About Ellen Ruppel Shell
Ellen Ruppel Shell is an author, investigative journalist and Prof. of Journalism at Boston University where she co-directs the Graduate Program in Science Journalism. She conducts research, teaches, and writes on issues relating to science and economic policy and social justice. Prof. Ruppel Shell is the author of hundreds of published articles, reviews and essays. She’s a long-time contributing editor for The Atlantic, writes on issues of science, social justice, economics and public policy for Science, Scientific American, the New York Times opinion and book pages, The Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, Discover, The New York Times Magazine, The Boston Globe and the Washington Post. She has served as an editor for a wide range of national publications and for public broadcasting and is sought frequently as a commentator on issues of science and the press.
Prof. Ruppel Shell has authored four books translated into more than a dozen languages, The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change (Crown, October, 2018); Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture (Penguin, 2009), The Hungry Gene (Grove, 2002), and A Child’s Place (Little Brown, 1992).
Prof. Ruppel Shell has been a Vannevar Bush Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a Fellow in Occupational Health and Safety at Harvard University Medical School. She lectures widely on topics in science communication and public policy, as well as economic and social justice. She has served both as a Bush Fellow at MIT and as a Fellow in Occupational Health and Safety at Harvard University.
Lesson 1: Trust yourself (but not too much) 05:09
Lesson 2: Don’t take business matters personally. 08:14
Lesson 3: Demand evidence and extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.12:23
Lesson 4: Question received wisdom. 19:01
Lesson 5: Rise above your assumptions.27:39
Lesson 6: Be self-confidant enough to give others the benefit of the doubt.31:25
Lesson 7: Feelings trump facts in many matters, “rational” can be overrated.24:14
Lesson 8: You’re bored because you’re not paying attention. 37:10
Lesson 9: Don’t mistake hurt and guilt for anger. 42:22
Lesson 10: Empathy is not compassion. 45:56
Ellen Ruppel Shell – Question received wisdom
[00:00:08] Duff Watkins: Hello. Welcome to the podcast. 10 lessons that took me 50 years to learn. Where we dispense wisdom for a career in life. That’s wisdom for your career and life. My name is Duff Watkins and I’m your host. Our guest today is Ellen Ruppel Shell, who is an author writer, investigative journalist.
[00:00:25] In fact, she’s a professor of journalism at Boston university and she’s with us here today. Hi Ellen, how are you?
[00:00:30] Ellen Ruppel Shell: Good. Thank you. Thanks for inviting me, Duff.
[00:00:32] Duff Watkins: I have to say this journey started when I read your book ‘Cheap, The High Cost of Discount Culture’. Now I’m a guy that’s been in international business for 30 years.
[00:00:42] And I can tell you, after reading your book, I will never look at Walmart in quite the same way. It was such a, a tour force work at explaining, exposing really how those everyday low prices that Westerners are so used to. And in fact, feel they’re entitled to how that actually comes about. And in other words, who really bears the cost, I thought that was just a very important book for business.
[00:01:06] Ellen Ruppel Shell: Thank you.
[00:01:07] Duff Watkins: The other, and I’ve finished also, um, another more recent book called ‘The Job, The Future Of Work In A Time Of Radical Change’. And, ah, boy, that too was really good talking about the evolving nature of a job, um, the evolution of a job, and in fact, the evolving nature of work itself. So those are two books I wish to recommend to, uh, to our, our listeners and our viewers now, which leads me to ask how, how do you write about a lot of things?
[00:01:34] Your articles are published in the New York times, Washington post Los Angeles times, and I see them frequently in the Atlantic magazine. How do you choose what to write about?
[00:01:45] Ellen Ruppel Shell: Oh, I think like, uh, many writers, um, my topics kind of choose me. it’s generally something that, gets in my head and I can’t get it out.
[00:01:54] You know, something that has really bother me a question that’s knowing away at me something that I find, either surprising or perplexing and. In terms of a book, it gives me a very large platform and a lot of time to work out the answers to that question. And when I write shorter things, um, either I’m offering an opinion or a more condensed, um, opportunity to really investigate, topics of concern.
[00:02:18] My background is in science. And I started as a science journalist, um, and I teach science journalism at Boston university, but, using the, being, having some training in science, um, has been very, very helpful in my life as a journalist because, you use this a similar, uh, approach to investigating topics and considering topics forming a thesis that you challenge, what we call the in science, you call it the null hypothesis.
[00:02:45] You sort of form a thesis. This is what I think, but then you do everything possible to kind of, Disprove this theory. Okay. Mm-hmm so mm-hmm, generally speaking. I, I often go in with, with assumptions that turn out to be wrong. And that’s oftentimes rewarding because the assumptions that we go in with as, as lay people, um, uninformed, are often wrong.
[00:03:07] And what’s most rewarding to me is when I find out that everything, I thought to be true was not. So, when these various topics, the things that I’ve written on, that’s oftentimes what their commonality. So, when you mentioned Cheap, The High Cost Of Discount Culture, I’m a bargain hunter. I love shopping for bargains.
[00:03:26] Um, I find it kind of a treasure hunt uh, and I love it. But then one day, um, when I was thinking about this, I looked in my closet and I saw all these garments with the price tags, still on them, you know, things, my trophies, right. That I thought, my gosh, I got these at a very good price, but I, but I’ll never wear them.
[00:03:45] Right? And it started, I, I am looking at the irrationality of that, led me down that path to, to really investigating the externalities of low price. So, when you’re talking about cheap, that’s, that’s literally how that started was my own experience. And with my last book, The Job, what was really troubling me was what was happening in the United States.
[00:04:06] I, I saw the tremors of what was to come. This is pre-Trump. I was quite concerned about, uh, what was going on and the notion that everyone in the United States and in the world, in fact, Could just educate themselves into a good job. This was kind of the rhetoric, the prevalent rhetoric out there. And that really worried me.
[00:04:27] Um, and I didn’t know what that meant. And so that led me into this investigation that lasted over seven years. I looked into that question for about seven years, of what is, what is a job? What does it mean? How does it differ from work? Why is it so central to our lives in the United States that it tends to eclipse almost everything else in our life and, uh, what are the limitations in that thinking?
