DUCKWORTH: Don’t think too hard, Stephen. Your forehead will fall off.
* * *
DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.
DUCKWORTH + DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.
Today on the show: If everyone hates meetings, why do we have so many of them?
DUCKWORTH: What am I paying all these minions for anyway?
Also: Why does modern adolescence last well into a person’s twenties?
DUBNER: When you and I were in our 20s, they didn’t have cars, they didn’t have oxygen, even.
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DUCKWORTH: Stephen, here’s an email we got from a John Binion in Baton Rouge. Are you ready for it? “Stephen and Angela, I, like many others, tend to find myself attending more and more meetings of late. It seems to me that the attendee list for these meetings has gotten longer and longer. I have noticed that no matter how many people are in attendance, there are usually only three or four people actively participating in the meeting, while everyone else is remaining silent. Is there a reason why otherwise talkative people tend to get quiet in meetings with a lot of other people in them? Is there a recognized sweet spot for meeting attendance? And finally, why do we pay to have extra people in meetings who aren’t going to participate?”
DUBNER: Wow, John’s getting a lot for his money. Three questions he’s asking, for the price of one. So, in terms of the first one, why do, quote, “otherwise talkative people” get quiet in meetings? I don’t know if that’s so much of a mystery. I guess my mind goes to the fact that it’s a different format. Just being talkative doesn’t mean that you’re willing or able to present and comment on new information, which is what a meeting is sort of supposed to be. But also, larger groups, we know, discourage participation. I don’t think that’s surprising to anybody. One thing that I learned from a dog-cognition expert is that dyadic interaction — a dyad, two — is much, much, much different than even three. So, let’s say you’re at a party. Let’s say it’s a wedding celebration, and you’re having a lovely conversation with the uncle of the bride.
DUCKWORTH: Hmm. That is a very common wedding scenario.
DUBNER: The old uncle of the bride, one-on-one. And you’re just having a great time talking about whatever — the wedding, the weather, your shared interests. And then, let’s say your spouse comes up. This is a person that you love. But all of a sudden, three’s a crowd. It’s not the same conversation anymore. And it might be better, but let’s be honest, it’s usually worse. Now, the reason I got to thinking about this is because my dog-cognition friend, Alexandra Horowitz, who’s a cognitive scientist at Barnard, who runs a dog-cognition lab — I had never thought about it until she observed it in dog play. Dogs are really good at playing one-on-one. She’s observed all this language that goes on among dogs, some of it vocalized, a lot of it just physical. But the minute the third dog comes in — they’re like, “Oh, yeah. How’re you doing?” — the intimacy disappears. And so when we think about a meeting as if it’s just a bunch of people getting together to have a conversation about something, it’s a totally different level of engagement. And so that, I think, is one reason why, as John wonders, otherwise talkative people get quiet in meetings. And I think one of the worst things about meetings is that they do nothing to encourage quiet people to participate. And if there’s anything we know, it’s that people who tend to be quiet are not necessarily bad at having good ideas. In fact, it might be the other way around.
DUCKWORTH: Right. They’re thinking instead of yabbering.
DUBNER: So, one thing that meetings do, I believe, is conspire against generating, quote, “good ideas” because they’re really dominated by noisy people. And noisy people aren’t necessarily the ones who have the best ideas.
DUCKWORTH: I had this thought, actually, Stephen, back in the old days when we had Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, and there would be someone who wants us to guess this fun fact that they knew, we were supposed to interact as a triad. And I told you I find this very awkward. It’s not that I don’t know how to talk, or I don’t know how to listen. It’s just the dynamics, right? Like, “Oh, is Stephen about to say something? Maybe I should let him finish his thought.” Sometimes psychologists talk about the spotlight of the conversation, it’s on one person or the other. Like the microphone of the conversation, it goes back and forth. That’s very easy to keep track of when there are only two of you, either you have it or the other person. The moment another person enters the scene, it’s complex. There’s older research on this. It was, like, the 1970s. Richard Hackman — very, very famous professor of organizational psychology — was at Harvard. He did this study of group size and people doing different tasks, like problem-solving on something in the lab. And he randomly assigned them to be in groups of two, three, four, five, six, seven. And the question was: Whose group is happiest? Do you want to make a guess, maybe based on your dog-cognition experience?
