There’s a lot of conflicting information and signals out there on “being a man”. Some might say that being a real man today is being confident enough to embrace effeminacy, such as the dainty aura of the (God, I hate to sound cliche and use this term but…) “hipsters” and at the other end of the spectrum many young men look to the world of various gang cultures (be it black gangsters, biker gangs, cholos, etc.) and the aggressiveness they possess. Others define what it means to be a man in more mundane terms like “having a job”, “raising your kids” and other middle class trappings.
I read this book a year or so ago and re-read it recently after stumbling across Jack Donovan’s “Start The World” podcast and listening to an interview with him on the Pressure Project podcast and I suppose an older episode from the Art of Manliness podcast a couple months ago helped put him back on my radar.
Donovan doesn’t set out exactly to teach the reader how to “be a man”, but in this short book he does a pretty good job of listing a few universal traits that make a man “good at being a man”. He calls these the tactical virtues: strength, courage, honor and mastery. I believe this concise observation is the most important takeaway from the book.
When I look back on my time in the Marine Corps, these four traits really stand out when I think about the people that were respected and the people who weren’t. The Marines that were looked up to were all physically and mentally strong. They had courage – always confident and willing to take risks. They had honor in that you knew their word was gold. They honored our traditions and protocols and were selfless within our little tribe. Mastery? These guys always seemed to have the right answer for everything and a high degree of competence in almost everything they did.
The ones that weren’t respected were for lacking one or more of those four tactical virtues. The NCO that falls out of a hump (lack of strength) never lives it down. Hell, there was a guy in my unit that had a habit of it and 15 years later guys are STILL talking about it. Guys that didn’t have the courage to face the enemy or even take an ass-chewing from a superior get noted – I recall having to take our section of cooks out on a night time raid and their section leader ducking out and sending the rest of his guys, instead of leading them like he SHOULD’VE. The guys that were quick to rat or screw over the other guy (lacked honor) went down as “blue falcons” (aka “buddyfuckers”). Mastery? Every time an NCO that displayed some gross level of incompetence at some point started barking orders, the juniors would start grumbling about how this asshole can’t even disassemble the SAW, went UNQ on the range, etc.
In other words, Donovan’s assessment pans out in real life, just in case you were skeptical. Each of the tactical virtues deserve to have more written about them here and maybe at a later date I will.
The other concept from the book that stands out is the idea that men need to impress other men (through the tactical virtues). Men that lack the tactical virtues might be quick to downplay it and say “that’s gay!”, but ultimately women are generally drawn to men who achieve high status among other men. In our “you’re ok just the way you are” and “10 steps to pick up the woman of your dreams” world, I don’t think I’ve ever seen this idea articulated, although it does seem instinctual. As men we really do seek out to impress other men and gain status within whatever hierarchy we’re in.
Why do men seek to impress each other? According to the book, because the “way of the gang” is the “way of men”. We’re naturally social creatures…that form gangs. We’ve historically banded together to protect our resources (women, food, land, whatever) and we intrinsically want to be the kind of guy that other men want to “walk the perimeter” with. Donovan spends a lot of time in the book talking about our predisposition to gang activity….and of course by gang, he doesn’t necessarily mean the bloods/crips thing, although that certainly counts.
Another fascinating part of the book is when he compares chimpanzee and bonobo societies, both critters being our next closest relatives. Bonobos have a female-dominated society where resources are plentiful and there’s not much competition whereas chimps live in a male society where resources are scarce and there is outside competition from other bands of chimps. The world of the bonobos looks strikingly similar to well, modern life. The world of the chimpanzee looks a lot closer to the way humans have lived up until modern times. You’ll have to read the book to see the details.
Overall, this book is full of a lot of powerful words and ideas that I think will stick with me. Donovan has a very forceful style of writing, I really like it. Even the cover art stands out as something powerful…I think he’s a tattoo artist, I assume it’s something he came up with.
Having a son and I suppose a 10 year old de-facto stepson that I’m helping to raise has made me think a lot about issues relating to masculinity. Although I wouldn’t say I’m exactly Billy Bad-Ass, I find myself thinking/saying things like “how’s this boy going to make it in the world if he literally cries we have something he doesn’t want for dinner?” or telling him that 10 year old boys are too old to pout about this or that and being genuinely concerned about the boy not being raised in a way that helps him to overcome adversity.
While I wouldn’t exactly hand the kid a copy of The Way of Men just yet, thinking with the tactical virtues in mind will be a great guide into helping to develop some boys into the kind of men that will be successful.