The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach To Living A Good Life — Book Notes
What This Book Is About:
This book will turn your pain into a tool, your trauma into power and your problems into slightly better problems. This book will not teach you how to gain and achieve, but how to lose and let go.
Big Lessons (or tl;dr version):
- Life is about prioritizing what to give fucks about, and what not to give fucks about.
- The desire for more positive experience is in itself a negative experience and vice versa — because the more you pursue something better, the more you are fixated on what you lack.
- Happiness is not an end-state, but a result of solving good problems.
- Instead of searching for what feels good, you should ask yourself, “What are you willing to struggle for?”
- You are not special and your problems have been faced by someone in the past, presently or in the future. Thinking otherwise is entitlement.
- The media constantly bombards us with the message that being average is failure — it’s not. We are mostly average anyway.
- To live a better life and to find good stuff to give a fuck about, you need to choose the right values and metric.
- There are shitty values and good values. Shitty values are focused on external circumstances, where good values are process-oriented and focused on the internal.
The 5 values Mark encourages you to have:
- Choosing to be responsible for whatever happens in your life, even if it’s not your fault (you can choose how you respond to things.)
- You are always wrong, and growth comes from being a little less wrong each day.
- Embrace failure because success is based on how many times you’ve failed at something. You only learn when you fail.
- Say NO; commit to something (an activity, person, place etc.). To truly appreciate something, you must commit yourself to it.
- Remind yourself that death is imminent and you must work towards something bigger than yourself — your legacy, your imprint on this world.
Chapter 1: Don’t Try
- Mark starts off the book by relating the story of Charles Bukowski, a famed poet and writer who started off being rejected by almost every publisher. He had a day job as a letter-filer, but spent most of his money on alcohol, prostitutes and gambling. At the age of 50, an editor took an interest of him and gave him a shot.
- While his story was celebrated as the American Dream, the truth is stark: Bukowski knew he was a loser, and his success stemmed from the fact that he knew and was honest about it. Being successful as a writer didn’t turn him into a better person. On his tombstone, the epitaph writes: Don’t try.
- “Bukowski’s work was not in overcoming unbelievable odds or developing himself into a shining literary light. It was the opposite. It was his simple ability to be completely honest with himself, especially the worse parts and his willingness to share his failings without hesitation.”
- Our culture today is obsessively focused on unrealistically positive expectations: be happier, be healthier, be the best, be richer, sexier, more popular etc. These advices lasers in on what you perceive to be your personal shortcomings and failures, then highlights them.
- No truly happy person needs affirmation that she is happy: she just is happy.
- The world bombards you with messages to give a fuck about everything, all the time. More, more, more.
- Key to good life is giving a fuck about less, and giving a fuck about what is true, immediate and important.
The Feedback Loop From Hell
- You get anxious about something in life, then the anxiety cripples you and you get anxious over being anxious. Then it repeats.
- This feedback loop is part of being human; after all, humans have the luxury of thinking about thoughts.
- The problem is: society today (through consumerism and social media etc.) has bred a generation of people who think negative experiences are not okay.
- When you don’t give a fuck, you short-circuit the feedback loop from hell. “I feel like shit, who gives a fuck?”
- Our crisis is existential, not material — we have so many things to give a fuck about that we don’t know what to give a fuck about.
- There are also infinite ways to measure ourselves against others now, that we constantly discover we don’t measure up.
- 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. Aka the Backwards Law put forth by Alan Watts, it’s the idea that the more you pursue feeling better, the less satisfied you become, as pursuing something only reinforces the fact that you lack it in the first place.
- Ever notice that when you care less about something, you do better at it?
- Backwards Law also works in reverse: pursuing negative generates positive. E.g. being open with your insecurities paradoxically makes you more confident and charismatic about others.
- Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience. The moments of non-fuckery are the moments that define our lives (packing bags to live in South America? No fucks given)
- Pain is an inextricable thread in the fabric of life, and to tear it out is impossible but also destructive. To try to avoid pain is to give too many fucks about pain.
- To not give a fuck is to stare down life’s most terrifying and difficult challenges and still take action.
- Most of us struggle through our lives by giving too many fucks in situations where fucks do not deserve to be given.
- You have to learn how to focus and prioritize your thoughts effectively — choose what matters to you based on finely honed personal values
- This takes a lifetime of practice and discipline to achieve. And you will regularly fail. But it is perhaps the only worthy struggle in life.
The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck
Subtlety #1: Not giving a fuck does not mean being indifferent, it means being comfortable with being different.
