Dear Me, Future Psychologist. Yours truly, Dr. Alison Gopnik

Check out our latest installment of Dear Me, Future Psychologist, a gradPSYCH Blog exclusive in which a prominent psychologist writes a letter to their 16-year-old self. We hope you enjoy these letters and glean some invaluable wisdom and guidance as you decide whether to enter graduate school in psychology, as you navigate the challenges of graduate school, and as you make decisions about your career and life.

Gopnik photo really hi-res tiff (002)This letter is from Dr. Alison Gopnik. Dr. Gopnik is a professor of psychology and affiliate professor of philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley, where she has taught since 1988. She received her BA from McGill University and her PhD. from Oxford University. She is a world leader in cognitive science, particularly the study of children’s learning and development. She is the author of over 100 journal articles and several books including the bestselling and critically acclaimed popular books “The Scientist in the Crib” William Morrow, 1999, “The Philosophical Baby; What children’s minds tell us about love, truth and the meaning of life” Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2009,  and  “The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the new science of child development tells us about the relationship between parents and children” Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2016. She is a fellow of the Cognitive Science Society and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

She writes the Mind and Matter science column for the Wall Street Journal. And she has also written widely about cognitive science and psychology for The New Yorker, Science, The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Times Literary Supplement, The New York Review of Books, New Scientist and Slate, among others. She has frequently appeared on TV and radio including “The Charlie Rose Show” and “The Colbert Report”. Her TED talk has been seen over 2.75 million times. She has three sons and three grand-children and lives in Berkeley, California with her husband Alvy Ray Smith.



May 2017

Dear Me,

Now by all the rules, you should be the one who is hesitant and uncertain, just starting out in life as you are, and I should be the one who’s figured it all out – I have the very unfair advantage, after all, of knowing how things will turn out. But, knowing you as I do, I’m afraid it’s mostly going to be the reverse. You are so sure about who you are and what you’re going to do, and most of my wisdom is a lifetime’s accumulation of doubt, even about the most fundamental biographical facts.

There is the question about philosophy, for example. Right now you are a precocious sophomore at McGill University during that marvelous cognitive science annus mirabilis of 1970, when, as Wordsworth said “bliss was it in that dawn to be alive”. You’re utterly absorbed by Hume and Descartes and Plato and Chomsky, and even those wonderfully obscure ancient presocratics, and medieval Islamic philosophers. And you have just decided to establish the Philosophy Students Association, completely confident as always, that this will be your life.

Why did you become a psychologist instead? Was it the right thing to do? Even then you knew that you were deeply interested in psychology, and that like your philosophical heroes, Hume and Descartes, you had no interest in disciplinary walls. And even then you thought that understanding children was going to be key to answering the grand questions of epistemology. And, of course, even now I’m an affiliate in philosophy here at Berkeley, and have never lost the sense I shared with you that my gifts were for argument and theory. We both have an official story, deciding that showing how important children were to philosophy would be our life’s work, and that developmental psychology was the place to do it.

But what about the fact that there were no women faculty in the philosophy department? What about that time when your most admired radical left-wing philosophical mentor explained that there never would be women in the department because they were just too erotically distracting? You dismissed it then, he was, after all, over thirty, which felt ancient then, and you still dismiss it now. But empirical work has taught me that the statistics say more than first-person experience, and still there are hardly any women in philosophy.

You said then, and I repeat less confidently now, that it was just as important for women to reclaim traditionally female domains like childhood – to show that they were just as profound and difficult and illuminating as male domains– as it was for women to break into domains like logic and computation. And then there has been the sheer unmitigated joy I share with you of being with children and figuring out how they think for all these years. But would staying in philosophy have spared you those wincing conversations that, no, what you do is not just like being a preschool teacher?

Then there is the part about work and life. You are lucky to be 16 in the one moment in history, after the pill, but before AIDS, when it was possible for a young woman to experience genuinely carefree sexual adventure. As always with you, as you will feel when you have three children just a few years from now, you were quite sure that you could do and be everything. But now how do I feel about it? I’ve never regretted the children for a second, but perhaps if you had put the energy and time and thought that you dedicated to love and life into work instead, you would have gotten more done, sooner, and wouldn’t have waited till your fifties to really dedicate yourself single-mindedly to research. But then I would miss those memories of striding down St. Denis street at dawn on your way home from some romantic escapade– I doubt if memories of working in the library all night could take their place. The one piece of advice I’d definitely give is that you are wrong to overlook women, it took you till fifty to dispel your certainty that you were exclusively heterosexual. (Oh and you should definitely take more math classes, too, and learn how to program!).

The biggest difference between us is that all the fluid rivulets of future hypotheticals dancing in front of you have frozen into the counterfactuals I see when I look back. But, in truth, as you would have sung then, loudly and tunelessly channeling Piaf, as you strode across campus, “je ne regrette rien.”

Editor’s Note: Dear Me, Future Psychologist is inspired by the Dear Me book series by Joseph Galliano. Special thanks to David A. Meyerson, Ph.D. for creating this series for the gradPSYCH Blog. Please check out other letters in this series: