I still remember the first time I heard someone say, “Johnny is intense.” It was one of those moments where something hits you all at once, clearly having built up over time. I wasn’t learning that one person thought I was intense, right there and then. I was learning that everyone thought it, and thought it chronically. It was a widely-accepted truism in my work life: Better watch out, because Johnny is intense.
This was hard for me to accept because I’m so silly. Or at least, that’s how I see myself. I think farts are funny. I’ve been known to watch SpongeBob SquarePants when I’m alone. Persuade me to do karaoke and I’ll slay up there because what others call “mortifying,” I just call “attention.” I used to wonder why I didn’t lose my inhibitions when I drank, but then I realized it’s because I don’t have many inhibitions to begin with. I don’t filter much. What you see is what you get, baby.
After hearing that I was intense, I asked my writing partner Sean, who I knew would make me feel better. He’d set it straight. He’d tell me it wasn’t really that way.
Sean waffled and said, “Well …” Then he sighed. “You’re kind of intense, dude.”
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised I came across as intense. I mean, I did write a mega-viral essay called The Universe Doesn’t Give a Flying Fuck About You. Someone described my blogging style back in the day as “He punches you in the face for your own good.” I wrote that way because it was frustrating to see people wanting change and knowing what they needed to do to get change … but ultimately doing nothing. I saw myself as the guy on the skydiving plane who pushes people out the door when they get cold feet. Why were they complaining? Even if the fall was actually dangerous, they were wearing parachutes.
I recently told this story to my friend BJ. He couldn’t believe it. Because around BJ, I’m not intense at all. I’m the opposite of intense. I’m ridiculous. Me, BJ, and Lance — we’re all ridiculous together. We’re currently in search of highlighter-yellow sombreros to carry with us into convention centers so we can …
Wait. I’ll get to that. First, there’s something else we should cover.
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Why I was intense, and why you probably are, too
You’ve probably heard the word “adulting.” If not, now you have. It’s one of many nouns that’ve been turned into verb infinitives, and as a writer and grammar snob, I’m not okay with it at all.
As in: I adult. You adult. He/she/it adults.
Which means: I’m boring. You’re boring. He, she, and it, are all out there being as boring as they possibly can be.
We usually take “adulting” to mean having responsibilities. According to many hilarious T-shirts, there’s also an implication that adulting is a burden, exhausting, and something that requires willpower that nobody has at the end of a long work week. Adulting isn’t something you step into proudly. It’s something the world forces on you, because frankly you’d rather be playing with Legos.
But it’s sliced even finer than that, isn’t it? Adulting includes paying bills, going to work, taking care of your family, taking care of your health, and all that other stuff that “needs to be done.” And so, okay. A lot of it does need to be done. You do need to pay your bills and go to work. Adulting doesn’t really refer to the tasks themselves. It refers, very specifically, to the repugnancy associated with them.
Doing the dishes is responsible. But: feeling that you must do the dishes? That some ethereal Mommy Dearest is yelling at you with her coat hanger at the ready if you don’t do them? That’s adulting.
Adulting is the extra layer we add to raw actions so that we can resent them — because if we’re able to resent them, we can disavow them.
Think about it. If you’d just do the fucking dishes instead of whining about how some unseen obligatory force is making you do it, you’d never have to worry about adulting. But here’s the problem: You would then have to admit that you’re the kind of person who’s okay with doing the dishes. To some degree, you’re admitting that “a responsible dish-doer” is who you are. Nobody wants that. The way out is to become a victim. I hate doing dishes. I only do it because I’m being forced.
But who’s forcing you? You are, sort of. See how dumb all of this is? It’s our brains’ attempt to have it both ways.
You want to be a kid and to hold onto the carefree mindset you had when you were a kid, but you also don’t want the neighbors to see your unmowed lawn and the sub-par car you drive. So, you mow the lawn and buy a better car to impress all those people out there who couldn’t give less of a shit because they’re preoccupied by how everyone sees THEM and are therefore mostly (or entirely) ignoring you. (See also: The Universe Doesn’t Give a Flying Fuck About You.)
The only way be carefree like a kid and responsible like an adult is to blame an external force for all the adult things you do. Enter adulting: our fragile ego’s whipping boy.
I used to be more intense than I am. Back then, it was really important to me that I seem responsible and in control. That’s why I micromanaged people. That’s why I got annoyed when things turned out wrong — things I’d gone out of my way to explain to people how to do right.
It was really important to me, in other words, that I not be embarrassed by the things out in the world that, in the end, represented me and my work. It was really important to my ego to appear in charge. I needed to be an adult, dammit, even though I still felt like a kid.
