Mark Manson’s personal development advice is nothing like the ordinary - forget clichéd or unrealistic tips. Mark’s goal with his site is to provide a reality-based form of self-help, and he most certainly achieves this goal with his articles.
We’ve all had that one person—that one person in our lives that we always find ourselves saying, “If only they would…” Month after month, year after year—we love them, we care about them, we worry for them, but when we turn off the light or hang up the phone, we think to ourselves, “If only they would…”
Maybe it’s a family member. Maybe they’re depressed. Heartbroken. Despondent. Maybe they don’t believe in themselves. And every time you see them, you try to fill them with love and confidence, you compliment their new Spiderman shirt and tell them how bitching their new haircut is. You casually encourage them and offer some unsolicited tips and recommend a book or two and silently say to yourself:
“If only they would believe in themselves…”
Or maybe it’s a friend. Maybe you see them fucking up left, right, and center. Drinking too much. Cheating on their partner. Blowing all their money on their odd yet obsessive go-kart hobby. You pull them aside and give them the hands-on-the-shoulders pep talk that friends are supposed to do. Maybe you offer to take a look at their bank statement and maybe even give them a loan or two. Meanwhile, in the back of your head, you keep thinking:
“If only they would get their shit together…”
Or maybe it’s the worst. Maybe it’s your husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend. Or even worse, it’s your ex- husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend. Maybe it’s over but you keep clinging to the hope that they’ll somehow change. That there’s some special piece of information that they missed that would change everything. Maybe you keep buying them books that they never read. Maybe you drag them to a therapist that they don’t want to go to. Maybe you try leaving tearful voicemails at two in the morning, screaming, “WHY AM I NOT ENOUGH FOR YOU?!!?”
Yeah, like that’s ever worked…
We’ve all got that person in our lives. Loving them hurts. But losing them hurts. So, we decide, the only way to salvage this emotional clusterfuck is to somehow change them.
“If only they would…”
On my speaking tour this spring, I held short Q&A sessions at the end of each talk. Invariably, in every city, at least one person would stand up, offer a long explanation of their messed up situation and end it with, “How do I get him/her to change? If only they would do X, things would be better.”
And my answer, in every situation, was the same: you can’t.
You can’t make somebody change. You can inspire them to change. You can educate them towards change. You can support them in their change.
But you can’t make them change.
That’s because making someone do something, even if it’s for their own good, requires either coercion or manipulation. It requires intervening in their life in a way that is a boundary violation, and it will therefore damage the relationship—in some cases more than it helps.
These are boundary violations that often go unnoticed because they’re done with such good intentions. Timmy lost his job. Timmy is laying on his mom’s couch, broke, and feeling sorry for himself every day. So, Mom starts filling out job applications for Timmy. Mom starts yelling at Timmy, calling him names and guilt-tripping him for being such a loser. Maybe she even throws his Playstation out the window for good measure, just to give him that extra oomph of motivation.
While Mom’s intentions may be good, and while some may even see this as a dramatically noble form of tough love, this type of behavior ultimately backfires. It’s a boundary violation. It’s taking responsibility for another person’s actions and emotions, and even when done with the best of intentions, boundary violations fuck relationships up.
Think about it this way. Timmy is feeling sorry for himself. Timmy is struggling to see any point in living in this cruel, heartless world. Then, suddenly, Mom comes in and trashes his Playstation while literally going out and getting a job for him. Not only does this not solve Timmy’s problem of believing the world is cruel and heartless and he has no place in it, but it is actually further evidence to Timmy that there is something fundamentally wrong with him.
After all, if Timmy wasn’t such a fuck up, he wouldn’t need his mom to go out and get a job for him, would he?
Instead of Timmy learning, “Hey, the world is all right, I can handle this,” the lesson is, “Oh yeah, I’m a grown man who still needs his mother to do everything for him—I knew there was something wrong with me.”
It’s in this way that the best attempts at helping someone often backfire. You can’t make someone be confident or respect themselves or take responsibility—because the means you use to do this destroys confidence, respect, and responsibility.
For a person to truly change, they must feel that the change is theirs, that they chose it, they control it. Otherwise, it loses all its effect.
A common criticism of my work is that, unlike most self-help authors, I don’t tell people what to do. I don’t lay out action plans with steps A through F or create dozens of exercises at the end of every damn chapter.
But I don’t do it for a very simple reason: I don’t get to decide what’s right for you. I don’t get to decide what makes you a better person. And even if I did decide, the fact that I told you to do it, rather than you doing it for yourself, robs you of most of the emotional benefits.
The people who tend to populate the self-help world are there because they have a chronic inability to take responsibility for their choices. It’s full of people who have floated through life looking for someone else—some authority figure or organization or set of principles—to tell them exactly what to think, what to do, what to give a fuck about.
But the problem is, every value system eventually fails. Every definition of success eventually turns up shit. And if you’re dependent on someone else’s values, then you’re going to feel lost and identity-less from the start.
So, if someone like me stands on stage and tells you that for half your life savings, I will take responsibility for your life and tell you exactly what to do and what to value, not only am I merely perpetuating your original problem, but I’m making a killing while doing it.
People who have survived trauma, who have been abandoned or shamed or felt lost, they’ve survived that pain by latching onto worldviews that promise them hope. But until they learn to generate that hope for themselves, to choose their own values, to take responsibility for their own experiences, nothing will truly heal. And for someone to intervene and say, “Here, take my value system on a silver platter. Would you like fries with that?” only perpetuates the problem, even if done with the best of intentions.1
(Caveat: Active intervention in someone’s life can be necessary if that person has become a danger to themselves or others. And when I say, “danger” I mean actual danger—they’re overdosing on drugs or becoming erratic and violent and having hallucinations that they’re living with Charlie in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.)
How Can You Help People?
So, if you can’t force someone to change, if intervening in their life in such a way as to remove the responsibility for their own choices ultimately backfires, what can you do? How do you help people?
1. Lead by example
Anyone who has ever made a major change in their life has noticed that it has a ripple effect on their relationships. You stop drinking and partying, and suddenly your drinking friends feel like you’re ignoring them or are “too good” for them.
But sometimes, just sometimes, maybe one of those party friends thinks to themselves, “Damn, yeah, I should probably cut back too,” and they get off the party boat with you. They make the same change you did. And it’s not because you intervened and were like, “Dude, stop getting blackout drunk on a Tuesday,” it’s simply because you stopped blacking out, and that became inspiring to others.2
2. Instead of giving someone answers, give them better questions
Once you recognize that forcing your own answers on somebody sabotages the benefits of those answers, the only option left available is to help the person ask better questions.
Instead of saying, “You should fight for a raise,” you could say, “Do you believe you’re paid fairly?”
Instead of saying, “You need to stop tolerating your sister’s bullshit,” you could say, “Do you feel responsible for your sister’s bullshit?”
Instead of saying, “Stop pooping your pants, it’s disgusting,” you could say, “Have you ever considered a toilet? Here, may I show you how to use it?”
Giving people questions is hard. It requires patience. And thought. And care. But that’s probably why it’s so useful. When you pay a therapist, you’re essentially just paying for better questions. And this is why some people find therapy to be “useless,” because they thought they were signing up for answers to their problems, but all they got was more questions.
3. Offer help unconditionally
This isn’t to say you can never give people answers. But those answers must be sought by the person themselves. There’s a world of difference between me saying, “Hey, I know what’s best for you,” and you coming to me and saying, “What do you think is best for me?”
One respects your autonomy and self-determination. The other does not.
Therefore, often the best thing you can do is simply make it known that you are available if a person needs you. It’s the classic, “Hey, I know you’re going through a hard time right now. If you ever want to talk, let me know.”
But it can also be more specific. A few years ago, a friend of mine was going through some shit with his parents. Instead of giving him advice or telling him what he should do, I simply told him about some of the problems I had with my parents in the past that I believed were similar. The goal wasn’t to force my friend to take my advice or do what I did or even to give a shit about what happened to me. That was all up to him.
I was simply making an offering. Putting something out there. And if it was useful to him in any way, he could use it. If not, that’s fine too.
Because when done that way, our stories carry value outside of ourselves. It’s not me giving him advice. It’s my experience lending perspective to his experience. And his right to choose and take responsibility for his experience is never impeded, never encroached, always honored.
Because, ultimately, we are each only capable of changing ourselves. Sure, Timmy may have a sweet-ass job and one less Playstation, but until his self-definition changes, until his feelings about himself and his life shift, he’s the same old Timmy. Except now with a much more frustrated mother.
I should mention, for the record, that I think 99% of the self-help industry does have good intentions. Even if the business practices don’t always appear that way. The issue is, again, one of boundaries. And boundary issues are fundamentally issues of respect.↵
We set the bar pretty damn low in this example. But, fuck it.↵
There are millions of attractive, confident, emotionally stable, amazing, and yes, single people out there. You just have to know how to spot them and attract them.
1. Drop all games and pretenses. If you ever catch yourself thinking phrases such as: “If I do X, then he/she will think Y,” or “What did they mean by that?” or “What are they trying to make me think about?” or “I never know exactly how he/she feels about me,” or “He/she says A, but then does B,” then let it go. It’s bad enough being in a romantic situation where the emotions and sexual interest are ambiguous — that means that one or both of you is incapable of expressing yourselves coherently. But once the meaning of the behavior itself becomes ambiguous, well, that means one or both of you is attempting to manipulate the other one and you’re setting yourself up for disaster. It may not happen right away. It may not even happen soon. But one day, you’re in for a disaster. You’ve been warned.
2. Develop a nose for needy behavior. In my book Models, I define neediness as the underpinning of all non-attractive behavior. Neediness is when you prioritize the perceptions of others over the perception of yourself.
You need to develop a nose for needy behavior, that is, behavior from someone who values your opinion of them more than their own.
What does needy behavior look like? Lying to impress you. Fishing for compliments. Being extra sensitive or dramatic in order to gain sympathy. Framing themselves as the victim repeatedly to get you to “save” them. Picking fights for completely subjective and irrational reasons. Intentionally trying to make you jealous.
It should be noted that we all feel needy from time to time. But there’s a certain degree of neediness that should be a clear red flag, especially if someone is needy to the point of outright emotional manipulation.
The problem with needy behavior is that if it feels normal to you, then it will seem normal in everybody else. That is, if you regularly engage in needy behavior and think it’s acceptable dating behavior, then you will fail to spot it in the people you date.
“Yeah, she lied to me about her ex-boyfriend still calling her, but I think she just wanted to make me jealous. So I bought her a new handbag if she agreed to block his phone number. I think it’s a good compromise, right?”
Noooooo! You deserve to be punched in the face. Hold yourself to a higher standard and the people around you will alter their behavior to meet that standard, or they’ll simply cease to be the people around you.
3. Establish a zero tolerance policy for emotional manipulation. A lot of people can spot needy or manipulative behavior, but they tolerate it or even rationalize it away. That makes them needy as well. The reason they tolerate or justify needy behavior is because, despite being fucked up and unpleasant, it still makes them feel important and wanted. In extreme cases, these people have such low self-worth that they unconsciously feel they deserve to be manipulated and used.
You must have a zero tolerance policy towards these behaviors. Both in the other person and in yourself. Be willing to walk away the moment someone close to you begins acting this way. It’s the only way to respect yourself. It’s the only way to maintain strong and healthy boundaries.
People who excuse this kind of behavior are always going on about change. “She’s going to change.” “He’s getting better.” “She’s having a hard time but I’m helping her get through it.” But these justifications only continue to feed the toxic behavior. When you do this, you’re continuing to feed the victim/rescuer cycle, and, in fact, nothing has changed. And nothing will.
What’s most important to recognize is that the more manipulative behavior you have in yourself, the more manipulative behavior you will attract and encourage in everyone you date.
It’s insanely important to work on yourself to get yourself to a place of authentic communication in all of your relationships. This means not trying to come up with funny texts or ways to convince someone to see you. This means not guilting another person into spending time with you. This means not creating drama or getting angry as a way to keep someone closer to you.
There’s a dating karma and what you put out will ultimately come back around and wreck your world.
One Trait to Look For in a Partner
Some people think my views towards romantic relationships are a little extreme sometimes. And I get it, I often use extreme examples to illustrate my point when it comes to things like values and boundaries. A lot of people think I’m suggesting that you only seek perfection in your love life, which just results in unrealistic expectations, which then results in disappointment because no one is perfect.
Well, of course, everyone has faults. It’s impossible to find someone without some emotional baggage or insecurities.
I want to talk about what traits to actively look for in a relationship partner when deciding to date or commit to them, baggage and insecurities and all.
(Spoiler Alert: You want to look for people who manage their insecurities well.)
Learning the Hard Way
My first handful of significant relationships were mired with a lot of manipulation and victim/rescuer dynamics. These relationships were great learning experiences, but they also caused me a great deal of pain that I had to eventually learn from.
It wasn’t until I managed to find myself in relationships with some emotionally healthy women who were able to manage their flaws well that I really learned what to look for when dating someone.
And I discovered in this time that there was one trait in a woman that I absolutely must have to be in a relationship with her, and it was something that I would never compromise on again (and I haven’t). Some of us are unwilling to compromise on superficial traits: looks, intelligence, education, etc. Those are important, but if there’s one trait that I’ve learned you should never compromise on, it’s this:
The ability to see one’s own flaws and be accountable for them.
Because the fact is that problems are inevitable. Every relationship will run into fights and each person will run up against their emotional baggage at various times. How long the relationship lasts and how well it goes comes down to both people being willing and able to recognize the snags in themselves and communicate them openly.
Think of your love interest and ask yourself, “If I gave him/her honest, constructive criticism about how I think he/she could be better, how would they react?” Would they throw a huge fit? Cause drama? Blame you and criticize you back? Claim you don’t love them? Storm out and make you chase after them?
Or would they appreciate your perspective, and even if hurts a little or if it’s uncomfortable, even if there was a little bit of an emotional outburst at first, would they eventually consider it and be willing to talk about it? Without blaming or shaming. Without causing unnecessary drama. Without trying to make you jealous or angry.
Then they’re not dating material.
But — here’s the million dollar question — think of that same love interest, and now imagine that they gave you constructive criticism and pointed out what they believed to be your biggest flaws and blind spots. How would you react? Would you brush it off? Would you place the blame on them or call them names? Would you logically try to argue your way out of it? Would you get angry or insecure?
Chances are you would. Chances are the other person would too. Most people do. And that’s why they end up dating each other.
