We’ll start this review with a disclaimer there is swearing in the quotes. That’s just the style of the author of the book. In the first chapter, it felt like he was using profanity just for shock factor, with some sentences so overloaded that it was almost comical. After that initial bit, it went way down and was used in conjunction with the main point of the book…
The key to a good life is not giving a fuck about more; it’s giving a fuck about less, giving a fuck about what is true and immediate and important.
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, by Mark Manson, is a bit memoir as it explores when he used to care way too much about things that don’t matter. It’s also part self-help, as he admonishes us to embrace anxiety and hardship. Embrace them not as bad parts of life, but parts of life that we all experience and are entirely normal.
Now here’s a problem: Our society today, through the wonders of consumer culture and hey-look-at-my-life-is-cooler-than-yours social media, has bred a whole generation of people who believe that having these negative experiences — anxiety, fear, guilt, etc. — is totally not okay.
It’s also part manifesto as it rails against the focus on being positive which pervades everything around us.
Ironically, this fixation on the positive — on what’s better, what’s superior — only serves to remind us over and over again of what we are not, of what we lack, of what we should have been but failed to be. After all no, truly happy person feels the need to stand in front of a mirror and recite that she’s happy. She just is.
Manson isn’t preaching that we shouldn’t care about anything though. He’s saying that we should care about what truly matters only and put effort into those things.
He modifies his bold statement about not caring with three subtleties.
Subtlety #1: Not giving a fuck does not mean being indifferent: It means being comfortable with being different
The question, then, is, What do we give a fuck about? What are we choosing to give a fuck about? And how can we not give a fuck about what ultimately does not matter?
This matches up with High Performance Habit 1 out of High Performance Habits by Brendan Bouchard. We need to seek clarity if we want to perform well.
Subtlety #2: To not give a fuck about adversity, you must first give a fuck about something more important than adversity.
This also ties into having clarity or a WHY to use Simon Sinek’s term. Without a purpose to your work, you’ll abandon it as soon as something hard gets in your way. You’ll care less about the work than about avoiding the hardship.
We also see this in Great at Work by Morten Hansen, but he adds another piece to the puzzle. Hansen contends that purpose alone isn’t enough. Nor is passion enough, which puts him at odds with many of the coaching guru’s around that say follow your passion. Hansen says that you need to connect passion and purpose if you want to have a fulfilling career.
Some people pursue passion in navigating their careers, but they also manage to connect this passion with a clear sense of purpose on the job—they contribute, serve others, make a difference. They have matched passion with purpose. – Great at Work
Subtlety #3: Whether you realize it or not, you are always choosing what to give a fuck about.
The final subtle tweak is that you’re always choosing. Just like the idea that not choosing is choosing. You are choosing. When you say, you want to read, but watch TV all night instead. You’re choosing TV and choosing not to read.
With the introduction to the ideas that Manson will be writing about done, the rest of the book is designed to question you on what you care about so that you can think more clearly about it and start caring more about the things that matter to you. This means you’ll quite possibly stop caring about the things that matter in everyone else’s minds.
Manson uses each of the following chapters to explore an idea that we should be rethinking.
Happiness is a Problem
There is a premise that underlies a lot of our assumptions and beliefs. The premise is that happiness is algorithmic, that it can be worked for and earned and achieved as if it were getting accepted to law school or building a really complicated Lego set.
How many books a year are being written to help people achieve happiness? How many people get to happy by reading these works? One of the ideas Manson gets behind has already been stated in one of the quotes you’ve read. It’s the idea that a happy person doesn’t just stand in front of the mirror quoting happy things at themselves. They just are happy.
He contends that the premise of happiness as a solvable equation is where we break down and harm ourselves.
This premise, though, is the problem. Happiness is not a solvable equation. Dissatisfaction and unease are inherent parts of human nature and, as we’ll see, necessary components to creating consistent happiness.
By figuring that we can “solve” our happiness, we negate all the emotions that have been labelled as negative. Like dissatisfaction or yearning or anxiety. By avoiding these emotions, so often labelled as problems, we avoid getting to any semblance of happiness.
Happiness comes from solving problems. The keyword here is “solving.” If you’re avoiding your problems or feeling like you don’t have any problems, then you’re going to make yourself miserable.
Finally, the focus on achieving happiness gives us the subtle indication that we get happiness and then have it. That happiness is not something which ebbs and flows and changes as we move through life
But it is. What makes you happy today, may not bring happiness in the future. It may bring you pain in fact.
Happiness is a constant work-in-progress, because solving problems is a constant work-in-progress — the solution to today’s problems will lay the foundation for tomorrow’s problems, and so on. True happiness occurs only when you find the problems you enjoy having and solving.
When we looked at Connected, we saw that we have a set point for happiness. If we are usually a 7 on the happiness scale, but something traumatic happens and we drop to a 5, we will slowly creep back up to that 7.
