September 17, 2022
[00:00:55] Podcast Sponsors / Careers / Events
[00:06:42] Guest Intro
[00:08:56] Why Jessica wrote the book “The Gift of Failure”
[00:11:50] Examples of ways of letting your kids fail
[00:13:46] Is there a curriculum that teaches failure?
[00:16:55] Importance of journaling and setting goals
[00:19:16] Recognizing work and praising kids' efforts
[00:21:10] Did “The Addiction Inoculation” book come after “The Gift of Failure”?
[00:22:47] Why Jessica mentions she wished she hadn’t allowed her children “sips of alcohol”
[00:27:25] How does early exposure affect substance use disorder later in life?
[00:29:26] Did either of your children go through some sort of substance use disorder?
[00:31:29] Podcast Sponsors
[00:35:38] What advice can you give to parents with a child with substance use disorder?
[00:38:02] The importance of afternoon quiet time
[00:42:23] Jessica's thoughts on coming of age rituals
[00:47:15] Evidence-based learning method vs. traditional learning methods
[00:53:37] What Jessica means when she says, “I choose to make my life my argument”?
[00:58:48] Closing the Podcast
[00:59:51] Upcoming Events
[01:00:16] End of Podcast
Ben: My name is Ben Greenfield. And, on this episode of the Ben Greenfield Life podcast.
Jessica: The younger a kid is when they first tried drugs and alcohol, the higher their lifelong statistical risk of developing substance use disorder is. If you can get them all the way to 18 or 21, we can get that risk down nearly to 10%, which is really what it is in the general population; 90% of people who have substance use disorder in adulthood say that they started drinking or using drugs before age 18.
Ben: Faith, family, fitness, health, performance, nutrition, longevity, ancestral living, biohacking, and a whole lot more. Welcome to the show.
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Alright, folks. I'm stoked because my guest on today's podcast is not only going to be featured in my upcoming book on parenting, but she also herself is a prolific author. She's written the “Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.” She's written the “Addiction Inoculation: Raising Healthy Kids in a Culture of Dependence.” You may have heard her on the Tim Ferris podcast as an educational expert who has taught every grade from 6th to 12th in both public and private schools. She spent five years teaching in drug and alcohol rehab for adolescents in Vermont. She serves as a prevention and recovery coach at Stowe, which is a medical detox and recovery center. And, she writes a lot about education, about parenting, about child welfare, you may have also seen her in The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and the New York Times. She's even wrote the educational curriculum for Amazon Kids animated series, which is actually an award-winning animated series, “The Stinky and Dirty Show.” And, she was also a Pushcart Prize nominee for her Creative Nonfiction magazine essay, “I've Taught Monsters.”
So, her name is Jessica Lahey. And, as Jessica was just sharing with me before we begin recording, she's probably in the most perfect podcasting environment ever because it's apparently very quiet where you're at, Jessica.
Jessica: It is. It's eerily quiet. And, that's because I dropped my youngest kid off at college yesterday. So, we are officially empty nesters and it's weird. The house is just big and empty and echoey and quiet.
Ben: It's perfect. It's perfect. This is the perfect podcast guest, someone in a forsaken home. So, how many kids you actually have?
Jessica: I have two. The oldest one is 23 and he's off doing a real job and everything. He's fully launched. And then, I have a younger daughter and her name is Phoebe, and she's trans and she just started college yesterday. So, it's been a big couple of years for us around here.
Ben: What actually turned me on to you in the first place was, I think, that interview with Tim Ferris. I hadn't heard of you before. And, what caught my attention was the part about “The Gift of Failure” because one thing that I do with my sons each night is we replay our entire day like a movie in our mind, like this process of self-examination. And then we ask ourselves, “What good did I do?” And, “Where was I most purpose-filled?” And then finally, “What could I have done better?” Or, “What failure did I experience that I could have learned from?” And, it seems to me that you have dug into this quite a bit and even wrote a book called “The Gift of Failure.” So, I like, if possible, to start there. Tell me about this “Gift of Failure” and why you wrote it.
Jessica: I actually was teaching middle school at the time when I wrote that book. I never, in a million years, thought that middle school would be the place where I would completely fall in love with teaching all over again. Never thought middle school was an interesting place to teach. But, when I was offered a job, they said, “Come on, just come meet the kids.” And, I did, I fell in love with them, and my heart just was lost to middle school. I adore it there.
But increasingly, I was getting frustrated by the parents who were either creating a situation in which they could get rid of all of the obstacles in the way, the whole “snowplow” parenting thing or taking the consequences away. And, the gift, the wonderful thing about being in a middle school teacher or in a middle school situation is that A, you have to like that situation in order to teach there. You won't last a week. But, the cool thing about it is that they just are these people who are screwing up over and over and over again because that's sort of what middle school is built around. It's from a cognitive development perspective, from a challenges perspective, and then wait for these really great learning opportunities to present themselves because as any parent knows, as any teacher knows, you can't just attack everything in the moment it goes wrong, it's just you have to wait sometimes. But occasionally, those opportunities were being stolen away through various ways, but often by the parents. It's a bad thing to be a teacher who's in an adversarial relationship with the parents of your students.
Jessica: And so, I was looking for information on I just wanted some research. I'm a big research geek. I wanted research on what sort of this highly, it depends on what you want to call it, helicopter parenting, directive parenting, controlling parenting. There's lots of names for it, what that does to kid's motivation, and what it does to their learning. And, I hadn't seen one source that sort of put that all together in one place from an education and parenting perspective. And so, I have the coolest job ever, which is to get curious, and then write about the thing that I'm curious about and translate it for other people.
Ben: So, I'm curious if you actually have some good examples of ways that maybe you let your own kids fail and just bet your lip and step back, let them do their thing, and what the result was.
Jessica: Okay. So, I have in one side of my head all of these examples at hand that I'm just not allowed to talk about because my kids get to filter what they do and don't talk about. But, a lot of them are examples like my son ran cross country in high school and he would ask me to come to certain meets. And, I loved going to his meets, but I didn't go to all of them, I just went to the ones that he really asked me to come to. And, I couldn't go to this one because I was working and he got tripped, maliciously tripped during the race. And, if I had been there, I would have raised a stink, there's my kid with blood running down his leg. And, the person who tripped him should have been at least dequeued or something.
