Podcast: Dopamine & Success with Dr. Daniel Lieberman

In this episode of Status Check with Spivey, Mike interviews Dr. Daniel Z. Lieberman, MD, a psychiatrist and best-selling author of The Molecule of More. Mike and Dr. Lieberman discuss tenacity, goal-setting, and both achieving and finding contentment in success—all as they relate to not just law school admissions (Dr. Lieberman gives some excellent personal statement advice), but a variety of topics, from "doomscrolling" to extinction-level asteroids to Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce. Dr. Lieberman's new book along with his coauthor Michael Long, Taming the Molecule of More, comes out in 2024.

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Full Transcript:

Mike: Welcome to Status Check with Spivey, where we talk about life, law school, law school admissions, a little bit of everything. We're in that “everything” field today; I had the great pleasure to spend the last 40 minutes with Dr. Daniel Lieberman. Dr. Lieberman wrote the international best-seller The Molecule of More, which we really get into. A little bit of background: he received his medical degree from New York University. He taught and won awards for teaching at George Washington University. We covered the gamut of dopamine, all the way from how to go into and take the LSAT, but then after you're done with the LSAT or you're done with your law school admissions process, not just how to get success, but then how to enjoy the success. So you're not moving on from climbing the mountain to looking for the next mountain at a distant horizon without ever enjoying what you just did, is the analogy we use. We talk about dating; believe it or not, dopamine relates to Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce, so we touch on that. We touch on what would happen if we found out today an asteroid is going to hit the earth tomorrow. This is why The Molecule of More covers more; dopamine hits every element of our life. We couldn't cover every aspect of life. I think we did a pretty decent job of touching on some exciting accomplishments in human history like reaching the moon, but hitting and ending on what’s probably most important to you, which is how do you prepare for the LSAT? How do you write your personal statement and essays for schools? How do you present yourself in interviews? So without further delay, here's Dr. Lieberman.

Dr. Lieberman, it’s great to have you! We know how busy and in demand you are, so thank you for making the time for us.

Dr. Lieberman: Thanks for having me.

Mike: Let's dive right in.

Dr. Lieberman: Sounds good.

Mike: Your book, The Molecule of More—after reading it, I've never been more intrigued by this molecule, but that word “more” that is a loaded word. So maybe you could describe for everyone dopamine, but within the context of “more.”

Dr. Lieberman: Sure. I think that there's some misunderstanding about dopamine. People tend to think about it as the pleasure molecule or the reward molecule, and certainly it does play that role. But really from a broader point of view, its role is to orient us to the future. And from an evolutionary point of view, to try to make it more likely that when the future comes, we'll be alive and ideally reproducing and passing on our genes to the next generation. So if you think about our evolution, we evolved in a setting of always being on the brink of starvation, always being on the brink of not having enough resources to survive. And so what dopamine does is it gives us the desire and the motivation to constantly go out and seek more resources.

Mike: If I'm right, not just desire, but also novelty is a huge dopamine hitter. So it's not just more resources, which makes sense; novel resources also makes sense, because that strawberries patch is a lot more laden with carbohydrates and sugar to keep our brain firing than those mushrooms we discovered three weeks prior. Am I getting the evolutionary progression of dopamine right?

Dr. Lieberman: I think that's right. To dopamine, if something is familiar, if it's not new, it's something that's already been achieved. It's kind of been baked in or already discounted. And that's why it always wants novelty, because that's truly what is “more.” The familiar, we already got that, what we need is something new and something different.

Mike: I’ll hit on something about the novelty that you touch on in your book. I can assure you our listeners do not come here for love and dating advice, but on the flip side, a lot of our listeners are probably dating or in love. So let's use Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce. Dr. Lieberman, as an expert, what is going to happen to their relationship?

