Julia Keller is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, novelist and teacher. She has a PhD in English Literature from Ohio State University and has taught at Princeton, the University of Chicago and Notre Dame. She was the chief book critic and staff writer at The Chicago Tribune for many years before she stopped journalism and started to write books.
Today, Julia joins the show to discuss how growing up in West Virginia shaped her outlook on money, why she’s challenging the negative connotation surrounding quitting, and how quitting certain things can help shape you into an even better version of yourself.
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00:50 – Jonathan introduces today’s guest, Julia Keller, who joins the show to share what she learned about money and entrepreneurship growing up in a historically poor state, West Virginia
05:05 – The role money played in Julia’s life growing up
08:55 – The stigma behind the word ‘quitting’ and Julia’s definition of the word
14:14 – Julia’s quitting story and misconceptions on success, perseverance and grit
25:22 – Scientific studies on quitting
30:56 – Quitting our belief systems
36:07 – One thing we can do today to make better decisions and one thing to completely ignore
42:39 – The last thing Julia changed her mind about and the one question Julia would want to know the answer to
46:55 – Jonathan thanks Julia for joining the show and lets listeners know where to connect with her
“There’s a phrase I like – it’s another writer’s phrase but – ‘Appalachian Fatalism.’ And that’s something I certainly witnessed growing up: people who were hard working, good, decent, honorable people who just constantly, constantly were running up against that lack of money.” (04:34) (Julia)
“I think as children we’re uniquely attuned to the financial situation in the family. Whether we can articulate that or not, you know it and you feel it.” (05:30) (Julia)
“Money takes on this outsized importance in our lives. And you only think of what you don’t have and not what you do have.” (08:01) (Julia)
“Quitting’ can be from a positive standpoint by saying, ‘No longer that direction. No more of that. More of this over here.’ And you’re making that active choice. And that’s why I hope people can begin to see ‘quitting’ as a positive thing. It’s not what you’re leaving behind, it’s what you’re moving towards.” (11:14) (Julia)
“If we start looking at the world as a ‘cause and effect’ universe, where two plus two always equals four, we’re doomed because we just know that isn’t true. And honest people will tell you that.” (22:26) (Julia)
“Things are hard. It’s hard to learn a new skill. It’s hard to learn a new language. It’s hard to run a business. It’s hard to do all of those things. And because something is hard, that doesn’t mean quit when it gets hard. But it also means to not stay the course just to stay the course.” (23:13) (Julia)
“You have to be sensitive to individual capacities, the emotional proclivities that we have because we’re all so very different. To suggest that there’s a ‘one-size-fits-all’ attitude – meaning always stay the course and never quit – is quite wrong and can be quite damaging, too.” (24:31) (Julia)
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Jonathan DeYoe: Hey, welcome back. On this episode of the Mindful Money podcast, I’m, um, chatting with Julia Keller, PhD. Julia’s a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, novelist, and teacher. She has a phd in english literature from Ohio State University and has taught at Princeton, the University of Chicago, and the University of Notre Dame. She was the chief book critic and staff writer at the Chicago Tribune for many years before she stopped journalism and started to write books. She was born and raised in West Virginia, currently resides in Ohio. She’s written an award winning, eight volume mystery series that begins with a, uh, killing in the hills. She’s the author of the Dark Intercept, a three volume science fiction series, wrote the biography of the inventor of the Gatling Gun, and has contributed many on air essays for the NewsHour on, uh, PBS and NPR’s All Things considered most recently. And the reason I’m excited to have her join us today. She wrote quitting a life strategy, the myth of perseverance, and how the new science of giving up can set you free. Julia, welcome to the Mindful Money podcast.
Julia Keller: Oh, hello there. So happy to be here.
Jonathan DeYoe: So first, there’s always that awkward. I’ve just had this whole thing introducing me. What do I say? So well done. Where do you call home, and where are you connecting from?
Julia Keller: Right now I’m in Ohio. It’s not really around the city. It’s more of a rural area just north of sort of north central Ohio. I always think of home itself as West Virginia. As you mentioned, I was born and raised in West Virginia, and it’s such an exotic, unusual place to be from. I’ve discovered, as I’ve lived in other places. So I usually will say, and certainly my heart is in West Virginia, uh, state that, despite its many problems, is so surpassingly lovely, and it really informs so much of my attitude to come from this place that, as I said, it’s great beauty juxtaposed with many, many problems.
Jonathan DeYoe: So I’m curious. I, um, don’t think I’ve had anyone on the show from West Virginia, and I’m just curious. Not necessarily that it’s state specific, but what did you learn about money and entrepreneurship growing up there in West Virginia?
Julia Keller: Oh, that is a wonderful question when I think of it in terms of West Virginia, because I said it’s a state that has so many terrible economic problems that is at the root of so many other problems, too. I mean, think of this garden of forking paths when you think of what money problems do. As I said, a very poor state, a state that’s been very ill served by its elected representatives for many, many years, and that’s not a jab at any political party. It just is true, because of the natural resources in West Virginia, it’s a state that ought to be doing very, very well. Of course, coal, no longer a big factor, but was from it for a great long time in the 20th century, and then also natural gas, also other minerals there. But unfortunately, the people in West Virginia never benefited from that. So you’ve got the kind of double whammy there. You’ve got a state that ought to be quite prosperous and isn’t. And because it is isolated, because of the mountains, the geography itself ends up being an imprisoning factor. So you’ve got people that always are kind of, like, yearning and trying, and it’s, uh, the land of hardworking people. And it’s sort of a case study of what happens, the things that poverty can do, the kind of burden that poverty can inflict upon people, and leads into questions of, how do you get out of that? What do you do? Not having enough money can be a really terrible burden, and can, I think, we pay a big price for that. People who come from West Virginia. My father was a college professor, but his father worked in a factory, and then my grandfather as well, had worked in coal mines. So it’s very much a blue collar state in the best sense of that term, by which I mean hardworking people, but just never quite. Not the owners, not the entrepreneurs, not the people who are really getting ahead. And again, it really has an effect on your outlook. There’s a phrase I’ve liked, there’s another writer’s phrase, but it’s appalachian fatalism. And that’s something I certainly witnessed growing up people who were, as I said, hardworking, good, decent, honorable people, but constantly, constantly running up against that lack of money. And from that would come lack of educational opportunity and that fatalism, that sense that things aren’t going to ever get any better.
