Book of the Week: The subtle and tremendously self-serving art of not giving a fuck

John Summers gets to grips with one of the year’s most popular books, a self-help guide to feeling good, deciding what’s really important in your life, and “banging blondes”: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck.

Surely weekends are the most stressful days of the week. The petty anxieties of the workday are nothing compared to the existential terror of two days to yourself, all that free time to make the most of, and behind them that horrible, echoing question, a version of which we’ve heard since childhood: what are you doing with your life? Late last year, I had a weekend that started the way they usually do, with the idea that the thing was to relax, have a leisurely breakfast, enjoy my day off.

By the third cup of coffee, this felt like a terrible mistake. To do something, get stuff done – that was what the weekend was for. I thought about painting and weeding, and I thought about hauling rubbish to the dump. Nothing is more satisfying than dropping rubbish off at the dump. I rushed to a petrol station and hired a trailer. I took to the garden with shears and a saw, cutting and snipping so I might take it away, forever out of my life. I tore into a dead branch with a cheap pruning saw, whipping the saw as fast as I could. The trailer was only mine for an hour. I was part way through, the branch frothing with sawdust, when the blade skidded out of the cut, across the branch, and into my hand. It went deep into my finger. I saw things I never wanted to see, and the wound welled with blood. It ran down my arm and dripped from my elbow. Drip, drip, drip. A countdown – because from then on, my day became entirely occupied by one thing: the need to get to a doctor. My injury was a symptom of my weekend anxieties and it was the cure. I worried about nothing else.

Mark Manson. Image: markmanson.net

For several weeks, I went about more or less content with whatever I could do with one arm bandaged from elbow to fingertip in a plaster splint. I read books and went on gentle walks, typed one handed and listened to records. I paused before using any sort of cutting instrument, thinking carefully about where it might lead. Gradually, over these easy-going days, my wound healed and the sling was discarded. ACC paid for several weeks of hand therapy with a helpful guy who had me flex and stretch, and squeeze some sort of therapeutic silly putty. I made it back to normal. I could form a fist, hold a saw. There was no reason not to do anything I wanted. Once again, I began to count the ways in which I waste my time.

It was with all this in mind that, on another weekend, I sat down to read a book of self-help: Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck. The title suggested – as it must to many people – something uniquely attuned to my needs. Manson preaches acceptance of worries and concerns – the need to let things fly, to probe and question what it is you value in life rather than blindly striving for some vague notion of success. It’s huge in the US. The book is a New York Times best-seller endorsed by the god Thor himself: “A good kick in the arse that I needed,” wrote Chris Hemsworth. It’s tempting to read The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck with its themes of accepting failure as arriving just in time for a nation in decline, a book as orange and vulgar as the current Commander in Chief.

But the book is a best-seller, too, at Unity Books in Auckland. Why so popular in New Zealand? We’re not immune to trends, or the idea that we can try for better. That said, the question can be narrowed: why Auckland? Subtle Art hardly flickers on the Unity best-seller list for Wellington. Then again, smug old Wellington has always known best – no need for outside help. The rest of the country is too busy getting on with things. Auckland though is our most commercially minded of cities, our most striving; like the US, it’s told it’s the greatest and yet never able to reach its potential. In urgent need, perhaps, of learning how to give less of a fuck?

Manson writes of being caught with drugs as a teenager, of travelling the world, and he makes several references to having quit an office job to start a blog. Nothing in this past is just, huh, a thing that happened, but is always something to be worked over until it forms a single point. When a roommate skipped out without paying their share of the rent, it wasn’t just a pretty typical feature of the life of a young middle-class graduate, but the catalyst to realising that money doesn’t matter after all and, by wiping out his savings and dropping him to rock bottom, this action gives him the freedom to take risks, to pursue his own projects. He was 22 when this happened and I can’t help but think that although my grandparents bought $20 worth of Bonus Bonds in my name when I was born, at 22 I don’t believe I had anything I would describe as “savings”.

Despite all this, he’s vague about his past too. A “blog about my crazy dating life” is about as detailed as he gets in describing his blog, and of himself he writes that he had been “a player – an immature, selfish, albeit sometimes charming player.” Some Googling reveals that he was in fact a “professional PUA”, that is a pick-up artist who sold advice on seducing women to other men. His original website was practicalpickup.com, where you might learn, among other things, “How to get threesomes” or read a discussion on the ethics of sleeping with a bride to be on the night of her bachelorette party (a pretty tentative “no” seemed to be the conclusion). By the time of a 2012 interview, he had changed his views on this controversial practice, and came to see it as adversarial and toxic. “Men,” he said, “need to learn to get in touch with their emotions, to connect with others and develop real and lasting confidence in themselves rather than measuring themselves by the validation they receive from women and money.”

