Alain de Botton on How to be a Better Storyteller

We usually think of storytellers as novelists, playwrights, screenwriters.  However, we’re all writers of the story of our lives.  As British philosopher Alain de Botton writes in his wise, wonderful addition to the School of Life library, The Meaning of Life,  “we may not be publishing our stories, but we are writing them nevertheless.  Every day finds us weaving a story about who we are, where we are going, and why events happened as they did.”

Sadly, most of us are merciless narrators: we downplay our accomplishments, we foreground our flaws, we cast ourselves as detestable villains rather than lovable, if charmingly imperfect, main characters.

The stories we tell ourselves might seem like cold, hard, objective facts, but they’re merely stories, which by definition are interpretations of facts.  A break up, for example, is just a break up.  How we interpret that breakup will determine its significance.  If we tell ourselves a melodramatic, tragic story (“He was the one; I’ll never find a good man again!”/”Now that he’s left me, I’ll die alone and be devoured in my kitchen by dozens of cats.”), we’ll a) find it impossible to move on and b) feel no motivation to leave our coach and potentially find someone else.  After all, why go out and date if our ex is the “one” and “only one” for us?  

In the end, the stories we tell determine the quality of our lives.  Below are 3 ways Botton suggests we can be better storytellers:

1. find meaning & make things cohere

In many ways, life is like a novel: there are conflicts, there are characters.  But unlike a novel, life doesn’t usually follow a neat, orderly logic.  Rarely do our conflicts build to a dramatic climax or satisfying resolution.  Events will be random and unsystematic, side characters will appear and reappear though they serve no real purpose.   A conversation with the grocery store clerk will do nothing to advance the plot of our lives or teach us some grand universal lesson.  A crow will caw without being in anyway symbolic.  Despite what we read in books and see on television, we have never met the love of our lives while shopping for gloves in a crowded New York department store on Christmas.  Compared to a novel, our stories seem hopelessly uninteresting and pointless.  Indeed, entire chapters might— at first glance— seem irrelevant:

We might spend our twenties waiting tables so we can focus on our writing only to pop champagne on our thirtieth birthday without a published novel or real “career.”

We might devote untold time, money and energy to studying law only to realize the actual practice of law is not nearly as exciting as Law & Order

We might invest ten years in a relationship that doesn’t work out.

We might go on date after date after date without any of our flings ever going anywhere.

Though these segments of our sagas might seem meaningless, the good storyteller weaves them into a storyline that coheres.  Rather than tell themselves a self-condemning story (“You’re an idiot for devoting a decade of your life to writing!  Now you’re thirty with no ‘career’!”), they’re kind, forgiving narrators (“You’re brave for so passionately pursing what you love instead of settling for a socially acceptable career”).

The choice of the wrong profession wasn’t an indefensible detour— it was a scenic route.  We might not have taken the most direct road to our destination, but— because we wandered from the main highway— we were able to see some breathtaking panoramic views and get a better sense of what we did want to do.

The decade-long relationship that didn’t work out wasn’t a “waste” of ten years it was a requisite 3,650 day course on how to love and be loved, our most important work.

The countless flirtations that never metamorphosed into something more weren’t humiliating failures— they were stepping stones on the path to finding a loving, long-term partner.

2.  recognize you’re not the sole narrator of your life

Despite the much-loved myth of meritocracy, we’re not in complete control of our lives.  Whether we graduate from an Ivy League university and win the Pulitzer-prize or spend our days mopping floors and doing other people’s laundry isn’t only determined by our talent, work ethic or ability.  Our fates are influenced by many things: our parents, our families, our gender, our race, our sexual orientation, our culture, our particular moment in history.  Whether or not we have a good career and money in savings is largely dependent on the state of the economy.  Whether our industry continues to thrive or is squashed by new technology depends on consumers and tech giants in Silicon Valley.  How long we live depends on our day to day choices (what we eat, how often we exercise and rest) but also on modern medicine and genetics.

According to Botton, “the good storyteller recognizes, contrary to certain impressions, that there will always be a number of players responsible for [our life’s] negative events.”  Circumstance, chance, fate: each will contribute its share to our stories.  We might be 35 and mortgage-less— not through any fault of our own— but because, for the past few decades, wages haven’t kept up with the cost of living.  We might be single— not because we’re unattractive and completely unlovable— but because online dating has made it seem as though we have an infinite number of potential partners and, consequently, made many men less willing to settle down.

Therefore, if we want to be better storytellers, we should stop cruelly castigating ourselves for our “failures.”  As Botton so wittily writes, “Sometimes, it really will be the fault of something or someone else: the economy, our parents, the government, our enemies or sheer bad luck.”  Man may have mastered many things— fire, language, electricity, atomic energy, small pox— but he will never completely master his fate.  His story will always be cowritten by the stars.

3. be courageous enough to write your own story

Rather than possess the daring and boldness to write our own completely original scripts, most of us cowardly follow our society’s formulaic templates.  We let our lives be determined by custom and convention.  We go to college, we get a job, we get married, we have children.  We uncritically accept the standards of our family, our friends, our countrymen.  The result?  Our stories become no more than dull copies of someone else’s manuscript.

