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DUCKWORTH: Why am I doing this? 

*      *      *

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 know when it’s time to quit? 

DUBNER: I love to gamble. I’ve lost a hundred thousand dollars the last week. 

Also: Why is it so hard to predict success? 

DUCKWORTH: I’m sorry to say this, but your little boy is doomed.

DUBNER: He ate the marshmallow, and he’s gonna be an idiot. 

*      *      *

Stephen J. DUBNER: Angela Duckworth, my question today could be summarized as “grit versus quit.” 

Angela DUCKWORTH: Grit.  

DUBNER: What’s that?  

DUCKWORTH: That’s the answer.  

DUBNER: All right. Never mind, then. Let me explain, though. So, if you believe, even a little bit, in the sunk-cost fallacy — the idea that it’s bad to throw good money after bad, or good time, or any other resource after bad — then you also have to believe it’s a good idea to quit things more often than a lot of people are willing to quit. But we’ve been preached to for decades, maybe centuries, that quitting is a moral failure, “a quitter never wins and a winner never quits” and all that. 

But at Freakonomics, we’ve actually argued for the upside of quitting. In fact, one of the very first radio shows we made 10 years ago was called “The Upside of Quitting.” And we argued that for every hour, or dollar, or brain cell you spend on something, you’re giving up the opportunity to spend that hour, or dollar, or brain cell on something else, something that might make your life better, if only you weren’t so worried about the sunk cost — if only you could allow yourself to quit. 

Now, Professor Duckworth, you are known to advocate the power of grit, as the subtitle of your book puts it, The Power of Passion and Perseverance. That practically sounds to me like an anti-quitting manifesto. But I’m sure that even you would agree that it’s unwise to persevere in every case. 

So, for all the people out there, and this includes me, who are constantly coming up to this seemingly irreconcilable boundary of grit and quit — like, there’s something I’m doing that I want to succeed at, I want to persevere, but I also think maybe there’s a point at which I need to try something else. How do you know when to quit and when to engage your grit? 

DUCKWORTH: I agree that this is not just an occasional dilemma. It’s a frequent occurrence. Do I stay in my major or do I switch? And even, do I keep reading this book that I have on my bed stand, or should I switch to a new one because I don’t really like this book so much? I want to start by saying, yes, there are absolutely circumstances under which quitting is the right thing to do. And then the real trick here is: how do you know which circumstance you’re in? Like the country music song. Was it Kenny Rogers? “Know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.” 

So, I think the crux of it is opportunity cost, which you alluded to. At any given point in time, there is what you’re doing, and there’s everything else that you’re not doing because you’re doing what you’re doing. The trick will be: can I figure out whether I’m in a circumstance where there is a road not taken that’s just better — it’s smoother; it gets me where I want to go faster; it’s more pleasant. 

And I think the reason why there are all these aphorisms about not giving up, and maybe why so much of my research has focused on the psychology of staying the course, is that sometimes the road not taken, the track that you want to switch to, is appealing not because it is objectively better, but because it’s objectively easier, just in the short run.  

DUBNER: Sure. Like, I’m an eighth grader and school is hard. I would rather stop, period.  

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I’m not going to do math anymore. It’s not for me. 

DUBNER: So, let’s talk about measurement. Because I’ve often thought that for many people who think about quitting versus persevering, I feel like we make judgments based on a lot of gut and emotion as opposed to measuring your progress. I think it’s a lot easier to measure how far you’ve come and really hard to measure opportunity cost, which is why people don’t consider opportunity cost, because it feels very abstract. So, I’m curious how you could reconcile that. 

 DUCKWORTH: Yeah, so I think you have this intuition that if we were able to account for, in some reasonably precise way, the value of what we’re doing versus what we could switch to, then we would have this problem solved.  

DUBNER: Well, I don’t mean to imply that it’s always so easy. I mean, let’s put it in specific terms. You mentioned someone changing their major, but it could be staying in school, or staying in a job, or staying in the military versus not. 

DUCKWORTH: Let’s see. I was in my 11th month at McKinsey.

DUBNER: I thought you were going to say “of pregnancy.”  

DUCKWORTH: Because I’m an overachiever. No, I was in my 11th month at McKinsey, which was a long time ago in my life. But I knew I wasn’t going to be in this management consulting role for long, but it did feel to me like an absurd thing to quit, even within a year of actually landing there. And so I had this question, “Should I stay or should I go?” And, for me, the precipitating event was getting proposed to by my now-husband. 

