I am not a fan of the self-help industry nor of most so-called relationship “experts.” Whenever people start spewing what someone should or shouldn’t do, I get nervous. Who can tell us what’s right or wrong for us?
That said, some people often make sense in sharing their stories of their missteps and what they learned from them. I’m not sure how or when or why I stumbled on Mark Manson’s writing, but a lot of what he writes makes sense. Not all of it, but enough to make me want to read his frequent posts on his website — with the tagline Personal Development That Doesn’t Suck — and now, his just-released book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck.
Manson got his start blogging about dating for men; started coaching men on having luck with the ladies at a time when the world traveler was partying and sleeping around; came out with a self-published book, Models: Attract Women Through Honesty, written when he was on the fringes of the PUA movement; and along the way gathered millions of avid readers and more than his share of detractors. True to his book’s title, he doesn’t give much of a fuck about the latter.
But what Manson gives a fuck about and what you give a fuck about may not be the same, and that’s what I appreciate about his writing. He’s not telling you what you should care about. Instead, Manson encourages his readers to “pick and choose what matters to you and what does not matter to you based on finely honed values.” So his book is more about values — your values — and how to stay true to the ones that are working well for you, and not getting distracted — aka giving a fuck — about the other stuff. “Not giving a fuck does not mean being indifferent,” he writes, “it means being comfortable with being different.”
I like that. And I like this when he says that rather than ask, “What do you want out of life?” a better question is, “’What pain do you want in your life? What are you willing to struggle for?’ Because that seems to be a greater determinant of how our lives turn out.”
“I grew up in a family that was very bad at intimacy, it was a muscle that was never trained so I didn’t know how to do it so I was bad at it,” Manson told me in a recent Skype interview. “My first relationship was toxic and I was hurt in my early 20s, very angry and hurt guy who lacked intimacy but didn’t know how to achieve it.”
So, he channeled that energy into partying, chasing women and being a player.
Still, Manson’s solution for his self-proclaimed intimacy issues is the usual suspect — a romantic relationship. On a Reddit Ask Me Anything in 2012, Manson writes:
As great as rampant casual sex with hot girls is, having a healthy relationship with a great girlfriend is one of the most psychologically beneficial experiences I’ve ever had. Totally does not get enough credit in this industry. And I know this totally sounds gay, but being loved by someone you admire really can be healing and better than the best sex in the world many times over.” tweet
Maybe … for him. But I don’t think that’s a message everyone appreciates — let alone the “totally sounds gay” comment. At 32, Manson is relatively newly married; his wedding is in November. I’d like to check back with him after 10 or 15 years of marriage …
His new book has a chapter on intimacy that builds on his Reddit comment. Which is why I was eager to chat with him about the book.
There’s some wording in his book that I find disturbing (as anyone else who is seeking help from a self-development coach might be) or just clunky: in describing the relationship with his first girlfriend, who cheated on him and broke his heart, he writes, “Ultimately, while she was to blame for how I felt, she was never responsible for how I felt. I was.” Blame? Nope. The cheating was the underlying cause of his pain, but at least he owns how that made him feel.
Then in describing a woman’s unhappy relationships with men: “Meredith had had a series of failed intimate relationships with men, including a failed marriage.” Failed marriage? Ugh. If an unhealthy relationship ends, why is that a failure? If a healthy relationship ends because the two people in it decide they want something different, why is that a failure?
And, he chats up marriage as offering freedom when marriage, in fact, typically limits freedom; it isn’t called a “greedy institution” for nothing.
Here’s an edited (for length and clarity) version of our conversation:
In what way did your PUA experience shape where you are today?
“A lot of that background has been great because nice thing about men’s dating area or PUA area it was kind of counter-cultural. Back then it was like men receiving dating advice was not OK, not cool. And it was all these connotations that these guys were predators and it was manipulative. There was a lot of room to explore ideas and write about them in ways you wouldn’t typically approach them. I think it’s definitely been influential to me. I got away from that industry after a few years because there’s so much toxicity over there.”
When you talk about commitment in romantic relationships, how do you define it?
“I’ve never sat down and defined it. I would say it is two things: one is, it is prioritizing the health of a relationship, making it one of your top priorities, and two, adopting the expectation that you will do that indefinitely; there’s no end point. It’s not, ‘OK, we’re going to do this for a year.’ When you commit to someone, you’re saying this relationship matters and I’m going to make it a high priority to make it work and … we’re going to make it work as long as we can, as long as we’re capable.”
I like that you say for as long as you can make it work.
“You can have a 20-year relationship that ends but that was hugely successful. In the new book, I have one chapter that relates to relationships and rejection, and I talk about the importance of saying no. One thing I say in that chapter is that for a healthy relationship to exist is for both people be willing to end it. The reason is, if they’re not, you take each other for granted and when you take each other for granted, you stop working on it. One thing my fiancée and I talk about sometimes is, we both totally have the right to say out loud, ‘I need this’ or ‘This doesn’t make sense for me.’ In the Disney vision of relationships, it’s like, OK, you’re married and that matters more that individual emotional health, individual happiness. I see it the other way around; if you don’t have happy and healthy individuals then it’s impossible to have a happy and healthy relationship. So the individual needs to come first but you need to find a way for each individual to meet their needs in a way that supports the relationship.”
You talk about marriage giving you freedom. I don’t agree with that. Can you talk a little bit about that?
“Most of us think about freedom in terms of breadth of experience, how many places you can live, how many people you can know, how many people you can have sex with. It’s kind of a quantitative approach to freedom. I always struggled with committing to anything in my life, that’s been one of my big issues, it’s one of the issues I’ve slowly gotten over in the past three, four years. And what I’m discovering as I’m slowly learning to commit to things is that there’s this other form of freedom that exists in the depth of experience. … I imagine there are freedoms that can be achieved, but they won’t necessarily be achieved depending on the quality of the relationship, but they’re theoretically possible, by being with the same person for an extended amount of time. … Another way to think about it, without using the word freedom, there’s certain enriching experiences, life-enriching experiences, that can only be achieved through an intense and long-term commitment.
You touch upon family-of-origin issues in the book. How do you think that impacts people and their choices?
“It’s very important but I don’t think I’m the person to guide people into that. It’s something I try to put up a sign and say, “Look here.. Search here.” … I’m a very vocal proponent of people getting a therapist. I tell people through email all the time, you probably shouldn’t be emailing some random guy on the Internet; you probably should go talk to a therapist. … I think reflecting on your childhood and family life and the values that were imparted on you, whether intentionally or unintentionally, is something everybody should evaluate and go through regardless is your life is miserable or great. It’s an incredibly important component of self- knowledge.”
Women get a lot of advice, terrible advice. What about men?
“In some ways it’s worse. The whole men thing is interesting. It was never socially acceptable for men to go look for advice but the anonymity of the Internet suddenly made it feasible. … Unfortunately, a lot of the information that’s popping up for men is really toxic and damaging. I think a lot of the stuff that gets sold to women is just … innocuous bullshit. The same kind of thing is happening on the men side, but at least the communities I see popping up, many come with a sick and twisted ideology.”
What do you hope people take away from your writing?
“I hope it helps people but I try not to get involved emotionally or otherwise in how that helps or how many people it helps. I’m always very wary of getting in the business of the course of other people’s lives.”