Raising Hell, Living Well

Freedom from Influence in a World Where Everyone Wants Something from You (including me)

About the Book

Part cultural criticism, part rueful confessional, a reformed brand strategist brings to light the impact of influence on us and our society and offers an escape in this ironically persuasive case for not being so easily influenced anymore.
“A weirdly practical approach to some ancient questions that have become trickier lately.”—Jaron Lanier, bestselling author of Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now

We live in a world that is under the influence. 

Our lives are being choreographed by forces that want something from us. Everything from ingrained family values to mind-altering algorithms create our foundations, warp how we see the world, manipulate our decisions, and dictate our beliefs. Yet rarely do we question these everyday influences of our modern times even as we go further down the path of unwell, unhappy, and unhinged

A high-spirited exploration through the troublesome influences of our world, Raising Hell, Living Well, Jessica Elefante’s eye-opening debut, follows one bullshit artist’s journey, from small-time salesperson to award-winning corporate strategist to founder of the digital wellbeing movement Folk Rebellion, in coming to terms with how she was wielding influence—and the forces she was under herself.  

With whip-smart writing and wry humor, Elefante’s collection of essays is a head-trip through her misadventures. From explaining productivity as a symptom of the influence of capitalism to how the wellness industry makes us feel more unwell or our unquestioning participation in oversharing, optimization, and instant gratification, she invites us to reexamine our world, our pasts, and ourselves through the lens of influence. Now a reformed brand strategist, Elefante lays bare her own culpability, sharing what she learned—and what she got wrong. She offers a new take on intentional living and provides a simple practice to deconstruct how the powers-that-be are attempting to modify our behaviors. Before you know it, you’ll be questioning everything from how you take your coffee to how our social institutions are structured. And you’ll learn how to live free from the influences around us—including Elefante herself. 

The much-needed subversive voice to demystify these times, Elefante will make you angry, make you laugh, and make you think about how you’re really living. Unpretentious, sharply observed, and devil-hearted, Raising Hell, Living Well holds out a hand to help you climb out from under the influence.
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Praise for Raising Hell, Living Well

“Jessica Elefante practices what she preaches by rising above complaints to confront modern, twisted problems right in the face. How do you know when you are yourself and not just a punching bag for algorithms and come-ons? Will you still be loved if you don’t do what you’re being told to do? Here is a weirdly practical approach to some ancient questions that have become trickier lately.”—Jaron Lanier, bestselling author of Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now

“Eye-opening, illuminating, rebellious. This is for anyone who seeks to understand persuasive technology and pervasive marketing. Elefante helps us modify our behaviors to live the lives we deserve. Her fresh perspective pierces through the noise so that we can make decisions that are true to ourselves.”—Nir Eyal, bestselling author of Indistractable

“Jessica Elefante knows how the sausage is made. With insider’s acumen and a hearty acknowledgment of her own complicity in the dynamics she’s hard at work unpacking, she details exactly how the sky is falling, walking us through experiences that resonate with familiarity until we, too, are urgently pointing skyward.”—Margo Steines, author of Brutalities

“They say it takes a thief to catch a thief. Jess was a time thief, money thief, and meaning-of-life thief. She learned how to steal from people without their noticing. Then she realized she was stealing from herself. It shook her to the core. Then she changed her life. This book is ready to shake and change you, too. Buckle up.”—Lenore Skenazy, president of Let Grow, author of Free-Range Kids

“You are what you consume. Consume this book. Then, question everything else.”—Cait Flanders, bestselling author of The Year of Less and Adventures in Opting Out

“Cultural critic Elefante advocates ‘living free from influence’ in her passionate debut. . . . Elefante clearly identifies insidious influences that sometimes fly beneath the radar. . . . This will give even today’s most trend-conscious food for thought.”—Publishers Weekly
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Raising Hell, Living Well


(or Our Inner World: Influence Below the Surface, the Direction It’s Pointing Us, & Aspiring to Cross It)

Upstate New York is the bologna sandwich of New York State.

