Hey there, and happy holidays. This time of year, we would usually put out a repeat but instead, we’ve got something new for you, and something different. This grew out of a friendship with Angela Duckworth, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. I first interviewed her a few years ago, about the book she had just written, called Grit.
Angela DUCKWORTH: I define grit as passion and perseverance for, especially, long-term goals.
She’s also founder and C.E.O. of the Character Lab, which tries to harness the science of grit, or character development, to help young people thrive in school and beyond. And then she launched another, even more ambitious project called Behavior Change for Good, and we talked about that on the show as well:
DUCKWORTH: The problem with human beings is that they’re human beings and that they repeatedly make decisions that undermine their own long-term well-being.
Duckworth was always so interesting, and fun, that we had her join us as a co-host for a bunch of live shows.
DUCKWORTH: So is it true, then, that picky eaters and hypochondriacs are more likely to be politically conservative?
One thing Angela does really well is ask interesting questions. And I admire that trait, since that’s what we try to do every week on this show. So I thought it might be fun to just sit down with her for a conversation, armed with nothing more than a question to ask each other. This happens to be one of my favorite hobbies, a mutual question-asking society. You never know where a conversation like this will go. More often than not, it leads to more questions, like Russian nesting dolls. And that is what you’re about to hear — a little matryoshka of a conversation. We had so much fun making this episode that we’re thinking about spinning this idea off into its own podcast, separate from Freakonomics Radio. You think that’s a good idea? After you’ve listened, write to firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know what you think — all feedback welcome, whether you like it, hate it, or feel profound indifference. And thanks so much for all your interest and attention over this past year. Every month, nearly 4 million people around the world listen to at least one episode of our show. I’m glad you’re one of them. Okay, on to this special episode of Freakonomics Radio. Happy holidays.
Stephen J. DUBNER: Angela Duckworth, question for you.
DUCKWORTH: All right, I’m ready.
DUBNER: Let’s say that you, personally, are granted one genie wish, but it’s multiple choice. You get to be in the top one percent, globally, in either grit or wealth or intellect.
DUBNER: Grit, wealth, intellect. And now this is— let’s say this is: you are who you are, but not really. In other words—
DUCKWORTH: I was just going to ask, are we talking about, “Then you’re going to be in the bottom 1 percent of the other ones?”
DUBNER: No, it’s not that. And it’s also—
DUCKWORTH: I just get to upgrade, in one dimension.
DUBNER: Yeah, let’s say that. Well, no, it’s tricky because you may already be—
DUCKWORTH: I think I’m pretty gritty.
DUBNER: You may already consider yourself— so let’s say no. Okay, let me rephrase the question. Not you, Angela Duckworth. You, person. Undefined.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. This is like the veil of ignorance.
DUBNER: Exactly. Who came up with that?
DUCKWORTH: It’s like John — is it Rawls?
DUCKWORTH: Rawls, I think.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. It’s either Locke or Rawls.
DUBNER: It doesn’t predate that? I thought it was like Ring of Gyges.
DUCKWORTH: Oh my— no. I think the veil of ignorance is within the last 200 years.
DUBNER: So let’s say you put on the veil of ignorance and you are a new entity and I say, “You, oh veiled one, get to be in the top one percent globally, forever, in either grittiness, intellect, or wealth. Which do you choose and why?” That’s really what I want to know is the why.
DUCKWORTH: Honest answer, but predictable answer: I would choose grit.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. So first of all, for wealth: I really just don’t have any desire to be in the top-whatever percent of wealth. And I’m sure you could do a lot of good with that wealth, but it’s just, it’s never been an appealing pursuit. So—
DUBNER: Maybe not for its own sake, but then—
DUCKWORTH: Instrumentally, though. I know you you’re saying you could do great good.
DUBNER: Or even if not great good, whatever the stuff you could hope to get with the grit or the intellect, couldn’t you get a lot easier with the wealth?
DUCKWORTH: I think there’s a huge difference. And my good friend — and you may know him — the psychologist, Barry Schwartz, has—
DUBNER: Paradox of choice?
DUCKWORTH: The paradox of choice guy. So, Barry Schwartz has something new that he’s really obsessed about, and it is intrinsic motivation — he calls it internal motivation, just to not be confused with what some people call intrinsic motivation. And basically he says if you have a garden and the garden is producing beautiful flowers and beautiful fruits and vegetables, and you tend to the garden, there is a kind of worth, value, and satisfaction that is derived that is different from if you pay a gardener.
