Much of our mortal lives is a struggle against the clock. We’re obsessed with managing time, with breaking it down into concrete, controllable blocks. We streamline our lives and regiment our schedules with military precision. We treat our days like assembly lines, something to be made more efficient. We pencil and plot and plan. We book doctor’s appointments, write agendas on the boards of our classrooms, schedule coffee dates with our friends three weeks in advance. A date scribbled in our calendars gives us the illusion of certainty: if it’s written in ink— we believe— our plans will unfold accordingly.
However, as most of us know, life almost never goes according to plan. Though you “plan” to go on a coffee date with your friend, Olivier Burkeman writes in his philosophically-minded masterpiece 0f self-help Four Thousand Weeks, any “number of factors [can] confound your expectations, robbing you of the…hours you thought you had.” You might get a flat tire on the way to the coffee shop. Your friend might cancel because she’s sick.
Despite our hubristic belief that man can move mountains and has dominion over all beasts, time is one thing man cannot control. No matter how neurotically we try to squeeze the events of our lives into predictable schedules, we can never force Father Time to submit to our will. The vet’s appointment that was supposed to take a quick 50 minutes will become an interminable 3 hours. The languid summer afternoon we “had” to spend working on our novel will get rudely interrupted by the unwelcome sound of the doorbell.
In the cleverly titled chapter “We Never Really Have Time,” Burkeman calls into question the very idea that we “have” time in the first place. Though we worry and obsess, project and plan, our “plans” are intentions for the future— nothing more.
Our calendars offer consolation in a chaotic world: when we pen an appointment in poised cursive in our planners (doctor’s appointment @ 2pm), we feel in command. We don’t have to confront the disturbing, rather distressing fact that much of life lies outside our control: how and when we’ll die, whether democracy collapses across the globe, the rise of the alt-right, the rate at which polar ice melts, the rise and fall of the Dow Jones.
In many ways, we’re not the directors of our lives: we can’t force our marriage-wary on-again, off-again boyfriend to propose, nor can we cast our ceaselessly critical older sister into a less nitpicking role. Life is a movie, but we can only partially write the script. If we want to lose weight, we can eat bananas and granola, we can exercise 3-4 times a week, we can drink water instead of soda and other sugary drinks, but ultimately we can’t change our body’s fundamental shape. If we’re naturally more curvaceous, we’re never going to be Kate Moss-skinny— even if we do 100 crunches a day.
Our obsessive planning deludes us into thinking we can control the future. When we assert that our doctor’s visit will— in fact— occur at 2 pm, we feel we can assert other things with confidence: that we’ll drive to work without getting into an accident, that our troubled son will graduate high school and not fall victim to drug addiction, that that the lump in our breast is benign, not malignant, that we’ve been silly to lose sleep over a possibly terminal cancer diagnosis. Like William Ernest Henley in his rousing poem “Invictus,” we insist we’re “captains of our souls.” But we’re not captains of our fate— we’re more like helpless life rafts bobbing in a storm-tossed sea of forces beyond our control.
We live in a time-obsessed age. We want to control it, to conquer it, to use it wisely. If you’re a reluctant self-help enthusiast like me, you’ve tried everything to streamline your schedule and increase efficiency: read books like The Checklist Manifesto and The 4-Hour Work Week, used apps to track your calories and your sleep, been convinced by tech bro podcasts that the key to success was to emulate billionaires’ morning routines.
Sadly, most self-help convinces us we can optimize our lives as if humans were nothing more than yet-to-be-perfected machines. In his part how-to guide, part philosophical treatise Four Thousand Weeks, British journalist Oliver Burkeman rallies against such misdirected self-help and suggests there’s more to life than crossing items off a to-do list in the name of productivity.
Though its premise (life is short— we should make the most of each day) seems unbearably commonplace, Four Thousand Weeksmanages (for the most part) to escape self-help’s empty cliches. In fact, I dare say Burkeman will inspire you to look at time in a whole new way.
A self-proclaimed “productivity geek,” Burkeman was at one time a devoted believer in the religion of productivity: he used highlighters to color code his planner, broke down his day into 15 minute increments, and tried countless efficiency systems such as Inbox Zero and the Pomodoro technique.
Then one winter in 2014, he had an unsettling epiphany: he was never going to scale the mountain of all his “to-do” tasks and blissfully arrive at the summit of “being on top of everything.”
