DUCKWORTH: Do you know who I’m having dinner with tonight?
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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 does it mean to be successful?
MAUGHAN: No one ever feels like they made it. There’s no such thing as, like, “Oh, I reached the pinnacle.”
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MAUGHAN: Angela, today we have a really interesting question from Steve Carlson. He says, “In episode 171, Angela said, quote, ‘Gritty people are more successful,’” unquote.
DUCKWORTH: Okay, now I’m all ears. Go ahead.
MAUGHAN: So he continues, “How is Angela defining success?” And then says, “My wife and I often discuss how to define success in life. Are we successful? Would we say that our friends are successful? How do we know if our adult kids are successful? There don’t seem to be many ways to measure success due to the ambiguity of the defining criteria.” However — this is where Steve goes to ChatGPT and asks ChatGPT —
DUCKWORTH: It’s probably what I would do.
MAUGHAN: Exactly. He asks ChatGPT, “What are the variables for success?” And was given these eight variables. “Achievement of goals” —
DUCKWORTH: Okay, wait, I need to get a pen to write these down. Okay, go.
MAUGHAN: And then we’ll determine whether you agree. “Achievement of goals. Happiness and fulfillment. Financial stability. Personal growth and development. Resilience and overcoming challenges. A balanced life. And integrity and ethics.” And then he ends, “How do Mike and Angela define success?” I think what he’s really asking here is: is ChatGPT smarter than we are? I’m just kidding.
DUCKWORTH: You know, it’s not a bad question. I don’t know that ChatGPT is wiser than we are. And the reason I say that is that the question of, you know, what is success is obviously a deeply philosophical question. I mean, it’s not just a psychological question — which it is. And I would trust a certain entity more than even ChatGPT, which is Marty Seligman — or I could say, who is Marty Seligman. So Marty is my former Ph.D. advisor, and I think he’s relevant to bring up because he has spent really, I would say, most of his professional life trying to understand the answer to this question.
MAUGHAN: Wait seriously? How to define success?
DUCKWORTH: How to define happiness and a life well lived, let’s put it that way. And I think Marty would say that there are five criteria. I kind of lost count of the ChatGPT list, but I know that Marty’s list is different. And it has an acronym, PERMA, and he’s done research on each of the five elements, and he has opinions about which ones are most important. What’s interesting and provocative about this theory of a life well lived is that Marty thinks this is a collectively exhaustive, mutually exclusive list.
MAUGHAN: That’s a bold, bold claim. Wow. Okay, well, first of all, I’m never going to argue with Marty Seligman. Second of all —
DUCKWORTH: It’s so much fun to argue with Marty Seligman.
MAUGHAN: If he’s going to say this is a mutually exclusive, exhaustive list, then I say we dive into it.
DUCKWORTH: Right? Then after this conversation, you could decide whether you’re living a good life or not, at least according to Marty Seligman. So, all right, let’s go in order. I know some people hate acronyms, but T.B.H, they’re there for a reason. So PERMA — P is positive emotion. It is what it sounds like, you know, feeling happy and not feeling sad and angry all the time, right? That’s positive emotion. E is engagement. It’s being really absorbed in what you’re doing. R is my favorite. And I think research has the most evidence, honestly, behind R being important to overall life satisfaction. That’s relationships — relationships with your friends, relationships with your family, relationships with the people you work with. And then M is Meaning. It’s not the same thing as positive emotion. Meaning is a sense of being part of something larger than yourself. It’s a sense of service, really, a sense of purpose to an end that is more important than your own personal goals. And then finally, there’s the A, which is achievement, or sometimes it’s called accomplishment, you know, what I study, I guess. People who do things that by some objective measure, usually — I guess you could debate whether achievement could just be in your own eyes — but achievement is goals that are typically recognizable by the rest of the world, like, you know, winning an Emmy.