That was adulting, doing its spectacular job at enabling cognitive dissonance.
Most of us instinctively feel those twin, seemingly-irreconcilable desires: To be seen as adults with all the integrity and ego gratification that comes with it … but also to have the fun and carefree feelings we had as children.
I’d like to propose another — a better — way to have both things at once.
It starts with recognizing bullshit.
Let’s talk bullshit.
I blame my books for making me so introspective. I’ve written over a hundred of them now, and the same themes keep coming up over and over. I don’t plan my prose — especially the dialogue and arguments, which is where most of the interesting stuff comes to light. I feel like I’m channeling something larger than myself — something I don’t understand until it’s out. I write in order to learn what I believe, rather than writing what I already believe.
Like using a Ouija board, my fingers keep spelling out a few things that now strike me as universally true — things I didn’t realize before I saw them on the page. But those truths … Well, the more I think on them, the more they feel self-evident. Obvious. I can’t refute the important ones if I try.
One is that your individual experience creates your own unique reality. Period.
The best example I can think of this is an extreme one. Let’s say there’s someone in a mental hospital who says he’s got bugs all over his skin. You might look at him and say, “There’s no bugs on that guy. He’s crazy.” You might then find a hundred friends to confirm it, because obviously consensus makes something true.
But it’s not true. Not in the only way that actually matters, which is to that guy. I don’t care how many people stand around and deny the bugs. TO HIM, THERE ARE BUGS.
Think about that for a second. What meaningful definition of “real” or “true” — as relates to this one specific person — could there possibly be other than his own experience? How exactly does YOUR “true version of reality” impact him even one tiny iota?
In this way, reality is subjective. From the patient’s perspective, “what’s real” is bugs. From your perspective, the bugs (or lack of bugs) doesn’t matter. Your business is dealing with how the patient’s behavior affects you, which in most cases is not at all. And oh, you think what that man believes affects you, but what’s really happening is that you’re reacting to his reaction. You feel an unassailable need to make your version of reality jibe with his.
But who cares? Why do you feel the need to make him believe what you believe? Is your own reality so fragile that one disagreement threatens to shatter it? He’s living in a reality where there are bugs on his skin. That’s just how it is.
Okay. Wait. Let’s pause for a moment.
I just laid out some pretty heady stuff, full of philosophical mindfuck implications. So now let’s step back, away from all of that, and give our brains a rest while we reset. I promised we’d talk about bullshit, after all.
Or more to the point, what does bugs-on-skin guy have to do with adulting?
The answer is that both exemplify a need we have to make our beliefs jibe with everyone else’s. Those beliefs form a continuum, with the bullshittiest stuff at the bottom.
Specifically, I’m talking about the bullshit of personal preferences … and the very-adult threat of embarrassment that goes with it.
The guy in the red cowboy suit
This place near me holds free outdoor concerts in the spring and fall. That’s where I first saw Bob Schneider, with whom I might have a slight fanboy obsession, who I might see as my songwriting doppelgänger, and who I might secretly hope one of you tells all about me so Bob and I can be best friends.
Aaaaaanyway, during one such concert, a couple in their 80s walked right up near the stage and began doing an old-fashioned western dance. The man was wearing a bright red shirt, bright red pants, bright red boots, and a bright red cowboy hat. He looked like an advertisement for something: one nobody pays attention to because it’s too kitschy.
I’m a little ashamed of this, but my first reaction was to laugh and point the couple out to my wife. I’d never say anything beyond that, but it was important that I share how ridiculous they were with someone. They were in plain view of the entire lawn, with everyone else sitting down. They were dressed ridiculously, doing a ridiculous dance all alone. Was everyone seeing this — how absurd they were?
But then I had a strange and novel thought: Who cares?
That might not sound like much, but believe me: It was a next-level epiphany. You read “who cares” and you just pass it by, but I’ll encourage you right now to imagine this scenario, then sincerely ask who would ever care about any of it for a legitimate reason — and why, and ultimately what the point would be.
It was like I teleported into the man-in-red’s brain. Suddenly I was him, and it was clear he (I) wasn’t even aware of the crowd thinking that he (I) was ridiculous. The head-shaking assessment of others was completely unrecognized at best, irrelevant at worst. As long as nobody went up to confront him or hassle him, he’d leave without our judgment even being noticed, let alone affecting him.
I don’t know that I can convey how profound that realization was, other than to encourage you to think about it for a while. We all heard as kids, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” This was like that turned into a Zen koan. Everyone was staring at that couple, and unless I was the only bastard, most were forming mental words about ways in which that man’s behavior was somehow wrong. But how? Why? And ultimately, who gave a shit? He was living in a reality in which none of it even existed.
