The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson

Charles Bukowski was an alcoholic, a womanizer, a chronic gambler, a lout, a cheapskate, a deadbeat, and on his worst days, a poet. He’s probably the last person on earth you would ever look to for life advice or expect to see in any sort of self-help book. Which is why he’s the perfect place to start.
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Bukowski had a day job as a letter-filer at a post office. He got paid shit money and spent most of it on booze. He gambled away the rest at the racetrack. At night, he would drink alone and sometimes hammer out poetry on his beat-up old typewriter. Often, he’d wake up on the floor, having passed out the night before. Thirty years went by like this, most of it a meaningless blur of alcohol, drugs, gambling, and prostitutes. Then, when Bukowski was fifty, after a lifetime of failure and self-loathing, an editor at a small independent publishing house took a strange interest in him.
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Upon signing the contract, Bukowski wrote his first novel in three weeks. It was called simply Post Office. In the dedication, he wrote, “Dedicated to nobody.”
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See, despite the book sales and the fame, Bukowski was a loser. He knew it. And his success stemmed not from some determination to be a winner, but from the fact that he knew he was a loser, accepted it, and then wrote honestly about it. He never tried to be anything other than what he was.
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This is the real story of Bukowski’s success: his comfort with himself as a failure.
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Bukowski didn’t give a fuck about success. Even after his fame, he still showed up to poetry readings hammered and verbally abused people in his audience. He still exposed himself in public and tried to sleep with every woman he could find. Fame and success didn’t make him a better person. Nor was it by becoming a better person that he became famous and successful.
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Our culture today is obsessively focused on unrealistically positive expectations: Be happier. Be healthier. Be the best, better than the rest. Be smarter, faster, richer, sexier, more popular, more productive, more envied, and more admired. Be perfect and amazing and crap out twelve-karat-gold nuggets before breakfast each morning while kissing your selfie-ready spouse and two and a half kids goodbye. Then fly your helicopter to your wonderfully fulfilling job, where you spend your days doing incredibly meaningful work that’s likely to save the planet one day.
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You stand in front of the mirror and repeat affirmations saying that you’re beautiful because you feel as though you’re not beautiful already.
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You follow dating and relationship advice because you feel that you’re unlovable already.
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After all, no truly happy person feels the need to stand in front of a mirror and recite that she’s happy. She just is.
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There’s a saying in Texas: “The smallest dog barks the loudest.” A confident man doesn’t feel a need to prove that he’s confident. A rich woman doesn’t feel a need to convince anybody that she’s rich. Either you are or you are not. And if you’re dreaming of something all the time, then you’re reinforcing the same unconscious reality over and over: that you are not that.
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The world is constantly telling you that the path to a better life is more, more, more—buy more, own more, make more, fuck more, be more.
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You are constantly bombarded with messages to give a fuck about everything, all the time. Give a fuck about a new TV. Give a fuck about having a better vacation than your coworkers. Give a fuck about buying that new lawn ornament. Give a fuck about having the right kind of selfie stick.
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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.
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You get anxious about confronting somebody in your life. That anxiety cripples you and you start wondering why you’re so anxious. Now you’re becoming anxious about being anxious. Oh no! Doubly anxious! Now you’re anxious about your anxiety, which is causing more anxiety. Quick, where’s the whiskey?
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Or let’s say you have an anger problem. You get pissed off at the stupidest, most inane stuff, and you have no idea why. And the fact that you get pissed off so easily starts to piss you off even more. And then, in your petty rage, you realize that being angry all the time makes you a shallow and mean person, and you hate this; you hate it so much that you get angry at yourself. Now look at you: you’re angry at yourself getting angry about being angry. Fuck you, wall. Here, have a fist.
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Or you feel so guilty for every mistake you make that you begin to feel guilty about how guilty you’re feeling.
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Or you get sad and alone so often that it makes you feel even more sad and alone just thinking about it.
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Welcome to the Feedback Loop from Hell.
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“God, I do the Feedback Loop all the time—I’m such a loser for doing it. I should stop. Oh my God, I feel like such a loser for calling myself a loser. I should stop calling myself a loser. Ah, fuck! I’m doing it again! See? I’m a loser! Argh!”
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But now? Now if you feel like shit for even five minutes, you’re bombarded with 350 images of people totally happy and having amazing fucking lives, and it’s impossible to not feel like there’s something wrong with you.
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Now here’s the problem: Our society today, through the wonders of consumer culture and hey-look-my-life-is-cooler-than-yours social media, has bred a whole generation of people who believe that having these negative experiences—anxiety, fear, guilt, etc.—is totally not okay. I mean, if you look at your Facebook feed, everybody there is having a fucking grand old time.
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By not giving a fuck that you feel bad, you short-circuit the Feedback Loop from Hell; you say to yourself, “I feel like shit, but who gives a fuck?” And then, as if sprinkled by magic fuck-giving fairy dust, you stop hating yourself for feeling so bad.
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George Orwell said that to see what’s in front of one’s nose requires a constant struggle. Well, the solution to our stress and anxiety is right there in front of our noses, and we’re too busy watching porn and advertisements for ab machines that don’t work, wondering why we’re not banging a hot blonde with a rocking six-pack, to notice.
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We joke online about “first-world problems,” but we really have become victims of our own success. Stress-related health issues, anxiety disorders, and cases of depression have skyrocketed over the past thirty years, despite the fact that everyone has a flat-screen TV and can have their groceries delivered. 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.
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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.
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The more you desperately want to be rich, the more poor and unworthy you feel, regardless of how much money you actually make.
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As the existential philosopher Albert Camus said (and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t on LSD at the time): “You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.”
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Any attempt to escape the negative, to avoid it or quash it or silence it, only backfires. The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering. The avoidance of struggle is a struggle. The denial of failure is a failure. Hiding what is shameful is itself a form of shame.
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Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience.
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To try to avoid pain is to give too many fucks about pain. In contrast, if you’re able to not give a fuck about the pain, you become unstoppable.
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In my life, I have given a fuck about many things. I have also not given a fuck about many things. And like the road not taken, it was the fucks not given that made all the difference.
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Meanwhile, our credit cards are maxed out, our dog hates us, and Junior is snorting meth in the bathroom, yet we’re getting pissed off about nickels and Everybody Loves Raymond.
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We give too many fucks when a show we liked was canceled on TV.
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Look, this is how it works. 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.
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Look, this is how it works. 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.
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Subtlety #1: Not giving a fuck does not mean being indifferent; it means being comfortable with being different.
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People who are indifferent are lame and scared. They’re couch potatoes and Internet trolls.
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They reserve their fucks for what truly matters.
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They reserve their fucks for what truly matters. Friends. Family. Purpose. Burritos. And an occasional lawsuit or two.
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The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck (Mark Manson)
– Your Highlight on Location 252-253 | Added on Wednesday, October 24, 2018 12:24:25 AM

The point isn’t to get away from the shit. The point is to find the shit you enjoy dealing with.
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Subtlety #2: To not give a fuck about adversity, you must first give a fuck about something more important than adversity.
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Imagine you’re at a grocery store, and you watch an elderly lady scream at the cashier, berating him for not accepting her thirty-cent coupon. Why does this lady give a fuck? It’s just thirty cents. I’ll tell you why: That lady probably doesn’t have anything better to do with her days than to sit at home cutting out coupons. She’s old and lonely. Her kids are dickheads and never visit. She hasn’t had sex in over thirty years. She can’t fart without extreme lower-back pain. Her pension is on its last legs, and she’s probably going to die in a diaper thinking she’s in Candy Land. So she snips coupons. That’s all she’s got.
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The problem with people who hand out fucks like ice cream at a goddamn summer camp is that they don’t have anything more fuck-worthy to dedicate their fucks to.
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I once heard an artist say that when a person has no problems, the mind automatically finds a way to invent some. I think what most people—especially educated, pampered middle-class white people—consider “life problems” are really just side effects of not having anything more important to worry about.
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It then follows that finding something important and meaningful in your life is perhaps the most productive use of your time and energy. Because if you don’t find that meaningful something, your fucks will be given to meaningless and frivolous causes.
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Subtlety #3: Whether you realize it or not, you are always choosing what to give a fuck about.
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Rejections that were painful in the moment have actually worked out for the best.
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Maturity is what happens when one learns to only give a fuck about what’s truly fuckworthy.
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life itself is a form of suffering. The rich suffer because of their riches. The poor suffer because of their poverty. People without a family suffer because they have no family. People with a family suffer because of their family. People who pursue worldly pleasures suffer because of their worldly pleasures. People who abstain from worldly pleasures suffer because of their abstention.
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“The solution to one problem is merely the creation of the next one.”
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Emotions Are Overrated
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negative emotions are a call to action.
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Positive emotions, on the other hand, are rewards for taking the proper action.
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we shouldn’t always trust our own emotions. In fact, I believe we should make a habit of questioning them.
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Remember, pain serves a purpose.
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Whatever makes us happy today will no longer make us happy tomorrow, because our biology always needs something more.
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else”—a new house, a new relationship, another child, another pay raise. And despite all of our sweat and strain, we end up feeling eerily similar to how we started: inadequate.
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This is why our problems are recursive and unavoidable. The person you marry is the person you fight with. The house you buy is the house you repair. The dream job you take is the job you stress over. Everything comes with an inherent sacrifice—whatever makes us feel good will also inevitably make us feel bad. What we gain is also what we lose. What creates our positive experiences will define our negative experiences.
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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?”
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Real, serious, lifelong fulfillment and meaning have to be earned through the choosing and managing of our struggles. Whether you suffer from anxiety or loneliness or obsessive-compulsive disorder or a dickhead boss who ruins half of your waking hours every day, the solution lies in the acceptance and active engagement of that negative experience—not the avoidance of it, not the salvation from it.
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You can’t win if you don’t play.
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I was in love with the result—the image of me on stage, people cheering, me rocking out, pouring my heart into what I was playing—but I wasn’t in love with the process. And because of that, I failed at it. Repeatedly.
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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.
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It turns out that teaching people to believe they’re exceptional and to feel good about themselves no matter what doesn’t lead to a population full of Bill Gateses and Martin Luther Kings. It leads to a population full of Jimmys.
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After all, it takes a lot of energy and work to convince yourself that your shit doesn’t stink, especially when you’ve actually been living in a toilet.
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My family stonewalls the way Warren Buffett makes money or Jenna Jameson fucks: we’re champions at it.
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My trauma had revolved around intimacy and acceptance, so I felt a constant need to overcompensate, to prove to myself that I was loved and accepted at all times. And as a result, I soon took to chasing women the same way a cocaine addict takes to a snowman made out of cocaine: I made sweet love to it, and then promptly suffocated myself in it.
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It wasn’t so much the sex I craved, although the sex was fun. It was the validation. I was wanted; I was loved; for the first time since I could remember, I was worthy. My craving for validation quickly fed into a mental habit of self-aggrandizing and overindulgence. I felt entitled to say or do whatever I wanted, to break people’s trust, to ignore people’s feelings, and then justify it later with shitty, half-assed apologies.
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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.
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We can then say that it’s a statistical improbability that any single person will be an extraordinary performer in all areas of life, or even in many areas of their life. Brilliant businesspeople are often fuckups in their personal lives. Extraordinary athletes are often shallow and as dumb as a lobotomized rock. Many celebrities are probably just as clueless about life as the people who gawk at them and follow their every move.
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We’re all, for the most part, pretty average people.
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Having the Internet, Google, Facebook, YouTube, and access to five hundred–plus channels of television is amazing. But our attention is limited. There’s no way we can process the tidal waves of information flowing past us constantly. Therefore, the only zeroes and ones that break through and catch our attention are the truly exceptional pieces of information—those in the 99.999th percentile.
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Some of us do this by cooking up get-rich-quick schemes. Others do it by taking off across the world to save starving babies in Africa. Others do it by excelling in school and winning every award. Others do it by shooting up a school. Others do it by trying to have sex with anything that talks and breathes.
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Technology has solved old economic problems by giving us new psychological problems. The Internet has not just open-sourced information; it has also open-sourced insecurity, self-doubt, and shame.
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Being “average” has become the new standard of failure. The worst thing you can be is in the middle of the pack, the middle of the bell curve. When a culture’s standard of success is to “be extraordinary,” it then becomes better to be at the extreme low end of the bell curve than to be in the middle, because at least there you’re still special and deserve attention. Many people choose this strategy: to prove to everyone that they are the most miserable, or the most oppressed, or the most victimized.
