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Bookworm#5: Lessons on Living a Good Life from The School of Life by Alain DE Botton (Part one)

Bookworm, our weekly book review series from Future Startup, where we share actionable insights from books to help you improve your life is back from a short hiatus. 

This week 32 lessons from The School of Life by Alain DE Botton. 

1. Often you are the biggest obstacle to your progress. 

“We are all astonishingly capable of messing up our lives, whatever the prestige of our university degrees, and are never beyond making a sincere contribution, however unorthodox our qualifications.”

2. A deeper understanding of oneself is the first important sign of an emotionally intelligent person. 

“The emotionally intelligent person knows that love is a skill, not a feeling, and will require trust, vulnerability, generosity, humour, sexual understanding and selective resignation. The emotionally intelligent person awards themselves the time to determine what gives their working life meaning and has the confidence and tenacity to try to find an accommodation between their inner priorities and the demands of the world. The emotionally intelligent person knows how to hope and be grateful, while remaining steadfast before the essentially tragic structure of existence. The emotionally intelligent person knows that they will only ever be mentally healthy in a few areas and at certain moments, but is committed to fathoming their inadequacies and warning others of them in good time, with apology and charm. Sustained shortfalls in emotional intelligence are, sadly, no minor matter. There are few catastrophes, in our own lives or in those of nations, that do not ultimately have their origins in emotional ignorance.”

3. The fundamental limitations of being “so called” adult is that we have forgotten that we too are capable of growth and development

“As children, when someone asked our age, we might have said, ‘I’m four’, and added, with great solemnity, ‘and a half’. We didn’t want anyone to think we were only four. We had travelled so far in those few months, but then again we were modest enough to sense that the huge dignity of turning five was still quite far away. In other words, as children, we were hugely conscious of the rapidity and intensity of human development and wanted clearly to signal to others and ourselves what dramatic metamorphoses we might undergo in the course of our ordinary days and nights. It would nowadays sound comic or a touch mad for an adult to say proudly, ‘I’m twenty-five and a half’ or ‘forty-one and three-quarters’ – because, without particularly noticing, we’ve drifted away from the notion that adults, too, are capable of evolutions.”

4. Rituals are critical because we are forgetful 

“In the course of secularizing our societies, we may have been too hasty in doing away with rituals. An education system alive to the wisdom of religions would perceive the role of structured lessons that constantly repeat what we know full well already – and yet so arduously and grievously forget. A good ‘school’ shouldn’t tell us only things we’ve never heard of before; it should be deeply interested in rehearsing all that is theoretically known yet practically forgotten.”

5. We are broken creatures

6. We are paradoxical creatures running with perpetual dichotomy. 

“The melancholy know that many of the things we most want are in tragic conflict: to feel secure and yet to be free; to have money and yet not to have to be beholden to others; to be in close-knit communities and yet not to be stifled by the expectations and demands of society; to explore the world and yet to put down deep roots; to fulfil the demands of our appetites for food, sex and sloth and yet stay thin, sober, faithful and fit.”

7. Most of our sufferings are a result of our inability to understand the limitation of being human. 

“To hear that we should understand rather than condemn, that others are primarily anxious rather than cruel, that every strength of character we admire bears with it a weakness we must forgive: these are both key laws of psychology and entirely familiar truisms of the sort that we have been taught to disdain. Yet despite their so-called obviousness, simple-sounding emotional dynamics are aggressively capable of ruining extended periods of our lives.”

8. Our past continues to play critical rule throughout our life

“The failure of a fifteen-year relationship, a thousand nights of pain and fury, might have originated in an avoidant pattern of attachment established in one’s fourteenth month on earth. Emotional life is never done with showing us how much we might have to suffer for ‘small’ things.”

9. Much of our suffering has its root in our self ignorance 

“Symptoms of our self-ignorance abound. We are irritable or sad, guilty or furious, without any reliable sense of the origins of our discord. We destroy a relationship that might have been workable under a compulsion we cannot account for. We fail to know our professional talents in time. We pass too many of our days under mysterious clouds of despair or beset by waves of persecution. We pay a very high price for our self-ignorance. Feelings and desires that haven’t been examined linger and distribute their energy randomly across our lives. Ambition that doesn’t know itself re-emerges as panic; envy transforms itself into bitterness; anger turns into rage; sadness into depression. Disavowed material buckles and strains the system. We develop pernicious tics: a facial twitch, impotence, a compulsion, an unbudgeable sadness. Much of what destroys our lives can be attributed to emotions that our conscious selves haven’t found a way to understand or to address in time. It is logical that Socrates should have boiled down the entire wisdom of philosophy to one simple command: ‘Know yourself.’”

10. In short, we are flawed creatures and knowing that helps

“A successful search for self-knowledge may furnish us not with a set of newly mined rock-solid certainties, but with an admission of how little we do – and ever can – properly know ourselves. This critical attitude towards our own thought processes can be called emotional scepticism. It was the ancient Greek philosophical sceptics (from the Greek word skepsis, meaning ‘questioning’ or ‘examination’) who first concentrated on showing up how flawed and unreliable our minds can be, in both large and small ways. The average pig is – as Pyrrho, the founder of the sceptical movement, liked to point out – cleverer, sharper, kinder and distinctly happier than its human counterpart. The sceptics emphasized a range of cognitive malfunctions and blind spots. We are notoriously bad judges of distances, wildly misreading how far away a distant island or mountain might be, and easily fooled in our estimations by small changes of light and moisture in the air. Our sense of time is highly inaccurate, influenced chiefly by the novelty or familiarity of what happens rather than by strict chronological duration. We desire excessively and inaccurately. Our sexual drives wreak havoc on our sense of priorities. Our whole assessment of the world can be transformed according to how much water we have drunk or sleep we have had. The instrument through which we interpret reality, our 1,260 or so cubic centimetres of brain matter, has a treacherous proclivity for throwing out faulty readings.”

11. A readiness to mitigate the worst of our everyday foolishness contributes to the highest kind of emotional intelligence of which we may ever be capable.

12. “One kind of person, the bearer of a solid emotional inheritance, will tend to be resilient when someone hurts or behaves badly towards them. It won’t be a catastrophe, just a few unpleasant moments. But such a verdict would feel entirely alien to someone who has been bequeathed a backdrop of shame and self-contempt, always looking to reconfirm itself in contemporary incidents. Maturity involves accepting with good grace that we are all – like marionettes – manipulated by the past. And, when we can manage it, it may also require that we develop our capacity to judge and act in the ambiguous here and now with somewhat greater fairness and neutrality.”

13. “Childhood opens us up to emotional damage in part because, unlike all other living things, Homo sapiens is fated to endure an inordinately long and structurally claustrophobic pupillage. A foal is standing up thirty minutes after it is born. A human will, by the age of eighteen, have spent around 25,000 hours in the company of its parents.”

14. “Everyone around us may have been trying to do their best and yet we end up now, as adults, nursing certain major hurts which ensure that we are so much less than we might be.”

15. You see, we lie a lot and mostly to ourselves 

“We don’t only have a lot to hide, we are liars of genius. It is part of the human tragedy that we are natural self-deceivers. Our techniques are multiple and close to invisible. (....) We lie by attacking and denigrating what we love but haven’t managed to get. We dismiss the people we once wanted as friends, the careers we hoped at the start one day to have, the lives we tried to emulate. We reconfigure what a desired but painfully elusive goal meant to us in the hope of not having to register its loss properly.”

16. The reason we are the way we are 

“Inside every adult there remains a child who is confused, angry, hurt and longing to have their say and their reality recognized.” 

17. Treat yourself as your best friend and be supportive 

“Part of improving how we judge our lives involves learning – in a conscious, deliberate way – to speak to ourselves in a new and different tone, which means exposing ourselves to better voices. We need to hear constructive, kindly voices often enough and around tricky enough issues that they come to feel like normal and natural responses – so that, eventually, they become our own thoughts. When things don’t go as we want, we can ask ourselves what a benevolent fair judge would say, and then actively rehearse to ourselves the words of consolation they would most likely have offered (we’ll tend to know immediately). We need to become better friends to ourselves. The idea sounds odd, initially, because we naturally imagine a friend as someone else, not as a part of our own mind. But there is value in the concept because of the extent to which we know how to treat our own friends with a sympathy and imagination that we don’t apply to ourselves. If a friend is in trouble our first instinct is rarely to tell them that they are fundamentally a failure. If a friend complains that their partner isn’t very warm to them, we don’t tell them that they are getting what they deserve. In friendship, we know instinctively how to deploy strategies of wisdom and consolation that we stubbornly refuse to apply to ourselves. The good friend is compassionate. When we fail, as we will, they are understanding and generous around our mishaps. Our folly doesn’t exclude us from the circle of their love. The good friend deftly conveys that to screw up is what humans do. The good friend brings, as a starting point, their own and humanity’s vivid experience of messing up as key points of reference. They’re continually telling us that though our specific case might be unique the general structure is common. People don’t just sometimes fail. Everyone fails, as a rule; it’s just we seldom know the details.” 

18. People don’t hurt us because they are damaged but because they themselves are struggling. 

“We can develop a sad but realistic picture of a world in which sorrows and anxieties are blindly passed down the generations. The insight isn’t only true with regard to experience; holding it in mind will mean there is less to fear. Those who wounded us were not superior, impressive beings who knew our special weaknesses and justly targeted them. They were themselves highly frantic, damaged creatures trying their best to cope with the litany of private sorrows to which every life condemns us.” 

19. Understanding us takes regular work 

“To understand ourselves, we need not only to learn of our past but also to take regular stock of what is flowing through our consciousness in the present.”

