Imagine if you could truly step into the unique gifts and talents that are yours alone. Those abilities waiting patiently inside you, longing to serve and make a difference in the world.
As a teenager, what dreams filled your imagination? What desires tugged at your heart, urging you forward? Perhaps you tucked those visions away as you grew up, convinced they were impossible or impractical.
My guest today, Mesmin Destin has been helping young people discover and develop this inner potential through his groundbreaking research. Of Haitian descent, he grew up in Nebraska and across environments that sparked questions about how surroundings shape one’s possibilities and life paths.
As an associate professor at Northwestern University and recipient of the American Psychological Association’s Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career Contribution, Mesmin uses experiments to uncover the factors that can expand – or constrain – a developing person’s sense of identity.
He calls this the concept of “future identity” – the mental models young people form of who they might become and what they might achieve – which then guides their current motivation and behaviors, even at a young age.
In our conversation, Mesmin reveals the pivotal moments, interactions and environments that can help nurture – or stifle – a future identity filled with possibility. As we reflect on our own past, what dreams still lie dormant within us, waiting to be unleashed into the world?
Mesmin’s story serves as a reminder that our unique gifts and abilities still await us, regardless of how long they’ve been buried or forgotten. It may just take the right circumstances, the right people, to help us reconnect with our inner genius once more.
If you LOVED this episode:
- You’ll also love the conversations we had with Anders Ericsson about excellence and expertise.
Check out our offerings & partners:
- My New Book Sparked
- My New Podcast SPARKED. To submit your “moment & question” for consideration to be on the show go to sparketype.com/submit.
- Visit Our Sponsor Page For Great Resources & Discount Codes
Mesmin Destin (00:00:00) – Taking the time to actually invest in somebody, to show somebody that you see them as valuable, that you have an understanding or an interest in who they really are and that you are invested in the idea of them reaching what matters to them like that is incredibly powerful. To see that somebody has taken a simple moment out of their life to care about you as a person and to see who you are and who you could be as a person. Especially today, that feels very rare. And the piece that I think is important to not lose in that is that people want to feel a they want to be seen for the power and the ability that they have. So connecting and conveying what you see in somebody in a way that they are seen as someone who can then take the steps necessary or is able to achieve what they want to feel, what they want to connect in ways that they need to is invaluable.
Jonathan Fields (00:01:02) – So imagine if you could truly step into the unique gifts and talents that are yours alone. Those abilities waiting patiently inside you, longing to serve and make a real difference in the world, and a lot of the seeds of our ability to do just that.
Jonathan Fields (00:01:16) – They’re planted early in life. I mean, as a teenager, what dreams filled your imagination? What desires tugs at your heart, urging you forward? Perhaps you tucked those visions away as you grew up, convinced they were impossible or impractical, or maybe something happened or someone showed up or some group of people showed up that in some way made a profound difference in your willingness to lead with those and then step into a life that becomes filled with abundance and success. So my guest today, Mesmer and Destin, has been helping young people discover and develop this inner potential through his groundbreaking research. He originally grew up in Nebraska and across a wide variety of environments. That sparked questions in him about how your surroundings shape your sense of possibility and your life path. As an associate professor at Northwestern University and a recipient of the APA’s Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career Contribution, Mesmer used experiments to really uncover the factors that can expand or constrain a developing person’s sense of identity and what they’re capable of in the world. And he calls this concept future identity.
Jonathan Fields (00:02:28) – The mental models, young people form of who they might become and what they might achieve, which then guides their motivation and behaviors even at a young age and effectively controls their outcomes. In our conversation, Mesmer reveals the pivotal moments, interactions and environments that can help nurture or stifle a future identity filled with possibility. And as we reflect on our own past, what dreams still lie dormant within us waiting to be unleashed in the world? And how might our sense of identity inform that just because we’re later in life does not mean that we cannot make shifts in all of the things that can make a meaningful difference? Mesmer story serves as a really powerful reminder that our unique gifts and abilities still await us, regardless of how long they have been buried or forgotten. It may just take the right circumstances or the right people, or maybe both to help us reconnect with our sense of inner genius and possibility once again. And that is exactly where we’re going in this conversation. So excited to share it with you. I’m Jonathan Fields and this is Good Life Project.
Jonathan Fields (00:03:46) – Excited to really just dive in first exposed to your work. I’m sure like so many outside of your immediate area, through your TEDx talk, which really was incredibly powerful and opened my eyes to the role of messages in the sense of focus on messaging and future identity. But you know, more broadly, it seems like in the lab a lot of what you investigate is really social environments status and how that shapes people’s not just current identities, but future identities and their sense of what they might strive for and what they might seek to accomplish. And the emphasis, it seems, also is really strongly on how does the world around them, how does where they came from, how did the messages that they got, especially in the younger years, influence all of these things and stay with them for you, this research seems personal also. So tell me a bit more about what led you to wanting to dive into this research.
Mesmin Destin (00:04:43) – Yeah, sure. You know, I think it’s one of those things you can go you can go all the way back to try to tell the story of how you became interested in studying anything kind of as a social researcher.
Mesmin Destin (00:04:54) – My family is originally from Haiti. My parents generation, I was born in New York City, grew up in Omaha, Nebraska. And I think all of these different environments led me to have some questions just about what the different social makeup, economic makeup of the people around you and the situations that you’re in, how all of that shapes your outlook on life and just what you see as possible. Essentially, and especially, I think, having family origin in the Caribbean and having spent Summers visiting and seeing the place where the range of inequality was just so visible in the US, it’s often kind of masked through our segregation in the system. I think I had experiences just seeing people really in such dramatically different experiences economically, even within the same racial group led me to really want to unpack how that divergent level of resources shapes what a kid in particular sees for who they are and what’s possible for their life. You know, I don’t think that I necessarily took that experience explicitly and decided this is what I want to do, this is what I want to investigate for my life.
