“Don’t gossip; it makes you untrustworthy. . . . Kindness is everything.”
Naomi Wolf was only twenty-six when she began writing the cult-classic The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women, which went on to become a bestseller that shaped the cultural narrative on beauty and identity. Confronted with her sudden success, Wolf had to face the demon of “Fear of Having Too Much” — that peculiar ghoul of private self-doubt in the face of public affirmation and material rewards, which so often manifests itself in our conflicted relationship with money. Two years after the publication of The Beauty Myth, Wolf reflected on this demon, a downside of success to which she believes women are particularly susceptible, in her meditation on female power in the 21st century, Fire with Fire:
I reacted by moving further into the elaborate complex of stupidity about money that I had begun to pick up in college. Like many women, I went into a numbers-induced fog that enveloped me whenever I had to discuss my income. I was embarrassed talking to the woman who helped me with my taxes. I thought it was inappropriate for me to learn the least detail about handling my income.
In What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self (public library) — a heartening collection of 41 extraordinary women’s life-tested learnings, including contributions from Maya Angelou, Madeleine Albright, and Roz Chast — Wolf looks back on her early experience with success and money, offering some sage, succinct, no-bullshit advice on life that, while directed at her twenty-something self, holds refreshing and timeless wisdom for all ages and genders:
Dear Younger Self,
INVEST FIFTY BUCKS IN THE STOCK MARKET EVERY MONTH!! You don’t need to eat out so much. Think of all that compound interest!
If they don’t have beards and aren’t clean-shaven either, they make good short-term but bad long-term boyfriends. Beware.
Stop worrying about making people happy or getting people’s approval.
Forget trends; go for the classics.
Don’t gossip; it makes you untrustworthy.
Condoms, condoms, condoms.
Kindness is everything.
(For some reflections in a similar spirit from yours truly, see 7 things I’ve learned in 7 years of Brain Pickings.)
Complement What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self with Dear Me, which features luminaries’ letters to their 16-year-old selves, and The Letter Q, queer writers’ wise and wonderful letters to their young selves, then revisit Wolf’s most recent work, exploring the science of stress and orgasm.