How to read to learn and exercise your brain
I read Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton, and it changed me. I truly learned its lessons, not just consumed its pages. This is how I did it…
Step 1: Start with a great book
Read a book with meaning, something that explores questions of the mind, heart, and soul. For this exercise, you will want content you can mentally wrestle with for hours without getting bored.
Here are some of the questions in my soul that led me to Status Anxiety: Why do I want other people to like me? Why do I always want to be more, have more, and accomplish more? Why does chasing success leave me unfulfilled, whether I win or lose?
Once you have your book, you need to read it differently.
Step 2: Read to learn
Reading can be a superpower. It is most similar to power absorption, a power some superheroes posses that enables them to assume the powers of other superheroes and use those powers themselves. Rogue, the X-men mutant from Marvel Comics, has this ability.
When we read, we can absorb the knowledge another human gained after a lifetime of experiences. We can mentally and emotionally walk in someone else’s shoes as the author shares their perspective of the world, challenges they faced, and lessons they learned.
How can we get the most from our reading? Make reading a learning process rather than just passively consuming information. Think while you read. Don’t just turn the pages. Stop. Make connections with other ideas and information. If you want an equation for innovation and creativity, here it is:
what you know + something new you learn = a new idea
Here’s a tip from Keith Holyoak, a UCLA professor focused on this type of creative thinking. As you read ask yourself, “what else does this remind me of?” and “why does it remind me of that?”
As you make connections or learn new ideas, write them down! Create an index within the book itself where you can record page numbers and corresponding ideas, thoughts, and quotes so you can easily access them later. This is a picture of 2 of my 5 index pages in Status Anxiety. If you want to learn more about taking notes, Tim Ferriss has a great post on this here. Also, Ryan Holiday goes into even more depth on a 3x5 notecard system here (I just started testing this system).
Step 3: Edit like a master
There is a foundational skill necessary in order to read, learn, and apply information: editing.
Our lives are a series of decisions made with imperfect information. We either have too much information and need to filter out the meaningless to find what really matters, or we don’t have enough information. In either case, we have to decide what information is most important and then act on it. How do we get better at editing? Like anything else in life, we practice!
Jason Fried said we need a class just on this, and he’d like to teach it. His idea is to give students a topic and have them practice editing by writing 3 pages, then 1 page, then 3 paragraphs, then 1 paragraph, then 1 sentence all on the same topic. By doing this, students would learn to think about what matters most and then effectively distill and communicate that information. Jason is a master editor, just look at how he communicated this entire idea in a simple illustration:
I want to be a master editor, so I decided to put myself through my own variation of Jason’s theoretical class. Below is my “coursework”, a summary of Alain de Botton’s book Status Anxiety. For each section of the book I include a 3 paragraph, 3 sentence, and 1 sentence summary.
I spent over an hour going through this editing exercise for the book as a whole and then each individual chapter, 11+ hours of just editing! At each stage of the editing process I had to rethink what information was really most important. I identified the core message and tried to communicate it simply and clearly. It was hard work, but it forced me to think deeply and really learn what De Botton had to say.
Try this exercise on just one chapter of the next great book you read.
p.s. you do not need to read my exhaustive summary of Status Anxiety below, but read at least one section to understand how this editing exercise works.
Status anxiety is the worry we constantly feel about what others think about us and our importance in their eyes. Status anxiety has five primary causes:
- Seeking the love of others in order to love ourselves.
- Not meeting our own expectations of achievement and status.
- Living in a meritocratic society makes us fear poverty and its shame.
- Being surrounded by snobs who only value power and influence.
- Knowing worldly success is not completely in our control.
Solutions exist to help us combat our unquenchable need for status:
- Philosophy teaches us to base our self-worth on what we know to be true through reason, not what other people think of us.
- Art helps us see ourselves and others for who we truly are.
- Politics can change what society values; wealth is not universally important across time and cultures.
- Religion reminds us that attaining worldly status is not the purpose of our existence.
- Bohemia shows us we can disregard public opinion and succeed at life in our own way.
Understanding why we are obsessed with status, and the solutions that can help, is the first step to relieving status anxiety. We will continue to worry about our own status, but we can choose the type of status we care about and succeed at life in our own way.
