martin brennan

The Writing of Martin Brennan

The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck by Mark Manson

Self-improvement can be achieved, but not with a quick fix. It's a long, arduous journey of personal and spiritual discovery.

— Lisa Simpson

I MUST admit, I don’t normally go in for self-help books. I find the obsession over self-help celebrities somewhat unnatural. There is nothing unhealthy about the goal of improving oneself at all, just when people continue to latch on to other people selling their ideas and say “If I only I do what this guy says, my life will be great and all my problems will be solved!”

But it doesn’t work this way. Self-improvement, as Lisa Simpson says, is a long and arduous journey that never actually ends. There is no perfect person, no matter how much the media pushes this ideal on us. Improvement requires self-evaluation and self-criticism, and a fair amount of self-discipline. Humans are generally pretty awful at these things, but the great thing about us and our brains is that we can think about and achieve these things. The wonders of metacognition!

That being said, I’d seen or heard a few people going on about how great this book was. It seems to be almost ubiquitous at the moment. So when I saw it at my local library I decided to give something different a try. When I first started reading I thought the constant tirade of “fucks” that Manson uses would grow tiresome. This was not the case. He just uses this device as an initial shock, to get you thinking about the ideas presented in the book.

Now, this book covers a lot of ground, so I am going to break this up into sections with relevant quotes and some of my own commentary. Overall I found Manson’s writing to be extremely compelling and his ideas well-presented and interesting. I’ve already found his thinking influencing my own thoughts and values for the better.

Suffering

What determines your success isn’t “What do you want to enjoy?” The relevant question is “What do you want to sustain?” The path to happiness is full of shitheaps and shame.

You have to choose something. You can’t have a pain-free life. It can’t all be roses and unicorns all of the time. Pleasure is the easy question. And pretty much all of us have a similar answer.

The more interesting question is the pain. What is the pain that you want to sustain? That is the hard question that matters, the question that will actually get you somewhere. It’s the question that can change a perspective, a life. It’s what makes me, me, and you, you. It’s what defines us and separates us and ultimately brings us together.

Everyone likes pleasurable things, but often to get better at something, be it writing, playing an instrument, your career, or your relationship, there is going to be a fair amount of pain involved. We choose what we suffer for. No one picks up a guitar one day and becomes Jimi Hendrix the next. There are a lot of false starts, and hundreds of hours of practice, and plenty of self-doubt and procrastination. And sometimes all that suffering can be for naught. But the important thing is that we can choose. Manson gives the same example, of having a dream of someday being a rockstar. But he wasn’t willing to suffer for it.

I was in love with the result—the image of me on stage, people cheering, me rocking out, pouring my heart into what I was playing—but I wasn’t in love with the process. And because of that, I failed. And because of that, I failed at it. Repeatedly. Hell, I didn’t even try hard enough to fail at it. I hardly tried at all. The daily drudgery of practicing, the logistics of finding a group and rehearsing, the pain of finding gigs and actually getting people to show up and give a shit, the broken strings, the blown tube amp, hauling forty pounds of gear to and from rehearsals with no car. It’s a mountain of a dream and a mile-high climb to the top. And what it took me a long time to discover is that I didn’t like to climb much. I just liked to imagine the summit.

I’ve felt this before with my writing. Everyone likes to imagine themselves like Stephen King—wildly popular with hundreds of millions of dollars—or someone like F. Scott Fitzgerald, critically acclaimed for a master work of literature. Hemingway, for example, said he rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms “39 times before I was satisfied”. I can’t imagine that would’ve been fun. And editing too, that takes a lot of work that is fairly monotonous. The point is, there is a lot of hard work poured into success. No one is born the best at anything. Blood, sweat, and tears are the currencies of success, and there are only so many things you can bleed for before you die. Choose wisely.

Suffering is inevitable, if our problems in life are inevitable, then the question we should be asking is not “How do I stop suffering?” but “Why am I suffering—for what purpose?”

