Ep 181: How to Use Mystery to Motivate Teens

Jonah Lehrer, author of Mystery, explains why the unknown is so tantalizing, we just can’t seem to resist. Turns out, we all could use a bit more uncertainty in our data-driven world, because curiosity is a powerful driving force in our lives.

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Full show notes

As parents and people, we tend to seek out certainty. We keep our kids in the same schools so they can have consistent friends. We cook the same group of recipes, so we’re sure to have something ready for dinner without too much stress. And we encourage our kids to study hard so they'll be sure to get good grades, get into a good college, and get a good job. We feel that if things are certain, we can live comfortably without worrying about our teens too much…even if it can get a little boring!

But what about mystery? Could adding a little bit of unpredictability into our lives make us happier? Might it prepare our teens better for the complicated world ahead? The truth is that uncertainty can be good for us…even if we try our best to make our lives predictable! Our guest this week champions uncertainty…in fact, he believes we should all encourage ourselves and our teens to incorporate a little mystery into our lives.

This week, we’re sitting down with Jonah Lehrer, author of Mystery: A Seduction, A Strategy, A Solution. Jonah is a neuroscientist who’s written multiple bestselling books, as well as contributed to The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and more! After discovering his son’s fascination with mystery, Jonah dove into research about the effects of unpredictability on the adolescent mind. Now, he’s here to talk about just how powerful uncertainty can be!

In our interview, Jonah explains why curiosity is an essential component of effective teen learning, and we discuss the importance of experiencing awe for both adolescents and adults. Plus, Jonah emphasizes the significance of living with uncertainty instead of searching for finite answers.

Curiosity is Critical

If we really want kids to be engaged in their education, Jonah believes curiosity is key. Kids who are interested in the mysterious and unknown are much more likely to find a  connection to learning! Research shows that curiosity is the number one indicator of a strong school performance–even beyond a teen’s ability to focus. And curiosity isn’t just something kids are born with. It can be fostered, says Jonah. 

In fact, the ability to foster curiosity is one of the reasons why the wealth gap is so prevalent in our education system, he explains. Parents with more disposable income have the cash to take kids to the aquarium for the weekend, or buy kids books. However, this can change if we encourage curiosity in schools, says Jonah. The problem, he explains, is that we don’t! Our current school system tends to push memorization instead of critical thinking, avoiding mystery in favor of certainty. This limits kids to only understanding certain aspects of the subject at hand, Jonah says. 

In our interview, we discuss The Noble Academy, a system of charter schools in Chicago that places curiosity at the forefront of it’s curriculum. Kids are provided with complex problems and asked to solve them with groups of their peers. This method encourages teens to take intellectual risks and embrace the unknown, leaving the memorization behind. And the result? These students outperform the others on state standardized tests. In the episode, Jonah and I talk further about how curiosity has the power to transform education. 

When we engage in curiosity, we often find ourselves with a sense of awe. This awe can have incredible implications in the lives of both parents and teens, says Jonah.

Why We Need a Sense of Wonder

What is awe, exactly? Jonah explains that it’s different for every person. For teens taking their first steps into maturity, awe might come from their first time driving or their first kiss. But it could also be a vacation, a beautiful sunset, or anything that pushes them out of their bubble and into a new experience! Jonah explains that awe can be a really powerful way of gaining perspective, and pushing our kids towards awe-inspiring environments can help them prosper as they grow into adults.

Awe can help teens become kinder people, says Jonah, as they learn to enjoy the unfamiliar. It can make them more accepting of the inevitable unpredictability that comes with life. Finding healthy ways of experiencing awe can also help teens from seeking out thrills in risky behavior. Teens are drawn to exploring higher emotions and big ideas, says Jonah, and a trip to the Grand Canyon is a much safer way of experiencing wonder than drug use, Jonah explains.

For parents, awe can often be hard to achieve! We’ve seen and done so much–what possible unknown could shake us to our core? In the episode, Jonah and I talk about mastery, and how becoming skilled and efficient at whatever it is we do can make our lives feel pretty stale. He encourages parents to try doing something they’ve never done before, something mysterious that makes learning fun. In doing so, we can connect the awe of our inner child, says Jonah.

In our discussion about awe, Jonah and I are talking about games! But not just Monopoly or Go Fish…we’re discussing the difference between finite and infinite games, and how infinite games can change our lives.

How We Can Embrace Ambiguity

When we play video games, board games, or even sports, we are mostly intrigued by the possibility of winning. In the majority of games, there is a finite ending–Mario saves Peach, someone takes the king on the chessboard, one team scores the most goals. But what about games that are infinite? What if you played baseball without keeping score? Jonah explains that if there’s no specified goal, the game can be played just for the sake of playing–and learning.

Jonah explains that these kinds of games don’t just have to be a conventional “game” like Uno or hockey. They are found in everyday life, in things like kids building legos or reading a sophisticated novel. There isn’t a way to win, only ways to explore. In our interview, Jonah and I talk about how social media has the potential to be an infinite game, by giving people the ability to interact and share with millions of other people...but ends up being finite because of “likes” and “followers”.

Parents often want teens to have finite ideas about where they’re going to college, what they want to study, and who they want to be. But Jonah recommends that instead of pushing teens to have all the answers, we should be encouraging them to embrace the unknown. Life is going to throw them plenty of curveballs! The more we can help them learn to roll with the unpredictability, the more they’ll be able to thrive when they step out into adulthood.

In the Episode…

There’s so much we can learn from Jonah’s understanding of the mind. On top of the topics discussed above, we also talk about:
  • What slot machines can teach us about our brains
  • Why personalities are more fluid than we think
  • What Steve Jobs and a piñata have in common
  • How sports rules create fairness of play
If you enjoyed this week's episode, check out more of Jonah’s work at jonahlehrer.com. Don’t forget to share and subscribe, and we’ll see you next week!

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Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
Ep 181: How to Use Mystery to Motivate Teens
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