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DUCKWORTH: I don’t hate any of this so far.

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DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth. 

MAUGHAN: I’m Mike Maughan.

DUCKWORTH + MAUGHAN: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.

Today on the show: where’s the line between being a high achiever and being an overachiever?

DUCKWORTH: When you are blending up chicken breast in your Vitamix, you have gone too far. 

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MAUGHAN: Angela, I have a question for you based on an article I was reading recently in the Wall Street Journal called, “For Happiness in the New Year, Stop Overdoing Everything.”

DUCKWORTH: What an interesting article to be in the Wall Street Journal. I would think the Wall Street Journal was like, “For Happiness in the New Year, Do More.”

MAUGHAN: “Invest in these stocks.”

DUCKWORTH: Exactly. Isn’t that what the Wall Street Journal is? I don’t know. I don’t read the Wall Street Journal. So, I have no idea. 

MAUGHAN: It was written by Julia DiGangi. She is a clinical neuropsychologist. And she writes about the difference between being a high achiever and an overachiever.

DUCKWORTH: Mm. Yeah. “Over.” “Over” doesn’t have a good vibe.

MAUGHAN: Right. There’s this, like, goodness to saying, “Oh, I’m a high achiever.” But no one wants to admit to being an overachiever. She actually refers to it, interestingly, in this article as “The Overs.” She said, “It’s a familiar list: over-working, over-achieving, overthinking, over-explaining, over-giving, over-committing, and over-accommodating.”

DUCKWORTH: Wow that’s a lot of overs. 

MAUGHAN: Yes it is. I think her point being that “over” obviously has this negative connotation. And so, I ask this question: what is the line between being a high achiever — because you are obviously a very high-achieving person. You’re a very driven person. I’d like to think so am I, but I’ll admit sometimes I fall into this trap of maybe being an overachiever. And maybe that’s driven by this need to prove my own worth or, dare I say, perfectionism — but perfectionism as maybe a compensatory behavior.

DUCKWORTH: I mean, there is, I think, something to say about whether you can go too far with striving — you know, you’re trying, but you’re trying too hard. Like, you’ve passed the point of optimality. But I don’t — I don’t want to throw out the idea of striving, because I really do think it’s not only built into our DNA, probably for evolutionary reasons. I think the only way to actually have a happy life is to embrace striving. I really do.

MAUGHAN: Yeah, and I think that that’s probably fair. I would guess that what she’s referring to, and at least what I recognized in myself, is I think there are times when anything taken to its excess can become a negative. So, let’s just say, working out. Generally, that’s seen as a very positive thing for one’s physical health, for one’s mental health, for one’s emotional stability— there’s so many externalities beyond just working out, right?

DUCKWORTH: But you can work out too much.

MAUGHAN: You can take that to an extreme where suddenly that’s all that matters to you, or you have body dysmorphia, etc. So, I agree  —. 

DUCKWORTH: Okay, I had this roommate once — I know this is not where you were going, but I’m just going to stay right here: I had this roommate once, and her boyfriend was a bodybuilder. And I think he was the first bodybuilder I ever met in person. You know, it wasn’t like, Arnold Schwarzenegger in a movie. And all of my memories of this particular year in college were him sitting on her bed eating, like, can after can of water-packed tuna.

MAUGHAN: Okay, I was going to say either tuna or chicken. There were only two options there.

DUCKWORTH: I think they are very, like, good sources of protein. Anyway, clearly you can take it too far.

MAUGHAN: While we’re here, I’m going to add: Zac Efron, when he was making the movie Baywatch.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, Baywatch. Okay.

MAUGHAN: When he was making Baywatch, he said it was something he would never do again, because it took so much effort to get your body into the shape and look that they wanted for the movie. He said he could not get enough protein, so he was literally blending up chicken and drinking it between takes.

DUCKWORTH: Hopefully cooked chicken.

MAUGHAN: Yeah. I’m certain it was cooked.

DUCKWORTH: One can only imagine.

MAUGHAN: So, I think these are two examples of where striving —.

DUCKWORTH: When you are blending up chicken breast in your Vitamix, you have gone too far. It’s like the, uh, “jump the shark” expression that I think people only of a certain age know. Are you old enough to know what it means to “jump the shark”?

