The Brain Goes into “Repair Mode” When People Think We’re Not Competent

What if we rethought the drive to succeed, to be competent, as a basic need for our brains? Dr. Michael Gervais speaks with psychologist and science writer Scott Barry Kaufman on what drives creative—and possibly intellectual—leaps.

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Dr. Michael Gervais has a podcast series called Finding Mastery built around a central goal: unpacking and decoding how the greatest performers in the world use their minds to create amazing journeys while they pursue the boundaries of human potential.

He recently sat down with Scott Barry Kaufman, cognitive psychologist, popular science writer, and scientific director of the Imagination Institute. Scott is also an author—In 2013, he published Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, which reviewed the latest science of intelligence and also detailed his experiences as a child growing up with a learning disability.

Scott is primarily interested in using solid psychological science to help people in all walks of life to live a more creative fulfilling and meaningful life. In this episode, Michael and Scott discuss the drivers of creativity and personal growth—and how some of the most driven individuals find key moments of inspiration in desperation. 

Michael Gervais: Welcome back or welcome to the Finding Mastery podcast. The idea behind these conversations is to learn from people who are on the path of mastery, to better understand what they’re searching for their unique psychological framework, which is how they see the world, how they see their craft, how they see themselves in the world. And we also want to dig to understand the mental skills that they’ve used to build and refine their craft. This conversation is with Scott Barry Kaufman. Scott is primarily interested in using solid psychological science to help people in all walks of life to live a more creative, fulfilling, and meaningful life. Sounds phenomenal to me. He’s earned his research chops: he received his PhD in cognitive psychology from Yale, and he received a Master’s in philosophy in experimental psychology from Cambridge. He’s the scientific director of the Imagination Institute and conducts research in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Scott is also an author—In 2013, he published Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, which reviewed the latest science of intelligence and also detailed his experiences as a child growing up with a learning disability. In the book, he outlined his Theory of Personal Intelligence, which goes beyond traditional metrics of intelligence (e.g., IQ, standardized tests), and takes into account each person’s unique abilities, passions, personal goals, and developmental trajectory.

Scott also has hosts the The Psychology Podcast—where he and I have had fun conversations about performance in high-stakes environments—ranging from performance in off-terrain back-country conditions to the vulnerability and intimacy in meaningful relationships.

And I just want to take a quick moment—I love what this conversation represents because Scott is on it, he’s smart, he’s switched on, he’s curious and I want to thank everyone for listening and  sharing and it keeps coming back to me in my own mind just how much good that we’re creating across the world based on these very simple conversations about working to understand and explore the potential that lies within us all. So I want to thank you for that and I hope that you’re finding value in the Minutes on Mastery podcast as well and if you’re new to that check it out on iTunes. And we take insights and pearls of wisdom from folks like Scott and condense it down to three minutes so it’s like Quick Hits, quick little reminders or maybe even intentions for the day so that’s been a fun little experience as well.

With that, let’s jump right into this conversation with Scott Barry Kaufman. There’s so much that you and I can focus on—I would love to stick in the land of creativity, but are there other concepts that you want to explore?

Scott Barry Kaufman: I think maybe well-being could be interesting.

Michael: Give us a sense of your background—you’ve got a rich understanding in the field of psychology, your evidence base, you enjoy science, you’ve got a crisp point of view about the facts or the things that you know. But before we get into that, take us back to what it was like when you were younger: brothers, sisters, none?

Scott: I was the only child. I had a very overprotective Jewish mother. I don’t know what level of granularity you want here.

Michael: I want to get context for how you come to understand psychology so well.

Scott: When I was growing up in education, for the first three years of my life I was almost deaf. I had a lot of fluid in my ears and it was very hard for me to hear things [in] real time. And so I developed a learning disability, actually, an auditory learning disability called central auditory processing disorder.

And yeah I mean the kids thought I was dumb, the teachers thought I was really dumb. I thought I was dumb.

Michael: What is that disorder?

