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Emotional Education

Book Review

Title: The School of Life
Author: Alain de Botton and 18 others
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 310
Price in India: Rs 699

Human evolution has been one-sided. The brain continues to evolve while the heart remains savage. While we are able to construct skyscrapers and flyovers, explore stars that lie zillions of kilometres away, and work with the minutest subatomic particles, the ancient savage feelings of hatred and vindictiveness, envy and greed, egotism and lust, refuse to leave our hearts. The heart stands in need of effective education. Here is a book that attempts to provide that education.

Interestingly, it is a book written by a group of writers numbering to 19 in all counting the one who wrote the introduction. These writers are philosophers and psychologists who call themselves The School of Life which is also the title of this book. The objective of this organisation of writers is to promote emotional education and global well-being.

If you have already read a dozen or so motivational books of a good standard, you may find much repetition here. But that is not a drawback. There is hardly anything new to teach about life. From the Gautama Buddha to George Santayana, we have had infinite teachers and thinkers who told us more or less the same things in different words. If our hearts have remained as primitive as the first of the homo sapiens, the repetition of lessons for the heart is unavoidable.

We don’t want to learn these essential lessons. The introduction to this book says that “we have ingrained tendencies to shut our ears to all the major truths about our deeper selves.” There are certain lessons which are vital but we don’t want to learn them. This book reminds us of those lessons yet again.

The book is divided into 5 parts: Self, Others, Relationships, Work, and Culture. How to improve our life with respect to each of these is what the book speaks about. The book is written in a simple language that anyone can understand. There is no jargon from philosophy or psychology though the writers belong to those fields. Since it is written by diverse writers, the style changes occasionally and some parts are not as gripping as others. On the whole, it is very inspiring.

“What separates the sane insane from the simply insane is the honest, personable and accurate grasp they have on what is not entirely right with them,” the introduction says. [emphasis added] We are all insane to some degree. It is perhaps impossible to be absolutely sane. What we can do is to understand our insanity and come to terms with the fears, doubts, longings, desires and habits that drive our insanity. The book helps us to do that.

Even if you have read many motivational or self-help books, this one is still recommended if only to remind ourselves of certain basic truths about human life. The added advantage is that this book tells it in a little different way. Let me conclude with a quote from the book as an example of what it offers and how:

“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. I seems like just an accident, an unfair one, but there were in fact some logical reasons.
   At the same time, the wise see that some destinies are truly shaped by nothing more than accident. Some people are promoted randomly. Companies that aren’t especially deserving can suddenly make it big. Some people have the right parents. The winners aren’t all noble and good. The wise appreciate the role of luck and don’t curse themselves overly at those junctures where they have evidently not had as much of it as they would have liked.”

PS. My motivational e-book Coping with Suffering is available here.


  1. Interesting thoughts. It is indeed great wisdom to not curse oneself for lack of luck. I don't usually read motivational or self-help books, I'm yet to step into the genre.

    1. Some of the motivational books are really good. Some are trash. John Powell was my favourite when i was a young student. I bought this one out of curiosity because it's written by 19 writers.


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