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BOOK REVIEW: The School of Life – An Emotional Education by the School of Life

| 17 April 2020 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: The School of Life – An Emotional Education by the School of Life
Hamish Hamilton
September 2019
Paperback, $32.99
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo

Non-Fiction Books / Philosophy / Popular Philosophy

70% Rocking

The work performed by The School of Life is important. This institution educates people on matters of emotional intelligence and equips them with the tools needed to achieve emotional maturity. The School of Life – An Emotional Education draws together ten years’ worth of research, thinking and lessons. It offers readers some worthy insights, but there are moments where it’s let down by its execution.

We need to be sophisticated enough not to reject a truth because it sounds like something we already know. We need to be mature enough to bend down and pick up governing ideas in their simplest guises. We need to remain open to vast truths that can be stated in the language of a child.

The School of Life was founded by philosopher and author, Alain de Botton, who also writes the introduction here. He gathers together expert thinkers and writers who pen detailed looks at five aspects of human life: the self, others, relationships, work, and culture. These essays draw upon different facets of psychology, ancient history, philosophy and religion. They give us intelligent lessons in what it is to be human, and the transformative powers of self-knowledge and emotional intelligence.

Every human can be guaranteed to frustrate, anger, annoy, madden and disappoint us – and we will (without any malice) do the same to them. There can be no end to our sense of emptiness and incompleteness. This is a truth chiselled indelibly into the script of romantic life. Choosing whom to commit ourselves to is therefore merely a case of identifying a specific kind of dissatisfaction we can bear rather than an occasion to escape from grief altogether.

The prose here is quite formal and it can be a little dry to read at times. This is a shame when you consider how fascinating the subject matter can be. The authors look at things like how our early patterns of behaviour can affect our adult lives. There are some fascinating lessons to be had here, but often these require more than one reading to really sink in.

Friendship is the dividend of gratitude that flows from an acknowledgement that one has offered something very valuable by talking: the key to one’s self-esteem and dignity. It’s deeply poignant that we should expend so much effort on trying to look strong before the world when, all the while, it’s really only ever the revelation of the somewhat embarrassing, sad, melancholy and anxious bits of us that renders us endearing to others and transforms strangers into friends.

The big message this text is trying to convey is that most of us are broken individuals. We are steering blindly through complicated situations because our schooling often ends once we leave formal educational institutions. We often rely a lot on intuition because our schooling often hasn’t taught us how to adequately process our emotions. This book promises some help through insightful points that are designed to deepen our understanding of ourselves and others. It is only through this process of self-understanding and realisation that we can achieve true fulfilment.

We know ourselves from the inside, but others only from the outside. We’re constantly aware of all our anxieties and doubts from within, yet all we know of others is what they happen to do and tell us, a far narrower and more edited source of information. We are very often left to conclude that we must be at the more freakish, revolting end of human nature.
But really we’re just failing to imagine that others are every bit as fragile and strange as we are.

This book is like an encyclopaedia of sorts. Under a series of different topic subheadings we learn about research and elements of our culture. It also offers forms of guidance but often this is lost because the text is not always accessible. This may be fine for readers used to consuming academic texts, but others may find themselves getting a little lost at times. Black and white artworks are also included here, but feel unnecessary, especially given the poor printing quality of the book.

We are a certain way because we were knocked off a more fulfilling trajectory years ago. In the face of a viciously competitive parent, we took refuge in underachievement…Hurt by a dismissive parent, we fell into patterns of emotional avoidance. A volatile parent pushed us towards our present meekness. Early overprotectiveness inspired timidity and, around any complex situation, panic. A continually busy, inattentive parent was the catalyst for a personality marked by exhausting attention-seeking behaviour.
There is always a logic and there is always a history.

The School of Life is a challenging text because it covers a deep array of complex subjects. It feels like a university textbook that is trying to help people through some important elements of psychology and humanity. While there are some great pearls of wisdom to be found here, at times the message gets lost in translation. This is a little like searching for a pearl in a large oyster farm, it’s buried in there but sometimes proves rather elusive.

Category: Book Reviews

About the Author ()

Natalie Salvo is a foodie and writer from Sydney. You can find her digging around in second hand book shops or submerged in vinyl crates at good record stores. Her website is at:

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