Telling It Like It Is: A Conversation With Mark Manson

By Cameron McCool on

This post contains strong language.


Responsible for articles such as The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck and Why Everyone on the Internet is an Asshole, Mark Manson is to controversy what pyromaniacs are to bushfires; the provocative nature of his writing frequently serves as the deliberate spark to vigorous public debate.

Take, for example, An Open Letter to Brazil, a recent commentary in which Mark publicly labeled Brazilians as the cause and the solution to their country’s problems. The blog post sparked a furore so severe that it shook the upper echelons of Brazil’s national media and government institutions.

Mark originally built a public profile as a professional dating coach, offering one-on-one coaching, ebooks, and online articles, to help men up their dating game. Although the experience afforded him deep insights into the human condition, disillusionment with the field acted as a catalyst for a change in Mark’s focus. Realizing that he was offering was self-help in disguise, he began writing about personal development on MarkManson.net.

While critics may view him as a provocateur, to fans, Mark is a refreshing voice that provides deep, thoughtful explorations on a broad spectrum of themes integral to the human experience. Death, life purpose, passion, sexuality, inequality, insecurity, love, and terrorism are some of the many topics of his work.

After eight years of publishing on his site, Mark’s business model remains simple. A percentage of readers he attracts to his blog will convert into subscribers and social media fans, some of which will buy Mark’s books, downloads, and online courses. The more readers that visit the site, the more profit he stands to make. Hence the desire to produce articles that light the world on fire.

With many viral hits to his name, and the ability to write like no other, we spoke with Mark to learn his process for creating written content that amasses audiences, his approach to business, and the techniques he’s used to build the global profile he enjoys today.

 

I write personal development advice that doesn’t suck. Some people say I’m an idiot. Other people say I saved their life. Read on and decide for yourself.
— Mark’s self-written bio on MarkManson.net

You cover a broad spectrum of themes in your writing. What is your process for deciding what you'll work on next?

My process is a little bit irrational. It really just comes down to what is feeling very important and salient for me at that moment. I try to consistently hit a certain amount of output. I try to do at least two solid articles a month. When it comes time to pick something to write about, one thing I've noticed for me is that if I try to plan too much, it never works out that way because by the time I actually sit down to write something, my moods have changed, my interests have changed, and my inspiration has changed.

One of the big challenges in my business is to find a way to scale an artistic process and determine how to consistently hone my creativity. What works for me is that I will decide, “next week I'm going to write an article.” But until I actually sit down and start it, I don't think about what the topic is going to be.

I keep a list of article ideas on Google Drive, which I can add to from my phone. I'll be going to the movies with my girlfriend, and a preview will spark an idea from me, and I'll pull up my phone and add that idea to the document. When I sit down to write something, I scan that document, and there's anywhere from 30 to 50 ideas on it. Usually one or two of them will really stand out and inspire a little bit of an emotional response from me.

Not only does that emotional response and inspiration make the writing process easier for me, what I've actually found is that readers can sense that emotional attachment to whatever I’m writing. If I'm feeling an emotional response to what I'm writing about, then generally the article comes out being much, much better than if I'm just sitting down and forcing myself to write about a certain topic.

Similar to when you see a fake smile in a photo and a genuine smile—you can always sense the difference.

Yeah, exactly.

Does emotion influence your output?

Pretty much. I mean I still can create but… one way to describe it is if the emotional inspiration isn't there, the writing process starts to feel like I’m writing a term paper. The work starts to feel like an obligation. I have actually trained myself over the years to stop as soon as that happens. One, because I'm not enjoying it. Two, I write much slower when I'm not emotionally involved with it. But if I'm emotionally involved with an article, a lot of times I can pump it out very quickly—like 30 minutes.

 

So much of my brand is built on not just the concept of vulnerability, but the fact that I’m being vulnerable myself.

In an interview with Career Hack, you mentioned that “insanely hard work” formed the basis of your success. Do you adhere to a set schedule, or is the focus of your day-to-day emotionally dictated as well?

Because so much of the job is creative-based, sometimes I do have to give in to emotional whims. It's a balancing act that took me many years to learn how to navigate. In talking to a lot of other writers and musicians, and artists, it's something that everybody has to figure out. Because you do need to produce consistently, but at the same time, you need to learn how to not force yourself to produce consistently.

I'm definitely not one of those people who has a rigid schedule. I usually wake up at 9am or 10am. I break all of the productivity rules and life hacks. I spend the first hour checking email and Facebook and reading the news. I hate mornings. I've always been much more productive in the afternoon and at night. So I intentionally start my days slowly. I try not to stress myself.

