ReThinking with Adam Grant
How Yo-Yo Ma sustains his creative energy
February 28, 2023
[00:00:00] Adam Grant:
Hey everyone, it's Adam Grant. Welcome back to ReThinking, my podcast on the science of what makes us tick. I'm an organizational psychologist, and I'm taking you inside the minds of fascinating people to explore new thoughts and new ways of thinking.
My guest today is Yo-Yo Ma, widely regarded as the world's greatest cellist. He's won 19 Grammys, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Polar Music Prize—also known as the Nobel Prize of Music. Yo-Yo is a passionate humanitarian too. As a UN Messenger of Peace, he uses music to build bridges between people in times of crisis.
[00:00:46] Yo-Yo Ma:
[00:00:47] Adam Grant:
I love that you were making music with your hands when we couldn't hear each other.
[00:00:51] Yo-Yo Ma:
Oh, well listen, I was just sending you love and how are you, Adam?
[00:00:55] Adam Grant:
I am great now that I'm with you. So, yo, Yo-Yo, I've never actually gotten a chance to ask you about your childhood, but I've read some of what you've written and some of your interviews about growing up, and I know you were raised by two musicians, and you've alluded to the fact that they may have been tiger parents. What, what was that like?
[00:01:14] Yo-Yo Ma:
Alongside the love, there's a lot of pressure, and there are a lot of expectations. You kind of absorb everything. On the one hand, it was a very focused messaging. You know, I should do well, but for what purpose and for whom? I think these are other questions that usually, as one grows up, you know, you kind of sort it all out.
And being a slow learner, it took me many decades, multiple decades before I could find a way to sort it out in, in a way that, that I can call not just my own, but that it's something that I, I, I can feel that it's worthwhile to do.
[00:02:05] Adam Grant:
Well, I have to say it's a little bit shocking for me to hear you call yourself a slow learner, Mr. Child Prodigy.
[00:02:11] Yo-Yo Ma:
So here's the rub. You could be vasile at something and obviously, at an early age, I must have developed very good neuromuscular coordination. And really in the end, it's all about, in music and probably in life, is how you put your head and your heart and your hands together to exist. Right? Hands: a metaphor for your body, your multiple senses, and heart also as, as a metaphor.
You call me a child prodigy. My definition of that probably is someone who has had an accelerated path in some area that is on a graph just above normal. Right? But there's an asymmetry to that because you know, you may be accelerated in one, one area, but in other areas, you could be kind of below average in other ways. And when there's an asymmetry, sometimes it takes a while to get to an equilibrium, which is actually what I think all of us, in one way or another, are seeking.
[00:03:25] Adam Grant:
Fascinating. So do you feel then that the obsessive focus that you had on music as a kid stunted some of your social and emotional growth?
[00:03:33] Yo-Yo Ma:
Well, just in terms of time commitment, I mean, I think my tiger parents were not just tigerish for the cello. I grew up obviously in a, in a multicultural background. Yeah. I was born in France, French-speaking, household Chinese speaking, and then we moved to the United States when I was seven. And imagine this.
We, in the United States, like to think we're the greatest country in the world. Well, it turns out the French like to say we're the greatest culture in the world. And I think the Chinese probably, in terms of my parents would say, we're the greatest culture in the world. So imagine that hitting you from all three sides.
And what is a child to think, right? Because then why did we move to the United States? Right, and why aren't we in China? Why didn't we stay in France? So I think from a seven-year-old’s point of view, these are questions that cannot be resolved, but that need to be investigated later on and in ways that hopefully does not deny something that's already in you or exclude, but rather incorporates. Sort of saying, “Wait a minute, why do I need to choose? You know, who's making me choose?”
[00:04:53] Adam Grant:
Well, Yo-Yo, I have to tell you, I don't know a lot of seven-year-olds who grapple with those questions, but—
[00:05:00] Yo-Yo Ma:
No, I wasn't grappling with those questions at, at seven. Even today, you know, I'm still grappling with those questions, but earlier forms of that were certainly seeds that were planted with the early messaging that I received.
[00:05:14] Adam Grant:
Well, that, that year, when you were seven, not only moving into America, was a big year for you. I think that was the year that you played for JFK. What do you remember of that experience?
