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DUCKWORTH: We love our work very much. 

DUBNER: We’re work lovers. Just say it.

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.

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

 Today on the show: Why is academic writing so bad?

DUCKWORTH: Why don’t we turn it into a Mad Libs? All you have to do is dropdown menus and fill in the blank. 

 Also: what does your perfect day look like? And what’s preventing you from having more of them?

DUBNER: It’s sunny and 77 degrees today, going up from a high of 76 yesterday.

*      *      *

DUBNER: Angela, we have a listener question from one David Boling. “Here is my question,” David writes, “Why is academic writing so bad? Part of the answer,” he writes, “must be that the incentives make it bad. That is, to gain tenure and to get published in academic journals, one is rewarded for the denseness of one’s writing, not whether it can be easily understood. Also, conciseness and clarity are not rewarded. Rather, they are penalized.” Is “conciseness” a word? 

DUCKWORTH: I think conciseness is a word, but it is not the most concise of words, is it? 

DUBNER: I was thinking it was “concision,” somehow. 

DUCKWORTH: I feel like we should be able to do it in fewer than three syllables. 

DUBNER: All right. Anyway, let’s assume that conciseness is a word and move on. David Bolling continues: “How did this come to be? Has it always been like this, or is this a recent development? Is it possible to change the incentives so that the good research is rewarded and bad writing is not? Is there any current effort to change the incentives?” Wow, David Bolling has a lot of questions. I like him. “It is sad,” he concludes, “that those who work in the world of ideas frequently convey those ideas poorly. But if they are simply responding to the incentives, it’s hard to blame them. Thank you for considering my question. Exclamation point.” Should be “questions,” with many S’s. Angela, I have to say, these are not questions that I have not personally considered myself. And I’m curious if these are questions that you have considered as well. 

DUCKWORTH: I, too, have wondered, “How can it be this bad? Is it intentional? Are authors in scholarly publications deliberately covering up the two or three things they have to share in pages and pages of inscrutable prose for a reason? Or is it an accident? Like, what’s going on here?” And I have a few thoughts on this. 

DUBNER: I love the river you’re going to send us down right now, but I just feel like in the interest of fairness, we should question whether the question itself —. 

DUCKWORTH: Is merited. Like, is it that bad?

DUBNER: Is it that bad? 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, okay. I mean, look, I don’t want to exaggerate. And actually, there are always wonderful articles. But contemporary academic writing is often shockingly bad. Even scientists have, themselves, written about how bad scientific writing is. 

DUBNER: Has anybody ever made a significant effort to measure it? You know, there are all these readability scales. Like, this book was written to be read ideally by a fifth grader, versus this book was written to be read ideally by someone who speaks English as if badly translated from Croatian. 

DUCKWORTH: I don’t know whether if you took, for example Science andNature articles and ran them through the Microsoft Word program for like, “what is the average reading level,” I don’t know what you would get. My guess is that because there are technical terms specific to a field that you might get, like, a very high reading level. But I think a more intuitive thing would just be, if anybody wants to know the answer to a question, they typically go to Google. But I am always encouraging people to enter the exact same search phrase into Google Scholar. And when you do that, you draw up academic articles. And though the majority of the text is behind a paywall that you don’t want to pay to get over —.

DUBNER: $900 for every article, for instance. 

DUCKWORTH: You’re like, I no way had that much curiosity about that question. But almost always, the title and the abstract are in front of the paywall. And all you have to do is read the titles and abstracts of a handful of papers that address a question that you had. And you will, I think, immediately agree with David. You would save yourself $900 by saying, like, “I don’t want to read something that’s written so poorly. If this is the abstract, imagine how bad the rest of the article might be.” 

DUBNER: So, when you talk about things that are published in, for instance, Nature or Science, those are journals where there are editors who are collaborating with the academic authors to make it more readable for a more mainstream audience. Correct? 