DUBNER: At the risk of being internally inconsistent, I will have to stick with my two. I’m pro-dyad. I’m anti-triadist and quadrad-ist and pentagrad-ist.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I was going to say quin/pent — I don’t know how far we can go.
DUBNER: So, I’ll go for two.
DUCKWORTH: That’s right. The finding was that when you’re in a group of just two of you, you’re going to be happier overall. And I don’t think the point of this research was about which groups actually perform better. It’s just, are you happier?
DUBNER: Okay, to be fair, John is asking a question about meetings which are inherently — as much as you and I both might be dyadists at heart, in some circumstances, the point of a meeting is different, right? We’re not there, theoretically, to have fun. We’re there to, God knows, do what.
DUCKWORTH: Get something done.
DUBNER: But the sweet spot for meeting attendance, in terms of size — I do know, and you probably know too, Jeff Bezos’s famous two-pizza rule and the secret to Amazon’s success. So, he had a rule that every internal team — I’m reading from a piece from The Guardian by Alex Hern — “Every internal team should be small enough that it can be fed with two pizzas.” Now, if you have some very hungry people, that might only be three or four people in the meeting. But then, here’s a piece I’m looking at from the Harvard Business Review. This is by the H.B.R. editors. It’s called “How To Know If There Are Too Many People in Your Meeting.” And they come up with a rule called the 8-18-1,800 rule. Have you ever heard of this rule?
DUCKWORTH: I have not heard of that rule.
DUBNER: Their argument is, if the meeting’s goal is to actually solve a problem or make a decision, you don’t invite more than eight people. That’s the eight. If the goal is to brainstorm, then you can go up to 18. And if the goal is simply to, as they put it, “rally the troops,” you can go for 1,800 or more. So, that’s the 8-18-1,800 rule.
DUCKWORTH: I think the 1,800 is supposed to just give you the gestalt of a lot of people, like a town square.
DUBNER: I think that’s true. But I find John’s third question the most pungent, or maybe plangent, or maybe pointed, which is “why pay”? This is an interesting way he phrases it: “Why do we pay to have extra people in meetings who aren’t going to participate?” So that suggests that John is coming at this from the perspective of the boss or someone who’s responsible for that.
DUCKWORTH: “What am I paying all these minions for anyway? They haven’t said a word in the last four meetings.”
DUBNER: So, I think you could broaden John’s question to, like, “Why do we have so many meetings, period?” And there’s a ton of research and survey data showing that just about everyone agrees that most people have too many meetings. And yet, meetings are not declining. So, can we talk about that? Why do you think that is?
DUCKWORTH: When you have to have a conversation about something, it’s like, what else are you going to do, right? Like, “Hey, we probably need to make new rules about how we’re going to process these applications.” Or, “We have to figure out what our objectives are for the fourth quarter.” There are, I guess, other modalities that you could use. Like, I could send a long email, or I could make a video, but otherwise, I think the meeting is the communication mechanism for groups of people to get together. It is the default.
DUBNER: Status-quo bias sets in. “We should have meetings because that’s what we do.”
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. And for me, anyway, I have wondered whether it’s better or worse to have standing meetings.
DUBNER: When you say “standing meetings,” you mean “the Tuesday status-report meeting.” Not standing up.
DUCKWORTH: Not standing up. They’re already in your calendar. And the reason why they’re in your calendar is because you don’t want to spend a meeting just to figure out when the next meeting is. There’s an efficiency to having a meeting that’s regularly expected every other week on Thursday at three o’clock. But then the problem is, you just fill that time. It just gets eaten up with conversation and then it feels very inefficient. So, I think there’s this love-hate relationship that we have, or maybe it’s not even love-hate. It’s just tolerate-hate. But what else are we going to do?
DUBNER: Well, before I attack meetings more, let me defend them for a minute. I think there are many reasons why we have too many meetings. And as you just said, it is a sort of status-quo bias. We don’t think we have a better way to do the thing we’re trying to accomplish, even though we may have better ways. But the other thing that I think we overlook is that meetings can be fun, in that they’re social, but they’re not just social, they’re also easy.
