“Personal development” blogger Mark Manson got his start shelling out dating advice back in the mid-2000s, when The Game was making waves. Like every other twentysomething of a certain demographic, Manson, who hails from Austin, Texas, was hoping to cash in as a digital nomad: He moved abroad, started a blog, and attempted to earn a living working on internet marketing startups.
But the promise of the young web was elusive, Manson soon discovered. The startups and the jobs they offered were “not sustainable—they’re not real careers,” he says. “If you start looking out 20 years in the future, you have no stability. I started to realize this, and around the same time, I realized that writing is the only thing I’m good at, the only thing I really love about my job.”
So Manson, who is now 32, resolved to focus on his writing. In 2012, while living in Colombia, he penned his first viral post, “10 Things Most Americans Don’t Know About America.” The post received thousands of shares and crashed his website, he says. Manson continued writing in his plain, off-the-cuff style, appealing to millennials with posts like “Stop Trying to Be Happy,” “Love is Not Enough,” and “In Defense of Being Average.”
Nowadays, his eponymous advice blog (tagline: “Some people say I’m an idiot. Other people say I saved their life. Read and decide for yourself”) commands about 2 million unique visitors a month and covers topics from love to the development of habits. I reached out to Manson to talk about his new book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, and naturally, to get a little advice.
Mother Jones: What’s up with the book title?
Mark Manson: It actually comes from a blog article I wrote a couple of years ago. I was just joking around with a friend about not giving a fuck, and I think at one point, I said, “Not giving a fuck: It’s not easy, it’s a very subtle art form.” I have a Google Doc, and every time I have an idea for an article, I pull up my phone and jot down ideas. It took me a year to actually write the book, and one day when I was feeling irreverent and ridiculous, I was like, all right, let’s talk about giving fucks, not giving fucks, and just went for it.
MJ: How would you summarize the key takeaways?
MM: The central message is that, in general, people have spent way too much time trying to feel good all the time. Instead they should focus on deciphering what’s important and what’s not. Because problems are inevitable, pain is inevitable, and the only really reliable way to persevere or deal with those problems and pain is to find a worthy cause or a worthy reason for dealing with it. A lot of the culture at large, and self-help material in general, has gone down this rabbit hole of “You can feel great all the time and you’re amazing. You’re a special snowflake who’s going to be the next big thing in the world.” I think that’s really led to a culturewide sense of entitlement and just kind of being detached from reality and from each other.
MJ: So we should feel bad instead?
MM: Feeling good is nice, but the goal should be to find something meaningful and important.
MJ: But isn’t that what everyone is saying?
MM: Yeah, a lot of people, but it’s usually framed like, “You’ll feel really good if you find something meaningful.” It doesn’t work that way. The quality of your life is determined by how good your problems are, not how awesome you feel all the time. The whole point of the book is that self improvement isn’t about getting rid of pain. It’s about not giving a fuck about pain. That’s what growth is. It’s getting to the point where the pain you’re sustaining is a worthwhile thing to endure.
MJ: So how do you know which problem is the right one? For instance, a lot of people work really hard and suffer a lot—and they’re not satisfied.
MM: The quest here is to find better problems. A better problem is the one we have control over, that is pro-social and not antisocial. In a way, it’s about values. Good values are based in reality—they’re socially constructive and immediately controllable. Bad values are superstitious, socially destructive, and not immediate or controllable.
To use one of the facetious examples in the book: If the biggest problem in my life right now is that my favorite TV show got canceled, that’s a pretty poor reflection of my values and the quality of my life. That’s a poor thing to care about, it’s not controllable, it’s not immediate, it has no immediate effect on the people around me or the people I care about. The highest priorities in our life should be something that’s grounded in being constructive toward the people around us, and something that’s immediate and we have control over.
So if someone says they want to be a famous singer on TV, for example, it’s a poor value, because there’s so many factors that could influence that. The thing that will bring greater quality to life is something more controllable, more like, “I want to the best singer that I possibly can,” or “I want to move as many people as possible with my artwork as I can,” whether you’re singing in a coffee shop or onstage at Madison Square Garden.
MJ: That seems obvious. And yet I hadn’t really thought about it.
MM: Culturally speaking, we’re getting a bit lost. The side effect of all this marketing and consumerism is that we’re running into this constant state of distraction, and we don’t realize that a lot of the values that we end up adopting maybe aren’t even our own, or maybe were a little bit imposed on us through marketing messages and TV shows and movies.