Measuring Self-Worth

Manson relates a story about Dave Mustaine, the lead guitarist and founder of heavy metal band Megadeth, and how he was kicked out of his first band. Megadeth has been extremely successful, selling over 25 million albums. Unfortunately the band Mustaine was kicked out of is Metallica who have sold over 100 million albums. In the early 2000’s Mustaine said in an interview that he felt inadequate because of Metallica’s success even though he was successful in his own right.

We intrinsically measure ourselves against others and vie for status. The question is not weather we evaluate ourselves against others; rather the question is by what standard do we measure ourselves?

Mustaine chose to base his self worth on his success versus that of Metallica’s, whether consciously or not. And we all make similar decisions on how we base our self worth. This can often be disastrous, as we find ways of measure our worth in ways impossible to achieve, which often leads us into depressive moods or destructive behavior. Think of the times you’ve looked at someone on social media, who is immensely successful, rich, and popular, and how that can make you feel bad depending on how you measure your self worth. Or a great writer or director or artist, you may think, how can I ever be as good as them? What is not shown in these situations is the struggle behind the success, as mentioned above.

Material Success. Many people measure their self-worth on how much money they make or what kind of car they drive or whether their front lawn is greener and prettier than their next-door neighbor’s.

This measure of self-worth is like a never-ending hamster wheel. You will never have enough if you think this way. As Manson says, this is especially prevalent in the middle-class in developed countries. After a certain point more money and more things does not make your life any better, and the constant drive for more can often make your life actively worse. As I get older this is easier to see but still hard to avoid. Many young people fall into this trap as well, hence the booming credit industries and services like Zipmoney and Afterpay. Why pay now when you can get it now on credit and feel happy, then feel bad later instead? You are not likely to remember the material things you bought when you are older, rather the experiences you lived through.

Always Being Right. Our brains are inefficient machines. We consistently make poor assumptions, misjudge probabilities, misremember facts, give into cognitive biases, and make decisions based on our emotional whims. As humans we’re wrong pretty much constantly[…]The fact is, people who base their self-worth on being right about everything prevent themselves from learning from their mistakes[…]They close themselves off to new and important information.

It’s far more helpful to assume you’re ignorant and don’t know a whole lot.

People are so sure of themselves most of the time. To admit otherwise would be a form of self-defeat and an admission of being wrong. But, as Manson says, sometimes being wrong is the only way we can grow as people. This covers all aspects of life, from your personal relationships, to your career or craft, to religion and politics. I’m sure you can remember some dumb shit opinion or fact you knew was true when you were younger, only to be proved wrong over time by painful experience or an emotional or knowledgeable smack-down by someone else. Chances are in a few months you’ll look back on something you are right about right now and think “Man, I sure was wrong about that thing!”.

Sometimes you being wrong can hurt others, and when you find out that you are wrong it’s best to apologize for being wrong. That’s personal growth. I’m a programmer so my whole career is based on being wrong or ignorant of things literally 90% of the time. Every new project or feature or bug fix is an opportunity to prove myself wrong and learn something new. If I just assumed I was always right, I would never move forward in my career, and then I would not be in the place I am today. Do not value being right all the time, it only leads to pain and stunts your growth like smoking.

Staying Positive. There are those who measure their lives by the ability to be positive by, well, pretty much everything![…]While there is something to be said for “staying on the sunny side of life,” the truth is, sometimes life sucks, and the healthiest thing you can do is admit it.

It’s simple really; things go wrong, people upset us, accidents happen. These things make us feel like shit. And that’s fine. Negative emotions are a necessary component of emotional health. To deny that negativity is to perpetuate problems rather than solve them.

If you feel that you can only feel good about yourself by staying positive all the time, those negative emotions will bubble and fester under the surface. Until one day they emerge and hit like a truck, all seventy or eighty tons of it. If you value staying positive in the face of absolutely everything bad that happens to you, it’s possible you end up snapping and going postal one day because a barista gets your name wrong at a coffee place. Not that you should take the same regular occurrence badly every time it happens. Everyone’s got to be sad, or angry, or pessimistic sometimes. It’s all part of the human experience.

