Briefly noted: “Mate” is out and it’s good — Tucker Max and Geoffrey Miller

As previously noted, Mate: Become the Man Women Want is out and it’s good.* As the book says in the introduction, “Your culture has failed you and the women you’re trying to meet.” The book is part of the remedy. When I read the draft a couple months ago I told Tucker, “I wish I could teleport a copy of Mate back in time and give it to my 13-year-old self, and then instruct him to read it once a year for the next decade.” That’s still true. If you know any teenage or early 20s guys who are likely straight, give them a copy of this book. It is not going to be useful for everyone and indeed I expect some of you to strongly dislike it. People like how-to in many fields but often not this one.

Mate_CoverThe book emphasizes empathy: “If you always try to understand the woman’s perspective—what they want, why they want it, and how to ethically give it to them—then you will find it much easier to become attractive to them, and you’ll be much more successful with your mating efforts.” There are no shortcuts. For a while I’ve been describing the empathy gap, because I increasingly think that the average man doesn’t much understand or try to understand the average woman—and vice-versa. That’s why books like Mate, or Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Year Disguised as a Man, are valuable: they work to close the empathy gap.

Parts of the book will be obvious to older guys who have their lives together—that showering and grooming are important will not be news, but most of us can also probably remember the shambling smelly kids in school. Other parts counteract some of the more dubious parts of our culture, like the claim that women are attracted most by money and that all women are “gold diggers.” For most women most of the time other things matter most, like how “individual women just your fuckability by your social network. So you had better have proof—social proof—that it exists.” Most people, men and women, who want a relationship reasonably want to know the person they’re having a relationship with, and that means knowing friends and family—and knowing they exist. Many of us have had the experience of sleeping with someone who keeps us totally separate from the rest of their lives. Sometimes that can be good—we don’t “count”—but for actual relationships it’s not.

There are still hilarious metaphors and comparisons, like “[A lot of guys think they need to have a ton of money,] then the women will just magically appear, like monarch butterflies to milkweed, flies to honey, rappers to Scarface posters.” But there are fewer of them: The book is entertaining but it leans informational. I at least felt rueful for my teenage and college self when I read some sections. Perhaps my favorite moment occurs two-thirds through the book, when Max and Miller are noting some of the artistic skills that women like, like music, storytelling, and, saliently for this quote, drawing:

The key thing here is to cultivate actual skill rather than indulge in modernist expressionism or abstract art. The poet John Ciardi pointed out, “Modern art is what happens when painters stop looking at women and persuade themselves they have a better idea.”

I’ve never read as concise and accurate description of why so much modern art is so bogus.

The bibliography is useful.


* As also previously noted, I now know Tucker well enough to not be an unbiased critic.

Getting good with women and how I’ve done almost everything in my life wrong: Part III

This is the conclusion to a series; the first part is here. The second is here.

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. This essay grew out of my notes for that podcast.

Context and environment

Surroundings matter enormously in many contexts, and dating is a major one. Enough people who are dating form a dating market, and you should see this podcast and its transcript for details about markets. It can be important to change contexts if the current context is bad. Particularly bad contexts for straight guys include the military, engineering schools, rural areas, and Silicon Valley. My high school context was very bad and my college context very good. The ratio of men to women in a given situation has more short-term impact on success or failure than almost any other variable.

Let me tell another story to illustrate this. My fiancée went to Arizona State University for undergrad and she says that at ASU she didn’t like the pretty one, which is baffling to me. Maybe she felt that way presumably because a lot of the culture there revolves around sorority girls, bleached blond hair, and so forth. Nonetheless that she feels she got little attention seems insane to me.

Still, now we’re in New York City, and other guys hit on her all the time; she might be in the right cultural environment for her temperament. There are lots of attractive people in New York, but there’s a much stronger intellectual, change-the-world vibe than there is in Arizona (or L.A.).

The above paragraphs remind me of another point that’s applicable when you, the guy reading this, starts to get successful: If you’re going to be with a high-status, attractive woman, other guys are going to hit on her. If she responds to that in a really positive way you have a problem. But it’s going to happen. If you’re in a relationship you’ll find other women hitting on you too, albeit usually in a less obvious and less overt way. In high school and college, a lot of the smartest guys have exit options ready to go in the event they leave their relationship or their girlfriend leaves them; girls like guys with options and like guys who other girls have approved.

It’s also possible to check on girls in a relationship in a reasonable way. For example, we were part of a group in Arizona, and one guy was my fiancée’s colleague, and he eventually moved away. A couple years later they were chatting on Facebook, and he was like, “Are you still with Jake?” She said yes, and he replied, “Well, that’s too bad. If you break up, call me.” Which is a way you hit on someone without being a giant asshole about it. She told me about it and I was like, “Well, that’s fair.” People do break up for various reasons.

This illustrates another point: if you’re with a woman who wants to leave, she’s going to leave, either cleanly and reasonably or in a foot-dragging, poisonous way. You can’t force a person to stay. Desirable people are always in short supply. Learning to live with loss is part of learning to live with success.

