There’s a part of Navy SEAL training called “drown-proofing” where they bind your hands behind your back, tie your feet together, and dump you into a 9-foot-deep pool.
Your job is to survive for five minutes.
Like most of SEAL training, the vast majority of cadets who attempt drown-proofing fail. Upon being tossed into the water, many of them panic and scream to be lifted back out. Some struggle until they slip underwater where they proceed to lose consciousness and have to be fished out and resuscitated. Over the years, a number of trainees have even died during the exercise.
But some people make it. And they do so because they understand two counterintuitive lessons.
The first lesson of drown-proofing is paradoxical: the more you struggle to keep your head above water, the more likely you are to sink.
With your arms and legs bound, it’s impossible to maintain yourself at the surface for the full five minutes. Even worse, your limited attempts to keep your body afloat will only cause you to sink faster. The trick to drown-proofing is to actually let yourself sink to the bottom of the pool. From there, you lightly push yourself off the pool floor and let your momentum carry you back to the surface. Once there, you can grab a quick breath of air and start the whole process over again.
Strangely, surviving drown-proofing requires no superhuman strength or endurance. It doesn’t even require that you know how to swim. On the contrary, it requires the ability to not swim. Instead of resisting the physics that would normally kill you, you must surrender to them and use them to save your own life.
The second lesson of drown-proofing is a bit more obvious, but also paradoxical: the more you panic, the more oxygen you will burn and the more likely you are to fall unconscious and drown. In a sick and twisted way, the exercise turns your survival instinct against you: the more intense your desire to breathe, the less you will be able to breathe. The more intense your will to live, the greater the chance you will die.
More than a test of physical will, drown-proofing is a test of each cadet’s emotional self-control in situations of extreme danger. Can he control his own impulses? Can he relax in the face of potential death? Can he willingly risk his life in the service of some higher value or goal?
These skills are far more important than any cadet’s ability to swim. They’re more important than his resilience, his physical toughness, or his ambition. They’re more important than how smart he is, what school he went to, or how damn good he looks in a crisp Italian suit.
This skill — the ability to let go of control when one wants it most — is one of the most important skills anyone can develop. And not just for SEAL training. For life.
Most people assume the relationship between effort and reward is one-to-one. We think that working twice as long will produce twice the results. That caring about a relationship twice as much will make everyone feel twice as loved. That yelling your point twice as loud will make you twice as right.

