The Book in Three Sentences
In this summary of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, you’ll learn that the moment you stop being positive all the time, you’ll be happier than ever. Author Marc Manson helps us figure out what matters in life so that we can ignore everything else. Written with raw honesty and a lot of swearing, this book is a game-changer.
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck Summary
Chapter 1: Don’t Try
Popular culture teaches people to fight for what they want to make their dreams come true eventually. Self-improvement and success don’t always go hand in hand though. Our culture has an obsession with positivity, but the problem with self-help resources is that they encourage us to focus on what we don’t have. In other words, self-improvement resources tell you to identify your personal flaws and give them more importance than they have. We’re supposed to make money because you don’t have any, you repeat affirmations to yourself because you don’t have confidence, and so on. Focusing on the positive aspects of something reminds us of what we don’t have. Some things, you either are or you aren’t and no visualization exercise is going to change that.
Despite what everyone believes, the path to a good life isn’t having more. Caring too much about too many things is bad for you. The key to a good life is not caring about most things other than what’s immediate or important.
The author describes what he calls the Feedback Loop from Hell. This is when you’re anxious about something, the anxiety paralyzes you and this, in turn, makes you more anxious. Suddenly, you find yourself in a neverending circle of negativity. Something similar happens with all emotions, including anger, worry, guilt, or sadness. Social media makes this problem even worse because it constantly exposes us to other people’s success stories. Our problems are no longer material, but spiritual. While we have access to infinite things and opportunities, we care about everything and this turns us into victims of our own success.
Wanting a positive experience makes it a negative experience because that’s based on the assumption that we lack something in the first place. Accepting a negative experience, on the other hand, is a positive experience. This is what Alan Watts called the backwards law. So don’t even try because the moment we stop caring about something, we immediately get better at it. When you’re open about your insecurities, you become confident. Confronting your fears and anxieties leads to courage and perseverance. Escaping negative experiences in life will backfire.
Life’s short and you have a limited number of things to care about, but if you care about everything all the time, your life will be ruined. Not caring is a delicate art that will teach you to focus and prioritize what’s important. This is difficult to accomplish because you need practice and discipline. Don’t live life in such a way that you’re expecting everything and everyone to act the way you’d want to because you’ll engage with the Feedback Loop from Hell and get nowhere.
Not caring isn’t the same as indifference because suppressing emotions isn’t the answer. There are three subtleties to consider:
Subtlety #1: Don’t be indifferent. Be comfortable being different.
Indifference isn’t something to admire because, deep down, indifferent people care about other people’s opinions and they’re scared. To avoid this, they don’t make important choices and hide. You can’t ignore everything which means you have to care about something. Given the possibility, don’t care about adversity and making others angry. Be different as long as you’re true to your values. To be admired by some, you have to be a laughing stock to others.
Subtlety #2: To overcome adversity, you must find something that’s more important than adversity.
When there’s nothing else to care about, you focus on unimportant things. You can’t be the person who cares about everything. The most productive thing we can do is find something important to care about. Ignore the meaningless and trivial causes.
Subtlety #3: You always choose what to care about
When we’re young, we care too much because everything’s new. As we get older, experience teaches us that the little things have no impact on our lives. This makes us more selective and more mature. The older we get, in fact, the less energy we have and the more our identity establishes itself. This liberates us and we accept most things that come our way. As a consequence, by the time we enter middle age, we know what truly matters and we focus on that. That’s the time we learn what enough is.
Chapter 2: Happiness Is a Problem
A life of opulence is empty because nothing ever seems enough. Whether we’re poor or rich, life is a form of suffering because, as the Buddha taught us, pain and loss are inevitable. To some, the solution to this conundrum is achieving happiness, but being dissatisfied is human nature. Humans suffer because doing so inspires change.
We need to suffer dissatisfaction and insecurity in order to innovate and survive. A constant sense of dissatisfaction makes our species evolve and thrive. Pain is useful because it teaches us to be alert and careful. By avoiding pain and seeking pleasure, we’re giving up on important lessons.
Life’s full of problems. When you come up with a solution to a problem, you’re also creating new problems. When you solve problems though, you achieve happiness, so you have to find problems you like having.
This is incredibly difficult for some people because they ruin things in two ways:
- Denial: some people deny the fact they have problems
- Victim mentality: some people like to believe that they’re not responsible for solving their problems. Victims blame others and this leads to anger and helplessness.
Emotions exist so that we could reproduce often and live long enough to do so. When you feel bad about past experiences, that’s because they’re unresolved. To get rid of them, do something. Positive emotions, on the other hand, are a reward for having done something right. Emotions are mere suggestions, so we shouldn’t always trust them. In fact, the author goes as far as to question them regularly. Relying too heavily on emotions can cause all kinds of problems, especially if you’re trying to be happy.