DUCKWORTH: What do you mean?
DUBNER: They don’t require you to actually think very hard. They’re basically a lunch break without the food, although many meetings have food. So, I think that a lot of people look forward to meetings as an opportunity to see other people, socialize a little bit, and as a bit of a respite from actual work.
DUCKWORTH: You’re thinking of them as small vacations in the middle of your day.
DUBNER: This sounds, I guess, a little bit cynical. But, there is a defense of meetings which says that they give us social interaction. They help keep people in the loop. They can elevate your status. The only thing worse than having to attend a meeting is not being invited to the meeting. But I think a lot of it has to do with the power dynamic of who’s calling the meeting. So, this is where I would go back to where I read maybe between the lines in John’s questions about why are we paying to have all these extra people in meetings who aren’t going to participate. It turns out that the science of meeting-holding speaks very loudly to the fact that the people who have the most leverage in the organizations are the ones who arrange the meetings, right?
DUCKWORTH: Makes sense.
DUBNER: And then, that gets us to what has been called the maker-manager split. I don’t know if you ever thought about it in those terms?
DUCKWORTH: No. What’s the maker-manager split?
DUBNER: So, I read a wonderful essay years ago by a computer programmer and venture capitalist named Paul Graham. I wrote about it on Freakonomics.com years ago. I think the blog post I wrote was called “Read This If You Hate Meetings,” because it gives ammunition. And Paul Graham writes that the world is basically divided into two kinds of people: managers and makers. This is especially for professional categorization, but it might even work outside of professions. “There are two types of schedule,” he writes, “which I’ll call the manager’s schedule and the maker’s schedule. The manager’s schedule is for bosses. It’s embodied in the traditional appointment book with each day cut into one-hour intervals.” In other words, for them, a meeting, even every hour, means that they’re being, quote, “productive.” “Most powerful people are on the manager’s schedule. But there’s another way of using time,” he writes, “that’s common among people who make things, people like programmers and writers.” And I would add to that what you do: an academic, a researcher, an inventor. He writes, “They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day, at least. You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started. When you are operating on the maker’s schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon by breaking it into two pieces, each too small to do anything hard in.” When I read that from Paul Graham, it just resonated to me like the voices of angels finally singing the truth. And I realize it’s really a question of incentives here. If the incentive of the manager is to hold a meeting so that they can feel like they’re accomplishing what is on their productivity checklist, but if it conspires against actual productivity by roping in the makers to waste their time, then that’s a real problem. And I’m sure that doesn’t describe every meeting or even a majority of meetings, but I think it’s a big, big problem.
DUCKWORTH: Are you a maker or a manager in terms of your own calendar?
DUBNER: This is a very sore spot for me.
DUCKWORTH: I bet you are a maker at heart, but a manager in reality.
DUBNER: Well, I’m a reluctant — and, I think, terrible — manager. I get impatient and cranky, because I just want to do the work. I don’t like to talk about how the work will be done, and that’s what a lot of our meetings are. So, maybe you can help me.
DUCKWORTH: You know, I was getting advice from Danny Kahneman about my time. And Danny Kahneman said, “Well, on Thursdays you’re out of the country.” And it took me a beat to figure out, like, what the heck he was talking about. He’s like, “Well, you’re not available on Thursday. You’re out of the country.” And I was like, “No, I’m not. How could I be out of the country just for one day?” And the point was — because I’m a little slower than Danny Kahneman — that you should have as sacred certain full days where you are effectively out of everyone else’s reach. In that time, you can be creative, you can sustain your concentration. For about a week, I think, I was like, “I’m going to be in France on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and you can’t talk to me.” But then, of course, someone is like, “I really need to talk.” And I’m like, “Okay, except for 9:00, then I’ll be in Philadelphia. But after that, I’m in France! I’m in France from 10:00 am on.” And so, you know, it just encroached. And I absolutely have a manager’s schedule. I mean, my day is broken up into like 15-minute meetings, 30-minute meetings. I don’t even have a buffer between my meetings.
