Photo of David Duchovny with the podcast name, Fail Better, written in a serif font

Stephen Dubner and the Joy of Quitting

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Stephen Dubner, host of Freakonomics Radio, has done more than change the way we think about economics — I consider him a spiritual guide of our time. But for all his success, he’s got a laundry list of careers he’s left behind, from rising-star musician to New York Times writer. We debate the merits of expecting the worst versus hoping for the best and discuss how to trade nuance for novelty as we get older. It’s never too late to keep learning — or, according to him, to start a podcast.

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David Duchovny, Stephen Dubner

David Duchovny  00:00

I’ve quit a bunch of things in my life probably, but the most glaring of those is graduate school. So I quit on getting my PhD in English literature from Yale in the mid 80s. And it was something that my mother until the day she died asked me if I was gonna go finish my PhD, but I wish that I had, if only because I would like my credit to read. You know, such a such a role played by Dr. David Duchovny I think would be fun, or Dr. So and so played by Dr. David Duchovny. That would be meta meta. And as much as I joke about it, it hurts not to complete something that hurts. It hurts to quit on something. My consolation, however, is that I did go a long way I went as far as the dissertation. There was never one moment where I decided to quit, I kind of faded away from graduate school because I had started acting, I’d started riding my bicycle to the train station in New Haven, getting off at Penn Station in New York, riding my bicycle to my acting class and writing it back. So I was living kind of a dual existence between New Haven graduate school and English literature and starting to think about acting. And as I as I went further along, started working harder to try to become an actor started going on auditions started going to LA. I never really left, it’s possible that they’re still expecting my dissertation.


David Duchovny  01:32

I’m David Duchovny, this has Fail Better, a show where failure, not success shapes who we are. Stephen Dubner is the host of the podcast Freakonomics Radio. He’s made that brand his life after co writing Freakanomics back in 2005, which I read back in 2005. And it blew me away. I couldn’t believe the kinds of questions that he was asking that made sense. And in that way, asking questions, let’s say it’s Socratic. You know, that was the Socratic method was asking questions. So I look at him not just as a an economics, you know, brilliant economics guy. But he’s also kind of an intellectual spiritual guide for our time. He recently had a series on the show called How to Succeed at failing, of course, he comes to us as a failure expert, not only because of that series, but because of his own false starts and wrong turns, which you’ll hear about. He quit a successful band, quit the New York Times, and we both quit PhD programs. And he’s such a podcast veteran. He’s an icon of the podcast. So of course, he kind of welcomed me to the club, which was sweet.


Stephen Dubner  02:47

So, David, are you excited about having a podcast?


David Duchovny  02:53

I’m the last one not to have one. So I’m, I’m happy.


Stephen Dubner  02:57

Most most of the people who started them out of FOMO have stopped by now. So it’s actually like a shoe. It’s a good moment.


David Duchovny  03:04

Well, you were your early I mean, you’re you’re a trendsetter.


Stephen Dubner  03:08

Yeah, I thought I was late.


David Duchovny  03:10

You certainly at the time you thought you were late.


Stephen Dubner  03:12

It’s a good lesson. Like a lot of times when you think you’re too late. You’re just stupid.


David Duchovny  03:19

I want to I want to talk about I mean, I know where I’m coming from on failure. I just know, I know. I know my soul. But I’m interested to hear, you know, what’s your origin story? of? of failure?


Stephen Dubner  03:36

Yeah, so I do I am scarred by seemingly minor failures from youth, as probably we all I don’t know, if we all are, I mean, right off the top of my head, I can think of at least three, which I won’t bore you with all of them. But I will say this, I think my feeling about failure was also informed by my family’s religious orientation. So I had a weird family religiously. My parents were both Brooklyn born Jews kind of standard issue Brooklyn Jews, right? They both came from immigrant parents. And long story short, the two of them my parents before they met each other. But during World War Two, which was not insignificant, they both converted to Catholicism. They both became extremely devout and believing Catholics.


David Duchovny  04:21

And so it was It wasn’t an attempt to assimilate further on their point. It wasn’t merely a, they just felt better in that religion.


