The Awkward Years Including This One
Remember your first day of school.
I’m on Tremont Street in Boston and I stop to tie my shoe. A silent wave of Suffolk University first-year students shuffle past, all wearing matching yellow shirts. They are starting the most hyped four-plus years of their lives, and they look like prisoners about to start road work. The shirts say, “2020”. Twenty twenty: time flies when you’re getting older. I can already see the cheeky ocular-themed graduation slogans:
“Seniors 2020, We’re Visionaries!”
“Seniors 20/20: We’re 100% Awesome!”
“Hindsight is 20/20. Shouldn’t have dated Rachel Matthews! She broke my heart and sold my Casio Watch. Whatever. Seniors.”
But that’s four years away.
For now, no one has friends, and everyone is excruciatingly aware of this.
Remember a time when you didn’t have any friends.
At the stop light, one girl stands alone, looking at the ground. I want to go up to her and say, “Everyone is so worried about themselves, they don’t have time to worry about you.”
I make my way to Harvard Square, and sit down at Darwin’s on Auburn. A dad takes his daughter’s backpack off her back, he saves her seat while she waits in line. She’s clasping her hands in front of her, pretending to read the labels on the tea jars. I want to tell her not to get the Green Tea: tastes like soap. I also want to tell her dad to get the hell out of town and let her do this part.
In front of her is a guy with man bun that looks a lot like woman bun hair: silky smooth hair. Looks like a Pantene Commercial: “Hair so healthy, it shines”…and it does.
A girl walks in wearing a black garrison military cap that covers her shaved head, draped over her black short sleeve shirt is a big black scarf. It’s 90 degrees outside. She’s smiling and nodding intently in conversation, hating every stitch on that scarf. I like to imagine that two days earlier, in her hometown, she had a full head of hair, was dressed in a polo and Khaki pants and loved her parents.
Remember a time when you didn’t know what to wear, how to look, or who to be.
I move to a different table because I can’t bear listening to a guy next to me talk about how his friend taught himself quantum biology or whatever else the Harvard kids are overachieving at these days. He’s leaning back with his elbow on a ledge up next to his head — it looks terribly uncomfortable, but he is giving advice to a first year student and he needs that ledge. The advisee is leaning forward, eyebrows sitting on the top of his forehead, eating this guy’s words.
Remember when you were so much more insecure than you are now.
Starting something new is brutal. It feels like everyone is watching every single move you make. “Do people here do this? Do they do it like this or like that? Do they wait in this line? Or that one?” “I’m going to fit in.” “I’m not going to fit in.” “I’m going to fit in by not fitting in.” “I’ll be the kind of person who doesn’t care about what anyone thinks.”
The most real thing I learned this year is that everyone cares what everyone thinks. It’s human, and it’s actually freeing to walk around with this knowledge. Knowing that people care much more about themselves, and how the world receives them than they care about you — it’s fantastic. When you spill a coffee at the dining hall, and you think, “My life, as I know it, is over, and I will live out the remainder of my pathetic and clumsy days in solitude and discomfort in the mountains of Alaska, I will eat grass and tree bark and I’ll have the option to use heat but I won’t and I will die alone because that’s what I deserve after this”, just know that your life, as you know it, is not over.
Remember a time when you thought your life was over.
When you trip on that same raised slab of concrete in the sidewalk or sneeze and a little snot comes out or you’re doing stand up comedy and you tell a joke and the whole place erupts in silence. No one says, “You’re that guy who spilled! tripped! told a dumb joke!”
Remember a time you wanted to reach out to someone you didn’t know for help, but were too afraid because they might tell all their friends who you also don’t know how much of a loser you are.
I was talking to my friend Alex about trying to connect with a few people who could help me with jobs. He said, just remember, “You’re not that important”. Initially, I thought, that hurts because I’m important. I’m the most important person I know. Once you get over the initial blow to your ego, this is fantastic news. I’m not that important! He continued: “No one is going to go home to their family and saying, ‘You know who emailed me today? You won’t believe this…”.
Remember a time when you felt older and not wiser.
I used to think that I would grow out of it: that one day I would enter a room filled with people I don’t know, and not worry for a second about how I look through their eyes. I still think about it. I’m better at it, but I still think about it. Today I was on a conference call and I started sweating because I didn’t know when to talk, at what volume, about which point, or who I would interrupt. And because it was hot in the office. (And we’re in an open office, which doesn’t help the situation…I did find that if you open up a cabinet and stick your face in, and literally close the door on your own head, you get some great privacy.)
Remember that the worst thing you can do is fail tremendously. (Except for killing people. That’s the worst. Killing people is objectively worse than failing.)
We were about to head out on stage to do 4 minutes of stand-up and the more experienced guy opening for us said, “A little trick I use before I go out: I chant, ‘who f’king cares’ over and over until I realize that the worst thing that could happen in that moment is that I fail.” Boy do I like that advice. Who cares. Fail tremendously.