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Interview with Vic Strecher, University of Michigan Professor of Public Health

Interview with Vic Strecher, University of Michigan Professor of Public Health, discussing the importance of finding purpose in life and work.
I’ve written two books, one called On Purpose. Lessons in Life from the Dung Beetle and Julia. And I wrote another book. And that is a graphic novel. And that was special book that I wrote after my daughter Julia passed away. And she was 19 years old. She was a heart transplant recipient and caught a chicken pox virus when she was six months old. And she was born healthy, this attacked her heart and her only hope was to get a heart transplant and we had to decide whether to do that or not in the first place. And we decided that if we could give her a big life. A life that was transcending, something important with love.
Even if she died at three years old or five years old It’d be a life worth living. We’d want to do that. So we decide to list her for heart transplant and she became one of the first kids to get a new heart. So we didn’t know much about this. [LAUGH] And so we lived every day of her life as if it might be her last day. And we started realizing, wow, this is actually kind of fun. Our lives turned from black and white into, technicolor, where we thought wow today we might die. You know, not just her, we might all die. So why not build this really special big life?
Because you know we are not here on this planet very long, whether we live to be 120 or three. So, we lived an interesting life with her. And she passed away when she was 19, and it was very sudden and unexpected. And when that happened I went through a real grieving process, obviously you lose your child you grieve. But what I realized deep down was that, I was also losing my purpose in my life and I needed to regain and rebuild my life. It was like rebuilding an engine from scratch. Just somehow the cylinder block was cracked and you had to just say we’ve got to just tear this whole thing apart and fix it all but start from scratch.
And I thought wow I have this opportunity to build my life up Into a whole new life. And so, I started thinking about that a lot. And I found that building a new purpose myself actually was healing. It was the best thing I could have done. It saved my life, in fact. And one of the parts of my new purpose, and I didn’t even call it a purpose at the time I just said, one of the things I’m going to do is teach every one of my students as if they’re my own daughter, Julia. And I started taking tremendous joy in teaching. In fact I was, the school suggested maybe I shouldn’t even teach for a year.
You know, just take off. Do whatever because, you know, losing your child is a big deal. It’s hard. But I thought, and at first I took him up on this. And then I thought, no I’m going to try teaching. But I’m going to teach in a totally different way. I’m going to teach every student as if they’re my daughter, which means If they need anything from me, if they have a problem in school. If they need a recommendation to med school or to grad school, if they have an issue with alcohol or with anxiolytics or with their roommate or their boyfriend or their girlfriend I’m here for them.
I’m not a counselor, I’m not a guru, I remind them all, believe me, go to counseling services if you need it. But at the same time, I’m just here for them. And I started getting so much joy from this, and I think the students really enjoyed this too. And it’s not that I am perfect at this by any means. Sometimes I don’t have time, but I really try as if that person were my daughter and I was a professor of that, of my daughter. And I really needed, I would hope that the professor would do a lot for them, really help them out. And so, that really changed my whole life.
I started realizing, this is a purpose and a direction. And it’s nothing terribly spiritual. It’s more like a goal. It’s almost like a checklist. When you wake up in the morning, you say, what do I have to do today? I’ve got to do this, and this, and this, and this, or you create a checklist and you tend to get that checklist done more. Or if you say, I want to walk 10,000 steps and so you have a some sort of biometric device on you to monitor that. And you set a goal around 10,000 steps, you’re more likely to walk longer, walk further. And it’s the same, that’s what a purpose is.
It’s really a goal that you deeply, deeply value, or set of goals. And so I started thinking more about this idea of purpose, and I started thinking, wow, this is kind of a healthy thing. And also, its got me to start changing other health behaviors because in order to teach everyone of my students as if they are my own daughter, I have 250 students, that’s a lot. And it means that I need to have a lot of energy. And I need to have a lot of self control or willpower. And I start thinking about these things and I read a really neat quote by Seneca, this stoic philosopher, 2000 years ago, 15 AD.
He said, It doesn’t matter how much wind is in your sails if you don’t have a harbor. And I thought wow I know a lot of people with a lot of energy, a lot of wind in their sails and no harbor. We call them annoying people. [LAUGH] They’re just like I want to do this, I want to do that. And I thought, no, I don’t want just a lot of wind in my sails and no harbor. I want this harbor, I want this purpose, this direction in my life and that’s why I need wind in my sails. But I also, to extend that metaphor, I need a rudder. I need like, willpower.
And I also need a strong boat to handle storms, because storms just happen. And I stopped worrying so much about all the storms, and stopped worrying about the crazy waves in the water, and the eddies in the water, and in other words all of life’s stressors. Because those happen. There is nothing I can do about a lot of them. Some things I can control, most things I can’t control and stuff just happens. And if I have those thing, If I have a strong boat and I have wind in my sails. And I have a rudder and especially if I have a harbor if I have a purpose then I don’t worry so much about the stressors.
I don’t let other things bother me so much and in fact what I really do is start focusing on that harbor as opposed to the 19 other harbors that are available to me that day.
Our life was very rocky, very crazy, there’s no doubt. But we also kind of lived a big life. I think this idea from the Buddha that suffering can bring wisdom and bring a greater connectedness with real life is very important.
That’s a fundamental difference that in Hinduism and Buddhism we believe that we’re born godlike. And we have this thing called the atman inside us, and It’s interesting. Even Aristotle talked about, as well as Socrates, talked about this inner daemon, depending on how you want to pronounce it, this true self, inside us. And Aristotle talked about you daemonic well-being, being in touch with your true self, your inner self, your god-like self. When you look at biology now, sure enough you find that, There are so many animals that exhibit empathic behavior, altruistic behavior. Even rats will release another rat from an inner cage to allow them to go ahead and share chocolate chips together.
Whereas, if the rat was acting they way we would think rats act, they’d say, yeah, you stay in the cage while I eat all the chocolate chips but that’s not the case. And, bonobos, chimpanzees, elephants, dolphins, they all exhibit this kind of altruistic behavior. And so it could well be that this hardwired into us and that it’s selected for, evolutionary. So I am a believer in that. I am a believer that most of us, maybe not everybody, but most of us are born with a very, some sort of inner good in us and that’s hardwired in us and that we have to connect with that. And often that’s kind of frightened out of us.
It’s frightened out of us to the extent to say, if you don’t make a lot of money, you will suffer, you’ll have a bad life. Or if you don’t protect yourself all the time, you’ll die early. Well, some of the most interesting people I know are not worried about money and they’re not worried about death, and that’s a very Buddhist thought. But I’m not a Buddhist, and I haven’t really followed or practiced or read too much about that, but I do know enough that those are very Buddhist thoughts and I do believe in that.
Ideally as Nietzsche says, you should find your own path and your own purpose. And once you start doing that, then you start becoming successful. I think that’s really the key. One of the real keys is slaying the thou shalt dragon. So one of the keys to success is finding your purpose. And by the way, purposes change over time. It’s not like you have this life purpose and you have to stick with it. And it’s not like you have just one purpose. I have a personal purpose, which is to enjoy love and beauty. I have a family purpose, to be an engaged husband, father, and now grandfather and son, I have two 85 year old parents.
But also my work purpose, to teach every student as if they are my own daughter. And then a community or global purpose, which it to help over 1 billion people find greater purpose and meaning in their lives. And that, along with my work purpose relates to how I hopefully have become successful. I don’t think about success by the way, that’s the last thing on my mind. Success or fame or some sort of image that I develop is the last thing, because I don’t think you become successful that way for one thing, and success to me, Is being aligned with my purpose. So having some purpose or direction or harbor as Seneca said.
Giving myself enough energy everyday to align with that, but also enough will power or self control to align with that.
When you have this purpose or this vision of what could be. And if you can convince other people to follow you and to work with you and to go over the hill with you essentially to fight for that purpose, then you have something called a business. And that’s how it starts, so if you don’t have that sort of collective purpose, if you don’t have other people kind of following your vision. Not necessarily obeying you or anything, it’s just that they’re connected to your vision. If you have that, then suddenly you have something that’s kind of a juggernaut, and you may have for me since I build software.
