From fictional romance novels to mysterious and fantastical ones, I have had my wild share of book travelling. I don’t know who said you can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me, but that person gets it and I couldn’t have said it better myself.
A few years ago, I took a break from fictional books and decided to dabble in self-help books. I stumbled on Brianna Wiest’s “101 Essays That Will Change The Way You Think” on a well meaning Pinterest post but I wasn’t as excited to make a purchase after reading some not-so-encouraging reviews about it on Amazon. In the end, the title was far too promising for me to not want to see for myself and considering this book changed my life for the better, I have learnt to take Amazon reviews with a grain of salt.
The knowledge in this book is massive, but I have chosen only to share the top 5 lessons I gained. Each point is just the right length to give you the amount of information you actually need. Nevertheless, the article summarizes only a few essays, and you have a lot yet to gain if you read the book itself.
Without further ado, I will share the top 5 lessons that changed the way I think, preceded by this riveting John Locke quote: “Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.” Hopefully, that’s enough to convince you that these lessons have a unique recipe you won’t get anywhere else: my brain chemicals.
- It Is Perfectly Healthy To Have An Array Of Feelings
“Real emotional maturity is how thoroughly you let yourself feel anything. Everything. Every feeling is worthwhile. You miss so much by trying to change every one of them away, or thinking there are some that are right or wrong or good or bad or that you should have or shouldn’t. All because you’re afraid you’ll tell yourself something you don’t want to hear.”
Happiness is not a sustained state of joy, and it won’t ever be. Brianna writes that emotionally intelligent people are those who allow themselves time to process everything they are experiencing. They don’t withhold their feelings and they don’t confuse a bad feeling for a bad life.
It often seems that the main point of life is to find happiness, and for that reason, we are all chasing some version of it. When a negative feeling or experience comes between all of that chasing, it tends to feel like a setback. And if that negative feeling extends to several days or weeks, we are likely to project it all into the future, believing that it constitutes what our entire lives have amounted to. But it doesn’t. It is just another passing, transitory experience in the whole.
Sadness is as impermanent as happiness. And pretending you’re not sad or beating yourself up for feeling down just to avoid tampering with the happiness ‘upward-spiral’ you’re on, is a tough way to live. Your array of feelings is a natural part of life that is unfortunately, inevitable. If you ask me, the secret for the impossibility of being happy all the time is being grateful. They share similar quantities of serotonin—I’m living proof.
- You Need Three Types Of Happiness To Feel Complete
“Happiness is a byproduct of doing things that are challenging, meaningful, beautiful, and worthwhile. It is wiser to spend a life chasing knowledge, or the ability to think clearly and with more dimension, than it is to just chase what ‘feels good.’ It is wiser to chase the kind of discomfort that only comes with doing something so profound and life-altering that you are knocked off your orbit.”
According to this book, there are three primary forms of happiness:
- The happiness of pleasure
- The happiness of grace
- The happiness of excellence
The happiness of pleasure is largely sensory. Like a good meal when you’re hungry or like waking up warm and cosy in your bed. The happiness of grace is gratitude. It is looking over to see the love of your life sleeping next to you and whispering: ‘thank you.’ And then, there is the happiness of excellence. This kind of happiness comes from the pursuit of something great. It is meaningful work; it is flow. One of these happinesses cannot replace the other. They are all necessary and important to thrive.
One of my favorite things Wiest says in this book is “We were born to actualize our potential, not just analyse it.” The happiness of excellence used to be a rarity for me because of the unforgivable amount of time I spent on planning and introspection. When introspection becomes your means of avoiding a problem, then you’ve probably convinced yourself that life begins when all the pieces are in place. But in reality, life is the act of doing just that. I have found that without the happiness of excellence, I often feel empty. No amount of pleasure or amusement has ever been enough to replace my need to feel fulfilled about something.
This is not to say life is only about ticking goals off your list just to find happiness. Goal-reaching is not as much about a perfect outcome as it is about the actions you take to reach it. You’ve probably heard the quote ‘fall in love with the journey, not the destination’. The journey takes the larger chunk of your time and memory, and builds the most of your identity.
There is a “peace of mind that comes from knowing we are becoming who we want and need to be. That’s what we receive from pursuing the happiness of excellence: not accomplishments, but identity. A sense of self that we carry into everything else in our lives.”
- Self-Esteem Lies In A Confidence Only You Can Build
“The two fundamental elements self-esteem boils down to are self-efficacy, which is ‘a sense of basic confidence in the face of life’s challenges,’ and self-respect, ‘a sense of being worthy of happiness’.”
I used to have a skewed idea of the word ‘self-esteem’. I’d instantly think of complete confidence; a poise you could only have if everything in your life was perfect and deserving enough for it. And this idea dwelled more with physical attributes than inner ones.
