Sometimes you need to do hard things that you don’t really want to do because they’ll make your life easier. I mean … probably.
See, I always feel weird about writing these advice columns, because there are people who do them better than I do, and because my most important advice will always be I”m still an idiot so please don’t listen to me. But there must be a few other idiots out there, because I occasionally get messages from readers with questions. Questions about life and stuff, instead of questions about the area of my expertise (nothing!). So I’ve put some answers together, with the warning that I don’t know if these are the right answers; they’re just the things that work for me that I’ve found to be true, right at this particular moment. Expect me to come back next year with a brand new set of answers (“Ignore everything I said previously and invest all of your money in gold!”). Until then …
#4. Let Go of That Sweet, Sweet Anger
Nothing feels more satisfying than having baseless anger validated. It’s why you smile when a politician you don’t like gets caught up in some terrible scandal. It’s one of the weirdest evolutionary developments to happen to the human brain. A new co-worker shows up at the office, and you make a split-second decision that you don’t like him. Something about his face or the way he speaks or dresses fills you with venom, but you have no reason for having all of that animosity, so you keep quiet about it. Suddenly, you hear a story about this person leaving a mess in the bathroom, or finishing off the last of the coffee without refilling the pot, or drinking too much and acting rude at a company function, and then a part of your brain lights up and whispers Yes. We were right. We were right to hate this person, and now we don’t have to be silent about it anymore. Now our hate can focus and burn bright. Yes.
I get that way. I get angry a lot. I have a short temper. I’m always ready to fight. More than anything, I have rules. I have a strict, very black-and-white set of rules in my head, and if someone breaks one of those rules, even if the rule is stupid, even if I’ve unconsciously broken that rule myself in the past, even if I never explained the rule to anyone, I will hold a grudge. Passionately. I’m great at it.It’s my least favorite thing about myself.Eventually I realized that none of the most positive moments in my life were centered on how angry I was at someone or something. I figured out that when I showed off photographs from some great party or some important milestone day in my life to friends, I didn’t point out all of the people who weren’t there because we were on bad terms at the time. I learned that none of my favorite anecdotes started with “I was still not speaking to [random person] when I went on [crazy adventure].” None of my greatest memories were made greater by the absence of people I was feuding with based on some perceived slight.But we’re so good at feuding. How can it be a bad thing?
Your life won’t be measured by how angry you can get. No one will eulogize you for your reputation as a dedicated grudge-holder, and if they do, you’ve failed.You have to learn how to let go. You have to learn how to let go of the anger, even though cutting someone out of your life entirely might make everything appear simpler by virtue of the fact that you have one less person to humanize or care about. You have to learn how to let go of the anger, even though you have no cosmic guarantee that anyone else will let go of their anger. You have to learn how to let go of the anger, even though, when it burns brightest, it feels so fucking good.
It’s not as simple as making a decision. It’s like anything else you want to be good at: You have to work at it. And, like anything else that takes work, you’ll feel better when you master it.
#3. You Have to Be Jealous of Everything
It’s not hard to see why jealousy stuck around, out of all the things that could have evolved within the human brain. You have your tribe, and you have things, but you worry that this other tribe might have more things or, worse yet, better things. You can’t let that stand. For the good of your tribe — for the good of you — you need to hate the other tribe, resent them for what they have, and, if possible, take it.We don’t really live in tribes anymore, but we’re still governed by jealousy. Sometimes it still inspires social bonding, or a bit of healthy tribe competition, but mostly it just makes one guy cranky at another guy because his Xbox is better.I learned the most important lesson about jealousy from a comedian whose name I no longer remember, which is very unfortunate. She was speaking off the cuff about jealousy in some interview, and she said, “If you choose to be jealous of someone, you have to be jealous of everything.” It sounds simple, and maybe you had that thought before, but you’re much smarter than me. I’d never considered it, but it’s important.
The times that I’d been jealous, I’d been jealous of an opportunity that another person got. Or I’d been jealous of someone else’s relationship. Or I’d been jealous of someone else’s height, or rent, or patience, or ability to grow substantial facial hair, or any other damn thing. But you can’t do that. You can’t pick one thing to be jealous of. If you’re going to be jealous of someone’s nice car, you have to be jealous of everything else in that person’s life. Are they living in a terrible apartment in a bad part of town to be able to pay for that car? Then you have to be jealous of that, too. Are they insecure enough that they think they need a nice car in order to be liked? Then you have to be jealous of that, too. It’s not a straight trade.
You don’t get to trade your shortcomings for someone else’s best assets. It’s a package deal. It’s the full suite, or it’s nothing.Thinking about jealousy in that way was one of the healthiest decisions of my life. It turns petty jealousy into nothing, and it turns real jealousy into genuine awe.For example, here is one of the greatest piano players in the world. He puts a cover song on YouTube once a week that he shoots in one take, with no rehearsals, playing from memory and by ear. Maybe you’re jealous of his skill, but you need to remember, you have to be jealous of everything. So, if you covet his skill, you also have to covet the years he spent practicing and studying and learning instead of doing anything else.Also, if you’re jealous of his talent, you have to be jealous of his physical limitations, too.
