the subtle art

What a great title, right? It’s modern, a bit edgy, it creates excitement and expectations. You’re probably envisioning some incredible insight about life or relationships or something, maybe written as a series of personal stories told in a self-deprecating and sarcastic way, but at the same time raw, powerful, emotional… well, strap in and prepare to be disappointed. This is exactly how I felt (add a good dose of frustration) while reading the book with this title,  written by some guy.

To be fair, I don’t think I was part of the target audience. “It has become an accepted part of our culture today to believe that we are all destined to do something truly extraordinary. Celebrities say it. Business tycoons say it. Politicians say it. Even Oprah says it (so it must be true). Each and every one of us can be extraordinary. We all deserve greatness.” (p 31) Seems clear to me that it’s intended towards the US readers (from the references, the tone), though I was still intrigued.

I also did not know that it was a self-help book, only found out about half way through that it was on New York Times’ Advice, How-To & Miscellaneous bestselling books of 2016, though one might understandably miss this small detail while reading: “This book doesn’t give a fuck about alleviating your problems or your pain. (…) Instead, this book will turn your pain into a tool, your trauma into power, and your problems into slightly better problems. That is real progress. (…) It will teach you to give fewer fucks. It will teach you to not try.” (p. 13-14)

And this is where I should have stopped. But no, I marched on. Either I get my epiphany or I lose my sanity in the process!

“We mean that Mark Manson is the type of guy who would write about himself in third person just because he thought it was the right thing to do. He just doesn’t give a fuck. This is what is so admirable. No, not me, dumbass—the overcoming adversity stuff, the willingness to be different, an outcast, a pariah, all for the sake of one’s own values. You can’t be an important and life-changing presence for some people without also being a joke and an embarrassment to others.”

Thank you for managing to insult me, sound like a douchebag and spew some of the worst (or best) nonsense I have heard in a while, all in one paragraph.

Honestly, the first half of the book was a painful experience, both mentally and physically, as I had to stop every few minutes and rant out loud, sometimes even pacing around the house (guess it helped with daily exercise – see, finding positivity, it definitely worked).

Things like:

“If I ask you, “What do you want out of life?” and you say something like, “I want to be happy and have a great family and a job I like,” your response is so common and expected that it doesn’t really mean anything.” (p. 20)

Sure, it’s a cliché but there’s a reason for why people say this. If you would project it over Maslow’s pyramid you would see that it covers all the levels; having a job takes care of the basic needs but also the environmental and the intellectual dimensions, a family helps fulfilling our need for love and belonging, and all elements combine in ensuring our quota for self-esteem.

“Brilliant businesspeople are often fuckups in their personal lives. Extraordinary athletes are often shallow and as dumb as a lobotomized rock. Many celebrities are probably just as clueless about life as the people who gawk at them and follow their every move.”

Brilliant people in general can have fucked up personal lives, sometimes it’s because they are brilliant and have a different view on the world. Don’t know if I’m disclosing a big secret here, but celebrities are people, like you and me. Just because Adele has a great voice or Leonardo DiCaprio can act incredibly well, doesn’t mean I’m looking at them for life advice (nor should anyone). With athletes I have a small note to make, not because I did do a bit of sports but because I know this world better than most. The lifespan of an athlete’s career is pretty short so their education usually suffers, either because they go to special schools, training schedule or travelling. Quite often they are judged only by one thing, their athletic performance, so they are more likely to become shallow, thinking that this is how you measure one’s worth. Factor in that they sometimes have to deal with lots of attention, fame, money from an earlier age than most and you get an idea how this environment is not particularly good for academic growth… Again though, just because someone excels in one area, it doesn’t mean that we can extrapolate this for all areas of life.

“We’re all, for the most part, pretty average people. But it’s the extremes that get all of the publicity. We kind of know this already, but we rarely think and/or talk about it, and we certainly never discuss why this could be a problem.”

The extremes get publicity because they are extreme, they are out of the ordinary, they are different. This has always been true and it’s specific not only to human society but it happens in nature too.

Having values is important but defining them can be hard…

“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

Some examples of good, healthy values: honesty(ok), innovation(what?), vulnerability(?), standing up for oneself (like self-respect?), standing up for others(noble), self-respect(sure), curiosity(?), charity(generosity?), humility(yes), creativity(?).

Some examples of bad, unhealthy values: dominance through manipulation or violence, indiscriminate fucking, feeling good all the time, always being the center of attention, not being alone, being liked by everybody, being rich for the sake of being rich, sacrificing small animals to the pagan gods.”

I am genuinely curious how some of these actually fit the criteria. He doesn’t explain this but just makes a blanket statement: “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.”

Oh, it’s that easy, just need to orient my mind? Ok…ahm, how? Had to google it and came up with…

I’ve probably bored the hell out of you with my rant by now, but when you promote yourself by saying “I write about big ideas and give life advice that doesn’t suck.” while making this sort of superficial statements, you don’t fully explore all possibilities and points of view in an argument and draw incomplete or flawed conclusions, it kind of makes the whole thing moot.

“Buddhism argues that your idea of who “you” are is an arbitrary mental construction and that you should let go of the idea that “you” exist at all; that the arbitrary metrics by which you define yourself actually trap you, and thus you’re better off letting go of everything. In a sense, you could say that Buddhism encourages you to not give a fuck.” (p. 66)

Or, in a sense, you could say Buddhism encourages you to constantly challenge the set of rules or beliefs by which you define yourself, to actually give a fuck about growing and exploring your inner self and the world around you, to find your limits and try and surpass them…

I’m not upset that I didn’t have some mind-blowing realisation (nor was I expecting it), but rather at the wasted potential and the way it undermines its own message. The second part actually has some good points, talking about how critical trust is in a relationship, how important it is to assume responsibility for your actions and your state of mind, introduces an interesting concept – the “Do Something” Principle, warns about how our culture is plagued by consumerism and self-victimisation.

And then he goes on and casually throws out that “after all the years of excitement, the biggest lesson I took from my adventuring (visiting 55 countries) was this: absolute freedom, by itself, means nothing. (…) 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”. It’s like he’s forgotten about the very first story of the book (and some of the subsequent ones), where he discusses perspective and how to chose metrics for evaluating experiences.

There’s a pretty well written passage at the end, a story of how he was in South Africa, at Cape Hope, right at the edge of the promontory, hundreds of feet up, gazing at the endless ocean, wind blowing, heart pumping, the moment you experience true freedom, accepting the frailty of life… and on that note he should have ended the book. He didn’t. Planted there, at the end, like a flag in a new found land, was the question: “What is your legacy?” And my answer came swiftly: “I don’t give a fuck about legacies!”. People should be thinking about how to live their lives as best as they can and care about their loved ones while they are alive, not whether if or how they will be remembered. (if you do, you won’t have to worry)

I guess I should be happy that I did get a lesson… on how not to be superficial in life, how writing about generic things will always be profitable or how important it is, now more than ever, to educate ourselves and others.




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