DUBNER: So he rescued you from a life of management consulting, you’re saying? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, because two apartments in New York is really a lot more than we could afford. So, now marriage is on the horizon — consolidating. I don’t need the McKinsey salary so much anymore. So, now we can go down to one McKinsey salary. He was also at McKinsey. And my road not taken, my alternative, was to be a teacher in the New York City public schools. 

So, I had the choice of not even finishing a year at McKinsey and then taking a job because it was beginning the school year. Or should I stick it out? So that was my dilemma. And I didn’t hesitate at all. I went and spoke to my manager. And I think that for me, the ability to switch from one thing to another is sometimes hard. And sometimes I probably commit the sunk-cost fallacy. But in that case, I really didn’t feel tortured at all. I wasn’t like, “Oh, maybe I should finish what I began.”  

DUBNER: Okay. So, you got bailed out, which aided the decision. Many people, when they’re making what feels like a life-altering decision, don’t have that clarion bell ring. 

DUCKWORTH: They don’t have a signal event. 

DUBNER: Look, I’m happy for you, but it does make it a little bit less of a tortured decision, I would say. But let me get back to why this kind of decision does torture so many people. You’d been there 11 months and you said it would have felt absurd to quit. What do you mean by that? Was it shame, somehow? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, let me map this onto some social science research. People really like things that are in quantities that feel like there’s closure. So, marathon runners, for example, will really push themselves to get a three-hour time versus a 3:01 time. When you look at marathon finish times, there’s this spike of people who obviously just push through to finish within a certain period that felt like a set. 

To me, at some level, I felt like a year was better than 11 months in terms of this chapter in my life. I obviously didn’t feel so strong about it that I was willing to stay and then top off. But I think that was part of it. I also felt a little bit of obligation in the sense that I was going to disappoint other people. 

And I think this is actually one of the reasons why people commit — it’s sometimes called the sunk-cost fallacy, in the management literature, it’s often called “escalation of commitment.” And one of the factors that determines whether people keep going versus switch course is how disappointed they think other people will be in their decision.  

DUBNER: So, I empathize with people who overvalue sunk costs. You think, “I’ve been doing this for a while, and therefore it’d be silly to not see it through, or at least to give it more time.” That is natural. And I think it is indeed foolish to not consider what you have already invested. But I think that we need to get better at considering opportunity cost. So, the reason I don’t love your example with McKinsey and marriage is because marriage was a separate avenue that you were probably going to go down. And so, the concrete appearance of that then afforded you the opportunity to do what you would have preferred to do.

 DUCKWORTH: Because it was so obvious. I agree. Here’s one that happened to my daughter Lucy. So, Lucy was playing viola. She’s now 17. And I don’t know when she was first playing viola — maybe seven or eight. So, she’s playing viola and taking lessons, and then she’s in the school orchestra, and then she’s in the community orchestra. 

It became increasingly clear, at least to me, and I think eventually to her, that viola wasn’t that fun for her. She didn’t love it. She used a lot of self-discipline to do all that practice. And every year for the last few years, I tried to get her to quit. I was like, “I will pay you to quit this damn instrument.” 

DUBNER: You literally offered to pay your daughter to quit? That is — what’s the opposite of a tiger mom?  

DUCKWORTH: I don’t know. But she was really annoyed at me and didn’t take me up on my offer. So she was, you could argue, committing a version of the sunk-cost fallacy. 

DUBNER: What do you think was operating behind her need to continue?  

DUCKWORTH: I think for her, there were probably two things. One is she had a great teacher who she really liked. And I think sometimes when we like parts of what we’re doing, but not everything, it makes it really hard to leave. You’re like, “Oh, but wait, I don’t want to give up this part.” 

The second reason I think was even bigger, and that was she felt a sense of waste. She was like, “Wait a second, you’re saying that I’ve played this godd*** instrument for years, a significant portion of my young life, and now I’m going to stop?” So, I think the thing that holds a lot of people back from quitting is the sense of waste. 

DUBNER: So, is there any way to be reductive and a little bit prescriptive here? Are there any telltale signs, internal or external, that you can advise people look out for to figure out whether to stick it out or to quit?  

DUCKWORTH: One question that you could ask yourself is, “Why am I doing this?” If Lucy had asked herself, “Why am I doing this? Why am I playing viola?”

