Matt: Today, we have another awesome guest on the show: Mark Manson. Mark is a blogger, author, and entrepreneur, most well-known for his site markmanson.net, where he writes about personal development advice that doesn’t suck. He also recently wrote a book called The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck. It doesn’t suck either. Mark, welcome to The Science of Success.
Mark: Thanks for having me, Matt. It’s good to be here.
Matt: Well, we’re very excited to have you on. So, tell us a little bit about your background.
Mark: So, I started in 2008, I believe. I started a couple internet businesses, internet projects, and at the time I was, back in 2008, 2009, blogs were all the rage, so if you wanted to have a website and you wanted to get traffic, everybody was always screaming at you to start a blog. Blogs were the way of the future. So, I started some blogs, and it turned out it took me about two years to figure out that I wasn’t actually very good at internet businesses, but I was really good at blogging, and so I just kept writing. And I soon kind of found myself in this weird situation where lots of people would email me for questions and advice. So, I started just kind of writing about life advice and tried to bring a little bit of a new take... I wanted to be a self-help site that wasn’t self-help, and that was always a weird, interesting challenge. But things started to take off around 2012, 2013, and here I am today, what I’m still doing.
Matt: Well, I really enjoyed almost the irreverence of your book, and I started laughing immediately. Even the very first chapter, I believe, is called “Don’t Try”.
Mark: [Laughs] Yeah.
Matt: Tell the listeners that story.
Mark: So, the “Don’t try”, it’s actually a reference to Charles Bukowski, and I open up the book with him because he’s basically...he’s, like, the worst life example you would ever want to give anybody. The guy was a total alcoholic. He wasted all of his money. He was constantly getting arrested and doing inappropriate things. He would famously get drunk at his own poetry readings and just start insulting people in the crowd. But it’s funny because he actually, after struggling as a writer for 30 years, he made it big. He sold millions of copies of his books and he because a quote-unquote “success”. So, I always found it interesting that kind of... His story has always fascinated me in that on paper, he’s this huge literary success, but as a person, he’s like... You probably wouldn’t even want to get coffee with him, because you would just be so repelled by his personality. But the interesting thing about him is despite this kind of classic American dream story of him persisting for 30 years and writing poem, poem, and poem and stories and stories and stories and finally breaking through in his fifties and becoming a huge success, his last message—and actually, it’s engraved on his tombstone—is “Don’t try”. And I wanted to put that out there in the book because one of the central points I try to make is that if you’re always trying to be happier, that simple act of trying is just reminding yourself that you’re not good enough already, and if you’re always trying to be more confident or you’re always trying to be more liked by people, then the simple act of trying is going to reinforce the idea that you’re not already. And so, there’s this weird paradox with self-help stuff where the more people chase a result, in many ways, the more they prevent their own psychology from achieving it. And so, I wanted to lay that out in the first chapter and basically introduce to people the idea that this book is going to be a self-help book that basically tells you, “Don’t go after more, but rather give a fuck about less. Let go of things. Stop trying so hard, and just focus on the few most crucial and important things.
Matt: I love the idea, and I’m curious to kind of hear more about it, the concept that focusing on the positive reinforces the negative. Tell me a little bit more.
Mark: So, there’s this idea. I originally heard about it from Alan Watts. He called it the Backwards Law, but you see it pop up in a lot of places, which is the more you pursue some sort of positive experience, that very act of pursuing it is itself a negative experience. So, if you’re always trying to be richer, like, make more money, then what you’re doing is you’re creating a state in yourself of always feeling like you don’t have enough. If you’re trying to be more beautiful or better looking all the time, then you’re always creating this state within yourself where you feel like you’re not beautiful or good looking enough. Conversely, the acceptance of a negative experience, like accepting some sort of pain and struggle in your life, is itself a very liberating and positive experience. So, that moment when you kind of realize, like, you know what? Maybe I’m not going to be the next billionaire, but that’s okay. I don’t need to be a billionaire to have a happy and successful life. That thought in and of itself, even though a big portion of our cultural narrative would call that failure or giving up, that is a very liberating experience, and it’s actually far more emotionally healthy, I think, than the alternative. And so, the whole book kind of starts out with this idea of a negative approach to improving your life. You don’t want to improve your life by gaining more positive experience. You improve your life through becoming okay with negative experience.
