The Science Behind Quitting

With Christie Aschwanden, Bestselling Author of GOOD TO GO: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery

Christie Aschwanden
Former Lead Science Writer at FiveThirtyEight

Christie Aschwanden is the author of the bestselling book, GOOD TO GO: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn From the Strange Science of Recovery, and co-host of Emerging Form, a podcast about the creative process. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, FiveThirtyEight, The Washington Post, Slate, and more.

Satyen Sangani
Co-founder & CEO of Alation

As the Co-founder and CEO of Alation, Satyen lives his passion of empowering a curious and rational world by fundamentally improving the way data consumers, creators, and stewards find, understand, and trust data. Industry insiders call him a visionary entrepreneur. Those who meet him call him warm and down-to-earth. His kids call him “Dad.”

Christie Aschwanden
Former Lead Science Writer at FiveThirtyEight

Christie Aschwanden is the author of the bestselling book, GOOD TO GO: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn From the Strange Science of Recovery, and co-host of Emerging Form, a podcast about the creative process. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, FiveThirtyEight, The Washington Post, Slate, and more.

Satyen Sangani
Co-founder & CEO of Alation

As the Co-founder and CEO of Alation, Satyen lives his passion of empowering a curious and rational world by fundamentally improving the way data consumers, creators, and stewards find, understand, and trust data. Industry insiders call him a visionary entrepreneur. Those who meet him call him warm and down-to-earth. His kids call him “Dad.”

Christie Aschwanden
Former Lead Science Writer at FiveThirtyEight

Christie Aschwanden is the author of the bestselling book, GOOD TO GO: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn From the Strange Science of Recovery, and co-host of Emerging Form, a podcast about the creative process. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, FiveThirtyEight, The Washington Post, Slate, and more.

Satyen Sangani
Co-founder & CEO of Alation

As the Co-founder and CEO of Alation, Satyen lives his passion of empowering a curious and rational world by fundamentally improving the way data consumers, creators, and stewards find, understand, and trust data. Industry insiders call him a visionary entrepreneur. Those who meet him call him warm and down-to-earth. His kids call him “Dad.”

Satyen Sangani: (00:02) Well before I co-founded Alation, I studied economics. Like any young academic, I was full of ideas. In fact, my master’s thesis had the clever title, Does Brain Drain Lead to Export Gain? …Yeah, we’ll leave that one in the past.

I hypothesized that immigration of highly educated people would lead to increased trade between their home country and the destination countries. It seemed like a really good idea at the time, and as it turned out, it might have been true – sometimes.

I could get a statistically significant result if I included certain countries, time periods, and degrees, but in other cases, when I tried to build a more general model, with lots of countries, people, and time, I couldn’t get conclusive results.

That sounds like cheating, doesn’t it? Select the data to prove your hypothesis. But that wasn’t necessarily the case. It just turned out that trade is a really complicated phenomena.

I know I don’t need to explain the scientific method to you, but I want to talk about what makes it so unique. The scientific method is the best model to discover the truth, because it’s transparent, it can be replicated, and it’s self-correcting. But it’s also nuanced, painstaking, and hard, and that’s really because the world is nuanced, painstaking, and hard.

Proving something once in some sense hardly proves it at all. And that’s the tricky thing about science. When humans are running the show, we add our own variability and bias, so it takes a lot of data and repeated experimentation to get the full picture of some process or phenomena.

Satyen Sangani: (01:42) Today, I’m digging into that grind with journalist Christie Aschwanden. Christie has written about the paradoxes of science throughout her career. She’s the author of the New York Times bestseller, Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery. She’s the cohost of Emerging Form, a podcast about the creative process. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications, including the New York Times, FiveThirtyEight, The Washington Post, Slate, and many, many others.

Producer Read: (02:16) Welcome to Data Radicals, a show about the people who use data to see things that nobody else can. This episode features an interview with Journalist and Podcast Host Christie Aschwanden. In this episode, she and Satyen discuss the scientific method, motivational reasoning, and peak performance in recovery. This podcast is brought to you by Alation. Data citizens love Alation because it surfaces the best data, queries, and expertise instantly, so you can stop hunting and gathering data for days and start driving value for your business in minutes. See why half of all Fortune 100 companies today use Alation. Learn more about Alation at A-L-A-T-I-O-N .com.



