What the Hell Should You Do With Your Life?
So you just graduated. Congratulations. Hopefully you spent the weekend patting yourself on the back. It took me eight years to graduate from college. And that was in the ’90s, when the internet wasn’t even any good yet. But you got it done. And you deserve to feel the accomplishment of it. But you may be feeling something today, in this moment, that you haven’t ever felt before. Concern for your future. What will you be in five years, five months, five minutes? You temporarily experienced concern for your future when you applied for colleges. But there are always safety schools. Life has no safety schools, except maybe the internet.
Every graduating kid in the country is subjected to the worldly opinions of some famous person at every graduation ceremony in the country, telling them to do this or that to also become famous and someday lecture kids at a college campus dressed in regalia. I certainly haven’t earned the right to tell you what to do. I am broke and not very famous at all. But perhaps you can learn from my mistakes/life, too? I think what I may have to share with you might be more worthwhile than the kind of empty sloganeering famous graduation speakers get to do. When it comes to other people’s lives, my advice tends to be very practical. My advice for myself is always a little wacky, like, “Eat a bunch of chili dogs and frogs legs and ride the Cyclone, Jimmy! Unless you’re some kind of wuss!” I’d never give others, even strangers, that kind of questionable advice. I have such high hopes for you. I disappointed myself so long ago. But you have a chance now to make everything right.
We’re all trying to live practically in an impractical time. Even though “the economy” is “improving” everyone still seems kind of broke and the future has never seemed more uncertain. Will we all just be shale oil miners and frackers in the future? There’s no way I will ever buy a house or own a car like my parents did, raising three boys in the suburbs of Boston. Not that I would recommend any of those things to anyone. New England is nice sometimes but very expensive. It seems like quite a struggle as opposed to Wyoming. Would my life have been terrifically different if I was raised in Wyoming? Or Ohio? Probably not, I still probably could have been a fan of Boston sports. Or rodeo. Or Cleveland sports! Sports is sports. Well, anyway, here’s the sum of my life’s knowledge on the subject of how to live as single natural being: the dogmatic nature of experience as Charles Olson once wrote. Feel free to completely disregard everything that follows. It’s your life and you will be the only one who will ever truly know how to live it.
Don’t Take People’s AdviceOther people, what exactly are they? And what do they want? I worry about this quite a bit. Quite a bit more than I ever should. I am a pleaser. I like making people laugh, bringing people to orgasm, letting people beat me at chess. Because I like people, even though I don’t understand them, and would rather be alone most of the time. But you can only truly be alone sometimes when other people are around. Like at the mall or in a large audience watching a Hangover movie. I haven’t the faintest idea what goes through other people’s minds. It’s safe to assume that I am like most people. I want the same things as most people, probably. Tacos, for example.
But I don’t expect anyone outside of my therapist to ever truly understand me. And she gets paid to care about me. And yet we’re always subjected to, we people who do not seem to have our life in order, we who do not have a plan, we who have no clue what is going on, we who seem adrift inside a bowl of perpetual Lucky Charms, to the advice-giving of others. Generally well-seeming people. Who have practically no idea about us or our lives. But probably are very much like us and like tacos and all.
Why do people give other people advice? I have no idea, other than to take a little time off the clock. My guidance counselor, in my one visit in the toney New England all-boy’s high school I attended, suggested I consider going to Andover Tractor Trailer School. This was a person who was being paid to guide me. Obviously this person had no idea that I didn’t even have a driver’s license at the time, and would grow to be a truly awful driver. I mean, a real drag-racing jackass on the road. Big rigs would never be my thing and I would never have adapted to that kind of life-style. After about an hour on any major highway I begin to think to myself, “None of this is real!” as I drift across all these little painted lines in every direction. Driving certainly can be relaxing for myself, but I don’t imagine that you’d feel very relaxed having me on the same road as you, in some kind of Optimus Prime, questioning the reality of the universe while you drove your kid to soccer practice or Home Depot. I twice drove from Boston to Central Michigan University (Go Chips!!) in a Subaru and I remember being asleep through Canada both times. I mean like droolingly asleep, I was having this weird dream of driving a car someplace where all the money was different and colorful and covered with loons.
I suspect that this guidance counselor, who I only ever saw that one time, was trying to spur me into action in some way. Like I would say, wait a minute, I ought to really start applying myself in this toney prep school or else my future will be bleak and horrible. But no one thinks about their future all that much at all-boys prep schools. They think about girls. Or cute boys. And making out with them. And the future is this abstract concept for practically everyone who isn’t one of those people who knows exactly what they want to do in life. I really admire those people. The overwhelming drive, ambition and focus to do anything, smoke pot, become a terrorist, go to Comic Cons, I salute it. I have never felt an overwhelming desire to do anything except eat tacos. Everything else is kind of like, oh I guess I ought to go to work now. Maybe I should join Netflix again to watch those new Arrested Developments. I have notions, I experiment and try things, and then end up feeling disappointed in those things and then I go eat tacos.
