Katy Milkman brings a science-based approach to achieving your goals. The amount of methods and tips we hear that are meant to help us change can turn into a foggy mess, leaving us chasing our tails. Katy uses science to bring you clarity and a roadmap...
Katy Milkman brings a science-based approach to achieving your goals. The amount of methods and tips we hear that are meant to help us change can turn into a foggy mess, leaving us chasing our tails. Katy uses science to bring you clarity and a roadmap for getting from where you are to where to want to be.
Katy Milkman is the author of How to Change available now | https://www.katymilkman.com/book
Visit Katy Milkman's website | https://www.katymilkman.com
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Katy Milkman: When tomorrow becomes today, we're actually much more attracted to the enticing options. And so we don't recognize we'll need a strategy. We'll need a way to resist and to make it actually in tempting and fun to do the thing that's good for us. And that aligns with our goals. So if we were a little bit more self-aware I think we'd make better choices and recognize, okay, maybe the most effective workout would burn slightly more calories and make you fit faster, but you're going to quit after one visit to the gym.
So it's not the right one to choose and same with, you know, the course selections for your graduate degree. If you, if you take the toughest machine learning class first, you may not persist. As if you take a, you know, a graphics class or something, I'm making it up based on my own interests, graphics design might be even more exciting.
So you have to find the balance. So you're pursuing the goal, but you're doing it in a way that will actually be instantly gratifying. And then this temptation will actually be working for you because you'll find it tempting to do the thing.
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Katie, welcome to the unmistakable creative. Thanks so much for taking the time to
Katy Milkman: join us. Thank you so much for having me. I'm excited to be here.
Srini Rao: Yeah. Absolute pleasure to have you. It's funny because I had actually written down your name as somebody that I wanted to interview because I'd come across it some in so many of the other books that I read.
And then coincidentally, I got an email from your publicists that our mutual publisher saying that you had a new book out and it's a book title, how to change the science of getting from where you are to where you want it to be. And when I saw the word science, I was like, yes. Finally, somebody has done this with actual science, not just, you know, anecdotal nonsense or, you know basically subjective evidence.
So I really appreciated that. But before we get into all of that, given the nature of your work I wanna start by asking you what social group were you a part of in high school and what impact did that end up having on the choices that you've made throughout your life and your career?
Katy Milkman: Oh, wow. I love that question.
I went to a funny high school. I was actually just talking about this with one of my good friends. It's odd that you asked this question today. I went to she was saying, did you go to a sweet 16 high school? And I was like, what does that mean? Or excuse me. She said, did you go to a 16 candles high school?
And I said, what do you mean? And she said, you know, like a big high school that had enough people for all the groups. And I went to a small high school. It had only 120 students in the graduating class. And so there actually weren't, as you know, there were small cliques, but we didn't have like the geeks, the jocks, it wasn't quite the same.
So I would say if there were categories, there were sort of like a group who was friends with everyone and that was probably half the class. And then there were a couple of smaller cliques and I was kinda in that crew. I was friendly with most people. I edited the yearbook. I played on the tennis team.
I took advanced classes. And so like, you know, some of my friends were athletes. Some of my friends were from yearbook. So my friends were from AP math, just a dependent.
Srini Rao: Yeah, well, this is something I've asked a lot of people who went to small high schools. What did you learn about navigating human relationships from being in such an intimate environment?
Because you're right. For a lot of us that is not a common high school experience. Like, I couldn't tell you the names of that 90% of the people I went to high school with. Like, I probably wouldn't recognize most of them on
Katy Milkman: the street. Right. Whereas I, I think I could probably tell you the names of all of them and I would definitely recognize them, but you will get it also comes with that.
I should note I was a sentimental high school student apparently, or else I wouldn't have done that. Yeah, it's a great question. What did I learn? I think one of the things I learned was that like. Ideally, you wouldn't make enemies, especially in such a small environment. Right. And it was important to try to be kind to everyone because it was just too small of a place to be gossiping by and one person's back or say, you know, it came back to bite you.
So I would say that was a key lesson for me. And it's, it's not that I've always stuck to it, but that in general, it is really a good approach to try to be nice to everyone and to befriend everyone you can because the world is small.
Srini Rao: Yeah. Well, I mean, you're a professor at arguably one of the most elite institutions in the world, and I wonder, did your parents, were you encouraged to be incredibly ambitious and driven academically because that's kind of standard for any Indian kids later?
I'm sure you probably know this, given that you're teach at U Penn, like, I'm sure you have your fair share of Indian students, but I wonder, you know, like what the narrative about education and school was growing up for you.
Katy Milkman: Yes. I, I wasn't raised by Indian parents, but I think I have the Aegean parent experience.
So yes, my parents were very, very education focused from a young age. I'm an only child. My dad's dad was a university professor and his sister and brother are both university professors. He was the odd ball who didn't go into the academic sphere. My mom's family was more engineers but still a serious, serious academic focus was part of her background.
So it was absolutely always something we talked about. I think by the time I was five, I could name many universities, which is a little weird in hindsight. I, one thing that's a little different though I should say is that I think my parents. They believed in me, they thought, you know, she seems like a smart kid, but they also thought like, she doesn't seem like, you know, way off the charts smarter than everybody else.
And it's going to get, get into the top schools, which is our big ambition for her. So my dad who was very strategic, had this scheme, like, let's see if she could really thrive in an athletic pursuit that might make it a little easier for her to get into a top school because she had had that on the side.
So my parents really pushed me in tennis, which ended up being a sport. I played in college division one and indeed it, it helped. Definitely helped me get in it. So that was kind of a weird way of a roundabout way of getting someone who you hope would achieve academically. It's funny right to like, I was a jock in the end.
That was part of how I got into college, certainly. But then I ended up doing really well in college, much better than I'd done, frankly, in high school. So that was like an accident maybe because in high school I was busy playing tennis, but anyway, that was my, that was my background is, is unusual I guess, but definitely aggressive parents.
Srini Rao: Yeah. I mean, I think I, the only reason I got into Berkeley was because I made all-state band as a tuba player. Like I, you know, I looked me and my sister looked at what it takes to get into Berkeley. Now in both of us, look at the scores that people get and we're like, yeah, we, would've definitely not gotten in.