The assumption here is that most of life exists on a linear curve, that there’s a one-to-one ratio between effort and reward with everything:
A linear relationship
But allow me to inform you — as someone who just tried drinking twice the normal amount of Red Bull so he could finish editing this damn thing — this is almost never true. Most of the world does not exist on a linear curve. Linear relationships only exist for mindless, rote, repetitive tasks — driving a car, filling out reams of paperwork, cleaning the bathroom, etc. In all of these cases, doing something for two hours will double the output of doing it for one hour. But that’s simply because they require no thought or ingenuity.
Most activities in life do not operate along the linear effort/reward curve because most activities in life are not basic nor mindless. Most activities are complex, mentally and/or emotionally taxing, and require adaptation.
Therefore, most activities produce a diminishing returns curve:
A diminishing returns curve
Diminishing returns means that the more you experience something, the less rewarding it becomes. The classic example is money. The difference between earning $20,000 and $40,000 is huge and life-changing. The difference between earning $120,000 and $140,000 means your car has slightly nicer seat heaters. The difference between earning $127,020,000 and $127,040,000 is basically a rounding error on your tax return.
The concept of diminishing returns applies to most experiences that are complex and novel. The number of showers you take in a day; the number of chicken wings you inhale during happy hour; the number of trips home to visit your mother in a year — these are all experiences that start out highly valuable at first but then diminish in value the more frequently you do them (sorry, Mom).
Another example: studies on work productivity show that we’re really only productive for the first four to five hours of each day. Everything after that suffers severe diminished returns, to the point where the difference between working for 12 hours and 16 hours is basically nothing (not counting sleep deprivation).
Friendships operate on a diminishing returns curve. Having one friend is vital. Having two is clearly better than one. But having 10 instead of 9 changes little in your life. And having 21 instead of 20 just makes remembering people’s names that much more difficult.
Sex has diminishing returns, as does eating, sleeping, drinking alcohol, working out at the gym, reading books, taking vacations, hiring employees, consuming caffeine, saving for retirement, scheduling business meetings, studying for an exam, masturbating, staying up late to play video games — the examples are endless. All give back less the more you do them, the more you try, or the more you have. All operate on a diminishing returns curve.
But there’s another curve, one that you’ve probably never seen or heard of before — and that’s largely because I make a lot of this shit up. That’s the inverted curve:
Inverted curve
The inverted curve is the bizarro “Twilight Zone” curve, where effort and reward have a negative correlation — that is, the more effort you put into doing something, the more you will fail to do it.
Drown-proofing exists on an inverted curve. The more effort you put into rising to the surface, the more likely you will be to fail at it. Similarly, the more you want to breathe, the more likely you are to choke on a bunch of chlorinated piss water.
But I know you’re thinking, “So what, Mark? I’ve usually had too many piña coladas to even find the deep end of the pool, much less bind my arms and legs and try to survive in it. Who gives a shit about inverted curves?”
It’s true, few things in life function on an inverted curve. But the few things that do are extremely important. In fact, I will argue that the most important experiences and goals in life all exist on an inverted curve.
Effort and reward have a linear relationship when the action is mindless and simple. Effort and reward have a diminishing returns relationship when the action is complex and multivariate.
But when the action becomes purely psychological—an experience that exists solely within our own consciousness—the relationship between effort and reward becomes inverted.
Pursuing happiness takes you further away from it. Attempts at greater emotional control only remove us from it. The desire for greater freedom is often what causes us to feel trapped. The need to be loved and accepted prevents us from loving and accepting ourselves.
Aldous Huxley once wrote, “The harder we try with the conscious will to do something, the less we shall succeed. Proficiency and results come only to those who have learned the paradoxical art of doing and not doing, or combining relaxation with activity.”
The most fundamental components of our psychology are paradoxical. This is because when we consciously try to create a state of mind, the desire for that state of mind creates a different and often opposite state of mind from the one we’re trying to create.
This is “The Backwards Law” I explain in Chapter 1 of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuckdesiring a positive experience is itself a negative experience; accepting a negative experience is a positive experience.
But this extends to most — if not all — aspects of our mental health and relationships:
  1. Control – The more we strive to control our own feelings and impulses, the more powerless we will feel. Our emotional life is unruly and often uncontrollable, and it’s the desire to control it that makes it worse. Conversely, the more we accept our feelings and impulses, the more we’re able to direct them and process them.
  2. Freedom – The constant desire for more freedom ironically limits us in a number of ways. Similarly, it’s only by limiting ourselves — by choosing and committing to certain things in life — that we truly exercise our freedom.
  3. Happiness – Trying to be happy makes us less happy. Accepting unhappinessmakes us happy.
  4. Security – Trying to make ourselves feel as secure as possible generates more insecurity. Being comfortable with uncertainty is what allows us to feel secure.
  5. Love – The more we try to make others love and accept us, the less they will, and more importantly, the less we will love and accept ourselves.
  6. Respect – The more we demand respect from others, the less they will respect us. The more we respect others ourselves, the more they will come to respect us.
  7. Trust – The more we try to make people trust us, the less inclined they will be to do so. The more we trust others, the more they will trust us in return.
  8. Confidence – The more we try to feel confident, the more insecurity and anxiety we will create. The more we accept our faults, the more comfortable we will feel in our own skin.
  9. Change – The more we desperately want to change ourselves, the more we will always feel as though we are not enough. Whereas, the more we accept ourselves, the more we will grow and evolve because we’ll be too busy actually doing cool shit to notice.
  10. Meaning – The more we pursue a deeper meaning or purpose to our lives, the more self-obsessed and shallow we will become. The more we try to add meaning to others’ lives, the more profound impact we will feel.
These internal, psychological experiences exist on an inverted curve because they are both the cause and the effect of the same thing: our minds. When you desire happiness, your mind is simultaneously the thing that is desiring and the target of its own desires.
When it comes to these lofty, abstract, existential goals, our minds are like a dog who, after a lifetime of successfully chasing and catching various small creatures, has turned and decided to exact that same strategy on its own tail. To the dog, this seems logical. After all, chasing has led her to catch everything else in her doggy life. Why not her tail, too?
But a dog can never catch her own tail. The more she chases, the more her tail seems to run away. That’s because the dog lacks the perspective to realize that she and the tail are the exact same thing.
The goal is to take your mind — a wonderful thing that has spent its life learning to chase various creatures — and teach it to stop chasing its own tail. To stop chasing meaning and freedom and happiness because those only serve to move it further away from itself. To teach it to achieve what it desires by giving up what it desires. To show it how the only way to reach the surface is by letting itself sink.
And how do we do this? By letting go. By giving up. By surrendering. Not out of weakness. But out of a respect that the world is beyond our grasp. By recognizing that we are fragile and limited and but temporary specks in the infinite reaches of time. You do it by relinquishing control, not because you feel powerless, but because you are powerful. Because you decide to let go of things that are beyond your control. You decide to accept that sometimes, people won’t like you, that often you will fail, that usually you have no fucking clue what you’re doing.
You lean into the fear and uncertainty, and just when you think you’re going to drown, just as you reach the bottom, it will launch you back to your salvation.

What is the meaning of life?


You know the question. It’s the ultimate question. The question that you and I and everyone has laid awake at night thinking about. The question that brings equal parts wonder and terror to our feeble minds. Why are we here? What is the point of it all? What is the meaning of life?
Well, fortunately, I figured it out while I was at the gym this morning. I’m pretty sure it’s a ham sandwich. And no, I’m not saying that just because I’m hungry. There’s an explanation here. I’m going to explain it, clickbait titles and all, in, oh, the next eight minutes or so.
First off, before we can even appropriately ask “What is the meaning of life?” we must first settle something more subtle and something more important. Namely, what is meaning?


What is meaning? That may strike you as terribly navel-gazey and ultra-philosophical. And if that’s the case, I invite you to think about ham sandwiches for a moment, and just stick with me for a minute. Because it’s important.
What does it mean for something to mean something? As humans, we have a constant need to attach meaning to everything that happens in our lives.
A man on a rock looking for the meaning of life
Look, a guy climbed a rock looking for meaning!
My mom hugs me, that must mean that she loves me. My boss complimented me, that must mean I do good work. It’s going to be sunny tomorrow, that must mean I can wear my super-cool SpongeBob tank top to school.
Meaning is the association that we draw between two experiences or events in our minds. X happens, then Y happens, so we assume that means X causes Y. Z happens, and we get really bummed out and feel awful, therefore we assume that Z sucks.
Our brains invent meaning the way dogs shit — they do it gleefully and not even realizing that they’re ruining the carpet. Our brains invent meaning as a way to explain all the crazy shit that is going on in the world around us. This is important, as it helps us predict and control our lives.
But let’s be real: meaning is an arbitrary mental construct. Fifty people can watch the exact same event and draw fifty different meanings from said event. That’s why there’s so much arguing in politics. That’s why eyewitnesses are so unreliable in court. That’s why your friends are sometimes the biggest assholes — because that meaning you just shared, to them, meant something completely different.


Our brains slap together two different types of meaning:
  1. Cause/Effect Meaning: You kick the ball, the ball moves. You tell your friend his hair is ugly, your friend slaps you in the face. You do X, and with reliable certainty, Y will result.
We all need Cause/Effect meaning to survive. It helps us predict the future and learn from the past. Cause/Effect meaning primarily involves the logical parts of our brain. Science, for instance, is the constant search of more and more Cause/Effect Meaning.
  1. Better/Worse Meaning: Eating is better than starving. Making money is better than being broke. Sharing is better than stealing. Better/Worse meaning has to do with the nature of our values — what we perceive to be most important and useful in our lives.
Better/Worse meaning relies mostly on the emotional parts of our brains. Generally what makes us feel good is what we immediately assume to be “good” or “better.”
Both forms of meaning evolved in our brains to help us survive. For thousands of years, humans needed to remember where certain food could be found, how various animals would respond when hunted, how weather patterns change and how to read the terrain. They also needed to know what would gain them acceptance within their tribe, what would curry favor from friends and earn approval from that sexy guy/gal in the loin cloth over yonder.
So in that sense, meaning is nature’s tool for motivation. It’s how evolution made sure we got shit done. Meaning drives all of our actions. When there is great meaning attached to something, like our child is sick and starving, we will go to insane lengths to make things right. People will often even go as far as to give up their lives for some grand sense of meaning (see: religion, every war ever). Meaning is that effective at moving people.
Conversely, when we feel we lack meaning in our lives, when shit just doesn’t seem to matter, when there’s no clarity on how or why things happen to us, we do nothing. We sit on the couch and twiddle our thumbs and watch lame reruns while complaining on the internet about lame reruns.
But here’s the kicker (and I swear I’m going to get to the ham sandwich): meaning is a resource that we must cultivate in our lives.
Meaning is not something that exists outside of ourselves. It is not some cosmic universal truth waiting to be discovered. It is not some grand ‘eureka’ moment that will change our lives forever.
Meaning requires action. Meaning is something that we must continually find and nurture. Consistently.
Mean's search for the meaning of life — as he falls asleep on the couch
Man’s great search for the meaning of life usually ends like this.
Meaning is like the water of our psychological health. Without it, our hearts and minds will shrivel and die. And like water, meaning flows through us — what is important today is not what was important years ago; and what is important tomorrow will not be the same as what is important today. Meaning must be sought out and replenished frequently.


In a very real sense, the meaning of life is therefore to create meaning.
So how does one create meaning? Two ways:
  1. Solve Problems. The bigger the problem, the more meaning one will feel. The more work you do towards that problem, also the more meaning you will feel. Solving problems basically means finding ways to make the world a slightly better place. Can be as simple as fixing up your aging mother’s dilapidated house. Or as complex as working on the new great breakthrough in physics.
The point here is not to be picky. It’s easy, when we start thinking of how insignificant we are on a cosmic scale of the universe, to start thinking there’s no point in doing anything unless we’re going to save the world or something. This is just a distraction. There are tons of small, everyday problems going on around you that need your attention. Start giving it.
  1. Help Others. This is the biggie. As humans, we’re wired to thrive on our relationships. Studies show that our overall well-being is deeply tied to the quality of our relationships, and the best way to build healthy relationships is through helping others. In fact, some studies have even found that giving stuff away makes us happier than giving stuff to ourselves. Go figure.
As such, it seems to be a “hack” in our brains that helping out other people gives us a greater sense of meaning and purpose. Just the fact you can say to yourself, “If I died, then someone is better off because I lived,” creates that sense of meaning that can propel you forward.


A lot of people find meaning through setting goals for themselves. They want the corner office, the big car, the fancy-pants shoes. It gives them a reason to wake up in the morning, a reason to bust their ass at work. It gives them something that makes them feel important and something to look forward to every day.
But goals are a double-edged sword. You have to be careful.
Goals are good tools for building motivation. The problem is that, by themselves, they are arbitrary and empty.
Unless there’s a why behind the goal full of meaning, the goal itself will provide little long-term happiness or satisfaction.
Ever see star athletes flounder after retirement? Or a guy who finally made his millions become deeply miserable because he doesn’t know what else to do with his life?
Goals are dangerous because the meaning they provide when you’re working towards them is the meaning that is taken away once you achieve them.
This is why all the superficial stuff like make a billion dollars, or own a Rolls Royce, or get your face plastered on the cover of a magazine all lead to a type of happiness that is shallow and short-lived — because the meaning is shallow and short-lived.
There has to be a deeper reason for your goals. Otherwise, the goals themselves will be empty and worthless in the long-run.
Jerry Rice in Dancing with the Stars
Some athletes handle retirement well. Others end up on Dancing with the Stars.
Notice that it’s the athletes who aspire to be the best at their sport for some greater reason — to build a charity, to start a business, to transition into another career — who handle retirement the best. Notice it’s the millionaires who spent their life working towards a deeper cause that remain content once all of their goals are checked off the checklist.
But some goals don’t even have to be big and sexy.
Take a ham sandwich. I sat down to write this article hungry. That’s a problem in my life. And I promised myself I’d pump out this draft before going and making myself a sandwich. That gave this hour some extra meaning.
And you know what? Maybe my wife’s hungry and I can make her one too. You know, make the world a better place and all that shit while I’m at it.
So what’s the meaning of life? Well, for me, right now, it’s a ham sandwich. What will yours be?



I go to this boot camp-style class sometimes at a gym near my apartment. It’s one of those classes where a coach stands there and yells at you to do more pushups and squats until you think you’re going to puke. Then you go home and struggle to sit on a toilet for the next three days.
It’s great. I love it. I never miss a week.
Today, as happens many mornings, a couple of people, in between exercises, ran over to the wall to pick up their phones and check… well, I don’t know what the fuck they could have been checking. Email? Instagram? Snapchatting their sweat beads so everyone could see? I don’t know.
The point is they were on their phones.
And the coach got pissed, yelled at them to put their fucking phones away, and we all stood around awkwardly.
This proceeded to happen two or three times in the class, as it does in pretty much every class, and for whatever reason, today I decided to speak my mind to the woman glued to her phone while the rest of us were working out:
“Is there really nothing in your life that can’t wait 30 minutes? Or are you curing cancer or something?”
Note to readers: this is a bad way to make friends.
I was pissed. But fuck them. I felt like I was in the right, that I was saying what pretty much everyone else in the room was silently thinking.1
Later that day, once we’d all gone home, while painfully sitting on a toilet seat, I was going over the incident in my head. And I asked myself, “Why does that bother me so much? Why do phones, in general, seem to bug me so much? Why does it bother me when my wife pulls out her phone when we’re walking down the street together? Why do I fervently hate with a passion people who hold up their phones and record half a concert? What’s the deal?”
Am I the screwed up one here?
I know I’m not though. We all have this weird love/hate relationship with our phones these days. Every year, we become more glued to them than ever before. Yet, every year, we seem to resent that we’re glued to them. Why is that?


If you think about it, our attention is the only thing we truly own in our lives. Our possessions can go away. Our bodies can be compromised. Our relationships can fall apart. Even our memories and intellectual capacity fade away.
But the simple ability to choose what to focus on — that will always be ours.
Unfortunately, with today’s technology, our attention is being pulled in more directions than ever before, which makes this optioning of our own attention more difficult — and more important — than ever before.
In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport argues that the ability to focus deeply on a single project, idea or task for long periods of time is not only one of the most important skills for succeeding in the information age, but it’s also an ability that appears to be dwindling among the population.
But I would go even further. I would say that our ability to focus and hone our attention on what we need is a core component of living a happy, healthy life. We’ve all had those days or weeks (or months or years) where we’ve felt scatterbrained — out of control of our own reality, constantly sucked down rabbit holes of pointless information and drama comprised of endless clicks and notifications.
To be happy and healthy, we need to feel as though we are in control of ourselves and we are utilizing our abilities and talents effectively.2 To do that, we must be in control of our attention.3
And I think this is why the cell phone thing at the gym pissed me off. Those workouts are fucking hard. They require me to focus and exert not only physical discipline but mental discipline as well. And to stop every 10 minutes because somebody needs to email their boss or text their boyfriend yanks me out of that. And worse, it yanks me out against my will.
It’s attention pollution when somebody else’s inability to focus or control themselves then interferes with the attention and focus of those around them.
And with the explosion in smart devices and internet available pretty much everywhere from Timbuktu to your mother’s ass crack, attention pollution is infiltrating our daily lives more and more without us realizing it.
It’s why we get annoyed at dinner when someone starts texting in front of us. It’s why we get pissed off when someone pulls their phone out in a movie theater. It’s why we become irritated when someone is checking their email instead of watching the ballgame.
Their inability to focus interferes with our (already-fragile) ability to focus. The same way second-hand smoke harms the lungs of people around the smoker, smartphones harm the attention and focus of people around the smartphone user. It hijacks our senses. It forces us to pause our conversations and redouble our thoughts unnecessarily. It causes us to lose our train of thought and forget that important point we were constructing in our head. It erodes at our ability to connect and simply be present with one another, destroying intimacy in the process.
But the smoking comparison doesn’t end there. There’s evidence that suggests that we are doing long-term harm to our memories and attention spans.4 The same way smoking cigarettes fucks over our long-term health in the name of a series of short-term bursts of highs, the dopamine kicks we get from our phones are harming our brain’s ability to function over the long-term, all in the name of getting a bunch of likes on that really cool new photo of our food we just took.
Now, it may sound like I’m overreacting here. Like I had a shitty gym session and am taking it out on hundreds of thousands of readers on the internet.
But I’m serious. I think this is fucking us up more than we realize.
I’ve noticed that as the years go on, it’s becoming harder for me to sit down and write an article like this than it was three or four years ago. And it’s not just that the amount of available distractions have compounded over the years, it’s that my ability to resist those distractions seems to have worn down to the point where I often don’t feel in control of my own attention anymore.
And this kind of freaks me out. It’s not that I resent the woman at the gym who can’t go 10 minutes without checking her messages. I resent that I am becoming that person at the gym who can’t go 10 minutes without checking his messages.
And I’m pretty sure that I’m not the only one.
I’ve met people the last few years who get incredibly anxious if they can’t check their phone in social situations. They carry their phones into conversations the way some people carry dogs on airplanes. It’s a constant outlet if the necessity to interface with another person’s thoughts and feelings ever becomes too intense.
I’ve started to notice people who feel like they need to always be checking email or their messages to feel as though they’re being a good, productive employee. Doesn’t matter if it’s their kid’s violin recital, or in the car at stop lights, or in bed at midnight on a Saturday. They feel like they have to always be caught up on every piece of information that is flung their way, otherwise they’re somehow failing.
I’ve noticed friends who can no longer sit through entire movies (or even episodes of a TV show) without pulling out their phones multiple times in the middle of it. People who can’t make it through a meal without putting the phone next to their plate.
It’s happening everywhere, and it’s therefore becoming the social norm. The eroded attention is becoming the normal, socially acceptable attention, and we are all paying for it.


