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DUCKWORTH: Fun, and playful, and hee-hee-hee, ha-ha-ha, ho-ho-ho. 

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.

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

Today on the show: How do you find value in failure? 

DUBNER: It might not work, might not be fun, might lose a ton of money, but let’s try it. 

Also: what does teasing really accomplish?

DUCKWORTH: He would run over to me and say, “You’re a green fungus.” And then, he would run away. 

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: Stephen, we got an email recently that just took me back down memory lane. Can I read it to you? [SJD^Please do.] “Hi, Stephen and Angela. I believe — but please fact-check — I first heard you together on Tell Me Something I Don’t Know. Why did the show end, and what did Stephen learn from the experience? Is it useful to know when to stop? Many thanks — Steve in Berry, South Wales.”

DUBNER: Oh, thanks for that question, Steve. So, you’re wrong. 

DUCKWORTH: Steve’s wrong?

DUBNER: Yep. Well, okay. I can’t say that you’re wrong, because you say that you believe you first heard us together on Tell Me Something I Don’t Know. So, that could be true. But that’s not where we started working together, Angela. So, you were on our show — Freakonomics Radio, I should say — twice. There was an episode about boredom where you played a minor-ish role. And then, we did a piece on Grit where you played a very, very major role. And that is why I wanted you to be on Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, which was this live game show we created that was absurdly complicated, because, A, it was live, and it had a lot of moving parts. In the first iteration, there was a three-person celebrity guest panel, and you were one of the three. And we changed it for every show. 

DUCKWORTH: A different guest panel. Right. 

DUBNER: And then, there were five or six contestants every night as well. And then, a live fact-checker, and probably 100 other people I don’t remember. But it was a lot of moving parts. Anyway, you were on one of those panels. That’s where I first met you. And it’s interesting, because it makes me think of the time we’re in now of so many virtual interactions versus in-person. Like, I thought you were pretty good when we’d had you on the radio, but we hadn’t met. You were in Philadelphia, probably. I was in New York. But then, getting to know you in person — you know, it changes the way that you think about a person. You get exposed to their brain and their personality in different ways. So, that made me want to work with you more. And then, we kind of promoted you to co-host on the show for a couple of shows in California. I don’t know if you remember those, Angela. 

DUCKWORTH: Yes! I remember flying to California and also the after-parties, which were fun. 

DUBNER: They were really fun. Okay. Can I tell you my single most distinct memory — concerning you at least — of either of those shows? There was one in San Francisco, one in L.A. 


DUBNER: Do you have any idea what I might say right now? 

DUCKWORTH: I have no idea what you’re going to say. Tell me.

DUBNER: My single most distinct memory was in San Francisco, which I think was our first California show. And I’d been at the theater all day. We’re doing soundcheck. We’re working with a live band for the first time. So, there was a lot to do. And you showed up, and I remember that you had just come from dinner, I think, with an old friend. And you were carrying your leftovers. 

DUCKWORTH: I remember exactly what the leftovers were. 

DUBNER: It was stinky and greasy. It was like some kind of fish stew or something. 

DUCKWORTH: It had fish sauce. It was from a really great Vietnamese place called “Cordon Bleu.”

DUBNER: And it was a paper bag that was soaked through with grease, and it smelled up the whole backstage. It stayed backstage during the whole show. And then, we all went to a bar for drinks. You brought it there with you, if I recall correctly. 

DUCKWORTH: What else was I going to do with it? 

DUBNER: It reminded me of my mom, because she was frugal. And it totally endeared you to me. And I finally said, “You know what? I think I would like to make a whole podcast with this person.” So, that’s how No Stupid Questions was actually born. 

DUCKWORTH: You know this person who carries around half-eaten leftovers with some really strong-smelling fish? I want to work with her! That’s what went through your head. Now you’re making me feel anxious. I hope I finished those leftovers. 

DUBNER: If you didn’t finish the leftovers, I would be so disappointed, because all you did was pollute the environment of 150, 200 people. 

DUCKWORTH: I’m pretty sure I did. 

DUBNER: In terms of things I learned and knowing when to stop, which is the question that Steve is asking, I did learn a great deal about myself and work.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Tell me why did you stop doing it? 

DUBNER: I started it because I thought it would be fun. And most of my work career has been animated by things that I think will be fun. Sometimes I’m wrong, sometimes I’m right. Sometimes things are fun, but they’re not good. Sometimes they’re good, but not fun. This one was mostly fun, but it wasn’t as good ever as I wanted it to be, and therefore it became a lot less fun. We were trying to do two things at one time, which was: have a live show that would be exciting, and interesting in the moment, and also turn it into something that was really good on tape later, when edited. And I realized that what we were trying to do was not impossible, but really hard. It reminded me of trying to be in two different physical states at once. It’d be like water trying to be steam and ice at the same time. And that takes a very special kind of water. 

DUCKWORTH: I was going to say, I’m not sure I can relate to that metaphor, but I get it. 

DUBNER: And as it turns out, some of the things that make something really good in one state are quite bad for the other. People interrupt each other. There’s a lot of cross-talk. People laugh at things that aren’t obviously funny on tape after the fact and so on. And so, we could never really get the show to where I wanted it to be as a radio show, slash, podcast. And I kept pushing it and pushing it, making the tapings longer and longer. So, at one point, we were doing like a 3-and-a-half hour taping, hoping to get enough good tape for a 45-minute podcast. And the trade-off there was that audiences were having to sit through a 3-and-a-half hour taping, which was not so good. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I was at some of those. I also remember thinking, this is hard to deliver a great experience for the people who are sitting ten feet away and at the same time make it a great experience for the people who will be listening later. 

DUBNER: And I tried to be mercenary and selfish and say, “Look, there might be 1,000 or 2,000 people in this auditorium, but what I care about are the million or two who might listen to it later.” But then, I’m thinking, you know, these 1,000 or two, these are the ones who made the effort and paid the money to be here. So, I can’t do that. It reminded me a little bit of when I was just starting out in my career. I got myself in a couple really uncomfortable situations where I would have a job — let’s say as an editorial assistant somewhere — but then, I’d be offered some freelance gig. And I didn’t like the feeling of serving two masters, if there’s a friction there. And in this case, I felt that Freakonomics Radio was suffering. I didn’t want that to happen. And it made me think of the notion of core competence — which I’d always discussed as just business school buzzword speak, but I really came to believe in it. It’s like, the thing that you’re good at, it makes sense to invest in that. And the things that you want to try, try. And if it doesn’t work, get rid of it. 

DUCKWORTH: If it doesn’t become a core competency, then you shouldn’t be investing too much in it. 

DUBNER: Exactly. There’s a big science of failure now and failure can be really valuable. It’s useful to know the dimensions on which something didn’t work, so that you can eliminate or address them the next time around. Amy Edmondson is a Harvard Business School professor. She’s created this — it’s called the “spectrum of reasons for failure.” So, if anybody’s in the mood to really dive in and do a good postmortem on something that didn’t work out, she has a variety of factors that may have contributed to your failure. One is called “lack of ability.” So — so, that sounds like kind of a nonstarter. Like, if you don’t have the ability, well, that will lead to failure. And I don’t think that was really our problem. Everybody on the team was able, and talented, and honest, and hard-working, and so on. But then, we get into these issues that I would have thought were much more relevant to different kinds of business than ours, but they turned out to be incredibly relevant. There’s one called “process inadequacy: a competent individual adheres to a prescribed but faulty or incomplete process.” We had that. There’s another reason for failure called “task challenge: an individual faces a task too difficult to be executed reliably every time.” 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, you had that too. 

DUBNER: So, when you’re making a live show, reliability is so important. When you’re recording a show, you can just take more time. You can record it again. You can edit it. You can rewrite. There’s another called “process complexity: a process composed of many elements breaks down when it encounters novel interactions” — like, someone who doesn’t show up at the last minute, or a heckler, or someone gets nervous and vomits on stage. 

DUCKWORTH: Right — or a snowstorm, or all the things that happen for live events. 

DUBNER: Yeah. So, I think it was a challenge that in the end was mostly positive. And I felt not bad at all about shutting it down. In fact, we’re talking about rebooting it with my involvement just much less. So, we created this show that I really like. But for me to host it 30 or 40 times a year in 10 or 12 different cities, that’s a whole enterprise that I’m not able to do. 

DUCKWORTH: Interesting. So, you would get somebody else to be the host? 

DUBNER: Yes. So, I will just say: Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres, Dax Shepard, and Dan Schreiber — who’s one of the hosts of No Such Thing as a Fish —  those are among my dream team of potential rotating hosts. So, if you guys are listening, be in touch. 

DUCKWORTH: So, you do think it’s a core competency, right? Because I was thinking to myself, maybe this is not the core competency for the Freakonomics team, doing a live show. 

DUBNER: Both are true. I think that it is a core competence, to some degree, in that we’re pretty good at knowing what are interesting things and explaining interesting things to the public. But doing it in a live setting requires a different set of abilities and a different structure, really, than we had. I will say this, though, on balance— and I would really encourage anyone to think about projects that may look like failures in retrospect — on balance, most of the outcomes were really positive. We didn’t do an amazing show forever, but we did a pretty good show for a while. I’d say that probably 95 percent of the people who participated in the making of the show, and who attended, really had a great time. And so, that’s kind of nice to know. And then, when I make Freakonomics Radio, I sit in my radio studio, in my own office, alone. I don’t interact with people in person. And for this live show, I got to know a lot of people in such a way that made me really want to either be friends or continue to work with them — including you. And that was a huge plus. The other thing is, even though this project itself didn’t continue, it definitely fed what I continue to do. And I think it helped me get a little bit better at the thinking, and the reading, and the writing, and the talking — and especially thinking on your feet, which you really have to do when you’re live. And those are all good things. 

DUCKWORTH: So, I think Amy Edmondson would praise Tell Me Something I Don’t Know as a failure that you learn a ton from. You ran an experiment, as it were — no control group, but still — you did something new, and you learned all these things that you would not have learned otherwise, and you’re better for it. So, I think that’s the reason why she wants us to try these things and to not be fearful of things not working out, because it doesn’t mean that it wasn’t worthwhile. 

DUBNER: I think the tricky part is that most people are not in a position to try things out like that, especially in a professional setting. So, the reason I was able to is because I sort of control my own destiny. 

DUCKWORTH: Because you’re in charge. 

DUBNER: And there were a series of steps to get there. Like, I had a real job once upon a time. And one reason I quit is because I wanted to be in charge. And there are a lot of downsides to that. But then, there are upsides. The problem is, we often encourage people to be experimental, to be bold, to try new things, but when you’re doing that in the context of a job or an institution, the risks there are really large. You don’t want to fail publicly. You don’t want to decline in your professional standing. So, I do wish there was an easier way for more people to have the opportunity to just say, “You know, I’ve got this idea. It might not work, might not be fun, might lose a ton of money, but let’s try it and see how well we can do.” Unfortunately, that’s a kind of flexible optionality that most vocations do not afford, as much as we say we want everyone to try to be creative and to try new things. 

DUCKWORTH: I think that’s true. But I also think that the general principle could be enacted as best it can be — really in any organization or team. And just to recognize that the default will just be: always to do the same thing that you always did. And then you really guarantee yourself that you’re not going to learn very much. 

DUBNER: All right. Let me ask you this. What do you say if you’re advising a handful of grad students one year, let’s say there are five. And four of them come to you with ideas that you know are just perfectly mainstream, and acceptable, and that will lead to publication and good jobs. And the fifth one — who maybe you think this person is even better than the rest — they come to you with a wild-ass, off-kilter idea, that you think is maybe creatively brilliant and maybe would really change the field, but it’s very risky to do as your thesis, let’s say. What do you tell that person? 