And, in the end, what ended up happening was that race, he came back just exhilarated. And, it was a personal best for him, the team worked together in this incredible way to sort of pull him up to the front of the pack, and they passed the guy that tripped him, and it was one of those formative experiences where you realized, “If you don't call foul and make the whole thing grind to a halt and just see what you've got in you to make that situation work and see what your team can do with you to make that situation work.” It was a really magical day for him. And, I suspect I would have screwed that up if I had been there. I think I would have made a stink or something. And, it was a really great moment for me to realize that, “Wow, those moments in which I step back and I let my kids solve the problem on his own or let him rely on other people to solve the problem with him that just incredible things can happen.”
Ben: Yeah. And, obviously, there's the old saying that you can learn from your mistakes, but it doesn't seem that's systematized too often or taught in a certain way. Have you ever come across any system or curriculum that actually teaches failure, like how to get the most out of failure? You know what I'm saying?
Jessica: Yeah. I mean, one of the cool parts of my job, one of my favorite parts of my job is I travel the world actually going to various schools, and I'll often get to speak to students during the day and tour the school and do professional development with the teachers in the afternoon and then speak to the parents in the evening, and it's so much fun. But, all over the place, I get to see, for example, at the Momentous Institute in Dallas, they teach kids in kindergarten about how their brains work and how the difference between their lower brain functions like the whole “I just want to punch that kid when he's mean to me” versus the “Take a breath and try to develop that upper part of your brain” that's more about restraint and having a conversation.
And then, I was in a 6th-grade classroom in, I think, California where the 1st-grade teachers were team teachers. I'm sorry, I think it was 6th grade. Teachers were team teachers and they would specifically plan moments in which they made mistakes in front of the kids. And then, they would very specifically either try to get the kids to catch them in the mistake or the other teacher would catch the other teacher in the mistake and talk to them about it. And then, they would work together as a classroom to either problem solve or work on ways to help guide other people when they do make mistakes. And, that was very much a conscious part of their teaching. That has been an incredible revelation.
And then, in the wake of Carol Dweck's with fixed and growth mindsets, this word yet has become really important in schools. I see it on buttons, I see it on the wall, and yet is a very growth mindset word. It's like when a kid says, “I can't do this. This math is too hard I can't do it,” the answer, “Well, you can't do this yet, you just learned how to do it.” When Eric Clapton learned how to play guitar, he couldn't play “Layla” on the first try, after the first hour. That's a yet kind of situation. And, having these conversations constantly with kids about the fact that no one can do anything just right the first time that we're all in a yet situation, it's we're all in a place where we're continuously learning and trying to do better each day. That modeling by adults, by parents, by teachers is it's just really, really important.
I think where we tend to run into problems in education is where we say, “Oh great, let's do a fixed and growth mindset curriculum or let's do a grit curriculum.” That's not what that research is there for. That research is to instruct how we role model and how we give kids opportunities to learn that stuff. But, it's really difficult to put these concepts into an actual curriculum. It's sort of an on-the-fly, how we live in front of our kids and how we operate in front of our kids.
Ben: Yeah, that makes sense.
And, I think, again, just doing something like we do where you're simply at the end of the day pondering your failures, pondering your mistakes, and just jotting a few notes down about what you learned about though. I mean, for me personally, gosh, I think I've told this story before, but there was one streak of five days in a row where I wrote down, “I wish I'd played my guitar today.” And, we don't actually share our journal entries with each other, we open the floor if people want to but it's not recommended in case you want to write something a little bit more private. But, I slammed my journal down, it was like on a Friday night, and said, “I'm never going to write in my journal again that I wish I'd played my guitar.” And, I haven't missed the day since. It's been a year and a half. But, writing them down at the end of the day, it just seems to result in you being able to stack consecutively better days as you learn from each failure.
Jessica: The journaling idea is really cool, especially since for kids it can be really hard for them to view evidence of their own progress. One of the things I do a lot at school is show kids examples of their writing from a long time ago. When I taught middle school, we would keep samples all the way back as long as they had been at the school. And, it was a really great way to sort of say, “Look, it doesn't feel the writing is something that doesn't sort of often have day-to-day progress.” So, that's a really cool thing.
And then, I just love so much this idea of what you do with your kids. And, in “Gift of Failure,” actually, I talk about the fact that what we do in our house is seasonally. And, now that the kids are gone, I'm sort of trying to figure out how we work this out. But seasonally, we would create three goals for ourselves. And, the trick always has to be that one of them has to be scary, a little bit outside of our comfort zone. And then, in three months or whenever that season is over, we usually check in with each other to see how those goals went, what we might do differently next time, that kind of thing.
So, all of these ways, and you're doing an incredible job with this daily thing, you can do it on a more long-term basis. But, that idea of we do what we can with the information we have, and then if we learn better information or something goes wrong, we learn from it and we move forward and we redefine our goals or we commit to our goals.
Ben: Yeah, yeah.
And, I would throw one last thing in there before I ask you a few questions about the addiction book that you wrote. And, I think that the most important term that I use as a parent, in addition to tacking that yet addendum to many sentences when I'm talking about something that my children haven't learned how to do is always even if I notice that they actually do appear to be gifted at something and they'll show me a piece of art or an essay that they've written or a giant book that they've read, I tell them, “You worked so hard at that. Good job.” And, you always recognize the work instead of the, “Oh, you're so good at that type of approach.”
Jessica: There's a little twist on that that I think for people who don't read Carol Dweck's book “Mindset” and just read articles about mindset, they tend to come away with the understanding that you're never supposed to tell kids they're smart and only praise them for their effort. And, Carol Dweck has written about this that that's a flawed understanding of her work. And, one of the things that I sort of help parents understand is when you praise them for efforts, if you help them see how far they've come, or you say something like, “You know what, a month ago you would have just freaked out and given up on that math assignment. And, I watched you and you stuck with that for so much longer than you would have before.” Or, “You really relied on yourself to come up with a solution to that problem. And, I'm really proud of you for that.”
So, it's not just about praising for the effort, but also encompassing the growth and all of the aspects of what it means to become self-reliant and self-advocate. One of my kids does not really like to self-advocate, so I do a lot of, “I'm just so proud of you for speaking up and advocating for yourself there because that isn't something you would have been able to do six months ago.”
Ben: Yeah, I love that. I love that.
