Peter Zhang

The Subtle Art

Review

Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck is a decent casual read packed with anecdotes about living a happier life. As you probably guessed from the title, the writing is conversational and flows well. The content provokes you to consider connections to your own life.

Here’s the paperback and audiobook.

Utility: ★✰✰✰✰ (1/5)

Writing: ★★★✰✰ (3/5)

I take three main lessons:

  1. Direct your pain. Suffering and failure are biologically inevitable. The drive for perfection backfires and inflicts an even greater depression as you realize that there is always something else about you that sucks.1 The difference between existential weightlessness and a fulfilling life is whether you choose to direct your suffering towards your values.
  2. Pick good values. They are the metric by which you assess your life. Bad values doom you to inaction, depression, and the mercy of others. Good values are measurable, constructive, and controllable; examples include responsibility, modesty, resilience, decisiveness, and mortality salience.
  3. Ignore the noise. Social media, the “self-improvement” industry, and political culture conspire to make you want vapid crap like money, status, and constant happiness while evading responsibility. Ground yourself in something deeper.

These ideas aren’t revolutionary.2 They also aren’t communicated very well. The themes are muddled by loosely connected asides and imprecise word choice. His references to Bukowski, Onoda, and the Holocaust survivors were out of place (the failure of the Holocaust survivors… to not get caught… was good?). Manson never clarifies the relationship between “pleasure,” “pain,” “happiness,” “suffering,” and “meaning,” which causes several confusing passaging. The book leaves me with a vague, uplifting feel, but without a clear narrative or a lexicon to convey the ideas.

I also take issue with the content. The book glorifies individualism and agency. Manson spends several chapters railing against “victimhood” and “entitlement,” apparently taking jabs at both sides of the political aisle. But never does he explain the proper role of politics. Can I blame the president for ruining the environment, or is that also “victimhood”? The book also implies that depression is failures of the will, rather than a biological illnesses3, which is counterproductive and demeaning. He even derides an unconvinced father whose son had recently died as simply irrational; apparently, his anger and grief were “his choice.” I found that utterly unconvincing.

Notes

The following my chapter-by-chapter notes on the book. I suffer from literature irretention: books filter into one eye socket and come out the other (does the phrase work?). Last weekend, my friend TJ suggested that I take notes on books and I decided to give it a try. I hope they are helpful.

Don’t Try

Throughout his life, Charles Bukowski was a personal failure, chronically drunk and ill-tempered. Although he defied expectations and became a renowned author, his tombstone reads: “Don’t try.”

Self-improvement is not success. Social media and the self-improvement industry suggest to us that we must be smart, wealthy, and constantly happy. The problem with these desires is that they arise from lack. You are motivated precisely because you are dumb, broke, and depressed. Even if you get a little smarter, wealthier, and happier, you’ll become dissatisfied by the weekend. In the long term, it sets you up for the feedback cycle from hell, where you feel angry about your short temper, feel guilty for your constant apologizing, feel sad about your sadness, etc.

The correct intervention is embracing your lack—not a resignation to failure, but an acceptance of your shortcomings. Accepting that jogging involves sweat, knee pain, and wheezing helps me finish my afternoon runs. Accepting that 99% of my applications will get rejected let’s me land that 1/100 success. Accepting that I’m a slow, sub-par writer enables me to finish this article.

Not giving a fuck about pain and failure unlocks your personal growth. Not giving a fuck is not emotionlessness—that’s called psychopathy. Not giving a fuck is about consciously deciding where you will allocate your finite fucks. Not giving a fuck is about quitting a dumb club or ending a toxic friendship. Not giving a fuck is a subtle art, and there are three rules:

1. Be different, not indifferent. Giving a fuck is inevitable. Tradeoffs are also inevitable. There are 24 hours in a day and you can’t please everyone. Ignore the unimportant—social judgements, everyday annoyances, the past—and focus on what you decide matters to you.

2. Find purpose. In the absence of challenge, people invent their own problems (for rich white people, these are called “first world problems”). If you’re well off, stop being petty and pick a challenge.

3. Choose; you don’t have a choice. The young care about too much. Maturity means being selective about what matters. It’s why my grandpa blasts the radio, eats like a king, and says whatever he wants. He has learned to not give a fuck about my family’s judgement.

Of course, learning the art will not stop the suffering. What it may do is to help you find meaning.