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It has become an accepted part of our culture today to believe that we are all destined to do something truly extraordinary. Celebrities say it. Business tycoons say it. Politicians say it. Even Oprah says it (so it must be true). Each and every one of us can be extraordinary. We all deserve greatness. The fact that this statement is inherently contradictory—after all, if everyone were extraordinary, then by definition no one would be extraordinary—is missed by most people. And instead of questioning what we actually deserve or don’t deserve, we eat the message up and ask for more.
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Once you accept the premise that a life is worthwhile only if it is truly notable and great, then you basically accept the fact that most of the human population (including yourself) sucks and is worthless. And this mindset can quickly turn dangerous, to both yourself and others.
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All of this “every person can be extraordinary and achieve greatness” stuff is basically just jerking off your ego. It’s
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In the closing months of 1944, after almost
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These men both chose how they wished to suffer. Hiroo Onoda chose to suffer for loyalty to a dead empire. Suzuki chose to suffer for adventure, no matter how ill-advised. To both men, their suffering meant something; it fulfilled some greater cause. And because it meant something, they were able to endure it, or perhaps even enjoy it.
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If suffering is inevitable, if our problems in life are unavoidable, then the question we should be asking is not “How do I stop suffering?” but “Why am I suffering—for what purpose?”
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Self-awareness is like an onion. There are multiple layers to it, and the more you peel them back, the more likely you’re going to start crying at inappropriate times.
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HER. What’s wrong? ME. Nothing’s wrong. Nothing at all. HER. No, something’s wrong. Tell me. ME. I’m fine. Really. HER. Are you sure? You look upset. ME, with nervous laughter. Really? No, I’m okay, seriously. [Thirty minutes later . . . ] ME. . . . And that’s why I’m so fucking pissed off! He just acts as if I don’t exist half the time.
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Let’s say the first layer of the self-awareness onion is a simple understanding of one’s emotions. “This is when I feel happy.” “This makes me feel sad.” “This gives me hope.”
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The second layer of the self-awareness onion is an ability to ask why we feel certain emotions.
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The third level 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?
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Take a moment and think of something that’s really bugging you. Now ask yourself why it bugs you. Chances are the answer will involve a failure of some sort. Then take that failure and ask why it seems “true” to you. What if that failure wasn’t really a failure? What if you’ve been looking at it the wrong way?
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He’d bathe in the tears of his betrayers, each tear wiped dry by a crisp, clean hundred-dollar bill.
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In 1983, a talented young guitarist was kicked out of his band in the worst possible way. The band had just been signed to a record deal, and they were about to record their first album. But a couple days before recording began, the band showed the guitarist the door—no warning, no discussion, no dramatic blowout; they literally woke him up one day by handing him a bus ticket home. As he sat on the bus back to Los Angeles from New York, the guitarist kept asking himself: How did this happen? What did I do wrong? What will I do now? Record contracts didn’t exactly fall out of the sky, especially for raucous, upstart metal bands. Had he missed his one and only shot? But by the time the bus hit L.A., the guitarist had gotten over his self-pity and had vowed to start a new band. He decided that this new band would be so successful that his old band would forever regret their decision. He would become so famous that they would be subjected to decades of seeing him on TV, hearing him on the radio, seeing posters of him in the streets and pictures of him in magazines. They’d be flipping burgers somewhere, loading vans from their shitty club gigs, fat and drunk with their ugly wives, and he’d be rocking out in front of stadium crowds live on television. He’d bathe in the tears of his betrayers, each tear wiped dry by a crisp, clean hundred-dollar bill. And so the guitarist worked as if possessed by a musical demon. He spent months recruiting the best musicians he could find—far better musicians than his previous bandmates. He wrote dozens of songs and practiced religiously. His seething anger fueled his ambition; revenge became his muse. Within a couple years, his new band had signed a record deal of their own, and a year after that, their first record would go gold. The guitarist’s name was Dave Mustaine, and the new band he formed was the legendary heavy-metal band Megadeth. Megadeth would go on to sell over 25 million albums
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Unfortunately, the band he was kicked out of was Metallica, which has sold over 180 million albums worldwide. Metallica is considered by many to be one of the greatest rock bands of all time.
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And because of this, in a rare intimate interview in 2003, a tearful Mustaine admitted that he couldn’t help but still consider himself a failure. Despite all that he had accomplished, in his mind he would always be the guy who got kicked out of Metallica.
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We’re apes. We think we’re all sophisticated with our toaster ovens and designer footwear, but we’re just a bunch of finely ornamented apes. And because we are apes, we instinctually measure ourselves against others and vie for status. The question is not whether we evaluate ourselves against others; rather, the question is by what standard do we measure ourselves?
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Dave Mustaine, whether he realized it or not, chose to measure himself by whether he was more successful and popular than Metallica. The experience of getting thrown out of his former band was so painful for him that he adopted “success relative to Metallica” as the metric by which to measure himself and his music career.
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If you want to change how you see your problems, you have to change what you value and/or how you measure failure/success.
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It was 1962 and there was a buzz around an up-and-coming band from Liverpool, England. This band had funny haircuts and an even funnier name, but their music was undeniably good, and the record industry was finally taking notice. There was John, the lead singer and songwriter; Paul, the boyish-faced romantic bass player; George, the rebellious lead guitar player. And then there was the drummer.
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He was considered the best-looking of the bunch—the girls all went wild for him, and it was his face that began to appear in the magazines first.
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His name was Pete Best.
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And in 1962, after landing their first record contract, the other three members of the Beatles quietly got together and asked their manager, Brian Epstein, to fire him.
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Epstein finally called Best to his office. There, the manager unceremoniously told him to piss off and find another band. He gave no reason, no explanation, no condolences—just told him that the other guys wanted him out of the group, so, uh, best of luck.
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As a replacement, the band brought in some oddball named Ringo Starr. Ringo was older and had a big, funny nose. Ringo agreed to get the same ugly haircut as John, Paul, and George, and insisted on writing songs about octopuses and submarines. The other guys said, Sure, fuck it, why not?
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Within six months of Best’s firing, Beatlemania had erupted, making John, Paul, George, and Pete Ringo arguably four of the most famous faces on the entire planet.
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Meanwhile, Best understandably fell into a deep depression and spent a lot of time doing what any Englishman will do if you give him a reason to: drink.
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In an interview in 1994, Best said, “I’m happier than I would have been with the Beatles.” What the hell? Best explained that the circumstances of his getting kicked out of the Beatles ultimately led him to meet his wife. And then his marriage led him to having children. His values changed. He began to measure his life differently. Fame and glory would have been nice, sure—but he decided that what he already had was more important: a big and loving family, a stable marriage, a simple life. He even still got to play drums, touring Europe and recording albums well into the 2000s. So what was really lost? Just a lot of attention and adulation, whereas what was gained meant so much more to him.
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These stories suggest that some values and metrics are better than others. Some lead to good problems that are easily and regularly solved. Others lead to bad problems that are not easily and regularly solved.
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Shitty Values
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1.   Pleasure. Pleasure is great, but it’s a horrible value to prioritize your life around. Ask any drug addict how his pursuit of pleasure turned out. Ask an adulterer who shattered her family and lost her children whether pleasure ultimately made her happy. Ask a man who almost ate himself to death how pleasure helped him solve his problems.                Pleasure is a false god. Research shows that people who focus their energy on superficial pleasures end up more anxious, more emotionally unstable, and more depressed. Pleasure is the most superficial form of life satisfaction and therefore the easiest to obtain and the easiest to lose.                And yet, pleasure is what’s marketed to us, twenty-four/seven. It’s what we fixate on. It’s what we use to numb and distract ourselves. But pleasure, while necessary in life (in certain doses), isn’t, by itself, sufficient.                Pleasure is not the cause of happiness; rather, it is the effect. If you get the other stuff right (the other values and metrics), then pleasure will naturally occur as a by-product.
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2.   Material Success. Many people measure their self-worth based on how much money they make or what kind of car they drive or whether their front lawn is greener and prettier than the next-door neighbor’s.                Research shows that once one is able to provide for basic physical needs (food, shelter, and so on), the correlation between happiness and worldly success quickly approaches zero. So if you’re starving and living on the street in the middle of India, an extra ten thousand dollars a year would affect your happiness a lot. But if you’re sitting pretty in the middle class in a developed country, an extra ten thousand dollars per year won’t affect anything much—meaning that you’re killing yourself working overtime and weekends for basically nothing.                The other issue with overvaluing material success is the danger of prioritizing it over other values, such as honesty, nonviolence, and compassion. When people measure themselves not by their behavior, but by the status symbols they’re able to collect, then not only are they shallow, but they’re probably assholes as well.
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3.   Always Being Right.Our brains are inefficient machines. We consistently make poor assumptions, misjudge probabilities, misremember facts, give in to cognitive biases, and make decisions based on our emotional whims. As humans, we’re wrong pretty much constantly, so if your metric for life success is to be right—well, you’re going to have a difficult time rationalizing
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4.   Staying Positive. Then there are those who measure their lives by the ability to be positive about, well, pretty much everything. Lost your job? Great! That’s an opportunity to explore your passions. Husband cheated on you with your sister? Well, at least you’re learning what you really mean to the people around you. Child dying of throat cancer? At least you don’t have to pay for college anymore! While there is something to be said for “staying on the sunny side of life,” the truth is, sometimes life sucks, and the healthiest thing you can do is admit it.
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As Freud once said, “One day, in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful.”
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On the contrary, Pete Best pulled a switcheroo. Despite being depressed and distraught by getting kicked out of the Beatles, as he grew older he learned to reprioritize what he cared about and was able to measure his life in a new light. Because of this, Best grew into a happy and healthy old man, with an easy life and great family—things that, ironically, the four Beatles would spend decades struggling to achieve or maintain.
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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.
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These five values are both unconventional and uncomfortable. But, to me, they are life-changing. The first, which we’ll look at in the next chapter, is a radical form of responsibility: taking responsibility for everything that occurs in your life, regardless of who’s at fault. The second is uncertainty: the acknowledgement of your own ignorance and the cultivation of constant doubt in your own beliefs. The next is failure: the willingness to discover your own flaws and mistakes so that they may be improved upon. The fourth is rejection: the ability to both say and hear no, thus clearly defining what you will and will not accept in your life. The final value is the contemplation of one’s own mortality; this one is crucial, because paying vigilant attention to one’s own death is perhaps the only thing capable of helping us keep all our other values in proper perspective. CHAPTER 5 You Are Always Choosing Imagine that somebody puts a gun to your head and tells you that you have to run 26.2 miles in under five hours, or else he’ll kill you and your entire family.
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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.
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Exact same 26.2 miles. Exact same person running them. Exact same pain coursing through your exact same legs. But when you chose it freely and prepared for it, it was a glorious and important milestone in your life. When it was forced upon you against your will, it was one of the most terrifying and painful experiences of your life.
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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.
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After touring a psychiatric facility one day, James mused in his diary that he felt he had more in common with the patients than with the doctors.
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Despite all the advantages and opportunities he’d been given in life, everything had fallen apart. The only constants in his life seemed to be suffering and disappointment. James fell into a deep depression and began making plans to take his own life. But one night, while reading lectures by the philosopher Charles Peirce, James decided to conduct a little experiment. In his diary, he wrote that he would spend one year believing that he was 100 percent responsible for everything that occurred in his life, no matter what. During this period, he would do everything in his power to change his circumstances, no matter the likelihood of failure. If nothing improved in that year, then it would be apparent that he was truly powerless to the circumstances around him, and then he would take his own life. The punch line? William James went on to become the father of American psychology. His work has been translated into a bazillion languages, and he’s regarded as one of the most influential intellectuals/philosophers/psychologists of his generation. He would go on to teach at Harvard and would tour much of the United States and Europe giving lectures. He would marry and have five children (one of whom, Henry, would become a famous biographer and win a Pulitzer Prize). James would later refer to his little experiment as his “rebirth,” and would credit it with everything that he later accomplished in his life.
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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.
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The point is, we are always choosing, whether we recognize it or not. Always.
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The real question is, What are we choosing to give a fuck about?
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It comes back to how, in reality, there is no such thing as not giving a single fuck. It’s impossible. We must all give a fuck about something. To not give a fuck about anything is still to give a fuck about something.
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“With great responsibility comes great power.”
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Many people may be to blame for your unhappiness, but nobody is ever responsible for your unhappiness but you. This is because you always get to choose how you see things, how you react to things, how you value things. You always get to choose the metric by which to measure your experiences.
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Ultimately, while she was to blame for how I felt, she was never responsible for how I felt. I was.
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people don’t just magically cheat on somebody they’ve been with unless they are unhappy for some reason.