Mesmin Destin (00:06:08) – But it was sort of in the background as these burning questions growing up and looking at the people around me, thinking about my own goals. The general questions I had were about what it means to navigate this complex world and how we can understand the different things that happen in people’s lives, even though we have so many factors at play. And I wanted to find a field where you could artificially exert some sense of control to try to understand what really makes a difference, which is what led me to an interest in lab studies and experiments and field experiments especially. And so in just some of the initial work, just talking to kids and figuring out how they thought about their lives and how they thought about what they were imagining for the future led to some of the initial studies. And I just kind of kept following those questions.
Jonathan Fields (00:06:57) – So when you were a kid, were there moments when you look back where beyond sort of a general broad, just curiosity about all these different things you just shared, were there sort of touchstone moments for you where there was a pivotal interaction, a pivotal conversation, a pivotal experience where you felt like it either opened or closed a door for you?
Mesmin Destin (00:07:17) – There are certain things that stick out to me when I sort of reconstruct the story of my upbringing.
Mesmin Destin (00:07:23) – One of them is my mom. I was raised primarily, almost exclusively by my mom. My parents divorced when I was really young, and she always, from kindergarten on, I remember, would drop me off in the morning before care because she was, you know, going to work early in the morning and she would always stop and say something like, Don’t ever change. You can do everything everybody else can do. You know, it was just one of those types of things. And I was I was really big in school early on. Like I enjoyed it. I was doing well and she just was constantly encouraging in this type of way that I just felt like I knew what I was there for. I knew I was sort of capable of. And, you know, in retrospect, I’m sure there was a sense of vigilance to make sure that there weren’t going to be messages I was getting that people might assume I wasn’t capable or assume I wasn’t able to do certain things in school. And she was sort of fighting against.
Mesmin Destin (00:08:18) – And so there were I think there were certainly some of those negative messages to that, little things that I remember. But I was fortunate, I think, to have this sort of overwhelming positivity from my immediate and my more extended family.
Jonathan Fields (00:08:28) – Yeah, I mean, it’s amazing also that this is this is a long time ago now, yet it’s still I mean, you’re smiling when you’re telling me this, almost like you’re back there in the moment, having your mom shared this with you. Yeah.
Mesmin Destin (00:08:38) – Yeah. It’s very vivid.
Jonathan Fields (00:08:41) – I think it imprints us in ways that those small moments are touchstones. Just that we probably don’t even think about. But so many of them stay with us for so long. So when you end up going and basically saying, I want to study this, I want to really find out what’s happening here. You focus in on something eventually that you label as future identity, which I think is a really interesting concept and sort of grounds. It feels like it grounds a lot of your work and a lot of the research that you’ve been doing.
Jonathan Fields (00:09:08) – So take me into what that is what you mean by it and how it tends to show up.
Mesmin Destin (00:09:12) – Yeah, this idea of future identity, as we call it, comes out of a broader theory that informs a lot of my work called identity based motivation theory. Daphna Wasserman, a former advisor, really put together this theory. And the idea is that, as we’ve been talking about more informally, that the environments that we’re in, the situations that we encounter, they’re all constantly constructing our sense of who we are. And we have a tendency to feel like we are this stable unit that just moves through the world as one thing and interacts with it. But the theory really highlights the ways that we’re constantly redeveloping a sense of who we are. And it’s from moment to moment what it means to be who you are. It shifts based on what is needed from you and what is afforded to you in that moment. And all that you know is related to various different parts of your identity. And the piece that you just mentioned is the future piece in particular.
Mesmin Destin (00:10:12) – And with my interest in resources, life outcomes, trajectories, this future identity piece seemed always to be quite poignant. And the idea that even if we’re not necessarily explicitly thinking about it all the time, we’ve got some underlying assumptions or notions of where we’re headed in life and who we might become or who we might not become. And especially most of our work. We don’t go much younger than, I would say around middle school age when this part of your cognitive architecture is starting to really develop that you can think meaningfully about yourself in the future. But it’s just quite interesting that when we do work with kids at that age, they may not have been asked in such serious terms. You know how they’re thinking about what life might look like down the line beyond just what do you want to do later in life or something like that. But there are ideas that students have and there are real barriers they’re thinking about or real opportunities they’re thinking about that are determining whether that includes something like college or whether that includes moving to a different place or who could be a part of their life in the future.
Mesmin Destin (00:11:21) – And whatever that looks like at some level we find is really guiding your everyday behaviors. At the same time, if you are thinking about something that’s linked to school or a particular pathway in education, every time you run into a difficult school task that feels more meaningful and there’s a sense of purpose connected to these everyday idiosyncratic challenges or opportunities that you encounter in a school day.
Jonathan Fields (00:11:49) – Yeah, I mean, what you’re describing almost sounds like once you have a sense of what that future self might be like, how you might be in the world and what might be possible for you, or maybe in your mind, not possible for you. It’s almost like your brain is running this subconscious script you probably don’t even realize it’s running. That influences every action that you take, every decision that you make, or the interactions that you might have in ways that align with what you believe may or may not be possible maybe ten, 20, 30 years from now. But that script is actually influencing what you’re doing even as a young kid.
Mesmin Destin (00:12:27) – Absolutely. And I like the way you described that. And it points out just how important it is to highlight the scripts that people have that are if we don’t talk about them explicitly, they can be guided by stereotypes or by messages that you’re getting out there in the world about what’s possible or what’s not possible, or just what you see around you from people in your environment, which could be positive or it could be constraining. And even though those can be so powerful, they can be offset by some explicit recognition, some explicit guidance, some explicit space to explore, unearth this underlying sense of who you are and who you’re likely to become.
Jonathan Fields (00:13:10) – Yeah, I mean, it’s so powerful to make this just feel very real to our folks listening. And so in your TEDx talk, you introduce basically a character named Reggie and walk through, I guess it’s 3 or 4 pivotal moments in his life and how the messages that he receives around him really influenced not just who he is in the moment, but who he might eventually become.
Jonathan Fields (00:13:32) – Are you open to sort of like dropping into some of those moments in that character? Because I think it would just sort of make it a little bit more real in the conversation.
