How to Manage Your Goal Hierarchy (Ep. 458)

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In this special crossover episode, People I (Mostly) Admire host Steve Levitt admits to No Stupid Questions co-host Angela Duckworth that he knows almost nothing about psychology. But once Angela gives Steve a quick tutorial on “goal conflict,” he is suddenly a fan. They also talk parenting, self-esteem, and how easy it is to learn econometrics if you feel like it.

Listen and subscribe to our podcast at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or elsewhere. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.

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Stephen DUBNER: Hey there, it’s Stephen Dubner. If there’s one thing we’ve all learned from a year-long pandemic shutdown, it’s that no two people respond exactly the same way to a year-long pandemic shutdown. Around here, we responded by starting some new podcasts. You may already know this, if you follow us closely. The first show we called No Stupid Questions, and it’s kind of a Freakonomics Radio for psychology. It is hosted by me and Angela Duckworth, who teaches psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and she wrote the book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Angela is brilliant, and a force of nature; I love the conversations we have on No Stupid Questions. Like this one:

Angela DUCKWORTH: Stephen, I’ve been wondering about how different I am in different situations, so I have a question for you. Are you ready for it? 

Stephen DUBNER: Yes, I am. 

DUCKWORTH: So, I wonder about myself, about how different I can act at home versus if I am with colleagues — how different I can think, and even how different I feel. And it’s as if there are multiple “mes,” multiple Angelas, and I wondered whether you have multiple Stephens.

One of our other new shows is hosted by Steve Levitt, my Freakonomics friend and co-author, who’s an economist at the University of Chicago. Levitt’s podcast is called People I (Mostly) Admire. He’s been having some truly memorable conversations with truly remarkable people. Like these:

Robert SAPOLSKY: So I was gifted my baboons and I stuck with them on and off for 33 years.

Marina NITZE: And then the White House appointed me to be the C.T.O. of the V.A. 

John DONOHUE: I’m frequently called a treasonous enemy of the Constitution. 

Susan WOJCICKI: Going and saying, “Hey, let’s go buy YouTube,” was a really big decision.

Sal KHAN: I want to create a world where for close to free, you can essentially get everything that you need to know to work, to get a job, to go to grad school.

Amaryllis FOX: Human intelligence is based on building trust and relationships with groups that are trying to attack us or members of governments that are at war with us.

Greg NORMAN: Hitting the perfect golf shot is better than having an orgasm, right?

If you are the kind of person who loves it when worlds collide, then today is a very good day. Because today, in our best impression of a complicated Russian novel, we’re playing for you a conversation that Levitt recorded for People I (Mostly) Admire with Angela Duckworth from No Stupid Questions and that we thought was so great that it should play here, on Freakonomics Radio. You should, of course, follow all three of these shows — as well a fourth show that we’ve just launched. It’s called Sudhir Breaks the Internet; we’ll tell you more about that one later. For now, I hope you enjoy this special bonus episode of People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt and Angela Duckworth.

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I first encountered Angela Duckworth 15 years ago when she came to the University of Chicago Department of Economics to give an academic seminar. I don’t remember many details, only that my colleagues, who are always raucous and rude, were particularly outspoken that day. It was the first time I remember a psychologist being invited to give a seminar in the economics department — and also the last. I’m not sure what my colleagues so disliked about Angela’s work back then, but I think it’s fair to say that Angela has definitely had the last laugh. It is hard to imagine how anyone could have been much more successful than she has been over the last 15 years, both inside and outside of academics. Let me make a prediction before we get started today. Officially, I’m supposed to be interviewing Angela, but I’m pretty sure, given my past conversations with her, it won’t take long before I become the interviewee and she the interviewer.

Steve LEVITT: Angela Duckworth, it is so great to get to talk to you today. People get to hear you chatting with Stephen Dubner on a regular basis on your joint podcast No Stupid Questions, but I suspect you and I will have a very different sort of conversation today, for better or for worse. 

DUCKWORTH: I look forward to it. I’m going to call you Levitt throughout this conversation so I don’t get confused. 

LEVITT: All right. That’s how I feel most comfortable. So, let’s start with Grit. In 2016, you wrote a book called Grit that really touched a nerve in society. It became a mega-bestseller. Could you give us the two-minute version of Grit?  

DUCKWORTH: The two-minute version of Grit is that when you look at high achievers, so Olympic athletes and frankly, Steve, people like — oh, Levitt — people like you, entrepreneurs who are really successful across all these different fields, they have one thing in common. Likely not the only thing, but one common denominator that I’ve studied as a psychologist is this combination of perseverance and passion over really long periods. That’s what I call grit. And I think if you wanted a one-word synonym, it would be stamina.

It turns out that these Nobel laureates and Olympic athletes and high achievers across other domains try to do things that are really hard. They’re typically trying to achieve a certain thing. So, they’re not waking up every day working really hard on a variety of different pursuits. They are trying to achieve what I sometimes call a top-level goal, something that might take years or decades or a lifetime, but which is for them worth pursuing at the cost of other, maybe easier, maybe more novel directions. 

