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Podcast #361: The Untold Story of WWII’s 45th Infantry Division

When many people think of the American involvement in WWII, they likely bring to mind the 101st Airborne Division (aka the Band of Brothers) and their heroics at Normandy. But there was another American infantry division that took part in the largest amphibious assault in world history (no, it wasn’t D-Day) and then fought a year in Europe before the 101st even showed up. All in all, this division saw over 500 days of combat. They were the Thunderbirds of the 45th infantry division and my guest today was written a captivating history of this oft forgotten group of soldiers. 

His name is Alex Kershaw and he’s written several books on WWII. The book we discuss today is The Liberator: One World War II Soldier’s 500-Day Odyssey from the Beaches of Sicily to the Gates of Dachau. Alex begins by sharing what made the 45th different from other infantry divisions and discusses why they’re often forgotten. He then talks to us about a colonel from Arizona named Felix Sparks who always led from the front and fought side by side with his men for over two years. We get into some of the major battles the 45th encountered and their liberation of the concentration camp at Dachau. Alex ends our conversation with a call to all of us reach out to a WWII vet before they all leave this life (which is not far off). 

Show Highlights

  • How Alex got into writing WWII stories 
  • What made the 45th different from other divisions?
  • The interesting story of the 45th’s insignia
  • The cultural and geographic makeup of the 45th 
  • What the Nazis thought of the 45th 
  • Why the 45th doesn’t get much recognition, despite their 500+ days in combat 
  • Who is Felix Sparks?
  • Why Kershaw considers Felix Sparks the most inspiring figure of WWII
  • The story of the Battle of Anzio 
  • How Sparks dealt with incredible losses in his division 
  • Why Sparks’ leadership was so compelling
  • How the men reacted upon coming to Dachau 
  • What Kershaw considers the greatest achievement in American history 

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

the liberator book cover alex kershaw

Connect With Alex 

Alex’s website

Alex on Twitter

Alex on Instagram 

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Now when many people think of the American involvement in World War II, it likely brings to mind the 101st Airborne Division and the heroics at Normandy. But there was another American infantry division that invaded Sicily and then fought a year in Europe before the 101st even showed up. All in all, these soldiers saw over 500 days of combat. They were the Thunderbirds of the 45th infantry division. And my guest today has written a captivating history of these off-forgotten warriors. His name is Alex Kershaw and he’s written several books on World War II. The book we’ll discuss today is called The Liberator. Alex begins by sharing what made the 45th different from other infantry division and discusses why they’re often overlooked by people. He then talks about a colonel from Arizona named Felix Sparks, who always led from the front and fought side-by-side with his men for over two years. We get into some of the major battles the 45th encountered in their liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. Alex ends our conversation with a call to all of us to reach out to a World War II vet before they disappear from our ranks forever.

After the show’s over, check out the show notes at

Alex Kershaw, welcome to the show.

Alex Kershaw: It’s great to be with you.

Brett McKay: So you’ve made a career for yourself, writing books about World War II. Curious, when did that get started and what led you to that particular topic?

Alex Kershaw: Well, I’ve been a journalist really since my early 20s and I have to say, I’m 51 now, so it’s been quite a while, 30 years almost. In my late 20s, I did an investigative story, quite a long story, took several months, about the Channel Islands in the English Channel. They were the only part of Britain that was occupied by the Nazis. And I realized when I was doing the story that number one, it was very, very enjoyable. I love being a journalist, especially an investigative journalist.

But also, I loved writing about World War II. And this back in the 90s, when there were a lot of people, obviously, a lot of people who had fought in World War II or lived through it, was still in their seventies. So I really got a buzz out of it. I really loved writing story. And I realized that I’ve always been fascinated by World War II. Both my grandfathers were in World War II. It’s the best story of our time. There’s no greater story, I believe, certainly if you’re an American. And I was like, “Why would I want to write about anything else?” These warriors are still amongst us, these giants among pigmys are still amongst us. And while they’re still alive, why not interview them? Why not tell stories about this wonderful period? Why not … Everything else didn’t seem to come close in terms of drama and emotional interest for me.

So I had the opportunity when I was in my early 30s to write a biography of World War II’s greatest combat photographer. That’s Robert Capa, an absolute legend. And when I was researching and writing that book, I came across a story of the Bedford Boys, which is the story of 19 young men who were killed on D-Day in the first way. The movie Saving Private Ryan is based on a few elements of my narrative. Or whether I should say that Saving Private Ryan recreates what happens on Omaha Beach, where my guys died. So anyway, that was in my early 30s and I’ve been extremely fortunately, touch wood. I’m actually touching my forehead right now. I’ve been very, very, very lucky indeed to be able to spend the last couple of decades writing about amazing people and writing about a period that is just something that I have always been fascinated by. I mean, it’s been wonderful.

Brett McKay: That’s fantastic. Well, the book I’d like to talk about in particular today is one called The Liberator.

Alex Kershaw: Right.

Brett McKay: It’s about the 45th infantry division in World War II. And it’s a division as we’ll see, played a huge role in World War II. But doesn’t get a lot of attention or credit, I would say.

Alex Kershaw: No.

Brett McKay: To start off, what made the 45th different from other divisions in the Army?

Alex Kershaw: I think there’s only one major difference, and it’s an important one because it really goes to the heart of what that division’s was about. And that’s that the 45th infantry division, nicknamed the Thunderbird Division because they had a shoulder patch, a beautiful soft felt Thunderbird patch on their shoulders. That division had more Native Americans among its ranks. So I think, a sole combat division is around 14,000, 15,000 guys, round about 7000, 8000 will actually see combat. But in that division when it left the US to go to Europe in World War II, there were over 1500 Native Americans. And those Native Americans were drawn from predominantly the west, Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico, those areas. And so I think that at the heart of that division, I mean, you can’t get much more quintessentially American than 1500 braves. And I would definitely call them braves, going over to Europe and fighting and being very proud of their heritage and their statuses as the original Americans.

Brett McKay: And part of that Native American heritage, I thought this was an interesting story, too. An interesting tidbit. So their insignia was the Thunderbirds, like a Native American Thunderbird. But before that, it was something completely different. Can you tell us a little bit about that and what happened?

Alex Kershaw: It’s essentially a quite amazing story because up until, I think it was about 1938, whenever Memorial Day or whenever these guys paraded from the 45th division in any small town in America, if you can imagine this, they had a swastika as their shoulder patch. So in 1938, you’d have these Americans marching in uniform proudly with a swastika on their shoulder. What happened is people realized this might not be a very good thing in combat and actually, it was in the late 30s anyway that they decided to change the swastika and put a Thunderbird patch on the shoulder. Now the Thunderbird is a symbol which is not just special to some Native Americans. It’s also through our history, been a very symbolic and going back hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years.

But two important things to say about that Thunderbird image. The Thunderbird represents a really potent force. It’s a potent for good if it’s harnessed in the right way, directed in the right way. And it can be an avenging force. It can be a very powerful and destructive force, also when applied against the appropriate enemy. I was always very taken by this idea that we had these Native Americans fighting alongside recent generations of immigrants in America against the ultimate evil of the 20th Century, which was Nazis. And I know some people might say Stalin is just as bad, but as a European, I’m a European, you can tell from my accent. I don’t think there was a greater evil than Nazism. And it was very important to me as a storyteller and I think it’s very important for those who appreciate the sacrifice of ordinary working type of Americans in World War II to think that those guys, and some of them were Native Americans, those guys liberated Dachau, the Nazi’s first concentration camp in April 1945. So you have these guys with this very potent symbol on their shoulder that avenges the citizen soldiers for America, entering, liberating, and actually saving thousands of victims of Nazis right at the end of the war.

Brett McKay: So this is interesting contrast. You have this division where there’s a lot of Native Americans fighting Nazis who look down upon Native Americans as less than. How did that idea that the Nazis were fighting Native Americans and other, you know, I’m sure there’s Hispanic Americans in there as well … How did that color the Nazis’ perceptions of the Thunderbirds? They think like, “Oh yeah, these guys are just going to be a cake walk to me because we’re the superior race?” Do you have any insight from there?

Alex Kershaw: Yeah, actually I came across a quote from a German general. I think it was when the Thunderbirds fought in Italy. They fought from the 10th of July, 1943 right to the end of the war. Every day that Americans fought and died to liberate Europe, the Thunderbirds were there. I think it’s 511 days in combat overall. If you can track that with the famous Band of Brothers, 101st Airborne. I think 101st Airborne were on the line, able to get shot up for about 117 days. That just shows you how the 101st Airborne did not win World War II. Band of Brothers, those guys did not win World War II, certainly from the American point of view if there was anything else. But anyway, the Germans were the victims of enormous propaganda. Goebbels’s propaganda supremo, was a very, very sophisticated … actually a very intelligent man, did everything within his power to convince all Germans: German soldiers, German civilians that this was a just war, and that they should fight to the very, very bitter end. To the last man in many cases.

He was very adept at convincing ordinary Germans that the enemy were half breeds. That they were a made up of gangsters and half breeds, that the American fighting forces were weaker because they were not pure Aryans, they were not pure Teutonic warriors like the German forces. In fact, you could argue that the very strength of the American forces was their diversity. I would argue that the strength of American society is it’s diversity and always has been. It’s the ultimate image and culture, and it should always be that way.

Anyway, they were very condescending and had a little hubris when they went in to combat. I think the perfect example of this is the Battle of the Bulge, where the Germans were convinced that they were fighting an inferior enemy and December 1944, they were given a very profound psychological shock when they realized that they were not fighting an inferior enemy, that actually the half breeds would stand, and hold, and fight, in some cases to the last bullet. They were very, very fierce warriors indeed, in some cases. And that had a big profound effect in January of 1945 on the ordinary German soldier. They’d been told that they were up against an inferior enemy and to discover that that enemy was not inferior, but in some cases, awesomely fierce and stubborn, that had a big effect on the ordinary German in the Wehrmacht in early 1945, when there was a … they lost half in many cases.

Brett McKay: You mentioned earlier that the 45th spend over 500 days fighting. The 101st, a little over 100 days, yet as we talked about earlier, the 45th doesn’t get a lot of recognition.

Alex Kershaw: Yeah, no. I think the quote of point is that most people that know a little bit about WWII know a lot about D-Day, June the 6th, 1944. They know something about the Pacific: Pearl Harbor, dropping of the atomic bomb, etc. But a lot of people don’t realize, Americans started to fight and die in the European Theater in November of 1942. So we’re actually about 75 years, almost to the day, from the moment when Americans started to lay down their lives to restore democracy and human rights in Europe.

Operation Torch for them in 1942, the invasion of Sicily, which is actually the greatest amphibious invasion of the war, in terms of American men sent in to enemy territory. Over 200,000 allied soldiers in the invasion of Sicily in 1943. Salerno, that’s mainland Italy, that’s September 1943. A very, very, very difficult battle indeed. We almost had our backsides handed to us and were thrown back in to the Mediterranean. Then you have Anzio, January 1944. Again, a very, very, very difficult, bloody affair. And that’s … Anzio is January 1944, then you have June 1944, which is the one and only D-Day. The invasion that everybody remembers.

So the Americans were involved in several amphibious invasions before D-Day. Before the 101st Airborne went in to action. Let’s not forget that June the 6th, 1944, the day of days, was the first time that the 101st Airborne saw action in WWII. So from July 1943 right until June of 19 … sorry, it’s July of … yeah, July of 1943 right through until June of 1944, that’s an awful long time. That’s almost a year of combat when Americans were engaged in Sicily and Italy in very, very difficult fighting. Very, very hard battles. Very hard fighting. And it’s been forgotten about.

I was in the Anzio-Letuno graveyard just a few weeks ago. Seven and a half thousand Americans buried there. I was there on a beautiful Fall day, I think there were only three other people in the graveyard. About a week later, I went to graveyard over Omaha Beach, Colleville-sur-Mer, and there were hundreds of people in the graveyard. So the Italian campaign … Sicily and the Italian campaign, has rightly been called The Forgotten War, and yet it was probably the hardest fighting Americans were involved in Europe in WWII.

Brett McKay: We’ll get in to some of the specific battles, especially on Anzio, because that was one of my favorite sections. The writing was fantastic. But one character you follow throughout this campaign of the 45th, all the way from Sicily to Germany, is a guy named Felix Sparks. What’s his story, and what was his role as a commander or leader in the 45th.

Alex Kershaw: Well, it started off towards a captain. He became a company commander at the end of the Sicilian campaign. He landed on the 10th of July 1943. He was in the executive office of that company, Company E of the 157th Infantry Regiment of the 45th Infantry Division. His job was to keep records to make sure that people got the right medal recommendations. It was a desk role, and he hated it. He actually demanded that he be given a leadership role. He wanted to lead men in combat, and he got his wish. From September 1943 with the invasion of Salerno, he was company commander.

He remained a company commander right through until the Summer … actually the early Summer of 1944, became a battalion commander, and was a perfect example of the kind of meritocracy that you get in the US military, and certainly during combat. If you’re good enough, and you can stay alive, you’ll be promoted if you get the job done. And he was really, really, very good at getting the job done. He would be given very difficult tasks and would carry them out. He loved being a company commander most of all because that’s about 200 guys. With 200 guys, if you command 200 guys, you can get to know each one, you can get to know who their families are, you can form a personal bond with each of the men that you lead in combat.

And he loved that. He said to me, when I interviewed him for the book, that that was the greatest job he ever had, to be a company commander. A captain of the company in combat. So he fought all the way through. He fought through Sicily, Italy, Southern France, all the way up the Rhone Valley in to Germany, and then was the commander officer, the American commanding officer of the first Americans to enter and liberate Dachau Concentration Camp in April of 1945. So in terms of an epic odyssey, a really long journey, almost 2,000 miles, over 1500 guys, under his direct command, took orders from him in the battlefield were killed during this time in combat. He was on the line … in Europe for over 500 days of fighting.

Just an amazing story. He said it was a miracle that he survived. He often … I use the word often not lightly, it was many times when he thought he wouldn’t make it, that he would almost certainly be killed. It’s an extraordinary story of a working class American that grew up in the Depression, that was given nothing, and everything he got in life through hard work, and risk taking, that lead men very, very, superlatively well in combat. I couldn’t find … as I was researching this story, in the 20 years that I’ve been writing about Americans in combat in Europe, I couldn’t find a better example of someone that was more respected, and tougher, and more admirable that I’ve interviewed, and I’ve interviewed a lot of really extraordinary combat leaders.

Brett McKay: So let’s get in to some of the specific battles that the 45th encountered … the Thunderbirds encountered. We talked about Anzio. This was in Italy, correct?

Alex Kershaw: Yeah. It’s just about 60 miles south of where I am on the coasts. The idea for Anzio was that the Allies had been dropped by the Germans. The Germans were absolutely … really, really fantastic at defensive warfare, and if you look at a map of Italy, you’ll notice that it’s just basically two thirds of the country from the tip … the Mediterranean tip, all the way up the boot of Italy is one mountain range after the other. So what the Germans did was they’d set up a defensive line, the Americans would always be on the attack. They’d kill all the Americans, and they’d retreat to the next mountain range, set up the defensive line, the Americans would attack, and so on.

So it was a very, very bloody and very difficult campaign for the allies. To try and end this campaign quickly and seize Rome, the Allies came up with an idea that they would launch an amphibious invasion, hop around … do an end run around most of the mountain ranges in Italy and come in and attack it towards Rome, and land American forces at the closest point they could get to Rome, which was Anzio, Nettuno. The two actually today are rather pretty coastal, seaside towns in Italy.

So they landed … they didn’t land enough men. It was a botched operation from the start. Didn’t have enough landing craft. Everything was done on a shoestring. The invasions … the landing forces stalled. They didn’t take certain objectives in time. Certainly, they didn’t take heights. They were looking the plane of Anzio, and they were stalled there in a deadly stalemate for about three months. Actually it was the bloodiest campaign for the Allies in Europe. Over 75,000 Allied casualties, British and Americans, suffered terribly. The Germans counterattacked several times trying to force the Allies back in to the Mediterranean. Came very close in February of 1944 to actually destroying the Allied bridgehead. In fact, it was Sparks’ division, in particular his regiment and his company, which stopped the fiercest German counterattack.

In that battle, which became known as The Battle of the Caves, Sparks’ unit was surrounded for about ten days, and as a company commander, he fought that battle very fiercely, and tragically, he was the only guy from his company … so here you have a 25 year old company commander, the only guy that survived the battle. He managed to get back to his own lines, but every other guy in his unit, in his company, D company, were either captured, wounded, or killed, which was a devastating blow to him as a guy that had loved every guy that he lead in that unit.

Brett McKay: How did he move on? He had to move on. They had to keep going, so what did-

Alex Kershaw: Yeah, I think one of the things that I found … I couldn’t understand. None of us can really understand is when you … number one, how you can last that long in that kind of combat. I’ve never been in combat, thank god. Number two, how you can then move on when you’ve felt so responsible for young men’s lives, and when you lose those men, when you lose all of your men that you’re in command of. I know that it didn’t break him entirely, but I know that for the rest of his life, he felt enormous survivors’ guilt. I think that his heart was definitely broken.

We know that we can … many of us can come back from a broken heart, it takes a long time, but the scars are always there. We all know that, that when you lose people you love, in many cases you can carry on, but you don’t really ever get over it. I don’t think Sparks ever got over that. I don’t think that he was the same person ever again. I think that was a deep, deep wound in him that lasted until his last days. I think that he … when I interviewed him, it was six months before he died, he was 89 years old, and he still felt those wounds very, very, very much. He felt an anger, and a heartbreak, and a deep, deep grief and loss. Over 70 years later, you can’t lose 200 young men that fought for you, that would die for you, and not feel anything but heartbreak.

Brett McKay: The amazing thing about Sparks, what impressed me, is he lead from the front.

Alex Kershaw: Yeah, absolutely.

Brett McKay: That was displayed … when they went to France, there was a battle at Reipertswiller? Ripes-

Alex Kershaw: Yeah, Reipertswiller, yeah.

Brett McKay: Where he displayed some heroics leading from the front, and even impressed an SS soldier.

Alex Kershaw: Yeah.

Brett McKay: Can you walk us a bit through that?

Alex Kershaw: Yeah, it was in Reipertswiller in the end of January 1945, just on the German border, and the Germans counterattacked … they counterattacked at the Battle of the Bulge in mid December. Then they had an operation called Northwind, which hardly anybody knows about, which is another attempt to push the Americans back at their borders. What you have to remember is when we invaded Italy, when we invaded France on D-Day, this is not German soil. And as I think everybody listening would recognize that if Americans are fighting in Mexico, they’re not going fight quite as hard as they would in Los Angeles, or Kentucky, or New York State.

When it’s your own country, it doesn’t matter … to some extent, it doesn’t matter who your leaders our, it’s your territory, it’s your soil, it’s your family that’s on the line here now. Point being, when we got to Germany, and when Sparks got to Germany, the Germans, and in his case, unfortunately the SS, who he respected enormously, they fought back viciously. In his battalion, he was a battalion commander, they were surrounded by the SS, being picked off methodically, very, very savage warfare, and Sparks wanted to try and rescue some of his men. He commandeered a Jeep, actually a tank, sorry, and he was seen by an SS machine gunner, a guy called Johann Voss, to jump off this tank and drag several of his wounded men on to the tank and then reversed down a mountain pass.

This is something that was unheard of. A battalion commander, a lieutenant colonel just to do things like this. It was a remarkable … and the SS guys that watched him do it, they wouldn’t hesitate to open fire most of the time, but this was so astonishing to them, to see an officer risking his life in such a way, to drag wounded guys to safety. But they didn’t open fire. They couldn’t kill him. It was something that was just a step too far. So yeah, that was an example of … it’s a perfect example … it was the main example of Sparks putting his life on the line … risking his life.

He snapped. He didn’t care any more. The only thing that mattered to him was to save some of his men’s lives. He’d lost a company at Anzio in February of 1944, this is almost a year later, and he was haunted by the lost. He said I didn’t care, I wouldn’t of cared less. All that mattered to me was that I would save some of my men. I wasn’t going to see all those guys be lost again. I wasn’t going to have that happen to me again without trying to do something about it. He should’ve been … some people said he should’ve been … he should’ve received the Medal of Honor. There was a campaign back in the … 15, 20 years ago to try and have him recognized and receive the Medal of Honor for what was an extraordinary act of courage and selflessness, and in tepidity, but he didn’t receive it, and he didn’t even receive the Distinguished Service Cross, which he was actually recommended for.

So yeah, he was an astonishing guy and the people that I had met that served under him … the veterans I met at reunions worshiped him. He was a god to them. He was someone that was a father figure. He was someone that … they knew the one thing that Sparks would do every day, and that’s what … and that would be to try and keep as many of them alive as possible. Sparks told me that his job was a terrible, terrible responsibility because every day he gave orders for his men to advance, well most days.

You have to remember the American Army was on the attack throughout the European campaign. They weren’t a defensive army, they were invading and the job of Americans in WWII in Europe was to land in Europe and get to Berlin as fast as possible. Then go to the Pacific and finish off the Japanese. It was just like every day, get up, attack, attack, attack, attack. You take a lot of casualties when you do that, and if you’re an officer, you’re asking your men to attack German positions over, and over, and over again. When you attack, you lose lives, and Sparks told me that his job was to get people killed every day. It was a good day if I got less guys killed than the day before.

So you have an idea of the responsibility there and every loss of a life effected him. But he cared about his men, and he cared about keeping as many of them alive as possible, and he thought it was his moral responsibility as a human being, not just as an officer, to actually if he was going to ask guys to get killed, and to fight for their country, and to lay down their lives, he should lead them whenever possible in those situations where they could be killed.

There were a couple of occasions when … I interviewed veterans and they said they were actually astonished that suddenly down the street, or out of nowhere, would come walking this Lieutenant Colonel right near the front lines, and sometimes at the front lines. They were astonished. They didn’t see anybody above a Captain anywhere near the real action for months on end. It was a joke among a lot of GIs that you never saw a senior field commander anywhere near the real shit. So excuse my language, but Sparks was there. He was there. That makes a massive difference. If someone is giving you orders, when you see the guy that’s giving you orders fighting beside you, taking the same risks, it is a very, very effective motivational tool, you know?

Brett McKay: So they advance from France in to Germany, and as you’ve said, they liberated the first concentration camp made in Germany, Dachau.

Alex Kershaw: Yeah. Yeah.

Brett McKay: What did the men think. I thought it was interesting how you did talk … they didn’t really know what it was when they first saw it, but how did they react once they realized what was going on there?

Alex Kershaw: Well it was a combination. I think that Sparks said to me, it seems that they encountered when they first entered the camp, where he said to me, beyond human comprehension, this is nothing they could ever prepare you for this. He said they had seen everything by then. They’d seen anything that you could possibly imagine as a combat infantryman. The worst of industrial warfare: civilians damaged, other men terribly damaged. Most Americans in the GIs, on the ground in combat in the European Theater, were killed by flying, hot shards of metal, pieces of shrapnel, particularly from artillery shells … mortars were also very effective.

You would often … when an artillery barrage occurred, it was probably the most lethal thing that could happen to you, and there were cases where you’d be right beside a really good buddy, and it was the buddy beside you that you always fought for, not … obviously people were very patriotic, they were fighting for the flag, they had a notion that they were fighting for civilization and to defeat barbarism essentially. But when it really came down to it, when you were really, really, when the S-H-I-T hit the fan, it was really the guy beside you that you fought for, and that guy fought for you, and your greatest fear was not so much the enemy, but it was letting the guy beside you down, of failing that person, that buddy, when both your lives were on the line.

There were cases I came across where you’d be beside that person you were fighting for, and then you would have pieces of that person splattered across you … across the stock of your M1 rifle and they’d be literally obliterated. So these were the things that really damaged people and that were almost daily occurrences. But even that didn’t compare to seeing thousands of people dead. Rotting corpses, and this is what greeted the Thunderbirds when they arrived at Dachau on the 29th of April 1945. The first thing they saw was what was called the Death Train. This was a train of wagons full of over 2,000 dead corpses. These were people that had been brought on the train for over two weeks from Kombuchenwald. They’d been starved. They hadn’t been given water, and then when they got to Dachau, some of them had crawled out .. miraculously some of them had survived, and some of them had crawled out, and then SS guards, as they crawled out of the train, had stomped on their heads.

They’d use the butts of their rifles to break their brains in. So these sort of things, when you saw this, and you had already been through … I think for some of these guys it was their 500th day of combat. So they were worn down. They were tired, they were brutalized, they were angry, they were on hair triggers anyway, ready to explode. When they saw this, many of them were absolutely enraged, and Sparks told me that he actually lost control of his men for a while. He couldn’t control them. He himself was lost for a while. He was in a daze, and he vomited, and he … it was something that was really, really beyond anything they could ever imagine.

Then you go through various stages of grief, of rage, of nausea, of being stunned, many guys were in tears. Then as they moved on in to the camp … they were on the outskirts, when they moved on in to the camp, there were 32,000 people in that concentration camp, Dachau, when it was liberated. First formed in 1933, for 12 years of death and people being worked to death, of evil, of decay, and monstrosity. And believe it or not, some people in that camp on the 29th of April 1945, had been there for over a decade. They’d been in Hell for that long.

So when they got towards the very center of the Dachau complex, there were 32,000 people there, over 50 nationalities: catholic priests, Jehovah’s witnesses, gays, mostly political prisoners. And when they heard the sound of combat, when they heard that Sparks and his men were there, and when they saw the green uniform of the American soldier, and they saw the helmets, and they saw the Thunderbird patch, etc, there was what Sparks told me, was like a chilling roar. 32,000 people roaring with pleasure and relief that finally their ordeal was over. In fact, many of the people that were saved by Americans there, they later on called the 29th of April 1945, the day upon which Americans liberated the longest standing center of evil within the Third Reich, the longest standing concentration camp, they called that day The Day of the Americans, because it was the Americans that had liberated them.

For some of them, it was literally the day the had been born again. They had though that their lives would be over, that they had really gone to hell, and then see the Americans give them a new chance at life, was something that was profoundly, profoundly effecting … incredibly moving. When we talk about cliches, such as the Greatest Generation … my son’s 19, I think that his generation is awesome too, every generation’s awesome. When you talk about Americans, working class Americans liberating Europe in WWII, you’re talking about an episode that is really sacrosanct, and beautiful, and pure. It’s an astonishing, astonishing achievement that Europeans will always be grateful for, the liberation of that beautiful, beautiful historic place, of that continent that gave birth to the Enlightenment, to the Renaissance, that produced American waves of immigration, that produced America, it’s an amazing thing that you had these young Americans going back to the Old World and liberating it, and liberating it from enormous evil, from enormous, unimaginable evil and barbarism. It’s a great … I think it’s the greatest achievement in American history. I think the few of those liberators that are still alive are the greatest Americans in American history.

The longer I spend in Europe, and I spend a long time in Europe taking Americans every year through the WWII museum, through tours I do with the museum, I go back for several weeks every year and take Americans to the places where Americans died to liberate that great continent. I’m increasingly … every day I do it, every year that passes when I’m in my 50s now, I am more and more at awe … in awe of that sacrifice and that heroism, and that courage. The effects of that, and the beauty of what was given to Europe and what was given to my generation of Europeans, it’s a truly awesome, awesome achievement.

Brett McKay: Well Alex, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about your work?

Alex Kershaw: You can go to my website: I have my books listed there and I’m on Twitter, and Facebook, you name it. I love interacting with people, so please visit. Please visit me and hopefully enjoy, not just my stories, but other people’s stories too, because these … I was talking to a guy … I’ll shut up soon, but I was talking to a guy yesterday who told me that the American government has officially declared that the end of the practical lives, the lives that we can count on people still being … still having a heartbeat or WWII veterans is 2020. So we are now only two years away from the date that which the American government has decided that for all intents and purposes, the WWII generation will be no more. So we’re right at the end. We’re at that … as the sun comes down, that last glimmer of light on the horizon, that’s where we are in terms of these amazing people and I think it’s worth thinking about. It’s worth really thinking about that because when they’re gone, all we’ll have is archives and history books.

Brett McKay: Alex Kershaw, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Alex Kershaw: Thank you so much.

Brett McKay: My guest today is Alex Kershaw. He’s the author of several books on WWII. The book we discussed today was The Liberator. It’s available at You can find out more information about Alex’s work by going to his website: Also, check out our show notes at, where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper in to this topic.

Well that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at If you enjoy the podcast, or gotten something out of it, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. Helps out a lot. If you’ve already done that, thank you. Share the podcast with your friends, that’s how we get the word out about this show. As always, thank you for your continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.

Stocking Stuffers for Him: Huckberry 2017

best stocking stuffers for men 2017

Yesterday we covered stocking stuffers for women. Today, we’re taking on stocking stuffers for men. While the broad strokes may be familiar — small clothing essentials, grooming products, fun toys — the 10 products featured below are specifically geared to the masculine set (even if the ladies might enjoy some of these things as well!). Be sure to peruse the entirety of Huckberry’s stacked, interesting, and wholly delight-inducing Stocking Stuffers for Him Shop

12 Days of Christmas: Stocking Stuffers for Him 

1. Matador Pocket Blanket. The uses for a warm blanket that can fold up and fit into your pocket may be more than you’d think — from impromptu picnics, to warming up by the fire when the temperature suddenly dips. Keep this in your car, and always be prepared, whether it’s for snuggling or for an unexpected roadside emergency.

2. Peak Bagging SoapAdventure-inspired soaps that combine authentic scentscapes with the cleansing power of activated charcoal. That the top of the bars feature reliefs of mountains is a cool added bonus. 

3. EDC Kit 2.0. Building on the original EDC Kit, Huckberry slimmed it down, bathed it in stainless steel, and birthed the 2.0. Included is a DoohicKey (with bottle opener, ruler, box cutter, etc.), lighter, and an S-biner. 

4. Stanley FlaskMade with odorless and tasteless stainless steel, the interior won’t mix good whiskey with the aroma of what came before it. The slim profile slides flat into a pocket for discretion. As it’s Stanley, you also know it’s going to last forever. 

5. Fulton & Roark Shave CreamFrom our favorite solid cologne makers comes this luxuriant shave cream. It will protect, moisturize and invigorate the skin with various essential oils and all-natural ingredients. 

6. The Kennedy SockAmerican Trench’s Made-in-the-USA socks combine classic patterns — like the one pictured, inspired by JFK’s style — with performance knits that don’t skimp on the cozy. 

7. Rubber Band GunSome childhood toys only get better with age. The Model PPK Wooden Rubber Band Gun is modeled after the classic Walther PPK handgun made famous by James Bond. While your aim may not rival his, you’re sure to have much more fun (and with much lower stakes) turning your living room into a no-holds-barred shootout.

8. Fulton & Roark Solid Cologne. With the solid colognes from Fulton & Roark, a charming scent can be brought anywhere without the worry or the mess. Their colognes come in a solid wax that you rub into your skin. Travel-friendly and handy as all get out. 

9. StatGear Pocket SamuraiTaking its design cues from the legendary steel of the samurai, this knife is known for its extreme strength and sharpness, and as a bonus, weighs less than an ounce. With a built-in pocket clip and keyring loop, it’s always at hand. 

10. Dan & Dave Camp Cards. With these Camp Cards you (and your opponents) will enjoy custom designed woodland face cards amidst hand-lettered spot cards, each laid against an ivory background and precisely printed by the U.S. Playing Card Co. The cards are encased in a beautiful letterpress-printed box that features a map of Yosemite Valley on the inside.


Why We Should Celebrate the Masks of Masculinity

vintage men welding with masks on

Though he’s been called the greatest combat general of modern times, George S. Patton didn’t feel like a natural born leader.

In fact, as a boy he was rather sensitive, timid, and mild in disposition, and thought himself deficient in the military virtues. But becoming a courageous, inspiring, tough-as-nails commander was the great desire of his heart, and so Patton trained himself to develop the qualities he lacked. He exercised his body to the point he could compete as an Olympic pentathlete, voraciously studied the tactics of militaries from every time and culture, practiced martial skills until he had mastered them, and volunteered for dangerous assignments to get comfortable under fire. By dint of an ironclad will, Patton not only overcame his innate proclivities, but learned to outwardly project his inner sense of determination. As he said:

“A man of diffident manner will never inspire confidence. A cold reserve cannot begat enthusiasm . . . It then appears that the leader must be an actor, and such is the fact. . . . he is unconvincing unless he lives his part.”

Though Patton presented himself as supremely confident, that didn’t mean he never again felt fear; just that he didn’t let it control him. As he observed, “All men are timid on entering any fight; whether it is the first fight or the last fight all of us are timid. Cowards are those who let their timidity get the better of their manhood.”

Many of the greatest men of history have stories similar to Patton’s: they made of themselves what they wished, even when their innate dispositions pulled them in a different direction, and they became leaders who acted with composure, despite their own feelings of uncertainty.  

Theodore Roosevelt was famously a boy of great timidity and ill health before he decided to “make his body;” he spent the rest of his life trying to prove he was a man of great bravery and vitality, who could endure all the challenges of living strenuously “in the arena.” His stated approach to conquering his weaknesses paralleled Patton’s: “There were all kinds of things I was afraid of at first, ranging from grizzly bears to ‘mean’ horses and gun-fighters; but by acting as if I was not afraid I gradually ceased to be afraid.”

Winston Churchill was a sensitive, unathletic lad who deliberately transformed himself into the “Bulldog” of England and led his country through their “darkest hour.” Churchill’s spirit of resolution not only helped win the war, but perhaps just as importantly, made his fellow Englishmen believe they would win the war. He was not only able to form an inner conviction to never surrender, he was able to convey that assurance to others – to be the face of indomitability and act the part of the supremely confident leader; as his daughter Mary put it, even though his challenges were monumental, and he was prone to his own bouts of doubt, frustration, and melancholy, Churchill’s setbacks never “un-manned him.”

General Dwight D. Eisenhower also had times during the war when he felt beat-down, irritated, and demoralized, but he similarly refused to let his men see that. Instead, no matter what he was feeling inwardly, he outwardly projected a farm-boy friendliness and an easy, comforting confidence:

“I firmly determined that my mannerisms and speech in public would always reflect the cheerful certainty of victory—that any pessimism and discouragement I might ever feel would be reserved for my pillow. To translate this conviction into tangible results, I adopted a policy of circulating through the whole force to the full limit imposed by physical considerations. I did my best to meet everyone from general to private with a smile, a pat on the back, and a definite interest in his problems.”

These men (and the list of further examples would be endless) found success, lived with greatness, and left a legacy not by “being themselves” — at least not in the way we understand that injunction these days. They were not “true to themselves,” at least not to certain parts of who they were. Rather, they embraced a role, they acted a part — they wore a mask.

And we’re all the better for it.

Examining the Moderns Attacks on the Masks of Masculinity

In the last several years, there are have been books, articles, and documentaries put out deriding the so-called “masks of masculinity.” The argument forwarded is that men are damaged by the injunction to “be a man” and by being forced into a role where they have to act tough, aggressive, stoic, and like they have everything under control. They can’t be themselves. They can’t give full expression to their emotions. They are trapped by the masks they must wear, and these masks are not only metaphorically and literally killing them, they create a “toxic masculinity” that wreaks havoc on society.

If men would take off their masks, this line of thinking goes, they would not only individually find more success and happiness, but the whole world would benefit as well. This is in fact one of the arguments made for why men should embrace feminism — that patriarchy holds men back as well as women, and men should want to be liberated from the male “stereotypes” that keep them ensnared.

It’s all a very compelling narrative to be sure — but the argument relies on many unexamined assumptions, which, once unpacked, reveal numerous contradictions and logical inconsistencies.

Unexamined Assumption #1: Feelings Represent Your “True Self”

One of the underlying assumptions behind the argument against the “masks of masculinity” is that masks are bad because they are artificially created and imposed, while feelings are more pure and authentic and emanate from one’s “real” self.

Rather than being something that can be objectively proven, this is, of course, a philosophical argument — one that involves the very tricky question of what constitutes the “self” — and a counterargument to its premise can be forwarded on a couple of fronts.

First, to what extent are feelings truly “native” to ourselves? Perhaps half of our personality was baked right into our DNA and present at birth, so surely, yes, many of our feelings might be considered intrinsically “us.” But what about the other half of how we turn out? Since we were babes, we’ve been bombarded with millions of advertisements and media messages. Who we are has been shaped by our parents, our peers, and our experiences. If all of these external and “artificial” influences have molded our feelings, are they any more authentic than the other kinds of masks we wear?

Second, should we really privilege and trust all our feelings? If I don’t feel like working out and want to sit on the couch and eat potato chips, should I harken to that feeling as a call from my authentic self? What if I have a bad day at work and feel like quitting, should I?

What if I feel like punching an annoying person in the face, should I heed that urge? If I want to stare at an attractive woman’s breasts, should I give in to that impulse?

Critics of the masks of masculinity would of course answer these questions in the negative. In fact, in regards to those latter two, they would say that the urge to be violent or sexually aggressive is actually just another mask, rather than an authentic feeling (despite the fact there is ample scientific evidence that proves the innate, biological origin of the male drive for dominance). Because what they really mean when they say men need to get in touch with their feelings, is that they need to get in touch with their “nice” feelings — feelings that lead them to be more sensitive and vulnerable and gentle. More like, well, women.

But it’s logically inconsistent to say that masks are bad because they stifle your feelings, which represent your true self and must be accessed and liberated, but then to only apply that precept to some feelings and not to others.

The truth is that while feelings are important, nobody — whether man or woman — is well served by privileging them over other aspects of the self, like rational thought and volitional desires.

Every time we see an unoccupied car with the motor running, briefly think of stealing it, but decide not to, we’re wearing mask. Every time we want to reach across the table to grab the roll basket but politely ask for it be passed to us instead, we’re wearing a mask. Every time we want to check our phones during a conversation, but force ourselves to listen intently, we’re wearing a mask.

Every time we feel an impulse, but decide to act contrary to it, we’re wearing a mask.

Masks in fact provide the thin veneer between barbarism and civility that keeps the world spinning round. People complain that the masks of violence and sexual aggression are what cause some men to behave badly, when it fact it is the mask of civility which keeps most men from acting out. 

Masks are then no better or worse, nor more or less authentic, than our feelings. The latter should not be universally privileged over the former.

Unexamined Assumption #2: The Masks of Masculinity Are Stifling

Okay, so maybe masks themselves aren’t necessarily bad, but the specific “masks of masculinity” — masks of toughness, strength, competence, self-reliance, stoicism etc. — are. These masks are destructively stifling and prevent men from becoming their true, fully fulfilled selves.

But then we’re back again to the question of how to define one’s “true self” in the first place. When Patton and TR felt fear, but acted courageously anyway, was the fear their real self, or was the courage? When Churchill and Ike felt discouraged, but decided to act confident and composed anyway, was the discouragement their real self, or was the confident composure?

A stronger argument could be made that the men’s volitional action was more real, more “true” than their reflexive emotions. Further, their masks enabled them to act in the way they wanted to; rather than being stifling, the masks were liberating – they empowered these men to be who they desired to be.

