• Tue, Jan 31 2012

Bullish Life: What To Do When You’re Surrounded By Lazy Idiots (and Sweet, Fragile Simpletons)

glass menagerie tom williams
Jennifer Dziura writes life coaching advice weekly here on TheGloss, and career coaching advice Fridays on TheGrindstone.

Last week, I wrote about How to Hold a Ladies’ Working Brunch (For The Ambitious Yet Leisurely!)

Then, this Sunday, I held another working brunch at my place on Wall Street, during which I wrote a short paper for my masters program, and then organized all my receipts for my taxes, and then drank half a bottle of champagne. My two attendees wrote a resume and worked on a book proposal, respectively. We all parted ways feeling well-fed and accomplished.

But last week’s column prompted a letter from a reader who I’ll call The Girl Tom Williams. Tom Williams was the son — the good, normal one — in the play The Glass Menagerie. Spoiler alert: He never escapes from his soul-sucking family! Because it is a play and most plays have to end really tragically so we can contemplate the human condition!

Of course I hope for better for The Girl Tom Williams (henceforth, TGTW). We’ll talk about how.

Here’s the letter:

Hey Jen,

I really admire your ambition, drive and general awesomeness, so I’m wondering if you have any tips on what I have identified as a stumbling block that is holding me back, you know, life-wise. I’m 24 and, while I do have a full-time job, I also have several projects on the go outside of work, some of which were inspired by your advice (yay!). But I read your post about hosting a ladies’ working brunch with a touch of jealousy, because you actually have lady friends that you can invite to that sort of thing. I, on the other hand, have plenty of friends but essentially no friends who are writing books, doing cool work-type stuff outside of work, or who are even vaguely ambitious. The one exception to this is my wonderful man-friend, but I really wish I had friend-friends who prefer to spend at least some of their evenings and weekends doing cool ambitious stuff rather than playing Angry Birds or getting really drunk. I did the whole party-girl thing when I was a teenager, and while I still enjoy the odd wine, I am really quite over getting wasted and ruining the day that follows. So my question is two-fold: 1) Where do I find the kinds of people that would actually go to and enjoy a ladies’ working brunch or similar social events, and generally be on my wavelength? and 2) In the meantime, how do I deal with my current friends who I don’t really identify with anymore?

Thanks,

The Girl Tom Williams

Oh, TGTW. Thanks for writing!

I have some practical suggestions, but please, allow me to tell a tale — and oh, what a tale it will be!

A few weeks ago, I went to a seminar about coaching. (Much of the “life coaching” industry is a scam or pyramid scheme. Some of it isn’t. I view it as part of my life mission to cut the crap and bring interested parties something productive and positive but also based on logic, science, and the stringing of thoughts together in a linear manner.) I knew this event wasn’t going to go well when we were all asked to stand, “mingle,” and ask each other this question:

“What makes your heart sing?”

The very formulation of this question offends my sense of gravitas. I refuse to acknowledge the validity of the question. (“When did you stop beating your wife?”)

My heart fucking pumps blood. Emotions can be a helpful guide to decisionmaking; emotions proceed from the brain, and the last decade of research into the brain has indicated that in many cases emotions are alerting you to stimuli from the outside world before your conscious mind even knows about them. So, yes, feelings are real and important! But if you talk about your heart singing, I’m going to think you’re a bit simple-minded.

Nevertheless, I thought to myself, “Maybe this will be a growth experience for me.” I do believe in stretching yourself to do things that initially make you uncomfortable. I approached my first mingling partner. What makes her heart sing? Being around people who have a lot of positive energy. Me? Le sigh. I said, “I enjoy helping underprivileged people succeed, and seeing unearned privileges taken away from those who don’t deserve them.”

(Apparently I lack positive energy. More on the dangers of mindless positive thinking here. Oh, and you know who was always saying really negative stuff? Martin Luther King. And everyone else who ever fought against injustice. If every thought in your head is positive, you are a selfish idiot. Okay, back to our regularly-scheduled topic.)

Over the course of this exercise, I repeated this in various formulations (“I enjoy seeing wrongdoers punished; for instance, I would like drunk drivers to be hit with cars.”)

One woman — whose heart sang at “dancing” — was troubled that I seemed to enjoy watching others suffer. I said, “Some things really are a zero-sum game. If you want smart, poor kids to succeed, you will have to take away some spots at top colleges from the merely-average rich. Also, the Nuremberg Trials make my heart sing.” (Related: an account of my non-date with a pacifist.)

I left the coaching event early, and I felt deeply certain that there are people out there who want coaching by someone who would never, ever ask them what makes their heart sing.

