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Episode Transcript

DUCKWORTH: Okay, it’s all coming together there!

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

MAUGHAN: I’m Mike Maughan.

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

Today on the show: are there any benefits to neuroticism?

MAUGHAN: I actually know how this rodeo is going to end, and it’s going to be okay. 

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DUCKWORTH: Mike, we are coming to the end of our Big Five personality series. Like, this is the end. This is the last one.  

MAUGHAN: It’s been really fun! We all have personalities, and it’s been fun to learn more about my own and fun to see how everybody else ranks on all these OCEAN scales.

 DUCKWORTH: We have come to the last letter in OCEAN: N, for neuroticism. And our last question in the series comes from Amanda. Not my daughter, Amanda. Somebody else named Amanda. More than my daughter have that name. 

MAUGHAN: Which is shocking.

DUCKWORTH: It is shocking. I was astonished to learn. And Amanda asks us, “Mike and Angela, I’m pretty much the poster child for neuroticism. As long as I can remember, I’ve been stressed. I worry about everything from war and global warming to whether my friends are mad at me — even though they almost never are. My father’s a psychiatrist, so I was diagnosed with anxiety and O.C.D. pretty early on. But therapy and meds can only do so much. I’ve accepted that this is pretty much who I am, so I’m wondering if there’s any silver lining here. Are there any benefits at all to being a neurotic person? Thank you, Amanda.” Woof. That’s a lot.

MAUGHAN: That is a lot.

DUCKWORTH: Well, this goes right to the heart of what Big Five neuroticism — more recently called “negative emotionality” — it goes right to the heart of  what it really is. I’m going to remind you of the six questions that you, and I’m sure Amanda and our listeners, took when they took the Big Five inventory on our website. So, there are three items that sound like Amanda: “I am someone who worries a lot. I am someone who tends to feel depressed, blue. I am someone who is temperamental, gets emotional easily.” And then, there were three reverse-scored items, meaning if you say, “Yeah, that’s a lot like me,” then you actually get a lower neuroticism score. So, “I am someone who is emotionally stable, not easily upset. I am someone who is relaxed, handles stress well. I am someone who feels secure, comfortable with myself.” I’m going to tell you what I got. You’re not going to be shocked, I think, to hear that I got a very low neuroticism score. I got a two out of five. I wonder what you scored on this.

MAUGHAN: I scored a 2.17.

DUCKWORTH: We don’t have a lot of negative emotionality.

MAUGHAN: I think though — I know part of what we’ve talked about is that personality can change, and will continue to change and evolve. Just even as you were going through those scores, I thought to myself, “Wow, I am much lower on this scoring chart than I would have been 10 years ago.” And I think that maturing makes me very optimistic, because I’m glad that I’ve been able to change in some of these areas.

DUCKWORTH: Well, our listeners, who are probably, on average, a little bit younger than at least me, they scored a little higher in negative emotionality than we did — which makes sense, given what you personally observed and is generally true, which is that as you get older, you get more emotionally stable, therefore less neurotic. And the mean score for our listeners was just about the same as the national average for adults. And that is 2.74 for our listeners; 2.72 for a representative sample of adults in the United States. So, if you are, like me, getting older and not younger, I mean, one of the things to look forward to is that you are —.

MAUGHAN: I think we’re all like you in that way.

DUCKWORTH: I don’t know about you, but I’m getting older. I think the very strong trend toward getting more emotionally stable and less neurotic, this is one aspect of personality that everybody cares about. Like, who doesn’t care about their emotional life? I think it’s a really profound question, like: “Why do I have ups and down mood swings?” Or: “Why am I the kind of person who really keeps calm and carries on?”

MAUGHAN: First of all, I love that you just quoted, “Keep calm and carry on.”

DUCKWORTH: Where did that come from, by the way? Other than those really cute things that you can buy on Etsy.

MAUGHAN: I think it was from the British in World War II. That was kind of the mantra.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, yes! Okay, it’s all coming together there. Well, Mike, I have a little bit of history on this aspect of personality and it actually goes really far back to Freud.

MAUGHAN: Everything goes back Freud!

