An interview between me and Tucker Max about how I used to suck with women and now I’m okay just went up on his Mating Grounds podcast. You should go listen or read the transcript. Then again, when I told my fiancée that I used to suck with women and now I’m okay, she said, “Wait, when did that happen?”, so know that at least one knowledgeable person thinks I’m advertising falsely.
Let’s take this paragraph to wait for you to listen to the podcast and come back.
When Tucker first asked if I wanted to be on the podcast, I thought I should say “No” because my child-adolescent-adult trajectory hits the broad bounds of normal. But a lot of the guys listening to the podcast are in the 13 – 22 age range—in the place I was, and probably having struggles similar to mine. So I began imagining what I would tell my earlier self and what I think I’ve learned. The answer turned out to be “quite a bit,” though most of the following is likely to be obvious to older guys who have their lives together.
This started as notes, eventually morphed into paragraphs, and then by accident I had an essay. Call it a hazard of the writing life. I really meant it to be shorter.
Last month my Dad said, correctly, that I was a pretty weird kid. When your parents say you’re weird, you know it’s true. I don’t entirely know now why I was weird from ages 10 – 14 or so and I still don’t know why I chose a lot of non-functional behaviors, like obsessively playing video games and Magic Cards. I did have, and still often have, an exacting, precise, nerdish disposition, but that alone doesn’t explain why I was such an anti-social loser. Computer games can to some extent substitute for the real world and for that reason they can be dangerous. They were definitely a real-world substitute for me.
Eventually and with much effort I grew out of that phase, and despite the unpleasantness at the time I did learn some useful, actionable things. Like: choose hobbies that increase your overall attractiveness. Such hobbies are very rarely video games. Almost no girl says, “I want a level 50 wizard” or “I want a guy who gets home from school and watches five hours of TV.” Girls want the guy who makes the TV or the music, or who is an athlete, or who has some other status markers that matter to both men and to women.
In high school and college, sports and music are probably the biggest, most prominent, and most important actionable things (side note: choose “action” wherever possible) that attract women. If you have the choice between playing the latest video game or playing your guitar, choose guitar. If you have a Friday night in which you can play video games, alone or with your video-game fanatic friends, like you always do, or go do almost anything else, choose “anything else.” It took me shockingly long to realize this. Try to make “anything else” happen.
(My fiancée was listening to the Podcast and heard me describe playing Starcraft on Korean servers, and she said, “How many hours did you spend playing?” The answer is… depressing. During that period I built almost no useful skills.)
Let me emphasize that choosing “actionable” things matters. To some extent, thoughts and beliefs that do nothing to change actions don’t matter. So if you’re reading this and thinking, “I suck” or “I suck with women” or whatever, that may be interesting, but the only really interesting thing is the steps you can take right now to make things better. For me, quitting video games was in and of itself a huge boost. I’d argue that quitting video games is going to be good for almost any guy.
Certain domains simply don’t interest most women or interest them very little. As noted, video games are one. Sports, as a spectator activity are another. Few women want to know about the travails of the Knicks, or how the ’92 NBA Championships. Guys who watch four hours of sports a day are, all else being equal, handicapping themselves.
I’m not saying you should never play video games or watch sports—plenty of successful guys do—but if they must be done they should be done in measured ways. As a teenager I was for whatever reason incapable of playing video games in a measured way. They became a substitute, rather than a complement, to the real world, and that is a problem.
Some valuable domains that still don’t in and of themselves interest women much. I’ve never heard women discuss among themselves Unix systems programming, or for that matter any kind of programming. Few women hunt live animals or express deep interest in car minutia. It is possible to attract women as a second-order effect by doing these things—tech millionaires probably do okay if they’re famous, and domain mastery can be sexy in the right circumstances—but they’re not as good as being an athlete, or a musician, or a comedian, or better still an athletic musician who does some comedy too.
What else? I wish I’d learned when I was younger how to relax. Talk to people. Try to have fun. Simple stuff that comes naturally to many but didn’t come naturally for me. I wish I’d understood that almost everyone has the same problems and feelings I was, but they weren’t expressing those feelings. That includes all the embarrassing experiences and sensations. I wish I’d realized that funny stories often follow a simple formula: they are embarrassment + time. Reading, and especially reading fiction, helped teach me these things.
These comments now sound insanely simple, but for whatever reason I was really bad at interacting with people, and I terrified of social judgment. But that judgment isn’t actually all that important, and most people will respect effort more than no effort at all.
I was really afraid of girls when I was an early-ish teenager, for reasons not obvious to me anymore. It’s really hard to debug the mind of the 13-year-old you used to be. I don’t think it was totally logical. Maybe it was evolutionary. Maybe it was my own psychology at the time. I had a disproportionate fear of negative consequences. Maybe I was scared of being isolated than I already felt. I hadn’t realized that in many if not most domains, any individual can choose to be in the game or out of the game, and I chose to be out of the game.