Matt: I’m a huge Alan Watts fan, by the way, and longtime listeners will know that. So, changing directions a little bit, I’m curious: What is the feedback loop from hell, and how would you describe it and how can you possibly sort of short-circuit it or break out of it?
Mark: So, the feedback loop from hell is... It’s this idea where... It essentially stems from when we judge our own emotions. So, let’s say you’re a person that gets anxious very often and you would like to be less anxious. Well, what often starts to happen with people who desperately want to be less anxious is they start to become anxious about being anxious. So, they start worrying about the fact that they worry so much. Or you’ll see a lot of people who...they’ll get angry at the fact that they’re always so angry, or they’ll start to feel guilty because they feel guilty all the time. And because we judge these emotions as bad and unacceptable, we start entering into this spiral where we keep just reinforcing that emotion over and over. And then, of course, modern society, it doesn’t really help in the fact that if you’re feeling a little bit insecure about your life or you feel like maybe you’re not living up to your potential or whatever, the second you go on Facebook or the second you go on YouTube, you’re just bombarded with all these people getting married and buying a new car and getting a new house. So, there’s this constant kind of reminder of “you’re not good enough” or “it’s not okay for things to suck sometimes”. And I jokingly say, I say, you know, the feedback loop from hell, I think it’s kind of reaching a fever pitch in our culture. There’s this constant focus on living up to these unrealistic expectations all the time that is really harming us and harming our emotional health. And I say that not giving a fuck, it’s going to save everybody. That’s the only way out of the feedback loop from hell. The only way out of the feedback loop from hell is being like, “You know, I’m feeling really anxious today, but I don’t really give a fuck. Being anxious, it happens. That’s just part of life and I’m going to go on and do the things I need to do anyway. It’s releasing that judgment of your own emotions so that you don’t fall into this spiral of just experiencing it more and more.
Matt: So, the idea of not giving a fuck, there’s different ways that you can sort of interpret that. Some people listening might have a totally opposite opinion in the sense that, you know, well, no, I really think that you should give a fuck, that you should care deeply. You make a really important distinction in the book between the idea of indifference, being indifferent to everything, versus not giving a fuck. Can you explain that distinction?
Mark: Yeah. The first impression people always have when they hear not giving a fuck is that it’s basically this really cool guy or girl who’s just kicking back, day drinking at work or something, it’s like, no fucks given. And it’s a cultural reference. You know, not giving a fuck, it’s a funny kind of linguistic term that is thrown around a lot these days. But one of the first things I try to point out in the book is I say, like, “Look. What we’re really talking about here is we’re talking about values and meaning.” I mean, I’ve been jokingly telling people that I really wanted to write a book about values and what people choose to care about and how that matters, but nobody would buy a book on values, so I decided to call it...to write a book about not giving a fuck. But it’s basically... It’s kind of like a trick. It’s like a Trojan horse to get the reader to start thinking about these deeper questions of, like, what am I choosing...what am I giving a fuck about in my life, and why am I choosing to care so much about that? One of the first things I’d point out in the first chapter is I say, you know, it’s impossible to not give a fuck about anything. We all have to care about something. The problem is that most of us are either not fully aware of what we’re caring about or where we’re finding meaning, or we’re not consciously... Like, we didn’t choose... Like, our values were given to us. They were just picked up from pop culture or whatever. We’re not consciously choosing what’s actually important in our lives. We’re just going along with what everybody’s always told us. So, the real meat of the book is actually...it’s a question of what do you value and how did you come to your values and are your values helping you or are they hurting you. Are they bringing more happiness and joy to your life or are they creating more misery?
Matt: So, for somebody who’s listening out here and they’re unsure maybe even what their values are or how to discover them, what would be a way to kind of take the first step on embarking down that path?