MAUGHAN: No, but I did look it up on Wikipedia because someone kept using it. And I was like, “What does that mean?”

DUCKWORTH: And they were old, like me, right? Did you go back and watch the Happy Days special?

MAUGHAN: I did not, but there was something — I think his name’s Fonzie or something?

DUCKWORTH: Oh my god, you don’t even know who The Fonz is?

MAUGHAN: I don’t.

DUCKWORTH: Wow. I really do feel like I’m talking to a child. All right, there was a show called Happy Days. And it was back in the day when, like, shows came on at a certain time. We all watched the new episode at the same time. It was quite unifying. Maybe this is the problem with American politics and culture. Like, we’re not all watching Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley at the same exact time.

MAUGHAN: But may I say, that is the power of live sports. It brings people together in that way.

DUCKWORTH: Maybe so. Maybe live sports can be the new Happy Days. Anyway, it was a very long-running series. The Fonz is the cool guy. He wears a black leather jacket and he rides a motorcycle. Fast forward to the very end of the series, because all good things must come to an end — fans everywhere, people everywhere, Americans everywhere were, like, devastated. And then, several years passed, I don’t know how many, and then they made, like, a Happy Days special. It was, like, a headline event. I think it may have been, like, “the gang goes to Hawaii” or whatever. At any rate, there is a scene where The Fonz ends up, for whatever reason, like, water skiing, and he jumps over a shark. That is the origin story of the phrase, like, “jumping the shark.” I won’t spoil the special for you. You can start at the very beginning of Happy Days and watch all of the episodes, Mike, if you have enough time. But the expression means, like, going too far. It was such a ridiculous scene, I think everyone had to concede that perhaps Happy Days has had its run. And the idea of going too far — I mean, it’s almost so obvious that it doesn’t need to be debated, right? Yes, you can sleep too much. Yes, you can be too nice. And it’s true, like, if you’re working too hard, then you should probably work less. But what I get bothered by when this comes up in conversation — which I feel like it does increasingly in the world, especially by young people, who are like, “Oh, maybe I’m working too hard.” And I’m like, “What does that mean?” They’re like, “Well, you know, my boss asked me to stay past five.” And I’m like —.

MAUGHAN: Well, that I would say is neither a high achiever nor an overachiever. I don’t think that qualifies —.

DUCKWORTH: Is that a slacker?

MAUGHAN: Well, yeah, I mean, look, anything worth doing well is going to be hard. Anything that you want to be part of and will be proud of building — whether that’s a family, a marriage, a company, a book — whatever that is you’re doing, it’s going to be hard. And you’ve got to be ready to put in effort and energy to do it.  

DUCKWORTH: Right. So, I want to defend my thesis, if you will, because what I don’t want people to do is throw out the idea of striving or achieving altogether. I mean, when my family recently took a beach vacation, I noted what I always see on the beach, which is that little kids build sandcastles. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, but if there is water and if there is sand, kids will dig a hole and make a wall, and if they don’t have a shovel, they’ll use their hands or a shell, right? Like, I think kids building sand castles, to me, says a lot about human nature. It says that I could do anything right now. I could lay down and do nothing. I mean, wouldn’t that be the most relaxing thing, right?

MAUGHAN: Which is what I maybe love to do if I go to a beach. I actually read a book, but yeah.

DUCKWORTH: I was going to say, which is what the older people were doing, to be fair. But when I see these like two, three, and four-year-old little girls and boys in that little squat that they do — I mean, they’re just so happy working, right? They’re digging, they’re building. To me, that says a lot about striving. You know, when I was in conversation with Tim Beck. You know, he died at a hundred years oldand he was —.

MAUGHAN: Talk about striver.  

