Book Snippets: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck

Published: Jul 6, 2021
Updated: Aug 3, 2021

This book gets a lot of hate on the interwebs. I likely never would have read it, but it was given to me as a gift… So, why not? Funny enough I ended up liking parts of it.

The title is a bit over-the-top. The gist of the book is about rejecting the things that don’t matter, in favor of the things that do, in order to live a better life. Simple enough, but without all the new-agey and intellectual prose. Instead, swear words and stories are favored.

The Backwards Law #

Page 9.

… Because here’s the thing that’s wrong with all of the “How to Be Happy” sh*t that’s been shared eight million times on Facebook in the past few years – here’s what nobody realizes about all of this crap:

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.

This is a total mind f*ck. So I’ll give you a minute to unpretzel your brain and maybe read that again: Wanting positive experience is a negative experience; accepting negative experience is a positive experience. It’s what the philosopher Alan Watts used to refer to as “the backwards law” – the idea that the more you pursue feeling better all the time, the less satisfied you become, as pursuing something only reinforces the fact that you lack it in the first place.

What’s the Point of This Book? #

Page 20.

… I believe that today we’re facing a psychological epidemic, one in which people no longer realize it’s okay for things to suck sometimes. I know that sounds intellectually lazy on the surface, but I promise you, it’s a life/death sort of issue.

Because when we believe that it’s not okay for things to suck sometimes, then we unconsciously start blaming ourselves. We start to feel as though something is inherently wrong with us, which drives us to all sorts of overcompensation, like buying forty pairs of shoes or downing Xanax with a vodka chaser on a Tuesday night or shooting up a school bus full of kids.

This belief that it’s not okay to be inadequate sometimes is the source of the growing Feedback Loop from Hell that is coming to dominate our culture.

The idea of not giving a f*ck is a simple way of reorienting our expectations for life and choosing what is important and what is not. Developing this ability leads to something I like to think of as a kind of “practical enlightenment”.

No, not that airy-fairy, eternal bliss, end-of-all-suffering, bullsh*tty kind of enlightenment. On the contrary, I see practical enlightenment as becoming comfortable with the idea that some suffering is always inevitable – that no matter what you do, life is comprised of failures, loss, regrets, and even death. Because once you become comfortable with all the sh*t that life throws at you (and it will throw a lot of sh*t, trust me), you become invincible in a sort of low-level spiritual way. After all, the only way to overcome pain is to first learn how to bear it.

Hope for a Life Full of Good Problems #

Page 30.

… You may salivate at the thought of a problem-free life full of everlasting happiness and eternal compassion, but back here on earth the problems never cease. Seriously, problems don’t end. Disappointment Panda just dropped by. We had margaritas, and he told me all about it: problems never f*cking go away, he said – they just improve. Warren Buffett’s got money problems; the drunk hobo down at Kwik-E Mart’s got money problems. Buffett’s just got better money problems than the hobo. All of life is like this.

“Life is essentially an endless series of problems, Mark”, the panda told me. He sipped his drink and adjusted the little pink umbrella. “The solution to one problem is merely the creation of the next one”.

A moment passed, and then I wondered where the f*ck the talking panda came from. And while we’re at it, who made these margaritas?

“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.”

Emotions are Feedback #

Page 34.

… Emotions are part of the equation of our lives, but not the entire equation. Just because something feels good doesn’t mean it is good. Just because something feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad. Emotions are merely signposts, suggestions that our neurobiology gives us, not commandments. Therefore, we shouldn’t always trust our own emotions. In fact, I believe we should make a habit of questioning them.

You’re Average #

Page 43.

… Sometime in the 1960s, developing “high self-esteem” – having positive thoughts and feelings about oneself – became all the rage in psychology. Research found that people who thought highly about themselves generally performed better and causes fewer problems. Many researchers and policymakers at the time came to believe that raising a population’s self-esteem could lead to some tangible social benefits: lower crime, better academic records, greater employment, lower budget deficits. As a result, beginning in the next decade, the 1970s, self-esteem practices began to be taught to parents, emphasized by therapists, politicians, and teachers, and instituted into education policy. Grade inflation, for example, was implemented to make low-achieving kids feel better about their lack of achievement. Participation awards and bogus trophies were invented for any number of mundane and expected activities. Kids were given inane homework assignments, like writing down all the reasons why they thought they were special, of the five things they liked most about themselves. Pastors and ministers told their congregations that they were each uniquely special in God’s eyes, and were destined to excel and not be average. Business and motivation seminars cropped up chanting the same paradoxical mantra: every single one of us can be exceptional and massively successful.

