The theme song for my life is “Loser” by Beck. I don’t say this in a self-deprecating way. I’m not hoping for Claudia to come over here and say, “you’re not a loser, honey.” I’m a loser and proud of it.
The song changed my life. When the song came out “Melrose Place” and “Beverly Hills 90210” were the best shows on the air. Maybe you would laugh but these were my favorite shows. Everyone on there was beautiful and having sex with each other. Who wouldn’t want to watch that? And then there was me, the exact opposite of everyone on those shows. No way would Heather Locklear ever like me.
About six of us would go over to Amanda’s house and we’d watch the shows over and over. Amanda figured out an interesting acting quirk of Shannon Dougherty on BH 90210 (“BH”). Every time Shannon was about to express an emotion of any sort her tongue would slightly stick out for a split second. Amanda would rewind and play over and over again to get the exact split second each time. There it is! The tongue! I think I fell in love with Amanda then.
At the time I had just been thrown out of graduate school. I was very unhappy with my girlfriend. I wrote short stories and novels every day but couldn’t get anything published and I hated my job, my bosses, my colleagues. I even went to the local comic book store and asked them if they had any jobs open. I had ten years of computer programming experience and I wanted to work in a comic book store. I might’ve been his only customer. Finally he said, “uhh, it’s really hard to run a comic book store. I don’t really hire people.”
I liked all the black and white autobiographical comics. The style pioneered by R. Crumb but I think refined to perfection by Adrian Tomine, Joe Matt, Seth, Chester Brown, Peter Bagge, Dan Clowes, Art Siegelman (I know, all men) and then later by Marjane Satrapi (there! A woman). The drawings were imperfect. The stories were beautiful. I’ve stolen motifs from these stories many times, twenty years later, in this blog. They didn’t have super powers and all the characters had issues with relationships. I got all my friends into them and we would buy them every time there was a new comic at the store.
The comics, and the song “Loser” became a religion for me. With the backdrop of near-perfect humans that lived in a tiny apartment complex called “Melrose Place” I needed something that was more like me: someone who had no clue what to do, was trying to be artistic but often made a fool of myself, was jealous of everyone, didn’t know how to fit in, and had crushes on everyone but my girlfriend.
Loser itself was a song with no pretensions You couldn’t tell if Beck could sing (it’s almost in a monotone), the song made no sense at all. The words were gibberish. The instruments seemed like they were just pulled out of a kitchen cabinet. Beck made the song in about three hours in his living room.
And yet the song became a mega-hit. It turns out later Beck did it as a joke, he was so frustrated with his own failures (he was working as a lawn-blower or something like that when he made the song with a friend). He put the song out on a nothing label. He chose himself after the gods of the music labels rejected him over and over. The song became a mega-hit and he ended up with a mega-career.
That one song convinced me to lower all my expectations for myself. Within a month of the song being released I finally went for a job (HBO) that for two years I had been afraid to apply for because I thought I wasn’t good enough. I got the job, started a business, got rich, got poor, made a fool of myself, repeated, over and over. In other words, I began to live a life.
– Give up trying to be the greatest. Nobody cares. And it’s hard work. Before you were born, there was darkness, and after you die there will be darkness again, maybe forever. Try to enjoy the small sliver of light in between.
– Take a notebook and try to learn from everything that happens to you today and write it down. I take waiter pads with me everywhere and jot down notes. It’s not so much WHAT you learn, its’ the realization that you can learn from everything around you that keeps you humble. I almost never actually look back through my notes. I like just practicing learning. Everyone is your teacher if you listen.
– The “Loser” in Beck’s song says “Things are going to change, I can feel it.” It’s tongue in cheek, though. Things don’t have to change. Being a loser means you’re like everyone else. Those are the people you want to relate to anyway, not people who will only like you if you pretend to be perfect. Because, trust me, everyone is pretending.
– It doesn’t matter if you make money at doing what you love. Make love and, well, I don’t have to finish this quote. Ok, I will – anything can happen! You’re making love! It’s a happy thing, whether you make money at it or not. A garden doesn’t grow without love. “But I have to pay the bills,” you can say. And you will. But first do what you love doing. Then trust that the rest follows. Beck was homeless in the years before he made this song in his friend’s living room. Lower your expectations in every area of your life so that they are trivial to exceed and then you will surprise yourself with your new success.
– There’s nobody to impress. Most other people are as scared and frustrated as you are. When I first started this blog a lot of people called me a loser. Heck, yesterday in some comment someone called me a “douchebag fuckhead”. And to them, I am. Who cares about them? I care about the people who like me. Not the people who have unreal expectations for me. Two choices today: fight people who hate me or love people who love me.
– If you love something, don’t set it free. Nail it down. I was supposed to be doing computer programming. Instead, I read every black and white autobiographical comic book out there. Did I ever do anything in comics? Nothing. But I loved it. So I became an expert in the area. For no reason at all. 20 years later, it’s a huge part of the way I write and do things. You never know which seeds you plant will sprout.
– Try lots of things. Winners focus. Losers diversify. Often people ask me if they should stay at their job or try their business idea. In 1997, I had a job, I started a business, I wrote a novel, I wrote a comic, I tried making a TV show, I played chess every day. All at the same time. I had no focus! They all failed at making money. I was a loser. Novels rejected, TV show rejected, business mediocre, etc. But then the fire started and I made money. Money is a quantity game.
– Do what you love every day. You’re not getting better if you’re not getting on. Fifteen minutes a day do what you love. The rest of the world can wait for you. Those 15 minutes add up to (wait while I use calculator) 109,500 minutes in 20 years. Only here’s the secret nobody tells you: skill compounds exponentially, not linearly. If you practice something you love for 15 minutes a day for 2 days your effort didn’t have double the effect, it had quadruple the effect! This is a result of the way ideas mate with each other to create generations of ideas.
Some people say, “but I don’t know what I love”. Ok, that’s fine. List the things you loved when you were a kid. Then read some up to date books about those things. I bet you will fall in love again. Look at how many people on Facebook fall in love again with their childhood crushes. It’s the same thing with passions.
Also, take a break from worrying and anxiety and regret. This is just practical advice. Not about “living in the Now”. You can’t find what you love if your mind is filled with worry. And “worry” is only your choice for this moment. It’s not a mandatory emotion. Tell it to take a walk around the block while your mind does other things for a little while.
-Have a lot of friends. I was really grateful for this. I had friends who actually read the bullshit I was writing in 1994. When I look back on it now I don’t know how they did that. I was awful. My friends were always encouraging me. Twenty years later: thank you guys! When I think of it now, every time I’ve had success at anything it’s because I made the effort to build a core group of friends that became my GROUP.
I don’t like the word “Tribe”. I like Michael Ellsberg’s word “Scene”. I would always build my scene. When I first started writing for thestreet.com some readers would send me comments. The first thing I would do: I would pick up the phone and call them. I didn’t know anyone. I wanted to create a Scene. These commenters were always surprised. No writer ever called them before. I made a lot of good friends that way and even got some investors for my first hedge fund that way. Pretty soon I had a good core group. And I had a group outside of that group. These became my first users for Stockpickr.com, a company I eventually sold. Losers need lots of friends.
– Institutions are dead. It’s no accident that Grunge, “loser”, and the Web were all birthed at the same time. Institutions were dead. Cookie cutter art, creativity designed by corporate culture, business ideas coming out of MBA factories, were all gone. They all had to merge and be recreated by individuals. This process doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, I think we’re only in inning two of a nine inning game of this societal transformation.
But a “Loser” as described in the song, and as exemplified by Beck’s drifter lifestyle at the time, was someone who wouldn’t be able to fit into the cubicle suburban middle-class lifestyle that was just beginning to die and still is.
When you are looking for success, don’t rely on the zombie institutions that haven’t been buried yet. Begin to figure out how to choose yourself for success, and for fun, without their help.
A loser has low expectations, tries many things he enjoys with no hope for success, fails again and again, has many friends, is honest about his or her mistakes, doesn’t try to control the people around him, and takes joy in the education every day offers. And, only then, life is perfect.
What I Listened to While Writing this Post:
What I Read Right Before I Wrote This Post: (oddly, all from the paperbacks, which is rare for me).
- “Hollywood” by Bukowski
- “Venus Drive” by Sam Lipsyte
- “Turning Pro” by Steven Pressfield
- “Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction” by Charles Baxter
List of autobiographical comic book writers I recommend: Joe Matt (“The Poor Bastard”), Dan Clowes (“Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron”), Chester Brown (“I Never Liked You”), Adrian Tomine (“Shortcomings”), Marjane Satrapi (“Persopolis”), Art Spiegelman (“Maus”), Joe Sacco (“Palestine”), Jessica Abel (“Artbabe”)