LEVITT: So, what I think often gets lost in the shuffle, is that grit isn’t actually a characteristic of a person. It’s an interaction between a person and a project. And that’s one thing that’s frustrated me in the broader discussion. For instance, you have this grit test you can take online where there are a bunch of questions. And then, I, as a person, am given a grit score. But don’t you think that mixes up the message? You wouldn’t want to be gritty about everything. You want to be gritty about the right thing.

DUCKWORTH: So, I do think that grit is a quality of the individual. And I also think you can’t be gritty in a vacuum. You have to be gritty about something. But when I say it’s a characteristic of a person, imagine that there was a universal law that Levitt couldn’t do what he’s doing now or that Angela Duckworth wasn’t allowed to be a psychologist. The question is, in this hypothetical world where you can’t do this thing that you’ve been doing for really your whole professional life, what would you do? Would you become a dilettante? Would you retire?

I believe that I would try to do something else that took years of effort and focus and consistency. In other words, I think grit is trait-like in the same way that extroversion or agreeableness or open-mindedness might be trait-like, in that people carry this tendency with them in life. And you can answer that question, Levitt — I can’t call you Levitt. I call you Steve. Steve, what will your answer be to that?

LEVITT: So, you did actually characterize me very well there, Angela, because I am a dilettante and—. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, you think you’re a dilettante?

LEVITT: It’s true that I can be extremely gritty about particular things. So, I’ve been very gritty about golf in my life, for instance, and I was gritty about research for a while. I would love to have a slightly modified concept of grit, which I would call maximum grit. And maximum grit is my ability, when I get engaged in the topic — how gritty I am in that scenario. But what I worry about with grit — let me take the Ph.D. students I see in economics. They’re all very gritty. To survive our program, you have to be gritty. But they’re gritty in the worst possible way, in that they latch onto some hopeless topic, and they pound away furiously for years, when anyone with common sense would have stopped at the beginning and refocused on something better.

And that’s my fear, is that you, as the priestess of the grit temple, understand exactly what you mean by it. And you mean, “Okay, grit is a great trait to have when applied to a big, life-long problem.” But the parents who read it are going to say, “Oh, my kids aren’t gritty enough. I need to train them to persevere, no matter how difficult a problem is and how useless it is,” and that people will use your concept in the wrong way. Does that make any sense to you? 

DUCKWORTH: First, let me violently agree with you and elaborate. Human beings have goals at different levels of abstraction. The concrete, specific, tactical, really tactical — like, “must open my MacBook Pro and plug in my Rode microphone” — these are goals. And then, as a human being, I execute them. Then, I have really abstract goals. So, for the last five years, I’ve been walking around the planet Earth with the top-level goal in my head of: Use psychological science to help kids thrive. But I think there’s even a more abstract goal that I’ve realized that really subsumes everything I really want to do and that is: To increase psychological literacy, period.

Okay. Human beings not only have a spectrum of goals from the specific to the abstract, but they’re arranged hierarchically where the more abstract goals, the long-term goals, are more identity-relevant. They’re more important to us as people. If somebody said, “You know what? You cannot open your MacBook Pro at 9 a.m. Eastern Time,” I’d be disappointed. Maybe a mistake that people make is to think that grit is about being tenacious about these tactical goals. But if you said to me, “You cannot pursue your top-level goal of increasing psychological literacy,” that’s where I’m going to push back. That’s where I’m going to say, “No. There has to be a way that I can do that. Let me keep trying.” So, I think the idea is flexibility and giving up at the bottom of your goal hierarchy.

And then, at the top, these are the goals that rule the other goals. The reason why you have these tactical goals is so that you can further the master goals. So, there’s a psychologist that I greatly admire named Paul Rozin. I’m sure you’ve heard of Paul Rozin. He’s now in his 80s. And his number one piece of advice for graduate students is to give up easily. He says, “You’re trying to do a study on disgust and pigs. And pigs aren’t going to eat the Cheetos. Just give up. Walk away. Find another animal. Find another measure.” So, I think the secret of applying grit correctly — and you’re right, it is nuanced, so as the high priestess, maybe I should preach a little more effectively — is to be tenacious at the right level of your goal hierarchy.  

LEVITT: So, that was an interesting answer. I don’t have goals exactly. I have things that I like to do. And what I love to do is I love to play with data. And I love to play with ideas. I love it when there’s a difficult problem, and it seems like it can’t be solved. And then, with a twist of the wrist that allows you to see the problem differently, a solution emerges. But I just got tired of academics. For me, once Stephen Dubner and I wrote Freakonomics, I realized that the outside world for me was much more fun than the academic world, that the opportunities that would be afforded me were just better. What am I doing trying to publish these papers that get 25 citations when I can be on the Freakonomics podcast and talk to millions of people? It no longer made any sense to me.