To return to market issues, I don’t think I would’ve thrived at ASU or the University of Arizona as an undergrad: the bro-ish frat types seem to be optimized for those schools, and I wasn’t either one. I didn’t aspire to go to them. If you’re like I was in high school, you shouldn’t either, regardless of whether your friends are a fratty, party-down types. I did reasonably really well with women in college because I was a) athletic by the standards of my school, b) had learned a lot through painful trial and error in high school, and c) my school was about 60% female and 40% male. That meant there were always single girls around who were looking for guys. Friends who went to engineering schools had the opposite experience, since those schools were 60 – 70% male; some would have been better served romantically by majoring in engineering at big public schools.

If you’re in high school you’ll likely find it difficult or impossible to dramatically change your environment in the short term. There aren’t good solutions for you. Sorry. I don’t believe in telling comforting lies, however, and I do believe that some problems don’t have real or good solutions. I wish I’d admitted so earlier.

Miscellaneous

* The way a girl who says no will sometimes say yes if you find another girl. If one girl says no, move on. It is at best extremely difficult and more likely impossible to change someone’s initial response. To the extent it can be done, it can be done through rivalry.

* It is very hard, if not impossible, to fix most broken people. Don’t try. If you get with a girl who has very serious mental health problems, or makes very bad choices, let her be someone else’s problems. You don’t need to fix the world, and broken people can be dangerous. If you’re a straight guy you’re presumably not too worried about dating guys who are fundamentally broken, but women with serious mental issues can be really bad.

If you identify someone like this, let her go. If you’re inexperienced you might be bad at identifying this kind of person, but if you do, keep your distance. Move on. Don’t return their emails, texts, and phone calls.

* I’ve gone through very promiscuous phases and very monogamous phases, and this is probably typical of a lot of college / urban young people who aren’t participating in some religious sub-culture and who are paying attention to sex and dating.

* Most of the world’s major religions discourage sex for reasons that probably made sense in say the year 1,000 but may or may not make sense anymore. Decide for yourself whether a set of rules and principles for running a society in the year 1,000 make sense in a modern, urbanized, industrialized society.

* I’d emphasize this: “a shockingly large amount of human social life, or like intellectual life, or other life boils down to trying to prove that you’re not a moron and trying to test to see if other people are.” The sooner you learn to do this, the better.

* So much of life consists of defaults. Understanding and in some circumstances getting away from those defaults is vital. The Internet can actually help enormously in this regard by making a lot of information much more available—for those willing to seek it.

* Schools like prestige because it makes the schools look good; parents like prestige for similar reasons, and because they want their children to be economically independent. But prestige isn’t necessarily that good or important for average people. Success in school isn’t essential to success with women. Prestige as conceived by schools and parents isn’t necessary or often  even helpful for success with women, and it may be counterproductive. In the long term we’re all dead and there is no absolute definition for prestige.

* What people say and what people do are often vastly different. What they do counts ten times as much as what they say. Take note of people whose behaviors habitually don’t match their words. With women, if she wants to be with you but does anything else except be with you, she doesn’t want to be with you. In this and many life domains, it should be HELL YES or no.

* When someone says no, take it gracefully and move on. “No” is permission and encouragement to do other things.

* You will very rarely if ever truly know another human being, and another human being will rarely if ever truly know you. Accept it and be ready to be surprised.

* People who don’t read usually don’t know much (or they know a lot about a single, narrow area that’s usually related to their work). A good book distills years or decades of experience, insight, and knowledge into a single volume that can be read over a couple of hours. Consider that when you’re allocating your time.

Not the best

In most domains I’m not the best. You don’t have to be the “best” either. I’m not the best athlete, I’m (probably) not the best intellectual (depending on one’s definition), I don’t make the most money, I don’t have the coolest job, I’m not the most outgoing, I’m not the best conversationalist, I don’t have the best sense of humor. But in all of these domains I’m above average and by now I’ve been above average for a long time, and that’s a huge advantage over guys who don’t even try. Success in any domain starts with trying.

But trying can be scary because it comes with it the possibility of failure. It took me a long time to embrace failure as a part of the process that leads to success. The link in the preceding sentence goes to Megan McArdle’s book The Up Side of Down: Why Failing ell is the Key to Success. In it she writes of the “deep, soul-crushing periods of misery following stupid mistakes that kept me awake until the small hours of the morning in a fog of anxiety and regret.” But while that was obviously horrible:

It was only later—much later—that I saw the wreckage of my previous hopes become the foundation for something bigger and better.

Writers in particular are terrible procrastinators because they were good at English in school. They know on some level that no actual piece of writing is as good as it seems in their heads. The trick in becoming a productive writer is to either have tons of deadlines or to realize that an actualized piece of writing is always better than a perfect piece of writing that only exists in the head. And “Falling short: seven writers reflect on failure” is a great piece in which seven writers reflect on failure. Success also rarely comes from not failing, since not failing implies not trying; success comes from failing, learning, and then trying again. In the real world there are no no-lose propositions.

In most domains, even the ones I’m now “good” at, I’ve failed in some respect, and I’m still not the best. But that’s okay. For most guys, being the absolute best at a thing is overrated compared to being above average in a range of domains. During my initial interview with Tucker I related the story of Scott Adams, who has said he’s not the best artist and he’s not the funniest guy but he combines both effectively in Dilbert (he also discusses the role of failure in his own life). Combining disparate skills is still underrated. Steven Berlin Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From is good on this subject.

