Hi NSQers. We’re off for this week, so we’re sharing one of our favorite questions from the NSQ archive. We’ll be back next week with a brand-new episode. In the meantime, enjoy this classic conversation.
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DUBNER: I think that’s a real paradox.
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DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.
DUCKWORTH + DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.
Today on the show: Is there a formula for good advice?
DUCKWORTH: Hey, this is excellent advice. Why aren’t people taking it?
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DUCKWORTH: Stephen, I wonder what the very best piece of advice you’ve ever received was.
DUBNER: Oh, that’s so easy. I can’t believe you’re even asking me that, Angela.
DUCKWORTH: Now I really want to know.
DUBNER: The best advice I’ve ever received was approximately 1.5 years ago, when an angel from heaven visited me and said, “Stephen, life is short, and if you know what’s good for you, you will ask Angela Duckworth to make a podcast with you and call it No Stupid Questions.”
DUCKWORTH: That was not the best piece of advice you’ve ever received.
DUBNER: I think it was an angel from heaven. It might actually just have been our executive producer.
DUCKWORTH: Okay, you will have to tell me the second-best piece of advice you’ve ever received, then.
DUBNER: The advice that comes to mind is something that happened when I was quite young. I was maybe 11, 12 years old. I grew up in upstate New York, kind of middle-of-nowhere. And our dad had died when I was about 10. And so, it was rural, but people really did look out for each other. There came to emerge a pattern where men who were not my father would contact my mom and say, “Hey, would you like me to take little Stevie out for an adventure of some kind?” And it was almost always fishing, because that’s what people did. So, there was this one guy — his name was Bernie Duszkiewicz. He was the barber in the town. And Bernie took me out on a boat in this lake one day. We were trying to catch, you know, the big fish. And we were getting nothing. We were getting no bites. And this went on for, like, an hour or two. And I was bored. But I was also very polite and obedient, so I didn’t say, like, “This sucks. I’m bored.” I just sat there, kept fishing. Then it started to rain really hard. And Bernie Duszkiewicz drove the boat in toward the shore under some trees to be protected from the rain. And, all of a sudden, we started catching all these fish. But they were little fish — too little to keep. But I was having a blast. Then the sun comes out, and Bernie Duszkiewicz pulls up anchor and drives right back out into the middle of the lake. And even though I was kind of quiet, and shy, and obedient, I said, “Hey, what are we doing? This is the best fishing spot ever!” And he said, “Eh, these are just the little fish. We don’t want to keep catching them. That’s not really worth the time. Let’s go catch a real fish.” So, we went back out. We never caught a real fish! We literally sat there for another two hours catching nothing. But the lesson I took away, after much rumination, was that sometimes it is really a good idea to go for the big fish — to not be satisfied with the little, easy target in front of you, even if you spend a lot of your time pursuing the big goal and it doesn’t work out. And that’s something that, I don’t know, for some reason, that day stuck with me long enough that I was able to process it and as an adult, think about that all the time. It’s one of the reasons I really fell in love with economics. One of the central tenets of economics is opportunity cost: if you spend all your time catching the little fish, you won’t have time or develop the technique or the patience to ever catch the big ones. I think it’s the best single piece of advice that’s ever been sent my way — even though it wasn’t really meant to be advice.
DUCKWORTH: Do you know what? I asked you this question today, but I asked Jason this question recently. I think he, more or less, gave the same exact answer.
DUBNER: Bernie Duszkiewicz took Jason fishing, also? He was a promiscuous fisher.
DUCKWORTH: You are so literal, Stephen. Very odd coincidence. I don’t remember who the person was who gave him the advice. It was just, essentially, like, “take a risk.” Apply for the job that you don’t think you’re going to get. Send a note to someone who you don’t think is going to reply. And, around the same time, I was reading the collected writings of, um — who’s the guy who started Singapore? Like, Lee something? But anyway, he said that one way to run a country and to create a culture is to avoid risk and to therefore avoid failure. And then he said, “But the motto of Singapore should be, ‘Who dares, wins.'” This was apparently the motto of the British Special Forces. And I think that’s the moral of the fish story, right?
