Old Dog + New Tricks = Life Hack
One day, in the thick of middle age, New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik had an epiphany. Society urges us to achieve. At all costs. What if, instead, we simply did things for the sake of doing them?
In the fall of 2013, a few days after my marriage imploded, I was so despondent I contemplated ending my life. Instead, on a whim I can only understand in hindsight, I signed up for a level zero improv class and taught myself guitar. The goal was never to become a professional actor or a rock star. I’m mediocre, at best, at both. The goal was simply, in the wake of what I viewed as a colossal public failure—albeit one that time has allowed me to see in much more forgiving terms—to learn something new for the sake of learning it. To find joy where I could.
This was new territory for me. Mastery not for the sake of mastering but for the sake of challenging myself to be really terrible at something until I kinda maybe could do it well enough to call it mine. Private accomplishment, not public achievement. My three younger sisters and I were all dressed in Harvard sweatshirts practically since birth, and we each jumped through the proper hoops to fulfill our parents’ fleece prophecy. But then what? More achievement? More silver rings?
Joy, of course, does not come from jumping through hoops. It comes, as any kid knows but unlearns, from running up and down a dune because it’s there. The silver ring, it turns out, is just a hunk of metal.
And so the real work of life, Adam Gopnik argues in his new book, The Real Work, is not achievement but rather accomplishment. “Our social world often conspires to denigrate accomplishment in favor of the rote work of achievement,” he wrote in a recent New York Times Op-Ed. Meanwhile, “the hobbyist or retiree taking a course in batik or yoga, who might be easily patronized by achievers, has rocket fuel in her hands.”
In other words, the step-by-step, often Sisyphean act of accomplishment—mastering something new for the sheer joy of doing it—produces a type of deep and unrivaled engagement and flow our society doesn’t celebrate but, Gopnik argues, should. In Gopnik’s case, this included learning how to drive, box, draw, bake, bike, dance, and—this one surprised and delighted me—pee in a public restroom when you have paruresis (shy bladder syndrome.) But to reduce the book to a recounting of the dunes Gopnik scaled is to misunderstand its journey for the reader, which is, ironically, witnessing a master of writing doing what he does best.
It’s a sneaky duality. Gopnik describes his bad drawing, his nervous driving, his inability to pee on an airplane, his tentative bread-baking with his eccentric mother, his clumsy dancing with his daughter, but wait, I asked myself, why am I weeping, copiously, at the latter two? Oh, right. The dude can write. Even when—no, especially when—describing the importance of doing stuff you’re not all that good at doing, including accepting the foibles and imperfections of one’s family.
“Be the noodle,” Gopnik’s driving instructor keeps telling him, whenever he tenses up in the car. As life philosophies go, it’s a pretty good one. It’s also yet another delight of this book: witnessing Gopnik’s love of a good teacher. Take his art teacher, a fellow father at his kids’ school, who patiently teaches his pupil—a well-respected art critic at The New Yorker, after all—that the real work of art-making is not in seeing the big picture but in opening oneself up to the joys, difficulties, and mysteries of discovering its parts. What is actually in front of you? Not the symbol of a body but the thing itself. See that muscle? It looks like a turtle. That indent? It has a tiny elf in it. Now, how will you—slowly, laboriously—sketch each minute part of that torso, including the turtle and the elf, until these small strokes create, like magic, a human whole?
Normally, in this publication, I focus on women, but I wanted to interview Gopnik for two important reasons. One, I have known Adam now for two plus decades, ever since having met on miniature chairs in our sons’ kindergarten in the fall of 2000, the year both of our first memoirs were published: his, Paris to the Moon. Mine, Shutterbabe. And in the course of those twenty-three years, not only have our sons become and remained best friends, but I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve asked this man for his advice. Each time I’ve asked, he has freely, and honestly, given it. Without sugar coating. Without pandering.
The first time I tearfully admitted what was wrong in my marriage, in fact, was in front of Adam and his wife Martha Parker, after all their other guests had gone home. He spoke words I’ll never forget: “Far be it from me to tell you what to do, but if what you’re describing is true, staying in that kind of marriage will become more and more difficult with each passing year.” Not, You must leave. That would have been too simplistic, reductive, which Gopnik is anything but, both as a friend and in his writing. But rather, Here’s what will happen if you stay: laying the onus on me to take action on my own accord, at my own pace, should I choose to take any action at all.
The Real Work is filled with the same kind of indirect, gentle wisdom for getting anyone who is stuck unstuck, even if Gopnik never set out to write a book of advice. And this is reason number two I’m featuring a man’s book in a publication about women. In the same way Adam helped me navigate the rocky shoals of my early adulthood, I believe that his words in this book can be useful to all of us, male or female, as we navigate life’s second half. “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Mary Oliver once asked, a line of poetry cited so often, it has become cliché. But clichés become clichés for a reason: they contain the grains of truth that become life’s dunes: ours to run down or not, depending upon how much joy we think we deserve and whether we even remember how or where to find it.
Several times, it must be said, I’ve had the distinct pleasure of running up and down the steep dunes of Cape Cod with Adam and his family, our brows scrunched on the way up, our mouths widened into smiles on the way down. Reading The Real Work reminded me of those dunes and days long since past, when our kids were young, and the sand was hot, and we were all trying to figure out how both to do the hard work of life and to enjoy doing it. Hearing Adam’s voice daily in my headphones—I chose to listen to The Real Work rather than read it—felt like a gentle daily reminder to pay attention to that most cliché of all clichés: it’s the journey, kids, not the destination.
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