1 Big Idea to Think About

  • The quest to become our best selves requires us to have the courage to think deeply, explore who we really are, and align our actions with our deepest values.

1 Way You Can Apply This

  • Take a step back and begin to notice when you have urges or desires to do something. Instead of immediately doing them, ask yourself why you want to do them. Try pausing before acting and see if the urge passes or if this action is truly aligns with the goals you want to pursue.

1 Question to Ask

  •  Do my actions align with the goals that I really want to pursue and accomplish?

Key Moments From the Show 

  • The origins of LIT: Waking up to what we have within us and what exists outside of us (1:18)
  • Learning how we think (6:36)
  • The ‘matrix moment’ (17:03)
  • Pausing to find focus and living your intention (22:50)
  • Transcendental meditation (30:07)
  • Becoming the ‘noticer’ in your life (35:40)
  • Learning to be yourself (37:46)
  • The continuum of moral development (40:24)

Links and Resources You’ll Love from the Episode

Greg McKeown:

Welcome, everyone. I’m your host, Greg McKeown, and I’m on this journey with you to learn, and in today’s episode, we have a treat. Jeff Karp is here. He’s a renowned Harvard Medical School professor and MIT bioengineer. He is the author of a new book called LIT. It’s more than a book, really, because it helps us to be able to use the power of cross-disciplinary thinking to solve the most challenging problems in our lives and in the world beyond us. This is going to be a terrific conversation. 

Jeff, welcome to the podcast. 


Jeff Karp:

Hey, so good to be here. Thank you. 


Greg McKeown:

Tell us about LIT and the journey that led to it.


Jeff Karp:

Greg, you know the way I really think about LIT is, to me, it’s a movement. It’s, you know this is like the first time I’m saying it this way, by the way, because I feel everything, there’s always an evolution. There’s always an evolution of everything, everything that you know, I’ve, things I’ve known for a long time. I feel there’s always ways to look at things differently. And today, I woke up, and I thought, “You know what LIT is a movement? It’s a movement of resensitizing our aliveness. It’s waking up. It’s waking up to what we have within us and what exists outside of us. It is about intercepting routine patterns so that we can actively think and make decisions versus just jumping in with habitual responses. It’s about figuring out what is the next step in anything to help us to keep that forward momentum.” 

So we’re continually growing and learning and just lighting up our brains, lighting up our whole bodies. And it really came out of an experience. The initiation was an experience I had in the second grade, and happy to go there next, but…


Greg McKeown:

Let’s do it. Tell us about the origin story. 


Jeff Karp:

Okay, the origin story is in the second grade. I was really struggling, and by no means, you know, do I want people to think that I was struggling? I’ve been struggling my whole life, but early on, there was definitely a struggle because I had undiagnosed learning differences and ADHD. I’d sit at the back of the class, frustrated, demoralized, not connecting with anybody, just not socially really interacting with people in any meaningful way. My mom tried flashcards, she tried phonics and the teacher at the end of the year held a conference with my parents and said, “I’d like to hold Jeff back a year to repeat the second grade.” 

And my parents negotiated that if I spent the summer with tutors to catch up, that I could go to the third grade. So all my classmates went on vacation, and here I am in summer school, and I’d go in every day and do all sorts of different things, all sorts of activities, and often there’d be a time when they would read a passage and ask me questions, and on this particular day, I distinctly remember I went in. They read the passage; I answered the questions. I felt like, okay, we’re moving on. But the tutor on this one day paused and looked me in the eye and said, “How did you think about that?” 

No one had ever asked me that question before. There’s a few sort of scenarios. There’s a few things, experiences, I would say, from my youth that really stand out in a very sort of like where I can see the whole picture. I remember the moment. That is one of those moments, and I remember at that moment this kind of light bulb went off, and it was like this portal opened this awareness, this. I was kind of like I almost felt violated in a way when I was asked that question. It kind of felt like I didn’t because I didn’t know how to respond to it. I wasn’t ready for it; I wasn’t prepared. 