Most guys don’t have to be the best athlete or musician. They should, however, be better than other guys, and the amount of effort it takes to be “better” is often much smaller than anticipated (and also depends on the comparison group). I’m not and never have been the best athlete, but by now I’m probably better than 80% of other guys simply because I care enough to run and lift. This is a huge, key advantage, because women do evaluate men based on physicality, especially in short-term situations; arguably women can afford to be choosier than men in short-term situations because women are warier of those situations.

Anyway, as I said earlier, this essay was supposed to be a couple notes but it turned into more, in part because I suffer from logorrhea and in part because most of the content in this essay is already drifting around in my head.


See also “The appeal of ‘pickup’ or ‘game’ or ‘The Redpill’ is a failure of education and socialization” (note: “Feminism didn’t come from nowhere. Neither has pickup.”) and “The inequality that matters II: Why does dating in Seattle get left out?

Getting good with women and how I’ve done almost everything in my life wrong: Part II

This is the second part in a series; The first part is here.

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. This essay grew out of my notes for that podcast.

Empathy

I did some online dating years ago, primarily in Seattle and a little bit in Tucson, and some of the girls I got to know showed me their message streams. Some messages were disgusting or outright idiotic, but most they were boring and poorly thought out: “Hey.” “How are you?” “Your profile is interesting.” Pretty girls get dozens of them every week. Hell, even average girls do. I was thinking, “If I were a girl, I’d get turned off by all this crap too.”

Most of the girls I talked to—even the ones who just wanted to get laid—were in fact tired of all that crap. They got so many low-quality messages, or messages from guys who’d copied and pasted an initially clever come-on but couldn’t follow-up. Those women wanted something a little different. They were bored, which is a point I’ll come back to later. Dating for women is different in important ways than dating for men, and I wish I’d understood that sooner.

Reading those messages also explained why I was doing fairly well, since I was deliberately trying to say something non-obvious and ideally slightly lascivious without being gross. That class of message stood out. Being tall and in shape obviously helped too. My photos were pretty good. I didn’t spend much time playing games, and if women didn’t want to meet quickly I would stop messaging them (which would often lead those who were reluctant to meet for whatever reason to want to meet).

The girls from the Internet taught me something else useful too: some said they liked online dating because it let them meet guys without their bitchy, judgmental, hypocritical friends around (they didn’t use those words, but that’s what they meant). Without the chorus of shame squawking in their ears, real desires emerge. The real upholders of the sexual double standard are actually women, not men.

Somewhere along the way I realized that lots of women are lonely and looking for connection, and that loosened me up as far as approaching women and asking them out. I’ve asked out women on the street, in buses (if you’re a guy on the prowl you should love public transportation), in grocery lines, on running trails. Usually the conversation starts with something observational, then moves to whatever is going on that day or week. If you have nothing going on, get something going on and get talking about it. Energetic people are on average more attractive than sluggards.

I’m still not inured to rejection—is anyone?—but if a girl on the street says no, it doesn’t matter. Move on. She’ll forget, and perhaps I’ll make some other girl’s day, and she’ll go home and tell her friends that a cute stranger was hitting on her.

This isn’t something I experienced directly, but a friend’s recent adventures helped teach me too. She’s posted to a well-known amateur porn site (without her face in the shots). On this site she gets a lot of responses from viewers, and she’s shown them to my fiancée and me. They’re voluminous, amazingly bad, and unintentionally hilarious. Hundreds of guys write to her, almost all of them saying some variation on “You’re so hot” or “I want to fuck you.” And these guys have no idea where she lives.

The messages were pathetic, and when we were reading them my fiancée said something like, “This is what all women have to deal with.” In that moment so much became clear to me. I knew that, intellectually, but seeing the really low-value, unsuccessful messages from guys on the Internet reinforced that point. It’s such a waste of time to send those messages. They’re more a fantasy projection that a real attempt to meet women, but every minute or second they spend sending “Ur so hot show me ur butthole” is a minute or second they’re not doing something useful. If I were a woman I couldn’t imagine looking for quality men on amateur porn sites. Yet these are doing so, and the way they’re doing it is all wrong, and yet they persist in doing it the wrong way.

And our friend is not the primary motivator for them. She’s reasonably attractive but not incredibly spectacular—most guys and girls who have a taste for other girls would be happy to date her. But you won’t see her on a Victoria’s Secret runway. she’s getting this kind of response, which is a distillation and intensification of what many women experience otherwise. In real life most guys won’t go up to women and say “show me ur butthole” for good reason; online, with the cloak of pseudonymity, they’re willing to. In real life, guys would probably like to say that, but they can’t or don’t.

On a separate subject, reading Norah Vincent’s book Self-Made Man taught me about the lack of empathy women have for men. So did stories told by women about gross and very insistent guys, or nasty comments from parents and other girls. Reading “The Daughter-Guarding Hypothesis,” since it showed how fear and loathing around sexual behaviors get inculcated in women from an early age.

Looks count

Looks and style matter, and like many nerds (and especially nerds growing up in nerd-infested places like Seattle) I wanted to believe they didn’t. But people make snap judgments for reasons that I now realize are quite good: we communicate a huge amount of information based on what we wear, how we hold ourselves, and so forth. For both men and women wearing clothes that fit matters. Women learn this almost immediately; it took me until I was 25 to figure it out.