I also wondered why I was so disturbed by the event, rather than merely annoyed. I contemplated this for some time.

Now, my opinions on Ayn Rand are on record. I do not think it would be “theft” from our nation’s geniuses if we all paid more taxes so we could have excellent public schools. I think sometimes shared sacrifice is appropriate. If you are a wealthy white man in the United States who loves Ayn Rand, I will probably consider it my duty to fight you on many important issues related to citizenship and governance. And yet, if you are a woman in Afghanistan, I can’t help but thinking that you could use a little Ayn Rand in your life. Of course, Rand herself grew up in Soviet Russia, so you can kind of see where she was coming from.

I ran back over all of this before realizing that the reason the heart-singing seminar bothered me so much was the assumption that it is positive and appropriate to share our heart-singing feelings with strangers. A Rand quote had stuck well enough in my head since high school that I was easily able to Google it.

From Anthem:

“What is my joy if all hands, even the unclean, can reach into it?”

(Here’s the rest, linked to with some ambivalence.)

So, I come back to TGTW’s question. What is your joy, your life, your time, if the deeply mediocre weave in and out of them, leaving behind the rotting scent of stagnation and unfulfilled potential?

If that sounds harsh, consider this: sometimes we do have to spend time with troubled, slow-moving, below-average people with whom we have little in common: this is one effect of having a family. Families have all kinds. Friends, you get to pick! You’re just getting a little balance in life.

There’s Nothing Wrong With Phasing Out Obsolete Friendships

I shall repeat: some things really are a zero-sum game. Your time is limited, both every day and in terms of the years you have on this earth. You only have the emotional bandwidth for a certain number of close connections. Every input port you waste means that there is some incredible other person you will not meet or get to know more deeply. I moved to New York knowing that the people I just casually ran into would be more like me: they got themselves here because where they were wasn’t good enough.

There are six billion people on earth. There’s nothing wrong with moving on to some new ones.

You don’t owe your old friends much. If they’ve done something extraordinary for you when you were down and out, then yes, you owe them a favor. In fact, some less ambitious people are really the most generous with their time, so it’s fairly likely that you should still help your friends move. It’s nice to know a guy with a truck who jumps whenever someone needs something transported, and you should not take advantage of that guy. When he says on Facebook that he’s sick, you should deliver soup. Et cetera.

But if these friends aren’t even particularly generous and kind people, but just the people you’ve been hanging out with since middle school and have a lot of shared history with? Seriously, there are better things in life than the weak, ordinary nostalgia everyone has for the people who once scribbled in their yearbooks. These are the things that make the heart shrug.

Fortunately, Friendships are Non-Monogamous.

You don’t have to totally drop old friends, of course. But you don’t want to turn them down all the time for no reason. So, either:

1) Sign up for a bunch of networking events, classes, etc., so that your schedule is full and you can legitimately kick the can down the road when people ask you to do stuff (thus reducing hangout time to a small fraction of its current time allocation)

2) Tell everyone about a really time-consuming goal (writing a book, starting a company, teaching yourself a bunch of those free MIT classes, becoming fluent in Chinese before the trip you just committed to in 2013, etc.), so they understand that you will be absorbed in something all day Sunday, every Sunday (for instance).

3) Move.

As you tone down those old friendships, keep in mind that it’s entirely possible that your ambition actually makes your old friends feel bad about themselves. Maybe it isn’t really working for them either anymore. Maybe catching up once every six months or so is more everyone’s speed.

The Internet is Your Friend; Event Planning is Your Friend

If your current friends aren’t the right group for a working brunch, you’ll need to meet some new friends. Services like LocalTweeps (and many other locally-focused social sites) are, sort of ironically, a good way to start making friends with a non-local outlook. Competent people can generally figure out how to impress you within the word count of their Twitter bios.

If it’s financially feasible, get yourself to SXSW, BlogHer, and other conferences. (If you have never taken an airplane by yourself, you are not yet a woman, regardless of menarche!) Of course, you’ll mostly meet non-local people, but this will keep your outlook in the right place; having a far-flung network of ambitious friends is a good antidote to the pall of complacency that may otherwise fall over you when spending time with your lazier friends and ne’er-do-well family members (“Look at me, I have a job and I wash my dishes with actual dish soap, so compared to these people I’m doing awesome!”)

Consider creating a social or networking event that will attract the right kind of people. When I was in Virginia, where less is happening, doing stuff like this was ridiculously easy. There’s a mojo deficit. I co-founded an “Entrepreneurs Forum” by teaming up with a lawyer whose law firm had a big, nice meeting room. We invited panelists, the law firm provided refreshments and I imagine was happy to be the headline sponsor (at so little cost to the firm) of an event that would likely bring them new business, and no money changed hands anywhere but excellent connections were made. In fact, the organization still exists today, many years after I moved on. (Also see this column, for the time I started an internet marketing conference on a shoestring.)