DUCKWORTH: Oh my gosh, Tim Beck was a striver to the end. Yeah, I don’t know if that accounts for his living to a hundred, but oh my gosh, he loved grit. And he was very well known for — I don’t want to say “inventing” because I think more than one person can take credit, but he really did help give birth to modern therapy. And the reason is that he had these insights into human nature, and why we feel sad when we feel sad and why we feel anxious when we feel anxious, and why we feel happy when we feel happy. And, you know, he had this magnum opus that he was working on, and he sent me a draft of one of the chapters. In this draft, there was a table, and it had four rows, and the four rows were, um, four kinds of psychopathology. So, you had clinical levels of anxiety, as opposed to healthy levels of anxiety. You had clinical levels of depression as opposed to adaptive and normal levels of sadness. You had too much anger. That’s the extreme of having an appropriate amount of anger, because a person who’s not able to feel angry will not be able to defend themselves or express themselves. And the fourth row was actually not a psychopathology — at least not in obvious ways. So, the fourth row was actually happiness. And you’re like, “Oh, the fourth row! That’s where I want to be, the happy row.” But actually, any of these things taken to extreme is bad. Like, too much happiness is mania. But the reason I bring all this up is that when he sent me that table, it really brought home the point that you can jump the shark in kind of obvious ways, but even in non-obvious ways. And so, it’s also being sent to me by somebody who can only be described as a high achiever. Like, he loved to talk about grit. He loved grit. He was not like, “Angela, I want to talk to you about grit, because in my years of clinical practice, what I’ve seen is too much striving.” He was like, “I want to talk to you about grit because I’m really interested in excellence.” So, I say all this to say, yeah, you can jump the shark in anything. But I, I don’t think that means that we shouldn’t strive. I mean, I think we should keep building sandcastles.

MAUGHAN: I think that you can keep building sandcastles. I agree. I love the analogy. And I don’t think that DiGangi was trying to say that we shouldn’t strive. It’s: when do we go too far, and what is that line? I mean, we’re familiar, of course, with the old adage, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.” I think you and I have talked before about how some people, maybe myself at times, say, like, if it can’t be perfect, then I’m not going to do it at all. And then, you miss out on a lot of things that you could be doing. One person I know who is a great striver — and I think you might hate this at the outset, but give me the benefit of the doubt for just a second.

DUCKWORTH: Okay, I’ll hear you out.

MAUGHAN: Her name is Kristin Andrus. She’s a, a dear friend and kind of a philanthropist, community activist, however you describe her.

DUCKWORTH: I don’t hate any of this so far.

MAUGHAN: She loves to live her life by the 80 percent rule.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, is this the McKinsey rule? The 80/20 rule?

MAUGHAN: No, she’s just saying that she’s not going to be bound by perfectionism.

DUCKWORTH: So, what’s 80 percent? She’s going to get to, like, a B-minus?  

MAUGHAN: Yeah. She’s going to say, like, “Hey, I’m going to do this activity or plan this event, but I’m going to do, like, 80 percent. I’m not trying to make everything perfect, because if I do, I’ll be able to do a lot less. So, I would rather have a pretty good event than a perfect event. I would rather tackle this problem in a pretty good way versus making sure that every T is crossed and every I is dotted. Let’s do the best we can to have a contribution.”

DUCKWORTH: Can I ask you what this means? Like, I’m going to yoga class with her. And, you know, at the beginning of yoga class, Mike, you set an intention. Is her intention, like, “My intention is to get a B-minus. My intention is to do 80 percent of the poses or to do them 80 percent well.” Is that what she’s saying at the beginning of an event or making a dinner for her friends?

MAUGHAN: Yeah, at this point, I’m going to stop speaking for her, because I can’t speak to that. I’ll just speak to my takeaway from her talking about the 80 percent rule. But for example, one of the, the things that she did was the Period Project. And this exists in a lot of places, and it was basically that in every public school, every university, every workplace in Utah, they wanted to make sure that there was this commitment to having feminine protection products in every bathroom for free. And so, she went to the legislature to get funding, she called a whole bunch of people in the business community and said, “Hey, I want to make sure that every one of these businesses is making sure to commit to joining this cause.” Even in all of this, I think she’s saying it’s the 80 percent rule, because it’s better to go get something done than make sure that literally every single business has done it. It’s, like, let’s go make sure that this is very public, that everybody’s talking about it, that it’s in the paper, that we can get the legislature, again, to approve funds, that the governor will sign the bill, that we can get most of these companies to do it, but she’s not going to make it so perfect. I guess the analogy I would make is if you’re having a dinner party: cool, we’re going to have a good meal, we’re going to have good company, but I care way more about everyone being together and enjoying themselves than that every napkin is folded perfectly, and that the silverware is set just so, and da da da. So, it’s not, hey, I want to do a bad job. But it’s, I’m not going to be burdened down by perfectionism. I want to be a high achiever, I want to do great things, but I’m not going to cross the line where maybe it’s, like, okay, those extra little pieces don’t matter that much and might stop you from getting a lot of things done.

