A Pass on Real Life

Back in 2004, Demetri Martin wrote a week-long journal for Slate and briefly mentioned the time he decided to grow a mustache. What he admits is that despite really wanting to try one and hoping it would be well received, he’d walk up to co-workers and say, “I’m growing a mustache. Looks pretty ridiculous, doesn’t it?” He was so uncomfortable with the thought of people not liking it that he went around and convinced them that they shouldn’t.

It struck me that benign examples like this belie how powerful that emotion can be. This deep, churning insecurity propels people toward incredible ends. Afraid of what prying eyes may turn up, the mind exhibits unparalleled skill in delegitimizing, preempting and fending off judgment. But regardless of how it is channeled, disingeneousness leads to tainted, meaningless results.

It’s a similar strategy used by a kid we all knew in high school, the one who grew his hair out funny. Maybe it was a mullet or an afro or dyed strangely. While everyone else is worried about their appearance, he stands alone because the issue is no longer on the table. See, it’s meant to be funny. If he wanted to, he could do it like everyone else, he’s choosing not to. But if he gets attention for it, say girls like to play with it, naturally he doesn’t tell himself it’s because of the joke and therefore not him. All of the upside, none of the risk.

What this really is, of course, is the ideal intellectual position. The idea of defending yourself against criticism while simultaneously declaring that it has no jurisdiction over you. The idea that “Hey, we don’t care what you think about our personal lives, but there are tribes in New Guinea that have a totally different concept of gender.”

It is a reaction that is deeply rooted in fear. It is what children do. As they develop into their teens, they “strike a pose that is simultaneously rebellious and lackadaisical.” They’ve looked backwards and forwards and noticed a disturbing trend, that their responsibilities are increasing at a dramatic rate while the amount of fun, which seemed to be endless just a few years back, is showing signs of slowing down. At this point of optimal freedom and diminished accountability, they’d like to freeze, to “stay in place.”

In a way, you could think of Lady Gaga as the queen of this movement. Self-discomfort is such a motive, driving force that it is what transports a person from here to here. Take away the trappings and the costumes, is there really any difference between her and someone like Britney Spears? She’s part of the same machine. She uses the same songwriters, the same marketing, exploits the same stereotypes. But for some reason, she wants us to know that it’s different. For her, it is ironic. You see, she used to do Iron Maiden covers at bars in the East Village. Does this mean something? Maybe it’s avant-garde and provocative instead of trite and artificial. Or maybe it’s all too confusing and we’ll never know.

In any uncomfortable situation – of which, deciding the type of life you’re to live is one of the most stressful – our doubts can push us to do anything, anything that creates certainty. Irony and absurdity can be ultimate diffusions of this tension, and so can aggression, posturing and non-engagement. Deciding to grow a mustache? Make fun of it while secretly hoping someone will tell you they like. Better yet, grow a comical mustache that nobody gets. If they can’t tell if you like it, then they can’t judge it. Crisis averted.

We now see this writ large. Instead of outgrowing it, we’ve embraced it. Think about the prevalence of irony in hipster culture. At the root of that irony is loathing. Loathing comes from ignorance and fear, two powerful feelings that associated with entering a new era. It is responsible for so much of what is wrong with internet culture. People yell and scream and rant on blogs because they’re filled with doubts which they hope to god will never be illuminated. They follow this band for three months and drop it for another because loyalty requires sincerity and sincerity depends on honesty – risks with too much downside.

But where does this transference of insecurity take us? The result is a pass on the burdens of real life. It becomes easier to dig at the tenets of evolution and the human nature in order to concoct some scientific justification for a decision than to take a stand and deal with it. Of course individual choice can be judged. What a masturbatory discussion to even be having. In fact, in asserting that it cannot be, you’re admitting that it often is and will continue to be but that you happen to not like it.

The solution is to not be so fucking hard on yourself. You become afraid of what people will see when they look at you only if you think their conclusions can change things. This is false. Ease up and look internally with calmness and dispassion. Think about your flaws as burrs or splinters that have been unnecessarily affecting your walk. Discard them and move on. Don’t pick at them shamefully in the dark and overcompensate during the day. There’s no need to use every issue as a cat’s paw to scratch at yourself or some vague insecurity. It’s okay. The only thing that’s truly embarrassing is to become some preposterous douche you hardly recognize because you can’t stand the prospect of being genuine and hated for it.

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.