Mark: The first step is to always look at what you emotionally react to. Your emotions are essentially just feedback mechanisms for what you decide is important in life. So, if you are getting blindingly angry that, you know, your pizza came with the wrong toppings, that is a reflection of what you are choosing to find important in life, and perhaps that’s something that you should reevaluate and decide maybe, you know what? Maybe my pizza’s not that important. Or often, you know, what I talk about is that people who are extremely emotionally volatile around really superficial things, the problem is not that they’re superficial people. The problem is that they simply don’t have something more important to give a fuck about. I have a joke in the book about an old woman who screams at a cashier because they won’t accept her coupons, and that’s a true story, by the way. I know of the woman that that was based on. But I remember when I saw that, I was like... What really made an impression on me wasn’t the fact that this woman is just being really mean over some coupons. It was that this woman probably doesn’t have anything else going on in her life, and that is actually the problem. So, the first step is always look at what you’re responding to emotionally, and the intensity of the emotion is always proportional to basically how many fucks you’re giving or how important the thing is to you.
Matt: So, from what you’ve seen, what are some examples of negative values that people cling to that might end up causing self-sabotage or unhappiness or whatever we’re looking to avoid?
Mark: You know, there’s a couple big and obvious ones that everybody’s probably going to be familiar with. You know, so one of them is impressing other people. Like, we’ve all learned from many different places that if you’re trying to impress other people all the time, it’s just not going to... Things are not going to go well. Even if you do impress them, you’re not really generating any sort of significant meaning or happiness in your life. So, that’s a bad value that a lot of people adopt. Another one is chasing material success. We all know... We’ve all seen time and time again that being fixated on just earning a lot of money for the sake of earning a lot of money doesn’t necessarily bring a lot of joy and happiness to your life. There are a couple others maybe that aren’t as obvious that I tackle in the book. One is feeling good or pleasure or avoiding pain. I try to make a strong argument in the book that this constant needing to be distracted or pleased, whether it’s by just opening 20 tabs on the internet and looking at cat GIFs, or having a waiter at the restaurant who does absolutely everything you say. I think our culture is getting a little bit caught in a trap where we’re starting to feel very entitled and pampered, and this is a pretty harmful value to hold onto, this idea that you need to experience pleasure...like, feel good all the time. I think it’s important to feel bad. Like, feeling bad has...it has an evolutionary purpose, it has an emotional purpose, it has... Meaning and importance in our life requires there to be some sort of struggle or a sense of challenge. And so, if we avoid that struggle and challenge, then we’re always just going to feel a lack of meaning and purpose.
Matt: The idea that it’s important to feel bad, tell me more about that and the concept that struggle creates meaning.
Mark: So, when people think about happiness, there’s two things that they’re talking about, and these two things get confused a lot. You have pleasure and then you have fulfillment, and I believe that in positive psychology they refer to it as pleasure and fulfillment. And pleasure is just stuff that immediately feels good. So, if you want to experience pleasure, it’s actually very easy. You can just go buy a bunch of heroin and go crazy. But just because you’re feeling that pleasure, doesn’t mean you’re actually bringing any sort of lasting fulfillment or happiness into your life. In fact, oftentimes, chasing pleasure does the opposite. You bring short-term enjoyment but you sacrifice your long-term health and emotional health. Fulfillment, on the other hand, is not always pleasurable. So, fulfillment comes from a sense that you’re doing something that’s important, you’re doing something that is a really significant use of your time on this world. And so, a good example of something that’s fulfilling but not pleasurable is, say, something like raising kids. You know, if you ask any parents of a newborn child, like, how they’re feeling lately, they’re under-slept, they’re constantly stressed out, their whole life has been thrown into disarray. It’s not very pleasurable, but at the same time, it’s one of the most fulfilling and meaningful experiences of their life. And so, you get this kind of weird tension or this weird kind of feeling both things at the same time. The interesting thing is that pleasure comes and goes no matter what you do. You can always find pleasure very easily. It’s the fulfillment and meaning that’s very hard to find, and that’s what sustains us over the long term. That’s what keeps us feeling good about ourselves, feeling good about the world, waking up with a sense of purpose. But, to achieve that fulfillment, you need to be willing to feel bad. You need to be willing to struggle. There’s no such thing as a meaningful thing that is just given to you. For something to feel meaningful and important, there has to be some sense of sacrifice or that you went through something or that you overcame some sort of adversity. And so, that’s why I harp so much in the book about personal growth shouldn’t be about overcoming your struggles or getting rid of your struggles. It should be choosing the struggles that matter to you. Life is always going to be full of problems, so you should just choose the problems that feel meaningful and important to you. Because once they’re meaningful and important, you’re actually glad you have those problems. Like, you’re actually glad to take on them and work on them and do something about them. You’re not trying to avoid them all the time.