Now, like I mentioned, you wrote an addiction book. Did that one come after the failure book?
Jessica: Yeah. So, actually, the experiences that went into the “Addiction Inoculations” were happening contemporaneously because when I sold “The Gift of Failure” in 2013, I knew for a while before that that things were getting bad with my drinking. I knew that. And so, when I sold “The Gift of Failure” —
Ben: With your drinking?
Jessica: Yeah. So, I got sober on June 7th, 2013 and I am the daughter of an alcoholic, and my parent is the child of an alcoholic, and my grandparent is the child of an alcoholic. And, same thing on my husband's side of the family, actually. So, when I got sober in 2013, my first thought was, “Well, heck, how do I make this end with me? How do we at least increase the odds that we make this end with me?” And, the research on prevention science tends to revolve around this concept that substance use disorder is a preventable public health problem, but that weren't preventable — I just wanted to understand what really works, what's a myth, what's evidence-based. I wasn't really interested in the myths. At least I wanted to be able to figure out what was myth and what was real. So, yeah, this all came out of my getting sober over nine years ago and wanting to figure out how to increase the chances that my kids — because they're already at a greater risk for substance use disorder just because I gave birth to them.
Ben: Right, right. Exactly. Exactly.
And, I noticed when I was reading through your chapter that you contributed to this parenting book, to “Boundless Parenting, you talked about how you in the mistakes you thought you may have made, you mentioned that you actually wished you hadn't allowed your children to have sips of alcohol. And, I think it's kind of an interesting debate that goes back and forth like a lot of people will bring up what I believe is somewhat flawed, but examples from Europe that they don't have as much alcoholism over there. And, that's because the kids get to have little sips of wine at the table. Although, correct me if I'm wrong, I don't think the statistics actually back that up. But then, there's the idea that it's like, “Well, if something's a total forbidden fruit, once a kid gets out of the home, they're just going to go ape nuts on it.” So, what are your thoughts on that?
Jessica: Yes. So, there's two things. The biggest pushback I get out of all the material in this book is parents come back to me with two things. “Well, I give my kid sips because I want them to, as you said, to be raised like those European kids where alcohol is no big deal. And, that's where my head was with my youngest kid because I completely bought into that.” Sorry, my oldest kid. So, my oldest kid was raised, he could have sips of things. In fact, I reveal in the book that we got a really amazing bottle of wine from a friend when my oldest was a baby. And, I actually put that wine on his tongue figuring the first taste he has of wine should be a really nice one. So, I did all that.
And then, I found out that the problem with that sort of idea, and especially holding Europe up as sort of this monolith of good moderate behavior is that the European Union as a whole has the highest level of alcohol consumption in the entire world. The World Health Organization is very, very clear on that. And, people will often come back and say, “Oh, well, that's only certain countries.” Well, yes, but the countries that actually have lower rates of alcohol consumption are the countries that have a cultural taboo against public intoxication. But, as a whole, the European Union has the highest level of alcohol consumption in the entire world.
And, the other problem with this myth is that the idea is that you're somehow teaching kids moderation by modeling moderation. And, that's great except for the fact that for me as someone who has alcohol use disorder, I cannot learn moderation. That's not something that I can just learn. So, there's a couple of problems with that.
Also, the other big pushback I get is, “Well, kids are going to drink anyway, so we might as well do it in my basement. I'll take everyone's keys and at least everyone will be safe.” The problem with that angle is that the research is also really clear on this that parents that have a consistent and clear message of no, not until it's legal for you and legal for you, I'm less concerned about than the fact that the brain is not developed, done developing until the early to mid-20s. So, for me, it means no, not until your brain is done developing. Parents that have a consistent clear message about that have kids with much, much lower levels of substance use disorder.
Jessica: And, parents who have a permissive attitude around drinking, like the parent I was just mentioning, have kids with higher levels of substance use disorder. And, to add one more layer onto this, the younger kid is when they first tried drugs and alcohol, the higher their lifelong statistical risk of developing substance use disorder is. So, an eighth grader, for example — and, by the way, if you're putting off talking about drugs and alcohol till middle school, you're way behind the 8 ball because around 13.5 is when kids start.
If you have a kid who's in middle school and they first try drugs or alcohol, they have a lifelong risk of somewhere around 50% of developing substance use disorder. In 10th grade, it goes way down. You're down somewhere around 20%. If you can get them all the way to 18 or 21, we can get that risk down nearly to 10%, which is really what it is in the general population. And, a lot of that has to do with brain development, a lot of that has to do with some statistical issues we don't have time to get into. But, the older kid is when they first tried drugs and alcohol, they're lowered their lifelong risk of developing substance use disorder. 90% of people who have substance use disorder in adulthood say that they started drinking raising drugs before age 18.
Ben: It seems interesting. It actually isn't what I'd expect. Like logically, I would think, oh, early exposure allows a child to learn responsible use and develop some effective self-control; whereas, it sounds more like ease of access increases the significance or the likelihood that that substance will be abused by that human being at some point. And, it's probably going to happen before they're like 18 to 21, thus dictating they're going to be even more likely to be addicted to it later in life.
Jessica: Yeah. So, I'm married to a statistician. So, I do have to say for the statisticians in your audience, yes, there are some statistical confounders here around access, permissiveness and parenting, all that sort of stuff. But, let's also talk a little bit about brain development because alcohol and drugs that may have a mild to moderate risk in the adult brain have a much higher risk in the adolescent brain. Adolescence is the second of two incredibly intense periods of development in the brain. And, we know, for example, chronic users of marijuana and yeah, pun intended, in adolescence have smaller hippocampus. And, smaller hippocampus are related to problems with short-term memory formation and storage. We see thinning in the prefrontal cortex in kids who use a lot of marijuana. And, don't even get me started on alcohol, alcohol is so much more dangerous than an adolescent brain for various reasons than in an adult brain.
So, we can't talk about drug and alcohol use in adolescents like it's adult drug and alcohol use, it's just not. The brain is not done developing until the early to mid-20s. And, until that door closes, it's just a much riskier prospect, both from the perspective of your statistical chance of developing substance use disorder and the damage you do to your brain.
Ben: Yeah. It's definitely something that I learned in the chapter that you wrote because it's just different than the approach that I've had, but yet numbers don't lie. And so, it's definitely food for thought for me. Now, did either of your children actually go through any type of substance addiction?
