The School of Life by Alain de Botton Summary (Deep Dive)

Somewhere in our minds, removed from the day to day, there sit judges. They watch what we do, study how we perform, examine the effect we have on others, track our successes and failures – and then, eventually, they pass verdicts. These determine our levels of confidence and self-compassion.


Overview

  • Part 1: "Self" covers what to do in life.
  • Part 2: "Others" covers your friendships and family.
  • Part 3: "Relationships" covers your romantic relationships.
  • Part 4: "Work" covers your career.
  • Part 5: "Culture" covers the different kinds of people and how to develop your own culture.
Source: The School of Life

Part 1: Self

Lesson 1

3 things that emotionally mature people do:

  1. They know that love is a skill, not a feeling, that will require trust, vulnerability, generosity, humor, sexual understanding, and selective resignation.
  2. They take the time to determine what gives their life meaning. They create a plan that will simultaneously satisfy themselves and the standards of society.
  3. They know that they will only ever be mentally healthy in a few areas and at certain moments, but are committed to finding (and fixing) their inadequacies.

Lesson 2

It is human nature to forget to do things – even important things. That's why we need to develop habits to help us achieve our goals.

Our habits determine what we think about ourselves. If we practice basketball every day, we will think of ourselves as a basketball player. But if we skip our habits, we will not identify with them and we will lose self-confidence.


Lesson 3

To become happier, lower your expectations.


Lesson 4

Everyone periodically has worry, forgets their talents, refuses love, lacks empathy, sulks, obsesses and hates. These are universal flaws – not personal flaws.


Lesson 5

We need to read books so that we have the knowledge to see through gurus.

“We too readily assume that we are approaching a person of genius when we stop understanding anything of what they’re saying.”


Lesson 6

Insanity is a part of human nature.

We are driven to insanity because: “We have complex histories, we are heading towards the ultimate catastrophe, we are vulnerable to devastating losses, love will always leave us wanting, and the gap between our hopes and our realities is always going to be unbridgeable.”


Lesson 7

People with a superiority complex are actually masking an inferiority complex because they lacked admiration and care in childhood.


Lesson 8

We cannot hide anything from ourselves.

“Somewhere in our minds, removed from the day to day, there sit judges. They watch what we do, study how we perform, examine the effect we have on others, track our successes and failures – and then, eventually, they pass verdicts. These determine our levels of confidence and self-compassion, they lend us a sense of whether we are worthwhile beings or, conversely, should not really exist. The judges are in charge of our self-esteem.”


Lesson 9

Psychotherapy is the best tool for understanding yourself. It is essential for finding and overcoming your weaknesses and developing your strengths.

Find a good therapist. Your relationship with your therapist may be your first 'good' relationship.

In therapy, “We will have to re-experience at a novelistic level of detail a whole set of scenes from our early life in which our problems around fathers and mothers and authority were formed.”


Lesson 10

Meditation is the second best tool for understanding yourself.

Meditation Method 1:

“In meditation, we strive to empty consciousness of its normal medley of anxieties, hurts and excitements, and concentrate on the sensations of the immediate moment, allowing even events as apparently minor but as fundamental as the act of breathing to be noticed. In a bid for serenity and liberation, we still the agitations of what the Buddhists evocatively term our ‘monkey minds’.”

Meditation Method 2:

“In ‘philosophical meditation’, instead of being prompted to sidestep our worries and ambitions, we are directed to set aside time to untangle, examine and confront them.” We need to regularly ask 3 questions:

  1. What am I anxious about right now? Analyze even the small, seemingly insignificant anxieties. Make a list of anxieties and a list of things to-do.
  2. What am I upset about right now? No matter how small.
  3. What am I ambitious and excited about right now? What does this tell us about ourselves?

Lesson 11

Seemingly small issues can become big problems.