- There’s no such thing as not giving a fuck. You must give a fuck about something.
- Question is: what do we give a fuck about? What are we choosing to give a fuck about? How can we ultimately not give a fuck about what does not matter?
- What is admirable in not giving a fuck is the willingness to be different for the sake of one’s values.
- You can’t be an important and life-changing presence for some people without being a joke and embarrassment to others.
Subtlety #2: To not give a fuck about adversity, you must first give a fuck about something more important than adversity.
- If you find yourself giving too many fucks about trivial shit that bothers you, chances are you don’t have much going on in your life to give a legitimate fuck about.
- Finding something important and meaningful in your life is the most productive use of your time and energy.
Subtlety #3: Whether you realize it or not, you are always choosing what to give a fuck about.
- When you’re young, and everything is novel, you give too many fucks.
- When you grow older, and with the benefits of experience, you start to be more selective about the fucks you give.
- Accepting life as it is, accepting yourself as it is, warts and all is liberating.
- When you become comfortable with all the shit life throws at you, you become invincible in a sort of low-level spiritual way.
Chapter 2: Happiness Is A Problem
- There is a premise that underlies a lot of our assumptions and beliefs: it is the premise that happiness is algorithmic, in the sense that it can be worked for, earned and achieved. This is the problem.
- Happiness is not a solvable equation.
- The harsh truth is: we suffer because suffering is biologically useful. It is nature’s preferred agent for inspiring change.
- We have evolved to live with a certain degree of dissatisfaction and insecurity because it is the mildly dissatisfied and insecure creature that’s going to do the most work to innovate and survive.
- Pain is a feature of human nature because it is useful. It teaches us what to refrain from and how to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.
- The danger about a society that coddles itself from the inevitable discomforts of life is that we lose the benefits of experiencing healthy doses of pain, a loss that disconnects us from the reality of the world around us.
- Problems never go away, they just improve. Life is essentially an endless series of problems. The solution to one problem is the creation of the next.
Happiness Comes From Solving Problems
- Problems never stop; they merely get exchanged or upgraded.
- To be happy, we need something to solve.
- Happiness is a form of action, not something passively bestowed upon you.
- Happiness is a constant work-in-progress, because solving problems is a constant work-in-progress.
- True happiness occurs only when you find the problems you enjoy having and enjoy solving.
- For most people, life doesn’t feel simple because they fuck things up:
- Because they deny reality, they must constantly delude or distract themselves from reality.
2. Victim Mentality
- Some choose to believe there’s nothing they can do to solve the problem. They blame others or outside circumstances for their problems.
- Denial and blaming is easy (and gives us a quick high) while solving problems is hard.
- Much of the self-help world is predicated on peddling highs to people rather than solving legitimate problems.
- Highs also generate addiction — the more you rely on them to feel better about your problem, the more you will seek them out.
Emotions Are Overrated
- Emotions are feedback mechanisms to tell us that something is either likely right or likely wrong — nothing more, nothing less.
- Negative emotions are a call to action. When you feel them, it’s because you’re supposed to do something.
- Emotions are merely suggestions, not commands. When something feels good, it may not be necessarily good, and vice versa.
- Obsession and overinvestment in emotion fails us for the simple reason that emotions never last.
- Everything comes with an inherent sacrifice: what makes you feel good will inevitably makes you feel bad (eg the wife you marry is the wife you fight with.)
- What creates our positive experience will define our negative experiences.
Choose Your Struggle
- Happiness requires struggle. A better question that most people never consider is: “what pain do you want in your life? What are you willing to struggle for?”
- Real, serious, lifelong fulfillment and meaning have to be earned through the choosing and managing of our struggles.
- Our struggles determine our success.
Chapter 3: You Are Not Special
- Sometime in the 1960s, research found that people who thought highly about themselves generally performed better and caused fewer problems (aka high self-esteem).
- Researchers and policymakers came to believe that a population’s self-esteem could lead to some tangible social benefits and began to implement self-esteem practices (grade inflation, participation awards etc.)
- Turns out that we’re not exceptional — merely feeling good about yourself doesn’t mean anything unless you have a good reason to.
- Adversity and failure are useful and necessary for developing strong-minded and successful adults.
- If all they believe is that they’re exceptional, then they’re entitled (he feels as if he deserves good things without actually earning them.)
- Problem with entitlement is it makes people need to feel good about themselves all the time, even at the expense of those around them. Entitlement is just another high.
- A person with actual high self-worth is able to look at the negative parts of his character frankly.
