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Episode Transcript

MAUGHAN: When you feel naked, what’s the first thing you do?

DUCKWORTH: Put some clothes on?

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DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

MAUGHAN: I’m Mike Maughan.

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

Today on the show: Why would a successful person feel the need to stick it to the little guy?

DUCKWORTH: “I’m talking to Angela Duckworth on No Stupid Questions. How do you like me now?”

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MAUGHAN: Angela, I have a question for you that I have been thinking about for a long time, and I’m dying to ask it.

DUCKWORTH: Okay. Well, without further ado —.

MAUGHAN: Without further ado. Sometimes successful people feel this need to go back to people in their past who doubted them and kind of shove their success in those people’s faces. 

DUCKWORTH: Are you speaking autobiographically, Mike? Or are you speaking hypothetically?

MAUGHAN: No, I’m not. In fact, the reason this has been permeating in my head for so long is there’s a song by a country singer named Toby Keith called, “How Do You Like Me Now?!” I mean, a lot of artists have — Drake has “Started at the Bottom Now We’re Here.” Imagine Dragons has one. But let me go to this Toby Keith one. He’s like, “I only wanted to get your attention. You overlooked me somehow. Besides, you had too many boyfriends to mention. I played my guitar too loud.” And then the chorus: “How do you like me now?” The next verse, “I went off to Tennessee. I heard that you made fun of me. Never imagined I’d make it this far. Then you married into the money, girl. Ain’t it a cruel and funny world? He took your dreams and tore them apart. He never comes home. You’re always alone. Your kids hear you cry down the hall. Alarm clock starts ringing. Who could that be singing? It’s me, baby, with your wake up call. How do you like me now?”

DUCKWORTH: Oh my god, this is dark! 

MAUGHAN: Well, that’s my point! I’m kind of like look, dude, you —.

DUCKWORTH: This is a country music song?! Is there a warning label on it? Like, okay, so, in your view, what do you think this really gets at?  

MAUGHAN: I think there’s this idea of a chip on your shoulder, and it can motivate you for the rest of your life, and you can want to push through things. This feels different to me than that. This feels like people are so insecure in who they are that they have to turn around and kick the little guy who never made it, because there’s maybe some lingering resentment, but to me it breathes of insecurity. I’ll just give you one example from my life — not like this. I worked for years with this person who’s a clinical narcissist, incredibly toxic person, high charisma, unbelievable at managing up, et cetera. No matter what I accomplish in my life, I don’t ever want to go back to that person and stick it in their face. In fact, my desire is to never see or talk to that person ever again. They took up too much of my life already.

DUCKWORTH: You don’t want to go back to them and say, “How do you like me now?” “I’m talking to Angela Duckworth on No Stupid Questions. How do you like me now?”

MAUGHAN: “You turn on your podcast. Who are you listening—?” No, I’m just kidding. So, my supposition is that there’s this massive insecurity where they have to go back and kick the little guy. So, I’m curious, what’s your take on this? Why do people do that?

DUCKWORTH: Would you consider this under the heading of “bragging”?

MAUGHAN: I do think it’s kind of bragging, but I would say that it’s a bragging rooted in insecurity. What are your thoughts?

DUCKWORTH: Well, bragging is something that, as you know, Mike, I consider on my list of vices. I brag sometimes, and, in the moment, it’s not totally clear to me that I’m bragging, but usually, like, a microsecond afterward I’m like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I just said that.” I mean, I name-drop sometimes. Like, I don’t want to name-drop Danny Kahneman — but there you go. And I just did it again. Like —.

MAUGHAN: But it’s also who you work with. I think there’s a difference in intention. For me, it’s the idea of like, “I have to go stick it to somebody.” That’s a very different level of bragging.

DUCKWORTH: Okay, I do think that that’s a whole different species or at least a subspecies, right? Because not all bragging is the kind of like, “And I hope you feel bad.” But I do think there’s a little bit of my dad in me. Like, my dad bragged all the time. He bragged about himself, he bragged about his children.

MAUGHAN: See, that’s what I was actually just about to ask you, because there are some people who maybe don’t brag about themselves, but they will brag about their children, or something else, as a manifestation of like, “No, I am better than you.” 

DUCKWORTH: As an extension of themselves. 

