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Episode Transcript

DUBNER: Stephen, what are you doing?

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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?

Also: should all new parents be required to take child-rearing classes? 

DUBNER: How often do you need to get rid of the stinky diapers before you die? 

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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 wanted 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.'” 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. 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. 

DUBNER: I cannot disagree with that. That said, 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 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 a veterinarian’s 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 like 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 like the 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.

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela debate whether people should be required to have a license to become parents.

DUBNER: In terms of how my kid is going to think or exist, I figured I’ll just wing it. That can’t be very hard, can it? 

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DUBNER: Angela, we have a listener question I want to run past you. This is from one Laur Laanmets, writing from Estonia. Laur writes to say, “Compulsory parenting classes based on the latest psychological science feels like a high-impact program for society — potentially increasing the average self-awareness, self-esteem, self-efficacy, as well as more inward locus of control, leading to lower crime rates, higher happiness, et cetera.” Laur’s question is: “Are there any studies that have looked into the social and economic impact of parenting classes? Should I make it happen in Estonia?” So, Angela, what do you think of this idea? 

DUCKWORTH: Wait, is Laur, like, the President of Estonia? 

DUBNER: I don’t have that information, although, it does remind me of a story about Estonia that is a tangential story. So, if you’re nice, I’ll tell it to you later. But let’s first wrestle with this idea of some kind of compulsory parental class or training. What do you think of that idea? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, there are, to my knowledge, no studies of compulsory parenting classes. However, there are random-assignment studies of parenting classes of various forms. There is good research showing that they can be great. And that doesn’t mean that they are always great, that they will be great for everyone, or that we should make it compulsory. But parenting is hard, and getting some coaching/training/education in the skill of parenting seems to be a good idea. 

DUBNER: I guess, if we were to back up, we could raise this same question in a much more controversial way, which is to say, “Wait a minute, if there’s evidence that it’s a net positive, what about the permission to become a parent?” So, there is an argument that says we live in a country, here in the U.S., where you need a license to cut someone’s hair —. 

DUCKWORTH: Drive a car. 

DUBNER: Or even to fix a car. But you don’t need a license to have a child. Anyone with reproductive organs is free to just go and do it. And then, that child exists and eventually turns into an adult human, and there’s no quality control at all, or permission granted, on parenting. It sounds harsh on the one hand, but it sounds very sensible on the other hand. 

DUCKWORTH: I think the other thing that’s different from welding or driving a motor vehicle, is that you are, because of your biological makeup, able to do this thing that has been done for, you know, millennia, and to have a societal brake on that, like, “Hey, I’m going to tell you how many kids you can or can’t have,” et cetera. I know it has happened in certain cultures, but I don’t think it would be consistent with our current ethics. 

DUBNER: I hear what you’re saying. But we also have the biological, or at least physiological, makeup to drive a car. It’s just a set of abilities. And you could argue that the abilities to drive a car are actually more complicated, and the reason you want to license people is because if you’re going to be a terrible driver, we don’t want you on the road, because you can hurt other people. But you could also argue that a parent who’s going to be terrible is going to hurt other people too. Not only their own child or children, but potentially many more people. It’s odd that we got to a societal consensus that licensing is necessary for driving a car or opening a barbershop, and not the societal consensus for being a competent parent. 

DUCKWORTH: It’s odd, in a sense, but I think the reason why it’s true is that parenting preceded laws. At some point in history, we’d have to say, “Oh, now suddenly we’re going to have a licensing and a parenting class, where that wasn’t true for my mom, it wasn’t true for my dad, it wasn’t true for my grandparents, or my great-grandparents. 

DUBNER: That’s true. But we introduce new laws all the time. And there are practices that were accepted in one generation or century and are later considered unacceptable. You look at slavery. Slavery was the law of just about every land. It was practiced all over the world for many, many, many centuries. And over time, there came to be a societal agreement, or understanding, that it was totally repugnant and unacceptable. And it was done away with. 

DUCKWORTH: And alcohol has the same history, right? There were no laws about alcohol, you know, however many hundred years ago. And now most cultures do have laws about alcohol. So, it wouldn’t be unprecedented. 

