Stefan Knapen

PhD-student – Co-assistent

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck – Mark Manson

I read the book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: a Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life by Mark Manson. Here are my notes and thoughts.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck – Mark Manson

Read: February 2017
Amazon page for more details and reviews. page for Dutch readers.


This book was part of the Reddit Betterment Book Club, which I am participating in. Already heard a lot about this book, probably one of the more popular (non-fiction) books from 2016. The book is basically Mark Manson, the author, telling us we shouldn’t worry that much about everything and choose what we give a fuck about more carefully. Doing so enables us to focus on the right values in your life.

On to the notes and thoughts. First I’ll share my thoughts, afterward the notes I made on my kindle. All these notes are directly from the book, cursive text are my thoughts.

My Thoughts

This is a very good book, very appropriate for 20-somethings who are overthinking every move and have some sense of self-awareness. When you scroll through your different social media platforms, you always see a lot of people who seem to have the perfect life. And that is what is needed right? Your life needs to be perfect and when it isn’t, you should have a positive mindset, as a change for the better is always around the corner. Fuck that, says Mark.

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.

So the first take-away from this book is to stop focusing on always being positive. I tend to be positive guy (my parents call me a “happy nut”), and have a very positive outlook on life, but it slowly starts to shift to a realistic outlook on life: it doesn’t necessarily matter what happens, you have to deal with it anyway.

The second take-away is on choosing your problems carefully. In every job you can have you have to solve shit. Solve stupid problems. Now think of the type of problems you would like to solve, that gives a good indication on what you should focus on. In Mark’s words:

To be happy we need something to solve. Happiness is therefore a form of action;

True happiness occurs only when you find the problems you enjoy having and enjoy solving.

Focus on good values, which are:

  1. Reality based
  2. Socially constructive
  3. Immediate and controllable.

Take responsibility for things that do not go the way you would like them to go. Although you might not always be the person who can solve the problem, by taking responsibility and by working you can slowly increase your influence in things which you couldn’t control previously. Resonates perfectly with the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’s circle of influence and circle of concern.

Don’t just sit there. Do something. The answers will follow.

Action isn’t just the effect of motivation; it’s also the cause of it.

Work is almost always the answer to problems. Start working on a problem and you can slowly start to better the situation and gain momentum to work harder and more effectively. This is my third big take-away from this book.

The last big take-away is a concept Mark described which he got from Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death. 

Becker’s second point starts with the premise that we essentially have two “selves.” The first self is the physical self—the one that eats, sleeps, snores, and poops. The second self is our conceptual self—our identity, or how we see ourselves.

We are constantly working on our conceptual self, as that is the self we wan to make immortal by having projects which extend our lifespan, such as a family, a book with your name on the cover or a name on a building. The legacy you leave behind. This can be both a bad thing (as it can cause anxiety), but is also a great motivator to work on the important values.


All in all this is a very good book. Mark is writing with a lot of humor and writes very readable. The content of the book resonates a lot with Stoic philosophy and a Buddhist approach to problems. Only this book is very easy to read, ideal for a weekend or two.

My Notes on Kindle:

It [Conventional life advise] lasers in on what you perceive your personal shortcomings and failures to already be, and then emphasizes them for you.

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.

Being open with your insecurities paradoxically makes you more confident and charismatic around others. The pain of honest confrontation is what generates the greatest trust and respect in your relationships. Suffering through your fears and anxieties is what allows you to build courage and perseverance.

Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience.

Subtlety #1: Not giving a fuck does not mean being indifferent; it means being comfortable with being different.

Well, the same is true for adversity and failure. No matter where you go, there’s a five-hundred-pound load of shit waiting for you. And that’s perfectly fine. The point isn’t to get away from the shit. The point is to find the shit you enjoy dealing with.

Subtlety #2: To not give a fuck about adversity, you must first give a fuck about something more important than adversity.

Subtlety #3: Whether you realize it or not, you are always choosing what to give a fuck about.

“The solution to one problem is merely the creation of the next one.”

“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.”

To be happy we need something to solve. Happiness is therefore a form of action;

True happiness occurs only when you find the problems you enjoy having and enjoy solving.

Emotions are simply biological signals designed to nudge you in the direction of beneficial change.

Psychologists sometimes refer to this concept as the “hedonic treadmill”: the idea that we’re always working hard to change our life situation, but we actually never feel very different.

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.

A person who actually has a high self-worth is able to look at the negative parts of his character frankly—“Yes, sometimes I’m irresponsible with money,” “Yes, sometimes I exaggerate my own successes,” “Yes, I rely too much on others to support me and should be more self-reliant”—and then acts to improve upon them.

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.

This flood of extreme information has conditioned us to believe that exceptionalism is the new normal.

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.

Let’s say the first layer of the self-awareness onion is a simple understanding of one’s emotions.

The second layer of the self-awareness onion is an ability to ask why we feel certain emotions.

But there’s another, even deeper level of the self-awareness onion. And that one is full of fucking tears. The third level is our personal values: Why do I consider this to be success/failure? How am I choosing to measure myself? By what standard am I judging myself and everyone around me?

For many people this passes as self-awareness. And yet, if they were able to go deeper and look at their underlying values, they would see that their original analysis was based on avoiding responsibility for their own problem, rather than accurately identifying the problem.

