The Subtle Art of Not Giving a f*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life

True to its title, this book is a collection of outrageous ideas — many of which are paradoxical in nature. It’s only upon looking closer at these ideas that we realize their plausibility.

Throughout the book, the author argues for selectively choosing to not give a crap about some things (and hence, willingly choosing what you ultimately decide to give a crap about). No mortal can go through life not giving a crap about anything (and if they did exist, I doubt you’d want to emulate such beings).

It stands in stark contrast to traditional self-help books by basically saying: “man up, and deal with the pain”. There are more important things than pain, and you need to find out what that is for you. He makes the argument against living a life with minimal pain, instead choosing to live a life with maximum gain (sucking up the resulting pain). A similar argument to one made in this other book.

Mark’s got a great writing style, and I actually learned about the book through his blog (so I was well primed for this book). Overall, a worthwhile read.

Learnings in 140 characters

Find happiness in discovering problems worth solving. Let your values guide you. Take responsibility for success. Have a bias for action.

Notable Notes

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.

It’s interesting to note how he’s going to reconcile this with the constant need to improve (and how to avoid complacency).

Later, he describes this as:

The rare people who do become truly exceptional at something do so not because they believe they’re exceptional. On the contrary, they become amazing because they’re obsessed with improvement. And that obsession with improvement stems from an unerring belief that they are, in fact, not that great at all. It’s anti-entitlement.

The argument there goes like “Things aren’t great, and that’s ok. Also, I’m not that great, so I need to improve. Rinse & repeat”.

Being open with your insecurities paradoxically makes you more confident and charismatic around others. The pain of honest confrontation is what generates the greatest trust and respect in your relationships. Suffering through your fears and anxieties is what allows you to build courage and perseverance.

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

Subtlety #2: To not give a f*ck about adversity, you must first give a f*ck about something more important than adversity

Subtlety #3: Whether you realize it or not, you are always choosing what to give a f*ck about

Remember, nobody who is actually happy has to stand in front of a mirror and tell himself that he’s happy.

The problem with the self-esteem movement is that it measured self-esteem by how positively people felt about themselves. But a true and accurate measurement of one’s self-worth is how people feel about the negative aspects of themselves.

This is a great argument for self-discovery.

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.

I do not agree with this bit. I think it crosses the line between attaining individual tranquility and achieving your ambition.

On happiness, problems & pain

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

Problems never stop; they merely get exchanged and/or upgraded. Happiness comes from solving problems. The keyword here is “solving.”

To be happy we need something to solve. Happiness is therefore a form of action; it’s an activity

True happiness occurs only when you find the problems you enjoy having and enjoy solving.

Emotions are simply biological signals designed to nudge you in the direction of beneficial change.

happiness requires struggle. It grows from problems.

What determines your success isn’t, “What do you want to enjoy?” The relevant question is, “What pain do you want to sustain?”

Who you are is defined by what you’re willing to struggle for. People who enjoy the struggles of a gym are the ones who run triathlons and have chiseled abs and can bench-press a small house.

For many of us, our proudest achievements come in the face of the greatest adversity.

Hard to remember that in the heat of the moment, but true nonetheless.

On values

We get to control what our problems mean based on how we choose to think about them, the standard by which we choose to measure them.

Our values determine the metrics by which we measure ourselves and everyone else.

If you want to change how you see your problems, you have to change what you value and/or how you measure failure/success.

people who base their self-worth on being right about everything prevent themselves from learning from their mistakes.

The point is this: we all must give a f*ck 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.

Just as you choose what you care about, you’re (just as importantly) choosing what you don’t care about.

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.

A lot of this fear of failure comes from having chosen shitty values. For instance, if I measure myself by the standard “Make everyone I meet like me,” I will be anxious, because failure is 100 percent defined by the actions of others, not by my own actions. I am not in control; thus my self-worth is at the mercy of judgments by others.