I have never felt an overwhelming desire to do anything except eat tacos. Everything else is kind of like, oh I guess I ought to go to work now.
This is all a way of saying that other people’s advice is pretty much meaningless. They are taking some image from inside themselves of the life they think you ought to have that is based on their own experiences and projecting it on top of you, as if you were a movie screen and it was a Hangover movie. No one know what goes on inside you except those paramecium that live inside your large intestine. And although we’re all pretty much the same we have completely different notions about the ways people ought to live. So all the little graduation speakers in the world, with all their good intentions and success and snappy stories, will never understand you. My graduation speaker was Dennis Kucinich. I think of him now exactly what I thought of him then, seated amid the glittering graduates of Suffolk University: “Who is this guy?”
My father gave me career advice once. He thought I should have gone into the family business, which was working for the government. In his case, the IRS for 40-plus years. Would I have been a good G-Man? I don’t think so. And this is advice from someone who had to hang out with me all the time. Advice is not for us. It’s not for you and it’s not for me. Do not borrow or lend it, as Polonious might say right before he gets stabbed. I think secretly we all kind of know exactly who we wanted to be. In my case it was the 5-foot-7 210-pound bald starting point guard for the Boston Celtics. Like Rebecca Lobo, I never got to live that dream. Instead, I worked at bookstores mostly. My mom was a librarian. But they have no tables piled high with books in libraries, sadly. Librarians have to love all books equally. They can’t say, don’t read this, read John Gardner’s Grendel instead. They don’t even have a card catalog anymore! So sad.
A guy I knew and liked once gave me the advice to stop drinking. And I took it, for many, many years. It was a fine experiment, I learned some things about myself. Would I do it all again? Maybe for a year or two, if I had to. But this is my life and I get to screw it up, too.
Don’t Get Married and Have KidsI mean, you know, not yet. Or don’t feel like you have to. Don’t feel like it’s the most important thing that is ever going to happen to you. That you should be trying to meet some person that is gonna totally fill every part of your life. I mean, maybe they will, but probably not and definitely not forever. And there are, you know, plenty of kids in the world. There’s no rush for you to go out there and make some more. I have never been close to getting married. Just maybe one time, but that was more like the kind of “let’s get married on a dare” thing that some unmarried people do after a while. An Iranian woman wanted to possibly marry me to stay in the country when I was in college. And I would have gone along with that, but I was number two on the list and she married number one. I didn’t want her to have to go back to Iran if she didn’t want to. That seemed like a rather noble use of the institution. I think about marrying Ben, my roommate and platonic (if sometimes groped) life pal, but it’s still illegal here in New Jersey. And then if I met a lady at a party and made out with them I’d be like some sort of Don Draper Cheater Man. That sounded like a drag.
I have, however, been through lots of hysterical pregnancies. And they are terrifying! Oh my God! Can you imagine me being a dad to some actual human being outside of some video game. I cannot even help Pacman escape those chasing ghosts, never mind teach an actual kid to tie their shoes in such a way that they would know how to tie them forever. Or like, how to poo? It’s brutal, the idea of it. The kid would be better off with wolf parents. I mean, I imagine those moms would have been, and probably are, great moms where ever they are. But instead of one Jim Dad they had two wolf dads who could show them where all the tasty berries are and how to start a fire using two leaves and a wolf nuzzle. That seems like the kind of parenting a young Behrle might need.
I just feel like people think that getting married and having kids is the end of their story, when the end of your story ought to involve building a rocket engine for your Prius and being the first family on Mars, or something.
I just feel like people think that getting married and having kids is the end of their story, when the end of your story ought to involve building a rocket engine for your Prius and being the first family on Mars, or something. Kids get married as a way of instantly growing up. Or because of love. Which is one of the worst reasons to do just about anything. If you really do love someone you won’t need to possess them. I mean, it’s the 21st Century, just live in sin. It is OK now! They won’t burn you at the stake or nothing. With divorce so prevalent, I really feel like people should only commit to each other for a few years at a time. Like baseball contracts. Arbitration hearings!
“He never takes out the trash, arbitrator, as you can see from this pie chart!”
