(If you're reading this, I promise this post is not about you. Well it is, but only in the sense that you are part of my life, and your existence is filtered through my experience and distilled into this post.)
Relationships are not a performance. That's probably obvious to you. It's not obvious to me. I can't blame TV and books for this one, because I think there's plenty of media that could have taught me this lesson, I just didn't watch or read any of it. In the stuff I watched, relationships were about rapport. They were about that one friend in your group of friends that you could yes-and forever and by the grace of your synchronicity get the whole group laughing. I got used to thinking of relationships in terms of how they would play out on screen. What would it look like to the viewer if that cute girl who laughs at my jokes agreed to middle-school-date me?
I remember in college grabbing lunch with my roommate's friend and her boyfriend. And they did bits. "How long have you been together?" "Four months," "three months." "See, she starts counting from our first kiss. But I start counting from-" and then she jokingly got mad at him. They were fully committed to their sitcom couple schtick. But even to inexperienced little me it seemed weirdly rehearsed. It wasn't fake, exactly, it was just a weird on-the-nose cliche. Like they acted that way in public because they knew it would play well, and they sort of thought that's what couples were supposed to be like.
But I shouldn't have to care how my relationship with someone will play on screen, I should be able to just say, "I like spending time with you. You wanna make out some more even though it's gross?" I don't want to have to think about what's sensible. I don't care what it looks like. I want to be defiant. Because the truth is that real relationships are more about what happens offscreen, in strangely intimate private walks in hallways and when waiting for food to arrive.
I am guilty of picturing my life from the third person. Wondering what will be written in my Wikipedia article. What things that I'm doing will matter and what won't even get a footnote? What names from my life will link to other Wikipedia pages? How will critics divide up the periods of my life? And I am guilty of prioritizing those onscreen moments over the offscreen ones. Guilty of posing for photos. It's true. I get distracted when there's a new person in the group for me to impress. I get in my head about when they're going to find out that I'm funny, and how they're going to find out that I'm a musician. I even get in my head about how to not make it seem like I'm trying to show off that I'm a funny musician. And I am guilty of worrying about how my relationships portray me. I'm guilty of developing crushes on people because we perform well together. I'm guilty of not dating people who make me happy because I don't think they're impressive enough to show off.
Showmanship mandates that you do certain things on stage. You meet your performing partner's jokes halfway. You look at them like you're the proudest you've ever been. You talk about them like their your best friend. But that doesn't mean you have a good relationship with them. It just means you have showmanship. And though this has never stopped me, seeing who you have onscreen chemistry with might not be the best way to decide who you want to date in real life. Your relationship is supposed to be yours. You're not supposed to have to worry about how other people are going to see it. So she's tall and you're short. So he's younger and you're older. So what? You're not the royal goddamn family, and your relationship doesn't belong to the people.
I woke up at 12:00 PM and I had a job interview at 1:00. I had planned to wake up much earlier to groom myself and practice answering interview questions, but I ended up hitting snooze for four hours. I may have consciously hit the snooze button multiple times, but the logical decision-making part of my brain remained unconscious until I actually looked at the clock. Realizing I didn’t have that extra time to prepare, I began to panic.
I had a choice to make. I had enough time to either throw on a suit and dangerously drive to my destination, or skip the interview entirely and coddle myself in bed. Since I was already feeling anxious, I convinced myself to choose the latter. I thought that rushing to the interview would only make me even more anxious. If I showed up all disheveled, I probably would not have been too convincing of a job candidate. I also convinced myself that staying in bed equated to self-compassion; something about the maternal warmth of my mattress and comforter communicated love and security to me. Since I was panicking, I stayed in bed and committed to making myself as warm and cozy as humanly possible.
At first I thought about putting on pajamas (I was in my boxers). “Ugh, but the journey to the dresser will be unbearably cold,” I thought. “I will just lie here and try to suffer through it.” On the word ‘suffer,’ I remembered that the reason I was staying in bed in the first place—and not going to the job interview—was because I needed to practice loving myself. I had to love myself enough to go out into the Ice Age and get some warm, fuzzy clothes. I assumed the brave parent role and fought for my inner child; I trudged through that brisky two feet between my bed and dresser and scavenged for some damn PJs. I succeeded and congratulated myself for working hard.
