The Subtle Art

A few weeks ago a friend loaned me The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck (2016), by Mark Manson. I just finished it, and — while I’m not a big fan of self-help books — I give this one an Ah! rating. Manson’s approach, contrary to our modern norm, is not about finding happiness, but about choosing the pain worth seeking (and letting the happiness come through our fulfillment).

The subtle part is that not giving a f*ck doesn’t mean one stops caring. The subtle part is learning to be selective about what matters to us.

The counterintuitive part is that chasing happiness leads to misery.

Now that we’re below the fold, I won’t be using asterisks in the venerable word “fuck” — Manson certainly doesn’t once past the title. (In fact, it might be amusing to count the “fucks” per page. One characteristic of the book is the language and bluntness. I found that ever so slightly off-putting and very refreshing.)

One reason I don’t usually find value in self-help books is, ironically, expressed in the title of another self-help-ish book: All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten (1989), by Robert Fulghum.

While I don’t think it’s literally true, there is a great deal of truth to it. Life teaches us lessons throughout our lives (if we but listen and learn), but I’ve always felt the foundation is poured early.

As Fulghum writes:

Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. […] Live a balanced life — learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some. […] Be aware of wonder. […] Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup — they all die. So do we.

What would the world be like if we all built on that foundation?

As it turns out, I found quite a few bits in Manson’s book worth talking about:

Unfortunately, I can only touch on some of them.

§ §

Manson starts with a crucial and true observation:

The desire for a more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience.

This is one of those deceptively simple truths that comes only with experience (it’s not really a kindergarten lesson).

We cannot chase happiness, for it will always elude, forever just out of reach, and this will make us miserable. This is especially true if we measure success by material things. (Can there ever be enough wealth, awards, or power? Is that demon ever satisfied? Have you ever noticed how, very often, people who seem to have little or nothing still find joy in life?)

As Manson points out, we have a limited number of fucks to give in life. (If one lives to be 80, one gets only 960 months on this Earth. Not even 1000.)

Our sanity, let alone our happiness, depends on choosing what to give a fuck about:

There is a subtle art to not giving a fuck. And though the concept may sound ridiculous and I may sound like an asshole, what I’m talking about here is essentially learning how to focus and prioritize your thoughts effectively — how to pick and choose what matters to you […] based on  finely honed personal values. This is incredibly difficult. It takes a lifetime of practice and discipline to achieve. And you will regularly fail. But it is perhaps the most worthy struggle one can undertake in one’s life. It is perhaps the only struggle in one’s life.

That’s almost the book right there: The lifetime struggle to find meaning and happiness in finding what truly matters.

§ §

If it were only that simple. As with many self-help books, there is an assumption of privilege (and a disregard for circumstance and luck).

Especially in the current climate where, as Jon Stewart put it recently, “America suddenly stopped and smelled the racism,” I had a strong sense of the privileged position from which Manson speaks. It was an undercurrent that buzzed at me throughout the book.

In fact, one reason I can only give the book an Ah! rating is the utter lack of awareness of poverty and racism. (Manson, world-traveler that he was, even mentions a trip to South Africa without mentioning the social realities even in passing.)

The facts of life for many are the daily struggle to survive among the surreal systemic prejudices of institutionalized racism, poverty, and misogyny. Many simply do not have choices that amount to much. This is bizarro world where just the color of your skin can get you killed.

To be blunt, many of the things people seek self-books about fall, in my mind, very squarely under the rubric of First World Wealthy White People Problems.

That said, I applaud one of Manson’s key messages: You’re not special! (So get over yourself and learn to play nice with others. That is a kindergarten lesson.)

§ §

Manson touches on a theme I’ve hammered on repeatedly here about feelings versus thinking, about over-identifying with one’s emotions and letting them control us.

As I’ve put it, “The head steers, but the heart pushes.” Our passions are the fuel, but there must be a thoughtful captain guiding the ship.

As Manson puts it:

You know who bases their entire lives on their emotions? Three-year-old kids. And dogs. You know what else three-year-olds and dogs do? Shit on the carpet.