MAUGHAN: I love that that’s the example. I think that’s such a fascinating framework because, at least when I read Steve’s question, the first thing that came to mind is I think so many people anchor on the A, right? Achievement, accomplishment — that’s what the world tells us success is. And I think what Marty’s doing is kind of zooming out to give us a broader framework to say, “Hey, is this happiness? Is this a life well lived?” There’s a really interesting survey put out by Populace and Gallup called the “Success Index.” And they looked at how people define success. What do they think, quote, a successful life looks like. And this is what I thought was one of the most interesting lines in there. It said the vast majority of Americans, more than 80 percent believe they are achieving success, quote, “according to their own view of success, rather than what they believe to be society’s view of success.”
DUCKWORTH: So the great majority of people believe that they are achieving their own goals, even if they’re not consensually recognized by the rest of humanity. Is that right?
MAUGHAN: Yeah, and what they did is they kind of broke down success to talk about relationships, character, finance, health, work, quality of life, status, education. But again, I think that when I hear the phrase “success,” or when I’m teaching this class at the university and people are talking about all these goals, they’re so often focused only on the A, only on the achievement or accomplishment portion. And I think when we, as a society, look at what success looks like, we have this messed up idea — or incomplete, I should say, incomplete idea because we only think of the A, the accomplishment portion.
DUCKWORTH: You’re making me think more carefully about PERMA but I do want to say in defense or clarification of PERMA and Marty, that if I look at the items on his questionnaire — the PERMA profiler, which Marty and his students developed to measure how well-lived your life is at the moment. If I look at the items that measure the A in PERMA for achievement: how much of the time do you feel you’re making progress toward accomplishing your goals? How often do you achieve the important goals you have set for yourself? How often are you able to handle your responsibilities? If I stop and think about them, which I just did — these are actually subjectively determined goals, right? These are personal goals. You could, for example, say that I’m a 10 out of 10 because I really wanted to learn how to play a few notes on the guitar. And like, nobody’s going to give you a Grammy for that. Or I want to try improv. Nobody’s going to give you an Emmy for that. But, if you just look at the questionnaire, these are not societal goals. These are personal goals.
MAUGHAN: Which I agree with 100 percent in terms of Marty’s definition. I just think that most people in life don’t necessarily look at it that way. Like, are my children successful?
DUCKWORTH: Right, when you say achievement, we don’t think about, like, just in your own head. Just by your own measure.
MAUGHAN: What we say is like, “Oh, did your kids go to Harvard? Did they get this good job?” And so often when you meet anyone at a cocktail hour or something, what is almost the first question that always comes out? “Oh, what do you do?” So there’s this 2009 TED Talk called, “A Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success,” by an author named Alain de Botton. I’m not good at French. I don’t know how to say this —
DUCKWORTH: Oh, Alain de Botton! I don’t know how to say his name either, but I do know his work, because he has this thing in the United Kingdom called the School of Life. He’s really an interesting thinker.
MAUGHAN: So, Alain says, “What is a snob? A snob is anyone who takes a small part of you and uses that to come to a complete vision of who you are.” And then talks about this idea of job snobbery where we do go up so often in any situation and say, “Oh, what do you do?” And then use that to evaluate whether we want to keep investing in that relationship or talk to this person more.
DUCKWORTH: When my dad would be picking me up from cheerleading practice or some after school activity, and we would, on the rare occasions that we did, take another kid home and drop them off, the first thing that my dad would say is — he would turn around and he would say to my friend, “What does your father do?” Like, that was first thing. Yeah. I don’t even think he said hi. I think he was like, “What does your father do?”
MAUGHAN: And not even what do your parents do?
DUCKWORTH: And then, you know, nervously and confused, my friend would be like, “Dentist?” You know, like, what’s the right answer? I’m not sure my dad ever needed to ask that question. I do think you’re right. It’s how most people think of the word achievement. They’re not thinking just according to your own standards. They’re thinking about everyone’s standards. But what’s interesting psychologically is that the goals that you do set for yourself, they actually carry more weight in your everyday experience. So if you’re disappointing society, that only matters if you have somehow internalized the goals of society. Most people walk around trying to compare how their life is going honestly to their own standards and goals.
