Lydia Denworth is an author, journalist, and speaker. She is a science journalist who investigates everything from Alzheimer’s to zebrafish and is a contributing editor for Scientific American, writes the Brain Waves blog for Psychology Today. Lydia is the author of FRIENDSHIP: The Evolution, Biology and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental, which was named as must-read nonfiction by the Next Big Idea Club ( curated by Malcolm Gladwell, Adam Grant, Susan Cain, and Dan Pink)
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?
I grew up in Philadelphia and both my parents were lawyers. They met in law school in the early 1960s when my mother was one of only four women in her class. (Yes, I’m proud!) There were two defining experiences in my childhood. The first was that my twin brother had a terrible fall when we were ten and suffered a traumatic brain injury. The road to recovery was long and hard and it changed my family’s life. That is why my father’s advice about responding to life’s challenges was so relevant. The second experience was two years later. My family spent six months living on a sailboat and crossing the Atlantic Ocean. It had been my father’s longtime dream and the trip was planned before my brother’s accident. I think most of my parents’ friends thought they were nuts. But I learned that adventure is important and that you can’t be afraid to take risks or change things up. Decades later, my husband and I took our boys to live in Hong Kong for a few years and we talked to them about the example my parents had set.
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
The advice I’d give my teenage self now is this: Be brave but be patient. I suspect there are things I haven’t done because I was too afraid of failing. But I also think I have wasted a lot of time worrying about what I didn’t do, and I’d have been happier if I’d understood that you don’t have to hit anyone’s timetable but your own. I got my first book contract right before I turned 40. Now I’m writing book #4.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
It’s not so much that the recommendations are bad as that they don’t fit everyone’s situation. For example, a lot of writers talk about the need to write every day. But if you are a reporter, then you also have to spend a lot of time reading and talking to people. That takes time. You don’t have to write every day, but you do have to work every day. That said, writing is truly hard work, and it takes a lot of discipline to keep your butt in the chair! Pushing yourself to write when you don’t feel like it is key. I think that’s what the “write every day” recommendation is really about.
The other thing I’d say is that I am a science writer who was not very interested in science when I was young. I took the bare minimum of science classes in high school and college. Now I think science is fascinating and I see the story in it. I’m not sure anyone said it outright, but I thought you had to know a lot about science to write about the subject. In fact, if you’re willing to admit what you don’t know and keep asking questions until you do know, then you do your readers a great service. You put yourself in their shoes.
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?
My brother’s accident was obviously a really terrible thing. But there have been other challenges in my life. My youngest son is deaf and when his hearing loss was identified, he was the first deaf child I had ever really known. I knew perfectly well that deaf people could live very happy and fulfilled lives, but I didn’t know how to help him do that. The first year or so was really hard. I had a lot to learn and used my reporting skills. I learned all about ears and the brain. My husband and I chose a cochlear implant for our son and I ended up writing a book about sound and language. I followed my father’s advice and focused on what to do next. I hope the book helped other parents. (My son is 18 now and he’s doing great.)
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
When I started writing about science, I suffered from imposter syndrome. (See question #3) But over time, I’ve gained confidence. It’s not just that I’ve learned a lot about science, though I have. It’s also that I make a virtue of what I don’t know. I ask lots of questions and if I need to, I go over things intensely with my sources. I’m proud that scientists and nonscientists both really claim to like my work.
What is your morning routine?
I’ve only got one kid left in the house, so mornings are easier than they used to be, though I do have a dog, who demands attention. On my best days, it looks like this: I’m up by 6:30. I feed the dog and send him out with the dog walker, have breakfast (I NEVER skip breakfast), and do the New York Times crossword puzzle. I make sure my son is up and then do 20 minutes of yoga, shower, clear my emails, and block out my schedule for the day. I try to be at my desk ready to work by 9. Sometimes it slips a little and I start a little later.
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
I’ve gotten much more disciplined. My weeks now have a distinct rhythm to them. On Mondays, I fill up my whiteboard with everything I have to do in the week. Each day, I prioritize my to-do list and try to block out time for whatever is most important in the morning when I’m at my best. Though I work at home, I try to keep relatively regular hours. On the other hand, I’m my own boss, so if life gets in the way (which it regularly does) I let that happen and make up for it in the evenings or on weekends. I figure that’s the trade-off for the freedom I have. At the end of the week, I have two sets of friends that I’m accountable to. I email them a summary of what I got done and what I’m planning to do the next week (and they do the same). I erase the board and start over again.
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
See #7! I’ll add that even though I block out my work week by week, I also try to keep the larger picture in mind and forgive myself for the less productive times (Note I said I “try,” I don’t always succeed). I’ve got three kids, a husband, a dog, and a cat, and an elderly mother who isn’t well. Even without all of that competing for my attention, writing is hard. When I’m writing, there are inevitably times when the pages come more slowly, and I feel like I’m behind. I build in time to catch up by planning a few writing retreats every year—a week away by myself to do nothing but write, usually at our family farm in upstate New York. Those times make up for a host of unproductive days. In other words, I recognize from the start that I will need spurts of intense work in order to get everything done and I work that into my schedule.
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
When I was young, I fell in love with the work of John McPhee. He showed me that you could write about almost anything and make it interesting. I read his books about Alaska and the New Jersey Pine Barrens in high school and I think they inspired me to want to write nonfiction.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
My favorite quote is not from a famous person or a book. It’s from my father. He always said, “life is not just what happens to you, it’s what you do next.” I find myself turning to that wise reminder all the time and repeating it to my children. Life will throw you challenges but it’s how you respond that determines much of what comes after.