According to Burkeman, the problem with most time management philosophies is they rest on the erroneous premise that we can do everything. If only we could find the most efficient way to structure our day/tackle our inbox, we could launch our 6-figure business, have a happy marriage and regularly run marathons. If only we could find the most aesthetically-pleasing Pinterest-worthy planner, we could systematically prioritize our to-do list and “get it all done.”
But the reality is we can’t do it all.
Staying late at the office means we can’t have game night with our family. Opting to go with our friends to a bar Friday night means we most likely can’t go running early Saturday morning. If we only have 2 weeks of vacation a year, we can’t possibly go to every one of our “must-see” destinations: we have to choose between the endless excitement of New York and the majestic turquoise waters of Bali.
The problem with the be/do/have it all mentality is it encourages us to say “yes” to every opportunity: social invitations, networking events, more and more responsibility. The result? We have full calendars of other people’s priorities. Because we said “yes” to Sarah’s dinner party, we spend our Saturday night nibbling on quiche instead of working on our 3 act play. And because we said “yes” to yet another project at work, we can no longer take a romantic holiday to wine country.
Ultimately, time management isn’t about “doing it all” (which is impossible)— it’s about coming to terms with the fact that you’re never going to. You’re never going to have a bustling social life and work 60 hours a week. You’re never going to have the picture-perfect marriage and a high-powered career. You’re never going to be a world-class pianist and a Harvard PhD. Perhaps a few super humans among us can do many things, but the rest of us mortals must make choices. Time management requires you face your finitude: as Burkeman asserts, “your time is finite, doing anything requires sacrifice— the sacrifice of all the other things you could have been doing with that stretch of time.”
Life is a sea of frustration: we can’t seem to find our car keys when we’re already 20 minutes late for work, we pour a bowl of cereal only to discover we have no milk.
How do we react when things don’t go our way?
Most often, with flames of anger and red-hot rage.
We hurl our coach cushions while we desperately search for our keys; we curse the cruel universe (and our inconsiderate roommate who never refills anything) for making us have to go to the grocery store first thing in the morning. The most minor mishap can send us into a tantrum, though we should be far more mature for someone of middle age.
Why do the smallest, most insignificant things possess the power to make us so angry?
According to Seneca, father of Stoicism, anger is not an explosion of uncontrollable passions— it’s the result of an error in reasoning. We rant and rave when our expectations collide with reality. For example, when we were expecting to spend our Saturday soaking in the sun only to learn that the weather forecast predicts gray skies and relentless rain. Or consider the romantic arena: we only pout and lock ourselves in our room when our husband forgets our anniversary because we expected him to romance us with extravagant gifts, a diamond necklace perhaps, or two round-trip tickets to Tahiti.
In his ever-edifying The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton suggests anger isn’t an inextinguishable wildfire— it can be contained. According to Botton, who famously finds solutions to contemporary problems in the wrinkled pages of art, literature and philosophy, Seneca’s stoicism can stamp out our embers of exasperation before they burst into full-blown flames of rage. Rather than expect too much from the world, we would be wise to lower our expectations and take a grimmer view of reality.
To illustrate his point, Botton uses one of Seneca’s acquaintances, Vedius Pollio. A wealthy man from ancient Rome, Pollio lived in a world of grand gardens, gold-gilded palaces, extravagant feasts, and elaborate frescoes. Like many rich men, Pollio was accustomed to getting his way. When one of his slaves dropped a tray of crystal glasses during a party, Pollio was so enraged that he ordered him to be thrown into a pool of lampreys.
Was Pollio’s reaction a tad bit extreme? Of course: most of us wouldn’t toss someone into a pool of eels for such a silly mistake.
So why did something so trivial (a bit of broken glass) catapult a dignified man of refined manners and good breeding into such a blind rage?
His anger seems disproportionate to its cause. Certainly, a man of his class could have replaced the crystal. With the commanding wave of a hand, Pollio could have had one of his hundred servants come and sweep up the shattered dishes. Logically, there’s no reason a few broken glasses had to ruin the revelry of the evening.
However, Botton argues there’s rationale behind Pollio’s seeming irrationality: “Pollio was angry for an identifiable reason: because he believed in a world in which glasses do not get broken at parties.” In other words, his reality (my clumsy slave tripped and smashed my precious crystal) didn’t meet his expectations (my party will proceed smoothly).
If we want to be calm and generally content, we must learn to expect less of life. Rather than expect circumstances to unfold according to our carefully-orchestrated plans, we should rip a page from the Stoic survivalist handbook and prepare for the worst to happen. If— like Pollio— we’re hosting a dinner party, we should anticipate things will not go smoothly: guests will arrive that didn’t RSVP, we’ll run out of champagne, our guests will inevitably have trouble finding topics of conversation and suffer a few awkward silences as they nibble crackers and brie.
Ultimately, Stoicism suggests we relinquish rose-colored romanticism and accept reality. No matter what, our time on this planet will be filled with rude people, interminably long lines, stolen credit card information, delayed flights, flat tires, and human stupidity. If, as Botton writes, we reconcile ourselves to life’s necessary imperfectability, we’ll be less angry (and less likely to fling a helpless servant into a pool of lampreys).
What is philosophy for? For many, philosophy is a lofty subject only meant to be studied by tweed-jacketed professors in the university hall. The word “philosopher” conjures images of men in ancient Greece or Rome who have white beards and wear long, flowy robes. Philosophy isn’t for ordinary people like mailmen and school teachers— it’s reserved for great intellects like Nietzsche and Socrates and Plato. Philosophers are a privileged class who have the time to ponder life’s big questions (who am I?/what am I meant to do?).
However, in his charming The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton argues just the opposite: philosophy is simply the study of how to live well. A delightful little volume organized by afflictions such as “heartbreak,” “unpopularity,” and “not having enough money,” The Consolations of Philosophyrests on the premise that philosophy is a form of medicine. The words of a great thinker can have restorative properties. In this 2000 classic, the irresistibly intelligent Botton sifts through thousands of years of collective wisdom to find the wisest minds’ remedies for our most common problems.
Why do rates of loneliness run rampant? Some blame our modern alienation on the advent of social media (after all, why bother with complicated, occasionally dull human interaction when TikTok provides dizzying dopamine-fueled hits of cheap entertainment?); others blame the capitalist rat race for money and status. Certainly, our sense of isolation only worsened during the pandemic.
Luckily, there is a cure for our loneliness. If we’re lacking connection in real life, we can find companionship in the fictional worlds of art and books. Books are medicines for our maladies, slings for our spirits, salves for our wounds. To read a book— or observe a painting or contemplate a poem— is to see our own lives reflected back to us. By expressing their particular experience, the artist illuminates an aspect of the greater human experience. Though Tolstoy wrote Family Happiness using his own experience of marriage, the modern woman who finds herself disenchanted with domesticity can still see herself in Masha’s tale. Books remind us other people have felt our feelings and thought our thoughts, even if it was many centuries ago. Referencing the great German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, Botton notes:
“We do have one advantage over moles. We may have to fight for survival and hunt for partners and have children as they do, but we can in addition go to the theatre, the opera and the concert hall, and in bed in the evenings, we can read novels, philosophy and epic poems— and it is in these activities that Schopenhauer located a supreme source of relief from the demands of the will-to-life. What we encounter in works of art and philosophy are objective versions of our own struggles, evoked and defined in sound, language, or image. Artists and philosophers not only show us what we have felt, they present our experiences more poignantly and intelligently than we have been able; they give shape to aspects of our lives that we recognize as our own, yet could never have understood so clearly on our own. They explain our condition to us, and thereby help us to be less lonely with, and confused by it. We may be obliged to continue burrowing underground, but through creative works, we can at least acquire moments of insights into our woes, which spare us feelings of alarm and isolation (even persecution) at being afflicted by them. In their different ways, art and philosophy help us, in Schopenhauer’s words, to turn pain into knowledge.”
Ultimately, art dispels the illusion that we are alone in our struggles. The dispirited can discover hope in the Letters of Vincent Van Gogh; the love sick can find solace in sonnets written by a Renaissance man nearly a half millennia ago. Or as Botton writes, a snubbed suitor can find consolation in Goethe:
“By reading a tragic tale of love, a rejected suitor raises himself above his own situation; he is no longer one man suffering alone, singly and confusedly, he is part of a vast body of human beings who have throughout time fallen in love with other humans in the agonizing drive to propagate the species. [By reading], his suffering loses a little of its sting.”
Black Friday. Mall madness. Deadly stampedes of Walmart shoppers determined to get half off a Samsung television set. Black Friday is a carousal of consumption. Companies flood our inboxes with sales (20% off! 30% off! 50% off!), encouraging us to splurge in the name of “saving” money. Afraid of missing out on a “once-in-a-lifetime” deal, we buy far more than we actually need.
Why are we so consumed with consumption?