DUBNER: Angie, it hurts my heart to even hear you say that.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, it’s terrible.
DUBNER: But you’re a maker, too! You’re a thinker. You’re a researcher.
DUCKWORTH: Maybe I need a better manager to help me make more of a maker’s schedule.
DUBNER: One reason that I get up early is that I can have, essentially, a workday — or at least half a workday — before other people are working.
DUCKWORTH: How early are we talking, Stephen?
DUBNER: You know, not crazy early compared to many people, but I usually get up between 4:30 and 5:30.
DUCKWORTH: Oh my God!
DUBNER: Okay, I guess it’s a little early.
DUBNER: But the reason is — first of all, I need some time to wake up, to have coffee—
DUCKWORTH: Especially when it’s 4:30 in the morning.
DUBNER: But then, let’s say by 6:00 or 6:15, my brain is pretty in gear. And then I find that if I have until roughly 10:00, that’s a lovely chunk of time when it’s being encroached upon very little. Now, for me, that’s doable. I like getting up early. I don’t know whether it’s biological or nurture.
DUCKWORTH: It’s partly biological.
DUBNER: I’m a farm boy. That’s when we woke up. But on days when I’m so exhausted that I sleep through the alarm ’till like 7:00 or 7:30, I feel like the ship has sailed.
DUCKWORTH: You sleep through dawn.
DUBNER: The day is over.
DUCKWORTH: Right. You may as well go back to bed.
DUBNER: It’s a disaster.
DUCKWORTH: I don’t wake up as early as you do, but I like that idea of having some time without meetings. Now, we have kind of sidestepped the question of what the ideal meeting size is, unless we’re going to say zero?
DUBNER: Well, the Harvard Business Review people like eight.
DUCKWORTH: That sounds like three or four people too many. There’s something about eight that just sounds like — well, look, you divide the number of minutes of time you have by eight and now there’s really not a lot of time for anybody to say much. So, I prefer meetings to be on the smaller end. And, like we said at the beginning, I prefer one-on-one interaction much more to group interaction.
DUBNER: I will say this: The one standing, scheduled, weekly meeting that we have for the Freakonomics Radio Network is with four other people and me, so that’s five. And I find that is a very workable number, primarily because whenever we need to hear from everyone, or come up with a solution or essentially vote on something, it’s a really good number to survey everyone, and then, if there’s dissent, work it out. And I really like that. Whereas, once you get to six or seven or eight, that just becomes not only a time-suck, but tactically a little bit difficult, in that people don’t want to repeat what someone else said. So they might try to come up with something original, which takes more time and wastes more time.
DUCKWORTH: So, we’re going to argue for a number lower than eight when it comes to the magic meeting number. Yes?
DUBNER: Yeah. Let’s say two.
DUCKWORTH: Why mince words?
DUBNER: Now that we’ve narrowed it down to two, Angela, I feel we did a decent job answering John’s questions, but I think there’s much more to be said. So, how about you and I have a meeting later to go over that?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, but let’s not invite John. Three’s a crowd.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela break down why your twenties are such challenging years.
DUBNER: This existence means what? I can’t tell. Maybe it means nothing.
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DUBNER: Angela, we got an email a while back from a listener named Lily. In May, Lily wrote the following: “Is it human nature to feel lost in your 20s? Or do you think this existentialism is caused by modern society or social pressures? Do you think today’s 20-somethings have it harder than previous generations?” We never answered that question. But Lily, showing a little bit of grit, wrote back just the other day to remind us that we never answered her question. And she posed a related question, which is the following: “I was talking with some of my other 23- to 25-year-old No Stupid Questions fans yesterday. And we all agree it would be amazing for you both to talk about your experiences at this age. We would love to know your thoughts on how your experience as 20-somethings compare to the modern 20-something.” Because, of course, when you and I were in our 20s, they didn’t have cars, they didn’t have oxygen, even.
DUCKWORTH: So, back in the old days, when we were young—
DUBNER: Yeah, when you were in your 20s, did you feel lost? I have to say, when I read Lily’s email, I thought, “If there’s someone in the world I know who probably wasn’t lost in their 20s, it was Angie.”
