The following article is one of my favorites pieces. I read this article about twice a year, I thank much of my success for it. Written by David Wong.
2019, motherfuckers. Yeah! LET’S DO THIS.
“Do what?” you ask. I DON’T KNOW. LET’S FIGURE THAT OUT TOGETHER, MOTHERFUCKERS.
Feel free to stop reading this if your career is going great, you’re thrilled with your life, and you’re happy with your relationships. Enjoy the rest of your day, friend, this article is not for you. You’re doing a great job, we’re all proud of you. So you don’t feel like you wasted your click, here’s a picture of Lenny Kravitz wearing a gigantic scarf.
For the rest of you, I want you to try something: Name five impressive things about yourself. Write them down or just shout them out loud to the room. But here’s the catch — you’re not allowed to list anything you are (i.e., I’m a nice guy, I’m honest), but instead can only list things that you do (i.e., I just won a national chess tournament, I make the best chili in Massachusetts). If you found that difficult, well, this is for you, and you are going to fucking hate hearing it. My only defense is that this is what I wish somebody had said to me around 1995 or so.
Note: This was originally posted in December of 2012, and to date it has drawn more than 25 million page views. So, uh, it struck a nerve.
6. The World Only Cares About What It Can Get from You
Let’s say that the person you love the most has just been shot. He or she is lying in the street, bleeding and screaming. A guy rushes up and says, “Step aside.” He looks over your loved one’s bullet wound and pulls out a pocket knife — he’s going to operate right there in the street.C
You ask, “Are you a doctor?”
The guy says, “No.”
You say, “But you know what you’re doing, right? You’re an old Army medic, or …”
At this point the guy becomes annoyed. He tells you that he is a nice guy, he is honest, he is always on time. He tells you that he is a great son to his mother and has a rich life full of fulfilling hobbies, and he boasts that he never uses foul language.
Confused, you say, “How does any of that fucking matter when my wife/husband/best friend/parent is lying here bleeding! I need somebody who knows how to operate on bullet wounds! Can you do that or not?!?”
Now the man becomes agitated — why are you being shallow and selfish? Do you not care about any of his other good qualities? Didn’t you just hear him say that he always remembers his girlfriend’s birthday? In light of all of the good things he does, does it really matter if he knows how to perform surgery?
In that panicked moment, you will take your bloody hands and shake him by the shoulders, screaming, “Yes, I’m saying that none of that other shit matters, because in this specific situation, I just need somebody who can stop the bleeding, you crazy fucking asshole.”
So here is my terrible truth about the adult world: You are in that very situation every single day. Only you are the confused guy with the pocket knife. All of society is the bleeding gunshot victim.
If you want to know why society seems to shun you, or why you seem to get no respect, it’s because society is full of people who need things. They need houses built, they need food to eat, they need entertainment, they need fulfilling sexual relationships. You arrived at the scene of that emergency, holding your pocket knife, by virtue of your birth — the moment you came into the world, you became part of a system designed purely to see to people’s needs.
Either you will go about the task of seeing to those needs by learning a unique set of skills, or the world will reject you, no matter how inoffensive and courteous you are. You will be poor, you will be alone, you will be left out in the cold. Does that seem mean, or crass, or materialistic? What about love and kindness — don’t those things matter? Of course. As long as they result in you doing things for people that they can’t get elsewhere. For you see …
5. The Hippies Were Wrong
Here is the greatest scene in the history of movies (WARNING: EXTREME NSFW LANGUAGE):
For those of you who can’t watch videos, it’s the famous speech Alec Baldwin gives in the cinematic masterpiece Glengarry Glenn Ross. Baldwin’s character — whom you assume is the villain — addresses a room full of dudes and tears them a new asshole, telling them that they’re all about to be fired unless they “close” the sales they’ve been assigned:
“Nice guy? I don’t give a shit. Good father? Fuck you! Go home and play with your kids. If you want to work here, close.”
It’s brutal, rude, and borderline sociopathic, and also it is an honest and accurate expression of what the world is going to expect from you. The difference is that, in the real world, people consider it so wrong to talk to you that way that they’ve decided it’s better to simply let you keep failing.
That scene changed my life. I’d program my alarm clock to play it for me every morning if I knew how. Alec Baldwin was nominated for an Oscar for that movie and that’s the only scene he’s in. As smarter people have pointed out, the genius of that speech is that half of the people who watch it think that the point of the scene is “Wow, what must it be like to have such an asshole boss?” and the other half think, “Fuck yes, let’s go out and sell some goddamned real estate!”
“If you were in that room, some of you would understand this as a work, but feed off the energy of the message anyway, welcome the coach’s cursing at you, ‘this guy is awesome!’; while some of you would take it personally, this guy is a jerk, you have no right to talk to me like that, or — the standard maneuver when narcissism is confronted with a greater power — quietly seethe and fantasize about finding information that will out him as a hypocrite. So satisfying.”