Happiness is a Problem

After years of travel and 49 days of meditation, the Buddha reached a truth: life is suffering. To be sure, some forms of suffering are worse than others, but the fact of suffering itself is inescapable. There is no accomplishment, recognition, or discount Amazon product that will give you happiness.

Suffering is a biological necessity. It helps us learn. A shark attack teaches you to avoid the deep water. Flunking a test is a wake up call to start studying. Getting rejected by a girl is a strong suggestion that you should consider a makeover.

Happiness is a work in progress and it comes from solving problems.

Unfortunately, some people are trapped by denial (pretending a problem doesn’t exist) and victimhood (making it someone else’s responsibility). These coping mechanisms are drugs. They give you temporary shelter from confronting your problems and, over time, you come to depend on them.

Emotions are signals. Repressing and overidentifying with emotions are both bad. If walking up the stairs is a struggle, you should probably exercise more. But, the strain of a long run isn’t a reason to quit. The point is to mobilize your pain towards higher goals.

“What do you want out of life?” is a useless question. I want endless euphoria, you probably do too. A better one is: “what pain are you willing to do endure?” The path to wealth, health, and love is paved with 80-hour work weeks, leg days, and bitter quarrels. But taking those paths is worth it, not for what lies at the end (death), but for the pleasures of the journey.

You Are Not Special

We give out too many goddamn participation awards. Recent psychological studies have shown that self-esteem is not intrinsically beneficial. Taken too far, it turns into an exhausting, regressive, and narcissistic mental straightjacket. You become the dog in the “Everything is fine” meme (except you’re also an asshole).

A healthy attitude depends how you feel about your shortcomings. Do you recognize your failures and try to correct them? Or do you ignore them and hide from them? Liberal sensitivities are well-intentioned, but they are corrosive when they encourage the latter option.

You aren’t special. “Everyone is special” is an oxymoronic phrase.

Lucky for you, you don’t need to be special to be happy.

The Value of Suffering

As Simon Sinek says 50+ times in his book of the same name (don’t read it), start with why. Most people can identify their emotions. Some might even be aware of why they feel emotions. But beneath that is the question of what you value. By what standard are you judging yourself?

Dave Mustaine was kicked out of a band just after they signed. Determined to outdo his former bandmates, he assembled a new band called Megadeth and sold 25 million albums. Great, right? His old band was Metallica, which sold over six times as many albums. Dave considers himself a failure—he ultimately failed to beat his old bandmates.

Pete Best, on the other hand, was booted from the Beatles just before they blew up. He went through a period of depression and eventually settled down into family life. Rather than longing to return to music, he pivoted from valuing fame to valuing his relationships. Pete, as you can probably guess, is much happier than Dave.

Some values suck. First, pleasure sucks. Hedonists live anxious, meaningless lives. Second, material goods suck. After securing your basic needs, additional wealth faces diminishing marginal returns. Third, always being right sucks. You will be wrong, and your need to be right will cause batshit crazy rationalizations. Fourth, positivity sucks. Putting on a smile doesn’t solve your problems. Find a way to fix them that aligns with your values.

Good values are grounded in reality, socially constructive, and immediately under your control.

Each of the next five sections explores a worthwhile value.

You Are Always Choosing

Responsibility is independent of fault. The COVID-19 pandemic is not my fault (I think), but it’s still my responsibility to wear a mask and stay indoors. Fault refers to the past. Responsibility refers to the present. Others may be at fault for how shitty things are. You are always responsible for how you choose to react.

Many people who suffer for no fault of their own—like Malala, who took a bullet in the head, or people with genetic misfortunates like severe OCD—are nonetheless able to turn their struggle against tragedy into beautiful projects. You might not have short-term control over success. But life is like poker. In the long term, how you respond to obstacles determines your fate.

We live in a culture of victimization, and it isn’t unique to any political ideology. Everyone wants to offload responsibility to other people, whether it’s Mexicans stealing your jobs or white supremacists attacking you with microaggressions. Accept responsibility. In the short term, it will hurt. Stick it through and you will find meaning.

The first value is radical responsibility.

You’re Wrong About Everything

Growth is an iterative process. You don’t (and can’t) be absolutely right, but you can make progress by getting more correct. This is especially important when it comes to questions like “what should I value?”, where the correct answer is different for different people.