[00:05:24] Yo-Yo Ma:
I knew that I was playing for the president, but my interaction was actually with Danny Kaye. And there's a photo of, of me with Danny Kaye crouching down and looking at me at eye level. Now, I don't know about you, but when you were younger, you're still young. But when you were shorter, when an adults talk to you, do you look up at them? You're looking up, right? But when an adult comes to your, your height to your eye level, it's something completely different. And he did that. Plus, he was, most of all, he was incredibly funny. He was conducting the National Symphony, making them do all kinds of crazy things, and I thought, “Wow, I wanna be this guy when I grow up.” And that was my focus at that time, because he spoke to and was able to reach the mind of a seven-year-old.
[00:06:26] Adam Grant:
That's impressive. And I love that the, it's the actor-comedian-singer who captures your attention and, and imagination. Not the president first.
[00:06:34] Yo-Yo Ma:
Well, the communicator; I mean, he was communicating with me, whereas the president was remote. He was far away. So I knew, of course, he was important, but what does a seven-year-old know about presidents? It's only later on that, you know I was… Wow, that's gee, gee whiz.
[00:06:53] Adam Grant:
What did the pressure feel like for a performance like that as a kid?
[00:06:57] Yo-Yo Ma:
Again, as a seven-year-old, what do you know? What do you compare it to? All of those things are adult questions. And, and not seven-year-old questions. You do basically what you're told to do as a seven-year-old, and you believe what people tell you most of the time. It's only in hindsight. I mean, don't you think… Aren’t there moments that at your age, you think, “Oh, when I was 20, I did some things that were either incredibly stupid or incredibly dangerous,” or incredibly whatever? “What was I thinking?” But you weren't thinking about that. It's only in hindsight that you think about these things.
[00:07:38] Adam Grant:
You just described half my springboard diving career. What was I thinking?
[00:07:41] Yo-Yo Ma:
Oh, was that right? Oh my goodness.
[00:07:44] Adam Grant:
[00:07:45] Yo-Yo Ma:
Right. And if you actually even thought about that, that's when the error comes in.
[00:07:51] Adam Grant:
Yeah, that's right. Yeah. You disrupt your autopilot.
[00:07:54] Yo-Yo Ma:
Right. That’s right. And that's the secret of performance too. You commit and you go; it's like going to war. You know? You don't sort of say when you're embattled, “Gee, you know, I wonder whether this is… What I'm doing is ethical.” You have a different job and, and, but you question that at other times, right? Should I keep on diving? That's something we can talk about, because that's actually really an interesting topic about when you can apply judgment to what you're doing when you're in the process of doing.
[00:08:30] Adam Grant:
Let’s talk about it. Tell me, how do you think about that?
[00:08:32] Yo-Yo Ma:
Everybody has a different strategy. You have to be sort of both conscious and half unconscious in that you have access to your unconscious. This is actually a feeling which we all have gone through. Just before you go to sleep or just as you wake up, don't you sometimes have some idea that comes to your mind, “Oh, this is an incredible thing, I better tell someone about it or I better write it down because if I don't, I know when I wake up a little bit more, I’m gonna forget”?
[00:09:09] Adam Grant:
[00:09:10] Yo-Yo Ma:
Right? So that's that state of mind that I want to try to locate and, and very often before performing, I sometimes get incredibly tired. And that's sort of the body or the memory getting to that state of mind where I am in the zone. Runners talk about it, writers talk about it.
You're actually in that zone where there's nothing more important than the story I'm about to tell you. That's being in, in it, right? Nothing is gonna interrupt because this may be the last story I can ever tell anybody, and I'm gonna tell it to you right now because that's how much it means to me. So it's personal commitment, and then it's like, “But, I’m not sure I know you, but I'm getting to know you, and as I'm telling you the story, I am reading you every second of the way.”
That's like checking out what your audiences are. They're falling asleep, they're snoring in front of you. Obviously, you're not getting through, right? So you're looking at them and, and you try and get eye contact or anything that, that gets feedback. The feedback loop is incredibly important. I have to keep the big idea in my mind. Plus, making every single detail as interesting, as pertinent as possible.
That's a balance. Forgiveness is incredibly important because if I let myself get upset, I then get out of the zone. So that's, does that make any sense according to what you do: your diving career, your writing career, your talking career?