DUCKWORTH: And she calls this the 80 percent rule? You know, I wondered aloud whether this was the same thing as the 80/20 rule that I learned at McKinsey, and I think actually there is a lot of overlap. So, my first year at McKinsey, I was told that 80 percent of the value of any project will happen in 20 percent of your effort. So, the 80/20 rule I took to mean: don’t keep investing beyond some marginal small amount of effort, because you’ve already reaped the harvest, right? Don’t, like, hang out in the orchard for, like, nine more hours so you get the last three apples, right?

MAUGHAN: Usually, I hear 80/20 rule is that 20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the work.

DUCKWORTH: You know there are all possible ways to use — I’ve heard other 80/20s too, like —  but at least as I heard it, and maybe I misinterpreted anyway, I remember it kind of getting stuck in my craw, because I was just like, what? It ran against every intuition I had. You know, I can put in 20 percent effort on this PowerPoint presentation, or this memo, and it’ll be, like, a B-minus. It’ll be like 80 percent. I’ll get most of the points, certainly the most salient ones. And the logic of this rule, at least as I understood it, was like, “Well, then I can save that extra 80 percent effort because I was only going to get 20 percent out of it anyway,” right? It’s the flip side of 80/20 is the 20 and the 80. But I grew up, then, to become a psychologist. I mean, I left McKinsey. I became a psychologist who studies achievers — high achievers, I would argue. Some of them, maybe you could argue, overachievers. And I will say that if you take anybody you really admire, you know, Simone Biles, or Ann Patchett, the novelist, or fill in the blank of the person that you think is, you know, an icon in a field, and you just immediately appreciate that they’re living by the opposite rule, which is like they’re willing to put in 80 percent more effort, even just to yield that last 20 percent. Does this resonate with you? You’ve had a lot of experience interacting with people that really are at the top of their game. I mean, do they feel to you like people who are 80/20 people?

MAUGHAN: Most of the people that I know who are best in the world at what they do, I would say are incredibly high achievers and completely dedicated to their task. I would agree with you that they go —.

DUCKWORTH: A hundred percent.

MAUGHAN: Yes, way beyond the extra to make sure they are perfecting their craft. That said, I think that the reason they’re also probably best in the world at what they do is that they have a healthy mindset about what it means to be a really high achiever and are not overdoing it to the point of being an over — again, defining overachiever as someone who’s going too far. That’s not striving, that’s not effort to me. That’s maybe this obsessive nature where you are so concerned with absolute perfectionism, but to overcompensate for maybe a feeling of inferiority or for a need to prove your worth. As a bit of a non sequitur, what I think when I think of high achievers versus overachievers is also what we, at least in, in the business world have often talked about, is people’s ability to scale their whole life. There are some people who are so good at one thing, but they’re not able to scale their whole life. So, maybe they build an incredible business, they’re an incredibly successful C.E.O. or founder of a company.

DUCKWORTH: And they have no friends and they’re an a******.

MAUGHAN: Exactly. That, to me, I would put in the “overachiever,” maybe, category. Like, you didn’t do it right. And I think Angela and I would love to hear where you think the line is between being a high achiever and an overachiever, and how do you navigate that line? Have you ever struggled to do it? So record a voice memo in a quiet place with your mouth close to the phone and email it to, and maybe we’ll play it on a future episode of the show. Also, if you like the show and want to support it, the best thing you can do is tell a friend about it, and you can spread the word on social media or leave a review in your podcast app. 

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: is social media harmful for high achievers?

DUCKWORTH: The sun is setting, the wind is blowing, the highlights in your hair are just so, everyone’s smiling, perfect captions, perfect replies to the captions, lots of hearts.

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Now, back to Mike and Angela’s conversation about overachievers.