Stephen Dubner  04:28

So I would say, the short answer is that neither of them I would say, were really about assimilating and neither of them were moving away from being Jewish because of anti semitism. But really, they were both very, very deeply spiritual people, humans, as evidenced by the fact that when they converted, they became among the most devout Catholics. I knew and we hung out with only Catholics. So you know, the end of the story is that years later when I moved to New York in my 20s, I ended up but, you know, becoming Jewish or returning to being Jewish, so, but I was Catholic for the formation and the the notion that gave me the most pause, I’ll put it that way was the idea of original sin. This idea that when you start, you’ve got a black mark on you. You’ve said I, I didn’t like that idea. I did not


David Duchovny  05:21

Like consciousness, a child of not liking that idea.


Stephen Dubner  05:24

Oh, yeah, it’s a big idea when you grow up that way, because you’re living your life to try to essentially erase or supersede the failure that you were born with. And I remember being like 10, 11 thinking, what kind of God I say it in an old Jewish? What kind of God is it that would have me love him or it for having marked me with this failure? Now, I don’t mean to disparage Christianity, or Catholicism because many of my best friends, most of my family members are there. And I did not like, you know, failure hurts. And you know, what else hurts? And this is the other thing, being accused of something you didn’t do I find is one of the greatest injustice is in life, you think, and you felt punished because you were born into the world. And now you got to work off your sentence in a way. So anyway, yeah, failure burned me deeply. And I made you know, so I was a musician. And when I was probably 12, 13, somewhere in there, I was asked to play the Oregon for the high school graduation, pomp and circumstance. And there’s this big, massive Oregon, that was backstage in the auditorium. And I fucked up. I like didn’t rehearse enough. I rehearsed at home on the piano. But then when I got on it during the ceremony, I couldn’t quite hear myself and I started getting lost. I didn’t really read music. So I was playing by ear and I got lost. And you can’t stop playing when there’s a processional, or whatever you call it. So I just started vamping. And like I grew up playing, like Chicago blues piano, so instead of up, yeah, and it was like I, I feel my forehead heating up now with shame. And so it was a horrible experience. And the lesson I learned from that is, you can never over prepare for anything. And if something matters to you, you need to suss out all the elements and figure out how to solve for them. So I had a similar failure like that. When I was around the same age, I was the live announcer for the lineups of the varsity basketball. So you know, varsity basketball in a little town is a big deal. It’s the biggest event in town every whatever, Friday night. And so all I had were the, the the lineup that the opposing team had submitted, and it just had last names. I knew the first names of the guys on our team, because it was a small, you know, you know, everybody. So I got up there and I say, Johnson walk, it sounded like, really bad names of pro wrestlers, you know, and I just felt like an idiot. And so, but these failures help, because they burn out you?


David Duchovny  08:17

Well, these are very public. These are very public failures.


Stephen Dubner  08:20

You know, it’s funny, you say that, because like, I don’t even consider failing in private. I consider that experimentation. No, I’m serious.


David Duchovny  08:29

Well, that’s very, that’s very healthy have you.


Stephen Dubner  08:32

No, I mean, do you consider well, what do you mean by a private failure?


David Duchovny  08:37

It’s a good question. You know, you you have discussions in your work about, you know, different types of failure as well, you know, and like, I think of sins of omission and sins of commission, you know, in the Catholic Church, and I would say, the private failures are more like sins of omission, you know, just thinking, I was not a kind person today, or something like that, or I should have said something and, you know, something I didn’t do, mostly.


Stephen Dubner  09:02

You know, the minute you say it, though, the difference between private and public, I realized this is probably not a healthy thing, but I totally cordon them off. Like if I if I’m the only one who knows that I failed. Like, let’s say I failed to be kinder to help someone that I could ever should have. I consider that a misdemeanor at best, at worst, rather, you know what I mean? Whereas if you do it in public, but I don’t, you know, I wonder if that’s a good it might be a good thing, actually because.