DUCKWORTH: To do your garden. And I think there is something about earning your accomplishments that I don’t think wealth— because wealth is kind of instrumental. Oh, I could pay somebody to accomplish this great research. It’s different from doing it yourself.
DUBNER: Or— so I can’t say I don’t agree with you, or I can’t say that what you said—
DUCKWORTH: Because I think you wouldn’t have chosen wealth either, by the way.
DUBNER: Doesn’t resonate. But on the other hand, I could argue, well, if I’m at the upper end in wealth, then I could afford to have 10 different gardens that I would tend myself, and have all different kinds of experiments and experience to figure out. Let’s say I believe that the satisfaction that you just described, of producing it yourself, let’s say that that is the most valuable thing. Well, I’ve just increased my ability to have even more of that.
DUCKWORTH: I have a portfolio of garden investments.
DUBNER: Not just investments, but a portfolio of gardening opportunities.
DUCKWORTH: Opportunities that you would then tend.
DUCKWORTH: Although, it’s hard to tend 10 gardens.
DUBNER: Well, how do you know? You haven’t tried it. You’re not wealthy enough to have 10 gardens.
DUCKWORTH: That’s true. I’m not even wealthy enough to have one garden.
DUBNER: But you’re knocking out wealth.
DUCKWORTH: I’m knocking out wealth. But I’m not passing moral judgment on anybody who wants to be wealthy.
DUBNER: Intellect, you’re also knocking out. Now, we should say, you’re—
DUCKWORTH: That was the horse race. That’s where I was like, I don’t know.
DUBNER: And you’re a pretty smart cookie, I have to say.
DUCKWORTH: Thank you. Okay, so here’s what my husband would say of me. So my husband thinks that the great irony is that I have spent my entire professional career studying everything other than I.Q. In fact, my doctoral dissertation is called Non-I.Q. Predictors of Success. It’s got a hyphen in it. Non hyphen I.Q.
DUBNER: It should. Because it’s a compound adjective. You should hyphenate your compound adjectives.
DUBNER: So, if you have a high-school teacher, it should be high, hyphen, school, space, teacher. Otherwise you have a high school teacher.
DUCKWORTH: Yes, exactly. So, non-I.Q. So I study all these non-I.Q. things like grit and delayed gratification and growth mindset. The irony, my husband thinks, is that really I’m personally kind of obsessed with intelligence, and that I love it. And I wish I had more of it. And that I really enjoy people who are just wicked smart.
DUBNER: And do you seek out and accord higher status to people who are wicked smart, even if they don’t seem that high status in other realms?
DUCKWORTH: I really love talking to people who are fast.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Their brain — I know that’s not the only way to be smart — but just that their brain moves really quickly and you’re like, “Oh,” and then it doesn’t take them that long to process a thought and then move on to the next one. So he’s right about that. But I didn’t pick it — not just so I can be consistent with my brand. But I do think if it were, if— you made a multiple choice Stephen, so I can’t say that I wouldn’t want to be smarter, too. But in the long run, yeah. There are a lot of really smart people who don’t accomplish much. But in the long, long run, I don’t think there are that many people who are just the epitome of passion and perseverance who don’t do something.
DUBNER: Are you sure? I mean, isn’t the world full of people that we don’t know about despite the fact that they’ve been super-gritty and they’ve exercised, as you just ticked off, perseverance and passion, and yet didn’t, “accomplish” enough to become known?
DUCKWORTH: Well, this is the thing about multiple choices.
DUBNER: Oh, now you’re blaming the test.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I’m blaming the test. I’m blaming the test-maker. I’m blaming you, Stephen.
DUBNER: Sure, fair.
DUCKWORTH: So here’s the thing, though, because I think in a multiple choice where you’re forced to pick one, really on any of these, you could say, “Well, what if?” Because I think, actually, what we want to be in life — you, me and everyone else — is we probably want to be more than one thing. So you’re right, grit isn’t the only thing you need to be happy and successful. But if you have grit and good judgment or grit and humility, grit and a big heart. So you’re right, it’s not the only thing. But neither is intelligence the only thing. So there you go.
DUBNER: Sure. Yeah. Well, let me rephrase the question slightly, then. Think about the purpose, I guess, of life and what you think is the highest purpose. It doesn’t have to be one thing. What you believe to be—
DUCKWORTH: My highest purpose, you mean.
