Tag Archives: language

Career Tips for the Delusional

I pissed some people off when I said this on Twitter yesterday, but I’m sticking by it:

“You are what you get paid to do.”

People disagree because they refuse to be limited or labeled. Notice that I didn’t say you’re just what you get paid to do. And yet, when you identify someone by their profession, they object.

“This is Karl. He’s a busboy.”

Oh. So that’s all Karl is?

No, Karl is probably also a son, a brother, a lover, a friend, a pet owner, a volunteer, a student, an aspiring playwright, and a noteworthy violinist.

It’s just that the only one of those pastimes that actually pays Karl’s bills is “busboy.” Thus, Karl is, for the purposes of declaring his worth to the world, a busboy.

“But what if Karl is the best playwright I’ve ever met?” you ask. “Or what if he’s the best violinist in the city?”

Well, that’s cool too. He can be those things in certain contexts. When he’s sitting in a coffee shop writing a play, sure, he’s an aspiring playwright. When he’s rehearsing the violin in his attic, then he’s a violinist.

But at both of those times, he’s also a busboy. Because that’s what it says on his taxes.

The day he gets paid to play the violin, he can say he’s a violinist.

The day he gets paid for the licensing of one of his plays, he can say he’s a playwright.

And the day he gets paid more — and more regularly — to write plays or play the violin than he does to bus tables, by all means, he should say he’s a violinist or a playwright.

Because that’s what it’ll say on his taxes.

I think the problem people have with labels is that they want to be known for their skills and passions, rather than for their ability to earn a living. Getting paid is so transactional, and there are so many more cash jobs than sex jobs, that we yearn to be recognized for our other, rarer, “better” skills.

But there’s a difference between being a writer — a person who suffers for weeks and months on end (or not) to produce a written work that others will pay her for — and, say, being the intern who adds titles and tags to her agency client’s YouTube videos. One of those people is a writer; the other is an SEO apprentice. Both of those people may be ashamed of their jobs (as writers often love to hate themselves), but only one of them is being honest about it.

We might be better off if people were willing to identify themselves as “aspiring” writers, or directors “in training,” or some other qualifier that denotes a person’s pursuit of a passion in which they have not yet achieved a status of transactional relevance. But the Internet is immediate, and we all want to succeed today. Why denigrate your aspirations by declaring them as works in progress when you can call yourself a success before you’ve even begun?

The truth is, if you’re so frustrated by your day job that you prefer to self-identify as something other than what you get paid to do, you should either change careers — preferably into the field you keep telling people you’re already working in — or pursue what you love to the extent that you actually achieve a level of skill that convinces others to pay you for it. Otherwise, you’re fighting a battle of diminishing returns in both directions.

But don’t take my word for it. I’m not a real sociologist; I just play one on the Internet.

My Self-Imposed Cultural Curriculum

A few weeks ago, I decided to go back to school, kind of. Tired of the “straight white male” POV that dominates American pop culture (even though I am one), I wanted to actively seek out books and films authored by voices that don’t fit that mold.

And I asked for your suggestions, because I wanted to know what you thought I should know.

Since then, via blog comments, email, Facebook, and Twitter, I’ve received 21 recommendations for authors and 6 for filmmakers.* Based on those suggestions (plus my own thoughts), I’ve compiled a curriculum for myself to follow between July 1st and November 30th.

Books to Read

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (American female)
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami (Japanese male)
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (African-American female)
The Namesake by Jhumpa Laihri (Indian female)
The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk (Turkish male)

Films to See

? by Akira Kurosawa (Japanese male)
Tiny Furniture by Lena Dunham (American female)
Pariah by Dee Rees (African-American female)
? by Abbas Kiarostami (Iranian male)

My Criteria

Author or director cannot be a white American male
Works should be freely available (presumably at the library)
Works should be self-contained (not anthologies or other formats)
Selected works should be equally representative of female and male creators
No two selections from the same nation of origin in either medium


My film selections will be somewhat reliant on what’s available at my local library, which is why I didn’t choose a specific Kurosawa or Kiarostami film up front. I also left a blank spot in the film lineup — presumably to be filled by something from Bollywood — but if a completely arbitrary title catches my eye, I’d like to have that freedom.