David Duchovny  09:34

I think it brings the shame into it. You know, which is such a, such a terrible and motivating but it’s a it’s, it’s a master. And sometimes I wonder, how are we ever going to learn from other people’s failures? How do we release the shame enough to allow people to start to heal themselves through other people’s failure or is that just is that just a dream that you have to go through the hard pain of shame and failure in order to come out the other side.


Stephen Dubner  10:05

So I don’t consider myself very good at many things. But one thing that I’ve only recently realized, as I’ve gotten a lot older that I’m pretty good at is I’m just good at observing. And I always thought that everybody does that. So we just did this freak radio series on Richard Fineman, the physicist who is a kind of hero of mine, and one thing that I loved about him is that he was just observing. And I think the one advantage I had in failing a lot, in all my failures, is that, and maybe this was Catholicism honestly, because you know, one thing about growing up very religious, is you are trained to constantly inspect your behaviors and decisions and choices, and usually declare them rotten. And then you have to make up for them.


David Duchovny  10:59

But then there’s forgiveness.


Stephen Dubner  11:02

Well, forgiveness within the Catholic Church never felt great, no, it was like, you know, 10 Hail Marys, and then you’re kind of free to go, Look, I’m just going to be honest, I’m a big believer in positive reinforcement. I really am. And I’m not a big believer in negative reinforcement. And I’ve been in both kinds of environments. I used to work at the New York Times, which I loved. And I was, you know, my dad was a newspaperman for small papers, upstate New York. And when I became, when I got hired at the New York Times, he’d been dead a long time, he died when I was a kid. But all I could think about was, oh, my gosh, I wish I could tell my dad, this is, this is awesome. And then I got to the times, and I was proud of being there, I did a lot of work that I really, really enjoyed. But one thing I realized about it is, it was an institution built on negative reinforcement, many people did a lot of their work with an eye toward not fucking up. Because the penalties were really severe. And I think when you’re a creative person of any kind, and I would argue everybody’s a creative person, it’s just it gets beaten out of us. And in certain occupations and realms, you can’t create out of fear and negativity. So because I just for some reason, believe that, when I have a failure, whether it’s messing up with pomp and circumstance messing up as a basketball announcer, I internalized it. And I guess I do feel shame the way you were describing. But I do think if you call every failure, an experiment that didn’t go the way you wanted it to, then that can project you on to a more positive route, which is to say, you know, like, all the great scientists, all the great thinkers, ever, they’ve all failed way, way, way, way, way more than they succeed. That’s just the way it is. But we who look at their work from a remove, and from a distance, and there’s a thing called survivorship bias, which is we only look at the successes. And that is just a very immature way of being a human, you have to recognize that everybody is failing all the time. And if that’s the case, then you can process that however you want, you can process it negatively, beat yourself up, exhibit shame, be afraid to interact with people or put yourself in pressure situations, because you’re afraid of it. Or you can look at it like a scientist or an artist and say, you know, I’m going to write this first scene, you know, at times, and it might be the eighth one, that was good, but you’re never really going to know until you get there life is an experiment. But you know, I mean, I may sound pollyannish now, but I think if you look at it positively like that, then failure can be thrilling. It really can. It’s information, it’s feedback.


David Duchovny  13:51

It is can be liberating, for sure. But I would just, I think it’s a beautiful way to look at the world. It’s a beautiful way to look at experience. It’s a beautiful way to look at education. But there’s a lot in my life experience that says, You don’t learn unless something hurts, you know, in many ways, and I don’t mean hurts necessarily in terms of shame, or you know, public shame or something like that. But it […] said, we only remember that which gives us pain, you know, and I want to have the world as you describe it. I want to educate children as you describe it. I want to live in that world, but I’m afraid that human nature is such that I can’t I have to touch the stove and it has to hurt or else I ain’t I ain’t gonna learn it.


Stephen Dubner  14:39

But you know, when you were saying that about the pain, look, I don’t disagree. It causes pain. But then you have a choice of what to do with the pain. The pain is a piece of feedback. That’s all it is. It’s not a judgment on your soul. It’s a piece of feedback.