DUBNER: So let’s say that in order to successfully reach or fulfill that purpose as best as you can, which of the following, then, would be most useful in pursuit of said purpose: grit, intellect or money?
DUCKWORTH: Again, you’re making me pick one, which I get.
DUBNER: Well, but first, tell us what do you see as— what’s the purpose of life? What do you think—
DUCKWORTH: Oh, what is the purpose of my life?
DUCKWORTH: I’m just going to use that big qualifier there, because I don’t want to — it’s not for me to tell you about your life. I think the purpose of my life is to achieve something. In other words, I do not think that the purpose of my life is to do something like be the happiest person or have the most experiences. I remember distinctly the day I was taking a walk with my dad. I was young enough to still be holding his hand and looking up. So I don’t know how old I was, but I was a little girl. And I asked him— so I was old enough to ask him this question. I asked him if he was happy, and he stopped, because you— every time he had to answer a question, he would just stop walking. It was very annoying. We didn’t get very far, very many days. And he said, “Why would I want to be happy? I want to be successful.” So I do think I inherited my father’s sort of— life is about accomplishing something important. And for me, it’s: I want to help kids lead a healthy life. But I don’t really think like, “Oh, I want to— I haven’t been to that country. I want to see what that restaurant is like.” I just I don’t care that much about that kind of happiness.
DUBNER: And do you feel that you’re driven toward that kind of accomplishment out of generosity and good-heartedness? Or because, look, you’ve accomplished a lot in your life. Your C.V. reads like a track record of a successful person. Great institutions of learning, great accomplishments, etc. You have a job, etc. Nice family, etc. Is it that you want to help other people, like I said, out of generosity, altruism, or because you derive great pleasure — and even, dare I say, happiness — from the feeling of accomplishment?
DUCKWORTH: So Kant said, I think, that if you do something good because it brings you pleasure — because it feels good to do good — then it doesn’t count. And I remember when I learned this I was taking justice, moral reasoning. It was like my freshman year in college. And I remember thinking, like, what a guy thing to say. I feel like it’s such a, “Oh, if it’s not rational, and it’s not only because it’s a moral principle.” I actually think that a lot of our most benevolent and honorable motivations come from a kind of visceral— like it feels good. So when you asked me the question why do I care about kids? I really like them. I mean, give me a random kid. I just like them. Give me a random adult. I don’t know? I often like them, but not as often as I like kids.
DUBNER: Where do dogs lie on that scale?
DUCKWORTH: Oh, dogs are below kids. I’m really not a dog person.
DUBNER: But above adults?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, well, let’s see. Yeah, dogs might be somewhere in between. No, I kind of like adults. I think actually I like adults more.
DUBNER: And you like dogs the least.
DUCKWORTH: And cats? You didn’t ask me about cats. Cats are like right there below kids. I’m kind of—
DUBNER: Oh, so you’re just a cat person.
DUCKWORTH: Big cat person.
DUBNER: So I just ask you about the wrong animal.
DUCKWORTH: Exactly. Yeah.
DUBNER: Gotcha. So you like cats more than adults?
DUCKWORTH: Yes. Let it go on the record.
DUBNER: If an adult has a cat—
DUCKWORTH: Then I’d like them 10 times more.
DUCKWORTH: So I do get a lot of just, I don’t know, selfish enjoyment from being with kids and the idea that you could make some kids out there happier. So there’s— I don’t think it’s a purely— an unemotional motive.
DUBNER: I really appreciate that distinction you just made. And it makes me think back to the grit theory of life, which is without a passion for something, then it becomes a little bit of an accomplishment for accomplishment’s sake, or success for success’s sake.
DUCKWORTH: I mean, I think you can be a gritty person who’s using all your grit for bad. Let me just be clear. I don’t want to say—
DUBNER: Hitler was gritty.
