist, but I do believe some people are born with slightly different brains that are conducive to creativity. But people view me as being very productive in a creative way, particularly since I'm working in three art forms. And so the few pointers I might give people, one of them is breaking up your day. I try to take every single day to five to seven-minute breaks. I don't think it has to be longer than that. Even if you just run out and buy a bouquet of flowers. You can do something you love in that brief period of time I meditate. I take a walk. I get away from my work and different kinds of breaks can affect you in different ways.
SPENCER: So during that time, are you not thinking about your work? You're just letting your mind relax.
GEORGIA: My breaks are often listening to chance. There's a vocal group that doesn't use any instruments, it's all acapella. And I listened to the most neutral music I can because if I listen to music with a lot of instruments I'm going why did he use the violin? And I like it to be really neutral and of course, I use noise-canceling headphones, it's really important, particularly when you work in music, to have no sounds that are outside what you want to be focusing on?
SPENCER: Do you find that being so deep in music and writing a literature and so on, actually makes it harder to enjoy these as hobbies where you know, reading other people's books or listening to music? Or does it make it easier because you kind of appreciates the nuances more?
GEORGIA: Well, the way you become very good at something is being discriminated against and discriminating against your own bad words, and listening to teachers who are valid teachers, and it will encourage you and find what's good and bad. I have never had the feeling when I went to a concert that I was judging the concert, I know a lot of people go there and say, Oh, she missed the high A, or whatever it is, I don't look at it that way at all, as a matter of fact, was one two-piano concert of friends. And a woman came out saying he made three mistakes. And I knew he hadn't made those mistakes. But she was looking at it in the negative. She wanted to give the impression that she knew what she was talking about. I don't do that at all. I just listened for pure joy and meaning.
SPENCER: I was talking to one musician I know. And he was spending all day playing music. And he got to the point where he couldn't even hear a song. It has to tell it anymore, his brain would like to break it apart into "Oh, they played this chord and that chord," and sort of it for a while it made a lot harder for him to appreciate music because it's he started segmenting it without even doing it on purpose.
GEORGIA: Well, I guess it depends on what phase you're in, in your own work. I mean, I just got an email from prod, whether I wanted an E or an F in a certain piece in a 42-minute piece. And the editor was torn between taking the one that might have been the mistake. And so he has to analyze it. But I don't feel that I have to be analytical.
SPENCER: You can be a little further more abstracted and not focused on as many details as much.
GEORGIA: Yes, well, I particularly like work that I don't do arts like I don't do painting and I don't do sculpture and I get a lot of value out of visual arts because I'm not thinking, Oh, I can't do that. I'm just thinking, I don't even want to do that.
SPENCER: Right. It's just you can just appreciate it without.
GEORGIA: I appreciate the visual arts very deeply, but I only use them in a video form.
SPENCER: So besides breaking up your day, what are some other practical things people can do to be more creative?
GEORGIA: Well, immerse themselves in work in that creative field. That's really, really important.
SPENCER: Let's say someone wants to write poetry, would you suggest they go read 100 poems from different authors and different styles? That's kind of how I think about it, you're kind of seeding your own creativity.
GEORGIA: Well, as it happened in my school, I just wanted to write poetry in fifth and sixth grade. So I probably wrote poems. But in my school, the teacher wrote comments, positive comments on every single one. And I kept those because that encouragement meant so much to me.
SPENCER: So what are some other things people can do if they want to be more creative?
GEORGIA: Well, as I said, immerse themselves in the field, find great teachers. Identify a wonderful mentor. If you want to write you have to read a madman things but books and poetry or I was just very lucky because we read poetry everywhere along in my education, and I published quite a bit of poetry, but we literally had poetry on the walls around the classroom and people who were in seventh grade with me still remember that. So I just think the depth of immersion and exposure is really important. Like I tried to expose my kids to ballet, I can't say that really took, but it may have encouraged them in some musical way.
