Charles Duhigg surrounded by diagrammatic markmaking on a sheet of lined yellow legal paper.

Photo illustration and photo by Lisa Larson-Walker

Cover Story
How To!

Introducing How To! With Charles Duhigg

What if Dear Abby were an investigative reporter? Would she help you survive a shark attack?

Subscribe to How To! on Apple Podcasts or another podcast player, or listen on Slate.

The morning David Byrd was attacked by a shark—the day when, at the age of 25, everything in his life changed in the most baffling way—was cloudless and beautiful. He was paddleboarding with his father in Hawaii. The water was turquoise and clear. Something bumped against his board and David fell into the water, and then his father screamed, and David scrambled back onto the board to figure out why his father was screaming, and when he glanced over his shoulder he saw a tiger shark’s jaws close around his right calf. He had once heard you’re supposed to punch an attacking shark—maybe he had seen it on a Snapple cap? Or a documentary on Animal Planet?—so that’s what he did, whacking his fist against the shark’s nose as it began dragging him out to sea. But it’s hard to aim accurately when you suddenly realize you are going to die in the most bizarre way, and so he ended up mostly punching the shark’s mouth and teeth, thereby severing every tendon in his right hand. And then his leg simply snapped, like a dry breadstick, and the shark swam away with his foot, his ankle, his calf.

I’m definitely going to die, David thought as he bobbed. His father—his poor father!—was absolutely losing his mind. “I love you,” David yelled to him. “Thank you for being such a good dad.” And then—it felt like it happened immediately, but David later found out he had floated for 10 minutes or so—there were two guys pulling him into a canoe, tourniqueting his leg with a surfboard leash, and furiously paddling back to shore. It vaguely occurred to him, as the first tendrils of pain began crowding into his quickly evaporating consciousness, that he was in a profound and seemingly bottomless shock. It would last for months.

I talked to David this past March, about a year after the attack, after he contacted me out of the blue. I had written two books—The Power of Habit and Smarter Faster Better—about how habits form within our brains and lives, and David had read them. He wanted to let me know what he had learned.

What David didn’t know was that I had written those books mostly because I had felt lost. I had wanted to understand my own habits and failings, and though I hadn’t experienced many real traumas in my life—certainly no shark attacks—I was experiencing what felt to me like a turmoil that was hard to understand. I was, in many ways, a successful person. I was an investigative reporter at the New York Times, working on a series that would go on to receive a Pulitzer Prize. I had graduated from Yale and Harvard Business School and, with my wife, had brought two children into the world.

But there were so many things that confounded me. I didn’t understand why it was so hard to exercise more, or eat less, or get more done at work. I found it difficult to be present with my two young sons and to avoid dumb arguments with my spouse. I often felt powerless, incompetent at understanding my own weaknesses. And though I knew it was a privilege to have such mundane problems, they were still problems, and they were mine. So, I figured, why not use the tools of investigative journalism for self-improvement? Even better, why not do so on a publisher’s dime?

When The Power of Habit came out in 2012, it got some attention, which was nice. And then something unexpected happened: I started getting emails. Thousands and thousands of emails, from readers with questions I had no idea how to approach. Some of the questions were profound and consequential: How do I stop abusing drugs? How do I stop being angry all the time? How do I repair my marriage or work up the courage to fire a bad employee or overcome childhood sexual abuse? Others were as slight as my own challenges: How do I cook a meal that will impress a date? How do I tell a funny joke? Some were totally unexpected: How do I rob a bank? And some were terrifying. How, asked one correspondent, do I decide whether to help my mother end her life?

I replied to every email—18,731 as I write this—offering what few insights I could. I sent links to scientific studies, suggestions for other books to read, whatever advice I hoped might be helpful. But what I never told them was: I wrote this book not because I know the answers, but because I’m as screwed up as you are. I’m only a reporter—all I know how to do is ask questions and then print what other, wiser people say.

And then I received a short email from David, who’d lost half his leg to a shark, and who didn’t send any questions or complain about any problems at all. “I’ve historically been a very productive person,” he wrote. “A year ago I was simultaneously running a software team at a quantum computing company and managing a venture capital portfolio.” Then came the shark attack. “The last year has been an exploration of how to overcome physical, emotional, and motivational hurdles—and your book was quite helpful. I’ve been back working at close to 100% capacity for the last three months. Thanks.”

There’s nothing in my books about recovering from wild animal attacks or overcoming devastating injuries. I couldn’t think of anything in them that might be helpful to David. They’re mostly made up of stories. There’s one about how the Marines teach wayward adolescents to motivate themselves. Another explains how Febreze became a bestseller by understanding which rewards consumers want most. A third describes how the FBI rescued a kidnapping victim the same way programmers write software.