That excerpt is from an insightful critique of “hipsters” and why they seem to have so much trouble getting jobs (that doesn’t begin to do it justice, go read the whole thing), and the point is that the difference in those two attitudes — bitter vs. motivated — largely determines whether or not you’ll succeed in the world. For instance, some people want to respond to that speech with Tyler Durden’s line from Fight Club: “You are not your job.”
But, well, actually, you totally are. Granted, your “job” and your means of employment might not be the same thing, but in both cases, you are nothing more than the sum total of your useful skills. For instance, being a good mother is a job that requires a skill. It’s something a person can do that is useful to other members of society. But make no mistake: Your “job” — the useful thing you do for other people — is all you are.
There is a reason why surgeons get more respect than comedy writers. There is a reason mechanics get more respect than unemployed hipsters. There is a reason your job will become your label if your death makes the news (“NFL Linebacker Dies in Murder/Suicide”). Tyler said, “You are not your job,” but he also founded and ran a successful soap company and became the head of an international social and political movement. He was totally his job.
Or think of it this way: Remember when Chick-fil-A came out against gay marriage? And how despite the protests, the company continues to sell millions of sandwiches every day? It’s not because the country agrees with them; it’s because they do their job of making delicious sandwiches well. And that’s all that matters. You don’t have to like it. I don’t like it when it rains on my birthday. It rains anyway. Clouds form and precipitation happens. People have needs and thus assign value to the people who meet them. These are simple mechanisms of the universe and they do not respond to our wishes.
If you protest that you’re not a shallow capitalist materialist and that you disagree that money is everything, I can only say: Who said anything about money? You’re missing the larger point.
4. What You Produce Does Not Have to Make Money, But It Does Have to Benefit People
Let’s try a non-money example so you don’t get hung up on that. The demographic that Cracked writes for is heavy on 20-something males. So on our message boards and in my many inboxes I read several dozen stories a year from miserable, lonely guys who insist that women won’t come near them despite the fact that they are just the nicest guys in the world (these days, they’ve adopted the name, “Incels”). I can explain what is wrong with this mindset, but it would probably be better if I let Alec Baldwin explain it:
In this case, Baldwin is playing the part of the attractive women in your life. They won’t put it as bluntly as he does — society has trained us not to be this honest with people — but the equation is the same. “Nice guy? Who gives a shit? If you want to work here, close.”
So, what do you bring to the table? Because the girl in the bookstore that you’ve been daydreaming about moisturizes her face for an hour every night and feels guilty when she eats anything other than salad for lunch. She’s going to be a surgeon in 10 years. What do you do?
“What, so you’re saying that I can’t get girls like that unless I have a nice job and make lots of money?”
No, your brain jumps to that conclusion so you have an excuse to write off everyone who rejects you by assuming they’re just being shallow and selfish. I’m asking what do you offer? Are you smart? Funny? Interesting? Talented? Ambitious? Creative? OK, now what do you do to demonstrate those attributes to the world? Don’t say that you’re a nice guy — that’s the bare minimum. Pretty girls have guys being nice to them 36 times a day. The patient is bleeding in the street. Do you know how to operate or not?
“Well, I’m not sexist or racist or greedy or shallow or abusive! Not like those other douchebags!”
I’m sorry, I know that this is hard to hear, but if all you can do is list a bunch of faults you don’t have, then back the fuck away from the patient. There’s a witty, handsome guy with a promising career ready to step in and operate.
Does that break your heart? OK, so now what? Are you going to mope about it, or are you going to learn how to do surgery? It’s up to you, but don’t complain about how girls fall for jerks; they fall for those jerks because those jerks have other things they can offer. “But I’m a great listener!” Are you? Because you’re willing to sit quietly in exchange for the chance to be in the proximity of a pretty girl (and spend every second imagining how soft her skin must be)? Well, guess what, there’s another guy in her life who also knows how to do that, and he can play the guitar. Saying that you’re a nice guy is like a restaurant whose only selling point is that the food doesn’t make you sick. You’re like a new movie whose title is This Movie Is in English, and its tagline is “The actors are clearly visible.”
I think this is why you can be a “nice guy” and still feel terrible about yourself. Specifically …
3. You Hate Yourself Because You Don’t Do Anything
“So, what, you’re saying that I should pick up a book on how to get girls?”
Only if step one in the book is “Start making yourself into the type of person girls want to be around.”
Because that’s the step that gets skipped — it’s always “How can I get a job?” and not “How can I become the type of person employers want?” It’s “How can I get pretty girls to like me?” instead of “How can I become the type of person that pretty girls like?” See, because that second one could very well require giving up many of your favorite hobbies and paying more attention to your appearance, and God knows what else. You might even have to change your personality.
