Mark Manson Chats With Erika Kullberg

Mark Manson, author of The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fck*, went on the Erika Taught Me podcast.

Pound for pound some of the best self-help advice condensed into a 1-hour conversation.

My favorite excerpts including my own comments below.

On what you should be doing

“I realized I actually didn’t want to be a musician. I thought I wanted to be a musician. I thought I wanted to be on stage and people cheering and everything but I didn’t want the process that was required to achieve that. With writing it’s the opposite. I enjoy the cost. I enjoy sitting by myself in a room quietly, rewriting a paragraph over and over again. That feels very natural to me. There’s something exciting about that challenge to me in a way that there was never any excitement with the challenge of practicing scales or runs. One thing that I always tell people is that it’s easy to want the reward. It’s hard to like the struggle. When most people ask themselves, what do I want to do with my life or what am I passionate about? They think about the rewards, they don’t think about the struggle. You should be asking yourself, what is the struggle that I like? What is the struggle that I’m passionate about? What is the challenge that excites me rather than drains me?”

[Kris: thinking of “passions” as something fixed or innate is probably not constructive. You can become passionate about something that you get good at and of course, at any point in time you never know the whole menu, so passions can be discovered by trial and error or having a curious non-instrumental approach to what you spend your time on.]

‘Screw Finding Your Passion’

Even in your dream job, you’re going to be annoyed 20% of the time. There’s no such thing as a job, relationship or endeavor where you are happy all the time. Even in your dream relationship, you’re still going to be sick of the person 10% of the time. That’s just life, and there’s no escaping it completely. So, I think the goal here is not Happiness with a capital “H.”

[Kris: Denis Leary’s version —Happiness comes in small doses folks. It’s a cigarette, or a chocolate chip cookie or a five second orgasm, that’s it okay? You come, you eat the cookie, you smoke the butt, you go to sleep, you get up in the morning and go to fucking work okay? That is it, end of fucking list!

The tone of this sounds like ‘settling’ but I interpret it as not focusing on some endpoint to make you happy. Enjoy the bits along the way, but they aren’t the end all be all and stop imbuing achievement with the expectation of actualization or whatever.]

The angst advantage

[Kris: In Ambition As An Anxiety Disorder I discuss Andrew Wilkinson’s comment that Most successful people are just a walking anxiety disorder harnessed for productivity. This hints at an example of hormesis — the right amount of a “bad” thing like stress or angst can be useful while too much is destructive. Just one of those ambiguous tensions life requires we modulate.]

I don’t think being happy all the time is the most adaptable strategy in life. If you think from an evolutionary perspective, imagine two creatures: one is happy all the time, always optimistic, thinks everything is great, and everything’s going to go great. Then you have another creature who’s a little bit paranoid, a little bit freaked out every time there’s a rustle in the bush, thinking it’s a tiger. Which one’s going to survive longer? It’s the slightly paranoid one. The slightly anxious one. The one that’s constantly dissatisfied. The one that says, this food’s not enough. I need more. That’s the one that’s going to survive and procreate. So, in that sense, a moderate amount of dissatisfaction with our lives is, from an evolutionary standpoint, highly adaptable. If you look at like research on happiness and wellbeing it is an inherent part of our nature to be mildly dissatisfied most of the time.

Happiness as an indirect pursuit

People are overly focused on the feeling of happiness. They should focus more on spending their time well and doing things that are worth doing. There’s a curious thing about human emotions, which we’ve all experienced. Let’s say you’re angry and you don’t want to be angry anymore. It just makes you more angry because you get upset about your anger, or if you’re anxious and you don’t want to be anxious. You get anxious about being anxious. The peculiar thing with happiness is that if you constantly ask yourself, am I happy? How can I be happy? I want to be happy. You make yourself less happy. It’s one of the few things in life that putting more effort towards it or more focused attention towards it decreases the result. It’s one of the few things in life that by simply letting it go and not trying to control it, it happens more often. A lot of people get caught up in how they feel. Emotions are important, but you’re going to feel things all the time. You’re always going to be anxious or angry or happy or sad. Life is always going to put you in those situations. What matters is what you do. It’s how you react to the emotion. If you develop the capacity to consistently perform good actions, despite whatever emotion you’re feeling, then more often than not, you’re going to feel good about yourself.

