DUCKWORTH: I have crafted the perfect phrase and I’m now going to evaporate.
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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: What’s wrong with being average?
DUCKWORTH: “Okay, maybe if I read this book, I’ll be better at, like, not having these ridiculous expectations.” But so far it hasn’t worked.
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MAUGHAN: Okay, Angela, today we have an email from Ambika Nadkarni. And she said, “I don’t have as much go-getter instinct as I’d like, but I think I’m trying my best without burning out. Is that ever enough? Is there value in living an average life or even a mediocre life?”
DUCKWORTH: Oh my God, I love this question. So many thoughts.
MAUGHAN: So Angela, let me ask you, the foremost expert on grit, is it okay to settle for being average?
DUCKWORTH: You know, I have been thinking about this question recently, just like personally. And I have not come to the conclusion that I would like to live, as Ambika puts it, “an average life” or even “a mediocre life,” but I have been thinking about expectations. I’ve been realizing how high my expectations are. Like I think they’re absurd, for everything actually, or for a lot of things. So Before I go on — I mean, because I have so many things in my head and in my heart — like, I don’t know, what do you think? You’re also somebody who I would consider a striver, but you’re also somebody that I would consider as having like —.
MAUGHAN: A very average life?
MAUGHAN: Cool. Cool, cool, cool.
DUCKWORTH: No, Mike, I was not going to say that. I was going to say that somebody who manages to have high expectations and not be burnt out. That’s what I was going to say. For realsies.
MAUGHAN: I’m just going to say this. Angela and I were once doing a talk together at a university, and I had just heard from one of the Peloton instructors. Her rule was you can’t have two bad days.
DUCKWORTH: Two workouts in a row that you miss, right?
MAUGHAN: Well, she just said, “You can’t have two bad days.” And Angela leans over and says to me, “Mike, you appear to be someone that I think probably could have two bad days in a row.”
DUCKWORTH: Oh God, that sounds awful.
MAUGHAN: And I was like, “Well, thank you. Also, you’re right. You’re not wrong. That’s the problem. But I hear you.” What I would say, Ambika, is I have a dear friend who always jokes about writing a book called In Defense of Mediocrity. And while I think that most —.
DUCKWORTH: You have a friend who wants to write a book called In Defensive Mediocrity?
MAUGHAN: I mean, he doesn’t really want to write a book. This is the same guy from book club who calls himself an exercise guy because he thinks if he says it enough he’ll actually become one, or at least he can brand himself that way. So, yeah. And here’s what I would say above all else, is that you get to define your own success and nobody gets to define it for you. And I think that too often we don’t define that for ourselves. You’re probably familiar with this book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. A hospice nurse wrote this. And the number one regret of the dying, she said, is that they say, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” And I think when it comes to this idea of, “Is it okay to be mediocre or live an average life?” I don’t know — I mean, that’s such a sad way to define it maybe. “Oh, I have an average or mediocre life.” I think it’s really more about, how do you choose to define success? And Angela, we’ve talked a lot about people like Mark Wahlberg and others who wake up at 2:30 in the morning and he has this workout routine. And people ask you all the time, like, “If you’re that gritty, then you can’t also be happy.” And I think your response to that is, “That’s not true. Mark Wahlberg looks really happy to me. But that doesn’t mean that that’s my definition of success.”
DUCKWORTH: I don’t know that having your own high standards — not those imposed by others, not my mom’s standards, not my dad’s standards, not society’s standards, not anyone else’s standards but my own — I don’t think that gets you out of this trap, honestly, because I fall short of my own standards and am perfectly capable of being abjectly miserable, falling short of standards that nobody authored but me. So like, yeah, I don’t think it’s good to live your whole life according to other people’s standards. For sure, you should write your own life story, but like, I fall short of my own high standards a lot and I get really unhappy about it.
MAUGHAN: That’s fair. I wonder if there are different categorizations, then maybe we look at it this way. For example, you have high standards when it comes to your work or what one might call the primary focus of your life. But there are a lot of secondary focuses. And so, for example, there are a lot of people who won’t participate in some hobby or activity if they can’t be incredibly good at it. But I think in the process they miss the joy of just participating, of going somewhere. So there was a New York Times piece in 2018 called “In Praise of Mediocrity.” The author writes about how many people tell him that they don’t have any hobbies, and he speculates that it’s because in society there’s so many expectations that we have to excel at everything we do, even what we do in our free time, that we’ve lost the joy of just doing something. I used to go skiing all the time with these two former college athletes, one played basketball, one played football. And at the beginning we could all keep up with each other and my one friend kept saying, “Mike, if we don’t keep trying all these things that are harder and harder, we’re never going to get better and get to the next level.” And my response to him was, “Craig, I — I’m not trying to get better. My life is stressful enough as it is. I’m looking to excel in so many different areas that I want to just be — yeah, I’m okay being mediocre at skiing because this is a place I come to enjoy being outside, to enjoy being with my friends, to enjoy the speed of going really fast down a pretty groomed run.”
