The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: Mark Manson’s Theory of Personal Growth

I’ve met Mark Manson, as I wrote about in my book I was almost robbed on my way to meet him for dinner in Medellin, Colombia. Given that I had dinner with him once and that I’m obviously interested in networking my way up and self promotion, you might think that I would just gush positive about his very popular book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. But actually, I’ve got some fair criticism to level at this book and I’m not even sure if I recommend it.

This book, while well written and entertaining typifies a problem with the personal development sphere which is a lack of rigorous empiricism.

All too often authors are mere theorists, not actual practitioners. In a lot of cases authors will formulate a theory of personal growth which makes sense to them, they’ll have a couple of personal experiences which will confirm this theory and then they’ll enshrine it in writing as a recommendation for everyone. Selection bias then gathers around them a group of readers or followers who’s random personal experiences are confirmatory. Their theories might not be totally useless, but this is far from a empirical approach. An empirical theory of personal growth should arise from a statistically significant sample size and ideally clinical research.

An example of how crappy advice might be enshrined into personal development dogma: Several times in my life I’ve irresponsibly procrastinated on legal, bureaucratic, paperwork, waiting in state offices to pay to fees type things and in a few cases it actually worked out for the better! When I lived in Colombia for several years, instead of getting a residence VISA I just procrastinated and overstayed my tourist VISA. Luckily, this wasn’t a great offense, when I finally turned myself into the immigration authorities they gave me a slap on the wrist and let me go about my business. I could take this confirmatory experience and a few others like it and wordsmith a persuasive and witty self help book about why procrastination is actually good! Why procrastination pays off, The Subtle Art of Procrastination. While procrastination is in rare cases a good thing, most of the time it’s a terrible way to live your life. That 38 year old guy, who still lives in his mom’s basement, who lacks the ambition to ever get a real grown up job, who lives on pizza and Pepsi and who’s still a virgin because he’s been addicted to video games and porn for decades — he can thank procrastination for the sticky, shallow, shabby state of his existence! That guy might watch a catchy youtube video I could make about the greatness of procrastination and say, I knew it. I’m just going to keep procrastinating and eventually life will work out…

This is why I think self help gurus should try to look at clinical evidence and study design when making their recommendations. Often, we are wrong, our minds confabulate narratives of what went wrong or right in our lives that might be totally irrational and divorced from reality. This is why, at the least, popular self help writers should have a multiplicity of anecdotes from a diversity of people confirming recommendations. I see pickup artist coaches as more credible who have worked in the field with dozens or hundreds of students for years and arrived at conclusions about psychology than someone who is just noting some commonalities between their dating experiences. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck doesn’t include a single footnote, link or quotation from an authoritative clinical study backing up its ideas. Beyond a number of anecdotes from the author’s childhood and life as a rowdy digital nomad it doesn’t include that much evidence for Mark’s counterintuitive approach. He’s probably right about a number of things but it’s disappointing that a book this popular, that many people seem to regard as gospel truth lacks this rigor.

An example of what I think is questionable advice arising out of this non-rigorous approach. Talking about his wife…

Nights before we go out, she comes out of the bathroom after an hour-long makeup/hair/clothes/whatever-women-do-in-there session and asks me how she looks. She’s usually gorgeous. Every once in a while, though, she looks bad. Maybe she tried to do something new with her hair, or decided to wear a pair of boots that some flamboyant fashion designer from Milan thought were avant-garde. Whatever the reason — it just doesn’t work. When I tell her this, she usually gets pissed off. As she marches back into the closet or the bathroom to redo everything and make us thirty minutes late, she spouts a bunch of four-letter words and sometimes even slings a few of them in my direction. Men stereotypically lie in this situation to make their girlfriends/wives happy. But I don’t. Why? Because honesty in my relationship is more important to me than feeling good all the time. The last person I should ever have to censor myself with is the woman I love. (p.181 - 182)

So he advocates categorical honesty with your spouse, to the point of telling her that she looks bad after she’s spent some time and effort getting dolled up resulting in her getting angry and disrespecting him. This makes zero sense to me.

Is there a clinical study of relationships out there that shows that it actually results in greater marital tranquility if people are autistically honest about superficial things like a wife looking a little funny because she lathers on a bit too much makeup or husband mismatching his socks? This seems like something you really should not give a fuck about!

Further, I think absolute honesty is a silly idea. As Mark has written about, our feelings are often wrong and misguided. You’re not going to have functional relationships if you’re narcissistically committed to expressing your feelings to everyone!

For example, there’s this friendly guy who works at the grocery store where I shop weekly. We chat from time to time and he knows I’m some kind of internet entrepreneur. The other day he announced to me that he wants to start some kind of internet business with his friends and wanted to pick my brain a bit. I said sure, let’s get coffee and gave him my number. But imagine if I committed absolute honesty and expressing my feelings I’d say You’re a chubby 40 year old working at a grocery store. Your friends are probably idiots. You probably don’t have what it takes to cut it as an entrepreneur! And then I’d have an enemy at the checkout stand every time I was picking up my coconuts and yogurt.