However, we don’t have to mindlessly rewrite our society’s stock stories, recycle the same tired conventions, reuse the same cliched character types— we have the power to pen our own script.  Take, for example, the official story about “success.”  Most people would say success is power and prestige, acclaim and awards: earning a six-figure salary, buying and selling companies, driving a Ferrari, landing a spot on the “30 Under 30” list at Forbes.

But we can define success for ourselves.  Maybe for us, success doesn’t possess all the glitter and glamour of celebrity.  Maybe it just means doing what has to be done with grace and dignity.  Maybe teaching school children to read is just as impressive as leading a Fortune 500 company or climbing Mt. Denali.

“Good narrators appreciate that events can count as meaningful even when they’re not recognized as such by powerful authorities,” Botton writes, “We may be holidaying in a tent rather than the Presidential suite, hanging out with our grandmother rather than a pop group…and nevertheless lay claim to a legitimately meaningful life.”

Brenda Ueland Answers the Immortal Question: Why Write?

“Why do you write?”  In “Why I Write,” a tribute to George Orwell’s iconic 1946 essay of the same name, legendary journalist Joan Didion confessed with characteristic candor, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.”  When writer, journalist, and book critic Meredith Maran posed this perennial question to twenty of our era’s most acclaimed authors, including Jodi Picoult, Susan Orlean, Ann Patchett, Michael Lewis, and James Frey, she was astonished at the assortment of answers.  Kathryn Harrison, whose incestuous memoir The Kiss shocked audiences around the world, said she loved writing because on the page she “could be most completely” herself and yet “totally relieved” of herself, a sentiment reminiscent of the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow and the Taoist idea of “wu wei.”  Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jennifer Egan replied she wrote because writing was a magical mode of teleportation in which she could live countless other lives: “When I’m writing, especially if it’s going well, I’m living in two different dimensions: this life I’m living now…and this completely other world I’m inhabiting that no one else knows about.”

Sometimes when I’m in a melancholy mood, this question becomes more existential: “What’s the point?  Why write at all?” I wonder defeated as yet another year goes by without my publishing the Great American Novel.  Which begs the question: why write if you never see your name in print?  if you never win a Man Booker or climb the New York Times best-seller list?  

Most writers dream of being praised by critics and enshrined in the literary canon, their books taught in English classrooms everywhere.  Though we didn’t get into writing for fame and fortune exactly, most of us want to be heard.  Writing without a reader seems as pointless as a magnificent orchestra playing for an empty room.

It is during these demoralizing moments that we must remember the real reasons we write.  In her stirring 1938 classic If You Want to Write, journalist, editor, writing teacher, and generous spirit Brenda Ueland reminds us writing is a higher calling: we write to express love, to offer solace, to cherish transitory moments, to heighten our senses, to gain a richer, deeper understanding of ourselves and our lives— not for worldly glory or impressive bylines.  With her trademark exuberance, she writes:

“And why should you do all these things?  Why should we all use our creative power and write or paint or play music, or whatever it tells us to do?

Because there’s nothing that makes people so generous, joyful, lively, bold and compassionate, so indifferent to fighting and the accumulation of objects and money.  Because the best way to know the Truth or Beauty is to try to express it.  And what is the purpose of existence Here or Yonder but to discover truth and beauty and express it; i.e. share it with others?”

So as we ring in 2022 with ceremonial champagne and confetti, resolve to express your creativity, regardless of whether doing so brings you renown or celebrity.

The Importance of “I”: Brenda Ueland on the Particular as a Pathway to the Universal

“I.”  The ninth letter of the alphabet.  Though it’s just a single letter— composed, as Sylvia Plath once observed, of “three reassuring strokes”— “I” encompasses the entirety of the human ego.  “I” represents the lens through which we see the world, the sum total of all we’ve seen and thought and felt.  By definition, no two “I’s” are exactly alike (after all, have there ever been two identical individuals in the history of the world?).  Thus, Brenda Ueland reassured us, “if you speak from yourself, you cannot help being original.”

Yet most of us resist speaking sincerely from ourselves because we believe that everything we have to say is stupid, uninteresting, and unoriginal.  This distaste for “I” begins in our early years in grade school.  “Never use ‘I’!” our English teachers scribbled disapprovingly in our notebooks.  Because we were forbidden from using the 1st person, we came to believe “I” was too unscholarly, too unserious, too informal.  Essays should be about the causes of WWII, the symbolism of Fitzgerald’s green light, the theme of marriage in the Victorian novel— not the catastrophes of our dating life or the loss of our father.

Sadly, most of us think our stories aren’t worth telling unless they’re larger than life, out-of-the-ordinary.  No one, we convince ourselves, wants to hear what we have to say— we’re “boring”!  After all, who wants to read about an everyman mechanic from New Jersey when they could read an adventure tale about a big game hunter on safari or an epic romance about a fallen Southern belle?  Compared to novels and movies on the silver screen, our commonplace lives feel unforgivably yawns-worthy.

