Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Jessica Lahey (@jesslahey), the author of the New York Times bestselling books The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed and The Addiction Inoculation: Raising Healthy Kids in a Culture of Dependence. Over twenty years, Jessica has taught every grade from sixth to twelfth in both public and private schools and spent five years teaching in a drug and alcohol rehab for adolescents in Vermont. She currently serves as a recovery coach at Sana at Stowe, a medical detox and recovery center in Stowe, Vermont, where 100 percent of her salary goes to a scholarship fund for young adults.
Jessica writes about education, parenting, and child welfare for The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Atlantic, is a book critic for Air Mail, and wrote the educational curriculum for Amazon Kids’ award-winning The Stinky and Dirty Show. She co-hosts the #AmWriting podcast with bestselling authors KJ Dell’Antonia and Sarina Bowen from her house in Vermont, where she lives with her husband, two sons, and a lot of dogs.
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Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls, ladies and germs. This is Tim Ferriss and welcome to another episode of the Tim Ferriss Show. I’m going to keep my preamble short, by popular request. My guest today is Jessica Lahey. That’s L-A-H-E-Y. You can find her on Twitter @jesslahey. She is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, The Gift of Failure — one of my favorite titles of all time — subtitle, How the Best Parents Learn To Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, and The Addiction Inoculation, subtitle, Raising Healthy Kids in a Culture of Dependence. Over 20 years, Jess has taught every grade from sixth to 12th, in both public and private schools, and spent five years teaching in a drug and alcohol rehab for adolescents in Vermont. She currently serves as a recovery coach at Sana at Stowe, a medical detox and recovery center in Stowe, Vermont, where 100 percent of her salary goes to a scholarship fund for young adults.
She writes about education, parenting, and child welfare for the Washington Post, New York Times and The Atlantic, is a book critic for Air Mail and wrote the educational curriculum for Amazon Kids’ award-winning The Stinky and Dirty Show. Great name. Also, she co-hosts the #AmWriting podcast with bestselling authors, KJ Dell’Antonia and Sarina Bowen from her house in Vermont, where she lives with her husband, two sons, and a lot of dogs. You can find her on social @jesslahey on Twitter, Instagram @teacherlahey, Facebook, Jessica Potts, P-O-T-T-S, Lahey, and online on her website, jessicalahey.com. Jessica, welcome to the show.
Jessica Lahey: I just had flashbacks to doing the audio recordings for my audio books and getting into those tongue twister moments when it’s just a lot of stuff. It’s a lot of stuff.
Tim Ferriss: It’s just a lot of stuff for the brain. It’s just a lot of stuff for the brain. So sometimes we need shorthand, and I want to talk about shorthand by visiting someone who I had to look up, although the name sounded vaguely familiar — Albert Schweitzer, who has one of the most incredible Wikipedia introductions. Ludwig Phillip Albert Schweitzer was an Alsatian polymath. He was a theologian, organist, musicologist, writer, humanitarian, philosopher and physician. He received the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize. And I ask, or I should say introduce him, because I believe you are fond of a quote attributed to dear Albert and that his quote “I decided to make my life my argument” and I’m not sure what that means, but it sounds promising. Could you please expand?
Jessica Lahey: Albert Schweitzer, there’s some problematic stuff with all white guys from Europe who feel like they’re going to go out and save people in Africa, which is essentially what he tried to do. There’s a hospital — the Albert Schweitzer Hospital is in Africa. And he had been a composer. He’d done some really cool stuff. And then he went to medical school late in life and established this hospital in Africa, where he essentially was just trying to do good for the rest of his life. Again, some problematic elements there, but when my husband was in med school and I was in law school, we actually both became Albert Schweitzer fellows.
And the idea there was that you don’t need to go to Africa and save these people across the planet. His hospital was in a place called Lambarene. You can find your own Lambarene. And for me, that was working with kids in juvenile court, and with my husband that was working with underserved populations and doing HIV work. And I’ve just always loved that quote because people say a lot of crap. People are out there talking about how great they are on Twitter and the things they’re doing on Twitter and being really loud about their intentions. But I just think it’s easier to make your life your argument and just do — as a teacher, I have to model things for kids. I’m a mom. I work as a recovery coach. So a big part of what I do is stay sober. I think it’s a lot simpler if we just shut up for a little while and make our life our argument.
Tim Ferriss: I love that. “Decided to make my life my argument.” It reminds me of another quote that I think of a lot, because I sadly have a Tasmanian Devil tendency to get very upset at points. I haven’t quite mastered that whole stoicism thing yet. And the quote is, I think it’s George Herbert, but I think that I’m probably mixing that up because I’m thinking of Dune and Frank Herbert, but nonetheless, the quote is “The best revenge is living well” and I also find that to be very actionable. So making your life your argument. We’re going to double click on that in a little bit, but first, I have to go back to your bio. Every grade from sixth to 12th, in both public and private schools — is there reliably for you, and your experience, a most difficult cohort of students?
Jessica Lahey: Well most difficult to teach, mainly because it’s difficult for them to be who they are, I think, and that’s ninth grade, for easy. So I love — sixth grade is interesting because that’s usually a new year in middle school. Seventh and eighth grade, I adore. I love 10th and 11th grade. Seniors can be tough because they’ve got one foot out the door. Freshmen are just deer in headlights. They’re scared and they’re freaked and it’s too much. And their frontal lobes are not fully developed. And it’s just so hard. I think freshmen are — if I had to black out one — and it’s not that I don’t adore freshmen, it’s just it’s hard to teach them. There’s too much else going on for them to be able to cope with the world and learn stuff. It’s just a problematic year.
Tim Ferriss: Does it, and this is leading question, but does it mean that good ninth grade teachers are able to intervene, or exert an effect that has a disproportionate influence on someone’s trajectory, at the same time? Or is that not so much true?
Jessica Lahey: Oh, no. Absolutely. And there was this one quote I hated — it was actually on — I’m pretty sure it was Radiolab. Yeah. It was Radiolab. And a middle school teacher was talking about the fact that you should just stick middle school students away somewhere, and then bring them back when they’re out of that middle school age, and ready to be educated. And the problem with thinking that way is that — number one, it’s just wrong. Number two, I think there are people that gravitate towards certain age groups. When I speak to other middle school teachers — middle school is my jam. I love them. If I was to go back to teaching tomorrow, it would be middle school. I adore them.
But of course there are lots of people who are — “Oh, my God, what is your problem? That sounds horrible.” But I look at kindergarten teachers and I’m — I do not know how you do that all day long. There are people who just think ninth grade is an incredible year. And the reason it’s an incredible year is there’s a ton of potential because I think, in general, schools tend to overlook ninth grade as so transitional that not a lot of effort is put into the curriculum, or into connecting with the students. So in a lot of schools, especially in schools where I’ve taught, there’s no effort to do differentiated learning. They don’t know who these kids are yet. So they just slap a lot of intro level without making it very interesting.
And schools that do freshman year right are really setting kids up to do great things. The other thing I love and I have to shout out, there’s a hoity toity — wonderful, but hoity toity — private school outside of Boston called Belmont Hill School for Boys. Belmont Hill School is a — there are some teachers there I just adore. They do the coolest thing. Middle school is seventh, eighth, and ninth grade. So ninth graders who are at this really important moment in their development in terms of their cognitive development, their physical development, get to be leaders for just that one extra year, and the pressure of high school doesn’t quite land squarely on their shoulders quite yet. So then they get to do that 10th, 11th, and 12th. I love that model. And I think that there’s potential in that model.
Tim Ferriss: That’s super interesting. So then they would transfer or graduate to a high school, but enter in the 10th grade, as opposed to in the ninth grade.
Jessica Lahey: Right. And there especially, it’s all mashed together. But middle school is a really problematic area simply because we throw more at these kids than they’re cognitively able to do. We have these kids they’re — the last part of the brain to hookup is the frontal lobe. That doesn’t happen until we’re in our early to mid twenties. Middle school, we say here is lockers, changing schedules, different languages. I used to teach Latin class right after French class and there’s the same word in both languages pronounced completely differently. There’s hormones. There’s all the different things that middle school kids are asked to do, without the capacity in their frontal lobes to juggle it all. So the fun part of being a middle school teacher is sitting back and watching that unfold, and having patience with that, and waiting for those learning moments when everything is just like a kid is ready to hear it, and you’re ready to teach it to them, and you have a meeting of the minds.
That’s why middle school has so much incredible potential, but at the same time, there’s so much potential to screw it up in a major way, like to take the Radiolab approach and say, in that one interview anyway, and say, “Well, those are a throwaway couple of years because they suck.” But I think there’s a ton of potential.
Tim Ferriss: Not many of my listeners will know this, but I actually thought for a very long time that, at some point, I would go back and teach ninth grade, specifically ninth grade.
Jessica Lahey: Really? So what is it you like about ninth grade?
Tim Ferriss: Well I might reframe that or answer a question you didn’t ask since I’m practicing to become a politician. That’s not true. But the reason behind it, it’s not so much that I liked ninth grade, because I can’t say that was the case, but I saw people who received good inputs go one direction, and people who received bad inputs go another direction. And it seemed like a great point at which you could influence direction, because by the time it was the end of 10th grade or 11th grade, at least from the perspective of college or anything like that, it was, I don’t want to say too late, but it was much harder to write the ship. And so I had two friends who, one ended up dying in a drunk driving accident later, one who overdosed on fentanyl and died, that was my best friend growing up, who didn’t really receive the inputs that I did, just by chance, really. It wasn’t by design. I just had better luck. And so that always stuck with me.
And I’m going to come back to students. We’re going to talk a lot about students and kids, but I want to look at maybe some overlap and that is your personal story and when you were younger. What was “taking a nap” code for in your extended family?