If we were applying now,
Katy Milkman: I feel the same way. So I went to Princeton and I, I feel very lucky that I got in, I wasn't a heavily recruited athlete, but I was, you know, gonna make the team. So it was enough that it definitely gave me a boost and my grades were fine. My sat scores were, you know, good, but not, not perfect.
And, and I don't think in this day and age, I would have a chance
Srini Rao: parents encourage you to pursue any particular career path.
Katy Milkman: Oh, that's interesting. You know, I think they, they encouraged me to pursue something where I'd make a living. I have a half-brother who is wonderful and is an artist and had a really tough time making a living.
And I think that was something they were nervous about seeing happen again. And so they definitely pushed me to think about careers, where I was likely to be able to support myself, even if there wasn't a miracle. So I had, you know, majored in practical things and frankly, I loved math. So that was actually, it wasn't like a hardship.
But I ended up becoming an engineer. I started as a bachelor of arts student thinking I do economics was not interested in economics at the way. It was taught at the undergraduate level. I fell in love in grad school with economics oddly, but I hated it so much that I actually dropped out of the bachelor of arts program, did a summer of summer school classes so that I could catch up and become an engineer.
And my parents liked that because it seemed practical and they were supportive of that. But when, when I got interested in research, instead of going sort of the consulting or banking route, which were things I was thinking about they were supportive. I think they, they weren't pushing me one direction or another though.
I think they would have been happy to see me take any of those routes. They were all, I was going to be able to live a middle-class life and that's, I think they wanted me to be happy and self-sufficient
Srini Rao: well, so I want to come back to that, but there's something I couldn't let go that you said, you mentioned that you were an only child with a half-brother and it's funny.
Cause you know, as somebody who has siblings, I can almost always spot an only child. I remember when my sister introduced me to her, brother-in-law my first question was, does he have siblings? And she's like, no, and I'm like, shit, that's a red flag. But the thing that I I've always found, you know, when I look at my only children, friends, like they're, they fall into two categories those who treat their friends, like, you know, their brothers and sisters, and then the other ones who are selfish, but like in really subtle ways that they're completely unaware of stupid things.
Like not showing up on time, making sure, you know, whatever timing you schedule, something centers around them. You know, I wonder like what the experience of being an only child was like for you in terms of, of, you know, forming social relationships, like what did that teach you about navigate making your way in the world?
Katy Milkman: Well, that's an interesting question and I should also clarify, so my half-brother is 18 years older than I am, which is part of the reason I feel like an only child, so we never lived under the same roof. So that, that, I think that qualifies me as only child in my household. It feels funny to claim I had a sibling.
In the traditional sense though, I certainly have a sibling in a very important sense. I, you know, I was lonely a lot as a kid and. I was mentioning, you asked me about what I learned from going to a small high school. And I said, be nice to everyone. I think I was so lonely because I am definitely an extrovert that I also learned.
Like I really crave social interaction. I really like having a best friend or a close friend in every setting. And I learned that about myself by being lonely, that it was important to me to always be around people and and you know, everybody's different, but that is probably part of the reason I ended up living in a city and I've always had really close friends in each walk of life.
I have really close collaborators on my academic pursuits and always have who I work with repeatedly and who I consider among my best friends. And I think that's partly shaped by that desire to have close. Close connections that I lacked as a kid.
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Well, yeah, I can relate. I, you know, I moved around constantly as a kid. I mean, you're a college professor, so you know what that life is like for anybody. Who's the son of a non-tenured professor. You know, my dad got his tenure track position when I started high school, so, Oh, wow. And so I said, it's not a coincidence that I have made a career out of doing something that ensures I'll never stop meeting new people.
Katy Milkman: Yes. That's wonderful. That seems like a really positive aspect of it. And it's interesting different things driving that desire for social interaction.
Srini Rao: Totally. Let's talk about your college experience because, you know, I think something that you said that really struck me was that you realized you hated economics the way and the way it was taught.
And it's funny because I had that exact same experience, but you know, as an economics major at Berkeley. And I remember, I think it was my final semester. I was a super senior, so I graduated for a half years and I was sitting, listening to this professor, talk about how to use the utility function, to maximize the amount of milk you could get out of a cow and thinking to myself, okay, When the hell am I ever going to need to know how to do this?
You, you do
Katy Milkman: realize you're interviewing a milkman right now, so that might've appealed to me slightly more. Yeah.
Srini Rao: Well, so, but the thing is that the real question from that is you figured that out so early in college, and I feel like so many people don't, they just kind of leave wondering, I felt like I wasted the experience at Berkeley when I I've read books by other people who went to Berkeley.
And I feel like they're describing a different university. And so, you know, as somebody who is a teacher in an institution like this to click, what is it that prevents people from discovering this thing that they were meant to do? And then how is it that, you know, I know you write about conformity, which we'll get into, but I often felt like Berkeley was a breeding ground for conformity because everybody there was like future bankers lawyers and, and, you know, U Penn students and investment bankers and doctors.
Katy Milkman: That's funny that Berkeley seems like, wow. If Berkeley was a place that is conformity, what, what would you say about all the institutions I've been affiliated with? Okay. Sorry. Let me back up. That was a long question with lots of parts that were like, what is it about, give me the key part. You want me to talk about it?
Srini Rao: Let's start with this. Like, you know, you figured out really early on that you hated economics and you did something to change it. Yeah. I just accepted my fate and kept going until I ended up with a degree in environmental economics, which I'll never use.
Katy Milkman: Got it. Okay. So like what, what is it that helps students find the right path in college?
Is that the question?
Srini Rao: That's a good way to put it. Yeah.
Katy Milkman: Oh gosh. Well like everything else. I think luck certainly plays a big role, right? Or do you talk to the right people at the right moment to be inspired for me? The luck was that I had a roommate. My freshman year, who was an engineer. And I was sort of looking at her and the classes she was taking and the courses she was considering signing up for as electives.
And I was like, wow, those are really interesting classes. You're taking a class about e-commerce class, about the design of transportation systems. Like that sounds fascinating. I want to study those things. And on the flip side, I wasn't enjoying the economics track that I thought I would go on because I was really, I liked math and I wanted to do something practical.