David Duchovny  14:53



Stephen Dubner  14:54

So I have a friend Angela Duckworth wrote this book called Grit and we made a podcast together for a few years, and I learned a great deal from her. And she learned a great deal from Marty Seligman, who’s considered kind of the founder, one of the founders of positive psychology. And I remember when I first started reading about positive psychology, I was a lot younger, I was like, Oh, that is so foolish. There’s no way like that can’t work. But I’ve since gradually become convinced that it is, on average, a better way to process your own fears and failures, etc, not to ignore them, not to sweep them under the rug. But to really process them. Whenever you fail. You really inspect it, you examine it, just like you would if you know, if you’re a golfer, you look at your data on all your swings. If you’re a musician, you listen back to your recordings. And you think what’s exactly going on here. And then you move forward with like, passion and perseverance are the words that Angela Duckworth would use. And again, I realized I sound like a really bad televangelists. Now, we’re talk show host. But I think it’s the way to be.


David Duchovny  16:02

Because it very much dovetails into my son when you’re raising your kids. And I’m sure you are as perplexed as any parent about how they come into the world with their own set of valances and directions and, and instincts. And they’re just complete. They’re not tabula rasa, they don’t appear that way. They’re full tables. So let’s say my son, I’d call him a stoic from a very early age. And he would speculate the worst. And his mom and I were, we’re very perplexed at, you know, where does this what we thought of his pessimism come from, you know, and eventually, we just came to the conclusion that he was softening the blow that might come, you know, should the worst happen? He’s rehearsing it. So you could say, Yes, positive thinking maybe creates a positive world? I don’t know, you draw positive energy to you? I don’t know. But there’s also an argument to be made for negative thinking or stoicism, which is well should the worst happen. At least I will have rehearsed it in my mind. And I won’t be blindsided from it and won’t kill me.


Stephen Dubner  17:18

Yeah, that’s interesting. This is a topic I think about a lot. It sounds like you’d like to live with the struggle.


David Duchovny  17:25

Oh, I do. I mean, I, I do.


Stephen Dubner  17:29



David Duchovny  17:29

I am attached to it in a way that may be unhealthy.


Stephen Dubner  17:36

Or may be mature. And it may be there. I like to live with less struggle. I like to know, I’m impatient. Like when there’s a problem. I like to get at it. And get it to some kind of resolution, but I don’t like to live with the problem.


David Duchovny  17:52

Yeah, yeah, I guess I feel like living with the problem is the point. You know, sometimes.


Stephen Dubner  17:58

Yeah, I mean, that’s the that’s, you know, some would argue that’s the human condition.


David Duchovny  18:27

I do call you a spiritual teacher, because I really see the way you work through these problems as as being part of a spiritual tradition. And I’d love to talk about the Christ philosophy is really one of failure. It’s the meek shall inherit the earth. And that would seem to me to resonate with you, Stephen, as part of the Christian message is really one, it’s an upside down message of in the Roman world, really, which was one of strength and victory. So you had a religion of, of the downtrodden of the meek. And I wonder why that didn’t resonate for you. And what is it in Judaism that did resonate for you in terms of what is clearly your life’s work around? Failure and thinking outside the box and innovation in that?


Stephen Dubner  19:19

Yeah so I do wish that there were more conversations about religion, theology, spirituality within an intellectual perspective, but religion has really become sidelined in that regard. And I think for good reason, which is I think a lot of the most prominent religious figures are not really approaching things from a you know, not just intellectual perspective, but even a even a kind of universal perspective. You know, my favorite thing about Christianity is that there are billions of people around the world praying to a rabbi all the time. I mean, Jesus was a rabbi for those who are not aware of the history and probably a magician as well. All right loaves, fishes, you name it.


David Duchovny  20:02

One on one. Where was it hidden, he had a rabbit somewhere in a hat.


