The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life
by Mark Manson, published 2016
How much deep wisdom can you expect from a recently published book written by a youthful individual who writes a blog about his opinions for a living? Not much, if you’re reasonable, and in that sense this book managed to be both exactly what I expected it would be and enjoyable nonetheless.
My basic gripe with this book is that it doesn’t manage to fully develop or even adhere to its titular theme, the idea of “giving a fuck.” It’s a cheeky way of stating something more profound, and while Manson manages to explore the profundity I don’t think he does it thematically which creates a disconnect between the marketing of the book and its ideas, and the actual philosophy itself. I think this book would’ve been more interesting if it was not called “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck”, which is a not very subtle way to appeal to a potential audience at the cost of the integrity of the book itself, which is otherwise sound.
But I am “not going to give a fuck” about that, because it’s irrelevant in light of what value I did take away from the book, which is notable. There are many pithy concepts in Manson’s work, I will list some of those that I found myself dwelling upon and try to share why they were meaningful to me.
Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience […] The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering. The denial of failure is a failure. Hiding what is shameful is itself a form of shame.
The concept here is not that struggling towards achievements gives achievements their meaning, but rather that it is unavoidable to struggle towards achievements in life. Furthermore, attempting to avoid the struggle is irrational because the avoidance of struggle is a struggle. Instead of one struggle (toward an achievement) you now face two– the avoidance of struggle as struggle, and the struggle towards achievement itself. Or, even worse, you face one struggle with no reward, the avoidance of struggle as struggle.
Embrace the struggle as necessary and vital.
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.
“The solution to one problem is merely the creation of the next one.” […] hope for a life full of good problems […] Happiness comes from solving problems. Happiness is […] a form of action; it’s an activity. […] Happiness is a constant work-in-progress, because solving problems is a constant work-in-progress […] True happiness occurs only when you find the problems you enjoy having and enjoy solving.
Two years ago, I had the opportunity to head a small retail sales organization in need of a turn around. It was hard work, the hardest work I’ve done to date. And I was successful in my work, but most of the time it didn’t feel that way to me because of my inexperience.
The thought I remember having most often was, “Am I doing something wrong?” My problems seemed to multiply without end. Every time I fixed something, something else broke. Every time I thought I had configured the organization, our processes, anything, into some kind of stable equilibrium, it would start tilting in another direction all over again. I became very discouraged because I associated this inability to find stability as some symptom of my incompetence or inadequacy as the man in charge.
I brought this up with more senior people in the organization during several sit downs and the reply I got each time was, “That’s business– there are always more problems to solve.” I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but it’s also life, life is a series of challenges and obstacles to overcome. There is no equilibrium, no final resting state besides death. Everything in prelude is constant turmoil and flux. You can accept that and get on with it, or you can invest a lot of time and energy in being bitter and resentful about it (speaking from experience here!) and you will succeed wildly in this failure of imagination if you want to do that.
It took about a year of struggling with that sense of self-doubt before I came to terms with the inescapable nature of recurring problems. At that point, I came to appreciate the concept philosophically– there were always going to be problems to solve, no matter whether you screwed things up or batted it out of the park. And once I had that piece, I realized the next piece was to find problems you like to solve. If you’re going to deal with problems, you might as well have fun with them.
This connects to my theory of investment, as well. I believe the ideal for investment is control, ownership, being in a position to add value by being a change agent. And so from that standpoint I believe the most fundamental investment value, besides price, yield, future prospects, etc., is that you select investment problems you enjoy solving. You be an owner where you can add value with your solutions to the problems the company faces, and where you enjoy providing those solutions.
Real, serious, lifelong fulfillment and meaning have to be earned through the choosing and managing of our struggles.
Who you are is defined by what you’re willing to struggle for. People who enjoy the struggles of a gym are the ones who run triathlons and have chiseled abs and can benchpress a small house. People who enjoy long workweeks and the politics of the corporate ladder are the ones who fly to the top of it. People who enjoy the stresses and uncertainties of the starving artist lifestyle are ultimately the ones who live it and make it.
This ties together the ideas of avoiding entitlement by embracing the necessity of struggle, and selecting struggles you enjoy. It provides explanatory value for the outcomes we witness in other people, particularly people who excel in certain fields. It helps us appreciate where their success comes from– their embrace of particular struggles. It helps us to understand that it is unreasonable to expect to enjoy those same rewards without the same affinity for those struggles.
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.
“With great responsibility comes great power.”
A lot of people hesitate to take responsibility for their problems because they believe that to be responsible for your problems is also to be at fault for your problems.
Fault is past tense. Responsibility is present tense.
Many years ago I became interested in the thinking of the psychologist and philosopher, Nathaniel Branden. One of the books I read which had a big impact in my life was his not-so-subtly titled How To Raise Your Self-Esteem. It is a humongous work inside a small package, a title I can easily recommend to anyone, and there is one sentence in the book that hit me like a person you’ve always respected and admired admitting they can’t stand you: “No one is coming to the rescue.”
