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Episode Transcript

DUBNER: I’ve never thought that I’m a person who should give advice of any sort.

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.

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

Today on the show: Is your perception of yourself at odds with others’ perception of you? 

DUBNER: It’s kind of the equivalent of having spinach in your teeth your whole life. 

Also: do self help books really work? 

DUCKWORTH: They probably feel really energized for a moment and then get distracted by what’s for lunch. 

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Stephen J. DUBNER: Angela, how are you today? 

Angela DUCKWORTH: I’m great, Stephen. How are you?

DUBNER: I’m pretty well, thanks. I think, since we last spoke, you’ve had your first-ever colonoscopy. Did that go well? 

DUCKWORTH: Yes. I’m 50, and I had a colonoscopy, and it was delightful. 

DUBNER: Congratulations. In our previous episode about first impressions versus last impressions, we discussed a paper about colonoscopies and how changing the ending of them can alter the overall perception. And I have to say, we made a lack of distinction there that I think we should set clear. 

DUCKWORTH: Which is what?

DUBNER: Well, we talked about how the variable in this experiment with colonoscopies was pain. And this was before you’d had a colonoscopy, ever. And I should have known better, because I’ve had a couple. We really should have made the point that this was a fairly old paper, and indeed, the data from the colonoscopies were from the 1990s. And that was before the invention of super-small, super-flexible fiber optics. In addition, patients were fully awake throughout, hence no deep anesthesia before or during the procedure. So, that does not describe the colonoscopy that you just had, surely, correct? 

DUCKWORTH: That’s correct. And honestly, Stephen, I was surprised when I got into the operating theater. First, I asked my nurse, “Have you ever heard of this famous colonoscopy study?” She had not. So, I described the study and she said, “Oh, that’s not what we do today. We use deep anesthesia. You’re not going to feel a thing.” And guess what? She was right.

DUBNER: I’m glad to hear. Now, usually, we either make distinctions like this or catch the mistakes. And the reason I think it’s important to point this one out is that we did hear from a few people who said, “Hey, colonoscopies aren’t painful, and if people think they are, they will be discouraged from doing them.” So, I really wanted to add this note to say that people should not be discouraged from getting a colonoscopy because they think it will be painful. It’s not. 

And in addition to not being painful, it’s an incredibly effective way at forestalling colon cancer. I hope we didn’t dissuade anyone. All right. Onto my question for you today, Angela. We received an email from a listener named David Ulbrick writing to us from Australia that I would like to read to you.

DUCKWORTH: Okay. I’m ready.  

DUBNER: David writes, “I’m a partner at a law firm and recently moved firms. I couldn’t take my team with me. I had obligations to my former partners to not do that. However, once I became free of those obligations, I was very keen to recruit the team, and I fought hard to persuade them to join me. My old firm fought hard for them to stay. However, we,” meaning the new firm, “were making the running in terms of offering pay raises.” I had to look up that phrase. “Making the running” is a British-ism. 

DUCKWORTH: It’s an Australian term? 

DUBNER: Yeah, meaning being out front, or taking the lead. So, they were “making the running” in terms of offering pay raises, promotions, increased brand status, etc. Okay, so, we’re getting the picture. Everything is better at the new firm than the old firm. 

“Despite all that,” he writes, “very few team members have joined me. This is particularly surprising and frustrating, because many of them said, in theory, before I left, that they liked working with me, that I was one of the best partners they’d ever worked with, that they would follow me if I left, etc. “So,” he writes, “it seems that it’s not that they don’t like working with me, at least not that they are prepared to say to my face, but rather that the timing wasn’t right. So, it got me to wondering. Was it to do with ‘soft’ factors like the time of year or the consequences of the pandemic?” 

I wouldn’t necessarily call that a soft factor. But anyway, “Put shortly,” he writes, “when is the best time to recruit people to new jobs? Is there research about that?” So, Angela, my question for you is — even though I want to unpack the stuff about the people who don’t want to come with him, we’ll get to that later. Let’s start with the concrete question that he asks at the end there. Is there research on the best time to recruit or, maybe more broadly, even to persuade? 