But to be writers, we must honor— rather than discount— our own experiences.  Day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, great writers describe the quality of their consciousness.  Rather than disregard their particular lives, they’re always alert to the potential for art in their experiences: an overheard bit of conversation at a cafe might provide material for a novel’s central conflict, a squabble with a lover might supply dialogue for a movie script.

But the question remains: why write from “I”?  who cares about our particular experiences?

In her 1938 classic If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland argues we should write from “I” because the particular is the only pathway to the universal.  Take Sylvia Plath as an example.  As one of the founding poets of the confessional movement, Plath pioneered the idea of writing from “I.”  By writing truthfully about her experiences as a woman, especially in “The Applicant,” her scathing satire of marriage, and The Bell Jar, her harrowing account of mental illness, Plath was able to resonate with a generation of Feminine Mystique-era feminists.  Like Plath, a Beaver-to-Cleaver era housewife who suffered at the hands of her sexist society, 1960s women began to feel dissatisfied with their roles as wives and mothers.  The prescient poet detected these seismic shifts in the culture.  It is only because Plath dared to express the particular that she was able to glimpse the condition of women everywhere.

So when you write, cherish your one-of-a-kind life and remember the wise words of Ms. Ueland: “The more you wish to describe a Universal, the more minutely and truthfully you must describe a Particular.”

Brenda Ueland on What Makes Writing Good

As an English teacher and writer, I’ve always wondered: what makes writing good?  Like a music producer who knows when he’s discovered the next star, we know when we’ve encountered someone with a talent for words (“Wow, this is good!” my twelve-year-old students exclaim when I show them a passage from The Great Gatsby or A Farewell of Arms) yet it’s hard to dissect why a piece is good.  Is it the rhythm of a writer’s sentences?  the beauty of their choice of words?  Is it the irresistible logic of their argument or the originality of their ideas?  Was it something that could be taught or was it something more mysterious, a gift bestowed on a select few?

In If You Want to Write, the soul-stirring entreaty to write daringly and dauntlessly from your authentic self, Brenda Ueland explores what makes writing “good.”  After teaching all kinds of people, Ueland came to believe that all people can write and write well.  Whether you’re a business executive or traveling salesmen, an apron-skirted housewife or sheltered servant, a stock trader on Wall Street or panhandler on 42nd, you can write well if you write honestly, if what you write is alive and can be felt.

To illustrate this idea, Ueland describes one of her students, a bold, vivacious young woman with clear green eyes and black hair.  Though she had a “hearty baritone laugh” and was as “dashing as a Cossack,” her first drafts often fell flat.

Despite these feeble first attempts, Ueland knew the woman could write.  “To look at her I knew that her writing would be good because it would be like her: jolly, handsome, loud-laughing and slightly ribald.  Because she had vitality and bright colors, I knew that she could see bright colors and they would sparkle in her writing, and so would her jokes and her stylishness.”

But how could this woman be so irresistible in life yet so boring and bland on the page?  Simple: she wasn’t writing like herself— she was writing like a “writer.”  Rather than write truthfully and record what her characters thought and saw and felt (which would be infinitely interesting because they’d be expressions of her incomparable singular self), she assumed a persona whenever she wrote.  She was no longer a lively, light-hearted woman full of laughter— she was a serious erudite “author.”  Instead of describe things simply as they were, she’d reach for her Roget’s thesaurus to find a more “literary” word.  When her characters spoke in a real way like ordinary people she’d observed in grocery stores and subways, she filled their mouths with exalted, elevated dialogue.  “No, no!” she’d insist, “They must sound like Jane Austen characters!”  The result?  The woman with black hair and clear green eyes could only produce dead work.

Ironically, we only write badly when we try too hard to make our writing “good.”  What we call “bad” writing is merely an attempt to sound literary by using more pompous, pretentious words.  Though it’s been many years since most of us were in school, we remember all too clearly the red-inked admonishments of our English teachers:

“Avoid lifeless forms of ‘to be’ like ‘is’ or ‘are’!”

“Don’t use contractions like ‘can’t’ or ‘won’t’!”

“Good writing is elaborate.  Shakespeare would never be so lowly as to use common words!” (Never mind that, for all his extensive vocabulary, the bard loved simple, monosyllabic terms).

“When you have written a story and it has come back a few times and you sit there trying to make it more impressive, do not try to think of better words, more gripping words,” Ueland advised her students nearly a century ago, “Try to see the people better.”  Rather than reach for more scholarly, sophisticated words, we should observe more closely.  To recreate a whole other world— whether it be in a story or song or symphony— we must first see it clearly.  If, like Van Gogh, we want to depict the surreal shape and strange movement of cypresses, we have to sit and study our object: what color are its leaves?  what are its dimensions?  how does its shape look against the summer sky?  how would we describe the movement of its bare branches?  Ultimately, art is an attentiveness to life and writing, like all art, begins with observation.

