I’m not usually one for self-help books. I’ve always felt life lessons are best learned through enduring personal experience, rather than heeding prescriptive advice from writers who enjoy a very different existence to my own.
That said, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck had an intriguing title and the coveted #1 New York Times Bestseller accolade - enough to warrant a read from me.
Before reading the book, I was of the view that many of these so-called “experts” in happiness and productivity are multi-millionaires who can afford to spend their time focusing on “the self” rather than work deadlines, commuting, money, family commitments.
But maybe that isn't the case...
Perhaps I too am guilty of assuming those who have-it-all on the surface are in some way less exposed to the (sometimes) very brutal reality of life on planet earth.
Celebrities, for instance, are not exempt from pain. They may have more money than they could ever know how to spend, and enjoy the most luxurious of lifestyles, but they can still be lonely. They can still be betrayed by loved ones. They feel the profound, unspeakable pain of losing someone close. They too can feel overwhelmed, unhappy, frustrated, unfulfilled. The list goes on.
On that basis – and the fact that the title was so intriguingly provocative – I decided to give The Subtle Art the benefit of the doubt and commit a few hours of my precious free time to discovering how to care less about more.
It’s certainly an interesting concept. In short, Manson theorises that we only have a finite amount of f*cks to give, and should therefore be selective about who and what dominates our thoughts and deserves our effort. On many levels, it’s a nod to the adage that you can’t be the best at everything, so don’t try to be, or there are only so many hours in a day, or choose your battles carefully.
What first struck me about this book is how much sense it talks. That’s not a ringing endorsement, so much as an acknowledgment of how simple the solutions to our lives problems are purported to be. The underlying message throughout is akin to don’t sweat the small stuff. People may look happy on social media, but they’re probably as miserable as you are so don’t worry about it! It’s a peculiar lens to look at life through – to essentially mistrust everything that you see, hear and read – but in today’s hyper-connected world where social currency is at an all-time high, it makes perfect sense.
In the same way that glossy, aspirational magazines have dominated the shelves of supermarkets and newsagents for decades, our smartphones now provide the portal to a shallow and false world where unrealistic expectations are shoved down our throats at every turn.
Luckily for me, I’m not of the Instagram generation where I hang on every word that the Kardashian clan utters. I genuinely don’t care what most actors have to say, unless it’s a) coming out of their mouths in a movie, or b) is a legitimately worthwhile contribution to general discourse - spreading the word about important causes, urging the youth of today to vote, supporting and encouraging others.
Another saying from yesteryear is that a picture is worth a thousand words. Where Instagram and the like are concerned, this simply isn’t true. A monstrous proportion of the images peddled out on social media feeds could be effectively labelled with a single word – “fake”, “unrealistic”, “photoshopped”, “misleading”, “manipulative”.
You can probably tell already that I’m not someone who needs to learn how to give less f*cks about social media. I’ve got that action down already. I know where the value in social media lies for me – in political commentaries, in knowledge sharing, in spreading joy, in learning and educating, in provoking thought and celebrating successes.
Where I do need help, however, is in my day-to-day job. I’m a self-confessed workaholic; a conscientious perfectionist whose work is never done.
The word “perfectionist” never fails to transport me back to Spud’s job interview in the 1996 film release, Trainspotting. Asked by the panel, “Do you see yourself as having any weaknesses?”, Spud defiantly shakes his head before exclaiming with untempered enthusiasm, “Oh yes! ‘Cause, like, I’m a bit of a perfectionist actually!”
In the 20+ years since the release of the film, perfectionism has become a bit of a punchline. In the context of the movie, it’s a hilarious response that prompts visible cringing from the audience. In real-life, however, the unrelenting pursuit of perfection for many professionals is no laughing matter.
This is where The Subtle Art is of use to me.
There is a lot to be said for letting go and understanding that not all work can be done to the highest standard, every moment of every day. Mistakes will be made. There will be errors of judgement, missed deadlines, insufficient communication, unexpected results. And that’s ok, providing we learn from them.
Manson makes an excellent point in the opening chapters to the book:
Problems are a constant in life. When you solve your health problem by buying a gym membership, you create new problems like having to get up early to get to the gym on time, sweating like a meth-head for thirty minutes on an elliptical, and then getting showered and changed for work so you don’t stink up the whole office… Problems never stop; they merely get exchanged and / or upgraded.
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. If you feel like you have problems that you can’t solve, you will likewise make yourself miserable. The secret sauce is in the solving of the problems, not in not having problems in the first place.
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.
To view problem-solving as an opportunity to learn, develop and grow is refreshingly simplistic – and surprisingly rare. On paper, it seems so easy. A little too easy…
Picture your inbox after a two-week holiday. Just the thought can be suffocating; a tightness in your chest, an unwelcome sense of dread enveloping you as you try – and fail - to get to sleep the night before your return.
The prospect is daunting. And usually for good reason…
Did your co-workers successfully cover your workload?
Is the project that you’ve been overseeing for six months still on track?
What if there are multiple urgent requests from senior stakeholders? Who should you respond to first?
What if you miss something vital in your hurry to catch up?
What if you don’t get a spare moment to even sort through the emails and your inbox grows to insurmountable levels?
What if you become trapped beneath the avalanche of your own despair, self-doubt and disorganisation?
What if? What if? What if?!!
It’s not hard to see how these unhelpful – and typically unwarranted – thoughts can soon spiral out-of-control to cataclysmic proportions, when the only question you should really be asking yourself is “how can you best manage your incoming workload in a healthy manner within a set timeframe?”
In line with Manson’s thinking, if you only had one f*ck to give on the day you return to work after a break, what would it be for?
If clearing your inbox is essential to your ongoing productivity, then focus on how to achieve this result in the most efficient way.
Don’t schedule calls or meetings for the morning of your return, for instance. Block out time in your calendar. Consider automating your filing process with keywords, or labelling items based on priority order. Delete non-essential communications. File interesting-but-not-imperative mail in a “for future reference” folder – a place to return to in a few days’ or weeks’ time when you’re (hopefully) back on an even keel and have the mental capacity to garner value from such things. Make technology your friend.
If catching up with your team is top of your priority list, then that’s fine too. Make time for it. Don’t rush important updates and conversations for the sake of ticking a few items off from further down your to-do list. Giving too many f*cks about too many things equates to spreading yourself too thinly and your output inevitably suffers.
I’m hard-wired to care about the little things; to want to be the best possible version of myself. This is not a flaw. It’s not a mentality that needs to be changed, nor a problem that needs to be fixed. It’s an aspiration. I want to be reliable, honest and hard-working in all aspects of life.
If being the best version of myself is the one thing that I obsess over – the one f*ck I choose to give - then the rest will fall into place. It doesn’t matter if I’m not the cleverest, the richest, the most successful, the most well-read, the fastest, the funniest.
What matters is the conscious commitment to continual self-improvement – through facing life’s challenges and solving its problems – because I believe, in the ever-eloquent words of the great Emmett Brown, that “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything!”
Thanks Doc. Never a truer word spoken.