The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck

By Mark Manson

I've been hearing about this book and Mark Manson's blog posts from various places for a while. I'd read a few pieces on his blog that seemed somewhat interesting, but something about the tone left me uninterested in following his writing closely. But I occasionally like exploring self-help literature and, after seeing yet another positive reference to this book, decided to give it a try. (The title helped. For those not familiar with the idiom, "not giving a fuck" means not caring, but with the implication that one is intentionally disregarding the consequences rather than simply indifferent.)

The short summary is that my instincts were right, but now I have more data to put words to that feeling. There's nothing wrong with this book, exactly, but it is very much from bro culture. Manson, intentionally or not, seems to be writing to a specific and limited audience, one that's relatively privileged, socialized male, and unfamiliar with the (exhaustive) literature on balancing emotional demands, expectations, and one's own sense of entitlement.

To be clear, there's nothing wrong with this. There are a lot of people like that in this world, and the advice Manson gives them seems reasonable to me. He apparently has a couple million blog readers, so more power to him. But if you're a regular reader of advice web sites like Captain Awkward or Ask A Manager, the assumed frame of the reader is going to feel a bit off.

Put another way, this is a book that contains a lovingly-detailed description of Manson forcing himself to walk up to a sheer cliff over the ocean above the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa and sit on the edge in order to confront his own mortality. If that induces more eye-rolling than recognition (as it did with me), some of the rest of the book is likely to provoke a similar reaction.

The thesis of this book is not captured by the title, which is a good thing since the title in isolation would be awful advice. Manson does not want you to stop giving any fucks at all. Indeed, he says that you are incapable of not giving a fuck about things in life. Humans are designed to give a fuck; that's what we do. Rather, his point is that if you've not consciously thought about what you give a fuck about, you're probably giving a fuck about all the wrong things, and thus making yourself miserable.

Because when you give too many fucks — when you give a fuck about everyone and everything — you will feel that you're perpetually entitled to be comfortable and happy at all times, that everything is supposed to be just exactly the fucking way you want it to be. This is a sickness. And it will eat you alive. You will see every adversity as an injustice, every challenge as a failure, every inconvenience as a personal slight, every disagreement as a betrayal. You will be confined to your own petty, skull-sized hell, burning with entitlement and bluster, running circles around your very own personal Feedback Loop from Hell, in constant motion yet arriving nowhere.

The things Manson thinks you should stop giving fucks about are being happy, exceptional, right all the time, or successful. The things that Manson thinks you should selectively start giving fucks about are struggling with something, making mistakes, being uncertain, defining good personal values, setting boundaries, and making commitments.

If you're not someone who grew up with the belief that you're exceptional and mostly right and deserve happiness and success, you're probably not the target audience for this book. If your struggle is against socialization that taught you to always set aside your needs and wants in favor of making other people happy, you're definitely not the target audience for this book. If all of this sounds very familiar from other reading, you're probably going to find this book rather basic, although Manson does have an entertainingly direct writing style (if very bro-tinged and a bit heavy on the sex jokes).

That said, there is one thing in this book that will stick with me. In the chapter on happiness, Manson challenges the reader to stop asking what in life will make them happy, and instead ask a different question: "What pain do you want in your life? What are you willing to struggle for?" In other words, embrace the reality that every set of life choices will involve unhappiness and suffering, and then make the choices that invoke the problems that you want to have. The problems that may be uncomfortable but that bring you joy when you solve them. The problems that inspire you to beat your head against them instead of the ones that make you want to give up.

For those in a position to be able to make those sorts of choices, I think that's a great piece of advice, and one that I read at just the right time for it to be personally meaningful to me. Any book of this type is some variety of success if I come away with an idea that I didn't have before reading it, so full points to Manson there.

Having read this book, my new guess on why Manson's writing shows up so often in my circles is that I worked in Bay Area tech among a lot of people with comfortable backgrounds, good schools, high expectations, a lot of market bargaining power in employment, and a sense that all of this wasn't translating into happiness in the way that one might assume it would. If that's you, and you've not already dove into the introspection and life prioritization deep end, this isn't a bad introduction, written by someone who seems well-connected to that world. If you're struggling with feeling like you should be happy but aren't, and are stuck chasing the next thing on the horizon that's supposed to make you happy, Manson has quite a lot to say about that experience.

If you've been making hard prioritization trade-offs your whole life, know perfectly well why you're not happy (systemic oppression and late-stage capitalism), and are not in the mood to be lectured about happiness by some white dude who can afford to fuck off to South Africa to have a life-altering encounter with his own mortality, you may want to give this one a pass.

A minor metadata note: The cover design replaces the "u" of "Fuck" with a blotch, and Amazon and Wikipedia show the title as The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck with an asterisk. However, the inside cover and the copyright page clearly render the word in the title as "Fuck," so that's how I list it here.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2019-12-26