Matt: I think that’s such an important insight, the idea that there’s no such thing as a meaningful thing that is given to you. In order to create meaning, you have to go through some sort of struggle, you have to go through some sort of challenge, you have to overcome some kind of problem or obstacle in order for something to truly be meaningful. If it’s given to you, then it essentially...you don’t really care about it. It doesn’t have any true meaning to you.
Mark: Yeah. You take it for granted.
Matt: So, going back to the example you used earlier of the old lady with the coupons, one of the concepts you talk about that I really enjoyed in the book was the idea that the mind invents problems when it doesn’t have any real problems or real struggles to deal with. Tell me a little bit more about that.
Mark: That was actually... I heard this idea. It was from an artist who said that... And it was funny because I think he was giving an interview that had nothing to do with life or happiness. He was talking about something completely unrelated, but just as an aside he was like, “Yeah, when you don’t have any problems to deal with, usually your mind creates some for you.” And I think that is... It’s such a profound insight into our own psychology, and I think that’s something that we’re experiencing a lot today. We all kind of make fun of our parents’ generation or our grandparents’ generation that was like, “Oh, when I was your age I used to walk seven miles to school,” and all this stuff. But it really is a natural facet of human psychology to... We adapt very quickly to what makes us comfortable and we begin to expect it, and when we don’t receive it, we get cranky and we start feeling entitled to it. I think it’s an important thing to understand about ourselves, that we will always look... I mean, it’s part of our innate desire to have that meaning in our lives, so that if we don’t actually have anything meaningful to struggle for, we’ll go around and start looking for struggles to give us that sense of meaning. And if we haven’t picked something that is actually worthwhile, like, I don’t know, saving kids in Africa or something, we’ll start picking struggles like not being able to cash coupons at the grocery store or whatever. And so, this comes back to this whole idea of you have a limited amount of fucks to give in your life, and one of the most important questions you can ever ask yourself is, “Where are you going to allot those fucks? Where are you going to... You have limited energy to care about something, so what are you going to care about? Are you going to care about the coupons or are you going to care about something greater, more significant, more important?” And that kind of is the... I don’t want to say the ultimate question of life, but I just think that it’s... People don’t realize how much that questioning of their own values affects all this other stuff. It affects how you determine whether you’re successful or not. It affects, like, where you seek happiness. It affects your relationships. That was kind of rambly, but... [Laughs] I hope it came through there.
Matt: No, definitely. I think that makes a lot of sense.
Matt: So, you’ve touched a couple different times on the concept of entitlement. Tell me about how people become entitled and what entitlement means to you.
Mark: I believe that entitlement... So, I have a very broad definition of entitlement in the book. You know, when you hear the word entitlement, you think of, like, spoiled brats who have never had to deal with anything in their lives and they expect everything to be handed to them. That is certainly one type of entitlement, but what I see as entitlement and kind of the way I describe it in the book is the sense that you deserve to feel good, you deserve happiness without actually having to struggle for it. And this is one of the things that kind of worries me and I touch upon in different places throughout the book, about conventional self-help and the culture at large, is that we’re constantly being sold this idea that we all deserve to be happy without having to work for it, and that plays out in a bunch of different ways. It’s not necessarily just the spoiled brat. You get a lot of entitled people who start to fashion themselves as victims of everything around them, and so you kind of get this victimhood entitlement. You get a little bit of... You get entitlement in people who start exhibiting a lot of addictive behaviors. You know, maybe they get addicted to partying five nights a week, and the way they rationalize it to themselves is, “Oh, well, I deserve to be happy. I deserve to do this,” even though they’re losing their jobs over and over and they’re not able to pay rent. And entitlement, really, it just comes from this deep-seated inability to handle adversity. It’s the most important skill in life, is really just to be able to sustain adversity and move on despite it. And if people are being taught over and over that adversity’s not their fault, they don’t deserve to have to deal with adversity, they deserve to feel good, then they never develop this skill, and so when it happens, they’re just unprepared.
