Alain de Botton’s Case for Politeness

polite society

For most of human history, politeness was an admirable trait.  Belonging to polite society not only meant you were upper class— it meant you conducted yourself with refinement and taste.  The polite woman had exquisite manners: she knew how to maneuver her fork and knife, how to taste the caviar, how to elegantly sip her champagne.  And because she was worldly and well-traveled, she could effortlessly entertain.

However, our attitude toward politeness changed with the Romantic movement.  Because the romantics valued individual expression above all else, they viewed strict 19th century social customs as unhealthy constraints.  In the prim, prudish Victorian age, formal etiquette dictated every aspect of life from how you greeted your guests to how long you could acceptably chat with an acquaintance at a busy intersection.  A “lady” should only wear white gloves to dinner and never, never use both hands to raise her dress while crossing the street.  Perhaps most ironically, repressed Victorians believed “no topic of absorbing interest may be admitted to polite conversation” because “it might lead to discussion and debate.”

Rather than regard politeness as an indication of a kind and civilized person, the romantics saw it as a sign of superficiality.  Those courteous dignitaries and chic debutantes who knew the proper etiquette at parties were not well-bred— they were phony.  What society termed “politeness” was really just the Machiavellian ability to manipulate others for your own gain: those at society’s highest rungs only wrote darling thank you cards and threw extravagant soirees to increase their social standing.

In romantic thought, candor was a much more admirable trait.  According to the romantics, the individual was an instrument of God while society fettered the soul in chains.  Rather than restrain ourselves, they believed we should cast off the shackles of so-called social niceties: after all, why should we have to hold our tongue when our great uncle says something insensitive/borderline racist at Thanksgiving?  why should we refrain from discussing politics or religion for fear of offending?  and why, exactly, should we allow other people’s hypersensitivity limit our God-given right to self-expression and our democratically-protected right to free speech?

Today we continue to prefer candor to restraint.  In their revolt against political correctness, conservatives have pitted freedom of expression against civility and basic good taste.  While those on the right distrust politicians who equivocate in Washington’s too tactful doublespeak, they rally behind straight-shooters like Donald Trump because— not it spite of— his willingness to break the “countless unspoken rules regarding what public figures can or cannot say.”  The president’s disgusting comments about women and discriminatory proposal to ban Muslims don’t prove he’s a racist or misogynist or overall horrible human being— they prove he’s trustworthy.  “Look what he openly says about women and minorities!” Trump supporters must think, “he’ll tell it to us straight!”  Today “politically correct” has become a pejorative term associated with overly sensitive liberals and cowardly politicians who are too terrified to say what they mean.

victorian era manners

Though good old-fashioned politeness might be a relic of another age, British philosopher Alain de Botton argues respect is a tradition worth resurrecting.  In his latest volume The School of Life: An Emotional Education, the same seminar that taught us how to master the four criteria of emotional health, how books can be a balm for loneliness, how the sublime can give us greater perspective, how to be kind, and how to be charming, de Botton maintains it’s better to be too polite than too frank.  Unlike the frank person, who believes no occasion should call for self-censorship, the polite person recognizes many situations require they edit themselves.  The fact that they conceal parts of their character doesn’t make them deceptive or dishonest: it simply makes them considerate.  The polite person is all too aware there are many things about them that could disgust or otherwise offend:

“The polite person proceeds under grave suspicion of themselves and their impulses.  They sense that a great deal of what they feel and want really isn’t very nice.  They are indelibly in touch with their darker desires and can sense their fleeting wishes to hurt or humiliate certain people.  They know they are sometimes a bit revolting and cannot forget the extent to which they may come across as offensive and frightening to others.  They therefore set out on a deliberate strategy to protect others from what they know is within them.  It isn’t lying as such; they merely understand that being ‘themselves’ is a treat that they must take enormous pains to spare everyone else from experiencing— especially anyone they claim to care about.”

What separates the polite from the rest of us?  Rather than presume everyone is just like them, polite people realize others have their own opinions and preferences.  Though the polite host might prefer a refreshing pinot grigio to a buttery chardonnay, they are perfectly aware their guests might have different taste.  So what do they do?  They ask what their guests like better and accommodate:

“For their part, the polite person starts from the assumption that others are highly likely to be in quite different places internally, whatever the outward signs.  Their behavior is therefore tentative, wary and filled with enquiries.  They will explicitly check with others to take a measure of their experiences and outlook: if they feel cold, they are very alive to the possibility that you may be feeling perfectly warm and so will take the trouble to ask if you’d mind if they went over and closed the window.  They are aware that you might be annoyed by a joke that they find funny or that you might very sincerely hold political opinions quite at odds with their own.  They don’t take what is going on for them as a guide to what is probably going on for you.  Their manners are grounded in an acute sense of the gulf that can separate humans from one another.”

More than anything, polite people are sensitive people.  Though we live in a callous age where “sensitive” has become a derogatory word hurled at the easily offended, no quality is more important to human relationships.  The polite person exercises tact— not because they’re a phony people pleaser or cunning social climber— but because they know even the most self-possessed among us are insecure: an unreturned phone call, a dismissive grunt or mean-spirited joke, a cutting remark or harsh word has the profound capacity to hurt.  Lesson?  We should be sensitive because others are always teetering on the edge of a cliff— one small wind and they can descend into despair. 

Alain de Botton on How to Be Charming

What is charm?  Oscar Wilde— one of the most charismatic men in all of English letters— believed charm was the opposite of dullness; it’s “absurd to divide people between good and bad,” he wrote, “people are either charming or tedious.”  In his 1883 journal, philosopher and poet Henri-Frederic Amiel described it as the “quality in others that makes us more satisfied with ourselves” while statesmen Adlai Stevenson proposed “a beauty is a woman you notice; a charmer is one who notices you.”

Most of us imagine a charmer possesses an almost magical magnetism: they captivate crowds and their ravishing good looks attract many admirers.  The word itself evokes a certain picture: a dapperly-dressed man who regales whole cocktail parties with stories of his exciting adventures; a fashionable woman in a chic black dress and leather gloves whose dazzling wit and irresistible smile instantly make men fall in love with her.

As affable Americans, there’s nothing we admire more than charisma.  The movie stars we watch most devotedly, the politicians we most passionately campaign all share this seductive trait.  One reason we think so highly of charm is because we think it’s a gift granted to a select few; like those blessed with the ability to sing, the charming have a talent denied the rest of us.  Charisma is something you’re born with as innate as the color of your hair or the straightness of your teeth.

But despite what we may believe, charm is not encoded in our DNA— it’s a skill that can be refined and improved like a kindergartner’s ability to recite his ABCs.  In his crash course on emotional intelligence The School of Life: An Emotional Education, British philosopher Alain de Botton argues charm is a core competency essential to our functioning as human beings, whether we want to climb the corporate ladder or simply seduce our crush on the first date.  Below are his three steps to developing this delightful— if somewhat mysterious— trait:

how to be charming

1. be unafraid to be yourself

Courtship always involves some level of convivial but trifling chatter.  Rather than have a thoughtful philosophical discussion or meaningful heart-to-heart, first dates most often consist of a superficial getting-to-know each other.  As we sip chardonnay in the romantic haze of a candlelit dinner, conversation is limited to a few uncontroversial topics like what we do for work and where we’ve traveled.

Sadly, dating in the digital world is even more surface-level.  No longer do charming Romeos woo us in beauteous iambic pentameter; in our shallow swipe-right culture, dull-witted men bombard us with either tasteless sexual invitations or unimaginative “hey gorgeous, how are you?’s”.  As a newfound bachelorette trying to maintain my sanity amid such mind-boggling boredom, I got to thinking: what makes one suitor interesting and another a bore?

Though we think some people are just plain tiresome, de Botton would argue a truly boring person has never walked the earth; those we call “boring” are simply too afraid to be themselves.  Most of the men who open with a timid “hi, what’s up?” aren’t yawn-worthy bores— they’re just deeply terrified of making idiots of themselves.  But the most charming among us are willing to be weird.  After all, who do we find more interesting: the guy who resorts to the same lame questions and cliched compliments or the one who is honest about his quirks and his less-than-flattering characteristics?  Charm is strangeness, or as de Botton so elegantly phrases:

“At the heart of the shy person’s self-doubt is a certainty that they must be boring.  But, in reality, no one is ever truly boring.  We are only in danger of coming across as such when we don’t dare or know how to communicate our deeper selves to others.  The human animal witnessed in its essence, with honesty and without artifice, with all its longings, crazed desires and despair, is always gripping.  When we dismiss a person as boring, we are merely pointing to someone who has not had the courage or concentration to tell us what it is like to be them.  But we invariably prove compelling when we succeed in detailing some of what we crave, envy, regret, mourn and dream.  The interesting person isn’t someone to whom obviously and outwardly interesting things have happened, someone who has traveled the world, met important dignitaries or been present at critical geo-political events.  Nor is it someone who speaks in learned terms about the great themes of culture, history, or science.  They are someone who has grown into an attentive, self-aware listener and a reliable correspondent of their own mind and heart, who can thereby give us faithful accounts of the pathos, drama and strangeness of being them.”

vintage couple flirting

2. be vulnerable 

In many ways, to be human is to believe we’ll never be good enough.  How, we wonder, could anyone ever like, let alone love us?  Our nose is too large, our face isn’t entirely symmetrical, our abs aren’t perfectly chiseled.  And though we can at times be engaging and thoughtful, we have an equal capacity to be rude and inconsiderate, dull and insufferable.

