Living a Good Life – “The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F*ck”

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I really shouldn’t have to warn you that there are going to be some of what people call “profanity” in this article, the book title kind of gives it away, but I will warn you anyway, there will be some profanity – fairly warned? Good carry on then.

When I think of art, I rarely think of subtle. I think of the pain and realism in a Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh. Or of The Thinker by Rodin in his eternal contemplation of life.  The surreal visions of Picasso. I think of art as having beauty and pain and depth beyond the material we use to create it.

Rarely do I think of art as having to do with not giving a fuck. I wonder if this was what Mark Manson had in mind when he tilted his book, The Subtle Art Of Not Giving a F*uck, to make one stop and think.  To make one see how to start living a good life.

For me, the title of the book is just a set of contradictions to drive away people who will not be receptive to the message it has to offer. Granted, teenage rebels are going to find the edgy tile with the word fuck in it intriguing, but it is also going to drive those away who have a strict religious background.

Subtle As A Brick To The Face

The word fuck, in a book title, is neither subtle nor on the surface having anything to do with art.

{unless, of course, you consider porn as art, and if that is the case, this also is not the book for you}.

And yet as I read this book, I kept having to pull out my highlighter and highlight such gems as:

Perhaps these same technologies that have liberated and educated so many are simultaneously enabling people’s sense of entitlement more than ever before.

The title is there to drive off those easily offended. Or those that are not curious enough to dive behind the curtain and see what Mark has to say. The book, for me, isn’t about how not to give a fuck, it is about how to refine the fucks you do give.

To let the extraneous noise of the world around you fade away and focus on the crucial things in your life.  Start living a good life!

Don’t Try

Manson starts his book off with this excellent title chapter, Don’t try, and the story of Charles Bukowski. If you have never read Bukowski’s books or poetry, you are missing out.

Bukowski was an alcoholic, a drug addict, a gambler who concerted with prostitutes (GASP). His work has been called depraved, crude, disgusting, and complete garbage. On his tombstone was the epitaph, “Don’t Try.”

Why would anyone want to read Bukowski? Well as Mason puts it:

Bukowski was a loser… Bukowski did not give a fuck about success. Even after his fame, he still showed up to his poetry readings hammered and verbally abused people in his audience.

Bukowski accepted he was a loser and did not try to be anything he wasn’t. He did not embrace positive, happy thoughts, but embraced what he was for thirty years before becoming famous, continued to be who he was after he became famous.

Using this anger and frustration to write what he truly believed and lived. Basically, Bukowski did not give a fuck, he was true to his art, and he was true to himself.

So what was the point of all that?

We need to stop trying to chase happiness all the time.  All this rah-rah cheerleader positive self-image stuff is blown out of proportion to life. Life is not always happiness and unicorns. When all you focus on is the happiness you lack, well, that is where your mind stays.

But when you stop and really think about it, conventional advice – all the positive and happy self-help stuff we hear all the time is actually fixating on what you lack.

The Feedback Loop From Hell

Are you asking yourself what harm does it do to focus on the happy? Good question.

Our brains are wired to focus on our own happiness, and yet we have anxiety. Then we feel anxious about the anxiety, which causes more anxiety. It is the feedback loop we are stuck in at this moment. We do this with all kinds of emotions, fear, anger, depression.

In today’s digital connected society, we bury ourselves under an avalanche of positive feelings. Unless we are happy, positive, and upbeat all the time, something must be wrong with us. We cause each emotion to be at the forefront of everything we do. We can’t feel wrong without it being the overriding moment in our lives.

Mark points out that our past ancestors did not deal with this problem. If they felt terrible, well, that was just life, get over it and get on with life. There was no option.

Our crisis is no longer material; it’s existential, it’s spiritual. We have so much fucking stuff and so many opportunities that we don’t even know what to give a fuck about anymore. The desire for more positive experiences is a negative experience. And paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experiences is itself a positive experience.

The Subtle Art Of The Subtle Art

So what is the way not to care? Is this book saying do whatever you want and not care about anything at all? The ultimate rebel without a cause?

No, absolutely not. The book is guiding you to the question: what do you want to spend your time and energy doing? Instead of not trying to care about everything, care about a few things.

