Fans of A. J. Jacobs and Matt Mikalatos, rejoice! When journalist Joel Stein (Los Angeles Times, TIME) found out he and his wife were having a boy, he had a massive panic attack. Joe, it turns out, didn’t consider himself much of a man. The thought of trying to raise a boy terrified him. So he set out on a quest to become more masculine… whatever that means.
I have no idea how women keep score of who is doing best, but I get the feeling it’s complicated and involves shoes and delivering compliments that are actually insults. When men graduate from school, we switch from being judged on athletic ability to being judged on how much money we make.
Joel earned a Boy Scout merit badge. He spent a weekend with firefighters. He took on home-improvement projects with his ultra-handy father-in-law. He joined the Marines. He fought UFC champ Randy Couture.
Joel learns that being a man is a lot harder to define than traditionalists would have us believe. Manhood is more a function of character than roles.
As Joel’s fire chief told him,
Not to dismiss your entire premise, but none of the activities or skills you plan on doing define becoming a man. A man is honest, kind, and courageous, protects women, is humble, bold, moral, seeks truth, loves children, and fights for what is right.
If you’ve ever read a Joel Stein column, you know the sort of wit and self-deprecation you’re in for in Man Made. And in that regard, the book certainly doesn’t disappoint.
But it’s more than just jokes. Man Made is a trove of manhood-wisdom. Here are five attributes of manhood Joel brought back from his quest. They’re not the only five, but they’re what really resonated with me:
1. Nerdiness is a big part of manliness.
At the end of his boy scout campout, Joel observes
All I need to do is take my natural nerdiness and apply it to stuff I’m not interested in. The happiest thing I learned this weekend is that nerdiness is a big part of manliness: learning battle dates, perfecting martial arts moves, memorizing NFL passing percentages, knowing a lot of knots even though the only one you really need is the “shoelace knot.”
2. Men control their emotions.
Controlling your emotions separates children from adults, and all of us from the British… Repression isn’t simply civilized; it’s the mechanism to express dignity, honor, respect, and self-discipline. It’s not that you shouldn’t let people know how you feel; it’s that you should decide how and when you express it.
3. Men appreciate and pursue beauty.
In the midst of his (hilarious) attempts to restore an ancient, dilapidated house with his father-in-law, Joel gains a new appreciation for Ken’s manliness:
I thought Ken was just clueless, taking on projects without thinking them through. But that’s not it. Ken knows this house isn’t going to make him any money. He knows he’s never going to live here. He’s doing this because he sees something ugly that he can turn into something beautiful. It is, structurally, a great old house. That’s what Ken sees, not value or practicality. He sees beauty everywhere.
4. Men put others first.
I thought it was just good leadership, making others feel important. But it’s more than that: It’s humility. It’s not needing to express everything you feel immediately, because you’re not the most important person.
Initially, Joel couldn’t wrap his head around the self-sacrificial ethic embodied by the firefighters and marines he befriended. But he came to understand the value of living for something bigger than yourself.
5. Men contribute, they don’t complain.
While they were discussing Joel’s quest, a marine who lost a day of leave to someone else’s mistake observed,
If you want to be a man, you have to be thankful for what you have.
This attitude of contentedness, of working hard and getting a job done, not complaining when things don’t go your way, feeds into that same self-sacrificial attitude that had baffled Joel. But the more men he surrounded himself with, the more he saw the value of the code – even one that was largely unspoken.
There are ideals far more valuable than personal success. Our culture might celebrate power, money, and fame, but that’s not what they talk about at your funeral. Honorable conduct, even unrecognized, is its own reward.
This drive to contribute, to make the world a better place in your own small way, resonated with Joel. It resonates with me. While so many in our culture pursue the American Dream, personal fulfillment at any cost, Joel learns that some things – like virtue and character – are more important.
Happiness is overrated. Most of the experiences that have made my life better have been hard and unpleasant.
What I found fascinating is that none of the qualities of manhood Joel outlines is an explicitly masculine virtue.
What we really witness in Man Made is a devastating critique of our culture masked by Joel’s self-deprecation and wit. He exposes the adolescence of our selfish, self-possessed life. We’re tempted to miss the maturity that lies at the heart of much that is traditionally masculine. It’s easier to write it all off as old-fashioned.
But we’d do better to learn with Joel and grow up a bit.
Bottom Line: Man Made by Joel Stein is a fun, hilarious read that peppers in enough poignant observations on character to be worth your time.
YOUR TURN: What did you think of Man Made? Do you agree with the virtues Joel observes? If the issue is maturity, not masculinity, is talking about gender helpful?
All Images from Joel Stein’s website.