DUCKWORTH: People do change, right? Change jobs, change colleges, change majors, change relationships. I think we can ask the question: why is it that, as they say, “we yearn for change, but cling to the familiar”? That’s a popular expression among some therapists, but the idea rings true to me, which is that people, myself included, yearn for the novel, new adventure, but we do cling, childlike, to what we already know and love. 

I think, in part, it’s because change always includes risk. And that is why there is this thing called status quo bias, that we’re more likely to stick with the chicken salad sandwich that we always have for lunch than to try that newfangled Reuben that you’ve been hearing so much about. 

DUBNER: And then, if you for some reason have to try the Reuben, because somehow the chicken salad exploded, you’ll probably eat the Reuben every day for the rest of your life.  

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. But I do think there is status quo bias. For example, pre-pandemic, if you teach a class, people, they take an arbitrary seat at the beginning. And then, you just gravitate back to that as if it’s something special and holy. And it’s in part because you at least know that that seat works for you. Same with bathroom stalls, by the way. I’ve been using that right-hand stall in the office building that I frequent.  

DUBNER: Slightly too much information, but I appreciate you telling me that. I will say this. Men, we tend to avoid stalls at all costs. 

DUCKWORTH: Don’t you have to use it for number two?  

DUBNER: One should go to great extremes to never use a stall in any men’s room in the world, is my view.  

DUCKWORTH: I think this is T.L.I., too little information. I have no idea what you’re talking about.  

DUBNER: Well, this gets us back to Mr. Limberhand from our previous conversation. But can I get tangential on you for one second?  

DUCKWORTH: Like we’re not already, but yes, please go ahead.  

DUBNER: You mentioned status quo bias on something like selecting a chair that you sit in at the beginning of the semester and never leaving it. Is that straight-up status quo bias? Or is that some version of the endowment effect? And/or are they the same? And maybe as you answer that question, if you could, explain what the endowment effect is. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. The endowment effect is the valuing more of something, just by virtue of already being in possession of it. So, if I have a coffee cup and it’s already mine, I might value it at five. If it’s not yet mine, but it’s the same coffee cup, I might only value it at three. And that is problematic for a lot of classical economic theorizing, because the coffee cup should be the coffee cup and there shouldn’t be any irrational utility gain from you simply being in possession of it.  

DUBNER: So, when I first began reading about behavioral — well, they called it behavioral economics back then.  

DUCKWORTH: Don’t they call it behavioral economics now? 

DUBNER: They do, but a lot of psychologists I know say, “Well, no offense, but we’ve been doing that for many, many years. And now, you calling it economics is not quite accurate.”  

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. We call it human nature. 

DUBNER: Yeah, exactly. So, when I first began reading about what I then thought of as behavioral economics, including the endowment effect and including things like mental accounting, which is something that Dick Thaler and others have written about, which they describe as a bias. For instance, if you have two baskets of money, you shouldn’t treat them as separate baskets, because money is money. It’s fungible. 

And yet, people do it all the time. And there’s fascinating research about how people do it. I remember there was a study years ago about prostitutes who received money from their work, and they also received money from the state. And they treated those two baskets of money as though they were totally different. They went to different things, even though a dollar, is a dollar, is a dollar. 

And even though the economists were saying that this is an error in behavior, I always thought there was some sense to it, including in the endowment effect. I can see the value of the endowment effect in, let’s say, a relationship. Like, I chose this spouse. And that spouse is now part of me, and therefore, I’m going to value that person more highly than the next stranger that comes along that looks similarly.  

DUCKWORTH: I think some of the “errors” or biases that make for lots of news in the land of behavioral economics are, first of all, as you said, blindingly obvious to non-economists. And the reason some of us are raising our eyebrows and saying, “Really? You wrote a whole paper about that?” is because economics is coming from a theoretical model where you have to assume that the individual decision-maker is making these rational choices, which are not the kind of thing that we were just talking about.  

DUBNER: Yeah. So, I dragged you down a deep tangent there. Let me drag you back to David’s actual question. So, you started to give an answer about how people seek change but cling to the familiar. But plainly there are points in the calendar, or points in our personal lives, where we are more open to change. Do you have anything to say to David about why these people may have truly wanted to come with him and didn’t? And especially having to do with the pandemic. Do you think that people are more risk-averse, or at least change-averse, during an unsettling time like this? I would assume the answer is yes.  

