Mark Manson is a best-selling author, entrepreneur, and life-advice blogger. His website markmanson.net receives over two million monthly visitors. Mark drew on Ernest Becker’s work for inspiration for his most recent book, The Subtle Art of Not-Giving A F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life, which has appeared on both the New York Times’ and Washington Post’s Bestseller List. He graciously took time to chat with EBF staffer Christa Masson about his new book, Ernest Becker, and how to live a good life.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ckLet’s start at the beginning… could you tell us when you first encountered Becker and what that process was like after reading his work?

I used to follow this blogger who would talk about philosophy and apply it to everyday life. I remember he wrote a post and the title of the post was something like ‘The Most Upsetting Book I’ve Ever Read. So, I picked [The Denial of Death] up and while it was a little bit hard at first to get what he was getting at, by the end of it — well, if I had to list the top three books that have blown my mind in my life — it’s definitely up there.

It was one of those books too that upon finishing it there’s no obvious immediate applicability. It shakes your worldview so much that you don’t know left from right anymore. I didn’t know what to do with it for about a year. My brain needed time to digest the ideas to integrate it into my own worldview.

Also, I think it’s very much woven into American culture to have this naive optimism about everything. “You can accomplish anything you set your mind to” and “Everybody’s great in their own special way.” Aside from Becker I’ve found very few American intellectuals that openly take that on. That was a big inspiration.

So at what point in your life and career did this happen?

I read The Denial of Death in 2012, and back then, my blog, it was much smaller and it was much more… I don’t wanna say superficial, ’cause that sounds kinda derogatory, but it was. It was less philosophical, just tangible life advice. I loved the book but didn’t feel like there was a place to put it in my work for a long time.

And then something changed.

Yeah.

What was that like? What was the first application (of Becker) that you really took?

Well, as the years went on my work got a little bit deeper, a little bit more philosophical, and I recommended the book in a few posts.

But then I started getting emails from people who had loved ones who died, or some sort of death happened in their family or their life, and they were having trouble coping with it. Becker obviously was one of the first things that came to my mind, but it was one of these subjects that I felt like an article couldn’t really do justice. It deserved more depth and deserved more attention behind it. Right around the same time, I started planning on writing the book, and so from the very first outline, I knew the last chapters would be about death and that Becker would be a big part of it.

What I write in my book, is that the experience of being close to death seems to have this amazing ability to shift your perspective on what matters in life.

Could you talk a little bit more about the central question that you’re answering in your book, which is how to live a good life within the framework of knowing that you’re going to be food for worms?

The way I open the chapter of the book which addresses that question is by talking about when a close friend of mine died. It was awful and tragic, and I went through a very dark and painful time dealing with it. I think before that event in my life I’d been a pretty naive teenager who took everything for granted and didn’t really think about things beyond a very superficial level. Experiencing that death in my life was a bit of a wake up call . Ultimately, what Becker did in terms of practical influence, is he explained that the purest way to measure what’s valuable in your own life is to contemplate your own death. When you’re comparing one thing to another, it’s just so easy to get wrapped up in how subjective and relative everything is. But when you start thinking about life, the world without you in it, it somehow clarifies a lot of these questions.

What I write in my book, is that the experience of being close to death seems to have this amazing ability to shift your perspective on what matters in life.

You make the case that this clarification process should lead to a better choice in values. Choosing to be led by the value of curiosity or compassion, for example, over accumulation of wealth or fame. How do you explain the difference between healthy and not-healthy values (or as Becker fans will call them, hero projects)?

Mark Manson

Mark Manson

It’s hard. In the first chapter of the book, which is completely laden with f-bombs and really absurd jokes, I say, kind of tongue-in-cheek but I’m actually very serious when I say, “This is possibly the most important question you can ask yourself: What do I give a fuck about? What are my values?”

And it’s funny, because doing interviews for this book, I get asked the question a lot, “What should we give a fuck about? What should our values be?” I always get really uncomfortable because part of the point is that your values don’t really mean anything unless you arrive at them yourself. And I think one of the problems that drives a lot of people to self-help material is that [people] never learned to ask these questions of themselves. They look for somebody else to tell them.

It’s a very hard thing and a lifelong process to distinguish what actually matters and what’s just frivolous. What’s ego-driven and what’s actually worthy and important. One of the aims of the book is provide tools to help people figure that out for themselves without pushing them too far in one direction. I see contemplation of one’s own death as one of the most important tools that people can use. There have been a lot of people who have pursued very bad legacies beyond their own death. I think it’s a very good tool, but I think what makes it so profound is exactly what Becker talks about, which is that we instinctively avoid the question our entire lives. It’s very hard to get people to stop and actually think about it, which is probably why it feels so powerful for people. It’s literally the one thing that they haven’t considered thinking about before.

Any crazy belief that makes you feel good, whether it’s white power or the idea that the federal reserve is ruining the country, the internet is going to give it to you, and it’s going to give it to you really easily and really quickly.

While your book is written a style attractive to many millennials, what would your advice be to a younger audience? Those who have just starting to look around at the world in a thoughtful way, starting to form their own worldviews and existential anxieties?

I think one of the problems, and again this comes back to culture, is the fact that it’s so taboo to talk about this stuff. Inevitably, everybody faces death…somebody dies in their family, or they come close to dying. One of the reasons it hits people so hard is because we just don’t have open conversations about it. I think about when I was growing up, and the only place I’ve ever had any conversations about death was in church and my parents made me go. That conversation generally didn’t progress past, “Oh, she’s in heaven now.”