And nothing dramatic happened afterward in any particular way. But what happened was this gradual coming into awareness, this all of a sudden noticing the patterns in my mind. It was a shift, a major shift, and it was noticing patterns in other people’s behaviors, and it was almost the beginning of my experimentation in life because I almost Kind of looking back, I felt like I almost didn’t have a software. It was almost like I had. I was figuring out what my hardware was. I knew it was a bit different from the people around me, and it was almost like I needed to program my own software, and I did that by watching other people noticing patterns and then mimicking what I saw around me in a very intentional way, and so I was tuned in to actually that whole process and I’ll give you an example. 

So one of the things that happened was I noticed that anytime I asked a question, I would hyper-focus for a few moments, and whatever the answer was to my question, it would imprint in my mind. I could recall it later, I could connect it to other things that I knew, and I realized very early that questioning was my key to learning, that if I didn’t ask questions if I went into a class and didn’t ask a question, I was not going to learn a thing. I needed to ask questions, and all through grade school, even in high school, I would stay after class, I would go in on weekends, and I would ask lots and lots of questions because it was my way to learn. 

So that’s really how things began. And LIT is a set of 12 holistic tools. You can use them individually or together, and it’s really about bringing a heightened awareness to any moment. And it’s one of these things where the tools did not come out of my laboratory. They came out of my laboratory, my life’s laboratory, and so, yeah, that was really how things began.


Greg McKeown:

This initiating moment, this marvelous question was an absolute game-changer for you. How did you think about that? 

It seems to me that the vast majority of people don’t know that they think really at all. They are so focused on reacting, surviving, and getting along in life, they’re not doing that meta work in the first place.

Lots of people, I think, don’t think that they think in the sense that this question implies. I don’t mean that they don’t think; they have thoughts, but they don’t think that there is a way that they personally think. And so, as a result, enormous disadvantage to them. First of all, personally, because they won’t be able to work on their thinking, they won’t be able to think about their thinking and their way of constructing the world, and therefore they can’t reconstruct it, they can’t change it, they can’t improve it. They’ve just got to deal with the world as they experience it. And secondly, in an interpersonal space, in their relationships, they will go through life thinking. They see the world as it is, thinking that there isn’t this complex internal process going on that is shaping and orienting them in every moment. 

This question seems to me to have the first clear insight for you that you do have a way of thinking, and that was the key that unlocked your mind to you and made your life possible. What am I getting wrong?


Jeff Karp:

No, you got it all right. No, I love the way you’re saying that because and I feel it’s everybody has that, like everybody has the opportunity to tune in to, and I think when you start to tune in, when you start to make that shift, we become less impulsive. We start to realize that we are not our thoughts; we are not the reactions that we feel we must make. We are essentially, you know, when we look at our brains, we have this enormous prefrontal cortex, the front part of our brain. Relative to total brain size, I think it’s the greatest you know of any animal. And what that does is it gives us the ability to think about thinking. It gives us the ability to 


Greg McKeown:

Think conceptually…


Jeff Karp:

Yeah, it’s really, it’s everything.

And if we don’t use it, then we’re challenged in many ways. One is our environment is constantly changing right, and if we look at just the evolutionary process, we see that if creatures don’t change, then they die off. They are incredibly disadvantaged if they are not able to adapt. And so I see our prefrontal cortex, our ability to think about thinking, as one of the key ways that we can adapt to our environments and constantly learn and connect with others and, you know, become more creative and follow our curiosity and feel that sense of wellness because we’re able to connect with other people in meaningful ways and with nature. And you know we can. Regardless of where we’re at in this moment, we can take the steps to think about thinking and deepen everything we can get on that path. So we’re not static. We’re capable of disentangling the web that we all exist within Our culture. Essentially, it atomizes our attention, it cubes our time, and it flattens our imagination. We’re constantly bombarded with algorithms and, stimuli, and knowledge coming at us from all directions. We’re being told what’s important. We have $900 billion a year, which is spent on advertising to hijack our attention, to tell us what’s important, to tell us what to buy, to tell us which experiences we need to have. And yet we have this capability, all of us, to turn within and use our powerful prefrontal cortex to make decisions and figure out what our values really are and to start making steps to really feel.

When you do that, you feel incredibly liberated; you feel it’s just. I can’t describe it; it’s just such an incredible. You see the magic all around you. There, literally, is magic happening everywhere, everywhere. And I think I’ll just say one more thing: the magic all around you, there, literally, is magic happening everywhere, everywhere.