Having open, intimate conversations with someone where you’re able to openly talk about one another’s flaws without resorting to blaming or shaming is possibly the hardest thing to do in any relationship. Very few people are capable of it. To this day, when I sit down with my girlfriend, or my father, or one of my best friends and have one of these conversations, I feel my chest tighten, my stomach turn in a knot, my arms sweat.
It’s not pleasant. But it’s absolutely mandatory for a healthy long-term relationship. And the only way you find this in a person is by approaching the entire relationship — from the moment you first meet them — with honesty and integrity, by expressing your emotions and sexuality without blame or shame, and not degenerating into bad habits of playing games or stirring up drama.
Suppressing or over-expressing your emotions will attract someone who also suppresses or over-expresses their emotions. Expressing your emotions in a healthy manner will attract someone who also expresses their emotions in a healthy manner.
You may think a person like this doesn’t exist. That they’re a unicorn. But you’d be surprised. Your emotional integrity naturally self-selects the emotional integrity of the people you meet and date. And when you fix yourself, as if by some magical cheat code, the people you meet and date become more and more functional themselves. And the obsession and anxiety of dating dissolves and becomes simple and clear. The process ceases to be a long and analytical one but a short and pleasant one. The way she cocks her head when she smiles. The way your eyes light up a little bit more when you talk to him.
Your worries will dissolve. And regardless of what happens, whether you’re together for a minute, a month or a lifetime, all there is is acceptance.
In the time it took me to outline this article I checked Twitter three times and my email twice. I responded to four emails. I checked Slack once and sent text messages to two people. I went down a rabbit hole of YouTube videos once, costing me about 30 minutes of productivity, and I probably checked my books’ ranks on Amazon upwards of 3,172 times.
In what should have been 20 minutes of work, I compulsively interrupted myself at least nine times. What’s more, the cost of these interruptions goes way beyond the added amount of time to finish this damn thing. They likely distracted my train of thought, reducing the quality of my writing, thus causing a need for more edits and revisions. They likely created anxiety as I spent much of my distracted time anxious about the fact that I wasn’t working and much of my time working anxiously that I wasn’t checking in on text conversations, email threads, or news updates that may have happened in the seven minutes since I last checked. They likely made the process of writing itself less enjoyable and caused it to appear more taxing in my mind.
These distractions aren’t just unproductive, they’re anti-productive. They create more work than they replace.
Chances are you go through this do-si-do yourself on the regular. For me, it’s only gotten worse as time has gone on—which is strange (because you’d assume that my attention span and focus would be getting stronger as I get older, but that’s not been the case).
I started blogging in 2007. I remember plopping down to churn out a 1,000-word draft being easy. I’d just wake up and do it and then go get breakfast. It was somewhere around 2013 where I noticed I was often interrupting myself to check Facebook or email. Then it was around 2015 where I felt it was beginning to become a problem.
I felt that I had to pay attention to my attention, that I had to focus on my focus. It was new. It wasn’t something I’d had to think about since I was a kid.
By last year, these interruptions had become compulsive. I didn’t know how to not distract myself anymore and had to go to great lengths to prevent it from happening. It felt like I was living in some kind of digital hellscape, where the process of doing anything significant and important seemed not only fruitless but also attentionally impossible.
How We Became Mentally Lazy and Weak
Back in the 1950s and 60s, the world changed. Modern economies moved people out of factories and fields and into office buildings. Whereas you used to have to stand on your feet all day and carry heavy shit around to make a buck, now, the best-paying jobs simply asked that you sit at a desk for as long as possible without ever getting up.
Our bodies aren’t particularly adapted for a sedentary lifestyle. In fact, it turns out that sitting around all day munching on donuts and soda is downright awful for your physical health. As a result, we began to see epidemics of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease around the same time that everyone got cushy office jobs. People’s bodies were falling apart, becoming overly sensitive, and not functioning correctly.
To counteract this sedentary lifestyle, we all came together and developed a fitness culture to counteract the health crisis. People realized that if modern life had you sitting around all day watching a screen, that you needed to set aside time in your day to go lift something heavy or run around a little bit. That kept your body healthy and stable and strong. Jogging became a thing. Gym memberships were invented. And people wore spandex and jumped around on VHS tapes, looking absolutely ridiculous. The eighties were great.
This Aerobic Video Wins Everything [Original] - YouTube
Our bodies are designed in such a way that they need to be challenged and stressed to a certain degree, otherwise they become soft and weak, and the smallest endeavors—walking up a flight of stairs, picking up a bag of groceries—will begin to feel difficult or impossible. It turns out that these small, conscious efforts to stress our bodies are what keeps them healthy.
The same way removing stress and strain from our physical bodies causes them to become fragile and weak, removing mental stress and strain from our minds makes them fragile and weak.
The same way we discovered that the sedentary lifestyles of the 20th century required us to physically exert ourselves and work our bodies into healthy shape, I believe we’re on the cusp of discovering a similar necessity for our minds. We need to consciously limit our own comforts. We need to force our minds to strain themselves, to work hard for their information, to deprive our attention of the constant stimulation that it craves.
This has been a big talking point throughout my speaking tour this year, and I’d like to take a stab at codifying it in a real step-by-step program for people here.
Goals of the Attention Diet
There are a few fronts on which our attention is being assaulted. First off, there’s just a massive surplus of stuff to pay attention to. And the more crap there is to pay attention to, the more difficult it is to choose what to focus on—not to mention stay focused on it!
So, the first and most important goal of an attention diet should be to consciously limit the number of distractions we’re exposed to. Just as the first step of a nutritional diet is to consume less food, the first step of an attention diet is to consume less information.
That then raises the question, “What stuff is worth paying attention to?” What should we give a fuck about? The same way the proliferation of junk food fucked up our bodies in the 20th century, the exponential growth in junk information has fucked up the emotions and minds in the 21st century. Therefore, the second goal of the Attention Diet is to find highly nutritious sources of information and relationships and then build our lives around them.
Basically, the name of the game is quality over quantity. Because in a world with infinite information and opportunity, you don’t grow by knowing or doing more, you grow by the ability to correctly focus on less.
The method of the Attention Diet is similar to a nutritional diet—by cutting out whole categories of consumption for a period of time, your body (or mind) adjusts, becomes healthier, and then, ideally, after enough time you no longer crave your old guilty pleasures.
(It’s probably worth noting that nutritional diets are famous for failing spectacularly. My limited personal experiences have shown that Attention Diets are pretty effective. But, fuck it, this is uncharted territory, so let’s see how it goes.)
There are three goals to the Attention Diet:
Correctly identify nutritious information and relationships.
Cut out the junk information and relationships.
Cultivate habits of deeper focus and a longer attention span.
So, how do we define “junk” information and relationships and “nutritious” information and relationships?
Well, without getting all philosophical, let’s keep it simple.
Junk information is information that is unreliable, unhelpful, or unimportant (i.e., it affects few to no people in any significant way). Junk information is short-form, flashy, and emotionally charged, encouraging addictive consumption patterns.
Nutritious information is information that is reliable, helpful, and likely important (i.e., it affects you and others in significant ways). Nutritious information is long-form, analytical, and encourages deep engagement and extended thought.
Junk relationships are people/groups who you have little face-to-face contact with and/or little mutual trust, who bring out your insecurities and consistently make you feel worse about yourself or the world.
Nutritious connections are people/groups who you have frequent face-to-face contact with and/or a lot of mutual trust who make you feel better and help you grow.
A note on sports/entertainment: There is a place for sports and entertainment in all of this. We all need something to help us unwind in our free time. I personally love video games. But I also recognize that if I check Reddit or Twitch 20 times a day, that’s a really unhealthy indulgence of that hobby. Put another way, my hobby starts to hurt me rather than help me. Our goal is to make our hobbies work for us rather than against us. And we’ll get into how to do that below.
Another note before we begin
The Attention Diet should be emotionally difficult to implement. Ultimately, junk information hooks us because it is pleasing and easy. We develop low-level addictions to it and end up using it to numb a lot of our day-to-day stresses and insecurities. Therefore, getting rid of the junk information will expose a lot of uncomfortable emotions, trigger cravings, and compulsions, and generally suck for the first few days or weeks.
The goal here is to push yourself to stay more focused on what adds value to your life. If it’s not difficult, then you’re probably not really cutting out all of the junk.
And finally, I want to give a shout out to Cal Newport and Nir Eyal. In my opinion, they are like the tech geek versions of Farrah Fawcett and Arnold Schwarzeneggar in the 80s.
Okay, maybe that was a weird comparison, but the point is, they are leading the 21st century charge on treating our mental nutrition seriously. Cal published a book this year called Digital Minimalism that has become pretty popular and Nir has written a wonderful book that’s coming out in September called Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. Nir is a good friend of mine and I can attest that he may be the most disciplined and focused person I’ve ever met. The dude just gets shit done. While this article lays out a system that I’ve slowly developed for myself, his ideas and writing have been very influential. You should definitely pre-order it if this is an area you struggle with.
Step 1: The Social Media Cleanse
Apply the Law of “Fuck Yes” or No to your social media connections – Go through all of your friends/follows lists, ask yourself two questions: “Is being connected with this person adding value to my life?” and “Does this person/group help me grow (i.e., overcoming fears and anxieties) or make me weak (i.e., amplifying fears and anxieties?)” If the answers aren’t emphatic FUCK YES’s then you need to unfriend or unfollow them.
If you get hung up on someone or something and wonder if they’re worth keeping, the fact that you have to stop and wonder if they’re worth following is a sign that they’re not worth following. Get fucking ruthless. This is your attentional health we’re talking about here.
Unfollow ALL news and media outlets (including sports and entertainment) – It’s undeniable that news media is becoming more anemic, short-sighted, and inaccurate. Most articles are written for clickbait, not for veracity and utility.
Social media plays into these worst incentives of the media. They fight for your clicks by upsetting you, by poking at hot-button issues that FEEL as though they matter a great deal, but actually don’t. They create addictive cycles of outrage which not only fail to inform you about what you need to know but actually make you more resistant to facts.
As citizens, it’s our duty to opt out of this toxic system. And the first (and simplest) way to do that is to simply unfollow and unsubscribe from ALL news sources on social media. Don’t worry, I will discuss better ways to stay informed and receive news below.
Uninstall any apps that feel pointless after doing the above – If you did the two steps above correctly, your social media accounts should be much leaner, and in some cases, almost empty. This is good. The beauty of unfollowing/unfriending masses of connections is that not only do you get rid of all of the toxic and unhealthy information hijacking your attention, but you also have maybe 10% as much content when you log on. You scroll your newsfeed a couple of times and voila! You’re looking at the same shit you saw yesterday. Time to put your phone down and go do something useful.
But before you do that, take another look at your social media accounts. Chances are at least one of them is so barren that there’s hardly even a reason to open it anymore. The beauty of simplifying your accounts like this is that it really shows you which networks provide pleasure and which networks are just there because you feel like you have to be on them. For me, it showed me that I actually enjoy Twitter and to a lesser extent Instagram. Facebook is just this annoying thing I have to be on. So, I deleted Facebook off my phone. It felt weird at first, but I realized that I was needlessly checking it 5+ times each day. Deleting it freed me from most of those.
Step 2. Choose Good Sources of Information and Connection
Try this: only get your news from the front page of Wikipedia. Every Wikipedia language has a Main Page where they list current events and notable historical events. This will give you the bare minimum facts if you feel you must stay informed daily (which is debatable). And, if for some reason you want to dive deeper into whatever is happening, you can click on the article to, again, get the bare minimum facts.
Wikipedia is curated to remove bias, political leanings, and false statements. That is no longer 100% true of almost any news source these days.
Getting my news from Wikipedia is two things: 1) a breath of fresh air, and 2) completely boring.
It’s a breath of fresh air because it actually gets at what’s going on. Just to give a current example, I’ve seen headlines for days about attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. Pretty much every news headline I’ve seen has revolved around Trump blaming Iran and whether he’s right to do so or not, whether he’s over-reaching or not. In fact, if anything is true of US news media since 2016, everything is always viewed through the lens of Trump, which is not only annoying and unhelpful, but unfairly characterizes a lot of these issues. But pop onto Wikipedia and within three sentences, I learned more about the situation than all of the news articles I had read, combined.
Wikipedia is also boring. Which is good, partly because facts have a tendency to be boring, but also because boredom has no bias. If an article gets you angry or excited, you will become biased about its content. On the other hand, if reading it feels like you’re reading a TV repair manual, then you’re probably just getting the facts and nothing else.
But best of all, making the news boring again encourages you to only read about what is truly important or impactful for you. The truth is that most of what passes for “news” is disguised entertainment—information that is only impactful or important for a small group of people or far removed from your ability to influence anything and then exaggerated to make you feel outraged or angry or excited based on your specific identity group. The only way to win at this game is to not play, and by using Wikipedia as your resource for current events, you’re opting out of that game.
But, there are important long-term issues like climate change and civil rights and economic inequality that require lots of information and critical thinking. What about those? Well, glad you asked…
Long form content should be your bread and butter for news content and the majority of your entertainment content. Long-form content means any medium—Books, Podcasts, long-form articles, documentaries—the key is that shit takes a long time.
There are two benefits of limiting yourself to long-form content. The first is that (on average) it’s going to portray far more research, nuance, and thought than short-form content. Stupidity in a tweet can sound deep. Stupidity repeated for 12,000 words quickly makes itself apparent.
The second benefit of long-form content is that it hones our attention span and gets us accustomed to sitting with topics for extended periods of time. It helps us to not fall prey to our immediate knee-jerk responses. It gives us the space to wonder, “What if my assumption is wrong? What if I’m the one with dick breath in this argument?”
The long-form applies to entertainment too. Don’t just watch sports clips all day, watch a documentary about your favorite player. Don’t just listen to a hit song over and over, put on the full album. Don’t just play a dinky iPhone game over and over, find a video game you can immerse yourself into and think critically about its elements and story. The idea is to regularly stretch your attention span and ability to focus and exercise it like a muscle.
Step 3: Schedule Your Diversions
The same way you plan a “cheat day” or make an agreement with yourself that you’ll only have X number of desserts or Y number of drinks each week, the same goes with your attention. Email should be a consciously-chosen activity done at a specific time to maximize its purpose. It’s not something you compulsively refresh every 30 seconds. Same goes for social media. Same goes for entertainment.
Below are the guidelines that I try to stick to and are working well in my life. Obviously, everyone’s mileage will vary:
Email twice per day – I try to limit myself to two email blocks each day. Once in the morning and once at the end of the day in the afternoon. The morning session I only look at and respond to important/urgent emails. The afternoon, a couple times a week, I’ll clear my whole inbox.