DUCKWORTH: And Freud, of course, had this idea that whatever was wrong with you — whether you worried all the time, or whether you couldn’t stop biting your nails, or whether you’re having too much sex, or you weren’t having it, like — almost anything that could be wrong with you, Freud called a “neurosis.” But just that general idea that mental problems were “neuroses” stuck, honestly, for better or for worse. And then, around World War II actually, scientists really started measuring personality scientifically. And that’s when the Big Five emerged: these five types of personality traits. And this last one that we’re talking about, neuroticism, was so named because it kind of had the vibe, I guess, of what Freud would call “a neurosis.” I think now modern personality psychologists — including me, we call it “Big Five negative emotionality” because it’s a rebrand of “Big Five neuroticism.” It’s just just kind of like a really outdated name. But I think the heart of being somebody who’s high in this Big Five negative emotionality is really two things: one is just having a lot of negative emotion. It’s not always anxiety. Sometimes it’s, like, sadness or anger. And the other aspect is just instability: the ups and downs.

MAUGHAN: Can I give you an example that I am fascinated by of someone who has pure control of his emotions? 


MAUGHAN: So, I have a friend named Trevor. I have a group of friends, I should say that we get together once a year for a weekend to just adventure, and catch up, and enjoy one another’s company. This last year we were in Southern California, and we’re headed to the beach. And Trevor’s wife calls and says, “Hey, our son is really sick with something. I’m taking him to the E.R.” He was just very calm and collected through the whole thing. And he said, “Well, our oldest child has had so many health issues that we’ve been through this type of thing so many times” — even though this was another one of his children. He’s like, “I actually know how this rodeo is going to end, and it’s going to be okay. Even though this is a scary moment, they’ve got great medicine. We’ve got great doctors. We’re going to figure it out.” And I thought, “What an interesting approach,” because I was not responding that way even though I was in the car, and it wasn’t my kid. But he had developed such emotional stability.

DUCKWORTH: Did you see Terms of Endearment, the movie, with — was it, like, Debra Winger and Shirley MacLaine? 

MAUGHAN: No, but I’d love to hear about it. I don’t know the movie.

DUCKWORTH: I honestly could not tell you the plot of this movie, but I remember the opening scene. I think Shirley MacLaine comes into her daughter’s room — her daughter is still a baby, just, like, in the crib, sleeping peacefully. And the mother comes over worried, brow furrowed. And the baby’s sleeping and, like, not making a sound. And then she just, like, shakes the crib, and the baby wakes up and starts crying. And then, the mom smiles, assured that the baby is alive and breathing and then leaves the room. And the scene is meant to symbolize that this is a person who was just so neurotic. Like, “Oh my God, is my baby sleeping or is my baby dead?” I think later in the movie — and I may have this wrong because it’s been decades since I’ve seen it — there was some conversation where the idea is that you imagine the worst possible thing that could happen to the person that you love the most. I won’t even describe it. But, like, you imagine this catastrophic, tragic ending, and then, you, in a way, habituate to it, and, like, it makes your everyday pain a little bit easier. So, I bring up this movie that you — you’ve never seen because the story that you tell about Trevor actually reminds me a little bit of this. It’s like, there is a kind of habituation, if you will — like, even if you imagine something you can habituate to the image of it. And then, you kind of have this strength, if you will, or you’re not so sensitive when it actually happens.  

MAUGHAN: Yeah, absolutely, and I think that’s totally true here. The other thing I just have to add, though, because you told me about this movie. I will never forget, I’m a pretty new uncle. This is long, long ago. I am holding my niece, and she is really young, like, newborn-ish, and so peaceful. And everybody’s gone. It’s just me holding her. And she’s asleep in my arms. And maybe this is terrible, but twice, I remember, while people were gone, I pinched her to make her wake up, because I was so nervous that she seemed so peaceful. I was like, “Did she die in my arms?”

DUCKWORTH: You were Shirley MacLaine! You were like, “Are you breathing?”

MAUGHAN: A hundred percent I was! And to be clear, I’ve not pinched little kids since. I just was very nervous in that moment. 