[00:04:51] So that’s a very long answer to your question. But oftentimes it’s, uh, another altern. Another reason I might, uh, trip over a story that’s just too good to not share with people. So that’s another reason, um, some of the things I’m working on now fall that category.
[00:05:06] Duff Watkins: That’s a necessarily a long answer, but a good answer.
[00:05:09] Lesson 1: Trust yourself (but not too much)
[00:05:09] Duff Watkins: And so that takes us to the 10 lessons, uh, 10 life lessons, I guess let’s start with number one. And this one surprises me. I must say number one, trust yourself.
[00:05:21] Ellen Ruppel Shell: Hmm. Did I say that?
[00:05:24] Duff Watkins: well, I’ll tell you why that surprises me is because, okay. You’re a science journalist, Richard Fineman, the famous, uh, physicist.
[00:05:35] He said that in science, you must be very careful not to fool yourself and you are the easiest person of all to fool. And so, when I think of trusting myself, which sounds good, sounds wise, but, and there’s always a but to it is what I’m thinking. So that’s why I’m interested in your version of trust yourself.
[00:05:58] Ellen Ruppel Shell: Well, I think that was a pretty flip comment, um, because I always challenged myself. I’m really surprised that I, that I wrote that. now again, Duff, let’s tell the audience that it’s been a while we’ve had many aborted attempts to, uh, to connect. And, uh, so it’s been months since I, I think I sent you that list.
[00:06:17] I guess the only reason I would even think that such a thing could possibly be true is. That sometimes, casting aside, the opinions of others can be very useful. Right? And that’s happened to me, um, several times in my career.
[00:06:32] I won’t go into it, uh, but often, uh, I, some of the things I’ve written, especially about science, uh, and public health are quite controversial. But over the test of time, they’ve turned out to be largely true. And, um, again, part of the reason I think for that is because I, I go in, with assumptions that I’m willing to discard.
[00:06:54] Okay. Based on evidence and again, that comes back to this training I’ve had in science. You know, you, you go in again with an hypothesis, uh, but you don’t, you’re not married to that hypothesis. And too often in journalism, which is my, my field, um, people go in with a, a foregone conclusion and stick with it, and it’s very important to them to stick with it.
[00:07:16] And they, they have to contort, themselves into, you know, into knots to, to stick with it. I’ve been liberated by being okay with being wrong. So, I guess, overall, I trust my instincts, but that like Fineman he’s absolutely right. Um, he put it beautifully, uh, I’m often wrong. Okay. But I expect I will be wrong, and I’m prepared to be wrong.
[00:07:42] Duff Watkins: I think that’s my experience too. I’ve written articles where I, that were tendentious. I had a point to make when I started, then when I started interviewing everybody, I found that I was completely wrong. And because I, because the people I were talking to were doing it so well, as well as anything that I could have predicted, or, suggested or prescribed to them that it changed my whole, uh, conclusion.
[00:08:03] Well, it changed the whole article, but for the better. And I started out opinionated and, and learned a lot in the process, which I think is both good writing and good science and good living come to think of it.
[00:08:14] Lesson 2: Don’t take business matters personally.
[00:08:14] Duff Watkins: All right. Lesson number two don’t take business matters personally. Now I know how I learned this lesson.
[00:08:21] Ellen, I’m curious how you learned it.
[00:08:24] Ellen Ruppel Shell: Well, um, I’m pretty thin skinned. I’m not a, a hard charging businessperson. I’m, I’m not a businessperson at all. Um, and as a writer, as you probably know, writers tend to be, thin skinned and, and a little neurotic. So, it was a lesson for me to learn that, uh, and I had a very good friend, a very successful, well-known writer.
[00:08:47] I was calling him at one point and, asking for pity for what I considered to be abuse by an editor who we both had at the time. And I thought I was being singled out for abuse by this editor. And my friend said to me, oh, no, you’re not special, he’s, uh, he’s just as abusive to me and it’s not personal.
[00:09:12] And I often think about that because I think a lot of the times, we feel singled out. That we’re getting special treatment, uh, especially bad treatment. Right. And in fact, it’s, it’s simply the way that person operates. And right now, in the time, you know, with, with COVID, I’ve heard this, uh, very, very frequently from, um, colleagues and, and friends that, their responses have been very slow, and people are not giving them the time that they think they should.
[00:09:42] And they think, again, that it’s because of them it’s personal. And of course, it’s not, and it’s often easy to forget, you know, the kind of, um, complexity of other people’s lives. Right. The kinds of things. And I’ll give you an example. Um, I was talking to an editor a couple of weeks ago. At a, at a publishing house in New York.
[00:10:05] And, he said, I really apologize, for getting, you know, having taken so long to get back to you. But today, my middle schooler is, is starting his first day of school post COVID. My wife has, been through all this, my uncle had COVID, you know, it was one thing after another that he’s going through.
[00:10:24] And of course I was very, understanding and sympathetic, but to be perfectly honest, I was worried that, there was something, it was something about me. So, I think the best, policy is always to, to start by assuming, that the other person, that you’re dealing with, does not have anything against you is it’s not personal.
[00:10:45] Uh, they may be confused. They may be incompetent. But it’s not, it’s not about you. Right. So, I think that’s especially important for women. Women tend to take it on quite quickly. I know my husband very rarely thinks, uh, he’s done anything wrong.
[00:11:06] Duff Watkins: but my kind of guy.
[00:11:08] Ellen Ruppel Shell: Right, right. But many women assume no matter what they say that, that it is, it is them.
[00:11:15] And, and so I, I think that’s just something for women to keep in mind and it’s not, it’s not, um, it’s something you have to constantly remind yourself of. It’s not one and done. You always have to remind yourself.
[00:11:27] Duff Watkins: It, it is, it’s a lesson that is difficult to learn that what the world doesn’t revolve around me and everything.
[00:11:33] And you like to think that we graduate from that around somewhere between 14 to 18. But no, no. It has a legacy it’s in there. And it’s hard not to take things personally. It requires a bit of discipline. And as you say, a lot of practice now that’s for your husband. I’m with him. Just remind him of the famous saying.
[00:11:52] Never attribute to malice that which can be explained by incompetence. And, you know, that’s kind of my life it’s often live my life by that. It’s not me it’s them. So, there is some utility about that, but, uh, But, you know, you’re talking about editors and I, um, a big breakthrough in, in, in my writing was when I realized, just do what they want.
