We first interviewed Mark Manson back in 2016 about his counterintuitive, yet philosophical, book The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck. That book went on to sell millions of copies worldwide, becoming a #1 bestseller in 13 different countries. Now, Mark is back to discuss his new book Everything Is F*cked: A Book About Hope. In our world where, materially, everything is the best it’s ever been—we are freer, healthier and wealthier than any other time in human history. We have access to technology, education and communication that our ancestors couldn’t even fathom, and yet, so many of us feel this inescapable feeling of hopelessness. How did this happen? How do we regain our hope in humanity and its future? Those are some of the question Mark dissects in his new book with his usual mix of insightful and hilarious writing. He shares some of those insights in our interview below. Please enjoy our interview with the great Mark Manson!
A lot of people seem to think the world is just completely falling to pieces in a way that it never has before. As you looked at this historically, and looked at people’s attitudes historically, do you find this is actually correct? Is everything actually fucked or are we just being crazy?
The world has always been fucked, it’s just the nature of our problems that has shifted. There’s a bit of a paradox of progress in that, materially, the world is the best it’s ever been. Yet, we are seeing a consistent pattern of crises of meaning and mental health issues arise in the more affluent and modern parts of the world. So, yes, the world has had way worse problems in the past than it does today. But for whatever reason, our problems today seem to be more psychological in nature than they were in the past. We’re physically more comfortable and safer, but mentally and emotionally we are struggling to find hope and meaning in a way that previous generations didn’t seem to.
One of the things you talk about in the new book is the importance of suffering. “Pain is the source of all value,” you write. Obviously the Stoics believed there was value—or at least education to be found in pain and suffering—what’s your advice to people about learning how to suffer well?
The most important thing to remember about suffering is that it is inevitable. The only thing that changes is the meaning we construct around our suffering. Is it in our control, out of our control? Is it for some higher purpose or are we purely victims? We can manipulate these narratives around our suffering to help ourselves. But we have to be careful, because our narratives need to be tethered to reality. The advice I usually give around suffering is to a) embrace it—i.e., don’t try to avoid it—and b) choose carefully the meaning you construct around it. Generally speaking, I believe we all have a role to play in our suffering, even if it’s the most freakish accident. We all get to choose the influence our pain has on us. It’s in that sense that I talk about pain being value itself. You cannot have something valuable and important in your life without some sense of sacrifice for it. It’s just human nature. When we experience pleasure without sacrifice, it is meaningless and therefore valueless.
It’s funny, as bad as things might be in the world, nothing seems to elicit angry emails or Amazon reviews quite like cursing. Why do you think some people are so triggered by certain words? Vulgarity seems like the least of our problems…you know? It’s also weird because it’s not like you’re asking them to curse, but then again, people love caring about what other people do more than their own behavior.
As you can imagine, I get flooded with “Why do you have to use those words?” complaints and have for years now. Early in my career, I cursed simply because I wanted to write the same way I speak. And when I speak, I tend to have the mouth of a sailor. But as time went on, I really had to sit down and ask myself some serious questions about the language I was using and whether it was effective or not. And interestingly, I came to the conclusion that profanity actually has quite a bit of utility in personal development, philosophy, and getting people to consider new perspectives.
If you research profanity, you find that profanity evolves. It’s not a static thing. Words that are considered incredibly offensive today were not offensive 50 or 100 years ago (think racial slurs). Meanwhile, words that were incredibly offensive hundreds of years ago are common today. Profanity also modulates between languages. The word “bitch” is far more offensive in Spanish and Portuguese than it is in English. That’s likely because their cultures have more emphasis on families and mothers. Similarly, sex-related words such as “fuck” are considered more offensive in English than in French or German. The point is: profanity is arbitrary. It’s a reflection of a culture. And if you want to challenge a culture, one way to do so is to emphasize and normalize certain words that are considered vulgar.
