I Was a Teenage Misanthrope
By Bryan Caplan
When I was a teenager, I viewed all of the following with antipathy: students not in honors classes, heavy metal fans, people who disliked classical music, stoners, athletes, cheerleaders, all but two of my teachers, car collectors, sports fans, smokers, drinkers, adults who hadn’t gone to college, religious believers (especially Christians), liberals, conservatives, moderates, people bored by philosophy, anyone who didn’t play Dungeons & Dragons, people who played Dungeons & Dragons without staying in character, Dungeon Masters for Monty Hall campaigns, people who didn’t like classic literature, anyone who planned to major in math or science, people with low savings rates, people who were too cheap, gays, guys with girlfriends, punkers, proto-Goths, people who worked with their hands, fans of Cheech and Chong, people with low IQs, and girls who dated anyone on the preceding list.
I was, in short, a teenage misanthrope.
Why was I such a misanthrope? If you asked me at the time, I probably would have said, “Because almost everyone is terrible.” If you asked me, “Well, why is it so terrible to be any of these things?,” I guess I would have simply added “People who challenge my misanthropy” to my list of antipathy.
Fortunately, virtually all of my misanthropy has melted away with age. I can honestly say that, on a typical day, absolutely no one upsets me. This is partly because I’ve constructed a Beautiful Bubble for myself. The main reason, though, is that I’ve learned the wisdom of tolerance. Yes, most people are very different from me. Yes, I have little in common with most people. But why should I expect anything else? How other people live their lives is their business, not mine.
If I could go back in time, what would I tell my misanthropic teenage self? Roughly the following:
1. In many cases, you’re just being silly. Say: “Oh, it’s so horrible for someone to play Dungeons & Dragons incorrectly” or “Oh, it’s so awful to dislike opera,” without laughing. Can’t do it, can you?
2. In many cases, people can’t help being the way they are. People don’t choose to have low IQ. So understanding rather than contempt is in order.
3. What about serious character flaws that people can help? For the most part, people are the main victims of their own character flaws. So just leave them alone and perhaps they’ll learn.
4. You have a serious character flaw that you can help: misanthropy. And per #3, you’re the main victim of your own flaw. Most people are totally unaware of your antipathy, even though your antipathy makes you unhappy every day. Put down your load of resentment and you’ll feel a lot better.
5. Once you fix your misanthropy, you can focus on improving your life. Be constructive all day, every day. Focus on how to avoid unpleasant experiences, not who to condemn. Take all the time you spend ruminating on everything you don’t like, and spend it doing something you do like.
6. If you really think that only 1% of people are worth talking to, search for the 1% instead of lamenting their scarcity. If you’re pleasant to everyone, you’ll have a much larger pool of potential friends to choose from. Then you can enjoy life instead of complaining about it.
Would my teenage self have found my current self persuasive? Yes, actually. I learn slowly from experience, but quickly from explicit argument. Given twenty hours of conversation with a wiser version of myself, I would have abandoned misanthropy years ahead of schedule.
Oh well, better late than never.