[00:12:17] Just give them what they want, give them copy, you know, start, stop getting stop arguing. And,
[00:12:23] Lesson 3: Demand evidence and extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.
[00:12:23] Duff Watkins: Lesson number three. And this is the beauty. Demand evidence and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
[00:12:31] Ellen Ruppel Shell: Right. Right. So again, this is the, this is a, you know, from science and, you know, if you make extraordinary claims, if you, uh, for example, if you say that broccoli causes cancer, you, you need to provide extraordinary evidence.
[00:12:49] Right. Or if you’re going to say, I’ve now, uh, created fusion energy, which has been something as you know, scientists have been trying to do for, for decades, you have to provide extraordinary evidence that you’ve actually been able to do it, you know, something that’s on, um, a continuum, a small step, uh, that everyone anticipated was going to happen.
[00:13:11] you know, the evidence for it would be less demanding than something that is, really, sort of what pushes against, common wisdom, common thinking. Um, common sense. so let me give an example, something, uh, that maybe some of your listeners. I’m familiar with, you know, dieting advice, weight, loss, advice, uh, you know, it’s all over the place.
[00:13:35] Right? And, um, I actually wrote a book about obesity called the hungry gene. It was about the obesity gene.
[00:13:41] Duff Watkins: I I’m going to find that book and I’m going to read it.
[00:13:45] Ellen Ruppel Shell: Well, it’s old now it’s 20 years old. And, uh, you know, um, what interested me in that was the, I got interested in that because I was interested in the biological basis of behavior.
[00:13:57] You know, what, what biologically can direct our behavior. And this was evidence that eating behavior could be to some degree, uh, driven by genetics. And so, I was very interested in that, in that topic, but in the course of researching that book, Which was heavy on the genetics and the science I have obviously encountered a lot of, articles and, and researchers.
[00:14:19] Who’d worked in obesity research and dieting research, and it’s plagued by bad science, bad reporting, bad, everything. It’s just a mess. So, you know, obviously if there’s a case in which if, if someone said to you, well, look, if you take this, um, you know, pill, if you eat this food, if you do this, your weight will drop off instantly, or you can lose weight without exercising, or you can do these.
[00:14:48] You’d have to demand extraordinary evidence. You’d have to say, okay, I want to know how is, how this works, why it works, what the, you know, scientific, what the mechanism is of it. What the evidence of it is. What’s the, what the epidemiology of it is. You’d want all those layers of proof so that’s why I say demand evidence.
[00:15:07] Um, these days when people are, for example, unwilling to take, vaccines oftentimes, they’re doing that, without evidence, without good evidence that they should avoid them. Now I, I think one of the other lessons I mentioned later on is that sometimes people simply can’t be dissuaded.
[00:15:26] Uh, you know, facts are not what matter, but if people are open to the argument, then you would want to lead them to, um, an evidence-based argument whenever possible, as opposed to a, an emotion-based argument, which is hard to do our egos, get tied into everything.
[00:15:44] Duff Watkins: Well, I was thinking on that. You’re talking about vaccines, and I was thinking about people in my hometown.
[00:15:51] I come from a rural town in North Carolina, although I haven’t lived there for half a century. And, uh, but when I, I go on Facebook and see how my high school friends, they, a lot of them are anti-vaccine and I, and I think, you know, what’s wrong with you people. And then I realize that part of the answer is it, it takes the, there is a high cost.
[00:16:15] You have to exert yourself to find out accurate information. And so, for example, when you’re talked about extraordinary evidence requires, um, for extraordinary claims, a, a lot of people just don’t know how to go about acquiring that information. Um, I, I like to think that, that I do. And, and I guess you do, but I guess a lot of people.
[00:16:37] Uh, I, I don’t know. You tell me they either don’t want to, or they don’t know how to, or, or they’re not open to it. I, I haven’t decided that yet.
[00:16:45] Ellen Ruppel Shell: Well, I think we living to use the word extraordinary again. I think we’re living in extraordinary times in which we used to, depend on and trust experts to tell us, right.
[00:16:57] The whole idea. When I tell, you know, people extraordinary evidence, um, I wouldn’t suggest that a lay person, you know, try to find the, you know, evidence for black holes, for example, you know, or these very difficult, uh, concepts in physics or, um, or even, uh, whether a vaccination is necessarily safe or effective.
[00:17:17] I mean, this is where we generally depend on experts to help us understand and, and to explain to us, and, uh, the challenge of expertise, thanks to the internet and Facebook, and other, places, um, that, you know, some of the, um, in our, our country, some of the, uh, cable news networks, tabloids, the challenge of expertise, kind of tells us we all, we all must be experts.
[00:17:41] We must all do our own research. And, uh, that’s really impossible. First of all, many of us are way too busy, to do our own research. You know, a single mother with, with two kids and two jobs, is in no position, to do her own research. You know, nor is, a very busy surgeon or many other people, whatever their field, you know, a teacher that’s, um, you know, working very hard, uh, to teach his students right in the public schools.
[00:18:11] These folks probably don’t have the time, uh, or the energy. But most importantly, the time, to, to get on the internet and do their own research, because when people talk about doing their own research, now it’s usually internet research right.
[00:18:26] Duff Watkins: Of course.
[00:18:27] Ellen Ruppel Shell: They’re not, they’re not going around interviewing experts.
[00:18:30] They’re not even going to a library. They’re, they’re getting on the internet and they’re looking, and the internet is a very fickle source. It’s all over the place and trying to figure out what’s true and what’s not true. That’s a hell of a job.
[00:18:44] Duff Watkins: It is.
[00:18:44] Ellen Ruppel Shell: So, I don’t, I don’t blame people. If they’ve lost faith, in authorities, the fact that they don’t want to, or, you know, do their own research, I I’m very sympathetic to that.
[00:18:56] Duff Watkins: Yes, it does require a lot of exertion and that takes us to, well, not quite,
[00:19:01] Lesson 4: Question received wisdom
[00:19:01] Duff Watkins: it takes us to point number four. Question received wisdom,
[00:19:08] Ellen Ruppel Shell: Right. So again, as a journalist, sometimes that my, the best and most surprising, Stories that I’ve run into.
