How to Live “The Good Life” by Thinking Clearly (Book Summary)

May 26, 2020Blog, Books, Clarity, Focus, Stress0 comments

The Art of the Good Life: Clear Thinking for Business and a Better Life by Rolf Dobelli

Summary of the Summary: The world is complicated beyond our comprehension. In order to lead a good life, Dobelli argues, we need a mental toolkit to protect against cognitive errors based on emotions, biases and misinterpretation.

Takeaway:  These mental tools “may not guarantee you a good life, but they’ll give you a fighting chance.”

As much as I like getting lost in a good long book, I appreciate concise, to-the-point writing.

That’s exactly what Rolf Dobelli does in The Art of the Good Life. He gives us 52 mental tools, each outlined in 4 pages or less.

He manages to take lofty ideas like wisdom, dignity and morality and bring them down to earth by describing them in economic terms—how they interplay with “essential resources” like time, money, and focus.

Dobelli’s central aim in The Art of the Good Life is to give us practical advice. He highlights common cognitive errors we make and offers a “mental toolkit” to help out when our mind fails us as a result of emotion, bias or misinterpretation.

I like to think of time, energy and attention as our most valuable resources, but he makes a good case for money being on the list in the chapter eloquently entitled F*ck-You Money.

Dobelli takes the best of ancient wisdom, philosophy, psychology, and economics and assembles a practical toolkit on which we can fall back when making important decisions and developing daily practices. 

While these mental tools don’t guarantee you a good life, they will help you think clearer and act better.

I’ve pulled together quotes and examples from 10 of the 52 mental tools that Dobelli includes in the book. Pick up The Art of the Good Life yourself to peruse his other great insights.

All quotations are Dobelli’s unless stated otherwise. Each section is entitled the same as the corresponding chapter in The Art of the Good Life.

Prevention: Avoid Problems Before You Have to Solve Them

“Imagine two film plots, A and B. In Film A, a ship runs into an iceberg. The ship sinks. The noble captain selflessly, heart-wrenchingly rescues all the passengers from drowning. He’s the last person to leave the ship and clamber into a lifeboat—just moments before it disappears forever into a spout of foam. In Film B, the captain steers the ship around the iceberg, keeping a sensible distance. Which film would you pay to watch? A, of course. But which situation would you prefer as an actual passenger on the ship? That’s equally obvious: B.”

  • “A clever person solves a problem. A wise person avoids it.” – Einstein
  • Wise choices are rarely apparent or remembered because the fallout is avoided
    • We systematically underemphasize the role of competent people in our society (and we do the same in our personal life)
  • Dobelli suggests doing a weekly pre-mortem: Imagine a realistic worst-case scenario in your life. Now backtrack through the development and pinpoint the underlying causes. Work on those. Avoid the worst by addressing the issues well in advance.

The Pledge: Inflexibility as a Strategem

While we often view flexibility and adaptability as an admirable quality and a strength, Dobelli argues the contrary. He points out that deciding on a case-by-case basis quickly leads to decision fatigue. 

  • “When it comes to important issues, flexibility isn’t an advantage—it’s a trap.”
  • “A brain exhausted by decision-making will plump for the most convenient option, which more often than not is also the worst one.”
  • “By being consistent on certain topics, you signal where you stand and establish the areas where there’s no room for negotiation. You communicate self-mastery, making yourself less vulnerable to attack.”

The Negative Art of the Good Life: Do Nothing Wrong and the Right Thing Will Happen

While it’s hard to pinpoint the definition of happiness, the factors that jeopardize happiness (or the good life) are quite evident . It’s a better use of your time to eliminate the bad than to search for what to add.

  • “It’s not what you add that enriches your life—it’s what you omit.”
  • “It’s remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.” – Charlie Munger

The Introspection Illusion: Take Feelings Seriously—Just Not Your Own

This mental tool flies in the face of the “follow your heart” philosophy.