“Even ordinary days contain concealed charges of fear and challenge: navigating through a train station, attending a meeting, being introduced to a new colleague, being handed responsibility for a task or a person, keeping control over our bodies in public settings – all contain the grounds for agitation that we are under pressure to think should not be taken seriously. We are mental athletes at shrugging such things off, but there is a cost to our stoicism. From small humiliations and slights, large blocks of resentment eventually form that render us unable to love or trust."

“What we call depression is in fact sadness and anger that have for too long not been paid the attention they deserve.”


Lesson 12

It is human nature to think that we are abnormal because:

  1. We intimately know what goes on in our minds; but
  2. We know very little about what goes on in the minds of others. We only know what others choose to tell us – which is almost always a very edited version of the truth.

Lesson 13

Novels, films, and songs are our gateway to seeing other people's minds. The best works teach us something about human nature.

“We should put down the average novel wondering – with relief – how the novelist had come to know so much about us.”

Part 2: Others

Lesson 1

Every personality trait has pros and cons. For example:

  • The meek person is kind and caring in relationships but can’t ask for a raise at work.
  • The determined person can easily ask for a raise at work but they are argumentative in relationships.

Meek and determined people should learn to be more like each other.


Lesson 2

There are 2 kinds of people: frank people and polite people.

Frank people think that everyone is like them. If they’re physically cold, they think everyone is cold and they close the window without asking.

Polite people think that everyone is different. If they’re cold, someone else in the room might be hot, so they ask them if it’s ok to close the window.


Lesson 3

We should try to be more polite. Consider other people’s differences, understand the nuance to both sides of an argument, and realize that we can learn something from everyone.


Lesson 4

Diplomacy is a good skill to master.

  • Diplomacy is the art of proposing an idea without offending people.
  • In an argument, restate their opinion to make them feel respected and heard. Then try to subtly implant your idea.

“We will fight with particular tenacity and apparent meanness over a so-called small point when we have a sense that another has failed to honour our wider need for appreciation and esteem.”


Lesson 5

Lower people's guards with humility.

The best tactic any teacher can use is to confess from the outset, "And I am, of course, entirely crazy and flawed as well..."


Lesson 6

Diplomats are stoic – don't show too much emotion.

“Another trait of the diplomat is to be serene in the face of obviously bad behaviour: a sudden loss of temper, a wild accusation, a very mean remark. They don’t take it personally, even when they may be the target of rage.”


Lesson 7

Diplomats analyze when the best time to teach a lesson is.

“The diplomat understands that there are moments to sidestep direct engagement. They do not try to teach a lesson whenever it might first or most apply; they wait until it has the best chance of being heard.”


Lesson 8

Attractive people are attractive because they display vulnerability.

  • “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."
  • “We invariably prove compelling when we succeed in detailing some of what we crave, envy, regret, mourn and dream.”
  • People want to hear that we have failed, that we are sad, that it was our fault, that our partners don’t seem to like us much, that we are lonely, that we have wished it might all be over. It reassures them that they aren't the only one's dealing with the difficulties of life.

Lesson 9

Paradoxically, interesting people are the best listeners, not the best speakers.

When we do speak, we should give people a glimpse into what life looks like through our eyes.


Lesson 10

We strive to be perfect but, paradoxically, it is failure that charms.


Lesson 11

The best way to get people to like us is to like them.

  • Remember small things about them
  • Display an interest in what they have been up to
  • Laugh at their witty moments
  • Sympathize with them around their sorrows

Lesson 12

Assume that people who are cold in the beginning are actually self-analytical and anxious. As you continue to talk, maybe after multiple encounters, they will warm up.


Lesson 13

When people seem cold, it is because they care too much about appearances and “seeming normal.” It’s better to seem less perfect.


Lesson 14

Warm people do more fun or cozy things, they're not so uptight:

“[Warm people understand that we] might want to move from the table and have some toasted sandwiches on the sofa, or might want to dance to some songs popular long ago, or might need an extra cushion for our back, or might need to spend quite a long time in the bathroom and might want a magazine while inside.”