SPENCER: How do you think about getting feedback from the general public? As she said, I know that you work with, you know, mentors and experts who give you feedback on your work. But what about, you know, the feedback from the lay audience who might be listening to your music or reading your writing? Is that useful? Or do you not find that useful?
GEORGIA: Well, let me speak about music, in particular. I usually have an audience of 500 to 600 people. And at the end of a piece, I kind of live for that applause. And I've often gotten standing ovations, and there is no more glorious feeling. For that matter, there's no more glorious feeling than having your work performed in a huge hall, usually a dignified hall. And watching people listen to it, and hearing how many things you really did write in your own work, when it's more joy, you're not thinking negatively. When you get a standing ovation, I have to say, it's as close to heaven as I've ever been.
SPENCER: So you mentioned the importance of role models. Do teachers want to tell us a little bit more about your thoughts on that?
GEORGIA: Well, I think role modeling is an incredibly important and valuable way to lead. If you embody the qualities that you're trying to impress upon other people, like your staff, your team. I think that's kind of catchy. I mean, I think it's the best way to give them the impression that it's an important and valuable way to behave is incredibly important with children. And I remember psychologists telling me, a client's son got in trouble for lying. And when he was consulting with the father, he found out the father cheats on income taxes. So if the father was role modeling honesty, authentically, then the child will be picky that it helps with adults too. The way you conduct yourself in a meeting has a huge effect. I mean, I was thinking meeting where I was pounding a shoe on the table to make the point is he was angry. You know, I think you have to embody and reflect what you want in your team.
SPENCER: So basically, one best way is to get your feedback. The second way is to just demonstrate that behavior, an excellent form, and then they'll pick it up from you.
GEORGIA: Yes, exactly.
SPENCER: Great. So next the thing I want to ask you about is optimism. What are your thoughts on optimism when it comes to being happier?
GEORGIA: Well, positive psychology is in favor of trying to have an optimistic outlook. But I think you talk a little bit sometimes about over-rated ideas. I think it's a little bit of reading because inappropriate optimism can cause disappointment, mistakes, problems. I like to think about the difference between hope and optimism. I mean, hope is a way an optimism is more, what would you say an action or a belief? More? I think hope is usually good. But optimism, like suppose I go around saying, I know the stock market will go up 20% this year, I mean, and then I act on, on the basis of that. I could do very badly.
SPENCER: So the idea is that optimism can have these negative consequences. If you actually act as though the good things will happen.
SPENCER: Although, as you said, sometimes it feels that optimism can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, obviously not for it.
GEORGIA: I agree with that. You know, I'm very optimistic when I sit down to write a poem, or to compose and very optimistic because it's always worked for me in the past, but I have a basis for that optimism. And the optimism propels me because it's such a positive force.
SPENCER: Great. So what are some other things you'd recommend for people who want to be more creative?
GEORGIA: I want to talk about simplifying the creative environment because there's a book that really changed things for me. I was studying with a poet named Molly Peacock. And she had read this book Organization for Creative People. And it said that and I do believe this, creative people like to see all their products at one time, all the things they've been working on. So she then took all the work on each project and each phone and put it in a Ziploc baggie, and then she could see all her work. And first of all, it made her feel good because she could see how much she has done. Secondly, it reminded her to do the work. And thirdly, she could feel oh, I did that good piece of work and I can see it now. Because creative people will go from one project to another they don't always just sit there and focus on one project.
SPENCER: That's really needed. Yeah, I find that in my work environment, it really helps to have it decluttered. Like, if I have a mess sitting there in the corner, my I feel like ash makes it harder for you to focus on what I'm doing. So I try to keep the space just right in front of me like completely clear. I don't know if you have any other-
GEORGIA: It is interesting to say that because they just completely redid my office so that there will be nothing on our desk, nothing. And the desks are practically painted. So the color of the desk, the walls, and the rug are the same. There's this wonderful pale golden cream color. And there's no distraction in the office that I run. And I feel that there's a better flow of ideas. So I have my computer. I sometimes write in a notebook, I have notebooks. But everything else is hidden under the desk is a wonderful designer from Spain, who has that very idea. You don't even want to see your pencils.