Don’t be so sure. Modesty opens you up to change and growth. Considering the possibility that you’re in a toxic relationship or the wrong job opens you up to future partners and a change in career.

Human are pattern-seekers by nature. We read meaning from nothing and cling to ideology. At it’s worst, certainty in beliefs manifests as bigotry and dehumanization. Even the mere desire for certainty is corrosive, since it leave you constantly worried, glued to Twitter and Apple News.

These are, fundamentally, desires for stability, for you to stay where you are. Let go of these desires. Consider regularly asking these questions:

  1. What if I’m wrong? Make a habit of asking questioning your beliefs. We are the worst judges of ourselves, so strictly scrutinize your thoughts.
  2. What would it mean if I were wrong? You didn’t just “happen” to be wrong. Your beliefs are motivated by deeper desires and motives. Examine them.
  3. If I were wrong, who would that impact? Usually, if being wrong means that most of the others were right, then you are, in fact, wrong.

The second value is uncertainty.

Failure Is the Way Forward

Good values are lifelong and they defy completion. Goals cannot substitute for values. A goal like “getting good grades” can help you bring home a good report card, but what happens after? Without values, you will become complacent and anxious.

Continuing to strive is the key to happiness. Each failure and tragedy is an opportunity for growth.

Don’t sit around and wait to start. Action is not simply caused by motivation. Action itself can also cause motivation. Some people sit on their hands, waiting for inspiration to strike. Of course, if you’re doing nothing, then that jolt of motivation will also be harder to obtain. The key to change around the equation.4

The third value is failure.

The Importance of Saying No

Freedom gives you opportunities, but that doesn’t always translate into meaning. Meaning arises when you willingly narrowing your range of choices. Truly valuing something will require you to devalue everything else. Trying to have it all is a form of entitlement.

The problem with “Romeo and Juliet”-style romance is precisely that entitlement. The relationship is premised on the mutually offloading of responsibility. Each partner expects the other to take responsibility for their problems. Of course, neither will be happy, neither will solve their problems, and neither will find meaning.

A healthy relationship is about being deeply comfortable with saying “no” to each other’s requests, and then choosing to help them anyway. The litmus test is refusal: does saying “no” fundamentally threaten the relationship?

Choosing to limit yourself leads to more meaning. It also leads to more freedom. Some of the greatest experiences only come from extended self-imposed limitation, such as a long-term relationship or the mastery of a skill. Limits make you free by letting you ignore all the other options that are available. It clears your mind to focus on your intent.

The fourth value is rejection.

….And Then You Die

For Manson, death of his friend Josh was a transformative period of his life. At first, it threw him in a dark depression, as he grappled with the inevitability of of his death and the consequent meaninglessness of life. But he had an epiphany: if life is meaningless, and there’s no reason to do anything, then there’s also no reason not to do anything. This insight unlocked a responsible, curious and determined personality.

A psychologist named Ernest Becker proposed that humans are animated by “death terror”—an existential anxiety that motivates all action and underlies all of history. Humans reconcile their physical mortality by trying perpetuate their conceptual selves. These immortality projects manifest themselves as names engraved on buildings, attention-seeking school shootings, and this blog, now that I think of it.

If these projects are our values, then the failure to achieve conceptual immortality will strike us with a sense of dread worse than physical death. On Becker’s deathbed, he realizes that the true solution is to let go of immortality projects; to not give a fuck about death.

Entitlement centers the world around you and fixates on your perpetuation, the idea that you need to be great. Once you accept death, you can care about something greater than yourself, and there you will find meaning. Herein lies the final paradox: letting go of your ego will also give you confidence, since the fact that you chase higher values despite being cosmically fucked is pretty epic.

The fifth and final value is the contemplation of mortality.

Footnotes

  1. Manson’s ideas about desire—I don’t think the choice to use “lack” is an accident either—parallel the psychoanalytic work of Jacques Lacan. Todd McGowan, a Lacanian psychoanalyst, elaborates and applies these ideas on his wonderful podcast, Why Theory. It’s refreshingly accessible and I would definitely give a listen. 

  2. When the book began proselytizing about responsibility and meaning, I had to pause and the check the cover to see if I was actually reading 12 Rules for Life

  3. Professor Robert Sapolsky has a wonderful series of lectures about human neurobiology available on YouTube, including a fantastic lecture about depression. 

  4. As a great philosopher once said, just do it. 

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