Stephen Dubner  20:06

So, with Judaism, I was attracted to it for a specific set of reasons. As I mentioned, I was born, my parents were Jewish, lived in Jewish, very Jewish families. But then by the time I was a kid, they were no longer Jewish. But then, when I moved to New York City, from upstate New York as a in my 20s, New York is a very Jewish city. And so a lot of my teachers, a mentor, or two or three, even, you know, a lot of them are Jewish, and I just began to absorb this Jewish history. And then I began to think about, oh, my parents used to be this thing. I don’t really know what this thing is, I should figure out what this thing is, then in the course of doing that, I felt myself slipping into it. So, but then, because I was religious, by nature, as a kid, or at least religious by experience, I did begin to learn the religion of Judaism. And there were some things that really resonated with me, but like, you know, this notion of cocoon olam and Judaism, which is the idea of repairing the right, fixing the world, repairing the world, and the idea is that you should really live your life in service of making things better, as basic as that sounds. It’s not about triumph. It’s not about escaping evil, it’s about trying to, you know, there’s a line and would turn it and turn it and turn it for everything is in it. And the it is, it’s the tradition. And so Jews for you know, many, many, many, many centuries, have been arguing and talking about, you know, what is this thing, whatever the thing is in front of you could be a political issue could be a food, whatever, turn it and turn it and turn it and keep trying to figure it out it.


David Duchovny  21:47

Debate it.


Stephen Dubner  21:48

Debate, debate is good.


David Duchovny  21:51

Well, here, Stephen, this is this is a gets back to me conceiving of you as a spiritual teacher, because well, first of all you like off because that’s, that’s amazing to me, because I can’t stand my game.


Stephen Dubner  22:01

But yeah, I love it. As a you know, maybe 15 years ago. But wow, do I love it. Like when I was a kid, when I was playing music, you know, for anybody who plays music, or any sport, or anybody who does any, anything like that. There’s such a thrill of learning anything. And you know, it’s ridiculous to me that we delegate most of the learning in our society to kids, you got to go to school, and they’re all set. But then, once you become an adult, you’re just like this block of thing that doesn’t really.


David Duchovny  22:38

You’re supposed to do what you’ve been doing.


Stephen Dubner  22:41

I don’t like that idea.


David Duchovny  22:42

I don’t like it either. Stephen I, I’ve started two different careers, after the age of 50, as a writer, and as a musician, and I care if you like it or not, but I don’t care as deeply as I might have cared once about whether you like my acting because my bread and butter, you know, was that and I had to succeed in order to keep on doing it. But the state of mind that I get to, because I just learned how to play guitar 10 years ago.


Stephen Dubner  23:10

Seriously? Yeah, you got, are you good?


David Duchovny  23:12

No, no, no, I’m  good. But I’m good enough to write. And so when I write, because I’m good with words. And now I got the chords and I can I hear melodies, even though I can’t really sing that well. But I hear the melodies. And I’m 19 in my head when that’s No, honestly, I’m not my brain isn’t spongy, like it was when it was when I was 19. And that’s why I’ll never be a great player. But the mindset that I get, the kind of soul sustenance that I get, even when I write, I’ve been writing my whole life, but I didn’t really start to focus on it to last 10 years. It’s like the Fountain of Youth inside.


Stephen Dubner  23:47

That’s honestly what I love about golf is you are trying to get your mind to cooperate with your body in a way that is kind of like music, kind of like writing kind of like business, but different than all of them. And it’s really hard. And when you sync it up, it feels good. And I like being a person that gets older, learning to do new things, because I believe one of the most powerful emotions that any of us can have is, is the feeling of accomplishment. And failure is a part of accomplishment. It’s just simple as that. So if you if you want to get the high of accomplishing, you have to go through failure to get it and I look at it as like the work that you do failures, the work that you do to get to the thing you want, knowing that you might not even get to the thing you want, but you’re still going to be better off having tried. That’s the way I look at failure overall.


David Duchovny  24:39

But there is a point at which you you say quit.


