The one skill I wish I had learned in my twenties is The Art of Staying in. The art of not going out.
It’s not that I never stayed in. I often stayed in, but only because I didn’t have interesting plans. The problem was I never stayed in as The Plan — as the plan I actively chose rather than going out.
I don’t know about you, but many Saturday nights in my twenties looked like this:
8 p.m.—8:15 p.m.: Meet with friends at a bar. Catch up on what happened in the past week of our work, family, and dating lives.
8:15 p.m.—11:00 p.m.: Drink. Think about talking to other people in the bar. Talk to my friends about maybe talking to other people in the bar.
11:00 p.m.—11:01 p.m.: Wonder, “Why am I here? Is there something better I could be doing with my time? Are these really my friends? Maybe I should think about my life sometime.”
11:02 p.m.—1:43 a.m.: Drink. Continue thinking about and talking about talking to other people in the bar. Occasionally pantomime instrumentation of the song being played in the bar.
1:44 a.m.—2:00 a.m.: Talk to another person in the bar. Immediately regret it. Spend the rest of the time mentally dissecting what transpired, thinking up brilliant things I should have said, and stewing over why the other person didn’t recognize the brilliant things I believe I did say.
2:01 a.m.—4:00 a.m.: A blur of wandering to various bars that may or may not be open past 2 a.m., going to house parties we’re not invited to, and eating mushy hash browns at a diner that smells vaguely like mothballs and clay.
Sometimes, as I settled into bed, I’d squint at my clock, do the math and think, “Hmm, I just spent the equivalent of an entire working day doing nothing in particular. Maybe I should find something better to do with my time.” Then, I’d fall asleep.
Sure, you could question my social skills, but that’s not the point. The point is, it took me a long time to realize that I didn’t enjoy bars. I went to them because everybody else did. I had no purpose there, and I’d venture to guess that neither did many of the other patrons.
Socializing is good. But socializing as a default — out of some Fear Of Missing Out — is not good.
There is an art to staying in. When I did stay in during my twenties, I did so restlessly—unartfully. I’d spend most of the night trying to find a plan, or feeling like I was worthless for not having a plan.
Staying in artfully would have been different. When you stay in artfully, you don’t have a Fear Of Missing Out. You know that you’ll be spending your time wisely, so it’s actually better than any other plan you could possibly make.
Staying in artfully would have sounded simple:
Thanks for the invite, but I’m staying in.
That’s the polite way of putting it. In my mind, it would have gone like this:
Thanks, but I have plans: I’m going to stay in and read, work on a project, journal, or some other thing more nourishing for me than aimlessly lingering in a bar for eight hours.
The key to staying in artfully is that you aren’t staying in for a lack of plans. It’s not because you’re tired, either. Staying in—and what you invest fresh energy into while staying in—is The Plan.
When you stay in artfully, you’ve found something else to do that is so compelling, so stimulating to your curiosity and your growth as a person, it takes priority over anything else.
It could be a creative endeavor, it could be reviewing your goals, or it could be going to bed early so you can have a productive Sunday morning.
One of my favorite nights to stay in is New Year’s Eve. Whenever I went out on New Year’s Eve, the FOMO was so thick you could cut it with a shattered champagne glass. Now, I take the opportunity to look back on what I’ve accomplished in my previous year, and think about how I’ll meet my goals in the coming year.
Yes, there are plenty of more nourishing and purposeful things you can do when you go out, rather than linger at a bar. For example, in my thirties, I’ve discovered the joys of social dancing—actually learning and practicing a dance style, such as Salsa or Bachata. It’s turned out to be challenging and intellectually stimulating. I meet nice people, and, hey, I’m dancing!
Even renting a private karaoke room with my friends has turned out to be more fulfilling than bars. I guess I enjoy creative expression in all forms.
I wish I would have discovered these alternatives in my twenties. I would have found them more engaging and enjoyable.
But I still wish I could have learned The Art of Staying in. I probably would have written more books by now, or event started my podcast sooner.
I know I’m being hard on my twenty-something self. I’m speaking from the privileged position of someone pushing forty, who has found his place in the world. I have healthy and happy friendships and relationships, and a fulfilling creative career.
It’s easy for me to say that I should have just stayed in and been content, when I didn’t have the relationships or the career I wanted. I can appreciate that the soft light of a bar, viewed through a booze-filled lens, the true content of the conversations obscured by the latest Interpol album, makes it feel as if anything is within reach. The noise and randomness makes it seem as if anything could happen, at any moment—magically.
And maybe I had to waste a few working days’ worth of aimlessly lingering at a bar to get the things I wanted. Maybe it taught me what I didn’t want—the kinds of interactions I didn’t want to have. The feeling of lack of purpose I wanted to avoid.
But I still would have been better off learning The Art of Staying in. It’s the art of saying, “No, I will not surrender my fate to randomness. I will not settle into the default, and merely hope for magic. The alternative is too valuable. There are things I want to accomplish. I’m starting tonight.”