Masks in fact can reveal, just as much as they conceal. They can enable you to be and act the way you want to, in line with not just your innate feelings, but your highest, deliberately chosen ideals. Indeed, roles aren’t such a bad thing. When a solider or police officer runs towards danger instead of away from it, it’s not because they don’t feel fear; it’s because the mask of their role — their uniform and mantle — helps them push past the fear and do their job. When you’re nervous walking into a pitch meeting, stepping into the role of successful, confident entrepreneur allows you to ace the interaction. When someone’s messing with your family, embracing the role of the strong patriarch can enable you to stand up for them. You can do great things when you’re “acting a part.”

But what if a man doesn’t like the stereotypical role of masculinity? Doesn’t feel like he fits into such masks? Well, this might not be popular advice, but he ought to suck it up and still try to wear them. These masks aren’t morally neutral; they’re superior values and keys to living a virtuous life (and this is true for both men and women alike, though there is more emphasis on men embracing them for reasons I’ll explain below).

Who, whether man or woman, would want to be fragile rather than tough, weak rather than strong, incompetent rather than competent, frenzied rather than stoic, dependent rather than self-reliant, cowardly rather than brave? Within the rubric of being tough, strong, competent, independent, and courageous, there is plenty of room for variations in personality and being who you are; such masks hardly create homogeneous clones. So let’s not get so relativistic that we say a man shouldn’t strive to live these virtues because it isn’t “him.”

Unexamined Assumption #3: Masks Lead to “Toxic Masculinity”

So maybe masks can empower men to take risks, to act bravely, and to lead others. But don’t they also push men to behave badly? To flee from intimacy, be homophobic, compete in destructive ways, and suppress their emotions?

If that were true, then over the last forty years, as there’s been a continual push for men to take off their masks, men should have become much more courteous, open, vulnerable, and sensitive than they were in archaic times past.

In some ways, they have; yet in others they’ve actually moved in the very opposite direction.  

While we like to think of history as having a continuous progressive arc, the men of today are in fact more emotionally restrained in some ways than men of the past, when the pressure to adhere to the code of manhood was stronger.

Go back to the 19th century, for example, the last time the traditional code of manhood was fully in place (it began to unravel in the early 20th, even before the countercultural movement, for reasons detailed here). Though the injunction to “be a man!” and keep a “stiff upper lip” was still very firmly in place, what you find in this period are men that were far more sensitive, civil, and comfortable with homosocial intimacy than today’s “New Man.” Victorian men emphasized fair play and good sportsmanship on and off the field (ever asking, “How are you playing the game?”), purposefully read sad poetry in order to give themselves over to a good cry, wrote florid love letters to their ladies, and not only referred to male buddies as “bosom friends” but expressed physical intimacy with them in ways that would in fact make most modern men rather uncomfortable. (Don’t believe me? Peruse this gallery and see for yourself.)

How can it be that men today could in some ways be more repressed than the men of the past, given that we’ve spent the last several decades dismissing and dismantling the validity of traditional notions of masculinity?

What society formerly understood, and what we fail to understand today, is that not only can men being open, emotional, and decorous exist right alongside a code of manhood that asks them to be strong and stoic, the latter in fact enables the former. That is, when men are given outlets for their natural masculine proclivities, asked to adopt noble aims in their behavior, and then celebrated and appreciated for the sacrifices living virtuously entails, they feel secure in their manhood, enough to truly be sensitive and let down their guard from time to time. (If you feel the whole idea of men needing to be secure in their manhood is silly, because the whole idea of manhood is silly and entirely culturally relative, I would refer you to this series, in which we detail at length the evidence that the desire to “become men” is both deeply biological and universal to every culture, time, and place.) For two thousand years, the code of manhood in fact required men to embrace both action and contemplation, to be both hard and soft.

Today, in contrast, boys and men are told that masculinity is silly and artificial and toxic, and are given no clear definition on what manhood even means, nor guidance on how to attain it. Yet they still feel the desire to become men. In this vacuum, in which males want to be men, but don’t know what that means, they grab at masculinity in its most stereotypical forms. With all the nuance of manliness having been stripped out over the years, all that is left is macho/alpha traits in cartoonish form. Such traits need balancing with softer virtues, but because young men, the bravado of their efforts notwithstanding, aren’t recognized and affirmed as men by mentors and society as a whole, and thus don’t ultimately feel secure in their manhood, these softer virtues are spurned and seen as a threat to their masculinity. Which only makes the more stereotypical masculinity they’re struggling to put on become more brittle, one-dimensional, and potentially destructive.

In short, toxic masculinity isn’t caused by the masks required by the traditional code of manhood, but by deterioration of the code in its fullest form.  

Unexamined Assumption #4: The Masks of Masculinity Were Created for No Good Reason, Serve No Real Purpose, and Can Be Jettisoned Without Ill Effect

Those who decry the masks of masculinity rarely dig into or explain why these masks developed in the first place. There’s a vague implicit sense that they were just created by the patriarchy to subjugate women, or something, and now are outdated and irrelevant.

But the masks of masculinity did in fact develop for some really important reasons.

In primitive times, for reasons of biology – males are on average physically stronger than women and more expendable (i.e., sperm is more plentiful and less valuable than wombs) – men were selected for the tasks of hunting and fighting. In such endeavors, men could not afford to break down or goof up; to do so would put not only their lives but the lives of their comrades in danger. Primitive women had to be pretty tough, strong, and resilient too, but because of this division of duties, more emphasis was placed on men developing these qualities.

Keep in mind that the masks of masculinity were typically not designed to suppress all emotions, all the time, but rather to enable a man to vent his emotions at a time of his choosing – one in which it would not be tactically disadvantageous or put his tribe in danger. It wasn’t that you could never cry or be sad, you simply couldn’t afford to emotionally collapse on the battlefield, and so had to be able to turn off those feelings and be tough when the situation called for it.

Remember that scene in Saving Private Ryan when Mellish is about to be stabbed, and Upham is coming up the stairs and can save his comrade, but he freezes and fails him? Even if a part of you understood he was shell-shocked and felt empathetic for what he was going through, his inaction still probably made you feel incredibly angry and frustrated. That visceral reaction really captures the deep way we still value the ancient masks of masculinity.

Now that society is relatively peaceful and food and resources are easy to come by, does that mean that the masks of masculinity are obsolete and unnecessary – that they’re mismatched with our current reality and can thus be entirely thrown out? The answer is no.

The masks of masculinity continue to be what enable men to take risks, if less predominantly on the battlefield, then in the marketplace. The desire to compete, to gain status, surely does come with some ill effects sometimes, but it’s also what always has and will continue to drive innovation and the advancements of civilization.

And while physical dangers are certainly more scarce these days, they haven’t disappeared altogether, and a division of duties between the sexes concerning emotional continence still continues to be needed at times.  

No matter how egalitarian someone is in their views, when the s**t hits the fan, men are still expected to lead and protect. When stories of heroism emerge from mass shootings, like the recent one in Las Vegas, one always hears about boyfriends and husbands shielding their girlfriends and wives from bullets and carrying them to safety, sometimes at the expense of the men’s lives. The story is never, “The wife took a bullet for her husband.” In the chaos of such emergencies, we expect that men will be scared, but will have the emotional wherewithal – made by possible by the mask of stoicism and courage — to hold themselves together. If they do not, then people — again, no matter how egalitarian their views — are disgusted; remember the consternation over the man who fled the Aurora movie theater shooting, leaving his fiancée and two small children behind?

The mask of masculinity is not only needed in such exceptional situations, but when families face more common sorrows. When Kate lost our baby when she was five months pregnant, both of us experienced enormous grief. But we couldn’t afford to both fall apart at the same time. Someone had to continue to take care of life’s basic day-to-day necessities. Kate was naturally a wreck, and I wanted to allow her to fully grieve the loss. So I took on the burden of initially holding things together. I took care of the things that needed doing, so she could be free to fall apart. Months later, when she was feeling stronger and felt able to re-shoulder some tasks, I finally allowed myself to really grieve. We took turns grieving in a way, and she went first, because of the old-school, supposedly outdated masks of masculinity. And you know what? Kate remains deeply, profoundly grateful for that act, and cried as she read this, saying, “That was one of the greatest expressions of love I’ve ever experienced.”

Masks don’t always stifle expressions of love, they can in fact liberate them; they can be the vehicle that propagates a distinctly masculine form of nurturing.

There are still times when a division of duties between the sexes is needed, when someone has to be the protected and someone has to be the protector. In a crisis, there’s no time to decide who’s going to take which role. In a period of grief, it is still a noble thing for a man to step up and act as the rock for his family.

One may say, “Well, alright, in those instance, the masks of masculinity can be useful. But otherwise, men should remove them.” But these masks are less like inanimate objects that can readily be put on and taken off, and more like muscles that must be regularly exercised; how can you expect to put on the mask of composure and courage in an emergency, if you’ve never practiced wearing it before?

And if you then think, “Well, it’s stupid to wear a mask all the time that you’re only going to use on rare occasions,” return again to the conclusion of point #2.


“Today, we tend to live within an ethos of authenticity. We tend to believe that the ‘true self’ is whatever is most natural and untutored. That is, each of us has a certain sincere way of being in the world, and we should live our life being truthful to that authentic inner self, not succumbing to the pressures outside ourself. To live artificially, with a gap between your inner nature and your outer conduct, is to be deceptive, cunning, and false. Eisenhower hewed to a different philosophy. This code held that artifice is man’s nature. We start out with raw material, some good, some bad, and this nature has to be pruned, girdled, formed, repressed, molded, and often restrained, rather than paraded in public. A personality is a product of cultivation. The true self is what you have built from your nature, not just what your nature started out with.” –David Brooks, The Road to Character

Some today have called for men to remove their masks, claiming that the injunction to be strong, stoic, courageous, competitive, competent, and self-reliant stifles men’s ability to be their true selves and leads to the dissemination of “toxic masculinity.”

But masks themselves don’t cause toxic masculinity; in fact, masks are precisely what keep it in check. The problem is not the masks men wear, but that in recent times, they haven’t been coupled with another: the mask of decorum, self-restraint, and civility.

Put another way, when men behave badly, the problem isn’t the masks created by the traditional code of manhood, but that the anemic state of the code in modern times has deprived these traditional masks from being molded with proper balance and nuance; the problem is not the existence of the masks themselves, but the way their shape has become distorted. We don’t necessarily need fewer masks, but better ones.

Masks can just as readily conceal as reveal, just as much liberate as stifle. Why wouldn’t you want to be brave and composed? Why wouldn’t you want to be able to give vent to your emotions at a time and place of your choosing, rather than being subject to their whims?

Masks can lead to expression just as readily as suppression. There isn’t a right or wrong way to do feelings or intimacy. The traditional feminine forms should not be privileged over the traditionally masculine. The world needs protective, masculine nurturance as much as any other form of love.

Finally, masks can empower rather than constrain. The paradox of masks is that though they are “artificial,” they can bring out our truest self — the self which we not only feel ourselves to be, but that which we desire ourselves to be. Our best self. What is more inspiring than the fact that our feelings are not our destiny — that we may feel weak, lazy, and cowardly, but make ourselves into men of strength, conviction, and courage?

Used the right way, the masks of masculinity empower the individual and are good for society. Masks are what allowed Patton and TR to become the leaders they wanted to be. Masks are what helped Churchill and Ike win a world war. Masks are what enabled explorers and inventors to plunge forward with risky endeavors and advance human civilization. Masks are what allow you to stand strong for your family and friends, to face major crises with competence and confidence, and handle everyday annoyances with calm and composure.

The masks of masculinity are what help keep the world spinning round.

So let’s celebrate them.

Bonus: Listen to my podcast with Dale Dye about the mask of command

If/How to Wear a Suit Without a Tie

daniel craig wearing suit without tie

Men have complained about ties for ages. They can feel binding and hot, and seem a little strange, a little pointless, and a little like a colorful noose.

If you’re a man who dislikes ties, is it advisable to wear a suit without one? Can you do so and still look stylish and appropriately dressed?

Today we’ll provide the answers to these questions.

Should You Wear a Suit Without a Tie?

Most generally, the answer to this question is no.

An entire traditional suit get-up — pants, jacket, shirt, and tie — is not a system of independent pieces, but rather interconnected parts that are designed to be worn together. A suit jacket shouldn’t be worn with different pants than the ones it came with. A dress shirt and tie don’t look good without a jacket. And the full suit doesn’t look complete without a tie. The suit itself is in fact designed with the tie in mind; its lapels, along with the collars of your dress shirt, serve as frames to the neckwear which runs down the center of your chest.

A tie then pulls the suited look together and adds a bit of finish and authoritativeness to your outfit. Not to mention, it simply adds a nice bit of color and visual interest to what is otherwise a fairly monochrome ensemble.

Wearing a tie with a suit is thus a must for all professional and more formal events and environments. Showing up tieless to a place where everyone else is wearing a tie will make you look kind of dopey — conveying that you’re either lazy (the kind of guy who prefers his own comfort to showing respect for the occasion), superficially rebellious (“Okay, I consent to wearing a suit, but I draw the line at putting on a tie!”), or sartorially clueless.

Even for more business casual occasions, if the event is dressed-down enough to forgo the tie with your suit, you’ll typically be better off wearing a sport coat without a tie, as those two style elements better complement each other.

However, all this being said, wearing a suit without a tie actually isn’t a bad look. There are times where you don’t want to project conventional authority, or even look entirely “complete,” and ditching the tie can be a fine, stylish way to dress down a suit. It’s a viable option for certain occasions and events like a casual outdoor summer wedding (hot weather in general makes the tieless suit a more acceptable choice), cocktail party, or art gallery opening. It can also work in environments in which you normally wear a suit but have been called into an emergency meeting or sent into the field to work on a project outside the norm. It’s notable that politicians seem to increasingly be forgoing the tie outside of more formal campaign events, perhaps to offer a more open and accessible look to voters and constituents.

To pull off the look yourself, you’ve just got to keep a few guidelines in mind.

How to Wear a Suit Without a Tie

men wearing suits without ties

The main issue with skipping the tie when wearing a suit is that it’s apt to be read either as an unintentional omission — you forgot a tie or didn’t understand the dress code — or as a merely comfort-driven decision — you’ve been drinking too much, and are feeling flushed and like you need to tear off your tie to better get down on the dance floor.

The corrective to this issue, naturally, is to take steps to ensure that going tieless seems less like a sloppy oversight and more like a deliberate style choice. You know how to dress, and you’re ditching the tie on purpose.

Nail the fit. Fit is always key, and it’s even more important in the absence of a tie, when your get-up runs a greater risk of going sideways into sloppiness.

Wear a more casual/stylish, non-business suit. Skipping the tie while wearing a more formal, structured, conservative, dark-colored business suit just feels like you were willing to start something, but didn’t want to go all the way; it exudes that “incomplete” feel that mars the tieless look.

Instead, forgo the tie only when you’re wearing a more casual/stylish suit that fits better with dressed-down social occasions. Think lighter colors and fabrics, less structured, slimmer notch lapels.

Wear a less formal shirt. Same idea here. Your shirt choice will come into greater focus in the absence of a tie, and a more casual shirt telegraphs that this absence was an intentional choice. Go with a classic Oxford, or a button-down in a chambray, denim, or patterned fabric.

Mind the collar. The collar of your dress shirt acts as an important and flattering frame to your face. But without a tie to hold it together, the collar of your dress shirt can flatten and flop around underneath the structure of your jacket and look incongruous and sloppy. So don’t wear a shirt where the collar is going to spread out excessively and lie horizontally. Rather, you want the collar to stand up fairly straight and keep a nice vertical orientation. To accomplish this, make sure your shirt is well-ironed (add starch as needed), and use collar stays. A button-down is a good choice as its collar will better maintain its shape.

Undo two buttons. The tieless suit is not a buttoned-up look, so neither should your shirt be. You’ll definitely want to unbutton at least one, and typically two of your shirt buttons to evince the right level of casual nonchalance. Make sure your undershirt isn’t showing; if you wear one, you’ll want to opt for the v-neck style, rather than a crewneck. Undo any more than two buttons, and you’re entering gigolo territory.

Add visual interest with other accessories. A tie contributes a good deal of color and visual interest to a suit. In its absence, add some other accessories that will snazz things up and attract people’s eyes. A nice watch, lapel pin (you can get an AoM one here), and/or a pocket square will do the trick. A white, square-folded pocket square may be a bit too formal for wearing with a tieless get-up; consider a colored or patterned pocket square, tucked in with the puff fold (click here to learn the different pocket square folds).

Shine your shoes. Without a tie serving as a suit’s focal point, more attention will be paid to other details of your outfit, so make sure you’ve got them all right. That includes making sure your shoes are looking spiffy; you can find a complete guide to shining them here.

Generally speaking, wearing a suit with a tie simply looks better. So when you’re in doubt, put on a tie; if the occasion doesn’t turn out to call for one, you can always take it off. Nonetheless, in the right environment, worn in the right way — that is, with confidence and stylish intention — wearing a suit without a tie can certainly work.

Podcast #360: Understanding Male Friendships

It’s a common trope that adult men don’t value friendship as much as their female counterparts, and that men really don’t need or want friends like women do. But my guest today argues that assumption is wrong and comes from viewing friendship from a strictly female point of view. In fact, based on his research, most adult men very much want good friends but just don’t know how to make them. What’s more, he says, male friendships look different from female ones and we should stop judging the quality of male friendships based on how women do them. 

My guest’s name is Geoffrey Greif, and he’s a sociologist and author of the book Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships.

Today on the show, Geoffrey shares the common myths about male friendships, the benefits men get from having friends, and how male friendships are different from female friendships. He then discusses the four types of friends a man will have in his life, how friendship changes as men age, and how fathers have a huge influence on whether their sons will have friends as adults. Geoffrey then shares his research on how couples navigate friendships together and why some brothers are best friends, while others don’t talk to each other for years.

Show Highlights

  • How Geoffrey got started studying friendship, and particularly, male friendship 
  • The most common myths about male friendship 
  • The difference between male friendships and female friendships 
  • The side-by-side nature of male friendships 
  • 4 categories of friends men have 
  • Why people today are lonelier than ever before 
  • How many friends does someone really need?
  • How male friendship has changed over the decades 
  • The ways in which a father’s friendships impact those of the son(s) 
  • How a father’s sibling relationships carry down to the friendships of the son(s) 
  • How do friendships change as a man ages?
  • Why men sometimes rely on the spouse for their social life, and why making couple friends is hard
  • Why the busy man in his 30s and 40s should be intentional about spending time with friends 
  • So how do men actually go about making friends in adulthood?

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

buddy system book cover geoffrey greif

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. It’s a common trope that adult men don’t value friendship as much as their female counterparts, and that men really don’t need or want friends like women do, but my guest today argues that, that assumption is wrong and comes from viewing friendship from a strictly female point of view. In fact, based on his research most adult men very much want good friends, but just don’t know how to make them. What’s more, he says male friendships look different from female ones, and we should stop judging the quality of male friendships based on how women do relationships. My guest’s name is Geoffrey Greif. He’s a professor of sociology at University of Maryland, and he’s the author of the book, Buddy System, understanding male friendships.

Today on the show, Geoffrey shares the common myths about male friendships, the benefits men get from having friends, and how male friendships are different from female friendships. He then discusses the four types of friends a man will have in his life, how friendship changes as men age, and how fathers have a huge influence on both their sons and daughters, and whether they’ll have friends as adults. Geoffrey then shares his research on how couples navigate friendships together, and why some brothers are best friends while others won’t talk to each other for years, even though there’s no grudge there at all. Really fascinating show. After the show is over, check out our show notes at, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic. Geoffrey Greif, welcome to the show.

Geoffrey Greif: Thank you very much, Brett.

Brett McKay: You wrote a book highlighting research you did on male friendships, called The Buddy System. Curious, before we get into the details about the book, what led you down that path to research friendship, but particularly male friendship?

Geoffrey Greif: Since my masters program in the early 70s, I’ve always been interested in men in non-traditional roles. I did my dissertation a few years later on single fathers raising their children alone after divorce. I followed that up with another book on the same topic, and a book on mothers without custody. That’s how I became interested in the topic. I was a father who was very engaged, and I’ve always been married to the same women, very engaged in raising his children. I’ve had an interest in men in non-traditional roles, men’s consciousness raising groups in the early 70s. It was a natural path to follow to look at men and fathers, and then as I did a bunch of other research, I came back to the notion of, “What about men and their male friendships? How do men handle a range of roles in which they are placed?” The genesis was maybe 25 years before I actually did the final work on this.

Brett McKay: As you highlight in the book, there are a lot of myths about male friendships. What are the most common ones that you’ve found in your research?

Geoffrey Greif: I think the most common myth around men’s friendships is that they are not as important to men as women’s friendships are to women. What I try to describe in the book is that this is a relationship that is highly important to many men, it just does not look like what women’s friendship might look like. Women tend to have friendships that are more emotionally and physically expressive than do men. Men’s friendships tend to be, on the other side of this, of course, less emotionally and physically expressive. When a man might go and watch the football game at his friend’s house and come back home, his wife or partner will say, wife might say, “Did you know that Bill was breaking up?” And the man might say, “It never came up.” She might say, “What kind of a friendship is that?”

A lot of men don’t necessarily want friendships where they have to open up emotionally a great deal. That does not mean the friendship is not incredibly important. You think of the men in war who share a foxhole with each other, and then 25 years later, one combatant will call the other former combatant and say, “Can you come and help me?” Either friend would drop everything they’re doing, no questions asked, and go and help the other guy without necessarily needing to talk about it. I think it’s a matter of, men tend to be, in general, and they tend to construct their friendships differently than women, but they tend to be in general less physically and emotionally expressive, but it does not mean that their male friendships are not incredibly important to them.

Brett McKay: Why do you think, like the female type of friendship is sort of held up as the ideal? Because of that, men’s friendships are seen as defective.

Geoffrey Greif: I think that women, because they are greater experts of communication are able to communicate that this is an important part of their lives, and also a lot of men do open up to women more than they open up to men. It’s been said that if you ask a lot of husbands who their best friend is, they will say it’s their wife, whereas you ask that same question of the wives, they will often mention other women, not their husband. In part because men have not been trained to the extent that I wish we had been trained to be good listeners and to be good processors. Again, I want to frame this as it doesn’t mean that men’s friendships are less than, or it’s a deficit model of friendship. It’s just that we’re interested in different things and different relationships than are women.

Brett McKay: Another difference you highlight between the male and female friendship is men’s friendships tend to be side by side, and women’s tends to be facing each other. What do you mean by that?

Geoffrey Greif: Yeah, yeah. In the book we talk about, I talk about this being a shoulder-to-shoulder relationship. Men like to get together and do things with other people. We can say that’s a throwback to the early years, the cavemen years where we had to go out in groups and hunt, or we had to go out and defend the homestead, the fields, the cave, whatever it is that was being defended, and we had to travel that way, shoulder-to-shoulder. We got accustomed to going out in shoulder-to-shoulder ways, and we still feel more comfortable relating to each other.

Men tend to call up their friends and say, “Let’s go out and do something. Let’s go play sports. Let’s go to the bar and watch sports. Come to my house and we’ll watch sports.” Women tend to feel more comfortable, and going back to the cave women, while the men were out, the women in the beginning of the neolithic age, would go and be working together in tandem, maybe tending the crops, maybe taking care of children, maybe preparing of food, they were doing much more face-to-face activities. Women today still feel more comfortable having an intimate, face-to-face discussion with another woman. It’s rare you’ll hear men say, “Let’s get together and have a glass of wine at this great, new, intimate French restaurant that just opened up.” Men, I think, in general would not feel as comfortable talking about that and going to that kind of an event as women.

Brett McKay: In your book, it’s called The Buddy System, and it’s this system of categorization of friends that men have. Can you walk us through these four types of friends that men have, and where do you see most men like … Where do they get most of their friendship at?

Geoffrey Greif: Good question. I was able to, after reading through the qualitative interviews, the survey data to come up with four different categories, and to make them easier to remember, maybe for only me, I rhymed them. The most intimate are your ‘must’ friends. These are people that you must call if something catastrophically bad or catastrophically good happens, if you lose a family member or you win the lottery. Who are the first two, three, or four men that you’re going to call? These are your closest, your must friends. That’s a pretty small category.

There is a second, wider category called ‘trust’ friends. These are guys that I might see at parties, I might run into them in the store, or at some event, and I love talking to them. I trust them. I feel we have something good going, but we’re often traveling in different circles, and are not going to necessarily find a lot of time to get together, and maybe they don’t have quite that level of intimacy with me, but I can still trust them and feel very connected to them. That’s a nice sized category.

You get into a larger category of people that are just friends. Those are acquaintances, people you know at work, people maybe you go out to lunch with. They may know about your life, they may not know about your life. They are certainly not going to know about your most personal details, should you choose to share those with your must or your trust friends, but they’re still people that you hang with from time to time, though maybe not in a planful way, maybe more spontaneously.

Then, there are your rust friends. Those that are friends from way back. A lot of people have friends that they made in high school, college, early jobs that they really haven’t kept up with, but every time an alumni event comes up, your 30th, your 40th, your 50th, you go back and see these people again and you are taken back to the time when maybe you were very close with them, but your lives have settled in different parts of the country, or in different professions, or in different political interests. Your rust friends can be your must friends. A lot of men hold on to friends from high school and say, “These are the most important friends I have because I need to have known somebody for a long time to really consider them a friend.” There can be overlaps between the rust and the must friend, or the trust friend. It’s just a way of my trying to categorize friendships and saying, “Well, wait a minute, there’s a way of thinking about these.”

Brett McKay: Do women have these same type of four friends, or is it just … You see this more in men?

Geoffrey Greif: You know, I’ve never been asked that question before. I did interview 120 women for the book and compared some of their responses to some of the men’s. I would say there is a great similarity between the two, and I think these do work across gender.

Brett McKay: Where do you see most men, what category of friends do most men have?

Geoffrey Greif: When you ask men, and we ask them specifically, “Do you have enough friends?” A fair minority said, “no, I wish I had more friends.” There were men that did say that they have enough, sometimes that can be two, three, or four friends. I want to say that there was at least one or two men who said, “I only have one good friend and that’s all I need.” I want to get away from the notion that one has to have a lot of friends in order to be a good person or have strong friendships. If somebody says, “All I need is one friend to sustain myself.” I’m going to take that person at his word.

It does get into some of what the Greek philosopher Aristotle said about the number of friends. He wrote a great deal in Nicomachean Ethics about friendships. One of his key points is that friendship is such a wonderful state of affairs and should be held in such high esteem that one really can’t have too many friends, because a true friendship takes so much out of one. When we get into the number of friends, I think it’s hard to really classify these things. We do know, in the data, not mine, but others, public health data support the obvious, that people with large social networks, people with friendships live longer, happier, healthier lives.

Of course that makes sense. You get more social stimulation from people, and you also may learn more things. I may see a friend who says, “You don’t look very good. Have you been going to the doctor?” That may be the kind of encounter that would push me to finally go and see the doctor to realize that I need to do something about an issue that I have. I know we’ve morphed from the discussion about the categories into the number, and now into Aristotle, but I think it’s important to sort of look at this from a perspective of, where do friendships sit in our life, and what are we trying to accomplish, and what do we gain from them.

Brett McKay: Right. You highlighted the research saying that friendship provides all these amazing benefits in terms of health. There’s also all these reports that men today are lonelier than ever. Not just men, but it’s like people in general are lonelier than ever, particularly men, because maybe they’re just not adept at making friends. Since you’ve done this research, have you been following up and seeing how things have changed in terms of the number of friends people have or how important friendship is?

Geoffrey Greif: I think it’s conflated a lot with, and the Pew Research Center does a fair amount of research on contacts and friendships through media, like Facebook. Do I have more friends now because I can track people down and see how they’re doing? Am I less isolated now because I can decide to track somebody down and send them a quick post? Whereas before it would have required me to find their name in the phone book some place. I don’t know how that is sitting in terms of greater ease of contact, but does that equal less meaningful contact? I think it’s a really difficult thing to determine if men and women are more lonely than they are today.

I think certainly men are more open, they are more emotionally and physically expressive. Younger men are more openly expressive than were their fathers, and their grandfathers. I think that can, in fact, bode well for people. We’re much more accepting of people that are different than ourselves, especially in relations to gays and lesbians. They are much more accepted. If gay men are more accepted, it makes straight men not feel as uptight about being emotionally expressive as their fathers or grandfathers would have been.

Brett McKay: That’s an interesting point. We’ve done a lot of writing and research about the history of male friendship. One thing I was surprised about and struck by, if you go back to the 19th century, or the 18th century, even the Ancient Greeks, the male friendships then were very emotive, and they were very expressive. You see these letters from the founding fathers to each other and they’re just like, “You’re so dear to me, and I love you, and I wish I could be next to you.” The sociologists who had done this stuff, they said, “Well, the reason why they were able to do that is because there wasn’t … Like homosexuality or gay didn’t really exist, like the idea of it as an identity didn’t exist.” They weren’t worried about that, but as that change happened in the late 19th early 20th century, that’s when men became, “Okay, I can’t be that because I don’t want people to think I’m gay.”

Geoffrey Greif: Yeah, of course I write about that in the book, but borrowing the research of other people, the other historical research, and I didn’t know that the term homosexual didn’t exist until the end of the 19th century. I’m citing someone else’s work on that, because I haven’t looked at the primary source material, but I concluded from what I read at that point was that somehow the role of straight and strong man came under fire as more African-Americans and more women entered the workforce, men’s privileged role, white men’s privileged role, and we still have a great deal of privilege now being white men, I believe. Came under pressure, so people tried to distance themselves. You used to see young boys, two and three year olds with bowl haircuts and long hair. At some point, that became not something that mothers or fathers wanted their children to be photographed as, or painted as. There was a push away in an attempt to be more masculine. I think that’s when men started to separate themselves more emotionally, and to be a little more concerned with how they came across each other and to society.

You know, the image of the lover is two fold from 400-500 years ago, you were the poet. The man with the golden tongue who could woo a woman by standing outside her window and reciting poetry. On the one hand, but there was also the knight in shining armor on the other hand. It’s an interesting balance between the two. One could be masculine and be a great poet, silver-tongued, or one could be masculine and be the strongest, best knight on the playing field.

Brett McKay: Yeah, they had a much more, I guess broader idea. They kind of encapsulated the brains and the brawn. We seem to be very monolithic today. Let’s get into the chapter I thought was really interesting, and I never really though about, in terms of my friendships, is when you interviewed the men you talked to about how their father’s friendships influenced their ideas of friendship. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Geoffrey Greif: Yeah. It’s not a real surprise that borrowing from the family therapist Murray Bowen who wrote a great deal about the inter-generational transmission of values and what we learn from our fathers and grandfathers. Obviously we stand on the shoulders of those that came before us. I think it’s important to think about that we clearly learn a lot from our mothers and our fathers. We found that people learned about friendships from their fathers about what kind of friends did my father keep, and what are the implications of that for me. There are usually three ways to go with this. Either you follow in the same pattern as your father.

You take the exact opposite approach, or your father’s patterns have no influence on you. A lot of the men that I work with now, and I had been running groups for fathers in prison, we talk about what message did you get from your father. A lot of these guys did not have fathers in their lives. They swore to themselves before they got into prison, “I’m not going to abandon my children the way that my father abandoned me.” And they feel guilty about not being there anymore for their children after their father was not there for them. We, of course, encourage in the group that they stay involved. Even though they are physically absent, they can still be emotionally present. What we learn from our fathers and from our mothers is incredibly important and can guide a lot of what we do.

In a more recent book I have out on adult sibling relationships, we found interestingly enough that in these interviews with people 40 to 90, if you believed his father was close with his siblings, you were more apt to be close with your siblings. Whereas, mothers closeness with her siblings, which is much more common than fathers being close with their siblings is not a predictor of closeness with your own siblings. If you grow up and see your father very engaged with his brothers and sisters, it’s going to encourage you to be engaged with your own siblings. That’s an important part of public health also. In general, this is under the while mantle of the importance of what we learn from our parents. In this case, we’re look at dads.

Brett McKay: Yeah, it’s amazing. Sometimes we under estimate the power of a father. We had a guest on a while back ago highlighting the research. He saw something similar where the father had more of an influence on the children than the mother did. It was like, if there was a father in the … Like the children tracked their father’s BMI. If the father was overweight, but the mother was not, the children were more likely to be overweight, but if the mother was overweight but the dad wasn’t, then the children weren’t going to be overweight.

Geoffrey Greif: Interesting, I didn’t know that.

Brett McKay: Yeah, the mother had no influence on it, but the dad did.

Geoffrey Greif: Right, interesting.

Brett McKay: Going back, because I like this idea of sibling relationships. The dad has a big influence, but are there any other factors that contribute to … I know some siblings, particularly brothers who are like, they would say their best friend is their brother. There are some siblings, their brother is just some person. Like after they leave the house, they really don’t have much to do with each other. Not that they don’t love each other, care about each other, but they wouldn’t say these are best friends. Besides the dad, are there any other differences you found there in your research?

Geoffrey Greif: In terms of the sibling findings?

Brett McKay: Yeah, the siblings. Why are some siblings best friends, why some brothers are best friends and-

Geoffrey Greif: There are brothers that are best friends. That was a minority of those we talked to. It’s such a complicated relationship with you sibling, if you’re talking about two brothers, there’s often a great deal of competition with them. There are 10 million interactions you have with your siblings as you’re growing up. Your siblings, rather than men’s friendships and women’s friendships are in most cases the longest relationship you’re ever going to have, longer than with your friends, unless you become a friend at a very young age before another sibling is born. Longer than your relationship with your partner, and your parents, and with your children.

The notion of trying to get through childhood and then into adulthood and staying close with somebody is very difficult. I can drop a friend if I don’t like him. If he does something I think is beyond repair for our relationship. It’s harder to drop a sibling because they are always a shadow in your life, whether or not you’re close with them or emotionally cut off from them and have no contact with them. In comparing men’s and women’s or brother’s and sister’s relationships, sisters, like women, tend to play a more central role, we found, in navigating these relationships. They tended to be the conduit.

They tended to feel more comfortable talking to each other than did brothers, though the younger brothers in the 40 to 55 range looked pretty comfortable too, and had a comparable level of comfort in talking about important matters with their siblings, as did all of the women. It was the older men, the 55 to 85 or 90 group of brothers that tended to have the least amount of communication. Having a brother with whom one is close and is a best friend, that I’m very, very close with my brother, is to some extent based sometimes on what our parents did, on what the sibling’s parents did. We found that if there’s more perceived interference from a parent when siblings are young, that means siblings are not going to be as close to each other. Interference is essentially cross-culturally looked at from the speaker’s point of view.

Everybody knows what interference is, but what interference in some culture might look from the outside is different from what it might look like in another culture. That’s different from a parent intervening to protect one child from the other, or stepping in and saying, “Look, stop beating up your younger brother.” It’s more the sense that a parent incorrectly interfered and tried to do too much to try and solve a relationship for brothers, or for brothers and sisters, whereas the siblings, by the time they got to be adults, thought they probably could have worked out some of these issues by themselves. There’s a lot of learning that we get from our parents, but there’s also a lot of behaviors that we get from our parents if they are overly involved where maybe they shouldn’t be involved.

Brett McKay: You mentioned just now that in your research you talked to men throughout the ages, different age demographics, from their 20s into their 90s, you even highlighted. Let’s talk about how do friendships change for a man as he goes through these different decades of his life. Let’s start with the 20s. What does a typical man’s friendships look like when he’s 23, 24, 25?

Geoffrey Greif: Pretty much across the lifespan what happens is that friendships when you’re in your late teens, early 20s take on great importance. Even from the time we go to kindergarten, the teacher sends home a report of, “Johnny plays well with the other kids.” Or, “Johnny has friends.” It’s always been on the radar. It stays on the radar through adolescence and young adulthood. What tends to happen is when people get married, and again, we’ll just assume a heterosexual marriage at this point, that the man tends to have less time for his friendships, and tends to put more time into his relationship with his spouse, tends to put more time into his job, because he’s climbing the career path or trying to hold onto his job, and tends to, of course, spend more time with his children.

The hardest thing for all people, men and women, to balance in relationships is time. How much time do I, as a man, have to spend with my male friends, without my wife around? How much time do I have for me alone? How much time do I have for just my wife alone? How much time do my wife and I have for our couples friends? How much time do we have for family? There are a lot of different spheres of time that we have to try and balance. In the 20s, assuming somebody gets married in their late 20s is when some of those old friendships might get let go in favor of spending time with one’s wife and trying to build a relationship with that wife. In the 30s, you have children in many families, and then of course it just takes up more time. What’s interesting is that when children are first born, fathers tend to spend time around sports that the father or mother has entered the children in.

If I grew up playing tennis, and I played tennis on my college tennis team, I’m probably going to put a tennis racket in my kid’s hand before I’m going to put a soccer ball in front of the kid. Maybe we’ll go to tennis lessons and I’ll meet other fathers that are sitting there watching their kids, and then we make friendships around tennis. Maybe the father and I go and hit some tennis balls, because he’s like me. As the child reaches 7, 8, 9, 10, maybe the child says, “I don’t like tennis, I like soccer.” Or, “I like football.” If I let the child play football, I’m then going to be hanging out with football dads who I may not have as much in common with. There may some distancing there from people that I might meet through my kids.

A lot of people in our study said they made friends through their children, who obviously make friends in school, college, work, and through your children, and sometimes in the neighborhood too, or through common interests, biking, chess playing, basketball, whatever you do. Then, of course, it’s in the … I’m skipping the 40s because it’s a little bit more of the same. In the late 40s or early 50s, depending upon the age of one’s children, that all of a sudden the children are saying “Dad, get out of my life, but first drop me and Susie off at the mall.” Or whatever the story is. The father then finds that his marriage, hopefully, is stable. His children no longer need him. Hopefully his job is stable, though that’s much more up in the air than it was generations ago with the many job changes that we see in society.

That’s when men begin to say, “I really have more time on my hands now. Saturdays can go back to me again. My kids are doing their homework, or they’ve left for college, or they’re playing sports and they don’t need me, they can drive themselves.” That’s when men start to need their male friendships more. I have out another book on how couples make friends with other couples. That’s when couples begin to hang out again together with other couples, in their 50s and 60s when both mom and dad, or the husband and wife, or it could be the husband and husband, and the wife and wife have more time to themselves, and they’re looking for meaning. They may start to connect again with other couples, once that couple’s kids are out of the house too. That’s sort of a brief look across the lifespan.

Friends become very important in the 60s, 70s, 80s, though we begin to lose friends as they die, as they move to Florida or Arizona, if you live in a Northern clime, and you don’t see them as much anymore. Maybe they’re spending more time with grandchildren, if they’re involved in grandchild rearing and helping out there. One of the things that I learned from the Buddy System is that a lot of them said they couldn’t make friends again. Their only true friends were the ones that they had from when they were children, or when they were in college. I try to disabuse people, though it’s hard to do, of the notion that you can of course make friends at the age of 75 that become good friends. I agree they won’t know you as they did when you were 20, but it doesn’t mean that you can not value that relationship that you can build now. That can become very beneficial to your happiness and your well-being.

Brett McKay: There’s a lot to unpack there. Going back to that idea of friends becoming more important as you get older. It was really sad, so my grandfather died last year, he was 100.

Geoffrey Greif: Wow.

Brett McKay: One of the things that he would talk about, you know, it’s like, “Grandpa, how you doing?” He would say, “Oh … It’s just … I had to go to another funeral.”

Geoffrey Greif: Right.

Brett McKay: He’s like, “All my friends are dead.” You could tell it affected him. He had his family, but he didn’t have his friends anymore.

Geoffrey Greif: Yeah.

Brett McKay: That was hard on him. I think that’s another issue we’re going to start running into more as the lifespan starts extending thanks to advances in healthcare.

Geoffrey Greif: Absolutely.

Brett McKay: Going back to this idea of couple friends, because I’d love to dig into this, because I think whenever you get into 30s and you’re married, I know for a lot of men, that’s how they make their friends. They don’t have time to go out by themselves and … Or they feel they don’t have the time, or they feel bad for going off by themselves. They rely on their wife, basically, for their social life. How does that play out, though? Because that’s a weird dynamic. The wives might get along together, but then the men, you know, they may not hate each other, but they don’t have a lot in common. When they get together it’s like, “Uh …” When you interviewed the men in your study, did they talk about that dynamic?

Geoffrey Greif: Yeah, there’s the general dynamic about we like him but we don’t like her, or you like her but I don’t like him. That happens in every couple that … It’s rare, not every couple. Some couples, and I’m sure you, if you’re partnered, and I and my wife have couples where we really like both members of the couple. I don’t care if I’m talking to one of them or the other one. There’s always going to be someone who you like a little bit less, and maybe you’re convincing your partner, “We really need to spend some time with them.” And she’ll say, “Okay, but let’s make it for a movie so I don’t have to talk to them that much.” That kind of thing, there is that balancing. I think, and I talk about this in Two Plus Two, the couple’s friendship book, there’s a broader way of looking at this. There are couples that we were able to classify, Kathy Deal and I, into seekers, keepers, and nesters. Forgive me for going through these three categories.

Brett McKay: No, I love it, this is great.

Geoffrey Greif: Seekers are couples that are always looking to add other couples. If I go out to dinner with my wife and we happen to chat with a couple at the next table, we’ll say, “Oh, you know, come on over for dessert.” You’re always sort of looking to add people. These are, obviously, extroverts in general. It’s impossible to have too many couple’s friends because you just love talking to people.

There are keepers, which is a large a group of folks, that have a lot of friends, or a lot of obligations with their children, or family members. They’ve got friendships, they’re open to other couples, but they’re not out looking to add to their pile of couples friends. That’s a fairly common experience to have enough friends, and enough family, and not really looking to add on. Then, there are nesters, who tend to be introverts, or tend to be couples that are marrying, maybe, for the second time, or finding each other late in life, and really only feel comfortable with very few other couples, want to spend time with each other, maybe alone, or with one or two couples and tend to be introverts.

Now, I talk about couples as being similar. They are not. I am a seeker, and my wife is a nester. She would rather hang out with one or two couples only. I am the kind of guy that picks up other couples at the restaurant and say, “Come on over.” That can be a little bit annoying to her, so she pulls me in to the middle, and I pull her more into the middle. We have to balance that. We have to have a discussion, so these categories are a way for couples to talk about how much do we want to add friendships to our lives, what do we want to do with keeping the friends that we have.

There’s another axis to think about which cross-cuts this, which are whether or not you are emotion-seeking or fun-seeking as a couple. A lot of couples are fun-seeking. They want to go out and play golf together, have a nice dinner, see a movie, and they don’t want to get into heavy stuff. They want to keep it light. If you have a very packed-in week, and you just are a busy person, you’ve got a lot of stuff going on, a lot of people, especially men, don’t want to go out and have some heavy, emotional talk on the weekend.

It goes back to the shoulder-to-shoulder friend, face-to-face issue we raised a little bit ago. But there are also people that want to have the emotion-seeking couples feel really comfortable and want to connect with people around emotions. Emotion-seeking people also like to have fun, but they’re interested in really a much more in depth discussion. Those are men that are going to be more comfortable having a face-to-face conversation. That’s how we can think about these couples on two axis. Number one, are you seeking more couples, or are you comfortable with what you have, or do you really want to keep the small number that you have, and secondly, what do you want to do with your friends? With that blueprint, couples need to talk about that and think about, “What do we want to do with our friendships?”

Brett McKay: What is the dynamic like for friendships where it’s just like the man has his friends, nothing to do with the wife, the wife has her friends, nothing to do … Did you talk about that? Is that like a source of tension?

Geoffrey Greif: Yeah, we talked about that. Usually, couples can ideally come to some understanding. “Look, why don’t you go out with your male friends tonight? I’ll go out with my female friends tonight. I appreciate Joe is a good friend of yours, but I really don’t want to hear his talking anymore about sports, because all you guys talk about is sports when we’re together. Why don’t you go hang with him, and I’ll either hang alone, or I’ll go hang out with one or a number of my friends.”

As long as couples talk about this, and they are clear … The other side of this is of course, for men, if we’re focusing on men is some wives don’t want their husbands to go and hang out with certain guys, because especially when they’re younger, they’re not a good influence on them. If you are a recently married couple, and your wife has sort of taken you away from your fast crowd of guy friends, you may, as the wife, be understandably uncomfortable with him, with your husband going back to the bar, hanging out with the friends, and you’re worrying that they’re going to get into some kind of trouble, or drink too much, or whatever it is they’re going to do.

She may slowly try and wrest her husband from those friends. Then, she’s going to need to find other male friends, other couples friends to take the place of those friends. That can be a struggle too. Some women surreptitiously look for friends for their husbands, because some women said they don’t think they’re husband has enough friends, or their husband has talked about having enough friends. They’ll be on the lookout for girlfriends of theirs that are married to guys that they think their husband might enjoy being with.

Brett McKay: Right. That whole dynamic is like, “Well, do they actually get along?” And the frustration and the tension there. Going back to the life cycle, and the influence of fathers on friends. As you said, in your 30s your life is basically, you’re running. I’m in my 30s. That’s how I feel like. I’ve got work, I’ve got family, I’ve got other responsibilities, and yeah, sometimes I feel like I don’t have time for friends. At the same time, if you think about the influence that you have on your children, I’m thinking, “My son and my daughter, they’re watching me. If they’re seeing that I make no time for friends, then they’re going to not put an importance on that.” It’s important to me, and I want to pass that on. It seems like it’s sort of a perpetuating cycle. You’re in your 30s, you make this focus not on friends, and it results in your children not putting an emphasis on friends. You have to be very intentional about breaking that.

Geoffrey Greif: Right, and I think the advice I would give to anyone in your siltation is to find other couples that also have children, and get both families together so they see you interacting with both other men and other women too. You can then get a sense about what values around friendships you want to pass on to your children. Now, you have to find couples that have children that match up with your children. That’s another layer of difficulty in this friendship match. The other message to give your children, goes back to what I said before is, I don’t know if you have siblings, but you would want to also try and have good relationships with your siblings so their children and your children, as first cousins, can be close, and so they see that they should be close also with their own siblings.

Brett McKay: Man, socializing is complex. Friendship is super complex.

Geoffrey Greif: Yes.

Brett McKay: Based on your research and the talks with the men you’ve done in your book, how do most friends go about making friends? I’m sure there’s a lot of men who are listening to this, they want some more friends, they just don’t know how to do it. Based on your interviews, what did you find?

Geoffrey Greif: Yeah, well if you haven’t made them in school, and most of the men that are listening probably are out of school or are soon to be out of school, school is the natural place to try and make friends. The next stops on the friendship train would be work and would be the neighborhood, and then through your own kids. The interesting thing about men trying to make friends is you have to get involved in things that you like to do. If you like to play chess, join the chess club. If you like to bike, go to the bike store or go biking and try and chat up people there. You don’t make friends staying home and not being open to it. You have to get out there. You have to organize things.

Have a football party to go back to men and sports, and invite over a number of men. Some men may feel uncomfortable only inviting over one man, and it goes back to the fear of appearing gay. A subtext in all of this is that there were a significant minority of men in my book who said they were afraid to appear gay by approaching men to be their friends. Again, my research was a decade ago. That’s not as much of an issue today as it was then, but believe me, it’s still an issue for some men regardless of their age.

One guy I talked to on the plane who I met had just moved to a new city and he would meet guys and would want to be friends with them and maybe would call them up once, but if they were not available, he didn’t want to call them again. He didn’t want to seem like he was stalking them to be a male friend. That’s not something that men like in other men, this notion of, “I’m emotionally needy and I want to be your friend.” There has to be some comfort in approaching other people and doing it in a way that is not appearing overly needy. There’s always the question of, “How much do I open up to somebody.” A lot of men don’t like too much emotional vulnerability too soon. They want to wait a few times before somebody opens up to them. If you want to make friends, part of it is gaging the person you’re with and how open are they to hearing some of the things that you may or may not want to talk about. It’s having a radar out that can read some of the other guy’s feedback to you.

Brett McKay: It sounds like you’re probably going to start off just friends, right? With these.

Geoffrey Greif: Right.

Brett McKay: Because you’re just doing stuff with them. Then, sort of through the natural origin of the relationship it might turn into a trust friend or a must friend.

Geoffrey Greif: Nice. Nicely said.

Brett McKay: Okay. Well, Geoffrey, this has been a great conversation. I’m curious, is there anywhere people can learn more about your work? Because it’s not just friends you talk about. You talk about sibling relationship, couple friends, is there a place where people go and can see all of this stuff that you’re doing?

Geoffrey Greif: Aside from my bio at the University of Maryland School of Social Work where I’m a professor, you can look at the books I’ve read, or you can go to Amazon and look at those books. I have a new book I’m working on, on in-law relationships, and we’ll have some interesting data on how sons-in-law and fathers-in-law maintain this very unique relationship as compared with mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law.

Brett McKay: That sounds really fascinating. Geoffrey, thanks so much for your time, it’s been an absolute pleasure.

Geoffrey Greif: Thank you, I’ve greatly enjoyed it, Brett.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Geoffrey Greif, he’s the author of the book, Buddy System, Understanding Male Friendships. It’s available on He’s also got a lot of other books that he’s written about couples and friendships, siblings and friendships. Check it out, it’s all there on Amazon. Also, check out our show notes at, where you find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at If you have enjoyed this show, have gotten something out of it, please take a minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. Helps out a lot. As always, thank you for your continued support, and until next time this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.

How to Plan for an Escape From a Prisoner of War Camp

steve mcqueen in the great escape

Editor’s note: The following excerpt on preparing to escape a prisoner of war camp was taken from FM 21-76: Survival, an Army field manual published in 1957. Noting that “because the conditions in various POW camps differ, it is impossible to provide a specific survival plan for each situation,” the text doesn’t include tips for digging a tunnel or jumping your motorcycle over fences, I’m afraid. The information instead lays out a plan for how “keep yourself physically able and sufficiently equipped for the breakout.” While it’s very unlikely you’ll ever find yourself captured as a prisoner of war, the section is an interesting read from an historical perspective, and offers some real-life inspiration on “mak[ing] the best of what you have.”

Suppose You’re Captured?

What happens if you become a prisoner of war? After all, it is possible. Isolation, fear, injury — all work in favor of the enemy to increase the chances of capture, in spite of a determined effort on your part to evade. The surrender of your arms, however, doesn’t mean that you forfeit your responsibilities as an American soldier. The Armed Forces Code of Conduct directs that you begin planning your escape the minute you are taken prisoner.

Escape is tough; making it stick is even tougher. It demands courage and cunning and much planning — of seeking ways out, routes to follow, and the location of friends. Above all, it demands physical stamina — stamina that you must acquire under the worst conditions imaginable. Experience has proved that “model” camps, where rations are regular and treatment considerate, are the exception. But no matter what extremes your life as a POW assumes, your aim should be the same — to keep yourself physically able and sufficiently equipped for the breakout.

A Plan for Survival

Since the conditions in various POW camps differ, it is impossible to provide a specific survival plan for each situation. What you need is a guide to help you plan to make the best of what you have. Here is one such plan that you can remember by the word S-A-T: Save, Add to, Take care of.

a. Save

What can you save in a POW camp? Everything — clothing, pieces of metal, cloth, paper, string — anything. A piece of twine may mean success or failure when it comes time to break out. Hide these items under the floor or in a hole in the ground.  If they are discovered, they may appear harmless and little or nothing will be done to punish you.

(1) Wear as few clothes as possible. Save your shoes, underwear, shirts, jacket, and any other items of clothing that will protect you from the elements when you begin your trip back.

(2) Save any nonperishable foods that you receive from the Red Cross or your captors. Candy, for example, comes in handy as a quick source of energy when traveling. If no other candy source is available, save each issue of sugar given you by the enemy. When you get enough, boil it down into hard candy. Save it until you build up your supply. Canned foods that you might receive are ideal for storing. However, if the enemy punctures the cans to prevent your saving it, you may still preserve this food by resealing the cans with wax or some other field expedient. It may be feasible for you to save this food by recooking it and changing its form. Other foods to hoard against the day of your escape include suet and cooked meat, nuts, and bread.

(3) Save pieces of metal no matter how insignificant they may seem. Nails and pins can serve as buttons or fasteners. Old tin cans are excellent for improvised knives, cups or food containers. If you are fortunate enough to have a razor blade, guard it.  Use it for shaving only. Devise ways of sharpening it — rub it on glass or stone or some other hard surface. A clean shave is a good morale booster.

(4) Save your strength but keep active. A walk around the compound or a few mild calisthenics keep your muscles toned. Sleep as much as you can. You won’t get much rest on your way back.

b. Add To

(1) Use your ingenuity. Select those items that you can’t get along without and supplement them; for example, your rations. There is more to eat, in and around your compound, than you think. When you are allowed to roam around the camp grounds, look for natural foods native to the area. If possible, add these roots, grasses, leaves, barks, and insects to your escape cache. They will keep you alive when the going gets tough.

(2) Supplement your clothing so the more durable garments are in good repair when you escape. A block of wood and a piece of cloth make good moccasins and save your boots. Rags can substitute for gloves; straw can be woven into hats. Don’t forget to salvage clothing from the dead.

c. Take Care Of

Probably the most important part of any plan for survival is the “take-care-of” phase. Maintain what you have. There won’t be any reissue when your shoes wear out or you lose your jacket. Also, it’s easier to maintain good health than to regain it once it’s lost.

(1) Put some of your clothing into your escape cache. Watch the rest for early signs of wear and repair it with improvised material, if necessary. A needle made from a thorn, nail, or splinter and threaded with unraveled cloth, can mend a torn pair of trousers. Wood canvas, or cardboard bound to the soles of your shoes will save them from wear. Even paper will suffice as a reinforcing insole if your shoes do wear through.

(2) Good physical health is essential to survival under any circumstances. It is especially important in a POW camp where living conditions are crowded and food and shelter inadequate. This means that you must use every device possible to keep yourself well.

(a) Soap and water is a basic preventative medicine; so keep clean. If water is scarce, collect rainwater, use dew, or simply rub yourself daily with a cloth or your bare hands. Pay attention to areas of your body that are susceptible to rash and fungus infection — between your toes, your crotch, and scalp.

(b) The cleanliness rule also applies to your clothing. Use soap and water when you can spare it. Hang your clothes in the sun to air if soap and water are not available. Examine the seams of your clothing and hairy portions of your body frequently for lice and their eggs. Disease infected lice can kill. A possible way to get laundry service or even a bath is to tell your guard that you are infested with lice, whether or not your complaint is true. The prison authorities, fearing that lice on prisoners may cause an outbreak of louse-borne disease among the civilian population, might provide this service.

(c) In the event you become ill, report your condition to the camp authorities. The chance that you will receive aid is worth the try.

Don’t Just Lift Heavy, Carry Heavy

vintage strongman carrying heavy rock

The other day I was helping a guy move. We were carrying heavy stuff like pianos, dressers, and even an old cabinet hi-fi stereo.

As I was helping him load this stuff in the U-Haul truck, I got to thinking, “I can deadlift 550 pounds, but carrying one end of this stereo feels a lot harder than a 550lb deadlift. What gives?”

To find out what gives, I got some insight from my barbell coach Matt Reynolds (who also happens to be a former professional strongman who’s hoisted lots of heavy stuff in his life) and strength coach Dan John (who recently exhorted listeners of my podcast interview with him to incorporate carrying work into their fitness routines). These masters of strength filled me in on why carrying heavy feels harder than lifting heavy, why you need to work on both strength capacities, and how you can incorporate heavy carrying into your fitness programming.

Why Carrying a Heavy Load Feels Harder Than Lifting a Heavy Load

If you’ve ever wondered why you can pick up a 315lb barbell with ease, but struggle to carry a 50lb bag of mulch to your backyard, Matt says you can chalk up the difference to two big factors:

Carrying heavy uses different movement patterns and muscles than lifting heavy. When you lift a barbell off the ground in the deadlift, the movement is simple and the muscles you use will be the same every time you perform the exercise. Not so with carrying a heavy load. While walking with something heavy looks similarly simple, there’s a lot more going on there than when you’re simply lifting a bar up and down: carrying a heavy load requires your body to stabilize and brace itself — and it has to do that with every step you take. This is especially true when you’re carrying an “odd” object — something that’s not uniform in size, shape, and/or density.

“Carrying heavy is a skill that must be practiced and developed,” Matt told me. “Even if you’re really strong, the first few times you carry a really heavy load, you’re not going to be able to go that far. But after a few sessions of practicing it, it gets easier and easier. Your body has to learn how to express the strength you have in the carry exercise.”

Carrying heavy is more work than lifting heavy. Lifting a heavy barbell is definitely intense, but the length of exertion isn’t very long. You just have to lift the bar up and then bring it back down. It’s a hard exertion, but a short one.

Carrying a heavy sandbag for 50 yards requires a lot more effort than simply lifting a bar up and putting it back down. You’ve got to exert yourself for a much longer time period. That’s the big reason why carrying a 50lb bag of mulch from your pick-up truck to your backyard can feel a lot harder than deadlifting 315 pounds once. You’re doing a lot more work when lugging that bag than you are just lifting a barbell once off the ground.

You can increase your ability to carry load for longer periods of time through training; you just have to start carrying heavy more often.

Why You Should Carry Heavy, and Not Just Lift Heavy

Loaded carries are functional. “There’s nothing more functional than carrying heavy stuff,” says Matt. Yes, lifting heavy is functional, and being able to deadlift or press heavy has come in handy a few times for me. But I’ve found myself having to carry moderately heavy stuff for distance much more often than I’ve had to lift a really heavy thing just once. You’ve got to be able to carry your kids when they’re tired/sick/asleep, carry your grocery bags inside (and ideally do it in just one run from the garage!), and hoist the aforementioned bags of mulch. If you want to be good at these functional, everyday movements, you need to practice them by carrying heavy stuff in your workouts.

Loaded carries build the strength of multiple parts of your body. Carries strengthen your core, develop your hip stability, and create a yoked upper back. They’re also incredible for building your grip strength, an often overlooked capacity that aids your ability to perform all kinds of strength movements. Dan John believes it was adding the multidimensionality of loaded carries to his workouts that allowed him to have his best year as a strength athlete at age 47. “Loaded carries was the gap in my training,” he told me.

Loaded carries are great for all-around conditioning. In my podcast interview with John, he mentioned that he’s noticed that when his athletes start doing loaded carries, their work capacity, or conditioning, goes up. That is, they’re able to train longer and harder. Loaded carries are a great way to top off a training session and build your all-around fitness. As John’s written, “The loaded carry does more to expand athletic qualities than any other single thing I’ve attempted in my career as a coach and athlete.”

Loaded carries build your “stone” and Anaconda, Arrow, and Armor strength. Another thing John argues is that loaded carries build what professor of kinesiology Stuart M. McGill calls your “stone.” Your “stone” is your strength in stability. When you’ve got stone, you feel like you can stand as strong as one; when someone pushes you, you don’t move. When you lift something heavy, your core turns rock hard and energy doesn’t leak out like it does when you’re soft and all Jell-O-like. Loaded carries help build the muscles that give you stone.

John even breaks “stone” strength into three sub-categories: Anaconda, Arrow, and Armor:

Anaconda. Anaconda strength is the type of strength that allows you to squeeze the life out of something. You use this strength when you bear hug a heavy bag, for example. John points out that when you squeeze with Anaconda-stone strength, you’re not just squeezing with your arms. You also need to push out with your upper body so that you squeeze the object from both sides. That ability to push out and tense the upper body makes you more rock solid.

Arrow. Arrow strength is your ability to keep your body straight and under tension whenever you’re exerting yourself. “When you watch an arrow in slow motion leave a bow string, it bends back and forth, but it’s always fighting to stay straight and tense,” John explained to me. “You want to be like an arrow: always fighting to stay tense when you exert yourself. Body tension is key to strength. It’s what allows you to lift heavy or tackle someone without hurting yourself.”

A heavy farmer’s carry helps you develop that Arrow-stone strength because as you walk with heavy dumbbells in your hand, your body naturally wants to go slack as you take a step with that heavy weight. You’ve got to fight that tendency and keep yourself as tense as possible throughout the duration of the carry.

Armor. If your skin and muscles aren’t used to taking on certain pressures and grappling with rough surfaces, blood vessels are more apt to break and blisters and scratches are more likely to form. Your body has to get used to friction and pressure by getting less sensitive and more calloused. This process of toughening your hide and making it more impenetrable and stone-like is what John calls “armor” building.

Armor building is what lets MMA fighters get kicked really hard in the shin but not feel as much pain. Armor building is what allows you to do a low crawl on a hard, rocky surface, but not be writhing in pain and get seriously scuffed up while you do it. Armor building is also important in helping your carry heavy loads.

When you lift heavy barbells, your hands get pretty calloused, but the rest of you stays soft and sensitive. Loaded carries can help build your “armor” in other places. For example, when I first started rucking, I’d have these big red marks on my skin from where the ruck straps dug into my shoulders and they’d slowly turn into bruises. I don’t get that anymore because my back has been toughened from rucking regularly. The first time you carry a big rock on your shoulder, it’s going to hurt because the pointy edges of the rock dig into your skin. After a few times carrying a pointy rock on your shoulder, it won’t bother you as much; it’s just rock rubbing on stone!

It’s fun. Carrying heavy stuff is just fun. It’s a great way to break the monotony of moving a barbell up and down.

You’ve Got to Lift Heavy to Carry Heavy

While carrying heavy requires developing a set of skills and a capacity that is distinct from lifting heavy, the two do overlap, and your ability to lift heavy is key in your ability to carry heavy. “Carrying heavy is an expression of strength,” Matt says. If you want to be able to carry heavy, you’ve got to be able to lift heavy. A guy who can deadlift 400 pounds is going to be able to carry more than a guy who can only deadlift 200 pounds. So don’t do one type of exercise to the exclusion of the other.”

How to Carry Heavy

There’s really not much to developing the capacity to carry heavy. Find something heavy, pick it up, and practice carrying it. But if you’re looking for specific loaded carry exercises to do, below you’ll find some ideas.

Keep in mind that one of the advantages of developing your carrying capacity is the functional advantage it produces, so while you can do some of these exercises with a dumbbell or kettlebell, the uniform shape, size, and texture of these loads is not going to adequately prepare you for what you may be called upon to hoist in the real world. Subbing in a heavy rock or log every now and again will make your carrying capacity more versatile, prepare you for everyday tasks and emergencies, and build your body’s “armor” as well. To make carry workouts even more challenging, and fun, practice carrying objects over and under obstacles, and while you’re balancing on a narrow surface (like a 2X4 or a log).

How much weight should you use? Depends on the exercise, and there aren’t strict standards. The lighter the weight you use, the farther you’ll be able to walk and the more of an endurance exercise it will be; the heavier, the shorter distance you can go, and the more of a strength workout you’ll get. Experiment with different weights and find a sweet spot where it’s not too heavy — you should still use good technique; don’t be leaning to one side too much, or rounding your back — but still feels challenging.

As to timing and frequency when incorporating loaded carries into your programming, it’s of course going to depend on your personal goals. But a pretty universal plan is to aim to do loaded carries once a week, performing one or a few exercises at the end of your normal workouts. If you’re doing them for strength, practice the same exercises each week, increasing the weight you use and/or distance you go each week. If you’re doing them for conditioning, you can mix up the exercises each week, and just see how much you can do with each exercise before getting fatigued. Either way, it’s a great way to finish a workout strong!

Farmer’s Walk

farmer's walk illustration vintage strongman

Pick up a heavy dumbbell or kettlebell in each hand and walk as far as you can in 30 seconds. The next workout, shoot for 45 seconds. The following workout, aim for a minute.

Suitcase Carry

suitcase carry illustration vintage strongman

Similar to a Farmer’s Walk except you only carry one heavy dumbbell/kettlebell in one hand. This imbalance forces you to work extra hard to stand up straight. Walk as far as you can in 30 seconds. Switch hands on the dumbbell and carry it again for another 30 seconds. The next workout, shoot for 45 seconds. The following workout, aim for a minute.

You can also “split” the Farmer’s Carry and Suitcase Carry and do a cross-body carry: carry one weight by your side, and one weight overhead.

Press Carry

press carry illustration vintage strongman

Hold two dumbbells over your head and carry them for 30 seconds.

Waiter’s Carry

waiter's carry illustration vintage strongman

Similar to a press walk, except with just one dumbbell. You’ll look like a waiter carrying a tray. Carry for 30 seconds, switch hands and carry for another 30 seconds. Work your time up with each workout.

Sandbag Carry

sandbag carry illustration vintage strongman

Make yourself a really heavy sandbag (here’s a tutorial on how to do it). Mark off 25 yards. Pick up the bag and carry it 25 yards as fast as you can. Carry the bag however you want. Hoist it on your shoulder, bearhug it, or mix up the two ways. Repeat 5 to 10 times. Great metcon workout to finish your training session with.

Fireman’s Carry

fireman's carry illustration vintage strongman

One of the most vital benefits of being able to carry heavy is having the capacity to carry someone to safety in an emergency. It’s a physical skill that’s not wholly trained through lifting a uniform weight, nor through carrying one. You’ve got to practice with an actual person. So know how to perform the Fireman’s Carry, throw a human over your shoulder, and see how far you can transport them.


rucking illustration vintage strongman

Carrying doesn’t just involve hoisting a load with your arms, but also shouldering a load on your back. To strengthen this capacity, you’ve got to practice rucking — that is, walking/hiking with a loaded backpack. Rucking has a bunch of benefits, including the fact that it’s easier on the knees than running, but still gives you a cardio workout. Plus, carrying that load for miles helps build your stone.

A Combo of the Above

Something Matt recommends is taking multiple carry exercises and putting them together into a carrying gauntlet. Start off with 30 seconds of a Farmer’s Walk, then move right into a Sandbag Carry, and then go right to a Press Carry. Great conditioning circuit.

Dan John says that practicing loaded carries will change your life in 3 weeks. Try it and see!

Podcast #359: Tribe of Mentors — Short Life Advice From the Best of the Best

Do you sometimes wish you had a cabinet of counselors you could go to for advice and insight on how to make life better and easier for yourself? 

Well, my guest today created his own board of mighty mentors — a metaphorical round table of some of the most successful people in the world — and asked them all the same 11 questions on how to live a more fulfilling and productive life. And he wrote a book to share all the insights he learned with others.  

His name is Tim Ferriss, and he’s an author and the host of the Tim Ferriss Podcast. In his latest book, Tribe of Mentors: Short Life Advice From the Best in the World, Tim shares the answers he got to the 11 questions he posed to a diverse range of successful people like Steven Pressfield, Jocko Willink, Bear Grylls, and Greg Norman, among many others. In today’s episode, Tim shares insights from the people he interviewed on how to say no without feeling guilty or looking like a jerk, the books successful people frequently gift others, and what to do when you’re feeling overwhelmed, distracted, and just generally down. 

Show Highlights

  • The impetus behind this new book, and how it’s different from Tools of Titans
  • The same 11 questions Tim asks everyone featured in Tribe of Mentors
  • How to say no, with specific tactics (and why it’s so hard)
  • Why you need to build some ignorance into your life (especially when it comes to social media)
  • Making saying no a “diet” or “policy”
  • Why it’s impossible to avoid some hurt feelings
  • What books these mentors gift most frequently (and why that’s such a great question)
  • The book(s) brought up over and over that surprised Tim
  • The odd/fringe/theoretical books that came up a few times
  • How biology and evolutionary principles can be applied to everyday life and thinking
  • The book that Tim himself gives most frequently
  • How to combat distraction and the “overwhelm”
  • The power of journaling (and why it’s valuable to do it by hand)
  • Why exercise is so important in beating distraction
  • The superstitions that Tim embraces, and why superstitions can be good for us

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

tribe of mentors book cover tim ferriss

Tribe of Mentors is a fun book packed with actionable advice. Great book to just pick up and randomly flip through for something interesting to read. Makes for a great bathroom book too. My favorite answers were to the questions on how to say no, books people frequently gift, and what to do when you feel overwhelmed.

Connect With Tim

Tribe of Mentors website

Tim’s podcast

Tim’s website

Tim on Twitter

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Do you sometimes wish you had a cabinet of counselors you could go to for advice anytime you wanted on how to make life better and easier for yourself. My guest today created his own board of mighty mentors, a metaphorical round table of some of the most successful people in the world and asked them all the same 11 questions on how to live a more fulfilling and productive life and after that he wrote a book to share all of those insights with the rest of us. His name is Tim Ferriss. He’s an author and host of the Tim Ferriss Podcast. We had him on our podcast to discuss his last book, Tools for Titans. In his latest book, Tribe of Mentors, short life advice from the best in the world, Tim shares the answers he got to the 11 questions he posed to a diverse range of successful people like Stephen Pressfield, Jocko Willink, Bear Grylls, and Greg Norman among many. In today’s episode Tim shares insights from the people he interviewed on how to say no without feeling guilty or looking like a jerk. The book successful people frequently gift others and what to do when you’re feeling overwhelmed, distracted and just generally down.

Mr. Tim Ferris, welcome back to the show.

Tim Ferriss: Thank you, sir. Always a pleasure.

Brett McKay: You’ve got another tome of a book out. Tribe of Mentors.

Tim Ferriss: Yes.

Brett McKay: Yeah, all of your books are taking up an entire shelf on my-

Tim Ferriss: You know, every time I say, and I should probably start saying I’m going to write a really long book, and then maybe it will end up really short, because every time I say “This time it’s going to be a really short book,” it ends up 600 plus pages, but yes, it’s another book that oddly enough it’s almost exactly the same weight as Tools of Titans so you could do bicep curls and be very symmetrical.

Brett McKay: There you go, even the title says “Short life advice,” but again the book is 600 pages long, but there’s lots of short life advice in here. Let’s talk about what was the impetus behind this book and it weighs the same as Tools of Titans, but how is it different from Tools of Titans?

Tim Ferriss: There’s some critical differences. The similarities really mostly format in the sense that people really loved these short actionable profiles of Tools of Titans, so that has persisted into Tribe of Mentors, but Tribe of Mentors, the origin story is completely different. I had a very, very difficult and very intense year in 2017. It seems like a lot of people did. It was a really gnarly year, and I turned 40, which wasn’t that big a deal to me, I didn’t run out and buy a Corvette or anything, but the number was meaningful in the sense that I had felt like I had passed the midway point, at least based on averages of lifespan in the US. I was like, you know what, now, maybe I’m finishing the second half of this one lap that we call life. That was one piece, and a lot happened within a four to eight week period. So, that happened, the 10th anniversary of the Four Hour Work Week coincided with the exact day, I mean, 10 years to the day of the publication of the Four Hour Work Week found me stepping on the stage at TED for the first time to talk about how I came very close to committing suicide in college and how I’ve battled with bipolar depression my entire life, which was a really odd surreal juxtaposition that led to a lot of conversations with other people who are struggling with darkness. You think of the room at TED, everybody has everything figured out, but a really high percentage of people reached out to me to tell me about their demons and how close they had come to the brink. So, that happened.

Then, a bunch of my friends died, not to make this super heavy really quickly, but a bunch of my friends died from natural causes, but very unexpectedly or via accident. One person that I knew, past tense committed suicide, and just a lot hit me at once. I thought, you know, maybe I’m spending time on things I don’t want to be spending time on, maybe I’ve over committed, maybe I want to double down on my family and a handful of loved ones and learn to say no to everything else, and I sat down with some tea one morning and journaled on questions I wanted to answer. It was really hard. I found it overwhelming, the last git really big, and I asked myself one question, towards the end, which I’ve learned to use a lot in the last two years, and that is: What might this look like if it were easy.

I wrote down many, many, many different ideas, and there was only one that really stuck, which was Why don’t I take these questions and ask 100 plus people who are the best of what they do in many different areas of many different ages say from 20s all the way up to 70s and 80s, and borrow from them, just take their answers and try them out and see what works for me. That’s how the book came to be. It’s very different from Tools of Titans in the sense that there’s a lot of advice that I wanted to include and solicited about overcoming failure and dark periods and creating those emotional safety nets to prevent you from downward spirals.

There’s a lot about how to say no, different techniques and strategies that people have ranging from say, the co-founder of Facebook, Dustin Moskovitz, all the way to writers and so on who have had to learn to say no. I even included rejection letters that I got from people who said they had to decline being in the book, which is a whole separate story, and what to do when you feel overwhelmed, distracted, unfocused. What do these people do, tactically, very concretely. So, the subject matter is quite different, I would say, and I suppose what I’ve explained so far alludes to the fact that in Tools of Titans, it was basically a highlight reel from the podcast. I mean, you had 95% of the people in the book were from the podcast and I was pulling out my favorite pieces. In Tribe of Mentors it’s a completely new cast of characters and nearly no one in the book has been on the podcast and I asked them all the same 11 questions. So, it’s easier to spot patterns in the responses that you see. So, long story long, that’s Tribe of Mentors, and like pretty much all of my books, but particularly I would say this one, I needed this book and I couldn’t find it, so I had to write it.

Brett McKay: Right-

Tim Ferriss: Writing lets out, maybe not for you, but for me at least, it’s painful. It’s a really hard process.

Brett McKay: It is, I hate it.

Tim Ferriss: It takes a lot to get me to write a book, but 2007 was really brutal and I needed help so I went out and found the help and then put it into the book.

Brett McKay: Yeah, you ask the same 11 questions. You had a ton of them, so I mean how did you hone in on these 11? What was it about these questions, you were like, this is going to make my life easier or somewhat more easier if I know the answer to these.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, a lot of them were variations of the questions I had been asking myself or the tactical versions of the questions I had been asking myself. So, separating say the critical few from the trivial many and saying no to more things. Categorically just across the board saying no to many different types of things, policies, what’s the best way to do that, and I would ask then, people about what they’ve learned to say no to more in the last year or two and what tactics or techniques, what wordings had they found helpful. The overwhelm and distraction, I feel like this past year, there’s just so much anger and doubts and so much bold news, and that’s not a fake news comment, meaning just salacious headlines that are effectively, like five new ways to hate your neighbor. It’s really a difficult time to be on any device or laptop of any type that is connected to the internet. I wanted to learn how to really block out that noise more effectively.

On and on it goes, so, for every one of these I wanted to figure out very specific next steps that I could take and I also took many of the questions, at least half from fine tuning on the podcast where there were certain questions I found that reliably got really good useful stories or really good actionable advice like, for instance, some of them are not as profound as the quote you put on a billboard if you had to choose one word or a quote of yours or anyone else to convey to millions or billions of people. That’s a deep heavy question that does get good answers, especially if you add the -andy to the end of it. So, that’s one of the questions I ask, but conversely if you’re just looking for, I wanted just to order something on Amazon Prime, like a little magic bullet that helps some aspect of my life, OK, well then you can ask everyone what purchase of $100 or less has most improved your life in the last year or in recent memory, and then wham, bam, thank you, ma’am, you have something that’s lighter weight that you can use. That’s also one of the questions.

Brett McKay: Let’s get into some of these questions, and I’m going to ask you about the ones that I was drawn to. It’s funny, as I was reading it there would be answers that I would read every single time, like the how to say no. I suck at saying no, and I’m still working on it. There were some I kind of glanced over, they just didn’t resonate with me, and I’m sure that’s how you’re supposed to read the book. Let’s talk about how to say no. It must be something you’ve had a problem with.

Tim Ferriss: Oh, for sure. For sure, yeah. It’s a continual uphill battle for people and every time you think you’ve improved there’s a new channel of inbound fill in the blank or invitations or feelings of obligation and guilt and so on. Whenever you think you have it somewhat figured out then there’s more added to it, but this is a tool kit that is, I’m not going to spend too much time on defining the problem, because I think it’s so obvious, but in a world where there’s more information and noise, and invitations and email, and social notifications and so on than you can possibly consume or act on in a lifetime. There’s more generated every day than you can possibly consume or respond to. You have to get really good at A, ignoring things. So, cultivating selective ignorance and being able to live with that. Conditioning yourself to accept that as a binary reality. Secondly, you have to get very good at declining things. There are different categories of declining. There is for instance, there are different approaches ranging from using email auto responders, which say something like “as a policy, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, unfortunately I receive more volume of email than I can physically respond to, but below are a couple of answers to very common questions. Please take a look.” Then, you have, for instance, bullet number one. As a policy I am no longer doing X, Y, and Z, and that can be speaking engagements, it could be in person meetings, for instance. It could be conference calls. It could be coffee dates where people pick my brains, it could be anything. That is one level of refusal. Then, you have say acquaintance or stranger refusal, and that could be the approach of like I mentioned, a Dustin Moskovitz or Aaron Sorkin, very well known journalist, where you give no reason for the decline. You simply say, “Thank you so much for your thoughtful email, I’m really sorry, but I cannot commit to anything like this right now,” or, “I don’t have bandwidth for this right now, wishing you all the best of luck, Tim.”

Right, it’s very straightforward, you’re not offering a reason, because then that offers the opportunity for a rebuttal or a counter, and I’m sure you’ve seen this happen, right. That’s one level down from auto responder, you have a blanket template response, which you can on your iPhone for instance, in settings, or using a program like text expander, create short two letter combinations that automatically auto populate these template responses, right. That would be one angle.

One level below that perhaps, you have semi acquaintance or acquaintance asking you for something, and then you might add in a personal touch that could be just one additional line and this is what for instance, Danny Meyer, famous restaurateur, Shake Shack, etc., used in his rejection letter that was sent to me, which I included in the book with permission. Or, Neal Stephenson, famed science fiction author of Snow Crash and so on, same story, where they might say something along the lines of I’m struggling so much with my own to-do list that every time I knock off one of my own items it seems to spawn 10 more just in the hopes that I’ll get to the point where some day it becomes shorter rather than longer, I’m saying no to all outside invitations or commitments for x period of time, right. That takes the sting out of it a bit. It lets you know where they are and allows you to consider walking a mile in their shoes so you know exactly why they’re refusing it, even though they might want to accept and very often that comes along with phrasing along the lines of “I realize this is a great opportunity and I’m sure I’ll be kicking myself later for saying no, but just for my sanity right now I can’t commit,” very common that there’s some phrasing along those lines. Wendy McNaughton, a very famous illustrator did that in her email to me. That can also be used for friends of course. There are different ways to go about it, but I think underlying all of those very specific lines and so on that you can copy and paste. Another common pattern is making something a policy or a diet. What I mean by that is I remember receiving a refusal, a polite decline from a billionaire investor when I asked if we might be able to have lunch or breakfast and chat about A, B and C, it was very specific, and I had spent time with him before, and he said “Really sorry, I’d love to, but I’m going on a no meeting diet for the next quarter because I’ve gotten so behind in other channels, I just need to catch up.” I was like, wow, a no meeting diet, that’s interesting, and I started using it. A no meeting diet, no conference call diet, for X period of time and for whatever reason, maybe it’s because it’s depersonalized, people respond really well to it, generally, but people are going to get hurt feelings, people are going to get upset. There are people who will take it incredibly personally and you have to accept that as a tax of having been fortunate enough to be in a position where you have more inbound than you can handle. Does that make sense?