DUCKWORTH: Going back to the goal hierarchy idea, I wonder whether you got maybe disenchanted with the returns on investment in economics and discovered an alternative life and world that had greater returns. Or whether there was a different way to achieve a high-level goal for you, which was probe human nature. I mean, I’m trying to shove you into my goal hierarchy model. But it’s partly because I really do think that people tend to not wake up and be a totally different human who — “Oh, I realized that I just like surfing more and I want to start” — but more that they are essentially discarding some lower, relatively speaking, level goal for an alternative path, or having more clarity about a top-level goal. So, I’m trying to suggest that this podcast and Freakonomics and all that was just another way of realizing what you’re really interested in that’s different. But it’s tactical shifting. It’s not like the destination is entirely different. 

LEVITT: It’s really interesting to me how much disciplines shape the way we view the world. And I have to say, I barely know what you’re talking about. And in general, I think that psychology and economics are kind of at odds in that economics really has very simple foundations. And any kind of complexity makes economists’ heads spin. And I think that psychology is based in complexity, in part because it’s trying to link back to the brain and who knows what’s going on inside the brain. To that point, I don’t really talk to psychologists. You’re about the only psychologist—. 

DUCKWORTH: Really? You don’t? Wow. 

LEVITT: Yeah. You and I talk maybe once a month. And every time we talk, you say, “Well, you know this psychologist.” And I’ve never told you, I haven’t heard of a single one of the psychologists you’ve ever mentioned. I literally never know what you’re talking about. You’re one of the only psychologists, I think, who talks to economists on a regular basis. Could you describe a little bit of what you see as the key ideas, the underpinning ideas of psychology? And how do economists and psychologists think differently? 

DUCKWORTH: As a denizen of the realm of psychology, let me tell you what my people are like and our traditions, our customs. I think I first crossed the border into the world of economics either my last year of graduate school or my first year as an assistant professor. And I met an economist named Jim Heckman, whom you know well and is not only a denizen of the land of economics, but also a denizen of University of Chicago economics. So, he reached out to me and asked me to give a talk in his lab. And I said yes, flew to Chicago—. 

LEVITT: And I was there. I was there, Angela. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, yeah, that’s right. So, I remember at that meeting, there being hands up. I think there were seven people — maybe you were one of them, Steve, who objected at the title slide. Literally, I was on the title slide. I was like, “Do you not like the font? What is this land of economics?” I was presenting standard psychology-style research on self-control predicting academic achievement. As was quickly pointed out to me in my presentation by the numerous economists who objected, I was presenting linear models. They were parametric. I hadn’t really thought about all of the reasons why self-control doesn’t cause academic achievement, but merely might be a confound — nothing that was said was something I hadn’t thought of even.

I was like, “Yeah, I know my models are linear and parametric. But what I’m interested in is why it is that when students don’t succeed at school, why it’s not for an intellectual reason, but more because of a volitional reason.” And I’ve since learned that University of Chicago is like a caricature. You can tell me if I’m wrong, but there is a cultural difference, not only in a favoring of simplicity, over complexity — which I think, in psychology, it’s, “Let me come up with a theory just to describe one phenomenon, like why people eat cheese. And then, I’m going to come up with another theory for why people eat chocolate.” And there is no grand unifying framework.

So, I see this cultural difference play out in meaningful ways, but also just the norms are different. And I think in psychology we have a norm of, well, for example, letting people get past their title slide. So, we do live in different countries. And I think a lot of the reasons why you and I have both had some success, visibility, is because we’re in the minority of people who like to get a passport and traverse to the other country.

LEVITT: I think you and I are different in a lot of ways, and I wonder how much it relates back to our fathers. Because you’ve very publicly talked about how your father’s criticism of you has been a motivating force in your life. Do you want to talk about that a little bit?

DUCKWORTH: Only if you tell me about your dad. But one of the reasons why — when I got back on the plane from visiting University of Chicago as a really green academic — why I didn’t completely disintegrate into a puddle of insecurity is because I already had experience with people like that from my dad. I was like, “Oh, your unvarnished criticism and your excessive irritation at tiny, little mistakes is just like the way my dad used to talk to me. And I know how to handle you.”

I think my dad growing up was not in a great mood most of the time. I think he had frustrated ambitions. He was an automotive refinishing chemist by training. And I think personally he felt somewhat disappointed in not achieving the Nobel Prize in chemistry. And I think one of the reasons why I also could handle the criticism — I think I understood that it was intended in part just to get at truth. I was like, “Oh, these are immature people who are trying to advance the conversation to truth.” I don’t think it’s efficient. I don’t think it’s necessary. But like my dad, they want to know what the right answer is. And I admire that.  

LEVITT: So, your dad repeatedly told you you were not a genius.  

DUCKWORTH: He would tell everybody in my family. Like, I would save up, for example, all year. And then I would go to Woolworth’s and buy my dad some ugly sweater. And I would wrap it. And I would give it to him for Christmas or Father’s Day. And he would take it out of the box, and he would hold it up, and he would say, “I don’t want this.” He wasn’t doing it, I think, to be abusive. It was just unedited. And that’s how I perceived these University of Chicago economists. I was like, “Clearly there’s not enough prefrontal function to inhibit that thought.”