DUCKWORTH: So Mike, I met this, I have to say, like, super nice — and also accomplished — but super nice psychologist named Thomas Curran. He’s a professor at the London School of Economics and he’s kind of this world expert on perfectionism. His book is called The Perfection Trap: Embracing the Power of Good Enough. I mean, it tells where he stands right there.

MAUGHAN: Can I just say that every book we talk about has some, like, “trap,” “vortex,” “tyranny,” yes. I just feel like we’re walking through an eternal minefield when we read books. Anyway!

DUCKWORTH: I know, I think it’s like, “Come buy me, right now. I’ll help you get you out of your trap.” Anyway, what perfectionism is, I think, is a striving to achieve something that is impossible. It’s sometimes actually broken down into three kinds of perfectionism. And one of Curran’s most well-cited studies is this research study called “Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time,” and it analyzes data from generally young adults who were surveyed starting in 1989 all the way up to 2016. So anyway, the question in the study is: if you give people a perfectionism scale, what do you see in the data, going back in history to current times? And there are three subscales on the perfectionism scale. The first kind of perfectionism is self-oriented perfectionism. So, I’ll read you just a couple of items. “It makes me uneasy to see an error in my work. One of my goals is to be perfect in everything I do. I must work to my full potential at all times. I must always be successful at school or work.” So, that’s self-oriented perfectionism. And then, there’s other-oriented perfectionism. Here are a few items from that scale. “I have high expectations for the people who are important to me. If I ask someone to do something, I expect it to be done flawlessly. I can’t be bothered with people who won’t strive to better themselves. The people who matter to me should never let me down.”

MAUGHAN: Wow, that last one is loaded.

DUCKWORTH: And then finally, the last one is socially-prescribed perfectionism. “The better I do, the better I am expected to do. My family expects me to be perfect. The people around me expect me to succeed at everything I do. Anything that I do that is less than excellent will be seen as poor work by those around me.” So, those are the three kinds of perfectionism. I’m going to tell you about what he found in these studies, but like, does this actually cut nature at its joints as it were? Like, does this get at what you mean by, like, “the overachievers”? I mean, are they the ones who have this kind of, like, socially-prescribed perfectionism? Or do you — you know, how do you react to these?

MAUGHAN: The socially-prescribed one seems deeply unhealthy in every way.

DUCKWORTH: Every question on the scale. Like, as well as you do, you’re going to be expected to do more.

MAUGHAN: As you were reading those, I thought, whoever thinks this, I just want to give them a hug and tell them, “You’re enough.” That was my reaction to that. So, yeah, socially-prescribed seems terrible, whereas self-oriented, most of those seemed healthy. Other-oriented, I resonated with probably half and not the other half. I do expect people who are doing work to do really, really good work. But I’m never going to say, like, “It should be perfect.”  

DUCKWORTH: It should be done flawlessly or I’m going to upbraid you in my office at eight in the morning tomorrow. Let me tell you what Thomas Curran found in this meta-analysis. All told, it had over 41,000 people who had taken these questions at various points in history, right, so different groups of young people. And what he found was, comparing the scores of young adults back when I was a young adult — or “emerging adult,” as it’s called sometimes — all the way to the present, he found a trend for all three kinds of perfectionism, and the trend was positive. So, he says that not only are we increasing in self-oriented perfectionism; other-oriented perfectionism is on the rise, and so is socially-prescribed perfectionism — the one you hated most or the one you thought was most dangerous. And I have to tell you, Mike, that last scale, the one where you’re thinking about other people’s expectations, other people expecting you to be perfect, that’s exploding. So, the one you hate most is on the rise the most.

MAUGHAN: I’m going to throw out a very non-original guess that social media is largely to blame?

DUCKWORTH: Well, you know, social media is, I think, the most debated issue in psychological science. And I only say that because on most issues, I think psychologists mostly agree, but social media, like, there’s a Grand Canyon-size chasm between social scientists who believe it’s hardly anything in the grand scheme of our lives. 

MAUGHAN: Wait, what?