There I was, having a series of mental events about something that had no impact on my life whatsoever, and certainly no impact on his.
And there he was, having the time of his life with his lady.
You know what that means?
It means freedom.
Be dumb. Nobody cares.
I’ve evolved a lot, mentally, since then. Post-epiphany, I’ve started to recognize people like those dancers as brave individuals who refuse to be shackled by the bullshit we heap onto ourselves. They don’t care, so unless they’re interfering somehow with me, why should I care?
Ultimately, our knee-jerk reactions to behavior we find odd (like unashamed dancers) shares the same root as all that goes wrong with adulting.
It’s all about conformity. Or, more specifically: It’s about the pressure we put on ourselves to conform whether anyone else would put that pressure on us or not.
What that means is that we don’t usually wait for people to stop us from doing something. We stop ourselves in advance. We’re little prediction engines, driven by internal forces, constantly sorting possible actions into “I might do that” and “I definitely won’t do that.”
Some of what we decide is based on true harms: i.e., Don’t stick your face into that industrial stamping machine. Numerically, though, true harms are in the distant minority. Almost everything we decide not to do is based on fear of social consequences. But not even real social consequences. Usually, we base our actions on guesses: whether there might possibly be social consequences. Somewhere. Somehow.
As a result, even someone who wants to sing karaoke will often self-censor before they try. The mere fear of an imaginary non-consequence stops them.
Now, consider alcohol. Consider drugs. The reserved person is able to get over their fear and take the mic while drinking because their inhibitions go away. In that case, they are at least doing what they want to do. They’re eschewing the most absurd corners of “being a proper adult” and acting like a kid for a change.
But then what happens? The next day, all those social fears come roaring back … but worse; this time it’s in retrospect. It’s too late to not do the thing that will get them ostracized. Now they feel branded with it forever.
Somehow, I lucked into (or, more likely, trained myself into, thanks to all that storytelling introspection) a rather low-gauge social filter. I’m more likely than average to do things like stand in front of a crowd or sing or dance, as long as it’s not patently inappropriate to the moment. I don’t usually need to lose my inhibitions to step out of line for the promise of fun.
Our only jailers, my friends, are ourselves. We should embrace the fact that our reality can be one in which we’re “having fun” more than we’re “doing something wrong.”
In other words, fuck adulting. Be silly instead.
Enter The Dad Squad
My daughter plays elite-level volleyball. I could be humble here but I’d rather be maximally proud. Her team is literally one of the best teams in the nation.
Things weren’t always that way, though. I “coached” her first team, and nobody could get the ball over the net. It’s not that way for everyone. A lot of the girls who end up at the national level start at the national level. We had to work our way up, and it was a bit overwhelming when she made the top team two years ago.
Despite the thrill of it for the rest of my family, I had reservations. Not about the team, but about the parents.
I had a stereotype in my head, and it went like this: The parents of elite athletes were, I worried, more likely than average to be Type-A assholes who pressed their kids to succeed at all costs. I was further concerned that the girls might be divas: great at what they did and cocky about it.
Turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong. About the girls, and about their parents.
When we first joined the team, my daughter and I kept a lot of ourselves under wraps. This was an established group, and we didn’t want to be the obnoxious newcomers. (My wife is unfailingly chill and didn’t need to bother.) But in this case, “obeying the existing culture” happily also meant being out there a little. That’s because we had a big cheerleader type, Brian, on the team, who stood on the sidelines and ran the cheering section. Suddenly I had enough camouflage to loosen my inhibitions, because Brian had even fewer, and his voice dominated the bench.
It wasn’t long before the cheering section became known to other teams, most often as “that team with those obnoxious dads.” We thought “The Dad Squad” was a better name. It seemed apt. The moms did more work than we did, but we were front and center being loud. You don’t see a lot of Dad Squad action out there. Most people sit, and we were the exception.
Being part of that parent group was an interesting social microcosm for me. I already knew who I was (and people knew who I was) across the rest of my life and in my work. I even had a public persona. What I wasn’t used to was trying to find the rhythms of an established group who might turn out to be nothing like me. They weren’t like my weird writer friends, or my existing social friends. Because of that, at first, caution made me unwilling to cut loose. But because the Squad itself had momentum and a certain degree of friendly cutting loose already, I had a buffer. I could easily be a little weird in the ways they were weird.
At the end of that year, half of the team left, including Brian. It meant that if the Dad Squad was to continue, I couldn’t stay a follower. Next year, I’d have to be one of its leaders … and get one hell of a lot louder.
