The Subtle Art of Living a Good Life: A Conversation with Jonathan Fields and Mark Manson



A good life isn’t a place that you can mentally get to and
then you’re good. It’s a practice. It’s a daily practice.

Mark Manson is a blogger, entrepreneur,
and the bestselling author of The
Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to
Living a Good Life
. For a recent live Heleo Conversation, Mark was joined
by Jonathan Fields, founder of The Good
Life Project and author of Uncertainty: Turning
Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance
 and, most
recently, How to Live a Good Life: Soulful Stories, Surprising
Science, and Practical Wisdom.
 They discuss the
ways discontent can be productive, reevaluate Maslow’s
hierarchy, and explore what it takes to become the person we’d
like to be.

Jonathan: If you ask the average person on the
street, “What does it mean to live a good life?” what are the
first three words that pop up?

Mark: Success, happiness, security.

Jonathan: Of those three, what do you
think is real, and what do you think is total illusion? Or
where on the spectrum are they between “this is legit” versus
“this is a complete fallacy that we tell ourselves”?

Mark: I think success is 90% fallacy, but
not because it’s not important. It’s because it’s all in our
heads. We decide what success is. A lot of what people perceive
as having a good, successful life is just this illusion that
they’re chasing in their minds.

Love, happiness is fundamentally important, maybe the most
important. Health and security is a bare minimum. It’s—

Jonathan: The bottom of Maslow’s

Mark: If you don’t have it, nothing else
matters. But if you have it, it’s necessary but not sufficient
in and of itself.

Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Jonathan: If I think about those three
things—success, happiness, and security—to me, security is a
complete and utter illusion. If security is defined as
certainty, which I think for most people it is, and certainty
is the one thing I’m 100% certain I can never have, and we
spend our entire lives chasing it, that is the definition of

Mark: I like that.

Jonathan: I strive after it. I’m a dad,
I’m a husband. I want to lock down the future as much as
possible in the name of creating a safe place for my kid. We’re
wired to want it.

Mark: What’s interesting is you get a lot
of people who live in incredible security, people in the United
States who live in nice suburbs and safe neighborhoods—and they
think the apocalypse is about to come and are running out and
buying 50 guns and putting canned food in the basement. Whereas
you can go to countries that are statistically far less safe,
yet people walk around with a lot more comfort.

Jonathan: You’re talking about a context
of actual physical safety, which I agree with. The more we feel
physically safe, the more we’re okay in the world. My sense is
that the quest for day-to-day certainty or security is less
about that. To me, it’s more about, “I want to lock down my
work and finances and make sure that everything is going to be
okay.” People devote decades of their lives in the name of
building a mountain of “security,” aka cash, and stock
portfolios. They sacrifice so
many of the things that do actually nourish them
the name of hitting that point of enough.

“Even enough is not enough. There’s always the sense that
something is missing, something that needs to be changed.”

Then, October 2008 hits and all of sudden, everything goes down
the tubes, and they’re like, “Huh. Well, that didn’t work the
way I wanted.”

Mark: I have a friend who’s incredibly
financially successful. I knew him back when he was moderately
financially successful. He was extremely driven, wanted to make
a lot of money, had his own business, and I watched his career
grow over the years. He’s never lost that drive, but it’s not
coming from a place of passion. It’s coming from a place of

When he was making a couple hundred thousand a year, he was
like, “Well, if I can get to a million, then everything will be
okay.” Then he got to a million and he’s like, “Well, I think I
need a few million,” and then he got to a few million and he’s
like, “Well, maybe I need eight figures.” The only thing that’s
actually true the entire time is his discomfort with his own
situation. Meanwhile, his financial situation is completely

Jonathan: It’s like, “Well, how much is
enough?” and the answer is always just a little bit more, no
matter what you get.

Mark: I wrote an article at one point and
I said something like that: “When is it ever enough?” One of my
readers replied: “Enough is never enough.” Even enough is not
enough. There’s always the sense that something is missing,
something that needs to be changed.

Jonathan: This brings up something else
that I’ve been curious about lately—is there a constructive
value to discontent?

Mark: I think so. If you look at human
psychology, it seems as though we are wired to be slightly
unsatisfied at any given time.

I buy into this evolutionary explanation—a satisfied creature
isn’t going to adapt. It’s going to get eaten at some point.
It’s that slightly paranoid, slightly insecure, slightly
unsatisfied creature that is always thinking, “What can I do
better? What can I do more? What can I work on that’s going to
make me safer and more secure and my kids more secure?”

I always feel like Mr. Doom-and-Gloom when I talk about this,
because so
much of our industry is about happiness all the time
. But
in a certain way, we’re damned to be this way. We’re never
going to get rid of it, and so the real question is, how do we
manage it? How do we manage it within ourselves? How do we be
realistic about it?

