Amy Cuddy on Authentic Learning and Why You Can’t Choreograph Success

It's tempting to rush success, but Amy Cuddy, professor at Harvard Business School, explains why setting your goals too big can backfire, and vouches for the value of incremental change and authentic learning over the desire to simply 'win'.

Amy Cuddy: People make the mistake of making these big goals, these big sort of New Year’s resolutions. And we also know that they often backfire. That, you know, by January 15 a lot of people have given up on their New Year’s resolutions. Why is it that we keep making them and keep failing? Because they’re so big, they’re so distant and they require a million little steps in between. And each of those steps is an opportunity to fail.

And they’re very much outcome focused. It’s not ab out how I’m going to feel, you know, tomorrow. It’s I’m going to lose this much weight. I’m going to get this kind of job. I’m going to become a better public speaker. It’s things like that. I’m going to run a marathon. I think a lot of research is showing us that we do much better when we focus on incremental change, on little bits of improvement. We’re not focused on the outcome. So we’re not focused on the grade or did you get the job or not. And you’re not focused on the, you know, big New Year’s resolution. You’re just focused on the process in this next moment that’s coming up. And that allows you to grow a little bit over time to not think of each of these steps as an opportunity to fail. And eventually, you know, in aggregate you get there. You may not even realize it until one day you turn around and say wow, this thing is much easier for me now than it was a year ago. I think Carol Dweck’s work on growth versus fixed mindsets, to me that’s the most important work around this idea of self-nudging. Carol Dweck’s idea is that when you have kids focus on school tasks not as opportunities to win or fail but as, you know, challenges that will allow them to stretch and grow, that’s a growth mindset. They do much better. You build children who are resilient and strong and actually enjoy school and end up doing well. You build children who thrive.

When kids are focused on each grade as a failure or a win, so they’re very outcome focused you’re not building resilient kids because people are going to fail, you know. So if they are set back by every one of those failures they don’t become resilient. What I’m talking about is really the same kind of thing, you know. You change your body language, you go into that next big challenge and you feel a little bit calmer, a little bit safer. And most importantly you leave not feeling that sense of regret, not feeling like I didn’t show them who I am. You leave feeling like I showed them who I am and I can accept whatever the outcome is. And that is beautiful. I would say when I look at the thousands of emails that I’ve gotten over the years since the TED talk. People tell me about some big challenge, you know, job interview, a test they took, confronting someone who they were having trouble with, standing up for themselves at work. And they don’t talk about whether or not they won. What they talk about is how the feel when they left.

And I don’t even know that they know they’re doing that. But what they’re telling me is I just felt so much better. I felt like myself. I felt that I could be brave. I left feeling good. And sometimes they even forget to tell me what the outcome was which I think is like – I think it’s beautiful because I would much rather have a world full of people, you know, feeling that they’re being themselves and able to accept an outcome even if it’s negative than a world full of people who are trying to win all the time. The way to kind of a healthy and happy life is not to be focused on winning. It’s to be focused on having real meaningful authentic interactions and knowing that you did what you could and that you can’t control everything the other person does or what they think of you. The key is that instead of managing the impression that we’re making on others, we really need to manage the impression that we’re making on ourselves, right. So we need to feel good about ourselves. We need to feel strong. We need to believe in ourselves. And that then leads us to make a much better impression on other people. But if we’re trying to choreograph an orchestrate it, you know, move your hand this way when you say this word. Nobody likes that. It comes across as inauthentic and you leave feeling like a phony.

Motivation works in some complex ways. There are reward systems, giving a person something they really want after completing a task. There’s reinforcement, punishing bad behavior and buttressing good behavior. These are ways to manufacture motivation, but sometimes it’s just not there.


When a task seems impossible, there’s little way to encourage motivation. Going from a D student to an A in a few weeks can really be impossible, so why bother studying when there’s no way it can happen? Losing 15 pounds by summer? Yeah right. Breaking a bad habit you’ve had for years seems near impossible, when it’s a part of who you are, so why bother trying?

This is why Amy Cuddy, social psychologist and associate professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, suggests keeping goals smaller in order to complete them, and to avoid being outcome focused. This is why people’s New Year resolutions fail, because many people look at a whole year, the whole 52 weeks instead of one week at a time. She recommends letting go of a fixed mindset, instead focusing on the process of improvement (and perhaps even enjoying it – gasp!) rather than the end goal. You will get to where you want to be without even realizing.

Since Amy Cuddy’s TEDTalk Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are, she has received many letters, mostly about how yes, people whose motivation in themselves increased as they started to stand up stronger. Many of them have just one thing in common, they were focused on their inner selves, how they felt, how motivated and proud they were, rather than if they actually succeeded. A lot of the time, in these letters, they even forgot to mention to her whether they got the raise or the job or resolved the argument with their friend. It always seems to turn out better, or at least on a happier note, when people seem more focused on how they feel rather than if they won or not.

Amy Cuddy's book is Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges.

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Meet Dr. Jennifer Doudna: she's leading the biotech revolution

She helped create CRISPR, a gene-editing technology that is changing the way we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

Courtesy of Jennifer Doudna
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

Last year, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier became the first all-woman team to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work developing CRISPR-Cas9, the gene-editing technology. The technology was invented in 2012 — and nine years later, it's truly revolutionizing how we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

CRISPR allows scientists to alter DNA by using proteins that are naturally found in bacteria. They use these proteins, called Cas9, to naturally fend off viruses, destroying the virus' DNA and cutting it out of their genes. CRISPR allows scientists to co-opt this function, redirecting the proteins toward disease-causing mutations in our DNA.

