All I really need to know I learned in Fight Club

by Jack on September 2010

Warning: If you are reading this then this warning is for you. Every word you read of this useless fine print is another second off your life. Don’t you have other things to do? Is your life so empty that you honestly can’t think of a better way to spend these moments? Or are you so impressed with authority that you give respect and credence to all that claim it? Do you read everything you’re supposed to read? Do you think every thing you’re supposed to think? Buy what you’re told to want? Get out of your apartment. Meet a member of the opposite sex. Stop the excessive shopping and masturbation. Quit your job. Start a fight. Prove you’re alive. If you don’t claim your humanity you will become a statistic. You have been warned. -Tyler

Tyler

The best movie of the 20th century was released at the very end of that century. Fight Club is truly awesome because it contains many important, and actionable, life lessons wrapped up in a gripping story. If you are one of the six people in the world who haven’t seen the movie, stop reading this now, and go out and see it. Now.

In the unlikely event that you didn’t do exactly as I said in the preceding sentence, here’s a hundred word summary. The movie itself is a lot better, though. Go see it.

A white collar office worker feels burnt out and alienated due to business travel, loneliness, and insomnia, and becomes addicted to chronic disease support groups as a method of self-medication. He meets Tyler Durden, a mysterious, charismatic soap-maker who works odd jobs, speaks in epigrams, and lives in a run down house near a paper factory. Their friendship progresses as they create “Fight Club”, a primal community of men who are disillusioned with the inauthenticity and artificiality of modern existence. As its name suggests, the community of men meets to fight and bond with each other. Awesomeness ensues.

Fight Club contains great messages about materialism, goals, lifestyle, male identity, religion, psychology and much more. The lessons that I learned from the movie were many. Here are some of them.

Material prosperity, while comfortable, has its downside.

The things you own, end up owning you.

Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.

Minimalism just works better. “Needing” a certain level of material comfort above the basics is a trap, a way to create false goals in place of things that matter most.

The best times of your life are when you’re totally immersed in what you’re doing. In flow, in the zone, whatever you call it. You’ve been in that state. You know what I’m talking about.

After fighting, everything else in your life got the volume turned down.

When you’re involved in a physical fight, you’re either in flow, or you’re instantly on the wrong end of a ground-and-pound. Your focus is your highest priority.

People get a similar feeling from all kinds of activities that are considered highly risky, like rock climbing, skydiving, tightrope walking, or driving too fast. The key is that the activity needs to be so dangerous that it demands all of your attention and focus moment by moment. So you get into flow naturally, because it’s the best way to ensure that you actually survive.

This is the same kind of state that you reach when in deep meditation (samadhi). Of course, the advantage of meditation is that your physical body is somewhat safer. :)

Life doesn’t go on forever. While you’re spending time reading this, someone else is doing your life’s work and getting credit for it, shagging your dream partner, and earning your fortune.

This is your life and it’s ending one minute at a time.

Why do you think I called this web site Thirty Two Thousand Days? It’s a constant reminder that we have a limited number of days in which to make a positive difference in our own lives, in the lives of those close to us, and in the world as a whole.

If you’re waiting around for someone or something outside yourself to make your life better, I’ll let you in on a little secret: no one is coming. You can’t be saved by anything outside yourself. Any change that you want to see in the world, start making it now. No one else can. (Hint: finish reading this article first and pass it on to your friends. Then go out and make the change. ;) )

Perfectionism sucks.

I say never be complete, I say stop being perfect, I say let’s evolve, and let the chips fall where they may.

Trying – and never quite succeeding – to be “perfect” and “complete” destroys gratitude and makes it impossible to appreciate anything. As a perfectionist, you’re never really experiencing your life as it unfolds. Instead, you’re comparing it to your idealized memory of something you experienced in the past. Good luck trying to reach a state of happiness or inner peace with that strategy. :P

Hoping to feel happier in the future is nonsense. Now is the only thing that’s real.

And then, something happened. I let go. Lost in oblivion. Dark and silent and complete. I found freedom. Losing all hope was freedom.