[Kris: If I say “Don’t think of an elephant” what do you think you are going to do? You’re going to think of an elephant of course. Happiness is a byproduct. It’s an indirect pursuit. The harder you try the more elusive it is. Reminds me of Michael Crichton’s quote: If you want to be happy, forget yourself. Forget all of it—how you look, how you feel, how your career is going. Just drop the whole subject of you. People dedicated to something other than themselves are the happiest people in the world.

My friend Tom Morgan echoes the futility of focusing on happiness: Happiness often lies in the temporary suspension of our ego’s desire to explain and control everything]

Gratitude Is An Action You Can Take

Gratitude is useful because it is forcing you to take a certain perspective of just being appreciative of the things that you have. Gratitude is slightly different than happiness even if the two often coincide or happen together. Gratitude is more like an antidote to misery than it is a cause of happiness. When you feel miserable, you’re so focused on the one thing that you don’t like that you’re forgetting the 100 things that are good. The practice of gratitude forces you to take your attention off that one thing you don’t like, and realize “my life’s pretty sweet.”

[Kris: This is a key practice in our household. It keeps the angst that drives you from tipping into envy or unhealthy emotions. As hokey as it sounds, I mean it when I say any day that I get to wake up is a good day. Because is the grand scheme, it could be worse.]

The 3 pillars of well-being

  • What are we spending our time working on?
  • Who are we spending our time with?
  • How much are we taking care of our bodies?

If you can answer all three of those things satisfactorily, you’re probably a happy person most of the time. All these other questions, the philosophical ones or productivity ones, they’re window dressing. They’re not the real thing. Have a few good relationships in your life, work on a project that you care about and feels important to you, and don’t mistreat your body. That’s the 20% that drives 80% of happiness.

[Kris: A fulfilling life, like anything worth pursuing, is a simple formula. Simple, but not easy. Like losing weight. Mark just distilled it for you.]

Reconciling unconditional love with the practical need for boundaries

You set this ‘if-then’ statement within a relationship. “This thing drives me crazy, please don’t do it. If you do it, this is how I’m going to react.” It’s healthy because it sets expectations for both people. Now my wife knows what upsets me and how I’ll respond. There’s no ambiguity or uncertainty around it. A more intense example is monogamy: if you cheat on me, I’m going to leave you. That’s a clear ‘if-then’ boundary. I’m still going to love you, I’m still going to care about you, that’s unconditional. But we’ve set these boundaries, these expectations, and if you don’t live up to them, we don’t have a relationship anymore. Many people who are entangled in unhealthy relationships struggle to set boundaries because they don’t want to displease their partner or start a fight. What they don’t realize is that by setting that boundary, despite the discomfort and potential for a temporary argument, you’re preventing dozens of future fights. It’s the one fight that prevents the next 20.

[Kris: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw]

Being responsible even when you’re not at fault

You should take responsibility for everything in your life. It’s a common piece of advice, but the most frequent objection is: ‘Well, bad things happen to good people. What if I’ve been wronged or a tragedy has occurred? That’s not my fault. Why am I responsible for that?’

I differentiate between fault and responsibility. We often assume that fault and responsibility are the same thing, and legally, they usually are. However, from a personal psychological point of view, you can be responsible for many things that are not your fault. If someone leaves a newborn baby on your doorstep, it’s not your fault, but it’s absolutely your responsibility to do something. Similarly, if you get hit by a car and end up in the hospital, it’s not your fault, but it’s your responsibility to recover, take care of your health, and do everything you can to get healthy again. There are many situations in life for which we are responsible, but it’s not our fault. We had nothing to do with how it happened. I believe this concept opened many people’s eyes to separate the fault component from responsibility, helping them to accept this piece of advice more comfortably.

[Kris: This strongly aligns with my opinion that you should “put your oxygen mask on before you help your neighbor”. You have a responsibility to care for yourself so you can help others. This also means accepting help. In my own life, I’ve had a loved one refuse help thinking they have spared me a burden, but I know that by not inconveniencing me today they would become a larger burden in the future when they are less capable of helping themselves even with my aid. This experience has given me the imperative to make sure I take care of my health, my finances and my well-being. Not just so I am not someone else’s burden but so I can continue to be a source of support for others.]

The self-help advice that drives Mark crazy

The traditional “law of attraction”. Like The Secret. Manifestation. The idea is to visualize and believe something, and it will happen. It’s not entirely wrong. I addressed this topic in an extensive article on my website years ago. The concept in psychology known as confirmation bias plays a key role….It occurs consistently and the law of attraction leverages this bias in our favor. For instance, if your goal is to become rich, you’ll start noticing opportunities that were always there but went unnoticed because you hadn’t been thinking about your goal.