I got back in my bed wearing a hoodie, pajama pants, and thermal socks (I’m also amazed that these exist), and then I re-wrapped myself in my baby-burrito position. My skin began to warm up, but my bones remained frozen. What a disaster. I got what I deserved; instead of taking time to perfect myself for the interview, I put all of my effort into attaining the perfect body temperature, and I was somehow messing that up too.
Here I had a flashback to when I was eight-years old, in a similar state of cold, tired, and anxious. I was lying on my living room couch—wrapped in hella blankets and PJs—when my dad came into the room and put his hand on my forehead. “John, you’re burnin up,” he said. “I think you might have a fever. You need to take those blankets off now.” He went to the kitchen and came back with two full Kirkland water bottles. “Strip down to your boxers. I’m going to put these cold bottles on you to cool you down and break your fever.”
That was the most fucked up thing I had ever heard. Eight-year-old me silently thought something along the lines of, “Why on Earth would I do that? What is the medical basis for this? The blankets and clothes are helping me warm up, isn’t this what I need?” But I didn’t argue with my father; I complied because my young mind was convinced that Dad knew what was best. So I got nearly naked and let him place the cold plastic on my forehead, neck, chest, and armpits.
This was the first time I truly felt the gravity of the phrase “Life is unfair.” I shivered violently and renounced my faith in God. I wouldn’t wish this torture upon my worst enemy. After a few painful minutes, I began to sweat for some reason. “It worked,” my dad said. “Sweating means your fever broke.” At this point, I didn't know whether to be thankful or upset that my Dad ‘saved me’ from something that I didn't know was hurting me. I thought I was doing alright before he came along and ruined my snuggle sesh.
Thanks to the internet, I now know that putting ice cold anything on a person with a fever can make their chills even worse. What my dad did technically wasn’t the ‘right’ thing to do, but I guess it solved my problem. I’m not bitter about the situation, but I think it may have had some impact on how I’ve dealt with problems throughout my life. I became more critical of my own desires; whenever I wanted something that I didn’t consider productive, I’d ask myself, “Do I want this because it’ll make me feel good, or is something else going on that I’m not addressing or realizing?” I relied on other people’s advice and opinions most of the time, because apparently relying on my own intuition nearly got me killed (or at least that’s what my eight-year-old mind rationalized).
Flash forward to my adultish self (twenty-three) lying in bed, trying to sleep through my job interview. The psychoanalytical part of my brain hypothesized that my father had negatively reinforced my capacity to take care of myself. I began to question everything—“How am I supposed to love myself? Am I supposed to provide myself security or ‘Do the Right Thing?’ Am I supposed to be kind to myself or face the world cold and unequipped?”
Are there answers to these questions? Well, only I can be the judge of when I need to either work harder or give myself a break. I have to listen to my intuition sometimes. Do I have a good enough intuition to make the right decisions all the time? Probably not. But I’m never going to learn anything unless I make some of my own decisions. In this story, I actually decided to get out of bed, but not for the job interview. After calming myself down in bed for a bit, I grabbed my guitar and wrote a song. I felt quite relieved.
One could argue that skipping a job interview is inherently a bad idea, but whatever. I was fresh out of college and I already had a part-time job as a private music tutor. I applied for this new job solely because I thought I was supposed to get a full-time job right away; many of my post-graduate peers were either going to grad school or starting their careers. I thought that if I didn’t work full-time like everyone else, they would all think I was a failure. Looking back, I realized that the pressure to please other people made me anxious, not the interview itself. So here I am now, still only a few months out of college, doing things that I enjoy: I’m recording an album with my close friends, scoring a soundtrack for a play, revisiting an old hobby that I’ve abandoned (writing stories), and teaching bright young minds about the wonders of music. I don’t need to work nine-to-five at the moment. I’m alive and happy with the decisions I’m making.
“There is a magic button, and if you were to push it, then from that moment on nobody would experience the tingly feeling they get when they see someone attractive ever again. They would still be able to recognize attractive features, but that specific sensation would be lost forever.
Do you push the button?”
I read this question aloud from a laminated card to the circle of people gathered around the snack table at a meetup in Berkeley and grabbed a handful of chips from the open party-sized bag.