Every religion has some discussion of this principle – it’s what every religion was inspired by and aims for, whether it knows it or not.

Before the teachings of the enlightened master known as Jesus were remixed into the religion called Christianity; before the teachings of the awakened Siddhartha Gautama were crystallized into the set of rules, doctrines, and practices called Buddhism, these men both had a personal experience that set them free from fear, time, and attachment to impermanent things.

We know of these two because they had followers and friends who wrote their stories down, created social movements, and then grew those movements into major world religions. However, there were certainly other people throughout history who discovered this secret as well. The forgotten ones just didn’t have PR teams as good as those of Siddhartha or Jesus.

Moving your consciousness into the present moment, without thought and without judgment, means that you accept reality as it is, and that you give up “hope” that things will change in some hypothetical future. Experiencing this continually – as a living, breathing state of being, and not just intellectually – is what is commonly known as enlightenment or awakening.

The sexes are different. Men and women in a healthy society both need time among their own kind.

We’re a generation of men raised by women. I’m wondering if another woman is really the answer we need.

This particular point is most important for men. Women, by and large, don’t face the same communication challenges that men do in talking about deeply emotional subjects. It’s a truism that men talk about things, while women talk about people and relationships. Because of this, on average, women have more intimate and richer social networks, while men tend to have more superficial and transient social networks. Also, the old markers of adulthood – stable jobs, marriage, children, property ownership – are less accessible to young men than in the past. As a result, creating an adult identity is delayed and many physically mature men nevertheless remain boys well into their 20s and 30s. Unfortunately, some males in contemporary society never truly become men.

So where will men turn? The movie illustrated one possible way that men could define their adult identities. Of course, creating an apocalyptic anarchist cult based on physical violence isn’t necessarily the solution that most of us would choose. However, the fundamental idea of connecting with other men, learning together, and shaping both individual and collective identities, is something that nearly all men could support.

In his book The Way of The Superior Man, David Deida writes: It is time to evolve beyond the macho jerk ideal, all spine and no heart. It is also time to evolve beyond the sensitive and caring wimp ideal, all heart and no spine. Heart and spine must be united in a single man, and then gone beyond in the fullest expression of love and consciousness possible, which requires a deep relaxation into the infinite openness of this present moment. And this takes a new kind of guts. This is The Way of the Superior Man.

Fight Club did a great service to the world, by opening a broad conversation about modern masculine identity, and then exposing this conversation to a very large audience.

Without breaking something – without a sacrifice of some kind – nothing good can ever be created.

Only after disaster can we be resurrected. It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.

At the time, my life just seemed too complete, and maybe we have to break everything to make something better out of ourselves.

Like the mythical phoenix, the fire bird which grew from the ashes of its predecessor, great things often arise out of the ashes of tragedy or disaster. Abundant are the stories of entrepreneurs who learned the ropes by starting one company after another, only to see them fail, until their last company became a great success – and that success could not have happened without the lessons learned through pain and repeated failure of their earlier companies.

In his popular TED talk, psychologist Dan Gilbert describes several examples of people who had what most people would call “bad experiences” – professional and political disgrace, wrongful conviction, and missed opportunities. Each of them comments later on the impact of these experiences in positive, glowing terms. Often, in hindsight, the road to enduring happiness and inner peace leads through temporary (but painful) experiences of loss and failure.

Distractions, fear, doubt, and other “shit that doesn’t matter” – none of this deserves your precious attention.

You had to give it to him: he had a plan. And it started to make sense, in a Tyler sort of way. No fear. No distractions. The ability to let that which does not matter truly slide.

To create something great is challenging. You will always find a list of excuses, fears, doubts, and other distractions that cause you to look to one side or the other. Everyone who has persevered and ultimately realized their goals has faced these things too. One major difference between “getting it done” and “giving up” is a clear focus on the outcome.