We constantly worry about what the world thinks of us. Our worth in the eyes of current public opinion is based on how much wealth and power we attain. But we can choose other values and succeed at life in our own way.
You can spend your entire life worrying about what other people think of you, or you can choose what matters most to you and succeed at life in your own way.
We seek two types of love: 1) sexual love and 2) love from the world. This book is about our pursuit of the world’s love. We want power, fame, and money for what they represent, attention from others. And why do we want this attention from others so much? Because deep down we are unsure of our own worth, so we let the opinions of others determine how we see ourselves.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t care so much? Whether nobody noticed us or everybody noticed us, we knew our own worth. It’s a beautiful fairytale, but we do notice. We do care. We see both the good and bad in ourselves, and we look to others’ opinions to decide how we will see ourselves.
Attention or neglect from others has incredible power over us. It is terrifying and eye opening to realize just how susceptible our mood is to others’ behavior. We ride the rollercoaster of emotions to the peak of euphoria with one kind word and the next moment free fall to the pit of despair with a sideways glance. We constantly worry about our place in the world.
We chase after money, power, and fame in order to feel loved and respected by the world. We are insecure and unsure of our own self-worth, so we look to the opinions of other people to decide how we feel about ourselves. As a result of worrying about our place in the world and how other people see us, we unintentionally give other people power over us.
In order to love ourselves we need to feel loved by the world, so we chase the things we think the world values and it destroys our life.
The average person hasn’t always believed they could do more, be more, have more. These are new ideas. Before the industrial revolution in the 18th century, the majority of the population was peasants struggling to stay alive and dying before they were forty. They may not have been particularly happy with their lot in life, but they didn’t believe they could become king. They couldn’t do anything to earn more status because status was given by God. Their lot was their lot.
Technological innovations of the last few centuries led to rapid material progress and increases in the standard of living for all people, not just kings and aristocrats. Revolutionary political and social ideas became reality and began to spread after 1776. Suddenly, your status wasn’t determined by who you were at birth, but by what you achieved in life (mostly measured financially).
As our ability to advance materially increased, so did our ability to feel terrible about not having “enough”. If everyone is “equal”, then you could theoretically have whatever your neighbor has. But if you don’t reach that level of achievement or wealth, you feel hatred for yourself and those who have more than you. We can have so much more than our ancestors had, but the tradeoff is that we constantly feel anxious we aren’t everything we could be.
We haven’t always believed we could gain more status through our own efforts. Technological, political, and social progress over the past three centuries have empowered us to expect more of ourselves. We have limitless potential to increase our wealth and status, but we also have limitless potential to compare ourselves with others and feel inferior.
We are blessed and cursed to live on the earth right now, you can both expect to achieve anything and despair because you haven’t achieved everything.
Few people like being poor, but the way poverty impacts your self-esteem depends on how your community views poverty. For most of the past two thousand years, poor people had three comforting stories to explain their poverty.
- God made clergy, nobility, and peasantry, and there was mutual respect between the classes because each class knew they needed the others.
- Low status does not equal moral worth, and the poor will eventually make it to heaven and inherit the earth.
- The rich were evil thieves and not worth honoring, and they would eventually suffer the consequences of their evil ways.
Starting in the middle of the eighteenth century, three new stories began to emerge to explain poverty. These stories made poverty more difficult to experience and worry about.
- The rich contribute the most to society, not the poor. Greedy rich people led by the invisible hand create more prosperity for all, but the poor are a drain on society’s resources.
- Wealth and morality are connected. In a society where everyone has access to opportunities, those who succeed and achieve wealth do so because of their character not their bloodline or inheritance. Wealthy people are better, and conversely poor people are worse and deserve their poverty.
- The poor are genetically and mentally inferior. Social Darwinism said being rich or poor was the result of our biology, and helping the poor with welfare was pointless because the poor couldn’t change.
As if the struggles of poverty weren’t bad enough, in a meritocracy poor people also feel shame for being poor.
Being poor is more or less tolerable depending on the story you and your community believe about what causes poverty. For nearly two thousand years, being poor did not necessarily reflect poorly on your character or self-worth. Meritocratic societies created opportunity for all, but they also introduced the idea that poor people were inferior and their poverty was their own fault.
Society used to feel compassion for the poor, but in a meritocratic society the poor are viewed as inferior and feel shame for being poor.