SPENCER: One of the things that remind me of something that's always struck me as very interesting about you, is your relationship to beauty. And I remember, you told me before that just seeing a bad color combination can give you a bad day.
GEORGIA: Exactly. Like I particularly hate purple colors. And even the color of this room, this gray mauvy color is kind of a downer for me. I'm very, very responsive to visual things. If you want to know what the most valuable view or vision for an individual, for a person is. It's very interesting. They've studied reactions to different images. It is coming up a hill and looking down on the water. And they think that's water again, because what could be better than being on a trek and wondering, are you going to find water and you get to the top of the hill and suddenly see it?
SPENCER: So that's usually if there's an oasis?
GEORGIA: Exactly, it's a dawning of joy.
SPENCER: Your reaction to color gets me thinking about how different people derive pleasure from very different things. I'm not I don't get a lot of pleasure out of visual things. I think I'm relatively low on that from pleasure. But for pleasure, we both share a lot is a pleasure from ideas.
GEORGIA: Yeah, I love ideas. I thrive on ideas.
SPENCER: I did some research is really preliminary, but we've been trying to classify the different places, different people get pleasure. And we found so far in early research, found five different clusters of pleasures.
GEORGIA: I'm worried that ideas might be in the low-end of that in terms of probability and frequency.
SPENCER: Well, we haven't yet mapped out the figures. It's a good question. But yeah, so one of them is intellectual pleasures.
GEORGIA: Yes. I'm absolutely awash in intellectual pleasures. And beauty is that separate or do you count that as intellectual?
SPENCER: But actually, I believe that that actually falls under the intellectual one.
GEORGIA: Or could be under sensory.
SPENCER: We also have one that's a little bit hard to a concept, but it's a little bit like cut-pleasure of comfort. So it's a warm blanket or cozy never coming with a dog. It's just these kinds of cozy, comfortable pleasures. The third one that we found in the pleasures of thrill-seeking. So that would be getting wild and taking drugs, and partying, things like that.
GEORGIA: I think there are actually genes that have been found to be consistent with joy in danger. I have zero joy in danger. And I really do think there's a bit of an element of inheriting it.
SPENCER: Another fascinating difference I've just noticed, anecdotally, is the huge difference between people getting pleasure from food, or some people, I mean, one friend of mine, she loves food so much that she literally one of her hobbies is just looking at pictures of food.
GEORGIA: I know a lot of people like that. I see them all over the internet.
SPENCER: Yes. Whereas I would say maybe slightly below average in my like food and drama and I but I know another person who I assume it has to do with a weak sense of smell, but she gets very little taste.
GEORGIA: It has stronger taste buds. And well, I particularly grew up in a family where it was considered kind of rude to discuss food. And the food was very boring because that was the style of this sort of household I grew up in. And we kind of were even discouraged. Like a lot of people enjoy talking about food. I have no interest in talking about food. I mean, if I met at someone else's house, I'd say that was a very good dinner. Professor, I had studied the question of disgust. I have a very low disgust threshold. I can be disgusted by color so it really gives me like a nanosecond of nausea.
SPENCER: Well, I find that when people use curse words that are inherently disgusting. Most of the time. I think most people don't associate them with the disgusting thing.
GEORGIA: I do because I am hypersensitive to disgust. I mean, on the disgust scale, I am probably as high as you can get.
SPENCER: So someone says the word "Oh shit", you actually get a flicker of the disgust reaction?
GEORGIA: That would be a slight flicker because I hear it so much. I even set myself occasionally.
SPENCER: But like boards, maybe that you wouldn't hear as much that are curses that would give you a stronger-?
