On this episode of The Great Antidote podcast with Juliette Sellgren, she is joined by guest Megan McArdle. In their discussion, Juliette and Megan cover her ideas on personal failure, and why it is such an important and crucial part of development and growth.
She began her writing career with a blog, “Live From The WTC,” started in November 2001. In 2003 The Economist hired her to write for their website, and since then she has worked full-time as a journalist and editor, both online and in print. McArdle is currently an opinion writer for The Washington Post. Other publications she has worked for include The Atlantic, Newsweek/The Daily Beast, and Bloomberg View. She has also published book reviews and opinion pieces in the New York Post, The New York Sun, Reason, The Guardian, and Salon.
Juliette: Welcome back. I’m super happy today to be talking to Megan McArdle. Megan is a journalist for the Washington Post where she writes a column about economics, finance, and government policy. She used to work at a very popular blog called Asymmetrical Information under the pseudonym, Jane Galt. I almost pronounced that wrong. A reference to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. She makes absolutely the best desserts if you were wondering.
Today, we’re going to be talking about a book she wrote a while ago. I was too young to read it at the time. I don’t think I could read. It’s called the Upside of Down. Welcome, Megan.
Megan McArdle: Thanks for having me.
Juliette: Before we jump it, what is the most important thing that people my age or in my generation should know that we don’t?
Megan: You think you have it figured out, you don’t have it figured out. You never will entirely have it figured out and that’s okay because as things go along, you’ll figure it out.
Juliette: Sounds good. It’s actually kind of interesting. I know that I don’t have it figured out but I keep thinking there’s going to be a day at some point. And then people keeping like “No, we’re adults. We don’t know what we’re doing still,” and I’m like “What?”
Megan: Yeah, nope. You got a lot of love of things figured out. Like when I think about going back to high school, I would not for a million years go back because I do have some things figured out. I hate to do the like at your age but okay. Your age certainly, I and everyone I knew, you kids may be different with your Venmo and you’re like, hip-hoppy pants and whatever.
At that age, we were trying on who we might want to be. We tried on a lot of different personalities, we tried on different looks, we tried on all of that stuff. By my 40s, I know who I am and who I’m not. I know that I am never going to be the particular kind of person that I would think. I very much wanted to be 16, an easy, chipper community person who just fits right in any group.
I’m more of a specialty product. I’ve come to like aspects of that and but also just accept it rather than trying different ways to become a person I just wasn’t. I think, in that way, you do get stuff figured out. There’s something bittersweet about that because you get into your 40s and 50s, and you realize: “This is who I am. I’m never going to be anyone else.” I’m not going to be like a third baseman for the New York Yankees. I’m not going to do any of these other things.
Then you get to a point where you’re not only like, “This is who I am and what I’m going to do,” but “This is who I am and what I have done.” There’s less time ahead of you and then behind. That part is a little bit you miss the old feeling of endless possibilities, but there is something nice to realizing which possibilities aren’t going to work.
I still remember when I was on my 30th birthday and there’s a bit of this in the book, I don’t think I put this particular incident. It’s now been so many years since I wrote it that I don’t know every line anymore. But I was panicking because I’d been unemployed for years. I’d finally gotten a job. It paid $40,000 a year, which was a third less than I’ve been making before I went to business school, which had preceded my two years of unemployment.
I was living in New York City, I had a hundred thousand dollars worth of student loans and I was panicking because I was really tight budget. I mean, it was a really tight budget. I used to joke that like I lived on ramen and cheese doodle surprise, where the surprises that you’re 30 years old and still eating ramen and cheese doodles for dinner because you can’t afford anything else.
My mom took me out to a quite nice dinner and my parents have been very supportive. They let me live at home while I was getting back on my feet and so forth, but they were also like the farmers. They’re like, “Okay, you have a job now, time to move.” Like you can now stay here for several years or and so I moved out and I’m kind of panicking. My mom took me to a nice dinner, and we’re sitting there and she looked across the table at some point. I’m trying to be cool. Despite the fact that I’m basically in a non-stop panic over how I’m going to pay rent. Because my budget had like my entire disposable income for things like food and transportation and so forth. It was in the low hundreds of dollars a month, and that was very tight.
She’s looked across the table at me and she said, “I sense that you’re panicking. Why?” “Yes, mother. I am in fact, panicking.” And she said, “You know what? When I had you, I was 27 years old. We just bought the apartment that I grew up in and you know, we had less than five hundred dollars in the bank and I was eight months pregnant and I just quit my job. She lives and she said, “You’ll figure it out.” It was a little bit reassuring that she said that, right? She understood that I was frightened and that things were a little bit scary and they were in fact, a little bit scary. She’s like, “It’s okay. You are the sort of person who will figure this out.”
The other reassuring thing was actually learning over the years that I did figure it out. Fitfully[?], and I always figured out how to survive and but also, I discovered stuff along the way that I just hadn’t expected. I never expected to become a journalist. This is not in any way part of my life plan. I kind of stumbled into it, but I love it. A lot of the things that just weren’t part of my life plan have turned out to be great.
My life is very different from what I thought it would be at 16 or 21 or 30, but I wouldn’t trade some of it. Every life, a little rain must fall. It’s not like I’m some uniquely special person who’s had this incredibly blessed life. There’s stuff I didn’t get to do that I wanted to. There’s stuff I did that I probably would rather not. But overall I look at all of my friends. I look at all the people I know and like: “No one got everything they wanted but everyone got something they wanted real bad.” It’s better than it sounds at 16 or 17.
Juliette: That actually makes me pretty optimistic. It’s weird because I hear that thing a lot where: “Oh your life is not going to turn out the way you expect it.” The plan is not going to happen exactly as you wrote it down in your diary when you were like 12 and II did not do that. But I had a general life plan like my sister wanted to be president she’s changed her mind about that.
Juliette: Everyone has a plan at some point. I feel like at this point, I know I’m not going to have a plan entirely so I don’t know what to expect because I don’t have a plan but I also don’t not have a plan. It’s this weird gray area for me. Anyways, let’s talk about the book which follows along the line of your response to that question. It came out a while ago, I read it recently.
Megan: Yes, I think you were like five when it came out. Actually, that’s not right. You were maybe nine. It came out in 2014, which is seven years ago, which is terrifying.
Juliette: I was 11, I think.