I’ll also mention that, while in Virginia, I attended many “women in business” events, virtually all of which were flooded with Mary Kay (Arbonne, Tupperware, etc.) salesladies. It was so disappointing; someone would introduce herself with, “I recently started my own nutrition business,” and then you’d want to ask her all kinds of questions about her background and how she got her products manufactured and then she would pull out a vitamin catalog with her representative number stamped on the back. I did find that my local National Association of Women Business Owners chapter did an excellent job of weeding out sales reps; in order to join, you had to be at least a 51% owner of a company you had actually started (at 51% started) yourself.

On a much smaller scale, there’s Meetup.com. Even small towns often have pockets of excellence surrounding universities. Even bad universities have really smart professors (the laws of supply and demand work against professors). Even in the worst place in the country (and I have no idea where TGTW lives), there are ambitious, idea-filled people who are there by choice, by mistake, and because they are eccentric or just need personal space.

Brain-Drain Can Even Be Used to Your Advantage

I sometimes read blogs written by women who live in more rural areas, and I have noticed that people who live outside big cities will often drive for hours just to meet each other (and not at SXSW! Just at their houses! Where they make coffee and show off their new sewing room!) This is true in general, I think — New Yorkers have so much opportunity that we will refuse to date someone who lives in the wrong part of Brooklyn, whereas people in sleepier towns often consider it reasonable to drive two hours for a date.

So, it may actually be to one’s advantage, at least for a short season of life, to live in a less busy stretch of the country; connections you make with other people in the same circumstances will likely be more important to both of you. Meet a similarly bullish lady the next state over, and that might be a pretty big deal for both of you. Maybe worth a whole working retreat, rather than just a brunch, at one of your houses. What could you both do in a weekend with no distractions and enough coffee?

In Conclusion…

I hereby free you from all guilt for finding friends more like you! Anyone you leave behind has made their own choices (or maybe they’re just late bloomers). If they really care about you anyway, they don’t want to limit you. Go forth and create, meet new people, and live a courageous life.

Send in your questions to bullish@thegloss.com. See a Bullish archive here.

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  • eelizg23

    Ahh, I kind of feel your pain. I’m about the same age as you and have started to get my life together and am trying to be a real adult. I wouldn’t necessarily drop your friends just because you’re in different places. Everyone’s got a different timeline, and they’re probably going to outgrow the drinking and partying soon enough. But I second that meetup is a good place to meet people with similar interests!

  • reggie

    I actually have the opposite problem. I am about the same age as the writer but constantly feel behind because I will be graduating from a top 20 law school, but get average grades and have not yet found employment. Therefore, almost everyone I interact with has a type AAA personality and their whole life in neat little boxes, and I’m just struggling to get by whilst suffering from your typical quarter-life existential crisis.

    • http://twitter.com/Eva_fate Eva Rinaldi

      I have the problem of wanting to hold myself to a higher standard than most type b people, but not being type A. Like at all. Like I couldn’t even tell you half of what is in my purse right now. You have to embrace the fact that your friends are not exactly like you if you want to get anywhere. People exactly like you can’t teach you anything.

  • Nancy

    I totally relate to this problem, thank you SO much for writing about this, And I would much rather have you as a life coach than ANYONE who’d ask me what makes my heart sing.

  • Amanda White

    I agree about even small towns having pockets of awesome. Touring as a musician, I’ve been to places that most NYers avoid. Johnston City TN. Fargo ND. Des Moines. But the kinds of people who go out to (and own and work at) clubs and cafes that have indie rock shows are pretty cool. It’s surprising to have a kid in Fargo buy your CD and request his favorite opera aria (!), but that’s just the kind of kid who would trek out to a show.

  • Dominique

    @Reggie – I got a law degree because my parents forced me to. I don’t actually work as a lawyer. There are way more jobs that your JD makes you super-awesomely-interesting for than just being a regular lawyer. Practically any reasonably brain-based job can use legal knowledge. In general, it’s only the top-tier law firms that demand top grades & law review.

    As for the “growing out of friends” concept, I wholeheartedly agree. (My heart, too, pumps blood, instead of mucking about singing! That’s my throat’s job!) Friends don’t need to be dumped immediately. But after you’ve noticed you don’t have much in common any more, it’s ok to let go. You’d break up with a partner for that reason – a friend is not even as close. Eventually they are a drain on your emotions and time. Life is too short if you want to get things done too.