Jonathan DeYoe: Wow. It’s sort of a compounding effect. One then the other and then the other just keep stacking on top of each other.
Julia Keller: Yes.
Jonathan DeYoe: Can you point any specific personal experiences? We can look at it analytically, but what role did money play in your life growing up boy?
Julia Keller: That’s a great question. There’s a short story by D. H. Lawrence called the rocking horse winter, and it’s about a boy growing up in a family where there was never enough money. And the young boy begins to even imagine that the walls are talking and they’re saying, there must be more money, there must be more money, there must be more money. And I think as children we’re uniquely attuned to the financial situation in the family, whether we can articulate that or not. You know it and you feel it. I mentioned my father was a college professor, but my parents met as students, so when they were young and when my sisters and I were young, there wasn’t very much money. My father was in grad school getting his. He was a math professor getting his advanced degrees, and there was always that sense of there not being enough money. And I remember in particular one time when I was probably maybe fourth or fifth grade and some friends were. We were going to take the bus and go to the movies. And the movies were. There was this one movie and it was wonderful. Ammo theater, very cheap movies. You could get in for like a dollar or something. It was a special kid rate Saturday and I went to my parents and I said, so I need a dollar. I’m going to go see. I think it was Andromeda strain or something, something I really wanted to see. I was a huge science fiction fan and my parents said, we don’t have it. And I remember being outraged. Imagine here I’m eleven or twelve years older and I’m just completely outraged. I looked at my parents, you don’t have it. It’s a dollar. What do you say? I imagine what that must have been like now as an adult. I look and I think, what must that moment have been like for them to not be able to give this dollar to this kid who wants to go to the movies? And as a kid. You’re so selfish. As a kid, of course, all I’m thinking of is my first time I’m going to have to make up some story, concoct some story for my friends. I can’t tell them that I don’t have the dollar to go see the movie. But just being aware of that kind of outrage, of lack and of want, there’s something I wanted that I couldn’t have. And again, it seemed like such a pittance, such a nothing little bit of money, and they didn’t have it together. And I remember that all these years of that feeling. So that sense of there must be more money, because there are things you want and you can’t have, and it’s a real searing kind of experience. It sounds a bit silly, but it sticks with you.
Jonathan DeYoe: Was there a point in your life where there was a transition, like, now we have more money, or has that lack sort of defined your relationship with money till today?
Julia Keller: I, uh, think it kind of. I certainly, I look around all the time. I think this is true of most people in America. We all have more than we need, even if we don’t have much, we all have more than we need compared to so many other regions of the world, other countries in the world. We are so blessed. We have so much. And to be able to walk in a store and get what we want, get what we need, and not have to look at the price tag and be adding it up in our heads. But you never forget those youthful lessons. That’s one of the problems. You don’t forget it. And money takes on this outsized importance in our lives, and you only think of what you don’t have and not what you do have. And it’s very difficult, I think, speaking to what you’re able to do with your podcast is we’re not really taught in really effective ways of how to think about money, how to deal with money. We can all add up a column of figures, but when it comes to the kind of cultural meaning of money and the cultural meaning of things and delayed gratification and some of these issues, we’re not really taught how to deal with that. And so it does stick with you for a lifetime, I think.
Jonathan DeYoe: Yeah, I learned that lesson as a kid. I’m ridiculously well off compared to I was as a kid. And I can’t shake that feeling of lack. It’s just always there in the background.
Julia Keller: It is. It’s that hummus that there must be more money. And the wall. It’s a very wall. Speaking.
Jonathan DeYoe: Yes, I want to get into quitting, uh, the life strategy. But just before we dig in there, I want to make sure. We have our definitions, kind of. Right. What do you mean by quitting? Because it just seems like we could think about that in lots of different ways.
Julia Keller: It’s a word that really troubles people. I was being interviewed a few months ago, and this one gentleman, he was just outraged by the word. It was a word itself. He said that word quitting, what you’re talking about, because in the book, as you know, I mentioned a pause and a pivot, and I talk of choosing another path and all this. That’s all. That’s fine. But it’s that word quitting. And of course, that’s what I try to interrogate in the book. By quitting, what I mean is stopping one behavior or one direction for another, simply that pausing maybe between and deciding to go down another path, and to try to do that without judgment, judging either ourselves or other people when they do that. We are culturally burdened by this idea of quitting as being a bad thing, that when we do stop one behavior and do another, that we’re being weak. We’re not staying the course. We’re giving up too early. Quitting is equated with giving up and all these other very, very negative phrases. So by quitting, as I said, I just simply mean stopping one thing for another, be it a, uh, behavior or a path, a direction. We think of it most often in terms of jobs and relationships. People get divorced or people leave a job and go to another. But I really try to broaden that. As you know, in the book, I speak of people who have changed religious beliefs, political parties, people have changed their attitude. It’s funny, you were sort of honing in early on, my early days, because what I think of is I really had to fight against that appalachian fatalism that I mentioned. That’s one change that I had to make because I realized it wasn’t serving me. There’s a kind of a, uh, cynicism and a pessimism that is really imprisoning. And I really had to fight very hard, and I have to continue to not let that be the attitude with which I begin every day and every endeavor.
