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The Surprising Power of Choosing Your Problems

Habits & Productivity Happiness
The Surprising Power of Choosing Your Problems


  • Why people in poorer countries have better mental health
  • The importance of selecting your “God value”
  • How conflict helps us find meaning in life

Mark Manson is a blogger, author, and entrepreneur whose book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck has sold over 9 million copies worldwide. He recently sat down with Jordan Harbinger on The Jordan Harbinger Show to discuss what it means to reinvent yourself, and why we must choose which problems to care about—before our brains choose for us.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to the full version, click here.

Jordan: What is this idea of the uncomfortable truth? It’s the first major concept of [your new book, Everything Is F*cked].

Mark: Ultimately, this is a book that argues against nihilism. Nihilism is basically the belief that life is pointless, so you should just do whatever you want. I feel like there are a lot of nihilistic tendencies growing in our culture, and as a result, we have a lot of crises of meaning and crises of hope.

People coming to this book are probably buying it because they’re upset about something they saw on Twitter. I wanted to immediately give some perspective, so I started the book with an Auschwitz story. Like, “Hey, I know you’re upset, but here’s a guy who was in Auschwitz. Six million people were murdered.” Just to set the stage and be like, “All right, everybody chill out.”

From there, the first thing I introduce is the uncomfortable truth, which is that in the grand scheme of the universe, we’re tiny and insignificant. Whatever we do with our lives is probably not going to have much or any consequence in the grand scheme of things.

We’ve all thought about it before. For anybody who’s been particularly depressed at any point in their life, that uncomfortable truth is always front and center: “Why bother? What does it matter? Nobody cares—we’re all going to die anyway.” We’ve all been in that place before. And the only way to get out of it is to find things to hope for—visions of a better life that we are capable of pursuing or achieving. The only way to escape the uncomfortable truth is to develop a sense of value and importance, and then push yourself toward it.

Jordan: [Sometimes I think,] “How are people so upset about such trivial things all the time?” Is it because the more we have, the more we have to lose?

Mark: I think that’s a part of it. I also think the more we have, the more complicated those visions of hope become. One of the examples I give in the book is the Easterlin paradox, which is basically that people in poorer countries generally have better mental health, and are happier and more content with their relationships. And in the richest countries, anxiety, depression, and suicide rates all go up.

If you’re a subsistence farmer in India, your hope for a better future is really simple: grow more food. “I just need to grow more food, and things will get better.” That gets you up every day—there’s no ambiguity. But once you have a society with tons of opportunities, and you’ve got all this education, and there are 18 different career paths you can choose from, and you’re connected to 2,000 people on social media, suddenly those visions of a better future get very murky and confusing.

“Self-control, self-discipline, procrastination, underachievement—these are all fundamentally emotional problems.”

Jordan: It’s like, “Do you become a lawyer?” Then your mom is happy. Do you become a writer? That’s what you like, but everyone tells you it’s a bad idea. [You’re not sure] where you’re going to end up—meanwhile, this other guy is like, “I just want to make sure my kids don’t die.”

Mark: Yeah—”Plant corn, feed my kids.” He’s happy, he feels good about it. There’s a lot of stress that comes with an abundance of choice. I think that stress wears us down psychologically.

Jordan: In part, it’s about the feeling brain versus the rational brain. The rational brain is not really in charge—our emotions are driving the car. The thinking brain is just the supporting character that imagines it’s the hero.

Mark: Yeah, that’s the Kahneman quote. Imagine your consciousness is a car, and you have a thinking brain and a feeling brain. Most of us assume that the thinking brain is driving, being very responsible like, “It’s time to go buy milk.” And the feeling brain is in the passenger seat screaming and yelling and being really obnoxious, and it’s your thinking brain’s job to be like, “Shut up, feelings. We’ve got to go buy milk.” That’s what we assume—if we see somebody who has a drinking problem, we’re like, “Man, that guy is not disciplined. He needs to dampen his impulses and put his feeling brain in its place.”

But the truth is, when you look at all the psychological literature, the feeling brain is actually driving the car, and the thinking brain is drawing the map. Anybody who’s ever tried to lose 10 pounds by reading a book [knows that] you cannot think your way to doing the correct action. Ultimately, the action needs to feel good in some way for you to continue doing it. Self-control, self-discipline, procrastination, underachievement—these are all fundamentally emotional problems. We attack them as if they’re logical problems—we think that if we just learn all the benefits of low-carb diets, then we’ll stop eating carbs. But [that’s not how it works]. You need to find a way to emotionally enjoy whatever habit you’re trying to take on for yourself.

I smoked for a number of years, and every smoker goes through this [thought process] where they’re like, “Okay, I’m quitting… But man, I’ve got that meeting coming up, and I really need a cigarette to calm down for it. I’ll quit after the meeting.” There’s always some rationalization. The next thing you know, two months have gone by, and you’re still smoking a pack a day.