DUCKWORTH: I would tell that person to think about research — or really anything that you’re doing — as a portfolio, as if it were investments. You might have the stomach to say, “I’m only going to have one thing in the portfolio. All my chips are over here. And hopefully, it’ll work out, and I believe in myself.” I think portfolio investing is better, which is to say: okay, have a risky stock in your portfolio, but why not have a few other safe stocks too? Because you do have mouths to feed. And so, even with the most creative of students, I would say, “Terrific. Can we also put in a few surefire things, because if this one big home run doesn’t come to pass, you still have to graduate, et cetera.” And I hope it doesn’t put too much damper on creativity. 

DUBNER: So, that sounds like such wise advice. It also sounds a little bit cowardly. No offense. Because, I mean, especially with a thesis, there’s one. 

DUCKWORTH: No, I think graduate students these days are always working on multiple projects, even if they are working on something that eventually becomes one thesis. 

DUBNER: Okay. Well, were you always so balanced and wise, or were you a little bit more of a risk-taker when you were younger? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, I’m a little bit of a hypocrite here, because I do remember — it was actually right after I got my Ph.D., and I was just on the first days of my tenure clock. So, the clock starts ticking. And the question is, are you going to keep your job as a professor or not? And it was right around that time I met two educators, Dave Levin and Dominic Randolph. And they said, “You should do research in schools that are long-term field interventions.” 

DUBNER: Now, we should say Dave Levin runs KIPP, Knowledge is Power Program. So, he’s running these charter schools. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. So, they had their own interests. They were like, “You should run those in our schools.” And I said, “Look, there’s this thing called tenure, and it’s zero or one. You either get it or not.” And the worst advice any young professor could take is, like, put all your eggs in this one very, very fragile basket. Like, go and do these long-term field studies, random assignment, probably the interventions won’t work —  very hard to do. And I did not have anyone tell me that I should really be thinking of things as a portfolio and hedging my bets. Even if I had, I probably would have done what I did, which is, I was very headstrong. And I was like, “Sure, that sounds good.” And we ended up doing a lot of research that was exactly as they had described. And very luckily, actually, at least enough of those things got published that I got to keep my job. 

DUBNER: So, you’re a little bit of a hypocrite, but there’s a consistency there. 

DUCKWORTH: I want to be a little bit safer with the students that I’m mentoring than I was willing to be with myself. 

DUBNER: So, if the original question from Steve is, “What can one learn from the experience? Is it useful to know when to stop?,” he says. I would say yes, it is very useful, because I think for most people it’s better to not do something that you feel, you know, 70 percent about. 

DUCKWORTH: I think it’s this. I think you and I both, Stephen, we’re okay doing something at 70 percent as long as we think that the next time is going to be 80, and then 90, and at some point, we’re going to be like, hey, this is excellent. I think, maybe, for this game show, Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, at some point you realized it was never really going to be 100 percent satisfactory — at least without sacrificing everything else that you were doing that you cared about. And then, you said, “Okay, now it’s time not to do this anymore.” 

DUBNER: It’s also, look, every domain is different. This was something that I was inflicting on the public, and if I didn’t feel like this was my best work, I wasn’t going to inflict it. There are plenty of things I do at no greater than a C-plus level, maybe B-minus. Like, I love to cook. I’m not a great cook, but I love it. Am I going to serve my wife something that’s only B-minus? Sure. Am I going to go play golf even though I’m a B-minus golfer? Absolutely. Nobody’s paying to watch it or watching it at all. So, I’m perfectly happy being mediocre in private. Being mediocre in public, I wouldn’t advise that. 

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss the relationship between teasing, and social heirarchy. 

DUBNER: Dads are teasing target No 1.

