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Episode Transcript

DUBNER: I watched Love Actually.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, you did? I hoped you loved it. Did you love it? 

DUBNER: It was fine. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh my god.

*      *      * 

DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.

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

Today on the show: How do you access creativity? 

DUCKWORTH: There is nothing you can do to make the muse strike you and not the person who’s standing next to you. 

Also: Why are humans so bad at planning for the future? 

DUBNER: “In the long run, we’re all dead.” 

*      *      * 

DUCKWORTH: Stephen, I’m going to read you a note that we received from Carolee Morrison, who really has just the best question here. “Hi, folks. As what we call a creative person or God forbid ‘a creative,’ I grew up on such maxims as: Consistency is for small minds. So too for punctuality; better to write with the muse. Only garbage comes out when you force it. HOWEVER — all caps — I’ve been killing myself to stick to a schedule, parentheses, (ugh), end parentheses — reading how the great writers woke up, etc., etc., daily on schedule. Would be nice to hear your take on which is better in terms of quality: productivity, momentum, consistency, or creative spontaneity?Cheers.” 

DUBNER: I love this question, as I too have thought about it for many, many years, as have, I would say, just about every writer ever and anyone who’s ever done anything remotely creative. The idea of the muse, of course, has been around a long time. We certainly know it from the Greeks and the Romans. This is the idea that you’re visited by a creative supernatural force, and that the muse would visit certain people at certain times or in certain conditions. I think that began to change only when we got to the Renaissance with this idea that individuals are the creative people. That said, I think a lot of people still believe in this muse idea to some degree, including Carolee, it sounds like. I know that there is research showing that some people are inherently more, quote, “creative” than other people, which would make perfect sense, right? People are more athletic than others. 

DUCKWORTH: Like anything, there is going to be distribution.

DUBNER: That said, I also think a lot of that old folk wisdom has been exploded when it comes to creativity. I personally believe that every human has within them a fairly deep reservoir of creativity, if they choose to exploit it, and if someone encourages them to exploit it. But that gets then to the question of how to do that. And I would turn this question back on you, Angela. You know, one of the central arguments about education in the 21st century is that education may teach a lot of people a lot of things, but it doesn’t necessarily teach a lot of people very well how to think or how to think well. 

DUCKWORTH: Or how to think creatively, especially. 

DUBNER: Exactly. You know, it sounds like Carolee was talking about writing — or something that we think of as more artistic — but goodness, I wouldn’t want to think about the history of science without creativity. So I think we really should think about creativity in the broadest sense of being willing to entertain and then acting upon new ideas. And so if that’s how we’re defining it, before you even get to the question of how you encourage it, can you talk a little bit about what you see as the degree to which modern education does encourage, or not, creativity? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, Sir Ken Robinson, who’s now passed away, he talked about creativity. The title of his talk was “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” I think it’s still by far the number one most-viewed TED Talk of all time. Sir Ken says, basically, that all children are born creative and risk-taking, in the sense that they don’t mind being wrong. And if creativity is novelty that is useful — new solutions to problems that are better than old solutions — then what Sir Ken is saying is that children are all born with an instinct toward that. 

DUBNER: In fact, it’s a necessity in the life of a child, because you literally don’t know what works. 

DUCKWORTH: Yes! You don’t have the received wisdom. So you’re just trying things out. “What do I do with this? Maybe if I turn it upside down?” So the thesis is that schooling — especially the kind of formal schooling that you and I and everybody who’s listening to this has had some experience with — that it just bleaches the creativity out of children by giving them a very narrow academic curriculum, by awarding them for right answers, by penalizing them for, quote-unquote, “wrong answers.” 

DUBNER: And do you think along the way that children also get the message that there are some people who are, quote, “the creative people,” and the rest aren’t?

