'School of Life' self-help books tackle big questions

jmurawski@newsobserver.comMay 11, 2013 

  • Nonfiction How to Change the World John-Paul Flintoff, Picador, 208 pages How to Find Fulfilling Work Roman Krznaric, Picador, 224 pages

Say you’re one of those overachievers with a lifetime career plan in place by your senior prom and an overactive networking gland to go with it. You grind your way through college, picking up your degree in something sure and functional, and you hit all the success milestones on schedule.

Years later the no-nonsense strategy still nags at you. With your race half done, you linger on roads not taken, be they college electives on metaphysical poetry or self-discovery escapades through South America.

If this portrait looks familiar (and even if it doesn’t), here is your calling card to explore a new series of self-help primers on the art of living well. The books, published by “The School of Life” project, are written for those who seem to have it all, but are too often visited by malaise.

“The School of Life” was founded by Alain de Botton, a Swiss-born philosopher who seems biographically destined for this sort of task. De Botton’s plutocratic father co-founded the Global Asset Management financial firm, giving the bookish son a lifetime opportunity to contemplate the relationship of success to happiness, and of wealth to wisdom.

De Botton’s concept breathes ambition far beyond the chicken-soup-of-the-month formula, promising to deliver writing that is eminently readable, provocative and even profound. These librettos – fitting neatly about 200 pages – are written by legit authors and are tastefully presentable: French flaps, deckle edge and giftable trim size (to quote from the publicity boilerplate).

To accentuate the coffee-table allure, the two new books lob questions about the great personal quandaries of our age: “How To Change The World” and “How To Find Fulfilling Work.” Just the titles alone will suggest an ingenious plot to clone columnist David Brooks and supply ready wisdom on self-actualization.

“How To Find Fulfilling Work,” written by School of Life co-founder Roman Krznaric, is prone to sound quaintly utopian in an era of chronic unemployment, when many jobbers are grateful for their paychecks. And yet it is hard not to be aware that an occupation that conferred status and respectability just a few decades ago is often viewed today as a millstone.

It wasn’t always this way. The plague of job dissatisfaction is a recent development, Krznaric explains. It springs from a culture that celebrates individualism and self-expression at a time of increasing workplace mechanization, stress and overwork.

One could add another factor: affluence. Along with economic plenty comes the inevitable ennui of the privileged classes. Disaffection is the curse of success.

The author’s modus operandi is the intellectual tease act of writers since the dawn of parchment: Tell some perfectly contented sap that his or her life is sorely lacking, then proffer salves and ointments. Krznaric suggests various remedies, such as volunteering and career research, but his book is as much reflective as utilitarian. He cites enough philosophers, social theorists and cultural critics to fill the gaps in anyone’s cultural resume.

The implication here – that intelligent reading can serve as a cure for afflictions of the spirit – resonates throughout without quite being reduced to a bullet point.

“How to Change the World,” by John-Paul Flintoff, tackles global change on the microcosmic level, bringing social change to one neighborhood block at a time.

But this moral guide may be more interesting for the author’s willingness to break ranks with a natural constituency of readers who are prone to entertain smug notions about sinister industries and evil empires. Flintoff shows little patience for the self-serving assumption that fixating on global problems like climate change and poverty is a sign of moral superiority over those who manufacture components or create art.

He points out that solving global hunger has led to an overabundance of cheap food and sparked an unsustainable worldwide population explosion. And he notes that labor policies that drive up worker wages can also lead to offshoring, outsourcing and downsizing.

Page after page of his book is spent on clearing away such mental clutter. This leads to the insight that declaring one’s liberation from rigid ideologies about how to improve the world may be the first step toward improving the world.

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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