DUCKWORTH: They really are. Dad bods. Dad jokes. 

*      *      *

DUBNER: So, Angie, a listener named Andrew Sova writes in to say this: “I’ve been mulling over the subject of teasing lately, because it’s something I’ve been missing from my everyday life now that we’re all in quarantine. I feel like many of my greatest relationships are flush with teasing in some capacity, including with my significant other and closest friends outside of work. In my experience, doing it effectively, and being able to read reactions as to avoid crossing the line into bullying, is something you really need to be present for. I was wondering if there’s anything more to it than just the surface level and what roles teasing may play in our everyday lives.” So, Angie, I was just teasing you about carrying around that smelly, greasy fish stuff in San Francisco all night. 

DUCKWORTH: You like to tease me. You tease me about a lot of things.

DUBNER: I do like to tease you. And now I’m worried — what if you don’t like it? How do you feel about being teased? 

DUCKWORTH: My first reaction is: I’m not very good at being teased, but then, my second reaction is: I took no offense at all to the fish sauce or any other teasing that you might do. So, maybe when I think about teasing, I think of the few times in my life where I really didn’t like it. But actually, what I’m probably ignoring are plenty of times where it’s just fun, and playful, and hee-hee-hee, ha-ha-ha, ho-ho-ho. 

DUBNER: So, you’re saying that there were some hurtful incidents, perhaps, that stand out. And you may think that they are kind of the norm, whereas in fact your norm is okay, but there have been some bad incidents. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, yeah. Let me take you back to my childhood. So, I had an older brother and sister. My sister is about five years older than me, and my brother is about eight years older than me. So, they were a lot bigger. 

DUBNER: Say no more. Been there, done that. 

DUCKWORTH: Right? And I had a mom who was working and a dad who was working. So, who was home all those summers and those after-school afternoons? Well, it was me, and my brother, and my sister. 

DUBNER: Was there at least a dog for moral support? 

DUCKWORTH: No, there was only a cat. 

DUBNER: Cats don’t do moral support. 

DUCKWORTH: They really don’t. So, I was defenseless, or I was at least on my own, when my brother and sister would call me a baby, and tease me, or tie me up and make me eat terrible things that they concocted in the kitchen. I don’t know if that’s quite teasing in the same way as Andrew means it, but that’s why I think of myself as somebody who doesn’t like to be teased, because I have these childhood memories. Maybe that’s not teasing. Maybe that’s taunting. 

DUBNER: It could even be bullying. 

DUCKWORTH: But again, I think the question is, what do we really mean by teasing? Because actually, if Andrew’s missing that casual banter and the friendly teasing, I don’t think he’s missing the taunting that I’m recalling from my early childhood. 

DUBNER: Right. I would like to acknowledge that, in his question, I thought he brought up an interesting boundary. He writes, “In my experience, doing it”— teasing— “effectively and being able to read reactions as to avoid crossing the line into bullying is something you really need to be present for.” So, it sounds like Andrew is very self-aware in that regard. But Angie, I really hear you, and I really empathize with you, with older siblings who were toggling between calling you “baby” and tying you up and forcing you to eat whatever. 

DUCKWORTH: As every older brother and sister probably has. 

DUBNER: Yeah, maybe. But when I hear you say that, I do feel terrible, because I do tease you a lot. And I don’t want it to be hurtful, obviously, but I feel like you’re sort of the sister I never had. Well, I actually have four sisters, but you’re kind of more sisterly. 

DUCKWORTH: I’m the fifth sister you never had! 

DUBNER: But I don’t really tease my siblings much, in part, because they were all older than me. And somehow, I think that one major component of teasing, and what makes it work or not work, has to do with status. And age confers status within a family and within school, too, right? 

DUCKWORTH: You’re saying that makes you more likely or less likely to tease, that you are of a high status?

DUBNER: I think teasing is like gravity. It usually flows downward. 

DUCKWORTH: The higher status teases the lower status. 