As he goes on to point out, emotions don’t last. We get used to emotional satisfaction and need larger hits all the time. It’s what psychologists sometimes call the “hedonic treadmill” — that we’re always reaching for a higher high and finding it less satisfying each time.

§

In the chapter “The Value of Suffering” Manson relates the story of WWII Japanese soldier Hiroo Onoda, who in the last stages of the war was sent to an island in the Philippians with instructions to fight at all costs and never surrender.

The war ended less than a year later, in 1945, but Onoda and his men never got the message. They continued to fight guerilla warfare against what was now the civilian population of the island.

Attempts to drop leaflets were ignored as enemy lies. The locals began to fight back, and by 1969 Onoda was the last one left. But no one could find him.

In 1972, Norio Suzuki, a Japanese “hippie” and world-traveler, decided he would search for — and find — Onoda. Which he did (in four days), and Onoda was soon brought back to Japan where he became a celebrity.

He was utterly miserable. The Japan he knew, had fought for, was gone. He hated modern Japan and became little more than a side-show attraction railing about old values. In 1980 he left Japan for Brazil (where he died).

Suzuki died in the Himalayas searching for the abominable snowman.

The point is that both men lived most fully when they were most “miserable” living on bugs in the jungle or searching the high snows for a mythical creature. It fulfilled them.

More to the point, Onoda’s celebrity and comfort in Japan not only meant nothing, they invalidated everything he’d been fighting for.

§

The chapter “You are wrong about everything (But so am I)” made me think of how science works.

All our theories, to one degree or another, are provisional. They reflect our best understanding at the time. Many have fallen by the wayside as we’ve found better ones. (Lo, the Sun doe not circle the Earth!)

A good way to approach life is to realize our understanding of it is provisional. Put more bluntly, we’re usually more wrong about life than right, but if we pay attention to reality, we can become a little bit better.

Just like science. The daily goal is to become a little bit less wrong.

One key is recognizing that we don’t really know which of our experiences are truly positive or negative until after the fact. (Another reason to stop seeking “positive” experiences.) Onoda may have hated eating bugs in the jungle — a classic “negative” experience — but it gave his life meaning. It fulfilled him.

§

Manson relates the tale of Dave Mustaine, a rock guitarist who was unceremoniously fired from the metal band he played with.

Embittered, Mustaine determined to show those guys the error of their ways. Long story short, he worked his ass off and formed the famous band Megadeth, which sold 25 million albums and toured the world many times. Mustaine became well-known as brilliant and influential.

Major success story, right? Not so fast. Mustaine was miserable.

The band he was kicked out of was Metallica, who sold 180 millions albums and is widely considered to be the best metal band ever.

Mustaine’s main goal in life was showing up his former band mates, and that he utterly failed to do. Instead of the happiness of an amazing career, he saw himself as a failure.

Manson contrasts that with drummer Pete Best, the original drummer for a little band with a weird name: The Beatles.

How crushing must that have been in retrospect?

But Best went on to have a happy life with a stable marriage and a loving family. He also pursued his musical career well into the 2000s. He lost the fame of being “Ringo” but he gained everything that really mattered.

Simply put, Mustaine valued the wrong things. Best didn’t.

§

Earlier in the book Manson tells the story of a king in (what is now) Nepal who decided his son would want for nothing. The boy was sheltered from the world and given the best of everything, his every whim granted.

The kid was kind of a prick. Nothing meant anything.

So he snuck out of the palace only to discover a world of sickness, poverty, and filth. But rather then return to empty luxury, the prince decided to embrace this world, for surely in starving and living in the dirt there would be meaning.

Years passed, and there was no meaning. The prince discovered what we all know: Suffering sucks!

Confused, he cleaned himself up and went to sit under a tree until he figured out what to do. According to legend, he sat there for 49 days and did come to some profound revelations.

Among them was this simple fact: Life is suffering. It is a fact of all lives.

Millions know that prince as The Buddha.

§ §

That is the true lesson: Life is suffering. For everyone.