“But why can’t I find someone who just likes me for me?” you ask. The answer is because humans need things. The victim is bleeding, and all you can do is look down and complain that there aren’t more gunshot wounds that just fix themselves?
Here’s another video (NSFW):
Everyone who watched that video instantly became a little happier, although not all for the same reasons. Can you do that for people? Why not? What’s stopping you from strapping on your proverbial thong and cape and taking to your proverbial stage and flapping your proverbial penis at people? That guy knows the secret to winning at human life: that doing … whatever you call that … was better than not doing it.
“But I’m not good at anything!” Well, I have good news — throw enough hours of repetition at it and you can get sort of good at anything. I was the world’s shittiest writer when I was an infant. I was only slightly better at 25. But while I was failing miserably at my career, I wrote in my spare time for eight straight years, an article a week, before I ever made real money off it. It took 13 years for me to get good enough to make the New York Times best-seller list. It took me probably 20,000 hours of practice to sand the edges off my sucking.
Don’t like the prospect of pouring all of that time into a skill? Well, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that the sheer act of practicing will help you come out of your shell — I got through years of tedious office work because I knew that I was learning a unique skill on the side. People quit because it takes too long to see results, because they can’t figure out that the process is the result.
The bad news is that you have no other choice. If you want to work here, close.
Because in my non-expert opinion, you don’t hate yourself because you have low self-esteem, or because other people were mean to you. You hate yourself because you don’t do anything. Not even you can just “love you for you” — that’s why you’re miserable and sending me private messages asking me what I think you should do with your life. Do the math: How much of your time is spent consuming things other people made (TV, music, video games, websites) versus making your own? Only one of those adds to your value as a human being.
“But the whole system is corrupt and on the verge of collapse, what difference does any of this make?” Friend, if the system falls apart, take everything I’ve said above and multiply it times a thousand. The person without skill and drive will not be given food. The new masters may fly the banner of equality, but you’ll slowly notice that the talented and charismatic are still getting the best stuff. That won’t change in your lifetime, or in the lifetimes of your great-grandchildren.
2. What You Are Inside Only Matters Because of What It Makes You Do
“But it’s what’s on the inside that matters! My mom said so!”
Being in the business I’m in, I know dozens of aspiring writers. They think of themselves as writers, they introduce themselves as writers at parties, they know that deep inside, they have the heart of a writer. The only thing they’re missing is that minor final step, where they actually fucking write things.
But really, does that matter? Is “writing things” all that important when deciding who is and who is not truly a “writer”?
For the love of God, yes.
See, there’s a common defense to everything I’ve said so far, and to every critical voice in your life. It’s the thing your ego is saying to you in order to prevent you from having to do the hard work of improving: “I know I’m a good person on the inside.” It may also be phrased as “I know who I am” or “I just have to be me.”
Don’t get me wrong; who you are inside is everything — the guy who built a house for his family from scratch did it because of who he was inside. Every bad thing you’ve ever done has started with a bad impulse, some thought ricocheting around inside your skull until you had to act on it. And every good thing you’ve done is the same — “who you are inside” is the metaphorical dirt from which your fruit grows. But here’s what everyone needs to know, and what many of you can’t accept:
“You” are nothing but the fruit.
Nobody cares about your dirt. “Who you are inside” is meaningless aside from what it produces for other people.
Inside, you have great compassion for poor people. Great. Does that result in you doing anything about it? Do you hear about some terrible tragedy in your community and say, “Oh, those poor children. Let them know that they are in my thoughts”? Because fuck you if so — find out what they need and help provide it. A hundred million people send thoughts and prayers after every mass shooting. What did the collective power of those good thoughts provide? Jack fucking shit. Children die every day because millions of us tell ourselves that caring is just as good as doing. It’s an internal mechanism controlled by the lazy part of your brain to keep you from actually doing work.
How many of you are walking around right now saying, “She/he would love me if she/he only knew what an interesting person I am!” Really? How do all of your interesting thoughts and ideas manifest themselves in the world? What do they cause you to do? If your dream girl or guy had a hidden camera that followed you around for a month, would they be impressed with what they saw? Remember, they can’t read your mind — they can only observe. Would they want to be a part of that life?
Because all I’m asking you to do is apply the same standard to yourself that you apply to everyone else. Don’t you have that annoying Christian friend whose only offer to help anyone ever is to “pray for them”? Doesn’t it drive you nuts? I’m not even commenting on whether or not prayer works; it doesn’t change the fact that they chose the one type of help that doesn’t require them to get off the sofa. They abstain from every vice, they think clean thoughts, their internal dirt is as pure as can be, but what fruit grows from it? And they should know this better than anybody — I stole the fruit metaphor from the Bible. Jesus said something to the effect of “a tree is judged by its fruit” over and over and over. Granted, Jesus never said, “If you want to work here, close.” No, he said, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
The people didn’t react well to being told that, just as the salesmen didn’t react well to Alec Baldwin telling them that they needed to grow some balls or resign themselves to shining his shoes. Which brings us to the final point …
1. Everything Inside You Will Fight Improvement
The human mind is a miracle, and you will never see it spring more beautifully into action than when it is fighting against evidence that it needs to change. Your psyche is equipped with layer after layer of defense mechanisms designed to shoot down anything that might keep things from staying exactly where they are — ask any addict. So even now, some of you reading this are feeling your brain bombard you with knee-jerk reasons to reject it. From experience, I can say that these seem to come in the form of …
*Intentionally Interpreting Any Criticism as an Insult
“Who is he to call me lazy and worthless! A good person would never talk to me like this! He wrote this whole thing just to feel superior to me and to make me feel bad about my life! I’m going to think up my own insult to even the score!”
*Focusing on the Messenger to Avoid Hearing the Message
“Who is THIS guy to tell ME how to live? Oh, like he’s so high and mighty! It’s just some dumb writer on the Internet! I’m going to go dig up something on him that reassures me that he’s stupid, and that everything he’s saying is stupid! This guy is so pretentious, it makes me puke!”
*Focusing on the Tone to Avoid Hearing the Content
“I’m going to dig through here until I find a joke that is offensive when taken out of context, and then talk and think only about that! I’ve heard that a single offensive word can render an entire book invisible!”
*Revising Your Own History
“Things aren’t so bad! I know that I was threatening suicide last month, but I’m feeling better now! It’s entirely possible that if I just keep doing exactly what I’m doing, eventually things will work out! I’ll get my big break, and if I keep doing favors for that pretty girl, eventually she’ll come around!”
*Pretending That Any Self-Improvement Would Somehow Be Selling Out Your True Self
“Oh, so I guess I’m supposed to get rid of all of my manga and instead go to the gym for six hours a day and get a spray tan? Because THAT IS THE ONLY OTHER OPTION.”
*Delaying any self-improvement until the entire world changes to accommodate you
“If I work hard, I’ll just be perpetuating a corrupt system! Granted, the system has no reason to listen to me as long as I’m not contributing anything, thus ensuring that I’ll never be in a position to help change it, but still!”
And so on. Remember, misery is comfortable. It’s why so many people prefer it. Happiness takes effort. Also, courage — it’s incredibly comforting to know that as long as you don’t create anything in your life, then nobody can attack the thing you created. It’s so much easier to just sit back and criticize other people’s creations. This movie is stupid. That couple’s kids are brats. That other couple’s relationship is a mess. That rich guy is shallow. This restaurant sucks. This Internet writer is an asshole. I’d better leave a mean comment demanding that the website fire him. See, I created something.
Oh, wait, did I forget to mention that part? Yeah, whatever you try to build or create — be it a poem, or a new skill, or a new relationship — you will find yourself immediately surrounded by non-creators who trash it. Maybe not to your face, but they’ll do it. Your drunk friends do not want you to get sober. Your fat friends do not want you to start a fitness regimen. Your jobless friends do not want to see you embark on a career.
Just remember, they’re only expressing their own fear, since trashing other people’s work is another excuse to do nothing. “Why should I create anything when the things other people create suck? I would totally have written a novel by now, but I’m going to wait for something good, I don’t want to write the next Twilight!” As long as they never produce anything, their work will forever be perfect and beyond reproach. Or if they do produce something, they’ll make sure they do it with detached irony. They’ll make it intentionally bad to make it clear to everyone else that this isn’t their real effort. Their real effort would have been amazing. Not like the shit you made.
Don’t be that person. If you are that person, don’t be that person anymore. This is what’s making people hate you. This is what’s making you hate yourself.
So how about this: one year from now, that’s our deadline. While other people are telling you “Let’s make a New Year’s resolution to lose 15 pounds this year!” I’m going to say let’s pledge to do fucking anything — add any skill, any improvement to your human tool set, and get good enough at it to impress people. Don’t ask me what — hell, pick something at random if you don’t know. Take a class in karate, or ballroom dancing, or pottery. Learn to bake. Build a birdhouse. Learn massage. Learn a programming language. Film a porno. Adopt a superhero persona and fight crime. Start a YouTube vlog.
But the key is, I don’t want you to focus on something great that you’re going to make happen to you (“I’m going to find a girlfriend, I’m going to make lots of money …”). I want you to purely focus on giving yourself a skill that would make you ever so slightly more interesting and valuable to other people. “I don’t have the money to take a cooking class.” Then fucking Google “how to cook.” Damn it, you have to kill those excuses. Or they will kill you.
You have nothing to lose, and the world needs you, now more than ever.
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