Lesson 15

People often display themselves as something opposite to their personality.

“Inside every bitter cynic, a bruised optimist is looking for an opening. Inside the rule-bound, precise, formal person, a playful, silly self is hoping for release. Inside the important person admired for their status is a child who wants to be liked for themselves.”


Lesson 16

You should act as a therapist when you talk to people. Get to the details. Find out their emotions.

A good listener asks questions and dives deep into the root of the issue. People are often vague, get them to be specific. Say:

  • ‘Tell me more about …’
  • ‘I was fascinated when you said …’
  • ‘Why did that happen, do you think?’
  • ‘How did you feel about that?’

Make your own confessions to make the other person feel comfortable sharing.


Lesson 17

High expectations are always the cause of disappointment. Pessimism lowers our expectations. The pessimist is often pleasantly surprised.


Lesson 18

Anxiety is normal.

“Anxiety is not a sign of sickness, a weakness of the mind or an error for which we should always seek a medical solution. It is mostly a hugely reasonable and sensitive response to the genuine strangeness, terror, uncertainty and riskiness of existence.”

It's normal to be anxious: because you could die at any second, because we have insufficient information upon which to make most major life decisions; because we can imagine so much more than we have and live in ambitious mediatized societies where envy and restlessness are a constant."


Lesson 19

We periodically need to spend extensive amounts of time alone.

If we don’t spend time alone, “We won’t have original opinions. We won’t have lively and authentic perspectives. We’ll be – in the wrong way – a bit like everyone else.”

Part 3: Relationships

Lesson 1

We should accept the realities of marriage:

  1. Love and sex do not always belong together.
  2. Money is an important factor—both people should be on the same page.
  3. Understand that both people are fundamentally flawed.
  4. Your partner can't solve all of your problems because nobody can solve all of your problems. Existential loneliness can never go away.
  5. We need to communicate clearly.
  6. We need to divide up the tasks—who makes money, who cooks, etc.

Lesson 2

Our childhood determines what kind of relationships we look for as adults.

We may seek out abusive partners because of precedents set in our childhood.

We may reject good relationship candidates because they are not abusive and we are used to abuse.


Lesson 3

Even in committed relationships, the fear of rejection never ends. It continues on a daily basis.


Lesson 4

We should view our partner as a child. It stops us from putting bad intent on their actions and words.

“Adulthood isn’t a complete state; what we call childhood lasts (in a submerged but significant way) all our lives. Therefore some of the responses we reflexively offer to children must forever continue to be relevant when we’re dealing with another grown-up.”

But, “Being benevolent to one’s partner’s inner child doesn’t mean infantilizing them. This is no call to draw up a chart detailing when they are allowed screen time or to award stars for getting dressed on their own. It means being charitable in translating things they say.”


Lesson 5

“Two people should see a relationship as a constant opportunity to improve and be improved.”


Lesson 6

de Botton on sex:

  • “It’s very rare to maintain sexual interest in only one person, however much one loves them, beyond a certain time.”
  • Normal people can want to have rough sex.
  • It’s normal to have sexual fantasies that you wouldn’t actually want to have happen in real life.

Lesson 7

“We are, via sex, seeking to connect emotionally with, and make ourselves understood by, another person.”


Lesson 8

Proust’s In Search of Lost Time: Volume 1 tells us that defilement in sex isn’t what it seems. “Ostensibly, it’s about violence, hatred, meanness and a lack of respect. But for Proust, it symbolizes a longing to be properly oneself in the presence of another human being, and to be loved and accepted by them for one’s darkest sides rather than just for one’s politeness and good manners.

“Defilement, therefore, has meaning: it is a surprising way of trying to improve a relationship. It’s not an act of sabotage or a denial of love. It’s a deeply curious but, in its own way, very logical quest for closeness.”


Lesson 9

Weekly sessions where you pay close attention to each other and talk about what you like and dislike (want to change) about each other can affair-proof your relationship.


