080: The Eight Secrets to a (Fairly) Fulfilled Life

In This Episode: The title of this episode — The Eight Secrets to a (Fairly) Fulfilled Life — isn’t mine, as I’ll explain, but it’s the distillation of one man’s writing, and this is going to summarize his summary.

080: The Eight Secrets to a (Fairly) Fulfilled Life

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Show Notes


Welcome to Uncommon Sense. I’m Randy Cassingham.

Oliver Burkeman is a British writer with a Master’s degree in Social and Political Sciences from Cambridge University. He grew up in York, so naturally he lives in …New York. He’s mostly known for his books (my favorite title of his is “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking”, which I’ll link to on the Show Page), and his column in the London Guardian.

080: The Eight Secrets to a (Fairly) Fulfilled Life
Burkeman, from his Twitter profile.

His column was about psychology, with the unassuming series title, “This Column Will Change Your Life”. I say “was” because earlier this month he concluded his column after about 14 years, and in the last installment he distilled eight of his life lessons under the title, “The Eight Secrets to a (Fairly) Fulfilled Life”. I will of course link to that from the Show Page too, because it’s a worthy read.

In his first column way back when, he said he’d continue writing it “until I had discovered the secret of human happiness.” A secret, he admits, he never expected to find. But then, he gave up the gig, and left the world with those eight “secrets.”

While these eight aren’t an “exhaustive summary” of what he learned in those 14 years, he says, “these are the principles that surfaced again and again, and that now seem to me most useful for navigating times as baffling and stress-inducing as ours.” So let’s get right to it!

Number 1: “There will always be too much to do — and this realisation is liberating.”

Burkeman says that “Thanks to capitalism, technology and human ambition,” the demands on your time just keep going up, while the amount of time to do things every day still have to fit in the 24 hours you’re given. Trying to catch up is futile since “the more tasks you get done, the more you’ll generate.”

Maybe that sounds depressing, but he says “The upside is that you needn’t berate yourself for failing to do it all, since doing it all is structurally impossible.” Thus the only solution, he says, is to consciously choose what matters most, and doing those things while ignoring the rest. And, I’ll add, not feeling guilty about it, because — well, refer to Rule Number 1: “There will always be too much to do.” Always.

Number 2: “When stumped by a life choice, choose ‘enlargement’ over happiness.”

This, interestingly enough, is the answer to a question asked by Kai’ in Australia in the Comments section of the previous episode, “The Key to Success”. Kai’ wrote: “After 56 years I have failed to find a reason for living but I’m still here, just existing so where do I go from here?” Burkeman says, attributing Jungian therapist James Hollis, that the question to ask when deciding about something major in your life shouldn’t be “Will this make me happy?”, but rather, “Will this choice enlarge me or diminish me?”

I realized this one intuitively: it’s why I quit my job at NASA — a job that I really loved — because I realized that even though I was moving up in responsibility and salary, to enlarge myself I had to answer my calling to be a writer.

“We’re terrible at predicting what will make us happy,” Burkeman says; “the question swiftly gets bogged down in our narrow preferences for security and control.” By instead thinking about whether a choice leads to growth or forgoing growth, you’ll intuitively know what to do. And, I’ll suggest, following your intuition will probably lead to happiness you didn’t expect.

Number 3: “The capacity to tolerate minor discomfort is a superpower.” This is the one that caught my attention when I read his column on Sunday, and made me decide to toss out what I had in this week’s episode and talk about Burkeman’s ideas instead: because I think this particular “secret” is a profound example of Uncommon Sense. “It’s shocking to realise how readily we set aside even our greatest ambitions in life,” he writes, “merely to avoid easily tolerable levels of unpleasantness.” Aren’t we all guilty of that, at least sometimes!

“When you expect that an action will be accompanied by feelings of irritability, anxiety or boredom,” he continues, “it’s usually possible to let that feeling arise and fade, while doing the action anyway. The rewards come so quickly, in terms of what you’ll accomplish, that it soon becomes the more appealing way to live.”