Social Media 30 minutes per day – This is a work in progress for me. I’m fine on my work computer, the problem is my phone. I still get caught on those loops of: refresh Twitter, refresh Facebook, refresh Instagram, refresh Twitter, and on and on. I recently removed Facebook from my phone (per above guidelines), but Twitter and Instagram still suck me in.
Entertainment only at certain hours – I’m pretty much too busy and traveling too much to get hardcore about this anyway. But once things calm down in my life, I may experiment with this. See below for methods of planning this out.
Leave phone out of office during the day and bedroom at night – I’m good about leaving it out of the office when I need to write. The bedroom is still an issue for me.
OK, this is all fine and dandy, but how the hell do we keep to this? Everyone talks shit about social media… while scrolling compulsively on social media. How do we actually implement these concepts into our lives? Because that’s the most important part.
(To see an excerpt related to this idea, read this: #FakeFreedom)
To help us limit ourselves, we need to set boundaries around ourselves. Our minds are too flawed and selfish to be allowed to pursue what they want. Instead, like training a dog, we must train our attention with the help of various tools to make sure we’re focusing on the right things.
I’ll talk about three types of tools in this section: website blockers, app blockers, and power outlet timers.
Key to implementing the attention diet is downloading and installing site blockers on your devices. There are dozens of apps, but here I’ll review a few of the best ones that I’ve used.
Cold Turkey (MacOS/Windows) – My favorite app. Probably the most robust with the most features. You can block websites, specific pages, applications, and even specific Google searches.
I love it because it has a scheduler. So you can modify what gets blocked on which days. Let’s say you want Friday afternoon to be your “email” afternoon, you can program that in. Or you can open up everything on Sundays. It’s highly customizable. It also keeps stats!
It must be an odd time to be a super-successful businessperson. On the one hand, business is better than ever. There’s more wealth in the world than ever before, profits are breaking all-time highs, productivity and growth are doing great. Yet, meanwhile, income inequality is skyrocketing, political polarization is ruining everyone’s family gatherings, and there seems to be a plague of corruption spreading across the world.
So, while there’s exuberance in the business world, there’s also a weird sort of defensiveness that sometimes comes out of nowhere. And this defensiveness, I’ve noticed, always takes the same form, no matter whom it comes from. It says: “We’re just giving people what they want!”
Whether it’s oil companies or creepy advertisers or Facebook stealing your damn data, every corporation that steps in some shit scrapes off their boot by frantically reminding everyone how they’re just trying to give people what they want—faster download speeds, more comfortable air-conditioning, better gas mileage, a cheaper nose hair trimmer—and how wrong can that be?
And it is true. Technology gives people what they want faster and more efficiently than ever before. And while we all love to dogpile on the corporate overlords for their ethical faceplants, we forget that they’re merely fulfilling the market’s desires. They’re supplying our demands. And if we got rid of Facebook or BP or whatever-giant-corporation-is-considered-evil-when-you-read-this, another would pop up to take its place.
So, maybe the problem isn’t just a bunch of greedy executives tapping cigars and petting evil cats while laughing hysterically at how much money they’re making.
Maybe what we want sucks.
For example, I want a life-size bag of marshmallows in my living room. I want to buy an eight-million-dollar mansion by borrowing money I can never pay back. I want to fly to a new beach every week for the next year and live off nothing but Wagyu steaks.
What I want is fucking terrible. That’s because my Feeling Brain is in charge of what I want, and my Feeling Brain is like a goddamn chimpanzee who just drank a bottle of tequila and then proceeded to jerk off into it.
Therefore, I’d say that “give the people what they want” is a pretty low bar to clear, ethically speaking. “Give the people what they want” works only when you’re giving them innovations, like a synthetic kidney or something to prevent their car from spontaneously catching on fire. Give those people what they want. But giving people too many of the diversions they want is a dangerous game to play. For one, many people want stuff that’s awful. Two, many people are easily manipulated into wanting shit they don’t actually want. Three, encouraging people to avoid pain through more and more diversions makes us all weaker and more fragile. And four, I don’t want your fucking Skynet ads following me around wherever I go and mining my fucking life for data. Look, I talked to my wife that one time about a trip to Peru—that doesn’t mean you need to flood my phone with pictures of Machu Picchu for the next six weeks. And seriously, stop listening to my fucking conversations and selling my data to anyone and everyone who will pay you a buck.1
Anyway—where was I?
Strangely, a young hotshot marketer in the 1920s named Edward Bernays saw all this coming. The creepy ads and the privacy invasion and the lulling of large populations into docile servitude through mindless consumerism—the dude was kind of a genius. Except, he was all in favor of it—so, make that an evil genius.
Bernays’s political beliefs were appalling. He believed in what I suppose you could call “diet fascism”: same evil authoritarian government but without the unnecessary genocidal calories. Bernays believed that the masses were dangerous and needed to be controlled by a strong centralized state. But he also recognized that bloody totalitarian regimes were not exactly ideal. For him, the new science of marketing offered a way for governments to influence and appease their citizens without the burden of having to maim and torture them left, right, and center.2
(The dude must have been a hit at parties.)
Bernays believed that freedom for most people was both impossible and dangerous. He was well aware that the last thing a society should tolerate was everyone’s Feeling Brains running the show.3 Societies needed order and hierarchy and authority, and freedom was antithetical to those things. He saw marketing as an incredible new tool that could give people the feeling of having freedom when, really, you’re just giving them a few more flavors of toothpaste to choose from.
Thankfully, Western governments (for the most part) never sank so low as to directly manipulate their populations through ad campaigns. Instead, the opposite happened. The corporate world got so good at giving people what they wanted that they gradually gained more and more political power for themselves. Regulations were torn up. Bureaucratic oversight was ended. Privacy eroded. Money got more enmeshed with politics than ever before. And why did it all happen? You should know by now: they were just giving the people what they wanted!
But, fuck it, let’s be real: “Give the people what they want” is just #FakeFreedom because what most of us want are diversions. And when we get flooded by diversions, a few things happen.
The first is that we become increasingly fragile. Our world shrinks to conform to the size of our ever-diminishing values. We become obsessed with comfort and pleasure. And any possible loss of that pleasure feels world-quaking and cosmically unfair to us. I would argue that a narrowing of our conceptual world is not freedom; it is the opposite.
The second thing that happens is that we become prone to a series of low-level addictive behaviors—compulsively checking our phone, our email, our Instagram; compulsively finishing Netflix series we don’t like; sharing outrage-inducing articles we haven’t read; accepting invitations to parties and events we don’t enjoy; traveling not because we want to but because we want to be able to say we went. Compulsive behavior aimed at experiencing more stuff is not freedom—again, it’s kind of the opposite.
Third thing: an inability to identify, tolerate, and seek out negative emotions is its own kind of confinement. If you feel okay only when life is happy and easy-breezy-beautiful-Cover-Girl, then guess what? You are not free. You are the opposite of free. You are the prisoner of your own indulgences, enslaved by your own intolerance, crippled by your own emotional weakness. You will constantly feel a need for some external comfort or validation that may or may not ever come.
Fourth—because, fuck it, I’m on a roll: the paradox of choice. The more options we’re given (i.e., the more “freedom” we have), the less satisfied we are with whatever option we go with.4 If Jane has to choose between two boxes of cereal, and Mike can choose from twenty boxes, Mike does not have more freedom than Jane. He has more variety. There’s a difference. Variety is not freedom. Variety is just different permutations of the same meaningless shit. If, instead, Jane had a gun pointed to her head and a guy in an SS uniform screaming, “Eat ze fuckin’ zereal!” in a really bad Bavarian accent, then Jane would have less freedom than Mike. But call me up when that happens.
This is the problem with exalting freedom over human consciousness. More stuff doesn’t make us freer, it imprisons us with anxiety over whether we chose or did the best thing. More stuff causes us to become more prone to treating ourselves and others as means rather than ends. It makes us more dependent on the endless cycles of hope.
If the pursuit of happiness pulls us all back into childishness, then fake freedom conspires to keep us there. Because freedom is not having more brands of cereal to choose from, or more beach vacations to take selfies on, or more satellite channels to fall asleep to.
That is variety. And in a vacuum, variety is meaningless. If you are trapped by insecurity, stymied by doubt, and hamstrung by intolerance, you can have all the variety in the world. But you are not free.
Not only is this sort of surveillance creepy, but it’s a perfect illustration of a tech company treating its customers as mere means rather than ends. In fact, I would argue that the feeling of creepiness is itself the sen- sation of being treated as merely a means. Even though we “opt in” to these services that harvest our data, we’re not fully knowledgeable and/or aware of this; therefore, it feels as though we haven’t consented. This feeling of nonconsent is what makes us feel disrespected and treated as a means, and is therefore why we get upset. See K. Tiffany, “The Perennial Debate About Whether Your Phone Is Secretly Listening to You, Explained” Vox, Dec 28, 2018.↵
In fact, one of the main reasons he was so aware of this was that he was Sigmund Freud’s nephew. I wrote more about Bernays and modern advertising in a post called How Your Insecurity Is Bought and Sold.↵
Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less (New York: HarperCollins Ecco, 2004).↵
If I worked at Starbucks, instead of writing people’s names on their coffee cup, I’d write the following:
One day, you and everyone you love will die. And beyond a small group of people for an extremely brief period of time, little of what you say or do will ever matter. This is the Uncomfortable Truth of life. And everything you think or do is but an elaborate avoidance of it. We are inconsequential cosmic dust, bumping and milling about on a tiny blue speck. We imagine our own importance. We invent our purpose—we are nothing.
Enjoy your fucking coffee.
I’d have to write it in really tiny lettering, of course. And it’d take a while to write, meaning the line of morning rush-hour customers would be backed out the door. Not exactly stellar customer service, either. This is probably just one of the reasons why I’m not employable.
But seriously, how could you tell someone, in good conscience, to “have a nice day” while knowing that all their thoughts and motivations stem from a never-ending need to avoid the inherent meaninglessness of human existence?
Because, in the infinite expanse of space/time, the universe does not care whether your mother’s hip replacement goes well, or your kids attend college, or your boss thinks you made a bitching spreadsheet. It doesn’t care if the Democrats or the Republicans win the presidential election. It doesn’t care if a celebrity gets caught doing cocaine while furiously masturbating in an airport bathroom (again). It doesn’t care if the forests burn or the ice melts or the waters rise or the air simmers or we all get vaporized by a superior alien race.
You care, and you desperately convince yourself that because you care, it all must have some great cosmic meaning behind it.
You care because, deep down, you need to feel that sense of importance in order to avoid the Uncomfortable Truth, to avoid the incomprehensibility of your existence, to avoid being crushed by the weight of your own material insignificance. And you—like me, like everyone—then project that imagined sense of importance onto the world around you because it gives you hope.
Is it too early to have this conversation? Here, have another coffee. I even made a winky-smiley face with the steamed milk. Isn’t it cute? Here, I’ll wait while you Instagram it.
Okay, where were we? Oh yeah! The incomprehensibility of your existence—right. Now, you might be thinking, “Well, Mark, I believe we’re all here for a reason, and nothing is a coincidence, and everyone matters because all our actions affect somebody, and even if we can help one person, then it’s still worth it, right?”
Now, aren’t you just as cute as a button!
See, that’s your hope talking. That’s a story your mind spins to make it worth waking up in the morning: something needs to matter because without something mattering, then there’s no reason to go on living. And some form of simple altruism or a reduction in suffering is always our mind’s go-to for making it feel like it’s worth doing anything.
Our psyche needs hope to survive the way a fish needs water. Hope is the fuel for our mental engine. It’s the butter on our biscuit. It’s a lot of really cheesy metaphors. Without hope, your whole mental apparatus will stall out or starve. If we don’t believe there’s any hope that the future will be better than the present, that our life will improve in some way, then we spiritually die. After all, if there’s no hope of things ever being better, then why live—why do anything?
Here’s what a lot of people don’t get: the opposite of happiness is not anger or sadness.1 If you’re angry or sad, that means you still give a fuck about something. That means something still matters. That means you still have hope.2
No, the opposite of happiness is hopelessness, an endless gray horizon of resignation and indifference.3 It’s the belief that everything is fucked, so why do anything at all?
Hopelessness is a cold and bleak nihilism, a sense that there is no point, so fuck it—why not run with scissors or sleep with your boss’s wife or shoot up a school? It is the Uncomfortable Truth, a silent realization that in the face of infinity, everything we could possibly care about quickly approaches zero.
Hopelessness is the root of anxiety, mental illness, and depression. It is the source of all misery and the cause of all addiction. This is not an overstatement.4 Chronic anxiety is a crisis of hope. It is the fear of a failed future. Depression is a crisis of hope. It is the belief in a meaningless future. Delusion, addiction, obsession—these are all the mind’s desperate and compulsive attempts at generating hope one neurotic tick or obsessive craving at a time.5
The avoidance of hopelessness—that is, the construction of hope—then becomes our mind’s primary project. All meaning, everything we understand about ourselves and the world, is constructed for the purpose of maintaining hope. Therefore, hope is the only thing any of us willingly dies for. Hope is what we believe to be greater than ourselves. Without it, we believe we are nothing.
When I was in college, my grandfather died. For a few years afterward, I had this intense feeling that I must live in such a way as to make him proud. This felt reasonable and obvious on some deep level, but it wasn’t. In fact, it made no logical sense at all. I hadn’t had a close relationship with my grandfather. We’d never talked on the phone. We hadn’t corresponded. I didn’t even see him the last five years or so that he was alive.
Not to mention: he was dead. How did my “living to make him proud” affect anything?
His death caused me to brush up against that Uncomfortable Truth. So, my mind got to work, looking to build hope out of the situation in order to sustain me, to keep any nihilism at bay. My mind decided that because my grandfather was now deprived of his ability to hope and aspire in his own life, it was important for me to carry on hope and aspiration in his honor. This was my mind’s bite-size piece of faith, my own personal mini-religion of purpose.
And it worked! For a short while, his death infused otherwise banal and empty experiences with import and meaning. And that meaning gave me hope. You’ve probably felt something similar when someone close to you passed away. It’s a common feeling. You tell yourself you’ll live in a way that will make your loved one proud. You tell yourself you will use your life to celebrate his. You tell yourself that this is an important and good thing.
And that “good thing” is what sustains us in these moments of existential terror. I walked around imagining that my grandfather was following me, like a really nosy ghost, constantly looking over my shoulder. This man whom I barely knew when he was alive was now somehow extremely concerned with how I did on my calculus exam. It was totally irrational.
Our psyches construct little narratives like this whenever they face adversity, these before/after stories we invent for ourselves. And we must keep these hope narratives alive, all the time, even if they become unreasonable or destructive, as they are the only stabilizing force protecting our minds from the Uncomfortable Truth.
These hope narratives are then what give our lives a sense of purpose. Not only do they imply that there is something better in the future, but also that it’s actually possible to go out and achieve that something. When people prattle on about needing to find their “life’s purpose,” what they really mean is that it’s no longer clear to them what matters, what is a worthy use of their limited time here on earth6–in short, what to hope for. They are struggling to see what the before/after of their lives should be.
That’s the hard part: finding that before/after for yourself. It’s difficult because there’s no way ever to know for sure if you’ve got it right. This is why a lot of people flock to religion because religions acknowledge this permanent state of unknowing and demands faith in the face of it. This is also probably partly why religious people suffer from depression and commit suicide in far fewer numbers than nonreligious people: that practiced faith protects them from the Uncomfortable Truth.7
But your hope narratives don’t need to be religious. They can be anything. This book is my little source of hope. It gives me purpose; it gives me meaning. And the narrative that I’ve constructed around that hope is that I believe this book might help some people, that it might make both my life and the world a little bit better.
Do I know that for sure? No. But it’s my little before/after story, and I’m sticking to it. It gets me up in the morning and gets me excited about my life. And not only is that not a bad thing, it’s the only thing.
For some people, the before/after story is raising their kids well. For others, it’s saving the environment. For others, it’s making a bunch of money and buying a big-ass boat. For others, it’s simply trying to improve their golf swing.
Whether we realize it or not, we all have these narratives we’ve elected to buy into for whatever reason. It doesn’t matter if the way you get to hope is via religious faith or evidence-based theory or an intuition or a well-reasoned argument—they all produce the same result: you have some belief that (a) there is potential for growth or improvement or salvation in the future, and (b) there are ways we can navigate ourselves to get there. That’s it. Day after day, year after year, our lives are made up of the endless overlapping of these hope narratives. They are the psychological carrot at the end of the stick.
If this all sounds nihilistic, please, don’t get the wrong idea. This book is not an argument for nihilism. It is one against nihilism—both the nihilism within us and the growing sense of nihilism that seems to emerge with the modern world.8 And to successfully argue against nihilism, you must start at nihilism. You must start at the Uncomfortable Truth. From there, you must slowly build a convincing case for hope. And not just any hope, but a sustainable, benevolent form of hope. A hope that can bring us together rather than tear us apart. A hope that is robust and powerful, yet still grounded in reason and reality. A hope that can carry us to the end of our days with a sense of gratitude and satisfaction.
This is not easy to do (obviously). And in the twenty-first century, it’s arguably more difficult than ever. Nihilism and the pure indulgence of desire that accompanies it are gripping the modern world. It is power for the sake of power. Success for the sake of success. Pleasure for the sake of pleasure. Nihilism acknowledges no broader “why?” It adheres to no great truth or cause. It’s a simple “Because it feels good.” And this, as we’ll see, is what is making everything seem so bad.
See: A. J. Zautra, Emotions, Stress, and Health (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 15–22.↵
I don’t use the word hope in this book in the way it is typically used academically. Most academics use “hope” to express a feeling of optimism: an expectation of or belief in the possibility of positive results. This definition is partial and limited. Optimism can feed hope, but it is not the same thing as hope. I can have no expectation for something better to happen, but I can still hope for it. And that hope can still give my life a sense of meaning and purpose despite all evidence to the contrary. No, by “hope,” I am referring to a motivation toward something perceived as valuable, what is sometimes described as “purpose” or “meaning” in the academic literature. As a result, for my discussions of hope, I’ll draw on research on motivation and value theory and, in many cases, try to fuse them together.↵
M. W. Gallagher and S. J. Lopez, “Positive Expectancies and Mental Health: Identifying the Unique Contributions of Hope and Optimism,” Journal of Positive Psychology 4, no. 6 (2009): 548–56.↵
Studies done in more than 132 countries show that the wealthier a country becomes, the more its population struggles with feelings of meaning and purpose. See Shigehiro Oishi and Ed Diener, “Residents of Poor Nations Have a Greater Sense of Meaning in Life than Residents of Wealthy Nations,” Psychological Science 25, no. 2 (2014): 422–30.↵
An astronaut is probably the most difficult job to land on the planet. Of tens of thousands of applications, NASA selects roughly half a dozen each decade. The application process is rigorous and highly demanding. You have to be a total badass to qualify. You have to have deep expertise in science and engineering. You need at least 1,000 hours of piloting experience. You have to be physically fit and strong. And, most of all, you have to be a smart motherfucker.
Lisa Nowak was all of these things. She had a masters degree in aeronautical engineering and had studied postgraduate astrophysics at the U.S. Naval Academy. She flew air missions for the U.S. Navy in the Pacific for over five years. And in 1996, she was one of the fortunate few to be selected to become an astronaut.
Clearly, she was smart as hell. But in 2007, after discovering that her lover was seeing another woman, Lisa drove 15 hours straight, in a diaper, from Houston to Orlando, in order to confront her boyfriend’s new squeeze in an airport parking lot. Lisa packed zip ties, pepper spray, and large garbage bags and had some vague-but-not-really-thought-through plan to kidnap the woman. But before she could even get the woman out of her car, Lisa had an emotional breakdown, resulting in her quickly being arrested.
Emotional intelligence is a concept researchers came up with in the 1980s and 90s to explain why intelligent people like Lisa often do really, really stupid things. The argument went that the same way your general intelligence (IQ) is a measurement of your ability to process information and come to sound decisions, your emotional intelligence (EQ) is your ability to process emotions—both others’ and your own—and come to sound decisions.
Some people have an incredibly high IQ but low EQ—think your nutty professor who can’t match his socks or doesn’t see the purpose in showering. Other people have incredibly high EQ but low IQ—think the street hustler who can’t even spell his own name but somehow talks you into giving him the shirt off your back.
Psychologists who study emotional intelligence sometimes claim that it is actually more important than general intelligence.1 This statement is controversial at best, and a big bag o’ “what the fuck?” at worst. For one, measuring emotional intelligence is difficult, if not impossible. Most of this stuff is subjective.
But also because emotional intelligence isn’t as stable as general intelligence is. IQ is harder to change. But EQ is something you can work on and develop like a muscle or a skill and watch grow, like a dainty flower in your stupid ass garden.
So, basically, no matter how smart you are, you have no excuse. Get your shit together. Developing emotional intelligence comes down to not being a fucknut like Lisa was.
Here are five ways to start doing it.
1. Practice Self-Awareness
Like with most things emotional, you can’t get better at them until you know what the fuck they are. When you lack self-awareness, trying to manage your emotions is like sitting in a tiny boat without a sail on top of the sea of your own emotions, completely at the whim of the currents of whatever is happening moment by moment. You have no idea where you’re going or how to get there. And all you can do is scream and yell for help.
Self-awareness involves understanding yourself and your behavior on three levels: 1) what you’re doing, 2) how you feel about it, and 3) the hardest part, figuring out what you don’t know about yourself.
Knowing what you’re doing.You would think this would be pretty simple and straightforward, but the truth is that in the 21st century, most of us don’t even know what the fuck we’re doing half the time. We’re on auto-pilot—check email, text BFF, check Instagram, watch YouTube, check email, text BFF, etc., etc.
Removing distractions from your life—like, you know, turning off your damn phone every now and then and engaging with the world around you is a nice first step to self-awareness. Finding spaces of silence and solitude, while potentially scary, are necessary for our mental health. Other forms of distraction include work, TV, drugs/alcohol, video games, cross stitching, arguing with people on the internet, etc.
Schedule time in your day to get away from them. Do your morning commute with no music or podcast. Just think about your life. Think about how you’re feeling. Set aside 10 minutes in the morning to meditate. Delete social media off your phone for a week. You’ll often be surprised what happens to you.
We use these distractions to avoid a lot of uncomfortable emotions, and so removing them and focusing on how you feel without them can reveal some kind of scary shit sometimes. But removing distractions is critical because it gets us to the next level.
Know what you’re feeling. At first, once you actually pay attention to how you feel, it might freak you out. You might come to realize you’re often actually pretty sad or that you’re kind of an angry asshole to a lot of people in your life. You might realize that there’s a lot of anxiety going on, and that whole “phone addiction” thing is really just a way to constantly numb and distract yourself from that anxiety.
It’s important at this point to not judge the emotions that arise. You’ll be tempted to say something like, “Ick! Anxiety! What the fuck is wrong with me!” But that just makes it worse. Whatever emotion is there has a good reason to be there, even if you don’t remember what that reason is. So don’t be too hard on yourself.
Knowing your own emotional bullshit. Once you see all the icky, uncomfortable stuff you’re feeling, you’ll begin to get a sense of where your own little crazy resides. For instance, I get really touchy about being interrupted. I get irrationally angry when I’m trying to speak and the person I’m speaking to is distracted. I take it personally. And while sometimes it is just them being rude, sometimes shit happens and I end up looking like a total dickface because I can’t stand going two seconds without every word I speak being respected. That’s some of my emotional bullshit. And it’s only by being aware of it that I can ever react against it.
Now, just being self-aware is not sufficient in and of itself. One must be able to manage their emotions too.
2. Channeling Your Emotions Well
People who believe that emotions are the be-all-end-all of life often seek ways to “control” their emotions. You can’t. You can only react to them.
Emotions are merely the signals that tell us to pay attention to something. We can then decide whether or not that “something” is important and choose the best course of action in addressing it—or not.
There’s no such thing as a “good” or “bad” emotion—there are only “good” and “bad” reactions to your emotions.
Anger can be a destructive emotion if you misdirect it and hurt others or yourself in the process. But it can be a good emotion if you use it to correct injustices and/or protect yourself or others.
Joy can be a wonderful emotion when shared with people you love when something good happens. But it can be a horrifying emotion if it’s derived from hurting others.
Such is the act of managing your emotions: recognizing what you’re feeling, deciding whether or not that’s an appropriate emotion for the situation, and acting accordingly.
The whole point of this is to be able to channel your emotions into what psychologists call “goal-directed behavior”—or what I prefer to call “getting your shit together.”
3. Learn to Motivate Yourself
Have you ever lost yourself completely in an activity? Like, you start doing something and get immersed in it and when you snap out of the quasi-hypnotic state you’ve somehow induced in yourself, you realize three hours have passed but it felt like fifteen minutes?
This happens to me when I write sometimes. I lose my sense of time and I get this cascade of subtly-layered feelings when I’m fleshing out ideas in my head and putting them into words. It’s like a feeling of fascination mixed with slightly frustrated intrigue mixed with little bursts of dopamine when I feel like I just came up with a great line or funny poop joke or somehow got my point across without cursing.
I love this feeling, and when I achieve it, it motivates me to keep writing.
Notice something important here, though: I don’t wait for that feeling to arise before I start writing.
I start writing and then that feeling starts to build, which motivates me to keep writing, and the feeling builds a little more, and on and on.
This is what I call the “Do Something Principle” and it’s probably one of the simplest yet most magical “hacks” I’ve ever come across. The Do Something Principle states that taking action is not just the effect of motivation, but also the cause of it.
Most people try to look for inspiration first so they can take some momentous action and change everything about themselves and their situation. They try to pump themselves up with whatever flavor of mental masturbation is in style that week so they can finally take action. But by next week, they’ve run out of steam and they’re back at it again, jerking off to another “method” of motivation.
But I like to turn this on its head completely. When I need to be motivated, I just do something that’s even remotely related to what I want to accomplish and then, action begets motivation begets action, etc.
When I don’t feel like writing, I tell myself I’ll just work on the outline for now. Once I do that, it often makes me think of something interesting I hadn’t thought of yet that I want to include and so I write that down and maybe flesh it out a little.
Before I know it, I’m halfway through a draft and I haven’t even put on pants yet.
The point is that in order to use your emotions effectively to get your shit together, you have to do something.
If you don’t feel like anything motivates you, do something. Draw a doodle, find a free online coding class, talk to a stranger, learn a musical instrument, learn something about a really hard subject, volunteer in your community, go salsa dancing, build a bookshelf, write a poem. Pay attention to how you feel before, during, and after whatever it is you’re doing and use those emotions to guide your future behavior.
And know that it’s not always “good” feelings that will motivate you, too. Sometimes I’m frustrated and really fucking annoyed that I can’t quite say exactly what I want to say. Sometimes I’m anxious that what I’m writing won’t resonate with people. But for whatever reason, these feelings often only make me want to write more. I love the challenge of wrestling with something that’s just a little bit out of my reach.
Professional athletes, musicians, and other performers often report something similar: the nerves, the thought of embarrassment or letting others down, or the thought of someone else out there working harder than them—all of these complex, uncomfortable emotions fuel their relentless practice schedules.
The dirty little secret of “confident” people is that they’re comfortable with their lack of confidence in what they do. It gives them clarity on what they can and can’t control so they can focus on what they can do to make themselves better.
And it’s not just about figuring out how to motivate yourself to find your purpose or career or whatever. How are you motivated—or not—to take care of your health, to deal with your finances, and, ultimately, to handle your relationships?
4. Recognize Emotions in Others to Create Healthier Relationships
Everything we’ve covered so far deals with handling and directing emotions within yourself. But the whole point of developing emotional intelligence should ultimately be to foster healthier relationships in your life.
Relationships are where emotional rubber hits the proverbial pavement. They get us out of our heads and into the world around us. They make us realize we’re a part of something much larger and much more complex than just ourselves.
And relationships are, ultimately, the way we define our values.
5. Infuse Your Emotions with Values
When Daniel Goleman’s book came out in the 90s, “emotional intelligence” became the big buzzword in psychology in the 90s and 00s. CEOs and managers read workbooks and went to retreats on emotional intelligence to motivate their workforces. Therapists tried to instill more emotional awareness in their clients to help them get a handle on their lives. Parents were admonished to cultivate emotional intelligence in their children with the aim of preparing them for a changing, emotionally-oriented world.2
A lot of this sort of thinking misses the point, however. And that is that emotional intelligence is meaningless without orienting your values.
You might have the most emotionally intelligent CEO on the planet, but if she’s using her skills to motivate her employees to sell products made by exploiting poor people or destroying the planet, how is being emotionally intelligent a virtue here?
A father might teach his son the tenets of emotional intelligence, but without also teaching him the values of honesty and respect, he could turn into a ruthless, lying little prick—but an emotionally intelligent one!
Conmen are highly emotionally intelligent. They understand emotions quite well, both in themselves and especially in others. But they end up using that information to manipulate people for their own personal gain. They value themselves above all else and at the expense of all others. And things get ugly when you value little outside of yourself.3
Lisa Nowak, for all of her brilliance and expertise, couldn’t handle her own emotions and valued the wrong things. Therefore, she let her emotions drive her off the proverbial cliff, going from outer space to incarcerated space.