Because we’re convinced we have to be perfect in order for other people to like us, we conceal these frailties and foibles.  No where is this more true than the romantic arena.  A first date is a masquerade ball where we conceal our real self: rather than display our melancholy and self-doubt, we try our best to appear confident and cheerful, emphasizing our accomplishments and avoiding anything too objectionable.  If we stick to safe conversation topics, if we refuse to divulge anything too loathsome about ourselves (that we sometimes suffer from depression, that we’re thirty and still not entirely sure what we want to do with ourselves), maybe, just maybe, our potential paramour will like us.

But what actually makes someone likable?  For Mr. de Botton, what distinguishes a disarming person from a disagreeable one is their ability to be imperfect, to be vulnerable.  After all, who do we adore more: the date who is wonderfully self-assured, who completely and utterly loves his life and his job or the one who openly shares the more tender, potentially shameful parts of his heart, his regrets and his fears, his insecurities and his self-doubts?  As de Botton writes:

“We get close by revealing things that would, in the wrong hands, be capable of inflicting humiliation on us.  Friendship is the dividend of gratitude that flows from an acknowledgement that one has offered something very valuable by talking: the key to one’s self-esteem and dignity.  It’s deeply poignant that we should expend so much effort on trying to look strong before the world when, all the while, it’s really only ever the revelation of the somewhat embarrassing, sad, melancholy and anxious bits of us that renders us endearing to others and transforms strangers into friends.”

vintage couple flirting #2

3. be a good listener

What do all disastrous dating experiences have in common?  A shortage of physical attraction?  An absence of chemistry?  Too many awkward silences and fumbling attempts at conversation?  At the bottom of every disappointing date is a lack of connection.  But how, exactly, do we establish a bond with someone, especially someone we don’t know very well?

De Botton maintains listening is essential to success not only in dating but in life in general.  We tend to think charmers are natural-born entertainers, those rare men and women who can spin a riveting tale or deliver an impeccably-timed joke, but the most charming people are actually better listeners than speakers.  Despite what many motormouth men may think, it’s deeply unattractive to dominate a conversation.  I know I find nothing more obnoxious than a man who talks exclusively about himself.  What woman wants to endure a dinner where her date barely pauses to sip a glass of wine or ask anything— and I mean anything— about her?

Sadly, many men miss out on the fundamental lesson of charm school: to be interesting, you have to be interestednot completely self-absorbed.  If you want to charm your crush, don’t boast about your salary or what kind of car you drive or blather on about your dreams or goals: ask about hers.  People love nothing more than talking about themselves.

Not only do charming people ask questions, they actually listen and care about our answers.  When they inquire why our last relationship ended, they don’t simply hear what we have to say and move on to the next unrelated question; they ask questions that build off each other.  If we reveal we broke up with our last boyfriend because he didn’t share our values, they’ll encourage us to elaborate: what values are important to us?  The result?  The conversation feels more natural and doesn’t take on the nerve-wracking, palm sweat-inducing quality of a job interview. 

In the end, the good listener understands the goal of a first date conversation, indeed, any conversation, is clarification: we exchange words not to impress or entertain but hopefully to shed some light on a potential partner.  Do they share our morals?  Do they have similar passions and interests?  Are they looking for the same things we are? 

Alain de Botton on How the Sublime Can Remind Us of Our Infinitesimal Place in the Grand Scheme of Things

storm-tossed sea

Since the Enlightenment era, we’ve sought to unlock the mysteries of the cosmos: how to harness nuclear power to obliterate entire nations of people, how to eradicate disease, how to defeat death itself.  In the last few hundred years, we’ve in many ways succeeded in this ambitious goal: we’ve discovered penicillin, we’ve built airplanes and railroads.

But though science gives us the illusion that we have command over the cosmos, we’re not sovereigns of the world.  Men are but one species of millions on Earth; our miraculous, mysteriously oxygenated marble of a planet is but one speck in an ever-expanding universe.  Each star in our sky is potentially another sun to another solar system.  No matter how invincible we imagine ourselves, a single catastrophe— a terrible earthquake, a devastating forest fire, a worldwide pandemic, a bloody war— reminds us what fragile creatures we are.  Humans are small sailboats in a storm-tossed sea: one strong gust of wind and we drown.

So how do we go on when faced with something so much mightier than we are, so beyond our control and so rife with uncertainty, be it the chance-governed universe or an international health emergency?  In his crash course on emotional intelligence The School of Life: An Emotional Education, British philosopher Alain de Botton argues the mighty— what sages and saints throughout time termed the “sublime”— can offer calm in a chaotic world.  The magnificence of a giant sequoia grove, the epic scale of the Grand Canyon, the scorched beauty of a burnt red-orange sunset in a southwest desert, the striking cliffs along the central California coast: each rid us of the arrogant belief that we’re the most all-powerful things in the cosmos.

We imagine the trivial dramas of our lives— the offhand comment our mother made about our disarray of dirty clothes, the quarrel we had with our lover over ravioli and red wine, the nerve-wracking choice between classic cream and deep beige for the dining room— are of serious consequence when in the grand scheme of things, they don’t much matter.  Our names will most likely not be found in textbooks (unless— that is— we manage to do something truly history-making like discover a cure for cancer or formulate an elegant mathematical theorem).  Schoolchildren will not study the stories of our lives or be captivated by the drama of our dating misadventures.  Chances are in a few centuries we’ll be forgotten— our entire existence reduced to a tombstone.

the sublime

While the idea that all will be buried beneath the sands of time is enough to bring on an existential crisis (after all, if nothing we do is of any consequence, isn’t life meaningless?  why live at all?), it can also be a profound relief.  If our mother makes snide comments about the cleanliness of our house, if we make the “wrong” choice and paint the dining room classic cream instead of deep beige— even if we make a more serious error and choose the wrong city or the wrong husband or the wrong career— the world will go on: the sun will set in the west and rise in the east, seeds will sprout and blossom, Earth will continue to spin on its axis at a thousand miles per hour through our wondrous, improbable universe.  When we gaze at the glorious spectacle of stars in the night sky (or any other marvel of nature), we can transcend our petty problems.  As de Botton writes:

“But there’s another way an encounter with the large-scale can affect us— and calm us down—that philosophers have called the “sublime.”  Heading back to the airport after a series of frustrating meetings, we notice the sun setting behind the mountains.  Tiers of clouds are bathed in gold and purple, while huge slanting beams of light cut across the urban landscape.  To record the feeling without implying anything mystical, it seems as if one’s attention is being drawn up into the radiant gap between the clouds and the summits, and that one is for a moment merging with the cosmos.  Normally the sky isn’t a major focus of attention, but now it’s mesmerizing.  For a while it doesn’t seem to matter much what happened in the office or that the contract will— maddeningly— have to be renegotiated by the legal team.

At this moment, nature seems to be sending us a humbling message: the incidents of our lives are not terribly important.”  

For more symposiums from the school of life, study culture as a cure for loneliness, the importance of kindness and the four criteria of emotional health.  If you want to chart the mysterious topography of the human heart, revisit de Botton on love’s two stages: idealization and disillusionment, dating as a sort of performative play-actinglove as the origin of beauty, and the lover as a detective obsessed with decoding symbols and discerning meaning.

Alain de Botton on Culture as a Cure for Loneliness

young alain de bottonNo matter how much we repress or deny it, a large portion of the human experience is disagreeable.  Heartbreak and sorrow, despair and melancholy are as much part of life as  love and joy, happiness and hope.  For some part of our lives, the sky will be a somber shade of gray— not just a cloudless cheerful blue.  Though difficult emotions are universal, we’re often ashamed to admit when we’re suffering a dark season of the soul and finding it impossible to do something as simple as get out of bed and put on regular clothes.  Our society requires we keep chit chat superficial.  “How are you?” our next door neighbor asks when we pass each other in the hall.  “I’m fine,” we mutter forcing a smile, “How are you?”  It would be a breach of proper decorum (not to mention make our neighbor profoundly uncomfortable) to tell the truth.  “Oh me?  I’m horrible!  The love of my life just left me so most nights I’ve been taking Xanax and drinking an entire bottle of champagne to myself.  Fingers crossed I overdose!”