Science’s Reproducibility Crisis

Satyen Sangani: (02:58) Your work from FiveThirtyEight was how I got to learn about you and to know about you, because you wrote this great article a few years back called “Science Isn’t Broken.” And that’s obviously particularly relevant to our crowd here at Data Radicals, who are all about promoting science within their organizations. I’d love for you to describe what that article was all about, but much more importantly, what inspired that article, and why did you even write it?

Christie Aschwanden: (03:19) I wrote the article because I’d been writing sort of about the subject matter for a while, and I was becoming a little bit frustrated. There was this… I said “was” there. It actually continues, this ongoing discussion in science about what’s been called the reproducibility crisis or replication crisis, and this is basically the insight that a lot of foundational studies are not being replicated.

One field where this conversation has really been quite robust, and I would say fruitful, is in psychology. There is a very large reproducibility study that went back to some interesting psychology findings, and what they did is they actually tried to replicate those studies, and in this case, they even did their best to talk to the original researchers to get any original research materials, so this wasn’t a game of gotcha. They were really trying to earnestly replicate the original studies and see if they would get the same answers, and in fact, it turned out that many of these studies did not reproduce.

Christie Aschwanden: (04:18) This led to a lot of navel gazing, and there were a lot of people that were saying, “Well, science is broken. Obviously we’re doing it all wrong,” and what I argue in that piece that you’re talking about for FiveThirtyEight is that in fact, science isn’t broken, but I think that the fundamental problem here is that science is actually really hard. And what I mean is it’s very difficult to get a reliable answer from scientific methods. It is also the case that the very best way to get reliable answers is through scientific methods.

Satyen Sangani: (04:49) Christie is highlighting a fascinating catch-22. How do we navigate the inherent contradictions of the scientific method?

Christie Aschwanden: (04:56) That’s almost a little bit of a paradox, and yet I think the real problem here, and the fundamental thing, is that our expectations of science are misaligned with what science can actually do. We want to do one study that tells us everything about anything, you know? You want to do one study that asks 1,000 people what they ate for breakfast and then say, “Okay, now science has identified the healthiest breakfast there is.” Well, you just can’t do it. That’s not how science works.

Christie Aschwanden: (05:23) I mean, first of all, we have a lot of issues, which is the first just begins with, okay, so in this instance, what do you mean by healthiest breakfast? What are we even trying to get at? And then once you even decide on that definition, well how are we going to measure it, and is that measure reliable, and even more important, is that measure something that can be generalized out to real life and to the things that we really care about?

Because when it comes down to it, we do these studies that are really giving us an answer to a very specific question, which is under these circumstances, in this situation, on these days, with these people, what is true? But we want that answer to be able to be generalized to all of us and to every situation, and that’s just sort of asking too much.

Christie Aschwanden: (06:09) So what we need to do is recognize these limitations or these constraints that science faces, so that we can design and carry out the studies that we need to answer the questions that we really have, but also, I think it’s really important to have the humility to understand and to recognize that a lot of answers and a lot of results are not largely generalizable, and that we need to be less quick to generalize everything out.



What Are P Values and What Is P-Hacking?

Satyen Sangani: (06:35) The beginning of the article sort of illustrated all of this nuance with a tool that you built inside of it, where you sort of said, “You can prove that either Democrats or Republicans are good for the economy under a certain set of circumstances,” and you coined… Or maybe you didn’t coin this term. At least, I had never heard it before, even though I’d done statistical work, called P-hacking, which sounds particularly violent.

Can you tell us a little bit about the term, and like what that’s all about? Because I do think that there is a human element of kind of… and motivation around doing this thing, and how does that play into people’s suspicion, or I guess faith in science?

Christie Aschwanden: (07:15) What you’re talking about is called motivational reasoning, and this is one of the most basic human instincts, right? Is that we navigate the world trying to look for the answers that we want. We are very motivated to read the data and to interpret it in a way that’s conducive to our preexisting beliefs. This isn’t people being nefarious necessarily. It’s just a normal human impulse, and scientists are humans like everyone else, and so there is this tendency to arrange studies and to carry them out in a way that will be amenable to your hypothesis, and scientists will set out to prove their hypothesis, when really, you should be strength-testing it, and seeing, “Okay, is it really what I think?”

Christie Aschwanden: (07:57) P-hacking, and I did not… Just to be clear, I did not coin the term, but it refers to something called the P value, which is something I actually did. Maybe you could put a link to this in the show notes.