I spent a lot of my early adulthood caring about a lot of things, and I was very upset when I discovered that they weren’t very important. I’ve watched a lot of my friends and my readers go through similar experiences. I think a lot of that comes with growing up with the internet and 500 channels on TV. We’re the first generation that grew up with this very distorted expectation of what the world is and what we should expect from it.
MJ: So what can we do?
MM: What needs to be done is a return to simplicity. The answer these days is not more, it’s less. It’s deciding what to cut off from our attention and our focus. There’s way more things out there than any single person people could pursue, way more opportunities and questions. I think the most important question is: What am I going to give up? What am I going to cut myself off from? What are the few things in my life that I am going to care about and focus on, understanding that I’m limited, and a lot of ideas so prevalent out there may not ever happen in my life? I think it’s a really hard thing to swallow.
MJ: So then it’s more like, “What do I actually want to give a fuck about?”
MM: Exactly. The not giving a fuck thing is actually just a silly tool to teach people to think about their values, about what are they choosing to find important in their life, and then finding a way to change those things.
MJ: But suppose I were to say, “Mark, I actually give a fuck about everything. What should I do?”
MM: I would tell you to prepare for a lot of disappointment, and it would really come down to how you react to that disappointment. It’s a process of letting go. Some people react by refusing to accept it. They give a fuck about everything and they’re constantly disappointed because nothing is living up to their expectations, but instead of accepting that their expectations are unrealistic, they blame groups of people and blame the government and blame everybody. What we have to get back to is that people are really limited and fallible. You need to choose the few things that you’re going to work really hard for, and accept the disappointment that comes with everything else.
It’s a very negative philosophy, but it makes people feel better because it relinquishes the pressure. If you think of your typical millennial, since that’s who most of my readers are, they have all these expectations. They went to a good school and they worked their asses off. They did an unpaid internship and they studied abroad and they want to have their amazing career and they want to get there faster than ever. And they want to make a certain amount of money and live in an awesome city, and it’s just, the pressure of having to care about everything weighs them down and creates a lot of unnecessary anxiety. Everything else will eventually come as a side effect: If you get good at a job, eventually you’ll get to live in a good city. If you get good at a skill, you’ll find a good job. If you find a skill that you care about and think is important, then you’ll naturally get good at it. Start at the beginning.
MJ: How do people respond to this advice?
MM: The most common thing I get from people is a sense of relief. People who come to self-improvement content are generally the type of people who are very hard on themselves and constantly feel a need to prove that they’re awesome and that their life is awesome. So when they come around and see something that’s like, “Hey, you don’t need to prove anything; it’s not going to work anyway”—even though it’s a negative message, they kind of feel relief. My goal is never to give algorithmic advice, but to explain the principles and a little bit of the framework, so people can decide for themselves. Because deciding for themselves is the most important thing people can do—it’s often the problem in the first place.
MJ: How did you come up with this stuff?
MM: I’m a recovered self-help junkie. I’ve always been a bookworm, so I’ve been reading about this stuff since I was a teenager. I guess it’s a classic case of what was a hobby through most of my life ended up becoming my profession, even if it wasn’t designed that way. That, and I’ve screwed up. There’s really no better teacher than your own screwups.
MJ: Where do you turn when you feel lost or in need of help?
MM: I have a great support network. My fiancée is amazing. I have some friends who are insanely intelligent and who are willing to keep me in check, and I have my family. Books are great, but for most people, if you’re going through hard times, step No. 1 should be friends and family and people close to you.
MJ: Your last chapter, fittingly, is about death. Why did you choose to write about that?
MM: Because the whole book is about people trying to avoid their problems, and death is the ultimate problem we try to avoid. There are entire religions about coming to terms with death and becoming more comfortable. To use that famous Steve Jobs YouTube video, when you think about death, it’s the only thing that kind of puts everything else in perspective. It is the only kind of objective yardstick for being able to recognize the values in one’s own life, and what they’re worth. So I think it’s important to think about it, and for people to imagine their own death, because it makes self discovery that much easier—even though it’s unpleasant.
MJ: So, um, how many times did you use the F-word in your book?
MM: Ha! I have no idea. A lot! Probably a couple hundred. The editor struck a few of them, because they were definitely gratuitous.