And I think I’ll just say one more thing. Like you know, recently, I feel my path the word synchronicity. You know when, when something happens and it’s such a coincidence, it’s almost like it happened for a reason. You know, like there was something there. I feel the more you start to think about synchronicities for me, the more I see them everywhere. 

I’ll give you an example. I’ll give you an example of this. I was at this conference on the West Coast just two days ago. It was called Bioneers. It was an incredible conference. People who are really into saving the planet, really, and respecting nature. I mean, you know, I’m kind of summarizing it pretty quickly. Somebody beforehand said to me, “Okay, I want you to meet this one person.”

I said, “Okay.”  You know we’re going to meet, and I walk into the room and sit down. There’s like a thousand people in the room, a thousand people. And you know, the session ends, I get up, and the person beside me goes, “Are you Jeff?” 

It was the person I was supposed to meet was sitting right beside me. I mean these things you start to become, I feel, when you start to think about thinking. When you start to really start to see the world in its expansive ways and all the nuances that exist around us, the magic really starts to appear, the ability to become like. Everybody has the potential to ask better questions, to lead with curiosity, to become more creative, to deepen connections with other people, and to feel a sense of wellness when we go out into nature. Sometimes I go out, I don’t feel that, I don’t feel the embrace, and it just tells me how far I am attuned from the rhythms of life. It shows me how much I’m subjected in this digital world and that I need to actually take the steps to open up. And when I’ve been working on it, I’ve been doing that work, and I can tell you it is so liberating, and I think it’s the reason why so many projects in my laboratory as well have led to technologies that are in clinical trials and a number of technologies like on the market helping, helping patients. It’s like it just unlocks. There’s so many things that this can unlock.


Greg McKeown:

Well, that’s the perfect word, isn’t it? That was the unlock for you going all the way back to that origin story. I could liken it to the Matrix moment where, all of a sudden, you become aware of there being a matrix within your own mind. You said earlier on that it was like discovering; you realized you didn’t have software and needed to create it. But in that moment, you discover, well, actually, there is software, but I didn’t write it. Many, many other people wrote a lot of it reactive coding. It’s not like somebody literally sat down and wrote okay, here is all the code that needs to be given to Jeff. And certainly, whatever coding was written, it has not been combined together to optimize your life experience and the relationships you’ll need to meet, and so on. You just have a set of random codes in your head.

These are the thoughts, and what you’re really saying, I think, is that the moment you can see that there is a space between your thoughts and your actions, as soon as you can discover that splitting well, that splitting of the mind or the splitting of the soul, one could think about it that way that you suddenly go, “Oh, I am not the thoughts, I’m the person looking at the thoughts, I’m the coder. Okay, so then, what would I code? How would I design my thoughts and my ways of understanding in the world?” 

It’s like that little, suddenly. At the beginning, it was a tiny thought. You said it was almost violating because suddenly somebody’s showing you that there’s not two, there’s not one, there’s two. Inside of you, there’s all the thoughts and all of the pre-programming, and then there’s the programmer, there’s you, and piece by piece, layer by layer, you started to be able to code yourself and to be able to make more intentional choices. And so, it seems to me that the space between thoughts and action has expanded. And you know, here you are, an MIT bioengineer, but actually, you’re sort of almost evangelical about it because you’re going look at what I’ve seen, look at what I’ve experienced, it has changed everything. And you can’t even. It’s like I listened to you, and it’s like hard for you to find all the words to try to capture it all, to go. It’s a completely different world, once you’re the coder, and you’re not just living out of the matrix of the thoughts that you already got, that you already absorbed from other people. What did I miss? 


Jeff Karp:

No, you didn’t miss anything. I mean everything you’re saying. I’m like taking notes here when you’re talking because the thing is, you know, I’ll give you an example, right, and I’ve gone through. I mean, I’m happy to talk about everything, right? I mean I, I’ve gone through these, these phases where, like, you know, one point, I applied to medical school. I got rejected from all the schools I applied to, and, yes, it felt like I was getting punched in the face.

