Date Read: June 2017
If I had to sum this book up in very few words, I’d say it’s “Stoicism-lite for Millennials”.
I almost stopped reading after the first chapter, however I’m glad I didn’t - the rest of the book was filled with interesting information and a counter-intuitive way of looking at the world.
Overall, I enjoyed the tone of the book. Manson’s style meant it was an easy read. Generally, the swearing didn’t detract from the subject matter although I couldn’t help but feel it was a bit of a marketing gimmick. However, if it gets more younger people reading about these concepts that can only be a good thing.
There were many parallels with Stoic philosophy, but also a few distinct differences which are definitely food for thoughht.
My biggest takeaways
“The Backwards Law” : The more you pursue feeling better all the time, the less satisfied you become. Pursuing something only reinforces the fact you lack it in the first place.
- Defining and knowing your personal values
- It’s ok to be less certain and have doubts (and probably a good thing)
- Asking questions to create uncertainty
- You choose how to perceive the world
- Take responsibility for your choices
The overall premise of the book is the key to a good life is not giving a fuck about more; it’s giving a fuck about less, giving a fuck about only what is true and immediate and important.
Alongside other books I’ve read recently, Manson’s argument is that we should care less about the unimportant things - we only have so much energy and attention and so we should focus on the important things that matter to us and let the other stuff go.
Part of the problem is that we simply have too much stuff and too many opportunities such that the paradox of choice means we are overwhelmed which just adds to the problem:
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.
A central theme of the book is that life is filled with pain and problems, we actually crave these but treat them as negative experiences whilst seeking the pleasurable “good” experiences. Instead we should embrace the pain and problems and in that we will find the pleasure.
We’re bombarded by so much media and advertising telling us how we’re supposed to be, to desire to be a certain way that causes these supposedly positive experiences to become a negative.
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.
Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience.
In clear parallels to Stoicism, accepting that life is not just honey and roses and learning to live with pain and problems
Because once you become comfortable with all the shit that life throws at you (and it will throw a lot of shit, trust me), you become invincible in a sort of low-level spiritual way. After all, the only way to overcome pain is to first learn how to bear it
He suggests that having this dissatisfaction which gives us the drive to achieve
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.
Throughout the book there are many counter-intuitive notions which I found help to look at things in a new way:
“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.”
Too many people are just looking for the end-result; the victory, the glory. The want to skip ahead to the good bit at the end. Be the overnight success when in reality we should look at the journey as the satisfying part. As evidenced already by many who are considered as having “made it”, those people find that “the end” was not what they had thought it was and were still dissatisfied.
I wanted the reward and not the struggle. I wanted the result and not the process. I was in love with not the fight but only the victory. And life doesn’t work that way.
It’s a never-ending upward spiral. And if you think at any point you’re allowed to stop climbing, I’m afraid you’re missing the point. Because the joy is in the climb itself.
We don’t actually know what a positive or negative experience is. Some of the most difficult and stressful moments of our lives also end up being the most formative and motivating.
Our values determine the metrics by which we measure ourselves and everyone else. If you want to change how you see your problems, you have to change what you value and/or how you measure failure/success.
The chapters on values were actually some of the most interesting in the book and opened by eyes to many things I should question about myself.
Most self-help gurus ignore this deeper level of self-awareness as well. They take people who are miserable because they want to be rich, and then give them all sorts of advice on how to make more money, all the while ignoring important values-based questions: Why do they feel such a need to be rich in the first place? How are they choosing to measure success/failure for themselves? Is it not perhaps some particular value that’s the root cause of their unhappiness, and not the fact that they don’t drive a Bentley yet?
I will be certainly taking many of the questions posed in the book and using them in my daily reflection.
One of the central tenets of Stoic thought - perception - was clearly evident in the book:
Problems may be inevitable, but the meaning of each problem is not. We get to control what our problems mean based on how we choose to think about them, the standard by which we choose to measure them.
The book contained the story of Dave Mustaine, the guitarist who was kicked out of Metallica, and how even though that gave him the drive to double down and start Megadeth he still considered himself a failure. Even though by anyone’s measure they are a super successful band.
I also found this interesting as the other side of the story from Kurt Hammett, the guitarist who replaced him in Metallica, which is covered in Ego is the Enemy and is another lesson in Stoic thought.
It’s important to note that there are good healthy values and also bad values.
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. Bad values are generally reliant on external events
Good values are:
- Socially constructive
- Immediate and controllable
Bad values are:
- Socially destructive
- Not immediate or controllable
Bad values are things like:
- Material success
- Always being right
He also says staying positive is a bad value but I think I disagree with this one - or at least part of it. I take the stoic view of turning obstacles upside down to advance action. You could view this as staying positive but I think that most people would struggle to be positive by default and the stoic course is the way to take stock and frame it as positive and try to take action.
Responsibility and blame
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.
I found these really powerful
There is a simple realization from which all personal improvement and growth emerges. This is the realization that 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.
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. You are choosing to read this. You are choosing to think about the concepts. You are choosing to accept or reject the concepts. It may be my fault that you think my ideas are lame, but you are responsible for coming to your own conclusions. It’s not your fault that I chose to write this sentence, but you are still responsible for choosing to read it (or not).
