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MAUGHAN: I’m going to go do something completely crazy.

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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: is it unhealthy to have unrealistic dreams?

DUCKWORTH: “I won the lottery.” “I got into every dental school I applied to.” “He likes me back.”

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MAUGHAN: Angela, I’m excited today. We have a really interesting question about dreams.

DUCKWORTH: Hmm, I love dreams.

MAUGHAN: So, here is a listener question. He said: “I was talking to a friend and they said we should all move to Bermuda and retire and how nice it would be and went on to make elaborate plans for us down there. It would be terrific, but it would never happen. Why do we daydream these things that we know could never happen?” And that’s from listener Daniel. 

DUCKWORTH: Now I’m, like, daydreaming about living in Bermuda. Wait, what was the ques— sorry. I have so many thoughts about this because I have collaborated with this psychologist named Gabriele Oettingen for, like, years. But before I share what I think, what do you think? I mean, do you have these kind of, um, daydreamy fantasies? 

MAUGHAN: Yes. So, when I first read Daniel’s question, for me, I almost broke it into two different pieces. One is: we have these unrealistic dreams that are sort of fun to just fantasize about, like winning the lottery or getting all your best friends and living in the same cul-de-sac. I also then thought about ambition and how sometimes we have unrealistic dreams, if you will, or expectations of our own lives and what we think we might be able to accomplish. I think there are maybe a few too many tech-startup founders who think “I’m the next Steve Jobs.” And I hate to break it to them —.

DUCKWORTH: Wait. Is this the expression “unicorn”? They, they want to be unicorns?

MAUGHAN: Yes, except for everyone’s a unicorn now.

DUCKWORTH: Can you just, like, define the term “unicorn” for me? Like, is it like a billionaire? Is that what it is?

MAUGHAN: Yeah, unicorn was a startup valued at over a billion dollars, which used to be rare. And then, valuations went crazy and everybody became a unicorn and it no longer became the distinction we thought it was.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, now “unicorn” is just like a zebra.

MAUGHAN: Yes. Zebras are very cool though, so we like them a lot.

DUCKWORTH: They’re very cool.

MAUGHAN: But it’s just not as mythical. 

DUCKWORTH: Don’t scoff at the uh, billion-dollar zebra. I think you’re right though; like, we have these fantasies about things that could happen, but are unlikely to happen, that we just know are fantasies. And then we have these, one could argue, outsized ambitions, or these expectations.  

MAUGHAN: Here’s what I’ll say. Overall, I think it’s a good thing. Overall, I think it’s really fun to be able to fantasize. I know we’ve talked before about winning the lottery and playing the lottery. The odds are so infinitesimally small.

DUCKWORTH: Which you do. Right? Are you still doing it?

MAUGHAN: I wouldn’t say I “do,” but I — anytime the lottery goes over a billion dollars, I try to find someone in a different state to buy me a ticket.

DUCKWORTH: You want to be a lottery unicorn.

MAUGHAN: Well, anyone who wins the lottery is a unicorn. It’s so unrealistic. But I think it’s fun. I think there’s a fun element so long as it doesn’t become all encompassing, to be able to sit around for a minute with your friends or your family and just say, “Man, if we won $200 million, what would we do?” But if it actually came to reality, I think we would find the moment of realization is a shock. Like, if all your friends really moved to Bermuda and you’re there, suddenly, does your life have meaning? Are you pursuing hard goals that help you grow? Does it become weird because you just only hang out with each other? And too much of a good thing is still too much? So, I think part of it is we actually don’t want to realize all of our dreams, but it’s fun to think about them.

DUCKWORTH: I think the summary insight of Gabriele Oettingen, you know, who I mentioned — wait, do you know Gabriele?

MAUGHAN: I don’t think so.