DUCKWORTH: So, Sir Ken Robinson also says that there’s a pretty clear hierarchy of what it even means to be creative. For example, most people intuitively would say, “Writing, that’s more creative than physics.” But even within the humanities there’s a hierarchy. Sir Ken would say art and music at the top of the status hierarchy for the humanities, but, say, drama or dance is lower down. This argument was so virally popular. So he must have struck a nerve. I mean, it’s not a scientific argument. It’s based on his observations and his intuition. But I will say, when you look at the research on creativity, and a close cousin, which is curiosity, there is some evidence that change happens when children move into formal schooling. I mean, the data are a little hard to interpret. I wish there were more data on this. But it could be that when children enter an environment where there are right answers and there are wrong answers, and your job is to get as close to 100 percent as possible of the, quote-unquote, “right” answers, it does change their tolerance for challenge and risk-taking and so forth. 

DUBNER: Since Carolee asked about writing, per say, I will say that if you read the biographies of 100 great writers throughout history, you’ll find 100 different stories of how their creativity works. But a lot of them don’t rely on the muse. First of all, it’s just not practical. If you want to write more than one book in your entire life, you need to learn how to do the work. E.B. White, who I know you like—

DUCKWORTH: I love E.B. White.

DUBNER: So you’ll like this quote from E.B. White as well. “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” Hemingway — I think you also like Hemingway. 

DUCKWORTH: I like me some Hemingway. 

DUBNER: Hemingway said, “When I’m working on a book or story, I write every morning, as soon as first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you, and it is cool or cold, and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next, and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.”

DUCKWORTH: That was such a Hemingway passage. And I like that you read it in a very Hemingway way. 

DUBNER: Well, you know, Ken Burns has made his Hemingway documentary, so it’s kind of stuck in my head. It’s a very good documentary. But, um, when I was a young writer and I read that piece of advice from Hemingway, I thought, “Oooh, that is one of those things that people who consider themselves pure artists would probably despise because it sounds too functional.” But as someone who’s actually written for a living for many, many years now, I’ve found it to be one of the most incredibly useful pieces of advice, which is: never stop writing for the day until you’ve solved whatever hard puzzle is right in front of you, because you don’t want your reentry the next day to be difficult. You want to be excited about that next thing. You want to know where you’re going. So, to me, that is a good example of the non-muse style of thinking about being creative. Red Smith, who was a great sports writer for The New York Times and elsewhere, but also was just a really lovely writer — he wrote children’s books and so on— he said, “Writing is easy, you just sit down and open a vein.” So that’s a little bit more extreme. 

DUCKWORTH: You know what? You do have to make yourself write when you don’t feel like it, because if you wait till you feel like it, just like you quoted from E.B. White, that day may never come. But one way to think about this is that the muse striking and this kind of daily diligence are not at odds with each other. In fact, one affords the other. Our mutual friend and dearly missed colleague Anders Ericsson wrote an article on creativity. And he was asking whether he could further the understanding of creativity through his own expert performance framework, which is very much how Anders saw the world. And he wanted to make the argument that even when you look at creative genius, that what looks like these spontaneous epiphanies that come out of nowhere are actually the result of daily deliberate practice where you’re accumulating skill and knowledge in a pretty unromantic way.

DUBNER: I mean, I can identify with Carolee’s frustration or feeling that being creative according to a schedule is kind of unsexy, but I think it’s pretty hard to find too many models where discipline, and even schedule, haven’t contributed to a greater creative life. You can certainly find people who burned fast and bright and lived a purely creative life. The psychologist Dean Simonton — he looked at an interesting question around the relationship between creativity and mental health, because there is this — I don’t know if you want to call it a cliche of the tortured artist. So, he looked at the prevalence of mental illness in different types of creative people. Let’s see, visual artists and writers were on the high end of the scale, with poets the most pronounced. 87 percent of poets experienced some kind of mental disorder. Now, that sounds, maybe, shockingly high, but you have to consider, the general population, it’s about 46 percent of Americans. 

DUCKWORTH: Still pretty high. 