DUBNER: Yeah, I think opportunity cost is this notion that, until you acknowledge it head-on, we don’t necessarily think about very much. Because it’s easier to measure the things that you’ve done rather than not done — whereas we’re not very good at measuring the options that you didn’t pursue, for whatever reason. And I think that’s a central blind spot. For me, it certainly was when I was younger, because when we make decisions, we often are informed by what’s right in front of us — what our friends, or family, or peer group are doing — as opposed to think about a variety of options. If I’m spending five hours doing X, that’s five hours I can’t spend doing Y. Years and years later, I heard advice from a friend who became a real mentor to me. He was an acting teacher, of all things. And I wasn’t an actor, so the circumstances were a little bit odd. And this was advice that came from Stella Adler, the acting teacher, and she had gotten it from Stanislavski before her. And this advice that was passed down from generation to generation, was that talent is not just overrated, but we think about it the wrong way, and that, really, your biggest talent is your choice — your ability to make a good choice, a good decision. This was in the realm of acting, but I’ve always found that to be an incredibly powerful way to think about pursuing something intellectual, career-wise, personal relationships, and so on, because you really do control your choices, to a large degree. And how you make those choices adds up to how talented you are in a certain arena. So, I’ve told you my fish story. We’ve heard about Jason’s inspiration as a younger person. What about you? What’s the best advice you ever got?
DUCKWORTH: The first thing that leaps to mind is: I was about 19 or 20 years old. There was a professor named Kay Merseth, who I’m still in touch with. And I remember being unhappy, and going to Kay for advice. I can’t exactly remember whether it was another romantic breakup — because I had a lot of them, so that’s statistically likely that that’s why I went to Kay — or more that I was struggling with a career decision, like: Should I go into education — which I really want to do, but my dad wouldn’t speak to me after that? Or should I become a doctor, like he does want me to? And I remember she said this: “Angela, it sounds to me like you really want to make the right decision, the best decision.” And I nodded. And she said, “But life’s not like that. Life is a story. And your job is not to tell the ‘right’ story or even the ‘best’ story. It’s just to tell a story that you can be proud of.” And I went away from that day thinking, like, “What the hell did Kay mean? This is too deep for me.” But I have actually used that advice when I talk to undergraduates in my own course. Now they’re the 19- or 20-year-old, and I’m the professor. And I do think the reason why Kay gave that advice to me, and why I pass it along, is that I think I was a little bit paralyzed by, like, “What’s the absolutely correct or best decision?” And we can’t know. I mean, life is just mostly uncertainty. All we can do is act in a way where we can use the intuition we have. There are many, many paths in life, and who knows how this is going to turn out, but: Am I doing something that, at the end of the story, will I look back and say, “I’m proud of that”?
DUBNER: You know, having this conversation about the best advice we’ve ever gotten, it makes me think about the difference between solicited and unsolicited advice, because we do live in a world where a lot of people tell a lot of other people what they should do. So, do we know anything about the difference between advice that is sought and advice that is unsolicited?
DUCKWORTH: We do. Lauren Eskreis-Winkler was my graduate student, and then she grew up to be a postdoctoral fellow who was advised by me, but also by Ayelet Fishbach at University of Chicago and by Katy Milkman, who’s at Wharton, University of Pennsylvania. So, Lauren asks the question: Why is it that we typically don’t use the advice that other people give to us? And she was, in particular, thinking of when it was unsolicited.
DUBNER: Is that true, that we typically don’t follow advice? Do we know that?