GEORGIA: Yeah, I have a very intense response. And I was responsive to words very much in general. But I'm also very visually responsive. If I see disgusting food, I will walk away from it actively.
SPENCER: I think a lot lately about how people just dramatically estimate differences between people. You know, someone with a low disgust reaction will think, well, assume everyone else is like them, some of the high disgust reaction, assume others like them. And people just it's sort of amazing the degree to which we assume everyone's going around with a similar experience to us, when in fact, we're just wildly different from each other.
GEORGIA: All you have to do is go to a dinner party and see how people talk about food. People talk about it constantly is the table. Generally, people really enjoy it. I think I'm in such a weird category of not being interested in it. And I think that when people talk about it around me, I just get very bored and really turned off by it.
SPENCER: But you know, imagine the idea. So you might enjoy talking about colors, which many people love. Yeah. And many people wouldn't even know what to say about colors.
GEORGIA: Their both have sensory experiences. Yeah.
SPENCER: But you said, I mean, you're so extreme on the color, of enjoyment of colors, and aesthetic beauty, that others wouldn't even have the vocabulary to talk about it.
GEORGIA: Exactly. I can't even describe to you the responses I've had to beauty, not just natural beauty, but I can go to the museum just go, "Oh, my goodness," and really taken aback by it. It really, really affects me. It gives me a kind of joy and a kind of intellectual interest at the same time, sort of an intellectual high.
SPENCER: That's wonderful. So we've talked about a lot of different areas that you focused on throughout your life. But just sort of way to wrap these together. Isn't the idea of a polymath. Do you want to talk about that a little bit?
GEORGIA: Yes. Well, I'm very blessed to be a polymath. And as I may have said earlier, I just tell people, I'm multi-passions, I have three passions because I was blessed to grow up with support and encouragement in three areas. My sister was even an artist, and my schools were all attuned to developing that passion. But I have a very strong passion. We were talking about food, I have an immense esthetic passion. Immense, but it comes partly from my background, but I really think there's something a little inborn about it.
SPENCER: But I remember that someone in one of your programs in the past said that you were, in his opinion, the only polymath to have ever been that program. Is that right?
GEORGIA: Yes, it was actually Martin Seligman who said that. And he really honors the idea of a polymath. In fact, he did a whole study of them at a conference. Like he spent two days away from the school because he's so fascinated by it. and I actually read the report on it. And I can't say there were very clear ideas that came from that. But you, of course, you're a polymath. And so many areas, work in many areas, at first on how you define an area, the arts are very singular, and you can separate words and music, and music and art. But don't you feel that there are many areas that you work in? Or do you think they're all under the same umbrella?
SPENCER: Yeah, I guess the thing that I think about is that nature doesn't care whether something is chemistry, biology, or physics. There's just the world, that's the world is as it is, and we kind of draw these distinctions, you know, we say, "Oh, this stuff, this knowledge is chemistry, this knowledge is biology, it's known, just physics." If you know, it makes sense that we do that there are differences between those things. But from my point of view, I think it would be my main driving force is trying to understand how the world works.
GEORGIA: The singular, consistent motivation there.
SPENCER: Exactly. I want to understand the world and even more than that, understand how it works causally. So I can intervene to try to make things better. So from my point of view, I love math, I love computer science, and I love programming language design and learning programming languages. I also love psychology and experimental design. But for me, all of these things, which seem maybe not that connected. It's all about trying to build a model of how the world works to understand it better.
GEORGIA: Also want to create things, experiences for other people and change their lives.
SPENCER: Exactly. And that's where it all comes together is trying to understand the world and then using these tools to make things that can apply what you understand, try to improve people's lives. And so for me, like the distinction between Oh, well how, why are you interested in math, but also psychology? It's like, well, math is can be aware can model psychology, right? Well, why are you interested in computer science and psychology? Well, computer science lets me actually build things that then I can put in front of people to study psychology or to try to help them improve psychologically. So, for me, it's sort of all driven by the same forces.