And then usually by 11am I dive into my work. If I'm writing, a lot of it really hinges on how well the writing goes. If I need to be writing and it's just a really shitty writing day, like nothing's coming out, nothing sounds good, usually after a couple of hours I let it go and just call the day a loss. Or, if the writing does go well, I'll ride the wave as long as I can.

There’s a lot of heavy-handed advice on productivity floating around the internet. It’s refreshing to hear someone at your level kibosh the notion that early mornings and rigid schedules are necessary for attaining success.

Yeah. Years ago, I read all those productivity books that everybody else reads. I read about all the hacks. And I tried everything. I tried getting up at five and, you know, stretch, drink water, and do all this crap. And none of it stuck.

I think a lot of that stuff is overrated. I mean, if you're a person who's really struggling with productivity, then trying a few things out that can maybe help you find a nice routine. But if you're already productive and you're just trying to get, you know, more productive—I don't know. I just find it to be a lot of effort for a little reward.

 

I remember sending emails, begging for sites to let me post something. And now they come to me, begging me to let them post one of my articles.

Are there any aspects of your business that are a grind?

Taxes. [laughs] My taxes are a pain in the ass. All the accounting side of things. I had no idea what I was getting into when I started selling stuff online, but tracking sales, revenue costs, write-offs... You can get a lot of software that helps you, but once you start making a certain amount of money there are weird tax codes to deal with in the US. It's been a real pain.

There are also a lot of really frustrating, unsexy things that can break and go wrong behind the scenes when it comes to the technical side of selling something. People definitely don't see that side of my business.

We’ve interviewed many entrepreneurs for this series. The fact that there are several “unsexy” aspects to running a business comes up every single time.

Yeah. I traveled to Peru in 2012 and I was there for about a week. The day I arrived, I launched a new membership site. I got a few hundred sales on the first day, but then the membership software just completely broke. So I had hundreds of people who paid me a bunch of money and they couldn't use anything.

I spent the entire seven days in my hotel room in Peru fixing the fucking site. I didn't see anything. I didn't see anything in Lima. I didn't go to the beach. I didn't do anything. So sometimes, people ask, "Oh, what did you think of Peru?" I'm like, "I have no idea. I was fixing code." [laughs]

 

These days, my focus is more on scale. It’s not “How am I gonna get people to read this?” It’s “How am I gonna get a million people to read this?”

You have over two million monthly readers. What techniques were the most effective in growing your audience to its current size?

I remember years ago sending emails to sites like Huffington Post or Business Insider, begging them to let me post something. And now they come to me begging me to let them post one of my articles. It’s definitely a situation where I don't have to think too hard about that anymore. In terms of how I got to this point, I think—aside from the obvious answer that “content is king”—at this point, I've spent eight years working obsessively on my craft.

I would also say that I have been a great beneficiary of Facebook. Looking back, I think there was a bit of a golden age, a window when Facebook decided that they wanted to be the world's news feed where everybody went to get content, and they opened up their algorithm. It was around 2012 or so, 2013. Back then it was easier to go viral; when things went viral in those days, they went viral like crazy. I was very fortunate that I was using Facebook during that era and I was consciously pushing for it to go viral. I was also writing content that lent itself to virality. It's much harder nowadays to capitalize on that. Facebook and Twitter are pretty crowded these days. But it was definitely the tipping point for my growth.

Do you have any advice on how entrepreneurs can use content to their advantage?  

I think the "content is king" thing is something that people hear and they think they're doing it, but they're only doing 30 to 40 per cent of it.

Most people hear "content is king" and their immediate thought is, "Alright, I need to write articles that have good information in them. I need to write well. I need to make sure there are no typos or mistakes. I need to add good pictures." And these things are all true. But these things are all very surface level stuff. You can put together a good article with good information that looks nice, but it needs to differentiate itself in some way.

With my articles and my site in general, I'm always obsessing over brand. I almost see each article as its own brand. Because you really need to separate it in some way. You really need to give it some character and make it distinct. And I think 99 per cent of content producers, they don't think on that level.

So my advice is that differentiation is just as important as the quality itself. Don't just write an article about ten tips to bike up hills faster. Produce a really ridiculous cartoon that demonstrates ten tips to bike faster. You know, something like that. Take that extra step of creativity. There’s an an extra dimension of the creative process that is necessary these days, which I think most people aren’t aware of. Or, you know, they don't think on that level.

 

Speaking of differentiation, can we talk about the controversy you sparked with An Open Letter to Brazil? Government officials and mainstream Brazilian media weighed in on the national debate. To start, do you expect a strong reaction from audiences when you publish your work?

