The New York Times bestseller mentioned in the title stared back at me at every bookstore or large retail store I had been to over the last two years.
Thoroughly self-conditioned to ignore such titles, I typically marched on to whatever it was I intended to buy that establishment. Catchy book titles, by nature, are begging for compliance and are not one bit ashamed by it. Once you give in to the initial urge, you quickly find yourself rummaging through a book laden with unproven truisms and context-ridden life lessons.
The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck by Mark Manson is probably the last book a guy like myself would be reading on a rainy Sunday night with plenty of work queued up.
But here I am. The distribution of this book is so pervasive, so widespread, that I finally decided to give in giving in.
And I now say this without any shame: it is a fantastic read.
First Impressions Are Never The Last
It would be easy to classify Manson’s first book as a ‘dumb’ one. It isn’t remotely technical, doesn’t rely on science beyond anecdotal snippets and is pretty easy to follow by even the more philosophically challenged.
The title certainly adds to this reputation. You wouldn’t be blamed for assuming that the book’s singular premise is to urge us to be a no-fucks-given sort of person. That it’s okay not to care about others, and it’s okay to be an emotional vagabond. That’s not remotely true.
As Mark Manson iterates several times over a 217 page exposition, we should give fuck about things – just not the wrong type of things. The key to a balanced life, he argues, is to carefully choose the right values, ideas, people, and accomplishments to give a fuck about.
Who is this Manson guy, anyway?
Mark Manson is a celebrity blogger with millions of people reading his articles every month on topics ranging from relationships (his primary niche) and mental well-being.
This wouldn’t have been much of a qualification a decade back, but then again, no one would have believed Trump would be President in 2010 as well.
The self-improvement market is a funny one. Everyone wants to be a better version of themselves. And the only real qualification you need to dish out advice is to be relatable. You don’t need a Ph.D. in Child Psychology and you don’t need to be reining World of Warcraft champion – although it certainly helps.
With the right words of motivation, you can have numskulls across the west throw out $99.99 every month for your online course on being a better leader. Yes, the same course you recorded in your mom’s basement.
Mark’s own story, which he regurgitates in several passages throughout the book, is of a born-again rationalist. Someone who learned that they had pretty shitty values and habits, and amended these through persistent self-critique and self-improvement.
If you read between the words, you can summarize him as an entitled upper-middle class white guy who hit the jackpot when his blog became immensely popular – which invariably led to his demons taking over him for the worse.
Think a poor man’s Justin Beiber. Drugs, sex, alcohol and video games.
But unlike many who give in for good, Mark found a way to fight these demons back to hell through his quest for balance and self-discovery.
The Process of Elimination
Ever seen the Matthew McConaughey video about using the process of elimination to answer that burning question that inflicts us all at some stage of our lives – ‘who am I?’.
It goes like this: to find out who exactly you are, you begin by asking yourself ‘what am I not?’ Once you do this enough times, you will have gotten rid of most harmful habits, ungainly desires and redundant thinking patterns through the process of elimination.
It wouldn’t be far fetched to summarize The Art of Not Giving A F*ck is an extension of this Matthew McConaughey speech.
As highlighted earlier, Manson wants you to give a fuck. But to choose what to give a fuck about. To make that choice, he reasons, once has to first start questioning their current identity framework.
Yes, you must do the hard tasks of questioning your core identity and values, and hope to come out with clearer answers to what it is that you are and aren’t.
Once you complete this exercise, Manson claims, you will stop giving a fuck about the drunk boyfriend who does not care about you. You will stop giving a fuck about catching up with friends at the expense of your yoga session. You will stop giving a fuck about what your manager’s attitude should be and what it is.
The foundation of achieving this relies on building better values and better metrics to evaluate yourself. If you value ‘being the coolest guy in New York’ and use your current (lack of) credibility as a metric, you will continue being unhappy.
Firstly, your metrics are dependent on the acceptance of others. Secondly, because it’s a pretty shitty metric to have, period.
I tend to endorse books that urge people to stay away from basic logical fallacies without going anal on the roman nomenclature. I believe it is critical that we filter our thoughts and our decision-making apparatus from these fallacies and not restrict the application to just humanities courses.
The book demands you to seek Socratic humility with Buddhist uncertainty. This, now more than ever, is a much-needed relief from years of ‘everything you believe becomes true’ infantile bullshit thrown at us by mainstream self-help authors and motivational speakers.
Ever wonder why these authors don’t do much in their lives other than tell others how to live theirs?
Death: The Great(est) Motivator
Manson’s shining moment in the book is right at the fag end. He narrates a day spent hiking at Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, long considered the lower bottom of the world.