DUCKWORTH: Okay, so your antidote for me, your prescription is, “Angela. You’ve got it covered on the fact that you set your own expectations and you’re not striving to meet other people’s. But maybe what would help you, Angela, is that you could have things that you are striving to be perfect or really great at, and then a whole bunch of other things where you’re just relaxed and you’re enjoying the moment anyway. You’re not striving. Your expectations aren’t so high.” But even there, Mike, I’m going to reject that advice too because let’s just take the narrow realm of career and professional expectations. I am, again, perfectly capable of being miserable, failing to reach my high expectations in that one domain of — I don’t know, I don’t want to even call it professional success because it makes it sound like it’s external. But, you know, when I realized this about myself — that I was magically capable of being really miserable about falling short of expectations that at some intellectual level I knew were too high, even in just one domain in my life — you know, I did what I do. I Googled it, I Google Scholared it.
MAUGHAN: I was going to say, you don’t Google anything.
DUCKWORTH: I know, but I Google Scholar everything.
MAUGHAN: Which nobody else does.
DUCKWORTH: So much better, I think. It is for me. So I was looking up all this research on perfectionism and it’s a topic that a lot of clinical psychologists have studied. It’s also studied by personality psychologists or social psychologists. And anyway, the article that I found to be most useful was written in 2006, and it was written by these two psychology professors, one at University of Kent named Joachim Stoeber, and one at University of Leipzig named Kathleen Otto. And their review is called “Positive Conceptions of Perfectionism: Approaches, Evidence Challenges.” And what they say in this article, I think, is both provocative and practical. So they’re like, “Look, it sounds like a bad thing to be a perfectionist.” Like, we’ve all sort of learned at some point that being a perfectionist is not healthy. But they have two kinds of perfectionism. One is normal and the other one is neurotic, and the normal one is good, and the neurotic one is bad.
MAUGHAN: I’m so glad you defined that. I would’ve not guessed that.
DUCKWORTH: Honestly, I don’t think I would’ve come to these very alliterative labels or whatever, “normal, neurotic.” But I did have this, like, ambivalence about perfectionism. So what these two professors say is like, “Look, it’s not simple. It’s not just that perfectionism is bad.” And I think there is a lot of research just documenting neurotic perfectionism and how it’s correlated with all these bad outcomes, you know, emotional instability and general unhappiness and, like you said, you know, lack of risk-taking. Like, “I’m not going to try that, you know, I can’t be perfect at it.” But I was so interested in this, like, normal perfectionism, like the upside of perfectionism. And here I’m going to read you what my favorite line is from this review article. “In contrast, perfectionistic strivings in themselves are not only normal, but maybe positive if only perfectionists could focus on doing their best rather than worrying about mistakes. Enjoy striving for perfection, rather than being afraid of falling short of it, and concentrate on what has been achieved, rather than pondering the discrepancy between what has been achieved and what might have been achieved if everything had worked out perfectly.” So I think what they’re saying — and I want to know what you think of this — is that there is a positive side of perfectionism or a positive form of perfectionism where you set really high expectations. There is an unhealthy, neurotic, negative side of perfectionism, and that is worrying about mistakes, being afraid of falling short of those high expectations and, like, dwelling, ruminating, even, on this gap between what you wanted to do and what you did. Like, is this Pollyanna? Or maybe this is you! You know, I told you. like, I think you have high expectations, but you don’t seem, to me, to be a neurotic perfectionist.
MAUGHAN: Well, I — I hope not. But you also told me that I have a, you know, mediocre life.
DUCKWORTH: I did not say that! I can’t even remember saying that you are the kind of person who could have two bad days. I don’t remember saying that.
MAUGHAN: It was funny and true.
DUCKWORTH: That sounds awful and mean. No, I can’t even tell you what that would mean. Anyway I rescind that and I — I guess I’m sorry for —.
MAUGHAN: Oh, don’t rescind it. It’s true. That’s the best part. Here’s my reaction to that, on normal perfectionism versus neurotic. The idea of perfectionism — and again, I’m not speaking to the academic definition necessarily — but I think that it’s a mistake to think that life should be easy. Most of the things that we’re proud of are on the other side of enormous friction, and we have to fight through the friction to do anything worth doing. And so I think it’s a mistake to say, “Oh, we should just enjoy life.” Now I use this skiing example, but that’s only to say that I think because people are unwilling to be mediocre at some things, they miss out on a lot of joy in life. But I also think that if you’re not willing to be a perfectionist in a healthy sense, then you also miss out on a lot of accomplishment. I mean, if you work with me, you know that the expectations are incredibly high, that you want incredibly good work. And we don’t just throw, you know, spaghetti over the fence and hope it sticks. At the same time, I think there has to be this healthy understanding of what it means to make a mistake or to fall short of your own or others’ expectations. Like, it’s okay to fall. It’s okay to fall short of expectations. It’s okay not to be perfect. We just have to be willing and able to get back up and keep going.