DUCKWORTH: Correct. Nature and Science are the crown jewels. That’s what every scientist wants to publish in. So, the writing in those elite, elite journals can be quite concise. Though the claim here is that much of scientific writing — which, of course, almost entirely takes place, by definition, outside of the upper-most echelon — can be extremely poor. I am a scientist, so I’m acquainted with scientific writing. But my daughter Lucy, the younger daughter, she had to take this comparative literature class, and she had to delve into things that are not scientific articles, but they’re still scholarly articles. And just peering over her shoulder at the academic writing, I was like, “Oh my God, that’s really bad.” I thought we had problems. But I feel, ironically, in the humanities, there might be deeper problems with what seems to be either deliberately obscure or just accidentally awful writing. 

DUBNER: Look, here’s a target that even you, as an academic, have found is a gigantic target and easy to shoot arrows at. I want to maybe get to a slightly different position. 

DUCKWORTH: Do you disagree with me? 

DUBNER: I guess I have a complicated relationship to this question. First of all, I’m really glad that most of the writing by academics is terrible. 


DUBNER: It gives me a livelihood. A great deal of the writing and talking about writing, and talking about research, that I’ve done over the past ten or fifteen years has been translating, essentially, academic writing into English. You know, you’ll often read a paper, whether it’s psychology or, for me, more often economics. And it might be a 40, 50-page paper with a lot of math in it in the case of the econ, a lot of theory, a lot of prior references that are plainly not meant to be read like a layperson would read something. And very often there’s one small but really interesting idea within that. And then, what I try to do is take that idea, pull it out, and then surround it with explanation and questions. So, for me, if all academic researchers were really good writers, I don’t know what I’d be doing. 

DUCKWORTH: “I don’t know where that next mortgage payment would be coming from.”

DUBNER: Yeah, I’d be shining shoes at very best. So, it’s a good thing for me. And, by the way, this podcast has a grotesquely high share of Ph.D.’s and other academics among our listeners. 

DUCKWORTH: We mean that everybody else’s writing is terrible, but not yours.

DUBNER: No, I’m sure the people who listen to this are also terrible writers. I just want to say we’re really preaching to either the choir or the opposite of a choir. But, David asked the question, why is it bad? What are the incentives? And I guess the way I would put the question to you is, is it the incentives that create bad writing or is it — and this is me trying to be a little bit more generous to academics — is it that the kind of people who write academic papers are the kind of people, comma, often brilliant, comma, who spend most of their resources, and capital, and time pursuing that brilliance in their chosen discipline, and simply don’t feel it’s a smart investment to become a good writer? And why should they? I mean, if I think of myself as a good writer, am I also supposed to be a good mathematician? So, that’s where I think this gets a little bit nuanced and interesting. 

DUCKWORTH: What you’re asking is, is it skill or will? If it’s an incentive or motivation problem, that suggests that scientists could easily write with the fluency of a New Yorker writer, but choose not to mount the effort to do so because they’re not properly incentivized or even disincentivized. And that’s one possibility. A non-mutually exclusive alternative is, it’s really hard to write so people can understand you, and more than that, to evoke some kind of emotion, or to have a little style and verve. Now, they’re related, because if you’re not motivated to improve your skill, that’s a combination of those things. But I think there’s both things going on. High-quality writing is always valued. And I think it is increasingly valued in scientific publications, but it is not the number one priority of a scientist. And if you are a physicist, or a bioengineer, or even an economist or psychologist, your number one job is to discover something in your field. And somewhere on the list, but not number one, is to communicate that with eloquence. 

DUBNER: And the paper that results from that research in some weird ways, it is the end goal, because disseminating the idea is really important. But the writing of the paper, the actual construction of the communication of the research, I think is pretty far down the list of desires of most academic researchers. 

DUCKWORTH: That’s not why you went into science. You didn’t go into science so you could work on crafting a really compelling introduction section. You went to science to discover something about the thing that you’re a scientist of. In fact, I have a colleague named Sidney D’Mello. He’s a psychologist. He’s also a computer scientist. And, I guess, in computer science, and the journals that he publishes in, you just straightforwardly report what you found. And he was suggesting that perhaps, really the way that academic publications ought to be built is not like, “Hey, here’s a blank piece of paper. Build a beautiful essay.” But almost like a short answer, like, “What did you study? What was your hypothesis? What was the sample? Fill in the blanks.” 