Jessica Lahey: Taking a nap meant either that you just needed a break from life and you were going to — because there were some stuff in my family, growing up, that was really challenging for the grownups — well, for everybody to deal with, and so taking a nap meant just I need some space. But I came to learn later on that napping wasn’t just about napping. It was about being drunk. And the problem with euphemisms, which by the way I hate, I hate euphemisms — is that it makes it really easy to gaslight kids when they figure out what’s really going on, and yet the language of adults is not matching their experience of what they really truly are starting to understand. And there is nothing worse coming back to middle school, in ninth grade, there is nothing worse than taking a kid who is just figuring the world out and then telling them, at every turn, that their perceptions are inaccurate. That what they’re seeing is not really what they’re seeing, or what they’re perceiving. And what it does is it slowly erodes a kid’s feeling of sanity.
I mean gaslighting is really problematic that way, but also their feelings of self-efficacy. A feeling like if I can just nail this down then maybe I can do something to change it. You can’t even get to the place of nailing something down, because the grownups in your life are telling you that what you’re seeing is not really what you’re seeing. And that’s a massive — that’s a really horrible thing to do to kids. If a kid comes to you and says, “Here’s something I’m perceiving,” telling them that that’s not what they’re perceiving, or that they’re wrong to perceive it that way, is a problem, is really tough for kids.
Tim Ferriss: So one example of that being I need a nap or taking a nap as code for sleeping off being drunk or —
Jessica Lahey: Yeah. Or I can’t deal with what’s happening in my world so I’m just going to escape from it. And more and more I began to understand that what escape really was was being drunk. That whatever it was that was happening in the real world was too difficult and so therefore you drink to escape it.
Tim Ferriss: What happened in 2013, at your mother’s birthday party?
Jessica Lahey: You really go there, don’t you? You just go right for the jugular.
Tim Ferriss: I’m sorry.
Jessica Lahey: No, no, no, it’s good.
Tim Ferriss: Skipping the niceties.
Jessica Lahey: So I had known that I was an alcoholic for a pretty good long time. I really was scared to death of alcohol because of what I saw. I was raised by an alcoholic. One of my parents was raised by an alcoholic and so on and so on. And so I did everything I could to escape it, and it just snuck up on me in my 40s. And I met someone the other day, actually, who had almost exact same story I did. Went to the sober end of the spectrum, became one of those holier than thou, really annoying high school and college students, who was always — I was always the designated driver. I was always the good girl. So it, slowly in my 40s, it got worse and worse. And by 2013, I was on a bit of a roll, professionally.
I was teaching full-time and I had just started writing on the national level. This was huge for me. My first article at The Atlantic went viral and it led to this massive auction. I think it was somewhere between ’11 and ’14, I’m going to get the number wrong, so it’s somewhere in there. Editors were in a round robin auction for my first book, The Gift of Failure, because of this viral article that was in The Atlantic called “Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail.” Huge pivotal moment in my life and book sold in May. And then June 7th, I went to my parents’ house for my mom’s birthday party, and tons of people were there that had known me my whole life, including my oldest friend that I’ve known since I was three. And I got so drunk.
I have no idea what happened. I think that’s a blessing and a curse that I can’t remember anything that happened. But what happened the next — I was just, I was so drunk. And the next morning my dad, who had been a really great enabler his whole life, because he’d been raised by an alcoholic, and taught by his mother, who was an incredible enabler for alcoholism. He came up to the guest bedroom and he sat on the floor, put his elbows on the bed. My husband was out running. And he said, “I know what an alcoholic looks like and you’re an alcoholic and you need help.” And at that point I was so ready. I was so exhausted that I just said, “You’re right.” And that night I went to my first recovery meeting.
But I think the fact that it was my dad, who had been one of the people who had told us, “No, what you’re seeing is not what you’re seeing.” And he is so conflict avoidant. And he adores me so much. And the fact that he hates fighting with me, he came up to that room, he just swallowed down his enabling. He swallowed down his avoidance of conflict, and what he led with was his love for me, even though he was scared to death to say those words, he did. And that was it for me. So my sobriety date is June 7th, 2013.
Tim Ferriss: Wow. Well, congratulations.
Jessica Lahey: Thanks.
Tim Ferriss: And I have many more questions.
Jessica Lahey: Okay.
Tim Ferriss: So I’ve had someone named Gabor Maté on the podcast before —
Jessica Lahey: I know.
Tim Ferriss: — and he talks a lot about asking not why the addiction, but why the pain.
Jessica Lahey: Right.
Tim Ferriss: And you’ve also mentioned, and perhaps we’ll chat more about Chris, but Chris Herren. And he talks a lot about not paying so much attention to stories from or about people when they hit rock bottom, but paying attention to what caused them to drink in the first place, or start using drugs.
Jessica Lahey: The quote is, and you can see it if you watch the documentary about him called First Day. The quote is “We spend a lot of time talking about the last day, but what we really need to be talking about is the first day.” And the first day is massively important.
Tim Ferriss: And in your case it’s a little harder for me to say, with confidence, that I should ask about the origin, because I don’t know how much of it was internally generated, right? Was the alcohol a salve or an escape, or was it simply inherited, environmentally, by watching behavior and you were genetically predisposed?
Jessica Lahey: That’s a fantastic question. And so, number one, huge fan of Gabor Maté. In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts is fantastic. He has a book about ADHD or ADD and substance use. Really respect his work. And he’s full-on in the trauma camp. He’s full-on in the — all of this comes from our trauma. And the nice thing about writing about a subject area where I don’t really have a foot — I’m not really in any one camp 100 percent. So I’m able to say, “Well, I agree with a lot of this and some of this I don’t.” I’m a huge fan. I don’t think 100 percent of this is about trauma. I think we have a situation where, according to Marc Schuckit at USC, about 50 to 60 percent of the risk picture comes down to genetics. And then we have the in between the genetics and the environmental stuff, something called epigenetics, which is how the stresses in our life cause our genetics to either turn on, not turn on, all that stuff.
And then we have the environmental stuff, including trauma. Thank goodness for people who are now talking about adverse childhood experiences. For me, I drank because of my anxiety. I’ve had anxiety disorder my entire life. My grandmother had OCD. My father has a mix — I’m lucky in that it goes down by generation, but we definitely all are — we are an anxious people, and alcohol helped. Alcohol works great in the short term for anxiety. The problem is it exacerbates it over time, makes it worse, blah-blah-blah-blah-blah. So I drank to deal with anxiety. I drank to deal with some stuff I just didn’t want to deal with. So I had the genetics. I also had the thing I just didn’t want to deal with, and alcohol made it easier.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Alcohol does a good job of temporarily turning down the volume. But as you mentioned, a lot of long-term risks. And ketamine, similarly, is seductive in being used for that subtractive purpose. It has its place. It has an application, and it has many applications, but it’s also — can be an escape.
Jessica Lahey: I’m fascinated by the practical applications. It so happens that my son — I have two sons, one’s 17, one’s 22. The 17-year-old is a huge fan of someone else you’ve had on the show — of Hamilton Morris and of Michael Pollan. And we both have read How to Change your Mind. We both have watched Hamilton Morris’ Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia together. I think there’s some really interesting research coming out about, especially psychedelics, anything that allows people, especially at end of life care, to disassociate. To step away from their physical being and have less fear around dying, in particular. There’s some really cool stuff out there.
And I think it’s really important to put that work in the context of an adult brain, and not let it bleed on over into anyone under the age of — ideally 25, because that’s when your brain is done. But let’s say, just for giggles, 21 or 18.
Tim Ferriss: For sure. Those are very different things. And right now, I simply mentioned that because we’re still exploring the personal story, and I’m curious, if we look at the timing of the Atlantic article, “Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail,” this goes viral, and that was in, was it May, you said?
Jessica Lahey: The article published in January. It went viral and next thing I knew I was on national television trial by fire media training. And then it takes a while to put together a book proposal, and so the book sold somewhere around April/May.
Tim Ferriss: April/May. And then the birthday party conversation with your dad was the next month, a month later.
Jessica Lahey: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Do you think you would have been as open to hearing what your dad said had you not been on the hook to write a book? And for those who don’t know, with non-fiction, generally, you sell the book with a proposal. It’s almost like a business plan, and then you have to write the book.
Jessica Lahey: Yeah. I still think I would have gotten there, maybe not that day, but I was so close. There’s a metaphor I use, both having to do with prevention, and people figuring out when it’s time that they need help, and that’s this — I think of getting there is like this hundred piece puzzle. And my dad was piece 100 and I have been piece 100 once, for someone else. And I talked to a lot of people about substance use, and I have been piece, God knows 18, 32, 19, 26. You have to have pieces one through 99 in place before piece 100 drops. So I can’t say for sure that it would have worked on that day. I was going to get awfully close though. I also knew I was right at that moment. I was right there at that moment where I hadn’t been driving drunk. I wasn’t drinking at school. There were a lot of things I hadn’t done yet. But oh, my Lord, I was so close. It was right there. It was just about to happen, and I would have lost everything. And I knew that.
My husband was raised in a family with substance use disorder. We had talked about this, even before he knew I had a problem, that that was not something we would allow our children to be raised with. So if he ever had a problem, he knew that I would not allow our children to be around that. And if I ever had a problem, he would not allow our children to be around that either. So I would end up divorced. That was easy. That was going to happen. I believed him. So I think I was right at that cliff. It was right there. And I could see what was coming.
Tim Ferriss: What did you find most helpful? And what did people try to offer that you did not find helpful?
Jessica Lahey: What I found helpful was a woman — there was a woman that — I was scared to death to go to my first meeting. And actually my first meeting I ever went to, I went far away from my house so I wouldn’t know anyone because I lived in a small town in New Hampshire. So I did this long, not that long, but I did a drive to get to a meeting that I thought would be different enough, because I was scared to death to run into one of my students’ parents, because of course I was not in the frame of mind to think about the fact that if one of my student’s parents was at a 12-step meeting, they probably had similar issues. In fact, I did run into one of the parents of my students a few years later, and she took one look at me and she said, “You’re my worst nightmare.” And I said, “No, you’re my worst nightmare!” And then we had a good laugh and it was fine.