Scott: It’s called central auditory processing disorder. I couldn’t process auditory input in real time, so I would hear something and then I would have to play it back in my head to understand what the person said so it looked like I was slow.

Michael: And how old were you when this was going on?

Scott: The first ten years of my life or so I’d say because it’s kind of like when someone’s blind and you give them an operation… sometimes it’s possible to get an operation so they can see again, they don’t see right away: you have to know what you’re seeing. So I went years, first three years, where I could be barely hear anything with the fluid and then after I got this ear operation, it’s not like I immediately understood how to process input.

I was kept in special education until the ninth grade and I wasn’t college-bound at all.

So it took a couple years—I repeated third grade, actually. I was labeled a slow learner and was bullied a lot so the bullying was a different aspect to this. That was a big part of my early childhood until ninth grade there was a special educator; I was kept in special education until the ninth grade and I wasn’t college-bound at all.

And this special ED teacher believed in me. She took me aside—she actually was covering for the regular teacher, and she took me aside and said,  “Why are you here? You seem bright to me.” and I was like “What! No one I know has ever said that.” And she totally inspired me to see what I was capable of. Man, this big spark… I was so inspired to see what I could do. I quit special ED overnight and signed up for every class advanced—whatever class I could take. I was curious what I was capable of achieving and actually in Angela Duckworth book on—

Michael: OK, so wait a minute because we’re going to get to Angela in a second. But you grew up feeling dumb thinking you were dumb and having your community thinking that you’re dumb?

Scott: Oh yeah.

Michael: Okay and those are the formative years?

Scott: Oh absolutely, my sense of self-concept and self-esteem was like nothing. No competency, no sense of efficacy—I had no identity. Before ninth grade, when I think of myself before ninth grade, I think of special ED kid. But I mean…

Michael: Ninth grade?

Scott: Yeah I was kept in special ED until high school. So, first grade until high school, ninth grade.

Michael: You mentioned vision surgery and I know that there are some surgeries but I’ve never heard of one for actual ear canal issues and even brain surgery that can help people hear better. But you didn’t have that, it sounds like you had an overnight switch where somebody said something to you and you said hold on.

Scott: Well, you know it’s funny when I was researching this book—I wrote a book called Ungifted which told a lot of the story—and when I was researching that book I went back to my high school and asked for all the reports and everything I wanted to know what was going on? Did I outgrow this disability and they never told my parents? What I read is that in a fifth grade report a school psychologist said he shows zero wording disability, his central auditory processing disorder doesn’t seem to be an issue whatsoever. But we think that he should stay in special ED because he has high anxiety. When I read that I was like—am I allowed to curse on this show?

Michael: Dude, you’re allowed to be yourself everywhere.

Scott: When I read that, I was like ”motherf*cker!” Why do you think I had anxiety? You created the monster!

Michael: Anytime I walk into a social setting, I’m getting judged and people are thinking that I’m slow or stupid or whatever, but you could actually think clearly but it took you half a beat to track what somebody was saying?

Scott: Yeah up until fifth grade it looks like up—around fourth or fifth grade I actually fully recovered and was normal…

Michael: Except other than the anxiety?

Scott: Except for low self-esteem and anxiety, which I felt because I was being bullied because I was asked to repeat third grade and all the kids who went on to fourth grade were like: “Why is Scotty still in third grade?” and I was like yeah, it’s a good question.

Michael: So when you were hanging out with your friends, did they notice that you were processing in real time. Did they notice the switch?

Scott: From fourth grade on, I would say there was really no noticeable difference in fact I felt like I was definitely capable of much more intellectual challenges but I just felt like who was I to question anyone really.

Around fourth or fifth grade I had fully recovered. I just felt like who was I to question anyone really.

Michael: Oh my God, because you were beat up, literally beat up.

Scott: Yeah. I actually became—I acted out in my own ways. One, I became the class clown a lot, so I started to be popular in middle school. I was kind of popular as a cheeky—I mean I still am a lot of ways—but just this really cheeky, like, I would try to make everyone in the class laugh and then I guess that was my way of just dealing with it. Computer hacking was another thing I did to act out in my own sort of introverted way.

