GET OUT OF YOUR OWN HEAD



 Chapter 7

GET OUT OF YOUR OWN HEAD


A person who thinks all the time has nothing to think about except thoughts, so he loses touch with reality and lives in a world of illusions.

—ALAN WATTS

It is Holden Caulfield, the self-absorbed boy walking the streets of Manhattan, struggling to adjust to the world. It is a young Arturo Bandini in Los Angeles, alienating every person he meets as he tries to become a famous writer. It is the blue blood Binx Bolling in 1950s uptown New Orleans, trying to escape the “everydayness” of life.

   These fictional characters all had something in common: they couldn’t get out of their own heads.

   In J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Holden can’t stay in school, is petrified of growing up, and wants desperately to get away from it all. In John Fante’s Ask the Dust (part of a series known as The Bandini Quartet), this young writer doesn’t experience the life he is living, he sees it all “across a page in a typewriter,” wondering if nearly every second of his life is a poem, a play, a story, a news article with him as its main character. In Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, his protagonist, Binx, is addicted to watching movies, preferring an idealized version of life on the screen to his own uncomfortable ennui.

   It’s always dangerous to psychologize a writer based on his work, but these are famously autobiographical novels. When we look at the writers’ lives, the facts are clear: J. D. Salinger really did suffer from a sort of self-obsession and immaturity that made the world too much for him to bear, driving him from human contact and paralyzing his genius. John Fante struggled to reconcile his enormous ego and insecurity with relative obscurity for most of his career, eventually abandoning his novels for the golf course and Hollywood bars. Only near death, blind with diabetes, was he finally able to get serious again. The Moviegoer, Walker Percy’s first book, came only after he’d conquered his almost teenage indolence and existential crisis, which lasted alarmingly into his forties.

   How much better could these writers have been had they managed to get through these troubles earlier? How much easier would their lives have been? It’s an urgent question they pushed onto their readers with their cautionary characters.

   Because sadly, this trait, the inability to get out of one’s head, is not restricted to fiction. Twenty-four hundred years ago, Plato spoke of the type of people who are guilty of “feasting on their own thoughts.” It was apparently common enough even then to find people who “instead of finding out how something they desire might actually come about, [they] pass that over, so as to avoid tiring deliberations about what’s possible. They assume that what they desire is available and proceed to arrange the rest, taking pleasure in thinking through everything they’ll do when they have what they want, thereby making their lazy souls even lazier.” Real people preferring to live in passionate fiction than in actual reality.

   The Civil War general George McClellan is the perfect example of this archetype. He was chosen to command the Union forces because he checked all the boxes of what a great general should be: West Point grad, proven in battle, a student of history, of regal bearing, loved by his men.

   Why did he turn out to be quite possibly the worst Union general, even in a crowded field of incompetent and self-absorbed leaders? Because he could never get out of his own head. He was in love with his vision of himself as the head of a grand army. He could prepare an army for battle like a professional, but when it came to lead one into battle, when the rubber needed to meet the road, troubles arose.

   He became laughably convinced that the enemy was growing larger and larger (it wasn’t—at one point he actually had a three-times advantage). He was convinced of constant threats and intrigues from his political allies (there weren’t any). He was convinced that the only way to win the war was with the perfect plan and a single decisive campaign (he was wrong). He was so convinced of all of it that he froze and basically did nothing . . . for months at a time.

   McClellan was constantly thinking about himself and how wonderful he was doing—congratulating himself for victories not yet won, and more often, horrible defeats he had saved the cause from. When anyone—including his superiors—questioned this comforting fiction, he reacted like a petulant, delusional, vainglorious, and selfish ass. By itself that’s insufferable, but it meant another thing: his personality made it impossible to do what he needed to do most—win battles.

   A historian who fought under McClellan at Antietam later summed it up: “His egotism is simply colossal—there is no other word for it.” We tend to think that ego equals confidence, which is what we need to be in charge. In fact, it can have the opposite effect. In McClellan’s case it deprived him of the ability to lead. It robbed him of the ability to think that he even needed to act.

   The repeated opportunities he missed would be laughable were it not for the thousands and thousands of lives they cost. The situation was made worse by the fact that two pious, quiet Southerners—Lee and Stonewall Jackson—with a penchant for taking the initiative were able to embarrass him with inferior numbers and inferior resources. Which is what happens when leaders get stuck in their own heads. It can happen to us too.

   The novelist Anne Lamott describes that ego story well. “If you are not careful,” she warns young writers, “station KFKD (K-Fucked) will play in your head twenty-four hours a day, nonstop, in stereo.”

   Out of the right speaker in your inner ear will come the endless stream of self-aggrandizement, the recitation of one’s specialness, of how much more open and gifted and brilliant and knowing and misunderstood and humble one is. Out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing, the lists of all the things one doesn’t do well, of all the mistakes one has made today and over an entire lifetime, the doubt, the assertion that everything that one touches turns to shit, that one doesn’t do relationships well, that one is in every way a fraud, incapable of selfless love, that one had no talent or insight, and on and on and on.

   Anyone—particularly the ambitious—can fall prey to this narration, good and bad. It is natural for any young, ambitious person (or simply someone whose ambition is young) to get excited and swept up by their thoughts and feelings. Especially in a world that tells us to keep and promote a “personal brand.” We’re required to tell stories in order to sell our work and our talents, and after enough time, forget where the line is that separates our fictions from reality.

   Ultimately this disability will paralyze us. Or it will become a wall between us and the information we need to do our jobs—which is largely why McClellan continually fell for flawed intelligence reports he ought to have known were wrong. The idea that his task was relatively straightforward, that he just needed to get started, was almost too easy and too obvious to someone who had thought so much about it all.

   He’s not that different from the rest of us. We’re all full of anxieties, doubts, impotence, pains, and sometimes a little tinge of crazy. We’re like teenagers in this regard.

   As the psychologist David Elkind has famously researched, adolescence is marked by a phenomenon known now as the “imaginary audience.” Consider a thirteen-year-old so embarrassed that he misses a week of class, positive that the entire school is thinking and murmuring about some tiny incident that in truth hardly anyone noticed. Or a teenage girl who spends three hours in front of the mirror each morning, as if she’s about to go on stage. They do this because they’re convinced that their every move is being watched with rapt attention by the rest of the world.

   Even as adults, we’re susceptible to this fantasy during a harmless walk down the street. We plug in some headphones and all of a sudden there’s a soundtrack. We flip up our jacket collar and consider briefly how cool we must look. We replay the successful meeting we’re heading toward in our head. The crowds part as we pass. We’re fearless warriors, on our way to the top.

   It’s the opening credits montage. It’s a scene in a novel. It feels good—so much better than those feelings of doubt and fear and normalness—and so we stay stuck inside our heads instead of participating in the world around us.

   That’s ego, baby.

   What successful people do is curb such flights of fancy. They ignore the temptations that might make them feel important or skew their perspective. General George C. Marshall—essentially the opposite of McClellan even though they briefly held the same position a few generations apart—refused to keep a diary during World War II despite the requests of historians and friends. He worried that it would turn his quiet, reflective time into a sort of performance and self-deception. That he might second-guess difficult decisions out of concern for his reputation and future readers and warp his thinking based on how they would look.

   All of us are susceptible to these obsessions of the mind—whether we run a technology startup or are working our way up the ranks of the corporate hierarchy or have fallen madly in love. The more creative we are, the easier it is to lose the thread that guides us.

   Our imagination—in many senses an asset—is dangerous when it runs wild. We have to rein our perceptions in. Otherwise, lost in the excitement, how can we accurately predict the future or interpret events? How can we stay hungry and aware? How can we appreciate the present moment? How can we be creative within the realm of practicality?

   Living clearly and presently takes courage. Don’t live in the haze of the abstract, live with the tangible and real, even if—especially if—it’s uncomfortable. Be part of what’s going on around you. Feast on it, adjust for it.

   There’s no one to perform for. There is just work to be done and lessons to be learned, in all that is around us.





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