But I walked into that first meeting. I knew no one. I sat down at a table with other women and I just started to cry. This had never happened to me before. I just — snot and tears and stuff. And this woman next to me, without really looking at me too much, excessively, just kept pulling tissues out of her bag. I don’t know where they kept coming from, but she just kept handing them to me. And I went up and I got my 24-hour chip. I was still — just snot and just tears. And it was that 100 percent acceptance of the fact that this was okay and normal and to be expected and hard. And that hard was part of it. And that that was okay.
What has not been helpful is rigidity within a view of what it means to recover from something. I, myself, could never be a moderate drinker. I, myself, couldn’t use alcohol and be safe, ever. If I was addicted to opiates, I don’t know what would have worked for me in terms of medication-assisted treatment. But the problem is I see a lot of people who really need help, who are, for example, in my book, The Addiction Inoculation, is a woman named Georgia who is — Georgia, by the way, and Brian figure into my book in a big way. And those are their real names. And they felt, again like the Albert Schweitzer quote, that it was really important to make their disaster of their young adult life worth something to other people. So they asked me to use their real names.
And when Georgia was pregnant, she was on and addicted to opiates. She was on methadone and she was shunned in recovery circles. And at the time she needed people in recovery more than ever to help her through this. They said, “No, this is not the way to be sober.” And that is just so bogus to me. And I think it’s because we’re so in love with black and white as a species — this is the way you do it, not that way. And the nice thing is, recovery looks different for different people. Getting to recovery looks different for different people. And if someone disagrees with the fact that I can safely drink non-alcoholic beer, because boy, I love beer, I miss beer. I used to brew my own beer. And so I drink non-alcoholic beer and that works for me. But I’ve had plenty of people tell me that I’m wrecking my own recovery path because I drink non-alcoholic beer. And I just wish people would be less rigid. Rigidity is the answer there, Tim. Rigidity is the bane of my existence.
Tim Ferriss: So she was shunned because she was using a replacement therapy.
Jessica Lahey: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: She was using methadone.
Tim Ferriss: We’re going to come back to substance use and abuse in kids. I want to touch on The Gift of Failure for a few minutes, at least. And for those who are not familiar with the book, of course, I think the subtitle does a good job of describing it, but what was the catalyst for The Atlantic article and then the book?
Jessica Lahey: I had wanted to write about this for a long time, but the problem the way I write is I write about data, I write about research, I translate the science, but I do it through narrative. And as a teacher, the only narratives I had around me were my students, and I can’t write about my students. That’s just unacceptable. So I had wanted to write about this stuff. I wanted to write about both how overparenting affects kids’ motivation. Thank you so much, Dan Pink, Edward Deci, all the people who write about extrinsic motivators and motivation, long-term motivation. I wanted to talk about how it affects our ability to do the whole Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi Flow state, all that sort of stuff. But I also wanted to know how over-parenting affected learning, and that was a big question mark for me.
And a study came out of Australia, out of Queensland, about that very topic. And they had talked to school counselors who provided the stories. So for the first time, I was finally able to write this thing. And at that point, I had really just been blogging for a couple of education outlets that’d maybe been read by, there were sort of a couple hundred people who are loyal readers of mine. And I wrote this thing and I said, “I think I need to try to put this somewhere,” and I had. I pitched it to The Atlantic, to my first editor, Jennie Gritz, who’s now at Smithsonian Magazine. I pitched it to her on a Friday, and it was published on Tuesday morning. Yeah. Welcome to the digital media. Yeah. And it was really cool. In fact, one of the people at my school read it and said, “Are you sure this isn’t about our students?” Because those stories were universal enough that it was easy for me to tell that story through using some of the quotes from the research.
Tim Ferriss: Hm. And for those people who are not familiar, I mean, what are some of the main theses of The Gift of Failure?
Jessica Lahey: So there are two ways of looking at this sort of what we do to kids when we overparent them and we, and by overparenting, I mean by being directive, overly directive, by telling kids what to do, how to do it, giving them every step along the way. When we do that, we not only undermine kids’ feelings of self-efficacy. When my kids were little, the way I stay on top of my own thinking around this is when my kids were really little and they wanted to be able to do something independently, they would tell me they wanted to self it. So that’s my internal language for — that I want to self it. So I try to think of teenagers as bigger version of toddlers, which actually is pretty accurate, and help them self it.
So when we do too much for kids, whether it’s taking away the consequences of something like if I’m trying to teach a kid about being more organized, because today he’s forgotten his homework, and then the parent swoops in the door and has brought the homework to school, that learning opportunity is lost obviously. Helping that kid become a more competent, capable, self-efficacious person, that’s not happening. Self-efficacy is one of the most important things we help build up in kids.
So it turns out that when we do too much for kids, we undermine their long-term motivation to stay involved in the things we want them to do. We also tend to give them extrinsic motivators, whether it’s money for grades or the grades themselves, which means I’m kind of screwed as a teacher, right? Extrinsic motivators undermine long-term motivation to do the stuff we want kids to do, like practice piano and do their homework. Yet, if we want our kids to not want to learn math, the quickest way to do that is to pay them for their math grades. We know that through Edward Deci’s work.
So there’s that motivation issue. But then, the other problem is this. There’s this woman who has done work on impact of overparenting and being overly directive, not just on motivation, but if you think about some of the most effective teaching tools I have, one of them is this really cool thing called desirable difficulties. It’s talked about — it’s been around for a while, but it’s really beautifully written about in a book called Make It Stick from Harvard University Press. When I give kids tasks that require them to do a little more parsing, to think about stuff that’s just a little bit beyond their ability level, stuff that makes them have to sort of integrate two topics or two concepts in order to figure out how to do this thing. It bypasses their short-term memory and it goes into their long-term memory, and they know it more deeply in the short-term and they know it for longer, like 20 years from now, they probably would be able to tell me a little bit about that concept.
The kids that can’t benefit from desirable difficulties are kids who get frustrated and give up. And the kids who get frustrated and give up are kids who have really directive parents. Because if you have a parent who’s been like, “Okay, sweetie, here’s exactly how you do it. I’m going to give you every single step and oh, no, no, not that way. No, no, no. Do it this way,” those kids have less comfort with frustration. And if a kid can’t go on to complete a task — there’s this woman named Wendy Grolnick who’s done beautiful research on this. Kids who had highly directive parents were a lot less likely to be able to complete a task that required a kid to kind of get frustrated and sit with that frustration and push through, whereas kids who had what are called autonomy, supportive parents, parents who let the kid kind of struggle a little bit, come at it another way, and get comfortable with that feeling of frustration, those were the kids who were able to complete tasks that were difficult for them.
So overparented kids tend to learn less in my classroom using the tools that work best for learning. This is the shortest way to put that.
Tim Ferriss: So I’ve all sorts of follow-ups. And just to put my cards on the table, it’s in part because I am soon hoping to begin building a family with my significant other. I have no kids currently that I’m aware of. And so I am looking to take as many notes in advance as possible.
One aspect of, I suppose, overparenting or maybe that’s not the right label, but distinctive styles of parenting I’d love to talk about, and these may not be the right terms, but real confidence or fostering the development of real confidence versus the shell of confidence. And I’ve heard you speak on this very eloquently and it was very compelling, so I was hoping perhaps you could elaborate on that.
Jessica Lahey: Unfortunately, the self-esteem movement had parents in like the late ’60s, ’70s, early ’80s, believing, and now still actually, I think, believing that if we tell our kids over and over and over again, how great they are, how smart they are, how talented they are, all those sort of fixed, “You just fell out of the womb good at math,” that kind of thing, that we can somehow create like a Star Wars force field of self-esteem around them. So that when they go out into the world and someone dings it because they’re mean to them or a teacher said something that was a little difficult to hear or whatever, that somehow our kid would come home with perfect self-esteem still intact around them, but that’s not how self-esteem works. There’s some really interesting research specifically on kids with low self-esteem that the more we praise them for these inherent qualities of that, “You’re so gifted, you’re so talented, you’re so perfect,” all these sorts of things, that we don’t raise their self-esteem. We actually lower it.
What raises kids’ self-esteem is not confidence, that empty sort of optimistic, “My mom says I’m the best reader in the class,” but competence, which is competence with a P, which is confidence based on actual experience.
Tim Ferriss: On the confidence side, it’s fun to hear you frame it this way because just the other day, actually those two words sort of came to mind in the same sentence that is confidence and competence because I have lots of readers and listeners ask me how to develop confidence. And the answer is you have to go out and do things that you are at the edge or right outside of your sphere of comfort so that you develop that sort of increased confidence not without any context, but confidence in your ability to execute something with competence. There’s no way around it. And then if you’re being told, I imagined as a kid, “You’re the best at math A, B, and C,” as opposed to, “You worked really hard and you figured this out.” If you can’t do something, there’s no fix, right? You’re just a broken toy.
Jessica Lahey: Right. There’s actually an added layer to that, which is my MO for a long time was to advocate my way into jobs that I was not qualified for, but I usually — I became a political speech writer, I had no experience doing that, and I got into it the worst possible way. I read that politician’s speeches, the ones he’d published online because these are the ones he was most proud of, and I “fixed them” for him. That was my audition for him. I fixed his favorite speeches for him — I mean, it was like the most stupid thing ever, but I think that there’s a certain level of not just I can do this specific thing, but I’m resourceful enough to figure it out if I can’t do that specific thing. And that resourcefulness only comes from having tried something and screwed it up and tried it again and all that, and had support throughout that process with someone who actually believes in your ability to be resourceful.
Tim Ferriss: How did writing The Gift of Failure and then being on the road, metaphorically speaking or otherwise, sharing the findings and stories and takeaways from the book affect your parenting style, if at all, or perhaps you are already applying the tenets and principles from that book in your own family? I’m just curious how your parenting was reflective before, during, or after of things that were emphasized in the book?
Jessica Lahey: The Gift of Failure actually came out of me being just pissed off at the parents of my students for stealing away so many really cool learning opportunities, moments like where their kids were just ready to learn. And then the parent would swoop in and fix it and then the kid didn’t have to come up with his own strategy. And I was on a very, very high horse about that, I really was, especially because I’m in this “noble teaching profession and you’re ruining it for me,” but I realized at the same time, actually one of my students wrote an essay about the fact that she was so obsessed with being perfect that not only was she paralyzed when she had to write things like rough drafts or do something where she may not look perfect, she didn’t care about learning anymore. All she cared about was what grade she was going to get for the learning.