So far, gene-editing technology is showing promise in treating sickle cell disease and genetic blindness — and it could eventually be used to treat all sorts of genetic diseases, from cancer to Huntington's Disease.

The biotech revolution is just getting started — and CRISPR is leading the charge. We talked with Doudna about what we can expect from genetic engineering in the future.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Freethink: You've said that your journey to becoming a scientist had humble beginnings — in your teenage bedroom when you discovered The Double Helix by Jim Watson. Back then, there weren't a lot of women scientists — what was your breakthrough moment in realizing you could pursue this as a career?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a moment that I often think back to from high school in Hilo, Hawaii, when I first heard the word "biochemistry." A researcher from the UH Cancer Center on Oahu came and gave a talk on her work studying cancer cells.

I didn't understand much of her talk, but it still made a huge impact on me. You didn't see professional women scientists in popular culture at the time, and it really opened my eyes to new possibilities. She was very impressive.

I remember thinking right then that I wanted to do what she does, and that's what set me off on the journey that became my career in science.

Freethink: The term "CRISPR" is everywhere in the media these days but it's a really complicated tool to describe. What is the one thing that you wish people understood about CRISPR that they usually get wrong?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: People should know that CRISPR technology has revolutionized scientific research and will make a positive difference to their lives.

Researchers are gaining incredible new understanding of the nature of disease, evolution, and are developing CRISPR-based strategies to tackle our greatest health, food, and sustainability challenges.

Freethink: You previously wrote in Wired that this year, 2021, is going to be a big year for CRISPR. What exciting new developments should we be on the lookout for?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were multiple teams around the world, including my lab and colleagues at the Innovative Genomics Institute, working on developing CRISPR-based diagnostics.

Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time. — DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

When the pandemic hit, we pivoted our work to focus these tools on SARS-CoV-2. The benefit of these new diagnostics is that they're fast, cheap, can be done anywhere without the need for a lab, and they can be quickly modified to detect different pathogens. I'm excited about the future of diagnostics, and not just for pandemics.

We'll also be seeing more CRISPR applications in agriculture to help combat hunger, reduce the need for toxic pesticides and fertilizers, fight plant diseases and help crops adapt to a changing climate.

Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time.

Freethink: Curing genetic diseases isn't a pipedream anymore, but there are still some hurdles to cross before we're able to say for certain that we can do this. What are those hurdles and how close do you think we are to crossing them?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There are people today, like Victoria Gray, who have been successfully treated for sickle cell disease. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are absolutely still many hurdles. We don't currently have ways to deliver genome-editing enzymes to all types of tissues, but delivery is a hot area of research for this very reason.

We also need to continue improving on the first wave of CRISPR therapies, as well as making them more affordable and accessible.

Freethink: Another big challenge is making this technology widely available to everyone and not just the really wealthy. You've previously said that this challenge starts with the scientists.

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: A sickle cell disease cure that is 100 percent effective but can't be accessed by most of the people in need is not really a full cure.

This is one of the insights that led me to found the Innovative Genomics Institute back in 2014. It's not enough to develop a therapy, prove that it works, and move on. You have to develop a therapy that actually meets the real-world need.

Too often, scientists don't fully incorporate issues of equity and accessibility into their research, and the incentives of the pharmaceutical industry tend to run in the opposite direction. If the world needs affordable therapy, you have to work toward that goal from the beginning.

Freethink: You've expressed some concern about the ethics of using CRISPR. Do you think there is a meaningful difference between enhancing human abilities — for example, using gene therapy to become stronger or more intelligent — versus correcting deficiencies, like Type 1 diabetes or Huntington's?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't.

There's always a gray area when it comes to complex ethical issues like this, and our thinking on this is undoubtedly going to evolve over time.

What we need is to find an appropriate balance between preventing misuse and promoting beneficial innovation.

Freethink: What if it turns out that being physically stronger helps you live a longer life — if that's the case, are there some ways of improving health that we should simply rule out?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The concept of improving the "healthspan" of individuals is an area of considerable interest. Eliminating neurodegenerative disease will not only massively reduce suffering around the world, but it will also meaningfully increase the healthy years for millions of individuals.

There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't. — DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

There will also be knock-on effects, such as increased economic output, but also increased impact on the planet.

When you think about increasing lifespans just so certain people can live longer, then not only do those knock-on effects become more central, you also have to ask who is benefiting and who isn't? Is it possible to develop this technology so the benefits are shared equitably? Is it environmentally sustainable to go down this road?

Freethink: Where do you see it going from here?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The bio revolution will allow us to create breakthroughs in treating not just a few but whole classes of previously unaddressed genetic diseases.

We're also likely to see genome editing play a role not just in climate adaptation, but in climate change solutions as well. There will be challenges along the way both expected and unexpected, but also great leaps in progress and benefits that will move society forward. It's an exciting time to be a scientist.

Freethink: If you had to guess, what is the first disease you think we are most likely to cure, in the real world, with CRISPR?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Because of the progress that has already been made, sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia are likely to be the first diseases with a CRISPR cure, but we're closely following the developments of other CRISPR clinical trials for types of cancer, a form of congenital blindness, chronic infection, and some rare genetic disorders.

The pace of clinical trials is picking up, and the list will be longer next year.

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