Megan: Yeah, you were 11. Okay. [inaudible] high School a year early. I’m a January baby. I always look back. I was work from my own birthday in my senior year and not other people’s birthdays.
Juliette: Struggle. I don’t know. With the podcast and with being a senior going through the college application process and all of the struggles that come with that and also just learning about Innovation entrepreneurs and different parts of the economy. I started to realize how big a role failure plays in life. Most of my guests seem to think that failure is not just a part of life, but it’s also a productive part of life. I thought it was time to read your book, which I did. I’m glad I did. This book is very personal, but it’s also instructive and applicable to your own life. Well, I mean, you’re being whoever is reading it.
Megan: Yes, I hope so.
Juliette: Can you tell us why you decided to write a book about failure, especially one that’s so personal because often when you read a book about failure or something along the lines of success or you need failure to succeed, it’s not personal. It’s more like, “Oh business business business.”
Megan: Yeah. And I think that that’s a real problem. We talk about failure in the app stack being great, right? and they talk about the Silicon Valley attitude, which is much admired abroad and he’s great of having a failure as a positive for your resume. We don’t talk enough about the really sucky failures and the fact that failure feels really bad. It’s not that I just cheerfully like: “Maybe I will suck at this and fail.” “Yey.”
I, in theory, would like to have that attitude, but in fact, it feels terrible. When you’ve made a spectacular mess of something, which is just kind of part of doing something you know how to do. You might make a spectacular mess of it. In some ways that just doesn’t matter, right when you’re doing low-stakes stuff, you’re trying a new hobby or something like “Great, maybe you just made a spectacular mess with something.” And it was super fun making the spectacular mess and eventually you figure out things.
As I like to say, when people tell me they’re baking was because I do write about food. Hence, the desert reference as I say, “You know, it’s good to really make a good pie or cake.” You’ve got to learn like a thousand ways to not make a good pie cake. It really is just in a funny way, especially with pastry. But also even with cakes is like it’s this tactile thing that you cannot really just a choir from a book or even a YouTube video. You acquire it by looking in your oven and think “That does not look right to me.” That is not the cake of my dreams and then just trying different stuff until you you get and with feedback and so forth to get closer to the cake of your dreams.
I wanted to talk about some of the personal stuff that doesn’t make it in there, right? Like the business writers are about failure, tends to all be like 30,000 feet or they relate some really amusing, little failure or something. They don’t relate just the way that they catastrophically screwed up their first marriage or that they like me, spent two years in employment limbo music, who couldn’t figure out how to get a new job which actually turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me and this is so funny.
I actually did Google this and people had told me this. It really was true. It’s less true now because now when I wrote the book, Google’s algorithm was not nearly as specialized is as it is now. More like, it really knows what you want. It’s not sure this experiment still works. But when you would Google the best thing that ever happened to me in 2010, when I started writing this, it was like crazy. The answers you would get, there are like going to prison, becoming paralyzed, or like all of these things. And people, they’re not lying.
That’s the other crazy thing. It really did change them and they might regret the thing that led up to it. But it created it and opened to some door where there’s this cheesy line from The Sound of Music, which I’ve always actually loved, which has God never closes a door without opening a window. And I don’t want to sound like Pollyanna like “Everything is a bright side.” But in fact, your failures going through the sock changes you in ways that often make it possible.
At the very least, you’ve learned something that didn’t work. If you will fearlessly look at your mistakes you have learned how to be better in the future. Every failure contains some message about how to be better in the future. If you were willing to look for it, which is often really uncomfortable. Because often the thing is you did something embarrassing, you did something that you really wish you hadn’t. You were responsible for your own. It also often changes your circumstances in ways that can actually be very freeing. That’s one of the examples that I read about in the book without in any way minimizing the incredible psychological pain of being unemployed for two years.
I had jobs but not having. I just got out of business school. I was supposed to have an awesome high-flying professional career, and I definitely did not. It was miserable and I still remember the naughtier of it, two incidents, they’ll relate quickly. One was that I was dating this guy, who’s in private equity and had a lot more money than me because I didn’t have any of it. So he was paying for all our dates and he took me, he was like: “Oh I got us tickets for the show. I don’t really know anything about it, I just heard about it. It’s on Off-Broadway, it’s closing. It’s going to Broadway but involves puppet.”
It turned out, it was Avenue Q, which is about a bunch of loser puppets. The mythical Avenue Q in New York, which is where you go if you live Avenue A, Avenue B, Avenue C. It was a New York joke that doesn’t even work anymore because the Lower East Side is not cheap. But anyway, it’s about loser puppets. I’m sitting in this theater and I’m like, “Oh my God, he’s sending me a message.” This sounds crazy, right? It sounds total. It was in fact, people later, when I would tell the story. I think I told the story to him and he was like “Are you crazy?” And I was like “Yes, yes I was crazy. I had been unemployed for almost two years of this point. I was crazy.” But I’m sitting like he’s sending me a message that I am the loser because the loser puppets [?], at least some of them had jobs. I mean, there might be terrible jobs but jobs, I did not
It was like this is a message that he’s tired of taking me. I was totally crazy. I remember just writhing in agony in this theater for two hours and finally bursting out into the night and just wanted to cry. I did not cry. But the other anecdote was that I went to a happy hour for people I’ve gone to business school with. Everyone’s like, they’re having babies, they’re getting married. They’ve got a new job, and then there’s me, who’s like, “I’m consulting, which is what you said when you didn’t have a job.”
I couldn’t afford a drink so I’m nursing a glass of water and I’m kind of circulating and talking to people. It was good to see people but this guy was also really stressful because I didn’t have anything good to say. I have the embarrassment of like I’m living at home with my parents, which is exactly as humiliating as it sounds at the age of 30 and I’m Consulting. This guy I didn’t know very well, came up to me and he said, “Hi Megan. How are you doing?” I just snapped and I just looked at him and said, “I’m perilously close to despair.” He just looked at me sidled away. Like he’s afraid to turn his back on me.
I’m sorry, I think this is something like “I’m sorry to hear that,” right? And then it just it was actually just a few weeks later I had applied for. I was the master of almost getting jobs. I almost got so many jobs. Like I got into the state department and then I flunked the medical I got. I was almost over. I was basically offered a job at the city of New York in their tech department and then they had a hiring freeze. Here’s a job, endless. I had an interview for a job with The Economist and then nothing had been heard. Nothing for six weeks and I thought, well, there’s another job I almost got or maybe didn’t almost get, right. I got called back for a second interview but then, just nothing totally.
