The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life
Notes by: Jacopo Perfetti
CHAPTER 1 Don’t Try
Bukowski wrote back to the editor: “I have one of two choices — stay in the post office and go crazy... or stay out here and play at writer and starve. I have decided to starve.”
Bukowski’s life embodies the American Dream: a man fights for what he wants, never gives up, and eventually achieves his wildest dreams.
He never tried to be anything other than what he was.
This is the real story of Bukowski’s success: his comfort with himself as a failure.
Our culture today is obsessively focused on unrealistically positive expectations: Be happier. Be healthier. Be the best, better than the rest.
But when you stop and really think about it, conventional life advice — all the positive and happy self - help stuff we hear all the time — is actually fixating on what you lack.
Ironically, this fixation on the positive — on what’s better, what’s superior — only serves to remind us over and over again of what we are not, of what we lack, of what we should have been but failed to be.
There’s a saying in Texas: “The smallest dog barks the loudest.” A confident man doesn’t feel a need to prove that he’s confident.
The world is constantly telling you that the path to a better life is more, more, more
because giving a fuck about more stuff is good for business.
giving too many fucks is bad for your mental health.
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.
you’re angry at yourself getting angry about being angry.
Welcome to the Feedback Loop from Hell.
we humans have the luxury of being able to have thoughts about our thoughts.
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.
We feel bad about feeling bad. We feel guilty for feeling guilty. We get angry about getting angry.
This is why not giving a fuck is so key. This is why it’s going to save the world.
we really have become victims of our own success.
Our crisis is no longer material ; it’s existential, it’s spiritual. We have so much fucking stuff and so many opportunities that we don’t even know what to give a fuck about anymore.
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.
Wanting positive experience is a negative experience ; accepting negative experience is a positive experience.
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 ,
it’s called “backwards” for a reason: not giving a fuck works in reverse. If pursuing the positive is a negative, then pursuing the negative generates the positive.
The failures in business are what lead to a better understanding of what’s necessary to be successful.
Being open with your insecurities paradoxically makes you more confident and charismatic around others.
To try to avoid pain is to give too many fucks about pain. In contrast, if you’re able to not give a fuck about the pain, you become unstoppable.
So what does not giving a fuck mean ? Let’s look at three “subtleties” that should help clarify the matter.
Subtlety # 1: Not giving a fuck does not mean being indifferent ; it means being comfortable with being different.
You must give a fuck about something.
You can’t be an important and life - changing presence for some people without also being a joke and an embarrassment to others.
Subtlety # 2: To not give a fuck about adversity, you must first give a fuck about something more important than adversity.
If you find yourself consistently giving too many fucks about trivial shit that bothers you —
chances are you don’t have much going on in your life to give a legitimate fuck about. And that’s your real problem.
I once heard an artist say that when a person has no problems, the mind automatically finds a way to invent some.
if you don’t find that meaningful something, your fucks will be given to meaningless and frivolous causes.
Subtlety # 3: Whether you realize it or not, you are always choosing what to give a fuck about.
Maturity is what happens when one learns to only give a fuck about what’s truly fuckworthy.
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.
CHAPTER 2 Happiness Is a Problem
life itself is a form of suffering.
This isn’t to say that all suffering is equal. Some suffering is certainly more painful than other suffering. But we all must suffer nonetheless.
Happiness is not a solvable equation. Dissatisfaction and unease are inherent parts of human nature and ,
We suffer for the simple reason that suffering is biologically useful. It is nature’s preferred agent for inspiring change. We have evolved to always live with a certain degree of dissatisfaction and insecurity, because it’s the mildly dissatisfied and insecure creature that’s going to do the most work to innovate and survive.
This constant dissatisfaction has kept our species fighting and striving, building and conquering.
Pain, in all of its forms, is our body’s most effective means of spurring action.
Pain is what teaches us what to pay attention to when we’re young or careless.
Like physical pain, our psychological pain is an indication of something out of equilibrium, some limitation that has been exceeded.
this is what’s so dangerous about a society that coddles itself more and more from the inevitable discomforts of life: we lose the benefits of experiencing healthy doses of pain, a loss that disconnects us from the reality of the world around us.
Happiness comes from solving problems. The keyword here is “solving.” If you’re avoiding your problems or feel like you don’t have any problems, then you’re going to make yourself miserable.
Happiness is a constant work - in - progress, because solving problems is a constant work - in - progress — the solutions to today’s problems will lay the foundation for tomorrow’s problems, and so on.
they fuck things up in at least one of two ways :
1. Denial. Some people deny that their problems exist in the first place.
2. Victim Mentality. Some choose to believe that there is nothing they can do to solve their problems ,
They are a way to temporarily escape our problems, and that escape can provide us a quick rush that makes us feel better.
Highs come in many forms.
like alcohol ,
Highs also generate addiction. The more you rely on them to feel better about your underlying problems, the more you will seek them out.
Emotions are simply biological signals designed to nudge you in the direction of beneficial change.
negative emotions are a call to action. When you feel them, it’s because you’re supposed to do something. Positive emotions, on the other hand, are rewards for taking the proper action.
emotions never last. Whatever makes us happy today will no longer make us happy tomorrow, because our biology always needs something more.
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.
“What pain do you want in your life ? What are you willing to struggle for ?” Because that seems to be a greater determinant of how our lives turn out.
Because happiness requires struggle. It grows from problems.
the solution lies in the acceptance and active engagement of that negative experience — not the avoidance of it, not the salvation from it.
People want to start their own business. But you don’t end up a successful entrepreneur unless you find a way to appreciate the risk, the uncertainty, the repeated failures, the insane hours devoted to something that may earn absolutely nothing.
What determines your success isn’t, “What do you want to enjoy ?” The relevant question is, “What pain do you want to sustain ?”
For most of my adolescence and young adulthood, I fantasized about being a musician —
I didn’t actually want it.
I was in love with the result —
but I wasn’t in love with the process.
I wanted the reward and not the struggle.
And life doesn’t work that way.
Who you are is defined by what you’re willing to struggle for.
CHAPTER 3 You Are Not Special
Sometime in the 1960s, developing “high self - esteem” — having positive thoughts and feelings about oneself — became all the rage in psychology.
But it’s a generation later and the data is in: we’re not all exceptional.
It 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 leads to a population full of Jimmys.
Jimmy, the delusional start - up founder. Jimmy, who smoked pot every day and had no real marketable skills other than talking himself up and believing it.
But the problem with entitlement is that it makes people need to feel good about themselves all the time, even at the expense of those around them.
Entitlement closes in upon itself in a kind of narcissistic bubble, distorting anything and everything in such a way as to reinforce itself.
entitlement is a failed strategy. It’s just another high. It’s not happiness.
If we have problems that are unsolvable, our unconscious figures that we’re either uniquely special or uniquely defective in some way. That we’re somehow unlike everyone else and that the rules must be different for us. Put simply: we become entitled.
you will often see entitled people flip back and forth between the two. Either they’re on top of the world or the world is on top of them, depending on the day
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 ,
It just means that you’re not special.
But for some reason, it appears that more and more people, particularly young people, are forgetting this.
The more freedom we’re given to express ourselves, the more we want to be free of having to deal with anyone who may disagree with us or upset us.
Even if you’re exceptional at one thing, chances are you’re average or below average at most other things.
because we’re all quite average most of the time, the deluge of exceptional information drives us to feel pretty damn insecure and desperate, because clearly we are somehow not good enough.
So more and more we feel the need to compensate through entitlement and addiction. We cope the only way we know how: either through self - aggrandizing or through other - aggrandizing.
It has become an accepted part of our culture today to believe that we are all destined to do something truly extraordinary.
this statement is inherently contradictory — after all, if everyone were extraordinary, then by definition no one would be extraordinary —
Being “average” has become the new standard of failure.
This sort of thinking is dangerous.
The rare people who do become truly exceptional at something
become amazing because they’re obsessed with improvement.
All of this “every person can be extraordinary and achieve greatness” stuff is basically just jerking off your ego.
CHAPTER 4 The Value of Suffering
If suffering is inevitable, if our problems in life are unavoidable, then the question we should be asking is not “How do I stop suffering ?” but “Why am I suffering — for what purpose ?”
Self - awareness is like an onion. There are multiple layers to it, and the more you peel them back, the more likely you’re going to start crying at inappropriate times.
the first layer of the self - awareness onion is a simple understanding of one’s emotions. “This is when I feel happy.”
The second layer of the self - awareness onion is an ability to ask why we feel certain emotions.
The third level is our personal values: Why do I consider this to be success / failure ?
it’s the most important, because our values determine the nature of our problems, and the nature of our problems determines the quality of our lives.
Honest self - questioning is difficult. It requires asking yourself simple questions that are uncomfortable to answer. In fact, in my experience, the more uncomfortable the answer, the more likely it is to be true.
we instinctually measure ourselves against others and vie for status. The question is not whether we evaluate ourselves against others ; rather, the question is by what standard do we measure ourselves ?
