Mark Manson contends that there are two main kinds of people who are drawn to self-help material: those who see themselves as fundamentally “bad” and want to become “OK,” and those who see themselves as already “OK” and want to become “great.”
I’ll get this out of way up front: like most dichotomies, especially conceptual ones, the idea of Bad-to-OK and OK-to-Great people is a simplification. It’s a useful one, though.
As I said at the outset, I never consciously thought of myself as a “bad” person—if anything, I’ve worked hard to become more aware of my flaws. But it’s clear from my thought and behavior patterns that I did not consider myself “OK.” I acted like I needed to be fixed, and I sought instructions for how to fix myself. The domain of my search was the self-help industry.
The premise of self-help is that one can improve their life—strengthen their habits, set or refine their goals, build or enhance their relationships—by studying and learning from others who have succeeded at those aims.
A billion-dollar ecosystem has developed to expound this premise, deploying all the tools of data-driven marketing and flamboyant salesmanship we all know and love. It’s no wonder I got hooked.
And it is a fine enough premise, a laudable goal, but it’s also one that’s overblown: there are practical limits to how much any person can “improve,” and in which areas; the specific tactics that work for one person to create, say, a steady workout habit, may not work for another person; and any improvements are usually much more difficult and take much longer to achieve—and their scale is much more modest—than the typical self-help book promises them to be.
What these caveats have in common is that they all require internal self-awareness. One needs to have a healthy sense of their limits, to know how their mind tends to work, to have thought deeply about what kind of life they want to live, and to understand what they are willing to sacrifice and endure to sustain that way of life.
And most importantly, a person needs to know that if a particular workout regimen or journaling practice or goal-setting system does not work for them, that’s not on them. It’s not a personal deficiency; it’s an experiment whose results failed to confirm the hypothesis. They’re still OK, and they’re going to be OK.
The OK-to-Great person asks: “Why didn’t that work for me? Maybe my mind does not work the way this author’s mind works. Maybe our goals and our definitions of success aren’t actually that similar. Maybe this author, this fallible human who will naturally present themselves in the best possible light, has left certain things out of their story, or perhaps they have mischaracterized or glossed over some critical information.”
Given all these nuances, and the effort and awareness required to make real, lasting personal change, Manson theorizes that self-help only works for the OK-to-Great people. It can work for them because they come to the material from a stable personal foundation. Bruce Lee summed up the approach better than I ever could:
Bad-to-OK people, on the other hand, cannot be helped by self-help, because they are missing the one thing self-help cannot give them: fundamental self-acceptance.
They struggle to make distinctions between useful and useless; and really, they don’t even think about self-help material in those terms. And they don’t add anything of their own because they are ashamed of what they’re bringing to the table.
Bad-to-OK people consistently fail because they possess a fundamental worldview that interprets everything they do, including self-help, to support their inferiority or lack of worthiness.
For example, an OK-to-Great person may read a book on becoming happy and think, “Oh, cool, there are a bunch of things in here that I’m not doing. I should try them out.”
A Bad-to-OK person will read the same book and say, “Wow, look at all of this stuff I’m not doing. I’m an even bigger loser than I initially thought.”
During my Bad-to-OK period, I closely followed an author named Ryan Holiday, who had a blog about books and a monthly reading recommendations newsletter. Not only did he love reading as much as I did, but he had also already read a lot of the books I still wanted to read, he was publishing content regularly to a substantial audience, and he was friends with other authors I idolized.
One of the key posts that helped vault Holiday to mainstream success was entitled “Reading to Lead.” It’s all about how to get the most out of reading, and how to use books to level up one’s career. He spelled out many of his well-honed tactics, like “spoiling the ending” by reading the summary of a book first, and finding his next book in the bibliography of the one he’d just finished.
And this above all: Holiday described his elaborate system, which he learned as a research assistant to the author Robert Greene, of copying out important passages from books onto 3-by-5 index cards, categorizing them by topic, and storing them for later use, a form of practice traditionally known as compiling a “commonplace book.”
I spent an enormous amount of time thinking about how I could replicate this system. I even bought the exact same bin to organize my index cards that Holiday used—and advertised on his website. Despite this, I never fully adopted a single element of it for myself.