The book breaks it down into three subtle points:

Subtlety # 1: Not giving a fuck does not mean being indifferent; it means being comfortable with being different.

Being indifferent to everything is impossible; being alive means, you have to care about something to even stay alive. Know what you are caring about and why then let the rest go to the wayside.

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

You need to find something which sparks a passion for you. Something that drives you every day to get up and do something meaningful. Don’t let the little inconsequential things in life be your focus. Find meaning in your life and chase the hell out of it.

Subtlety # 3: Whether you realize it or not, you are always choosing what to give a fuck about.

What we choose to do daily is what we care about. We decide to get up and get dressed and either sit around or do something. Everything you do is a choice of you caring about something. Learning what you genuinely care about, this is the key to truly grasping the subtle art.

Chasing Happiness – Living a Good Life

Always wanting to feel good, right, and happy has created a problem these days. We pursue happiness so much it has become the problem. We think we always deserve to be satisfied, that life owes us all something, and we should never have to be unhappy for a single moment of life.

We suffer for the simple reason that suffering is biologically useful. It is nature’s preferred agent for inspiring change.

Some degree of suffering is good for us; it is like pain. Pain is there to let us know when something could be dangerous to us, and we need to stop what is hurting us. Mental and emotional suffering does the same thing for us. It lets us know it is time for a change.

Disappointment Panda

Mark introduces a superhero named Disappointment Panda. Disappointment Panda goes around and gives people the truth they need to hear but don’t want to hear. Those hard life truths we try to ignore, but they are actually quietly killing us.

Everyone has problems they don’t want, but according to Disappointment Panda:

Don’t hope for a life without problems. There’s no such thing. Instead, hope for a life full of good problems.

True Happiness

Finding real happiness comes from solving the problems in our lives. Without a problem to solve, we lack a direction in which to go. Without a course, we lack action. Happiness is not something that someone can give us; it is something that we must earn by conquering the struggles we face in life!

When we deny this fundamental point in life, we can not be happy. We fall into one of two traps that Manson highlights in the book.

Denial. Denying there is a problem in the first place.

Victim mentality. Blaming others for their problems in life puts the responsibility for one’s own happiness into the hands of others. If it is not your fault, you can’t solve it.

Manson points out that true happiness does not come without a cost,

The person you marry is the person you fight with. The house you buy is the house you repair. The dream job you take is the job you stress over. Everything comes with an inherent sacrifice-whatever makes us feel good will inevitably make us feel bad.

The question we really need to ask ourselves, but rarely do, is not what is going to make us happy, it is…

What pain do you want in your life? What are you willing to struggle for?

Anyone out there who has been married for a long time can attest to this.

Long-term marriages do not come without struggles, but in the end, they are worth it if you are willing to fight for it. There is happiness in life but in order to feel some of the most profound joy you ever will in life, sometimes you have to suffer through the tough times to get there.

A Special Problem

We all want to feel special these days that we are the best us we can be. The news media panders to us as well; they highlight one group of people offended about the newest …(insert anything to do with politics, student debt, religion, etc. here.)

And then when happens?

Another group gets offended at the first group getting offended, and the cycle starts all over again, only exaggerated this time. The media loves this because controversy sells, and the bigger the controversy, the more money it makes.

Why? Because we have heard so much these days that we are all unique little snowflakes. As such, we are all entitled to have what we want when we want it, damn everyone else who thinks otherwise.

The reality of the situation is this, we are not special. We feel entitled.

And there is a whole world of difference between those two.

Feeling entitled means a person believes they deserve good things in life without actually having to work to get good things.

Damn Millennials

Are you thinking? I knew it! Its those damn Millennials causing all the problems!

Hate to break it to you, but you’re wrong. 

I, too, blamed the Millenials. But before I read this book, I realized a different truth.

(Read Millennial Characteristic Myths (An Open Apology Letter  if you are curious about my thoughts.)

See us older folks blaming the kids we raised for our problems is in itself an entitlement problem.

Yeah, no shit, we are part of the problem. As much as we would like to point the finger at everyone else, we are just as guilty.

