The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck By Mark Manson – Book Review + Notes


If are a regular reader on my blog then you know, I have reduced down my time in writing book reviews & posting them here these past days. But, today I wanted to talk about a book that really grabbed my attention lately.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life By Mark Manson

If you have ever read one of those self-help books that promises that you can improve your life just by thinking positively—and thought to yourself “What a load of shit”—then this book is for you! The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck is a thoroughly refreshing change of pace from the saccharine world of self-love psychology that has dominated the personal development world for decades. Sometimes life just really sucks and we cannot run away from that. Instead, Mark Manson uses his years of experience coupled with academic research to show us how to run toward our pain – and how to make failure, suffering and even death work for us rather than against us. So if you are looking for something completely new and in Manson’s own words, “personal development advice that doesn’t
suck,” this is it.

In this book review wiz summary you will learn:

  • That happiness is not a goal that can be achieved through a set of self-improvement techniques or accomplishing specific tasks, but rather a lifelong process that inherently involves some pain and suffering.
  • How to differentiate between good and bad values, and why it is so important to choose good values.
  • How to become comfortable with failure, pain and death.

Some of the quotes from this books that I really loved:

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

“Improvement at anything is based on thousands of tiny failures, and the magnitude of your success is based on how many times you’ve failed at something. If someone is better than you at something, 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.”

“The only way to be comfortable with death is to understand and see yourself as something bigger than yourself; to choose values that stretch beyond serving yourself, that are simple and immediate and controllable and tolerant of the chaotic world around you. This is the basic root of all happiness.”

And lastly,

Living the good life isn’t about giving no fucks – it’s about learning to give a fuck only about the
things that actually matter.

Some of big take aways and ideas that the book talks about is:

1) Don’t try to achieve happiness by escaping the negative aspects of your life, but rather by embracing them.

“Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience.”

Manson introduces his book with the story of a man who, for the majority of his life, was a complete failure and a loser. Eventually, this man – Charles Bukowski – found success in his writing career. But that didn’t really make him much less of a loser. His newfound success as a writer didn’t change the loser-like behaviors that had become a habit for much of his adult life—getting drunk every night, spending his time with prostitutes, and exposing himself in public, just to name a few.

Interestingly enough, when Bukowski died, the epitaph engraved on his tombstone said “Don’t try.”

This advice, and Bukowski’s story, completely flies in the face of the thousands of books, movies and seminars that all preach that if you don’t give up, you can overcome your shortcomings and become great.

But Manson tells us that this supposedly positive self-help advice is actually contributing to your unhappiness because it highlights everything that you lack, essentially saying that in order to improve, you have to feel really bad about yourself first.

Manson insists that the conventional “think positive” approach teaches us that we need to give a fuck about too many things – nice cars, perfect bodies, the biggest house, the most attractive family. And every day we are bombarded with images from our TV and computer screens that show us other people that have these kinds of amazing lives. We begin to believe that feeling anxious or sad or unsatisfied is simply unacceptable at all times, which makes us feel even worse for feeling these emotions.

So Manson has an alternative theory. Since the desire for a better life actually has a negative effect on our emotions, we should instead accept the negative aspects of our life. Doing this will lead to a more positive experience, because as soon as we stop fearing the pain of our negative experiences, we are able to truly challenge ourselves without allowing anything to hold us back.

2) Choose to give a fuck only about the things that are truly important.

“To not give a fuck is to stare down life’s most terrifying and difficult challenges and still take action.”

Manson is quick to clarify that he does not mean that a person should be indifferent to everything in life – those kinds of people are known as psychopaths.

Rather than being indifferent, we should learn how to be comfortable with being different.

This means not caring what someone thinks of our outfit or our choice of career – standing by our choices in the face of adversity.

And to stare down adversity, we must first learn how to care about something bigger than adversity – rising above the trivial annoyances of our lives in order to find a problem worth “giving a fuck about”.

And we do control what we give a fuck (care a lot) about.

Bottom line? You have the choice to care or not to care about the things that happen in your life. So
you need to choose to care about something that’s really and truly important.

3) Discover happiness through the process of consistently solving your problems.

“Dissatisfaction and unease are inherent parts of human nature and necessary components to creating
consistent happiness.”

The second chapter starts off with the story of a prince whose father decided to shield him from all human suffering—to keep him within the confines of the palace grounds and surrounded by luxury; so far away from the poor and hungry that he never even knew they existed.

One day the prince discovered what his father had done and was horrified by the state of the world he found outside his pain-free, problem-free bubble. So, the prince began to believe that he could achieve happiness by stripping himself of all his worldly pleasures, and then replacing those luxuries with a life full of suffering.

But that didn’t work either.

Eventually this prince became known as the Buddha, and his philosophy – that pain and loss are an inherent part of the human existence and shouldn’t be resisted – swept across the globe and continues to be widely practiced today.

The actionable insight here is this: We can choose happiness every day of our lives, rather than imagining that we will eventually, someday, be happy. So, pause for just a moment—right here and right now—and make a deliberate decision that, from here on out, you will defeat “someday syndrome” by choosing to be happy right now. Stop saying, “someday I’ll be happy when I can get X or do Y”, and that you will instead start choosing to be happy right now—on a moment to moment basis—regardless of what’s going on in your life.

