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 hierarchy?

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 suffering.

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 in 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 anxiety.

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 different.

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 complacency.”

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 Life 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 manual.

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 you.

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 years.

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 health. 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.