DUBNER: She would have said what? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, I asked her that, actually, and she was like, “Because it’s going to help me get into college.” And I was like, “Not a great answer, trust me. You’re not going to get into college on the viola unless you really enjoy and get really great.” I think asking your question, “Why am I doing this?” And then a second question would be, “What else could I do that would achieve that same end?” 

DUBNER: She could have taken up harmonica, which is much more distinctive and probably actually would have helped get into college. 

DUCKWORTH: That is going to get you in! The epilogue to the story is that she did quit, and I didn’t have to pay her. And then she directed her energy and those hours to other things, like baking and things that she actually wanted to do much more but didn’t feel like they were the sort of thing you’re supposed to do when you’re a kid who wants to get into a selective school. 

DUBNER: In that regard, the subtitle of your book, The Power of Passion and Perseverance, I think is relevant because if the passion isn’t there, and if you’re doing it for a different set of goals, then you can see how the payoff, even if you get it, isn’t as meaningful. I will say this. I’ve quit some big things. 

DUCKWORTH: Would you consider music one of them? Speaking of music.

DUBNER: Yeah. So, when I was younger, there were a few things that I really loved, loved, loved to do and would do at any opportunity. Play sports was one. And honestly, if I had been good enough to be a Major League Baseball player when I was 15 or 16, I probably would have done that. I wasn’t. So that fell by the wayside. But I did play music, and I was pretty good. And the band that I was involved in in college — we ended up getting a record deal, moving to New York, and pursuing that path. 

And to make a long story short, I decided that that was essentially not the life that I wanted. But it was a very, very, very difficult decision because the three other guys in the band were my best friends. They were the only people I spent any time with at all. We lived together. It was like being married to three people. And so, my reckoning evolved over two years where I was increasingly thinking that, as much as I loved it, this was not the future that I ultimately wanted. 

But the only way I finally got to quitting was to visualize what it would feel like if my life were different, if I had quit. What would it feel like to wake up in the morning? What would I be doing to spend that next day, that next month and so on? And I was able to see that, wow, I would really miss it, I would miss them, but I just saw a happier life in front of me. And once I saw that, I thought, “Okay, that’s enough for me to make the decision.” 

And subsequently, later in life, whenever I’ve wanted to quit something — like I worked at The New York Times, which, when I arrived there, I thought, “Oh my gosh, it won’t ever get any better than this.” But after a few years, I was like, “Well, this place is kind of suboptimal in a number of ways.” 

I used that trick again. I had to say to myself, “Okay, I’m working on my own book or my own article, and I call someone that I want to interview. And I can’t say, “Hey, this is Stephen Dubner from The New York Times.” Because that becomes part of your identification. All these things that we do, whether it’s viola, or your job, or your spouse, or the degree you’re working on, they become part of who you are. But again, when I was able to emotionally visualize what that would be, and that it wouldn’t be perfect but it was doable, I was able to get on with it and quit.  

DUCKWORTH: So, what you were able to do was mentally create the road not taken. You were able to not have opportunity cost just be this abstraction, but actually to vividly imagine, not only what you were doing and what it would lead to, but an alternative. Is that right? Were you able to, in the Robert Frost poem, “Look down one as far as I could, to where it bent in the undergrowth,” then take the other?

DUBNER: I would say that’s about accurate, except for the word “vividly.” Because it’s really hard. Look, I’m not a very imaginative person, generally. I have a hard time conjuring scenes out of thin air.  

DUCKWORTH: You’re not J.K. Rowling

DUBNER: It was more of an emotional visualization, like, “Oh, I’ll feel a little bereft. I’ll feel a little bit lonely. I’ll feel a little bit desperate. But you know what? I’ll use that desperation to work even harder.” That was how I got there. But then there’s another trick that I think is related, and I’m curious to know what you think of it. 

So, when we were working on this argument years ago about the upside of quitting — and it really was an economic argument saying that sunk costs can be bad and opportunity cost is usually overlooked. So, Steve Levitt took a look at this argument about quitting, and he set up a website called “Freakonomics Experiments” where we would invite anyone who had a really difficult decision to make, and we would flip a virtual coin for them, and if you had said “heads quit,” then if it came up heads, you were supposed to stop. 

