You’re not great, and you’re certainly not as great as you think you are.
That’s according to Elan Gale, a producer on ABC’s The Bachelor, whose latest book “You’re Not That Great (but neither is anyone else)” turns the notion of positive thinking and aspirational happiness on its head and instead touts the value of rage, fear and shame in your career and your life, all while reminding the reader about the inevitable — death.
It may be unexpected for a producer on The Bachelor, a show where contestants often voice the importance of love and happiness in life, to write an entire book based on the usefulness of negativity. But Gale writes from his own experience and includes insights from other successful actors, producers and writers in the industry that fall in line with his thinking.
Gale’s father told him a career in the entertainment industry was “not possible” — a true and realistic assessment, Gale said, but one that motivated him to pursue his goals far more than any false words of comfort. As an alcoholic, Gale said it took a great deal of shame to turn his life around and stop drinking. And Gale’s afraid of everything — from germs, to flying, to animals, to death — but his career motivates him to confront those fears, especially while consistently jetting to a new destination for The Bachelor.
Gale’s work-hard, desire-more philosophy has also led him to make some questionable money moves. At 34, Gale doesn’t own a home in Los Angeles (he cited hefty expenses while speaking with MONEY) and just recently started saving for retirement. But Gale may never stop working, he says, and finding a balance between enjoying life in the moment by spending money on food and travel, and saving for the future, whenever that may come, is key.
MONEY spoke with Gale recently about his book and career ahead of Monday’s season finale of the 22nd season of The Bachelor. Below is a condensed and edited version of that conversation.
MONEY: On The Bachelor, you see a lot of contestants say things like, “I deserve love,” “I deserve happiness,” and you see a range of emotions like fear and anger on the show as well. What do you think operates more on The Bachelor: positive emotions or negative emotions?
The Bachelor is a small representation of the culture of the time. I think what you see reflected back at you is that kind of blend between positive emotion and negative emotion. I think that people see the positive emotion as aspirational, and I think they feel some kind of strange relatability to the negative emotion. But I think that generally speaking people are desirous of positive emotions when they’re in fact not always the most interesting ones.
You describe negative emotions as a driving influence behind achieving goals for yourself. For you, your father’s words “not possible” drove you to end up in the entertainment industry despite him perhaps not being as supportive of that dream. How do those words motivate you today now that you’re a producer?
Something that I found with all of the people who I’ve spoken to in the course of writing this book is that very few people that you would consider successful or that I would consider successful would consider themselves really successful. I think that’s part of what makes people successful is drive over kind of contentement.
I always felt like I was not good enough or smart enough or strong enough, and I always felt like I was right. And I still feel that way. There have been many times in my career, and I’ve been very lucky, where I go, ‘OK, when I get to this next thing, I’ll feel successful and I’ll feel like I’ve done something.’ But I’ve learned that’s not a thing that I feel. And I’m actually really happy about that, because it leaves so much more to explore. You know, maybe 30 years from now, I’ll feel like I’ve done something really important, but at the moment, I feel like I’m just really lucky to do interesting things. One thing I also learned from talking to people in all walks of life is that imposter syndrome is real, and we all feel like someone’s going to one day find out that we’re not as smart or as talented as they think we are because we know that we’re just normal, kind of flawed humans, and kind of not that interesting as creatures and somehow we just got lucky and found an interesting life.
I still feel that way. When I was growing up, my father — it wasn’t that he wasn’t supportive, it was that he was realistic and he said that things probably would not work out if I pursued a career in entertainment. And he was right. It probably wouldn’t work out. But I didn’t like that reality. And so I worked really, really hard to try to make him not right. In a weird way, whether someone is supportive of you or not supportive, you kind of pick what way you want to go. If I failed, let’s say, or if I failed in the future, which is still entirely possible, it doesn’t mean that he was right any more than he was in the first place. You see what I mean?
You mention this “imposter syndrome,” and an entire chapter of your book is devoted to the importance of not inflating yourself and thinking that you are better than you are and how that plays a role in your career. I’m interested in what the line is between promoting yourself accurately when you’re trying to get a raise or promotion, or exaggerating that truth and perhaps thinking you deserve something more than you do?
Trying to figure out what you deserve in a business and your career is really tough. Your own sense of value is, I think, always going to be higher than your actual value. But I think you should be honest about your sense of value, while also being honest about the fact that you may be inflating your own value. So, I’ll just say personally what I’ve always done when navigating from one job to the next, what I’ve always said is: ‘Listen, I know this is a big thing, here’s what would make me happy, and if you want me to be happy, that’s what I would like. If you don’t give me that, I’ll still do the things, I’ll just be less happy. So how important is my happiness to you?’ That gives them a different kind of decision in business in writing a book, in writing a pilot. You give them the opportunity to try to decide how important you are, right?
Here’s the thing that’s really hard when it comes to imposter syndrome: Sometimes you just have to realize that nothing you do is really important, and everything is kind of meaningless and nothing matters. And that takes away some of the pain, because almost all of the time you don’t get the thing that you want. You almost never get the exact thing you want, so it’s important to remember that it doesn’t matter if you get the thing you want or not. There’s always more things. Life is unbelievably long, and weird, and long, and complex. It’s not short, it’s not easy, it’s not linear.
That reminds me how you mention in your book how happiness is a single emotion and not necessarily a goal to reach since it’s one aspect of your life. What should you be looking for then, whether it’s a career or love, or anything?
