Learning About Values from a Potty Mouth

Echo and Narcissus, 1903, by John William Waterhouse (1849–1917) [Public Domain] via Wikimedia.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good LifeThe Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life by Mark Manson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As the end of the year approaches and I am on track to achieve my reading goals, I have been reading some pop psychology books. I do like Mark Manson's work, even though its crassness makes it somewhat less scholarly than most of the books I have read thus far.

Manson writes how I sometimes speak, so I am not taking the moral high ground here, but it does mean that I tend to take his content less seriously. As I approach 50 I can reflect on my own experiences from my twenties and early thirties, and I must say I am impressed by the depth of reading of the likes of Mark Manson, Ryan Holiday, and Paul Colaianni and their ability to explain how they think about values, virtues, and finding the logic to guide their daily practice and actions.
But I have some concerns about what I call "literary entrepreneurship", and whether my time would be better spent on the classics.

I have recently been thinking about the idea of "endlessness". During my long service leave last year, I experienced a sense of endlessness where there were no deadlines (at least until the next semester of teaching began) and I could do whatever I wanted each day. I chose to journal, read, and blog, and this enabled me to establish a daily routine which I maintain to this day. I started with Homer, and I have been slowly working through the great books and works by the likes of Camus, Calvino,  and Nietzsche. I often get nervous about wasting time on contemporary books when I have so much to learn from the past.

Because of my own reading program, Manson's examples from literature were all familiar, including Bukowski, Buddha, Tina Gilbertson's idea of "constructive wallowing", the Milgram experiment, and so on. But I wonder whether these pop psychology books (for want of a better term) have sufficient depth?

Many of the self-improvement books I have read refer to historical and personal examples, and there is much to learn from how others think about the same problems I face. For example, Manson's approach to determining one's values fits well with what I gained from my reading of Paul Colaianni and Tina Gilbertson.

But I also see how these books are commercial products with a particular aim in mind. I often get the feeling that the authors are reading as a form of "mining" for information, much like the approach I might take when writing an academic paper (sans the referencing). 

From my own experience, a complete, cover-to-cover, slow reading of each work brings to light much which is lost through simply mining the content. So I wonder how much value I gain from reading Manson, compared to, say, reading Benjamin Franklin? (Of course, Franklin had his own financial reasons for lecturing and writing.) But when I read Franklin, for example, there was much that escaped me in the detail, and further reading revealed much of what I could not gain from the original text.

When I reflect on my reading of the likes of Manson, I often wonder how much I can gain from such literary entrepreneurs. Not that I don't like the book, but I wonder if I gain as much from this book as I might if I had prioritised my reading of Plato's The Laws, for example. 

So when I sum up the lessons learnt from Manson, much of these are in the reiteration of things I already know: if in doubt, act (p. 157); achieving meaning in one's life requires the rejection of alternatives (p. 165); excess is not good for me (p. 165); but establishing boundaries is good for me (p. 174).

One part I enjoyed is where Manson discusses the idea of endless values (p. 151) and mentions the "honest expression" of Pablo Picasso. The idea of honest expression is to provide a metric (p. 74), or a way to measure the implementation of one's values, in a way that does not "end'. For example, if one wanted to achieve "freedom" through work, once a job that provided such "freedom" had been achieved, then there is a sense that the value is "accomplished" and there is no sense of motivation. An "endless" value such as honest expression  is something that can be achieved repeatedly - it never ends.

However, as I know for a fact that I don't know everything, I did learn some key lessons about defining personal values and better ways to measure (metrics) these values; the paradox of choice (and how this promises the good life, but leads to inconsistency and confusion); and a better relationship with the idea of death (Quoting Mark Twain, p. 202):
The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.
I also have a better understanding of "unconscious resistance", which often gets in the way of me doing things I believe I actually want to do.

My "struggle" (see "suffering" p. 208) with my reading is best summed up by Harold Bloom (How to Read and Why, p. 21):
It matters, if individuals are to retain any capacity to form their own judgments and opinions, that they continue to read for themselves. How they read, well or badly, and what they read, cannot depend wholly upon themselves, but why they read must be for and in their own interest... but eventually you will read against the clock... One of the uses of reading is to prepare ourselves for change, and the final change is universal.
When I read the work of the present generation of literary entrepreneurs, I really feel that clock ticking. But after reading Manson, and despite my "unconscious resistance",  I think there is some value in reading about how others think about philosophy, and then applying that approach to my own thinking. Even if it is an exercise in thinking, rather than a definite plan for action.