But on a more practical level, profanity is useful because it shocks people and interrupts their usual assumptions. When you’re in the personal development business, to jar people and emotionally shake them a bit is often effective. If anyone cares, I actually wrote an article about why I continue to use profanity and why it’s not nearly as dumb as it seems here.
In the book you talk about the concept of Amor Fati—a love of fate. It originated with Nietzsche but it’s a very Stoic idea, and we’ve been talking about it a lot here over the years. Why is that idea so important to you? Certainly it’s a tough sell—people don’t like hearing they’re supposed to “accept” things. It’s also not easy to do. Do you struggle with that yourself in your life?
Absolutely. I think it’s impossible to not struggle with it. I think this is an area where English might fail us a bit, because the word “acceptance” brings all these connotations of surrendering and giving up and not acting to change the world around us. I think what’s so clever about Nietzsche‘s injunction, “love your fate,” is that love is not always pleasant. If you think of the people you love most in your life, you love them despite the pain and bullshit they cause. You embrace and accept their flaws even though you don’t always like them. The same must be true for life. Pain is not only inevitable in life, but it is the defining experience of life. And rather than despair, we need to love this fact. Because pain is what grants us meaning. It’s what gives us the ability to sacrifice for something greater than ourselves. Without that ability for sacrifice, life wouldn’t be worth living at all.
The one thing that appears the most in Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus is the importance of coming to terms with our mortality so we’re not defined by it. It’s what you call “The Uncomfortable Truth”. What do you say in the book and what’s your take on facing The Uncomfortable Truth?
The Uncomfortable Truth is the knowledge that our death is inevitable and that, in the grand scheme of the universe, it’s incredibly unlikely that any of our actions will be influential or important beyond a small group of people…who will also die. It’s quite bleak and upsetting on the surface. But I think there are some deeper implications that are important to consider. For one, it suggests that we are largely responsible for any meaning we cultivate from our own life. Therefore, we have to take these questions about sacrifice, pain and hope seriously. Choosing to place our values in the wrong spot could have dire psychological consequences. Secondly, if there’s no reason to do anything because we’re just going to die, there’s also no reason to not do anything because we’re going to die. I.e., there’s no reason to not practice courage, to stand up for what’s right, to love each other fiercely, to speak honestly and truthfully, and so on. And third, if meaning is only achieved through the willingness to sacrifice, then we must consider the ultimate sacrifice: our death. In this sense, I strongly agree with the Stoic tradition of contemplating one’s death in order to gain better clarity on the value of what exists in one’s life.
We see Nietzsche and Immanuel Kant a lot in the book. What other books or authors (even if they don’t appear in the book) would you recommend to people struggling with a crisis of hope?
A huge inspiration for the book, although he’s not directly referenced, was Robert Kegan’s The Evolving Self. It’s like half philosophy, half developmental psychology. It’s an incredible model about growth and maturity that integrates many disciplines and philosophies. It’s definitely light on the empirical data side of things, but in terms of viewing how we construct our identities and how those identities evolve throughout our lives, I found it fascinating and influential.
Democracy for Realists by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels was some combination of sobering, depressing and eye-opening. I wrote a chapter about their research but it got cut from the final manuscript (because of me, not them). But the research and ideas from this book informed much of the book as I went along.
I also re-read Plato’s Republic while writing this book. And while Plato gets a couple minor shout-outs in later chapters, I have to say it was quite humbling to experience the, “every idea in western philosophy is but a footnote to Plato” thing myself. Here I was, thinking I was all smart and clever with some of this hope stuff, and Plato was on top of it roughly 2,500 years ago. My personal experience aside, I think it’s a pretty powerful re-read considering all of the political upheaval that’s been going on in the world the last few years.
As the subtitle says, though it can look quite bleak at times, you are optimistic about the future. You go into it at length to end the book, but can you give the Daily Stoic community a few of the things that give you hope?
