Mark Manson – the Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck (2016) review


I hardly ever read self-help books, but I make an exception for Mark Manson. His book is about carefully choosing what you care about. About accepting that there will always be struggle in your life, and about changing your problems into better problems.

Who is this Mark Manson anyway? He’s a popular blogger who attracted immense hordes of young adult males to his blog. He started out in the troubled, questionable PUA scene, which stands for Pick-Up Artist; in other words, using armchair psychology to create rules for hitting on women. Manson soon figured out that there are some fundamental misunderstandings about human interaction in the “pick-up artistry” books, and that their weak psychology does harm to the people who take it as gospel. In general, if you want to attract good people, it doesn’t help to follow rules and jump through imagined hoops. You got to work on yourself first. He created a site with alternative advice about relationships, and focused more on stimulating self-worth and emotional hygiene.

His advice struck a chord with many people. He concluded his earlier focus on dating and relationships with his book Models, and then branched out to travel, reading and psychological well-being in general. After a couple of years of hard work, he summarized all his new findings in a new book. Maybe it will be his last book, because it sure seems like all his activities culminated towards this undertaking. We will see. In any case, Manson is one of the most clear-minded and lucid writers out there, and it is worth reading what he has to say.

Manson starts from some of the same points that Alan Watts makes in The Wisdom of Insecurity. Desperately trying to find happiness causes more anguish, and trying to avoid pain will only cause more pain. It sounds counterintuitive, but accepting pain and choosing to deal with it is actually a positive experience, and chasing after happiness is a negative experience. Manson argues that this feedback loop swings towards the negative in our modern society in which people feel ashamed to feel unsuccessful. The thing to do is to change your priorities of what matters in life, and care about the right things.

Where Watts lectures like a professor, Manson is like a rough no-nonsense friend who sits you down, points his finger in your face and swears a lot. Like a benevolent Tyler Durden. He’s quite funny, but his prose is a bit try-hard.

So far so good, but after this opening salvo I lose the thread of his arguments. In chapter three he tackles two topics: (1) He makes an extremely broad generalization that traumatic experiences in our upbringing always lead to entitlement in one way or another. And (2) the internet makes us believe that we are horribly mediocre. And then he ties them together. His first generalization is far too broad. Almost every psychological problem in every pop-psych book points towards nurture as having a major influence on all sorts of problems in later life. But in this book it’s there to introduce the second point about the internet. Manson is in fact making his argument backwards, counting the steps from entitlement and insecurity in young adults back to the childhood environment. But presenting it the other way around strains his argumentation.

So yeah, the book isn’t perfect. He uses stories as extended introductions to what he wants to say, but sometimes the topics and arguments become a little bit muddled, so that you wonder: what was the topic of this chapter again?

It gets clearer later on. The final chapters each deal with a specific value that can help you in your life.  He discusses values like taking responsibility, accepting uncertainty, daring to be vulnerable and others. Most of these are not really stimulated all that much by our society and people have a thousand ways to avoid a confrontation with difficult or painful feelings, so it is good to be reminded why these values improve your life.

His message is not exactly new or unique. I mentioned before the name Alan Watts, who said similar things, and Nathaniel Branden did the same in his work on self-worth, and Brene Brown is currently a popular advocate of the power of vulnerability and honesty. I’m sure there are more names to be listed here.

It seems like all the good gurus in our society converge to the same messages. That’s an encouraging thought, because it means that we’re on to something here. It also helps to hear the same messages communicated by different voices in different ways. Manson’s book, while not exceptional in the genre, is still a positive addition to it and to the world.

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