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And you know what? My ex leaving me, while one of the most painful experiences I’ve ever had, was also one of the most important and influential experiences of my life. I credit it with inspiring a significant amount of personal growth. I learned more from that single problem than dozens of my successes combined.
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In 2008, the Taliban took control of the Swat Valley, a remote part of northeastern Pakistan. They quickly implemented their Muslim extremist agenda. No television. No films. No women outside the house without a male escort. No girls attending school. By 2009, an eleven-year-old Pakistani girl named Malala Yousafzai had begun to speak out against the school ban. She continued to attend her local school, risking both her and her father’s lives; she also attended conferences in nearby cities. She wrote online, “How dare the Taliban take away my right for education?” In 2012, at the age of fourteen, she was shot in the face as she rode the bus home from school one day. A masked Taliban soldier armed with a rifle boarded the bus and asked, “Who is Malala? Tell me, or I will shoot everyone here.” Malala identified herself (an amazing choice in and of itself), and the man shot her in the head in front of all the other passengers. Malala went into a coma and almost died. The Taliban stated publicly that if she somehow survived the attempt, they would kill both her and her father. Today, Malala is still alive. She still speaks out against violence and oppression toward women in Muslim countries, now as a best-selling author. In 2014 she received the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts. It would seem that being shot in the face only gave her a larger audience and more courage than before. It would have been easy for her to lie down and say, “I can’t do anything,” or “I have no choice.” That, ironically, would still have been her choice. But she chose the opposite.
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“Victimhood chic” is in style on both the right and the left today, among both the rich and the poor. In fact, this may be the first time in human history that every single demographic group has felt unfairly victimized simultaneously. And they’re all riding the highs of the moral indignation that comes along with it.
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Right now, anyone who is offended about anything—whether it’s the fact that a book about racism was assigned in a university class, or that Christmas trees were banned at the local mall, or the fact that taxes were raised half a percent on investment funds—feels as though they’re being oppressed in some way and therefore deserve to be outraged and to have a certain amount of attention.
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The current media environment both encourages and perpetuates these reactions because, after all, it’s good for business. The writer and media commentator Ryan Holiday refers to this as “outrage porn”: rather than report on real stories and real issues, the media find it much easier (and more profitable) to find something mildly offensive, broadcast it to a wide audience, generate outrage, and then broadcast that outrage back across the population in a way that outrages yet another part of the population. This triggers a kind of echo of bullshit pinging back and forth between two imaginary sides, meanwhile distracting everyone from real societal problems. It’s no wonder we’re more politically polarized than ever before.
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The biggest problem with victimhood chic is that it sucks attention away from actual victims. It’s like the boy who cried wolf. The more people there are who proclaim themselves victims over tiny infractions, the harder it becomes to see who the real victims actually are.
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When I was with my first girlfriend, I thought we would be together forever. And then, when that relationship ended, I thought I’d never feel the same way about a woman again. And then when I felt the same way about a woman again, I thought that love sometimes just wasn’t enough. And then I realized that each individual gets to decide what is “enough,” and that love can be whatever we let it be.
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Growth is an endlessly iterative process. When we learn something new, we don’t go from “wrong” to “right.” Rather, we go from wrong to slightly less wrong. And when we learn something additional, we go from slightly less wrong to slightly less wrong than that, and then to even less wrong than that, and so on. We are always in the process of approaching truth and perfection without actually ever reaching truth or perfection.
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Certainty is the enemy of growth. Nothing is for certain until it has already happened—and even then, it’s still debatable.
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They will laugh at how we were afraid to show appreciation for those who matter to us most, yet heaped praise on public figures who didn’t deserve anything.
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Just as we look back in horror at the lives of people five hundred years ago, I imagine people five hundred years from now will laugh at us and our certainties today. They will laugh at how we let our money and our jobs define our lives. They will laugh at how we were afraid to show appreciation for those who matter to us most, yet heaped praise on public figures who didn’t deserve anything. They will laugh at our rituals and superstitions, our worries and our wars; they will gawk at our cruelty. They will study our art and argue over our history. They will understand truths about us of which none of us are yet aware. And they, too, will be wrong. Just less wrong than we were.
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Try this. Take a random person and put them in a room with some buttons to push. Then tell them that if they do something specific—some undefined something that they have to figure out—a light will flash on indicating that they’ve won a point. Then tell them to see how many points they can earn within a thirty-minute period. When psychologists have done this, what happens is what you might expect. People sit down and start mashing buttons at random until eventually the light comes on to tell them they got a point. Logically, they then try repeating whatever they were doing to get more points. Except now the light’s not coming on. So they start experimenting with more complicated sequences—press this button three times, then this button once, then wait five seconds, and—ding! Another point. But eventually that stops working. Perhaps it doesn’t have to do with buttons at all, they think. Perhaps it has to do with how I’m sitting. Or what I’m touching. Maybe it has to do with my feet. Ding! Another point. Yeah, maybe it’s my feet and then I press another button. Ding! Generally, within ten to fifteen minutes each person has figured out the specific sequence of behaviors required to net more points. It’s usually something weird like standing on one foot or memorizing a long sequence of buttons pressed in a specific amount of time while facing a certain direction. But here’s the funny part: the points really are random. There’s no sequence; there’s no pattern. Just a light that keeps coming on with a ding, and people doing cartwheels thinking that what they’re doing is giving them points. Sadism aside, the point of the experiment is to show how quickly the human mind is capable of coming up with and believing in a bunch of bullshit that isn’t real. And it turns out, we’re all really good at it. Every person leaves that room convinced that he or she nailed the experiment and won the game. They all believe that they discovered the “perfect” sequence of buttons that earned them their points. But the methods they come up with are as unique as the individuals themselves.
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Everything from the words on this page, to the grammatical concepts you use to decipher them, to the dirty thoughts your mind wanders into when my writing becomes boring or repetitive—each of these thoughts, impulses, and perceptions is composed of thousands upon thousands of neural connections, firing in conjunction, alighting your mind in a blaze of knowledge and understanding.
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The comedian Emo Philips once said, “I used to think the human brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this.”
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But perhaps the answer is to trust yourself less. After all, if our hearts and minds are so unreliable, maybe we should be questioning our own intentions and motivations more.
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Evil people never believe that they are evil; rather, they believe that everyone else is evil.
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Even a behavior as simple as sneaking a peek at your boyfriend’s text messages or asking a friend what people are saying about you is driven by insecurity and that aching desire to be certain.