Why must it be all or nothing, marriagers? Get married or break up? When did getting married or having a kid ever make a relationship better? Possibly never. Maybe I should have gotten married just out of college, I was still so young and so beautiful and could have possibly married a stripper. And all those little babies me and those moms thought hysterically we were having, they are probably better off in whatever wombs they got sent to instead by the stork, how does that work? My grand contribution to the world probably won’t be children or a happy wife. I would have gotten divorced a million times by now. And aren’t we all better off having that be the case?
Save marriage and kids for your 30s. By then my plan to construct Parenttowns across the country will be complete. Incredible facilities with only soft edges and padded everything so that nothing bad will ever happen to you or your kids. So the rest of us can go back to smoking and eating peanuts and cutting our faces open on the coffee table and sleeping inside sliced-open Tauntauns as the ice falls all around us.
No One Really Has Any Idea What the Future HoldsThis should be clear to anyone who has seen those Google glasses that no one has any idea what they’re doing and the future is a mystery. Even to Google — which knows everything about me, because, unlike me, they read all my email — knows nothing about the future. I mean, the glasses are stupid, look stupid, do stupid things, and will be lots of fun to punch off people’s faces when the chosen time is upon us. Like Siri on the iPhone. Her jokes are not funny at all! There’s no way Zooey Deschannel is her real friend, outside of commercials. Anyone who can tell you what will happen in six months to a year is lying. Unless they are predicting a third disappointing season of HBO’s The Newsroom, in which they really get to the heart of the Benghazi story in a smart way like no one else is practically doing.
Most people are completely full of shit, but sound like they know what they’re talking about. I can change my voice to an even lower register, look people right in the eye and bullshit away like the best of them. And everybody tries to project what they think will happen into the future, but then shouldn’t we all be pushing shopping carts through the Cormac McCarthy Road World? Who could have ever predicted that a third Hangover movie would be a bad idea? No one, that’s who.
I got a degree in English with a minor in History because I hated money. And because Suffolk University didn’t offer American Studies majors, which used to be a thing in the ’90s. Like grunge. And AOL. If I had my druthers would I have studied anything else? To save myself from a life of working in bookstores? Not really. I’ve always liked working in bookstores because I like judging other people and feeling smarter than them. Maybe I would have read those Game of Thrones books earlier instead of wasting my time reading Central European Fiction. Without a world split apart by totalitarianism most of those books are just about affairs. And affairs are boring. I mean, I can sleep with anyone I want. Big deal. The flesh cries out, but who cares what for?
I’ve completely based my slacker lifestyle on the premise that I will probably live until I am 150 (110 more years! Preferably not all like this year!) Baldness will probably be cured around 2016. Everyone will climb into hot new robot bodies in 2017. And MTV will go back to showing awesome music videos in 2018. So everything is going to be totally fine. If, for some weird reason, none of this falls into place, I am most likely very screwed.
But those people who speak with such confidence about what the future holds and how you ought to grab this or that particular piece of pie are just one New York Times trend story away from being wrong. You only need two other friends to do exactly what you’re doing and you can totally be a trend story, too. Wear an actual beehive on your head, become a gang of tough mimes, whatever. Which shimmies nicely into the next segment of the non-Advice I am bestowing…
Money Isn’t Really That Important and Doesn’t Make Anyone All That HappierSaid the guy who was recently priced out of Brooklyn. But I have yet to meet a person who money solved all of their problems. Possibly the Howells on Gilligan’s Island. But they were still stuck on that island with a bunch of idiots. They didn’t seem to mind all that much, though. I remember telling my dad that “you had to lose money to make money” in regards to paying Kinko’s to release my poetry ‘zine from the ’90s. Sure, I spent $300 I didn’t have, but now copies of Meanie magazine can be found at Salvation Armies around the Boston area selling for almost the $1 cover price. Who’s laughing now, Daddy?
But don’t base your life on collecting money. I mean, some people are simply called through divine vocation to a life of being a hedge fund manager or the bookie in a bar who sits next to the jar of pickles. But don’t go out of your way to take a job you don’t like just to get paid so that you’ll have more money to do what you really love, which is play Playstation or smoke pot. Those things are callings all on their own. And yes, most habits are expensive to maintain. But you will find there are many things you can do without to offset any expensive costs in your life. You can rebuild your credit every few years, fake your own death a few times, move from state to state like the hucksters of old. There are options, people. And you have them.