DUCKWORTH: Stephen, I was so lost. I had no map. I had no compass. When I first graduated from college, I started a summer school for kids. And I was completely into it, but I knew, even then, that I wasn’t going to run a summer school for kids forever. And I wasn’t sure what was going to come next. Then I went to Oxford for a couple of years, and I would absolutely categorize myself as lost then.
DUBNER: But Oxford is a pretty good place to be lost. Not just good. I mean, it’s a pretty directed “lostness,” I would say.
DUCKWORTH: Aesthetically, it’s a good place to be lost. The spires of these Gothic buildings against the rose-hued sky — it just feels appropriately dramatic to wander around and feel sorry for yourself about, you know, you don’t know what you want to do with your life, which is what I spent a lot of time there doing. I ended up doing neuroscience, and I, even then, knew I wasn’t going to probably become a neuroscientist, per se. Like, I wasn’t going to study neurons and do computational modeling. So, it was like, “What am I doing?” Then I came back to the United States. I did management consulting. I did teaching. I worked for a nonprofit. I was really unhappily without a clear sense of direction. So, I hope that makes Lily feel better.
DUBNER: I totally believe you, but let me unpeel it a little bit. It sounds to me like you were a smart, comma, ambitious, comma, education or information-hungry person who was trying to figure out what was the best route. And that, to me, doesn’t sound lost. That, to me, sounds like you’re experimenting and searching. But when I think of lost, especially because Lily used the word “existential,” to me, it sounds like she’s saying, “We are here. We’re on the borderline, or just over the borderline, of adulthood. Maybe we’re out of college, if we went to college.” And like, “What the heck do we do?” That sounds a little bit more like what Lily is describing.
DUCKWORTH: Is that what existentialism is? What is existentialism?
DUBNER: Well, “What’s the point of life?” “What the hell am I doing here?”
DUCKWORTH: Like, is there any meaning? Is there any purpose? Is there any blueprint? Or does it mean nothing?
DUBNER: Right. This existence means what? I can’t tell. Maybe it means nothing.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I didn’t have that kind of existential angst. I was more like, “Shit, I really wish I knew what I was doing.”
DUBNER: But let me ask you this. What happens, let’s say, between 20 and 25 developmentally in the brain? Is the brain done? Is it fully baked by then?
DUCKWORTH: We know that the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is, if you put your hand on your forehead, that’s that part of the brain.
DUBNER: Oh, I feel it moving just like a baby kicking. Does that mean I’m thinking hard?
DUCKWORTH: Don’t think too hard, Stephen. Your forehead will fall off. But if you look at other primates like orangutans and chimpanzees, their foreheads are not nearly as big as ours are, relatively. Their heads tend to just slope right back. And that’s because the prefrontal cortex, which is, by comparison, enormous in human beings, is phylogenetically the last to have evolved. And over the course of the lifespan, the consensus is that the prefrontal cortex is the last part of the brain to mature. Unlike the visual system, which is pretty much online, you know? It’s like, you’re born, the visual system doesn’t take long to be ready to go. The prefrontal cortex — which is in charge of higher-level decision making, what’s called “executive control,” also some higher-order reasoning — that seems to be maturing well into your 20s, albeit at a slowing rate. So, you know, we take a long time to hatch, us people.
DUBNER: So, in defense of Lily and her friends, let’s just talk about the reality of what it means to be in one’s 20s now, because I think that is really fundamentally different than it has been — maybe not in your and my generation, but maybe going back especially another generation—
DUCKWORTH: Even older than us.
DUBNER: Even older. Right. Because if you go back a half-century or a century, you were expected to be halfway done by the time you’re in your twenties, right? I mean, life expectancy is a funny thing. The life expectancy numbers have changed, you know, they doubled over the twentieth century, which is nuts. But it’s not like a lot of people were dying in their 20s, 30s, 40s. It was that so many children died.
DUCKWORTH: And it makes the mean look like it’s doubled.
DUBNER: Exactly. Once you got to 30 or 40, you had a pretty good chance of making it to 60, 70, whatever. People did live somewhat shorter, but really the chapters of life were really different.
