Here is the full transcript of Dr. Shimi Kang’s TEDx Talk: What One Skill = An Awesome Life? at TEDxKelowna Conference. Dr. Shimi Kang is a Harvard-trained child and adult psychiatrist and expert in human motivation. She is the author of the book: The Dolphin Parent: A Guide to Raising Healthy, Happy, and Self-Motivated Kids.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: What one skill = an awesome life by Dr. Shimi Kang @ TEDxKelowna
We humans are in trouble! I’ve been a medical doctor for 17 years, and I’ve researched the science of human motivation. I’ve worked with thousands of people from all walks of life. And I believe that we humans are in trouble. Now why would I say such a thing?
When I look at the lifestyle of my patients, of myself, or even your lifestyles, we have — we are in a state of bizarre paradox, a place of negative evolution. We have made sleep deprivation a symbol of ambition and rested a symbol of laziness. We have made being too busy a symbol of importance. And never before in human history have we had such conveniences and such knowledge, yet never before have our lives been so stressed and unhealthy? So, yes, I do believe that we humans are in trouble.
But at the same time I have seen a group of humans who are better than ever, individuals who have passion and purpose and meaning and joy in their lives. And I’ve wondered: what is the difference between these two groups? What does one group have that the other doesn’t?
So what do you think: is it passion? Passion is a good one but we all know passionate artists and entrepreneurs who are stuck in a rut, unable to move forward. Could it be, if we add hard work and now we have grit, is that it? Well, grit is great but we all know, all of us know hard-working gritty people who have no joy or meaning in their lives.
And when I became is a psychiatrist, I thought it must be how you grow up. But increasingly, I’m seeing people from good childhood with serious anxiety, depression and addiction. So what is it? What is this one thing?
And it wasn’t until I was in my most challenging role, when I became a mother of three beautiful kids who are out there somewhere, that I went and found out. You see, when I became a parent, this is what happened to me. I became overwhelmed — overwhelmed with everything I had to teach my kids and do or was told I should do. And I couldn’t understand how I, a Harvard-trained expert, a medical director of child and youth mental health for a whole city, was having such a hard time raising my three kids, when my mother who grew up in a village and never had a chance to go to school, not even grade one, successfully raised five. And I turned out OK.
So what was it? What is that one thing? And I searched and they knew there was something more natural and simpler and more powerful than what I was doing. And I searched through the neuroscience, the biology, the psychology and the reality of success. And when I say “success”, I don’t mean money or status. I mean success in all aspects of that word: health, passion, purpose, security, meaning and joy. That’s what I wanted for my kids and myself.
And I found it. I found the one thing, time and time again that has been proven to lead to an awesome life. And my discovery was earth-shattering but so obvious at the same time. The one thing that has been shown to lead to an awesome life is: adaptability, adaptability, adaptability; that was it. I was so glad it wasn’t the piano. Adaptability, it made perfect sense. Survival of the fittest isn’t the fastest or the strongest; survival of the fittest is the one that is the best fit with their environment. And wherever you look, if you look at bacteria or plants or animals and humans and small businesses, and large businesses and corporations and government or empires, it is adaptability that made the difference between flourishing and extinction.
Right now humans are being beat by bacteria, because they are adapting to our most powerful antibiotics. So adaptability is it, and we see it everywhere.
The company Netflix we all know and that company used to mail videos to people’s homes, and they adapted to online streaming. And another company, some of us have heard, is Blockbuster. And Blockbuster despite its advantages, is an industry giant, didn’t adapt; they refused to adapt and they are fighting extinction while Netflix is flourishing. Some of you may remember the Kodak moment but that really was just a moment in time. But Kodak didn’t adapt.
And this is true for humans. The longest study of human development to date, the Grant Study which spanned 70 years, they looked at everything, looked IQ, wealth, they found and I quote, “that the key ingredient for wellbeing is the ability to make lemonade out of lemons.”
So think of your life, think about times you were successful and times that you failed. How did you adapt? How did you adapt to a new school or a new relationship, to a new boss or a new computer system in your workplace? How did you adapt to the changing nature of your life, your relationships or even our own aging?
So it was adaptability. But then I had to figure out: how. How do we adapt? Why do we adapt? When do we adapt? So my journey wasn’t over, and thankfully it was my research in motivation that gave me the answer. If you hang in here, I’m going to walk you through some very eye-opening neuroscience of how our brain works.
So when we humans do something that will help us adapt, like sleep because we can’t think let alone adapt, if we’re sleep deprived, we are rewarded, our brain’s motivation centers are lit up with the powerful release of neurochemicals. And that is our reward, we experience a feeling of well-being and joy. And that is our signal to go do that again, do that activity again. And if we oversleep, we feel lethargic and guilty, or we under-sleep, we feel tired and irritable, and those are signals not to do that again and to go get our reward.
Now some of you may be saying, “Well, I like to shop and I like to win.” So is that what I need to do? Yes, we are rewarded to shop and gather, win and compete. But we are over-gathering and over-competing, how much stuff do we need and perfectionism in keeping up is ruining us, that at the expense of other very powerful adaptation tools.
In fact, I believe that we humans are so off-balance that we have forgotten what it means to be human. In my practice, I created a metaphor to help remind myself and my patients of what it means to be human. I used to hear and I’m sure you’ve all said it that you’re too busy to eat or sleep. And I felt we really need to look outside ourselves to see ourselves.
And I picked an animal that is a mammal that lives its life fully under water: the dolphin. You see, the dolphin has, or seems to have what every human seems to want. They are highly intelligent with a high IQ and they do no tutoring. They — dolphins — have well-fit bodies and they wear no spanks and no fad diets. Dolphins have great social lives and they drink no alcohol, and they show compassion and they don’t even do yoga.