What is bright orange, shiny, and maybe half as cool as Miles Davis? (and that’s pretty cool–just sayin’). Though the title of the book itself isn’t an obvious indication, The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F%ck isn’t exactly a throwback to 90s slackerdom. On the contrary, my contrarian friends, this book is for anyone who could benefit from being strategic and mindful about prioritizing how–and to whom–we give our precious time. And that’s probably just about everyone. This book is for those of us who care too much. This book is essentially about choices and in turning a widely-held assumption about happiness on its head.
In many ways, Mark Manson concisely re-packages the basic tenants of Eastern philosophy and religion in a hilarious and concise self-help guide . “In case you haven’t heard of him,” Manson says of the Buddha, “he was kind of a big deal.” Manson continues:
There is a premise that underlies a lot of our assumptions and beliefs. The premise is that happiness is algorithmic, that it can be worked for and earned and achieved as if it were getting accepted to law school or building a really complicated Lego set. If I achieve X, then I can be happy. If I look like Y, then I can be happy. If I can be with a person like Z, then I can be happy. This premise, though, is the problem. Happiness is not a solvable equation. Dissatisfaction and unease are inherent parts of human nature and, as we’ll see, necessary components to creating consistent happiness (26).
What Manson offers in his book is the strangely comforting idea that striving for happiness is itself a negative act. Yep. And his ideas make a lot of sense. Manson seamlessly weaves in Alan Watts’ “backwards law” which says that “the more you pursue feeling better all the time, the less satisfied you become, as pursing something only reinforces the fact that you lack it in the first place” (9). Kind of makes sense, right? Manson ultimately rejects the established dogma in the self-improvement literature in favor of recognizing and even embracing suffering. You can thank the Buddha for that.
Charles Bukowski, a poet known for his irreverence and salt-of-the-Earth writing style kicks off Manson’s book, and for good reason. Bukowski–offering up all kinds profane-yet-sage wisdom noted that there is no way around the fire: “what matters most is how well you walk through the fire”. No sugarcoating here, folks. And that’s a welcome and refreshing approach to the happiness conundrum. Is it at all ridiculous and miraculous that Charles Bukowski turned out to be a self-help guru? (And not the self-appointed kind). If you haven’t read any of the late great Bukowski, do yourself a favor. Sometimes the sacred & profane are two sides of the same coin.
If suffering and struggle is inevitable, Manson frames the happiness dilemma like this: for what are you willing to struggle? Those things–the things you’re willing to do the hard work to attain–those are the things that define you. In other words, you have to choose where to ration out your four letter words. And this book has all the 4-letter words, be sure. You know how your mother or sister or aunt or best friend told you to “choose your battles” ? Yeah–that. Because life is short. Maybe you figured that out already, and maybe one of your employee-sponsored motivational speakers reminded you that you yourself are what appears between the two dates on your tombstone. You are the hyphen. Make it count.
Allow me to digress for a moment. I found Manson to be a sort of new-breed George Carlin, and if you are a fan of comedy and satire, look into adding some George Carlin comedy sketches to your list of library holds (of course, not if you’re easily offended by expletives and socio-political satire). One of my personal favorites, George Carlin, makes no appearances in Manson’s book but poignantly asks in one of his comedy sketches: “why do we call them self-help books when we didn’t write them ourselves?” Aw, the best comedians were and are some of the most insightful poets and philosophers of our time, indeed. But for a moment ponder the implications of writing your own self-help book. Writing it would require the type of self-reflection and self-awareness (and Manson would say self-doubt) required of self-improvement and even, ahem, tracking down the big, elusive Happy Dragon that lives in the distant castle of your mind. Even more: Manson discusses how the “pursuit of certainty” is a barrier to living a good life.
While this little book contains many noteworthy nuggets of insight, I’ll highlight my other favorite: namely, that action is not the result of being motivated, but rather action is itself motivation. Mmm hmmm. I’m sayin’. Do you feel inspired by that? Manson outlines a sort of flow-chart to illustrate his point, and it looks like this: Action ——>Inspiration——>Motivation. Instead of waiting around for the spirit to move you or for a lightening-strike of inspiration, just simply do and the rest will follow. And the rationale is quite simple. Manson calls this recipe for motivation the “do something” principle, and he credits a former Math teacher. Many of the impediments to living a good life can simply be removed by the “do something” principle.
A personal example of the do-something rule in action in my life: when I’m not doing work in the library, I’m a songwriter and performer. I personally enjoy the satisfaction and feeling of accomplishment I derive in bringing a song into the world–in crafting something completely new and original that only I can produce. And the way to craft something new and original is not to wait. On the contrary: I write. so. many. songs. They’re really just poems or short stories or sketches, anyway. Or notes on my iPhone app. Or doodles. But that writing begets more writing. And one idea or concept leads to the next, and so forth. And before you know it, you’re a writing machine, churning out all kinds of new songs. Like, lots of new, really crappy songs. But guess what? The more songs you have, the higher your chances of writing a song that is great.
You remember the 10,000 hour rule from the wildly popular book Freakonomics? The rule is simple: what you practice, you become. If you practice something for 10,000 hours, like the Beatles relentlessly practiced and performed their music, you’re bound to get really good at it. Manson has a similar idea which is namely this: “The rare people who do become truly exceptional at something do so not because they believe they’re exceptional. On the contrary, they become amazing because they’re obsessed with improvement. And that obsession with improvement stems from an unerring belief that they are, in fact, not that great at all. It’s anti-entitlement” (61). Here again is the resounding mantra that what defines us is what we are willing to struggle for–whether that be in cultivating a family, excelling in our careers, painting a masterpiece, or juggling flaming tennis rackets while balancing on a unicycle.
It’s no-doubt time for me to wrap up my ramblings. Check out this book if you like Eastern philosophy, suffering, pleasure, pandas, inspiration, self-defeat, self-improvement, the F word, Pakistani freedom fighters, the other F word: fun, Dave Mustaine from the band Megadeath, and hilarity in general.