Mindy Kaling’s secret? You have to earn that bulletproof feeling. In an excerpt from her new book, Why Not Me?, she explains.
One evening last year, I was onstage at a Q&A in Manhattan hosted by a magazine to discuss my life and career. This was one of those fancy events where ticket prices are high, and there’s wine and cheese beforehand, and cocktails, but no real meal is served at any point. It made you wish you had just shushed the naysayers and brought three hot little sliders in your clutch to nibble at opportune moments. No one else seemed to mind the lack of food, though, because the theater was packed, primarily with an older, mostly white crowd.
I was very tired. I had filmed a full week on the show, traveled on a red-eye from Los Angeles, done press all day, and arrived at the theater. It would be the last hurdle before I could go back to my hotel, take off my pants, and eat a room-service club sandwich while I watched syndicated reruns of The Big Bang Theory. Sheldon’s sweet bazinga! would lull me to sleep, as is always my preference.
At the end of the interview, the moderator opened the floor to the audience. I noticed that the small group of people who lined up to ask me questions looked very different from the majority of the crowd. They were mostly young women of color. After a few people went, a young Indian girl stepped forward to take the microphone. She looked about fifteen, and not only out of place in that crowd but also a little young to be asking a question in front of such a big audience. I think she felt it, too, because I could see from the stage that she was shaking. After a moment of nervous silence, she asked, “Mindy, where do you get your confidence? Because I feel like I used to have it when I was younger but now I don’t.”
Context is so important. If this question had been asked by a white man, I might actually have been offended, because the subtext of it would have been completely different. When an adult white man asks me “Where do you get your confidence?” the tacit assumption behind it is: “Because you don’t look like a person who should have any confidence. You’re not white, you’re not a man, and you’re not thin or conventionally attractive. How were you able to overlook these obvious shortcomings to feel confident?”
But this wasn’t coming from a white man. This was coming from a vulnerable young girl who thought that maybe, when I was her age, I too had faced similar obstacles. All she wanted was guidance, or maybe a little empathy.
My answer was not very good. My tiredness betrayed me, and I think I said something like: “Wow, I don’t know. I think it’s from my parents always telling me I could do anything. I wish I had a better answer for you.” I wished her good luck, and she nodded politely and said thank you.
When I get asked the same question over and over for years, the words of my answer begin to lose their meaning, even for me. Talking about confidence has become, to me, like listening to the flight attendant go through the in-flight passenger safety announcements. I could be leafing through a copy of American Way as I speak. I open my mouth and glib phrases like “supportive parents” and “strong sense of self” leak out. People seem mollified, but who knows? Maybe they are tuning me out too.
As I watched her walk back to her seat, a wave of guilty regret hit me. This girl had done a lot to summon up the courage to ask a question, and she didn’t even want anything in return other than my honest answer. She didn’t want a selfie or for me to read her script, or to call her cousin’s friend who loved The Office so she could tell me, “No, I loved Office Space. Were you in that?” She just wanted me to give her practical advice, and I answered in a way that was technically true but did not offer a lot of insight. And everyone had been fine with it.
And that really sucks. Because then why am I even speaking on panels in the first place?
So this essay is for that girl who went out of her way to be vulnerable in front of so many people, to whom I gave such a shitty, unhelpful response. Because I’ve thought about it now and I have my real answer. Hopefully she hasn’t stopped liking me and moved on to Laverne Cox, though if she did, how could I blame her? She seems inspirational as hell and her legs are like whoa.
For the record, I, like everyone else, have had moments when I felt unattractive and stupid and unskilled. When I started at The Office, I had zero confidence. Whenever Greg Daniels came into the room to talk to our small group of writers, I was so nervous that I would raise and lower my chair involuntarily, like a tic. Finally, weeks in, writer Mike Schur put his hand on my arm and said, gently, “You have to stop.” Years later I realized that the way I had felt during those first few months was correct. I didn’t deserve to be confident yet. I happen to believe that no one inherently deserves anything, except basic human rights, and not to have to watch an ad before you watch a trailer on YouTube.