No, we must “prepare a face to meet the faces that we meet” as T.S. Eliot so sharply observed in his masterpiece of modernism “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”  Instead of indulge our depression— retreat under the covers or collapse into sobs— we (for the most part) go about our lives business as usual.  We brush our hair and put on mascara; we take care of the mundane errands of living; we engage in surface-level small talk at happy hour and make obligatory appearances at friends’ birthday parties.  We don’t let others see the depths of our suffering.

But because everyone else is also hiding their suffering, we end up feeling alone.  “We therefore end up not only sad, but sad that we are sad— without much public confirmation of the essential normality of our melancholy,” British philosopher Alain de Botton writes in The School of Life: An Emotional Education, his instruction manual for emotional fulfillment that is both deeply philosophical and practically useful.  For him, this loneliness isn’t a common cold— it’s a chronic condition as potentially life-threatening as cancer.  Lucky for us, consolation can be found in one thing: culture.  If our world is suffering an epidemic of loneliness, art is the antidote.  Why?  Because art reminds us that—despite how things may seem— we are never alone with our sorrows:

Culture is a “record of the tears of humanity, lending legitimacy to despair and replaying our miseries back to us with dignity…art is a tool that can help release us from our numbness and can provide for catharsis in areas where we have for too long been wrong-headedly brave.”

In the same way “The Star Spangled Banner” unites us in our shared national values and gives us a sense of identity, art affirms we share a common humanity: we’re are all citizens in a country of suffering.  Terror and anxiety, depression and despondency: they belong to the whole of the human racenot us alone.  The beauty of art is it momentarily relieves us of the dreadful sense that we’re somehow abnormal.  No, it’s normal to occasionally misjudge others as the otherwise intelligent Elizabeth Bennet misjudges Mr. Darcy.  It’s even normal— like Hamlet— to occasionally contemplate suicide.  When we encounter ourselves in a work of art, we realize everyone— even those with six-figure salaries and important-sounding job titles and gorgeous Instagram photos— is neurotic, maladjusted, and fucked up.  As de Botton writes: 

“It is like the way a national anthem works: by singing it the individual feels part of a greater community and is strengthened, given confidence, even feeling strangely heroic, irrespective of their circumstances.  [Art] is like an…anthem for sorrow, one that invites us to see ourselves as part of a nation of sufferers which includes, in fact, everyone who has ever lived.

[…]

Other people have had the same sorrows and troubles that we have; it isn’t that these don’t matter or that we shouldn’t have them or that they aren’t worth bothering about.  What counts is how we perceive them.  We encounter the spirit or the voice of someone who profoundly sympathizes with suffering but who allows us to sense that through it we’re connecting with something universal and unashamed.  We are not robbed of our dignity; we are discovering the deepest truths about being human— and therefore we are not only not degraded by sorrow but also, strangely, elevated.”  

cezanne apples

Sadly, rather than seek solace in art, we try (and fail) to find solace in other people, particularly a significant other.  Beginning in the late 18th century, romanticism popularized the notion that one human being, our Platonic soul mate, would be able to completely understand us.  According to romantic thought, “true lovers could see deep into each other’s souls”; in other words, once we found our ideal lover, we’d no longer have to say how we felt– our partner would just know; once we found our “other half,” we’d never again feel alone.  

However lovely the romantic conception of love, it’s ultimately the stuff of fairytales.  No matter how wonderful our partner is, no matter how compatible we are, they’ll never know every region of our heart— nor can we know theirs.  Those we love will always— to some extent— be as strange as strangers in a subway car:

“What replaced religion in our imaginations, as we have seen, is the cult of human-to-human love we now know as Romanticism, which bequeathed to us the beautiful but reckless idea that loneliness might be capable of being vanquished, if we are fortunate and determined enough to meet the one exalted being known as our soulmate, someone who will understand everything deep and strange about us, who will see us completely and be enchanted by our totality.  But the legacy of Romanticism has been an epidemic of loneliness, as we are repeatedly brought up against the truth: the radical inability of any one other person to wholly grasp who we truly are.”

Human interaction almost always disappoints us.  Though there’s nothing we crave more than connection, most day-to-day conversation revolves around a series of uninteresting topics (the unusually nice weather, the most recent drama at the office) and obligatory questions (“so, how are you?”/”do anything fun this weekend?”).  Even our closest relationships lack real intimacy.  After all, what do we discuss during a night out with the girls?  our innermost thoughts?  our deepest convictions?  No, chatter over brie and chardonnay usually centers around last Saturday’s sexcapades or the latest TikTok. 

Fortunately, books can supply us with the connection we so long forA novel is a window into another’s consciousness, another’s interior world.  When we read Mrs. Dalloway, for example, we are allowed to see beyond Clarissa the socialite and see her most intimate secrets, her most haunting regrets and most private hopes.  A fictional character won’t shrug off “how are you?” with a polite but insincere “I’m fine” like most of us do— they’ll tell the truth.

“What a great treasure can be hidden in a small, selected library!  A company of the wisest and the most deserving people from all the civilized countries of the world, for thousands of years can make the results of their studies and their wisdom available to us,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote.  What’s wonderful about books— and films and paintings and poems— is they connect us with the finest minds from centuries and civilizations ago.  With the turn of a page, a lonesome 21st century reader can find a friend in Tolstoy or Kafka, Hemingway or Fitzgerald:

“The arts provide a miraculous mechanism whereby a total stranger can offer us many of the things that lie at the core of friendship.  And when we find these art friends, we are unpicking the experience of loneliness.  We’re finding intimacy at a distance.

[…]

Confronted by the many failings of our real-life communities, culture gives us the option of assembling a tribe for ourselves, drawing their members across the widest ranges of time and space, blending some living friends with some dead authors, architects, musicians and composers, painters and poets.”

tobias & the angel

Though humankind has always suffered from loneliness, through the ages, we’ve found different ways to cope.  When religion played a more prominent role in day to day life, the belief in God was our coping mechanism.  No longer were we doomed to wander the planet alone— we had an all-forgiving, all-loving presence with us.  Even if we were by ourselves— lost at sea, stranded on a deserted island, quarantined in our homes— we had God to guide us.

Today religion has fallen from its central place in culture: the majority of us don’t say grace before meals or attend church except for special occasions like Christmas and Easter.  So if God is dead, where can we turn for counsel?  how can we not feel completely and utterly on our own?  De Botton believes we can assemble our own tribe of guardian angels, only our angels aren’t winged creatures with harps and golden halos— they’re novelists and artists, poets and painters.  For us in the modern era, a museum is a cathedral and a book is secular scripture:

“You might feel physically isolated in the car, hanging around at the airport, going into a difficult meeting, having supper alone yet again or going through a tricky phase of a relationship, but you are not psychologically alone.  Key figures from your imaginary tribe (the modern version of angels and saints) are with you: their perspective, their habits, their way of looking at things in your mind, just as if they were really by your side whispering in your ear.  And so we can confront the difficult stretches of existence not simply on the basis of our own small resources but accompanied by the accumulated wisdom of the kindest, most intelligent voices of all ages.”

All in all, de Botton argues culture offers the companionship that is so difficult to find in the real world.  For more symposiums from the school of life, study the importance of kindness and the four criteria of emotional health.  If you’re more interested in his philosophical musings on love, revisit him on love’s two stages: idealization and disillusionment, dating as a sort of performative play-actinglove as the origin of beauty, and the lover as a detective obsessed with decoding symbols and discerning meaning.

Alain de Botton on the Importance of Kindness

 

young alain de botton“Nothing makes our lives, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness,” Leo Tolstoy once wrote.  Many hundreds of years before, Plato advised us to be kind because “everyone you know is fighting a hard battle.”  Rumi perhaps put it most poetically: “Be a lamp, or a lifeboat, or a ladder.  Help someone’s soul.”  Though random acts of kindness— letting someone merge into your lane at the height of rush hour, holding open a door, buying the next person in line a cappuccino— can lighten an overburdened heart and cheer a dispirited soul, we don’t often consider whether we’re kind enough to people.  We are, however, acutely aware when people are less than pleasant to us.  When someone is inconsiderate, we don’t consider the motives that underlie their bad behavior— we either rage at their stupidity or nostalgically mourn the loss of good manners.  Humanity, we insist, is made of fools and monsters.

Yet the world would be a much lovelier place if we were more generous in our assessments of other people.  In his endlessly erudite The School of Life: An Emotional Education, disarmingly witty British philosopher Alain de Botton uses the folktale of Androcles and the lion to illustrate how kindness can build bridges instead of walls.  First told by the Roman philosopher Aulus Gellius, the tale has been told time and time again both orally and in Aesop’s Fables.  In the story, a lion lives alone in the forests of the Atlas mountains.  One day he starts terrorizing a nearby village.  The more the lion roars, the more the women weep and the men toss and turn.  Afraid for their lives, the villagers assign guards to stand watch and send out heavily armed hunting parties to find— and kill— the monster.

It’s at this time that a shepherd boy named Androcles follows his sheep high into the mountains.  One evening as the sun falls below the horizon, he finds a cave and decides to seek shelter.  Inside, the darkness is impenetrable.  It’s only when he lights a candle that he sees he isn’t alone: there, not a few feet in front of him, is the bloodthirsty monster!