Matt: So, how do you cultivate the ability to handle adversity?
Mark: I mean, adversity is going to happen to matter what you do, so I think the first step is to just accept that. Like, shit happens. Things are going to suck sometimes no matter what you do, no matter... Like, one of my lines from the book is “A starving kid in Africa has money problems. Warren Buffet also has money problems. It’s just that Warren Buffet’s money problems are much better than the starving kid in Africa.” And that’s just true. The problems in your life will never stop, will never go away, and so I think the first step is accepting that. The second step is then to take responsibility for those problems, regardless of whether they’re your fault or if it’s unfair or if it’s unjust. We’re all victims at times. We all get screwed over at times, and we all deal with adversity at times, and there needs to be kind of a radical sense of personal responsibility in those situations.
Matt: I love both pieces of advice, and they’re both ones that I’ve definitely taken to heart, that, one, kind of the acceptance that setbacks and failures are inevitable, and the second is taking total responsibility for owning those problems and facing reality and figuring out what you’re going to do next, and I think those are also really, really key lessons from a couple other books that you may have read as well that listeners may want to check out. One would be The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday, and another would be Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink. Both of those are great books that kind of dig into that specific idea.
Mark: Yeah, definitely.
Matt: So, one of the other things you talk about is is the idea of instead of asking what do you want out of life, you suggest that we ask a different question. What would that question be?
Mark: The question is, what pain do you want to sustain? And this comes back to the idea that struggles, difficulties, they’re always going to be present in your life. And so, the key question of living a better life, and I guess this is... The subtitle of the book is A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life, so this is that counterintuitive part. Instead of saying, “How do I get rid of my struggles? How do I get rid of my pain?” the question should be, “What pain do I want? What struggles do I want? What difficulties excite me and invigorate me?” You know, I’ve met a lot of people who...maybe they want to start writing or they want to write a book, and they come to me for advice and they say things like, “Well, I try to sit down and I write and then I get really insecure about it so I delete it, and then I hate everything I write, and then I just procrastinate and it’s been six months and I haven’t written anything,” and they look to me for advice, and I always find it difficult to answer those situations because the same problems that they’re avoiding or they don’t like with writing are the exact same problems that I love. Like, I love sitting down for hours and just meticulously picking at a paragraph I wrote or a page I wrote. I get really excited about just spewing thousands of words out onto a page and seeing what comes out. There’s something about that that invigorates me. And actually, in the book, I talk about how originally I wanted to be the musician, and I discovered the hard way that I actually didn’t want to be a musician because I didn’t want to deal with all the problems and struggle that came with being a musician. It’s like, I wanted to be on stage, but I didn’t want to have to deal with practicing and hauling my gear around and playing gigs and not getting paid for them, and so I inevitably quit. And so, I think people look at the question of what they want to do with their life too much in terms of, like, what rewards to they want. Instead they should be looking at it in terms of, like, what struggles do you enjoy, what problems are you good at solving.
Matt: That was one of my favorite stories in the whole book, the story of you spending your childhood envisioning being a rock star, and I think you even said it wasn’t a question of if you’d be a rock star, but it was a question of when. And then you sort of slowly had this realization that you might have loved the result, but the process you did not like at all.
Mark: Yeah, and it was funny. It took me a long... So, I stopped playing music when I was about 20 and I still held onto that dream for years. It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties and my business was doing well and I was loving writing. Like, in the back of my mind I was always like, “Oh yeah, I’m going to do this for a while and then I’m going to go back to music and I’m going to finally start that band that I haven’t started in the last ten years.” It was this story I kept constantly telling myself, and it finally was... You know, in my late twenties I realized, like, it’s just not going to happen, and it’s not going to happen... It wasn’t like a sad realization. I mean, it was a little sad, but it didn’t feel like a failure. It felt very liberating to realize that, to realize that I actually didn’t want it. I liked the fantasy, but I didn’t like the reality, and it’s important to understand the differences between those two things.