Dr. Lieberman: All right, so I've not been following this terribly closely, but in general, what happens when we meet somebody new is we get this big dopamine rush, because our mind just springs forward to all kinds of possibilities. And of course, the future is only imaginary. It doesn't exist in any real sense. Only the present moment actually has an existence. So we go into the future and we're using our imagination; it just leads us to all kinds of wonderful though fictional places. We imagine our life is perfect with this new person. We imagine the thrills and the satisfaction we're going to get with this new person. And that's dopamine. That's dopamine doing its thing, giving us the energy and motivation to pursue it, because as you know, finding a new partner and establishing a new relationship is incredibly difficult.

Now, what happens is that once we establish this relationship over time, the newness fades. And as the newness fades, dopamine fades as well. And that feverish excitement that we call being in love is not going to last forever. Typically, it lasts about one year, and at that point, something very difficult happens. The dopamine goes away, that insanity of love goes away, and we need to do some very, very hard work to convert it into something different, and not every couple is capable of doing that.

Mike: Yeah. So we've all probably lived both the honeymoon stage and then post-honeymoon stage. And, well, we'll get to success and tenacity, I think that's what our listeners are here for, but I think everyone is curious about this. If you were to start a podcast, The Dopamine of Dating, I would posit it would go very well. How do people switch—and this actually tracks with anything related to dopamine, certainly not just dating, but hard work, success, enjoyment—can Travis and Taylor… I'm not very familiar, you know; I just happen to follow football. Can Travis and Taylor stay in that dopamine? Is it possible to stay forever? You know, they're busy people, they're traveling. Or do they have to accept, “All right, we need this ‘here and now’ molecule, serotonin,” etc. etc. And is there sort of a modality of switching?

Dr. Lieberman: So no, you can't stay in the honeymoon period forever. You can get back glimpses of it; we can talk about that in a second. But in terms of keeping this feverish “in love” forever—simply not possible. And a lot of people don't know that, and they think that when the dopamine fades, that means that the relationship is over, that they've lost interest in this person. But in fact, what they need to do is they need to drop down from dopamine into the “here and now” neurochemicals. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that orients us to the future. But as you mentioned, we've got other ones, serotonin, oxytocin, endorphin that really give us experiences within the present moment. And it's not easy to make that shift, because we shift from something called passionate love, which is being in love, to companionate love. That's enduring. And of course, it comes from word “companion,” meaning friendship. It's not a feverish excitement, but in some ways it's better. It's a deep satisfaction of knowing someone else's life is entwined with your own. You know this person always has your back. You can always count on them.

And if you look at couples that have been together for a long period of time, they're often very, very happy, fulfilled, content, and satisfied. Now it's hard to do, and I'm going to say it's going to be even harder for Taylor and Kelce because celebrities are used to constant bombardment of adoration of fans that they can always have something new if they want it, unlike the rest of us. And so for them, switching from passionate to companionate love can feel like a great sacrifice.

Mike: Alright, so we're not going to put an odds on them staying together. But what you just said, which is—I think it's really a good starting point for what our listeners are most likely here for, which is people have their eye on success in the long term, and there are hard paths to get to that success, and I get that. What really matters to me for this podcast is, how do you develop this tenacity to make it to the top of the mountain, which for our listeners might be getting into the best law school or graduate school, getting into the best college, getting the best job. So how do you develop this tenacity, which I think you're going to tell me is highly dependent on the dopamine system. But then, when you get to the top of the mountain—you've seen it, I've seen it—so many people don't even stop. They’re just looking to the next mountain. I think of Urban Meyer, University of Florida's Head Football Coach. They won the National Championship. The team is in the locker room celebrating. This will surprise you zero. He's in his office, doors closed, he's on the phone making work calls. No celebration.

Dr. Lieberman: Yeah.

Mike: So interested in the tenacity, but even more interested in the balance.

Dr. Lieberman: Alright, so let's start with the tenacity. So yes, tenacity's going to come from dopamine. When you've got a lot of dopamine going, you're excited about your work, you're enthusiastic about it, and time just flies by. That's the ideal. The question is, though, how do you get it? And there are various different ways, some good, some not so good.

