Review of Mark Manson’s book that aims ‘for a better life and better world and could not be more needed right now.’

I bought this book along with From Zero to One and Seven Habits of Highly Effective People last year roughly a week after the LWCW. A friend held a … ‘workshop?’ there about this book, presenting the first three chapters which resulted in a drawn-out discussion partly about motivational theory and philosophy. The one thing I remembered taking away with me, was the idea that it is not our thinking brain that is in charge, but our feeling brain. That somehow struck me, because I had not internalized that yet.

So when I came across this book, having left an impression with me (as did the entire event), I kind of had to buy it, and so I did.

Notes

I did write down some notes (actually, a lot of them). Since it takes a considerable amount of time to rephrase them into something useful, I will mostly refrain from publishing them most of the time. There will be more focus on the Main takeaways, with a bit of criticism and some quotes from the book with comments from my side.

Review

Main Takeaways

I had three main takeaways, the first actually even before I bought the book. First, the thinking brain is not in control - the feeling brain is. Second: I gained a much deeper understanding of the human relation to suffering, and how we can use it to our advantage. Lastly, that the economy is really only based on feelings, nothing else.

Not the Thinking Brain, but the Feeling Brain is in Control

Elephant with Rider I mean this was kind of clear intuitively, but when first encountering this concept again it kind of hit me, because it had a couple of implications on how I could actually improve my life. You can get yourself to do anything, if you just ‘feel’ like you want to do it, basically.

The picture about the elephant rider is really fitting here. The thinking brain is the rider and the feeling brain is the elephant, the thinking brain can reason as to why you should go somewhere, and the awesome things that are there or make you feel bad about things you did, but in the end the feeling brain or elephant just goes wherever it feels like it.

And this is (sadly?) not included in the book but Neuroscientifically speaking it works the exact same way: The neocortex ist just ‘on top’ of the brainstem and other older parts. While planning and prediction happens close to exclusively in the neocortex, no actions happen there. Only the feedback of ‘it would be nice if …’ get’s passed back to the more ancient, animalistic part, that gets to actually decide.

This was kind of a wake-up-call for me. Since then, I just noticed that a lot of techniques for ‘better’ thinking were about listening about the deciding part, what it ‘feels’ like doing. This includes Focusing specifically or Meditation in general.

Suffering will always be. But we can choose our suffering

The blue dot effect is saying (among other things) that whatever we do, our happiness will mostly be at a seven out of ten. Now while this might sound depressing at first, since striving for happiness itself simply does not work, it also suggests that whatever torture you make yourself go through, you will most likely be able to preserve and keep going.

This explains a whole lot. This includes how people where able to live/survive in uncivilized cultures (If dropped in a caveman society from 40 thousand years ago, how long would you require to adapt? How long would you be able to survive?), and just how people were able to live through horrendous situations in general. Also, when you start training anew, it is only ‘really’ hard in the beginning, when you don’t have the habit yet. As soon as the habit kicks in, it is something continuously enjoyable (you wouldn’t do it otherwise, would you?).

This applies to mental training just as well as to physical one, though.

The economy is mostly based on feelings

Now while this was true intuitively, it really makes sense. So the core idea is that people don’t buy stuff, they buy feelings. I’m not sure if this is true for everyday items (toothpaste?), it sure feels true for just about everything else, clothing, or the awesome (feeling!) new computer.

Thinking about it gave me one important clue about product design: it has to evoke feelings. If it does not, if it is not awesome in one way or another, why would anyone buy it? It may be pretty awesome, but if it does not feel like it, no one will buy it either. Again, the two most important parts - creating a really good item and being able to market it.

Criticism

I don’t know. I learnt a whole lot of new things in this book, but for some reason it feels like I did not get the point he was trying to make in the last chapter. First, he talks about how we are completely and utterly fucked once computers take over (potentially?) and then dares to hope for a better world at some point, probably before that. I mean … what? (I’ll talk about some parts as to what happens when computers are able to simulate us in a later post)

After thinking about hope for some time, my overall impression is that he’s painting a too-little dimensional picture about the human psyche. He really does a good job of explaining a whole bunch of things I was only intuitively aware of before, and I’m aware that he did by no means try to explain the full human psyche, but still: it seems too simple, to be true generally. Even on average. Like something feels amiss, like this is a piece, but the puzzle is missing, or something.

Still, I would recommend reading it if you have not already, you might have quite different takeaways than I did.

Favourite Quotes

Hopelessness is the root of anxiety, mental illness, and depression. It is the source of all misery, and the cause of all addiction.

Logotherapy actually has this fully worked out. Not sure why it is not referenced.

ultimately, we are moved to action only by emotion

This, even though unexpected, rings true.

why don’t we do things we know we should do? Because we don’t feel like it.

This was the moment where I received the intended insight. This feels too true to be wrong. And it explains a lot of petty ‘but I don’t want to do this’-behaviour from myself. One of the key takeaways for me, reading this book.

what feels good is what is good.

Somehow I don’t want this to be true, but other people seem to mainly act like this. I have not observed myself to only act like this, but this is probably due to insufficient observation abilities regarding myself.

“growth”: repriotizing one’s value hierarchy in an optimal way. […] When we stop valuing something, it ceases to be fun or interesting to us.

This explains a lot. Still, I don’t think this is the full story.

Adulthood is the realization that sometimes an abstract principle is right and good for its own sake, that even if it hurts you [or others] today […], being honest is still the right thing to do.

I’m not really sure about that. For me, growing up mainly included learning about responsibility and what it means. That might have been because I was striving for truth and other ‘values’ already, even though I lost myself for some time.

the maturity of our culture is deteriorating.

We can see this quite clearly, and I have a couple guesses as to why that is.

No matter how much progress is made, no matter how peaceful and comfortable and happy our lifes become, the Blue Dot Effect will snap us back to a perception of a certain amount of pain and dissatisfaction.

In my understanding, there are many ideologically-focused groups that basically got what they wanted but for some reason still exist with new, more extreme demands. Or take a look at our entire culture.

Meditation is, at its core, a practice of antifragility: training your mind to observe and sustain [..] pain and not let the “self” get sucked away […].

Wow. What a strong argument in favour of meditation. Maybe I should do that more.

When we deny ourselves the ability to feel pain for a purpose, we deny ourselves the ability to feel any purpose in our life at all.

The internet is a bona fide innovation. All else being equal, it fundamentally makes our lives better. Much better. The problem is … well, the problem is us.

I just wanted to note that I had to laugh out loud when reading this.

The only true form of freedom, the only ethical form of freedom, is through self-_limitation_. It is not the privilige of choosing everything you want in life, but rather, choosing what you will give up in your life.

For some reason this statement feels off to me, though I can’t put my finger on it. It’s just that … something about it does not sit right with me.

The pain of regular physical exercise ultimately enhances your physical freedom.

Not just physical, also mental. And suddenly things really got interesting.

Freedom itself demands discomfort. It demands dissatisfaction. Because the feer a society becomes, the more each person will be forced to reckon and compromise with views and lifestyles and ideas that conflict with their own.

It certainly is worrying, then, that bigger and bigger parts of the population do not seem to be able to be in discomfort, no matter how small. My guess is that it will get worse, and then … what?