Molly Young Is Hacking Her Way Through Life

The New York Times contributor and crossword-puzzle writer shares her thoughts on body image, deciphering human behavior and taking chances in her career.
Molly Young Is Hacking Her Way Through Life

“Writing was kind of the only thing I was good at growing up. I liked physically typing on a little computer or keyboard, and I always read a lot. My dad is a doctor and my mom is a hypnotherapist — they are on opposite ends of the Eastern/Western medicine spectrum, which is interesting. My mom has always been kind of a hippie — they met at Esalen in Big Sur. [Laughs] My dad’s kind of that classic Jewish, dabbles in Buddhism. They’re both very emotionally intelligent and nurturing. My parents always raised us to exercise daily, as a form of practical maintenance like teeth brushing. Initially because I think they wanted us to be tired out so we would go to bed early, but also because it’s good for the ol’ mood. There was also some depression and anxiety in the family and my mom and dad found that exercise really helped them medicate, so they thought it was good for us too. I grew up surfing, and surfing totally helps with my mental health. My only metric for whether my body is ‘good’ or not is: ‘Is it healthy and can I surf? I don’t buy supplements, I don’t look in the mirror that much. It’s just about whether or not I feel healthy. 

Earlier this year I had a lot of health problems, so I was constantly in bed sick and tired. There is nothing like that to make you overjoyed and happy and confident when you feel merely up to par. I still don’t know what it is, but I was nauseous all the time, really fatigued and sleeping fourteen hours a day. Every time I went to the doctor they’d be like, ‘Are you pregnant,’ and I’d say ‘No.’ And they’d check and the answer would always be no. So they thought it was lyme disease; wasn’t that. Thought it was mono; wasn’t that. I’d have these super weird, elevated vitamin levels that didn’t make sense and I still don’t really know what the problem is. But I feel like a lot of women I know have a similar thing — they’re fatigued and have stomach problems. Nothing like that to make you not give a shit about like, a thigh gap. I just want some energy. I do feel better though. 

I grew up in San Francisco, and basically my brothers and I had no supervision. Our parents couldn't care less whether we did our homework or whether we did it well. It was just: do it, or don’t do it. I did well in the subjects I liked and in the subjects I didn’t like, I did very badly. I dropped out of high school right before sophomore year ended. I just went and knocked on the principal's door and said, ‘Just FYI, I will not be coming back after next year.’ And he said, ‘OK, I will make a note of it.’ I really hated the school I was at, and I also had a really clear idea of how I wanted to educate myself. I wanted to read all the books. I wanted to read Shakespeare, the transcendentalists, English literature. I really wanted to go deep on that. I moved out of my [parents’] house and got a job. I would spend half the day working and then six hours a day reading. I did that for two years and applied to colleges as a transfer student. I did not get in to many schools, but I did get in to Brown, which was fantastic. Thanks to Brown. I just called them and was like, ‘Hey I don’t have a high school diploma, can I go here?’ and they were like, ‘Do you have a GED?’ And I was like, ‘...No, is that going to be a problem?’ And they were just like, ‘No, we’ll make a note of it.’ What are the odds. I felt like going back to my old high school and being like, ‘See?! Y’all were wrong.’ [Laughs] But I never went back. 


[After college] I worked at Warby Parker for six years. It was really fun doing brand stuff. It’s fun because you have a bigger platform; instead of writing something that might disappear into this nebulous mist of the internet, you’re making something that will be shipped to like 500 people. Which is fun. I also think everyone should have the experience of working in an office. You learn a lot about other people and the sort of political intrigues of being in an office, power dynamics, managing different people’s personalities, managing your own personality. An office is a good place — kind of like school — to figure out what you’re good and bad at, because you’re around people who are good and bad at inverse things. After six years I wanted to try going freelance to see if I could hack it. I sadly said goodbye. 

As a writer, my job is just trying to decode somebody, and hopefully in a way that feels to them like it’s genuine and accurate. To make people comfortable, I always show them my tits like first thing. [Laughs] JUST kidding. I actually think the best writers of profiles are women. I think there is something about growing up as a woman where you become conditioned to be a good listener, to be good at making people feel comfortable, to create a hospitable social setting. Those are actually great skills in profiling somebody. I basically go into those situations as I would with any situation with somebody I was just meeting, which is that you want to bring out the best in them and allow them to be the person they would be around their friends. Which is hard because people sometimes have really insane defense mechanisms. But I think it really just comes down to being a good listener. People want to feel like you’re listening to them and that you’re going to do an honest job of conveying what they are like. 

