After I quit the teaching job, I packed a bag and went to Sri Lanka for a month. I felt a strong need to get away, clear my head, be on my own with my thoughts. My aborted term as a teacher had churned up all sorts of emotions and questions, and I wanted to process them in my own time and in my own way. In particular, I wanted to get away from the well-meaning but intensely irritating tendency of people to give advice.
Interestingly, I spent a good chunk of my time away reading advice columns and listening to advice podcasts (this one), which seems ironic. But seeking out advice, rather than having it foisted upon you, are quite different things. The first is self-directed – you find information that feels relevant and interesting, and process it in your own time. After reading this article on Pip’s website, I found myself exploring the work of Ask Polly advice column writer Heather Havrilesky over at the New York Magazine.
(wo)Man! Havrilesky can write! I devoured almost every funny, rude, honest column of hers on the site – I would spend my mornings and early afternoons writing, and then at about 3pm, once the heat of the day was waning, I rode a rusty bike into town, found a cafe with wifi and read a few Ask Polly articles with my lime soda.
How’s this, in response to Ten Years Gone, a 35-year-old man who is bored at work, struggling financially, and ashamed to admit he has creative aspirations:
Try squeezing some of your daydreams in with the rest of your life instead. Make a little space for them. Try a few things, take a class, go to a lecture, read a book. Do some new stuff, and prepare to be overwhelmed and afraid when you do it. Prepare to hear, from your bad brain, that you are a joke and a failure. Prepare to fail. Keep trying things anyway. Say to yourself, “This scares me. I hate being bad at things. But I am having an adventure.” Say this over and over. You will keep trying and failing and trying. You will keep working very hard and you will see how that feels. Maybe you’ll discover that you’re bad at most of the things you’re trying. That’s fine! I’m feeling that way about a few of my brand-new pursuits right now. That’s just how it is when you start. Don’t draw hasty conclusions. Don’t use every scrap of evidence against yourself. Keep the faith.
Slowly but surely, you figure out if life-changing moves are in order. You will feel your way along, in the dark, until you have a feeling one way or another. You will — slowly, very slowly — learn to trust your instincts and learn to follow your feelings to your truest, deepest desires.
At the moment, I have a few projects on the go, one of which is a book. My bad brain tells me every day that I’m a joke and a failure. Every day, I ask it to be quiet. Every day, it comes back and tells me the same thing again. It’s not going to go away, that voice, so I’m trying to get to know it. It can stay there, in my head, as long as it doesn’t get the better of me.
But you know when that voice flairs up? When people give me unasked for advice. Over in Sri Lanka, no one gave me advice. As soon as I got home, as expected, it started rolling in.
Last weekend, I was at a party. A man, some years older than me, asked me what I was up to since quitting the teaching. ‘I’m working it out,’ I said, not wanting to go into details. I’m a little protective of myself, and the response ‘I’m writing a book’ doesn’t go down too well with some people.
He launched into all the reasons I should become a public servant like him. I just looked at him. ‘What is it that tells you that I, a person you barely know, want your advice?’ I thought. ‘What is it that says ‘Please, advise me on how to live my life. My brain is full of cotton wool and bits of fluff. I have absolutely no idea who I am, what to do, where to go. You clearly have all the answers. Please, bestow on me the wisdom you have gained during your time on earth, and tell me why I should do just what you’re doing, and how happy that will make me. Of course! Working for the government! That is the answer! You are a genius. I am an idiot. Thank goodness for you, otherwise I would just sit at home staring at the wall all day.’
I know people mean well. And I’m trying, I really am, to smile and nod and shake it off as Taylor Swift might do. To not be defensive. To not get my hackles up. It’s not easy, but I’m trying.
Ask Polly has some thoughts on this topic too. Here’s what she wrote in response to a 34-year-old woman who is questioning her decision to be an artist, and asking whether she should just get over herself and find a job in a clothes boutique:
The nice thing about high capitalism is that people are making softer sweatshirts and tastier beers. The bad thing about high capitalism is that we have a twisted idea about the differences between things that sell and things that don’t sell, winners and losers, masterful brands and flaccid brands. And we think of ourselves in those terms, too. This crass world holds a pretty twisted view of what it means to create something without being widely acknowledged for it. Most people look at bands that never hit it big and sculptors who don’t live off their work and they say, “Oh, he’s still nursing that silly dream,” or “She’s a wannabe rock star.” They say, of a radio host, “He had to settle for the local market.” They look at the talented star of a dinner theater production and say, “She never made it on Broadway.” They make these assessments without knowing the first thing about what it actually means to be a successful rock star (constant touring) or what it takes to make it on Broadway (in some cases, training your voice to sound far less interesting than it really is).
We can recognize that the general public is misinformed in their belief that people who are “truly talented” will naturally become famous and make loads of cash (and therefore people who aren’t making piles of cash just aren’t talented enough) — but these people are our aunties and brothers and cousins and next-door neighbors. They say things like “How’s that novel coming along? Seems like it’s taking forever!” as if writing novels is exactly like accounting — you just get ‘er done and cash your check. They say things like “Your pictures are really weird, but it’s nice that you have a hobby.” They say things like “Maybe you should design logos. I read about this one guy who got rich doing that.” They say these things with good intentions. They don’t need to be reeducated. YOU need to be reeducated. You need to practice your religion more fervently, so that these very nice people, who are simply reflecting the values of high capitalism, won’t get under your skin and change your understanding of your purpose on the planet.
I’m doing my best to not let people’s advice get under my skin. Some days it’s not easy, especially when my mean inner voice tells me I’m a joke and a loser, and then an actual real person looks at me in a way that suggests I am, in fact, a joke and a loser. Each time, I tell my hackles to lie down on my back. Each time it gets that little bit easier to shake it off.
When I’m older, perhaps I’ll think back to this time and, instead of offering some well-meaning advice to a younger person, I’ll remember how it felt to receive it, and I’ll shut up and keep my thoughts to myself. Maybe. I hope so.
I’ll leave you with one last quote from Ask Polly, to that scared-but-hopeful 35-year-old man who dreams of being creative but is too afraid to start:
We are so lucky to be alive, Ten Years Gone, whether we’re 35 or 55 or 105, and it’s never too late to make a small, safe space for yourself, where you can say, without fear, “I have more to give. I am going to try and fail. It’s okay to try. Failing is good for you.” Trying is brave. Failing is brave. FLAILING IS FREEDOM. Embrace glitches and discouragement and entropy. Prepare to feel ashamed. Sometimes you feel the most shame at the exact moment when you’re reaching out for your truest source of happiness.