Self-help books are my guilty pleasure. People point out that they’re optimistic, clichéd and oversimplified, and they absolutely are. But I think there’s something great about sitting down for a few hours and losing yourself in one person’s opinion on how everyone else should be living their lives. That’s not to mention the little rush of personal gratification you get when you finish, even though you haven’t actually accomplished anything by simply reading the book.
I think one of the main problems is that they shower you with opportunities for improvement. You become so inundated with new ways to improve yourself that you either become overwhelmed and never try to change anything, or try to change everything and fail to maintain anything. This is a real shame because if taken with a grain of salt and used selectively, they offer a great opportunity for self-reflection. And at university where every second person you talk to doesn’t know who they are, what they want from life or why the fuck they’re studying engineering when they hate maths, a little self-reflection could go a long way.
The other problem is that they’re books and hardly anyone reads those anymore. I decided to try and solve these two issues by reading an assortment of self-help books and providing you with a sizzle reel of the best ideas they have to offer. Kicking off the series is The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson.
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck has the kind of mildly raunchy title that middle-aged people who just discovered emojis can’t get enough of (remember Sh*t My Dad Says?). It’s the same crowd who make marginal comments on Stuff articles and continue to proliferate minion memes. It’s also one of the bestselling self-help books of the year and unsurprisingly, is doing especially well in Auckland where people give way too many fucks.
Mark begins the books by telling you to stop searching for positive experiences. He argues the more you desire things you don’t have, the more discontent you feel with what you do have. The richer, hotter and happier you want to be, the poorer, uglier and unhappier you will feel. He recommends embracing the negatives because positive experiences are generated by overcoming negative ones. Humans are wired to create problems and if you find yourself caring a lot about small banal things, it is probably because you’ve got nothing better to care about. The solution to that is to find something worthwhile to care about, which is easier said than done, but it’s worth spending some time with your thoughts to figure it out. Because without it, you will feel purposeless.
This leads well into a question he asks later in the book: “What can you bear to struggle with?” Everybody wants to be rich, successful and loved, but not everyone is willing to take the financial risks, put in the 40-hour weeks, or have the difficult conversations that are required to achieve these goals. It is easy to gloss over the details and glorify the final result but if you aren’t willing to put in the work, you evidently don’t want to achieve these goals. What you choose to struggle with is where you can derive purpose, and purpose will bring joy and meaning to your life.
I used to care a lot about people thinking I was smart. I did well at school, and I felt this enormous pressure to meet expectations. I realised last year that I wasn’t gaining anything trying to impress other people. My grades aren’t as good anymore because my values changed; now I use that time for activities that add to my life. I know myself better, I’m comfortable just being myself and I’m a lot happier for it.
While it is healthy to have some understanding of who you are, Manson also argues it is important to doubt yourself. He explains that when you discover something about yourself, this new aspect isn’t necessarily right, it is just less wrong. By continually learning more about yourself and moving closer to the unreachable ‘truth’, you achieve personal growth. The main thing inhibiting this growth is certainty in the ideas you have about your abilities.
You see this all the time on UoA confessions with the classic “how do I make friends/ approach this person I like?” These people hold back because they think they know the outcome and therefore it’s pointless. It’s easier to be certain that no-one wants to be your friend or that someone will be disinterested than to try your luck and find out. Trying your luck means that the opportunity will be gone but deliberating on whether to act for weeks or months or forever doesn’t give you anything more. The opportunity to grow afterwards is the same. So, if you approach everything with uncertainty, you’ve got nothing to lose. You may fail more often but you also get more opportunities to move further towards the truth and find purpose and that’s what growing up is about.