Still, when I was 14 or 15 I started lifting and running consistently relatively early, and that was a definitive advantage that continues to be an advantage—not only in dating but in long-term relationships. If you’re old enough to know people who’ve been in long-term relationships, you’ll have seen the pattern in which one or both parties in a long-term relationship let themselves go, which usually coincides taking their partner for granted. That’s probably a mistake at any time or place, but it’s really a mistake in contemporary American society, since in this society and culture the rigors of the dating market never really end. That may be a bad thing but it is a thing. You can’t let yourself go, both for your partner’s sake and because you never know when you’re going to be involuntarily dumped back into the market.

Younger people probably shouldn’t be focused on very long-term relationships because they change so much. I didn’t have a somewhat stable, developed personality until I was 24 or so. People evolve through their lives but that evolution is particularly rapid and pronounced from puberty well into the 20s. If you’re 20, chances are you won’t be dating the same person for five years. Understand that you’re going to be on the market a lot, and it’s difficult or impossible to hide from market tests.

Guys who pay attention to their posture, to what they wear, and to their workouts are in the game. Guys who don’t probably aren’t. That doesn’t mean guys have to become obsessed with these issues—I never have been—but it does mean being aware of them and taking care to do them right.

The last part is here.

Getting good with women and how I’ve done almost everything in my life wrong: Part I

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 asked if I wanted to be on the podcast, I thought I should say no, primarily because my child-adolescent-adult trajectory hits the broad bounds of normal. But a lot of the guys listening to the podcast are 13 – 22 and having struggles similar to mine. 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.

Growing up

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 had 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. For me computer games were a real-world substitute. Anything that makes you avoid the real world, broadly defined, for long periods of time is not good.

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 (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 representing real women (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, 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 fantasy novels written by women.

In life, of course, the vast majority of women are neither and dislike being treated as highly virtuous prizes or as evil sluts. I don’t even like using the word “slut” for reasons articulated well by Mark Liberman; the word “projects bad associations based on a framework of ideas that I don’t endorse.” 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 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. If teachers 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. Even today, in 2015, it seems radical to ask, as this article does, “What If We Admitted to Children That Sex Is Primarily About Pleasure?” Instead, we collectively leave each generation to rediscover everything for themselves. Then we get made when someone like Neil Strauss writes a book like The Game, which, while not a perfect work, is still a net improvement for average guys who know nothing, like I once did.

For me getting hobbies helped. I noticed that guys who were more successful with women 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.

Reading

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: You’ve guys confidently pronounce, “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. Some have none at all. Musicians are a classic example: Many have no money and tons of groupies. For most guys, having “enough” money helps, but the amount a guy has to have to 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.

Consider one literary example of too much money focus: Matt from Megan Abbott’s novel Dare Me. The novel is about a cheer team ruled by a top mean girl, but the team is 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 real-world issues rather than “young-adult,” literature-world issues). Matt, the coach’s sad sack husband, barely appears in the novel because he works all the time.

His wife cheats on for many reasons, but boredom is a prominent one. Matt’s “child” might not even be is. 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. Nor should he try. I’ve tried without much success. In the process I did learn that I’m the wrong guy for a lot of girls—if you don’t like books or talking about ideas, or if you want to go out four nights a week, I’m the wrong guy for you. But I am really, really the right guy for some girls. Those same girls find a lot of guys annoying, shallow, or boring. 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. But we gravitated to each other because the kinds of people who show up at book readings are very different from most people.

I won’t call Dare Me a great novel. But its unusual voice makes it 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. Much narrative art is designed to flatter its readers’ and watchers’ existing prejudices and self-conceptions. Finding art that challenges prejudices and self-concepts is harder (have you noticed how I keep saying and implying that the hard things are worth doing?). 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, and more is obviously better than less, 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 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.” Advertising has wrongly convinced guys that material goods get the girl. That’s not true. Guys 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.

The amount of money needed to play the money game is absurd. The money game demands hundreds of thousands of dollars a year—or having a million dollars or more. For most guys, the jobs and businesses that yield so much cash also consume way too much time and energy. 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.

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. A significant number of women will also be turned off by guys who transparently want to buy them.

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.

TV had to learn everything novelists already knew: an example from The Sopranos

From Vanity Fair’s brilliant Oral History of The Sopranos:

ALLEN COULTER (director): Sopranos gave the lie to the notions that you had to explain everything, that you always had to have a star in the lead, that everybody had to be ultimately likable, that there had to be so-called closure, that there was a psychological lesson to be learned, that there was a moral at the center that you should carry away from the show, that people should be pretty, that people should be svelte. The networks had essentially thrown in the towel on good drama. It’s like changing the direction of an ocean liner. But Sopranos did it. They changed the game.

It’s strange to read this, because it feels to me like novelists have always known this, or have at least known it since the 1920s. I think of writers like Henry Miller or James M. Cain, who were experts at unlikable characters and showing the only “psychological lesson to be learned” is that there is no psychological lesson to be learned.

Later, I think of someone like George V. Higgins, who specialized in unpretty, ungainly characters. But I wonder if TV took so long to learn these lessons because a) it was a mass medium that required appealing to everyone and b) because up until recently, there were only a handful of real outlets that could afford to produce real shows. So there wasn’t the same kind of experimentation that novelists could conduct, since a novelist needed nothing but time and paper (or, today, time and a computer) and a publisher.