Matt: And you used a great analogy in the book. You talked about the idea that it’s the people who enjoy the struggle are the ones who actually end up achieving the result, and I think... You gave a number of examples, but one of them was just the example of athletes. It’s the people who obsess over practice and are constantly...you know, they want to get out on the field, they want to practice every single day, every single little nuance of their game. Those people aren’t necessarily focused on the end goal of whether it’s winning a Super Bowl or a gold medal in the Olympics or whatever it might be. They’re focused, and what they love doing, is the struggle every single day of practicing and tweaking their diet and everything else.
Mark: Yeah, and another thing I talk about in the book is this idea of greatness, this idea that...like, to be this great person. I try to bring back humility or being ordinary. I emphasize in the book that it’s important to embrace the fact that almost all of us are pretty average and ordinary at almost everything we do, and there’s another kind of backwards law thing here, where the people who actually do become huge successes, they usually just see themselves as very ordinary. I did an interview a few weeks ago with a guy in the athletics and sports psychology world. He works with coaches and actually with a bunch of Olympic athletes. He had some athletes at the Olympics. And one thing he told me is, he said, you know what’s funny about sprinters, like, even sprinters at the Olympic level, is that they all think they’re slow, all of them. Like, he had never met a single sprinter, even world class sprinters, who was like, “Oh yeah, I’m faster than everybody.” They all think that they’re not that fast and that they need to work harder to be fast again. And I find that absolutely fascinating. And you see this in all sorts of big figures that are held up. Like, Michael Jordan, even when he was winning all these championships, every interview he was like, “Oh, yeah, I need to improve. There’s still a lot of holes in my game. I need to get better.” You look at, like, people like Bill Gates. Even when he was the richest man in the world, he was like, “Oh, Microsoft can be doing so much more. We really missed some opportunities lately.” And I find... I think the outside would just looks at that and is like, “Oh, he’s humble. That’s nice.” You know, but I think there’s something deeper going on there, and that is these people, they don’t buy into their own myths. Like, the myths that are built about them. You know, like society looks at these people and kind of builds a myth out of them. So, it’s like, oh, this was a great person. He was the greatest basketball player who ever lived, or whatever. But the people themselves, they never buy into that myth. They never buy into this idea that they are somehow extraordinary in some way. Because if they did, then they would probably sabotage themselves psychologically. They would probably start becoming entitled and take it for granted and stop working so hard and stop being so curious and innovative, and I’ve always found that really fascinating.
Matt: And is that the concept in the book that you touch on, you call, I think, the tyranny of exceptionalism? Yeah, the tyranny of exceptionalism.
Mark: Yeah, and I tie that back into the stuff I was talking about earlier with the internet and social media. Like, one topic I’ve been really fascinated in this year... I touch on it in the book, but I’ve been writing about it more in my blog this last year, is the fact that the internet skews... So, the internet provides so much information for so many people, but because there’s so much information, we have to sort it somehow, and the way it’s getting sorted right now is that typically, only the 0.1% most extraordinary information gets passed around. And in some ways, that’s great. Like, you want to hear about the biggest, most important events. But the problem with that is that most of us spend all day, most of our days in front of a computer, and if all day we’re just getting bombarded with the most extraordinary information, the most extraordinary news, the most extraordinary events both good and bad, it starts to create...like, warp our perception of...I guess of the world, but also, it warps our expectations for ourselves and for other people, and I see this a lot. I get a lot of emails from my readers, and I see this particularly with younger readers. I get a lot of college-age kids who email me, and they seem to have these bizarrely unrealistic expectations for themselves and for life in general, and I just find it a little bit worrying, that effect that it’s possibly having on all of us psychologically, but I think it’s something that needs to be talked about more and people need to be more aware of.
Matt: Tell me a little bit about the concept of the Disappointment Panda.
