Everything I Ever Needed to Know, I Learned from Mindy Kaling - Women's Week

Cover art from Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling – Crown Archetype

If I had to list the women I admire, the first would be my mother, of course. (Mother’s Day is Sunday, right?) But if I had to be honest, right up there with my mom, grandmother, and other female relatives, would be Mindy Kaling.

Mindy Kaling is known as the gossipy and mildly neurotic Kelly Kapoor from Customer Service at Dunder Mifflin. For those of you who don’t speak television, that’s the character the actress plays on The Office, a show Kaling also writes for and co-produces.  As a 23-year-old female negotiating some semblance of my own career in entertainment media, I find strength and inspiration from famously funny women like Kaling. I’m not here to throw my hat into the ring when it comes to the whole, “Women can be funny, too! Just look at Bridesmaids, and feminism, etc.” topic. It’s 2012, and that conversation (I hope) is over. Please, please, please… let it be over.

I would, however, be remiss in not highlighting the major lessons I’ve learned from Kaling as a brilliant television writer who also happens to be female. My study and admiration of Mindy Kaling comes from not only enjoying her TV show but also, like any self-respecting Millennial, following her on Twitter. Kaling also penned her own autobiography Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns). In fact, she is so well known for her role as Kelly Kapoor, it’s been speculated that many people who read her book were surprised to find out that she is not, in fact, Kelly Kapoor.

I don’t think Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? is meant to be a self-help book, but that’s exactly where I would file it in a Barnes & Noble if it were up to me. In fact, I think that it should be required reading in schools. The way Kaling presents her stories is not only hilarious and entertaining, but there are real nuggets of wisdom that come from her edu-tainment. She prefaces her book, “I’m only marginally qualified to be giving advice at all. My body mass index is certainly not ideal, I frequently use my debit card to buy things that cost less than three dollars because I never have cash on me, and my bedroom is so untidy it looks like vandals ransacked the Anthropologie Sale section. I’m kind of a mess.” Take a look at her career, however, and you understand that she must be doing something right.

Reading Kaling’s book was the first time I learned the phrase “self-actualized,” or the idea of fully identifying your full potential and independence. The way she puts it in one of her chapters is that she likes the idea of having 5 things about yourself written down on a card, like your top 5 movies or your top 5 favorite meals. Being so sure of who you are and what you like, so much so that you could narrow it down to a list, to her is surely a sign of maturity. The idea of carrying around a notecard with your “Top 5’s” at first seems a little silly, but part of maturing is knowing who you are and being confident enough in your own beliefs and interests to hold fast to them, even if they’re on a 3×5.

Kaling also talks about living and working in New York just out of college. At the time, she had no job prospects and began to worry that she would run out of graduation money before landing her dream job of writing in television. So, she got a job babysitting two girls in Brooklyn Heights to make ends meet. Her qualifications were mostly that she enjoyed talking about boy bands just as much as they did, so it worked for her. Now, babysitting was not in her life plan, but that’s another lesson I learned from her: career vs. job.

A crummy job is not a career, but the sooner you roll up your sleeves to get the job done, the more motivated you are to find a better one. Kaling spent her free time working on a two-man play with her roommate Brenda, where they wrote and portrayed their version of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s relationship writing Good Will Hunting. In their version, the script actually falls from the sky, and Ben attempts to drink an entire bottle of apple juice to impress Matt. Kaling admits it took a lot of effort to find time to write between her job and her roommate’s job, but Lesson #3: if you are working a job you don’t like, find time to work on something you are passionate about. The show they wrote, Matt & Ben, was so successful that it got picked up (and later dropped) for a pilot of a television series, which never would have happened if she had stayed complacent in her “okay” job.

These anecdotes and other bits of wisdom (“Don’t peak in high school” and what she calls “Karaoke Etiquette”) are by no means ground breaking, but I still have a profound respect for Kaling’s particular perspective. Reading her book is like sitting down with a very wise best friend who will dish out some great advice just as soon as you two finish discussing the latest episode of Grey’s Anatomy. I actually had the chance to meet her at a book signing, and I debated what I should ask or say to her while waiting in line. Should I ask for career advice? What it’s like writing and starring in The Office? I walked up to her, and the first thing I could think of was “Mindy, what kind of music are you running to these days?” and we proceeded to gush about Beyonce’s latest hits instead.

That’s another thing I appreciate about Ms. Kaling: her confidence. She admits that her iPod is full of Rihanna and Beyonce and will listen to it on the treadmill to playlists titled “You Can Do It, Mindy!” and “You Go Girl!” Her honesty, to me, is true courage. What do I mean by courage? Brené Brown is a well-respected research professor who spent ten years studying vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame. She defines courage from its original Latin cor, or heart, and says, “the original definition was to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.”

Reading Is Everybody Hanging Out Without Me, you not only get a glimpse into what it was like growing up a “respectful and hardworking wallflower” with dreams of becoming a television writer, but you get that Kaling has got a lot of heart. Her advice, explicitly stated or shown by example, has an authenticity that anyone, man or woman, can appreciate.

I promised I would avoid the whole “female BUT funny” vs. “female AND funny” debate, but I will add that Kaling is an excellent argument for the former. She’s said before, “People think that because I like girly things I’m dumb.” She also admits that she has the “voice of an eleven-year-old girl,” but being “girly” and sounding young were things Mindy refused to be ashamed of or hide about herself to be taken seriously.

On one end of the spectrum, women have broken down barriers in comedy by embracing the “gross-out” humor that used to be a boys-only thing. Actresses like Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy proved that. Seriously, if you haven’t seen Bridesmaids yet, stop what you’re doing and go now.

If you’re still with me, though, I’d like to point out that Kaling is on the other end of that spectrum: Embracing her love for fashion and nail polish with no shortage of wit or creativity. Make no mistake; she’s not shy with her humor. Who else could write a scene where The Office‘s Michael Scott injures himself stepping barefoot onto a hot George Foreman grill? Her sense of humor remains uniquely her own, and that authenticity, that courage, is what makes her stand out as a comedian, television writer, and aspiring fashion icon through trial and error.

There are many other females in comedy, past and present, who inspire me and other girls like me, and I could go on and on about my recent re-discovery of the comedic genius that is Lucille Ball. Yet, there is nothing so reassuring like knowing that right now, there are women – no, people – like Mindy Kaling, courageously and confidently making their dreams into a reality.