Need more of Brenda Ueland’s infectious enthusiasm and blazing spirit to rekindle your creative fire?  Read her on writer’s block, the qualities of good writing, the imagination as the glorious gateway to the divine, the importance of idleness to creativity, art as infection, and art as a grand gesture of generosity.  Want even more timeless advice on writing?  Visit Anne Lamott on the antidote to overwhelm and the beauty of short assignments from Bird by Bird, the endearing 1994 instruction manual on life and writing, and Dorothea Brande on the 15 minute rule and being a stranger in your streets from Becoming a Writer, a 1934 classic which combines the practical tips of modern how-to writing guides and the free spirit of If You Want to Write.

Brenda Ueland on Writer’s Block & What Good Writing Actually Is

The past few weeks I’ve been suffering from the writer’s most dreaded affliction: writer’s block.   Nothing interested me, nothing captured my attention.  Every idea I had seemed uninteresting, uninspired, imitative.  “This is bad!” the voice in my head ceaselessly chastised anytime I had the courage to put paper to pen.   

Having survived many bouts of writer’s block in the past, however, I knew it was a temporary matter— not a chronic condition.  To cure my creative cold, I reached for If You Want to Write, one of my most beloved books on writing.  Originally published in 1938 by journalist, editor, writing teacher, and magnanimous spirit Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write is a glorious reminder that to be human is to be creative (“Everyone is talented, original and has something important to say,” Ueland assures us from the book’s very first pages).

Ms. Ueland is the ideal teacher: emboldening, enthusiastic— never dispiriting or punitive.  Rather than scold us like a too-strict school master (“Underdeveloped…elaborate!” most teachers scribble in cruel, judgmental red pen), she gently encourages (“Oh, this is interesting…tell me more,” I can imagine Ueland writing in my margins).  In her words, she doesn’t help her students by criticizing, by “pointing out all the mediocrities in their efforts (and so making them contract and try nervously to avoid all faults)”; she helps them by trying to make them “freer and bolder.”  “Be careless, reckless!  Be a lion, be a pirate when you write!  Write any old way!” she implores us with a fun-loving free-spiritedness partway between Anne Lamott and Julia Cameron.

For Ueland, writer’s block (and what we call “bad” writing) is merely the result of wanting to write something great and make an impression.  If we think writing is a performance— a stage where we must dazzle and twirl and spin— we’ll get stage fright and fall on our asses.  On the other hand, words flow more freely if we remember that writing is a telling of truths— not a dramatic production.  If, like a witness testifying under oath, we write with genuineness and sincerity and resist the urge to exaggerate for effect, we’ll never write something “bad.”

In one my favorite chapters, “Know That There is Often Hidden in Us a Dormant Poet, Always Young and Alive (a quote borrowed from De Musset), Ueland recounts an evening she spent with Carl Sandburg, her dear friend and poet.  As they drove around a lake near her house, they gazed at the December sunset.  Overcome by awe, Sandburg described the sky as “gunmetal.”  To which Ueland replied, “Oh yes, isn’t it perfectly wonderful!”

Ueland would say Sandburg’s description was superior to hers because it was true.  His wonderment at the silver gray sky was genuine and, therefore, good.  Her gushing exclamation, on the other hand, was bad because it wasn’t actually felt.  The word “wonderful”— though not terrible in itself— rings with the insincerity of the commonplace, as cliched as telling a bride she looks beautiful on her wedding day.  “When you say perfunctorily about the sky just to talk: ‘What a beautiful evening!’ that is not poetry,” Ueland writes, “But if you say it and mean it very much, it is.”  So if you’re suffering from writer’s block or worried that your writing isn’t “good,” remember you only have one job: to say what is true.

Alain de Botton on Permission

In childhood, we have no concept of permission.  If a tube of Elmer’s Glue looks interesting, we squeeze it on the floor and put it in our mouths.  If we want to be a princess, we put on our frilliest dress and steal our mother’s pearls.  If we want to build a blanket fort, we grab sheets from the linen closet and pillows from the couch.

However, as we get older, we learn the proper conduct of the adult world.  We can’t simply get up in the middle of class to go to the bathroom; we must ask first.  Similarly, we can’t speak whenever we feel the urge; we have to raise our hand.  If we disobey these rules, we get an “oops” slips and detention.

Much like school, home is governed by rules.  We must call our parents and ask permission before we can go to our best friend’s house after school.  We must get their signature before we can attend a field trip.  We must ask before opening our dad’s tools.

Growing up means becoming intimately acquainted with the most demoralizing word in the English language: “no.”  

“No, you can’t eat ice cream before lunch.”  

“No, you can’t go to your friend’s house.”  

“No, you can’t put aside studying for your geometry test because you’d rather scroll through Facebook.”

We learn that the things we desire are wrong, inappropriate, inexcusable.  It’s wrong, for example, to indulge in ice cream before a meal.  It’s wrong to scroll through social media when we have homework.  Our parents, our society, and our school teach us that our dreams and desires are meant to be delayed, if not indefinitely postponed.  We can only have the decadent hot fudge sundae after we eat our chicken and kale.  We can only update our status after we find the missing angle of a triangle.

In many ways, delaying the gratification of a desire is an important life skill.  If we want to achieve any worthwhile goal, there will be times when we have to be patient and exercise self-control.  We could never lose weight, for example, if we succumbed to every urge to eat chocolate cake instead of stick to our meal plan of lean proteins and vegetables.

