Meaning Over Happiness with Dr. Vivienne Ming


If you believed you could never be happy, would you go on living? That’s the question that echoed in Dr. Vivienne Ming’s mind when she contemplated killing herself, before she became a woman, mom, neuroscientist, technologist, and LGBT advocate. Dr. Ming shares more about the wisdom that saved her life, and how it led her to focus on the one superpower that predicts success over and over again.

Highlighted Excerpt:

Vivienne: What’s very clear from my research and the research of many others is that endogenously (intrinsically) motivated people significantly outperform exogenously (extrinsically) motivated people. Now, exogenously motivated people, those are people who are sensitive to praise and punishment. They’re doing it to please their parents, to avoid getting fired, to get their bonus. It’s not to say they can’t be successful here and there, but across their life and across populations, if you do things for the incentives, you’re not really putting your whole self into it.

Majo: Are girls being socialized to have less intrinsic motivation?

Vivienne: I look at my daughter. She’s four. She has two moms. Both her moms are scientists. Most of the people we interact with are professional women, highly motivated, and yet, all of our daughters have gone through their princess phase. I hear so many parents say, “It wasn’t us. We didn’t do it. It must be biological. Those qualities are innate.” Let me give you a slightly different perspective, the perspective of someone who went through gender transition, overnight, right in the middle of their life.

I was suddenly, entirely aware that every bus and every billboard had a half-naked woman on it. For me to walk down the street and have it affect how I think about myself… Oh, God. I’m never going to be able to fit into that. God, what would it take to look like that… It was the strangest thing for me, that first time I was out and dressed as me. I had never cross-dressed in my life, so when I transitioned, that was it. It was that whole experience right there. And I just felt naked.

Majo: Wow.

Vivienne: Boy, did my brain switch really quickly. There was a day when I was walking down the street, really early on after my transition. I was pushing my then infant son in a stroller, and I passed two guys hitting a tennis ball back and forth at a tennis court. From behind, as I walked past them, I heard, “Hey, mom. The goods are looking good.” I was appalled! I wanted to turn around, march over, and slap that guy. I wanted to confront him! But I couldn’t because I couldn’t wipe the goddamn smile off my face.

Listen to full episode here.

Show Notes:

  • Vivienne’s upbringing, not living up to expectations, and realizing she was “different.” [1:30]
  • The lowest point — Suicide, and why she decided not to do it. [4:39]
  • On her larger-than-life father and his example of “living a life of substance.” [7:54]
  • How intrinsic motivation fueled her shift away from the brink of suicide. [12:02]
  • From flunking out of college to getting perfect scores in everything the second time around. [14:59]
  • On her year at the Machine Perception Lab and the start of her professional success. [19:08]
  • Learning to counter her destructive-perfectionism through perseverance. [21:31]
  • On feeling free to follow what she believes to be right. [25:09]
  • Women’s tendency to worry about how they are being perceived rather than whether they are being true to themselves. [26:51]
  • On meeting her wife in graduate school and opening up about wanting to be a woman. [31:13]
  • The immediate effects of Vivienne’s gender transition — losing her position at Stanford, being treated differently by close friends and strangers alike, and observing implicit gender biases. [35:38]
  • Vivienne’s work at Socos: Studying the predictors of success and optimizing life outcomes. [42:43]
  • Defining a meta-learner and the main categories that predict success. [47:33]
  • How to strengthen our meta-learning abilities. [52:49]
  • Vivienne’s perspective on how society influences gender roles and the enduring disparities between men and women. [54:55]

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