DUBNER: But here’s what was really interesting to me. He also measured scientists and found that they had a considerably lower tendency for a mental disorder, about 28 percent. And he found that if you include all creative people in this tally — so, from poets to scientists, that they actually have lower rates of mental illness than noncreative people. In fact, he argues that creative behavior is a marker for good mental health. So those are not all people just waiting for the inspiration. Those are people who have learned how to work, acquiring knowledge, acquiring skills and so on, and then being able to be creative because you’ve done the work. And I think that’s what scares a lot of people, is realizing how much work you have to do in order to get hit with that creative burst. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, it might scare people — that, like, “Wow, that sounds like a lot of work.” But it might be even more frightening to think that the muse just has to strike and there is nothing you can do to make the muse strike more often, or to strike you and not the person who’s standing next to you. You know, we are coming down, clearly, on the same side of the issue. The only thing I can think immediately that argues against us is this episode that I watched recently. It’s actually a very creative little mini-series, I think it’s on Netflix, called Midnight Diner. Now, I don’t even have to ask you, Stephen, if you’ve seen it, because you don’t watch anything, much less a little Japanese mini-series.

DUBNER: But wait! I watched that one. 

DUCKWORTH: No, you did not. 

DUBNER: No, I didn’t. 

DUCKWORTH: Have you ever heard of Midnight Diner

DUBNER: No. I’m such a disappointment. I apologize.

DUCKWORTH: It is so clever. 

DUBNER: I’m writing it down. I’m putting it on my list. 

DUCKWORTH: You have not taken any of my pop-culture suggestions to heart. 

DUBNER: I watched Love Actually.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, you did? I hoped you loved it. Did you love it? 

DUBNER: It was fine. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh my god. Blasphemy.

DUBNER: Look, I can’t go “full Angela” on it. I can’t say that I’m going to watch it, like, five times a year for the rest of my life. 

DUCKWORTH: It’s so great. I think I’m going to watch it tonight just because you said that.

DUBNER: But look, you don’t love golf. So I love that you love your things, and you can love that I love my things. 

DUCKWORTH: Tomato, tomato. 

DUBNER: You say placebo, I say gazebo. 

DUCKWORTH: I say placebo.

DUCKWORTH: But we digress. Anyway, let me tell you about Midnight Diner. It’s my husband’s favorite thing ever that he’s ever consumed as a creative product. The episodes are twenty minutes or so, and each of them is like a little moral tale. And it’s all centered around this fictitious diner that’s open from midnight to 7:00. That’s the midnight diner. And each of the little stories is the story of one of the diner guests. And the one that I’m thinking of in particular that argues against us is that there is an aspiring anime writer, slash, illustrator. And, basically, the narrative ends with this aspiring manga creator working so diligently and hoping to force the muse to come, and ruining not only his own life but also the life of his girlfriend. So, at the very end of this, this artist basically does what was clearly the, quote-unquote, “right” decision — at least in the context of this episode — which is, he just drops it, he stops doing what he’s doing. And it’s intimated that he will come back to it when the time is right. So maybe there is such a thing as forcing inspiration at the wrong time. What do you think about that? 

DUBNER: Wait, that was a strong argument in favor of the belief in the muse? 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, because this guy was just not able to say, “Hey, you know what? It’s just not happening.” 

DUBNER: I guess my interpretation was that he just deemed himself unworthy of the muse visit. See, that to me is the downside of the belief in the muse — if the muse doesn’t come to you, you consider yourself unworthy, whereas in fact, I think anybody’s worthy. I think sometimes you have to trick yourself though, truly.


DUBNER: Well, for instance, when I have a really hard piece of writing, I will avoid it, like a lot of us do when there’s something hard. 

DUCKWORTH: You’ll procrastinate.

DUBNER: And then I think, “Well, I don’t want to avoid it, I want to get into it, but for whatever set of reasons, it’s very difficult to do so. So you know what? I’m not really going to buckle down now and really, really write. I’m just going to open the files and look over my notes, and look at this reporting, and look at the outline, and maybe I’ll have a few ideas.” And then, sometimes — I’m not saying this always works — but sometimes, the next thing you know, you’re totally engrossed, the sentences are just flying out of your fingers. Now, look, some people may call that some kind of muse. I guess I’m just not a believer, but I do feel that there are ways for all of us to develop, like, a muscle, those more creative parts of ourselves. And I do believe that modern society, and especially our schools, don’t really do enough to inspire creative thinking, or honestly, really thinking at all. I mean, when most of us think about thinking, it’s thinking in the service of solving a problem. And I just mean “thinking” — putting yourself in a situation where you’re able to let your mind wander, not necessarily without direction, but to wander off the standard path. I mean, isn’t that why conversation is great like this? I may think about something in one way, and then you, Angie, says something that throws me off my path and leads me to think in a totally different way, and that’s how ideas happen. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, look, Carolee asked, should I stick to a schedule or should I not stick to a schedule? And what you just described, Stephen — the path-dependent unpredictable nature of a conversation like the one we’re having — is a wonderful thing and leads us places that can be really wonderful and useful. But we wouldn’t be having this conversation if it weren’t on our schedule. 