DUCKWORTH: Love Gabriele. Gabriele is half of a research couple at N.Y.U. And they really are a research couple because her husband, Peter Gollwitzer, and she are this dynamic duo and they’re like the world’s leading researchers on goal-setting and planning. And so, what Gabriele started asking herself is: why do we fantasize about things? Like, why do we, as she puts it, “indulge” in positive fantasies? You know, “I won the lottery.” “I got into every dental school I applied to.” “He likes me back.” Like, we — I think we all know what it’s like. Okay. I’m going to share a slightly embarrassing, but completely true one. When I was in high school, I had this mad crush on a boy. And I guess I can share his name because there’s so many people named this, like, Michael Johnson. He had blue eyes and he had — I don’t even know what he had that I just was like, “He’s the one for me.” And I think we were in ninth-grade English class together. And so, that meant every single weekday I got to, for 45 minutes, instead of paying attention to English language arts, just, like, fantasize about how, like, we were going steady. And it was so fun! So, I think that Gabriele would say, I would say: we fantasize about things because when we create this, like, mental simulation of a world that doesn’t exist, like a future that’s not true, but we’re pretending, we can experience it, in a way. We can feel what it’s like to have this crush reciprocated or, for a moment, feel the warm breeze and palm trees, like, you know, on the sand. And so, that’s, I think, why we have these fantasies in the first place, because it brings us pleasure.

MAUGHAN: It brings us pleasure, and I think it allows us to connect to each other in an interesting way. So, I’ll give you an example of a time that I would fantasize. I spent several different summers during college living in very resource-limited settings in developing economies. And one summer, for example, we were living up on the border of Burkina Faso and Ghana. And we had very little food. I mean, we ate literally bread and water most days. Sometimes we had yams or beans as well, but it was mostly a diet of bread. And we would spend a lot of time fantasizing about food. But what was beautiful about it wasn’t just the fantasizing about, oh, eating this brown-sugar flank steak or this lemon pine-nut rice and the fruit salad, the dah, dah, dah, dah, dah. But it led to conversations, then, about what are your family traditions? Do you get together for Sunday dinner? What do you guys eat? So, the fantasizing about something completely unrealistic also revealed some of our goals, some of our formative elements of our lives. And so, it became an actual beautiful thing of connection, even though all of us knew we were about to eat yet one more piece of plain bread for breakfast.

DUCKWORTH: I think there is something about the vicarious pleasure or the simulated pleasure. And you’re right, it can also lead to, like, meaningful conversations, but just the indulging itself is really enjoyable. And I think that’s why Gabriele thinks it’s so dangerous. She thinks it’s so fun to imagine going on a date with Michael Johnson, or eating lemon pine-nut rice that you, in a way, have, like, gratified yourself. And you’re sated. In a way. Obviously, if you haven’t really eaten, you’re still going to be hungry and your body’s going to tell you that. But with these positive fantasies, as she calls them, she worries that people stop at the end of the fantasy and then, you know, go off to do other things and they never take action. So, what really motivates her and her husband, Peter, is this question of why people fail to take action toward these dreams that they have in their hearts. And I think she would argue that not the only reason, but a big one, is we just stop at the moment of visualization.

MAUGHAN: I mean, we’re talking about — and Daniel’s question kind of came down to this idea of — unrealistic dreams. It sounds like what maybe they’re talking about, and tell me if I’m off, is that there’s some realistic nature to the dream, which thus requires the next step. But I don’t think Daniel and his friends are actually going to go look for property in Bermuda. But it’s different if it’s realistic. There’s a guy named Patrick Bet-David. He’s an Iranian-American political commentator, entrepreneur, author, YouTuber, and he said a line that I love. He said, “The most miserable people I know are ambitious and lazy. They think so big, but never take action.” And it sounds like that’s more what she’s talking about. Is that fair, or no?

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I mean, if Daniel and his friends are just like, “It’s fun.” You know, like, when you scroll through Redfin and you sort the houses obviously from most expensive to least expensive, right?    And then, you go through the photos, and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, two dishwashers, sunken living room, plate-glass windows everywhere.” And you don’t have this gap between what you want to do and then what you’re taking action on because it’s a $50 million home and you’re just having fun. It’s a unadulterated positive fantasy. But I think what is also true is that when we do this, it is sometimes for the things that we are actually thinking that we’re going take action on. And I think the failure to take the next step, which would be to complete the picture — because Gabriele would say, when we create these positive fantasies about the future, what we end up editing out is the negative obstacle that stands in the way. That’s the next step that she wants people to take, and that’s not as fun. Like, okay, so your wish is that Michael Johnson takes you to the dance, but what is the obstacle that stands in the way? Then, I’d have to, like, sit there and think, and I’d be like, “Well, he doesn’t really, uh, like me.” He’s dating Robin Winitsky. Like, I don’t know, like, I think like the editing out of the, of the impediments in the way of our realistic dreams, right? So, I agree. If Daniel and his friends just want to, like, scroll through Redfin, and, like, pretend they’re living in Bermuda, and do whatever else — but I think it is different when you, when you harbor a realistic dream, something that you actually do hope happens someday.

