I’m a bald, overweight, think tank director. I’ve advised CEOs, presidents, and prime ministers on corporate and national strategies. I’m not known as the animal at anyone’s party.
On the other hand, Tucker is a good-looking thirty-something; incredibly popular with the ladies. By the time he was in his twenties, he had already gathered a massive cult following of teenage boys, and garnered more public criticism than your run-of-the-mill, extreme-thinking cable news pundit.
“Tucker Max is your friend?” When it comes, the question brings with it a wide variety of vocal and non-verbal accoutrements: shock, lust, disgust, jaw-dropping awe, shaming contempt … rarely delight. But the intonation and facial expression depends completely on the age and gender of the utterer. For anyone over 35, the question never comes at all.
So for those of advanced years, let me explain who Tucker Max is. Hmm … as with the facial expressions, there are so many ways to do this.
Let me start with what is most likely to impress you if you are my age: he is probably the biggest reason that teenage boys voluntarily read books—or anything longer than 140 characters—these days. And in the time it took you to read that short sentence, you have probably already passed some kind of judgment on the man.
Tucker is most famous for his autobiographical novel, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell (an adaptation of which starts its New York City theater run as I Hope They Serve Beer on Broadway in June—and the initial run is already sold out after just one tweet from Mr. Max). And it was the movie version of that book that introduced me to Tucker in the first place. My partner and I were back in the U.S for one week from Singapore, where I was a professor and senior advisor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. A 50-plus female friend of ours told us about a movie “that was completely wrong, but made me laugh involuntarily more than I want to admit.” So we watched it—and had the same reaction.
Two days later we were in Aspen, Colorado at The Renaissance Weekend (not to be confused with a renaissance festival … I was not wearing a codpiece…) and a casually-dressed younger man (in a sea of more formal, older participants) stood up to give a two-minute introductory speech on the assigned topic of “If I only had one thing to say …”
He told the audience, “All of you old people are boring and don’t know how to get and hold younger peoples’ attention. Quit your humble bragging about who you know and what you’ve done; tell us something that can help us to make our lives better.” The audience was too polite to hiss, substituting stunned silence as their preferred form of disapprobation.
I wanted to stand up and cheer. I didn’t; but I may have been the only one clapping as he sat down.
A flip through the participant directory, and I made the connection back to the movie I had seen two days earlier. So I introduced myself.
Born in 1975 (making him young enough to biologically be my offspring), Tucker has degrees from both University of Chicago and Duke. His bachelor pad in the heart of Austin, Texas is just as you’d expect it—strewn with workout equipment, empty beer bottles, unwashed clothes, and unmade beds. But there is a difference. Every wall of the large two-bedroom apartment is floor-to-ceiling metal shelving full of books. He employs a librarian to come in a couple of days a week and curate his collection. He claims to have read 90% of the books on the shelves.
Bright, well read, and out-spoken … so where’s the controversy?
What makes Tucker the hero of teenage boys and a stomach-turner for some women (and a surprising draw for others) is his blog-turned-books about his drunken exploits and exploitative one night stands.
The subject matter of his books is also why anyone who knows me has troubles putting us into the same sentence together. Perhaps, you may think, I’m somehow reliving the follies of my youth through Tucker’s stories. But you would be wrong. I was an Eagle Scout and Mormon missionary who never tasted alcohol until he was 33.
Maybe, his stories of drunken woman-domination offer me glimpses of the young life I wish I could have had? Wrong again. I’m gay.
So what could it possibly be that makes us friends? I’m enough of an egg-headed academic that I actually sat down one day to try to figure this out. And like any good PhD, I decided to apply a theory to the problem, to see if it shed any light—which it fortunately did. (Otherwise I would not be writing this article.)
In my latest book, Good vs Good, I argue that there are 8 Great Goods in the world. And we all make decisions in life based on our prioritization of these Goods, which are:
Life (health, nutrition, having children, staying alive, nature)
Stability (routine, safety, rule of law, predictability)
Relationships (society, nation, community, workplace, family, friends)
Growth (material well-being, economic success, gainful employment)
Joy (entertainment, fun, sports, beauty, learning, amusement)
Belief (religion, spirituality, higher powers, a cause, or something like honest)
Individuality (ownership, privacy, voice, recognition, dignity)
Equality (rights, sharing, fairness)
Looking at the above list, people can easily array these in the order on which they make life’s decisions. Sometimes an individual’s initial ranking is rather aspirational, however. Friends and loved ones often are better judges of the actual behaviors. Over time, people start to see where there are gaps between what they want to be and how they really act, and a semi-permanent prioritization emerges. It turns out these orderings are extremely robust and individual; almost like fingerprints. Of 2000 randomly sampled Americans, 1750 had completely unique rankings of these eight. And the remaining 250 shared theirs with only one other person.
I think one reason that Tucker and I can be friends (even though we are nothing alike on any demographic or psychographic measure) is that we happen to share almost identical 8 Great Goods priorities.
For instance, Relationships is my top priority. I’ve sacrificed happiness, freedom, wealth, and would gladly put my life at risk for the people I love. Reading Tucker’s work, you would never think he is a person capable of loyalty or any deep human emotion. He is not married or even in a long-term relationship. Yet, when you get to know him, you see that he surrounds himself with a group of friends (and even at least one ex-girlfriend) to whom he is fiercely loyal. He has dropped everything in his professional life and driven across the country to help these friends when they are in need.
So while Tucker exhibits Relationships, Joy, Individuality, etc. in different ways than I might, the order of priority—the way he makes decisions—is the almost the same. And that makes me feel like I understand him; and appreciate him.
And even when he is being his most obstreperous self, part of me completely gets it—even though most of me wants to duck behind a plant.
My name is John B, and Tucker Max is my friend.