Mark Manson’s Foul-Mouthed Guide to Living Well

On “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck”

(In order to keep this review PG, I swapped Manson’s preferred profanity with the substitute used in a certain military sci-fi TV series of the early 2000s.)

“Don’t try.”

This is how Mark Manson opens his book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. It’s the title of the first chapter, and based on that (and the book’s title) you might think he’s advocating indifference, giving up, not caring about anything because the world is screwed up anyway — a self-help book for nihilists.

But one of the strengths of Manson’s book is its ability to surprise you. At least in the first few pages, it does seem like an argument for living recklessly and not caring about the consequences because we’re all doomed anyway, written with an abrasive tone and sprinkled with profanity and crass metaphors (at one point, he compares the pursuit of happiness to LSD-induced hallucinations).

The chapter titles alone give a sense of what you’re in for: “Chapter 1: Don’t Try”; “Chapter 2: Happiness is a Problem”; “Chapter 4: The Value of Suffering”; and the closing “Chapter 9: . . . And Then You Die.” Again, it sounds bleak, but give Manson a chance to make his case, because it’s pretty convincing, often inspiring, and—in an age where social media and the fire hose of information we receive on a daily basis seems to demand we give a frak about everything—it’s also rather freeing.

The Problem of (Avoiding) Pain

“Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience,” Manson says early on. This is part of his larger point that a truly fulfilling life is found not by avoiding pain or problems (impossible), but by reordering our priorities, determining what actually matters to us, and accepting the inevitable pain and problems that come with pursuing anything worthwhile. In his words:

The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering. The avoidance of struggle is a struggle. The denial of failure is a failure. Hiding what is shameful is itself a form of shame.

Too often, Manson argues, we spend our time — and our fraks — in pursuit of the wrong things: happiness, ease, comfort, success (whatever that means), money, etc. Our fraks are valuable and limited, so it’s not about not giving a frak about anything. It’s about giving a frak about the right things — the things that mean something to us, the things we are willing to suffer for — and letting go of the rest.

Manson’s book is immediately applicable to all sorts of life situations. Is disciplining your kids more important than making sure they always have nice feelings? Don’t give a frak about always ensuring nice feelings! Is being open and honest with your significant other more important than never fighting? Don’t give a frak about fighting! Is finding a way to share your creative expression with others more important than avoiding criticism and failure? Is starting your own business in pursuit of a passion more important than avoiding the inevitable stress and setbacks that come with it? You get the idea.

As Manson reiterates again and again, it’s not about avoiding problems; it’s about having better problems. I underlined a lot of things while reading this book, but this is one of the passages that sticks with me the most:

The person you marry is the person you fight with. The house you buy is the house you repair. The dream job you take is the job you stress over. Everything comes with an inherent sacrifice — whatever makes us feel good will also inevitably make us feel bad. What we gain is also what we lose.

Manson provides approachable and pragmatic guidelines for analyzing the sources of your negative feelings and underlying (perhaps subconscious) values that lead to them. The Subtle Art will also help you reorient those values, if you need to.

Don’t Trust Yourself

Many of Manson’s examples, both the hypothetical and those from his own life or research, are extreme, but extreme is his style and preferred method for driving home his points.

In chapter 6, “You’re Wrong About Everything (But So Am I),” Manson refers to psychologist Roy Baumeister, who conducted research in the 1990s examining the nature of evil. In what I assume is his summary of Baumeister’s work (but could be his own conclusions), Manson says,

For individuals to feel justified in doing horrible things to other people, they must feel an unwavering certainty in their own righteousness, in their own beliefs and deservedness. … Evil people never believe that they are evil; rather, they believe that everyone else is evil.

Such examples feel jarring upon first reading, but take them with a grain of salt and allow Manson to distill it down to a format applicable to an average person’s daily life, which he does consistently and convincingly. (The tales from his own life are brutally honest, so you know he writes from a place of overcoming his own challenges: he recounts getting arrested for having marijuana at school, his parents’ divorce, and the years of therapy he underwent as a young adult.)

In that same chapter, for example, he unspools the thesis that “certainty is the enemy of growth.” If we are too comfortable in our beliefs, primarily in our beliefs about ourselves (our abilities, how others perceive us, our strengths and weaknesses) we’ll stagnate. Whether you think you’re right about basically everything, or you think you’re a complete loser with no potential, or you feel like a secret genius and a victim of the cruel world that just can’t see your brilliance, such certainty prevents meaningful growth.

Manson points out that all such beliefs boil down to narcissism, because they rely on the notion that you are special (in your superiority, your struggles, or your martyrdom). If certainty is the enemy of growth, uncertainty on a foundation of humility spurs progress. Manson rejects popular self-help mantras like “trust yourself” and “go with your gut” in favor of ongoing self-interrogation that leads to greater clarity.

Style and Tone

While his shock-value crudeness can be distracting (and can feel at times somewhat gimmicky), I must credit Manson for having a clear and consistent tone (perhaps it’s more of a character) in his writing, one that does fit into his tough-love approach to self-improvement.

I had a few laugh-out-loud moments: “Self-awareness is like an onion. There are multiple layers to it, and the more you peel them back, the more likely you’re going to start crying at inappropriate times.” Still, it’s when Manson eases off the vulgarity and grounds his arguments in more relatable examples that his message feels strongest and most clarified.

At one point he uses dropping out of college to start a band or making a major career shift as examples of how to not give a frak, but then he switches to the much more approachable examples of giving fewer fraks about a random stranger who was rude or a favorite TV show getting canceled.

All in all, The Subtle Art is a surprisingly refreshing and engaging book, an easy read, and one I suspect I’ll revisit from time to time in my own ongoing journey of determining what I want to give a frak about.

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