DUCKWORTH: Married much earlier.
DUBNER: Yeah, have you looked at the age of first marriages in the U.S. over the past 50 years?
DUCKWORTH: It’s got to be getting later, and later, and later.
DUBNER: This really surprised me, that it’s been this drastic. If you go back to 1950 roughly, it looks like the median age at first marriage for women was 20 years old.
DUCKWORTH: Holy schmoly.
DUBNER: Maybe 20 and a half, but not 21.
DUCKWORTH: That’s cray cray. The median age for men at that point looks to have been, I’m just looking at a graph, a little over 22. Now, as of 2020, it’s 28 for women and 30 for men.
DUCKWORTH: Which also varies by socioeconomic status, I bet. I’m guessing that your typical No Stupid Questions listener, the average is actually higher.
DUBNER: I would guess that, too. So, even if that were the only change in society since the pre-Lily era and the Lily era, we’d have to say, “Well, that’s a huge change.”
DUCKWORTH: Almost a decade.
DUBNER: And it’s not only like family formation is happening later, think about all the stuff that happens in your 20s. Society has changed, and if you want to have a really good career, you need more education. So, more and more people are staying in school longer.
DUCKWORTH: All these people are going to college that used to not go to college.
DUBNER: Especially women. And so, the first thing I would say to Lily is, “There is a lot going on in that decade now.”
DUCKWORTH: Right. Scientists typically say that adolescence is marked by the onset of biological changes like puberty. But the offset, like, when does adolescence end, actually is not a biological marker, but a social one. It’s the assumption of adult roles. And by so many metrics, adolescence is longer than it is for our forbearers. There is a consensus among scientists who study human development that this time in our 20s, where we have not yet taken on the, quote-unquote, “adult roles” of marrying, but mostly, like, family formation, having children, settling down into some kind of career that has some stability to it — that these roles are being adopted, as your data suggests, maybe a decade later than they used to be. And that’s a pretty seismic shift over a relatively short span of history. So, is it true? Yes. Adolescents, especially in the United States where a lot of this research is happening, are absolutely staying adolescent longer than they were 50 or 100 years ago. And by the way, the science of this is that the more privileged you are, the longer your adolescence is. So, one of the markers of poverty is early adolescence. You go through puberty faster. And the evolutionary explanation is if you’re in a threatening environment without a lot of resources, you should procreate. Like, quick, have a baby, who knows what’s going to happen before you get erased?
DUBNER: It’s so interesting. When we got this email from Lily, I was talking about it with my daughter, Anya, who’s not quite in her 20s yet. She’s a college student. I think she’s 19. I probably should know that.
DUCKWORTH: Yes, Anya is 19.
DUBNER: The thing is, your kids change ages every year. And we’re expected to keep up with that? I mean, come on. That’s a lot of parenting.
DUCKWORTH: Yes, I agree. It’s completely irksome.
DUBNER: But she made the point how cultural it is. So, yeah, a lot of young people are, if not lost, then not committed to a direction in life yet. But then, she was telling me about how in different countries, not so different from the U.S., the culture just dictates differently. So, she was talking about how even in a country like France, you take an academic test that determines what kind of profession you’ll have, to some degree. And this certainly happens in other countries, whereas in the U.S., we have such a wide-open slate of options to pursue. It did make me wonder if being overwhelmed by choice, the sort of paradox of choice, is at work. Even you had that way back in your generation, right? You didn’t know whether it was neuroscience, education —
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I didn’t know what I was going to do for my career. And, obviously, 200 years ago, women might not be having any choices about that. But let’s take a typical young-adult man. You would have so few choices. Like, “My dad was a blacksmith. I’m going to be a blacksmith.”
DUBNER: We do know from a lot of psychological research that uncertainty is unsettling. We make poor decisions under uncertainty, correct?
DUCKWORTH: There’s certainly a lot of evidence that uncertainty is aversive. Like, we have evolved not to like uncertainty and to try to move toward more certainty.
DUBNER: So, one might see the upsides of modern society saying, “Look at all the options you have,” but the downside could be, well, with so many options comes additional uncertainty. The thing about Lily’s email that makes me a little sad is — I hear what she’s saying about all that uncertainty, and unsettledness, and feeling of lostness. On the other hand, I think of the 20s as the best decade, honestly, in modern society.
DUCKWORTH: Was it your best decade?
DUBNER: For me? No, it was terrible.
DUCKWORTH: See? Samesies!
DUBNER: My 20s were fairly volatile in that there was just a lot of change. So, I finished college. And I was playing in this band. Loved, loved, loved the band. It was my entire identity, life, passion. And then, the further we got toward putting on our first record, the more I thought about, “What do I want to do with my life, and is this it?” And the answer one night came back, “no.” Like, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I did know — literally these words “not this” were embedded in my mind. That was really, really hard. I quit the band. It was a big restart. I went to grad school. So, for me, it was a turbulent period where I was trying to reset goals, establish relationships with an entirely new universe of people. I can’t say it was smooth and happy, but it was thrilling because life was unspooling at this incredibly rapid rate. In a sense, I feel that’s what Lily is experiencing: moment by moment, you’re not settled. You’re not certain. You don’t know how you’re going to feel about your life — forget about a year from now, a minute from now. And so I get all the downsides of that. But — this is much easier in retrospect — I do feel like that crucible is really part of what life is meant to be. And so I guess if I were to offer counsel to Lily, it would be to embrace that crucible, the uncertainty, knowing that the confusion and the unsettlement that can come with that will ultimately get you to where you want to go and make you stronger, even if it means being often, unfortunately, miserable in the moment.
DUCKWORTH: You know, there’s more personality change that happens in your 20s and to some extent your early 30s than at any other time during adult development. You are changing a lot. And the good news, Lily, is that for the most part, when scientists look at data on personality change, the traits are getting better. Like, you’re more emotionally stable over time. You’re more dependable. You have a better sense of your goals. There are obviously exceptions to these trends. But all of that change, I mean, think about it as growing pains maybe. It’s like psychological growing pains. It’s so interesting, because you look at these young people and you’re like, “Oh, my God, if I had the energy that you have.” But I will absolutely confirm that I am so much happier at 51 than I was in my 20s.
DUBNER: Fair enough. It is true that they say youth is wasted on the young.
DUCKWORTH: It so is.
DUBNER: But, you could make an argument why it should be your best decade, because you’ve got the benefits of adulthood. You’ve got the independence. You don’t have the obligations that come later. And you’re getting to set the course for your life for the next 30, 40, 70, 80 — who knows, by the time Lily’s older, maybe 200 years. So, I do wonder how much of this is literally about perspective and whether the degree of uncertainty is so unsettling that we fail to appreciate just what a fertile moment in our individual history it is. So, in terms of a prescription for Lily and her friends, if we really haven’t persuaded you, Lily, that —
DUCKWORTH: That you should immediately become 51.
DUBNER: That your current period has many, many, many advantages, and that all this uncertainty will work itself out. You’re always welcome to come hang out with old people, like me and Angela. If nothing else, it’ll show you how much better off you are now. But, I guess the worrisome part to me is that, even when we know that the data suggest the future will be very good for most people, or at least better, the world continues generally on a path of progress — people generally get happier as they get older and so on, even if you know that, even if you look at the data, even if you believe it, it’s hard to convince yourself that that’s true when you are in the moment feeling lost or miserable or sad. So, is there any psychological trick you can think of to help us see around the corner a little bit when we’re feeling that kind of constriction?
DUCKWORTH: That is so true. When you are miserable and someone gives you 19 different reasons why you ought not be miserable, it just makes you, if anything, more miserable. But regardless, at any age, I think the recipe for happiness is actually to not look at yourself, but to look at other people. And I mean that in the sense of, if you’re focusing on your own career, and your own indecision, and your own inability to find a soulmate, of course, you’re unhappy. But when you start to think about really anybody else, and their concerns, and how you can maybe be a little bit helpful, or taking a little bit of pleasure and joy in their successes — literally anything where your attention is not on yourself and it’s directed towards others, I really think that’s where you can pull yourself out of anxiety and depression and these thoughts of like, “Oh, I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life.”
