Chances are, you’ve probably read something the author Mark Manson has published, or you know someone who has. His 2016 book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck has sold over 6 million copies and has been translated into more than 20 languages; celebrities like Jessie J have Instagrammed its distinctive orange cover, and searching for the hashtag #TheSubtleArtOfNotGivingAFuck will net you 60,000-plus posts.
His website, MarkManson.net, which includes everything from his thoughts on dating (“Trust your partner. It’s a radical idea, I know”) to America (“We know nothing about the rest of the world”) and self-improvement (“You can’t buy happiness and you can’t achieve happiness”), sees about 2 million readers a month.
And his new book, Everything Is Fucked: A Book About Hope, has been on the New York Times bestseller list since it was released in May.
To put it in terms the man himself might appreciate: His shit fucking resonates. Widely.
Manson is hardly the first self-help author to revel in profanity (Sarah Knight’s The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck, for instance, was published in 2015). And his advice isn’t exactly radical. So much of Manson’s popularity stems from the success of his persona, the total package he presents. His failures and fuckups feature prominently in his work; he presents himself as a real-talking, regular guy, a reformed bad boy who’s just trying to work through his own damage, and to help you work through yours while he’s at it. (It doesn’t hurt that he is, specifically, a guy: According to a study of self-help readership that Quartz did in 2017, men are significantly more likely to read self-help books if they’re written by other men.)
“I think a lot of self-help gets caught up in trying to make the reader feel good about themselves,” Manson told me in a phone interview in July. “I think my readers appreciate that I don’t do that — in a way, it’s kind of condescending to try to make your reader feel a certain way. It’s my job to simply show them ideas that I find powerful and help them ask questions of themselves.”
Over the course of his career, Manson has worked almost every angle the advice industry has to offer. He started out as a pickup artist before pivoting to what he calls “personal development.” His first book, self-published in 2011, was a deconstruction of the principles of pickup artistry called Models: Attract Women Through Honesty, and with every subsequent publication he’s widened his scope, from The Subtle Art’s focus on living a meaningful life to Everything Is Fucked’s argument that the best thing we can do for ourselves and the world is to stop freaking out so much.
It’s that latter point that’s a somewhat unexpected position to take in 2019, when so much in the world feels fraught and precarious. Between escalating political tensions and the pressing threat of climate change, it’s hard to take it seriously when a rich white man says that, actually, our lives are better than they’ve ever been, and we’re just incapable of seeing that fact.
But maybe that’s to be expected of someone working in a profession that’s narrowly focused on the self. Manson’s success, and the limits of his ideas, suggest that self-help alone might not be enough to cure what ails us. What’s the role of a self-help guru when there’s so much happening in the world that’s outside any single person’s control?
These days, Manson seems to be living the millennial dream: At 35, he’s based in New York with his wife, Fernanda, whom he met while traveling (Everything Is Fucked is dedicated to her). His job is meaningful, highly remunerative, and also flexible, creative, and cool.
But when he graduated from college, he found himself in a much more familiar generational story: Adrift, aimless, and recently dumped, he was living in Boston and working a low-level finance job he would later describe to Forbes as “nightmarish.”
It was Manson’s attempts to get over that breakup, which looms large in his personal mythology, that led him to online dating advice forums, and then down the rabbit hole of pickup artistry proper. He started posting on PUA message boards and forums as Entropy — he said the moniker was a holdover from his days as a gamer — and quickly developed enough of a reputation for his, um, skill set that other men would ask if they could accompany him to bars to watch him work. From there, it wasn’t much of a leap to making them pay him for the privilege. Dating coaching seemed like way more fun than a 9-to-5, so Manson quit his job and went all in.
“I think a lot of self-help gets caught up in trying to make the reader feel good about themselves.”
But it turned out to be more work than just letting dudes wingman him for a night. Manson discovered that a lot of the men who came to him lacked more than self-confidence or smooth pickup lines. “My ex-girlfriend’s mother was horrified,” he says now of his career change. “She thought I was the spawn of Satan, and I was teaching little rapists. I remember sitting down with her and being like, ‘You don’t understand. My clients don’t shower for weeks on end. I know I market myself as a dating coach, but I’m more like a Rent-a-Parent.’”
His clients’ utter haplessness (there’s a chapter in Models that encourages men to wear deodorant and buy clothes that fit them) sparked what would become the first in a series of signature Manson moments: the transition from asking “How can I help people get better at dating?” to “Why are these guys having so many problems dating in the first place?”