I actually did a few pieces at FiveThirtyEight, including a fun little video, explaining that basically, no one understands what P values are, and this is part of the fundamental problem. They’re very often misunderstood to be giving you the probability that a result was gotten on accident or just by chance. That is not what a P value does, although it’s very often interpreted that way. What it really does is it tells you something about the distribution of your data, and whether you would expect a result that is similar to that or at least as extreme, if the thing that you’re looking for was not there.

Christie Aschwanden: (08:42) So let’s say I have a drug that I think cures cancer, and you find that it resolves cancer in X cases. What are the chances that that would happen if there was no effect and the drug was not having an effect on the disease? That’s what it’s showing. The real problem here, I think, is that we do not have any way of measuring evidence.

Christie Aschwanden: (09:02) Now, what we really want and what people are looking to P values to do is to tell you whether that result is correct or not, whether it’s true. And we do not have any statistical tests that can tell you that. And so, P values are often taken to give you that, but they don’t. And I think it’s important to recognize that in fact, we don’t have a good way of measuring truth and whether something is correct. And we can take all of the evidence that we have on a question and you put it together and you look at it, but we don’t have a good way of saying, okay yes, this result is true and that one is false or that one is spurious.

Christie Aschwanden: (09:39) This is why we have to do lots of studies and we have to keep asking the same questions in different ways and looking at the problem from different angles. There’s not going to ever be one study that gives us all of the answers. And I think this is where that humility I was talking about earlier comes in. I think the humility has to be on the part of the scientist, but also the public and even us in the media, understanding that we can’t ask single studies to give us the ultimate truth.

We need to understand that one of the most fundamental aspects of science is that it’s provisional. We always have to be open to new evidence and recognize that there’s always the chance that we will gain new evidence that will overturn our current of thinking, and that’s okay.

Satyen Sangani: (10:24) I remember when I was doing my masters and I was working on a econometrics question and ostensibly was doing some P-hacking myself, because the question that I was trying to answer was, was there some correlation between brain drain of immigration with some export gain between the two countries? And so that seemed like a naturally logical thing to try to prove. And of course, there were some circumstances where it was true and there were some circumstances where it wasn’t true. A negative finding is so much more boring and just not very fulfilling relative to a positive finding. So there’s this kind of motivation question.

Satyen Sangani: (10:57) But on the other hand, the other side of this is getting people to accept the nuance. And that almost feels like the harder thing, which is, one, you’ve got to interpret this actor, this scientist, who really, no matter how dispassionate they are, are still in the game to find something.

And then on the other hand, like how do you get people, whether it’s the pandemic or other circumstances, to accept the nuance and to accept the fact that there is this self-correcting nuanced bit that people are constantly learning and changing what they know. That’s got to be frustrating and it’s got to prevent people’s ability to invest. Right?

Christie Aschwanden: (11:34) It really sends us down a lot of dead ends too, because everyone’s so quick to want to jump on something. I wrote a book about exercise recovery looking at all kinds of products like sports drinks, sports bars, rollers, ice bags, all of those sorts of things. And what I found in looking at this research is there’s such an impulse to just jump on the newest, latest thing. And everyone’s worried that they’re going to be missing out because there’s this new fangled thing, but very often that new thing doesn’t pan out. And so if you’re always chasing the latest greatest, most of those are going to be dead ends.

And so instead of focusing on the things that are established and that you know work and that are really going to do what you want them to. If you’re always chasing the thing that you think your competition has as their secret edge, you’re just going to end up wasting a lot of time and money on things that in the end probably won’t help you. And in fact, it may hurt you because you’ve used these resources chasing them that could have been better put to use on something that’s more established.

Satyen Sangani: (12:33) Which is possibly the argument of the naysayer. Like, why are we investing this anyways? We know what’s worked for us all the time. The new stuff leads us down all these dead ends. And that’s also a challenge to get people to think differently. Have you seen sort of success in getting people to sort of evolve their thinking or successful circumstances in your work where people have sort of still gone in head first?

Christie Aschwanden: (12:58) I think what you’re describing here are two sort of ends of the spectrum. So on one end of the spectrum you have the people that are like, we always have to do the latest, newest innovative things. And then on the other end of the spectrum are the people that are like, let’s just keep doing what we’re doing. It’s not broken, let’s not fix it, let’s keep going. And I think really the best kind of thinking is in between those two. I mean, if there’s sort of trait that I would recommend it’s being open and sort of keeping an open mind. Each thing is going to have its own circumstances, how open you want to be and how many resources you want to throw at something new. But I think it is important to always keep that open mind and to be open to possibility.