MAUGHAN: I think that’s fair, and I think, going back to what she calls, you know, maybe this dangerous part, have you heard of dream scrolling?

DUCKWORTH: Wait, is this like doom scrolling?

MAUGHAN: Doom scrolling, but — I was going to say positive. I don’t know that it’s positive. But it’s “dream scrolling” and what it basically means it you’re looking at dream purchases or things that you would one day like to own.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, this is like Redfin!

MAUGHAN:   Yeah. Exactly! So let me share some stuff from a survey commissioned by Empower, and it was conducted by this market research company OnePoll. So, in 2024 — published this survey of 2,000 people from, from the United States. It said that in a year, on average, people are spending 873 hours, or nearly 36 days, scrolling on their phone or computer on “dream scrolling” things. And more than half, 56 percent of people, currently have things left open in tabs or windows or saved in shopping carts that they want to purchase or own in the future. And guess how much the average cost of those things are, the total amount.

DUCKWORTH: Gosh, what I have in my Amazon cart is a bunch of Saran wrap, so I’m trying to think, like, what about people who are spending hours browsing for purchases.

MAUGHAN: I’m amazed that people think this far ahead, because I don’t even have Saran wrap in there. I just don’t have Saran wrap for three weeks, and then I’m finally like, ugh.

DUCKWORTH: I know, I didn’t have Saran wrap for three weeks either. Then I had to, like, Google and find what the best Saran wrap was. Anyway, I’m going to guess that the average purchase price is $250?

MAUGHAN: Sorry, I’m saying the cumulative nature of all of their, like, dream-scrolling purchases.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, like how much is it in total? This is like, the price is right. I have, I have no idea. Like, I have no idea. 

MAUGHAN: Eighty-six thousand dollars. I mean, that just seems so unrealistic. The average American — I think I remember reading this — doesn’t have — I think 50 something percent don’t even have a thousand dollars in savings to get through an emergency.

DUCKWORTH: Yes, I used to know that. Whatever it is, it’s a shocking percentage of Americans who have the inability to pay, like, an unforeseen bill of several hundred dollars.

MAUGHAN: But have $86,000 — I’m not saying those are the same people. That’s not part of the study. But $86,000 dollars. I mean, look, I absolutely understand why, in those moments, if you’re spending two and a half hours a day dream scrolling, instead of actually working towards your goals, and then you have all this stuff saved that you eventually want to purchase, but no way to do it, that appears very dangerous to me and unhelpful.

DUCKWORTH: Is it dangerous though? Look, I’m asking it rhetorically, but they’re not hurting anybody.

MAUGHAN: I don’t know that that’s true. I would argue that you’re hurting yourself. I think there’s a, a value to, “Hey, I’m dreaming about something that’s really fun.” But I think there’s a hurt to spending so much time living in an alternate reality that is not yours.

DUCKWORTH: Like, two to three hours — I think that’s the indictment. Plus, if they’re putting it in their shopping cart, what is going through your head? Like, it seems like there is a confusion between harmless fantasy   and aspiration. That’s what Gabriele, I think, you know, would say, is that, like, “Hey, this may be getting in the way of you actually doing anything to make your life better.” So, let me take you back to this paper that Gabriele Oettingen did with collaborators on depression. And the question was: what’s the relationship between having these positive fantasies —  like, using that feature of the human brain to imagine a world that isn’t real, that could be possibly real, but it’s not true — like, what’s the relationship between that and depression. And what she found is that if you measure these things, depression and the extent to which somebody has these positive fantasies at a single moment in time, then, in fact, the more somebody has these fantasies, the less they are experiencing symptoms of depression. So, it’s like, yay, fantasies make us feel good.

MAUGHAN: Is that like a temporary solve though?