We’re just skirting the issue.

Yeah, it’s like, “Oh, she’s in a better place, so don’t be sad.” And I think it’s probably very emotionally healthy, and developmentally healthy, to have honest conversations with young people because it’s impossible to talk about death without talking about meaning and value. Kids think about this stuff. Whether it’s anxiety, or shame or social problems, rejection, family problems. I think in general, our culture has a tendency to smooth over everything and pretend it’s not there and brush it under the rug. Even things as simple as therapy are still considered taboo for a lot of people.

I see contemplation of one’s own death as one of the most important tools that people can use.

The first step is creating outlets for people to talk without feeling ashamed. One of the most popular articles I wrote when I was starting my blog was simply titled, ‘You’re Okay’. And it listed all this fucked up stuff that people experience in their lives. And it’s like, “Guess what? Everybody experiences these things. You’re okay. This is not abnormal. This is part of the deal. If you’re gonna be alive, you get to experience this stuff.” And a lot of my early readers loved it. They would bookmark it and come back to it again and again.

In your book you discuss the concept of personal entitlement. Where did the idea to address entitlement come from? How does that fit in with all of this?

I originally wrote the book using the term, ‘narcissism,’ but that’s pretty heavy handed. And entitlement is more out in the ether right now. As somebody whose career is pretty much to be online and in the newsfeeds 24/7, I think there are a lot of unintended side-effects that this technology is having on us. One of the results is all the polarization you see in all these extreme ideas. People seem to be more immune to facts, but I see that as a result of just a simple sense of entitlement. People feeling that they deserve something.

I’ve seen this in my reader emails over the years. In some sense, life is getting so easy. At any point in your life, if you’re bored for half a second, you can just turn on your phone. If there’s any piece of information you want to know, you can know it in three seconds. If you want to laugh, you can go laugh within five seconds. Any emotion you want to feel at any given time, it’s literally clicks away. And I think that this is maybe having an unconscious effect on us. There’s a lot been written about how younger generations, college-aged kids, are more narcissistic than they were a couple of generations ago, and how they’re responding really poorly to basic problems. Campus counselors have seen their cases go up something like 300%. A lot of people that I deal with — all the thousands of emails I get — a lot of it just seems like they have really unrealistic standards of what they should expect from life.

I literally get people who are incredibly upset because they feel like they don’t deserve to be embarrassed by their boss at work, or something. And I’m like, “Dude, this is just… It’s part of having a job, sometimes, you’re embarrassed. This is part of being with other people, is you feel bad sometimes.” You look at a lot of the problems that are going on politically and it seems like people feel a certain way, and then they feel entitled to get whatever they want, just for no other reason than they feel a certain way. I see it as a lack of strong values. It’s people becoming enslaved to just feeling satisfied all the time. And I also see this tying into my industry, and my work. I see self-help as a big part of that problem. It’s primarily designed to just make people feel good and it’s not actually solving anything because people’s real issues are operating at the level of values. These books and seminars are only dealing with people feeling bad, not dealing with their values. They’re not asking, “Why do you feel bad? Why should you be feeling bad? Maybe you shouldn’t be feeling bad.” And so, that was actually the impetus for the entire book. I originally conceptualized it as a kind of negative self-help. I said, “I need to write a self-help book about why pain is important and why we should all feel it.”

I’m looking at a page from your book now and you’re talking about the pampering of the modern mind. You have a great paragraph about why people who are feeling particularly entitled are so because they need to be great, to be accepted, in a world that “broadcasts only the extraordinary.” Can you elaborate on that? What happens when the measure of success is so high that everyone is expected to be extraordinary?

I think another way to think about it is that people are given obscenely high metrics of success that they buy into. And so when they can’t reach it, they’re so flattened by disappointment that their only alternative is to be depressed about it or to turn around and try to tear it down and decide that, “This is all bullshit and I’m gonna ruin it.” And I think you see that in a lot of different corners of social movements and political movements these days. And you see it on all the sides of the spectrum but to varying degrees, it’s a varying destruction.

Technology on the one hand provides all these benefits of information and connectivity, but I think it unintentionally makes these hero projects or immortality projects easier for people to buy into and pursue. Any crazy belief that makes you feel good, whether it’s white power or the idea that the federal reserve is ruining the country, the internet is going to give it to you, and it’s going to give it to you really easily and really quickly.

Is there anything that you would like people to take away from the book or that you think a Becker audience in particular would appreciate?

I think a lot of these ideas are already going to resonate pretty strongly with a Becker audience. A main goal of the book was to teach people to get more comfortable with the pain in their life, and obviously death is a big component of that. And then, also, to just practice a little bit more self-skepticism and become a little bit more aware of these arbitrary metrics that we’re applying to ourselves, and applying to others.

To read more from Mark Manson, check out his blog at markmanson.net. His book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck, can be purchased online at amazon.com.

2 Comments

  1. I am very surprised that the EBF should give such a prominence to something like Mark Manson. His work has no relation to the serious and profound investigations Becker did on human nature. It`s a narcissistic, naive kind of self help literature that I think Becker would reject! Superficial and inconsequential! I hope EBF presents better suggestions!

  2. Manson sees the contemplation of one’s own death as one of the most important tools that people can use. What for? After reading the Denial of death this seems a very strange idea to me! Am I wrong?

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