/ 4-stars

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life

GoodReads: 4 stars

Manson's book is a profane and frequently hilarious crash-course in pragmatic modern Stoicism. How can I not love a book called "The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck"? I've given talks where my last slide literally says, "Life is hard and then, almost immediately, you die."

I laughed out loud when I saw chapters with titles like:

  • Happiness is a problem
  • You are not special
  • You’re Wrong About Everything (But So Am I)
  • ...And Then You Die

Manson kept me eagerly turning the pages with his oddball quips:

  • Fuck you, wall. Here, have a fist.
  • And like the road not taken, it was the fucks not given that made all the difference.
  • What hurricanes will you leave in your wake?

Although his exposition of Stoicisim was great and he wins major points for his clear thinking ("Happiness comes from solving problems"), his lame and mundane examples dull the brightness of an otherwise brilliant book. Even so, this is the sort of book that an older brother should give to his younger brothers - its entertaining irreverence hides the fact that Manson is essentially regurgitating the best of classic Stoic philosophy:

This, in a nutshell, is what “self-improvement” is really about: prioritizing better values, choosing better things to give a fuck about. Because when you give better fucks, you get better problems. And when you get better problems, you get a better life.

I also appreciated his ridicule of Yale (although not by name): "Speakers and professors are shouted down and banned from campuses for infractions as simple as suggesting that maybe some Halloween costumes really aren’t that offensive." The university would be in much better shape if more Yalies read this book. Here's the killer line:

Because when you give too many fucks — when you give a fuck about everyone and everything — you will feel that you’re perpetually entitled to be comfortable and happy at all times, that everything is supposed to be just exactly the fucking way you want it to be. This is a sickness. And it will eat you alive.

My favorite highlights below


CHAPTER 1 - Don’t Try

Bukowski wrote back to the editor: “I have one of two choices—stay in the post office and go crazy . . . or stay out here and play at writer and starve. I have decided to starve.”

It is then strange that on Bukowski’s tombstone, the epitaph reads: “Don’t try.”

This is the real story of Bukowski’s success: his comfort with himself as a failure. Bukowski didn’t give a fuck about success. Even after his fame, he still showed up to poetry readings hammered and verbally abused people in his audience. He still exposed himself in public and tried to sleep with every woman he could find. Fame and success didn’t make him a better person. Nor was it by becoming a better person that he became famous and successful.

The key to a good life is not giving a fuck about more; it’s giving a fuck about less, giving a fuck about only what is true and immediate and important.

Now look at you: you’re angry at yourself getting angry about being angry. Fuck you, wall. Here, have a fist.

Back in Grandpa’s day, he would feel like shit and think to himself, “Gee whiz, I sure do feel like a cow turd today. But hey, I guess that’s just life. Back to shoveling hay.”

This is why not giving a fuck is so key. This is why it’s going to save the world. And it’s going to save it by accepting that the world is totally fucked and that’s all right, because it’s always been that way, and always will be.

The desire for more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience.

It’s like this one time I tripped on acid and it felt like the more I walked toward a house, the farther away the house got from me. And yes, I just used my LSD hallucinations to make a philosophical point about happiness. No fucks given. As the existential philosopher Albert Camus said (and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t on LSD at the time): “You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.” Or put more simply: Don’t try.

Being open with your insecurities paradoxically makes you more confident and charismatic around others. The pain of honest confrontation is what generates the greatest trust and respect in your relationships. Suffering through your fears and anxieties is what allows you to build courage and perseverance.

Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience. Any attempt to escape the negative, to avoid it or quash it or silence it, only backfires. The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering. The avoidance of struggle is a struggle. The denial of failure is a failure. Hiding what is shameful is itself a form of shame. Pain is an inextricable thread in the fabric of life, and to tear it out is not only impossible, but destructive: attempting to tear it out unravels everything else with it. To try to avoid pain is to give too many fucks about pain. In contrast, if you’re able to not give a fuck about the pain, you become unstoppable.

In my life, I have given a fuck about many things. I have also not given a fuck about many things. And like the road not taken, it was the fucks not given that made all the difference.

Look, this is how it works. You’re going to die one day. I know that’s kind of obvious, but I just wanted to remind you in case you’d forgotten. You and everyone you know are going to be dead soon. And in the short amount of time between here and there, you have a limited amount of fucks to give. Very few, in fact. And if you go around giving a fuck about everything and everyone without conscious thought or choice — well, then you’re going to get fucked.

