You know that motivational poster every guidance counselor had? Maybe it had funky typographic art, or a sweeping landscape photo featuring twinkling stars. “Shoot for the moon,” it urged sullen high schoolers. “Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars!”
Ours is an aspirational culture. You can be anything you want to be! Maybe do something about that hormonal acne. If you dream it, you can become it! They make very effective over-the-counter tooth-whiteners these days. The sky is the limit! Get your piece-of-crap life together before it’s too late to become an astronaut.
The American dream, right?
Advice maven Heather Havrilesky, who writes the “existential advice column” Ask Polly at New York Mag’s The Cut, isn’t sold. For her, this “you can do better” attitude is more of a modern societal plague, an endless contest to be smarter, funnier, skinnier, have more well-curated Instagrams and more Twitter followers.
“What’s the purpose of seeming a million times hotter than you are?” she argued in a phone conversation with The Huffington Post last month. “Most women just want to be hotter than we are. [...] Which is just horseshit. What you’re saying, essentially, when you think that about yourself, is, you’re never quite there. You’re always one step behind.”
“I think that one of the biggest challenges is just to say, this is exactly where I’m supposed to be.”
One of the biggest challenges is just to say, this is exactly where I'm supposed to be. Heather Havrilesky
In July, Havrilesky published a book entitled How to Be a Person in the World: Ask Polly’s Guide to the Paradoxes of Modern Life. It compiles a tantalizing assortment of shiny new Ask Polly columns as well as a few select favorites from the archive, reaching back to when the column launched on The Awl in 2012 (Polly moved to The Cut in 2014).
When I reverentially opened the book, I was genuinely counting on it to help me with the titular mission. As a city-dwelling millennial woman who has long supplemented or replaced therapy with eager dives into the Ask Polly archives (sample inspiring lines: “We are deeply fucked in many ways, but we are not uniquely fucked”; “Your disappointed Chihuahua eyes are beautiful”), I was ready to spend an afternoon in a state of emotional deep-tissue massage.
Though self-help isn’t my jam, and I rarely take advice, I believe in Polly’s power because she’s not a self-helper or an advice-disher; not really. That’s not to say the Los Angeles-based writer is some sort of newbie. Havrilesky wrote an advice column for Suck.com starting in 2001, then answered advice-seekers on her own website for years. Along the way, she was also working as a TV critic for Salon and writing a memoir called Disaster Preparedness that came out in 2010. But all that experience didn’t translate into a more conventional agony aunt: It forged her into the opposite.
Ask Polly is an anti-advice column, a self-help sanctuary that doesn’t push self-improvement or transcending your limits. When you’ve grown up surrounded by motivational posters telling you that a successful life means shooting for the moon and at least making it to the stars, a quotidian 20-something existence of paying bills with a just-OK job can spark a crisis of self-loathing. For young people who are, as Havrilesky put it, “fed on other people’s perfection at this moment,” no practical advice is as precious as what Ask Polly offers: the assurance that you’re probably just fine, that you’re basically normal, that you’re going to figure things out as long as you give yourself a break.
As a result, few, if any, advice columns have the same aura Ask Polly radiates, of being able to jump-start a sputtering soul or flagging spirit. It’s not a parade of questions dithering over where to sit your divorced aunt and uncle at your wedding or the precise, pithy retort to use when someone rudely comments on your pregnancy belly in public. It’s an in-depth journey into each questioner’s most intractable life issues, an attempt to draw out the universally relatable aspects of those problems, and a bid to empower that person ― and readers ― to sally forth and fix their own ramshackle life.
As I told Havrilesky during our phone interview, Ask Polly has always impressed me as less an advice column than a pep talk column. Where Slate’s Prudie is your prim aunt who doesn’t think any of your boyfriends are good news, and Miss Manners is that family friend who spends your whole wedding gossiping about RSVP cards not having pre-applied stamps, Polly suits the role of your badass older sister ― a woman who’s done and seen it all, and wants you to know she’s got your back, no matter what bullshit you’re pulling.
“It’s easy enough to rubberneck advice columns that are like, ‘I did this wrong thing,’ and the advice columnist says, ‘You’re an idiot. You need to do it this way instead,’” Havrilesky told me. “It opens your heart to read these things that are kind of like, Oh my God, I remember how that used to feel.”
She particularly sees the need for this with young women, who are often plagued with self-doubt and showered with conflicting advice about how to make themselves hot, successful, desirable, easygoing, cool, smart, impossible to leave, and impossible not to fall in love with.
“There’s a lot of ‘here’s how women fuck up, here’s how women screw up everything they do, don’t be like them.’ All those messages that are like, ‘think really hard and memorize these strategies that have nothing to do with you,’” Havrilesky pointed out. “It’s like cramming for a test.”
Any harried college student who’s flailed in a final exam can tell you: In the long run, cramming isn’t an effective strategy for mastery of the material.
You actually have to slow down and let people keep feeling what they’re feeling so they don’t turn off their feelings. Heather Havrilesky
Not that Ask Polly is a mindless affirmation dispenser or a vending machine for life-choice approval. Havrilesky won’t tell a letter-writer to keep sawing away at a relationship or friendship that’s toxic or one-sided, and she doesn’t give carte-blanche to advice-seekers who are acting like selfish dicks. “This isn’t really winning,” she writes to one woman who keeps getting involved with unavailable men. “It’s hurting yourself and hurting other women in one blow. It’s serving your ass on a platter not to a prince but to a predator.”