In reality, self-esteem is “the very inherent sense that everything is going to be alright, because we are capable of making it all right.” Self-esteem is knowing that we can determine our own course or path in life and travel that course. It isn’t how much confidence you have in how well people perceive you, but how much confidence you have in whether or not you can manage your life. It isn’t an emotion that fluctuates from moment to moment, but a continuing disposition to experience a sense of efficacy and respect for oneself.
What’s interesting about having real self-esteem is that it eliminates the need to focus on how we’re superior to others. Because we feel in control of our lives, we stop focusing on “how much better things are than someone else” just to placate the feeling of failure.
One of the pillars of self-esteem that stuck out to me the most was self-acceptance. The coming to believe that you’re worthy of loving and being loved despite not being supremely, completely good all the time. True self-acceptance is not you aggrandizing your looks or your intelligence or being willfully ignorant of the natural balance of traits and characteristics every person possesses; it is seeing your whole self without judging or condemning parts of it. It is the complete embracing of your attributes, both the good and the bad, leading you to an unerring confidence that spills into every part of your life.
- You Are Not Inherently Made To Be Extraordinary
“You probably can’t be whatever you want, but if you’re really lucky and you work really hard, you can be exactly who you are. Drive and consistency are born of one thing and one thing only: doing something in alignment with who you truly are. It is a privilege, albeit an extraordinary challenge, to awaken to yourself.”
During my look through the Amazon reviews on this book, someone had made a comment on a part of the book that says: ‘you aren’t going to be extraordinary’. The reviewer said that for this depressing statement and similar ones, she considered it a book that should never be gifted to teenagers and young adults. It didn’t make it better that in the book, the point that followed was to stop assuming you’re at the beginning of your life because it isn’t guaranteed that you would live a long life. Honestly, it gave the reviewer some pretty good armor.
But I didn’t share the same thoughts when I came across these phrases in the book. In context, Wiest was talking about ‘Expectations To Let Go Of In Your 20s’. A lot of us grow up thinking we would be extraordinary, when in fact, it LITERALLY takes one in a million. And somehow, we all believe we would live a long and full life, completely ignoring the fact that the people who die sooner than expected did not anticipate dying young.
We may hope for a long life. We may hope that it becomes an extraordinary one. But it is also important to dissolve the illusions we have about what it means to be our whole selves and live our best lives. Working hard does not mean that success is a guarantee. In fact, most people are rarely successful in the way they first set out to be. Rather than work toward an end goal, “work toward liking the process of getting there. Whether success is a product of chance or fate, all you can control is how much work you put in (not exactly what comes out)”
It might be hard to swallow if you’ve spent your whole life thinking this way, but you are not going to be the exception to everything. You are not going to escape the consequences of not wearing sunscreen or saving money. You are not going to have a wondrously perfect retirement if you don’t plan it now. You are not going to have a community-filled life if you don’t learn to treat people respectfully. Your circumstances are not magically different from everyone else’s.
Your purpose may or may not be something existentially profound; the only given, is that your purpose is to be here on this earth doing whatever job you find yourself doing. And you do not have to be consciously changing the world to fulfill it. In many ways, that can be a relief. To know that the world isn’t your responsibility, just your blithe, happiness and fulfillment in it.
- Now Is All You Have
“I have the issue of seeing parts of my life as just precursors of time to facilitate getting to where I want to be next. And the sickening reality of that is, given enough of those days, your entire life becomes a waiting game.”
Forgetting that now is all we have comes from the idea that one day, there will be a happily ever after. Maybe there will, but in my religion and many others, we don’t believe it would come in this world because this world is not really our home. To us, it is a place where there will always be strife and pain.
Outside of religion, we can all relate to the endlessness of life’s complexities; to the nagging, lingering feeling of wanting to escape moments in our lives. As Wiest says, life has a lot of ins and outs. “There is no swift motion of starting in darkness and moving toward the light indefinitely… there’s a lot of grey area. There are days you’re so far back you can’t believe you let yourself get there, and then there are days you forget you were ever miserable to begin with.”
In the end, all we are going to have is the awareness of moving from one experience to another. “What we see in each experience is what we have to appreciate before we’re lifted away. We need to stop making a bad life out of a few bad experiences because we weren’t able to check off the list of things we had in our minds as prerequisites for feeling content.”
Somehow, we convince ourselves that there is a happily ever after we are entitled to after we’ve suffered enough, and that joy is in planning for tomorrow. We continue to believe this despite knowing it’s illogical and life is too unpredictable to rely solely on the future. It is a good idea to reach for good things in life and surround yourself with more beautiful things than you have now, but you must also acknowledge the moment you’re in and hold it dearly. You don’t need a perfect day or a perfect house to do something as simple and lovely as having a cup of coffee or reading a pretty book by your window.
We must have a side of us that isn’t concerned about tomorrow, so we can live today.
‘101 Essays That Will Change The Way You Think’ helped me immensely as a girl in her confusing 20s and as a human in a bewildering world. Dear Brianna Wiest, if ever you come across this article, I want you to know that just as you wrote and hoped in the foreword of your book, a plethora of your essays left me thinking: this idea changed my life.