Contentment, if not happiness, if not joy, comes from our choices to pursue that which fulfills us, even knowing the path is hard.

As the saying goes, happiness is a journey, not a destination. It’s a choice. We hold the keys to our own happiness.

We always have.

Stay struggling, my friends!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

9 responses to “The Subtle Art

  • Wyrd Smythe

    A few things didn’t make it into the post, but are worth mentioning:

    When Manson started talking about suffering, I immediately thought of that central point of Buddhism about “life is suffering” and, sure enough, Manson told the story of the spoiled prince in that chapter.

    What was funny is that his talk about choice had me thinking of the ancient Greek Stoics, who I’ve mentioned here several times. The basic philosophy of Stoicism is that the only choice life offers is how you choose to react to it.

    There is the key metaphor of a dog tied to a heavy ox-driven cart with a rope. The cart is going down the rode, no matter the dog’s opinion of it, and because of the rope, so is the dog. The choice is between kicking and screaming and futilely resisting… or accepting the dealt hand and walking gracefully with the cart.

    The dog is going down the street no matter what. The choice involves how much it’s willing to destroy itself or not. No one else cares. It’s all about grace in the moment.

    So I get through almost the entire book, and Manson doesn’t mention the Stoics… until nearly the end, although just in passing.

    Still, it was kinda funny. It was like, yeah, we’re seeing the same things here, dude!

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Another rich item:

    This is the basic root of all happiness. Whether you’re listening to Aristotle or the psychologists at Harvard or Jesus Christ or the goddamn Beatles, they all say that happiness comes from the same thing: caring about something greater than yourself, believing that you are a contributing component in some much larger entity, that your life is but a mere side process of some great unintelligible production.

    I’ve long said that the common ground of all religions is the idea of something greater, the idea that how you live your life matters for reasons beyond yourself. It’s not all about you.

    Or as Manson puts it: You’re not special.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    The final item worth mentioning:

    [Charles] Bukowski once wrote, “We’re all going to die, all of us. What a circus! That alone should make us love each other, but it doesn’t. We are terrorized and flattened by life’s trivialities; we are eaten up by nothing.

    My last post was about my camping trips up in the Canadian wilderness. One of the guys I used to camp with died in his 40s of brain cancer. Nicest guy in the world, missed by everyone.

    Life is short. Eat dessert first!

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    Sounds like an interesting book.

    I can’t say the Stoic or Buddhist view ever appealed to me much though. It seems like there’s a fatalistic aspect to them I have a primal reaction against.

    I lean Epicurean. Enjoy life’s simple pleasures. Do what satisfies you and minimizes your suffering. Recognize you may have to accept suffering in the short term to minimize your longer term suffering. Understanding when and where that trade off is should be based on the best information you can obtain (although you’ll never have perfect information). And don’t get worked up about other people’s prescription for how you should live.

    Interesting point about not pursuing happiness. In truth, I’m not even sure what that means. I can pursue specific goals, and those should be assessed for what real benefits they will bring, but “happiness” always seemed like too vague a concept to actually pursue.

    For me, a big realization is to reject false dichotomies. They force me to obsess about whether I’m “doing it right”. It seems easier and more productive to assume I’m doing it wrong, and then see how less wrong I can be.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “It seems like there’s a fatalistic aspect to [Stoicism and Buddhism] I have a primal reaction against.”

      I don’t know enough about Buddhism to say, but I see Stoicism as being about grace under fire. To me, it’s mostly about not being a dick when things don’t go our way.

      When I relate the Stoic metaphor about the dog and the cart, I usually add that the dog is, of course, free to try to chew through the rope to free itself. Being graceful about what one cannot change doesn’t mean one can’t work to alter what one can!

      “I lean Epicurean.”

      A better choice than pure hedonism, certainly, but still a tiny bit materialistic around the edges for my taste. I lean towards more abstract and spiritual approaches, but that’s just me.

      “Recognize you may have to accept suffering in the short term to minimize your longer term suffering.”

      Which is very much a part of Manson’s message, also. He points out, as examples, that people who spend lots of time at the gym are suffering by choice in order to accomplish something. So are people who work long hours at the office to be successful. In both cases, others might not find that suffering worth those rewards.

