What Would Have Killed You?
On this week's TED Radio Hour, a special episode on the story of human life expectancy and the unsung virtues of generational diversity.
This weekend, NPR’s TED Radio Hour is airing a special hour-long episode where I discuss the past, present, and future of human life expectancy, building on the TED talk I did last summer at their conference in Monterey. The TED Radio Hour folks did a terrific job at weaving together a number of different themes that we explored in the PBS series and the book versions of Extra Life, but also touching on a few new topics that those earlier projects didn’t fully address. I listened to it yesterday, driving with my son through Central Florida—the poor kid had to listen to his dad on the stereo for an hour—and it struck me that one of the things that really makes it work is how gifted Manoush Zomorodi is as an interviewer. There’s a lovely conversational flow to the whole thing.
If you’ve followed some of the work I’ve published around the Extra Life project up to now, you might remember that one of my arguments about health progress is that it is chronically under-appreciated for almost structural reasons, because by definition it is made up of non-events: illness or death that didn’t happen because someone years ago figured out how to vaccinate against polio or purify public drinking water. In the TED Radio Hour interview, Manoush revealed a family tradition that tries to compensate for this blind spot:
You might be pleased to know that my siblings and I play a very dark game, which is called “What would have killed us.” So for my brother, it was his burst appendix. For me, I had strep throat so badly, it definitely would've killed me. And none of us, according to our calculations would have made it to age 20. But from what you're telling me, I think that that's a high estimate. We probably wouldn't have made it past the age of five.
I’ve seen a few Twitter threads where people chime in with their own what-would-have-killed-me anecdotes. It’s a great exercise—if a little morbid—though of course it still manages to undercount all the ways that your health has been improved because some of the threats have been effectively eliminated outright. Almost no one alive today in the United States has an anecdote about the time they caught smallpox as a child, or that bout of cholera they fought off when they were a teenager.
At a later point in the conversation, we start talking about the recent trends in longevity, and I bring the conversation back to my own family:
The fastest growing age cohort in countries like the United States are people who live into their hundreds. It's a small group, but it's growing. My grandmother died at almost the age of 105. And my other grandmother lived to 99. That was just really, really unusual a hundred years ago… And I think one of the things that is beautiful about this is the intergenerational contact that longevity brings to society. My grandmother who lived to 104 really got to develop a rich relationship with her great-grandchildren, some of whom were sixteen when she died.
And that is just a healthy thing for society. When we think about value of diversity in society, one of the values that we don't talk about enough is generational diversity: getting to know people and really being close to people, whether they're friends or family, who are 50 years older than you, or 50 years younger. There's so much perspective and long-term thinking you get by interacting with people who were born almost a century ago. So we'll have more of that going forward almost certainly. And I think that that's part of the life expectancy story that I think is just uniformly positive in its effects.
There’s much more in the conversation, so I encourage you to give it a listen. It’s airing this week on NPR stations around the country, or you can listen to the podcast version.
I also wanted to mention—for non-paying subscribers to Adjacent Possible—that I published another installment in the series on creative workflows earlier this week, this one drawing on the zettelskasten approach, popularized by the bestselling book How To Take Smart Notes. (It begins with one of my own literary obsessions: Walter Benjamin’s vast, unfinished “Arcades Project,” which shares some structural qualities with the zettelskasten system.) This latest installment is all about the crucial process whereby isolated fragments and hunches coalesce into higher-level ideas, and it includes some practical advice on how I have adapted the smart notes system in my use of the application Scrivener. If you’re interested, as always I encourage you to sign up for the paid subscription.