DUCKWORTH: There’s a side that says if you look at the evidence — which is generally poor, because it’s very hard to randomly assign people to, like, not be on social media. But they say that when you scrap together the evidence that’s decent. You know, because there are a couple of experiments. You can pay people, by the way, to stay off of social media, and that’s how they sometimes study this. You know, if you scrap together what there is, that social media, it’s like a tiny little ripple on the pond of well-being and mental health. I’m not on that side, by the way, but I have friends who are. And I see them across the chasm, and I wave to them. And I say, “Hi.” Because I have two young daughters. And they’re like, “Oh, you’re not being a scientist.” And I’m like, “I don’t care. Let me tell you about my daughters.” Like, I see them on the couch, scrolling through Instagram, and I occasionally wander over and look over their shoulders at what’s coming out of this glowing blue rectangle in the palm of their hands. And it’s just, like, one perfect picture after another. You know, the sun is setting, the wind is blowing, the highlights in your hair are just so, everyone’s smiling, perfect captions, perfect replies to the captions, lots of hearts. And I think to myself, exactly probably what you were thinking, which is: if this kind of perfectionism, you know, socially-prescribed perfectionism — the better I do, the better I’m expected to do; people expect me to be perfect; anything that’s less than perfect is terrible — like, I can’t think that there’s an account that leaves out social media.

MAUGHAN: I was going to say, as a, obviously, non-scientist, knowing that  this is exploding, knowing that it’s — I’m going to call it dangerous, I think it’s certainly unhealthy, socially-prescribed perfectionism — I’d be hard-pressed to find, or think of, another causal mechanism that correlates in terms of timing, whatever. Either way, I think the fact that this is exploding is a really negative thing and probably responsible for a lot of this idea of overachieving, because you’re going the wrong direction.

DUCKWORTH: You know who’s on my side of the Grand Canyon chasm on this question? Thomas Curran. And he was actually recently interviewed by our common friend, Steve Levitt, on People I (Mostly) Admire and this is a very recent interview. And I’m going to quote from what he said. He says this: “The trend for socially-prescribed perfectionism really starts to inflect around 2007 or 2008, which just so happens to be the time Apple released the first iPhone and the social media platforms came into our lives 24/7.” And then, he goes on to talk about these images and these videos of perfection. And by the way, Thomas Curran is a self-professed, self-confessed perfectionist. So, he knows this as a scientist, he knows perfectionism as somebody   who’s prone to it. And I have to say, raising these two girls, I’m like, “Shut off the god**** phone. Delete that app, because all you’re doing all day long — and unfortunately all night long — is comparing yourself to impossible images — images that have been curated and airbrushed.” And I do have to wonder, as I’m sure Thomas Curran has wondered more thoughtfully, whether this tendency to strive — which I so love, and you love — whether in a way it gets hijacked. Like, I want to go back to that table that had four rows that Tim Beck shared with me. I think one of the things Tim wanted me to understand is that it’s not only healthy, but it’s imperative that we feel sadness, that we feel anxiety, that we sometimes feel anger, and of course, happiness. He had that last column on this table, like, but what happens when you jump the shark?  What happens when it’s excessive? And then, all of those things, including happiness, go bad. I wonder whether in a sense, striving, which we love — you know, building sandcastles, achieving, having goals, wanting to put in effort — I wonder if in some ways, for some people, maybe for many people, it’s gone too far, and I wonder whether maybe culturally — I’m partly to blame — like, maybe some of the messages that we’re sending young people in particular are somehow, like, themselves distorted? Because maybe there are kids who are walking around and saying to themselves, like, “The better I do, the more it’s expected, and I’m really not good enough, deep down inside.”

MAUGHAN: With that question hanging in the air — that maybe, maybe you’re part of the problem. Maybe you, like Taylor Swift, have to say, “It’s me.” 

DUCKWORTH: Too many views of my TED talk.

MAUGHAN: What do we do about perfectionism? Or any examples or stories you have of maybe people who’ve overcome socially-prescribed perfectionism or something of that nature? What — what do we do?