Tyler is a great role model because he has a coherent objective in mind, the ability to persuade others to buy in to the objective, the unbreakable will to make it happen, and the focus and clarity of vision to stay on target regardless of the challenges or obstacles in the way. Whether you want to feed all the hungry people the world, start a great company, open a charter school in a poor neighborhood, or anything else enduring and valuable, when you have these qualities that Tyler personifies, they will serve you well, and never let you down.

You are always at cause, never at fault.

Man, I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.

The men in Fight Club are average guys pushed around by powerful forces – corporations, social systems and expectations, and governments. And yet, they reclaim responsibility for their own salvation and their own destiny. They could sit around and mope about how they have no power, but instead they work together, realize that they have power, go out into the world, and start being awesome.

You can all do this too – the key is to make a decision, take responsibility, and start working on what’s most important to you. Right now. Because, after all, this is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time.

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Randy October 3, 2010 at 23:48

Done. Very very important movie. (So was 2001: A Space Odyssey.)

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Jack October 4, 2010 at 15:52

Thanks Randy! 2001 was indeed significant but I think I missed a lot of the subtlety the first time I saw it (when I was 9 or something :P )

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aileen October 6, 2010 at 13:58

loved it. but didn’t you just break the first (and second) rule of fight club?

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Jack October 6, 2010 at 14:07

Umm, I’m not a member of Fight Club, so it’s not breaking the rules if I talk about it… pay no mind to the bruises on my face ;)

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Diggy October 6, 2010 at 14:02

Hey man,
This is a super cool sick post! I wrote a post about Fight Club about a year ago and it is still my most commented post :)

I absolutely love the movie and have seen it at least 6 times, and you reminded me that I wanna watch it again! There are so many lessons that apply, so many truisms about life and such a motivation and inspiration to go to gym and learn how to fight!

Sweet blog you have here too, gonna do some exploring!
Keep it up
Cheers
Diggy

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Jack October 6, 2010 at 14:17

Hey Diggy,

Thanks very much for your kind feedback! :) I’ll check out your post as well – it seems like the movie had such a huge impact on a wide range of people in our generation (men in particular… go figure).

The message from the movie seemed to help lots of men get over some of the obstacles that keep us from communicating with each other the way women seem to do so easily. And the message that life is short and we need to seize opportunity and do things that are meaningful to us, is one that clearly resonated with me as well…

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Srinivas Rao October 6, 2010 at 15:10

Jack,

I really hope you write more posts. Your blog is one of my personal favorites to read and when Dan Andrews from TropicalMBA.com interviewed me about blogs that people need to pay attention to, yours was at the top of my list. In fact I was wondering if you’d be willing to do a guest post for SKool of Life because I think my audience would gain a ton from reading your writing. As far as this post goes, I remember tweeting it when you wrote and I didn’t see it get share enough, so I put it back out today :) . I need to watch Fight Club again. That part at the end about watching TV thinking we’re all going to be millionaires, rockstars, etc is incredibly eye opening and also a bit of a wakeup call for people . I’d be honore dto have you as a guest contributor on Skool of Life.

-Srini

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Jack October 6, 2010 at 15:22

Hi Srini,
Thanks very much for your comments! It feels great to get feedback like yours!
I’d be delighted to contribute to Skool of Life – let’s talk!

-Jack

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Duff October 7, 2010 at 23:20

Interesting. Here’s what I learned from Fight Club:
* that the unnamed main character had no sense of his own identity, at both superficial and deep levels
* that he went insane because of his unethical work that required him to perform ruthless calculations to determine the worth of human life vs. corporate profit in recall of cars that blow up
* that Tyler’s rhetoric of individuality and anti-authoritarianism is what facilitated his rise to power of a highly authoritarian cult
* that personal development bloggers love writing about Fight Club in order to similarly garner authoritarian power and cult-like status

Reply

Jack October 8, 2010 at 20:05

“that the unnamed main character had no sense of his own identity, at both superficial and deep levels”

Definitely – this is shown in his irrational attachment to his condo and all his cute furniture and possessions that he never has time to use because he’s always on business travel. Clever but bitter quotes such as “what kind of dining set defines me as a person?” similarly reveal his lack of personal identity. He’s trapped but he doesn’t know how to break free.