Yes, it was really tough in the moment, but I’ve been through similar situations so many times in my life. I know I can tune into this window of opportunity that opens when the emotions settle to a certain point after two or three nights of good night’s sleep. Could be one, could be two or three, you know, somewhere in that range. I’ve noticed this window opens, and it’s like, wait a moment, almost like my best thinking has always happened after a spectacular failure or disaster. It’s, you know, when I’m able to put dots together I wasn’t able to before when I sort of have the intuition to, like, we actually need to bring someone else into this who thinks differently than us, and it just re-energizes, like it just re. And so when I got rejected from medical school, and I was like, “Wait a moment.” I was like, “Should I apply again? Maybe I should apply.” 

And then I was like, “Wait, I just said, think about this. I just need to, like, I just need to give myself some time to process this.” 


Greg McKeown:

Some space. 


Jeff Karp:

Just some space. And then what happened was I’m in this coffee shop, 24-hour coffee shop, at you know, I was doing my undergrad at McGill and um, and I like to work late. It was just. You know I love that. You know, I was really into getting my, you know, this mochaccino drink at, like, you know, one or two in the morning. It was just like a regular thing. But preparing for exams, but I heard some people talking about tissue engineering and bioengineering and drug delivery, and I was like, “Wow, I’ve heard of these things, but why are they talking about it?” 

And I went up to them and said, “What are you studying for?” 

They said, “Well, there’s these upper-level courses. They’re graduate courses, but you can take them in your final year.” 

So I went to the course director, and I said, “Next year’s my final year. Can I take these? Like I’ve just been rejected from medical school, like can you give me a break? Like I’d like to be able to get into these courses.” 

And he said, “No, you need three physiology prerequisites.” 

And I was like, “Come on, it’s my last year.” No, he wouldn’t. He said no. So I thought about it, and I was like, you know what? I really fricking want to take these courses. Like I felt it. Like I was like, I have to take these courses. So I called my parents and said, “I needed to extend my undergrad by a year.” 

All my friends graduated. I stayed behind and took three physiology prerequisites so I could take these courses, and it changed my life. It was like, that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing today, you know, and it’s like there’s so many things like that in life.

And one other thing I’ll say is, and I can, you know, I have all sorts of stories, like, you know, I became a workaholic at one point. I became like a total workaholic because I always felt sort of up against time like I could never get things done in the right. You know, I was always pressured. The teachers would put blinders on my desk and put like a stopwatch, and I’d get totally stressed out. It would slow me down, and you know, with the ADHD and the learning differences and and and you know, and in some ways, like I sort of think about the labels as being helpful sometimes. Sometimes, they’re not that helpful, but what was helpful to me was sort of tuning into. I needed to become more efficient with my time. If I’m going to survive this world and school and do what I really want to do, I have to become more efficient. So, my whole sort of like first part of my life was just watching other people’s patterns and becoming more efficient.

I became a workaholic, and I think it was sort of like, and it sprouted out of that because I started getting more efficient and, like the dopamine, I could just get it all day long, all night long. I could just be off of it on my work. I felt amazing. I was just getting all this stuff done, and I became more and more and more and more efficient. I could just do so many things, and when COVID hit, I had this moment where my life crashed down in my living room. Like it literally, my life came to a crashing halt, and I looked up, and I was like, “Oh my God, what have I done?”

My kids are now teenagers. I would be going to birthday parties and networking with other parents like at the birthday parties, I’d be looking for collaborations at my children’s birthday parties. At soccer games, I’d be trying to get in my 10-12,000 steps, walking around the soccer field over and over and over again, not talking to anybody. It was a perfect opportunity to sort of connect with people and with my family, and I would be doing that, and my wife and I would like two passing ships in the night. We were in a relationship, and I thought, “You know what this is not aligned with what I want, like this is a complete disconnect. Like, what is going on here?” 

And so what I did was I have this process, I go through, I say, “Okay, notice your inner desire for possibility.” And I was like, I really like there’s something here that I need to change, like I definitely I felt it like very viscerally in that moment. And then the second step is taking stock of what’s working, what’s holding me back, and I was like, “Well, you know, I’ve become so efficient. I’ve done really like I’m really like doing amazing things in the lab. Things are advancing, but my relationships are really holding me back, and that’s my priority. You know that is my priority. And you know, holding me back, and that’s my priority, you know that is my priority.”