Because when you give too many fucks — when you give a fuck about everyone and everything — you will feel that you’re perpetually entitled to be comfortable and happy at all times, that everything is supposed to be just exactly the fucking way you want it to be. This is a sickness. And it will eat you alive.

Subtlety #1: Not giving a fuck does not mean being indifferent; it means being comfortable with being different.

When we say, “Damn, watch out, Mark Manson just don’t give a fuck,” we don’t mean that Mark Manson doesn’t care about anything; on the contrary, we mean that Mark Manson doesn’t care about adversity in the face of his goals, he doesn’t care about pissing some people off to do what he feels is right or important or noble. We mean that Mark Manson is the type of guy who would write about himself in third person just because he thought it was the right thing to do. He just doesn’t give a fuck.

They say, “Fuck it,” not to everything in life, but rather to everything unimportant in life.

Because here’s another sneaky little truth about life. You can’t be an important and life-changing presence for some people without also being a joke and an embarrassment to others. You just can’t. Because there’s no such thing as a lack of adversity. It doesn’t exist. The old saying goes that no matter where you go, there you are. Well, the same is true for adversity and failure. No matter where you go, there’s a five-hundred-pound load of shit waiting for you. And that’s perfectly fine. The point isn’t to get away from the shit. The point is to find the shit you enjoy dealing with.

Subtlety #2: To not give a fuck about adversity, you must first give a fuck about something more important than adversity.

Subtlety #3: Whether you realize it or not, you are always choosing what to give a fuck about.

I believe that today we’re facing a psychological epidemic, one in which people no longer realize it’s okay for things to suck sometimes. I know that sounds intellectually lazy on the surface, but I promise you, it’s a life/death sort of issue.

Instead, this book will turn your pain into a tool, your trauma into power, and your problems into slightly better problems. That is real progress. Think of it as a guide to suffering and how to do it better, more meaningfully, with more compassion and more humility. It’s a book about moving lightly despite your heavy burdens, resting easier with your greatest fears, laughing at your tears as you cry them.

CHAPTER 2 - Happiness Is a Problem

In fact, the prince came to know what the rest of us have always kind of known: that suffering totally sucks. And it’s not necessarily that meaningful either. As with being rich, there is no value in suffering when it’s done without purpose. [Note: echoes of Nietzsche]

The prince would later become known as the Buddha. And in case you haven’t heard of him, he was kind of a big deal.

If I could invent a superhero, I would invent one called Disappointment Panda. He’d wear a cheesy eye mask and a shirt (with a giant capital T on it) that was way too small for his big panda belly, and his superpower would be to tell people harsh truths about themselves that they needed to hear but didn’t want to accept.

And this is what’s so dangerous about a society that coddles itself more and more from the inevitable discomforts of life: we lose the benefits of experiencing healthy doses of pain, a loss that disconnects us from the reality of the world around us.

“Don’t hope for a life without problems,” the panda said. “There’s no such thing. Instead, hope for a life full of good problems.”

Happiness comes from solving problems.

True happiness occurs only when you find the problems you enjoy having and enjoy solving.

Whatever your problems are, the concept is the same: solve problems; be happy. Unfortunately, for many people, life doesn’t feel that simple. That’s because they fuck things up in at least one of two ways:

  1. Denial. Some people deny that their problems exist in the first place. And because they deny reality, they must constantly delude or distract themselves from reality. This may make them feel good in the short term, but it leads to a life of insecurity, neuroticism, and emotional repression.

  2. Victim Mentality. Some choose to believe that there is nothing they can do to solve their problems, even when they in fact could. Victims seek to blame others for their problems or blame outside circumstances. This may make them feel better in the short term, but it leads to a life of anger, helplessness, and despair.

Emotions are simply biological signals designed to nudge you in the direction of beneficial change.

Decision-making based on emotional intuition, without the aid of reason to keep it in line, pretty much always sucks. You know who bases their entire lives on their emotions? Three-year-old kids. And dogs. You know what else three-year-olds and dogs do? Shit on the carpet.

A more interesting question, a question that most people never consider, is, “What pain do you want in your life? What are you willing to struggle for?” Because that seems to be a greater determinant of how our lives turn out.

CHAPTER 3 - You Are Not Special

The true measurement of self-worth is not how a person feels about her positive experiences, but rather how she feels about her negative experiences.

This entitlement plays out in one of two ways:

  1. I’m awesome and the rest of you all suck, so I deserve special treatment.
  2. I suck and the rest of you are all awesome, so I deserve special treatment.

