Let’s get real. Everyone’s looking for whizbang Mark Zuckerberg success. Packed calendars, massive herds of online followers. Mornings when — as a friend of mine who is a real life pop star described — someone comes into your bedroom and tells you everything you’re going to do that day. And to get there, we need a way to live that will, in a foolproof way, make us into our best selves. All we’ll have to do is follow the directions on the side of the box, and press play.
We need a mantra. Four or five words we can repeat to ourselves when things get rough. I need a mantra that I can safely put on loop whenever it’s Sunday night and I look out my window like a little Gloomy Gus. Whenever I’ve ordered too many greasy/spicy Pad See Ews and am sitting on my floor in a Thai swamp. Whenever it’s a damp, drizzly November in my soul and I wake up looking at the bumps on the wall, trying to connect them to make constellations while curled up like a corpse.
It’s been tough to find one. I still haven’t. I’ve tried many, but all of them failed me. I’m hoping you don’t repeat my mistakes. Here are a few personal mantras I’ve tried, and how they’ve failed me:
1. “Focus on the Content.”
I actually think this is what got me a 3.99 GPA. It made me focus on, for example, Euclid. Just sat there and focused on it, ambivalently. Soon, I found something I liked about the old guy. And then I started reading.
I know this is an esoteric one to start with, and maybe that’s why it used to work for me. “Focus on the Content” assumes that there’s some “content” to focus on, and some stuff that is not “content” (i.e. personal relationships, having fun, tweeting, and all of the other things I did not do in college). It’s all about directing your energies outward – focusing yourself on something that’s outside of you, so you tame the narcissistic beast that would say, instead, “put down that stodgy book and start building your Twitter followers!!”
Interestingly, this mantra doesn’t translate well into adult life. After I’d landed in NYC, I held onto it, but kept getting bogged down in asking myself, “well, what is the content here in this adult maze of responsibility and favors and fakery?” I don’t really know if there is any real content in the adult world. When you take Euclid off your desk and replace it with expense reports, well…huh? No text, no subtext, no meaning to hunt down like the hero. Just black and white and a thousand failures you’re polishing like trophies. Everything’s too incestuous for adults — everything I’ve done since graduating college has been the result of a friend telling me to do it (including writing this right now). I can’t shut myself up like a 25-year-old J.D. Salinger in the middle of Manhattan. One year after I’d graduated college, I realized “Focus on the Content” just wasn’t working. It was taking my eye off the prize.
2. “Own It.”
I started this one because I was a teacher at the time, and I’d heard so many other teachers and education folk telling me that the problem with my classroom was a failure to really own it. That I wasn’t assertive enough and my students were pissing all over me because I wasn’t owning it.
I like the assertiveness of this one. When I say it to myself, I feel like a black woman. My voice drops a few octaves, and I emphasize the “oo” in the diphthong of “own.” To “own it” means to feel like you control it. To be able to tell it to sit down and have it listen to you. There’s a kind of masculinity that I lack. To presume that you own something, even something as complex as a classroom of 13-year-olds. I own that. Those lives.
This issue with this one, aside from its turning me into a kind of taskmaster when I’m really just a meek white boy, was that I really don’t own very much. I have a few hundred dollars to my name, some IKEA furniture, one pinstripe suit, and a very small subset of people listen to me when I say things. It felt fake. I’ll never be a person who owns much, and I don’t want to be.
3. “Just Do It”
So…yes, this is a corporate tagline. I probably should have known at that point that it wasn’t the best option. As great as “Just Do It” is, you never want to have a gnawing fear that you’re a gullible consumer (and I don’t even do sports) as you repeat something to yourself all day.
For a summer a few years ago, lost in the misty confusion that is NYC when you’re 23 and it’s summer and you feel like you’re treading water, I adopted this one hardcore. I just wanted something in my life to move. And Jesus Christ, shit moved. But weird shit. Random shit, because I was just doing anything I wanted to do, and not thinking about it for a minute before doing it. I’d self-lobotomized the cautious part of my frontal lobe. I lived in a sixth-floor walkup near the East River, and I did my laundry every Sunday. I rented a car and drove to Baltimore and back in 10 hours. I ate at Momofuku alone and sang for money on the subway. I was basically possessed.
It felt good to be unafraid. But I was stupid, like those feckless sperm that swim in the wrong direction.
4. “Love What You Do”
You hear this a lot. The most successful people, duh, are the ones who love working. So, I walked around for probably 2-3 months trying to get myself to truly love everything I was doing. Just love, pouring out of me like a Californian in spring. I tried to love errands. I tried to love waiting in line, and taking the subway from Nereid to Prospect Ave.