Okay, let me pause here again to reset. If you’re not used to me and the way I write, you’re probably wondering if this is going anywhere. I’m supposed to be talking about silliness, and now I’m talking about our volleyball cheer squad. Is there a point coming, or what?
Yes. Absolutely. Give me a sec; I’m an artist at work here.
Consider all we’ve talked about above. Consider the quasi-philosophical arguments I dissected at the outset.
What’s the enemy? It’s dissonance between the desire to be free, happy, and unbound versus the many social restrictions we imagine — restrictions that I’ve argued are mostly made up anyway. (eg: The dancing cowboy unaffected by others thinking he was ridiculous, because what does it matter?)
What’s the enemy? Not adulting per se, but the belief that we need a concept like adulting to hide behind. (eg: “Being a responsible adult means being cool, calm, and together at all times.”) If you believe in that definition of “responsible” but still want to have some irresponsible fun, adulting lets you claim that the real you is carefree … but adulting was necessary.
So now let’s bring this thing full circle.
We think we’re supposed to do certain things as adults.
We believe (falsely, in my opinion) that one of those things is “to act like an adult,” whatever that means.
“Acting like an adult” includes being strong and silent, keeping emotional distance, and being skeptical of (and, honestly, generally over) the things that kids do … because we’re adults, not kids.
That last one is insidious as hell. You might not even realize you believe it, but you probably do — at least subconsciously.
When’s the last time you sang along to your favorite song on the radio in front of unfamiliar people? Been a minute, hasn’t it? Yet kids do it all the time.
When’s the last time you genuinely played? I’m not talking about a formal, organized sport. Formal sports, conducted with certain stiff-upper-lip decorum and within proper venues and limits, are very adult. I’m talking about playing like a kid.
When’s the last time you truly goofed around, outside of a vetted group where “goofing around” has well-established routines and parameters?
Folks. Play is good. Goofing around is good. We all know it because the few times we’ve truly let our hair down to do it, we’ve had a blast. Our gut knows what’s good and fun and right. So why don’t we?
Answer: Those things aren’t adult enough. Adults are serious. Adults don’t play. Adults … do TPS reports or something.
You get to a certain point and you start demurring just because it feels “proper in certain company.”
We demur because we’ll feel foolish, which shouldn’t mean a damn thing. Just like the guy with bugs on his skin, that foolish feeling only exists inside our private reality. We’re like the mental patient in that way. We dance in public and suddenly we’re living a reality in which we aren’t just “acting foolish” but actually are fools.
But here’s the thing: That’s your reality, not the reality. Just like we’d say the mental patient is crazy for thinking there are bugs on him, so too might the people around you say you’re crazy for thinking you made a fool of yourself by dancing. You weren’t a fool, they might say. You were a blast!
To be safe and avoid the whole kerfuffle, most adults avoid being carefree and invent concepts like adulting to use as a crutch. Don’t blame me. I’m fun, but I’m adulting today. Then, when we do accidentally let loose, we have alcohol or other inhibition-looseners to blame.
See how that works? No matter what happens, it’s never our fault.
But I’ve got a question for you: What would happen if you just let you be you? Would the result be a fraction as catastrophic as your brain seems to think it’ll be?
Adults — at least everywhere I’ve lived — don’t make new friends easily. I have a theory as to why: We’re afraid of the openness that comes with friendship, because openness is childlike.
We’ll banter with someone in a group, but then shy away from hanging out one on one because that commits us as friends, and “friends” feels to adults like something that should be assumed but never declared. I’ll hang out with someone for a long time, but the first time someone uses the F-word, there’s still a psychic flinch. To most adults I’ve known, admitting to a new friendship is kind of like the gut-clench that comes from saying I love you. We are SO unused to opening up and being fully ourselves that simply admitting to enjoying someone’s company feels like walking around naked.
I loved our volleyball group right away, but I didn’t tell them. Why would I? That would be weird. Two years in, though, I’ve confessed like the hero of a romance novel. I told them over our last group dinner, “Watch out, because now that you’re used to me, I’m no longer going to hold back from being weird. You’ve got no idea what you’re in for.”
I got laughs, not groans. Turns out they like the real me. Who’d’a thunk it?
Do you know what happens when you open yourself up — when you let yourself be like a kid instead of a scared adult peeking out from behind the shield of “adulting”? What happens is, that openness spreads. It inspires others to open up and be themselves, too.
Last year, the Dad Squad was a hell of a lot of fun.
This year, though, I’ve uncorked fully and it’s gotten a lot more fun. I can’t take anywhere near all of the credit, but I know my weirdness helped. We all got weird together. It’s more fun because now we’re all letting it hang out.
We’ve got matching shirts.
We’ve got choreographed cheers.
We’re so loud (always positive loud, by the way) that after tournaments, we have sore throats for days.
My friend BJ, who I mentioned earlier, came up with something we’ve now started doing whenever our side gets an ace. It’s the below from The Three Amigos, but with a nod and the word “ACE!” instead of the hip thrust. Because, you know: families.
… and now you know why I said we were looking into sombreros: highlighter yellow, because that’s one of our club’s colors.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: Dude. That’s ridiculous. That’s silly. That’s cheesy. You’re embarrassing yourself.
And I’ll admit — writing this, I’ve thought the same things.
Don’t write about the cheer. Don’t write about ANY cheering. You’re a grown man with a public, professional reputation to uphold! Definitely don’t tell them that other dads have done cartwheels on the sideline and you’re looking for an opportunity to do the same. Don’t tell them you’ve thought about one-upping them by doing a handstand. Don’t tell them those tournaments are the time of your life, and you jump up and down watching them like … well … like a kid.
But the way I figure it, one of two things is true.
Either you’re not thinking that and that’s just more dumb social conditioning inside my mind that could stop me but hasn’t … or you are thinking I’m an idiot who should act his age.
Fortunately, if the second one is true, I just don’t care — like the red-clad cowboy didn’t care.
I’m having fun, acting like a kid and telling my new friends that they are, indeed, my friends.
Are you having as much fun over there on your high horse, judging me?
Be brave. Be bold. Be silly.
If any of this is resonating with you (if you’re maybe even a little sad now, remembering childlike fun and how long it’s been since you had any), the path forward is really simple.
Just be silly.
It’s not difficult. You can start small, containing your silliness to people you don’t know and will never meet again. On this one, I think of Phoebe going for a run in Friends. If you haven’t seen the show or the episode, Phoebe runs like a spaz. It embarrasses Rachel, who runs “responsibly, like an adult,” but Phoebe says that running like she used to as a kid is the only way it’s fun. If people look at you funny, who cares? It’s just for a second, and then you’re gone!
Sing along to the car radio at an intersection even if there’s someone in the car next to you.
Laugh too loud in public.
Make dumb jokes.
Eschew something responsible for something fun just once and see what happens.
In time people will get used to you as “the weird one,” and that’s not remotely a bad thing. I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon around me whenever I let myself be weird. As long as I do it within sensible limits, people seem to admire it. It’s like my weirdness has opened up the opportunity for them to be weird, too.
I think people look at folks who are silly (again, within sensible limits) as being brave.
I think people enjoy being around people who are silly and fun more than they like being around people who are serious and always responsible.
I think people want to be friends as adults … but just like in the romance game, they’re afraid to admit it. By allowing the very simple and kind idea of friendship yourself, chances are you’ll find it gratefully returned.
And if I’m wrong about all of the above?
Well, I’m living my reality and you’re living yours, so who the hell cares?
It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks about your silliness.
It’s true. Think about it. And I mean really … really … think about it. What, are you going to get fired for dancing in your cubicle? Are you going to get divorced because you laugh at bad jokes or sing along when you like the music? And honestly, if such small and delightful transgressions do manage to disrupt your work or your marriage, should you really have been involved in those things to begin with?
Nobody cares. People move on and people forget. You run past like Phoebe and people double-take, then go back to their uninteresting lives.
Boring. Dull. Totally blah.
If you still think people are watching every little thing you do and waiting to judge and condemn you when you fail or step out of line, I’ll link to this one more time. Maybe you should read it, and feel it, and stop worrying so much.
I challenge you: Go out today and do something silly. Go out on a limb. Be ridiculous. Take a chance.
Then come back here and leave a comment, and tell me how it felt.
It's not easy to find a balance between silly and "adult". I've always been "a clown", mostly to "break the ice" and fight that introverted part of myself. Since I was a kid I was quick with the puns, knew how to make people laugh and never cared if people laughed with or at me: "If you can't handle being a target of a joke, you can't joke about most other things" (a bit is lost in translation from Croatian here).
Problems arose when I "grew up". When it's time to be "serious" and "intense" people that don't know me well get confused and misread the intent. Sometimes it's not taken seriously and sometimes it feels more intense then I intended because of it. Same with my children - I'm the goofy, fun parent and my wife is the "adult" one. When it's time for me to be serious and "do the parenting", my girls sometimes get lost in the transition.
It's important to find a job where you're surrounded by people that get you and where everybody is equally ready to be goofy and intense when needed. Hope you all are lucky in that department as I am (example - last year our Xmas tree in the office was an unwrapped set of xmas lights messily stuck to the wall with the painters tape and a spatula over it - Why? Why not?!).
I like the cut of your jib