Interview: Julie Lythcott-Haims, author, “Real American”

Julie Lythcott-Haims is vulnerable, bold, empathetic, and strong. She tells it like it is.

That was my reaction when Julie came to my very white and privileged town in Northern California, to talk about race and her new book Real American: A MemoirIn person, her vivid storytelling makes you feel like you’re sitting alongside her during the big moments of her life. She approaches tough topics with a vulnerability that makes them not only understandable, but relatable.

Julie’s book is filled with self-discovery, as she picks apart her childhood memories and goes through life exploring her identity: Is she black, is she white, or is she something else? Does she fit in a box? Should she? Should we?

Julie’s first book, How to Raise an Adult, became a bestseller when it hit the stands in 2015. No surprise there—she was a long-time dean at Stanford University, and people listen when she talks. But you have to back the material up with substance, and Julie does just that.

When we sat down in her Palo Alto home a few weeks ago, I wanted to discuss her books, but also the courage it took to write them. Julie worked in one of Silicon Valley’s big law firms before becoming Dean of Freshmen at Stanford, and then, at 44, going back to school to become an author.

Our conservation has been edited for clarity and brevity. It will be available soon as a podcast. 

How to Raise a Successful Kid

David Swain: Two years after writing your first book,
How to Raise an Adult, how have your views evolved?

Julie Lythcott-Haims: I didn’t realize how much of a helicopter parent I was. I was a dean at Stanford thinking, What is going on? Why are these undergraduates still seemingly on a leash? These were the best and brightest, but penned in, hemmed in, and delighted to be told what to do—delighted to have parents showing up. I was so frustrated, and I knew enough about the human psyche to know if I was frustrated about this, that was probably telling me something about myself.

Sure enough, I did some of this at home. I had my aha moment—I was cutting my kid’s meat. He was 10. I could see the leap from his being 10, and I was cutting his meat, and he was going to be 18 and I would still be holding his hand.

I knew that when I wrote the book. I knew that I was on track to raise my kids the way I had criticized other people for doing. Over the two-and-a-half years I’d been touring the book, I dived deeper into my own narrative as a parent. I’ve been able to see the subtleties of my own behaviors—the moments of language, the small movements that encroach upon our kids’ autonomy and individuality. I can feel that because I’m a mindfulness practitioner.

I feel this rising anxiety about if I don’t tell them what to do, they might not do it right. They might not do it well. I’m intrigued to be one of the putative experts on the subject of what not to do, still struggling with my own urge to do what I know we shouldn’t do. I have access to all the information, and yet I still struggle. I think the other learning is greater humility, greater compassion for other people.

You have access to information, and you know the right thing. What enables you to produce the right behavior as a parent?

I remind myself that I will not always be here for this kid. I might be able to achieve something for him in these five minutes. It’s the parable of teaching someone to fish. I will not be here to provide them with whatever solutions I am currently trying to offer.

The greater love is to make them learn to do it themselves. It is more loving to put them through the paces so that they learn the steps, and one day they have competence, so that one day further they have mastery. That’s when I can take the deepest exhale as a parent and say I have raised my children to adulthood.

You talked in How to Raise an Adult about the dangers for kids with the way society is set up now. Have you seen any progress?  

I’m only invited to communities that want to talk about this. In some of ways, I have a big-choir problem. I show up, and I’ve got people willing to talk about this. Among those communities, in that subset of the larger community, I can see shifts taking place. I see less defensiveness around my message.

Again, I don’t know if two years in, people are more receptive or I’m just telling the story in a way that’s more compelling. I’ve gone to much more of a storytelling format where I talk about my own struggles as a parent, and the lessons are sort of deduced rather than me speaking at a lessons level. I don’t know if I’m perceiving an actual shift, or if I’m just showing up with a more effective message.

I will say that more and more communities seem very worried about the poor mental health of their young. When I’m invited to be a part of that dialogue, I am blunt about the fact that our definition of success—our definition of what makes a human worthy of respect, of being listened to, of applause—sends such a narrow message to our kids. In communities like yours and mine, and plenty of others, kids feel a degree of helplessness over their ability to achieve that for themselves—and a hopelessness about their future if they don’t. We are quite literally in some places reducing kids’ worth to their GPA and test scores. They do not feel unconditionally loved.