You have some software engineers, you have some designers, you have some creative people, but also you have to have some sales people, you have to have marketing people and all these individuals. And for me also I use a lot of psychology. So you have behavioral scientists working with you, and physicians working with you, and they’re all connected in this purpose because they’re following you over the hill. Then you have something that’s very important and that can lead to success.
I have a business called Jool Health, J-O-O-L. And Jool was my daughter Julia’s nickname, so this really is her legacy. And my purpose is to help over 1 billion people find greater purpose and meaning in their lives. And so I created a platform that includes a couple of different apps, applications for smartphones, as well as a web app that helps you find your purpose. Your work, your personal, your family, and you community purpose. It starts by asking you about your core values and then it asks you about your purpose and it uses that as an anchor. We literally use this metaphor of a boat with wind in its sails, and a rudder, and this harbor.
And then we ask everyday five questions about your behaviors. Every day we ask you five questions about your behaviors, what I call SPACE. How well did you sleep in the last 24 hours? How present or mindful were you? How active were you? How creative were you? And how well did you eat? What I call SPACE, sleep, presence, activity, creativity and eating. And these can be asked very quickly, less than 45 seconds. We also ask you how much energy you had today, in the last 24 hours and how much will power you’ve had in the last 24 hours. We also though, using big data analytics, we can pull in data on the weather.
Knowing your location, we know if it’s been raining, and if it’s snowing, if the sun is been shining whether its been a change in any of those things what the humidity is like, the biometric pressure, the temperature. We can look at all sorts of information related to time, such as the or the week or day or the month. Are you the same, do you have the same energy typically on a Monday as you do a Friday? Not usually, most people don’t anyway. How about at the end of the end of the month when you’re paying bills, probably not. How about in different phases of the moon? How about when gas prices are high versus low?
How about when your sports team won or lost? We can look at all of those things and we pull in all these big data. We combine it with your SPACE data, sleep, presence, activity, creativity and eating. And we combine that and start predicting your energy and your willpower and what makes you tick. So we build a predictive model of you, as opposed to a predictive model of a population. You’re not an average, I’m not an average, so an average product would not work for anybody it turns out. But you being an individual, we can start building a model, a predictive model of just you, and that model gets smarter over time.
So after ten days we can build a model that’s quite accurate of you. We can even give you a forecast, like a weather report of you. Well today it looks like Vick, you’re going to have more energy, or less energy. Why am I going to have less energy? Well because you ate like crap last night, and you didn’t sleep well, and the moon is full, and that’s when you tend to have less energy. Really, well what can I do about all this? And it looks at the predictive model and it says, if you’re more present today, you would be able to solve that problem. So, that’s what this program does. It’s a very unique wellness to well being product.
So there are really two things that we’re moving and trying to shift. One is from wellness, which is so focused on physical health, to well being in this Aristotelian sense of being in alignment with your true self, with your purpose in life. And the second is moving from population health, because I’m in a school of public health, to personalized health, to precision health. Precision wellbeing is what we call it. So that’s very exciting, and again, that’s something that I didn’t really care what other people said when they said well, no one can do that. It doesn’t matter to me what they say. I had this purpose, this vision that we could do this.
I rounded up of a bunch of amazing software engineers, some amazing predictive analytic mathematicians and physicists. And we all got together, and then I got this amazing creative person working with me and an artist to boot. And we started just building this product, and now it’s doing very well. Jewel Health is a software as a service business to business company. So we’re licensing our Jewel platform to companies, large employers, insurance companies, health plans, healthcare organizations.
I would say that when you have a very strong vision in your mind of what you are here on this planet for this brief period of time to do, you start getting people watching you or following you. Or saying, hey, I’ll go over the hill with that person, because I want what that person has. Because it gives you energy too. Having a strong purpose requires energy, but it also gives you energy. So anyway, that’s how I try to live my life. And my daughter, Julia, really changed how I live my life in that way.
