Anyone who has ever taken to social media to announce a self-improvement project knows that your “friends” cannot be relied upon to hold you accountable. Almost as soon as you proclaim your intention to learn French or cut out carbs, the world moves on, leaving you with only your empty promises and scone crumbs on your shirt.
It’s not so easy to slack if you’re Mark Zuckerberg. Each year, Mr. Zuckerberg, the Facebook co-founder and C.E.O., who is now 31, has made public pledges to improve himself. His efforts have been closely tracked by the press and by users of his globe-spanning social network who seem never to forget his promises despite the Internet’s ability to reset itself every morning in the manner of “Groundhog Day.”
In 2009, Mr. Mark Zuckerberg decided to wear a tie every day. In 2010, he set himself the task of learning to speak Mandarin. In 2011, he vowed that when he ate meat, it would be only from animals he had slaughtered himself, a pledge seemingly confirmed by a leaked photo of him grinning while holding a chicken by its feet.
In 2013 he aimed to meet someone new every day. In 2014, he promised to write a daily handwritten (or emailed) thank-you note. Last year, he started his own book club, reading a new title every two weeks.
This year is no different. Even though Mr. Zuckerberg probably has his hands full with his company and a new baby, he has said he will run 365 miles over the course of the year and build an artificial intelligence butler for his home.
Mr. Zuckerberg’s efforts have made him the object of fascination and emulation among a subset of millennials in and around the tech industry. More than seeing Mr. Zuckerberg as merely an avatar of tech success and unfathomable wealth, they consider him a role model.
“I run three experiments each year inspired by Zuckerberg,” said Dave Fontenot, 22, a San Francisco resident who used to be an agent for engineers, but who said he is currently “focusing on myself.”
This year, Mr. Fontenot aims to improve his posture, meditate and spend more time alone. He also trained himself to send thank-you notes, either handwritten or as voice recordings via text, inspired by Mr. Zuckerberg. “For a period of time, I wasn’t thanking people at all, but then, for one of the most powerful person in the world to do it, I was like, wow,” Mr. Fontenot said.
In 2012, Mr. Fontenot was invited to Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., after winning a hackathon at the University of Michigan. There, he had a chance to see Mr. Zuckerberg up close.
Mr. Fontenot remembered a moment when Mr. Zuckerberg spotted someone juggling and expressed a desire to try it. “In 20 minutes, he kind of learned it,” Mr. Fontenot said.
Lukas Biewald, a co-founder and the C.E.O. of CrowdFlower, a crowdsourcing company in San Francisco, sees Mr. Zuckerberg’s efforts at self-betterment, maybe even including juggling, as emblematic of the tech industry as a whole. “I think taking on self-improvement projects outside of work is part of the zeitgeist of Silicon Valley,” said Mr. Biewald, 34. “People expect you to have things that you care about outside of work.”
For John Mills, 33, a woodworker and a co-founder of Zenput, a mobile work-tracking company, that means internal and external initiatives. “I’ve actually started meditating and yoga,” he said. “I started to get involved in nonprofit work, started to donate more of my time and money and resources to nonprofits I believe in.”
Mr. Zuckerberg’s recent philanthropic efforts are particularly inspiring to Mr. Mills. “To see him become a philanthropist on the largest scale possible is amazing to see,” Mr. Mills said. “He keeps reinventing himself and being a better human being.”
To Erik Zuuring, 26, a designer and developer in Montreal, Mr. Zuckerberg’s self-improvement offers permission to develop mastery outside of technology. “I see these self-improvement things from Zuckerberg as a way to say, ‘You don’t have to always rely on computers, you can do things without distractions,’” Mr. Zuuring said.
“I became a vegetarian and found ways to exercise, take an hour to play guitar or read a book,” he said. “I think that’s what Zuckerberg is trying to get people to do, too. It’s inspiring, but in some sense it’s weird, coming from Facebook.”
“I’ve looked at the list of many things he’s done and followed many of the same paths,” said Ben Tauber, the 32-year-old founder of Velocity, a platform that connects people to personal and professional coaches. “I have a personal meditation practice, paid attention to my food, killed my own chickens.”
“One of the things that I’ve really appreciated is the transformation I’ve seen Mark go through from the outside, how he communicated what his values were when he was 24, 26, to what his values are now,” Mr. Tauber said.
That transformation didn’t always seem inevitable. The early public perception of the once-20-something C.E.O. was as an emotionless carbon-based offshoot of the Internet itself.
Jesse Eisenberg’s affectless rendering of Mr. Zuckerberg in the movie “The Social Network” may have brought the image to a wider audience, but the impression had been formed years earlier, by awkward public appearances like a Q. and A. at the 2008 South by Southwest Interactive Festival that went from stiff to testy in no time.
The few rote-seeming interviews Mr. Zuckerberg has given over the years have only served to confirm the assumption that he is more machine than man. That may be why his annual announcements sometimes have the feel of software upgrades. (Mr. Zuckerberg, through a spokeswoman, declined to speak about his yearly challenges, citing time constraints.)
“Somewhere along the line he’s changed into the aspirational model in chief,” said Tom Junod, Esquire’s writer-at-large, who profiled the press-shy Mr. Zuckerberg for the magazine using only publicly available quotes. “I think it’s when he started doing these self-improvement projects.” In his elusive subject, Mr. Junod discovered “the most interesting boring person in the world or the most boring interesting one.”
Not everyone in the tech field is a Zuckerberg acolyte. Max Nanis, a 25-year-old computational biologist (“You’d call me a ‘brogammer,’” he said) from the La Jolla section of San Diego, compared some of Mr. Zuckerberg’s public pronouncements and peekaboo social media presence to those of the Kardashians.
“The way he acts is no different than a 20-year-old model on Instagram,” Mr. Nanis said. “He knows he has influence. That’s how I read a lot of those messages.” (Perhaps, but unlike any of those models, Mr. Zuckerberg acquired Instagram for $1 billion in 2012.)
“I’m sure people aspire to be Mark Zuckerberg when they grow up,” Mr. Nanis said. But, he said, “People that need role models for very rudimentary behaviors for taking care of themselves probably have other problems to deal with.”
“No single person can rewrite a social norm, but if one influential person lets it be known that even at the pinnacle of success one ought to reassess life, that’s a good influence,” said Steven Pinker, 61, the Harvard professor whose “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” was one of Mr. Zuckerberg’s book club picks.
“He seems to be closer to setting an example than preaching or proselytizing,” Mr. Pinker said. “I don’t see a manifesto from him or a splashy aspirational statement from him.”
After selecting Mr. Pinker’s book, Mr. Zuckerberg invited the professor to the Facebook campus and to dinner at his house in Palo Alto, Calif. Also in attendance were Mr. Zuckerberg’s wife, Priscilla Chan, and several Facebook executives. The meal was catered; Mr. Pinker said he wasn’t sure if Mr. Zuckerberg had slaughtered any of the animals himself.
“It was pleasant,” Mr. Pinker said. “He’s nonpretentious, intellectually curious, eager to learn and interact.”
Did Mr. Pinker send a thank-you note afterward?
“I have to confess that I didn’t,” he said. “Maybe that’s a resolution I should adopt.”