And this was a kid that I taught in sixth grade, seventh grade, and eighth grade. And somewhere, we wrecked her. I mean, this was not her fault. We did something to wreck this because we had this great sixth grade girl who would come into my classroom and say, “Ms. Lahey, Ms. Lahey, what are we going to learn today?” or “Ms. Lahey, Ms. Lahey, guess what I learned today?” And then by the time she gets to eighth grade, she’s telling me that she does not care about learning anymore. That is beside the point. What is the point for her is the grade she’s going to get when she regurgitates, whatever it is, I want her to regurgitate in whatever fashion and how high should I jump. That was devastating to me.
And at that exact same moment, that same week, it might’ve even been the same day, I found out that my nine-year-old couldn’t tie his own shoes because I’d been doing it for him.
Tim Ferriss: Oh.
Jessica Lahey: Yeah. And not only could he not tie his shoes, he was so humiliated by the fact that he couldn’t tie his shoes that he hadn’t told me. I hadn’t figured it out. He was having to sit out PE class, not play with his friends because he was wearing his brother’s boots to school because he didn’t have shoes without laces, and he was so humiliated and that was 100 percent my fault. I did that to him. Because every single time it came time to tie the shoes, it was just easier for me to do it. I was faster, tying shoes is hard. Thank you very much, manual dexterity. Tying shoes is one of the more challenging tasks for a young kid, and yet we sort of use it as this benchmark of like, “Yo, you’re getting big.” And so I just kept doing it and then Velcro, slip-on shoes, that kind of thing.
And essentially, what I was saying to him every time I said, “Oh, I’ll just do that for you. It’ll be faster if I do it for you,” was “I don’t think you’re competent enough to do this yourself.” And so that, my lack of faith in his ability to do it became our norm. And at that point, I then had — it was like a big bucket of cold water over my head, and I was like, “Oh, man, I can’t come at this from ‘You parents of my students suck because you’re ruining this whole learning thing.'” I was essentially doing the exact same thing to my own kids. A lot of what I write about is, “We’re not doing this right. Oh, look, I’m not doing this right. How can I do better and learn from it?” which is super fun and a little humiliating.
Tim Ferriss: Well, better late than never, right? Okay. Let’s —
Jessica Lahey: No. Right. And then we can model that for our kids, right? I mean, if we change what we do as parents, we don’t have to just pull the rug out from under our kids. We can say, “Look, I thought I was doing the best possible thing. I learned some stuff and I didn’t give you enough credit, and now I’m changing because I have information.” And that’s what I try to model for my kids all the time, back to Albert Schweitzer’s quote.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I have a friend who has — he’s just assumed. I think this is probably fair for all parents to assume that he’s just screwing his kids up in all sorts of ways he’s unaware of. And so he’s like, “Look, I know I’m fucking them all up, but I’m going to pay for the Hoffman Process. I’m going to pay for this other thing. When they’re 18, they’re going to go through these following three things to sort of unfuck themselves, and I’ve already committed to doing that. Speaking of a separate friend, I can actually name a friend named Mike Maples, a really sweet guy. And he, on a walk with me at one point, shared the two things that he would emphasize as a new parent because I asked him. This was some time ago. And one of the things that he said was optimism.
Jessica Lahey: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Oh, yeah. I love it.
Tim Ferriss: And I believe you’ve pointed out research related to kids with high ACE scores, that’s adverse childhood experiences scores, showing that one of the most important things that people can do for these kids is teach them hope, and I would love to hear you expand on that. And if there are any particular ways of teaching or fostering hope that you think work, how does one do that?
Jessica Lahey: Hope is this really cool thing that I think people tend to, in their heads, think of something fuzzy, like, “Oh, oh, balloons, bunnies, unicorn. Isn’t that nice?” It’s not. It is essential. There are whole books about how — the solution — one of the big solutions to intergenerational poverty is giving, making sure kids have one adult who teaches them to have the ability to not only see that their life can be different. And then, there’s part two which has to do with self-efficacy, which is that they have the power to make it be so, and there’s this — in fact, that definition of hope comes from a guy named Shane Lopez, a guy I love. He has died, unfortunately, and I miss him so, so much, but his Twitter handle is, it might even still be out there. It was hopemonger, a seller of hope. He’s just — really cool guy.
Tim Ferriss: That’s right.
Jessica Lahey: So according to him, hope is your ability to envision that your life can be better, different. Better is, I guess, the way to think about it and that you have the power to make it so. That is incredibly powerful that when we talk sometimes about kids having that one person who, if you say, “Who is that one person who really made you believe in yourself?” And it’s whatever, a teacher, a coach, or whatever, it’s usually because they helped them believe that their life can be better and they had the power to make it so. Those are the two elements there that are really, really important. And there’s — I have a whole shelf. I’m looking across the way at an entire shelf on books on hope and optimism. And they’re intertwined in incredible ways. And it’s really, really important that kids have someone, one person who lets them know what their life could look like and gives them that vision and helps them sort of really start to believe that it could be so. And that’s at the center of hope and optimism, I think.
And something that was consistently missing when I taught kids in an inpatient drug and alcohol rehab, there were a lot of kids in my classroom, the vast majority of the kids in my classroom did not have any belief that their lives could be different or that they had the power to make it so.
Tim Ferriss: So we’re going there next or —
Jessica Lahey: Yeah, sorry.
Tim Ferriss: — next after — no, no, you’re good. You’re good. No, no, you don’t have to apologize. We’re going there next, but I should say next after next because you mentioned the bookshelf full of books on hope and optimism. When you need a dose of hope or optimism, do you have one or two books that are your go-to inoculations or I should say booster shots, so to speak?
Jessica Lahey: Yeah. But they’re actually sort of specific to whatever it is I’m thinking about or doing for writing. It’s Stephen King’s On Writing. My kids use it too. Actually, my 17-year-old son and I have listened to this book in the car more times than I know because it makes me want to write, and it makes me find the joy again in writing. It’s an incredibly joyful book, it’s an incredibly useful book, and it is a book that makes me want to, and I know this sounds a little weird, but turn it off and go write. And that’s my go-to book for that sort of thing. And I owe him a debt of gratitude for that book.
Tim Ferriss: And you had a chance to interview him, if I’m not mistaken.
Jessica Lahey: I did.
Tim Ferriss: You’re lucky for that.
Jessica Lahey: Highlight. One of the highlights —
Tim Ferriss: I’m so jealous, so jealous, so jealous.
Jessica Lahey: I think the key to catching Stephen King’s attention and getting him to want to talk to you is to come at something from an angle. This is something you do really well. Come at it from an angle that he had — and he’s been asked everything, right? So my angle was — we were both English teachers, and I happen to know that he loved teaching grammar, so my interview was 100 percent about how one teaches grammar or, as he calls it, business English. And it was a dream come true. Really, it was. It was huge for me.
Tim Ferriss: So any other books that pop out when it’s anything outside the scope of writing? Although I realized that also On Writing, it includes and covers a lot more than just writing.
Jessica Lahey: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.
Tim Ferriss: But are there any other books that come to mind?
Jessica Lahey: I think of them as comfort books, but they’re also kind of hope and optimism and jab-in-the-arm kind of books. I’m a huge non-fiction reader, especially about the natural world. So the past year, for me, has been just such an overwhelming buffet of good books about like everything from The Book of Eels to — of course, the minute someone asks you about books, you start to blank out. But for me, the thing that has brought me the most joy, especially during the pandemic, has been being outside. I live in Vermont. I live in the woods. So anything — there’s this guy named Bernd Heinrich who writes a lot about — he has a book called The Winter World, The Summer World. He wrote a book about crows and ravens and how smart they are.
For me, I get a lot of my hope and power and happiness from thinking about the things I can discover out there in the world, and so they make me want to get out of the house, which is a really, really good place for my head to be when I’m in a bad place.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Take the focus off the self for a little bit.
Jessica Lahey: Yup. Yep. Yup, yup. Crows are a good thing to think about, I suppose.
Tim Ferriss: Crows, you said?
Jessica Lahey: Yeah, crows are cool, crows are amazing. Eels are cool. Owls of the Eastern Ice. They’re pretty cool. But lately, that’s my thing, has been that sort of natural world stuff.
Tim Ferriss: So hope and optimism. You can listen to your new podcast, Prose and Crows. I’m kidding. That’s a joke.
Jessica Lahey: That would be good. No, I like it.
Tim Ferriss: Vermont is spectacular. I’ve actually spent a lot of time in Vermont. I went to Middlebury College to their language school and have spent a lot of time up at Vermont. It’s a beautiful, beautiful place. Let’s jump to substance use and abuse in kids. What surprised you most in your research or what just surprised you? Because most is always the pole position number one answer and sometimes that’s hard to sort for. What did you find surprising in your research about preventing substance use and abuse in kids?
Jessica Lahey: The amount of parenting and education we do by the seat of the pants without even thinking about the research about what works and what doesn’t. In education, there’s a lot of this too, like, “This is how I was taught and so therefore, that’s how I’m going to teach it,” or, “This is what we’ve always done” kind of thing. So there’s a lot I screwed up, frankly, in parenting my 22-year-old. I let him have sips. I let him have his own glass of wine at dinner. Research is really, really clear. Parents who have a clear and consistent message of, “No, not until you’re — it’s legal,” which by the way, when I say it’s legal, I don’t care about the legal part. What I care about is the brain development part, 21 and finishing up brain development happen to happen in proximity.
So things like the myth of, “Oh, but those Europeans, they raise those children who just are moderate drinkers because it’s not special to them. They’ve grown up with alcohol. And so they totally know how to be moderate drinkers.” That’s not how it works. A, you can’t teach moderation; B, the European Union has the highest rate of alcohol consumption in the entire world. And while there are countries that sort of beat that, that sort of do have a culture of, it’s not cool to be out in public and be drunk. A lot of the countries you think of, that we’re trying to model our kids on, aren’t those countries. So just a lot of stuff that I did because I thought it was the right thing to do. When my oldest son was born, a friend of ours who really knows wine sent us a spectacular bottle of wine. And so I put some on my kid’s tongue because I wanted my infant, his first taste of wine, to be a really nice bottle of wine.