See, he got so good at the piano because he had a hard time moving around as a kid, because his entire lower torso was butt. No legs, just stacks of butt. Butts on butts. You may want his musical talents, but would you give up your legs? And replace them with butts?
#2. No One’s Keeping Score
There’s an important distinction I want to make right up front: Earlier this week, my co-worker David Wong explained how you might be accidentally making people hate you because they feel you owe them one. He’s right. That sort of thing happens all the time. I’m not trying to contradict him, even though one person believing that another owes them might sound like a score is being kept. That’s not what I’m talking about.
I’m saying that no one is keeping track of how many times in your life you were right.
I help make this show about people arguing over pop culture at a diner because, before I worked at Cracked, I used to argue over pop culture at a diner with friends of mine. Usually we just traded jokes while breaking down our favorite movies and shows, and every once in a while we’d get into an argument over a pointless bit of movie trivia. I’d claim that Bill Paxton was the one in Twister, my buddy would swear it was Bill Pullman, and another friend entirely would be convinced that it was actually the pig from Babe: Pig in the City (which I maintained was the same pig as in the first Babe movie, which started an entirely new fight).
This was before smartphones, so we usually just let the argument die. Or, rather, everyone else let the argument die. I went home and watched Twister and confirmed my rightness. Then I’d wait until the next time I saw my friends, and I’d say, “Oh, hey, just so you guys know, it was Paxton. In Twister. So …” I didn’t do it to be smug, although, yes, I was insufferable. I genuinely thought “Everyone probably wants to know the truth, because we argued about this, which means it must be important. They’ll all be so happy when I share with them this truth!”
Totally insufferable. And totally pointless. I have an easy time writing for After Hours because I remember every single time I was right and wrong in my entire life. It’s a tally that occupies space in my brain, space that is supposed to be dedicated to remembering birthdays and my pin number, both of which I’ve since had to tattoo on my chest.
The bottom line? No one else is keeping score, and you’re not doing them a favor by correcting them or keeping score for them. You’ll never accumulate enough check marks in your “right” column to be deemed infallible by your friends, and you won’t get points for pointing out someone else’s mistakes because you don’t get points for anything, because there are no points.
#1. The Important Stuff Won’t Happen
The question that I get asked on Tumblr most often is “When did you know you were going to be a writer?” “What made you decide??” “What was the moment where you learned ‘Yes, it is decided: I AM WRITING!‘”
Kids will write to me, usually right before or after they start college for the first time, saying that they might want to maybe someday consider writing, but they also have a lot of other interests, and they’re wondering where they need to go and what they need to do to get hit by the Big Decision Bus that tells them, unequivocally, what they want to/should do with their lives. And they assume, because I’m a working professionalish type person, that this bus clearly must have hit me at some point.
I guess the moment I knew — really knew — that I was supposed to be a writer was when a very nice company paid me enough money to do it instead of doing my old job, which was bartending.
That’s all. I mean, I wrote and I studied English in college, but I also studied a ton of other stuff, and I would have pursued something else or continued my education, but I got offered a job doing a thing I liked that happened to have “writer” on the business card, so I took it. I know that a lot of extremely creative and interesting artists talk about their decision to write or act or perform music like it was preceded by some cosmic, life-changing event, and that my answer sounds very dry and heartless by comparison, but it’s true. No light went off. No switch was flipped. A famous writer didn’t collapse at my doorstep, hand me a pen, and croak out “This burden is yours now” before dropping dead.
I’ve always been nervous about answering with rules, because if you tell someone there’s a “right” way, they’ll immediately freak out if they’re thinking they’re doing things the wrong way. Like “When I was a sophomore in college, there was a MOMENT — one of those profound moments that all real writers have — and then I knew, from that day forward, ME: WRITER.” I don’t want anyone’s takeaway to be “But I’m already a senior and I still don’t know and OH MY GOD I’VE DONE EVERYTHING WRONG!” And I don’t want the takeaway to be “Got it: Sophomore year. Sophomore year of college is when I’ll know what I’m supposed to do. Phew!” No. Not phew. There’s no moment, no one ever knows. I still don’t know. I’m writing today, but that’s right now, not my whole life.
If you’re anticipating some grand moment, then you’re wasting all of your time waiting for the universe to tell you what to do when, really, the universe doesn’t know, doesn’t care, and doesn’t have time to tell you to study dance magic, because the universe is too busy coming up with ways to wipe humanity off the face of the Earth.
Don’t wait for the universe or anything else to give you a sign to tell you what to do with your life. That’s crippling. Just do things.