Today, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple, and the Internet more generally are creating another shift, to the point where you don’t even need a publisher. We’ve already seen some fruit from that shift in the form of Belle de Jour and Tucker Max. Instead of the “ocean liner” that is television, writers get to pilot skiffs and other small craft that go places the big ships can’t or won’t go. In doing so, writers chart the courses that might one day be followed by the video people, who are so encumbered by budgets and specialization and accountants and executives.

(See also Edward Jay Epstein’s Role Reversal: Why TV Is Replacing Movies As Elite Entertainment.)

Hilarity Ensues — Tucker Max

Laughter, the greatest testament some books can receive, can’t be directly quoted in a review. By the metric of “number of times I laughed out loud,” I gave many, many testaments to Hilarity Ensures.

Beneath that laughter, though, there’s actually a surprisingly amount of commentary about how to live and think about your life interwoven among escapades with drunk girls, drunk guys, at least one drunk dog (that I counted), existential despair, sexual elation, three-ways, success at getting in his or her pants, despair at not getting in his or her pants, angry bouncers, angry parents, angry girls, and boats.

For an example of “how to live and think about your life,” consider this overly long quote about law school, which I include in part because I went to law school for a year, for the same crappy reasons and one different reason that every other bright but unfocused 22-year-old grad goes (the only thing I did right was quit):

Yes, Duke is a top ten law school, but the only thing difficult occurred well before I ever set foot on campus; getting admitted. Once I actually arrived on campus, I realized that not only was the hardest part done, but everything else was a complete joke. The emperor had no clothes.

Going to class is a complete waste of time. The professors don’t care about teaching; they either ramble endlessly about meaningless shit, or they spend the whole time telling you how important they are. The students are no better; the ones constantly raising their hands to talk (they’re called ‘gunners’) are all pompous suck-ups, and add nothing of value to the conversation. . . . I would say that probably 90% of what you go over in class has no bearing on either your life or your job as a lawyer. Think about that—most of what you learn in class has no application anywhere outside of law school.

Hypocrisy comes from the school itself: because “90% of what you go over in class has no bearing on either your life or your job,” classes don’t matter; school should be tightly coupled with outcomes related to your life or job. When school and outcomes aren’t tightly coupled, the school is exploiting you, and schools are particularly good at this because they’re dealing primarily with unformed humans who haven’t yet acquired the analytical skills to realize what’s happening to them. I’m not sure if Max is a reader of scholarly monographs, but if he is, First Thing We Do, Let’s Deregulate All the Lawyers would be a natural stocking stuffer. Law schools have positioned themselves as gatekeepers who extract resources from students in return for credentialing, rather than adding real value. If they did add sufficient value to convince the marketplace that lawyers with degrees are better than those without, they wouldn’t need legal means to restrict competition. Today, you can’t effectively read for the bar, take it, and become a lawyer on your own because other lawyers don’t want the competition and law schools want your money. You, like sheep, give it to them. So did I.

Max hates hypocrites: that’s the moral, if there is one, of much of his work, and especially of the Miss Vermont Story, concerning a bizarrely immature 23-year-old beauty pageant contestant who preaches abstinence and sobriety while practicing the exact opposite with Max. Out of a misguided sense of importance and vengeance, Katy Johnson / Miss Vermont’s mother orchestrates a dubious lawsuit whose only real outcome is a variation on the Streisand effect.

I identify with that story in particular, since I was a minor league hypocrite once:

This reminds me of the first weekend I smoked pot, in high school (it wasn’t great: I don’t much care for the feeling, although I understand that many others do). The next week, a friend said she was going to the elementary school a block from my house to talk about D.A.R.E., which is a dumb and ineffective program. She invited me to go with her. Most importantly, this got me out of a couple classes. I went, spouted platitudes, felt like the world’s most terrible hypocrite. When we left, I told my friend about my experience with pot. She said, “I got wasted this weekend.”

Hypocrisy ties more broadly into the girls who say one thing and do another. Though they’re mostly a source of bemusement in Hilarity Ensues, underneath the bemusement is a real critique: why lie, both to yourself and others, about what you really want? The question is mostly rhetorical, but there are answers, social conditioning being the most obvious. Max is aware of that conditioning:

The rules your parents teach you to live by are very different than the rules the world actually runs by. Most of the conventional wisdom is not only wrong, it’s a lie told to us by people who want to control us. It doesn’t help us, it helps them. Pretty much everything we’re told as children (and adults, really) by the established power structures in our lives are made-up fairytales used to reinforce that control. . . It makes sense if you think about it; the only way you can truly control people is to lie to them.

The “rules” are certainly different, although I’m not sure who the “us” and “them” are in the quoted paragraph. The lies we tell kids are real, and one reason for teenage alienation might be the slow, real discovery that much of what we’ve been told about decorum, success, and meaning are lies. Once implanted, those lies are hard to remove: “People will ignore a lot of reality in order to maintain their fantasies,” especially if those fantasies are comforting.

But Max is not advocating anarchy. He has a sense of anarchy’s consequences; in Mexico, “there is a flipside to no rules: The American safety net isn’t there to protect you from the consequences of your stupid decisions.” It’s an obvious point, yet I bet the million Max wannabes miss this insight, and miss the fact that pleasure has its pleasures and its price. In some ways Max is lucky: his own “stupid decisions” could’ve ended much worse. The “safety net” caught him. No cars hit him, he sustained no permanent physical injuries, and he didn’t encounter anyone murderously psychotic at a random bar. Lessons and memories remain, like those about how we absorb ideas when we grow up.

