'It takes conscious effort to engage our pain'


It takes conscious effort to engage our pain

Bestselling self-help author Mark Manson on why he doesn't mind offending people, why we should stop reading viral stories - and why the pursuit of happiness shouldn't be our goal


Karen Ann Monsy

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Published: Thu 31 Oct 2019, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Fri 8 Nov 2019, 12:03 PM

I have to say: at the end of a 25-minute telephone interview with author Mark Manson, I was both surprised and vaguely impressed. Considering two of his most popular book titles contain variations of a certain four-letter word and his articles on his personal blog are usually strewn with far more (one of them with as many as 116 F-bombs), I fully expected to have to censor half our conversation. The author laughs sportingly at my observation. "I try to behave," he quips. "This is my professional side."
With three titles under his belt, Mark is all set to make his appearance at the Sharjah International Book Fair this weekend as a guest of publisher DC Books. It was his second book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving A ****, that brought him international recognition, peaking at #6 on The New York Times bestseller list. The book laid the foundation for one of the most fundamental parts of his work, because it introduced readers to what he calls 'the most important question of your life'.
"What determines your success isn't 'What do you want to enjoy?'" he writes in the book. "The question is, 'What pain do you want to sustain?' The quality of your life is not determined by the quality of your positive experiences but the quality of your negative experiences. Sometimes I ask people, 'How do you choose to suffer?'. Ultimately that's the hard question that matters. Pleasure is an easy question. And pretty much all of us have similar answers. The more interesting question is the pain. What is the pain that you want to sustain? That answer will actually get you somewhere. It's the question that can change your life."
Mark is now all-too-well-known for his no-holds-barred writing style. You find out very quickly why he won't click on articles about gun shootings anymore (because he doesn't believe "psychotic bombers" deserve our time or attention) and why pursuing happiness is a futile exercise ("it just pushes it further away from you"). It's no surprise that his opinions are polarising - but that, as he says, is probably what makes him so refreshing.
Excerpts from the interview:

When you quit your job and set out to be a digital nomad in 2009, you took quite a risk. Did you have a Plan B?
No, not really. It's funny because it was a risk - but it was a risk with few downsides. The economy in the US was terrible at that time and I was 24, with no job experience. In my mind, I could either be a broke 24-year-old with no job experience, or I could try to do something for a couple of years and be a broke 26-year-old with no job experience. Worst case scenario, I'd be in the same place. So, it was risky but there wasn't much to lose anyway.
In roughly six years of asking folks what is the pain they want, what are your observations about people's willingness to actually climb the mountain of success?
Most people are not very willing! I don't say that as a criticism. I sympathise with them. It's human nature to avoid struggle and it takes conscious effort to engage our pain. It never ceases to amaze me how adept our minds are at avoiding stress or struggle. I see my job as helping people not avoid it so much - but engage it a little bit better.

Have you found the answer to that question?
I think I've found some of the pain that I'm willing to sustain: being an author is a struggle but I enjoy it; a lot of relationships in my life can be a struggle, but I'm glad I have them. I feel like I've figured out some of the more permanent struggles I'm willing to sustain - but it's a question you can never answer "forever". As you go through your life, you change and the problems and struggles you want will change with you.

What made you decide to enter the world of self-help when it is already chock-full of other authors and speakers, all equally bent on telling us how to live life?
I felt like there was a real need in the self-help market for somebody to have a more negative, pessimistic approach. I've read self-help stuff for most of my life but as I got older, I got more cynical. I felt that there are ways to grow and be a better person but I don't think it's necessarily all happy and positive stuff. So, I wanted to be the antidote for that.

You've got a writing style that holds absolutely nothing back. Have you always been this blunt?
I think I have but it's also something I value and try to be, something I always work on in my writing.

Do you find people more receptive, or more inclined to give you hate for your stances as a result?
Both? I think I'm definitely a bit polarising. Ultimately though, I think people like it. I think it's refreshing. Especially living in the Internet age, when we're exposed to so much, people have become more cynical and skeptical. They feel like there aren't many voices or things in the world that they can trust. So, they see the fact that I'm a bit harsh in what I say as appealing.

You have a theory you call the Kardashian Rule, namely, that the more viral a person or event is, the more culture will overestimate its importance. And you suggest that the only way to counter this, to counter inane news that goes viral, is by simply withdrawing attention. Aren't we in danger of promoting ignorance that way?
That is a danger, but I think the most important thing is to withhold your attention for the things that actually matter. Have a very high threshold for what you do spend your attention on, so that you'll learn about the important things, but withhold your attention on the unimportant.
How realistic is it though to ask society to ignore viral news? You can perhaps achieve it for stories that lack substance, but can we really club news about Kardashian and gun shootings (which also go viral) in the same pile?
To be honest, I don't think it's very realistic! But it doesn't mean I won't try. The issue today is I feel like there's a disconnect between where we put our attention and what is actually important. Shootings are a great example. Mass shootings in the US actually affect a small amount of people but they get so much attention. Part of that is just how our psychology works. Humans are built a certain way, to pay more attention to certain types of events. Flying is another example. Millions are afraid of flying, but driving cars are far more dangerous. Yet, there are all sorts of precautions and stories about things that happen on airplanes [that we're more familiar with]. The structure of our brain is not optimised for the modern world. The only way to help ourselves is to educate ourselves. To stop paying attention to something, you will have to first pay attention to it - but when you recognise it's not significant,  withdraw your attention from it.

You give life advice relating to various spheres of life. But if there's one thing you think the world really needs help with right now, what would it be?
The first thing that comes to mind is empathy. It's very strange, but if you look back 20 years ago, when I was still a teen and social media was first taking off, there was this very idealistic view that if we just connected the whole world, everyone would be quicker to sympathise. There would be fewer barriers, less anger. I think the opposite has happened. We're getting worse at empathising with people who are different from us. That's unfortunate - and also dangerous.

What's the best advice you've ever received?
My dad is a very successful businessman. I remember early on in my career, I was plagiarised - which happens often but, back then, I was broke and didn't have money. An idea of mine was stolen by someone with a much bigger website. I was pretty upset, so I called my dad. He said, "There are two types of people: people who are very good at finding golden eggs, and people who teach themselves to lay a golden egg. If you teach yourself to be the latter, you'll never be upset when someone takes something from you." It comes down to learning to generate value for other people in the world. Then, you don't have to worry if others take from you. That's just helped me so much, in terms of staying focused on the right things.

Last question: how often do you take your own advice?
(laughs) It's a constant work in progress. I think I do a pretty good job, but I definitely mess things up too. I often tell people: I don't write because I've got it all figured out - I write because I have the same problems too.

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