Dave Mustaine ,
measure himself by whether he was more successful and popular than Metallica.
Despite all the money and the fans and the accolades, he still considered himself a failure.
There are a handful of common values that create really poor problems for people — problems that can hardly be solved.
1. Pleasure. Pleasure is great, but it’s a horrible value to prioritize your life around.
Pleasure is not the cause of happiness ; rather, it is the effect.
2. Material Success.
When people measure themselves not by their behavior, but by the status symbols they’re able to collect, then not only are they shallow, but they’re probably assholes as well.
3. Always Being Right.
people who base their self - worth on being right about everything prevent themselves from learning from their mistakes.
4. Staying Positive.
In the long run, completing a marathon makes us happier than eating a chocolate cake.
As Freud once said, “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. Bad values are 1 ) superstitious, 2 ) socially destructive, and 3 ) not immediate or controllable.
Values are about prioritization. Everybody would love a good cannoli or a house in the Bahamas. The question is your priorities. What are the values that you prioritize above everything else, and that therefore influence your decision - making more than anything else ?
When we have poor values — that is, poor standards we set for ourselves and others — we are essentially giving fucks about the things that don’t matter, things that in fact make our life worse.
when you give better fucks, you get better problems. And when you get better problems, you get a better life.
CHAPTER 5 You Are Always Choosing
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.
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, individually, are responsible for everything in our lives, no matter the external circumstances.
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.
Whether we like it or not, we are always taking an active role in what’s occurring to and within us.
we are always choosing, whether we recognize it or not. Always.
To not give a fuck about anything is still to give a fuck about something.
The more we choose to accept responsibility in our lives, the more power we will exercise over our lives. Accepting responsibility for our problems is thus the first step to solving them.
We are responsible for experiences that aren’t our fault all the time. This is part of life.
Fault is past tense. Responsibility is present tense.
Nobody else is ever responsible for your situation but you. Many people may be to blame for your unhappiness, but nobody is ever responsible for your unhappiness but you. This is because you always get to choose how you see things, how you react to things, how you value things. You always get to choose the metric by which to measure your experiences.
They figure, “I didn’t choose my crappy genetics, so it’s not my fault if things go wrong.” And it’s true, it’s not their fault. But it’s still their responsibility.
The responsibility / fault fallacy allows people to pass off the responsibility for solving their problems to others.
social media is that it’s become easier than ever to push responsibility —
Ryan Holiday refers to this as “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.
The biggest problem with victimhood chic is that it sucks attention away from actual victims.
The more people there are who proclaim themselves victims over tiny infractions, the harder it becomes to see who the real victims actually are.
CHAPTER 6 You’re Wrong About Everything (But So Am I)
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.
Many people become so obsessed with being “right” about their life that they never end up actually living it.
Certainty is the enemy of growth.
Instead of striving for certainty, we should be in constant search of doubt :
Being wrong opens us up to the possibility of change. Being wrong brings the opportunity for 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. And it turns out, we’re all really good at it.
once we create meaning for ourselves, our brains are designed to hold on to that meaning. We are biased toward the meaning our mind has made, and we don’t want to let go of it. Even if we see evidence that contradicts the meaning we created, we often ignore it and keep on believing anyway.
Evil people never believe that they are evil ; rather, they believe that everyone else is evil.
It’s the backwards law again: the more you try to be certain about something, the more uncertain and insecure you will feel.
But the converse is true as well: the more you embrace being uncertain and not knowing, the more comfortable you will feel in knowing what you don’t know.
Uncertainty removes our judgments of others ;
Manson’s law of avoidance on them: The more something threatens your identity, the more you will avoid it.
That means the more something threatens to change how you view yourself ,
the more you will avoid ever getting around to doing it.
This is why people are often so afraid of success — for the exact same reason they’re afraid of failure: it threatens who they believe themselves to be.
We all have values for ourselves. We protect these values. We try to live up to them and we justify them and maintain them. Even if we don’t mean to, that’s how our brain is wired.
If I believe I’m a nice guy, I’ll avoid situations that could potentially contradict that belief.
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.
the arbitrary metrics by which you define yourself actually trap you, and thus you’re better off letting go of everything.
define yourself in the simplest and most ordinary ways possible.
This means giving up your sense of entitlement and your belief that you’re somehow owed something by this world.
Here are some questions that will help you breed a little more uncertainty in your life.