MAUGHAN: Do you think that’s true? I don’t think that’s true.
DUCKWORTH: You don’t think that’s true?
MAUGHAN: No, as a culture and society, I think we have internalized the —
DUCKWORTH: I didn’t say that we haven’t internalized. I said that only bothers you to the extent you have internalized these societal standards. So they’re not automatically internalized. And of course everyone’s probably internalized social norms, standards, goals to some extent. But there is a difference, and it is possible to not care.
MAUGHAN: I think that’s 100 percent true. It’s possible to not care. I just think that it’s rare and it takes a very intentional approach to life. In the business world, people will ask “what’s success?” or “what was it like to achieve success?” And the answer that I hear all the time from successful people, quote unquote, is that no one ever feels like they made it. There’s no such thing as like, “Oh, I reached the pinnacle.” One of my favorite people talks about, oh, you know, there are people who peaked in high school or peaked at this point or whatever. And her response is just don’t peak, like always be striving —
DUCKWORTH: Oh, like, in other words, always look for another goal, like, immediately after, so there isn’t a peak.
MAUGHAN: 100 percent.
DUCKWORTH: Every grit paragon I have ever studied. Literally every grit — and I mean that literally. — has a mindset of: what is life, but to constantly set a new goal? I’ll give you a reasonably recent example. I was interviewing Kerri Walsh Jennings, the iconic volleyball player. I can’t remember how many gold medals she’s won at the Olympics over multiple Olympics. And she said, “You know what it’s like to win an Olympic gold medal? It’s great. For five minutes. And then what happens is this. I immediately set the next goal. I am immediately looking to the horizon.” And actually, one of the, I think, most profound insights into human nature is that we are quite literally comparing reality to what we want it to be. And you don’t have to be an Olympic athlete to do that. You’re like, coffee, is this warm enough or should I heat it up in the microwave? Like, do you think this email is ready to send? Or I don’t know, maybe I should actually read it one more time. We’re constantly comparing reality to some goal we have. Maybe we don’t have goals as high as Kerri Walsh Jennings, but we’re always doing it. It’s baked into human nature. And so this idea of “don’t peak” — it’s so deep, Mike, honestly, because I think what it means is that, at a profound level, we’re all striving to reach our own goals that we’ve decided are important to us. And I think the thing I would like to say to Steve, right, about success and is it an outward thing or an inward thing is: look, you and I are constantly setting goals. We’re always measuring ourselves according to the goals we set. I think there is something about the word achievement that makes us assume that those goals are going to be consensual, that everyone agrees on what’s important, and that the goals that you think I should have are somehow the goals that I should have. And that’s not always the case. I don’t think when Diana Nyad said like, “I want to swim from Florida to Cuba without a shark cage” — I mean, it’s totally cool, but I — I don’t actually think that was something that like a lot of people care about. And I really believe she did not care that it was just her goal.
MAUGHAN: I think that’s really interesting. Let me tell you a story about a multiple Olympic gold medalist over many, many Olympics.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, now you’ve got me, like, my spine is straight.
MAUGHAN: Not Kerri Walsh Jennings, but Michael Phelps. So Michael Phelps is undoubtedly the greatest swimmer of all time, right?
DUCKWORTH: Mm, wait, hold on, Katie Ledecky, giving him some competition. Maybe the greatest male swimmer.
MAUGHAN: Greatest male swimmer. And Katie is unbelievable. I was going off their number of current Olympic medals, but yes.
DUCKWORTH: And she is undoubtedly the best female swimmer of all time.
MAUGHAN: And those two are actually friends, by the way, So Michael has more gold medals than anyone in history. We’ll say it that way. And in the midst of the peak of his fame and his athletic prowess and accomplishment, he was so insanely unhappy that he said he no longer wanted to live anymore.
