Zibby Owens: I’m here today with Janice Kaplan who’s the author of fourteen books including the New York Times best seller The Gratitude Diaries and her most recent book, The Genius of Women: From Overlooked to Changing the World. Janice was formerly the editor-in-chief of Parade magazine, deputy editor of TV Guide magazine, and the executive producer of the TV Guide Television Group where she created more than thirty TV shows that aired on primetime on major networks. She began her career as an award-winning producer at ABC’s Good Morning America. Janice is a popular speaker at conferences and events around the country. She has appeared on Good Morning America, Today, CBS This Morning, Entertainment Tonight, among others. A graduate of Yale University, she currently lives in New York with her husband Ron.

Welcome, Janice. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Janice Kaplan: It’s exciting to be here. Thank you.

Zibby: Can you please tell listeners what The Genius of Women, your latest book, is about?

Janice: I think of it as a multilayered book. At its core, it’s really about the women in every generation who have done extraordinary work and who have done extraordinary things despite all of the obstacles that might have been in their paths. I use their stories as part of a bigger narrative about the biases and problems and social expectations that we all have to deal with.

Zibby: I loved when you mentioned that Mayim Bialik, Blossom, put PhD in neuroscience under “other” in her resume because she said she just didn’t know where to put it. It’s just such a perfect example of women not really taking ownership of the fact that they’re super bright and geniuses, really. Tell me, what do you think that’s about? Why is that?

Janice: In Mayim’s case, she had been an actress. She had been the star of Blossom, as you said. Then she stopped acting. She went on and got her PhD in neuroscience. Now, you have to be serious to do that. That’s not just dabbling. A PhD is a big deal. Then she decided to go back to acting. She told me it was because she needed health insurance. She thought she better get that through acting. Her agent put her up for a job at The Big Bang Theory. Yes, as you said, when she was putting her resume together, she thought, well, I have this PhD. In Hollywood, that’s about as important as “knows how to rollerblade,” so she stuck it under “other.” Because it was for The Big Bang Theory, the producers assumed it was a joke. It didn’t even occur to them that it could be real. She did get the part, as we well know. That show went on to be a huge success. They changed the part that she was playing, of Amy, so that she would be a neuroscientist. Mayim said she thought it was so that she could correct any mistakes that the writers made.

Zibby: That’s so funny. You mentioned early in the book how women will never say they’re a genius. If you ask any woman, no matter how smart, there was a tiny percentage that would say, oh yeah, I think I’m a genius. Whereas men might have a different response to that.

Janice: Right. The whole book started with a survey that a friend of mind did, actually. Mike Berland, who’s a wonderful pollster and strategist, he did a survey where he found that ninety percent of Americans think that geniuses tend to be men. When asked to name a female genius, virtually the only name anybody could come up with was Madame Curie. To your point also, then he asked, do you think you are a genius? No women said yes. I forget the percentage of men. It was fairly small, but there was a percentage of men who said, yes, I’m a genius. Now, perhaps they were delusional. I understand that. The bigger point is that you can’t be a genius, you can’t achieve at anything unless you think you can, unless you believe that you can do it. Women do have this tendency for self-deprecation and to think that they’re supposed to suggest that they’re not quite as good as they really are.

I’ll tell you one quick story about that. One of the wonderful women I interviewed, Meg Urry, who had been a NASA scientist and was hired away by Yale to be the first head of the physics department, she was telling me about a meeting she was at at Yale with a group of tenured professors. She started the meeting by asking them all to mention — it was a group of women tenured professors — by asking them to all say what they were an expert in. She said the meeting started and the first woman said, “Well, I wouldn’t call myself an expert, but my field where I’m really good is…” Each woman did some version of that same comment. Meg said she was outraged. Being a tenured professor means you’re an expert in a field. The currency of academia is expertise. Even in something as straightforward as this, women are afraid to say, “Yeah, I’m darn good at this.” It’s something that I learned as I was doing this book. I’ve always been self-deprecating. I’ve always thought it was a way to ingratiate yourself and to make people like you, to be a little bit self-deprecating. I’m not going to do that anymore. Now I just see the wrongness of doing that.