I have a dream, friends. I have a dream of a world where people can sit through long, dull conversations, without feeling the need to douse themselves with instant-gratification delivered through glowing plastic screens.
I have a dream of a world where people are cognizant of not only their own limited attention, but the precious attention of others and some numb-nuts won’t start texting in the movie theatre, totally killing the mood of a dramatic scene.
I have a dream where our devices will be comfortably allotted as the occasional supplement to our lives, and not used as a poor replacement for them. Where people will recognize that the constant and instantaneous delivery of information has subtle costs associated with it, as well as its more obvious benefits.
I have a dream of a world where people become aware of their own attention as an important resource, something to be cultivated and renewed, to be built and cherished, the same way they take care of their bodies or their education. And this new cultivation of their own attention will oddly set them free. Not just free from the screens, but free from their own unconscious impulses.
I have a dream where that respect for attention would extend to the world around them, to their friends and family and the acknowledgment that the inability to focus is not only harmful to oneself, but harmful to one’s relationships and ability to hold and maintain intimacy with someone.
I have a dream that these women won’t check their fucking phones when I’m doing burpee #327 next Wednesday. For God’s sake, if you’re going to the gym, go to the fucking gym.
And when this happens, and when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we’re free at last (from our smartphones)!”
OK, maybe I plagiarized that last paragraph, but next time you’re taking a selfie at dinner, ask yourself, what would Dr. King have wanted?



Self-awareness is like great sex: everyone thinks they have a ton of it, but in reality no one knows what the fuck they’re doing.
The fact is that the majority of our thoughts and actions are on autopilot. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing either. Our habits, routines, impulses, and reactions carry us through our lives so we don’t have to stop and think about it every time we wipe our ass or start a car.
The problem is when we’re on autopilot for so long that we forget we’re on autopilot. Because when we’re not even aware of our own habits, routines, impulses, and reactions, then we no longer control them; they control us. Whereas a person with self-awareness is able to exercise a little meta-cognition and say, “Hmm… every time my sister calls me and asks for money, I end up drinking a lot of vodka. That might not be a coincidence,” a person without self-awareness just hits the bottle and doesn’t look back.
Below are three levels of self-awareness along with a caveat. Why three levels? Who the fuck knows? Just go with it.


There’s a lot of pain and suckage in life. Over the last 30 days, how many times have you:
  • Struggled with a relationship with someone close to you?
  • Felt lonely, isolated or unheard?
  • Felt unproductive or lost on what you should do?
  • Been underslept, under-fed, low energy, or unhealthy?
  • Stressed about work or finances?
  • Uncertain about your future?
  • Been physically hurt, ill, or debilitated?
Chances are if you add all of those up, you’re going to be pretty close to 30 out of the last 30 days. That’s a lot of suckage!
We avoid pain through distraction. We transport our minds to some other time or place or world, where it can be safe and insulated from the pain of day-to-day life. We stare at our phones, we obsess about the past or our potential futures, make plans we’ll never keep, or simply try to forget. We eat, drink, and fuck ourselves into numbness to dull the reality of our problems. We use books, movies, games, and music to carry us to another world where no pain exists, and everything always feels easy and good and right.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with distraction. We all need some sort of diversion to keep us sane and happy.
The key is that we need to be aware of our distractions.
Put another way, we need to make sure that we’re choosing our distractions and our distractions aren’t choosing us. We’re the ones opting into the distraction, rather than simply being unable to opt out of distraction. We need to know when we’re checking out. Our distraction needs to be planned and moderated in bite-sized chunks. We can’t binge on distraction.
Self-awareness BW double exposure portrait of a man with mohawk and a mountain
Most people spend much of their day drowned in a sea of distraction without even realizing it. I do it, too. The other night at dinner, I pulled out my phone to look at my calendar, and next thing I knew, I was browsing video game forums on Reddit. Meanwhile, my wife is staring at me as if I just had a lobotomy or something.
I’m getting better. This only happens about 23 times per day. Or sometimes I do that thing where I’ll have Facebook open, and then I’ll open another tab and instinctively type in the URL for… Facebook, the site I was already looking at. I don’t even realize I do it, but it’s my mind’s automatic move to disconnect (or in this case, disconnect from its disconnection).
We all think we know how we’re using our time. But we’re usually wrong. We think we work more than we do (studies show most people top out somewhere around three hours of actual work per day,1 the rest is just fucking around). We think we spend more time with our friends and loved ones than we do. We think we’re more present than we are, that we’re better listeners than we are, that we’re more thoughtful and intelligent than we are. But the truth is, we’re all pretty bad at this.
Now, some people take the hardline approach of trying to remove all distraction from their lives. This is a bit extreme. If time management and self-awareness was a religion, this approach would be like strapping a bomb to your chest and blowing up a mall thinking you’ve got a one-way ticket to 72 distraction-free virgins, when really, you’re just going to self-destruct (and probably harm a lot of people around you in the process).
The goal with distraction isn’t to defeat distraction, it’s merely to develop an awareness and control of our distractions. Instead of calling in sick to play video games all day, you’re able to allot video games into your free time in a way that’s satisfying and healthy. You let yourself drift away on your phone for a while if that’s what your brain seems to need, but you’re aware that you’re doing it and able to rein it back in when necessary.
The goal here is the elimination of compulsion. But to eliminate compulsion you must first become aware of compulsion. When are you engaging in an activity even though you don’t want to be engaging in it? When are you checking out mentally and why? Is it around family? Friends? Co-workers?
For years I used to carry around an iPod and put headphones on every time I went into public. Leaving the house without it felt like I was naked. For years, I just assumed I was really into music way more than other people, that there was some special need inside me for badass tunes that other people simply didn’t understand.
But eventually, it became clear this was a compulsion; I wasn’t in control of it. My headphones were a way of protecting and disconnecting myself from others. They were less about a bottomless passion and more about simple fear. Being around strangers without my headphones made me feel anxious and exposed.
Don’t judge these observations, simply have them. This is the first level of self-awareness, a simple understanding of where your mind goes and when. You must be aware of the paths your mind likes to take before you can begin to question why it takes those paths and whether those paths are helping or hurting you.