Christie Aschwanden: (13:39) I think that the root problem here is jumping on things too much or becoming too tied to ideas. I think it’s really important to always recognize that there’s a possibility that whatever you’re thinking now is wrong. And so being alert to evidence that might overturn it, not because you want to think that you’re always thinking the wrong thing, but that’s just the reality, right? And that’s the reality of science is that it’s always evolving. And so if you become very fixed in your thinking, you’re going to miss out and you may really be holding onto something when you have better evidence that would send you in a better direction.



 Does Science Have a Dishonesty Problem?

Satyen Sangani: (14:13) I think the lesson here for a lot of the folks who are in our audience, who are people who are trying to spread scientific thinking within their organizations is almost to name it as they’re on the journey. Like we’re going down this journey of trying to build a scientific culture, but hey, guess what? It’s going to be frustrating. There are going to be dead ends. There’s going to be some amazing insights. It’s not going to be linear. And to be able to set expectations while also selling the outcome of the promise land.

I guess I want to get back to this point around the actor. So, there’s always this question of like fraud, right? So how often in science does true fraud actually happen?

Christie Aschwanden: (14:48) We have many, many examples of it. It’s not how most people work, but it’s not extremely rare either. And I would say that really the answer to that is scientists are as dishonest or honest as anyone else. And I think you can look to business, you can look at other industries and say probably the number of people who are bad actors is pretty similar because this is really a human trade, it’s not something so much that tracks with science I would say.

Christie Aschwanden: (15:14) One thing that happens in science is that incentives are really misaligned to seeking truth. Science is supposed to be this thing that is trying to understand the world and get us closer to truths, but the way that the incentives are set up, that’s not what it rewards. It rewards sexy results. It rewards findings that are very novel, but we know that novel findings because they’re so novel there’s a good chance that they’re not going to hold up. For every novel finding there’s another one that doesn’t end up panning out. And so we have to be careful here, but the incentives are all really pushing scientists to cut some corners here or there, or to really be chasing the wrong rewards, and that’s a problem.

Satyen Sangani: (16:00) Yeah, I think it is. It’s funny because a lot of the time people come to me and they say, look, I need more stories to evangelize within my company the value of data and analytics efforts.

And those stories are powerful because they allow people to have vision and to dream. But often when you’re sort of changing people’s thinking the real change isn’t sort of the bright insight that is the shining example of some transformational change. But, it’s really the subtle way in which you’re getting people to think more inquisitively, more curiously, which affects their day-to-day behavior and more critically how they approach their jobs and what they do and gives them that flexibility of thinking that allows them to be more innovative and more thoughtful in response to a hard question.

Christie Aschwanden: (16:45)Stories are the way that we make sense of data. People do not naturally think in data, I mean, even data scientists don’t think in data, we think in stories. That’s how we understand the world. That’s how we understand our data. We have these numbers, but then we inevitably tell a story about them in order to interpret them and to understand them.

So I think it’s important to recognize that’s something that we all do. And you have to be very careful because it’s very easy, if you’re not careful you can create a lot of just so stories around the data. Just So Stories, this is named after an old Rudolph Kipling children’s book, it’s explaining why the leopard got its spots and why the elephant has its trunk and all these things and it’s basically taking something you’ve seen and just creating a story to explain why it’s true.

Which is different than having the data actually show that it’s true. It’s very easy to set up these stories, the problem comes in when you become so attached to the just so story that you forgot that was just the story you made up to explain the data and that you don’t actually have evidence that that’s the case. 


 The Role of Curiosity in Science and Storytelling

Satyen Sangani: (17:53) You cover science, and obviously you cover a fairly wide variety of subject matters, many people are just like you in some sense: the analyst who is just trying to understand the world around them.

How do you go about choosing what you’re researching or which stories you are working on?

Christie Aschwanden: (18:08) Honestly, I just really follow my own curiosity. And I do a lot of reading in the scientific literature, I follow interesting scientists on Twitter. I pay attention to what other folks are talking about. And when I find something that catches my interest, then I will go deeper and start researching it.