One of the problems I talk about is that people tend to either completely suppress their thinking brain—so they’re just all feelings all the time, and they don’t think anything through—or they try to shut down their feeling brain. They block and suppress their emotions and try to be logical, but they can’t. Instead, they just become unaware of where they’re driving.

A healthy, mature psychology is when you train the brains to talk to each other. The problem is they speak different languages—the thinking brain thinks in thoughts, and the feeling brain thinks in feelings. You have to learn how to listen to your feelings, respond with thoughts, and then listen to the feelings that respond to that, and get this back-and-forth.

If you’re like a white, middle-class yuppie who grew up in the western world, you are basically taught to beat your feelings into submission. You had a duty to get good grades, and finish school, and make a bunch of money. How you feel [doesn’t matter,] so you just shut it off.

Obviously, that makes people miserable. And once they’re into adulthood and they realize how miserable they are, they get in touch with those feelings. It’s extremely liberating to realize, “Oh my God, I’ve been angry all this time, and I never admitted it to myself,” or, “Holy shit, I’ve been so upset with my mother, and I never allowed myself to realize it.” But people mistake the liberation of their feelings as their feelings becoming more important to their thoughts.

There’s this whole subgenre in the self-help world where it’s just all feeling brain all the time. It’s taking disgruntled lawyers and doctors and pissed-off insurance adjusters, putting them in a seminar room, and having them shout into pillows, and scream, and cry, and hug each other. And they tell themselves that this is somehow profound, or that they’re becoming spiritually grown. It’s like, “No, you’re just acting out—you’re being a child.”

Jordan: I’ve done these seminars before, and I was shocked at how manipulative it all was. There were people in the room who were crying the entire time. The wound that we ripped open was serious, and the hug from the stranger they met two days ago is not going to make them feel better. They need therapy, real psychological help.

Mark: They need their thinking brain to engage with those feelings. Once you rip open those old wounds, those childhood traumas, you need to use your thinking brain to sort through the meaning, and redefine the narrative of what happened to you. But if you’re shutting down your thinking brain and just feeling all the time, you never create new meaning for yourself or for your life. You just wallow in that pain for as long as somebody tells you to.

Jordan: It sort of goes into your Newton’s laws of emotion. The third law is, “Your identity will stay your identity until a new experience acts against it.”

Mark: Right. An experience is either pleasurable or painful—if it’s painful, a negative emotion will emerge. If it’s pleasurable, a positive emotion will merge. Our thinking brain has to construct a story about ourselves that explains that emotion. This is why childhood trauma messes us up so much, because when you’re a child, your thinking brain is still very poorly developed, and you don’t understand why things happen to you.

If you are hurt in some intense way as a young child, the story you construct will be very basic, like “I’m a bad boy,” or “Nobody loves me.” Once that story is constructed, your identity is like a ball of yarn that starts getting wrapped up. It keeps wrapping and wrapping, so the earlier it happens in your life, the closer to the center it is, and the more you have to unravel to get back to it and look at it. The only way these stories change is when we unravel all those narratives that we’ve constructed, look back at it and be like, “That thing that happened to me when I was four—it’s not because I’m unlovable and a bad person. These things just happen to kids.” Your thinking brain has to look at it, reevaluate it, and put a new story to it, and then you have to go live as if that is your new story. That’s essentially how you “change” yourself.

“We need a certain amount of psychological stress to test our values, embody them, and rip meaning from them.”

Some things can’t be unraveled ourselves—it has to happen to us. In fact, the whole point of Subtle Art was to make an argument for the importance of pain and suffering. The personal stories that I included—girlfriend leaving me, parents divorcing, friend dying—were the most painful experiences of my life. But I got to rewrap my yarn. Those experiences are opportunities to reinvent ourselves.

Jordan: I like it. I do wonder, what if Everything Is F*cked just does not do well, and your agent and the publisher are like, “This isn’t what we wanted at all. We’re all broke now.” What does that do to your identity?

Mark: If I told myself, “I’m a hit author! Everything I write sells like hotcakes,” then the second something doesn’t, it would cause an identity crisis. I would feel like I didn’t know who I was anymore: “Oh my God, who am I? Am I a good author?” I’d have to look at my experiences, and construct another narrative that felt good and true and that my feeling brain accepted.

But I’ve already done that work. The narrative I’ve already constructed for myself is that one day, I’m going to write something that’s not going to sell well, and that’s fine. It doesn’t make me any worse of a writer or an author or a person. It’s actually a very common occurrence in a lot of authors’ careers. That’s the narrative that my thinking brain has put together, and it feels good to my feeling brain. It’s preempted that experience for me, and now I’m prepared.

Jordan: You write in the book that you can change your values by writing the narratives of your future self, to envision what life would be like if you had certain values or possessed a certain identity: “By visualizing the future we want for ourselves, we allow our feeling brain to try on those values for size and see what they feel like before we make the final purchase. Eventually, once we’ve done this enough, the feeling brain becomes accustomed to the new values and starts to believe them.” Can you walk us through what that might look like?

