The subtle art of NOT giving a fuck – Mark Mason

Rating: 5/5

There is a moment in life that we called “middle life crisis” where our brain wants to explode by many thoughts and anxieties. How to be liked and respected? How to maintain the current performance at work? How to take good care of parents when they get weaker, yet harder to please? People are thriving at work and in life, what about me and my future? What is the eventual purpose of life? 

I myself turned to this book for help, simply because of its catching name “giving a fuck” and “not giving a fuck”, then “the art” of doing so. Who doesn’t fall into this trap? In fact, Mark Mason did not disappoint me at all. This is my recommended book when you feel overwhelmed, confused or disappointed by too many things in life.

The language in this book is very casual, maybe too much casual with quite a lot of censored word. I actually feel more comfortable reading it that way. It makes me feel less like reading a textbook or superficial know-how book, and more like following an interesting story, Mark Mason’s own story, with very profound, yet easy to understand ideas.  

Subtlety #1: Not giving a fuck does not mean being indifferent; it means being comfortable with being different.

There are 2 concepts that are quite interesting that most of us somehow relate to, one way or another.

  • the loop from hell: Thanks to the technology, we can see or know a significant amount of things. There is also “an infinite numbers of ways we can discover that we don’t measure up, that we’re not good enough, that things aren’t as great as they could be. And this rips us apart inside”. Welcome to the loop of hell. We feel frustrated because no matter how hard you try, we are not up to the successes achieved by others – those are the same age, from the same background, even used to be our subordinates. The frustration adds up and reaches to the level that even we feel frustrated because of our frustration. That is the infinite cycle of bad feelings that will never end. Way out of it? We need to truly accept that we are just typical people, that we have weaknesses. Once we accept the worst, it is easier to get better. 
  • the entitled people: those are people being over-confident about themselves. They always think that they can do whatever and deserve the best things in the life. To them, being liked or respected is very important. Thus, they will try to achieve that at the expenses of others if they need to do so. Their eventual focus is about themselves, solely. In personal and social relationships, entitled people normally create toxic ones, either by playing victims to catch attention, or by playing saver to prove their importance. Are you one of them?

Subtlety #2: To not give a fuck about adversity, you must first give a fuck about something more important than adversity.

Personal value is the main concept that Mark based his ideas on. What are the chosen values of your life? For some people, that might be the external approval of their appearance, the value of their assets, or simply the numbers of girls they can hook up in a trip abroad. For some others, that might be the level self-improvement, the knowledge and experience they have obtained, or simply the numbers of trip they make with their parents. 

At the end of the day, it’s our chosen values that will affect our focus and the things we will give the fuck to. Whether we notice or not, we are making the choice of what to give the fuck every day. We all are. There are always problems and also options to choose to deal with them. Doing nothing is an option actually. Don’t think that Bill Gates does not have any problems to solve because he is so rich. Given that this chosen value in life is, I guess, providing the poor with better living infrastructure, he would not mind that Warren Buffet or some other guys sometimes stole his position as the richest man on Earth. He chose to care more about his visits to countries in the third world and the follow-up actions after each trip.

Subtlety #3: Whether you realize it or not, you are always choosing what to give a fuck about.

“While most people whittle their days chasing another buck, or a little bit more fame and attention, or a little bit more assurance that they’re right or loved, death confronts all of us with a far more painful and important question: What is your legacy?”

That question has kept me up at night for a while, and yet I still have not found my answer. Apparently, legacy does not appear over the night, neither the idea of what it would be. As Mark mentioned in the book, do not wait for inspiration, start by doing small steps first, then motivation and ideas will follow. Even if we will fail eventually, we are pushed forward with experiences and maybe joys while doing the work. What is your legacy?


Below is the spoiled section with my favorite quotes as well as my notes for my come back in the future. If you plan to read the book, you should skip this section.

The subtle art of not giving a fuck

“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” 

Why? “ You’re going to die one day… 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.

Adversity exists everywhere and with everybody. Each person has their own problems that they need to deal with. There is no way to avoid it at all. The point is not to run from adversity, but to choose the one that you are willing to deal with. Because someone else problem might not be the one that you choose to be yours. You can choose to deal with cheap and meaningless things to get credit from somebody else, or choose something bigger than yourselves to make use of your time, while it still last. 

The feedback loop from hell

“Because there’s an infinite amount of things we can now see or know, there are also an infinite number of ways we can discover that we don’t measure up, that we’re not good enough, that things aren’t as great as they could be. And this rips us apart inside.”