[00:10:59] Adam Grant:
I really resonate with the way that you described the challenge of getting into a flow state, but then needing to toggle your attention and say, “I've gotta pull myself out of that to read the audience and make sure that I'm connected. But I don't wanna pull so far out of it that I lose the rhythm. I don't want to be so deep in it that I can't see how everyone else is reacting.”
And so there's a zooming in and zooming out that you're, you're talking about that I've experienced where, you know, whether I'm on stage or I guess once upon a time on a diving board. I think about I’m trying to make one change. There's one skill that I'm working to improve, and I'll just focus on that, and then I have to zoom out and put that into context of everything else I'm trying to do. So the whole picture fits together that toggling is a skill, and it's a hard one to master.
[00:11:44] Yo-Yo Ma:
That's right. And I think you pointed out something. There's one thing you can change, and I think that's incredibly important of being able to both empathetically and analytically prioritize that. So the thing's fallen apart, and you could say, “Okay, nothing's working. It's a complete disaster, but there's only one thing you can do, and if, how can you make sure that the one thing has the greatest impact?” And you focus on that like crazy, right?
[00:12:17] Adam Grant:
[00:12:17] Yo-Yo Ma:
And I think, is that what you're talking about?
[00:12:19] Adam Grant:
[00:12:20] Yo-Yo Ma:
The ability to make good decisions, as in figuring out a priority depends on your ability to switch back and forth between analytical thinking and empathetic thinking. The two neural circuits, from my understanding, do not generally operate at the same time.
[00:12:49] Adam Grant:
That’s, that’s my read as well. Um, and—
[00:12:52] Yo-Yo Ma:
[00:12:52] Adam Grant:
Yeah, and the way that you combine those is, I think, one of the things that differentiates you as a performer, right? There's so many technically gifted musicians in the world. There are also many empathetic musicians in the world. The way that you interweave those two skills is just masterful.
And Yo-Yo, I have to tell you, it's, it's unusual. My read of the evidence is that a lot of child prodigies do not become adult geniuses. And as far as I know, there are at least two challenges that a lot of child prodigies run into. The first one is that the practice makes perfect, but it doesn't make new. Somebody masters playing somebody else's compositions, but they never learn to do original work of their own.
And then the other is burnout, which you've alluded to already. Often they peak early and then they end up either exhausted or disillusioned. I'd love to hear your reflections on that because you avoided those traps as far as I can tell. OT at least they didn't plague your career. Ultimately, you've had sustained hits and extraordinary success for many decades now.
[00:13:53] Yo-Yo Ma:
I think the question revolves around something incredibly simple and primal. It revolves around a person trying to figure out who they are and how they fit in the world. Now, Adam, you're referring to someone who's a young person who’s just extraordinary in something. As a result of that, they get a lot of attention. You know, the world revolves around them. “Oh, what can you do? Oh, you're so wonderful.” We all love attention, and in fact, we love attention so much that sometimes if we don't get attention, we'll choose negative attention. Right? And it's like, as long as it's attention, you know, because, because I exist. Now, if that idea of self gets calcified and doesn't change, right? For those of us that went from high school to college, right, you may have been the biggest star in, in high school, and then you get to college and suddenly you're the tiny fish in the larger po-pond and no longer the big fish in the small pond. And at various times, anybody who excels at anything will encounter that. How you navigate that sticky wicket will, I think, determine the kind of resilience you develop as you go through other sticky wickets, right?
[00:15:25] Adam Grant:
I know you burned out pretty substantially in your twenties, and I'd love to hear the story of what that was like and how you got out of it.
[00:15:35] Yo-Yo Ma:
I always say to anybody: “If you can possibly avoid it, don't get burnt out because it's miserable.” You're angry and just impossible to live with for months. You have nothing left. Everything becomes a bother, and you know what? You get burnt out when you overuse. I think everybody has weaknesses. Maybe it's an organ, maybe it's a muscle, maybe it's an emotional thing. Every car will break down if you overuse it in some way and at some point, you need to fix it.
[00:16:12] Adam Grant:
What did that look like for you? Were you practicing too many hours?
[00:16:15] Yo-Yo Ma:
It was kind of a reality and the wrong approach to deal with it. The happiest moment, my son was born, it's like, how incredible. Now you know what happens when a child is born, first of all, time changes because in your twenties you feel you're immortal. Nothing can happen to you. You can do anything. You just will live on forever as soon as a child is born. And because my profession makes me have to go away, right? And if I miss the first smile, the first step, if you miss that, it's forever. It’s gone, right? My way of dealing with it was, “I'm energetic. I could create more energy. I could be a good husband, I could be a great father, I could be a wonderful cellist. I'll do everything. I'll do more pushups, I'll create more energy.” And guess what? I hit the wall.
[00:17:14] Adam Grant:
And then how did you get through it or around it or under it?
[00:17:18] Yo-Yo Ma:
You just sit with it. Time, you know, you overuse. You disrespect your body, things will break. Your brain will stop functioning, and it just feels terrible because you're totally out of whack. So it's like saying, okay, then what do I do? What decisions can I make to actually reset? The first thing is you don't have infinite energy, right? And time is finite. Energy is finite. Respect that. And then it's like saying, okay, then, what does that mean? What is energy? Days away? Numbers of concerts? How many hours you sleep? At 16, you could not sleep for two days in a row and feel fine. At 29, you can't do that. Know the limitations.
[00:18:11] Adam Grant:
It, it almost sounds like you manage your energy like a budget.
[00:18:15] Yo-Yo Ma:
Yeah, absolutely. Being alive is energy. Music is energy; its sound moves, air molecules, and then you receive the motion that energy moves the little follicles in your ear and, and then your brain interprets all of that sound, moves the hairs on your skin. It's not just sound, it is touch. Death is the absence of a person having energy. Right? It's the, the cessation of energy.
[00:18:55] Adam Grant:
You up for some rapid-fire questions?
[00:18:57] Yo-Yo Ma:
My aged brain. Oh, I'll do my best.
[00:19:01] Adam Grant:
Is there a piece of bad advice you ever got?
[00:19:03] Yo-Yo Ma:
All advice is in context, I would say no.
[00:19:08] Adam Grant:
Ooh, I like that. That's interesting. Okay. Most interesting audience you ever played.
[00:19:14] Yo-Yo Ma:
Probably show and tell. Kids, if they're not interested, they're not interested, so you gotta reach ‘em.
[00:19:22] Adam Grant:
You've obviously performed for pretty much the who's who of the world: presidents dating back to Eisenhower, the stars of Hollywood, titans of industry. Who has impressed you the most up close?
[00:19:35] Yo-Yo Ma:
I think you're describing hierarchy or glitter or power. It's the nice thing about playing music. It's, it's the one-on-one ness. You know, every individual is absolutely unique in the way they receive. Their senses are unique to them, and so it's really the person in front of me is always the most important individual. It's never, oh, “I did this, I did that.” That means nothing.
[00:20:06] Adam Grant:
Well, one of the ones that immediately captured my interest was, I read at some point that you struck up a friendship with Mr. Rogers. Uh, what was that like?
[00:20:15] Yo-Yo Ma:
My son was like two years old, and he was watching Mr. Rogers and was fascinated with Mr. Rogers. So I was acquainted with Mr. Rogers because he was riveted. So what happened was a friend who was working in public television was asked, “You know, would Yo-Yo be interested?” Her name's Jill Phillipson, and I said absolutely. What father would not do something that his child is interested in and, and be part of that?
What happened was that we're sitting on two sort of stools and he leans over and puts his face about two inches from my face. And says, “Yo-Yo, it's so nice to see you.” And I freaked out because a child would come right up to your face and put their hand into your mouth and grab your glasses. But when an adult does that, you would feel really awkward.
And when people break through, you feel uncomfortable. Mr. Rogers went straight up to my face. Now after, I thought to myself, “Why was I so uncomfortable, and why did he do that?” And I realized that what he was doing, he was stripping the layers of adulthood and getting to the childlike state of what it would mean for a child. He’s representing the child talking to me. It's so nice to see. Tell me about… but realizing that of course was like, “Wow, isn't that unbelievable that he figured that out?”