His answer came in the form of Models, a book whose title is deliberately misleading. No, it is not about how to trick girls who are professionally hot into sleeping with you. Instead, it aims to, as the introduction says, “provide a model of what being an attractive man of integrity and maturity looks like in the 21st century.”
Models was written after Manson had slept with, by his count, at least a hundred women, and spent a few years getting paid to take other men out drinking. What he’d discovered was that he was not much happier in that lifestyle than when he’d been a nerdy, celibate teen growing up in Austin.
Models is by no means a perfect work — Manson himself admits that some of its language is dated. A suggested flirting tactic is to tell a woman who owns a cat, “Well, that’s cool you are into cats, maybe I can come over and play with your pussy for a while.” Yech. And some of its generalizations about women are hard to read without wincing, as when Manson claims that “women are aroused by men who perform bold behaviors towards them.”
But it is leaps and bounds ahead of classic pickup artist texts in terms of acknowledging that the women these men want to pursue are people, not points to be scored, and that sex may not be the key to long-term satisfaction.
A 2017 article in the New Statesman about how young men are radicalized by violent misogyny online quoted two former Red Pillers who cited reading Models as a turning point for them in leaving that community behind. “Most of what he talks about is the mindset to care for oneself and strive to improve. Hate is energy better spent finding and enjoying activities you love,” said one.
Models was also a turning point for Manson: He refers to it now as a “mic drop.”
“You don’t understand. My clients don’t shower for weeks on end. I know I market myself as a dating coach, but I’m more like a Rent-a-Parent.”
“The dating advice industry is so fucking toxic,” he said. “There’s a lot of really messed-up stuff. I wrote that book like, there needs to be some kind of emotionally healthy, respectful book for men in the world. I’m gonna try to write it, but I’m not gonna stick around and see what happens. I can’t do this anymore.”
Luckily, the book’s financial success enabled him to quit coaching: A year after its publication, he was making enough money from Models’ Amazon sales to call writing his day job. In 2013, Manson relaunched himself as a more generalized personal development writer; in 2015, he published a post titled “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck.” In the next year, he would go from being a very popular blogger to a world-famous author.
If Models’ conception was the first instance of a signature Manson moment, The Subtle Art is the full realization of his brand. There’s the cursing, first of all — not violent or macho, but instead indicative of an off-the-cuff, regular-guy authenticity. (He also talks a lot about burritos.) Manson’s ideas are presented as counterintuitive and counter to prevailing cultural wisdom about happiness and health. There’s a lot of storytelling, and a smattering of data, though the book gestures at “many studies” more often than it actually cites its sources. (Manson was irked by this criticism of The Subtle Art when it came out and decided to include footnotes in Everything Is Fucked. “I thought it was important to show that I did my homework,” he said.)
Its basic ideas are not earth-shattering: Manson isn’t arguing that you shouldn’t give a fuck about anything but, rather, that deciding what you value and want to care about will improve your life more than blindly striving to achieve an impossible and often arbitrary standard of perfection.
Not everyone was particularly impressed: “If you’re a sales bro who doesn’t have time for eastern thinking, Manson delivers Buddhism 101 to you with a lot of swear words,” goes a representative review.
But in the field of self-help, which is often crowded with positive affirmations and encouragement to seek and strive and self-improve, to life-hack and bio-hack and just generally hack at yourself until you’re perfect, Manson’s focus on accepting imperfections and learning from pain and struggle set him apart. The Subtle Art encouraged chronic self-help readers to put the books down and cut themselves a break; it also got people who usually shun the genre to give it a go.
“A lot of people may want help, but they don’t like the language of self-help, and he really knows how to write as if he’s not a self-help author,” said Kristen Meinzer, who cohosts a podcast about self-help books called By the Book. “He knows how to write like a guy in a frat house. For people who may feel lost, they can hear this guy who doesn’t talk like Oprah or Brené Brown and feel like, ‘Oh, this guy’s on my level. He’s not touchy-feely; he’s talking to me in my own language,’ and that can make that person feel better.”
“Not touchy-feely” is a phrase that comes up regularly when people describe Manson’s writing. Nastaran Tavakoli-Far, who cohosts the podcast The Gender Knot, also uses it in her description of why she likes Manson’s work so much.
“A lot of that scene is really woo, and it’s all touchy-feely,” she said. “He’s just really straightforward.” Tavakoli-Far has had Manson on the podcast a few times to chat about masculinity because, she said, “He’s someone who has messed up a lot. There’s a nonpreachiness to it. A lot of the self-help space is full of those types, and I feel like unless someone’s an actual professional, I really don’t want someone telling me what to do.”