But Havrilesky also won’t give the answer often glibly provided in the comments: “Just move on. Get over it.” After talking the perpetual other woman through the ugly motivations and uglier effects of her behavior, she empathizes with her feelings of shame, anger, confusion, and loneliness ― and she paints a way out: “You may wonder, without the excitement, without the drama of the forbidden guy, what is there? Stay with that thought. Stay with the messy aftermath,” she writes. “Imagine yourself at a party, not sparkling. Imagine losing. Imagine being small and sorrowful and admitting how little you know [...] Forget seduction and intrigue. Talk to the other women at a party. Then go home and take a bath and feel good about sticking to your principles and being the honorable person you really are, deep inside.” A typical response clocks in at around 2,000 words.
Why the long-form approach to what basically boils down to messages like stop fucking other women’s boyfriends? “[S]ometimes people are like ugh, it’s so long-winded, why does it have be so long,” Havrilesky sighed, “but you know, what I’m trying to do is use language to bridge a gap between the things that you hear from people all the time that you don’t take in and the things that you feel all by yourself that you feel like other people can’t understand. And it takes the right language to get there.”
“I don’t take it lightly,” she added. “I don’t want to waltz in and say, ‘Yeah, yeah, you’ll get over it.’ So much of your life as a young person is other people saying, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, I went through that, no big deal, just fucking get on with it.’”
Instead, Ask Polly allows space for feelings, however uncomfortable or improper those feelings are, under the theory that people have to move through those feelings naturally, rather than suppress them, to actually get over them. “You actually have to slow down and let people keep feeling what they’re feeling so they don’t turn off their feelings,” Havrilesky told me. “It’s easy as a young person for the world to tell you to get over it, and getting over it, basically what it means is that you don’t ever get over it.”
“The idea of a lot of my columns is to stay where you are,” she said. If you’re mourning someone, you continue to mourn them, and you follow your feelings to where they’re going to be.”
One classic Ask Polly column, which appears in the book, counsels a woman who’s struggling with protracted grief over her father’s unexpected death. Havrilesky’s whole response ― which draws heavily on her response to her own dad’s death during her 20s ― reads like a cool tonic to the lonely, bereft soul. And true to form, this isn’t because she douses mourners in sunny cheer, but because she gives us permission to stay in our real, messy, inconvenient feelings. “You are not stuck. You are not wallowing,” she summed up. “This is a beautiful, terrible time in your life that you’ll always remember. Don’t turn away from it. Don’t shut it down. Don’t get over it.”
Don’t get over it. That’s not an advice columnist truism. Neither is encouraging people to accept that where they are is exactly where they’re supposed to be. If all that is true, what is the purpose of advice?
But here’s where we are now: Everyone, especially Snapchatting millennials, feel the pressure to use each 24 hours of the day ― the same number as Beyoncé has! ― to meet the most superficial goals of fabulousness, and it’s possible all that anxiety and effort poured into achieving visible success and happiness only detracts from our actual success and happiness.
“A lot of the people who write to me who are young [...] think they can control their lives by calibrating their presentation,” explained Havrilesky. “And really what you create when you’re constantly trying to calibrate and curate yourself is an intensely neurotic animal.”
“Social media feeds into that,” she added. “A lot of us just need a reminder not to do that, and to accept the flawed imperfect self.”
Havrilesky is often her own best example. She writes about accepting her limitations ― that she would never be the hot, laid-back girlfriend past men wanted her to be, that certain artistic ambitions of hers would not make her rich and famous ― and for all that, she’s built a successful creative career and is married with children. “I’m really about forgiving yourself for who you are and giving yourself space to be just as lame as you are, in some ways,” she told me. Accepting your imperfections and quirks might seem like giving up, but she sees it as part and parcel of building a life that is sustainably happy and rationally ambitious.
It’s important to accept where we are and proceed into the world without expecting to be better than we are. Heather Havrilesky
Not to mention, she offers a way for you to enjoy your own accomplishments rather than constantly pick apart even your greatest moments of triumph, as she cops to doing herself. “I did this NPR Weekend Edition interview,” she recalled, “and I was driving home, and I said to my husband, ‘Well, I was a little less brilliant than I wanted to be.’ I was perfectly great, I was myself, but I wasn’t better than myself, is what I was telling him. This impulse to be better than yourself is just really interesting.”
When it comes down to it, she admitted with some regret, we can’t all be Beyoncé ― who, it turns out, Havrilesky adores. “I write music, so I’m really drawn in by that,” she told me, as she rhapsodized about the genius of Beyoncé’s tour and stagecraft. “To be that gorgeous and to sound that good, and to look that good, and to move that way [...] It’s understandable that people want to reach towards that kind of illusion. And it’s art.”
Still, she said, “As mortal humans, we’re happiest when we’re not reaching for that. When we resist the temptation to form ourselves in the image of these mediated demigods. It’s important to accept where we are and proceed into the world without expecting to be better than we are.”
No one’s putting “proceed into the world without expecting to be better than you are” on a motivational poster. Maybe someone should. Or maybe we should all just take a weekly dose of Ask Polly and be grateful Havrilesky is out there telling us to stay where we are, forgive ourselves for our faults, and not to expect for one minute to wake up as Beyoncé.