Juliette: I think, that’s an almost.
Megan: Yeah. Anyway, I get a phone call. I’m at home. I’ve actually been up all night playing video games because I’m really depressed. This British dude on the phone “Hello, this is Antony Gottlieb from The Economist.” I was like, “Oh, hi, how are you?” Definitely know what to say. He said, “Well, I’m fine. Actually, I’m calling to offer you the job.” I was like “I’ll take it.” He’s like a very reserved British guy. It’s a little taken aback: “Oh well, it’s bonded, but we’re going to offer you. We’re going to pay you. You know, $40,000 a year.” I was like “You’re going to pay me?” I realized I was sounding like an idiot and then I calm down a little bit. I got off the phone and I called the guy who had taken me to that show. I said, “I’ve got it. I got a job,” and I started crying and I’m not like a cry-iy person. The other time I have started crying in happiness was at my wedding. That’s it. The two days.
It means I say this all to say like this is an intensely emotional experience and it’s not fun, right? Not all failure is just like a cheerful happy failure. Also, however, if I hadn’t gotten to that point, as I think I mentioned, I had a hundred thousand dollars in student loans. I was in New York City, which is a phenomenally expensive place to live. I don’t think I could have taken a job that paid $40,000 a year. I wouldn’t have brought myself to do it. I would have thought I’d love to but I can’t do the money, right? It was having gotten to the point where I was truly desperate that I was like “Okay, well, I mean, it is some money, which is much better than none. I have added it up and $40,000 is larger than zero.” We’re going to take that job and it worked out great.
I mean, it’s been hard, journalism is a collapsing industry. There’s a lot of different hard things along the way, but it was great. It’s been a great journey. I’ve had a lot of amazing opportunities and if I have any regrets it’s just that I didn’t do more with them but I don’t regret, ever. Yeah, unlike a lot of my classmates, make more money than I do. I certainly for one thing do better than I ever thought I would because I thought like, $40,000 a year might well be the cap. But also like I look at them, I don’t want their lives.
I think it’s useful to have made a decision like that because a lot of people in my position begrudge, the bankers and so forth, who make these fantastic sums of money. I won’t try to justify it in some metaphysical terms but I don’t begrudge them. The money, they did something, I didn’t want to do for a long time and mortgaged twenty years of their life to get into the position where they’re just raking in a bunch of money. I didn’t want to do it. I wanted to do something I cared about and those are different. I don’t and I’m not saying that they are somehow worse people than me or whatever.
They just made a different trade-off than I did and it’s a valid trade-off. They made the deal. They got what they put into the deal, but a lot of people made that deal and didn’t get it. They spent two years as an investment banking analyst and then had to leave because there wasn’t a path upward for them. I don’t begrudge the people who are making more than me or have something different and better than me. Every time I’m tempted to feel sorry for myself in any way, I just think, life isn’t what you expected. I bet you know a lot of steelworkers in Pennsylvania, feel the same way and your life is a lot better than like being on them having to go on disability because you really can’t figure out anything else that uses your skillset anywhere near within a hundred miles of where you live.
At the end of the day, I’m pretty lucky and I appreciate that. But I also think like we need to understand the role that sometimes feeling pretty unlucky plays and getting to that spot and people aren’t good at it because it’s so raw. I just read a wonderful essay from 2014, by a woman at NPR and was actually just talking about fat shaming. I’ve never been heavy enough to be fat-shamed so I can’t speak to that particular thing. You just talked about the way that everyone has what she calls a red handle. It’s this thing that you can pull, and they will just feel terrible, right?
Everyone does, everyone has those raw places that never really heal over all the way, and that’s something else is there. Like, “You know, you guys should know, now,” right? There are some wounds that the scars will never go away and that’s okay too.
Juliette: That’s a little scary, but it’ll be okay.
Megan: Well, I mean, yeah it will look at the end of the day, it is a little scary, but it’s also that in a lot of ways, they will end up being your scars of honor. Your battle wounds for having gone into life and gotten into the fray. Frankly, the more you really get into the fray, the more you really push yourself to the edge of your capabilities, the more scars you’re going to have. Because it’s going to mean, you tried to do something you really wanted, and then sometimes you just didn’t get it.
Juliette: No risk life sounds boring and stagnant and not only in terms of jobs, but everything about life. Not taking any chance ever does not seem like it gives you good output. I mean, you kind of talk about this in the book, you say that the opposite of failure is nothing. You write “The riskiest strategy is to try to work yourself into a position where you can’t fail. The failure when it comes tends to be catastrophic in part because you haven’t prepared for it.” Yeah, I mean, that just sums up.
Megan: Yeah, I mean, you think about that with a lot of the old autoworker jobs, right? Those jobs were better jobs than any other jobs in the United States for people at that skill level. You get out of high school and get on a track to be making more than a lot of professionals. This is all to the economy of the 70s when a lot of things were very different in the income structure. I’m not trying to say that was outrageous. They didn’t earn it like that. That’s a separate debate for another time, but they were amazing jobs, right? The people who are getting them that was a kind of opportunity that no one else in the country had either a couple of other Industries where that was true but not a lot.
When they started to go away, it was a total disaster because there was nothing to replace it. There’s nothing that really in some ways could replace a job where not only did you get paid way more than other people would comparable skill sets. But if the company couldn’t use you, they just put you basically and you would just show up and not work, right? They would do temporary layoffs at plants, but if they had like this surplus labor pool that it had a bunch of people who would just show up and collect the check and not be doing anything at any given time. Something like the rubber rooms of the legendary of the New York City School System where they Park teachers that are hard to fire. But these weren’t people who’d done anything wrong. There are people who just sit in the company didn’t need. It was a sweet gig but the problem with that is like what do you do if that goes away as it ultimately did because it was unsustainable.
A perfectly risk-free life tends to be a perfectly unsustainable life. The problem is like, that people can manage to live and die within that, right? It’s not that you necessarily personally are always going to get the short end of the stick, but you’re at a catastrophic risk because if it goes awry, there’s no way to get back to where you were. People tend to live up to their incomes is just a kind of natural thing. But also say that even for the government workers, right? I know a fair number of them, I live in Washington DC. It’s been a lot of time complaining about how they have colleagues who have just prematurely retired, 20 years early, or complaining that the bureaucratic procedures are ridiculous and they always sound absolutely ridiculous. I’m very sympathetic that it’s just totally crazily impossible to get anything done and so forth.