4) Stop thinking that you are special.

“It turns out that merely feeling good about yourself doesn’t really mean anything unless you have a good reason to feel good about yourself.”

In the 1960s, a trend began in psychology focused on helping people develop higher self-esteem. The theory was that people who felt good about themselves would perform better and cause fewer problems. Schools, churches and companies began employing this theory. People were bombarded with messages telling them that they were all exceptional and capable of achieving greatness.

The huge problem is that many people take this message and believe it – but never actually do anything to make themselves exceptional or successful. They talk a big talk, but do no walking to back it up. These people are entitled and delusional in their confidence in themselves to the point of selfdestructive – and often other-destructive – narcissism.

And sometimes it happens the other way around. People who suffer traumatic experiences or huge failures or disappointments start believing that they are special because of their pain. They brand themselves as a victim. These people are also entitled, in that they feel entitled to bad behavior because they have been victimized. Both of these forms of entitlement lead people to hugely selfish behavior and demands that the world revolve around them and their feelings.

And it doesn’t help that we are constantly bombarded with examples of the extraordinary and exceptional on TV and the internet. When we compare ourselves and our accomplishments to what we see, we feel average – and average has become the new standard for failure. But the idea that everyone can be extraordinary is simply impossible – if everyone is something, than that thing by definition is ordinary.

Constantly striving to be extraordinary and exceptional is very bad for mental health, and the cure is to accept that much of what you do and who you are is ordinary and average. Manson compares this to eating your veggies – embracing the bland truths of life in order to grow healthier and stronger.

Bottom line? By accepting that not everything you do has to be extraordinary, you regain your appreciation for the simple joys and beauties found throughout your life.

5) Fill your life with good problems based on good values rather than bad problems based on bad values.

“If what we value is unhelpful, if what we consider success/failure is poorly chosen, then everything based upon those values – the thoughts, the emotions, the day-to-day feelings – will be all out of whack.”

As we learned earlier, not all problems are bad. In fact, problems are necessary for cultivating happiness. However, this does not mean that all problems are good. Sometimes we find ourselves confronted with bad problems, and inevitably these problems are a result of bad values.

To illustrate this point, Manson uses contrasting anecdotes.

The first is the story of Dave Mustaine, a guitarist who was kicked out of the band Metallica just as they were poised for their big break. Mustaine vowed that he would start his own band and become more successful than the band who had snubbed him. He went on to form Megadeth, a band that sold over 25 million albums. However, even as a famous millionaire, Mustaine still felt like a failure, because Metallica had gone on to sell over 150 million albums. By anyone else’s standards or values, Mustaine was successful, but by his own values, he was a loser.

The second story is of Pete Best, the drummer who was kicked out of the Beatles just as they were poised on the brink of success. Best did not go on to become a famous musician, but he eventually considered himself to be a great success, and said that getting kicked out of the Beatles was the best thing that could have happened to him, because it led to him meeting his wife and starting a family. The difference between Mustaine and Best is that Best chose better values with which to measure failure/success.

Manson defines bad values as superstitious, socially destructive and not immediate or controllable. For example, Mustaine’s values were to become better than Metallica. But Mustaine could not ultimately control which band became more popular.

On the flip side, Manson defines good values as: 1) reality-based 2) socially constructive and 3) immediate and controllable. For example, Best probably valued spending time with his family – something he was able to control every day of his life and which helped his family bonds grow stronger.

Good values include things like honesty, creativity and charity. Bad values include things like becoming rich or being better than someone else. Choosing good values means choosing good problems. Valuing honesty sometimes means having painful or awkward confrontations, but these confrontations will lead to growth and healing, whereas lies would have spiraled into destruction and a loss of trust. In order to avoid bad problems, we must take the time to define our values and determine whether they fit the criteria to be good values.

6) Take responsibility for everything that happens in your life.

“Whether we like it or not, we are always taking an active role in what’s occurring to and within us.”

When we feel miserable about our lives, it is often because we are not in control – someone or something has hijacked us and is forcing us through a series of bad situations. However, when we know that our problems are of our own choosing, we feel empowered. We might still have a lot of work to do, and even some pain, but we feel in control of that struggle.

Manson tells the story of William James, a man who suffered a lot of setbacks in life including disease and disability. Much of what happened to James was not his fault, but he suffered for it all the same. James was on the brink of suicide when he decided to try an experiment: for one year, James decided to take responsibility for everything that happened to him, whether or not it was his fault. Eventually, he went on to become the father of American psychology.

Things happen to us that are out of our control, but Manson reminds us that our interpretation of these things is always under our control. Taking responsibility for our own experiences gives us power. It also helps us to realize that we cannot control anyone else – we can only control how we respond to the other people in our lives. This is often tricky, such as in the face of tragedy. Events like cancer, hurricanes and train crashes happen to people every day, and those people did not choose to be affected. However, they must choose how to proceed.