Because construing everything in life so as to make yourself out to be constantly victimized requires just as much selfishness as the opposite. It takes just as much energy and delusional self-aggrandizement to maintain the belief that one has insurmountable problems as that one has no problems at all.

Speakers and professors are shouted down and banned from campuses for infractions as simple as suggesting that maybe some Halloween costumes really aren’t that offensive. School counselors note that more students than ever are exhibiting severe signs of emotional distress over what are otherwise run-of-the-mill daily college experiences, such as an argument with a roommate, or getting a low grade in a class.

The problem is that the pervasiveness of technology and mass marketing is screwing up a lot of people’s expectations for themselves.

Technology has solved old economic problems by giving us new psychological problems. The Internet has not just open-sourced information; it has also open-sourced insecurity, self-doubt, and shame.

The rare people who do become truly exceptional at something do so not because they believe they’re exceptional. On the contrary, they become amazing because they’re obsessed with improvement. And that obsession with improvement stems from an unerring belief that they are, in fact, not that great at all. It’s anti-entitlement.

CHAPTER 4 - The Value of Suffering

Unarmed and untrained for any sort of reconnaissance or tactical warfare, Suzuki traveled to Lubang and began wandering around the jungle all by himself. His strategy: scream Onoda’s name really loudly and tell him that the emperor was worried about him. He found Onoda in four days.

Let’s say the first layer of the self-awareness onion is a simple understanding of one’s emotions. “This is when I feel happy.” “This makes me feel sad.” “This gives me hope.”

The second layer of the self-awareness onion is an ability to ask why we feel certain emotions.

But there’s another, even deeper level of the self-awareness onion. And that one is full of fucking tears. The third level is our personal values: Why do I consider this to be success/failure? How am I choosing to measure myself? By what standard am I judging myself and everyone around me?

If you want to change how you see your problems, you have to change what you value and/or how you measure failure/success.

There are a handful of common values that create really poor problems for people — problems that can hardly be solved. So let’s go over some of them quickly:

  1. Pleasure - Pleasure is a false god. Research shows that people who focus their energy on superficial pleasures end up more anxious, more emotionally unstable, and more depressed. Pleasure is the most superficial form of life satisfaction and therefore the easiest to obtain and the easiest to lose.
    2. Material Success
    3. Always Being Right - The fact is, people who base their self-worth on being right about everything prevent themselves from learning from their mistakes. They lack the ability to take on new perspectives and empathize with others. They close themselves off to new and important information. It’s far more helpful to assume that you’re ignorant and don’t know a whole lot. This keeps you unattached to superstitious or poorly informed beliefs and promotes a constant state of learning and growth.
    4. Staying Positive

As Freud once said, “One day, in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful.”

Good values are 1) reality-based, 2) socially constructive, and 3) immediate and controllable. Bad values are 1) superstitious, 2) socially destructive, and 3) not immediate or controllable.

Some examples of good, healthy values: honesty, innovation, vulnerability, standing up for oneself, standing up for others, self-respect, curiosity, charity, humility, creativity. Some examples of bad, unhealthy values: dominance through manipulation or violence, indiscriminate fucking, feeling good all the time, always being the center of attention, not being alone, being liked by everybody, being rich for the sake of being rich, sacrificing small animals to the pagan gods.

This, in a nutshell, is what “self-improvement” is really about: prioritizing better values, choosing better things to give a fuck about. Because when you give better fucks, you get better problems. And when you get better problems, you get a better life.

[Ways to make your life better:]

  • The first, which we’ll look at in the next chapter, is a radical form of responsibility: taking responsibility for everything that occurs in your life, regardless of who’s at fault.
  • The second is uncertainty: the acknowledgement of your own ignorance and the cultivation of constant doubt in your own beliefs.
  • The next is failure: the willingness to discover your own flaws and mistakes so that they may be improved upon.
  • The fourth is rejection: the ability to both say and hear no, thus clearly defining what you will and will not accept in your life.
  • The final value is the contemplation of one’s own mortality; this one is crucial, because paying vigilant attention to one’s own death is perhaps the only thing capable of helping us keep all our other values in proper perspective.

CHAPTER 5 - You Are Always Choosing

Often the only difference between a problem being painful or being powerful is a sense that we chose it, and that we are responsible for it.