Mesmin Destin (00:13:39) – Yeah, sure. Of course. You know, like I mentioned, we start a lot of our work at the middle school age. When some of these ideas about who you might be in the future are becoming more meaningful, concrete, developing and really sensitive to what’s happening in your life at that time. So with this character that I talked about at that point, what we find to be really important is your sense that a long term goal, especially connected to school, is is something that could be financially within reach, especially for someone coming from a community or from a an environment where it doesn’t seem like you have the financial resources to do everything that you want to do constrains in some kind of way. So the idea at that point in this this person’s life is that hearing from somebody explicitly that even though you’re only in, say, seventh grade, that there are these resources out there, there’s money for something to like going to college called Financial aid, It’s available to essentially anybody who qualifies, especially if you need it, to be able to pay to go where you get it.
Mesmin Destin (00:14:48) – And that kind of simple idea with something backing to it, we find in our studies makes a significant, meaningful difference in a number of things. In the moment we find it’s connected to feeling a greater sense of motivation in school, feeling like actually doing this little school assignments here and there, they matter and more likely to spend time on them. And I’m more likely to actually, if I’m asked what I see myself doing later in life, I’m significantly more likely to imagine something that is connected to college in this this particular character, this idea of like architecture or something he’s interested in. And he’s more likely to hold on to this idea of architecture as possible because he knows that he can get to the educational places that are necessary to to pursue that down the line. And that’s that’s kind of the first, first foundation. And then sort of as you move on, there are different types of information, types of messages, types of supports that spark alive or help it to develop or shift in ways that feel open rather than just closed off and some other path that you may not feel as passionate about that seems more within grasp becomes stronger.
Mesmin Destin (00:16:00) – One of those things I’ll mention, I guess that holds the line throughout development. As you get older, especially in high school, you start to recognize that you have different characteristics. You have an economic background, you have a gender, you have a racial group that you belong to, all sorts of of characteristics, the community that you’re a part of. And these become more and more salient depending on where you are. And if people look like you or not around you. And some of those groups are likely to have some negative beliefs attached to them, some constraining beliefs about them, and some certainly more than others. And what we find in our work, however, is that if you are given messages that are stronger and can overcome some of those negative beliefs that, yeah, I may come from a lower income family, but actually that’s been a part of all of these important strengths that are key to me. That’s been a part of my family constantly supporting me. That’s been a part of people around me working really hard and being creative.
Mesmin Destin (00:16:59) – If you can capture that type of narrative about who you are and attach it to these identities that are so central to how you’re seeing in the world, that keeps people feeling like these possibilities are real and they’re connected to specific behaviors we find in our studies over time that actually do keep those doors open.
Jonathan Fields (00:17:18) – Yeah, I mean, so powerful. So I want to try something here. I had the incredible opportunity to sit down about nine years ago, maybe ten years ago, about a decade ago, in the very early days of a Good Life project with a guy named Milton Glaser, who is no longer with us. He actually passed a couple of years ago at the age of 91 on his birthday. And Milton was likely the most iconic designer of the last few generations. He influenced so many people, so many things, so many brands. He was he was actually the guy on the back of a napkin, came up with the iHeart NY logo in the 70s to try and help people reimagine what was in an absolutely crumbling city.
Jonathan Fields (00:17:59) – And I sat down with him back then and he shared a story with me about when he was very young that I thought was really relevant to this conversation. So what I want to do, I want to play just this segment from the videos just a couple of minutes long where he shares this story.
Milton Glaser (00:18:15) – I have to tell you the story, which was very instrumental in that decision. And even though it is sort of part of my official. Range of stories. It was so profound that I. I have to tell it just in order to express how. How 20s can change your life. When I was in junior high school, I had the opportunity to take the entrance examination to either Bronx Science, which is a great New York school or the high school in music and art. This is another great New York school, neither of which are sufficiently appreciated for how they shape the city. I mean, these are both incredibly important institution in terms of New York’s population and. Environment itself. And I had a science teacher who was very encouraging for me to enter into science that was very good in science, and he wanted me to go to Bronx Science.
Milton Glaser (00:19:14) – And I was evasive about that because I didn’t want to tell him that he going to have. But the day of the entrance exam that they occurred on the same day I took the entrance examination to the School of Music and Art. And the next day when I came back to school, he was in the hallway as I was walking down and he said, I want to talk to you. I said, Oh, the jig is up. He’s going to find out. I took the wrong exam. And he said, Come to my office, sit there. And as I was sitting there, he said, I hear you took the exam for music. And I said, Yes. And then he reached over and he reached into his desk and he pulled out a box of French conté crayons. The fancy, expensive box. And they gave it to me and they said, do good work. And I can’t tell that story without crying. Because it was such a profound example of somebody who, an adult, 30 figure, a sophisticated man who was willing to put aside his own desire for something in his own direction for my life and recognize me as a person who had made a decision that he was, instead of just simply acknowledging it, he was encouraging it with this incredibly gracious and generous gift.
Milton Glaser (00:20:49) – And I never forgot that story. You know, I was, I don’t know, 14 or 15 years old, but that kind of the thing about it that always establishes you your life. It’s that moment. It couldn’t have taken more than two minutes. It was totally transformative about my view of life, my view of others, my view of education, my view of acknowledging the other. And it was a very important moment for me.
Jonathan Fields (00:21:17) – I’d love your take on it because I think it’s so relevant to this conversation right now. So talk to me about what you see happening here. Wow.
Mesmin Destin (00:21:25) – Yeah, that’s a great a great example in so many ways. I think on the surface, it immediately to me captures the influence that a person can have or a key moment can have on pursuing an opportunity. And the special role of educators is something that we’ve done a lot of work on lately, that it’s especially today, it feels like teachers and educators want to do so much to really connect and inspire students, but are constrained in how they’re able to with everything else that they need to do.
