Invincibility. Immortality. Irreplaceability.
These aren’t the special features of a new Tesla, although for a $35K+ price tag, they probably should be.
No, these are the reasons we watch Mad Men or Game of Thrones or Suits or any other TV show that lets us live vicariously through the fuck-you attitude of others. It’s also why we listen to pop stars like Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj, whose lurid and endorphin-fueled escapades provide much-needed color as we commute back and forth to our tiny, underpaid cubicle lives.
And while some critics dismiss these pop culture phenomena as a flaccid nostalgia for our own youth, they’re only half right.
It’s not really our youth we want back; it’s our youthful belief that it’s never too late for each of us to become gods.
Our Undying Teenage Dream
Take the opening bars of Katy Perry’s hit, “Last Friday Night,” which was #1 on iTunes when I first wrote this post back in 2011. (Yes, time flies, but some references are eternal.)
There’s a stranger in my bed / There’s a pounding my head
Glitter all over the room / Pink flamingos in the pool
I smell like a minibar / DJ’s passed out in the yard
Barbie’s on the barbecue / Is this a hickey or a bruise?
Pictures of last night
Ended up online
It’s a blacked-out blur
But I’m pretty sure it ruled
On one hand, sure, it’s an ode to the very kind of reckless, mindless, and dangerous behavior we caution our friends, kids and clients against.
On the other hand, it’s the exact same shit we wish we were doing every weekend.
Not because we actually want to get blackout drunk and risk getting hurt, hungover, or sued, but because we want to be able to live the kind of life where those eventualities wouldn’t matter — where we can take huge risks and live to tell the story, or suffer temporary setbacks but always find a way to win.
(Why else do you think Marvel superhero movies are dominating the global box office?)
Katy Perry is empowerment-as-escapism personified. Nothing about her seems real, yet everything about her seems desirable.
Most importantly, she gives us musical embodiments of the lives we’ve always wanted to live: ones where we can make mistakes that we know are mistakes even as we make them, yet we emerge from them not only unscathed, but recommitted in our efforts to do them up even better next time.
Lucky Strikes Again
Or take Don Draper, the icon at the heart of AMC’s Mad Men.
We watch Mad Men because we want to be Don Draper (or, sometimes, because we want to be Roger Sterling, who’s the kind of guy Don Draper could grow up to be if he never grows up).
I don’t mean that we want to be Don Draper the fraud, or Don Draper the deserter, or Don Draper the self-deluded alcoholic with crippling emotional problems that prevent him from being a functional human being — which is what most of the show’s later seasons focused on, and what makes Draper so interesting as a character even as it makes his story arc less enjoyable to watch compared to the earned rise of Joan Holloway or Peggy Olson.
I mean we want to be the Don Draper who drank, smoked, slept with and fucked over the rest of the world on his way to a tenuous grip on the balls of New York while looking perpetually incredible, respectable, and in control.
Don Draper, as played by Jon Hamm with such panache that he’s become a self-parody, represents all the things a stereotypically red-blooded twenty-something (or fifty-something, or ninety-something) man could want: money, power, control, charisma, ingenuity, leadership, intimidation, animal magnetism, imperviousness to alcohol, an endless array of perfect suits and perfect hair, and the ability to always come out on top no matter who’s gunning for him.
His flaws are necessary to give him a character arc, but they’re entirely superfluous when it comes to the vision of peak Don Draper that we have in our minds. Actors need duality; icons just need to dominate.
And Now, the Sorry Modern Wasteland of the Internet
So many social marketing practitioners and self-styled life coaches feel compelled to brand themselves as rock stars, ninjas, and gurus that pointing it out almost seems redundant. Not experts, mind you, because experts aren’t sexy; but rock stars, ninjas and gurus are. They’re dark and mysterious. They have secrets. They matter.
They’re also the kinds of icons we aspire to be without having earned the right to call ourselves rock stars, ninjas, and gurus. That is, when I think of a rock star, I want to picture Mick Jagger or Lady Gaga, not a multi-level marketing schemer with an optimized landing page that drives me to view a goddamn webinar.
