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Episode Transcript

DUCKWORTH: “Hello, Kettle. I’m Pot.”

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

MAUGHAN: I’m Mike Maughan.

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

Today on the show: What are the benefits of feeling uncomfortable?

DUCKWORTH: I’m hot, I’m cold, I’m a little scared, I’m a little confused, I’m a little frustrated.

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MAUGHAN: Angela, today we have an amazing question about getting uncomfortable.

DUCKWORTH: Oh my gosh. I’m already uncomfortable. This is so awkward.

MAUGHAN: Here we go. “Dear NSQ, in a recent episode of the show, Angela said that in today’s day and age, the discomfort that people have with negative emotions is unhealthy. So, I was wondering, as a society, are we getting progressively less tolerant of all kinds of discomfort — physical and psychological? And is that such a bad thing? Hasn’t intolerance for discomfort motivated the development of technological advances to improve our situations? For example, if we’re in physical pain or we’re clinically depressed, we can now take safe, regulated medicine. If we’re hot, we can turn on the air conditioning and find relief. Is sustained experience of discomfort really an important skill for people to master? Thanks, R. from New York.”

DUCKWORTH: You mean, like, capital “R,” period, right?

MAUGHAN: Yes, “R” from New York. What we do know is that R might be in the C.I.A., because I immediately thought of M. from James Bond.


MAUGHAN: And I was like, I’m afraid to answer this question. Maybe someone from MI6 is emailing us from New York.

DUCKWORTH: It could be. They’ll never tell us. I love this question. Super interesting. 

MAUGHAN: Well, let me ask you — do you intentionally seek out uncomfortable situations, whether that’s physical, or psychological, or maybe even emotional?

DUCKWORTH: I would not say that I chase discomfort for discomfort’s sake. Like, I personally — and as a professional psychologist — do not think discomfort is an end in itself. Like, I don’t think it’s like, “Oh, I had 12 units of discomfort today. That’s better than yesterday, because I only had 10 units.” It’s not like, “Oh, there’s something noble in suffering itself.”

MAUGHAN: You do, I know, seek out exercise, which is not as comfortable as sitting on your couch, but that’s not the end itself. The end is to be healthy, to exercise both your body and free your mind for a bit, stuff like that. Would that be fair?

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, no, totally. Like, and I know that it sounds like a contradiction, and, and I don’t think it is, but actually, if I gave you a little report at every moment of the day, I’m usually uncomfortable. So, neither do I seek out discomfort for discomfort’s sake, nor do I have a life that is comfortable. And I think the reason to me that this makes sense is that what I’m really seeking out is challenge, right? And I think as a emotional byproduct of being in a state of challenge, you feel something. You feel sometimes, like, a little, you could argue pain — but we can talk about that word. We could argue, like, frustration, confusion. I mean, there are all these feelings that I have. Mild, I should say. You know, I’m not, like, a ten out of ten on frustration all day long. But I seek out challenges, and, and because they are accompanied with this sensation of discomfort, it looks like I’m seeking out discomfort, but I’m actually seeking out progress. I’m trying to do things I can’t yet do, and my body and my brain are telling me that, but I’m not, like, chasing the feeling. And I think that is important, because I think some people do chase the feeling. They’re like, “No pain, no gain. You know, if I go to bed and I had, like, a lot of suffering, then, I win.”

MAUGHAN: I mean, I do understand both. I will say, I have a cousin who, at least one time per month, he tries to do something that completely scares him. Now again, there’s a goal behind it. He’s trying to improve, or —.

DUCKWORTH: Like what kinds of things does he do?

MAUGHAN: Like, he’ll email someone or try to get in touch with someone who’s way outside the league of who he should be talking to.

DUCKWORTH: Like, he wants to talk to The Rock, and he’s like, “I’m going to email Dwayne Johnson.” 

MAUGHAN: Yeah, or he’ll make a romantic advance — because he’s trying to date someone, and it’s very uncomfortable to put yourself out there, etc.

DUCKWORTH: I love that, and actually, I need to talk to your cousin, because there’s one part of my class that I teach to undergraduates that has been a consistent failure. And the assignment in the syllabus is: “This week, do something that you’re almost certain to fail at.” And, and I give examples like your cousin is doing, like, “Ask somebody out who’s likely to reject you, send an email to someone who is unlikely to respond affirmatively, do something physically that you feel maybe is beyond what you can do, in a safe way.” I don’t want to get sued. Let’s not get into trouble. But like, when the students turn back their written reflections about what they did and how, how that, you know, went for them, right? What their experience was, they’re like, “I went for a run,” you know, and then they on on, and they’re like, “like I always do.” And I’m like, how was that a fail? Like, “I emailed my best friend and we got together on Friday night.” I’m like, wait, how is this a failure? So, I have consistently failed to teach my students how to fail. And I’m converging with your cousin, because I, I agree that if you do something and there’s no discomfort, then you probably haven’t stretched yourself. It’s just that I don’t want this to turn into this kind of, like, masochistic, suffering-is-good thing. And maybe this is very personal to me, Mike, because for a lot of my life, I was the person who was like, “The more tired I am at the end of the day, the more, in a way, unhappy I am at the end of volunteering, the better.” And I think I got confused between the signal of “the thing” and “the thing.” And I think “the thing” is challenge, and growth, and doing things that we can’t yet do. I think the signal is the feeling, like, I’m hot, I’m cold, I’m a little scared, I’m a little confused, I’m a little frustrated. I confused that for, like — I don’t know, until my 40s.

MAUGHAN: There’s often been this idea of busyness as a badge of honor. And, “Oh, how are you?” “Ugh, I am so busy.” 

DUCKWORTH: “Ugh, so stressed.” 

MAUGHAN: Yeah! And you know what I decided? First of all, it’s not a badge of honor. Maybe it means that you’re horribly inefficient at your job or who knows? But nobody also cares. When you were talking about your students though, one thought that came to mind — I don’t know if you’ve read Michael Easter’s book, The Comfort Crisis?

DUCKWORTH: I have not. Is he a journalist or a scientist?

MAUGHAN: He’s a writer and a professor of journalism at U.N.L.V., and he wrote this book, The Comfort Crisis: Embrace Discomfort to Reclaim Your Wild, Happy, Healthy Self. And I thought it was an incredible book, but the reason I thought of it when you were describing your students, one of the things he talks about in the book is annually he tries to do what’s called a “misogi” and it’s basically, go do something —. 

DUCKWORTH: A misogi?

MAUGHAN: A misogi. It’s something physical that you are probably going to fail at. So for example, he’ll say, if you’re going to run a marathon, but you’ve trained for six months for said marathon and you know you can complete it, that’s not what qualifies.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, it doesn’t count.

MAUGHAN: It’s just like what you’re saying. Like, “Oh, I went running like I do every day.” But his thing is, like: go do something you’re not prepared for and see if you can push your body to the limit. But he, he doesn’t just talk about exercise or physical, he also talks about that we’re too emotionally comfortable or we don’t get bored anymore. And boredom is actually, like, a sign to go do some things, right? Pay attention to these emotions. But I thought it was an amazing book because I wonder if your students have this comfort crisis where they’re afraid to actually fail. So, instead of doing a misogi-like event, where they’re going to push themselves really hard, it’s just like, “Oh, I’m just going to email my friend, because my friend might reject me because they have plans.” That’s not the same as emailing The Rock.

DUCKWORTH: It’s not the same. And by the way, like, how hard is that to send through cyberspace an email to some, like, info@therock and not get anything back? Like, how embedded are we in — I guess, the phrase is the comfort crisis? Okay, you may not know the answer to this, but, like, why is it called a misogi?

MAUGHAN: So, “misogi” is a Japanese word that means “water cleansing.” It comes from a practice that involves mental and physical challenges that help purify the mind, body, and spirit. And so, that’s the origin of the word. I think he has just adopted the principle to call what he’s doing a “misogi” every year.

DUCKWORTH: What I really like about this way of thinking about it is that there’s something in the nuance of, oh, you know, it has to be a misogi or like your cousin. Like, how do you know you’re doing it? Oh, because it doesn’t feel comfortable. I don’t have that in my syllabus. In my syllabus, it just says, like, “Go do something that you’re likely to fail.” But maybe because we’re so averse to failure, we need a lot of scaffolding, hand-holding, and instruction. Because I really do think these kids need training wheels for failure, for discomfort. And I don’t want to blame everything on, like, Gen Z or whatever generation is younger than us, because I actually think that the problem at its root — I mean, yes, culture shifts and maybe we get so used to being at, like, exactly 68 degrees, low humidity, not feeling a lot of frustration, not feeling a lot of boredom, not feeling a lot of anything. So, maybe it’s a cultural plague that’s very recent. But I think our evolutionary instincts tell us that pain is bad, that boredom is bad, that socially-awkward moments are bad. And those evolutionary instincts that get us to be more interested, to get us to be more socially comfortable, like, you know, that impulse to avoid those negative feelings is hardwired into us. We just have to understand — like, we need our own user manual. We need to know that, like, when this light is on, boredom, it just means that you’re not being stimulated, and it’s not the end of the world, and it’s not a bad thing to feel boredom, because it’s a signal to move you to something that’s more interesting. But I feel like we’ve lost the user manual or maybe we never had it. And I think in modern times, we just move directly to: how do I be as comfortable as possible? And then, we lose out on all the things that the, the instincts were trying to teach us in the first place.

MAUGHAN: Right, because boredom — and Michael Easter writes about this — boredom is obviously this sign, but we don’t go through the discomfort of it. And so we’re always just flipping through TikTok, or on our phone, reading another news article, or going through some social media — whatever that is. He talks about using his boredom — this is how he talks about it: “I use my boredom to think internally, to observe the outside world, and to work through a work- or home-related issue that’s more productive than going on Instagram for the 79th time that day.” But, I think about that; like, just the one that he talks about there, to observe the outside world, you can make so many connections just by observing, and if you’re never allowing yourself to just have that boredom to people-watch, you miss so much of life.

DUCKWORTH: So, here’s my data-free speculation, as somebody who’s thought about this. But, if you think about our evolutionary past — how we’ve evolved, not over years, not over decades, not even over cent — over millennia, like, how homo sapiens came to be. We evolved all these emotions, some positive, like joy and pride, some negative, like pain and fear. And the only way that those signals could be stopped, you know, like, thousands of years ago, was some form of solving the problem. You’re bored, so you have to, like, start thinking about something where you get more information. Now, you go on TikTok. Same thing with calories. Thousands of years ago, our ancestors were, like, “Calories are good.” That helped them survive. The ancestors who were like, “No, I’m good. Like, I’ll just eat this low-calorie, high-fiber stuff over here,” okay, they did not live. They did not put their genes into the gene pool. So, I think we have these ancestral instincts. You know, we’re hardwired to not want these negative feelings of discomfort, but in the bad old days, you would have to solve problems to get out of those feelings, which is why they helped you survive. And in modern times, we’ve created all of these devices that allow us to immediately turn off those negative emotions. But it’s a misfit. It’s like a mismatch between our ancient instincts and the modern contrivances that we’ve made. And now we’re screwed up, because we’ve created a mismatching environment.

MAUGHAN: Right, where none of it makes sense anymore, and we seek out comfort, because that’s what we’re designed to do, and now it’s like, “Hey, that’s actually — actually bad for you.”

DUCKWORTH: Including me, by the way. I have to say, it’s not like I’m immune to this. I am a really high-maintenance individual. I think you know this about me. I, like, definitely like being at 68 degrees, low humidity. Like, “Hello, Kettle. I’m Pot.” Like, I’m as guilty of this as anyone. But I think at least in my work life, and probably for exercise, I have been able to understand that, like, when I read something and I’m like, “I’m confused.” Confusion is an emotion, actually, and some scientists argue, it’s the cardinal emotion of learning. Like, when you are confused, that is the best signal that you’re learning something. But learners hate feeling confused. It makes them feel stupid. And, at least for me, I’ve been able to understand, I’m like, “Oh, I’m reading this, and I’m deeply confused.” This means I am actually learning more than if I read an article and I’m like, “Oh, yeah, that makes total sense.” So, I think at least in my work life, I’ve been able to, as we psychologists call it, “reappraise” or “reframe” the emotion and get to the understanding what it’s for in the first place.

MAUGHAN: Well, I think that goes to the really beautiful concept of just being good at asking questions. Because some people avoid the discomfort of confusion by just running away, or you feel really dumb if you’re in a classroom setting or at a work setting, and you’re like, “I’m not going to ask the question, because I don’t want to feel stupid, I don’t want to be uncomfortable.” One of my favorite classmates named Rushi Sheth — Rushi always asked the question, like always. And I remember sitting there thinking, man, I wish I had Rushi’s confidence to lean into the confusion. And you know what? I guarantee he got a better education than I did, because he always sought to clarify, whereas I think I just, like, avoided it, or hoped someone else would ask.

DUCKWORTH: And you got a better education because he was in the room, right? 

MAUGHAN: A hundred percent. 

DUCKWORTH: Okay, by the way, I was that person. I mean, I took organic chemistry. In this —.

MAUGHAN: Color me not surprised, by the way.

DUCKWORTH: I know. I would literally sit in the front row, and I would like wave my hand around. “Excuse me. Wait, no, sorry, can you go back one example? I don’t get it.” And then, oftentimes the distinguished academic would be like, “I don’t get that you don’t get it.” Or like, “What’s so confusing?” And I would just say, like, “I don’t know. If I understood, I would tell you. But I don’t.” And so, they would sometimes reluctantly go back and try to explain it. And honestly, Mike, if I didn’t understand it, I would be like, “So sorry, still don’t get it.” And I think what encouraged me to keep going, because like, I mean, that sounds awful, but afterwards, my classmates would come to me — they were like you, right? They were like, “Thank you for asking that question.” And I don’t know what gave me the courage, or the arrogance, or whatever, it was to do that. But I remember thinking very quickly after, like, the first lecture, that when I raised my hand, I was representing the silent majority who could not keep up with the Nobel laureate.

MAUGHAN: I think I’m to a point now where I would absolutely ask the question, but I definitely was too insecure back in the day. And I think Angela and I would love to hear about your experiences with discomfort. Has your discomfort or pain led to growth, or did it just end up making you miserable? Record a voice memo in a quiet place with your mouth close to the phone and email it to and maybe we’ll play it on a future episode of the show. And if you like the show and want to support it, the best thing you can do is tell a friend about it. You can also spread the word on social media or leave a review in your podcast app. 

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: How can social anxiety lead to friendship and bonding?

DUCKWORTH: “How awkward was this moment? How awkward was that moment?”

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

MAUGHAN: I want to hit on one other thing that you said because you’ve talked about temperature a few times here. 

DUCKWORTH: I really don’t like being outside.

MAUGHAN: You say 68 degrees. I’m a 72 degree person.

DUCKWORTH: Isn’t 68 room temperature?

MAUGHAN: That is a fair question. I will — now I’m just going to go back to The Comfort Crisis, and he has this exact line in the book that says, “Today most of us live at 72 degrees, experiencing weather only during the two minutes it takes us to walk across a parking lot or from the subway station to our cars. Americans now spend 93 percent of our time indoors in climate control and entire cities wouldn’t exist had we not developed air conditioning, like Phoenix and Las Vegas.”

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I have heard that 7 percent sky, 93 percent roof statistic. Which is —.

MAUGHAN: Isn’t that crazy?

DUCKWORTH: It is crazy because if you go back far enough, you don’t even need data collection, it was 100 percent sky. That’s how we evolved, like most of human history. And yeah, I mean, when’s the last time you were ever like soaking wet because, like, it was raining or something?

MAUGHAN: Three weeks ago.

DUCKWORTH: What? You were soaking wet three weeks?

MAUGHAN: Yes, my friend Kacie Stafford and I went on a hike — or a walk, uh, in Hawaii and just a massive monsoon. And we are — I mean, we literally could have just jumped in a bathtub, or the ocean, or whatever.

DUCKWORTH: Okay, were you uncomfortable?

MAUGHAN: No, and this is what was so fun about it, is it made it so memorable, and so fun, and actually quite funny. And so, it was really a delightful experience to be just completely drenched. And we just kept walking, because it was like, at this point, we’re not going to get drier, so enjoy the experience.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, you’ve reached maximum saturation, right? Like, There’s a point at which you cannot get more wet.

MAUGHAN: Right, but it actually reminded me that we don’t do that very often. And I thought back to, and we talked about it, when was the last time you did this? And I, I think the last time I did it was when my niece Rachel was maybe 10, 12 years old, and it was raining cats and dogs, we were outside the house, and she wanted to go dance in the rain, and there were a bunch of us there as a family, and no one wanted to go. And I grabbed Rachel, and we went out, and just got so wet, but it was awesome. And that’s what was, I think, really interesting to me is you’re just getting wet with rain, but even that created core memories because it happens so infrequently. That’s probably not a good sign about how infrequently we’re, like, experiencing life. 

DUCKWORTH: Did you feel, you know, a particular relief or joy of getting all dry and warm again?

MAUGHAN: Yeah, I think of course you feel that, but I also think it’s sort of like after exercise. I have never regretted exercising, because there’s the discomfort of exercising, but afterwards I always feel better. So, I think it’s less the, like, getting dry itself and more the idea of, oh, I just did something that was valuable, or meaningful, or experiential.

DUCKWORTH: Ah, so it’s not like a primitive kind of, like, relief from discomfort, but more some higher-order understanding of what just happened. Like, some meaning.

MAUGHAN: That’s what I would say. But here’s one thing that I thought was super interesting. I was reading about someone who I’m certain you know well, the great Paul Bloom, who’s a psychologist at the University of Toronto, in a New York Times article written in 2022 by Alex Hutchinson. And he talked about Paul Bloom saying this: that humans are not pure hedonists. We also seek meaning. So, it’s not just that we’re always seeking comfort. And “meaning,” he says, is often closely linked with suffering.

DUCKWORTH: You know, Paul Bloom is one of those people in psychology who thinks about things, and when he says them, they seem wrong. And then, the more you think about them, the more you’re like, “Oh, such a good point.” And he wrote this book called The Sweet Spot. And it really was, I think, a kind of, like, manifesto on how there is a “sweet spot” of discomfort. The reason why he wants to say sweet spot is it’s not “more is always better. It’s not like, “A little bit of discomfort is good, and if you cut off your left arm, it’s even better.” Like, it’s, it’s really that there’s this sweet spot that we should be looking for in life where there’s, like, some challenge, that there’s, like, some amount of discomfort. And one of the findings that he cites — I mean, I have to say, when I first read it, it was the classic Paul Bloom effect. I was like, “That cannot be right.” And then, it turns out that it’s true. So, Paul says, if you look across the world, and you look at the countries who are happiest, you get what you expect, which is that rich, democratic countries, and especially the Scandinavian countries, they come out on top. Like, famously, Finland, Denmark, etc. But if you ask a very subtly different, but importantly different question, about how much meaning and purpose you have in life — which is not the same as kind of like, “Overall how satisfied are you?” or “Overall how happy are you?” — you actually get the opposite pattern. Now you have countries like Togo, and Ethiopia, and Sierra Leone who are at the top of the charts on, like, “Are you leading a life that has meaning and purpose?”

MAUGHAN: Wait, wait, wait, wait. I would have guessed that happiness is tied to meaning.

DUCKWORTH: Okay, that’s the other thing, and it’s a little mind bending. If you look, for example, within an individual — like, if I ask a group of 100 people to answer those questions, within a person, they are typically positively-correlated. But this was a cross-country analysis. So, now they’re looking at, like, the country average for one question and the country average for the other. And so, if we just accept it as true — because like I said, I was like, this can’t be right, and when I looked up the paper, it is published in the top journal in my field called Psychological Science, and it is published by two of the most trustworthy scholars, Shigehiro Oishi and Ed Diener. They are the giants of cross-cultural and happiness research — like, there are no two people more famous. And the title of their paper is, “Residents of Poor Nations Have a Greater Sense of Meaning in Life Than Residents of Wealthy Nations.” And they fully own up to the fact that this is not a predictable effect. It’s so super surprising. And when they speculate about, like, what the heck is going on — I mean, this is not a little bit of data. This is a Gallup World Poll. And what they speculate is that there’s something called the modernization hypothesis — and it sounds a lot like the comfort crisis — that, like, we have kind of solved so many of our problems in rich democratic countries that we no longer have what gives rise to purpose and meaning, which is something we can’t yet have, something we can’t yet do, something we’re aspiring to, something that we’re chasing that gives our life meaning and purpose.

MAUGHAN: Which is why we make up problems half the time.

DUCKWORTH: Right. Because we have this evolutionarily hardwired need to chase things. So, this modernization hypothesis is strongly supported by this completely surprising finding that Paul Bloom writes about. And it’s part of Paul’s whole argument that we’ve kind of gone off the track of where we need to be. He says, like, we should believe that all emotions have some use. Like, flow state, and joy, and pride, and bliss, they’re great. But, you need to experience anxiety, and fear, and confusion, and anger, and frustration.

MAUGHAN: What’s interesting to me is I think there’s this unwillingness to engage in discomfort with ideas as well. We now gather online with online communities that just reinforce our beliefs, and we find people who just agree with us, and it’s so much easier now because you don’t even have to physically be around them. And if you can’t engage in discomfort with different ideas, then how are we ever going to move forward? I don’t know.

DUCKWORTH: I mean, you’re not going to be surprised that I 100 percent agree with you. I mean, like, relatives who shall remain nameless like to send me news stories, and they are not on the same pole of the political spectrum that I am. And they come from news outlets that I generally don’t watch. And my visceral reaction is, “This is ridiculous. Like, this is fake news, or it’s carefully-curated news that’s not fake, but, like, totally misleading and incendiary.” But I think what I ought to do is say, like, “Oh, there you go, Angela, having a feeling. Because, by the way, all these emotions like confusion and frustration that we’re talking about, even boredom, they have a physiological signature too and we generally don’t like what they do to our physiology. “So, my brain and my body are like, no, but instead of avoiding it, I think I want to go through it like, overcome it. Because that’s what I’ve been evolutionarily programmed to do.” And there’s a lot of research on how we can learn what our emotions mean. There’s almost like a code book. It’s like anger means that your rights have been violated. Frustration means that you’re pursuing a goal and you’re not making progress. Boredom means you’re not getting information that is useful. Like, if you understand the code book, you’re like, “Got it.” Now what do I want to do with it? Do I want to completely avoid it? Or do I want to actually lean into the signal and try to resolve the signal, because it’s a negative signal, and, like, come out on the other side. It’s, like, very Nietzschean, right? That what didn’t kill me truly could make me stronger.

MAUGHAN: I’m going to quote someone a little more modern than Nietzsche, but someone that you’re going to like even better, and that’s Taylor Swift.

DUCKWORTH: Totally would choose Taylor Swift over Nietzsche any day. Although I think they would get along, just a wild guess.

MAUGHAN: I have no opinion on that, because I don’t even know how to start with that. But Taylor gave a commencement address and one of the lines she said that stuck out to me was, “Lean into the cringe.”

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, was this at N.Y.U.? I think I watched it.

MAUGHAN: Yes, NYU, 2022, Taylor Swift gave this commencement address and says, “Lean into the cringe.” And I love that because sometimes you have to lean into the cringe of a relative sending you something that you don’t agree with at all, but maybe it’s worth taking time to understand somebody else’s perspective, somebody else’s truth.

DUCKWORTH: So, since you brought up “cringe,” which I don’t believe Nietzsche ever used in his writing, even translated from the German. But so, one of my favorite studies, because it’s so cute, it’s called “Stranger Situations.” And what this psychologist did was he created this room that was like a laboratory equivalent of, like, a living room. And there were these chairs and there was a video camera, I think behind, like, a one-way mirror. So, like, this room was a laboratory for seeing how people who had never met each other before interacted. So, you bring volunteers into this room who are strangers to each other. And the only instructions, really, at the beginning are that you have to sit in these chairs and, you know, they know they’re being videotaped. And so, you give them a few minutes with no instructions. And you can imagine, like, how you would feel. And I think some people would be like, “That sounds fun.” A lot of people would be, like, horrified that there’s, like, no script, right? You’re in this room, it’s weird, you’ve never met these people. Then there’s what they call a “confederate,” which means in research experiments, like, a non-volunteer who enters the room. 00:54:35] Oftentimes confederates have, like, a thing that they’re supposed to do. But in this case, it’s just, like, this other adult who enters the room and they don’t really have any instructions. So, now you have this fourth person in the room and you’re like, okay, like, now what? And then, finally, after several more minutes, the experimenter comes in the room, and they, they give an icebreaker activity where they ask people to introduce themselves. Soon after that the whole thing ends. And then — this is so reality TV — they take people into another room, and they play the videotape in front of them. And they have this little box, and they get to basically slide to the right, I think. Like, how awkward did you feel at this moment?

MAUGHAN: Well, I feel most awkward watching myself be awkward. Like, that’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard.

DUCKWORTH: Anyway, so you got this, like, awkward meter. And so, then you get this data that’s very rich, which is like, how awkward was this moment? How awkward was that moment? And then, they have this graph that shows, like, how awkwardness ebbs and flows over the course of this social interaction. And what you find in the graph is that, first of all, like, you know, basically most people have the same response. Like in the very beginning, when there are a room full of strangers, they feel maximal awkwardness. Then that kind of, like, starts to drop down. They literally say things to each other like, “This is awkward.” “Yeah, this is kind of awkward.” So there’s a little bonding over the fact that you don’t know what to do, and that this is weird, and you weren’t given any instructions. Then awkwardness goes up again a little bit when the confederate enters, like, “Hey, what are you doing here?” “I don’t know. I don’t have any instructions either. This is awkward, right?” But it, it tends to go down again. Then the experimenter comes in the room and says, like, “Hey, I need you to all do introductions.” And so, awkwardness goes up again because people are, like, self conscious. They have a little social anxiety, but then it goes down again. And I think the key to this paper’s major insight is that we all have a kind of social-anxiety meter. That’s really what awkwardness is. And in the data, what they find is that the way that the awkwardness comes down is that this group of strangers engages in these, like, lovely bonding things. They start telling stories about their own interests, and then one person says, like, “Oh my gosh, I also am interested in that.” And then, whenever anybody does anything helpful to another person, awkwardness goes down. So, the moral of the story is, you should know that there are going to be awkward moments, and the resolution of those awkward moments is bonding. So, I do worry that when young people today — because they seem to use that word all the time, like, “Oh, that was awkward, like, cringe” — they have this impulse to avoid the awkwardness. But like, no, don’t avoid introducing yourself to other people. Do not avoid being with people that you’ve never met before or having to figure out what to do together when you don’t have instructions. Go through it, not around it.

MAUGHAN: Angela, I just want to mention, as we wrap up this conversation, a conversation I had with my 13-year-old nephew, Sam. And I asked him about being uncomfortable, or discomfort, just in his life generally. I was curious what he would say. And he started telling me about the thing he is most looking forward to in the summer, and it is going on what is called “High Adventure.” I said, “Okay, great branding. I like the idea.” And he said that he went on it last year as a 12-year-old, and it’s this camp and they went caving and they did ziplining. And he said that the very first time any of these kids got on the zipline, they were terrified. He was terrified.

DUCKWORTH: Right, because it’s usually, like, at high — I mean, maybe this is obvious — right, like, are you high in a tree or something?

MAUGHAN: Usually, yeah, and you zipline from tree to tree really high in the air. But he just said it was the most terrifying thing ever. But when he got to the end, he realized how fun it was. And that was something that he never thought he’d be able to do. Now this summer on High Adventure, they’re going to go rappelling.

DUCKWORTH: What is rappelling?

MAUGHAN: Rappelling is where you basically walk backward off a cliff.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, yeah, you have a rope and then you’re, like, kind of walking backwards — okay, yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ve seen that.

MAUGHAN: But there is a moment where you literally have to lean off the cliff until you’re perpendicular and then you walk down. And he is experiencing this same level of maybe negative anticipation toward what rappelling will be, but he also harkens back to like, “Hey, I made it through the zip line. I’m going to make it through this.” But I love the idea that for these teenage kids, there is this quote “High Adventure” thing that he can go on that is outside, that is uncomfortable, that invites them to push themselves, and helps them see that sometimes leaning into — not the “cringe” in this instance — but leaning into the discomfort is actually a huge source of growth.

DUCKWORTH: I like it. I have to say that I have a slight fear of heights.

MAUGHAN: I don’t have a slight fear of heights. I have a crippling fear of heights.

DUCKWORTH: Okay, I am not going to pinky swear that we’re going to do this, but we will take it under consideration. Will we not, Mike? The possibility that we would be bigger, better people if at some point we, like, rappelled, or ziplined, or did any of those things. I don’t have the slightest desire to do any of them, but I think we should take it under consideration.

MAUGHAN: First of all, ziplining is easy. Rappelling is way scarier. If you come to Utah, I will arrange a rappelling experience for us both.

DUCKWORTH: Okay, to be continued.

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

Mike says that “misogi” is a Japanese word that refers to “mental and physical challenges that help purify the mind, body, and spirit.” That’s the modern American version, which author Michael Easter credits to his friend Marcus Elliot. In Japanese, the term refers to a Shinto purification rite that uses cold water to cleanse the body and mind.

Later, Mike and Angela discuss the concept of “room temperature.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as a temperature that is, quote, “comfortable for occupants, conventionally taken as about 68 degrees Fahrenheit. However, studies have shown that people from warmer climates may be comfortable with higher temperatures.

Also, Mike shares his experience getting caught in a monsoon while on a walk in Hawaii. The heavy rains that occur during Hawaii’s wet season don’t technically meet the meteorological definition of a monsoon, which implies a seasonal reversal of wind direction.

Finally, while we can never know if German philosopher Fredrich Neitzche would have gotten along with Taylor Swift, I’d like to propose that he might have had more in common with another American pop star: the singer-songwriter turned talk-show host Kelly Clarkson. Clarkson’s 2011 hit-song “Stronger,” parentheses, “(What Doesn’t Kill You)” is a direct reference to Neitzche’s famous aphorism, “What does not kill me, makes me stronger” from his 1888 book Twilight of the Idols.

That’s it for the fact-check.

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

Helen MERINO: Hi NSQ, I’m a recovering addict of daydreaming. I grew up in a very large family of siblings who mostly live in sort of a fantasy world, and it was very charming when we were all kids, but it doesn’t look pretty in its adult form. So, I went cold turkey on fantasy decades ago. And that’s not to say I live without imagination. I do write a little fiction. I’m an accomplished actor, but I don’t do a lot of fantasizing for fun or mood enhancement. And it’s been kind of great mostly. But all that being said, I think I overcorrected, because when I’m tasked with goal setting, I’m kind of bad at it. The result is, is that I’m a really hard worker, but I progress so slowly, because I’m not moving toward anything. So, you’ve inspired me. I think this next year, I’m going to try to set aside an hour or something on the weekend to sort of relearn daydreaming, to sort of nourish that part of my brain, maybe find the sweet spot. But even if I don’t find a sweet spot ever, for me, living in the here and now, with all its flaws and all its problems, has been a much, much happier place to dwell.

Andrew MCCONNELL: This is Andrew McConnell from Bermuda. I wanted to send a note on unrealistic dreams. If you had asked me as a kid growing up in Greenville, North Carolina, if I would ever live in Bermuda with my daughter and swim in the ocean every day with parrotfish, stingrays, and sea turtles, it was not even an unrealistic dream, it was so far beyond the realm of possibility. And then Covid hit, and Bermuda changed its policies, and now for just a couple hundred dollars, you can be a digital nomad here. And given the amazing infrastructure, it’s actually a really great place to work and certainly a great place to live. And I do want to comment on Mike’s slip up, calling it The Bahamas later in the episode. I would say more conversations than not, that happens. When I say I’m in Bermuda, by the end of the call, someone says, well, have a great time in The Bahamas. And I don’t know if it’s from the Beach Boys song, “Bermuda, Bahama, come on pretty mama,” or where it comes from, but that is a very common slip up. Thanks.

That was, respectively, Helen Merino and Andrew McConnell. Thanks to them and to everyone who shared their stories with us. And remember, we’d love to hear your thoughts about discomfort. Send a voice memo to, and you might hear your voice on the show!

Coming up on No Stupid Questions: are you getting enough physical touch?

DUCKWORTH: I don’t really want to have an eight-second hug.

That’s coming up 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!

MAUGHAN: Nobody wants to listen to me be like, “Oh, my life’s so hard.” It’s like, “Oh really?

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