Tavakoli-Far also noted that the commonsense aspect of The Subtle Art is actually part of its appeal for her. “Often this has happened where I had a life dilemma, and I’m like, ‘Ooh, Mark Manson’s written about this,’” she said. “And I go read his piece, and I usually feel really shit after I read it, but it’s quite helpful. A couple of weeks later, I’ll have ended up making some change based on that.
“That’s a thing about a lot of his pieces — it’s like, you know when you have an inkling of something? And he straight up says what you’ve got that nasty inkling about.”
The Subtle Art may be self-hating, and some of its dictates may seem counterintuitive, but it is, in many ways, a classic self-help book, especially in that it is deeply focused on the self. Manson’s latest book, Everything Is Fucked: A Book About Hope, attempts to grapple with more expansive and communal issues. Specifically, he wonders, how can it be that we live in such a wealthy country at such a technologically advanced moment, and yet rates of depression and anxiety continue to climb? What’s going on that’s making us so anxious and unhappy?
Manson believes we’ve gotten confused about what to hope for. “We’ve lost the clear why that drove previous generations,” he writes. In a theory he calls the Blue Dot Effect (everything in Everything Is Fucked has a name — the Consciousness Car, Newton’s Law of Emotion, etc.), Manson posits that we’re hardwired to see a certain amount of conflict in our lives, and if there isn’t anything serious being imposed on us, we’ll invent pain and suffering for ourselves to experience. This search for conflict, he suggests, is responsible for everything from trigger warnings on potentially upsetting texts to America’s increasingly fractured political polarization.
“Hope requires that something be broken,” Manson writes. “It requires us to be anti-something.” He sees most communal ways of organizing — religion and politics in particular — as fundamentally flawed models that we use to distract ourselves from the Uncomfortable Truth (death) by pretending to align ourselves with something moral, when actually we’re just aligning ourselves with something in order to be anti–something else. (For the record, Manson identifies as basically left wing, though he’s proud to be read by people on both ends of the political spectrum.)
“For people who may feel lost, they can hear this guy who doesn’t talk like Oprah or Brené Brown and feel like, ‘Oh, this guy’s on my level.’”
Everything Is Fucked is about how to engage with the human need for hope without letting it get the better of us, without it making us irrational, angry, and defensively tribal. It ends with an appeal to readers. “Don’t hope,” Manson writes. “Don’t despair, either. In fact, don’t deign to believe you know anything. … Don’t hope for better. Just be better.”
Sounds good, right?
Maybe not. For all of the questions Manson asks himself and his readers, he has significant blind spots that weaken his work. For instance, he wrote a whole book about how we don’t realize how good we have it, here in modernity, without seriously addressing climate change, an apolitical phenomenon that threatens to wipe us and our Wi-Fi and our longer lifespans right off the map. (He also doesn’t have much to say to those who don’t have Wi-Fi, or reliable devices with which to access it, much less drinkable tap water in their first-world cities.)
Questioned about this, Manson maintained that his premise stands. “Climate change is a huge issue,” he admitted. “But if you go back to our parents’ generation, my dad used to crawl under his desk when he was a kid because nuclear sirens would go off. There’s no time in history when people didn’t think the world was about to end. The steady march of progress has created less immediate and urgent threats. It’s not to take away from the legitimate crises that are happening right now; it’s just that, all things considered, I would pick income inequality and climate change over Hitler.”
But climate change isn’t a nuclear weapon, waiting for people to push a button; it won’t be deterred by threats of mutually assured destruction, or anything except drastically cutting carbon emissions. There’s a difference between a disaster that might happen and one that, as a matter of fact, is already very much in progress. (And as to whether you’d rather live in Hitler’s Germany or Trump’s America, I’d imagine that depends heavily on who you are in both societies.)
But beyond that, it’s Manson’s belief in progress as an unalloyed force for good in the world — or even a thing that necessarily exists — that makes Everything Is Fucked a little hard to swallow.
In Everything Is Fucked, Manson writes that science is “the only demonstrably good thing humanity has ever done for itself.”
Science has, unquestionably, improved our lives. It has given us things like antibiotics — but then, overuse of those antibiotics, particularly to fatten livestock, has given us superbugs. Science has given us chemical pesticides that produce enormous crop yields and also pollute waterways and cause cancer in farmworkers.