Nowadays, it seems to me people are attuned to the unwellness of kids because they’ve had a spike in some troubling behaviors. They want to know what to do about it. If it’s acute enough, then they allow themselves to have that big-picture epiphany: Wait a minute. None of this matters. What matters is my kid’s wellness.

It’s like when people get cancer, when there’s a death in the family, when someone loses their job, when my kid has suicidal ideation—I can say, “None of this matters. What matters is that we have a meal together, that we enjoy each other’s company.”

I do sense that this is being experienced in a number of communities. Parents are finally waking up to the consequences of this very rigid, everything-is-high-stakes childhood.

My daughter’s nine. If you watch her building a fort, or choreographing a dance with a friend, or anything that involves original unstructured thought, she’s in her element. At school, it’s not like that. That’s one of the things we think a lot about —how can we let her play to her strengths so when she has to make those bigger decisions, she’s developed that side of her where she’s naturally strong? There must be so many parents facing the same thing where their kids don’t fit naturally into the “school” box.

Part of it is she’s nine. You’re seeing glimpses of what her strengths might be, but her habits as a student are still forming. You want her in an environment where she’s not going to get her sense of self beaten out of her because she doesn’t conform to others’ standards.

Some people study this way, and some people don’t, but we want to provide kids with fort-making opportunities, and opportunities to choreograph dances. You already know she’s going to be this awesome, creative human being, and invite interesting people into her life. She’s already marching to the beat of her own drum, which is pretty amazing.

With everything changing so fast around us, things like meditation have helped me learn to stay grounded through the chaos as a parent and leader. What has your experience been?

My moment was with the executive coach Stanford provided me and my team so we would get along better. I moved from literally thinking my job was to tell her what was wrong with everyone else, because I was so sure I was doing a great job, to a willingness of trust. Being able to hear the feedback I needed in developing a mindfulness practice allowed me to be myself in any context. My purpose became not to prove myself, but simply to be clear about what I’m thinking, what I’m feeling, what’s moving me, what’s concerning me, what interests me, and then how I want to express myself in a way that might be useful.

My world has changed from seeking external approval, which made me a micromanager in the workplace because I was so insecure and constantly judging other people. Again, not in a self-centered, egotistical sense. I just know all I can be in charge of if I’m lucky is this right here. If I can be confident that I’m showing up in a way that I want to in every conversation, in every team meeting, in every decision-making opportunity, it’s brought me tremendous peace. It’s made me a better leader. It’s brought me a lot of jobs, and I think it’s made me a better parent.

Finding Yourself at Work

It’s interesting that in the workplace, we talk about learning to be vulnerable and how much more connected your team feels when you bring yourself to work. What are some of the things you’ve learned?

One thing I’ve learned is this is in some ways a function of time. The longer we’re here, the more we know ourselves. The more we know ourselves in our community and our town and our industry or profession, the more time erodes the sharper edges. When young people ask me, particularly in my audiences around Real Americans, I’ll get black, biracial, people of color, queer people, and young folks who are like, “I am hurting, I am struggling to perform. What do I do?”

I will say, “It’s great that you know this—that you’re saying this out loud in a room full of strangers. This is the beginning. Part of this is simply time. Now you know that that’s a concern, how are you going to act on it? How are you going to become brave enough to simply be without regard to the judgment of others?”

Even if we haven’t ascended to great heights, we still have the privilege that comes with age and wisdom. We get the feedback that we’re successful. We know what we’re doing. That gives us a little bit of feedback loop that says we are okay. Part of that is the aging process, the things we learn over time about ourselves and our community.

One of the universal truths I have come to appreciate about us as humans is that we all want to know we matter. We are social beings, and we crave to know we matter to somebody. We don’t have to matter to everybody. Some of us have to matter to everybody, but that’s an ego need.

This sort of “I see you”—one of the things I loved about my Stanford students was when they showed up to do a performance or a debate, their friends would be in the audience. They would shout, “I see you, David! I see you!” People’s faces would light up. I’m not saying it’s a Stanford thing, but I learned it at Stanford, and that concept—well, the offering was, “I am here for you. I’m watching you and what you’re doing. I’m delighted by your expression, your experience, whatever it is. I see you.”