Michael: And I know you know that that there’s five—I think off the top my head—about five personality styles that emerge from dysfunctional homes. The Joker is one of them—this is the kid of alcoholics or addicted parents, something along those lines. Let me see if I can remember these: class clown, the angel, the trouble maker. Those are three that I remember off the top and I think there’s a couple more.

So you took the class clown approach, which was that you would use that social skill of deflecting from the real issue?

Scott: For sure yeah, and as well as to regain some sense of power or control—what’s called locus of control in psychology. Hacking was really good; I created this beeper that you could put up to the phone and you could have free phone calls.

Michael: So you had a device that you could—

Scott: A black box I think was what it was called. A black box—it was illegal…no one’s going to arrest me now for it, I hope not.

Michael: OK, Scott, as you’re describing this to me would it be okay if I told you my experience?

Scott: Yeah, love to hear it.

I want to hug you and say, “Oh my God, this is crazy!”

Michael: So as you describe this to me I’ve got this overwhelming appreciation for you because to think about how far you’ve come and what you’ve done and the vulnerability and openness to be able to talk about this from a place that was at one time unbelievably painful. I want to hug you and say, “Oh my God, this is crazy!”

Scott: Thank you.

Michael: So do you know that you have that impact on others?

Scott: I do know I have that impact on children, which is why I wrote this book. I gave a talk at Riverdale High School for the upper school students yesterday morning in New York in the Bronx. This girl came up to me after, she was in upper school, she came in afterwards holding Ungifted and she said, “This is my Bible,” she said, “I’m working on a project for kids with disabilities and this book is my Bible.” And I lost it. I wanted to tell her, Just so you know, that’s why I’m alive. In terms of purpose and meaning and all, you saying that to me, knowing that that is true is, that’s why I even bother to get a of bed. It was just so touching. I took a picture of it, it was just really touching.

Michael: And then you also had the courage to let go. Does that mean crying?

Scott: Yeah so I didn’t cry. I mean I it was just such a sentimental moment. What do mean by let go?

Michael: You said, “I lost it,” and the image that I had when you said that was, “I lost it,” meaning: “I let go,” “I started shaking,” “I trembled,” “I cried.”

Scott: Well, I just felt tears welling up, so basically…yeah.

Michael: OK. So you know this is not going to be new to you but the theme keeps coming up: desperation and inspiration. You write that the toggling of those two concepts for world class performers and people that are really making a dent either globally or in their industry is that there is some sort of darker something—there’s some sort of complicated younger experience that does happen for many and I don’t know if you know that but that’s a theme that keeps coming up for me.

Scott: I think that it’s so interesting and I was starting to bring up Angela Duckworth because I think it’s relevant to this inspiration-desperation thing. So she included the story in her book as an example of a paragon of grit because I try to fight the way out. But when I talk to her about this at dinner at her house, we’re talking about the story and stuff, we identify that we both—me and her—have this thing where if someone tells us we can’t do something, it actually motivates us more to disprove them.

She has the story in her book were her freshman year at Harvard she was not doing well in this chemistry class I believe it was and then they were [telling her] you might want to drop this class. So she went immediately to the registrar and changed her major to chemistry. And I felt like by them me I was learning disabled, I like immediately signed up for honors classes. So I’m trying to think how this might relate—there’s this thing where I was inspired because I was desperate to show people that I was capable.

 I was inspired because I was desperate to show people that I was capable.

Michael: So I imagine the desperation—I did some work in heavyweight boxing and then more rugged sports as well, I would ask coaches: Do you want an athlete to come in—let’s just use boxing for example. That is fighting for from for inspiration or from desperation flat out a hundred percent of them zero deviance from the sport or deviation from this idea, which is, desperation. Because if they’re not, it’s too hard. And so if we map that thought onto world-leading performers it’s too freaking hard. Now I’d love to think that we came from inspiration but I’m not sure that… I haven’t found it yet and I love how you just stitched together from desperation, from pain, then if it doesn’t mutate in some form to inspiration then I think it stays dark and it stays really, really even more difficult for people because they never… for a long time for you I bet it was (dark).