DUCKWORTH: Good, good, because that could be very bad in many ways. Freud — who probably wasn’t very good with babies, I will say — you know, Freud had this idea that I do think stands the test of time. Freud thought that everybody in life suffers, that everybody has pain, and worry, and he said, “We all have defenses against this pain.” Right? Like, you’re “repressed.” That term, “You’re repressed,” comes from Freud. It’s an idea that, like, “Oh, well an immature way of dealing with this psychic pain is to deny it,” and so forth. That’s repression. But there were a variety of mature defenses also. And, you know, there’s a psychiatrist at Harvard and his name is George Vaillant. And he went on to try to understand what the mature defenses are that any of us have against our negative emotionality, against our intrapsychic pain. And he named five. And I do think that a lot of maturity is actually learning these. So, one we talked about just now is “anticipation.” And that is when you give yourself, like, a microdose of something that’s hard so that you, in a way, like, are able, basically, to deal with it more easily later. So, sometimes it just happens to you, like your older son has a lot of health issues, and then when your younger son has health issues, you’re stronger. But it can be for anything. It’s just, like, any big challenge, if you give yourself a small dose first, then later you won’t be overwhelmed. That’s anticipation. When George told me about these, I was like, “Oh my goodness.”

MAUGHAN: Yeah — no, tell me the five. So, anticipation.

DUCKWORTH: One of them is “altruism.” And here’s the story that George told me about how altruism can be a defense against, uh, neuroticism. He was doing this very famous longitudinal study where they were following young men for their entire lives. I believe it was called the Harvard Study of Adult Development. So, at the time, George was the person in charge of the study, and he was interviewing people. Now they were, like, late middle age, and there was a childless couple who had tried all their lives to have a baby and were unable to. And then there was, you know, somebody in this couple’s life who was going to have a child. And the question is, like, “How do you deal with that pain?” I mean, it’s so painful to see people who have what you don’t have. So, how do you cope with that wound? And what the woman did, in this couple, was she knit a baby sweater for this other couple’s child. And George used that as an example of the mature defense of altruism: that one way that people manage their pain is that they find a way to find happiness in the happiness of other people, essentially by being a giver.

MAUGHAN: Well, it’s interesting, I think you see this a lot as well when, for example, someone passes away from cancer. And then, so often people want to find meaning in the pain. And so, you see so many organizations develop where it’s like, “We’re putting together care kits.” Or I have a very dear friend who has an autistic son, and his sister has created a program collecting all sorts of different things that children with autism use to help get through the day, to help cope with various situations. And so, for them, it’s finding ways to contribute very altruistically to others who are in the same, or similar, situations to them. It really is this beautiful way of making sense of the situation that you have or — in the case of a lost loved one from cancer — making sense of that pain or creating value for others to say, “Here’s something that we’re going through together or a shared awful experience, but we can find meaning, or joy, or purpose in coming together in the experience.”

DUCKWORTH: I had a graduate student named Lauren Eskreis-Winkler, who grew up to be a professor, and when she was in her, I think, first year with me, she got really interested in survivor guilt. So, that’s when you are maybe the only one who survives a car crash, for example, or a natural disaster. And this survivor guilt where you now have this, like, weight on your shoulders, right, like, “Why me? I shouldn’t be here.” Some people turn into what Lauren called, “survivor mission.” And it’s exactly what you say. It’s like, “How can I turn around and help other people who have been through this?”  And I think, in a way, this idea that, yeah, you can have neuroticism. I mean, like, who doesn’t? But that you can cope with it is, is very powerful. Let me give you another one, because all five are interesting and give us all ideas for what we can do. One of my favorites is “sublimation.” The idea of sublimation is that you transform your negative emotional energy into something beautiful. So, you become a musician, you write a poem. You’re transforming negative energy into creative energy. And the story George Vaillant would give when he tried to explain these mature defenses to me was Beethoven. So, Beethoven actually had a really unhappy life in many ways. I think he was deeply lonely. I don’t think he had any successful romantic relationships or even maybe successful friendships. And then, of course, he went deaf. So, you know, somebody for whom the only thing he knew how to do was to relate to the world through music. And then, I think he was able to continue to compose only because he could play the music in his head. It was after Beethoven went deaf that he composed the Ninth Symphony, “Ode to Joy.” And George played it for me, because, you know, I’m music naïve. I was like, “What?”