As Manson puts it:

Millenials often get blamed for this cultural shift, but that’s likely because millennials are the most plugged-in and visible generation. In fact, the tendency toward entitlement is apparent across all of society. And I believe it’s linked to mass-media driven exceptionalism.
The problem is that the pervasiveness of technology and mass marketing is screwing up a lot of people’s expectations for themselves.

An Average Answer

So if we are told that we are unique, and come to find out, we are not, what do we do? Sit in our own puddle of tears and do nothing?

Nope, that thought right there is just another form of entitlement.

For some people, if they cant be special by being better, well, they can be unique by being worse than everyone else. The most depressed or the ones who have it the hardest.

Being average is considered the worst thing we can be. When, in fact, being average is, well, it is the average for most people.

Exceptional Commitment

Exceptional people are at that level because they put the work in for it. They realize if they want to be the best, they are going to have to bust their ass to be the best. Talking about their feelings isn’t going to help them improve, actually doing the work is what is going to make them the best.

Your average person doesn’t have the drive required to do this, and guess what? This is ok. Because sometimes life best moments happen in this common area.

You will have a growing appreciation for life’s basic experiences: the pleasure of simple friendship, creating something, helping a person in need, reading a good book, laughing with someone you care about.

Sounds boring, doesn’t it? That’s because these things are ordinary. But maybe they are ordinary for a reason: because they are what actually matters.

By giving up the illusion of exceptionalism and embracing each day of life, you can be truly happy.

Scary thought isn’t it? Let the stress go, and be happy with your life.  Letting the stress go is the key to living a good life.

Suffering in Style

Mason tells the story of Second Lieutenant Hiroo Onada of the Japanese Imperial Army.

See near the end of the war in 1944 Hiroo Onada, and his men were deployed to a small island in the Phillippines called Lubang. They were given the orders to slow the U.S progress, to stand and fight, and never surrender.

When the U.S military arrived a few months later taking the island back in ten days, Hiroo and his men withdrew to the jungle and continued to fight. They started guerilla warfare against the Americans and the local population.

He was ordered not to surrender and to keep fighting, so that is precisely what he did. He kept fighting and fighting and fighting.

For almost 30 fucking years.

He kept fighting for over 29 years because he was given the order to never surrender. He refused to believe any of the news he received that Japan had surrendered. So for almost 30 years he and a few men lived and fought in the jungle until only Hiroo Onada was left alive.

This man suffered for almost thirty years fighting a non-existent war all for his ideals. He chose to suffer for something he believed in.

If suffering is inevitable, if our problems in life are unavoidable, then the question we should be asking is not “How do I stop suffering?” but “Why am I suffering–for what purpose?”


So the example of Hiroo is a very extreme example of suffering.

Hell, most of us can’t stay focused on not eating an extra donut to remain on a diet, and this man fought for thirty years all for an ideal.

Hiroo Onada chose to suffer for something that he believed in. He made his suffering bearable by making his love of honor and country the belief in which he stood on.

He dedicated himself and his men whole heartily to an ideal. One that sustained him for thirty-years.

This then is the value in finding out what you are willing to suffer for. If we must suffer, then at least we can know what we are suffering for, and this will help to ease the suffering.

A Self-aware Onion

To discover our true ideals, Manson says we must first become self-aware. If we don’t know who we really are, then we cant understand what we are truly willing to suffer for.

Self-awareness comes in layers, hence the onion.

Yes, I know self-aware parfait would have been fun too, but I’m sure there are trademarks on that.

The three layers of self-awareness, according to Manson, are:

A simple understanding of one’s emotions. Do you think you understand your own emotional state? Or are you like most of the world that has blind spots we are not willing to admit to ourselves?

The ability to ask why we feel certain emotions. Finding out the root cause behind what we are feeling. This means taking responsibility for your own feelings, not blaming others.

Personal Values: This entails figuring out the why behind which we choose to feel. To make decisions about ourselves and those around us.

Finding the answers to these questions can take years. Years that most people are unwilling to put in. Why? Because the clues usually point to a fault in our own logic and require us to change the way we view ourselves and others.