One way you can do it, that you have control over, is you can think about why. Why are you pursuing this? What are your values? What do you hope to accomplish? And increasing your wanting will increase your dopamine. There are other ways to do it as well that maybe are not so good. And that is, you're trying to live up to the expectations of others. When we talk about motivation, there are carrots and sticks, and the carrots work best: “I want to do this because I'm excited about the accomplishment.” But there are sticks: “If I don't do this, I'm going to let my parents down.” “If I don't do this, I'm going to feel ashamed of myself or guilty.” Those can also increase dopamine, but in an unhealthy way.

Now, the healthiest way there is to increase dopamine to give you motivation and tenacity is to make your goals aligned with your authentic self. When the motivation and desire is coming from deep within you, because that's who you really are, that's going to be the most enduring and the most satisfying. The trick is, though, it’s often hard to know what our authentic self is. You ask yourself the question, “Why am I pursuing this career? Why am I pursuing this accomplishment?” And the superficial answer or the easy answer may not always be the right answer. The famous philosopher Socrates said, “The most important words in philosophy are ‘know thyself.’” And so I think that people really need to do some work finding out, what is their intrinsic motivation? What is it that they really want to do? And they may find that it's completely different from what they thought. They may have thought that they wanted to be rich, but ultimately they might find out they want to be creative, they want to create beautiful things. So that's a lot of important hard work.

Now, the second part of your question, how do you get out of your office when it's time to celebrate the victory? And just like with love, it's a question of shifting down from dopamine into the “here and now.” People who are ambitious are used to spending their life in dopamine, constantly going, going, going, going. And one of the unfortunate consequences of that is that, when they reach that goal they've been working so hard for, the goal that they've been sacrificing so much for, it doesn't mean anything to them. You know, we mentioned in the book Buzz Aldrin, and he was asked in an interview, “What was it like walking on the moon, what did it feel like?” And he said, “It's just something we did; now we should do something else.” No sense of satisfaction, nothing at all.

Another thing we say is that, the person who's most able to afford the house on the beach is least able to enjoy it. She gets out there on the beach and she pulls out her laptop and starts answering work emails. Getting there is hard, but enjoying being there might be even harder.

Mike: Yeah, I’ve read Buzz Aldrin's book, Magnificent Desolation. What a great way to describe the moon with your perspective on it, the second person to do so. What a great way to describe the human condition at times. Buzz Aldrin is a great example for some of our listeners, I mean, it's unbelievable. They're going to be Supreme Court justices, presidents of companies, etc. It's amazing. Herein lies the problem: if you get to the moon and you’re dopamine driven, dopaminergic pathways are just dominating your life. What greater success is there? And Aldrin struggled, right?

Dr. Lieberman: He did. Yeah.

Mike: But then he got it together, which I love your line from the book, “Your biology is not your destiny.” How would you posit, I'm guessing you don't know him very well personally, but how would you posit he got it together after struggling with this, “I need more success. I need more dopamine hits.”

Dr. Lieberman: For Buzz Aldrin, it was a question of getting it together or dying. He went to the moon. And for somebody dopaminergic, there's nowhere left to go. That's the most amazing thing a human being can do. And so when he got back, he was kind of stuck. How was his dopamine going to take him onto “more”? Where is “more” beyond a trip to the moon? I think that what happened is a little bit predictable, and that is that he turned to substances. Substances will stimulate the release of dopamine artificially. It's a shortcut. Not only is it artificial, but it's more intense than natural stimulation of dopamine. And so we often tend to judge the importance of activities based on how much dopamine it releases. Should I go to a movie, or should I go to this meeting with my new client who might make or break the company? It's obvious, the client meeting is going to give you a lot more dopamine. The problem is a hit of cocaine will give you even more dopamine than that client meeting.

With Buzz Aldrin, he turned to alcohol, and he ultimately ended up on an inpatient psychiatric unit. And it was at that point, also after a string of marriages and divorces, that he realized things had to change. You know in AA, they often talk about hitting rock bottom, where you realize you've come to the end of the road. In this case, the end of the dopamine road, and it's time to do something else.