DUCKWORTH: Well, here’s the thing. In the study, Gabriele and her collaborators followed up with these individuals to see later what happened. And there, as you follow people over time, positive fantasies don’t look so good, because the more you tend to fantasize, actually the more depressed you are in the future. And the argument that Gabriele would make based on, like, lots of other research is that because you have indulged in this simulated reality that doesn’t actually exist and because it’s given you some kind of, like, fake pleasure, you are no longer motivated to take action and do anything. And that leads you to actually have an objectively worse life and that exacerbates depression. So, in the moment it feels good, but in the long run, positive fantasies on their own can be quite dangerous. But, the thing is is there’s nothing wrong with any fantasy, I think Gabriele would say. It’s just the incompleteness, the failure to take the next step, which is to ask: what is the obstacle that stands in the way of that fantasy? And if you don’t ask that question, then you don’t answer for yourself, how realistic is this? Do I really want this? So, I don’t think that there are, like, good kinds of positive fantasies, bad kinds of positive fantasies. It’s just that you have incomplete fantasies versus more fleshed-out fantasies that include obstacles.

MAUGHAN: I still think it’s fun to have a few fantasies that you never expect to come to fruition — so long as they’re not almost addictive. Because what you talked about is, in essence, daydreaming can become almost like a drug. You live in this world that is fake, and maybe your depression ends briefly, but, you know, you know, objectively, you have a worse life if that is your adaptive mechanism to maybe blunt your current pain.

DUCKWORTH: You know, there is somebody who’s not a psychologist, but he was a philosopher. Have you ever heard of Bob Nozick? I was reading about this thought experiment that he came up with. It was such an interesting hypothetical. It was called the Experience Machine. So, Nozick asked, and I think this was 1974 — and I remember noting the date around when he said this because he didn’t say this in 2024, right? Fifty years later. But I think he would have had a different answer to the puzzle if he had. So, in 1974, Nozick says, “Imagine there’s an experience machine,” and when you plug yourself into the experience machine, it’s like you’re kind of just like a brain floating in a liquid and basically you experience pleasure, but not just like some blunt-force pleasure. It’s, like, you can have these, like, vivid experiences of having written the great American novel, having the perfect family, one could fill in the blank — being a triathlete, but also a unicorn billionaire, whatever. Like, so that’s the experience machine. You plug in and it gives you this vicarious sensation that you are living your best life. And the puzzle, or the question, the dilemma, whatever you want to call it is: Do you choose to plug in or not? And Nozick is like, “That’s pretty simple. Who would choose to plug into the experience machine?” And then he goes on to say, it’s like, “Because what is courage, if not, like, actually taking, you know, charge of your life and, like, taking real risk.” It’s like, “What is love and what are relationships unless they’re real, and difficult, and so forth.” And I think in 2024, we have a, a kind of stunning answer to his question which is: like, oh, yeah, we choose to plug into the experience machine all the time. And I wish Bob Nozick were alive today to ask it again, because I think he would have to reckon with the reality that like, well, for example, Bob, people are on their screens, like, about as many hours as they’re sleeping today. So, this positive fantasy thing — I mean, I agree, it’s not always harmful, but I think because we have created ways for us to do it so much more easily today, right? It was one thing, I guess, to, like, daydream in the past of, like, living in a palace and I’m the king and you’re my queen or whatever. But, like, now you can scroll through on your phone and, like, see every possible picture of the living room of the house that you’ll never live in. And then, if that gets boring, go look at the outfits that you’re never going to buy. And if that gets boring, like, look at the vacations, like, oh, here’s this Vrbo house I’m never going to rent.

MAUGHAN: Or the friends who hang out all the time that you’re never going to be part of, but you feel some pseudo-connection to these influencers or whatever. Yeah, I think that part is really the negative extreme. I mean, moderation in all things, right? But this is taking it to an extreme where I think it is a really dangerous thing. And, look, I think Angela and I would love to hear about some of the big dreams that you dream about. How have those affected your motivation? How have they affected your mental health? Record a, a voice memo in a quiet place with your mouth close to the phone and email it to us at and maybe we’ll play it on a future episode of the show. And if you like the show and want to support it, the best thing you can do is tell a friend about it. You can also spread the word on social media or leave a review in your podcast app.

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Where is the line between lofty goals and unrealistic dreams?

MAUGHAN: I would love to be a professional tennis player.

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

DUCKWORTH: You know, Mike, I, um, was looking at what Gabriele had recently done, since I met her in graduate school, and we haven’t actually done a study together in, in quite a few years. But she wrote one with a couple of other collaborators on soccer and positive fantasies in soccer fans. And whoever had to go and collect the data for this research had to just go around from bar to bar and ask people to fill out questionnaires before they were going to watch some soccer match on the screen. And basically, what the research concludes is that the more you, for example, fantasize that your team’s going to win, the more disappointed and frustrated you are when they lose.

MAUGHAN: Amen. A-freaking-men.

DUCKWORTH: Maybe this cuts a little close to the bone, since you are constantly —.

MAUGHAN: Bombarded by sports.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, right. You know, your world, not mine. But the conclusion of the paper is that if it’s true that we’re going to feel, like, crushed when our favorite team loses the N.B.A. semi-final, whatever they’re in, well, maybe a lot of us would be like, “Well, I don’t care. Right? Like, that’s the cost of being a true fan.” But the idea more generally, and I think this is the conclusion that would apply to all of us, is that — you know, unless it’s just a frothy fun thing and you know it is there are these, like, downsides essentially of the positive fantasy, including feeling really, really bummed when your team doesn’t win. And you asked about high expectations, right? Like, the founders. Right. This study is starting to get at that, right? What about expectations of things being so lofty that when you come crashing down to earth, you hurt yourself.

MAUGHAN: And I would even make the distinction between: you’re talking about cheering for this team — that’s different, I think, than I’m a, a startup founder who’s trying to build a company where I think more of the, the success or failure, the opportunity, rests on me, exactly.

DUCKWORTH: I mean, why do you think that these founders do this? Like, why do you think they have unrealistic expectations?

MAUGHAN: I actually think in some sense, to be a founder — to start something — think about it, whether it’s starting a tech company, writing a book, whatever that is, you have to have a sort of unrealistic expectation and a maybe almost unfounded belief in what you can do, because that’s the only thing that’s going to make you crazy enough to take the risk and to try these things. So, I actually don’t know that it’s always a bad thing, because I think there’s this element of like, “I’m going to go do something completely crazy. I’m going to dedicate the next decade of my life toward becoming an Olympic gold medalist.” Well, that’s crazy if you think about it statistically, but you have to believe in a really big way. And then, to your point, you have to take the steps to start making it happen.” But I think there’s actually benefits sometimes to being this delusional founder because without that, you’re never going to do it, because it’s way too hard if you don’t believe you can do something completely unrealistic.

DUCKWORTH: I will say, on behalf of all psychological scientists, that nobody knows really why we are so optimistic, why we have these unrealistic ambitions. And when I say “we”, I mean, it’s all of us. Like, Danny Kahneman coined the term in the ‘70s, “the planning fallacy.” Danny was asked to write a high-school curriculum on how to make good decisions. And he had this team of psychologists and educators who were working. And at one point, they ask themselves a question: how long would it take them to finish the curriculum? And he said, “To make the debate more useful, I asked everyone to indicate on a slip of paper their best estimate of the number of months that would be needed to bring the project to a well-defined stage of completion: a complete draft ready for submission to the Ministry of Education. The estimates, including my own, ranged from 18 to 30 months.” Danny then turned to one of the team members who had extensive experience in curriculum development. “How long,” Danny asked, “does it usually take teams to accomplish this sort of work?” After a long silence, the curriculum expert replied, “First, I should say that not all teams that I can think of in a comparable stage ever complete their task. About 40 percent of them eventually give up. Of the remaining, I cannot think of any that was completed in less than seven years.” Okay, but then time proceeds, and Danny’s working on this curriculum. Eight years later, they were finished. So, this gave him the idea that when we make plans — and when we say “we,” we mean, like, all of us; smart people, people who plan for a living; Nobel Laureate economists — when we make plans, we paint these unrealistically rosy pictures of what’s going to happen. And these aren’t like, “Oh, I’m going to be friends with Taylor Swift.” These are like, “I’m working on this curriculum and, like, you know, I’m going to finish this part, and then I’m going to hand it to you, and you’re going to finish that part, and then we’re going to have to reformat it.” I mean, this isn’t, like, crazy fantasy. This is just, like, I am planning what we’re going to do. And what Danny felt we are all prone to do is we imagine one possible route through the future and we don’t imagine, for example, like, unforeseen interruptions, complexity. So, there are many possible futures, and we tend to dwell on the one positive one. Now, maybe we do that because it just makes us feel good in the moment, but maybe we also do that, as you point out, that, like, in a way, if you just sat there and you’re like, “Okay, we have to do this curriculum on decision making, let’s just play out the 99 million scenarios where we fail, where it takes us 15 years, where we all get into arguments.” Like, if you dwell on all the realities, then maybe you just never do anything.