Shitty values involve tangible external goals outside of our control. The pursuit of these goals causes great anxiety. And even if we manage to achieve them, they leave us feeling empty and lifeless, because once they’re achieved there are no more problems to solve. Better values, as we saw, are process-oriented. Something like “Express myself honestly to others,” a metric for the value “honesty,” is never completely finished; it’s a problem that must continuously be reengaged.

Choosing the right values is crucial.

Freedom grants the opportunity for greater meaning, but by itself there is nothing necessarily meaningful about it. Ultimately, the only way to achieve meaning and a sense of importance in one’s life is through a rejection of alternatives, a narrowing of freedom, a choice of commitment to one place, one belief, or (gulp) one person.

Freedom isn’t a value on its own … it’s by commitment that you ultimately attain freedom. (See, I told you it was paradoxical!)

Taking action

When you choose a new value, you are choosing to introduce a new form of pain into your life. Relish it. Savor it. Welcome it with open arms. Then act despite it. I won’t lie: this is going to feel impossibly hard at first. But you can start simple. You’re going to feel as though you don’t know what to do. But we’ve discussed this: you don’t know anything. Even when you think you do, you really don’t know what the f*ck you’re doing. So really, what is there to lose?

Don’t just sit there. Do something. The answers will follow.

Action isn’t just the effect of motivation; it’s also the cause of it.

Action → Inspiration → Motivation

On responsibility

There is a simple realization from which all personal improvement and growth emerges. This is the realization that we, individually, are responsible for everything in our lives, no matter the external circumstances. 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.

Fault is past tense. Responsibility is present tense. Fault results from choices that have already been made. Responsibility results from the choices you’re currently making, every second of every day.

Our actions are the experiments; the resulting emotions and thought patterns are our data.

At some point, most of us reach a place where we’re afraid to fail, where we instinctively avoid failure and stick only to what is placed in front of us or only what we’re already good at. This confines us and stifles us.

This reverberates with me. I think the best way to learn is to lose the “expert ego” and start afresh. Be willing to fail, so that you can learn.

If someone is better than you at something, then it’s likely because she has failed at it more than you have. If someone is worse than you, it’s likely because he hasn’t been through all of the painful learning experiences you have.

On relationships

I really don’t see how this bit fits into the rest of the book, but it’s a welcome addition. Great advice here:

In general, entitled people fall into one of two traps in their relationships. Either they expect other people to take responsibility for their problems: “I wanted a nice relaxing weekend at home. You should have known that and canceled your plans.” Or they take on too much responsibility for other people’s problems: “She just lost her job again, but it’s probably my fault because I wasn’t as supportive of her as I could have been. I’m going to help her rewrite her résumé tomorrow.”

The setting of proper boundaries doesn’t mean you can’t help or support your partner or be helped and supported yourself. You both should support each other. But only because you choose to support and be supported. Not because you feel obligated or entitled.

These are the yin and yang of any toxic relationship: the victim and the saver, the person who starts fires because it makes her feel important and the person who puts out fires because it makes him feel important.

If the saver really wanted to save the victim, the saver would say, “Look, you’re blaming others for your own problems; deal with this yourself.” And in a sick way, that would actually be a demonstration of love: helping someone solve their own problems.

It can be difficult for people to recognize the difference between doing something out of obligation and doing it voluntarily. So here’s a litmus test: ask yourself, “If I refused, how would the relationship change?” Similarly, ask, “If my partner refused something I wanted, how would the relationship change?”

Great advice, right?

For a relationship to be healthy, both people must be willing and able to both say no and hear no

Trust is the most important ingredient in any relationship, for the simple reason that without trust, the relationship doesn’t actually mean anything.

When trust is destroyed, it can be rebuilt only if the following two steps happen: 1) the trust-breaker admits the true values that caused the breach and owns up to them, and 2) the trust-breaker builds a solid track record of improved behavior over time. Without the first step, there should be no attempt at reconciliation in the first place.

Altogether now

This, in a nutshell, is what “self-improvement” is really about: prioritizing better values, choosing better things to give a f*ck about. Because when you give better f*cks, you get better problems. And when you get better problems, you get a better life.