Without spoiling too much of the last chapter, I’ll just summarize it like this. I think humans are bad decision-makers and we’re bad at coordinating at the level technology now allows us to coordinate. Our brains didn’t evolve for stuff like this. Psychologically, we’re being overwhelmed in a way that is unique in the history of the human race. And I believe that we’re seeing a lot of the mental health fall-out from that today, both on personal levels but also on socio-political levels. The argument I spend the first 2/3 of the book making is that we need to remove our values from our own personal feelings, and become skeptical of our own hopes. Our hopes tend to reflect our baser, more primitive instincts, not our rational thinking. This isn’t a new argument. Kant and many others have made it throughout history.
This brings me to the inevitable rise of AI. Most people are worried about AI because they fear we’ll cede a lot of our power and control to machine learning. The assumption behind this anxiety is that while AI is smarter than us, AI won’t have our sense of ethics or justice and therefore something catastrophic may occur. I think the opposite is likely true. Humanity has a terrible track record in the ethics department. We suck at fairness, justice, and compassion outside of a small group of people. On top of that, our perceptions and decisions are too easily warped by our emotions and self-interest. Therefore, I think AI will be far better than we are at producing a safe, just and stable world. That’s the short version of my answer. The long version involves digital religions, identities being uploaded and downloaded from the cloud, and of course, sex robots.
The Stoics talk about detaching from results and outcomes (we control the input on a given project, for example, but not how critics or the market receive it). After the massive success of The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck, how have you tried to do that in your life? Is it something you’re thinking about with the very high expectations for this one?
This is a great question because we often talk about how commercial success often makes an artist worse, but we never really look at what the psychological trappings of that commercial success are. Because let me tell you, success on this level—over eight million copies sold, #1 bestseller in thirteen different countries, etc.—it fucks with you. And yes, “fuck” was needed in that sentence.
I’ve been writing and publishing my work online since 2007. Since then, every year, my audience would get a little bit bigger, my traffic would go up, revenue would increase, etc. Some years it’d grow a lot. Other years, it’d grow a little. But it was always inching upward.
One thing Subtle Art showed me that I had not known about myself was that I had grown very attached to that upward trajectory—it wasn’t the numbers themselves necessarily, but it was the idea that I could always improve upon them, that things were always getting better, and that I had something to hope for in the coming year. Then Subtle Art happened. And it was incredible, don’t get me wrong. But it’s also the literary version of getting struck by lightning. It almost never happens to the same author twice. And, as a result, I had to own up to the fact that my precious “upward march” was now over and at the ripe old age of 32, it’s extremely likely that, commercially speaking, my career had peaked.
That is hard to swallow. On top of that, there are a lot of external pressures to do certain things that, in my opinion, would go against my artistic integrity. And I wasn’t exactly sure how to handle them.
So, when I sat down to write this book, it was really rough. It took about six months to even arrive at something I felt good writing about. And then another 3-4 months to convince other people it was something I should be writing about. This is going to sound cliche, but ultimately what “saved” me and kept me sane was remembering why I write: I write to sort out the ideas and issues that trouble me and try to do it in a way that can teach and help others. And that’s where the idea of hope came from: the realization was that what the massive success of Subtle Art accidentally destroyed my ability to hope for future success. On top of that, it also invited a lot of other people’s hopes to invade my life in a way I was not prepared to handle. So, that was the starting point. Learning to regain some hope for myself—and for me, that was zeroing in on one goal: just write a better book. Fuck bestseller lists. Screw releasing journals or posters. No, I don’t want to write a “Subtle Art for Teens.” Just write a better book.
And I believe I did. Since making that commitment, it’s been liberating. I don’t feel anxious about this book release. It might bomb. It might sell really well. Fans might love it. They might hate it. But I truly believe it is a better book: it’s smarter, deeper, more mature, better-written than Subtle Art was. So, regardless of the worldly result, I will always be proud of it. And ultimately, that’s what matters.
Mark’s new book is out now! If you haven’t already, pick up a copy of Everything Is F*cked: A Book About Hope—the perfect book to read to combat the hopelessness and frustration that can often feel hard to avoid in today’s world.