Book Review: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck

A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life

by Mark Manson

Premise

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

  1. Don’t read it.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

The Problem Is Not the Problem

Or, Why You Need a New Perspective

What do you see when you look at this picture?

From https://mymodernmet.com/matthieu-robert-ortis-la-revolution-des-girafes/

You should see an elephant. Floppy ears, tusks, and a trunk.

But take a moment, and shift your perspective just a little bit, and it’s a whole different image.

That’s the power of perspective. You don’t always see the whole of a piece of art, or a situation, or an experience, from your position when you first encounter it. Sometimes, you need to look at it from a new angle.

Consider that challenge that’s bugging you. Maybe it’s your teenage son and his friends; you don’t understand why they go out of their way to avoid you, when just a few months ago he seemed like such a good kid. Or perhaps it’s an issue at your church. You know the Elders believe they’re doing the right thing with this new building expansion “to attract new seekers”, but you and almost everyone else thinks it’s foolish when there are greater priorities, like missionaries in the field.

Why don’t you speak up? Is it because you don’t believe strongly enough in the mission, the same way they do? Or is it something deeper than that? Might there be something you’re missing? If you knew more, would you support that decision? Maybe.

How do you get that missing perspective?

David C. Baker has an interesting analogy in The Business of Expertise. He describes a little human inside a jar. When you’re in the jar (whether that jar is your business problem, your relationship, your extra-curricular time, or your personal mindfulness journey), you cannot read the label on the jar. You just can’t. You’re behind the label, and you’re stuck.

So, what do you do? How do you get out of the jar?

You have to shift the conversation. You have to stop talking about the problem that’s the surface, and you have to start asking some more substantial, deeper questions. Like, “Well, yes, my business is struggling. Does that mean I need more advertising? Or more staff? Or a new product? Or does it mean I need something more fundamental, like a re-set of my whole business philosophy? What am I trying to say with this business, anyway? And does it even matter if I’m here to do it?”

These are deeper, more fundamental questions. They’re the underneath of the iceberg. They don’t get viewed by the general public, but in answering these questions – in thinking through these lines – you will start to take the steps to get yourself out of the jar, and moving towards a position where you can look back and read the label for yourself.

Let me give you another analogy, and let’s get a little abstract. Suppose you are an arrow, that’s on a flight path. Now, you can choose to fly in whichever direction you want, and you’ve decided to fly directly at whatever targets you’re trying to hit. To keep the analogy clear, let’s assume these targets are another set of arrows, which represent the best options for your life, in lots of different areas. They are all coming at you, directly, and you’ve got to hit something, anything, to make an impact.

What’s likely to happen? Are you going to hit them? Any of them? Or, is it more likely that you’ll just miss? Whiff completely?

You, and these best options, aren’t likely to hit. You’re not likely to get to the point where you meet whatever you’re shooting at, because you’re shooting at too small a target. I think there’s a movie or two where the arrows or bullets actually hit each other head on, but it’s such a slim chance, that it doesn’t really make much sense to rely on that as your strategy.

What if, though, you change your perspective?

What if, instead of facing the problem head-on, you got to the side? You approach it from the outside, from a perpendicular direction? What if, instead of having only one little point of contact which you could have the slightest chance of hitting, you turned it around? What if you came at it from the other way?

Instead of aiming directly at the oncoming problems, why not get out of the way, off to the side? Now, you’re traveling “up”, and the arrows coming at you are still going to the left. This time, though, you’re much, much more likely to actually hit what you’re aiming at! Look at how easy it is to intersect with all of those different things you want! Plus, now you have options. You can pursue one, or many, solutions in your time, rather than crying that they’ve all passed you by.

Allow me to share an anecdote. I recently talked with an old friend, and told her about this Trailhead Conference – how it’s a place for people to explore something new, to see problems from a different perspective, to understand something they didn’t know before. [note – the Trailhead Conference was planned for 2019, didn’t happen, isn’t planned for any time again – SJ]

And she related a story of her other friend, who had been struggling to lose weight for years. Diets, exercise, sleep, nothing worked. She kept the weight on, kept fighting, kept failing. Kept feeling like a failure, when, really, she was fighting the wrong battle. Eventually, though, she figured out the problem and lost the weight.

So how did she do it? Liposuction? Juice cleanse? Personal trainer? CrossFit?

Nope. Nope. Nope. And nope.

All of those were solutions to the wrong problem.

All of those assumed that the issue was caloric intake (too much) or expenditure (not enough), or metabolic cycling (irregular), or routine (need to “shock” the system), or something else.

All of those were actually trying to combat the symptoms – the tip of the iceberg – when, really, something needed to be done at a much deeper level, under the surface. Down inside, where the pictures aren’t so pretty and so visible.

So – what was it? What was the thing that finally flipped the switch and helped her to lose 30 pounds?

What was that radically different thing she did?

She got divorced.

Wait, what?

Now, I don’t know all the details. But there were significant forces at work, including emotional abuse, that led to weight retention. And it makes sense. The surface issue was excess weight and feeling bad because of it. The deeper, substantive problem was that there were problems in her relationship – maybe her finances, and spirituality too. Cognitive dissonance between what she wanted (a better relationship) and what she felt obligated to do (remain married due to religious tradition) led to feelings of inadequacy.

This showed up as weight retention, a physical issue, when, really, the solution was going to be an emotional one. Solve the relationship problem, and the weight loss happens naturally. So when her husband asked for the divorce, despite how much she didn’t really want to be divorced, she relented.