      It’s all about what one values and finds worth suffering for.

      “And don’t get worked up about other people’s prescription for how you should live.”

      Worked up, never, agreed! But willing to consider and take value from, perhaps sometimes. (At least for me, my view is a patchwork of bits and pieces I’ve found useful while discarding what I viewed as chaff. I doubt my “philosophy” even has a name other than “mine.” 🙂 )

      “In truth, I’m not even sure what that means.”

      I don’t understand it on a gut level, either. It’s often expressed along the lines of a material goal granting happiness (more money, more promotions, more awards, whatever). It’s a focus on the “winning” rather than the joy of the race.

      True happiness comes from being happy doing. The race can only have one winner, so if winning is all that makes one happy, then one will be often disappointed (no one wins every race). But if one just loves running, every race is a joy.

      Similarly, if one approaches work as only a means for “success” (however defined), one is likely to be unhappy most of the time and perhaps always if that success never comes or doesn’t satisfy (demanding greater success). But if one loves one’s work, every day has positive value.

      (I speak as someone who always loved he race, always loved doing the work and found great value in it, so I know full well the value of that approach to life.)

      “…but ‘happiness’ always seemed like too vague a concept to actually pursue.”

      Smart! Exactly so. The very idea that it’s some sort of destination is the error.

      “For me, a big realization is to reject false dichotomies.”

      Interesting. Such as? (I’d never looked at it like that.)

      “It seems easier and more productive to assume I’m doing it wrong, and then see how less wrong I can be.”

      Indeed! As I mentioned, Manson spends a whole chapter about exactly that.

      He points out that “smart” people — those who “get it right” a lot — usually got that way by accepting their own wrongness and working to correct it as much as possible.

      I see it as sanity, which I define as how well one’s mental model matches reality. The goal is self-correcting that hugely erroneous model every chance one gets.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Epicureanism is generally viewed as a form of hedonism, but it’s prudent hedonism. In other words, don’t just do what feels good right now, do what will maximize pleasure and minimize suffering over the foreseeable future. But yeah, it’s pretty much an anti-spiritual philosophy. It might lead one to do things that, from the outside, appear spiritual, but it’s the result of gaming things out rather than just assuming some externally imposed duty.

        On false dichotomies, where I work we do a lot of projects. When I was younger, I was preoccupied with the proper way to do a project. Of course, that was hopelessly naive. There is no one right way. But I encounter a lot of methodologies that heavily imply they’ve found the one proper way. Some are less wrong for particular projects than for others, but I find the ideological kool-aid they always want you to drink unproductive.

        Or consider writing. There is no one proper way to do it. There are better and worse ways. There are actually far more worse ways. The trick for me is to assume I’m doing it wrong, then feel good about figuring out ways of doing it less wrong, than feel bad about not achieving some proper way.

        It’s a subtle way of looking at things that helps me at least. And maybe that’s similar to Manson’s overall point.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        To the extent Epicureanism is about enjoying the pleasures of life, I’m very much on board with that. My love of craft beer, craft burgers, a good cigar, fine champagne, music to large degree, and even certain kinds of movies and books — it’s all about the pleasure, baby!

        It’s the extent Epicureanism focuses on the self and the material where it loses me a bit. But I agree it’s superior to mere hedonism. Morally, I might place Epicureanism with Utilitarianism with a dash of Consequentialism thrown in. (It certainly ain’t deontological! 😀 )

        “But I encounter a lot of methodologies that heavily imply they’ve found the one proper way.”

        Ah, yes, I see exactly what you mean, and I quite agree. I’ve encountered many methodologies over the years. They all have strengths and weaknesses, and sure as hell not one of them is the “right” way to approach design.

        I used to frequently cite Alistair Cockburn’s 1999 paper “Characterizing people as non-linear, first-order components in software development” to various management types who, unlike you, had no background in computing.