Number 4: “The advice you don’t want to hear is usually the advice you need.” What he needed, he says, “wasn’t another exciting productivity book, since those just functioned as enablers, but to ask more uncomfortable questions instead.”

Which loops nicely back to Number 3, even if Burkeman didn’t make the connection explicitly: “The capacity to tolerate minor discomfort is a superpower.” To delve into those more uncomfortable questions, he recommends gratitude journals, mindfulness meditation, and/or seeing a therapist — and there are episodes of Uncommon Sense covering two of those three ideas. See why I resonated immediately to Burkeman’s last column?

“Oh,” he adds, “be especially wary of celebrities offering advice in public forums: they probably pursued fame in an effort to fill an inner void, which tends not to work — so they are likely to be more troubled than you are.”

Number 5: “The future will never provide the reassurance you seek from it.” If you haven’t noticed that, you’re not paying attention. How many of us thought a year ago that 2020 would bring clarity to our lives, whether you’re politically on the right or on the left? How’d that work out for you? Do you feel like you have more clarity than last year?

“Much of our suffering arises from attempting to control what is not in our control,” Burkeman says, “and the main thing we try but fail to control … is the future.” If we could control the future, we’d all be rich. Instead, he says, “It’s freeing to grasp that no amount of fretting will ever alter this truth.” Live in the present: the future is coming, and in its own way, no matter how you try to control it, so why waste your energy on trying to control it?

Number 6: “The solution to impostor syndrome is to see that you are one.” In my circle of friends, who tend to be entrepreneurs, “impostor syndrome” — “a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments or talents and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’,” according to Wikipedia — is rampant. It is “useful to remember,” Burkeman says, “that everyone is totally just winging it, all the time.”

He says there are two kinds of people: “those who are improvising their way through life, patching solutions together and putting out fires as they go, but deluding themselves otherwise,” and “those doing exactly the same, except that they know it. It’s infinitely better to be the latter.”

Amusingly, he warns here that “too much ‘assertiveness training’ consists of techniques for turning yourself into the former.” You’re no different than everyone else, so it’s better to be aware, and move through life with your eyes open.

Number 7: “Selflessness is overrated.” He says that “the irony is that you don’t actually serve anyone else by suppressing your true passions,” because “More often than not, by doing your thing — as opposed to what you think you ought to be doing — you kindle a fire that helps keep the rest of us warm.”

You know, for example giving up your Day Job to bring the idea to the world that thinking is important, and we need to do it more!

Last, Number 8: “Know when to move on.” Which you pretty much had to expect from Burkeman’s last column about big ideas. Sometimes, he says, “the most creative choice would be to turn to what’s next.”

What’s next for him is another book: “Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management For Mortals”, which will be published in 2021. For me, I’m not ready to move on. I love what I do. But I did make the decision to move on from NASA, and here we are.

So my summary of this summary of Burkeman’s summary is, get out of your head, which is probably a mess of conflicting thoughts and self doubt, and instead choose something that will enlarge you or, as I put it, helps you grow as a human being, and get to work. That’s the Uncommon Sense way to progress through life. It truly is a fulfilling way to live, and you just might find that makes you happy.

Just a quick note that there won’t be an episode next week, since I’m taking next weekend off to celebrate my wedding anniversary.

The Show Page for this episode is thisistrue.com/podcast80, where you’ll find links to Oliver Burkeman’s last column, which I definitely recommend for the full details and context he wrote (if this resonates with you in any way), and a place to comment.

I’m Randy Cassingham … and I’ll talk at you later.

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4 Comments on “080: The Eight Secrets to a (Fairly) Fulfilled Life

  1. A very wise man. Some of the secrets are bit daunting, but, hey, if it was easy he wouldn’t have had to write them out for us.

    The “Always too much to do” resonated with me in a leisure respect: I used to worry if I missed a particular TV show, and latterly a podcast or two, but eventually it dawned on me that if I didn’t know the item was there in the first place I wouldn’t feel I was missing out. Then only a short step to realisation that even if I knew it was there but missed it, so what. Then that attitude crept into other areas of life. That’s number one taken care of.