…each of us tends to stay put in a particular long-term disposition; we appear to have a set point for personal happiness that is not easy to change. In fact, like other personality traits, personal happiness appears to be strongly influenced by our genes. – Connected
This backs up Manson’s thoughts around happiness. You won’t raise your happiness a number of points and then stay there. You will get used to the new things and then drift back to your happiness set point. This is not a bad thing, as Manson says, find problems you like to solve and keep solving them.
You are not special
Get ready for this; you are not a special snowflake worthy of all the good juju in the universe. I know your parents may have told you differently. They meant well, and they still loved you. But they lied to you.
In the process, they may have even set you back because when the truth of life comes to knock you upside the head, you’ll be left without a base to stand on.
The truth is, you’re good at some stuff and bad at some stuff. You need to take the good and the bad in turn and deal with it.
A person who actually has a high self-worth is able to look at the negative parts of his characters frankly — “Yes sometimes I’m irresponsible with money,” “Yes, I rely too much on others to support me and should be more self-reliant” — and then acts to improve upon them. But entitled people, because they are incapable of acknowledging their own problems open and honestly, are incapable of improving their lives in any lasting or meaningful way. They are left chasing high after high and accumulate greater and greater levels of denial.
Acknowledging the things you suck at, will allow you grow in them or find a way to compensate for them.
Acknowledging this will help you gain resilience. You’ll be tougher for it. You’ll be able to stand in the face of things that you don’t like and weigh them then decide if it’s worth fighting them.
You’ll develop grit.
Numerous professors and educators have noted a lack of emotional resilience and an excess of selfish demands in today’s young people. It’s not uncommon now for books to be removed from a class’s curriculum for no other reason than that they made someone feel sad.
The Value of Suffering
This chapter opens with a crazy story of a Japanese Military officer that was dropped off in the South Pacific near the end of World War II and told not to surrender. Well despite many efforts to get him to come in, it was 1974 before he finally gave up his guerrilla war.
Decades after the war was over. More than half of his life spent fighting a war alone. He still felt that all his suffering was worth the effort. He was evaluating himself against his final order: “Never surrender.”
The question is not whether we evaluate ourselves against others; rather, the question is by what standard do we measure ourselves?
While he did stop the fight, he never did surrender. In Perennial Seller, Ryan Holiday, talks about what we measure ourselves against in our creative endeavours.
People claim to want to do something that matters, yet they measure themselves against things that don’t, and track their progress not in years but in microseconds. – Perennial Seller
They’re both talking about the same ideas. How we measure ourselves matters. What mark are we trying to hit?
Are we measuring the gap or the gain? Measuring the gap means we look at someone we long to be and measure how far we are from them. Measuring progress means we still have that far off goal, but we measure the progress we’ve made on the road.
Changing how we measure our efforts changes the happiness we have in our work.
Part of our obsessive checking of social media or email is tied up in this evaluating ourselves based on what others think is important. Do your morning emails really detail the most important work you could be doing this morning? No they probably don’t. Does the number of likes you have an Instagram have any bearing on your work or value? Nope.
I’m sure that most of you agree with both of those statements, and yet you hop on email first thing to see if anything important came in. You pull your phone out regularly to see what the latest social validation is on your social media poison of choice.
That’s you measuring yourself against what others, companies full of people trying to steal your attention even, feel is important for you. No wonder discontent is your best friend.
The rest of the book takes a similar format, but he classes these chapters as Counterintuitive Values, that we must adopt if we want to live a life that feels worth living.
You Are Always Choosing
The recognition that you’re always choosing is Counterintuitive Value 1. You need to take responsibility for what’s happening to you.
There is a simple realization from which all personal improvement and growth emerges. This is the realization that we individually, are responsible for everything in our lives, no matter the external circumstances.
One of the key ideas here is that fault and responsibility are not tied together.
Fault is past tense. Responsibility is present tense. Fault results from choices that have already been made. Responsibility results from the choices you’re currently making, every second of every day.
You can take responsibility for solving a problem, without accepting the fault for that problem. You can also opt out of both. Push the fault for the problem on someone else, and then the responsibility for fixing it on someone else.
You won’t get very far with that though. You’ll always have some reason that someone else is causing your issues, and you’ll abdicate your ability to make any changes in the situation. That also gives away your ability to work towards something better.
Of course, success and happiness are something different.
We all love to take responsibility for success and happiness. Hell, we often fight over who gets to be responsible for success and happiness. But taking responsibility for problems is far more important, because that’s where real learning comes from. That’s where the real-life improvement comes from. To simply blame others is only to hurt yourself.
You either need to take responsibility for all of it, and thereby seize control, or acknowledge you’re letting others dictate how far you’re going to go. How much joy you’re going to experience in your life.
You’re wrong about everything (but so am I)
The second Counterintuitive Value is the uncertainty value. According to Manson, we’re all way to concerned about being right. Instead of worrying about being right, aim for just a bit less wrong than before.
Then test and refine and aim for just a bit less wrong.
We shouldn’t seek to find the ultimate “right” answer for ourselves, but rather, we should seek to chip away at the ways that we’re wrong today so that we can be a little less wrong tomorrow.
