Recently, I experienced a fairly upsetting quarter-life crisis. After years of “knowing” I wanted to be a lawyer, I realized my reasons for wanting to enter the profession revolved less around actual lawyer work and more around the desire to wear nice suits and aggressively point at people.
So I was left in a bit of a quandary. My double major in political science and Slavic Languages and Literatures is completely useless unless I want a job in an Uzbekistani embassy, but that is out of the question because I burn easily and Tashkent is positively unbearable in the summer.
[media-credit id=20109 align=”alignleft” width=”250″][/media-credit]I needed a job that I would enjoy and that could pay the bills. I knew I loved writing “Dear Igor,” but at $12 a column, I would have to write 25 per week just to make the equivalent of minimum wage. This was not a solid path to personal wealth.
So I did what any rational person would do: I e-mailed the person that inspired me to start writing humor, Time magazine’s humor columnist Joel Stein, and asked if he could help me figure out my life. I didn’t expect a response, but to my surprise he not only agreed to talk, but said we could meet in his Hollywood Hills home as he would be taking care of his baby that day. I figured either Joel Stein was a gracious and welcoming person, or he just needed a babysitter on short notice.
Joel Stein has been writing for Time since 1997, and since then has contributed to many other magazines, as well as writing for television and for the Oscars. You’ve also probably seen him make witty comments about pop culture items on VH1’s “I Love The…” series. As a kid, Time was the only magazine to which my family subscribed and Joel was the only funny thing in it, so his column was the first (and sometimes only) thing I read.
When I met Joel Stein, I felt like I had known him for years; he immediately put me at ease. He offered me iced tea “or some nuts,” and when I asked for only ice water he said, “Well, OK. I’ll ask again later when you’re more comfortable,” and he did. He told me he felt bad I had driven 100 miles to see him because he didn’t feel he was worth it. I assured him he was.
Joel Stein is 38 but looks younger, and he smiles a lot. I expected his house to be some kind of ultra-posh Los Angeles pad, but it turned out to be a very cozy home with rooms of appropriate size and children’s toys strewn about the floor. He was constantly holding or playing with his 1-year-old son, Laszlo, and every once in a while he would smile at his baby for a few seconds before giving him a loud kiss on the cheek. Instead of being the rock star I imagined him to be, Joel Stein was just a really happy, proud dad.
[media-credit id=20109 align=”alignright” width=”250″][/media-credit]He was also much too perceptive. After I told him about my crisis and we began to talk about what I was going to do with my life, he said “This is going to be interesting to no one; this is very self-centered of you.” In one sentence, he had successfully summed up one- and-a-half years of my column.
But that realization didn’t stop either of us, and if anything, it helped to better focus our conversation.
“This is a horrible time in your life,” he said. “A hundred miles is nothing compared to the turmoil in your brain.” Again, with the penetrating insight.
And so we sat on the floor and talked while Laszlo crawled around, quietly destroying things.
“I think I’m training him to be a terrorist,” Stein said.
After three years of writing a humor column at Stanford, where he received a B.A. and an M.A. in English, Stein moved to the Big Apple and began writing for Time Out New York. Even though he wasn’t getting paid much and was sharing a tiny apartment with too many people, he said he was having the time of his life. It was a young magazine filled with young people who got press passes to go to lavish dinner parties, and Stein was doing exactly what he wanted to do: write.
Joel’s Advice: Don’t worry about making bank right out of college, just go do what you’d really like to do. “It doesn’t matter how much money you make in your 20s. You’re just building your career. You make your money in your 30s and 40s. Then you coast in your 50s.”
At one point in our conversation, Joel’s wife, Cassandra Barry, came in to tell him he was doing a bad job. “I’m overhearing your answers and I feel like I could do a better interview than you.” She stayed to talk for a bit and gave me some excellent advice of her own.
Cassandra’s Advice: Have a good understanding of the day-to-day tasks of whatever job you’re going to do.
“I had a job where I had to talk on the phone all day, and I soon realized there was nothing in the world I hated more than talking on the phone.” This is an especially good idea if you’re going to drop $150,000 on a professional graduate degree, like law or medicine.
Toward the end of the interview, Laszlo, who had been playing with the stereo, finally figured out how it worked and started blasting Paul Simon’s “Graceland”:
“There is a girl in New York City
Who calls herself the human trampoline,
And sometimes when I’m falling, flying
Or tumbling in turmoil I say,
Oh, so this is what she means,
She means we’re bouncing into Graceland”
Laszlo’s Advice: You remind me of a troubled girl I once knew in New York. Get a real job.
Driving back to Santa Barbara, I looked out onto the Pacific and reflected. Sure, I could send out a bunch of resumés and land some safe, entry-level position in a major corporation, but why? That road sounded boring, predictable and it wasn’t what I truly wanted. I didn’t have time for regrets and lost dreams. So with the sun setting to my left, I stepped on the gas and set off searching for my Graceland.