Lies are often propagated by parents because parents’ and kids’ interests diverge. The teenage girl having sex reaps the pleasure of the act, while her parents might end up paying much of the financial and emotional price of a pregnancy. So parents discourage sex, girls get mixed messages, most don’t have the intellectual capacity or inclination to sort truth from lie, and end up in the bizarrely bifurcated universe that provides fodder for jokes—in the United States, anyway, since “Canadians, especially French-Canadians, have a much healthier attitude towards sex than Americans,” an observation made in the context of a visit to a strip club in French-Canada.

The trick is discovering the lies. But even after discovery, most people appear to continue propagating them anyway, to their children, and want those lies propagated to their children. A surprisingly large number of potheads I knew in college became teachers, yet none to my knowledge would admit as much in a classroom. One friend teaches photography to high school students and, at the beginning of class, tells her students not to shoot nudes of people under 18, since that’s technically illegal, regardless of the central place of the nude in Western art. To her credit, she also adds this caveat: “And if you do anyway, don’t tell me.” It’s a subtle but effective dig at the powers-that-be.

The people who follow the straight path are often cursed by getting what they think they want, like law school and becoming a lawyer. Many who win such dubious victories come to rue them, like Max’s friend Hate, who “kept doing the ‘right’ thing, checking off all the boxes. . . and he kept getting fucked. All the while, the guy doing the wrong thing (me, for example) kept getting what he wanted. Sisyphus led a less futile existence than Hate: at least Sisyphus got in a workout” (notice, too, here the characteristic and characteristically hilarious allusion, recast into the modern language of the gym). Here, “right” and “wrong” are inverted: the real world is big and confusing, and one needs a strong bullshit to detector to make sense of it. If you don’t pay attention, these moments will slip by, like some of Max’s jokes: in one story, a groups of girls came over, and “one of them told me that she was afraid to try anal sex because of my first book. I told her I didn’t give a shit about her problems” (emphasis added).

Other moments involve the perfect allusion, as when a dominatrix plies her trade on Max at a party: “She was beating me with the type of anger usually reserved for people who owe money to Tony Soprano.” Or the apt analogy: “Whatever, we’re both naked and horny, and I’ve fucked way worse. No turning back now. When you try to jump a lake of fire you don’t take your foot off the gas once you’ve hit the ramp.” When you’re having sex with someone you compare to a lake of fire, you may want to reconsider your partner or quarry: but that’s also the sober, distant, far from the act person talking, not the person in the moment (the writer says, thinking back to his own dubious moments). Consider this, of Max’s friend Jerry: “He was not fucking her; he was jackhammering her so hard and fast, he was moving like one of those things that mixes paint at Home Depot.” I haven’t read so many creative sexual descriptions outside of Nicholson Baker. Or inside of Nicholson Baker, as the case may be. These metaphors create their own worlds, in James Wood’s sense in “The All and the If: God and Metaphor in Melville.”

The reaction to Max fascinates almost as much as Max’s writing itself: critics call his writing odious and worse (an example, from Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic: “He published his exploits in an unbelievably nasty little book called I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell. . . .” As someone who’s dated around enough to find the occasional nutcase, I find many of his stories too believable). Yet those critics don’t often go beyond name-calling and into close reading, and calling someone’s work “unbelievably nasty” makes it more intriguing, not less, especially because Literary history serves up innumerable examples of writers who thumb the day’s decorum and later come to be revered; obvious examples include Dreiser, for Sister Carrie, which now reads so tepidly and tediously that it’s tough to get through, or D.H. Lawrence for Lady Chatterley’s Lover, given its references to anal and class miscegenation, or James Joyce’s voyeurism and masturbation.

Now, just because past writers have defied conventional norms and later received literary recognition for that doesn’t mean the two have a causal relationship, or that anyone who defies norms will thereby gain later literary recognition. But I think the quality of Max’s writing sets him apart from other people writing about sex adventures online or off, and that’s what draws me. The style affects the content, and it’s that style that makes him broadly popular, and very much unlike his literary predecessors.

But Max doesn’t wrap himself in high-brow literary paraphernalia or pretensions. He does the opposite, and that’s what I think his critics hate, along with his honesty. Drape yourself in highbrow literary accouterments and you can write what you want; do the opposite and take tepid critical punishment, which is no doubt salved by fan adoration (given a choice between groupies and a sedate, smug, and positive New Yorker Review of Books essay, which would you choose? Me too).

I think aspect of critics’ dislike of Max’s honesty comes from a particular source: there’s still a large contingent of people who want to view women as non-carnal and basically preyed on and manipulated by men (see one example, which I wrote about, in “The Weekly Standard on the New-Old Dating Game, Hooking Up, Daughter-Guarding, and much, much more“). This kind of makes sense if you’re a parent trying to lie to yourself or protect your daughter or son—or at least make them compliant. Or religious and trying to do much the same, but it doesn’t make much sense if you’ve dated a fair number of women, or are female and honest, or pay more attention to behavior than to words.