Ultimately, we’re always choosing what we value, whether we know it or not. And our emotions will carry out those values through motivating our behavior in some way.
So in order to live the life you truly want to live, you have to first be clear about what you truly value because that’s where your emotional energy will be directed.
And knowing what you truly value—not just what you say you value—is probably the most emotionally intelligent skill you can develop.
The biggest proponent of EQ is Daniel Goleman, who made arguments like this in his seminal 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence: Why it Matters More than IQ. Coincidentally, the top negative review for my book on Amazon currently states that I should have read Goleman’s book before writing mine. Which is weird, because I fucking read it 10 years ago.↵
Curiously, it’s almost always about kids’ future as adults and rarely about helping them to just be kids.↵
I wrote another article about how Hitler was actually an incredibly motivated man who understood emotions better than the vast majority of people, but he obviously had terrible values. Of course, some people misconstrued that and called me a Nazi because…this is the internet. And when you think about it, the internet is basically just a reflection of our collective emotional unintelligence—or immaturity—at the moment. But I digress.↵
Meeting Pablo Escobar’s brother turned out to be one of the more disappointing moments of my life. In Medellin, Colombia, you can go to the Escobar house. In fact, there’s a whole tourism industry that’s sprouted up around Escobar and the old cartel. Much of this tourism is promoted and encouraged by the Escobar family themselves, as it’s ostensibly the only way they have to make much money these days.
When you meet him, Roberto Escobar is a short, hunched-over old man. He’s nearly blind and deaf from a letter bomb that blew up in his face years ago. His eye sockets sink into his skull leaving two golf-ball-sized craters in his face. His gaze is lifeless. It passes through you when he speaks to you, as though you were some sort of hologram.
There’s an emptiness when he speaks. His Spanish tumbles out of his mouth in a monotonous slur, sometimes indecipherable. Occasionally, when he speaks to you he reaches out and puts his hand on you in the way a politician might. Except the way he does it, there’s no emotion to it, no charisma. It’s as if he’s making sure you’re still there — that he’s still there.
When you meet him, there is a small table on his porch stacked with assorted DVD’s, postcards, and, of course, his book. You can purchase them and then pay double for an autographed copy.1
He reminds us of this multiple times.
For the uninitiated (or those who don’t have Netflix), Roberto’s more famous brother, Pablo Escobar, was the leader of the Medellin Drug Cartel and likely both one of the richest and most violent drug dealers in human history. Beginning in 1975, Pablo built a multi-billion dollar empire by introducing the world to the wonders of cocaine. His smuggling would inspire the drug craze in the US of the late 70’s and early 80’s, the crime waves that followed in its wake, the crack epidemic, and ultimately the US government’s draconian War on Drugs policies which are still in effect today.
At his peak, Pablo’s power was incomprehensible. He literally bought his way into Colombian parliament by building entire neighborhoods of houses and then gifted them to thousands of impoverished Colombians. He then ran in their district. In the 80’s, Forbes estimated him to be the seventh richest man in the world with a net worth of approximately $35 billion US dollars (that’s $82 billion in 2018 dollars). In his book, Roberto claims that at one point the cartel was making so much money that it spent $2,500 each month just on rubber bands to stack the bills.
To maintain his power, Escobar was ruthless. He didn’t just use violence to punish foes, he used it to send a message. He once had a man skinned alive and then tied him to a tree to bleed to death in the hot Colombian sun. Castration wasn’t an unusual punishment for enemies–nor, as we’ll see, a coincidence. When the government threatened to extradite him to the US on drug charges, he exacted terrorist attacks on thousands of civilians as a form of blackmail. Parliament called an emergency session and amended their constitution to make extradition illegal, just so Escobar would stop bombing malls and busy intersections. During his reign, Pablo slaughtered judges, paid off entire prison staffs, flew in the best soccer players in the world to play with him on his ranch, and leading up to his demise, wrought full-blown urban warfare in the streets of Medellin, killing almost 500 police officers in the process.
Thirty minutes into our visit, I conclude that Roberto Escobar might be the biggest sociopath I’ve ever met. In between regaling us with stories of Pablo’s smuggling heroin through Panama, and how he threatened to murder the families of any police who arrested him, he says he’s also willing to take pictures with us for a small fee.
Drugs, money, violence, drugs, money, violence — the afternoon repeats itself. Desperate to be convinced this man has any sort of humanity at all, I ask him what his favorite memory of Pablo is. I want to sense some sort of emotion from this man, some level of depth beyond simple cost/benefit analysis of the living and dead.
He meanders into a vague story about the time he helped Pablo escape from prison. I press further, “Por qué esa memoria?” Why? Why that memory?
He replies, “It was the first and only time he told me I did a good job.” The only time? Roberto was Pablo’s accountant, his most trusted employee for almost 20 years. His own brother. That’s it?
Roberto’s anecdote contained a sliver of emotion, but I still get the blank stare, the empty eyes. So I keep pushing. “What about your childhood? What were you and Pablo like when you were kids?”
A pause. “We used to go fishing a lot.”
And we’re done. He turns around and reminds us that if we buy a DVD, the second one is half off.
Why are the Worst People in Human History Almost Always Men?
A question occurred to me as we toured the Escobar home: why are the most ruthless and violent people throughout history always men? If there’s ever been a mega-violent, drug-slinging dominatrix, I’ve sure never heard of her. Or what about a murderous dictator? Rebel military commander? Serial killer? Playground bully? Again and again, almost all men.
Men perpetrate over 76% of the violent crime in the US. Worldwide that statistic is likely much higher.2
Men are 10 times more likely to commit murder and nine times more likely than women to end up in prison.3 Men commit 99% of the reported rapes and sexual assaults.4 And boys perpetrate 95% of the violent crimes at the juvenile level.5
Anyone who’s grown up with a penis or around someone with a penis knows that boys can be cruel. When I was a kid, we used to steal matches from the kitchen and catch bugs and burn them alive and then laugh about it. Some boys would set fireworks off in people’s mailboxes to see if they would explode. There was a girl down my street named Cynthia. We once made her cry because we threw eggs at her. We were little assholes. And when I think back, I can’t comprehend any logic or reason behind it.6
But I wasn’t unordinary. Most of the other boys my age were just as mischievous and cruel.7 My older brother beat the crap out of me on the regular. And where do you think I got the idea for my shenanigans anyway?
Why are men such dicks? Even the word itself, “dick,” the male sex organ, refers to someone who is being rude and offensive. Why us? Why men? Is it in our biology? Did we evolve this way? Or is there some broader cultural force at work?
The answer, as with every nature versus nurture question, is: it’s both.
A Brief History of Male Violence
Human history is rife with competition and violence. There has pretty much never been a point in human evolution that we weren’t killing each other in one way or another.
This competition and violence existed for the simple reason that resources are scarce, and the advantages given to one tribe/society for conquering/controlling those resources were huge. Therefore, people fought over them. And they had to keep fighting over them because once you won the land or gold or sweet ass river with a lot of bananas growing by it, then you had to protect it.
Back before drone strikes and cruise missiles, the people most adapted for conquest and discovery were invariably young men. One, because they were physically the strongest and most able. But also because they were disposable. If you want a new generation of children, you need a full generation of mothers to birth those children. But you only need a couple men. Therefore, if you were young, broke, and unproven, then off you went to kill something and prove yourself.
The most successful societies were therefore generally those that developed cultures praising and rewarding young men for mastering violence and conquest. These young men not only served as purveyors of a society’s further growth and wealth but also acted as protectors. They protected the community from wild beasts, fought off invaders, and killed icky, icky spiders.
Masculinity has historically been all about the three P’s: protector, provider, procreation. The more you protect, the more you provide, the more you fuck, the more of a man you are.
For the most part, this is still widely considered masculinity today, although the 3 P’s look slightly different in different cultures. It’s why a frat bro who bangs half a sorority is a stud, while the sorority girl who blows the baseball team is a slut. It’s why a woman who speaks up at board meetings is seen as shrill and bitchy, and a man who talks over people and demeans them in front of others is seen as bold and a strong leader.
But this version of masculinity evolved for a particularly socially-beneficial reason — to protect us from invaders and protect the town and kill bears and stuff. We needed men to fuck a lot because something like half of your kids didn’t survive into puberty. We needed them to provide because you never knew when the next horrible winter was around the corner.
And the fact that this form of masculinity came at a cost — both to the men in terms of their own health and mortality, and to society in terms of violence and patriarchal dominance — was discounted. Who cares if men die, suffer, and lose their minds at startling rates? It’s simply the price we pay for protection and prosperity (and babies).
The problem is that today, things have changed:
Violence has largely been automated or outsourced or just plain eliminated. Factory farms provide our food. Small, specialized militaries protect our borders. But given how economically interdependent and wealthy the world has become, violence has declined.
Service economies mean that women are just as capable (and perhaps even more capable) to work and earn a living than men are at most professions. Male advantages in strength and expendability are no longer necessary for a healthy society.
We have like, women’s rights and equality and stuff. Fact is, we’re much more conscious and moral than we used to be. Therefore, the drawbacks of masculine aggression and dominance present not just economic liabilities, but ethical ones as well.
Truth is, when all is said and done, the ancient bargain of strength, durability and expendability for prestige, dominance and tons of hot babes doesn’t evolutionarily make sense anymore. The male body is becoming outdated tech.
The Hidden Costs of Being a Man
When I was a kid, if I fell down on the playground and started crying, my cries would usually be met with some form of, “Get up. Be a big boy.” If I got beat up by my brother, my father admonished me to hit him back. The other kids at school would make fun of boys who were weak or were bad at sports. As a teenager, I was bullied at times in the locker room for being nerdy.
This stuff is normal. So normal that it feels stupid to even write because my guess is every single male reader can relate to one of the above experiences. It’s often written off as “boys being boys.” And it has a long cultural history.
Again, for most of civilization, young men were the ones responsible for protecting society. By the time they were adults, they needed to be battle-hardened and physically strong — the survival of the community often depended on it. As a result, brutal, physical violence among men (through organized sport) was celebrated (and still is today, although this is beginning to change). And men who weren’t able to make the cut were shamed for their physical weakness, for their emotional displays and vulnerable demands for affection. Men were meant to be ruthlessly competitive, and emotionlessly self-contained.
And this was the hidden cost for their physical, and later political dominance, in human society — as men, we are taught from a young age to hide from our emotions rather than to engage them.8
Expressing pain or hurt results in a kid like this being called a ‘pussy’ or a ‘wuss’
Well, this may not surprise you, but repressing emotions fucks people up. And shaming people for weakness and vulnerability can result in all sorts of mental health problems, not to mention encourage them to lash out in anti-social ways (i.e., shoot up a school, or ram a car into a crowd of people, sign up to be a militant in some crazy religious organization — sound familiar?).
Men commit suicide at a rate five times that of women while teenage boys commit suicide nine times more often than girls.9 They are also diagnosed with depression and ADHD at a rate of 4-to-1 to girls the same age.10 Men make up 2/3 of the homeless population,11 are more than twice as likely to become alcoholics and are approximately three times more likely to become drug addicts.12 It’s widely documented that men are far less likely to ask for professional help, medical or otherwise, even when experiencing significant health problems or depression.13
Men are the victims of the majority of violent crime, but also far less likely to report it for fear of appearing weak. One survey found that 40% of the victims of domestic violence are men, yet they were far less likely to report the violence and far less likely to be taken seriously by police.14 Men take on more dangerous jobs and are less likely to report any injury suffered at work. Men work far longer hours, take fewer vacations and sick days, and suffer worse symptoms of chronic stress and fatigue. Men even die on the job at a startling rate. In short, most men treat themselves as nothing more than a walking paycheck.15
Men take the most dangerous jobs and die while working by a staggering margin.
And, in fact, it’s this objectification of their own lives that kills men faster. One research summary of emotional suppression went as far to say: “emotional restrictiveness is the leading cause to why men die earlier [than women].”16
Men are so emotionally incompetent without women, that getting married may statistically be the best thing a man can do to improve his longevity and mental health. Married men live longer and score higher on pretty much every quality-of-life metric there is, including happiness and life expectancy. Marriage is apparently so important for men’s emotional stability that some sociologists go as far as to state that simply being married can raise a man’s life expectancy by almost a decade.17 Elderly men who are in good marriages have lower rates of heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, depression, and stress than elderly single men.18
But then we’re often woefully equipped to handle that. Women initiate more than 70% of divorces and separations with the most common cause cited as “emotional neglect” from their husbands.19 Those divorces also hit men the hardest: recently divorced men are more likely to suffer depression, alcoholism, mental illness, and suicide than women are.20
Let me state that more clearly: Not dealing with your emotional baggage can literally kill you or make you go crazy.
For all of our strength and power, we sure do die quickly and often. For all of our cunning ambition, we regularly end up miserable, violent, and even suicidal. And for all of our self-sufficiency, we rely on women for our emotional and physical well-being to a startling degree.
Ironically, manhood does not seem very manly.
What’s So Wrong With Getting Rich and Killing Things?
Later on in the day, we’re touring the old Escobar home. It’s filled with pictures and memorabilia from the 90s. In between prattling on about Pablo’s exploits, Roberto mentions he competed in the Tour de France when he was a young man. A quick Google search on my smartphone shows this to be false. Earlier he tried to convince us that he had found the cure for AIDS in the 1990s, but the U.S. Government suppressed his research. I didn’t bother to look that one up.
For all of his power, his wealth, his domination over a country and a culture and a people, Roberto struck me as something pathetic. On the surface, this is a man who had experienced as much power as anyone in the world. Yet his attempts to impress us bordered on the delusional. How could a man who was this powerful be so insecure?
And yet, as we walk through the corridors of the Escobar house, riddled with triumphant family photos and bullet holes, the home that bore a thousand broken lives and left a billion-dollar bloodstain across two continents, I find myself trying to empathize with the man.
It’s easy to look at the results of a man’s life and judge without looking at the process that led him to those results.
Perhaps Roberto Escobar wasn’t always so heartless and delusional. Perhaps investing his entire life and identity in a brother who couldn’t even be bothered to tell him he was proud of him pushed him to accept a sicker fate. Perhaps growing up a poor boy in rural Colombia with a dozen siblings and absent father made him feel more alone than he could handle. So he shut down. He shut down and chose to see the world in the only way that made sense — as a bunch of numbers and profitable opportunities. Perhaps that letter bomb that exploded in his face so many years ago stole more than just sight and sound.