Have you ever been raging pissed and when somebody asks you why you’re mad, you’re like, “I’M NOT MAD! I’M NOT FUCKING MAD! I’M PERFECTLY FINE! I MEANT TO SMASH MY KEYBOARD THROUGH MY MONITOR! I’M NOT MAD! WHY ARE YOU MAD?!”
What people often find is that the more they remove themselves from distraction, the more they are forced to actually deal with a lot of the emotions that they’ve been avoiding for a long time. This is why meditating for a long time freaks a lot of people out; meditation is basically the practice of training your mind to become less distracted and more focused on your immediate experience. The result is that some people become overwhelmed by all of the feelings they’ve been bottling up forever.
Therapy has a similar effect, but rather than quieting your mind and staring at a wall for hours on end, you’re sitting on a couch and a really nice and friendly-looking man/lady is slowly guiding you back to how you feel, over and over, until your mind finally capitulates and you’re snotting everywhere and crying like an upset child.
This second level of self-awareness is where you really start finding out “who you are.” I hate using that phrase because it doesn’t really mean anything, but this is the level that people talk about when they say they are “finding themselves” — they are discovering how they actually feel about the shit going on in their life, and often they have been hiding these feelings from themselves for years.
Most people glide on the surface of life on Level 1 of self-awareness. They do what they’re told. They follow directions. They distract themselves with the same shit over and over. At no point have they allowed themselves to express individual emotions and reactions to what’s going on around them.
Once they’re removed from these contexts they start to realize things like, “Oh damn, I’m really sensitive and am sad a lot, and holy shit, I never allowed myself to feel that because I thought it made me weak or pathetic, but actually my sadness is part of what makes me different.”
Level 2 is an uncomfortable place to go. People often spend years in therapy navigating Level 2. It takes time to become comfortable with all of your emotions. Going back through those emotions and allowing them to take place is something that requires a lot of focus and a lot of effort.
But a lot of people also get held up on Level 2. They think Level 2 is as deep as it goes and they get lost wallowing in their feelings for the rest of forever. I think this happens for a couple reasons.
The first is that emotions are powerful, especially for people who have been suppressing their emotions for most of their lives. Suddenly opening up to them will feel life-changing and incredibly profound.
As a result, a lot of people start spinning up a bunch of stories about how this is the ultimate level of self-awareness, just feeling stuff all the time. They may even go as far as to consider it a “spiritual awakening.” They’ll describe it in all sorts of high-falutin’ terms like “ego death” or “transcendent consciousness” or “higher consciousness.”
But this is a bit of a trap. Emotions, as you eventually discover, are a) endless, and b) don’t necessarily mean anything. I mean, sometimes they do, but sometimes they’re also self-induced and completely arbitrary.
For instance, look at this puppy.
A cute puppy
You probably felt good looking at that2. Now does that feeling mean anything? Fuck no, it’s just a puppy. But a lot of people ascribe profundity to any and every emotion that arises. It’s a simple but often disastrous error. They assume that because some emotions are incredibly important and vital, that all emotions must be incredibly important and vital. And that’s simply not the case. A lot of emotions are pointless or — and here’s the kicker — merely distractions!
Yes, you heard me. Emotions can also be distractions. From what? From other emotions.
See, there’s another subtle little trap with emotions. And that’s the fact that analyzing one emotion will generate another. So you can end up in this endless loop of self-inquiry, which, after a while, will turn you into a really self-obsessed person.
But wait, hold on, this one deserves its own section.