Now, as I mentioned, he did go on to do a lot of exciting things. You know, he worked on a new rocket engine. He made some TV appearances. Nothing like going to the moon, but he got a lot of small wins, and he learned how to pace himself and make life enjoyable and satisfying in smaller ways.

Mike: Okay, so that tracks also with something I'm very curious about after reading Dr. Lembke's book, Dopamine Nation. There's no second moon to get to. He turned to alcohol. A lot of people in this world, and there's different theories on this of course, but a lot of people in this world turn to different things. Video games will be one. I just read an article yesterday on people who take ketamine on a habitual basis get dopamine depleted. You mentioned, like, ways to increase dopamine. There's also ways, obviously, to deplete dopamine. And something I've always been interested in, I have a stupid video game on my phone, Dr. Lieberman, it's the only video game I have. And I couldn’t make this up if I tried: you pop balloons with monkeys, okay, that's how ridiculous it is. If I play it for 30 minutes on a really rough day, it allows me to sort of detach from stress. But if I were to play it for eight hours, would that up have a down? Just like ketamine, does everything with the up, then correspond—which I think is really important for our listeners. Yeah, you can self-medicate on trail running, what I used to do; you can self-medicate on cocaine you mentioned, or alcohol or workaholism; all those forms of obsessive, negative consequence of medicating, playing eight hours of Bloons. Does that have a downside that depletes your dopamine?

Dr. Lieberman: Yeah, I think that all of the dopamine ups have a down. But dopamine's not the only way to go up. But here's the thing about dopamine. Because it's the molecule of more, it's not capable of saying “enough.” It can only say “more, more, more.” And so, you know, your playing Balloon Pop for eight hours has a lot of things in common—

Mike: Dr. Lieberman, it’s called “Bloons Battles,” please!

Dr. Lieberman: Sorry, sorry! I prefer “Monkey Balloon Pop,” if that's all right.

Mike: Okay, fair.

Dr. Lieberman: You know, it reminds me of “doomscrolling,” where you're scrolling through this endless list, and what a malignant invention that was. I remember in the early days, you'd come to the end of a page, and you'd have to go to the next page. And that would give you an opportunity to say, “Hey, maybe I'm done with this.” But with the endless scroll, there's no coming to the end. And anyway, you're going through these, and at least in my experience, I start out interested, I might see one or two interesting articles or posts. But then I can't stop. And I find that as I'm going, I'm becoming more and more dysphoric. My mood is going down. And yet, the molecule of more won't let me stop. Because it's whispering in my ear, “One more scroll and you may find something that will make your life better.” And maybe that’s a little piece of entertainment, or it might be a great tip for the future, and so you go and go and go and your mood gets lower and lower and lower and you do deplete dopamine.

But dopaminergic pleasure is not the only kind of pleasure there is. There's also the “here and now” pleasure. Dopamine pleasure is associated with enthusiasm, excitement, and anticipation. “Here and now” pleasure is associated with contentment and satisfaction. Imagine spending time with a loved one. There's no reason for you to be together. You're not planning on anything. You're not working out anything. You're simply enjoying one another's company. That's a pleasure that doesn't deplete anything. Same with taking a walk through the woods and just enjoying nature and sunshine and the smells. You do that for an hour and you find that you're energized rather than depleted. Dopamine is a means to an end, but it cannot be an end in itself.

Mike: Yeah, the way you speak about dopamine reminds me of this beautiful quote. I believe it was Vincent Felitti, who was the lead author of the ACE study, Adverse Childhood Experience study, who said, “It's hard to get enough of something that almost works.” Right? Dopamine always wants more.

Dr. Lieberman: That's right.

Mike: So we need to learn to balance this stuff. It's a great way to end on—it’s how you end your book, in the chapter of “Harmony.” So let's talk about these other ways that get to the here and now, and maybe not just here and now, because look, I want people listening to this podcast to crush the LSAT, like we were talking about, to stay motivated. Dopamine is the molecule of desire and motivation. But I also want them to enjoy that balance of success after they crush the LSAT. You mentioned some different sort of antidote. My favorite is locus of control. You can measure this, right, in a lab, you can measure how much your dopamine is firing?

