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
- Help support Uncommon Sense: — yes, $5 helps!
- Burkeman’s book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, and his last column in The Guardian.
- Two of the ideas Burkeman discusses that have been covered in earlier episodes are gratitude, which is covered briefly in Episode 77: 7 Things to Stop Doing, as well as in my own guided meditation, and (yes!) meditation, discussed in Episode 78: Tapping a Deeper Mind Power.
- Wikipedia has a nice summary of Impostor Syndrome.
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.
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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