Get Ask Polly delivered weekly.
The columns you’ve written about not necessarily wanting the artist guy, but wanting to be the artist guy … I relate so much. I wanted a more creative career, but I was afraid of being impractical and of failing (I failed out of college and never really recovered from it). So I wound up taking the first job I could get and riding it out for ten years. My job is fairly safe and corporate, but I struggle to fit in there, too. Socially, I have co-workers that I call good friends, but I’m bored and frustrated with the work. I resent my hovering manager, who is probably right to be concerned about my work output. I feel like everyone else is committed to the mission. Maybe they don’t buy all the way in, but the money is enough to smooth over the bad patches. I don’t make enough money for that to be the case. I’m struggling financially, AND I’m miserable. I sorta know how I got here, but I don’t know how to get out.
Last night I saw you give a reading — you were talking about going deeper into the thing that embarrasses you, and I know that’s true. That I have these artistic aspirations is deeply, deeply embarrassing to me. I only told my mom about them a week ago, and again, I’m 35. I’ve never shared with friends except in passing. It’s making me tear up at work right now. I keep imagining small, safe ways to carve out space to pursue my ambitions, but always in a way that gives me outside validation, like a class where a teacher can tell me that I’m doing it right. If I were a true artist, wouldn’t I just do it? Wouldn’t I have been doing it all this time?
I’ve had so many daydreams over the past ten years. How do you distinguish the passing ones from the ones you change your life for? At this point, I figure I should just look for a new job that pays enough to enjoy life a little more, go on a real vacation, go out for dinner with my friends without worrying constantly about bills. I don’t need much, but maybe a little breathing room would be enough. It’s taken me two years of therapy to believe I even deserve that.
And if I wanted to actually pursue my dream, how many more years of therapy would that take? Despite all evidence to the contrary, I don’t actually want to be unhappy.
Ten Years Gone
Dear Ten Years Gone,
A boring corporate job that doesn’t even pay well is the purest waste of time available to humankind. You’re barely making ends meet just to advance toward a career you don’t want. You should definitely either find a job that pays better or resolve to scrape by doing something far more interesting. Even if you get a boring, badly paying job in an environment filled with people who believe in something and inspire you or at least just make a little sense to you, that’s a massive improvement to your quality of life. You might not be able to find the perfect job, but you can easily improve your current circumstances simply by putting your desire for MORE into action.
But in the meantime, I’d like to tackle the first-world problem of first-world people criticizing other first-world people for trying to solve their first-world problems. Please note, I’m taking issue with this PROBLEM, not with any particular writer or reviewer. I am a critic and I love smart criticism and I say be brave, critics! Sharp, scathing reviews are a rising tide that lifts all boats.
That said, I want to defend the people who write to me, to defend their right to consider and solve their problems using all the resources available to them. I mean, it’s no wonder you’re having trouble believing that you deserve a little breathing room, Ten Years Gone. We live in a world where we are constantly, actively seduced by things we don’t have and can’t afford, while we’re simultaneously chided for wanting more than what we have, either more material wealth or more happiness or more love or more job satisfaction. This cultural paradox leads to all kinds of dimwitted confusion, including privileged people calling other privileged people privileged for merely acknowledging their own troubles.
A passion for artistic or creative endeavors, wanting more from your career, feeling like something is missing in your life — are these shameful and embarrassing things for a person to be concerned with? Sure, at a time when people are dying in the streets and starving and drowning in the sea trying to escape oppressive regimes, such relatively minor-seeming concerns can incite eye-rolling. But everyone under the sun has their particular problems, whether those problems unfold in economically developed countries or not. So let’s reexamine this widely held sentiment that if you’re basically warm and fed and reasonably healthy, any problems you have are automatically trivial. Funny how the phrase first-world problems has a way of creating consensus among those who fancy themselves sophisticated and liberal, filling our minds as it does with images of self-proclaimed artist boys in man buns, nibbling on almond-crusted salmon and moaning about how to get their work noticed, or spoiled white ladies, sipping Champagne and whining about how their designer stilettos give them blisters.
The presumption here is that longing for more when you have a lot is somehow a crime. Daydreams are bad and embarrassing. Noticing that you’re not really that happy is weak. Observing your faulty thought patterns is suspect.
“Now, mind you,” the footnote usually goes, “I myself am allowed to have a lot, and to want even more after that. But YOU, my friend, are not. Because people are starving somewhere. And even though I’m not personally feeding them or helping them in any way, I’m going to assuage my guilt over that fact by loudly stating that YOU AREN’T, EITHER.”
Weakness is contemptible. This is the driving sentiment behind a big part of our culture, and it speaks to some sick core of “I’ll get mine” American values: The world is split into winners and losers. If you’re a winner, you deserve to win and you shouldn’t concern yourself with anything more than winning and winners. If you’re a loser, you’ll always lose, and why should anyone give you a second thought? Go be a loser somewhere else, or at least shut up about it.
But I’m a firm believer in longing and daydreams. I think when you’re melancholy about your life, it’s not just crucial to notice that, but it’s an enormous waste of a life not to notice it and address it. Are we really going to define the platonic ideal of existence in the first world as keeping your fucking mouth shut about what’s true and real and difficult for you, no matter what?
That’s not to say that we don’t all have to take responsibility for the messed-up state of things today, and do our best to help anyone who needs it, and to stand up for justice and equal rights for all people. People who dedicate their entire lives to worthy causes: We salute you! But first-world people with first-world-people problems who accuse other first-world people of having first-world-people problems? You’re part of the fucking problem.
The absurd way our culture toggles between dangling “best life” consumables under our noses, while concurrently instructing us that it’s distasteful to want anything more than the cash money to purchase them, is pure fucking nonsense. And it’s a view that (not coincidentally!) doesn’t JUST urge cushy white people to shut the fuck up but also nudges minorities and poor people to keep their mouths closed and stop wanting to, you know, live their lives without getting shot down in the street just for existing. Embracing that view means resolving to follow the most-tread path and power down everything fierce and strange and unique that might be floating around inside of you, haunting you, urging you to fight for a life that feels full and wild and meaningful.
We all have to adjust our expectations, of course. We all have to ask if the things we reflexively want are really worth that much: fame, money, success. These things will not singlehandedly make your life magical. They might even make you more depressed, if you haven’t figured out the basic mechanics of your own joy yet, if you haven’t cemented your identity, if you still have porous boundaries, if you’re not sure what you want to be or how you want to live yet.
Likewise, you ask, “How do you distinguish the passing daydreams from the ones you change your life for?” Well, you distinguish them by trying them out for a while. Everyone daydreams about changing their lives for some soaring pursuit, but you don’t necessarily START by changing your whole life first. Sometimes, making a really big change is an escapist move that points to your inability to live right here, right now, working hard and tolerating uncertainty like we all have to do throughout our entire lives, no matter what we’re doing or how old we are. Sometimes, when you invest your life savings pursuing a graduate degree in a field you don’t know much about, or you go into debt buying a bunch of art supplies but you haven’t spent a single afternoon drawing yet, that tells you that you’re trying to fix your whole life in one move. Maybe it’ll work, but it’ll put a lot of undue pressure on your dreams, pressure that your dreams don’t need. What your dreams need, sometimes, is patience and an ability to wander, to discover, and to patiently learn more about what you truly enjoy doing.
Try squeezing some of your daydreams in with the rest of your life instead. Make a little space for them. Try a few things, take a class, go to a lecture, read a book. Do some new stuff, and prepare to be overwhelmed and afraid when you do it. Prepare to hear, from your bad brain, that you are a joke and a failure. Prepare to fail. Keep trying things anyway. Say to yourself, “This scares me. I hate being bad at things. But I am having an adventure.” Say this over and over. You will keep trying and failing and trying. You will keep working very hard and you will see how that feels. Maybe you’ll discover that you’re bad at most of the things you’re trying. That’s fine! I’m feeling that way about a few of my brand-new pursuits right now. That’s just how it is when you start. Don’t draw hasty conclusions. Don’t use every scrap of evidence against yourself. Keep the faith.
Slowly but surely, you figure out if life-changing moves are in order. You will feel your way along, in the dark, until you have a feeling one way or another. You will — slowly, very slowly — learn to trust your instincts and learn to follow your feelings to your truest, deepest desires.
Have patience, and remember that when you have compassion for your own desire for more, you cultivate your compassion for other people, too — and that includes people who don’t have your advantages, people who have even bigger problems than you have. We should all be aware of the suffering that’s happening elsewhere, and obviously we also need to be painfully aware of the suffering that’s happening right under our noses, in our own country. The use of the words first-world problems encourages us to imagine we live in a place where everything is fine and the only real problems are elsewhere — but that’s not true. We have to take responsibility for the state of things. We have to see that we’re all in the same boat, and when some of us feel heartbroken and afraid and angry, we have to be vocal and treat these infractions with the urgency we’d take if they were our close relatives. Because they are. All humans are our close relatives. Your peer group includes every human being on Earth.
Ten Years Gone, you are just beginning. You can carve out a small safe space to pursue your ambitions, or you can carve out a big risky space. You can look for outside validation, like in a class with a teacher (though I’d abandon this suspicion that you need someone else to tell you what’s “right” on this front), or you can try very hard to experiment in a vacuum, practice, and build your courage of conviction around what you do, and then take your work out into the world. A true artist doesn’t only do one of these things or the other, any more than a true “person” lives in only one way. You’ve already said that you don’t feel like you deserve much, so of course you haven’t given yourself the gift of pursuing your creative interests up until now. Don’t beat yourself up for it.
Stop thinking about how many years have gone by. Stop thinking of yourself as lazy and spoiled. Stop being angry at yourself just for being sad. Stop telling this story, a common, stupid story in our culture, that if you’re not happy you must not REALLY WANT to be happy. That’s like blaming a dog for not eating with a fork. Dogs grow up with dogs so they shove their faces into their food and eat. Sad people usually grow up around other sad people. Or they grow up around happy people who don’t know a thing about how to talk about sadness (because they’ve never been through the same things) so the sad people learn to feel ashamed of their own feelings. And even once they leave home, there’s the world at large telling them that sadness is contemptible, and weakness is a sign of failure, and failure is a sign that you never deserved to succeed in the first place. You are less than a person so you fail, and you fail because you are less than a person.
Wake up every morning and announce what you want. Wake up and say, “I want to savor this day. I want to feel my way to a brighter reality. I want to accept whatever boils up while I do it. I want to feel the full force of what I have inside. I want to let it out. I want the space to be brilliant, and the space to be fucking terrible at what I do at first, and the space to make mistakes and have adventures and feel my way through it all, without shame, without apology.”
Six years ago, I was watching 30 hours of TV a week and writing about it for a living. It was a dream job; everyone told me that. I made a good salary, and I wasn’t happy. I didn’t want to write about TV anymore. I wanted to write stuff that wasn’t just about my life, and I didn’t know how. I was scared that I would fail. Four years ago, I started writing an advice column, but I was embarrassed by it. I didn’t want to be a person who gave advice and wrote about soft things, because that felt like a first-world pursuit of the lowest order.
But today I feel so fucking alive. Because I believe in daydreams and longing. I believe in resisting the messages that tell us it’s foolish and lame and weak and girlish and dopey to talk about the most important stuff in the universe: love and madness and melancholy and the terrible, glorious thrill of facing each new day without knowing what comes next. We are so lucky to be alive, Ten Years Gone, whether we’re 35 or 55 or 105, and it’s never too late to make a small, safe space for yourself, where you can say, without fear, “I have more to give. I am going to try and fail. It’s okay to try. Failing is good for you.” Trying is brave. Failing is brave. FLAILING IS FREEDOM. Embrace glitches and discouragement and entropy. Prepare to feel ashamed. Sometimes you feel the most shame at the exact moment when you’re reaching out for your truest source of happiness.
When you reach for happiness, that doesn’t make you silly and naïve and spoiled. It makes you a person who is painfully aware just how precious this life is. Stand up for your right to happiness. Stand up for the rights of all people to be happy. These two things are not as removed from each other as this fucked-up, stupid world would have you believe. These two things are one and the same.
Get Ask Polly delivered weekly.
All letters to firstname.lastname@example.org become the property of Ask Polly and New York Media LLC and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.