However, as we get older, we become too skilled in the art of self-denial.  Rarely— if ever— do we indulge in our wants.  We become too strict, too stern, too punitive with ourselves.  Obsessed with a lovely winter coat we always see in the department store window?  Oh no, we could never treat ourselves to something so unnecessary and expensive.  Daydream about strolling through Provence’s rolling lavender hills?  No, we could never spend thousands of dollars on something so frivolous as a single vacation.

Over the years, we come to believe that what we want is fundamentally wrong:

It would be “wrong” to leave a marriage of twenty years, even though most nights our “marriage” consists of two sorrowful strangers sitting in silence at the dinner table.

It would be “wrong” to date the out-of-work actor with nothing financial to offer when we could date a man with an impressive job and six-figure income.

It would be “wrong” to leave our stable job to join the PeaceCorps.

It would be “wrong” to abandon our family and friends to become a Buddhist monk.

It would be “wrong” to take a watercolor class just for fun.

Though we look like adults, in many ways, we’re still scared little children.  Despite our suits and brief cases, home mortgages and our 401k’s, we long for someone wiser to give us permission, to tell us what we want is “ok.”

It’s ok to leave the job, the city, the relationship.

It’s ok to pursue an unconventional career as a sculptor or photographer or filmmaker or freelance writer or multimedia artist.

It’s ok to risk everything and start your own business.

It’s ok to change careers at 35 and fall in love again at 57.

But as Alain de Botton writes in What They Forgot to Teach Us in School, his delightful new addition to his part-practical, part-philosophical series the School of Life, “There won’t ever be signs that completely reassure or permit us around a majority of courses of action in adult life.  There is no cosmic authority to allow or frown, to get angry or to punish us.  We are on our own.”  There’s no one who can give us definitive answers to life’s mysterious questions: “Yes, you should leave your girlfriend.”/ “No, you should not enroll in medical school.”  We’re no longer in school: there’s no ringing bells to tell us when to head to class, no teachers to give us lessons, no advisors to inform us what classes we need to fulfill graduation requirements, no lectures and assignments to give meaning to our ultimately meaningless existence.  Though this is terrifying on the one hand, it’s also liberating.  As Botton writes, “We’re answerable only to our best understanding of ourselves, to our self-knowledge and to our noblest intentions.”

Alain de Botton on Why We Should Set Boundaries

What is a boundary?  We hear the word all the time in psychology but few of us truly understand its meaning.  Boundaries are standards for how we expect to be treated.  Setting a boundary means clearly and confidently communicating what we need to feel happy and respected.  At home, setting a boundary might look like a parent telling their child that— after a quick snack of apple slices and peanut butter— it’s time to do their homework.  At work, setting a boundary might mean saying a strong, definitive “no” to our boundary-less boss.  In love, it might mean telling our significant other that— though we appreciate how close they are with our sister— we felt it was inappropriate to reveal so much intimate information about our latest fight with her.

If someone crosses our boundaries, there are consequences for their behavior.  Say, for example, we catch our child playing Fortnite instead of doing their homework.  “I don’t want to do long division!” they might whine as we take out their textbooks and turn off their computers.  A consequence might be banning them from video games for the rest of the week or limiting their screen time for the year.  Enforcing a consequence isn’t about retribution or punishment— it’s about teaching people how we want to be treated.  By disciplining our child in this instance, we’re sending a message: we will not tolerate tantrums or misbehavior and expect to be respected.

Though boundaries are essential to our happiness, most of us haven’t been taught how to set limits.  In the modern era, we’re more educated than almost any other generation: we can use the Pythagorean theorem to identify the length of a triangle’s sides, we can examine the themes of Anna Karenina, we can recite the fourteen points of the Treaty of Versailles.  Yet we remain woefully ignorant of crucial life skills such as how to understand ourselves, how to deal with depression, and how to express our true feelings and remain loving and respectful during a fight.

To remedy this serious shortcoming of our education, Alain de Botton, whose books I write of often, founded the School of Life, a global organization dedicated to developing emotional intelligence.  In the latest addition to the series, A More Exciting Life, Botton explores why we don’t set boundaries— and why we absolutely have to.

So why are so many of us hesitant to utter a firm and forceful “no”?

As with most psychological topics, the answer lies in our childhood.  According to Botton, those who have trouble setting boundaries in adulthood were not allowed to assert themselves as children.  Perhaps an alcoholic father didn’t much care if he had to pick us up from school or a mother with a violent streak and explosive temper didn’t allow us to oppose her.  Maybe our dad hit us when we refused to get him another beer.  Maybe when we asked our mother why she didn’t help us with our homework after school like Susie’s mom, she got mad, called us an ungrateful brat and sent us to our room.  Maybe when we asked our sisters to stop calling us names, they refused.  “You’re too sensitive,” they’d say, “It’s just a joke.”  Saying “no” to an abusive or otherwise dysfunctional family member meant being physically, emotionally, or psychologically abused.