At first, Androcles is horrified.  Certainly the savage beast would tear him to shreds.  But then he notices something: the lion has a thorn in his paw.  The animal doesn’t want to hurt him— he’s in pain, that’s all.  Suddenly, Androcles only feels pity for the poor creature.  Rather than slay him, he strokes his mane and tenderly removes the thorn.  Grateful for the boy’s help, the lion licks his hand.  With one small gesture of kindness, the ferocious lion becomes as docile as a house cat.  Not only that, but two mortal enemies become lifelong friends.

androcles

What can the modern reader take away from this age-old folktale?  For de Botton, the story of Androcles and the lion is a poignant reminder that “hurt people hurt people.”  Too often in life we’re unforgiving when people grieve us.  If a friend says something insensitive, if our boyfriend, who is usually so attentive and affectionate, becomes cold and distant, if a cashier exhales exasperated when we take too long rummaging through our purse at the grocery store, we chalk up their behavior to their irredeemable character.  And then what do we do?  We squander the rest of our afternoon ranting and raving about what assholes they are.  How dare our “friend” be such an inconsiderate jerk!  How dare that cashier treat us as if we were the rude ones!

But rather than condemn our friend or the young girl at the cash register, we should act as psychologists and ponder the origins of their behavior.  Why did our friend make that nasty off-hand remark about our latest fling “not lasting” very long?  Was she simply a bitch?  Was she maliciously trying to hurt us?  Most likely not.  Perhaps she has her own insecurities because she once slept with the “fling” in question and— on some level— is jealous of us.  Perhaps she never liked that we were seeing each other and—instead of express her feelings or even admit them to herself— she acts out her bitterness and discomfort by subtly taking stabs at us.  Or perhaps she’s just oblivious to how passive aggressive she sounds.  And what of the ill-mannered girl at the grocery store checkout?  Perhaps she exhaled so loudly— not because we were taking too long to find change— but because she was tired from a double shift or she had just dealt with a disgruntled costumer before us.

Lesson?  When our fellow humans are petty or ungracious or just plain mean, they usually don’t mean to be.  Their back-handed compliments, their judgmental comments about our living rooms being in disarray: all spring from their own self-loathing and insecurity.  Like the lion, they are just in terrible pain.  As de Botton so astutely observes:

“The lion…has no capacity to understand what is hurting him and what he might need from others.  The lion is all of us when we lack insight into our own distress.  The thorn is a troubling, maddening element of our inner lives— a fear, a biting worry, a regret, a sense of guilt, a feeling of humiliation, a strained hope or an agonized disappointment that rumbles away powerfully but just out of range of our standard view of ourselves.  The art of living is to a large measure dependent on an ability to understand our thorns and explain them with a modicum of grace to others— and, when we are on the other side of the equation, to imagine the thorns of others, even those whose precise locations or dimensions we will never know for certain.”

No other thinker has educated us in the subject of emotional acuity more than Alain de Botton.  For more seminars from the school of life, study his four criteria of emotional health.  If you’re more interested in his philosophical musings on love in all its madness and mystery, revisit him on love’s two stages: idealization and disillusionment, dating as a sort of performative play-actinglove as the origin of beauty, and the lover as a detective obsessed with decoding symbols and discerning meaning.

Alain de Botton on the Four Criteria of Emotional Health

young alain de bottonWe as a society are deeply committed to education.  In the U.S. alone, students spend 1,000 hours in school every year.  There they are taught lessons in the laws of thermodynamics and Mendel’s Punnett squares.  From eight in the morning to three in the afternoon, they study the disciplines that form the foundation of human culture: history, literature, mathematics, the sciences, art.  Contrary to popular belief, we’re actually getting smarter.  Over the last century, in every nation in the developing world where intelligence test results are on record, IQ test scores have climbed upward.  As Malcolm Gladwell explained in a 2007 New Yorker article, “The typical teenager of today, with an IQ of 100, would have grandparents with average IQs of 82—seemingly below the threshold necessary to graduate from high school…if we go back even farther…the average IQs of the schoolchildren of 1900 was around 70, which is to suggest, bizarrely, that a century ago the United States was populated largely by people who today would be considered mentally retarded.”

Despite the enormous gains we’re made in terms of traditional intelligence, the kinds of linguistic and mathematical reasoning measured on IQ tests, we have failed to instruct our children in an even more important form of intelligence— emotional intelligence, or the ability to navigate the at times rocky terrain of our inner worlds and interpersonal relationships.  Common core standards revolve around discipline-specific skills and foundational knowledge: how to factor a quadratic, say, or how to determine the meaning of words based on context.  But little time is devoted to teaching our children how to set boundaries or how to treat ourselves or others with love and kindness.

Beloved British philosopher Alain de Botton founded the School of Life in hopes of instructing us in the too often neglected art of living itself.  His underlying philosophy?  Love and empathy, trust and vulnerability are skills just like anything else.  If we can teach a 5th grader how to perform long division, we can certainly teach ourselves how to communicate our needs openly and honestly and how to be gentle with ourselves.  In de Botton’s ideal world, education would mean exploring the uncharted territory of our own psyches— not dutifully absorbing useless facts from textbooks.

In his latest book The School of Life: An Emotional Education, de Botton aims to help the emotionally ill-equipped among us live more meaningful lives.  Written with at times breathtaking poetry and charming, if cynical, British wit, An Emotional Education maps the journey to emotional maturity, covering such vital skills as how to be kind, how to be polite, and how to use art and books as a balm for loneliness.  Because of his classical education and profound insight into the human condition, de Botton is able to redeem the much disdained genre of self-help— a genre we’ve come to associate with shameless platitudes and blockbuster bestsellers.  But despite the modern distaste for the genre, de Botton wonders: what is the aim of all literature, of all philosophy, of all culture if not to teach us how to live and how to live well?  Why read novels or marvel at paintings if not to better ourselves?  Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.  The works of Socrates and Aristotle.  For de Botton, the aim of the most monumental human achievements has been to help us improve ourselves.

How can we be happy and genuinely love who we are?  How can we find meaningful work?  the right partner?  How can we stop engaging in petty squabbles about dirty dishes and what we’re going to have for dinner?  If you’re on a never-ending quest to seek answers to such questions, if you want to be a happier, more fulfilled, more functional person, you absolutely must read An Emotional Education.

De Botton begins our emotional education by outlining what he considers to be the four markers of emotional health:

1. self-love 

self-love

Sadly, romanticism has perpetuated the myth that love has to come from outside ourselves.  In our era of gushy love songs and the prepackaged cliches of hackneyed Hallmark cards, we’re programmed to believe we need another person to complete our fragmentary selves.  Women are especially taught that we require romantic love to redeem our souls.  The result?  We seek love and adoration from men— selfish, self-absorbed, immature, emotionally incapable, occasionally abusive men— instead of validate ourselves.  As Rumi reminds us, “There is a basket of fresh bread on your head, yet you go door to door asking for crusts.”

But de Botton believes there’s a better way.  Rather than equate our worth to our relationship status or allow our self-respect to be shattered when a boyfriend leaves us or a potential paramour doesn’t call, we can give ourselves the tender affection we so long for.

What, exactly, does it mean to love yourself?  De Botton defines self-love as the “quality that determines how much we can be friends with ourselves.”  Instead of treat ourselves with the stern severity of a school master, loving ourselves means forgiving our frailties and foibles.  If your friend’s long-term boyfriend suddenly left her, would you demand she stop crying and simply “suck it up”?  Of course not.  You’d hand her a box of tissues and be there for her.  Or what if her presentation at work didn’t go quite as smoothly as she had hoped?  Would you ruthlessly reprimand her because she didn’t make enough copies and her voice shook?  Or would you reassure her that she is in fact a capable, compelling speaker and she did the best she could?

The key to a contented life is treating ourselves like a friend: with thoughtfulness, generosity and warmth.  If we ever want to have success in the romantic arena, if we ever want to love someone else, we first have to love ourselves.  The truth of this observation is reflected in the sentence structure of the phrase “I love you” itself.  “I” must always precede “you”: you can’t truly extend compassion and understanding to another human being until you extend such kindheartedness to yourself.

2. candor

candor

The second hallmark of emotional health is candor.  Yet we often lie to ourselves.  Why?  Because if we were honest, truly honest, we’d have to change our lives— a task that is too daunting for the majority of us.  If we admitted we no longer loved our husbands, we’d have to leave and essentially start over.  If we admitted the man we were “madly” in love with was just a rebound, we’d have to come to face-to-face with a not-so-flattering fact about ourselves: we seek solace in the flesh instead of deal with the grief and sorrow of terrible break ups.