Jessica: So, no. And, the interesting thing about all of this prevention science is that even if I do every single thing that I lay out in the book that evidence shows us, aides and prevention, there are no guarantees ever. It's just not possible. But, we do know that when we do a lot of this prevention, which is a lot about just information, giving kids the right information, teaching them refusal skills, teaching them what's called inoculation theory, which has to do a little bit with refusal skills. If you do all the stuff that I talk about, what you're also doing is getting kids to a place where they have enough information so that we can shorten the road from, “Oh, my gosh, I think I might have a problem too. Oh, my gosh, I need help.” As anyone who's ever gone to any recovery programs knows, the worst thing you can do to harsh your buzz is get some information about what it's doing to your brain and how addiction works and all that sort of stuff.
So, for me, prevention science is, yes, it's about preventing my kids from having a problem, but if they do end up having a problem, I'm hoping that I can shorten the duration of their substance abuse, their substance use disorder. By the way, we're supposed to be calling not addiction, but substance use disorder, and people with substance use disorder instead of addicts or alcoholics.
Ben: Noted. Good to know. Didn't realize that.
Jessica: Yeah. So, I'm hoping that it also shortens that time before that last puzzle piece drops in place. And, they're like, “Oh, crap, I need help.” I work at Sana at Stowe, and we talk a lot about what that last puzzle piece was. And, the more information people have, often the earlier they can get to that place of, I'm in a place where I can't do this by myself.
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Yeah, I was hanging out with a friend two days ago and he was explaining to me how his son is basically addicted to cannabis. And, I thought I could run this by you not necessarily for cannabis specifically, but let's say a parent is listening and they just know, whatever, they have a 15-year-old son addicted to alcohol or a teenage daughter addicted to cannabis. Do you have definite pieces of advice that just seem to consistently move the dial in cases like that for parents who might be listening who have children they suspect are addicted to a substance?
Jessica: One of the things that I do but a lot of the prevention with my kids was talk a lot about not just about the first time you use something but also what it feels like what is happening on a physiological and psychological level when you using, oh sorry, moving from sort of use to a problematic use/misuse place. And, a lot of that has to do with change in your kid highlighting, “Sweetie, I've just noticed you seem so sad.” Or, “Sweetie, I've noticed that you're not sleeping.” Or, “Sweetie, I've noticed you're sleeping all the time. Can we talk about maybe why that's happening?” So, looking for those changes in your kid are really important. They can sneak up on you. Sometimes if it's a rapid uptick in use, it can happen really quickly. If you're worried that your kid may be sliding from use into misuse, there's a book by Dr. Joseph Lee who used to be the head of adolescent medicine at Betty Ford Hazelden. He's now the CEO of Betty Ford Hazelden. And, he wrote a book called “Recovering My Kid” or “Recovering Your Kid.” “Recovering My Kid”? Can't remember.
Either way, it's a wonderful book that's very specifically about that place of, oh, my goodness, I think I might have a problem. My expertise is in prevention. And, yes, I do work with kids who are actually in treatment and used to and now I work with adults who are in treatment. But, my expertise is really about prevention, so I really do defer when it comes to like, “Oh crap, I think this is a problem, and is it time to intervene to experts like Dr. Joseph Lee and his book, ‘Recovering My Kid' or ‘Recovering Your Kid' is just fantastic.”
Ben: I'll find it and I'll put a link in the shownotes. The shownotes, by the way, for those of you listening, are at BenGreenfieldLife.com/JessicaLahey, L-A-H-E-Y.
So, I want to ask you a question about something specifically that came up and you highlighted it a couple of times, so I figured it must be important. You talk in the book interview with you in “Boundless Parenting” about afternoon quiet time. Why do you harp on that so much?
Jessica: This is also just a personal thing. A lot of parents come to me and they want me to tell them how they should run their household based on like I'm going to know their priorities, whether that's around, “Can I let my kid quit music lessons? Or, should I let my kid quit soccer? Or, what about this nap time thing?” So, for us, my husband and I, we are big readers, we're fairly quiet people.
Ben: And, you're speaking, by the way, to a prolific napper who's actually written entire articles about how to biohack a siesta.
Jessica: I just knew when my kids were really little, that quiet time was going to be super important. And, when I had my kids, both of them were really good nappers when they were really, really little. And, when the oldest one sort of stopped napping, we realized he still really needed quiet time. I could tell the difference between when he just continued on his with his day without sort of having some downtime versus sort of this enforced, “We're just going to chill. This is quiet time. I'm going to read. I'm happy to read to you.” And, as it evolved, it turned into sort of alone quiet time because all of us needed that so much. And, the older one tended to really need it. And then, when my daughter got to the age where she stopped napping, that became a really important part of the family dynamic. And, it's funny because even the dogs understand that at a certain point in the day, and especially now, it's really just on weekends. But, at a certain point in the day, it's like, “Oh, it's nap time.” And, we may not actually sleep, although I'm a big fan of naps.
Ben: Our house is very similar. It's between about 2:00 and 4:00 p.m. It doesn't necessarily mean everyone's napping, but that's usually our time, book time, reading time. Is not scheduled right there. And, it's great, we fit in well when we go to Europe too since everything's closed around then.
Jessica: There's a wonderful researcher at USC named Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and actually was friends with her before she became this world-famous neuroscientist. She wrote a beautiful article that I interviewed her about for The Atlantic about “Rest Is Not Idleness.” And, that's a quote from somewhere else. That's not her quote, but that is the title she used for her paper. Because the idea is that somehow, we're supposed to rush, rush, rush all the time, and my husband and I can be very type A. And, I think we recognized for ourselves that it was really important to cultivate rest, to cultivate idleness because what happens during idleness or musing or for me, it's weeding out in the garden. That default network in your brain can kick in. And, that's where my best most creative stuff happens.
So, for me as a writer, my most productive time that doesn't include just bashing the words out on the page, obviously, is that musing and prep time. So, my husband knows that I'll be out working in the garden and I'll be quietly out there. And, I'll come in and I have to write some stuff down because I will have worked out problems in whatever it is I'm writing or had a really good idea for this thing that I need to store away for later. I love the idea that rest is not idleness, and it's a really important part of how our brains work and how our bodies recover and all of that.