I am quite certain that if she had not gotten sick and caught this chicken pox virus when she was six months old, that I would have gone through the standard professor track and written as many articles as I could and gotten as many grants. And I did that anyway, but I didn’t care about doing it just to get promoted. I started doing it because I wanted to change the world. And so I started moving into areas in my research that I thought would have the greatest impact and the greatest meaning to people. Not just the things that would get me promoted to an associate professor or a full professor.
I actually didn’t care about that, and in not caring about that, I ended up getting those things very easily. I ended up getting grants very easily and writing articles very easily. That just didn’t become a problem because I didn’t care about that just for promotion’s sake. I actually thought maybe before Julia got sick, I thought, maybe I’ll become a full professor and then I can golf more. I mean, who cares? So now I care a lot about my life and what I do and the brief period of time that I have. Steve Jobs was interviewed by Walter Isaacson for his book on Jobs, and Steve Jobs surprised Isaacson by saying, I never expected to live past the age of 30.
And Isaacson said what, were you sick or something? He said no, I don’t even know why. But I never expected to live past 30, and Isaacson asked him something like, so how’d you live your life? Did you change how you live your life? He said, well, I did, I had this urgency in my life. And how did that reflect who you are, and what you do? He said, well, I created Apple before I was 30, so I had this urgency in my life because I knew I wasn’t going to live forever. And in Jobs’ 2005 commencement address at Stanford, he knew he was dying of pancreatic cancer. And he said these amazing words, he said, death is life’s change agent.
And he said it’s the single greatest invention of life. What an amazing thing to say to all of these young students, who have everything in the world to live forever for. They probably think they’re going to live forever, and he’s going no, you’re not going to live forever. You’ll live for a very brief time, and in thinking about that, you will end up becoming more successful in the sense that you will become more purposeful. And you’ll start aligning with that purpose more every day because you’ll realize you don’t have a lot of time to waste. Imagine if you had to live 500 years, or the promise of medicine, which is now, you can live 120 years or 150 years.
If we think that we’re going to live this long, we’re going to squeeze in a lot of stuff. And that’s, I think, the key to success.
In my new book, Life on Purpose, I interviewed three people from Sub-Saharan Africa. I’ll just give you one, James, who was what many people call an AIDS orphan. So his parents both died of HIV, he was orphaned, he was living with his grandmother. And his grandmother wanted James to be educated, so she walked with James 300 miles to the house of the President of Uganda. And knocked on the door, and the wife of the President of Uganda answered. And she said I would like to give my grandson James an education. And he became educated then. And he now runs Teach for Uganda. He created it, he directs it, he runs it. And I asked him about purpose.
And I said, a lot of people in the US think that purpose is something that you have once you have everything else. Kind of like Maslov’s hierarchy, I’ve got everything else, now I need a purpose. And he just laughed, he said, that’s so Western. He said purpose gives you hope, purpose sustains the poor, it’s essential. Without purpose, I would die. And I’ve led my whole life through this, and it turns out the other two that I interviewed had the same feeling. I had a doctoral student last year who studied purpose in life among kids in inner city Detroit, in a very tough area.
And it turns out that the tougher your area, the tougher your neighborhood, the stronger your purpose in life was among these kids. So let’s not pretend that purpose is unimportant for the poor. Purpose gives you resilience. And we know that too, people who’ve gone through this major Pakistani earthquake, and China went through a gigantic earthquake. Or the people in Japan who suffered through this major tsunami, the people who had purpose, actually, were more likely to experience post traumatic growth than post-traumatic stress. And by the way, it wasn’t far away from the epicenter. The closer you were to the epicenter, the more likely you were to experience post-traumatic growth.
So let’s not assume that bad things always lead to bad things in people.
Aristotle talked about purpose not as if I have a purpose, now I can go to Disney World. He talked about it more as I need to align myself with this purpose every day. That’s what he called eudaimonic well being, being in touch with your inner daimon, and he said that it requires energia and it requires will. And it’s something that happens every day. He once said, one swallow does not a spring make. In other words, you have to have this happen time and time again, you need to train yourself. It’s almost an athletic kind of training that you engage in.
