Melissa Baggett's Reviews > You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life

You Learn by Living by Eleanor Roosevelt
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Aug 12, 2010

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bookshelves: feminism-women-s-studies, success-literature
Read from August 08 to 12, 2010

In this book, Eleanor Roosevelt outlines eleven actions that each person must take in order to lead a fulfilling life. They are as follows:
1. Learning to Learn--This first key makes the others possible. A fulfilled person must be curious and must learn to use his or her mind as a tool to understand and influence the world. Roosevelt insists that beyond discipline and training, a sense that life is an adventure makes people not only willing but passionate to learn about themselves, their fellow human beings, and the world. Interests cultivated by the curious mind beget new interests, which beget new interests, and so on, until the interested person is the fulfilled person.
2. Fear, The Great Enemy--For a woman whose husband intoned, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself," this key does not surprise the reader. "Fear has always seemed to me to be the worst stumbling block which anyone has to face," Roosevelt writes. "It is the great crippler." Roosevelt's suggestion for overcoming fear is self-discipline--once one has faced certain fears, the strength and confidence gained from those experiences foster the overcoming of new fears. On the flip side, not facing one's fears makes one weaker, and when one is weaker, one has a harder time facing other fears. "Do the things that interest you and do them with all your heart. Don't be concerned about whether people are watching you or criticizing you. The chances are that they aren't paying any attention to you. It's your attention to yourself that is so stultifying."
3. The Uses of Time--As someone who never feels like I'm productive enough, I was especially interested in Roosevelt's ideas on the subject. One statement, credited to a deceased relative, sticks out: "We have all the time there is." Roosevelt solves the problem of the best way to use time in three ways: 1) achieving an inner calm that allows for one to function contentedly in a stressful environment, 2) concentrating on the task at hand (TAKE THAT MULTITASKING!!!), and 3) arranging the day so that certain tasks are completed at certain times, planning for everything that must be done, and remaining flexible enough to handle the unexpected. Roosevelt also stresses the importance of maintaining good health in order to facilitate the other methods. But these steps are secondary to having something to use one's time for. "The most unhappy people in the world are those who face the days without knowing what to do with their time. But if you have more projects than you have time for, you are not going to be an unhappy person." One must decide what one's life (i.e. time) is going to count for, and then make it count.
4. The Difficult Art of Maturity--Self-respect and self-knowledge as well as an understanding of one's limitations and the limitations of others are all crucial components of maturity. Another important factor is an awareness that as people, we are interdependent. Roosevelt stresses that teaching children as early as possible how little they can do alone is key to helping them become happy, productive adults. Being able to take and use criticism and evaluation are also indicators of maturity. At the top of the heap comes an awareness of one's own values. "To be mature you have to realize what you value most.... Not to arrive at a clear understanding of one's own values is a tragic waste. You have missed the whole point of what life is for."
5. Readjustment is Endless--Here is an interesting observation on Roosevelt's part: She states (correctly, I believe) that women have the advantage of being expected, to a greater extent than men, to make adjustments throughout their lives. The key to handling life is to adjust when necessary; happy people tend to be happy in spite of their circumstances, not because of them.
6. Learning to be Useful--"Happiness is not a goal, it's a by-product." One achieves fulfillment by having a sense of purpose. "Usefulness, whatever form it may take, is the price we should pay for the air we breathe and the food we eat and the privilege of being alive." Roosevelt touts the importance of volunteer work, pointing out that needs exist for all kinds of people to do all kinds of work. One should express one's appreciation for living on this earth by helping others, regardless of monetary rewards.
7. The Right to be an Individual--Roosevelt posits that in order to be fully human, one must assert one's individuality. Human nature is all about an innate drive to be oneself and to achieve self-actualization through various expressions of that self. "It is a brave thing to have courage to be an individual; it is also, perhaps, a lonely thing. But it is better than not being an individual, which is to be nobody at all." Roosevelt lauds what she calls social conformity, which is basically the kind of behavior that allows people to co-exist in society, while decrying conformity to "alien" standards in order to go with the proverbial flow and achieve a level of acceptance by denying one's true self. Roosevelt refers to the keeping up with the Joneses as "the real menaces of this country." (And, as we have seen in the years since she wrote this book in 1960, it's also a menace to our environment and the world.) Not only will one never reach the status of the Joneses, one will lose oneself in the effort. "You can get rid of your neighbors, but you cannot get rid of yourself, so you are the person to be satisfied."
8. How to get the Best out of People--Very little can be accomplished alone. A truly happy, fulfilled person will come to accept, learn from and use the strengths and weaknesses of others as a part of life. Roosevelt identifies two qualities one must have: one must be a good listener, and one must be able to empathize with others. People share more commonalities than they do differences; being able to see oneself as a member of the human race and learning to work with others in that race is crucial.
9. Facing Responsibility--One statement in this chapter jumped out at me more so than others: "I have often thought that so much attention is paid to the aggressive sins, such as violence and cruelty and greed with all their tragic effects, that too little attention is paid to the passive sins, such as apathy and laziness, which in the long run can have a more devastating and destructive effect upon society than the others." Passivity is a far graver and more insidious enemy in that it enables aggression, but it also gives people an excuse not to take responsibility. Is to abstain from building gas chambers the same as to fight for human rights? And at the same time, if the gas chambers are built, outfitted and used while one passively looks on, is one not responsible in some part for their existence? To be responsible, one must not only monitor one's behavior, but one must have the courage to speak out when others are doing wrong. But before any of that can happen, Roosevelt maintains that one must have the courage--and take the responsibility--to decide for oneself what is right and what is wrong.
10. How Everyone Can Take Part in Politics--Bad news. Voting is a minimum, according to Roosevelt. Not only must one vote, but one must be educated about whom to vote for and what their stance on issues means in terms of its implications for the future. Challenging the "If you lie down with dogs, you wake up with fleas" argument, Roosevelt maintains that the only way to instill any sort of integrity into the dirty business of politics is to actively involve oneself in it, and, using integrity, reform it.
11. Learning to be a Public Servant--If one chooses to be a public servant, the challenge comes in understanding, first of all, what that means. A public servant must serve, first and foremost, and be empathetic to the needs of his (and Roosevelt sticks to this pronoun) constituents. At the same time, a good public servant must not rely on his position for his livelihood; only a public servant with some other means of income can truly make the best decisions. Public servants must also have an ear for the suggestions of others but not get so bogged down in public opinion that they never do anything worth the effort for fear of offending someone.
A good read, though I would have preferred more concrete examples from Roosevelt's own life and fewer anecdotes about those in her acquaintance.
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