DUCKWORTH: Wait, at the peak of his athletic career?
DUCKWORTH: Interesting. I didn’t know that.
MAUGHAN: So he has all this money, all this fame, all this attention, can win basically any race he gets in. And he’s so unhappy that he’s to the point where he said, “I don’t want to live anymore.” And I got to talk to him one time about this, ‘cause I was in a rough spot, and I just said, “Hey, tell me how you got out of that. How did you move beyond this idea?” Because I would have said Michael Phelps is at the peak. He’s where we’re all hoping to end up somehow. And yet he’s so unhappy. And the main thing he told me, it came down to two kind of elements. He said, one, I had to learn to define myself as more than just an athlete. Even if defining himself as an athlete was, “I’m the greatest male swimmer in the history of the world,” that wasn’t enough. And so, a huge thing for him at the time — when I’m having this conversation with him, he’s now married to Nicole, he has his first son Boomer — and he said, as I began to really think through how to define myself as a son, as a husband, as a friend, all these other relationships, all those things were so key to him having a better view of success. And that’s how he broke through this really negative thing. The second thing for him is he said, I had to learn what I needed for me versus just what, again, everyone else said I needed. He said, for example, I knew that I needed sun every single day.
DUCKWORTH: Like sunshine
MAUGHAN: I needed to see the sunlight. And so he moved to Arizona because he just said, “It’s sunny there all the time. And I needed that.” And so his view of success was so different. If you’d asked me back in the day, like, is Michael Phelps successful? My immediate knee-jerk answer would have been, well, obviously. I mean, the guy’s on top of the world. But once you get more into it, you realize that the key to all of this is: you define success for you. It doesn’t always translate, and that’s where I loved the perspective he gave me that day when I was in a — in a rough spot.
DUCKWORTH: I think it is important to think about achievement being only one of five elements of well being. If you want to believe Marty that there are five, like, it’s certainly only one of the elements of well being. And even for achievement, maybe you could have a piece of paper and a line drawn down the middle and on the left side you could write “achievement by my standards, according to my goals.” And then you could put on there, like, “Teach myself a few notes of guitar and say nice things to people on my way to work,” like, you know, things that probably you’re not going to get a gold medal for.
MAUGHAN: I actually love that.
DUCKWORTH: And I think the left side of the paper should be there! And maybe people just want to stop there. Like in the poll that you were telling me about, nine out of 10 people are like, “Great, according to my own standards, my own goals, things are going really well,” right? I personally think there should be a line down the middle of your piece of paper because I think it’s at least useful to title that second column “Objective measures of achievement.” And you can choose not to think about that right side of the paper. You can choose to not care about the right side of the paper. I do. I mean, I do when I hire people. For example, one of the most actionable pieces of advice that I would give a C.E.O. is if you want to hire somebody, what you’re likely to do is to overweight the interview. You’re like, “Oh, what a great conversation. I love that person. I’m going to hire them.” Based on a 45-minute conversation —
MAUGHAN: Your C.E.O. impression is my favorite.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, that was my C.E.O. impression. “I’m going to hire that person” and I’ll bang the table, C.E.O.s often bang the table. So anyway, the thing that I say to C.E.O.s is that you should look at the resume. The resume is not 45 minutes of anything. The resume is an artifact of somebody’s life. And I do say to C.E.O.s, you should look for evidence of multi-year commitments to goals and objective achievements in those pursuits. And if somebody feels like it was important to them to achieve something, I don’t want to denigrate that. I don’t. But there is, I think, for me anyway, a usefulness of having another column, which is objectively recognizable achievements. And I think for many people who are looking to hire, looking for the people that they want to work with, the right side of the paper at least deserves to exist, even if you want to leave it blank.
MAUGHAN: I absolutely agree. And coming back to a familiar NSQ theme, it’s both-and. This is not an either-or and I think that’s really important. And certainly in hiring, you look for people who have a proven track record —
DUCKWORTH: Of objective achievements, right? Like if they show up and they’re like, “So, resume, nearly blank, but let me tell you about how I have achieved my goals and made myself —” and, you know, again, of course that’s important. The left side of the paper is arguably much more important than the right side of the paper, but I will never not care about the right side.
