A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life
by Mark Manson
Too many people care about too many things. This is a self-help book for those who wish to learn how to care about fewer things, about better things when they do, and how to appreciate them more.
Inside, Manson says that far too many people spend too much of their emotional energy on meaningless priorities, and they therefore don’t have enough left over to actually care about things that should matter. He points out that there are better values for one to live one’s life by than simply consumerism and seeking success and validation. Because those are, simply put, rather shallow goals. If your metric is success, what happens when it goes away?
Manson outlines why not giving a f*ck is essential, illustrates some shitty values, gives principles on what make some good values, and then lists five such “good” values.
The ideas parallel many those from A Guide to the Good Life, by William Irvine. Unlike that volume, though, this one suffers from an astounding lack of self-awareness that plagues the entire self-help genre. The essence of any such message is, generally, “Here’s all the mistakes I made. Buy this book so you don’t have to make them and you can have the success I now enjoy without wasting so much time.”
The problem with this message, though, is that the struggle is what creates the success. There would be no book of however many lessons without having gone through that development process, and trying to short-circuit it is, essentially, trying to have the result without the work. It just doesn’t happen. And to say that there is a way around the struggle is deluded, at best, and intentionally deceptive and exploitative at worst. The best thing about this book, though, is that it did help me to codify this criticism of the entire genre.
What It Says
This is a self-help book. That is, it is a book designed to lead people through a process of helping themselves to a better life. It provides an explanation of what it means to stop caring about so many unimportant things and stop feeding the “feedback loop from hell”.
It essentially goes like this: when we wonder why we’re not happy, it makes us unhappy. When we feel unhappy, we wonder why we’re not happy. This creates a negative, rather than positive, cycle. I will quote Manson here, because it is a good reminder:
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. (page 4)
And this, then, is the (I hope unintentional) logical fallacy of the book. Manson actually gives a lot of f*cks about this issue. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t have written a book, wouldn’t have solicited an agent, wouldn’t have solicited a publisher, wouldn’t have sold the rights for millions of dollars, wouldn’t have collected additional royalties on top of the advance when sales went through the roof, wouldn’t have gone on a signing tour, and on and on and on.
And why does he give a f*ck? Because people pay him to. It’s the same with people who buy t-shirts that vividly proclaim how little they care. To be frank, though, if you actually didn’t care, you would have a blank t-shirt. The fact that you promote your beliefs on your chest indicates that, ironically, you do care what I, and the rest of your audience, think of you.
Similarly, this is my criticism of the self-help genre in general. The message seems to be, “You’re awesome! You really are!” Which, instead of inspiring and motivating towards betterment through personal development, portrays the idea that there is no additional value that can be obtained. Hell, Manson says this himself.
You are great. Already. Whether you realize it or not. Whether anybody else realizes it or not. And it’s not because you launched an iPhone app, or finished school a year early, or bought yourself a sweet-ass boat. These things do not define greatness.
You are already great because in the face of endless confusion and certain death, you continue to choose what to give a f*ck about and what not to.
Can you see the logical fallacy? If people are already great, then there is nothing more for them to do. They’ve arrived, so they’re not going to actually go out and make themselves better. But they won’t actually be better, they’ll still feel pretty terrible, so as soon as another book comes out next year they’ll throw another $25 at that. They’ll sign up for the next $250 seminar, they’ll max out their credit cards on the $25,000 retreat to “find wellness and wholeness inside”.
And the authors and practitioners in the self-help movement continue to prey on their immature sensibilities. I can’t help but feel like this whole genre is a scam, and the people who support it are suckers who deserve to get taken for a ride each and every time.
Because the fact is, Manson so very much does give a f*ck, and he panders to low-brow sensibilities by filling the first chapter with more swear words than a sailor on shore leave at a whorehouse.
Regardless, the book does have a few reasonable points. For example, he lists four “shitty” values. I very much agree on this point. Those shitty values are Pleasure, Material Success, Always Being Right, and Staying Positive. These are shitty in that pursuing these values does not satisfy, one often must achieve them by depriving others of their value, and they can be downright delusional.
Good values have some notable characteristics: they’re reality-based, they’re socially constructive, and they’re immediate and controllable. I agree with this list as well, because having such values means much more of your life is in your control, rather than out of it.
Manson then describes some of his own experiences that have led him to develop five “good” values. And those are Taking responsibility for everything that occurs in your life; Acknowledgment of your own ignorance; Willingness to discover your own flaws and mistakes; Ability to both say and hear “no”; and Acceptance of one’s own mortality.
As mentioned before, much of this is parallel to both Buddhism and Stoicism, as outlined in A Guide to the Good Life, but listed here in a much more juvenile way. I don’t recommend this book over that one because, again, this one has a significant self-awareness problem that A Guide to the Good Life does not. In The Subtle Art Manson succumbs to the temptation to exploit the shallow, gratification-seeking desires of the mass audience, expecting (and rightly so) that they will not have the personal sensibility to see through the ruse, put down the book, and go learn such lessons for themselves.
Which is great for him, his agent, and his publisher, but makes me feel just a little bit sad for those who can’t see it. But only a little bit.
Who It’s Appropriate For
Anyone who wishes to see self-delusion in action and to feed the ego of a person who vehemently proclaims that he doesn’t have an ego. It’s appropriate for those who want to be better in their life, but they don’t want to get better. This book won’t make them be better, and it actually won’t inspire them to get better, but at least they’ll think they’re doing something about it. Which just may stave off the impending personal crisis of purpose for another three or four months.
Who It’s Not Appropriate For
Those who actually wish to improve their own lives. If you do, you’ll go out and live your damn life¸ you won’t spend time reading silly self-help books.
How To Use It
- Don’t read it.
- Starting tomorrow, go for a walk every day for an hour for a year. Think about yourself on that walk, and when you’re done with that walk write down a few notes in a notebook. Consider this an investment in yourself.
- Do some hard things. Try a new social activity. Sign up for a marathon. Take that new job. Push yourself. See where you end up.
- Appreciate the journey. It’s not the destination (“success”), it’s the process. And recognize that there is no magic bullet to get you past that process without creating a few scars along the way. Embrace them. Earning them today will pay off tomorrow.