They do have job security, but they pay for that job security. That is again, like, there’s the idea that we can get rid of that trade-off, that there can be this great job security. And then there’s no downside to that. I think it’s just very unrealistic.
Juliette: Definitely. I definitely agree with that. Well, the book and just failure, in general, is a concept everyone as a human fails. So there’s this like, large audience but it seemed like what you really want people to get out of it. Your main point is that failure can be productive only if we really learn how to fail well. What is the difference between a good failure and a bad failure?
Megan: Yes. I think of something like the criminal justice system is one of the best examples of bad failure in the country, right? By the time someone gets into the criminal justice system, not always the case, but it is usually the case that many people have failed that person before they got there. Then that person has failed a bunch too, Right? They have had parents who were not reliable, schools that were bad, etc. Neighborhoods that were not safe, all of it and that wasn’t their fault because they were little kids when that started, right? But also that it is also true that kids grow up in that environment.
It’s we often talk as if those environments do promote crime and that’s bad. We should try to not have environments that promote crime but it’s also true that most people who grow up in those environments don’t become criminals and we really forget that. We talked as if they’re like amoebas. They’re not, they’re human beings, they have agency, they chose. They chose badly. But then you get to how the criminal justice system handles that and you look at how it handles juvenile to adult transition, right? Isn’t often, very little happens until suddenly one day, you turn 18, you’re an adult, you get a record for a couple of arrests, and then it escalates as crime, often does. And then someone gets hurt badly or dies and then you go to jail for a really long time, right?
It’s what the late great public policy expert who specializes in crime and drug policy, but he was just a wonderful mind about so many things. I wish he were still here with us for so many reasons so that I could recommend you have money in your podcast. The way he put it was he described, for example, the probation system worked, right, where you would get put on probation and then you would violate your probation and then your probation officer would tell you: “Don’t do that and I’m going to sanction you.” But the paperwork was really onerous and they would feel bad about it. It was only one violation and so they give you a second chance and then they give you a third chance.
Then one day, they would just decide that you clearly were not going to get with the program and they were just going to have to revoke your probation. And then you would go to jail for 5 years or 10 years or however long you had sentence [inaudible] for. The way he describes it is like nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing bam, five years in jail, right? If you think about it, this is a terrible way to fail. There was no feedback. You should think that it shouldn’t be required but look, again, if you have not grown up. f you think about the way the environment that a lot of the people come out of.
First of all, often really a high number of drug and alcohol problems, which just impairs your ability to make good judgments regardless of your opinion about drug policy or alcohol policy. I’m in favor of a very liberal policy on both. We should all recognize that when you are really high or really drunk, you’re not in your best decision-making. You’re apt to be putting on your bad idea genes and going out to do something you really shouldn’t. If you just think about people who have grown up without what researchers call an internal locus of control, which is a feeling that middle-class parents spent a lot of time drilling in a middle-class kid, right? Which is like, if you do X, Y happens, that’s just a reliable thing.
You follow the rules and the system will spit out certain a certain range of acceptable results, right? If you do all of your homework and you turn things in, you will get decent grades and then you will go to a decent college, then you will get a decent job. That’s all totally within your control and that’s just something that naturally happens if you follow the rules, right? That is a middle-class upbringing. That is not what an upbringing in a poor neighborhood with parents who made themselves have drug and alcohol problems or other problems. Mental health problems that are untreated but also this economic precarity of these neighborhoods. It’s not a message you get.
They get into the criminal justice system both as juveniles and adults, and the message that the system sends them right what happened to you is you do the same thing five times. Four out of the five times, nothing happens except that your parole or probation officer yells at you. The fifth time you go to prison for five years, you don’t take the message like I caused that to happen. You take that the message of like “I guess she hates me and had a bad day,” right? That consistency of being able to do something and then get a known result from doing that thing is really prevalent in middle-class lives and really not prevalent because of the way that the system is set up. That, in turn, impedes any ability to learn from the experience, right? They know that they don’t like a prison. But it doesn’t set up a way that’s internally felt like I have a framework and especially because once you have a prison record is almost impossible to get back onto that middle-class track of having a normal job.
One of the great tragedies to me is that while I love the fact that there are so many jobs. There are so many programs getting felons mainstreamed clean into society and every one of those people is doing God’s work and we need more of them, right?
Megan: But too many of the success stories that I read are like now I am working in this program to help felons get back into the mainstream, which is great. I’m glad you’re doing that. I would love to read and now I’m a certified public accountant. You can’t do that because of Occupational licensing and that’s one aspect of the problem, but it’s hard to get employers to look at the resumes.
We want to knock that system down. It’s going to work in every case, but we could be doing a lot more to create an environment where the consequences for doing something wrong are smaller but predictable. Instead of so large that we don’t want to apply them consistently.
Juliette: Yeah. Another institution, I guess that teaches about failure in the wrong way and doesn’t teach the consequences but also the attitudes towards failure that are productive. They don’t teach you how to fail well is schools, especially my school. I mean, every school, I would say just the structure of schools in America and a lot of places. I guess the idea first that is an introduction to this is the idea that to succeed in life you have to have talent and you have to have natural skills. Can you tell us why that’s incorrect? But also explain the differences between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset and how that kind of sets you up to deal with failure.
Megan: Yup. I will say that the research on which this is based has not replicated as well as I would have liked sadly. So since the book, I’m slightly pulling back from this but I still think that the broad lessons are really applicable. First of all talent matters, we all know that, right? If you are the best kid at math in your class, you don’t really think that the worst kid in math in your class is very likely to be able to get the same score on the math test as you, right?
There’s a difference between a pure early and a pretty consistent one. I was the best writer in my class when I was a little kid, and I was the best writer in my class when I was in high school, and I was the best writer in my class when I graduated from college, right? Or certainly, among the best, the competition gets tougher at each level and definitely not the best writer in journalism, but talent does exist but it’s not enough because I have watched so many talented writers wreck themselves. What they do is they get to thinking that the only thing that matters is talent and it’s not. They get to thinking that everything they write is a referendum on what they were born with, instead of what they’ve developed.