We come into the world as helpless babies, and we are loved unconditionally just for being ourselves. But this doesn’t last. As we age, we enter a world full of snobs: people who seek power and give their attention and love only to those with high worldly status. Snobs don’t care who we are deep down, only what we do and what we have.
Newspapers and gossip make the problem worse. Snobs struggle to think for themselves and instead look to the opinions of important people to guide their own thinking. The press is obsessed with wealth, power, influence, and beauty, not who people really are or the significance of ordinary life. People are afraid of their own insignificance and feel the need to belittle others.
In a world of snobs, people seek luxury and status as symbols of importance. Not having these symbols means we are poor materially, but it also leads to emotional abuse through neglect and sideways glances from snobs.
We want to be loved for who we are inside, not what we do or have. But we live in a world of snobbery where love and attention is given to those with power, influence, and status. Snobs emotionally punish those with low status through neglect and shame.
We want to be loved for who we are, but we live in a world of snobs who only value influence.
In the past, gaining status was nearly impossible, but so was losing it. If you were born a noble you would always be a noble. You didn’t have to worry about losing your place in society, and modern societies have fought to reverse this. Status is no longer given at birth, but instead earned by your performance in a fast moving and constantly changing economy. However, we are not in complete control of our performance or our ability to acquire and hold onto status. This makes us anxious.
Our success and self-esteem depend on 5 unpredictable things:
- Fickle talent. We can’t direct our talent as we please. Sometimes we are talented and succeed, and other times apparently talentless and fail.
- Dependence on luck. Whether you believe in luck or not, being in the right place at the right time matters. In the past, luck was an acceptable answer for success and failure, now we believe we are in control and discount the impact of luck.
- Dependence on an employer. Will I lose my job? Will I get the promotion? The answers are often out of our control, regardless of our performance.
- Dependence on an employer’s profitability. Our performance can be amazing, and our employer can still struggle. The market changes fast, and it’s difficult for companies to sustain their success.
- Dependence on the global economy. The economy cycles through booms and busts, regardless of your performance.
Our status at work is never guaranteed, it depends on our performance and the health of the organization. This causes anxiety. In addition, our work is how we gain status and respect from others, it is what we “do”. This causes even more anxiety. We have less control than we lead ourselves to believe over the primary source of our worldly status.
Anyone can gain status through their own performance and success. However, we have less control over our performance and success than we think we do. The source of our status, our employment, can vanish instantly regardless of our performance and this makes us anxious.
We want to believe we have complete control over our ability to earn status through hard work, but much of what leads to success is out of our control.
Most people care deeply about how they are viewed by the world. Historically, people cared so much that they were willing to die in a duel just to defend their honor. We do not duel to the death today, but needing to be liked by others may still be our first priority. There is a group of people who refuse to see themselves through the opinion of others, philosophers.
Ancient Greek philosophers did not base their self-worth on the opinions of others, but on their own behavior and logically tested opinions of themselves. They resisted status anxiety with reason asking themselves questions like “Is what I want really what I need?” and “Is what I fear truly what there is to fear?”.
Philosophy doesn’t value public opinion because it is based on intuition, emotion, and custom rather than reason. Practicing philosophy may leave us without friends as we dismiss others’ opinions, but it can help us base our own worth on reason and logic instead of another person’s opinion. We will care less about what random people think of us, and more about who we know ourselves to be.
Ancient philosophers resisted the temptation to care about what others thought of them by using reason and logic to test the opinions of others. If someone else has a negative opinion of us, then we should care only if that opinion is true. Who we know ourselves to be is what matters, not what other random people think of us.
Philosophy teaches us to base our self-worth on what we know to be true through reason, not what other people think of us.
Art helps explain the human condition to us, it is the criticism of life. Many artists have used novels, poems, plays, paintings, and film to challenge society and the way it rewards status. Great artists help us see the destructive path of snobbery and force us to reevaluate which qualities and values have real worth.
Our fear of failure is so great, in large part, because we worry what others will think of us if we fail. Tragedy as an art form helps us look at failure with more understanding and empathy. Tragedies teach us that people are complex, they make mistakes, and sometimes they are just unlucky. We don’t finish a tragedy judging the lead character, we feel for the character. Tragedies remind us that humanity connects us all, and that we too could have the same tragic end.