Our formative years are the blueprint for adulthood.  Because setting boundaries in our past often led to conflict, we avoid expressing our needs as adults.  We’re scared that if we set a limit with someone, they’ll be angry, maybe even hate us.  Say, for instance, our partner invites us to a movie after work.  Though we want to decline his invitation because we’re exhausted, we go because we’re afraid a gentle, politely-phrased, perfectly-poised “no” will cause friction in the relationship.  “What if,” we worry, “he gets mad at us?”  “What if he wants to break up?”  

Though it seems ridiculous to think someone would break up over something so stupid, the boundary-less person is this irrationally afraid of confrontation.  Because of their upbringing, they fear that setting a boundary will lead to dismissal, rejection, or abandonment.  They were taught that being a good girl or boy meant obeying Mom and Dad and putting other people before themselves.  If they do find the courage to deliver a diplomatic but decisive “no,” they feel a terrible sense of guilt.  After all, who are they to assert themselves?  

Despite these qualms, we can set a boundary and still be kind, selfless, and good.  A boundary isn’t a cruel, heartless “no” to someone else— it’s an affirmative “yes” to ourselves.  We decline our partner’s movie invitation, not because we want to hurt his feelings or because we don’t love or value him, but because we’re tired from a long week of work and would much rather be luxuriating with a good book in bed.  We say no to our boss’s request to come in on a Saturday, not because we’re lazy and don’t take our career seriously, but because we deserve rest and value our time with friends and family.

Regardless of what we’ve been taught, we have a right to have our own needs and wants.  As Botton would say, “we are not a piece of helpless flotsam on the river of others’ wishes.”  Rather than ride the currents of other people’s preferences and opinions, we must remember we are our own ships: we can use our rudders to change course and steer us in our desired direction.  Drifting aimlessly and following any wind doesn’t make us happier or promise conflict-free relationships— it only leads to exasperation and bitterness.  Imagine you say “yes” when your friend invites you to a rowdy New Year’s Eve party though you’ve been dreaming of having a quiet evening in.  Do you take pleasure in the rollicking revelry of the blaring party horns and confetti?  No, you spend the seemingly endless evening simmering with resentment and secretly hating your friend.  And therein lies the irony: by making other people happy, we often make ourselves miserable.

Alain de Botton on How to Argue More Honestly

There are several stages of a fight.  In the first stage, we present our perspective with logic and rationality.  Much like a lawyer, we marshal evidence to support our case.  For example, if we find our husband guilty because he forgot to pick up our son from soccer practice, we’ll call witnesses to the stand, present proof of our claims.  Exhibit A: we left a note in bright bold letters on the family calendar which clearly said “Dad picks up James from practice @ 4:30.”  Exhibit B: we even texted to remind him 2 hours before.

At this point, our husband will respond with a rebuttal.  “But you usually pick him on Thursdays,” he might mutter in an attempt to defend himself.  Or he might deflect and simply say, “He just had to walk home.  What’s the big deal?”

Now we arrive at the fight’s more explosive second stage: confrontation.  When our partner refuses to acknowledge the indisputable logic of our case, things usually devolve into an argument.  The more our husband refuses to see our perspective, the more we get angry and vindictive.  We might exploit each other’s insecurities, use our partner’s self-doubts as ammunition.  Soon the civility of the courtroom gives way to a brutal kind of warfare.  We scream, we shout, we slam doors.  We call each other horrible, unforgivable names like “asshole” and “bitch” and “cunt” and “whore.”  We regard our significant other— not as someone we’ve devoted our life to— but as a hostile enemy to be overpowered.  At times like these, it can feel impossible to leave the battleground and actually talk like two people who love each other.

In his endlessly enlightening A More Exciting Life, Alain de Botton suggests if we ever want to reconcile and reach an understanding, we have to be courageous enough to say what we truly mean.  Ultimately, every argument has two layers: the surface and the substratum beneath.  At the surface, a quarrel is usually about petty things: we might battle about age-old resentments (the fact that we stayed in our home town for our husbands though we’ve always yearned to move to a new city) or squabble about sex (why we’re not having any).  We might bicker about how our wife never hangs her coat in the closet or how our husband is always 20 minutes late.  We might squander our Saturdays quarreling about dirty laundry and PG&E.

However, these things only symbolize the more serious issues lurking beneath.  We’re bickering so bitterly about the coat our wife leaves out— not because we actually think she’s an inconsiderate slob or because we’re such neat freaks that we can’t stand the sight of a single coat strewn across the sofa— but because her refusal sends us one heartbreaking message: you don’t value me.

In an argument, we only want one thing from our partner: reassurance.  Though we hurl grenades of bitter accusations and hurtful names, we don’t hate our partner or want to “win” exactly— we want them to remind us that we do matter, that we are important to them.  We want to be acknowledged, heard, seen.  We bring up the fact that we remained in our hometown and sacrificed our dream of living in the city because we worry our relationship lacks reciprocity: that our partner loves us less than we love them.  Will our partner ever make such a sacrifice for us?  Or will the reminder of our relationship require us to compromise who we are and what we truly want?  Behind our indignation lies insecurity.  