DUCKWORTH: Yes. The canonical sort of— everyone rolls out Hitler as the example of like, “Oh, but then again, there was Hitler.” But in this case—
DUBNER: I’m sorry if my example is a cliché. Stalin was also gritty.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. Let’s take Stalin for a little variety. But no, seriously, I think in general one of the things that really motivates people to stay committed to something for a long time is feeling like you’re part of something bigger than yourself. Now, again, you can be misguided, but very often it is a kind of benevolent, “Oh, this isn’t just for me,” kind of motivation that also— it’s maybe not your only fuel, but it’s also one of the things that motivates you. So for me, yeah, I would pick grit because I feel like I would be able to achieve what I want to do with my life, which is to accomplish something for kids. Intelligence would also be awesome. If you made it two choices, of course, I’d pick intelligence probably as my second choice. But why don’t I just be the gritty person who gets all the smart people to work on this project? That’s what is basically my strategy in life.
* * *
DUCKWORTH: Stephen, I have a question.
DUBNER: Hit me.
DUCKWORTH: This is the question I could have studied in graduate school for psychology, but I took another path. And here it is: charisma. The other day, I was talking to my younger daughter, Lucy, and she said something about how you can’t teach charisma. Some people are naturally super charismatic and some people nobody wants to be with, and you can’t get from one end to the other. Do you think that charisma can be taught? I don’t know. You’ve interviewed a lot of people, who’s the most charismatic person you’ve ever met?
DUBNER: So I like the question. I could answer the “most charismatic people” part. That’s easy. But let me go back to the nature of the question. So the nature of the question is charisma — learned or inherent, correct? That’s the question.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, like, nature-nurture: charisma.
DUBNER: Okay, so in order to answer that, I would want to turn it around and ask you, how are we defining charisma? Because I have a definition in my head. But I want to know what yours is.
DUCKWORTH: All right, so I’ll go first and then you tell me yours, okay? So I think charisma is a kind of— almost like a magnetic force that draws people’s attention in a very positive way. So when we think of somebody who is really charismatic, it’s like you can’t take your eyes off them. And they’re the star. They sort of— it’s not like you can’t take your eyes off them and it’s terrible. It’s more like it’s a very admiring, and also almost an affectionate, kind of attention.
DUBNER: Yeah. I think that was a very good definition, better than I could do, because I was about to think that you were describing someone who could also be terrible, but then you saved it at the end by bringing in affection. It has to be positive. Well, I think we all know people who are charismatic, who have bad intentions.
DUCKWORTH: Well, I think Donald Trump is charismatic.
DUBNER: Oh, gosh. I mean, I think—
DUCKWORTH: Do you agree?
DUBNER: I think even the people who hate him the very most would agree.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Okay, so that’s what I mean. I’m not saying that I—
DUBNER: Gotcha. So, I like your definition much better than mine. Mine would be something like charisma as the quality of— someone having the quality that makes me want to do what they do or believe what they believe.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, so you want to emulate them?
DUBNER: It makes me want to emulate them in some way. So it’s a little bit different than an inspiration, but it makes— I define charisma as somebody who embodies or articulates a, whatever, an idea.
DUCKWORTH: Like a point of view?
DUBNER: A worldview. Yeah. That strikes me as like, “Yeah, that is—”
DUCKWORTH: So they’re persuasive. They’re like maximally persuasive in a way?
DUBNER: Well, not necessarily. Because, look, there are a lot of people who hate Trump as a president who describe him as charismatic, and plainly they’re not being persuaded.
DUCKWORTH: They’re not persuaded. That would be me. I don’t think he’s— yeah, he hasn’t persuaded me of very much. Okay, so other than Trump, let’s name some people that we think are super charismatic.
DUBNER: So, first of all, I’m really bad at fill in the blank. I’m better at multiple choice. But you asked me who I have interviewed that I think is charismatic, so I’ll name a few. Okay? Wynton Marsalis, the musician. Now, I happen to like his music and I happen to like him as a person, and I happen to like his story and what he does. And he was just— I just wanted to have a stool and carry the stool around and sit wherever he was.
DUCKWORTH: Follow him around?
DUBNER: Yeah. He has a spirit about him that I find joyful and challenging and large. And he has a way of dealing with bad things that people have said or done, too, that is very like, “Yeah. That was a crap thing. And that’s not my problem. I’m going to figure out how to do my thing well.” And I love that. Bill Clinton. I haven’t interviewed, but I interacted with him a few times. He has—
DUCKWORTH: Oh, if you Google it, because I have, I Googled it.
DUBNER: Charisma plus blank, and it’s Bill Clinton?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, well, you’re like, “Who is super charismatic?” or like, “Charismatic role models?” Or if you go on YouTube and you look for charisma videos. So you usually get like Will Smith, Bill Clinton. Actually, interestingly, they’re mostly men.