Also, I didn’t consider who’d suggested what in my final selection process, so there are no politics or favorites being played here. I did shy away from nonfiction this time around, but I might try all nonfiction if I do this again in the future.

So, Now What?

Now I have to go to the library sometime in the next week and track down a copy of The Left Hand of Darkness (which was the only book suggested to me twice, by the way) and whatever they have in the way of Kurosawa. I may not read and watch these works in the order I’ve listed them, but I figure I’ll start there and adapt as I go.

And then, in December, I’ll write up my thoughts on each of these works individually, and on what I learned from this process as a whole.

If you’d like to join me on this cultural odyssey, feel free. Maybe we could even do a group discussion in the end.

But please: in the meantime, no spoilers.

* I was surprised I only received 6 suggestions for filmmakers who weren’t white men. Then I realized most people probably can’t name more than 6 white male directors anyway. Compared to books, film has a long way to go to reach anything resembling a balanced artistic representation.

I’m Going Back to School… Kind Of


When I was in art school, I really enjoyed my experience — mostly because I like to learn, but also because I excel when I know what the rules are and what’s required to obtain the “A.”

In the years since I graduated, I’ve done what most of us do when we reach “the real world” — I stopped learning in any structured way. Yes, I still read, watch, and learn about the topics I’m most interested in — or the topics my friends or girlfriends are passionate about — but most of that is accidental or incidental; it’s not intentional, because I didn’t have a structured goal.

But now I do.

Lately, I’ve been wrestling with the lack of diversity in mass media. Most of the stories we experience here in America are stories about white men, created by white men, for presumed audiences of white men. And hey, I’m a white man, so I appreciate all the attention… but I’m also a bit burned out on the endless retread of the “straight white male as epic hero” storyline.

I’m sure there are plenty of college courses I could take on this subject… but I can’t really fit a time-specific course into my schedule right now.

So instead, I’m giving myself a challenge, and I’m structuring it like a curriculum because I think that’s what I’ll be able to stick to.

Here’s what I want to do:

From July 1 through November 30 of this year, I want to:

  • read at least 5 books that were NOT written by a straight white male
  • watch at least 5 films that were NOT directed by a straight white male

And then, in December, I want to summarize my initial reactions to these stories — and this experience — in an essay, which I’ll post here on my blog.*

The catch?

I want you to help suggest the books and movies.

Please list your suggestions in the comments below, and why you’d suggest them. (It doesn’t have to be any profound reason; maybe it just happens to be your favorite book or movie.)

Then, based on your suggestions, my instincts, and a little of my own research, I’ll announce my self-imposed curriculum in July. (Apologies in advance, since I doubt I can include everything that’ll be suggested, but I’ll try to select things without any conscious bias. Also, I can only read in English, so please don’t suggest any books that aren’t available in an English translation.)

And hey: if there’s something you think you’d enjoy learning about in a similarly structured self-imposed curriculum, be my guest. Let me know and I’ll try to lend my own suggestions.

Let’s all get smarter together, shall we?

* NOTE: It’s not like I don’t already try to read and watch media created by a diverse group of artists, so I don’t want this to come across like some newfound burst of cultural tourism. What I’m actually interested in are the similarities and differences between the “traditional” straight white male stories that populate most of our mass media and the stories told by people who don’t fit that type. Maybe I’ll learn that the differences are surprisingly negligible, or maybe I’ll learn that different creators rely on different patterns just like the traditionalist media I’m questioning. Who knows? But the sooner I start consciously exploring, the sooner I’ll start to learn… whatever it is I’m about to learn.

Flickr photo by rwdownes.

The Commencement Speech I Wish Someone Had Given at My Graduation

I don’t remember a word from my graduation. I don’t even remember who spoke at it, much less what they said. That’s partly because I was exhausted (our art school staged our portfolio review and our graduation on the same day), but also because people rarely say anything memorable during a commencement speech. It’s just a day of platitudes and stock emotions, a ceremony, a rite of passage… a blur, really, that happens more or less the same way in every school in every city, every year.

