What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation


Don’t Wait Until You’re Old to Fail

Journalist Megan McArdle Loves Asymmetrical Information, But Not Geometry

December 29, 2015

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success. Before participating in a discussion of the American art of risk-taking, she talked about why she thinks American kids should be more free to fail, her worst subject in school, and the words at the base of the Statue of Liberty.

Q: If you had one more hour in the day, what would you do with it?
I’m tempted to say sleep, except I already sleep about as much as I can. I would read more and write more. I’m sort of a narrow one-trick pony as it were.

Q: What was your worst subject in school?

Q: What’s your favorite piece of economic jargon?
Asymmetrical information. That’s what I named my blog. It’s the fundamental problem of making markets work. When one side knows more than the other, it can be hard to make a deal because it’s hard to earn trust.

Q: What recent column are you most proud of?
I write about three columns a day, so you’re asking me to pick from a wide array. I might nominate one I wrote today, on the difficulty of understanding what it’s actually like to be inside some strange group, whether it’s scientologists or Saudi Arabia. When you have a small society—call it insular, call it tightly knit—the stories you’re told are invariably only told by the people who left, and so those are the definition of the people who didn’t like it enough to stay and were willing to break those ties. You can never really understand why people stay because the only people who talk didn’t.

Q: Where do you think Americans should fail more?
In childhood. I had a girl come to me when I was on book tour and she said, “I understand failure is important, but I’m in an International Baccalaureate program. Only 5 percent of us are going to get 4.0s. I can’t afford to take a class I can’t get an A in.” I thought, America, you’re doing it wrong. If you can’t fail at 15, when are you going to be free to take some risks? When you’re in an assisted living facility?

Q: What’s your favorite thing about Washington, D.C.?
That almost everyone who’s here is here because they care about some idea, so it is a city filled with people who are passionate about ideas and information and learning more about the world and making things happen in the world. The other thing I really love is just the physical city. It’s a pretty city and a manageable city in a way that New York City, where I grew up, is not. It feels intimate and cozy.

Q: Did you have any nicknames as a kid?
My mother had lots of nicknames for me. In high school and college, Meg, not surprisingly. I had some friends who called me Turtle for a while.

Q: What’s hanging on your living room walls?
A giant picture of the New York shoreline and skyline, circa 1908. And an even bigger tapestry of the periodic table of elements.

Q: How do you procrastinate?
Cleaning, reading, walking the dog. All the things that I never do when I have to do them suddenly become very compelling when I have to do something else.

Q: What does it mean to be American?
I think there’s two quotes that sum it up for me. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” And of course the great words from the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” That’s who we are. Often those things have been more of a promise than a reality, but I think we’re defined by the promise.

*Photo by A. E. Landes Photography.