MAUGHAN: It’s remarkable.

DUCKWORTH: You listen to, like “dun-dun-dun dun-dun-dun dun-dun-da-da da-da-da-da-da!” I mean, it is an ode to joy! So, so, anyway, the third defense that we could, you know, ponder, like, how do I use this more is like take your neuroticism and do something creative. I think that one is, like, the most beautiful of the mature defenses.

MAUGHAN: First of all, I think that’s absolutely amazing. And I think that there’s so much to that. Another, maybe, element of sublimation or, or manifestation of sublimation is comedy.  

DUCKWORTH: Mmm! Okay, that’s the fourth one! 

MAUGHAN: Oh, what?

DUCKWORTH: Yeah! You got it. 

MAUGHAN: Wait, comedy is a totally separate one?

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, humor is absolutely a mature defense. And the basic idea is that you take this pain and so forth and you, you know, basically you see the funny side of it. You know, you see how absurd it is, and you’re able to laugh.

MAUGHAN: And I think so many comedians use comedy as a way to kind of talk through their pain, or their trauma, or their childhood. There was a really interesting article on CNN by this writer and producer named Jen Christensen. Her article is, “The Sad Clown: The Deep Emotions Behind Stand-Up Comedy.” And she talks about how so many people have been through mental struggles, or through tragedy, or through some sort of trauma, and they use they this as a way to kind of, you know, laugh their way through life. You know, there’s the old adage, like, “You can either cry or laugh when you spill the milk, and it’s better to laugh than cry.” But some of these traumatic experiences — our way to even understand them, to process them, to go through them is you have to find a way to laugh in order for us to get through it get past it, maybe.

DUCKWORTH: So, instead of, like, worrying and complaining, you’re like, “Ha!”

MAUGHAN: Well, hopefully, “Hahahaha.” But yes.

DUCKWORTH: Jason loves going to stand-up comedy. And we went to go see Ali Wong. You’ve heard of Ali Wong, yes?

MAUGHAN: Of course, yeah.

DUCKWORTH: Asian female comedian. And her whole show was about getting divorced. And she was just a great example of the defense of humor. So, two kids, being single again, never thinking she was going to be. And she had these hilarious adventures and misadventures in dating. But yeah, you guessed it right, Mike. You know, you can take your neuroticism, and you can see the humorous side. And that is actually the last of the mature defenses that I really like because there’s one more. The fifth mature defense, the one I haven’t told you about — because I don’t know if I agree. The last of the five mature defenses is “suppression.”

MAUGHAN: Wait, didn’t you just say that “repression” was immature? And now you’re talking about “suppression”?

DUCKWORTH: So confusing. And, honestly, I was really confused, and it took George Vaillant quite a bit of time to finally make this distinction clear to me. He said: “Repression” is when you have so denied something about yourself — like, for example, you have homosexual urges. If you’re repressed, it’s so buried in your psyche that there’s no amount of reflection that can dig it out. It’s, like, all the way down there. “Suppression” is more like, you know that you have a certain feeling or a certain urge, and you’ve just decided to not pay attention to it at the moment. So, basically the difference is, like, how far down into your psyche is something walled off versus not. You know, when you have an urge to do something that you can’t do — like, you know, you want to kill someone, but you can’t. Or even, like, you’re in a restaurant and you see what somebody else has ordered, and you kind of want to eat off their plate, but you don’t.

MAUGHAN: Okay, I kind of agree with both those, just for the record.

DUCKWORTH: Okay, no, I don’t dis — don’t disagree with those. The way that you get yourself not to eat off someone’s plate, or kill them when you’re mad at them, or whatever is that you suppress the urge. And I think that, like, trying to keep a lid on your emotions, or, like, suppress your feelings or suppress your urges — I mean, we would call that willpower, right? Like, we would call that probably one of the things that you have to learn as you get more mature. But to me, that’s, like, the least sophisticated way to manage life. I think it’s much healthier to notice your urges, understand your urges, reframe situations, take perspective, ask for help, change your situation. I don’t know, this last of the mature defenses to me doesn’t feel that mature.