Outrage is like a lot of other things that feel good but over time devour us from the inside out. And it’s even more insidious than most vices because we don’t even consciously acknowledge that it’s a pleasure.
Certainty is the enemy of growth. Nothing is for certain until it has already happened—and even then, it’s still debatable. That’s why accepting the inevitable imperfections of our values is necessary for any growth to take place.
Knowing who you are
Most of our beliefs are wrong. Or, to be more exact, all beliefs are wrong—some are just less wrong than others. The human mind is a jumble of inaccuracy. And while this may make you uncomfortable, it’s an incredibly important concept to accept,
We need more uncertainty in our lives, we should question what we know and believe.
A more interesting question, a question that most people never consider, is, “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.
Uncertainty is the root of all progress and all growth. As the old adage goes, the man who believes he knows everything learns nothing. We cannot learn anything without first not knowing something. The more we admit we do not know, the more opportunities we gain to learn.
The more something threatens your identity, the more you will avoid it.
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.
Here are some questions that will help you breed a little more uncertainty in your life.
- Question #1: What if I’m wrong?
- Question #2: What would it mean if I were wrong?
- Question #3: Would being wrong create a better or a worse problem than my current problem, for both myself and others?
At some point, most of us reach a place where we’re afraid to fail, where we instinctively avoid failure and stick only to what is placed in front of us or only what we’re already good at.
Because I failed to separate what I felt from what was, I was incapable of stepping outside myself and seeing the world for what it was: a simple place where two people can walk up to each other at any time and speak.
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. Savour it. Welcome it with open arms. Then act despite it.
Life is about not knowing and then doing something anyway. All of life is like this. It never changes. Even when you’re happy. Even when you’re farting fairy dust. Even when you win the lottery and buy a small fleet of Jet Skis, you still won’t know what the hell you’re doing. Don’t ever forget that. And don’t ever be afraid of that.
“If you’re stuck on a problem, don’t sit there and think about it; just start working on it. Even if you don’t know what you’re doing, the simple act of working on it will eventually cause the right ideas to show up in your head.”
Throughout the book, Manson suggests that solving problems makes us happy (Thinking, Fast and Slow references research which backs this premise up) and so:
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.
In my meditation practice, it teaches us to listen to our emotions and use even the supposed negative ones as a beneficial action
Emotions are simply biological signals designed to nudge you in the direction of beneficial change.
In other words, negative emotions are a call to action. When you feel them, it’s because you’re supposed to do something.
There were a number of quotable pithy phrases in the book that I found and felt would be good reminders
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.
Action → Inspiration → Motivation
Failure does not need to be regarded as something to be avoided or seen as a negative.
If we follow the “do something” principle, failure feels unimportant. When the standard of success becomes merely acting—when any result is regarded as progress and important, when inspiration is seen as a reward rather than a prerequisite—we propel ourselves ahead. We feel free to fail, and that failure moves us forward.
Making choices and narrowing our freedoms, paradoxically provides us with meaning and importance.
Freedom grants the opportunity for greater meaning, but by itself there is nothing necessarily meaningful about it. 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.
Conflict is necessary to maintain healthy relationships
Conflict is not only normal, then; it’s absolutely necessary for the maintenance of a healthy relationship. If two people who are close are not able to hash out their differences openly and vocally, then the relationship is based on manipulation and misrepresentation, and it will slowly become toxic.
And trust is essential
Trust is the most important ingredient in any relationship, for the simple reason that without trust, the relationship doesn’t actually mean anything.
In parallels to Essentialism
I’ve discovered is something entirely counterintuitive: that there is a freedom and liberation in commitment. I’ve found increased opportunity and upside in rejecting alternatives and distractions in favour of what I’ve chosen to let truly matter to me.
This sums up the chapter on death, quite succinctly:
You’re going to die one day. I know that’s kind of obvious, but I just wanted to remind you in case you’d forgotten. You and everyone you know are going to be dead soon. And in the short amount of time between here and there, you have a limited amount of fucks to give. Very few, in fact. And if you go around giving a fuck about everything and everyone without conscious thought or choice—well, then you’re going to get fucked.
Generally, the concept of death scares us and it’s this which causes us to create Immortality Projects.
Death scares us. And because it scares us, we avoid thinking about it, talking about it, sometimes even acknowledging it, even when it’s happening to someone close to us.
Becker called such efforts our “immortality projects,” projects that allow our conceptual self to live on way past the point of our physical death.
It’s why people try to put their names on buildings, statues, spines of books.
All the meaning in our life is shaped by this innate desire to never truly die.
Again, facing death and framing it in a more positive way is a stoic principle.
While death is bad, it is inevitable. Therefore, we should not avoid this realisation, but rather come to terms with it as best we can. Because once we become comfortable with the fact of our own death—the root terror, the underlying anxiety motivating all of life’s frivolous ambitions—we can then choose our values more freely, unrestrained by the illogical quest for immortality, and freed from dangerous dogmatic views.
The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.
Death is the only thing we can know with any certainty. And as such, it must be the compass by which we orient all of our other values and decisions.
You too are going to die, and that’s because you too were fortunate enough to have lived. You may not feel this. But go stand on a cliff sometime, and maybe you will.