I don’t really believe in advice. That’s not to say other people can’t teach you anything useful about how to live, but sweeping, external principles handed down from on high are useless. It’s one thing to flesh out your personal moral code with examples from other people’s lives, but swollen mantras about Focusing On The Positive And Just Breathing ring hollow until you can animate them with personal meaning. Jason Gay’s Little Victories is, in this sense, a perfect advice book for the advice skeptic. He understands the futility of his own medium, which makes him ideally suited to transcend it.
Implicit in the very concept of an advice book is a distillation of life experiences into communicable, sentence-long nuggets of wisdom, which is a near-impossible task when the subject matter is lofty big-picture life stuff. The purpose of this book (Gay’s first) is to serve as an unserious rule book. It will make you laugh more than it will make you want to Change Your Life By Following These 13 Steps. Gay is a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, where he primarily writes about sports. He’s profiled Rihanna, Zach Galifianakis, and Will Ferrell (sort of). For my money, he is the best cycling writer in the nation. In Little Victories, Gay doesn’t shy away from the serious or the tragic, but remains conversational, and never prescriptive, throughout. He won’t be offended if you ignore his advice. He might even think better of you. After all, he describes his own teachings as born from satire to begin with:
The advice in this book is both practical and ridiculous. It is neither perfect nor universal. A few years back I began writing advice “Rules” columns for the Wall Street Journal–Rules of Thanksgiving Family Touch Football, Rules of the Gym, Rules of the Office Holiday Party. The idea was to make a little fun of the Cult of Advice, the absurd surety of know-it-all experts and, of course, our blossoming era of inane Internet lists (29 WAYS TO WATCH A SUNSET WITH YOUR PONY!). Ours is a culture that is always telling people what to do, but what do we really know?
It’s the titular smallness and Gay’s hesitation to take himself too seriously that makes the book work. The title Little Victories is a reference to both the small moments of joy we encounter everyday, and a specific and terrible time in his life. When his father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, it warped Gay’s sense of scale. Suddenly, the grace of a shared walk around the block and whether or not his father could eat became more important to him than “the big play, the grand gesture, or long-term plans.”
This spirit illuminates the rest of the book. He takes on the weird societal insistence that you must travel, explains why your wedding playlist is bunk as hell unless it has “Brick House” on it, suggests that the secret of fitness might be to just do the same thing consistently, and previews the strategies he’ll use to coach his kid’s little league team, among other frivolous and serious topics. Explicit recommendations are scattered throughout the book (e.g, at parties, try not to drone on about TV shows that nobody else watches), but they’re nested within personal anecdotes and ruminations.
His writing on stress is particularly illustrative. Gay doesn’t focus on eliminating it altogether, and in fact, he concedes that impossibility from jump. He understands that stress is both harmful and inevitable:
The doctor and your Wednesday yoga instructor will tell you that most stress is avoidable, that very little of it is worth getting worked up over, but that perspective is hard to summon when your flight is being called and you’re stuck in line at the airport newsstand behind someone taking a half hour to buy breath mints and The Economist.
Deep Breaths, we are all told. But sometimes it’s hard to find those deep breaths.
So rather than try to help you just “thinkovate” stress out of your life entirely, Gay wisely suggests that you find what calms you down the quickest. For him, it’s soup, his bicycle, and an adult time-out (which is exactly what it sounds like). For you, it might be video games or a tall glass of Hawaiian Punch. It’s not what exactly you do to relieve stress that matters, but that you have a plan.
He’s similarly pragmatic on the topic of friendship and the slippery impossibility of keeping up with long-distance friends. That chapter is called “Hoard Your Friends,” and he starts out by assessing his own failure to keep in touch with his. “Nobody lies on their deathbed and wishes he had fewer friends,” he writes, before quickly mocking the very notion of a deathbed. Rather than rely on this sort of reverse-engineered avoidance of negativity, he makes his case in a way that’s both personal and open-ended:
Think about friendship as a lifelong ambition. Everyone hates to be told to “make new friends”–it conjures up haunted thoughts of your mother laughing to herself as she drops you off at a month-long archery camp. It does not have to be explicitly stated. Life is not Facebook. But if you can maintain friendships deep into adulthood, this will enrich your life in ways you cannot imagine, and it will give you emotional ballast for all the relentless everything that is to come.
While this advice is somewhat nebulous by the book’s standards, its looseness lets you decide how to practically implement it for yourself. It’s not a roadmap; it’s a note from experience. Maybe it helps you think about your friendships in some profound, incommunicable way. Maybe it makes you call an old friend exactly once, then you never think about the advice (or your friend) again. Gay’s advice avoids tautological instructions, which for me, made it click.
I will probably only take four explicit recommendations with me from the book:
1. Don’t soak your greasy pans—just wash them, unless you’re a coward.
2. Throw some turnips into those Thanksgiving mashed potatoes.
3. A crowd-pleasing wedding playlist builds from Motown to Kool & the Gang to Beyoncé
4. The phrase “the cocktail hour” is underused.
But in Little Victories’ own language, those are perfectly fine takeaways. They’re all small improvements, and, most importantly, they’re realistic. Gay’s book is bereft of overwrought conclusions or unlivable life systems, and for anyone writing an advice book, that’s great advice.