But it’s a generation later and the data is in: we’re not all exceptional. In turns out that merely feeling good about yourself doesn’t really mean anything unless you have a good reason to feel good about yourself. It turns out that adversity and failure are actually useful and even necessary for developing strong-minded and successful adults. It turns out that teaching people to believe they’re exceptional and to feel good about themselves no matter what doesn’t lead to a population full of Bill Gateses and Martin Luther Kings. It leads to a population full of Jimmys.

Your Personal Problems are More Common Than You Think #

Page 56.

… The truth is that there’s no such thing as a personal problem. If you’ve got a problem, chances are millions of other people have had it in the past, have it now, and are going to have it in the future. Likely people you know too. That doesn’t minimize the problem or mean that it shouldn’t hurt. It doesn’t mean you aren’t legitimately a victim in some circumstance.

It just means that you’re not special.

Often it’s this realization – that you and your problems are actually not privileged in their severity or pain – that is the first and most important step toward solving them.

Eat Your Emotional Veggies #

Page 62.

… 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.

But once ingested, your body will wake up feeling more potent and more alive. After all, that constant pressure to be something amazing, to be the next big thing, will be lifted off your back. The stress and anxiety of always feeling in adequate and constantly needing to prove yourself will dissipate. And the knowledge and acceptance of your own mundane existence will actually free you to accomplish what you truly wish to accomplish, without judgment or lofty expectations.

You will have a growing appreciation for life’s basic experiences: the pleasures of simple friendship, creating something, helping a person in need, reading a good book, laughing with someone you care about.

Sounds boring, doesn’t it? that’s because these things are ordinary. But maybe they’re ordinary for a reason: because they are what actually matters.

The Gist of Self-Improvement #

Page 88.

… When we have poor values – that is, poor standards we set for ourselves and others – we are essentially giving f*cks about the things that don’t matter, things that in fact make our life worse. But when we choose better values, we are able to divert our f*cks to something better – toward things that matter, things that improve the state of our well-being and that generate happiness, pleasure, and success as side effects.

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.

Problem Perspective #

Page 91.

… 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.

The Origin Story of William James #

Page 91.

… William James had problems. Really bad problems.

Although born into a wealthy and prominent family, from birth James suffered life-threatening health issues; an eye problem that left him temporarily blinded as a child; a terrible stomach condition that caused excessive vomiting and forced him to adopt an obscure and highly sensitive diet; trouble with his hearing; back spasms so bad that for days at a time he often couldn’t sit or stand upright.

Due to his health problems, James spent most of his time at home. He didn’t have many friends, and he wasn’t particularly good at school. Instead, he passed the days painting. That was the only thing he liked and the only thing he felt particularly good at.

Unfortunately, nobody else thought he was good at it. When he grew to adulthood, nobody bought his work. And as the years dragged on, his father (a wealthy businessman) began ridiculing him for his laziness and his lack of talent.

Meanwhile, his younger brother, Henry James, went on to become a world-renowned novelist; his sister, Alice James, made a good living as a writer as well. William was the family oddball, the black sheep.

In a desperate moment to salvage the young man’s future, James’s father used his business connections to get him admitted into Harvard Medical School. It was his last chance, his father told him. If he screwed this up, there was no hope for him.

But James never felt at home or at peace at Harvard. Medicine never appealed to him. He spent the whole time feeling like a fake and a fraud. After all, if he couldn’t overcome his own problems, how could he ever hope to have the energy to help others with theirs? After touring a psychiatric facility one day, James mused in his diary that he felt he had more in common with the patients than with the doctors.

A few years went by and, again to his father’s disapproval, James dropped out of medical school. But rather than deal with the brunt of his father’s wrath, he decided to get away: he signed up to join an anthropological expedition to the Amazon rain forest.

This was in the 1860s, so transcontinental travel was difficult and dangerous. If you ever played the computer game Oregan Trail when you were a hid, it was kind of like that, with the dysentery and drowning oxen and everything.

Anyway, James made it all the way to the Amazon, where the real adventure was to begin. Surprisingly, his fragile health held up that whole way. But once he finally made it, on the first day of the expedition, he promptly contracted smallpox and nearly died in the jungle.

Then his back spasms returned, painful to the point of making James unable to walk. By this time, he was emaciated and starved from the smallpox, immobilized by his bad back, and left alone in the middle of South America (the rest of the expedition having gone on without him) with no clear way to get home – a journey that would take months and likely kill him anyway.