That’s a really easy message to get out of school, right? Because for the people who do really well at school, it generally is pretty easy. It generally is, especially if you’re one of those kids at the very top which if you are sorted into an academic discipline, right? If you’re sorted into something that’s very math heavier, you sort of into something that’s very writing heavy, you were probably always close to the top of your class at that. It sends the message that what really matters is just how easy you find it. That’ll do certainly through high school for a lot of people, through college for a lot of people, even maybe part of grad school for a lot of people, right?
There just comes a point where if you want to strive for excellence, you get to a point where that isn’t going to cut it because everyone else also found it easy. The problem at that point is that actually what really separates the sheep from the lambs. It’s doing the stuff that’s hard and that’s different for everyone. I think of an example that I gave a talk on this book, actually a few weeks ago to an organization and I was talking about just career-wise. Most of us and I think, probably most people, most kids your age, too, have had this. This experience of like I did the part that I’m good at instead of the part that I’m bad at. Because I’m bad at the pit part. I don’t like that part and I don’t like feeling bad at things. It makes me anxious and it’s unpleasant. It’s not nearly as fun as just effortlessly doing this thing I’m really good at. I just give short shrift to those parts and concentrate on the stuff where I know I’m going to shine.
For me, this is for example, like making phone calls which I hate. I hate calling people. About six months ago I got a call from a banker, who I won’t name, who said it was funny. It was like a weird phone tag for a couple of days. Finally, at 8 o’clock in the morning, this person reached me and said. I was prepared because I’d written something about their organization I was prepared to get yelled at.
Megan: I had prepared all of my counter-arguments and so I was totally floored and unprepared for being told: “Oh, I just want to call because I like your stuff.” It’s like, “What? Wait, why are you chasing me to tell me that? That’s really weird. Thank you, but that’s strange, I was not prepared for that. I was prepared to be yelled at. I had a lot of good arguments, do you want to go hear them?” Anyway, when I went to New York where the banks are, about three months later and I thought I should call this person and try to sit down with them, and then I was like, “Oh, but that’s going to be embarrassing.”
I didn’t sound come off very well on the phone because I was really honestly sleepy and had a late night the night before. I forgot it. I think it was some speech or some election thing or I don’t really remember what the details were. But I’ve been up late working the night before and like “Also, this person doesn’t want to hear from me.” To let you know, I’m in my 40s and I do this for a living. It never stops as far as never. If you are anxious about doing things, you will never get quite as comfortable as the people who are just like, “Yeah, that’s fine.” I just thought to myself, like “You are not in high school, this is not a study hall and if this person rejects you, you will never see them again.”
They’re not going to run into them. They’re not going to be at the prom and so I just made the phone call and it was totally fine. I had a very good sit-down interview. For me, the hard part of my job is cold-calling people, who I know who aren’t necessarily going to be super interested in talking to me. For other people, it’s totally for every person, it’s a different thing. There are some people who are totally fine with the cold-calling and the writing. The writing “Oh, what do I hear from my friends who don’t work in this journalism?” “Oh God, I can’t, I have to write something. What am I going to do?” I like writing. I can just do that all day. All right?
Excellence for anyone is going to be about sometimes identifying the stuff that you’re really just never going to be good at and figuring out how to get someone else to do it, right? If you’re really bad on the phone, you should not be like “I’m going now. Try to go into fundraising for a living.” That would be a bad career choice for you. You spent a lot of time on the phone. For any job, it’s going to be that I’m going to have to figure out how to get at least decent at writing. I’m going to have to figure out how to get at least decent about calling strangers. Even though I don’t want to. I’m going to figure out how to be decent about asking for feedback from my bosses, which is something that I think a lot of smart kids, especially struggle with because feedback just comes effortlessly when you’re in school. You get out in the real world and no one has time. They’re all doing their own stuff and they will give you, your bosses, and so forth will give you feedback. But often you’re going and saying like, “Hey is there something negative here that I should know about myself?” No one is really excited about finding that out, right? All of that stuff, you know, how could I’ve done this better. How am I not pleasing you? How could I be better in the organization? Those questions are the hard questions to ask and it’s often, I think, why you see now, if you look at some of the discourse around younger workers and so forth. They want that a lot of it is a way of organizing to get positive feedback, but not a lot of ways of organizing to get the negative feedback they need to develop. That’s because it’s really hard and I’m terrible at it and certainly was not doing it in my twenties. Don’t take this as like “Those young people, they’re so different from me.” “No, we were not, we didn’t ask for it either,” but it’s a really valuable skill to learn to go and be like, “Hey, I feel like I actually could have done this better. Can you help me? Can you just help me with two things that you feel like I could really have done better here in concrete ways that I could get better at that?”
That’s a kind of good failure but I think to go back to the criminal justice but I think this is just a good example in so many ways. Also, institutions would create an environment where people are failing well. First of all, what are the principles of really failing well? One of them is just to minimize the cost of the potential failure. You have to lower the stakes for people so that it’s not like, my job is on the line. Sometimes, people’s jobs are on the line at very high levels, right? And that’s fair. If you are the guy who they brought in the hotshot to turn around their sales team, and you don’t turn it around, okay, while your job was on the line there, but also you make a ton of money and you’ve been doing this for a long time.
For most people, most of the time that shouldn’t be the stakes. The stake should be lower. In part that’s going to be about managing how much damage they can do, right? Companies, organizations, people should be taking risks. You should not be betting the farm on anything unless you were an existential danger. Literally, the company is going to go out of business in two weeks, we might as well try this because there’s no downside at this point, right? There are situations like that. Also, still do not do anything illegal in that situation to be clear but that things that are going to end up making you bankrupt when you wouldn’t have had to. Other than that, yeah, sure go for broke. Bring out your line of meat-flavored toothpaste and see if there’s a market. That’s all you’ve got left. Go for it.
Juliette: I don’t think I would buy it.
Megan: I don’t think I would buy it either. I think about this with some of the cancel culture stuff, especially with the young people. People like the girl to AP who has just fired people like him. [inaudible] who was fired a few months ago from USA Today. My personal preference is like honestly that I think that media organizations should just have a policy that no one’s allowed to be on Twitter. I’ve been writing this, by the way. This is not like some big revelations. I’ve never been like three columns. I like just get everyone off Twitter. It would be better, right? I think this illustrates why shouldn’t get people off Twitter. Okay, so for one thing, people are taking huge reputational risks with big enterprises, right?