I did some stupid stuff and a lot of the stuff that I did was because I just didn’t know any better. And so all of the writing I do is very much from the perspective of, “Well, yeah. We screwed this stuff up because we didn’t know any better. But that’s not something to be ashamed of. This is us learning to be better. And P.S., I’ve made most of these mistakes.” So let’s take this information about our kids’ risks. Let’s take this information about what the research shows that really works for prevention. And let’s actually not feel embarrassed or ashamed about what we did wrong and just move forward from a place of knowing what works and trying to use that.
Tim Ferriss: So we’re going to jump around temporarily here a little bit, but what does it mean — what are your responsibilities? What does it look like to be a recovery coach at Sana?
Jessica Lahey: I think it’s really similar to what I did at my rehab classroom, which is essentially being a sober person who, for better or for worse, when I used to tell my students that I’m still in recovery, my students would say, “You don’t look like an alcoholic” because people tend to have some image in their mind whether that’s of someone in the gutter or someone who’s homeless or someone who has mental illness or whatever. Being a role model of someone who has been in long-term recovery and still struggles, but still makes it work, that’s sort of at its core, what being a recovery coach is. It’s to be someone who’s been there and done it and has come out the other end at least eight years on and is able to just give people hope. I mean, we’re back to that hope thing. I’m modeling hope, I’m modeling optimism, and I’m modeling — I’m also giving them some of the tools I’ve learned.
For me, it’s really important for me if I’m going to a dinner party to know that A, I can’t worry about offending the host if I have to leave, that I always have an exit strategy, and that my husband and I have a signal for when it’s time to go, and that I just have to put my ability to stay safe and sober first above worrying about offending my host. So little things, little learned things you figure out over eight years of sobriety and that’s part of what I’m there for.
Tim Ferriss: Sharing the playbook. What is the format? Is it a group class? Is it one-on-one? How do you impart these lessons and model?
Jessica Lahey: It’s both. We’re still shaping this. Sana is fairly new. The cool thing about Sana is that it’s the first medically assisted recovery and treatment center in Vermont. There just hasn’t been one. And so we’re still figuring out what Sana is going to look like, but the cool thing about my job is I get to do one-on-one and I get to do group stuff. If the people that are getting treatment are parents and they want to talk about prevention in their kids, I get to do that too because that happens to be my wheelhouse, but I’m just available both on a regular basis in a group setting. And then as needed individually to just talk them through stuff that’s scary and talk them through, “Oh, my gosh, what’s going to happen? In fact, I did a talk recently to parents of people who work in the alcohol industry, parents who work in the big alcohol companies. That’s a really scary place to be because where their money comes from and often their social lives and the lives they have around their social life and their work life is often really entangled, and a lot of that is around alcohol. So how do you talk to your kids? So there are a lot of people who just sort of say things like, “What if I need to go to that Christmas party and I just get weak?” Or what if my kid comes to me and says, “You are a hypocrite. You can’t tell me about the fact that I can’t drink because you’re an alcoholic.” So how am I going to manage that and keep safe myself? That’s my job.
Tim Ferriss: What does medically assisted mean? Is it sort of like a medical triage where they can provide saline drips for rehydration or interventions that involve —
Jessica Lahey: Yeah, it means a couple of things. So medically assisted detox means that it alleviates the symptoms of — when you’re used to seeing — if you watch, I don’t know, some recovery show or a movie, a depiction of someone who’s going through withdrawal or DTs or whatever. It’s like the pain and the sweat and all that stuff. It doesn’t have to be that way. Some people believe that you have to go through that so you’ll be so scared of having to do it again that you won’t go back on drugs, but that’s just not the way it works. So medically assisted, especially for alcohol, you can die going through withdrawal from alcohol. It’s really, really dangerous. So having a physician around and actually the head of addiction medicine at University of Vermont is the chief medical officer of Sana.
So you have someone there actually monitoring you medically and alleviating the symptoms of withdrawal so that you can get to the place where you can even think straight about what comes next, which is the recovery process.
Tim Ferriss: DT stands for delirium tremens? Is that it?
Jessica Lahey: An old term, yeah. It does. It means delirium tremens, yeah. Seeing spiders and the classic things that happen to people, to the point where they need alcohol in their system to stay alive, essentially, because you can have seizures and die if you’re at that point in your alcoholism.
Tim Ferriss: Why did you decide to write a book about this and all of these things? Addiction Inoculation.
Jessica Lahey: As soon as I got sober, the very next thing that happened was, “Okay. What about my kids? Because this has to stop with me.” I mean, I’m the product of generations of alcoholism. My husband also has the genetic, so my kids have it loaded up double barrel. What do I do?
If you look at the experts out there, they say substance abuse is a preventable public health concern, but what does that word preventable mean? What does that actually mean? What can I practically, realistically do to prevent substance use in my kids and the eventuality or the possibility of substance use disorder in my kids? Can we control everything? Absolutely not. But we do know a lot about what contributes to a person’s risk of developing substance use disorder. So what does the research say? What works? What doesn’t work?
Tim Ferriss: Now, if “Just say no” doesn’t work, if the assumption is on some level that kids are going to experiment with sex, with drugs prior to full brain maturity, are there any scripts or approaches from a parenting perspective that can help mitigate the risk or mitigate the possible damage?
Jessica Lahey: One of the things we hear a lot about is that, “Oh, everybody’s doing it,” kind of thing, that script. What we know works for kids, what the research shows works for kids to prevent them using drugs and alcohol is actually having real data. I think like the sex conversation, a lot of parents are really worried about talking about it will make them do it kind of thing. Or maybe if we talk about pot, they’re going to suddenly realize that pot exists and they’re going to start using it or something like that. That’s not how it works. Giving kids real data on actual prevalence — for example, if a kid in eighth grade is offered alcohol and the kid says to them, “Well, everybody does it. It’s no big deal,” and that kid happens to know that less than a quarter of kids have a sip of alcohol by the end of eighth grade, that’s useful information. That’s powerful, self-empowerment information, information that helps kids feel more like they have what’s called self-efficacy.
Helping kids understand before they go off to college. “Here are the kids who drink. Here’s how much alcohol is consumed by kids in college. Here’s this vast majority of kids who either drink minimally or not at all in college.” A bunch of years ago I asked my students, “In your most lucid and trusting and open moment, what could an adult have said to you that would have made you think differently about your use or made you possibly reassess your use?” All of them said, “Be honest with me.” Saying things like “Drugs are bad” is clearly a lie because people wouldn’t do drugs if they were all bad. If there was no upside, why would anyone ever do drugs? So that’s a lie and right off the bat, they know that we’re lying to them. So why should they trust our information?
Giving them real information about what it does to their brains at certain stages of their development, how helping them focus on — so for example, if you have a kid who really wants to be an architect or a policeman or whatever it is your kid really wants to be, and you know that they’re going to have to finish high school or finish college or get to a certain level of achievement in order to be that thing, you can say, “Look, here’s the deal. We know that the hippocampus is smaller in kids who use pot on a regular basis. The hippocampus is where memory formation happens and that old joke about people who smoke a lot of pot having no short term memory, that’s because those receptors are right there on and around the hippocampus, and that’s a very real thing. In grownups, sometimes that can be temporary loss, but in kids it’s more likely to be a permanent sort of situation. It can be temporary, but we also know that there’s permanent changes to the hippocampus over time. So these goals that you have for your life are going to be less likely for you to be able to achieve if you’re messing with your ability to remember stuff.”
Bringing the data, the information, that dry data about what it actually does and how it does it and what it’s doing to your brain, when you attach it to your child’s actual goals and hopes and dreams, we’re back to that hope and optimism stuff, that’s how you get real leverage with kids. Being more honest with them about all of that, who uses, how much, when, what it does to them, that’s the stuff that actually works to keep kids making better decisions.
Actually one last thing, if I could add on, there’s this really cool thing called inoculation theory. It’s a school in sociology and psychology. Inoculation theory around helping kids manage risky behaviors, like having sex before they’re ready or using drugs and alcohol or whatever, getting in the car with a drunk driver. When we give kids scripts or help them practice refusal skills, or give them a rebuttal, just knowing that they have a rebuttal to, “Everyone’s doing it,” or, “It’s no big deal,” or whatever that thing is, just knowing they have a rebuttable will make them more likely to use the rebuttal and, here’s the coolest part, it generalizes. So when we use inoculation theory to help kids not get in a car with a drunk driver or not have sex before they’re ready or not use drugs and alcohol, it will generalize to all those other things, which is really cool. So not only does it make it more likely that they will use those refusal skills, they will generalize to other risky behaviors. So that’s why inoculation is in the title of the book and why I’m so excited about inoculation theory.
Tim Ferriss: I dig it. Question on the sort of triage side of managing non-ideal circumstances. So let’s say a parent gets a call from a nurse or a supervisor at an infirmary at a given school, let’s just say at college, and turns out their son or daughter has not necessarily alcohol poisoning, but has ended up there from drinking too much alcohol. What advice would you have for that parent? What should they do or say or not do or not say? Do you have any thoughts?
Jessica Lahey: Yeah. So the first most important thing is this is not about you. Number one, parents, this is not about you. This is not your failure as a parent. This is not about you. So just take a deep breath and just sort of chill about that for just a second. Number two, whether it’s a kid who starts having sex or a kid who gets drunk for the first time, this is not an all or nothing sort of thing. It’s not like my kid is ruined because they’ve gone over this black and white border that culture has set up for them. So it’s going to be really, really important for your kid to know that they have not transgressed to the point of no return. You’ve not lost faith in them. You have to listen from a place without judgment, especially early on, because the kid is going to feel definitely like they failed you and all this other stuff. You want to avoid going to a place of really high emotion because you doing that is just going to make your kid do that, and then nobody’s listening to each other.
