Author Harlan Cohen gives undressed and unsuppressed advice to U of O students
Adam Feibel and Maclaine Chadwick | Fulcrum Staff
HARLAN COHEN SEEMED to cover all things campus life in his book The Naked Roommate: And 107 Other Issues You Might Run Into in College, but he didn’t stop there. The bestselling author and syndicated advice columnist took his stories and guidance on the road to share them with students at colleges and universities across the continent.
Cohen also created thenakedroommate.com, an online community for post-secondary students, and wrote another couple of books called Campus Life Exposed: Advice from the Inside and Getting Naked: Five Steps to Finding the Love of Your Life (While Fully Clothed & Totally Sober). But it all started with his special—albeit dreadful—experience at Indiana University more than 15 years ago.
Cohen took a few minutes before his guest lecture at the University of Ottawa’s Alumni Auditorium to talk about what makes the university and college experience different from any other.
The Fulcrum: What’s one of your favourite personal stories to tell?
Harlan Cohen: I like to tell my college experience, or my university experience—you have to be very clear; college is very different from university—but my university experience was uncomfortable, and no one told me that university could suck at times. And it’s fun to hear about how it can be difficult, because if your experience is anything but beautiful and happy and filled with flowers, it makes your life smell better to hear about my miserable experience and how it helped me to learn a lot about myself.
Do you have a favourite piece of advice that you like to give students?
I do. University is 90 per cent amazing, and 10 per cent difficult, or a bunch of BS. The secret is if you know the BS is coming, it doesn’t have to take 100 per cent of your time. So life’s 90 per cent amazing, 10 per cent a big pile of BS. The secret’s not letting the 10 per cent take up 100 per cent of your time.
And another piece is that for new students, the first year is the uncomfortable year. Give yourself permission to be uncomfortable. Because once you do that, everything gets so much easier.
What made you want to come back and revisit the university and college experience?
I think that in the college years, you’re dealing with so many new, first experiences, and it’s really the first time in your life that you have to make decisions that are life-changing, from what you want to do, to who you want to be with, to whether or not somebody wears protection. I mean, you could have a kid, you could get herpes, genital warts, or chlamydia; you could also find an amazing career or wander aimlessly. And I think that these years are the most amazing years of discovery.
What has the guest speaking experience been like for you?
It’s incredible. Everywhere I go, it’s fascinating to listen. I love to listen; I’m a writer and a journalist and a speaker, but the part that I like to speak about is what I’m able to hear. I’ve visited more than 400 campuses all over the U.S. and Canada, and I’m able to see the trends and hear what the common threads are. And one of the greatest common threads is that we are all so afraid to be honest. We hate when people don’t give us what we want; we hate when people don’t react the way we want; we suck at rejection, which means we’re really bad at taking risks, and also it means we’re really bad when it comes to following our hearts and living a life driven by passion.
So, I help people to take risks—not jumping out of airplanes or doing crazy things, but smart risks. Like, a dumb risk would be giving yourself an enema with a case of beer. Someone did that, you know; it’s crazy. It’s called butt-chugging. That’s stupid. But I help people take great risks—not butt-chugging—like talking to a guy or girl in class that you’re interested in, or telling a boyfriend or girlfriend how you really feel, or going after the most incredible job and giving people permission to not hire you, and then thanking them for interviewing you and discovering what you can do to get that job. That’s what I love to help people do.
Can you tell us a bit about the online community that you’ve developed?
I love online communities because it’s a way to always feel connected, and it’s a way to share, and it’s a way to actually create lasting change. Because when I come here it’s not like, “Hello Ottawa, goodbye, good luck.” It’s more like, “Hello Ottawa, I’m Harlan. It’s nice to meet you. Let’s go on an experience together.” It sounds like I’m wasted. [laughs] But it’s like, I’m going to be a part of your life, and I want to help you to go on this amazing journey, whether it’s finding your place in university or finding the love of your life.
What The Naked Roommate did for university students, Getting Naked will do for anyone looking for a little love in their life. I can help you get lucky.
Do people ever come to your with their personal problems?
I’m an advice columnist; I’ve been writing my column for more than 15 years. People share their problems, and I help them find answers—or create bigger problems, depending on the answer [laughs]—but hopefully, it’s to solve their problems. That’s where it all started, in my college newspaper. “Help Me, Harlan!” is the name of my advice column. And it’s continued and grown to be something much larger.