Ben: Unfortunately, my muse primarily comes to me when I'm swimming, which is super frustrating. So, that's the one activity in which I can't actually stop to jot the idea —
Jessica: Well, actually I can tell you. So, Ron Lieber, who's the Your Money columnist at the New York Times, he told me that he has a little board that has a waterproof marker that he keeps in the shower. So, maybe you could stick that on the side of the pool.
Ben: You probably could. I'm sure it could work. But now, of course, the problem I ran into was when I used to swim frequently, a lot of it was open water swimming like in a lake or ocean, so yeah. So, the tablet thing didn't work out so well for me.
Now, you also talk a little bit about your flavor, your version of coming-of-age rituals, or what you think about that particular practice. And, obviously, that's something that I think has piqued a lot of interest of late. I've seen all these vision quests and rite of passage organizations popping up that promised to put a young man or young woman through some kind of journey of self-discovery, at which point they're officially receiving the adult stamp. But, tell me your thoughts about these coming-of-age rituals.
Jessica: This holds a really fond place in my heart because back when I was at the New York Times, I wrote a column for three years called “The Parent-Teacher Conference.” And, I loved writing that. And, when they archived the column, they stripped away a lot of the photographs and video and stuff like that just for storage purposes. And, one of my favorite things that got lost was I had written a column about the fact that as sort of a non-religious person from European background, we didn't have a ritual to expect. It wasn't a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah. There wasn't any big celebration. So, for me, I just wanted there to be some marking. And so, I came up, we came up with this random list of things that we thought it was important for our kids to learn how to do as they got older.
And, when my son Ben turned 13, we had this summer of sort of learning some skills. And, the one that I recorded on video that I'm happy to send you the video of because it's really quite funny, I had a friend who had a dairy farm. And, my son Ben was a big drinker of milk, and I thought it was really important for him to know where that came from. So, he learned how to bring in and milk a herd of dairy cattle. That was just one of the random skills that we thought it was important for him to know where his food comes from and to know how to prepare it and all that sort of stuff.
And, that actually led to my very first speaking engagement. Actually, I got a call from the Jewish Education Foundation and they were doing a big discussion about the future of bar and bat mitzvah. And, I loved that engagement because I ended up sitting at a table with a whole bunch of rabbis talking about these traditions. It was really, really cool. And, I love learning about the various traditions people have around the world. And, I just had to invent some of my own.
Ben: Yeah, it's interesting how, I think, especially at least for my sons, the part of at least a coming-of-age ritual-esque type of activity or rite of passage has been actually very much like the farming experience your son had going out and doing something that involves providing in their case for both of them bow hunting their first animal and bringing that food home. And actually, my son in a couple of days is making the whole family dinner from a deer that he got a couple of weeks ago.
Ben: It was one of his first big deer hunts. But, you can just see them standing a little taller, acting a little prouder and I think that intentionally weaving experiences like that into a child's life. It doesn't have to be going off the mountains for five days with a knife and a wool blanket, but something that is remarkable and somewhat ceremonial I still think is largely absent.
Jessica: Yeah. I think it's really important, and along with that, the sort of lessons that get integrated into it, even little things. A friend of mine who has two very introverted children, one of them who really has a social anxiety disorder sort of situation, at least when they were little, she created a scavenger hunt. And, the kids had to go through this, it's a very small sort of safe town that was a really quaint New England downtown, and they had to specifically go speak to adults all over town in order to get various clues that their mother had laid out ahead of them.
And so, it was in a safe situation where they felt really empowered and realized just how helpful being able to talk to adults can be, especially in a world where I grew up. I'm 52, and so I grew up in the '70s and '80s being told never to talk to strangers. And yet, it's an incredibly important skill, self-advocacy and being able to tell people what you need. And so, I love building activities/traditions around things that give kids really important life skills like self-advocacy or telling people what they need.
Ben: Yeah, in terms of common threads within this parenting book, it pops up over and over again. Nearly every parent or set of parents intentionally wove some type of recognition of either coming of age into adolescence or coming of age into adulthood in each of their children's lives. So, I think we're just going to see people realizing that and hopefully doing it more and more.
So, you also mentioned when it came to education evidence-based learning methods and how much you favor those versus traditional learning methods. But, could you actually define what you mean by that evidence-based learning methods?
Jessica: Actually, this is a great time to talk about this because we just heard that if a research journal, for example, is getting federal funding, they're going to have to make those research articles free to the public. And, that's massive because for a long time, the research on what really works in education, for example, has been siloed and it's been behind a paywall. And so, for a long time, it didn't trickle down to the people who are actually teaching children. And increasingly, that's changing, and I'm so grateful for that.
So, teachers have often just operated on, “This is how I learned, and therefore this is how it will work for when I teach.” And, a lot of that comes down to sage on the stage lecture format, or I'm going to put the kids in the rows and I'm going to teach a little bit, and then maybe I'll give a quiz, and then I'm going to give this huge test at the end of the unit that's worth 20% of your grade and no backsies. And then, we got to keep moving forward. Those sort of strategies, we do those often without thinking about whether or not they actually work for learning. And, I'm a big fan of taking something that I'm doing in the classroom and holding it up and saying, “Wait a second, why am I doing this? Is this just because it works well for me, or because I enjoy it, or because it actually works for learning?”
So, when my daughter switched schools, we moved when she was just leaving 8th grade and about to go into high school, I got really lucky and that we moved into a school district in Vermont where the school district was really interested in the evidence on what works for learning as opposed to what's convenient for teachers. And, a lot of that came down to standards-based grading. So, for example, rather than having these A through F grades that are sort of willy-nilly based on how well the kid plays the game or how many homework assignments they hand in that are perfect and that kind of stuff, it's comes down to whether or not kids have actually learned skills.
And, the other part of that is when I talk about, “Teach a little, teach a little, teach a little, give a huge test at the end of a unit,” that's called the summative or cumulative assessment. And, that is not a great learning tool. It works great for me as a teacher, because then I can have these nice neat rows in my grade books and I have an end date to when we're done with this particular bit of teaching, and then I can move on, but not all kids learn at the same rate. So, instead of doing those cumulative or summative assessments, or in addition to those, my daughter's school district does form a lot of formative assessments, which are low stakes, low anxiety quizzes constantly so that the kids are really figuring out what they do and don't know, exercising what's called metacognition, which is our understanding of what we do and don't know. If you do really poorly on a formative assessment, it's not that it's going to torpedo your grade, it's that you have to do this extra work with the teacher to figure out, “Okay, oh, I thought I knew this, but I didn't know that.” Here is exactly why I thought I knew this but didn't know that. Here's what I need to learn in order to do better on this next time. And, all of that exercising of metacognition helps kids become better learners. It helps kids get used to being assessed on a really regular and frequent basis. Anxiety is less prevalent. There's just a lot of ways that we know work for learning. And, for example, the fastest way to turn off any learning is to increase stress in a kid's environment.