During the separation, she bought a new place and worked extra hard to renovate it. Additional activity, the right kind of activity, combined with the emotional freedom to be herself, led to her losing 4 dress sizes and showing up at the divorce proceedings looking like a new person. Which she, for all intents and purposes, was.

So I have to get divorced?

NO.

I am absolutely not counseling or advising anyone to get divorced, or to get liposuction, or to go on a three-week spiritual retreat to Namibia to “find yourself”. I don’t know that those are the solution to your problem.

I am, however, pointing out that often, what we think is the problem, really isn’t.

We’re aiming at the oncoming arrows, trying to hit sharp little points, when, instead we should step to the side and look at the problem from a different perspective.

We’re struggling, but we don’t know exactly why.

And that’s okay.

It really is.

It’s okay not to have all the answers.

It’s okay to question.

It’s okay to get intrigued and to explore something new for a while.

It’s okay to walk down that side road for a bit, learn that you don’t want to keep going, and change your mind.

You know, we have erasers on our pencils for a reason.

And we have a [DELETE] key on our keyboards, too, for the very same reason. I’ve used mine a hundred times in this post so far, and that’s okay. That simply means I’m open to considering new things, trying them out, and seeing what works. What doesn’t, goes away, and nobody is worse off.

Let’s not be afraid to try something new, and, if it works out, great! If not, let’s also not beat ourselves up about it.

That trying something new is how you get perspective. And perspective is, often, the only way out of your jar.

Cheers!

footnote – this post was originally written and published in June of 2019, when I was organizing a mid-life exploration conference. It ultimate didn’t happen, but if the web crawlers find this content and that content and try to ding me for stealing, this paragraph is proof that I didn’t. I (Stephan) actually wrote and published that same content before, just on a different platform. So there.

One Step To Being A Better Person

How many different motivational speakers and life coaches are in the world today? Approximately a brazillion.

I counted.

How many of them actually have something meaningful to say for your life?

Maybe 5 or 6.

Who are they?

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Who knows. Those 5 or 6 will be different for everyone, and will touch everyone in a different way, at different times of their lives, impacting different spheres of experience: relationships, health, spirituality, career, finance, hobbies & play, etc.

I don’t know who they are, but I guarantee you they all have some 7 steps to success and happiness.

Their own flavor of 13 tips for living a better life.

A “27-point Foolproof Path to Fabulousness!”

Or something.

Do they work?

Probably.

For the right people

At the right time.

But for you?

Right now?

Not likely.

You want my advice? Just be a better person.

I was reading Reddit and came across this nugget of self-hate. [https://www.reddit.com/r/exredpill/comments/dqgyfr/i_dont_know_what_to_do_anymore/] I’m not going to quote it, but it’s basically some guy in his early 20s complaining that he doesn’t know how other people do it. Everyone else seems to be better than him, and he wonders why.

And how.

How are they better people than him?

I offered my (admittedly unsolicited) advice with 5 steps to being a better person. I will, however, quote myself, because I think it’s worthwhile to have the discussion.

What to do? Stop reading “self-help” books that are written to exploit your addiction to “self-improvement”. The industry only exists to convince you that you’re going to get better if you just buy their next new source of tips and tricks. In reality, they want to sell you more books because, well, they don’t sell you any more books if you actually, you know, HELP YOURSELF to get better. You want 5 simple steps? Here, here’s 5 steps to becoming a better person:

  • Read Marcus Aurelius, Meditations. It’s not a self-help book, but it is about being good with yourself.
  • Go for a walk an hour a day, every day, for a year. No music, no audiobook, but just think.
  • Write in a journal, not on the internet. Nobody here cares about you. you are the only one who does, so you are the only one who needs to know your thoughts.
  • Stop smoking dope and drinking alcohol. You’re poisoning yourself and using intoxication to mask your real feelings.
  • Stop swearing. It’s laziness. Put in the mental effort to think of a real insult. Swearing is simple, so it’s the mark of a simpleton. Be better than that.

So that’s my advice. But again, it’s “5 Steps to Being A Better Person”. And I realized, he doesn’t need 5 steps.

He doesn’t even need 3.

Or 2.

He, and everyone else, just needs ONE STEP to become a better person.

Are you ready?

It’s pretty radical an idea.

One that might revolutionize the self-help industry.

Here it is:

BEING A BETTER PERSON, STEP #1:

BE A BETTER PERSON

That’s it.

Don’t like who you are?

Change.

Don’t like your attitude?

Change it.

Don’t like your emotions?

Change them.

Don’t like your anger?

Change it.

Recognize that you are choosing, every moment of every day, what you are going to do with that moment and that day.

If you don’t like what you’ve chosen, choose differently.

Be different.

BE DIFFERENT.

Be a better person.

I’m not the only one saying this. Here’s the Holstee Manifesto, which says a lot of the same stuff, in a pretty picture:

The Holstee Manifesto (via Holstee.com)

Just be that better person.

No, it’s not easy.

It’s not laid out in 5, or 17, or 49 “simple” steps. Those specific steps might have worked for them. They might have worked, somewhat, for others around the world. But I’m 99.9% confident they won’t work for you.

It’s not that simple.

Because it can’t be.

My 5 steps don’t apply to you. They can’t. It’s impossible.

I don’t know what you want, where you’re starting from, and what you’re willing to put in to get there.

Only you know that.

Only you know what’s going to impact you.

Only you know what’s going to work.

And only you can do the work.

So –

Stop looking for answers in a book, or on a website, or in a seminar.

Stop searching for tips on how to be better, and just … start … being better.

Right now.

Don’t wait.

Nobody else is going to do it for you.

***

Originally published at my business website, sjmcopywriting.com, and then reproduced on my short-lived Medium blog.