- If we have problems that are unsolvable, our unconscious figures that we’re either uniquely special or uniquely defective, that we’re somehow different — we become entitled.
- What most people don’t correctly identify as entitlement are those people who perpetually feel as though they are inferior and unworthy of the world. Construing everything in life as to make yourself to be constantly victimized requires just as much selfishness as the opposite.
- The truth is there’s no such thing as a personal problem. If you’ve got a problem, chances are millions of other people have had it in the past, now or future.
- That doesn’t minimize the hurt or you aren’t a victim — it just means you’re not special.
The Tyranny of Exceptionalism
- Most of us are pretty average at most things we do.
- Even if you’re exceptional at one thing, chances are you’re average or below average at the rest.
- Our attention is limited — so only the truly extraordinary captures our attention.
- Our lives today is filled with info from the extremes of the bell curve yet the vast majority of life is in the humdrum middle.
- The flood of extreme info has conditioned us to believe that exceptionalism is the new normal.
- Because we’re quite average, these info makes us insecure and desperate, as if we’re somehow not good enough.
If I Am Not Going To Be Special, What’s The Point?
- It has become an accepted part of our culture to believe that we are all destined to do something extraordinary. But if everyone were extraordinary, then by definition, no one is extraordinary.
- Most people are afraid to accept mediocrity because they believe that if they accept it, they’ll never achieve anything and their life won’t matter.
- This thinking is dangerous — if you accept the premise that life is worthwhile only when it’s notable and great, you also accept the fact that most of the human population is worthless.
- Most people that become great do so not because they think they are exceptional, but because they are obsessed with improvement. That obsession with improvement comes from the belief that they are not great at all.
- The knowledge and acceptance of your own mundane existence will liberate you to accomplish what you truly wish to accomplish, without judgment or lofty expectations.
Chapter 4: The Value of Suffering
- Self-awareness is like an onion — the more you peel back, the more you are going to cry at inappropriate times.
- The first layer of the self-awareness onion is a simple understanding of one’s emotions.
- The second layer of the self-awareness onion is an ability to ask why we feel certain emotions.
- These questions are difficult and often take months or years to answer — most people need to go to therapy to hear these questions asked for the first time.
- These questions help us understand the root cause of the emotions that overwhelms us
- The 3rd level of the self-awareness onion is our personal values: Why do I consider this to be successful/failure? How do I choose to measure myself? By what standard am I judging myself and everyone around me?
- Values underlie everything we are and do.
- Your values determine the metric you use to assess progress towards that value.
- Problems are inevitable, but the meaning of each problem is not.
- We get to control what our problems meaning based on how we choose to think about them, the standard by which we choose to measure them.
- If you want to change how you see your problem, you have to change what you value and how you measure failure/success.
- Pleasure is the effect of happiness, not the cause.
- Pleasure is a by-product of getting your values and metrics right.
- Material Success
- Research shows that once one is able to provide for basic physical needs (food, shelter, etc.), the correlation between happiness and worldly success quickly approaches 0.
- Always Being Right
- Our brains are inefficient machines. Thus we are mostly always wrong.
- People who base their self-worth on always being right will prevent themselves from learning from their mistakes.
- Staying Positive
- Sometimes life sucks, and the healthiest thing to do is to admit it.
- Constant positivity is a form of avoidance, not a valid solution to life’s problems.
- Negative emotions are a necessary component to emotional health.
- You have to express negative emotions in a socially acceptable and healthy manner, as well as in a way that aligns with your values.
Defining Good and Bad Values
- Socially constructive
- Immediate and controllable
- Achieved internally
- Socially destructive
- Not immediate or controllable
- Generally reliant on external events
- Values are about prioritization; self-improvement is about prioritizing better values
Chapter 5: You Are Always Choosing
- Often the only difference between a problem being painful or powerful is a sense that we chose it.
- We individually are responsible for everything in our lives, no matter the external circumstances.
- 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.
The Responsibility/Fault Fallacy
- The more we choose to accept responsibility in our lives, the more power we will exercise over our lives.
- A lot of people hesitate to take responsibility because they believe to take responsibility is to also be at fault for the problem.
- They are not the same thing. E.g if you woke up and there was a newborn baby on your doorstep, it would not be your fault, but it would be your responsibility to take care of the baby.
- We all get dealt cards, some get better cards than others. The real game lies in the choices we make with those cards, the risks we decide to take and the consequences we choose to live with.
- Change is as simple as choosing to give a fuck about something else. But it is not easy.
Chapter 6: You’re Wrong About Everything (But So Am I)
- Growth is an endlessly iterative process. When we learn something new, we go from “wrong” to “slightly less wrong”, not “wrong” to “right”.
- Personal growth is actually quite scientific. Values = hypotheses, actions = experiments, resulting emotions and thoughts = data
- Certainty is the enemy of growth; we should be in constant search of doubt.
- We don’t actually know what a positive or negative experience is. All we know is what hurts in the moment and what doesn’t.
Architects Of Our Own Beliefs
- What we understand as meaning is generated by the associations our brain makes between two or more experiences.
- But there are problems:
- The brain is imperfect
- Once we create meaning, our brains are designed to hold on to that meaning.
- All beliefs are wrong; some are just less wrong
- The story of Meredith Maran: the journalist who accused her father of molesting her because of a false memory
Dangers of Pure Certainty
- The pursuit of certainty breeds more insecurity. It’s the backwards law: the more you try to be certain, the more uncertain and insecure you will feel.
Manson’s Law of Avoidance
- The more something threatens your identity, the more you will avoid it.
- Manson’s Law applies to both good and bad things.
- There is a certain comfort that comes with knowing how you fit in the world. Anything that shakes up that comfort — even if it could make your life better — is scary.
- Mark says, “don’t find yourself” ; “never know who you are”. Because that is what keeps you striving and discovering. It forces you to remain humble in your judgments and accepting of the differences in others.
- The arbitrary metrics you define for yourself trap you and you’re better off letting go of everything.
- There is little that is unique about your problems — that’s why letting go is so liberating.
- When you assume that your idea is the stupid one everyone is going to laugh at, you’re implicitly telling yourself, “I’m the exception. I’m different and special.” Give up the idea that you are uniquely talented or intelligent and stop being entitled.
- The narrower and rarer your identity, the more everything will threaten you. Measure yourself by more mundane identities: partner, creator, friend, student.
How To Be A Little Less Certain Of Yourself
Q1: What if I’m wrong?
- The only way to figure out ourselves is by questioning how wrong we might be about ourselves.
- Note that asking yourself if you have the wrong idea doesn’t necessarily mean you do.
- The goal is to ask the question and entertain the thought at the moment.
Q2: What would it mean if I were wrong?
- This calls into question our values and also forces us to consider what a different, contradictory value could potentially look and feel like.
- Being able to look at and evaluate different values without adopting them is the central skill required in changing one’s own life in a meaningful way.
Q3: Would being wrong create a better or a worse problem than my current problem, for both myself and others?
- This is the litmus test to determine if we have solid values (or not).
- Goal here is to look at which problem is better.
- Mark’s own rule: if it is down to him being screwed up or everybody else, it’s far more likely that it’s him.
Chapter 7: Failure Is The Way Forward
- Failure is a relative concept: it depends on what value and metric you’re measuring against.
The Failure/Success Paradox
- Improvement at anything is based on thousands of tiny failures.
- Magnitude of success is based on how many times you’ve failed at something.
- At some point in our lives (after mass media, parenting and our education system), we reach a place where we’re afraid to fail — which confines and stifles us.
- A lot of the fear of failure comes from shitty values (aka values driven by external circumstances). Good values are process-oriented.
Pain is Part of the Process
- Dabrowski discovered that a sizable percentage of war survivors (from Poland) believed that the wartime experiences they’ve suffered made them a better, more responsible and happier person. Similarly, for many of us, our proudest achievements come in the face of greatest adversity.
- Dabrowski argued that fear, anxiety and sadness are not necessarily always undesirable but representative of the necessary pain of psychological growth. See his theory here: Theory of Positive Disintegration
- We usually need some sort of existential crisis to take an objective look at how we’ve been deriving meaning in our life and consider changing course.
- We all experience the VCR question (taken from the story of how older adults look at the VCR and ask how do you use that? And the younger generation uses it so easily)
- VCR questions are funny because the answer appears difficult to anyone who has them and easy to anyone who does not.
- The problem is pain.
- Most people want to get back to feeling good again when they experience pain, even if it involves substances/deluding themselves/returning to shitty values.
- Learn to sustain the pain you’ve chosen.
The Do Something Principle
- “If you’re stuck on a problem, don’t sit there and think about it; just start working on it. Even if you don’t know what you’re doing, the simple act of working on it will eventually cause the right ideas to show up in your head.”
- Action isn’t just the effect of motivation, it’s also the cause of it.
- Inspiration -> Motivation -> Action -> Inspiration -> Motivation -> Action -> etc.
- If you lack the motivation to make an important change in your life, DO SOMETHING.