DUBNER: That’s a good point 

DUCKWORTH: So, again, I think that the secret to spontaneity is consistency, and maybe you could take it too far, and maybe I have to rewatch that episode of Midnight Diner, but I think the reason why so many artists and writers and musicians have routines and rituals is that just waiting for the muse to poke you in the ribs and say, “Hi, I’m here,” is just really not a good strategy. 

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss how we can get better at helping our future selves. 

DUCKWORTH: Why are people buying frappuccinos and not investing in their 401(k)? 

*      *      * 

DUBNER: Angela, when I am at the beginning of a process or a project, I am routinely unable to appreciate how much it’s going to change, how long it will take, how many problems there may be along the way. I guess you’d just call it your basic shortsightedness, but as a result of that shortsightedness, I’ll often make decisions based on what’s in front of me and the expectations that I can see in the near focus, rather than how the scenario will play out over one or five or ten years. I feel like I’m kind of looking at a dark room with a flashlight as opposed to turning on the floodlights. And I want to be better. So, can you fix me, please? 

DUCKWORTH: And even your flashlight only goes, like, two or three feet, and then you can’t see beyond that.

DUBNER: Well, I have a five-foot flashlight. So it’s a pretty good flashlight.

DUCKWORTH: I feel like I do this a lot with friendships, actually. Even if you really like a person, sometimes there could be a little awkwardness the first, second, third, fourth encounter — it’s very hard to predict how easy it will be to be with someone when you are still unknowns to each other. So I think this shortsightedness question is a good one. As a counselor here for you, Stephen, since you’ve put me in that role, let me begin our tutorial with a term that you may well know already, which is “prospection.” Is this a term that you’ve heard in your many interviews with scientists? 

DUBNER: It is a term I’m familiar with. But honestly, if you ask me to really explain it, I think I would suffer what’s called “the illusion of explanatory depth,” which is, I would start, and then I would stumble. So why don’t you. 

DUCKWORTH: Okay, well, prospection is something I know a little bit through my advisor, Marty Seligman. Marty is well known for his work on helplessness and positive psychology. But if you ask Marty, “What are your major accomplishments as a scientist?” he would say that one of them is prospection, to advance our thinking on what it is for human beings to simulate futures. And this prospection capacity, the ability to play a movie in our heads of futures before they have come to pass, is interesting insofar as what we’re able to play movies of are not just things that we have experienced in some close facsimile already. So, for example, if I ask you to play out what Thanksgiving might look like this year, you’ve had plenty of Thanksgivings to pastiche together in your head. But what’s really amazing is I can say, “Imagine an elephant sat on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, while spinning on a top.” And you can do that! You can imagine these things that have never come to pass, and you can imagine futures that you have to really construct. 

DUBNER: Can I ask about one wrinkle of that? I’m curious whether we’re pretty good at prospecting when it comes to procedures or physical things — like, Thanksgiving will happen, I’m in a particular place, people will arrive, we’ll eat certain things, et cetera — versus an emotional state. Because one thing that really surprised me — when my mother died — she was my second parent to die. My dad died when I was very young. My mom died when I was probably early thirties. And even though she’d been declining, and even though I’d spent a lot of time with her, and we were very prepared for her death and so on, my emotional response shocked me. I was hit so much harder than I would have thought. And people said, “Well, you know, no matter how old you are, when you become an orphan, there’s still this feeling of being motherless or fatherless.” But to me, it was an illustration of how bad I was at prospecting on a purely emotional level. And I’m curious whether psychologists disentangle the emotional prospection from others. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, in fact, this is where psychologists who study prospection spend most of their energy, which is, how good or bad are we at predicting what we will feel like in the future? You know, “What would happen if we won the lottery? How happy would we be? What would we feel if a really unfortunate event happened, like losing the ability to walk.” The research on this says that we can be pretty bad, actually. Dan Gilbert, in particular, at Harvard, is well known for this work on affective forecasting and showing that, for example, we think that the apartment with a view is going to be amazing and that we’re always going to be dining alfresco on this balcony. 

