Self-help movement gets a reality check
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Self-help movement gets a reality check

Even among those of us who want to improve, the self-help movement has taken on a bit of a bad taste; tarnished by an overly-earnest, saccharine-sweet Ned Flanders affliction.

It is little wonder then that a counter-culture has emerged within the self-help genre. One of the leaders of the rebellion is 34-year-old Texan, Mark Manson, whose book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F--- has now sold more than 100,000 copies in Australia, making it the number one selling self-help and number two selling overall non-fiction title for 2017.

Mark Manson is ambivalent about his anti-self-help guru status.

Mark Manson is ambivalent about his anti-self-help guru status.

Photo: Maria Midões

Manson, who is in Australia for a series of talks at the School of Life, says he was "really into conventional self-help stuff" in his late teens and early 20s.

"I read a ton of books and went to a couple of seminars. I definitely benefited from it but, by my late 20s, I also felt a little bit disillusioned by it, it stunk of bs to me," he says.

"I think it works really well for simpler problems – so maybe you've got a bit of social anxiety or maybe you're between jobs and you're feeling a little bit lost – the normal troughs of life ... I think when either people's problems get much more serious it starts to feel very hollow."

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In 2009, Manson, who was working in finance, started a blog to explore his own "misjudgments" about personal development.

"I adopted a lot of goals and values that were very typical of the normal self-help stuff – I wanted to start my own business and I wanted to create freedom for myself and travel the world and have all of these unique experiences," Manson says. "I went on and I achieved a lot of those things, but once I achieved them it all felt kind of meaningless ... Nobody actually cares if I climb the Great Wall of China this week, so why am I getting so worked up about this stuff? It's not necessarily that achieving all these things is going to make everything great. That had a big impact on me, because those were the scripts I bought into."

The subsequent article he wrote in 2015, about learning what is important and realising when energy and care are misspent, went viral and was the genesis for his New York Times best-selling book.

"The point is, most of us struggle throughout our lives by giving too many f---s in situations where f---s do not deserve to be given," he wrote.

Through introspection, he came to the conclusion that strong relationships with close friends and family and committing to people, places and career are what matter.

"One day, on our deathbed, (hopefully) surrounded by the people we gave the majority of our f---s to throughout our life, and those few who still give a f--- about us, with a silent gasp we will gently let our last f--- go," he wrote. "Through the tears and the gently fading beeps of the heart monitor and the ever-dimming fluorescence encapsulating us in its divine hospital halo, we drift into some unknowable and unf---able place."

Manson now attracts more than 2 million visitors to his site each month, where he strikes a chord "with this negative, a--hole form of self-help".

"Personal development advice that sucks is usually advice that is designed to make you feel good about your problems, rather than actually solving your problems," says Manson, who is known to receive "thank you" emails from people who have mustered the courage to leave a bad relationship. "Change is supposed to be this gruelling struggle. It feels good on the other side and you go 'wow that was great for me' but while it's happening it's a struggle."

While he pokes fun at the "normal self-help stuff", the irony that he has become something of a self-help guru to the cynical is not lost on him.

"I feel very ambivalent about it," Manson admits. "On the one hand I love meeting readers and hearing their stories. On the other hand, this idea that I'm a guy up on stage with all the answers makes me very uncomfortable and strikes me as unrealistic – it's not helpful for people to think that about me and it's not helpful for me to think that about myself."

Still, he gives a f--- about helping people.

"I hope I help people question themselves better. It's very easy and sexy to name some big, external goal that sounds exciting, but ultimately everybody's path is very different and they need to define it for themselves," Manson says. "I just hope that I help people get better at defining it for themselves."