Mesmin Destin (00:21:58) – And so we’ve shown a lot of ways that little pushes to messages like that from educators can go a long way and they’re really hungry for the opportunity to do that. But the other piece that I was really glad to see pulled out was how important it is to have that kind of authentic, self directed component. That’s what a student feels recognized for or a young person feels recognized for, rather than this imposed upon view of like, go to college, do this, whatever it is, you know, become that, you know, maybe that’s something that feels true for someone and then that it really resonates. But it makes all the more difference when it actually feels like this is being encouraged because somebody sees that it is really linked to a core strength or a core interest or passion that I have. And that’s something that they just want to encourage and support. And the fact that somebody can see that, you know, we see ourselves reflected in others and how they see us just sort of it builds out.
Mesmin Destin (00:22:57) – And so it’s amazing. I think that these things really carry so much weight for people and that they remember them so many years later. And it’s also amazing to me that I’m sure there are other moments, too, I know in my own life as I really try to think those little things to kind of come back here and there, so many different people that made a difference and made me choose to continue one thing or the other that I may not even remember all the time. But, you know, we’re so sensitive to these types of forces.
Jonathan Fields (00:23:25) – It’s interesting because that I had that conversation with Milton nearly a decade ago and that one moment that, you know, the three minutes of him sharing that one story, it was embedded in me from that moment. And I and I have since heard so many variations talking to so many people over the years of these sliding door moments where a single conversation from somebody who you perceive to in some way, shape or form, either be a person of authority or person.
Jonathan Fields (00:23:52) – I mean, Milton describes him as like this very important person. Like in your mind, there’s an import to the person. Like there’s a gravitas to what they’re saying to you, even if it’s in your mind only how powerfully that lands with so many people. And I often wonder, like, what if that one moment, what if that conversation didn’t happen? Like, could that simple gap of a few minutes have literally changed the trajectory of somebody’s life?
Mesmin Destin (00:24:18) – Yeah, it feels it’s definitely seems possible. It also at the same time, I will say I think that there are all sorts of more subtle, even imperceptible ways that environments can reinforce what that key moment did or what it made happen that perpetuate or keep somebody on a track as they continue forward. I don’t think it’s necessarily the case that it’s one shift and then somebody just powers through no matter what without any other influence at play. And I say that because I think it’s important as we think about implications and policy and and resources to make sure that we invest our efforts in shifting environments in more significant ways beyond just giving people that individual thing that we think is going to carry them through despite any unlimited number of unequal circumstances.
Jonathan Fields (00:25:15) – Let’s go there then. What are some of those other things? You know, if it’s not just a particular conversation or one interaction or a person saying something, you know, if it’s not just your mom when you’re a little kid saying you can do anything, what are the things around that that help shape your view of what’s possible or not possible that can really make a meaningful and lasting difference?
Mesmin Destin (00:25:36) – Well, you could think about it in terms of layers of contexts or social forces that are surrounding you in any given moment. It could be the peers that you’re surrounded by. You know, think about individuals who are in your life for a period of time or kind of come back to your life and are constantly telling you something, showing you something, conveying something to you about who you are and what’s possible. So again, that can be peers, but it can be this one message from an educator can make a difference. But keep in mind that you’re likely to have that teacher for a full year or for a longer period of time, and that they’re likely to do all sorts of things during that period of time and make.
Mesmin Destin (00:26:17) – All sorts of decisions. You realize that you become older and become a mentor, that you’re doing all sorts of things to try to support people. They may not even realize that this opportunity was put in front of them because somebody saw that they had the potential to do well in this program or whatever it may be. And so there are lots of invisible forces that kind of carry people. Sometimes it’s people who are in more privileged positions, who have many more of those invisible forces, but sometimes they make even more of a difference for those that have greater barriers to overcome. So coming from educators and then coming from the broader institutions themselves, schools, we do a lot of work with universities, and I think universities have a unique power to think about the climate and the programs that are resourced. What are the offices that are designated to try to make sure that students feel like they have a place to go, to feel seen, to connect with others like them, to feel like this is actually a place that is built for them to pursue their goals or their interests, whatever they may be.
Mesmin Destin (00:27:28) – So I think ultimately most of our studies look at one at a time, right? Parents matter in this way. Peers matter in that way. It’s an experiment focused on the climate or this policy matters in this way. But what in reality, of course, we’re moving through all these things at the same time. And so it’s going to take a lot of work for us to be able to pin down how they interact with one another. When does one force over way another outweigh another and how does it how do these fields shape each other? But I think that’s that’s what ultimately is what happens in a person’s life.
Jonathan Fields (00:27:57) – Yeah. So let’s drop back into our fictional character of Reggie’s journey. He hits high school and this is the kid who aspires to be an architect, and he’s getting sort of like messages that are so far supporting him. And as he starts to evolve and find different social groups and go further into his education, take me into the story as he’s moving through, sort of like the high school window.
Mesmin Destin (00:28:19) – The high school window is one where in this story I think I really focused in on the teacher, the educator message, like we’ve been talking about, and especially, say if he’s in a school where there’s people from all sorts of backgrounds, economically, racially, and maybe he kind of stands out as somebody who you stereotypically wouldn’t expect to be rising to the top in terms of opportunities and achievement. I think having a teacher who goes out of their way to say, I actually recognize the value that comes from the history and from the communities that people from a range of places looks like and says something about the neighborhood or the community or the history or the ethnicity that that is linked to his own personal story in this authentic way, and that it really resonates and counteracts all of these new messages that are constantly coming in that may feel more limiting and we find is that hearing that of the key moment is what keeps him feeling positive about who he is feeling like all of those possibilities are within reach and again, continuing to work towards them in ways that push you to the higher level classes, push you to apply to the next institution that may have the programs that are best for what you want to do, and then kind of making that leap into a new environment where there are new forces at play.
Jonathan Fields (00:29:45) – You use the phrase stereotypically, you sort of like connected to expectations. How much of a role does that play? How much does a role of, you know, the role of stereotyping, where this type of person from this background, from this level of status and therefore, like I should expect, like this level of greatness or a complete lack of this level of possibility or greatness, how does that play into the interaction, those sort of like expectations about what’s possible, both in terms of conscious behavior and unconscious behavior?