MAUGHAN: There’s a old axiom that I’ve heard, which is basically, like, “Face it and replace it” — when it’s talking about emotions or something like that. Not necessarily suppress, but like, “Okay. I, I literally just felt this thing or wanted to do this thing. I’m going to face it. I’m going to recognize the situation. I’m going to actually address it in my own mind and say, ‘Why did I want to do that? What was the point of that?’ And then I’m going to replace it with action that is appropriate or right.”

DUCKWORTH: Right. I think with neuroticism, the “face it” part is so important, because I think in our society — and I know things are changing and people are no longer as ashamed to say, you know, “Oh, I was depressed,” or “I am depressed.” I mean, this email that we got is so beautifully honest to say, like, “I have a diagnosis. I really struggle.” And Amanda should be commended for that. But I think in general, our society still has a little bit of a, like, “Let’s not talk about it. I don’t want to be that way.” The “face it” part is so important because just to own that you worry a lot or that you feel depressed a lot and so forth is really admirable. And then, you know, “Can I replace it?” You know, to me, that’s maybe why the graphs suggest that as we get older, our Big Five neuroticism goes down. Like, maybe we learn to face it and replace it. We learn some of these more mature coping mechanisms. Not that we never worry or that we don’t have pain, but that we learn to manage it. So, Mike, you and I would both love to hear the thoughts of NSQ listeners on Big Five negative emotionality. Are you a highly neurotic person, like listener Amanda? If so, how do you keep your negative emotions in check? Do you think there’s anything beneficial about this aspect of your personality? Record a voice memo in a quiet place with your mouth close to the phone and email us at Maybe we’ll play it on a future episode of the show. Also, if you want to learn more about your own personality, head to You can take the Big Five inventory and get an immediate personality profile. Your results will remain completely anonymous.

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: How can neurotic people get out of their heads?

DUCKWORTH “Go out of your apartment! Go out into the world.”

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Now, back to Mike and Angela’s conversation about negative emotionality.

MAUGHAN: So Angela, I’m also thinking, I mean, Amanda’s asked, you know, “What are the benefits to being a neurotic person?” There’ve got to be some positives to this as well.  

DUCKWORTH: I do want to say — and Amanda, I hope you’re sitting down, but since your dad’s a psychiatrist, you’re not going to be surprised. Let me just begin with the bad news, which is that neuroticism is correlated with a lot of negative life outcomes. I mean, this isn’t going to surprise many people, but, generally, neuroticism goes hand in hand with earning a lower income, you know, having less wealth over your lifetime, and then, also, kind of most obviously, it’s correlated with having lower life satisfaction. I mean, that’s almost tautological to say that people who are high in negative emotionality are less happy. There’s also research on physical health, where people who are very high in Big Five neuroticism tend to not live as long, not live as healthy lives. I say all of this very tentatively, because if you’re already high in Big Five neuroticism, I don’t want to make you even more stressed out. But, I also want to say you have to worry in life. If you don’t worry, you will never plan ahead. You will never learn from your mistakes. You will never correct yourself. You know, if you never get sad, then you will never strive to create a full life. If you don’t have emotions that go up and down, that means you are missing a lot of signals from other people in the world. So, you know, all of these things we have kind of inherited through evolution from our ancestors because they are designed to make us aware of all of the threats and the problems that are real. So, to Amanda, and to anybody else who scored really high in negative emotionality, we should say: look, there’s good reason to have those adaptations. And maybe some people would say, “Hey, I’ll keep my high Big Five neuroticism score as long as I can sublimate and laugh with humor and be an altruist,” and maybe for some people that’s better than being a happy-go-lucky, you know, rainbows and unicorns person who doesn’t have all those mature defenses. 

MAUGHAN: Right. Also, I want to say, one of the five that you didn’t bring up in these coping mechanisms with Freud that I would love to ask about, is this idea of seeking adventure and, like, actually trying some of the things that we worry so much about. Like, sometimes there’s this fear of doing x or y or, “If I have this conversation, it’s going to fail.” But if you just go treat it like an adventure, you can start to build up a repertoire of evidence that says, “Hey, I can do this, and I don’t have to be so worried or so anxious about all those things. We can be okay.”