“that he went insane because of his unethical work that required him to perform ruthless calculations to determine the worth of human life vs. corporate profit in recall of cars that blow up”

True – he’s basically a cog in the mega-corporation machinery, doing valuation work that makes bleak sense in some kind of heartless economic way, but is actually quite inhuman.

that Tyler’s rhetoric of individuality and anti-authoritarianism is what facilitated his rise to power of a highly authoritarian cult

I agree – I think Tyler’s words tap into a vein of frustration among men (at least in the USA, possibly other places) that their lives, mediated and controlled by Kafka-esque bureaucracies (corporate and governmental) are not quite what we want them to be. His rants against materialism and corporatism and the way that people identify with their wealth, their possessions, and their jobs, are a key part of this.

that personal development bloggers love writing about Fight Club in order to similarly garner authoritarian power and cult-like status

I don’t know if that’s always true. In the case of this article, I was just trying to articulate why the movie affected me (and so many other 20/30 something men) so significantly.

I think that the character Tyler represents a kind of liberation from social constraints and structures that we give away our power to, that hold us back and “keep us in our place”. The character even says it pretty explicitly to his corporate-slave counterpart: “All the ways you wish you could be, that’s me. I look like you wanna look, I fuck like you wanna fuck, I am smart, capable, and most importantly, I am free in all the ways that you are not”.

The authoritarian aspects of Project Mayhem are definitely an interesting part of the story, but they really don’t resonate with me as much as the message of freedom, liberation, and anti-materialism.

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Rachel February 11, 2011 at 23:53

Wowowowowowowowow! I randomly stumbled on this and am so grateful. It’s been a while since I saw the movie; maybe I’ll have to go watch it again now. :)

Thanks for givin’ me a lot to chew on!

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Jack February 12, 2011 at 14:37

Thanks Rachel!

I do find that the movie worked on many different levels – there were lots of things that I saw and experienced after the Nth watching that I completely missed during the first or second time through.

I try to take it every few months or so, kind of like brain vitamins…

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Venkat Bala April 6, 2011 at 07:18

This article is so profound that I feel like reading the screenplay of the film…and then relating it back to your inference. Awesome!

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tom November 15, 2011 at 21:33

As an old scrapper and streetfighter who has settled into relatively boring retirement (made boring by lack of funds to get up and go again) I have been in a quandry for some time about what I should do to reinvigorate my life.
Only last night I wrote on a big white card and put where I cannot ignore it “Sell up! Clear the clutter. Get cash. Go to Sulawesi and live cheaply and simply. Visit Australia again. Clear the decks for action. Cut the heavy drinking with people who bore me. Reinvent myself!” Just seeing that message today made me feel better already. I went back to the gym for the first time in two years and had a hard workout. And then I stumble upon this site! The coincidence is too great. I feel invigorated. I really think a new chapter is about to be written.
At 68 I am really too old to resume fighting – too slow now. I haven’t had a scrap for about ten years but I always miss the excitement. I’m a mass of scars from my wild lifestyle but most were honourably earned. I have no ambitions to add further to them But I still feel a little of the fire – perhaps I should stoke it…

Thanks for helping to wake me from this slumber.

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Jack November 17, 2011 at 23:55

Hi Tom,
I’m very glad you are feeling inspired again and glad that I could help. For me, the fighting in Fight Club is a metaphor since I haven’t really been in a scary physical conflict since primary school (looking back … they probably weren’t actually that scary)

At any age, it’s always possible to intervene in your life and add some juice and excitement. Your body’s always changing over time, but your experience of life can always be exciting and invigorating.

Thanks to you Tom, for reading and for your comment!

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Prasad April 5, 2014 at 03:19

No matter how many times i watch that movie and how many articles i read on it..i just can’t get enough of it. Keep it coming.

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Nate December 11, 2014 at 18:12

I used tto be able to find good info from your blog articles.

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