A Little Happier: How Do We Help? An Observation from the Life of the Creator of the Comic Strip “Cathy.”

I often think about, and write about, the importance of knowing ourselves and having a sense of what we want for ourselves, a sense of our own aims.

For instance, I’ve written about the danger of drift, which I’ve experienced. Drift is when instead of making mindful decisions for yourself, you go along with other people’s wishes for you, or when you take the path of least resistance, or you choose the choice that feels like the least commitment.

So I think it’s very important that we all figure out for ourselves what we want for ourselves.

But I have to admit, I’ve been struck repeatedly by stories I read, or that I hear from people I know, when someone has a loose or unformed idea for something they might do, and some person in their life says, “That’s a great idea! You should absolutely do that!” and charges off to get that person started down that path.

And then it turns out great. And ends up being a turning point in someone’s life.

Now, for me, when I hear these stories, I think, shouldn’t we pursue these ideas for ourselves, and not be carried away by someone else’s actions? I think so. And is it right to interfere forcefully in someone else’s destiny? I think that can be a bad idea.

And yet…and yet, as I say, I do keep seeing examples of when someone else’s enthusiasm, confidence, and assistance do help a person to tackle a big challenge or change, in a very significant way.

I was reminded of this observation recently when I was reading Rachel Syme’s piece “AACK” in New York magazine. It’s a profile of Cathy Guisewite [GUYS-white], the now-68-year-old creator of “Cathy,” the very successful comic strip about a character named—you guessed it, Cathy—that ran in newspapers every day from late 1976 to 2010. At its height, the comic strip was carried in 1,400 newspapers around the world.

The piece describes how Guisewite got her start. She grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and she was working at an advertising agency in Detroit as a copywriter when she started to doodle about her experiences. She sent some of the drawings to her mother, who was a stay-at-home mom.

This is what Guisewite recounts to the journalist:

My mother went to the library; she researched comic-strip syndicates. She typed me out a list of who she thought I should approach in the order that I should approach them, and then she just nagged me to send them in to somebody.

Her mother’s first choice was the Universal Press Syndicate in Kansas City, and Guisewite sent in some drawings, and she was started on her new career.

Now it’s often a very bad idea to interfere, or to try to push someone along a particular track. How can we know when it’s a good idea?

It’s a very hard thing to know, but perhaps one test is: Do I see that this person has a dream that he or she somehow feels afraid of or intimidated by, but I truly believe that this person can attain? Can I give the courage and assistance that can get this person started in the path they want for themselves—even if they haven’t really even admitted that out loud?

That’s very different from trying to convince people that they should do what you want them to do. This is helping them see, “Yes, you’re right, you can do that, and I’ll do what I can to ease the difficulties of starting.”

These kinds of questions are some of the toughest aspects of living a happy life, and in trying to be a loving friend or family member. How do we help? It’s not always easy to tell.

There are no universal rules, or at least, very few universal rules. But maybe it’s usually a good idea to try to help people to live up to their dreams for themselves, when they want to be helped.

If you’d like to read the whole profile, it’s here.

If you’d like to read more about drift, here’s my piece “A Problem in Happiness: Drift.”

Here’s a video of a fifteen-minute talk I gave about drift.

Here’s a quiz: “Quiz: Are You Drifting?

And finally “Can You ‘Drift’ Your Way into Graduate School? Oh Yes.”




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