Life During Lockdown: David Epstein

Photo by Mike Walsh

David is one of my favorite journalists, thinkers and authors. He digs into the places where science and life intersect; that could be in sports or in other areas. You may have read his book The Sports Gene or any number of his important investigative pieces for Sports Illustrated or ProPublica. I first became aware of David via his excellent reporting on doping in sports: He broke the stories about Alex Rodriguez using steroids in 2009 and, in 2015, he detailed how Nike Oregon Project coach Alberto Salazar pressured his athletes to use banned substances. This year I read David’s New York Times #1 bestselling book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, which had a huge impact on me, as a generalist myself. He’s also given a couple highly successful TED talks (see below) that have been viewed over 8 million times. When I was preparing to give my own TED talk a few years ago, David generously offered his learnings to help me prepare. David lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife and son, and given the tragic impact of the virus on his own family (which he mentions here), I’m grateful that he took the time to craft such thoughtful replies to my questions.

Give me some highlights and lowlights from your first month and a half in lockdown mode.

Well, the lowlights have been the losses of two family members from COVID-19, one on my wife’s side and one on mine. Not much more to say about that. More broadly speaking, a different kind of lowlight has been when I’ve been asked several times for predictions about the post-COVID-19 future. (This happened twice, in the pre-interviews for podcasts that were considering having me on, though I didn’t end up on either one.) Both times, while I think there are numerous positive things that may come out of this pandemic in the long run — I am constantly impressed by humanity’s creativity under constraints — I can’t help but think that one certainty, at least in the short term, is that this situation will increase inequality. And all of the secondary effects of increasing inequality that I can think of are bad. So it has been a lowlight for that to be the prediction that I’m most confident of.

In terms of highlights, I’ve spent a ton of time with my 15-month-old, and I treasure it. I was traveling like crazy before the pandemic. I had gotten myself overcommitted. I was all stuff that I wanted to do, but managing the near-overnight transition from spending two years mostly in isolation and in my own head working on a project, to flying at least weekly and running my mouth constantly is a little tricky. I don’t think anyone does it perfectly because it’s unusual. So getting off the road and spending time with my son has been wonderful. A secondary effect of that is a massive increase in my knowledge about construction equipment. I take him for a walk every morning and we can’t pass a backhoe without examining it from every side. He’s a bit of a local celebrity at the construction sites — from a social distance, of course. And I didn’t even know what a skid steer was before, but now that I do, I find it more interesting. I guess like anything, once you learn a bit about it, it becomes more interesting to look at. Hilariously, I recently sent a congratulatory text to a woman who sat beside me at ProPublica and just won a Pulitzer, and we swapped pictures of our kids. Hers is slightly older, and he was wearing a shirt with a backhoe on it in the picture, so I guess this is a thing.

Another highlight has been some volunteer work. Over the last month, I did some of my annual work with the Pat Tillman Foundation. It was a bummer not to be able to do some of it in person, but it’s always a pleasure to interact with that group. I leave every interaction with them feeling optimistic about the world. And I’ve also been doing a bit of fundraising and publicity help for the National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project. This started because it’s run by a scientist I wrote about in the last chapter of Range. More info on that here, for anyone who’s interested. It’s been awesome to see people step up under difficult circumstances to create a national collaboration that went from nothing to treating more than 10,000 people in 10 weeks. (That said, we still need to learn more about convalescent plasma, and trials are underway…that, too, is part of the project.)

Photo by Deb Lindsey

How have you grown personally and professionally during the crisis?

This is trite, but as with any life-altering disruption, I’ve taken more time to reflect on what’s important to me and what I want to emphasize. I’ve never been one who needs an extra helping of memento mori, but I do think that the way I spend my time will be at least slightly tweaked coming out of this. I’ve also tried to be a bit more proactive about expressing gratitude. I was going in that direction normally anyway, but this just accelerated it. As I’ve gotten older, it becomes increasingly important to me to work with people who are responsive and kind. And when that happens, I want to take more time to tell them. So just in the course of normal interactions, I’ve been doing that more. I think it makes both sides feel good, the proverbial good trade for both teams. My progress in that direction was accelerated by getting one of the nastiest notes I’ve received from someone for whom I did a big favor, and it came just as I was getting ready to join a Zoom conference for virtual mourning. It reminded me that some people never stop to consider what might be going on in the life of the person on the other end. It’s just a good reminder to default to kindness, and take a minute here and there to express gratitude to caring people. That’s not to say we can never get angry or frustrated or never vent — that would be ridiculous. But if I do all that in the same way I did years ago before I understood more about the complexities of life, then I think that would represent a lack of personal growth. My favorite quote in Range is: “We learn who we are in practice, not in theory.” So I’m definitely taking this opportunity to sort of observe my own thoughts and actions, since being in a new and unexpected situation gives you a chance to learn more about yourself.

Professionally, I started a newsletter, “The Range Report.” I actually had started it previously, but sent it out like three times and then stopped. But when social distancing started, with daycare closed I was spending a lot more time in childcare. (My wife runs the nonprofit Chalkbeat — their traffic jumped dramatically because they created maps showing where kids and families who usually rely on schools for free or subsidized meals could get food — and is cofounder and board chair of The American Journalism Project, so a bunch of people actually depend on her!) Anyway, I realized I didn’t have the time to laser focus like I do when I research for major writing projects, but that I did have the headspace to do a newsletter that was shorter and conversational in tone, and that I actually enjoy it. So now I’m thinking maybe I’ll keep it going after the pandemic, but I haven’t decided for sure yet.

Lastly, I’ve been doing less running, and a lot more jump rope and core circuits. Always a good reminder that running alone doesn’t do much for your core! I’ve done jump rope on and off for years, starting when I lived on a ship in the Pacific Ocean and needed a form of exercise. (If you learn to jump rope on a seismic research vessel, terra firma is easy.) So early in the pandemic I managed 3,000 jumps in a row without a miss. And I also saw that people were doing hilarious and awesome feats of endurance, often as fundraisers. One guy ran a marathon in his backyard. Another climbed the height of Everest on the one flight of stairs in his house. I love that stuff, so got the idea that I’d try to do 100,000 rope jumps in a day. The trouble, I quickly realized, was that my limiting factor becomes the muscle at the base of my thumb, since you have to grip pretty hard. So I experimented with changing grips, and thought maybe I could attach a rope to some gloves somehow, but haven’t done that. But given the hand fatigue, I realized I’d need to rest for a significant portion of every hour of jumping. And once I started realizing that might mean I’d need all 24 hours of the day, I decided I didn’t have the time or inclination to train for that right now. Maybe I’ll set a lower goal some day, like 50,000. But really what fun is 50,000?

Interviewing Tony Hawk in Dublin, Ireland

Has your relationship with your work changed as a result of the pandemic?

Work has both changed a ton and not at all. A ton: at the time travel stopped, I was doing a lot of speaking, so I was mainly traveling, and not so much researching and writing. (Although, I do research for talks I write since I’m constantly changing them, but it’s not the same sort of work.) That stopped on a dime, of course. At the same time, I’m in the very privileged spot of having plenty of work I can do from home. When I’m actually in the process of writing a book, if I’m not traveling for reporting, then I’m working at home just like I can now. But because I was planning to do one kind of work for most of 2020, and that went away, I wasn’t totally sure what to do right away. So I dove into some of the volunteer stuff, and now I’ve started using Prezi Video to create some cool virtual presentations. I’m going to try one of those coming up soon. If it works well, maybe I’ll do more in the future. That said, some of my favorite conference experiences have been the random conversation with someone in the hall after a talk, who I then stay in touch with. So I hope at some point we have a balance of virtual and in-person meetings.

Can storytelling and journalism create positive change in the world during a crisis like this?

This is a big question, and since my ridiculously digressive brain has gone on way too long on other questions, I’m going to keep it short. Yes it can. It can also create negative change. Stories are powerful, and I think anyone who pays attention to journalism regularly has seen examples where some powerful n=1 story creates momentous change, either for the better or for the worse. As with any fast moving situation, there has been problematic journalism, but I also think, for people who are looking, there has been an incredible amount of phenomenal work, from investigations by my former colleagues at ProPublica, to crystal clear explanations of complex topics (e.g. How many strains of coronavirus are there?) by writers like Ed Yong, to novel ways of rapidly disseminating data-driven information by people like Emily Oster.

On a different level, my mind has gravitated regularly to Giovanni Boccacio’s The Decameron. Written in the 14th Century during the Black Death — which wiped out something like a third to a half of Europe’s population — the frame for the book is that a group of young people retreat from the decay and death of the plague to a cloistered garden, where they tell stories. The stories run the gamut of human themes — friendship, trickery, treachery, love, lust, virtue. My interpretation is that in walling themselves off from the destruction for a time, through the telling of stories they are preserving and restoring all that has been lost from a civil society amid disaster. It is both a privilege for them and a duty, I think. I think it’s obvious in a time like the present how excellent explanatory and investigative journalism can cause positive change, but I think it’s less obvious that documenting humanity, the good and the bad, is a critical act of cultural preservation. Storytelling is also a mode of connection, and of helping people feel seen. I’ll end with a quote from Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nobel acceptance speech: “But in the end, stories are about one person saying to another: This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?”

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