So economics seemed natural, but then I took this first year course that was just mind numbing. And, you know, you described the experience, but the professor in this class who, by the way was never, again, he, he taught, I'm not going to say who it was. You've heard of him. He was allowed to teach this class one time, introductory micro economics and never again, because it was such a disaster, but he would walk into class and read from a textbook.
Literally that was the lecture. I mean, I can't even imagine doing that to my students. That's outrageous. And it was terrible. Not only that it was a textbook, he was in the process of writing and it was not yet complete. So he would read like these drafts that had errors in them and then he'd send us the draft.
So we'd have reading, but the reading would come like two weeks after he'd covered the material in class. Cause he wasn't quite on top of finishing it. And there were errors. Like I remember doing a midterm problem and I did it the way that it was outlined in the book. And then they're like, Oh no, sorry, that's wrong?
And there was an error in the book. So, anyway, not only was it a horse, it was horribly taught the material. Didn't speak to me. Cause I was like, this is not how people really make decisions, all this optimizing bologna. And it just, I was like, that's not have, have you met my roommates? Like we're a mess.
This is not, this is not what human decision making looks like. So those two things like the hatred of the path I thought I was meant to be on. And the luck of having a roommate who is majoring in something that was closely related, but you know, different enough that I could see a new path by looking over her shoulder.
That's what locked me into it. And, and then in general, like I think there's a huge amount of luck, but I don't think we explore enough and that's true in life. Certainly true in college. People come in with too many preconceived notions about what they expect to be, even though they're 18 and this is the time to, you know, take a class in you know, French literature and a class in you know, astrophysics and a class in accounting, and like, see what speaks to you.
And that exploration is how we, you know, you can make your own luck. And I got lucky by having a roommate who did some of the exploring for me, but I think I'm always excited to see students who are really going broad in their first year, because I think they have more opportunity than naturally to find the thing that makes their heart sing.
Srini Rao: Yeah, well, you know, it's funny when I had Tina Seelig here from Stanford, she was telling me that, you know, she has two categories of students. You know, these people who come in at 18 and have their whole life planned out when they've only lived a fraction of it and the others who are worried that they haven't found some sort of passion and she sent it back to the second category of students that ends up being more successful in the law.
And, you know, I wonder, you know, what you, in terms of trends with your Stu your own students, when it comes to this, that's the first piece of this, but you're a graduate of, one of the most elite institutions in the world. You're a professor at one of the most elite institutions in the world. So in the wake of you seeing something like the college admissions scandal, which is the second question, wha what do you, what do you think of, of our education system today?
I mean, you and I were both talking about the fact we wouldn't have been accepted into the schools, but I remember watching the, there was a documentary on Netflix about this whole thing. And to see, you know, these kids, you know, looking at their computers to see whether they got into their school of choice or not.
It was just this either moment of profound anxiety or profound joy. And I remember thinking that was nothing like the experience I got. I opened the envelope and thought, cool, I got into Berkeley.
Katy Milkman: Even with your Indian parents, I totally had that experience like, Oh my God, my life is, this is
Srini Rao: amazing.
It was just like, this is what we expected. So no, there's no celebration for your good grades. Nobody's putting your report cards on refrigerators or any of that bullshit. Like this is what we expect of you.
Katy Milkman: That's great. Well, I mean, I don't know if it's great. It's fascinating in my house. It was definitely sort of what you see today.
Like we were so all of us over joyed at my good fortune, because I do not think any of us thought it was even close to a sure thing that I would end up at a school like Princeton. So I remember that feeling of absolute elation when I got the news, I like truly over the moon. Okay. So, but let me say a little bit more about.
I think your more fundamental question, which was like, what do I think about the whole college admissions scene? I think that it's actually getting better, even though your narrative was that it's getting worse. And here's how I think it's getting better. I think when I was in school, the fraction of kids who are from low socioeconomic status backgrounds was vanishingly small.
There were very few kids on Pell grants, you know, not everyone was a billionaire's kid, but most kids had come from a pretty comfortable middle-class background with parents who could afford to pay at least some of their tuition. And that's just not how I think Ameritocracy should operate. And it's really changed a lot.
And I think at least at the IVs, which is where I'm, where I've spent my career, it's been wonderful to see the, the move from having kids have, you know, Debt. When they graduated to a completely grant based system of providing financial support for kids at the top schools, it's amazing to see the enormous effort that's been made to increase the percentage of student on students on Pell grants at places like Princeton and Harvard and Penn, where I work and it's been transformative and they're different places and they're better places because they're serving, I think the function they should in society, which is to try to create, I know we'll never have a truly level playing field, at least in my lifetime, but the more we can do to get towards one the better.
And I do think these institutions were not serving that function even 20 years ago. And they're coming a lot closer now. Yeah.
Srini Rao: Well, you know, I wonder because for a lot of kids in high school these days, if they don't get into say one of these schools, it's basically, I'm not going to amount to a damn thing in this life now, because I didn't get this degree from this prestigious school.
And then you couple that with the fact that we have this massive student loan debt crisis. So I wonder, you know, as somebody who is teaching at one of the most leading institutions world, if you were given the task of re designing the education system from the ground up so that we don't leave people behind, because the reality is that, you know, you go to a school like U Penn or a Berkeley.
You have doors that are open to you that are not open to other people. And I learned this because I went to a grad school that was far less. You know, knowing then Berkeley, like I ended up at Pepperdine for my MBA program and I remember one of my friends saying, you feel like a genius, don't you? He said, you're not, you're surrounded by idiots.
That's the difference between being here and being at Berkeley which, you know, that was you know, not the nicest way to say it, but there was a grain of truth to the contrast between the people in each of those environments. So given, you know, if you had to redesign this from the ground up, how would you do it?
Katy Milkman: Oh my gosh, that's such a hard question. I, I would, I would pump more money to public institutions like Berkeley, frankly, and Penn state and university of Virginia. And I think investing in those public institutions. So we have really, we already have a pretty excellent public institution system in the United States, but I think it should be even stronger.
And ideally. Every state's public school would be considered on par with an Ivy league degree. Because that's, you know, not everyone's comfortable getting on a plane and moving across the country from their family and they shouldn't have to, to get an absolutely outstanding education. And in many States they don't, but there are some States that aren't on par and I think, you know, investing there would be a great use of dollars.