DUBNER: Would you like to see more of that, as an academic psychologist, in psychology journals? 

DUCKWORTH: I’m of two minds. I think that the ability to do good scientific research is not strongly correlated with the ability to communicate it. Therefore, there are a lot of important scientific discoveries that never actually get to see the light of day, because the poor scientist who discovered them wasn’t a great writer. So, part of me says, “Why don’t we turn it into a Mad Libs? And as a scientist, all you have to do is dropdown menus and fill in the blank. 

DUBNER: “Startling” connection between “genes” and —. 

DUCKWORTH: Yes, exactly. “Toilet seat!” “Fart!” 

DUBNER: Wait, what kind of research are we talking about here? 

DUCKWORTH: No, I was just talking about my own personal style of filling in Mad Libs

DUBNER: There is a lot of very interesting research into flatulence. 

DUCKWORTH: But we digress. 

DUBNER: Just barely. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, just a bit. So, I think there could be a kind of Mad Libs-style journal. 

DUBNER: I’m not buying that. I’m sorry. 

DUCKWORTH: Because? 

DUBNER: Because — look, people who write these papers for journals, they’re writing for each other. They’re not writing for me. And since they’re writing for their peers, there really is a different language, or at least a different vocabulary. I can’t believe I’m defending this tribe, but that’s where I feel the question is a little bit unfair, because I think you need to distinguish between academic writing that’s meant for other academics to communicate the ideas in a language that they will plainly understand because they are peers, and academic writing that tries to communicate to the broader public. And that’s where I think the problem lies, is when you have academic researchers writing an op-ed piece, or a book, or for a more mainstream publication. That’s where you find that many academics just aren’t very good writers. And yet, I would still excuse that by the fact that they’ve spent their human capital doing what they’re good at, and they haven’t spent it on becoming good writers. 

DUCKWORTH: I agree. I would rather have a physicist be a great physicist and a mediocre writer. The question is, what does it take to be a clear writer? And I don’t think it’s so hard that it would be impossible for a great physicist, or labor economist, or anyone else to be. 

DUBNER: Says the psychologist who happens to be a really good writer. 

DUCKWORTH: Thank you. When I first got to graduate school, my adviser, Marty Seligman — he gave me something that he wrote, but I don’t think he ever published. And it was called, simply, “Good Scientific Writing.” And it was just a few pages long. And at the top it said, “I’ve been correcting graduate student papers and editing journal articles for more than 25 years. I see the same errors of writing over and over. Here are some to avoid.” And then, it’s like the Strunk and White of scientific writing. So, number one: vacant lead sentences. “The first sentences of each section, and the first sentence of each paragraph as well, are the most important sentences. They should state in plain English your main points, then the details can follow.” And then he has one right example, and then one wrong example. So, I’ll just read you this one. “Right: Results. Cognitive therapy prevented relapse better than drug therapy. Drug therapy did better than no therapy at all.” 

DUBNER: Okay, nice. 

DUCKWORTH: “Wrong: Results. We perform four analyses of covariance in our data, first transforming them to Z scores. We then did paired comparisons using a Bonferroni correction.” Okay, that was enormously helpful to me to read before I put pen to paper for my very first scientific article. Would it be too much to ask that other scientists also learn these basic principles before they put pen to paper? 

DUBNER: I am a little curious whether you, personally, were more receptive to that advice because you are the kind of person who wanted to be a good communicator of your research, and even to be a popularizer. I think among many people, not just academics, there is this perceived inverse correlation between plainspokenness and intelligence. 

DUCKWORTH: Meaning that the fancier my language, the more you think I’m a smarty-pants? 

DUBNER: Exactly. So, if you want to sound smart, speak with complexity and a lot of jargon. Now, I would argue that there probably isn’t that much relation between true intelligence and communicating with deep complexity. Richard Feynman, for instance, who was a physicist, one of my favorite scientists, because he communicated well —.

