Why we all secretly love a hot mess
Few things boost your confidence like watching a total fuck-up.
Everyone in grad school loved this one girl. She always showed up late. Never did the readings. Gave the same awful presentation on Totally Spies! and postmodernism in three different seminars. One professor sighed, “I can’t believe we let you in.”
It was more than a sigh. He tossed his bifocals on the desk and massaged his temples for ten entire seconds. Yeah, that bad.
Have you ever seen Totally Spies!? It’s worth watching. And if you can squeeze a dissertation out of it, be my guest.
We complained about that girl all the time. But secretly, I appreciated her so much. Especially at the end of the semester. Twice, I deliberately signed up to give my seminar presentation after hers.
Look, I’m something of an over-achiever. And there’s nothing we over-achievers enjoy more than a hot mess on a low bar.
I’m not saying it’s good or bad. Just speaking the truth.
Many of us judge ourselves harshly. Hold ourselves to impossible standards. End every day wishing we’d accomplished more.
But sometimes a gift comes our way. The hot mess. Crashing through life with reckless abandon. Look at them, trying to push a cart full of groceries through the express checkout lane. Missing their flights because of hangovers. Soaring over typos on every other slide at a conference. We’re not like them. We don’t show up to work drunk or anything.
Long ago, I myself was a hot mess. Such a hot mess, in fact, that I thought hot mess was a compliment. Like, “She’s a mess, but she’s hot. So it’s okay.” Turns out, that’s not what hot mess means at all.
My shining performance as hot mess involved a 15-minute lecture on The Golden Bowl, quite possibly the most painful read in all of American Literature. I’d just turned 21. You know what that means.
You don’t? Okay, it means I was out partying a lot. Instead of at home, reading Henry James like a good gal.
After a long and winding prelude from me on whether or not the bowl was actually made of gold, the professor finally called my bullshit. He said, “Can you just give us a basic summary of what happens?”
I tried my best. I said, “This woman sees a crack in a bowl, and it symbolizes her divorce.” Hey, that’s what SparkNotes said. It had to be partially correct. But the professor stared on, waiting. Unimpressed.
For the first time in my life, I faked a stomach pain. I cringed and held my side. I said, “Actually, I’m not feeling too well. Maybe you’d better do it.” And then I left, and didn’t come back.
Next class, the professor handed me my “grade.” A merciful D+. It took reading all of William Faulkner to convince him I wasn’t a complete airhead. Okay, almost all.
A year later, I was still having issues. I was supposed to give a presentation on Othello. Much less onerous than Henry James. This time, I worked my ass off. But I turned into a perfectionist, and worked on the thing all night. I had handouts galore.
Back then, I relied on Kinko’s to make copies. Such torture. I didn’t get there until an hour before my class. Wound up 20 minutes late. Zero copies, because everyone else in the world had also procrastinated. So I wound up illustrating Othello on a whiteboard. With dry erase markers.
Looking back, I don’t know what the hell happened to snap me out of my hot mess phase. Maybe you just fuck up enough times you get sick of it. You start putting in some effort, and it pays off. Someone compliments you on your work, and you realize it’s kind of nice to have your shit together. Like you did in high school. Remember?
A year ago, I invited a full professor to give a guest lecture to my students. He’d promised a 30 minute talk. After five, he turned to me and said, “So what else?” I spent the rest of class leading him through his own plan. Based on what he’d told me over coffee the week before.
Yeah, not cool. But I felt like a fucking rock star. Look at me, staying calm and guiding someone else through their own presentation.
What a bad ass. Frankly, it was some of the best coaching I’d ever done. He was glowing with pride by the end. The motherfucker even took a bow.
My first year as a professor, I felt anxious and intimidated. Agonized over my syllabus and assignments. Fretted over lesson plans. I wanted everything to be perfect. Even one negative evaluation made me nauseated.
And then one semester, a post-doc showed up to class wasted. He hit on all his female students. When they recoiled, he shouted expletives and tripped over a chair. A day later, the police escorted him from campus.
My all time favorite hot mess was an office aid. He once tried to drive a golf cart down a brick stairway.
When I’m feeling unworthy, I remember these unsung heroes. The ones who showed me that, even at my worst, I’m really not that bad. I’ve never tried to do anything inappropriate with a fruit tray. I’ve never drank so much at a conference that I forget what hotel I was staying at. Or shown my underwear to anyone. At least not since grade school.
Years have taught me that nobody’s born a hot mess. People fall into their mess for lots of different reasons. Like me once, maybe they don’t think effort will get them anywhere. Maybe they’re scared to try.
Or maybe they’re scared to succeed. Because we all know that success never begets anything other than higher expectations. At some point, you wonder if you can keep topping yourself.
Everyone probably plays the role of hot mess sometimes. When we do, we make everyone else feel better about themselves. That brief, temporary break means a lot.
The hot mess performs a kind of public service.
Sure, you can’t live life always comparing yourself to other people. Except you always will. That’s human nature.
It helps to catch yourself and pull back sometimes. Other times, you have to. We’ll always compare ourselves to people doing better than us. And to people doing worse. Maybe the trick to contentment is just knowing that today, you weren’t the hot mess. Someone else had a meltdown. But you kept your shit together. And now you can relax.