If I Were 22: Do Something, Do a Lot of It

This post was originally published on LinkedIn.

Glenn Kelman Sourdough Lookout

My twin brother and I grew up fighting what we called “the eternal fight against lameness.” I still don’t know what it was beyond pointless striving, striving before we could know about money, glamour or fame, striving against our own eventual mediocrity or conventionality, striving for its own sake.

As twins, we could be like binary stars that never stop moving around one another, and hardly notice the rest of the universe. While other parents watched in horror, our father would sit in the station wagon and laugh as we wrestled one another down to the pavement of parking lots over who got the front seat.

We wore “not-tonight-dear-I’d-rather-be-reading” t-shirts to school, and yanked on one another’s orthodontic headgear before going to bed. Behind a waist-high chain-link fence at the playground, we’d yell at the older boys, “Hey big kids! Screw off!” and then see how far we could run before getting caught. We discovered that getting beat up isn’t so bad; it’s just having other people see it happen.

Some of our restlessness grew out of the mangled pride we felt toward our father, who walked each morning through the rain to his bus-stop carrying a plastic briefcase. It held a lunch that he laid out at his desk, waiting while his mouth filled with drool for his watch’s second hand to sweep to Boeing’s appointed lunch hour.

He never convinced Boeing to approve the system he’d invented for warning pilots at take-off when to speed up or slow down; his last years there were punctuated by the news clippings of airstrip fatalities that he taped to his boss’s door.

Forgetting that our father was still somehow the happiest person we knew, my twin brother and I wondered if his career was how adulthood always turned out. This may have been why we graduated from college unwilling to become just one thing; instead, we dove into one thing after another, whole-hog and head-long.

This worked out well. And so that is my advice to a 22-year-old: do something. Do a lot of it. You have to learn how to fight, even before you know what you’re fighting. For most of human history, no one needed to tell you that. You had a lot to do just to avoid getting eaten by a lion. But now, it’s fashionable for young people to spend a year exploring yourself through travel, drugs, therapy, blogging, meditation.

In the extensive and depressing literature on how to be happy, we are told to spend money on experiences as if they were the chocolates for sale at a grocery checkout. It’s good advice, but not when you’re 22, not when you haven’t become anything yet.

Twenty-first-century capitalism is organizing the whole world into an endless aisle of impulse purchases; at the touch of an iPhone, distant people do hard, dreary work to please us in the most minute ways.

But I spent the first decade of my career trying to please others, so engrossed in my work that I occasionally, disastrously forgot to go to the bathroom. I now think of these years as the wonder years.

Many people spend those years trying to see as much as they can rather than doing as much as they can. I once heard a successful novelist complain that the narrator of his first novel was like a video camera, moving from room to room, merely recording the events of others. I see young people today moving through their thoroughly Instagrammed lives in just the same way.

Their goal is to find themselves, but they want to do that before they have even made themselves. As David Brooks recently noted, “Most people don’t form a self and then lead a life. They are called by a problem, and the self is constructed gradually by their calling.”

Mr. Brooks has written often about the need for a calling in life – but perhaps because he is a cultural critic rather than a participant in the economy – less about the need for a craft. A great calling strings together our days into a meaningful pattern but being good at something gives light and weight to our minutes and hours. The happiest people I know have both a calling and a craft.

A calling and a craft were what I was looking for in the eternal fight against lameness without realizing it, and what I found after college in my first job at a startup. What I liked best about it was that it let me successfully complete the daily ritual of convincing myself I was needed.

Necessity was what Bruce Springsteen described as the key to his own happiness, saying of his 20s: “I searched out something that I needed to do.” This process of going from needy to needed is the essential transition to adulthood.

We often define our happiness in terms of what we want for ourselves, but the only way to be happy is to be needed by others. When you’re traveling the world at 22 in search of the perfect sushi, you are as far from needed as you can possibly be.

There will come a time to step back and see the world, but in the beginning you have to jump into the thick of things. The guy who argued for this the best was actually a poet, Ezra Pound. Sure, he made mistakes. After campaigning for the fascists in World War II, he was tried for treason, and incarcerated first in an open-air cage then in a psychiatric hospital.

But he later wrote the Pisan Cantos, inveighing against his own vanity. Those cantos end with the quiet observation that to have tried… “that was not vanity. There the fault lies all in the not-done, all in the diffidence that faltered.”

After Pound died, his biographer went through his books and found a Greek treatise on the life of the mind, warning that any action the poet took in the real world was fraught with the possibility of mistakes. It was the best advice a loon like Pound could have possibly gotten. In the margin, Ezra had written “nuts!”

Lloyd Kelman took the mountain-top photo, then listened to us complain all the way down.

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