But one night, while reading lectures by the philosopher Charles Peirce, James decided to conduct a little experiment. In his diary, he wrote that he would spend one year believing that he was 100 percent responsible for everything that occurred in his life, no matter what. During this period, he would do everything in his power to change his circumstances, no matter the likelihood of failure. If nothing improved in that year, then it would be apparent that he was truly powerless to the circumstances around him, and then he would take his own life. The punch line? William James went on to become the father of American psychology.

James would later refer to his little experiment as his “rebirth,” and would credit it with everything that he later accomplished in his life.

We don’t always control what happens to us. But we always control how we interpret what happens to us, as well as how we respond.

The real question is, What are we choosing to give a fuck about?

“With great power comes great responsibility.” It is true. But there’s a better version of this quote, a version that actually is profound, and all you have to do is switch the nouns around: “With great responsibility comes great power.” The more we choose to accept responsibility in our lives, the more power we will exercise over our lives. Accepting responsibility for our problems is thus the first step to solving them.

My ex leaving me, while one of the most painful experiences I’ve ever had, was also one of the most important and influential experiences of my life. I credit it with inspiring a significant amount of personal growth. I learned more from that single problem than dozens of my successes combined.

People get addicted to feeling offended all the time because it gives them a high; being self-righteous and morally superior feels good. As political cartoonist Tim Kreider put it in a New York Times op-ed: “Outrage is like a lot of other things that feel good but over time devour us from the inside out. And it’s even more insidious than most vices because we don’t even consciously acknowledge that it’s a pleasure.”

CHAPTER 6 - You’re Wrong About Everything (But So Am I)

The comedian Emo Philips once said, “I used to think the human brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this.”

But perhaps the answer is to trust yourself less. After all, if our hearts and minds are so unreliable, maybe we should be questioning our own intentions and motivations more. If we’re all wrong, all the time, then isn’t self-skepticism and the rigorous challenging of our own beliefs and assumptions the only logical route to progress?

In the mid-1990s, psychologist Roy Baumeister began researching the concept of evil. Basically, he looked at people who do bad things and at why they do them. At the time it was assumed that people did bad things because they felt horrible about themselves—that is, they had low self-esteem. One of Baumeister’s first surprising findings was that this was often not true. In fact, it was usually the opposite. Some of the worst criminals felt pretty damn good about themselves. And it was this feeling good about themselves in spite of the reality around them that gave them the sense of justification for hurting and disrespecting others.

Evil people never believe that they are evil; rather, they believe that everyone else is evil.

Well, next time you’re at a swanky cocktail party and you want to impress somebody, try dropping Manson’s law of avoidance on them: The more something threatens your identity, the more you will avoid it.

I say don’t find yourself. I say never know who you are. Because that’s what keeps you striving and discovering. And it forces you to remain humble in your judgments and accepting of the differences in others.

Buddhism argues that your idea of who “you” are is an arbitrary mental construction and that you should let go of the idea that “you” exist at all; that the arbitrary metrics by which you define yourself actually trap you, and thus you’re better off letting go of everything. In a sense, you could say that Buddhism encourages you to not give a fuck.

I have both some good news and some bad news for you: there is little that is unique or special about your problems. That’s why letting go is so liberating. There’s a kind of self-absorption that comes with fear based on an irrational certainty. When you assume that your plane is the one that’s going to crash, or that your project idea is the stupid one everyone is going to laugh at, or that you’re the one everyone is going to choose to mock or ignore, you’re implicitly telling yourself, “I’m the exception; I’m unlike everybody else; I’m different and special.” This is narcissism, pure and simple.

Question #1: What if I’m wrong?

Question #2: What would it mean if I were wrong?

Aristotle wrote, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

Question #3: Would being wrong create a better or a worse problem than my current problem, for both myself and others?

That’s simply reality: if it feels like it’s you versus the world, chances are it’s really just you versus yourself.

CHAPTER 7 - Failure Is the Way Forward

Anyway, some woman sitting near him was looking on in awe. After a few moments, Picasso finished his coffee and crumpled up the napkin to throw away as he left. The woman stopped him. “Wait,” she said. “Can I have that napkin you were just drawing on? I’ll pay you for it.” “Sure,” Picasso replied. “Twenty thousand dollars.” The woman’s head jolted back as if he had just flung a brick at her. “What? It took you like two minutes to draw that.” “No, ma’am,” Picasso said. “It took me over sixty years to draw this.”