Jonathan DeYoe: Yeah, I think. I don’t remember if this was in an interview I heard or an answer to an interview question you had offered or in the book itself, but you said something like, it’s the making of the choice, not the outcome that matters. Do you remember that statement and some of the reasons why you might have said that?
Julia Keller: Yeah, I think I do, because it’s that, um, to feel like you have some autonomy in your life, that you are making the choices. And quitting is a choice. It’s not a capitulation. It’s not a giving up. Quitting can be from a positive standpoint, which is how I try to approach it. It means saying, no longer that direction. No, um, more of that, more of this over here. And you’re making that active choice. So that’s why I hope that people can begin to see quitting this pause, this pivot, making another choice, making another direction as a positive thing and not, it’s not what you’re leaving behind, it’s what you’re going toward, and I think makes a difference, and we have to do it. In all the interviews I did for the book, I got, well, um, over 150 interviews. Between 100 and 5200 interviews, the vast majority of people more regretted the things that they hadn’t quit, that they felt they should have, and quit them in a timely manner, much more so than the things they did quit. I mean, they’re always here and there things. It’s like people who think maybe they left a relationship too early or I shouldn’t have quit that job, I should have stayed with that a little longer, given it more of a chance. That was very much in the minority. The vast, vast majority of people said, I wish I had left earlier. I wish I’d made that change earlier. I wish I had found the courage to make that choice and go in another direction. Because I think, and this may, that we all know, we all know in our own hearts and minds when it is time to make that change. We don’t always want to do it because it’s hard. It’s very, very hard. It’s one of the hardest things we ever do. I mean, changing really any aspect of our lives, it’s very hard. Not saying it’s easy, but it can be the making of you.
Jonathan DeYoe: There’s an element, anytime you make a big change, there’s an element of stepping into the abyss. You don’t know what’s going to come next. Right. I know that if I sit here and endure, I’ll deal with this pain, and I can deal with this pain. If I make a change, I don’t know what the pain is I’m going to have to deal with. So easier for me to deal with this pain than make the change and deal with an unknown pain. So, in a way, and this is what I love about some of your writing, it’s like in order to embrace the change, you have to believe, uh, that there is a better path. Yes, there’s this sense of abundance, not the sense of being crushed by it.
Julia Keller: Absolutely key, that sense of abundance. And again, that is hard won wisdom for me. I don’t come by that naturally. And so I guess there’s a part of me just pridefully that thinks that, well, it even means more because I have really had to struggle to get to that point, to not think of things as rather bleak. And, uh, when it comes to Appalachia, I always used to think maybe it’s because of the mountains. The old joke was you can only see the sun at high noon because it’s the rest of the time you’re shadowed by these mountains. So, I mean, I had all my excuses for my sort of a bleak outlook. To fight your way forward and to say and to believe in an abundance, just as you’re saying. I mean, I think that’s absolutely key. That’s really the takeaway from the book. I hope that what people get from it, that there is always that new dawn, that next step, next thing that’s going to come along, good or bad. But it is your choice and you’ve done it, and you have to believe in the abundance in order to do it. I mean, no completely cynical person would change, because better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. And change is all about the devil you don’t, right?
Jonathan DeYoe: So I’m curious. You must have a quitting story. Like, I look at what you’ve accomplished. You’ve written biographies, mystery. You’ve written journalism. You’ve done so much, it doesn’t look like there’s a lot of quitting there.
Julia Keller: No PhD.
Jonathan DeYoe: What’s your quitting story?
Julia Keller: Plenty of it. Plenty of it. I have, oh, many, many times, just as we all do. I mean, there was one point when I was working on my PhD while I was working full time at the newspaper job. It was very, very difficult and I wanted to quit all the time because other people in grad school, people are living on very little money and they’re usually tas and they’re teaching and they’re doing a million different things, but they can focus on their schooling. I had this other job. I had a full time job. So I would tell myself, well, you can quit. Just quit that PhD program. What are you doing it for anyway? At that time, I didn’t really want to teach. And I thought, why am I doing this? Quitting seemed so easy. In fact, I did a few times. Then I would go back and I, uh, often tell the story. You have to have a reading knowledge of a language and actually two languages, but one of them was German that I was studying. And you would do your translation every day. And then it was like a tutorial. Then I would go to the german professor’s office, and I would sit there and I would read aloud the translation. And she would listen to me. M, wait. Stop. And then she’d tell me what I’d done wrong. It was usually some idiom or something. But what I remember is it was the night before a very difficult passage with jew. And it was supposed to be finished. And I just simply decided I had enough. I have a job. I can pay the mortgage. Why in the world am I putting myself through this? So I had decided to quit, and I didn’t do the translation. So come the next morning, and that was it. And, uh, I knew. I’ve decided I don’t have the translation. I’m going to withdraw from school. I’ll never have to face that professor again. So the phone rings, and it’s the professor. She had never called me, Holland. We didn’t really have that kind of level of relationship. And she said, oh, I’m glad I was able to find you. I had to go through the student directory to find you. But I’ve had an emergency out of town, so we won’t be able to meet today. So we’ll just meet next week and you can do your translation then. And I thought, is this a sign from the heavens? Does this mean I’m supposed to continue? I don’t know if it was a sign from the heavens. But that extra week was what I needed to stick with it. But no, I quit all the time. I quit things all the time. And I regret it occasionally, but mostly, again, it’s quitting those things that we should have quit earlier. I wish I had left daily newspaper work a little earlier than I did. I think I stuck with that because I really did enjoy it. And I really loved my colleagues. And being there. There’s nothing like a newsroom. It’s this assemblage of very bright, motivated, kind of irascible, sometimes very difficult to get along with people. But it’s glorious because you’ve got constant things coming at you all the time. And it’s wonderful. So I think I stayed probably a little too long. Because what I really wanted to do, as I mentioned, was write books. But I just really did enjoy that environment. But I probably should have left a little earlier. But you look back upon that and make those decisions. But no, we all do. Everybody does. I’m always attuned to when I’m reading biographies of people, what they quit when they quit, when they should have. I don’t know if you watch real sports with Bryant Gumball. It’s a series I really like on HBO, Max. But they tell the story of Danny Hurley, who was Bobby Hurley, the great Duke player, and then later a professional basketball player. His older brother was also a great basketball player in high school. He gets to college, I believe, went to Seton hall, and he just wasn’t very good. Now the story should be, but he worked really hard. And no, he couldn’t take it. People kept comparing him to his brother. And so he quit. Left school, withdrew from school, quit the basketball team, just drove all night to get home and said the story ought to be how terrible that was to quit. Actually, he discovered what he really liked to do was to coach. And of course, last year his team won the national championship. Had he stayed the course, had he not quit, had he listened to that siren song of our culture which says, don’t quit, don’t give in. You got to be gritty. You got to be tough. You got to be stalwart. Hang in there. Had he done that, he would have been a very miserable, depressed person. By his own accounting. He needed to quit, to go to where he really needed to be. But it was a very, very hard thing to do, and particularly to get over the self loathing that always occurs in the wake of quitting because of this negative view we have of it.