Outrage

“Victimhood chic” is in style on both the right and the left, among the rich and poor.[…]

Right now, anyone who is offended about anything—whether it’s the fact that a book about racism was assigned in a university class, or that Christmas trees were banned at the local mall, or the fact that taxes were raised half a percent on investment funds—feels as though they’ve been oppressed in some way and therefore deserve to be outraged and to have a certain amount of attention.

The current media environment both encourages and perpetuates these reactions because, after all, it’s good for business.

Manson is 100% correct here. This is incredibly easy to observe. The media is rife with emotionally manipulative stories and manufactured outrage. This is especially prevalent online, where the drive for clicks and advertising dollars is so high. The news outlets don’t need to necessarily agree with or believe in the trash that is written in their opinion pieces. Outrage one side of society and you’ll get the other to agree with you, that ends up with social media sharing, more outrage, and more clicks, which ultimately means more money.

I’ll never forget the lessons learned from one of my high school English teachers, Mr. Reeves. He was a no-bullshit kinda guy, and our term on media studies was spent ripping apart bias in media and tabloid news programs like A Current Affair. We learned that whoever controls the news is a very powerful person, as they control public opinion. People like Rupert Murdoch, or more recently Jeff Bezos with the Washington Post or Laurene Powell with The Atlantic. Rich and powerful people like these use the media to drive adoption of their own agendas and in many cases cause division among the population. See the most recent U.S. election for a great example.

Long story short, be mindful of this the next time you start feeling outraged by some news story or Facebook post. That’s the point of its posting, the outrage is by design. Save your fucks for something more important.

People get addicted to feeling offended all the time because it gives them a high; being self-righteous and morally superior feels good.

Being Wrong

Throughout my life, I’ve been flat-out wrong about myself, others, society, culture, the world, the universe, everything.

And I hope that will continue to be the case for the rest of my life.

I touched on this earlier. I cannot stress this enough. You need to be able to recognize when you are wrong about something, and try and become less wrong about it. Being afraid to change and admit you are wrong, or that the new of doing something may be right or better than your old way, is destructive for your personal growth.

I’m sure you’ve experienced this in your career, with your family, or in your relationships. How frustrating it is to see when someone is too stubborn to admit when they are wrong—when they are actually wrong, not just when you think they are wrong. How much easier things would be if the person would just admit they are wrong so they could learn from it, and so everyone can move forward.

This is not to say you are wrong about absolutely everything. Your resolve should be strengthened when you are right about something with a degree of certainty or authority. Keep growing. Know when you are wrong, and identify areas in which you can learn and grow.

Growth is an endlessly iterative process. When we learn something new we don’t go from “wrong” to “right.” Rather, we go from wrong to slightly less wrong.

Meaningful Goals

If your metric for the value “success by worldly standards” is “Buy a house and a nice car,” and you spend twenty years working your ass off to achieve it, once it’s achieved the metric has nothing left to give you.

[…]it’s growth that generates happiness, not a long list of arbitrary accomplishments.

A lot of self-help material pushes you to be goal-driven, same with diets. Lose 5 kilograms or write my book or get a promotion are fine short term goals, but you mustn’t lose sight of overarching growth-based goals.

For example, losing 5 kilograms is great, but the overarching goal should be to “live a healthy and active lifestyle” and the short-term goals will fulfill themselves easier, and you will be able to more readily set another one based on the overarching goals and life values.

In my own life, I write down yearly goals at the start of each year (2015, 2016, 2017) which are all heading toward a few major goals and life values:

  1. Be the best husband and father I can be
  2. Live a healthy and active lifestyle
  3. Hone my skills and develop professionally in my career as a software engineer
  4. Write prolifically and honestly, improving as much as I can, so that I can be read, and people can feel something from what I have written

When your goals are based on fleeting material success, or easily attained and forgotten things just to say “I am meeting my goals!” they are ultimately meaningless. As soon as you meet them, you will be looking for more. And idle hands are the devil’s playthings.