Change came slowly. At some point too I began thinking about most of the magazines that women read and the shows they watch, and they’re all about relationships, all the time. The vast majority of women are intensely interested in men and attracting men. Seems obvious in hindsight, but it’s useful to state explicitly. The metrics they use to evaluate men are similar to but subtly different than the ones men use to evaluate women. So many attractive women are insecure about their bodies, and they make themselves more insecure by looking at all these Photoshopped models. It’s crazy. In some ways women have more unreasonable standards for themselves than men do for them!
I also had almost no positive role models for dealing with women. I didn’t have older cousins or brothers or whatever, and I wasn’t easily mentored (this is one reason why I think Mate, the book Tucker and Geoff Miller are writing, is so important). My ideas about women came from Disney movies or pop culture or fantasy novels, none of which are terribly accurate or do a good job of representing what women are like. In advertising everyone is ready to fall into bed all the time, or buying the right jeans makes you sleep with someone.
In fantasy novels of the sort I read women, to put it politely, the psychology of the female characters did not (and does not now) map well onto actual women. To put it less politely, these novels idiotically portrayed women as either highly virtuous prizes to be won by male heroes or villains or as evil sluts. This generalization includes the fantasy novels written by women.
In actuality, of course, the vast majority of women are neither and do not like being treated as highly virtuous prizes or as evil sluts, and by now I don’t even like using the word “slut” for reasons articulated well by Mark Liberman, since “it projects bad associations based on a framework of ideas that I don’t endorse.” By now, too, I’ve also realized that most sexual shaming occurs from women to women, rather than from men to women, and most man to woman sexual shaming occurs because the former can’t get the latter and retreats to social attacks as compensation.
Teachers or other adult figures didn’t help me much either, and being a teenager can be very isolating in American society because one only has equally ignorant peers for information. Teachers have strong incentives not to be level with students, because if they tell students important truths about social relations or male-female relationships, parents will go ballistic. As kids begin discovering essential truths they often feel “the world [is] corrupt from end to end,” but we then propagate the cycle with our own children.
For me getting hobbies helped. People who were more successful just did a lot of stuff, with “stuff” being defined broadly. Hobbies meant running and working out. They meant getting jobs. They meant writing for the newspaper. They meant reading. Reading is essential, and when I moved on from fantasy I mostly read literary fiction and interesting nonfiction. Both helped me develop more empathy and understand what other people feel, even if most people won’t admit those feelings to anyone but their closest friends. Fiction is often a forum that paradoxically offers greater honesty that nonfiction.
Recognizing that other people were doing the sorts of things I wanted to be doing helped. What were they doing that made them successful, and what was I doing that made me unsuccessful? I began asking those kinds of questions and fishing for answers, which took a long time to come to fruition. Have you ever been in a situation in which the obvious losers of a group call the obvious winners of a group losers in order to make themselves feel better? Me too. Except that I was among the losers, and I wanted to not be.
Clearly some guys do much better with women than others, and it’s not a bad idea to figure out what those guys are doing. The same is true of women: I’ve met women who are great at flirting, who are great at making guys feel like a million bucks, and who are pragmatic about the guys around them. They do great. I’m thinking of one girl in particular who I was friends with in high school, who consistently had boyfriends and fuckbuddies and so forth because she was fantastic at making guys feel great about themselves. She smiled at guys she liked, laughed a lot, made plans to meet (and didn’t flake), and so forth. She not surprisingly batted way out of her league and had a spectacular sex life for someone her age.
No single book from that period stands out as definitive, but in college I discovered evolutionary biology, which was tremendous. Evolutionary biology gets unfairly maligned in various forums, and the pop version of it sometimes get fairly maligned in others, but reading it suddenly made a lot of previously inexplicable behaviors explicable. Why do girls say they hate dating assholes yet keep dating assholes? Why are “nice” guys so often unsuccessful (the scare quotes around “nice” are key). Why do so many people say various things and then act contrary to the things they say? Why is Saturday night behavior so often regretted Sunday morning?
I wouldn’t argue that evolutionary biology has all the answers about every facet of human behavior, and I would argue that people diverge widely along many axes, but I will argue that evolutionary biology describes the way average human male and female reproductive incentives differ and how that gives rise to most of the observable conflict one sees on average between the sexes. I’d also argue that understanding evolutionary biology is one way of consciously overcoming whatever ingrained behavior might be primarily genetic; if you want to act contrary to what you think the default path might be, it helps to understand the default path and how it came to be. Where did I start? I don’t remember. Miller’s book The Mating Mind found its way to me early. So did The Evolution of Desire. Both are excellent places to start.
There are also a reasonable number of people—though they’ve got to be a small percentage, for obvious reasons—for whom understanding sex and dating simply isn’t a priority, and if you’re one of those people, I don’t know why you’re reading this essay. Those people presumably go find other productive things to do.