Lesson 10

Maintaining sex in the relationship is like going to the gym to maintain muscle — you have to do it every week.


Lesson 11

Both people should have other viable dating prospects so that they do not feel trapped in the relationship.


Lesson 12

Relationships without tough conversations or arguments will end. Both parties have a mask on.


Lesson 13

People use promiscuous sex to feel accepted.

“We have advanced tendencies to hate ourselves and find ourselves unacceptable. And sex with a new person has an exceptional capacity to reduce feeling like that.”


Lesson 14

“The traditional way to try to reduce the chances of someone having an affair is to focus on controlling their actions and outward movements: not letting them go to social events without us, calling them at random times or reducing their access to social media.

But people don’t have affairs because they are able to meet attractive others, they have affairs because they feel emotionally disconnected from their partners.”

“It is emotional closeness, not curfews, that guarantees the integrity of couples.”


Lesson 15

We should regularly have conversations where we say:

  • “I sometimes feel frustrated with you when...”
  • “I’d love you to realize that you hurt me when...”
  • “One of the hardest things for you to understand about me is...”

Lesson 16

We should regularly have conversations where we say:

  • “What I’d love you to appreciate about me is...”
  • “Where I’m unfulfilled in my life is...”

Lesson 17

We should regularly have conversations about sex:

  • “Something I’m really inhibited about sexually is...”
  • “I would love it if you could understand that sometimes I want…"
  • "What I wish I could change about me and sex is…"
  • "What I wish I could change about you and sex is..."

Lesson 18

A lot of arguments are actually the same problem popping up again and again. They seem different because the context is different but they really stem from the same resentment.

  • Many problems stem from this: “I feel you don’t respect my intelligence.”

Lesson 19

Our inability to speak up about issues usually stems from habits we developed in childhood.

“We may not have grown up with a sense that our dissatisfactions ever deserved expression. Our parents might have been too anxious, too vulnerable or too bullying to allow much room for our early needs. We might have become masters in the art of not complaining and of accepting what we are given as the price of survival and of protection of those we loved. This doesn’t now spare us feelings of frustration. It simply makes us incapable of giving them a voice.”

“We are hence doomed to keep having small or diversionary squabbles so as not to have to touch the fundamental truth at the core of our complaints: You don’t show me enough physical affection. My life is harder than your life. Your family are much worse than you think they are. I’m threatened by your friends. You have the wrong approach to money.”


Lesson 20

If we have difficult discussions regularly, we can avoid problems.

“We should learn to have the courage of our frustrations – and of our fears. It is always better to touch the ur-argument than for a relationship to die by a thousand squabbles. We will cease to fight so much when we can face up to, and voice, what we’re really furious about.”


Lesson 21

The point of an argument is to help each other improve, not to 'win' the argument.


Lesson 22

Misery loves company.

When you are in a good mood or talk about your ambitious goals for the future, some people will try to rain on your parade. It's because they are lonely or unsure of their future, so they want to bring you down to their level.

Their hope is to make us more like them so that they won’t be lonely but what really happens is we will be pissed that they ruined our mood.

We should try to remember that the person attempting to ruin our mood isn’t just nasty (though they are a bit of that too); they are worried that our happiness may come at their expense and are trying to ask for reassurance.


Lesson 23

What often happens in arguments between emotional and calm people:

The emotional person is called crazy, rather than an ordinary human who is sane but has temporarily lost self-control during an extremely difficult situation.

The calm person positions themself as sane and reasonable. But we should remember that it is entirely possible to be cruel, dismissive, stubborn, harsh and wrong – and keep one’s voice steady.


Lesson 24

We wrongly blame our partner for problems unrelated to them.