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

There are a handful of common values that create really poor problems for people—problems that can hardly be solved.

Pleasure is not the cause of happiness; rather, it is the effect. If you get the other stuff right (the other values and metrics), then pleasure will naturally occur as a by-product.

The trick with negative emotions is to 1) express them in a socially acceptable and healthy manner and 2) express them in a way that aligns with your values.

“One day, in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful.”

Good values are 1) reality-based, 2) socially constructive, and 3) immediate and controllable.

You’ll notice that good, healthy values are achieved internally. Something like creativity or humility can be experienced right now. You simply have to orient your mind in a certain way to experience it. These values are immediate and controllable and engage you with the world as it is rather than how you wish it were.

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.

We don’t always control what happens to us. But we always control how we interpret what happens to us, as well as how we respond.

The more we choose to accept responsibility in our lives, the more power we will exercise over our lives.

A lot of people hesitate to take responsibility for their problems because they believe that to be responsible for your problems is to also be at fault for your problems.

Here’s one way to think about the distinction between the two concepts. Fault is past tense. Responsibility is present tense. Fault results from choices that have already been made. Responsibility results from the choices you’re currently making, every second of every day.

“I didn’t choose this life; I didn’t choose this horrible, horrible condition. But I get to choose how to live with it; I have to choose how to live with it.”

“outrage porn”: rather than report on real stories and real issues, the media find it much easier (and more profitable) to find something mildly offensive, broadcast it to a wide audience, generate outrage, and then broadcast that outrage back across the population in a way that outrages yet another part of the population.

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.

It’s easier to sit in a painful certainty that nobody would find you attractive, that nobody appreciates your talents, than to actually test those beliefs and find out for sure.

Certainty is the enemy of growth.

the point of the experiment is to show how quickly the human mind is capable of coming up with and believing in a bunch of bullshit that isn’t real.

The comedian Emo Philips once said, “I used to think the human brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this.”

Well, our brain is always trying to make sense of our current situation based on what we already believe and have already experienced

our beliefs are malleable, and our memories are horribly unreliable.

The more something threatens your identity, the more you will avoid it.

When we let go of the stories we tell about ourselves, to ourselves, we free ourselves up to actually act (and fail) and grow.

Instead, measure yourself by more mundane identities: a student, a partner, a friend, a creator.

Here are some questions that will help you breed a little more uncertainty in your life.

Questions like these need to become a mental habit.

Aristotle wrote, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

this: if it’s down to me being screwed up, or everybody else being screwed up, it is far, far, far more likely that I’m the one who’s screwed

Failure itself is a relative concept.

Improvement at anything is based on thousands of tiny failures, and the magnitude of your success is based on how many times you’ve failed at something.

We need some sort of existential crisis to take an objective look at how we’ve been deriving meaning in our life, and then consider changing course.

Learn to sustain the pain you’ve chosen. When you choose a new value, you are choosing to introduce a new form of pain into your life. Relish it. Savor it. Welcome it with open arms. Then act despite it.

Don’t just sit there. Do something. The answers will follow.

Action isn’t just the effect of motivation; it’s also the cause of it.

That’s often all that’s necessary to get the snowball rolling, the action needed to inspire the motivation to keep going. You can become your own source of inspiration. You can become your own source of motivation. Action is always within reach. And with simply doing something as your only metric for success—well, then even failure pushes you forward.

Ultimately, the only way to achieve meaning and a sense of importance in one’s life is through a rejection of alternatives, a narrowing of freedom, a choice of commitment to one place, one belief, or (gulp) one person.

Travel is a fantastic self-development tool, because it extricates you from the values of your culture and shows you that another society can live with entirely different values and still function and not hate themselves.

The avoidance of rejection (both giving and receiving it) is often sold to us as a way to make ourselves feel better. But avoiding rejection gives us short-term pleasure by making us rudderless and directionless in the long term.

But part of having honesty in our lives is becoming comfortable with saying and hearing the word “no.”

What needs to happen is that cheaters have to start peeling away at their self-awareness onion and figure out what fucked-up values caused them to break the trust of the relationship (and whether they actually still value the relationship).

When trust is destroyed, it can be rebuilt only if the following two steps happen: 1) the trust-breaker admits the true values that caused the breach and owns up to them, and 2) the trust-breaker builds a solid track record of improved behavior over time. Without the first step, there should be no attempt at reconciliation in the first place.

The older you get, the more experienced you get, the less significantly each new experience affects you.

Commitment gives you freedom because you’re no longer distracted by the unimportant and frivolous.

His book The Denial of Death, would win the Pulitzer Prize

Becker’s second point starts with the premise that we essentially have two “selves.” The first self is the physical self—the one that eats, sleeps, snores, and poops. The second self is our conceptual self—our identity, or how we see ourselves.

Becker called such efforts our “immortality projects,” projects that allow our conceptual self to live on way past the point of our physical death.

all the meaning in our life is shaped by this innate desire to never truly die.

“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”

they all say that happiness comes from the same thing: caring about something greater than yourself, believing that you are a contributing component in some much larger entity, that your life is but a mere side process of some great unintelligible production.

Our culture today confuses great attention and great success, assuming them to be the same thing. But they are not.

If you want to check out the book, you can get it from Amazon or Bol.