We lash out angrily at our partners when they don’t want to have sex— not because we’re selfish, sex-obsessed nymphomaniacs— but because we feel hurt and rejected.  Do our partners no longer find us attractive?  Though we never admit it, their lack of interest in sex makes us worry that we’re unlovable and repulsive.

We get irrepressibly irritated when our husband is (yet again) late for an event— not because being 20 minutes late to our daughter’s choir performance makes much difference— but because his perpetual lack of punctuality communicates a lack of respect.  If our husband loved us, we think, he’d value our time.  He knows how much we despise tardiness.  Why can’t he just make an effort to leave a few minutes early?  Is it really that hard to get dressed and out the door?  to account for traffic and parking?  The fact that he continues to do something that upsets us just shows how little he cares for our feelings.

If we are to become better at fighting, we have to fight more honestly.  Rather than remain at the surface and squabble about dirty laundry and PG&E, we should communicate what is genuinely bothering us.  Instead of make a bitchy comment when our husband leaves his dirty boxers on the bathroom floor, we can say what really ails us: “When you leave your boxers on the floor after I’ve asked you to put them away, I feel unheard and unseen.”  

Why is it so hard to communicate in this way?  Why— rather than simply demonstrate emotional maturity and express how we feel— do we resort to schoolyard antics like tantrums and name-calling?  Botton argues that many of us avoid expressing our feelings because doing so requires a vulnerability we find terrifying.  To say “I miss you”/”You hurt me” is to essentially admit that our partner has the power to hurt us profoundly.  The idea that we so completely depend on another human being, that— with a few cruel words— our lovers can shatter our hearts and irreparably damage our dignity— is petrifying.  Therefore, when our partner hurts us in some way, our first impulse is to go on the defensive.  The moment we feel attacked, we counterattack; we fortify our walls and strengthen our fortresses.  But as Botton so eloquently expresses, “in love we will be much safer (that is, much more likely to be a recipient of affection and atonement) if we manage calmly to reveal our wound to its (usually unwitting) perpetrator.  The best response is not to make ourselves more impregnable, but to dare to be a little less defended.”

Alain de Botton on How to Deal With Depression

What is depression?  In her exquisite memoir, Wintering, Katherine May defined depression as “a season in the cold.”  In a harrowing image, Sylvia Plath compared her depressive episodes to suffocating in “a dark, airless sack.”  Van Gogh, yet another genius who didn’t survive his dark season of the soul, told his brother his depression was like “lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well.”

In his latest edition to the School of Life library, A More Exciting Life, Alain de Botton attempts to better understand this malaise of the soul.  Though depression is widespread (it’s estimated that over 16 million people suffer from depression in America alone), the condition remains deeply misunderstood.  In many ways, depression resembles sadness: much like the sad, the depressed cry easily, isolate themselves, struggle to sleep, and generally feel hopeless.

However, according to Botton, there is one major difference between depression and sadness: the sad person knows why they’re sad, the depressed person doesn’t.  Sadness is usually associated with an external event: a job loss, a break up, a bereavement.  Depression, on the other hand, has no clear causes.  While a sad person can easily explain why they haven’t been able to get out of bed— their boss berated them in front of the whole team, their wife recently left them— a depressed person doesn’t possess the same self-awareness.  There’s no reason why life feels empty and pointless.  The despair of the depressed person is made all the more devastating because it can’t be explained with logic.

Though the melancholy can’t explain their low spirits, there is a reason for their depression— it’s simply been forgotten.  Something in their past was too tragic and traumatic for them to process, so their minds pushed the event beyond the outer regions of consciousness.  As Botton writes, “Depression is sadness that has forgotten its true causes.”

Perhaps as children the depressed were abused or neglected or perhaps their parents just didn’t pay much attention.  While their friends came home to chocolate chip cookies and a series of curious questions, their parents rarely asked them how their day went.  No one checked to see if they’d done their homework.  No one took them to soccer games and ballet classes.  Rather than confront a devastating truth (that their parents were selfish in many ways and weren’t always there for them) and all its attendant implications (their parents didn’t love them; therefore, something is fundamentally wrong with them), they feel depressed.

So how can we dissipate the dark black cloud of depression?  Botton argues what the depressed person needs more than anything is the chance to process past traumas and grieve their unmourn losses.  Ideally, this can be done with the support of a trusted, trained psychologist.  In some cases, medication can momentarily lift the fog of despondency so the sufferer can find some relief from their condition.

However, Botton warns that brain chemistry is not where the problem either “begins or ends.”  In our instant gratification culture, we want fast and easy solutions.  Depressed?  Take some Prozac and be back to your old self again!  We like to imagine depression is a common cold: it can be cured with a pill and a few days in bed.  But depression is far more complicated than that.  If anything, medicine is a band-aid solution: it doesn’t get to depression’s root causes.  The depressed person doesn’t need the medical miracles of Big Pharma— they need to be allowed “to feel and to remember specific damage, and to be granted a fundamental sense of the legitimacy of their emotions.  They need to be allowed to be angry and for the anger to settle on the right, awkward targets.”