MAUGHAN: That’s exactly what I’m saying though. Like, if you knew how hard it was going to be to start this company —  think about it in terms of parenting. If you knew all the stuff you have to go through and all the poopy diapers, like, teenage years, whatever, I don’t know that most people are going to sign up to start a company, to be a parent, to run for office, whatever those things are. I think that there’s an element of self-delusion that’s really beautiful, that allows us to dream big and have these expectations that if we didn’t have, we would never get started.

DUCKWORTH: Right. But those, okay, those founders like that you appreciate, right? The ones where you’re like, oh, love your ambition and I’m also going to give you some of my money, right? Like, I assume that they do take that next step that Gabriele wants them to take. That they do spend some of their time thinking about the obstacles and, like, how they’re going to get around them.

MAUGHAN Yeah. I mean, look, there’s all these examples from great V.C. funds that say the very best pitches, when they come in, start with: “This is why you should not invest in me.” You then negate their objections and can overcome them. So yes, and I guess what I would say is that I think the very best founders, the very best people to invest in, don’t know how to lose. I may have shared with you before Barbara Corcoran, who’s the “Shark Tank” star.

DUCKWORTH: Mhm, I sort of slightly know her. She’s very gritty.

MAUGHAN: I don’t know her at all, but we met one time and she told me, “My best entrepreneurs are the dumbest, because they don’t know when they’ve been beaten. So, they just keep going, and eventually they figure out how to do it.” And we talk about this concept of “never get blocked.” If the goal is to follow this route, then yeah, you might get blocked. But if the goal is to get to that end point, you’re going to find seven different routes that are going to get you there. It’s a very different mindset. And I think that that’s where sort of this daydreaming or, quote, “unrealistic goals” — you should have those if you’re going to be successful in business, but not so unrealistic that you think —.

DUCKWORTH: But no, no, but here’s where I disagree with you. Because you keep saying, like, oh, well, there’s some fantasies that are good, and some fantasies that are unrealistic, and like, I just disagree. That’s not the problem, Mike. It’s not that, like, some fantasies take it too far. The problem is their incompleteness, the failure to imagine the obstacles. And that’s just different. Of course, by the way, after you imagine all the obstacles, you might take it down a notch and you’re like, “Well, actually, I want to revise my fantasy.” But I think it’s the incompleteness that is the Achilles heel of fantasizing. And even when you think about, like, the planning fallacy — I was thinking about when I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and there was this tunnel. It was called “the Big Dig” because it was supposed to take six years and $3 billion, which at the time was like, “Oh my God.” Okay, it didn’t take six years. It took 16 years. And it didn’t take $3 billion. It took $22 billion. But you could argue that at the very beginning, if anybody said, “Hey, I think this thing is going to take a decade and a half and over $20 billion,” like, nobody would have started it. Right? So, there’s — there is this benefit, as you’re saying, to the kind of really ambitious, possibly too ambitious idea. But the point is that you have to furnish your fantasies with obstacles, because whatever the size of your fantasy, as long as you start thinking about obstacles, there’s no wrong answers. When you ask people, like, “What is it that stands in the way?” I have never heard anyone, whether they’re 10 or, like, 70 years old, who can’t at some level figure out what the obstacle is. And then the next thing we ask them is: “How could you get around that obstacle?”

