10 Counterintuitive Approaches to Self-Improvement with Mark Manson

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life author Mark Manson shares these ten counterintuitive approaches to self-improvement.
[Image by Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums]

According to Mark Manson, caring too much can be bad for your health. That’s probably why he wrote a book called The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life.

After hearing him on The Art of Charm, I can tell you that he’s definitely counterintuitive.

Here’s what we can learn from the interview, and from Mark:

1. For every Steve Jobs or Michael Phelps, there are thousands of people who didn’t “make it.”

They might’ve made the same sacrifices, done everything right, bounced back from failure time and time again…but just didn’t make it. And we don’t like to believe that. Because we’re so attached to the narrative that hard work equals success, and we just ignore these chance moments and tiny decisions that ended up having a huge influence on someone’s “success.”

It’s not pleasant to think about, is it? But it’s true. And, interestingly, if we just accepted it, wouldn’t we feel less pressure? More at ease?

2. Our natural tendency is to fall into what we believe is right.

Our mind loves certainty and to know how right it is, and so we look for things that confirm what we already believe. The more evidence we find, the more certainty we have, and the better we feel.

But think about some of the things you believed ten years ago… aren’t you embarrassed by some of them? Don’t you wonder how you could’ve ever believed something so ridiculous? Yeah. Exactly. So what are you going to think about the beliefs you have now in ten years?

Knowledge is always moving forward, and it’s probably moving forward a lot faster now than it ever has been. So if we’re going to assume anything, it shouldn’t be that we’re right, but that we’re wrong. Better to be a skeptic than to be delusional.

3. Buying self-improvement books and going to seminars and buying courses is well-intentioned, but…

… at some point, you’re probably reinforcing the belief that you’re unhappy. And that can become kind of addictive. It’s like yo-yo dieting: you lose weight, you feel great, something happens, and you start eating rubbish again. In this case, you buy a book, read it, it helps a little bit, something happens, and you feel like you need to buy another book. Go to another seminar. Buy another course.

There’s nothing wrong with self-help books, of course, and it’s good to want to improve yourself. But why do you want to improve yourself? Because you want to improve yourself, or because you think you’re somehow not enough?

4. The feedback loop from Hell.

We often judge our own negative emotions — because we’re kind to ourselves like that, aren’t we?

Maybe we’re at a party — or a dreaded “networking event” — and we’re feeling anxious about talking to new people. And then we start thinking we’re some kind of loser because we can’t even talk to another person. And then we feel even more anxious. So now we’re feeling anxious about being anxious! And then we notice that other people are talking to people, and they seem to be doing it easily, so we then somehow feel even worse than we already are.

We have to recognize this. Otherwise it’ll never end. Hence the title.

5. Every time technology takes a leap forward, there are new problems for us humans to deal with.

The Internet — and social media in particular — has drastically skewed our idea of what a good life is. We’re only exposed to the absolute best stuff that’s happening in people’s lives — which is probably 0.1% of their actual lives — and so we start believing that’s how life should be: awesome, and awesome literally all the time.

Then, because it’s obviously not, we start feeling bad. Why isn’t my life like that? Why are they always doing amazing things and I’m not?

We sort of know it’s irrational if we really think about it, but we rarely stop to think about it and instead just get caught in our emotions.

6. Positivity has become so celebrated that we’ve lost sight of why negativity is so important.

Negativity, adversity, pain…it all makes us better. We improve not in spite of it, but because of it. And yet we’ll do almost anything to avoid it! Because it “feels bad.” In the short-term, yeah, maybe. But in the long-term, there’s no doubt it helps us.

One example is exercising/working out. Once we accept the pain of exercising and working out is when we can start building the body we’ve always wanted. If we stopped whenever we felt pain, we’d never be able to do it.

Negativity needs to be made okay again in our culture. If it’s not, in the long-term, that will only lead to negative things.

7. Emotions exist for a purpose.

And that purpose is so we can survive and reproduce, so of course they matter. They matter very much. But what’s important is that they don’t become the focal point of our lives, that they don’t become the reason (or excuse) we make every single decision.

We need higher-level principles. Values that we operate by no matter what. Because these are the things that will help us to admit our partner is right when we’re pissed off, or when our business isn’t working even we’re feeling like crap that it isn’t.

This takes constant work, and it’s something we all struggle with and have to remind ourselves of seemingly all the time. Being a good person isn’t easy.

8. Self-worth is how you feel about the negative aspects of yourself.

There are lots of people who (at least claim to) think highly of themselves, think they’re amazing, and think they can do anything. Maybe it seems inspiring on the surface, but really it’s just a form of narcissism — because, when they do inevitably fail, or things don’t go their way, they can’t handle it. They usually just blame other people or their circumstances, or anything that isn’t them.

Is that someone who’s amazing? Someone who can’t even take responsibility for themselves?

The people who truly have self-worth are humble. They don’t think they’re something special. They know what they are and what they aren’t, and they’re okay with it.

9. Entitlement comes in two forms.

Form one: I’m better than everybody and therefore deserve special treatment.

Form two: I’m worse than everybody and therefore deserve special treatment.

They’re both forms of narcissism (because they’re both about me me me), and both are pretty much never true. Which one do you usually fall into?

10. Manson’s Law of Avoidance.

“The more something threatens your identity, the more you will avoid it.”

We always look for ways to confirm our perception of ourselves. Of what we’re capable of doing. Of what we’re not capable of doing. The more insidious part of this is that it’s the same with success as it is with failure.

We know failure can threaten our identity, and it’s more widely accepted that it does. That’s why we get it when we know someone is afraid to fail.

But what about being afraid to succeed? Because success, in whatever form it comes, can threaten our identity. How many times have you seen someone sabotage themselves? How many times have you seen someone snatch defeat from the jaws of victory? How many times have you done this?

Obviously, some of this is unconscious. That’s why we need to practice being more aware of it. Are you not taking the job opportunity because it’s not right for you, or because you’re secretly scared everything will change and you don’t believe you’ll be able to handle it? Are you not losing weight because it’s “hard,” or because you’re scared of the person you know you could become, and the expectations you believe come along with that?

We avoid things in relation to how much they threaten our identity. What are you avoiding right now?

What else you can hear on the podcast:

  • Why we should always question our assumptions — “what if I’m wrong about this?”
  • How to define success for yourself.
  • What on the earth is the self-awareness onion?

Matt Hearnden - author of 7 posts on The Art of Charm

Matt Hearnden is a writer in the UK, and he publishes a new post every day over at matthearnden.com. He took voluntary redundancy from the corporate world a few months ago and is now pursuing his dream of writing full-time. More important, he has lots of tattoos and plays basketball.

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