MAUGHAN: Yeah. “Look at who I raised.”

DUCKWORTH: Exactly. It’s almost like you think it’s a safe way of bragging, because it’s not about you, but it’s just as annoying. And sometimes I recognize that even if I didn’t intend to brag, it was received as bragging.

MAUGHAN: And that, I think, is a huge distinction. Because sometimes I think when I’m telling a story, I’m not intending to name-drop. I just think it’s a really interesting story and I — like you, I think — love learning from people who are the best in the world at what they do. But that doesn’t matter, because if someone else receives it that way, they’re actually much less likely to receive the story or the lesson anyway, because — like, you just used the word “annoyed.” They find it annoying and they’re like, “Ah, there he goes again.”

DUCKWORTH: Okay, let’s unpack bragging as a sender/receiver phenomenon. And that’s exactly how I guess I would say the newest and probably the most important thinkers on the psychology of bragging have framed it. And I’m thinking specifically of a professor of behavioral science at Chicago Booth School of Business, and that’s Shereen Chaudhry. And also George Loewenstein, who’s a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon. And the framework that both Shereen and George want us to think about bragging in can also, in their very elegant theory, explain thanking, apologizing, and blaming. So, what Shereen and George paint for us is, like, a, a two-by-two matrix, so there’s four different boxes. Because on one dimension, you have the sender and the receiver. So, you have two people in a conversation and one person bragging to the other. So, one person is sending the brag to the person who’s receiving it. That’s one dimension. The other dimension is, um — I think they call it “valence,” but it’s basically whether what’s being sent is credit or blame. So, if it’s positive, it’s credit. And if it’s negative, it’s blame. Let’s say that we were working together, you and me, Mike, on an episode of No Stupid Questions. And let’s say it went amazingly well. So, there’s credit to be allotted. So, that would be positive valence. Now, let’s take the hypothetical example that you and I were working on an episode of No Stupid Questions and it went horribly. So, now there’s blame to be apportioned.

MAUGHAN: And if we have 100 percent, you’ll apportion a certain percent to you, a certain percent to me.

DUCKWORTH: Right. But in one case, I’m apportioning credit and in the other hypothetical we’re apportioning blame. And in particular, what Shereen and George set up is, like, when there is this apportioning of either credit or blame — and in particular, like, when there’s, like, an asymmetry. It’s not, like, super clear that, like, we equally contributed to something. And you’re exactly right. Like, do I take 90 percent of the credit? Or do you take 90 percent and the other person’s only going to get 10? So, in this two-by-two, you’re either the sender or the receiver, and there’s either credit or blame. So, there’s, you know, four cells and in the four cells are bragging, thanking, apologizing, and blaming. But let’s start with bragging. And that is when the sender is taking the credit. You know, we have this expression “taking credit.” I mean, they think it’s quite literal. Like, you are taking the credit off the table. It’s like, “Oh, 70 for me, 30 for you.”  

MAUGHAN: Well, I mean, the old rule in any business environment of any leader is: “I should take all the blame when things go wrong, and I should give all the credit when things go right,” because by virtue of my team doing really well, I get the credit anyway. And if things go wrong, at the end of the day, I don’t care whose job it was, it’s my fault, because I’m the one ultimately responsible for that. And people want to, generally, follow that kind of leader, and they don’t want to ever be with someone who just dishes out blame.

DUCKWORTH: So, that sounds great. You know, we should brag less and blame less. And Shereen and George have, you know, research experiments on this. They basically say, look, in these social exchanges where we brag or we blame — or alternatively, we thank and we apologize, right? Because there’s another diagonal, and it’s, like, the good diagonal — when you apportion the credit to other people, you thank them, right? So, that’s the C.E.O. who comes in and says, “We had a fantastic year, we broke our record. And I just want to thank everybody here for making that possible.” And says nothing about themselves, says nothing about the, you know late nights they spent working on the strategic plan or whatever. So, they’re thanking. And in the case of the year going poorly, that’s the C.E.O. coming in and saying, like, “It was a year that absolutely undershot expectation. And I need to apologize to you personally for what I did to make that happen.” Right? But then I have to ask you, Mike, as somebody who has a lot of experience in business, like, why do we brag if it’s so plainly obvious that it is worse for everyone? George and Shereen actually have an answer, but I want your intuitions. Like, why does anyone br— why did my dad brag?