Brett McKay: That makes sense, yeah.

Tim Ferriss: Some variation of the following has also popped up over and over again in Tribe of Mentors, which is “There is no one sure path to success but there is one sure path to failure and that is trying to please everyone.”

Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s where that stoicism comes in.

Tim Ferriss: Exactly, exactly, which also crops up a lot, like Arianna Huffington, her most gifted book is Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.

Brett McKay: Yeah, we’ll talk about that gifted book question, because that was another section I focused on a lot, but one of the most powerful bits of advice I got from the how to say no, the issue I often have is someone will ask me something that is like three months from now, and I’m like, yeah, of course, and then when it comes, you’re like dammit, I don’t have time for this. I forgot who said it, but it was like imagine if the event was this Tuesday, would you say yes to-

Tim Ferriss: Esther Dyson-

Brett McKay: Yes.

Tim Ferriss: Near the end, I think Tim O’Reilly and Kevin Kelly, all three of them, but they got it from Esther Dyson. Would I say yes to this if it were next Tuesday.

Brett McKay: Right. I’ve caused more problems for myself saying yes to things that are months in advance. That, man, that was a game changer for me.

Tim Ferriss: It’s a really good one. Another one from Kyle Maynard who was born a quad amputee, so, he’s a congenital quad amputee. He has no arms, no legs, his arms are cut off, basically at mid-arm, legs just basically at the hip, but let’s just call it mid-thigh, and he’s the first quad amputee without the aid of prosthetics to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. To put that in perspective, there are able-bodied athletes who have died climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. He military crawled the entire thing. He’s a stud in many other ways, but he’s gotten to know a lot of people at the top levels of special operations and he’s also spent time with many, many well-known CEOs, and one CEO gave him great advice that had a huge impact for him and it’s had a huge impact for me. That is if you’re considering an opportunity or an invitation, project, or an employee, it doesn’t really matter, or even an entrée at a restaurant and you want to get an honest opinion on an entrée you’re considering ordering, you can rank or ask someone else to rank it from one to 10, but a seven isn’t allowed. This is really subtle, but very, very, very powerful. I’ve been using it all the time.

So, you can rank from one to 10, but you can’t use a seven, why? Because the seven is the non-committal, or semi-ambiguous Switzerland of answers. It doesn’t really give you a lot of meaningful information. On the other hand, if you’re considering an invitation and a six is barely passing, that’s a no, and an eight is you know, I’m 80% stoked on this. I’m actually really excited, nine and 10 are above and beyond. When you remove that seven it becomes a very clear yes/no answer, and what Kyle noticed for himself is that when he looked at things he would give a seven, it was almost always out of guilt or obligation or fear of missing out, which are not good reasons to commit to time consuming anything when time is a finite non-renewable resource. That’s been hugely helpful for him, and also hugely helpful for me to rank it from one to ten, you can’t use a seven. By the way, testing this in restaurants, because you always hear the “Oh, everything is good on the menu,” and you’re like, thank you very much for no information. But, if you ask someone for a specific entrée, how would you rank this one theo ten, you can’t use a seven, something is going to happen. Either they’re going to waiver and then I’m not sure, that’s a six or less. On the flip side if someone says eight and they do it quickly, you know it’s a good dish and I’ve had 100% success rate with that so far.

Brett McKay: The other thing that was encouraging about some of the answers in the book to that question was that some of these people, very successful people said, “I can’t answer that. I’m terrible at saying no, still.”

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, and I left those in very deliberately, right, just to show that if you’re terrible at this you’re not uniquely flawed. Some of these people who many would assume are just hitting home runs with everything are terrible, terrible, terrible at it, right, so it’s a lot of very accomplished people just answer “I’m terrible at this, I can’t wait to read other people’s answers.”

Brett McKay: Let’s go back to that question, what book do you gift most frequently. I’ve gotten like, I have like 50 new books on my Amazon wish list because of this. Why ask that question instead of “What’s your favorite book?” Why ask what gift, what book do you gift most frequently?

Tim Ferriss: Because of several reasons. Number one, the people I interview tend to be very well read. They’ve read hundreds or thousands of books, and if you ask them what is your favorite book or what are your favorite books, it’s too long or it’s too broad of a search query. It would take too long typically for them to figure out, and they normally come up with one or two books that they really liked in the last year or two, which is not what you’re looking for.

Second, they’re often aware of the risk that if they say, “X, Y and Z is my favorite book,” that it will end up in Wikipedia haunting them forever and they’ll look back and say, “Good God, if I had 10 minutes to think about it I would have given you a different answer.” The most gifted conversely usually produces a very, very clear, very short list. Nearly everyone, not everyone, but nearly everyone has their go-to two to four books that they gift to many people. This is important for another reason. Favorite book means favorite book for the person you are asking. Most gifted book means it is one of their favorite books they feel applies to more people than just themselves, so it’s more broadly applicable. Those are a number of the reasons that I’ve chosen to tweak it and make it what book or books have you gifted the most to other people and why.

Brett McKay: Right, you’re kind of using the market to figure out, right. They’re putting skin in the game when they actually go out and buy a book for somebody.

Tim Ferriss: Exactly.

Brett McKay: You mentioned there was patterns you saw, and there are. What was the book you saw brought up over and over again that surprised you?

Tim Ferriss: Maybe it shouldn’t surprise me, but Man Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl popped up a ton. The one that popped up more than I might expect that’s lesser known is Poor Charlie’s Almanac by Charlie Munger who is the right hand and invested partner of Warren Buffett, most famed investor in history arguably. Then, there were books that also came up even fiction, like Siddhartha for instance, by Herman Hess, came up repeatedly, which I went back and reread as a result because I had read it in high school or college and really taken nothing from it. I went back and I read it now at age 40, and I think it’s, this is true for many books, Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm, and so on, that you may have read a long, long time ago, that they don’t fully have an impact until a little later in life, when you’ve put on a bit more mileage, had more experiences, have seen or experienced death in some capacity, and then you really have the life experience and lenses through which to view the pages and get something from them. So, Herman Hess, Siddhartha was another that cropped up. Those are a few that come to mind.

Brett McKay: The one that it was surprised by was Ayn Rand. There were few people who mentioned her and I knew something about their politics a little bit and I was like, they’re not objective, but they’re like “that book changed me.” That surprised me.

Tim Ferriss: Atlas Shrugged came up a lot, it certainly came up a ton. So, Ayn Rand or Ayn Rand depending on how you say her name came up a lot as setting the stage for these people to strive for self reliance, and it’s important to note that you don’t have to agree with everything in a book to make it one of your favorite books or one of your most gifted books at all, right. It just has to net have a huge positive impact. Atlas Shrugged certainly came up a ton. One that has come up a lot is the Five Love Languages, also.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I’ve been hearing that more and more from people.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, it’s a really, for intimate relationships, even just familial relationships, very fascinating book and some of the icons of the icons of the business world in private conversations, not in this book, have also mentioned the Five Love Languages. The list goes on. Then, there are the esoteric books, the really weird books.

Brett McKay: That was really interesting. That makes up the bulk of my Amazon wish list. There are these really weird things I’ve never even heard of.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, so, for instance I mean the books that have informed the world’s best poker players that tend to be pretty out there, or a lot of them are pretty out there and very fringe books on rational decision making. Those are some of my favorites to dig into, you know, weird ones rally weird ones.

Brett McKay: I hate reading like airport pop business books because thy usually just tell you what you already know.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, they spend 50% of the book defining the problem that you already know or you wouldn’t have bought the book-

Brett McKay: Right. Then, they mention the marshmallow test somehow. Then, right. Like reading those really theoretical books gives you insights that you can apply to other parts of your life, whether it’s your business, your personal life. I found that to be the case in my own life.

Tim Ferriss: Definitely. Many of these folks, just to note another, perhaps unexpected pattern, is if you look at many of the best investors in the book, so, you have Ray Dalio, founder of the world’s largest hedge fund, $160 billion under management of Bridgewater Associates. If you look at the books that he has gifted the most, if you look at the books that say, Esther Dyson who came up earlier, who is one of the best investors out there, and just fascinating. She trained as a cosmonaut in former Soviet Union for a period of time as well. Many of these investors pay a lot of attention to books on evolution, different types of evolution. So, for instance, her most gifted books, Esther’s most gifted books include the Biology of Desire, why addiction is not a disease, looking at addiction and the evolutionary basis or biological basis for that. Two of her books are very closely related. This one is From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The evolution of minds by Daniel Dennett, how consciousness arises, how much it depends on the sets of past, present, and future.

When you dig a little bit and you ask these folks why they pay so much time reading about evolution, it’s because they want to be able to spot the cognitive biases and the consensus realities, and the uninformed conclusions we come to based on millions of years of hard-wiring that is optimized for a reality that existed say 50,000 years ago, right. I mean, we’re really not designed to be living in cities with a constant barrage of information and sensationalistic headlines. We are not, biological evolution is very, very slow, and in the grand scheme of things, say from the agricultural revolution to industrial and now to where we are, it’s just the blinking of a firefly and we’re not prepared for it. By studying what we are hard wired to do, which is very often exactly the opposite of what is in our best interest you can spot uncrowded bets, you can spot contrarian thinking when it is most advantageous, and that is exactly what good investors do in many, many, many cases. So, that was another cool, I thought connection that was very obvious when you read through the book is that really good investors who are consistently and when I say consistently, I mean for decades, beating the market, and at the top of their game. I pay a lot of attention to evolution.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I’m going to ask you this question, what book do you give most frequently?

Tim Ferriss: The book that I give most frequently, for many, many years was a Penguin Classics book, Letters from a Stoic. It is a compilation of letters written by Seneca, a stoic figure or Roman, a famous playwright, arguably the most famous playwright of his day, also the wealthiest investment banker or its equivalent and an advisor to the emperor at the time. These are very pragmatic letters to one of his students or proteges, named Lucilius. Like, “Oh, Lucilius, I hear that so and so is smack talking you behind your back in the senate, here is how I would handle that.” “Dear Lucilius, I’m so sorry to hear of your mother’s passing and your difficulty with grief and how it is affecting your work and your family life. Here is what I would suggest.” Very concrete. I’ve given out hundreds and hundreds of copies of Letters from a Stoic directly to people who have visited my homes over the last say 15 years. It had a huge impact on me. Those can be found for free online as the moral letters to Lucilius and they had such a tremendous impact on me that I ended up spending six months, and this just goes to show, when you say to yourself “Oh, I’m going to do this, it will be really easy,” you should stop and really think about it. Putting together a free set of PDFs, e-books, called the Tao of Seneca, T-A-O, like the way of Seneca, which are all of these letters, plus interviews with modern thinkers and illustrations and stuff, that’s completely free. So, the book I’ve given away the most was originally the Penguin Classics version, Letters from a Stoic, which I would keep stacks of at home, in the closet, and if anyone came to my house who hadn’t ever read these letters, I would give them a copy before they left. That would definitely be far and away, number one. I’ve also given away a lot of copies of the fiction book, Zorba the Greek, which I think is great for people who tend to be very hyper-analytical and trapped in their own heads, because it chronicles the adventure sand misadventures of a very type A analytical driven person and Zorba, this character who is exactly the opposite, just a wild man who enjoys life and is very epicurean, throw caution to the wind type of character. So, the two of them make for a really entertaining and very informative contrast as they go through all of their various adventures.

Brett McKay: Seneca sounds like a proto-Tribe of Mentors, then.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, in a way it is, in some senses.

Brett McKay: And, Zorba the Greek, the movie is also fantastic.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I haven’t yet seen it. Now, based on that, I might actually see it. I didn’t want to see it because I didn’t want to sully how much I loved the book because for instance, you take His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman and the Golden Compass and so on, that movie was terrible. It was so bad, it just made me angry that they desecrated this incredible work of fiction. So, I’m glad to hear that Zorba the Greek is good, I might watch that over the holidays.

Brett McKay: Zorba, teach me to dance. But a dance, it’s great. Let’s get to this question about being unfocused, feeling overwhelmed, because I think that’s what a lot of people are feeling these days. What were some of the most common answers you got from folks on how to combat that?

Tim Ferriss: Some of the most common answers were some variation to get out of your head, get into your body. That was one. So, some component of exercise, and people have many different approaches to this, so you can pick your favorite version of it. Another was that came up again and again and again and again was journaling in different capacities, whether that’s Richa Chadha, who is a very famous Bollywood actress who will, if she’s anxious or feeling overwhelmed will write about her problem or fear, she’ll say, “I am worried about X because,” and just write, write, write, write, write, and once she hits a pausing point, she’ll ask the question, “So, what, what then, what happens if that happens,” and then she’ll write again. So, what, and she’ll keep asking so what until the fear has been disarmed, and she finds that to dramatically lower stress and anxiety, which is something I also do effectively.

There are other people who like Reed Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, or Josh Waitzkin who is thought of as a chess prodigy who will pose a question to themselves, say after dinner, go to sleep, Thomas Edison did this exact routine as well. Then, they wake up and before any input from their devices, before breakfast, before any of that, they sit down and they journal on the question that they asked themselves the day before or the situation that they posed to their subconscious mind. That’s also very common. There are, I would say perhaps a dozen or 20 different approaches to journaling that people describe in Tribe of Mentors but the underlying point being to take what might be very nebulous or disconcerting thoughts in your head and to trap them on paper so you can look at them under a magnifying glass and either completely diffuse the boogeyman and realize that you have no real reason, no real need to fear what you’re afraid of, or to gain clarity on whatever the next steps might be.

Brett McKay: No, I think writing is powerful, because as you said, emotions are irrational, they’re nebulous, but when you start writing, your brain kicks into analytical mode, like linear mode, right.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, exactly.

Brett McKay: I think it’s interesting, the stoics, they used writing as a way to do that, right, to practice stoicism.

Tim Ferriss: They did, and I think it’s very underutilized and when I say writing, also, in today’s day and age, given what happens when you turn on a laptop, I think it is a competitive advantage or at the very least, very valuable to do this by hand. Just because I have it open to this page, Ether Perell, not Esther Perell, Esther Perell is also in the book, is amazing, but Esther Dyson, her answer when she feels overwhelmed is she asks what is the worst thing that could happen. She says, “Fear of the unknown is generally far worse than the fear of something specific,” and that, I’ll just finish it because it’s super short, “If it’s not the death of yourself or those you are responsible for, there’s probably some reasonable set of options you should consider calmly and thoughtfully.” This is straight out of Seneca, right. This is straight out of stoicism, and it’s most valuable when you put it on paper.

Brett McKay: Dwight Eisenhower did the same thing throughout his career. People don’t know this. If he had a problem, he would just write a memo to himself and then he would throw it away when he was done. What was the most unusual way to get focused or combat the overwhelmed?

Tim Ferriss: You know, I’m not going to get it totally right, but Greg Norman-

Brett McKay: The golf player?

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, golf legend. Greg Norma, I think he starts with yelling at the top of his lungs, that’s stage one. There are other steps after it, but I remember just cracking up when I first got his responses.

Brett McKay: Right, and I think it was funny, because he also said, “Buddhism changed my life,” but then right after that it’s like, “I yell this obscenity as loud as I can.”

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, exactly. Some people stick their head in a bucket of ice, was a rather unusual one, I suppose. I do ask people, I ask everyone, this is one of the questions, what is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love, and you get some really weird answers. The point of that question is to I suppose, accomplish two things. One is to just humanize these people so that you realize everyone is crazy, it’s not just you, and that if you think anyone is normal, you just don’t know them well enough yet, so there’s that piece, just to make everything more approachable, but you also get some ideas for cool hobbies, or weird superstitions that you might find kind of cool, so if you’re hyper-irrational, it might be kind of fun to adopt arbitrarily two or three superstitions that you find really enjoyable which is something that I do.

Brett McKay: What are those superstitions? Is it something that you can’t say?

Tim Ferriss: No, I can say, it’s not like Candyman, I can mention what they are. For instance, I don’t like using red ink to sign anything. I’m pretty sure I picked this up in China, it might have been somewhere else in Asia, where in certain instances red ink is considered bad luck or for breaking contracts, so I don’t like using red ink for signing anything. There are good superstitions and bad superstitions. So the number 555 is a good omen because I finished copy editing the very last line of my second book, the four hour body, looked up in a tea shop and it was $5.55. I already like repeating numbers, so now, if 555 pops up on my phone, I always take a screen shot. That’s another weird one.

Brett McKay: What do you do with the screen shots?

Tim Ferriss: I just keep them. I don’t do anything with them. I just like the act of taking the screenshot to pause and capture that moment. I don’t cheers with water, so if people are doing some type of toast with alcohol, I have to have some alcohol in my beverage or I will not toast with a non-alcoholic beverage, it’s not just water, it’s also any non-alcoholic beverage, I won’t toast with it, but I will do a fist bump. I will, for some reason, I allow myself to fist bump other glasses, but I won’t clink the glass together if it’s say water, and I’m pretty sure I got that from some Italians. I have a handful here or there, and I’m fully aware of how ridiculous they are but I just enjoy having a little bit of irrationality injected into my life that can otherwise be so quantified and so serious, blah, blah, blah, all work and no play makes Timmy a dull boy.

Brett McKay: Tim, there’s a lot more questions we could dig into, and we’ll have people go out and get the book. Where can they find out more information about the book? Do you hae a website for it?

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, You can find sample chapters, I put up, if you search Tribe of Mentors, Terry Crews, I put up six life lessons from Terry Crews, but the best place to go is just You can find the entire list of mentors, you can find sample chapters, the whole nine yards, and certainly, I think it’s number three on Amazon right now, overall, every book, it’s doing really well, it just overtook Obama’s. So, people seem to really be enjoying it. You can find it anywhere books are sold. I would just say to folks, it’s a treasure and adventure guide, it’s a buffet. It’s not intended to be read cover to cover. You just pick and choose, just like you did and find the things that grab your attention, that’s it. So, if you even read 50 pages out of the 650, I consider that having read the book. So, it’s really just finding the bits and pieces that grab your attention, and that’s about it. Really proud of it, it’s been really helpful to me. I couldn’t find it, so I had to write it, and this is a reference book. It is a playbook that is a collection of play books, so I hope people enjoy it.

Brett McKay: Awesome, well, Tim Ferriss, thank you for your time, it’s been a pleasure.

Tim Ferriss: Thanks, so much.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Tim Ferriss he’s the author of the book, Tribe of Mentors. It’s out now. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about the book at Also check out Tim’s podcast, the Tim Ferriss show and his new podcast called Tribe of Mentors, find those on iTunes, Stitcher, wherever else you listen to podcasts. Also, check out our show notes at where you can find links to resources or you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure you check out the Art of Manliness website at If you enjoyed the show or got something out of it, I’d appreciate it if you would take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher, and if you’ve done that already, thank you and please share the show with others, your friends and family members, I really would appreciate that as well. This show is recorded on Clearcast.IO if you are a podcaster who does remote interviews like myself, check it out. It’s a service I developed to make our podcasts sound better. Clearcast.IO. As always, thank you for your continued support. Until next time, this Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.

How to Turn a Crankshaft Into a Manly Lamp

diy crankshaft lamp

Editor’s note: This is a guest article by Alexander Franz.

According to Brett’s article on how a car engine works, “The crankshaft is what converts the up and down motion of the pistons into a rotational motion that allows the car to move.”

It also makes for a sweet benchtop light.

If you want to add some virility to your garage, workshop, or man room, you can’t go wrong building a lamp out of old car parts. Maybe you’ll even get to put it in the living room window. At least until it “accidentally” gets broken.

Although the basic idea is straightforward, there are a ton of ways to customize this project to fit your space and style. Different crankshafts, bases, finishes, and light bulbs will give your final product the form and functionality you need. Use my example as a guideline, and alter it as you see fit. Let’s get started.

Materials & Tools


  • Ford 351W V8 crankshaft, with balancer
  • Rust neutralizer spray
  • 2′ of 1×12 American red oak board
  • 2″ of 1.5″ diameter American red oak dowel
  • Walnut stain
  • Poly clear coat sealer
  • 8 brass machine screws
  • 8 chrome acorn cap nuts
  • 6′ of 16 gauge lamp wire
  • Electric wire plug
  • 60 watt Edison-style light bulb
  • Nickel-plated push-through lamp socket


  • Wire hand brush
  • Power drill and bits
  • Wire brush drill attachment
  • Screwdriver
  • Jigsaw and wood-cutting blade
  • Sandpaper
  • Foam brushes
  • Clamps

Step 1: Gather Materials and Find a Crankshaft

used crankshaft for a lamp

Your local hardware store, lighting store, or big-box home improvement center will carry the basic supplies, and should be able to cut custom lengths of wiring for you.

I bought the crankshaft for this project from a local guy on Craigslist who restores cars as a hobby. Buying a used crank is significantly less expensive than ordering a new one (we’re talking about spending tens of dollars instead of hundreds of dollars), and the well-worn look brings character and authenticity to the final product. If you want to enjoy more of the hunt, you can search scrap yards and body shops for unloved parts. Many salvage yards will even allow you to bring your own tools in and remove a crank from a vehicle yourself.

I chose a big Ford crank that had been used in a commercial truck. The size of the crank will naturally vary with the size of the engine it came from, so think about where you’ll want to show off your light once it’s done, and what size you’ll be able to accommodate. This crank is from a V8; it’s about 26” tall and 50 pounds.

Step 2: Attack the Rust

removing rust from crankshaft

The restorer started to clean up the crank before I bought it, but it still needed work. The balancer, which is connected to one end of the crank and acts as a nice base for the light, was covered in rust. I started with a wire hand brush, and then fired up a power drill with wire brush attachment to blast the rest of it off (you could also use an angle grinder with a wire wheel). Wear gloves and a mask while you do this, unless you want to sneeze lug nuts two hours later.

Once the rust had been tamed, I sprayed the balancer with Loctite rust neutralizer. This added a protective coating to prevent new rust from forming and also turned the balancer black.

Step 3: Build Your Base

wooden base for diy crankshaft lamp

I made a two-layered circular base for the crank out of 1” American red oak. Given how heavy the crank is, I wanted a base that could hold up well, and oak does the job. The diameter of the bottom layer is 11”; the top layer, 9”. I also cut a hole in the center of the layers because the underside of the balancer on the crankshaft has a piece that juts out; the base is essentially an oak donut (now that’s manly). I cut the layers out with a jigsaw and then spent a lot of quality time sanding everything smooth.

wooden base for diy crankshaft lamp

I went back with the jigsaw and cut notches in the top layer to make it look like a large gear. This took a lot of patience and focus, but it brought an element of mechanical design into the base and really enhanced the overall look.

Step 4: Drillin’ Time

On the bottom layer of the base, I drilled one hole horizontally from the outer edge all the way through to the center opening. This neatly feeds the lamp cord through the base and up to the crank.

assembling wooden base for diy crankshaft lamp

I also drilled eight holes vertically through both layers of the base to match the eight holes in the balancer. These provided an easy way to attach the crank to the base. Counter-sinking the holes under the bottom layer ensured that the heads of the machine screws wouldn’t stick out.

Step 5: Finish Your Base

applying finish to base for diy crankshaft lamp

After sanding the base again, I finished it with walnut stain and a poly clear coat sealer. I liked how the walnut stain darkened the grain pattern of the oak, but there are several options you can choose from.

Step 6: Set Up the Socket

diy socket for crankshaft lamp

The top of the crank has a small 1.5” wide basin that is the perfect place for a lamp socket. To get a stable fit, I made a small wooden base to fit inside that basin and hold the socket upright. I took a scrap piece of 1.5” oak dowel and sanded the bottom half to get a snug fit with the basin. Then I drilled holes through the side and top to create a pathway for the cord.

The socket came with a small threaded pipe normally used for installation in a regular, less manly light. I shortened the length and also drilled a hole in it to guide the cord. The top of the pipe connects to the bottom of the socket, and the bottom of the pipe fits into the dowel. Lining up the holes I drilled allowed the cord to feed sideways into the dowel and up to the socket.

Step 7: Bolt the Base to the Crank

bolting crankshaft lamp to wooden base

I laid the crankshaft down on the workbench so that the balancer stuck out over the side. Then I lined up the holes in the balancer with the two layers of the base and tightened them together with the machine screws. I put acorn caps on the exposed ends of the screws, because you can never have too much chrome.

Step 8: Wire It Up

winding wire around crankshaft for diy lamp

I fed the lamp cord through the hole on the outer edge of the base, then pulled it up through the open center and above the balancer.

The crank has several cooling ports that run diagonally from one side to another. The ports are wide enough to fit the lamp cord, so I strung the wire in and out of the crank (using a little dab of grease to prevent it from getting stuck). If the crankshaft you use has ports that are too small, you can wrap the cord around the crank as you work your way to the light bulb at the top.

At the top, I worked the cord through the wooden dowel and up into the socket.

Step 9: Light It Up

diy crankshaft lamp

I cut the excess cord at the top, stripped the wires, and connected them to the socket. Then I attached an old-fashioned Edison-style light bulb and plugged this thing into an outlet.

The details will change according to the crankshaft and base you decide on, but the broad strokes will guide you along in creating a manly lamp that will provide light and virile inspiration for years to come.


Alexander Franz works in corporate finance for one of the Detroit Three automakers. He is the son and nephew of craftsmen, and hopes to one day match their skill level.

Past Failure Is No Excuse for Present Inaction

vintage football player sulking in locker room

The holiday season is now in full swing. People will be decking the halls, throwing parties, offering tidings of good cheer, and engaging with all things festive.

Though this time of year is supposed to be merry and bright, however, it can also sometimes feel rather melancholy. That’s partly because folks may wish for warm connections and the comforts of home, but find themselves alone and isolated.

But it’s also partly due to the sinking feeling that can arise as the year draws to a close — the realization that if whatever resolutions, expectations, and hopes you started the year with haven’t been accomplished by now, they almost assuredly won’t be by the time the new year is rung in. It can be a recipe for feeling despondent.

Perhaps you not only failed in the goals you set for yourself this year, but you’ve failed in the same goals for several consecutive years now. The prospect of ever changing has started to feel a little hopeless. You might decide to throw in the towel and stop trying altogether.

But that would be a mistake.

Because past failure is no excuse for present inaction.

Erroneous Labels and the Cycle of Failure

Whenever you fail at something, you run the risk of treating it not as an isolated occurrence, but as a sweeping indictment of your ability to ever succeed in that area (or at anything at all). You figure that if you failed once, or numerous times, you might as well give up. You may label yourself a “failure” in general, or as “undisciplined,” “lazy,” “stupid,” “nervous,” “hot-tempered,” or “shy.”

Problem is, these labels become self-fulfilling prophecies. In his book, Conversationally Speaking (which is about communication but also includes insight on viewing your life more rationally), Alan Garner describes how negative labels perpetuate a negative cycle: You say you’re a failure → so you decide you won’t even bother trying → which ensures you don’t succeed → which proves that . . . you’re a failure. Round and round the cycle goes. The same cycle applies to more specific labels you give yourself, like “undisciplined”:

Garner explains the dynamic at work in these loops of self-sabotage:

“All these labels are based upon poor past performance. When you use them, you make past failure an excuse for present inaction. Your present inaction provides you with still more ‘proof’ that those negative self-labels are accurate and with still more justification for future inaction. After playing the part for a while, you may end up concluding, ‘I just can’t help acting the way I do,’ or ‘This is just my nature,’ and then give up trying.”

Of course, such labels are rather irrational. Just because you’ve failed at something in the past doesn’t guarantee you can’t succeed at it in the future. Just because you’ve formerly made bad choices, doesn’t mean you can’t make better ones moving forward.

Garner recommends two ways of challenging these faulty beliefs:

Break down your label. When you’re feeling despondent over some failure and give yourself a label like “shy” or “undisciplined,” what you’ve typically done is taken your failure in one specific area, and applied it to your whole life. But as Garner points out, “labels are irrational because they wrap up your entire being into one word, making situational problems appear global. They confuse who you are with what you’ve done in one small area of your life.”

Let’s say you have trouble talking to attractive strangers. When you think about approaching a pretty woman, you get super nervous, and then decide to walk away. Having consistently failed in making an approach, you decide that you’re “shy” — that’s just your nature. But are you really shy in every area of your life? You may have no problem talking to friends and family, to customer service people, and to your teachers. Even though you’re actually only shy in one area, you’ve applied that label to your whole life. Which doesn’t make sense: as Garner observes, “how is it reasonable for [someone] to label 100% of himself based upon behavior with 5 percent of the people he sees?”

Or let’s say you’ve struggled with making exercise a habit, and consequently label yourself “undisciplined.” But dig into that label some more. Are you really undisciplined in every area of your life? Maybe you struggle with getting to the gym, but you make good grades, or have learned a foreign language or musical instrument, or are 100% loyal to your wife. It’s probably the case that while you may be undisciplined when it comes to exercise, you are disciplined in other things. So why make this one area of failure the defining measure of who you are?

Everybody succeeds in some areas of life and struggles in others. What this tells you is that if you’re able to be successful with one area — even if that’s 10% of your life rather than 95% — you do have the capacity and potential to succeed in another.

Accept failure as part of the process. Failing once, or even multiple times at a goal, doesn’t guarantee you’ll never achieve it. Attaining any goal almost always requires failing at first, and at certain points along the way. It’s become cliché to encourage persistence by citing the many times famous authors/athletes/scientists failed at something before they made it big (e.g., Jack London had 50 manuscripts rejected before one of his pieces was finally accepted for publication in a major magazine), but such snapshots do offer an important look at the hard reality of finding success in this world. As another true cliché would have it: You’ve got to break some eggs to make an omelet.

Now something that’s just as true as all the motivational platitudes out there is the fact that attaining a certain goal may not in fact be possible for you. While developing behavioral habits (working out regularly; stopping smoking; curbing your temper) is possible for everyone, attaining certain professional/creative/athletic aims (writing a bestselling book; starting a successful business; becoming a varsity athlete) isn’t; even after giving it your all, you may simply not have the talent it takes. But before you arrive at that conclusion and throw in the towel, you owe it to yourself to give your best effort, and to try out a few different strategies for going about it. It may not be you that’s the failure, but the approach you’re taking.

Even if you’ve failed at something this year, or for a long time, it doesn’t mean you’ll never succeed with it. Nor do you have to wait until January 1 to again resolve to reach that goal. Start again today.

Past failure is no excuse for present inaction.


Source & inspiration for above diagrams:

Conversationally Speaking by Alan Garner

Give the Art of Manliness for the Holidays: The AoM Shop Gift Guide

When the AoM store started nearly 10 years ago, it was a humble shop, with just a few t-shirt designs. Over the years, we’ve really expanded the number of things we offer, which now includes not just AoM swag, but books and products that are truly useful and will aide your endeavor of becoming a better man. Our Art of Manliness Shop Gift Guide for 2017 includes a handful of new products from the last year (lighter, catch-all), as well as some classic items that have been popular since their inception (mugs, Ben Franklin journal). Be sure to peruse the shop at length, as this is not an exhaustive list of the many classic, quality, and one-of-a-kind items available!

If you see something you like, pull the trigger now; free shipping on all orders over $50 is available until December 1. 

Under-the-Tree Gifts

Wooden “A Place for Everything and Everything in Its Place” Catch-All

Whether at school, work, or home, establishing a system of order for one’s possessions creates numerous benefits, like saving time and money, and making life feel a little less stressful. Such a system need not be complicated, and simply involves living by the classic maxim: “A place for everything, and everything in its place.”

Our classy wooden catch-all has this saying etched right into it. An AoM exclusive, it will not only ensure that a man never loses his keys, wallet, or other EDC items, but every time he goes to drop off and pick up his belongings, he’ll be reminded to always put things where they belong.


Boxed Set of Books

This delightfully packaged collection contains a wealth of information and inspiration for the modern man. Included inside are the first two AoM books published: The Art of Manliness and Manvotionals.

Together, housed in a classic cigar box (along with 6 manly coasters!), they make the perfect gift for any man who is conscious of leaving his mark on this world. Books are signed by Brett McKay. Also available on Amazon (unsigned) for about $21 (and eligible for Prime shipping).


Sisu Long-Sleeve Thermal

Sisu is the Finnish word for grit, and this long-sleeve thermal honors the guerrilla ski troops who embodied this quality and faced down Goliath. It’s perfect for the man who faces all his cold weather adventures and challenges with a big heart and flinty courage.



The Illustrated Art of Manliness (Signed)

The Illustrated Art of Manliness distills more than 100 skills every modern man should know into an entertaining, easy-to-follow illustrated format, with artwork by Ted Slampyak. We’ve taken some of the most popular illustrated guides we’ve published on the site and combined them with many never-before-seen ones to create a handsome hardcover book — over 60% of the content is brand-spanking new! We’ve been told this book has proved really popular with kids — so buy a copy for the men-in-the-making in your life! Signed by Brett McKay (though it’s also available on Amazon, unsigned).


Mugs — Classic & Stay Manly

Both AoM coffee mugs are made of ceramic and are thick-walled to keep their contents hotter, longer. They weigh in at a hefty 1.3lbs and hold a healthy 15oz. Their vintage-shape and speckled finish is reminiscent of old camping mugs that grizzled cowboys would use on the trail. And the large, three-finger handle makes for comfortable holding even for hands so big and meaty that one alone could span a large cast iron skillet.

Our original mug is emblazoned by 19th century bare-knuckled pugilist John L. Sullivan with the phrase “Semper Virilis” — Always Manly — above his head. Our second mug features Brett’s now legendary podcast sign-off, “Stay Manly.”

These designs are deep-etched right into the ceramic, giving these manly drinking vessels a unique look that will never fade with use or wash off over time. They’re bound to become your loved one’s favorite mug.


Ben Franklin Virtues Journal

The Ben Franklin’s Virtues Daily Record and Journal combines Franklin’s daily schedule with the self-improvement chart he created for himself as a young man. This exclusive journal provides a man with an incredible tool to improve his life and develop upstanding character, while also getting him more focused and organized with his day-to-day tasks.

The journal is divided into 13 weeks — one for each of Franklin’s virtues — with each week containing an agenda and journal section for each day.


Stocking Stuffers

Jumpstart Journal

When presented with a totally blank slate — that open journal, with pen in hand, and nothing but white pages — we freeze up. We don’t know what to write about.

Our exclusive Jumpstart Journal removes this barrier by taking care of the what entirely. Inside its pages is a clear roadmap to journaling: 31 prompts – 31 questions that offer guidance as to what to write about that day. This is the perfect gift for the man who’s long wanted to get into the journaling habit, but hasn’t known where to start.


The Pocket Guide to Action

For the man who’s ready to have a better year next year than the one he had this year, and is itching to move on his dreams, get him the The Pocket Guide to Action. It’s packed with wisdom on how to turn one’s abstract intentions into concrete actions, and finally pull the trigger on long-contemplated thoughts and plans. Plus, if you buy 3 copies, you’ll get a FREE “Take Action” poster; a gift for them, and a gift for you!


Enamel Pins — Fight in the Shade & If

Our “If” enamel pin, like the great Kipling poem of the same name serves as a reminder to ever be striving towards something greater, and to accept the setbacks you encounter along your journey with a steady heart and an honorable character.

Our Fight in the Shade pin is inspired by the immortal words of Sparta’s King Leonidas, who, when complained to about the arrows of Persian warriors blocking the sun, responded with his typical Laconic wit: “Won’t it be nice, then, if we shall have shade in which to fight them?”

$7.99 each

Morale Patches

Our 2″ x 3″ velcro-backed morale patches can be affixed to backpacks and duffels to add some manly character and inspiration. Buy them one at a time, or save money by buying the bundle.

$5.99 each, bundled for $19.50

“Carry the Fire” Zippo Lighter

Give our “Carry the Fire” Zippo lighter to the man in your life who strives to choose idealism over cynicism, virtue over vice, decency over dereliction, and hope over hopelessness — who carries the fire of goodness and honor and seeks to pass it on to the next generation.

This exclusive lighter is an American-made Zippo 1941 Replica in the vintage style carried by WWII GIs. The lighter sports a silver, brushed chrome exterior onto the front of which “Carry the Fire” has been machine-etched right here in the USA.


6 Card Games Every Man Should Know

6 card games everyone should know

Card games have been around for a long time. They’ve existed in various forms for a millennium, having been invented in the Far East. From there, they came West with trading, and in the 1400s the French solidified the 52-card deck and the four suits — spades, clubs, hearts, and diamonds — that we use today. While different cultures and nations use different sets of cards, that system is the most widely used around the world. For literally centuries now, friends, families, and strangers have convened around bar tops, campfires, and dining room tables to play friendly and perhaps not-so-friendly games of cards.

The Appeal (and Manliness) of Card Games

What is it that makes card games so appealing, and why have they found such a particularly prominent place in the culture of men?

vintage men outside playing cards in the woods

Portability. Rather than having to cart around a game board and various easily-lost pieces, a deck of cards can readily fit into a pocket or other small space. This is one reason they’ve long been popular with sailors and soldiers (as well as travelers and adventurers of all kinds); they can easily be thrown in a pack or seabag and cracked open on the frontlines or the bunk of a submarine.

vintage men playing cards

Speed. Board games often require lengthy set-ups, and games can take a long time. It’s easily forgotten where one is at in the game if a break is needed. Card games, on the other hand, just need a shuffle, and you can play almost anything imaginable. And most games, even long ones, have natural breaks at the end of a hand or deal. You can just as easily play for a few minutes or a few hours.

vintage family playing cards

Extra man points if you can identify the fella putting down the card.