We all need that. I think my work, at a meta level, is about trying to help humans feel seen. The helicopter parent is preventing that young human from actually being seen for who they are. They’re just so encroaching. Racism—what I’ve written about in Real American, that bias, that prejudice that others can have about any of us for any reason—can prevent us from feeling seen. The fact that humans need to matter being universal, how, as a manager, do you make your team feel they matter so that they bring their best selves to work?

When I was merging three disparate offices at Stanford, during the recession in 2008, I was Dean of Freshmen. I had a small team of maybe six. My sister organization was advising. They had about 25. This dean left for Oregon, so the Vice Provost merged the teams and put me in charge. I ran the smaller organization, but now I’m in charge of the merger of, let’s say, 34 people. This big team had been two teams two years before, and they were merged on paper but never culturally. I had this team, and this team that resented my team—they didn’t like each other. Everybody was critical of everybody else.

I was newly working with my coach, newly working on my stuff, newly attuned to the fact of humans needing to know we matter, and that gratitude expression is so valuable—and kindness. I decided we were never going to do a great job for Stanford undergraduates if we didn’t first want to come to work to be with each other. I spent a year merging these groups in team meetings around discovering that we mattered to each other, giving everybody the opportunity to share the work they did. People weren’t coming to work just because it was Stanford undergraduates, but because they enjoyed each other and felt respected, seen, and heard. That team just soared.

Advising was considered this shitty thing at Stanford, and we were supposed to make it better. My goal was, We’re going to put advising on the map of what’s best about Stanford. We’ve got the Hoover. We’ve got the Cantor. We’ve got this and that. We’re going to make advising one of the things that Stanford’s going to brag about. That was our big, audacious goal. I knew we wouldn’t get there if it was about the best way to offer advising to undergraduates. That’s a piece of it, the mechanics of how to academically advise undergrads. But the humans who do the work have to feel that “I love my colleagues! I love being here! This is awesome!” We did it, and it was great.

I recently left a position managing a team as part of a progressive company, Instagram and Facebook, where you take classes on unconscious bias, and focus on everybody being vulnerable and playing to their strengths. It built a level of empathy in me that I am super-grateful for. It also built some fear of saying the wrong thing, whether it was around gender, race, or other sensitive topics. It takes strength to face the fear of being critiqued.

I think we’re in a fiercely-attuned phase, attuned to human speech and meaning. On the right, they lament the political correctness that has tamped down our dialogue. On the left, we delight in the fact that it’s no longer okay to use slurs and language that demeans other people. I think we have arrived at this ironic place in America. I don’t know how long it will last and I don’t know that it’s universally good.

We’re in a place right now, in communities like yours and mine, certainly where the greater the intersectionality you inhabit—you’re black and queer and trans and poor—the greater your voice in the room. In some communities, that person has the right to speak and the right to critique the rest of us about our inability to understand or perceive their experience. In a way, our language is inadequate to fully appreciating or respecting them.

I’m glad that folks who experience those intersectionalities have a voice because they sure as heck haven’t had much to date. I think we’re in a place of extreme sensitivity. It can make folks feel like, “I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to speak. I’m afraid of being critiqued, or I’m constantly getting critiqued.” That doesn’t feel very productive.

I hope we mature to a place where everybody is different. Everybody does matter. We do well when we listen to one another, and leave our presumptions and assumptions at the door. It’s okay to let folks know they’ve said something that is hard for us to hear, but it’s also important for us not to present as beings waiting to be wounded by everything. I think this gets to the value of a trigger warning. This is the lawyer in me who believes in First Amendment free speech very much, and the university dean in me, who watches what happens on college campuses around free speech and trigger warnings.

To me, a trigger warning is a heads-up: “Hey, we’re going to be talking about this really uncomfortable topic. It might hit some of you in a personal way, and we want you to have a heads-up so you can steel yourself.” This is opposed to a trigger warning being permission to put your finger in your ears and say, “No, I’m not listening because that hurts or offends me.” That, to me, is the wrong direction.

If you Google it, you’ll see it everywhere. On some campuses, every syllabus has trigger warnings. We’re going to be talking about rape. We’re going to use the N-word. Some students will say, “You can’t say this. You didn’t give us a trigger warning.”

Writing and Identity

Talk about the journey you took to write your new book,
Real American. What was your process of self-discovery, and how did the idea for a memoir come to you?

