The elegant art of not giving a shit

cat in a hammock not giving a shit

During a very famous moment, Krishnamurti asked the audience if they wanted to know his secret. The lecture hall went silent, and everyone leaned forward.

“You see,” he said, “I don’t give a shit.”

I’m paraphrasing. By most accounts he said “You see, I don’t mind what happens,” but he could have easily said either, and not giving a shit is a concept more people can identify with. I apologize for the vulgarity of the phrase — I will use it a lot in this article — but nothing else captures this piece of wisdom quite as well.

When you tell people to “not mind what happens,” they’ll probably look at you funny unless they’re the type of person who would be in the audience at a Krishnamurti lecture. But everyone understands that there are times in life when the best way to respond to an unpleasant event is to not give a shit.

Giving a shit really just amounts to thinking about what happened. If someone was rude to you on the phone, and you think a lot about it, you are giving a shit. If you hang up and shrug and then go for a bike ride, then you are successfully not giving a shit.

Giving a shit does not necessarily mean you’re doing anything useful, but it makes it seem like you are. It feels like there’s some kind of justice that you’re getting closer to with every moment you give a shit. But that’s not true, because giving a shit, by itself, is only thinking — and thinking has little use aside from figuring out what to do.

This illuminates one of our most stubborn, silly beliefs about human thinking: that most of it is worthwhile, that it’s actually getting you somewhere. Most thoughts just fill up your head and distance you from the life that’s still unfolding in front of you. They’re not leading to any important decisions or insights, they’re just taking over your present moment, and possibly shortening your life on the other end too.

We often believe that our thoughts are accomplishing something just because they’re emotionally charged, or because they’re “about” something we consider important, like fairness, respect, or the state of society.

No. They are useful only insofar as they get you to move your body and do something useful. 

This isn’t to say that action is always necessary when it comes to responding to life’s countless little annoyances, rudenesses, and unfairnesses. In fact, usually it isn’t. Often there’s nothing you can do, or nothing you’re willing to do. That’s fine. In those cases, which I think represent the vast majority of cases, you’re better off not giving a shit.

Not giving a shit sounds like apathy, but it’s not. It’s simply a refusal to waste your energy and time on thoughts you’re not going to act on. So when you do give a shit, make sure that the point of this shit-giving is to figure out what you’re actually going to do in response to what happened, and then move on to the action part.

Here is a handy flow-chart:

flowchart about not giving a shit

 

It can be hard to not give a shit. It’s something you have to practice. It should be a celebrated life skill that we teach children, alongside math, shoe-tying and talking to strangers.

The other day I was out running and someone yelled at me from a passing pickup truck. I think he called me a pansy (or maybe a Nancy?) It startled me, and I might have even jumped a bit. They probably laughed or high-fived each other or whatever those kinds of douchebags do after a successful drive-by shouting.

There have been times in my life when I would have spent quite a bit of energy giving a shit about a minor injustice like this. But I felt pretty unstoppable that day, and it didn’t do much to me. I still felt the initial surge of adrenaline and anger, but decided that I would let this 5-second event just go on by, instead of investing in an afternoon-long internal protest, which I would probably feel a need to tell everyone about later.

I kept running, and noticed that only seconds later the street was quiet and peaceful again. There was absolutely no trace of what happened, because I didn’t keep it alive in my head by giving a shit.

I have known people who will tell stories, repeatedly, about some unpleasant twenty-second interaction that happened to them years ago, and which they evidently never stopped giving a shit about. I’m sure you have witnessed this too. Don’t fall for this madness. As a general policy, don’t give a shit.

Knowing how to not give a shit doesn’t mean you never give a shit about anything. It just means that when you give a shit, it’s voluntary. You have a reason.

The key to not giving a shit is knowing what the rising temptation to give a shit feels like. It always starts with angry or indignant words in your head, often in the form of a clever comeback or an internal sermon about respect and decency.