DUBNER: A related argument is about education of kids. And when you look at the American educational standards, they’re pretty decent, but they’re not as good as they used to be, and they’re not great compared to other developed countries in the world. And one argument is that schools can only do so much if a child, by the time that child gets to school, hasn’t been supported, and prepared, and motivated. And all that happens at home, before school, in the family. And so, there are a lot of researchers — Dana Suskind and many others — who are working on ideas and programs to boost very, very early childhood learning from zero to three or four. Because, even if you have universal pre-K, there’s a big gap in some families. I’m curious what your thoughts are on trying to address that gap from age zero. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, I’m acquainted with one example of this kind of very early parenting intervention. And this is the Nurse-Family Partnership that began, I think, in the very early ’90s. And the basic idea was that nurses were going to go and visit moms when their babies were just born, and then to repeatedly visit those moms to educate them about what does good nutrition look like for a baby, and when do I do things like start to read to my child? So, this kind of baby 101 stuff was the core of the nurse-family partnership. And what makes this unusual is that it was actually studied in random-assignment controlled trials to see what the effect of this kind of support would be. This, by the way, was not a random-assignment study done with a random sample of moms. These tend to be what they would call “low-resource mothers.” So, moms who are living without a lot of money and a lot of other kind of socioeconomic supports. And since it started so long ago, many research papers have been written, including by the economist Jim Heckman. And the gist of these research studies is that there are long-term benefits to this kind of baby 101 support. 

DUBNER: So, let’s go back to the question from the listener, Laur, who writes, “Are there studies that looked into the social and economic impact of parenting classes?” You’ve just answered that. But the follow-up question was, “Should I make it happen in Estonia?” And this reminds me of a person I once interviewed named Mart Laar, who was twice the Prime Minister of Estonia.


DUBNER: And Mart Laar came along after the transition in Estonia from communism and helped turn this fairly-downtrodden former Soviet satellite into what was then called the Baltic Tiger. The economy and society started to do much better when he was prime minister. And he tells the story that he had grown up in Soviet society, under the communists. And he remembered hearing about this one person who was particularly dangerous and crazy, who would destroy the way that civilization was meant to be run. And that was a University of Chicago economist named Milton Friedman.

DUCKWORTH: Oh my gosh.

DUBNER: And Mart Laar thought that Milton Friedman’s ideas were wonderful and that they should be put in place in Estonia when he, Mart Laar, was becoming prime minister. And one of the policies that he read about was the flat tax. 

DUCKWORTH: Flat income tax. 

DUBNER: Right. A flat income tax, which was not a common way of doing things, typically. And so, Mart Laar read this, and he thought, “That is brilliant. And since it was good enough for the U.S., it’s good enough for Estonia.” And so, when he became prime minister, he instituted a flat tax. Well, what he did not know was that the U.S. did not institute a flat tax. 

DUCKWORTH: Apparently not good enough for the United States. 

DUBNER: Exactly. This is just something that Milton Friedman had written about as a wonderful idea. But anyway, he became prime minister. He institutes a flat tax. I asked him at what point did he find out that Milton Friedman had not actually gotten the flat tax by? And he said, “Well, it was with my first meeting with Margaret Thatcher. I told her what I had done, and she said, ‘Oh, you are one very brave young man.’” And he said, “Well, no, no, no, Milton Friedman did it.” And she said, “I don’t think so.” So, when I think about Mart Laar changing the future path of Estonia by following what sounded to some like crazy-sounding advice, here we a current Estonian writing to us to say, “Should I make compulsory parenting happen in Estonia?” If you had to answer that question, Angela, keeping in mind the history of Mart Laar and the flat income tax, would you give it a shot? Would you make compulsory parenting a thing in Estonia or, you know, elsewhere? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, my answer would be that I would not make it compulsory. It’s not that I don’t think we could all benefit from having a little bit of parenting 101 before we give birth to a child and try to raise them. But I don’t think it would go over very well. People don’t really want somebody else to tell them that there’s a better way to parent than they would have done intuitively. But I do think a voluntary, like, “if you want to, here is parenting,” and making it attractive and easy.

There’s a Yale parenting center run by a psychologist named Alan Kazdin. And Alan is a very, very prominent and prolific clinical psychologist. And he started this parenting center, in part, because he had been counseling parents and studying parents of children who had really severe problems — for example, Oppositional Defiance Disorder and other terrible, terrible parenting dilemma-type problems. And then he decided, “Wow, if I’m going to help a very small number of parents learn some of these skills because they have to in the moment, why can’t I just start parenting coursework that could be done by anyone?” And I think there’s even a Coursera Yale parenting class. So, if we made that more widely known — and, of course, freely available — that would be great. I think if Netflix wanted to do a really cool series on this, that would be probably a little spiffier than what Yale was able to put together. But I wouldn’t make it compulsory. 

DUBNER: There’s also an argument that this kind of idea is inherently elitist. That the kind of people, like you and me, saying, “Yeah, parents should be required to do da, da, da,” is because we’re the kind of parents who probably would be willing and able to do da, da, da, and maybe already are doing it. So, I think there’s also this class issue here about how one should parent across society when, in fact, there are many, many, many different kinds of parenting styles, many different kinds of families, many different kinds of cultures, and so on. 