Now, I don’t think that anything should have been done about this girl’s tweets in college, which had been an issue with the AP case. It looked like possibly although the AP says that was not what caused this so we should be clear about that. But early reporting had suggested that perhaps things she’d written in college about the Palestinian question and other things were contributing to this. I think is just obviously let the dead past bury instead. But going forward, the fact is, if you work for the AP, if you work for the Washington Post, maybe it’s not fair. You got one of the very rare jobs in journalism and life is not always fair. Every job comes with its trade-offs and this is one. I think about this a lot.
Every time I write something in public, like it or not, I’m putting the reputation of the Washington Post online because they pay me. Therefore, I have to think about “Is this something that I wouldn’t want that my editors would be happy to explain for me, right? You should think about it. The problem is there’s no upside to the organization of these. It’s actually astonishing how little traffic comes in, from Twitter, compared to Facebook or Google News. It’s entirely about catching the attention of other journalists. It’s a career brand management operation for journalists. But even the journalists get caught up in these social dynamics and they misread cues, which is very easy to do online, then they do themselves, no good.
I don’t actually think this would be a harm to them if organizations told that people to get off Twitter. But partly instead, what you have is very vague on social media. Don’t do anything that would cast your publication in ill-repute. Well, I might have a different idea about what that is than what the managers of the publication do. When that happens, right, suddenly I’m going to get in trouble because we have a different point of view on that, right? You got a policy that’s basically impossible to follow and I understand how these policies evolved but these policies had initially evolved for journalists who had been in the business for like 20 years and had a pretty good sense of what would cause trouble if they said it and what wouldn’t.
Now, there’s a bunch of young kids coming in who obviously don’t because they haven’t been in the business for 20 years. There’s no reason to expect them to but you’re creating reputational problems for your brand. There’s no upside for you. There’s a huge career risk for them. That’s much larger than the risk to you and it’s a bad way of handling failure in a much clearer way. If we can’t manage this risk, which clearly no one can, then the way we manage that is to tell people to get off because it’s not a manageable risk. We weren’t thinking about failure properly. We’re allowing people to take unmanageable low upside risks, and that’s exactly the kind of failure you shouldn’t be taking.
Juliette: Especially with the rise of cancel culture and all of this stuff where it’s changing so rapidly. What is acceptable and what is not acceptable, regardless of how I feel about that. I always think back to The Coddling of the American mind. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. I feel like a lot of this connects the attitudes towards failure the way they’re taught in schools and the way, as a society, the attitude we towards failure. The reflects exactly what’s happening with people getting fired and all of that. Do you think there’s a connection and if so, what is that connection?
Megan: Well, I mean, I think in a way, I wrote In the book. If you look that I feel so bad for your generation because my generation had so much more freedom than yours does. Partly, that was just a function of being in a small birth cohort so it’s easier to get into college. I know you guys are the biggest problem people to defer for a year.
Juliette: RIP college admissions.
Megan: Yeah. I feel bad for you, although I know you’re going to a good school.
Juliette: Thank you.
Megan: I think, I’m going to be honest, I don’t feel too bad for you. You guys spend so much more time. I went to a private school, where the whole deal of you paid this tuition so that your private school would get your kid into a really good college, right? That was the quid pro quo, but not even in that school. We really started thinking about in high school, your grades mattered more than in middle school. They just didn’t. In high school, they mattered somewhat. Your last two years mattered a lot more. I got into Ivy League school with a 2.7 GPA, and that wouldn’t be feasible now. I wrote really well. This is a good test score. I also went to a private school that didn’t have higher than four GPAs. That wasn’t a thing in my school. The grading was somewhat harder than in a public school. No offense or whatever. We just had our GPAs distribution that didn’t look the same as now. The valedictorians got a 5.6.
Juliette: I think, this year, we have 110 valedictorians at my school because everyone who has above 4.0 gets to be the valedictorian.
Megan: That was not possible for some of my high school classes. Only 94 people in it. It just wasn’t possible in my school but I think there was like one kid who had a 4.0 average. There were lots of people who would have been in the high threes but it was just a different place and the grade scale was different. Yeah, even with all those caveats, a 2.7 was not thought of as a good GPA, but they would take risks on kids who were interesting and they don’t. And I think that’s actually a really huge metaphor for a lot of stuff in our society that you guys have been.
Also, our personal essays were not these endless catalogs of trauma, which you’re now trained to.
Juliette: I refuse to do that. People were like, you have perfect stories, you can do it and I was like, “No.”
Megan: Yeah. I think it’s really unhealthy. I mean, what is the message that we’re sending kids? First of all, I think in many ways like over-share, right? Some things are private and not everyone else. If you people want to talk about this, that’s fine. I’m not saying there people are different about how open they are about stuff. Making it mandatory is weird, right? It’s like college admission is not therapy. Also, you guys are just raised to groom your resumes from a very young age and not just with the grades, not just with the AP classes or the International Baccalaureate, or all the rest of it. But the community service and the people starting fake Charities and or not fake Charities, exactly. But Mom and Dad are starting a charity. Their kid can run in order to put on the application, right? That’s crazy. It’s creating this whole weird fake persona of a 37-year old, very successful non-profit executive in order to get into college the kids my age
We worked pretty hard. I was at school from seven. I was either on a train or at school from a little before 7:00 in the morning to a little after 7:00 at night. My school was an hour from my house. I was on Athletics because Athletics was mandatory at my school, not exactly mandatory but basically, no one socially there was a huge amount of pressure to be on teams. Even with all of that, we played a lot more than you guys do. I feel like we just had more downtime and a lot less pressure and a lot more feeling that you would obviously be very upset if you didn’t get into a good college. It wasn’t like “Well, I guess your life is blighted and now you’re going to be a janitor.”
Actually, even I think my parents had less sense that to be a janitor was to have your life blighted. They were both the first generation of their families to go to college. Lots of my relatives didn’t and had perfectly happy good lives. As we’ve pulled away from that, I think for kids in the middle class and up. Is this incredibly low? You just have very little room for error, and then, on the other hand, poor kids, it’s not like they can’t make it through all these hoops. I don’t think it’s possible for a gymnast to get a perfect 10 anymore, but it used to be. Like Nadia Comaneci or Mary Lou Retton, they have to score a perfect 10. There’s zero room for error and those two different ways of approaching childhood are both really toxic in that.
