'Ask Polly' Columnist Heather Havrilesky Tells Advice-Seekers 'How To Be A Person In The World' It's not easy to be a person, but Heather Havrilesky of the "Ask Polly" column has some advice on how to follow your dreams, figure out career and family — and dump wishy-washy, noncommittal guys.
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'Ask Polly' Columnist Tells Advice-Seekers 'How To Be A Person In The World'

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'Ask Polly' Columnist Tells Advice-Seekers 'How To Be A Person In The World'

'Ask Polly' Columnist Tells Advice-Seekers 'How To Be A Person In The World'

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The advice column has changed a lot since Ann Landers. It used to be advice handed down from a kind of wise aunt or uncle, but now it's more like your cool big sister who happens to swear a lot. A wave of internet advice columns by women who weren't afraid to empathize with readers, like Cheryl Strayed and Mallory Ortberg, have modernized the form.

One of those advice givers is Heather Havrilesky. Her column, Ask Polly, for New York Magazine's The Cut is profane and profound and really connected with young women, in particular. She's got a new book out. It's called "How To Be A Person In The World." And in it, she gives a lot of advice about love.

HEATHER HAVRILESKY: It's probably fair to say that I kind of have a soft spot for romantic travails as a subject.


HAVRILESKY: Well, mostly because I failed at romance over and over and over again as a young person. I always had boyfriends, but I was always sort of - I was never quite making them happy or making myself happy with them. So I think through a lot of trial and error, I've kind of seen the perils of romance. And I really feel, in particular, that women, you know, until we sort of find the right person, we tend to define ourselves as failures at love.

MARTIN: Do you find yourself helping young women fix their particular romantic problem, or do you find yourself convincing them that they should learn how to just be alone and be happy alone?

HAVRILESKY: Kind of neither one. People ask me things like - am I doing this or this wrong? How do I calibrate these sliders? And these - you know, how do I move these knobs to become more appealing to more men? And I always say you're - you don't need to be appealing to a lot of men, actually. You just need to appeal to the one guy who's right for you in particular.

And I also don't say - you should just want to be alone either because I think that it's unrealistic to encourage people - you know what? - you can just do it on your own. Forget it. Write off love forever. I mean, I believe in love. I'm a big believer in love.

MARTIN: There is one exchange in the book I wanted to highlight because you were so gentle with this particular young woman. But I could tell she also annoyed you on some level.

HAVRILESKY: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Her problem, as she described it to you, is that she's just too unique, funny and quirky - those are her words - to be able to connect with most people - too weird, she says. And I wanted to read a little bit of this. Here we go.

(Reading) I'm witty and sarcastic, verbose and intellectual, brazenly sexual, unabashed in my love of nerd culture and as likely to show up in ripped jeans and a leather jacket as I am in a vintage gown. I pursue my myriad passions and hobbies with reckless abandon, and I'm never afraid to simply be different.

She says this sets her apart. She can't connect, in particular, with men. What was your reaction when you first read that letter.

HAVRILESKY: I love that letter so much. I mean, any time someone describes themselves and it sounds like marketing copy, it kind of - it sort of sets some red flags waving for me. It's understandable, and I actually related to her really well. In her case, she was sort of throwing herself at a lot of people but then also saying, I don't care what they think. I know who I am.

You know, a lot of letters I get from people in this part of their lives, they're conflicted about what they want, you know? It's like you can't want to appeal to everyone, to just, you know, to be kind of the star and have everyone love you and still kind of accept who you actually are at the same time. You're either creating a product for maximum consumption, which is, by the way, a mistake, or you're honoring who you actually are.

And when you accept who you are and when you feel at peace with who you are, you don't need to write marketing copy about it. The second you stop doing that, you sound less conflicted. You sound less confused. I mean, this woman was very confused and conflicted about what she really wanted. And really, you start attracting people when you're at peace with who you actually are, not who you seem to be to other people, but who you are inside.

MARTIN: How do you figure out how to communicate these ideas because you are - you're a grown up. You're a married lady with kids, and you're giving out advice to young women mostly in their 20s. You somehow manage to avoid that patronizing - I'll tell you how life really is, little lady. Do you do that just naturally, or is there some kind of deliberate choice in revealing things about yourself? And does that help kind of take the edge off that?

HAVRILESKY: It's not that deliberate. It sort of is who I am. But I will say that when people say - well, what qualifies you to give advice? Like, why don't you tell me why you deserve to be telling other people how to live? My answer is I don't know what to say to justify the fact that I'm telling people how to live. Like, I - you know, if I were the kind of person who walked around saying, well, you know, I have so much wisdom in my brain that I could share with you and I'm just going to drop a little knowledge on you, and then you'll go away with my special gift, I wouldn't be able to do my job in the same way anymore if I really thought that way.

I'm a tortured person myself, you know? And maybe that means I'm kind of immature. Maybe that means that I'm a little unstable. Who knows? I mean, I - you know, I had a terrible, bad brain that told me I was messing up for years and years and years. So I know that feels. People write to me who are young, and I relate to their letters. So yeah, they're just so palpable to me.

I don't think I'm someone who's ever going to be high up on a mountain, looking down at all the sad mortals (laughter) who are still struggling. I'm just a struggler by nature. I think a lot of people see themselves as these messed-up shells that need to be filled with something or these imperfect, bad, empty things that need to become better. And what I'm trying to tell people is you're filled with so much beauty and so much potential and so much brilliance. You just have to believe in it.

MARTIN: Heather Havrilesky. Her new book is called "How To Be A Person In The World." Heather, thanks so much for talking with us.

HAVRILESKY: Thank you, Rachel. It was really nice talking to you.

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