Psychologists call this never-ending pursuit of more the hedonic treadmill, this is the idea that while we’re changing things all the time, our feelings stay the same. Also, this happens because everything we have requires some form of sacrifice. The car you have is the one that will break, your family is the one you’ll have arguments with, your dream career will lead to stress, and so on. In other words, we get something, but we also lose something in return. In the end, no matter what we do in life, we won’t achieve ultimate happiness.
Manson encourages readers to reflect on the following question: “What pain do you want in your life?” While everyone wants to be happy and have an easy life, no one ever thinks about the sacrifices they have to make to have a more meaningful life. Happiness demands struggle. It doesn’t just happen, but it matures from problems. The solution isn’t to avoid problems or wait for a magic solution but to accept them and actively work on them. Having a great body, starting a healthy diet, or learning new things, for example, demands a lot from us and we must value uncertainty, failures, and the time it requires.
The path to happiness is full of problems, sacrifices, and failures. So what pain do you want in your life? If you don’t want the struggle, you’ll never achieve the goal it leads to. Don’t fall in love with the goal, fall in love with the process. As Manson puts it, “our struggles determine our successes.” The joy isn’t in reaching the top of the ladder but in the climb itself.
Chapter 3: You Are Not Special
Don’t think too highly of yourself. Failure is necessary because that’s how you become strong-minded and successful. Instead of trying to prove how good you are, actually do things that show it. Feeling entitled to things makes you delusional because you think you deserve things without working for them. But entitlement isn’t the same as happiness because entitled people never confront their negative experiences.
The truth is we’re not special and what we’re going through (whatever it is) is a common issue. Accepting this is the first step toward dealing with it. Now that we have the possibility of expressing ourselves using social media, entitlement is more popular than ever.
While we can excel at something, we’re also average at other things. That’s a fact of life. Being great at something demands a lot of time and energy which explains why we’re average people. Processing the deluge of content we have access to demands a lot of time which means that we focus on the best of the best. Despite what the media shows us, life isn’t extraordinary all the time, but average. Exceptionalism isn’t the norm. Consuming exceptional content makes us insecure and as a way to make up for it, we feel entitled.
Our culture made us believe that we’re destined to be grand and that we deserve greatness. This is a contradiction because if everyone was great, then no one would be great. To solve this, we must question whether we deserve to be great or not. Accepting that you won’t be happy unless you’re extraordinary means that most of the human population is worthless. The few who become great are those who are obsessed with improvement and that comes from the belief they’re flawed.
The idea that you can achieve greatness is your ego talking for you. That’s easier than accepting reality: your actions aren’t that important and your life’s going to be boring and that’s fine. Once you’ve accepted this, you won’t feel the pressure to stand out and you’ll be free to pursue whatever it is you actually enjoy. This leads to appreciating the simple pleasures of life: making friends, creating things, helping others, or spending time with the people you love. These things are boring because they’re ordinary and they are ordinary because they matter.
Chapter 4: The Value of Suffering
Everyone can choose how to suffer and if the cause you pursue means something to you, you’ll endure it. There are several layers to self-awareness and each level means something different. The first layer, for instance, is an understanding of your emotions. Some people are just bad at even the most basic levels and these are emotional blindspots that negatively affect them. The second layer involves asking why we feel certain emotions. This question is difficult to answer but important because it enables us to reach the root of the emotional problem. The third level includes our values. These are the standards we use to judge ourselves. This level is hard to reach, but extremely important because our values determine our problems and therefore, our life quality.
The problem with most self-help advice is that it focuses on shallow problems rather than deeper ones. Instead of teaching you how to get rich, most books should teach you why you want to get rich in the first place. This means sacrificing long-term benefits for short-term ones. Problems are inevitable, but we get to choose who to interpret them.
We’re constantly measuring ourselves against others, but we must be careful with the standards we’re using. If we’re always comparing ourselves against someone who’s more successful, popular, or talented, we’ll feel like a failure regardless of our achievements. Pay attention to the metrics you use to measure your success. Values determine those metrics, so always choose the values that lead to good problems that you can solve easily.
Some of the values that cause problems include:
- Pleasure: this is a terrible value to build your life around. Pleasure is superficial and causes anxiety, emotional instability, and depression. While easy to obtain, pleasure is also easy to lose. Pleasure is necessary, but it’s never enough.
- Material Success: once the basic needs are covered, you don’t need much else to be happy. Giving more importance to material success can lead to prioritizing it over other more significant values.
- Always Being Right: as humans, we’re wrong most of the time, so if you want to be right all the time, you’ll be disappointed. Another problem with always wanting to be right is that you can’t learn from your mistakes.
- Staying Positive: when life’s bad, one of the best things you can do is admit it. For some, positivity is a way of avoiding reality. The best way to deal with negative emotions is to do it in a healthy way that aligns with your values.
The most joyous things in life are difficult, unpleasant, and stressful. Some of life’s greatest moments won’t be defined by the aforementioned values. In other words, the best experiences you’ll ever have won’t be pleasant, successful, known, or positive.
Good values are reality-based, socially constructive, and immediate or controllable. Bad values, on the other hand, are superstitious, socially destructive, and not immediate or controllable. On that note, good values are achieved internally while bad values are achieved externally. Having poor values is caring about unimportant things. Having good values is caring about important things that generate positive emotions (happiness, pleasure, or success) as side effects. In the end, self-improvement is about having better values and choosing better things to care about.
Chapter 5: You Are Always Choosing
When you have the freedom to do something and prepare for it, a moment in your life can turn into a milestone. When you’re forced to do something against your will, that same experience can be painful. The only difference between the two is that in one case, we can choose and in the other one, we can’t. Often, what makes us miserable are the things outside our control. Our ability to choose our problems empowers us while being forced to have other problems makes us miserable.
Once a person realizes they’re responsible for everything that happens to them regardless of the external circumstances, their life transforms. To be clear, we can’t control external events, but we can control how we interpret them and how we respond to them. Whether we like it or not, we’re always choosing the values that guide our lives.
Once we accept our responsibility, the more power over our lives we’ll have. The values you choose can be empowering or disempowering, so we must adopt the best values we can. You are responsible for your situation, so whether you’re happy or unhappy, you get to choose how you perceive things. With any event, as tragic or trivial as it might seem, you’re responsible for the emotional and psychological response to that experience.
In the game of poker, there’s luck involved, but luck doesn’t play a major role in the game’s long-term results. Ultimately, the winner isn’t always the player who got the best hand, but the one who makes the best choices. To come out ahead in life, as in poker, you have to make the best possible choices consistently.
So how do you change? By choosing what you care about and don’t care about. This is simple, but not easy. As part of this process, you’ll feel uncertain about which values are the right ones, and on top of that, you’ll be giving up values you’ve held for years which is disconcerting.
Chapter 6: You’re Wrong About Everything (But So Am I)
Humanity has been wrong numerous times throughout history. Everyone constantly makes mistakes and that’s good because making mistakes is necessary to grow. What we perceive as “meaning” are the mental associations between two or more events. Those two things may not mean anything, but that doesn’t prevent our brain from making up connections. The problem is that brains are imperfect so a lot of connections or beliefs are plain wrong.
Our brains are designed for efficiency, not accuracy. Therefore, our stories mislead us and others regardless of our intentions. Our brains are biased and interpret memories depending on how we feel at a given time. When faced with incoherent past and present situations, our brains go as far as inventing memories that never happened. People’s unconscious minds can fake memories in such a way that their suffering turns them into victims to avoid responsibility. This is called false memory syndrome. Despite what conventional wisdom tells us, going with your gut isn’t the best idea. If anything, trust yourself less.
You can do everything right and still be wrong. If your values are bad, it doesn’t matter if you’re positive, persistent, willing to learn from failure or follow your passion. People do evil things because they think it’s the right thing to do. When we’re uncertain though, we become insecure and soon that insecurity turns into entitlement. Embracing uncertainty leads to progress and growth.
Manson’s law of avoidance says “The more something threatens your identity, the more you will avoid it.” Anything can threaten your identity: making money, losing money, getting a promotion, ending a relationship, and so on. If you become “The Party Guy”, you may be willing to do the same things (drinking, sleeping around, and staying up late) and feel depressed and empty rather than give that up because doing so threatens the identity you’ve created for yourself. The moment you “find” yourself, that’s the moment when you stop exploring opportunities, so never get to the point where you know who you are
Buddhism says you don’t exist and that what you perceive as “you” is a mental construction that you should let go of. In everyday life, this means letting go of the stories we tell ourselves. Letting go is liberating, especially the moment when you understand there’s nothing special about you and your problems. Once you adopt a more mundane attitude and stop measuring yourself against rockstars, athletes, and geniuses, your identity won’t feel threatened.
With this in mind, you should think about the following questions to generate some uncertainty:
Question #1: What if I’m wrong? Question yourself constantly because doing so creates humility and compassion. You need both qualities to solve certain issues. Of course, there’s always a chance we’re right.