GEORGIA: Well, I think with the creative arts, it's a little different because I like to teach people I often have a moral purpose. I do this thing called Protopia, where I talk about people who are creating a positive effect in various parts of the world, whether they're an arctic explorer, or runner or whatever. So I feel they're trying to create social good. And I do think that people, they're wonderful stories about people as they're dying, be very affected by music. I mean, music can actually inspire them. A strange thing happened recently, a very distinguished singer, got an email from someone he's met at a concert. And the man said, I'm in the ICU, I've got COVID, I may not have very long to live, will you sing me this particular song? And the singer did and send it to him. Now, when you say that was a pretty powerful song, that he said, I'll feel better if I've heard this.
SPENCER: So sweet.
GEORGIA: Yeah. But music has a great effect on people.
SPENCER: I think it's one of the things that temporarily makes us feel like we're in a state beyond just the corporeal body and like we're in this transcendent state.
GEORGIA: Absolutely. I think music is more transcendent than the other arts. But I do think that people's lives have been changed by one work of art and photography, for example. But sometimes, once you know, when people get much older, the one thing they remember, they might not remember where the bathroom is, but they remember a song. So I think there's a deep engraving of that. Maybe the joy of the beauty of music is very powerful. It utilizes your senses in a very explicit way.
SPENCER: Let's talk about age for a moment. I know that you have some thoughts on the idea of ageism. Tell us about that?
GEORGIA: Well, I feel very strongly that consciousness of ageism has come way too late. And people aren't even that aware of it. You know, there was a fascinating study in The Atlantic magazine about a year ago, that showed they analyzed all kinds of app-related and all kinds of dating websites, they did a very extensive study. And they figured out what age a woman's attractiveness and desirability start decreasing. Do you know what it is? What would you guess?
SPENCER: I don't know? I don't know.
GEORGIA: 18. Then they did the same thing for men and figured out when a man says our ability to start decreasing, 50. You might notice is a huge difference between them. And let's say, a man who's very wealthy, let's say might get a younger wife, because it's kind of shows that he's more reroll or more powerful. But if a woman gets a much younger husband, they say, "What's wrong with that guy? Does he want only want her money? Why can't he do better?" Women are so judged by their looks and their fertility that boils down to how they look and their fertility. You know, in Hollywood, it's only now that women are beginning to be able to play roles later in life. And the reality is infinitely worse. It's really terrible. I mean, in hiring people in jobs, it's an effect. Do you know those screen actors, male screen artists have gotten jobs at the age of 98? Because they can play this character role. But women are not supposed to be playing character roles. They're supposed to be playing beauty roles, they like to window dressing and film. That's just one area in which it's happening. I think it happens in hiring and business and other things.
SPENCER: But seems like so much emphasis on tech and society might also increase ageism because people have a sense, "Oh, young people know about technology."
GEORGIA: Yeah. Do you know that the tech movement has greatly increased ageism? Because there's this ridiculous notion that older people can't learn these things. I know they can learn things. You can learn things if you're passionate about them and you really put your mind to it. But older people are not even given the benefit of the doubt.
SPENCER: I remember I taught my 80-year old grandfather how to use computers and he got an iPhone before I got one and he loved it and I am a really huge believer that almost anyone can learn almost anything.
GEORGIA: Well, I agree with it. Well, people have more fluid intelligence, some more than others. I mean, I have a great ability to take in knowledge and learning. I'm just I'm very blessed that way. But I think as you grow older, well, there's certainly loss of some memory. But I think that there's the ability to learn is usually preserved.
SPENCER: Yeah. Well, we are certainly true that different people started different starting points, right? And you know, it's not as easy for each person to learn each thing.
GEORGIA: Well, see, you started learning technical things in, let's say, fourth grade. I don't know when computers were introduced into the school. But there are much more plastic mines in a child, children can learn very quickly. When I was just lucky, I learned music and poetry, and visual things. We had to do oil painting when I was 10 and 11 at school. So I mastered arts. So I think it just is easier. It's less painful and it's faster to learn when you're young. But I think the commitment to learning makes it very possible at any age.