You may start playing out different scenarios in your head where you show the offender who’s boss in some way. Maybe you slip into a revenge fantasy where (for example) you run after the vehicle like the T-1000, and they end up driving into a tree, and you stand there and laugh with your hands on your hips.

When you notice these kinds of thoughts arising, remind yourself that you don’t give a shit about things like this, and invest your attention into the physical world again. What’s the next event in your life, now that you’ve moved on from the tiny, unfortunate event that just happened? Pay attention to what your body needs to do next, in order to move on to this next thing.

Then pull the trigger. Dial that next call, run that next mile, mix those drinks, hop on that bike… whatever logically comes next in the life of a person who doesn’t give a shit about petty things. If you’re itching to give a shit, give a shit about that.

***

 Cat photo by lovecatz / Flow chart by David Cain


Trixie July 25, 2014 at 1:00 pm

I am having problems with the comments, too. I get only one comment now when I click “previous comments.”

I loved this column. I read it with my 12-year-old son (who I think was surprised to hear me say “shit”), and we went back to look at some of your experiments. We have undertaken the 21-day challenge of no complaining. He has restarted twice. I restarted once and now am on the second day.

Holly July 26, 2014 at 8:38 am

A good post about letting it go. I laughed at the “drive by shouting.” So much time and energy can be drained by endless ruminations. At least cows get some nutrition from ruminating.

Meg July 26, 2014 at 9:20 am

Great post. Perfect Flowchart :)
It’s so easy to convince yourself that thinking about something (particularly getting angry about it) is the same as actually doing something about it! I know people who have managed to keep themselves angry about stuff for 30 years or more. It’s debilitating.
Great reminder, thanks!

nadie July 27, 2014 at 3:38 am

Great post, although most advisable not to give a shit about ourselves. Its pride ans prejudice what kills us

Sudhir July 27, 2014 at 11:13 am

David- a very thought provoking article. When something provokes me, I get an emotion and that emotion stays for some time. I can attempt to suppress this emotion and, force myself to think of moving to a positive emotion. However, emotions are not under my control and, hence I am unable to change my internal emotions by just wishing them away. In my opinion I need to accept that negative emotion and, allow it to ‘die’ without feeding it – with additional thoughts. I can control my thoughts not my emotions.

David Cain July 30, 2014 at 10:32 pm

Right… emotions really aren’t under our direct control. We can’t force them away. But we can notice what’s happening. We can notice we’re reacting and decide that we don’t need to indulge the revenge fantasies or internal dialogues. There is choice there.

George July 27, 2014 at 1:50 pm

Boy, that cat image sure is appropriate! Every time you forget how do not give a shit, just look at that cat. The posture. The eyes. Truly, this a master at work. :-)

George H July 29, 2014 at 1:01 am

Just realized that there’s another George commenting on this site, so do avoid further confusion I will write as “George H” from now on.

Sorry for the mess.

George July 29, 2014 at 2:30 am

Ah yes, that’s me. I called myself “George2″ for a while once I noticed you were here, but then kept forgetting. So my mess really.

Still, I like a lot of your previous comments and am happy to take credit for them. ;-)

David Cain July 30, 2014 at 10:30 pm

I love that cat and I’m glad somebody finally commented on it

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Brandon Roper July 29, 2014 at 1:38 pm

What a great idea. In the last year or so I have naturally come to the same conclusion you outline in this article. To truly and authentically live this way you have to be comfortable in your own skin and confident in the way you are living relative to the things for which you should care about.

Jeff July 30, 2014 at 1:08 pm

Profound piece dude. Simply profound. Thanks for writing it. I’m going to happily share it on FB and Twitter.

David Cain July 30, 2014 at 10:28 pm

Thanks for sharing Raptitude, Jeff.

Gia T. July 30, 2014 at 4:50 pm

Wow. Thank you for writing this, this is exactly what I needed to hear. I often find myself fantasizing about what I’d say to the rude guy on the train who bumped into me, or the reckless driver who almost cut me off, or some such random thing, and you are so right, it’s not worth it.