Zibby: If someone asked you if you were a genius, if I said, are you a genius? would you say yes?

Janice: Well… No, I would not because I don’t think I’m a genius in the same way that the women I interviewed are. I think at this point I could say I’m not a genius, but I’m really smart and I’m a good writer.

Zibby: Okay, all right. That’s close enough.

Janice: Close enough? Oh, that was so hard to say.

Zibby: I don’t know, though. Drawing the line of who’s a genius and who’s really smart, that’s tricky. There seems to be some sort of level of innovation or creativity, usually, which people attribute to geniuses. It’s not just like they’re really good at something that exists, almost. You had a quote which I thought was really interesting. You had drinks with a man named Charles in London. You had asked him about the definition of genius. He said, “I suppose that would be where extraordinary ability meets celebrity.” So there is that kind of acknowledgment from the public that what you’re doing — are there secret geniuses? Does a genius have to be out and about? What is a genius, really?

Janice: It’s a great question. I was so taken with Charles’s comment. It was Charles Jones who’s a professor at Cambridge. We were talking about a different subject, actually. I was just starting my genius research, and so I brought that up. He came up with that formulation, that genius is where extraordinary talent meets celebrity. Charles is, as I said, an academic. He’s an English academic. He’s an English older academic. He did not mean celebrity in a Kardashian sort of way. He’s probably never watched reality TV. What he meant is that genius and talent needs to recognized. It needs to be noticed. Over and over again, now and throughout history, women have had only half the equation. They’ve had the extraordinary talent, but it hasn’t been noticed. It hasn’t been recognized. It’s true in academia. It’s true in corporations. It’s true in art and writing and every field that you can look at. One of the exciting things for me in doing this book was looking back at some of these women who did have this extraordinary talent and where it was wasted, sadly, in some or where they were able to use it but it wasn’t recognized, where they didn’t win the Nobel Prize that they should have and only years later were they recognized. We know those stories historically. We’ve heard them. But we think they’re not happening anymore, and they are. That, perhaps to me, was the most surprising, to realize how easily we still push aside the achievements of women, not consciously, far less consciously than we once did, but it still happens.

Zibby: Why do you think? Just cultural biases or just gender stereotypes? Why does it keep going on? And what can we really do about it? What do you think? Aside from writing books like this.

Janice: I think it helps to draw attention to it, of course. I think part of the problem is that women do it to themselves as much as men do it to us. I have a line at the beginning where somebody says, “The patriarchy lives in us.” I think that’s so true. We don’t realize how deeply we buy into those stereotypes and those expectations. We think that we’re teaching our daughters to be so strong and powerful, but then there is so many other social messages that we’re sending them that tells them to wear princess costumes and to carry their Little Mermaid backpacks and all of these things that put them in a corner that’s really not going to allow them to flourish. Kids hear those messages so much more than they read the girl-power T-shirt that they’re wearing to accompany it.

Zibby: When you were a kid, you had a doctor tell you that you were too smart for your own good. I think people have evolved. I like to believe people have evolved enough that nobody would say that to a child now. What did that comment do to you? Did that inspire you to show them? Did it just make you want to retreat more?

Janice: I completely didn’t understand it at the time because up until then — I think I was about nine years old. Up until then, the fact that I was a voracious reader and I was the smart kid in the class seemed like a great point of pride. I thought that was a good thing. When the doctor said that to my mom, she just nodded. She got it. It was one of those lines that I think rings in your head forever. This is many years later. As I was starting to write this book, that scene completely came back to me. You’re right. We don’t tell girls that bluntly anymore, but I’m afraid that we tell it to them in a thousand different ways. One of the women I interviewed was named Cynthia Breazeal. She’s a roboticist at the MIT Media Lab. She created the first social robot. She had the wonderful line where she said, “We live in the age of a thousand nudges.”