Utica, New York, specifically, is something of a caricature—the satirical target of American cultural cornerstones from The Office to The Simpsons, in which Homer famously said that the area could “never decline because it was never that great.” It’s a late show punch line, roasted by hosts. It’s objectively outdated in its architecture, infrastructure, and industry, but also at times, in its beliefs and worldview. It’s like that uncle who’s just a little bit inappropriate, but he’s from another time and mostly means well, so you try to let it slide and love him anyway.

Some would call it a joke. I call it home.

Having been raised in the heart of that Wonder Bread sandwich, I am forever both defending and judging my roots. But in reality, it’s that polarization that created the foundation of who I am and how I approach the world. I am that tension. After all, the influence of where we begin can determine a lot about where we end up.

Borders, zip codes, tracks. Wrong side. Right side. These are among our very first influences that blend beneath the surface of “us.” Let me show you what I mean.

When the railway was first invented, neighborhoods near or downwind of the tracks bore the brunt of noise and soot from the locomotives. Naturally, those areas quickly gained a reputation for being socially inferior. Literally and figuratively, the tracks divided the more prosperous from the poorer. They separated those with good fortune from those who drew short straws. Ever since, tracks have represented a not so invisible line. They are the straight of an arrow pointing in the wrong or right direction, depending on which side you are on, and a reminder of a possible way out if you could only follow the wooden planks beyond their known world. As a little kid, I crossed over the tracks on yellow school bus number 223. When that bus bumped over those tracks, my three siblings and I would lift our feet, cross our fingers, and hold our collective breath, making wishes for good luck. For me, the tracks were everything. They represented the ways in which I didn’t have enough and the ways in which I had more than many. They were my escape route and—to this day—my path home to myself.

Utica itself exists as a kind of “other side of the tracks” to its more well-known and well-loved counterpart, New York City. Or at least that’s how the people who live in Utica feel. In reality, most New Yorkers have barely heard of it. The competition is one-sided, an inferiority complex well earned.

It’s also a mishmash of commingling opposites from opposing sides of the tracks—old and new, rich and poor, Black and white, educated and uneducated, red and blue. Our small footprint is home to a whopping seven universities and colleges, but also faces an intense brain drain when so many of our educated young adults flee after graduation. We have ostentatious McMansions built on tall bucolic hills overlooking valleys with jails on the other side of them. We have a diverse mix of ethnicities and races, but segregated towns. We have centrists and apolitical types—not to be confused with the liberal hippie havens of downstate. And moderate is about as progressive as the majority of people get, living next door to secretly staunch Reagan-era Republicans and die-hard Trumpers. And it’s been a place throughout history for immigrants to start over. But when Utica more recently opened its arms to refugees—in the ’90s to Bosnians following the Bosnian War, in the early aughts to Burmese Buddhist monks after the Saffron Revolution, and, as recently as 2021, to Afghans after the fall of Kabul—it was often the second- and third-generation descendants of immigrants who resisted “those people” coming to “their city” to “steal” their jobs. It was as if they’d forgotten that their families were once from somewhere else too.

I was made there, born to an Irish mother from the “right side” and an Italian father from the “wrong side.” So maybe it makes sense that even my immediate family was rife with contradictions: I was raised to believe there was never enough and always enough at the same time. I was taught to respect authority while also to challenge it. I was sent to a religious school by an at-the-time agnostic father and a now-repentant Catholic school girl who never lost her faith in God but did the church. While conservatism was historically our family’s brand, the beliefs of the household were mostly liberal. I was a “free lunch” kid at the local suburban rich school, hiding my dime stipend below the milk jug. And maybe because of all of that, I was the first kid in the family to gain admission to a fancy liberal arts college—and the first to toss it aside in search of something more. Influence is wily that way.