DUBNER: When I was thinking through just now, I was coming up with men and I had to, like actively turn on the search engine.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, you’re like, “Oh, wait. I have to think of some women.”
DUBNER: So I did think of a couple— well, let me finish my list, because Clinton, whatever. But I think a lot of politicians— I mean, that’s how they’re successful. Like Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles, that you and I both know a bit.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, my God. So charismatic.
DUBNER: Super charismatic. Also, the mayor of London, who we had on the show recently, Sadiq Khan, super charismatic. But again, I think there’s a strong overlap between charisma and electability.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. Yeah.
DUBNER: Probably not so surprising. Here’s someone I found super charismatic, even though he’s not vibrant, necessarily. Steven Spielberg.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, really? I don’t know him.
DUBNER: Because I found him — this was a long time ago, but I spent about a week with him, writing a piece about him. And I found him really remarkable in this sort of combination of — this is probably not quite right — but it felt like a combination of confidence and humility that made him appealing.
DUCKWORTH: So attractive. So appealing.
DUBNER: Super attractive.
DUCKWORTH: But now I feel like our definition is getting too big. Because now, I feel like we’re just like, “Oh, and I sure like Steven Spielberg.”
DUBNER: Either that or I never interview charismatic people. And truth be told, I think most people that would be characterized as charismatic are not the kind of people that we interview.
DUCKWORTH: I would agree with that. I don’t think you get many—
DUBNER: Except for you.
DUCKWORTH: Present company excluded. No, but I don’t think you get much mileage in academia by having charisma.
DUBNER: Well, that’s probably not true.
DUCKWORTH: I mean, I think you get a little bit. But here’s the thing. Here’s a narrower definition, because I don’t want it to just be people we like, or likability. I think that when most people think of charisma, they’re thinking about a public— public speaking, like TED or some other venue. Where it’s not just like you and Wynton Marsalis just happen to be at a coffee shop and he happens to be really— I mean, I know we use that word, charisma, also to describe those people. But in that case, then the question is what makes somebody who is in a kind of public role, really— why did Hillary Clinton— I think Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton are really good examples, because if you Google Hillary Clinton—
DUBNER: Do you think he did a charisma transplant in her sleep and stole hers?
DUCKWORTH: Well, okay. So you’re saying the same thing that everyone says, which is that he was naturally charismatic and she was the opposite.
DUBNER: I didn’t say “naturally,” by the way. But—
DUCKWORTH: I did. I did put that word— do you want to say it? It’s multiple choice.
DUBNER: I have no idea. I mean, I’ve read a fair amount about him. My sense is that he realized from a very early age what he wanted to do and figured out how to do it. And part of that was being charming. The first time I met him— like I said, I’ve interacted with him a few times in a—
DUCKWORTH: Just playing golf or something?
DUBNER: No. We actually, we were— I warmed up for him as a speaker several times a few years back. We had the same— I think we had the same lecture agent, maybe still do. And he was out speaking a lot and I was out speaking a lot. And sometimes we’d be part of the same—
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. You’d be on the docket together.
DUBNER: And the first time I met him, I came— this is an example of his charisma. I had just finished speaking. I came backstage and he was standing there.
DUBNER: And he was nice and kind and chatty, whatever. And then, check this out. He goes out to start his talk. And how does he start it? By complimenting me, the former speaker. He said something like, How about that Freakonomics? You’ve read the book. Now you’ve seen the movie. It was even better! Like a totally gratuitous— that made me feel good.
DUCKWORTH: It was warm. It was generous.
DUBNER: It was super generous. Yeah. So anyway, to me, that is like— that’s the fine line between charisma and what — what’s right before or after it? Because charisma— I just looked up the etymology. I don’t know how accurate this is. The English term charisma is from the Greek, which means “favor freely given” or “gift of grace.”
DUCKWORTH: Oh, that’s so interesting.
DUBNER: Which implies a sort of benevolence.
DUCKWORTH: Divinity too. Also, it implies a kind of— because if you imagine somebody who’s lower status than you being charismatic, it doesn’t feel right. It feels right for someone to be Oprah and charismatic, but not somebody who is—
DUBNER: Wait a minute. Go into— give me an example. What do you mean? Tell me—
DUCKWORTH: So, here’s my view of it. So, by the way, I was an intern in the White House during the Clinton administration. Actually, I believe it was the Monica Lewinsky summer.
DUBNER: What do you mean you believe it was? You know it was.
DUCKWORTH: Okay, I know it was. I know. I sound like a politician. Well, it may or may not have been the summer of Monica Lewinsky.
DUBNER: And how much did you interact with President Clinton?
DUCKWORTH: Well, I was in the speech-writing office and I penned a few of his very short remarks, including the address to the land-grant colleges. It was like an anniversary. And I did get to meet him once.
DUBNER: Can you give us a phrase?
DUCKWORTH: From his remarks?
DUBNER: From one of your speeches?
DUCKWORTH: On the anniversary of the land grant?
DUBNER: That was a big deal.
DUCKWORTH: I cannot recall verbatim, but I believe that he expressed his steadfast commitment to this great American tradition.
DUBNER: Wow, that’s juicy. Thanks for sharing that.
DUCKWORTH: I was like 20-something. I didn’t know what I was doing.
DUBNER: So you met him once?
DUCKWORTH: I met him. And even then— because now I feel like in some ways his reputation as the go-to charismatic role model has even become greater than it was during his presidency. And even then, everybody said, like, “Oh, gosh, all you have to do is be in the same room as Bill Clinton for a minute and you’ll fall in love.”
DUBNER: So one thing that people say about him and many other people who are, “charismatic,” is that when you’re talking to them, they make you feel as if you’re the only person in the room.
DUCKWORTH: Yes. And I think he did have that kind of rapt attention. I will say that when I met him, it was something like all of 12 seconds. He thanked me. He shook my hand. He took both hands in his hand, he used both of his hands to shake my hand.
DUBNER: Did he kiss you on the lips?
DUCKWORTH: He did not kiss me, I was not his favorite intern, I guess. But he does look you in the eye. And he did do something— now, I may be conflating this with YouTube videos I subsequently watched on how to be charismatic, because like I said, I find this just interesting as a scientist. He— you make eye contact. And it feels like he just wants to keep looking at you. And that you look away. Like he can’t take his eyes off—
DUBNER: And his eyes are so intense that you just can’t stay locked on because you’re afraid you’ll melt?
DUCKWORTH: I can’t say. But I tried this out. So I’m watching these YouTube videos. Now, this is fast forwarding many years, like a couple decades later. And it was actually doing my book tour, and I was sort of both interested in charisma, but also I was like, “Oh, when you’re signing books for a line of people where you can only interact with people for like six or seven seconds, what advice do you have?” So I’m Googling charisma. And here’s something that I found on YouTube. Again, this is not validated scientific fact. But it said, for example, when you’re in a receiving line, don’t look away. They’re eventually going to look away, but don’t be the first one to look away. And I do think that’s all about signaling to somebody, like, “I want to be here. You are the object of my fascination. There’s nothing else I want to do but listen to what you’re going to say next.”
DUBNER: So did you learn to sign their book while looking at them?
DUCKWORTH: No, but I did try to actually not look away because I thought — well, first of all, I wanted to try it and see. And I do feel like it was one of those nonverbal cues of respect. Okay, think about the opposite. You know how people— I remember this when I was in college, there would be certain people that you’d have breakfast with and you’re in the cafeteria and they’re kind of looking over your shoulder to see if there’s someone better to talk to — I hate that. And this is just the opposite of that. So you’re really just paying respect to the person.
DUBNER: And did you also— I mean, if you have six or seven seconds you obviously have to be very efficient — did you also say their names when they left or—
DUCKWORTH: You mean like the Dale Carnegie effect?
DUBNER: Exactly. The Power of Pos— wait, not The Power of Positive Thinking.
DUCKWORTH: How To Win Friends & Influence People. So the Dale Carnegie effect, where you say someone’s name, Stephen. Do I do that? Well, I think Dale Carnegie was right about a lot of things. And I think he’s right about this one, which again, all you’re doing is you’re giving somebody a cue that they matter. And I think a lot of charisma is this person really thinks that you matter, but it’s only half of the equation. I think you also have to signal that you’re high-status. So, it’s kind of like I like you and the world likes me.
DUBNER: So what do you do if you’re not high-status?