DUCKWORTH: You know, one really fascinating theory about what’s going on with people who tend to be especially high in Big Five neuroticism, is that they are, so to speak, “in their heads.” So, there are parts of the brain that are specialized for self-reflection, self-referential thought. Like, if you think about a pen, or a bottle of water, or the state of Iowa or something, that’s not self-referential thought. That’s just, like, thinking about an object, or a place, et cetera. But when you think about yourself, like, you know, “What are those people thinking about me? What was I like when I was 12 years old?” Those are self-referential thoughts, and we do have sort of specialized neural machinery for self-referential thoughts. That’s a good thing in many ways. But one theory of neuroticism is that you can get too much in your head, meaning you can get too inward looking. And what I like about your idea of kind of, like, “Well go and try things and so forth,” my friend, Samantha Boardman, who is a psychiatrist, when I talk to her about what she sees in her patients that she’s really trying to bring them to a happier place in their life from a place of worry, and rumination, and so forth — it really is a kind of, like, “Go out of your apartment! Go out into the world.” Right? Like, “Get out of your head.” Sometimes even get out of your journal writing, right? Just like, go and expose yourself to the sights, and the sounds, and the birds, and the dew on the grass, and the road trips, and so forth. And, I don’t know there’s nothing in my research that speaks to this, but it feels very intuitive to me that maybe we can think too much — that we can get too kind of, like, “head down,” and sometimes what we need is to, like, pick our heads up. 

MAUGHAN: And just go do something! I mean, for me —and I’m not saying this is the solution to all things, but for me, the literal act of just going outside and reminding myself of the bigger, broader world helps contextualize how small I am in the scheme of things but also how big and beautiful the world is and how much is out there. And so, honestly, the number one thing in my personal life is the literal act of walking outside.

DUCKWORTH: So, that would be your, like, you know, if you were going to make a list of the mature defenses, you would say, “Go do something. Go outside.” And maybe, like, “Take a walk.”  

MAUGHAN: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we talked about this maybe a year ago, but something about the human ability to connect with nature is huge.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, the seemingly healing effects of being outside.

MAUGHAN: Yeah, and my nature is maybe a little different than yours because I live right by mountains and you walk by a river in a park. But both have that amazing ability to kind of reframe and help us face things anew.  

DUCKWORTH: Mike, we are coming to the end of our conversation on Big Five neuroticism. We are also at the end of our Big Five personality series. And I’d like to ask you whether debating and discussing all aspects of how we are in the world has changed anything for you and how you’re living your life? 

MAUGHAN: Well, I think you know that I feel very strongly about this idea of “locus of control” — that we can have a major influence on our own lives; that we have the ability to make choices and improve things. I think my biggest takeaway from all of this is that personality does change and that we can be party to the personality that we want to create for ourselves. We can grow, we can develop, and there are a variety of things that we can do to increase in areas we want to increase, to decrease in areas we want to decrease — that personality is not fixed, and we have an opportunity to become better by applying a bunch of these principles that we’ve talked about, both today and in the previous weeks.

DUCKWORTH: I do know this about you, Mike, and I think it’s one of the very first conversations we had about locus of control. You were even about to write a book about it. Am I right?

MAUGHAN: I think that I would love to have a book written that summarizes all that. I don’t know I’m the right person to write it.   Also, I want to say — just because we brought it up here and I should have said this earlier — the very first time we ever had dinner together, you ate off my plate. You didn’t ask, you just —. 

DUCKWORTH: Freud would have scolded me.

MAUGHAN: No, I actually took it — I left and I thought, “Man, I don’t know her that well, but she ate off my plate the first time we ever had dinner. We must be good friends.” That was my takeaway.