The goal of treatment, then, should be to help the sufferer gain some sort of self-awareness.  Why were they depressed?  What distressing thing had happened to them in the past?  What misfortune have they failed to mourn?  What decades-old tragedy have they repressed?  

An impossible-to-please father.

A narcissistic mother.

A shattering divorce.

A miscarriage.

Is it painful to revisit these disappointing childhood figures and traumatic events?  Of course, but if the depressed person resurrects the ghosts of their past, they can finally put them to rest.  

Alain de Botton on How to Listen to Your Boredom

Insatiably curious, children have a hard time concentrating on any one thing for too long; if you sit with a child and try to teach them long division, for example, you’ll most likely be met with the disgruntled complaint “I’m bored!!!”  After a single problem, your restless pupil will want to play his saxophone, pretend to be an astronaut, or draw stick figures on the board.

In many ways, the goal of education is to teach children to withstand such boredom.  From 8:30 in the morning to 3:00 in the afternoon for twelve years of their lives, children have to resist the urge to write stories and build blanket forts so they can learn how to add two digit numbers, compose neat, orderly paragraphs, and locate the atomic mass of elements on the periodic table.  To excel academically, they must endure long periods of boredom.

On one hand, there is obviously value in this educational model.  School teaches the discipline and steadfastness to stick with a subject even when it doesn’t immediately interest us.  If we couldn’t occasionally tolerate doing things we disliked, we’d never be prepared to enter the adult world.  After all, much of adulthood is doing things we don’t want to: going to long meetings, listening to maddening elevator music while waiting on the phone with Comcast, having dinner with our in-laws to name a few.

The problem is as we grow up, we become too good at ignoring our boredom.  Because school requires us to suppress our natural curiosity and essentially disregard our interests and enthusiasms, we stopped listening to our boredom.  But boredom— like all emotions— has something valuable to teach us.  Boredom is a sign that something is amiss.  If we feel wearisome, whatever we’re doing is lacking interest and engagement.  

Rather than be a strict school master to ourselves and demand we do things we find dreadfully dull, we should find what truly exhilarates us.  In his edifying A More Exciting Life, Alain de Botton makes the compelling claim that the average human life is only 26,000 days, far too short to squander on occupations we find boring.  Ultimately, Botton gives us permission to stop being such dutiful “good” students.  Instead of obey our inner school teacher and do things out of a dreary sense of duty and obligation, we should be like children and value our own penchants and predilections. 

Pick up the latest bestseller only to find it so yawns-worthy you couldn’t get past the first five pages?  Don’t demand that “you finish what you started.”  Find a book that absorbs your attention and keeps you turning pages.

Go to an art museum only to struggle to stay awake?  Ditch the MOMA and go see a movie.  There’s no reason to make yourself appreciate Van Gogh if you find reading placards and staring at paintings all day woefully uninteresting.

Force yourself to read the morning paper every day even though you dread the exercise?  Stop trying to “be informed” and read something you find fascinating, whether that’s children’s literature or 19th century poetry.  

When we listen to our boredom, we learn what we like and dislike, what we love and what we loathe; we discover what sort of books we prefer, what kind of music stirs our souls; we define our aesthetic, our sense of humor, our taste in clothes.  In other words, we become like all great artists and develop a “late style.”

What, exactly, is a late style?  According to Botton, as artists get older, they tend to create far better works.  Take Picasso.  A child prodigy, Picasso exhibited extraordinary artistic talent from a young age.  In the masterful “Study of a Torso” (depicted below), he had already grasped the fundamental principles of painting.  Remarkably, he made this work when he was only 14.

Though Picasso’s early work demonstrated considerable technical skill, his later work was far more original.  Take the below oil painting “The Dream” as an example.  Painted in a single afternoon in 1932 when Picasso was 50, “The Dream” is a revolution of color and form.  No longer bound to traditional ideas of how to depict reality, Picasso experimented with distorted shapes and bold, contrasting colors. 

The titan of 20th century art once said that it took him four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.  What he meant was that it took him decades to unlearn all his instruction and instead paint like himself.  In school, he learned to paint “properly”: how to proportion a face, how to depict a beautiful woman sitting on a sofa.  He mastered the principles of line and shape, unity and harmony, color and form.  The result?  He produced many expertly-crafted paintings, but they were paintings we’d seen countless times before.

However, as he got older, Picasso became less afraid of breaking from convention and more devoted to pursuing his own pleasure.  Rather than “ignore [his] inborn ideas and impulses,” he listened to his boredom.  He didn’t want to paint faithful-to-life representations— he wanted to paint in a way that reflected his own perspective.  So he abandoned the traditional rules of composition and started painting like he wanted: with expressive brushstrokes, with strong, striking colors, with a playful disregard of reality, with a passion for the phantasmagorical.

Like Picasso, we should develop a “late style” and pay attention to what truly excites us.  What kind of work do we find most fulfilling?  What qualities do we most desire in a romantic partner?  How do we want to spend our time?  Where would we travel if we could go anywhere?  Botton reminds us we don’t all have to paint classical Greek torsos— we can paint surreal women on bright red sofas.