And then his experiment was to actually measure out over months whether the people did quit or didn’t, and how they felt. And ultimately, he found that people who wanted to, but didn’t have the courage to, if the coin told them “yes” and they did it, they were happier six months down the road. So, using the coin flip as the emotional visualization of what your life can look like. Once the coin comes up heads, if you feel relief, that’s a really good indicator. 

DUCKWORTH: I think that’s what Danny Kahneman and maybe some other judgment and decision making experts say. They say flip your own coin, and really the telling thing is how do you feel when you see that it came up heads. And if you’re like, “Oh, no, I’m going to keep flipping the coin until I get tails,” then that tells you something. My guess is that some people know what they want to do, but they need the courage to do it. And other people are really indecisive — they just don’t know whether it’s the right thing to do for them to quit or to stay the course. 

DUBNER: Can you tell us anything about what psychology has to say about the psychological effects of quitting versus sticking something out? 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Well, one of the reasons why I know about this is because there was a study of gritty people. This was a study that was done in a lab. Participants came in and they took the grit scale. And so the scientists could, with some precision, say who was grittier and who was less gritty. And then they gave them a series of unsolvable anagrams. 

And the trick in this study was that the unsolvable anagrams are mixed up with just really, really hard anagrams. And you could, in this experiment, pass and keep going, or you could stick with one puzzle and just work on it to your heart’s content. And the grittier people in this study tended to perseverate on the impossible anagrams far past the point where it was advantageous. Of course, it wasn’t advantageous. They were impossible. 

DUBNER: What does “perseverate” mean? 

DUCKWORTH: “Perseverate” is interesting because it has a clinical definition. It basically means when you persevere in a maladaptive way. So, perseverance sounds good. It sounds good when you call it “endurance,” but it sounds bad when you call it “stubbornness.” And perseveration is essentially sticking with things when it’s bad for you. 

DUBNER: So, “I love to gamble. I’ve lost one hundred thousand dollars the last week.” That’s perseverating? 

DUCKWORTH: That’s perseverating. Or somebody’s having an argument with another person, and you’re long past the point in the discussion where the other person is listening or even in the same room. They may have left, and you’re just making your point. 

My dad used to do this all the time. He would bang the table with both hands. And everyone would have literally left the room, and he’s still making an argument. So that’s perseveration. And in that study, gritty individuals went too long, worked too hard, if you will. And because there was the opportunity to pass on the impossible puzzles, the scientists were able to say this was suboptimal behavior.  

DUBNER: I have to say, though, the more we talk and the more I think about this border between quit and grit, the more difficult I feel the problem is. Because for every story, or even data set, that shows that perseverance is incredibly valuable, there’s another one that shows that if you don’t stop doing the thing that’s not working, that you’ll never get on to the thing that is working — whether it’s a bad relationship, a bad job, or just a bad idea. 

DUCKWORTH: When you said relationship, this whole time I was thinking the perfect analogy here is dating and marriage. Like, do I break up with you or not? If I break up with you, maybe I’ll be alone for the rest of my life. Maybe my standards are unrealistic. Then again, I could be stuck with you forever. I have to say of my own dating history, I never had this problem. I didn’t date many guys more than a month. I was like, “Oh, we’re not getting married. Next.” 

DUBNER: You weren’t so much dating as auditioning. 

DUCKWORTH: I think I was. I was auditioning husbands. And as soon as it became clear, which it usually did within 30 days, that this was not going to be a happily ever after, I just ejected them.  

DUBNER: I have to say, I feel pretty self-satisfied right now because I have led the mistress of grit to acknowledge that quitting is awesome. 

DUCKWORTH: You did, didn’t you? I have to say, Stephen, sometimes it’s time to fold them. 

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss whether it’s possible to forecast success in hiring, in achievement, and in romantic relationships. 

DUCKWORTH: I just sat down with this young couple who’d gotten married, and they were all excited.

DUBNER: You disabused them of their future happiness? 

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DUCKWORTH: All right, Stephen, I have a question for you. 

DUBNER: Hit me. 

DUCKWORTH: I am astonished, as a scientist who studies success, at how ridiculously hard it is to predict who’s going to be accomplished, or what’s going to happen to somebody in their life. For example, marriages in the United States — you’re at the altar, you make lifelong vows. You’re certainly not thinking this isn’t going to work out. 

Well, half of those marriages end in divorce. Half or more professors in many universities don’t get tenure. There’s a prediction when you hire someone that they’re going to work out, and they’re going to be everything that you want or expect them to be, and then, they don’t. So, is it as hard as I think to predict success in life?  