Comedy effectively masks criticism and important lessons inside entertainment. Great comedians force us to confront our deep vulnerabilities, especially anxiety about our own status. A great joke leaves us feeling awkward that the comedian knew so much about us, and comforted that we are not alone in our insecurities.
Art is an effective tool to relieve the pressure of status anxiety. Art gives us a fresh and liberating perspective on ourselves, status, failure, and the human condition. A tragedy reminds us that status is fleeting, and a comedy forces us to face our own vulnerability.
Great art helps us see ourselves and others for who we truly are and the resulting tears of joy and sadness soften our anxiety.
How status is given in a society changes, just look at what was most valued in different historical eras: Sparta valued jocks who could kill, 8th century Europe prized Christian saints, 12th century Europe honored knights in castles, and 19th century Britain lauded noble gentleman. “The ruling ideas of every age are always the ideas of the ruling class.” Politics is the way people and societies change what they value, or which characteristics and ideals are worthy of high status.
Today status is awarded to people with money. We believe money represents the moral worth of a person and that money brings happiness, but this isn’t true. Native Americans lived a materially modest life, but they enjoyed high levels of contentment. Then, European traders taught indians to want material wealth. Afterwards, the Native American status system quickly shifted from attaining wisdom to collecting things, and these things did not make them happy.
We are led to believe through a barrage of ideology that the communities we live in and their rules, values, and institutions are, somehow, natural. They are not. Societies constantly change, and changes that are impossible to imagine can happen in only a few generations. For example, look at the progress women have made socially, politically, and economically in the 20th century alone. Having a political perspective means understanding the ideologies of our society, and understanding is the first step to creating change.
Societies determine what people value and who receives status, but this changes over time through politics. Today, society values money and uses ideology to convince us that this is the natural order of things. But prizing money is not natural, and understanding this is the first step towards change.
Society changes what it values most based on who is in charge; today society values wealth, but politics can change this too.
Thinking about our own death helps us live a more authentic and meaningful life now. And from the perspective of death, religious and secular ideas of what matters in life are very similar: love, relationships, and charity. Religion encourages faithful followers to worry about their status in the eyes of God, not what the world thinks of them.
Consider how finite your existence is relative to the infinite. Visit ancient ruins and appreciate vast natural landscapes, we are all small and insignificant by comparison. Seeing the enormous difference between our mortal selves and the infinite makes it easy to overlook the minor differences between ourselves and other humans. We are more similar to the rest of humanity than we like to admit, but embracing community can relieve our status anxiety.
Religion teaches us that there are two different types of status we can attain: worldly and spiritual. Worldly status is based on power, wealth, and what other people think of us. Spiritual status depends on humility, love, and serving others. In the past, religion successfully used art, music, and architecture to honor the spiritual attributes and keep them ever present in the sight and mind of people.
Contemplating our own death can help us live a more meaningful life now. Worrying about the differences between people is pointless, we are all small and insignificant compared to infinite time and space. Religion has helped people worry less about getting money and power and more about giving love and service.
We worry less about what the world thinks of us when we contemplate our own death, the relative insignificance of all people, and God’s opinion of us.
Choosing to live your life your own way can reduce your status anxiety, and we have the Bohemians to thank for legitimizing this idea. Bohemians prize art and feeling, not wealth and worldly status. Thoreau gives voice to this Bohemian ideal in Walden saying, “Man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can do without.”
It is difficult to challenge the ideas, culture, and values of the public and live life your own way. It is especially difficult to do this if you maintain friendships and associations with people who primarily value money and power. Bohemians choose their friends carefully and cluster with other Bohemians to avoid the peer pressure of worldly status seekers.
We can’t completely escape our need for status, but we can choose how we satisfy that need. We can actively choose the values that matter most in our life instead of blindly accepting the materialistic values of public opinion. There is more than one way to succeed at life.
Bohemians popularized the idea that you can live life your own way and choose your own values. But choosing not to value money and power is hard if you continue to associate with people who value money and power. We will continue to care about our own status, but we can choose the type of status we will care about and succeed at life in our own way.
It’s not easy, but you can go against public opinion, choose the values you will live by, and succeed at life in your own way.