No, we don’t tell girls they can’t be good in science, but you know what? If your daughter doesn’t do well in science, maybe it’s okay. You tell her, “Don’t worry about it, honey. You’re doing so well in drama.” Whereas if a boy isn’t doing well in science, you might say, “Well, should we get you a tutor? Should we work on this together? How can we make this better?” It’s those little nudges. It’s those little excuses that we give girls that we don’t give boys. Cynthia’s point was that in some ways, that’s harder to face. If a doctor tells me, “You’re too smart for your own good,” I’m going to say, “What does that mean? That’s ridiculous. I like being smart. That’s okay. If society doesn’t want me to be smart, then darn it, I’m going to stand up for myself anyway.” But if you’re just nudging and nudging and nudging, you’re not even aware of it. I think that’s the position that too many children, parents, and all of us are in right now.

Zibby: I think back to this one moment in high school. I went to a party with — I think we were in tenth grade. There were some older boys there and whatever. We went to this very good school in the city, like they all are basically. One of the girls who I was friends with who was there was kind of acting a little ditzy even though she was very bright. One of the guys said, “You know, we like smart girls too.” I thought that was so awesome. I don’t know why it made me think of this. The whole “let’s be a damsel in distress” thing, that does not fly anymore even for the guys most of the time.

Janice: That’s great. One of the things I found was that one of the traits that genius women seem to have in common was that they had grown up overlooking gender. Gender was sort of not a part of their lives. Anne Wojcicki, who’s the CEO of 23andMe, told me that she grew up on the Stanford campus. She described her neighbors as all being a bunch of misfits, in a nice way. She said that her friends were all male and female, completely mixed. Her study groups in high school were boys and girls together. It never occurred to her to think of herself in any different way. I think that’s so important, being able to have men and women, boys and girls, see each other as colleagues and friends. She described getting to college and meeting some guy who made some comment to her about being a woman or that, “You can’t do that because you’re a woman.” She said she sort of looked at him as like a sociological species that she should be studying, like, oh, you’re one of those people who thinks that there’s a difference. Yes, I think if we’re able to do that, it’s a great gift that we can give our children.

Zibby: There was one thing you said at the end about believing in yourself. You said, “Beyond jeans and chromosomes and DNA profiles, beyond parents and mentors and teachers, the secret to letting genius flourish seemed to be a powerful belief in your own ability.” That seemed to be your conclusion from the book. Believe in yourself. Put yourself forward. Go get it. Go get ’em. Right? I know it’s overly simplistic from your years of research and all the rest. That was one of the main takeaways for me. If you believe in yourself, you can do so much more.

Janice: I think that is a main takeaway. I would temper it only to say that there are structural issues in the society that need to be changed. We all recognize those. They do need to be changed. But right now, you only have your own life that you can deal with. Until you can get to the position where you might be able to do something about those structural issues, the women that I met who were successful were the ones who just believed in themselves. Dr. Frances Arnold who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry a couple of years ago and is just a wonderful, wonderful woman, she had come up with a totally new way of figuring out how to create chemicals. It’s called evolutionary dynamics. Everybody told her she was wrong when she was starting this twenty or thirty years ago and that this was impossible and she was crazy. I said to her, “How did you have the courage to go ahead and do it?” She said, “I did not doubt myself.” I thought, wow, you deserve a Nobel Prize just for being able to say that. In one form or another, I heard that over and over again. To be a genius means being an outlier. It means disrupting things. It means doing things a little bit differently than everybody else does. Yes, everybody’s going to tell you that you’re wrong. The women who were able to reach that highest level were, as you just so nicely quoted, the people who believed in themselves, who said, I’m not going to let the world tell me what to do. I’m going to tell the world what I want to do.