So, apologies to whomever spoke at my graduation. Maybe you did say some of the things I’m about to say here, and I just wasn’t paying attention because I was sleep-deprived and starving. I could go back and watch the tape, but like most things in life, I don’t have time to relive them.

And to all my friends graduating this year — and to everyone who’s still negotiating the curriculum of life — here’s what I wish I had known when I was 22 and staring at the blank page of my own impending future.

Who you are now is who you’ll always be.

You may think that age and experience change people. Sometimes they do. But, broadly speaking, who you are at the age of 23 is who you’ll be at 73.

Yes, experience and circumstance will provide you with opportunities to change your attitude, but by and large, your attitude has already been shaped by the first two decades of your life. And if you could travel back in time to meet your next boss when he was 23, you’d see all the same personality traits and tendencies on display then that you do now.

So don’t expect people to change. They’ll do it if they want to, not because you want them to.

The only meaning your life has is the meaning you give it.

My apologies to all the straight-A students in the room, but this is where the easy part ends.

Now that you’ve graduated, no one can ever again tell you what you need to do to succeed. There is no syllabus for reality. It’s up to you to decide where you want to go next, and why. It’s up to you to decide if your life is worth living.

This can be hard to understand, especially for straight-A students who’ve always excelled because they followed the directions and aced all the tests. In life, everything is a test, and the only person who can tell you whether or not you’re passing or failing is you.

Don’t get lost counting things that don’t matter.

Materialism and tradition are false benchmarks we use to tell if we’re succeeding, because we’re desperate for ways to measure our progress. Are you married yet? How nice is your car?

It doesn’t matter.

What matters is how you feel about yourself.

Eventually, you will die. We don’t know if there is an afterlife, but we do know that there is this life. And when you take the time to reflect on who you’ve been, what you’ll remember are not the things you had, but how your choices made you feel.

Be comfortable alone, but don’t be a loner.

Being alone gives you time to reflect, consider, plan, and appreciate.

Being with others gives you memories, experiences, and purpose.

Do both.

You can’t break anything.

Let’s be blunt: unless you kill or rape someone and get jailed for the rest of your life, there is literally nothing you could possibly do that can’t be fixed, atoned for, and improved upon throughout the rest of your life.

Go bankrupt? You’ll be more responsible next time. Get divorced? You can find someone new.

Whatever seems like it’s the end of the world isn’t, so get busy having experiences. Eventually, you’ll figure out which ones provide you with a better return on your investment of time, resources, effort, and emotion, but the only way you’ll figure that out is by comparing and contrasting the ones that do with the ones that don’t.

The less you need, the more exciting your life will be.

Things trap us and hold us in place. The more you can’t live without, the more difficult it is to take action. Possessions and titles hold us back. In the end, you’ll want a life filled with experiences, not things.

Find your passion and your purpose.

Not to get too primal on you, but here’s the basic thing about life: when you’re fighting for your survival, you only have two choices — live, or die. If you’ve just graduated, you understand this dichotomy as “pass, or fail.” And now your next goal is to find a job that pays you enough money to keep you alive.

Everything after that is a bonus.

But once you amass enough resources that you no longer have to worry about imminent extinction, you’ll have the freedom to decide what else you want to do. This can be a double-edged sword.

For some people, it can lead to a life of exploration and discovery. But for others, a lack of a clear goal can lead to materialism, or dogma, or other institutionalized ways of measuring our alleged success. Or it can lead to a life of ennui and boredom, in which we no longer understand what our purpose is because we’ve seemingly attained what we need and we can’t figure out what else we should be doing with all this leftover time, money, and influence.

In those cases, look at what excites you, and what makes you angry.

What you’re excited about is what you want to learn more about, because the exploration of that passion makes you happy.

What you’re angry about is probably some kind of injustice — child abuse, animal abuse, disease, oppression, or any other violation of the social contract. It infuriates you because it offends your karmic sense of equilibrium in the world.

If you’re excited about something, explore it.

If you’re angry about something, fix it.

If you have a passion that makes you happy and a purpose that drives you to action, you’ll never be bored, and you’ll always be able to make choices in life because you’ll have twin compasses of pleasure and purpose to measure those choices against.


Never worry about whether or not you made the right choice.

