The Male Mind: Unlocking His Deepest Thoughts

male mind

"What does my husband, boyfriend, or crush really think?" It seems to be an age-old question for women. But you know what? Guys also want to know what other guys really think about things, or at least I do. 

In fact, as the coeditor of The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood, an anthology of first-person stories by men about manhood, I'm attempting to do what perhaps no man has done before: get guys to not only read about other men's thoughts on manhood, but also to speak honestly about their own experiences. We've also produced a film in which 10 guys go on the record with their takes on being fathers, sons, or husbands. The film, which has the same title as the book, comes out in November 2009. 

I knew we would have to warm guys up to the notion of expressing themselves, to departing from the strong, silent casting handed down from our fathers. But I also knew that just under their stoic veneers were guys—confronted with the economic meltdown, increased demands at home, and the lack clear rules of the Manhood road—who actually did want to talk, who did want to share what they were thinking.

The response has been astounding and gratifying. And the breadth of men who agreed to play along has been wide. It includes the CEO of Corning, The New York Times sports editor, the publisher of SmartMoney (whose dad coined the Marine catch phrase "We're looking for a few good men."), a professional baseball player, a decorated Marine, award-winning and best-selling authors, the CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston (whose dad owns the New England Patriots), and my own dad, a Quaker activist for many decades and my jail cellmate briefly when I was the ripe old age of eight. 

The response also has been surprising in terms of some of the answers we received. They have proven that while women may not get men, we men don't always understand ourselves either. Or I didn't until I started reading what they had to say. Understanding How Women Attract Men

Below are some of my favorite answers to the Manhood Quiz, a handful of questions we asked our 10 guys to answer. And they all answered them for a good cause: All proceeds from the sales of the book and DVD will support organizations that help at-risk men and boys.  

Q: Has romantic love shaped you as a man?

"It taught me to care less about what other people think. I always thought buying flowers, public affection, and clichéd compliments were transparently cheesy. And they are, from the perspective of the objective third-person. But if they're being showered on you, they feel honest. I would like to go around to high schools and teach boys this." —Joel Stein, writer and television personality Romance On A Budget

"I felt awkward and bashful in dealing with girls. I was pretty sure that sound relationships did not resemble the popular images but had a hard time figuring out how to establish the more honest, caring relationships that I wanted." —James Matlack, retired English professor and activist

"It's shaped me into a lot of things. Emotionally, it has shaped me into something more like a pretzel. Of course, early in life, like most guys, I thought romantic love defined me as a man. At some point, I learned that navigating a relationship was considerably more complicated, although I'm not about to claim that I've figured out much more than that." —Tom Jolly, sports editor, The New York Times

"The romantic life of a gay man shapes him. Gay men, it could be argued, have to reflect more about what it means to be a man, since we exist in two very different male worlds, straight and gay." —Andrew Seibert, president and publisher, SmartMoney

"I've had a hard time believing that I am worthy of that kind of love, but the place I always come back to now is my wife's arms." —Thomas Matlack, former finance executive and co-editor of More Than a Few Good Men

Q: Who taught you about manhood?

"Staff Sgt. Zickefoose, my boot camp drill instructor. As a sniper, he won a silver star by single-handedly fighting back a tank onslaught while definitely not knowing if he would come out alive. He was as brave as a truck and as kind as a father." —John "Jay" Rogers; Marine and founder, Local Motors

"My college rowing coach, Will Scoggins, made a huge impact on me by asking me to set aside my childhood fears and become a man. His piercing blue eyes, beard, and chew all convinced me that maybe I should listen. He said that acorns don't become big seeds. An acorn has to transform itself completely to become an oak tree." —Thomas Matlack

"My dad was my personal hero, my biggest role model. A Tae Kwon Do master trained in the killing techniques, an engineer, oceanographer, diver—he even trained action heroes. He created fight choreography for films at Universal in the early '60s, and he gave Chuck Norris private lessons in martial arts when Chuck was still in the military, at the beginning of his acting career." —Alexander Chee, author and writing professor

Q: From which of your mistakes did you learn the most? 

"Marriage." —Joe McGinniss, best-selling author Marriage: Sacred Or Smashed Institution?