The answer, though, was still “dating advice”. He published Models, a book, his website says, about “becoming an attractive man based not on tricks, tactics, games or techniques, but on self-development…Its focus is on the emotional process of seduction rather than agonizing over logical steps.” In The Subtle Art, he advises that sex shouldn’t be a measure of success. It’s advice still given in terms that seem like they’d be at home on practicalpickup.com: “the solution to our stress and anxiety is right there in front of our noses, and we’re too busy watching porn and advertisements for ab machines that don’t work, wondering why we’re not banging a hot blonde with a rocking six-pack, to notice.”

Self-help, self-improvement, self, self, self. Manson rails at the modern culture of narcissism, but his book is about the individual, and the neoliberal notion that we only have ourselves to thank or to blame for our lot in life. He devotes a chapter to the need for personal responsibility, argues that even those disadvantaged by their genetics need to get on and take responsibility for themselves, and makes a jabs at what he calls “victimhood chic”. He tells a story about a man who reacted to this argument, who accused him of being shallow. This man had lost a son and felt that being told to take responsibility for his loss was a step too far. Manson tells how he agonised over how to respond, wondering at first whether he had it wrong himself, before getting angry at the man’s accusation. Finally, he realised that the better path was to take his own advice, and he chose to work on “practicing patience, understanding my readers better, and keeping that man in mind every time I wrote about pain and trauma from then on.” He responded by telling the man he was sorry for his loss.

That story about the grieving man bugged me, bugs me still. It summed up the way I felt about Manson. Empathy in that story, like everything else in his hands, only seemed to exist as fuel for personal improvement. I couldn’t latch on to this neat processing of experience, this method by which realising that women deserve respect leads to recalibrated seduction advice, and recasting your dreams, not giving a fuck about status or wealth or pleasure, is a means to self-contentment only. The title doesn’t lie: there’s a cynicism there, the lack of a basic sort of curiosity. Could it not be that those discoveries were also opportunities to look outward, to contribute, and to cultivate compassion more generally? I expect too much – Manson recently blogged that among the things people should give less of a fuck about are Donald Trump and school shootings.

But I did find some sustenance in The Subtle Art. Manson doesn’t go in for the positive thinking school of self-help. He makes a good case for struggle. “Think of it as a guide to suffering,” he writes of his book, and he argues that to aim for something, whether it’s fame, fortune or love, is as much an exercise in taking on the problems and toil that accompany it. There’s no avoiding this, no visualising of success – telling ourselves we’re the greatest and can do anything as a way of zipping past struggle to arrive at some grandiose goal. Instead, our agency is in choosing the problems we’re prepared to take on, asking ourselves whether we are as ready for those as we are for the result. He writes about the need to hone our values as a means of making sure that the problems we do encounter are the right ones, that they lead somewhere meaningful, and are not simply hurdles we’ve created through a misplaced lust for wealth or pleasure. This is where the “subtle art” of the title comes into it. It’s essentially about deciding what’s truly important to you, what’s worth the inevitable stress and worry and what’s not.

There was much in this I could nod to, just as there were times where he seemed to veer into nonsense or bullshit or, in the case of that chapter on responsibility, something worse. But in the moments I put the book down, the detail of its lessons evaporated. What’s it about? Someone would say. Something or other about a fuck or a shit is all I could tell them. The arguments and ideas were piled up, breezy and easy to read, and just as easy to forget. Perhaps this is why books of this kind are so successful: it’s only by reading them that you can sustain the feeling that you’ve picked up some wisdom. And so we seek out another and another again, the lessons of the last already faint.

Evidence for this can be found in the corner of opshops or at the least visited table of the book fair: old self-help books pile up forgotten. There’s something embarrassing about an idea once enthusiastically embraced and then left to wither, like a hairdo we’d rather not recall (in high school, I parted my hair down the middle so that it resembled a book open on its spine). One day, The Subtle Art will take its place next to Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars or Was it The Other Way Around.

“Don’t take anything I say seriously,” Manson writes on his blog. “Unless you want to, of course. But the point is to think for yourself.” In this, he was successful. His book was a prompt, perhaps because of that relentless self, at making me consider happiness. I began to wonder what it was I expected from a book on the subject when even a saw to the hand and serious injury had only a temporary effect on the way I think. I realised that happiness and contentment were by my definition fleeting things. They are found in small moments, snippets of life when circumstances and surroundings spark something that’s not thought, a reaction too fast, too ineffable to be pinned down or prodded into being: walking into a bar to discover a friend is already there, spotting my partner’s face among the strangers on the train at the end of the day, or those few seconds, before I foul things up, of waking to realise it’s Saturday. These are just a few. You’ll have your own, those times where happiness lives and not giving a fuck is no option.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck by Mark Manson (MacMillan, $35) is available at Unity Books.


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