The Subtle Art of not Giving a, by Mark Manson

51VNlzbfpXL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The secret to life is choosing wisely what to give a about and mercilessly abandoning the rest. This is in essence the message of star blogger Mark Manson. Life should not be about filling our days up with as many activities as possible; about constantly wanting more, about spreading ourselves thin over multiple fronts: it should be about zeroing-in on what truly matters to us (see my previous posts on The One Thing and Finding Your Own North Star for similar philosophies).

So, paradoxically, Manson tells us that the more we let go, the more we gain. This is counterintuitive, and goes against the current zeitgeist: we are constantly bombarded with an infinity of tempting things to do, to buy, to “try out”… offers not to be missed, exciting adventures to be taken, unique deals to take advantage of. The modern citizen-consumer is attacked everywhere – on the street, online, on social media, on TV – and it seems impossible not to succumb. Out of the thousands of messages we receive, at least a few stick, and fire up our desire: new car, new sport, new body, new home, latest pair of sneakers. Each time we latch on to these messages, a new sense of “lacking” is created. As Manson puts it, we live in a culture where the focus is always on what we lack, not on what we already have. We hop from one artificially induced need to another, and an insatiable loop is formed.

A second characteristic of our society that Manson warns us about is the fixation with “positive experiences”. Our Facebook feeds, for examples, are filled with smiling and joyous “friends” enjoying life from every possibile angle: from playing with the dog to relaxing on a tropical beach; from landing that “dream job” to being happily married (with adorable kids, of course). Commercials, movies, posters reinforce the message that life is about wonderful experiences, implying that if you are having negative ones, well, there is something wrong with you…

This is a very dangerous way of looking at life, because negative experiences are part and parcel of life, and to deny their existence is to create a mental delusion. On the contrary, Manson invites us to embrace our negative experiences and emotions, because “everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience”. We should not beat ourselves up for feeling sad, angry or envious: it’s part of our human condition, and part of the path to happiness (see my post of The Road Less Traveled for a more detailed discussion on the importance of suffering). Indeed, happiness is not something we are entitled to, something that lands on our desk for us to keep. Quite the opposite: it is something we have to work towards every day, by jumping through many hurdles and experiencing many negative – sometimes devastating – emotions.

So what we should strive for is not the elimination of negative emotions, but the elimination of “bad problems”, the problems that we do not enjoy solving. In the author’s words, “true happiness occurs only when you find problems you enjoy having and enjoy solving”. It comes when 1. the activity is meaningful to you, 2. you crave the outcome 3. you enjoy the battle, however painful.

This brings us back to the title of the book and to the importance of choosing our problems wisely. These problems will all entail some degree of pain/suffering/sacrifice – just like every problem – but we will be able to withstand the associated pain/negative emotions and to experience a strange “good pain”, a pain that we actually enjoy (think of the body builder bench pressing or the concert pianist practicing 8 hours a day). As an example of wrongly choosing your problems, Manson shares with us his failure at becoming a rock star, an endeavor he pursued in vain for a decade: “I was in love with not the fight but only the victory. And life doesn’t work that way. Who you are is defined but what you are willing to struggle for”.

For this not to happen, we have to choose not only our problems wisely, but also our values wisely. Manson believes that good values have three characteristics: they are reality based, socially constructive and directly controllable. If we find ourselves experiencing negative emotions, we have to ask ourselves what value underpins that emotion, and if the metric we are using for assessing this value is correct. For example, if we are in pain because our colleague got promoted and we were not, what is the underlying value at stake: success relative to this colleague or excellence in our job? The first is an unwise value, because it is not entirely controllable (it depends on the performance of someone else) and it is not socially constructive. The second – excellence in our job – is a good value, but in this case the metric used to assess it doesn’t seem right: if my colleague is promoted, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I am not excelling… maybe there are other factors at stake.

By the way, excellence is also a risky value if it is the product of a social conditioning of having to “be amazing”. I love how the author observes that , unfortunately, “average is the new standard of failure”. Let’s not subscribe to that view! Our lives are absolutely worthwhile even if they are not “truly notable and great”. And by the way, there is nothing wrong with being “mediocre”: we should let go of the anxiety of feeling inadequate and resist the pressure of constantly having “to prove ourselves”. In the face of these feelings, a thorough value check is of essence.

This self-awareness exercise is very important, and we should be doing it constantly during the day to redirect our “f.cks” to more constructive uses. Here Manson espouses the Stephen Covey-Victor Frankle-Tony Robbins idea that between stimulus and response there is a space where we humans can choose our response. We can be conscious of our emotions, try to understand its root cause and the value/metric that underpins them so that we don’t waste time and energy chasing after meaningless or destructive pursuits. I truly enjoyed the examples that he gives about people that based their lives on bad values: Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese holdout that continued to fight a quarter century after WWII based on his value of allegiance to the Emperor; Dave Mustaine, celebrity heavy-metal musician who felt like a failure despite his enormous success, because in his youth he was kicked out of Metallica and swore to himself that he was going to be more successful than them. Oh, how many devastating problems we could avoid if we just took the time to examine – and question – our values!

This leads me to agree with Manson when he argues that one of the main goals of self-development is to reflect on our goals and values. Methodologies like Getting Things Done, which focus on the executing part, are no doubt useful, but the big risk that anyone who adopts them faces is missing the forest for the trees. With GTD, we often become so obsessed with creating projects and next actions that we may not really put much thought into their desirability. In other words, the risk is introducing way too many fucks in our life, just because those methodologies – and the fancy apps that go with it – allow us to. It’s like having a sports car and never speeding: it’s theoretically possible, but unlikely. So personal growth should put “First Things First”: before execution, before our electronic to-do lists, we should ask ourselves: “should I really be doing this”?, “Should I really give a”.

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