This process requires that we admit we don’t know everything. We must not be so cemented in our beliefs that we view other ideas as stupid1. Being uncertain about our values doesn’t make them wrong. It should make us strive to test them and face up to where we might be ignorant.
Before we can look at our values and prioritizations and change them into better, healthier ones, we must first become uncertain of our current values. We must intellectually strip them away, see their faults and biases, see how they don’t fit in with much of the rest of the world, to stare our own ignorance in the face and concede, because our own ignorance is greater than us all.
You don’t have to know it all.
Failure is The Way Forward
Counterintuitive Value 3 is about embracing failure and makes me think very much of The Obstacle is The Way by Ryan Holiday. If we want to improve, then failure will happen.
Improvement at anything is based on thousands of tiny failures, and the measure of your success is based on how many times you’ve failed at something. If someone is better than you at anything, then it’s likely because she has failed at it more than you have. If someone is worse than you, it’s likely because he hasn’t been through all of the painful learning experiences you have.
This idea also harkens back to Manson’s earlier idea that we need to change our measure. Instead of measuring successes, should we measure failures? One hard point to reckon here is, failure doesn’t pay, and we all have bills to pay.
It’s not easy to espouse failure as a better measure, when we need success to eat.
I can’t stress this enough, but pain is part of the process. It’s important to feel it. Because if you just chase after highs to cover up the pain, if you continue to indulge in entitlement and delusional positive thinking, if you continue to overindulge in various substances or activities, then you’ll never generate the requisite motivation to actually change.
Ryan Holiday in Perennial Seller, and Seth Godin in The Dip both talk about pain being something you’ll experience on the way to creative success. If there is no struggle to build something worthwhile, are you on the path to something that provides value? Are you building something that’s worth the time of anyone else?
The Importance of Saying No
Rejection is the focus of Counterintuitive Value 4. This is the idea that we need to say no to something. That something has to be more desirable than the rest of the stuff that’s on our plate.
But we need to reject something. Otherwise, we stand for nothing. If nothing is better or more desirable than anything else, then we are empty and our life is meaningless. We are without values and therefore live our life without any purpose.
Without a goal, a desire, we have no direction to go. We will wander from one marginal thing to another wondering why we feel so empty.
He takes it a step further though and brings in conflict. Specifically, conflict with relationships. Not just romantic ones, but with any relationship we have.
Without conflict, there can be no trust. Conflict exists to show us who is there for us unconditionally and who is just there for the benefits. No one trusts yes-men.
Thinking back over my 15-year marriage, we have grown the most in the days, weeks, sometimes months, where we didn’t like hanging out with each other much. The times when we argued daily about the same topic over and over.
It was in the midst of this partial rejection that we both got to express our deeper love for each other, by still showing up to keep working through the issues together. We adopted the phrase, “I’ll still be here” as a way to continue going through the struggle together.
Patrick Lencioni also talks about conflict being a thing that breeds awesome teams in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. He says that lack of conflict comes because you don’t trust each other. You don’t trust that what you say won’t be used against you at some point in the future.
Before you dive in to conflict, make sure that there is trust in the relationships that matter to you.
…And Then You Die
Counterintuitive Value 5 is mortality. The recognition that we’ll die someday and in the face of that, why are we wasting our time on so much crap that we don’t care about.
Confronting the reality of our own mortality is important because that obliterates all the crappy, fragile, superficial values in life. While most people whittle their days chasing another buck, or a little bit more fame and attention, or a little bit more assurance that they’re right or loved, death confronts all of us with a far more painful and important question: What is your legacy?
I find the problem here to be, how do we do that. Yes, imagine your eulogy…or any number of other imaginary scenarios can be played out in your head. They do have some benefit in helping you think about the man you want to be.
But in none of them do you encounter your mortality in a profound way. It seems to me that the only way to do that is to have a near-death experience or have someone close to you die.
Neither of which will I wish on you.
The goal here is to dig deep into your core and know what you value. To realize that in the grand scheme of things, we’re not that big. There is so much immensity around us.
If we can do that, we won’t feel so entitled.
The gravity of entitlement sucks all attention inward, toward ourselves, causing us to feel as though we are at the center of all the problems in the universe, that we are the one suffering all of the injustices, that we are the one who deserves greatness over all others.
We’ll start to focus on that which brings us joy and brings joy to the ones we love instead of what makes us happiest in the moment.
Losing that entitlement and gaining that focus is what Mark Manson is trying to achieve in the readers of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck.
Recommendation for The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck
First, take my starting caveat on the use of “fuck” in the book. If that’s going to cause you to discount the content or not finish the book, then just don’t get it.
If you can read past it and dig into the message Manson is sending you, then this is a great book. I love Manson’s style in that he tells us to suck it up buttercup. He’s a straight shooter and isn’t interested in our excuses.
Now, this is what I’m like2, so maybe that why I resonates with me so much.
If you’re looking for a kick in the ass so you can stop caring about things that don’t matter, then The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck is worth your time.
Photo by: cdharrison