The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F*ck — How We Look at Success and Failure

John Hartley
5 min readJul 18, 2021

I’m glad I gave this book a second go. The first time through, the excessive use of “f*ck” pushed me away. It wasn’t about the word itself, but more so the overuse. I got most of the way through the first chapter and put it down. As it still comes up on lists of others, I figured I’d give it another shot. I’m ultimately glad that I did. This was book #4 in my 52 Books in a Year series.

Mark Manson’s intent with the overuse of “f*ck” seems to be to shock you out of thinking this is another run-of-the-mill self-help book. Having already read The Energy Bus, The Subtle Art (as I’ll refer to it moving forward) is essentially a Hummer with a Red Bull jacuzzi and dope flame decals on the side. And honestly, it’s much more my style. Mixed in with anecdotes and personal stories are scientific references along with helpful exercises in “giving less of a f*ck.”

Choose Your Problem

In The Subtle Art, Manson goes through some different ways to approach situations. At the end of the day, we cannot control what happens to us, but we can control how we react. It’s an idea that’s ages old and is commonly referred to as stoicism, but Manson refers to it as “choosing your problem.” Keeping in mind that we have control of our perception to events can help reduce the feeling of helplessness and going from a victim mindset to an action mindset.

Granted there are situations where this proves to be more difficult than others, but it’s a general thought that can start to jolt us out of reacting to everything. Essentially, let go of what you can’t control, focus on what you can. When we do focus on what we can do in a situation, we also get the chance to create our own success metrics.

Success Takes Time

In this section of the book, Manson talks about the magnitude of your success being based on how many times you failed at something. He notes the story of Pablo Picasso, sitting at a cafe and scribbling on a napkin. A woman asks if she can have the napkin and when Picasso replies, asking for a large sum for the napkin, she scoffs, saying it only took him two minutes to draw. Likely quoted by many others that read this book, but his response is, “No ma’am, it took me over sixty years to draw this.”

Anyone who has freelanced understands exactly what Picasso means here. Just because it takes me an hour now to get something done, doesn’t mean I haven’t invested years and years building to this point. Picasso says, though a bit more subtley, what I learned from Mike Montiero many years ago. In essence, and to the theme of this book, “f*ck you, pay me.”

The Failure / Success Paradox

In The Subtle Art, Manson lays out two success stories that drives home the value of understanding your perception of events or, “which things to give a f*ck about.” He does this by comparing the stories of Pete Best and Dave Mustaine. Those of you that are music fans may know one but not the other.

Dave Mustaine was one of the original members of Metallica but was kicked out just before Metallica took off to the top of the metal charts. Angry, frustrated, and full of spite (rightly so), Mustaine went off to form Megadeth. His measure of success was to become a greater metal band than Metallica in an “I’ll show you” sort of way. Megadeth would go on to be an incredibly successful band (20 million record sales, six platinum albums), but never reaching Metallica heights, though many would disagree. It was tough for Mustaine to take because he had set his bar for success so high.

The metrics we set for ourselves make us successes or failures. No one told Mustaine “this is how good you have to be,” yet he set that bar for himself. It’s similar to setting a weight loss goal. Set it too high, you’re destined for failure. Too low, the feeling of accomplishment may not be there. There’s a balance to all of it and Manson goes into more detail through the story of Peter Best.

Kicked out of the Beatles for being too handsome and being a bit of a buzzkill (the real reason was never given), the Beatles ousted Pete Best, replacing him with Ringo Starr. Manson doesn’t get into this, but Best suffered from a depression and survived a suicide attempt. The goal of Manson bringing up the story of Best is that (after the depression), Best formed his own band, but never set the bar at “being better than the Beatles.” He wanted to be a solid drummer, and has done so over the years.

Two similar but different stories that help outline how changing what success looks like, or changing “what to give a f*ck about” can help quite a bit. Essentially Manson is poking at not being too hard on yourself.

Some Other Thoughts and Notes While Reading

  • We are always taking an active role in what’s occurring to and within us
  • Often the same event can be good or bad
  • “I thought happiness was a destiny, not a choice,”
  • The button test, the points are random, there is no pattern, coming up with and believing the BS our mind creates. I can’t find this study, but the gist is this: our highly evolved brains will try to come up with patterns even when there is none. If you let yourself look for everything wrong in a situation, you’ll find a pattern and when there is none your brain will create one. Careful what you let your brain do.
  • Breathe a little more uncertainty into your life
  • Consistently question how wrong we may be about ourselves

Final Thoughts

I’m really glad I gave this one a second read and got all the way through. Manson has led an interesting life and injects stories of his past to prove points and accentuate the importance of being specific about what you “choose to give a f*ck about.” If you’re like me and not much for the “ra ra, just put positive energy into the world” books, give this one a shot. There’s enough science and real-world examples to give you some time to think about your values, what you stand for and ultimately, where your “f*cks” are being placed.

How about you? Is there something you’re trying to control or care more about than you probably should?

See the full list of my attempt at 52 books in one year.



John Hartley

Engineering leader with a passion for building and growing teams. Writing about leadership and management in the tech industry. Director of Eng @ Curology