I’m paraphrasing Maya Angelou, who said, “It wasn’t hard to write it; it was harder to keep it inside.” I went back to school in 2012. I enrolled full-time in grad school to get my MFA in Writing at California College of the Arts. I had written an op-ed on overparenting in 2005, and I’d been saying for years, “I ought to write a book.” I’d been giving speeches, but I wanted to write a book. I didn’t think I could write over 300 pages of prose worth reading without some guidance, so I went back to school ostensibly to get the training and mentorship I would need to write, pitch, and sell a book.

When I wasn’t writing about parenting in my classes, race often asked for my attention. When it came time, ultimately, to do my master’s thesis, I wanted my thesis to be something brave and edgy. I went back to school at 44 and thought, I’m in grad school again. This time I have chosen this. No one forces you to become a writer. No one’s like, “You’d better be a writer.” I was going to make the most of this time. I wouldn’t have been brave enough to write had I not come back to grad school.

There were a number of thematics coming up out of my life, but race was the most dominant. Of course, nationally we were seeing the murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. All of these things were happening. In my own house, my son was becoming an African American-presenting teenager despite his white daddy and my light skin. He’s unambiguously a man of color. The confluence of parenting, and national events, and me being in writing school, ripened the urgency in my being. Maybe I’m at a place now where I can write well enough about these truths.

The challenges when we write, at least in nonfiction, are if you’re concerned about a topic and you care so passionately about it—the way I like to describe it is if you’re too close, you can’t see the other sides. I’ve always thought I needed to be distant enough from a topic so that I can interrogate it, 360 degrees.

My fear was that I had this son, I had Black Lives Matter happening all around me, and I was too close to race. The stuff I’d worked out about myself was so recent, I didn’t think I could properly interrogate it. I was worried that I didn’t have the intellectual or emotional vulnerability and distance to be a good analyst of my own experience. My faculty basically said, “Yeah, give it up. Just write it.” I had to get my thesis done. They said, “Just try.” I kind of took a deep breath and said, “All right. I will.” I tried to be as unflinching as possible.

Going back to school for writing—do you feel you needed it to write your books?

Yes. I think in part because to be a writer, to accomplish that identity, it’s different than being a lawyer. I went to law school. I passed the California Bar Exam. The state of California said I could practice law. I am a lawyer. Writing doesn’t work that way. We can all write. We’re all capable of writing as humans. The question is when you become a writer worth reading. When do you write in a way where you can garner an audience? What is the imprimatur of worth as a writer? Do you have to be published in The New Yorker, or is your own blog enough?

Within that space of ambiguity, when I left Stanford, what I said to my husband Dan was, “I think I might want to try to do something with my writing.” Okay, I went from that very ambiguous declaration to where I am now, which is that I’m a writer. I’m a published author. I’m a New York Times bestseller. There were all these things that came with it, but somewhere before all that, I had to claim the identity of a writer. Going back to school to be in a community with others who were declaring the same things about themselves, and eager to learn from one another and grow with one another—that was a really valuable element of the experience.

The way you constructed your memoir is unlike other books I’ve read. For people who haven’t read Real American, the narrative is poetic. Some pages are three sentences long, and some chapters are a couple pages. Can you walk through how the narrative builds and what it meant for you to put it together that way?

I kind of see genre classifications as cages, as boxes that folks have created to make sense of writing. Perhaps because I am biracial, and I’m also bisexual—I’ve kind of lived my life outside society’s boxes. These are the boxes humans fit in, and there’s Julie kind of in between these two boxes or over here on the edge. For the same reason, I don’t approach my writing as, What genre am I writing? I approach it as, What am I trying to tell? What placement on the page and sentence structure, or non-sentence structure, supports the words? That’s the kind of big picture.

I knew that chronology was fairly important in memoir, and so the book for the most part goes in the direction from my early childhood to my present moment, with some important jumps backward and a few jumps ahead. For pacing, I tried to be with the reader by my side, so those jumps are ways of me saying, “Okay, now I need to tell you something before.” Or, “Now you need to know this isn’t as bad as it seems.”

Do people spill their soul when they meet you? That was my reaction after reading your book—I think you uncovered that we all have a feeling of being “the other” in some way, even if it’s not as profound as what you wrote about.