Define Your Values, Define Yourself

Not only must we become self-aware, but we must also define our personal values. If you don’t know what you are standing for, the first sign of trouble will cause you to crumble.

Manson also gives us a quick value guideline…

Good Values:

  • Reality-based
  • Socially constructive
  • Immediate and controllable.

Bad Values:

  • Superstitious
  • Socially destructive
  • Not immediate or controllable.

Knowing what you stand for helps you in figuring out who you are at your core. It should be what self-help is about but rarely is. This is why Manson’s Subtle Art is so important, it takes all the bullshit out of the self-improvement book and gives you reality-based answers.

This, in a nutshell, is what “self-improvement” is really about: prioritizing better values. Choosing better things to give a fuck about. Because when you give better fucks, you get better problems. And when you get better problems, you get a better life.

A Counterintuitive Approach

So do you have the feeling now that life is pointless and we should just sit around wallowing in our own despair and give up?

Hell, I hope not, I really want you to finish this article and be like that, “That was kick-ass, I’m going out to buy the book right now!”

Manson offers up five solutions to the problems we now face, five radically different approaches to life’s little problems

These solutions follow what Mason calls “The backwards law,” meaning they all seem negative taken at face value, but actually require you to confront your problems rather than avoiding them.

You Chose to Decide – Value 1:

Responsibility: Taking responsibility for everything that occurs in your life, regardless of who’s at fault.

Our choices are our own. No one else is responsible for us, but us.

Blame whomever you want in your life for the way it is, but in the end, you and you alone are responsible for how your life is now. Blaming others will not change how you feel, nor will it change your current circumstances in life. Other people may be at fault for your situation, but you are responsible for it.

I know that sounds really fucked up, how are we responsible for things that are not our fault?

Manson gives a good example:

For example, if you woke up one day and there was a newborn baby on your doorstep, it would not be your fault that the baby had been put there, but the baby would now be your responsibility. You would have to choose what to do.

Now see, all worked up for nothing. That there makes sense. We are not at fault for the actions of others, but we are responsible for the way we deal with the aftermath.

We can spend the rest of our lives, saying it is someone’s fault and be miserable. Or we can take responsibility for ourselves and the decisions we make after the fact.

You’re Wrong, I’m Wrong – Value 2:

Uncertainty: Acknowledgment of your own ignorance and the cultivation of constant doubt in your own beliefs.

Beliefs. In today’s fast-paced, chaotic world, it seems people our grabbing onto their beliefs and holding fast. Creating so many barriers between ourselves and others strictly by the ideas that we hold. We act as if our beliefs are set in stone and cannot be changed.

You’re a Democrat, I’m a Republican your views are stupid and mine are right.

Your religion is different than mine, so you must be out to get me. There is no way we can have any common ground if your beliefs are different than mine.

We forget that our beliefs have changed throughout our life.

Aliens and Underwear

When I was younger, I felt so different from my family that at one point, I thought that they were aliens disguised as my family, sent to watch over me and report back to the overlords. It turns out my parents were human, and it was me that was just a little weird.

I thought that hiding a scary novel in my underwear drawer would keep the monsters inside the book and me away from harm. It turns out the monsters in books are less scary than the ones in real life.

Our beliefs now are really no different from the expectations we held as a child. At the time we hold the opinion, we think that it is reliable, nothing can sway it. But as we get older and just a little wiser, we transition our belief to a new way of thinking.

This is what Manson wants us to see that our beliefs are not 100 percent right, in fact, they are rarely ever “right.”

Growth is an endlessly iterative process. When we learn something new, we don’t go from wrong to being right. Rather we go from wrong to slightly less wrong. We shouldn’t seek to find the ultimate “right” answer for ourselves, but rather we should seek to chip away at the ways that we’re wrong today so we can be a little less wrong tomorrow.

By holding onto beliefs so tight that we can’t change them, we are isolating ourselves from growth. We are locking ourselves into a moment in time and refusing to learn anything new.

To grow, we must challenge our own beliefs and ways of thinking. We must consistently put them to the test to see if they are aliens or in fact just our parents.

Failing Forward – Value 3:

Failure: The willingness to discover your own flaws and mistakes so that they may be improved upon.