But I don’t go setting out necessarily to say, “Well, I’m going to cover this particular thing or another thing.” There are certainly topics that I have already developed some expertise in, and that I’ve covered a lot; nutrition is one of them. And so, of course, when there’s new science coming out on that, I will always pay attention and look at it.

Christie Aschwanden: (18:43) But really, I think the thing that has been most fruitful for me is just truly allowing myself to be curious. I think by nature, I’m a very curious person, and I just follow that curiosity. And I find that as long as I’m following my own curiosity, I usually find some interesting stuff. And if I’m interested in something, there’s a pretty good chance other people will be, too. So, I’ve kind of learn to trust that metric a little bit.

Satyen Sangani: (19:07) And how much agency do you have there, relative to feedback that you get from editors, other community members, people who are thinking and talking about the same topics, and how does that interaction model work? Because you have a podcast. Right? And your podcast is basically all about creativity and the creative process. And so, what can our listeners learn from that process, and setting up the right preconditions for themselves?

Christie Aschwanden: (19:30) Yeah. Well, so for my stories, it’s… A lot of them, I pitch myself; so I just come up with them without any input from editors. And I’ll pitch them to the editors, who can then say yes or no. Some of my stories will come from suggestions from the editors. Sometimes it’s a combination, where I will propose something and they’ll say, “Well, what if we took this angle?” Or vice versa. So it tends to be pretty collaborative.

Christie Aschwanden: (19:52) But my podcast, you’re correct, is all about this; it’s about creative process. And one of the things that we really spend a lot of time looking at is, how does creativity happen? How can we nurture it? What are the things that sort of allow us to be creative?

And it was interesting. We just had a guest on, I don’t think this episode is out yet, but she talked about… She writes poetry now, but she started off writing short stories, and spent a lot of time and went to very a prestigious program to write short stories and all of this; and just realized that that just wasn’t the right genre for her. It just never really stuck. But when she started trying poetry, she realized, “Aha, this is the right medium for me.” And now… She also does some painting.

Christie Aschwanden: (20:36) And so I think the lesson there, is to just try new things and to push yourself a little bit. So often, I think when we feel like we’re really knocking our head against a wall, the lesson that we might take is, “Oh, I’m terrible. Why can’t I do this better?” When in fact, that the real takeaway could be, “This isn’t the right media for me. Or this isn’t… I’m going about this problem the wrong way.” Or maybe even, “This isn’t the right problem to be solving right now. Maybe this is an unsolvable problem.” And so, looking towards other things.



When to Quit Versus When to Keep Going

Christie Aschwanden: (21:07) We did a whole episode once about quitting, and yeah, asking this question. In any sort of worthwhile creative endeavor, you get to a point where you want to quit, because it’s just going horribly, and every idea starts out and it’s brilliant; but somewhere along the way of executing it, you realize that it’s all crap. And, “Why did you ever commit to this idea?” And all that. And so, there’s that; and that’s the kind of wanting to quit that you need to push through.

Christie Aschwanden: (21:33) But there’s another kind of quitting that’s actually really fruitful. And sometimes we try things and they don’t work, and you need to just cut and run, and take those lessons and say, “Okay. I tried this thing, and I learned some things that I’m going to now take those lessons and apply to something else.”

Christie Aschwanden: (21:47) And I think that’s another really important trait that really productive and creative people have, is understanding, being willing to try new things, and really take a chance. But also, not just staying committed to something because they feel like they can’t quit and, “Quitters never win,” and all of those sorts of things; that no, actually, sometimes you need to make mistakes or follow dead ends along the way to sort of see what’s down the road, and figure out the route you want to take.

Satyen Sangani: (22:15) So, what did you learn from that episode? When do you quit? When do you decide your analytical exercise or the story that you’re trying to write, or the poem that you’re trying to create, it’s just not working out. And how do you make that decision, and how do you know when it is time to quit and walk away?

Christie Aschwanden: (22:32) That’s a difficult thing. And it’s… I don’t think that it has a hard and fast answer. If it did, it wouldn’t be a difficult question. Right? But I think some of it is experience, and sort of learning, and getting to know for yourself sort of the difference of that feeling of just, “Okay. This is getting hard.”