DUCKWORTH: This is why I both agree with you, but also it feels so Pollyanna to me. Like, “We need to set high expectations, but not be afraid to fall short of them.” Like, that would make a great tweet, And I — I don’t think that’s untrue. I just feel like, look, I believe that human beings by nature set goals. I think that there is an almost instinctive and perhaps like — I think it’s something that we almost can’t turn off, right? Like 2-year-olds set goals, 5-year-olds set goals, 52 year olds set goals, 84 year olds set goals. And I don’t mean, like, writing on a paper, like “My objective in the next three months is to” fill in the blank. I just mean that what a goal is a desired future state, and we are pursuing them. “I want to eat lunch. I want to call my best friend. I’d like to take a nap. I’d like to get a master’s degree. I wish I had more friends.” I mean, these are all desired future states. I’m pretty good at setting high goals, working furiously to reach them, and then realizing them. Like, okay, when that happens, I know how to run that script. I am not very good at setting high goals, working furiously toward them, falling short of them, and then, you know, being able to function. Like it just really, really, it really bothers me.
MAUGHAN: No, and I think that’s fair. Let me put in perspective that doesn’t exactly answer that question, but in a business context that I think helps look at kind of this mediocre life versus the — I don’t know what you call it — the excelling life. So Kim Scott, friend of both of ours, author of Radical Candor and Just Work, an amazing human being — Kim has this construct that she calls rockstars and superstars. And the basic gist is that early on at Qualtrics or most startups, right, you want people who can scale with the company, who can grow with it, who can take the next three jobs. And so you’re always looking at people who can grow and take these sort of battlefield promotions as you’re growing really quickly. She calls those the superstars — the people within the org who are basically going to change everything. They’re really high performers, they have a rapid growth trajectory, they’re willing to push themselves to the limits and be the source of growth for the entire team. But then she said, you fall into a bad spot if you’re only looking for superstars, because you also need rockstars. And the rockstars — she names them rock because she calls them the source of stability within the organization — they have a ton of potential, but they’re also really content with what they’re doing. And so they’re really talented, but they’re happy within their role. They have this rock-solid knowledge and expertise, but they don’t have any plans to get promoted over and over and over. And you need a lot of these rockstars because, shocker, there’s only one, maybe in a rare organization two, C.E.O.s and you have a lot of people in just more mid-level manager roles. And if you’re only looking for superstars who want to become the next C.E.O., C.F.O., president, etc., then your organization can’t function because you actually need a lot of these really talented, but potentially slightly less ambitious people who can fill the rockstar rules.
DUCKWORTH: So that’s interesting. That is, in a way — like I’m thinking about Ambika’s email — the rockstar is not exactly leading a mediocre life, or even an average life. It sounds to me like this recommendation would be like, if you want to live this rockstar life, you could be excellent without continuously stretching yourself to do something that you have never done before. But it doesn’t mean that you don’t come in every single day and try to, like, really do a great job at the thing that you did the day before. Is that what the rockstar life is? It’s not mediocre, right? It’s still excellent.
MAUGHAN: It is excellent, but it’s also this idea that not everyone has to become a Nobel scientist. I can be a really good professor. I don’t have to get the MacArthur grant. I don’t have to feel like I’m a failure because I didn’t get X, Y, Z attainment that maybe you Angela Duckworth would feel empty without.
DUCKWORTH: So if you are a professor and you’re like, “I don’t need to be a Nobel Prize winner and I don’t even need to get decorated in any way” — like what is the rockstar life? I still think it means you go in and you try to give a better lecture than you gave last time. I think? I mean, am I wrong? I think I don’t even recognize this pattern because I’m like, “Wait, what? Like how does this work?”
MAUGHAN: But expectations are different, right? So it’s not saying you’re not great at what you do, but the expectation is different because the expectation isn’t that I have to you know, be the greatest, be the boss, be the — you know, “every book I write is a New York Times number one bestseller.” There’s this woman, Marjorie Hinckley, that I loved. She always said the key to a happy life is low expectations, which I know you’ll fight against, but it’s that idea.
DUCKWORTH: You know how many people have said that, by the way? I was Googling the other day —.
MAUGHAN: Probably everybody. Fair.
DUCKWORTH: I was Googling for like — almost everything in psychology has been said by William James before it was shown to be true in rigorous random assignment studies. Like, William James, who at the turn of the 20th century I think was the chair of psychology at Harvard, kinda said everything.
MAUGHAN: It’s like Walt Whitman.
DUCKWORTH: Yes, yes. But this phrase, which I could not find William James saying — but so many people said it, I think because it’s true. Now with modern neuroscience, you can say with more confidence, I guess, than you could before that so much of emotion and motivation comes down to what neuroscientists often call prediction error. And the prediction error is exactly the gap between expectations and reality or perceived reality. So you could have a positive prediction error, like, “Oh my gosh, that was better than I thought.” Like, you could watch season three of Ted Lasso and say “Season one was so good and season two was so good that, I don’t know, maybe season three could be this good,” and you have this in your head, and a positive prediction error would be how I’m experiencing season three, which is like, “You are blowing my mind. You are giving me meaning and solace and companionship and God! *****s going to get back together with *****.” And then — and actually they did yay!