I made a lot of excuses for myself back then. I don’t know if it was a sense of self-pity or a sense of cosmic divinity (how could I of all people be meant to suffer or be anything but perfect?!), but I was good at sitting around waiting for everyone else to get clued in on how great I was. I spent A LOT of time trying to figure other people out and rationalize why, despite my brilliance and benevolence, they didn’t like me, weren’t attracted to me, didn’t enjoy my company, etc. What I didn’t do much of was think about what I could do differently to get different results in my life. My attitude was, “This is just the way I am, if the world doesn’t appreciate it, then fuck ’em!”
When I read that no one was coming to my rescue, I first thought, who would come to my rescue if someone was coming to my rescue? It wasn’t god, as I didn’t believe in it. It wasn’t my parents– my parents love me, and they didn’t seem to have taken the opportunity to rescue me from my struggles so far, so it seemed safe to assume they weren’t just waiting for the right occasion. It wasn’t my friends, they were struggling with some of the same things I was. And it wasn’t some random stranger, they don’t know me and couldn’t care about my struggles. By process of elimination, it dawned on me that the only person who could come to my rescue, was me, and even I wasn’t getting off my ass to do the deed. So, Branden was right, no one was coming to my rescue.
That’s when I stopped the unsatisfying game of assigning fault, and took up the mantle of responsibility for my own life. It’s been an imperfect practice, and it always will be, but it’s made all the difference in my life since then.
Life is about not knowing and then doing something anyway.
“If you’re stuck on a problem, don’t sit there and think about it; just start working on it. Even if you don’t know what you’re doing, the simple act of working on it will eventually cause the right ideas to show up in your head.”
Action isn’t just the effect of motivation; it’s also the cause of it.
This is a great reminder for me because I am a cerebral person. The thing I struggle with the most is overthinking my problems. This was again something I had to learn on the job while heading the retail operation. I would face a problem and try to find the “perfect” solution for it, which inevitably meant thinking and thinking and thinking again. I received another bit of wisdom in one of those senior manager sitdowns: “You’re never going to have the time or the ability to implement the perfect solution. Consider a couple options and then pick the one you’re most comfortable with and accept that you might make another mess that you can clean up later.”
Again, the lesson applies to life in general. You can think your problems to death, literally (see Buridan’s ass). You’ll get more places by simply doing, and dealing with the consequences. Consequences are unavoidable and there are always more problems to solve whether you get the current one right or wrong. There is also a parallel to investing practice here– facing a sound investment with a 10% return potential, should you hold out and wait for one that could return 20%? No. Invest whenever you can find a safe return and worry about whether you’ll have free resources for the 20% return when you come to it. If you do otherwise, you may give up even the 10% return chasing a phantom 20%.
Commitment gives you freedom because you’re no longer distracted by the unimportant and frivolous.
I’ve been kicking this one around a lot with friends recently. During the financial crisis, I was enamored with the idea of living with no flag, traveling around the world as a lifestyle, being a “citizen of the world.” It’s a sexy, exciting dream, but it makes no sense. Part of what makes being a “citizen” of any place enjoyable is the commitment you make to that place which allows you to have deeper connections and experiences than a mere tourist. It can be captured in the metaphor of the traveler who wants to know where the locals eat. You can’t eat like a local when you’re always on the move. You can’t live the life of a citizen when you’re an uprooted, uncommitted nomad.
This also dovetails with the simplicity mindset of Marie Kondo’s “Life-Changing Magic”. When you live life simply and rid yourself of ill-used possessions, you commit yourself to fuller utilization of the possessions that remain. You commit to a particular use pattern and give up the elusive dream of having and using it all, which is impossible. The things you discard are marginalia, they are unimportant, frivolous things in your life.
With your limited “fucks to give” in life, you must draw a close bead on the things you’re aiming to achieve.
Death is the only thing we can know with certainty […] it must be the compass by which we orient all of our other values and decisions.
And then there’s that. It’s great that the book tries to wrestle with the issue, because we have an anti-death culture, this diseased belief that “death can’t happen here.”
Yesterday I was re-reading the preface of Phil Fisher’s Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits. The preface is written by Phil’s son Ken, who is also part of the investment industry. At the time Ken was writing, his father was suffering from dementia and slowly dying. Ken reflected on the former vitality of his father which had now diminished, and lamented the fact that he tried to continue the game of investment even in his old age, which Ken argued was a young man’s game.
One example he provided was a time when his then eighty-year-old father told a group of people of some stocks he was picking which he looked to own “for the next thirty years.” The people he was speaking to thought this was cute, but Ken thought it was depressing and nonsensical. It was extremely unlikely his father would be around another thirty years and so his behavior and values were mismatched for what was appropriate to his stage of life. In effect, he was squandering what little time he had left, because he would not be honest about the inevitability of his impending death.
Ken suggested he would’ve been better off visiting with family, traveling or just taking it easy. And I agree. There’s a wisdom here in understanding death and keeping it, in some sense, in the forefront of one’s mind. We should be making the best plans we can with the time we think we have left, but we should never kid ourselves about how much time that is likely to be and what kind of plans are appropriate for the occasion.