My parents—who divorced when I was thirteen—will each tell you that their side of my heritage is the better half. Family mythology, spun into lore around our kitchen table, told us that the mix of our genetics—Irish and Italian blood—made for beautiful children with bad tempers and, later, drinking problems. It’s this sort of objective bravado that defines the people from my hometown—slightly self-aware, deeply self-deprecating, and unbelievably stubborn. At once, celebratory and dejected. In my experience, that cocktail makes for really fun, warm people with an edge, great conversationalists full of spirited ribbing and quick wit—but only if they like you. The people have big hearts but also hard noses and chipped shoulders. And it’s one of the reasons I think I’ve tried, and failed, to live happily in many other places. When sarcasm and grit is such an part of your inner makeup—a love language of sorts—those characteristics make it difficult to connect with people who would happily trade irony for a balmy 72-degree, sunny existence. That’s just not the Utican way.

Known as the original Sin City thanks to its history of organized crime and political corruption, my family lineage reflects that in spades. Putting Utica on the proverbial map was a great, great uncle from my mother’s side who was the vice president of the United States under Taft. But it was a more questionable relation—​a distant great-uncle on my father’s side who was the proverbial backroom political boss of Utica who took it off. I have experiences of baby grand pianos, afternoon patio cocktails, three-piece suits with bow ties, and Cadillacs. And memories of backyard tin can tomato plants and plastic-covered sofas, dingy bars, old cars, and even older card sharks. Just the right amount of high/low to help me develop “character.”

My hometown is chock-full of upbringings that molded beautiful humans, but also created odd friction. People love it and love to hate on it. Utica is equal parts charming and befuddling hot mess.

At times, you could describe me that way too. It’s not surprising. After all, our origin is one of the greatest influences on us—where our ancestors hail from, where we are raised, where we choose to live, and even where we fall within our family order—origin sets us on a track from which it is hard to veer. Place shapes us. The influence of these chance factors, some fixed and some not so much, is incredibly formative, affecting our Inner World from a young age. For the lucky, this means being born with a horseshoe up one’s ass; for the ill-fated, it’s bad trot.

The first time I got drunk was on some still-functioning but old railroad tracks. They were situated next to the local strip mall at the bottom of McMansion hill. Next door was the police precinct, which should have made it a dicey spot for underage alcohol consumption. And yet, there we sat. In the glow from the parking lot’s single light, my best friend Roxanne and I could see each other’s shadowed thirteen-year-old faces, my apprehensive expression reflected in her Coke-bottle glasses. At the time, I was a somewhat naive rule follower because I hated to get in trouble and had no older siblings to show me the ropes. Also, my parents’ child-rearing philosophy for me, their firstborn, could be summed up as high expectations for everything, low tolerance for bullshit. As is often the case with parenting strategies, this philosophy waned as the years passed and the number of children grew. For my three younger siblings, tolerance for bullshit went way up. I’m still a little bitter about the long-lasting, somewhat unshakable influence of our birth orders. But in the meantime, my friend Roxanne was my “bad influence,” an only child who never really got in trouble and whose father, Tony, doled out twenty-dollar bills from a rubber-banded wad of cash. We were just entering teendom. Yet in the stones and dirt on the railroad ties, Roxanne and I sat, mixing room-temperature vodka stolen from my pop’s liquor closet with too little gas station OJ. Things were headed in a poor direction.

Being on the tracks, as Roxanne and I were on that night, was in some ways preferable to being on either side of them. During my childhood, I had a clear sense of existing just barely on the right side.

About the Author

Jessica Elefante
Jessica Elefante is a writer who has spent the last few decades examining what it means to be human in our modern world. Her essays have appeared in The Guardian, The Huffington Post, and more. As the founder of acclaimed Folk Rebellion and a critic of today’s culture, Elefante’s award-winning talks, films, and work have been featured by Vogue, the Los Angeles Times, The Observer, Paper magazine, Wired, and elsewhere. In her previous life as a brand strategist, she was recognized as one of Brand Innovators’ 40 Under 40 and has been a guest lecturer at Columbia Business School and New York University. She’s influenced by the social, cultural, and technological circumstances of her life but mostly by her desire to lead a colorful one. Raised in Upstate New York, she now lives in Brooklyn with her family. She is no longer bullshitting. More by Jessica Elefante
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