And so my dad, as my mother was frequently pointing out, was talking to himself as much as he was talking to me. And so, when he said things like, “You’re no genius,” or to my mother, “You’re no Picasso,” because she was an artist, or to my sister and me, “You’re not winning any beauty pageants,” he was just in an unedited way, expressing himself. Because I think his deepest frustration was not with his children, but was with his own thwarted ambitions. 

LEVITT: Okay. So, that’s your dad. So, my dad had some similarities in that he was really — he is, I mean, my dad is alive. He was focused on achievement. And he cared a lot about achievement. But unlike your dad, he instilled in me from a very early age the idea that I was special and that I would do great things. And he did it in the cleverest possible way. So, he is and was a medical researcher. And he would come home from work — now, I’m maybe 7 years old — and he would lay out some problem in some experiment he was doing. “So, I have these rats in a cage and I expected to find this, but I found something totally different. And I presented this to the medical students. And they were so stupid. None of them could figure it out. So what’s going on?”

And he would give me just enough clues that, as a 7-year-old, I could figure out the problem. And so, without ever saying to me, “Hey, you’re a genius,” or, “Hey, you’re going to do great things,” he just let me think that, “Wow, I’m a 7-year-old, and I’m smarter than the medical students. I must be really special.” He just instilled in me both high expectations about what I could accomplish, but some kind of crazy self-confidence at the same time, which has weirdly never been shaken.

When I talk to you, I sense that a lot of your motivation comes from a sort of underdog perspective. You try hard because you want to show people that you can do it because of your dad. Is that a fair assessment? 

DUCKWORTH: I don’t think I have quite the underdog mentality. I think it actually has more in common with what you talk about, this buoyant self-confidence, maybe gotten to in a slightly different way. But I do think that gritty people, when they’re not the smartest person in the room or when they just screw up royally or they can’t understand something or they make a mistake, they have a self-confidence to keep trying. They’re like, “If I spend five more minutes or if I ask another person, maybe I’ll figure it out.”

The self-confidence to keep going is elemental to grit. I think it’s elemental to the “I’ll show you” response in the face of “You can’t do this.” “Oh, I’ll show you.” And my self-confidence, I think, has a lot in common with yours — it’s not that I’m not capable of feeling bad about myself, but eventually the confidence returns. The origins of that may not be that my father carefully scaffolded mental challenges in a way that I experienced small wins — which, by the way, Al Bandura, one of the greatest psychologists, ever—.

LEVITT: Never heard of him.

DUCKWORTH: Wait, really? Seriously? 

LEVITT: Yeah, I’ve never heard of any psychologist. 

DUCKWORTH: How have you not heard of Al Bandura? Al Bandura actually — there’s a list. Literally, there’s a list of the most eminent psychologists. And Bandura is the most eminent living psychologist. He’s at Stanford. He’s in his 90s. And his signal contribution, I think, to our understanding of human nature is that so much of what drives what we do and what we don’t do is confidence. His term was self-efficacy. But the idea really is that you believe that you can do something if you try — not that you believe that you can already do something, say econometrics or nonparametric modeling of the sort I was supposed to be doing, according to the audience at University of Chicago when I visited.

The idea of self-efficacy is, “I don’t know how to do that. And maybe actually I’ll be terrible at it at first. But I will be able to do it if I try.” And I have that kind of confidence. And well, “If my dad didn’t carefully scaffold my growing confidence from these little mental problems the way Levitt’s dad did, where did it come from?” I think there was in my early childhood a lot of positive reinforcement from other sources. So, first of all, my dad taught me thermodynamics when I was very young because — I don’t know, what else would you talk to a little kid about? So he would delight when I got the second principle of thermodynamics as a young girl. But also, I got a lot of positive reinforcement socially. So, I figured out, maybe modeling my mother, not my dad, how to get people to like me.

And then, I achieved a kind of mastery experience from like, “Oh, if I smile at you and I look for things that I like about you and I also show you that I like myself, I can almost always make you my friend.” And so, there were all these mastery experiences in my life, some intellectual, like thermodynamics, a lot of them social. And for those reasons, I think — although I can’t be sure, it’s a reconstructed memory of my childhood — I think that’s why when I go to the University of Chicago and I’m told, “That’s ridiculous. It’s stupid,” I get back on the plane and I think, “I don’t know what econometrics is but I could probably learn it if I tried.” 

LEVITT: My own parallel to that is — I had always felt really smart and really good at school. And then, I came to M.I.T. to get a Ph.D. in economics. And it was obvious to me within days that, No. 1, I was horribly underprepared and didn’t have the right prerequisites. And No. 2, that everyone else was just incredibly smart. And what was interesting to me is that I had a reaction I never would have anticipated, which was joy. It was pure joy at the idea that I was surrounded by these amazing people who were so much better than me. And I reveled in it. And it was exciting to try to learn from them and watch them. I can’t even really explain it. I don’t know why my ego wasn’t more deeply involved. 

DUCKWORTH: I was going to ask you to analyze yourself there. Isn’t that interesting? 

