In the 2013 Coen brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis the eponymous central character stumbles through a difficult week, wondering where his life is going and why he can’t make a success of his music career despite talent and self-belief.
The struggling folk singer can’t do right for doing wrong and it’s hard to point to any single reason why. There’s a grudging melancholy at the heart of the film with the anti-hero battling the odds but always knowing that he won’t overcome them and never really understanding why.
I was reminded of Llewyn Davis reading the first few chapters of this excellent book aimed at midlife careerists looking to find fulfilment.
The first thing to say is that unlike most self-help books it’s written in a breezy, down to earth way without all the usual trite platitudes or guru jargon. The author has a genuinely friendly tone of voice and rather than preaching to the reader, comes across as a ‘been-there-done-that’ old pal who wants to pass on his experience.
It’s also packed with brilliant historical quotes which ease you through what is essentially a practical manual to help define where you want to go in your career.
“Oh the weather is against me and the wind blows hard. And the rain she’s a-turnin’ into hail,” Bob Dylan.
As you reach middle age you naturally start reflecting, measuring, assessing where you are and where you want to be, but you may not always like what you find.
But in reading David’s book you find out that we all feel that way, it’s normal and that ultimately life is a struggle that we must learn to enjoy.
Middle age means greater introspection as we juggle more senior roles at work, small children at home and that nagging self-doubt that we’re doing it wrong or others seem to be able to do it so much better.
“What is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.” Don Draper, Mad Men
Essentially this is a self-help book for people who don’t read self-help books with the first part all about understanding what is important to you and learning how you can start to enjoy the struggle.
This section really helps with some of that critical thinking that we never seem to have the time to do because work/life/home is always so manic. The key lesson from David is recognising the difference between happiness and pleasure, identifying your key purpose in life and then doing something about it.
“The lecture room of the philosopher is a hospital; students ought not to walk out of it in pleasure, but in pain,” Commander James B Stockdale.
Through David’s own life story we see that none of this is easy and can sometimes mean big, uncomfortable change (he left a senior role at a big PR agency to set up on his own). He shares his own life lessons, his passion for running and a new found frugality all offered up as an easy to follow recipe for genuine change.
He also shares a practical 25 point plan to improve your digital presence which will be useful even for those not working in PR.
None of it is complicated or pretentious, just well presented, practical advice that you’ve never had the time to sit and think about.
“Oh while I live, to be the ruler of life, not a slave, to meet life as a powerful conqueror, and nothing exterior to me will ever take command of me.” Walt Whitman.
The financial section of the book was a bit of a change of gear, especially for someone like me who knows nothing about economics. I did learn that I’m currently in the richest 0.6% of people on earth which came as something of a shock. The truth is, I’m wasting money every day – like every single one of you – and I’ve already got much more frugal since finishing this chapter.
For some people this will provide a parsimonious escape plan for early retirement, but for me it’s more about understanding how to get organised and make the best of the resources you already have.
He builds a picture of change that draws together small, incremental improvements in all areas of life which reminded of another book, Black Box thinking by Matthew Syed, which looks closely at the concept of marginal gains and high performance. In sport, healthcare and the corporate world the theory is that lots of tiny changes done consistently over time, can lead to huge overall improvements.
In Reset Sawyer talks a lot about the futility of searching for a mythical Nirvana, but this book is a manual that will at least make you think hard about how you could maybe almost get there too.
Notes and observations
- Be a generalist not a specialist. Make sure you know a little bit about a lot of things.
- Declutter your mind and your body, soul and wallet will follow.
- Buy some index cards.
- Don’t confuse pleasure with happiness.
- Fix that smartphone addiction by adjusting your notifications.
- Understand exactly what makes you happy and fulfilled, then do more of that.
- Stop comparing yourself with others.
- Start being smarter financially.
- Build good habits and make them into a routine.
- Most of all read this book.