“Unfortunately, we don’t necessarily always tell our partner that we are causing problems because we are sad about things that have nothing to do with them; we just create arguments to alleviate our distress – we are mean to them because our boss didn’t care, the economy wasn’t available for a chat and there was no God to implore. We reroute all the humiliation and rage that no one else had time for on to the shoulders of the one person who most cares about our well-being. We tell them that if only they “were more supportive, were less intrusive, made more money, were less materialistic, were more imaginative or less naive, less fussy or more demanding, more dynamic or more relaxed, sexier or less obsessed with sex, more intelligent or less wrapped up in the world of books, more adventurous or more settled … then we could be happy – our life would be soothed and our errors redeemed. It is, as we imply and occasionally even tell them, all their fault. This is, of course, horrible and largely untrue."


Lesson 25

Everyone is worried that they have the same negative traits as their parents.

But everyone is like their parents. We were raised by them and have the same genes, so of course we are somewhat like them.


Lesson 26

People have illogical fears and explaining the logic to them doesn’t change anything.

We probably understand that public speaking is simply speaking in front of people but that doesn’t stop us from panicking.

“The fear of public speaking is bound up with long-standing shame and dread of others’ judgement.”


Lesson 27

When people are scared, they don't want logic, they want to be comforted and reassured.


Lesson 28

de Botton says that we should often choose politeness over honesty.


Lesson 29

Marriage can be useful for maintaining a relationship.

Marriage lowers our time preference. High time preference people want new partners, promiscuous sex, and excitement now — without understanding the negative future consequences. Low time preference people get married because they know that divorce lawyer fees and paperwork are deterrants that will stop them from breaking up.


Lesson 30

You cannot self-improve if you do not have long-term relationships.

Short term relationships do not give your partner enough time to assess and tell you your flaws.

Part 4: Work

Lesson 1

You need to have ambitious goals. You cannot just follow the rules. You cannot follow the common path and think it's safe. But other people will oppose your goals. Your success makes them feel bad. Your alternate path makes them feel like they're doing the wrong thing.


Lesson 2

The biggest businesses in the world today meet the lower needs on Maslow's hierarchy.

The biggest businesses of the future will meet the higher needs on Maslow's hierarchy.


Lesson 3

Advertisers know our desires but businesses cannot fulfill them.

The best businesses of the future will be able to deliver on the promises of ads today.


Lesson 4

The best businesses of the future will help us in:

  1. Forming cohesive, interesting, benevolent communities.
  2. Bringing up children.
  3. Calming down at key moments (the aggregate cost of our high anxiety and rage is appalling).
  4. Discovering our real talents in the workplace and in understanding where we can best deploy them.

Lesson 5

We should be sympathetic to the poor. Their lack of money and status effects their mental health. We should also strive to get them proper schooling and healthcare so that they have an equal chance of success.

Part 5: Culture

Lesson 1

There are 2 kinds of people: romantics and classicists.

In short, Romantics live based on feelings and emotions. Classicists live based on thinking, logic, and rationality.

“Romantics don’t like schools. The best kind of education comes from within. The most important capacities are in us from the start. We don’t need to learn how to love, how to be kind, how to die … Formal learning kills every topic of study. We need to learn to listen to the voice inside us, which will provide us with all we need.”

“Those of a Classical temperament don’t necessarily respect the education system as it stands – there is so much that could be improved – but the abstract idea of education seems essential and the bedrock of civilization. We didn’t forget how to live; we just never knew, as no one is ever born knowing. The purpose of education is to pass down one or two painfully won insights so that not every generation needs to repeat the same desperate errors.”

de Botton says that the romantics value truth of expression above all else — they will show their emotions. The classical people would rather be polite — small lies that save other’s feelings. Classical people also cover up their emotions, because emotion leads to bad things.

“The Romantic is excited by how things might ideally be and judges what currently exists in the world by the standard of a better imagined alternative”“Most of the time, the current state of society arouses intense disappointment and anger as they consider the injustices, prevarications, compromises and timidity all around”“It seems normal to be furious with governments and surprised and outraged by evidence of venal and self-interested conduct in society.”

“By contrast, the Classical person pays special attention to what can go wrong. They are very concerned to mitigate the downside. They are aware that most things could be a lot worse. Before condemning a government, they consider the standard of governments across history and may regard a current arrangement as bearable, under the circumstances. Their view of people is fundamentally rather dark.”

Romantics do not like dark humor because it seems like people are giving up on trying to reach the ideals (utopia). Classical people like dark humor because it has the utility of getting people in a good mood even though they live in an imperfect and unsatisfactory world.

Romantics like new and exciting things. Classical people like routine — it is a defense against chaos.

“The Romantic is dismayed by compromise. They are drawn to either wholehearted endorsement or total rejection. Ideally, partners should love everything about each other. A political party should be admirable at every turn. A philanthropist should draw no personal benefit from acts of charity.”

“The Classical person takes the view that very few things, and no people, are either wholly good or entirely bad. They assume that there is likely to be some worth in opposing ideas and something to be learned from both sides. It is Classical to think that a decent person might in many areas hold views you find deeply unpalatable.”

Since 1750, romantic attitudes have been dominant in the West. We require (as a society and as individuals) a mix of the two. Today, we likely need to listen to the wisdom of the classical to even us out.


Lesson 2

Instead of reducing prices, try to raise levels of appreciation.

Pineapples used to cost $5000 but now, because we learned how to produce and distribute them, they cost $2. Pineapples used to be a sign of status but now they have no prestige. The pineapple didn’t change. Our attitude towards the pineapple changed based on its price.

“The history of the pineapple suggests a curious overlap between love and economics: when we have to pay a lot for something nice, we appreciate it to the full.”

“Yet as its price in the market falls, passion has a habit of fading away. Naturally, if the object has no merit to begin with, a high price won’t be able to do anything for it; but if it has real virtue and yet a low price, then it is in severe danger of falling into grievous neglect.”


Lesson 3

Be grateful.

“There are two ways to get richer: one is to make more money and the second is to discover that more of the things we could love are already to hand (thanks to the miracles of the Industrial Revolution). We are, astonishingly, already a good deal richer than we’re encouraged to think we are.”


Lesson 4

Sadness if often hidden in public. That makes us more sad because we think everyone else is happy.


Lesson 5

Romanticism tells us that only our romantic partner can cure our loneliness – but that's not true. Culture is the best way to cure loneliness.


Lesson 6

We can create our own culture by collecting our favorite books, movies, paintings, etc.

We can become friends with a dead novelist from 1740 by reading his books.


Lesson 7

The purpose of philosophy is to teach us how to be wise.

Wisdom is made up of 12 main elements:

  • Realism: They are realistic.
  • Appreciation: The natural state of things is chaos, so moments of calm and beauty do not go unnoticed to them.
  • Folly: They know that all humans will often do dumb things.
  • Humor: They laugh at themselves.
  • Politeness (aka diplomacy): “The wise are realistic about social relations, in particular about how difficult it is to change people’s minds and have an effect on their lives” they are reticent to frankly tell people what they think. Let others do what they want (even if it ruins their life) as long as it doesn’t effect you.
  • Self-acceptance: They are at peace with the gap between who they want to be and who they are.
  • Forgiveness: They are realistic about other people. Just like us, others are inherently idiots, anxious, and imperfect.
  • Resilience: They don’t require much. They understand that your material possessions could be gone in an instant.
  • Envy: “The wise don’t envy idly, realizing that there are some good reasons why they don’t have many of the things they really want. They look at the tycoon or the star and have a decent grasp of why they weren’t able to succeed at this level.”
  • Success and failure: They are realistic about the outcomes.
  • Regrets: They know it is impossible to fashion a spotless life.
  • Calm: “The wise know that turmoil is always around the corner – and they have come to fear and sense its approach. That’s why they nurture such a strong commitment to calm. A quiet evening feels like an achievement. A day without anxiety is something to be celebrated. They are not afraid of having a somewhat boring time. There could, and will again, be so much worse.”