"Thinking things, not saying them." —Josh Kraft, founder and CEO, Boys & Girls Club of Boston

"Waiting to follow my dreams until it was almost too late. Never do that ever again." —John "Jay" Rogers

"When I was young, I was in a boys' choir led by a serial pedophile, who was eventually arrested. After my own molestation, I stayed quiet, believing I was protecting myself. This was a terrible mistake and might have been the biggest lesson of my life, and my biggest regret." —Alexander Chee

"Making my wife feel insecure by flirting. It seemed so small a betrayal. But marriage is made up of millions of tiny acts of bravery, and any one failure can cause a crack that could get bad. Which is too bad, because flirting is fun. Then again, sex with new people is fun, so I get that fun shouldn't be the main determining factor for your actions." —Joel Stein

"Having an affair; breaking my wife's heart. Also, any time I have postured as anything less than my true self I have suffered (and hence) learned most." —Matthew Piepenburg; writer and founder, The Emerson Circle 

Q: What word would the women in your life use to describe you, and is it accurate?

"What women in my life? Seriously, I need more women in my life. If there were more women were in my life, I'm sure they would say I was charming. That would be accurate." —Benoit Denizet-Lewis, best-selling author

"My wife, after reading the first five answers in my initial draft of this quiz, used two words to describe me: 'raging' and 'a*****e.' This is draft two; I've learned to trust her judgment. So let's say 'deferential,' though I'm not sure she would say that's accurate." —Larry Bean, former editor-in-chief, Robb Report

"My mother says 'sensitive'; my wife says 'even-keeled'; my six-year-old daughter says 'excellent'; and my two-month-old daughter just spit up on my shirt. I can't argue." —Jonathan Eig, best-selling author

Q: When was the last time you cried?

"Charlotte's Web, page 165. 'I'm done for,' Charlotte tells Wilbur. Try reading that aloud to your kid and not crying." —Jonathan Eig

"I started to cry this morning—thinking about words to describe my father got me smiling and tearful. He has been gone four years, and I miss him." —Andrew Seibert

"I had a baby this year. So I've cried more this year than in the past 10 together. I'm guessing a month ago. Anything in a movie or TV show about a baby will do it. Sometimes just holding my son will do it. It causes me to think about all the tiny, little, seemingly inconsequential decisions that led to his birth; they now seem super-important. And I think about dead family members and friends who never met him. And I just think how incredible it is that he's so lacking in fear or guile. I keep saying he's a good person, and I know that's ridiculous, but it just feels true." —Joel Stein

"When I told my company about a fellow Marine friend who died in combat fighting for all of us. God, it felt good." —John "Jay" Rogers

"In early September, on my daughter's first day of kindergarten. I fear it's all downhill from here." —Larry Bean

"I wish I could cry more for myself." —Benoit Denizet-Lewis  

Q: What advice would you give teenage boys trying to figure what it means to be a good man?

"The same advice my sister gave to her stepson when he was approaching his teen years: 'You’re handsome, smart, charming, and girls are going to like you,' she told him. 'So don't be an a*****e to them.'"—Larry Bean 

"In an increasingly complex world, keep it simple. Find someone you respect and jot down a couple of words about why you respect that person. Try to live by those words yourself. Keep checking your actions against them. Oh, and if that person you respect is a woman, that is totally fine. Good people are good people." —Andrew Seibert

"You can’t become a man until you step away from the crowd. Learn to be independent. See yourself separately and nurture and trust your own beliefs and ideas. Keep close to you only those friends who treat you with the respect you afford them, and move away from those who ultimately do not have your best interests at heart. Seek out good, honest, and caring men to learn from and to model. They will show you the steps of becoming a man. Choose men who are kind and strong at the same time, and who know the difference between real manhood and bravado." —Dr. Anthony Rao, author and child psychologist

"My wife and I were guardians for a teenage boy. We raised him from age 14 to 18, so this is not a theoretical question for me. I'm not sure if I gave him any important advice on how to be a man, but I like to think I showed him. Show; don't tell—that's what they teach writers. But if I found myself repeating one thing with Jeff, it was this: If you want something, you have to work for it." —Jonathan Eig 

Read essay excerpts and blog posts from all 10 "good men" at The Good Men Project.