  • The introspection illusion is “the mistaken belief that we can learn what we truly desire through sheer intellectual contemplation
  • “The introspection of current conscious experience, far from being secure, nearly infallible, is faulty, untrustworthy, and misleading—not just possibly mistaken, but massively and pervasively.” –  Stanford professor Eric Schwitzgebel
  • It’s more helpful to reference your past or a trusted friend than your current emotions.
  • Adopt a relaxed, third-person approach to your feelings and you’ll notice they pass as quickly as they come

Life Stories Are Lies: Why We Go Through the World with a False Self-Image

This chapter is all about dismantling the brain vs. computer comparison: The brain stores information in the form of stories, not raw data. Your remembering self is the part of the mind that creates these stories that are rife with gaps, misconceptions and self-serving bias.

  • We fail to take into account personal change, chance and faulty interpretation (this links back to the previous advice to phone a friend for an objective view)
  • “The end result is that we’re walking around with a false self-image, believing we’re less multi-layered, conflicted and paradoxical than we truly are. So don’t be surprised when somebody else judges you ‘incorrectly.’”
  • “Part of the good life is seeing yourself as realistically as possible—contradictions, shortcomings, dark sides and all. If you see yourself realistically, you’ve got a much better chance of becoming who you want to be.”

The Opinion Volcano: Why You’re Better Off Without Opinions

“We tend—especially with difficult questions—to instantly pick a side. Only then do we consult our rational mind, looking to justify and shore up our position.”

  • This is the result of the affect heuristic:  “An affect is an instantaneous, one-dimensional emotion. It’s superficial and has only two settings: positive or negative, “I like” or “I don’t like.””
  • “An affect appears at lightning speed, we hurriedly ransack our brains for reasons, examples and anecdotes to back it up—and there we have our opinion
  • Affects are useful in daily life, just not in response to complicated topics

The Ovarian Lottery: Why You Didn’t Earn Your Success

“Imagine there are two identical twins in the womb, both equally bright and energetic. And the genie says to them, ‘One of you is going to be born in the United States, and one of you is going to be born in Bangladesh. And if you wind up in Bangladesh, you will pay no taxes. What percentage of your income would you bid to be the one that is born in the United States’”
– Warren Buffet

  • Dobelli remarks that most people bid about 80%
  • “The fact that our place of birth is worth that much money to us makes it clear how greatly it influences our success.”
  • “If you believe your success is based on relentlessly hard work, on driving tenacity and far too many night shifts, you’re not necessarily wrong. It’s just that you owe the willpower you’re so proud of to the interplay between your genes and environment
  • Dobelli suggests that practicing humility and gratefulness is the “only appropriate response.”
  • The conclusion, then, is that “Donations and taxes aren’t financial matters. First and foremost, they’re issues of morality.”

The Focus Trap: How to Manage Your Most Important Resource

Dobelli positions focus, time and money as our most important resources, with focus as the most important, but least understood.

  • “We’re ceaselessly entertained with sometimes banal, sometimes thrilling stories. We’re flattered, wooed and offered suggestions. And so we feel a little like kings, when in reality we should feel like spoon-fed slaves.”
  • “Don’t confuse what’s new with what’s relevant.”
  • Essentialism comes into play with focus: “Your happiness is determined by how you allocate your attention.” – Paul Dolan
  • “You always live where your focus is directed.”

Sturgeon’s Law: How to Tune Your Bullsh*t Detector

“90 percent of everything is crap. That is true, whether you are talking about physics, chemistry, evolutionary psychology, sociology, medicine, you name it—rock music, country western.”
– Daniel Dennett

  • Identify the essentials: “Concentrate on being selective, on the few valuable things, and leave everything else aside.”
  • “The market isn’t an indicator of the relevance, quality or value of its wares.”
  • Of course, Sturgeon’s Law applies to us too. This ties into The Opinion Volcano mentioned above. So be mindful of how seriously you take yourself.

Inner Success: Why Your Input is More Important than Your Output

Because success depends heavily on “time” and “chance,” Dobelli suggests we disregard external markers of success and focus on inner success

  • “Definitions of success are products of their time”
  • “Depending on the century in which you were born, society would have extolled some other kind of success—but always doing its best to convince you of its particular definition. Don’t just blindly follow the flags. Wherever they lead, you certainly won’t find the good life.”
  • Added benefit: “Inner success is more stable than the external kind.”
  • Inner success is found by conscious reflection: “Every evening, take stock: When did you fail today? When did you let the day be poisoned by toxic emotions? What things beyond your control did you let upset you? And which mental tools are required for self-improvement.”
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