Mark: That experience of “What if my next book flops?” is one that I tried on. I just sat down and really imagined, “What would that mean to my life? How would my agent, my publisher, and my wife react? How would I feel? What would it signify about my skills?” You ask yourself all of these questions, and you look for a story or a piece of meaning that feels good to you, and that creates a better value.

If my only value is to just sell a ton of books, I’m going to get knocked on my ass, because eventually I’m going to put out something that doesn’t sell. But if my core value is to simply write as honestly and compellingly as I can, then even if I put out something that doesn’t sell, I can still feel good about it. I can still feel that I’m a good writer. I can look at my fans, my family, and my friends and still be proud of what I did.

When we’re adapting values for ourselves, we put them in order: “My kids are more important to me than my friends. My friends are more important to me than random strangers on the street.” We all have this hierarchy of values that determines our prioritization, and helps us make decisions about where our time is best spent.

And in our value hierarchy, something is at the top. I use the name “God value”—it’s a religious value for a lot of people, but it’s not necessarily religious. It’s just our top value, which dictates the decision-making of everything underneath it. It becomes a lens through which everything else is perceived.

Let’s say I am a super religious person, and my God value is Jesus Christ. I will judge and measure everything in my life in terms of my faith in Jesus Christ and the Bible. If my God value is money, then every experience I have will be measured against the metric of money, and what gets me the most money. The funny thing is you can have people who are Christian, but if their God value is money, they will approach their religious experiences in terms of what is most profitable. There are people who say, “I care most about charity and giving back and helping others.” But if their behavior is saying otherwise, they might have those values somewhere on the hierarchy, but something else is on top. Ultimately, what defines us is our behavior, and our behavior is defined by our top values.

Jordan: You wrote that the conflict between values is actually required for us to achieve. What do you mean by that?

Mark: The conclusion I argue—it comes from Nietzsche and some other philosophers—is that we need some degree of conflict, because conflict is affirming for our values.

I’ll use a silly example: Let’s say I strongly believe that Stephen King is the best author of all time, and you strongly believe that JK Rowling is the best author of all time. Arguing with you about that affirms my belief, and it makes me feel as though I’m living out my values. The way we find meaning in life is when we feel as though we’re living out our values.

Some conflict is a little bit necessary, in the same way we need stress on our body to grow muscle and get physically stronger. We need a certain amount of psychological stress to test our values, embody them, and rip meaning from them.

Jordan: And if we don’t have that tension, we have to look for it, which leads us to the blue dot effect. Tell us about this.

Mark: There was this amazing academic study that happened last year. They took tons of people, put them in front of a computer console, and showed them dots on the screen. They gave them two buttons and said, “If the dot is blue, hit this button. If the dot is not blue, hit that button.” The dots were blue, purple, or some shade in between. At first, they showed tons and tons of blue dots, and people were mostly hitting the blue dot button. Then as time went on, they slowly showed fewer blue dots, and started showing more purple dots, or dots that were in between.

“We need to redefine freedom, not in terms of freedom for more nice stuff, but freedom to choose what matters to us.”

What was fascinating is that even though they showed fewer and fewer blue dots, as time went on, people still hit the blue button the same amount. Their actual perception of what color a dot was had shifted based on their expectations.

Then they replaced the dots with human faces and said, “If the face looks threatening, hit this button. If the face looks safe or innocuous, hit that button.” Initially, they showed mostly threatening faces, and then as time went on, they started showing fewer and fewer threatening faces. The same thing happened. When you start removing threatening faces, people start to mistake safe and innocuous faces as being threatening.

Then they went even a step further—they started doing it with research proposals. They showed unethical research proposals and ethical research proposals, and the same thing happened. The more you remove unethical research proposals, the more people mistook ethical proposals for being unethical.

We have a certain amount of threat or pain or adversity that we psychologically expect to see. So the safer society gets, or the more just and righteous things get, we don’t feel better about it. If people stop killing, we don’t actually feel better—we just decide that slapping somebody is as awful as killing.

Jordan: That’s how we end up with the idea of microaggressions and [the perception that] words are violence.

Mark: Right, that questions are violence, that reading a book about racism is traumatizing. It explains so many things, like why we’re struggling to create that coherent vision of hope for ourselves. Because if we’ve got eight million video games, and Netflix, and everything can be delivered at the drop of a hat, our brain still naturally looks for something that’s upsetting or adversarial in our environment, even though there might not be one there.

Jordan: Is there anything that we can do about this? We can’t necessarily fix society, but is there anything we can do for ourselves?

Mark: I think it comes back to what I talked about in Subtle Art—we need to start choosing our problems. Because if we don’t choose problems that give our lives meaning, then our brain is going to find problems for us, and it’ll find them in really silly, obnoxious places.

We need to redefine freedom, not in terms of freedom for more nice stuff, but freedom to choose what matters to us. The only freedom is found in self-limitation and choosing: “This is the problem I want in my life. This is what I’m deciding to sacrifice myself for. Forget all the rest. I don’t need 15 different types of food delivered to my door, and I don’t need to watch every Netflix series. This is the thing I care about.”

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