When millennials ask me for work or life advice (and this does happen occasionally), I can feel my uselessness creeping in before I even start to answer. As member of Generation X, that oft-forgotten cohort of people born between 1966 and 1981, my work experience, especially in the early days of my career, bears little resemblance to anything a younger person deals with now. For those of us who came of age before the digital revolution, getting a first job meant doing things like making cold calls to HR departments or simply showing up and asking if there was any work available. Making friends and meeting romantic partners involved going to parties or joining softball leagues or hanging out in bars until you got drunk enough to find the courage to talk to someone. In the age of online job boards, dating apps, and Google hangouts, that’s horse-and-buggy stuff.
Usually the advice seekers figure this out and stop me before I get too far. (“Always send handwritten thank you notes!” I’ll say. “Cool, thanks, I gotta run,” they’ll say.) Recently, though, I met a young woman who felt so overwhelmed by life, so embattled by the never-ending cycle of online drama among her peers, so irrationally envious of others’ success, so fearful that her life would amount to nothing, that she craved any kernel of wisdom, even from someone as démodé as myself.
“Seriously,” she said, “how did you survive your twenties? Like, what did you actually do during your twenties?”
I drew a blank. I mean I literally drew a blank. Because for some reason, whenever I look back on my twenties, I see myself staring into space.
It’s almost as if the decade can be summed up by a montage sequence of Meghan doing nothing. There I am, sitting at my desk and staring at the wall. There I am, gazing out the window. There I am, lying in bed and looking at the ceiling. Sometimes these zone-out sessions would be accompanied by languid draws on a Camel Light (though never in bed). Often, I would also listen to music, not via earbuds or those flimsy Walkman headphones, but through actual speakers, my ear canals free and open to whatever additional sounds (for instance, an actual telephone ringing) might enter the sensory equation.
For a long time, this montage sequence filled me with a sort of queasy remorse. All that time wasted in your twenties doing nothing! You could have been hanging out with friends, doing Tae Bo, reading Infinite Jest, attending productions of Oleanna. You loser! But the truth is that I did do all those things in my twenties. I did plenty, including working the countless jobs I obtained by making those countless cold calls. I just somehow managed to combine these activities with staring at the wall.
How did I manage to fit it all in? For one thing, I didn’t have nearly as many screens to look at. I had a desktop computer and dial-up internet. So, when I got tired of email and AOL Instant Messenger, I looked at the wall. Sometimes, if I had a decent view—which I rarely did in New York City—I looked out the window. I listened to music and took drags off those cigarettes while thinking uninterrupted thoughts about my life.
It was through independent film that I formed my blueprint for independent life. And somehow, staring into space just came with the territory.
It helped that some of my greatest aesthetic role models spent a lot of time staring into space themselves. By aesthetic role models, I mean people whose lives looked like I wanted mine to look. These tended to be fictional characters in independent films, the kind who managed to make sitting around in dreary silence, often while smoking cigarettes, look like the coolest thing you could possibly do. I’m thinking of Eszter Balint in Jim Jarmusch’s 1984 directorial debut, Stranger Than Paradise or Sandrine Bonnaire in Agnès Varda’s 1985 film, Vagabond. There was nothing fundamentally aspirational about either of these films. The former is mostly about aimless people driving pretty aimlessly between New York, Cleveland, and Florida. The latter is about a damaged young woman wandering through the countryside until she freezes to death in a ditch. But there was something about those films — not least of all the cinematography — that made me feel like I would only become a legitimate adult when I got my life to look that way. It was through independent film that I formed my blueprint for independent life. And somehow, staring into space just came with the territory.
By the time I reached my thirties, I wasn’t staring into space quite as much. High-speed wireless internet meant the screen beckoned at all times. Plus, I no longer smoked. By the time I reached my forties, smartphones meant there was hardly any blank space in my life at all. At home, I rarely sat down without my laptop. Outdoors, I rarely walked without wearing earbuds, through which I listened to music or podcasts. Every interstitial moment was spent messing around with my phone in some capacity. If, once upon a time, real life had felt like sentences and paragraphs, punctuated here and there by technology, it was now the other way around. Technology was the prose. Real life had become punctuation.
These conditions are soul killing enough at any age. I can’t imagine surviving them in my twenties.
So, now that I think about it, I do think I have some useful advice for young people: Spend more time staring into space.
I don’t mean meditating. I mean spacing out. Meditation is about clearing the mind of thoughts. Spacing out is about inviting thoughts in. Instead of mindfulness, I’m talking about thoughtfulness. Not in the sense of being sensitive toward others (though that’s always good), but in actually being full of thoughts.
Young people today are anxious. We know that. They’re showing up at college with unprecedented levels of mental health diagnoses. They’re reluctant to detach from their parents. They’re afraid (understandably) for the future of the planet, as well as their own futures. They can also, I’ve noticed, be afraid of their own thoughts. I’ve often heard them say they’re afraid to say out loud what they really think, as if their thoughts are embarrassing involuntary reflexes they’re compelled to hide.
Tweeting isn’t thinking. It isn’t even a simulacrum of thinking. It’s an insult to thought itself.
I don’t blame them. Unlike the thoughts I entertained back in my twenties, which were usually confined to my own mind or to a small group of friends over cheap drinks, thoughts today tend to immediately go public. There’s no introspection phase. Often, a thought instantly converts into a tweet. I am guilty of this myself. Some notion occurs to me, and instead of letting it play out in my head, I post it on Twitter and monitor the responses for either praise or punishment. This isn’t thinking. It isn’t even a simulacrum of thinking. It’s an insult to thought itself.
We’re all in this miserable boat now. We’ve all, to one degree or another, become afraid of our own thoughts. That’s why I so badly wish I could go back to staring at the wall. Because when I think about it, those space-out sessions weren’t about wasting time. They were the time. They were the way I formulated ideas for writing, solved professional problems, made sense of relationships. And while I didn’t always overcome those work problems or fully understand my relationships, I suspect that it all felt just a bit more manageable to me back then than it does for twentysomethings now. The world felt more manageable overall, not because it was smaller or safer — it wasn’t — but because there were more empty spaces in it, more intervals of naturally occurring nothingness.
I’m neither naive nor presumptuous enough to suggest that the key to surviving your twenties is staring at a wall. There is no going back; the walls are effectively gone. But learning to be lost in thought would certainly be helpful. Those wasted moments were the moments when, strangely enough, I was the most alive. They were the moments when I was figuring out what I really thought. That is to say, those were the moments when I was becoming myself.
And if there’s one piece of advice I could give to a young person, it’s that you owe yourself at least that.