MAUGHAN: I don’t know. I mean, I would say that I think it’s really hard if someone thinks — let me tell you this brief story. So, Kim Scott, who we both love, author of Radical Candor, Silicon Valley executive, wonderful, wonderful soul, she came to Qualtrics in our early days and was doing a Q&A with the employees. And I remember she said these exact words. She said, “None of you are Steve Jobs. And I’m really sorry if I’m the first one telling you that.” And I love that she said that, and the point was: if you were Steve Jobs, you would not be in this room. You’d be creating your own company. So, there is some element to being realistic about what your contributions are, but I’m also saying that I think it’s really good to be completely unrealistic because you never get anything like the Big Dig if you know it’s going to take a decade and a half. You never get a Qualtrics if people think it’s going to be that hard. If I’d known how hard my role was there, I don’t know that I would have signed up. I’m so grateful that I did it, but it’s good that you don’t know all those things. That’s all I’m saying.

DUCKWORTH: I don’t disagree with you about that. I just think that the elemental insight from research is that you are most well off if you allow yourself to fantasize in a way that isn’t especially edited. Like, I don’t think Gabriele would have walked into that room and said, “You’re no Steve Jobs. So, like, I want you to dream what you’re going to dream in the next year, but I want you to keep in mind that you’re here in this room because you’re in the middle of an org chart. And if you were Steve Jobs, you’d be off doing something.” Like, I don’t think she would have done that. 

MAUGHAN: And to be clear, I don’t want to characterize Kim as walking in and crapping on everybody. That was not the feeling of it at all.

DUCKWORTH: That was not the spirit, right? But, really, when you want to do an exercise about the future, you would just take it in two steps: fantasy first, obstacle next. And then, all the work, all of the sort of, like, adjusting, and all that, it happens naturally to the person. And sometimes the fantasy is left untouched, but just gives you like, wow, a really long to-do list. And sometimes the fantasy does get revised. But there’s nothing wrong, I think, with these fantasies, except for the omission of the obstacles.

MAUGHAN: Yeah. I’ll just, in closing, defend Kim. I think there’s something freeing about knowing what your limits are. When I know that I’m not going to be in the N.B.A., then I’m finally free to instead pursue all the things that I would be good at and that would be fulfilling. And I think that was more the spirit of what she brought to it.

DUCKWORTH: So, I would say, to these entrepreneurs, like, what is it that you hope and dream for? And then, I would have them fully indulge. When Gabriele does these workshops, she has people fully indulge in these positive fantasies for minutes, just imagining every vivid detail, without any editing, with no censoring, with no criticism, with no reality. And then I would say, like, “Now, let’s do something different. Let’s think about the obstacles that stand in the way.” And then, I would do the same exact exercise, and so would she — like, this vivid, clear, imagining of what the obstacles are and then we would get to making plans and, like, that to me is the difference. I think people often make the mistake of just doing it all in one step. They’re like, “Well, you need to have realistic da, da, da.” It’s like no, no, no. Be unrealistic. Then think about obstacles. You’ll get there, and you’ll have this energy. You’ll have this drive that comes from the contrast between this aspirational future and the negative obstacle that stands in front of it, that’s totally different from, like, just this kind of, like, lukewarm, like, “Oh, okay, well, I guess I could reach here.”

MAUGHAN: I get that. And I’m — I think it’s probably a great exercise. I’m also just thinking of the people who’ve tried 17 different startups, failed every single time, and their spouse is like, “Just go get a damn job.”

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, and what do you think about that?

MAUGHAN: I think that at some point you have to be realistic that you don’t have what it takes to do X, Y, or Z. And it’s okay to just throw in the towel and say, “Maybe this wasn’t my thing.” Because I think that it’s really unhealthy to go pursue something that’s just never going to happen. Like, I would love to be a professional tennis player.

DUCKWORTH: Right, okay, so, like, what’s the obstacle that stands in the way?

MAUGHAN: I can’t play tennis.

DUCKWORTH: How would you get around that obstacle?

MAUGHAN: Like, no amount of hard work or effort’s going to get me there.

DUCKWORTH: That’s, I think, what an entrepreneur who was — who seriously sits and thinks about it and asks themselves, “What is the obstacle that stands in the way?” I think they would say something like you just said. You don’t have to tell them that. That’s the thing. People can self-direct without anyone’s help, actually, if they’re willing to ask themselves the right questions in the right order.