I called David to ask him why any of that might be useful to him. To my surprise, he told me that stories were exactly what he needed—that they offered him solutions his doctors and therapists didn’t have. “I spent a year talking to surgeons and counselors, almost anyone you can think of,” he told me. “When you’re attacked by a shark—and when you have a good job, and a supportive family—you can get access to plenty of experts.” And those consultations had helped him physically recover. His damaged hand was rebuilt; his knee was saved; with a prosthesis, he was able to walk again.

But all that treatment, he said, had done little to help him adjust to life with a disability, or to make sense of a world in which random and devastating events can occur with no warning. For months, he said, he had been uncontrollably angry, furious at the people around him and at the small daily setbacks that are part of any recovery—and any life. He had no problem attending grueling physical therapy sessions, but he found it impossible to motivate himself to wash the dishes or clean the floor. “I would get into this way of thinking: ‘Why should I do something annoying when a crazy event could happen at any moment and I could die? Why not just do things that I enjoy?’ ” he said. “Of course, I didn’t really enjoy living in a filthy apartment. But, for some reason, it was almost impossible to motivate to do the most basic things.”

Eventually, life returned to some version of normal. He went back to work, back into the swing of his old life. But the psychic trauma of the attack still plagued him. His mom told him he was becoming a jerk. His friends stopped calling. And so David started buying books, and in some of them he found lessons: stories to help him make sense of a world that seemed no longer bound by narratives he could understand. There was something about a lesson contained within a story that allowed him to really listen to advice where it had been hard to follow before. Hearing from others who had suffered and struggled helped him believe there might be a way forward.

When I talked to David, I realized that his situation, while extreme, wasn’t all that different from what I’d heard from so many other readers. Addicts who wrote me said how surprised they were to find themselves in the grip of cravings that had seemed insignificant until they were inescapable. Shy bosses who wrote that they never expected they would have to fire someone until, suddenly, it was the only choice they could make. And I too had been plagued by this kind of turmoil—a sense that the stories I used to understand the world had suddenly stopped working. I had never thought I would have so much trouble trying to lose weight, or that I might not be a great parent, or that I might reach midlife and feel like a failure in so many ways. (I once, in front of my son, sighed as if he had put the weight of the world on my shoulders simply because he had mixed up AA and AAA batteries. He still talks about it.)

It had never occurred to me that my country might become the political madhouse it has become. It was hard to make sense of these lapses, to fit them into the narratives about myself and the world that I carried inside my head. (If my son is ever floating in the ocean, bleeding from a shark attack, will he thank me for being such a great dad or remind me about the batteries?) As a result, so much of the wise advice I had received from experts over the years—eat less, exercise more, be patient with your children, assume things will work out in the end—had washed over me, failing to take root. Until, that is, I found stories through reporting that made all of that guidance seem tangible and real.

And so, after talking to David, in cooperation with a producer named Derek John, I decided to start telephoning the people who sent me all those emails, and asked them to tell me about their lives. And then I used the tools of journalism to find experts with good advice—and, just as important, with stories to help us make sense of their counsel.

The name of our podcast is How To!, and it is now available on Slate. Every week, we’ll find someone who has a problem: a pastor in Oklahoma who wants to make his congregation laugh; a terrified mom who has signed up for an ultramarathon and wants to know how to withstand the pain; that entrepreneur who is too kind, and too frightened, to fire a bad employee; a daughter who needs to decide if she should give her mother a kidney. And we’ll find experts—a famous comedian, the author of a management textbook, a Dutch athlete known as “the Iceman” who lounges in freezing lakes for fun—and see if their tales can teach us something about living more fulfilling lives. (We even found a bank robber to teach us how to rob a bank, and why it’s a bad idea to even ask.)

I hope you’ll listen, and that you’ll send us your own questions and problems at howto@slate.com. Most of all, I hope, after diving into other people’s experiments and foibles, that you and I find stories to help us remember, at those moments when we most need it, the good advice and scientific suggestions and psychological discoveries we can so easily ignore. “Reading all those books and hearing about other people’s problems helped me change the story inside my own head,” David told me when I spoke to him. “It helped me remember this moment in the hospital, pretty soon after the attack, when there was still, like, a million tubes coming out of my body, and I felt this crazy euphoria, this almost out-of-body happiness, that all of this was so much better than being dead.

“Later, I figured out that if I could remember that moment whenever I felt depressed or frustrated, then everything seemed a lot easier,” he said. “Even now, when I wake up, I tell myself the story of that moment, every morning. And I know this seems crazy, because I’m missing part of my leg and this freakish thing almost killed me, but I haven’t really had a bad day since then. Everything makes so much more sense when I remember that story.”