So, okay, now let’s go back to the story that you’re just sharing with Angela—“OK, you can’t do something, well I’m going to go sign up.” Like an F you, like a chip on your shoulder. And I love this theme of a chip. Is that external motivation or internal, because I get confused here. I get really confused here because I’m talking like a colleague and a friend. I understand internal/external motivation and so do you. Is that internal or external?

When we have these basic needs—the need for competence would be one—that are so grossly unmet, our system naturally goes into repair mode.

Scott: It’s such a great question the boundary between those things there are some fascinating cases where it does seem to break down. It was clearly internal in the sense that it was this huge need unmet within me. When we have these basic needs—the need for competence would be one—that are so grossly unmet, our system naturally goes into repair mode (that’s why it’s a need). One way it goes into that mode is to motivate us to do certain actions. That’s why I’m really not a big believer in the idea of pure evil. Are there people that are just basically good and people who are basically bad? I mean I do believe there is goodness possible in everyone and there’s bad possible in everyone; a lot of it does have to come to how much those are how extremely are these needs thwarted.

So there’s clearly an internal component there from a basic need perspective but then I think there’s also an external motivation aspect there to the sense to which what my, my drive was, was to have these external metrics of success. For instance right now in my life I don’t feel like I have that drive as much anymore and maybe it’s healthy for me that I and not so driven anymore to get a Yale PhD, or to get a Cambridge… if I’m being quite vulnerable with you right now—I mean why stop now, it’s twenty minutes of the most extreme, most vulnerable interview I’ve ever had in my life including psychotherapy sessions. But anyway…

Michael: This is not meant to be therapy, brother, this is meant to be learning for me.

[brief pause for cheery banter at 19:15]

Scott: I did feel like I went through my twenties full of that the motivation, the drive to prove to people that I was smart by collecting obviously smart things. If you get a Yale PhD people immediately are like, “Oh, you’re obviously smart.” I would like obviously smart things like oh if I went to University of Cambridge and I got a master’s degree—that it’s other than sounding incredibly pretentious when I say that. People think oh you’re… they may hate you, but they at think you’re smart. But it gets empty though it and I realized that. I hit my thirties I reached a point where I felt like: how much more do I need to prove it?

Michael: So early twenties was low self-esteem.

Scott:  Yeah. Oh Yeah.

Michael: Like literately. Did the world beat you up more than you beat yourself up?

Scott: Definitely, definitely both. I was not very kind to myself either.

Michael: We’re going to unpack all that, because the way through that—you have a really unique perspective because you understand the theories that were at play and you also understand how you did it. And when they match it’s great, but sometimes they don’t match. Oftentimes they don’t exactly match.

Okay, so early on was like small and then it was like I’m going to show you on big and then it’s like wait a minute I’m okay exactly who I am. And then that’s your thirties and forties probably right?

Scott: Yeah, it’s funny… do you feel like in your own life that every decade, there’s a theme to it? So far I feel like I could go through every decade of my life and say what the theme was and I feel like the theme of my thirties was trying to find the real self. My twenties was a false self that I was developing because I felt a need to prove something, but I thought my thirties, it’s still a journey for me but I’m still trying to find that … cut through all the authenticity, maybe authenticity is my thirties. It will be interesting to see, hopefully God lets me live to my forties and I get to see what that theme is, it will be interesting.

Listen to the full podcast to hear Scott and Michael discuss:

  • Growing up with autoimmune disease that affected his hearing and made people think he was dumb (first 10 years of life) and having his self-esteem suffer greatly
  • Comparing and contrasting desperation vs. inspiration
  • Is having a chip on your shoulder external or internal motivation?
  • How one teacher completely changed his life
  • Obsessive vs. harmonious passions
  • Why there is a fear that comes along with becoming successful
  • and more…
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