So here it is: Mindy Kaling’s No Fail, Always Works, Secret Guide to Confidence. This is why you spent your entire vacation reading this book instead of talking to your family.
Confidence is just entitlement. Entitlement has gotten a bad rap because it’s used almost exclusively for the useless children of the rich, reality TV stars, and Conrad Hilton Jr., who gets kicked off an airplane for smoking pot in the lavatory and calling people peasants or whatever. But entitlement in and of itself isn’t so bad. Entitlement is simply the belief that you deserve something. Which is great. The hard part is, you’d better make sure you deserve it. So, how did I make sure that I deserved it?
To answer that, I would like to quote from the Twitter bio of one of my favorite people, Kevin Hart. It reads:
My name is Kevin Hart and I WORK HARD!!! That pretty much sums me up!!! Everybody Wants To Be Famous But Nobody Wants To Do The Work!
Hard Work; or, the Thing No One Wants to Hear About
People talk about confidence without ever bringing up hard work. That’s a mistake. I know I sound like some dour older spinster chambermaid 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 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.
I didn’t always feel this way. When I was a kid, I thought I could cruise through life and get ahead on charm, like a little Indian Ferris Bueller. In the summer after fourth grade, my parents enrolled me in a two-week-long basketball camp. If it surprises you that a girl with my build was interested in basketball, it should. But I was, because I had a fantasy that I was in Hang Time. And I was terrible. I could’ve gotten better, but I didn’t want to do drills. I just wanted to play pickup games, socialize, and drink Gatorade. I never wanted to practice. At the end of the two-week camp, I was no better at basketball. But at the farewell ceremony, trophies were handed out and I got one for “Coolest Clothes.” I ran home, delighted, and placed it proudly on top of our TV for all to see.
Weeks later, I went to the TV room to find that it was gone. My beautiful trophy! Was it stolen by a gang of criminals jealous of my peach denim shorts from the Limited Too?! Mom told me she had “put it away.” I didn’t understand. Someone had singled me out for praise and the trophy deserved to be seen. Then my mom said something to me, slowly and carefully, like she always did to make sure I was really listening: “They gave you that trophy so you wouldn’t feel bad, not because you deserved it. You should know the difference.”
I was of course incredibly hurt and thought Mom was nuts. I thought, There’s a great deal of value in being well dressed at basketball day camp. It keeps morale up and adds a sense of cheeky fun to the whole day. Later, I realized what she had said was true. A bunch of unearned trophies around the house would make me hooked on awards, which is bad in general, but especially bad if you don’t deserve them. The whole experience made me want to win another trophy, but win it for actually doing something great.
Hard work is such a weird thing. As children and teenagers you are told it’s a really good thing, but for adults it suddenly becomes the worst thing in the world.
We do a thing in America, which is to label people “workaholics” and tell them that work is ruining their lives. It’s such a widespread opinion that it seems like the premise to every indie movie is “Workaholic mom comes home to find that her entire family hates her. It’s not until she cuts back on work, smokes a little pot, and takes up ballroom dancing classes with her neglected husband that she realizes what is truly important in life. Not work.” Working parents have now eclipsed shady Russian-esque operatives as America’s most popular choice of movie villain. And to some degree, I understand why the trope exists. It probably resonates because most people in this country hate their jobs. The economies of entire countries like Turks and Caicos are banking on US citizens hating their jobs and wanting to get away from it all. And I understand that. But it’s a confusing message for kids.
The reason I’m bringing this up is not to defend my status as someone who always works. (I swear I’m not that Tiger Mom lady! I don’t think you need to play piano for eleven hours with no meals! Or only watch historical movies, then write reports on them for me to read and grade!) It’s just that, the truth is, I have never, ever, 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.
Because confidence is like respect; you have to earn it.
The Tiniest Bit of Bravery
For those of you who would like to have less confidence, one way is to constantly read about how people think you suck. Or to hear people say stuff like “She’s just not a star.” And I hear that all the time. It’s especially hard, when you hear these things every day, to want to keep putting yourself out there. People’s reaction to me is sometimes “Uch, I just don’t like her. I hate how she thinks she is so great.” But it’s not that I think I’m so great. I just don’t hate myself. I do idiotic things all the time and I say crazy stuff I regret, but I don’t let everything traumatize me. And the scary thing I have noticed is that some people really feel uncomfortable around women who don’t hate themselves. So that’s why you need to be a little bit brave.
People marvel that I am on TV because I don’t look like other people who have been on TV. And to some degree, I get it. I like the way I look, but I’m not, like, someone you could see effectively playing Brookshelle LeFemme on Pretty Lying Children or whatever.
One of the unexpected and wonderfully fair things I have learned in my career is that if Hollywood were filled just with perfect-looking people, then soap operas would be the most-watched things in the world. But they’re not. Looks are great, but they’re not compelling enough. I’ve noticed that successful actors with long careers are usually talented actors with charismatic screen presences, and all of them must exude one thing: confidence. Yes, a lot of them are good-looking, but from my eleven years in Hollywood, I have learned a secret: “good-looking” by Hollywood standards is achievable by every human on the planet. Every average-looking American is just a treadmill and six laser hair removal sessions away from looking like Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively (who are a great couple, by the way).
So that’s what I think whenever I read something like: “How’d this chick get a job? I guess they’re just giving away shows to every overweight minority woman who wants one now? Hahaha.” So even though that hurts my feelings, I’m smart enough to realize, Oh, this poor dummy doesn’t understand the way Hollywood works. Then I think of ways that I would beat him to death with my SAG Award.
Which is why you need the tiniest bit of bravery. People get scared when you try to do something, especially when it looks like you’re succeeding. People do not get scared when you’re failing. It calms them. That’s why the show Intervention is a hit and everyone loves “worrying about” Amanda Bynes. But when you’re winning, it makes them feel like they’re losing or, worse yet, that maybe they should’ve tried to do something too, but now it’s too late. And since they didn’t, they want to stop you. You can’t let them.
We Can Do It! No, I’m Serious. We Really Can!
A general assumption about confidence is that women, particularly young women, will have very little of it, and girls will have zero of it. Just the attitude alone makes me sad: “We have to help our girls and teach them to be confident.” Well, guess what, young girls. You aren’t damsels in distress. You aren’t hostages to the words of your peers. You aren’t the victims that even your well-meaning teachers and advocates think you are.
We just assume boys will be confident, like how your parents assume you will brush your teeth every morning without checking in on you in the bathroom. With girls, that assumption flies out the window. Suddenly, your parents are standing in the bathroom with you, watching you brush your teeth with encouraging, worried expressions on their faces. Sweetheart, you can do it! We know it’s hard to brush your teeth! We love you! Which must make girls think, Yikes. Is brushing your teeth a really hard and scary thing to do? I thought it was just putting toothpaste on a toothbrush. I get worried that telling girls how difficult it is to be confident implies a tacit expectation that girls won’t be able to do it.
The good news is that, as a country, we are all about telling girls to be confident. It’s our new national pastime. Every day I see Twitter posts, Instagram campaigns, and hashtags that say things like “We Will!” or “Girls Can!” or “Me Must, I Too!” on them. I think widespread, online displays of female self-confidence are good for people, especially men, to see. I just sometimes get the sneaking suspicion that corporations are co-opting “girl confidence” language to rally girls into buying body wash. Be careful.
So, if that girl from the panel is reading this, I would like to say to her: Hi, it’s Mindy Kaling. I’m sorry I let you down. The thing is, I’m in my mid-thirties and I was wearing my Spanx for fourteen hours straight. You’ll understand when you’re older. Here’s how I think you can get your confidence back, kid:
Work hard, know your shit, show your shit, and then feel entitled. Listen to no one except the two smartest and kindest adults you know, and that doesn’t always mean your parents. If you do that, you will be fine. Now, excuse me, I need to lie down and watch Sheldon.