the subtle art of not giving a f*ck

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson


In The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, Mark Manson provides, in his own words, “a counterintuitive approach to living a good life.” The problem with a lot of self-help advice, he argues, is that it typically operates at a shallow level. While it may make us feel good in the short term, it fails to tackle the larger, long-term issues we face. For Manson, self-improvement really boils down to choosing better values. By honing in on the things that actually matter, we can better discard the things that don’t. “The key to a good life,” he writes, “is not giving a fuck about more; it’s giving a fuck about less, giving a fuck about only what is true and immediate and important.”

The Modern Crisis

“We don’t have a great war in our generation, or a great depression, but we do, we have a great war of the spirit. We have a great revolution against the culture. The great depression is our lives. We have a spiritual depression.” – Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

Manson describes the modern-day crisis as no longer material, but spiritual. The internet, for example, has provided us with an infinite amount of new and exciting opportunities. Yet, despite such advancements, mental health issues have skyrocketed over the past thirty years.

He claims, “Because there’s an infinite amount of things we can now see or know, there are also an infinite number of ways we can discover that we don’t measure up, that we’re not good enough, that things aren’t as great as they could be.”

The result is ‘the feedback loop from hell’. This is, essentially, where our unhappiness is exacerbated by unhappiness about feeling unhappy.

Manson explains, “Our society today, through the wonders of consumer culture and hey-look-my-life-is-cooler-than-yours social media, has bred a whole generation of people who believe that having these negative experiences – anxiety, fear, guilt, etc. – is totally not okay.”

Instead, he encourages his readers to view negative emotions as signposts – “signals designed to nudge you in the direction of beneficial change.”

Key Lessons

1. “Problems add a sense of meaning and importance to our life.”

According to Manson, our happiness comes from solving problems. Rather than wish for a life without problems, instead, we should wish for a life full of good ones. “When you get better problems, you get a better life,” he insists.

To do this, we must structure our lives around the problems that we enjoy having and enjoy solving. Finding something important and meaningful is perhaps then the most productive use of our time.

“Sometimes those problems are simple: eating good food, traveling to some new place, winning at the new video game you just bought. Other times those problems are abstract and complicated: fixing your relationship with your mother, finding a career you can feel good about, developing better friendships.”

The issue is, sometimes, we try and tackle the wrong problems – problems that lie outside of our control and serve only to hurt us in the long-run. If we have poor values (i.e. poor standards we set for ourselves and others), we risk trying to solve problems that, in the end, don’t matter – things that make our lives worse.

(23:35-28:06) Manson discusses meaningful problems on London Real:

2. “Values underlie everything we are and do.”

Values are a central theme in The Subtle Art. They are the principles that we live by; the tools we use to judge what is important in life; the driving force behind our attitudes and actions. However, we seldom stop to question them – for example, where they have come from and whether they are serving us or not.

Alain de Botton highlights this issue in his book Status Anxiety, where he writes, “Our minds are susceptible to the influence of external voices telling us what we require to be satisfied, voices that may drown out the faint sounds emitted by our souls and can distract us from the careful, arduous task of correctly tracing our priorities.”

The result, as Manson would describe it, is a lot of people with a lot of shitty values. He expands on four in particular:

“When we choose better values we are able to divert our fucks to something better – towards things that matter, that improve the state of our well-being, and that generate happiness, pleasure, and success as side effects.”

Manson defines good values as being 1) reality-based, 2) socially constructive and 3) immediate and controllable. These are values such as honesty and innovation, curiosity and creativity, charity and humility – ultimately, more meaningful metrics to dedicate our time and energy towards.

Unfortunately, modern society seems to emphasize extrinsic values over intrinsic ones. After all,  our economy is fundamentally built on marketing and advertising – creating in us a feeling that we lack something and then providing the means to fill it. As a result, it becomes hard to differentiate between what will bring us happiness and what only promises to.

(41:47-47:44) Manson on choosing better values, Aubrey Marcus Podcast:

3. “Certainty is the enemy of growth.”

To change our values, Manson says we must first question our attachment to them. We must question how we’re choosing to define success/failure, how we’re choosing to measure ourselves and to what standard we’re judging those around us. We need to be open to the idea that our current values are perhaps poorly chosen and are not serving us as well as others potentially could.

“The unfortunate fact,” he notes, “is, most of what we come to ‘know’ and believe is the product of the innate inaccuracies and biases present in our brains.” 

It’s important, then, that we make a habit of continuously questioning our assumptions – particularly those concerning what we believe will make us happy. In this way, we become open to more possibilities and therefore more likely to make real and lasting change.

“Death is the only thing we can know with any certainty. And as such, it must be the compass by which we orient all of our other values and decisions.”

The Subtle Art is simply the recognition that we don’t have all the answers – and nor does anyone else. However, rather than uncritically leaning on society’s definitions of happiness and success, it advises us to consider our own.

Manson writes, “I say don’t find yourself. I say never know who you are. Because that’s what keeps you striving and discovering. It forces you to remain humble in your judgments and accepting of the differences in others.”