7) Acknowledge that you are often wrong, and that learning is just the process of becoming “less wrong.”

“Being wrong opens us up to the possibility of change. Being wrong brings the opportunity for growth.”

Learning is not the process of going from wrong to right; it is the process of evolving from very wrong to less wrong. This is because learning is an endless process. Rather than obsessing over finding the one right answer, Manson recommends that we visualize ourselves chipping away at the ways that we are wrong so that with each passing day, we are less wrong.

Certainty is a fallacy that prevents us from seeking new ways to grow. If we are certain that no one will ever find us attractive, we prevent ourselves from seeking a romantic partner who accepts us as we are. If we are certain that a new experience will be painful, we miss out on the chance to see if it could actually become a positive, learning experience. Our minds and emotions are often faulty. Our brains and memories are imperfect and subject to a thousand forms of self-sabotage. Without constantly questioning ourselves and our beliefs, we risk becoming destructive in our zeal to prove ourselves right. Uncertainty prompts us to explore and progress towards being less wrong.

Manson’s advice is harsh: We have to kill ourselves. Not physically, but psychologically.

Who we are changes every day as we process new data from our experiences. If a person is afraid to let go of their old self, they never develop a new, better self. In every situation, we must ask ourselves if we might be wrong, what it would mean if we were wrong, and what kind of problems – good or bad – might result from our wrongness.

8) Accept that failure and pain are inherent components of an active life.

“You can become your own source of inspiration. You can become your own source of motivation. Action is always within reach. And with simply doing something as your only metric for success – well, then even failure pushes you forward.”

Manson considers himself extremely fortunate that he graduated college in 2007, right before the job market tanked. After all, if he had never hit rock bottom, he would never have had the courage to start his own online business. Many would have considered freshly graduated Manson to be a failure, but Manson had his own metric of success: for him, giving up on his dreams and accepting a “safe” job would have meant failing. Struggling for a few years with no money was not failing.

Just as there is no happiness without problems, there are no improvements without thousands of tiny failures. After all, children fall thousands of times when learning to walk, but they get back up and try again. Avoiding failure is a learned behavior, and it is one that we must break ourselves of in order to move forward and improve. Again, this depends on setting good values for ourselves – actions that we take every day to improve our lives.

Embracing failure will often mean suffering pain and discomfort and fear. Manson gives this advice for dealing with fear of failure; when you are stuck on a problem, don’t just sit there. Do something. The answers will follow. Action is not just the effect of motivation, but also the cause of motivation.

9) Learn how and when to say no.

“Ultimately the only way to achieve meaning and a sense of importance in one’s life is through a rejection of alternative, a narrowing of freedom, a choice of commitment to one place, one belief or (gulp) one person.”

By attempting to “have it all” you can easily end up having nothing. This is what Manson discovered after years of traveling the world, thinking he was living the high life. He would float from city to city, and from bed to bed, never staying long enough to commit to friends or lovers. But what he thought at first was freedom turned out to mean nothing. Eventually, Manson returned to the United States,  settled down in one city and married one woman. Giving up the idea of freedom he had held while traveling allowed him to develop a family and community that gave his life more meaning than ever before.

This is not to say that traveling is not valuable, or that everyone ought to commit to family life. Rather, it means that at some point you have to choose what is important to you and discard what is not important. Manson realized that family and community was important, and therefore he had to say no to jumping around the globe. Rejecting certain choices defined Manson – he created a new identity for himself based on what he discarded.

10) Accept the fact that you are going to die.

“The more I peer into the darkness, the brighter life gets, the quieter the world becomes, and the less unconscious resistance I feel to, well, anything.”

This is one of the hardest things you will ever have to do, because human beings possess an innate terror of death. We are the only animals able to contemplate our own mortality and it is all too easy to become obsessed with death terror, but paradoxically, this leads us to waste the time we have. Only once we become comfortable with death can we learn how to truly embrace the time we have.

And the only way to become comfortable with death is to concentrate on the legacy you want to leave behind – how do you want the world to have been changed by your presence. If you have good values, you want to leave the world better than you found it. This means believing in something bigger than yourself, and working to serve that something bigger. Some people find it in religion, others in community, but the point is to find it, and let it change your perception of death… To let it transform the way you view your life.

In the end, with my key take aways from this book, I understood one thing:

The key to becoming a happier person right now is to build a better set of values. When your values are realistic, constructive and completely under your own control, you will be able to lead a life filled with healthy challenges.

If you really want to gain the knowledge from this book, and apply it in real life. Then here’s a checklist for actions to take:

  • Sit down right now and make an honest list of the values and measuring systems you use to evaluate your life. Then go through the list and, using Manson’s criteria, determine which are good and bad values. Brainstorm how to change the bad values into good ones.
  • Take an honest look at how your thoughts measure up with your actions. Are you deluding yourself into thinking that you are extraordinary and exceptional when in reality you have not done anything?
  • Next time you run up against a problem you are struggling to solve, don’t just sit there, do something — anything. Let your action lead to inspiration and motivation rather than waiting around for inspiration to strike.

 

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