[00:19:16] Let, let me, let me give you an example. So, years ago I had a, a graduate student. Um, one of my graduate students, uh, came to the United States from, from Portugal and he had three children that he brought with him and his and his wife, and they were moving to the Boston area, and they couldn’t get an apartment.
[00:19:36] And the reason they couldn’t get an apartment was because we, um, have laws in Boston about lead paint. Okay. So, lead paint is toxic. It’s a neurotoxin.
[00:19:46] Duff Watkins: Yeah.
[00:19:47] Ellen Ruppel Shell: And you cannot rent apartments to, to, um, children under the age of six. If you have lead paint in your apartment. Now Boston’s a very old city. Much of the housing stock is, is very old and many, many apartments have had lead paint in them over the years.
[00:20:06] Right? So, this, this young. Scholar was unable to find an apartment. And he came to me and talked to me about it. So that led me into looking into the question of lead paint. Okay. I was, I was very interested in this. I said, wow, that’s terrible. And paint is, you know, lead is terrible, well, anyway, after a few months of, of researching and talking to experts all over the world, I found that lead paint, is, is not necessarily, uh, the main culprit, for our, the high levels of lead Americans had in their blood.
[00:20:42] In the 1970s, the 1960s, it was actually led in the gasoline which still in the soil. Of many, many places around the country. So, this lead settled on, on the soil. And if you’re living in an area where there’s no grass, uh, and it’s, uh, it’s eroded your children might be exposed to lead in the soil as opposed to lead in the paint.
[00:21:09] And in fact, the actual poisoning of kids through lead paint, uh, in the two thousands, was actually really quite rare. And, so I did, you know, a piece on this for, magazine we have in the us called the Atlantic. And, I have to say that people in the public health community, were quite alarmed by this story because.
[00:21:30] They had a campaign about, you know, lead and, you know, the, the, I certainly do not approve of children consuming, lead, or being exposed to lead. But what I did challenge was the common wisdom that lead paint in houses now in the two thousands, was the primary culprit of lead exposure in kids.
[00:21:50] So again, this came from a personal experience, and then really interrogating, uh, the question of what were, what were the issues, what were the real issues? and what were the agendas of, of the various parties involved? We certainly knew the agenda of the lead paint industry but there was also an agenda on the part of the public health community, because they’ve been invested in this for a very long time in this theory, it was very, very hard for them to step back from that theory. Okay. So even the good guys, what we think of the good guys are often very vested in a certain point of view.
[00:22:28] Duff Watkins: You, you took on an entrenched interest. You’re not the first guest on this show to have done that and to have pay it a price for it.
[00:22:34] Two other examples, one example from your book in your book, The Job, The Changing Nature Of Work, you talked about, you quoted, um, a researcher, a professor Malro and I’ve been in an open office plan. Everybody I know has been in an open office plan, open office plans have been popular for decades, but according to Malro, and in your book, there is zero evidence that they enhance productivity or that they are in any way better than any other office plan.
[00:23:01] But I didn’t know that until I read your book.
[00:23:05] Ellen Ruppel Shell: Right. So that’s Charles Malro, he is an ergonomics expert, a designer, um, an engineer, and exactly right. You know, that is something that was put out there, for obvious reasons. I mean, and there’s all sorts of reasons why you might want to have an open office.
[00:23:20] If you are a manager or a CEO or an executive, I mean it’s cheaper and it allows surveillance. Of your employees and it certainly, um, makes it a lot easier to surveil your employees. If you have an open office. And in fact, Malro, told me that it can, it can actually have a very negative effect on, on productivity.
[00:23:42] And I think what’s interesting. We’ve had almost a, um, what we call a, a natural experiment here in the United States, because what we found in office workers working from home, the assumption is their productivity would crash. And of course, what we found in this last year and a half is people are actually more productive than they are in the office.
[00:24:03] So that gives a little credence to Malro’s theory or his observation, that productivity is not enhanced by the open office.
[00:24:12] Duff Watkins: Another revelation, according to Ed Zitron, is that the, um, Remote work has revealed, makes you wonder what is the purpose of managers? I mean, you can no longer, uh, appear to be busy being on the phone, looking stressed and, uh, when, when the workers are simply doing the work and now the question is, do we need managers?
[00:24:33] Ellen Ruppel Shell: That’s an interesting question. That’s an interesting question, but you have to be very careful with that because these so-called flat hierarchies, which I write about in The Job are also problematic, right? This, this idea that there wouldn’t, there’s not a hierarchy that we’re all, we’re all on the same page, that can be very problematic, because it can lead to, ganging up on employees, you know?
[00:24:58] spying on your fellow, on your colleagues, who has the real authority? because ultimately there always is an authority right. Even if you don’t have a manager, the executive suite are the authorities, but I think that’s a very, I think that’s a very interesting question of, of do we need as many managers as we have?
[00:25:17] I, I, I don’t have the answer to that question.
[00:25:20] Duff Watkins: Well, Zitron does. And the answer is no because the number of managers has exploded. He gives the stats for it. I don’t recall, although I have mentioned it at one time in the past, um, I have a scientific question for you. This talks about received wisdom. How many chromosomes does a human body have?
[00:25:38] How many pairs of chromosomes?
[00:25:40] Ellen Ruppel Shell: There’s 23 pairs of chromosomes
[00:25:42] Duff Watkins: but you know the story for many years, it was thought to be 24 because the university of Texas scientists, Theophilus Painter counted, and he came up with 24 and for 30 years it was maintained to be 24 and then an Indonesian researcher working in Sweden.
[00:25:59] Gotta be a story there. Um, who was an amateur photographer? Did the research. Found out that it was 24, photographed it. And then ever since then, it’s been, we know, sorry. It is 23. The actual number is 23. Ever since then, we know it’s 23. Yet you go onto Google right now, today you type in how many chromosomes does a human being have, and you will find page after page, after page asserting without equivocation that it’s 24, which is the wrong number.
[00:26:27] It’s 23. And, and, and I, to me, this illustrated the, um, the potency of, of that lesson, um, question received wisdom because it just. It just, ain’t always right. Just because it’s been broadcast for 30 years and all the, I, I don’t remember the Indonesian scientist’s name, but all he did was go back and count.