What we need is more in between, but I think one thing that cancel culture represents is that kind of punitiveness except for the upper-middle class. One mistake that you didn’t even understand. There was a great line from John Scalzi, who’s a science fiction writer, who once said, “Poor is wrecking your life with decisions you didn’t even know you made it 14, right? There’s so much truth in that and now this is a lot of what cancel culture is. It’s like people who genuinely did not understand.
I’ve been writing recently about the story of Donald McNeil at the New York Times. He was eventually forced out over having used the n-word to be clear. Not as a slur, but as an example, as like, it’s the within called the use mention distinction. Okay? I will say, I have never said that word out loud. I know that’s not true. I heard a kid who was herself black say it at school when I was in second grade. I skipped a grade, I was six years old. I came home and I said it. My mother slapped me so hard my teeth rattled and I never set it again. I don’t think I could physically say it.
I’ve had conversations with John McWhorter about this, who think that white people shouldn’t be able to use it. John McWhorter is, for people who do not know, black himself. He’s a Linguistics Professor. His linguistic stuff is amazing. I’m just a huge John McWhorter linguistics fangirl but I actually talked to him about this once and I was like, “John, I get what you’re saying and maybe you’re right. But even if you forget the social sanction for it, I don’t think I could get the word out if I tried. I think I’d like my throat would close.” And I’m fine with that. I think that having a fight over it especially for white people to be leading that fight is just dumb, right? Why do you want to say the word so bad? What is it about? Is it the beautiful sound of the word? Just leave it to other people.
I have no interest in fighting that particular fight. I’m not defending what he did, exactly, but he is also in his late 60s. It is certainly clear that he came up with a time where to use it as an example. Not to ever directed at someone was just as taboo as it is now, but to use it as an example was not taboo. I don’t think he understood it, but maybe he did, right? Maybe he was just being a jerk as possible. I don’t know him, right. I’ve never met him, never spoken to him but I think that there is reason to think that he just genuinely didn’t understand that what he had done was for people 20 years younger than him and younger pretty much the taboo equivalent of just having shouted it at someone in a slur, derogatorily.
I don’t think he got that and not understanding that I’m inclined to or at least with the possibility that he didn’t. I’m inclined to cut people Grace for doing things that they didn’t understand. We’re going to generate the reaction that they genuinely did. Not that they were trolling. Then the people who are parents said they did it, but they’re awful. Sorry, they got caught, but the people who genuinely just do something, but the mores have changed and they didn’t get the memo, which is going to happen. One price of cultural change is that some people won’t get the memo.
I know that there is a theory that the way to make it happen faster is to be as punitive as possible on those people. I really think that for a bunch of reasons, it’s not true. I think just empirically, it doesn’t seem like cancel culture has really tamped down and happily increased. America’s changing racial reckoning, but I also just think as a Mentor Building Society you want to live in because you don’t know, right? You might someday be the person who didn’t get the memo. Because I hate to break it to all the 25-year-olds who are really sure that they were always going to be on the same page as the 25-year-olds. We all thought the same thing when we were 25 and no.
There will come a day when you will not have gotten the memo. You should try to build a society that you’ll want to live in then and not the society that you’ll want to live in now when you’re writing a memo.
Juliette: I think also, you can already see it a lot of professors, especially those who defend students who pushed the cancel culture stuff and try to cancel people around them, will defend those students and then they will later get canceled for something that they defended. It will not what they defended, but they get canceled and have to react to the same force that they were defending earlier, and then they’re out of a job. Oh no. It seemed pretty clear that there are some very negative consequences that I do not think are necessarily proportional.
Megan: Yeah, I think that creating a climate of fear, it’s effective at a certain level, right? I guess Stalin didn’t hear very many negative things about himself but it’s disastrous in the same way that it was for Stalin. Because what you want is either a genuine change of mind or at least people will publicly only do the things that you consider acceptable, right? Everything else is going to go along as it would and that’s not how it works. If a small group of people in the final arbiter and no one else even knows if they got the memo or if there was a memo, right? Or if there will be a new memo tomorrow and they will be retroactively judged for having failed to anticipate the memo, right?
You get a lot of other toxic weird behavior. If anyone hasn’t seen the death of Stalin, there’s a really funny, opening scene where Stalin has enjoyed a radio broadcast and then he wants to hear it again, but no one made a recording of it. So they have to just try to do the entire thing again exactly as they did before. You don’t want to create that environment, even when you’re trying to do something really good, right? Even when it’s not, and this isn’t something that really bothers me about the way we talk about cancel culture, is that to oppose cancellation for this stuff and to say, “Yeah, I think you should argue it out instead.” Which is really tiring.
The column that I just filed is actually in a lot about the ways in which during the pandemic people deployed to follow the science as a way to say “I don’t want to argue about it,” but they weren’t saying follow the science because science is contestable. What they were saying was you have to defer this expert who I consider to be the final authority here. It was unhealthy and it causes us to make a bunch of mistakes.
Juliette: I think, also, the internet and doing things over the internet. Even if you’re like trying to talk it out, it just doesn’t work the same at all.
Megan: Yes and no. Look, this is the thing that I want to point that I made in the column among many was I get it. I was tired. I favored. I was a pretty hard-liner on like “Yeah, we should lockstep down and we should all wear masks and all the rest of it.” I’m sure I did this at least once or twice and I really regret it. But I tried not to try to do the like. Well, experts say and therefore like I’m not arguing about this anymore. But I know I did it at least a few times because I ran out of patience. Because a lot of the arguments I was dealing with were disingenuous. I didn’t want to have the argument anymore. I just wanted to fight to be over. I was sick of it. I remember one person, who I really like actually, but who was extremely persistent and kept messaging me. Finally, I was like, “I don’t want to have this fight. It’s my weekend. I like you but stop because I’m about to lose my temper. In fact, I had already really, I had lost my temper.”
I get it. I get why people just wanted to stop the argument rather than fight with arguments that were often they’re not very good. Some of the arguments were very good and if you shut it all down, you missed the ones that were very good. I think now looking back like lockdowns and masks while I still think they were on the net, the right policy. We’re not as effective as I hoped as policy mandates. They were even less effective than they were as personal precautions. We should reckon with that and we should have reckoned with it better at the time and we didn’t because so many people were just in this kneel before ZOD mode where an expert has spoken, “How dare you mere mortal question the experts.”