You are a failure, and that is why you are succeeding right now.

None of us likes to be called a failure, and yet to get where we are in life right now, we had to fail to learn. Failing is such an integral part of life, and yet we do not like to admit when we fail.

When we go to our jobs, we like to act as if we walked into our job and did it right from the word go. That somehow we instinctively knew the right thing to do at every point and junction of our career.

None of that is true.

Like learning to ride a bike as a child, we had to fall countless times until we could get it right. Skinned knees and mild concussions were just part of learning to ride a bike when I was a child. We did not have any of those knee pads and helmets to protect us. The pain and failure were just part of the learning process.

As we get older, we forget that failing is part of learning.

As Manson puts it:

At some point, most of us reach a place where we’re afraid to fail, where we instinctively avoid failure and stick to only what is placed in front of us or only what we’re already good at.
This confines and stifles us. We can be truly successful only at something we’re willing to fail at. If we’re unwilling to fail, then we’re unwilling to succeed.

Our growth is dependent on our willingness to suffer and fail for that which we hope to attain.

Know When to Say No – Value 4:

Rejection: The ability to both say and hear no, thus defining what you will and will not accept in your life.

Saying and hearing no is more than just learning to say no when someone asks you something stupid like, “Hey can I have your car?” or “Can you give me $10,000?”

Saying no is about learning to set boundaries in your life that align with your values.

Hearing someone tell you no, is about learning to accept someone else’s boundaries and values that they have set in their lives.

For us to care about something or someone in our lives; we must place a value on it or them. Placing a value on something gives it more meaning than other things in our lives. The more meaning something has to us, the higher the inherent value that we place on it.

Manson explains it this way,

The point is this: we all must give a fuck about something, in order to value something. And to value something, we must reject what is not that something. To value X, we must reject non-X.

To have a real value in our lives, we must first set what our values are.

We can not know if something is important to us if we do not know what we truly value.

This makes our lives better, by narrowing the things we give a fuck about, we define what is most important to us in our lives. We add value to one by forgoing the other.

By accepting boundaries in each others lives, we see the value that they have, and we respect them by respecting their values. We must also choose our own limitations in our lives and respect ourselves enough to enforce them with others.

To Be Or Not To Be – Value 5:

Mortality: The contemplation of one’s own mortality.

Mason states that this one is the most essential value…

This one is crucial because paying vigilant attention to one’s own death is perhaps the only thing capable of helping us keep all our other values in proper perspective.

To fully appreciate life, sometimes we have to face death. We have to look over the edge of a literal or metaphorical cliff and stare death in the face. To laugh at the sheer magic of being alive and continue laughing in the face of our own eventual demise.

To be truly alive and live life to the fullest, we have to admit that one day it will all end for all of us. And what do we leave behind then? Will anything we did or will do matter? At the end of our days, what will our legacy be?

what will our legacy be?

As I hit my mid-forties, the thought of death started appearing on the horizon. I looked back in my life and begin to analyze all that I have done.

Have I lived a life that I can be proud of?

Will anything that I have done to date mean anything at the end of my life?

For the record here, yes I have.

Have I lived a rock star life?

Made millions of dollars?


But I have helped raise two amazing children.  One who is in the military serving our country and the other who is getting ready to graduate with his bachelor’s degree at the age of twenty this semester.

I have been married to my best friend for 27 years.  We have weathered many storms together and plan on continuing this adventure we have been on for many, many more years to come.

But, seeing where I have been and what I have accomplished makes me want more. More time with my wife, my family.  In this whole mad world we are all spinning on, I want more of life and more out of life.

The Point of It All – living a good life

For me, living a good life sums up the whole point of Mark Manson’s book.

Have I mastered the subtle art of not giving a fuck?

No, but having read it, I am a little closer to being less wrong today than I was yesterday; and tomorrow I will be a little closer to be being right than I am today, and that we are all on a journey that takes us an entire lifetime to even get close to being right.

Finding what makes us happy and chasing it, catching and holding onto it with all that we have. That is The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck.

living a good life - The subtle Art Of Not Giving a Fuck

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