• Alyssa Barton

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*

Manson, Mark (2016). The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, New York, New York: HarperCollins.

I read Mark Manson’s book about how to chill out and thrive through self-acceptance in 2017 when I started to experience a kind of personal self-help renaissance. I actually read it months before I started self-acceptance exercises, and I didn’t really connect the similarities between Manson’s book and the meditations and practices I was learning until later on.

At first glance, Manson’s book doesn’t seem to fit the self-help category, and he might not personally agree with my categorization (he might even throw an F-bomb my way). But at its core, the book covers topics like focusing your attention and energy on the things you value most, not letting trivial people or problems drag you down, and being comfortable with who you are – including your shortcomings. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck… self-help, I say.

Manson’s book is pretty explicit, so don’t pick it up if you can’t handle repeated cussbombs raining down on you page after page. That being said its starkly refreshing, uplifting, and truthful. Pick it up for a quick, entertaining, and feel good read if you need a reminder about why you should stop giving so many fucks. Below you can find a smattering of his #zerofucksgiven truths, straight from the book.

On Self - Improvement:

“Our culture today is obsessively focused on unrealistically positive expectations: Be happier, faster, richer, sexier, more popular, more productive, more envied, and more admired. Be perfect and amazing and crap out twelve-karat-gold nuggets before breakfast each morning…But when you stop and really think about it, conventional life advice = all the positive and happy self-help stuff we hear all the time – is actually fixating on what we lack. It lasers in on what you perceive your personal shortcomings and failures to already be, and then emphasizes them for you. You learn about the best ways to make money because you feel you don’t have enough money already. You stand in front of the mirror and repeat affirmations saying that you’re beautiful because you feel as though you’re not beautiful already. …Ironically, this fixation on the positive – on what’s better, what’s superior- only serves to remind us over and over again of what we are not, of what we lack, of what we should have been but failed to be.” P. 3-4.

“The desire for more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience.” P. 9.

Now, I get what Manson is saying here. Fixating on our weaknesses and shortcomings can be unhealthy if we don’t give ourselves some self-love and compassion for those weaknesses and shortcomings. But, as a counselor liked to say to me: there is no simple truth, rather, the truth is: “yes, BUT…”

Manson advocates for self-acceptance, but let’s be careful and not draw the line there. Yes, love and accept yourself for your flaws. BUT – after loving yourself, you can still allow yourself to set achievable goals and give yourself the support, encouragement and commitment to reach them. In so doing, you can live up to your values and strive to be the type of person you truly want to be. In striving for self-improvement within the space of self-acceptance, you are acting in tune with your values and making it far more likely that your life will be meaningful and fulfilling.

Stop Searching for Happiness:

“Happiness is not a solvable equation.” P. 26

“Happiness is a constant work-in-progress, because solving problems is a constant work—in-progress- the solutions to today’s problems will lay the foundation for tomorrow’s problems….True happiness occurs only when you find the problems you enjoy having and enjoy solving.” P. 31-32.

“An obsession and overinvestment in emotion fails us for the simple reason that emotions never last. Whatever makes us happy today will no longer make us happy tomorrow, because our biology always needs something more. A fixation on happiness inevitably amounts to a never-ending pursuing of “something else” – a new house, a new relationship, another child, another pay raise. And despite all of our sweat and strain, we end up feeling eerily similar to how we started: inadequate. Psychologists sometimes refer to this concept as the hedonic treadmill: the idea that we’re always working hard to change our life situation, but we actually never feel very different.” P. 35.

Words straight from the Buddha’s mouth, here Manson describes the root cause of suffering: desire. Per the Buddha, desire – either the desire to experience pleasure (like happiness) or to avoid pain - is the root of all suffering. If we can surpass desire, we can overcome suffering itself and live in peace, attaining the state of enlightenment.

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The greatest determinant of how our lives turn out, and what determines your success, isn’t “what do you want to enjoy,” it is “what pain do you want in your life? What are you willing to struggle for”?

To summarize what Mark says: You might think you want to be a rockstar but guess what? If you don’t want to practice 7 days a week, struggle making ends meet going to shitty gig after shitty gig, staying out all night, singing until your voice is hoarse, and lugging your gear by yourself in and out of dive bars and smelly hole-in-the-wall venues with broken toilets – well then you really don’t want to be a rockstar.

“It has become an accepted part of our culture today to believe that we are ALL destined to do something truly extraordinary. Celebrities say it. Business tycoons say it. Politicians say it. Even Oprah says it…Each and every one of us can be extraordinary. We all deserve greatness. The fact that this statement is inherently contradictory – after all, if everyone were extraordinary, then by definition no one would be extraordinary – is missed by most people. And instead of questioning what we actually deserve or don’t deserve, we eat up the message and ask for more…The rare people who do become truly exceptional at something do so no because they believe they’re exceptional. On the contrary, they become amazing because they’re obsessed with improvement.” P. 60-61

Here’s where Manson talks about the “yes…BUT”. This is the flip-side of not dwelling on the things we’re not and chasing after elusive happiness, but rather, identifying our values and striving to live up to them every day.

At one point in my life, I felt as though – and would even tell people when they asked me what I did for a living – I was a hamster running on a wheel. Was I happy? Absolutely. But was I fulfilled? No.