There’s nothing magical or cosmic about it. It’s a common, well-documented perceptual bias. When used effectively, the law of attraction trains you to use confirmation bias to your advantage. The problem is, it’s often shrouded in cosmic jargon and extends beyond simply thinking about your goal. There’s a crucial distinction between focusing on an external goal and the identity you want to inhabit. If, for example, I decide I want to be seven feet tall and play in the NBA, no amount of thinking will make it real. That’s not success; it’s delusion.

I have several issues with the law of attraction. I’ve been quite critical of it, despite recognizing the grain of sound advice within. It advises to look for the positive in anything that happens to you, which can be helpful but should not be applied indiscriminately. It’s perfectly normal and healthy to feel sadness when tragedy strikes.

[Kris: Notice how calls to be indiscriminately positive backfire by setting impossible expectations. Happiness is the gap between reality and expectations.]

What many attribute to the law of attraction is often just confirmation bias, accountability, and goal setting. When you set a goal, it provides a finish line. Without a clear goal, it’s difficult to measure your actions. For instance, if you want to make a lot of money, define the amount. Once you decide on a figure, you can break it down into monthly targets and figure out the steps needed to get there. The law of attraction isn’t responsible for this. It’s simply setting a goal, breaking it into subtasks, holding yourself accountable, and using confirmation bias. It’s easy to see why people appreciate this concept, but it’s crucial to remember that it requires action. You can’t merely wish for wealth and expect it to materialize.

[Kris: I beat this dead horse to death but this topic is really about doing the proper attribution. Mark is showing how confirmation bias can be leveraged for good. How goal setting deserves credit for progress, not magic. And notice, if “manifestation” didn’t happen to re-skin confirmation bias it wouldn’t work and therefore it would never have taken off as a self-help concept. It had to have a nugget of truth to woo followers. Every cultish movement will have a nugget of truth that is really just a hand that gets over-played]

Imposter syndrome is healthy

I have a contrarian take on impostor syndrome. I believe it’s healthy. If you made a bunch of money very quickly you should have impostor syndrome. You should be asking yourself, ‘Do I deserve this? Did I work hard enough for this?’ Because that is the opposite of taking it for granted and being arrogant. It’s not fun to feel that and I certainly went through some impostor syndrome after ‘Subtle Art’, but ultimately, it keeps you humble. It keeps you a bit hungry, thinking, ‘I should do something again to show that this wasn’t a fluke,’ and it keeps you grounded. It reminds you that you’re not necessarily better or worse than your buddies that you hung out with last year who are still making the same amount of money they did before. Impostor syndrome is actually healthy, as long as it’s not debilitating. At the end of the day, any sort of self-worth issue comes back to the same thing. Are you doing good work? Are you surrounded by good people? And are you treating yourself well? If you can say yes more often than not to all three of those questions, you’re eventually going to be in a good spot.

[Kris: Echoes Sal Khan’s take on imposter syndrome —

I think some of that impostor syndrome, I actually want to retain. I never want to forget how, like, there, there was a time not too long ago that I would pass on the organic produce. I think it lets you just appreciate the world a little bit. And we all know about hedonic adaptation and the hedonic treadmill. I don’t claim that I’m immune so I don’t want to sound like I’m some guru here. I live in Silicon Valley. We live in that same house, and a lot of our friends have now moved into houses that are multiple of the size of our house. Every now and then it’s “maybe it would be nice to have two saunas.” But I always remind myself, “well imagine their electricity bill, or like, the gardening bill or the water bill or whatever.” But, yeah, I think it’s healthy imposter syndrome.

A healthy one keeps you grounded, allows you to enjoy it a little bit. Like every now and then I get invited to meetings with people or conferences with people, where both healthy and unhealthy impostor syndrome could be at play. The healthy imposter syndrome says  “Wow, you get to meet your childhood hero, or someone that you thought you could only read books about, and you’re meeting this person, and they are interested in what you have to say, and they’re supporting Khan Academy.” That’s kind of fun. I don’t know if that’s impostor syndrome, or that’s just remembering yourself when you’re younger. And you’re like, “Wow, how is little Sal in this meeting right now? That’s kind of wild.”]

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