DUBNER: So, that suggests that we pay too much attention to ourselves. Is that the case?
DUCKWORTH: I think we do tend to pay a lot of attention to ourselves. I think it becomes a vicious cycle. You know, you’re a little unhappy. So, of course, you start to think about yourself more because you’re unhappy, and there’s a problem that needs to be solved. But I think it can lead you into this abyss of self-absorption. And to get out of it, many therapists not only recommend this, but I think this is a lot of what you work through in therapy — depending on your particular situation — like, how to get your attention to be directed outward. Whether you’re unhappy with your weight, or you’re unhappy with your relationship situation, or you’re unhappy with this, that, or the other, like, “Hey, if you think about this other person, invariably you end up feeling better if you can start that alternative circle of thinking.
DUBNER: I will say this, Angela. One more thing that Lily wrote in the second email where she was asking for advice in the 20s: “If you feature this question on your show, I will get all of my friends and family to listen.” I don’t know if that’s a promise or a threat. We’re very easily bribed. That’s all it took.
DUCKWORTH: I’ll take it. I hope Lily has a big family and lots of friends. And I really have to say, like, you asked this question. We did nothing. You asked it again. I don’t know. The future is bright for Lily.
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No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and Freakonomics, M.D. This episode was produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here is a fact-check of today’s conversations.
During the discussion about meeting size, Stephen jokes that he’s anti-triadist, quadrad-ist and petagrad-ist. The systematic name for a group of four is actually a tetrad, not a quadrad.
Later, Stephen says that Harvard Business Review editors came up with the 8-18-1800 rule. This rule actually predates the 2015 article that Stephen was referring to, so the editors of the Review didn’t create it, but it does appear to have originated at Harvard Business School.
Also, Stephen says that life expectancy doubled over the twentieth century. This is not quite true. The American life expectancy in the year 1900 was 48 years old. In the year 2000, it was 76 years old, which is an extraordinary change, but not a doubling. However, if you extend the time period from 1860 to 2020, the life expectancy does double — from 39 years old in 1860 to 78 years old in 2020.
Finally, Stephen references a French academic test which, he says, “to some degree” determines what kind of profession you’ll have. Stephen was liking thinking of the baccalauréat, often known as “le bac” — a series of week-long high-school graduation exams that Napoleon introduced in 1808. Students choose to take exams in subjects that they plan to study at university or to focus on professionally. This is similar to English A- levels or the European Matura.
That’s it for the fact-check.
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No Stupid Questions is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio; our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Eleanor Osborne, Tricia Bobeda, Emma Tyrell, Lyric Bowdich and Jacob Clemente. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. If you’d like to listen to the show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can also follow us on Twitter at NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you heard Stephen or Angela reference a study, an expert or a book that you’d like to learn more about, you can check out Freakonomics.com/NSQ, where we link to all of the major references that you heard about here today. Thanks for listening!
DUCKWORTH: It is something I wondered about in my — not existential angst-ridden 20s—
DUBNER: Borderline existential. You had pre-existential angst.
DUCKWORTH: Well, since I just learned what the word “existential” is, I’m going to be careful in using it.
- “Median Age at First Marriage: 1890 to Present,” by the U.S. Census Bureau (2020).
- “Life Expectancy (From Birth) in the United States, From 1860 to 2020,” by U.N. DESA (2019).
- “The Two-Pizza Rule and the Secret of Amazon’s Success,” by Alex Hern (The Guardian, 2018).
- “Extended Adolescence: When 25 Is the New 18,” by Bret Stetka (Scientific American, 2017).
- “Socialization in Emerging Adulthood: From the Family to the Wider World, from Socialization to Self-Socialization,” by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett (Handbook of Socialization: Theory and Research, 2015).
- “How to Know If There Are Too Many People in Your Meeting,” by the H.B.R. editors (The Harvard Business Review, 2015).
- Running Meetings: Expert Solutions to Everyday Challenges, by Harvard Business Press (2006).
- “Effects of Size and Task Type on Group Performance and Member Reactions,” by J. Richard Hackman and Neil Vidmar (Sociometry, 1970).