The problem with the traditional masculine formula – protection, providing, procreating – is that they require men to measure their self-worth via some external, arbitrary metric. They require men to mortgage their emotional health for the sake of their physical safety. But in a cushy first world where security is more or less guaranteed, those interest payments start adding up.
Men don’t just do this to themselves though. They do it to each other. Hell, women do it as well. Educated women will complain that men are superficial and only want to date women who look like a Victoria’s Secret model. Yet ladies, how many of you are running out the door to date a janitor?
We unfairly objectify women in society for their beauty and sex appeal. Similarly, we unfairly objectify men for their professional success and aggression.
But the biggest problem with these external metrics – making more money, being stronger and more domineering than the competition, having sex as much as possible – is that they never end. If you measure yourself by how much money you make, then whatever you earn will never be enough. If you measure yourself by how strong and dominant you can be, then no amount of power will ever satisfy you. If you measure yourself by how much sex you can have, then no number of partners will ever be enough.
These are metrics that, while on a population level, were good for society for thousands of years. On an individual level, they fuck a man up, destroying his self-esteem and encouraging him to objectify himself, to see himself not as a human with strengths and weaknesses, virtues and flaws, but rather as some vessel with no other prerogative than to accumulate as much power and prestige as possible.
And what do you end up with?
A former billionaire drug lord, trying to lie to a group of strangers, claiming he was a world-class athlete and a world-class medical researcher. It’s like, “Dude, what more do you need?” And the answer with men like Escobar is: more. Always more.
And it’s this “more” that ultimately destroyed his own family, aside from an entire country and millions of lives. It removed a father from his children. A husband from his wife. It removed a part of him from himself.
In the 21st century, we need to evolve our definition of masculinity. Yes, we’re still protectors and providers. And you’re damn right we want to keep pro-creating.
But there need to be new internal metrics for a man’s worth as well — his honesty, his integrity, his emotional openness and ability to remain strong in the face of vulnerability.
Some lament the “pussification” of men happening today. But dropping the bullshit tough-guy act isn’t the same as weakness. On the contrary, it’s an even deeper form of strength.
Our Escobar pilgrimage fittingly ends in a graveyard. On December 2nd, 1993, Pablo made a phone call to his son to wish him a happy birthday. Pablo didn’t normally make phone calls himself, but on this occasion, it seemed justified. He then sat down to eat lunch with his mother. “He was always a family man first,” Roberto claimed, without any irony. Minutes later Pablo received a tip-off that the police had tracked him and were on their way to raid his house. He escaped, but only for a few hours. That afternoon, Pablo was shot hopping across Medellin rooftops, one last ditch effort to escape himself.
Whether Pablo was shot by the police or he shot himself is still disputed. Either way, a bullet entered Pablo’s skull behind his ear and killed him instantly. He fell to the ground below, where police took pictures posing with his corpse. Not just another death, not just another achievement—one of the cruelest and richest men in modern history taken down by the ricochet of his own violence. The photo would be sickening had it been anyone else: piles of debris and guns waving, all smiles between the flow of blood.
In the graveyard, we’re led to a small grove. The landscaping is clean and well-kept. Gravel is spread out in a square framing a plot of earth containing half a dozen gravestones lined up in a row. Two stones are bigger than the others. It’s the Escobar family plot. There is no defacing or signs of tampering. Death is unprejudiced.
One of the larger headstones reads Pablo’s name. The stone is humble: just a name and some dates. Next to him are his mother and his sister. Further down are his other siblings and lost family members.
The only one missing is his father.
Note: I’ve recorded a 14-minute audio commentary to this article where I talk about how men struggle nowadays because masculine gender roles are going through a weird transition period, how politicized this issue is, and how both the political left and right gets it wrong. Site members can listen to it by clicking the Commentary button above. To become a site member,
For the last few years, I’ve had an idea for a satirical self-help article called, “The Productivity Secrets of Adolf Hitler.” The article would feature all the popular self-help tropes—goals, visualizations, morning routines—except expressed through the exploits of Hitler.
“Hitler starts his day at 5 AM each morning with a quick round of yoga and five minutes of journaling, he’s able to focus his mind on his highly ambitious goals.”
“Hitler discovered his life purpose in a beer hall in his 20s and has since followed it relentlessly, thus infusing his life with passion and inspiring millions of others like himself.”
“Adolf is a strict vegetarian, and makes sure to find time in his busy schedule of genocide and world domination to explore his creative side: he sets aside a few hours each week to listen to opera and paint his favorite landscapes.”
I know that I would find the article hilarious. But that’s because I’m a sick, twisted fuck. But in the end, I’ve never quite worked up the courage to write the thing, for obvious reasons.
I’ve been doing this long enough to know that a) a bunch of people would get offended and devote themselves entirely to ruining my week with annoying emails and social media screeds, b) the satire would go over a bunch of people’s heads and they’d think that I was actually a Nazi, and c) some awful publication somewhere would run the headline, “Bestselling author outs himself as alt-right neo-Nazi” or some shit and my career would summarily be over.
So, I’ve never written the article. Call me a coward. But it is what it is.
If you remove the moral horrors from Hitler, on paper, he’s one of the most successful self-made people in world history. He went from being a broke, failed artist, to commandeering an entire country and building the most powerful military in the world in a matter of two decades. He mobilized and inspired millions. He was tireless and shrewd and intensely focused on his goals. He arguably influenced world history as much as anyone who has ever lived.
But all of that work went toward demented, destructive aims. And tens of millions of people died due to his misguided values.
Therefore, you cannot talk about self-improvement without also talking about values. It’s not enough to simply “grow” and become a “better person.” You must define what a better person is. You must decide in which direction you wish to grow. Because if you don’t, well, we might all be screwed.
A lot of people don’t realize this. A lot of people obsessively focus on being happy and feeling good all the time—not realizing that if their values suck, feeling good will hurt them more than help them. If your biggest value in the world is snorting Vicodin through a swirly straw, well, then feeling better is just going to make your life worse.
When I wrote my book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, pretty much the entire book was really just a sneaky way to get people to think about their values more clearly. There are a million self-help books out there that teach you how to better achieve your goals, but few actually question what goals you should have in the first place. My aim was to write a book that did just that.
In the book, I intentionally avoided getting too deep into what good/bad values are—what they look like, and why they work or don’t work—partly because I didn’t want to push my own values onto the reader. After all, the whole point of your values is that you adopt them yourself, not because some dude with an obnoxious orange book cover told you to. But if I’m being honest, I also didn’t get too deep into defining values because it’s an incredibly difficult topic to write about well.
So, this article is my attempt to finally do that. To talk about values. And not just what they are but why they are. Why we find certain things important, what the consequences of that importance are, and how we can go about changing what we find important. It’s not a simple subject. And the article is quite long. So enough of me blabbing, let’s get on with it.
What are your personal values?
Every moment of every day, whether you realize it or not, you are making a decision of how to spend your time, of what to pay attention to, of where to direct your energy.
Right now, you are choosing to read this article. There are an infinite number of things you could be doing, but right now, you are choosing to be here. Maybe in a minute, you decide you need to pee. Or maybe someone texts you and you stop reading. When those things happen, you are making a simple, value-laden decision: your phone (or your toilet) is more valuable to you than this article. And your behavior follows that valuation accordingly.
Our values are constantly reflected in the way we choose to behave.
This is critically important—because we all have a few things that we think and say we value, but we never back them up with our actions. I can tell people (and myself) until I’m blue in the face that I care about climate change or the dangers of social media, but if I spend my days driving around in a gas-guzzling SUV, constantly refreshing my newsfeeds, then my behaviors tell a different story.
Actions don’t lie. We believe we want to get that job, but when push comes to shove, we’re always kind of relieved that no one called us back so we can retreat to our video games again. We tell our girlfriend we really want to see her, but the minute our guy friends call, our schedule magically seems to open up like fucking Moses parting the Red Sea.
Many of us state values we wish we had as a way to cover up the values we actually have. In this way, aspiration can often become another form of avoidance. Instead of facing who were really are, we lose ourselves in who we wish to become.
Put another way: we lie to ourselves because we don’t like some of our own values, and we therefore don’t like a part of ourselves. We don’t want to admit we have certain values and that we wish we had other values, and it’s this discrepancy between self-perception and reality that usually gets us into all sorts of trouble.
That’s because our values are extensions of ourselves. They are what define us. When something good happens to something or someone you value, you feel good. When your mom gets a new car or your husband gets a raise or your favorite sports team wins a championship, you feel good—as though these things happened to yourself. The opposite is true as well. If you don’t value something, you will feel good when something bad happens to it. People took the streets cheering when Osama Bin Laden was killed. People threw a party outside the prison where the serial killer Ted Bundy was executed. The destruction of someone perceived as evil felt like some great moral victory in the hearts of millions.
So, when we are disconnected from our own values—we value playing video games all day yet believe we value ambition and hard work—our beliefs and ideas get disconnected from our actions and emotions. And to bridge that disconnect, we must become delusional, about both ourselves and about the world.
Optional Gray Box of Doom: Why People Who Hate Themselves Hurt Themselves
Just as we either value or devalue anything in our lives, we can value or devalue ourselves. And much like people celebrating when Ted Bundy got fried, if we hate ourselves as much as people hated Ted Bundy, then we will celebrate our own destruction.
This is what people who don’t loathe themselves don’t understand about people who do: that self-destruction feels good in some deep, dark way. The person who loathes themselves feels that they are morally inferior, that they deserve some awful thing to compensate for their own wretchedness. And whether it’s through drugs or alcohol or self-harm or even harming others, there’s an ugly part of themselves that seeks out this destruction to justify all of the pain and misery they have felt.
Much of the work of the self-esteem movement in the 70s and 80s was to take people from self-loathing to self-loving. People who love themselves don’t get any satisfaction from harming themselves. Rather, they get satisfaction from taking care of themselves and improving themselves.
This love for self is crucially important. But it is also not sufficient in and of itself. Because if we only love ourselves, then we become self-absorbed twats and indifferent to the suffering or issues of others.
Ultimately, we all need to value ourselves but also something above ourselves. Whether it’s God or Allah or some moral code or cause, we need to value something above ourselves to make our lives feel as though they have meaning.
Because if you make yourself the highest value in your life, then you will never feel the desire to sacrifice for anything, and life will feel purposeless and just chasing one high after another. In other words, you just become a narcissistic assface… and then get elected president.
And no one wants that…
You are what you value
We all know that story of the middle-class, educated person with a decent job who has a mini “freak out” and decides to take a week or ten days (or ten months) and cut all contact with the outside world, run to some remote and obscure part of the globe, and proceed to “find themselves.”
Hell, maybe this has been you at some point. I know it’s been me in the past.
Here’s what people mean when they say they need to “find themselves”: they’re finding new values. Our identity—that is, the thing that we perceive and understand as the “self”—is the aggregation of everything we value. So when you run away to be alone somewhere, what you’re really doing is running away somewhere to re-evaluate your values.
Here’s how it usually plays out:
You are experiencing a large amount of pressure and/or stress in your day-to-day life.
Due to said pressure and/or stress, you feel as though you are losing control of the direction of your own life. You don’t know what you’re doing or why you’re doing it. You begin to feel as though your own desires or decisions no longer matter. Maybe you want to drink mojitos and play banjo—but the overwhelming demands of your school/job/family/partner make it so that you feel as though you’re not able to live out those desires.
This is the “self” you feel you have “lost”—a sense that you are no longer the one navigating the ship of your own existence. Rather, you are blown back and forth across the sea of life by the winds of your responsibilities—or some other deep-sounding metaphor.
By removing yourself from these pressures and/or stressors, you are able to recover a sense of control over yourself. You are, once again, in charge of your own day-to-day existence without the interference of a million external pressures.
Not only that, but by gaining separation from the turbulent forces of your day-to-day life, you are able to look at those forces from afar and have perspective on whether you actually want the life that you have. Is this who you are? Is this what you care about? You question your decisions and priorities.
You decide that there are a few things you want to change. There are things you believe you care about too much and you want to stop. There are other things that you feel you should care about more and promise to prioritize them. You are now constructing the “new you.”
You then vow to return to the “real world” and live out your new priorities, to be your “new self”—especially because you now have a bitching tan.
This whole process—whether done on a secluded island, a cruise ship, out in the woods somewhere, or at a raucous self-help seminar—is essentially just an escapade in adjusting one’s values.
You leave, get perspective on what in your life matters to you, what should matter more, what should matter less, and then (ideally) return and get on with it. By returning and changing your priorities, you change your values, and you come back “a new person.”
Values are the fundamental component of our psychological make-up and our identity. We are defined by what we choose to find important in our lives. We are defined by our prioritizations. If money matters more than anything, then that will come to define who we are. If getting laid and smoking J’s is the most important thing in our life, that will come to define who we are. And if we feel like shit about ourselves and believe we don’t deserve love, success, or intimacy, then that will also come to define who we are—through our actions, our words, and our decisions.
Any change in self is a change in the configuration of our values. When something tragic happens, it devastates us because not only do we feel sadness, but because we lose something we value. And when we lose enough of what we value, we begin to question the value of life itself. We valued our partner and now they’re gone. And that crushes us. It calls into question who we are, our value as a human, and what we know about the world. It throws us into an existential crisis, an identity crisis, because we don’t know what to believe, feel, or do anymore. So, instead, we sit at home with our new girlfriend, a.k.a., a bag of Oreos.
This change in identity composition is true for positive events as well though. When something incredible happens, we don’t just experience the joy of winning or achieving some goal, we also go through a change in valuation for ourselves—we come to see ourselves as more valuable, as more deserving. Meaning is added to the world. Our life vibrates with increased intensity. And that is what is so powerful.
Why some personal values are better than others
Before we get into exactly how to change our personal values, let’s talk about which values are healthy and which values are harmful. In my book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, I defined good and bad values in the following way:
Good values are:
Bad values are:
Evidence-based vs Emotion-based Values
If you’ve paid any attention to this website over the past five years, you’ve seen a constant theme: overly relying on our emotions is unreliable at best and damaging at worst. Unfortunately, most of us rely too much on our emotions without even realizing it.
Psychological research shows that most of us, most of the time, make decisions and are inspired to action via our feelings, rather than based on knowledge or information. Psychological research also shows us that our feelings are generally self-centered, willing to give up long-term benefits for short-term gains, and are often warped and/or delusional.
People who lead their lives based on how they feel will find themselves perpetually on a treadmill, constantly needing more, more, more. And the only way to step off that treadmill is to decide that something matters more than your own feelings—that some cause, some goal, some person, is worth occasionally getting hurt for.