LEVITT: Somehow I think my identity wasn’t tied to being smart, even though I’d always felt smart. And the same thing happened when I got to Chicago. I would sit around the table at lunch. And I would look from person to person. And I would say, “Wow, I am clearly the dumbest person at the table. This is awesome.”

DUCKWORTH: Well, what is your identity tied to if it’s not being smart? 

LEVITT: I think it’s tied in some ways to being different, that I just accept myself as being different. And it doesn’t bother me that I can’t succeed in conventional ways. What’s interesting when you said, “There’s this idea that I may not be good at something, but if I wanted to, I could be good at it.” So, that’s not me at all. So, in fact, you talked about nonparametric econometrics, and another strange experience I had was in my second year of grad school, a professor named Whitney Newey taught nonparametric econometrics. And I honestly did not understand a word of the entire class. It was completely beyond me. And I thought, “Wow, I’ve heard other people say this before and now I’m experiencing it.”

And it was exciting to experience it. It didn’t bother me. I have this limit. And I’m just going to stay as far away from this particular thing as possible. And a couple of times I’ve needed it in my professional life. And I said, “Well, I’m not going to waste one minute thinking about that because that is beyond me. And so, I’m going to call in one of the hundred people I know who’s great at that. And they’re going to do it for me.” 

DUCKWORTH: On a scale from zero to 10, how would you rate your self-esteem — 10 being the highest?

LEVITT: Self-esteem? Probably a 9 or 10. I mean, I know I’m not very attractive. And I know that I have a lisp. And I’m not that great an athlete. Whatever. But I’m really comfortable, by and large, with my limitations. I know a lot of people have this negative self-talk in their head where there’s this monkey sitting on their shoulder telling them they’re not good enough. But the monkey that sits on my shoulder just chats with me about the world. What does the monkey on your shoulder say? 

DUCKWORTH: I think my monkey would be like, “Hi, you’re great.” I think self-esteem has gone out of fashion. Since you say that you don’t know a lot about psychology, I will just give you self-esteem 101, a brief history of self-esteem. Self-esteem is the idea of liking yourself, holding yourself in high regard. And even though there’s “self-esteem,” which suggests it’s about how you esteem yourself, there is built into the idea of self-esteem how you believe others regard you. That’s largely because we’re social creatures. We exist in hierarchies in society. And so, it is a spontaneous appraisal of how you think you’re doing and how you think other people think you’re doing.

And the reason why self-esteem went in and out of vogue, I think, is that there was a time in the mid-20th century, like 1960s, where everyone thought, “Oh my gosh, self-esteem is how we should raise our children. And the name of the game of good parenting is to increase the self-esteem of your daughters and sons.” And then, what happened is that this whole idea of self-esteem went out of vogue — largely, I think, because there was work led by Roy Baumeister, who I’ll just tell you, Steve, is a very famous psychologist, but you probably have heard of him.

LEVITT: No, I haven’t. 

DUCKWORTH: You haven’t heard of Roy Baumeister? Oh, my God. But Roy Baumeister had this paper about how when you look at all these correlational studies of self-esteem and good outcomes — high grades, job performance, not being depressed — all of the positive things that self-esteem had been correlated with, he said, “We’ve got the causal arrow wrong.” I mean, economists would have stood up and cheered. He said, “Really, if you carefully look at these studies, there’s not a shred of evidence that self-esteem causes these outcomes.” So, then it went out of vogue.

But very recently, another eminent psychologist — I basically only hang out with really eminent people in their 90s — so Tim Beck, who is the creator of psychotherapy, modern cognitive therapy anyway, he is going to be 100 this summer. And I asked him recently, “What is your grand theory?” And he said, “I actually have one. I’m working on my magnum opus right now,” as he put it. He literally said, “This is my E equals MC squared.” And he said, “The fundamental drive of what all people want and what gets us far in life, but also gets us into trouble, is the need for self-esteem.”

And he said, “I know that’s really out of fashion, but I think when you have sadness, it is because you perceive a loss of self-esteem. When you have anxiety, you worry that your self-esteem is going to go down in the future. When you’re angry, it’s because you feel like somebody has threatened your self-esteem. And when you have happiness and joy is when you have an increase in your self-esteem.”

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DUBNER: Hey there, it’s Stephen Dubner again. You’re listening to a special episode of Steve Levitt’s show People I (Mostly) Admire in which he interviews the University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth, who’s cohost of the podcast No Stupid Questions. Both of those shows are part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, as is another brand-new show called Sudhir Breaks the Internet. It’s hosted by Sudhir Venkatesh, a sociologist at Columbia University. He spent the first part of his career embedding himself with the criminal underworld — and the last five years working at Facebook and Twitter. Now he’s returned with the inside story of what these digital giants have done wrong — and right.

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Do you remember the prediction I made before the interview that it wouldn’t take long before Angela started interviewing me? I would say I called that one perfectly. So, one thing I find really special about Angela is that when I talk to her about regular everyday stuff, she almost always manages to say things that sound simple and obvious. But somehow had never occurred to me. It’s bizarre how often I’ve left conversations with her thinking about the world differently. So, in the time we have left, I’m just going to ask her some questions that I really care about, like how to raise happy kids and whether being gritty gets in the way of being happy to see if she can work her magic.

