Fri 19 Jul 2019

Interview with… Mark Manson


The phenomenal success of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, a #1 New York Times best-seller that has remained on the list nearly every week since its September 2016 publication, established Mark Manson as an anti-hero of pop psychology whose counter-intuitive insights offer a new approach to solace in our troubled times.

In his much-anticipated follow-up, EVERYTHING IS F*CKED: A Book About Hope, Manson provides another contemporary reality check as he dissects our response to the vicissitudes of the calamitous world with his trademark pragmatic, sometimes pitiless advice. Through a wholly original prism, he refracts philosophy, religion, politics, and even pop culture to identify the roots of our unhappiness and map an unexpected path to a better life. Read what else he has to say about the captivating release.

Is Everything is F*cked a logical extension of what you wrote about in The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck?

Yes, sort of. The way I’ve been putting it to people is that Everything is F*cked is the calculus to Subtle Art’s algebra. It’s the same core concepts and principles, just with broader and more complex applications. Whereas Subtle Art focused on our personal struggles to cope with pain and make meaning out of adversity, Everything is F*cked looks at these same dynamics on a cultural level. Whereas Subtle Art gives people helpful questions to apply to themselves and their lives, Everything is F*cked explores what happens to our psychological health when we fail to ask those questions at all. In that sense, you could almost call it a kind of prequel to Subtle Art.

What is “The Uncomfortable Truth” and how does it dictate our lives?

The Uncomfortable Truth is the realisation that when you follow scientific inquiry to its logical conclusions, by every cosmic metric, our existence is minuscule and inconsequential. When you zoom out far enough, all sense of importance or meaning gets lost in the vast reality of our existence.

The subtitle is “A Book About Hope.” How do you define hope and how does it play out in harmful ways in contemporary life?

I define hope as having a coherent vision of an improved and achievable future. If we can’t fathom a better future, we lose hope. If we see no potential for us to achieve an improved future, we lose hope. These crises of hope result in despair, depression, anxiety, addiction, compulsion, etc. Therefore, hope is an inherently crucial component of a healthy psyche.

The problem is that our visions of hope, when pursued far enough, have destructive consequences. While we live in a time where people are struggling to find hope in their lives, I thought it was important to write a book that points out that while hope is the solution to our personal problems, it is also often the cause of our social problems.

What is “The Classic Assumption” and how does it define the culture of today?

The Classic Assumption is the belief that humans are fundamentally rational actors and we can control our behaviour through conscious effort and discipline. The truth is that we are fundamentally irrational creatures and a large amount of our thoughts, feelings and behaviour is outside the bounds of our awareness and control.

The Classic Assumption matters because when people fail in some way, we tend to assume that they are far more conscious and in control of their actions than they actually are. Rather than recognise people for what they are—irrational and cognitively flawed—we instead judge people (and ourselves) as being either evil or deficient or just plain bad. And this has damaging consequences for our mental health and well-being.

How does religion feed off of ideas of hopelessness and hope?

The Uncomfortable Truth dictates that we must all imagine some source of meaning in our lives. Whether that source is God or liberal democracy or the cleansing power of juice fasts, we all seek out something to hold up as important and superior because the hope that superior something generates gives us hope and infuses our lives with a sense of meaning.

I define religion very broadly, because, ultimately, just about every value judgement and belief is rooted in some form of faith. Some religions are supernatural and of ancient origin. Others are quite worldly and grow and recede in real-time through the internet and social networking. In all cases, the result is the same: some faith-based belief that something is important, and therefore merits pain and sacrifice—both from oneself, but also from others.

How do you define adulthood and how is your definition different than most?

Most people assume being an adult means being responsible for your own welfare—hold down a job, pay your bills, cook and clean for yourself. But, I go a bit further and argue that being and adult (i.e., maturity) is the ability to endure pain for some higher cause or value. Most people, when they work late, or save up money, or tell their friends what they want to hear, are doing it to receive something in return. Their relationship with the world and with others is transactional.

Adulthood is non-transactional. It is unconditional. It is the ability act on one’s values regardless of how painful or difficult it is. It’s the ability to be virtuous and make sacrifices. And my argument is that by developing technologies that protect us from stress and pain, we are limiting our ability to make sacrifices, and therefore preventing ourselves from growing and maturing and finding meaning in our lives.

You write that “the fundamental schism of the twentieth century …  [grows out of] maturity vs., immaturity.” Can you explain what you mean?

The political schisms of the last few hundred years revolved around right-wing and left-wing politics. Today, there is extremism emerging on both the right and the left that is based in childish immaturity—an unwillingness to compromise or sacrifice for anything higher than oneself, and a narcissistic demand for the world to cater to one’s own beliefs. These extremist mobs are then battled back by more mature visions of right-wing and left-wing politics—people who are willing to compromise, to make sacrifices and to admit that they are flawed and limited.

Antifragility, you write, is synonymous with growth and maturity. Why have we grown so fragile and how do we “toughen up”?

I argue that our technology has been developed to capitalise on our psychological flaws, rather than compensate for them. Technology has evolved to make us more comfortable. But the way the body and mind are built is such that too much comfort makes us soft, weak and uncompromising. As a result, I argue that we should consciously pursue meaningful forms of pain, as that pain is the only thing that gives our life a sense of value.

How does having too many choices impede our freedom?

Variety is addictive. Opportunity is addictive. If you take a vacation to five countries, you will want to visit a sixth country more than you did before. Variety also always appears to be an improvement on the surface.

But the truth is that variety and abundance of opportunities makes it psychologically more difficult to make commitments and sacrifices for one cause, one person, one group. And its these commitments and sacrifices that actually infuse our lives with a sense of value and meaning.

 You suggest that real freedom comes from self-limitation. How do we learn to limit ourselves and our desires?

 Throw away all your extra shit. Delete apps off your phone. Block websites on your computer. Set rules for yourself, then follow them. Decide for yourself what the most important people and goals in your life are, and then get religious about following them.

Have social media and the ways we interact today created, or at least exacerbated, our problems with finding and maintaining hope?

 I think social media and the internet, while not causing our psychological problems, have created a cultural environment that has affected us all. At this point, whether you’re on Facebook or not doesn’t matter, because the information you’re receiving is still optimised for clickbait and maximises outrage.

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