DUCKWORTH: During times of crisis, times of threat, and times of uncertainty, we are more likely to cling to the familiar. That’s actually very rational. Like, “Gosh, I don’t know what’s going on. Maybe I’ll stay on this little bit of dry land here until I figure it out.” There is, of course, the fight response, the flight response, but there is also this freeze response in times of threat. In the animal behavior literature, that’s very easy to see, because many animals, when they are being stalked by a predator and they notice — in the corner of your eye, you’re like, “Ahh, cat!” You freeze. Because most predators in the world are very acutely sensitive to motion, not moving is a good thing. And then, also, you’re not going to make a misstep. 

So, again, all of these forces conspire to keep people in their old job. And I do think that in a pandemic, every time you click on the news it says the unemployment numbers are even worse, and there’s more and more op-eds about how nobody knows what’s going to happen in the following 19 ways. Why would you then say, “I think I’m going to take a risk and go with this new firm, and this new job, and this new everything”? 

DUBNER: Fair enough. That all makes sense. But David sounds as though he’s, A, frustrated, and B, surprised that more people haven’t followed. He seems to think that he’s offering a serious upgrade. More money, more prestige, and so on. So, let’s talk about what other possibilities there might be. Maybe he’s just not as good a lawyer as he thinks he is. Maybe people don’t like him as much as he thinks. 

DUCKWORTH: When I was listening to the story, that was the first thing that came to mind. I was like, David, are you sitting down? Sometimes we assume that we know what people think and how they feel. For David, that has two parts. One is, “I assume that you like me. It sounds like you like me. You said you like me.” But there’s also a part where, for him, the calculus made absolute and unequivocal sense to leave. And so, for him, the logic is clear about why option B is better than A. And there could be some head-scratching. Like, wait, how can you not see that? 

And this, to me, is one of these profound psychological principles that really explain so much behavior. Lee Ross calls it “naive realism.” Whatever you believe to be true, you think is objectively true. And therefore, everybody else should acknowledge it’s true. I do think that the general practical recommendation is: don’t assume that what you think, everyone else thinks, and try to see from their perspective. You have to actually disengage yourself from your own beliefs in order to do that. 

DUBNER: So, there are a number of possible explanations here. Including that, perhaps empirically, his offer is not as good as he thinks it is. In other words, he can say, “I’m offering pay raises.” But maybe the old firm is offering pay raises too. Maybe he doesn’t know that, right?  

DUCKWORTH: It could be all those things. The other thought that ran through my head when you read me David’s note was, my dad was a chemist, as for his whole life at DuPont, squarely in the division of automotive refinishing. 

DUBNER: I’ve read that your father was responsible for the chemical invention that kept cars shiny longer.  

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Lucite for automotive products. My dad was this car paint guru. It was a little bit of a niche. Not going to win the Nobel Prize in chemistry, as he would frequently point out to me. But anyway, he talked a lot about leaving DuPont, and about startups, and doing something on his own. And he never did. So, my dad absolutely yearned for the new but clung to the familiar. And if I just play out what I think happened there, it might be operating for some of these people that David wants to recruit. For my dad, I think it was deeply fear. The equation, if it had a number for if this goes wrong, that was a very big negative number for him. 

DUBNER: And what do you think the fear was about specifically?  

DUCKWORTH: I don’t really know. It was probably some form of loss of status, or not wanting to look stupid. 

DUBNER: I’m curious whether your father’s reluctance to leave the sure thing — whether that played out at all in the family, including in you. Have you ever decided to not pursue something that you were eager, or even prepared, to pursue?  

DUCKWORTH: I think I do have a little bit of a rebellious streak. Even going into education, my dad was like, “No. No. Run the other way!” 

DUBNER: Because why?  

DUCKWORTH: Well, he was comparing it to getting an M.D.-Ph.D.

DUBNER: So, it was the status.  

DUCKWORTH: For him, it was status. And it was not a well-lit, certain path. The possibilities were much riskier. And my dad was a risk-averse guy. But, for whatever reason, I didn’t feel burdened by his hesitations. That does happen to me a lot. I do things where I’m like, “I don’t care.” 