Chapter 8: The Importance of Saying No
- Freedom grants the opportunity for greater meaning, but by itself, it means nothing.
- The only way to achieve meaning and a sense of importance in one’s life is through a rejection of alternatives.
Rejection Makes Your Life Better
- As an extension of our consumer culture, we have been “indoctrinated” with the belief that we should try to be as inherently accepting and affirmative as possible.
- We need to reject something, otherwise we stand for nothing.
- To truly appreciate something, you must confine yourself to it. There is a certain level of joy and meaning that you reach in life only when you’ve spent decades investing in a single relationship, craft or career.
- You cannot achieve those decades of investment without rejecting the alternatives.
- The act of choosing a value for yourself requires rejecting alternative values.
- Rejection helps form our identity: we are defined by what we choose to reject.
- 2 people trying to escape their problems through their emotions for each other
- 2 people acknowledging and addressing their own problems with each other’s support.
- The difference comes down to:
- How well each person in the relationship accepts responsibility
- The willingness of each person to both reject and be rejected by their partner
- Whenever there is a healthy relationship, there will be clear boundaries between the two people and their values, and there will be an open avenue of giving and receiving rejection when necessary.
- Boundaries = delineation between two people’s responsibilities for their own problems.
- People in a healthy relationship will take responsibility for their own values and problems, and not take responsibility for their partner’s values and problems.
- When you have murky areas of responsibility for your emotions and actions — you never develop strong values for yourself. Your only value becomes making your partner happy. And your only value becomes your partner making you happy.
- People can’t solve your problems for you. You can’t solve other people’s problems for them either.
- But it doesn’t mean not supporting each other. You should support each other because of choice, not because of entitlement or obligation.
- It can be difficult to recognize the difference between obligation and altruism. The litmus test: “If I refused, how would the relationship change?
- People with strong boundaries understand that it is unreasonable to expect two people to accommodate each other 100% and fulfill every need the other has.
- It’s not about giving a fuck about everything your partner gives a fuck about; it’s about giving a fuck about your partner regardless of the fucks he or she gives.
How to Build Trust
- Conflict exists to show us who is there for us unconditionally and who is just there for the benefits. Conflict is absolutely necessary for the maintenance of a healthy relationship. Conflict builds trust.
- For a relationship to be healthy, both people must be willing and able to say and hear no.
- Trust is the most important ingredient in any relationship. He/she can tell you anything, but if you don’t trust him/her, you get no benefit from the statements he/she tell you.
Freedom Through Commitment
- We are often happier with less.
- While investing deeply in one person, place, job, activity might deny us the breadth of experience, pursuing a breadth of experience denies us the opportunity to experience the rewards of depth of experience.
- gives you freedom because it hones your attention and focus, directing them towards what is most efficient at making you healthy and happy.
- makes decision making easier and removes FOMO.
- allows you to focus intently on a few highly important goals and achieve a greater degree of success than you otherwise would.
Chapter 9: And Then You Die
- Without death, everything would feel inconsequential, all experience arbitrary and all metrics and values zero.
Something Beyond Our Selves
- In Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death, he makes 2 points:
- Humans are unique because we’re the only animals that can conceptualize and think about ourselves abstractly. We are perfectly capable of imagining a reality without ourselves in it — which causes death terror: a deep existential anxiety that underlies everything we think or do.
- We have 2 selves — one that is the physical self, the other the conceptual self (our identity or how we see ourselves). We are fully aware that our physical self will die, and thus we try to construct a conceptual self that lives forever. Such efforts are “immortality projects” — projects that allow our conceptual self to live on way past the point of our physical death. All of human civilization is basically a result of immortality projects. All meaning in our life is shaped by the innate desire to never truly die.
- We give too many fucks because it is the only way that distracts us from the inevitability of death.
- We should not avoid death, but come to terms with it, so that we can choose our values more freely.
The Sunny Side of Death
- Death confronts us all with a far more painful and important question: What is your legacy? How will the world be different and better when you’re gone? What mark will you have made? What influence will you have caused?
- Death is the only thing that is certain. As such, it must be the compass that we orient all our values and decisions.
- The only way to be comfortable with death is to understand and see yourself as something bigger than yourself, to choose values that stretch beyond serving yourself, that are simple, immediate and controllable and tolerant of the chaotic world around you.
- You are already great. You are great because in the face of endless confusion and certain death, you continue to choose what to give a fuck about and what not to.
- This mere fact of you optioning for your own values in life already makes you beautiful, successful and loved, even if you don’t realize it.
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