I was fortunate enough to find relative solitude and considerable good times in the selling books business at an early age. Sure, I worked retail, got paid nothing and the entire industry will soon be replaced by an algorithm, but we had some good times, didn’t we? I’ll be able to tell my imaginary grandkids (or more likely your very real grandkids) about taking threatening phone calls about carrying The Satanic Verses or about how I got Gawker that early copy of Harry Potter 7. I’ve always had friends in low places, and for that I feel very fortunate. It’s a charmed life I lead, one that keeps me away from the soul-crushing effects of sitting at a desk and reading the internet all day. Which for me was never really all that productive or interesting. But some of you guys do a helluva job at it, I tip my Knish cap to you. But I never would have had a wacky life in books had I gone with my first love, missing free throws. I gave up my dream of playing professional basketball because I was short, untalented and I wanted to focus more attention on my not-sweating activities. (I also wanted to change my name to Matthias when I was a teenager. Kids make bad decisions. Except those kids who create big, famous apps. Then their entire life becomes about pleasing stockholders. Which seems about as fun as non-stop whippits.)
I mean, that guy allegedly created the Chicken McNugget in a loose dumb conversation on an elevator. But still, he probably smelled like fries his whole life.
I once read the title of a book called Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow. Seemed like perfectly good free advice from the front of a book. Well, I have done what I love which is make bad jokes on Twitter and no money has really followed all that much. Does that mean my life hasn’t been worth living? Probably. But I always get sad when I read rich people obituaries in the Wall Street Journal. Because no one wants to grow up to be number two at McDonald’s. I mean, that guy allegedly created the Chicken McNugget in a loose dumb conversation on an elevator. But still, he probably smelled like fries his whole life. I could have been happy working the Whopper Board at the Burger King on Route 128 headed to Gloucester my whole life, but I had bigger dreams. I wrote a paper in eighth grade about how I wanted to be a Travel Agent when I grew up. Because maybe you get free trips and got to wear Hawaiian shirts to work. Sometimes we must be saved from ourselves and our own terrible dreams for our lives.
If your dreams are to someday be a social media director for some cool new start-up, give that dream up. Just because.
Take Whatever Your Parents Will Give YouThere’s allegedly some backlash against the kids because they all have to move back in with their parents after graduation. Well, create some jobs, job-creators. I was watching that documentary Girls on the HBO and I was unaware that people’s parents helped pay for rent and abortions and stuff. I am going to go back and retroactively ask my parents for a bunch of abortion money and rent backpay.
But you should take those people for everything you can and never move out if you don’t have to. Any time you find yourself in a situation where someone else makes your bed, that’s pure gold. Hold that moment close to you like a racoon who found an Oreo. Savor it. They supposedly love you unconditionally. Find out what that means on a monetary level. There is no shame in it. Money is money. And taking money from your parents isn’t selling out. Sell out if you can, of course. But money from your parents is an expression of love, and who can say no to love? It’s actually preferable to love. It can buy you love. Just take their money. You can always pay it back by visiting them in nursing homes or graveyards down the road.
The Limits of YOLOI am not entirely sold on the idea that I only live once. And neither should you be. It’s so limiting. And I bet you could come back from death even stronger and better than before like a sexy Frankenstein if you just put your dead mind into it. And you’ll have a long time to do that.
Just don’t let fear of death be the main force of motivation in your life. Death is no doubt scary. Not existing, I mean. Or, more likely, living forever in hell for like never going to church. The pope recently said it was OK for people to be atheists as long as they were good people. But he probably won’t be pope for very long. The people who think about death the most are the very young and the very old. The very young shouldn’t think about death unless they’re sick or soldiers or something. Old people yearn for death because they’re sick of everything. You should probably find yourself in the middle somewhere. When death comes for me I want it to be a surprise so I won’t have to worry too much. Worrying is probably worse than death. But carpe diem is crap, too. You shouldn’t always have to seize the day. Let the day seize you once in a while.
Everything is a Lie and Everyone is Completely Full of ShitWe give shock away all the time now. We really ought to save it up for something actually shocking, down the road, which might require our outrage. Who knows if we will have enough when the time comes. And will the internet still be there to help us communicate it?
You can trust and believe in whatever you want. And that stuff will let you down. And then you’ll be left only with sarcasm. Which is fun for a while but uggh.
So what the hell should you do with your life? I haven’t the faintest idea. But I do believe in you and I bet you’ll figure it out somehow. Perhaps on your deathbed. It doesn’t really matter what we do for a living or who we marry or if our kids are psychos or not. The meaning of life, truly, is whether we’re amusing at parties or not. That’s all that matters. Can you parry witfully? Do you have an opinion about the latest episode of Game of Thrones? Isn’t Ygritte great? Do you know if that new Thai place is any good or not? These are the things that will define us as people, and, given time, into legend. Whatever you do in life, add dragons to it. That was my goofy graduationspeak catchphrase. Whatever you do in life, go eat a taco. Something like that. I can’t believe you read this whole thing.
Photo via imelda/flickr.
Jim Behrle tweets @behrle.