The distaste for Max’s sexual politics is hard to square with Max’s legion of willing groupies, or even with his descriptions of his pre-fame hookups: it takes two or more people for sex, and the women say yes, even if many of them choose to douse themselves in alcohol first. The refutation of the belief that women are non-carnal victims is in the behavior of the women Max describes, not Max himself. Being angry at Max is shooting the messenger: if hot women regularly put out for gallant, polite men, I think his bad boy personality would morph quickly. Women’s revealed preferences, as shown by their love of Max (or your local bad boy), might be what bothers his critics.

If women themselves were collectively more honest, they’d simply say they go out and get hammered so they can hook up with guys. Instead, they often lie to themselves and others and say they’re just going out to “have a good time” or “hang out with their friends,” or any number of other rationalizations. That word, “honest,” appears with surprising frequency, especially as it relates to gender: In Mexico, “Girls wanted to fuck, and here, as opposed to America, they were honest about it.” Why aren’t girls honest in the first place? Because their parents don’t want them to be.

There are also moments where Max wonders: “I never understand why women think drama and bullshit are attractive to guys. They’re not. I’m going to be real clear about this, ladies, so pay attention: Prince Charming doesn’t come to rescue cunty lunatics.” Here’s my guess: women don’t consciously think “drama and bullshit are attractive to guys,” but they like the attention drama and bullshit generate, especially among guys too committed, weak, or stupid to avoid or ignore it. Women engaged in vapid drama might say they want “Prince Charming” but be willing to compromise through the ministrations of whoever responds to their keening. Granted, lacking self-awareness is also a human trait more than a female one: on the side of straight men, I think about all the so-called “nice guys” who are “nice” not because they’re genuinely caring but because they think they can’t get laid acting otherwise anyway. Women often crave attention: look at the ones who go to bars to stroke desire and then ignore the desire they’ve stroked. I can’t remember where I read it, but someone said that men go to bars to get laid, while women go to get attention and maybe get laid. That fits the behavioral patterns I’ve seen.

One of my students mentioned Tucker Max in the context of literary valuation in class a couple days ago, and he seemed to want to know if Max “counted” as a good writer, or something like that (students are weirdly attuned to perceived authority: many have wanted to know about Paul Graham’s background, for example, which is the kind of thing that interests me not at all—I only want to evaluate people based solely on their writing, not about aspects of their life tangential to their writing or the accuracy of their arguments).

It seems like students themselves are wary, at least in official discourse, of trying to decide for themselves who’s a “good” writer and who isn’t. They associate “goodness” with “approved” behavior. They probably have some sense of the critical edifice above them, canonizing some writers and ignoring others. I wish I could convince them to develop their own ideas of what counts, and how it does. That’s part of stepping out of the artificial school fishbowl and into the greater literary world, where the people who win big are the ones who reconceptualize what’s possible. Max did: he mentions the thousands of rejections he got from literary agents, publishers, magazines, and others when he started out. But he also had the good fortune to see his style evolve with the Internet.

The occasional dark threads appear too, as with mentions of depression, or a moment on a boat off the Alaskan coast:

At 7pm, the dark, empty deck of a crab boat is a strange place. It’s pitch black and there’s no land, no life, nothing whatsoever. It’s complete, barren, unforgiving void. It’s just plain disturbing. The water frothing beneath the sides of the boat is literally black. Dying that way—by falling in and freezing—must be horrific.

You can understand Moby-Dick by looking at the sea; Max is encountering an existential void. If he didn’t appear to be enjoying himself so much and if I were a dumber kind of critic, I’d say something about this standing for the heart of his soul.

This is the part where a lot of reviews and essays say something bad. I don’t have much. There are occasional oddities in language: “Yes, Duke is a top ten law school, but the only thing difficult occurred well before I ever set foot on campus; getting admitted.” Why “thing difficult” instead of “difficult thing?” Usually the adjective goes before the noun. I can’t think of any stylistic or content reason for the word order reversal, or why he used a semi-colon instead of a colon. I should probably also say something about how he interacts with women, but why bother? A friend’s Dad gave her this advice when she was 12 and periodically thereafter: men will treat you as badly as you let them. And is it “bad” to give someone what they want (again: think of revealed preferences)? In America, the answer tends towards “no.” Max gives readers what they want—humor, respite, philosophy—and, whatever his critics may protest, many women what they want. Everyone is happy, save those who don’t want to confront the reality on the ground of life.

Why we need the third way: “What Are You Going to Do With That” and the need for imagination

In “What Are You Going to Do With That?,” William Deresiewicz tells the freshmen class at Stanford:

In the journey toward the success that you all hope to achieve, you have completed, by getting into Stanford, only the first of many legs. Three more years of college, three or four or five years of law school or medical school or a Ph.D. program, then residencies or postdocs or years as a junior associate. In short, an ever-narrowing funnel of specialization. You go from being a political-science major to being a lawyer to being a corporate attorney to being a corporate attorney focusing on taxation issues in the consumer-products industry. You go from being a biochemistry major to being a doctor to being a cardiologist to being a cardiac surgeon who performs heart-valve replacements.

But he goes on to point out why and how these kinds of defined professional paths—the ones high school and college students students are so often told constitute “success”—might not be optimal, for either the person on the path or society in general. If you “simply go with the flow,” you can end up merely being defined by what someone else has laid out. Perhaps not surprisingly, Deresiewicz goes on to say, “There is an alternative.” He calls it “moral imagination” and defines it this way: “Moral imagination means the capacity to envision new ways to live your life.” I would call it something else: the “third way.”