Stephen Dubner  24:44

I quit. I mean, I’ve quit so many things, David, like my first the first big thing I quit other than Catholicism I guess was music so I I played music I said as a kid was in bands in high school not good. And then I got into band in college with another guy named Jeffrey Dean Foster, who was really good, and we just synced up. And we were both raw. But we got good together, we had a band, two other three other very good guys. And then we ended up, you know, going through all the stuff you go to traveling, touring, being bad playing covers, starting to write songs, et cetera, et cetera. And then we ended up getting a record deal, moved to New York, start making the record. And it had been a, you know, a couple years of being heading towards success and a series of events over those couple years that kind of lodged themselves in my brain, including getting to meet Bruce Springsteen, one night backstage when he came to sit in with this little band called The Delphi Vagos, where the Delphi I was from Boston really good. So we had the same managers of them as them. And I went to see them play at this pub in Greensboro, North Carolina, where they happen to be touring, and I was living down there, and Bruce Springsteen was playing at the Coliseum. And he stopped by told me like the record, and then they’re just talking between sets around all the with all the beer in the back. And this was right when born in the USA was out. You know, he’d been great if you like Springsteen. He was God. And then Born in the USA was like the big commercial record that made him a superstar. And he didn’t say it in these words. But the message I took from that night is, if I knew that this is what it means to be famous, I don’t know if I’d wanted to be famous so much.


David Duchovny  26:32



Stephen Dubner  26:33

And so.


David Duchovny  26:34

Trap of success or success being its own type of failure, in a way, what lesson can you ever learn from success? I guess is the flip side to what we’re talking about today. And I would say nothing. No, I honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever learned anything from success.


Stephen Dubner  26:49

Is that true? Why? Why do you think that is?


David Duchovny  26:53

I don’t know why it is, I think it goes back to hurt, you know, because failure sends you inward, and you start to think, and I quit a very, hugely successful television show, you know, after seven or eight years, that was that was long enough, I quit The X Files and and that was the biggest success I could ever quit. I mean, like a global phenomenon of a show. And I, I just knew that I had done everything I could in that format. And in that show, and that I that it was that it felt like it was going to be my whole life at that point. I felt like if I went any longer, I was going to be doing karaoke me whatever that was, you know, whatever version of karaoke man it was. So it was like a life saving thing for me to do it. And yet, you know, to quit, you know, quitting is quit can be very noble and strong and courageous. But I have to say, you know, when you’re maybe you felt this when you quit the times, maybe if you quit your band, I don’t know if you said you did. But when you do quit an enterprise, you also quit people. It’s like quitting a family. And there’s a lot of pain, a lot of pain that comes with stopping a train that’s moving happily along, just because I’ve got some misgivings about it. You know, and I still carry to this day I carry misgivings about myself.


Stephen Dubner  28:22

Yeah, see, what you did is I think harder, because what you just said, You’re, I don’t want to say letting people down. But you’re changing the calculus of the lives of a lot of people around you. When I quit the band, it wasn’t like, I don’t think it was like that. Because I think, you know, there were two of us who were singer songwriters. And now there was one, and in a way that made it a clear path for them. So they may have missed me they may not have, but when I quit the times, they didn’t, you know, that didn’t matter to the times. But you you were, you know, there’s that what’s that phrase in the entertainment contracts? Key man clause, right, man?


David Duchovny  28:59



Stephen Dubner  29:00

You were the key man.


David Duchovny  29:01

I will take […]


Stephen Dubner  29:03

So how many people were how pissed off at you? As a result of quitting that intro?


David Duchovny  29:11

I mean, the show continued. It went another year after I left, so I didn’t feel like you know, I’d taken bread out of people’s mouths immediately.


Stephen Dubner  29:22

Yeah, but one year, but theoretically. I mean, what was the state of popularity at the time you quit goes, it.


David Duchovny  29:29

Was waning. I mean, it reached its peak. But it was complicated. You know, it was complicated to do that. You know, it’s like disconnecting from a power source. I mean, I wonder, you have, you have your main stream of of creativity, which is freakanomics and now the podcast and are there any days that you wake up and feel like the boss and go, you know, I don’t feel like singing the song today. I’d rather I’d rather try and write that and oblem.


Stephen Dubner  30:00

I’d say two things about that. One is I built a little company to do this. So we’re 15, 20 people. And I do think about that. So I’m not saying I will never stop. But you know, we this past year, we had our first two Freakonomics Radio babies born to women on the staff both had kids and, like, I like having a company that is solid enough and real enough that people come here to work, and they get, you know, parental leave. And they this is, you know, we built the thing. And so that’s very meaningful.