Well, I think the revision of the lab leak hypothesis shows right now. Why that is a problem? Is that we were ever treating the possibility of a lab leak in Wuhan. As if it were the equivalent of believing like the Freemasons were poisoning the wells. When in fact, I mean, look you’ve got a bat virus whose nearest known relative has turned up at the viral logical Institute that happens to be 10 miles or 10 kilometers or whatever. Five miles from what appears to be the epicenter of the epidemic. You have no animal chain of transmission and they happen to have the sample of the nearest known relative, which is from a cave that’s 800 miles from where the epidemics started, right?
Look, maybe it’s a probable coincidence. I’m not a virologist. I’m not vouching for this theory, but dismissing that as like this is just sheer nuttery. It was itself crazy and a lot of people did it. I just think it tells you like “Yes.” There are reasons that people don’t want to have the same bad argument over and over again because it’s incredibly frustrating and irritating and you would just like to stop. I get it and yet, it is still all of that refusing to have the argument, trying to shun people who insist on having the argument. It’s a bad approach.
Sometimes you just have to be like I’ve definitely had people who I’m like “This person, I’m not having a productive argument with.” I’m having this person flood me with troll memes about masks or whatever that aren’t true. I’m not going to keep trying to argue with the troll memes because I don’t speak meme. The blanket bands and no one can discuss this. They are bad. I think that even when the cause is super important, even when I agree with that a hundred percent, as I do, in fact, with a lot of the things that people who are pursuing cancel culture, we’re going after. It doesn’t matter because it’s just a bad way to try to get to the end you want, which is not a more frightened society in which people are terrified to say anything that might sound even vaguely adjacent to this bad thing. But a society in which people actually are better to each other and care more about each other and know more about each other than they do now.
Juliette: Thank you, Megan. Before we wrap up, I want to ask you, what is one thing you believed at one time in your life that you later changed your position on and why?
Megan: Oh, gosh, so many things. You know, I was pretty lefty when I was younger, so a lot of things on that front. The thing that I believed most, this is going to sound bad and it’s not, I think I expected people to behave more like rational value maximizers than they do. They do more than people on the left think, I think, especially in the context of things like markets, which encourage very strongly, people to act like a rational type of maximizers. But I also think that people value more things than I understood at a younger age.
I think that the economy is much more complicated, but also just I think of things like and it’s really funny actually watching everyone just rediscover free love and polycules and all the rest of it, which is all stuff that was in currency when I was in college. Everyone’s like “We just discovered this because we’re young and hot,” and like, “No, no, you really not you’re not. None of this is new.” I mean, they are young and hot to be clear and they’re just not new. They haven’t discovered anything but they are very young and hot. I grant. I want to associate myself with Nora Ephron’s remarks. She’s like, “If you are like 25, I want you to go and out right now. I want you to put on a bikini and I don’t want you to take it off until you’re 35. It’s totally true. Like, enjoy the fact that you are about as hot as you’re ever going to be.
This is actually going to be my parting message to girls, especially. Stop obsessing about the fact that you don’t look like whatever person you think is the most beautiful person in the world. Because you’re going to look back in 20 years and you’re like, “Man, I was so beautiful” and I’m so sad that I didn’t just realize I was beautiful and walk around thinking like “I am hot. I am awesome and beautiful.” It’s just like you’re all awesome and beautiful and you should just totally actually walk around believing that because it’s true. Back to regularly scheduled programming, I thought people in relationships should be more transactional than they are.
This very romantic idea of where you don’t get married because it’s just a piece of paper. What really matters is how we feel about it. All of those ideas were very appropriate to the age of 18 or whatever. I don’t think they’re true. I think, that, in fact, the pieces of paper, really matter. The mere act of committing yourself in front of another person, in front of not just one other person, but in front of huge groups of family and friends in making that commitment. I did not understand this in any way right before I got married.
The interview of Daniel Gilbert, who is the psychologist who argues basically among other things. Like your level of Happiness is a lot genetic and temperamental but there’s actually good news in that, which is that whatever happens to you, you’re probably going to find a way to basically be about as happy as you are now. There are a few exceptions but in general, that is the case. He was talking to someone who came up to him after a book talk who said, “So, what you’re saying is that it isn’t that you get married to seal the love you feel for a person. It’s that the act of getting married causes you to love the other person because now you’re committed in the best way to be committed to that person. You will be the happiest if you love that person. And so you find reasons to love them.” And he thought, “Wow, that’s exactly right. He went home and proposed to his girlfriend. Had been living with for a long time. He said to me and he was right. I proposed and we got married and now, I love her even more than I did before.
Megan: It’s really true in a way that’s super hard to explain If you’re not married. Six months after I got married, I was watching some really terrible Claudette Colbert film. It was a woman and her husband are in Asia when the Japanese invaded and they get into separate camps. I watched their parting, and before I would have been just to the sweet romantic scene and I thought, “Oh my God, that would kill me.” I would not, I would just be lying on the ground and screaming, right? There is just no. I had not understood the intensity of the love I would feel for my husband until after I married him. Even though I’ve been with him for several years before I loved him a lot. That is the thing that I really didn’t understand when I was young. The mere act of committing irretrievably to things. Even if those things and my husband is, of course, perfect.
At a young age, what you want is to find. You think your job is to find the perfect thing, the perfect job, the perfect person, the perfect and it’s all going to be perfect, and you will know that it is perfect. What I now understand is that actually, a huge amount of happiness comes from being embedded in things that you didn’t fully choose. Because first of all, you can’t ever fully choose. You don’t know what it’s going to be like when you’ve had it for 10 years. Whether it’s a house or a relationship or anything else. As you get older, your friends will matter less and your relatives will matter more. You will feel the hunger that you didn’t even know for the people who’s just new grandma. You can talk about Grandma when they and all of that stuff that in fact, our unchosen obligation. The things that were in no way selected for their perfect fitness to us are the most perfect things we have in our lives. I didn’t understand that at all. It’s skewed a lot of my thinking about where I wanted to go and what I wanted my life to be.
Juliette: Thank you so much for imparting your wisdom and for being on my podcast. I had such a good time. Thank you so much.
Megan: I had a great time, too. Thank you for having me.
Juliette: Well, that’s all we have time for today. I’d like to thank my guests once again for their time and insight. I would also like to thank everyone who listens, subscribes, and shares The Great Antidote podcast. If you would like to be on the podcast, or if you have a guest in mind, please feel free to reach out to me at [email protected] cgo.org. Bye.