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You can check your boyfriend’s text messages and find nothing, but that’s rarely the end of it; then you may start wondering if he has a second phone.
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Parkinson’s law: “Work expands so as to fill up the time available for its completion.”
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Murphy’s law: “Whatever can go wrong will go wrong.”
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Manson’s law of avoidance on them: The more something threatens your identity, the more you will avoid it.
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Manson’s law applies to both good and bad things in life. Making a million dollars could threaten your identity just as much as losing all your money; becoming a famous rock star could threaten your identity just as much as losing your job. This is why people are often so afraid of success—for the exact same reason they’re afraid of failure: it threatens who they believe themselves to be.
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You avoid writing that screenplay you’ve always dreamed of because doing so would call into question your identity as a practical insurance adjuster. You avoid talking to your husband about being more adventurous in the bedroom because that conversation would challenge your identity as a good, moral woman. You avoid telling your friend that you don’t want to see him anymore because ending the friendship would conflict with your identity as a nice, forgiving person.
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the real potential of becoming An Artist Nobody Likes was far, far scarier than remaining An Artist Nobody’s Heard Of. At least he was comfortable with and used to being An Artist Nobody’s Heard Of.
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When someone admits to herself, “You know, maybe I’m not good at relationships,” then she is suddenly free to act and end her bad marriage. She has no identity to protect by staying in a miserable, crappy marriage just to prove something to herself.
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When the insurance adjuster admits to himself, “You know, maybe there’s nothing unique or special about my dreams or my job,” then he’s free to give that screenplay an honest go and see what happens.
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My recommendation: don’t be special; don’t be unique. Redefine your metrics in mundane and broad ways. Choose to measure yourself not as a rising star or an undiscovered genius. Choose to measure yourself not as some horrible victim or dismal failure. Instead, measure yourself by more mundane identities: a student, a partner, a friend, a creator.
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The narrower and rarer the identity you choose for yourself, the more everything will seem to threaten you. For that reason, define yourself in the simplest and most ordinary ways possible.
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As a general rule, we’re all the world’s worst observers of ourselves. When we’re angry, or jealous, or upset, we’re oftentimes the last ones to figure it out. And the only way to figure it out is to put cracks in our armor of certainty by consistently questioning how wrong we might be about ourselves. “Am I jealous—and if I am, then why?” “Am I angry?” “Is she right, and I’m just protecting my ego?”
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So yeah, lucky. When you’re sleeping on a smelly futon and have to count coins to figure out whether you can afford McDonald’s this week and you’ve sent out twenty résumés without hearing a single word back, then starting a blog and a stupid Internet business doesn’t sound like such a scary idea. If every project I started failed, if every post I wrote went unread, I’d only be back exactly where I started. So why not try?
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You could make plenty of money and be miserable, just as you could be broke and be pretty happy. Therefore, why use money as a means to measure my self-worth?
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When Pablo Picasso was an old man, he was sitting in a café in Spain, doodling on a used napkin. He was nonchalant about the whole thing, drawing whatever amused him in that moment—kind of the same way teenage boys draw penises on bathroom stalls—except this was Picasso, so his bathroom-stall penises were more like cubist/impressionist awesomeness laced on top of faint coffee stains. Anyway, some woman sitting near him was looking on in awe. After a few moments, Picasso finished his coffee and crumpled up the napkin to throw away as he left. The woman stopped him. “Wait,” she said. “Can I have that napkin you were just drawing on? I’ll pay you for it.” “Sure,” Picasso replied. “Twenty thousand dollars.” The woman’s head jolted back as if he had just flung a brick at her. “What? It took you like two minutes to draw that.” “No, ma’am,” Picasso said. “It took me over sixty years to draw this.” He stuffed the napkin in his pocket and walked out of the café.
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If someone is better than you at something, then it’s likely because she has failed at it more than you have. If someone is worse than you, it’s likely because he hasn’t been through all of the painful learning experiences you have.
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Improvement at anything is based on thousands of tiny failures, and the magnitude of your success is based on how many times you’ve failed at something.
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If you think about a young child trying to learn to walk, that child will fall down and hurt itself hundreds of times. But at no point does that child ever stop and think, “Oh, I guess walking just isn’t for me. I’m not good at it.” Avoiding failure is something we learn at some later point in life. I’m sure a lot of it comes from our education system, which judges rigorously based on performance and punishes those who don’t do well. Another large share of it comes from overbearing or critical parents who don’t let their kids screw up on their own often enough, and instead punish them for trying anything new or not preordained. And then we have all the mass media that constantly expose us to stellar success after success, while not showing us the thousands of hours of dull practice and tedium that were required to achieve that success.
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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.
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If your metric for the value “success by worldly standards” is “Buy a house and a nice car,” and you spend twenty years working your ass off to achieve it, once it’s achieved the metric has nothing left to give you. Then say hello to your midlife crisis, because the problem that drove you your entire adult life was just taken away from you. There are no other opportunities to keep growing and improving,
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In the 1950s, a Polish psychologist named Kazimierz Dabrowski studied World War II survivors and how they’d coped with traumatic experiences in the war. This was Poland, so things had been pretty gruesome. These people had experienced or witnessed mass starvation, bombings that turned cities to rubble, the Holocaust, the torture of prisoners of war, and the rape and/or murder of family members, if not by the Nazis, then a few years later by the Soviets. As Dabrowski studied the survivors, he noticed something both surprising and amazing. A sizable percentage of them believed that the wartime experiences they’d suffered, although painful and indeed traumatic, had actually caused them to become better, more responsible, and yes, even happier people. Many described their lives before the war as if they’d been different people then: ungrateful for and unappreciative of their loved ones, lazy and consumed by petty problems, entitled to all they’d been given. After the war they felt more confident, more sure of themselves, more grateful, and unfazed by life’s trivialities and petty annoyances.
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“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.”
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Don’t just sit there. Do something. The answers will follow.
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We assume that these steps occur in a sort of chain reaction, like this: Emotional inspiration → Motivation → Desirable action
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quickly learned, though, that forcing myself to do something, even the most menial of tasks, quickly made the larger tasks seem much easier. If I had to redesign an entire website, I’d force myself to sit down and would say, “Okay, I’ll just design the header right now.” But after the header was done, I’d find myself moving on to other parts of the site. And before I knew it, I’d be energized and engaged in the project.