        Cockburn makes the point that “Almost any methodology can be made to work on some project” but also “Any methodology can manage to fail on some project.” Ultimately, it’s about the people, who, as the title says, are non-linear, first-order components in software development.

        As you say, not drinking the ideological kool-aid is important.

        Kind of goes back to what I said above about taking the useful bits and pieces.

        I worked with a programmer who’d been convinced by her professor that TDD was the way to go, and she followed that program slavishly. I tried it for a while, but I found myself spending as much (or more) time developing unit tests as I did writing code (which TDD pushes you towards).

        But I realized quickly that, as useful as a suite of tests was, it was too easy to spend too much time developing tests for every aspect. And I’m not as big on unit testing as I am system testing. I pound heavily as a user on any software I develop. I’ve seen too many problems come from system-level issues.

        My advice to coders is, whatever you’re developing, be sure to use it. (Some of the apps on my pad or phone… I have to wonder if the developer ever actually used it at all.)

        “Or consider writing. There is no one proper way to do it.”

        Indeed. I bet Shakespeare never took a writing class. 😀

        “And maybe that’s similar to Manson’s overall point.”

        In the sense that you found something that works successfully for you, absolutely!

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Interestingly, I got an Amazon credit from a book I bought this morning for “Great on Kindle” books. I noticed The Subtle Art was in that collection. As usual though, I didn’t find anything in the collection I was willing to buy, because even after the credit, they’re still a bit pricey. I might read The Subtle Art one day, but not soon, and if you’re willing to wait a year or two, those books are usually a lot cheaper.

        Epicureanism does focus on the self, but it usually acknowledges that the welfare of our friends and family affects us, so it’s an inclusive self. But classic Epicureanism prescribes an insularity I’m not entirely comfortable with, which is why I say “lean toward” rather than identifying as someone who drinks the full kool-aid.

        It’s kind of interesting how many rigid ideologists there are in IT: some on methodology, others on open source, or fiercely anti-open source, others on particular vendors.

        I’m with you on the benefit of using whatever you develop. Unfortunately, many of the apps we develop we can’t use directly. They’re often for students, faculty, or administrators, and unusable for anyone outside of the designated audience. We just have to take the feedback we get from them seriously and improve where we can.

        Definitely on finding what works for you. My list of pleasures has some things in common with yours, but, for example, beer has never really been on it. When I was younger, I felt like I should be more into beer and watching sports, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more comfortable with the idea that it’s okay if I don’t get pleasure in some of the things others do.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I would definitely wait for the book to be cheaper. I only read it because a friend loaned it to me, and I’ve touched on all its main points in the post. Reading the book just fills in a bunch of details and tells more stories. It might be an interesting read just for his blunt style, but I wouldn’t spend much on it.

        “But classic Epicureanism prescribes an insularity I’m not entirely comfortable with, which is why I say ‘lean toward'”

        Exactly. Take what works. Drinking the kool-aid is usually a mistake. (Sometimes more so than others! 😮 )

        “It’s kind of interesting how many rigid ideologists there are in IT:”

        The human capacity towards a “religion” is endless, that need to believe in answers. It’s the easy way out. Trying to navigate on first principles requires have well-developed first principles. The ability to take what works and leave what doesn’t is the same sort of thing.

        “When I was younger, I felt like I should be more into beer and watching sports,”

        I discovered craft beer fairly early in life. Beer brewing is ancient (some of the first recipes we know of are for beer-like beverages), which I found fascinating, and there’s the whole “liquid bread” aspect, but I never got into the kegger behaviors. Sports I didn’t really get into until I got hooked on baseball in 2010. (Was very stressed out at the time, and baseball was soothing and completely disconnected from the things that were stressing me out. The more I watched, the more I realized how subtle and rich the sport is.)

        Which is to say I know full well that youthful pressure to do all the youthful things. I got into alcohol in high school, drugs in college, in large part to fit in, to not be the geek freak. (Didn’t really work. I am a geek freak! 😀 ) But sports? Foreign language to me.

        I think it’s a sign of maturity and intelligence to pick your own path, find the things that speak to you. The hell with the rest of the world. Whadda they know, anyway?

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