"Grilling" / helping a friend out of a rut

December 31, 2023

photograph of a fallen tree in Half Moon Bay, CA

It's early 2022. My close friend has been unemployed and unhappy about it for several months. At some point he moves back in with his parents.

We talk while we play video games. Every so often he talks about his situation, how much he wants to have a job again. I'll ask if he's applied to any jobs, and his answer's sometimes yeah one or two, but usually no. As the months go on, he gets more worried about how the gap in his resume will play.

I realize this is going to take him a while on his own. I suspect he's avoiding the prospect of rejection and experiencing paralyzing urgency. I know the feeling. So I decide to intervene in a small way.

I tell him to come over, I tell him that we'll grill in my backyard. I tell him to bring his computer over, too, we can maybe play some games. When my friend arrives, I tell him we're not grilling right now. No, he's applying to jobs. I sit across from him in my kitchen, searching for jobs where he might be a fit and adding them to a list while he fills out applications.

By the end of the afternoon, he's applied to a few dozen. My friend is tired. We don't grill that day.

Within a few days, some companies reach out and schedule some interviews. A few weeks later and my friend is choosing between multiple offers. He lands a job in the sciences despite having a humanities degree and zero experience in the field. He does well. Within a year, the company recognizes his ability, promotes him, gives him a substantial raise, and ships him off to another state to run a large project.

~ ~ ~

Helping my friend get this job he's done so well at was one of my proudest moments of 2022. And it took so little effort on my end – he had everything he needed.

I have even more contempt for the concept of revealed preferences than before [1]. Did my friend actually want to be unemployed and living with his parents? No! He's considerably happier working at a company that recognizes his work, and he enjoys having his own place.

I'm left with a lot of questions. How many other places do I have this much leverage? Why did it work so well this time? Are there problems in my own life that would benefit from a similar intervention?

I have no clean answers. This is where I've landed for now: these moments of extreme leverage rarely just drop in your lap, and I got lucky. You can't force someone to be motivated or to stare into the abyss. But if someone has the urgency, as my friend did, and their actions still don't line up with their stated goals, they may need only a small push to move things along.

[1] Okay, before any economics nerds email me, I'll caveat that I'm talking about revealed preferences in the context of normal life, e.g., around people's employment or fitness or whatever. I'm not talking about consumer demand stuff.

Anyway, applying revealed preferences broadly betrays reflexive distrust, an underlying belief that people are stupid or liars. It suggests an incuriosity about the inner lives of others.

It is far more fruitful to approach contradictions between stated goals and real actions by taking people at their word and trying to bridge the gap rather than saying "oh you must actually want your crappy situation."