I try to create it. I start out writing every article as if it's going be a viral hit that gets read millions and millions of times. It's very, very hard to predict what will happen with articles. But it's definitely something I want to happen.

With the Brazil article in particular, I published two versions. I published one in English, one in Portuguese. And I definitely had a pretty strong sense that the Portuguese one would go viral, mainly because over the last four years, I’ve probably spent two, two and a half of those years in Brazil. I'm getting married to a Brazilian, I have tons of Brazilian friends. I've spent a lot of time in the country, learned about its history, and its culture. If you could really just boil down virality, one of the things that is just pretty much guaranteed to go viral whenever you write it or produce it, is when you say something that everybody thinks but nobody else is saying.

 

The Brazilian media just shat all over me. They hated it. They hated me.

Could you elaborate on that?

When I was in Brazil, especially the last month I was there, I was just getting so frustrated. I mean, things are always going wrong in Brazil, you know. Repair men don't show up. A restaurant scams you. Taxi drivers take you to the wrong place. Stuff like that. But during my last month in the country, there was a series of major things that went wrong. And when we were planning this move back to the US, I was getting really frustrated and pissed off. So I had a conversations about it with a number Brazilian friends down there who reflected these thoughts.

I told a lot of Brazilian people who have been critical of that article, I told them, you know, there was nothing in that article that was an original thought. Every single thing in that article has come from conversations I've had with Brazilians. So, yeah... I hit my boiling point and I came up with the idea of writing an open letter. And it was very genuine. I was frustrated and I was angry, but I was genuinely concerned. I thought, "Shit, I'm getting married to a Brazilian! This country is going to be a part of my life until I die. And I'm going to have to deal with this every year for the rest of my life." I felt very strongly that I wanted to say something, and I felt that this was not being said anywhere. And it's really not. The Brazilian media aren't saying anything about the this. So the article went crazy.

What happened when people began reacting to the article?

I would say the vast majority of the individual responses were very positive to me. But the Brazilian media just shat all over me. They hated it. They hated me. They wrote tons of articles about me. Which was fine, you know. It is what it is.

My two most controversial articles, the two that have gotten me the most hate in my life, was that one about Brazil and then an article I wrote about the United States telling Americans that they're ignorant. As you would expect, those two articles just copped a huge backlash. But they also, in terms of traffic and everything, they did very, very well. So I just see it as an occupational hazard.

 

To get through to people, to affect them on a significant level, you gotta piss some people off sometimes.

Every entrepreneur is bound to deal with critics, but the opposition you received from Brazil was a frenzy. How did you deal with criticism on such a large scale?

Oh, man. [laughs] Well, I mean, it does get easier. It does definitely get easier. I remember when I started blogging and I had 30 readers. I would receive one negative comment every six months. It would be some troll. It's as though some anonymous guy comes and finds my articles just to tell me, "You're a loser. Fuck off." It used to ruin my afternoon. I thought, oh, somebody thinks I'm a loser. But eventually, you just become immune to it.

One thing that's really weird about developing an audience this big, and it's both a good thing and a bad thing for different reasons, is that the sheer number of people (commenting) makes you take each individual less seriously. And I don't mean that in a condescending way. I don't mean that you see every individual as stupid. It's just like their opinion has less of an impact. From pretty much any article I write, I'll get 10 to 20 emails from people who hate it.

Interesting.

When your work is being read by hundreds of thousands of people, and you're getting hundreds of emails from people who love it, you just don't care anymore.

The Brazil thing was the first time in a really long time that it reached a threshold where it actually started to affect me. I'd say the first 40 or 50 people who said they hated it, I didn't care. But by the time it started getting up to a hundred, two hundred, it started ruining my day.

One thing that was really beneficial was that I've experienced, you know, these waves of hate that were coming my way before. One thing you learn from experiencing that is that they go away. The attention span of the internet is very, very short. People will hate you one day, and then three days later, they have no idea who you are. They don't even remember that you exist. I knew it would be a case of, "Alright. I just have to wait it out."

These days it seems to affect the people around me much more than it affects me, because they're not used to it. My fiancee, she had people popping up on her timeline on Facebook trashing me. And it bothers her way more than it bothers me, just because I think at this point it's like I've learned to understand that it’s part of the process.

But yes, it's hard. It sucks. It sucks when people don't like you. It sucks when people don't like your ideas. But I think if you want to create a business, if you want to put your ideas out in the world, it comes with the territory. And there’s a skill in learning to let it roll off your back.

 

It sucks when people don’t like you. But if you want to put your ideas out into the world, it comes with the territory.

