Heather Havrilesky has been giving advice, professionally, in some form or another for almost twenty years. Like many advice-givers, she’s not a psychologist or social worker. She’s a woman with life experience and a talent for speaking honestly and empathetically. How to Be a Person in the World collects letters and answers from The Cut, where “Ask Polly” has run for years.
Although the letters and answers range a variety of topics and Havrilesky’s career at The Cut, a central thesis emerged as I read her answers. Readers who are lonely, want to be loved, want to be artists, want to be grown ups finally, are given advice that is a variation of learning to love oneself as a complete human being. Havrilesky wants these readers to stop wasting time procrastinating or wondering if there is something wrong with them. With the exception of the man who wanted a pass to cheat on his wife (duuuuude), Havrilesky assures her readers that there is nothing wrong with other than a need to stop beating themselves up and make their expectations more realistic.
Humans are (mostly) wired and taught to be with other humans. If it’s not marriage, it’s friendship and family relationships. We really do need other people. What we don’t need is to pretend to be someone we’re not in order to have some kind of relationship. The only thing the pretending accomplishes is bitterness, loneliness, and regret. This is easier said than done, of course. We’re all weirdos who don’t want other people to know we’re weirdos. Very few of us are really encouraged to fully embrace our weirdo-ness. We’re taught to shave off the rough edges, so as not to upset others or be obnoxious. Women especially are taught to take up less space, be less loud, and be more accommodating. It’s a lot of conditioning to overcome. Havrilesky’s bluntness, use of her own life experiences, and use of ALL CAPS are necessary to break through—whilst being very entertaining to read.
Unlike most books that I read, where the plots race and I often recommend that people read them in as few sittings as possible, How to Be a Person in the World is best read in small doses. Havrilesky’s advice tends to run together after a while if you read it in less than 24 hours like I did. The stories from Havrilesky’s live stand out, however. Because she is so open and honest about her own struggles to become a whole person in the world, I can’t help but see her as a wonderful, wise, sometimes goofy, guide through the pitfalls of human life and love.
Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend to readers who very much need to be told that they are enough on their own, that they should cultivate things that bring them joy and meaning, and that being alone is not the end of the world.