There’s an old apocryphal story from 16th-century India where a young man climbs a large mountain to speak to the sage at the top. Supposedly this sage knew, like, everything and stuff. And this young man was anxious to understand the secrets of the world.
Upon arriving at the top of the mountain, the sage greeted the young man and invited him to ask him anything (note: this was way before Reddit threads). The young man then asked him his question, “Great sage, we stand upon the world, but what does the world stand upon?”
The sage immediately replied, “The world rests upon the back of a number of great elephants.”
The young man thought for a moment, and then asked, “Yes, but what do the elephants stand upon?”
The sage replied again, without hesitation, “The elephants rest upon the back of a great turtle.”
The young man, still not satisfied, asked, “Yes, but what does the great turtle rest upon?”
The sage replied, “It rests upon an even greater turtle.”
The young man, growing frustrated, began to ask, “But what does–”
“No, no,” the sage interrupted, “stop there–it’s turtles all the way down.”
In The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, I compared self-awareness to peeling an onion, that whatever you’re thinking/feeling, there’s always another layer underneath, and the deeper you go, the more layers you peel back, the more likely you are to spontaneously burst into tears.
The self-questioning involved in self-awareness can lead to this kind of endless spiral. Layer upon layer upon layer. And, in many cases, not only do deeper levels not elucidate anything useful, but the mere act of peeling them back can generate more anxiety, stress, and self-judgment.
For example, here’s me spiraling through layers of questioning while writing this section right now:
Layer 1: I’m aware that I’m writing this sentence right now — I feel tired, a bit cloudy-headed, but also anxious to make progress on this piece before I go to bed tonight.
Layer 2: I’m aware of my own anxiety and worried that this is a bad trend in my recent work habits. Why am I up working at 1:30 AM anyway? I’d probably write better if I got some sleep.
Layer 3: I’m aware of my self-judgment. Perhaps I am being hard on myself. What’s wrong with working at 1:30 AM? I have done this plenty of times.
Layer 4: I’m now aware that I am aware of my montage of feelings and feelings about feelings and feelings about feelings about feelings.
Layer 5: I’m also aware that my Layer 4 awareness is hardly comprehensible.
Layer 6: I’m anxious about the comprehensibility of my levels of awareness.
Layer 7: I feel that perhaps I am being over-critical, blah, blah, blah…
Layer 193: This shit is turtles all the way down, isn’t it?
A lot of people get caught in the trap of always looking one level deeper. Doing this feels important but the truth is that beyond a certain level, it’s just a navel-gazey spiral of doom. It’s turtles all the way down. And the act of looking deeper itself will sometimes generate more feelings of anxiety, despair, and self-judgment than it relieves.
Self-awareness turtle on the road
The secret of the universe is just a damn turtle.
When looking at layers of intention and motivation, it’s best to just go a few layers down until you start repeating yourself. You may be anxious about your relationship with your mother. Let’s say that anxiety stems from the fact that your mom is hyper-judgmental and you fall into this unconscious habit of desperately trying to prove to her that you’re not a piece of shit. This need to prove to her that you’re worthy is underpinned by your desire to be loved. This realization then makes you more anxious – an anxiety driven by the desire to please your mother, which is underpinned by your desire to be loved – we’re spiraling now. It’s time to just draw the line and say it’s turtles all the way down and move on. You want love from mom and that’s that.3
And with that, I’m going to stop thinking about this section and just go to bed.


The more you become aware of your own emotions and your own desires, the more you discover something terrifying: you are full of shit.
We realize that a large percentage of our thoughts, arguments, and actions are merely reflections of whatever we are feeling in that moment. If I am watching a movie with my wife and I’m cranky because I had an argument with my editor that afternoon, I’ll decide that I hate the movie. And the more my wife tries to convince me the movie was good, the more I’ll relish the fact that I get to argue with her about it – because it suddenly becomes a way to justify my anger.
(By the way, if you ever wondered why we tend to fight the most with the ones we love the most, this is partly why: we can use them as an emotional punching bag to validate all the crap that we are feeling, whether they deserve it or not – usually not.)
We all think of ourselves as independent thinkers who reason based on facts and evidence, but the truth is that our brain spends most of its time justifying and explaining what the heart has already declared and decided. And there’s no way to fix that until you’ve learned to recognize what the heart is saying.
I’ve written quite a bit about how flawed our conscious minds are, both in my book and on this site. But to give a quick synopsis:
  • Our memories are unreliable and often flat-out wrong, especially when it comes to remembering how we felt at a certain time or place. Our ability to predict our thoughts and feelings in the future is even worse.
  • We constantly overestimate ourselves. In fact, as a general rule, the worse we are at something, the better we think we are, and the better we are at something, the worse we believe we are.
  • Contradictory evidence can often make us surer of our position rather than inspire us to question it.
  • Our attention naturally only focuses on things that already cohere to our pre-existing beliefs. This is why two people can watch the exact same event and come away with two completely contradictory memories of it (think of two opposing sports fans both convinced they saw the ball land in or out of bounds.)
  • Most of us, when given the opportunity, will tell small lies to improve our results. Sometimes (i.e., usually), we’ll even tell these lies to ourselves.
  • We are abysmal at estimating statistics, making cost-benefit decisions, or reasoning about large populations of people. It’s actually both depressing and hilarious how bad we are this.
I could keep going, but I’ll stop there. Basically, the point is that you suck, I suck, everybody sucks. Humans kind of suck. All the time.
And that’s OK. The important thing is just that we’re self-aware about it. If we know our weaknesses then they stop being weaknesses. Otherwise, we become enslaved to our mind’s faulty mechanisms.
Self-awareness double exposure concept with lady portrait silhouette and woman in forest
Most of this comes down to a few things:
  1. Hold weaker opinions. Recognize that unless you are an expert in a field, there is a good chance that your intuitions or assumptions are flat-out wrong. The simple act of telling yourself (and others) before you speak, “I could be wrong about this,” immediately puts your mind in a place of openness and curiosity. It implies an ability to learn and to have a closer connection to reality.
  2. Take yourself less seriously. Most of your thoughts and behaviors are simply reactions to various emotions. And we know that your emotions are often wrong and/or meaningless. Ergo, you should take your shit less seriously.
  3. Learn your bullshit patterns. When I get angry, I get argumentative and arrogant. When I get sad, I shut down and play a lot of video games. When I feel guilty, I word vomit my conscience all over people. What are your ticks? Where does your mind go when you feel sad? When you feel angry? Guilty? Anxious? Learn to spot your coping mechanisms because that will tip you off next time you’re distracting yourself from your feelings. I realized years ago that when I’m healthy and happy, I enjoy playing video games a few hours a week. But when I start binging on a game, staying up all night and skipping work, it’s almost always because I’m avoiding some problem in my life. This has become a huge cue for me to sit down and figure out what’s going on with myself.
  4. Recognize the problems you create for yourself. My biggest problem is probably not being able to talk about my anger or sadness. I either escape through video games or become passive-aggressive by sniping at people around me. Both of these tendencies don’t help me. And I’ve learned to recognize myself when I start doing them. I’m able to say, “Hey Mark, you do this shit when you’re sad and you always regret not talking to someone.” Then I go talk to someone.
  5. Be realistic. It’s not about removing your faulty psychological reactions. It’s about understanding them so that you can adjust to them. The same way we all have some skills and activities we’re better at than others, we all have emotions we’re better at than others. Some people are bad with happiness but good at managing their anger. Others are terrible with their anger but relish their happiness. Other people never feel depressed but suffer uncontrollable guilt. Others never feel guilty but struggle with feelings of depression. Where are your strong emotions and weak emotions? Which emotions do you respond poorly to? Where are your biggest biases and judgments coming from? How can you challenge or re-evaluate them?
Also, if you’re having trouble with this, one of the best ways to wrap your head around your blind spots is to get feedback from other people. Others often have a better perspective on us than we do, especially friends and family close to us. Asking them in a simple and safe way (by “safe,” I mean not exploding and threatening to castrate them with a spoon for insulting your honor) can lead to great gains in self-awareness.
This, of course, is much easier said than done.