Jonathan DeYoe: It’ll take me a second to get to this. You’ve referenced in the book, and you just referenced the story of successful quitting. Like someone who can look back and say, I quit. I had this great outcome. But one assumes that there are lots of stories about unsuccessful quitting. I could tell you some of my own. There’s lots of stories about successful perseverance. So how did you note from your own quitting or from cultural quitting or the anti quitting mentalities? How did you say, you know what? We got a problem with an overemphasis on perseverance and grit. Because I look back on my own life and I’ve quit some and I’ve not quit some, and I’m successful. I don’t know if I can tie that success to the quitting or the not that. So how did you say, yeah, we have too much perseverance. We need to actually honor some quitting.
Julia Keller: What sort of motivated me toward writing this book was a very successful book called Grit by Angela Duckworth. She is a absolutely terrific person. Yes. Love hearing her interviewed, I really disliked the book, and I started thinking, why is this book bothering me so much? And if you remember, in the very first chapter, she talks about a class at West Point, and there were a number of young men, four or five young men, who didn’t make it, who quit, who withdrew. And she says that’s when it began to occur to her that it was these personal qualities of grit and perseverance. I thought to myself, whoa, whoa, whoa. Maybe they didn’t want a career in the army. Maybe they made another decision. Why do we assume that this was a bad, negative thing and the whole book is predicated on that? Again, I should say she’s a world renowned researcher, wonderful person by all accounts, but I think she’s dead wrong on the idea of grit as being this quality without which we can’t be successful people. You were asking about, how do you know which it is? How do you know whether this is good quitting or bad quitting? Or what I sometimes call it, precision quitting, which is using quitting in a very, very calculated, premeditated way to get to, you want to go? And again, I would answer, that’s each individual’s burden and challenge is to figure out whether it is good quitting or bad quitting. Certainly there’s bad quitting. Absolutely. There are things we shouldn’t. I mean, one of the chapters, as you know, I talk about when kids will come to a parent or a teacher and say, I can’t take it. I want to quit the soccer team. I want to quit the chess club. I can’t take, uh, the AP math. It’s just driving me crazy. How do you know when to say, you’re right? I’ve seen your personality change. It’s affecting your health. It’s affecting your mental health and your physical health. You do need to make a change here, or to say, no, I think you need to stick with this. That’s the thing about quitting. It’s a very individual thing. It’s a very individual, private challenge that we all face in the crucible of our own minds and hearts. Only you know, what’s the right quitting moment for you, whether to stay the course or to go. Only I knew those times, whether. When the german professor canceled on me and I got an extra week, it’s like, okay, I think I do want to pursue this doctoral degree. I don’t want to give up. That was up to me. For someone else, it would have been another decision. What I object to is this kind of all or nothing approach that quitting is always bad. And as you know, I trace it back to the 19th century, when income inequality first became just this kind of mammoth thing in the world where you had a few people succeed, but the great mass of humanity down at the bottom literally dying in gutters. In the 19th century, how could that be? And the way we explained it to ourselves was saying that it’s because the people at the top worked harder and the people at the bottom didn’t. We love the very neat, simple, very pleasing cause and effect story about success and lack of success. We love to think that Bill Gates was Bill Gates because he worked harder. And other people who tried to do the same thing and tried to begin their own companies, it didn’t work out well. It’s because they didn’t work hard. It’s a really simple, nice story we tell ourselves, and it completely ignores the role of fate and luck and randomness, that there can be one tiny gene sequence wrong and you end up getting some horrible, fateful disease that your behavior did not cause. It just happened. If we start looking at the world as a cause and effect universe where two plus two always equals four, we’re doomed, because we just know that isn’t true. And honest people will tell you that. An honest person who’s been vastly successful in business will say, look, there was a lot of luck involved. I was in the right place at the right time.
Jonathan DeYoe: I mean, isn’t it? If you’re thinking about life success, and how we determine life success, doesn’t there need to be some perseverance? You’re not saying, if it gets hard, give up, because there is a value to pushing through difficulty. It’s just, there’s got to be a time when you say, oh, you know what? This is ridiculous. This is too far.