“Obviously yes,” I said after a short pause.
“Because it would help solve a lot of inequality. I feel like people are often discriminated against for not being attractive,” I explained. “They have to work extra hard to get others to trust them, have worse outcomes when tried for crimes, and have a harder time making friends and finding romantic partners. And most of the world also acts like this isn’t true. They prefer the comfortable lie that the only thing that matters is what’s on the inside, and if your heart is beautiful then people will see that beauty. But I don’t think that’s really the case.”
An older man to my right jumped in: “is eliminating inequality a good thing in and of itself though? And isn’t removing the tingly feeling of seeing someone attractive explicitly limiting the best of us, rather than trying to bring others up to that level? I could see pushing a button that made everyone extremely attractive, but this is closer to taking away attractiveness altogether.”
“I guess I feel like the amount of suffering that would be eased by pushing the button outweighs the suffering brought on by the extra work attractive people now have to do to be liked.”
“But,” he objected, “it’s not just about suffering. I have an intuition that there is something uniquely valuable about that tingly feeling. Sort of like how humans appreciate beauty in art and music, and this is agreed upon as something that is specific to humans and very special. Taking that away would be like taking away the shiver you get when a song connects with you just the right way.”
A girl across the table added, “would you push the button if it meant that nobody would ever experience the tingly feeling they get when they hear a beautiful voice?”
This was par for the course at a meetup for readers of the philosophy blog SlateStarCodex. I made a mental note about how much I loved talking about questions like this, and the particular discussion styles that marked people who were especially good at it -- patterns like the ability to ask questions in analogous forms, and the ability to cut straight to the root of disagreements.
“I guess not,” I admitted.
“Is that just because you feel like the amount of inequality resulting from variation in voices is not as much as the amount of inequality resulting from variation in attractiveness?” she asked.
“That would be consistent, but actually now I’m just questioning my initial instinct to push the first button. Maybe I wouldn’t.”
The older man grabbed an Oreo. “But do you think inequality is wrong in principle? Let’s suppose everyone in the world starts out looking exactly as attractive as each other, and then one day someone is born who is 10% more attractive. Are we morally obligated to do everything we can to make them less attractive?”
I frowned. “Well… not in that case, but if you add in the fact that there are limited resources and all of those people are in competition with each other -- a competition in which being attractive helps you -- then I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the inequality leads to unneeded suffering. Like, let’s say an extremely attractive woman is born who all the men then decide they want to compete to woo. They all end up spending all this extra energy on the competition that would have otherwise been spent doing important things which now don’t get done, so society suffers in that way, first of all. And then there’s competition among the women where they all want to be more attractive now that the benefits have been made so obvious, so they start spending their time trying to get men to want to woo them, so again society suffers. And then the world gradually sorts itself into one that is divided into stratas of attractiveness where life is best for those who are the most attractive. And now if someone is born who is 10% less attractive than the mode then they’ve been forced into this lower class and denied privileges they would have had if attractiveness didn’t matter so much.”
I looked around the circle to see nods of agreement and picked up another card. This one read “what is your craziest sexual fantasy?”
The argument that there is something uniquely valuable about the tingly feeling of seeing someone attractive is interesting. It’s not unlike the feeling I get when I hear beautiful music, or see a beautiful painting. I wouldn’t push a button that got rid of those feelings. I wouldn’t push a button that stopped us from feeling love.
Societies tend to produce a lot of art once they hit a threshold of being able to keep people fed and safe. Some people go so far as to say that things like art, music, and love are what give life meaning, that the point of modern society is that it gives us leisure time to do with what we please. Born of this school of thought is the advice that you should follow your dreams. Do something you’re passionate about and you’ll never work a day in your life. And reactionarily, the counter-advice, keep your passions separate from your job. Be passionate about your hobbies, but pick a job with security that you’re good at and that makes you money.
Even so, for many of us with job security and generous wages, the allure of following our dreams still tinges every discussion of the future. “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” I’m not sure. Either I will have followed my dreams by then, or I will still be doing what I’m doing, and not finding it unenjoyable, because how could such a cushy life ever be unenjoyable, but also markedly noticing that even though this isn’t bad, it still is not my passion.