When I got to college, we all had to sit in an amphitheater. And we had to take this math placement test. And I just let out the loudest fart. And it wasn’t a short one. And I wasn’t that embarrassed. Really, I should have just shriveled up into like a tiny-millimeter-diameter-size circle, but I just didn’t care that much. And I think my, “Well, I’m going to go into education anyway,” like, “Well, I’m going to try it anyway,” is a little bit of inability, maybe dysfunctionally, to be embarrassed. And my dad was not like that. 

DUBNER: So, let me go back to a possible explanation for David’s colleagues not following him, which is that people just don’t like him as much as they tell him that they like him. And I don’t mean to disparage David personally. But I am curious how one can tell if people don’t like or respect you as much as you think. I think about this a lot as a writer. The things that are present, you can judge whether they’re good, interesting, wrong, etc. 

But the things that are not present, when you have a lack of information, when you don’t entertain an idea — I think about this not just in David’s case, but on many, many bigger scales — when you are just not aware of something that’s going on that’s an important piece of information. It’s kind of the equivalent of having spinach in your teeth your whole life, and no one tells you. 

DUCKWORTH: And the people who do tell us that we have spinach in our teeth are really our nearest and dearest. Your nearest and dearest probably do like you. It’s the people who don’t like you who will never tell you. Why would they? I don’t tell people I don’t like them. I mean, first of all, I mostly like people. But second of all, there are people I don’t like, and I don’t tell them. And even if they asked me, “Do you not like me?” I think I would lie. It’s uncomfortable.  

DUBNER: I am so with you here. Are you arguing, however, that it would be better to do so? 

DUCKWORTH: I think it would be better for everybody, especially the person who’s not liked. Because you’re right. There’s this information of omission, or there’s what you don’t know because nobody said. And it would certainly be better for that person. I don’t know if it’s so good for the person who has to say it. Like, “Oh, by the way, I should tell you, I don’t like you very much.”  

DUBNER: Well, the really valuable information would be the why, right? I don’t like you, because we were in this circumstance, and you did something that I thought was really dishonest, or whatever. Wouldn’t that be the fruitful thing? 

DUCKWORTH: Absolutely. If you could take it — if you could really listen. We all want to know if we have spinach in our teeth. We want to know so we can get it out. The question would be: how do I get people to tell me I have spinach in my teeth? So, there are two strategies that leap to mind. One is, those people who would tell you, the nearest and dearest, I think you could ask them. They might know things and be willing to tell you, but they might not work up the energy to tell you without being asked. 

DUBNER: So, David could go to his partner, spouse, whatever, and say, “Listen, I’m really surprised and disappointed that more people haven’t followed me. Do you think there’s something in the way that I behave as a professional that makes people not want to spend time with me?”  

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. David’s spouse or, in that old law firm, was there one person in particular that David felt especially close to, or maybe even especially disappointed that they didn’t come? And just to say, “I really want to know, and don’t spare my ego, because I have the suspicion that it’s not just economics or just the pandemic.” And that might liberate the person. And being a little persistent. 

When I ask for negative feedback after I give a talk, 50 percent of the time, I get nothing. They just can’t ever get themselves to say something negative. I have to keep going. I have to say, “No, but really what else is there? What is there that’s something that I might not be able to know myself?” 

DUBNER: So, you may be an individual who seeks out and benefits from critical feedback. I would argue many people say they want critical feedback and actually don’t. Do you think that someone like David, if he were to ask someone in his old firm, might, in the end, regret it? In other words, they’re already not coming, right? So, there’s something about either him or the situation that they’re not going to come. So now, in addition, he would be armed with the knowledge of why.  

DUCKWORTH: But don’t you think that, on balance — and only David could answer this — that bit of discomfort of hearing it is far outweighed by the ability to take the spinach out of your teeth?  

DUBNER: I think that’s a really hard question. If it were spinach, yes. If it were our very essence and our personhood that people really don’t like, I’m not sure that’s a win.  

DUCKWORTH: But Stephen, if it really were something foundational about you, then wouldn’t you really want to know? 