And you know, I kind of went through this like a little bit of shaming myself, but I kind of was able to just sort of put that aside for a moment and sort of thinking I was like so I moved to the third stage, which is notice other ways of thinking, other possibilities. I was like I was, I was like I have to break through here, and I was thinking, I just let it be. And I was pausing space, and I was all of a sudden, I was like, “Oh my God, it’s right in front of me. It’s right in front of me.” 

My wife had been exploring spiritual questions; she had been experimenting with various forms of spirituality, and I said, “Jessica, can you please introduce me to your teachers, to the people that you’re working with?” 

And so that was the fourth step in this process, which is taking a deliberate step forward. She connected me. I started working with them. I was a little skeptical at first, but I was just like, I got to be open-minded, I just try to, you know. And all of a sudden, I was able to shift into this observer mode. I was able to, you know, practice. I got into, um, yeah, I practiced, like tried, various forms of meditation. None of them really had worked for me before, but I found this one called transcendental meditation, where there’s one word you say it over and over, and I started practicing it, and I was like, “Oh my God.” I could see the thoughts come into my mind. I could see myself being like, “Okay, I got to get out of meditation, I got to go respond to this. I got to go do that.” 

And I was like, “No, no, no, let’s just see what happens.” 

And then the thought would leave my mind, the emotion would leave as well, and so it was almost like the meditation helped me see the thought come in, the emotion to act rise, the stimulus to do something right away, like, “Oh, my God, got to take care of this,” and then be like. “okay, no, no, no, just get back to the word.” And then the thought leaves, and the emotion subsides, and I was like, “Wow, that was really incredible.”

So what happened was I started bringing that to other parts of my life, and so what I did was I wanted to improve my relationships. That’s why I was doing all of these things, and what I realized is when I start having, when I’m having in conversation with my family, let’s say with my children, just as an example, I would notice they’d be talking, and I would have the impulse to interject, to say something, and I was like just pause, just pause, because what you’re going to say is going to pass. And I started to notice when I said it. When I said it, in that moment, I took the focus off them and put it on me, and they stopped talking, and I thought, no, that my intention is for them to keep talking.

It’s rare for teenagers to talk to their parents, and my focus is to support them so they can build confidence and express themselves. And so when I have something to say, I really think deeply: Should I really say this, should I wait to say it, or should I just not say it at all? And most of the time, I just don’t say it anymore because my intention is for them to express themselves and to speak and for me to support them, and so that’s something that has come out of this process is a tool I turn to all the time, and again it comes right back to what you said before about the…when you start thinking about thinking you now, you realize that you’re in the driver’s seat, you realize that you don’t have to say everything that’s on your mind, that you are like who you are, is not the thought. That sort of pings you to say something. What’s behind that making at the switches, saying are you going to say that or not say that, and what’s the impact? And to me, that’s what living intentionally is about.


Greg McKeown:

You talked about this transformational experience you had with transcendental meditation. People listening to this. How can they select that word? Because each person needs to discover their own word. With transcendental meditation. How would you guide them to be able to select that word so that they’re not just coming back to the breath, as we would in traditional meditation, but coming back to a word that you’ve chosen so that you can expand even further the space between thought and action?


Jeff Karp:

Well, I don’t even think it. To me, meditation, you know, there’s like formal ways of meditating, you know, the different types of meditation and then different specific processes, and you know, people can find what works for them. But in my experience, you don’t have to necessarily even practice formal meditation to get there. I’ll give you an example. I was in the car yesterday, going to pick up my son to take him for lunch. He’s 18 years old, and my wife and I have this ritual where we pick him up at lunch, and we just drive him down the street so he can get lunch, and we drive him back. It’s just a little bonding moment, even though he doesn’t speak all the time when he’s in the car. Most of the time, he doesn’t.

But I was on my own; I was driving there, and I felt the urge to put on a podcast or put on Spotify. I felt that urge because I had it off, and I was like, I kind of was like reaching for it, and I was like, okay, you know what, I’m just going to see. I really feel it, like I want this, like I want to turn it on right. For some reason, my mind, it was almost like maybe my mind was going to places I didn’t want it to go, or whatever it was; I was like, “No, no, no, I’m not going to listen.” 