The world is getting safer, and it is also getting more dangerous; the things that save us can also kill us. Medicine is good except when it’s bad, and so is science, and so is community, and so is faith. To claim otherwise is to view the world in narrow, black-and-white terms that fail to account for the fact that a thing can be both good and bad, depending on your perspective, and that people can have very different experiences of the same phenomenon.
It’s Manson’s belief in progress as an unalloyed force for good in the world — or even a thing that necessarily exists — that makes Everything Is Fucked a little hard to swallow.
Manson’s experiences are particularly narrow: They are, unavoidably, those of a privileged white cis man. He can encourage readers to fuck around and fuck up and sleep on friends’ couches while they try shit out because he didn’t have to financially support his parents the way many children of immigrants are expected to (and because his friends had apartments with couches he could sleep on). He can write Donald Trump off as “a nothing burger” because his friends and family aren’t being deported or barred from entering the country for fundamentally racist reasons. And he can encourage radical self-doubt because he hasn’t faced the constant, grinding pressure of external doubt that’s inflicted near constantly on women and minorities.
We talked about this during our phone call. We were talking about politics and how he started getting much more pushback from the left after Trump was elected. “I just think people need to take me less seriously, but they also need to take themselves less seriously,” Manson said. “My tone in my writing is pretty glib. I try to make fun of every extremist position equally. A purpose in writing it that way is, ‘Hey, guys, let’s laugh at ourselves a little bit. Let’s take it easy a little bit,’ because I think that’s what everybody seems to be losing the capability of doing.”
Sure, I said, but it’s hard to laugh at yourself when your rights are under attack. And it’s also hard for me to laugh at myself some days, in some moments, without feeling like I’m doing it because I’ve been taught that my experiences don’t matter and all of my emotions are inappropriate. Better make fun of them so that everyone knows I don’t dare take my ridiculous female self seriously.
“I feel like you maybe unintentionally merged two different meanings of ‘take yourself seriously,’” Manson replied. “There’s a ‘take yourself seriously’ of like, ‘Haha, I had a panic attack last night, I’m so crazy, hahaha,’ versus ‘take yourself seriously’ as like, ‘I am a contributing person in this world, I have a place in this world, I deserve to be listened to.’ There’s a chasm of difference of meaning in those two things.”
No, I said. For me, there is not a chasm between those two things. I meant exactly what I said. In my experience, they exist on a spectrum. When you are constantly being interrogated about whether you’re allowed to be upset about small, everyday things, it makes it difficult to believe that your emotional reaction to anything is reasonable.
Manson, to his credit, heard this. “Really?” he said. “Huh. I’ll have to think about that, because I see them as very different things. I guess my official response is that, when I say, ‘Learn not to take yourself so seriously,’ it’s not intended to represent the marginalization or oppression of certain minority groups. To me that’s a completely different conversation.”
This is the thing about Mark Manson, really: He’s just one dude. He’s a pretty nice dude, all things considered, especially if you can get him on the phone and ask him about his opinions. He will listen to you, and hear you, and who knows? Maybe he’ll change his mind.
But most people don’t have that opportunity. Manson is very aware of the asymmetric relationship he has with his readers, and it bothers him. The transition from blogger to author changed the way people react to him, he said: “I used to get a lot of really great book recommendations from readers; readers would push back on my views, and I would actually learn a lot from it. It was seen as this mutual interaction, more of a communal thing — ‘Hey, you wrote this awesome thing, but I have this other idea; what do you think about this?’”
He can write Donald Trump off as “a nothing burger” because his friends and family aren’t being deported or barred from entering the country for fundamentally racist reasons.
But it’s not just his status as an author that’s shifted, he said. “I think a measured, respectful, human-to-human response as an author is rare, and I also think in terms of blogging and social media, it’s also become much more rare,” he explains. “I used to get it all the time, 8, 10 years ago. Now it’s like, you’re either with us or against us, and everybody’s looking to draw that line.
“I think one of the biggest problems today is that our discourse and the technology facilitates interaction that is so — we’re just cut off from each other,” he continues. “Everything you read or see is kind of a caricature of the other side, and as a result, there’s no actual communication, so people just get driven further and further away.”
Manson was surprised when right-wing radio hosts started reaching out to him after The Subtle Art was published, but ultimately, he hopes having ideals in common can start conversations that will help bridge the divide between liberals and conservatives. “For me, it’s really important to a healthy, functioning democracy that it doesn’t matter how despicable I think your views are, we need to be able to talk to each other. And that requires both ideas coming together with some good faith,” he said. “If I’ve got the ear of people on both sides, hopefully I can write something that gets each side to consider their biases and dogmas and things like that, so they can loosen up a little bit and engage with others.”
