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.
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.
It's what the philosopher Alan Watts used to refer to as "the backwards law"--the idea that the more you pursue feeling better all the time, the less satisfied you become, as pursuing something only reinforces the fact that you lack it in the first place. What's interesting about the backwards law is that it's called "backwards" for a reason: not giving a fuck works in reverse. If pursuing the positive is a negative, then pursuing the negative generates the positive. The pain you pursue in the gym results in better all-around health and energy. The failures in business are what lead to a better understanding of what's necessary to be successful. Being open with your insecurities paradoxically makes you more confident and charismatic around others. The pain of honest confrontation is what generates the greatest trust and respect in your relationships. Suffering through your fears and anxieties is what allows you to build courage and perseverance. Seriously, I could keep going, but you get the point. Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience. Any attempt to escape the negative, to avoid it or quash it or silence it, only backfires.
Because when you give too many fucks--when you give a fuck about everyone and everything--you will feel that you're perpetually entitled to be comfortable and happy at all times, that everything is supposed to be just exactly the fucking way you want it to be. This is a sickness. And it will eat you alive. You will see every adversity as an injustice, every challenge as a failure, every inconvenience as a personal slight, every disagreement as a betrayal. You will be confined to your own petty, skull-sized hell, burning with entitlement and bluster, running circles around your very own personal Feedback Loop from Hell, in constant motion yet arriving nowhere.
Subtlety #1: Not giving a fuck does not mean being indifferent; it means being comfortable with being different. Let's be clear. There's absolutely nothing admirable or confident about indifference. People who are indifferent are lame and scared.
Subtlety #2: To not give a fuck about adversity, you must first give a fuck about something more important than adversity. If you find yourself consistently giving too many fucks about trivial shit that bothers you, chances are you don't have much going on in your life to give a legitimate fuck about. And that's your real problem. 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.
Subtlety #3: Whether you realize it or not, you are always choosing what to give a fuck about.
Happiness Is a Problem
We suffer for the simple reason that suffering is biologically useful. It is nature's preferred agent for inspiring change. We have evolved to always live with a certain degree of dissatisfaction and insecurity, because it's the mildly dissatisfied and insecure creature that's going to do the most work to innovate and survive. We are wired to become dissatisfied with whatever we have and satisfied by only what we do not have. This constant dissatisfaction has kept our species fighting and striving, building and conquering. So no--our own pain and misery aren't a bug of human evolution; they're a feature.
And this is what's so dangerous about a society that coddles itself more and more from the inevitable discomforts of life: we lose the benefits of experiencing healthy doses of pain, a loss that disconnects us from the reality of the world around us.
Happiness Comes from Solving Problems
To be happy we need something to solve. Happiness is therefore a form of action; it's an activity, not something that is passively bestowed upon you, not something that you magically discover in a top-ten article on the Huffington Post or from any specific guru or teacher. It doesn't magically appear when you finally make enough money to add on that extra room to the house. You don't find it waiting for you in a place, an idea, a job--or even a book, for that matter. Happiness is a constant work-in-progress, because solving problems is a constant work-in-progress. True happiness occurs only when you find the problems you enjoy having and enjoy solving.
Emotions Are Overrated. Emotions are simply biological signals designed to nudge you in the direction of beneficial change.
You Are Not Special. In fact, the tendency toward entitlement is apparent across all of society. And I believe it's linked to mass-media-driven exceptionalism.
The Value of Suffering
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.
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." Unfortunately, there are many people who suck at even this most basic level of self-awareness. I know because I'm one of them.
The second layer of the self-awareness onion is an ability to ask why we feel certain emotions. These why questions are difficult and often take months or even years to answer consistently and accurately. Most people need to go to some sort of therapist just to hear these questions asked for the first time. Such questions are important because they illuminate what we consider success or failure. Why do you feel angry? Is it because you failed to achieve some goal? Why do you feel lethargic and uninspired? Is it because you don't think you're good enough? This layer of questioning helps us understand the root cause of the emotions that overwhelm us. Once we understand that root cause, we can ideally do something to change it.
But there's another, even deeper level of the self-awareness onion. And that one is full of fucking tears. 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? This level, which takes constant questioning and effort, is incredibly difficult to reach. But it's the most important, because our values determine the nature of our problems, and the nature of our problems determines the quality of our lives. Honest self-questioning is difficult. It requires asking yourself simple questions that are uncomfortable to answer. In fact, in my experience, the more uncomfortable the answer, the more likely it is to be true. 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?
