I was at a small private dinner a few weeks ago and someone complained about being stressed and overworked. They asked for a book recommendation and so I began to tell them about a book I’d recently read and liked, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson. As I said this, the person sitting next to us overheard and with a big smile on their face, reached into their bag and pulled out their own marked up copy, which they were in the middle of.
It was quite an exchange—not only of the odds of recommending a book that another person at the table was in the middle of reading but because just a few years earlier I’d sat across the table from Mark Manson himself and watched him hem and haw about whether he should do a traditionally published book or just keep writing for millions of people on the internet. The encounter I’d just witnessed was exactly the kind of thing I wanted him to realize was possible if he took the time to publish (and so was being featured on Chelsea Handler’s Snapchat, hitting the New York Times Bestseller list and all the other awesome stuff that’s happened for him).
Today, Mark’s book is on fire and for good reason. It’s funny, it’s wise, it’s different than most other self-help books. I wanted to interview him here to talk about why this book is resonating with people—why telling them they shouldn’t care is working as an inspirational message. Most of all, I wanted to connect this modern, clever message with ancient philosophy, because Mark and Marcus Aurelius have a lot more in common than one might think.
One of the things I said when I was blurbing your book was the happiness and success has always been the art knowing what to—and what not to—give a fuck about. Actually Marcus Aurelius says something like that, that we shouldn’t give the little things more time and thought they deserved. That’s what your book is all about. My question to you is: What’s subtle about that?
It’s subtle because it’s not always easy to determine what those “little things” in life actually are. Little things, when we’re caught up and fretting about them, often appear to be big and meaningful and world-changing in the moment they are happening. “No, seriously guys, this new app idea is going to change the world!” That type of thing. We’ve all been there. And it’s only in hindsight, with a proper amount of self-reflection and skepticism that we’re able to say, “Oh wait, that was actually pretty stupid and ego-driven.”
What’s required is a certain level of meta-awareness—the ability to observe one’s own thoughts, biases and tendencies and make judgments on them from a higher cognitive level. I believe this is something that is subtle for most people, and they definitely don’t grow up automatically knowing how to do it. In fact, in my life, I’ve found it’s incredibly difficult and must be practiced and fought for constantly. I see my book simply as tool to helping people to do that.
Early on in the book you take aim at the “all of the ‘How To Be Happy’ shit that’s been shared eight million times.” You say that the root problem is modern culture’s perpetual focus on positivity. Can you elaborate on that?
I think our culture has confused “positivity”—i.e., what feels good—with capital “G,” “Good” in an ethical sense. From a philosophical point of view, we can say that good experiences are not always pleasant, and pleasant experiences are not always good.
But if you’re watching viral YouTube videos and beer commercials all day, that quickly gets lost. I think consumer-culture and its marketing has a vested interest in keeping people chasing “highs” all the time, and due to their dominance in the culture, everyone’s default mode is assuming that a “Good Life” basically equates to feeling good.
Unfortunately, I think a large chunk of the conventional self-help material out there plays right into this as well, and I take aim at it accordingly. Feeling sad? Take this seminar and you’ll feel great! Frustrated at work? Here’s a course that will have you making millions in no time!
For one, life’s not that simple (obviously). But more importantly, our painful or unpleasant or “negative” experiences are often the most useful and valuable experiences of our lives. So, to try to constantly avoid negativity ultimately hinders us.
Another overlap with the Stoics in your book is how you approach death. The book ends on a very moving note about you losing a close friend in high school and in the chapter you touch on ‘the sunny side of death.’ What do you want people to know about their mortality? What should they be thinking?
Death is important for a couple reasons. The first is that death creates scarcity in our life, which therefore gives our decisions meaning and value. From a practical point of view, it therefore makes sense that we keep our own deaths in mind when deciding how to use our time. There’s that old cliché that “No one on their deathbed ever wished they spent more time at the office.” Well, it’s a cliché for a reason: it’s a useful heuristic for evaluating our life decisions.
The second reason thinking about our death is important is because it’s the only way, even if for a moment, to remove our ego from the equation. What would the world look like without you? Would it be a better place? A worse place? How so? Why? What can you do to affect that? Ultimately, I think as humans we all care deeply about our life’s legacy, and contemplating our own mortality is the only real way to approach that question of legacy honestly.
Have you read any of the Stoics and who is your favorite? And if not, what books and authors have shaped you the most? In the book we see Alan Watts quoted a lot, but I’d be curious to hear who else you’d recommend.
I took some philosophy classes back in university and we read some Seneca and Epictetus, if I recall correctly. I also took a pretty rigorous philosophy class on logic, and to this day that may be the most useful course I’ve ever taken in my life.