Zibby: That’s helpful even as a parent, messaging to what you can tell your own daughters. It’s really important. I also loved The Gratitude Diaries, your previous book. There’s one section I just wanted to talk about more. You wrote an entire book called I’ll See You Again about Jackie Hance who lost, tragically, her three daughters in a car crash in the same day. Then you included a passage about her in The Gratitude Diaries because despite all of that, she seemed to find things that she felt lucky and grateful for and that enabled her to get out of bed. I just wanted a little snippet about that whole experience of getting to know someone who has suffered the most unspeakable loss you can think of and how they rose from the ashes and were able to keep going because of gratitude. I just wanted to hear a little bit about your experience with her.

Janice: Jackie was amazing. Somebody actually at ABC who had been trying to get an interview with her had connected us. Jackie had not been doing any interviews, but she was starting to think she might want to write a book. I met with her. We really, really liked each other. I spent a lot of time with her. She was the most vulnerable and fragile person you could imagine at that moment. I decided I didn’t want to do the book because I just didn’t see how I could spend a number of months or a year reliving this horrible story. It got to the point where there was so much interest in the story, I was so taken by it, that we decided to do it. It did go on to be a big book and a best seller for many weeks. Jackie was so striking to me because here she was, as I said, so fragile and vulnerable. Even in that very first conversation we had, she would say to me, “I’m so grateful for my friends who got me through. I’m so grateful for — my husband was wonderful at that time too.” Then actually, there was a doctor who — she wasn’t going to be able to have any more children. There was a doctor who donated his services, his very expensive fertility services, and now she has another wonderful daughter. She was endlessly expressing her gratitude to him. I thought, wow, if all of us can sit around and complain about the teeny little problems that we have in our lives, what a wonderful perspective to start to be grateful and to use gratitude sometimes to get over really horrible situations and sometimes to just get you through a rainy day.

Zibby: Like today. You also talked about how gratitude helped even in your own marriage with your husband and how you would point out little things that he did. He would point out little things that you did. It becomes this very productive cycle where all of a sudden you’re complimenting each other. How did that affect your relationship?

Janice: It affected it enormously. In the course of writing this book, my plan was to be grateful for something different each month. I was going to be grateful to my husband for the first month. That seemed to be like more than enough to be grateful to my husband. It did have such a great effect on our marriage and our relationship that it not only lasted for the whole year, it has continued. Last night we were out at dinner. I stopped to tell him how — it’s true. He’s been so wonderful and supportive of The Genius of Women and cares so much, just to tell him how much his support means to me. He appropriately rolled his eyes and said, “Pshaw.” I said, “No, wait a minute. Let me actually say it.” I think those moments matter because we do tend to stop appreciating each other. We stop noticing each other. We’re more likely to say thank you to the barista at the coffee shop than we are to our own spouse or the person that we’re supposed to love the most. It’s not a question of being fake. It’s not a question of making something up. It’s a question of, you’re with this person for a reason. Let them know why. Let yourself know why. Let yourself stop and appreciate. If the marriage is wrong, if there’s nothing to appreciate, get out. Change it. You have that option. When you make a decision to do something, appreciate where you are and let the other person know that you do too.

Zibby: It also goes back to the whole golden rule. If you want somebody to appreciate you, you also need to appreciate them. I feel like so many advice books talk about what we can do to get our spouses to pay attention to us or have better communication or all of this. Really, a lot of it just starts with us. We have half the ownership of that. You can’t just wait for people to get off the couch and start doing the dishes, right?

Janice: That’s exactly right. Gratitude does come in a big circle. If you start appreciating somebody or saying thank you to them, they’re going to do it back. They just naturally do. If they don’t, maybe you do have a problem. Most of know how to make somebody feel good. We make that decision all the time about whether we’re going to overlook something that a spouse or a partner has done, whether we’re going to appreciate it. You’re exactly right. If you want to be appreciated, you have to send it out first.