MAUGHAN: Don’t! No! Spoiler alert.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, I know. Total spoiler. Total spoiler. But sorry, confetti coming down for the ceiling of my bedroom because like that is all I ever wanted in life. So that’s positive prediction error.
MAUGHAN: But if that’s all you ever wanted in life, let’s really quickly back up and see how great your life is.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah that’s true. Apparently that is not all I wanted in life.
MAUGHAN: Hey you’re the one who said it.
DUCKWORTH: I know, but I don’t think I meant it. I think I was just being hyperbolic.
MAUGHAN: Really? I’ve never been hyperbolic, ever.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I don’t think you are actually very hyperbolic.
MAUGHAN: I’m very hyperbolic. When I meet people, I always tell them I think they’re the greatest, and it was such an amazing night. I’m not insincere. I really am pretty like —.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah you do use the word, “amazing.” Maybe you are hyperbolic, but you’re not as hyperbolic as I am. Because I’m, you know, saying things like —.
MAUGHAN: Let’s fight over this.
DUCKWORTH: Let’s have words. Let’s come to blows. But my point is that you can have positive prediction error. You can have negative prediction error, like, wow, season three —.
MAUGHAN: We call that just “the experience gap” at Qualtrics, by the way. It’s a much more, like, colloquial, understandable way.
DUCKWORTH: It’s the same thing, right? It’s the same thing. I think the thing that the neuroscientists get all excited about is that you can kind of, as a human being, in a very efficient way, guide behavior because if it’s positive, do more of it. And if it’s negative, do less of it, right? If you watch season three of your favorite show and you don’t like it that much, then stop watching it or don’t watch season four. So it’s kind of common sense. Like it’s the experience gap, it’s expectations minus reality. We’re all kind of coming to the same consensus. I just want to say like, if you believe that’s true, if you believe that our happiness and our unhappiness, like, rises and falls on the prediction error or the gap between expectations and reality, then it is a kind of easy fix, right? You’re like, “Oh, well then just lower your expectations.” And I think there’s a version of that in what you’re saying about like, “Well, you could be a rockstar, not a superstar.” But I don’t know. I, at least personally, struggle to do that. I don’t know, I’m like reading this book on meditation and mindfulness and I’m like, “Okay, maybe if I read this book, I’ll be better at, like, not having these ridiculous expectations.” But so far it hasn’t worked. So far this mindfulness book has not cured me of constantly setting expectations such that there is like, some kind of negative prediction error. And I don’t know, for most of my life, it’s been fine. I’m like, okay, I’m constantly striving. But like, something in this last year, I’m like, I don’t know if it’s still working for me.
MAUGHAN: That’s kind of the point. Are you familiar with the story of Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller?
DUCKWORTH: No. I think they were friends though, right? Weren’t they all hanging out?
MAUGHAN: They were friends.
DUCKWORTH: All these authors were all hanging out with each other and, like, drinking brandy, I think.
MAUGHAN: I don’t know. Yeah, I think it was scotch.
DUCKWORTH: Aren’t they the same? Brandy and scotch are like both whiskies, right? Hmm? No?
MAUGHAN: I literally don’t drink alcohol, so for sure the right one to ask about this.
DUCKWORTH: Neither of us have any idea.
MAUGHAN: Let me answer that with: I don’t know. So Heller and Vonnegut, two of the greatest American authors, are at a party on Shelter Island that’s being given by this billionaire. And Vonnegut who, if you know anything about him, was very funny and, and this hilarious guy. And he says to Joseph Heller, “How does it make you feel to know that our host only yesterday made more money than your novel Catch 22 has earned in its entire history?” And Heller responds — he said, “I feel fine because I have something he will never have. I have enough.”
DUCKWORTH: God, that is so good by the way. You could expire at that moment and be like, “I have crafted the perfect phrase and I’m now going to evaporate.” Like that is so good. “I have enough.”
MAUGHAN: “I have enough.” And I’ll just say this: I know a lot of rich people who want to be famous. I know a lot of famous people who want to be rich. And I know a lot of rich and famous people who want to be happy. And I think there has to be this point where, if you’re going to be happy, you have to be able to get to a point someday when you say, “I have enough.” And that doesn’t mean that you can’t always be striving to become better, to do more, to learn more, to improve, but that’s different than this peace or equanimity of just saying like, “I have enough. I am enough.”