Then we try, try and try. We feel frustrated about the fact that no matter how hard we try, there are things that are not right, or not up to the expected level. We feel frustrated about that and also about the fact that we feel frustrated. There it is a cycle of frustration, to the point where we can get lost on it, like an infinite one. Welcome to the loop from hell.

Entitled people

Entitled people are those exuding a delusional degree of self-confidence. In a way, that is good because the confidence can be contagious and help the people around them feeling more confident about themselves too. But the problem is that entitled people need to feel good about themselves all the time, and always get that even at the expenses of those around them. They think that they are better than others, and they deserve attention and respect, all the time. 

“And because entitled people always need to feel good about themselves, they end up spending most of their time thinking about themselves”

But life always comes back with hard reality check. 

“The deeper the pain, the more helpless we feel against our problems, and the more entitlement we adopt to compensate for those problems. This entitlement plays out in one of two ways:

  1. I’m awesome and the rest of you all suck, so I deserve special treatment.
  2. I suck and the rest of you are all awesome, so I deserve special treatment.

Guess what, I think that majority of us are entitled people, for one or another reason and circumstance. It’s sad, but it’s true.

 Happiness is a problem

Emotion is temporary. One thing that makes you feel good will one day makes you feel bad. Same is for happiness. I myself am trying to look for that feeling, the absolute one, but guess what, I don’t think anyone else than Buddha can find it. Then I get anxious. What if I don’t feel happy anymore? What if there is nobody and nothing can bring me happiness? Or what if I can’t bring my beloved ones happiness? That partially screws my mental health as it is today. 

Life is full of struggles, suffering and pains. Those are part of happiness. “Because happiness requires struggle. It grows from problems. Joy doesn’t just sprout out of the ground like daisies and rainbows. Real, serious, lifelong fulfillment and meaning have to be earned through the choosing and managing of our struggles.”

That reminds me of the movie “inside out”. Joy is not the only emotion that control the little girl’s life. She needs more than that to grow up and have a wide range of life experience, to fully understand and enjoy life. She needs a combination of Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust.

“Who you are is defined by what you’re willing to struggle for.”

The question is not about “how do I stop suffering?”, but it’s about “why am I suffering? for what purpose”?

The self-awareness onion

This is a very useful exercise to ask yourself that I strongly recommend to do in the mentally difficult time. 

Consider your self-awareness as an onion. There are so many layers to pull off. 

  • The first layer is a simple understanding of one’s emotions. What is it? When do you feel it?
  • The second layer is an ability to ask why we feel certain emotions. Once we understand that root cause, we can ideally do something to change it.
  • The third layer is our personal values: Why do I consider this to be success/ failure? How am I choosing to measure myself? By what standard am I judging myself and everyone around me? This level, which takes constant questioning and effort, is incredibly difficult to reach. But it’s the most important, because our values determine the nature of our problems, and the nature of our problems determines the quality of our lives.

People’s perceptions and feelings may change, but the underlying values, and the metrics by which those values are assessed, stay the same.

Good and bad values

According to the book, “healthy values are achieved internally. Bad values are generally reliant on external events”. Easily explaining, good values are those you can control, based on the reality. Bad ones are those based on other people’s subjective judgment.

Being rich is one of the example of bad values as there is no limit to the prosperity. There are always people being richer than you are. Also, when you have some improvement in realizing your value, you should find satisfaction and joy in there. Unfortunately, having some extra million dollars on your bank account of billion dollars do not bring you much happiness. “The correlation between happiness and worldly success quickly approaches zero”.

“This, in a nutshell, is what “self-improvement” is really about: prioritizing better values, choosing better things to give a fuck about. Because when you give better fucks, you get better problems. And when you get better problems, you get a better life.”

You are always choosing

”When we feel that we’re choosing our problems , we feel empowered . When we feel that our problems are being forced upon us against our will , we feel victimized and miserable.”

But then things happen to us all the time, good or not-so-good. We cannot control those. The key is to choose how we interpret it, as well as how we respond to it. We are responsible to manage our emotional and physical fallout of the experience. 

When bad things happen, people are always afraid of taking responsibilities due to the fear of getting blame for fault. Take it this way, fault is past tense when some people, (whom might be you) made the wrong decision. Responsibility is the present tense. That is part of life that you need to take responsibilities for experiences that are not your faults. But that is where the self-improvement comes from, and so do experience and happiness as we grow.

“We all get dealt cards . Some of us get better cards than others . And while it’s easy to get hung up on our cards , and feel we got screwed over , the real game lies in the choices we make with those cards , the risks we decide to take, and the consequences we choose to live with . People who consistently make the best choices in the situations they’re given are the ones who eventually come out ahead in poker, just as in life. And it’s not necessarily the people with the best cards”.