Question #2: What would it mean if I were wrong? Once you asked yourself if you’re wrong, go ahead and ask what would it mean if you are. This forces us to question our values and forces us to reconsider and opposite one.
Question #3: Would being wrong create a better or worse problem than my current problem, for myself and others? Which problem is better? Usually, there are two problems: an easy one where we give in to our insecurities and a hard one where we challenge our values. In such cases, go for the latter even if it’s painful.
Chapter 7: Failure Is the Way Forward
Improvements are based on thousands of small failures. When you look at someone more successful, you’re looking at someone who’s failed more than you. We all avoid failure at some point, but this is stifling because unless you fail, you’ll never succeed. Fear or failure comes from having poor values.
Bad values involve external goals outside of our control. Once we achieve external goals, we feel empty. Good values are process-oriented which means we never reach a goalpost and this forces us to re-engage with the problem at hand. Goals won’t make us permanently happy because they provide short-term pleasure. Keep your values simple and humble.
Our most satisfying achievements happen in moments of adversity. This pain makes us better. By always escaping pain, we’ll never know what we’re capable of. Tumultuous experiences are usually the beginning of something new and whether we like it or not, pain is part of the process. To change our values, we must suffer, feel bad, or be uncomfortable.
Some questions in life seem different depending on where you are. If you look at them from the outside, the answer is straightforward, you must do something. If you look at them from the inside, they are existential puzzles that seem impossible to solve. The difference between one and the other is pain. For example, if you don’t love your spouse anymore, you should move out and leave them (this is easy), but if you do that, you risk breaking the other person’s heart (this is not easy). In such conundrums, we must separate what we feel from what it is. So step outside yourself and you’ll see things as they are: simple.
When you’re facing a problem, the best course of action isn’t looking at it, but working on it. Once you start working on the problem, regardless of how hard it seems, answers will soon appear. Action isn’t the effect of motivation, but the cause of it. In other words, we mustn’t start something when we’re motivated, we must start something despite not being motivated and motivation will soon follow. The author calls this the “do something” principle. By following this standard of success, we just have to act, so any result (regardless of its quality) is still progress.
Chapter 8: The Importance of Saying No
Absolute freedom, by itself, means nothing. A life of meaning is built on a narrowing of freedom, such as committing to a place, a belief, or a person. Our culture of positivity and consumption has conditioned us to say yes to everything and this can be seen in numerous positive thinking books. But we must say no to something, otherwise, everything is devoid of meaning. In some cases (such as with values, for example), what you don’t choose is as important as what you do. We are defined not only by what we choose but also by what we reject.
The kind of love we pursue (dizzying, dramatic, and crazy) isn’t healthy. There are two kinds of love: healthy and unhealthy. Unhealthy love is when the people involved use the relationship to escape their problems. Healthy love is when the people in the relationship accept and address their problems while supporting each other. The difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships is how well each person accepts responsibility and their willingness to reject and be rejected by their partner. In other words, healthy relationships have clear boundaries between the people involved and their values. This means that each person takes responsibility for their problems and values. In unhealthy relationships, there’s usually a victim (someone with problems they don’t take responsibility for) and a saver (someone who likes to solve problems for others).
Conflict in a relationship is healthy because it shows that the people in love are there unconditionally. Both people have to say and hear no from time to time. Trust is extremely important because, without it, a relationship is meaningless.
To rebuild trust once it’s been broken, there are two steps:
- The person who broke someone else’s trust admits the values that caused problems
- That person improves their behavior over time
Our consumer culture has led us to believe that more is always better, but that’s not the case. In fact, less if better. Having too much exposes us to the paradox of choice which says that the more options we have, the less happy we are with the thing we chose because we now know that there are many options we forfeited. The desire for perfection leads to unhappiness. As ironic as it sounds, commitment gives you freedom because you ignore all the unimportant alternatives.
Chapter 9: …And Then You Die
To a certain extent, life’s meaningless and we’re all going to die eventually. The inevitability of death should give us the encouragement to do what we love. Therefore, don’t think about death so much that you forget to live. For most people, death deeply moves them and they work on their immortality projects or, as the author calls them, values. Confronting death wipes out all shallow values you might have. Most people avoid thinking about it because they’re scared and because no one knows what they’re doing. The only certainty in life is death. The root of happiness (and to a certain extent, the only way to make sense of death) is by choosing values that benefit others, so find a greater cause than yourself and fight for it.
Material success or external achievements don’t define greatness. Being great is being able to choose what to care about. Don’t be afraid because death is coming whether you’re scared of it or not.
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