Mesmin Destin (00:30:22) – I think it’s sort of the the underlying unspoken assumption of stereotypes. That’s the normative message that people are moving with. It’s, you know, obviously we think of the work of Claude Steele in the field of social psychology on stereotype threat as really revolutionizing our understanding of how these ideas connected to identities are shaping people themselves and their ability to actually perform in ways that are up to what they have been able to demonstrate in the past when a stereotype can take over. So our work is in many ways related to that.
Mesmin Destin (00:31:04) – But on a flip side, in a sense, in that although stereotypes can have these powerful effects, they are not to be taken for granted. And once they are combated with a. Meaningful, authentic message that carries weight for somebody. They can lose their power. And the truer message to somebody about their worth, about their ability, especially when reinforced, is something that can keep them going. Despite the prevalence of all of these heuristics that we use to try to understand other people in the world as better or worse than or more likely or less likely to achieve something.
Jonathan Fields (00:31:49) – Yeah, It also speaks to not just the role of a teacher here, but anybody who like a young person particular I guess, would perceive as somebody worth listening to. You know, you’ve got to have some sort of there’s got to be something inside of you that says this person’s opinion matters in some way, shape or form, you know, So when that person actually says this is possible or this is for you or this is not for you or it’s not possible, that’s really powerful.
Jonathan Fields (00:32:14) – But at the same time, so let’s you know, we’re talking about a kid now, like, let’s say in high school age when you’re that age, you know, and for a long time after that, I feel like the thing that matters a whole lot more than what a teacher might tell you is what your peers are telling you. And again, explicitly or implicitly. And we’re so hardwired for belonging that it’s almost like, you know, it’s not just about what one person says is possible or not possible, but the role of the people that you’re you’re with, that you’re surrounded with your immediate group of friends. That is such an important part of the messaging around possibility or impossibility and what actually future identity allows you to step into. Absolutely.
Mesmin Destin (00:32:58) – I mean, there are two studies that come to mind where we focus specifically on peers because like you said, we know from our lives that peers are making a difference. How can we demonstrate this in a really rigorous and empirical way so we can show without any question what difference this makes for people in their lives? One was focused on middle school, high school students, and here we wanted to just know what difference does it make when a near peer.
Mesmin Destin (00:33:27) – So you were talking about someone that’s like actually within your friend group. Also think back to those like cool kids a little bit older than you. If you’re an eighth grader, like the sophomore in high school, whoever it may be. So we had a program we ran where we had those those sophomores in high school. We picked a random batch of them in a community and connected them to folks in an eighth grade class in a neighboring school that was feeding into that school. And the high school students were just set up to become mentors. We trained them, trained half of them to do this what we called identity based mentoring, to do sort of discussions, activities where you ask people about who they are, talk about their path in life, talk about possibilities, get to know one another and tell them about how what you’ve experienced is connected to what they might in this way that develops relationships and opens possibilities, especially with the grounded knowledge they have about the people and the places where they are growing up.
Mesmin Destin (00:34:25) – Compared to half of those high school students who were in this mentoring group, we just told them to hang out and help with homework. And what we found is, you know, over about a week of doing this, this structured mentoring, where you’re talking about identity or getting to know one another, you’re thinking about the future and barriers and pathways that made a significant difference in increasing a number of positive psychological factors for those eighth grade students they were mentoring compared to if they were just getting homework help, they were more motivated at the end. They were more likely to see more possibilities for their future. Their grades actually indirectly were improved throughout the course of a year as a consequence of this. So it makes a big difference at that age. And then also it makes a big difference even as you’re continuing on into the college level. Have some other work I’ve done with some collaborators where we had students who were just beginning college coming in as freshmen, you’re trying to figure out what’s this university all about? Who am I supposed to be here? What part of my identity do I show? What do I hide? And we had them come in to what was just framed as an opening.
Mesmin Destin (00:35:32) – Get to know the university type of program. And half of those programs were just standard stuff like, Here’s how you do well in your classes, here’s how you get around campus. Important to know. And half of them were this really key messages about what it means to come from a range of backgrounds. At this university. They were talking about who they were and where they were coming from. They were talking about coming from places with lots of money without lots of money, talking about remaining connected to their family members and how all these different parts of their story that you may not want to always share were actually key to succeeding at the university. And so students walked away feeling like, I’m supposed to bring out all these parts of who I am, especially those parts that. May normally be seen as a negative thing to being here, coming from a lower income place, not being or being the first person in my family to go to college. That’s something that other students have as well, and that was part of them bringing their perspective to the classroom and getting that message just implicitly through these students talking about their lives in the panel led to this really meaningful boost in grades throughout the first year, better well being, all sorts of things, especially for first generation college students.
Mesmin Destin (00:36:46) – So again, it’s one of those things where something can make a difference when it’s really hits at the right moment is tailored in this way that resonates. But also it matters that that type of of experience is reinforced through how you then reach out to different resources, how you then connect with faculty who see you in a certain way, how you then find a program that really hits your interests and is geared towards cultivating and embracing who you are.
Jonathan Fields (00:37:13) – Yeah, I mean, that’s so powerful, especially that second study. I would imagine if you’ve got a group of kids who are sharing on that level, maybe the assumption if you’re coming into maybe you’re at a an elite university or a like an institution and you might make an assumption if you come from a lower socioeconomic status, like I’m the extreme outlier here, like everybody else comes from so much other opportunity and privilege and status. And I would imagine that in that setting, when everyone sort of sharing on that level, it probably also starts to make you realize, Oh, wait, I’m actually not the only one here.
Jonathan Fields (00:37:47) – Like it’s I’m not alone in this. And the more that you start to see there, other folks like me or they have different stories that are not the story I was telling you in my head, the more it normalizes the fact that this this place is for me, too. How much of that do you think is responsible for sort of like the the effects over time?
