Tuesday, 9 January 2018

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life by Mark Manson Review

Eye-catching title, eh? Unfortunately that’s about all that really stands out about Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, which is actually a very ordinary self-help book - and I’ve not even read a lot of self-help books either, that’s how broad, generic and unremarkable a lot of the stuff he talks about here is! Still, its ideas are ultimately positive and worth re-reading and keeping in mind so I can’t say I found the book a total waste of time. 

The book’s title and main thesis can be summed up as: finding and caring about the shit that matters to you while ignoring the shit that doesn’t - see what I mean when I say it’s unremarkable? But wait, there’s more! Manson has more vapid platitudes like how life’s about the journey, not the destination, how finding meaning in life is better than accumulating material possessions, and that, seeing as we’re all going to die one day, why waste our limited time on shit that doesn’t matter? 

Not that I disagree with any of that but there’s nothing new or special about that information and you definitely don’t need to read this book to hear that kind of stuff. In fact, you don’t even need to read it anywhere at all as these ideas are so ubiquitous in pop culture as to be cliched! 

But, like I said, the book also contains useful messages that are worth hearing whether or not you’ve come across them before. Messages like pain and struggle are necessary and unavoidable parts of life. That rising up to challenges and facing hard truths about ourselves help us grow as well as make us stronger at weathering the shit life inevitably throws our way. That failure - so long as we learn from it - eventually leads to success so we shouldn’t be afraid to keep trying even if we’ll probably fail. That dissatisfaction and being uncomfortable are good as they motivate us to change and improve ourselves and our circumstances. 

I agree that perspective and values are important and that adjusting these can lead to a more satisfying existence. This means accepting that you’ll probably never be rich and famous, that you’re probably not an undiscovered genius or great artist, or that anything you’ll ever do will have any lasting impact on future generations. And that realisation can be freeing to pursue the things that only matter to you.

As Manson notes, nothing is certain, which is a profoundly obvious yet difficult lesson I’m slowly learning and re-learning all the time. We also have a tendency to create our own narratives that are confining and are worth exploding as they’re largely bullshit. And I totally agree with and can personally attest that taking more responsibility in your life leads to far greater happiness. Jocko Willink has a similar philosophy: Discipline Equals Freedom. But I don’t buy Manson’s anecdote that when he googled the quote “With great power comes great responsibility” he couldn’t find out who originally said it. As a comics reader, I instantly know it was Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben but I can’t believe a Google search wouldn’t tell him that! 

He’s right though when he says that excessive freedoms don’t lead to happiness. You only need to look at the toxic Social Justice movement currently poisoning Western politics whose adherents are obsessed with personal freedoms - none of those people are ever happy! His points on the importance of boundaries in relationships and healthy conflict stemming from honesty though were banal and unnecessary. 

I’m a terrible procrastinator so I really liked the “Do Something” principle where you just do whatever it is you should be doing rather than waiting for the “right moment” or inspiration to strike. The idea is that once you start doing something, especially badly, you’ll eventually start doing it right. Action leads to motivation leads to inspiration leads to success - basically a practical application of not being afraid of failure and one I’ll be trying out myself. 

I wasn’t that interested in Manson’s autobiographical anecdotes, which were mostly mundane, nor did I find a lot of the examples he chose to illustrate his ideas to be that compelling, though I do like the possibility that Shakespeare wrote Romeo & Juliet as a satire on love especially as so many view it as the ultimate romance story! 

I also don’t agree that caring less about something means you’ll do better at it or that great people become great because they don’t think they’re great which is why they work harder than most. Both are, like a lot of the statements he makes, an oversimplified generalisation. Maybe he’s right for some but maybe some others already think they’re great and are driven by something else? And, like all self-help books, it needs to be vague enough to be a one-size fits all for the widest possible appeal so I’m not sure how helpful it’s going to be in finding its audience’s meaning in their individual lives - it certainly didn’t mine! 

But on the whole Manson is a decent writer who’s able to put his ideas across quite clearly in an accessible way. The messaging may be fairly commonplace and underwhelming but I found enough good stuff here to have gotten something out of reading it and if you’ve read no self-help books at all you might find this even more useful! The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck is kinda worth giving a fuck about, just don’t expect much from it.

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