Man is a master of self-deception.  To maintain the illusion that we are, indeed, still satisfied with our loveless marriage or are deeply invested in our sexually explosive but ultimately dull rebound relationship, we devise all kinds of distractions: booze, cigarettes, obsessive news/social media checking, pornography, sex.  “But if we could stop, for a time, looking at naked people, or drinking or checking the news, and face up to what we need to do, we might– gradually– end up in so much better a place,” de Botton reassures us.

Lesson?  If you want to be happy, be forthright about who you are and what you want not only with friends and lovers but with yourself.

3. communication

communication

Communication is the cornerstone of a good relationship.  In the early stages of courtship, communication is absolutely essential: are we looking for something serious or more casual?  do we want marriage?  the idyllic white picket fence and 2.5 baths?  a gaggle of youngsters and a kitchen overrun by pacifiers and baby bottles?  

Once we agree on the terms of our union, we have to explicitly express ourselves if we want to sustain love over the long-haul.  Yet many of us have a deep aversion to translating our feelings into words.  Rather than tell our husband he hurt our feelings when he called our choice of presidential candidate “dumb” in front of our dinner party guests, we spend the rest of the evening angrily sipping champagne and exasperatingly rolling our eyes at everything he says.  Or what if the man we’re casually dating reaches out reliably everyday and suddenly– for three unbearable, excruciating days– doesn’t text or call?  Do we behave like rational, mature adults and ask for an explanation?  Do we confess that his mysterious silence– though insignificant– upset us?  No, most often we retreat into bitter silence and sulk: we only give curt one-word replies to his texts, we reject his attempts at affection, we look away when he tries to kiss us.

Why is it so hard to utter what is in our hearts?  Why do we refuse to just say what’s bothering us?  De Botton suggests we’re uncommunicative in love because we believe the prevailing Platonic myth that our lover is our “other half” and, therefore, should naturally understand us.  According to romantic thought, “true lovers can see deep into each other’s souls”; in other words, if two people are truly destined for each other, they shouldn’t have to say how they feel– their partner should just know.  Our husband should know such an off-hand remark about our political preferences would hurt our feelings; the man we’re dating should know we’d descend into a torture chamber of abandonment and insecurity if he didn’t call.  If we have to communicate directly, our relationship must be doomed.  After all, it’s tragically unromantic to have to spell things out.

But de Botton argues we’d be better off if we took a more realistic, perhaps even more cynical, view of love.  Rather than buy into the lovely but fanciful notion that our significant other should understand us without our saying a word, we should realize relationships require us to speak up.  Love isn’t beyond language: we need to state our needs if we want them met.  If we expect our partner to read our minds, our relationship will be defined by mutual incomprehension and disappointment.

The reality is sometimes our husbands won’t be able to decipher the strange hieroglyphics of our gestures and facial expressions: he’ll misread our yawn to mean we’re simply tired from a long day when we’re actually bored of his dull conversation; when he asks if we want Thai food for dinner, he’ll understand our reluctant “um hm” as tacit compliance.  And why wouldn’t he?  How is he supposed to know we were really hankering for Chinese?  The result?  a) We don’t get what we want (wor wanton and chicken chow mein) and b) we likely spoil our evening.

So how do we spare ourselves all this heartache and frustration?  Simple: have a conversation.

4. trust

after the storm

The final pillar of de Botton’s philosophy of emotional health is trust.  “How risky is the world?  How readily might we survive a challenge in the form of a speech we must give, a romantic rejection, a bout of financial trouble, a journey to another country or a common cold?” he asks us.  Those who are emotionally healthy have faith not only in life, but in themselves: they believe in their capacity to overcome any obstacle– no matter how seemingly insurmountable.  Lose your job?  The emotionally intelligent person will of course worry (“Will I find something as fulfilling?”  “How will I pay my bills?”) but unlike the emotionally-maladjusted person, they won’t indulge their anxiety.  Rather than buy into their fear-based stories that there “aren’t any [insert industry] jobs in this economy,” they’ll remind themselves a) they are captains of their fate and b) much of their life is within their own control.  While the melancholic will pity themselves and lament the cruelty and unfairness of the world, the emotionally mature person will be practical: this is the time– not to draw the blinds and retreat under the covers– but to diligently search job postings and polish cover letters.

3 Things I Learned From Sarah Ban Breathnach

Life is not made up of minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, or years, but of moments.  You must experience each one before you can appreciate it,” Sarah Ban Breathnach once wrote.  There is an old-fashioned charm— and lush, almost bewitching, lyricism— with which Breathnach sifts poetry from the sands of everyday moments, be it in her much-beloved daily devotional Simple Abundance, which illuminated the path to richer, more contented lives for millions of women, or Something More, her eloquent, erudite guidebook to excavating the buried longings and forgotten dreams of the authentic self.  In Romancing the Ordinary: A Year of Simple Splendor, her enticing serenade to the sensual, Breathnach redeems the flesh from fire-and-brimstone and invites us to instead delight in our sense of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch.  Though throughout the ages pleasure-seeking has been denounced as depraved and hedonistic, Breathnach contends there’s no surer route to the spiritual than through the flesh.  A feast for the splendor-starved soul, Romancing the Ordinary overflows with wisdom drawn from the arts, literature, history and film- not to mention delectable recipes that will enrapture your inner gastronome, ranging from “divine fettuccine” to “not meant to be shared chocolate mousse.”  The three central pillars of Breathnach’s wickedly indulgent philosophy are listed below:

1. life should be the grandest of love affairs 

posing with posies

Though as a culture we’ve mostly abandoned the image of women as helpless damsels in distress, many of us still secretly equate romance with a dashing prince.  Years after the women’s liberation movement, we remain spellbound by the enchanting fairytales of our youth, stories that suggested love of the non-platonic variety was the only possible route to adventure.  The charm of an idyllic French countryside, the smell of earth after a spring rain, the contentment of a winter night spent warm and toasty by a fire: such everyday pleasures, we thought, could only be enjoyed when shared.  

But Ms. Breathnach believes otherwise: women don’t need a significant other to be romanced— they can seduce themselves.  Rather than wait for a debonair lover to woo us with his wit or court us with extravagant bouquets of flowers, we can do small things each day to revive our love of life— or, as the French say, our joie de vivre.  

Sadly, instead of a lustful affair, our lives most often resemble a passionless marriage, stagnant after one too many neglectful years.  Our day-to-day is overrun not by “wants” but “should’s” and “have to’s.”  When was the last time we did something simply because we had a desire to?  At the cornerstone of Breathnach’s philosophy is the belief that life should be a high-spirited soiree, exuberant, filled with longing and laughter.  “What makes the blood rush to your head?  The fragrance wafting out the doorway of a chocolatier?…The silky squeak of a taffeta slip?  The buttery softness of a new pair of leather gloves?  Biting into a liquor-filled chocolate?  Your cat licking your face?  The first sight of forsythias in spring?  Discovering a new-to-you book by your favorite author?” Breathnach implores us to consider.  Ravish your senses, seduce yourself with the sweet, secret yearnings of your own soul, and transform your humdrum marriage with life into a red-hot love affair.

2. leisure isn’t decadent or self-indulgent— it’s an essential form of self-care

bubble bath

“There must be quite a few things a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know any,” poetess Sylvia Plath once quipped.  A soothing soak in a hot bath, a tattered book of beloved poems, a luscious cup of hot cocoa: these little acts of self-cherishing may be simple but they have the profound power to restore a frazzled soul.  Yet few women pause to pamper themselves.  Why?

One can blame the American work ethic, a legacy inherited from our rigorously disciplined Puritan grandparents.  Much like our forefathers, who believed hard work and strict self-denial brought glory to God, Americans worship at the altar of productivity and despise nothing more than idleness.  Product-oriented and accomplishment-obsessed, we prefer the gratification of checking another item off our to-do list to an unhurried afternoon with nothing “useful” to occupy us.  In fact, leisure and laziness are so inextricable in our society that most women are ridden with guilt when they so much as take a moment for themselves.  Workaholism is a pernicious pathology made all the more perilous because it’s supported and sanctioned by our culture: not only are we the only country in the industrialized world to not offer paid family leave, we’re a nation that shames those with enough self-respect to call-in sick when they’re ill.  Rarely, if ever, do we allow ourselves the “luxury” of missing work- even when we’re confined in bed with a 103 degree fever and a mountain of tissues.

But though our dystopic capitalist state assesses human worth by mechanical notions of input/output, leisure is essential to caring for ourselves.  A blissful reprieve from the day-to-day ennui of our twenty-first century hamster wheel, a few hours of leisure well-spent can help us once again delight in the world.  And here I must make a distinction: by leisure I don’t mean in the contemporary sense of the word but rather in the classical.  Though today leisure has come to signify an aimless frittering away of time in trivial pursuits, to the ancient Greeks, leisure, or scholé (interestingly the linguistic progenitor of the English word for school), was a time for learning and contemplation indispensable both to the advancement of civilization and the expansion of the human soul.  Whereas we in the modern era preach the gospel of work, the ancients viewed labor as a debasement of our higher selves.  Manual labor was seen as a necessary evil, required for survival but a hinderance to nobler intellectual pursuits.  It was only when man was free of the shackles of burdensome toil, they believed, that he could devise, dream, and discover truth.