MAUGHAN: The first thing that comes to my mind is the same reason I think Toby Keith has to, “How do you like me now?” And it’s some level of insecurity. And by bragging, we think we are establishing ourselves as more capable or ensuring that others view us the way we want them to view us. And I think it stems from this insecurity.

DUCKWORTH: Well, that would definitely be, I think, an accurate description of my father, right, who was really, honestly, like, a wonderful but deeply insecure person. And he was always trying to establish, reestablish, and enhance his reputation. I mean, the sad part is that, like, well, if you’re driving me and my friend around and we’re in sixth grade, like, bragging to my sixth-grade friend is probably not somebody whose opinion about your, like, status really matters. But what you are saying actually matches what the theory says. And what Shereen and George say is that when somebody is insecure, as, you know, many of us are at times, and certainly I would count myself among them, we’re trying to, like, kind of, like, increase our competence, in at least the eyes of other people. Yeah, our perceived competence, if you will. But the problem with bragging is this: it may have some small effect on perceived competence. In other words, you might hear somebody brag about something — like, oh my gosh, their kids are nationally-ranked swimmers, or they are friends with Ariana Huffington — and you might think, like, “Oh, they’re high-status,” or, “They’re competent.” But what happens is that you tend to degrade your perceived warmth of that person. In other words, they come across as less warm, less communal, less empathic.

MAUGHAN: Are competence and warmth always inversely correlated? Or can one be viewed as highly competent, yet also very warm?

DUCKWORTH: So, there have been quite literally thousands of studies on competence and warmth because, it turns out, at least according to the psychologists who study this, when you meet somebody new, and even in your friendships that are established, there are these two dimensions. We immediately ask ourselves, maybe not consciously, but we have this sense of, like, “How competent, or high-status, or capable is this person?” And then, “How warm are they in relation to me?” And to answer your question, Mike, you can be warm and competent. There’s some complicated gender dynamics here where certain things that women do, like, when they’re assertive or they interrupt in conversation, that could give them more competence points, but there’s attacks on their perceived warmth. That doesn’t happen as much to men. So, there’s some nuances here, but now when you think of anybody you meet, you should probably be aware that your brain is probably processing at some level. Oh, you’re sizing them up on competence and you’re sizing them up on warmth. And the problem with bragging is, yeah, you get to, like, inch up on the competence scale a little bit. Not as much as you think, it turns out, but the research on this shows that you really pay a price in warmth. People don’t like you. 

MAUGHAN: Right. So, the benefit you get in competence is not enough to outweigh the loss you get in warmth.

DUCKWORTH: That’s, I think, what the seasoned business leaders will tell you. I don’t think the scientists are as willing to kind of go out on a limb and say, “Well, this is what you should do.” But they absolutely say that when you brag, there really is this relational tax. I mean, what’s funny about the title of that song, “How Do You Like Me Now?” — well, the research would say less. Guess what? I like you less, because you just bragged.  

MAUGHAN: Well, that’s my point. I, I want to be around people who are, are nice and kind and want to bring people with them. And when I heard that song, I was like, “Man, I don’t want to hang out with you.” This makes me —. 

DUCKWORTH: I mean, you read me those lyrics and I was like, “This person sounds awful, and absolutely in need of therapy.” 

MAUGHAN: Here’s what I think is really interesting, though, speaking of this idea about warmth. I think it’s really important that we give people the benefit of the doubt where we can. And I thought one of the most fascinating things, speaking of music, and lyrics, and different artists, there was an interview with Terry Gross fand Jay-Z and — do you know who Jay-Z is?

DUCKWORTH: Yes, I know who Jay-Z is, because he is married to Beyoncé!