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I quickly learned, though, that forcing myself to do something, even the most menial of tasks, quickly made the larger tasks seem much easier. If I had to redesign an entire website, I’d force myself to sit down and would say, “Okay, I’ll just design the header right now.” But after the header was done, I’d find myself moving on to other parts of the site. And before I knew it, I’d be energized and engaged in the project.
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The author Tim Ferriss relates a story he once heard about a novelist who had written over seventy novels. Someone asked the novelist how he was able to write so consistently and remain inspired and motivated. He replied, “Two hundred crappy words per day, that’s it.” The idea was that if he forced himself to write two hundred crappy words, more often than not the act of writing would inspire him; and before he knew it, he’d have thousands of words down on the page.
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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.
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Now I live in New York. I have a house and furniture and an electric bill and a wife. None of it is particularly glamorous or exciting. And I like it that way. Because after all the years of excitement, the biggest lesson I took from my adventuring was this: absolute freedom, by itself, means nothing.
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Travel is a fantastic self-development tool, because it extricates you from the values of your culture and shows you that another society can live with entirely different values and still function and not hate themselves.
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Having lived under communism for so many generations, with little to no economic opportunity and caged by a culture of fear, Russian society found the most valuable currency to be trust. And to build trust you have to be honest. That means when things suck, you say so openly and without apology.
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But we need to reject something. Otherwise, we stand for nothing.
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The point is this: 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. To value X, we must reject non-X.
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Rejection is an important and crucial life skill. Nobody wants to be stuck in a relationship that isn’t making them happy. Nobody wants to be stuck in a business doing work they hate and don’t believe in. Nobody wants to feel that they can’t say what they really mean.
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Romeo and Juliet is synonymous with “romance” in our culture today. It is seen as the love story in English-speaking culture, an emotional ideal to live up to. Yet when you really get down to what happens in the story, these kids are absolutely out of their fucking minds. And they just killed themselves to prove it!
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For most of human history, romantic love was not celebrated as it is now. In fact, up until the mid-nineteenth century or so, love was seen as an unnecessary and potentially dangerous psychological impediment to the more important things in life—you know, like farming well and/or marrying a guy with a lot of sheep.
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It’s suspected by many scholars that Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet not to celebrate romance, but rather to satirize it, to show how absolutely nutty it was. He didn’t mean for the play to be a glorification of love.
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But today, we all get brain boners for this kind of batshit crazy love. It dominates our culture. And the more dramatic, the better. Whether it’s Ben Affleck working to destroy an asteroid to save the earth for the girl he loves, or Mel Gibson murdering hundreds of Englishmen and fantasizing about his raped and murdered wife while being tortured to death, or that Elven chick giving up her immortality to be with Aragorn in Lord of the Rings, or stupid romantic comedies where Jimmy Fallon forgoes his Red Sox playoff tickets because Drew Barrymore has, like, needs or something.
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If this sort of romantic love were cocaine, then as a culture we’d all be like Tony Montana in Scarface: burying our faces in a fucking mountain of it, screaming, “Say hello to my lee-tle friend!”
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Most elements of romantic love that we pursue—the dramatic and dizzyingly emotional displays of affection, the topsy-turvy ups and downs—aren’t healthy, genuine displays of love. In fact, they’re often just another form of entitlement playing out through people’s relationships.
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Unhealthy love is based on two people trying to escape their problems through their emotions for each other—in other words, they’re using each other as an escape. Healthy love is based on two people acknowledging and addressing their own problems with each other’s support.
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The difference between a healthy and an unhealthy relationship comes down to two things: 1) how well each person in the relationship accepts responsibility, and 2) the willingness of each person to
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The difference between a healthy and an unhealthy relationship comes down to two things: 1) how well each person in the relationship accepts responsibility, and 2) the willingness of each person to both reject and be rejected by their partner.
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People in a healthy relationship with strong boundaries will take responsibility for their own values and problems and not take responsibility for their partner’s values and problems. People in a toxic relationship with poor or no boundaries will regularly avoid responsibility for their own problems and/or take responsibility for their partner’s problems.
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What do poor boundaries look like? Here are some examples: “You can’t go out with your friends without me. You know how jealous I get. You have to stay home with me.” “My coworkers are idiots; they always make me late to meetings because I have to tell them how to do their jobs.” “I can’t believe you made me feel so stupid in front of my own sister. Never disagree with me in front of her again!” “I’d love to take that job in Milwaukee, but my mother would never forgive me for moving so far away.” “I can date you, but can you not tell my friend Cindy? She gets really insecure when I have a boyfriend and she doesn’t.” In each scenario, the person is either taking responsibility for problems/emotions that are not theirs, or demanding that someone else take responsibility for their problems/emotions.
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In general, entitled people fall into one of two traps in their relationships. Either they expect other people to take responsibility for their problems: “I wanted a nice relaxing weekend at home. You should have known that and canceled your plans.” Or they take on too much responsibility for other people’s problems: “She just lost her job again, but it’s probably my fault because I wasn’t as supportive of her as I could have been. I’m going to help her rewrite her résumé tomorrow.”
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Entitled people who blame others for their own emotions and actions do so because 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. Entitled people who take the blame for other people’s emotions and actions do so because they believe that if they “fix” their partner and save him or her, they will receive the love and appreciation they’ve always wanted. These are the yin and yang of any toxic relationship: the victim and the saver, the person who starts fires because it makes her feel important and the person who puts out fires because it makes him feel important.
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If the saver really wanted to save the victim, the saver would say, “Look, you’re blaming others for your own problems; deal with this yourself.” And in a sick way, that would actually be a demonstration of love: helping someone solve their own problems.
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If you make a sacrifice for someone you care about, it needs to be because you want to, not because you feel obligated or because you fear the consequences of not doing so. If your partner is going to make a sacrifice for you, it needs to because he or she genuinely wants to, not because you’ve manipulated the sacrifice through anger or guilt. Acts of love are valid only if they’re performed without conditions or expectations.
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ask yourself, “If I refused, how would the relationship change?” Similarly, ask, “If my partner refused something I wanted, how would the relationship change?”
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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.
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When our highest priority is to always make ourselves feel good, or to always make our partner feel good, then nobody ends up feeling good. And our relationship falls apart without our even knowing it.
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No one trusts a yes-man.
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The problem here is that most people who get caught cheating apologize and give the “It will never happen again” spiel and that’s that, as if penises fell into various orifices completely by accident. Many cheatees accept this response at face value, and don’t question the values and fucks given by their partner (pun totally intended); they don’t ask themselves whether those values and fucks make their partner a good person to stay with. They’re so concerned with holding on to their relationship that they fail to recognize that it’s become a black hole consuming their self-respect.
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If people cheat, it’s because something other than the relationship is more important to them. It may be power over others. It may be validation through sex. It may be giving in to their own impulses. Whatever it is, it’s clear that the cheater’s values are not aligned in a way to support a healthy relationship.
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if he just gives the old “I don’t know what I was thinking; I was stressed out and drunk and she was there” response, then he lacks the serious self-awareness necessary to solve any relationship problems.
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Trust is like a china plate. If you break it once, with some care and attention you can put it back together again. But if you break it again, it splits into even more pieces and it takes far longer to piece together again. If you break it more and more times, eventually it shatters to the point where it’s impossible to restore.
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Consumer culture is very good at making us want more, more, more. Underneath all the hype and marketing is the implication that more is always better. I bought into this idea for years. Make more money, visit more countries, have more experiences, be with more women. But more is not always better. In fact, the opposite is true. We are actually often happier with less. When we’re overloaded with opportunities and options, we suffer from what psychologists refer to as the paradox of choice. Basically, the more options we’re given, the less satisfied we become with whatever we choose, because we’re aware of all the other options we’re potentially forfeiting.
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When you’ve never left your home country, the first country you visit inspires a massive perspective shift, because you have such a narrow experience base to draw on. But when you’ve been to twenty countries, the twenty-first adds little. And when you’ve been to fifty, the fifty-first adds even less.
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The same goes for material possessions, money, hobbies, jobs, friends, and romantic/sexual partners—all the lame superficial values people choose for themselves. The older you get, the more experienced you get, the less significantly each new experience affects you. The first time I drank at a party was exciting. The hundredth time was fun. The five hundredth time felt like a normal weekend. And the thousandth time felt boring and unimportant.
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I’ve discovered is something entirely counterintuitive: that there is a freedom and liberation in commitment.
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“Seek the truth for yourself, and I will meet you there!”
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“Why do you care that I’m dead when you’re still so afraid to live?”
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if there really is no reason to do anything, then there is also no reason to not do anything;
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by spending the majority of my short life avoiding what was painful and uncomfortable, I had essentially been avoiding being alive at all.
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in the face of the inevitability of death, there is no reason to ever give in to one’s fear or embarrassment or shame, since it’s all just a bunch of nothing anyway;
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Oddly, it was someone else’s death that gave me permission to finally live. And perhaps the worst moment of my life was also the most transformational.
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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. Yet, in a bizarre, backwards way, death is the light by which the shadow of all of life’s meaning is measured. Without death, everything would feel inconsequential, all experience arbitrary, all metrics and values suddenly zero.
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Because it wasn’t just his anti-establishment tendencies that got Becker into trouble; it was his odd teaching methods as well. He would use Shakespeare to teach psychology, psychology textbooks to teach anthropology, and anthropological data to teach sociology. He’d dress up as King Lear and do mock sword fights in class and go on long political rants that had little to do with the lesson plan. His students adored him. The other faculty loathed him. Less than a year later, he was fired again.
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Ernest Becker was an academic outcast. In 1960, he got his Ph.D. in anthropology; his doctoral research compared the unlikely and unconventional practices of Zen Buddhism and psychoanalysis.
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Becker changed jobs four times in six years. And before he could get fired from the fifth, he got colon cancer.
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He spent the next few years bedridden and had little hope of surviving. So Becker decided to write a book. This book would be about death.
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Becker died in 1974. His book The Denial of Death, would win the Pulitzer Prize and become one of the most influential intellectual works of the twentieth century, shaking up the fields of psychology and anthropology, while making profound philosophical claims that are still influential today.
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The Denial of Death essentially makes two points: 1.    Humans are unique in that we’re the only animals that can conceptualize and think about ourselves abstractly. Dogs don’t sit around and worry about their career. Cats don’t think about their past mistakes or wonder what would have happened if they’d done something differently. Monkeys don’t argue over future possibilities, just as fish don’t sit around wondering if other fish would like them more if they had longer fins.
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we are also the only animal capable of imagining a reality without ourselves in it. This realization causes what Becker calls “death terror,” a deep existential anxiety that underlies everything we think or do.
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2.   Becker’s second point starts with the premise that we essentially have two “selves.” The first self is the physical self—the one that eats, sleeps, snores, and poops. The second self is our conceptual self—our identity, or how we see ourselves.
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Becker’s argument is this: We are all aware on some level that our physical self will eventually die, that this death is inevitable, and that its inevitability—on some unconscious level—scares the shit out of us. Therefore, in order to compensate for our fear of the inevitable loss of our physical self, we try to construct a conceptual self that will live forever. This is why people try so hard to put their names on buildings, on statues, on spines of books. It’s why we feel compelled to spend so much time giving ourselves to others, especially to children, in the hopes that our influence—our conceptual self—will last way beyond our physical self. That we will be remembered and revered and idolized long after our physical self ceases to exist. Becker called such efforts our “immortality projects,” projects that allow our conceptual self to live on way past the point of our physical death. All of human civilization, he says, is basically a result of immortality projects: the cities and governments and structures and authorities in place today were all immortality projects of men and women who came before us. They are the remnants of conceptual selves that ceased to die. Names like Jesus, Muhammad, Napoleon, and Shakespeare are just as powerful today as when those men lived, if not more so. And that’s the whole point. Whether it be through mastering an art form, conquering a new land, gaining great riches, or simply having a large and loving family that will live on for generations, all the meaning in our life is shaped by this innate desire to never truly die.
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Centuries of oppression and the bloodshed of millions have been justified as the defense of one group’s immortality project against another’s.
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Mark Twain, that hairy goofball who came in and left on Halley’s Comet, said, “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”
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Death is the only thing we can know with any certainty.
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Bukowski once wrote, “We’re all going to die, all of us. What a circus! That alone should make us love each other, but it doesn’t. We are terrorized and flattened by life’s trivialities; we are eaten up by nothing.”
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And the primary lesson was this: there is nothing to be afraid of. Ever. And reminding myself of my own death repeatedly over the years—whether it be through meditation, through reading philosophy, or through doing crazy shit like standing on a cliff in South Africa—is the only thing that has helped me hold this realization front and center in my mind.
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