What is objectively true about your situation is not as important as how you come to see the situation, how you choose to measure it and value it. Problems may be inevitable, but the meaning of each problem is not. We get to control what our problems mean based on how we choose to think about them, the standard by which we choose to measure them.
If you want to change how you see your problems, you have to change what you value and/or how you measure failure/success.
Pleasure. Pleasure is great, but it's a horrible value to prioritize your life around.
Always Being Right. It's far more helpful to assume that you're ignorant and don't know a whole lot. This keeps you unattached to superstitious or poorly informed beliefs and promotes a constant state of learning and growth.
Staying Positive. The trick with negative emotions is to 1) express them in a socially acceptable and healthy manner and 2) express them in a way that aligns with your values.
Defining Good and Bad Values
Good values are 1) reality-based, 2) socially constructive, and 3) immediate and controllable. Bad values are 1) superstitious, 2) socially destructive, and 3) not immediate or controllable.
You'll notice that good, healthy values are achieved internally. Bad values are generally reliant on external events.
The rest of this book is dedicated to five counterintuitive values that I believe are the most beneficial values one can adopt. All follow the "backwards law" we talked about earlier, in that they're "negative." All require confronting deeper problems rather than avoiding them through highs.
You Are Always Choosing
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. If you're miserable in your current situation, chances are it's because you feel like some part of it is outside your control--that there's a problem you have no ability to solve, a problem that was somehow thrust upon you without your choosing. When we feel that we're choosing our problems, we feel empowered. When we feel that our problems are being forced upon us against our will, we feel victimized and miserable.
There is a simple realization from which all personal improvement and growth emerges. This is the realization that we, individually, are responsible for everything in our lives, no matter the external circumstances. 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.
The Responsibility/Fault Fallacy
We all love to take responsibility for success and happiness. Hell, we often fight over who gets to be responsible for success and happiness. But taking responsibility for our problems is far more important, because that's where the real learning comes from. That's where the real-life improvement comes from. To simply blame others is only to hurt yourself.
You're Wrong About Everything (But So Am I)
We shouldn't seek to find the ultimate "right" answer for ourselves, but rather, we should seek to chip away at the ways that we're wrong today so that we can be a little less wrong tomorrow. When viewed from this perspective, personal growth can actually be quite scientific. Our values are our hypotheses: this behavior is good and important; that other behavior is not. Our actions are the experiments; the resulting emotions and thought patterns are our data. There is no correct dogma or perfect ideology. There is only what your experience has shown you to be right for you--and even then, that experience is probably somewhat wrong too.
Architects of Our Own Beliefs. Our brains are meaning machines. What we understand as "meaning" is generated by the associations our brain makes between two or more experiences.
Be Careful What You Believe. No matter how honest and well-intentioned we are, we're in a perpetual state of misleading ourselves and others for no other reason than that our brain is designed to be efficient, not accurate. Not only does our memory suck--suck to the point that eyewitness testimony isn't necessarily taken seriously in court cases--but our brain functions in a horribly biased way.
Uncertainty is the root of all progress and all growth. As the old adage goes, the man who believes he knows everything learns nothing. We cannot learn anything without first not knowing something. The more we admit we do not know, the more opportunities we gain to learn.
Before we can look at our values and prioritizations and change them into better, healthier ones, we must first become uncertain of our current values. We must intellectually strip them away, see their faults and biases, see how they don't fit in with much of the rest of the world, to stare our own ignorance in the face and concede, because our own ignorance is greater than us all.
Manson's Law of Avoidance
The more something threatens your identity, the more you will avoid it. That means the more something threatens to change how you view yourself, how successful/unsuccessful you believe yourself to be, how well you see yourself living up to your values, the more you will avoid ever getting around to doing it. There's a certain comfort that comes with knowing how you fit in the world. Anything that shakes up that comfort--even if it could potentially make your life better--is inherently scary.
How to Be a Little Less Certain of Yourself
Question #1: What if I'm wrong? 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?" Questions like these need to become a mental habit. In many cases, the simple act of asking ourselves such questions generates the humility and compassion needed to resolve a lot of our issues.