LEVITT: So, I have all these kids and I want them to grow up happy. And I want them to — secondarily, to achieve. But most importantly, I want them to be happy and content and inquisitive. So, does any of this give us a guide to how parents should raise their children? 

DUCKWORTH: I do think that the idea that you should raise your kids to feel that they are worthwhile — I mean, to have high self-esteem in the sense that, “I am a worthwhile person, worthy of my own admiration and the admiration of others” — I think that is a good idea. But there’s a semicolon in the sentence. I think that kids should not be raised to think that you can have high self-esteem and be dishonest or sit around all day eating Cheetos and not do anything productive and useful. I think the thing that parents need to do is both give kids a sense of unconditional love — I will love you no matter what and therefore you have this foundation on which to build your self-esteem and your life — but also, to feel like that part of their existence has to be based on their merits, for lack of a better word.

My daughters are — I only have two. So, I have a third the number of children that you do. But they’re both actually incredibly hard-working. I wondered how it was that they turned out that way. They woke up before dawn most days of high school without me telling them to. Like, I was busy doing my own work. And I don’t think it’s because they’re insecure in that they don’t think Mom loves them or Dad loves them. But I think they have a sense that part of life is to do things well.

LEVITT: I had a similar experience with my daughter, Lily. And she was maybe 13 years old. And it was after midnight. I saw the light was still on in her room. And I said, “Lily, what are you doing?” She said, “Well, I have to finish my Chinese homework.” And I said, “No, you don’t. You’re 13 years old. No one cares about whether you do your Chinese homework. It doesn’t even matter. Sleep’s important. You don’t have to be so intense.” She said, “Dad, there’s nothing more important than doing my homework.” And I said, “Okay.” And I stepped back. And I thought, “Wow, that is weird.” Because that is honestly not a trait I ever tried to build into my kids.

DUCKWORTH: Not explicitly. You weren’t like, “I’m going to make them feel like work is the most important thing.”

LEVITT: And what was so interesting about it is that it actually had a transformational effect on what I was doing research-wise, because at that time we had started a preschool, John List and Roland Fryer and I. And we also had started something called a parent academy, where we were bringing in parents of young children and we had been training them to be lifetime teachers of their kids, so how to teach them math and how to teach them reading. And it suddenly occurred to me that actually what we really wanted to teach these parents is whatever it was that got instilled in my daughter, Lily. She had just internalized the idea that—. 

DUCKWORTH: You modeled it, then. 

LEVITT: Exactly. If we were going to try to teach parents something, it should be, “How do you model behaviors that your kids can follow?” That really framed my view of the world, which is that I’m not sure what you say to your kids matters very much. I think at some fundamental level, it’s what you model 24-hours-a-day in your own behavior. So, I think what my kids saw was they saw me willing to get up at 5 in the morning to go to the golf course to practice doing the same thing over and over. And that somehow instilled in them the idea that, even though it was golf, which seems stupid, that hard work and diligence paid off.  

DUCKWORTH: Let’s not forget, by the way, you were also modeling your work as an economist. Yes, you were devoted to golf, but—. 

LEVITT: Yeah, I was pretty lazy about academics by the time the kids came around, to be honest. I think I didn’t model as well as I probably should have. It seems to me that this modeling part, you can’t really fake because it’s 24-hours-a-day and it’s who you are. Do you actually think there are things you can actively do, other than who you are as a parent, that will help kids?  

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Bandura — remember the Stanford guy, 90s, really eminent? Okay. So, that was a huge part of his research. So, when he talked about self-efficacy, he also relatedly was talking about modeling. When you have a mom or a dad who wakes up at 5 in the morning and works on their golf stroke, or persists through a problem for months and then make some inroads, that is increasing the self-efficacy of the child watching because you’ve shown what’s possible. You might not have even dreamt it before, but then you saw somebody do it. So, most of the great teachers that I have studied are great models.

And they’re quite explicit about telling the students like, “Oh, by the way, the moral of the story here, while we persisted through this very difficult math problem, is that there are a lot of things in life that are hard. And you’re going to feel discouraged when you first try them. And you’re going to feel stupid. And what we did here together is we showed persistence or grit.” And then, I will say also make a kid feel like they’re loved unconditionally, but also that part of life is to challenge themselves and to try to do better, to become more honest, more kind, more empathic, more skilled.

I mean, you could boil that down to supportive and demanding. And there’s a lot of research, decades of it, showing that parents who can say to their kids or show to their kids, “You are supported unconditionally. You have a firm foundation on which to build your self-esteem.” But also demanding, like, “I’m going to give you things that you can’t yet do. And I’m going to give you that work ethic probably through modeling and explicit speeches and sermons.” I think that’s the recipe for good parenting. 