MAUGHAN: I think that’s what Marty’s PERMA is talking about, right? I think the genius of that is that it’s accomplishment plus, which I think is where Michael Phelps felt this, like, it’s accomplishment plus, but at the time it was just accomplishment. And I think Angela and I would love to hear what success means to you. Record a voice memo in a quiet place with your mouth close to the phone and email it to NSQ@Freakonomics.com. And maybe we’ll play it on a future episode of the show. And if you like the show and want to support it, the best thing you can do is tell a friend about it. You can also spread the word on social media or leave a review in your podcast app.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Mike and Angela discuss how other so-called “successful” people define success.
MAUGHAN: Whatever you are, be a good one. And use both sides of that page!
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Now, back to Mike and Angela’s conversation about what it means to be successful.
MAUGHAN: Angela, let me give you a definition of success that I think you will absolutely love. And if you don’t, then I’m going to be so surprised and sad.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. No pressure.
MAUGHAN: So the legendary U.C.L.A. basketball coach, John Wooden.
DUCKWORTH: John Wooden.
MAUGHAN: Yes! Also paragon of grit.
DUCKWORTH: Also, Ted Lasso likes John Wooden, so, you know, that says a lot.
MAUGHAN: If Ted Lasso — and even maybe Taylor Swift someday — if they like somebody, like, blown away combo. So, John Wooden gives a TED Talk back in 2001 called “The Difference Between Winning and Succeeding.” And in there, he talks about when he was a teacher and how, during this time of teaching high school in South Bend, Indiana, he was coming up with his own definition of success. He said it’s my own definition. It’s not how society tells me. It’s not how anyone else tells me. This is what I believe success is. And this is what he said, and I’m going to quote it. He said, “peace of mind attained only through self satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you are capable.” He said, “If you make the effort to do the best of what you’re capable, trying to improve the situation that exists for you, I think that’s success and I don’t think others can judge that. It’s like character and reputation. Reputation is what you’re perceived to be. Character is what you really are.” And he said, “My opponents will tell you that they have never heard me mention winning.” This is one of the winningest coaches in history.
DUCKWORTH: I think he’s set records, right? Ten N.C.A.A. championships, I think, back to back?
MAUGHAN: Was it? Oh my gosh. That’s unreal. But he says, “My idea is that you can lose when you outscore someone in the game and you can win when you’re outscored.” It comes down to like, did you put out your very best effort?
DUCKWORTH: So what you’re saying is that John Wooden, one of the most quote, unquote successful coaches in history — really by any standard, right? Certainly by objective standards — is all about the left side of the page, is all about like, your goals, how did you do against your goals? How much did you strive? And it seems from that TED Talk — and actually, I think, yes, being something of a student of John Wooden, owning multiple books and doing a lot of research on him, that you’re right. He did not talk a lot about the right side of the page, about winning the N.C.A.A. championship, about the score in any game.
MAUGHAN: Yeah but I think I would say that he knew that if you handled the left side of the page, he was going to win. Because he still recruited great players.
DUCKWORTH: I think you’re coming to where I’m coming to, right? If John Wooden only cared about the left side of the page, then maybe he would just take a random sample of guys for his basketball team. He didn’t. I think he cared deeply about the right side, even if he cared more about the left side. And here’s what I would say about the people that I’ve studied that are paragons of grit and they’re incredibly successful, which is why I study them. I think they do something extremely adaptive that all of us can copy. And that is: they mostly think about the left side of the page. The vast majority of the time, they’re thinking about what they need to do that day, that they’ve decided they need to do. They’re thinking about: how can I set a personal record today? Not like, who’s in the other lane? Am I swimming faster than them? But, how am I relative to yesterday and the day before? And where do I want to be tomorrow relative to today? That’s all left side of the page. That’s all you, right? But I do think that the champions that I study are not completely oblivious to the right side of the page, even if they are biased, if you will, to spend their time and attention on the left.