A lot of this actually goes back to The Gift of Failure stuff, which is helping your kid figure out, number one, what was this experience like? What was positive? What was negative. Taking what they’ve learned from this situation and carrying it forward with them to the next time, talking to them about and making sure that they do suffer whatever consequences are. So if the nurse calls and says, “Your kid is clearly feeling hung over because they drank the night before,” you going to pick them up is not going to help the situation. That’s you saving them from feeling crappy at school. I mean, the worst drunk I ever had that my husband knew about, I had to go to school and teach the next day. I’m so glad I did, because it was one of those pieces in that puzzle for me. It was like probably piece 97. “I can’t teach and be hung over,” was a really important lesson for me to learn. “I feel like crap and I still have to manage school,” is a really important thing for you to expose your kid to.
Same thing with like if your kid decides to go nocturnal and not sleep. Make them go to school, they have to feel — because you can’t teach them cause and effect if you’re saving them from the effect. That’s just not how that stuff works. So those are going to be really important. Listen, without judgment, get your emotions out of the equation. This is not about you, and this is not an absolutist sort of situation. We can start again tomorrow. Frankly, for me, that’s a really important part of recovery. If I were to screw up tomorrow and I very well could, I don’t know, the next day comes and then I start all over again the day after that.
On a tangent, that’s why I think Dax Shepherd’s episode called “Seven Days” where he admitted to the fact that he had relapsed after 17 years, I think Dax has done a ton for recovery for being open and out about recovery. I think everything he has done in terms of being a role model in recovery pales in comparison to what he did in that episode when he admitted to the fact that he had relapsed and he was starting again at day one and that he had seven days and that he was starting over. Because in an alternate universe, he could have very easily given up. I think a lot of kids right now, the anxiety we’re seeing in a lot of kids is that the world is absolutist and you either suck and you might as well just go off yourself, or you’re perfect. We need to help kids see that realizing that tomorrow is a new day and we need to take what we learned from yesterday into tomorrow. I think that’s one of the most important things we can do for kids.
Tim Ferriss: So you’ve mentioned, or we’ve spoken about, the 100 pieces at the birthday party, but even outside of the realm of anything alcohol or alcoholism or addiction related, do you have a favorite failure? Meaning do you have a failure that in retrospect is something that really set the stage for an incredibly important lesson or learning or set up success later. I suppose a lot of those 100 pieces, like having to teach hung over, could be examples of that. But does anything come to mind for you?
Jessica Lahey: Yeah. It’s not recovery related. It has to do with my writing. So I wrote The Gift of Failure, it was my first book. I didn’t know how to write a book. I mean, knowing how to write a book is a learned skill, right? So the idea that a journalist who’s used to writing 1,200 words because suddenly write 70,000 and do it perfectly the first time around, I had it in my head — my fantasy was I would hand my first draft in and my editor would come back to me and she’d say, “Well, there’s no edits here. I mean, this is it. We can publish early. This is perfect.” What happened instead was this. I turned my book in on time, on October 31st, and on November 1st, I went on a horseback ride with my husband. My friend of mine has horses that she lets me borrow sometimes.
I was thrown from the horse and I landed on my head and I lost my memory and lost my ability to read for a little while. It was bad. It was really bad. Didn’t remember that I’d finished a book the day before, all that sort of stuff. So I had some post-concussion syndrome that was really depression and stuff. Then I got a call from my editor. Actually, I got an email from my editor, asking me to come to New York for a talk. No, yeah, that’s not good. My editor is like — oh, I just idolized her. She’s like a grande dame in publishing. She’s amazing. So this wasn’t going to be good. I went and what she said was this. Oh, God, it still makes me want to throw up.
She said, “This book is unpublishable.” Then she said the worst part. That wasn’t the worst part. What she said was, “We need to think about bringing in a ghost.” Now, a ghost means a ghost writer. I am a professional writer and she wants to bring in a writer to help me write my book. So I didn’t throw up. I was actually very proud of myself for that. But I said, “Look…” and I didn’t cry, which was also a huge thing. I said, “Before we do that…” I needed some extra time anyway because of the head injury. That really got in my way for a while, so we had some extra time to play with. I said, “Give me two chapters, give me a probationary two chapters and tell me everything I did wrong and what you want this to look like.”
I filled a notebook. I sat in her office for — I was in there for over an hour listening to how bad I was, to how much I stank as a writer, essentially. Luckily, she was also lovely and she said things like, “This happens with a lot of journalists. You’re used to writing in short bursts and so you end up writing this very fragmented, large thing that doesn’t hold together as a whole. Your writing is fine. It’s your organization that sucks and that’s what you need help with.” So she gave me those two chapters and I went home and I read over a notebook full of how badly I suck as a writer and I digested it and I turned it into essentially a checklist of what not to do again. Those two chapters turned into four, which turned into six, which turned into the whole book, no ghost writer, which turned into a New York Times bestselling book.
That’s not the best part of the story. The best part of the story for me was that when she bought my second book, I turned that book in on time. My agent was a little nervous because she knew I’d been a lot to handle the first time, right? My editor’s having to line edit an entire book, because I’m a ton of work. But I had run my second book through the what not to do again to-do list filter, and the book was so clean that she wanted to move up my publication date.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, wow.
Jessica Lahey: So it’s not that I’m a great writer. It’s that I was humble enough to say, “Teach me how to be better. I will take it to heart and I will be able to be objective about it and I will use it and I won’t make the same mistakes again.” So when I handed in not only Gift of Failure but then the next book, I was able to show my editor that I learned from my mistakes. And what was really sweet is she referred to me in a recent email as a dream author because I learned from my mistakes.
Tim Ferriss: Whatever you lacked in writing a book or organizing a book you made up for with negotiating prowess. I’m impressed that you had the presence of mind to negotiate for the probationary chapters. Do you remember anything from your not-to-do checklist? Does anything come to mind that you can share? I would love to hear some of it.
Jessica Lahey: It gets really specific. I used to like the word “particularly,” and that’s stupid. Don’t use that word. Also, if you’re ever going to record your own audio book, really don’t use the word “particularly” because it’s a really hard word to say. I mean, for your audience, they might be kind of boring things. They’re about organization. They’re like, if you’re going to write a book —
Tim Ferriss: No. My listeners are into that kind of stuff.
Jessica Lahey: If you’re going to write a book, like the two books that I’ve written, that is about parenting kids from preschool to college, make sure that everything is organized in the same way. So if you set up an organizational scheme for your book, whether it’s by age range, whether it’s by grade, then replicate that over and over and over. It’s helped me become a lot more organized in my writing. It’s really simple stuff that I used to teach my students. Like if your topic paragraph says you’re going to address points one, two, three, and four, you don’t address points three, four, two, and one. You go in the order that you said you were going to address them. So come up with your own sort of style guide for your — it’s not really a style guide. Your own organizational guide for your book, and then make sure that every single time you talk about whether it’s scripts for helping kids get out of tough conversations or whether it’s, I don’t know, how a kid’s brain develops, that you’re always going by the same organizational schemata or whatever that thing is.
So just be organized and stick with — if you’re going to call something — and this was tough, actually. In my last book, we’re supposed to be using the term substance use disorder, not addiction, not substance abuse. But you can’t say the same words over and over and over again. So you have to come up with other ways to say those things and just keep track of what you’re doing.
Tim Ferriss: That’s tricky when you [crosstalk 01:30:43].
Jessica Lahey: Make everything look the same over a whole book.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. That has been sort of politically removed from the lexicon that you can run into a repetition issue. I could see that. Hard to just pull out the thesaurus.
Jessica Lahey: And call yourself on it. So if I’m going to use the word addiction on the front of my book and I, as a journalist, am not supposed to be using the word addiction in my book, I better explain why I’m using the word addiction, which I do. I get very specific. Rather than hope no one will notice, address it and put it out there. That makes things a lot easier for you over the long run.
Tim Ferriss: So with the not-to-do list, I can imagine particularly you’re like, “Okay, got it. Right. Check.” Maybe not loaded, not an emotionally wrought thing to accept. Were there any that kind of stung or that took a second to kind of nod and accept? Were there any stingers? Yeah, if you could share, I’d be curious. I’ve got plenty.
Jessica Lahey: “You are not an organized thinker.” I knew this. I’ve always been a seat of my pants — in 1,200 words, you can go blah, blah, blah, and make it all come together. But you can’t do that with 70,000 to 90,000 words. It’s unwieldy. Certain tools have really helped me also. By the way, when it comes to things like the particularly thing, I use Scrivener to write and Scrivener will let you —
Tim Ferriss: Oh, me too. I love Scrivener.
Jessica Lahey: Scrivener has a word frequency counter and you can look to see what words you’re using too much. Actually, there’s a fantastic book that came out last year called Dreyer’s English and Benjamin Dreyer gives people — I think it’s right at the beginning of the book, asks people to excise these particular phrases from their language. You can search on those phrases. I actually occasionally will do an audit of the language I’m using in a book just to see what words am I using a lot. Just give me the word frequency. Scrivener will give you the word frequency for every single word you’ve used in an entire document and you can find out if you’re using the word particularly. If you’ve used it 462 times, maybe you need to reduce that. The other cool thing is Stephen King talks about this, is reduction of adverbs. I am writing fiction, but I haven’t released any fiction. And that’s been a really helpful tool for me as well. Is just checking for adverbs and clearing out the adverbs. Checking for dumb things that I tend to use in my language that don’t need to be there.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. One of my current afflictions. It’s like some food allergy that won’t go away, is “That said…” Like, statement, statement, statement, “That said,” comma —
Jessica Lahey: Actually the word that. The word that is an Achilles heel for me. If you look through your document or whatever it is you’re writing, you could probably remove 95 percent of the word that. Just try the sentence without the word. The other big thing that I learned as a journalist that I learned from my editor, and it’s one of the smartest things I’ve ever heard, and I now give other people this advice all the time, is if you’re writing like an op-ed piece or a short essay, your last paragraph is probably your better first paragraph. Because people tend to take a long time to get to the point. And then it’s really clearly and beautifully elucidated in their — articulated in the end. So I work with a group called The OpEd Project, which is helping elevate diverse voices to getting people to own their expertise and write op-eds because of that.