Mesmin Destin (00:38:05) – Yeah, I think it’s part of that. It’s part of that know I’m not alone. Right. There’s a really there are really unique effects of what we call solo status. When you feel like you’re the only one of a certain group in a place that can be really challenging for most people. It’s also, though, I mean, it may be the fact that, you know, you really are vastly underrepresented in a place and that still can be okay as long as this message tells you that you’re still seeing and that that identity, you’re not the only one and it has value and is recognized in these ways. And it’s something that people aren’t asking you to hide, they aren’t going to see you negatively for, and you are bringing something meaningful that is needed to this place that is going to be recognized and connected to succeeding and and shaped what got you here, right? The meaning that you attach to that, in addition to knowing that there are other folks there and you can connect in that sense of community is absolutely essential, but also that you’re connecting in a way that is about embracing what you’re bringing to the table.
Mesmin Destin (00:39:06) – That’s something that on a regular basis so rarely reinforced. And the opposite message is so much what you’re picking up from the commentary in society that it can be a major shift for people. And when we when we run studies where we actually explicitly present them with that idea of that message, that your your identity may have all these positive connections to your story. And we ask them, what’s key to our studies is you don’t just tell them something, you tell them this idea, and then you ask them, Does this feel true to you? How is it connected to your life and how have you seen this based on your experiences? It’s great that we find effects down the line of that reflection, but what’s probably most interesting is what people actually write. Like they everybody writes something different and some people just kind of write on and on. And you can you can see that they haven’t really had a chance in the past to reflect explicitly and imagine and think about this different and more true and more rounded out view of who they are and where they come from.
Jonathan Fields (00:40:10) – I mean, it’s so interesting. It’s not just about the fact that, like, I’m not alone in this, but it’s really just the fact that you showing up as you are, all of you, the whole of you is enough. Like you are here for a reason and bring it all to the conversation and to the experience. You know, at the same time, I wonder, you describe your mom being so supportive when you’re a young kid. I would imagine there’s also the opposite experience, especially when, like if you’re talking about, let’s say, a first generation or the first in the family to attend a college, some families are probably going to be, that’s fantastic. We’re all behind you. We’ll do everything we can to support you. You can do this. You were made for this, all the stuff. And I would imagine you’ve also seen examples of families almost doing the exact opposite, almost trying to pull the kid back and say, This is not for you. Like we’re not the type of people or we’re not the family or like that does this thing or maybe there’s a fear that this is going to fracture the family and it manifests in negative messaging that basically does the opposite.
Jonathan Fields (00:41:13) – I’m wondering if you see that as well.
Mesmin Destin (00:41:15) – To some degree, I think something related to what you’re talking about that we see much more often is that as people are moving through what we describe as economic mobility, essentially, you know, coming from a lower income background, going to college, doing the all of the stuff that you’re told you’re supposed to do and everything’s supposed to go wonderfully. It comes along with a lot of challenges. And these challenges can be very clear and easy to name, but some of them can be really ambiguous and psychological and can start to make you feel unsure about who you even are. We call this status uncertainty or an aspect of identity uncertainty because as you described, your family may feel really supportive of your family back home. But the longer you continue on to pursuing goals that are taking you to new places and new communities that A, you may not feel fully a part of, but you’re excited to pursue, You’re also moving further away from communities that you came from. And when you go back or when you try to stay connected, it feels harder.
Mesmin Destin (00:42:23) – You feel like you have less common ground to some degree in your day to day experience and what your life looks like, what your future may look like, and that sense of disconnect that can start to happen is something that can manifest explicitly in some of the kind of examples you were talking about, or more implicitly, just in this feeling of of uncertainty about where you fall and how to describe where you belong in the world. And I’ll say, you know, we look at this as a psychological phenomenon, but it’s not something that must occur, right? I think one of the reasons why people run into this is because structures like higher education are oftentimes designed around pursuing something individually in a way that is in disregard to other forces or other communities and connection out there. It’s not about holding on to or oh, it’s not always about holding on to the key communities and relationships that you had before you got there. And that doesn’t have to be that way, right? Classes and all sorts of parts of the university experience could be imagined and set up to cultivate and hold on to and bring those connections more into where you’re moving forward.
Mesmin Destin (00:43:35) – If somebody decides that’s how they want to live their life, rather than feeling like to do one, you have to inherently become disconnected from the other. And of course, not everybody wants to stay connected, and there are good reasons why many people are moving away from abusive or unproductive experiences, but that for many people there’s a lot of value that they’re trying to hold on to from those relationships, not just for achievement sake, but also for health and well-being sake as you’re as you’re doing so much and striving in all these ways, it can really start to take a cost to your psychological well-being and your physical health to not have the important relationships and connections that are what sustain us through life of somebody who knows the fullness of who you are.
Jonathan Fields (00:44:21) – So tell me more about that side of it, the psychological and physical toll potentially to health. You move out into the world of work, let’s say you’re you’re out of college, you’re pursuing something. You’ve gotten all these positive messages. You’re striving, you’re working really hard to make a dent in the universe.
Jonathan Fields (00:44:39) – However you describe that, and also overcoming things that are coming your way barriers, obstacles, some internal, some external, some cultural and societal. There’s interesting research that you point to about what the toll of this striving is and how it shifts depending on who you are and where you came from and how your status changes along the way.
Mesmin Destin (00:45:01) – Yeah, this is the part that that can be really, really daunting if any of it before isn’t daunting enough, right? The idea that you do all the right things, you’ve chased this elusive dream that is out of reach for so many people and you’re supposed to just have the good life at this point. When you look back, all of a sudden you realize that you’ve lost so many connections, you’re you’re feeling stressed out and and it starts to manifest in. Actual worse physical health than many people who aren’t reaching this level of achievement and, you know, traditional success. And and what turns out is that studies that actually follow people across the life course, you know, if you just look at slices of the population, there tends to be more positive health connected to more resources in your life and this kind of intuitive type of way.