Indeed, throughout time, leisure has been the fountainhead of all progress.  The most noteworthy human achievements— the greatest art, the most pioneering ideas of philosophy, the spark of every epoch-making scientific breakthrough- were conceived in leisure, in moments unburdened by duty or, as Bertrand Russell once said, in periods of “fruitful monotony,” be it Alexander Graham Bell solving the puzzle of the harmonic telegraph while strolling through a bluff overlooking the Grand River or Mozart noting that is was during promenades in the park that his ideas flowed most “abundantly.”  As Brenda Ueland observed in her timeless If You Want to Write, “The imagination needs moodling,- long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering” to cultivate ideas.

3. we can exalt our lives by being artists of the everyday

still life with bottle & basket

What constitutes “art” and what qualities confer the esteemed title of “artist” onto a mere aspirant are questions that have engrossed man for millennia.  Jacques-Louis David believed the artist was one who could execute his vision: To give a body and a perfect form to one’s thought, this—and only this—is to be an artist,” he remarked.  Henry Miller argued the artist was the “unrecognized hero of our time— and of all time” whereas Georgia O’Keeffe held that the artist was simply someone who filled “space in a beautiful way.”  Sarah Ban Breathnach’s definition is perhaps most similar to Mark Getlein’s: the purpose of art, he asserted, is to “create extraordinary versions” of ordinary things.  

But unlike these writers and artists, Miss Breathnach contends art isn’t only confined to easels and paintbrushes— art can be made of the everyday.  As fellow poet of the prosaic Henry David Thoreau so elegantly phrased, “To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”  Much as Cezanne could glimpse the miraculous in something as mundane as a bowl of fruit, we can exalt our lives by elevating the ordinary to the status of ritual.  Brewing coffee.  Reading the morning paper.  Setting the table.  Most of us hurry through these daily rounds, accustomed as we are to their trivialities and trifles.  But what are diapers and groceries and dry cleaning if not the material for the greatest masterpiece— life itself?  The artist can only discern the possibility for art if he scrutinizes his subject and carefully renders its details: the intensity of its colors, the outline of its shapes.  To be an artist of the everyday we must act with love, reverence and a similar sense of heartfelt attention.  Rather than carelessly throw on the first thing in our closet and barely brush our hair, why not take the time to establish a real beauty routine and transform the early morning bathroom rush into a glorious retreat of self-pampering and self-care?  why not do a face mask and paint our nails?  If we take a brief respite from our habitual ways of seeing, if we conduct ourselves with the attentive eyes and receptive minds of artists, life can be our magnum opus.

Triumphing Over Ego: Ryan Holiday on Passion & the Importance of Remaining a Student

ego is enemyWhat is ego?  According to Freud, groundbreaking progenitor of psychoanalysis, the ego is the part of the mind that mediates between the primitive hungers of the unconscious and the demands of external reality.  Ego is “I”- the wellspring of the self.  For others, ego is the source of individuality and innovation and, thus, of all human achievement.  For still others, ego is arrogance, a grandiose sense of one’s own importance that inevitably leads the extraordinary to their doom.  A defeated Napoleon retreating from a war-torn Moscow, his enormous army of 500,000 diminished to a mere 100,000 men.  A reckless, overconfident Icarus ignoring his father Daedalus’s warnings and flying too close to the sun.  An ambitious scientist so hungry to unlock the mysteries of nature that he oversteps the proper bounds of human knowledge and creates a monster.  History abounds with stories of such figures, proud men whose hubris precipitated their fateful end.  

It is the peril of ego that marketing genius and sage stoic disciple Ryan Holiday contemplates in Ego is the Enemyhis instructive handbook to being “humble in your aspirations, resilient in your failures and gracious in your success.”  A tour guide through the millennia, Holiday recounts the stories of remarkable men and women who transformed industries, revolutionized art forms, and won world wars by triumphing over the yearnings of what astrologer and spiritual guru Tosha Silver calls the “small self.”  

If you’re ambitious like me, when pondering ego, one question inevitably asserts itself: who are we if we’re not our “small selves”?  isn’t the “small self” behind history’s greatest achievements?  haven’t the most cutting edge visionaries, the most enterprising entrepreneurs been those very people who had “big” dreams?  whose faith in their capacity to do the impossible was so unwavering as to seem deranged?  This is where Holiday makes a crucial distinction: ambition, he clarifies, is often admirable; after all, where would mankind be without pride, determination, yearning, and something for which to aim?  There would be no advancement, no betterment, no change.  Not to mention the fact that longing for something instills life with meaning and purpose.  It is only when desire teeters on the edge of obsession, when self-confidence tumbles into arrogance, and when self-love metamorphoses into narcissism, its hideously conceited twin, that ego deludes us into believing the myth of our own importance and becomes dangerous:

“[the ego is] the petulant child inside every person, the one that chooses getting his or her way over anything or anyone else.  The need to be better than, more than, recognized for, far past any reasonable utility-that’s ego.  It’s the sense of superiority and certainty that exceeds the bounds of confidence and talent.

It’s when the notion of ourselves and the world grows so inflated that it begins to distort the reality that surrounds us.”

The sagest of philosophers concur that the mark of true wisdom is an appreciation of one’s own ignorance.  “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing,” Socrates once said.  Though ego is often thought of as the architect behind all human accomplishment, nothing poses more of a stumbling block to genuine mastery of a domain than an exaggerated sense of self-worth.  Why seek out the tutelage of an expert in your field or practice for several hours a day if you’re already a virtuoso?  Ego assures us there’s nothing more to learn: we’re already talented/intelligent/skilled enough.  It is this cocky bigheadedness, this smug belief in our own superiority that sabotages our ability to improve.  As Epictetus so wisely noted, “It is impossible for a man to learn what he already knows.”  Only when we possess an earnest sense of humility can we admit a lack of knowledge- the essential first step to real growth.  It is those humble few who are willing to be eternal students and enroll in the endlessly enlightening school of life that end up making the most significant contributions to their fields.

To illustrate the life-altering power of remaining a student, Holiday recalls the story of Kirk Hammett, lead guitarist of 80s megastar band Metallica.  Rather than revel in the glory of having “arrived” after being asked to join the up and coming thrash metal group, Hammett decided to seek out the instruction of Joe Satriani, legendary guitar maestro.  The result?  By being humble enough to recognize he still had more to learn, Hammett was able to develop the distinctive style that would land him the #11 spot on Rolling Stone’s distinguished list of 100 greatest guitarists and catapult Metallica into superstardom:

“In April in the early 1980s, a single day became one guitarist’s nightmare and became another’s dream, and dream job.  Without notice, members of the underground metal band Metallica assembled before a planned recording session in a decrepit warehouse in New York and informed their guitarist Dave Mustaine he was being thrown out of the group.  With few words, they handed him a bus ticket back to San Francisco. 

The same day, a decent young guitarist, Kirk Hammett, barely in his twenties and a member of a band called Exodus, was given the job.  Thrown right into a new life, he performed his first show with the band a few days later.

One would assume that this was the moment Hammett had been waiting for his whole life.  Indeed it was.  Though only known in small circles at the time, Metallica was a band that seemed destined to go places.  Their music had already begun to push the boundaries of the genre of thrash metal, and cult stardom had already begun.  Within a few short years, it would be one of the biggest bands in the world, eventually selling more than 100 million albums.

It was around this time that Kirk came to what must have been a humbling realization-that despite years of playing and being invited to join Metallica, he wasn’t as good as he’d like to be.  At his home in San Francisco, he looked for a guitar teacher.  In other words, despite joining his dream group and literally turning professional, Kirk insisted that he needed more instruction- that he was still a student

Think about what Hammett could have done- what we might have done in his position were we to suddenly find ourselves a rock star, or soon-to-be rock star in our chosen field.  The temptation is to think: I’ve made it.  I’ve arrived.  They tossed the other guy out because he’s not as good as I am.  They chose me because I have what it takes.  Had he done that, we’d probably have never heard of him or the band.  There are, after all, plenty of forgotten metal groups from the 1980s.”

It’s easy to be students when we’re novices in our fields, when it’s so undeniably apparent that we know nothing, but the key to gaining true mastery and making a noteworthy contribution is remaining a student- even after we turn pro.  As we rise to the top of our professions and garner the esteem of the most prominent members of our domains, the tendency is to become complacent: we choose the harbor of the familiar over the expedition to the unknown.  Strengthening our command of a skill, deepening our expertise: all require we be vulnerable enough to risk looking like an imbecile.  But if we’re too egotistical, our very worth as a human being depends on being better than, recognized for.  Because we find being “less than” intolerable, we refrain from the very risks that would stretch our abilities and help us improve.  Like learning to ride a bike, it’s only the unflinching child who’s willing to stumble who ever parts with his training wheels:

“It is not enough to be a student at the beginning.  It is a position that one has to assume for life.  Learn from everyone and everything.  From the people you beat, and the people who beat you, from the people you dislike, even from your supposed enemies.  At every step and every juncture in life, there is an opportunity to learn- and even if the lesson is purely remedial, we must not let ego block us from hearing it again.  