That “cause” is often what we refer to as our “purpose” and finding it is one of the most important endeavors we can take to enhance our health and well-being. But our purpose should be sought not merely through what feels good. It must be considered and reasoned. We must accumulate evidence supporting it. Otherwise, we’ll spend our lives chasing a mirage.
Constructive vs Destructive Values
This one sounds simple, but will start to scramble your brain if you think about it enough.
We don’t want to value things that harm ourselves or others. We do want to value things that enhance ourselves and others.
Now, determining what is actually spurring growth and what is actually harming us can get complicated. Busting your ass at the gym technically damages your body—but it also causes you to grow. Taking MDMA can actually enhance your emotional growth in some circumstances, but if you take it every weekend to numb yourself, then you’re probably causing more emotional harm than good. Having casual sex can be a means to enhance personal confidence but also a means to avoid intimacy or emotional maturity.
There’s a blurry line between growth and harm. And they often appear as two sides of the same coin. This is why what you value is often not as important as why you value it. If you value martial arts because you enjoy hurting people, then that’s a bad value. But if you value it because you are in the military and want to learn to protect yourself and others—that’s a good value. Ultimately, it’s the intention that matters most.
Controllable vs Uncontrollable Values
When you value things that are outside your control, you essentially give up your life to that thing.
The most classic example of this is money. Yes, you have some control over how much money you make, but not total control. Economies collapse, companies go under, entire professions get automated away by technology. If everything you do is for the sake of money, and then tragedy strikes and all of that money is eaten up by hospital bills, you will lose much more than a loved one—you will lose your perceived purpose for living as well.
Money is a bad value because you can’t always control it. Creativity or industriousness or a strong work ethic are good values because you CAN control them–and doing them well will ultimately generate money as a side effect.
We need values we can control, otherwise our values control us. And that’s no bueno.
Some examples of good, healthy values: honesty, building something new, vulnerability, standing up for oneself, standing up for others, self-respect, curiosity, charity, humility, creativity.
Some examples of bad, unhealthy values: dominating others through manipulation or violence, fucking more men/women, feeling good all the time, always being the center of attention, not being alone, being liked by everybody, being rich for the sake of being rich, sacrificing small animals to the pagan gods.
How to Reinvent Yourself
Below is perhaps one of the most inspiring TED Talks I’ve ever come across. It’s not filled with mind-blowing ideas. You’re not going to get huge takeaways that you can immediately run off and implement in your own life. The guy isn’t even that great of a speaker.
But what he describes is absolutely profound:
Why I, as a black man, attend KKK rallies. | Daryl Davis | TEDxNaperville - YouTube
Daryl Davis is a black musician who has traveled and played blues shows all over the US south. In his career, he’s inevitably run into a number of white supremacists. And rather than fight them or argue with them, he chose to do something unexpected: he’s befriended them.
This might sound insane. And maybe it is. But here’s what’s more insane: he’s convinced over 200 KKK members to give up their robes.
Here’s what most people don’t get about value change: you can’t argue someone out of their values. You can’t shame them into valuing something different (shaming them actually often has the opposite effect—they double down).
Nope, value change is far more subtle than that. And perhaps without even realizing it, Daryl Davis appears to be a master at it.
Step 1: The value must fail.
Davis intuitively understood something that almost all of us do not: values are based on experience. You cannot argue someone out of their values. You cannot threaten them to let go of their most deeply-held beliefs. That just makes them defensive and even more resistant to changing themselves. Instead, you must approach them with empathy.
The only way to change someone’s values is by presenting them with a contrary experience to their value. The KKK members held deeply racist values and instead of attacking them and approaching them as an adversary—in a way that would reflect their values back to them—Davis chose to approach them in the completely opposite way: as a friend. And that friendliness and respect caused the KKK members to call everything they knew into question.
To let go of a value, it must be contradicted through experience. Sometimes this contradiction happens by taking the value to its logical conclusion. Too much partying ultimately makes life feel empty and meaningless. Pursuing too much money ultimately brings greater stress and alienation. Too much sex gives you..
When I was in college, there were some people on the internet who claimed that you could train yourself to sleep as little two hours per day. Keep in mind, this was back in the early 2000s when we all still believed random shit we read on the internet.
Here’s how the story went: There was a hyper-productive sleep schedule that had been discovered by military scientists. They were testing the limits of sleep deprivation on soldiers and made this startling discovery. Supposedly, great historical figures like Napoleon and Da Vinci and Tesla followed the same sleep schedule and it’s why they were so productive and influential in history. Supposedly, anybody (i.e., you and me) could achieve this state of daily hyper-productivity. Supposedly, all we needed was enough willpower to barrel through days of sleep deprivation and “acclimate” to this new superhuman schedule. Supposedly, this was all true and verified and somehow made sense.
The scheme was called “The Uberman Sleep Schedule,” and here’s how you did it:
Sleep follows the 80/20 Rule—that is, 80% of your recovery comes from 20% of the time you’re unconscious. Conversely, 80% of the time you’re asleep, you’re a lazy piece of shit.
This uber-efficient portion of sleep is called REM sleep and only lasts approximately 15-20 minutes at a time. That means for every two hours that your body is asleep, really only the last 20 minutes or so is “useful” sleep. Thus, when you sleep eight hours during the night, only 80-100 of those minutes are actually causing you to feel rested and restored.1 People on the internet decided this was inefficient and needed to be fixed.
What the military scientists (supposedly) discovered is that if you’re severely sleep deprived, your body will immediately fall into REM sleep the second you pass out. It does this in order to compensate for its lack of rest. People on the internet decided this was incredibly efficient.
The idea of the Uberman Sleep Schedule was that if you took 20-minute naps, every four hours, around the clock, for days and weeks on end, you would “train” your brain to fall into REM sleep instantly the moment you laid down. Then, once your REM sleep was over, you would feel rested and restored for the next 3-4 hours.
As long as you continued to take 20-minute naps every four hours, you could effectively stay awake forever. Congratulations, you were now an Uberman. Here, have a gold star.
But there was a catch: supposedly it took 1-2 weeks of intense sleep deprivation to properly “adjust” to the Uberman Sleep Schedule. You had to stay up all night, every night, forcing yourself to only sleep for 20 minutes at a time, six different times per day. And if at any point you screwed up and overslept your nap, all would be undone and you would have to start over.
PS: Caffeine is not allowed. And alcohol might as well be suicide.
Therefore, the Uberman Sleep Schedule became this kind of decathlon of willpower among internet self-help people—an ultimate test of one’s self-discipline with the ultimate pay-off: an extra 20-30% of productive waking hours per day, every day for the rest for your life. That’s like having an extra two days each week, or an extra three-and-a-half months per year. That’s insane! Over the course of one’s life, that’s over a decade of extra waking hours. Imagine everything you could accomplish with an extra decade of life, all while everyone else is asleep.
Like an idiot, I tried to do this. Multiple times. For years, I obsessed with achieving the Uberman Sleep Schedule. And for years, I continually failed at it.
You have probably pulled an all-nighter before. Not sleeping for one night is not that difficult. Especially if there are deadlines and/or drugs involved.
What’s difficult are the second and third and fourth nights. Extreme sleep deprivation is a crash course on how fragile our mind actually is. By day three, you will start falling asleep standing up. You will doze while walking down the street in broad daylight. You forget basic facts like your mother’s name or whether you had eaten that day, or—fuck, what day is it?
By day four you become delirious, imagining that people are speaking to you when they’re not, believing that you’re writing an email when you’re not, and then discovering that you don’t even remember who you were supposed to be emailing. I used to walk in circles around my living room for an hour, just to keep myself awake. When nap time came, I would crash, falling unconscious instantaneously, and proceed to have intense, fucked up dreams that seemed like they lasted for five hours. Then, 20 minutes later, my alarm would wake me up, where I would spend the next three hours and change desperately lying to myself, trying to convince myself that I felt rested and couldn’t wait to get back to—wait, what was I supposed to be doing again?
In the end, I could never make it through the fourth day. Each time I failed, I felt intense disappointment at my own lack of willpower. I believed this was something I should be able to do. It pissed me off that some random people on the internet could supposedly do this thing that I couldn’t. I felt like it meant there was something wrong with me. That if I didn’t have the self-discipline to sleep deprive myself for weeks on end, then what the fuck, Mark? Get your shit together!
So I tortured myself. And the more I tortured myself, the more unrealistic my expectations for myself became.
Chances are, at some point in your life, you’ve tried to change your behavior through sheer willpower. And chances are, you also failed miserably. Don’t feel bad! This is what happens most of the time.
Most people think of self-discipline in terms of willpower. If we see someone who wakes up at 5 AM every day, eats an avocado-chia-fennel-apricot-papaya smoothie each meal, snorts brussel sprout flakes, and works out for three hours before even wiping their ass in the morning, we assume they’re achieving this through straight-up self-abuse—that there is some insatiable inner demon driving them like a slave to do everything right, no matter what.
But this isn’t true. Because, if you actually know anybody like this, you’ll notice something really frightening about them: they actually enjoy it.2
Seeing self-discipline in terms of pure willpower fails because beating ourselves up for not trying hard enough doesn’t work. In fact, it backfires. And, as anyone who has ever tried to go on a diet will tell you, it usually only makes it worse.
The problem is that willpower works like a muscle, if you work it too hard, it becomes fatigued and gives out. The first week committing to a new diet, or a new workout regimen, or a new morning routine, things go great. But by the second or third week, you’re back to your old late-night, cheeto-loving ways.
The same way you can’t just walk into a gym for the first time and lift 500 pounds, you can’t just start waking up at 4 AM on a dime, much less do something ridiculous like an Uberman sleep schedule. To have a chance of success, your willpower must be trained steadily over a long period of time.
But this leaves us in a conundrum: if we view self-discipline in terms of willpower, it creates a chicken-or-the-egg situation: To build willpower, we need self-discipline over a long period of time; but to have self-discipline, we need massive amounts of willpower.
So, which came first? What should we do? How do we start? Or, more importantly, where the fuck is the Ben and Jerry’s?
Viewing self-discipline in terms of willpower creates a paradox for the simple reason that it’s not true. As we’ll see, building self-discipline in your own life is a completely different exercise.
Why Pure Willpower is Bad
Our behaviors are not based on logic or ideas. Logic and ideas can influence our decisions, but ultimately, our feelings determine what we do.
We do what feels good and avoid what feels bad. And the only way we can ever NOT do what feels good, and do what feels bad instead, is through a temporary boost of willpower—to deny ourselves our desires and feelings and instead do what was “right.”
Throughout history, virtue was seen in terms of this sort of self-denial and self-negation. To be a good person, you had to not only deny yourself any pleasure, but you also had to show your willingness to hurt yourself. You had monks hitting themselves and locking themselves in rooms for days and not eating or even speaking for years on end. You had armies of men throwing themselves into battle for little or no reason. You had people abstaining from sex until marriage, or even for life. Shit was not fun.
This classical approach is where our assumption that “willpower = self-discipline” originally comes from. It operates on the belief that self-discipline is achieved through denying or rejecting one’s emotions. You want that taco? BAD MARK! YOU DON’T WANT SHIT! YOU ARE SHIT! YOU DESERVE TO STARVE YOU INGRATE!
The root of all evil.
The classical approach fused the concept of willpower—i.e., the ability to deny or reject one’s desires and emotions—with morality. Someone who can say no to the taco is a good person. The person who can’t is a failure of a human being.
THE CLASSICAL APPROACH TO SELF-DISCIPLINE
Self-Discipline = Willpower = Self-Denial = Good Person
This fusion of willpower and morality had good intentions. It recognized (correctly) that, when left to our own instinctive desires, we all become narcissistic assholes. If we could get away with it, we would eat, fuck, or kill pretty much anything or anyone within a ten-meter vicinity. So the great religious leaders and philosophers and kings throughout history preached a concept of virtue that involved suppressing our feelings in favor of rationality and denying our impulses in favor of developing willpower.
And the classic approach works! …kind of. Well, okay, while it makes a more stable society, it also totally fucks us up individually.
The classic approach has the paradoxical effect of training us to feel bad about all the things that make us feel good. It basically seeks to teach us self-discipline through shaming us—by making us hate ourselves for simply being who we are. And the idea is that once we are saddled with a sufficient amount of shame about all the things that give us pleasure, we’ll be so self-loathing and terrified of our own desires that we’ll just fall in line and do what we’re told.
In Case You Didn’t Know: Shame Fucks You Up
Disciplining people through shame works for a while, but in the long-run, it backfires. As an example, let’s use perhaps the most common source of shame on the planet: sex.
The brain likes sex. That’s because a) sex feels awesome, and b) we’re biologically evolved to crave it. Pretty self-explanatory.
Now, if you grew up like most people—and especially if you’re a woman—there’s a good chance that you were taught that sex was this evil, lecherous thing that corrupted you and makes you a horrible, icky person. You were punished for wanting it, and therefore, have a lot of conflicted feelings around sex: it sounds amazing but is also scary; it feels right but also somehow so, so wrong. As a result, you still want sex, but you also drag around a lot of guilt and anxiety and doubt about yourself.
This mixture of feelings generates an unpleasant tension within a person. And as time goes on, that tension grows. Because the desire for sex never goes away. And as the desire continues, the shame grows.
Eventually, this tension becomes unbearable and must resolve itself in one of two ways.
The first option is to overindulge. The tension has become so great that we feel the only way to resolve it is by going all out in a spectacular way. Hooker orgies. Compulsive masturbation for days on end. Rampant infidelity. And, sadly, often sexual violence.
But indulgence doesn’t really resolve the tension. It just kicks the can down the road. Because after you put the cock rings away and the hookers have gone home, the shame and guilt come back. And they come back with a vengeance.
So, if indulgence doesn’t work, what about the other option?
Well, the only other option to escape that internal tension is to numb it. To distract oneself from the tension by finding some larger, more palatable tension. Alcohol is a common one. Partying and drugs, of course. Watching 14 hours of television each day can be another option. Or just eating yourself half to death.
Sometimes, people do find productive ways to distract themselves from their shame. They run ultra-marathons or work 100-hour work weeks for years on end. These are, ironically, many of the people we come to admire for having inhuman willpower. But self-denial comes easy when, deep down, you fucking hate yourself.
Because shame can’t be numbed away. It just changes form. The person who exercises religiously to escape their self-loathing will eventually find ways to loathe themselves for their exercise habits. And soon, what started out as a remarkable work ethic in the gym morphs into some form of body dysmorphia, like those guys who inject synthol into their arms to make themselves look like Popeye.