Dr. Lieberman: To some degree, yeah. You have to put people in a brain scanner to do it.

Mike: Well, I'm in DC a bunch. If you have that technology I'd love to know. I really guess I’m very dopaminergic driven, but it's hard to get enough of something that almost works. So this is where I find a little bit of peace. I'm also very much locus of control driven. That's good, right, as far as balance?

Dr. Lieberman: Yeah, that's good. That's good. Yeah.

Mike: I'll give you an example. It resonated with me. I heard Tom Bilyeu, the podcaster, you may have been on him, you've been on a lot. He mentioned—this is his story, and I'm going to turn it into my story. If you were to tell me, Dr. Lieberman, that you just turned on the TV, and an asteroid is racing toward Earth and it's going to hit Earth, we're doomed, I would blame myself. I would literally blame myself. At face value that sounds like a really weird statement; here's what I mean. There are thousands of people working on tracking asteroids; have I once taken the time to send them an email and say, “Thank you for your hard work”? Just like most people, I have some discretionary income; have I once thought, “Oh, I'll give it to this project that finds dangerous asteroid”? No. If I were to turn on the TV and see that news, I would literally say, “Damn it Mike, you have part of this ownership of this problem.” Is that good? Or am I just living—

Dr. Lieberman: No, no, that is not good! That is not good. It's not rare for people to develop feelings of responsibility for things that they're not really responsible for. Feeling guilt for things that are not their fault. Sometimes it happens as a result of our upbringing. Sometimes parents who, you know, not all parents are perfect parents. Not all parents have the maturity to be able to give to their children what they need. And some of us parents will inadvertently send the message to children, or children will somehow pick it up even if the parents aren’t sending it, “You're responsible for this. You're responsible for the family’s happiness. You're responsible for the family's stability.” And they can carry that throughout their life feeling this terrible weight on their shoulders. And that's a difficult and complex problem.

Mike: Okay, so as far as the antidotes, for harmony, for balance—locus of control, good. Take anything to an extreme, all things in moderation. So I'll work on my crazy theory that I can prevent asteroids from hitting the Earth. Some of the other ones—I loved your one about nature, right? Being in nature brings your here and now molecules to bare.

Dr. Lieberman: Yeah.

Mike: So if you're about to take a test, amped up and you've already done the studying, the hay’s in the barn as they say—go for a walk in nature for an hour before your test?

Dr. Lieberman: Yeah, that's a good idea, yeah. If you want to achieve balance, I think step number one is, knowledge is power. Know that dopamine is a salesman, and it doesn't tell the truth. Dopamine says, “If only you do this thing, if only you get this thing, you will be happy.” Maybe. But understand that if it happens, it's not coming courtesy of dopamine. So know that dopamine often doesn't tell you the truth.

Number two is, pay attention. Pay attention to what your environment is like, and ask yourself, “Should I be in dopamine mode or ‘here and now’ mode?” If you're writing a report, if you're studying for the LSAT, if you're trying to make a sale, yeah, you should be in dopamine mode. But if you're having dinner with your family, if you're taking a walk through the park with your wife, you need to be in “here and now” mode. And that's probably going to take more effort than dopamine mode. Ironically, the mode in which we struggle is easier for most of us than the mode in which we simply enjoy. So, know that it's hard. Pay attention to which mode you should be in, and try to achieve it.

Mike: Yeah, you mentioned mastery, and we just mentioned the LSAT. One way to be in the present while you're taking the LSAT, not studying where you need tenacity, but being in the present when you're taking it, is to feel like you've mastered the content.

Dr. Lieberman: You know what, you actually want to be in dopamine mode when you're taking the LSAT. Because dopamine, for the near future, it gives this desire and impulse to get it, but it also helps us with the far future, which is planning and abstraction. And of course, law is so incredibly abstract. You definitely want to be in dopamine mode. You want to go into “here and now” mode after it's over. That will protect you from heading to the bar and doing six shots of Jack Daniels to overcome the stress, which is what lawyers tend to do. How about going straight to your loved ones and taking a walk in nature? That would be a tiny bit healthier.

