Author Mark Manson shares his journey from struggling musician to self-help guru to New York Times best-selling author and explains why embracing struggle can lead to meaning and fulfilment.
“What’s my schtick? I have made the very unfortunate career choice of writing a self-help book even though I can’t stand self-help stuff myself,” begins Mark Manson, best-selling author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*Ck!
You know the book, it’s the one with the bright orange cover. You’ve probably passed by it on numerous occasions as you run through the airport on your way to catch your latest flight. It’s become something of a business bible for its no holds-barred – no bullshit – common sense advice. For unlike most self-help books, Manson’s tome is not your usual fodder. There are no flowery words of encouragement urging you to yoga stretch, pilates and mediate your way to your success.
Indeed, Manson doesn’t believe in pointless words of encouragement and would never suggest you are ‘special’. In fact in Manson’s words “most people are probably awful”.
“Our brains are very inaccurate. Our predictions and perceptions are terrible. We’re all a little fucked up,” he suggests.
But it is this very fucked-up-ness that Manson believes we must embrace. He suggests we should forget about feeling special, describing it as a pathway to entitlement and bad behaviour.
“If you look at history, the people that are so bad, they all think they are special. Darth Vader thought he was special and deserved to rule the empire,” he quips.
“Living a good life is not about being extraordinary. It’s about doing ordinary things really well.”
Another way Manson differs from the typical spruiker of self-help platitudes is he thinks motivation is overrated.
“It’s overrated because if you don’t value the right thing – it hurts you – it doesn’t help you. The point is, if you are not pursuing the right thing and being motivated it’s counterproductive. Motivation is not the cause of good action, it’s the effect.”
Lastly, Manson believes the pursuit of happiness is a trap. Instead he suggests pain and struggles will provide the biggest opportunity for you to grow and learn.
“It’s more efficient and better for your wellbeing to pursue pain in your life rather than happiness,” he says. “What’s the big deal about pain – well, it’s your struggles in your life that give you meaning.”
He’s not alone in his thinking. Psychological research suggests the number one factor in the top three determinants of success are how you deal with pain.
But then why can painful experiences be so difficult and why do some people fare better than others? According to Manson it’s not the experience that determines the level of suffering but the meaning around the experience.
“When we feel we choose it, we are no longer victims. So if we feel we have chosen a struggle it gives our life meaning. It’s this choice around what our problems mean that make them easier to bear,” he says.
He suggests whenever you face a series of ‘bad decisions’ you should choose the ‘better problem. “This is the fundamental component of being autonomous and taking care of yourself,” Manson says.
The best-selling author readily acknowledges that “some people are legit victims”. But suggests the most important question in your life should be what sort of masochist are you?
“Unfortunately for all of us, something awful happens that is completely out of control. But the same way as there is a chain of choices that lead up to a problem, there is a chain of choices that let you choose what this problem means.
“So you might as well pick a problem you get a sick pleasure in,” he smiles. “We all like to be tied up and slapped around a little bit.”
Manson believes human happiness is like a u-curve. “If there is way too much pain and struggle you lose hope and if there is not enough struggle, it becomes valueless. There is like a Goldilocks spot of suffering that is just right.
“So what pursuit, what relationship, what profession has the right balance? Find the area that gives you the right amount of pain – it becomes your edge in what you do,” he says.
Interestingly Manson didn’t always want to be a writer. As a teenager and twenty something he dreamt of being a musician. But after getting accepted into a music school and spending countless hours every day practicing the guitar, he found his dream was making him miserable.
“I made it two semesters. The skin was falling off my fingers and the teacher was like. ‘your problem is, you don’t practice enough’. I thought fuck me! And that struggle and problem became too much for me. In my head I had chosen standing on a stage jamming out and meanwhile I was in a practice room every day. And because I hadn’t chosen that problem I began to get depressed.”
Manson says everything flipped for him the day he spoke to another student who seemed to be going really well. He asked him about his secret sauce.
“He gave me really blasé answers. I asked, ‘What do you do when you get burnt out?’ And he said ‘I play some other songs’ and I said ‘What if you want to throw your guitar out the window?’ and he said ‘I guess I wouldn’t play guitar anymore’.
Manson shrugs. “And maybe that was the secret. Chris enjoyed sitting in a room by himself and I enjoy rewriting a paragraph and most people don’t. And that is probably the 20 per cent that determines the 80 per cent result.
“Really the only place you have your edge is, what are you good at dealing with that most people aren’t?”
“Everyone wants success, wants to be loved – what makes us different is each of us likes to suffer in a slightly different way than the person next to us and that gives our work a sense of meaning,” Manson explains.
“If you are choosing your problem the side effect becomes more meaningful. Without that meaning, even if you do become wildly successful your happiness is kind of empty.”
Manson suggests there is an assumption we are all operating on that is harming us.
“It is having a serious effect on our society today. The way our technological development is aimed we are trying to improve things by making them pleasant. I call it the rule of more and the paradox of choice. The more opportunity we have the more difficult it is to give up
“We live in an age of abundance. What gives us an edge in our personal lives and opportunities? We need to find the few things that are worth giving a fuck about.
So, focus on fewer things and do them really well. Focus on fewer people and care about them and focus on less information and higher relevance.”
Manson says it is this skill of simplifying and condensing that is most important.
“You are always choosing. So, choose your problems wisely. Your problems determines the quality of your life, not your successes. Meaning matters, not happiness. Doing less produces more.”
Mark Manson was a keynote speaker at Xerocon 2018. The author was a guest of Xero at the conference.