MAUGHAN: I love that. I think it’s so true. I had a roommate in college, name was Trevor and one of the questions we would often ask ourselves is, do we have the self-confidence to go into a career that would not lead to the quote unquote achievement, accomplishment from a financial remuneration, from a prestige perspective, etc? Meaning: all of our friends are going to graduate from college, everyone wants to go get these big jobs, make a lot of money, have prestige according to the world. He said, “But if I just want to go be a high school basketball coach and make a high school teacher’s salary, like do I have the self confidence? Is that still success?” And frankly it’s not saying that you’re living a mediocre life. It’s just saying that I want to be the very best high school basketball coach I know that I’m not going to make the money of a tech C.E.O. or a professor, but I’m still going to be the best at what I do.
DUCKWORTH: So are you saying that you do or you don’t advise young people to care about objective achievement?
MAUGHAN: I guess what I’m saying is that not everyone who wants to be a coach needs to say, “I want to be a coach in the N.B.A.” I’m saying it’s okay if your objective achievement is: I want to be the very best coach in high school. Even though the world would say that an N.B.A. coach has way more prestige, way more money, way more status than a high school basketball coach. I don’t care which one you pick. You know, if your dad has a kid driving in the backseat of your car and is like, “What does your dad do?” And they say, “My dad’s a high school basketball coach,” versus, “My dad is the coach of the Philadelphia 76ers,” most people have a different reaction to which coach. I’m saying that, like, yeah, you should care about objective. You should also care about the left side of the page. But you get to define what success is. And not everyone has to go after the prestige of the most noticeable job out there.
DUCKWORTH: So you’re saying that the right side of the page is there and maybe you would advise anybody including a young person to actually think yeah, what’s on the right side is important. But it doesn’t have to actually have a certain list. Like Emmy Award, Grammy Award, salary, fame isn’t the only thing that can populate the right side. It could be, you know what? 20 of the students that I coached last semester decided to write me a gratitude note. That is an objective indication that I have done something. It doesn’t have to be anything more or less than that. Is that kind of what you’re saying?
MAUGHAN: Yeah, or that my high school swimmers did the very best they could and we won state versus I coached 12 Olympians. Like, it’s okay if within your world you’re doing great.
DUCKWORTH: You know who my favorite coach is?
MAUGHAN: I do not.
DUCKWORTH: I have a lot of favorites and I don’t like to pick among my children, but, you know, he’s not an N.F.L. coach and he’s not an N.B.A. or N.H.L. coach.
MAUGHAN: Because I would have guessed Pete Carroll or Brad Stevens, I’ll be honest.
DUCKWORTH: I’ll put it this way: do you know who I’m having dinner with tonight? This is better. This is easier. One of my favorite coaches, and his name is Kirk Flatow, and he is a high school track coach from the Monta Vista Matadors track team in California. He coaches these high school kids.
MAUGHAN: What’s crazy is I was not going to guess that.
DUCKWORTH: I don’t think you were going to guess that, but Kirk and I are having dinner. He truly is one of my favorite coaches and maybe he’ll never be as famous as John Wooden, but oh my gosh, he is so John Wooden. He is so Ted Lasso. And I’ll tell you that he, like all the great coaches that I study, focuses his athletes and themselves mostly — again, mostly, 95 percent of the time, 99 percent of the time — on the left side of the page. You know, what do we need to do today? How do I get you into the right mindset? How do we do deliberate practice? What are we going to do to get your stride to be what it needs to be? And also: how can you demonstrate character? All these things are really on the left side of the page. They’re personal. They don’t go on your resume. But I think he does care about the right side of the page. I mean, he’s also teaching these young people that excellence of some objective kind — and you’re right, Mike, it doesn’t have to be consensual societal standards. It doesn’t have to be on Wikipedia or IMDb or anything else for it to count, but I don’t think he goes to track meets and says it never matters for champions. Like, I don’t think there’s anything hypocritical about a life where you’re trying to do your best in all the ways that John Wooden said in the TED talk I recommend watching five times. But like, it’s not that you can’t also care about winning the game.