David Duchovny  30:31



Stephen Dubner  30:32

In terms of though, like waking up and saying, I don’t feel like writing this.


David Duchovny  30:36

Or I don’t want to write Born in the USA Today.


Stephen Dubner  30:38

Right, so the one thing I will say about that, that I learned from my friend, Angela Duckworth was the first time so we became friends because she wrote this book Grit. And I interviewed her for Freakonomics Radio for some episode we were doing years and years and years ago, then we started hanging out, and I realized she’s awesome and would be a great collaborator, and then we collaborate. But the very first time I, I believe this was the first time I ever talked to her really, I asked her like, you know, if you think about grit versus quit, like, how do you know? How do you know when you should stick it out? Or how much more it will take? And there are two dimensions there’s one is can you get good enough where it will be fruitful for you? But also, like, do you want to do that thing? And so I was asking her, you know, what do you do if you’re doing a thing that you do? Like, but you just kind of get bored? Does that make you a dilettante and do you just quit and move on to something else. And that’s when she taught me this notion of what she calls substituting nuance for novelty said, novelty is what everybody wants, you’re always going to try new things, because it’s exciting and fun. And that’s kind of the way that we’re wired. But if you’re not in a position where novelty is an option, let’s say, you know, I’m married, and I have a spouse and like, yeah, I might like to be married to that person or that person. Well, that’s, you know, there are pretty high transaction costs there. And maybe you don’t want to do that. But nuance for novelty means that within the thing that you’re doing, let’s take this back to work and not marriage or whatever. find different ways to make it exciting to you by nuance. So when she taught me that lesson, probably 6,7, 8 years ago, that was a turning point for me with Freakonomics Radio. I’ve now been doing it 14 years. And honestly, I think it’s more fun for me now than ever because she helped me conceive of a sort of creative framework whereby, my show is whatever I want it to be. But don’t tell anybody don’t tell it because people are.


David Duchovny  32:41

Really doing Freakonomics.


Stephen Dubner  32:45



David Duchovny  33:14

One of the things I was struck by, during the pandemic was, I don’t know if you’re a basketball fan, but you know, the last dance came on, and it became this this hothouse hit because everybody was was home, it seemed like everybody was watching the the Jordan Bulls. Look, I love Michael Jordan, to me, the best player ever. I couldn’t love him any more. But when I watch him, give his Hall of Fame speech and, you know, holding a grudge against a kid in high school, you know, the kind of the crazy need to win. And then I see a country applauding this as if that’s what you got to do to be a winner. You have to be a killer. You have to humiliate the loser. And I’m wondering what country are we living in? You know, and coming off of, obviously, we don’t want to talk about Trump. But here’s a guy who can’t lose. You know, here’s a guy who has his entire life is trying to reinterpret his biggest loss. Before that, he lost a bunch of he lost billions of dollars as a businessman and he’s, you know, litigated that through lies as well. So we have two major, let’s call them aspirational figures. What does that say to you about? Any way that we can educate our children, either through sports or through? I don’t know. That’s a long ass winded question.


Stephen Dubner  34:43

I think the thing about Trump that is most frustrating for people who don’t love him, and I think the majority of people don’t love him, there are a lot of people who will vote for him, despite not loving him, but I think the thing that’s most frustrating for people who don’t love is It’s pretty obvious that he doesn’t fight fair. And there’s something about this country that has always promoted fairness. I mean, and that’s a big part of what sport is about.


David Duchovny  35:11

But his word, he always uses loser. And people people love that, I love it, and what is it? What is it in us that’s unhealed or misshapen as a country? As a people.


Stephen Dubner  35:24

So, you know, Trump has had long before he ran for president, he had a long history of golf. He’s played golf, golf, yeah. Anybody who’s ever played with them, who has any ounce of truth to them, will tell you a big, big cheater. And in golf, if you play golf, you always encounter a cheater too. And then you stay away from that person, because it’s a game of character supposed to be at least. But the thing, the thing I love about sport, sport is a way for all of us to get our eyes out as fans and competitors. It’s a way it is literally a proxy for kind of the old fashioned version of what humans used to do. I mean, the way I’m sure you know this, though, the reason we shake hands when we greet is, it comes from showing your weapon.