Julia Keller: Yeah, no, absolutely. That’s part of that nuance I mentioned. It’s a thing of great nuance, and it’s not an all or nothing either way. Of course, perseverance does. I mean, things are hard. It’s hard to learn a new skill. It’s hard to learn a new language. It’s hard to run a business. It’s hard to do all those things. And because something is hard, that doesn’t mean quit when it gets hard, but it means to also, though, not to stay the course, just to stay the course, because you’re afraid of the name calling that’s sometimes associated when people make another decision. We tend to do that terribly. We’re very judgmental about other people in times when they make other decisions. And I mentioned, like, parents and children, it’s so hard for parents to know. To my great surprise, though, I really did try to be honest about this and let the interviews lead me. When I began doing the interviews for this book, before even kind of, uh, the ideas had really taken shape in my mind. I interviewed two really good teachers, retired teachers, and they were known as quite hard, quite hard taskmasters. And when I asked them what would they do if a kid came and said, I need to quit, I’m just not getting this material, I was sure they were going to say, oh, no. They would sit down with these kids, and so you must do this. And I was completely wrong. Both of them said, completely depends upon the kid. If a student, as I said, if it’s having this really terrible effect on their home life and if their parents are worried about them, they’re just not able to do this work, would try to find something else that they could be successful at. The one teacher looked with horror at me when I said, wouldn’t you always say, be gritty, be tough, stick with it? And she said, oh, absolutely not. Absolutely not. You have to be sensitive to individual capacities, individual. The, uh, emotional proclivities that we have, because we’re all so very different. To suggest that there’s a kind of a one size fits all with attitude mean, always stay the course, never quit is quite wrong and can be quite damaging, too. I mean, there are kids that are just pushed too far. So I let those interviews lead me there. And that’s what these very experienced teachers said, that it just would so depend on the kid. Sometimes, yes, they would say, absolutely. Sometimes you’d have a kid. It was just not putting in the work, and it was kind of a screw up, and they knew this kid was capable of more. Now, in that case, of course, they’d say, no, you need to work harder. You need to finish this. You need to do this. But it’s so dependent on the kid. There was no just one right answer that would go with every student.
Jonathan DeYoe: I think just two quick things. I think. First, that’s an argument for smaller class sizes, right? That’s an argument for teachers have the time to focus individually on each kid. Second thing is, we’re looking at it very individually. Is there scientific literature on quitting? Have there been studies on how to really think about this, or is this just one at a time?
Julia Keller: There are scientific studies, not so much in terms of. From the psychology part, of course. What I focus on in the book is the brain science part of quitting. That we know that just how intricate and nuanced the activity of the brain is when it makes another, uh, choice, when the brain makes what are called stay or go decisions. And at the very threshold of neuroscience now is looking at how the brain does that. How does the brain decide to do that? How does the brain look at what’s happening if you’re making that decision? For instance, mine was about grad school. I’m sure you’ve had decisions about jobs and relationships, as we all have had. How do we do that? What happens inside our brains? Which specific brain cells are involved, which neurons actually fire, and what chemical and electrical triggers go back and forth in order to enable us to do that? And as you know, I detail in the book the experiments that are being done now. And we could see it happening in laboratories in places like University of Washington, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Vanderbilt University, has a brain science lab that are investigating these. And you might ask, why. Why are we spending all this money doing this? When someone’s deciding what to do one thing or another? Turns out addiction studies have been very much helped by these brain science studies about when we decide to quit, and not because you have both sides of it. You have a person, perhaps, with an addiction to drugs or alcohol. And in that case, we want the addictive behavior to stop. We want the person to quit. But on the other hand, you have, perhaps, a person who’s studying, who is suffering from manic depression, who needs to be more motivated, who needs to go the opposite direction. So there’s a very utilitarian value to these studies about, again, these stay or go decisions to whether to quit or stay the course.
Jonathan DeYoe: So this is maybe the wrong kind of question to ask, but I want to ask this. Did you write this book for individuals, or did you write this book for, like, cultural change? Are you saying, be less hard on yourself, or are you saying, hey, don’t be so hard on people?
Julia Keller: Well, both, of course. Yeah. Uh, no, I think I was sort of uncomfortable with the idea of self help, because, as you know, I really don’t like self help books. I have chapters in there when I talk about, I think they’re really ridiculous. Now, there are some good ones, of course, but because in the main, they imply that it’s always up to the individual. And if you will just follow these careful steps in my book or anybody else’s, then you’ll get to this place where you want to be. And that completely ignores just the effect of randomness and chance and just plain old bad luck that just happens to us, and also the extraneous things that are constantly working upon us. We are in various environments. But I do like the idea of a culture wide shift, which I hope we’re getting to. I think the sort of biographical way of looking at the world, which is how I love to do it, which is listening to people’s stories about their lives, how do they think of their lives, and how do they sort of tell the story of their lives. That I do see some changes where we do recognize that there is a big part of it that’s in our control and that part that we can control, we should control, and we should make these decisions. But to also recognize that there is also another part that is not in our control. I mean, people suffer grievous losses. In my last chapter, I talk about my niece, who was 31, bright, wonderful young woman, graduated from law school, goes and takes her dream job in San Francisco, she and her husband, and she gets a very rare form of cancer, and she passed away in 2019. And I ended the book with that. In fact, the book is dedicated to her because I thought that’s a perfect example of we often have to change our lives in the face of circumstances that occur. That’s nothing that we particularly did. So, yes, we have choices, and we have that autonomy, but there is also this other shading of our life that is the things that just happen to us, and it’s that balance and recognizing which we can change and which we can’t, that creates our life and creates this story that we then tell about our lives. And I just imagine all these little intersecting Venn diagrams of stories, which that’s what I love. I used to love it as a reporter, hearing people’s stories, their stories of their lives. How do they see it as they go along? And it’s the most fascinating thing in the world, is this kind of biographical view of the world, the great Emerson line, which is there is no history, only biography.