“Discontent fuels all progress, because if we’re completely
100% content all the time, the net effect of that is

Jonathan: How we could potentially
harness it, also? Discontent fuels all progress, because if
we’re completely 100% content all the time, the net effect of
that is complacency. Then we’re all just like, “Things are
good.” Then all progress stops, and what’s the effect of that?

My sense is that discontent is a good thing if it’s coupled
with gratitude. Discontent fuels the quest for growth, but if
it’s not also coupled with gratitude for what you have now, on
some level, that is just pure neurosis and anxiety. If you have
those two bundled together, it’s really powerful.

Mark: That’s an interesting combination.
If you just have gratitude without the discontent, you’re
delusional. You’re off in la-la land, and you’re not really
affecting things positively around you.

Changing gears, your book is called How to Live a Good
 and my subtitle is A Counterintuitive
Approach to Living a Good Life—
the funny thing is, I don’t
think we disagree.

We have these seemingly opposite-facing books and messages. My
book is principle-based, very theoretical, all about mindsets
and perspectives. There’s no exercise, no “Go do this,” and the
biggest criticism I’m getting about my book is that there’s not
any of that. People email me, “Well, what am I supposed to do
now?” You took the opposite approach.

Jonathan: Mine is like an operating

Mark: One thing that I’ve noticed about
being in this industry for a long time is that everybody is
talking about the same thing, it’s just that we come at it from
different angles. The reason mine is so theoretical and
principle-based is because I like to nerd out about
philosophical stuff.

I’ve never been the type of guy who opens a book and thinks,
“Oh, I need to do these five things every morning.” What
inspired your approach? Are you like that?

Jonathan: No, I’m wired very similarly to
you. I take a strengths assessment and my number one strength
always comes up as some form or love of learning. I’m an
autodidact. I’ll vanish into books and documentaries, find
teachers, and devour knowledge. I love going into deep
philosophy and ideas and that’s where I spend a lot of my time.
My last book was like that because that’s what I enjoy.

When I started working on this one, I started doing that again
and wrote a book that was deeply principled, where do faith and
spirituality meet science. I handed in the first manuscript to
my publisher and—

Mark: They hated it?

Jonathan: “Dude, this isn’t it.”
“Really?” I had a coming-to-God moment, and we had a
conversation. I’m like, “Okay, I think I get it.” I went back,
I rewrote an entire second manuscript, handed it back in. I
thought, “Okay, I feel pretty good,” and waited a couple of
weeks. “This isn’t it either. We don’t know what to tell you.”

Mark: This is brutal.

Jonathan: What I realized was that my job
was not to write that kind of book. That’s an interesting book
for me, but I was working on the assumption that my reader was
not a massive philosophy geek like I am. I wanted to create
something simple, where you could understand the ideas in the
blink of an eye, remember it for life, and it would immediately
guide your behavior.

What became the central, driving force was to write to people
who were mostly in the middle years of their lives, where
there’s a million things going on in our lives. There’s a high
level of discontent and unhappiness, lack of fulfillment,
disconnection with both yourself and your own identity and
other people. You’re driven by pace and you feel like you would
really love to figure out what would make a difference, but you
also feel like you don’t want to add to the burden of what you
already have on your plate.

“A good life isn’t a place that you can mentally get to
and then you’re good. It’s a practice. It’s a daily practice,
and it builds over weeks and months and years.”

You don’t want to have to work just to figure out what to do.
You’re willing to actually do it if you can have it given to

Mark: There are so many self-help books
out there that are giving exercises just to make it feel like
the reader is doing something. Yours was like, “No. There’s
research about this. This actually helps people and it’s pretty
simple and you can implement it right now.”

Jonathan: Also, I’m straightforward about
the fact that, in my mind, a good life isn’t a place that you
can mentally get to and then you’re good. It’s a practice. It’s
a daily practice, and it builds over weeks and months and

Mark: A friend of mine referred to it as
mental hygiene. He said, “In the same way that you brush your
teeth every morning and take a shower every day, there are
certain psychological things you need to do for yourself every
day.” You’re not going to arrive at this amazing place and feel
great for all time. You’re keeping your stuff in order.

Jonathan: What do you think stops people
from approaching life that way?

Mark: Two things: the first is that it’s
so much sexier to hear that there’s one solution. There’s a
certain part of us that’s always looking for that one thing.

Jonathan: The magic bullet.

Mark: The magic bullet to fix everything.
There’s something innately desirable about that. Then, two, I
think that most of the people who come to books like ours or to
personal development in general, they’re usually coming because
something really painful just happened.

Jonathan: That’s true.

Mark: They just got divorced or somebody
just died or they found out horrible news. Their immediate
concern is, “What can I do to take this pain away?

As time goes on, and they learn and understand more, they’re
more receptive to this idea of it being a practice and
something that you work on. My site is covered in this message:
the pain is constant, nothing is going to fix it permanently,
all this stuff is a practice. Still, 50% of the emails I get
are, “My wife just told me she wants a divorce. I’m destroyed,
what do I do?”

Jonathan: We all want that when we’re in
the moment of this profound stuff and we’re like, “Just make it
stop. Please make it stop.” That’s why there’s so much
self-medication through substance abuse. If you zoom the lens
out and look at the mainstream health and fitness and diet
industry, they understand the psychology, too.

A lot of the programming is built around two stages. Stage one
is the quick result stage. “Drop 10 pounds in the first 14
days.” It’s to get people feeling like, “I’m out of a little
bit of that pain and I’ve got a little bit of momentum.”

I think the transition into, “Okay. Now, this has to become
daily practice for the rest of your life,” that’s where people
fail. To me, that’s the big puzzle.

Mark: I don’t know if anybody’s
completely solved that.

Jonathan: I’ve talked to a lot of people
about this. B.J. Fogg is doing some really interesting work at
Stanford on how to get people to take tiny steps that become
sustaining actions. He splits behavior change into three
different lengths. There’s a spot, which means do it once.
Motivation to get somebody to do something once is pretty easy.

Then he calls it span which is for a month, so stop smoking for
a month or stop eating chocolate for a week. Motivation to get
somebody to do that is harder but it’s doable. It’s not just
motivation. Making changes in your environment also changes
your ability. Then, if you tell somebody, “Do this for life,”
that’s where—

Mark: Everybody jumps off.

“If you’re going to keep doing something for the next 40 years,
it needs to become part of your identity, and there needs to be
some passion or emotion associated with it.”

Jonathan: Yeah. Even though the outcome
that we desire so much only happens when you keep it going for
an indefinite amount of time.

Mark: If you’re going to keep doing
something for the next 40 years, it needs to become part of
your identity, and there needs to be some passion or emotion
associated with it. If
you hate going to the gym
, you can still make yourself go
for a month or three months or six months.

Jonathan: Or the typical six weeks
starting in January.

Mark: Exactly. The people who go for
decades and get into incredible shape, it’s usually because
they found something that they’re extremely passionate about
within it and they’ve implemented into their
identity. They
come to see themselves as a fit person who cares about
. I have no idea how you induce that in people or
encourage that.

Jonathan: I think I know part of that.
Part of the pain, in the beginning, if you have somebody who’s
completely unfit, sedentary, overweight—number one, they’re
terrified. Also, there’s no competence or confidence.

The early days of changing behavior, as a general rule, suck
because we’re terrible at it and it hurts. We’re stumbling and
embarrassed, and we have to be vulnerable, and it’s
uncomfortable. At the same time, if you work through those
early days, you reach a level of competence where it starts to
be fun. To me, that’s the turning point because then instead of
having to go, you want to go.

Mark: You’re excited to go.

Jonathan: Instead of going for the
minimum required time, you’re like, “Okay. How do I build it
into my day to stay longer?”

With everything we do, like Good Life Project, we always build
community. B.J. Fogg has a model on behavior change which is
that every behavior is a factor of three things: motivation,
ability and a trigger.
Take the fitness example: you’ve got to be motivated to go and
exercise three times a week, you’ve got to have the ability to
do it, and then you have to have a trigger, like there’s a gym
right there. Join it. Most people focus on elevating the
motivation side. My experience has been that the single biggest
factor in somebody sustaining a behavior long enough for it to
become enjoyable, intrinsically motivating, and part of their
identity, is the community. You do it with a school of
likeminded people.

Mark: Then you get CrossFit.

The most powerful part about the CrossFit model is the
community aspect. It’s not just the accountability, it’s the
sense of camaraderie, the sense of accomplishing something
together. It comes back to what makes a good life—ultimately,
as humans, we are social creatures. We need that acceptance,
that camaraderie, that love.

Jonathan: To come full circle to Maslow’s
hierarchy, the third thing in the hierarchy is belonging, and I
have this theory that it would be better set up like a diamond,
with belonging in the middle, the root that radiates up and
down. Because belonging is at the heartbeat of survival, too.

This conversation has been edited and condensed and
originally appeared at

If you enjoyed this Heleo conversation, you may also be
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Tags: goal directed behavior,
goal-setting, good life, heleo,
jonathan fields, mark manson, practice, progress

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