Like 10 seconds later, again ping, you know, put on a podcast, and I was like, “No, I’m not going to do it.” And then it happened again, not going to do it, and then it didn’t come back. It didn’t come back, and so it was like this sort of like, you know, three, four times I get pinged, but then I don’t need it anymore, and to me, that’s it’s the same thing as meditation. It’s sort of like bringing yourself back to sort of just recognizing the impulse to do something and just bringing yourself saying, okay, I’m not going to let myself do it; let’s just see where this goes. You know, like just a little experiment. “Okay, if I don’t do it, what happens?

And then, once that, once you and I’ve done this with so many different things, but once you do it once, it becomes easier to do it a second time, and then it becomes easier to do it a third time, and then you start realizing you can do it in so many situations in your life. In conversations with people, you can hold yourself back from saying things and eating as well, like reaching for whatever like that, the thing you don’t really want to eat, you can pause and you whatever like that, the thing you don’t really want to eat, you can pause. And you know, like there’s so many ways that we can intercept, and to me, it all comes back to intercepting these patterns and sort of being the observer to see the pattern. 

So, I think meditation can be the access point to see that. But I think, like these ways of just if we can just sort of say we get up one day and we say I’m just going to notice the impulse to speak, right. I want to in conversations with people, I want to notice my impulse to say something, and I want to see what happens if I don’t say it in that moment, what happens? And you know, that to me, that’s like practicing meditation. You know, like it’s, it’s, it’s the same thing.


Greg McKeown:

So there was something that you said, unless I misunderstood you, about the idea of having a single word that you repeat to yourself so that you can become more aware, and that’s what I was really getting at there. So, how did you choose the word? 

Jeff Karp:

Oh, that word, yeah, so that word, the transcendental meditation. What it was is I went to this, so I made an appointment, and you know, I met the teacher, the leader, and then they give you the word. They give it in a little ceremony, there’s like an hour-long kind of little ceremony you do, and then they give you the word, and then they say don’t tell anyone the word. And then, initially, you say it out loud; it’s just a single word. And then you say it out loud, and then eventually you just say it in your mind.

And, by the way, I mean I practiced it for maybe, I don’t know, six weeks or a couple months or something like that, like in the morning, at night, and I didn’t continue. I mean, sometimes I actually do it like if I feel the, the urge again, this intercepting a pattern, if I feel the urge to go to social media and sort of like, you know, I’m working, I got to get something done. I kind of feel this urge. I might do it like for 10 or 15 seconds, just say this word in my mind and then check in and say do I still feel the urge. Most of the time, I don’t feel the urge, and so it’s like it’s just helped me to tune into my impulsiveness. You know my impulsiveness to act, and I don’t know. It’s just to me such a cool, fascinating, liberating thing when you can observe your impulses and not act on them. It’s incredibly empowering.


Greg McKeown:

Yeah, I love this idea of being the noticer. Just one more time, though. When you went to your transcendental meditation process, they gave you a word. Is that the same word that everybody who goes through TM gets? Because my understanding was that people could select their own word and so on, but maybe I’m misunderstanding that.


Jeff Karp:

Yeah, I don’t think I was able to select the word. I think they gave me the word, but I mean, this was back in 2019. Yeah, so I think they just gave me the word.


Greg McKeown:

But nevertheless, there is this word, you’re not to share it. I’m not trying to get you to share what you’re not supposed to share, but that became a practice that further helped you to expand the space between thought and action. And hearing you describe in precise detail, like in thin slices, that experience, I think, is fascinating, fascinating. It reminds me a little bit of Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man in the first movie, where he gets into his first fight after he has these superpowers, and there’s this moment where the person who’s trying to fight him throws a punch at him, and those that know the movie will know the moment, and he’s able to step away, but everything else is happening in slow motion, and he’s able to look back and forth at the person punching him, and he’s like, “Oh, this is so interesting, this is weird.”