He inches his way towards the edge of the 87-meter high cliff facing the Antarctica-bound Pacific Ocean. Just a small bump away from sure-fire death, he reflects on the past. He remembers his friend who, young and inebriated, jumped unwittingly from a cliff to his death during a party the author attended a decade back. He reminisces about life in general; of his family, the good and the bad.
The moral of the closing chapter is simple: you appreciate life the most when you are closer to death.
I can still remember a visit to Highgate Cemetery in London on a rainy Saturday afternoon. With no other person in sight, and going through a deep reflective phase of my life, I had never felt more alive. Of course, being close to Karl Marx and Herbert Spencer’s final resting place certainly did help as well.
The above mantra is common in several religious philosophies, most notably in the great eastern religions of Islam and Buddhism. And it does have it’s merit.
Contemporary western lifestyles and social norms are completely saturated by the force of material growth – leaving little room for a ‘pessimistic mental framework’ that reminds you of your death. In fact, most people live most of their lives doing everything contrary to this primary truth of life – that it must end.
But here’s the thing. There is no greater motivator than death. If you get the chance, go meet a thalesmia patient that has been given a few years to live. Spend a few hours with them and see the urge for life in their eyes.
The consistent reminder of death can serve as a great motivator for data scientists, marketers, business analysts, and pretty much anyone working in a contemporary work environment. We get so bogged down with our arbitrary deadlines, milestones, and benchmarks – knowing full well that these incremental metrics will be worthless to us in a few years.
By the time we are on our deathbed, they will be all but forgotten.
A few years ago, engaging Readers Digest cover story surveyed hundreds of nurses and palliative care professionals. The question was simple: what the number one regret that dying patients shared with them. Aside from the recurrent answers fed to us through self-help books and influencer stories (hate less and don’t hold grudges) was one that is overlooked because of the potential damage it can cause to critical stakeholders in a market economy: ‘we wish we worked less.’
The reason for stating it here is not so people take their work less seriously. The goal is that you should do all that is possible to make your work meaningful. The efforts you put in should contribute to the moral dictionary or framework that governs your life. That is critical for a life well spent.
Striking A Personal Cord
A lot of us have been in Mark Manson’s shoes: a largely meaningless, spiritually empty teenage life being flooded with a sudden burst of enthusiasm, opportunity, knowledge, and life. This sudden burst of kinetic energy invariably leads us into one mistake after another. Failed relationships. Bad work choices. Detrimental friendships.
By the time we are done, we are pretty much assholes who make ourselves feel better by sharing ‘I don’t give a fuck what you think’ memes.
When life finally hits us hart, we consequently spend the next decade or so learning about ourselves.
This process of maturation is common to most human beings. No, you are not special. By the time we realize the follies of our early adulthood years, we are either too old or we are married.
There are two points from ‘The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck’ that I couldn’t emphasize enough at this junction.
- Take out the time to set your values as well as the metrics that define them. However, tread carefully. if you choose shitty values, your efforts will go to waste
- Once you choose these values, stop complaining and let go of your entitlement. Work through the pain, cherish the struggle, and accept responsibility. It will all eventually make sense.
A Note In Parting
The fact of the matter is that some people will just not get it. This is regression to the mean, with the mean representing a world full of dumb people.
Most of us will make one mistake regardless of how earnestly we try to adhere to the above principles. We will choose values that are just plain detrimental to our well-being in the long run.
Let’s say you are 48-year-old unmarried man and that you love your cats. You own 2 Persian cats, 13 and 15 years of age, respectively. In other words, they’ll be dead sooner rather than later. The cats mean the world to you and you’re certain that you will reunite with them after they die, somewhere inside a restaurant on the highway from cat heaven to catholic heaven.
Because of your idiosyncratic tendencies, you take a three-week hiatus from work in order to build a blog for your cats. The blog is your first website. It has 0 visitors in the last 2 months. And you have no idea to write engaging content nor how to distribute it.And your cats will be dead soon.
Sure, ‘it’s his life’ and he can do whatever he wants with it. But he will also be responsible for his values and the outcomes they eventually lead to. He will be responsible for the loneliness he will face when he is 60. He will be responsible for having no retirement savings when he prioritizes trips to Europe with his feline buddies over long term security.
He will be responsible for his past when he realizes that these cats probably don’t care about him and are nothing more than hardcoded stimuli-and-response machines.
But whatever the outcome, he will be responsible for it. That is the key lesson here. Responsibility.
All important decisions need to be made with this consideration in mind. Are you willing to accept responsibility for your decision to care for cats at the expense of human beings? If not, choose your values accordingly.
That is the starting point in building a meaningful life for ourselves. I am sure Mark Manson would agree with.