Maya Shankar: Why change is so scary -- and how to unlock its potential

Recorded atApril 17, 2023
Duration (min:sec)13:27
Video TypeTED Stage Talk
Words per minute171.91 medium
Readability (FK)60.58 easy
SpeakerMaya Shankar

Official TED page for this talk


Unexpected change like an accident, an illness or a relationship that suddenly ends is inevitable -- and disorienting. With a heartfelt and optimistic take on life's curveballs, cognitive scientist Maya Shankar shares how these challenging moments can inspire transformation, offering three questions to ask when facing uncertainty, so you can let go of rigidity and embrace change.

Text Highlight (experimental)
100:04 When I was a kid, the violin was the center of my life.
200:08 I'd run home from the bus stop after school and practice for hours.
300:13 Every Saturday, my mom and I would wake up at four in the morning to catch a train to New York so I could study at Juliard.
400:20 Here's a throwback to eight-year-old me performing the violin.
500:24 Some questionable fashion choices from young Maya here, not going to lie.
600:30 But anyway, when I was a teenager, my musical idol, Itzhak Perlman, invited me to be his private student.
700:37 And my big dream of becoming a concert violinist felt within reach.
800:42 But then one morning when I was 15, I was practicing this tricky technical passage.
900:49 I struggled to get it right, and I overextended my finger on a single note.
1000:53 I heard a popping sound.
1100:56 I’d permanently damaged the tendons in my hand, and my dream was over.
1201:01 I share this story because unexpected change happens to all of us.
1301:05 An accident or an illness, a relationship that suddenly ends.
1401:10 Today, I'm not a violinist, but I'm a cognitive scientist.
1501:13 And I'm interested in how we respond to exactly this kind of change.
1601:18 I spent the past two decades studying the science of human behavior.
1701:22 And today I host a podcast called "A Slight Change of Plans" -- (Audience cheers) glad you guys like it -- where I interview people from all over the world about their life-altering experiences.
1801:35 I started this podcast because change is scary for a lot of us, am I right?
1901:41 For one, it is filled with uncertainty, and we hate uncertainty.
2001:46 Research shows that we're more stressed when we're told we have a 50 percent chance of getting an electric shock than when we're told we have a 100 percent chance.
2101:57 It's wild, right?
2201:58 I mean, we'd rather be sure that a bad thing is going to happen than to have to deal with any uncertainty.
2302:05 Change is also scary because it involves loss of some kind.
2402:09 By definition, we're departing from an old way of being and entering a new one.
2502:15 And when we experience a change that we wouldn't have chosen for ourselves, it's easy to feel that our lives are contracting, that were more limited than before.
2602:25 But when we take this perspective, we fail to account for an important fact.
2702:30 That when an unexpected change happens to us, it can also inspire lasting change within us.
2802:38 We become different people on the other side of change.
2902:41 What we're capable of, what we value and how we define ourselves, these things can all shift.
3002:48 And if we can learn to pay close attention to these internal shifts, we may just find that rather than limiting us, change can actually expand us.
3102:59 Alright, today I'm going to share with you three questions you can ask yourself the next time life throws you that dreaded curveball.
3203:07 In the moment, I know it's so easy to focus on what you've lost.
3303:10 And so I'm really hoping that you can use these questions as tools to discover all that you might gain.
3403:17 Alright, let’s start with question number one.
3503:20 This is inspired by a conversation I had on my podcast with a woman named Christine Ha, and it's about our capabilities.
3603:29 Christine was 24 when a rare autoimmune disease left her permanently blind.
3703:35 At the time, she was learning to cook the Vietnamese dishes that she had loved in childhood.
3803:40 But now cooking even simple meals was tough.
3903:44 She told me that her frustration peaked one day when she was making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
4003:50 She struggled to align the two slices of bread and sticky jelly dripped all over her hands and onto the counter.
4103:57 She threw the sandwich into the trash, and she felt really defeated by the limited future that she imagined for herself.
4204:06 Since Christine lived alone though, she had no choice but to keep at it.
4304:10 She remembers her delight when she successfully cut an orange for the first time and when she scrambled an egg without burning it.
4404:19 As she spent more hours in the kitchen, she realized that cooking was far more multi-sensory than she had thought.
4504:27 While she couldn't see if the garlic had browned, she could rely on the smell and the sizzling sounds in the pan.
4604:36 But Christine also realized something bigger.
4704:39 Something new was emerging within her.
4804:43 At the start of her vision loss she had cooked just to get by.
4904:46 I mean, it was really just a practical thing.
5004:48 But now she was thrilled by the challenge of it all.
5104:51 She tackled harder and harder recipes over the years and eventually became the first-ever blind contestant on the TV show "Master Chef."
5205:01 And guess what?
5305:02 She won the entire damn thing.
5405:04 (Laughs) Christine's a rock star.
5505:08 She's an amazing, amazing person.
5605:11 This brings us to the first question that you can ask yourself the next time you face something unexpected.
5705:18 "How might this change change what you're capable of?"
5805:24 When we predict how we'll respond to any given change, we tend to imagine what our present-day selves will be like in that new situation.
5905:33 Research by the psychologist Dan Gilbert shows that we greatly underestimate how much we'll change in the future, even though we fully acknowledge we've changed considerably in the past.
6005:43 Our psychology continually tricks us into believing that who we are, right now, in this very moment, is the person that's here to stay.
6105:54 But the person meeting the challenges after an unexpected change will be different.
6205:59 You will be different.
6306:01 Today, Christine is a world-renowned chef.