LEVITT: So, it’s obvious that grittiness is associated with achievement. I’m not sure it’s highly correlated with happiness. And here’s what I mean. So, obviously, when you’re gritty about something, when you’re really obsessed and pursuing it, there’s enormous joy that comes from that task. But what I found in my own life is that when I’m engaged in that kind of behavior, the rest of my life becomes a burden. So, I find this tension where I’m often happiest in a time when I’m very present, where whatever I’m doing is good enough. Whereas when I’m super motivated by something else, I’m not that happy because every moment I’m not doing it, I’m like, “Why am I not doing that?” And it gets in the way of living life. Have you experienced anything like that?

DUCKWORTH: I think happiness is the feeling of pursuing goals that are intrinsically rewarding — the goals themselves are inherently interesting and aligned with my core personal values. They’re fully owned by me. I’m pursuing them. And I’m making some progress. I think that is happiness. Unhappiness is, I think, a goal conflict. “Hey, I want to do this, but oh my gosh, I have this other goal. It’s also really important to me. And I can’t do both at once.” For example, I want to be on vacation with my kids in Florida. But I also want to finish this manuscript that I’ve been working on. Goal conflict, I think, is one way to be unhappy. You feel this ripping apart psychologically and it’s incredibly corrosive and aversive.

LEVITT: I love that. Okay, goal conflict — I’ve never heard of that concept before. So, what do you do about it? 

DUCKWORTH: Sometimes you’ll reflect and you’re like, “You know what? This other thing, eh” — it kind of evaporates. And then, that is one easy way to dissipate goal conflict. But I think more often than not, the goals are real. I have a goal to spend time with my 17-year-old before she ships off to college and I become an empty-nester. But I also have the goal to do all these things professionally. Like, I want to actually create a unifying theory of behavior change. But, I can’t have breakfast with Lucy, but also work on my unifying theory of behavior change at the very same time. So, I think there are some insoluble goal conflicts. But I do think that reflection allows you at least to sequence things.

I can say to myself, “I’ve got these two important goals. They are mutually exclusive. But I’ve decided, I’m going to have breakfast with my daughter and spend a good 45 minutes making avocado toast. And then, I’m going to switch over into work mode.” And I think it doesn’t make the goal conflict evaporate, but it does allow you to at least align your daily activities in ways that you know you’re doing the best you can. And I think the reason why goal conflict can be especially corrosive in the absence of reflection is that you never get to this revelation that you can’t do everything and you’re constantly laboring in this illusion that you can do all possible things, which you can’t.

LEVITT: I really like that because the only thing I’ve learned about parenting is that I cannot parent and do anything else. Which is what I mostly try to do anyway, even though I know I shouldn’t do it. I’m like, “I think I could probably read this book at the same time that I watch my kids.”

DUCKWORTH: I could think through this theorem while also singing this lullaby. 

LEVITT: But I love the words you used for it — the sequencing. When I’m being a parent, I have to be a parent. And when I’m not being a parent, I shouldn’t be a parent. Like, it’s so obvious. And I’ve understood it. But I think that’s going to help me in my everyday life. That was really useful. 

DUCKWORTH: And you said you liked to be present. That hints of mindfulness, right? The experience of being present or mindful, I think, is the very absence of goal conflict. You’re not in two places, motivationally and mentally. You’re in one place. And because you have reflected in advance, you know that there’s going to be a time where you’re going to shift into the next thing. But you do it sequentially. So this life that we lead with 168 hours a week, whether you’re a mere mortal or somebody who’s really accomplished, you get the same 168 hours. I think the idea of pursuing goals that are, upon reflection, the ones you fully want to own and then doing things sequentially when needed, to me, that’s why achievement and happiness are not necessarily in tension.

And when I look at really unhappy people, it’s actually something about either goal conflict that hasn’t been resolved and hasn’t been reflected upon — or they just don’t have any goals at all that they’re pursuing, and that is its own special torture. So, I think there is the pursuit of happiness, but really I think happiness is in the pursuit. Did I convert you, though? Because earlier you said that — you were like, “Oh, I don’t know, maybe I’m not like you. I don’t really pursue goals. And I just like to do things I like.” 

LEVITT: No, I pursue goals. The goals I pursue are not part of some bigger scheme of making the world better. So, I am trying to make the world better at R.I.S.C., my U. of C. center. But it’s not because I have this burning desire. It’s because I thought, “Well, what’s really fun are problems. And I tried consulting. And I didn’t like the way that problems came out there. And I tried academics and I didn’t really like the way problems got solved there. Maybe if I can find this do-gooder space, I’ll have the opportunity to tackle really interesting hard problems in a way that I can’t otherwise.” Because I have this basic view of the world that in doing social good, all of the easy problems have been solved. And so, the only ones that are leftover are the really hard ones.

DUCKWORTH: So social change is just the Sunday crossword puzzle to you? You’re like, “Oh, this will be more fun and challenging, and as a byproduct lives will be saved, and children will grow up to be their best selves.” Really? I think one of the misunderstandings of grit is that the sound of the word is like you grit your teeth. But really, I think, it is about pursuing things that are things you like to do. And I do enjoy what I do. I mean, today I woke up. It was before dawn. And my first thought was, “Hmmm, I’m going to read that paper on self-control strategies and experience sampling method that I didn’t get to finish last night. I can’t wait.”