He’s bewildered by criticisms like mine, he said, the post-Trump left-wing blowback that has made him feel like less of the liberal he thinks he is. “It’s a strange time,” Manson said. “This is happening to a lot of authors and podcasters and public figures I know: They’re experiencing the same thing, where it’s like, I’m pretty sure I’m on the left side of the spectrum, so why am I getting this hate from these people and love from those people? Certain things, I’m kind of at a loss. I’m just confused.”
Ten years is a long time to be a public figure — especially these last 10 years that, because of the 24/7 hyper-connectivity the internet offers, feel sometimes like they’ve moved at warp speed. So it’s no wonder that Manson has fallen out of step with some of his audience. And it’s hard to criticize self-help books that have, manifestly, helped so many people; I have an inbox full of emails about how Manson’s advice inspired people to leave bad relationships and bad jobs and look for something better.
But I can say that, for this self, his words were not helpful. His vision of the world as it is felt blinkered, and his ideas for how to change it were too centered on thinking solely about that self.
It happened that the week I was reading Everything Is Fucked, I was also reading Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell, which is about how communities come together to respond to disaster. Like Manson, Solnit critiques the idea that everything bad that happens to us should be read as damaging trauma, but unlike Manson, she offers an outward-facing solution.
“I’m pretty sure I’m on the left side of the spectrum, so why am I getting this hate from these people and love from those people?”
Manson suggests that we take responsibility for ourselves and our feelings — “Nobody else is ever responsible for your situation but you,” he writes in The Subtle Art. “Many people may be to blame for your unhappiness, but nobody is ever responsible for your unhappiness but you. ... You always get to choose which metric with which to measure your experiences.”
Solnit believes that we need to take responsibility for one another far more radically than our current systems of government and social structure allow. If the world is making us so unhappy, she asks, why don’t we get together and change the world?
That’s what I kept wondering, reading Manson’s books. Why so much discussion of how to change ourselves in order to deal with external circumstances, and so little about how to change the world so that we need fewer self-help books to teach us how to deal with it in the first place?
The question Mark Manson is asking himself at this point is: What’s next? He’s written one of the most popular dating books on Amazon; he’s written one of the most popular self-help books of all time. He’s working with Will Smith to write Smith’s autobiography, but that’s not a career direction, necessarily. (Manson said Smith is a genuinely lovely person — no, really, no, really. Everyone says that when they work with celebrities, but there’s truly no dirt here — he’s just wonderful.)
He does think he has one more self-help book in him — maybe about dating and relationships, since a lot of women readers want their own version of Models — but probably not more than that.
“The self-help thing is probably a cul-de-sac,” Manson said. “I don’t think there’s anybody in the self-help industry that doesn’t start repeating themselves after two or three books. I’m also very young in publishing years, so it’s like, repeating the same shit when I’m 60 as I was saying when I was 30...” he trails off. He’s not interested. “After that,” he says, “I really have no idea.”
For now, he tries to read a couple of hours a day and write a couple of hours, too. He has two guys who help him with research and the technical aspects of running the website. He writes posts like “The Attention Diet,” which is about dealing with our distractible, internet-addled brains, and “The Best Parts of Travel Are the Things You Don’t Remember,” which begins, “I have vomited in six different countries.”
His level of mega-popularity puts him in a strange position. His whole thing is rigorous self-doubt — he refers to his brand as “self-hating self-help,” and Chapter 6 of The Subtle Art is titled, “You’re Wrong About Everything (But So Am I).” So does he worry about letting himself get deified?
“I discovered very early on that if I pretended like I knew everything and people needed to pay me for answers, it made me feel very icky and uncomfortable,” he explained. “And it also put a lot of burden and pressure on me, like, ‘If you say something to somebody, then you’d better be right, motherfucker.’
“I just try to write as honestly as possible — to express my emotional struggles and epiphanies as frankly as I can — and write them in such a way that I find them compelling and exciting. And then I let the chips fall where they may.” ●
Zan Romanoff is the author of the novels A Song to Take the World Apart and Grace and the Fever out now, as well as Look, which is forthcoming from Dial Books in March 2020. She’s a full-time freelance writer; her work has appeared in print and online for BuzzFeed, Eater, GQ, the Los Angeles Times, the New Republic and the Washington Post, among other outlets. She lives and writes in LA.