20. What we call depression is in fact sadness and anger that have for too long not been paid the attention they deserve.

27. “If part of the reason we don’t look more regularly into ourselves is our shame and fear at the unusual nature of what we may find there, then a crucial collective resource in the path to self-knowledge is a redrawn sense of what is normal. Our picture of acceptability is – very often – way out of line with what is actually true and widespread. Many things that we might assume to be uniquely odd or disconcertingly strange about us are in reality wholly ubiquitous, though simply rarely spoken of in the reserved and cautious public sphere. Any idea of the normal currently in circulation is not an accurate map of what is customary for a human to be. We are – each one of us – far more compulsive, anxious, sexual, tender, mean, generous, playful, thoughtful, dazed and at sea than we are encouraged to accept. The misunderstanding begins with a basic fact about our minds: that we know through immediate experience what is going on inside us, but can only know about others from what they choose to tell us – which will almost always be a very edited version of the truth. We know our somewhat shocking reality from close up; we are left to guess about other people’s from what their faces tell us, which is not very much. We simply cannot trust that sides of our deep selves will have counterparts in those we meet, and so remain silent and shy, struggling to believe that the imposing, competent strangers we encounter can have any of the vulnerabilities, perversions and idiocies we’re so intimately familiar with inside our own characters.”

28. You are perfectly normal 

“We must reduce the shame and danger of confession. We need a broader, more reassuring sense of what is common. Of course it is normal to be envious, crude, sexual, weak, in need, childlike, grandiose, terrified and furious. It is normal to desire random adventures even within loving, committed unions. It is normal to be hurt by ‘small’ signs of rejection, and to be made quickly very insecure by any evidence of neglect by a partner. It is normal to harbour hopes for ourselves professionally that go far beyond what we have currently been able to achieve. It is normal to envy other people, many times a day, to be very upset by any kind of criticism of our work or performance, and to be so sad we regularly daydream of flight or a premature end. The journey to self-knowledge needs to begin with a better map of the terrain of normality.”

29. “One of the great problems of human beings is that we’re far too good at keeping going. We’re experts at surrendering to the demands of the external world, living up to what is expected of us and getting on with the priorities defined by others around us. We keep showing up and doing our tasks – and we can pull off this magical feat for up to decades at a time without so much as an outward twitch or crack. Until suddenly, one day, much to everyone’s surprise (including our own), we break. The rupture can take many forms. We can no longer get out of bed. We fall into silence. We develop all-consuming social anxiety. We refuse to eat. We babble incoherently. We lose command over part of our body. We are compelled to do something extremely scandalous and entirely contrary to our normal behaviour. We become wholly paranoid in a given area. We refuse to play by the usual rules in our relationship, we have an affair, ramp up the fighting, or otherwise poke a very large stick in the wheels of daily life. Breakdowns are hugely inconvenient for everyone and so, unsurprisingly, there is an immediate rush to medicalize them and attempt to excise them from the scene, so that business as usual can resume. But this is to misunderstand what is going on when we break down. A breakdown is not merely a random piece of madness or malfunction, it is a very real – albeit very inarticulate – bid for health and self-knowledge. It is an attempt by one part of our mind to force the other into a process of growth, self-understanding and self-development which it has hitherto refused to undertake. If we can put it paradoxically, it is an attempt to jump-start a process of getting well, properly well, through a stage of falling very ill. The danger, therefore, if we merely medicalize a breakdown and attempt to shift it away at once is that we will miss the lesson embedded within our sickness. A breakdown isn’t just a pain, though it is that too of course; it is an extraordinary opportunity to learn.” 

30. “A crisis represents an appetite for growth that hasn’t found another way of expressing itself. Many people, after a horrific few months or years of breakdown, will say, ‘I don’t know how I’d ever have got well if I hadn’t fallen ill.”

31. “We need charity, but not of the usual kind; we need what we might term a ‘charity of interpretation’: that is, we require an uncommonly generous assessment of our idiocy, weakness, eccentricity or deceit. We need onlookers who can provide some of the rationale we have grown too mute, cowed or ashamed to proffer.”

32. Kindness is built out of a constantly renewed and gently resigned awareness that weakness-free people do not exist.

You can buy The School of Life by Alain De Botton on Amazon, this is not an affiliate link!

Mohammad Ruhul Kader is a Dhaka-based entrepreneur and writer. He founded Future Startup, a digital publication covering the startup and technology scene in Dhaka with an ambition to transform Bangladesh through entrepreneurship and innovation. He writes about internet business, strategy, technology, and society. He is the author of Rethinking Failure. His writings have been published in almost all major national dailies in Bangladesh including DT, FE, etc. Prior to FS, he worked for a local conglomerate where he helped start a social enterprise. Ruhul is a 2022 winner of Emergent Ventures, a fellowship and grant program from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He can be reached at ruhul@futurestartup.com

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