The Most Important Question Of Your Life

By Mark Manson on Tuesday December 6th, 2016

Do You Really Want To Be A Rockstar?

Everybody wants what feels good. Everyone wants to live a carefree, happy and easy life, to fall in love and have amazing sex and relationships, to look perfect and make money and be popular and well-respected and admired and a total baller to the point that people part like the Red Sea when you walk into the room.

Everyone would like that — it’s easy to like that.

If I ask you, “What do you want out of life?” and you say something like, “I want to be happy and have a great family and a job I like,” it’s so ubiquitous that it doesn’t even mean anything.

Alt text hereWe all dream of having it all but not the struggle it takes to get there.

Nothing Comes For Free

A more interesting question, a question that perhaps you’ve never considered before, is what pain do you want in your life? What are you willing to struggle for? Because that seems to be a greater determinant of how our lives turn out.

Everybody wants to have an incredible job and financial independence — but not everyone wants to suffer through 60-hour work weeks, long commutes and obnoxious paperwork, to navigate arbitrary corporate hierarchies and the blasé confines of an infinite cubicle hell. People want to be rich without the risk, without the sacrifice, without the delayed gratification necessary to accumulate wealth.

Everybody wants to have great sex and an awesome relationship — but not everyone is willing to go through the tough conversations, the awkward silences, the hurt feelings and the emotional drama to get there. And so they settle. They settle and wonder “What if?” for years and years until the question morphs from “What if?” into “Was that it?” And when the lawyers go home and the alimony check is in the mail they ask, “What was that for?” If not for their lowered standards and expectations for themselves 20 years prior, then what for?

Alt text herePeople settle for relationships and careers and then wonder where it all went wrong.

Happiness Requires Struggle

Because happiness requires struggle. You can only avoid pain for so long before it comes roaring back to life.

At the core of all human behavior, the good feelings we all want are more or less the same. Therefore what we get out of life is not determined by the good feelings we desire but by what bad feelings we’re willing to sustain.

People want an amazing physique. But you don’t end up with one unless you legitimately appreciate the pain and physical stress that comes with living inside a gym for hour upon hour, unless you love calculating and calibrating the food you eat, planning your life out in tiny plate-sized portions.

People want to start their own business or become financially independent. But you don’t end up a successful entrepreneur unless you find a way to appreciate the risk, the uncertainty, the repeated failures, and working insane hours on something you have no idea whether will be successful or not.

People want a partner, a spouse. But you don’t end up attracting someone amazing without appreciating the emotional turbulence that comes with weathering rejections, building sexual tension that never gets released, and staring blankly at a phone that never rings. It’s part of the game of love. You can’t win if you don’t play.

Alt text hereSticking your head in the sand doesn’t take the hardship away.

The Quality of Negative Experiences

What determines your success isn’t “What do you want to enjoy?” The question is, “What pain do you want to sustain?” The quality of your life is not determined by the quality of your positive experiences but the quality of your negative experiences. And to get good at dealing with negative experiences is to get good at dealing with life.

There’s a lot of crappy advice out there that says, “You’ve just got to want it enough!”

Everybody wants something. And everybody wants something enough. They just aren’t aware of what it is they want, or rather, what they want “enough”.

Because if you want the benefits of something in life, you have to also want the costs. If you want the beach body, you have to want the sweat, the soreness, the early mornings, and the hunger pangs. If you want the yacht, you have to also want the late nights, the risky business moves, and the possibility of stepping on other people.

If you find yourself wanting something month after month, year after year, yet nothing happens and you never come any closer to it, then maybe what you actually want is a fantasy, an idealization, an image and a false promise. Maybe what you want isn’t what you want, you just enjoy wanting it. Maybe you don’t actually want it at all.

Alt text hereAre you willing to work to make what you want a reality even if it’s painful?

A Life-Changing Question

Sometimes I ask people, “How do you choose to suffer?” These people tilt their heads and look at me like I have twelve noses. But I ask because that tells me far more about you than your desires and fantasies. Because you have to choose something. You can’t have a pain-free life. It can’t all be roses and unicorns. And ultimately that’s the hard question that matters. Pleasure is an easy question. And pretty much all of us have similar answers. The more interesting question is the pain. What is the pain that you want to sustain?

Pleasure is an easy question. And pretty much all of us have similar answers. The more interesting question is the pain. What is the pain that you want to sustain?

That answer will actually get you somewhere. It’s the question that can change your life. It’s what makes me, me, and you, you. It’s what defines us and separates us and ultimately brings us together.

For most of my adolescence and young adulthood, I fantasized about being a musician — a rock star, in particular. Any badass guitar song I heard, I would always close my eyes and envision myself up on stage playing it to the screams of the crowd, people absolutely losing their minds to my sweet finger-noodling. This fantasy could keep me occupied for hours on end. The fantasizing continued up through college, even after I dropped out of music school and stopped playing seriously. But even then it was never a question of if I’d ever be up playing in front of screaming crowds, but when. I was biding my time before I could invest the proper amount of time and effort into getting out there and making it work. First, I needed to finish school. Then, I needed to make money. Then, I needed to find the time. Then…and then nothing.

Alt text hereChildhood dreams don’t come true unless you put in the work to make it happen.

Reality Check

Despite fantasizing about this for over half of my life, the reality never came. And it took me a long time and a lot of negative experiences to finally figure out why: I didn’t actually want it.