Jonathan DeYoe: Yeah. Just hearing you talk and talking about how the trauma comes into things. I lost my brother in 2021, and I’m a poster boy for perseverance. Like grit card carrying member of grinning and bearing it. That’s how I was raised. My dad’s that way. My brother was that way, I was that way. And after he died, I started questioning a lot of this. Head down, work hard, don’t let it ruffle your feathers. Just grind, grind, grind, grind. And it’s been a very interesting two and a half years since, uh, he died, because I’ve learned a lot. And your book is actually very helpful in sort of teasing out some of that meaning about it’s okay to slow down, it’s okay to choose another path, it’s okay. And it’s been very helpful to just understand a lot of the stuff that’s come at me. I’ve been trained since a we lad to just deal with the stuff that come at me and man up about it. Right. That’s kind of what the training is. But you don’t have to do that. And it doesn’t lead to joy, it doesn’t lead to happiness, it doesn’t lead to well being. And so this idea of just letting a few things go, focusing on the stuff that really matters, understanding what those things are, it’s huge. And I really appreciate what you’ve added to the literature on that. You spoke earlier about the two or three big things, a job, relationship that somebody can quit. But there’s also these other things, belief, parties, these sorts of things. Is one harder than the other boy?
Julia Keller: I think so. I think jobs come and go. Even relationships come and go, sadly. I mean, we all know what the divorce rate is, but not just romantic relationships, but friendships as well. We just have to let them go. But when it comes to belief systems, that is just extraordinarily difficult. I think that’s when we are really, really challenged to look at how we view the world. What is my knee jerk reaction to something that happens? And it can happen? I mean, your own experience that you just recounted so eloquently, I think that’s a good example of exactly what I mean. You had to change the way you were being in the world. You had to change your own attitude toward the things that were happening to you, or else you can’t survive. I mean, I think of that with, I mentioned my niece. I mean, her mother, my sister is someone I think of as well. With that, you can either be completely consumed by grief and really just kind of sit in a dark room, metaphorically or literally, or you can say, I have to find some way to deal with this. I have to find some way to think about. Know, one of my favorite authors is Willa Catherine, the great american author. And she has a great line. In one of her novels, she’s talking about a man that suffers a terrible loss. And I love this line. She says his mind could not find a comfortable position to lie in. And we’ve all been there where your mind needs to find some way to deal with, be it a setback or a major grievous loss, such as what you suffered or what my sister suffered. You have to find a way to deal with that. If your current way isn’t working and it’s leaving you in more than just discomfort, if it’s leading you in despair, despondency. You have to find a new way. And that’s one of the hardest things we ever do. As I said, go find a new job. Sure. Find a new place to live. Yeah. Many, many options. But to change your fundamental way of being in the world. I watched my father, who was a very fatalistic kind of person, he was a mathematician. Um, he saw the world in a very linear way and a very kind of logical way. And, in fact, that was always his line. If something would come along that would kind of offend him because it was kind of stupid, he would always say, uh, that’s the height of absurdity. I mean, he really wanted that world to be regular or systematic, and calculus can explain everything. He died quite young, and at the end of his life, he was really trying to do that. I watched him trying to change his attitude because he knew he had not been well served by that. And maybe that’s what was in the back of my mind as well when I was writing this book, because, again, he really was trying to change. And anyone who’s trying to change, to me, gets all the credit in the world, whether or not you ever get there. I mean, that’s another issue. All of our lives are often, uh, in sooner than we would like, and we’re not always in charge of that, of when the end is going to come. But during the time that we’re here, we keep at it. The proverb that I use in the book, which is, no matter how far you’ve gone down the wrong road, turn back. That’s really the prevailing wisdom. I hope that people take from it and from this conversation as well, that it’s the hardest thing in the world, but it’s also the most necessary thing in the world to change that attitude. I mean, yours was forced upon you, the attitude changed by something you never thought you would have to go through. And that was the hardest thing you will ever have to go through. I’m in awe. I used to, as a reporter, I would talk to people who had been through just incredibly difficult circumstances, grievous losses. And I always would go in just when, kind of a wonder and a mystery, and just think to myself, how are they even surviving? How are they taking their next breath? How do they get dressed every morning? And how do they get up and walk across the floor. And how do you even do that when you have suffered this terrible, terrible loss?
Jonathan DeYoe: For sure.
Julia Keller: And often it’s with that change in mindset and belief system.
Jonathan DeYoe: This is a horrible oversimplification, but I hear a lot of, hey, just stop shooting on yourself. Just stop shooting. Stop shooting. I mean, is that a good summary of, like, stop shooting?
Julia Keller: Yes. The first time I heard that phrase a couple of years ago, and it took me a minute, and I said, I think it first. I kind of laughed a little bit because I think it’s just so right. It’s so simple, but it’s also so right, and it’s so true. And we do that to ourselves most of all, probably, and most egregiously, but we also do it to other people. I catch myself being that way too, being so judgmental of other people. I don’t know what it is about being judgmental, but it’s so tempting and so easy, and we’d fall into it so easily. I mean, I’ll even be reading about political figures or public figures in the world who I don’t know, but I’m so judgmental, first thing I do is go right to that. Well, if they had just tried a little harder with that than they would have. It’s so easy to look at other people’s lives and to make those judgments. So what I’m hoping for is a kind of a generosity of spirit toward other people and then toward ourselves. And it’s hard. It’s not easy. I mean, the platitudes come easily about it. We can all say the words, but to actually believe it and to manifest it. And we know when we’re being honest about that and when we’re not, when we sort of smile and utter, uh, an aphorism to somebody, a cheerful aphorism, when really we’re thinking. But it’s the hardest thing in the world to really do it and to really believe it.