Because we think things will bring us happiness.
In his clever The Consolations of Philosophy, continually charming Alain de Botton uses the wisdom of ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus to refute this deluded, distinctly American notion. According to Epicurus, only three things are absolutely essential to happiness: thought, freedom and friendship.
Despite the hedonistic associations of his name, Epicurus didn’t support the reckless pursuit of pleasure. Though he appreciated the finer things in life, he also understood material wealth wasn’t necessary. To be satisfied, one only needed enough money to provide for the basic requirements of living.
Before you excessively spend this Black Friday, Botton suggests you seriously consider a few questions: could you buy a Chanel bag or an expensive cashmere sweater and still not be happy? Conversely, could you still experience some measure of satisfaction if you never procured the much-lusted after object?
When you ask yourself these questions, Botton contends, you’ll usually find the worldly objects you crave are not prerequisites for happiness. If— after years of yearning— you finally acquire a Gucci 1961 Jackie bag, you will still be miserable if you and your husband are constantly fighting. Similarly, a supremely soft cashmere sweater will offer little consolation if your father just had a heart attack. You can be just as melancholic on a sun-soaked beach in the Caribbean as you are on a gloomy day in your cramped London apartment. Lavish things and splendid surroundings do not guarantee contentment.
But why, if material objects cannot promise happiness, do we obsess about their attainment? Why do we make making money the aim of our existence?
According to Botton, we seek solutions for spiritual problems in material objects. Rather than organize our heads, we buy Tupperware to organize our cabinets. Rather than pick up the phone and have a vulnerable conversation with a friend, we treat ourselves to a pair of cat eye sunglasses from Yves Saint Laurent. Rather than dedicate the time to reflect and identify our life’s purpose, we trade genuine fulfillment for fleeting gratification. We mindlessly swipe our credit cards for useless junk just to feel the buzz of a dopamine hit and momentarily escape the utter meaninglessness of our existence. It’s no coincidence that the phrase “retail therapy” has entered our language: in the 21st century, we believe the cure to our psychological ills can be bought on the free market.
In many ways, capitalism depends on us misunderstanding our own needs. Our most fundamental needs are for love, for friendship, for freedom, for purpose, for meaning. However, priceless concepts like connection and camaraderie can’t be purchased at Bloomingdales for 20% off on Black Friday.
And therein lies the problem: we cannot buy what we want.
Therefore, companies must trick us into buying their products. By subliminally appealing to our unconscious needs, they convince us to shop.
When we buy a tube of glamorous red rouge, for instance, we’re buying a promise: to be beautiful and, therefore, loved/admired/heard/seen.
Or say we come across an advertisement that depicts a celebratory scene of attractive 20-somethings clinking champagne glasses in the city. We subconsciously hear one message: if we drink this particular brand of bubbly, we’ll finally find the companionship we crave.
But we must not believe the lies of advertising. Love cannot be located in lipstick and friendship cannot be found in a bottle of champagne. To live well, we must differentiate our real from our invented needs. We don’t need a Birkin or elegant, extravagant home furnishings. But we do require a good book and a confidant who listens to us, makes us laugh and helps us not take life too seriously.
I have a secret: I’m obsessed with fashion. During my lunch break, I salivate over my favorite store’s “just in” section. I spend hours upon hours finding inspiration on Pinterest and scrolling through fashion influencer’s TikTok pages. I approach clothes with a collector’s passion. My closet is a carefully-curated museum, each piece is a work of art in my exhibit.
As a self-professed bookworm, I constantly chastise myself for caring so much about clothes. Surely, it must be better to spend one’s time reading serious philosophy than skimming through Vogue! Day after day, week after week, month after month, I scold myself for collecting fashion inspo on my Pinterest board instead of reading Proust. In our culture, an interest in fashion has always been dismissed as empty-headed and shallow. After all, who would care so deeply about a Chanel bag but a braindead bimbo?
Think of the 90s MTV show Daria. Daria is a misanthropic outcast but portrayed as one of the only morally righteous and intellectually sound characters while her pretty, peppy younger sister Quinn is the embodiment of the dumb popular girl. As the vice president of the fashion club, Quinn is only interested in two things: boys and the season’s latest “it” color. Rather than discuss the day’s pressing political matters, Quinn and her midriff-exposing friends spend their meetings discussing such seemingly frivolous topics as whether acid-wash jeans are “in” and what belly chain to pair with what crop top.