I was in love with the result — the image of me on stage, people cheering, me rocking out, pouring my heart into what I’m playing — but I wasn’t in love with the process. And because of that, I failed at it. Repeatedly. Hell, I didn’t even try hard enough to fail at it. I hardly tried at all.

The daily drudgery of practicing, the logistics of finding a group and rehearsing, the pain of finding gigs and actually getting people to show up and give a shit. The broken strings, the blown tube amp, hauling 40 pounds of gear to and from rehearsals with no car. It’s a mountain of a dream and a mile-high climb to the top. And what it took me a long time to discover is that I didn’t like to climb much. I just liked to imagine the top.

Our culture would tell me that I’ve somehow failed myself, that I’m a quitter or a loser. Self-help would say that I either wasn’t courageous enough, determined enough or I didn’t believe in myself enough. The start-up crowd would tell me that I chickened out on my dream and gave in to my conventional social conditioning. I’d be told to do affirmations or join a mastermind group or manifest or something.

Alt text hereDo you enjoy the climb or do you just want to be at the top?

Choose Your Struggles

But the truth is far less interesting than that: I thought I wanted something, but it turns out I didn’t. End of story.

I wanted the reward and not the struggle. I wanted the result and not the process. I was in love not with the fight but only the victory. And life doesn’t work that way.

Who you are is defined by the values you are willing to struggle for. People who enjoy the struggles of a gym are the ones who get in good shape. People who enjoy long work weeks and the politics of the corporate ladder are the ones who move up it. People who enjoy the stresses and uncertainty of the starving artist lifestyle are ultimately the ones who live it and make it.

This is not a call for willpower or “grit.” This is not another admonishment of “no pain, no gain”.

This is the most simple and basic component of life: our struggles determine our successes. So choose your struggles wisely, my friend.




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14 Responses to The Most Important Question Of Your Life

  1. What if you don’t enjoy the starving artist life, but are willing to endure it? Because I do not enjoy the stresses and uncertainties of it, but I keep at it even when I don’t. It’s not pain I want, it’s just pain I consider worth it to endure…even though it is excruciating…but the pain of living a life without music, just clocking in to some job I don’t care about so I can Keep up with my Netflix account…that is not pain I’m willing to endure ever again.

  2. Wonderful article. It reflects point by point – my own thought process.
    And I love the conclusion . Love the process – not the reward.
    That is what Bhagwad Gita – a Hindu scripture says.

    कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते, मा फलेषू कदाच ।

    Which translates into ..You have a right to DO not for what you GET.

    I will quote this article on my blog in an article in my language – Gujarati.

  3. Hell, the article really jolts you into being realistic. Really, no pain and no gain in a nutshell. I like the article for its realism, teaching the reader to be practical and no day-dreaming. Thanks

  4. This is the first “honest” look at goals I have ever read. I know of only one other person, Dick Sutphen, who has said for decades that there is a price for the things we want in life which can be time, money, effort, going back to school, giving up a social life – reaching goals requires struggles and missteps and commitment. A VERY well put article.

  5. Interesting viewpoint. The way it works in reality is: if you really want something enough, you will not only endure the pain, you will learn to love it. The dream motivates you enough to keep going no matter what. And if you really want that dream, you will love whatever it is you need to go through to get there. Because success is a journey my friend, not a pain you have to endure.

    Or you can make an excuse that it is too hard, let fear stop you again and then back it up with the logic that “I just thought I wanted it when I really don’t.”

    You can never get a good outcome from a journey that sux. Love the journey and the getting to the destination is lot easier. Its a choice! You can see it as pain or you can see it as getting the most out of who you are & discovering so many amazing new parts of yourself.

    Life is just life, its a neutral series of events. We are the only ones who color it with emotions, who make the decision of whether the events are painful, too hard or just another thing that cannot stop me.

    You decide.

    • I think this is basically what they are saying. The thing is (using the author’s example), the people who end up being really great musicians are the ones who want to play every day, who don’t see it as a chore they have to do to fulfil their dream of being a good player but something they get joy from even when they’re not that good.

      I once heard about a famous writer who was asked what advice he would give to anyone who wanted to write. His response was that they clearly didn’t really want to because if they did they would be already.

  6. I like this article…. very true. I chose the path of being an artist and I truly love what I do, but there were a lot of sacrifices. What keeps me going (after 40 years) is the fact that I LOVE the process. Its not about some huge “goal” out there. Its about the love of the creating each and every day. When I quit caring about pleasing “the elites” in the art world, and instead focused on what was important to me, the journey doubled in pleasure for me. Its great to be true to yourself and even allow that truth to grow and change. The more sure I am about what I do and what I like, the more other people have been attracted to my art as well.

  7. As I always say, the things you get good at are the things you enjoy doing even when you’re shit at them

  8. I feel so much better after reading this. I don’t feel as though I’ve failed and can understand my lifelong internal struggle to want certain things (supposedly) which I’ve done nothing about, but dream…. x

  9. The alternative view to this is the old mantra ‘easy is right’. Some of the happiest people I know don’t seem to struggle ; have jobs that don’t pay well but are enjoyable (or are retired); have hobbies that they enjoy but don’t want to beat everybody else; have loving relationships that don’t involve battling through.

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