When did “hard worker” become a backhanded compliment? When did “thirsty” become such a good burn? Why are we so weird about work, and about wanting, and about working hard to get the things we want?
You could say a lot about Mindy Kaling’s new memoir Why Not Me?—that it is, like its predecessor, extremely charming; that it offers a collegial mix of sincerity and sarcasm and self-deprecation and self-affirmation; that there’s a good chance it will make you love Kaling or at least want to chat with her over cocktails with “fizz” in their names—but maybe the main thing to say is this: The book is, at its core, a defense of work. It is a defense of striving, and wanting, and thirsting. It takes all the glib protestations of Hollywood doublespeak (“I woke up like this,” “omg I basically only eat fried chicken,” “they’re real,” etc.), and says to them: No. You are lying. You worked for what you got. You struggled, somehow, for it. Just own that.
Kaling focuses, in large part, on the dirty mundanities that so often precede and accompany Hollywood success: the spackled makeup, the Spanx, the spray tans, the hair extensions, the long commutes, the late nights, the coffee, the drudgery. Kaling tells her reader (who is “probably a woman,” or perhaps “a gay man,” or maybe someone who “accidentally bought this thinking it was the Malala book”) about her early days in the writers’ room of The Office, when she was so shy she barely spoke aloud. “Years later,” she notes, “I realized that the way I had felt during those first few months was correct. I didn’t deserve to be confident yet.”
Later she’ll add: “If you believe in yourself and work hard, you have a fighting shot at having your dreams come true.”
It’s maybe the cheesiest line in a book that discusses, among much else, Kaling’s rise as a writer and performer on The Office, her brief romance with a White House staffer named Will, her long bromance with a fellow Office writer named B.J., her appreciation of McDonald’s breakfast sandwiches, and The Mindy Project’s “quick and painful rejection” from NBC, and then from Fox. But Kaling isn’t joking about the hard-work stuff. It’s the thing, she argues, that she owes her success to. It’s the thing to which she attributes her confidence as a performer and a person.
“I swear I’m not that Tiger Mom lady!” Kaling protests, just so we don’t get the wrong idea. “I don’t think you need to play the piano for 11 hours with no meals! Or only watch historical movies, then write reports on them for me to read and grade!” And yet “the truth is,” she notes, “I have never, ever met a highly confident and successful person who is not what a movie would call ‘a workaholic.’ We can’t have it both ways, and children should know that.”
It’s pretty much impossible not to compare Why Not Me? to Bossypants, Tina Fey’s memoir, and Yes Please (Amy Poehler’s) and Not That Kind of Girl (Lena Dunham’s) and I Don’t Know Where You Know Me From (Judy Greer’s) and even Kaling’s earlier memoir, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns). These books take advantage of the myriad failings of the Miley Cyrus Industrial Complex to step in as role models for girls who are (or who at least think of themselves as being) smart and sassy and earnestly rebellious. Why Not Me? is another of these: It’s ultimately an advice book. And maybe the biggest piece of advice it has to offer to its young, impressionable readers is that self-confidence is a privilege as much as it is the thing that most direct-to-girls messaging assumes—a right. Confidence is something you earn, Kaling argues. And you earn it, specifically, by caring about things, by trying to get things accomplished, by working.
“There is a certain type of greasy hair that you get only when you are writing with no breaks,” Kaling confides, telling the story of her creation of The Mindy Project. “And I had it, big-time. If I breathed in deeply, I could smell my unwashed scent, and it was intoxicating. It smelled like hard work.”
That is, okay, a little bit gross. But it is also refreshing. It is, in its quiet way, revolutionary. We claim, being American, to appreciate The Value of Hard Work, to respect the quiet dignity of drudgery. We claim to respect goals not just achieved, but strived for, in a journey-as-destination kind of way. But those claims are, to some extent, lies. What we actually value—what we prove again and again to prioritize above all—is talent. That magical, mysterious quality that marries a person’s abilities with her desires, without the awkwardness of effort.
Nowhere is that more in evidence than in Hollywood. It’s a popular thing among celebrities—even, and especially, the ones who are supposed to be role models to young women—to deny the hard work that so often goes into becoming a star. (Stars, hanging out in the firmament, just are. That is a big part of their point.) And so we get the young ingenue dishing to Us Weekly about how she, like, loves cheeseburgers and totally hates the gym. We get the myth of “natural beauty.” We get the refusal of celebrities to acknowledge plastic surgery, or marriage counseling, or their involvement in the back-room work of contract negotiations.
All that ruins the illusion. Because the thing that is believed but not said is that work is dirty. It is sleepy and rumpled and over-caffeinated and intoxicated and unglamorous and unsexy. It tries, ugh, soooo hard. It is thirsty.
So while Kaling’s book is a confectionarily charming memoir, it is also something of a statement. It’s an attempt to reclaim work—the wanting, the striving, the trying—as a value unto itself. And as the thing that puts all the other things we actually do value, whether it’s confidence or beauty or success, into perspective. As Kaling sums it up:
People talk about confidence without ever bringing up hard work. That’s a mistake. I know I sound like some dour older spinster on Downton Abbey who has never felt a man’s touch and whose heart has turned to stone, but I don’t understand how you could have self-confidence if you don’t do the work.
I work a lot. Like, a lot. I feel like I must have been watching TV as a kid and that cartoon parable about the industrious ants and the lazy grasshopper came on at a vital moment when my soft little brain was hardening, and the moral of it was imprinted on me. The result of which is that I’m usually hyper-prepared for whatever I set my mind to do, which makes me feel deserving of attention and professional success, when that’s what I’m seeking.