Christie Aschwanden: (22:48) I think so often when something gets really hard, our instinct is to want to turn away and do something else, or think about, “Oh, here’s another project I could do instead.” Because the new project, you haven’t started yet. And so, you can’t hit any of the difficult parts yet. So, being able to recognize that “No, it’s just that feeling, and I need to push through and suffer through this,” is different than, “Okay. I’ve been trying this. I’ve tried it in different ways. I’ve really given it a go.” And I think part of it is, some of it is time, some of it is really feeling your energy of, “Okay.”

Christie Aschwanden: (23:21) I think with you wake up in the morning, and you’re really dreading doing that work, that’s a pretty clear sign. That’s okay for a short period when you’re in that tricky phase of every project. But if you’ve sort of recognized that, “Okay. It’s not just that phase,” then I think it’s really good information that you need to pay attention to.

Satyen Sangani: (23:40) And I think also, and to your point, understanding where you are within the phasing of whatever it is that you’re trying to create is really important. We have, within Alation, innovation efforts where there are people who are trying to find new products and new business models; and that’s really tough and exploratory. And it’s really hard to judge those projects with the same lens that you might judge those projects which are, “Oh, we’ve done it 50 times, and we’re going to have to do it another 400.”

Satyen Sangani: (23:40) And those people want to apply the same measures and metrics, but often, they don’t or can’t. And so, there’s a educational process, I think, to your point about both being self-aware, but also being aware of what circumstance the team and the people are in.

Which gets to culture; this entire podcast is about creating culture. You wrote a book about recovery science; and there’s, I think a relationship between that work and sort of the mental and thought work that a lot of creative people undergo. So, what did you learn there? And what were the tricks to peak performance? And how should people think about recovery, and maybe what are the common recovery myths?



The Power of Sleep and Unscheduled Time

Christie Aschwanden: (24:43) I think one of the most common myths is just that you can somehow buy your way to peak performance with products or gimmicks or things like that. Really, it’s the basic things that work best. And the number one thing that any high performing person can do, I don’t care what kind of field you’re in, is prioritize sleep, and make sure that you’re sleeping well.

Christie Aschwanden: (25:07) Whatever field you’re in, whatever kind of work you do, whatever kind of performance you’re seeking, sleep is the number one way that you’re going to be able to improve your performance. There’s just nothing better, in terms of cognitive and physical performance. Sleep is really important, and it’s something that people just very often… I can’t help but laugh when I hear all of these entrepreneurs bragging about how little sleep they get, and how they wake up at four in the morning to start work and things like this. And I just think, “Are you crazy? Why would you do that? You’re really cutting into your productivity. You’re cutting into your cognitive and physical abilities by doing that.”

Satyen Sangani: (25:43)How to plan your day is also important. Christie recommends that you build unstructured time into your calendar.

Christie Aschwanden: (25:48) I think it’s extremely important that every single day you have some part of the day that is unscheduled. We are living in this culture where it’s like every moment has to be productive. And if you turn your entire life into this exercise in optimization and being productive, your brain and your mind just never has time to relax. And so many of the most amazing insights and creative sparks come from this time when our minds are just wandering and we’re not scheduled, and we’re not under pressure to be doing something.

Christie Aschwanden: (26:21) And so, I think it’s just extremely important that every person has some time in the day that’s just downtime, there’s no expectation of anything. It can be lying on the couch. It can be going for a walk. I like to sit on my front porch and watch the sunset. Whatever it is, but just something where you’re just letting yourself think a little bit and your body relax, too; because yeah, that’s part of getting that energy back.

There’s the outputs that you want to put out, but then you also need to sort of breathe in and take things in, too. And so, there’s that aspect of it as well, giving yourself time to read and to take in the kinds of media that might have the kinds of ideas that you’re looking for. And so, I think really finding the balance between those two.

And so, I think really finding the balance between those two: taking in and putting out.

Satyen Sangani: (27:07) Would love to get back to the question of sleep. There are the people who obviously are sort of theoretical warriors who are trying to position lack of sleep as this amazing weapon that they have. But then, there’s the people who are actually ridden with anxiety, just working too hard, can’t sleep. So one, what are the benefits? Two, how do you create the conditions to sleep better?

Christie Aschwanden: (27:29) There are so many proven benefits. Sleep is really important for memory and for cognitive tasks. So, with your sleep deprived, it’s basically like, I have this in my book, and I’m sorry, I haven’t looked at it in a long time, so I don’t remember the numbers, but it’s like trying to get by on five hours sleep is like having knocked back six beers or something and trying to go to work.