So, if a kid is going through something stressful at home, if COVID's happening, for example, if they're guinea pig squeaky died last night, they're not going to be in a great place to learn. So, we have to figure out how to dial back some of the stress where we can like with big tests or timed tests. In fact, we know the work of Jo Boaler for Youcubed at Stanford University, it's really clear that when we're trying to teach kids math facts, one of the worst ways to do that is to do timed math fact quizzes tests because the minute you start timing kids you up the chances that you're going to increase math anxiety and you're also proficiency or mastery and speed are not the same thing. And, we also know that some kids react differently to competition, some kids rise to the challenge and some kids just fall apart and their working memory just goes out the window.
So, understanding what works for learning and adopting those methods as opposed to, well, this is how it's always been done, is a really important part of what I've done, and I think in my education journalism over the years.
Ben: Yeah, I know that two powerful strategies; retrieval practice and space practice, are actually kind of part of evidence-based learning methods. And, our whole family is planning to go to Italy next year to do cycling trip of Italy. And, I've heard a lot about Duolingo and finally started using Duolingo with the whole family. And, oh, my gosh, everything from the gamification to the review of materials that you've briefly seen the day before to retrieving via speech or listening or written text, the modules that have come before, it's the fastest I think I've ever learned a language. And, I mean, I'm only three weeks in, but have you used Duolingo before?
Jessica: I have and actually you bring up gamification. And, gamification is actually in this context actually, it tends to work pretty well. But, gamification is one of those other things that can also backfire on you. Often gamification means timing something or making kids work to a particular speed, and sometimes that backfires for some kids. So, education is definitely not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. So, knowing your kids, knowing how they learn best, knowing what works and doesn't work for them is a really important part to helping advocate for your kids learning.
Ben: You actually, I think, may have brought this up when Tim Ferris interviewed you and I think you wrote it towards the end of my chapter with you in “Boundless Parenting,” and it went something like, “I choose to make my life my argument.” And so, I know that that saying must mean something important to you. Can you explain what that actually means?
Jessica: Yeah, it's not my quote, it's Dr. Albert Schweitzer.
Jessica: My husband and I were both Schweitzer fellows. There's an organization called the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, and it has to do with finding a place, for him, it happened to be Lambarene, Africa, which there's a whole White savior problematic issue there. But, the idea is everyone can find their own Lambarene. Lambarene was his hospital in Africa. For me, it was working with kids in teen court in North Carolina. For my husband, it was making sure the kids were getting vaccinated in rural North Carolina. And, when Albert Schweitzer decided to go ahead and really work as a pacifist and doing the work he was doing in Africa as well in medicine, he has a great quote that I love which is, “I decided to make my life my argument.”
And, I think a lot of people tend to talk a lot especially because of social media. And, don't get me wrong, I love Twitter. That's where I spend most of my social media time. People say a lot of stuff, but it's the people that can really just shut up and make their life their argument instead of just blabbing away about how everybody else should be doing everything. Those are the people I tend to respect the most. And so, it's a good reminder for me just sometimes I need to just shut up and do the work instead of talking about doing the work.
Ben: Yeah, kind of a refined way of expressing the actions speak louder than words. And, it definitely is related to another phrase that pops up over and over again within the book quoted by many parents, “More is caught than taught.” And, it seems to actually go hand in hand with that idea of as a parent, what you do is noticed far, far more than what you say.
Jessica: Yeah. One of my favorite things that I get to do when I'm working with kids in schools is I speak to them usually before I speak to their parents in the evening and I ask them, I give all of them my email address, which if you want to get the best emails ever, give your email address to thousand little school students. And, I asked them to tell me what they want me to tell their parents that evening. Like, what things are their parents not hearing or get defensive about? Maybe aren't hearing the right way from them. And, the biggest one by far is some iteration of, “I'm not my brother, I'm not my sister, I'm not you when you were my age, I'm not your mini-me or I'm not your do-over.” But, one of the other ones is that whole idea of, “Wait a second, you have expectations from me that I see you not fulfilling all day long. If I can't have my phone out at a restaurant, why do you get to?” Or, “You're telling me that I should” —
Ben: Because the parent can make the excuse that it's for business, baby.
Jessica: Yeah, yeah. And, this came up for me. I was in Texas giving a talk, and this woman asked me. She wanted me to come up with a list of really challenging books that her kids would want to read because her kids don't read for pleasure. And, I'm like, “Well, that's a mythological.” And, we'll deal with that list later. But, in the meantime, I have to ask, “Do you read for pleasure?” And, the mother was like, “I'm busy. I work a lot, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” And, I said, “Well, unless your children are seeing you prioritize that activity, there's nothing I can tell you that will make your children. There's no magic book list that will make your children want to love reading or read for pleasure if you're not modeling that for them.”
Jessica: And unfortunately, this parent, this is going to kill you, I asked this parent, I said, “Before I give you this list of things I think your kid might like, can I ask if they do read for pleasure what they like?” And, she said, “Well, they love those “Diary of A Wimpy Kid” books, but those books are stupid, so I got rid of them.” So, essentially, this woman was saying, “I want my kids to read for pleasure, but I do not support their reading for pleasure, and they never see me read for pleasure.” And so, essentially, she's doing everything in her power to make her kids not want to read for fun. So, yeah, we had to have a little talk together just one-on-one after the presentation.
Ben: There's, I suppose, probably the top two things that I think parents should perk up and listen to from this entire discussion. It would be to let your kids fail and your actions speak louder than words. I mean, like those two alone. And then, of course, that word yet that you can tack on to any compliment or that you're working so hard on that type of approach. Your books are obviously chock full of a ton of advice. I'd just love your chapter in the “Boundless Parenting” book and I'm super grateful to have you in it because right when I heard you on Tim's podcast, I was like, “Oh, she would be perfect to get into some of this stuff in the book.”