Similarly, the businessman who transmutes his shame into stellar work at the office eventually develops shame about his productivity to the point where he literally can’t go home. He’s terrified to do it. Any non-productive minute feels like an untenable failure. And while the rest of his life falls apart around him, he’s only worrying about spreadsheets and quarterly numbers.
This is why the most hardcore, uncompromising people are usually the ones who are most compromised. It’s why the most fundamentalist religious leaders who rail against the immorality of the world are always the same leaders who are ordering fuckboys off Craigslist.3 It’s why the most “spiritually enlightened” gurus are also the ones blackmailing and extorting their followers. It’s why the politicians most vocal about party loyalty and patriotism are always the ones shooting up meth in the airport bathroom. They are running away from their demons. And one way to do that is to create shinier, more socially acceptable demons.
Self-discipline based on self-denial cannot be sustained in the long-run. It only breeds greater dysfunction, and ultimately results in self-destruction.
Here’s the problem with all this—and it’s so obvious once you hear it, I can’t believe we have to say it. You can will yourself to go to the gym if you don’t feel like it for a few days. But unless the gym ends up feeling good in some way, you will eventually lose motivation, run out of willpower and stop going. You can will yourself to stop drinking for a day or a week, but unless you feel the reward of not drinking, then you will eventually go back to it.
This is why my polyphasic sleeping nightmare consistently ended in disaster. Staying up all night and sleep-depriving myself produced no tangible benefits. It produced no good feelings. It produced nothing but misery and delirium. It was an exercise in self-abuse. Therefore, my willpower eventually ran out and my emotions took over, driving me to pass out for about sixteen hours straight.
Any emotionally healthy approach to self-discipline must work with your emotions, rather than against them.
Ultimately, self-discipline is not based on willpower or self-denial, but it’s actually based on the opposite: self-acceptance.
Self-Discipline Through Self-Acceptance
Let’s say you’re trying to lose weight and your big hang up is that you run through about three liters of ice cream each week. You’re an ice cream fiend. You’ve tried stopping through willpower. You’ve tried diets with your friends. You’ve told your partner to never ever buy ice cream again in a desperate attempt to blame them for your own shortcomings.
But nothing’s worked. Not a day goes by that you don’t down about a thousand calories of creamy goodness.
And you hate yourself for it.
And that’s your first problem. Step one to self-discipline is to de-link your personal failings from moral failings. You have to accept that you cave to indulgence and that this doesn’t necessarily make you a horrible person. We all cave to indulgence in some shape or form. We all harbor shame. We all fail to reign in our impulses. And we all like a good fucking bowl of ice cream from time to time.
This sort of acceptance is way more complicated than it sounds. We don’t even realize all of the ways that we judge ourselves for our perceived failings. Thoughts are constantly streaming through our heads and without even realizing it, we’re tacking on “because I’m a horrible person” to the end of a lot of them.
“I fucked up that project at work, because I’m a horrible person…”
“The whole kitchen is a mess and my parents will be here in 20 minutes, because I’m a horrible person…”
“Other people are good at this, but I’m not, because I’m a horrible person…”
“Everyone probably thinks I’m an idiot, because I’m a horrible person…”
Hell, you might even be tacking on these self-judgments right now while reading this! Man, I judge myself like this all the time… because I’m a horrible person.
Here’s the thing: there’s a sick sort of comfort that comes from these self-judgments. That’s because they relieve us of the responsibility for our own actions. If I decide that I can’t give up ice cream because I’m a horrible person—that “horrible person-ness” precludes my ability to change or improve in the future—therefore, it’s technically out of my hands, isn’t it? It implies that there’s nothing I can do about my cravings or compulsions, so fuck it, why try?
There’s a kind of fear and anxiety that comes when we relinquish our belief in our own horribleness. We actually resist accepting ourselves because the responsibility is scary. Because it suggests that not only are we capable of change in the future (and change is always scary) but that we have perhaps wasted much of our past. And that never feels good either. In fact, another little trap is when people accept that they’re not a horrible person—but then decide that they are a horrible person for not realizing that years ago!
But, once we’ve de-coupled our emotions from our moral judgments—once we’ve decided that just because something makes us feel bad doesn’t mean we are bad—this opens us up to some new perspectives.
For one, it suggests that emotions are merely internal behavioral mechanisms that can be manipulated like anything else. Just like putting your floss next to your toothbrush reminds you to floss every morning, once the moral judgments are removed, feeling bad because you relapsed on the cookies and cream can simply be a reminder or motivator to address the underlying issue.
We must address the emotional problem the compulsion is trying to numb or cover up. You compulsively eat tubs of ice cream each week. Why? Well, eating—especially sugary, unhealthy food—is a form of numbing. It brings the body comfort. It’s sometimes known as “emotional eating” and the same way an alcoholic drinks to escape her demons, the overeater eats to escape his.
So, what are those demons? What is that shame?
Find it. Address it. And most importantly: accept it. Find that deep, dark ugly part of yourself. Confront it, head on, allowing yourself to feel all the awful, icky emotions that come with it. Then accept that this is a part of you and it’s never going away. And that’s fine. You can work with this, rather than against it.
And here’s where the magic happens. When you stop feeling awful about yourself, two things happen:
There’s nothing to numb anymore. Therefore, suddenly those tubs of ice cream seem pointless.
You see no reason to punish yourself. On the contrary, you like yourself, so you want to take care of yourself. More importantly, it feels good to take care of yourself.
And, incredibly, that tub of ice cream no longer feels good. It’s no longer scratching some internal itch. Instead, it makes you feel sick and bloated and gross.
Similarly, exercising no longer feels like this impossible task that you’ll never be up for. On the contrary, it replenishes and enhances you. And those good feelings start showing up that make it feel effortless.
But you don’t necessarily have to do this deep therapeutic work to gain self-discipline. Simply understanding and accepting your emotions for what they are can allow you to work with them rather than against them.
Here’s one way to do this: call up your best friend and tell them to come over. Take out your checkbook. Write a check for $2,000 to them, sign it, and give it to them. Then tell them that if you ever eat ice cream again, they can cash it.
Eating ice cream will now cause a much greater emotional problem than the one it solves. And, as if by magic, refraining from eating ice cream will begin to feel really fucking good.
Social accountability works in the same way. It’s much easier to
It’s the end of 2018 and if you aren’t freaking out about something, then… well, then I’m freaking out that you’re not freaking out. Tell the rest of us: what’s your secret? Because the rest of us are pretty sure the world is going to hell in a flaming handbasket. And not only do we not know why, but we don’t know what to do.
We live in a strange and contradictory time. On the one hand, the economies of the world are doing great! On the other, unless you’re wearing $2,000 Prada shoes and brush your teeth with truffle toothpaste, you’re not benefiting much from that growth. On the one hand, there’s less war than ever before. On the other, pretty much everyone seems to hate their own government and is actively working towards their own demise.
So, what the hell is going on? Well, I spent most of my reading time in 2018 trying to figure that out. And here are five of the best explanations I’ve come across:
Democracy for Realists
by Christopher Aachens and Larry Bartels
The Elevator Summary:Democracy for Realists is an eye-opening and sober look at the data on democracy and what makes it effective/ineffective. Hint: people are stupid. Or as my favorite Winston Churchill quotes goes: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”
Its Explanation for the World Being Fucked: We romanticize democracy. We like to blame politicians and bureaucrats and argue that if the people were just more engaged, more educated, had more direct say in their government, things would be better. Unfortunately, the data show pretty much all of this to be untrue. People regularly vote against their own interests, are ignorant of the issues, and even when they are well-informed, they are easily swayed by group identities and emotion. Yes, that includes me and you.
The best-functioning democracies are those that have large hierarchies built into them separating power from the popular vote. Unfortunately, due to technology and political pressure, those hierarchies have been slowly dismantled over the last 100 years or so. The book is heavily focused on the United States, but I’m sure most liberal, democratic countries will see themselves in this book. Incredibly well-researched. And more than a few very uncomfortable conclusions.
When the apocalypse comes, it will look like: An angry Twitter mob demanding the right to vote via social media likes.
Its version of “Run! Save Yourself!:” Get more involved in party politics. Re-introduce the importance of policy expertise to positions of power.
“Well-informed citizens, too, have come in for their share of criticism, since their well-organized ‘ideological’ thinking often turns out to be just a rather mechanical reflection of what their favorite group and party leaders have instructed them to think.”
“Elections do not force successful candidates to reflect the policy preferences of the median voter.”
“When voters got a chicken in every pot at election time, they usually liked the incumbent party’s ideology just fine, whatever it happened to be. But when incomes eroded and unemployment escalated, they became ripe for defection to anyone who promised to bring home the poultry.”
The Coddling of the American Mind
by Jonathan Haidt and Gregory Lukianoff
The Elevator Summary: The kids aren’t alright. No, really—I know every generation says that, but this time it’s true. Kids who grew up with smartphones (and have begun to enter the university system) are emotionally stunted, overly fragile, and exhibiting mental health issues at alarming rates.
Its Explanation for the World Being Fucked: I expected this book to be another, “Let’s all shit on social media together,” party, but it’s not. Social media, of course, does get its own chapter. But most of the book is focused on cultural shifts that have happened over the past couple generations.
Haidt and Lukianoff argue with a lot of convincing data that adolescents today are maturing emotionally and psychologically at lower rates and later than ever before. Their main targets are:
The ballooning dysfunction of school bureaucracies, who are now treating kids as customers rather than students.
The trend of “helicopter parenting,” where paranoid parents are coddling their children, protecting them from everything that is uncomfortable and/or potentially threatening.
The heightened expectations for academic achievement — most childhood development happens through playing with other kids. Kids these days play less than ever before, and when they do play, they are often isolated. Instead, they’re busy doing homework and prepping for college applications, sometimes as young as kindergarten.
When the apocalypse comes, it will look like: A bunch of 20-somethings throwing temper tantrums, claiming that uncomfortable news headlines are the equivalent to “violence,” and responding with real violence.
Notable Quote: “From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.”
Who Owns the Future?
by Jaron Lanier
The Elevator Summary: In Who Owns the Future?, Jaron Lanier, one of the internet’s earliest engineers, argues with passion and seemingly endless wit that pretty much all of our problems boil down to one thing: for some reason, at some point, we all decided that information should be free.
Its Explanation for the World Being Fucked: Free information sounds great on paper, but it causes all sorts of deep, systemic problems when implemented at scale. For one, it spawns an extremely aggressive and intrusive advertising model. For two, the economics of data collection create a situation where a small number of servers collect all the data and gain terrifying amounts of power…and then inevitably abuse that power (*cough* Facebook). For three, when software eats the world, it generates greater inequality, not less. For four, when all information becomes free, it becomes valueless and meaningless. People feel entitled to start believing whatever they want, since it’s always unclear what information is more valuable than other information. For five–he can keep going… and does.
When the apocalypse comes, it will look like: An impossibly addictive online service that controls you by giving you everything you want (or at least, everything you think you want).
Its version of “Run! Save Yourself!:” Insist on paying for information. Block every ad you can. Support your favorite artists and content creators (*cough* like by supporting my work here).
Notable Quote: “Here’s a current example of the challenge we face. At the height of its power, the photography company Kodak employed more than 140,000 people and was worth $28 billion. They even invented the first digital camera. But today Kodak is bankrupt, and the new face of digital photography has become Instagram. When Instagram was sold to Facebook for a billion dollars in 2012, it employed only thirteen people. Where did all those jobs disappear to? And what happened to the wealth that those middle-class jobs created? This book is built to answer questions like these, which will only become more common as digital networking hollows out every industry, from media to medicine to manufacturing.”
The Death of Expertise
by Tom Nichols
The Elevator Summary: Speaking of the value of information, Nichols goes on a rampage in The Death of Expertise, ripping apart the growing anti-intellectualism. But whereas Lanier focused on information technology, Nichols takes aim at our culture.
Its Explanation for the World Being Fucked: With our modern obsessions of freedom and equality and happiness, Nichols argues that we’ve taken these rights and applied them to a domain where they don’t belong: truth. People feel “the right” to have their opinions and beliefs respected, even though they are not qualified, have no credentials or offer no expertise. Pundits on TV claim that their beliefs that climate change doesn’t exist, or that vaccinations are harmful, are just as valid — and should be respected just as much — as their scientific counterparts. Nichols’ blame is scattershot. Everything from the usual internet gripes, to cable television, to the grade inflation happening in school, to school bureaucracies treating students as customers rather than, well, students.
When the apocalypse comes, it will look like: A parade of self-righteous morons.
Its version of “Run! Save Yourself!:” Practice some humility. Trust in science. Trust in people who have decades of experience in a field. In many ways, the issue today, above all others, is trust.
“No, the bigger problem is that we’re proud of not knowing things. Americans have reached a point where ignorance, especially of anything related to public policy, is an actual virtue. To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong about anything.”
“We are supposed to “agree to disagree,” a phrase now used indiscriminately as little more than a conversational fire extinguisher. And if we insist that not everything is a matter of opinion, that some things are right and others are wrong … well, then we’re just being jerks, apparently.”
“When feelings matter more than rationality or facts, education is a doomed enterprise.”
by Robert Putnam
The Elevator Summary: Another US-centric book, but Bowling Alone likely has broad applications in other parts of the world. The title refers to the fact that more Americans bowl than in the past. Yet, there are fewer bowling leagues than ever before. Meaning: more and more, people are spending time alone.
Its Explanation for the World Being Fucked: The problem is that modern society requires community engagement to function well. When everyone is just off doing their own thing, a lot of institutions and social necessities begin to fall apart. And it’s in this way that Putnam’s reams of research is startling. It’s not just bowling leagues that are disappearing. Churches, parent-teacher associations, political activists, neighborhood watches, bridge clubs, veterans organizations. You name a community, and it’s likely disappearing.
My own takeaway from this, having studied human happiness for years, is that people rely on a sense of community and shared effort to maintain healthy and stable lives. The fact that people are opting out of these opportunities for community and local impact, in a ceaseless obsession of online media and global fame, likely explains a lot of the social changes going on today. And a lot of the drops in mental health, as well.
When the apocalypse comes, it will look like: People dying alone in their homes, without anyone knowing.
Its version of “Run! Save Yourself!:” Get involved. Get out of your house. Get off your phone. Engage with people doing things locally, around you, things that you can see and measure their effect on the community. Things that are face-to-face and require commitment.
Notable Quote: “Community has warred incessantly with individualism for preeminence in our political hagiology… The dominant theme is simple: For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century a powerful tide bore Americans into ever deeper engagement in the life of their communities, but a few decades ago— silently, without warning— that tide reversed and we were overtaken by a treacherous rip current. Without at first noticing, we have been pulled apart from one another and from our communities over the last third of the century.”