6406:05 She goes by the nickname The Blind Cook, and she owns three restaurants in Texas.
6506:11 And importantly, she's really curious about what else she can achieve without vision.
6606:17 These days, you can find her snowboarding and rock climbing on the weekends.
6706:25 Christine shared with me something that she could never have imagined thinking before all this.
6806:30 That if given the choice today, she would choose not to have her vision restored.
6906:37 Though she did tell me she'd like it back for a moment because she really wants to know what Justin Bieber looks like.
7006:43 (Laughter)
7106:44 Alright, let's move on to the second question.
7206:47 This one is about our values, and it's inspired by a conversation I had with a science journalist named Florence Williams.
7306:55 One evening about five years ago, Florence and her husband were hosting a dinner party for their friends.
7407:01 As she was preparing the salad, her husband handed her his phone so that she could read an email from a relative.
7507:07 But he'd mistakenly pulled up the wrong email.
7607:10 What Florence saw instead was a lengthy note from her husband, confessing his love to another woman.
7707:18 I know.
7807:21 Florence’s 25-year marriage came to an end, and she told me that she was taken aback by the physical and emotional intensity of her heartbreak.
7907:31 She said it felt like she'd been plugged into a faulty electrical socket.
8007:36 Since Florence is a problem solver by nature, she instinctively saw her heartbreak as a problem to solve and develop a year-long, systematic plan to try and fix it.
8107:48 Florence tried a bunch of things.
8207:51 She took solo trips into the wilderness, she tried a range of experimental therapies, She even went to the Museum of Broken Relationships, which I promise is the thing.
8308:02 You name it, she tried it.
8408:06 But by the end of the year, none of these remedies had healed her broken heart.
8508:11 And so Florence had no choice but to entertain a new philosophy altogether.
8608:18 Maybe a broken heart was not a problem to solve.
8708:22 And maybe closure wasn't the answer.
8808:26 Research by the psychologist Dacher Keltner shows that when we reduce our need for what's called cognitive closure, the desire to arrive at clear and definitive answers, our capacity to feel joy and beauty expands.
8908:41 Florence told me that when she freed herself from this goal-oriented mindset, a mindset, by the way, that she had valued for so much of her life up until this point, she began to find unexpected delight in the unknown.
9008:55 This leads us to the second question you can ask yourself the next time you face something unexpected.
9109:01 How might this change change what you value?
9209:06 The unexpected implosion of Florence's marriage has permanently shifted the way that she sees her life.
9309:13 From a puzzle in need of solutions to a more serendipitous path of discovery.
9409:19 Now, when Florence goes hiking, she's just as likely to sit still, feeling the breeze, as she is to try and make the summit.
9509:28 She no longer makes five-year plans.
9609:32 And she's comfortable not knowing all the answers around her heartbreak.
9709:38 By the way, I was texting with Florence the other day, and she's currently in a very happy relationship.
9809:44 If her ex-husband is listening to this, I just want him to know she's doing great, buddy.
9909:50 (Laughter)
10009:53 Alright, now on to question number three.
10109:56 This one is about how we define ourselves.
10209:58 It's about our self-identities.
10310:01 And it comes from my personal story of change with the violin.
10410:06 When my injury took the violin away from me, I found myself grieving not just the loss of the instrument, but also the loss of myself.
10510:16 For so long, the violin had defined me, that without it, I wasn't sure who I was or who I could be.
10610:22 I felt stuck.
10710:24 I'd later learned that this phenomenon is known as identity paralysis.
10810:28 It happens to a lot of us when we face the unexpected.
10910:31 Who we think we are and what we're about is suddenly called into question.
11010:38 But I since realized that there was something different, something more stable that I could have anchored my identity to.
11110:46 And this brings us to that third and final question.
11210:49 How might this change change how you define yourself?
11310:56 When I re-examine my relationship with the violin, I discovered that what I really missed wasn't the instrument itself, but the fact that music had given me a vehicle for connecting emotionally with others.
11411:08 I remember as a little kid playing for people and feeling kind of awestruck that we might all feel something new together.
11511:18 What this means for me today is that I no longer anchor my identity to specific pursuits like being a violinist or a cognitive scientist or a podcaster.
11611:29 Instead, I anchor my identity to what lights me up about those pursuits, what really energizes me.
11711:37 And for me, it's a love of human connection and understanding.
11811:42 I now define myself not by what I do, but why I do it.
11911:50 Look, unexpected change comes for us all, whether we like it or not.
12011:56 And when it does, it can really suck.
12111:59 But I'm hoping that if we can stay open to how we might internally change, how we might expand, it can help us weather the storm.
12212:11 Life recently threw me a new slight change of plans.
12312:17 I've always wanted to be a mom, but becoming one has been difficult and my husband and I have had to navigate pregnancy losses and other heartbreaks over the years.
12412:27 And now I'm not sure what will happen.
12512:31 But I'm using these three questions to help me during this tough time.
12612:36 I'm asking myself how this unexpected challenge might change what I'm capable of, what I value, and how I define myself.
12712:49 I'm still figuring things out.
12812:52 But what I can tell you right now is that I'm imagining a future me who is expanding her definition of what it means to parent.
12913:02 Who's perhaps finding what she craved from motherhood in other places.
13013:07 At a minimum, this exploration has allowed me to loosen my grip on the identity of Mom just a bit.
13113:15 And I found it freeing.
13213:18 I'm beginning to see change with more possibility.
13313:21 And I'm hoping you can, too.
13413:23 Thank you so much.
13513:25 (Applause)