DUCKWORTH: I think that what Lauren was thinking about is that many, many interventions don’t work. For example, the Food and Drug Administration, or whoever, is trying to get you to eat more vegetables or to exercise more. Or you do an intervention — as Lauren and I had done — with teenagers, trying to get them to sleep more, because: “Did you know that if you slept even an hour extra, because you’re so sleep deprived, that you’re going to feel better, you’re going to be more energetic?” We had done interventions like this for years, and sometimes they worked, but so often they didn’t. And I think that gave her the question, like, “Hey, this is excellent advice. Why aren’t people taking it?” And upon some reflection, she realized that it was unsolicited So, she said, “Look, I think what’s going on is that there is an unintended consequence of advice in that, when we receive it unsolicited, we can feel kind of stigmatized. Like, ‘Why are you giving me advice? You must think I need advice.'”
DUCKWORTH: And she decided that she would turn this on its head by, instead of giving advice to teenagers — whom we were trying to help do better, academically — she would ask them for their best advice. Like, what you just did with me is essentially what we did with these teenagers. Like, “What’s the best advice you can think of to give another teenager?”
DUBNER: And are they giving this advice to the adult academic researchers, or are they giving advice to their peers?
DUCKWORTH: We had students give advice to a slightly younger person.
DUBNER: Ah, okay.
DUCKWORTH: So, that tends to set a very nice dynamic, because that’s something that’s kind of normal. For example, in both of our stories, the person giving us advice was older. So, we were trying to elicit from these high-school students what their intuitions were about how to get homework done instead of procrastinating, about how to respond to a failing grade on a test without crumbling into never-ending despair. And so, we randomly assigned about 1,000 high school students to the condition where they had to give advice to other students. They did this by just taking a very short survey. They answered some multiple-choice questions. You know: “Where’s the best place to study?” “Which of the following do you think is the most encouraging thing to remember when you’re not doing well?” And then some open-ended questions, as well. And then, there was a control condition. And what we found was that giving advice can be extremely motivating. And, in fact, the following marking period, the report-card grades were higher in the class that the students most wanted to improve in — as well as math. We picked math because everyone in America seems to hate math.
DUBNER: That’s wonderful, and kind of amazing. But how do we know that the advice is any good? Or does it not matter? I mean, that’s not what you were going after in this case, right? In this case, you’re going after whether the people who gave advice did better themselves, correct?
DUCKWORTH: That’s right. In this case, the outcome was not, “Oh, who receives the advice? What happens to them?” but that these students themselves, the advice-givers, were going to do better. But let me tell you what else we did. We just read everything that the students said. And they gave shockingly awesome advice, Stephen.
DUBNER: For instance?
DUCKWORTH: Oh, you know: “Cellphones! Here’s the thing: Put it on mute, hide it in another room, give it to another person.” And I literally had studied that as a self-control researcher as something that absolutely you should do, and I knew the reasons why you should do it. And here we had 15-year-olds sounding like the sagest of sages — saying things like that. Or, you know, “When you fail something, it’s not you as a person. It’s just that this thing happened, and you should always look for something that you can learn from it.” And I think what this advice-giving experiment taught me is that we don’t always do what we know is best. Sometimes, you get advice from somebody, and you had never thought of it before. You’re like, “Oh, my goodness, you are right. We should always go for the bigger fish.” But I think sometimes we are just reminded of things that we knew in some way, shape, or form. And I think there is a lot of unused wisdom lying around inside of ourselves.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss when to ignore other people’s guidance and follow your gut instead.
DUCKWORTH: I sometimes do reject the advice, and sometimes I don’t. Maybe it’s half and half.
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Now, back to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about giving and receiving advice.
DUBNER: I could imagine that, especially considering how much many people like to give advice, that a lot of advice that we might receive could be really bad for at least two obvious reasons. One is: You know, there’s no quality control of advice, per se. It’s basically a bunch of people telling other people what they should do. And the other thing is that every piece of advice has a situational relevance — either the circumstances or the person receiving the advice. So, I can imagine that giving good advice is much harder than it would appear. You know, Oscar Wilde once said, “I always pass along good advice. It’s the only thing to do with it. It’s never of any use to oneself.” So, I think there are good reasons why people are skeptical of receiving advice from other people, especially because — and this is a gross overgeneralization, but I’m curious if you agree a little bit — the kind of people who seem to want to give advice frequently are the kind of people that I think have incentives that make me think they aren’t the best person to give advice.
