I recently heard a story on National Public Radio (NPR) about Maya Shankar. When Maya was a young girl, she was “a natural” at the violin, and she was on her way to becoming a concert violinist. Seeing her potential, Itzhak Perlman had taken her on as his private student at the Julliard School. She was just 15 years old, but her path in life was clear. However, not long after becoming Perlman’s student, Maya injured her finger while playing a difficult section of Paganini’s Caprice no. 13. She tore a tendon in her hand that never healed properly, and her blossoming musical career came to a crashing and untimely end.
Years later, Maya had reached new heights in an entirely different field, cognitive neuroscience — the science of human behavior. She served in the Obama administration as a senior advisor at the White House, working to create better policy using insights from behavioral science. Her work in government helped students get to college, workers save more for retirement and millions of children get access to school lunch.
“I was really devastated to lose something that I was completely in love with, and so passionate about, and that had really constituted such a large part of my life and my identity,” Maya says. “I was first and foremost a violinist.”
But from her grief and loss, Maya Shankar rose like a phoenix out of the ashes of a dying fire. She lost a great deal with her injury, but gained a great deal afterwards, as well. Maya become a different version of herself, a version 2.0, if you will. She found a passion in behavioral social science.
What Maya Shankar did was study something that interested her, and the more she studied, the more passionate she became about the subject of the mind. The lesson here is obvious. When one path became blocked for her, Maya chose a different path where she flourished.
You can choose a different path, too. So can I. So could your next-door neighbor, and the barista at the Starbucks, and the lawyer who is miserable in her chosen field, and the teacher who lost his appetite for teaching. As Maya has stated, “The world has endless opportunities to positively impact people’s lives.” Following her time in Washington, D.C., Maya now works as Google’s first head of behavioral insights.
The NPR interviewer, Shankar Vedantam, said he wanted to tell Maya’s story because “all of us have chapters in our lives that close, and when they do, especially if it’s a chapter we’ve known and loved for a long time, it can feel like the whole book is over, like there is nothing left to do, maybe even nothing left to live for. But I think each of us have stories in our lives that reflect that the people we are today are not the same people we were a few years ago. We often underestimate our capacity to reinvent ourselves.”
If I make this idea of changing paths sound simplistic, it’s because I don’t think of this is a particularly complex concept. As humans, our superpower has always been adaptability. I would go farther, and suggest that for us as human beings, it is vital to adapt or to die out.
I do not mean to suggest that misery, depression, mental or physical challenges aren’t real nor life shattering. All I am saying is, perhaps we should change our attitude when faced with great challenges or losses — perhaps some things are not the end of the world but rather the beginning of a new journey.