So, I really like what you're doing. And, for people listening in, I am going to link to all Jessica's work at BenGreenfieldLife.com/JessicaLahey. That's L-A-H-E-Y. And, Jessica, I just want to thank you for coming on today and sharing all these with us.
Jessica: Oh, my goodness. Thank you for having me. Like I said, I really do have the coolest job in the world, which is getting to talk with people about stuff that when Tim brought up in our interview that he was talking about secretly wanting to be a teacher, I'm like, “Well, you'd make a great teacher because you're curious about stuff and like to ask people about things and learn.” And, I can't think of a better way to spend an hour.
Ben: Yeah. Well, don't go too crazy, stir crazy in your ultra-quiet house and —
Jessica: I think I'll find things to do. I think I'm pretty good at finding stuff to keep me busy.
So, there's two events coming up. You can go to both of them. I'm going to go to both of them. Obviously, I'm going to fly to Texas, then fly over to Lexington. The Texas event called RUNGA is October 13th through the 15th. The Wild Health one is October 22nd. Go to both. I am obviously.
You can also check BenGreenfieldLife.com/Calendar for all of the events that I'll be teaching at this year. So, I hope to see you there.
More than ever these days, people like you and me need a fresh entertaining, well-informed, and often outside-the-box approach to discovering the health, and happiness, and hope that we all crave. So, I hope I've been able to do that for you on this episode today. And, if you liked it or if you love what I'm up to, then please leave me a review on your preferred podcast listening channel wherever that might be and just find the Ben Greenfield Life episode. Say something nice. Thanks so much. It means a lot.
If you have teenagers like I do, or have kids that will become teenagers, or are considering having kids that will become teenagers, or even know anyone with a teenager…
…you've probably thought about kids and substance abuse.
Of course, all parents want to give their kids the best possible resources and support to prevent problems with drugs and alcohol. But what does that look like? Is it teaching moderation or prohibiting substances before the legal age? How much does genetics play into it? Those are big, important questions, considering that according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, teen drug addiction is the nation's largest preventable and costly health problem. And nine out of 10 adults with substance use disorder report they began drinking and taking drugs before age 18.
My guest on this podcast, Jessica Lahey, was born into a family with a long history of alcoholism and drug abuse. Despite her efforts to avoid that path, Jessica struggled with alcoholism herself until 2013, when she got sober in her early 40s. Her latest book, The Addiction Inoculation: Raising Healthy Kids in a Culture of Dependence, is a comprehensive resource that parents and educators can use to help prevent substance abuse in children. A parent herself, Jessica has also learned firsthand how to navigate this highly sensitive and important topic. Jessica is also the author of the New York Times bestselling book The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.
For more than twenty years, Jessica has taught every grade from sixth to twelfth in both public and private schools, spent five years teaching in a drug and alcohol rehab for adolescents in Vermont, and serves as a prevention and recovery coach at Sana at Stowe, a medical detox and recovery center in Stowe, Vermont.
Jessica writes about education, parenting, and child welfare for The Washington Post, The Atlantic, is a book critic for Air Mail, and her biweekly column “The Parent Teacher Conference” for three years at the New York Times. Jessica designed and wrote the educational curriculum for Amazon Kids’ award-winning animated series The Stinky and Dirty Show, and was a 2019 Pushcart Prize nominee for her Creative Nonfiction magazine essay, “I’ve Taught Monsters.”
The co-host of the #AmWriting podcast, with bestselling authors KJ Dell’Antonia and Sarina Bowen, Jessica also holds the dubious honor of having written an article that was later adapted as a writing prompt for the 2018 SAT.
Jessica will be soon featured in a special chapter of my Boundless Parenting book, for which this podcast interview is part of a series leading up to the official book launch in late 2022. She lives in Vermont with her husband, two sons, and many dogs.
During our discussion, you'll discover:
-Why Jessica wrote the book The Gift of Failure…8:56
- Jessica has 2 children
- Jessica Lahey on Parenting, Desirable Difficulties, The Gift of Failure, Self-Efficacy, and The Addiction Inoculation – The Tim Ferris Show
- The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey
- Jessica was teaching middle school when she wrote the book
- She fell in love with teaching again, but got equally frustrated at how parents treat their kids
- “Snowplow parenting” or taking the consequences away
- Middle school is a great learning opportunity from a cognitive development and challenges perspective
- Jessica researched helicopter parenting, directive parenting, and controlling parenting and wrote about it
-Examples of ways of letting your kids fail…11:50
- What happened when someone intentionally tripped Jessica’s son on a race
- He came back exhilarated, it was a personal best for him
- Jessica suspects she would have made the situation worse had she been there
- There are moments when we should step back and allow our kids to solve their problems
-Is there a curriculum that teaches failure?…13:47
- Jessica gets to tour around different schools to speak to students and parents and train teachers
- Momentous Institute in Dallas – kindergarteners are taught how the brain works
- Lower brain – react and “punch back”
- Upper brain – restrain and conversation
- 6th-grade classroom in California – Teachers made mistakes in front of the kids, tried to get the kids to catch them, or the other teacher would catch the other teacher in the mistake and as a group they would talk through the mistakes.
- Talk and work together to either problem-solve or work on ways to guide other people when they make mistakes
- Momentous Institute in Dallas – kindergarteners are taught how the brain works
- Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck
- Having conversations with kids about “yet situations”
- Problems in education arise when they do a fixed and growth mindset curriculum
- The research is to instruct how to role model; how to give kids opportunities to learn
- It's difficult how to put these concepts into an actual curriculum
-Importance of journaling and setting goals…16:54
- Journaling helps kids view their progress
- In the book The Gift of Failure, Jessica talks about how her family seasonally creates 3 goals:
- One goal has to be scary and outside of their comfort zone
- Check their progress at the end of each season
- Learn from it or redefine and recommit to the goals
- We do what we can with the information that we have; adjust if new information comes in, and if something goes wrong, we learn from it
-Recognizing work and praising kids' efforts…19:16
- The downside of just reading “mindset” articles vs. reading Carol Dweck's book Mindset
- Carol warns against a flawed understanding of her work
- It's not just about praising the effort but also encompassing the growth end and all the aspects of becoming self-reliant and self-advocating
-Did The Addiction Inoculation book come after The Gift of Failure?…21:10
- The Gift of Failure and The Addiction Inoculation books happened contemporaneously
- Jessica got sober in 2013, same year she started selling the book
- Jessica came from a family of alcoholics
- The research on prevention science revolves around the concept of substance use disorder as a preventable public health problem
- But what is really “preventable”?