[00:26:48] figure pairs in the photographs. You just double check. Yeah. And it’s arithmetic, right?
[00:26:54] Ellen Ruppel Shell: yeah. And that’s the danger of the internet because one of those little mistakes gets magnified and amplified, you know, infinite numbers of not infinite, but very large numbers of times. And so, it becomes, it becomes true.
[00:27:10] We know if we, you repeat a, and we know this from our, our former president, right. That if you repeat a falsehood enough times, it becomes true.
[00:27:20] Duff Watkins: well, yeah, we know it from Joseph Goebbels, actually back in world war II, but it reminds me of Paul Krugman, calls them zombie ideas. They just go shambling along brain dead.
[00:27:31] Nothing can seem to kill them. So, they, so that’s right. Good movies, but poor politic.
[00:27:38] Ellen Ruppel Shell: Exactly.
[00:27:39] Lesson 5: Rise above your assumptions.
[00:27:39] Duff Watkins: All right. Lesson, number five, or up to rise above your assumptions.
[00:27:45] Ellen Ruppel Shell: Yeah. I seem to be saying the same. I’m so boring. I say the same thing again and again, I, again, I rise above your assumptions is we, we make assumptions.
[00:27:54] We make assumptions about people. How many, let me tell you a great story. There’s a, a guy. I have a colleague he’s, he’s another writer. And one day he passed me. He was going past a restaurant, and I was eating lunch alone in the restaurant. And he came in the restaurant, and he looked at me. He said, Ellen, You don’t eat hamburgers.
[00:28:17] And I was sitting there eating a hamburger. I’m eating a hamburger. And he said you’re not the type
[00:28:29] in it’s false because what he was seeing in front of his eyes, Was me eating a hamburger and, um, I, I thought this is such a great example of assumptions you make about people they’re wrong. And then, and then when, when they show you to be wrong by the behavior, it’s that doesn’t matter. You, you kind of made these assumptions about them.
[00:28:51] So, um, I guess I, I I’m hopeful that people are more flexible in their thinking, uh, this guy’s name was Mark and I, and I, I just, it, it was, it was such a funny experience and I’ll, and I’ll never forget it because it did make me question his writing, uh, what he wrote about others, because he comes in with assumptions about who the person is and then projects them, uh, on onto reality.
[00:29:17] So I think we have to be really careful about that.
[00:29:20] Duff Watkins: As Kierkegaard said, once you label me, you negate me, but I do have to wonder exactly what a hamburger type person is. I’ve got my mind racing now. Well, you, you know that most people’s attitudes, durable attitudes form between the ages of checks notes 18 to 25.
[00:29:40] And I would like to think that they’re modified substantially in the next quarter century, because I mean, if you, if you’re hanging onto the same beliefs, opinions, attitudes that you picked up in high school, well, that, that doesn’t, that doesn’t say a lot about your, um, spiritual, emotional evolution. Does it?
[00:30:03] Ellen Ruppel Shell: Yeah, it sounds like a boring life, but I, I it’s comfortable. Right. So, you settle in, uh, you know, between 18 and 25 and you got your way of thinking and that’s the way it is. It doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, but it’s comfortable. So, some people, I guess, seek comfort over fun.
[00:30:22] Duff Watkins: Uh, yes. security over stimulation.
[00:30:25] Yes. I mean, I I’m continually amazed at how stupid I was two weeks ago or, or even 48 hours ago of truth be known. But, but therein they’re in lies the adventure. I think software engineers have a phrase that may your, your, your lesson made me think about this. They call it, update your priors when they’re trying to solve a technical problem.
[00:30:45] What are your prior assumptions you walked into when you faced this problem? You need to update them. Because there and will probably be the key to why you’re not solving it. So, I remember that phrase update your prior assumptions, you know, good for software. Good for everything.
[00:31:00] Ellen Ruppel Shell: Yeah. I would use a different word, I would say, um, challenge and have other people help you because it’s, it’s pretty hard to update your priors.
[00:31:09] You know, you’re an, you’re a closed circuit, right? so you need input from outside, right?
[00:31:14] Duff Watkins: okay. Lesson number closed circuit. Yeah. I’m going to tell my wife that she will appreciate she, she will say Ellen knows you so well.
[00:31:25] Lesson 6: Be self-confidant enough to give others the benefit of the doubt.
[00:31:25] Duff Watkins: lesson number six, be self-confident enough to give others the benefit of the doubt. Now that’s a well-crafted sentence Ellen are you a, are you a writer or something?
[00:31:39] Ellen Ruppel Shell: yeah. Yeah. Well, I like, like, like so many people I can be defensive and sometimes think the worst be suspicious of others. And that’s usually reflection of my own insecurity. So, I would suggest, I mean, that’s, that was a less, that was a hard learned lesson. You know, how insecure, you know, so many of us are including me. I never think of myself as insecure. And I think people who know me don’t think I am, but I am. And part, part of that then is judging others too quickly, making assumption about others, uh, and not giving people the benefit, of the doubt. Yeah. so, it’s, it makes your life a lot easier if you do give people the benefit of the doubt, it makes it a lot more pleasant and it makes it easier.
[00:32:26] And it also, I think is usually, um, correct. At vis a vi, the kinds of things we were talking about before you know, let’s face the vast majority of people are not mean spirited, are not, liars are not, con men and women, you know, they, they do want to do the right thing. And if you go in with that assumption or work hard on, ongoing in with a, you know, make making that your, your bottom-line assumption, your starting assumption you’ll usually be right.
[00:32:55] And it also makes, makes your life a lot easier and more pleasant.
[00:32:59] Duff Watkins: It reduces the friction and, uh, transactions in life I I’ve observed. And, uh, like you, I mean, it’s a lesson. I have to keep practicing, practicing, practicing, but the, the, the statistics, the numbers are actually with you on that. I mean, I was, uh, reading Steven Pinker’s book on, on enlightenment, and he was talking about the declining rates of homicide in the world.
[00:33:22] Now you, you watch TV, and you realize, or you think that God we’re living in the most violent age ever. It’s not even close Pinker’s or he’s quoting research, um, all around the world. The most violent places in the world are very few and it’s not in a country, it’s in a state. It’s not in a state, it’s in a particular area, a particular neighborhood.
