Imagine Mark Manson holding up double middle fingers to the self-help industry, and you have a good idea what you’re in for with The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. From its profane title to its conversational tone, Manson’s book has been making waves since it was first published in 2016. The Subtle Art is a #1 New York Times bestseller, with over 10 million copies sold worldwide, and it has been or is being translated into 25 languages. Author Steve Kamb said, “This book hits you like a much-needed slap in the face.” How can you say no to that?
Read on for five key insights from The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life. To listen to the audio version of this Book Bite, download the Next Big Idea App today.
1. Choose wisely what you care about.
You might hear the title of this book and think, okay, so the goal is to not care, right? Wrong. It’s not that we shouldn’t care—that would be impossible. Instead, Manson is arguing that every human being has a limited number of fucks to give. And it just so happens that most of us are doling them out the way gambling addicts dole out dollar bills at the horse track. In other words, we’re doing a terrible job.
Manson has criteria for the things that are worth giving a fuck about: they have to be true, immediate, and important. Knowing which things are true, immediate, and important, though, requires knowing your values. You have to know what you care about—what’s worth doing with your one, finite life.
Here’s a thought experiment to illustrate the point. Would you rather have your obituary read, “She cared about her boss liking her” or “She cared about honest communication in her marriage”? Would you prefer, “He cared a lot about his male pattern baldness” or “He cared about the happiness of his children”? Sure, those might seem easy to answer, but every day we’re making choices that would suggest we’re taking the wrong path through life.
This brings us to another one of Manson’s points. It’s easy to feel like you’re just going about your day, not making choices, coasting on autopilot. From the outfit you put on to how you say goodbye to your spouse before heading to work, your actions might feel like just the way you are. But they’re choices. In fact, once you realize how many choices you make on a daily basis, you might be terrified. That’s good—it means you’re realizing just how much power you exert over your own life.
Imagine your fucks are M&Ms in a big crystal bowl, the kind your grandma used to keep on the coffee table. You are in control of that bowl. You get to hand out the M&Ms, each and every one. So choose them wisely.
“Every human being has a limited number of fucks to give.”
2. Stop worshipping at the altar of success.
From a young age, we’re taught to believe that failure is bad, and success is good. And we take that idea everywhere, from our jobs to our marriages to getting our kids accepted into the best preschools. The problem with that idea is that it instills a fear of failure in us. But failure is inevitable; a person who succeeds 100 percent of the time in 100 percent of their endeavors does not exist. Yet most of us are running around trying to be that person, the person with the best job and the best marriage and the kid who goes to the best preschool. And when we fail, we feel terrible. It’s a zero-sum game.
There are two ways to shed the desire to succeed. The first is to stop fearing and hating failure. Manson argues that trying to avoid failure will only backfire. Instead, you should lean into it. After all, failure is necessary to get better at things. Progress requires practice, and practice doesn’t always go well. Every basketball legend has missed shots; every famous author has written cringe-worthy sentences; everyone fails. But instead of treating it like a transitory thing, a passing moment that helps us grow and learn, we treat failure like it means something about ourselves—that we suck, or we’re unworthy of love, or we’re going to die alone. Failure doesn’t mean any of those things. All it means is that you tried something, and it didn’t go the way you wanted it to.
The other way to kick success-worship to the curb is to stop comparing yourself to others. It’s an insidious behavior that you probably do all the time without even realizing it. Sometimes you consciously think, “Oh wow, my neighbor’s car is so much nicer than mine.” But usually, it’s much sneakier. You’ll walk to your old, beat-up car in the morning and catch a glimpse of your neighbor driving away in their expensive, newly washed BMW. As you drive to work, you’ll feel a little sad, a little down about your life, without being sure why. So, pay attention. Start catching yourself when you compare yourself to others. It’s a crappy metric to evaluate yourself with.
3. Take ownership of your life.
Anyone who’s ever wandered around an expensive store knows the phrase “you break it, you buy it.” It doesn’t matter if you pick up an $800 china plate and slam it into the ground like you’re spiking a volleyball, or if you brush past it and it accidentally tips over. You break it, you buy it. That’s the kind of straightforward, hard-bargaining philosophy that Manson applies to human life. If you find yourself with a broken thing, whether it’s a job, a relationship, or an $800 china plate, you’re now responsible for taking care of that broken thing. Yes, even if it wasn’t your fault.
This practice of assuming radical responsibility for every single thing that happens in your life is what Manson credits for turning around his self-esteem. In his younger days, his girlfriend cheated on him and left him with a broken heart. For months, he blamed her for not only ending the relationship, but for the misery he felt on a daily basis.