And that’s why we built Jewel, because we want to help people build more energy and more willpower in their lives, so that they can be aligned with their purpose. And then we have them start thinking about some essential, basic behaviors, like sleep, or presence, or activity, creativity, or eating. That you can engage in every day. And as Socrates said, Socrates was kind of the philosophical grandfather of Aristotle. And Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living, so let’s examine our lives. But Aristotle said, essentially, that the purposeless life isn’t even worth examining in the first place. So let’s do both things. And that’s what I’d recommend for success.
What I’d recommend for success is that you think about a purpose that you have in your life, or multiple purposes. And how to build the energy and willpower to maintain alignment with that purpose every day. And so, that’s why I talk about sleep, and presence, activity, creativity, and eating. And figure out what works for you, because you’re different from me. So for me, it’s creativity and it’s presence. But for you, it may be sleep and it may be eating well. Whatever it is, you need to figure that out. And once you have that, then you’ll start building the energy you need and the willpower you need to be successful. because, believe me, to be successful, this is a long term.
To be successful, it’s like a marathon. It’s not a sprint.
One thing that we’ve learned, in addition to having a lot of energy, it really, success requires self-control too, or willpower. And we know a lot of people with a lot of energy, and they can be annoying without some degree of self control or willpower. So combining those two things is very important. We know willpower now is increasingly viewed by psychologists as a muscle that can be trained, it can be strengthened. It can be fueled with glucose, in fact. It can be depleted over time. So if you exert a lot of self-control over a couple of hours, then it’s more difficult to exert self-control as time goes on. It becomes depleted.
So how do I build that muscle up and how do I fuel that muscle? That’s something that my book talks a lot about. » What are some takeaways from that? » Some of the things- » What are things people can do to fuel that muscle? » Some of the things that you can do to fuel willpower are thinking about your glucose intake, actually. So glucose is essential for brain activity. And so, when we decide to give up on glucose, if we drink nothing but Diet Coke, for example, or some diet drink, we’re depleting ourselves of glucose actually. It is important to have glucose, which is sugar. You just don’t want giant bowlesses of it or bowli of it.
You don’t want giant bowli of this. Big peaks of glucose, where then it goes up a lot and then it shoots down a lot. You don’t want that. What you ideally want is to think about eating right. And a Mediterranean diet that’s filled with fruits and vegetables that release glucose gradually over time is really good for you. Another thing to do is ignore what your nutritionist said, or your teacher said when you’re a kid or your parents said, which was don’t snack. Make sure you snack. Make sure you snack on healthy things throughout the day.
So I encourage my students to bring a snack with them during class because I want them maintaining willpower, self-control while they’re listening to me blab away. Another way to build willpower is through greater presence or mindfulness. So, meditation seems to build a person’s self-control. So, I’m a big advocate of meditation and I’ve been meditating for 35 years. So, I’d really recommend that. But there are over 200 kinds of meditation. Some meditation actually allows you to release your self-control. It’s observational mindfulness. Whereas other mindfulness that’s focused on a mantra or your breathing, helps you develop greater self-control. So there are a lot of different kinds of meditation.
But you can look online, and find different kinds of meditation that works for you.
First of all, my own development of purpose came from my experience with my daughter, Julie, so I had this personal experience. And then, you can read philosophy. You can read Aristotle and you can read many other people. Alber Camus talked a lot about purpose. Or Nietzsche talked a lot about purpose. And so you can read about this philosophically. What’s amazing to me, though, is the latest science about purpose. Where people with a strong, you diamonic purpose. In other words, really being in alignment with this true self, especially a transcending self, actually their DNA is more likely to be repaired. It’s amazing.
So our telomeres, which are the ends of our chromosomes, these are like the plastic caps or aglets on our shoelaces. When they get shorter, our DNA starts to fray, and when that happens, we start getting sick and we die. Well, it turns out, people who develop greater purpose actually have greater repair of these telomeres, this DNA, and that’s amazing. Also, the gene expression, the expression of our genes of chemicals that are good for us, such as antibodies, are higher among people with purpose. And things like pro-inflammatory cells are more likely to be expressed when you don’t have a strong purpose. So I didn’t know that.