Question #2: What would it mean if I were wrong?
Question #3: Would being wrong create a better or a worse problem than my current problem, for both myself and others? This is the litmus test for determining whether we've got some pretty solid values going on, or we're totally neurotic fuckwads taking our fucks out on everyone, including ourselves.
I try to live with few rules, but one that I've adopted over the years is this: if it's down to me being screwed up, or everybody else being screwed up, it is far, far, far more likely that I'm the one who's screwed up.
Failure Is the Way Forward
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. 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.
Pain Is Part of the Process
Many people, when they feel some form of pain or anger or sadness, drop everything and attend to numbing out whatever they're feeling. Their goal is to get back to "feeling good" again as quickly as possible, even if that means substances or deluding themselves or returning to their shitty values. Learn to sustain the pain you've chosen. When you choose a new value, you are choosing to introduce a new form of pain into your life. Relish it. Savor it. Welcome it with open arms. Then act despite it.
The "Do Something" Principle
Don't just sit there. Do something. The answers will follow. Action isn't just the effect of motivation; it's also the cause of it.
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. The "do something" principle not only helps us overcome procrastination, but it's also the process by which we adopt new values. If you're in the midst of an existential shitstorm and everything feels meaningless--if all the ways you used to measure yourself have come up short and you have no idea what's next, if you know that you've been hurting yourself chasing false dreams, or if you know that there's some better metric you should be measuring yourself with but you don't know how--the answer is the same: Do something.
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. This exposure to different cultural values and metrics then forces you to reexamine what seems obvious in your own life and to consider that perhaps it's not necessarily the best way to live.
Rejection Makes Your Life Better
The avoidance of rejection (both giving and receiving it) is often sold to us as a way to make ourselves feel better. But avoiding rejection gives us short-term pleasure by making us rudderless and directionless in the long term. To truly appreciate something, you must confine yourself to it. There's a certain level of joy and meaning that you reach in life only when you've spent decades investing in a single relationship, a single craft, a single career. And you cannot achieve those decades of investment without rejecting the alternatives.
For a relationship to be healthy, both people must be willing and able to both say no and hear no. Without that negation, without that occasional rejection, boundaries break down and one person's problems and values come to dominate the other's. Conflict is not only normal, then; it's absolutely necessary for the maintenance of a healthy relationship. If two people who are close are not able to hash out their differences openly and vocally, then the relationship is based on manipulation and misrepresentation, and it will slowly become toxic.
Yes, breadth of experience is likely necessary and desirable when you're young--after all, you have to go out there and discover what seems worth investing yourself in. But depth is where the gold is buried. And you have to stay committed to something and go deep to dig it up. That's true in relationships, in a career, in building a great lifestyle--in everything.
And Then You Die
The Denial of Death [by Ernest Becker] essentially makes two points:
Humans are unique in that we're the only animals that can conceptualize and think about ourselves abstractly. And it's because of this unique mental ability, Becker says, that we all, at some point, become aware of the inevitability of our own death. This realization causes what Becker calls "death terror," a deep existential anxiety that underlies everything we think or do.
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. 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. Becker called such efforts our "immortality projects," projects that allow our conceptual self to live on way past the point of our physical death. 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.
While death is bad, it is inevitable. Therefore, we should not avoid this realization, but rather come to terms with it as best we can. Because once we become comfortable with the fact of our own death--the root terror, the underlying anxiety motivating all of life's frivolous ambitions--we can then choose our values more freely, unrestrained by the illogical quest for immortality, and freed from dangerous dogmatic views.
Confronting the reality of our own mortality is important because it obliterates all the crappy, fragile, superficial values in life.
The only way to be comfortable with death is to understand and see yourself as something bigger than yourself; to choose values that stretch beyond serving yourself, that are simple and immediate and controllable and tolerant of the chaotic world around you. This is the basic root of all happiness.
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. This acceptance of my death, this understanding of my own fragility, has made everything easier--untangling my addictions, identifying and confronting my own entitlement, accepting responsibility for my own problems--suffering through my fears and uncertainties, accepting my failures and embracing rejections--it has all been made lighter by the thought of my own death. The more I peer into the darkness, the brighter life gets, the quieter the world becomes, and the less unconscious resistance I feel to, well, anything.