That we feel so compelled to convince others to see us like icons proves just how desperately most of us want to be icons, even though we lack the courage, hubris, and excellence that our icons possess.
So we invent icons to see what our lives would be like if we bothered living them.
It’s sad. But we can fix that.
How You Can Be More Like Katy Perry, Don Draper, or Actual Ninjas
Granted, this advice is not a guarantee. I am not a certified ninja trainer.
But if you really want to live the kind of life that other people (including the currently sheltered and inhibited version of you) will envy, admire, and/or be inspired by, you could do worse than:
Think Less, Do More. Impulses are important. So is acting first and asking questions later. So is begging for forgiveness rather than permission.
There are probably 100 things you’ve talked yourself out of doing today simply because you doubt they’ll work out, or you may be embarrassed by them, or because you haven’t yet calculated the optimal way to minimize your risk exposure in comparison to your oh fuck it just do something. Anything. If it feels good, great; do it again. If it doesn’t, either do less of it or keep doing it until it doesn’t hurt anymore because you actually got good at it. Simple enough.
Stop Talking, Start Doing. This is similar to the last point, but there’s a critical difference: it requires you to shut up.
Stop telling people about all the awesome things you intend to do. Just do them. Let your work speak for itself, and let other people figure out how awesome you are. If you’re truly amazing, they’ll find out and they’ll tell everyone else. But when you tell them beforehand, it’s just sad.
(And when was the last time you heard a ninja say anything? Except this one, but he sort of proves the point.)
Be Responsible, Not Accountable. Accountability is the poor man’s idea of honor.
Here’s the difference: accountability means saying “here’s who to blame when things go wrong,” whereas responsibility means saying “I got this.”
Don’t be the blamer, or the accountable one who gets blamed.
Be the fixer who saves the day.
Stop Complaining. To illustrate this, here’s a true story:
As I type this, a dude is standing outside my window loudly telling his friend (and anyone else on the block who will listen) all about the girl who just left him (it was totally her fault), a cousin who’s getting on his nerves (it’s totally his cousin’s fault), and how his phone died at the worst possible time (it’s totally the phone’s fault).
Dude: you’re literally the reason TLC wrote “No Scrubs.”
Instead of outsourcing responsibility for why your life is a tragedy, be the kind of person who has their shit together and see how much better your sad-ass life gets.
In other words: be the kind of person people actually want to be around, and more enriching people will want to be around you. (Or you could just keep bitching about terrible customer service on Facebook while other people are busy living; but hey, you do you.)
Also: plug in your phone. Seriously, life isn’t this hard.
Dress Like You Mean It. Do you think Katy Perry or Don Draper ever leave the house without dressing like it’s the most important day of their lives? I’m not saying spend five hours getting ready. I’m saying build your wardrobe, your personal style and your persona in such a manner that when you reach into your closet at 6 AM, you can’t possibly make a bad choice.
OPTIONAL BONUS: Drink More. Drinking decreases inhibition, and inhibition is 99% of what’s holding you back from doing all the things your rockstar self would do if they weren’t overthinking every granular detail of their lives.
Yes, it would be phenomenal if you could live your ideal life without the aid of narcotics and hallucinogens, but you’ve also spent your entire life being conditioned to live sensibly and blend in as a quiet consumer who likely suffers from imposter syndrome. (Which can be fixed, but it takes time.)
But Katy Perry and Don Draper are not quiet consumers. Katy Perry and Don Draper have the weight of the world’s expectations on them, so forgive them if they need some liquid courage to help them make the kinds of choices you’d be making for yourself if you weren’t so worried about a complete stranger in HR Googling you in 5 years and turning you down for that lateral career move because they found you unironically holding a Pabst on Facebook.
If an extra martini helps you stop talking and start doing, drink up.
(But don’t drive. This isn’t the 1960s, and you’re a responsible adult.)
And if you stop overthinking, start taking action, and actually live your life like you fucking mean it, you won’t care who knows what about you, because all anyone will care about is what you’re capable of getting done.
Which is anything you want.