MAUGHAN: And look, I would just end by saying with Daniel, your question — is it unhealthy to have unrealistic dreams? — in my most excited state, I love unrealistic dreams. I think there’s a lot of beauty to it, and also I think that if you and your friends want to pretend that one day you will all live in the Bahamas, I think you should, because I think it’s a really fun thing to think about.


MAUGHAN: Bermuda, excuse me.

DUCKWORTH: Wouldn’t that be tragic if they — they actually, like, it’s like you get there and you’re like, “Where is everyone?”

MAUGHAN: If Daniel ends up in Bermuda and everyone else is in the Bahamas.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, that would not be a fantasy.

MAUGHAN: But I think it’s a beautiful thing, and I think it’s fun to consider. So, I would just say I’m all for it. Enjoy Bermuda in your Bahama shorts.

DUCKWORTH: Send us a postcard. 

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

Angela says that she’s been on a quest to find the very best Saran wrap. Saran is actually the name of a specific brand of polyethylene food wrap — also known as plastic wrap or cling film — made by S. C. Johnson & Son. Saran is one of many trademarked names that are often used for an entire product category. You probably know that Kleenex and Xerox are brand names — but you might be surprised to learn that you’re only dressing your baby in a “Onesie” if you’re using an infant bodysuit made by Gerber Childrenswear. You’re only using Rollerblades if you have inline skates from Technica Group. And you’re only riding around in a Jet Ski if you have the brand of personal watercraft sold by Kawasaki Heavy Industries.

Later, Mike and Angela try to recall a fact about the amount of emergency savings Americans have on hand. They were thinking of a 2022 survey by the consumer financial services company Bankrate, which found that 57 percent of U.S. adults can’t afford a $1,000 emergency expense. In addition, 68 percent of those polled said that a sudden loss of employment would result in an inability to cover living expenses for even one month.

Finally, Angela credits the concept of the planning fallacy to the late, great psychologist Daniel Kahneman. We should note that Kahneman developed the idea with his friend and long-term research partner Amos Tversky.

That’s it for the fact-check.

Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear some thoughts about last week’s episode on the differences between sympathy and empathy.

Natalie WILLIAMS AWODEHA: I’m calling in response to the question about empathy and sympathy and then how the conversation also included a discussion on pity. So, I’m 39 years old now. I live in downtown Los Angeles. But I grew up in the South, in Oklahoma, and I can remember, as a kid — as a black little girl growing up poor — there were so many times when I realized that folks were being nice to me and to my siblings not because of any genuine empathy or sympathy, but because they felt pity on us. And I agree with Mike that it’s a horrible, horrible, disgusting feeling — especially as a child to realize where those feelings from particular adults were coming from. I remember it impacted me so much that one time I quit band. I was really good at playing the clarinet, and I quit because I was feeling those feelings of pity from the band director, and I was like, “No, this has to go.” And so, I can really understand how folks might have those visceral reactions. It’s a horrible, horrible feeling. Thanks for the discussion. I look forward to these episodes every week.

Ed SIXSMITH: Your episode on empathy versus sympathy took me back nearly 20 years to medical school in London where I got into arguments with the philosophy teachers about trying to be empathetic towards our patients. I couldn’t understand why they couldn’t see that empathy was impossible in certain situations. I’ve never had a terminal diagnosis, I’ve never lost a child to a car crash, and yet those are things we deal with as doctors, especially in the emergency department where I now work. What I have understood over those 20 years is that actually the most important thing is striving to try and be as empathetic as possible — put yourself as close to the position that you can of the patient, or parent, or person in front of you and do that with sympathy so that you can attempt to be near to them and to understand their grief, their difficulty, their diagnosis and to give them the best care as possible as a result.

That was, respectively, Natalie Williams Awodeha and Ed Sixsmith. Thanks to them and to everyone who shared their stories with us. And remember, we’d love to hear your thoughts on seemingly unrealistic dreams. Send a voice memo to, and you might hear your voice on the show!

Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: are people getting worse at experiencing discomfort?

DUCKWORTH: Oh my gosh. I’m already uncomfortable. This is so awkward.

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. 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 Greg Rippin with help from Eleanor Osbrone. We had research assistance from Daniel Moritz-Rabson. 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!

DUCKWORTH: I don’t think you would want somebody in a wheelie chair for recording a podcast.

MAUGHAN: I — I have a wheelie chair.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, Mike! Hello!

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