MAUGHAN: So, he’s one of the greatest rappers of all time. Also, an unbelievably talented entrepreneur. And this is several years ago. Terry Gross is interviewing Jay-Z about his book Decoded on her radio show Fresh Air. And she says, I want to ask you kind of an odd question, and this is her question verbatim: “You know how a lot of hip-hop artists, when they’re on stage, they kind of grab their crotch.” And Jay-Z says, “Yes — yes, they do. And I have an explanation for it.” And this is what I thought was so interesting, again, coming from the great Jay-Z. He broke down how in rock-and-roll bands, people that grow up in that musical environment, they start in vans, and then they go to these small clubs, and they hone their craft over time and grow from these small places to bigger and bigger venues, and eventually, if all goes well, become a rock star. But he said it’s very different in the hip-hop genre, because usually the music leads first, not the band just growing over time. And so, Jay-Z explains that in hip hop, usually, you have this hit record. And then, because the music led first, they’re just going to throw this person on stage. They’ve never been on stage before. They don’t know how to perform, because the music led first versus the band first. So, when you get on stage in front of all these people and have no experience, he said you feel naked. And when you feel naked, what’s the first thing you do?

DUCKWORTH: Put some clothes on? 

MAUGHAN: Yes. But if not given that opportunity, if you’re naked, your immediate reaction is to cover one’s private parts.

DUCKWORTH: So, they’re grabbing their crotch to cover themselves?

MAUGHAN: Well, so, Jay-Z explains that what you as an observer may look at as this act of bravado, isn’t. It’s actually the artist saying, “Internally, I’m so nervous, I’m scared to death, but Jay-Z is saying, maybe as a performer, what I want you to believe is that it is me being tough, whatever. And he admits — nobody else is going to admit this — but maybe Jay-Z, because now he’s the great Jay-Z —.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, now he’s so high-status, because he’s married to Beyoncé. 

MAUGHAN: But he said, “If you’re on stage in front of 50,000 people, with a record that’s a radio hit and you’ve never performed it before, then nine times out of 10, it’s going to be a disaster. So, they grab their crotch, not out of bravado, but out of nerves, as a sort of self-protection, the same as if they were naked on stage, because that’s how they feel.” And so, I think it’s really interesting for Jay-Z to acknowledge this feeling of insecurity — and for us as maybe the observer when someone is bragging to give them the benefit of the doubt that maybe it’s not about how much they’re trying to look cool to us, but how insecure they are. And instead of us judging them as, “Ugh, freaking so-and-so name-dropped again,” it’s rather, “How can I make them feel more comfortable so they don’t have to act like that?”

DUCKWORTH: So, these are kind of two sides of the same coin though, right? Because when you say “bravado,” let me literally read you what I found on the internet for the dictionary definition of bravado. “A bold manner or show of boldness intended to impress or intimidate.” I guess what you’re saying, or what Jay-Z was saying, or what you were saying that Jay-Z was saying, is that it’s not an act of bravado when a hip-hop singer grabs their crotch, because they’re really feeling insecure. I mean, it’s just a very subtle distinction, because it’s like, are they doing it to defend their egos? Well, isn’t that what bravado is at the core, right? Like, I wonder how much of a distinction there really is. And I’m not saying we shouldn’t have empathy and understanding because we’ve all done this, right? We’ve all brag — okay, I have not grabbed my crotch on stage, or sung a hip-hop song, or whatever, or been Jay-Z, but we’ve all done —.

MAUGHAN: We’ve all done it in our own way.

DUCKWORTH: Stupid-ass, braggy, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I just said that,” things, and I think they’re both to impress and to protect. Jay-Z is saying something very true, but like, really at the core of it, it’s both, right? By impressing you, I’m defending myself. I think that’s how I interpret my dad’s behavior. Like, he was trying to impress people in an effort to defend his ego.

MAUGHAN: So look, this is something we would love to hear about from our listeners. Tell us about an experience where someone bragged about their success to you. Or a time when you felt the need to go back to someone who doubted you and you bragged about your success to them. What was the motivation and what was the reaction? Let us know your name, where you’re from. Record a voice memo in a quiet place. Put your mouth right up close to the phone. Email it to us at and maybe you’ll hear your voice on a future episode of the show.

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Mike and Angela discuss what it means to be on the opposite end of the “how do you like me now” spectrum.

MAUGHAN: If you are overly effusive in thanking a waiter for bringing your food, something’s off. 

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

MAUGHAN: What I think is most fascinating is when this happens in an environment where the status is so different anyway.  Whether it’s Toby Keith, like, he’s a very high-status person now. But also, it’s interesting when you see a business leader — and I’ve seen this a million times — who feels the need to impress all of these entry-level people by name-dropping or by saying how great they are. And maybe this is a sign of, as we get older, we want to feel relevant and cool to younger people, somehow.

DUCKWORTH: Because the high-status person is, like, bragging, essentially, and they don’t need to.

MAUGHAN: Right. My friend was sharing this adage the other day that there are basically — and you’ve got to love when there are “two types of people,” because you can do that with anything — but two types of people, when they walk into a room, and I love this thought. The first group walks into a room and says, “Here I am.” And the other group of people walks into a room and says, “There you are.”  

DUCKWORTH: I love that! I can’t believe I haven’t heard that before.

MAUGHAN: Right? I want to be the kind of person that walks into a room and says, “There you are.” And it’s about them. And I fear, too often, when we fall into this situation where we’re bragging, it’s because we walk into a room and we have to say, “Here I am.” And I think life would be so much better, we would embarrass ourselves so much less, if we walked into a room and said, “There you are.”

DUCKWORTH: I mean, you just described the difference between my mother and my father. Because my dad would walk into a room and absolutely, “Here I am” — actually, my extended family I think bears some lingering resentment toward my dad, who’s now passed. I mean, there was a lot of affection and respect, but whenever we would have these, like, big Chinese banquets and my dad would always pay. But he would also, like, completely dominate discussion of any kind. I mean, he was definitely like, “Here I am, and let me tell you about the economy. Here I am. Let me tell you about what the president should be doing right now,” right? And like, nobody could get in a word edgewise. My mom was, like, the exact opposite. Like, “There you are. Are you hungry? Are you thirsty? Oh, what are you doing?” And I know we all have both aspects to us. And it’s especially pathetic, I think, when you’re high-status and you’re still like, “Here I am. Here I am.” I mean, I think that’s in some ways, like, my dad’s situation, you could argue. Like, he was so insecure that he just needed to pull the attentional spotlight to himself. I think if  I benefit at all from — okay, ready for the name-drop — from Danny Kahneman, I share the opinion of many social scientists who think that Danny Kahneman is the single best social scientist alive, but if I tallied up the number of times in a conversation that he said “thank you,” or “I’m sorry,” it far outnumbers — I think, like, 100 to one — the number of utterances that you could consider bragging or blaming. In fact, I can’t think of a single time where Danny has bragged and taken credit for something even when he could have. And I absolutely cannot think of a single time where he blamed anyone for any mistake that we made in the course of — you know, we’re doing this multi-year project. And, honestly, there have been many mistakes. And he’s always quick to blame himself. He’s always quick to apologize. He’s always quick to thank, and he’s never one to brag.

MAUGHAN: So, I’m going to ask you an impossible question, because there’s no way to determine what’s causal, but I’ve often wondered — people who are so high-status and so well-respected, can afford to be humble. Danny no longer has to establish himself, right? There’s this old quote by Golda Meir who said, “Don’t be so humble—You’re not that great.” And the point — the point she was making is like, hey —.

DUCKWORTH: You have to earn that, right?

MAUGHAN: Yeah, you can’t act so humble, because you’re not great enough to need to be that humble. Like, stop being like that.

DUCKWORTH: But it is interesting how very, very high-status people can be vulnerable, can admit weakness, can thank more than they brag, can apologize more than they blame. And maybe you do “earn it,” like, according to Golda Meir. But I do want to say this. I have noticed — and I think there’s research on this as well — that many young women in particular, they are always saying, “Sorry.” Like, “Oh, sorry I did that. Oh, sorry this —. Thank you, Angela. Thank you for talking to me.” And I’m like, okay, love that you thank and sometimes like that you apologize — only because, like, that’s such a generous thing to do, but I think young women tend to live on the thanking/apologizing diagonal almost too much. And I’m not saying that they should turn around and brag and blame, but, you know, there is this kind of responsibility commerce that’s going on. And when you are always thanking and apologizing, you are always letting other people take the credit, and you are always hoarding the blame. And I don’t think that’s where you want to be in this exchange, either.

MAUGHAN: This is super interesting, because I was recently listening to somebody talk about their experience in a private boarding school. This individual came from a relatively modest background, not a ton of money, connections, et cetera. 

DUCKWORTH: But they had gone to boarding school like, on scholarship or something? Or —. 

MAUGHAN: Yeah, must have. And he was talking about being surrounded by all of these children of high-status and rich, whatever, individuals. And one of the things he observed was that when they would have conversations — networking conversations, informational interviews, whatever they were — they were never overly effusive in their thanking people, because what he observed was that when people were overly effusive in thanking, it was almost detracting from their own status by being so over the top. And I wonder if it’s sort of what you’re talking about. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” It indicates that you have no confidence in you. And so, he said, “Watching the high-status people in this private boarding school, there was always an appropriate level of gratitude, but not so much that it almost borderlined on worshipful or acting like they were so low-status that this person would never naturally interact with them.”

DUCKWORTH: I mean, that’s one of the reasons this framework and this idea that really what’s going on in these four kinds of social interactions is that there’s an exchange of responsibility. Like, it’s so powerful to think about when we say, like, “Oh, thank you very much,” we just engage in giving somebody credit. And then when we brag, we take the credit. And I do think we can get it wrong even in the direction of, like, thanking too much, which is, like, leaving too much credit on the table for the other person.

MAUGHAN: Right, that’s where I think it’s also the degree to which you engage in each of the things. And if the degree to which you engage does not match the level of interaction, then it just creates this weirdness. If you are overly effusive in thanking a waiter for bringing your food, something’s off. A polite person for sure says, “Thank you.” But if it’s like, the greatest thing that ever happened to you, there’s something weird there.  

DUCKWORTH: Like, we need to examine other aspects of your life. Yeah, I think you could say the same thing about Toby Keith. Like, “How do you like me now?” You know, something’s going on there. Right? Like, well, look, also, by the way, it could be a parody. It could be, like, I’m taking this way too seriously.

MAUGHAN: No. So, interestingly he talked about it.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, he was interviewed?

MAUGHAN: Yes, he said, “‘How do you like me now?’ is one of my catchphrases.” He says, “A lot of people become successful after they’ve been told they won’t ever be. So, people can relate to this. It can be about an old flame, or a boss, or a teacher — whatever it means to each individual.” He just said it was a fun song to write. Like, he wrote it intending for people to connect with it.

DUCKWORTH: Ah, okay. So, like, an underdog thing, right?

MAUGHAN: Yes, “I was an underdog. People doubted me. I came in, and I showed them.” 

DUCKWORTH: Right. “I proved them wrong.” I’ll just say that there is research, and some of the very best research is done by someone who’s at Wharton, so I’m a little bit biased, and I’m also a friend, so I guess I’m maybe more than a little bit biased, but Samir Nurmohamed. And what he was interested in since his Ph.D. days was the underdog effect. And his observation was that there is this kind of special motivation — this, like, added power pack that we get to our motivation to achieve a goal — when we think other people doubt us. The finding is that when you have this underdog mentality, you know, “I’ll show you. Like, I’ll prove you wrong. You’ve underestimated me. How do you like me now?” kind of thing, like, it’s fueled by this asymmetry between what you think you can do, how competent you think you are, and then how competent other people think you are. So, your supervisor or, you know, somebody else at work. But, the thing is, it’s tricky, because if you, in your mind, think, “You know, my boss probably knows better than me. They’ve actually had a lot more experience than me. If they don’t think I can do it, maybe I actually can’t do it” — the tricky thing is that you only get the positive benefits of the underdog effect if the observer, who’s doing the sort of like, “Eh, they’re probably not going to be all that much,” has low-credibility.

MAUGHAN: Look, a classic case-in-point of this was Michelle Obama. So, I don’t know if you’ve read her book Becoming.

DUCKWORTH: Are you going to talk about, like, when she wanted to go to Princeton?

MAUGHAN: Yes. Yes. She said it was one of the most pivotal moments in her life, because she goes to her college counselor, they’re talking about what she wants to do, she says she’s going to apply to Princeton, and her counselor says, “You’re not Princeton material.”

DUCKWORTH: And she says, “I’ll show you.” 

MAUGHAN: Right. But that’s where I think it’s really interesting. I think you were talking about this distinction of what’s the credibility related to the person in front of me, but also, how am I going to respond to that? Michelle Obama obviously felt that her guidance counselor had low credibility, and it was an “I’ll show you,” and then when she got into Princeton, she figured out she was just as smart as everybody else. But I guess what you’re saying, if I’m dealing with someone that I view as having high credibility, rather than giving me the chip on my shoulder, it can crush me, and I won’t want to pursue anymore.

DUCKWORTH: A hundred percent. I think that’s probably what happens a lot of the time. You know, your guidance counselor says, “I don’t know, you’re really not Princeton material,” and you just, like, limp out of the office, and you low-ball your college choices. I think this “I’ll show you” effect is, in my research and experience, actually more the exception than the rule, because in so many of these situations, the person who is underestimating you is actually much higher-status than you and much more experienced than you. So, it takes a lot for a teenage girl to say, “I’ll show you,” to some guidance counselor who’s seen thousands of students just like her.

MAUGHAN: Well, and that’s what my next question is to you is, I think for a lot of people, your college counselor, whether you know them well or not, whether you have a big relationship with them or not, just by virtue of the fact that they’ve seen so many people come through, you’re going to lend them great credibility. And so, what is it about the people that you see who can view themselves with high enough status that you’re the person that can say, “I’ll show you,” versus the person that says, “Oh no”?  

DUCKWORTH: So, um, Samir wrote an article for Harvard Business Review called “The Upside of Being an Underdog.” And as all Harvard Business Review articles end, it ends with very practical advice. So, Samir says, and I quote, “If you want to stay motivated in the face of underdog expectations, you need to think about why those expectations aren’t credible. Consider why observers who see you as an underdog might not have an accurate picture of how effective you are or why you can be successful.” I think it’s like, what do I know that my guidance counselor doesn’t know? What do I know about myself that my boss hasn’t seen yet? It’s, like, inventorying the things that the observer couldn’t know about you, because it’s somehow obscured from their view. I think that’s a very adaptive frame, because they can’t know everything about you. “Oh, but they don’t know that I actually have this, like, secret talent for ‘fill-in-the-blank.’”   

MAUGHAN: But it also takes a high level of maturity to engage, and it reminds me of this concept of “first thought, second thought.” Are you familiar with this at all?

DUCKWORTH: No, I don’t know any of these little, like, anodynes that come out of your business head. Go ahead.

MAUGHAN: So, I love this idea of “first thought, second thought.” A dear friend, Ashley Smith, always brings us up whenever we talk about things. And she didn’t make this up, but it’s something she’s taught me many times — that we all have a first thought, and we’re not necessarily responsible for your first thought, but we are responsible for our second thought. And basically what the idea is, is that we need to have enough control over ourselves, and our situation, and our mind frame, that we can get to the point of our second thought. Meaning, when Michelle Obama is in this meeting and her guidance counselor says, “You’re not Princeton material,” first thought might be either lash out at her, and yell at her, and, “You’re wrong, blah, blah, blah.” It might be run: into a corner and cry, it might be whatever — whatever that is. But the second thought is what you’re talking about, which is maybe taking perspective — or taking time — to say, “What does my guidance counselor not know about me? What are the things that I have that they don’t — are not aware of, et cetera. And I think that’s a really powerful construct when it comes to making sure that this chip on your shoulder is motivating rather than crushing.

DUCKWORTH: Honestly, I think this is genius, this idea that we aren’t always in control of our first thoughts, right? And in psychology, especially in clinical psychology, they’re almost always called “automatic thoughts.” And so, one of the reasons why we go to therapy is we can understand and even start to notice our automatic thoughts. And these are first thoughts. You know, sentences that we have in our head — this, like, incessant monologue of, “Oh, I’m not good enough.” I mean, they’re often inaccurate and maladaptive in the long run. But what you learn in therapy is to notice those things and to have second thoughts. Like, “You know, I noticed that I was saying things that are really about blaming myself again.” That’s a second thought. Like, “You know, I wonder what my guidance counselor doesn’t know about me.” That’s a second thought. Like, “Gee, I wonder why my dad felt the need to puff himself up in front of my sixth-grade friends?” Well, you know what? That’s a second-thought question, right? Like, that could open the door for more understanding and compassion for my dad, who turns out was a human being who had his own feelings and insecurities.

MAUGHAN: Right. So, here’s where I would love to end. I think it’s an amazing story and one that has been highly instructive for me for a long time. Because you’ve got the Toby Keith, “How do you like me now?” And then you have this amazing story about Adam Sandler. Are you super familiar with Adam Sandler?

