Great little book by Alain de Botton with quick pop-philosophy and life advice. Surprisingly good insights on how to be a better friend and listener, using envy, writing like Proust, and the companionship of book subjects.
Two kinds of thinking:
1. figuring out what we would like to achieve (strategy)
2. working out how to achieve it (execution)
Strategy is about determining our overall aims.
Execution comprises everything that follows once we’ve decided – the practical activities required to put our plans into action.
We’re much better at execution than at strategy.
We concentrate more on making money than on figuring out how to spend it optimally.
At school, “Why should we study this subject?” sounds to most teachers like an insult and a provocation, rather than an admirably speculative mindset.
If we seriously ask our acquaintances ...
What is a good holiday?
What is a relationship for?
What is a satisfying conversation?
Why do we want money?
... we risk coming across as absurd and pretentious – as though such large questions were unanswerable.
Proust’s astonishing ability to catch so many butterfly thoughts and put into words the subtler concepts and tentative feelings that most of us register only in the outer airy zones of consciousness but cannot reach up to and turn into solid words.
If we took a given new idea seriously, we might have to abandon a relationship, leave a job, ditch a friend, apologise to someone, rethink our sexuality or break a habit.
The mind should be given a routine task to distract it and help it lower its guard.
We are taught (at school) that truly important ideas must lie outside of us.
The best way to make a point is to hide that we may have formulated the idea ourselves.
The worst answer as to where a thought originated is to remark that it simply popped into our heads.
Our heads are not understood to be where anything especially valuable might lie.
Our minds are stocked.
We have read more than Socrates.
We have had as many experiences as Plato.
We don’t have to go back to university to do yet another degree.
We already have the raw material with which to produce valuable insights.
What held us back from writing:
We have under-respected our own intelligence.
We have not trusted our most powerful intuition.
Pay closer attention to your real thoughts and feelings.
Be brave and tenacious enough to hold onto them even when they find no immediate echo in the world.
Vagueness is a problem because it means failing to pick out what really matters to us.
We like a film, but we can’t really say why - we can’t define what’s fascinating.
We won’t know how to reproduce what has impressed us until we isolate what we really experienced.
Go from vagueness to focus.
Give yourself the best chance of reaching what you actually seek.
Consider what you find exciting, desirable, beautiful or regrettable.
Note how the first answers are large and general, vague, without details.
Circle the vagueness and chip away at it (like Michelangelo with his hammer) with further questions:
• What do you really mean?
• What is this unlike?
• When have you felt this before?
• How might you put this in different terms?
Good thinking is precise.
Take time to catch, untangle, examine and confront your worries and ambitions.
We each face calls, triggered by chance encounters with people, objects or ideas, to change our lives.
Something within us knows better than our day-to-day consciousness the direction we may need to go in to become who we really could be.
We banish many thoughts from our minds on the grounds that they are crazy.
Thoughts that are too mean, flawed, absurd or petty to deserve further exploration.
But many that could have been of high value if only we had dared to examine them further.
Listening & Friends:
The presence of another mind helps in our attempts to know our own minds.
We need someone who will say two magic words: ‘Go on…’
You mention a sibling and they want to know more. What was the relationship like in childhood? How has it changed over time?
They’re curious where our concerns and excitements come from.
They ask things like: Why did that particularly bother you? Why was that such a big thing for you?
They keep our histories in mind.
They might refer back to something we said before and we feel they’re building up a deeper base of engagement.
They help us concentrate on what we are really talking about.
They clear up underlying issues.
They don’t just see conversation as the swapping of anecdotes.
A good listener does not follow every sub-plot that the speaker introduces, for they may be getting further from their own point than they would themselves wish.
The good listener is helpfully suspicious, knowing that their purpose is to focus the fundamental themes of the speaker rather than following every tangent.
They don’t interrupt to intrude their own ideas; they interrupt to help the other get back to their original, more sincere, yet elusive concerns.
To be a good listener:
Try not to interrupt the other person, to insert your own experience into the story.
Direct them towards a more emotional layer.
When things get vague or unclear, ask: ‘What do you mean by that exactly?’
It helps to encounter a more forgiving, kindly, receptive person, who can hear you in your suffering and make you feel less alone.
By letting your companion talk about what feels embarrassing or regrettable, you will be diminishing their sense of isolation.
Reading provides us with the chance to unearth and put into focus what we happen to think.
It’s through contact with the books of others that we might come to a clearer sense of our perspectives and ideas.
The words of someone else can powerfully draw out our disjointed notions.
Contact with another’s intelligence can bring clarity to our own thoughts.
Even before we reach the specific content of a book, a basic benefit of happening upon a title that covers a topic we’re interested in is that its existence provides an implicit endorsement of the thinking task ahead of us.
In daily life, the people in our vicinity often don’t want to reflect on exactly what concerns us at a given time.
A topic we’re curious about might be covered in just a few minutes at the table or dismissed as too complicated even to approach.
But when we find a book on the subject we care about but are lonely with, we have evidence of an extraordinary commitment made by a serious stranger, which bolsters our sense of the legitimacy of the thinking challenge we face.
We are encouraged to start our own brains by evidence of the developed thoughts of another person.
We are so much the poorer if all we can do is agree with the books we read.
Bad books can be just as effective as the good ones.
They allow us to imagine our own, superior versions of what we are taking in.
Envy could play a key role in alerting us to what we genuinely want.
Each person we envy is a piece of our future.
We envy certain individuals in their entirety, when, if we took a moment to analyse their lives, we would realise that it was only a small part of what they have or had done that really resonates with us.
For each person you envy, ponder which of their positive(!) assets you don’t really want.
Among the upsides, not all elements are going to appeal to you.
To enter the mind of another person is not to forget about oneself entirely.
Use self-knowledge to penetrate the consciousness of another.
We are never as foolish as when we fail to suspect we might be so.
Thinking well means trying to put in place measures that can mitigate for the worst of your tendencies.
Make a case for the opposite point of view to the one you’re initially and emotionally attracted to.
Question your feelings.
The sceptical person has learnt to be careful.
What they feel strongly about today might not be what they think next week.
The sceptical person will suggest that an idea might not be quite right.
Good and bad are entangled.