Too often, convinced of our own intelligence, we stay in a comfort zone that ensures that we never feel stupid (and are never challenged to learn or reconsider what we know).  It obscures from view various weaknesses in our understanding, until eventually it’s too late to change course.  This is where the silent toll is taken.  

Each of us faces a threat as we pursue our craft.  Like sirens on the rocks, ego sings a soothing, validating song- which can lead to a wreck.  The second we let the ego tell us we have graduated, learning grinds to a halt.  That’s why Frank Shamrock said, ‘Always stay a student.’  As in, it never ends.” 

ryan holiday

As a lifelong proponent of passion, I’ve always cherished the idea that irrepressible vehemence for one’s vocation is what separated the exceptional from the mediocre.  It was when preoccupation verged on obsession, when zeal crossed the line into zealotry that- I thought- ordinary men became extraordinary.  However, throughout the ages, hysterical, irrational passion is what has led countless remarkable men to their doom.  Romeo is the quintessential example.  Enamored of the stunning Juliet, Romeo mistakes youthful infatuation for true love and allows his passion to interfere with his ability to make sound decisions.  Rash and foolhardy, Romeo marries a 14-year-old he barely knows, brutally murders her cousin, gets banished, and kills himself- all in a span of less than four days.  Had he taken the time to carefully consider any one of these decisions, his life (and Juliet’s) might have been spared.  

Though today Romeo & Juliet is seen as the pinnacle of romance (or, for teenage boys forced to read it against their will, as a syrupy, sentimental piece of 17th century chick lit), Shakespeare actually intended for these star-crossed lovers to warn against passion’s exhilarating- but intoxicating- effects.  Like a heady liqueur, passion entrances and elates- but ultimately hinders our capacity to make sober judgements:

Because we only seem to hear about the passion of successful people, we forget that failures shared the same trait.  We don’t conceive of the consequences until we look at their trajectory.  With the Segway, the inventor and investors wrongly assumed a much greater demand than ever existed.  With the run-up to the war in Iraq, its proponents ignored objections and negative feedback because they conflicted with what they so deeply needed to believe.  The tragic end to the Into the Wild story is the result of youthful naiveté and a lack of preparation.  With Robert Falcon Scott, it was overconfidence and zeal without consideration of real dangers.  We imagine Napoleon was brimming with passion as he contemplated the invasion of Russia and only finally became free of it as he limped home with a fraction of the men he’d so confidently left with.  In many more examples we see the mistakes of over investing, underinvesting, acting before someone is really ready, breaking things that required delicacy- not so much malice as the drunkenness of passion.”  

So why does our cultural admiration of passion persist- despite evidence that fervor unfettered usually leads to catastrophe?  For one, passion is glamourous.  It’s exciting to write a 20-page letter confessing your love to a long-time crush at 3 in the morning; it’s exciting to risk your life savings on a business idea.  More moderate, reserved qualities- caution, prudence, pragmatism- are depicted as disgraceful signs of cowardice- or worse, harbingers of failure.  But those who attain real, lasting success embody these very traits.  Rather than be rushed headlong by passion or naiveté, rather than let their desire to accomplish a particular goal persuade them to overestimate its feasibility, successful people weigh the pros and cons of their decisions and rationally consider their consequences- in other words, behave responsibly.  Does this mean they refuse to be daring, that they tremble at the thought of taking daunting risks?  No, they just don’t act hastily:

“What humans require in our ascent is purpose and realism.  Purpose, you could say, is like passion with boundaries.  Realism is detachment and perspective.”

4 of the Greatest Books on Happiness

 

1. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

flow

The taoists called it “wu wei,” or doing without doing.  Today, we know it more casually as being “in the zone.”  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, father of the optimal psychology movement, officially named it flow.  According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is an automatic, effortless, yet highly focused state of consciousness: a psychological space in which real enjoyment is possible.  In his magnum opus Flow: The Psychology of Optimal ExperienceCsikszentmihalyi outlines the nine conditions an activity must meet to bring about this energized focus: 

1. there are clear goals every step of the way (the activity is rule-bound)

2. there is immediate feedback to one’s actions

3. there is a balance between challenges and skills

4. actions and awareness are merged

5. distractions are excluded from consciousness

6. there is no worry of failure

7. self-consciousness disappears

8. the sense of time becomes distorted

9. the activity becomes autotelic

The third condition (there must be a balance between challenge & skill) has always interested me.  For an activity to produce flow, it must first be tailored to our skill level: if it’s too easy, it’s boring but if it’s too difficult, it becomes frustrating and troublesome.  We can only achieve a state of flow when our skills are perfectly matched to the task.  A beginning surfer just learning the sport, say, could reach a “flow” state of consciousness by catching a wave that was just a little tougher than usual- not by trying to ride a 20-footer at Waimea.

Though hedonists have championed the delights of sensual pleasure for centuries, Csikszentmihalyi and his team found that indulgence can only provide momentary joy- not lasting happiness.  Turns out true contentment begins will the thrill of discovery and challenge- not the passive rewards of leisure.

The irony, of course, is that most of us search for happiness in the very mindless hedonism that makes us miserable.  Exhausted from a long day at the office, most us plop down on the coach, pick up the remote and opt for yet another episode of our favorite idiotic reality show because we want to relax, we want to “zone” out after work.  Sadly, passive amusements like television fail to transport us to that magical altered state Csikszentmihalyi calls flow for this very reason.  Because watching television forces us into the passive role of spectator, it can never supply us with the genuine opportunities for challenge on which happiness so much depends.

So how can we apply Csikszentmihalyi’s findings to our own lives?  If we want to be genuinely enthralled with life, we have to locate more opportunities for flow.  Remember: flow-that blissful place where time dissipates and you both lose yourself and find yourself-depends on the right balance between challenge and skill.  In other words, painting a portrait or climbing a treacherous rock face will produce flow- watching yet another tedious hour of television will not.  We must have the discipline and diligence to choose the challenge of a meaningful activity over the ease of something leisurely and trivial.  As Csikszentmihalyi discovered in his lifetime of research, superficial merriment or purely hedonistic indulgences can’t fulfill us in the long-term.  That’s why it’s so much more gratifying to resist the chocolate cupcake and go for a run than it is to yield to the craving: resisting temptation is a challenge, it’s an obstacle we have to overcome if we want to reach our goal of losing 20 pounds.  For Csikszentmihalyi, this is where real exhilaration resides: in the hard, single-minded pursuit of one’s goals.

2. The Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell 

the-conquest-of-happiness

In modern society, most of us suffer not from depression or dejection but from a general malaise-a feeling, as Thoreau so aptly phrased, of “quiet desperation.”  In his (I think) often underrated masterwork, The Conquest of Happiness, brilliant philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell suggests what he calls a “cure for ordinary day-to-day unhappiness.”  An illuminating volume, The Conquest of Happiness is divided into two parts: one on the causes of unhappiness; the other on the causes of its converse. 

Fundamentally, Russell’s thesis rests on a rather simple premise: unhappiness derives from self-centeredness, the endless absorption with oneself; happiness results from genuine interest in the outside world.  If we are to uncover our zest for life, Russell argues, we have to be engaged with all the wonder and beauty around us.  Turns out meaningful work is also an essential ingredient to contentment and happiness largely depends on one’s ability to cope with petty annoyances.

Filled with sensible advice and sound reasoning, The Conquest of Happiness– it seems-manages its ambitious aim to cure “ordinary” ennui.  Russell brings his keen scientific mind to the task, methodically investigating every factor of well-being from family and work to excitement and boredom.  Told in his characteristically lucid, astute style, Russell’s voice is wise and matter-of-fact, precise but never pretentious.  Though The Conquest of Happiness is a work of philosophy, at its heart is not theory but common sense. Clever, practical, insightful…this is the kind of book you’ll want to read with a pen in your hand.

3. The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

happinessproject

Self-help sensation The Happiness Project landed on the New York Times best-seller list within minutes of being published and spent an unheard of two years topping the charts.  But does The Happiness Project really deserve all the acclaim?What’s with all the hype? 

I don’t know about you, but the moment something’s all the rage, I can’t flee it fast enough.  Game of Thrones.  Pokemon Go.  Eat Pray Love. Maybe I’m just an obnoxious contrarian at heart but the second a book’s a bestseller, I have no interest in it anymore.

I maintained this close-minded, slightly prejudiced view toward popular culture when The Happiness Project first hit the shelves.  Because I’m deeply fascinated by positive psychology and am (like most) always on a sort of quest to be happier, Rubin’s experiment naturally appealed to me.  But I protested.  Like a pretentious hipster who claims to disdain any band in the top 40, I refused to pick up The Happiness Project because of its popular appeal.