Yes. That’s right, we all have that. I think to your point about the beauty of vulnerability, we should give Brené Brown a shout-out here for her work. This is universal. We all have this heart that just aches to be held and fears being pierced. When we dare to share those vulnerable pieces with one another and have that reciprocated, it’s what makes being a human exquisite.

As a writer, how have you stayed motivated to meet your deadlines? How was that shift from a more traditional career?

I am terrified and exhilarated pretty regularly. I experience both. I am my own boss. It is up to me. I have a team of people around me who help me do stuff. I have a social media manager. I have a publicist. I have people whose work is my work. Their work is about getting my work out there. Yet, none of them are going to fire me. I mean, they could fire me, but it doesn’t change. I’m still a writer. Their decisions don’t impact my progress the way it happens in a traditional workplace.

I have had to self-motivate and it has not been hard. I’m so new to the identity of a writer. I’m 50 now. I’m so new to this, and I’ve got stuff bubbling up out of me just wanting to be told. Now, I know the more I say that—I’m looking for wood to knock, like, Don’t jinx yourself. I’ve never had writer’s block, but I know I will. Right now, I’m in this hungry phase of creation. This urgent phase, and so the motivation is there.

Now, here’s the rub. I signed a two-book deal, which is great in terms of my financial forecasting and all of that, but they want me to write that third book. That third book did not come up and out of my being the way the first two did, and I’m on deadline for that. My deadline is Labor Day. I’m already feeling the pressure. Now that I’ve written two books, I have a sense of how I am with book writing, so I know the discipline that’s going to be required in order to deliver that on time, which I will.

What is your third book about?

It’s a sequel to the first, so it’s how to be an adult. It’s #adulting.

What It Means to Be an Adult

It’s hard to be a good parent if you haven’t learned how to be an adult.

Yeah. It’s trying to respond to that critique, whether self-imposed or imposed by family—or by society, or by your employer—that many 20-somethings and even 30-somethings have failed to launch or don’t know how to #adult. I’m trying to provide some guidance. The dedication page currently reads: To Y and Z from X, meaning to Generations Y and Z from Gen X. That’s the thing. It’s like, “Here’s what I know. Here’s what I know and what I want to offer you.” I mean, how humbling! How audacious is it to write a book for a generation of people? But I’m going to try.

You mentioned your experience with Facebook – can you talk about that?

I was one of the earliest adopters of Facebook of people my age. Stanford was the second node. It jumped from Harvard to Stanford in a month. March 2004, I think it was founded at Harvard in February 2004—I joined in March 2004 because my students were talking about this thing, which we thought was an infringement of our printed “facebook.” I had to join, create an account, and look at it because my office produced the printed “facebook.” In a nanosecond, it was like, Oh, this is not our “facebook.” We don’t own the term Facebook.

Then I started getting friend requests. I didn’t use it for about a year, but pretty quickly came to realize this was a thing. It was going to be a thing. Our students were dwelling there and hanging out. If we were going to remain credible, and visible, and relevant to them, we had to start using this thing. My older colleagues just poo-pooed me. I was the youngest dean, and it was like, “Oh, Julie. We don’t advise students online.”

Who’s had the last laugh? The slow adopters are just so behind. I’m proud of that—I, as an older person in 2004, was able to say, “You know what? This matters to the students, and it needs to matter to us.” What was weird for me was when my own friends and family and classmates from law school and undergrad started joining. The world started joining. I had to contend with who I was online: a dean, versus a person or a mother. I’ve valued Facebook.

For parents who haven’t read your first book, and they’ve got their finger on the big-name schools, what’s your message?

We have almost literally been duped about what the “right college” for our kid is. We have let a company like U.S. News & World Report come up with an algorithm, or just a set of metrics that they gather, and analyze, and spit out as a measure of a college’s worth. It’s all simply data about the incoming class.

Things like SAT scores can be perfected over time with money. Everybody knows that. The fact that the median SAT score of the class is, I think, 22.5% of a school’s rating, is just the narcissism of small differences. I think it’s Professor Barry Schwartz who uses that phrase in his research. We’ve gotten so enamored of the false truth of the best colleges lists. It has become the community standard.

I heard you say in one of your talks that the college bumper sticker is for the parent to brag to their friends—it’s not about the kid.

