As part of PolyWogg’s Reading Challenge 2020, I wanted to read the uber-popular “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck” by Mark Manson. I frequently avoid pop psych stuff as the analytical side is rarely up to my standards, but it is subtitled a “Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life”, and I’m willing to give it a chance. So I started keeping notes as I read it.
Chapter 1: Don’t try
The basic premise is that most self-improvement efforts are too vague or too generic to be helpful. They are all about getting more, doing more, having more success, and that the real key to doing so is self-improvement. But Manson argues:
Self-improvement and success often occur together. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the same thing.
And so people end up focusing on trying to achieve self-actualization in every aspect of their life, every achievement possible.
The key to a good life is not giving a fck about more; it’s giving a fck about less, giving a fck about only what is true and immediate and important. […] Most of us struggle throughout our lives by giving too many fcks in situations where fcks do not deserve to be given. We give too many fcks about the rude gas station attendant who gave us our change in nickels. We give too many fcks when a show we liked was canceled on TV. We give too many fcks when our coworkers don’t bother asking us about our awesome weekend.
Oversimplifying somewhat, I would summarize the argument as simply you’re going to get annoyed about SOMETHING, so why not make sure that the something you are annoyed about is worth it. In other words, don’t sweat the small stuff, only sweat the big stuff you care about.
Chapter 2: Happiness is a problem
The argument is that happiness is not a “solvable equation”. You find happiness by loving the struggle. If pain of some sort is inevitable, and you accept that, focus on accepting which pain is worth your while. And the journey is the source of happiness, not the destination.
Also known as “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”
But Manson adds a small twist about finding problems you like to solve (i.e. what you love).
He then goes off on a long BS rant about links between Millennials, entitlement, and social media. Yawn. It was also said about every generation before this one. “The kids today…with their long hair, their rock and roll, their lack of responsibility…”. He then equates all of it to relying on denial or victim mentality, and thus the reason none of them can “change”. If someone wants to see an entitled summary of a narcissistic a-hole of epic proportions, his summary of his own adolescence and how his parents were to blame would rank up there among the all-time greats. Double yawn.
I did like one quote near the end:
Who you are is defined by what you’re willing to struggle for.
Not quite “I have a dream”, or, “I think therefore I am”, but there’s at least something in it.
Chapter 3: You are not special
This chapter is mostly meaningless self-aggrandizing about his rough childhood (spoiler alert: it wasn’t as “traumatic” shit as he thinks) to come to the conclusion that you can’t be special in every area, and maybe average in some or even the majority is okay.
Chapter 4: The value of suffering
About this point in the book, I’m starting to realize that he has some nuggets of ideas in each chapter, but most of his evidence tends to prove the exact opposite of what he’s trying to say. For example, his grand example of measuring things wrong is Pete Best being kicked out of the Beatles and the statement “I’m happier than I would have been with the Beatles.” Ignoring the self-rationalization process involved in any kind of statement like that, there’s absolutely no basis to know even if it would be objectively true. Yet instead of pointing out the fallacy of any such “what if / road not taken” comparison, i.e., the entire basis for regret, Manson uses it to prove that not all suffering is bad. Okaaaay.
He introduces the common concept of self-awareness being like an onion with layers:
- What are emotions?
- Why do we feel certain emotions?
- Why do I feel that emotion and how am I judging things?
But then he does nothing really with it. He does summarize true self-improvement as being really about prioritizing better values for ourselves. Now THAT’S an interesting premise. It isn’t quite the same as people just simply committing to service to others as a panacea for all that is ailing you, but rather a way of focusing on the types of priorities you choose. Of course, he does settle for complaining about material things or pursuing pleasure, but the idea was interesting.
Chapter 5: You are always choosing
I liked the opening premise. He gives an example of being forced to run a marathon vs. choosing to run a marathon, and often the act of “choice” determines what your outcome is like (pain or joy). I much prefer Kottler’s “Change” treatment of a similar issue which is that how you talk to yourself during trauma oftens determines how you process it later, but okay, it’s pop-psych here, not true psych. Where Manson goes off the rails is his interpretation of blame, choice, and responsibility.