I'm not imagination policy experts. That would be my one. That's the one thing that comes to mind.
Srini Rao: Okay. So instead of policy, let's talk about curriculum. You know, like if you, I mean, I clearly, I think the nature of, of what people like you and people like Adam Grant teachers is incredibly practical.
Cause I I've read all of Adam's books. He's been a guest here before and yet I feel like I never got the experience of having people like you or Adam as teachers, you know? And I I've seen some of the students that come out of your classes, like they accomplish extraordinary things.
Katy Milkman: They do. It's amazing.
I mean, our. Role is very, you know, known to Lake mentioned, Ben Franklin, who I love, I obviously don't know Ben Franklin I would have loved to I'm big admire his vision of a university was that it should be a place that taught a tremendous amount of practical knowledge. And he founded Penn, which is where I work.
And, and there's a lot of applied knowledge generated at, at Penn. It sort of revolves more around the having an undergraduate business program and, and the world's oldest, it didn't exist when Ben Franklin was there, but it certainly, and in the vein of something he would have approved of you know, a big engineering focus, a giant med school a dental school, a veterinary school and nursing school, like very applied.
And that's in contrast to a place like Princeton, which is where I went as an undergraduate, which is very much on the opposite end of the spectrum. We're sort of focused on theory and You know, teaching you classics and so on. I think there's a lot of value in both and it probably depends on the student really what's what's best.
I got a ton out of that broad undergraduate experience, but I think some people love practical knowledge. That's part of what I love it enough that I was drawn to engineering as part of my experience. I did, you know, I was an American studies minor, so I also got to use the humanist part of my brain, but I don't think we should throw out the window theoretical math and econ one Oh one and things of that nature, and suddenly replaced them with the kinds of classes that Adam and I teach at Wharton where we're.
Teaching you how to be a leader, how to work with people, how to make unbiased decisions. I think those are electives that I would love to see available in undergraduate curriculum. And they are in a lot of places like a lot of psychology and economics departments will offer things of that nature. And I think it's great that there are some undergraduate business degree programs.
And I think Wharton does a great job educating at students in places that there are lots of other wonderful institutions, but it is very, you really have to know. So you want to go into business before we were just mentioning the kind, they're sort of two kinds of students. The kinds of students who show up at Wharton are careerists.
I don't think we want to move towards a system where every 18 year old knows they want to be an investment banker or consultant or an entrepreneur. I think it's good that most 18 year olds are sort of like, I want to be something when I grow up and then they end up at a more broad liberal arts college and figure that out.
And then for the. Unusual kids who are certain, they want to be business students having that more applied degree available at places like Wharton. So a subset of them choose to do that. That's great. I think it's great, but I do not think we want to shift all of undergraduate education so that everyone has to take leadership.
For instance, I think it's well suited to some, not all. Okay.
Srini Rao: Well, one last question, which I think will make a perfect segue into the, the content of the book. What are your students worry about? Like, what are their sort of existential concerns?
Katy Milkman: Oh, that's a good question
right now. Like what do they not, you know, they worry about public health. They worry about the economy. They worry about their parents and whether their parents are going to get a vaccine they worry about. Whether they'll be able to get jobs and whether work will be remote or in person and what that will look like.
You know, right now there's a lot of existential crises related to the last year's calamity on everyone's mind and my classes. And there's a lot of worries about polarization and, and fake news and, and the direction of our democracy, racism. Those are the kinds of existential crises they're having.
And frankly, it's great. They should be having those existential crises. I think they're worried about all the right things.
Srini Rao: It's funny. I would never think, you know, a group of MBA students from U Penn would be worried about how to find a job. Like I'd think of all the people in the world who were pretty much guaranteed any job they want.
These guys would be at the top of the list.
Katy Milkman: Well, they're all guaranteed jobs, but maybe not their dream job. I mean, not quite guaranteed, but you know, if they're willing to take a job, but they come in with aspiration too. Do something more meaningful than they've, they've left behind for the most part.
I mean, a lot of students coming to an MBA program, it sounds like you like be included in this. I'm curious if this was your experience, but you know, a lot of them they've done something for the last few years and they don't want to just be in that same job for the rest of their lives. And that's what causes them to step back and say, okay, I'm going to go for another degree.
And that's a chance to pivot, explore, maybe do the exploration I didn't do as an undergraduate to figure out what's out there experiment and then find my passion. And it's a little harder to do that in a crummy economy because not every door is open to you in a way that it might've been in a, in a boom
Srini Rao: time.
Yeah, no, absolutely. I mean, it's funny. Cause I was talking to a group of Columbia MBA students the other day. I, one of our guests here was a professor there and you know, I thought it was like, Oh, this is great. I get to go and speak to students at the business school that rejected me. Talk about VIN being vindicated.
But you know, I think that there's definitely some truth to that. Cause I, I did graduate into a crummy economy from business school was April, 2009. And you mentioned, you know, those doors not being open. And I remember, you know, the thing I shared with students, I said, look, you know, the thing that is beautiful about those doors, not being open, as you start to realize how often the opportunities in front of you blind you to the possibilities that surround you.
And you know, for me, that was largely what happened.
Katy Milkman: So how so it was obviously what happened. Say more.
Srini Rao: Well, I mean, so one, I, you know, my job history has checkered to say the least, cause I had been fired from every job I had. So I knew that that wasn't going to happen. And nobody was hiring. And so I literally I'd started a blog as a way to get the two to stand out in the job market.
I had no idea that it would actually end up just becoming my job in all of this would follow. But it was, I think the best advice I ever got during that period was from a consultant who told me, he said, the worst thing you can do when you're unemployed is to spend all of your time looking for a job.
And that sounded so counterintuitive. And now 10 years later, I realized that was priceless advice. It was like, make
Katy Milkman: your own way instead.
Srini Rao: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Well, I think that that makes a perfect segue to get into the content of the book. So I'm curious, like of all the subjects that you could, you know, write a book about how you landed on this and then, you know, how, you know, to me or this combination of a social scientist and engineer.
And I think that's why, like the book so much is that you basically took principles of engineering and applied them to this book. But you know, what is it that prompted you write this book of all the ones you could write?
Katy Milkman: Oh, wow. Well there was no other book I could write. I'll be honest, like this is my life's work.
So, so in a sense, it was the obvious book. It's just funny to me that I will say probably for a decade, I knew I wanted to write a book about something. Eventually a lot of people in business academia eventually write a book. And I thought that sounds neat because I'd like to communicate with a broader audience.
I liked the idea of sharing science broadly. In fact, I remember we were talking about college. I remember at Princeton as a senior. I didn't know what I was going to be when I grew up yet. I had no idea, but I knew I loved science and I knew I loved communicating about it. And I took an advanced journalism class where everyone else wanted to be a journalist.
And I was very clear in my application for the class and in my conversations with our instructor. Like, no, I, I don't want to be a journalist. I just want to write really well, as well as a journalist about science. So I always knew I wanted to write a book, but I didn't know what it would be about, which in hindsight is hilarious because there, there was only one book I am qualified to write, and this is the one.
But, but it took me a while to see the big picture and the way all of my work fit into this bucket of changing behavior for the better and durable ways. I think I started in graduate school. My PhD is in computer science and business and. I didn't know what field really I was going to be in. Cause those are two fields.
They're not a field. It wasn't until I discovered behavioral economics about halfway through my first year accidentally, frankly, it was just sort of mentioned in a lecture, in a class I was required to take. And then I started down a rabbit hole and fell in love. And my early work was not as programmatic.
It was like, I liked big data. Let's see if I could do something cool with this data set and find something quirky about human nature. And it wasn't until I got to Penn where we have a giant medical school that exerts a really strong influence on the whole university in a good way. And has a lot of folks who are doing behavioral economics and health.
And so he just started hanging out with this group because there were a bunch of world-class people there thinking about related problems. And I learned. A couple of years and just how big of a deal it is that people don't make optimal decisions when it comes to health. And specifically there was this graph I saw at a presentation and the graph showed that 40% of premature deaths are due to behaviors that could be changed.
And it was like, my head almost exploded at that very moment. Like what, 40%, I would have said 4%. So things like, you know, not eating, right, not exercising sufficiently not getting your recommended cancer screenings or taking your meds or buckling your seatbelt, all of those bad decisions. Can they add up drinking, smoking?
They add up to 40% of premature death. So. That was like a pivot moment for me when I realized I should be focused, not on like cute, interesting things I could do with big data, but like fixing that, you know, I'm not going to get rid of the 40%, but like making a dent in it, what could, how could I help?
This is a real opportunity to do something good with my skills. And so I started focusing a lot more on behavior change. That's positive. And that's what this book is about. Like, it's not about health decisions specifically because I also ended up studying savings decisions and decisions about education and productivity at work.
But but that. I'll say North star of like wanting to make a dent in a really important problem of behavior change and realizing it could make the world better and people's lives better. That's what guided this book.
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You forget to take your medication again, in spite of downloading that goal-setting app to help you procrastinate on that big quarterly report for your boss, in spite of setting daily reminders to work on it, your employees don't take advantage of companies sponsored educational programs or retirement benefits, even when they're offered rewards for signing up.
And, you know, like I said, I think part of why I liked it so much was your book falls into the self-help category, but you also poke holes into, you know, what are widely touted platitudes in most self-help books, because I feel like people make so much effort to change that doesn't lead to any change at all.
Despite, you know, the, the stack of books on their shelves, like I've joked that, you know, if I, my life for an accurate reflection of the people I've interviewed and the books that I read, I would be a billionaire with six pack abs and a harem of supermodels, you know, on speed dial. And I'm none of those things.
So. Why is it? I guess, really the question is that we make all this effort to change, you know, by reading all these books, by going to the seminars and nothing changes. You know, I I've asked numerous people, this question, Steven Kotler gave me one version, but I'm curious from your perspective and based on your research, what is it that leads to all this personal development that actually leads to no change?
Katy Milkman: Well, there's a lot of answers, not just one. The first one is the change is really freaking hard and, and I hope that in reading my book, no one comes away thinking like, Oh no, I've read it. I know what to do. You know, like I have a guaranteed success program because unfortunately I can't offer that nor can anyone else I'm just offering science that should increase the probability that changes successful.
But. But it's really hard because there's all these things working against us. Human nature is generally working against change. We're very inertial. We overweight instant gratification dramatically relative to long-term rewards. We're forgetful, we're over committed. We, we, you know there's just, there's a lot of things working against us.
So change is difficult. So that's the first answer. Even if everyone had the best science in the world, like the best coach in the world whispering in their ear, many still, probably wouldn't succeed because there is a lot working against you. And I also think that's important to acknowledge before starting a journey because you want to build in.
An expectation that there will be setbacks and that it's not going to be the smoothest ride. Okay. So the, the cause otherwise you'll, you know, like you'll collapse when you hit the first one and then you won't make it. Yeah. So, so that's part one. And then I guess part two, and this is where, like, I hope my book really adds more value than just saying, cause it's hard.
Is I do, I do really believe that there's too much of a one size fits all. Like, I don't know what your problem is, but I'm going to solve it approach in all of these books. Like I have my technique, like, listen, I've got this goal setting strategy that, you know, I've perfected or here are my seven tips and, and most of it doesn't reflect an understanding of what's preventing change in the first place, which is very personal.
And it really depends on the kind of change. Like are you trying to build an exercise routine? Are you trying to save more? Do you want to go back to school and what's holding you back? Is it. Is it the people who surround you, who aren't supporting you? Is it that you just, you know, like are really incredibly forgetful and you just like, can't prioritize this over everything else.
Cause you can't keep track of it. Is it that you're really fundamentally impulsive? Like what are, what is the barrier? And then the solution depends. So the best strategies that I've seen in science are really sensitive to the context and recognize like, if I want to get someone to get a flu shot or a vaccine for COVID, the strategy to use is really different than if I want to help them build an exercise habit.
Like those are just fundamentally different problems. There's fundamentally different barriers. And I think too much of self-help is like a person with a single idea or a few ideas without a recognition that it, it depends which, which is the right one to use in which context. And I try to add that with my book.
Srini Rao: Yeah, it's funny. You mentioned context. Cause I feel like I've been just beating this like a dead horse on the show. You know, like we had Sam summers here who wrote a book about context. I think he's a professor. If I remember correctly at Tufts and you know, we have this membership group where I, you know, I, I work with creatives to help them make their ideas happen.
And one thing I frequently say to them is I want you to consider the possibility that everything I've told you is bullshit because it might actually wait for you. And I always have to offer that caveat, but didn't you start the first chapter with this idea of getting started. And you say, if you want to change your behavior or someone else's, you're at a huge advantage.
If you begin with a blank slate, a fresh start and the old habits working against you, and then you say new years, for instance, typically exerts a far greater influence on behavior than say your typical Monday, the bigger the landmark, the more likely it is to help us take a step back and regroup and make a clean break from the past.
Yet people don't see stick to their new year's resolutions all the time. So how do you resolve that paradox?
Katy Milkman: I actually don't think it's a paradox at all. And it's actually, I think, fundamental to what I'm trying to do in the book, which is explain, there are different challenges at different points. And the challenge of getting started is what new year's can motivate, but it doesn't get you to the finish line.
And then once you've got the motivation to begin to write, to say, okay, here's my goal. This is what I want to accomplish. And I'm going to actually exert some effort towards that. That's what you get when you have these moments that I call fresh starts that make you feel like you're opening a new chapter in your life and you sort of step back, think big picture.
What are my goals? How am I going to do better in this new job that I've just started then in the old one, how am I going to make my life happier in California than it was in Pennsylvania? When you move cross country, you know, whatever that is or this, this year than last year, those landmarks. They, they cause us to have this spike in motivation.
So we'll start, but they do nothing to help us succeed. They just get us going. And so that's what the rest of the book is about. Okay. Like you've got the, you've got the kickstart, but like, you're going to need more than just a resolution to get somewhere. Yeah, well,
Srini Rao: okay. So that makes the perfect segue to talking about impulsivity, right?
You say lots of research shows that we tend to be overconfident about how easy it is to be self-disciplined. This is why so many of us optimistically buy expensive gym memberships. When paying per visit fees would be cheaper register for online classes. We'll never complete and purchase family size chips on discount to trim our monthly stack budget only to consume every last crumb in a single sitting.
We think future meat will be able to make good choices, but too often present music comes as temptation. And you know, it's funny because I've seen this in myself. I've seen it in people who sign up for the courses that I teach. You know, like the amount of hobbies and things that I've quit over the years is insane.
Like, you know, we take kickboxing learning to play the electric bass Capitol air, just to name a few. Like I, I had an old roommate that I lived with who thought, you know, I will never stick to anything. And then funny enough, 10 years later, he was asking me for advice on how to stick to something. So I feel like this happens so often to people where they basically don't remove the shrink wrap, Dan Kennedy.
The copywriter said he's. If I worried about the people who don't remove the shrink wrap on my courses, I'd be broke. But how do people that don't remove the shrink-wrap become people who actually follow through on this and not give into their impulsivity.
Katy Milkman: I think about that for a second. So how do people who don't remove the shrink? Yep. So when you characterize someone as not removing the shrink wrap, I'm thinking of someone like who doesn't read the book, but I think that's not what you mean. I think the
Srini Rao: person, yeah. Sorry. So it, it literally, it's the people that you described in the quote that I just said, you know, the ones who sign up for online courses that they don't complete.
Katy Milkman: So how, like how do they, how do they change it? You're just saying what's the solution to impulsivity. Okay. I'm sorry for being, I was like, Oh, I don't know if someone doesn't read my book and they don't, they don't learn any of these things. How do they go? Okay. All right. Let me, let me start again here then.
That's a really good question. And I think, you know, The, the answer that I offer in the book. And it's the best answer I've got is that too often, we fail to appreciate the challenge of impulsivity. And so we just sort of grit our teeth and say, I'm going to push through, I'm going to do whatever it is.
I said, I was going to do, I'm going to push through in the most effective way possible. There's this wonderful research by Ayelet Fishbach from the university of Chicago and Kaitlin Woolley at Cornell showing that that's actually a mistake that if, instead of saying, I'm going to tackle this goal using like, you know, full self-control mode in the toughest most effective way possible.
We say, I'm going to look for a way to make this goal fun. We persist longer. So for instance, they've done research showing that if somebody is going to the gym and you tell them, you know, look for the most fun workout you can find. They end up persisting longer than someone going to the gym who say, look for the most effective way to achieve your goals at the gym because they enjoy it.
And we make this mistake because when we're contemplating our goals and how we're going to pursue them. And by the way, they've shown us in other settings too, with studying with eating, it's not just exercise, but I think that's an intuitive example. And, and the mistake we make is we're like contemplating this from a moment of quiet in our home, thinking about our goals.
And we think like, yeah, no problem tomorrow. I'm going to be able to do this. I'll push through. But when tomorrow becomes today, we're actually much more attracted to the. Enticing options. And so we don't recognize we'll need a strategy. We'll need a way to resist and to make it actually in tempting and fun to do the thing that's good for us.
And that aligns with our goals. So if we were a little bit more self-aware I think we'd make better choices and recognize, okay, maybe the most effective workout would burn slightly more calories and make you fit faster, but you're going to quit after one visit to the gym. So it's not the right one to choose and same with, you know, the course selections for your graduate degree.
If you, if you take the toughest machine learning class first, you may not persist. As if you take a, you know, a graphics class or something, you know, making it up based on my own interests, graphics design might be even more exciting. So you have to find the balance. So you're pursuing the goal, but you're doing it in a way.
That will actually be instantly gratifying and then this temptation will actually be working for you because you'll find it tempting to do the thing. And I've also studied a technique. I call temptation bundling. I actually studied it before I I yell at and Caitlin did this work that I admire so much on the importance of making it fun and fundamentally it has the same insight at its core.
I just didn't appreciate it. The idea of temptation bundling was why don't we solve or literally an engineer, a solution to this problem by linking something tempting with whatever it is that we know we should be doing more. So if you should be hitting the books what if you and you crave frappuccinos, what have you only let yourself pick up a frog, but you know, on the way to the library, or if you love low brow TV only let yourself watch your favorite little browse show while you're at the gym or while you're doing household chores.
And like, if you do those, if you create those links, that's another way to make what's good for you. Fun and tempting in the moment. So temptation is working for you.
Srini Rao: Yeah. It's funny. You brought up exercise of all things, because like, I was definitely not somebody who exercises. Then I started surfing and snowboarding and I fell in love with both of them.
And I don't do either of those things for the exercise, they're just exercises are convenient, fringe benefit of those things.
Katy Milkman: Exactly. That's exactly right. And and if you can find the things that make it fun to achieve your goals and it ceases to be the case that you're like pushing towards the goal and having to push against a wall instead, this is just like a thing you enjoy doing.
Srini Rao: Yeah. So let's talk about this idea of commitment devices and procrastination. You know, you say commitment devices are tremendously useful in given how many of us struggle to achieve our goals. You'd think the demand would be high sky. The self-help industry is estimated to be a $10 billion per year market.
Clearly people want help meeting their biggest, most challenging goals that frequently take a pass on these enormously effective tools. And, you know, I think the place that I see this most is when it comes to digital distractions, cause this, this is like the primary issue. Many of my readers deal with where it's like, there's every tool imaginable that we've made.
You know, you could read every Cal Newport book under the sun and somehow people still struggle with
Katy Milkman: this. Yes. No, absolutely. It's people do not like handcuffing themselves, right. And like saying, Oh, literally, I'm going to shut down my screen time by downloading this, this commitment device app that will kick me off the internet after this X minutes of use or not let me use Twitter after X minutes of use, but but there are all these solutions.
So like, Y you know, I do think it's a puzzle to some extent why people won't take them up. And I think the answer, you know, there's, there's multiple answers. One is like, we want to believe that we can just grit, grit our teeth and get through it sort of related to the. The mistake of not making things fun and trying to pursue them in the most effective way possible.
We just, we want to believe we can. And so when we need to use a tool or a tactic to sort of trick ourselves or set ourselves up for success often, it's, you know, it can be a little bit disappoint. We'd like feel disappointment in ourselves that we can't just grit our teeth and do it. But I actually think we need to normalize that like failure is normal.
That change is hard, and if you expect it and you plan for it, that is really excellent. That's better than being gritty and sort of pushing through the grittiest people actually. And I'm now very deliberately using a term that my friend and coauthor, Angela Duckworth, coined, and has studied in her career.
The people who appear to have the most self control and the most grit are actually people who have systems in place that. Take that challenge off their plate. You know, people who have habits, for instance, as opposed to are deliberately thinking and consciously resisting temptation, those are the ones who really look self-controlled, but it's really systems that make people look so effective.
It's not, it's not that there are these magic people who just can push through anything. So I think we need a little bit more normalization of you should use crutches. That's the solution. It's not a sign of weakness.
Srini Rao: Well, so you know, I don't want to go too much into the whole forgetting idea just in the interest of time, but I do want to go into two things that you talked about with her laziness and conformity.
And I think that what I loved, you know, I've talked to numerous people who have talked about habits, you know, James, Claire has been a guest here. But I think the thing that struck me most in your section on habits, which literally, you know, ma inspired me to think of a blog post titled, if the laser you are, the more you'll benefit for habit from, you know, consistent habits you say that laziness can be an asset and not just when it comes to you know, happens when laziness appropriately harnessed, it can actually help facilitate change.
And the funny thing is, there's such a negative connotation to laziness, but you just reframed it in this way. So tell me, let's say somebody, you know, who's listening to, this is like, great, I'm lazy. How can I turn that into an asset?
Katy Milkman: Well, there's two ways. One is by thinking about what are sort of the defaults in your life.
The default settings, like, you know, what's in your fridge so you don't have to like, you know, walk outside to go get this, get a snack. If you're thinking about healthy food, you know, like, do you have the ability to exercise at home? Do you have a productive workspace where you can be undistracted and get things done?
So like, can you basically set up your space and your environment with good defaults? Do you have yourself. Set up for auto deductions from every paycheck to your retirement account. Do you have all your subscriptions turned off for things that you don't want to be paying money for? So you can sort of take even just a moment of inspiration or a moment of feeling motivated to make sure your defaults are all right.
And then if you're lazy, you won't lift a finger and you're going to eat the healthy things in your fridge, because you're going to be too lazy to go get takeout. And you're going to, you know, you're going to if your homepage is the New York times, instead of Facebook, you're maybe going to be too lazy to go find your way to social media.
If you've got, if you've got a productive, quiet workspace set up, you may, you may use it more. So, so that's one way is just through default, sort of what can you set up your default space? And then the path of least resistance will be to live a life that's a bit more self controlled. Yeah. And then the second is through habit.
So habits are basically an autopilot. They're not literally a default setting, like on switch on your computer, but they're basically the default you fall back on. So you can do things to engineer the building of habits that you will. Then once you've put in a little bit of effort for, you know, as little as a few weeks to develop them, they just become your go-to and autopilot takes over.
And you can again, fall back on that laziness and do this, you know, have the same breakfast you had every other day and the same walk to work and the same sort of like two hours blocked in the morning for writing time and the same check-in with your mentor. Like once you structure your life around the habits that you want to be your fallback strategy, it's really easy to be lazy and let autopilot take you in good places.
Srini Rao: Yeah, I would say I'm one of the laziest people around and somehow, but it's literally exactly what you're talking about. That allows me to do anything that I do. So there's something you said about giving advice and the reason this struck me is, you know, the joke at, at, you know, amongst our listeners is that every single person is Srini interviews as a reflection of a problem that he's trying to solve in his life.
And, and, you know, you say that it's common to give out advice. When we see something someone's struggling to achieve a goal. We often think guidance is just the thing they're looking for, whether they ask for it or not. And I feel like if you have a public presence of any sort or, you know, you're on the internet in any way, you're pretty much the constant target of unsolicited advice.
So what is the deal with that? And cause I I've had friends who are life coaches when, you know, going through a breakup and I'm like, you know, like literally crying and you know, they're trying to give me their self-improvement solutions and I'm like, you know what? I don't want your damn solutions. I just want you to listen to me whine and be my friend.
Katy Milkman: I mean, you know, we're, we're all, it's from a good place, right? Like we all think like I must have unique insights that you don't have that I can help you with. And that's, that's just human nature to believe that we have you know, more knowledge that's helpful to other people than we probably do more insight into their problems and their unique circumstances than we probably do.