Why not? I think there are many reasons, but one runs deepest.
I decided, unconsciously, that I needed to read books exactly the way and for exactly the reasons Ryan Holiday read books. It didn’t matter that I’d been reading books for decades, that I had my own reading habits and my own reading preferences and my own reading style. Because I judged that Holiday was better than me, that he was ahead of me, that he had something I lacked, I regarded him as a savior rather than a teacher.
I poured all my efforts into fashioning a cargo cult version of his personal system, never dreaming to ask myself what I hoped to gain from it.
Now, Holiday knew what he was doing. He knew what kind of writing style would gain him traction with the people who read and publish self-help, which is the style of the self-appointed authority. It’s a style in which the writer often preaches as though their credentials are unimpeachable, while diverting attention away from the fact that they haven’t provided their credentials at all. With no ombudsman sitting beside the reader to fact-check statements, it’s tempting for writers to present their opinions and experiences as if they are laws of nature.
And yet, if I was approaching Holiday from an OK-to-Great stance, I would have pushed style aside as best I could and asked myself, “How can I do more of the things he does, which are the same things I say I want to do? What makes me so excited about these ideas, and which ones can serve me best? What is a realistic plan?” Instead, I asked myself, “How can I be him?”
A person can go on Extreme Makeover as many times as they want—if they fundamentally dislike their body, and they don’t like themselves, no amount of different outfits, new hairstyles, or even plastic surgery will change that.
It may sound like I’m saying that going from Bad-to-OK is impossible. I’m not.
Next week (he said in his best Guru Voice), we’ll talk about how it’s done.
Taylor Swift — ”marjorie“
Ashley’s grandmother, Ann O’Neill, passed away this week at the age of 90. She passed away at home, just as she said she wanted, in her house, on 80 acres of land in rural northern Minnesota, where she lived alone for the past 13 years.
As you can imagine, Ann was one of the most resilient people I’ve ever known. She raised Ashley’s father, Jim, as a working single mother—in 1950s New York! Eventually she and her second husband Larry, a Navy veteran just like my own grandfather, moved up to Effie, not all that far from the Canadian border, where Ann and Larry cultivated a prodigious garden and put up hundreds of hunters in their bunkhouse during deer and pheasant season.
After I met Ashley, I joined her on her yearly autumn trips “up north” to visit Ann—unfortunately I barely missed meeting Larry before he passed away in 2007. Ashley’s tradition became our tradition. There was no cellular service up there (and there’s none to this day), which was a new experience for me, and I quickly came to treasure the intimacy we could have with Ann thanks in part to the lack of distractions. We spent our time reading books, playing with her beloved cat, Tiger, and helping out in the garden, which Ann continued to maintain after Larry’s passing, and which had become her biggest pride and joy. Ann’s relentless hospitality and good-natured stubbornness were the stuff of legend—after a busy morning weeding her flower beds and a hearty lunch, she’d always insist that we take a nap, even if we weren’t tired.
On Thanksgiving Week 2018, a couple days before we were due in Effie for a visit, Ann fell at the grocery store and shattered her femur. We spent Thanksgiving at her hospital bedside in Duluth instead, convinced that she’d never move under her own power again, let alone host us at her home.
A month later, she walked out the door.
In 2019, we visited her in mid-summer for the first time ever, which meant we could take her on a trip we’d been dreaming about for ages: to the “Breakfast With the Bears” event at the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary in Ely, Minnesota. We woke up before the sun rose to get there in time for opening; it was the happiest I’ve ever seen Ann.
Having settled in the Twin Cities, and having spent her many retirement years as a pillar of her small Northwoods community, if it wasn’t for the accent she never quite relinquished, nobody would suspect that she had grown up in Great Neck, on the edges of NYC, and posed for photos on Long Island Sound.
The day after we got the news of Ann’s passing, Taylor Swift dropped her latest album, containing a beautiful song called “marjorie,” written as a tribute to her grandmother.
And if I didn’t know better
I’d think you were listening to me now
If I didn’t know better
I’d think you were still around
What died didn’t stay dead
What died didn’t stay dead
You’re alive, you’re alive in my head