Giving a Fuck About Not Giving a Fuck

A well-crusted tomahawk steak, on a cutting board, next to a knife

I'm burnt out. Sure, March 2020 has gone on forever, but for me, it was work[1] that burnt me out. It's not that too many things are or go wrong in my current job -- where I work is not any worse than any other place -- it's that what is wrong gets to me. Especially things that shouldn't bother me.

In a healthy world, other people's problems would not be mine. Many folks suggested I read The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck. Spoiler alert: they were right.

A fire, seen through a black metal fire grate

A Very Brief Summary

Giving a fuck about things has a cost. Aiming for a positive attitude and focusing on positive outcomes have costs as well. Free yourself to give a fuck about the things that matter to you by not giving a fuck about everything else. Accept the pain as the price of the good for the things you do give a fuck about.

More In The Weeds

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck is probably one of those books that one can read in a bunch of different ways, depending on personal perspective and priority. Well, I don't give a fuck about the other ways of reading it; the way I read it, a few foci stuck out:

  • Don't Seek Happiness
  • You Are Not a Special Snowflake
  • It's Fine to Suffer
  • You Are Choosing Your Misery
  • Always Accept Being Wrong

That's a bullet list, so the next thing I write is likely to be structured via sub-headings corresponding thereto:

A closeup on a glass of white wine

Don't Seek Happiness

"This fixation on the positive -- on what's better, what's superior -- only serves to remind us over and over again of what we are not, of what we lack, of what we should have been but failed to be."

Yeah, that's me. I used positive-experience-seeking to overcome things like being betrayed by friends and business partners, but now that I have a beautiful family and cute dogs and a good job... as the book says, "wanting positive experience is a negative experience; accepting negative experience is a positive experience... to try to avoid pain is to give too many fucks about pain."[2] I may have tried too hard to make things pleasant and easy lately, gone over on that side of the balance.

The follow-on point is that "to not give a fuck about adversity, you must first give a fuck about something more important than adversity."

And, hey, suffering causes change, and change causes improvement, and that's actually how almost every living thing in the world works. We learn not to touch a hot stove by touching a hot stove. My three-legged dog learned not to run in the street by running in the street back when he had four legs.[3] If we avoid suffering, nothing ever gets better.

A small bull terrier, white and brown, and an orange toy

I Am Not a Special Snowflake

If the only thing valuable in life is making a vast difference that changes the world for generations, almost all of us are catastrophically failing at life.

Accept you won't be that world-changer[4], and you can stop beating yourself up for not being good enough. (Unless you really do have a plan to change the world that will work, then don't let me stop you.)

It's essential to do good. It's important to do big good. But maybe the act of working to do good is the value I will provide. Can I be happy with that? Happy, if not comfortable. And, for comfortable: see above.

Close up on a black dog's mouth, with a snaggletooth sticking out

It's Fine to Suffer

The problem isn't suffering... it's suffering for no reason. As the book says: "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?'"

The answer to "why?" turns out to be "the values we have." Those define the things we suffer with, and some are better than others. Specifically, values that are:

  • Reality-based
  • Socially constructive
  • Immediate and controllable

Are good. In contrast:

  • Superstitious
  • Socially destructive
  • Not immediate or controllable

Are bad. Obviously, we all have a mix of those values -- I am good at being reality-based, but also am highly informed by my faith -- but we can continually be improving our values, just like we improve the other parts of ourselves. Again, the book: "when you give better fucks, you get better problems. And when you get better problems, you get a better life."

(When you consider values, choose open-ended ones, like "I'm creative," not "I have a nice car," because eventually you have a nice car, and then your value tells you nothing.)

A closeup on a sweating glass, icecubes, and an orange liqueur in it -- a Negroni

You Are Choosing Your Misery

This is not "poor people are poor because they choose to be poor" because that's a load of hokey. Instead, this acknowledges that, even with the awful things that happen to all of us or the things that we're all born with, what we give a fuck about is what makes us miserable.

We give a fuck about some things because it's right, and those will always be heartbreaking. Worse, as we improve, we'll have uncomfortable, and maybe heartbreaking, experiences giving up the old things we shouldn't have given a fuck about. But those are all miseries we choose, and are good.

The rest? I shouldn't give a fuck.

Seared scallops in a white sauce, with spaetzle and basil

Always Accept Being Wrong

We tend to get stuck in our beliefs and values. Instead, we should be testing these against reality. Uncertainty is acceptable; discomfort is OK; those are how you get better.

This extends to your self-concept. "The more something threatens your identity, the more you will avoid it." Don't let your identity be fluid, but be open to change. Heck, you might be wrong that you're a failure!

If you accept being wrong, you need to ask: "Would being wrong create a better or worse problem than my current problem, for both myself and others?"

Looking at a single white flower on a magenta bougainvillea

So Where Does This All Leave Me?

One plausible place this leaves me is not giving a fuck that I don't have a wrap-up at the end here. Let's check:

  • Ending this now would be seeking happiness, but feeling like I've not wrapped up the post would also be adversity
  • I'm not a special snowflake, and maybe this post isn't about me at all
  • Am I prepared to suffer for a good ending? I probably ought to be
  • Given that I can suffer either for writing an ending here; or doing the dishes; which fits more with my values? Well, I cooked salmon, so it's going to be the dishes fitting with my value of the house not smelling like salmon in the morning
  • Suppose I'm wrong, and I should've put a nice summary paragraph here with some personal insight baked in? Well, then I'd be wrong.

Fuck it; I don't give a fuck if this post isn't done; I'm done with it.

  1. Some kind of a software engineering manager. Titles differ from place to place, but I manage several other engineers and some number of teams of engineers. ↩︎

  2. It's imperative not to be rude when being honest. Too often, honesty is an excuse for being rude or mean. No, honesty is just about sharing the reality of what's going on, whether that's "your steak is from this part of the cow" or "well, nobody's really solved code review, and so we should all expect to be bad at it," to "Oh, 1943, did you know about the other genocide the British were doing then?" ↩︎

  3. This is a lie. He still runs in the street, the adorable, sweet dummy. ↩︎

  4. I am fully aware that one point of Fight Club is that Tyler Durden's brand of nihilism is wrong, but it's funny in this context, dammit, and I... I don't give a fuck if you don't think so. ↩︎