One friend jokes about quitting his consulting job to found a startup. Another travels the world, “funemployed.” One friend leaves a big tech company to pursue stand-up comedy. I see a video of his set on Facebook later -- he’s hilarious. Then I go to work and help build a product that a billion people use, with my teammates who are basically the smartest and most conscientious people I know. And at the end of the day I have a jam session with a bassist who used to play music professionally before deciding that having his career be music was slowly draining his passion for music. When I grab dinner with him later and tell him that in 5 years I will have tried doing music as a job he considers it for a moment and says, “given what I know about you, I actually think you would really enjoy that.” I think back to what one of my high school teachers once said about a career in music: “you have to love it enough to risk hating it.” I think about what I would be risking if I did leave my job.
Passion does weird things. It can make it seem admirable to leave a well paying and impactful job for a cheap apartment near an arts scene. Romantic, even. If I tell you that a successful CEO stepped down from his position at 35, you are confused until I mention that he’s really passionate about charity work and hopes to shift his focus to doing more of that. Following your passion is kind of like the ultimate justification for doing anything, especially things that involve a lot of sacrifice. And maybe this is rightly so -- what else could possibly pull you away from your good-enough life to try out a maybe-better-but-maybe-worse alternative?
Or, more realistically, it’s a maybe-better-but-probably-worse alternative. At least for the musicians, artists, and stand-ups. Only a tiny fraction of us ever achieve conventional success. Of those who are able to make a living doing what we love, even fewer get mega-star levels of fame. And of those who do get famous, many will never have as positive an impact on the world as I can have doing software engineering on a billion-user product. If I fix a 911 call issue, that’s a billion people who now have more reliable emergency services. If in addition to that I donate 10% of my income to effective charities, that’s 3+ lives saved annually. Most doctors don’t save that many lives in a year, and their job is literally to save lives.
But, of course, there are worthwhile goals other than the ones which do the most good. If your moral compass points another way, as Emerson would argue, you’d best follow that compass, because at the end of the day the only person to account for your life is you. So maybe the answer is, as Dan Harmon says, to only do it if you could spend your whole life doing it without ever “making it,” and you would still be happy and feel like that was a worthwhile life. But that’s less practical advice and more just a way to calibrate your expectations. If you’re doing it to get famous, you’re probably going to burn out before you get famous. In other words, if you really have enough passion to fuel a lifetime of work, Harmon says go for it. In a way, looking for a career related to your passion is a natural consequence of that passion itself.
So let’s say you have a magic button. If you push it, then from that moment on, nobody will experience passion ever again. They would still be able to honestly evaluate their skills and appreciate well executed art, but the specific feeling of drive that leads people to make stupid decisions would be lost forever. They would finally be able to plan for their futures in realistic ways, weighing the low percent chance of success with the safety of a conventional career.
Do you push the button?
Content warning: some talk of sex and consent
I am allowed to want sex. This is for some reason really hard for me to get into my dumb head. But I think it might still be true.
I’m not prude and not afraid of revealing things about myself when directly asked. I think in general I’m even pro-sex. But still something deep inside me feels like wanting sex is bad because sometimes people force other people into having it, and it’s hard to imagine someone enthusiastically consenting to having sex with me. I know this is not a reasoned position, but cut me some slack because it took me a long time to even realize that there is this thing inside me.
I’ve said before that the first time I heard the phrase “Asian fetish” I sort of knew instinctively that it didn’t refer to attraction to Asian men, only women. (Maybe you could point out odd counterexamples but I think by and large this is still true.) I also recently realized that I sort of in general by default assume that people are grossed out by the idea of physical intimacy with me. Even when I was in elementary school I felt so bad for girls who were forced to hold my hand because we happened to be standing next to each other in a circle in gym class. I’ve always felt inwardly like all touch from me must be secretly unwanted, and this often keeps me from hugging and kissing people.
Sex feels good physically, and it also makes me feel desirable and useful. Desirable because it generally involves a partner to act as evidence that there are people who find me attractive enough to fuck, and useful because that partner also often gets something out of it.
Also, “allowed to want sex” sounds a lot like I think I’m entitled to sex. I think that’s related to why it’s so hard for me to get it into my dumb head.