So it comes from a good place of wanting to provide value, but it has this pernicious downside that I think we don't appreciate it enough. And, and that is that it busts confidence. When you tell somebody, Hey, like I know how to do this and you must not, it you're basically telling them you're clueless and I'm smarter than you.
And so that that's the downside of giving out unsolicited advice and I think we, we should be more aware of that than we are. I mean, I do think like, you know, people with really high IQ don't do it as much, but but you know, it's too bad. And I guess the key lesson that I find interesting from this research I've done with Lauren S Chris Winkler, a former post-doc at Wharton starting a job as a professor at Kellogg this year, she has found that there's this solution that you can find from advice.
And that is giving advice makes you feel really good when someone asks you for your opinion and your advice that makes you feel like I'm in the know I can be useful. I'm a role model. And so it's sort of the flip side of, you know, getting that unsolicited advice makes you feel crummy, but having the opportunity to give solicited advice makes you feel great.
And it also leads you to. You know, dredge up insights that you might not have thought of, otherwise, that could be useful to you. And so I think her, her brilliant realization, which I share on the book is that a way we can help ourselves is actually by offering solicited advice to other people who are struggling to achieve the very same goals we're trying to pursue.
It will lead us to insights that can help us, and it will boost our confidence that we have what it takes to achieve it.
Srini Rao: Yeah. Well, I think that, that makes a perfect segue to talking you know, about this last piece of this, which really struck me was unconformity and there was one thing that really struck me in the chapter.
You were on conformity, particularly because I felt that it was so relevant to, you know, a lot of sort of aspirational media content. You said, you know, for social influence to work there, can't be too stark, a difference between overachievers and those in need of a boost. If you're hoping to become a faster swimmer, don't start practicing next to Olympic gold medalist, Katie Ledecky.
Even if you thought to copy and paste her routines, you might sense correctly at the limits of your natural talent would interfere with the benefits of having insight into her training regimen. And, you know, this is something I've said over and over. I said, you know, like I could follow LeBron's training regimen to the letter and I will never make it to the NBA.
Cause I'm a scrawny Indian person. And the funny thing is that so many of these books that teach this kind of material use outliers as role models. And so as a result, people end up getting you know, they don't get the results they want. Like I had a mentor who actually was here on the show. He said, you know, people basically overlook the probability that they'll achieve something and focus entirely on the possibility of achieving that goal.
And so in the context of that, how do people not fall victim to social influence, you know, and use solely outliers? I mean, I ended up writing an entire piece titled why outliers are a bad role models for most of us.
Katy Milkman: Yeah. I mean, look, they're like the media covers them, so they're more visible and their stories are very vivid and attractive because they're so dramatic.
So there's lots of natural reasons why we love to look at superstars. But yeah, you're right. That there. They're not the right role models. And my book, while, you know, I mentioned a couple of celebrities at various points, cause it's kind of fun to have those sprinkled throughout. It's almost all about ordinary people who were able to achieve their goals by using systems that were more effective rather than, you know, Steve jobs and when he could, he could accomplish, because I share your belief that it's the average person who, you know, you want to look like, how did they figure it out?
And I guess I would also say, you know, we talked, we talked at the beginning of this interview about like childhood and what kind of high school student were you? I will say. I think for me and my research, it's always been helpful to remember. Like I wa I was never some kind of rock star, you know, perfect student, perfect person.
And the only way I have achieved things is. Through systems, not incredible gift of genius. I, you know, I have a bad memory. I'm like a, you know, decent mathematician, but not, I wasn't, I wasn't capable of getting a PhD in math, let alone, probably even an undergraduate degree in math, from Princeton. So like understanding your limitations, I think makes you more sympathetic to others.
And it's always made me attracted to those people who achieve probably maybe more than they have the right to achieve. And weren't true. Like, you know, really right. Tail outliers on all dimensions.
Srini Rao: Well, it's funny because you may have read this piece. Justine Musk ended up writing a piece called extreme success where some kid on Quora as basically asked, Hey, how do I become great?
Like Richard Branson, Steve jobs, or Elon Musk and Justine ended up buying a person who was fun. And Justine happens to be a very good friend of mine. She wrote the forward to my first book. And I remember her saying, she said, you know, I don't want to be all deterministic here, but she's like, I don't think that, you know, the qualities that somebody like an Elon has is something that can be learned.
Katy Milkman: Yeah. But also it's not even if you learn them, there's just too much luck involved in becoming that extreme of an outlier to think that. Like Elon Musk his body double, right? Like his identical twin would have had the same path and plopped down in a, in a different set of circumstances. That's not how life works.
There's just a huge amount of luck and outliers paths.
Srini Rao: Yeah. Well well, I feel like I could talk to you all day because this just feels like a really deep rabbit hole, as you know, most of my conversations are with people. Well, so I want to finish my final question, which is how we finish all of our interviews at the unmistakable creative.
What do you think it is that makes somebody or something unmistakable?
Katy Milkman: I would say.
Really, really into what they do and not maybe I'd use the word passion, but maybe I'd use the word. They think it's the most fun thing they could possibly do, because we've talked about the power of making something fun, how that leads you to persist longer. And I think what makes people unmistakable is they've found something that is their driving life force that is fun and propels them forward and propels them to be creative and unmistakable and remarkable.
Srini Rao: Amazing. Well, I can't thank you enough for taking the time to join us and share your story and your wisdom and your insights with our listeners. Where can people find out more about you, your work, the book, and everything else that you're up to?
Katy Milkman: Probably the best place to find me is my website, Katy milkman.com, where you can find.
Information about the book and my podcast choice ology and which is about behavioral science and how it affects our everyday decisions and my research. And anything else you might want to know.
Srini Rao: Amazing. And for everybody listening, we will wrap the show with that. Thank you for listening to this episode of the unmistakable creative podcast while you were listening.
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Katy Milkman is the James G. Dinan Professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and holds a secondary appointment at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine. Her research explores ways that insights from economics and psychology can be harnessed to change consequential behaviors for good, such as savings, exercise, vaccination take-up and discrimination. In her TEDx talk, she describes some of her key findings on this topic.