Right, and so it’s simply false that those are the best places. There are plenty of other fantastic places that for all kind of reasons are better than those places according to different measures. Parents don’t have access to the right information, so they rely on shorthands, and lists, and things. When you can come to the truth of that, look at your kid, and try to figure out where they would thrive. Are they a St. Lawrence kind of kid, or a Syracuse kind of kid? Do they need sports, or do they need an artistic community? Do they need rural or urban?

We do higher education very well in this country. We offer so much. There are better lists. When we’re willing to move our ego to the side, we can actually delight in our kids’ learning and growing in an environment that best suits them. Then we can take a deep exhale and say, “Gee whiz, it’s not about getting our kids into those places.”

You touched on this in your TED Talk.

My greatest learning came as I was finishing How to Raise an Adult. I was in revisions in the fall of 2014. My son, Sawyer, was a sophomore at Gunn High School in Palo Alto taking all the right classes. We bought this house here so he could do that, all of that. I gave birth to him at Stanford Hospital because I thought, It couldn’t hurt (laugh). He went to Bing Nursery School. I met Dan at Stanford. I probably never said it out loud, but I hoped my kid would gain admission to places like Stanford that really require a perfect-to-flawless childhood stacked with stuff.

Sawyer is a kid who reads for pleasure, doesn’t do sports or activities. He thinks, he reads—he reads mythology, he reads science, he reads current events. He’s a thinker. He’s the kind of kid who gloms toward interesting conversations with adults. He will leave a group of children and come to join us if we’re talking about something that interests him, and many topics do. This kid was struggling with the workload at school. Five hours of homework a night, sophomore year, only fall semester sophomore year.

I was thinking, We have the rest of fall, all of spring, all of junior year into senior year. We can’t survive this. It was crushing him. It was too much, and I could see him trying to keep his head above water, and going through the motions, and doing the work. Then not even doing the work. I realized he was letting Google Translate tell him the answers to his Spanish—so cheating, just not learning.

We finally decided to ask him if he needed to drop a class. This was after weeks of watching him endure five hours of homework a day, and homework on the weekends, and no pleasure reading. He had stopped being the kid who brought a book to every meal. I’m telling you a very condensed version of this story, but the long and short of it is, I went up to him at midnight one night in his bedroom. I said, “Dad and I are so proud of you, you’re working so hard. You’re doing well, but we wonder if it might be too much, honey. You don’t even have time to read books anymore, and that’s who you are. Do you think you might need to drop a class?”

My kid looked up at me from his bed, and he said, “Can I? Don’t I have to do all of this, Mom? Don’t you want me to? Isn’t that what’ll make you proud?” In my head I was thinking, We bought this house here so you could take those classes and do exceptionally well. I didn’t say that to my son. I looked at him and said, “In some theoretical universe, we wanted you to have access to all of this opportunity. What matters more than any of that is you. You’re struggling, and you might even be suffering.” He brightened a little bit—eyes that I had not seen twinkle for weeks. He said, “I’ll think about it.” He came down for breakfast the next day with a book under his arm. He said, “Mom, I think I might need to drop a class.”

We began talking through what that would be. That night, my husband and I accepted the fact that our kid might not be able to weather these storms. Some kids can handle all of that. Our kid can’t. We had to care more about what was right for him. Too many kids are being forced down that path. They’re not sleeping. They’re not eating meals with family. They don’t have time for friendship. It’s crushing the life out of them.

I don’t know how I got to that answer, but it was, for people who haven’t read my first book, the college thing. I widened my own blinders that night to the truth that I was already writing about in my book—that there are plenty of great colleges. I went from talking the talk quite well; that night, I began walking the walk. My son is at Reed College, which is a school for thinkers. They don’t have many sports. They don’t have any Greek life. They don’t have any classes taught by TAs. It’s faculty mentoring undergraduates. Many of them go on to get PhDs. That’s what Reed is known for. They don’t participate in U.S. News, so most people don’t know they exist. That’s my kid’s story.

If you haven’t read Julie’s first book, this talk will give you a feel for her message.  


Also published on Medium.

About The Author

David Swain

David Swain is the founder of Common Threads Media. Swain was the head of communications at Instagram and director of technology communications at Facebook. He is an advisory board member of Strava.

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