But is fashion always silly and superficial? Can you delight in a fine luxury handbag without being a materialistic, status-obsessed capitalist? Can you appreciate the architectural perfection of the iconic Burberry trench coat and still be a serious-minded intellectual?
For British philosopher Alain de Botton, the answer is yes. In his wise, witty, The Meaning of Life, Botton suggests clothes are a powerful means of self-expression. “Despite the potential silliness and exaggeration of sections of the fashion industry,” he writes, “assembling a wardrobe is a serious and meaningful exercise.”
When we get dressed in the morning, we’re not just clothing ourselves for the practical purpose of covering our bodies— we’re communicating who we are. Like a painter, we’re crafting an image, an identity. Our materials are no longer a canvas and oil paints— they’re trousers and skirts, coats and collars, shoes and handbags.
Studies show that we form a first impression in as little as a tenth of a second. In a brief moment, people come to lasting conclusions. By carefully choosing what we wear, we can influence how others perceive us. As Botton writes, “We act like artists painting a self-portrait: deliberately guiding the viewer’s perception of who we might be.”
Do we want to appear chic and classy? We’ll wear timeless pieces like trench coats and ballet flats. Do we want to be taken seriously? We’ll clothe ourselves in a perfectly-pressed button up, bookish blazer and prep school plaid. If, on the other hand, we want to appear edgy and non-conformist, we’ll ditch the conservative pant suit for denim jeans and a leather motorcycle jacket.
Garments are words in an unspoken language. Different clothes transmit different messages: a pair of breezy linen trousers might capture the easygoing summer spirit; a milkmaid midi dress might suggest a delicate femininity and charming innocence. The woman who wears jeans and a t-shirt is fundamentally different from the woman who wears espadrilles and a slip dress.
Ultimately, adornment isn’t just vain and empty-headed. How we dress is a way of telling a story: about where we’re from, about who we are, about who we might be. When we get dressed, to quote Botton, “we are communicating to others who we are while strategically reminding ourselves. Our wardrobes contain some of our most carefully written lines of autobiography.”
Dictators rise to power. Countries wage war. Economies crash. Streets erupt in civil unrest. Much of the world is mayhem and madness.
In his infinitely illuminating guide to finding value and purpose, The Meaning of Life, British philosopher Alain de Botton suggests that— though life is often an unmanageable mess— work can give us a consoling sense of tidiness. At home, many of our problems are complicated: we might find it impossible to summon the stamina and enthusiasm to sleep with our partner after a long day at work and two decades of marriage; we might harbor homicidal fantasies of killing our teenage son for— yet again— not washing his dirty dishes; we might struggle to find time for ourselves amidst the endless demands of raising children.
But at work, we can “get on top of a problem and finally resolve it.” The doctor can diagnose an illness and prescribe medicine. The entrepreneur can pitch an idea to investors, design innovative new products and fill holes in the market. The plumber can fix leaky pipes and broken toilets.
Most of life is dictated by things beyond our command: natural disasters, politics, stock markets. But at work, we’re no longer powerless. We might not be able to control whether a deadly hurricane devastates the Gulf Coast or who wins the next presidential election, but we can teach our students how to solve a system of equations using the substitution method and lead a meeting of directors with poise and self-assurance.
In this life, there’s many things we cannot know: why we were born, when we’ll die, the purpose of it all. We can’t know why humans have 23 chromosomes or why— of Earth’s 8.7 million species— the ability to formulate thoughts into words belongs to us alone. We can never fully understand ourselves or unravel the mysteries of other people.
But through our work, we can know at least one subject in great detail. A biochemist can understand how CRISPR can genetically engineer cells. An art professor can give riveting lectures on the bold, expressive colors of Van Gogh and explain the cultural significance of Picasso. A sommelier can decipher the exact year the grapes of a vintage Merlot were harvested and detect that they originated in Bordeaux. By becoming an expert in a particular field, we can— to paraphrase Susan Orlean — whittle the world down to a more manageable scope.
Though many of us resent having to go to an office, work is crucial to our contentment. Without work, we’d be lost in the wilderness with no sense of direction, no meaning, no purpose. Weeds would overgrow; bushy brambles would choke our path; there would be no water or food for nourishment. But in the lovely words of Botton, work can help us create a harmonious, comprehensible garden from a tiny portion of the wild surrounding forest. When we devote ourselves to something larger, we bring a pleasing order and symmetry to our existence. Work transforms weed-engulfed fields into beautiful botanical arrangements.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.