Then, in the fall of 2012, I finally succumbed. 

On a balmy day in early September as crimson and yellow leaves began drifting to the ground, I bought a copy for $15.95 from my favorite used book store.  I probably read the whole thing in 2 days.  Turns out Rubin’s The Happiness Project lived up to the hype.

When the question of how to be happy has consumed philosophers and monks since the beginning of time, how-you might wonder-can a modern writer hope to uncover anything new about the topic?

While Rubin never purports to be original, the way she presents her findings is unlike any other book I’ve ever read.  Accessible and focused on taking real, actionable steps, The Happiness Project traces Rubin’s year long odyssey to decipher the puzzle of how to be happier.  Each month, Rubin tackles a different subject from love and leisure to money and passion and, for every topic, she aims to keep a new set of resolutions.  In September, for example, Rubin’s objective is to pursue a passion.  For the month, her resolutions range from the ambitious (“write a novel”) to the simple and everyday (“make time”).

In the spirit of Enlightenment thinker, writer, and fellow studious, Type-A nut case Benjamin Franklin, Rubin develops a “resolutions chart” to assess her progress toward her goals.  And like Franklin, Rubin’s aims represent nothing short of a “bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection.” 

Though it seems absurd to condense the fundamentally incalculable goal of attaining “moral perfection” to checks and pluses on a chart, I think what makes The Happiness Project resonate with so many people is its emphasis on what can be done right now.  Rubin’s happiness project isn’t an overhauling of her life: she’s not Thoreau abandoning the hurried pace of civilization for the quiet seclusion of Walden Pond, she’s not Elizabeth Gilbert galavanting across three continents to sip wine in Italy and meditate in India.  “I didn’t want to undertake that kind of extraordinary change,” she confesses in the introduction, “I wanted to change my life without changing my life, by finding more happiness in my own kitchen.  I knew I wouldn’t discover happiness in a faraway place or in unusual circumstances; it was right here, right now.”

While not everyone can abandon their lives to join the Peace Corps, Rubin’s philosophy asserts, certainly most everyone can do simple things like fight right and clean more.  With her emphasis on taking small steps over big gigantic leaps and implementing uncomplicated systems of accountability like her handy resolutions chart, Rubin offers her readers real ways to be happier in this moment…without having to do something as crazy/terrifying as moving half way across the world.  Blending the wisdom of the ages with personal anecdote and cutting-edge scientific research, Rubin will remind you of man’s extraordinary ability, as Thoreau once observed, “to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.”

4. You are a Badass by Jen Sincero 

you are a badass

I’ll begin this review with three simple words: read this book.  This is one of those rare books that I can say truly changed my life…and will change yours.

The wonderful poet and diarist Anais Nin once said, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”  In my mid (okay, technically late) 20s, I think I’ve reached a point in my life where this observation is unsettlingly true.  If I continue to remain in the bud, if I continue refusing, as mythologist and scholar Joseph Campbell once penned, to “say a hearty yes to the adventure of my life,” one thing is certain: there are many thrilling, ecstatic, exhilarating, joyful, invigorating, earth-shattering experiences I’ll miss out on!  

In a voice that’s as outrageously candid as it is hysterical, Sincero points out that the decision to embrace your inner badass is no small matter: these are our lives we’re talking about.

 So, she asks us, will we squander the miracle of living and consign ourselves to mediocrity and quiet desperation?  Or will we have the boldness to chase after our dreams with a sledge hammer?

For most people, remaining securely in the bud is safe.  There’s no potential for heart-breaking humiliation or rejection or failure.  Though our lives are as bland and unexciting as saltine crackers, we remain tight in the bud because it’s easy: it requires little to no effort.  And most of us are lazy motherfuckers. We’re lazy and we’re eager to please and we’re scared.

Scared of what might happen if we blossom into the most exceptional versions of ourselves.

Scared of the expectations we’d have to live up to.

It’s absurd how terrified most of us are of leading lives we’re excited about; we prefer the security of the familiar to the terror of the unknown, even though we know flowers weren’t meant to be confined to their petals-they were meant to bloom.

Full of practical tips and sage advice, You are a Badass is a self-help book that will actually rouse you to radically transform your life-not just inspire you to half-heartedly commit for 5 minutes.  “I’m going to lose 20 pounds!” we usually declare at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s, convinced of our unwavering commitment.  Fast forward 6 days and we’re scarfing down Haggen Daz by the bucket full while sprawled out on the coach.

Why?  What happened to our convictions?

The sad truth is that the fire to revolutionize our lives quickly burns out.  Tedious day-to-day obligations-our mortgages, our phone bills-usually snuff out the grand ambition to reinvent ourselves.

Sincero empowers you with the tools to stop believing your same old lame ass excuses and start living a life you’re crazy about (all while swearing profusely and making you laugh out loud).  In You are a Badass, Sincero will teach you how to:

  1. challenge self-limiting beliefs and harness the power of positive thinking
  2. recognize the power of your thoughts to shape what you think is possible and manifest what you want
  3. meditate so you can connect with the Source and more fully enjoy the present moment
  4. cultivate gratitude so you can appreciate all you have now
  5. reform your self-sabotaging behaviors so you can build a life you’re actually psyched about

“Whatever you desire to do with your precious life-write jokes or rock out or start a business or learn to speak Greek or quit your job or raise a bunch of kids or fall in love or lose your flab or open orphanages around the world or direct movies or save dolphins or make millions or live in a canyon in a loincloth-” Sincero implores us, “believe that it’s possible. And that it’s available to you. And that you deserve to be/do/have it. Why not?”

The Zeigarnik Effect: Procrastination, Planning & Goal-Setting

Zeigernik EffectAccording to a phenomenon psychologists call the Zeigarnik effect, the human mind can only remember unfinished tasks. Like a song endlessly on repeat, chores left undone linger in the subconscious, expending precious cognitive energy until complete. In one experiment conducted by Florida State graduate student E.J. Masicampo, 2 groups of students were told to think about their most important examination: the first group was told to create a detailed study plan; the second group was told to simply think about the test. The control group was instructed to think about the most exciting upcoming event on their social calenders.

Afterwards, participants were asked to fill in the blanks of several words. Those in the second group who did not devise a study plan were more likely to fill in the blanks with words relating to finals. For example, a student in the second group would be more likely to fill a four-letter word beginning with the letter “e” with “exam” than a student from the first group.

Why? As the Zeigarnik effect demonstrates, creating a specific plan for executing our goals frees up mental energy for other cognitive undertakings. Those who simply thought about a daunting task (in this case, their most strenuous final exam) without developing a means of tackling it were subliminally controlled by the effects of procrastination.

procrastination

What does this mean for us and practical goal-setting? Masicampo’s findings suggest careful planning can liberate us from the persistent mental nagging associated with procrastination. If we outline how we will complete a task before actually completing it, we can focus more keenly on other matters. What’s essential here is that we don’t even have to finish the task: simply designing a systematic, step-by-step method for reaching our goals is enough to fend off the perpetual distraction of not having an item crossed off our to-do lists.

For me, these results were both sensible and shocking, logical and counterintuitive. On the one hand, it made sense that items yet to be checked off our to-do lists badger our minds and subconsciously control our attention. Yet the idea that meticulous planning is freeing also seemed like a load of horseshit. Deadlocking myself into some preconceived notion of how my day was to supposed to go always felt more like a prison. Since I can remember, I’ve scolded myself for my obsessive scheduling because I thought such micromanaging behavior was a coping mechanism, a vulnerability shield, for dealing with the excruciating fact that, as humans, we have little to no control. Scrupulous hour-by-hour scheduling in my day planner, I believed, was proof of a major character defect, if not a full-blown pathology.

I’ve always regarded my chronic fixation with time as a problem to be remedied rather than a talent to be applauded. “You’re too uptight,” I’d reproach myself, “Why can’t you just relax and be like everyone else?” But is it possible my penchant for planners is an asset rather than a flaw? According to social psychologist and vulnerability expert Brene Brown’s theory of a “strengths perspective,” almost all “flaws” are incarnations of our greatest strengths. When we reframe our most detested shortcomings as assets, we can see how they operate to serve us and, more importantly, we can cultivate a more forgiving relationship of loving kindness toward ourselves.

Take my Type-A lunacy. From a self-critical perspective, I could view my rigidness and refusal to stray from schedule as evidence of my being high-strung, or I could understand it as confirmation of my commitment and follow-through. Same goes for my willful goal-orientation. I could view my obsession with setting and achieving goals as an unhealthy and detrimental addiction, or I could adopt the outlook that the single-minded pursuit of one’s goals is admirable. How we perceive ourselves depends on our perspective at a given moment. And the amazing thing about perspective is that we always have the power to choose.

To return to Masicampo’s findings, science has confirmed time and time again that planning is critical to reaching our goals. So I suppose my fondness for calendars and day planners isn’t so bad after all.