A guide to life, drawn from seven years of the magazine’s Tip column.
how to do everything
The art of learning to do things
By Malia Wollan
If you want to know how to do something, don’t just search the internet. Instead, find someone who already knows how to do it and ask them. At first, they will give you a hasty and general answer, assuming you are not interested in all the details of the procedure. But of course that is precisely what you are looking for! Ask for a slow, step-by-step guide through the minutiae of the thing.
For seven years, I did exactly that: I called up a stranger and asked that person to describe how to do a specific task or skill. For my weekly advice column in The New York Times Magazine, I interviewed hundreds of experts, including a cardiac surgeon; a congresswoman; a boy scout who survived a tsunami; a baby cuddler from the hospital; a soap opera star; a ship captain dodging icebergs; many psychologists; a gravedigger; scientists; artists; astronauts; and a 13-year-old lemonade entrepreneur.
Sometimes the instruction was for a physical task (How to rescue a cat from a tree or How to milk a killer whale), and other times the skill was emotional (How to apologize to a child or How to propose an open relationship). In all cases, the advice eventually moved from precise instructions to more existential guidance on how to navigate the world. Take for example the safecracker from Providence, RI, who, after some 40 years on the job, knows that almost all locked safes will be empty but humans will want them opened anyway; we are curious, greedy, and prone to ignoring terrible odds (How to Break a Safe). Or the laugh researcher who has tickled humans, chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, and gorillas and reminds us that contact must be consensual (How to Tickle Someone). Or the octogenarian British actor’s advice on playing dead: no need to flail, gasp, or spill your guts; sometimes death is just a silent slide into stillness.
Hearing this philosophical instinct week after week, from all kinds of people around the world, made me feel a deep fondness for us humans. We are all here together trying to connect; looking for meaning in our work; trying to live our lives in these fleshy, vulnerable bodies. In the course of writing 301 columns, I tried to build a toolkit for the absurd and the serious. I looked for advice on animals and empathy, on birth and death, on falling and jumping stones: a compendium of little things that together, over time, accidentally created a life guide of democratic origin.
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