DUCKWORTH: I agree that there may be an inverse correlation between somebody’s desire to give advice and anyone else’s desire to take it. Since advice can either fall on deaf ears or, actually, inadvertently stigmatize or just make the other person feel bad, or oppositional, or whatever, that’s yet another reason to reduce the overall level of unsolicited advice-giving. I think, in the case that you go to someone, and you ask, “Hey, I really want your opinion here.” That’s a completely different case.
DUBNER: You know, related to this conversation we’re having, we got a question from a listener not long ago. Her name is Jo. She wrote to say: “I’m a veterinary technician who would really love to go back to school and study to become a veterinarian. However, almost all the veterinarians I’ve ever worked with have advised against going back to school because of the high volume of debt that comes with it.” And I actually did go and look, and it is true that veterinarian school leaves a huge debt. On average, it’s more than $180,000. Which is not much less—
DUBNER: —than medical school, although dental school debt is even higher. It’s almost 300,000.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, my goodness.
DUBNER: But the difference is that veterinarians’ salary is typically well below, as far as I can tell, either dentist or a medical doctor. So, I think this is the background from which Jo is coming. But her question is, “At what point, if any, do you ignore the advice of other people and listen to your gut?” So, I think that’s a real paradox. People give you advice that they swear is good advice. Your gut tells you something different. So, Angela, how do you answer that question? When to ignore advice that may or may not be good?
DUCKWORTH: I have thought about this a lot, because I’m trying to teach my graduate students how to write. What typically happens is: They get feedback on something they’re writing, which is basically advice. Like, “I think this needs a shorter sentence. This is the sentence I think it should be.” And they just accept all of it. Right? And I tell them: Sometimes your gut and the adviser’s gut instinct is the same. You look at it, and you think, “Damn! That should be a shorter sentence! That’s great advice!” And, actually, I think that’s like 90 percent of good advice. I think you have this 10 percent where your gut and the adviser’s gut instinct, they disagree. In that case, it’s difficult, and I don’t know that there’s any rule about how to handle it. I would say to my students, if I reflect on it, and it’s not just gut, I sometimes do reject the advice, and sometimes I don’t. Maybe it’s half-and-half.
DUBNER: But I think what’s tricky is that often when we get advice, or maybe when we give advice, it’s an N of one. It’s a person giving advice to another person. And so, there’s no comparison. I’m thinking back to my graduate school. I went to grad school for writing. You would have these workshops where there’d be roughly 12 students and a professor. And you might submit a short story, or a chapter of a novel you were working on, or whatnot. Everybody would read it ahead of time, and then you would discuss it in class. Now, their advice would often be wildly contradictory. So, one person might say, “I liked this story a lot, but I think this character really needs to be a little bit more mysterious.” And then another person would say, “You know, I liked this story a lot, but I think that same character really needs to be more transparent.” A lot of people responded to that environment by getting essentially paralyzed, and then rewriting in a style in which everything read the same as everything else. And so, I would argue, when you have access to multiple streams of advice, A) it can get confusing, but B) that’s when you really have to sharpen your own ability to say, “Okay, I’m going to throw out 80 percent of that, and go with what I think resonates.” But I think that’s a really hard thing to do. Obviously, it’s domain-dependent. Writing and reading fiction is more subjective than doing bench work if you’re studying to be a chemist or biologist, let’s say.
DUCKWORTH: Well, you could have this rule: If it’s true that, a lot of the time, we get advice where, when we hear it, we think, “Yeah, that’s absolutely right.” Just do it! And then the rule could say: If you don’t agree, ignore it. Even if you just did that, which is probably not the optimal way to handle advice, you would still benefit a lot, because it would say you’d still be getting a lot of information from other people. I remember listening to Reid Hoffman, the venture capitalist. He created LinkedIn. And he said that, when there’s an investment that’s going to be wildly successful, what often happens is that venture capitalists are bimodal in their response — some hate it, some love it. And I think it’s because the ones who love it see something that the other people can’t see. And the fact that it’s an unusual thing means that it’s very high-return. Because, you know, it’s not so obvious that everyone’s already doing it, or has done it.