It seems to me that especially in our most intimate relationships we should be honest in a tactful way when it comes to our important values but when it comes to the small things, a few little white lies might be necessary.

The lack of rigorous research is my primary criticism of the book, I’ll synopsize some of the good points the book makes…

The Feedback Loop from Hell

There’s an insidious quirk to your brain that, if you let it, can drive you absolutely batty. Tell me if this sounds familiar to you: You get anxious about confronting somebody in your life. That anxiety cripples you and you start wondering why you’re so anxious. Now you’re becoming anxious about being anxious. (pp. 5–6)

We’ve all experienced this although since I’ve habituated meditation for several years now I don’t have this problem, I have a greater degree of control of my thoughts and emotions.

To overcome your negative emotions, just face and recognize that they really don’t matter that much.

By not giving a fuck that you feel bad, you short-circuit the Feedback Loop from Hell; you say to yourself, “I feel like shit, but who gives a fuck?” And then, as if sprinkled by magic fuck-giving fairy dust, you stop hating yourself for feeling so bad. (p. 8)

On Positivity Obsession

Because here’s the thing that’s wrong with all of the “How to Be Happy” shit 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. (p. 9)

How Social Media Hijacks Happiness

Back in Grandpa’s day, he would feel like shit and think to himself, “Gee whiz, I sure do feel like a cow turd today. But hey, I guess that’s just life. Back to shoveling hay.” But now? Now if you feel like shit for even five minutes, you’re bombarded with 350 images of people totally happy and having amazing fucking lives, and it’s impossible to not feel like there’s something wrong with you. (pp. 7–8)

This is why I use social media filters and things like News Feed Eradicator for Facebook and am selective with who I follow on Instagram, a social network particularly designed for stimulating envy and jealousy. As I’ve talked about elsewhere social media is particularly effective at hijacking women’s evolutionary psychology.

If you’re not convinced that social media is bad for your mental health, check out this recent documentary PLUGGED IN : The True Toxicity of Social Media Revealed

Suffering is a Feature NOT a Bug

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. (p. 21)

We are wired to become dissatisfied with whatever we have and satisfied by only what we do not have. This constant dissatisfaction has kept our species fighting and striving, building and conquering. So no — our own pain and misery aren’t a bug of human evolution; they’re a feature. (p. 28)

Just as one must suffer physical pain to build stronger bone and muscle, one must suffer emotional pain to develop greater emotional resilience, a stronger sense of self, increased compassion, and a generally happier life. (p. 154)

On Values

We are wired to become dissatisfied with whatever we have and satisfied by only what we do not have. This constant dissatisfaction has kept our species fighting and striving, building and conquering. So no — our own pain and misery aren’t a bug of human evolution; they’re a feature. (p. 28)

If you want to change how you see your problems, you have to change what you value and/or how you measure failure/success. (p. 79)

Good values are 1) reality-based, 2) socially constructive, and 3) immediate and controllable. Bad values are 1) superstitious, 2) socially destructive, and 3) not immediate or controllable. (p. 86)

This, in a nutshell, is what “self-improvement” is really about: prioritizing better values, choosing better things to give a fuck about. (p. 89)

Chose Your Problems

When we feel that we’re choosing our problems, we feel empowered. When we feel that our problems are being forced upon us against our will, we feel victimized and miserable. (p. 91)

On Victimhood

“Victimhood chic” is in style on both the right and the left today, among both the rich and the poor. In fact, this may be the first time in human history that every single demographic group has felt unfairly victimized simultaneously. And they’re all riding the highs of the moral indignation that comes along with it. (pp. 110–111)

Reject the victim mindset. Unfortunate events, social forces and other people will always put you at some sort of disadvantage. While these things might not be your fault, it’s always still your responsibility to deal with these disadvantages. It’s incredibly disempowering to wallow in self pity and blame!

On Entitlement

The gravity of entitlement sucks all attention inward, toward ourselves, causing us to feel as though we are at the center of all of the problems in the universe, that we are the one suffering all of the injustices, that we are the one who deserves greatness over all others. (p. 206)

The Enemy of Growth: Certainty

Instead of striving for certainty, we should be in constant search of doubt: doubt about our own beliefs, doubt about our own feelings, doubt about what the future may hold for us unless we get out there and create it for ourselves. (p. 119)

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. (p. 133)

On Identity

Identity and certainty often go hand in hand. He recommends not being too married to an identity as it closes you off to transformation and growth. Manson’s law of avoidance is…

The more something threatens your identity, the more you will avoid it. (p. 136)

I say don’t find yourself. I say never know who you are. Because that’s what keeps you striving and discovering. And it forces you to remain humble in your judgments and accepting of the differences in others. (p. 139)

Freedom in Commitment

The big story for me personally over the past few years has been my ability to open myself up to commitment. I’ve chosen to reject all but the very best people and experiences and values in my life.