Question # 1: What if I’m wrong ?
As a general rule, we’re all the world’s worst observers of ourselves.
Question # 2: What would it mean if I were wrong ?
Aristotle wrote, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
Question # 3: Would being wrong create a better or a worse problem than my current problem, for both myself and others ?
The goal here is to look at which problem is better.
That’s simply reality: if it feels like it’s you versus the world, chances are it’s really just you versus yourself.
CHAPTER 7 Failure Is the Way Forward
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.
If someone is better than you at something, then it’s likely because she has failed at it more than you have. If someone is worse than you, it’s likely because he hasn’t been through all of the painful learning experiences you have.
In the 1950s, a Polish psychologist named Kazimierz Dabrowski studied World War II survivors and how they’d coped with traumatic experiences in the war.
A sizable percentage of them believed that the wartime experiences they’d suffered, although painful and indeed traumatic, had actually caused them to become better, more responsible, and yes, even happier people.
After the war they felt more confident, more sure of themselves, more grateful, and unfazed by life’s trivialities and petty annoyances.
Our pain often makes us stronger, more resilient, more grounded.
pain is part of the process. It’s important to feel it.
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.
Life is about not knowing and then doing something anyway.
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.
Your actions create further emotional reactions and inspirations and move on to motivate your future actions.
Action → Inspiration → Motivation
I call this the “do something” principle.
a novelist who had written over seventy novels. Someone asked the novelist how he was able to write so consistently and remain inspired and motivated. He replied, “Two hundred crappy words per day, that’s it.”
If we follow the “do something” principle, failure feels unimportant.
We feel free to fail, and that failure moves us forward.
If you’re in the midst of an existential shitstorm and everything feels meaningless —
CHAPTER 8 The Importance of Saying No
absolute freedom, by itself, means nothing.
But we need to reject something. Otherwise, we stand for nothing. If nothing is better or more desirable than anything else, then we are empty and our life is meaningless.
To truly appreciate something, you must confine yourself to it.
we all must give a fuck about something, in order to value something. And to value something, we must reject what is not that something. To value X, we must reject non - X.
there are healthy forms of love and unhealthy forms of love. Unhealthy love is based on two people trying to escape their problems through their emotions for each other — in other words, they’re using each other as an escape. Healthy love is based on two people acknowledging and addressing their own problems with each other’s support.
Wherever there is a healthy and loving relationship, there will be clear boundaries
By “boundaries” I mean the delineation between two people’s responsibilities for their own problems.
If the saver really wanted to save the victim, the saver would say, “Look, you’re blaming others for your own problems ; deal with this yourself.” And in a sick way, that would actually be a demonstration of love: helping someone solve their own problems. Instead, victims and savers both use each other to achieve emotional highs. It’s like an addiction they fulfill in one another.
Without conflict, there can be no trust. Conflict exists to show us who is there for us unconditionally and who is just there for the benefits. No one trusts a yes - man.
For a relationship to be healthy, both people must be willing and able to both say no and hear no.
If people cheat, it’s because something other than the relationship is more important to them.
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.
Consumer culture is very good at making us want more, more, more.
But more is not always better. In fact, the opposite is true. We are actually often happier with less.
When we’re overloaded with opportunities and options, we suffer from what psychologists refer to as the paradox of choice. Basically, the more options we’re given, the less satisfied we become with whatever we choose, because we’re aware of all the other options we’re potentially forfeiting.
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.
Commitment gives you freedom because you’re no longer distracted by the unimportant and frivolous.
the rejection of alternatives liberates us — rejection of what does not align with our most important values, with our chosen metrics ,
CHAPTER 9... And Then You Die
death is the light by which the shadow of all of life’s meaning is measured. Without death, everything would feel inconsequential, all experience arbitrary, all metrics and values suddenly zero.
The Denial of Death essentially makes two points :
1. Humans are unique in that we’re the only animals that can conceptualize and think about ourselves abstractly. Dogs don’t sit around and worry about their career.
As humans, we’re blessed with the ability to imagine ourselves in hypothetical situations ,
And it’s because of this unique mental ability, Becker says, that we all, at some point, become aware of the inevitability of our own death.
2. 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.
in order to compensate for our fear of the inevitable loss of our physical self, we try to construct a conceptual self that will live forever.
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 Stoics of ancient Greece and Rome implored people to keep death in mind at all times, in order to appreciate life more and remain humble in the face of its adversities.
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.
You are already great because in the face of endless confusion and certain death, you continue to choose what to give a fuck about and what not to.