The Second Act Fallacy

April 23, 2009 — 14 Comments

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there are “no second acts in American lives.” Joesph Epstein retorted in Ambition that Fitzgerald should have realized that just because the ending isn’t happy doesn’t mean there wasn’t a second act. In fact, we have a name for that style: tragedy.

Maybe he would have been better served to remember that. Or, better still, he could have abandoned the whole notion that his life was a like a play. Consider that Fitzgerald’s love of drama, glamor, and fame were responsible for almost all his problems. It’s why he was depressed, why he loved a woman who destroyed his life, and why he never sat down to really work again.

What if there is just life and we’re not all actors on a world’s stage. There wouldn’t be the crushing pressure of redemption because there isn’t an audience to redeem. There would only be you. And each day, the expectations you fulfill are your own. The day before and the day after are unconnected because there is no narrative tying them together. They just are.

The Second Act in American Lives is a fallacy generated by the absorbed belief in the First Act. They’re both counterproductive. They’re both delusional. They ultimately make it impossible to an incredibly difficult thing: waking up everyday and doing only the things that make you happy and proud and self-contained.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

14 responses to The Second Act Fallacy

  1. Wow, really good post. Hit especially home, me being a young person with the whole struggle and me-against-the-world attitude. I always catch myself daydreaming these narratives about my life and you’re right, it makes things way more pressure-packed and soul crushing. Like always swimming against the current trying to live up to this ideal that in reality no one holds me to, I’ve just made it up for myself.

    Now why do I do this? To make my life seem less dull? To make myself feel important? I think I just answered my own question.

  2. Great post for me to read, reminded me of this (which i just read as well)

    especially this part:

    Boyle’s story fits the theme of my favorite generation: even at 47, you could still possibly have your life activated and assume your rightful place in your movie.


    Susan Boyle, plant or not, is a character in a well scripted movie, with the only theme that will get people to sit in front of the telly nowadays: everyone’s a winner, unless they’re a loser, and then they’re winners, too. And 47 is no longer too late.


    I try to remind myself of these sort of things every day – thanks for the reinforcement.

  3. “waking up everyday and doing only the things that make you happy and proud and self-contained.”

    Refusing to conform your life to a narrative makes it very difficult to relate to those who do. If your happy and proud and self-contained life relies on or otherwise deeply intersects, someone who’s life is ordered by redemptive narrative fallacy, he or she is going to make your life miserable. Socrates’ wife, for instance, or Athens itself, when it condemned Socrates to renounce or die.

  4. Fair enough. One of my favorite Emerson quotes though is this:

    “”I shall endeavor to nourish my parents, to support my family, to be the chaste husband of one wife–but these relations I must fill after a new and unprecedented way. I appeal from your customs. I must be myself. I cannot break myself any long for you, or you. If you can love me for what I am, we shall be happier. If you cannot, I will still seek to deserve that you should. I will not hide my tastes or aversions. I will so trust that what is deep is holy, that I will do strongly before the sun and moon whatever rejoices me and the heart appoints. If you are noble, I will love you; if you are not I will not hurt you or myself with hypocritical attentions.”

    I think it applies to what you’re saying.

  5. Unbelievably profound post. Thank you.

  6. The direction I have taken as a result of your site helps me overcome obstacles everyday. Obstacles that I am coming to realize, are created by my thoughts, and consequently my actions.

    Peace of mind during the most confusing time of my life.

    Thank you

    “If thou workest at that which is before thee, following right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly, without allowing anything else to distract thee, but keeping thy divine part pure, as if thou shouldst be bound to give it back immediately; if thou holdest to this, expecting nothing, fearing nothing, but satisfied with thy present activity according to nature, and with heroic truth in every word and sound which thou utterest, thou wilt live happy. And there is no man who is able to prevent this.” -Marcus Aurelius

    Reading this sent chills throughout my body.

  7. Simply refusing to compromise with pleading, inspiring words to persuade, confuse, uplift those who wish you a more “normal” life could be the only way. Such words have only a small chance of success, though, because the minds that birth them aren’t inundated with the same fallacy that caused the discord in the first place. They just can’t relate. No amount of charm could shield Oscar Wilde from society’s attacks. But having yet to find a better way, the pleading works for me. Perhaps one day the world will come to understand its addiction to narrative. Let’s just hope it doesn’t choose a 12-step program to wean itself off of it.

  8. This is one of your best posts ever. Nicely put.

  9. “What if there is just life and we’re not all actors on a world’s stage.”

    Hasn’t that always been the case?

    “Look at things as they are, not as you want them to be”.-TM

    That just means, simply be. Because by simply being… that’s all there is to it. That’s life. Trusting yourself about what is, and not putting any neuroticisms onto the table.

  10. The day before and the day after are unconnected because there is no narrative tying them together. They just are.

    Very well said – indeed the whole notion of time is a fiction we create to create some semblance of understanding to string together events. Almost like how the guy in Memento uses tattoos.

  11. Great post Ryan, and I think THIS explains it perfectly

  12. Oh, there’s a second act. America is the home of second acts. We wanna forgive. We wanna uplift. From Bill Clinton to Kobe Bryant to Ali…we want to embrace the possible.

    If you don’t find contrition or humility, and rely on the approbation of others as your measuring stick…you are indeed fucked.

  13. But it’s so fun pretending to be crazy. If we ignore it long enough, maybe the real world will just up and disappear. Then we’ll never have to deal with the fact that nobody cares and nobody’s watching…

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