DUCKWORTH: Is this the idea of grace? Somebody I’ve been in correspondence with over the last years, Bob Emmons, who is a very well-known psychologist, but is known particularly for his work on gratitude. I asked him to meet with me and, like, we’ve been corresponding and trading papers. But Bob Emmons also, you know, had a lot to say about the concept of grace and he sent me an article that he co-authored. And it was about the idea that in some religious traditions, you are loved, I guess, by God, not because you have fulfilled certain expectations, not because there were goals and you met them, but just because. In other words, “You’re loved and you’re okay, not because you met expectation, not because the prediction error was zero or positive, but just because.” I have to say, when I was talking to him, you know, somebody who spent two decades studying goal-pursuit and how people set goals and make plans and having a gritty goal and being resilient, grace could be blowing all that up. You know, not being valued because of your ability to achieve things. I mean, the last thing I emailed Bob was like, “I need to go and, think about this really hard because it’s blowing my mind.”
Still to come on No Stupid Questions, are mediocrity and excellence mutually exclusive?
MAUGHAN: Can I be content with being mediocre in some things while being a very ambitious striver?
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Now, back to Angela and Mike’s conversation about high expectations.
MAUGHAN: Let me ask you a question because, so I was recently on vacation with some friends and there were three other couples. One couple — you’re — just — just deal with it. One couple has seven kids. Yep.
MAUGHAN: The next couple has six kids.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. This is like an L.D.S. group? Just stereotyping.
MAUGHAN: Catholic or Mormon for sure. So one couple had seven kids, the other couple has six kids, and the third couple had no kids, but plan on having children in the next few years. And so this last couple, the husband’s name is Mitchell, and he was kind of — we were sitting around one night and he was asking everybody, “What do you most want for your children? Like as you’re raising them, your goals as parents, what do you want them to become and what do you care about at the end of the day?” And everybody kind of came back to: You want the kids to be happy and you want them to be kind. I mean, I’m dumbing it down, but it was like, “We want them to be happy. We want them to be kind.”
DUCKWORTH: Happy and kind. That’s good.
MAUGHAN: But there were no comments about accomplishment or we hope that they become C.E.O.s or we hope that they invent this thing. And so, it was interesting, and Mitchell’s follow up was like, “Okay, that’s what I thought you’d say. But then why do we spend so much time, energy, effort — how do we teach this idea of grace and striving at the same time? How do we teach the happy and kind along with challenging yourself to become the best you can be?”
DUCKWORTH: I think parents — I mean, I’ll speak for myself. I think I would give some version of like, I want Amanda and Lucy to be — it would be hard for me to rank order them. Probably kind first, happy second. But, you know, on another day I might say happy first, kind next. But I would be lying if I didn’t say that — you know, my value of excellence is something that I hope that they also live out. Like, I would be lying if I said, “I don’t care if they achieve excellence in their lives.” I do. It’s just not the first most important thing, is definitely not the second, maybe it’s not even the third. But like, how do I raise these two now young women to both feel like some sense of unconditional acceptance, but also a sense of striving? I mean, I think that goes right to the heart of this very, very difficult question. Like, how do we strive for perfection and not be perfectionists? Like how do we seek excellence without being so fragile in our failures? Like, I — I don’t know, but I do think it’s possible. And I think this last year where I’ve been like reckoning with this, you know, as a psychologist, like reading about it and also personally, like, thinking about it, feeling about it, I don’t know, but I do think it’s possible. When I look at these graphs of life satisfaction and grit, and there’s a diagonal line, it’s like the higher your grit score, the higher your life satisfaction score. So these have to be mutually compatible. Like they’re going hand in hand, not against each other. It has to be possible to live that life of ambition and striving and high expectations and also to feel happy and satisfied and accepted. You have to come to some peace with pursuing goals that you will never achieve.
MAUGHAN: I think you want to be at peace with the fact that you can achieve the goals. I don’t know that I love the concept of goals you can never achieve.
DUCKWORTH: You don’t like that? People say that all the time. You’ve heard that before.
MAUGHAN: Well, it’s interesting. So, I was recently, about a year ago, just by random whatever, with Michelle Obama and somebody was asking her basically the old, trite cliché question, “journey or destination?” And you know, the old axiom is, “Oh, it’s about the journey, not the destination.” And it was so interesting because she had kind of a really, like, visceral reaction to that. And she said, “No, it’s not ‘journey or destination.’ It has to be both. Because yes, it’s about the journey. It’s about everything you learn along the way. It’s about the people that you meet. It’s about the experiences that you have. But with no destination, you’re not even striving toward anything. And so it has to be about both. You have to have some end point that you’re going for.” I guess you could say a goal you never achieved — maybe if they hadn’t won the White House, they’re still glad they had the journey. But going back to something we talked about recently with Mount Kilimanjaro, for example, I — the journey was amazing for me. The months leading up to it, every hike I went on, being out in nature, getting my body physically there, my mind there, experiencing something with my friends. But I still wanted to hit the top. I still wanted to achieve the goal. And I think it’s such a misnomer in life to have this idea of “journey or destination.” I think the destination is so much of what gets you there.