Adaptability and informality. Most card games are folk games, with rules being passed on and changed from generation to generation (which is what makes tracing each game’s specific history particularly difficult!). Every family and even region has its own set of rules they prefer, and those rules can continue to evolve based on what’s most enjoyable for the folks playing it. Most games can also be scaled up or down on the challenge level to incorporate kids and expert players alike.

vintage seamen playing cards

Balance of chance and skill. Games scholar David Parlett writes: “A major attraction of card games is that they are in general neither wholly mindless, like most dice games, nor excessively cerebral, like Chess, but offer a reasonable balance of chance and skill. The actual balance varies from game to game, enabling well-informed players to select from the vast repertoire of card games the one or two best suited to their tastes and talents.” Even though players don’t have control over the chance aspects of games, in times past, a man who had a streak of luck in cards was considered favored by the gods, which enhanced his honor.

vintage soldiers playing cards

Manly competition. It is has often been noted that men’s games are symbolic representations of their more violent clashes in fighting and war. This is as true of something like football as it is of card games. When anthropologist Michael Herzfeld lived among the tough, rugged shepherds of a remote, mountainous region of Crete, he observed that their daily card games were a “medium for the expression of contest in emblematic form.” He writes:

“Contests they most certainly are. One of my most frequent card playing companies would announce, ‘Let’s clash lances [na kondarokhtipisomene]!’ Card games are often described as ‘struggling,’ and valiant opponents as pallikaria (‘fine young men’). Some basis of opposition beyond that of a friendly game is usually sought; when two kinsmen of different generations were matched against each other, even though they were fairly close in age, an onlooker jocularly justified the whole situation by announcing that it was a contest between the old and the young. Almost every move is made with aggressive gestures, especially by the striking of the knuckles against the table as each card is flung down.”

This echo of the basic quest for manhood and honor, the requirement of strategy, and the element of risk and reward, “lends spice to what would otherwise be a daily repetitive activity.”

vintage men playing cards

Ease and enjoyment of conversation. Card games facilitate easy, no-pressure conversation; if someone has something to say, they can say it; otherwise, people can just concentrate on the gameplay. Especially when all the participants are men, jokes and insults are traded and contribute to the unique sense of male camaraderie that can emerge around card playing. As Herzfeld notes, while other male activities like hunting or war “require swift and often silent action . . . the card game provides a forum for skill in that other area of demonstrative masculinity, clever talk. The rules of the games themselves are fixed, and therefore of relatively little interest . . . But the conversational gambits, well-timed gestures, and of course the flamboyant triumph of the winners are all legitimate themes in male interaction.”

vintage older men playing cards

Element of Mystery. Generally in board games, every player is aware of the possible moves of every other player. You roll a die, and everyone else can see what’s going on and if a player is close to winning. With cards, the only thing the other players see is the uniform back of what you’ve been dealt. There’s a fun air of mystery knowing that on your next turn you can go out, and nobody else is the wiser until the moment you exultantly drop your cards on the table.

6 Card Games Every Man Should Know

vintage men playing cards backstage

For the reasons above, and the rich history of cards — you can play the same game your grandparents and great-grandparents played, and of course folks well before them! — every man should know a handful of games. The 6 below are a set particularly worth learning, for reasons of both popularity and intrinsic value; they are games that you’re likely to be invited to play by others, and if you aren’t, you should consider asking others to play them, because they’re so enjoyable!

Note: A couple of those listed feature one specific type of a broader category of games (e.g., gin rummy is just one of many types of rummy that can be played). But the general principles of that particular “subgenre” will give you a good idea of how that broader category of game is played.

Gin Rummy

Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan playing cards backstage

Gin rummy was popular in Hollywood; here co-stars Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan play in between shooting scenes for Letter From An Unknown Woman.

Rummy, as a broader category of card games, revolves around gameplay in which participants try to make sets, or melds (in card playing parlance) — generally either 3 (or more) of the same number/rank, or 3 (or more) suited cards in sequence (a run). It’s also a “draw and discard” game, in which players draw a card from either an undealt or discard pile, and throw out an unwanted card as well. When all a player’s cards are part of a meld (or as many as are needed based on the variation), they go out, and get points based on what the remaining players have in their hand. Generally, you’ll play to a set point number, often 100.

Games scholars believe that rummy was originally a card variation on the Chinese tile game mah-jong, and came into being perhaps as early as the 1700s. Through many cultural and regional iterations, gin rummy, as the folk tale goes, was created in 1909 by whist (another card game) teacher Elwood Baker and his son, Charles Baker (who went on to become a renowned screenwriter). It’s thought that they invented the variation as a faster version of standard rummy. The history of gin is hard to suss out, though, since it didn’t really become popular until the 1930s (as with many card games in the US), when the Great Depression forced families to entertain themselves at home. It’s an easier game to learn than bridge, and more family-friendly than something like poker.

Gin rummy then took off in Hollywood and became immensely popular on movie, TV, and Broadway sets as an easy game, with a better reputation than poker, that could be played in dressing rooms and picked up and left off between shoots. In the late 1930s and 1940s you’ll find references to gin and “gin sharks” in numerous films, shows, and plays.

From there, its place in American leisure and game-playing was cemented, and today it’s often a game the whole family knows and plays, particularly when visiting with grandparents.

Click here to learn the rules of gin rummy.


The game of hearts falls into the trick-taking category of card games, originally stemming from whist. Rather than wanting to take tricks though, hearts is unique in that you want to avoid collecting tricks, depending on the cards in the pile; hearts are bad, as is the notorious queen of spades (also known as “Calamity Jane” or the “Black Lady” in the game). It’s usually played to 100 points, but the person who gets to 100 is actually the loser, and the person with the lowest points the winner (hearts being a point each, and the queen of spades being 13 points).

Hearts first appeared in the US in the late 1800s, but has origins going to back to a 1600s French game called “reversis.” Like the modern hearts, the goal was to avoid taking tricks that had certain cards in them. While one hindrance to playing hearts is that the modern version requires 4 players to get a game going (though it can be played with more or less, with rule changes), it still enjoyed pockets of great popularity in the 20th century, especially among college students.

The game was then given new life at the end of the millennium when Microsoft Windows included it as a built-in game in their operating systems starting in the 1990s. You had three players provided for you, and could pick up a game anytime you wanted. This was how I learned the game, actually. Practice and learn on a computer or on your phone, then find three friends to play with. It will be far more interesting than staring down Pauline, Michele, and Ben (the default opponents in early Windows versions).  

Click here to learn the rules of hearts.

Poker (Texas Hold ‘Em)

vintage men playing poker

Poker is a quintessentially American card game. What makes it unique from any of its antecedents is specifically the betting factor. While the gameplay is reminiscent of some other world games (and also just card-playing in general), the structure of betting sets it apart from anything that came before.

It’s possible that the game originated in 1820s New Orleans on Mississippi River gambling boats. From there, poker spread north along the river, and West along with the Gold Rush, becoming an important part of cowboy lore. When the dirty and tired men were done breaking horses or driving cattle for the day, and needed some entertainment around the campfire, poker became the go-to diversion. It involved skill, luck, and bit more friendly competition than many other card games. Betting — even with just pennies or matchsticks — naturally upped the ante.

Various ranking systems and variations of game play also spread through the country (and eventually around the world), but poker really took off in the late 1980s when Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which legalized casinos on Native American land. Prior to that, gambling in all forms was far more regulated. Different regions had different popular variations, but Texas Hold ‘Em came to be the most played version in the Western US. In the 2000s, when ESPN began televising the World Series of Poker, and online gameplay took off, Texas Hold ‘Em became the dominant poker game around the world.

What makes poker great is that it retains a very competitive spirit even while playing for low stakes, and it can be scaled up or down depending on the proclivities of the group. You can play for $.05 or $5 or $5,000 or $500,000. Or for Chips Ahoy cookies. It’s also an ideal card game for a large gathering. Have a bachelor party to plan? Or a birthday shindig? Or a weekend guys night while ladies go paint and sip wine? A game of Texas Hold ‘Em in the garage or basement is perfect. To get you started, here’s a primer on the game, and here’s how to host a poker night.


Solitaire, as a group of games played primarily by oneself, was first developed in the mid-1700s, and first appeared codified in writing in the late 1700s. Unlike the other specific games in this article, I’m listing it here as the broad category. Why? For the simple reason that it’s likely everyone already has a preferred version of the game! (Mine is a variation of Kings in the Corners solitaire that I learned from my dad.)

Solitaire was actually first played with multiple people, either by taking turns making moves, or by each person playing with their own deck and seeing who would “win” first. It’s likely that the version played truly alone against just the deck itself came about by people practicing for the multiplayer variety. Soon, innumerable versions of solitaire came about, as any player could really make any set of rules they desired. It’s said that Napoleon played when he was exiled, and although a number of versions of solitaire are named after him, this rumor is likely just that.

As with hearts, solitaire really exploded along with the personal computer. No need to shuffle the deck yourself every time. Klondike, FreeCell, and Spider became the most popular (at least on computers), as those were stocked on most machines back in the 90s. Today, you can download apps that offer hundreds of versions of solitaire.

Try some out (you can peruse the “Solitaire” section of this book, or look them up online), practice playing them by hand versus on a device, and next time you’re bored, rather than automatically jumping to your phone for entertainment, deal out some cards and play solitaire.  


vintage military men playing cribbage

The game of cribbage has been beloved by men for centuries. While it incorporates a board, it’s really a card game for generally 2 people (though 3 and 4 can readily be accommodated with just slight differences), with the board only used to keep easy track of points accumulated. There are two parts to cribbage: pegging (numerically counting your and your opponent’s cards up to 31) and counting (making sets, runs, and 15s with your cards — see rules for more detail). It’s a game that really defies being grouped into other broader categories of games, making it especially fun and unique; there’s not really anything else like it!

Believed to have been invented, or at least codified, by British soldier and poet Sir John Suckling in the 17th century, it was brought to American shores by English settlers where it became quite popular in the colonies, especially in New England. Requiring only two players, it was readily adopted by sailors and fishermen as a way to wile away the time. Cribbage boards, which have either 61 or 121 holes, were (and still are) crafted from a variety of materials (learn how to make your own board here!) and could be quite unique and elaborate in form and style. Eskimos would make cribbage boards out of walrus tusks to trade with the sailors and fishermen who made port near their villages.

Cribbage remained popular with mariners for hundreds of years, enjoying especially widespread play in the Navy during World War II. It was thought of as the unofficial game of submariners, who played round the clock as they patrolled for Japanese ships.

Cribbage continued to be played after the war, and was a favorite game of college students at least up through the previous generation. But it seems to have, along with most other analog games, largely fallen out of favor and sight. It’s not a game that easily adapts to digital play either, meaning a lot of folks know of the game, but don’t necessarily know how to play. Don’t be like those guys.

Click here to learn the rules of cribbage.


Blackjack is unique on this list as it’s primarily a game you’d be found playing in a casino. It’s actually the most widely played casino game there is. Why might that be? Largely because it’s fast to play and easy to learn. You and/or a group of other players are betting against the dealer — just the dealer, you’re not competing against other players — to see whose cards can get closest to adding up numerically to 21 (or at 21) without going over. There’s a bit more nuance to it, but that’s the gist. If you get closer than 21 to the dealer, you win (as does anyone else who did the same). If the dealer is closer to 21, you lose. The value of learning the game is that you’ll be able to walk into a casino — which can be an intimidating place — and know how to confidently play at least one game.

Blackjack (previously called just “21”) was first referenced in writing in a short story by Miguel de Cervantes (of Don Quixote fame) in the early 1600s, meaning it was invented and played likely sometime in the mid or late 1500s. When introduced into US gambling houses in the 1800s, an early, seemingly random rule dictated a 10-to-1 payout if your hand contained a black (spade or club) jack. The name obviously stuck, even though the 10-to-1 payout was quickly abandoned.

The game became more popular in the U.S. in the late 1950s when some math whizzes came up with strategies that enabled the player to gain an advantage over the house. Ed Thorp’s popular 1963 book Beat the Dealer was the first to lay out card counting to the general public, and hopeful players the world over have tried, both successfully and unsuccessfully, to (mostly) legally win millions of dollars (as portrayed in the popular movie 21).

While card counting is technically legal as long you aren’t using some sort of device to help you, it’s very hard to do successfully, and casinos have the right to kick you out and ban you if they don’t like your odds and suspect you of it. So don’t try. Do, however, know the basics of the game so that when you happen to be in Vegas for your brother’s bachelor party, you’ll at least be able to hang around and not just sheepishly watch over his shoulder as a spectator.

Click here to learn the rules of blackjack.

Know these 6 card games and you’ll be able to confidently join in a contest with friends, wile away time with your family on a rainy camping trip, entertain yourself on a long flight, and keep your grandma company every Sunday night.

Podcast #358: The Stranger in the Woods — The Story of the Last True Hermit

Have you ever just wanted to get in your car, drive off into the middle of nowhere, leave behind the hustle and bustle of civilization, and just be by yourself? 

Well, in 1986 a man named Christopher Knight did just that and lived alone in the Maine woods without any, any human contact for 27 years until he was discovered in 2013.

My guest today wrote a biography — The Stranger in the Woods — about this man who locals called “the Hermit of the North Pond.” His name is Michael Finkel and today on the show we discuss how Chris survived alone in the Maine woods by himself, but more importantly, why Chris wanted to be by himself for so long. By looking at the life of one of the modern world’s last true hermits, Michael and I explore the idea of hermitage, solitude, and why being an individual requires you to be alone. 

Show Highlights

  • How Mike got drawn in to Christopher Knight’s story
  • The folklore and legend of Knight in the Maine woods
  • Knight’s backstory: his childhood, when he took to the woods, etc.
  • Why did Knight “quit the world”?
  • The history of hermits throughout the world
  • Is Knight crazy? Is he on the autism spectrum?
  • How Knight physically survived for 27 years in the woods
  • What Knight’s camp was like
  • The state of hermits today in the modern world
  • The debate over whether Knight was a “true” hermit
  • Why Christopher thought Thoreau was a phony
  • The myth of utter self-reliance
  • How folks responded to the “North Pond Hermit” breaking into their homes
  • Why Chris reveled in absolute solitude, while solitary confinement is used as our prison system’s harshest punishment
  • The benefits of voluntary solitude
  • How Christopher Knight was eventually caught
  • How is Chris Knight holding up now? Is he in jail?
  • How Mike responded to Christopher’s story, and his suggestion for us today in regards to solitude

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

stranger in the woods book cover michael finkel

The Stranger in the Woods was a fun, insightful read. You’ll want to go off and find some place in the wilds to be by yourself after you finish reading this book.

Connect With Mike

Mike on Twitter

Mike’s website

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Have you ever wanted to get into your car, drive off to the middle of nowhere, leave behind the hustle and bustle of civilization, and just be by yourself? Well, in 1986, a man named Christopher Knight did just that, and lived in the Maine woods without any human contact, any human contact for 27 years, and was discovered in 2013.

My guest today wrote a biography, The Stranger in the Woods, about this man who locals called the Hermit of the North Pond. The author’s name is Michael Finkel. Today on the show we discussed how Chris survived in the Maine woods alone by himself. But more importantly, we discuss why Chris wanted to be by himself for so long, and by looking at the life of one of the modern world’s last true hermits, Michael and I explore the idea of hermitage, solitude, and why being an individual requires you to be alone.

Mike Finkel, welcome to the show.

Mike Finkel: Thanks. Happy to be here.

Brett McKay: So you wrote an interesting book. It’s sort of hybrid of looking at the life of a hermit named Chris Knight, and we’re going to talk about him, but also exploring the ideas of solitude, and being alone, and is that important to being a human, being an individual? Let’s talk about what drew you to the story of Chris Knight. This is a guy who lived in the Maine woods, in the middle of the Maine woods by himself for 27 years. How did you get connected with this story and why did you decide to write this book?

Mike Finkel: Yeah. I’ve been a journalist for 27 years. This is only my second book. I got three little kids. I have a short attention span. If a story doesn’t deserve to be a book length telling, then I’m going to avoid it. It’s just my tendency. I’m an impatient person, and, boy, this story of Christopher Knight, the Maine hermit, really just grabbed me by every sense possible. As you mentioned before, here’s a guy who lived completely alone in the woods of Maine, which is really, really cold, by the way, for 27 years, and claimed he not only didn’t speak with anyone, didn’t see the internet, didn’t make a phone call, never spoke a word aloud, except for one syllable once. He said, “Hi,” to a passing hiker. Never even lit a fire, which boggles the imagination, for fear that smoke might give his position away.

Also, over the 27 years, he also became this very odd legend. For food, and clothing, and a few survival things, and books, he broke into these small cabins. I’m sure we’ll talk about this further. He broke into these sort of summer cabins, simple summer cabins in the woods on the lake county of central Maine, and so there was this legend built up about him, and people had wildly different opinions of him. Some people thought that this guy breaking into houses was the worst thing that ever happened to them. If you break into someone’s house, you can get 10 years in prison, even if you don’t take anything. Other people thought this mysterious person might have some heroic qualities, and I love the fact that there was a myth. There was a person, and then, of course, the great questions, how did he survive? Why? And then what happens after a person who has been away for so long is thrown back into our very loud, very 24/7 365 society, what happens then?

How could you not be interested? It’s catnip for a journalist is what I’m trying to say.

Brett McKay: Oh, yeah. For sure. So let’s talk about Chris Knight’s back story. What year did he go off into the woods by himself? How old was he when he decided to do this?

Mike Finkel: Christopher Knight grew up in central Maine in an unusual family. He had four older brothers, one younger sister. They were a very private family. All the children, the Knight children got extremely good grades in school, but more than that, the family did not have a lot of money, but they learned how to hunt and fish. They learned how to fix everything from electrical, to automotive, to plumbing. Their house, according to people that had been inside, it was like a library. They all read everything from Shakespeare to poetry. In the evening, they studied theoretical physics and hydrodynamics. These guys built this crazy greenhouse, where they could grow food all winter and not pay a dime to the electric company.

Chris Knight, people that I spoke to that went to high school with him, considered him shy. Some people said nerdy, but no one expected him to do something as radical as he did.

Anyway, Christopher Knight quit the world at age 20, which is extraordinarily young for a hermit. Just imagine never getting another piece of advice from your elder after the age of 20. I mean I’m 48 years old, and I still call my father for advice frequently. He drove his car, a Subaru Brat, into the woods of Maine and abandoned it there. Threw the keys in the center console, and at the age of 20, with very little supplies, just the most scant amount of camping gear, no maps, no compass, walked into the woods of central Maine, and wasn’t seen again for 27 years.

It’s an incredible story, and I do want to emphasize that everything I’m saying tonight is not only true, but it has been thoroughly vetted by fact checkers, and lawyers, and police investigators, and everything. This is a true story. No fake news going on here at The Art of Manliness.

Brett McKay: What year was this? That’s another important factor, because he probably missed a lot in 27 years.

Mike Finkel: Yeah. So Chris Knight departed the world, I believe it was 1986, and wasn’t pulled out of the woods until 2013. So just imagine that. 1986, there had been … Reagan was president. There were no cell phones. Nobody had heard of the internet yet. It’s not just even the years. It’s like the years have passed by his life. Between the ages of 20 and 47, most people, more of less, live their entire life. Before that, you’re sort of a young kid, and after that, you’re sort of middle-aged men. This is when most people go to school, pick their job, get married, have a family, make all these massive life changes, buy a house, figure things out. But this guy lived by himself for basically the heart of his life.

Brett McKay: So the next question is why? What caused to do it? Was it a Unabomber thing, where he’s fed up with society, wanted to get away from it? Did he have some sort of spiritual motive? What caused him to drive his car into the middle of the woods and just give it up, and then walk out into it?

Mike Finkel: I think that’s the operative question, why, and, of course, that was the first question on my mind. It was like how did he survive, which we can get into. But why? Why would you quit the world for 27 years, and I’ll try to be as brief as possible, and the answer is actually sort of simple. But the reason why it’s very difficult to imagine is that most people, me, you I’m sure, the vast majority of people listening to this, don’t really spend much time alone, and really as humans, we don’t like to spend that much time alone. It’s clear. Watch anybody when they have 12 idle seconds, what’s the first thing most people do these days? They fish their cell phone out of their pocket and start to connect in some way or another.

But Chris Knight, despite the fact that 99.9% of us don’t like to be alone, there has been throughout human history, since the beginning of recorded time, which goes back about 5,000 years, in every culture, at all times, there’s been a thin but distinct stream of people that really wanted to be alone, and there is even a genetic component to this, and Chris Knight expressed many of the same things that hermits throughout history have said, which is that he always felt a little uncomfortable around other people, more than a little uncomfortable, and he really liked his own company, and it was like he described it as this gravitational pull.

When I was talking to Chris Knight, I was guessing did you commit a crime? Were you embarrassed about something? This was the 80s in central Maine, were you confused about your sexuality, something, and he said, “No, no. It was nothing specific like that,” and really anything like that is not going to keep you away for 27 years.

So Chris Knight had this radical idea of how he wanted to live his life, and he decided to attempt it. He decided to fulfill his most radical idea, pretty much more fully than … I’ll just speak for myself, more fully than I will ever dare, and probably most people listening will ever dare, and why did he leave the world? He left the world because he just didn’t feel comfortable being around other people. He felt this tug to be alone.

The better question, Brett, the better question is why did he stay, and the answer to that question I find really fascinating. He stayed alone because he really liked it. He expressed a great deal of contentment. Now, he definitely suffered during winters, and definitely suffered from hunger sometimes, but overall, he said he loved being alone. He expressed more contentment about his life than most people I meet out here in the world.

So he left because he felt this strong tug, but he stayed because he was happy. I mean what are we all searching for in life? Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. He found it.

Brett McKay: Yeah. We’ll get into how he was able to do this. I thought it was interesting, when he finally got caught, there was all these therapists and analysts trying to figure out what was that component. He felt uncomfortable around people. Was he autistic, or did he have some sort of other thing? But the consensus was there was no consensus that something was “wrong” with Chris Knight. He just had a tendency, he wanted to be by himself and he enjoyed it.

Mike Finkel: I mean, of course, you can’t blame anyone for thinking, “Oh, what’s wrong with this guy,” because that’s exactly what I thought. Chris Knight was examined by a state psychologist, who offered a couple of things, the obvious Asperger’s or something on the autism spectrum. But I spoke with many people who said they couldn’t make a specific diagnosis without actually talking to Chris Knight himself, but really reviewed the case, and as you just said, there really is nothing, no diagnosable syndrome you can pin on Chris Knight. Many autism experts said to me, “We just could not consider him to be on the autism spectrum. He had to plan ahead. In the annals of autism, there’s no examples of a person who survived by themselves for this long, who can plan ahead.” He just didn’t fit any diagnosis at all.

In fact, it would be like saying every hermit has a problem. In fact, and I don’t want to get too deep into this, but the truth is probably there’s two or three days a week where I’m driving my three kids around, and they’re fighting in the backseat, and I’m stuck in traffic, and there’s terrible news coming out of the radio, and six text messages, and my phone is binging constantly, and I’m late for not only my projects, but the meeting I’m supposed to be at, and I’m stressed out and I’m thinking, “It’s not really Chris Knight. It’s crazy. It’s the rest of us,” and I really mean that.

Brett McKay: Yeah. He was kind of self-aware of that. When you talked to him, he’d say, “I know people think I’m crazy. I understand that. But maybe you guys are the crazy ones.” He was very philosophical about his solitude, even though he wouldn’t say he’s being philosophical.

Mike Finkel: Right. Just briefly to keep the story a little coherent, Chris Knight planned to spend his entire life in the woods. He never wanted to come out, ever. Not 27 years, not ever. He planned to die completely anonymously. But as I mentioned, he did steal food and other survival supplies, and books, and was eventually caught. We can get into that, and so was forcibly removed from his solitude, and that’s the only reason I was able to talk to him. He was actually in jail, and so most of the time we met was in the jail visiting room.

If there is one thing I can say about Chris Knight, and there’s lots of things I can say about him, but he is extraordinarily intelligent. I have rarely encountered someone who could not just quote from a thousand books. He seemed to have a photographic memory, though he denied it. “I don’t have a photographic memory. I just remember everything it seems to me.”

He said he didn’t leave the world to make any statement. He wasn’t trying to make any of us feel bad about our decisions. He just did what he wanted to do. He did feel terrible about having to steal. That’s a whole other issue, whether Chris Knight should be forgiven or not for his crimes, and nobody is wrong on that one. He felt that he found the place where he was most content in the world, and if for other people it was in the middle of an office building, or sitting in front of a computer most of the day, or raising a family, then he never wanted anyone to feel bad about their own choices, but had this very sort of, I don’t know, sophisticated intelligence, this sort of inscrutable air about him where he felt that his choices were completely logical for him.

Brett McKay: It wasn’t like scary, because a lot of times, hermits or people who go out, they kind of scare you, because they go out for scary reasons. Like you said, he didn’t judge others. He was like, “I just want to do my thing and be left alone.”

Mike Finkel: Yeah. Unfortunately, and Chris Knight was aware of this, he did frighten other people. He broke into about … There are a couple of maybe 300 houses, second homes in the lake region, where Chris Knight, he camped in the same site, Chris Knight, for more than 25 of his 27 years. He basically spent a little more than a year wandering around the woods of central Maine, really not knowing exactly where he was, though sensing it, and then found this amazing spot in the woods, not too far from civilization, but certainly far enough so that he could be completely alone, and broke into … Approximately he had about 100 cabins in his repertoire, and really some people were extraordinarily disturbed by his actions, and he knew this, and didn’t feel great about it, but made the decision that he would rather be alone and steal than in the world and law abiding, and so it’s a very complicated and … He never quite, Chris Knight himself ever quite resolved the conundrum about being a thief.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about how he survived for 27 years. So you’ve talked about he’s been stealing food. What was his camp like, because, as you said, Maine winters are crazy cold. During the springtime, they have this terrible black fly season, where they just swarm you and bite you. It’s terrible. He never lit a fire. How was he able to build himself a place to live comfortably? Yeah. Relatively comfortable for 25 years.

Mike Finkel: I mean Chris Knight’s story is literally unbelievable. Everybody I asked, I’d say about 80% of the residents of central Maine, the victims of his crime, and normally, the closer I get to a story, the more people explain it, the more believable it is. But this was almost the opposite. The closer I came to the area Chris lived, the less people could believe it, and a few other things people said to me were like, “How is it possible to go 27 years without lighting a fire? How is it possible to go 27 years without seeing a doctor? How is it possible to have a campsite not that far away that no one’s ever in? How did Chris Knight survive the great ice storm of 1998,” and on, and on, and on.

I was able to ask Chris Knight all of these questions, and I was searching for … When someone tells you a story, and you find one tiny thing that contradicts what they’re saying, well then the whole story falls apart, like a house of cards. Like if I’d gone to his site and found one charred piece of wood that indicated there was a fire, the whole thing would fall apart, and I’m going to tell you, I spent three years working on this book, I never found a single thing that contradicted anything Chris Knight said, and even the police officers that arrested him exclaimed how they had rarely met someone who seemed so honest as Chris Knight.

Just quickly, how do you go 27 years without getting sick or needing to see a doctor? Well, the way we get sick is by being around each other. We exchange bacteria. We exchange germs. We exchange viruses. If you’re not around other people, you don’t get sick. I mean you can still get something like diabetes or cancer, but when I talked to doctors, they said it made perfect sense that Chris Knight never get sick. In terms of the great ice storm of 1998, as Chris Knight himself said, it was 28 degrees during that great ice storm. It really wasn’t that cold. It was terrible for the electrical wires, and you couldn’t drive a car 10 feet without skidding off the road, but it was perfectly fine for him. Not only that, he actually liked it. It put a layer of ice over the snow, and he could walk around without leaving footprints. He wished there was a great ice storm every week.

Now, he told me to find his site, and a lot of the answers would be clear. I spent most of my life in Montana. I’ve spent a lot of time camping and hiking in the woods. I consider myself a decent woodsman, but wow, I have never seen woods as thick, as dense, as difficult to navigate as Chris Knight’s forest. Not only were there tons of trees tangled all over each other in a very thick undergrowth, the last ice age smothered Maine in glaciers were treated, they left behind these enormous automobile sized boulders, which are just everywhere in Chris Knight’s woods. The woods are so thick, not even that many deer walk through. It’s just impossible to navigate. Chris Knight learned to walk in these woods almost silently. He memorized all these patterns, where he could step on a root and on a rock. He could not snap a branch. He could not even leave a footprint.

And it took me a long time to find this site, even though I knew approximately where it was, and that it was very close … If you knew exactly where you were going, three minutes to the nearest mud driveway, and it was one of the most … I’m still imagining right now as I’m talking to you the first time I found the site. It was like the entrance was between these two boulder, that when you looked at it, in most directions, it looked like it was one big rock. I called it the elephant rock. But from a certain angle, you could see that there was a big crack in the rock, where I guess it had split during the glacial period, and you could twist your body and sneak between these two rocks, and I did that.

There was this site, and it was one of the most gorgeous things I’ve ever seen, and I told you I spent a lot of times in the woods. Chris Knight had cleaned out a cube of forest. Imagine a forest as dense as a Brillo pad all around you, and suddenly, you walk into this clearing, but it even a roof overhead, because the tree branches linked. Chris Knight was aware of this, and a couple of police officers said they did a couple of flyovers looking for this guy’s camp and never found it, and it was understandable why, because there was a roof overhead.

It was completely cleared out. His floor was perfectly flat, and what Chris Knight had done for years and years and years, he stole and read a lot of magazines and books, and very often when he was finished with them, he would make what he called bricks. He would tie stacks of them together, tape them with electrical tape, which he stole, the electrical tape, and bury them in his site, and make a perfectly flat floor that, also, was excellent for draining rainwater, and so he had this perfectly flat floor, this beautifully cleared out space, impossible to find spot in a dense woods.

I spent five nights there across all seasons, and even to this moment right now talking to you, when I feel stressed out, when I feel like the world is getting a little too loud and crazy, I think about that spot. I never went there with anybody else. I spent that time alone, and it was amazing. You could hear the forest. You could see not too far into the forest, because it was so dense, but you really felt like you were in this … I don’t know. Have you ever been to one of those aquariums where there’s a tube where you can walk through and you’re underwater? I felt like I was in a room in the forest, but yet able to breathe and have my own little space. I don’t think I could really overstate how fantastically lovely this spot was, and I understood why he wanted to stay there. I don’t know if I want to stay there 25 years, but, boy, I could use a couple of long weekends there now and again.

Brett McKay: As I said earlier, this book, you use it to explore the idea of solitude and hermitage. As you mentioned earlier, since the beginning of recorded history, there have been hermits. Can you give us the rough thumbnail sketch of the history of hermitage in humanity?

Mike Finkel: Yeah. Some of the very first writings we have, that exist, some writings etched on animal bones from ancient China and some writings scratched onto clay tablets from Mesopotamia mention wild men or shamans, people living alone in the wilderness, and so, as I said, certainly before recorded history and for all of recorded history, there have been people that wanted to be by themselves.

The majority of these people did it for religious reasons, to seek a closer relationship with God. There’s the famous desert fathers of early Christianity. Many Buddhists, of course, go on long retreats. Now, Chris Knight did not follow a formal religion and did not escape for any religious reasons, but religion is the main reason.

A secondary reason is what I call protestor hermits. A lot of people left the world because of war, because of pollution, even right now in Japan there are approximately a million young kids, most of them called hikikomori, which means pulling away, people that live in their rooms, often for more than a decade. There’s more than a million of them. It’s sort of an epidemic in Japan. There’s even therapists that offer counseling through the internet. But people just quit the pressure cooker society that’s especially prevalent in Japan. These are people that are protesting.

Then the last type of hermit is someone like a Henry David Thoreau, someone who leaves for maybe artistic or self-fulfillment reasons.

There’s been, also, some sort of tangential hermits. In the early 1880s, there was a fad in England among the aristocracy. If you had a large estate, it was a fad to hire a hermit. They were called ornamental hermits, and people put advertisements in newspapers offering to pay, it was like $7 a month, for a person who was willing to grow a long beard and live in a cave on an estate in the British countryside, and these aristocrats felt that hermits had the air of wisdom and maybe, I don’t know, mystery or something, and it became this very amusing fad that lasted thirty or so years.

Brett McKay: Yeah. Are there hermits still today that … I mean I’m sure there are hermits today. You just mentioned people in Japan. But I think you mentioned there’s internet forums dedicated to being a hermit, which seems counterintuitive, paradoxical.

Mike Finkel: Yeah. Actually I have hermit-ish tendencies. I am certainly by no means a hermit, but my job, writing, involves spending a lot of time by myself, and sometimes I even find it enjoyable, and I’m a long-distance runner and things like that. While I am by no means a hermit, I get the need to be apart from people. I do need my alone time.

There are hermits today. I want to say one more thing, which I sometimes am almost I don’t know if shy is the right word. Sometimes there’s things that are so extraordinary that you just don’t bother to say it, because people don’t believe, but I’m just going to say one more thing. I lost my mind researching hermits. Now, I will not brag about too many things in this world, but I will tell you, you might never speak to anyone who knows more about hermits than I do. I read more than 100 books about hermits. I read thousands of articles about hermits. I read everything there was to know.

I just wanted to compare Chris Knight’s experiences with other hermits, and I’m going to tell you I never found a single example of another person who went 27 years without at least somebody checking up on them, bringing them food, just asking if they were okay. Never did I find a single example. I will say with pretty fair authority, that Chris Knight, right here with seven billion or so people on planet Earth in the age of Facebook and Twitter, I think Chris Knight might be the most solitary known human who ever lived.

Brett McKay: That’s great. What’s interesting, you talk about how even the hermits, they debated whether Chris Knight was a true hermit. What was going on there? Yeah. He didn’t see anybody, except for a lone hiker.

Mike Finkel: There’s this little hermit community, which sounds like an oxymoron, but, yes, there’s a wonderful website called Check it out. I read every single article on it. If you’re at all interested in hermits, this is a great storehouse, and they actually have a … I guess you could call it a chatroom. Now, you have to prove that you’re a hermit, and I did not quality to join the chatroom, but I was privy to some of the things that people write. It’s not like they’re chatting with each other. You just post a message and logoff. Usually there was only one or two people on the site at a time, and even Chris Knight said to me that the internet sounded interesting to him, because you could send a message to someone without actually talking to them via telephone or meeting them in person. So in a very strange way, if you are a very shy person or have hermit tendencies, email is a great way to communicate with someone, because there is no face-to-face. There is no back and forth. There’s no conversation at all. It sort of makes sense if you think about it.

But this community really debated whether you could consider Chris Knight to be a hermit, because he stole, and that goes against the ideal of hermits. Now, there are no official rule books for hermits, by the way. It’s not baseball here. It’s not like you could do the replay and decide whether he’s a hermit or not a hermit. But they thought that anyone who invaded other people’s privacy or their lives didn’t deserve the lofty label of hermit, and Chris Knight himself said he didn’t care whether he was a hermit or not. He didn’t put a label at all on what he did, and putting a label on anything is a really worthless exercise. I mean I sometimes love talking with Chris Knight, because he always made me feel that even writing an entire book about him was just an egotistical trip on my part, and sometimes he’s like, “Oh, you’re going to take your thoughts and package them, and it will come and you’ll ask people to spend money to read it. Well, very, very good for you.”

Brett McKay: You mentioned Thoreau. He’s held as America’s prototypical hermit. When you brought up Thoreau with Chris, he said, “No, he’s a dilatant. He’s a phony.” Why did Knight have so much disdain for Thoreau?

Mike Finkel: Oh, man. I think that Walden is one of the most … I reread Walden doing this research for this book, and maybe I was too young when I read it the first time, because I was like, “All right. I’ll give Walden a shot. It’s a very difficult thing.” But, boy, I really found it to be beautifully written, and I’m a fan of Thoreau now. So I was like, of course, Walden’s Pond was in Massachusetts. New England, crotchety people, guys going off by themselves, and, of course, I’m going to compare you to Thoreau. I meant it as a compliment.

Chris Knight had such a humorously negative reaction to Thoreau. Now, let me just tell you a couple of things about Henry David Thoreau. First of all, Thoreau spent only two years in his cabin in Walden Pond. He walked into the town of Concord frequently. His mother did his laundry. He once had a dinner party that had 20 guests, and the worst thing Thoreau did, of course, was write Walden, and the reason why Chris Knight felt that Thoreau did not deserve to be a hermit is because when you write a book, you’re basically telling everyone in the world, “Look at me. Here I am. This is what I think.” Chris Knight didn’t care about anybody else. His back was totally turned to the world. He didn’t even write one sentence down his entire time in the woods, didn’t take one photo, didn’t draw any pictures. These were all for other people to see. Chris Knight just really wasn’t interested in anybody else, and he thought that anybody who went off by themselves to write a poem, or paint a picture, or do an opera, was really just spending time alone so that they could show off for the rest of the world, and Chris had no interest in that.

Brett McKay: As I was reading your book, reading about the history of hermits and being alone, and even Chris Knight, I thought it was interesting that being a hermit, both conceptually and practically requires other people. Right? They just said that these hermits in the past, they had people bring them food, make pilgrimages to check on them. Even Chris, even though he didn’t see people, he still depended on people and their cabins to provide food for him. It’s pretty much like this idea of the self-contained, self-reliant person is kind of a myth. We need other people.

Mike Finkel: I think you’re absolutely right. I mean there’s no shortage of contradictions in this tale, and even Chris Knight would nod and say that Chris Knight, of course, he relied on other people. He stole everything he needed to survive. In fact, when he was arrested after 27 years, the only thing in the world he had, that he could say were his that he didn’t steal were his eyeglasses.

In fact, the arresting officers were, also, disbelieving of his story. They found a high school photo of Chris Knight. He actually went to school in central Maine, not too far away from where he was arrested, and the high school yearbook was brought to them, and low and behold, there was Chris Knight in a high school yearbook at the age of 18 wearing the same set of glasses that he was arrested in at age 47, and when they saw that they were the same pair of glasses, both arresting officers said to me that there was something in their head that clicked that this guy was telling the truth. It would have been really, really complicated for a shy person not seeking publicity to make this all up. It just didn’t make sense that he would make this up, and the pair of glasses really was the moment when people realized that Chris Knight was telling the truth.

Brett McKay: Did Chris ever describe to you what it felt like being alone all those years?

Mike Finkel: He did, yeah, why, how and then what did it feel like, and I have to tell you, again, this is one of those topics that just defies imagination. Chris Knight, he read a lot. He even played a couple of old handheld video games that he stole. He had a handheld video game policy. He only stole them that were at least two generations old. He didn’t want to deprive any children of their Christmas presents, he said, and besides, in a couple of years, he’d be stealing them anyway.

But he listened to the radio a little bit. But for the most part, what Chris Knight did, what do you do for 27 years all by yourself? For the most part, what Chris Knight did was you and I would term nothing. He just sat there. But Chris Knight told me that he was never for an instant bored. In fact, he said that he didn’t really even understand the concept of boredom, and then what’s even more impressive, and I don’t think I could capture the poetry of Chris Knight as well as … He spoke very beautifully and I tried to capture it in the book, but I’ll paraphrase.

He said to me that he didn’t actually even feel alone. In fact, he told me, and this sentiment was repeated in various forms in dozens upon dozens of books written by hermits, religious and nonreligious alike. He said that rather than feeling alone, he felt absolutely and entirely connected to the rest of the universe, the world. There was not even a mirror in his camp, so he didn’t even know what he looked like. He said that after a very short period of time alone, he wasn’t entirely aware of where he ended and the forest began. He said he just felt intimately connected with everything and never lonely. The way he described it was … Frankly, it sort of gave me chills. It’s like I feel that people in this outside world, as opposed to Chris Knight’s world, where we have a billion video games, and a million books, and a lot of things to occupy our mind, people often express that they’re bored or have nothing to do, and Chris Knight without any of these distractions, never felt that for a second.