Since then I’ve read a bit more of Seneca and Aurelius’ Meditations and liked them a lot. The Stoics have always appealed to me (I remember my professor telling the story about Alexander the Great offering Diogenes anything in the world, to which he replied, “Yes: please stop standing in my sunlight,” and thought that may have been the most bad-ass thing I had ever heard), but I never deep-dived into them like you or some others have.
What I did deep-dive into early in my life was Zen Buddhism and I’ve only discovered recently (partly thanks to your work) how much overlap there seems to be between the Zen and Stoic traditions. Zen is very much the no-BS, minimalist, get-over-yourself branch of eastern philosophy, similar to how Stoicism is in western philosophy. Whereas a lot of Buddhism concerns itself with stages of enlightenment, various precepts and moral codes, and even power structures and hierarchies, Zen is just like, “Shut up, sit down and observe your thoughts – oh, and by the way, what you perceive as ‘you’ doesn’t actually exist.” I loved the minimalist approach of it.
Later, I studied a lot of psychology. And the biggest impression I got from psychological research was how unreliable our brains are at handling truth. To me, that just cemented a lot of the Zen/Stoicism ideas of “not knowing” and maintaining skepticism about one’s own feelings and biases.
Self-reflection and introspection—such as having an evening routine to reflect on your day and behavior—was very important for the Stoics. I think your book does a great job at pushing the reader to do so and you write about peeling ‘the self-awareness onion.’ How has doing that changed your life? What did you learn about yourself in writing about these topics?
One of the hazards of existing in the self-help space is that people automatically tend to assume that: a) just because I wrote about it, means I mastered it; and b) that I’m only writing this stuff for their benefit and not my own.
My writing is my therapy, pure and simple. It always has been. Even back when no one read it. Everything on my blog and in my books is written because it’s something I personally struggled with at some point or continue to struggle with today. Writing, even if it’s just basic journaling, has a fantastic way of clarifying your thoughts and feelings in ways that make them more manageable. So I encourage everybody to write down their thoughts, in any capacity.
I’m also a big proponent of therapy and meditation for the same reason. Basically, any exercise that gets you observing your own thoughts and feelings and getting that separation from them—that meta-awareness—is going to be incredibly useful and impactful in all areas of your life.
Which exercise or idea from the book do you see readers find the most benefit from and rave about?
The Self-Awareness Onion has been a bit of a hit, not just because of its utility, but also because of its humor (punchline: self-awareness is like an onion, there are always more deeper layers to peel back, and the further you get the more likely you are to spontaneously start crying).
The “Do Something” Principle from the chapter about failure has also been a hit with readers since even before the book. It’s a handy little trick to help people get through emotional resistance and procrastination. Hell, if I was a cool kid, I might even call it a “life hack.”
Admittedly, the book is light on specific actionable take-aways. That was intentional though. When writing a book about values (and the importance in the reader discovering his/her own values), I felt strongly that I should refrain from being too directive as much as possible.
Tough question as an author. How did you personally prepare for the notion that the book might not do well? Was that something you thought about? Did you consider reviews or sales figures? And now that it has done quite well—by almost every metric—how are you making sure that doesn’t screw up what you care (and don’t care) about?
I love this question. This is something that never gets asked but probably should be.
I absolutely thought about it. And while painful and uncomfortable, I think it helped me keep my priorities straight – or rather, to give a fuck about the right things.
Basically, I would ask myself, “If I knew for certain nobody was going to buy this book, would I still write this? Would I still be proud of this?” And if the answer was ever no, then I knew I was on the wrong track.
As far as how the success is affecting me, if it has at all, I haven’t been conscious of it. Honestly, being a writer is such an abstract thing—you never get to see the people reading your work. Harper sends me sales numbers and I’m like, “Wow, that’s a lot,” and then go back to eating my breakfast or whatever. I think it’s different for me though because I was already being read by millions of people through my blog, so I was already used to the attention and criticism to an extent.
One thing I always keep in mind: our culture forgets quickly these days. There’s no guarantee the book will keep selling. There’s no guarantee the next thing I write will be good. There’s no guarantee that all these people that think I’m great today will care or even remember me in five or 10 years. So yeah, I had a big successful book launch. But this too, like everything else, will pass. And soon, I will be that same guy waking up each morning, staring at a blank Word document, wondering what to say next and wondering if anybody will care to read it. And that’s the way it should be.
Ryan Holiday is the best-selling author of The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living. Visit the Daily Stoic website for more information and sign up for a free 7 Day Stoic Starter Pack. He is an editor-at-large for the Observer, and you can subscribe to his posts via email. He lives in Austin, Texas.