A while ago, we figured out that op-eds were being written by white men. So how can we get other voices in there? And that’s almost always the first piece of advice I give my mentees at The OpEd Project, which is look at your last paragraph, move it up to the top, and just see. I bet you your piece works better.
Tim Ferriss: That’s great advice. Are there any writers who immediately come to mind, non-fiction? They could be fiction also, but outside of Stephen King, for structure or other characteristics where you’re like, “Wow, okay. This is someone to pay attention to.” Or “This is someone who really impresses the hell out of me.”
Jessica Lahey: Yeah. So there was a woman named Julie Lythcott-Haims. She has a great TED talk about her first book, which is called How to Raise an Adult. Tricky thing is about Julie Lythcott-Haims, a little backstory, is that Julie and I wrote basically the same books at the same time. Mine was supposed to come out first and hers was supposed to come out second. And then I had my head injury and it flip-flopped. Julie and I also shared a student. I taught a girl in high school who went on to Stanford and Julie was the freshman Dean at Stanford. And so we were introduced through our student. Julie and I decided early on that the worst thing we could do was compete with each other. And the best thing we could do was be each other’s biggest cheerleader. That people who can afford one book can probably afford two.
And so that’s been our MO ever since. Her second, her second book was a book called Real American. And I expected Julie to write a straight up memoir. And I was super excited because I’m like, “I’m all in. Tell me, Julie, I’ll read anything you write.” And she wrote it in the most — some of it was like — it was like prose poetry. She taught me to be brave with that book. So now every once in a while, when I’m writing something, I think, “Just think about Real American.” Think about what Julie did there. A, her publisher let her do it because it was so good, they had to admit that she was doing something kind of magic and be brave and don’t think, “Oh, my editor is just not going to go for this because it’s different.” And there was another book actually called Half a Life by — oh, shoot. This is why you should never mention books until you’re positive you have the author in the head.
Half a Life. It came out a long time ago. I don’t know, 15 years ago. And it came out and it has a lot of empty space in the book because it has to, because that’s part of the —
Tim Ferriss: Darin Strauss. Half a Life by Darin Strauss D-A-R-I-N.
Jessica Lahey: Yeah. And he did some really cool things narratively and with empty space in that book. And you say, “Well, what do you mean with empty space in that book?” And he allowed for room, because he had — it was about the fact that he hit and killed a girl when she was riding her bicycle. And he was in a car when he was 17. And so Half a Life is about that, and there needed to be empty space in the book because there was empty space. And anyway, so I look to people like that. I also have authors that I look to as my —
Tim Ferriss: Quick question. As empty space do you mean —
Jessica Lahey: Actual empty space on the page?
Tim Ferriss: I see, so the actual visual layout of the prose.
Jessica Lahey: So there was a chapter where it was like two or three lines and then empty space for a page and then the back of a page. And it was just little things that make me think, “Oh, it doesn’t always have to look the same.” Julie, they allowed her to use an interesting and different font that freaked me out at first and then realized, “Oh, no, wait, this is perfect.” Prose, poetry, memoir. No, but it totally worked. And it was great. And Darin’s use of space. This does require that you have an editor who can get on that place with you. But I also have authors that I need as an expert voice. I talk about this on the podcast that I host, is that I’m big into dissecting other people’s work to figure out what works and what doesn’t. And sometimes, especially when I’m first searching for my expert voice, I will keep copies of books on my desk that are written by people who are not afraid to tell the truth.
Not afraid of people coming after them, not afraid of being the expert. And when I’m feeling weak on a given writing day, I’ll pick those books up and read them so that I can feel strong.
Tim Ferriss: You know who does a great job of that for me is Mary Karr.
Jessica Lahey: Oh, my God, yes.
Tim Ferriss: Mary Karr.
Jessica Lahey: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: She’s so good, and so funny. And so zero fucks given. She’s a real artist. She’s an artist and a craftswoman, if that makes any sense. She combines the two. She knows how to put in motion the carpentry of writing, just like Stephen King. And I believe they know each other, I think. But Stephen King has a mastery of grammar and yet she’s also very good at experimentation. And especially good at telling the truth. I think she’s just fantastic.
Jessica Lahey: Yeah. I think it’s really, really important to have people like that, that you look at, and you either say — and actually Stephen King talks about this in On Writing. You either look at that and you go, “Shit, I could never be that good. How does that person even do this? How do they make me feel these things?” And that could be aspirational. But again, I also, as he says in his book, I think it’s important also to read bad books. Because for someone who — especially, because I think it’s been really important for me, especially when I was writing Gift of Failure. And I was having a crisis of confidence. It was really important for me to go out there and look at these books that are on the shelf that are crap. And I know I can do better than that. And that also pushes me to put the best work I can put out there, because I can do better than this. And this book that published, how did that book get published? And my author and my editor is saying that my book is unpublishable. I can do better than this.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. You can even go down the New York Times bestseller list and find some stuff that is very, very — I don’t want to say poorly written, but that is not going to — it’s going to inspire confidence as opposed to intimidate. And I think maybe I’ve been reading too many good books because I’ve been feeling terrible about myself. I read Little, Big by, I want to say the author’s name is John Crowley. This is from memory. It’s this incredible fantastical novel. That is one of those tourists — it’s a tour de force. This just displays a virtuosity that left me just wanting to forget I ever saw a writing implement. So maybe it’s time to read some very mediocre bad books. When you read big books, is there a genre that you like where you’re like, “Even if this is shitty, I’m going to enjoy it?”
Jessica Lahey: Yeah. If someone can just carry me along in the story and I just want to find — I’ll stick with a lot, I will be fairly quick to give something up. If I feel like it’s a waste of my time. Because there’s just too many good books out there to read, but a good thriller where there is some clunky dialogue or there’s some clunky, descriptive language, if there’s a really, really good plot going, I’ll stick with it. Plus I do a lot of my listening. Since my head injury, I have a few lasting things from that. My time reading on a screen or a page is somewhat limited. So I reserve that for work, and I listen to most of my recreational stuff. And also I can’t sit still, I’m really hyper.
So it allows me to listen to something and do something at the same time. So it can be like clearing brush in the woods and listening to an amazing book that has me off in another world. And I was just listening to, just this past weekend. I really loved Jodi Picoult’s book, The Book of Two Ways. It took me to Egypt and it took me to academia and it took me to all these places and I’m clearing brush and there is no greater delight than that, I think, to be transported.
Tim Ferriss: Do you have enough time for me to ask you one or two more questions?
Jessica Lahey: Of course.
Tim Ferriss: And then we’ll wrap up. Does that work for you?
Jessica Lahey: Yeah, sure.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. So we talked a lot about favorite failure and failures, which led into this discussion of writing, which was great. Best investments. This could be an investment of time, of money, of energy, where you look back, outside of things we’ve already talked about. Where you were like, “Wow, okay. That really was a formative or disproportionately important thing that I allocated X to, or decided to commit to in whatever way.” Does anything come to mind for you?
Jessica Lahey: Yeah. I mean, they’re the easy answers to this, which is if my kids want to buy a book, they can always buy the book or I’m fortunate enough that we can do that. But what I’ve come to realize in the past couple of years, that investing in the things that my kids are interested in, investing personally in the things that my kids are interested in, whether or not they actually interest me has been an incredible learning experience. So even stuff that — for a while there, my kid when he was little — my younger kid, he was really into crystals. And I think it came out of crystal skulls and aliens and stuff, but then it morphed into just crystals generally and healing crystals. And I’m like, my husband is a physician. An infectious diseases physician and a medical ethicist.
I’m an academic too. Way too much education. So my first instinct was to be like, “Well, that’s kind of woo woo for me.” But instead I said, “Will you teach me about that? Because I don’t know anything about that.” And that led to him going on trips with me and finding all of the crystal stores we could find within a 100-mile radius, or now my younger son produces digital music. The music he produces is not music that I would ever listen to on my own, but asking him to teach me about how you use FL Studio, how you’re using those Serum patches that you’re putting into your thing. And then we started watching YouTube videos. We watched this guy named Adam Neely, who does music theory, videos on YouTube. He is fantastic. So we watch him again.
Tim Ferriss: What was the name again?
Jessica Lahey: His name is Adam Neely. N-E-E-L-Y. Just watch a couple of his videos. In fact, even if I’m going to — I’m going to say this and you’re going to not believe me. He has one on, and this is going to — most of it is really academic stuff, but he does one and his mom happens to be in it too, because she’s a voice teacher. Her name is Kate. On this one song that Celine Dion sings and why this one key change is at the heart of what makes people feel in music. First of all, I’m like, “Celine Dion. No thank you.” But I watched this with my son. I was rapt. And Adam Neely has a band called Sungazer. And as you well know, no music has been live for the past — people just haven’t been doing live music for the past year and a half.
And so I found out that Sungazer was going back on a very limited tour run just to get in front of a few audiences. And so we pooled some funds and we flew to Washington DC just to watch Sungazer play. This person that we’ve been watching, someone that my son really admired. He plays jazz EDM. So jazz, but also electronic. Not my bag, but we’d been learning about it for the past 18 months, and so I could appreciate it. I could understand what Adam was doing, what the musicians were doing with their music and more than anything else, my kid knows that I respect him enough to put myself out there for things that are important to him. That investment has been one of the most important things. My oldest son is an economist. Do I want to learn about economics? No. I do not want to learn about economics. But letting him teach me about economic theory has been one of the best investments of my time and effort I could ever give.
Tim Ferriss: That is a great answer and a great inspiration too. Plus, bonus, I have been looking for a good way to learn about music theory that won’t make me want to dive headfirst through a stained glass window. So if Adam Neely makes music theory interesting, I’m into it.
Jessica Lahey: Also listen to another YouTube producer called Polyphonic. I don’t actually know his real name. Polyphonic and Adam Neely, but Adam Neely is really cool. He’s a bass player. He went to Berklee School of Music. He does another — his videos are fascinating because they take one concept and explain how that concept makes music, as special as it is. And he’s just really cool. He’s really fascinating to watch.