Brett McKay: So why is it that Chris Knight and these other hermits can feel that, and then we use solitude as punishment in our prisons? There’s research that says people basically go crazy when they’re alone like that. So what’s the difference? What’s going on there?

Mike Finkel: Right. As you mentioned, the harshest punishment in the United States penal system, besides the death penalty, is solitary confinement, and, in fact, Amnesty International has declared that spending more than two weeks in solitary confinement is torture. A huge percentage of prisoners that are in solitary confinement lose their mind and go crazy. Solitude is a very interesting state. Some people seek it and love it. Most people avoid it at all costs, and absolutely hate it. It is one of the reasons why it is fascinating.

When I talk about people finding solace and people finding joy, I’m talking about voluntary solitude. Involuntary solitude is practically torture, and it’s one of the reasons why the subject is extremely fascinating. Most of us just hate it.

There was a study conducted by the University of Virginia a couple of years ago in which they showed that about 60% of women and 35% of women would rather give themselves electric shocks than sit quietly with nothing to do for 15 minutes. We really don’t like to be alone with ourselves. Humans, one of the reasons most anthropologists consider humans to be the dominant species on the planet isn’t because we’re the fastest animal or the strongest animal, or because we have really big brains, but more importantly, we’re able to link them up and work together. We’re programmed to work together. Even in Genesis in the Bible, it said God did not want Adam to be alone. It was one of the first things God did was he can’t be alone.

To be alone voluntarily, for most of us, seems to go against everything we have ever felt or heard. But, like I said, those that love it, speak so highly of it, and talk about such rich experiences. This is voluntary aloneness. There have been 20 studies done around the world that examine the effects of solitude and quiet on humans, and every study has come up with the exact same conclusions, which is that time alone, time in nature, time by yourself makes you calmer. It makes you healthier. All the stress hormones are reduced. It makes you smarter. There are tests of memory and reading retention, and it makes you happier. Time alone, voluntary time alone is great for you. Humans are, what, our species is about two million years old, and for 99% of the time that we’ve been humans, we all lived in small groups of hunter gatherers, and spent a lot of time alone or in tiny groups, in quiet situations, and every single one of our senses is calibrated to that.

Technology changes very quickly. Evolution is very slow. Take a hike in the woods. All of us feel good about it. Why? Because that’s what all of our senses are calibrated to, being quiet in the woods. Not playing Nintendo.

Brett McKay: Right. 27 years Knight was alone, how did he eventually get caught? What changed?

Mike Finkel: So, as I mentioned, there was this legend that built up. There’s several hundred houses around these lakes, and people were missing steaks, their Stephen King novel, their flashlights, their batteries, their sleeping bag. But there were no smashed windows. There was no kicked in doors. Your TV is there. Your computer is there. Your jewelry is there. People were very confused.

But there was definitely something going on. When people examined their cabins very closely, they saw that sometimes the hasp on their window, the lock on their window was open, and there were file marks and even some file shavings, so someone had been inside, and the police had been called, and they couldn’t find it, and nobody knew was it a neighbor? Was it some Vietnam vet that was disgruntled? Was it a gang initiation? Was it two brothers that both owned cabins on a pond, thought the other was the one who was stealing. Nobody knew, and this went on for five, 10, 15, 20, 25 years, and became this legend, and the people around the lake gave the legend a name. They called it the North Pond Hermit, but they really didn’t know if there was a hermit. In fact, most people assumed no way would a guy be out there for that long. It was probably some neighbor, some gang initiation, some pranks, something.

Anyway, finally, after more than a quarter century and intermittent police searches, I mean really it just sort of fell between the cracks. There’s a lot of problems in central Maine, and somebody stealing hamburger meat and batteries just never made it to the number one problem for the police department. But a game warden named Terry Hughes, who lived in the area where this legend took place realized that this was not the Loch Ness Monster or the Himalayan Yeti. There was something happening, and damn it, he was going to solve it.

Terry Hughes is a great guy, but when he puts his mind to something, he puts his mind to it. He contacted Homeland Security, and I won’t get into all the details, but he put electric eyes around in the forest, and he had silent alarms that would ring his cell phone in the middle of the night, and finally, after 27 years, Terry Knight caught to the North Pond Hermit red-handed stealing some hamburger meat and cheese from a local summer camp that was closed for the season, and the 27 year reign of the hermit came to an end.

Brett McKay: What was that like for Knight to have his reign in the woods ended?

Mike Finkel: Well, Knight was an extremely cautious thief, but he knew that every time he left his camp in the woods, and even in his camp in the woods, which, by the way, was on private property, a 200 acre lot, he knew that his time in the woods could come to an end at any moment, and he sort of sensed it. Over the 27 years, he saw technology improve. First there was no security system. Then there was these very large clunky cameras, and then they got so small that they could hide inside smoke detectors, and he knew that technology was getting better. Locks were getting better, and that he hoped to stay out there all his life, but while he was certainly startled and shocked, there was always a piece of his mind … As I mentioned, he was a very bright person. There was no part of him that thought, “This is a sure thing that I can live out here forever.” Let’s just say he was stoic. He was certainly not happy, but realized that this was a possibility.

Terry Hughes, the straight up law and order man, has spent a decade in the Marines before he spent 18 years as a forest game warden, had a very, very interesting reaction, a man who did most of the arrest. There was another officer named Diane Vance, who was also involved. But Terry Hughes did most of the heavy lifting. He had a very interesting reaction to Chris Knight. Terry Hughes is an extraordinarily able woodsman, has found many lost hikers, children that were lost in the woods. Has just a sixth sense to be able to read the woods so well looking for any snapped branches or even a trace of a partial footprint, can notice these things, and never was able to find Chris Knight. The night of his arrest, he asked Chris Knight to show him his camp in the woods, and Chris Knight led him to it, and Terry Hughes followed Chris Knight step for step, and is the only known person ever to have witnessed Chris Knight walk in the woods, and he watched Chris Knight walk absolutely silently through this crazily dense forest, stepping on roots that he had stepped on for 20 years, moving, bending, twisting, striding, didn’t need a flashlight, didn’t break a branch, had memorized the patterns of branches on hundreds of trees. You had to duck and weave, and brought him to his magical site between the elephant rocks, and Terry Hughes said to me, “It was possibly the most extraordinary event he had ever witnessed in his life.” He thought he was a great woodsman, and then he basically met the king woodsman of all the world, and told me that here is a law and order guy that just arrested someone who confessed to breaking into homes a thousand times, a thousand felonies, and he actually felt a little bit bad for arresting the hermit.

Brett McKay: I mean what’s Chris Knight doing now?

Mike Finkel: What do you do with a guy like Chris Knight? I think one of the things that, also, interested me about this story is that Chris Knight is not clearly completely crazy, and if someone is crazy, we have mental hospitals for them, and Chris Knight is clearly not a violent and evil criminal, and if you are that way, then we have jails for you. Well, what do you do with a person who is not a criminal, and not clearly mentally insane, but just doesn’t fit into the world? What do we do with that person, and the answer is we don’t have any spot for that person. We just don’t know what to do with them.

What do you do with Chris Knight. There was a huge debate. Without getting into too many details, he ended up spending seven months in the county jail. Now, even one break-in, as I mentioned, one unauthorized break-in can get you 10 years in the state penitentiary. He confessed to one thousand of them, so it was possible that he could have spent his entire life locked up in a cell, but even the District Attorney realized that someone who had just spent 27 years completely free in the woods, being locked in a cage with another person, whether or not he deserved it, was not a just thing, and he spent seven months, and was given an extremely harsh probation, that if he broke it, he would spend seven years in jail, and Chris Knight observed his probation to the very letter, and never made a tiny misstep.

Where is he now? Well, Chris Knight gave me the most valuable thing he owns in all the world, which was his story, and he asked for nothing in return. He did not want me to pay him. He told his story, because he realized that he would be hounded by journalists probably all his life. I was one of 500 journalists that requested an interview, and as far as I know, he only spoke to me. I’m very, very fortunate, and I will remain grateful to Chris Knight for sharing his story with me for all my life. Thank you, Chris.

He told me his story. He realized that he would be hounded all his life, and if he told me his story that he could use it as a rampart, as a wall, as a defense. If you want to read about Chris Knight, take a look at the book, but please leave him alone. He told me a story, and then he said, “Please, Mike, we’re not friends. There was no phony journalist subject friendship going on here.” He is a real true hermit, Chris Knight. When he was done, he said, “I really don’t want to see you again. I’m done talking to you,” and while I would love to receive a letter or a call from Chris Knight one day, I have left him completely alone. We’re not in contact, so I’m not exactly sure where he is, but to the best of my knowledge, he’s still living in central Maine, has carved out … He’s just truly a survivor. Has carved out a very quiet life for himself, and as far as I know, is not being disturbed by the outside world.

Brett McKay: So writing this story and interacting with Chris all these years, what did you learn about solitude, and did you find yourself looking for more of it in your life after interacting with Chris?

Mike Finkel: Yeah. I sort of touched on this during our conversation about how our senses are calibrated to the woods, and how it seems like we avoid being by ourselves at all costs, literally to the point that if we have an extra 90 seconds, we will fish out our phone and send a text message or view our Twitter feed. We feel this crazy need to be in constant connection.

I have a weird idea, and it’s possibly the simplest suggestion that anyone could ever make. I bet you I’m not alone here in thinking that the tone, the tempo, the discourse, the public, what’s going on in society right now seems a little bit crazy. I think we are tearing ourselves apart. I think that it doesn’t matter where you are in the political spectrum, I think that we are really, really feeling … Anger comes before any sort of understanding or compromise. I think we’re all going crazy, to be honest with you.

I have an idea. This is something that I have been doing. It would be wonderful if every single person who is listening to this spends … I’m not saying 27 years alone. I’m saying 10 minutes. The next time you have nothing to do, do nothing. Don’t pull out your phone. Don’t call anyone. Don’t check your email. Don’t do anything. Just be there quietly. I don’t care if you’re in the middle of a city street, or in your bedroom, or in a city park, don’t do anything for just a couple of minutes. Try it. How can that be a hard thing to do? I’m just asking people to do nothing. I’m not asking you to go and take some crazy meditation class, or lift weights every morning for two hours, or take yoga. Just do nothing. I think if everybody in the entire world did nothing for 10 or 15 minutes a day, the temperature of the society, this craziness that’s going on would be decreased by an essential margin. We might all actually get alone a little better. It’s just my idea.

Brett McKay: I like that, do nothing. Well, Michael, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go learn more about the book? After you guys read this book, you’re going to want to go out in the Maine woods by yourself, literally.

Mike Finkel: Yeah. Take a long weekend, and maybe take this book alone. It’s called The Stranger in the Woods.

Brett McKay: Yeah. Take a long weekend.

Mike Finkel: I have a website. I go by Michael Finkel, a very funny rhyming name, so If you’re inspired to, there’s a contact tab. Send me a note. It takes me sometimes a little while to get back in touch, but I answer everybody, even if you want to say something negative, positive, questions. Feel free to get me on my website,

Brett McKay: Michael Finkel, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Mike Finkel: Thank you for having me on. It really is a fun and rich topic to discuss. I appreciate it.

Brett McKay: My guest today is Michael Finkel. He’s the author of the book, The Stranger in the Woods, The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit. Find that book on and bookstores everywhere. You can, also, find out more information about Michael’s work at Also, check out our show notes at AOM.IS/Hermit. You can find links to resources, and we can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at If you enjoyed the podcast and got something out of it, I’d appreciate it if you would take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. That helps out a lot, and if you’ve already done that, please share the show with your friends and family. The more you talk about the show, the more the merrier around here.

As always, thank you for your continued support, and until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.

The Spiritual Disciplines: Fasting

Welcome back to our series on the spiritual disciplines, which explores exercises that can be used to train the soul. The purposes and practices of these disciplines are approached in such a way that they can be adapted across belief systems.

“By overloading the body with food you strangle the soul and render it less active.” —Seneca

In our last installment of this series, we explored the spiritual discipline of simplicity, defining its essence as having a clear purpose in life, and then prioritizing the spending of time and resources in accordance with it. While we listed several ways of keeping one’s priorities in their proper places, today we discuss one of the best — a practice that also constitutes a spiritual discipline of its own: fasting.

The discipline of fasting dates to ancient times, is common to nearly every religion in the world (as well as philosophical systems like Stoicism), and is mentioned in the Bible more times than baptism. There’s a reason for this prevalence and universality.

Fasting is the most concrete and viscerally embodied of the spiritual disciplines, and its intersection of the physical and the metaphysical produces uniquely potent, perceptible, senses-arousing effects that bridge the often too-wide gap between body and soul.

In recent times, fasting has become popular for its health effects alone, but when also practiced as a spiritual discipline, it can unlock far more possibilities than can be read on a scale.

Today, we’ll dive into how to get the most out of fasting — using it as a vital tune up not only for the health of the body, but the fitness of the spirit.

What Is Fasting?

Fasting is voluntarily abstaining from something for a limited amount of time; it’s not fasting if you plan on giving up the thing for good, though at the end of a fast, you may decide not to reincorporate it back into your life. Depending on what is being fasted from, fasts can last from days to weeks.

Some people will fast from all solid food, but allow themselves to drink juice. Others will fast from certain kinds of food; Eastern Orthodox Christians, for example, fast each Wednesday and Friday from meat, fish, dairy, olive oil, and wine.

You can also fast from non-nutritive things, like technology or certain behavioral habits.

Most basically and traditionally, however, fasting involves abstaining from all food and caloric drink (sometimes water as well). And while we will touch on non-dietary-related fasting below, this is the form that serves as the focus of this piece.


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Fasting has gotten a lot of attention in recent years for the advantages it offers to physical health. While research on the subject is still relatively new, fasting may help you lose weight, normalize insulin levels, boost the immune system, increase human growth hormone, spur cell regeneration, and extend longevity. In giving your body a break from processing food, fat stores are fed upon and cells get a chance to go into repair mode — old and damaged ones are destroyed and new cells are generated. As Fr. Thomas Ryan puts it in The Sacred Art of Fasting: abstaining from food “gives the body a chance to renew itself. It is a time in which the body burns its rubbish. It’s like house-cleaning day.”

By sort of “taking out the trash,” fasting seems to have a vitalizing, balancing effect on the body’s hormonal and metabolic systems, and practitioners have reported a sharpening in mental functions as well.

While the spiritual discipline of fasting isn’t practiced primarily for reasons of physical health, these benefits shouldn’t be entirely separated from its purpose either. As Ryan explains, the discipline integrates benefits to both body and soul:

“It doesn’t have to be either/or . . .  It can and should be both, because we are not just bodies and we are not just spirits. We are embodied spirits. Enspirited flesh. What is good for me physically is good for me. And what is good for me spiritually is good for me. There’s only one ‘me’ to which it all comes back.”

That being said, it’s important to understand that in practicing fasting as a spiritual discipline, the physical is secondary, and serves as a vehicle to the spiritual; as Ryan puts it, “We manipulate the physical to gain access to the spiritual”; fasting “provides physical sensations that point to spiritual realities.” The hunger of stomach is designed to put us in touch with the hunger of soul.

What’s interesting, in fact, is the way the physical benefits of fasting symbolically mirror its spiritual ones; in the same way that fasting balances the body’s hormones and renews its cells, it recalibrates the soul’s priorities and repairs places in one’s character that have become damaged and diseased. In fasting, you both purify the body, and clarify the soul.

Fasting ultimately doesn’t rise to the level of a spiritual discipline unless you intentionally approach it as such. If you fast with spiritual aims, you’ll still automatically garner the physical benefits; but if you fast without spiritual intentions, the effects will extend only to the body, without significantly touching the soul.

While the specific spiritual aims of fasting vary by one’s faith tradition, there are many purposes that cut across schools of belief and philosophy:

Teaches That Discomfort ≠ Bad

Fasting is arguably the most countercultural of the spiritual disciplines. In a time of unprecedented conveniences — when every atmosphere is climate-controlled, food can be ordered with the press of a button, entertainment can be perfectly curated to personal taste, and we feel entitled to satisfy every desire immediately — anything uncomfortable seems like a wholly unnecessary annoyance. We expect to be ever full, ever satiated.

Yet fullness isn’t always good, and emptiness isn’t always bad. The constant craving for pleasure can be detrimental, and occasional discomfort can be exactly what we need.

Richard Foster writes of coming to this insight in The Celebration of Discipline:

“The first truth that was revealed to me in my early experiences in fasting was my lust for good feelings. It is certainly not a bad thing to feel good, but we must be able to bring that feeling to an easy place where it does not control us.”

Culturally, we have come to an understanding that the pain of exercise is necessary if we want to improve our physical health. But we rarely carry this acceptance into other areas of life, where it is just as true. Sometimes, almost always in fact, you have to make yourself uncomfortable in order to get better.

Sometimes you have to empty yourself to be filled.

Strengthens the Will

“More than any other Discipline fasting reveals the things that control us.” —Lynne M. Baab, Fasting

The will of the spirit is a muscle very much like those of the body; the more it is exercised, the stronger it gets. And fasting gives our willpower muscle an incomparable workout that not only builds its strength concerning what we consume, but in all areas of life.

This is where fasting ties into simplicity. To live the simple life, one must keep his purpose-driven priorities — his loves — in order. The challenge is that baser desires constantly seek to assert themselves over nobler ideals.

Fasting provides concrete, visceral practice in choosing higher principles over lower appetites. In feeling physical hunger, but disregarding its pull, you teach yourself that you’re the boss of your body — that you don’t take marching orders from your belly. You teach yourself that you’re the master of your appetites, rather than their slave.

In fasting, we have to face down our appetite for food, but this hunger stands in for all our other gnawing appetites. In overcoming what seems like an insatiable desire to eat, we come to realize that other desires that seemingly demand to be answered now, can in fact be postponed. We come to realize we can do without. We can control the things that seek to control us.

The self-restraint built by fasting from food becomes an aid in keeping all our priorities straight, helping us get a better grip on the constant battle between short-term pleasures and long-term goals. It’s a concrete practice that helps develop that nebulous thing called character.

Intensifies Prayer

“In every culture and religion in history, fasting has been an instinctive and essential language in our communication with the Divine.” —Fr. Thomas Ryan

While this purpose for fasting obviously only applies to theists, it’s quite central for those who do believe in God; in religious scriptures, whenever fasting is mentioned, it’s almost always connected with prayer.

Fasting intersects with and intensifies prayer in several ways.

First, accompanying prayer with fasting shows sincere intention. As Lynne M. Baab puts it, “The fast is somehow a declaration: This thing I’m praying for is so important that I’m willing to set aside my every life — including food — to focus on praying for it.”

Second, spiritual fasters will often choose a particular purpose for their fast (a question in need of guidance; a loved one in need of healing) and then use the hunger pangs induced by fasting as a reminder to pray for it; whenever they notice the gnaw of their appetite, they offer up a supplication. Baab compares this practice to “tying a ribbon around your finger to remember God.” In this way, fasting increases the number of times you pray throughout the day.

Physical hunger also intensifies the urgency of one’s prayers. If fasting “provides physical sensations that point to spiritual realities,” the desire for food heightens the desire to make known one’s deeper needs. Petitioning becomes pleading.

Finally, because fasting removes the need to eat, the time one would have used for meals can be used for prayers, which further amplifies their frequency and focus.

What effect do these fasting-produced intensifications have on the efficacy of prayer? The answer to that depends on your theology.

Some would say that the sacrifice of fasting can “release” a blessing or answer that otherwise wouldn’t have been granted — that, as in Jesus’ parable of the woman and the unjust judge, God will listen to those who show persistent effort. Others will say that you cannot, as Baab puts it, “manipulate God into doing what we want.” The petitioner is blessed instead in simply receiving guidance in how to pray, and finding a deeper connection to God through deeper prayer.

Whether or not fasting-strengthened prayer changes God’s receptivity to supplications, both sides agree that it changes the receptivity of the supplicator to God’s guidance. The physical emptiness of fasting clears the channels of communication so that spiritual intuitions can more readily be discerned. As Ryan puts it, fasting is “an action that renews contact with God, like removing the rust and corrosion from a car battery to enable the current to flow more freely.”

If you’re struggling with making a decision, rather than just praying about it, try accompanying those prayers with a fast.

Establishes Rhythms Between Absence and Abundance

In many religions, feasts are supposed to be preceded by fasts: Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians are asked to fast on Good Friday before the celebration of Easter; Jews are to fast for 25 hours for Yom Kippur before ending the holy day with a large, festive meal. And the converse is true; Christians may feast on “Fat Tuesday” (aka Mardi Gras) before the fasting of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, and Jews feast the afternoon before the fast of Yom Kippur begins.

While devout adherents of these religions continue to keep up these practices today, rather than participating in a rhythmic cycle of fasting and feasting, most modern people stay in constant feast mode. We stay pretty stuffed year round, and then on holidays, try to get really stuffed.

There’s no rhythm in this undeviating, linear state of satiation — no texture to our days, no ying and yang to our schedules, no real anticipation of our holidays.

As a result, our feasts lose much of their satisfaction.

You’ve probably heard of the “hedonic treadmill” — the idea that while new things give us a lot of enjoyment, we quickly adapt to them, and their pleasure diminishes. The only way to get the old “high” back is to run after more and more. But of course the cycle just repeats itself, and we end up stuck in an endless, unsatisfying wheel of desire.

Fasting interrupts and re-sets the hedonic treadmill. It restores an anticipation for eating that has long grown dull. In abstention, our normally saturated senses get a chance to recalibrate, so that when we eat again, the food has a bit of its “newness” back, and tastes better than ever. As the old saying goes, “hunger is the best spice.”

This Thanksgiving, instead of sitting down to dinner already slightly full, and then eating until you’re buttons-bursting full, try not eating for 24 hours before the meal. Fast before a feast, and you’ll discover a rhythm that makes special occasions actually feel special.

Fosters Gratitude and Humility

“drawing from the teachings of great men, I shall give you also a lesson: Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest of fare . . .  that it may be a test of yourself instead of a mere hobby. Then, I assure you, my dear Lucilius, you will leap for joy when filled with a pennyworth of food.” —Seneca

Speaking of Thanksgiving, fasting can not only increase your pleasure in eating, but also makes you more grateful for your food. Go without it for a time, and you’re less likely to take it for granted.

Fasting fosters humility in other ways as well. It’s a good chance to reflect on your mortality and finitude — your weakness, neediness, and brokenness. You’re a fragile creature that relies on the constant intake of external sustenance to function. Go for several weeks without it, and you’re dead. You’re not all-powerful. You’re not completely self-sustaining.

For a theist, this feeling of fasting-induced humility can extend to reflecting on their dependence on God as the ultimate source of life. For this reason, religions have often connected fasting with repentance — it’s an outward sign of inner abasement.

Gets You Out of a Rut and Re-Asserts Your Humanity

Despite how sophisticated, complex, interesting, and intellectual we typically consider ourselves to be, our behaviors can be awfully Pavlovian sometimes. Hear someone pop open a can of soda and we want one. Smell something cooking and we’re suddenly hungry. Like clockwork, our stomachs start growling at noon, because that’s when we always eat lunch.

And those are just our habits around food. Then there’s our smartphones, which can make us feel like rats in a lab who learn to press a lever to get their treats. Hear a notification, check your phone, hear a notification, check your phone. Press the lever, press the lever, press the lever. Even when our phone isn’t pinging, when we see it on our dresser, we’ll automatically make a detour to check the screen.

Even when our behaviors aren’t driven by reptilian instinct, we can still get stuck in some pretty fixed, and not always advantageous, routines.

Buddhist “Forest Monks” consider fasting to be one of the “dhutanga” austerities — a group of 13 ascetic practices. Dhutanga means “invigorate” or “shake up” and that’s exactly what fasting (whether from food or technology) can do to the de-humanizing ruts you fall into. It disrupts your routine in a life-affirming way.

You feel a hunger pang, and you ignore it. You always eat at noon, but today you’re not going to eat at all. You hear your phone ping, and you disregard it. You see your phone on your dresser, and you walk on by. As Baab writes, “fasting communicates a profound freedom. I don’t have to do things the same way, day after day. I am not a slave to my habits. I can change things around, I can try new things.”

Humans are the only creatures able to decide to shut down a lower instinct to reach for a higher purpose.

So fast to remember you’re a man, not a mouse.

Builds Solidarity With the Suffering, and Within a Community 

The worst part about having a friend or loved one who’s going through a hard time is the helplessness and impotence you feel as a bystander to their pain and suffering. Beyond offering words of encouragement, making them a meal, and sending your thoughts and prayers, there’s not a whole lot you can do.

Fasting at least adds a little sincerity and oomph to those ubiquitous thoughts and prayers. By adopting a little voluntary hardship, you also allow yourself to feel a tiny bit of the suffering someone is going through, which makes your empathy a little more visceral and real, and tends to keep the person more at the top of your mind.

Fasting isn’t just something that can help organize one’s personal anxieties into a concrete action; it can also mobilize a community that wishes to help. When someone is in need, groups of loved ones or church congregations will sometimes decide to all fast and pray for the person on the same day. Even if the fast has no metaphysical effect on the condition of the person going through a difficulty, the knowledge that a bunch of folks were willing to move beyond “thoughts and prayers” and actually sacrifice something, sends a powerful message of love and support. At the same time, being united in a purpose, and sharing in a little suffering themselves, brings the community of fasters together as well.

As Baab reports, there was actually a time in this country when fasting was something of a communal, civic duty:

“In 1774, when the British Parliament ordered an embargo on the Port of Boston, the legislative body of the State of Virginia called for a day of public humiliation [humility], prayer, and fasting. George Washington wrote in his journal that he fasted that day. In 1798, when the United States was on the verge of war with France, John Adams proclaimed a day of solemn humiliation, prayer, and fasting. During the War of 1812, the two houses of Congress passed a joint resolution calling for a day of public humiliation, prayer, and fasting.

During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln called three times for a day of national humiliation, prayer, and fasting. Lincoln encouraged fasting and prayer both in places of worship and in homes.”

These national days of fasting were aimed at petitioning for divine protection and guidance, fortifying the character of citizens for the challenge at hand, and creating solidarity amongst them.

Evokes Sympathy (and Charitable Giving) for the Poor

While most of us in the modern Western world have enough — too much — to eat each day, there are still people around the world, and in our own country, who do not.

Fasting fosters a sense of solidarity with these needy and often forgotten folks; by experiencing a little temporary hunger yourself, you may feel more sympathy for those who experience such pangs on a regular basis. The idea is not just to feel sorry for the poor, however, but to let this sympathy move you to action. Indeed, nearly every religion encourages the giving of alms as part of the discipline of fasting.

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Most religions have certain guidelines for how “official” fasts of the faith are to be carried out. But most also encourage their adherents to practice personal fasts outside proscribed holy days and other obligatory times.

Whether you’re religious and looking to begin your own fasts, or not religious but want to give the discipline of fasting a try, the following tips will help you make the practice a successful and edifying habit:

Decide the Parameters of Your Fast

These include exactly what you’ll be fasting from, and for how long.

For a traditional fast, you’ll be giving up food and caloric beverages. You may also decide to give up water too.

Research indicates that 16 hours seems to be about the minimum you have to fast to get some of the benefits fasting accrues to physical health. So that’s like stopping eating at 8 PM the first day, and then not eating again until noon the next day; you basically just skip breakfast. While this kind of “intermittent fasting” is easy enough to do every day, and good for the body, it’s not strenuous enough to have much of a spiritual effect. It can be a good way to dip your toes into fasting, however, as it will help stabilize your blood sugar so that longer fasts become easier.

Even if you’re a beginner and haven’t had any such practice with fasting, you should be fine jumping into a 24-hour fast in which you give up two meals: stop eating after dinner and start your fast; then skip breakfast and lunch the next day, breaking your fast with your next dinner. Keep in mind that while exercising on a day you’re fasting is possible, it’s going to make your hunger a lot more acute and your fast harder to keep, so you may want to fast on a day that you’ll be less active.

I’d also recommend that the beginner faster continue to drink water and other non-caloric beverages (a necessity if you’re exercising that day). I personally don’t find any added benefit to abstaining from water during a fast; it just makes me feel terrible instead of spiritual, and some caffeine can make it easier to keep from eating. Keep in mind that artificially-sweetened beverages can kick off your salivation for food, however.

I personally do a 24-hour fast about once a week, but even doing one once a month has been shown to produce the health benefits mentioned above.

Once you’ve gotten 24-hour, food-only fasts under your belt, you may want to experiment with longer fasts, or also abstaining from water. Use practical wisdom with your fasts, and of course talk to a doctor about any medical issues that may make fasting non-viable for you.

If you do have a health issue that prevents you from abstaining from all food, consider fasting by abstaining only from certain foods, or take a non-dietary fast.

You can in fact “fast” from anything in your life that’s taking up more space, attention, power, or influence than you’d like, and subsequently disordering your loves; consider fasting from anything that’s detracting from your higher priorities and needs to be rebalanced in your life.

This includes:

  • Any and all devices with screens (television; smartphone)
  • Sports or hobbies
  • Talking
  • Social media (or the internet altogether)
  • News
  • Music (altogether, or a certain kind)

During a limited period of abstention you can assess the role the thing you’re fasting from plays in your life. How much do you miss it? How much do you really need it? Is its absence adding to your life?

After this assessment period, you can decide how/if to re-introduce the habit into your life. If you find your life was better off without it, you may decide to give it up for good. Even if you do re-incorporate the habit, regularly fasting from it will help you practice the behavior with greater moderation.

Dedicate Your Fast to a Spiritual Purpose

As we said at the start, you won’t get much spiritual benefit from a fast if you don’t go into it actively seeking such. None of the purposes outlined above will manifest themselves unless you intentionally focus and reflect on them during your fast. It’s like going for a run; it can be a spiritual experience if you want it to be, but if that’s not your intention, it will just be a run; the mindset you bring to the practice matters.

So the first step to a successful fast is knowing your purpose going into it. You can dedicate your fast to one of the general purposes above, like becoming more grateful or strengthening your will. Or your purpose can be more specific, like getting an insight to a question you have or praying for someone who is sick. One reason to fast we haven’t mentioned yet is to express grief — fasting and mourning often went hand-in-hand in ancient times. You can also fast on the anniversary of a loss — it can make the remembrance more visceral and embodied, and it can just feel right to remain physically empty to honor the time someone you loved was taken out of your life.

As you open a fast, take a couple minutes to reflect on the purpose you’ll be dedicating it to. If you pray, tell God of your intentions and ask for guidance, discernment, insight, strength, etc. during your fast. At the end of the fast, bring it to a close with another time of reflection or prayer, contemplating how you felt during the fast and if your learned anything from it.

Follow Strategies That Will Help You Stay the Course and Make Fasting a Cheerful, Even Pleasurable Discipline

You may have tried fasting before, and found that rather than attaining zen, you were just cranky as all get out. Maybe you felt angry and impatient, and threw in the towel early.

Fasting is supposed to be a little difficult and uncomfortable — that’s part of its raison d’etre. But it can also be very doable to stick with, and even pleasurable in its own way. (Kind of like a tough workout hurts so good.)

For help in sticking with fasting, and making it a satisfying experience, employ these strategies:

Every time you feel a hunger pang, reflect and/or pray about your purpose. Let your fast be that ribbon tied around your finger. Every time you feel hungry, instead of reaching for food, use the moment to engage with why you’re fasting.

Stay away from food if you can, and use meal times for spiritual practice. While being around food and turning it down strengthens the will, try not to tempt yourself beyond what you can bear. Hanging out in a kitchen while cookies bake, or sitting down at a table where everyone else is chowing down, is going to make it harder for you to stick with your fast.

If it’s possible, stay away from food-filled situations, and use the time you’ve freed up by skipping meals to practice some other spiritual disciplines — seek solitude, pray, meditate, study, and, of course, reflect on the purpose of your fast.

Expect, and brush off, “clockwork” hunger pains. If you eat around the same times every day, your body will start releasing hunger-inducing hormones as those times approach in anticipation of the expected meal. When you feel these pangs, realize you’re not really that hungry, and that your body is just acting out of instinct. In fact, occasionally disrupting these patterns with a fast is part of what makes fasting healthifying, and remembering that fact can be motivating.

Repeat mantras to yourself when you’re tempted to give in. When hunger seems to be getting the best of you, repeat some mantras like these, that will remind you of your purpose:

  • I’m the boss of my body
  • I’m not a slave to my stomach
  • I don’t take marching orders from my belly
  • It’s trash day for my body
  • Man does not live by bread alone

Remember that billions of people do this all the time. If you’re new to fasting, it can feel like a big, nearly impossible challenge. Just remember that tons of people do this on a regular basis. Mormons fast once a month. Muslims fast for the entire month of Ramadan.

You can do this.

Read the Other Articles in the Series

An Introduction 
Study & Self-Examination 
Solitude & Silence

10 Things That Will Put Hair on Your Chest

10 things that put hair on your chest

When I was a boy, whenever there was a food or activity that I didn’t want to partake of or participate in, my dad, like most dads in America, would tell me, “It’ll put hair on your chest!”

When you’re an eight-year-old boy, you intuitively understand that one of the things that makes you a boy and not a man is the fact that you don’t have body hair. So the idea that you could consume some gross food or do some unpleasant thing and instantly sprout chest hair, thus getting one step closer to manhood, was intriguing.

My dad’s claims were all the more believable because the man has a chest rug that would put Tom Selleck, Pierce Brosnan, and Sean Connery to shame. My eight-year-old logic was thus: “Dad says this gross stuff will put hair on my chest. Dad does/uses this stuff. Dad’s chest is really hairy. Therefore, it will, undoubtedly, put hair on my chest, too.”

Of course, my dad (like all dads) was joking when he said “It will put hair on your chest!” But when you’re just an impressionable lad, you don’t have a finally tuned sense of humor and you take everything your parents say at face value. So like many boys, I fell for this ruse over and over again. But, alas, no matter how much horseradish sauce I ate or how hard I worked in the yard, I never grew a single pre-pubescent chest hair.

In fifth grade I finally realized I’d been conned after I watched that video about puberty (I think it was called “Greg’s Story”?) that they showed in health classes in the early 1990s. That day I learned that testosterone and genetics determined chest hair growth, not eating or doing unpleasant things.

My dad had his go-to things that he claimed would put hair on your chest. I was curious if they matched up with what other people heard from their fathers. So I asked our followers on Twitter what their dads said would make them more hirsute. I was surprised by the consensus of the answers; this is apparently a well-established cultural custom.

Below we highlight ten of the most common things we were told as boys would put hair on our chests (but actually don’t). We hope it will help further the tradition of benign parental cons (i.e., Santa Claus, tooth fairy, “your face will stay that way if you make it for too long,” etc., etc.).

Black Coffee

black coffee put hair on your chest

My dad was and is a big coffee drinker. And he always takes it black. To an adult, coffee smells and tastes divine, but to a seven-year-old, it smells and tastes wretched. When I snuck a sip of my dad’s brew and told him it tasted awful, he, of course, told me that cups of hot joe put hair on your chest. But only black coffee, mind you. He was very explicit about that. Add cream and sugar and you’re destined to have a chest like a Ken doll.

Tabasco Sauce (or Anything Spicy)

tabasco sauce will put hair on your chest

Many folks reported that their fathers told them Tabasco sauce or spicy peppers would fertilize their pectoral hair. My dad did the same. Nothing happened to my chest, but my face did get really red and sweaty.

Bread Crust

bread crust will put hair on your chest

Like many kids, I’d avoid eating bread crusts. But according to dads across the country, bread crusts contain nutrients that will put hair on your chest. Maybe they were on to something. There’s been a marked decrease in testosterone levels that coincides with the rise of crustless, ready-to-eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Young boys are being denied the crust nutrients that will help them grow chest hair. Call your congressman! This is a travesty!

Hard Work

hard work will put hair on your chest

Tom Sawyer duped his friends into whitewashing his Aunt Polly’s fence by telling them how much fun it was; dads dupe their boys to do their chores by telling them it will put hair on their chests. Hard work — particularly down and dirty manual labor — was a common chest hair-promising activity amongst our Twitter followers. It’s a trap!


wheaties will put hair on your chest

Just as putting on PF Flyers would make you run faster and jump higher, Wheaties promised to improve athletic performance immediately after consuming a giant bowl of their bran flakes. My dad also told me that the Breakfast of Champions would put gold medal-caliber hair on my chest. Despite going a month straight eating Wheaties every morning back when I was ten, I still couldn’t do a single pull-up and my chest was still silky smooth. Thanks a lot Walter Payton (and dad)!


whisky will put hair on your chest

Many men were told that whisky would put hair on their chests. The jolt it gives you as it goes down pushes the chest hair out. This is a proven scientific phenomenon. It’s why ladies shouldn’t drink whisky. Google it.


spinach will put hair on your chest

Spinach, while packed with nutrients, tastes a little bitter and is unpleasantly soggy when cooked. No wonder kids don’t like the stuff. But I held my nose and swallowed it whole based on the promise it would put hair on my chest and would help me grow disgustingly disproportioned forearms like Popeye. Alas, my spinach eating was in vain.

Horseradish Sauce

horseradish sauce will put hair on your chest

My dad was a fan of the horseradish sauce. When I tried it for the first time as a boy, I got that walloped-in-the-nose feeling you get when you eat the stuff. Vowing never again to eat horseradish sauce, my dad encouraged me to change my mind, saying it would, of course, put hair on my chest. So I continued to dip my carrots in it. Apparently my dad wasn’t alone in saying horseradish sauce would grow your chest carpet. This was one of the most common items our Twitter followers responded with. While I didn’t grow chest hair from eating horseradish sauce as a boy, I did develop a love of this punchy cream.

Worcestershire Sauce

worcestershire sauce will put hair on your chest

Worcestershire sauce is a fermented liquid made up of (among other things) anchovies, vinegar, onions, and garlic. In other words, to a kid, it’s an exotic, slightly intimidating elixir, and of course, a chest hair grower. This is a form of supposed chest hair Rogaine I actually enjoyed. Worcestershire’s got a nice, savory, umami taste which makes it great for adding to meats. Trying to amplify the sauce’s chest hair-growing abilities, my brother and I experimented with making a concoction of lemon juice, tomato juice, and pepper, which tasted gross to us, but is just the the kind of cocktail John Wayne enjoyed.


buttermilk will put hair on your chest

This was a new one to me, but several people said that their dads told them buttermilk would put hair on their chests. The tart, acidic taste of buttermilk likely made kids turn up their noses to it, thus causing dads to nudge them to drink it by affirming its follicle-stimulating effects. Doesn’t work to give you that Connery-esque chest carpet, unfortunately, but it sure makes a mean pancake.

How to Make the Perfect Breakfast Taco

homemade breakfast taco

I’m sorry biscuits. I’ve been cheating on you. No longer am I stuffing you full of bacon, eggs, and cheese, or slathering you with sawmill gravy. I’ve found a new love — something faster, easier, and dare I say, a wee bit healthier.

I’m talking about breakfast tacos.

Truth be told, breakfast tacos are not a new phenomenon, especially for those from the Lone Star State. Such sustenance has served Texans for nearly a century. And though you can now find versions on menus from coast to coast, I still believe that Texans (and those near) make some of the best A.M. tacos you will ever have.