And he just has loads of space with which to respond. Now, there’s the superhero version. But really, it doesn’t sound so different from what you’re describing and become the noticer of your life. And to notice, to look at those thoughts, to notice them, “Oh, my goodness, look at that. You have an impulse to speak right now. What happens if you don’t speak? You have an impulse to check social media.” And to be able to see those impulses and, therefore, to be able to increase your sense of agency in your life is so profound because everything’s choices, everything’s decisions, and you can’t make conscious choices if you’re not aware of all of your unconscious choices, if you’re living by default, by the software somebody else programmed in your head, and so on, you just become like Pavlov’s dogs. Stimulus-response. You’re saying my goodness, you are experimenting with that space to tremendous benefit.


Jeff Karp:

Yeah, and I think it also connects to we hear a lot, you know, people say, “Be yourself, just be yourself,” right? And for a long time, I was like, “I need a process; I need a process to figure things out.” 

And so when someone, you know, when you hear like, okay, be yourself, I think to myself, “Okay, I don’t know what that means, right? So what’s the process to be yourself yourself?” 

And you know, I realized for me, by being able to think about thinking, that the process that worked for me is noticing other people’s patterns and then mimicking those patterns and then feeling, is that me or not me? I mean, that’s kind of how I’ve gone through my life, right? It’s sort of like watching, for example, in mentorship, like I realized, you know when I did my PhD, I did a postdoctoral training, and then I started my lab, and when I started my laboratory, I started thinking, “Okay, what’s my strategy for mentoring people? What’s my strategy for presentations? You know, giving scientific presentations, for writing papers, for everything. What’s my strategy?” 

And I found myself repeating what I had seen, what I had experienced in these settings, that I had, you know, submersed myself, and I started to realize that by some of those things just didn’t feel right, you know. And so, I needed to experiment with other ways of mentoring and other ways of doing everything to feel what felt right. And that was just an example of my process for figuring out be yourself, right? Be yourself because it was finding what really feels like me. I need to feel. I need to try on different things. I need to feel what is like me. I need to feel. I need to try on different things. I need to feel what’s me. I need to feel what’s not me to figure out what is me. And so you know this idea of thinking, about thinking, about being able to see that I’m not. And so that’s the thing.

I just have this sense like early on, I was like, be yourself, and I’m like, so am I, my impulses? Like, is that being yourself? Like I should just be impulsive, I should just do. You know what I mean. But once you start to realize that you don’t, that you can observe the impulses and that you don’t have to act on the impulses, you start to realize that it’s almost like, “Oh, I’m. What’s behind the impulses I’m more about? Well, I’m at the switches. That’s me. Be yourself; I’m at the switches. And what are my values, what are the things that are most meaningful to me, that I can use the switches that I have available to act towards in a very deliberate and intentional way?”


Greg McKeown:

There are several philosophers and scientists who have come at the subject of moral development in an interesting way that they think about moral development as a continuum In the early phases. Some use five phases, some three stages, and so on, but the idea is pretty consistent across them. In the early stage, is pretty consistent across them. In the early stage, we are very rules-based. We get our security from doing things the right way, whatever that means. It’s actually quite egocentric. This is all about us, and it’s all about us either doing it or appearing to do it the right way. And in phase two, let’s say it’s about fitting in. How do I operate in such a way that people feel comfortable with me, and I feel comfortable with them, and so on? 

And it’s not that these are wrong. These phases it’s a natural development and growth of our moral agency. And in the higher levels, one of the terms that’s interesting for this is self-authorship, and that that’s perhaps in some ways like the highest level of our moral development, where we are not rebelling. That’s still level one. We look at the rules, and we go well, I’m not doing those rules, I’ll do the opposite of those rules. I mean, it’s still so.

All of this is relevant to the phrase that you offered about well, be yourself. Well, there’s a really immature way of trying to apply that phrase. Those words do not mean the same thing, depending on one’s moral maturity. At first, it could be a very egocentric thing, it could be a very impulsive thing, and then, even if you moved into the social area, be yourself means okay, well, be the version of me that works with the people I want to hang out with and what they’re doing.

