The first time I ever went first at a four-way stop I was 22. I remember it so clearly: it was an autumn zing of a day, the kind where the world just feels like one giant sigh of contentment. I sidled up to the four-way stop near my apartment and, for the first time in my entire driving life—which at that point was an illustrious seven-year career—I thought to myself: Oh my god. I could just go first. And I did.
Before that moment, I had always politely waved other drivers in front of me, blasély shooing them past out of a sense of courtesy but also condescension like: oh, I know I was here 0.3 seconds before you but no, please, you go ahead. But that day I sat in my car stunned as I boldly went where many, many men and women had gone before: first in a four-way stop. First! Me! I was drunk on my own power and entirely whiplashed by my own profound stupidity. How had I not realized this before? How had I never thought this thought until now? Am I the worst driver ever? Am I the best driver ever?
This doesn’t happen often: that my own thoughts catch me by surprise, as if my mind were an ocean and these new thoughts were some super rare, freshly evolved fish swimming up from the darkest depths like hey, what’s up, hello, cogito ergo sum, bitch. But I find it happening more and more, particularly in regards to pop culture. I will be scrolling through Instagram or Twitter, and I will see a post from someone and think: wait, why am I following this person again? Or I will be watching the fifth season premiere of Homeland as Carrie makes questionable national security decisions while listening to frenetic jazz music and the thought hits me: do I even like this show? Why am I watching it? Or some national event occurs, like a school shooting or GOP debate or celebrity Twitter feud over feminism/intersectionality, and I go to tweet something because everyone is tweeting something, but then I think: or, I could not tweet something. I could just not chip in my two cents at all.
We all have our own personal pop culture ecosystems. We curate, we winnow, we binge, we follow, like, double-tap, RT, DVR, download, and stream. We are inundated every minute of every day with choices, and from those choices we cultivate a landscape of shows, accounts, preferences, and wheelhouses that we hope reflects who we are. But: we are also creatures of habit, and we have such preciously short memories. We get stuck in our ways, complacent with our selections and our surroundings and our likes and dislikes. We forget to actively interrogate why we are doing what we’re doing. We stop at the four-way stop and wave the other drivers in front of us, never thinking that we could be the ones to go first.
And yet. If we are lucky, or if the sun is at just the right place in the sky, or if we are really working hard to cultivate this skill, that metacognition kicks in and we catch ourselves by surprise: those unbidden thoughts loom up from the darkness of our minds and maybe, just maybe, we make a sudden change. We unfollow that Instagram account. We stop watching Homeland. We don’t tweet about the thing that everyone else is tweeting about. We alter our lives, albeit minutely and merely pop culturally, by simply thinking about our thoughts and choosing to do something different.
Living with intention is no easy feat, however obvious it may sound. As humans, we tend to be deluded by and enamored of our own consciousness, which is understandable when you remember all the cool shit we’ve created and dreamt up. But in today’s world of personal brands, it’s not enough to just do/pick/say/tweet/like/RT something—we must be thoughtful, authentic, and intentional. We must know why. My personal brand used to mean never going first at a four-way stop. But then, on a fateful burnt-orange fall day four years ago, I asked myself why and the only reason I could come up with was that I had no reason at all. So I went first. It felt fucking awesome.