Instead, ask yourself two things:

  • Did I make things better?
  • What did I learn that I didn’t know before I made this choice?

The degree to which any choice was the “right” choice is irrelevant, because right and wrong are subjective in all cases. You really just want to make sure you’re not making life worse for yourself or other people; everything else is just various shades of learning.

Love is what happens when someone else makes you want to be better.

We have a mythical concept of love as an external miracle that happens between two people, and which must be protected and sustained lest it be lost.

That’s bullshit.

The truth is, love is a chemical reaction that happens in your brain when you meet someone else who amazes and delights you and makes you want to be as good as you believe they are. The pleasure is love; the fear of losing them — of losing that feeling — is what fuels us to make the other person happy, so they keep exuding that same sense of wonder, which makes us happy in exchange.

This is known as “the honeymoon phase,” and it always ends, because any new stimuli eventually ceases to spark the same neurological responses it first did. At that point, the question is: does how we feel about each other daily, in the functional sense, feel better than what it would feel like to experience the honeymoon phase with someone else?

Sometimes the answer is yes; sometimes no. That answer is never right or wrong. And eventually, you’ll reach the end of the honeymoon phase with someone and realize that you’ve found someone you’d rather not be without.

Relationships aren’t about “which one of you is winning.”

They’re about succeeding together. And that means all the unsexy terms like support, sacrifice, and compromise. But don’t think of a relationship as “work.” Think of a good, functioning relationship as the engine that allows each of you to accomplish together the things in your lives that you could not do if you were attempting them apart.

Equally, a relationship is about this:

People are who they are, and they don’t change for anyone but themselves.

If you’re waiting for someone to change, you’ll be disappointed. We are who we are. You’ll probably spend too much time in some relationships, hoping the other person will change while simultaneously refusing to change yourself. That doesn’t make either of you wrong, necessarily; it just means you’re being unrealistic.

Conversely, if you love someone despite their flaws — which really means, if the frustration you feel because the other person isn’t your idea of “perfect” doesn’t overshadow the buzz you get from all the ways they make you feel amazing about life itself — then you’ve found someone who can help you become the person you want to be.

And, by helping each other become our own idealized versions of ourselves, we fuel one another’s passions and purposes in ways that you can’t even conceive of during the honeymoon phase.

Don’t try to be perfect; just do your best.

Your idealized self isn’t perfect, really. It isn’t gorgeous, it isn’t flawless, it isn’t infallible.

Your idealized self is kind, and honest, and doing the best s/he can, every day.

Your idealized self is what you hope to become in the time you have. And you never know how much time you have. So do the best you can, every day. And when you fuck up, fix it. And when you hurt someone, apologize. And when you need help, ask for it. And when you love someone, let them know.

Tomorrow is not guaranteed. No one is perfect. Make the best of it. And when in doubt, find the humor in the situation. Because humor — the appreciation that something is amiss — allows us to believe that there’s still time for things to get better.

Don’t act your age; just live your character.

You are not your age. You are not your skin. You are not your job. You are not your shortcomings.

You are not your skills. You are not your successes. You are not your failures. You are not your reputation.

You are not your family, your home, or your name.

You are simply what you think and what you do. And everything you do and think either changes or reinforces who you are at any given moment.

Your character is defined by your actions and your reactions. Take actions, so you don’t have to spend your entire life reacting. You are your choices.

Sitting here and reading this blog post was your choice. Writing it was mine. What we do with it now is up to each of us.

Just like life.

Congratulations, class of whichever year you’re reading this in.

Now go do something incredible.

Why Are We Afraid to Be Inspired?

I am most proud of my integrity and least proud of my cynicism.
— Chloe Sevigny

I’m normally a cynical person, but get a cynic drunk and he’ll admit that he’s really a romantic who’s just trying to avoid getting hurt.

A cynic wants to believe in the good things he hears, but he’s been disappointed enough in life that he feels as though getting excited about something new would be an illogical risk. He’d rather be seen as the guy who can’t be blamed for not caring than the guy who never learned from his mistakes.

