Tamar Haspel: “Time on the Steep Part of the Learning Curve Builds Confidence” 

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Interview: Tamar Haspel

Tamar Haspel writes the James Beard Award-winning Washington Post column "Unearthed," which looks at how our diet affects us and our planet. She’s also written for Discover, Vox, Slate, Fortune, Eater, and Edible Cape Cod. With journalist Mike Grunwald, she co-hosts the Climavores podcast, which examines food’s impact on climate and environment.

Her book, To Boldly Grow: Finding Joy, Adventure, and Dinner in Your Own Backyard came out earlier this year.

I couldn't wait to talk to Tamar about happiness, habits, and food.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

Tamar: Doing something I’ve never done before because that first iteration – from zero to one – is where you learn more than any subsequent iteration. I can work and work – for decades! – at becoming a better writer, but the increments of improvement are small and uncertain. Undetectable, even.

But over the last decade, I’ve built a chicken coop, grown shiitake mushrooms, caught fish, raised several kinds of livestock, and (this is a big one) learned to back up a trailer. What it taught me, besides those actual skills, of course, is that spending time on the steep part of the learning curve builds confidence and competence. It makes you ready to tackle the next thing.

When the new things you tackle are food-related, it’s a self-improvement two-fer: your diet gets better, and your own self does, too.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

It doesn’t seek you out; you have to find it. You have to want it.

You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers – most?

I write about food, and food is personal. The most intriguing – and, let’s face it, irritating – research findings are the ones that conflict with our preferences. The most hate mail I’ve ever gotten was when I wrote that all eggs taste the same. Yes, if you taste them blind (and it’s gotta be blind because eggs often look different) the ones from your backyard chickens – or mine – taste exactly like the lowest-common-denominator supermarket eggs.

I care about the life of the hens that lay my eggs. I want them to know happiness to the extent a chicken can. The fact that their eggs taste like other eggs doesn’t change that.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

I am a Questioner (a sensible type for a journalist to be).

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? 

I’m sorry to say that it’s laziness. I know, from long and varied experience, that I thrive on new activities, but sometimes I just stay on Twitter too long. I’m working on that.

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book?

In 2012 I read Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind. It’s a very compelling explanation of the shortcomings of human decision-making, and why facts are so stubbornly unpersuasive. As a journalist, I’m supposed to evaluate evidence for a living, and Haidt’s book convinced me that humans absolutely suck at that.

That conviction changed my journalistic M.O. I learned to be skeptical of my own conclusions, to develop strategies to check my own bias, and to look for opportunities to change my mind. It has made me slower to form opinions, and to be less dug-in on them once they’re formed. Don’t get me wrong! There are still hills I will die on. Just not very many.

In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?

Oh is there! It’s that food is the province of experts. The human species’ ability to feed itself has propelled us to planetary dominance, yet there’s a kind of learned helplessness about food in the modern, developed world. Growing it, cooking it, choosing which of it is good for us – those things just aren’t that hard, and we can generally handle it with minimal expert intervention.

In a complex world, there aren’t many problems we can solve single-handedly. If something goes wrong with your job, or your marriage, or your finances, or even your dishwasher, chances are you can’t fix it all by yourself. But if you’re unhappy with your diet, that’s a problem you can solve.