The Philosophy of Not Giving a Fuck: Motivational Advice from Magicians
Last October, I visited the 2017 New Zealand Magic Convention in Wellington. It was an inspiring long weekend filled with fantastic magic in one of my favourite cities. Travelling from Melbourne to the land of the long white cloud, I read The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson. The central thesis of his book is that we care too much about things that are not important. Because there are only so many ‘fucks’ you can give, Manson believes that caring about the wrong things is a waste of energy.
Magic conventions are usually a place to share the secrets of conjuring. This convention proved to be different as some of the issues that magicians discussed went beyond merely sharing methods to deceive people. Some of the magicians shared their view on life, which closely related to Manson’s thesis. This essay reflects philosophically on the Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck and shows how professional magicians apply this wisdom to become better performers.
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck
While the title of Manson’s book is somewhat blunt and controversial in some circles, his message is more subtle than the title suggests. Firstly, Manson doesn’t advocate that you should be indifferent to what happens in your life, but that you should be comfortable with being different from the norm. Society projects a strong social conformity force field and that compels us to meet social standards. While confirming with society is essential, the people who resist this force are the ones who move society forward.
Not giving a fuck also doesn’s imply that you can be a psychopath and do whatever you feel like without worrying about consequences. It is about finding out what is important to you and give a fuck about this instead of worrying about conformity for the sake of fitting in.
Another vital part of not giving a fuck is the importance of self-sacrifice. Manson writes that desire for merely positive experiences is itself a negative experience. Our desires have no limits and can never be fully satisfied. He harkens back to Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols: “That which does not kill me, makes me stronger”.
Paradoxically, undergoing a negative experience is a positive experience. The main lesson in Manson’s book is that when you don’t give a fuck about the pain required to attain our goals, you will most likely achieve them. Manson strongly positions himself against the self-help industry which advocates that merely visualising your success and wanting it really badly is sufficient.
His book is not the only that advocates not giving a fuck. A year before Manson, Sarah Knight published The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k.Note how Sarah is less daring as she uses two asterisks. In her TEDx talk in Coconut Grove, she talks about decluttering not only your home but also yourself. A year before Sarah, Stephen Parato wrote The Art of Not Giving a Fuck. He genuinely did not care because he did not use any asterisks at all. As Stephen put it: “if you are offended … you probably need this more than you think”.
These books are a somewhat crude, but entertaining account of what several philosophical traditions have claimed for centuries. Ancient Greek philosophers, Roman stoics and strands of Eastern philosophy promoted detachment as a way towards a better life. The next section reflects philosophically on the folk wisdom of not giving a fuck.
The Philosophy of Not Giving a Fuck
Not giving a fuck is a colloquial way of speaking about the philosophical concept of detachment. The idea that we should not become too attached to worldly things is as old as philosophy itself. Hindu, Buddhist and Taoist philosophers have pondered this issue extensively. Also in Western philosophers advocated detachment, with the Roman Stoics as the most vigorous proponents. For the Hindus and Buddhists, detachment is crucial if you want to reach enlightenment. The Taoist and Stoic philosophers had a more pragmatic view and focused on our earthly life.
Detachment as a philosophical way of life lies on the horizon of reason because our instincts keep telling us to give a fuck. We are wired to comply with social demands and take cues from what others do, and for that matter what advertising tells us to do.
Just like the authors of the not-giving-a-fuck, philosophers discuss the limits of detachment and how it can be applied to your everyday life. Two issues at stake are the status of ethics and the value of human relationships. If you detach, or not give a fuck, does that mean that you can act unethically and break all bonds with society?
The Ethics of Not Giving a Fuck
In Hinduism, detachment implies relinquishing any physical or mental connection with the things of the world, your mind and body, your achievements, qualities, fame and so on. Indian philosophers argued thousands of years ago that attachment to such things interferes with your thinking and blinds you to essential truths of life.
The Bhagavad Gita is one of the most influential books of Hindu philosophy. The Hare Krishna movement popularised this book in the Western world. The underlying narrative is about prince Arjuna who does not want to kill his family members on the battlefield. His charioteer is Lord Krishna who tells him that he should do his duty without attachment. In order words, Krishna tells Arjuna to ‘not give a fuck’ about petty family relationships and fight the battle. Only when Arjuna fulfils his duty to fight can he eventually attain the state of moksha. The Gita advocates taking “desireless action” and being detached from the fruits of your efforts to reach a state of moksha or liberation.One who performs his duty without attachment … is unaffected by sinful action, as the lotus is untouched by water—Bhagavad Gita 5.10
This story raises a critical issue question about Krishna’s advice: how can you act ethically if you don’t care about the consequences of your action? If nobody gives a fuck about the consequences of their actions, the world will be filled with psychopaths. On a cursory reading, the Gita seems to suggest that human activities are free of morality, just like the actions of animals. Just doing what you perceive to be your duty can lead to disastrous consequences, as we saw in the German extermination camps.
This tension has spawned significant philosophical debate with interpretations of this tension. One such understanding is that our actions should be motivated by the right kind of long-term desires, away from short-term material gain. Detachment in the Bhagavad Gita is about not being aloof and disconnected from the world. Detachment is about finding out what is important to you and then act accordingly. Within the context of Hinduism, dharma or the natural law, should guide your actions.
We can apply this lesson to a postmodern Western worldview by not giving a fuck about the trivialities of everyday life and leading a fulfilled life. While Hinduism has developed the concept of dharma that provides guidance on how to lie your life, modernity has no such anchor points to determine what to give a fuck about. We don’t have books like the Gita and have to navigate a confusing collection of self-help books.
Not giving a fuck about friends and family
Meanwhile, in the Roman empire, Stoic philosophers developed their ideas of detachment. The Stoics are known for their denouncement of intense emotions. In their view, the sage—a person with moral and intellectual perfection—is not influenced by emotions. The word stoic still means that somebody does not show emotions.
Marcus Tullius Cicero was a Roman politician and lawyer who wrote several philosophical books. He tells a story about a father whose son just died. Instead of being overcome by grief, the father says: “I was already aware that I had begotten a mortal.”. The father has detached himself from his son by recognising that all people are mortal. The Stoic refuses to attach intrinsic value to anything relating to the external world, including friends and family. The Stoics advocate detachment from anyone who can be taken away at any moment.
Can you live a fulfilled life without giving a fuck about anyone except yourself? Detachment is healthy, but some attachment is necessary to live in this world.The key to understanding the Stoic concept of detachment is not to see it as a way to entirely remove yourself from the world around you but as a kind of resilience. You can be detached from the nitty-gritty of everyday life without being disengaged with what happens in the world.
The philosophers seem to convey a similar message to the one made by the pop-psychologists in their books about not giving a fuck. All this theorising is intellectually stimulating, but how do you use this wisdom in practice? Let’s return to the New Zealand Magic Convention where this essay started.
The Magic of Not Giving a Fuck
Magic is a quaint performance art that revolves around secrecy. Magicians gather at conventions to share and sell their secrets to their brethren (magic is still a very male-dominated craft). A typical conference consists of a market where magic trick dealers sell the latest paraphernalia and performances and respected magicians perform and give lectures. Most lecturers perform and explain some of their magic tricks to the eager audience. At the 2017 New Zealand convention, the lecturers also shared some philosophical insights about their craft which relate directly to the subtle art of not giving a fuck.
Magicians are an interesting case study for detachment because they exemplify the subtle art not giving a fuck. Becoming a good magician requires a thick skin. The only way to learn magic is to perform for other people as often as you can. Because magic is so hard to do, every beginning magician and many experienced ones are terrible. Look at YouTube to convince yourself of this statement.
Possibly some of the most despised words in the English language are “pick a card, any card”. Magic is hard to perform because, when not performed very well, it challenges the audience’s intelligence in a way no other performance art does. As Jerry Seinfeld put it poignantly: “Here’s a quarter, now it’s gone. You’re a jerk.”
Magicians love their craft more than the petty opinions of their audiences, and good magicians improve their skills to the point where they perform artful magic. The New Zealand Magic Convention hosted several world-class magicians, each of which lectured on their views on performing magic. Interestingly, almost all of them spoke about how detachment improved their performances.
American musician, actor and magician Rob Zabrecky delivered an inspiring lecture in which he focused on magic as a form of theatre. Rob’s performances are beautiful examples of creative magic. His main advice to his fellow magicians was to “take emotional risks”. His take on performing magic is strongly influenced by his acting, where taking emotional risks is necessary to be convincing.
Take emotional risks
Most magic tricks are in essence boring because they follow a mechanical process without any emotional hook. You pick a random card, I find it … why bother? I learned about this concept when performing magic shows for children. The more I clowned around without giving a fuck, the more I detached myself from my usual public persona, the stronger the children reacted. Taking emotional risks is as important in the performing arts as it is in normal life.
One magician who exemplifies not caring about conventional approaches is Dan Sylvester. His character Sylvester the Jester stretches the boundaries of traditional magic shows as he recreates a live version of the Loony Toons universe. In his show, anvils appear, sparks shot from his ears, his eyes pop out of his skull, recreating the crazy world of cartoons. Dan was asked about the target market for his show. His answer was short and sharp: “I don’t give a shit”.
Don’t give a shit
Traditional knowledge in marketing suggests that entrepreneurs, including entertainers, should provide services based on what the market needs and wants. Most marketing textbooks will tell you that you should look for customers and develop a service, rather than the other way around. While this approach might be more likely lead you to financial success, it is unlikely to lead you to great art. Only when people like Dan don’t give a shit can art and culture in general progress. Following the well-trodden path has never improved anything.
Héctor ManchaBe brave
Lastly, the firefighter from Madrid, Hector la Mancha told us to “be brave” and defy the laws of tradition. La Mancha does not merely say this; he puts it in practice. Not only is he a firefighter, which requires innate bravery, but he also flaunted the traditional conventions of stage magic and became world champion when he performed a creative manipulation act at the World Championships of Magic in Italy in 2015. He did not perform in the usual gentleman’s attire but danced around barefoot with short sleeves and a top hat, pulling playing cards from the air.
You can view some of the inspirational magic by Zabrecky, Sylvester and Hector in the video below.
The term “not giving a fuck” is slightly deceptive because it seems to suggest that nothing matters. The key to understanding this term is to find out what you should give a fuck about.
Popular psychology books about not giving a fuck not only have enticing titles, but they also contain a beneficial message. Especially in a time where our desires can be driven by external forces such as social media and marketing, finding your way in the world is a powerful message.
Perhaps you can follow the advice of some of the world’s best magicians: take emotional risks, don’t give a shit and be brave.