DUBNER: I think it’s much more common for the older kid to tease the younger kid, the older sibling to tease the younger sibling. I think where it gets weird is, let’s say, in a work environment. Because, I think, most of us would agree that if you’re someone’s superior, teasing down the chain is probably not acceptable. But teasing up the chain is probably a little scary, because you’re worried about offending someone who’s got control over you. Whether it’s friends, whether it’s family, whether it’s work, I think status really matters a lot when it comes to how we think about what teasing is meant to accomplish. I think most people do it because they want it to be a fun bonding thing, but depending on the domain, the status difference can make it the opposite of a fun bonding thing, even if the teaser may not recognize. 

DUCKWORTH: The best work on this — or some of the most original and thoughtful work — is by Dacher Keltner, a really brilliant psychologist at Berkeley. And the purpose, I think, Dacher would say, of teasing, is about affiliation and bonding. But, in particular, it’s a playful way of provoking a certain subject or topic where you don’t have the ability to just address it directly. If it’s something that could be embarrassing, or awkward, then you can go at it obliquely through this playful, provocative teasing. And then, we can still have this interaction and engagement, but I’m not addressing you head-on in the way that we would when we talk about something literally and earnestly. So, if that’s the function of teasing — or at least one of the big functions —  then I guess you could ask the question, who would do that? A subordinate? He brings up animal examples where younger monkeys pull the tails of older monkeys. And so, there are occasions in which teasing may be something that is, in fact, better for somebody who is in a position where they don’t have all the power. You know, my daughter teases my husband. And, I guess, in a nuclear-family structure, the 17-year-old daughter has less power than the, in this case, 48-year-old father. But she loves to tease her dad, Jason, about all kinds of things. In particular, he’s really square. My husband is just, like, from Leave It to Beaver. And so, it’s a way of her saying this, and provoking the subject, without saying like, “Hey, you’re really old-fashioned.” So, teasing has a function which is: a need sometimes to communicate, but it’s when you don’t want to do it directly that we engage in this playful provocation. 

DUBNER: Right. So, first of all, dads are teasing target No. 1.

DUCKWORTH: They really are. Dad bods. Dad jokes. 

DUBNER: We have the lowest status in any family now. It wasn’t always so!  

DUCKWORTH: Well, maybe it’s because you have high status that we are all teasing you guys, right? Because we have to address these things obliquely.

DUBNER: Like I like to tell my children, most corrections are overcorrections. And, you know, it’s our time. It’s okay. But it’s so interesting what you’re saying about the role and the functions of teasing — of identifying the thing that, yeah, you want to discuss. It makes me think of the role of the fool, or the jester, in Shakespeare and a lot of older literature, and indeed, in royal courts, the jester could always say the thing that everyone’s thinking, but no one will say aloud. You know, we did a Freakonomics Radio episode with Jeff Immelt, who was the C.E.O. of General Electric for many years after Jack Welch, who was the manager of the century. The guy who turned G.E. into the biggest corporation in America. And Immelt came next. He was there for 16 years, and it turns out the company did not do well at all under him. And so he left in really, kind of, disgrace. So, I was interviewing him — the ignominious C.E.O., not the master of the universe C.E.O. And Jeff Immelt has written a book about this moment where he was getting ready to take over the C.E.O. job from Jack Welch. And they’re in London where there’s this legendary British executive they’re having dinner with. And he says to Jack Welch, “Jack, how do you do it? How do you get a 50 P/E — a 50 price-to-earnings ratio — for the G.E. stock with that bag of ‘blank’ that you’ve got?” — meaning General Electric. And Immelt was sitting there. And he was shocked that someone would say this to Jack Welch’s face, because no one from within G.E. would do it. But this guy from outside did. And Immelt said, “Everybody roars with laughter when the guy said this. And at that moment, I realized the joke was on me” — the next C.E.O. who was coming in to inherit it. So, being outside the circle, or having a role as the jester or fool, I think gives permission to do it. But, as often is the case in our conversations, the domain matters, the incentives matter. 