Right? And hence he get, gains the trust of the child because he was exactly the way, what he portrayed himself to be. And of course, he loved music. He acted all of the puppets, you know, King Friday and all of that. It's like his voice, his songs, and he was a great jazz pianist. And his late wife also was a wonderful pianist. Beautiful people, two wonderful sons. You know, it's one of, probably one of the great role models in my life, and I treasure knowing him and having had that so many years with him as a friend.
[00:22:38] Adam Grant:
Well, the, the way you engage with people shows the same level of kindness and respect. I can see his influence. And it's not surprising that you were drawn to each other. I wonder if you weren't a musician, is there another craft you would've loved to master?
[00:22:53] Yo-Yo Ma:
For the longest time I've thought people were the most interesting thing around. And so since I was five, my goal was to want to understand, and I knew even then—possibly because I was getting all these conflicting messages, right? I knew that understanding could also have a cost. Sometimes you get too close to something and you know something too well, you almost don't want to know. And so understanding comes at a personal cost, but I still wanted to understand, understanding who people are, why they do what they do, is probably my greatest question, and—
[00:23:39] Adam Grant:
Sounds like my job. Yo-Yo Ma, future psychologist. Here we go.
[00:23:43] Yo-Yo Ma:
That's what playing music is. It's for forensic psychology. It's like, who are you and why did you do this? What are you trying to tell? From beyond the grave or from scanned evidence, what's the message there? What is the primal thing that is driving you, that you're trying to solve?
[00:24:03] Adam Grant:
We touched a little bit on parenting throughout, but do you think you would've achieved less if your parents had been less strict?
[00:24:10] Yo-Yo Ma:
Uh, I think about that often, inevitably as parents and, and I worry about that as a parent. I think my job is to try and pass on as few toxins as possible to my children.
[00:24:29] Adam Grant:
Yeah. Well, I, I think your, your vision of passing on as few toxins as possible is something we could all adopt. And in fact, I think if every parent did adopt that, we'd see many cycles broken. And yet, I think you've done much more than minimize the toxins that you pass on, especially during the pandemic you released antidotes out into the world. Right?
When I think about the, the grief, the loneliness, the burnout, the languishing, all the emotional pain that people felt during COVID, your music was a cure for a lot of that malaise. I'd love to hear you talk a little bit about what motivated you during those days and the importance of music and times of crisis.
[00:25:12] Yo-Yo Ma:
In March of ‘20, I had played sort of the last series of three concerts with Emanuel Ax and Leonidas Kavakos at Carnegie Hall, and after the first concert we got a memo to say, “Fist bump, don't shake, don't hug, don't kiss backstage.” We didn't take it that seriously. So even by, you know, March 8th, we were still kind of saying, “Ha ha ha.” At least I was. Again, stupid, right?
And then friend of Manny's was a cell biologist. We got together afterwards at the last concert. He said, “I don't know, but there's something incredibly serious going on. My friends are saying this is really bad. Masks. Wash your hands. Do this. Seriously.” And, and my wife and I were so kind of taken aback that instead of taking the train back to Boston, we hired a car, masked, and then that was it.
So, about a week later, we were closing up this room, this office, and saying, “Well, you know, I guess we're all gonna go away and what are we gonna do?” And I think Jonathan, who, his office said, “Do what we were doing before, like maybe we can send out songs of comfort and hope.” I said, “That's great, let's do that.”
I had my cello with me and iPhone. Did our first three right there and then, and that's how it started. You know, just saying like, “What can we do to help?” And obviously, at that time, you know, the courageous people were the frontline workers. At that time, there were some people that we read about that were alone in their hospital room dying, relatives thousand miles away. Nobody was allowed to come in, and the only people in hazmat suits.
So that was when I realized that if we can put some music in the room where again, music moves molecules, it touches the skin, it's the closest thing to human contact that we could get to. Sometimes when medicine says, “We've done everything we can for you, there’s nothing more that we can do,” there’s that space between that moment and the end where that human being is very much alive, very much a sentient being, and very much someone that deserves the dignity of being thought of as a human. That's when music can play a part of humanizing and giving that dignity to a person and acknowledging that person.
[00:28:08] Adam Grant:
People were so moved and so touched, and I think what you've helped me realize is they were literally moved. I'd never thought about sound involving touch, but you're right at a fundamental level. It's not just the hairs on your body, right? It moves you deep inside, and we felt that, I think, throughout the pandemic. So what is next for you? What's 2023 have in-store for Yo-Yo Ma?