I enjoy what I do. I don’t find it drudgery. But my elevated sense of self-worth — and I’m sure it’s a vanity of itself — is like, “Oh, and it will help kids do better if I figure out what this paper said.” 

LEVITT: But you have all the opportunities in the world. You can do whatever you want. I’m surprised you still read these papers. I’m surprised you’re still willing to do the slog. 

DUCKWORTH: Why do you not read papers? Papers are great. 

LEVITT: I know, but you have the ability to reach audiences and to compel people through your amazing speaking abilities and your writing abilities. I’m just surprised that you still find an attraction in the details. 

DUCKWORTH: Do you not? Really?

LEVITT: Not in the details of academics. I want to live in a space of ideas, and strangely, academics turns out not to be the best space to pursue ideas, is my own experience. 

DUCKWORTH: When I wrote Grit, I thought to myself, “Well, I guess I’ll just try to explain without jargon things that psychological scientists would be able to appreciate with jargon.” But I have to say, it was the most intellectually challenging thing I had done because I had to put things together without the artifice of jargon. And also, I had to put everything together, because the naive reader actually has a much higher intellectual standard than a reviewer for a paper because they want to know how this makes common sense. It was an intellectually heroic act relative to anything else I had done.

So, I don’t want to disagree with you there, but I continue to read papers because I think that, for me, there is definitely some value in the empirical work of scientists who publish a paper that has an insight that I wouldn’t have been able to figure out on my own or through reason or just by reading poetry.

LEVITT: I’m not sure you know this about yourself, Angela, but everybody loves you. I can barely have a conversation with someone either in the education space or the behavioral-economics space without someone expressing adoration for you — and not just for your work, but you personally. Why do you think people love you so much?

DUCKWORTH: Well, first of all, that’s very nice. I will say this. Sometimes I meet people — and this is rare, but you know those people where you’re like, “They are so great, they are so nice.” I can name a few people, but they’re all psychologists so you’ll be like, “Who?” But I remember thinking to myself at some point earlier in my career, I want to be that person who they’re like, “Oh, just a fantastic human being. So kind, so generous, so uplifting.” And I’m not saying I am those things, but I really explicitly aspire to that. And the worst thing is to be a jerk. I want to be my mother’s daughter. If you ever meet my mom, she is the nicest human being. I would love to live a life where I’m not only my father’s daughter, but my mother’s daughter, too. 

LEVITT: I think you’re doing a really good job at that, to be honest. Because the first time we really met — so, I sat in your seminar, but we didn’t really talk. But the first time we really met was when you came out to Chicago with Stephen Dubner to tape an interview for us on some anniversary of Freakonomics

DUCKWORTH: Oh, yeah. I think it’s the reissuing of Freakonomics

LEVITT: Yeah, exactly. So, I will say I was primed not to like you. I expected to hate you. I wanted to not like you.

DUCKWORTH: Why?

LEVITT: Because I don’t really like psychology that much. And—.

DUCKWORTH: And because you’d been hanging out at University of Chicago economics for decades and it seeped into you. 

LEVITT: But I have to say that within 10 minutes of meeting you, I was just like everyone else. I loved you. And I couldn’t get enough of Angela. Oh, my God. How can we make Angela part of Freakonomics? So, I think you’re doing a really good job at that. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, here’s the two-part recipe. We moved houses in third grade. And I had to make all new friends in the middle of the school year, very traumatic. And my mom taught me that if you like yourself and if you genuinely like the other person, then they will automatically like you back. And I do like myself and, Levitt, I like you. So, no surprise you like me back.

Talking with Angela got me thinking about my early days at the University of Chicago Department of Economics. Everybody thought I was crazy to go there at the time, but it’s hard to argue, looking back, that things could have turned out much better for me. I don’t often talk about this, but there was one thing that particularly attracted me to Chicago, and it was the fact that the old professors, the ones in their 70s, 80s, even their 90s, were still passionate about academics. Just like the psychologists that Angela was mentioning today, who all seem to be in their 80s and 90s.

In contrast, the older faculty at Harvard and M.I.T., they were mostly distracted by other things, advising governments, working with companies or God forbid, enjoying their leisure time. I really wanted to be the kind of person who loved academics so much that I did it into my 80s. And I thought surrounding myself with those types of people would make that happen. Well, like so many things I believed about myself and about the world in my 20s, that turned out completely wrong. Pure academics was a terrible fit for me. I found that the real world was much more fun. And it took a long time, decades to admit that to myself, when it probably should have been obvious much earlier. If only Angela had explained goal hierarchies to me 20 years ago, I might have saved myself so much time.

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People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network and is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher. This episode was produced by Morgan Levey; Dan Dzula was the engineer. Our staff also includes Alison CraiglowGreg Rippin, Mark McClusky, Zack Lapinski, Mary Diduch, and Emma Tyrrell. The music you hear on People I (Mostly) Admire, like the music on Freakonomics Radio, was composed by Luis Guerra. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio and People I (Mostly) Admire on Apple PodcastsStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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