Though it goes by more names than it used to, the “self-help” genre is in the midst of a revitalization. Gone are the days of people decrying the works of Napoleon Hill and Stephen Covey as self-righteous prescriptions pedaled by snake oil salesman. Instead, those books are being placed in the featured sections of bookstores, often among a bevy of others. You don’t have to spend an hour looking for them —rest assured, they’ll find you. In 2018, three of the top ten best-selling books on Amazon were classified as “self-help.” This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. As the youth of yesteryear obtain more buying power in the market, it makes sense that their tastes will begin to overshadow those of previous generations’. Millennials are finding value in places their elders got tired of looking, and the result is what we’re seeing today.
If you ask author Mark Manson, he’d be thrilled with this news. Manson is the author of the mega-bestseller, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life. The book has sold millions of copies in just under three years and inspired an equally profane sequel. It’s compact and pithy, and the advice contained within runs the gamut from simple axioms to methods that completely re-frame one’s thinking. Aside from being an obvious marketing ploy, the book’s title is slightly misleading: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck is more about being selective with the fucks you give, and understanding the consequences of the way you allot those fucks, than it is eliminating “the fuck” as a unit. All in all, The Subtle Art offers streamlined, relatively basic advice in a modern-day package that’s palatable for a young audience. There’s definite room for improvement, but that also depends on whether or not you give a fuck.
Subtle Art follows the basic template for books of its ilk. Author sees problem, author exposes problem, author provides his or her solution to said problem. The problem that Subtle Art tries to solve is a lack of happiness. People today (especially Americans) suffer from a weird conundrum that only manifests in consumerist cultures: we have more than ever before, yet, on the whole, depression and anxiety cases have skyrocketed, and happiness levels are on the decline. The answer, Manson says in one of the book’s more salient points, comes from how people view happiness as a fixed destination, rather than a constantly changing roadmap.
Happiness comes from solving problems…To be happy, we need something to solve… Happiness is a constant work in progress, because solving problems is a constant work in progress…True happiness only occurs when you find the problems you enjoy having and enjoy solving.The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, p 31-32
We’ve all got problems, and no one’s problems are special, Manson says. Part of not giving a fuck is learning to choose how you respond to your problems and find joy in solving them.
Part of the charm of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck comes from the way it is able to re-purpose some of the less desirable baby boomer mantras in ways that are less combative than and more tasteful than they are when they come from the mouths of crotchety old men. At its core, a lot of the book is no nonsense: you are not special, you are responsible for how you react to things, etc. These are things that have been trumpeted by old people and conservative pundits alike as they denounce participation trophies and political correctness. When Manson delivers the message, though, he sweetens it just enough: you may not be at fault for that thing that happened last week, but it does fall on you to react appropriately.
He reframes the discussion of life’s daily problems by asking his audience to examine their personal values. Why do you feel “stuck” in life? Is it because everyone is out to get you, or have you been living in such a way that values going to bars with friends over important personal work? You have the problems you have because of the values you hold true–only when those values align with your desires will you be able to solve the right problems and find lasting happiness. The onus is still on the reader, but it’s a bit easier to swallow than “man up and do it,” or “back in my day…” More importantly, it offers a real roadmap to achievement rather than criticism for the sake of it. The art of not giving a fuck begins with giving enough fucks to discover what you don’t have to give a fuck about. Fuck.
A lot of times, people come to self-help books to have someone tell them the hard truth, the one they can’t face themselves. Other times, the real discovery comes from someone telling you what you’ve known to be true all along, just in a manner that is easy to break down and implement. This is what happens in Subtle Art. None of the information is particularly groundbreaking, or new, for that matter. The end-game —find what you want out of life and create a system that will best facilitate that goal— is as old as the self-help genre itself. Manson doesn’t bother to substantiate a single one of his claims—the “Works Cited” section is missing, and the book is filled with personal anecdotes in places where a greater book might examine a scientific study, but this could be charming for readers who feel too bogged down with data. The book reads as if it’s a giant blog entry, which tracks considering Manson’s day job. It works okay if you’re skimming it for tidbits, but this is a case where specific passages are greater than the sum of their parts.
That said, there’s a charm to the book that few self-help books are able to emulate. It’s personal, as if you’re having a beer on the back porch with an old friend. It’s authentic and never feels too preachy. Subtle Art succeeds because it is able to make the unsexy sexy. It teaches the old dog some new tricks. It’s edgy, brief, and humorous. Mark Manson is a genius; he’s literally written the perfect book for this generation of readers and the results speak for themselves. Even if you can see right through it, the book is motivating. It says enough to get people to pick up that guitar or finish that novel. Is it the best self-help book ever written? Not by a long shot. Should we give a fuck? Refer to title.