In the same way that one should learn the craft of making great barbecue from a pitmaster, I believe you should also call in an expert when it comes time to make breakfast tacos. I’m not talking about a famous chef, or even a great cook for that matter. Allow me to introduce you to my friend, and life-long resident of Austin, TX — Mr. Colin Newberry — a man who eats his breakfast tacos daily, and sometimes nightly, scoring his repast from gas station haunts to haute restaurants. Here I’d like to share a bit of his wisdom and let him wax poetic on the beauty that is the breakfast taco:

If you have never heard of, or considered a taco for breakfast, there are two misconceptions to dispel first and foremost. First is that the breakfast taco is served on a crunchy corn tortilla shell — it is not. While regular tacos vary between soft and hard tortillas, breakfast tacos are uniformly soft. Second, a breakfast taco’s soft tortilla is almost always flour, rarely corn, and never, despite Taco Bell’s advertising to the contrary, a fried egg or other abomination. The reason for this is simple: while a corn tortilla undoubtedly has more flavor, it comes at the expense of much needed durability. And if a breakfast taco must be anything, it must be a durable, portable foodstuff.

My first memories of truly spectacular breakfast tacos came on Sundays working at my dad’s gas station while in high school. As a treat for giving up a weekend day, I was allowed up to $7 to buy lunch. This left me with a few options. One was to pick up an order of Pete’s Tantalizing Tacos from Maudies — at that time a small one-stop taco shop tucked between a liquor store and laundromat that now is one of Austin’s largest local restaurant brands. I still swear by Maudie’s queso and enchiladas, but their breakfast tacos too often had potatoes in them, an unnecessary doubling of starch, throwing off the balance of egg, dairy, and meat wrapped in the tortilla.

The other option was Porfirio. Porfirio was the man who drove the roach coach aptly named Porfirio’s Tacos. He would actually stop by the gas station, and he did this well before food trailers and mobile vending options took over Austin, and the rest of America. But I tell you this — Porfirio had the best darn carne guisada in town, and a great breakfast taco to boot. Though his breakfast taco selections weren’t too varied, honestly, they didn’t have to be. Using minimal ingredients and expert preparation, Porfirio whipped up the best taco in town, becoming the lodestar by which I judge all other tacos.

So, what does the perfect breakfast taco entail?

In short, a breakfast taco is a flour tortilla, eggs, cheese, and a choice of meat, served with red or green salsa. That’s it. Of course, you can church it up or dress it down by adding in black or refried beans, grilled onions, peppers, pico, guac, and sour cream. All of these things come of course, at your own discretion. Some people love potatoes in their breakfast tacos, but as aforementioned, I personally find them inconsistently cooked and too distracting from the eggs and cheese.

There is a split in authority on whether to use the term breakfast taco vs. breakfast burrito. To me, there is a difference between the two. A breakfast taco is filled, folded together at the top with open ends, and is generally smaller, meant to be eaten in multiples without extraneous additions. A breakfast burrito is filled, wrapped and closed on the ends, generally filled with more variables (beans, peppers, potatoes). Eating one burrito usually will suffice. Importantly, either one can be eaten while driving, unless of course, you end up with a smothered burrito.

Whether you’re picking up a meal at a Stripes’ Laredo Taco Company in West Texas to start your workday, finishing off a night out at a Taco Cabana while in college, or salivating seeing that aluminum-sided truck of Porfirio’s pull in past the full service gas island, rejoice in knowing that one of life’s simplest breakfast foods is also its best. Viva le breakfast taco, and I’ll take a sausage, egg, and cheese with verde sauce, please.

Thanks for the advice, Colin. Now I’m hungry! Let’s put one of these babies together.

How to Cook and Assemble the Perfect Breakfast Taco

perfect homemade breakfast taco

1) The Tortilla. I agree with Colin that a great breakfast taco starts with a warmed, flour tortilla — no larger than 6-8 inches in diameter. You can go “healthier” by sacrificing a little bit of pliability (and flavor) by choosing a whole grain or low-carb tortilla, should you choose.

2) The Eggs. If you have a few extra minutes, I prefer to soft scramble my eggs, rather than doing a hard, fast scramble (click here for details on the difference between the two methods, and how to generally make perfect eggs). This ensures that the eggs remain moist and creamy. To soft scramble, whisk together a few eggs and place into a non-stick pan, with a pat of butter, over medium-low heat. Continuously use a spatula to move the eggs about, ensuring they reach a small curd consistency and remain moist. Remove the pan from the heat while the eggs are still cooking. Lastly, season with just salt and pepper! I see a lot of folks adding cumin, chili powder, or other ingredients to their eggs, which I say is a big no-no. You can get that flavor from the next ingredient.

3) The Meat. When I say meat, I mean chorizo sausage. I like to fry up some of this crumbled sausage to add a bit more heft, and of course, its spicy, aromatic flavor. In a pinch, you can use a breakfast sausage, smoked sausage, or even crumbled bacon.

4) The Cheese. I can’t live without cheese. I prefer a classic, sharp cheddar that’s finely grated so it will melt easily from the residual heat of the eggs and sausage. Monterey Jack is a mild cheese that also works well. If you want to make something fancier, you can use a queso fresco, or any other cheese your taste buds desire.

5)  The Toppings. I agree with Colin: unlike a burrito, a taco is meant to have less fillings, allowing you to enjoy the simple, exquisite flavors of a few really good ingredients instead of feeling like you’ve eaten into an explosion of over a dozen. That said, you can run the gamut from hot sauce, salsa, sour cream, guacamole, pico de gallo, sautéed onions and peppers, jalapeños, beans, etc. This becomes a bit of a choose-your-own-adventure situation. My advice, since you will likely eat more than just one taco, is to consider dividing some of the myriad toppings between a few tacos. You might just find out that a little less, is a little more.

Last but not least: eat! I’ll often cook mine up, fold it in some foil, and take it on the road. And be sure to bring a napkin.


Matt Moore is a regular contributor to the Art of Manliness and the author of The South’s Best Butts.

Podcast #357: How to Be a Creative Genius Like da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci has become the ultimate archetype of the creative genius. Besides his famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, da Vinci had insights into anatomy and optics that would take science a few hundred years to verify. While Leonardo’s genius seems like a gift from the gods, my guest today argues that it was actually the result of years of human effort and toil. 

Today on the show I have the pleasure of speaking with famed author Walter Isaacson about his latest biography called Leonardo da Vinci. We begin the show talking about what has drawn Isaacson to write about innovative individuals like da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, and Steve Jobs, and how Isaacson has discovered that it’s at the intersection of science and the humanities that all great innovations are made. 

We then dig into the life of da Vinci and lessons we can take away from him. Walter tells us about da Vinci’s famous notebooks and what he kept in them, and makes the case that all of us should be carrying around a little notebook for ideas too. We then dig into the the myth of the solitary genius and how Leonardo collaborated all throughout his life on some of his greatest works. We then discuss one of the great paradoxes of da Vinci’s life: that he could be both intensely focused and hugely flighty, and how both sides of this character were key to his genius. We end our conversation talking about how we can develop the same kind of power of intense concentration that da Vinci wielded, even in our distracted, digital world.

Show Highlights

  • What is Isaacson’s draw to writing biographies about innovators?
  • Why writing about Leonardo da Vinci was not as challenging as it might seem
  • Da Vinci’s thousands and thousands of pages of notebooks
  • Why every man should follow his example and jot down notes throughout the day
  • How Leonardo honed his genius (and how he was just like us)
  • Cultivating and exploring our own curiosities
  • The ways in which Leonardo collaborated with other people
  • Did da Vinci care about getting credit for his works?
  • Contrasting da Vinci and Michelangelo
  • The ways in which da Vinci’s scientific pursuits informed his art
  • The interplay of direct experience and theory in da Vinci’s life
  • Why it was actually fortunate that Leonardo was born out of wedlock
  • How Leonardo used analogy to form new insights
  • The ways in which Leonardo actually fights being a painter
  • How Leonardo balanced economics and art/creativity
  • Why we need to be tolerant and accepting of people who think different
  • How to appreciate the quirkiness in ourselves
  • Honing our powers of observation and focus in a digital world

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

leonardo da vinci book cover walter isaacson

Leonardo da Vinci is a tome of a book, but like other Isaacson biographies, you get sucked in and lose track of how long you’ve been reading because of how engaging and interesting it is. I learned a lot, not just about da Vinci, but also about Renaissance Italy.

Connect With Walter

Walter on Twitter

Walter on Facebook

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. Leonardo da Vinci has become the ultimate architect of the creative genius. Besides his famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, da Vinci had insights into anatomy and optics that would take science a few hundred years to verify. And while Leonardo’s genius seems like a gift from the gods, my guest today argues that it was actually the result of years of human effort and toil.

Today, on the show, I have the pleasure of speaking with famed author, Walter Isaacson, about his latest biography on Leonardo da Vinci. We’ll begin the show talking about what has drawn Isaacson to write about innovative individuals like da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, and Steve Jobs and how Isaacson has discovered, through his writing, that it’s the intersection of science and humanities that all great innovations are made.

We then dig into the life of da Vinci and lessons we can take away from him. Walter tells us about da Vinci’s famous notebooks, what he kept in them, and makes the case that all of us should be carrying around little notebooks for ideas, too. We then dig into the myth of the solitary genius and how Leonardo collaborated all throughout his life on some of his greatest works.

We then discuss one of the great paradoxes of da Vinci’s life, that he could be both intensely focused and hugely flighty and how both sides of this character were key in his genius. We end our conversation talking about how we can develop the same kind of power of intense concentration and observation that da Vinci wielded, even in our distracted, digital world.

After the show’s over, make sure to check out show notes at, that’s just one word, davinci, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Alright, Walter Isaacson, welcome to the show.

Walter Isaacson: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Brett McKay: So, I know a lot of our listeners are familiar with your work. Got a new book out about Leonardo da Vinci. Before we get to this latest biography, I’m curious about your writing career. Biographer and the topic you’ve chosen, it seems like, are innovators. You’ve done a biography on Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, you even have a biography called The Innovators.

What’s the draw? What got you started down that path?

Walter Isaacson: You know, I realized over the course of my career that I’d met a lot of smart people, but that smart people often don’t amount to much. The question is how do you be innovative? And so I tried to write a book about what is creativity and how do you achieve it? And I do it through biography because I want to show, whether it’s a Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs, or Leonardo da Vinci, how being able to cross disciplines, to see patterns across nature, to love both art and science, to love both the humanities and engineering, that’s what makes people see patterns, like Steve Jobs did, like Franklin and Leonardo da Vinci did. And that’s what helps them sort of think outta the box, be more innovative.

Brett McKay: Got you. Your latest book, da Vinci, was fantastic. It’s just super thorough and I imagine this was a challenge because the subjects of your other biographies, they were alive in either the 20th century or within the past 200 years, so there were a lot of primary source documents to go to. Letters, pamphlets they wrote, etc. da Vinci lived 500 years ago and this is when the printing press was just invented. So, how were you able to get inside the mind of da Vinci and see where his creative genius lies?

Walter Isaacson: Leonardo left us 7,200 pages of his notebooks. That’s more than I had from Steve Jobs. That’s more than I’d probably get from any of my friends right now. Papers are wonderful technology for the storage and retrieval of information. And so we can see as his mind goes across page after page, making sketches for The Last Supper, then trying to figure out how outward gestures and facial expressions relate to inner emotions. But then also connecting the nerves to the spinal cord to the muscles of the face because he wants to go deeper with anatomy, on figuring out how our expressions work.

All of these things are in his notebooks and so I decided to base this book on a reading of all of his notebook pages and among the many little things that inspired me to do is to remember we should all keep notebooks. We should all jot down our to do lists and keep them in a notebook so that years later, we can remember the type of connections we made when we saw different things.

Brett McKay: And were these commonplace books, notebooks that he was using?

Walter Isaacson: These were things that were leather-bound, some of them he kept on his belt when he walked around town and he would put anything in them. His shopping list. He would put a recipe for making blond hair dye when he was in his 30s because he was very beautiful and had wonderful, curly hair, well-built physique and figured he was probably worried about going gray and so he puts a recipe for boiling nuts and oil to make a hair dye.

He put some questions he wants to answer, like how would you measure the size of the sun, or what does the tongue of a woodpecker look like? And then he would sketches of people that would end up being studies for his paintings. So, they had everything from words to shopping lists, to pictures.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and he also spent a lot of his time just trying to square a circle, right?

Walter Isaacson: Well, one of the challenges is transforming shapes. If you’re an artist, or an engineer, you wanna say, how would one shape move and be a slightly different shape, but be the same volume, or be the same area? And the most ancient of problems in that sort is called squaring a circle, which is how do you take a circle of a certain area and say, “I’ll make a square that has the exact same area”? And that’s hard to do because pi is an irrational number, so just with a ruler and a protractor.

But Leonardo spent five decades of his six decade life, ever since he was a young kid, to his dying last notebook page, looking at ways to square a circle.

Brett McKay: And a lot of, as you highlight in the book, a lot of da Vinci historians they criticized him for that. Like he was wasting his time on this, when he could have been doing other things. But you argue that was all part of the process of him becoming the genius that he was.

Walter Isaacson: Yeah, I mean, he did anatomy drawings. He did squaring of the circles and math. He did engineering, tried to build flying machines. And some art critics will say, “Well, if he hadn’t wasted his time doing that, he would’ve painted more paintings.” Well, sure, he may have painted more paintings, but he wouldn’t have painted the Mona Lisa. He wouldn’t have been Leonardo da Vinci. That ability to know the patterns of nature, to know not just useful things like how many muscles and nerves control the lips and that helps you with the Mona Lisa, but to also have a profound philosophical feel for how we’re connected with nature.

That also ends up with the Mona Lisa, as opposed to just being a craftsman who can turn out paintings.

Brett McKay: So, I thought it was interesting you argue that da Vinci was a genius, yes, but he wasn’t born with that gift, that he had to work for it. What led you to that conclusion?

Walter Isaacson: Well, you know, you look at his notebooks and you say, “Oh my goodness, this guy is human. He’s made a math mistake here.” Or, “He’s human, he’s actually not finished this painting.” Or, “He was drawing a dissection of human heart and he pauses and then draws his companion, Salaì, his male companion around the heart.” Which is sort of endearing.

So, he’s not like an Einstein who can take tensile calculus and use it to describe the curvature of space and time. He’s not one of these people with grand mental processing power. But he’s somebody who has a curiosity and a sense of observation where he just is curious about everything there is to know about everything that can possibly be known. And that is something you and I can relate to better.

We’re never gonna use tensile calculus to describe space time, but we will be able to pause like Leonardo did on any given day and say, how do the wings of a bird flap, up or down, fast or when it’s taking off? The comment why is the sky blue, the commonplace things that you and I quit wondering about after we get over the age of 10, but people like Leonardo still wondered about.

So, his genius was a little bit more self-made. It was a little bit more self-willed. It wasn’t as if he was touched by the heavens with some amazing mental processing power.

Brett McKay: So, I think another popular idea of da Vinci that’s out there is that he was sort of this lone genius, eccentric genius, working alone in his workshop in Florence, but as you highlight in the book, for most of his career he was working collaboration. Can you describe some of the collaborative process that da Vinci used to churn out paintings or come up with innovations in engineering, etc.?

Walter Isaacson: He realized that creativity was a team sport and it’s something I’ve written about when I wrote about the innovators, which is how people collaborate in order to innovate. Leonardo was, from a very young age, part of a workshop in Florence and they did many things. They soldered the copper ball that gets put on the dome of Florence’s cathedral. They do paintings or like the Baptism of Christ in which four or five of the painters in the studio each do a different part of it.

So, throughout his life, Leonardo has a studio of students and associates who work with him and one of the problems, like he did two versions of a painting called Virgin of the Rocks, is figuring out what parts of the painting were truly done by Leonardo and which by his partners. And yet, that’s almost asking the wrong question because the question is how did they collaborate to make such a good painting?

Most famously, Vetruvian Man, you know, the naked guy standing in the circle and the squares spread eagle, Leonardo did that drawing totally by himself, but he did it during a few week period where he’s working with three of this best friends to figure out how would you do church designs and make humans proportional to the design of the church. And so they all do drawings as well and you look at that collaboration that results in Leonardo drawing Vetruvian Man.

Brett McKay: And did da Vinci care about who got credit? Because I know during the Renaissance, this is a time when artists started asserting themselves a bit more and wanting to take more credit. Before, just the patron would get all the credit for the art. Was da Vinci like that? Was he really-

Walter Isaacson: Not really. Leonardo did not focus on getting credit or even getting payments sometimes from his work. He sometimes kept his works, including the Mona Lisa, and did not deliver to the patron who paid for it. He kept it throughout his life so he could perfect it. Also, he doesn’t sign his paintings. There’s a painting going on sale on November 15th called Salvator Mundi, which is the last Leonardo painting in private hands. It’s gonna be auctioned off and there’s a little dispute about was it really… how much of it was Leonardo because he never signed his work.

He never wrote I have now finished Salvator Mundi and I’m selling it to so-and-so. So, I don’t think he was one of those artists who did it for fame or fortune. I think he did it to please himself.

Brett McKay: But Michelangelo would be a contrast to that. He was very sensitive.

Walter Isaacson: Michelangelo was very reclusive, had no real close friends. He sort of stayed off on his own, was not particularly friendly to Leonardo da Vinci. And so when he does his statue of David, he goes off and holes up by himself doing that statue of David and yes, he’s got a little bit more of the agony in him about his life. Leonardo’s very comfortable with himself.

Brett McKay: So, you mentioned earlier that Leonardo was one of the very… One of his geniuses was blurring the lines between science and art. I’m curious, what ways did his science explorations inform his art?

Walter Isaacson: Well, they’re very specific ways, such as having done page after page of how the muscles touch the lips and which nerves control the muscles, he starts sketching in 50 note 3 what will be the world’s most famous smile. He begins to paint the Mona Lisa.

But also, his anatomy science was done to help inform his art like he would dissect the muscles of the neck and then perfect his painting, St. Jerome in the Wilderness. But being Leonardo, he would then drill down and pursue anatomy simply for his own sake. Simply for curiosity. I mean, after getting all of the muscles of the face and the neck, which is what he might need for a painting, he dissects the human heart. He dissects the liver. He dissects the spinal cord and every bit of the human body and makes layered drawings of the whole human body.

So, it’s an inspiration for most of us that Leonardo starts of being curious about things that might be useful for his art, but then pursues curiosity for curiosity’s sake. I call it the tongue of the woodpecker phenomenon, which is he didn’t need to know what the tongue of a woodpecker looked like in order to do a flying machine or paint a painting. He needed to know because he was Leonardo. He was just curious about everything.

Brett McKay: And he did make insights into anatomy, that wasn’t confirmed until a couple hundred years later.

Walter Isaacson: Yeah, one of his insights on anatomy, for example, is how the heart valve works. The insight comes from having watching how a river when the water hits an obstacle, how it swirls and curls. And he says the heart valve opens and shuts because of the swirl of the water, not because of the pressure of the blood. Those are great discoveries. And so by seeing patterns across nature, he may not have known initially, well, why do I care about how swirls of water work? But it helps inform everything from the curl of the river that flows from the mountains to the back of the Mona Lisa to the curls and swirls of blood from the heart to the aorta that show how the heart valve works.

So, that’s what makes him a genius is loving to see patterns in all sorts of fields.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and he also deciphered how light hits the retina and with that information, he was able to change perspectives in his painting that people weren’t doing.

Walter Isaacson: Sure, you have a sort of accelerated perspective in The Last Supper because of his understanding of optics and perspective. But most amazingly, the lips of the Mona Lisa have the tiniest black and white details that turn down at the end of the lips, but the shadows and colors turn up at the end of the lips because he knows that you see detail at a different part of your retina than you see shadows and colors.

So, as your eye wanders across her face, the smile turns on and off. It becomes an interactive smile. So, that’s another way that his science connects to his art.

Brett McKay: So, in the book, you highlight da Vinci’s maxim in life was just direct experience, right? He wanted to experience things firsthand, which he did, but then you show in the book that as he developed as an artist and as a scientist, he started to incorporate theory. How did da Vinci balance scientific theory, and direct scientific experimentation?

Walter Isaacson: Yeah, that’s a great question because it makes him a forerunner of the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment. He had the good fortune to be born out of wedlock, which meant he wasn’t sent to a university or a Latin school. And he becomes what he calls a disciple of experience, meaning whenever anybody says something, he tries to figure out can I test that? How do I know it’s right?

But then he also becomes a disciple of books because Gutenberg’s printing press has come into play and he can get any book he wants. Anything from Euclid to poetry and so he becomes a voracious reader. And so what he does is sort of a back and forth process that we now take for granted, which is he’ll have a theory or read of a theory, such as why water gets at the top of mountains and flows down as streams, and then he’ll say, let me devise ways to observe or test that and see if that’s right.

And then if his observations or experiments show that there’s something wrong, he revises his theories. Sometimes nowadays we forget to revise our theories when we get new facts, but Leonardo was always going back and forth between having theories about how things worked and even reading other people’s theories about how things worked and then testing those theories based on facts.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and the other kind of insight I got from reading about da Vinci’s life in your book was his use of analogies to form new insights. So, he would see the veins in the human body and the veins in a leaf and say that’s similar and he would try to find some connection. Sometimes that led him down the wrong path, but making those connections started him to go down new paths and come up with new ideas.

Walter Isaacson: Yeah, I mean, analogy is sort of a rudimentary form of theorizing. For example, he looks at the way rivers have tributaries and then he calculates that the size of each of the tributaries adds up to the size of the main river when they flow in. And he says, “Well that’s the same to a blood vessel” as he dissects the human body. And then he’ll look at a tree and realize trees have branches and it becomes Leonardo’s law of branching as he understands how branches relate to the size of a trunk.

And there’s a wonderful notebook page where he has his craggy old warrior that he loves to draw, but there’s a tree that sort of grows into the warrior’s torso. And it sort of shows the branchings of the tree and the branching of the warrior’s veins. So, it’s his way of saying, “Let me make an analogy.” As you said, sometimes he got it wrong. He made the analogy that maybe waters that flow from the top of mountains, the mountain streams, the water gets up there the way the blood gets to our nose and we then have a nosebleed.

It gets pumped up through our bodies or he said pumped up through the earth and then comes out as streams. But he’d test that and he looks at it, he does his geology and he realizes, well that’s not how it works. So, he comes up with a new theory, which is that the water evaporates. It becomes rain and that’s how mountain streams form.

So, you see even within this one notebook, a notebook that happens to be owned by Bill Gates, the Codex Leicester, and beginning with one theory about how there’s an analogy between our body and the earth. But then revising that theory when his experiments show that the earth doesn’t work exactly the way the veins in the body work.

Brett McKay: So, one thing else I was fascinated about in the book is that da Vinci was a master painter. You know, some of the greatest paintings he did. But it seemed like, throughout his career, it’s not what he wanted to be known as. It was always an afterthought, right? When he wrote that letter to the Baron to get a patronship, the fact that he was a master painter and was like, “Oh, I also paint.” But he said all this other stuff he could do. What do you think was going on there? It seemed like da Vinci was kind of fighting against his innate talent of painting. What do you think was going on there?

Walter Isaacson: Well, part of what’s going on is that he’s a human. This was just as he’s turning 30. May actually have many listeners who either are dreading that upcoming milestone, or remember that milestone. Very unnerving of turning 30. And he’s messed up two paintings during his 20s that he doesn’t finish. Paintings that his father helped him get the commissions for, Adoration of the Magi and St. Jerome.

And so he goes to Milan and he decides, I don’t wanna be a painter right now. I wanna be an engineer. And so he writes this 11 paragraph job application letter, where 10 paragraphs are, I can make weapons of war. I can divert courses of rivers. I can design great buildings. All these engineering feats and only at the end does he say, “I can also paint as well as any man.”

So, I think sometimes when we look at historical figures, we have to realize how human they are and even looking to ourselves and say, yeah, do you remember when we thought, okay, we were gonna be a playwright, but now we’re gonna try to be a designer of a web app or something? We go through parts of life where we get discontented about what we’re doing.

It all does come together at the end, though, where Leonardo realizes that art and engineering aren’t that different. They’re both about creating beautiful strokes that show us the wonders of the infinite beauties of nature.

Brett McKay: And in that résumé, that letter, it was a lot of puffery. Because he hadn’t done any of those things that he said he could do.

Walter Isaacson: Very human, yeah. Anybody ever do résumé inflation. Yeah, he talks about diverting the course of rivers. He’s not quite done it by the time he writes that letter, but he goes on to work with Machiavelli and Cesar Borgia and the people in Florence to say, okay, here’s how you would dig ditches to divert the course of the Arno River. And they actually work on it and dig the ditches. It doesn’t fully materialize, so it’s another lesson from him. Sometimes it was what Steve Jobs called the reality distortion field, which is you imagine you can do things, you push people to do things they think are impossible, and sometimes you actually get them done.

So, yeah, in that job application letter, he hadn’t done many weapons of war or diverted many rivers, but it’s him saying, okay, I think I could do this.

Brett McKay: The other thing I didn’t know about da Vinci, before reading your book, but now I do, is that a lot of his career and the way he made a lot of his money was creating these elaborate presentations. I mean, I imagine they were just like Renaissance halftime shows is what-

Walter Isaacson: Bingo!

Brett McKay: He was doing.

Walter Isaacson: It’s like big pageants. Big plays. You know, we forget, there was no TV, there was no SuperBowl, there was no internet or movies back then. And so when it was time in the evening for people to be entertained, there’d be pageants and plays and outdoor spectacles. And so Leonardo helped do the scenery for those. He helped do the ingenious devices, like bringing the angels down from the rafters. And one of those ingenious devices was an aerial screw, which we now think of as the first helicopter because Leonardo blurs the distinction between fantasy and reality.

He goes on to figure out, well, could that aerial screw I used in that play actually be something that would transport a real human? And so, whether you’re looking at The Last Supper, with the accelerated perspective and exaggerated gestures and it looks all of a sudden like a theater set when you look at it that way, or when you look at some of the devices and engineering he built and realize they began as devices for the theater and you look at some of his drawings and realize they’re drawings for costumes in the theater.

So, that was a way for him to jumpstart his imagination. And I think one of the misunderstood things about Leonardo that I was able to find by going page after page through his notebooks, is how important it was to the formation of both his engineering and his art that he spent most of his time as a young man producing pageants and plays.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I loved that insight because oftentimes we think of these great geniuses as sort of venerated. Like godlike, but they were doing sort of crass commercialism. But there’s value in that, too. I think it’s important not to discredit that.

Walter Isaacson: That’s how he made his living and by the way, I’m sure there are lots of people listening to this podcast or people like myself who at times will say, okay, I’m gonna try to do a screenplay. Or I’m gonna try to invent some new app. Or I’m gonna do something ingenious and I’m gonna do it because maybe I’ll make a buck by writing this screenplay or putting on this event.

Brett McKay: Well, that brings us to an interesting point and I love this in the book because you do such a great job talking about sort of the Renaissance culture and these competing fiefdoms and patrons. And what I thought was interesting is Leonardo had to be very political, in a way, because that’s how he earned his capital. He had to go to a patron and find out what they wanted and try to do that, but at the same time, it seemed like da Vinci didn’t really care. So, what can we learn about da Vinci juggling the interest of economics and creativity that often is economically inefficient?

Walter Isaacson: Right. Well, first of all, Leonardo never produced things purely for the money. Every now and then, he made a living as a pageant producer as we said. But even when the richest person in Italy, the richest woman, Isabella d’Este, is saying paint my portrait and I’ll pay you anything, he decides instead to paint the wife of a middle class cloth merchant in Florence named Lisa and he never even delivers the Mona Lisa to the cloth merchant because he’s doing it pretty much for his satisfaction. And to have a universal understanding of nature. And he then didn’t die incredibly wealthy, even though he was the great artist of his time.

I also think that if you’re driven simply by commercial considerations, you’re never going to try to make something perfect. You might be willing to cut corners and Leonardo, as I said, took 16 years on the Mona Lisa. He put aside the Adoration of the Magi when he couldn’t make it perfect. And he spent a lot of time doing dissections or math experiments on squaring the circle that certainly weren’t driven by money. But it ends up making him the most well-rounded, deeply enriched intellect and talent of his time and that should be an inspiration to us as well. Which is always have your passion be for the product, not for the profit.

Brett McKay: Well, you’ve raised another interesting point. So, you mentioned that he’d take forever on some of his work, sometimes he wouldn’t even deliver it. I mean, he seemed kind of like a dilettante, right? Like he would just jump from thing to thing and it sounds like his dad got onto him a bit for that. But was that a key component?

Walter Isaacson: Ever know anybody like that? Yeah.

Brett McKay: But was that a key component to his innovation and creativity? Just his flightiness, his creative flightiness?

Walter Isaacson: Well, he could be both obsessed and do page after page of dissections of muscles. And page after page of trying to square the circle and transforming geometric shapes and he could be distracted at times, which is he’d go in, paint two brush strokes on The Last Supper, and then climb down and disappear for the rest of the day.

So, I think if he were alive today, people keep coming up to me and they’ve read the book and they say, well, wasn’t he somewhere on the autism spectrum? Or wasn’t he dyslexic? Or wasn’t he obsessive or compulsive? Or wasn’t he, you know, ADHD and distracted and attention deficit? And I think you can apply all sorts of modern acronyms to him and letters and pull down a manual and maybe even prescribe a pharmaceutical regimen, but all of those traits made him very quirky. But it also allowed him to wrestle with his demons and his dragons and his angels and produce some of the most amazing engineering and art in history.

Brett McKay: Could someone like Leonardo exist in our modern world? As soon as they see things like that, they would wanna give it a letter, an acronym and then give him a prescription of some sort.

Walter Isaacson: Well, I think we can all kind of avoid that which is yes, we should applaud the wonders of modern medicine and psychology and it helps when people are troubled. On the other hand, we should nurture creativity and quirkiness and Leonardo was a misfit. He was a misfit and he was gay, he was left-handed, he was illegitimate, he at times was obsessive, he was at times both depressed and then elated. And at times he didn’t finish his work and he would procrastinate. And yet, in Florence in the 1470s, he was not only tolerated, he was loved as a young man.

So, we all have to be tolerant of people who, to use Steve Jobs’ words, think different.

Brett McKay: Yeah and I love the humanist, too, that you highlight in the book and we’ve talked about. In his diary or his notebooks, he’d often write, “Have I done anything? Have I done anything?” Over and over. And I’ve felt like that. I mean, sometimes there will be days I haven’t done anything today.

Walter Isaacson: You know, this is the emotion I want everybody to feel every few pages of the book. Which is to be a little bit sort of surprised and then also say what you just said, which is, oh, I’ve done that. Or, I felt that way. Or, I’ve been distracted. And to realize the human connection we can make to Leonardo da Vinci and then the inspiration we can get to say, oh yeah, I used to wonder how a bird wing worked. I even wondered why the sky was blue. Or how would you measure the sun?

Maybe, if we’re really wild, we’d say, I even imagined once trying to figure out what the tongue of a woodpecker looked like. But I outgrew that. I quit asking those questions. So, maybe, I should be inspired to go back and appreciate the quirkiness of Leonardo and appreciate the quirkiness in ourselves. And every now and then, be curious about things. Be curious just for curiosity’s sake.

Brett McKay: Well, your book did inspire me to do this. So, I went out and I bought an anatomy book, after reading about his experiments with anatomy and I remember in the book, you talk about how da Vinci had planned on taking his anatomy drawings and turning it into a book or a treatise, but he never did that because something else caught his fancy. But what I was struck by is these illustrations in this anatomy book that was published a decade ago looked pretty much exactly the same as the illustrations that da Vinci did over 500 years ago. Like exactly the same.

So, I’m curious, so da Vinci had this power of-

Walter Isaacson: He did art to science and one of the things that he invents probably not even intentionally is what you and I would call the visual display of information. Whether you’re an old magazine editor like myself, or a web designer, you realize, okay, how would I do this in layers? How would I make an aerial view like Leonardo did of the town of Imola when he was working with Machiavelli that shows the buildings in three-dimension. How would I take a dissection of a human body and do layers and layers so that you can flip the page and see what happens when you go down deeper?

So, that ability to do visual display of information is a key. It’s what Steve Jobs saw when he went to Xerox Park and said, oh, I can do a graphical user interface on the new Apple computers. That ability to connect humans to nature through great visual displays is a talent that we don’t often focus on. That’s something, just like inventing the airplane or something, inventing those abilities to convey information visually and help us visualize is just an extraordinarily important thing.

Brett McKay: So, last question. We’ve been talking about that da Vinci developed this power of observation, this curiosity, I mean, da Vinci lived 500 years ago. Twitter didn’t exist. Instagram didn’t exist. All these digital things that are distracting us, that make it hard to really observe didn’t exist. So, based on your research and writing of da Vinci, what can we learn from him about staying focused and observing intensely on things, even in this crazy digital world that we live in?

Walter Isaacson: Yeah, he had distractions, too. I mean, Gutenberg inventing the printing press is up there with the invention of Twitter as a way to communicate and get information. But what he was able to do is pause, and put things aside and look at very ordinary things and marvel at them. To see how light hit a curved leaf and how the shadow was formed behind the curved leaf when the sun hit it. But also how there’d be a spot of luster, one of those shiny spots on the leaf, and that the spot of luster moves when you tilt your head, whereas the shadow doesn’t move in the same way.

These are pretty interesting observations, but there’s something an eight-year-old could make and he teaches me, even as I was walking today in Manhattan getting ready to do this podcast, and I’m walking through Central Park and the sun is out. And even though I’ve got my iPhone with me, and even though I could go on Twitter to look up what people are saying about this, that, and the other thing, instead, I said, no, no, no, let me force myself. Let me look at the light hitting the ripples on the Central Park Lagoon and let me see how the reflections sort of flutter onto the leaves and let me just occasionally marvel at the simple things in nature that we don’t observe.

That’s not that hard to do. It just requires keeping your phone in your pocket for a minute and not checking your Facebook page or Twitter feed or SnapChat in conversations and instead saying, I’m actually going to observe something and I’m gonna observe it carefully and closely and I’m gonna do it for no useful reason. I’m just gonna do it out of curiosity, pure curiosity.

Brett McKay: Walter, this has been a great conversation. Thank you so much for your time. It’s been an absolute pleasure.

Walter Isaacson: Well, you’re a pleasure to talk to, thank you so very much.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Walter Isaacson. He is the author of the new book biography on Leonardo da Vinci. It’s called Leonardo da Vinci. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. Also, make sure to check out his other books about Benjamin Franklin, which is really good, the Steve Jobs biography, fantastic as well.

Also, check out our show notes at where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check The Art of Manliness website at If you enjoyed the show, you got something out of it since you’ve been listening to it, I’d appreciate if you’d take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. And if you’ve already done that, please share the podcast with your friends. The more the merrier around here.

As always, thank you for your continued support and until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.

The Pocket Guide to Action Is Now Available on Amazon

Earlier this year, we launched The Pocket Guide to Action: 116 Meditations on the Art of Doing by Kyle Eschenroeder. So far it’s only been available exclusively from The Art of Manliness Store, but we’ve had requests to make it available on Amazon as well.

We’re happy to announce you can now buy The Pocket Guide to Action on Amazon, and it’s also eligible for Amazon Prime orders.

Right now, just the paperback is available; we hope to have a Kindle version by December.

The book is still available in our store and you can actually score some cool special offers if you buy direct from us:

(Note: It’s currently sold out in the AoM store, but you can still order it, and it will ship in two weeks.)

Thanks to everyone who has bought a book so far. If you’ve enjoyed it and gotten value from it, please give it a review on Amazon.

Affordable Alternatives to Classic Luxury Watches

alternatives to classic luxury watches

Some watch styles have become menswear classics that will never go out of style thanks to their heritage, their craftsmanship, their handsome good looks, and, let’s not fool ourselves, their price tag. Never underestimate the power of luxury to make something a classic.

If you’ve got $3,000 of disposable income, a classic luxury wristwatch is something you might consider adding to your wardrobe.

But what do you do if you like the look of some of those classic luxury watches, but don’t have the money to buy one (or you do have the money, but can’t stomach spending that amount of dough on a timepiece)?

Buying a counterfeit knock-off of a luxury watch is just gauche. Not only is it unethical, it just comes off as desperate and insecure to try to pass off a fake as the real deal. It shows that the wearer doesn’t value the heritage or craftsmanship of the original luxury watch, just the status cache that comes with it. Plus, studies have shown that wearing a knock-off product actually causes you to act in more dishonest ways — no kidding; Scientific American reported that “‘Faking it’ makes us feel like phonies and cheaters on the inside, and this alienated, counterfeit ‘self’ leads to cheating and cynicism in the real world.”

Instead of buying a knock-off of an original luxury watch, consider picking up an “homage” to it. An homage watch is one made by another company that takes design inspiration from a classic wristwatch. They’re not exact replicas of the originals (so you avoid the issue of wearing a counterfeit watch), but they look pretty dang similar and evoke the same classic style cues. And they’re affordable. Instead of a few thousand dollars, an homage watch will only set you back $100. Not dirt cheap, but certainly more affordable. While these homage watches don’t have the same amount of craftsmanship or attention to detail as the originals, they’re accessible alternatives for the man who only wishes for his watch to look good and accurately tell the time.

And if you’re worried about losing cred by opting for an homage watch, note that many watch aficionados that own an expensive classic luxury wristwatch will often also have an homage version of it to use as a “beater watch” — a timepiece you wear on a daily basis or when you’re doing things that might result in it getting knocked around. They’ll only bust out their original classic for important events.

If you’re in the market for a new watch, below we highlight six luxury watches and their more affordable, homage alternatives.

The Expensive Classic: Cartier Tank ~$2,500

Affordable Alternative: Seiko Men’s SUP880 ~$95

cartier tank luxury watch alternative

Introduced in 1918, the Cartier Tank’s design was inspired by the Renault tanks that Louis Cartier saw on the Western Front during World War I. It’s a mechanical watch, which means it’s powered by a hand-wound mainspring that allows the second hand to move in a smooth, sweeping motion around the watch’s face. Its simple design has made it a classic dress watch worn by men like Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, and John F. Kennedy. With a price tag of $2,500, though, it’s not cheap.

An affordable alternative is a dress watch put out by Seiko. The SUP880 has the same long, rectangle shape of the original Tank and some versions have the same Roman numeral numbering as the Tank as well. Rather than being a mechanical watch like the Cartier, the Seiko is a quartz-powered watch which uses electricity from a battery, and causes the second hand to make a tick-tock sound and move in a jerkier motion. (You can read more about the differences between watch movements and how to choose a watch here.) But quartz watches are more durable than the mechanical variety, and are obviously much more affordable.

The Expensive Classic: Rolex Submariner ~$8,000

Affordable Alternative: Invicta Men’s 8926OB Pro Diver ~$85

rolex submariner luxury watch alternative

The dive watch is probably one of the most common watch types you see men wear. And we likely have James Bond to thank for that. Ever since Dr. No, the cinematic 007 has been sporting a dive watch of some kind or another. In the early Bond films, 007 often wore a Rolex Submariner. When a man says he’d “like to buy a Rolex,” he’s likely talking about this specific kind. The Submariner looks both sporty and classy at the same time, but, it also costs $8,000.