[00:33:44] It’s not the whole neighborhood. It’s a couple of blocks on the, but it’s not everybody on the block. It’s a few people on the block that are causing all the, all the violence and, and these, and, and I was reflecting upon that. That’s pretty much life. It’s just what you said. You know, most people just want to get on, get on with it.
[00:34:02] Get along with everybody and enjoy life and trusting others may be difficult, but ultimately, uh, the stats are with you. You’re going with the flow,
[00:34:12] Ellen Ruppel Shell: right? Right.
[00:34:14] Lesson 7: Feelings trump facts in many matters, “rational” can be overrated.
[00:34:14] Duff Watkins: Lesson number seven, feelings, trump facts on many matters and the rational can be overrated.
[00:34:21] Ellen Ruppel Shell: Right. So that was what I was talking about earlier about vaccines.
[00:34:26] People’s feelings, their emotional response to things can be very, very powerful. And, um, if you’re an empiricist, or hyper rational, which I tend to be, you can, under, estimate the, the importance, uh, to other people of their feeling of maybe their spiritual life or their emotional life or their, or their personal history and in how it can color, their views and just throwing facts at them is, is not going to persuade them.
[00:34:58] You know, that’s, that’s not what they’re about, they’re not with you. the way, uh, and maybe my job and, and your job is not to go around persuading people. Um, I see my job, not as persuading people, but as on shining a light on things So if people want to look, they can look, but I can’t force them to look and that’s not my job.
[00:35:20] I don’t see it that way. I think too often, you know, we’re screaming at the top of our lungs, you know, you’re an idiot. You don’t understand, you don’t get the facts, but that’s not even. On the table for the other person. That’s, that’s not what they’re talking about. And so, you are the idiot because you’re, you’re throwing facts at someone who’s, who’s not in, in that frame of mind.
[00:35:40] That’s not where they’re where they are. So, you have to respond to, you know, emotional, emotional temperature.
[00:35:48] Duff Watkins: I read a book on decision making and it was talk about the composition of a decision has a rational and an emotional component. And in fact, they were arguing with some neuropsychological research to it that you cannot make a decision without the emotional component.
[00:36:03] And it made me think about I’m one of those guys who looks at the election results and say, why are those stupid people voting against their own self-interest? And then I, it finally, it didn’t Dawn upon me. I read it somewhere, nobody votes against their self-interest, everybody votes for their perceived self-interests.
[00:36:23] And, and most recently I, I read something somewhere that. People there’s talking about the us, but I’ll just use as an example. So many voters in the us, it asserted feel so powerless feel so, um, that their vote doesn’t count that when they vote, it’s not a political exercise. It’s an emotional exercise, sort of like a cry out, maybe a shout.
[00:36:50] And I’ve been thinking about that the last few days. That makes a lot of sense to me because it’s so human. It is so very, very human.
[00:36:59] Ellen Ruppel Shell: Exactly. No, I, I agree with you entirely. And I think later I’m going to touch upon what you just said about voting and self-interest, but I’ll, I’ll save that.
[00:37:09] Duff Watkins: Okay.
[00:37:10] Lesson 8: You’re bored because you’re not paying attention.
[00:37:10] Duff Watkins: Okay. Lesson number eight.
[00:37:13] You’re bored because you’re not paying attention.
[00:37:17] Ellen Ruppel Shell: Right. So, um, I learned this lesson a long time ago, so my first book, What was built around another article I’d written for the Atlantic, about the, the day-care crisis childcare crisis in the United States, it was called A Child’s Place.
[00:37:34] And it’s, it was written in a form that’s called narrative nonfiction, where you kind of immersed yourself in the experience. So, what I was doing at the time, I had a two-year-old myself, two-year-old daughter, and, um, I would go every week and spend a day at the day-care center, and I was going bonkers. I mean, completely B it was the most boring experience of my life.
[00:37:57] I just, I just didn’t. How was I going to do this? And how could these people stand working with these little children all day long? Now I adore children, right? But nonetheless, they are not the most fascinating thing after an hour or two. And then I realized the problem was me. Right because I wasn’t really paying attention.
[00:38:17] I was watching the clock. I was, you know, wanted to get out of there. I was, I wanted to talk to adults. I, you know, and I decided I’m going to really do what the teachers do, which is really watch the children and, and engage with the children. And the day, I won’t say it flew by, but so much better. so oftentimes when we’re bored, it’s because we really aren’t paying attention.
[00:38:45] We’re not, experiencing the experience and this is, and this sounds very, you know, Buddhist, which I’m not, but being, being in the moment and really, um, enjoying and, and trying to enjoy and learn from the moment, as opposed to thinking about the next thing we want to do. As you know, we, you know, boredom has, has almost become, it’s almost an artifact of a, of a previous century because now we, we, we don’t need to be bored because we can pull our phone out and entertain ourselves and, and any moment , but of course, we’ve, we, we’ve lost so much by not being bored enough to really pay attention.
[00:39:26] I think a lot of us, intuited, this learned this, I mean, it wasn’t just me who learned this at the day-care center. I think many people learned this by paying close attention. Um, the boredom lifts. And, and we can become engrossed, which is the opposite of boredom. Right? So, I just, I just sort of feel that, um, all of us need to step back from our devices if we can and, and, and pay attention.
[00:39:51] And we’ll find that we won’t be as twitchy and looking for the next thing, um, all the time, which I think many of us realize we’re doing and are very unhappy with ourselves for doing it.
[00:40:04] Duff Watkins: Your, um, comment reminds me of Oliver Berkman, who is a, was a columnist in the, um, for the guardian in the UK and an author.
[00:40:13] Now living in the us, he was a guest on this show, and he tells the story. I don’t know if he told it on our show or in his book, but he went to a Harvard art class. He he’s a British guy and the, the, the teacher, she assigns her students the same. Project, same assignment. Every time go to a museum, find a work of art that you like and observe it for three hours.
[00:40:39] You cannot take your phone; you cannot take paper and pencil. You can’t take anything to distract you. And so, he did this and, you know, you’re going to imagine, so the first seven minutes are okay, then, then he reckons he’s been there for an hour. He looks at his watch. It’s 17 minutes more. And he just thought, you know, I, I, I, I just don’t know if I can do this, but he did.