But somehow he eventually made it back to New England, where he was greeted by an (even more) disappointed father. By this point the young man wasn’t so young anymore – nearly thirty years old, still unemployed, a failure at everything he had attempted, with a body that routinely betrayed him and wasn’t likely to ever get better. Despite all the advantages and opportunities he’d been given in life, everything had fallen apart. The only constants in his life seemed to be suffering and disappointment. James fell into a deep depression and began making plans to take his own life.

But one night, while reading lectures by the philosopher Charles Peirce, James decided to conduct a little experiment. In his diary, he wrote that he would spend one year believing that he was 100 percent responsible for everything that occurred in his life, no matter what. During this period, he would do everything in his power to change his circumstances, no matter the likelihood of failure. If nothing improved in that year, then it would be apparent that he was truly powerless to the circumstances around him, and then he would take his own life.

The punch line? William James went on to become the father of American psychology. His work has been translated into a bazillion languages, and he’s regarded as one of the most influential intellectuals/philosophers/psychologists of his generation. He would go on to teach at Harvard and would tour much of the United States and Europe giving lectures. He would marry and have five children (one of whom, Henry, would become a famous biographer and win a Pulitzer Prize). James would later refer to his little experiment as his “rebirth”, and would credit it with everything that he later accomplished in his life.

The Origin Story of Malala Yousafzai #

Page 103.

… In 2008, the Taliban took control of the Swat Valley, a remote part of northeastern Pakistan. They quickly implemented their Muslim extremist agenda. No television. No films. No women outside the house without a male escort. No girls attending school.

By 2009, an eleven-year-old Pakistani girl named Malala Yousafzai had begun to speak out against the school ban. She continued to attend her local school, risking both her and her father’s lives; she also attended conference in nearby cities. She wrote online, “How dare the Taliban take way my right for education?”

In 2012, at the age of fourteen, she was shot in the face as she rode the bus home from school one day. A masked Taliban soldier armed with a rifle boarded the bus and asked, “Who is Malala? Tell me, or I will shoot everyone here.” Malala identified herself (an amazing choice in and of itself), and the man shot her in the head in front of all the other passengers.

Malala went into a coma and almost died. The Taliban stated publicly that if she somehow survived the attempt, they would kill both her and her father.

Today, Malala is still alive. She still speaks out against violence and oppression toward women in Muslim countries, now as a best-selling author. In 2014 she received the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts. It would seem that being shot in the face only gave her a larger audience and more courage than before. It would have been easy for her to lie down and say, “I can’t do anything”, or “I have no choice”. That, ironically, would still have been her choice. But she chose the opposite.

Addicted to Feeling Offended #

Page 112.

… People get addicted to feeling offended all the time because it gives them a high; being self-righteous and morally superior feels good. As political cartoonist Tim Kreider put it in a New York Times op-ed: “Outrage is like a lot of other things that feel good but over time devour us from the inside out. And it’s even more insidious than most vices because we don’t even consciously acknowledge that it’s a pleasure.”

But part of living in a democracy and a free society is that we all have to deal with views and people we don’t necessarily like. That’s simply the price we pay – you could even say it’s the whole point of the system. And it seems more and more people are forgetting that.

Be Less Wrong #

Page 117.

… 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. And when we learn something additional, we go from slightly less wrong to slightly less wrong than that, and then to even less wrong than that, and so on. We are always in the process of approaching truth and perfection without actually ever reaching truth or perfection.

Obsessed With Being “Right” #

Page 118.

… Many people become so obsessed with being “right” about their life that they never end up actually living it.

Plus or Minus 500 Years #

Page 120.

… Just as we look back in horror at the lives of people five hundred years ago, I imagine people five hundred year from now will laugh at us and our certainties today. They will laugh and how we let our money and our jobs define our lives. They will laugh at how we were afraid to show appreciation for those who matter to use most, yet heaped praise on public figures who didn’t deserve anything. They will laugh at our rituals and superstitions, our worries and our wars; they will gawk at our cruelty. They will study our art and argue over our history. They will understand truths about us which none of us are yet aware.

And they, too, will be wrong. Just less wrong than we were.

Fear of Missing Out is Holding You Back #

Page 164.

… To truly appreciate something, you must confine yourself to it. There’s a certain level of joy and meaning that you reach in life only when you’ve spent decades investing in a single relationship, a single craft, a single career. And you cannot achieve those decades of investment without rejecting the alternatives.