SPENCER: Let's talk about the Me Too movement. I am curious to hear your thoughts on that.
GEORGIA: Well, of course, my generation was had known the Me Too movement. And when terrible, shocking episodes occurred. We were told, don't tell anyone.
SPENCER: Why do you think that you felt that? What was the reason for that?
GEORGIA: Well because they don't they blame the woman. I mean, there were cases of rape at Stanford when I was there but was considered the woman was at fault.
SPENCER: It's such an insane idea.
GEORGIA: Insane. Yeah. Yeah. I almost didn't graduate from Stanford because of an episode like that and there was no one to turn to. No one. I couldn't. If I, for a Stanford professor, was accused of something like that, they would assume that I was lying. They would protect him over me.
SPENCER: You know, I sometimes hear people say things like, Oh, well, if the assault had really happened, why didn't the woman come forward 20 years ago?
GEORGIA: Because it's things have changed. Nobody talked about them. It was a terrible stigma.
SPENCER: Yeah, I think that the people say things like that, just totally misunderstanding incentives. They don't realize that it was that bringing these things up, it would just make the women's lives worse. And there was no benefit and lots of costs to do so.
GEORGIA: Absolutely. But the other thing is, it tends to be more powerful men and met less powerful women. You know, if someone is incredibly powerful in your work area, like film, let's say, they're not going to sacrifice him, they're going to sacrifice you if you're a lowly actress is just starting.
SPENCER: Yeah, you know, we can see this in the recent examples of very powerful men who, for decades, basically sexually assaulted people. And eventually were caught. But the fact that they could do it for so long without repercussions is truly horrifying.
GEORGIA: Well, I think Me Too came not just decades too late, but centuries too late. And even 1000s of years too late. Women have, if you read history, now, allowed it to be understood better that women have been abused from the beginning. And it may be that women have always been less physically strong. And maybe that's how it was possible to happen. But it is truly shocking and horrifying. It really is. Do you think it will stop? Do you think it will come to an end?
SPENCER: I think that there probably, unfortunately, will continue to be lots of sexual harassment assaults. Hopefully, though, the incentives will start to shift. If men get away with it, and they're no repercussions, obviously, they're gonna do a lot more of it. Whereas if they start to see, oh, I really am going to be caught, I really am going to be punished. That it should that hopefully, will cause repercussion.
GEORGIA: I know fear will affect them deeply.
SPENCER: And I think the reason I mentioned centers, I just think that that's so key is it, it has to become in women's interest in their own incentive to actually bring these things to light as long as the woman is punished.
GEORGIA: A woman has to be viewed as something positive, instead of something that comes out of the negative base.
SPENCER: Exactly, so the woman gets punished by being harassed or assaulted and then gets doubly punished by bringing it up. Like, of course, they're not going to bring it up. And of course, then these things are gonna work in the shadows and you know, men continue to do it.
GEORGIA: There are people who did it like Bill Cosby for 50 years.
SPENCER: Sound believable. It just shows how protected these men were and how hard it was for women to get any kind of justice.
GEORGIA: Absolutely. It is so depressing and upsetting.
SPENCER: So let's talk about relationships a little bit. I know that you have some thoughts, and there's a book that you really enjoy and tell us about that.
GEORGIA: Yes, there's one book that I think is outstanding beyond all others, it's called Happy Together. And it's by Suzanne and James Pavelski and happens to James was a professor of mine, and Susie is a friend, but I would have given it the highest marks. In fact, I was kind of nervous. But what I was gonna say to them if I didn't like the book, but it goes all the way back to Aristotle. And it continues through William James. And it's very influenced by positive psychology, but it literally brings in every little element that's been studied in positive psychology. I'll tell you, one of my favorite little tiny bits of positive psychology is called No-negative Self-talk. And they bring that up in the book, somebody might say, "Oh, that was a stupid thing I said" or things to themselves, and they bring that up as something that isn't helpful to relationship to put yourself down and that way. But there are so many things to be guided by. There's a guy named John Gottman, who has written about eight books on relationships and they bring in some of Gottman's series and information.
SPENCER: I recall John Gottman's idea of the four horsemen of the apocalypse when it comes to relationships. These four factors that he found in his studies tended to predict if the relationship is sailing, and I believe there is a number one: Criticism, so basically telling a person that there's something wrong with them. And I think it's especially bad when it's focused on a person as opposed to just a single thing that they did. And then number two is Defensiveness, which is basically if your partner says, I wish you do this thing differently, you become defensive, and you might actually be perceived like they're attacking you, and then you may actually go attack them.
GEORGIA: Exactly. Well, put.
SPENCER: And then the third was: Contempt, where you're essentially putting yourself on a higher moral ground than your partner.
GEORGIA: Yep. Was there also feeding out everything they do? What do they call that?
SPENCER: Stonewalling is the fourth one which is basically withdrawing from the conversation. So your partner brings up something that upsets them, and then you say, I don't want to talk about this and leave the room.
GEORGIA: Leave the room. I know, someone whose wife always leaves the room.
SPENCER: Or just being non-responsive, you just sort of becoming disengaged. And not really responding. So I think one really practical thing is to try to have a better relationship trying to avoid criticism and focusing on talking about a specific behavior or things that the person did not about their character. Avoid being defensive as they bring up something that was difficult for them that they want you to change so don't attack them back, trying to avoid contempt, you're trying to avoid anything that involves looking down on the other person. And then finally, avoiding stonewalling, where you refuse to engage in the conversation about something that they're upset about.
GEORGIA: Well, the couple that wrote a book recently did a podcast with the Gottmans, they both work together -- husband and wife. And they had a wonderful discussion about that. But Susan James brings it every single element of what's been learned in positive psychology. But James has degrees in philosophy, as do I. And he brings a lot of philosophical things. He worships William James and taught teaches his students a lot about that. But I think the book can really help people. The other thing is, even point to and say, well, didn't book say this. I mean, I wouldn't do that too many times. But it's hard, cold, French, and I think it's going to help people enormously and I'm sure it already has.
SPENCER: So before we wrap up this a couple more things I want to bring up with you. One of them is that you have done so much education your life and I'm curious about why you chose to do that. I think you have more master's degrees than anyone I've ever met, but even Master's in Business, MBA, a Master's in Psychology, Creative Writing.
GEORGIA: I'm finally finished the fifth degree which should be MFA in creative writing. I just had to learn-aholic that I just have to know and learn things and I adore learning things. Of course, I enjoy that part because I got such positive feedback from my teachers. And I've had wonderful, brilliant teachers, James Foskey, being one of them. And they've always responded very well to me like Martin Seligman has taken a personal interest in me and listened to all my music and writes me back about it. I've just been blessed in the area of teachers.
SPENCER: Because I think one competition has been going on today is sort of the value and purpose of education. And should you describe these things to yourself? Or should you be in an educational environment? What's your feeling on sort of the benefits of being in a Master as opposed to trying to self-teach?
GEORGIA: Well, I think when you're in a master's program, first of all, you're surrounded by other people who are trying to learn. You're surrounded by good teachers. And you're forced to do certain kinds of work that you might not want to do like reading an analytical paper. But strangely enough, I just finished an oratorio about Anna Karenina, and do you know that women were not educated. She died in, I think, 1281 in the Byzantine Empire, women receive no education, but because she was supposed to become the Empress. Her brother stole the throne, but she received a massive education. And in 1251, she wrote 10 history of the Byzantine empire, which still stands as the best history of that period. So women have been deprived of education. I know it's hard to believe. But when I was growing up, a lot of women didn't go to college. They went to even what they used to call it, can you believe it, finishing school or two-year colleges, fortunately, they've all gone away. Where you refine your talent sets, giving you a dinner party, and learning about music, events, being able to talk about music, and it was really very silly. It was very degrading to women. But I know women, I had a much older sister who went to one of these programs. It was supposed to keep you in the upper class.
SPENCER: Also, women often didn't get exposure to science, as I understand it.
GEORGIA: Oh, you can't believe this. In my school, we were not allowed to take science. Our last year, when we were allowed to take science, was the eighth-grader, I remember, everything from that class because I loved it.
SPENCER: All the boys were taking at a younger age than the girls.
GEORGIA: Yes, and I started mastering it until we merged with the boy's school in 10th grade. And I ended up with, after being put down by them, have enormous math-phobia that has never gone away, even though business school.
SPENCER: You know, this was a relates to this topic we're talking about before of the world is it getting better? Is it getting worse? You know, when one thing you have, is your perspective, seeing sort of how women have been treated for a number of different periods? What are your thoughts on: are things getting better?
GEORGIA: Well, this is kind of a Steven Pinker kind of issue. I mean, I think his work is underrated. And people react very negatively to it because it's very positive, looking for what's good in the world. And there are a lot of Danish scholars who also take that approach. But people feel, I think that if you are too optimistic about what's going on, you won't be motivated to take care of the things that are going wrong. I think they just have this huge negativity about that. And how would you explain it?
SPENCER: Yeah, well, I guess I think of Steven Pinker's work on this saying that, you know, okay, sure, if we take the short view, sometimes things get better soon as things get worse. If we take the long view and step-back, we see that actually, society is dramatically better in so many different ways than it was basically, since the Industrial Revolution, there have actually been massive improvements in many ways. And I think if we look back 100 years, despite all the problems we have today, it's really hard to say that the world's not much better than it was 100 years ago.
GEORGIA: It is hard to say that, but many people do say it. The thing is, I think it's very encouraging to know that problems have been solved in the past, the things have gotten better. It's sort of inspires me to say, we can go on getting better, there are things we can do to make the world better. Look what Steven Pinker has found all the facts and figures in information. Human rights have changed dramatically.
SPENCER: Well, I think you make a really good point about some people being reluctant to talk about the world getting better because there's a sense that well if you just turn by the world be better. You're kind of glossing over the way things are still bad. Or you maybe you're boasting over the way things have gotten actually temporarily worse in the short term, which sometimes happens. And so I think it's to really have an accurate, nuanced view, you have to say, well, yes, the world has gotten dramatically better if you take the long view, but also there's still a lot of bad things. We still need to work on improving them. And still, sometimes things slide back. Sometimes things get better. And if you average over everything there is all this improvement.
GEORGIA: A kind of strange example is climate change. And people have been saying for hundreds of years, literally that we're having a bad effect on the climate. If you look at what's happening in California now, it shockingly fits what people have predicted over the long run. So I'd say climate change is something which no optimism is available at this point.
SPENCER: Right. So even if a lot of things are getting better, we still have to hold space for nuance and say, okay, but some things are getting worse. And those things are really important, and we still need to focus on them. So for the final topic, before we wrap up, I thought it'd be good to end on wisdom. What are your thoughts on wisdom?
GEORGIA: Well, I think that our society is extremely obsessed with facts, with information. You know, some people are inform-maniacs, they just have to get as many facts and information as they can. I have great curiosity, but I'm not necessarily looking for facts. I'm looking for knowledge. And knowledge is more expensive than facts. Knowledge means you actually gain and learn from the fact and they guide you in some way. But wisdom goes even beyond that. Wisdom is using experience and every aspect of your learning to improve the way you behave in the world, treat people in the world, and manage your existence.
SPENCER: That's beautifully said. Thanks so much for coming out.
GEORGIA: Thank you.
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