Jonathan DeYoe: Yeah, I ask every guest to simplify things for us. And so let’s say you just ran into somebody that was struggling with a major life, quit or not quit decision. Maybe they’re simply worried about the judgment that comes after the decision. Make the wrong one. M there’s the wrong one. What is one thing that he or she should focus on that would help them make a better decision? And then one thing that they might be carrying in that they don’t need to think about. Something that maybe somebody the culture tells us to think about, but just let that go. One thing to do, one thing not.
Julia Keller: To do, one thing I always do. And again, I mentioned that kind of biographical imperative. That’s what I love. I mean, my dissertation was on literary biography, and I love the whole biographical form. How do we, the great obituary writer for the Economist magazine, Anne Rowe, also has written great biographies of Shelley and Pontius Pilate, and she calls it catching lies. How do we catch other lies? And the reason I bring it up with your question is, to me, it’s all about the biography, thinking about how other people have dealt with this. And I mean, even famous people, I mean, even Abraham Lincoln and other people we might admire, Martin Luther King, Jr. Or whoever you admire, how did those people deal with pivotal moments in their lives? Great sports figures, what did they do? How did they handle this? To me, that emulating lives of, I don’t mean great lives of great people don’t have to be saints for their lives to have, uh, portions of which are worthy of emulation. But it’s that notion of other people have been through this, too, and they’ve done it, too. The kind of biographical imperative is what has always helped me in times of really looking at people who have changed what they’ve done. I have some examples of famous people in my book who’ve done things and gone other ways and have used quitting as a positive power instead of a negative one. So that’s the first thing I would say. Read biographies. Read about the lives of people who have made these other decisions and kind of use them as your own kind of touchstones as you go forth. Again, that terrible judgment that we all do of ourselves. I have it right in the beginning of the book, as you know. I have that anecdote about my first foray into grad school when I was very young and I went away from home. I’d never lived away from home. I was at 19 years old, but I had the emotional maturity of about a fourth grader. Um, it was terrible. I shouldn’t had no business living on my own. And the terrible shame I felt, and that is the word, the shame I felt that I couldn’t even last a month. I barely made it three weeks. And just that shame. And I hid at home. I didn’t want anybody to see me. I just was so ashamed that I couldn’t cut it. And when I remember that shame and what a terrible feeling that is, we’ve all had things that have caused us to feel shame, and it’s probably one of the most painful emotions we ever go through. And that was the thing I would say, if you can possibly get past that and to dovetail with reading the biographies, to realize that other people have gone through this, have been through that moment, that’s about the best I can suggest, to just try to leave it aside and set aside the shame, because it is such a terribly poisonous kind of feeling. The shame.
Jonathan DeYoe: I just listened to you talk and reading the book, and I’m really worried that humanities is so much in decline. We’ve focused so much on stem. You’re saying read biographies?
Julia Keller: I don’t.
Jonathan DeYoe: People don’t read at all, much less biographies.
Julia Keller: No, you’re right.
Jonathan DeYoe: How do we support that to continuation of that in the world? I think about. I read philosophy, I read comparative religion, I read psychology constantly. No, uh, one else does that. And they’re always so impressed, like the words I come up with, I’m like, no, just read. It’s not hard.
Julia Keller: You know, it’s funny, I’d not thought of it until just that moment, from your question. But, uh, the kinds of biographies I often enjoy aren’t just of literary figures or political figures, but of people who have been pioneers in what we now know as stem. I mean, the Edisons and the Einsteins. And if we could somehow maybe create this amalgam so you could sort of fool the stem classes into thinking, well, I’ll tell you what, instead of just doing it on electrical engineering, why don’t we have a course here on Steinmetz and how he came up with his ideas and how we had not thought of it until just now, but there might be a way to kind of weave a little of that in kind of be, uh, kind of a backdoor to making biographies important again. I’m going to be teaching a course next semester at Notre Dame on the writing of biography. Writing and reading biographies and profiles. And I’m going to really be curious to see, and I think you’re quite right. People don’t read them as often as they used to. Biographies. They’re not now, when the big ones come out, I mean, Elon Musk biography, of course. And actually, Walter Isaacson has done a lot, I think, to repopularize biography as an everyday form, as something that the regular person is going to go in a bookstore and get, just like they might go get a Colleen Hoover novel or something. And I love that. I love the idea that you can have that biography is this everyday, commonplace form, and not commonplace as in ordinary, but commonplace as in ubiquitous right there in your home. So I like your question very much. I mean, how can we do that? I am certainly sympathetic to the argument that we do need things, we do need education about how things work and how they do. And we know it’s going to be a difficult road ahead as we face challenges and things like AI. How do we keep the humanities important when basically all of our jobs are going to be taken ten years from now? It’s not going to be you talking to me and it’s not going to be me sitting here. It’s going to be two artificial intelligence robots going back and forth. But one way, we can’t do that. We just never know. I mean, technology is always taking us by surprise and it’s never what we think it’s going to be. But I do really think that maybe this idea of weaving the two together might be a way to do that. I mean, some of the great biographies have been of how do people get these ideas? I was just rereading James Gleich’s biography of Isaac Newton and I remember I read it, it’s very short, read it a couple of years ago and I was kind of lukewarm. I’m reading it now and I’m thinking, this is amazing. I’m ready to read it. Know, I know a little bit more about what Newton was able to love. You know, often you’ll hear it said that the Einstein’s universe and the quantum universe completely upended Newton, made M. Newton irrelevant. And his point is, no, not at all. It actually buttressed Newton’s view of the universe. It built onto it. And I thought, what an exhilarating concept that is. And imagine being in a physics class where you’re studying Newton’s laws and then you’re studying what is quantum mechanics, and use the biographies that those would be the textbooks for the class. So you have started me off an entirely new direction here. I think that would be quite plausible. I think you could actually do that.