[00:41:01] And he said, the more he looked at this work of art, the more he saw, wait, wait, wait, is that the vestige of a ghost image? Wait, is that image a replication of this one? What? That color that matches that. And it went on then after a while he thought, what, what time’s. And, and what a delightful story and what a wonderful experience it is to have that.
[00:41:23] And that is the antithesis of what you were describing and what I experience and everyone who’s listening to this experiences every day. I need some stimulation. I got to, I got to, there’s the ping of my email. There’s, you know, and, and geez, what a life, which is the subject of his book of 4,000 weeks, by the way.
[00:41:43] Ellen Ruppel Shell: Yes, that’s fascinating. I, I, three, three hours is a long time. I wonder what the painting was.
[00:41:50] Duff Watkins: He did say of course, but it can be, um, any painting. yeah, he did say, and it’s probably well-known it affects it’s in Boston. So, so you would. I don’t, I don’t have a hard copy of the book, so I can’t tell you, but, uh,
[00:42:03] Ellen Ruppel Shell: okay.
[00:42:04] I’m going to, I’m going to check it out. I’m interested because I’ve, I’ve had the experience of, being at the, at the Harvard, art museums and actually standing in front of a painting for a very long time. It’s, it’s really funny. I, I completely identify with that. Yeah, he’s so right.
[00:42:18] Although three hours is too long. even for me.
[00:42:22] Lesson 9: Don’t mistake hurt and guilt for anger
[00:42:22] Duff Watkins: All right. Lesson number nine. Don’t mistake hurt and guilt for anger.
[00:42:28] Ellen Ruppel Shell: Yeah, well, right. So, people, you know, again, if we’re talking about work situations, I recall early in my career. I got, I got a, again, a colleague, uh, who was my boss, very, very, very angry at me. And, um, he was so angry, that I ended up crying in his office he was yelling at me so much.
[00:42:55] And now looking back at it from a distance, I realize I had, I had actually hurt his feelings. and I didn’t mean to obviously, um, I was in my twenties and, um, foolish and impetuous, and, uh, had, had done something that I think he felt was threatening to him and, you know, for whatever reason.
[00:43:17] Um, and, and I mistook it, it was anger. He was shouting at me, but it, he, he was hurt and, I think, Sometimes people, uh, are reacting in that way. And of course, you, if you, I would never shout back at my boss, but if you did, you’d be missing the whole point, right? You’re missing the whole point.
[00:43:35] He’s shouting at you. Not because he’s really mad, but because he cannot express his hurt in a business, uh, situation. To tell someone you’re hurt, or your feelings have been hurt. Again, I, I hate to say this, but especially a man to say that?
[00:43:53] Duff Watkins: That’s true. It’s true. Yeah. Yeah. I agree.
[00:43:54] Ellen Ruppel Shell: It’s very, very hard. Right. So, so it come it sometimes it’s sometimes anger. Uh, so I think it’s really helpful to keep that in mind. I mean, sometimes it, it, you know, it is anger, but oftentimes it’s not. So, it’s better to sort those two things out if you can.
[00:44:10] Duff Watkins: It it’s so true. What you said, especially about the male bit.
[00:44:12] I do a lot of executive coaching in my work and, and one of the things I say. To the person that’s hiring me, I will work with him or her doesn’t matter. And they will tell me things. They won’t tell you simply because you’re their boss and they won’t. I mean, they might tell me that you are a dickhead or that you are, you know, you offend them or et cetera, cetera, but they won’t say that to you because they feel they can’t.
[00:44:35] And so, and it’s good to be able to express that and I might help them explore ways to express it to, uh, their boss. I’m just saying, amen, I guess to what you just said.
[00:44:48] Ellen Ruppel Shell: I think it’s changing. I think, I know when my children were little, my husband was very reluctant, to say, that he needed to say to stay home with a sick child.
[00:44:58] Okay. This was something that was really, you know, not, uh, not in his. You know, portfolio he was not going to say that. And of course for me, you know, I thought, you know, if I had the something I ne I needed to do, I needed to be on a plane or I needed to, um, if we had a, a sick child at home and, and he was not on a plane, I was hoping he would tell his employer.
[00:45:24] I’ve got a sick child at home. But that was, that was not something he could do. Now, um, my, I, my children are grown, my daughters are grown, and one of my daughters is a parent and her husband, uh, is perfectly open to saying that I think it’s generational. I think it’s, I think it’s wonderful that, um, millennials and generated generation Z, uh, are able to, to, you know, men are able to do that, uh, a lot more.
[00:45:51] And so maybe this will change. Maybe it’s all changing.
[00:45:56] Lesson 10: Empathy is not compassion.
[00:45:56] Duff Watkins: lesson number 10. Empathy is not compassion.
[00:46:00] Ellen Ruppel Shell: Right. Right. So, empathizing and, and anybody, and any of your listeners who have training in psychology probably already know this, but it, it took me, I don’t. And so, it took me a long time. I tend to be very empathic. A lot of writers are, you know, but that’s very different from compassion.
[00:46:21] Empathy oftentimes is when you identify with, the difficulties, someone else is going through the challenges someone else is going through, and that’s good for writer because you can, then you can write it, right. But it doesn’t make you necessarily a good friend or a good boss, because really you don’t really need to really feel it, or really deeply understand it to have compassion.
[00:46:46] Right. So, compassion is to forgive the person or be a good listener or be supportive. It doesn’t mean that you’re feeling it. Those are very, very different things. And I think as a, in fact, as a manager, I, I think that empathy can get in your way. I think it’s, you’re, you’re feeling it. You’re, you’re maybe even relating about how you’ve been there too, you know, um, that doesn’t really help the other person it’s not really being compassionate.
[00:47:15] And I’d say that took me a very long time to learn, because I do have this empathic nature, which again is not, I’m not flattering myself. I don’t think that’s necessarily a positive thing. Being compassionate is a positive thing. And I’ve had to work very, very hard on that and I fail a lot.
[00:47:34] Duff Watkins: Well, you’re not the only one that the Dai Lama says. Um, we must practice it because it doesn’t come easily. Doesn’t come naturally. In fact, he goes through, and he says, you need all those dickhead and Jack asses in your life. And I say, why Dai Lama? And he says, because you need to practice. You’re not very good at it.