David Duchovny  36:14

The weapon. You don’t have your sword in your hand.


Stephen Dubner  36:17

Exactly, so like, I love the fact that we’ve developed this whole system of sport that is really, you know, if you think about sport, it’s really different. If you’re talking about participatory, or spectator, you know, Scott Galloway, this, I think, really smart guy teaches at NYU, he says, the success of a young human, especially if the male variety will be direct proportion of the hours that they sweat versus the hours that they watch other people’s sweat. And I think about that, because you know, I sometimes enjoy watching other people’s wedding on a Sunday afternoon, whatever fantasy, especially if you’re playing fantasy football, but it it saddens me that what should be a play acting version of war is harnessed to give inspiration to people who really want to really want to hate, right, but the fact is, we attach ourselves to these tribal affiliations with the zeal of people living in Babylonia, 5000 years ago. So you know, the world is complicated. I don’t know, it’s easy to beat up the people who do the stuff you hate. But I do feel there. And I understand that. But I do feel that for all of us. There’s a lot of upside and seeking out the people who are just quietly putting their head down, figuring stuff out, experimenting, experimenting, experimenting, and failing and failing and failing. And I think that’s a nice, I think that’s a nice role model.


David Duchovny  37:44

I agree with you. I, I tried to do that for my kids, I would constantly tell them, I feel like a failure constantly.


Stephen Dubner  37:53

What do they how do they respond to that?


David Duchovny  37:55

I don’t know. They would just nod. was a pleasure, Stephen. Thank you, thank you for coming on, and trusting me.


Stephen Dubner  38:07

I love the conversation. love getting to know you a little bit. And I predict great things for this podcast, because you know what can go wrong with the thought podcast about failure, right?


David Duchovny  38:16

Yeah, exactly. I mean, if I fail I succeed.


David Duchovny  38:32

I missed a couple of areas that I wanted to get into a Steven. One was, I was raised in kind of a mindset of scarcity. And in a world of scarcity in a world in a world view of scarcity, then it’s possible to think of other people’s success as making it harder for you to succeed. And that’s another thing I want to investigate in this podcast is does someone else’s success, contribute to my failure? Contribute to my feeling like a failure? As well as like this? I woke up this morning with this idea like is failure does it feel contagious to people? When I got divorced, I found that there were some married couples that didn’t want to hang around with a divorced guy. Not naming names, but you know, there’s a certain kind of contagious quality to deeply painful experiences that other people go through, you know, that people don’t want to confront. I think it’s a thing because that’s one of the things I was trying to draw out. A difference between myself and Steven was this this notion of how painful failure is and the there has to be grief around it nothing funny today, it’s raining. That doesn’t make it not funny, but maybe that’s my mood later.


CREDITS  40:26

There’s more Fail Better with Lemonada Premium. Subscribers get exclusive access to bonus content like more of my behind the scenes thoughts on this episode. Subscribe now and Apple podcasts. Fail Better as a production of Lemonada media in coordination with King Baby. It is produced by Kegan Zema, Aria Bracci, and Dani Matias  . Our engineer is Brian Castillo. Our SVP of weekly is Steve Nelson. Our VP of new content is Rachel Neil. Special thanks to Carl Ackerman, Tom Karpinski and Kate D. Lewis, the show’s executive produced by Stephanie Wittels Wachs, Jessica Cordova, Kramer and me, David Duchovny, I mean, the company dammit. The music is also by me and my band. Lovely Colin Lee. Pat McCusker, Mitch Stewart, Davis Rowan and Sebastian […]. Special thanks to Brad Davidson. You can find us online at @LemonadaMedia and you can find me @DavidDuchovny, you know what it means when I say at David Duchovny. Follow Fail Better wherever you get your podcasts or listen ad free on Amazon music with your Prime membership.

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