Most of what I began to do in high school is in the podcast. I mentioned getting a job (briefly at an Old Navy, then at a YMCA, and later in college as a lifeguard, which I should’ve started in high school). I started doing simple stuff like… talking to people, and saying yes to events, and so on. For someone who was pathologically unhappy from ages 10 – 14, that was a big step.
There wasn’t a definitive, epiphanic moment for me. Progress was slow, and had I somehow known what I know now it would’ve been much faster. But I did notice that when I was a teenager—and really for my entire life—I’ve heard people confidently state stuff that is totally wrong. In high school heard all these guys bragging about all this stuff that at the time I couldn’t judge, really, but that I now know to be at best wrong and at worst incomplete.
Let’s take one example: I’ve heard, and you probably have too, guys confidently make pronouncements like, “Women just want money” (Tucker and Miller did a whole podcast on the subject.) But I know plenty of guys who do really well with lots of great women yet don’t have a lot of money. Musicians are a classic example. It is true that having “enough” money helps, but the amount a guy has to have to really hit the gold digger set is astonishingly high—so high that it’s probably not worth pursuing if your goal in a modern Western country is to maximize your success, defined however you’d define it, with women.
One can see this all over, but to take one literary example, think of Matt from Megan Abbott’s novel Dare Me. The novel is about a cheer team ruled by a top mean girl, only to be roiled when a young coach shows up (this sounds like a teen novel, but it’s not: the rivalry leads to murder, affairs, and to the real-world issues rather than “young-adult”-literature-world issues). But Matt, the coach’s sad sack husband, works all the time.
His wife cheats on for many reasons, but boredom is a prominent one. This is how Matt appears to the novel’s protagonist and to his wife: “He’s working. He never, ever stops.” Or: “He is always on his cell phone and he always looks tired.” Or: “He works very hard, and he’s not interesting at all.” Among many contemporary women boredom is the greatest enemy. Most have “enough” money, and even those who don’t are often bored by their low-skill service-sector jobs or by their schooling and would rather choose fun, exciting, louche guys over stable boring guys. That may be a fault of the women themselves—now more than ever a propensity to boredom is really a character fault in those lacking curiosity—but it’s still pervasive enough to merit mentioning.
A guy can’t cure every woman’s boredom and nor should he try. I’ve tried in my own life, without much success. It took me shockingly long to figure out that I’m the wrong guy for a lot of girls—if you don’t like books, or talking about ideas, or whatever, or if you want to go out four nights a week—but I am really, really the right guy for some girls—and those same girls find a lot of guys annoying, shallow, or boring. For example I’ve met girls at book readings, where the baseline crowd is 40+. A girl in her 20s stands out, like I did as a guy at the same age.
Anyway, I won’t say Dare Me is a great novel but it is told via an unusual voice and it is more honest than most novels that might loosely define its genre. It does have a less varnished understanding of how many women feel than most novels. One problem with much narrative art is that it is designed to flatter its readers’ and watchers’ existing prejudices and self-conceptions. It takes a little more effort to find art that doesn’t. Dare Me has interesting things going on for those who care to look closely at it. Matt has an important lesson for guys: he misallocates resources because he assumes that coach just wants more money.
She doesn’t: she wants attention, she wants sex, she wants to feel desired—she wants the things most women want. Money is great, but in most situations most guys don’t need that much money. They need to be able to buy drinks and event tickets and pay some amount of rent. They need enough cash to have clothes that fit, and that amount is arguably lower than it ever has been thanks to “fast fashion” and related developments. But they don’t need enough money for luxury cars or exotic vacations or flying first class or the many other things that guys imagine will get them laid. That’s one of many important points Miller makes in Spent, too.
The amount of money needed to play that game is absurd. It means making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, or having a million dollars or more. For most guys, the kinds of jobs and businesses that yield that kind of cash consume way too much time and energy. For most guys, unless you love the work for its own sake—if you get your jollies from building website backends or financial accounting, do it—playing the money game is a waste of time. Tucker and Miller discuss this more at the links in the paragraph above.
I’m not entirely sure where the association with money and romantic success comes from; perhaps it’s from art, or from the fact that guys who are ridiculously, absurdly wealthy can use their money to attract women, but even then they’re a) probably not having the highest quality relationships and b) again, that domain is blocked for most guys most of the time. By definition we can’t all be in the top 5%. The key is understanding when being in the top 5% or top 1% matters and when being average or above average is sufficient.
Most women also aren’t gold diggers and don’t like being treated as such. The number of actual gold diggers is small, but, as with sociopaths or bipolar people, they can be quite costly if they’re not recognized rapid.
You’re better off focusing on knowledge and activities that don’t require tons of money. In addition, the more you as a guy reading this interact with women, the better off you’ll be. You’ll start to empathize with women, and that will help. I’ve had a couple experiences that really helped me in that regard.
Part II is here.