Jonathan DeYoe: I think it’s almost necessary. We need to get a little bit more humanities into the stem, people. It’s not all about numbers. It can’t be. So just before we wrap, I like to come back around to something more personal again. And so one of the questions I ask a lot of folks is, and this is important, believe in sort of plasticity. What’s the last thing you’ve changed your mind?
Julia Keller: Know, it’s going to sound kind of trivial, but it’s really not. Here in Ohio, Ohio State is the main university and we just played a football game with our chief rival, University of Michigan, whom we all despise here. I’ve always thought of sports as being kind of positive thing. I mean, I love it. I love watching it, I love playing sports. I love everything about it. And for the first time, there was such devastation when watching Ohio state lose this game. And again, this is going to sound trivial, but it really ended up being very profound change for me to think that maybe the kind of passion that’s engendered by close identification with a sports team maybe isn’t all that great, that it should be more eloquent about that. But it really did. I can remember when the game was over and we had lost and team loses all the time. That’s not a big deal. But there’s something about this. I think there’d been such emotion placed on this and I was sitting there and for the first time I’m thinking maybe this isn’t the proper way. Maybe I need to not have. Not just me, but I mean, even the people around me, there was complete silence. There wasn’t any. Usually there’s a little profanity and someone throws something at the tv screen or something when your team loses. This was much profound and I thought, this has gone too far in this direction. We are such a sports obsessed culture and I’ve always maintained that’s a positive because, I don’t know, I came up with all my reasons why I thought, and now I’m thinking maybe I was wrong. So again, that’s not as profound a one as I would like to come up with. But that’s the most recent one because it really has just been on my mind. And I just had coffee with a friend this morning and that’s what we were sitting there talking about, because why the devastation? It’s a game, people.
Jonathan DeYoe: Yeah. Uh, I don’t think that’s trivial at all, actually. I think that’s a deep insight into self, into culture. I think a deep insight. I’ve never sort of really fallen in love with sports in the same way culturally in the US. I’m a soccer fan, so I’m a Premier League fan. But I do have my team and they did just fall off the top of the table. So I do understand how devastating that can be.
Julia Keller: So are you a Man City fan or who are.
Jonathan DeYoe: No, my son’s a Man City fan. I’m a Tottenham fan.
Julia Keller: Oh, okay. All right. Because I have a good. One of my best friends has really been trying me Premier League and I just got back from London and I was buying. How about a Man city t shirt for my friend? Because they’re the really. And that’s it. I think soccer or, uh, football, of course, as I would say. I can see that it’s very different than our football. And I can certainly see the appeal. And I may be getting there myself because the football. So many issues too, with injuries.
Jonathan DeYoe: I think the issue brought up, though, exists probably even more heavily in soccer football than american football. Like the identification with the team and the discipline. It’s huge in Europe. It’s insane, really.
Julia Keller: Okay. Yeah, I didn’t know that.
Jonathan DeYoe: So one last thing, and that’s if you could get the truth about any single question about your life, about the future, what would be the question? I can’t answer it, but what would be the question?
Julia Keller: Would this be? You mean like if I got to ask God or would have to be something that I might eventually find, because I was just saying to a friend the other day, if I ever had an opportunity to ask God any question, this really has always been on my mind. Why is it that people who are decent, honorable people who work hard, uh, will fail, and people who are sort of selfish? And I don’t like the word evil because I think it has. People are not truly evil or not, but not good people. Why then they will prosper. It’s like, why did you construct the world that way? Why shouldn’t it be a little more cause and effect in that way? That’s the thing that has always sort of haunted me from the time I was a kid. It’s like, but they’re not a good person. Why did that person. I want the world to be constructed along simpler lines than what it is. And of course it’s very tangled and very convoluted, and motives are always mixed. There’s no such thing as a pure motive. And it’s just like, why did you make the world that great? I love c. S. Lewis is always saying, when people say, well, there can’t be a God because why would there be evil and bad things in the world? And he would say, well, how do you know what’s good or bad except that there is obviously this prevailing intelligence or otherwise we wouldn’t know. There would be no good or bad. There would be just what it is. There would be just the world and random molecules banging into each other.
Jonathan DeYoe: I’m recalling my mom as a child, as a teenager, even in my twenty s in grad school. My mom would always tell me, Jonathan, life’s not fair. Simple.
Julia Keller: And why not?
Jonathan DeYoe: Life’s not fair. I always wanted to be fair.
Julia Keller: It’s not right.
Jonathan DeYoe: We did go read like, life is not fair. It’s not good.
Julia Keller: Well, you’re right, of course.
Jonathan DeYoe: Julia, thanks so much for coming on. All this stuff’s going to be in the show notes how can people connect with you? Where do they find you?
Julia Keller: Juliakeller. Net is a website. I get a lot of email through that. And I love that. I love hearing from people. Some people write to me and say, boy, you are all wet. This is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. What’s the matter with you? And then other people will be. But I love it. I love getting reactions from people about the book. So that’s why it is nice having a website for that reason. So yes, Juliakeller. Net. And as I said, I love hearing from people.
Jonathan DeYoe: Great. Thank you so much for coming on the show, Julia. I much appreciate it. Our listeners, I’m sure, are going to love this episode.
Julia Keller: Thank you so much. You.