Mesmin Destin (00:45:54) – But if you follow people throughout the life course and follow individuals who move from having fewer resources to more resources, it doesn’t necessarily translate into those physical health benefits and all the ways that you might anticipate because of the stress and strain and how challenging it is to overcome all of these barriers and how isolating it can be to work towards goals in a way that moves you outside of your communities. And so one of the key physical mechanisms of some of these effects that that we talk about is connected to a challenge to your identity are is through inflammation and stress that eventually forces your body to work in ways that are connected to long term disease development, earlier aging, all sorts of really overwhelmingly negative effects on on the life course and even even on the length of life. And I think that’s important to really groundbreaking, to recognize and to identify. I think in our work we try to see what are the ways that some of these daunting patterns are not deterministic, what are the factors that can offset some of these types of negative trajectories for those that are working so hard to find everything they want in life? And as is probably no surprise from what we’ve been talking about, a key is finding ways to work and maintain connection to whomever it may be to the relationships that matter.
Mesmin Destin (00:47:24) – And we have run studies in experiments with high school students and older who are working in this way, trying to overcome all sorts of barriers. And in one set of folks in this study, they’re just being pushed to think about their future identity. And a lot of the prior work that we’ve done, all these things we find to be motivating and we look at more than just their achievement. We look at their physical health, their level of inflammation, and we compare them to a treatment group, a group that is not just thinking about the future identity stuff. They’re also thinking about how as you move towards all these goals down the line, you’re going to think about the relationship with the matter to you, that each time you take a step towards working on this or that or the other, what does it mean for the relationships and communities that you’re coming from or those that you’re moving towards? What are the concrete things that you’re going to do to hold on to those friendships or those key connections that you have? And just embedding that sense of achievement plus connection at the same time we find leads to significant decreases, inflammation compared to if you’re just focused on achievement and future and striving.
Mesmin Destin (00:48:32) – So there is just one small study that gives an inkling of the pathway to offset some of this negative consequence of of achievement. But it suggests to us that a restructuring of our systems in ways that allow for that type of more systematic connection and a holistic movement of yourself and your community is what’s going to benefit people.
Jonathan Fields (00:48:57) – Yeah, I mean, it’s so powerful, you know, and you hear sometimes the the popular advice, you know, as you’re striving to accomplish something big and maybe as you’re actually accomplishing it, achieving it, that you’re going to have to just shed a whole bunch of people along the way. She had the naysayers. She said the people who are from your past who don’t buy into your vision, all this stuff without really considering the fact that these people actually may be really important to your psychological, your social and your physical well-being along the way. And it’s probably a much better idea to really think about who really matters to me, who do I want to stay in relation with and how do I invest in in ensuring that that continues to happen along the way, even as my status, even as my sense of achievement or whatever, you’re in dish of success, you start to check those boxes that the people who matter come with you along the way rather than just saying, Well, it’s a natural part of this that you’re going to leave this community or these friends or this group of people behind, and you’ll have to establish new ones.
Jonathan Fields (00:49:59) – Because what you’re saying is like it isn’t just about the social effects. It literally affects the level of inflammation in your body, which in turn affects everything from disease risk to illness to all sorts of other things. You know, it’s such a powerful thing to think about because I don’t I don’t think we really deeply examine that as we’re working, as we strive towards something. How do I really invest in bringing the people along or continuing sustaining. Investing in those relationships that I really care about. We just kind of put them in the background and hope that whatever needs to happen will happen in the right way.
Mesmin Destin (00:50:36) – Yeah, As you say, it’s not it’s not part of the script. It’s such a deeply ingrained story about the individual striving and distinction that you need to make to demonstrate success and find happiness and achievement. And of course, everybody’s story and path and community looks different. Some people really do need to move away from certain places and people, but that makes it all the more important that in these new places that you go, that you are able to build new community and meaningful connections in ways that you still are able to feel fully integrated and seen.
Jonathan Fields (00:51:15) – Yeah. And I think it’s also important not to skip over the point that you brought up, which is the notion that let’s say you look at 225 year olds who, you know, they went to the same university that graduated with the same GPA, they’ve gotten fantastic opportunities. And in the first 3 or 4 years after college, they’ve kind of achieved at the same level From the outside looking in, you’re like, I’m guessing they’re experiencing it in a pretty similar way. But in fact, where they came from before that, from the very early days, the level of resource, the level of support, the level of status, that journey from where they started to where they are in this moment can make them experience that current moment from the outside in looking like just equal success really differently.
Mesmin Destin (00:51:59) – Yes. Yes. And it’s one of the biggest questions on our mind now as we it’s almost like the work kind of continues moving into later and later phases in life and early adulthood. First jobs and and even beyond forming families.
Mesmin Destin (00:52:14) – What are the what are the variety of landscapes that people encounter? What are the different ways that we construct our lives based on our origins? And how does all of that affect, you know, the ultimately our well-being?
Jonathan Fields (00:52:30) – I’m thinking a little bit now of a lot of the work that’s been done sort of in the domain of positive psych over the last 30 years or so. You know, Marty Seligman, known as by many as the father of positive psychology and develop this model for flourishing positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment. Perma is sort of the shorthand for it, which has been expanded to, I think it’s perma plus for now, which really invites an exploration of vitality, the actual physical well-being into it. When you think of sort of like that, that notion of human flourishing, how do you feel like your work on self identity, on the messages that we get on this sense of future identity really plays into that sort of positive psych model of this is what it means to flourish?
Mesmin Destin (00:53:18) – Yeah, it’s absolutely connected.
Mesmin Destin (00:53:20) – You know, there are very much distinctions. I think a key distinction is that the at least the future identity, identity based motivation work that we’ve been doing starts from a place of what are the factors that allow you to accomplish things that give you a sense of purpose and meaning, Sort of the the positive effects for well-being are downstream consequences potentially, rather than the sort of initial goal of the resources or the objective of the work. So I think it’s a kind of point of entrance sort of question, sort of how they’re connected to each other. And it’s it’s why it’s something that we’re thinking about more and more now, right? This idea of what how does achievement related to well-being flourishing. That’s deeper notions of feeling positivity in various aspects of your life. Because we didn’t want to promote work that felt like it was only about a more superficial sense of positive affect without a deeper sense of feelings of contentment with what you are able to do with your life and how you design it. So I think in combination thinking about frameworks that give us a richer understanding of what flourishing well-being look like and frameworks connected to achievement, purpose and accomplishment.