I’ve committed to one woman for the long haul and, to my surprise, have found this more rewarding than any of the flings, trysts, and one-night stands I had in the past.

And what I’ve discovered is something entirely counterintuitive: that there is a freedom and liberation in commitment. I’ve found increased opportunity and upside in rejecting alternatives and distractions in favor of what I’ve chosen to let truly matter to me. (p. 188)

I’ve made a similar transition in the past few years from a slow traveling, nomadic seducer to living in one city and being in a long term relationship with one woman. I can confirm that while my freedom has technically decreased, I have a lot more mental hard drive available to focus on meaningful things now that I’m not constantly worrying about which city I’m going to visit next, where I’m going to find my next flat or whether I’m going to try to sleep with Anna or Irena this weekend.

In the book he espouses this mindset philosophy that mostly makes pretty good sense but is not particularly original, if you’re well versed with stoicism you’ll be familiar with most of its concepts…

  • Accept your negative emotions, in fact get very familiar with your negative emotions.
  • Ponder the worst possible outcome of whatever situation you’re grappling with or consequences of your actions, get comfortable with the pain and suffering you might face.
  • Accept that life is nonstop pain and discomfort. Instead of trying to avoid pain try to choose your problems. Ask yourself… What kind problems do I want to have?

Meditate on Death

I’ve often heard that real a lifehack for happiness, motivation and clarity of purpose is to meditate on your own death. Some go as far as meditating in a cemetery to really drive the realization home that (yes, even if you’re a transhumanist) one day you’re going to die and your consciousness, your spirit, everything that you are will probably cease to exist.

Whether it be through mastering an art form, conquering a new land, gaining great riches, or simply having a large and loving family that will live on for generations, all the meaning in our life is shaped by this innate desire to never truly die. (p. 198)

Confronting the reality of our own mortality is important because it obliterates all the crappy, fragile, superficial values in life. (p. 205)

Yet, in a bizarre, backwards way, death is the light by which the shadow of all of life’s meaning is measured. (p. 195)

This acceptance of my death, this understanding of my own fragility, has made everything easier — untangling my addictions, identifying and confronting my own entitlement, accepting responsibility for my own problems — suffering through my fears and uncertainties, accepting my failures and embracing rejections — it has all been made lighter by the thought of my own death. (p. 209)

So I’ll be looking up a cemetary to go do some meditation!

Is Mark Manson Red Pilled?

Was the question that I saw on Quora a while back and pondered given some of my experience with him and his work.

This scene in The Matrix where Neo has to chose between a blue pill that will return him to his comfortable but drab life as a corporate office drone and a red pill that wakes him up to the cruel reality of the enslavement of humanity has been enshrined as a meme for waking up from the cultural conditioning we’ve received. Red pill has come to mean any content or idea that fundamentally challenges the power structures of society that tower over us; the state, predatory capitalism, established religion, encroaching cultural marxism and socialism.

Mark Manson and The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck are sort of red pilled, purple pilled, if you will. The book commits the benign violation of using the F-Word a lot but other than that is as mainstream as you can get. If the book was really red pill it wouldn’t be published by a big five publisher, Harper-Collins and make the New York Times bestseller list it would be banned from Amazon!

However, a red pill is not always what you need. There is some truth in blue pill personal development thought. Not everything mainstream is fallacious and part of an insidious conspiracy to make your life suck.

Cultural Commentary

Since I saw it come out I was a bit skeptical of this book for a simple reason — It has Fuck in its title, or at least that’s implied. It seems very faux-edgy to put a Fuck in the title of your book just to stir a little controversy and it says something deeply disappointing about our culture that a book with a quite vulgar word in its title becomes such a prolific bestseller. As we’re so fond of pointing out in the red pill sphere of the internet we live in an utterly bastardized, dumbed down, soon to be Idiocracy-in-real-life culture. Hit people in the face with the F-Word on the front cover of your book and apparently it will sell like hotcakes!

In conclusion…

If you’re unfamiliar with stoicism it’s probably worth reading, if you’re already applying stoic principles in your personal growth this really won’t be an epiphany filled 224 pages.

Want to read something with a bit more rigorous recipe for the good life? Check out my book How to Be Cross Eyed: Thriving Despite Your Physical Imperfection — a mémoire and lifehacking manifesto

Written by

Adventuring philosopher, Pompous pontificator, Writer, K-Selected Biohacker, Tantric husband, Raconteur & Smart Drug Dealer 🇺🇸

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