DUCKWORTH: Right. Andrew said that, when you’re on a video call, it’s really hard to tease at all, and certainly to tease well, because it’s all these non-verbal cues that make it clear that you’re being playful. So, one of the things that I am guessing that that outsider did was they used tone of voice, and they were probably smiling, so that it wasn’t said with the kind of sobriety and seriousness that would probably cast a pall over the entire dinner party. And Dacher points out that when we’re teasing, we often assume a different voice. We use a singsong voice. There are ways to signal that this is not literally what I mean. It’s actually this figurative, playful language — again, so that I can start to broach something that I couldn’t say directly. I remember when I was in elementary school, there was this boy — he had a crush on me. And during recess, he would run over to me and say, “You’re a fungus.” I think he was like, “You’re a green fungus.” Maybe we were, like, learning about it in science class or something? And then, he would run away. 

DUBNER: It’s a great pickup line, I have to say. 

DUCKWORTH: But I remember it was also kind of obvious to me, and probably to him, that he was basically flirting. He was trying to say something, but didn’t want to say it directly. There are all these signals to suggest, like, “Hey, don’t take this literally.” And I do think that’s lost on video calls. We probably shouldn’t tease on video calls, because it could go very badly. 

DUBNER: Can I just say, it may have been obvious to you that this little boy had a crush on you and that teasing was the way he expressed it. I’m sure, as a former little boy myself, that he thought he was being very, very, very indirect and that there was no way that his teasing could possibly be interpreted as a manifestation of his crush, because that’s what boys do. If they could come out and say it, they wouldn’t have to call you a green fungus. 

DUCKWORTH: That may be. 

DUBNER: Well, let’s advance that relationship between you and this little boy, let’s say, 10, 15, 20, 30 years. What do you see as the role of teasing in a domestic or romantic relationship? Do you and Jason tease each other? How does it work? 

DUCKWORTH: We tease each other a little bit. Although I have to say — even though I love my husband, even though I’m very secure in his affection for me — sometimes the teasing goes great, and sometimes I take offense. 

DUBNER: Can you give an example? 

DUCKWORTH: I spend a lot of my energy balancing the ingredients in our refrigerator to make sure that all of the ingredients will get used up before they go bad. 

DUBNER: You do a lot of internal rotation, you’re saying? 

DUCKWORTH: Yes, I call it my “husbandry,” because I think that’s the technical term for the domestic arts. 

DUBNER: Animal husbandry — refrigerator husbandry, yes. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Yeah. And my husband Jason likes to say things — like the other day he was like, “Imagine how much you would get done if you could just spend ten percent of that mental energy—.” And, in that case, it was fine, but if I’m in a bad mood, it can sometimes go badly. I’m not somebody who’s always good about being teased. 

DUBNER: As you tell that story, I can so see both sides of that equation. I too am a serial organizer, for which I am deeply ridiculed in our house. I wouldn’t call it teasing. I would call it ridicule. I think the tricky thing is, there is a sweet spot of teasing. Some is good, too much is bad, but probably none is bad also. The tricky part is — every dyad, every couple, every group especially, is different. And the dynamic is different. So, if you were to try to give advice to someone — let’s say to Andrew specifically — what would you say is the best way to arrive at that sweet spot, or to read your partner’s cues, so that you can engage in the fun, without crossing over into refrigerator-husbandry ridicule?

DUCKWORTH: First, I would say, when in doubt, don’t. Or when the other person — the object of your teasing — seems like they might possibly be in a bad mood, don’t. 

DUBNER: Or if they’ve got a gun in their hand, I guess, is probably on your list as well. 

