“The thing I like to say is, there’s nowhere as dangerous as safe,” Megan McArdle C’94 told an audience at Kelly Writers House in October. This hard-earned maxim was a kind of coda to the piquant disaster stories she had just recounted—some about the business world, some about her own life between graduating from Penn as an English major and finally establishing a beachhead in journalism with a job writing for The Economist’s website.
Rock bottom came for McArdle when she went on a date to see Avenue Q. “I couldn’t help comparing myself—unfavorably—to the loser puppets,” she wrote in her recent book, The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success (Viking, 2014). “At least the puppets had their own apartments, even if they were way out on ‘Avenue Q’; they weren’t still living with their parents at the age of thirty.”
“It was only later, when memory had filed some of the raw edges off that awful, awful date that I started to realize that the ending was more than just a punch line,” she added. “That job with The Economist—and my subsequent career in journalism—would not have been possible without the agony that preceded it.”
Business writing with a personal flourish is a trademarked specialty for McArdle, now a columnist for Bloomberg View. She earned an MBA from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business as well as a bachelor’s in creative writing from Penn. That made her a natural selection for this year’s Weber Symposium, sponsored by Stacey W’85 and Jeff Weber. McArdle is a counterexample to the Webers’ motivating concern that “people who are kind of artsy about their sentences don’t feel comfortable hanging around with the business and finance people,” said Al Filreis, the Kelly Professor of English and faculty director of the Writers House, who introduced and interviewed McArdle. (To see the interview, go to tinyurl.com/qyd48yh.)
“There is nothing in this book that is not accessible to an English major,” McArdle said, “because I was an English major.” That accessibility starts with Up Side’s chapter titles, whichrange from “Crisis: What a Bad Breakup Can Tell Us About the GM Bailout” to “Forgiveness: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace Easy Bankruptcy (Though Not Personally).” Accessible should not be mistaken for shallow, however.
“I try to keep the rigor, dealing seriously with studies and how things work, but also introduce some of the personal element,” she explained: “What does this look like in first-person?—because first-person is how everyone is going to have to experience these decisions.”
A contrarian whose politics took a sharp turn to the right after a disastrous stint working for the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) as a Penn undergrad, McArdle views herself as a libertarian, albeit an unpredictable one. (“The official term for me is a Squish,” she noted dryly.) She’s willing to take unpopular stances (just look at her post titled “Campus Rapes and Kangaroo Courts”), and her refusal to stay on one side or another of the usual political divides has earned her plenty of critics as well as fans.
“The thing I always try to keep in mind, and it’s hard when you’re fighting political battles, is that no one is a villain and everyone has a point,” she said. “A realistic model of the universe is the universe. Anything else and you’re simplifying. And the different simplifying assumptions that we make guide how we think about the world. So give me any set of facts, and I can tell at least two coherent and mutually exclusive stories about that same set of facts.”
“I’d rather have the occasional troll than a chorus where everyone’s singing the exact same tune,” she writes in The Up Side of Down. “When it comes to arguing, I am a professional: a typical workday involves endeavoring to convince Republicans that tax cuts do not pay for themselves through increased economic growth, to persuade Democrats that government spending doesn’t pay for itself either, and trying to induce people of all political stripes to save 20 percent of their income every year for retirement or an emergency rather than going on a much-needed vacation.”—S.H.