Luckily, there are lots of homage watches of the original Submariner for a fraction of the cost. One such watch is the 8926OB Pro Diver from Invicta. It looks almost identical to the Submariner, but only costs $85. A perfect choice for the sophisticated 00 on a budget.

The Expensive Classic: Omega Speedmaster ~$3,000-$5,000

The Affordable Alternative: Timex Ameritus Stainless Steel Chronograph ~$60

omega speedmaster luxury watch alternative

The Omega Speedmaster is pilot’s watch that was used by Gemini and Apollo astronauts in the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, it was the first watch on the moon: both Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were sporting a Speedmaster during their famous jaunt on the lunar surface. If you’d like to wear the same watch that Apollo astronauts wore, look to spend between $3,000 and $5,000.

If you don’t have that much money, but like the look of the Speedmaster, check out the Timex Ameritus. I’ve seen several homage Speedmasters, but this one looks the most like the original. Like the Speedmaster, it’s a watch that has a chronograph and tachymeter (check out our article on how to use those features), so you can measure speed and distance. Unlike the Speedmaster, it has a quartz movement and hasn’t been certified for lunar landings. But at $60, who’s complaining?

The Expensive Classic: Breitling Navitimer ~$6,000

The Affordable Alternative: Rotary Chronograph ~$150

breitling navimeter luxury watch alternative

Breitling was the first watch company to put a chronograph and tachymeter on a watch, setting the standard for all pilots’ watches thereafter. In 1952, they took the pilot’s watch to the next level with their Navitimer. Besides the chronograph and tachymeter, the Navitimer also has a circular slide rule that can be used to calculate things like airspeed, rate of descent/climb, fuel consumption, and flight time. Not only is the Navitimer a navigation computer you can keep on your wrist, but it looks incredibly dashing. The computational power and good looks come with a hefty price, however.

For you aviators on a budget, there’s the Rotary Chronograph. This quartz movement watch has the same romantic look of the Navitimer, but only costs $150. Like the Navitimer, it has a circular slide rule that you can use to measure the fuel consumption and flight time of your (real or imaginary) plane.

The Expensive Classic: Omega Seamaster ~$2,000-$4,000

The Affordable Alternative: Seiko Men’s SKX007K Diver’s Automatic Watch ~$200

omega seamster luxury watch alternative

While the early 007s were Rolex Submariner men, Pierce Brosnan turned James Bond into an Omega Seamaster kind of guy. The Seamaster is a dive watch that’s been a favorite of sporty, well-heeled men since 1948. Joe Biden and Prince William are both fans of the Seamaster. But at $2,000-$4,000, it’s likely out of reach for most average Joes.

If you like the look of modern Bond’s favorite watch, but can’t afford to spend a month’s paycheck on it, check out the Seiko SKX007K Diver’s Watch. It has a similar look and feel to the Omega, but only costs $200. And unlike the other affordable alternatives on this list, this Seiko diver watch actually has a mechanical movement to boot.

The Expensive Classic: Tag Heuer Carrera ~$3,000-$4,000

The Affordable Alternative: Casio Edifice EF-547D-1A1VDF ~$105

tag heuer carrera luxury watch alternative

Tag Heuer has made a name for itself as the go-to watch for race car drivers. The Carrera is one of their most famous racing watches. It features a chronograph and tachymeter so drivers can gauge speed and distance, and a flashy watch face that oozes accelerated sophistication. But with a price tag starting at $3,000, if the only race car you can afford is a 1999 Chevy Cavalier, it’s likely not an option.

The Casio Edifice has the same sporty, driving watch look as the Carrera, but only costs $105. So you can wear it while cruising to the bank to make another savings deposit.

Podcast #356: How to Finally Beat Procrastination

Procrastination. We’ve all done it and we tell ourselves we’ll never do it again. So we come up with an elaborate time management system to get us on track only to find ourselves continuing to put things off. While some procrastination can be mildly infuriating, chronic procrastination can be financially, professionally, and personally devastating — overdue bills result in calls from collection agencies, late reports result in getting fired, and undone chores turn your house into a dump. 

Why do we procrastinate despite our best intentions not to?

My guests today are clinical psychologists who have spent their career working with procrastinators. Their names are Jane Burka and Lenora Yuen. They’re the co-authors of the book Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It Now. We begin our conversation discussing the difference between procrastination and strategically postponing things. They then take us through the cycle of procrastination that we’ve all been through and explain why it’s such a vicious loop. 

We then transition to talk about why we procrastinate and why faulty time management isn’t the real root cause of it. Jane and Lenora argue that if you don’t tackle the true origins of procrastination — which range from the fear of failure to the fear of success — no amount of time management or planning will help you. We finally dig into how to tackle these roots so you can exit the procrastinator’s cycle and get stuff done.

This podcast is filled with great insights and actionable advice. Don’t put off listening to it!

Show Highlights

  • How Jane and Lenora came together and ended up researching and writing about procrastination
  • The research on procrastination that was available back in 1983 when the book was first written
  • Why procrastination isn’t always a problem
  • The serious consequences that can arise from chronic procrastination
  • How procrastination and perfectionism are actually related
  • The different between just tabling something and procrastination
  • The self-perpetuating cycle of procrastination
  • The 3 fears that ultimately drive procrastination
  • Why would anyone be afraid of success? How does that perpetuate procrastination?
  • Executive functioning in the brain and procrastination
  • Subjective time vs. objective time — how people experience time differently
  • The compartmentalization of procrastination
  • Why basic time management and goal-setting techniques don’t necessarily work with procrastinators
  • Why self-compassion tends to work better than self-criticism
  • Concrete tips on finally slaying the procrastination beast
  • Why you need to give yourself permission to do bad work

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

Procrastination is filled with great insights on why we procrastinate, but more importantly provides actionable steps beyond just to-do lists to help you beat your procrastination habit.

Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)






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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. Procrastination. We’ve all done it and we tell ourselves we’ll never do it again, so we come up with elaborate time management systems to get us back on track, only to find ourselves continuing to put things off. While some procrastination can be mildly infuriating, chronic procrastination can be financially, professionally, and personally devastating. Overdue bills result in calls from collection agencies, late reports result in getting fired and undone chores turn your house into a dump. Why do we procrastinate despite our best intentions not to and despite knowing the fact that it hurts us?

Well, my guests today are clinical psychologists who have spent their career working with procrastinators. Their names are Jane Burka and Lenora Yuen. They’re the co-authors of the Procrastination: Why You Do It and What to Do About It Now? Today on the show we begin our conversation discussing the difference between procrastination and strategically putting things off, postponing things. They then take us through the cycle of procrastination that we’ve all been through and explain why it’s such a vicious loop. We then transition to talk about why we procrastinate and why faulty time management isn’t the actual root cause of those procrastination?

Jane and Lenora argue if we don’t tackle the true origin of procrastination, which can range from fear of failure to perfectionism to fear of success, no matter of time management or planning will help you. We dig into how to tackle these roots so you can exit the procrastinator cycle and get stuff done. This podcast is filled with great insights and actual advice. Don’t put off listening to it. Do it today. After the show is over check out the show notes at Jane Burka, Lenora Yuen, welcome to the show.

Lenora Yuen: Thank you Brett.

Jane Burka: Hi. Nice to be here.

Brett McKay: All right. You two are psychologists who have specialized in procrastination, which I think is interesting. It’s an interesting topic to decide … that’s what you’re going to go in deep. I’m curious, how did you two get interested in studying that particular experience and how did you two connect and start working together to write this book back in 1983 and then doing a second edition, updated edition almost 20 years later.

Lenora Yuen: 25. It was a 25 anniversary.

Brett McKay: 25, okay.

Lenora Yuen: Yes. Well, we met when we were both on the staff at the counseling center at the University of California, Berkeley and decided to offer a procrastination group for students. As you might imagine, procrastination is pretty much rampant on every college campus. So, it was a very popular group, but why procrastination? Well, Jane and I each had a lifetime of experience, of personal insider experience of procrastinating.

Jane Burka: Yes. For example, when I went to graduate school in New York it took me 10 years to finish, to get my dissertation done. I span through classes and then, when it came time for the dissertation, I just couldn’t do it. It was a very painful experience, actually, because people who started after me you were finishing. I had a job. I was working in my field, but I didn’t have my PhD. I couldn’t be licensed. I couldn’t hang out my shingle. It was a very difficult struggle and it got to the point where I didn’t want to talk to my advisor, then I didn’t want to go to the building where my advisor was, then I didn’t want to get off bus near the building where my advisor was. I was really in major avoidance. Both Lenora and I know what it is to suffer when you put things off and we also know, I’m happy to say, what it is to mostly overcome that problem, because both of us now are really pretty good.

Brett McKay: Were there a lot of people researching procrastination back when you originally published your book?

Lenora Yuen: No, not at all. There were a couple of books about procrastination that basically said, “Okay, just do it. Be rational. Be reasonable. It’s very simple, just manage your time and set goals and just do it.” There was no research to speak of at that time.

Jane Burka: None at all really.

Lenora Yuen: Yeah. And now there are probably well over a 1,000 research studies, maybe many more than that and many people around the world who are actually studying this. We feel very proud, actually, to have had a part in highlighting a problem that really can plague people. On the surface it can look like not a big deal or a something to joke about. I can’t tell you how many procrastination jokes have we heard. People try to find a way to make light of it, but really, as Jane was saying, people can suffer really significant consequences. Let me also say that procrastination in and of itself isn’t good or bad, it’s not even always a problem.

We all procrastinate on little things or things that don’t really matter to us, but what we’re talking about here is the procrastination that we do in addressing things that are really important to us, that we really want to do or that we need to do and then when we don’t do them we end up suffering consequences in the world or consequences within ourselves and feeling just awful that really end up being self-defeating. One of the things that we’ve said for decades now is that we are not anti-procrastination, but we are anti self-defeat.

Jane Burka: Because procrastination is self-sabotage and people think that … Especially people who don’t procrastinate, they don’t understand it at all. Like, “I can get my work done, why can’t you?” But procrastination, when it has this self-sabotaging function is much more psychological than it is about being rational or getting things done in a timely way, being behavioral, but the research, now, around procrastination is interesting because we always talk about procrastination being related to perfectionism and some of the research has indicated that procrastination and perfectionism are not related, but we challenged that because those research studies use self-report. They ask people, “Are you a perfectionist?” And then the people say yes or no.

Well, most procrastinators don’t notice that they’re perfectionists. In fact, they say, “I’m not a perfectionist. I don’t get my work done on time.” But perfectionism is an attitude. We are clinicians and that means that we have seen perfectionism in most of the people we see who have a problem with procrastination. Even the research that has come out isn’t always clinically accurate, in our opinion.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I’d love to get into some of what you guys see as the root cause of this. The idea is procrastination means self-sabotage, but let’s go back to this idea of what is procrastination? And you mentioned, sort of you gave a good definition, but I’m curious. Whenever I’m looking at my to-do lists and I put something off I’m wondering, “Is this procrastination or am I tabling this because it’s just not the right time to do this?” How do you all differentiate between like tabling an item and okay, you’re now officially procrastinating.

Lenora Yuen: As I said earlier, sometimes procrastination is not a problem and sometimes tabling something is really the very best thing for you to do. Let’s face it, we’re all way too busy these days. We all have too much to do. You can do it all. Something’s gotta give. So, if you tabled something because you have more important issues to deal with or actions to take that may be a good thing. If you table something because you really need to take a little more time to think it through and weigh your options, that may be a good thing. I think the way to tell whether you are entering this territory of self-sabotage or self-defeat with procrastination is to look at the consequences.

Are you getting yourself into trouble? Are you being passed over for promotions? Is your partner getting pissed off at you all the time because you’re late all the time or your partner asks you to do something you don’t and then they feel thwarted and they’re mad. Are you having to pay penalties to the IRS because you didn’t file your taxes or maybe even not collecting refunds that are due to you because you haven’t filed your taxes? You’d be surprised how many people don’t file their taxes even when they have money coming back.

Jane Burka: Lenora is talking about the external consequences, the consequences in the world, in your job or in your relationships, but then there are also internal consequences and those are the kind of feelings and upset, anxiety, shame, humiliation, the feeling that you’re a fraud. If you managed to pull it out in the last minute and it’s good enough then you feel like, “Well, I fooled them.” You can get it done, but you have a feeling of fraudulence. There’s so much anxiety connected to procrastination as the deadline approaches and you haven’t done it. There’s a lot of shame in feeling like you’re behind again.

The internal consequences of bad feelings, that’s part of it and then there are also physical consequences sometimes. If you build up a lot of anxiety you can get an ulcer, you can get headaches, you can get high blood pressure. I think that if you look at the consequences on a continuum the more serious the consequences, internal and external, the more likely procrastination really is a problem.

Lenora Yuen: You know Brett, I also would like to say that sometimes people don’t think of it as procrastinating, but it was very much avoidance. For me one of the forms that took was math anxiety. My father was an engineer and math was easy for him and it was not easy for me and I avoided every complicated math class that I could because I only wanted to get A’s and I knew that I wouldn’t get an A in math. That is a more subtle form of procrastination, but it’s avoidance nonetheless.

Brett McKay: Gotcha. In the book you talk about this idea of the cycle procrastination. When you’ve described the cycle it’s like, “I’ve been there.” Can you kind of walk us through that cycle and how does the cycle perpetuate itself?

Jane Burka: The cycle of procrastination is this typical pattern of a feeling in the beginning like, “Well, I know I’m supposed to do something, but I don’t have to do it yet and there’s more time and maybe the deadline is not really very firm.” And you don’t really take it seriously and then as time passes and you realize that really it is something you should be doing then there’s the buildup of anxiety like, “Ah, I better get going.” And some people at that point go to the movies and some people at that point actually might start, but maybe they haven’t really allowed enough time.

As the deadline approaches there’s this terrible buildup feeling of, “Well, I just have to get it done now and I’m going to pull an all-nighter, I’m going to spend all weekend, I’m going to do whatever it takes.” When somebody finally gets started most of the time there’s a feeling like, “This isn’t so bad. I don’t know why I waited so long to do this. Then, when the time comes that the thing is over, if you have achieved it you feel like, “Ah, thank goodness. I finally made it and I’m never going to do this again. I’m never going to procrastinate again.”

And then it’s also possible that the deadline passes, you haven’t done what you needed to do. You didn’t turn in the application for the job. You didn’t pay on time and then you feel terrible about yourself, “I’m such an idiot. Why did I do this to myself again?” So, that’s the cycle and it perpetuates itself because there’s a kind of a magical feeling that next time is going to be different and if you don’t do anything different or think through things differently it’s not going to be different next time. That’s wishful thinking.

Brett McKay: You all talked about earlier how when you first started with your research most of the books about procrastination out there were about like, “Well, you procrastinate, just do it. Get a better time management system. Prioritize your tasks etc., etc.” But you all argue that the problem runs deeper than that. You can do those things and it’s probably not going to help you. So, let’s dig into the root causes of procrastination. We can go into specifics later on, but what is generally the big overarching reasons why people procrastinate?

Lenora Yuen: Well, I think that probably what we would say is that the big issue is a feeling of unworthiness. That takes the form of feeling afraid, of feeling vulnerable, of feeling, as Jane mentioned earlier, a sense of shame about who you really are or what you really can do and what you really think. So, procrastination becomes a way of managing very vulnerable feelings and fears that you’re really not good enough. A fear of insufficiency of one sort or another and I think for men, there is a lot of fear about being weak or are about somehow not being big enough, strong enough-

Jane Burka: Not measuring up.

Lenora Yuen: Not measuring up. Procrastination can be a way not to quite feel those feelings directly and to retreat and avoid those difficult feelings.

Jane Burka: What we’re saying is that procrastination, oddly enough, it’s kind of paradoxical, it’s a lesser of evils because you get upset with yourself for procrastinating and that’s something that very ordinary and that people can accept about themselves, “I waited too long. I should have started sooner. I didn’t leave enough time.” Those are acceptable self-criticisms whereas, “I’m afraid. I’m afraid I’m not good enough. I’m afraid if I give all the time I have and try my best and it’s still not good enough.” That’s something they don’t have to face when you procrastinate. It’s kind of a paradoxical solution to a problem of self-esteem.

Brett McKay: There’s a fear of failure, is one of those things. I think that’s where the perfection comes in, right? Perfectionists, they’re afraid of failing, afraid of being less than perfect and so to protect themselves from that feeling of failure they put things off.

Jane Burka: Right. You bring up fear and failure. The main three fears that we have on earth are a fear of failure, fears of success and fear of feeling controlled. So, fear of failure, as you say, is really rooted in that basic feeling that you’re not good enough and the anxiety that that is going to be known, that you’re going to be exposed as not good enough. You feel like everything you do has your whole worth riding on it. So, if you wait until the last minute and then you do something and it’s okay, you can feel like, “Oh well, I’m really terrific and then I’m not a failure.” But if you wait a long time and it’s not good enough, that’s a terrible, terrible feeling. People delay in order not to do their best, in order never to test whether their best is good enough.

Brett McKay: Because they can say, “Well, if I had more time, if I got started earlier, it would have been better, but I did good enough for the amount of time I had.”

Lenora Yuen: That’s right. So, paradoxically, procrastination allows you to relax that standard of perfectionism because when you wait till the last minute you can’t do it perfectly anymore. All that you can do is just get the darn thing done. So, what’s being evaluated really is your skill of brinksmanship rather than what is your best effort. Your best effort stays hidden and unknown to other people, and sadly, to yourself.

Brett McKay: I thought the interesting thing was the fear of success because like you’re thinking, “Oh, it’s success. Why would anyone be afraid of success?” First of all, why are people afraid of success and how does that perpetuate procrastination?

Jane Burka: Well, everybody makes the assumption that we all want to be successful and more successful and more successful, but actually success is like a rose with a lot of thorns on it. There are real dangers to success for some people. For example, if you are the first person in your family to go to college and you do well in college the consequence of that is that it puts you at a much greater distance from your family. They don’t know what your life is like. They haven’t been through this experience. You can’t talk to them, get advice from them. So, the farther you move away and become more successful than people in your own family, the more difficult that is. It feels like a threat to relationship.

Lenora Yuen: In other relationships, for many people there’s an experience of competition. Now, the competition may not be overt, it might just be in your own mind, but it feels like there are winners or losers and theoretically you’d want to win, but what if you do what? What if you end up being at the top? For some people being the winner brings with it worries about being envied or having other people want to really compete with you and they want to be at the top and they want to get you out of the number one position. So, there is, again, a sense of exposure and a kind of vulnerability in being at the top that some people avoid with procrastination. One young man we talked to many years ago said, “Success is kind of like an escalator, you take a step on and there’s no place off until you get to the top.” And what if you don’t want to be at the top? What if it makes you anxious to think about being at the top? Procrastination can be a way not to get on that escalator to success.

Brett McKay: Another fear of success could be the fear of like added responsibility.

Lenora Yuen: Added responsibility.

Jane Burka: Exactly, and also then being closer to the decision makers and sometimes you might want to be a person who carries out decisions, but you don’t want to the decision maker. I worked for someone who took the job, really liked his boss, didn’t very much blank the guy who was above this boss and after about six months on the job his boss left and went to a different position. He was now moved into that slot so that he had to deal directly with the guy at the top and it was not an easy relationship and it really affected his feelings about his job and he slowed down his work. He didn’t really want to be in that position. He started procrastinating on his work. The guy, his boss, got irritated, he got in trouble. His job went from being a pleasure to be miserable. So, even though he got a promotion it was not a promotion that he wanted or enjoyed or did well in it.

Brett McKay: I think connected to this fear of success is like the fear of control because as you get more successful yes, you gain some freedom, but you also become more constricted in a lot of ways because you have these added responsibilities. Let’s talk about that, that fear of loss of control.

Lenora Yuen: Well, for some people … I mean, we all need to feel like we can control some of the aspects of our lives. If we don’t it’s a very kind of hopeless, helpless feeling, to feel that you have to be passive, but there are some people who have a lot of sensitivity to the issues of control and who define their own sense of their self in terms of their capacity not to be controlled or they’re feeling that they are autonomous, nobody can tell them what to do, the rules don’t apply to them. For these people procrastination can be a way to assert autonomy and preserve a sense of strength and power. Now, it’s all indirect. It’s not directly saying, “I’ve got control.” But indirectly you say, “You can’t make me do what you want to do I’m going to. I’m the boss and I’m only going to do what I want to do and at the time I want to do it.”

Brett McKay: Right, it’s passive-aggressive.

Jane Burka: Yes, that’s right because you don’t say to your supervisor, “I don’t like the way you’re talking to me. I don’t like the way you’re treating me. I think you’re giving me too much work in too little time.” Which, of course, is very common nowadays, but you don’t have the conversation, you just don’t do the work.

Lenora Yuen: Or the same may happen with a spouse. That happens a lot of the time, that people, rather than having direct conversations about negotiating, tasks in the household or priorities that may be different between the two spouses and trying to work out those differences simply go into this mode of saying, “Yes.” But not doing what you’ve agreed to do. If you are someone for whom cooperation feels like capitulation, then working out differences is going to be really difficult because it ends up feeling like you lose every time, that if you go along with the other person, that, again, that you are diminished, you are disempowered, you are weak.

Brett McKay: And what are these fears like? Where do they originate? Is it like a childhood thing? Is it that you’re rearing? Are there different things that cause maybe a fear of failure or fear of success or a fear of control?

Jane Burka: Well, you’re right that these things do start in the family. I think there’s no direct correlation that will create one or the other of these anxieties, but there’s a general feeling in your family, as you’re growing up, that your value is not just because you’re a great kid, that you as a person are not what makes you worthwhile, that what makes you worthwhile is something else, like dis you get an A, did you get an A plus, a lot of pressure to succeed.

Lenora Yuen: Did you hit a home run?

Jane Burka: Right.

Lenora Yuen: Or strike out.

Jane Burka: If you feel like your value is based on your performance then there’s a lot of anxiety about how well you’re going to do and that can lead to a fear of failure. Then it’s possible that growing up there were people who were envious of your talents. So, maybe you were successful, but you got mocked for your success or you were told not to brag too much because it would upset one of your siblings or you were given opportunities that your family hadn’t had and even if they want you to do well on some level they’re also envious and you can sense that. That’s where you learn that success can be dangerous. When you’re successful you can be a target.

Of course, the issue of control. In many families kids grew up in a very controlling environment. They feel controlled rather than guided and when you have grown up feeling like you are just fitting into someone else’s system and you don’t get to make a lot of choices for yourself then that’s where your autonomy feels compromised and preserving your autonomy, your freedom, your sense of individuality becomes way more important than getting things done on time.

Brett McKay: Besides these psychoanalytical reasons for procrastination, this like, I guess, the nurture part, you also highlight research that biology or nature might play a role and interact with our environment to create the habit of procrastination. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Lenora Yuen: Sure. We all have different genes. We have different brains. The way our brains work is different. Most of us have what we call a neurotypical brains, kind of everyday capacities to manage our workflow, to plan, to organize, to monitor ourselves, but some of us have real difficulty. We talk about this executive function. A lot of the organizational capacity of our brain to get ourselves to work toward goals. People who have executive function problems with the way their brains work well often have trouble with time. People with attention deficit disorder are notorious for being blindsided by time. They’re popping along, getting distracted by this and that and having an immersive experience in whatever present moment shiny thing is captivating their attention and they forget the deadline is coming up and boom, all of a sudden they’re hit by something that feels like it’s coming completely out of the blue. When you have trouble being aware of time and monitoring time procrastination is going to be a much more likely part of your experience.

Jane Burka: It’s also true that there’s a difference between objective time and subjective time. Objective time is clock time, calendar time, inexorable, it just keeps moving whereas subjective time is a person’s experience of time and that’s another sort of biological contribution because your experience of time varies based on your emotion, your arousal, your own circadian rhythm. Time can seem to go really fast in the morning and then at night it feels like it goes on forever. When you have a subjective sense of time that is off from clock time, different from clock time you can think to yourself, “Well, it’s only 15 minutes. It doesn’t matter if I’m 15 minutes late.” Because to you that’s true and to somebody else if you’re 15 minutes buddy, you’re late.

Lenora Yuen: One of the things that’s really complicated with this issue of procrastination is that there are many, many underpinnings for it and many different pathways to the position of struggling with getting things done. Most all procrastinators, I think, are unrealistic about time in one way or another. They often tend to either overestimate how long things will take so that the task looks so horrible and so unapproachable they just feel overwhelmed and they won’t do it or they tend to underestimate how long things will take and so they expect to breeze through like, as Jane was saying, “Oh, that’ll just … 15 minutes, that’s all I need.” And then it takes them three hours.

There can be psychological aspects to being unrealistic about time as well as some of these biological components that make it very hard to monitor time and then that issue of control that we were talking about earlier. Some people want to say, “Time has no control over me. I’m not limited by time. I’m not defined by time.” I mean, it’s a grand illusion that gets them into trouble, but that sense of being autonomous and powerful is so important that even facing the reality of the inexorability of time is unbearable.

Jane Burka: I just want to add to what Lenora’s saying about reality because that is a theme for underlies a lot of what we’re talking about, that procrastinators are really not good at accepting certain realities. They may be very well oriented to reality in a 100 ways, but not oriented to reality in very specific ways like the reality of time passing, the reality of how long things take, the reality of limitations. We all have limitations. We’re better in some things than others. We can only go so far, and yet a procrastinator really does not want to accept limitations.

That’s part of avoiding doing your best and having it evaluated because you don’t want to know where your limitations are. And also there’s the reality that people don’t accept that different brains work differently, like Lenora said. If I think that I have to be good at everything, but my brain isn’t going to let me I personally, Jane, I’m terrible at spatial relations. I’m in the bottom three percentile on spatial relations. If I’m trying to do something that involves spatial relations-

Lenora Yuen: Like find her way to a location.

Jane Burka: Yeah, exactly. North, south, east, west, what’s that? So, I can’t do it and that makes me want to avoid having to deal with anything that is going to demonstrate how bad I am at spatial relations. So, you procrastinate on things that you’re not good at, but if you can accept that there’s some things you’re better at than others, that my brain works very well in terms of vocabulary, but not very well in terms of spatial relations, if I can accept that that’s my weakness I can compensate for it, I can have maps. Now, thank God, they have Siri. I can find my way, but I can do that now without getting mad at myself for being so bad at spatial relations.

Lenora Yuen: You can hear in what Jane was talking about the way in which shame complicates this whole kitchen because if facing reality means to you that you’re having to face your own insufficiency in some way, with some way in which you are less than you should be, then in feeling so badly about yourself and feeling that you’re not a good person or you’re not really lovable because of having these “defects”, then facing the reality is unbearable, but if you can connect to … Really, it’s a common humanity, the fact that everybody has limitations, that having limitations is not something you need to be ashamed of and that you can still have a lot to offer, you can still be loved, you can still be respected, you can still be strong, even with limitations, then, in that kind of acceptance there’s the possibility of being kind to yourself rather than, as Jane was saying, completely denigrating yourself and being really harsh and self-critical. It’s possible to then find ways to make life work really well for you and to be full of all kinds of pleasures and satisfactions.

Brett McKay: Just to make sure I understand what you guys are saying. What you’re saying is that you might be a procrastinator, but only in certain aspects of your life?

Lenora Yuen: That’s true. People usually don’t procrastinate on everything. Usually there are some areas that they procrastinate on and not others and sometimes that can be a real entry way into understanding what it is that is at stake for you emotionally and psychologically.

Jane Burka: So, if you find that you put off things that other people ask you to do versus if you put off things that are just for you, those are two very different psychological pictures. So, it’s likely that those have different psychological routes. If you put off what other people ask you to do we’re now dealing with the area probably of control and if you put off doing just things that are for you then we have to look at perfectionism, fear of failure, fear of success. It’s very important to identify the areas where procrastination causes you the most trouble and that is, as Lenora said, an entry way into understanding what’s underneath.

Brett McKay: I think that’s an important distinction to make. I think often what you’ll see procrastinators do, not all, but they’ll see themselves procrastinating in one area of their life and then they universalize it, like, “Oh, I’m a procrastinator in all aspects of my life.” Well, no, not really. It’s just that one part. So, you end up feeling worse, which perpetuates the cycle of procrastination.

Jane Burka: Right, exactly.

Lenora Yuen: You feel less and less of a person really and then feeling worse you’re more likely to keep avoiding more things.

Brett McKay: Yeah. Lenora, were you going to say something?

Lenora Yuen: Well, I was just thinking about a time in my life that was really revelatory for me. It was a specific moment. I, like Jane, struggled with the writing of my dissertation and I also started avoiding my advisor. I wouldn’t call him and I wouldn’t … He was there to help me, but it didn’t feel that way to me. It felt like he was there to judge me and scold me. So, I was walking around in quite a conundrum and I remember walking down the street in San Francisco and suddenly having this realization that I felt scared and I’d never really thought about that before and I hadn’t started doing procrastination groups with Jane so we hadn’t been talking about that before, but it was just like, “Oh my gosh, I’m afraid to call this guy.”

And suddenly, when I had a name for this sort of agitated feeling of dread and anxiety and whatnot I felt freer. It was sort of unexpected, but once I actually was able to say to myself, “I’m scared and I’m afraid that he’s not going to like me anymore and he’s going to think that I’m stupid instead of thinking that I’m a really smart student.” I suddenly could think to myself, “Well, you know what? Everybody is scared. Being scared is actually a very human experience and you can do this anyway. You can do this even though you are afraid.” It touches on another aspect of the perfectionism. A lot of times people feel like they cannot take action unless they feel a certain way. They feel completely confident, completely certain about what they’re going to do-

Jane Burka: Waiting for all the stars to align.

Lenora Yuen: Absolutely. For me it was feeling certain about what grade I was going to get in a class ahead of time, before I even enrolled in the class I wanted to feel certain about the grade. If you can let go of the idea that you have to feel a certain way then if you’re feeling scared or anxious or guilty or whatever you can still take action. So, that moment was an important moment for me because when I thought about that I actually then went and called my advisor and we set up an appointment and he was really glad to hear from me and he said, “How can I help you?”

I think one of the things I also have realized since then, I didn’t think about it at the time, but since then I’ve really come to understand that in terms of my own family background my parents were very good parents in many, many ways. They loved me a lot. They did expect me to be the star, which was quite a burden, but when it came to feelings of vulnerability they were really uncomfortable with those feelings. So, if I was scared about something or anxious about something, usually those kinds of feelings were met with either dismissiveness, something like, “Oh, there’s nothing to be afraid about.” Or, “Oh, you’re not afraid. You’re not really afraid. You can do … ” Or something worse, contempt, like, “Don’t be ridiculous. Why would you ever feel that?” Or those feelings were simply ignored.

So, fear in my family, it wasn’t acknowledged, it didn’t exist as a feeling that was valid or understandable or normal and I actually learned not to turn to my parents for comfort when I was afraid and feeling afraid was something I was ashamed of. It was easier to feel anxious and guilty about being late or frenzied at the last minute, I’d feel a little ditsy or something like that rather than to feel afraid and become the object of scorn. I didn’t even let myself know that I was afraid until that moment that I was walking on the streets of San Francisco and had that realization that I just plain old was scared and that that was okay.

Jane Burka: I think that a lot of people … When we talk about these fears, fear of failure, fear success, fear of feeling controlled. They don’t necessarily recognize fear. It’s like they think that we’re overstating it, but people don’t recognize fear partly because of what Lenora is saying, that they are not allowed to know they’re afraid. It’s not a language on the emotions that has become part of their vocabulary. When we say fear of failure we don’t mean that you’re shaking in your boot, we mean that there is some deep level of anxiety or uncertainty about your worth. It’s important to know that sometimes you’re afraid, but you don’t recognize it, just like Lenora was saying.

Brett McKay: It sounds like the first step of beating procrastination and getting to the root of these psychological causes is recognize the fear, name it, but what else can you do after that? I mean, I guess there’s probably different things you need to be doing in those different fears, the fear of failure.

Lenora Yuen: I would take issue with the question of is it the first step. For many people the first step is actually to set up some action items, some to-do steps. The problem, and all of those time management techniques, all of the goal setting techniques, kinds of things we do talk about all the time with people is to set your goal, to break it down into small steps, to use small bits of time, 10 minutes, 15 minutes, all those kinds of techniques. They really are valuable and they work, but they only work if you use them. The thing about procrastination is that as people take action what they’re moving into, what they are going to confront are these fears and anxieties that they’ve been avoiding when they’ve avoided the action.

Jane Burka: This is why simple time management techniques or symposia don’t really work, because we tried this when we first did our procrastination groups we well, we’ll just have people set goals and we’ll try to make the goals very specific and something very observable and concrete-

Lenora Yuen: And realistic.

Jane Burka: Yeah, not vague and off in the clouds and, “I’m going to change my life tomorrow.” So, people would set goals and they would say, “Here’s what I’m going to do for next week.” And almost all the time they didn’t do it and they were surprised. They sort of thought, “Well, if you tell me how to go about this that’ll take care of it.” But it almost never happened. There are a few people who can really take these techniques and apply them and use them and I think for them time management and goal setting books are really extremely valuable, but for the people where procrastination has gotten them in trouble that’s not sufficient. So, we would find out that people couldn’t do these rather simple, I mean on the surface simple steps.

In a way it’s important to try to do these technical things. You make a goal for yourself that makes sense, it’s realistic, you can do it in a limited amount of time, you figure out what your first step is, you spend 15 minutes on the first step and then see what happens. We view goal setting as an experiment. It’s not like homework. It’s an experiment. You try it and you see what happens and that’s going to give you a clue about how much of the stranglehold procrastination has.

Lenora Yuen: Seeing what happens includes trying to pay attention to what your own inner experience is because most people don’t really reflect on what are they thinking about, what are they feeling? Part of the experiment is trying to get to know yourself and we really see the behavioral techniques as something that need to work hand in hand with self-understanding and ultimately an attitude of self-compassion because procrastinators are really judgemental of themselves, they’re putting themselves down all the time and actually in the recent years there’s been a body of research that has demonstrated that being self-critical actually does not help you achieve goals that you want. In fact, it makes you want to avoid tasks more than keep working at tasks.

Even though a lot of times people think that by being self-critical they’re being tough and they’re pushing themselves ahead and they’re really going to keep themselves on track and they’re going to really beat this thing. It turns out that being self-critical works more often against you and being compassionate toward yourself, being accepting and forgiving of mistakes you make or ways in which you don’t quite achieve the goal that you set exactly the way you thought you would, that will help you keep going and really this is a long-term process. It’s not glamorous. It’s not magical. It’s not instantaneous. It’s daily work of taking one step at a time and valuing every step that you make.

Jane Burka: Lenora mentioned getting to know yourself better and there are some of the techniques that we recommend in our book that encourage people to get to know themselves better. For example, we talk about looking at your calendar for the coming week and take note of all the things that you already know you’re going to do. If you fill in your calendar with all the things that happen every day and the meetings you have and when you take the kids to school and when you go out for a drink after work or everything that you do, then the time that’s left over, that’s the most amount of time you have to work on something that needs to be done and that’s one of those things that comes as a surprise to people, how little time they actually have that isn’t already accounted for. That’s a way of getting to know yourself to know how your time and actually is spent.

Lenora Yuen: And you can get to know yourself also in terms of your tendency to either overestimate or underestimate time by picking a goal, making a guess as to how long it will take you to do it, especially a small, modest steps and people are often surprised because their estimates are way off base. So, that is another way to get to know something about who you are and the way that you are likely to distort reality.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I love that what you all said earlier, about treating this all as an experiment, because experiment, like there’s no stakes. If you fail there’s information in it that’s useful, if you’re a success, great. I’ve noticed when I’ve gotten stuck on something, the really small experiment that I do is like okay, I’m just going to let … Like if I have the big article to write or when I was in law school and I had my law review rhetoric and like just thinking about writing the law review articles, like oh my gosh, this fills you with dread. Sort of like that dissertation, but not as bad.

Lenora Yuen: Oh, it could be as bad, trust me.

Brett McKay: Yeah, but I was just like, “Okay, I’m just going to write for 10 minutes. That’s it.”

Lenora Yuen: Exactly.

Brett McKay: I would free write and it was just complete garbage I would give myself permission to write garbage. It was interesting, after 10 minutes, I put a timer on, I was like, “Oh, this actually feels pretty good. I’m in a groove here. I’ll keep going.”

Jane Burka: That’s actually one of the things we recommend to people, is to set a timer for a small amount of time just to get started. What you were able to do was just get started and very often when you do that you find, like you said, you were in a groove, you can keep going. People put off getting started, but actually it’s very helpful and the other thing you did that was so useful is you said, “I gave myself permission to write garbage.” You maybe would be surprised, as a professional writer, how many people cannot bear to write garbage. They can’t stand to have the first paragraph anything but perfect and so they’re writing the first paragraph over and over and over again.

Lenora Yuen: In fact, that makes me think about a woman in one of our very first procrastination groups who was suffering terrible writer’s block on a paper and what she said was, “I feel that the first draft has to be of Nobel prize winning quality.” When you’ve got that kind of demand who can write anything, and you got yourself out of that dilemma.

Jane Burka: A lot of people don’t realize that a first attempt is not what is going to be visible. When you procrastinate, then yes, your first attempt often is what’s visible because you waited so long, but Lenora and I have both published and I can have people say to me, “Well, I can’t write anything that comes out well. When I write it’s terrible.” And I say, “My writing is terrible. I’m a bad writer, but I’m a good editor.” I know that my first draft is going to be boring and then Lenora or somebody else can help make it better or I often go back and make it better, but I have to tolerate writing something that I know is bad in order to get to the point of doing it better and if you don’t allow enough time, not just in writing, but in any project, to give yourself a chance to mess around with it, to do it in a messy way, in an imperfect way, in an approximate way and then have the confidence that you can make it better, the procrastination doesn’t allow you to do any of that.

Brett McKay: Jane, Lenora, this has been a fascinating conversation, a great one. We covered a lot of ground, I feel like.

Jane Burka: Yes, we did.

Lenora Yuen: This is a very complex topic and there is a lot of ground to cover.

Brett McKay: And there’s a lot more to cover. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Jane Burka: Yeah, that’s what I was going to say. In our book we elaborate on all these themes. The book is called Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It Now and it’s available on Amazon, it’s available in Kindle form, there’s an audiotape. There’s a blog on the Psychology Today website about procrastination. Our book has a website. So, those are all the way you can find out more.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Jane, Lenora, thank you guys for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Jane Burka: Thank you.

Lenora Yuen: Pleasure for us too.

Jane Burka: You’re a really good interviewer. We appreciate it.

Brett McKay: Thank you so much. My guests today were Jane Burke and Lenora Yuen. They are the authors of the book Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It Now. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about their work at Also check our show notes at, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips advice make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at You enjoy this show, have gotten something out of it, I’d appreciate if you’ve taken one minute to give us review on iTunes or Stitcher. Helps us out a lot. If you’ve done that already please share this show with your friends, the more the merrier around here. As always, thank you for your continued support. Until next time this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.