DUBNER: I think a lot of people would benefit and thrive in the ignorance, or being able to tell a counterfactual like, “Hey, the reason they’re not coming is because: pandemic.” I can see that, in practice, many people would revert to the standard of not wanting to know. I will say this, I feel bad that we’ve beat up on David a little bit. I appreciate his sharing his dilemma with us. 

DUCKWORTH: I know. David. 

DUBNER: I hope it works out well. Here’s how David Ulbrick signed off his email, was with a quote that, maybe, goes at the end of every email he sends. The quote was, “It is not because things are difficult that we don’t try them; it is because we don’t try them that they are difficult.” And I loved this quote. I looked it up. I’d never seen it. It was from Seneca

DUCKWORTH: I was going to say, it sounds like it was Seneca.

DUBNER: And so, I have to say, I liked this quote so much. And I was so grateful to have discovered it. that if David Ulbrick asks me to come work for him, despite my lack of law degree, I’m in.  

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DUCKWORTH: Stephen, I have a question. Have you ever read a self-help book and, I don’t know, helped yourself? And the reason I ask is that, I’ve been wondering, do books, like you write, like I wrote, do they have the possible effect of changing somebody’s life for the better? Or am I right in saying that not really — they just make you feel good when you’re reading them?  

DUBNER: So, first of all, I would not have put your books or mine in the self-help category. 

DUCKWORTH: I think mine is on the self-help shelf.  

DUBNER: Is that right? I mean, having just said that, aren’t all books self-help books to some degree? Isn’t the intention of reading anything to help yourself get smarter, better, happier, something or other? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, maybe not reading a poem by Shel Silverstein about how the sidewalk ends.  

DUBNER: Well, I don’t know. Maybe you’re looking to get into sidewalk work eventually. But when I think of the standard self-help book, like: how to get rich, get skinny, live long, whatever— 

DUCKWORTH: How to Make Friends and Influence People 

DUBNER: There’s the classic. I know you like that one a lot. I am not a big fan of the genre, but I think that’s because I’m a little bit of a snob when it comes to books. And— 

DUCKWORTH: Wait, wait, wait, wait. I have to interrupt you. You did write a self-help book. Think Like a Freak

DUBNER: Yeah. The third Freakonomics book we wrote was our attempt at a self-help book, called Think Like a Freak. And that was a really different writing experience because I’ve never thought that I’m a person who should give advice of any sort. I’ve never felt empowered to say, “Hey, you know what you should do?” And in fact, you know the phrase, “Well, if I were you—”? I do find myself saying that sometimes. But when I do, I always preface it with, “I don’t really mean this.” 

DUCKWORTH: You’re reluctant. 

DUBNER: Yeah. So, I’m not a big fan of the “how to get rich, skinny, live to 120” books. Although, to be fair, I think I probably have read more of them than I think. And I think I do learn a lot when I read them. You just have to have your radar attuned really sharply to sort out the gold from the crap. And the reason that there’s so much crap is because it is a little bit of a hustly genre, for one. 

But additionally, I think that help is hard to generalize. And I see this especially in the books that are what I think of as “success porn” — the books about winning, and leadership, and entrepreneurship. Often, what you see is they will tell story, after story, after story, of the “winners” and how they won and occasionally a loser and how they lost. But they make this assumption that what made Steve Jobs, for instance, a big winner, you can do too. And my thought has always been, that a lot of people who do amazing, noteworthy things are amazing and noteworthy people, and that to follow their path is ridiculous.  

DUCKWORTH: You see their footsteps in the sand. But they’re not footsteps that you could follow. 

DUBNER: And there are so many different variables that went into that life, including luck and including different abilities. 

DUCKWORTH: Okay. So, do you have an explanation for why you and Levitt decided to write a book of the kind that no self-respecting Stephen Dubner would even buy?

DUBNER: I do. So, by then we had two books, Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics. And we’d started Freakonomics Radio. And we would get, and still get, lots, and lots, and lots, and lots of questions, usually by email, of people saying, “Here’s a situation. I want to know more about it. I want to fix it.” And it’s an amazing thing to be on the receiving end of this fire hose. But it’s also a debilitating thing, because any one of these requests for solving a problem, or figuring out something, could take months, and months, and months. And if you’re getting 100 of them a day, well, the math doesn’t work out very well. 