This is the phase that, in a sense, all teenagers go through, which is that you will do what your friends do. Whoever your friends are, you will do what they do to some extent, and so that’s why this selection of those friends matters so much. But what you’re talking about is, I think, this higher level of moral maturity because, even though you didn’t use the term self-authorship, I think that’s what you’re saying, that that noticer that lives in that space, that’s the real us, that ability to choose is who we are. You’re saying, well, be who you are. I have to choose for myself; I have to learn who I really am by my intentional choices, and in the act of choosing deliberately, I will go, “Is this who I am? Oh, yes, that felt like me. No, that felt like I’m still living out of somebody else’s story or somebody else’s expectations or what they’re doing, or some impulse within me that doesn’t really feel like the real me.” And so I just thought that was a relevant analysis to this process that you have been through in trying to apply this sometimes lip service, advice or be yourself this sometimes lip service, advice or be yourself.


Jeff Karp:

Well, I think that you know. Just to add to that, I would say, you know, there’s another, there’s another thing like be yourself. That, to me, is we need to understand, right, we need to understand, you know, people in the context of, let’s say, like trauma, like we’ve all had trauma in our life in various ways, a lot of it, in our childhood, for example, and we say something like we need to understand it to move past it. And to me, you know, I’ve thought deeply about that, and to me, it almost seems like, well, what’s understanding? What does understanding really mean? Right, because I just see there’s different ways of understanding. There’s not, like, you know, when you start to really sort of step back and look at things, you realize that you can understand things differently, and they may actually not really align.

Like there could be a political issue, for example. Maybe it’s abortion or, you know, whatever the topic is, and you might be able to see points on both sides that are very conflicting, and you might be able to. You know, like it’s easy to get polarized right On one side or the other and feel very like, you know, but sometimes you’re able to kind of step back a little further and start to be like, “Okay, well, why does this person care so much about it?” 

And you start to kind of learn and ask, “Why does this person care so much about this side?” 

And you start to learn, you start to realize that there’s this deep care, there’s this deep. You know there’s something below this, and, coming back to like understanding, I’ve realized it’s almost like it’s like a frame. It’s like a frame of reference. I’ve started to think it like that like we just need a frame of reference in the moment to make sense of something. 

But, like you know, if we look at science, for example, a lot of things that are scientifically supported are, you know, in the future are shown to be completely untrue, like the opposite, like it’s like, oh, the universe is contracting. Everyone’s like, “Yes, the universe is contracting. Look at all the data; it all shows the universe is contracting.” And then some scientists are like, “Wait a moment, like wait, look at this.” And actually, no, it’s expanding. And then they get the Nobel Prize. It’s no, it’s not contracting, it’s expanding, right? And so I mean there’s so many things. 


Greg McKeown:

A serious scientific paradigm shift takes place. 


Jeff Karp:

There’s serious things like that that take place, and to me, that’s a big part of all of this that we’re talking about as well, and I think you know you kind of alluded to it. Like, you know, in these different sort of levels or different, you know, it’s almost like be yourself, it can change over time, and it’s like, I don’t know, I like to just look at nature as the ultimate sort of teacher and educator and to me it’s like I sit in this, let’s say, room and I look at the walls, and I see the wall, and I’m like you know, I made this sort of like connection a few weeks ago, and I was like wait a moment, the walls in this room are not changing, Like they’re not changing, they’re not, nothing has changed. But if I go outside and I take a picture of a plant, and then I go back tomorrow and I take, like, let’s say, grass, the leaves of the, you know, or leaves on a tree or whatever it is, I go take a picture tomorrow Like it’s facing a different direction like it’s moved, like everything is constantly moving. You know, and I think you know, to me, I’m trying to try to bring this all back, if I can. I’m not sure I will be able to, but, by the way, maybe you’re seeing some of the ADHD right now just kind of jumping around the place, but to me, it’s all sort of connected in this sense of like things are always evolving, always adapting, and so if our sort of way of seeing the world is so linear and so cubed, and so you know just one perspective and that’s all we can see, we start getting. I think we start experiencing friction and a sense, our sense of well-being starts to go away because we’re we are lacking being in touch with everything that’s evolving around us. You know, everything is constantly changing and, and that’s why we need to keep changing as well, that’s why we need to and be yourself; like to me, it’s a lifelong process to figure out who we are because we’re changing too. It’s not like just figure out who you are, and you’re done. It’s like every experience we have, every thought, our brains are being rewired, we’re changing, and so it’s like we’re constantly bouncing back and forth between our conscious mind, our subconscious, and we’re trying to, you know, get some alignment there, and that alignment is, you know, it’s like a lifelong process.