DUBNER: That’s a great point. So, Angela, my advice in this moment is that we should end this conversation. Are you willing to take that advice?
DUCKWORTH: My gut says we should absolutely do that.
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No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and Freakonomics, M.D. This episode was produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here is a fact-check of today’s conversations.
Angela shares that she’s reading the collective writings of, quote, “the guy who started Singapore,” but she can’t remember his full name. Angela was thinking of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister. In 1958, Lee helped to negotiate Singapore’s status as a self-governing state within the British Commonwealth, and ran for office on an anti-colonialist, anticommunist platform. He was elected prime minister in 1959 and held office for just over 30 years.
Later, when describing why many interventions don’t work, Angela references the Food and Drug Administration’s attempt to get Americans to eat more fruits and vegetables. An initiative like this would more likely be the purview of the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, which, like the FDA, is part of the Department of Health and Human Services. The office focuses on creating programs, services, and educational initiatives to reach national public health objectives, whereas the FDA is responsible for ensuring the safety of drugs, cosmetics, and our nation’s food supply.
Also, Angela says that everyone in America seems to hate math. It’s true that the average American student isn’t great at math. The 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress reports that only 34 percent of eighth-graders tested proficient in math at grade level, but that number takes on new meaning when you consider that the percentage of eighth-graders proficient in reading was also just 34 percent. And just because most students aren’t great at math doesn’t mean that they all hate the subject. According to a 2018 survey from the Pew Research Center, 58 percent of Americans say they actually liked studying math in grades K through 12!
That’s it for the fact-check.
Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: Why is Angie stepping down as C.E.O. from the nonprofit she founded.
DUCKWORTH: I am not someone who wants to lead. I want everyone to use my ideas and pay attention to me, but I don’t want to do the hard work of leadership.
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 Freakonomics, M.D. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. Our staff also includes Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Morgan Levey, Zack Lapinski, Julie Kanfer, Ryan Kelley, Jeremy Johnston, Jasmin Klinger, Emma Tyrell, Lyric Bowditch, Jacob Clemente and Alina Kulman. 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 follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Freakonomics.com/NSQ. Thanks for listening!
DUCKWORTH: Is that an episode? Does that work? I would never be a good producer. The whole podcast, I’m like, “Are people listening to this?”
- Stella Adler, actor, teacher, and founder of the Stella Adler Studio of Acting.
- Konstantin Stanislavski, actor, director, and creator of “Stanislavski’s system.”
- Katherine K. “Kay” Merseth, senior lecturer on education and director of the Teacher Education Program at Harvard University.
- Lauren Eskreis-Winkler, professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University.
- Ayelet Fishbach, professor of behavioral science and marketing at the University of Chicago.
- Katy Milkman, professor of behavioral science at the University of Pennsylvania.
- Oscar Wilde, author.
- Reid Hoffman, entrepreneur and co-founder of LinkedIn.
- “See How U.S. Fourth- and Eighth-Grade Students Performed in Mathematics” (The Nation’s Report Card, 2020).
- “Employment, Starting Salaries, and Educational Indebtedness of Year-2019 Graduates of US Veterinary Medical Colleges,” by Bridgette Bain (Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 2020).
- “Many Americans Say They Liked Math and Science in School, Thought About a STEM Career,” by Cary Funk and Kim Parker (The Pew Research Center, 2018).
- “Dear Abby: Should I Give Advice or Receive It?” by Lauren Eskreis-Winkler, Ayelet Fishbach, and Angela L. Duckworth (Psychological Science, 2018).
- “The Art of Giving and Receiving Advice,” by David A. Garvin and Joshua D. Margolis (Harvard Business Review, 2018).
- The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, by Lee Kuan Yew (1998).
- “What Would the World Look Like if Economists Were in Charge? (Ep. 3),” by Freakonomics Radio (2010).