It turns out that people who have a strong purpose who have recently retired, seven years later, are 2.4 times less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than people with a weak purpose. And this is after statistically controlling for the kitchen sink, age, race, gender, income, education, health status, health behaviors. After all those things, you still see people with a strong purpose less likely to develop heart attacks, stroke, more likely to live much longer. Less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, I could go on and on. It’s amazing. The other thing, if this were a pill, this would be a billion dollar drug, wouldn’t it? It’d be the greatest drug ever, and yet it’s free.
And then you might ask, well, okay, if this were a drug that prevented Alzheimer’s and helped you live longer and all these things. What would be the side effects? Well, if it were a regular drug, there would be three pages of side-effects, right? Every part of your body would fall off. But the side-effects to having strong purpose seem to be, first of all, you have more friends. People with purpose have more friends and better sex. People with purpose have better sex, nice.
My first job was as a paper boy, and it was in Michigan. So you’d wake up on a Christmas morning or pre-Christmas morning and you’ve have papers that were a couple inches thick. And you’d deliver 100 of those things, and they’re pretty heavy when you’re a little kid, when you’re 14 years old. And you also have to wake up before anybody else woke up, when it’s still really dark. And there’s maybe half a foot of snow on the papers and it’s freezing out. And you’ve got a pile of papers that literally is as tall as you are, sometimes. It’s 6 o’clock in the morning or so, and you need to walk around delivering these things.
That’s a lot of work, actually. That is tough. The other part though, is you have to be an entrepreneur, because you have to go out then and collect the money. [LAUGH] I remember, collecting the money was the hardest part. Because, literally, there are some people who would go, well, I didn’t like the news this week, so I’m not going to pay you. [LAUGH] I go, I didn’t make the news, I’m sorry. But somehow you have to convince, cajole people who didn’t want to pay you the couple dollars a month that they needed to pay you for the paper. And so, that was always work. It was never easy to collect the money.
It was never really easy to get all these papers into the paper boy bag and get them all out. And then people would complain, or somebody would take, steal a paper, or they couldn’t find their paper for some reason. And it was just a lot of work for the money that you got and it taught me a lot. So that was a great job. What it taught me first of all is endurance. [LAUGH] Of all the things that I’ve learned, I really think that I need endurance. It is a marathon and doing this paper route, which I had a big one, I would run the paper route everyday. And it taught me just how important endurance was.
Even if I had a big paper bag, I’d run the route so that I could get done. I was always like, for some reason, anxious. I had an urgency, I have to get this thing done. And so, I would do that. So it also taught me how to interact with people at a very young age. Like how do you interact with adults who are grumpy because you’re asking them for money? How do you deal with a dog who sprints out of a person’s house and starts biting you [LAUGH], or wants to? Just you’re dealing with blocks and blocks of people who are pretty much strangers.
And you’re knocking on their door and you’re interacting with them and you’re 14 years old. That’s a good job.
If I hadn’t become a professor, what would I do instead? I have no idea, I really don’t. Sometimes I do think about that, it’s a question I ask myself. I got very lucky, I think, in fitting into this field called public health. Which is such a broad field. I mean, what does it mean? It’s sanitation or it’s epidemiology. It’s health services or it’s the delivery of medical care. But it’s also health related behaviors, and our health behaviors contribute to over 50% of disease and death. And I thought, wow, that’s interesting, why we do what we do. And helping people live better lives, I thought, that’s such an awesome area. So I got into that.
But I honestly, I think I could have done a lot of different things. I think the key is, regardless of the job, finding the beauty in that job. Finding out how you could be creative in that job, how you could do that job extremely well. And get into the job. So I don’t really think about other jobs, what would I have done, because I probably could have ended up doing 100 different things. What I would hope I would do in any of those things is try to create meaning from that and create some kind of purposeful life out of that job.
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