The three books I read recently that changed my (approach to) life

Irrespective of the political events that have unfolded in the last year, which, as a PhD student in the social sciences, I do not take lightly, 2016 has been a life-changer for me. Many things happened in my private life, including moving into a flat with my partner, while I felt disconnected from her and was longing for someone else. This realisation, the decision to separate and its further aftermath put much strain on me, and the others involved. Throughout the year I felt emotionally depleted, and asked a friend for the number of her therapist, just in case I wouldn’t manage by myself. But now I am happy that I could close the year with a clear conscience, after everything which happened, and leaving it all behind.

In fact, three books have helped me overcome my greatest uncertainties in my personal life and with regard to my career perspectives. I feel more open, positively vulnerable, confident, I am learning to accept uncertainty, to see how hard work (and a dose of luck) can bring you truly further in life, to learn to be more compassionate and strive to inspire and motivate others. My reflections on these books will be purely on the basis of what I felt I got out of them.

  1. Creativity by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1996)

The main message from this book which inspired me was the need dig really deep into your topic/job, before trying to be creative, knowing only the basics, and a bit more. As a PhD student with quite limited guidance in methodology and research design, I had to research how to do research. Not having learned such elementary things caused great difficulties. Studying at a locally good university did not overcome this hurdle. Well perhaps, studying the Eastern Europe is a (deliberate) choice which does not make it easier to excel internationally. But the motivation is there, and this book further spurred the drive to make this work. Psychologist Czikszentmihalyi conducted in-depth interviews with 90+ scientists and artists on the top of their field, many of them nobel-prize winners, and he shares with the reader what made these people so successfully. One of the key points I take from it and try to apply, though in my much more humble capacity, is to first of all get to know your field in depth and to be curious about everything that crosses your path. That implies that you may get the creative impulses from other corners of your life when you are working on something, anything.

2. The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown (2010)

This book has been an eye-opener for me. It taught me that you can only be truly happy if you allow yourself to be vulnerable, and thus willing to get hurt. By having barriers that prevent you from opening up to others, you might not put in the effort to get to know those people with whom the first encounter did not convince you the person is the love of your life or your new best friend. And we are told that first impressions matters oh so much, right? Maybe they do, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give people a second chance.

Additionally, Brené learned through years of research that you are enough. Wow, what an eye-opener. Yes, you are who you are and that makes you enough. If someone does not value you as you, then is it really worth pursuing any form of relationship at all?

When it comes to relationships, this is also essential. When you realise you are pretending to be someone you are not, this will be a permanent struggle within you for as long as you pretend to be this other person. (For a lot of people this takes a lifetime.) Go, venture into the unknown of the self, and come out on the other side feeling lighter and happier.

3. Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton (2004)

In this book, De Botton uses philosophy, art and politics to show how incredibly much we care about what others think about our jobs, income, family background, skin colour, and associate that to our ‘status in society’. We consider ourselves less if we earn less at 30 or 40 than our high-school peers; why and how did we fail where they were successful? I always felt embarrassed about my job as mere an operations support agent for a dating site. My argument, I still catch myself saying it to people I get to know: ‘I do this to pay for my PhD’, with a sense of guilt of doing a job that is meaningless and embarrassing. And that brings me back to Brené’s book too, why would I care what people think of me because I do this job? Status anxiety is a permanent gilded armor we wear to keep us aware of our own pettiness. This book helped be to be aware of this looming melancholy. Awareness is the first step.

So, what’s the point I are trying to make? Now come the clichés:

  • Be yourself and be fine with yourself! In this world, which expects so much from us, where not being perfect and having figured out all of our lives by 18, we should learn that it is fine to struggle in life.
  • But, even more importantly, since I made the decision to accept me as me, I lead my life with a clear conscience. I have nothing to be ashamed of. Of course, I wish I had done things differently in life, both personally and professionally, yet I didn’t. But, that’s OK. I see the world much more positively. Beware that you will find resistance from friends and family, because some might not be willing to digest the strength of vulnerability.
  • Also, I realised that I automatically care more about my fellow human-being. In a global political environment where everything is uncertain, and where we are actually scared to think about the fate of humanity (climate change, mass migration, terrorism, loss of identity, you name it), compassion can guide us through these uncertain times. By being compassionate, we can make a real difference locally, and this will inspire others to follow suit!

Written by a pessimistic realist.