Basically he argues that we don’t always control what happens to us, but that we can control how we interpret it and how we respond. Except every psychologist knows that statement is simply not true. Some of us have serious issues, we’re not all self-aware and rational creatures, so saying we don’t respond like Pavlovian dogs to some stimuli doesn’t make it true. But he wants to use it to say while we are “responsible” for our problems, we are not “to blame” / “at fault” for our problems.
I can’t help but be reminded of the classic comedy skit by David Frye called “Richard Nixon – A Fantasy”. He does voices for all the characters, and as Nixon, he gives a press conference explaining the difference between being responsible and to blame. He says, “Let me be perfectly clear. I am responsible, but not to blame. Let me explain the difference. Those who are to blame, go to jail; those who are responsible, do not.”
About this point, just over 50% of the way through the book, I would probably have chucked it if I wasn’t reading it for a reading challenge. And as I noted above, there are a few nuggets here and there that are interesting ideas.
Chapter 6: You’re wrong about everything (but so am I)
This chapter is badly named, not surprisingly, but I like the idea that many people like to live in a “known” world, even if painful, believing something negative rather than hope for something else that is totally uncertain and requires work to achieve. Often this shows up as “unrealized potential” — the would-be rock star who never tries too hard, or the writer that never writes. It’s easier to think of yourself as having the potential to be great than risk it all and fail. And so he concludes that certainty is the enemy of growth.
See? This is what I mean. Amidst all the fucks and shits in the text, suddenly he finds an acorn of value like a blind squirrel.
Except, then he goes off the rails again. He uses it to argue that what is holding people back is fear (true, obviously) and that it is fear of challenging their own view of themself. So, the solution for him is to redefine yourself as simply as possible so that you’re not trying to challenge a complex view. Yep, crickets. Chirping in the night while time passes.
Chapter 7: Failure is the way forward
Don’t be afraid of failure, failure leads to growth, growth leads to goodness, goodness defeats the dark side of the force, a temptation you must avoid, hmm, if to face Vader you must. Or something, I don’t know, he lost me in his own shitstorm story. I don’t know if he was smoking something or watching Empire Strikes Back with Yoda too much, but he kinda goes off on a tangent.
When he eventually emerges, he has some interesting thoughts about how we tend to think of a linear process of “motivation” leading to “action” which leads to “results”. And so we often look for inspiration or motivation to get ourselves going, to start “acting”. But he notes that sometimes the action leads to an outcome or interim result that will actually give us the motivation we need. Cause and effect, reversed in a way. If this sounds vaguely familiar, think back to every Nike ad you’ve seen for the last 20 years. “Just do it”.
It’s one of the stupidest ideas on the planet. Here’s a wake-up call — if you COULD just “do it”, you would have already done it and you wouldn’t need a fucking book. If you haven’t, maybe there’s something holding you back. And it ain’t motivation, asshat. Maybe it’s fear, but more likely it’s way more complicated than that. But no worries, try it anyway. Uh huh. Sure Mark, no problem. Everyone will get right on it, now that you’ve opened them up to the most obvious idea on the planet.
Chapter 8: The importance of saying no
I kept wondering if Marie Kondo read this book before she came up with her joy theory. If it doesn’t give you joy, get rid of it. Or in Manson’s words:
The point is this: we all must give a fuck about something, in order to value something. And to value something, we must reject what is not that something. To value X, we must reject non-X.
Wow, I read all of the previous crap to get to this? Man, I better get some sort of badge for this.
Chapter 9: …And then you die
Yep, that’s it. Or it could be called “…and then the book ends”.
Did you ever see the movie City Slickers with Billy Crystal? He goes off to be a cowboy for a vacation, and Jack Palance tells him that he has to find his “one thing” that is his purpose in life. The single thing, in Manson’s world, that you give a fuck about if you only had one fuck to give. And you could be happy if you organized your life and your goals around that one thing while letting go of everything else that didn’t bring you joy or closer to that joy.
Or you could just summarize it as “Don’t sweat the small stuff and it’s all small stuff”.
There ain’t much else there. Even if it is written in more Millenial vernacular than Boomer examples.