I really feel like emotions are bad goals to have. Trying to set yourself up to be happy is kind of as dumb to me as trying to set yourself up to be sad. Perform actions, and hope to have reactions that work for you. But if you’re going to try to pick an action that will, I guess, lead to interesting emotions, I always try to promote desire. I think it’s a little bit of the opposite of a Buddhist mentality. I really like wanting things, and I really think wanting things is interesting. I really think desiring is interesting, and I think being passionate about things is interesting. They lead to a lot of joy; it also leads to a lot of pain, disappointment, grief. But as long as you’re continuously desiring, you’re setting yourself up for a lot of interesting emotions. Some will be good and some will be bad, but they will be varied. I think as a human being a lot of your job is to allow yourself to feel all of the things that are kind of wired into your body.
You also describe happiness as this miraculous and ridiculous phenomenon, similar to how you describe life itself. We find ourselves battling anxiety, shame and rage. I’m wondering if escapism is ever something we do to temporarily treat those feelings. So many people watch The Bachelor, would you consider The Bachelor as a kind of form of escapism?
I think that happiness is a trap. I think that we get tuned to always trying to find this one thing, and I think it’s really hard to find. It is rare, and when you have that feeling, enjoy it, because it’s fleeting. And I do think that life is inherently pain. I do. I think life is awful. It’s funny to me — not to everybody — but I think life is really painful and the world is bad. Sometimes you want to escape it. The Bachelor provides a really nice two-fold experience, where you have an escape from your life, but you don’t have an escape from the things that you feel. You get to see the things that you feel mirrored back to you — the best moments of your life, the worst moments in your life, and everyone’s had their heart broken. Getting to see those two things makes you feel bizarrely seen and heard and felt and understood. That’s the one thing people want a lot of and don’t know how much they want: is to be understood and to know that someone out there knows what they’re feeling.
That’s for me the best part of writing this book. My thoughts are not unique or special, and they’re not new. There’s a lot of people out there who feel exactly the same way that I do. The best part of writing the book for me is I also feel less alone. I happen to have put in a certain way in certain words in a certain order in a book that was published, which was amazing. But the thoughts aren’t unique to me, and I think everyone out there that reaches out to me says, ‘Wow, I don’t have to be happy, I can feel understood by this, it’s OK to go through pain and torment and it’s OK to feel bad about myself and go through it?’ That’s the part that’s the escape from my life that I like.
You read a lot of resumes, you do a lot of interviews, and you hire people. In your book, you mention how it irks you when someone says, “I work too hard,” or something along those lines, when you ask what their worst quality is. How do you want candidates to be honest with you in a job interview — and is there a line where they are perhaps revealing too much about themselves?
Nobody likes to be seen as stupid, but everyone for some reason treats others as if they are. That’s something I’ve seen a lot in the hiring process, in all of my jobs that I’ve had, which is that people learn these kind of predictable, repeatable — they’re not even phrases. They’re just awful. “I work too hard, and I care too much.” It’s not so much that those are lies, it’s that it’s so clear that the person saying it isn’t interested in actually having a conversation. It’s just a deflection — it’s a moving away from the conversation we’re having.
I’ve always found, especially, again, in the entertainment arts, and any form of television or film or writing, is that there are acquired skills, and anyone can learn them, and the only prerequisite is that you are an interested person. Like really, truly interested in things. If you’re interested in things, you’ll learn, and you’ll figure it out. When I’m interviewing someone or when I’m interviewing with someone, level of interest is more important to me than experience. Desire, passion, wanting it, and wanting to learn about it. And also having really strong, passionate ideas even if they’re wrong. Trying to come up with good ideas is nearly impossible, so coming up with bad ideas is always a better model. Bad ideas can easily be formed and jammed until they’re good ideas. So people that have bad ideas are always the best people to work with.
As someone who has rose up in their career in a competitive industry fairly quickly, what’s your best money advice?
My best money advice: You don’t know how long you’re going to live, so find a really good balance between being thoughtful for the future and really enjoying yourself in the present. More than ever, I feel like any day now our entire species can be wiped off the face of the earth, and your 401k isn’t going to be as important to you. So that’s it for me. Follow your passion. I’m really, really super, super happy to spend money, because for me, going out to eat is really, really important, just like traveling is an important part of my life. But I don’t own a home and I don’t own a car because those are not priorities to me. What it’s important to me is more experiential. I’m really lucky in that way. I also don’t have a family, I don’t have kids, or a wife, I have a girlfriend. But try to find ways to use your own money in ways that are exciting. But also, don’t listen to me because I’m terrible with money. I’m the worst with it. I have no idea what’s going to happen in the next few years.
Are you saving for retirement?
I’m saving very little for retirement. Part of that is probably building in a fear mechanism, right? I feel like if I had a really good retirement fund set up, and I set myself up for 10 years, that I might become lazy and feel kind of content. I think the idea that I’m in a perpetual state of fear that I may never be able to buy a house because Los Angeles costs so much, that makes me have the correct amount of anxiety to be a good earner in the future.
Can you see yourself retiring at all in the future?
I don’t think I could never not work. I try to occasionally go on a vacation where I actually unplug, but there’s always something to do. I’m lucky to be in a creative field. At any moment, I could be relaxing, or I could be writing a book, and that is more interesting to me than [vacations]. I want to be the guy that does that — I want to be the guy that blisses out, but I have too much anxiety and self-loathing to do that, ever. I think that’s probably the other good advice is I could give someone financially, is just never rest and get very little sleep.
I don’t want to end on a dark note here, but you talk a lot in your book about death and your fear of it. What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind?
As someone who doesn’t believe that I matter after my body dies, it’s hard to think about a legacy of any kind. If you ask me what I want on my tombstone, which somebody asked me, I’d say, “He tried.” But more importantly if I die — when I die — I hope that people have interesting memories. The people that are close to me. I don’t really care about random people, but I want them to have interesting memories and I hope that I have enough presence of mind before I die to set up a few good surprises at my funeral that really f–k people up, that, like, they think that I’m dead and I came back or something. That’s what I’d like to leave, is one last surprise before I die.