DUBNER: So, I do think your examples might be a little bit at contrast with each other. Because one is a supply-and-demand issue, right? 

DUCKWORTH: Which one is that? Is that marriage or is that professorships? 

DUBNER: If everybody who gets married stays married, that doesn’t disrupt any equilibrium.  

DUCKWORTH: You just have a lot of married couples around.  

DUBNER: But if you’re a university, the whole reason you’re hiring all these professors is so you can find the good ones and throw out the bad ones. So, yes, you’re right — it’s hard to predict success, but if only 50 percent are getting tenure, that’s not, to me, an indication of our inability to predict it. 

Let’s say you hire a hundred professors and you grade them before coming in on their likelihood of getting tenure. And then you’d have to show me that, seven years later, there’s no correlation between how you graded them and how they did. That would persuade me that that university is terrible at predicting who will be good. 

 DUCKWORTH: Well, okay. Yes and no. So, marriage isn’t the same thing as getting tenure, even though the statistics are still 50 percent. Yes, they’re different. But I could expand these 50 percent statistics. I think it’s absolutely the case in many companies that half of the salespeople are not there, even six months later. 

And in all these cases — marriage, university hiring professors, or a big company hiring salespeople — nobody enters into these contracts thinking it’s not going to work out. In all these cases, everyone’s pretty optimistic that we’re going to be together for a while. Otherwise, I wouldn’t invest in you.  

DUBNER: Okay. So, I may quarrel with your conclusion because a lot of companies that hire employees, again, they’re not necessarily expecting, or even wanting, those employees to stay for 10 years. And a lot of employees are not expecting or wanting to stay somewhere. But that said, I agree with you entirely that humans are really bad at predicting. I mean, if that’s the central question, I’m totally on board with you there. 

We, along with many other people, have tried to interrogate the evidence on prediction. So we did a piece years and years ago called “The Folly of Prediction.” And we looked at experts in four different areas: stock markets, geopolitics, corn yields and prices, and the N.F.L. — football predictions. And it turned out that in each case, the people who are supposed to be the best were basically no better than chance. 

DUCKWORTH: And let me just pile on with more depressing evidence. So, if you look at longitudinal research in social science — so, usually what social scientists do is they measure a bunch of things early in time, like childhood I.Q., or socioeconomic status, self-control. And then you wait around and you see if you can predict what happens to this kid when they’re 16 or later. 

And the amount of variation, the percentage of variance that you can predict is shockingly low. I mean, even in the best studies where you have this huge battery of measures — so, you really have people under the microscope — in most of these studies, you can’t predict even 10 percent of the variation. And that’s a lot of unexplained life outcomes. 

DUBNER: So, I see the downside of that. The downside is pretty obvious — which is, if you can predict what helps make more people more successful, then you can do more of that. So I totally get that. 

On the other hand, I think there is a bit of an upside for that — which is, it gives you an appreciation of how multifactorial life and success are. So, if you think about it, high-S.E.S., high socioeconomic status, definitely gives most people a boost. But just look at all the other elements that go into a successful life. There’s health. There’s opportunity. 

DUCKWORTH: Sense of humor. And I’m not kidding. 

DUBNER: Yeah. Luck. Discipline. There are all these things that can happen. So, the idea that you could isolate a variable, while, to me, I understand the appeal of it, I also get a little depressed by it because it feels more like a programmatic way to look at the world, as opposed to acknowledging that the way the world has always worked and probably always will, at least for humans, is not very predictable.  

DUCKWORTH: I mean, as a social scientist, I wish we could do better. But I remember when I was a teenager, I was a big fan of reading myths. Do you remember the myth of Pandora’s box?  

DUBNER: I do. 

DUCKWORTH: So you might remember the one thing that Pandora, when she snapped the lid back on the box that she wasn’t supposed to open — it was the knowledge of the future, and that was supposed to be the one salvation of humanity — that if Pandora had let that out, then we would all be doomed. 

And I remember thinking as a teenager, I was like, “Why? Why is it so good not to be able to predict the future?” And now, with a few more decades of wisdom, I think you have a good point, which is that if we could foretell someone’s destiny from how long they could wait for a marshmallow in a single test, and we could say to some parent of a four-year-old that, like, “Oh, I’m sorry to say this, but your little boy is doomed.”  

DUBNER: He ate the marshmallow and he’s going to be an idiot. 