In the article 33 Things Every Aspiring Entrepreneur Should Know, you shared plenty of great advice. To highlight a point, you also wrote: "Fuck Tim Ferriss." Your bold disposition endears you to readers. How does it play out in business and social contexts?

I'm much more comfortable speaking my mind socially. I don't deal with a lot of business negotiation situations. But my whole life, I've had a problem opening my mouth a little bit too much. Since I was a kid, I've always tended to be the guy in the room who said what everybody was thinking but nobody else wanted to say. That has awarded me a lot of success in my life, and it's also punished me.

I think, with boldness, I enjoy it. I enjoy reading people who make bold statements and have fun with it. When I say things like "Fuck Tim Ferriss," or I make a crass joke—if you put me in a bar with my friends, that's just how I talk. So it's very natural that I would write that way.

A lot of people read it the wrong way. It really upsets them. But it comes back to the fact that boldness ultimately plays in my favor a lot. It’s a differentiating factor of my content. In a lot of my articles, I'm not saying anything that nobody else has ever said before. Most of my articles aren’t original ideas. It's the way I'm saying them. It's put in such a way that it gets through to people, or affects them on a significant level. And to do that, you know, you gotta piss some people off sometimes. It acts as a good brand differentiator.

In a business context, with so much information coming at us, being able to develop that connection with people is what's becoming a major competitive advantage. When you're bold, it tends to really attract some people and it really turns other people off.

With the way the world's going these days, making really big bold statements that piss some people off but other people love is becoming a big advantage for any business. I think you see that in politics. I think you see that in big businesses. Think of the old spice commercials, with the shower guy or whatever. But it applies for content creators like myself as well.

 

If you’re doing entrepreneurship right, you’re always on the frontier. And being on the frontier… you have no idea if what you’re doing is the right thing. And that’s always disconcerting.

Earlier you said you approached every article with the desire to make it a viral hit. Could you describe the amount of work that you put into a piece before you share it publicly?

Oh, yeah. There's tons and tons of work that goes into it these days.

If I write a first draft and I feel pretty good about it, I go back and I do two different revisions. One thing that you hear in writing advice is definitely true: the first draft is always going to be terrible. The real writing occurs in the revision. I'll spend just as much time revising as I do writing it in the first place.

After I've revised it a couple of times, I'll send it to my research assistant and get his feedback on it. If I'm unsure about something, I'll ask him about it. Every once in a while, he'll even write up a couple of sentences that he thinks fit well, and I'll take those and play with them, and maybe insert them. He'll go through it, edit it, and then we’ll talk about images and media we want in the article. A lot of times, I have some specific ideas in mind as I write the piece. Other times, I have no idea. Sometimes I photoshop my own images. But we probably spend another two to four hours selecting images. He'll go out to stock image sites and he'll find these big beautiful cover photos that pop up on Facebook and Twitter and everything, to give that sleek, artistic look.

He'll come back to me sometimes with 20 to 25 images and I'll go through it, I'll pick four or five that I like, saying, "Okay, this will be the cover. I'm gonna use this one. I'm gonna photoshop it a little bit, put it here." Then he puts everything in Wordpress. And this is all assuming that no research was done. I'd say a quarter of the articles, either him or I do research before we write about it. Actually, one thing I've been having him do for the last couple of months is pre-research. I have a bunch of article ideas that I'd like to write about this spring and summer. I'm sending him off to investigate the topics that require a lot of research. He'll send me summaries, and then I will write the article based on that summary.

It’s a lot different to when I first started out. I used to just sit down, goof off, and write something in 30 or 40 minutes. I’d hit post and forget about it. These days, it can be anywhere from 10 to 15 working hours to get one post out between the two of us.

What's an outstanding challenge that you had to deal with to get to where you are today?

Oh, man. [laughs] I don't even know where to start. Entrepreneurship isn’t like the magazines at all. If you're doing entrepreneurship right, you're always on the frontier. And being on the frontier, you have no idea what's in front of you. You have no idea if what you're doing is the right thing. You have no idea if you're going the right direction. And that's always disconcerting.

When someone who's been a fan of your work for a long time meets you, what are they most surprised to learn about Mark Manson?

This is true, actually. It's actually kind of upsetting how many people meet me in person and they're saying, "Oh, you're so much nicer than I thought."

And I'm always like, "Is that a compliment? I can't tell if that's a compliment.” [laughs]

Mark Manson will publish his next book in 2016. Enjoy a selection of his most popular articles here. To keep up with Mark’s writing, subscribe to his newsletter, and connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.

Join over 10,000 subscribers and get our best articles delivered to your inbox.

Thanks for subscribing!