DUCKWORTH: Well, Thomas Curran has also written a tip for Character Lab, the non-profit that you and I both know and love. And he wrote this knowing that these tips go out largely to parents. So, he said: “It’s important to learn to embrace the inevitability of setbacks, failures, and things not going quite as planned, and being able to sit comfortably with these humanizing experiences, to let them be, not needing to rehabilitate them or drive them out of existence. Don’t strive to be perfect. Do recognize that perfectionism doesn’t lead to success. And help the young people in your life embrace all of themselves, including their imperfections, for the astonishing little explosions of humanity that they are.” So, I want to say this. I think what Thomas Curran is getting at is another phrase from psychology and often, um, used in therapy, and it is the idea of “unconditional positive regard.” And I think this is actually the bedrock that enables high achievers to feel okay when they go to bed and, for all their effort, they only got a B-minus. So, what “unconditional positive regard” is — and this was the idea of therapists who actually came in the generation right before Tim Beck, I’d say — is the idea that all of us, whether we’re young or old, need to believe that we’re enough. We need to believe, in some sense, that without any contingencies — you know, whatever our grade was, however good our TED Talk was, or whatever — that our worth is completely unbound to that. It’s unconditional. And when you actually, like, dig deeper into what Thomas Curran writes about perfectionism, I think what he worries is that perfectionists don’t have that bedrock self-esteem, that sense that, “I’m going to go out there, I’m going to do my best, and if I come home and it is a B-minus, that I’m not somehow not as much of a person anymore.” And I think this old idea, it’s not actually even used so much now when we train psychotherapists — I think that’s exactly right. I think that’s what social media undermines. And I think maybe that is why some of the people that I study, you know, they go out and they try so hard every day, and when they come home and it wasn’t perfect, they’re still able to get up again the next morning, because their worth is actually not dependent on the A-plus or the B-minus.

MAUGHAN: Well that’s what was most surprising to me, or the line that stuck out most to me when you’re reading this from Curran: “Perfectionism doesn’t lead to success,” he said.

DUCKWORTH: Ah! I forgot to tell you that that is one of the most important findings. Perfectionism is not positively correlated with achievement — not reliably so. Sometimes yes, sometimes no, but it’s kind of a wash.

MAUGHAN: Which I think is fascinating, right? And I think actually the point you’re making — that’s why I loved that line so much. In fact, having a bad day — if you fall off the wagon and you’re a perfectionist, then maybe you throw the wagon out altogether. Whereas if you don’t tie your value to that, then you can get back up the next day and try again.

DUCKWORTH: Alright, I have been Google stalking this guy named Scott Hugo. He doesn’t know me,  yet.

MAUGHAN: Hi, Scott!

DUCKWORTH: Hi, Scott! I started reading about this football Bob LaDuceur in Concord, California. And he’s, I think, the winningest high school football coach in history, so I was Google stalking him. But then that led me to these interviews with one of his former players named Scott Hugo. So, Scott Hugo was a Spartan at the De La Salle High School years ago, because Scott’s grown up. He graduated from high school, he went to U.C.L.A., and then he became a Rhodes Scholar. And I’m going to read to you this little story about how Scott kind of developed his worldview, which was not only shaped by his football coach, but was shaped by a grade that he got. So, he’s a freshman at U.C.L.A. and, par for the course for Scott, he has a perfect 4.0. There are no imperfect grades in his transcript. And then, what happens is that he turns in a midterm essay and —.

MAUGHAN: I feel the Jaws music already.  

DUCKWORTH: He turns in an essay for his freshman history class on the topic of the Battle of Gettysburg. And when he gets his grade back, it’s a startling B. And the professor tells Scott, “I gave you this grade because you could have done better.” And overall in the class, given that B, Scott gets an A-minus. You know, nothing to be ashamed of, but guess what? The G.P.A. is not perfect, and it will never be perfect, because it’s been marred. Of course, he goes on to be a Rhodes Scholar, etc. The reason why this one grade and this one professor stuck with him for life is that he says, “People shouldn’t be perfect, or even try to be. If you do, it means you’re not challenging yourself enough.” And wiser words have never been spoken. And perhaps those wise words would never be spoken if all you got were straight A’s and a perfect 4.0.

MAUGHAN: I love that. I love the concept that people weren’t made to be perfect, we’re not supposed to be perfect, that perfectionism, as Curran said, doesn’t lead to success. And once we realize we don’t have to be perfect, we can be good.

DUCKWORTH: And once we realize we really are good, we can keep striving for excellence.