DUBNER: It’s all about the pigeon poop, in reality.

DUCKWORTH: I mean, seriously, look up at any apartment building. Have you ever seen anybody on their balcony? So we could be wrong. We can be wrong about how we’re going to feel, in particular.

DUBNER: And do we usually err on the optimistic side or the pessimistic side? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, I think it can go both ways. There is this tendency of bad being stronger than good — that we can over attend to negative possible futures, and then past events also. And, by the way, it’s not just feeling happy or sad. George Loewenstein, another behavioral scientist who we both know fairly well, would say that we can be wrong about, for example, how hungry we’re going to be later. So if you go shopping for food and you’re starving, you buy enough food for an army. You should be able to forecast that after you have a snack, you’re not going to be nearly as hungry, but that’s hard to do. 

DUBNER: How is this related to temporal discounting or hyperbolic discounting? And actually, are those the same thing, but one is the language of psychology and one of economics?

DUCKWORTH: I think the term “temporal discounting” is more common in economics than it was in psychology, because that refers to a valuation function. Like, how much do I value ten dollars if I don’t get to have it until 14 days from now. 

DUBNER: Right. I will gladly pay you on Tuesday for a hamburger today, in other words.

DUCKWORTH: That sort of thing. And that sounds to me like language that was imported at some point from economics over into psychology. Psychologists, they’ve long talked about the delay of gratification — that goes back to Freud. So it’s not that this idea hasn’t existed. But I think the gist — either if you take this from the economics tradition or from the psychology tradition — is that, not only is a dollar today worth more than a dollar tomorrow — or a year from now, for objective reasons, I could invest it, you know, inflation — but actually just for purely psychological, subjective reasons. We’re not able to truly imagine what it would be like to have this ice-cream cone in a week. And therefore, we irrationally discount the future. So when you have to wait even a few seconds or minutes for a tasty treat or a pleasure, it is losing its value faster than it ought to, in a sense. 

DUBNER: I could imagine that our general inability to delay gratification could be seen as useful along the line, along the way of our evolution, but it seems pretty bad now. It seems like it’s a case where our ancient hardware is not being updated with modern software. Don’t you think we should be better by now? 

DUCKWORTH: You know, when retirement comes up as a subject among economists or policymakers, everybody wrings their hands, like, “Why are people buying frappuccinos and not investing in their 401(k)?” It’s like, for most of human experience, life was short and — 

DUBNER: And there weren’t frappuccinos! 

DUCKWORTH: And there weren’t frappuccinos! So, have the frappuccino. We didn’t necessarily evolve to stock away money when we’re 16 for the day we’re 92. So I do think that this very feat, that we can imagine any possible future, and our inability to imagine the very distant future, it’s understandable, maybe. 

DUBNER: But also, for most of humankind, there was, for instance, a moon, and there was Mars, and we didn’t go there. And in the last blink of an eye, we’ve gone there. So, like, we’re adaptable. 

DUCKWORTH: So things change. And, by the way, people read Thinking, Fast and Slow, and they watch a TED Talk, and I think that we are actually newly aware of these evolutionarily explicable quirks of human reasoning. And given that we know that we’re myopic, given that we know we can be a little more impulsive than is good for us, we can then start to work against those tendencies. 