“He was the only person who could make his life better. And while that was a bitter pill to swallow, it helped him get on the right track.”
It took a while, but eventually Manson realized that his ex-girlfriend was never going to come back, wipe away his tears, and heal his emotional trauma. He was the only person who could make his life better. And while that was a bitter pill to swallow, it helped him get on the right track. Manson also gives the example of the philosopher William James. Growing up, he lived in the shadow of his successful family, including his brother—the famous novelist Henry James. By the time he was 30, William had tried and failed at several careers, and had suffered from recurring chronic illness. Things got so bad that he was on the verge of suicide when he decided to conduct a social experiment on his own life. He vowed to spend one year taking full responsibility for anything that happened to him. Period. Even if it seemed wildly unrelated to his own agency, he would do whatever he could to change his circumstances. Spoiler alert: the year was a success. James didn’t just turn his life around—he became the founder of modern psychology, and one of the most important American philosophers of his time. He credits his decision to treat life as a series of choices, not a series of events that happened to him, as the deciding factor in his success.
So, chin up. Your life might be a mess, but it’s still yours.
4. Embrace your problems.
Most of us believe that happiness comes from avoiding problems. Wrong. Happiness, Manson says, comes from solving problems—which, in turn, requires having problems. So by trying to avoid problems, you’re actually doing yourself a disservice. Problems are where it all begins.
The good news is that you always have had problems, and you always will have problems. Addressing them and working through them will only lead to better problems. Avoiding them and blaming others will keep you mired in your small, petty problems. Indeed, a victim mentality and denial are the two most common coping mechanisms we use to not solve our problems. And while they keep us from feeling bad in the moment, they only make us feel worse in the long run.
Manson suggests reframing the negative feelings you have around problems. In other words, stop seeing your bad feelings as a sign that you failed, and start hearing them as a wake-up call. They’re not telling you to curl up in a corner and die; they’re telling you to get up and do something. And the first thing you should do is acknowledge that you have a problem. The second thing you should do is try to solve it. And if you fail, well, guess what? That’s just another call to action, one telling you to try something different.
“Stop seeing your bad feelings as a sign that you failed, and start hearing them as a wake-up call. They’re not telling you to curl up in a corner and die; they’re telling you to get up and do something.”
Failure and problems are two of Manson’s favorite things, not because he’s a masochist, but because he recognizes their life-altering potential. Sure, happiness and fulfillment are great, and if you end up with those feelings, good for you. But they don’t teach you a whole lot. The happiest years of your life are well and good, and will probably be immortalized on your Instagram forever. But it’s the periods of struggle and strife that teach us the most. They push us to grow, help us realize our capabilities, and empower us to become better people.
5. Toss out your bad values.
If you’re into rock music, you may have heard of Dave Mustaine. He’s the co-founder, songwriter, singer, and guitarist behind the insanely popular heavy metal band Megadeth. Before his rise to fame, stardom, and big hair, though, Mustaine went through a terrible ordeal. In 1983, he was kicked out of Metallica, that other insanely popular heavy metal band. Up until then, he’d been their lead guitarist, and when they kicked him to the curb, they didn’t do it nicely. Despite his amazing achievements in the world of metal, he admitted in a 2003 interview that he still feels like a failure for getting kicked out of Metallica.
Mustaine is a cautionary tale for how the same value systems that give our lives meaning can make our lives feel meaningless. In his case, being in Metallica made his life meaningful. But getting kicked out of Metallica—no matter what successes came later—meant his life was meaningless. Because Mustaine couldn’t change his values, he stayed stuck in the misery of believing he’d ruined his life.
Bad values lead to bad problems, while good values lead to good problems—the meaningful kind that makes you happy when you work through them. For example, Manson defines pleasure as a bad value. There’s the whole short-lived gratification of it, and the way it turns you into one of those crack-addled rats that keep pressing the drug lever. Other bad values are material success, always being right, and staying positive. That last one might come as a surprise, given how deeply optimism, happiness, and positivity are forced on us by the dominant culture. But always staying positive keeps people from acknowledging their problems, embracing their failures, and enjoying their struggles. It’s the equivalent of shoving your fingers in your ears and singing “LA LA LA, I CAN’T HEAR YOU” to all the hard parts of life.
Pleasure, success, and positivity should be seen as side effects of having good values, but instead we treat them like they are the good values. In truth, they’re terrible values. Throwing them away is a meaningful step toward better values—such as kindness, curiosity, and creativity. Focusing on values like those, Manson says, will lead you to better problems, and a better life.
To listen to the audio version of this Book Bite and many more, download the Next Big Idea App today: