Book Summary: The Key Ideas
#1: Happiness comes from solving problems. The greatest satisfaction comes from overcoming obstacles and struggles, and rarely from the end destination.
#2: There’s no such thing as a personal problem. Our problems are seldom unique. On the contrary, millions of people are likely confronting the same issues.
#3: The self-awareness onion and faulty values. To develop effective values, we must develop layers of self-awareness and focus on intrinsic rather than extrinsic values.
#4: The responsibility/fault fallacy. Your circumstances may not be your fault, but your reaction to them is always your responsibility.
#5: Uncertainty is inevitable. Being wrong is part of human nature. The pursuit of absolute certainty and the avoidance of the contrary harms our values.
#6: The importance of failure, rejection and death. Embracing failure, being willing to reject alternatives, and using death as our ultimate compass are important features of a happier life.
Book Notes: The Key Ideas in Detail
Premise of the Book
- We spend too much time worrying about the wrong things.
- This stops us from taking responsibility for our circumstances, embracing failure as part of our growth, and rejecting the alternatives.
- The book provides pointers and anecdotal evidence on what we can do to change this.
Key Idea #1: Happiness comes from solving problems
- Conventional life advice is fixated on what we lack, but when we focus on improving these things, we make ourselves unhappier by highlighting what it is we lack.
- In other words, when we seek positive experience, it can become a negative experience, but when we accept negative experiences, is can become a positive experience. This is what philosopher Alan Watts referred to as the “backwards law”.
- What therefore underscores a positive value system is acceptance that pain and loss are inevitable parts of life.
- Suffering and dissatisfaction are even biologically useful for stimulating change and innovation.
- Happiness comes from solving problems, but for many people this equation gets messed up by denial of their problems and victim mentality.
- Rather than asking ourselves what we want, we should therefore ask ourselves what we’re willing to struggle for.
- Solutions to our problems lie in their acceptance, not their avoidance.
Manson highlights three subtleties of not giving a fuck:
- Be comfortable with being different, not being indifferent
- Find something meaningful to give a fuck about – otherwise you’ll waste energy on meaningless worries.
- You always have a choice over what to give a fuck about – as we get older, we realise what matters are the simple things.
Key Idea #2: There’s no such thing as a personal problem
- An accurate view of one’s self-worth is how they feel about the negative aspects of themselves, not how positively they feel about themselves.
- Entitlement is a failed strategy. The more painful the situation, the more helpless we feel against our problems, and the more entitlement we adopt to compensate.
- But there’s no such thing as a personal problem – the chances are that millions of other people have it. This doesn’t minimise the problem, but it does mean you’re not special.
- Manson suggests new technologies are enabling this sense of entitlement.
- The flood of information leads us to believe exceptionalism is the new normal – which makes us feel inadequate and leads us to compensate through entitlement.
- The rare few who become “exceptional” do so not because they believe they’re exceptional, but because they’re obsessed with improvement.
- By accepting we can’t all be exceptional, we can focus on the simple things that matter.
Key Idea #3: The self-awareness onion and faulty values
- Manson starts with the story of Lieutenant Onoda, who stayed in the Japanese jungle for 30 years after World War II, and Norio Suzuki, wo located him in the jungle.
- The essence of his point that follows is that humans choose to suffer in a particular way. The question, therefore, must be why am I suffering?
The self-awareness onion:
- First layer: Understanding one’s emotions – what makes you happy, sad, etc
- Second layer: Ability to ask why we feel certain emotions – understanding the root cause of emotions that overwhelm us.
- Third layer: Our personal values –e. why we consider something a success or failure and by what standard we’re measuring it.
Values that create problems:
- Pleasure – Pleasure isn’t the cause of happiness, but a by-product of it.
- Material success – Research shows that the pursuit of additional money above basic needs does not have a big impact on happiness.
- Always being right – People with this mindset prevent themselves from learning from their mistakes.
- Staying positive – Suppressing negative emotions lead to deeper and more prolonged emotional problems. As Manson puts it, “when we deny our problems, we rob ourselves of the chance to solve them.”
- Good values are instead (1) reality-based, (2) socially constructive and (3) immediate and controllable.
- Put another way, good values tend to be intrinsic and bad values tend to be extrinsic.
Key Idea #4: The responsibility/fault fallacy
- We can’t always control our circumstances, but we can control how we interpret them and how to respond.
- Whether we recognise it or not, we are always responsible for our experiences – i.e. how we interpret and respond to them.
- The responsibility/fault fallacy: We must distinguish fault and responsibility. Many people may be to blame for something, but nobody is ever responsible for how you react to it except you.
- This is the case even in the face of tragedy. We are not responsible for painful tragedies, genetics and illnesses, but we are still responsible for how we choose to respond.
- Changing this value system is hard but worth it – You’ll feel uncertain, you’ll feel a failure for not meeting your other metrics, and you’ll weather rejections.
Key Idea #5: Uncertainty is inevitable
“We should seek to chip away at the ways that we’re wrong today so that we can be a little less wrong tomorrow.”
- We’re the architects of our beliefs, but we face two problems:
- We mistake things we see or hear
- Once we create meaning for ourselves, our brains are designed to hold onto that meaning (confirmation bias).
- Certainty is unattainable but its pursuit often breeds more insecurity.
- Backwards law is at play again: The more you try to be certain about something, the less certain and more insecure you will feel, and vice versa.
- Openness to uncertainty – to being wrong- must therefore exist for any change or growth to take place.
- Manson’s law of avoidance:
“The more something threatens your identity, the more you will avoid it.”
In other words, we protect our values even if they are not good for us.
- The narrower and rarer our view of our identity, the more everything will seem to threaten us. This is why choosing simple and ordinary identities is a better option, e.g. a partner, friend, creator, etc.
- Questions to be a little less certain of ourselves:
- What if I’m wrong?
- What would it mean if I were wrong?
- Would being wrong create a better or worse problem than my current problem, both for myself and others?
Key Idea #6: The importance of failure, rejection and death
- Any improvement is underpinned by thousands of tiny failures.
- It’s these failures – this growth – that ultimately bring us happiness, and not arbitrary achievements.
- The “Do Something” Principle: Manson recommends getting on with it, despite all the potential failures. The essence is that when the standard of success is merely acting, failure doesn’t feel so bad. In fact, it kicks you on and inspires and motivates.
- As Manson puts it: “Action isn’t just the effect of motivation; it’s the cause of it.”
- We must reject things, or otherwise we stand for nothing.
- Rejection is an inherent part of maintaining our values and identity.
- Entitled people avoid rejecting anything because they think they deserve to feel good all the time.
- People with strong boundaries understand it’s impossible to accommodate each other 100% of the time.
- There is increased opportunity in rejecting alternatives and focusing on what personally matters.
- Refusing to reject alternatives can give us breadth of experience but not depth of experience – and the latter makes us happier in the long run.
- Manson recaps Ernest Becker’s famous take on death in The Denial of Death.
- The book concluded that:
- We are the only animals capable of conceptualising and thinking about ourselves abstractly. The realisation of the inevitability of death that follows leads us to “death terror”, a deep existential anxiety.
- To compensate, we construct a conceptual self – an identity – that will live forever. We do this through “immortality projects”, developing things that identify us beyond our physical death.
- Death, Manson suggests, should be the clearest certainty that guides our values:
“Death is the only thing we know with certainty. And as such, it must be the compass by which we orient all our other values and decisions.”
View from the Blog
It’s easy to see why Mark Manson’s manual for living a better life has been so successful among millennials. Manson doesn’t mince his words as he tackles the roots of our personal values and then tries to explain where most of us are going wrong. Despite the frequent foul language, the book is tied together with some page-turning anecdotes and thought-provoking principles for living a happier life.
What stood out for me were three core ideas. First, that we should recognise that happiness comes from problems. Second, the importance of rejecting alternatives to get depth rather than breadth of experience. And third, the importance of using death as the ultimate compass for guiding our values – something I’ve previously touched upon in my article on the deathbed test.
The book is full of a range of other interesting principles on how to form better values and lead a more satisfying life. At its heart, though, one thing underpins most of the narrative: happiness is a choice. If you’re questioning the decisions you’ve made, feeling sorry for yourself, afraid of rejection and failure, or just generally looking for some solid principles for self-improvement, this book could be an interesting wake-up call.