DUCKWORTH: So you’re rejecting the question, “Is success a journey or a destination?”
MAUGHAN: I do reject it because I think that without the goal — and I know I’m arguing outta both sides of my mouth. Here’s what I think with all of this. I think that it’s very possible to hold two conflicting things in your hands, in your mind, in your soul at the same time. Can I be content with being mediocre in some things while being a very ambitious striver? Yes. And so many people never get started on something new because they don’t have the courage to be bad at something. But when you first started the journey of writing papers in great academic journals, you were not as good as you are today. But you didn’t not do it just because you weren’t great at it yet. And too often people are afraid to look dumb. But think about it. When you learn to walk, nobody looks at this little kid and is like, “Oh, that’s stupid. Kid doesn’t know how to walk.” But as an adult, if we trip, we feel really dumb and self-conscious and whatever. And so we never get started because we’re afraid of being bad at something. And I think we lose a lot of the joy we could have in our lives because we are afraid to fail or afraid to be bad at something. I think it takes a lot of courage to be bad at something.
DUCKWORTH: I was having dinner recently with two of my favorite developmental psychologists — i.e. psychologists who study little kids. I mean, developmental psychologists can also study, like, aging and so forth, but most of them study little kids. Their names are Allyson Mackey and Julia Leonard. And Alison Mackey’s in my department in psychology at University of Pennsylvania and Julia Leonard’s now at Yale as a newly minted assistant professor. And we were talking about exactly this. Julia’s been studying these little kids and she studies effort and she studies what kids do and feel when they get discouraged because things aren’t going well. And we were all three of us saying like, “Isn’t it fascinating, the amazing things that kids try to do and then just literally fall on their faces and how they seem not to have the same emotions that the rest of us do when we fall on our faces, even when it’s less dramatically so.” And I will say the three of us putting our heads together didn’t have yet a fully satisfying explanation for why it is that when you’re two and you’re three and you’re four and you try to do things and they don’t work out that you’re kind of okay with it. And I hope I’m remembering this correctly — but Julia had said, when you ask like little kids, “How good are you going to be at this, you know, beanbag toss?” Or like, “Here’s a game, how do you think you’re going to do?” Or even after they play the game and they haven’t done very well yet and you’re like, “How are you going to do on the next turn?” Little kids are like, “Amazing!” Like, “I’m going to be great!” But obviously the older we get — and there could be kind of a sharp turn here where, like, maybe when we enter school, like that’s when we really start to doubt ourselves. Or maybe it’s adolescence. But clearly we don’t have that kind of brazen self-confidence when we’re older. It would be also silly to not have negative emotions when we have failure because then we wouldn’t learn from them, et cetera, or we wouldn’t learn from mistakes. But I think being able to set goals, have negative prediction error, and have that be okay, or at least not prevent you from setting the next ambitious goal and even being happy pursuing it — I think that would be great. But I think it’s not straightforward.
MAUGHAN: On a related note, when is the last time you tripped and fell flat on your face?
DUCKWORTH: I have an actual, like, recollection of falling on my face, which was actually some years ago. Maybe there’ll be something revelatory here, but I was like — I don’t know. I was like on my cell phone and I think I was very stressed actually. I remember like, — this is years ago because my dad was still alive and I think he was in the hospital. I remember like running on my cell phone and literally falling on my face. And I did note to self — I was like, you know, running somewhere, literally, while talking excitedly on the cell phone about something stressful. Note to self, don’t do that if you can help it.
MAUGHAN: Don’t do that, minus that is literally how you keep in touch with your friends.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, sorry. Not running-running. Not, like, with running shoes on. Like, hurrying from place to place. I was hurrying from point A to point B, but not in running shoes. I was just, like, going from appointment to appointment with my cell phone on, which is not good.
MAUGHAN: Understood. And fair point. Angela, I would like to read to you part of my favorite fake news article ever written.
DUCKWORTH: Oh gosh. You know what happens with fake news, which is that people remember it as real news and then it lives on forever. But with that caveat, go ahead. Yeah, go ahead.
MAUGHAN: Have you heard of The Onion?
DUCKWORTH: I have heard of The Onion. Is it still around? I love The Onion.
MAUGHAN: I believe so. The Onion is literally fake news. But it’s hilarious and it’s done really, really well. But this was printed 10 years ago and I’ve never forgotten it. So the headline: “Unambitious Loser With Happy Fulfilling Life, Still Lives in Hometown.”
DUCKWORTH: And that was not authored by Walt Whitman, William James.
MAUGHAN: No. It was — Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill co-wrote this article 10 years ago.
DUCKWORTH: That was my next guess.