So, we thought, what about, rather than trying and failing to solve a handful of these problems, what if we could write a guidebook to how we do our thinking, and our data collection, and our analysis, and our storytelling? And so, yeah, we did sort of write a self-help book. 

DUCKWORTH: I get your point that, even probably when you were writing it, you realized that however well-crafted it was, that it was going to miss the mark, because each person has a different circumstance, they have different capabilities, they have different opportunities. So, you knew that you would be not a bullseye for each and every reader, but you thought it would be still better than nothing. Is that right?

DUBNER: I think better than nothing is a safe assessment. No, I don’t mean to disparage it. I mean, I thought it was a good book that people got a lot out of. And we still hear from people who’ve read that book and tell us all the ways that they applied it to their job, or their school system, or their political situation, or whatnot. So, I guess I shouldn’t disparage the notion of self-help. 

Although, the more I talk about how much I don’t like it, the more I realize how much I’ve learned from different books that may not be considered classic self-help. I mean, the sociologist Micki McGee has written about the idea that the Bible is one of the first, and perhaps the most significant, self-help book in history. Now, I don’t really think of it as that, but okay, sure. And then, of course, there were plenty of what you might call “self-help treatises” during Greek and Roman times.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Marcus Aurelius, right? This goes all the way back. And maybe the snob in you would feel better reading Meditations, or reading the essays of Michel de Montaigne than reading Dale Carnegie 

DUBNER: I read all that. And, I hate to say it, I think you’re just converting me on the spot here, because I do think about some of the things that I’ve learned from actual self-help books, including The Millionaire Next Door.  

DUCKWORTH: I have not read The Millionaire Next Door

DUBNER: So, one of my brothers gave that to me when I was in my mid, late-20s when I had my first real-ish job, and started to earn a little bit of money. And that was a huge eye-opener for me. It’s like, this is how you actually earn money, save money, spend less, invest more, all that stuff. And then, I think about biographies I’ve read that really changed the shape of my life, especially my life as a writer — biographies of Red Smith, and Ring Lardner, and Hemingway, as a cautionary tale. 

There was a prose poem by Baudelaire I remember reading and just being knocked over by — he wrote about how life is a hospital. Here, I’m going to find the quote. “Life is a hospital in which every patient is possessed by the desire of changing his bed. One would prefer to suffer near the fire, and another is certain that he would get well if he were by the window. It seems to me that I should always be happy if I were somewhere else, and this question of moving house is one that I’m continually talking over with my soul.” I think of that idea from Baudelaire probably once a week, maybe more often. So, I guess I love self-help books. 

DUCKWORTH: I’ve gone back and forth. One of the reasons why civilization is where we are is that, we have this ability to transmit wisdom to one another, and to preserve it, and not have it go like water through a sieve, because of books. And I think it was E.B. White. He said, “Immortality is to be found between the covers of a book.” So, there is something about preserving wisdom. And this invention has maybe done more to further humanity than any other. 

Okay. That’s one side of Angela when she wakes up and thinks, “I don’t know, maybe I’ll write another book.” But here’s the other side, which is that, nobody reads books. They certainly don’t read past the first or second chapter, or most people don’t. Even if they got to the very back cover, they probably would feel really energized for a moment and then get distracted by what’s for lunch. And so, I waver between these two extremes. I looked up the research on this, because it’s what I do. 

DUBNER: Yeah. Is there psychological research that talks about whether self-help books are more effective than either nothing, or therapy, or whatnot? 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. So, the empirical data on this, a lot of it comes from mental health. The research on this is called bibliotherapy. Can you cure yourself through reading books? And there’s some dissent, but on balance, the evidence is that, compared to nothing, for sure, reading a book can be better. Compared to one-on-one therapy, generally worse. 

One of the best-selling books if you’re feeling depressed or anxious — and you don’t have a cognitive behavioral therapist that you can go to one-on-one — you could buy Feeling Good by David Burns. He says that the reason why he wrote it is that, when he was seeing patients clinically, he was giving them homework. That’s a big part of cognitive behavioral therapy. And then, photocopying notes, trying to provide some continuity from visit to visit. I think he realized at one point that he was basically creating a manual.