DUCKWORTH: Well, I remembered figuring this out in third grade a little bit for myself, because we moved. So we moved from one side of town to the other. My dad got promoted. And I actually think there were railroad tracks, so maybe it’s like the wrong side of the tracks to the right side of the tracks. And it was January. And it’s in the middle of the school year. So I had to make friends. And this new, kind of posher neighborhood where the kids were wearing designer jeans. I was just like, well, how do I— I just actually had that problem. Because I had these frugal parents. I wasn’t wearing designer jeans. I was the new kid. There wasn’t anything especially awesome about me. I wasn’t very athletic. So, I remember explicitly thinking out loud — I think even maybe wrote it in my diary — to make friends you just need to communicate two things: I like you and I like me. So, if you want to communicate “I like you.” Eye contact, mention their name, be interested in what they’re saying. How do you signal “I like me?” Which is really a proxy for “the world likes me.” That actually is a little more nuanced. But I think that smiling, or basically not being self-deprecating— maybe things like posture help. But I think the most effective way to do it is for somebody else to signal that you’re high-status, or that the world likes you.
DUBNER: So you pay people to treat you as if you’re better than you are? Is that what you’re saying?
DUCKWORTH: That would be one way. Yeah. I didn’t have a lot of pocket money when I was in third grade.
DUBNER: How did you signal as a third-grader, then, that you liked yourself?
DUCKWORTH: I mean, the thing is— first of all, I did. Just— I was pretty happy.
DUBNER: So you just put the humility out there—
DUCKWORTH: I just was like letting it all hang out. And I think I was happy. I mean, I think that the people who walk around the world and they do signal those two things — and I’m not saying it’s a recipe to follow — but I do think if you just notice the people that are attractive, it is so often that they make you feel like you’re great. And they also seem to have like a healthy self-esteem.
DUBNER: Let me ask you one last thing on the topic of charisma. Is charisma a, not finite, but limited resource, in that again—
DUCKWORTH: Like it runs out?
DUBNER: Well, no, not quite. But is it— is it not quite a zero-sum issue, but like if there is a group of 20 people, how many people can—
DUCKWORTH: How can —
DUBNER: Because if everybody is charismatic, then isn’t nobody charismatic?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I do think there is something about when people are like, “Oh, they stole the show.” I think that we use that language because there is a kind of exclusivity about charisma. And that’s why I say there’s something about status. Like, I met the prince — Prince Charles. I was very young, I was in my 20s. And I think for him to be charismatic— he already had the high-status part. So he had half the equation just by birth, and by everyone else treating him the way they were treating him. All he needed to do is the second part of the equation, which is when he’s with you, to be completely rapt— to be just totally fascinated by what you’re going to say. And he pulled it off. I will say he was genuinely charismatic. So I think there is a like, how many Prince Charleses can there be in the room? Like, the moment a king walks in and he’s no longer the highest-ranking person.
DUBNER: That’s so interesting. And I never thought of stealing the show in that way. Because if you gain, somebody loses. So it is maybe not zero sum, but— so if people listening to this want to have more charisma, is the easiest way to just surround yourself with people with really low charisma?
DUCKWORTH: The contrast effect? I don’t know, because you’re also trying to signal that the world loves you. So I like you and the world likes me. Those are the two parts of the equation. This is my little proto-theory. So if you really were someone that the world liked — why would you be hanging out with losers?
DUBNER: I like it. I like it how we went from nice, low-charisma, people to losers.
DUCKWORTH: I know. Look at that. Me being all high-status and all that. Maybe not the most charismatic thing to say.
Thanks for listening to this little stocking stuffer of an episode with Angela Duckworth. So … do you think we should do this more often, as its own, separate podcast? Let us know by writing to email@example.com.
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FREAKONOMICS RADIO is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Alison Craiglow. Our staff also includes Greg Rippin, Zack Lapinski, Daphne Chen, Harry Huggins, Matt Hickey, and Corinne Wallace. We had help this week from James Foster. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
- “Intelligence is Not Enough: Non-I.Q. Predictors of Achievement,” by Angela Duckworth (University of Pennsylvania Libraries, 2006).
- Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, by Angela Duckworth.
- The Paradox of Choice, by Barry Schwartz.
- How to Win Friends & Influence People, by Dale Carnegie.
- “Would You Eat a Piece of Chocolate Shaped Like Dog Poop?” Freakonomics Radio (2019).
- “Could Solving This One Problem Solve All the Others?” Freakonomics Radio (2019).
- “How to Get More Grit in Your Life” Freakonomics Radio (2016).