 And now, here’s a fact-check of today’s conversation:

In the first half of the show, Mike mentions a Zac Efron quote about the actor’s experience getting in shape for the 2017 action comedy Baywatch. Efron actually shared the anecdote about drinking liquified chicken in reference to how he put on 17 pounds of muscle for the 2012 film The Lucky One, where he plays a U.S. marine. However, Efron has spoken in detail about how transforming his body for Baywatch was quote, “devastating” for him and included taking powerful diuretics, overtraining, and eating the same three meals every day. He says that he developed both insomnia and depression because of the experience, and that he never wanted to undergo what he went through to achieve that body again. But Efron fans will know that the actor did go through the bulking process once again in 2023 when he played a professional wrestler in the movie The Iron Claw, but he reportedly did so more carefully and intentionally in order to avoid the serious mental health issues.

Later, Angela breaks down the idea of “jumping the shark,” — a concept that alludes to a now infamous scene from the ABC sitcom Happy Days that showcased actor Henry Winkler’s real-life water skiing skills. Angela says that Winkler’s cool-guy character Fonzie, a.k.a The Fonz, was known for wearing a black leather jacket. Fonzie’s signature jacket was actually brown leather — he pairs the jacket with swim trunks in the scene where he performs the shark-jumping stunt. Also, Angela makes it sound as if the episode was a one-off special that aired several years after the series ended. That’s not the case. Happy Days ran for 11 seasons from 1974 to 1984. The episode in question aired in 1977 as part of season five — and it took place in Hollywood, not Hawaii, as Angela thought.

That’s it for the fact-check.

Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear some thoughts about last week’s episode on free will.

Melanie COFRIN: Hi, Angela and Mike. This is Melanie from New Hampshire, and I’m the mom of three boys under the age of five. It’s pretty clear to me that the baby doesn’t have free will. He is so driven by his physical environment, if he’s hungry or cold or tired. However, even the four year old, when I ask, “Why did you do that?” His answer often is, “I don’t know.” And I believe him. I don’t think he knows why he does things. Sometimes he is just compelled to do them. And so, I wonder, at what age will they fully be in control of themselves? And your podcast has made me wonder, are we ever fully in control of ourselves? Or are we often a product of the environment around us and all the things that impact who we are and how we respond to things?

Vivian ZHONG: Hi Angela and Mike. I’m a Ph.D. student at Stanford. I remember reading an article about Robert Sapolsky’s book when it first came out, with a headline like, “Sanford Research Shows There Is No Free Will.” And honestly, my reaction was, “duh,” and then, “so what”? Once you get over the shock of something that sounds so fatalistic, it doesn’t really change anything that you do. I’m sure every turn I take is a result of some combination of genetics and environment, but that doesn’t excuse me from not trying to do my best or from doing what’s wrong.  

Daniel DU PRIE: G’day from Melbourne in Australia. I think free will is a bit like the weather. We know the weather is 100 percent governed by the laws of physics and is totally deterministic. Nonetheless, we’re unable to predict what it’s going to do more than a few days in advance, because we just don’t have the machine power to calculate the unimaginable number of influences, effects, and factors that determine what the weather will do next. In a similar way, all our choices are determined from the ground up. But so many different ingredients influence the choices we make that what we end up choosing to do is often unpredictable, even to ourselves. 

That was, respectively, Melanie Cofrin, Vivian Zhong, Daniel du Prie.  Thanks to them and to everyone who shared their stories with us. And remember, we’d love to hear your thoughts on the difference between being a high achiever and being an overachiever. Send a voice memo to, and you might hear your voice on the show!

Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: do you need closure?

DUCKWORTH: A little bit of mystery, Mike Maughan. A little bit of mystery goes a long way. 

That’s next week on No Stupid Questions.

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No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and The Economics of Everyday Things. If you’d like to hear Steve Levitt’s interview with perfectionism scholar Thomas Curran, which Angela mentioned in this episode, it’s episode 114 of People I (Mostly) Admire, “Is Perfectionism Ruining Your Life?” All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. The senior producer of the show is me, Rebecca Lee Douglas, and Lyric Bowditch is our production associate. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne. We had help on this episode from Julie Kanfer. Our theme song was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Thanks for listening!

MAUGHAN: Well played, Dr. Duckworth.

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