    Wise man. 🙂 These days, you can catch up with podcasts — and, more and more, TV shows — whenever you find some extra time on your hands. They’re a slave to your schedule, not the other way around, and that’s how it should be. (Extra tip: just because your phone rings doesn’t mean you have to stop what you’re doing to answer it. If it’s important to them, they’ll leave a message. If it’s important to you, you can call them back.) -rc

  2. To expand on #6, I don’t think it adequately captures the truth. The way I see it, there are four basic principles to be applied. I’ve held these beliefs for about half my life at this point and have yet to see any of them falsified (to the extent that’s possible).

    1. For each thing you are good at, someone else is better than you at it.
    2. For each thing you are bad at, someone else is worse than you at it.
    3. Each person is better than you at something.
    4. Each person is worse than you at something.

    With these four principles, the feelings behind imposter syndrome become absolutely and always true…and therefore irrelevant, because you also always have something to contribute. Success then is always a team effort — and that’s okay.

    I’m not sure I adequately explained this, but hopefully somebody gets the gist of it.

    I totally agree with your four basic principles. I do think there is room for being “the” best, and what makes someone best is a combination of skills (aka “things”), such as “good at” personal networking + writing + people management + delegation + [insert several more here] = the “best” CEO for some particular company. That doesn’t mean she is “the” best at every one of the skills, but is “good” at all the skills that are needed (and not “bad” at any of the critical skills).

    So for example, am I “the” best writer in the world? I highly doubt it, but I’m “good”. I might be “the best” at the specific thing I do, which wouldn’t particularly surprise me since I designed this job with some specific desires in mind — things that most people either don’t desire, or would hate with a passion — and utilizing some particular skills that I either already had or knew I could develop. Could someone develop the same skills and such and be better than I am? Absolutely.

    The bottom line: it’s definitely interesting to think about, and I’m glad you expanded on Burkeman’s ideas: that’s part of why I talk about these things in the first place! -rc

  3. a/ Thank you so much for getting my name correct, so few people do.

    b/ Unfortunately, no, it does not answer my question. I can not be ‘enlarged’ or ‘diminished’ because I ‘am’. I gave up on being ‘happy’ as an unachievable goal. I gave up on ‘hope’ to avoid constant disappointment — I’d rather just be pleasantly surprised if/when something nice happens to me. I have no ‘major’ decisions to make in my life.

    Number 8: “Know when to move on.” — I knew ‘when’ many years ago, I’m just spinning my wheels waiting for death to find me.

    a/ You’re welcome, but I’m not sure how else it might be pronounced!

    b/ It is good that you are open to being pleasantly surprised. I’ll recommend that you catch up with all of the episodes here, if you haven’t listened to them all already. #019, How to Be Happier, comes right to mind, but there are some interesting ideas scattered throughout that might inspire something in you to find what would give you satisfaction, and make a real contribution to the world. -rc

    • Whoops, my bad. I actually meant the spelling of my name not your pronouncement — which, after actually listening to, was not unsurprisingly, incorrect. [Ky-ah, as in hiya. The apostrophe that causes all the heartache for computer program users is pronounced as an ‘ah’ sound. I changed my named a few decades ago after hating the name I’d been given by my parental units and wanted something that was unique in every way.] Not that I expected you to pronounce it correctly without hearing it first but then so many people hear me pronounce it when I introduce myself and still go on to mispronounce it anyway.

      As you have most likely gathered by now, I don’t tend to ‘listen’ to podcasts much preferring to read them [even in school I hated listening to other students read out loud]. I do read yours and had indeed read #019. ‘Satisfaction’ is as lost a cause for me as hope now and circumstances beyond my control mean it will stay that way so I am left with awaiting death. It is not something to be afraid of but accepted and it is.

      Sorry I didn’t quite get it right, but yes: had I heard it first, I certainly would have pronounced it correctly!

      I still maintain one can improve their life if they choose to. When they choose not to, my thought is that choice should be respected, otherwise there is no freedom of choice. -rc


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