MAUGHAN: I do think that it’s really interesting if we go back to Chris’s question because I love how he phrased it. He said, “My wife and I often discuss how to define success in life. Are we successful? Would we say our friends are successful? How do we know if our kids are successful?” And I think what we’ve gone through is that that there are multiple elements, obviously, to success, and that success is this right side and left side of the page, it’s —
DUCKWORTH: Maybe you don’t have to draw the line down the middle. Can I just say you can draw the line —
MAUGHAN: Two thirds.
DUCKWORTH: Seven eighths to the right, yeah.
MAUGHAN: But it’s like, what is success to me? And then what are the objective indications of it? And whatever you are — this is a famous saying in my family — whatever you are, be a good one. And so if that’s at the high school level, great. If that’s at the college level, great. If that’s at the professional level, great. But whatever you are, be a good one. And use both sides of that page.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I love that. I love all the Maughan-isms. I kind of want to be Maughan, T.B.H..
MAUGHAN: Do you want to hear a family story then, in closing?
DUCKWORTH: Yes, of course. Always.
MAUGHAN: So this is about my mom’s dad. His name was Marion Hanks, and this is back in probably the late 1930s. And it became like family lore. He grew up very poor on the west side of Salt Lake City, in this little adobe house, and if you got a perfect grade point average your senior year, then you could get a watch, the West High School watch. And it was what he dreamt of his entire schooling career. He was a great athlete —
DUCKWORTH: Wait, that wasn’t just like a family thing? That was actually a thing in the schools?
MAUGHAN: Yeah, yeah, the school gave you this watch and, you know, they didn’t have any money and this would be the only watch he’d get. But it was also the prestige of knowing that he got the perfect score.
DUCKWORTH: It was a symbol, like a gold medal.
MAUGHAN: And this is back in the day when you would go up to the teacher at the end of class on the last day and they would write down the actual grade on your report card. So he goes around, he’s got all A’s. His final class is his English class and he goes up to the teacher and hands her the report card and she writes down C. And he looks at her and he said, “No, I mean, I, I did all the work. I completed all the assignments. I have an A in your class.” And she said, “I have stayed up all night agonizing over this decision because I know that by the objective measures, you earned an A, but I know what Marian Hanks is capable of, and you didn’t do your best, and you didn’t try hard. You did the least amount of effort possible, and that still earned you an objective A, but it was a C for you.”
DUCKWORTH: She was grading the left side of his page.
MAUGHAN: Yeah, and she said, “I know what this will cost you. I know what this means to you, I stayed up all night worrying about this, and I love you too much give you an A.” And so she gave him a C, and then he went on to tell the story, he said, “Thankfully I lived long enough that I spoke at her funeral and was able to tell her all these years later” — I mean, before she died and at the funeral — that the greatest gift she ever gave him was knocking down his objective measure of success to remind him that it’s not just either-or. And so that became kind of the story of like, you have to do your best. Whatever you are, be a good one.
DUCKWORTH: You were right. I do love that. And I do think sometimes in life, you need to grade yourself or have someone else grade you on the left side of the page. You know, maybe the right side of the page is the thing that we think is the problem, but in some ways getting real insight into your left side, your subjective goals, what’s important to you, your own effort, you know, that’s maybe as rare as a gold medal in the Olympics.
MAUGHAN: And just as valuable.