Mark: [Laughs] It’s a superhero, man. [Laughs] So, Disappointment Panda is the superhero I invented in the book, and his superpower is that he tells people uncomfortable truths about themselves. And he literally goes door to door like a Bible salesman and knocks on the door, and the person opens it, and Disappointment Panda’s like, “You know, if you make more money, that’s not going to make your kids love you,” and then he just walks away. [Laughs] And the person’s whole reality gets shattered right then and there. But Disappointment Panda, he’s kind of just like a metaphor for, I guess, I think what we really need these days. I feel like all the classic superheroes, like Superman and Spiderman and Captain America or whatever, they were all created in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and if you look back then, it makes sense. The world was completely falling apart economically. World War II was going on. And so, I think people needed to escape into these ideas that there are these people who could save anything and fix anything. I think today we kind of have the opposite problem going on, where everything’s amazing and easy. We all have flatscreen TVs and can get groceries delivered. But, like, we’re becoming very poor at handling our own problems or just dealing with adversity. And so I feel like if there was a superhero that should exist today, it would be somebody like Disappointment Panda, who, like, just tells people the uncomfortable things that they’re avoiding in their own life, like the problems that are not being dealt with but need to be dealt with.
Matt: And one of the things... I think we touched on this a little bit earlier, too, but you also talk about the idea that there are sort of biological limits on happiness, and that suffering is, from an evolutionary standpoint, sort of a practical and useful tool, and not something that we should necessarily avoid.
Mark: Yeah. I mean, pain evolved for a reason. It’s, like, you pick the wrong berry and eat it, and it makes you sick and you vomit for three days. Like, that’s a useful... [Laughs] Like, it’s a horrible experience, but it’s useful. It’s... Pain is biologically or, like, evolutionarily kind of developed. It’s a feedback mechanism that keeps up alive and keeps us healthy, and I think it still operates that way. Like, if you something hurts you, it’s not just happening for no reason. Like, it’s happening... There’s something your body is trying to protect or, like, push you into doing something else or changing something, and for that reason I think people who... I mean, this is one of the big problems I have with all this kind of like positive thinking, or what I call delusional positive thinking, which I separate from just, like... There’s, like, optimism, which is like, hey, I think things are going to go all right, and then there’s delusional positive thinking, which is people who lose their job and convince themselves that it’s because they’re too smart for all their coworkers. The problem with this kind of more delusional positive thinking is that if you just push all of your pain out of your consciousness, then you’re basically eliminating some of the most important feedback mechanisms that your body and your psychology have for informing you of how to grow and how to change, and I think that’s why growth, it just intrinsically requires some degree of pain and discomfort. You know, people talk about comfort zones, and the way to grow is to get outside of your comfort zone. I mean, that’s one way to think about it. I think about it in terms of, like, growth is painful. The way you grow a muscle is it hurts. [Laughs] Like, you go lift heavy weight until it hurts, and then the muscle grows. You know, it’s like... It’s the same for our psychology. It’s the same for our sense of purpose and self-worth. Like, it needs to hurt. You need to go stress it and it needs to hurt for it to get stronger.
Matt: That’s such an important takeaway, and one of the things that we’ve talked about previously on the podcast is the idea of embracing discomfort. And we... I think we have a whole episode about embracing discomfort and how to sort of expand your sphere of things that are comfortable and how to push past sort of the resistance points where you feel yourself getting really uncomfortable, and why that’s such a critical skill set for growing and improving.
Matt: One other question I had for you, and this is something that I personally struggle with: Tell me about how you deal with setting boundaries and the importance of saying no.