And this is based on where they gave athletes cognitive and physical tasks after certain levels of sleep deprivation, and they were able to equate them with sort of the same kinds of detriments you’d see with alcohol consumption.

But one thing that’s really fascinating to me that’s come out of some of the research on this, is that people who are sleep deprived are basically incapable of seeing their detriments. So, they’ll say, “Yeah, yeah. I’m fine.” But you test them, and they’re not fine, but these problems are sort of invisible to them. They really do think that they’re coping okay, but it’s just because they’re too impaired to recognize the problem, so it’s almost this very vicious cycle that goes around and round.

Christie Aschwanden: (28:27) And so, to the second part of your question, “How do you create the conditions?” I mean, there are a lot of things that you can do, and there’s been a lot written about good sleep hygiene. I mean, there’s some very basic things like go to bed and get up at the same time every day, so your body can really get into a sleep cycle and a rhythm. That helps a lot, actually. In the morning, you want to expose yourself to bright light. Before bed, you want to avoid bright light, including screens. You want your bedroom to be dark. There’s an interesting study that just came out recently showing that even a little bit of light in the bedroom can be detrimental to sleep.

Satyen Sangani: (29:02) And what about those of us who always wake up in the middle of the night?

Christie Aschwanden: (29:06) If you are having this kind of problem, before you go to bed, sit down and write out some of your worries or think about the things that are going to keep you up and just spend a little time writing some thoughts down so that you don’t have this feeling like you need to retain this over the night.

One thing that I did accidentally, but that I found is extremely good for my sleep, is my clock radio at the bedstand quit at one point, and I didn’t replace it right away. And I found that not knowing what time it is when I wake up in the middle of the night was actually really helpful.

Satyen Sangani: (29:36) What strikes me about all of these habits is that they’re all cumulatively very subtle. So, it’s not just like, “Get a great mattress, and you’ll get great sleep,” or, “Black out the room,” and it’s all done, which I think is, on some level, going back to full circle because science is this really nuanced thing that we talked about. And there are all of these different preconditions under which things work and don’t work.

And I think, maybe, if there’s no other lesson from this episode of the podcast, it is that there’s a nurturing and a patience and a messiness that you have to accept if you’re really going to go down and go try to incentivize people to think more scientifically.

Satyen Sangani: (30:20)Christie, this was an amazing episode. I guess, maybe take us out with a bit of advice. Our listeners are folks who are trying to change culture, change thinking. From all of your learnings, how would you tell them to think about their work maybe differently than they otherwise would’ve been? Or what advice would you give them?

Christie Aschwanden: (30:38) I think my number one advice is leave room for uncertainty. I think it’s really important. And by that, I mean leave room for uncertainty in your thinking. Leave room for uncertainty in your results. Look for the uncertainty. Lean into it. I think our instinct is so often to turn away and to try and just grab onto the things that are most certain, but it’s really in those uncertain parts where real discovery and creativity take place. So, yeah. I would just offer that people should really leave room for this uncertainty and lean into it. Don’t turn away. I think that’s where the really interesting insights will happen.

Satyen Sangani: (31:16) Thank you so much for the time, Christie. It was amazing to have you on the show.

Christie Aschwanden: (31:19) Thanks for having me. This is my pleasure.

Satyen Sangani: (31:21) “As a human being, one has been endowed with just enough intelligence to be able to see clearly how utterly inadequate that intelligence is when confronted with what exists.”

That’s a quote from Albert Einstein. After conducting this interview, it’s one that has special resonance for me.

Data has the power to transform organizations, but only if we are humble enough to accept the guidance the data can bring us.

If you like the articles we discussed in today’s episode, click on the show notes for this episode. We’ve also linked to Christie’s podcast, Emerging Form. Thank you to Christie for joining us for this episode of Data Radicals. This is Satyen Sangani, co-founder and CEO of Alation. Thank you for listening.

Producer Read: (32:40) This podcast is brought to you by Alation. Catch us at Snowflake Summit this summer. Hear how people use Alation with Snowflake to uncover insights and business opportunities in data, innovate ahead of the curve and build data products that were unthinkable just two years ago. Snowflake Summit runs from June 13th to the 16th. Attend virtually or in person in Las Vegas. We can’t wait to see you there. Learn more at

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Ashish Thusoo

Ashish Thusoo

Founder of Qubole and Creator of Apache Hive

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