- How to increase the chances of her kids not resorting to alcohol
-Why Jessica mentions she wished she hadn’t allowed her children “sips of alcohol”…22:47
- Allowing her kids to take a sip was one of the biggest pushbacks she received from parents
- Initially, she patterned this on how European kids are allowed sips of alcohol
- According to the WHO, EU countries have the highest level of alcohol consumption in the world
- EU countries with lower rates of alcohol consumption are because of cultural taboos against public intoxication
- The idea of teaching kids moderation by modeling moderation is not possible for someone who has alcohol use disorder and cannot learn moderation
- Parents should have a consistent and clear message about not taking alcohol until the brain is fully developed (early to mid-20s)
- The younger a kid starts taking alcohol and drugs, the higher their lifelong statistical risk of developing a substance use disorder
- Parents who have a permissive attitude around drinking have kids with higher levels of substance use disorder
- Starting age of taking alcohol and the lifelong risks of developing substance use disorder
- An 8th grader has a 50% lifelong risk
- A 10th grader has around a 20% lifelong risk
- 18 years old and it goes down to around 10%, the same as in the general population
- 90% of people who have substance use disorder in adulthood say they started drinking before age 18
-How does early exposure affect substance use disorder later in life?…27:26
- Alcohol and drugs have a greater risk on the adolescent brain
- Chronic users of marijuana have smaller hippocampus
- The adolescent brain is still developing and so has a smaller hippocampus
- A smaller hippocampus is related to problems with short-term memory formation and storage
- A thinning in the pre-frontal cortex is seen in kids who use a lot of marijuana
-Did either of your children go through some sort of substance use disorder?…29:27
- Prevention science does not give any guarantees
- Prevention is about giving kids the right information, teaching them refusal skills (inoculation skills)
- Sana at Stowe
- The more information people have, the earlier they realize that they need help
-What advice can you give to parents with a child with substance use disorder? …35:38
- Talk to the kids about what is happening on a physiological level when moving from a “use to misuse” place and about the behavioral changes that you are observing
- Recovering My Kid: Parenting Young Adults in Treatment and Beyond by Dr. Joseph Lee
- A very good book about “Oh, my goodness! I think I might have a problem.”
- Dr. Joseph Lee at Hazelden Betty Ford
- Jessica's expertise is prevention
-The importance of afternoon quiet time…38:02
- This is a personal preference; quiet time, nap time, book time, alone time
- BGL article on napping:
- “Rest Is Not Idleness,” by Mary Helen Immordino-Yang
- To Help Students Learn, Engage the Emotions
- Somehow, we're supposed to rush rush rush all the time (Type A personalities)
- It's important to cultivate rest and idleness; that’s where creative stuff kicks in our brain
- For Jessica, as a writer, her most productive time is that musing and prep time
- For Ben, musing time is when he is swimming
-Jessica's thoughts on coming of age rituals…42:23
- New York Times column “The Parent Teacher Conference” – came up with a random list of things that were thought important for our kids to learn how to do as they got older
- This led to her first speaking engagement with the Jewish Education Foundation about the future of Bar Mitzvah
- Ben's kids' rite of passage types of activities
- Creating games in a safe and controlled environment for introverted kids
- Jessica loves building activities/traditions around things that teach kids important life lessons
- This is a common thread in the upcoming Boundless Parenting book about parents intentionally weaving some type of coming-of-age activities in their children's lives
-Evidence-based learning methods vs. traditional learning methods…47:15
- A research journal that is getting federal funding has to make its research articles free to the public
- For a long time, access to research into what works for education didn't trickle down to the people who were teaching children
- Teachers often operate on “This is how I learned, therefore, this is how it will work when I teach”
- Traditional strategies are done without thinking about whether they work for learning
- The school district in Vermont where they moved to was interested in what works for learning as opposed to what's convenient for teachers
- Standards-based grading
- Cumulative or summative assessments are not a great learning tool
- Formative assessments allow kids to figure out what they know or do not know, exercising metacognition to help kids become better learners
- Youcubed at Stanford
- Jo Boaler
- YouTube video – Why Are Timed Math Drills Bad for Kids?
- The fastest way to turn off any learning is to increase stress in a kid's environment
- Proficiency/mastery and speed are not the same thing
-What Jessica means when she says, “I choose to make my life my argument”?…53:37
- “My life is my argument” is actually a Dr. Albert Schweitzer quote
- The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship – finding your “Lambaréné”
- “But it's the people that can really just shut up and make their life their argument instead of just blabbing away about how everybody else should be doing everything. Those are the people I tend to respect the most.”
- A refined way of expressing “actions speak louder than words”
-And much more…
- Runga: October 13th-15th, 2022 (Austin, TX). This is the one event every year that I never miss. Join myself and my family to tap into your full potential over three days of fully immersive programming and therapies. Gourmet organic chef-prepared meals, live podcast recordings, and personalized health consulting make this a once-in-a-lifetime experience. There are only fifty spots available, so claim yours today here.
- Wild Health Awake + Aware Principles: October 22nd, 2022 (Lexington, KY). Join me for a one-day intensive experience where I will guide you through a series of interactive lectures that explore purpose, meaning, and spiritual health. VIP guests will also join me on an immersive walk through nature and intimate dinner. Learn more here.
- Keep up on Ben's LIVE appearances by following bengreenfieldfitness.com/calendar!
Resources mentioned in this episode:
- The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey
- The Addiction Inoculationby Jessica Lahey
- The Stinky and Dirty Show
- The Parent Teacher Conference
- Jessica Lahey on Parenting, Desirable Difficulties, The Gift of Failure, Self-Efficacy, and The Addiction Inoculation – The Tim Ferris Show
- Boundless Parenting
- Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck
- Recovering My Kid by Dr. Joseph Lee
– Other Resources:
- Rest Is Not Idleness by Mary Helen Immordino-Yang
- Sana At Stowe
- Jewish Education Foundation
- Youcubed at Stanford
- The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship
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