MAUGHAN: Okay, now I’m going to read you some excerpts though. Longtime acquaintances confirmed to reporters this week that local man, Michael Husmer, an unambitious, 29-year-old loser, who leads an enjoyable and fulfilling life, still lives in his hometown with no desire to leave. Claiming that the aimless slouch has never resided more than two hours from his parents, and still hangs out with friends from high school, sources close to him say he has meaningful, lasting personal relationships and a healthy work-life balance, but is an unmotivated washout who’s perfectly comfortable being a nobody for the rest of his life. In particular, those familiar with the pitiful man, who was able to afford a comfortable lifestyle without going into debt, confirmed that he resides just two blocks from the home he grew up in miles away from anything worthwhile, like high-price bars and clubs. They said that the pathetic loafer has never had any interest in moving to a nearby major city, despite the fact that he has nothing better to do than sit around all day being an involved member of his community and using his ample free time to follow pursuits that give him genuine pleasure.”
DUCKWORTH: Is that going to make Ambika laugh out loud, reset perspective, or just like weep into her beer? I’m not sure which of three things are true for me listening to it, but it is funny.
MAUGHAN: It’s so perspective giving, right? I mean, it — I’m going to read you just one more paragraph. “Former classmates also confirmed that the underachiever is apparently resigned to going to his little, small-time stable, extremely fulfilling job in a town each day and has zero ambition to leave his position and pursue a more prestigious and soul-crushing career path in a real city where he is climbing the corporate ladder and impressing complete strangers with a job title.”
DUCKWORTH: Is that the last line of the article?
MAUGHAN: No, it keeps going, but I think it puts into perspective — I actually posted this on my social media accounts 10 years ago and my cousin wrote back and he’s like, “That’s literally me.” And everyone else in, my family has, you know, moved away and gone to prestigious schools and gone into enormous amounts of debt to go to those schools and all these things. And my cousin’s like, “Yeah, I still live in my hometown. I’m incredibly happy. I have an amazing spouse, amazing children, and I’m super fulfilled and I don’t worry about impressing people with my job title, or,” in the words of this, “pursuing a more prestigious and soul-crushing career in a quote ‘real city.’” And so in that sense, I don’t know, “mediocrity” can sound pretty awesome because, again, I know you didn’t love it, but you get to define your own success. And if success to you is happy family, good kids, doing meaningful things and having time to them — I have one friend — and I’d be curious your thoughts on this — one friend from grad school at our 10 year reunion, he said his goal in life is to work as little as possible while still doing his job well because he wants to enjoy his life and work isn’t his life.
DUCKWORTH: Well, you know, I have a visceral reaction to that.
MAUGHAN: I know you do. I thought I’d just spike you up here at the end.
DUCKWORTH: We’ve covered a lot of ground, right? Like unconditional positive regard and the idea of grace as, in a way, like the antithesis of striving toward any goal. We’ve talked about how striving for goals is part of human nature and we do it at any age. We talked about how little kids seem to be okay with striving for goals and then not achieving them in a way that maybe we unlearn as we get older. You know, Mike, this conversation makes me wonder what listeners of this show have to say about their own expectations. If you are perfectionist or if you consider yourself the opposite, are you feeling like you would fall into the category of embracing mediocrity? Tell us your name and where you’re from in the recording that you send us. Remember to record in a quiet place. Put your mouth right up to your phone, and then just email us at NSQ@Freakonomics.com. And maybe we’ll play what you say on a future episode of No Stupid Questions. But I will say this, I go back to Ambika’s outstandingly profound question, “I’m trying my best without burning out. Is that ever enough? Is there value in living an average life or even a mediocre life?” Right? That’s what you read to me. I think that if you’re trying your best, it’s not a mediocre life. If you’re trying your best, not only is that okay, I just wouldn’t call that mediocre. And, I’m not going to pretend to have tied up in a bow, like, all these thoughts that we had. But I, for one, — I’m going to be thinking about this question for a very long time. But the one thing I will say today that I feel conviction about is that the word mediocre does not do justice to the kind of striving and perspective that Ambika talks about.
MAUGHAN: Amen. Ambika, my only other last advice is don’t have two bad days in a row.
This episode of No Stupid Questions was produced by me, Katherine Moncure, with help from our production associate, Lyric Bowditch. And now, here’s a fact-check of today’s conversation.
In the first half of the episode, Mike says that Mark Wahlberg wakes up at 2:30 a.m. In 2018, Wahlberg described a morning routine that started at 2:30. But, in the years since, he’s relaxed and now allows himself to sleep until 3:30 or 4 a.m., according to a 2022 interview with The Wall Street Journal.
Then, Angela says William James was the chair of Harvard’s psychology department. James pioneered the study of psychology and taught the first formal course on it at Harvard in 1875, within the philosophy department. But psychology didn’t become an independent department at Harvard until 1934, more than 20 years after James’s death.
Finally, Angela asks if brandy and scotch are both whiskies. Brandy is not a whisky. It’s a spirit made from distilled wine or other fermented fruits. Scotch is a whisky that is produced and bottled in Scotland.
Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear some of your thoughts about last week’s episode on scams:
Michael REXEN: About a year ago, I got scammed because I bought something online. Basically I found a really cheap little mini sauna and I was just like, “Oh my God, it’s so cheap. I’m even going to buy one for my neighbor.” And I bought two of them and they never arrived and I tried to write to the place that I bought them and they kept replying, “Oh, it’s on the way,” and it never was.
Mike DORNBROOK: I always thought those who succumbed to scams were terribly gullible and viewed myself as savvy and not someone who would ever fall for something like that until it happened to me. A good friend of mine who’s in his late 70s often travels to Europe. and he had sent a text saying that he was having trouble with his computer in a hotel in Europe and had promised his granddaughter that he would get her a gift certificate on her birthday, which was today, and there were only a few hours left so asked if I could help. He needed to send her a $200 gift certificate. Of course, I was perfectly happy to help and proceeded to try to get the gift certificate. Several different sites, as I went through the process at the very end, simply refused to finalize it with no apparent reason. And every step of the way, he was totally articulate, totally in keeping with what I knew of him. It was very, very believable. I finally managed to get the gift certificate and then the scammer asked for more, and that’s when I said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, what’s going on here?” And realized that I was being scammed. American Express did get a refund for me, so I wasn’t out any money. I was of course terribly embarrassed by the whole thing.
Denise RUTTER-LANG: This is Denise from Washington State. Just a couple of weeks ago, I received a call from somebody saying they’re from my bank. The person who said they were my bank said, “Okay, I just sent you a text about a Zelle transaction. So I want you to look at it and tell me if that was you.” And I said, “Oh no, that’s not me.” And he’s like, “Okay. So we’re flagging that because it looked like it came from Florida and,” you know, yada yada and sounding very legit. So going through the call, there’s like little red flags that kind of popped up now and then, but I didn’t really listen to them because this person was very good at what they were doing. There was one point though, where I got suspicious and I said, “Wait a minute. So how do I know that you are my bank?” And he said, “Well, okay. So look at your debit card. Look at the phone number on the back of your card. Now look at the number that is on your caller I.D.” And it matched up. So, when I talked to my actual bank later, they said, “Yes, these scammers can clone our phone number.” So that was part of how I was duped into giving them my login information and my pin. The day after this phone call, there was a notification from the bank saying most of the money that had been in my savings account had been transferred out to some other account. And, hopefully somebody learns from my example. And always, always question or just call your bank back if you have a doubt.
That was, respectively, Michael Rexen, Mike Dornbrook, and Denise Rutter-Lang. Thanks so much to them and to everyone who sent us their thoughts. And remember, we’d still love to hear about your relationship to mediocrity. Send a voice memo to NSQ@Freakonomics.com. Let us know your name and whether you’d like to remain anonymous. You might hear your voice on the show!
Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: Angela and Mike discuss regret.
MAUGHAN: There’s this, oh my gosh, I did this thing. You’re gutted because you feel bad.
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. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne and we had research help from Daniel Moritz-Rabson. Our theme song was composed by Luis Guerra. If you’d like to listen to the show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. 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 NSQ@Freakonomics.com. To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Freakonomics.com/NSQ. Thanks for listening!
MAUGHAN: No, I think it was Walt Whitman.
DUCKWORTH: It was probably Walt Whitman.
- Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and founding editor-in-chief of The Journal of Positive Psychology.
- Joseph Heller, 20th-century American author.
- Marjorie Hinckley, author and wife of a prophet in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
- William James, 19th-century professor of psychology at Harvard University.
- Julia Leonard, professor of psychology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
- Allyson Mackey, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
- Michelle Obama, lawyer, writer, and former First Lady of the United States.
- Kathleen Otto, professor of psychology at Philipps University of Marburg.
- Kim Scott, co-founder of Radical Candor and prominent C.E.O. coach in Silicon Valley.
- Joachim Stoeber, professor of psychology at the University of Kent.
- Kurt Vonnegut, 20th-century American author.
- “Do Grittier People Have Greater Subjective Well-Being? A Meta-Analysis,” by Xiang-Ling Hou, Nicolas Becker, Tian-Qiang Hu, Marco Koch, Ju-Zhe Xi, and René Mõttus (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2021).
- “In Praise of Mediocrity,” by Tim Wu (The New York Times, 2018).
- “Psychological and Theological Reflections on Grace and Its Relevance for Science and Practice,” by Robert Emmons, Peter Hill, Justin Barrett, and Kelly Kapic (Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 2017).
- Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity, by Kim Scott (2017).
- “Unambitious Loser With Happy, Fulfilling Life Still Lives In Hometown” (The Onion, 2013).
- “How Prediction Errors Shape Perception, Attention, and Motivation,” by Hanneke E. M. den Ouden, Peter Kok, and Floris P. de Lange (Frontiers in Psychology, 2012).
- Top Five Regrets of the Dying, by Bronnie Ware (2011).
- “Positive Conceptions of Perfectionism: Approaches, Evidence, Challenges,” by Joachim Stoeber and Kathleen Otto (Personality and Social Psychology Review, 2006).