David Cain July 30, 2014 at 10:29 pm

I slip into these fantasies too sometimes, and they’re just a low-level kind of coping mechanism. Much more powerful to notice you’re about to do that, and then move on.

Sam July 30, 2014 at 9:51 pm

I love the post, and intellectually it makes perfect sense. I am the type to ruminate over not much, but then when it’s important, I am extreme. Can you extrapolate the flowchart to times that are truly difficult – for example, i have a parent being treated for cancer. She’ll be ok, apparently, but this is big, and scary, and feel like it deserves a lot of “giving a shit”….interested in your thoughts, or those of others.

David Cain July 30, 2014 at 10:28 pm

In this post I’m mostly talking about the more petty grievances we deal with on a many-times-daily basis.

But the same principle applies (although I wouldn’t be so flippant about it.) Being preoccupied by the suffering of others isn’t really helpful. Maybe you could use those thoughts as a reminder to ask yourself what you can do to be helpful, given that you’re thinking about this.

Be forgiving of yourself though. There are times when we just can’t stop thinking about something, and that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with us. But be helpful when you can.

ommm July 31, 2014 at 10:08 am

You did give enough shit to write a full article D:

Jes August 2, 2014 at 5:16 pm

Thought provoking and certainly a good read. Thank you for this article.

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Andy August 20, 2014 at 6:54 am

In high school I wore a rubber band and wrote “F.IT” on it. I think you can figure out what the “F” stands for. If I found myself ruminating too much, I could look down at the rubber band and sometimes I’d pop my wrist with it. It may sound a little masochistic, but it was an effective reminder for me. Cats are also a great reminder…thanks for that tidbit!

Sebastian Aiden Daniels August 24, 2014 at 5:39 am

“We often believe that our thoughts are accomplishing something just because they’re emotionally charged”

You nailed that on the head. Many of our thoughts seem to be either self-pitying or thoughts fueled by “righteous anger.” They don’t accomplish anything. You are right that action is the way to move forward and onwards while stewing in your thoughts is not.

Mary Ann Sulc-Davis August 26, 2014 at 8:58 am

What a brilliant article! I am happily sharing this on my FB page, and also with a friend who needs some strategies to handle a lot of shit!! I really think we do have control over our emotions; we chose how we wish to react, my mantra is: there are only two things in this world, that we are in control of, our thoughts and our emotions.

sujata August 28, 2014 at 9:06 pm

Spot on! Thank you!

公式サイト August 29, 2014 at 3:18 am

それを言ったらそうだろうね、めちゃくちゃ売れ続けてる状態か
大島も板野も事務所の性格がわからず所属しているよな
あと1000人で60万枚とかどっから出てきた数字だよw

Radhika September 6, 2014 at 3:54 am

Hi there

Seriously dude!! you just nailed it…. I was worried a lot lately ( coz i gave a shit a lot before!!!) Now after reading the flow chart and the content I was like ” Woah!!!!! why dint I read this a lot before!!!” u rock… Thanks a lot..
XX
Radix

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Ro October 17, 2014 at 1:33 pm

This is EXACTLY what I needed to today. After reading this article, I instantly felt better and successfully moved on!

Thanks for the clarity and wisdom.

Matthew October 17, 2014 at 11:30 pm

Good article. I was stewing all afternoon about an incident where I asked someone to be quieter at a lake. They were on a ski boat pulling a skier on a lake with mega speakers, I was on a quiet sailboat without much wind. They told me they didn’t give a f**k about what I wanted and drove off with the sound even louder. I was hurt by the lack of consideration they showed…. I would like to not give a shit, but my mind went to town with it. What does my body need, good question. Sleep in this case.

Marni November 1, 2014 at 12:44 pm

I love this article thank-you for writing it! I fill my brain up each and every day with “giving a shit” little useless thoughts. I am in the process of retraining myself, it’s tough! I’m a little sensitive and care too much what others think.

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