Shitty values, as we saw in chapter 4, involve tangible external goals outside of our control. The pursuit of these goals causes great anxiety. And even if we manage to achieve them, they leave us feeling empty and lifeless, because once they’re achieved there are no more problems to solve. Better values, as we saw, are process-oriented. Something like “Express myself honestly to others,” a metric for the value “honesty,” is never completely finished; it’s a problem that must continuously be reengaged. Every new conversation, every new relationship, brings new challenges and opportunities for honest expression. The value is an ongoing, lifelong process that defies completion.

perhaps the most important thing I’ve ever learned in my life: Action isn’t just the effect of motivation; it’s also the cause of it.

CHAPTER 8 - The Importance of Saying No

Because after all the years of excitement, the biggest lesson I took from my adventuring was this: absolute freedom, by itself, means nothing.

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.

It’s suspected by many scholars that Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet not to celebrate romance, but rather to satirize it, to show how absolutely nutty it was. He didn’t mean for the play to be a glorification of love. In fact, he meant it to be the opposite: a big flashing neon sign blinking KEEP OUT, with police tape around it saying DO NOT CROSS.

The problem is that we’re finding out that romantic love is kind of like cocaine. Like, frighteningly similar to cocaine. Like, stimulates the exact same parts of your brain as cocaine. Like, gets you high and makes you feel good for a while but also creates as many problems as it solves, as does cocaine.

Instead, victims and savers both use each other to achieve emotional highs. It’s like an addiction they fulfill in one another. Ironically, when presented with emotionally healthy people to date, they usually feel bored or lack “chemistry” with them. They pass on emotionally healthy, secure individuals because the secure partner’s solid boundaries don’t feel “exciting” enough to stimulate the constant highs necessary in the entitled person.

For a relationship to be healthy, both people must be willing and able to both say no and hear no. Without that negation, without that occasional rejection, boundaries break down and one person’s problems and values come to dominate the other’s. Conflict is not only normal, then; it’s absolutely necessary for the maintenance of a healthy relationship. If two people who are close are not able to hash out their differences openly and vocally, then the relationship is based on manipulation and misrepresentation, and it will slowly become toxic.

This is what’s so destructive about cheating. It’s not about the sex. It’s about the trust that has been destroyed as a result of the sex. Without trust, the relationship can no longer function.

CHAPTER 9 - ...And Then You Die

Becker died in 1974. His book The Denial of Death, would win the Pulitzer Prize and become one of the most influential intellectual works of the twentieth century, shaking up the fields of psychology and anthropology, while making profound philosophical claims that are still influential today.

Becker’s argument is this: We are all aware on some level that our physical self will eventually die, that this death is inevitable, and that its inevitability — on some unconscious level — scares the shit out of us. Therefore, in order to compensate for our fear of the inevitable loss of our physical self, we try to construct a conceptual self that will live forever. This is why people try so hard to put their names on buildings, on statues, on spines of books. It’s why we feel compelled to spend so much time giving ourselves to others, especially to children, in the hopes that our influence — our conceptual self — will last way beyond our physical self. That we will be remembered and revered and idolized long after our physical self ceases to exist. Becker called such efforts our “immortality projects,” projects that allow our conceptual self to live on way past the point of our physical death. All of human civilization, he says, is basically a result of immortality projects: the cities and governments and structures and authorities in place today were all immortality projects of men and women who came before us.

all the meaning in our life is shaped by this innate desire to never truly die.

What Becker is saying, in essence, is that we’re all driven by fear to give way too many fucks about something, because giving a fuck about something is the only thing that distracts us from the reality and inevitability of our own death.

Because once we become comfortable with the fact of our own death — the root terror, the underlying anxiety motivating all of life’s frivolous ambitions — we can then choose our values more freely, unrestrained by the illogical quest for immortality, and freed from dangerous dogmatic views.

Even Mark Twain, that hairy goofball who came in and left on Halley’s Comet, said, “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”

Confronting the reality of our own mortality is important because it 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?

They say that a butterfly flapping its wings in Africa can cause a hurricane in Florida; well, what hurricanes will you leave in your wake?

And entitlement strips this away from us. The gravity of entitlement sucks all attention inward, toward ourselves, causing us to feel as though we are at the center of all of 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. As alluring as it is, entitlement isolates us.

doing crazy shit like standing on a cliff in South Africa [Note: not really that crazy at all. Pretty weak Mark!]

Max Nova

Max Nova

I love books! My reading theme for 2017 is "The Integrity of Western Science." I'm also the founder of www.SilviaTerra.com.

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