DUBNER: Let me ask if maybe there is a way in which my shortsightedness, or myopia, is actually really useful. If I consider a new project or a new relationship, and in the moment it seems boring or painful or too much trouble — even if it might pay off really well down the road — but if in the moment I decide against it, maybe on some level that’s a good thing. Maybe it’s just a signal that I don’t really want to do those things, or that I’m too lazy to really stick it out. So I could look at it as a plus, no? 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Interestingly, I think graduate students’ more common error is to stick with things when they shouldn’t, versus the opposite. And I know that sounds crazy coming from somebody who studies grit, but recently talking with other scientists about this, we all lament the graduate student who’s following a not horrible but just mediocre idea to its end, which means four years later they publish some “eh” paper. I think also Michael Lewis, the author of The Big Short and Liar’s Poker — I love his work. I’m also a big fan of Richard Thaler, the Nobel-laureate economist. And I remember that both of these amazing people said to me, “I don’t really want to do things that I don’t want to do.” It prevents you from getting caught up in projects that are going to create opportunity costs. They prevent you from doing better things. 

DUBNER: Would it help to set what I think people like you call “top-level goals,” that drive my identity more and that are really important for satisfaction in life? Could they help me overcome the shortsightedness? Because I want to be able to make good decisions that will pay off for me and my family, and society, in the long run.

DUCKWORTH: I think that not only top-level goals — like higher-order, abstract goals that are resonant with your identity — but almost any goal, in fact, is a mechanism by which we can overcome our present hesitation to do what’s in our longer-term best interest. If you’re like, “My goal is to walk an hour today,” then when you don’t really feel like going out the door, or you want to come home earlier, you’re like, “Well, I set a goal.” So the function of goals, at least in part, is to enable us to hold fast to what is good for us in the long run and not do just what we feel like doing. And, by the way, when we set goals, whether they are long-term, top-level goals or more modest goals, one of the things that research says is a helpful trick is to commit to them socially and publicly. You could make a private agreement with yourself that you’re going to walk for an hour, or you’re going to hold fast to this project that’s going to take a few years, even though it’s going to have a lot of bumps in the way. But you could also tell someone else. And you don’t have to tweet it necessarily, although you could. When I started graduate school, I said to Jason, don’t let me quit for 10 years. And, in fact, I did have my doubts during that period. And after 10 years, I was in my early years as a tenure-track professor, he’s like, “Hey, by the way, time’s up. You stuck with it for ten years. Now you can switch.” And, of course, at that point, I didn’t want to switch at all. 

DUBNER: You know, my favorite quote about making policy now that will pay off in the long run was John Maynard Keynes, who said, “In the long run, we’re all dead.” The idea being that, yes, the long run is really important, but you also can’t ignore the fact — especially if you’re trying to make economic policy or health care policy, or just good government — if there’s a problem to be solved, let’s get on to solving the problem. I think the issue is that there are some people who are very well-equipped and educated toward being good long-term thinkers — the cliche is when you hear someone talked about as they look at life as a chess game where you can really see several moves down the road. And then, most of us — and I would certainly include myself there — we try to play. You know, I was good at saving money when I was young, because it was obvious to me that that was important to do, but mostly the future is, I’m there with my flashlight that really probably has only two or three feet. So, aren’t we well enough along as a civilization, and isn’t there enough diversity, and isn’t there enough technology, that we can delegate most of this long-term thinking to either people or machines who are really good at it? 

DUCKWORTH: I don’t think we’re going to have, like, an A.I. solution to our 10-year planning cycle, because machines, too, are going to have difficulty predicting a future, because it’s so path-dependent and, in the deepest sense, unknowable. But in terms of life advice, I used to think that really gritty people, people that I study who are high achievers, that they would have these blueprints for their life that would start out at the top with this top-level goal, and then there’d be your 20-year goals and your ten-year goals and your five-year goals, all the way down to your to-do list for today. And now I think that’s ridiculous. And I think that you can do the following: you can plan out the next year or two, maybe three — but that’s a stretch — of your life. Because that’s about as far as anybody’s flashlight really goes. Beyond that, the complexity, the path-dependency — you know, who could have predicted a pandemic — all these things happen. So, have a plan, but don’t try to stretch that planning horizon beyond one, two or three years. At the same time, in terms of top-level goals, I think it’s helpful to have some clarity about your general interests and values, and if you navigate in the direction of these interests and values — I like writing, I like kids, I like behavioral science. Then it says, “Hey, I should commit to this project for the next couple of years.” I can do that. The ten-year commitment I made with my husband to psychology was somewhat of an exception to this. But I think, in general, two to three years is about as much as anybody can handle. 

DUBNER: I like that. So embrace the reality of the uncertainty. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Realize that there’s a fundamental reason why you’re shortsighted, and that’s about the nature of reality, not about you.

DUBNER: So this is really separating intrinsic from extrinsic. It’s saying, like, “What’s driving me? What do I want? What am I good at? What do I want to be better at?”

DUCKWORTH: I think those interests and values that you would be navigating by — kind of like a sailor navigating by the stars — that is a pretty good description of what intrinsic motivation is: your personal interests and your core values.

DUBNER: I am going to take that phrase “interests and values” and get it printed on my coffee mug so I see it every morning. But then I’ll probably drop the mug and break it, and then I’ll have no future whatsoever. 

*      *      * 

No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and Sudhir Breaks the Internet. This episode was produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now, here is a fact-check of today’s conversations. 

To begin, we need to include a fact-check of No Stupid Questions Episode 52, “How Much Should We Be Able to Customize Our World?” During the conversation about customized education, Stephen and Angela discuss educator Joel Rose’s learning model for New Classrooms, and refer to the organization as a for-profit institution. That was a mistake. New Classrooms is not-for-profit. Apologies for not appropriately customizing our language there. 

In this episode, Stephen and Angela discuss the significance that inspiration — or “the muse” — holds for creative work. And Stephen shares that the idea originated in antiquity. However, we should note that Ancient Greek religion and mythology celebrates “the Muses,” plural — although ancient texts, like Homer’s Odyssey, invoke both “the Muses” and “a muse,” singular. The poet Hesiod (He-see-ud) mentions nine muses in total, and writes that Zeus is their father and their mother is Mnemosyne, or “Memory.” It’s likely that the muses were originally the patron goddesses of poets, but later in history, they encompassed all liberal arts and sciences.

Later, Angela says that everyone listening to this podcast has experienced formal schooling. That’s unlikely to be the case, since formal schooling is not a universal experience. According to the Census Bureau, about 3.3% of school-aged children in the United States were home-schooled at the start of the pandemic, and by fall of 2020, 11.1% of households with school-aged children reported home-schooling. 

Also, Stephen says that his mother died when he was in his early thirties, but, in fact, he was 36 when she passed away in 1999. You can learn more about her life as an accomplished ballerina, self-taught farmer, mother of eight, and devout Catholic convert in Stephen’s 1998 memoir Turbulent Souls, which was later republished under a new title: Choosing My Religion.

Finally, in her description of an episode of the Japanese television series Midnight Diner, Angela uses the words “anime” and “manga” interchangeably, but they are actually different types of media. Anime is animation — cartoons released on television or video. Manga is a style of Japanese comics and graphic novels. The story that Angela refers to is from Season 3, Episode 2 of the Midnight Diner, and the character is an aspiring manga artist — not anime artist. Interestingly enough, Midnight Diner the television show is actually based on a popular manga series of the same name by the very successful author and illustrator Yaro Abe, who, unlike the character on the show, appears to have no problem accessing “the muse.” 

That’s it for the fact-check.

No Stupid Questions is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher; our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Mark McClusky, James Foster, Joel Meyer, Tricia Bobeda, Zach Lapinksi, Mary Diduch, Brent Katz, Morgan Levey, Emma Tyrell, Lyric Bowdich, Jasmin Klinger and Jacob Clemente. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. If you’d like to listen to the show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can also follow us on Twitter at NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to And if you heard Stephen or Angela reference a study, an expert or a book that you’d like to learn more about, you can check out, where we link to all of the major references that you heard about here today. Thanks for listening! 

DUCKWORTH: I have the craziest photo to send you. It was for the cover of Costco Magazine, and the photographer didn’t want to do a normal picture. 

DUBNER: Is that you in the picture? You look like a UFC fighter.

DOUGLAS: You look like a badass warrior princess. 

DUCKWORTH: You can see why Costco did not just choose to put it on the cover of their magazine.

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