Review: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck

At heart, Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck is a book about values. In particular, the author wants to help you identify good values to live by. Or, in his parlance, to help you decide what to “give a fuck” about. You cannot care about everything, he argues, so you must pick a few things to care about, and you must pick wisely.

Manson, a “star blogger” according to the book’s jacket, tells the story of Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese soldier stationed on a Philippine island in World War II. After the Japanese Empire surrendered in 1945, Onoda continued guerrilla warfare from the jungle, sometimes killing innocent civilians. For years, he ignored search parties and leaflets imploring him to stop fighting and come home, because he thought they were Allied propaganda.

After three decades, much of which Onoda spent alone in the jungle, someone found him and convinced him that the war had ended long ago. You might think the Japanese soldier would be relieved that he could leave the jungle to return to Japan and, after so many years, see his family again. But no.

When Onoda returned to Japan, the country’s westernized culture disgusted him. He valued honor and self-reliance and he had taken his duty to defend his country extremely seriously. Onoda realized he had spent much of his life trying to protect a country that no longer existed the way he knew it.

What Onoda cared about, Manson suggests, was simply incompatible with post-war Japanese society. In 1970s Japan, Onoda could not live according to his values, so he could not be happy. In fact, the soldier suggested that he had been happier living in the Philippine jungle. His time there gave his life meaning.

Onoda’s case is extreme, but does illustrate Manson’s point that your values, the things you choose to care about, go a long way in determining whether you can live a fulfilling life.

Manson argues this point convincingly. But oddly, the book’s title suggests the book will teach you how not to care about things; it suggests it will help you cultivate indifference. That’s not Manson’s message. In fact, in the very beginning of the book, the author goes out of his way to tell you that he does not advocate indifference, leaving me to wonder whether the publisher chose a book title that Manson knew might give a false impression of his message. Instead of advocating indifference, Manson argues that you should carefully choose a few values—not too many—that you care about, and then make every effort to live by them.

As you’d also suspect from its title, Manson’s book comes with copious amounts of profanity. The abundance of “fucks” did not do anything for me, but also did not bother me. Maybe the swearing is there to catch the reader’s attention. Either way, once I started reading, Manson did not need profanity to keep me interested.

That’s because Manson is a good writer. Maybe he realized this too, because he swears less as the book goes on. In high school, I learned that rule number one for writing is to “write concisely and precisely” and Manson sticks to this rule throughout the book. He confronts the reader, but not because of the profanity. It’s because he writes clearly and asks good questions.

Manson also does a great job of throwing the reader for a loop when he wants to. At one point, he discusses the meaning of problems and the importance of choosing how you view a given situation. “What is objectively true about your situation”, he writes, “is not as important as how you come to see the situation, how you choose to measure it and value it.”

So when he starts a subsequent section with a story about some guy who got thrown out of a band, you think you know what’s going to happen: getting thrown out of that band will be the best thing that’s ever happened to this guy. You read on and Manson tells you that this guy is Dave Mustaine, who started a new band and worked his butt off to get revenge against his old band. And his new band, Megadeth, has sold 50 million records to date! You predicted correctly: Mustaine got his revenge.

But no: Mustaine, Manson writes, admitted in an interview that he still sees himself as a failure, because his goal was to sell more records than his old band. Unfortunately, 50 million records didn’t do the trick, because the band he got kicked out of is Metallica, which has sold over 110 million records. Outselling your old band, Manson writes, is an example of a poor metric by which to measure your happiness.

The author sprinkled in plenty of other stories to illustrate his arguments, which help make the book a page-turner. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck is entertaining yet serious and is a quick read despite asking the reader thoughtful questions. I can only recommend it.

And what became of the Japanese soldier Onoda? He emigrated to Brazil, returning to Japan mostly to set up camps to teach kids about self-reliance, one of his old values.

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