What Inspires You? A Q&A with Sean Young, PhD

Image courtesy of  Lynwood Lord

Image courtesy of Lynwood Lord

Who were the instructors or mentors that made the biggest difference in your life?

My mentors have shaped my life so much. I guess I should start with my parents, who encouraged me to pursue any area of work that I wanted. They taught me that I need to satisfy my basic living needs of having a roof over my head, but after that all I need is to pursue what makes me happy. That if I really went after what I wanted I'd be successful enough, and more importantly, I'd be happy. I have my music teachers, like Roberto Miranda, my bass instructor at UCLA, who taught me to live in the moment and listen to things around me. My psychology professors in college like Traci Mann and Matt Lieberman taught me that I was a bigger nerd than I thought I was, by inspiring me so much that I would show up at their office hours every week just to talk to them and learn. I had graduate school advisors who accepted me to Stanford and then taught me that I wasn't as smart as I thought I was, that there are really brilliant people out there and that it's humbling being a researcher as you have to be wrong a lot. I've also been inspired by friends in the tech and business world who have helped me see a vision of how technology and psychology is the future of the world. Finally, I think I'm constantly guided by a mentor I never met, my mom's father, but I frequently hear stories about how he would have loved to see me playing music and working in medicine as he put himself through medical school by being a concert violinist.

I really think that who I am in life is less about what I've done and more about how others have shaped me, whether they were my ancestors who died before I was born to help me, or my mentors who shaped my life while I've been alive. But I guess that just proves I’m a social psychologist.

What book made the biggest impact on you? Also, are there any science writers or authors in general who you look to to inspire the public about developments in technology or psychology?

I think more than books, the thousands of psychology research papers I have read have really made a difference in my life. They taught me that the way I used to see the world was actually an area of study. They also taught me that people are much more similar to each other and much more connected than I would have thought. They taught me to be open to people and optimistic about society because we're all in it together and experiencing similar things.

Off the top of my head, the first influential book that comes to mind is
Market Wizards. That may be because I'm odd (that book has probably never been named in a top-10 list of influential books), or maybe it means I don't read books enough, but the other part is that I think it is really fascinating and influential. It's a book of interviews with some of the top hedge fund managers and traders. It's not just interesting for the advice they give on finance, but it's extremely rich in psychology. People are extremely emotional when it comes to losing money and these market wizards have mastered that psychology. They explain their processes and paths, with many ups and downs, and I realized that the same principles could be applied far beyond trading, to mastering psychology and emotions throughout all parts of life.

You graduated from Stanford, so I’m wondering if you’ve been inspired by entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley? Also, the Los Angeles area has its own technological boomtown in Santa Monica, which has embraced the nickname “Silicon Beach.” Do you see an opportunity to work with start-up companies in Santa Monica?

I’ve always cared about making sure my work applies to the real world. One way I've done this is to keep one foot rooted in the start-up community. For example, last week, I gave a presentation at the Seoul Forum in Korea (click here for video). At the beginning of the talk, I gave an example of a company I worked with at Stanford that got started when we were all students. The company took research I had done in psychology and incorporated it into a healthcare product. I was involved in a number of start-ups in grad school, throwing myself into every new experience I could find. Some examples were a rating system for assisted living facilities, a sports betting app, and a way to connect healthcare workers across the world to people in areas that experienced disasters like earthquakes.

When I moved to L.A., there wasn’t yet much of a start-up scene so I had to pull friends from the Bay Area to work with me, but over the past few years the L.A. start-up has gotten really hot. Some of the start-ups I’ve been involved with in L.A. have been one on creating an online health community, a prediction market that can be used to predict sports, music, and political events, and my own automated stock trading method to predict moves in the market. I haven't had much time where I can lead a start-up, so lately I've spent more time advising companies. I currently advise five companies that are primarily in the health and technology space.

School districts are competing to see who can install the most up-to-date technology and online learning tools. Do you see tech educational aids as a universal good for students, or have you heard of instances where they hinder learning?

I think technologies are just tools that can make things more efficient and able to reach a lot of people. They can be used for good or bad. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram can lead to bad things, like people bullying each other, but they can also lead to good things, like getting people to be healthier when social media is paired with the HOPE intervention. I think the situation is the same for education. If used correctly, tech aids can improve education and inspire students. We were recently asked by a large funder to modify the HOPE intervention to improve teaching methods among teachers. I believe tools like HOPE that allow people to become educated all across the world at the same time can be really valuable in our educational system.

If you could make a 30-second speech to the entire world, what would you say?

If I could address the entire world, I'd rather do it in a song than a speech!