DUCKWORTH: I mean, I think that parenting is not just something where there is, like, a consensus — it is reflective of an ideology. For example, some parents have a kind of laissez-faire belief that the natural way that a child grows up doesn’t require much intervention. And then there are parents who have a very different ideology, which is, like, “Are you kidding? I’m going to intervene every second of the day, because that’s how kids need to grow up.” And I can’t really see resolving those ideological conflicts. 

DUBNER: Let me ask you one final question. You have kids. You’ve been a parent for a while. And you also study kids and education. Can you point to one piece of parenting advice that you would endorse that you think a lot of people don’t think about, enough at least? And this could be maybe something that more parents should do, or maybe something that more parents should not do. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, you know that I’m a big fan of Lev Vygotsky, the Russian psychologist who studied children and died tragically at the age of 37 from tuberculosis. But one of the things that Lev Vygotsky said about how children need to grow up and how they’re wired to learn is that: there’s what you can do on your own, and then there’s what you can do if somebody is helping you. And in this area, he called it the zone of proximal development, which is just beyond what you can do independently. But you need, you know, the mom to make the problem a little simpler by covering up the puzzle pieces that are really distracting you. Like, “But if you have to choose between these three puzzle pieces, what would you do?”

This “scaffolding,” it’s called, is enormously effective. And there have been research studies on it that post-date Lev Vygotsky’s insight here. And when I think of my own daughters, who are now 18 and 19, and the moments in our parenting journey, my husband and I, where we had gotten it right — there are plenty of times where we got it wrong — it’s when we did a good job of scaffolding. When we didn’t solve all the problems for them, nor did we let them completely flounder on their own. But we reflected and we thought, “How can we take this problem, which is too difficult for our kids to solve?” and then scaffolded them. I think that one piece of advice from Lev Vygotsky is the best advice to pass on. 

DUBNER: When you were getting ready to have your first kid, did you take any kind of parenting, or at least baby-rearing, class? 

DUCKWORTH: I’m sure I went to some kind of breastfeeding seminar. And I know that I went to some moms’ group. But the thing that I remember most, especially from when my kids were really little, was reading this book called Tools of the Mind. And it was written by psychologists who had been trained by people who had themselves been students of Lev Vygotsky. So, it was basically the principles that Lev Vygotsky thought about as a developmental psychologist, applied to your current, modern nine-month-old or two-year-old. And it was enormously helpful, actually. What about you?

DUBNER: I remember taking the “preparing to have a baby” course at a local hospital. But I think I was mostly concerned about the mechanics of baby-raising. Like, how often do you need to get rid of the stinky diapers from your apartment before you die? That kind of thing. 

DUCKWORTH: Okay. You weren’t asking deep questions. 

DUBNER: No, I was not asking deep questions. I was doing a lot of sleepwalking, apparently, during this period right before our first child. We lived in an apartment that had a very deep windowsill, and we used it as a bookshelf. And apparently, I would get up in the middle of the night and start to clear off armfuls, and armfuls, and armfuls of books and put them on the floor somewhere else. Ellen, my wife, would say, “Stephen, what are you doing?” And I would say, “I’m making room for the baby.” So, even in my sleep—.


DUBNER: —I was very interested in the mechanics of baby raising from a practical, utilitarian, safety standpoint. But in terms of, like, how my kid is going to think or exist?

DUCKWORTH: Their self-concept.

DUBNER: Eh, I figured I’ll just wing it. That can’t be very hard, can it? 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Maybe it was this, like, farm boy in you. You were like, “Must build a pen. It must have daylight.” Right? Yeah, well, you know, your kids didn’t turn out so bad. 

DUBNER: Angela Duckworth, when I start my Universal Parent Academy — maybe in Estonia — I want you to be the principal. 

DUCKWORTH: I would be happy to give a guest lecture. 

DUBNER: A guest lecture! You don’t want to move to Estonia to become the principal of my Universal Parent Academy? I thought we were friends. Do you have any idea how beautiful Estonia is this time of year? 

DUCKWORTH: Stephen, do I have any idea where Estonia is this time of year? 

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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 anticolonialist, 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!

Finally, Angela says that she thinks the Nurse-Family Partnership began in the early 1990s. It actually started much earlier than that. The program, led by psychologist David Olds, started in 1977 as a randomized controlled trial with low-income, first-time mothers in Elmira, New York. Over 400 mothers participated. As of 2020, nearly 60,000 families have joined the program. And follow-up research on the long-term outcomes of the individuals who participated in the very first trial continues today.

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, Eleanor Osborne, Joel Meyer, Tricia Bobeda, Emma Tyrell, Lyric Bowdich, Jasmin Klinger, and Jacob Clemente. We had additional help this week from Anya Dubner. 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: 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?” 

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