There’s a certain type of person who will read all this and think about it and recognize their shitty emotions and recognize their shitty thought patterns and recognize all the little selfish tricks and traps their mind places and do all the work and practice the self-discovery and open themselves to their emotions and their big takeaway from all this will be, “I’m a piece of shit.”
They will see all their internal flaws, and come to understand their biases and irrational mechanisms, and they will get a handle on their distractions and their weak emotions.
And they will hate it. All of it. It will cause them to hate themselves.
Obviously, walking around and calling yourself a piece of shit for every other thought or emotion you have is not exactly what we would call the zenith of emotional health. In fact, this tendency is, ironically, downright shitty itself.
Judging yourself for mismanaging your emotions or for having biased and selfish thoughts is a bit of a trap because when you make that judgment, it feels like you’re being self-aware. You’re thinking to yourself, “Wow, I was really kind of a dick at that meeting because my ego was threatened. I’m such a piece of shit.” And there’s a little round of applause that goes off in your head because you feel like such a goddamn saint for recognizing how flawed and shitty you are around others.
But no, that’s not the point. Self-awareness is wasted if it does not result in self-acceptance. The research bears this out, too: self-awareness doesn’t make everyone happier, it makes some people more miserable. Because if great self-awareness is coupled with self-judgment, then you’re merely becoming more aware of all the ways you deserve to be judged.4
These emotional outbursts and cognitive biases, they exist in everyone, all the time. You’re not a bad person for having them just as other people aren’t necessarily bad people for having them either. They’re just human. And you’re just human.
Plato said that all evil is rooted in ignorance. If you think of the evilest, shittiest people imaginable, they are shitty not because they have flaws — but because they refuse to admit that they have flaws.
I saw a news story recently about some looney conspiracy theorist who believes that all mass shootings are staged. This guy actually travels to communities where these mass shootings occurred and confronts the victims. He stands in front of parents of dead children and calls them liars.
I cannot imagine a greater definition of “evil” or “piece of shit human” than this guy.
Yet, his evilness is not a result of conscious choice so much as an unconscious choice. He’s unaware of the irrationality and derangement of his own thoughts. He’s barely on Level 1. Level 2 probably terrifies him because admitting the reality that mass shootings— these horrible and senselessly violent things — can occur all around him and without reason threatens him in some unspeakable way that his mind cannot handle. And he’s definitely nowhere near Level 3 where he’s able to actually recognize that his conspiracy theories are elaborate networks of irrational beliefs and impossible assumptions designed to protect himself from these feelings on Level 2.
When looked at this way, you almost feel sorry for the guy. You see how much he must suffer psychologically and how that psychological suffering drives him to do horrible, horrible things to the people who are legitimately victims around him.
Welcome to empathy.
Empathy can only occur in proportion to our own self-acceptance. It’s only by accepting the flaws of our own emotions and our own minds that we are able to look at the flaws of the emotions and minds of others, and rather than judge them or hate them, feel compassion for them. “Oh, he’s fucked up, too. I used to believe shit like that. I wonder what he’s running from?”
This isn’t to say that empathy and compassion will solve all the world’s ills. They won’t. But they certainly won’t make anything worse.
And here’s where that old cliche comes in, about only being able to love others in proportion to how much we love ourselves. Self-awareness opens us up to the opportunity to love and accept ourselves. Yeah, I’m a biased fucknut sometimes. Yeah, I mishandle my emotions on occasion. Yeah, I’ve got some vices. But that’s okay. And because I’ve come to terms with those flaws in myself, I’m able to come to terms and forgive those flaws in others. And it’s only in this way that any real love becomes possible.
When we refuse to accept ourselves as we are, then we return to the constant need for numbing and distraction. And we will similarly be unable to accept others the way they are, so we will look for ways to manipulate them, change them, or convince them to be a person they are not. Our relationships will become transactional, conditional, and ultimately toxic and fail.