DUCKWORTH: Don’t start saving for college. So, maybe there is some blessing, but I do think just not knowing is fascinating. And it does imply that life isn’t simple and that there’s never one factor, even grit or economic status, that is going to foretell your destiny.  

DUBNER: Do you know the psychologist John Gottman? Do you know his work on marriage? 

DUCKWORTH: I know his work. I’m a big fan.

DUBNER: Do you respect his research?  

DUCKWORTH: I do. I’m not an expert in it. And I know that a lot of the research that he does is not, like, huge sample sizes. And I think he has, like, a little “love lab.” 

DUBNER: A marriage institute or whatnot. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. You come in and you sit on a couch and you have an argument with your spouse, and then he videotapes you. I mean, every scientific program has its strengths and weaknesses. But yeah, I’m a fan of John Gottman.  

DUBNER: So, he claims that he’s got a lot of data that shows that there are certain things in a marriage that are strongly predictive of divorce. So, for instance, the amount of sex you have — having more sex does not necessarily lead to a more successful marriage. 


DUBNER: He argues that the amount of arguments you have, the number of arguments you have, is not necessarily correlated with a higher rate of divorce. 

But he does say that one thing that correlates well with a low rate of divorce is how you make up after arguments, how you reconcile, which I thought is really interesting. Again, I don’t know how much to believe it, but I think what it points to is that when we are trying to make predictions, generally, we’re looking at stupid metrics. But if you think about it, if reconciliation from an argument is a legitimate predictor of success, the reason to me it makes sense is because it understands a process as opposed to one metric or one moment in time. And I can see that being truly useful. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. We might be looking in the wrong direction if we’re just honing in on one snapshot. You know, I just sat down actually with this young couple, two beautiful people who’d gotten married, and they were all excited. 

DUBNER: You disabused them of their future happiness?  

DUCKWORTH: I have to say, I was a little bit of a downer because I’m thinking: what do I wish I knew when I had married my wonderful husband? And I hope it wasn’t too much of a downer. But I did want to share with them that when you get married to someone and you’re predicting this rosy future, you have all this fantastic expectation of being happy. And you are often. So you’re good at that. 

But it’s a real skill to learn how to be unhappy together, to learn how to argue. I am not very good at it. And we’ve been at it for 20 years. When I get mad at my husband, since we have so little practice and skill at fighting, often these things can drag on for days. And that’s ridiculous. I’m trying to do better, and I’m really thinking of it as a skill, like playing tennis. And this is the advice that I was trying to give this couple. “Don’t expect that this comes naturally. You’ll get better.”  

DUBNER: So, I’m going to do you a favor. I think that the next time I see the two of you together, what I’m going to do is, I’m going to say something—

DUCKWORTH: To make us have an argument.

DUBNER: That causes a fight. A really, really bad argument. Because I want you to have more practice with that. And as soon as we finish here, I’m going to ask you to write down a list of things that you think would, perhaps, prompt. And then I’m going to call up Jason. And you’ll have the biggest fight ever. But the reconciliation will be awesome, and you can thank me later.  

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

Angela uses the famous Robert Frost poem “A Road Not Taken” to help visualize two possible life paths, one more desirable than the other — a metaphor that has been exploited by artists, authors and advertising executives since the poem was written in 1916. However, David Orr, the poetry columnist for The New York Times Book Review, writes that, “The poem isn’t a salute to can-do individualism; it’s a commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our own lives.” He says the speaker of the poem claims that his decision made all the difference, only because, “This is the kind of claim we make when we want to comfort or blame ourselves by assuming that our current position is the product of our own choices (as opposed to what was chosen for us or allotted to us by chance).”

Later, Angela references the myth of Pandora’s box and says that after opening the container, the only thing left inside was the knowledge of the future. This is incorrect. According to the Greek myth, the opening of the box released tragedies like sickness and death. Hope, not prescience, was the only thing that remained. Angela may have been confusing Pandora with the myth of Cassandra, who was cursed with the knowledge of future events after refusing Apollo’s romantic advances. That’s it for the fact-check. 

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DUCKWORTH: What is it — a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. 

DUBNER: You say that as though it’s some obscure phrase.  What is the phrase? “A bird in the…” Yes. We’ve heard of that. 


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  • J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter book series.
  • Daniel Kahneman, professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University.
  • John Gottman, psychological researcher specializing in marriage and relationships.



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