I often find myself losing motivation with some of my longer term goals if I do not have short term goals along the way. For example, with writing I was writing 500 words every other day when the Digital Writer’s Festival Microfiction Challenge was on, because I had metrics that I had to meet to further my overarching goal. But with that over I have to revert to larger short term goals, like finish this blog post, or finish my current short story (I will get to it I swear!).

The point is those major goals are there, so when I set a goal like “get my first book published” it’s just a piece of the puzzle, not the whole thing at once.

Picasso remained prolific his entire life. He lived into his nineties and continued to produce art up until his final years. Had his metric been “Become famous” or “Make a buttload of money in the art world” or “Paint one thousand pictures,” he would have stagnated at some point along the way.[…]

His underlying value was simple and humble. And it was endless. It was the value “honest expression.”

Relationships

People can’t solve your problems for you. And they shouldn’t try, because that won’t make you happy. You can’t solve other people’s problems for them either, because that likewise won’t make them happy.[…] a healthy relationship is when two people solve their own problems in order to feel good about each other.

If you are living an unhealthy lifestyle, your partner cannot solve that problem for you. They can live as an example, and eventually you might come around and solve your own problem, and stop smoking/drinking/eating KFC and live a healthy life too. If you are stressed at work, your partner cannot solve that problem for you. They can be there for you after work, and provide a loving home environment, but maybe it’s time to move on to a different workplace.

If you are trying to solve your partner’s problems and make them happy all the time, Manson says, then your only value becomes making your partner happy. Likewise if you expect your partner to save you all the time, your only value becomes your partner making you happy. This is not healthy. You are two separate and distinct individuals still, and you must solve your own problems in the end. Otherwise, if the relationship ends, where will you end up then?

People with strong boundaries: - Are not afraid of a temper tantrum, an argument, or getting hurt. - Understand that it’s unreasonable to expect two people to accommodate each other 100 percent and fulfill every need the other has. - Understand that they may hurt people’s feelings sometimes, but ultimately can’t determine how other people feel. - Understand that a health relationship is not about controlling one another’s emotions, but rather about each partner supporting the other in their individual growth and in solving problems.

It’s so important to have strong boundaries in a relationship, that’s how you build mutual trust and respect. The major thing here though is the support in individual growth and in solving problems. My partner supports me all the time to grow, and I her. It is invaluable to have someone cheering you along as you move toward your overarching life goals. My partner supports me in my writing, career, and inspires me to live healthily through exercise and our vegan lifestyle. Likewise I support her with her goals, and we both understand that while we cannot fulfill goals for each other, we can help each other along the way.

And sometimes you have a shitty day, or something terrible happens, and in those times your partner’s support is what matters most. Sometimes you disagree with each other, but you will get over those disagreements if you have strong boundaries and mutual trust and respect. Two people cannot agree all the time on everything, but there will be a core of values that you both hold dear. After all, that’s what brought you together in the beginning!

It’s not about giving a fuck about everything your partner gives a fuck about; it’s about giving a fuck about your partner regardless of the fucks he or she gives. That’s unconditional love, baby.

I’ll wrap this extremely long post up with the last quote that resonated with me from Manson, also about relationships. He talks about being honest with his wife as a basis of building trust, and that goes both ways. Your partner can be honest with you too. After all if you can’t be honest with each other and have to censor yourself around your partner, why even bother being in a relationship? Manson says this about his wife:

She calls me out on my bullshit too, of course, which is one of the most important traits she offers me as a partner. Sure, my ego gets bruised sometimes, and I bitch and complain and try to argue, but a few hours later I come sulking back and admit she was right. And holy crap she makes me a better person, even though I hate hearing it at the time.

We don’t like hearing about our flaws or our bad habits, especially ones that are self inflicted. Our first reaction is to get defensive and fight back on it. But at the end of the day, our partners are only trying to help us. Because they love us and want us to be the best people we can be. And that is what this book is about, being the best person you can be. Even if you don’t usually read self-help like me, please check this book out, it will give you some things to think about, and might change your life for the better!

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