The Subtle Art of Not Giving a “Care”: A Book Review

This book review is rated “E” for everyone, but the title of the book is rated “PG-13,” or whichever rating using the f-word grants you, because while I have cutely titled this blog post as a book review on a book called The Subtle Art of Not Giving a “Care,” the true title of the book is The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F#@%, which you have Mark Manson to thank (or blame) for that.

If it feels like you versus the world, chances are it’s just you versus yourself.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F#@! By Mark Manson, page 140

I first heard about this book on a podcast that Bryant and I listened to briefly during our Thanksgiving road trip to his mother’s; I find that listening to podcasts or audio books is the best way for me to stay alert while making long drives, so Bryant did some sifting through podcasts and procured one in which Mark Manson was being interviewed about this book. As he discussed some of its overarching ideas, I thought, “Hey, this sounds like what I’m all about. I would like to read this!”

But then I had a better idea, which is to buy the book and give it to one of my friends for a Christmas present, which I am going to do, but there is a two-week window or so during which the book is in my possession; naturally, and somewhat fiendishly, I had to read the book, and happened to enjoy it so much that I felt very motivated to write a book review about it.

Cue book review!

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life contains within it the potential to change your life. But so does everything, and that’s more or less the message that this entire book attempts to explain to the reader.

In nine chapters, Manson fleshes out the power of perception and how it can literally drive us into a depression or fuel us towards happiness. He does so rather crudely, and with a lot of cursing and lewd allusions, but all of his ideas absolutely have merit to them. And as someone who avidly studies the Buddha dharma, I recognized that many of his philosophies closely align with Buddhist teachings. Rather sillily, I dubbed him a “crude Buddhist” or a “Crudist,” for laughs.

While sometimes a bit blunt for my taste, Manson does write in a way that I think will attract a lot of non-traditional readers, as well as traditional readers, and I think that’s important because practically everyone could benefit from the information he shares in this book, particularly a younger readership.

It’s an easy, quick, motivational read, and I would absolutely recommend it. The following three sections of my review will detail a few chapters within this book.

You Are Not Special

The ticket to emotional health, like that to physical health, comes from eating your veggies—that is, accepting the bland and mundane truths of life: truths such as “Your actions actually don’t matter that much in the grand scheme of things” and “The vast majority of your life will be boring and not noteworthy, and that’s okay.” This vegetable course will taste bad at first. Very bad. You will avoid accepting it.

But once ingested, your body will wake up feeling more potent and more alive. After all, that constant pressure to be something amazing, to be the next big thing, will be lifted off your back. The stress and anxiety of always feeling inadequate and constantly needing to prove yourself will dissipate. And the knowledge and acceptance of your own mundane existence will actually free you to accomplish what you truly wish to accomplish, without judgment or lofty expectations.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F#@! By Mark Manson, page 62

Manson begins this chapter with an anecdote about an old friend of his named Jimmy, who he describes as an irresponsible, entitled egomaniac. And while at first it may seem he was merely using this as an opportunity to vent about this guy, he does arrive at a very good point: hollow self-confidence is exactly that—hollow, and not fulfilling, even if it masks one’s shortcomings.

Whether you’re a millennial or a pre-millennial (someone born prior to our generation), then you’re probably familiar with the claim that millennials are “so sensitive” because we were emotionally coddled growing up; we were given “participation awards” and told that we could be anything that we wanted when we grew up. We received these encouragements our whole lives, and yet many of us still wound up feeling disappointed in ourselves and everything around us.

According to Manson, this campaign for raising children’s self-esteem began in the 1970’s, after psychologists began believing that “people who thought highly about themselves generally performed better and caused fewer problems.” People started thinking that if they could raise everybody’s self-esteem, society would altogether improve, so they began their large scale social experiment—i.e., telling everyone they are all destined for greatness.

Judging by the title of this chapter, “You Are Not Special,” you may be able to infer that this method was not only incorrect but unsuccessful. Manson writes, “It turns out that adversity and failure are actually useful and even necessary for developing strong-minded and successful adults. It turns out that teaching people to believe they’re exceptional and to feel good about themselves no matter what doesn’t lead to a population full of Bill Gateses and Martin Luther Kings. It leads to a population full of Jimmys.”

See, Manson explains that Jimmy is entitled. He passes off blame for his failures onto others, and refuses to accept responsibility for his wrongdoings, whereas he is quick to claim that success is solely due to his awesomeness. The thing about entitlement is that it’s largely used as an obstacle to self-improvement; if we constantly view ourselves as special and amazing and reject any notion that we are somehow imperfect, then we are being deliberately blind to the areas of ourselves that we can work on. And while confidence and self-love is important, each of us should be attempting to grow each day. Remember, imminent self-love and the desire for improving one’s self can absolutely, and should, coexist alongside each other. It’s about being truly honest with yourself.