Tim Ferriss: I’ll check it out. All right. I’m going to ask a question that is sometimes a dead end and I will take all the blame for that, but I will try it nonetheless. And that is the metaphorical book. Excuse me. Let me try that again. That is the billboard question. So metaphorically speaking, if you had a billboard, it could be a push notification to phones. If there’s some environmental visual objective to — or objection to billboards, to get a message, a quote, a question an image, anything out to many, many people. Everyone in the US let’s say, A political, what might you put on that billboard?
Jessica Lahey: Two things. Number one, not two answers, two things. Number one, did you know that billboards are not allowed in Vermont? So it is really striking the minute you leave Vermont. If I take the ferry over to Plattsburgh from Burlington, oh, my God, billboards are ugly. They are so ugly. They’re horrifying. The thing that I would put on the billboard is essentially what I do. As a teacher, as a writer, as someone who works with kids and adults in recovery. And that’s just the question: “Did you make someone feel seen or heard today?” That’s our job. I mean, I think as human beings, there’s no more important thing we do [than] make someone else feel seen or heard. Especially when it’s most needed.
Tim Ferriss: I love that. And I also love that Vermont has no billboards. I did not know that.
Jessica Lahey: Signage. Even if you look at like fast food restaurant, signage is incredibly tightly regulated here. It cannot be ugly. So it’s awfully nice.
Tim Ferriss: Go Vermont, good for you. If you had A, and you may already have a reminder. A sticky note on your computer or on your refrigerator or on your mirror. If it couldn’t include your answer, if it couldn’t be your answer for the billboard. What might it be?
Jessica Lahey: Actually they’re behind me. One of them is behind me and it says — hold on, let me grab it. All right. Okay. One is from a researcher named Laurence Steinberg. He wrote a book called Age of Opportunity about parenting. About adolescents. And this one is “protect when you must, but permit when you can.” And that’s my parenting mantra. But then this is when I was teaching 10th grade. One of my students wrote this quote on a piece of paper because she thought I might like it. She was correct. She’s now a mother of two, anyway. It’s the Heraclitus, “You could not step twice into the same rivers, for other waters are ever flowing onto you.” And it just helps me remember that no matter what I screw up, no matter how I screw up, no matter what, there are different waters tomorrow. I mean, it comes back to this. If I screw up my recovery, if someone else screws up their recovery, if my kid screws up tomorrow new waters are going to be flowing over us.
And so it’s going to be really important for us to walk into those waters from a place of newness and acceptance and learning. So those are my two.
Tim Ferriss: You’ve pulled my attention to the wall behind you. I’ve been focusing on your face and I can’t miss, “Absolutely not.” With “not” underlined. What is the background? What’s the backstory on that?
Jessica Lahey: I don’t know. I think I asked my husband a question or a kid asked my husband a question. And the answer was “Absolutely not.” I just thought it was funny. And so I put it up there. I’m not a sentimental person. And so the fact that I have a wall full of things that mean something to me, these are the things that mean a lot to me. And it’s because — and I have to tip it slightly this way. So you can see there’s a picture right here. And this is my father’s office. When I was little, he was an industrial designer and he had a 20 foot high wall in his office that had just stuff from all over the world that he had collected, that people had given him. Things that meant a lot to him. And when I was little, I said, someday, when I have an office, I want a wall like that. I want important things on my wall. And these are the important things in my wall. And every single thing on this wall for the most part anyway, has a story.
Tim Ferriss: It’s amazing. I mean, it looks like just for people who don’t have the visual. If you imagine you had, and hopefully this description doesn’t offend you in any way. Wow, it’s tall too. So if you imagined you went into your childhood desk, your grandparents’ desk, and also went on like a scavenger hunt outside and stole a few things and you took everything and put it on the floor so that you could take a photograph from the top, but then you turned it and it was on a wall behind you. That is what this looks like. Are there any other items here that you would like to explain that are particularly meaningful?
Jessica Lahey: Yeah. I made that.
Tim Ferriss: Particularly.
Jessica Lahey: I know I made that in second grade, so I’ve carried that around with me my whole life. That’s my dad.
Tim Ferriss: What is that?
Jessica Lahey: This is a cherry pie, duh.
Tim Ferriss: Obviously.
Jessica Lahey: Obviously. Someone gave me this, that’s Power Girl. Because someone said I remind them of Power Girl. And I’m like, “Well, that’s bad-ass.” So she needs to be up there. When I first started writing for the New York Times, there was no budget for our art. So we used to have to make pictures. If you go back to my earliest columns at the New York Times, the pictures are with literary action figures, Playmobil figures and LEGO figures for the most part. And so a bunch of my literary figures are up here. Because they’re from my New York Times articles. My kids’ Harry Potter ones are on here because when people ask me questions about parenting my answer is often I wish I had a magic wand to wave to say, “Let me just fix that for you.” But I can’t. This picture right here behind me. This is my law school graduation. And this was my best friend, Mary Moore Parham. And she died by suicide in 1999. And the scholarship fund at Sana, the reason my entire salary goes 100 percent into a scholarship fund for young people, is because of her.
It’s named for her. She worked with people who had mental health issues and just needed help and didn’t know where else to get it. And so that’s where that comes from for her. But there’s one thing I am embarrassed about up here. There’s a — there’s this ring up here, there’s a carousel on Martha’s Vineyard in Edgartown, and as you go around, you grab and you know, the saying of grabbing the brass ring, there’s a brass ring. And if you get that, then you win something. My dad, a long time ago, took a couple of the rings from that carousel and has felt guilty about it his entire life and returned them all to — sent them in an envelope back to Edgartown, back to the carousel, back to the town, actually, I think. Except for this one, he found when they moved. And so at some point I’m going to have to take it. I want to take it in person to Edgartown to return it.
Tim Ferriss: To its rightful owner. Brass ring. I’m sorry to hear about the —
Jessica Lahey: It’s not one of the brass ones though. It’s actually, I think one of the steel ones. If it was a brass one, I would have already returned it.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Well, I’m sorry to hear about your friend.
Jessica Lahey: It’s cool. It was just the 20th anniversary obviously of her death, but she is the reason that I make my life my argument, honestly. She’s one of the main reasons I do that, because that’s what she did.
Tim Ferriss: Well thank you for sharing all of that.
Jessica Lahey: Of course.
Tim Ferriss: And Jessica, this has been a lot of fun. We’re recording this pretty late, for those who are unaware. We’re doing this in the evening and I appreciate you rallying to spend the time. Is there anything else you would like to mention? Anything else you would like to share, ask of listeners before we wrap up. The latest book is The Addiction Inoculation, subtitle, Raising Healthy Kids in a Culture of Dependence. People can find you at Jessica Lahey, L-A-H-E-Y dot com and on Twitter at jesslahey, Instagram at teacherlahey and we’ll include links to all the other social on the podcast and Sana at Stowe as well in the show notes. But is there anything else that you would like to add before we wrap up?
Jessica Lahey: Yeah, I think this year has been — this past year and a half, I was one of those unlucky people who had to try to release a book during a — I had to try to release a book during a pandemic. And I’m very lucky that I get to release a book, but I had to release a book during a pandemic and especially on a topic that’s really scary. I mean, talking about failure and kids talking about addiction in kids is really, really scary. And I just want to reassure parents that not avoiding these conversations is not how they get better and they don’t go away just because we avoid having them. And so I promise if you do choose to pick up either one of my books, I try to be as — I come at this stuff from a place of compassion and love. I do not want anyone to feel any shame, but for our kids’ benefit, I hope that people consider thinking about whether it’s picking up one of my books or picking up Peggy Orenstein books.
Girls and Sex, and Boys and Sex, and thinking about how we actually have these conversations that scare us because they’re really important conversations to have, and they don’t just go away when we avoid them.
Tim Ferriss: Not only do they not go away, things can get a lot worse. And I really thank you for bringing attention to raising awareness around these conversations, but then also providing people with the tools to have these conversations.
Jessica Lahey: I also feel a huge debt of gratitude by the way, I need to thank, in The Addiction Innoculation, this guy, Brian, and this woman, Georgia play huge parts in those books. And they told me all of the horrifying, joyful, scary parts of their stories. And then as I said, gave me their real names to use because they said — both of them said this in various iterations. These experiences were so horrifying. I mean, Georgia lost a child and was homeless and was in prison. And these experiences are only worth something if we learn something from them and if their stories can help someone else, then they were going to be worth it. And so I owe so much to Brian and Georgia for sharing their stories for this book.
Tim Ferriss: Well, thank you very much, Jessica, for taking the time.
Jessica Lahey: Thank you. And by the way, you would be a fantastic ninth grade teacher because you’re curious. And that’s what makes you a great interviewer what also is what would make you a great ninth grade teacher.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, thank you. I’m thinking about hatching some plans. Yeah, we’ll see where it goes.
Jessica Lahey: You know what my dream is?
Tim Ferriss: What’s your dream?
Jessica Lahey: My dream is to open a recovery high school — if you ever get a chance to watch a show on MTV, it was only like four episodes called 16 and in Recovery. And it was based on a school on the north shore of Massachusetts of recovery high school. So a school for kids who are struggling with their sobriety and addiction issues. But we need one in Burlington, Vermont. And one of the things I would really like to do is open one someday. So that’s something that’s out there as a thing. So maybe you could come be a ninth-grade teacher and teach kids in recovery. There you go.
Tim Ferriss: Never say never.
Jessica Lahey: I’m writing it down, Tim. Ninth grade.
Tim Ferriss: Never say never. I might get fatigued at this podcasting game. And they could coexist also. Well, thank you very much.
Jessica Lahey: You’re so welcome.
Tim Ferriss: And to everybody listening, we will have show notes, linking to everything, including Gift of Failure, The Addiction Inoculation, all of the websites and social and all the resources also, and people we referred to in this podcast. At tim.blog/podcast. And until next time, thank you for tuning in.
The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.
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