Reflecting on What We Truly Want
And organizing life accordingly
In the greatest baseball movie of all time, Bull Durham, the manager “Skip” Riggins reminds his team:
This is a simple game. You hit the ball. You throw the ball. You catch the ball. You got it?
Of course, baseball is a more complicated game. But the reminder of its ultimate simplicity focuses the mind in the midst of that complexity. In a similar way, A Simpler Life, by Alain de Botton’s The School of Life, offers a welcome salve for the hustle and bustle, frenzied complexity of the modern world.
A first, almost surprising, urging from the book – we should think through what we want in life.
And we should learn what we want by doing too. Jobs, hobbies, items we purchase, and activities – all provide information about what we truly want and desire.
Why is this surprising? Because we often assume we do know what we want. We rattle off things we have – a particular job, a house, a certain car, membership in a club, a given number of books – and we conflate what we have for what we want. Or, curiously, we also want what we don’t have – a better job, a nicer house, a splashier car, a fancier club, even more books. Related, perhaps we also want what people around us have. Or maybe, just maybe, all of this confuses us. We think we know what we want, but don’t truly know.
A simpler life emerges through a deep understanding of what we truly care about – and abandoning everything else.
The book begins in earnest by considering the sources of complexity in our lives. So often, we assume hardship in life comes from work: we’re so busy, we have to tackle a to-do list five miles long, we have a deadline and so on. But A Simpler Life doesn’t begin with work. It begins with reflections on our relationships and on what we bring to our relationships.
We believe – we have been told – we have been lied to – that marriage involves the ease of blissfully becoming more intertwined in an artful aging life – that life with parents is all fun and games now that we’re adults too – that our friends will always be our friends.
These falsehoods inflict a lot of complexity, stress and hardship onto life. If we want a simpler life, we must simplify relationships. A big step on that path involves becoming “straightforward,” as The School of Life calls it. Not brutally honest. But also not constantly hedging and deflating our views. Forthright. Frank. Be "someone who speaks plainly about what they really want and who they really are."
Similarly, we must have the right mindset about relationships. We should keep in mind the foibles of the generation ahead of us (as a parent I would add, the generations coming behind us). We should know that other people - even people very close to us – will simply have different views from us. Often that will involve generational perspectives:
because parents are a generation older, much of what shaped them stemmed from a world with priorities, values, anxieties and hopes that seem strange – even reprehensible – to their children, but that were, and still are, urgent and real for them.
We should also realize the imperfections of our own generation. Our family and friends and clients will certainly register them. Knowing and having sympathy for (but not necessarily agreement with) those differences – and hoping for reciprocal generosity from others – will soften our relations, smooth them and infuse grace into them.
We should also care less what other people think about us. Not care 0%. But care less. And care more about how we view ourselves and our perspectives.
For a simpler life, fewer relationships may be better. As Alain de Botton, the founder of The School of Life, wrote in another book, to know a person takes a long time and a lot of effort. As A Simpler Life puts it, “We should feel extremely lucky if we manage to lay claim to three friends worthy of the title in a lifetime.”
Only after considering our relationships – for nearly one-third of the book – does it move on to other matters of a simple life. Still, it does not examine work. It next looks at our settings – our dwellings, the place we choose to live in, the possessions we include in them and the construct of our time.
The overarching idea is the merging of the concepts of simplicity and dignity. The union of these concepts echoes throughout the book – in the possibility of living like a “modern monk,” such as in the retreats of Thoreau, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Kamo no Chomei, and in the architecture of Le Corbusier. That idea reverberates as we ponder how to spend our time:
Simple days, when nothing much seems to be happening and when we haven’t apparently accomplished anything (days the busy person would consider dull and wasted) can be deeply fruitful.
Curiously, it is only after all these musings – two-thirds through – that the book tackles work. The organization of the book is worth noting here. Again, we assume our work inflicts complexity onto our lives. The School of Life suggests differently. Yes, modern work does create complexity. But less so than do other elements of our lives. And it is primarily because we have those pieces ordered improperly that work also comes into life in a disordered manner.
Work involves activity. Doing. Acting. Activity is by definition the enemy of deep thinking.
It requires immense bravery to ask ourselves difficult questions about our intentions and goals….to wonder, for instance, what we are truly trying to do with our colleagues, or for whom a given product or service might actually be of use to.
Our mistakes in work come from not thinking deeply about the questions. And confronting hard questions – and perhaps uncomfortable truths.
The School of Life makes a more profound point in juxtaposing thinking and doing. In advocating for thinking, it doesn’t mean taking a vacation. It means what Josef Pieper meant in his book, Leisure: The Basis of Culture. It means again that activity is the enemy of deep thinking. And it is by deep thinking that we come to know ourselves, our world, and our place in it. A simple life is deliberately constructed – in time, home and place – to aid our deep thinking.
The book concludes with the prompting again to consider our wants in this one life we have. What is our purpose? How do we truly wish to fill our time? Let me end with the quote I keep returning to:
It now seems odd to argue for something else, what one might call a quiet life, a life where one lives outside of an expensive urban centre, where one works to satisfy material needs and intellectual curiosity but without frenzy or emotional craving, where one might only intermittently check the news, rarely travel very far, almost never go out in the evenings, stay in touch with just a few friends, spend a lot of time in nature, exercise by going for walks, eat simply (mainly fruits and vegetables), seldom buy anything expensive, disregard most new books, and strive always to be in bed by ten.
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