So, despite what we may have been told, we’re not all special. In fact, many people each day experience the troubles and successes that we personally face each day. Every time we think, “This is so horrible; no one knows how I feel!” we are wrong. And conversely, when we see the social media stampede of everyone’s perfect lives, we can safely assure ourselves that their lives are not at all as smooth and glossy as they portray them. “This flood of extreme information has conditioned us to believe that exceptionalism is the new normal,” Manson asserts. “And because we’re all quite average most of the time, the deluge of exceptional information drives us to feel pretty damn insecure and desperate, because clearly we are somehow not good enough. So more and more we feel the need to compensate through entitlement and addiction. We cope the only way we know how: either through self-aggrandizing or through other-aggrandizing.” We paint ourselves as the hero or the victim in our minds. (Also: read my post about the victim mentality.)

Entitlement has two brands: blind self-love and blind self-hate. Those who are entitled typically think they’re either the most amazing person alive, which is why they should be treated differently, or they think they’re the worst person alive, which is why they should be treated differently. Both approaches are somewhat of a coping mechanism so that we don’t actually have to hold ourselves accountable for the decisions we make every moment.

But Manson’s whole point with this chapter is that statistically, none of us are unique as we come to view ourselves, which sounds absolutely pessimistic, but it’s not—it’s like when we get caught up in the bad day we’re having, when everything seems to be going wrong, and suddenly we start thinking about how small we are cosmologically, in the grand scheme of the universe, and suddenly our big-loud-horrible day just seems like a fart in the wind.

When we don’t feel like we have some predetermined ultimate fate to fulfill, it lifts a lot of pressure off our shoulders. It allows us space for the freedom to mess up, for the decision of what we actually want to do, and space for enjoying the small, normal things in our lives, which we often take for granted.

The Value of Suffering

This is what’s so dangerous about a society that coddles itself more and more from the inevitable discomforts of life: we lose the benefits of experiencing healthy doses of pain, a loss that disconnects us from the reality of the world around us.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F#@! By Mark Manson, page 29

I like “The Value of Suffering” chapter, but I’m going to infuse it with several quotes from a prior chapter, “Happiness is a Problem,” because I think the two are closely related.

One of the things we talk about in Buddhism is that humans are always seeking comfort and seeking to avoid discomfort, which often leads to suffering, because suffering is an inevitable aspect of living. Many followers who aspire for “Enlightenment” strive and strive to feel some grand perspective, some life-changing experience that will rescue them from human ignorance, but it is the Enlightened who understand that there is no great life-shift. It’s as the Zen proverb states, “Before enlightenment, chop the wood and carry the water. After enlightenment, chop the wood and carry the water.” Merely, there is suffering in life, and we cannot escape suffering, but we can transform it. We can experience nirvana right now, wherever we are.

In Manson’s book, he refers to the “hedonic treadmill,” which is an idea that people are constantly trying to make their lives better, but no matter what they do, they still feel underwhelmingly the same. It’s like I described in my recent post, The Practice of Gratitude: we constantly fantasize about happiness at the next step of our life, but it’s always just a carrot we dangle in front of ourselves. Still, we feel rather empty, as there’s always “something more” that we are searching for. Why does sadness seem to imminent?

It’s because of how we perceive pain. Pain is guaranteed, and so Manson believes, “What determines your success isn’t, ‘What do you want to enjoy?’ The relevant question is, ‘What pain do you want to sustain?’ The path to happiness is a path full of shit-heaps and shame.” If we want to be a workout goddess, then we will have to sustain the pain of exercising every day. If we want to be a writer, we have to sustain the pain of rejection letters and writing blocks. With every shiny end-goal comes a long journey of pain. And as we know, it’s never truly about the end; it’s about the adventure along the way that teaches us the most, so rather reject the pain, we should try to understand it and how it benefits us.

In “The Value of Suffering,” Manson uses an anecdote about a Japanese lieutenant named Hiroo Onoda during World War II. Onoda was given orders to cause havoc on the island of Lubang in the Philippines, and despite the war ending after a few months of sending him there, and despite decades’-worth of multiple attempts to inform him to stop terrorizing the locals for the sake of the war, Onoda continued to live in the jungles of this island for thirty years before he was brought back to civilization, and where he was finally convinced that he could give it a rest. However, once he found himself, somewhat culture-shocked, in this new, futuristic version of Japan from what he remembered, he was actually less happy than we was during all those grueling years in the jungle. That’s right—even though he had working toilets and fast food, he didn’t enjoy it as much. It all probably felt a little meaningless to him, and so he set out on another expedition in search of the abominable snowman, which was what ultimately killed him.

