The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck

Mark Manson offers a modern twist on ancient wisdom.

April 13, 2021

Phillip Chin

Staff Writer at Motus News

If you couldn’t tell from the title of “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck,” author Mark Manson likes to say fuck a lot. And he wants you to give less of them to the right things. Manson argues that we need to focus on a few meaningful things and fight against too much trying, certainty, and thinking we’re special. These  lessons have been taught for thousands of years by Buddhists and Stoics. Where Manson succeeds is repackaging those ideas for modern people who enjoy hearing the word “fuck.”

One of the early paragraphs explaining the subtleties of giving a fuck perfectly illustrates some of the problems of Manson’s approach: “When we say ‘Damn, watch out, Mark Manson just don’t give a fuck,’ we don’t mean that Mark Manson doesn’t care about anything; on the contrary, we mean that Mark Manson doesn’t care about adversity in the face of his goals… We mean that Mark Manson is the type of guy who would write about himself in the third person just because he thought it was the right thing to do. He just doesn’t give a fuck”(17). Perseverance and overcoming obstacles is a good message, but hardly original, and few people would connect “not giving a fuck” to that message. The passage is pretty funny, but the thesis of “not giving a fuck” doesn’t even really apply to the central argument.

While I do think that the book can sometimes try too hard to connect everything with “not giving a fuck”, I also feel that it does contain many good ideas and I wanted to share some of them with you.

Life is Suffering

A central Buddhist tenet is that life is suffering, but Manson argues that there are different types of problems. Happiness does not come from achieving a goal, but from struggling for a worthwhile one. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck does not ask you to give zero fucks but to strategically give your fucks to a meaningful goal, which you are willing to overcome adversity and pain to strive towards.

Each person must answer the questions, “What pain do you want in your life? What are you willing to struggle for?”(36). Since life is filled with pain, we have to choose what types of pain that we’re willing to accept to reach the “good things” in life that people many want like career success, being in shape, and a happy family.

In addition, the metrics that we choose will always alter our feelings of success or failure. Manson gives the example of Dave Mustaine, who was kicked out of a band and vowed to build such a great band that his old band would rue the day they let him go. Mustaine created Megadeth and is one of the greatest heavy-metal musicians of all time. The only problem is that his old band is Metallica. Mustaine’s metric has always been “being better” than Metallica, and so, despite tremendous success, he will always view himself as a failure.

Manson translates our metrics and values to mean giving fucks. Having good values means giving fucks about the right things, which are “1) reality-based, 2) socially constructive, and 3) immediate and controllable”(86). Also, metrics that have a finish line are worse than those that are process-oriented, because we can feel rudderless once we achieve that goal.

A Slap in the Face

Manson intends the book to be a wake-up call to “a psychological epidemic, one in which people no longer realize it’s okay for things to suck sometimes”(20). Our society teaches us that we should be extraordinary at nearly everything we do by constantly bombarding us with participation medals and throw-away compliments. However, the average person is, by definition, average. But that hasn’t stopped us from putting enormous pressure to be great and, when we can’t, deluding ourselves about it. 

8 of 10 drivers think that they are above average, which, if you know anything about statistics, is not possible unless the sample is very skewed (if the other two drivers suck). And that’s about something that doesn’t matter that much! What happens when we evaluate our virtues or faults? In the ability to get along with others, a staggering 25% put themselves in the top 1%.

When we can finally admit that we’re pretty normal in most ways, we finally give ourselves permission to be happy with our normal lives. We no longer compare ourselves to everyone else’s highly curated photos in our Instagram feed. And that brings us to one of Manson’s Laws (no, not the one about murdering people): “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”(9).

Much of Manson’s book is about acceptance. Accepting that there are only a few things worth giving a fuck about. Accepting that we are constantly wrong. Accepting that life is pain. One of my favorite quotes from the book is from Charles Bukowski: “We’re all going to die, all of us. What a circus! That alone should make us love each other, but it doesn’t. We are terrorized by life’s trivialities; we are eaten up by nothing”(208). In other words, we give too many fucks about the stupid things in life to see the big picture: that we’re here for a short time and should feel solidarity with everyone for feeling the same pain.

Fail Faster

Failure is a necessary aspect of success. Michael Jordan once said, “I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

My computer science teacher in high school had a poster that said, “Fail Faster.” But I didn’t listen. I either wrote no code and just sat there or had other people basically write it for me. I sucked because while other people were busy failing and getting better, I was paralyzed. Eventually, I quit Comp-Sci.

Failure creates growth and learning and is often the only way that we get better at something. When we are constantly succeeding, there is no need for improvement because we are already at the mountain top, even though our success may be due to luck or another external factor. Failure combined with self-reflection can give us important information and can be motivation to improve.

You’re Wrong About Everything 

Humans are wrong about many things: just look at widely accepted views from only a century ago. The good thing is that we are constantly learning and improving by failing and being wrong. The more and the faster we get things wrong, the closer we will iterate to being right.

Manson’s Law of Avoidance states that “the more something threatens your identity, the more you will try to avoid it”(136). And that isn’t just things that threaten the positive parts of our identity, but any part. But the problem is that who we are is constantly changing and while avoiding anything that might challenge our sense of self can prevent failure, it can also prevent growth.

In the current culture of exceptionalism, our identities are extremely narrow and special: “rising star or undiscovered genius… horrible victim or dismal failure”(140). That means that they are constantly being challenged and can lead to paralysis according to Manson’s Law of Avoidance. By making our identity smaller, or “killing ourselves,” we are freer to take risks and expand our comfort zone.

Manson argues that we should approach life with more inquiry, less certainty, and explore the reasons why we need to be right and what it would mean if we were wrong.

The Motivation Loop

Many people believe that inspiration strikes, but the epiphany that Manson offers is that motivation is self-generative and looks more like this: “Inspiration —> Motivation —> Action —> Inspiration —> Motivation —> Action —> etc.”(161).

We can jumpstart the process by simply doing something, anything, and generating inspiration and motivation. “Action —> Inspiration —> Motivation”(161). Even the smallest actions in a positive direction can snowball into bigger and bigger actions. The reason why two of the most famous books on habit formation are called “Tiny Habits” and “Atomic Habits” is that nearly everyone can do one pushup and that one pushup often leads to several or even a full-blown workout. If you are feeling overwhelmed by a challenge, just do one small thing: write one sentence, call one friend, type three ideas. These types of habits are compounding, which means that even though there may be many days where you only put in the minimum amount of effort, the effects will grow exponentially.

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