You see a lot of people with this kind of manufactured love. They appreciate the dinner of black beans flavored with cigarette smoke in a Financial District greasy spoon. They smize on the subway. They smize at the spotted roaches in the kitchen drawers.
This one brings up an interesting question: Can you self-talk enough until you get to actual love? Can you turn around the brain machinery to make it make you feel things? For me, the answer is no. The fact, when I fess up to myself, is I don’t love everything I do. I don’t love standing in line at Trader Joe’s carrying a gallon of milk, for example. I don’t love Mondays. I don’t love my outdated computer. I don’t love myself all the time.
5. “There’s no crying in baseball.”
I started this one when I watched Beyoncé’s autobiographical documentary, Life Is But A Dream. There’s this one scene where Beyoncé, the night before an important show, practices dance moves in a hotel hallway at 2am. It’s a portrait of dedication: two random British tourists walk past Beyoncé to their hotel room, ask her, “What are you up to?” and Beyoncé replies “Do you want to do this for me?”
No, Beyoncé, we don’t want to do that for you. We’re going to go to bed. We don’t want to practice a weird African dance move 500 times until it looks perfectly robotic. We don’t want to listen to a click track while we practice the same vocal run as the sun rises. But Beyoncé does want to do that stuff, and that’s why she’s Beyoncé.
Behind every major artistic endeavor, there are hours and hours and days and years of intense self-questioning, coffee breath, and smelly sweaty underwear. So, naturally, I tried my best to adopt this philosophy hard-work-above-all-else mindset. I wanted to be Beyoncé. I wanted to work just as hard. And I tried. I started running places. Literally. Like I’d run the 1.5 blocks from the subway to my apartment. I’d push people through the turnstile on the subway. I’d run to work from the Spring St. station.
It was satisfying for a week, until I got more tired than I’d ever been and felt like I was treading quicksand while everyone else I knew had this centeredness about them that I just didn’t have.
And as I kept thinking about this, I started to come around to the idea that hard work in itself isn’t always what it takes. Some people work incredibly hard and still end up working at Westville and shoveling snow for money. I needed a more reflective mantra.
6. The Law of Attraction
Will Smith tells us that belief leads to success. It’s appealing, especially in America, to be able to write your destiny down on a napkin and churn it into reality. So, like Jim Carrey, I actually did write a check to myself for $15 million and put it in my wallet. And for a few weeks, I felt like $15 million – I started wearing collars, eating eggs for breakfast, and staying later at work to make this $15 million thing a reality.
I felt like I was making progress. Like Kris Allen in “Let It Rain,” I wouldn’t let anything stand in the way of my Dreams. Then I started to feel delusional. In meetings, and at the printer with those expense reports, I’d imagine myself a mogul, walking down a grand staircase toward big vats of money while oompa loompas grin like presenters and do those Fosse hand movements from Pippin on either side. I’d imagine myself on a billboard somewhere with graffiti on my nose.
I’m ambivalent about the Law of Attraction’s scientific validity, but I do know that it’s harder than it looks. Because it’s hard to believe in yourself like that. Significantly, it’s the believing that’s harder than the actual doing. It takes work to convince yourself that you’re going to succeed, when everything around you looks like Hard Times. It takes work for me to think I’m going to make $15 million when literally everything around me is telling me that is never, ever going to happen. Like, ever.
The Law of Attraction is like turning yourself into an insane person – you have to force yourself to purposefully detach from reality. I dropped this one when I started feeling too insane to function.
I may never find my mantra. It actually may be impossible to find something so comprehensive – a mental swiss army knife. Further, I suspect these mantras are actually self-defeating – the first problem is probably that I keep changing them, and spending 30% of my week reflecting on the mantra I’ve chosen. The second problem is that they promote the kind of inner dialogue that can be destructive to someone trying to actually engage with the world. But I’m addicted to them. I like to be focused, and when there’s so much ridiculousness going on in the world, it makes me happy to be able to crawl back to some home base in my mind. Can’t. Stop. Talking. To. Myself. And so it goes.
I’ve found a new mantra, one that I won’t reveal here for fear that you’ll steal it and be just as focused and effective as I am right now. But if you ever see me on a street corner, talking to myself nonsensically, you’ll know why.
What’s your personal mantra? Share in the comments, and hopefully we can help each other finally settle on one and get on with our lives.