“One day, in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful,” Freud once wrote, and Manson includes this quote to help illustrate his point. The things we do that involve struggle and pain are often the most rewarding, because they contain the most meaning and the most incredible journeys. My college degree wouldn’t have been as exciting if I hadn’t spent three and a half years working towards it—if I had been walking one day and found a random college degree on the sidewalk and picked it up, it’d be cool that my name was on it, but it wouldn’t carry the weight of experience and knowledge that the actual process of going to college granted me. That’s why origin stories are so awesome—because they tell the tale of overcoming adversity, which teaches us way more than immediate reward.

You Are Always Choosing

Many people may be to blame for your unhappiness, but nobody is ever responsible for your unhappiness but you. This is because you always get to choose how you see things, how you react to things, how you value things. You always get to choose the metric by which to measure your experiences.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F#@! By Mark Manson, page 99

This may be the most important realization we can take away from this book: we are always choosing. When we wake up in the morning and feel strangely sad about life in general, we can either go back to bed and let the sadness wash over us, or we can get up and decide to make what we can out of the small victories. When someone at work dumps a bunch of problems on us, we can either complain about it and throw a fit, or we can challenge ourselves to overcome the obstacles with a good attitude. No matter how good or bad life is, we can always choose what we make of it. And this is absolutely empowering once we begin to practice this.

The coolest thing about this is that we can begin practicing right now. Even as you read this article, you’re making choices. As soon as you close out of this and go about your day, you’re making choices about how you perceive what happens in your life. When we’re reminded of this, we often feel emboldened.

A lot of times, making healthy choices about how we view our lives can be challenging, but as we gain practice, it does become easier. And it also feels really good. Sometimes, it’s sickly satisfying to have a really crummy attitude, to yell at someone for being ignorant or rude, but all that does is perpetuate negativity in a sort of ripple-effect, and after a while it can make us feel much worse than the temporary enjoyment of lashing out. But as we learn how to feel that frustration bubble up, but instead of feed into it we let it go, we are sowing loving seeds for ourselves, others, and generations to come.

I enjoy Manson’s anecdotes, and one that he offers at the beginning of this chapter is two contrasting situations, one in which a person is threatened by gunpoint to run a marathon, and another in which a person trains for months and then runs a marathon of his own accord. In the former situation, the whole “running” thing seems pretty sucky, but in the latter, it’s a proud moment. Manson writes, “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.” If we think about this, it begins to seem quite true. If we drop out of school to pursue art, then that’s a pretty good thing because we chose it, but if we get kicked out of school because we can’t stop doodling all over our homework, then that’s seen as a kind of bad thing.

So what can we do to feel like we’re choosing our problems?

Well, we can understand that while our problems aren’t always our fault, we can always choose how we face each problem. “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,” Manson writes. It’s perfectly fine to lament a loss or feel frustrated when something inconvenient happens at first, but then we need to shake off those emotions that hold us back and decide how we want to solve our problem.

With every breath we take, we are granted another opportunity to do our best. To be our best. One of the ideas we have in Buddhism is that there is a Buddha in everyone. “A flower for you, a Buddha to be.” But although all of us have the Buddha within us and are inherently deserving of loving-kindness, we should each individually attempt to think and act more intentionally, with more love, with more understanding. While we are heaven just as we are, it is still our responsibility moving forward to continue bettering ourselves. “We are always in the process of approaching truth and perfection without actually ever reaching truth or perfection,” Manson writes. And I believe that’s the point. That’s life.

If you’re intrigued by what I’ve said, or if your attitude improved during the time you read this article, then you should definitely pick up a copy of this book from the library or a local bookstore. (You should also browse my Mindful Living posts, which is both free and immediate!) I also have a variety of other books that discuss these ideas in a more eloquent way, and Buddhists like Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chodron, and Charlotte Joko Beck are amazing writers on these topics.

I’ll close with one last quote from this book, because I absolutely love quoting, if you haven’t noticed. It’s what Alan Watts calls “the backwards law,” and it has a lot to do with being grateful for exactly where we are, right now:

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.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F#@! By Mark Manson, page 9

Chew on that for a little while…

Thanks for reading!