Zibby: It’s true. Tell me about your whole background in TV. You’ve had such an interesting background in general. You were the editor-in-chief of Parade. You were the editor of TV Guide magazine. Then you did thirty shows that aired on primetime on major networks through TV Guide. Tell me about that. That’s so cool. That’s just so cool. What were some of the shows? Did you originally want to be a writer? Did you want to be in TV? How did your career evolve in the way it has?

Janice: My career, I did start very early. When I was in college, I was a columnist at Seventeen. Then I was on CBS radio as a reporter when I was still a senior in college. I was ambitious early. I wrote my first book, which actually was called Women in Sports, the year I graduated college. I had a fellowship to write that book. In some ways, it’s a nice circle to be doing women’s topics again. I always was back and forth between television and magazines and writing. At some point, I thought to myself, wow, maybe if I picked one I would be more successful at it. Then very quickly, all of media sort of has merged and blended. Having those many different ways of approaching things has been great and has been fun and also meets the fact that I have a very short attention span. I always loved being a journalist because you get to explore something and discover something. Those thirty TV shows were wonderfully fun. I did some big award shows on Fox network, actually. I did some music specials on ABC. I did shows on VH1. I did a food series on Food Network. It was a big variety of shows and just a lot of fun to create the shows and come up with new things to do. The best was the award show because I got to borrow some really gorgeous dresses and jewelry to walk down the red carpet. I had little kids at the time, so you didn’t get to do that a lot.

Zibby: Maybe your short attention span is why you try all different types of writing. You’ve written so many books, fourteen books: young adult, mystery, nonfiction reported pieces, more memoir. You’re all over the place. It’s amazing. How do you keep coming up with all these ideas? What leads you from book to book to book?

Janice: I did fiction early on. Most of my career was fiction. Then after I left as editor-in-chief of Parade, I started doing nonfiction. I’ve just loved doing the nonfiction and the journalism because I’m curious about things. The last few books I’ve done tend to start with a question. With Gratitude, it was what would happen if I spent a year living gratefully? Could I really change the way I feel about the world? With Genius, it was why do we not consider women geniuses? What’s going on here? That allows me to explore, to interview people, to travel. I try to take my readers along with me when I’m doing that. I don’t just report, give quotes about an interview. I usually take you into the room with me. You get to meet the person with me and see how we’re all talking together. That’s just been a lot of fun. I love writing. It’s what I’ve always done. It’s my hobby as well as my career now.

Zibby: Where do you like to write? Do you like to write at home? Do you like to go out? The office? Coffee shops? What’s your process like?

Janice: I write everywhere. Particularly when I’m doing a book like this one, I find that I’m thinking about it all night. My husband, the good doctor, gets up and gets dressed, and he’s gone from the house at seven thirty in the morning. I usually take my laptop into bed at that point because I’ve been thinking things and I want to get them down before I lose it. Then usually sometime around noon, I go, you better get out of bed. This is not a good look. Often, I’ll work at the Yale Club just to get out of the house and go somewhere, but I can write anywhere. I can write on trains. I can write in coffee shops. I can write in between meetings.

Zibby: What’s coming next for you? Do you have another book that you want to do after this? Any other big questions that are burning for answers?

Janice: You know, I’ve always known the next book I was going to do as soon as I finished the one I had, and I don’t on this one. I care so deeply about this subject. I think it’s so important. I look forward to getting to talk about this book extensively and to trying to develop it in further ways and to try to get this message out because I think it’s crucial to all of us right now. I just really want to focus on this and try to get that celebrity side or at least the attention side to this work because I think it’s important.

Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Janice: Write. Write about what you love. Don’t try to figure out what the market wants. Write about what you care about and what you’re passionate about. If there’s a small corner that you can explore, do it. Try to learn about the world. Try to go out and explore things. It’s not just your experiences. There’s a whole big world out there and world of people to talk to and to discover. Go out and find what’s important to you.

Zibby: Great. Thank you so much for coming on the show.

Janice: Thank you, my pleasure.