I started performing values assessments in 2013 and 2014: self-assessing the types of work I’m good at, examining the activities that bring me fulfillment and deep satisfaction, and identifying the types of people and environments I want to spend my time with and in. In so doing, I started to really get it. I started to get my values. I started to understand the types of projects that, though time-consuming and backbreaking, are worth it to me.

What is it you find fulfilling? Are you willing to struggle for it? If yes: get on it, start doing more of it! And as Manson would say, fuck everyone else.

Some Values Questions:

Quick aside: here are two series of questions that might help you figure out your values and thus your area(s) of expertise:

  1. When I look back on my life, the 3 times I felt most fulfilled were: __________________________________________________________________

  • When I was engaging in these activities _____________________________

  • When I was with these people ______________________________________

  • Who mattered to me because ______________________________________

2. I’m really good at and am proud of these 3 abilities:


  • Because _________________________________________________________

  • And it impacted __________________________________________________

  • And I could use this skill in the future to ____________________________

The Five Whys:

“The first layer of self-awareness is recognizing one’s emotions. “this makes me happy,” “this makes me sad,” “this gives me hope.”… “The second layer of the self-awareness onion is an ability to ask WHY we feel certain emotions. This layer of questioning helps us understand the root cause of the emotions that overwhelm us.” – for example, “why do you feel angry – is it because you failed to achieve some goal?” The third layer is our personal values: why and how does answer number two measure my values? “why do I consider this to be a success/failure? How am I choosing to measure myself? By what standard am I judging myself and those around me?” p. 71

I feel like I’ve discussed the “5 Whys” before – but perhaps I haven’t. It’s a topic discussed more thoroughly in John Hargrave’s Mind Hacking: How to Change Your Mind for Good in 21 Days, which I’ll blog about in the next few weeks. Taiichi Ohno, the architect of the Toyota Production System in the 1950s, describes the 5 Whys as the basis of the Toyota Company’s scientific approach to problem solving. Essentially, by repeating “why”? five times, the nature of any problem as well as its solution can become clear – you can discover the root problem as opposed to superficial issues a few levels up that cloud the matter. The same goes for mindfulness.

To develop understanding and self-acceptance we can examine our emotions the using the Toyota approach, which Manson starts to get at. Manson gets down 3 layers to the question of “what is the metric by which you’re measuring your success or failure”? But you can – and should - go farther. Question 4 might be: “where did that metric come from”? or “Who’s metric is that?” Is it a metric that you inherited from society, from judgmental authority figures, or from your own skewed perspective of reality that you picked up from TV?

Taking it down a level farther, one might then ask: “Might there be a better metric by which to measure myself”? Perhaps there might be a metric that is a more accurate gauge of whether you’re living up to your values.

“If you want to change how you see your problems, you have to change what you value and/or how you measure failure/success.” P. 79

On Choice and Control:

Image courtesy of the Holstee Manifesto.

“Often the only difference between a problem being painful or being powerful is a sense that we CHOSE it, and that we are responsible for it.” Try to live your life with the perspective that you are responsible for everything that happens to you. “when we feel that we’re choosing our problems, we feel empowered” instead of victimized. P. 91.

“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.” P. 94.

“People who date each other tend to have similar values. And if I dated someone with shitty values for that long, what did that say about me and my values? I learned the hard way that if the people in your relationships are selfish and doing hurtful things, it’s likely you are too – you just don’t realize it.” P. 101.

Changing your values is really difficult, but simple. Just do it. Choose to put your fucks somewhere else.

I love this advice because it’s so simple. When you realize that everything in life is a choice, you can take control of your life. So choose.

On Being Wrong:

“Uncertainty is healthy. Our values are imperfect and incomplete, and to assume that they are perfect and complete is to put us in a dangerously dogmatic mindset that breeds entitlement and avoids responsibility.” You must be open to being wrong. P. 135

“For any change to happen in your life, you must be wrong about something.” P. 142-143. Being wrong allows you to learn and adapt, just as does failure. This is why “better values are process oriented. Something like “express myself honestly to others”, a metric for the value of “honesty,” is never completely finished.” P. 151. It is a process. You must continue to struggle and try your best at it, at times failing, but then growing and becoming more resilient in the process.

“The author Tim Ferriss relates a story he once heard about a novelist who had written over seventy novels. Someone asked the novelist how he was able to write so consistently and remain inspired and motivated. He replied, ‘Two hundred crappy words per day, that’s it.’” P. 162.

Sidenote: after reading Tim Feriss’ The 4 Hour Work Week I totally created this desktop background and use it for daily writing inspiration:

Shoutout to all my 80's kids who love Jim Henson. As a writer, I totally dig the mantra – 200 Crappy Words a day! Start small, and a daily goal can result in big achievements.

In Sum:

Manson’s book is really worth the read. If you check out his website, Mark sets out the main 3 “subtleties” to the art of not giving a fuck, which succinctly summarize a lot of the concepts I’ve discussed here:

  • Subtlety #1: Not giving a fuck doesn’t mean being indifferent; it means being comfortable with being different.

  • Subtlety #2: To not give a fuck about adversity, you must first give a fuck about something more important than adversity.

  • Subtlety #3: We all have a limited number of fucks to give; pay attention to where and who you give them to.


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