Deresiewicz’s essay shows why we need more talk about the third way: there are more options out there than further advanced schooling. Stanford in particular is a good place to be reminded of this. Obviously, Deresiewicz doesn’t say you must choose grad school or the professions, but the absence of any acknowledgement about starting your own company implies that those are the two primary choices.

I’ve had similar talk. In my interview with him, Tucker Max describes the primary speech he gives at colleges:

[. . . W]hen you’re an undergrad, generally you think you can do two things. You’re gonna have to get a job after you graduate or you gotta go do more school. Because everyone who’s giving you advice or telling you how to live your life are people who’ve done one of those two things.

He describes a “third way,” with his two normal paths defined a lot like Deresiewicz’s, but in a lower register:

You don’t generally have anyone in your life who has gone out on their own and done something entrepreneurial or done something artistic or truly risky or truly taken the path less traveled, because those people [. . .] don’t work in academics. And don’t become cubicle monkeys. So what I try and explain in my speeches is that there’s a third way. Because a lot of people—I think most people—want to do something besides those two things.

A lot of people want to do something else, but that something else is, in some ways, harder to do than the normal path. Yet the people who go the third way often talk about it as being more satisfying, and the people who go the “two paths” often speak wistfully of the third—despite the difficulty one is likely to encounter. A friend wrote this to me: “I know for a fact that I’d hate [Tucker] Max’s writing, but he’s dead right about how few students are aware that they can do something artistic or creative or entrepreneurial.” Too few students are aware of this—and too few people in general are. You can consider this post a very small step in the direction of increasing awareness.

So far I’ve noted two examples. Paul Graham talks about the problem of standard paths too, in “A Student’s Guide to Startups:” “Till recently graduating seniors had two choices: get a job or go to grad school. I think there will increasingly be a third option: to start your own startup.” His answer is more defined than Deresiewicz’s or Max’s, but the very language he uses is similar. But he’s also got a way of generating the “third way” by funding startups. Instead of merely telling people to find one, he’s creating a third way for people to flow, which might be the most valuable contribution of all, at least for the technically inclined.

I think all three of these disparate writers—Deresiewicz, Max, and Graham—are pointing to a more fundamental need for the imagination necessary to exit the obvious paths that so often end up going nowhere. Of the three, Graham has done the most to institutionalize this process and make it available for others by starting Y Combinator. Max has probably done the most to be a living embodiment of an unusual third way. Deresiewicz is pointing to the possibility from within the way of a well-defined path (and the same one I’m one) from undergrad to graduate school to being a professor. Taken together, they diagnose and offer treatment for the same malady that can’t quite be identified yet comes from so many sources and has so many symptoms: Dilbert, cubicles, malaise, ennui, florescent lights, midlife crises, 20-somethings with advanced degrees working as baristas, waiters, or bartenders, essay writers.

Artistic or creative activities don’t usually come prepackaged in convenient jobs that get handed to college graduates. They get created by people who are artistic and creative, who find a way to turn what they want to do, or their inchoate ideas, into something greater than the idea itself. The “inchoate idea” is important: I suspect most people don’t entirely know what they’re doing when they find a third way. Steven Berlin Johnson has a term for this in his book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation: the slow hunch. This happens when something that you’ve been gnawing on slowly develops over time. Johnson describes it much more fully, of course, but a lot of my ideas in writing novels or academic work comes from slow hunches. Writing fiction isn’t an activity that really comes packaged in convenient job form: it is made by each practitioner individually. People who succeed as writers sometimes do so not through conventional publishing, but through alternate ways—as Max did with his website, or as J.A. Konrath apparently does with his blog, “A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing.”

Like Deresiewicz and Max, I don’t really have a solution to the problem other than to encourage you to think imaginatively. But who’s against thinking imaginatively? Partners are probably telling their third-year associates the same thing, even as the associates put in soul-killing seventy hours weeks under those menacing florescent lights. The other part of my solution is to be aware of the problem. I’ll also channel Graham in “What You’ll Wish You’d Known” and encourage you to stay upwind:

In the graduation-speech approach, you decide where you want to be in twenty years, and then ask: what should I do now to get there? I propose instead that you don’t commit to anything in the future, but just look at the options available now, and choose those that will give you the most promising range of options afterward.

It’s not so important what you work on, so long as you’re not wasting your time. Work on things that interest you and increase your options, and worry later about which you’ll take.

Suppose you’re a college freshman deciding whether to major in math or economics. Well, math will give you more options: you can go into almost any field from math. If you major in math it will be easy to get into grad school in economics, but if you major in economics it will be hard to get into grad school in math.

Flying a glider is a good metaphor here. Because a glider doesn’t have an engine, you can’t fly into the wind without losing a lot of altitude. If you let yourself get far downwind of good places to land, your options narrow uncomfortably. As a rule you want to stay upwind.

“Work on things that interest you and increase your options:” the target of Graham’s essay is nominally high school students, but it’s applicable to a much broader swath of people. Maybe you’re one. If so, however, you’ll probably read this and then go back to filling out those TPS reports. Or maybe you’ll be one of the very rare people who realize there is no speed limit and react appropriately. At least you can’t say that no one told you. At least three people have: Deresiewicz, Max, and Graham. Four if you count me, writing a meta essay.

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