Mike: I love it.

Dr. Lieberman: But yeah, you know, dopamine and “here and now” are often at odds. They're struggling for primacy. Mastery is one of those rare occasions where they shake hands and cooperate. Because with mastery, dopamine has gotten what it wants, it has extracted all the resources out of a particular environment that it's capable of doing, it now has everything, and so it can take a deep breath and for maybe about 30 seconds, let H and N have its way and be happy and satisfied.

Another time that dopamine and “here and now” come to an agreement is with creativity. When we're creating something new, we have to be in the here and now because we're focusing on something very, very important. But because it's brand new, it's something the world has never seen before, it also stimulates dopamine. Once again, these are brief peaks of life that are not enduring. They last a very short period of time before dopamine makes us dissatisfied again. If we want more enduring pleasure in the here and now, we probably have to approach other strategies.

Mike: What I love about the creative part, I'm sure you find this when you write your books. You have another book coming out on dopamine, right?

Dr. Lieberman: Yeah, that's right, it's Taming the Molecule of More. This was being written by my co-author Mike Long, and it really focuses on practical advice.

Mike: Will you tell me the truth—if someone sent him an email and said, “Mike Spivey needs a book on taming the molecule of more,” if that book were to come out in three minutes, I would finish it tonight. I swear, I need it.

What I love about the creativity part is, many of our listeners are going to have to write papers in law school, grad school, college. Many are going to have to—who are applying to college, law school or grad school—are going to have to write essays. Personal statements, life experience statements, they're going to have to do interviews. What is writing about yourself but being in the here and now? It's unique. It's never been done before. It’s your life. They struggle with the personal statement because it's like, “Oh my god, for the first time ever, I have to talk about myself.” There's the opportunity. Your dopamine and your “here and now” are colliding.

Dr. Lieberman: Yeah, that's right. I think that people who are highly motivated sometimes don't spend a lot of time in introspection, thinking about who they are, what their values are, because they're so goal-oriented. They're always looking to the outside, and they see the solution to their desires and their problems on the outside. But when it comes to time for that personal statement—who are you; why do you want to go to law school?—It becomes very tough. But maybe it's also an opportunity for them to kind of shift gears and say, “You know what, in order to write this, I need to put down the pen and I need to just start to think about who I am.” And that's probably a good exercise.

Mike: If you want to join our firm, you'd have to probably have to take a substantial pay cut, I'm sorry, but that's the advice we give too. What are your moments when everything changed, your “MWECs” we call them? Introspect on these life changing experiences, and there's a great starting point.

Dr. Lieberman: And dopamine's not going to be your friend here, because dopamine is going to tell you, “Try to present yourself as the perfect candidate. Try to present yourself as you think the reader wants to see it, so you can accomplish the goal your dopamine wants you to.” That's going to be counterproductive, because it's going to be fake, and everyone's going to see through that. This is a time when you're really got to put down the dopamine tool, go for the “here and now,” tool and seek out honesty, reality, and truth.

Mike: Yeah, we have a podcast on just that. “I’m not trying to impress this unnamed committee behind these closed doors,” because it doesn't even exist. The best essays/personal statements are the ones you write for yourself. It's a great way to end, because our listeners, I think they wanted to hear a prediction about Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce, but I think maybe even more they wanted to know a little bit about, okay, what mode should I be in for the LSAT? What mode should I be in when I write my essays?

Any final parting advice for 18- to 26-year-olds, mainly, who want to reach the top of the mountain, but who I desperately also want them to enjoy the top when they get there?

Dr. Lieberman: Yeah, at your age, it's a lot about dopamine. You're building your life. It's okay to be focused on dopamine, but you'll do a better job if you can let the pendulum swing. Spend some time in the here and now. Do things with your hands, gardening, cooking, making things that will make your dopamine system stronger in the long run.

Mike: Thank you so much for your time. This is great. Good luck on your second book.

Dr. Lieberman: Thanks so much, Mike. It's been a pleasure being here.

Mike: Thank you.