[00:47:52] And it’s kind of hard to refute that logic because, so, you know, you get so many opportunities to practice and that’s how you get better at it. I guess that’s how you become the Dai Lama. And he, he makes it very clear that, and I think as you, as you said, you you’ve, well, you haven’t said it in so many ways.
[00:48:09] What you’ve revealed is that, you know, you have the same emotions and feelings as everybody else. As the Dai Lama has, we all have the same feelings and sets of emotions. There’s no difference in sort of the raw ingredients that go into our personality. It’s just the, the salad that gets tossed, um, taste a bit different.
[00:48:31] I guess that’s how I would put that.
[00:48:32] Ellen Ruppel Shell: Well, I have a long way to go to reach the Dai Lama’s level of compassion, but we can all aspire.
[00:48:41] Duff Watkins: it’s like I say, I ain’t running for Dai Lama, so don’t hold me to that standard. You know, I said I’m a day-by-day kind of guy. I never, I never claimed enlightenment, but you know, that’s why we’re doing this podcast.
[00:48:54] Speaking. We’ve been talking about a lot of things that you’ve learned. Can you we’ll finish up with this, Ellen, can you think of something that you have unlearned lately? Something that you absolutely positive knew to be true. Uh, very recently, but, and now you’ve discovered it’s just not the case.
[00:49:13] Ellen Ruppel Shell: Yes, and I think it’s great Duff, you brought it up.
[00:49:15] And, that is, what I used to think, which was that, uh, this, this sort of this idea among progressives in the United States that people vote against their best interests. And this idea’s been out there, uh, for a long time. Uh, there was a book called, um, What’s The Matter With Kansas.
[00:49:34] And it’s written by a gentleman. I think Tom Frank, um, I think that’s his name and, and I, when I read that book must have been, oh my God. It must have been 15 years ago. oh, I, I thought it was wonderful and I, I thought it was so insightful and his, his premise is that people vote against their best interests.
[00:49:52] But you’re absolutely right. people don’t vote against their best, what they perceive to be their best interests and. I think the arrogance on the part of people like me who say that is we think we know what their best interests are. And they’re voting against them. And let me give you an example of how this was really hit home for me.
[00:50:18] When I was doing my last book, The Job I went to Kentucky. And I spent an evening with a family in Appalachia. And I don’t know if all your listeners will know about Appalachia, but it can be a very poor part of the United States. The mountains of Appalachia and this family was a father, a mom and their kids were mostly grown up, but the father who was 49 years old, he worked in a glass factory, and he made $16 an hour and, he worked in a, a glass factory that was not unionized so he anti-union.
[00:50:56] and so well to the average person that sounds like he’s voting against his vast interest, so I was, I, you know, I was drinking coffee in his kitchen with his, him and his wife, and I said, so you’re anti-union and he said, you better believe I’m anti-union. And I said, well, why? And he said, because if we unionize this glass factory, the work is going to go straight to Mexico.
[00:51:20] if we have to, if they have to pay us more, they’re going to close my plant. And he said, I’ve got, I don’t know how many years I’ve got left working in this glass factory. I’m 49 years old. I hope I have a few more years. but I won’t have anything else. This is my last job. This is it. I can’t afford.
[00:51:40] To have this glass factory move. So that, that was a real eye opener for me. Um, that’s his reality and he’s probably, he’s probably right. There’s, there’s no law against this company closing and moving to Mexico. There’s no law against it at all. And after, you know, since I’d written that book Cheap, The High Cost Of Discount Culture I’d had, I’d seen this happen over and over again.
[00:52:07] And so this guy was right. So simple unionization was not the answer for him. And so, we assume he was voting against his best interest. He absolutely was not. Okay. So, uh, that was a real lesson to me. Yeah.
[00:52:23] Duff Watkins: Yeah. I, I would, uh, having consulted the boardroom for 30 years, I would question the received wisdom of his logic that it would move to, you know, Offshore, but what do I know?
[00:52:34] I mean, I’ve been in those boardrooms, and I’ve seen the way they make those decisions. And you know, somebody in London makes a decision to close a, an office in Sydney and they have, and they, and they’ve done it. I’ve been in meetings where they decided the one company bought another company. They just, so they closed all their wineries, or they took ’em over.
[00:52:54] So they don’t need wine makers. They don’t need the general managers because they got their own, and this is something that I have learned suffering can be visited upon you has nothing to do with you. Kind of goes back to your point, about don’t take it personally. It’s not about you. It’s about the causes a rising in the world to, to use a Buddhist phrase and over which you have zero control anyway, that aside.
[00:53:17] So, but I guess the point is. It’s not up to us to be telling them what to think or to feel, or, or how to vote or what’s best for them. Cuz as you say, that is just so patronizing.
[00:53:28] Ellen Ruppel Shell: It is. Yes, it is.
[00:53:31] Duff Watkins: Well, can I ask you, do you have, are you working on another book? What’s next for you?
[00:53:36] Ellen Ruppel Shell: I am. I, I actually am working on another book.
[00:53:39] I just sent out the proposal, last week or had my agent do it, so I can’t talk about it. right now. Okay. Yeah. Um, I can tell you, uh, so the book I cannot talk about, but, uh, but I’m working on, some other I’m doing some magazine work as well. And most of it’s built around environmental issues, um, aquaculture, and, seascapes, things like that, which is very appropriate.
[00:54:06] Cuz I, I spend about half my year now in Maine, which is a seafaring state and I’m immersed in, um, the questions of commercial fisheries and their decline in, in things like that. So, I’ve been running about that quite a bit.
[00:54:22] Duff Watkins: Well, it gives me something to look forward to the next book.
[00:54:27] We’ll finish here on that note, you’ve been listening to the podcast, 10 lessons that took me 50 years to learn. Our guest today has been Ellen Ruppel Shell, who is author investigative journalist and professor of journalism at Boston university. You’ve heard from us. We’d like to hear from you.
[00:54:41] You can contact us, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s podcast 10 to number one, zero lessons, learn.com. Tell us what you think and why you’re at it. Go ahead and hit that subscribe button, because this is the podcast that’s making the world a wiser place lesson by lesson. Thanks for listen.