And then, I think it must have dawned on him that, if this manual could be helpful to the dozen patients that he was seeing in the course of a week, it could be helpful to many other people. And the reason I think it’s on so many bookshelves is that, again, compared to nothing, it’s good to know the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy. 

DUBNER: Do you know the book Self-Help, which I believe was the origin of the phrase. Have you ever come across that book, by Samuel Smiles

DUCKWORTH: Like, literally called Self-Help? No.  

DUBNER: Yeah. So, I remember coming across this book and reading it. This began with Thomas Carlyle. He’s the kind of grumpy Scottish philosopher who I ended up really disliking a lot. But that’s another story. Anyway, I was reading a lot of Carlyle, and about him, for something I was writing once, long ago. And I came across a story of how Carlyle had written a book about the French Revolution called The French Revolution. This was mid-19th century, and this was back in the day when you had a manuscript on paper, one copy of it. 

And the story went something like, he’d given it to a friend to read for comment. The friend’s “charwoman,” as they were called, had accidentally thrown it in the fireplace and burned his only manuscript. And so, Thomas Carlyle had to set about rewriting the book that he’d already written. And I don’t know about you, but whenever I lose even like two paragraphs in a computer crash— 

DUCKWORTH: It is a special kind of pain, isn’t it? 

DUBNER: So, there was a guy — a Scottish journalist, contemporary, named Samuel Smiles — who had learned of this story of Carlyle experiencing the special kind of pain and rewriting The French Revolution, which was eventually published. And Samuel Smiles was so inspired by the perseverance of Carlyle that he set about to explore this idea of perseverance. And he, Smiles, ended up writing a book that he went on to call Self-Help, which was published in 1859. And it became a bestseller. 

This was a book that essentially encouraged everyone to make more of themselves, but especially people who were at the bottom of the social and economic ladder. He was arguing that people should be able to improve themselves through hard work and perseverance, like Carlyle. And this was a fairly spicy thought at that time in history, because individual destiny, especially a destiny that crossed one or two class boundaries, was still a fairly novel concept. And so, these thoughts about social mobility were a big deal. And then, in the 20th century, Margaret Thatcher, the conservative prime minister of the U.K., wanted to give this book by Samuel Smiles, Self-Help, as a gift to every schoolchild in Britain. I don’t think that ever happened, though.  

DUCKWORTH: No, probably not. My knowledge of Thatcher is limited to what I could get from “The Crown” in its last season, so— But that sounds very much like the Thatcher I know from “The Crown.” 

DUBNER: It does indeed. 

DUCKWORTH: Look, if you think about children’s books, these little parables, right? Like The Little Engine That Could — or, my favorite books were Frog and Toad. And they are always something with a message, and very often a message of wisdom, just one human being trying to give advice to another human being, either directly, in the imperative — like, do this, don’t do that — or obliquely, like, “And then, Frog thought, maybe I should ask Toad what he wants.” I think we shouldn’t be snobby about them. At the same time, I think that having some hesitation about giving advice and even just how helpful these things can be—  

DUBNER: But you love to give advice! You’ve told us how you like to go into the supermarket and tell people what kind of brownie to buy.

DUCKWORTH: That’s so true. Yes, I’m domineering. I probably am, on a scale from zero to 10, a lot closer to 10 than I am to zero on comfort dispensing my opinions about the way things ought to be. But I’ll tell you that the reason I keep debating this with myself and anybody else who wants to talk about it with me is that, I have wondered, what lies beyond the book. If it’s true that, out of 100 people who bought Think Like a Freak or bought a Dale Carnegie book, that more than zero actually helped themselves. So, it worked. But definitely fewer than 100, and probably closer to zero. I don’t know if you think that podcasts help people change their lives, for example. 

DUBNER: I do think that, look, every form of communication is its own idiom to some degree. And I think that the book is a format that’s been around long enough that people know how to engage in it and what they’re, “supposed to” get out of it. The reason I think that podcasting has become successful is because there is an inevitable authenticity about it — not every podcast, but much — in that, you’re hearing people talking directly. The closer that you can get to the source, if the source is someone worth listening to, then, to me, the more powerful they can be. 