Mark: Ah. So, there’s a chapter in the book; it’s called The Importance of Saying No and it’s actually...it’s the relationships chapter. But, basically, I define, like, a healthy relationship as two people who are both a) willing to say no to each other, and b) willing to hear no from each other. And what’s interesting is I think most people are comfortable with one or the other, they’re not comfortable with both, and I think to have healthy boundaries in a relationship, you need both people to be comfortable with both. So, there’s a lot of people that are comfortable saying no, but they can’t hear no. They flip out and get angry and start blaming the other person. Then you have other people who are comfortable hearing no, but they’re afraid to ever say no because they’re afraid to...that they’re going to impose or that they’re going to hurt the other person or whatever. And the trick is to be able to do both because a relationship is only as healthy as the two individuals that are in it, and if one of the individuals in the relationship is not able to stand up for themselves, define what they need and clearly communicate it without blame or judgment, without holding the other person responsible, then they’re not...they’re not going to get their needs met and it’s going to devolve into kind of this, like, toxic, codependent thing where each person is reliant on the other for their happiness, which is not good. Boundaries essentially... It comes down to taking responsibility for your own emotions and your own problems, and not...not making your partner responsible for them, and then your partner also taking responsibility for their own emotions and problems, and you not taking responsibility for theirs. And this sounds like...really kind of cold and unromantic on the surface, especially with all what I call the “Disney narrative” of relationships. You know, it’s like, oh, I’ll do anything for you or, like, oh, my God, I’m so in love. That is actually not very healthy — like, that level of taking on all of your partner’s emotions and taking responsibility for them as your own. What you need is you need two strong, autonomous individuals who are constantly and consciously opting in to the relationship together, who are expressing their emotions unconditionally, doing things for each other unconditionally, and honoring each other’s feeling without being responsible for them. Like, that is ultimately what creates... Like, that’s... When I talk about boundaries, that’s what I mean, that kind of like...that line of responsibility between two people, and if you can maintain that, I think most relationship problems will resolve themselves.
Matt: And I think one of the interesting things about that concept is that... You used the example of a romantic relationship, but I think it actually can apply in a lot of contexts — friendships, business relationships, even in many ways. You think about business negotiations. There’s a ton of kind of cross-applications of that framework and that thinking.
Mark: Yeah, you can definitely have toxic and codependent friendships; you can definitely, definitely have boundary issues in family relationships, but in business as well. I mean, I think one of the things that business does well is that...the fact that you have contracts, is that is essentially, like, a boundary negotiation. It’s like when you enter into a business deal with somebody, you sit down and hammer out the contract, and it’s clear. It’s like this is this person’s responsibility, this is this person’s responsibility, and that is clear. Unfortunately, we’re human, so a lot of times we get lazy or cut corners or just don’t pay attention to agreements because we’re emotional and base a lot of what we say and do on our emotions. And so it doesn’t always play out that way, and so you do get a lot of these kind of, like, toxic situations where people are, like, forfeiting their own responsibility or forcing...blaming somebody else for their own emotions or their own sense of failure.
Matt: So, what is one piece of homework that you would give to people listening to this episode in terms of sort of concrete steps that they could take to implement some of these ideas in their lives?
Mark: One thing would be sit down and write down all of the painful things that you enjoy, [Chuckles] which that, like, scrambles a lot of people’s heads, but if you can sit with that and actually come up with some things, it’s pretty illuminating what you... And the funny thing is is that a lot of...a lot of what people enjoy, like, they don’t even realize that it’s painful. Like, they don’t even realize that most people... You know, take, like... It’s like one of my best friends. He’s an amateur bodybuilder and he’ll go spend three hours in the gym just wrecking his body lifting weights. And to him it’s very therapeutic and it... I imagine for him it doesn’t even really occur to him that what he’s going through is a lot of pain, but it is. It is. It’s a pain that he enjoys. And I think we all have something like that in our lives or, if we don’t, then that’s probably a red flag as well.
Matt: Where can people find you online?
Mark: My site’s markmanson.net. Check out... There’s a link at the top for best articles, so you can start there. And the book is called The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life. It’s at all stores, retailers, Amazon, Barnes & Noble — everything. Check it out.
Matt: And I can definitely say the book is awesome. I really, really enjoyed reading it. There’s a ton of great lessons in there, so I’d definitely recommend listeners check that out. We’ll also have a link to Mark’s website and the book on the show notes page, so you can get that as well. Well, Mark, thank you so much. This has been a fascinating interview and I loved having you on here. Thank you for being on the Science of Success.
Mark: Thanks, Matt. Great being here.