DUCKWORTH: Right. Also, I think you should tease up and not down. In other words, you started off by saying like, “Oh, well, maybe people in a higher status are more likely to tease.” I think that might be true, but I think actually it’s much safer for the higher-status person not to tease, because that could really be understood as something totally different. And you might not find that the person is laughing. They might be crying or cowering, etc. And then, I really do think making sure that we are aware of the limitations of our current communication media: Zoom calls, text message, and so forth — all those nonverbal cues that say, “By the way, J.K.; this is a joke; or I’m playful; I’m being sarcastic; I don’t mean it.” A lot of those nuances are lost when we’re emailing people, sending them a quick text message, or even on a video call. And I really do think that we might want to wait until we’re back in person and vaccinated to joke around with people the way it can be, under certain circumstances, very fun. 

DUBNER: Let me ask you one last question. How do you feel about roasts? Because they are the most pronounced form of teasing, and they’re public. When you watch someone get roasted, do you take delight, or does it make you uncomfortable? 

DUCKWORTH: It’s probably, like, a Rorschach test for me. It probably says something about me that I don’t like seeing other people roasted. And I know there’s the national press, like, for the president, and there’s all kinds of roast traditions, but, like, I am always cringing. How about you? How do you feel? 

DUBNER: I want to say that I enjoy it, but I think I’m a little bit more on the Angela Duckworth side of the scale. But, my favorite roast line ever was — Snoop Dogg was roasting Donald Trump. And this was during the Obama administration, I’m not sure if Trump was even running yet for president. But Snoop said, quote, “Why not run for president? It wouldn’t be the first time he pushed a Black family out of their home.” 

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

Stephen mentions that if he were to bring back Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, he would want Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen Degeneres, Dax Shepard, or Dan Schreiber to host the show. I was familiar with the first three comedians, but didn’t know much about Schrieber. For those who are also curious, Dan Schreiber is a writer and stand-up comedian based in the United Kingdom. He co-hosted a live Freakonomics Radio show that we’ll link to in the show notes. As Stephen mentioned, he also co-hosts No Such Thing as a Fish, a weekly podcast where presenters discuss strange and interesting facts. Recent episodes have included conversations about leopard dentistry, termite pizza, and unexploded bombs. It sounds like he would fit in perfectly with a rebooted Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, which historically featured discussions about similarly bizarre subjects, including: robotic fish, medical divorce, and why you should lick rocks. 

Later, Angela references the tradition of a presidential roast and its connection to the national press. She was likely thinking of the White House Correspondents Association Dinner — an annual event put on by the organization of journalists who cover the White House and the president of the United States. Fifteen presidents have attended the dinner, beginning with Calvin Coolidge in 1924, and since 1983, the featured speaker has been a comedian, who typically roasts the current administration. During his first year in office, Donald Trump became the first president to miss a dinner in 36 years — Ronald Reagan didn’t attend the dinner in 1981 because he was recovering from an assassination attempt, but still delivered the remarks by phone. Comedians Kenan Thompson and Hasan Minhaj were scheduled to speak at the 2020 dinner, but the event was canceled because of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Finally, Stephen recalls a joke that rapper and media personality Snoop Dogg told at the Comedy Central Roast of Donald Trump. Stephen thought that the roast occurred before Trump ran for president. This is partially true. The roast originally aired in 2011, before Trump’s successful candidacy in 2016, but Trump also ran for president in 2000 as a candidate for the Reform Party and actually won the California Reform party primary, but Pat Buchanan ultimately became the party’s candidate.

That’s it for the fact-check.

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No Stupid Questions is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher; our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Mark McClusky, James Foster, and Emma Tyrell. 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 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, where we link to all of the major references that you heard about here today. Thanks for listening! 

DUCKWORTH: I watched Wheel of Fortune, and I was like, first of all, if you cannot see that that is “Oklahoma, sweet Oklahoma,” you’re fucking brain dead. 

DUBNER: You swear a lot for someone who doesn’t even drink, I have to say.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I’ve been swearing more this last week.

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  • Amy C. Edmondson, Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School.
  • Dacher Keltner, Professor of psychology at University of California, Berkeley.



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