[00:28:31] Yo-Yo Ma:
Well, you know, one of the things I thought a lot about is our relationship, not just to one another, but to what is around us. I've been going in the past year or so into our national parks, which are visited by, like, a good proportion of our citizenry.
It's the nearest thing to, to something that's secular-sacred in our country. It is sacred land in many ways. But I've been meeting with not only with the, uh, park rangers, but scientists, lichenologists, and the indigenous people who actually were and are custodians of the land alongside with the rangers, and that's something that's been changing lately, whether it's in Maine and Acadia with the Wabanakis or in the Smokies with the Cherokees.
I've learned so much already in these brief but intense visits about the approach to thinking about that we are part of the land. It's a way of thinking about the oneness of us on the planet that brings together both indigenous knowledge and science.
[00:29:56] Adam Grant:
It seems that there are fewer Beethovens, Bachs, and Mozarts today, or is it just that classical music has a different role in our world?
[00:30:06] Yo-Yo Ma:
Classical music is so much part of Enlightenment thinking. Beethoven definitely was part of that, and I think the romantic part of the classical tradition included nature. Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann—all kind of included the inner life as well as the outer life and, and sort of the analytical mind and the empathetic mind together.
I think the Romantics kind of broke away from the classical tradition because they thought, “You’re not including enough.” I think we're, since World War II, we've had a different kind of worldview, uh, at least politically. It, it was divided into ideologies. But I think that actually, ideology should not be the end game.
The end game is really, ultimately, always will be who we are, how we fit in the, in the world, and the universe, right? At a time when we have a lot of fractures and factions and different ways of thinking and ethnicities and world of 6,000 languages, and what can we do when we also are in a world of big think and big data and quantum thinking?
It's like just kind of we're exploding with new knowledge. And there's gotta be a way for us to get back to the idea of natural philosophy as, you know, who we are and what's our purpose, right? So someone like Freeman Dyson, the physicist, said that he thought that cultural evolution is now happening faster than biological evolution.
It's our job to kind of say, “No, we are humans. If we're part of nature, and if we can do this and live with nature and thrive in a way that makes it possible for us to do it long-term, what's keeping us from doing so?” Is it the individual that creates, moves history, or is it the ethos, the era? I would say that, you know, nature-nurture, it's, it's always a bit of both, right?
So I think if we actually create the environment where people are thinking that way, then obviously music is a reflection of societal thinking. And those talents will come more and more to the fore. There's a guy named Jacob Collier, who's like in his twenties, British guy. He's been setting the musical world on fire because he's the closest thing to a Mozart that I think we have in our modern era.
And it's a message of pure love. He's familiar with all genres and he plays a thousand different instruments. He goes on stage and he's going on a world tour. They exist. There's Matt Aucoin, just did an opera for the, the Metropolitan Opera, you know, maybe late twenties. Again, one of those all-encompassing minds we'll hear about.
Their talent is infinite. We just need to be able to pay attention and give them that space so that they can develop and absorb everything that we have to offer, and then we get back their report.
[00:33:54] Adam Grant:
I could get behind that. Yo-Yo, last question for you before we let you go. Podcasts often force the guests to be in the position of answering all the questions. I wanted to give you the chance to turn the tables. Is there a burning question about psychology or human behavior that you had for me?
[00:34:11] Yo-Yo Ma:
I'd like to ask you not just about where we've just been with the pandemic, but as you observe and analyze and talk to so many people who are extremely active in their fields.
Do you see… What are the hopeful trends? As we get so much bad news, the world's falling apart, and I'm banking on people like you finding where those rays of hope are and then seeing whether that can be accelerated.
[00:34:46] Adam Grant:
That's such a great question. I think my favorite one that I've seen so far is what I might consider the untold story of 2021. There was a World Happiness report released showing that people became kinder in 2021. If you look at global rates of volunteering, giving to charity, even helping strangers, they were up almost 25% above pre-pandemic levels. And I think that, especially in the early days of COVID, we heard all these terrible stories about people hoarding masks and hand sanitizer, and it seemed like there was selfishness everywhere.