DUCKWORTH: I have watched a few Adam Sandler movies in my time. What does Adam Sandler have to tell us about all this?

MAUGHAN: This came from a conversation. Brad Pitt is talking to Adam Sandler. I don’t know that Adam Sandler has ever shared this story on his own, but Brad had heard the story and says, “Adam, I — I need to confirm with you something that happened in your life. Tell me if this is true.” And Adam acknowledged that it was all there. So basically, Adam Sandler, when he’s in college, he’s at N.Y.U. He’s in a bunch of acting classes, and a kind acting professor took him out for a beer and kindly said to him, “Adam, you need to think about something else.”

DUCKWORTH: Like, you don’t have the talent to do this?

MAUGHAN: “You don’t have the ‘it’ factor here. You need to go do something other than acting.” Then you fast forward all these years, Adam Sandler is at the peak of his fame. He’s made hundreds of millions of dollars. His movies are all over the place, and he’s out with a bunch of friends, when he sees this professor.

DUCKWORTH: He could have done a, “How do you like me now?”

MAUGHAN: And so many people would use this as your “How do you like me now?” moment. Adam Sandler, with all of his friends, walks up to this professor, and introduces the professor to his friends and says, “This is the only teacher to ever buy me a beer.”

DUCKWORTH: Oh my gosh. I am a die-hard Adam Sandler fan starting right now. Like, that is a sterling moment in human history. Who does that? That’s amazing. I’ve never done anything like that.

MAUGHAN: This is why I think it’s the most valuable lesson that I can think of from all of this is: when we reach any sort of joy, or, or fame, or prominence, or do anything good — whether that’s make the whatever team or get into whatever school. 

DUCKWORTH: Whenever there’s any credit to apportion, right? And whenever there’s any blame.

MAUGHAN: You have the opportunity to have your, “How do you like me now?” moment, or to walk up and graciously say, “This is the only teacher to ever buy me a beer.”  

This episode was produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here’s a fact-check of today’s conversation:

Angela says that rapper, producer, and entrepreneur Shawn Carter — known professionally as Jay-Z — is high-status because he is married to the singer Beyoncé. While the couple’s relationship has certainly drawn a lot of attention, Jay-Z had a number of accomplishments under his belt before he became Mr. Beyoncé in 2008. At the time of the couple’s wedding, Carter had released eight number-one albums, been the president and C.E.O. of Def Jam Records, and founded the record label Roc-A-Fella Records and the entertainment agency Roc Nation.

Finally, Angela says that Mike is full of lots of, quote, “anodynes” like “first thought, second thought” that come out of his business head. She likely meant to say “adages” or “aphorisms.” An anodyne is a painkilling drug or medicine. For centuries, the term was commonly used to refer to things like opium, hemlock, and chloroform. So, saying that Mike’s head is ’“full of anodynes” portrays a vastly different image than Angela intended. That’s it for the fact-check.

Before we end today’s show, let’s hear some of your thoughts about last week’s episode on personal space.

Ruba AL-HASSANI:  Hi, my name is Ruba Al-Hassani. I am a postdoctoral researcher and sociologist examining Iraq and the Middle East. And when it comes to personal space, while Angela discussed the difference between hot parts of the world, and colder ones, I would argue that warmth or heat is not the case. It is a matter of individualistic versus collectivistic societies. Collectivistic societies put the collective over the individual, so everyone and anyone is invited into the space that an individualistic society would consider too personal. So, this has to do more with putting society first rather than oneself.

That was Ruba Al-Hassani. Thanks to her and to everyone who shared their experiences with us. And remember, we’d love to hear your stories about bragging! Send a voice memo to, and you might hear your voice on the show!

Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: Do ultimatums really work?

DUCKWORTH: Look, I’ve got 48 hours invested in this relationship and I just need to know, are we going to the altar or not?

That’s next week on No Stupid Questions.

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No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and The Economics of Everyday Things. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. Lyric Bowditch is our production associate. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne. We had research assistance from Daniel Moritz-Rabson. Our theme song was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Thanks for listening!

MAUGHAN: Hello, Angela. It is Michael Maughan. It’s a delight to talk to you today.

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