The Subtle Art of Not {Caring}: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life

As part of my pre-reading for my Personal MBA, I am documenting my key learnings from The Subtle Art of Not {Caring}: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life. It is not intended to be a summary or review, rather a reflection of how the book has influenced my thinking.

Perhaps unfortunately titled for a family audience. Done for impact? – Still, the message is very powerful. Many books tend to reinforce or crystallise the ideas that I have read elsewhere, discussed or intuitively felt. This book was not like that, it has challenged me in line with my prescribed contrarian approach. I know I don’t have to agree with all of it. Still, I am best served looking for alternative viewpoints to enhance my own, not reinforce or confirm what I already know and believe to be true.

I get trapped a lot in my own head, I think too much, often caring too much about the trivial, I get stuck in loops until I get it out of my head by solving the problem. Problems that at times don’t even currently exist and may never exist, which proves harder to solve, as it is the worst case scenario I am mentally grappling with. These are only potential realities. I am envious of those that can easily focus solely on what is in front of them.

“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.” – Attributed to Mark Twain.

For me to complete my Personal MBA, I need to get out of my head more, specifically I need to direct my cognitive problem-solving ability towards more constructive means.

Lesson 1 – It comes easier when we don’t care

Most people would have experienced a situation, that when they stop trying, it suddenly comes easily. The foundation of the advice of relax into it. As human beings we are able to have thoughts about thought. This creates a non-reality. We can become anxious about becoming anxious, so become anxious. It happens with loneliness, anger, frustration, the list goes on. A self-reinforcing feedback loop. This can hit the confidence with no rational reason, which leads to desperation, desperation stinks.

Lesson 2 – Our values are not always aligned to each other

We have a culture of glorifying being right. I realise that I don’t know more than I do know, so perhaps a better expectation is that I’m wrong and I should simply strive to be less wrong, as an iterative process.

“The more something threatens your identity, the more you avoid it.” – Manson’s Law

Success or failure can threaten the dream, it threatens our identity. Our identity is related to our values, these values are not necessary what we want them to be. I find the term to be inconsistent, values can be detrimental or unhealthy.

To understand values better, a useful indicator is behaviour. We can pretend we value being healthy, but don’t have the behaviour to match. This is non-judgemental, merely observational. Perhaps we do value being healthy, but the value of contentment or comfort is higher on the list. Our self-judgement is often because our values are at odds with one another. This can cause us to hate (parts of) ourselves. This is driven by denying we have the opposing values, rather than recognising this internal conflict.

Lesson 3 – Goals can be demotivating

The common personal development process is set goals and strive towards them. The problem is that goals can laser in on what is lacked. It creates the paradoxical feedback loop, the more we care about an achievement, the less happy we are. It highlights that we don’t have it now. We want to be with that person, shows we are not with that person.

Often wanting to be with that person is anchored in a false reality, where they become better and better in our heads, we become desperate, desperation stinks. It’s unattractive, they don’t want to be with us, we want to be with them more, our behaviour becomes less and less attractive. The feedback loop continues.

Counter-intuitively it becomes clear on reflection that the desire for more positive experiences is a negative experience, the acceptance of a negative experience is a positive experience in itself.

Lesson 4 – Life is best not what we aspire for, but for when we chose to suffer for

The idea can be more appealing, than the reality. Often, we feel most demotivated once a goal has been achieved. This causes us to target superficial highs, numbing our experiences. We stop looking for lasting significance.

Rather than asking what we should strive for, a better question is what pain are we prepared to suffer through. Happiness grows through our problems and struggles. There is a need to love the process, not the outcome. I love running and training, not merely completing a marathon. In time it is no longer suffering but rather something joyful and rewarding.

For example, saying you want to be a famous musician is a useless and dishonest notion. Suffering through the hours of practice is what is important. Although if it feels like suffering, it is likely you will give up. A love of the process is needed.

The question then becomes “Where should I suffer?”  – What process is worth enduring?

Lesson 5 – Do something, it’s the easy part

Once I have decided where to suffer or what process is worth enduring. It is then time to act. But it is easy to get suck in the – How do I……?

  • Save money
  • Lose weight
  • Ask someone out
  • Break-up with someone

It is usually easy to do, usually by just doing something. Start, then learn and pivot if need be.

The hesitancy is usually driven by a deeper question, how do I deal with the emotions around my decision? Wrestling with this is what makes it feel difficult. The how or what is often easy and obvious. Dealing with the pain, effort, rejection and/or failure is the source of the hesitancy. Then once the action is completed, often the outcome is far gentler than the expectation, as the fictional feedback loop is broken by the reality.

By doing something, often the answers will follow. Thinking doesn’t always help to figure things out. Instead a better approach is to breaking it down into manageable actions and with this, I am reminded of the old adage of a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step and so I take that step. I begin another journey…

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