But I think that’s existed in every form of literature and advice-giving through history. I mean, whether you want to talk about the stoics, or Baudelaire, or whoever, hearing the voice of the wisdom-giver directly is incredibly powerful. That’s where I think journalism sometimes does fail, is it doesn’t get across powerful information, not only as powerfully as it should, but as authentically as it should. 

DUCKWORTH: Even within this podcast, I wonder whether we could invent or innovate a little bit such that it would be even more useful than eavesdropping on two people. 

DUBNER: One of whom is reluctant to give advice, the other of whom is domineering.  

DUCKWORTH: Yes. The other of whom is reluctant to admit that she’s ready and willing to give advice. Yeah. I do think that there must be something that could be yet more helpful than these current kinds of things that we do. 

DUBNER: The dilemma that I described with Think Like a Freak, the reason that we wrote that book was because we would just get so many requests for help that we couldn’t give. I will say the volume of emails for this show is astounding to me — how many people are writing in now with questions that they want answered or situations they want addressed or solved. And, I guess, I feel there’s a parallel frustration, which is, there is no way we can get to even one one-hundredth of them in the show. But if we could make the show a little bit more about how to answer questions yourself, how to pursue the right path of inquiry yourself, maybe we could perform some slight, small service. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I think we should try to do that. And I think when you said that, “isn’t every book a self-help book?” in a way every human interaction is to try to learn something from the other human. So, we should try to innovate ways that humans can learn from other humans, we could learn from other humans, other humans could learn from us. We could all be learning together. I think we should try new things. 

Stephen tells the story of how Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle had to rewrite his book on the French Revolution after his friend’s housekeeper accidentally burned the manuscript. What Stephen failed to mention was that this friend was political economist John Stuart Mill. Mill was originally asked to write the book, but recommended that Carlyle do it instead. Carlyle said that the second version of the book — the one that was ultimately published and inspired Samuel Smiles’s Self Help — came “direct and flamingly from the heart.” 

Later, Angela references Dale Carnegie’s 1936 book How to Win Friends and Influence People, but mistakenly refers to it as How to Make Friends and Influence People. The book is one of Angela’s favorites, but for some reason, its details often evade her. Long-time listeners will know that this was the second time that Angela misreferenced the work. In N.S.Q. Episode 24, “Why Do We Forget So Much of What We’ve Read?” Angela, appropriately enough, confuses the work with another best-selling self-help book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which was written by author and businessman Stephen Covey

Finally, Angela believes that she remembers a quote from author E.B. White — “Immortality is to be found between the covers of a book.” While she captures the general message of the quote, she gets the wording wrong. The passage that she’s thinking of is from a letter that White wrote in 1971 to celebrate the opening of a new public library in Troy, Michigan. Librarian Marguerite Hart had written to a number of authors and celebrities and asked them to reply with a note to children visiting the library. White wrote, “Books hold most of the secrets of the world, most of the thoughts that men and women have had— Books are good company, in sad times and happy times, for books are people — people who have managed to stay alive by hiding between the covers of a book.”

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No Stupid Questions is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher; our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Mark McClusky, James Foster, and Emma Tyrrell. 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 nsq@freakonomics.com. 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 Freakonomics.com/NSQ, where we link to all of the major references that you heard about here today. Thanks for listening! 

DUCKWORTH: I wonder if I do this call with my Invisalign, if you can hear a lisp. Can you hear a lisp, Rebecca?

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Sources

  • Samuel Smiles, Scottish writer and author of Self-Help. 
  • E.B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web. 
  • Charles Baudelaire, 19th-century poet.
  • Dale Carnegie, author and leader in the field of public speaking.
  • Steven Levitt, co-author of Freakonomics and host of People I (Mostly) Admire.
  • Richard Thaler, Nobel Prize-winning economist.
  • Lee Ross, professor of psychology at Stanford University.
  • Seneca, philosophical figure of the Roman Imperial Period.
  • David Burns, adjunct clinical professor emeritus of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford University.

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