My best friend is also a writer, she works for the New Yorker. We met when we were seven years old. She was the funniest person I’d ever met at that age. We were like glue. We never went to the same school, which I think was important. She went to this huge public high school and had kind of the classic high school experience. And I was able to tag along — I went to her high school parties because I didn’t have a high school social set. She was basically my only friend. And then in college we were both on the East Coast so we’d drive back and forth between schools. It’s definitely my longest relationship. I think it helps that I respect her so much. She pushes me to operate on a bigger scale than I’m comfortable with. She’s the best writer I know. Besides that, I think it’s nice to be around different… you know, one of my friends is a food safety operations director. Learning about why cantaloupe is more dangerous to eat than raw fish is more interesting to me than hearing somebody bitch about their editor. 

Only once have I asked my mom to hypnotize me. This was around five years ago. In her practice, you’re supposed to go into a session with a really specific intention; a defined problem you want to solve. At the time there was a girl on the internet I was obsessed with. I hated this person and also obsessively monitored her, which I think is pretty common among women our age. So I went in to the session and I was like, ‘I want to stop being interested in this person,’ — who, by the way, had never interacted with me, had done nothing. She was just some girl who was kind of on the outskirts of my social circle, and I was sort of fascinated by her. I’m sure I was fascinated by her because she was kind of a prettier, cooler version of me, but also somebody I thought was kind of lame at the same time. It was a weird mixture of jealousy and contempt. It’s a thing. Fueled by social media that allowed me to surveil her in a creepy way. 

So my mom laid me down on the couch, and she was like, ‘OK you need to pick an animal that personifies the way you feel when you are looking at this woman’s Instagram.’ I picked a rhinoceros. Then there are conditioning techniques you can use so that every time you interact with that woman’s picture on Instagram, you think about a rhinoceros, and it becomes kind of silly to the point where you dissociate from your own behavior and it kind of loses its hold on you. When it was over, the question she asked was, ‘How long did you think you were lying on the couch?’ I said, ‘20-25 minutes.’ And she was like, ‘it’s been an hour and a half.’ And that was the moment I was like, ‘Oh, so that’s what [being hypnotized] is like.’ You lose track of time, you’re really relaxed but also really focused. It’s basically being in a flow state, but not doing anything other than thinking. That was the only time I’ve done [hypnotherapy], but it worked. It’s more like behavioral therapy. It made me basically be able to observe myself performing the behavior rather than be in the thrall of it. And I realized it was so stupid and goofy. It’s very infantilizing. But that’s all in the past. Now, my best friend and I have traded passwords. I have the password to her Instagram and she has the password to my Instagram and we can’t check our Instagrams unless we’re with each other, and when we’re with each other we don’t want to check our Instagrams because that would be lame. It’s a good mechanism to prevent either of us from being on that platform. I guess I just get weirdly addicted to it. I mean, not weirdly — it’s designed to be addictive. None of it makes me happy. Why do I do this? I feel like an addict. You have to enact defenses. I don’t want my tombstone to be like, ‘She died as she lived, checking Instagram.’ So depressing. I think if I knew more about how they engineer it to be addictive I’d be less inclined to check it. 

I’ve been kind of doing the same thing for a long time and I’m comfortable in it, so I’m actively trying to figure out what I want to do [next] and whether I’m capable of doing something else. My husband is a good role model because he’s constantly changing — he owns a design firm, and then last year he decided he wanted to write and direct TV and so he started doing it and was immediately successful. He sold shows to Amazon and FX and then directed them and made them. He just really made it happen. That’s really inspiring to me. You think you’re in your thirties and you’re on a career path that maybe there’s only one incline. But instead you can hopefully zig zag in different directions. That appeals to me. I’m really excited about surfing, honestly. All I want to do is surf now. I just want to be a bum. Go to the beach. It’s true. I love the idea of moving to Central America, writing, and opening a restaurant because I love cooking, and having a simpler life. I went to Costa Rica and Peru this year, and I met some girls who are competitive surfers. It was so refreshing after being in New York to find women who are resilient, and resourceful, and give no shits about their appearance beyond what their body could do for them as a vessel of performance. They were women who could do shit: they could cook, they could fix a boat, they could give someone stitches if they got injured. New York doesn’t offer many opportunities to be resourceful in that way. I think that’s what makes humans happiest. Because you’re figuring out puzzles and hacking your way through life. It was very appealing. When I first got to New York for college, it was easy to lose track and become obsessed with things and sort of production-designing my life. Falling into the sort of traps people fall into. I’ve always been pretty clear on the things that make me happy because they’re pretty simple things. Being outside, reading books, being with people I love, baking bread. Those things haven’t changed over the past two decades. But I have to remind myself that the things that make me happy are free and available, and I should stick to them.”

Interview by Anna Jube. Photographed by Stephanie Lavaggi. Styled by Emily Newnam. 

Tags: bodytalk , Purpose

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