What if I’m wrong

Well, the truth is I’m always wrong about everything, over and over again. And so are you. That’s why our life improves. We don’t go from wrong to right, just to slightly less wrong than that. We are always in the process of approaching truth and perfection without actually ever reaching truth or perfection. There is always bias in the way our brain receive and process information. The curse of knowledge heavily influence our way to see the events and the world, as well as to judge the event and people.  

“There is no correct dogma or perfect ideology. There is only what your experience has shown you to be right for you—and even then, that experience is probably somewhat wrong too. And because you and I and everybody else all have differing needs and personal histories and life circumstances, we will all inevitably come to differing “correct” answers about what our lives mean and how they should be lived”.

So, before making any judgement, ask yourself 

  • “what if I’m wrong” and 
  • “Would being wrong create a better or a worse problem than my current problem, for both myself and others?”

Failure is the way forward

“Failure itself is a relative concept”, depending on the angle from which you look at it. “We can be truly successful only at something we’re willing to fail at. If we’re unwilling to fail, then we’re unwilling to succeed.”

“Fear and anxiety and sadness are not necessarily always undesirable or unhelpful states of mind; rather, they are often representative of the necessary pain of psychological growth. And to deny that pain is to deny our own potential”. In those moments that we look at our values and approaches and question why they fail us. “We need some sort of existential crisis to take an objective look at how we’ve been deriving meaning in our life, and then consider changing course.”

“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.” We normally provide the lame excuse of waiting for motivation and inspiration, the right moment and the brilliant idea to start working on it. But that is not true. Small action is like a snowball rolling, leading to ideas, motivation, and those keep going. Then even the eventual failure pushes ourself forward.

The importance of saying NO

Being accepted and likable is considered important in this world. 

“We all must give a fuck about something, in order to value something. And to value something, we must reject what is not that something … That rejection is an inherent and necessary part of maintaining our values, and therefore our identity. We are defined by what we choose to reject. And if we reject nothing (perhaps in fear of being rejected by something ourselves), we essentially have no identity at all.”

We choose to do things that we don’t want to all the time, in the fear of being rejected, or in the comfort of current benefit. In fact, saying and hearing NO is part of having honesty in our lives. Rejection actually makes our relationships better and our emotional lives healthier.


“The mark of an unhealthy relationship is two people who try to solve each other’s problems in order to feel good about themselves. Rather, a healthy relationship is when two people solve their own problems in order to feel good about each other.”

Entitled people normally break the boundaries and create toxic relationship in the form of the victim and the saver. The victim starts the fires by blaming others for their own emotions and actions. They believe that if they constantly paint themselves as victims, eventually someone will come along and save them, and they will receive the love they’ve always wanted. The saver puts out fires by taking the blame for other people’s emotions and actions. They believe that if they “fix” their partner and save him or her, they will receive the love and appreciation they’ve always wanted.

Taking a relationship as an example, “the setting of proper boundaries doesn’t mean you can’t help or support your partner or be helped and supported yourself. You both should support each other. But only because you choose to support and be supported. Not because you feel obligated or entitled… It’s not about giving a fuck about everything your partner gives a fuck about; it’s about giving a fuck about your partner regardless of the fucks he or she gives. That’s unconditional love, baby.”

Same is applied for any kind of social relationship in life.

“For a relationship to be healthy, both people must be willing and able to both say no and hear no. Without that negation, without that occasional rejection, boundaries break down and one person’s problems and values come to dominate the other’s. 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”

Freedom through commitment

“Commitment gives you freedom because you’re no longer distracted by the unimportant and frivolous. Commitment gives you freedom because it hones your attention and focus, directing them toward what is most efficient at making you healthy and happy. Commitment makes decision-making easier and removes any fear of missing out; knowing that what you already have is good enough, why would you ever stress about chasing more, more, more again? Commitment allows you to focus intently on a few highly important goals and achieve a greater degree of success than you otherwise would.”

“breadth of experience is likely necessary and desirable when you’re young—after all, you have to go out there and discover what seems worth investing yourself in. But depth is where the gold is buried. And you have to stay committed to something and go deep to dig it up. That’s true in relationships, in a career, in building a great lifestyle—in everything.”

and then you die

“While most people whittle their days chasing another buck, or a little bit more fame and attention, or a little bit more assurance that they’re right or loved, death confronts all of us with a far more painful and important question: What is your legacy?”

“The only way to be comfortable with death is to understand and see yourself as something bigger than yourself; to choose values that stretch beyond serving yourself, that are simple and immediate and controllable and tolerant of the chaotic world around you. This is the basic root of all happiness… this fleeting sense of being part of something greater and more unknowable than themselves.”

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