This episode was produced by Julie Kanfer and Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now, here’s a fact-check of today’s conversation:
In the first half of the show, Angela references Diana Nyad’s swim across the Florida Straits, saying that Nyad swam from Florida to Cuba without a shark cage. Angela is correct about the shark cage, but wrong about the direction of the journey: Nyad actually started in Cuba and ended in Florida. She first attempted the 110-mile swim in her 20s and was unsuccessful. After three more failed attempts, she became the first person to accomplish the feat unassisted in 2013 — at the age of 64. It took her more than 53 hours.
Later, Mike says that Michael Phelps moved to Arizona because, quote, “It’s sunny there all the time. And needed that.” It’s true that the Olympic swimmer prefers training in the sun and cited it as one of the reasons he was happier after moving to Arizona. However, the main reason Phelps made the move in 2015 was actually to continue training with his longtime coach, Bob Bowman, who had accepted a job at Arizona State University. That wasn’t the first time Phelps followed his coach to a new city — Bowman coached at the University of Michigan between the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, and Phelps relocated to Ann Arbor to continue training with him during that stretch too.
Finally, Angela says that she thinks legendary UCLA men’s basketball coach John Wooden won ten N.C.A.A. championships back to back. Under Wooden, UCLA did win an impressive 10 championship titles, but they came during the 12-year stretch from 1964 through 1975. The Bruins lost in 1966 and 1974.
That’s it for the fact-check.
Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear some of your thoughts about our episode on analysis paralysis.
Ethan SANDWEISS: Hey Mike and Angela, this is Ethan. I used to work in a jewelry store selling engagement rings and often customers would come in and they had no idea what design they wanted and would get overwhelmed and leave. And I think one of the important things with professionals, whether it be car salesman, like Mike was talking about, or engagement ring salesman, is knowing how to simplify to a few key questions and kind of channeling customers into what they want without making them feel like they are being restricted in their options. And I think that helps with paralysis by analysis.
That was listener Ethan Sandweiss. Thanks to him and to everyone who shared their stories with us. And remember, we’d love to hear how you define success in your own life. Send a voice memo to NSQ@Freakonomics.com, and you might hear your voice on the show!
Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: Should we give children more independence?
DUCKWORTH: We are freaking out because a mom sends their kids to Macy’s on the subway when they’re in middle school?!
That’s next week on No Stupid Questions.
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No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and The Economics of Everyday Things. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. Lyric Bowditch is our production associate. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne. We had research assistance from Daniel Moritz-Rabson. Our theme song was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to NSQ@Freakonomics.com. To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Freakonomics.com/NSQ. Thanks for listening!
DUCKWORTH: Oh, it’s never too early for a Red Bull.
MAUGHAN: The only Red Bulls I’ve ever had in my life are recording this podcast.
- Alain de Botton, writer and founder of The School of Life.
- Kirk Flatow, head coach of co-ed varsity track and field at Monta Vista High School.
- Katie Ledecky, competitive swimmer.
- Diana Nyad, long-distance swimmer.
- Michael Phelps, former competitive swimmer.
- Martin Seligman, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
- Kerri Walsh Jennings, professional beach volleyball player.
- John Wooden, men’s basketball coach at the University of California, Los Angeles.
- “Why Success Doesn’t Lead to Satisfaction,” by Ron Carucci (Harvard Business Review, 2023).
- “Katie Ledecky Matches Michael Phelps Record With Dominant World Championships Win,” by Patrick Andres (Sports Illustrated, 2023).
- Success Index, by Populace and Gallup (2019).
- “PERMA and the Building Blocks of Well-Being,” by Martin Seligman (The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2018).
- “Michael Phelps: ‘I Am Extremely Thankful That I Did Not Take My Life,’” by Susan Scutti (CNN, 2018).
- “The PERMA-Profiler: A Brief Multidimensional Measure of Flourishing,” by Julie Butler and Margaret L. Kern (International Journal of Wellbeing, 2016).
- “Diana Nyad: Dream Accomplished,” by Michel Martin (Tell Me More, 2013).
- “A Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success,” by Alain de Botton (TEDGlobal, 2009).
- “The Difference Between Winning and Succeeding,” by John Wooden (TED, 2001).