Mesmin Destin (00:54:45) – Identity, I think, give a rich, fuller picture than one side simply on its own.
Jonathan Fields (00:54:52) – Yeah. So if you think about zooming the lens out a bit, how can we as individuals, how can we as institutions, how can we as parents, as educators support people in wanting to strive to to step into and then really be motivated to do the work needed to achieve, accomplish whatever it is that’s deeply meaningful to them, whatever it is that where they’re looking out in the future and saying, This is what I want, like this is how I want my life to be when we look at. Kids or young adults coming up. And we’re in a position to say like, how do I support this person? How do I support the person? Even if they come from profoundly different background from me, how do I actually honor that and help them honor it? What are some of the things that we might be thinking about doing as people who are in a role to potentially support not just the the striving or the accomplishment of people younger in life, but also their well-being along the way?
Mesmin Destin (00:55:56) – I think the first thing is to take a step back and to ask yourself, do an inventory, you know, of what are the resources that you have access to.
Mesmin Destin (00:56:08) – It’s easy to lose track of the invisible ways that we all have power, status and meaningful sources of influence that we can leverage for people. So identifying what those are, what you can bring to the table for somebody is important. And the one thing that everybody can bring to the table and can leverage is their own genuine attention. And just taking the time to actually invest in somebody, to show somebody that you see them as valuable, that you have an understanding or an interest in who they really are and that you are invested in the idea of them reaching what matters to them like that is incredibly powerful. To see that somebody has taken a simple moment out of their life to care about you as a person and to see who you are and who you could be as a person, and especially from somebody who you may not have the closest relationship to, but you have some connection to or could have some connection to. So that feels like something that’s accessible to all of us or can be. And then of course, there are a range of other, you know, resources, connections that we can bring to bear based on where we sit.
Mesmin Destin (00:57:31) – And the piece that I think is important to not lose in that is that people are looking for somebody to just drag them along or throw them into a situation or do something for them. People want to feel a tick. They want to be seen for the power and the ability that they have. So connecting and conveying what you see in somebody in a way that makes them feel like they can then or they are seen as someone who can then take the steps necessary or is able to achieve what they want to feel, what they want to connect in ways that they need to is invaluable.
Jonathan Fields (00:58:13) – Yeah, you’re not anointing anybody, you know, there’s no permission slip here. It’s more like you’re holding up a mirror and saying like, This is what I see. Like I want you to know, especially if you don’t see it yourself. This is what I see now, and this is what I see as possible. It’s in you, not me. I’m basically just reflecting it back to you. Does that does that resonate?
Mesmin Destin (00:58:32) – It absolutely resonates.
Mesmin Destin (00:58:33) – And, you know, I am I’m obviously a resource person, too. And I think that each piece is necessary. Right? You’ve got to have that that investment, that psychological investment from somebody else to help reflect back your sense of of value and agency. And we do need some stuff. We do need some resources here. And sometimes it’s an incredibly in the grand scheme of things, small amount of money of access that can be enough to push somebody, put somebody in the room or to allow somebody to see what they can, then reach beyond what they didn’t have. If they didn’t have that that little push of of the resource that’s necessary to open that door.
Jonathan Fields (00:59:18) – Yeah. So powerful. And I think so often we forget also, you know, I shared that clip of the conversation that Milton shared earlier. That was his side of what the experience was. I often wonder, you know, like, what did that science teacher feel as he was sliding, you know, like those pastels over to Milton, like what was going through his heart and mind in that moment? And then as the years passed, seeing what Milton then went out in the world to do and he made just this astonishing impact, like how that affects the person, like who just had that one conversation and took an interest and saw something real in him and acknowledged it.
Jonathan Fields (00:59:58) – And that was largely it. And I wonder, you know, wouldn’t it be amazing for us as potential mentors to be able to actually feel that to like the joy and the glow of just knowing that in some way, shape or form, we’ve helped somebody step into a life that’s better for them or that just acknowledge something that is real in them that then unlocks the doors on their own.
Mesmin Destin (01:00:22) – Absolutely. It’s completely cyclical. And, you know, it’s. Rarely someone’s motivation for connecting and helping to get their own benefits from it. But there are all sorts of of psychological and other benefits for investing in this type of way where you may or may not see the downstream effects that it has on somebody. But knowing that that’s how you’ve spent your time and invested your effort pays off more than so many things that we spend our time doing.
Jonathan Fields (01:00:55) – It feels like a good place for us to come full circle in our conversation as well. So in this container of Good Life project, if I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up?
Mesmin Destin (01:01:04) – To live a good life to me is knowing who you are, what matters to you, and investing in relationships with people that celebrate that.
Mesmin Destin (01:01:16) – Thank you. Thank you.
Jonathan Fields (01:01:18) – Hey, before you leave, if you love this episode, safe bet you’ll also love the conversation we had with Anders Erickson about excellence and expertise. You’ll find a link to that episode in the show notes. And of course, if you haven’t already done so, please go ahead and follow Good Life Project in your favorite listening app. And if you found this conversation interesting or inspiring or valuable and chances are you did. Since you’re still listening here, would you do me a personal favor, a seven second favor, and share it maybe on social or by text or by email? Even just with one person. Just copy the link from the app you’re using and tell those you know those you love, those you want to help navigate this thing called life a little better so we can all do it better together with more ease and more joy. Tell them to listen, then even invite them to talk about what you’ve both discovered. Because when podcasts become conversations and conversations become action. That’s how we all come alive together.
Jonathan Fields (01:02:15) – Until next time, I’m Jonathan Fields, signing off for Good Life Project.