Cynicism is an intellectual solution to an emotional problem.  It doesn’t add up.  But it does let us think we understand more about the world than those poor optimistic idiots who don’t know they’re going to get let down yet again.  It’s just as much a self-delusion as optimism is, but it feels worse because your sanctimony doesn’t even allow for the luxury of hope.

The Year of the Cynic

Maybe it’s just me, but we seem to be more cynical than ever.

Maybe it’s our sour economy. Maybe it’s the petty, tribal, clannish behavior we see popularized during an American election year. Maybe it’s the polarizing social issues we debate now instead of our economy — a practice that requires no intellectual rigor from participants, but instead rewards passionate opinions.

Whatever the cause(s), the effect of subjectivity’s modern triumph has been threefold:

We now live in a world where everyone can form not only his own opinion or worldview, but his own reality, thus rendering logical discussions functionally impossible. Arguments are made based on specious facts, facts are declared irrelevant, and otherwise sound theories are rejected based upon the reputation of the theorist.

In short: nothing matters, so why bother?

And while I truly think American politics has a lot to do with this trend, it’s not just an American problem.  Cynicism is contagious in a way that optimism isn’t, because optimism requires an innocence that adults reject in favor of the street cred that comes with doubt. But whether Americans are fueling the cynicism or just reacting to it, it’s spreading, and not in a good way.

A Political Aside You Should Read Even if You’re Not American

This could be the most Orwellian political year I’ve ever seen, in which at least one of the presidential candidates admits that facts are of no use to his campaign. And given that the US presidential election is always a 50/50 shot for the two finalists, American voters find themselves in the unthinkable position of trying to figure out which worst case scenario they fear less: re-electing the socialist fascist communist, or dethroning him in favor of the identity-less plutocrat.

No wonder we’re cynical.

And while I personally prefer to be inspired by Obama than be admonished by the GOP, I’m more troubled by the correlation that being inspired is to be naive — as though, by preferring to focus on the bright side of a flawed opportunity instead of dwelling on the flaws of the man behind that shiny curtain, I’m a weak-minded idiot who needs to be “assisted” toward a more mature mindset.

I’m not in the market for parochialism. Give me two dueling ideals and I’ll be thrilled to have to choose between competing inspirations, but if you’re selling a product intended to make me feel worse than I already do, don’t be confused when no one wants your free samples.

How Do We Justify the Act of Becoming Inspired Again?

Look, the world kind of sucks right now.

Then again, it always has — if not for you, then for the country (or business, or person) next to you. If we’re not at war (and we always are), then our economy is “in a rebuilding year,” or our social values are being torn apart, or our climate is trying to kill us, or someone else is. And if they aren’t now, they’re planning to do it later. And if they aren’t even doing that, they could.

By that rationale, the mere act of not being terrified every day is, itself, revolutionary.

In the face of so much negativity, choosing to be inspired might seem illogical.  But since logic is no longer in vogue, you’re free to feel any way you’d like to feel.  Given the gamut of possible emotions, why not choose to be inspired?

Here’s how it works (for those of you who’ve forgotten):

  • Envision the possibility that things could get better.
  • Identify at least one symptom of what that improvement would look like.
  • Investigate what it would take to make that change happen.
  • Take efforts to effect that change.
  • Succeed or fail.
  • Figure out what went right (or wrong).
  • Repeat.

Yes, those are a lot of steps, whereas cynicism only has one step:

  • Do nothing.

But if we all sit around waiting for our bosses, our coworkers, our spouses, our parents, our kids, our government, the rich, God, or someone else to solve our problems, we might never have anything to feel better about. (Ever.)

Plus, look on the bright side: if one of those entities is going to swoop in and solve your problems for you, why not solve a few yourself while you’re waiting? That way they can help you with the really big things you haven’t gotten to yet, instead of the small things you keep complaining about every day, like media rhetoric, poor customer service, interdepartmental miscommunication, rebellious teens, unemployment, obesity, racism, sexism, and the absence of quality reality television.

Any one of those problems — and hundreds more — could be solved by not saying, “This won’t work,” and instead saying, “I think this could work. How can you help me make this better?”

And if all of the above are solvable by us working together, rather than against each other, what’s stopping us?

Dig this blog? Subscribe and never miss a post. (Got email? Get my newsletter, too.)