DUCKWORTH: We’re already besties. Well, I don’t want to break your bubble, but I eat off of a lot of people’s plates. I even ate off of a stranger’s plate with permission at a sushi bar because they were leaving, like, one of the really good pieces, and I was like, “Excuse me. I just have to say that as you’re paying your check, it must be that you’re not going to eat the eel. Would you mind?” And they were like, “Sure, no problem.” Look, I am also somebody who is a fan of having a locus of control — a sense that you’re not just being, you know, victim of your genetic cards when it comes to your personality. And for me, what this series has shined a light on is not only that there are all these ways that we can rethink things, like reframe them, but also that in some ways the most important thing we can do is put ourself into situations that bring out our best. I’m going to read from you the poem, “Invictus.” I’m sure you have read this many times. “It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.” If there were ever an ode to an internal locus of control, this would be it. But let me just say this. You know, after talking about personality — yours, mine, our NSQ listeners, I would say that this poem could have another stanza. And I won’t write it now, because I can’t make it rhyme. But for me, what this is missing is the idea that one of the ways that you are a master of your fate and the captain of your soul is not just to bear with your circumstances, like deal with the fact that you’re a neurotic person, just, you know, lower your expectations, keep a stiff upper lip, keep calm and carry on, but that you could choose to be around people who make you happier, that you could call upon friends and family to help you achieve your goals and to recruit other people and put yourself into cultures where you are a more conscientious person, or a more open person, or a more agreeable person, or a less neurotic person. So, to me, you are the master of your fate, and you are the captain of your soul. But one of the things that a good captain does is to steer the ship and to find the waters that are the best for you.

MAUGHAN: And to surround themselves with an incredible crew of people who help them be their very best self.


And now, here’s a fact-check of today’s conversation:

In the first half of the show, Mike says that “keep calm and carry on” was a slogan used by the British government during World War II. The iconic sign featuring the saying was one of three designs created months before the Second World War began in 1939. The other posters read “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory” and “Freedom Is in Peril. Defend It With All Your Might.” However, while the second two posters were distributed widely in the beginning of the war, “Keep Calm, Carry On” posters were pulped and recycled in order to deal with a looming paper shortage. The phrase only began to gain public recognition in 2001, when the owners of a bookshop in Northumberland, England, found one of the surviving posters in a box of books they purchased at an auction and began distributing copies of the image.

Later, Angela says that she doesn’t think German composer Ludwig van Beethoven ever experienced a successful romantic relationship — or even a friendship. It’s well documented that Beethoven was not the easiest person to get along with, but he did have a small circle of friends (with whom he frequently quarreled), including a life-long relationship with civil servant Stephan von Breuning, whom he met in childhood. Angela also notes that Beethoven was deaf when he composed his Ninth symphony. However, a Kent State musicologist recently discovered that while Beethoven had impaired hearing at the time he composed this work, he didn’t go completely deaf until shortly before his death in 1827.

Finally, Mike references what he believes to be an old adage, quote: “You can either cry or laugh when you spill the milk, and it’s better to laugh than cry.” He appears to be conflating the expression “there’s no use crying over spilled milk” with “I laugh because I must not cry” — a quote attributed to President Abraham Lincoln, who scholars believe dealt with depression and would have likely scored relatively high on the negative emotionality scale; humor was clearly one of his mature defenses.

That’s it for the fact-check.

Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear some thoughts about last week’s episode on agreeableness.

Alyssa WEI: This is Alyssa from Indianapolis. I have learned that I am a people pleaser and have become more aware of this the older I get. I realize now that it’s a tendency I need to fight, because in general I, in the past, have made bad choices mainly when I was trying to make a choice based on what I thought somebody else would want and respecting their ideas more than my own. But the more I’ve interacted with people, especially in the workplace and with my own family and my kids getting older, the more I realized that I should respect my own ideas and listen to my gut and make choices based on what I, myself, can logic out and not trying to guess what other people think would be best. So, I do love being agreeable, I love helping, and I love trying to find solutions that will benefit everybody, but I also need to remember not to just people please, but also to respect my own ideas. Thanks for a great show.

That was listener Alyssa Wei. Thanks to her and to everyone who shared their stories with us. And remember, we’d love to hear your thoughts on neuroticism Send a voice memo to, and you might hear your voice on the show!

Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: when should parents lie to their kids?

DUCKWORTH: Wait, does the Easter Bunny only shop at CVS Pharmacy?

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. The senior producer of the show is me, Rebecca Lee Douglas, and Lyric Bowditch is our production associate. This episode was mixed by Greg Rippin. 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 To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Thanks for listening!



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