DUCKWORTH: So well. 

DUBNER: He was very smart, and he spoke very plainly, and explained things very well. 

DUCKWORTH: Daniel Oppenheimer, who is one of my favorite psychologists, he’s at Carnegie Mellon University. He has this paper that’s about this very question. When we read somebody’s writing, and it’s got all these fancy words with lots of syllables and hyphens, like, “Ooh, this is really hard to understand” — do we think that the author is smarter than we are or stupider than we are? This is the title of the paper: “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly.” And, in fact, what Danny finds is that the more complex the text, the less we think that the author was a smarty-pants. And so, we are doing ourselves damage reputationally, while also just spreading bad writing in the world, by doing that. You know what I say to my students? I say to them, “Write like Hemingway, not like Faulkner.” Like, “The man saw a fish and the fish was good. Jack and Jill ran up the hill.” Those are beautiful sentences and they cannot easily be improved. 

DUBNER: I didn’t know Hemingway wrote Jack and Jill. That makes a lot of sense. And I totally embrace your point. But I think that there’s a fear that it will lead to oversimplification and a dismissal of the nuance that might ultimately undercut the value of the research. And I think that’s a legitimate concern. 

DUCKWORTH: I agree. You can see that critics — and there are many — who say that when you give a TED Talk, when you write a popular book, when you pen an op-ed in The New York Times, and you don’t go into the moderators, the caveats, the boundary conditions, the confidence intervals, that there’s something that’s very irresponsible, because we’re kind of reducing to a soundbite and that, in this particular case, something is worse than nothing. 

DUBNER: So, those are two sides of the argument about communicating in a simple, plain way. And I can see the value in both sides, but I think you can communicate that your idea or theory is not foolproof without listing the caveats and exceptions in great, great detail, so much that they obscure your main point, but by using words that do that. 

DUCKWORTH: Give me an example. 

DUBNER: “We find that giving cash transfers to this population is disproportionately likely to lead to success.” You know, that’s not the most beautiful way to put it. But we’re saying that it helps, but we’re not saying that this is the one and the only solution. So, I think that the writing could be much, much, much better and still be appropriately obscure to count as valuable among your peers. 

DUCKWORTH: I will say this to my fellow academics. Writing is hard for everyone, including me. And I think there’s two things that we could do. One is what my high school English teacher told me to do, which is to read our writing out loud. For example, I say to my students, if you are reading a sentence and you have to draw a breath mid-sentence so as not to asphyxiate, that sentence is too long. And the other thing is the curse of knowledge. I think one of the challenges that I see when graduate students, or professors, even, give a talk, they start slingin’ the acronyms left and right. And they’re using terminology — they’ll drop names without any explanation of who these people were. Now, that is probably partly because you are speaking to people who know the same things that you do, in part. But the curse of knowledge is the difficulty that human beings have imagining that somebody else might have a slightly different knowledge base. And so, I think when you’re giving a talk, even to your peers, you shouldn’t assume that they know the same acronyms, that they know the same literature, that they know the same authors. In fact, I will say to my students, “Pretend you’re giving this talk to my mother. She’s a very smart woman. She has no training in science. She’s very curious. But if she can’t understand your talk, then you shouldn’t be giving that talk to anybody else either.” 

DUBNER: So, here’s where I really land. My message to you, Angela, is to tell all your fellow academics, all the psychologists, and neuroscientists, and anthropologists, even the comparative-literature people, and the computer scientists, and mathematicians, especially the economists: just keep doing exactly what you’re doing, because otherwise they’ll all put me out of a job. 

DUCKWORTH: Okay, I will spread the word, like a dentist who encourages people to drink soda and chew sugary gum—.

DUBNER: That’s me. 

DUCKWORTH: You would like them to keep writing exactly as they are. 

DUBNER: But that, occasionally, I’ll pretend to defend them in a podcast. 

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss how to measure a perfect day.

DUCKWORTH: I’m literally just lying around on this lounge chair drinking an iced coffee. 

*      *      * 

DUCKWORTH: Stephen, simple question for you. What’s your perfect day, and what’s preventing you from having more of them? 

DUBNER: Ooh, what a delightful and impossible question. So, I’m guessing, for starters, that there’s a huge variance in what people consider “the perfect day.” So, my perfect day would probably be wildly unappealing to a lot of people and vice versa. 

DUCKWORTH: Now I’m really curious. Describe it for me. 

DUBNER: So, to me, the perfect day has to begin the night before. When I go to sleep feeling the world is in order, or at least not in too much chaos, and I go to sleep knowing that everyone in my family is happy, they’re healthy, et cetera. Then, I feel I can wake up with a vengeance and have the appropriate level of enthusiasm and optimism. One answer would be that my perfect day would be not having to do anything I don’t want to do. But also, that would mean having almost nothing to do — an empty calendar, no meetings, no doctor’s appointments, no difficult problems or conversations. 

DUCKWORTH: What would you do on a day where you had nothing to do?

DUBNER: Okay. So, maybe this is slightly paradoxical, but my perfect day would be wide open, but something large, and even difficult, to accomplish — a piece of writing, for instance. So, if there is an episode of Freak Radio, or a book chapter, I love the writing part. I love being alone. I love that deep focus. I’m guessing for most people, that is not their idea of a perfect day. I think it’s like the weather. Some people like perfect weather, like San Diego. Me, I would enjoy the first 36 hours of that steady sunshine. And I’d say, “Hey.” 

DUCKWORTH: “Hey! Where’s the rain, wind, and sleet? Throw in some hail.” 

DUBNER: Can you imagine being a meteorologist in San Diego? “It’s sunny and 77 degrees today, going up from a high of 76 yesterday. But tomorrow, back down to 76 and sunny.” So yeah, I like variety. 

DUCKWORTH: So, let me just get this picture in my head. You wake up from a good night’s sleep. Everybody that you care about is fine. You look at your calendar. Miraculously, there’s nothing on it at all. You have a big project that you’re working on that’s going to take a lot of editing and writing that you will do in solitude. 

DUBNER: That sounds like prison, but yeah.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I know! I’m starting to describe solitary confinement. A little worried about you, Stephen.

DUBNER: I guess what I’m discovering is that I like segmentation. I like variety. The perfect day would probably be really, really hard and good work that feels good with a fair amount of family stuff, but only when my family is being very nice. Maybe a little golf would help make the perfect day. Or playing some backgammon with a friend. Those are, like, the comfortable, predictable things. But often it’s the things that you don’t anticipate. You meet someone, you learn some new idea, and then that feels, honestly, even better than the predictable San Diego-type perfect day. You want some surprises. 

DUCKWORTH: Some serendipity. 

DUBNER: Don’t you think? I mean, let’s get on to you. What’s your perfect day, and how much variance is there from perfect day to perfect day? 

DUCKWORTH: I would say, a perfect day is: I wake up from a miraculously and uncharacteristically awesome night’s sleep. 

DUBNER: That almost never happens for you, unfortunately, right?

DUCKWORTH: It really doesn’t. And in this idealistic picture of my life, I spring out of bed completely well-rested. I have a really great cup of coffee. I am not sure whether it has sugar in it or not, on a perfect day. I have a great yoga session, or a swim in the pool, or a run. Interestingly, when I think about a perfect day — I remember, growing up, my dad used to fantasize constantly about what it would be like after he retired, and how for him a perfect day would be, quote-unquote, “having nothing to do.” 

DUBNER: And then how did he actually enjoy having nothing to do? 

DUCKWORTH: Oh my gosh. If you talk to my mom, my dad was at his lowest of lows in the years right after he retired and he had nothing to do. Maybe that is influencing my own thinking here. But I do not want to have nothing to do, ever. So, I’m going to add into my perfect day: work. 

DUBNER: I just assumed that was for both of us. 

DUCKWORTH: I know! I think some people would be wondering why the heck we would put work in a perfect day. 

DUBNER: You know, I did look at some Pew Research data on this. When Americans are surveyed on what gives them a deep sense of meaning, which is not perfectly equivalent to the perfect day, but the most common answer, not surprisingly, is family. And, you know, you could ask whether people say that to a surveyor because they think they’re supposed to say it, and whether they really believe it. But let’s assume that that’s actually true. But number two was career, and number three was money. So, those both beat out categories like spirituality, and friends, and activities, and hobbies, which is curious to me. And I have a feeling that if those data were gathered in a country very different from the U.S., you would find very different answers. So, I think that while you and I may be a little bit of outliers in that work is pretty central to what we love, there are probably more American outliers than there are outliers in, fill in the blank, you know, less-crazy country than the U.S.. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, as we have previously discussed we, each of us, love our work very much. 

DUBNER: We’re work lovers. Just say it.

DUCKWORTH: We’re work lovers, exactly. But I think it’s also generally true, not just of Americans, but — at least, I’m told by my clinical psychology colleagues — when people struggle with anxiety or with depression, that they are less afflicted when they are in the middle of a workday. It’s often when you have, quote-unquote, nothing to do that the demons really start nipping at you. 

DUBNER: And is that purely because your mind is occupied with your work tasks? 

DUCKWORTH: I think that it is, that your attention is absorbed in a productive activity. 

DUBNER: So, depressed people should just work 24 hours a day, plainly. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Well, that, that would be probably taking it too far. However, I do think that actually working, as opposed to like, “Oh, I’m not feeling that great about life. I think I’ll just stay home.” That would be worse. I also think that there’s some relevance here of that finding by Dan Gilbert and Matt Killingsworth that when your mind is wandering, you’re actually less happy. Now, this is correlational data, but they do the analyses such that — I don’t know if you know this technique, the experience sampling method, where you kind of beep somebody randomly. 

DUBNER: How do you do that? I’ve heard a little bit about that. You get a set of people who agree to be surveyed by researchers. That’s the first step? And how does that even happen? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, very often you’re paying people to be part of a research study — or you’re getting a very unusual sample, like somebody who actually wants to be pinged several times throughout the day, constantly, for days and weeks. But in these studies, this term, “experience sampling method,” is really the idea that your experience, in the moment, is being sampled continuously. And the innovation here is that, rather than asking you, “Stephen, in general, how often do you experience anxiety?” 

DUBNER: And I’m not expected to say, “Well, you know, about 2:15 p.m. today, I had an incident.” 

DUCKWORTH: Right. You can’t remember. Either you overestimate or you underestimate. So, this is the momentary sampling of experience. So, if you look at data from these E.S.M. studies, “experience sampling method” studies, then you can get a picture of what makes a perfect day, or at least a better day, for some people. And, to the point about work being a salvation for many of us, it is characteristic that when we are in a mind-wandering state — we’re not doing something goal-directed — we actually are less happy than when we are engaged in something which is goal-directed.

DUBNER: Yeah, but I think that’s different than loving your work. Because, yes, if your work requires you to be focused on your tasks, then your mind is not wandering. And maybe that encourages a better baseline level of satisfaction, or whatnot. But we also know from a lot of data that many, many, many people really, really don’t like their work. 

DUCKWORTH: Right. Mind wandering, in the sense that you’re not doing something which is goal-directed, might not feel so good, but that’s not exactly the same thing as being at work, anyway. Your mind can certainly wander while you’re at work. There’s a different technique that’s been used to look at how people feel during their day. And that is something that Danny Kahneman helped to invent. It’s called day reconstruction. And that comes to a different finding. So, I’ll tell you the finding first, and then I’ll tell you what day reconstruction is. So, the finding is that working is really pretty low down on the list of daily activities —. 

DUBNER: I think sex was number one, wasn’t it?

DUCKWORTH: For making you feel good. Well, in the report, they call it “intimate relations.” But assuming that that’s what it is, then yeah. That was the highest rated in terms of positive emotion. And then work was at the very bottom — only beat out by commuting to work. By the way, that was below housework. So, the day reconstruction method is that you take the last 24 hours, and if you’re in a study like this, you have to divide it into episodes. I don’t have to tell you what I was doing at every minute of the day, but I could say, like, “Oh, from 1:00 to 2:30, I was in a meeting with Stephen Dubner. And then, at 2:30 I decided to take a walk.” And then, you assign to each episode ratings of how happy were you, how worried were you — you can assign ratings on all kinds of dimensions. And the innovation of this method was that, without having to do the very invasive, time-consuming, expensive experience sampling method, you could still get a little closer to momentary experience. And it would still, in theory, beat out a questionnaire that said, “Stephen, in general, how often do you experience happy feelings?” 

DUBNER: So, when we talk about work as a part of our satisfaction and so on, it does make me think that we all live in a certain kind of silo, to some degree. And you could argue that our days are shaped much less by ourselves than we think, and more by our circumstances. Karl Marx famously argued that capitalism is a definite mode of life that shapes our relationships. It shapes everything — our sense of ourselves, our capacities. I’m reading a little bit from a book by Alyson Cole and Estelle Ferrarese called How Capitalism Forms Our Lives, Marx’s argument was that everything that we think about our self-identity — what we’re able to do, what we like to do, the actions we actually take in the material world, et cetera — are shaped by forces way beyond us. And so, many people think about the perfect day in terms of productivity. How much should I get done today? Can I do even more tomorrow? And I certainly fall prey to that, because I do feel that accomplishment is a really important goal, and that it feels good, and therefore, we often pursue it, perhaps at the expense of other things that might make us feel a little bit perfect also. Do you ever get a yearning for a little bit less accomplishment that might somehow make you feel happier? 

DUCKWORTH: I mean, I don’t know whether it’s because I grew up in a capitalist society according to a Marxian analysis, or not. But it’s so high up on my list of things that make me feel good — being productive — that, usually over the summer, pandemic maybe as the exception, my family goes “down the shore,” as we say, in the greater-Philadelphia area. Meaning, like, we go to a beach town. And when we go down the shore, I remember specifically having this experience, like, I’m doing what you’re supposed to do, which is nothing. Like, I’m sitting there and drinking a iced coffee. 

DUBNER: And you were just going nuts, weren’t you? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, I was looking at the young men and women who were running around madly, serving everybody their drinks, and cleaning up their tables, and picking food off the floor. And I remember saying to my husband, “You know what? I’d rather be them.” And he thought that was disturbing. He was like, “You really need a vacation.” But I was like, “No, I would rather be running around and getting stuff done. What am I doing? I’m literally just lying around on this lounge chair drinking an iced coffee.” 

DUBNER: Right. So, the second part of your question, after what’s my perfect day, the second part was what’s preventing me from having more of these. So, after this conversation, I think I’m confused, because I do feel there are a couple conflicts here. On the one hand, I’d want to say, “Well, more variety, because sameness gets old.” I’d also want to say, “Even fewer obligations, because I don’t like obligations.” But I feel like those are all too self-directed. I guess this goes to this saying that you’ve taught me, which is, there are things you want and there are things you want to want. And I want to want to have a different kind of perfect day, where I do interact with people more and maybe spend more time just helping people — spend time focusing on kindness, and gratitude, and all those good-sounding things. But I don’t do all that much of those. I mean, I don’t think I’m a monster. Maybe I’m a small monster. 

DUCKWORTH: I’m still hanging out with you. 

DUBNER: But that may just be because you’re generous beyond compare, and that you’re the only person that could stand to do this. 

DUCKWORTH: I don’t think that you’re any different than anyone else, which is to say that there’s a version of a perfect day which is your first intuitive system-one response. And then you start to reflect on it a little bit. And you’re like, “Well, what do I want to want? What do I wish I had said for my perfect day?” And for me, I’m not sure there’s a huge difference between what I want in a perfect day versus what I want to want. But there’s some difference. And I’ll say that in a perfect day, I would stick in a few completely selfish, hedonic pleasures. 

DUBNER: You also said yoga or swimming, which are not quite pure hedonic, but I didn’t hear you making sandwiches for the homeless shelter. 

DUCKWORTH: I was not making sandwiches for the homeless in my perfect day. That is true. However, I think of my work as being, I hope, generally net value for humanity. 

DUBNER: See, I tell myself that too, all the time. 

DUCKWORTH: You tell yourself that lie all the time. 

DUBNER: When I think about how I should be a better, kinder person, a more helpful person, I think I should do things directly. But then, I say, “Well, wait a minute. A lot of people hear or read this piece I do. I am giving all those good people the ammunition to go and do actual good, important things.” So, I sort of justify my own fairly selfish behavior by thinking that, “Well, it’s okay, because this is all I’m capable of doing, and it’s all those other good people out there who are going to make their perfect day much more substantial and meaningful than mine.” And I’m generally okay with that. 

DUCKWORTH: I think this: I think there’s no perfect answer to the question, “What’s your perfect day, and what’s preventing you from having more of them?” But I think it’s a perfect question to ask. I think just asking yourself, “What is a perfect day, and what’s preventing me from getting closer to that ideal?” I think that’s a good one. And I hope it doesn’t sound too smug, but I don’t feel like there’s a whole lot of daylight, as it were, between my perfect day and my actual day. 

DUBNER: I’m happy to hear that. I guess I would just say that my perfect day, as I think about it going forward, would necessarily include spending time cogitating on what the perfect day might be, while knowing full well there is no such thing, but doing it with someone that I happen to like. And that’s you. And I don’t like that many people. So, I’m glad you showed up today. 

DUCKWORTH: That was a perfect conversation. 

*      *      * 

No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and the Freakonomics Radio Book Club. This episode was produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now, here is a fact-check of today’s conversations. 

At the beginning of the conversation about academic writing, Stephen and Angela debate the noun form of the word “concise.” Stephen thinks that it should be “concision,” but listener David uses “conciseness” in his email. It’s actually both! According to the Oxford English Dictionary, conciseness is, in fact, a noun meaning brevity or terseness, and “concision” is its perfect synonym. 

Later, Stephen jokes that scientific journals charge 900 dollars per article. He was slightly off. According to the Duke University Library, 59 of the 100 most highly-cited articles ever published are behind a paywall, and the average cost of one of those articles for an unaffiliated researcher is $33.41. But often, earlier versions of paywall papers are publicly available. You can also directly email the study’s author — the money earned by those paywalls doesn’t go to the researchers, and they may send you their paper for free if you ask nicely. Also, many academics link to PDFs of their research on their University webpages. So, fret not! If you’re cheap but patient, it’s still pretty likely that you’ll be able to access whatever convoluted content you’re interested in.

Finally, Angela references a set of guidelines for good scientific writing by her former Ph.D. adviser, Martin Seligman. She didn’t think that Seligman had ever published the piece, but fortunately, it is available on the University of Pennsylvania’s website. The guidelines are the appendix to a 1991 piece by Seligman’s University of Pennsylvania colleague, psychologist Jonathan Baron. The full article is titled, “How to Write a Research Report in Psychology.” We’ll link to the guidelines in our show notes on the Freakonomics Radio website — no paywall.

That’s it for the fact-check.

No Stupid Questions is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher; our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Mark McClusky, James Foster, Joel Meyer, Tricia Bobeda, Zach Lapinksi, Mary Diduch, Brent Katz, Morgan Levey, Emma Tyrell, Lyric Bowdich, Jasmin Klinger, and Jacob Clemente. 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! 

DUBNER: Do you have, in your past, a day that stands out as kind of perfect? 

DUCKWORTH: I remember being on vacation with my family. I think I went running that day. I had some delicious food, probably involving avocado. 

DUBNER: This is sounding like every day. 

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  • Sidney D’Mello, professor of cognitive science at the University of Colorado Boulder.
  • Martin Seligman, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Daniel Oppenheimer, professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.
  • Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard University.
  • Matt Killingsworth, health and society researcher at the University of California Berkeley.
  • Daniel Kahneman, professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University.



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