But I think what this evidence shows us very clearly is something that you know deeply, which is that the dominant response to suffering is not selfish behavior. It’s compassion, and that in the worst of times, we often see the best in us. My hope is that that trend toward greater kindness and generosity will increase as opposed to being a blip caused by the trauma of COVID. But I guess the jury is still out on that part.
[00:35:46] Yo-Yo Ma:
Wow, that would be amazing. I read, you know this on the happiness, sort of track something on Finland. They said Finland was, you know, the happiest country and, and they said that there are three things that the Fins practice that, that allow them to get to that happiness level.
[00:36:11] Adam Grant:
Oh, this is the, the Frank Martela report.
[00:36:14] Yo-Yo Ma:
[00:36:14] Adam Grant:
Yes. Yeah, I, I know exactly what you're talking about. Yeah. It was, um, don't compare yourself to your neighbors. Don't break the community circle of trust, and don't overlook the benefits of nature.
[00:36:23] Yo-Yo Ma:
Don't overlook the benefits of nature. Exactly. That was the same. Good for you. Wow. And so I thought—
[00:36:29] Adam Grant:
He’s a colleague and it's in my job description.
[00:36:32] Yo-Yo Ma:
I’d love to kind of study that model more.
[00:36:35] Adam Grant:
Well, Yo-Yo, this is, this has been so much fun. Always enjoy soaking up your energy. You violate I think the law of conservation of energy. I, I was taught in physics that energy can only be transferred, not created or destroyed. But you have given me energy, and I hope I haven't taken yours. And—
[00:36:51] Yo-Yo Ma:
No. Because, because when we do something interesting, we create more energy. That's, that I know is true.
[00:36:58] Adam Grant:
That's so much at the heart of why your work speaks to so many people, is you succeed in energizing us all and, and opening our eyes to possibilities that we were not able to see. So, grateful for that. Grateful for you. So good to see you.
[00:37:13] Yo-Yo Ma:
Great to you. Take good care. See you soon.
[00:37:15] Adam Grant:
[00:37:15] Yo-Yo Ma:
[00:37:21] Adam Grant:
This conversation with Yo-Yo left me thinking about two big things. One is the idea that talent is infinite, but energy is not. I do believe we can create energy in great conversations, but I also think he's right that there are more finite limitations on our energy than there are on our talent. And that we should be thoughtful about creating budgets for our energy, knowing exactly how the commitments we make are going to, to drain us, and making sure that they're energizing us more than they exhaust us.
The other big takeaway from this Yo-Yo discussion is around his mantra of passing on as few toxins as possible. In psychology, that’s called intergenerational buffering. It's the idea of breaking cycles and saying “Whatever abuse, mistreatment, trauma, and harm I've suffered, it stops here. I refuse to pass it on to the next generation.”
But a huge part of Yo-Yo’s influence and also what you see in his friendship with Mr. Rogers is the idea of putting nutrients out into the world, of offering people antidotes to their pain. And that leaves me thinking that it's good to break bad cycles, but it's even more important to fuel good cycles and create better ones.
ReThinking is hosted by me, Adam Grant, and produced by TED with Cosmic Standard. Our team includes Colin Helms, Eliza Smith, Jacob Winik, Aja Simpson, Samiah Adams, Michelle Quint, BanBan Cheng, Hannah Kingsley-Ma, Julia Dickerson, and Whitney Pennington-Rodgers. This episode was produced and mixed by Cosmic Standard. Our fact-checker is Paul Durbin. Original music by Hansdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown.
[00:39:04] Yo-Yo Ma:
You know, I'm a messy guy, so I leave it at that. And actually famously, when I left my cello in a taxi a number of years ago, and it was luckily recovered, and my daughter, who was sort of preteen, was forgetting things every single day, and I had to bring it to her at school. And finally, I said to her, says, “Emily, you know, I just, we just have to have this talk. You can't keep doing this.” And she looks at me straight in the eyes, says, “Daddy, I came by this honestly.”
[00:39:39] Adam Grant:
By honestly, did she mean genetically or did she mean by observation?
[00:39:44] Yo-Yo Ma:
Yeah. Yeah. Genetically.
[00:39:45] Adam Grant:
[00:39:45] Yo-Yo Ma:
It’s like, you know, it's like “I inherited this, this trait from you. It's your fault.”