A Book of Secrets is a collection of stories, reflections, and experiences that explore the concept of happiness.
Self-help books are often criticized for their ambiguous nature, filled with research findings and best practices that leave readers wondering, "how can I apply this?". Brown resolves this problem by reflecting on his own life experiences and how he's learned to better cope with the emotional turmoil that precedes them. Each chapter focuses on a specific event that Brown uses to unpack a theme of lessons around. Despite lives being individualistic, each observation offers actionable and widely applicable guidelines (key takeaway number one, for instance). I found myself nodding in agreement with Brown's reflections, many of which I have shared but failed to articulate so succinctly (the passage in chapter 5 about shyness and small talk, for example).
1. Here is another self-sabotaging aspect of ourselves, which gets us in the end. It relates to the way we view ourselves and gauge our success. When we think forward a few years and picture ourselves in a better position, we are making a comparison of our present self with our future self, and this provides us with our sense of purpose. But when those few years have passed, and if we now enjoy that improved standing, what do we do? Do we look back to our younger self and feel happy that we have moved forward? Very rarely. Instead we look around our peer group now, and compare ourselves with those who are doing a little better than us. And again we find ourselves lacking. This unhappy trick of our nature keeps the cycle of motivation going, and thus it may well serve an evolutionary purpose. But over time it will inspire us less and less. Sooner or later – and usually around those mid-forties – the optimistic mindset that served us is likely to strike us as futile.
2. We have largely forgotten the role of Fortune in our lives, of which the Greeks are very keen to remind us. The very pride against which they warned us is embedded in our modern mantras of goal-setting and self-belief. The Ancients alerted us to the fact that while we may try to fulfil our ambitions, we do so at the mercy of Fate. Two thousand years later, in his 1851 Counsels and Maxims, the influential German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer would express it thus: ‘Events and our chief aims can be in most cases compared to two forces that pull in different directions, their resultant diagonal being the course of our life.’ The single-mindedness we often adopt as we try to control our fates will be our downfall; the Stoics and Epicureans of the Classical era pointed us to the value of moving in an easier accordance with Fortune rather than acting as if we can control it.
3. We can unshackle the past from our present by learning to identify the triggers which repeatedly trouble us, or cause problems in our lives. What are the situations that send us hurtling back to face the beasts of our biography? Where do we feel abandoned? Overwhelmed? Some of these attachments may be too raw and painful, and we might require professional help to find breathing space between past and present. But meanwhile, in a hundred more manageable ways, we can look for the snags that reveal our rough edges and cause painful splinters in others. And that project of questioning why our unhappy behaviours persist, what this present reminds us of in the past: this is part of our task, especially in the clearing of midlife.
Aren’t our worst moments generally characterized by behaviours that spring from a certainty in our judgements that turns out to be naive?
We concoct stories regarding the motivations of even those we are supposed to love the most – tales that may bear little relation to reality.
We are seekers of resemblance, a fact that permits us to navigate our environment by utilizing shortcuts, avoiding things that look dangerous, recognizing what is frail, forming rapid assessments of people based on a few cues: in short, maintaining our particular model of the world. We must shift constantly between the particular and the universal, the present and past, in order to secure any chance of a comfortable future. Where have I encountered this before? What does this remind me of? Who have I met like this?
We consistently work by metaphor, via these overlapping, time-crunching, mutually illuminating comparisons of people, places, things. We live analogously to our own history. Thus the very fabric of the world meets us in a way that is fundamentally fluctuating, and to navigate it we must force its living contours into some recognizable shape. We reduce a vibrant complexity that envelops and includes us in its activities to a simplistic model of life that feels predictable but which has somehow cast us out from the role of participant to that of observer. Thus positioned, we forget we are caught up in the maelstrom, as malleable and unreasonable as the rest of them, and are ourselves, on occasion, a great source of pain.
People who don’t fully understand a topic tend to have disproportionately confident answers about it. The less you know, the less you know what you don’t know. This is the Dunning-Kruger effect, and it is more than evident in every reactionary tweet, every talent-show contestant’s protestations at her summary disqualification, every toddler’s temper tantrum.
Whereas we in the West are easily enamoured with the notion of being authentic, ‘true to ourselves’, even accepting of our good and bad parts, the Ancient Chinese tradition would prefer us to prioritize better interactions with others. It might propose that what we see as our ‘authenticity’ amounts to no more than a bunch of confused behavioural patterns into which we have fallen.
The birth of the Internet was a dream of democratization and self-expression. Now, as market forces take our hand and guide us along the paths of least resistance, and as information is disseminated according to outrage rather than truth-value, Estrin laments, ‘we did not anticipate the erosion of democracy’.
To develop our muscles, we strain and sweat and lift weights that are uncomfortable. Friction and struggle lead to growth. It is generally less easy for us to apply the same ethos to our mental well-being. In that realm, we are experts at shunning adversity: we avoid stress and seek easier forms of fulfilment. To this end, we have been seduced by convenience.
If meaning demands a story to be told, then it also requires tension, which is a form of friction. Growth demands tension too, even more so. We cannot grow (and in turn find meaning) unless we incorporate tension and anxiety into our landscape of acceptable emotions.
Never have we been better advised to be suspicious of the prioritizing of convenience. It can misfire so badly when it is born from a desire to hook us to a product rather than a sensitivity towards our needs.
The trouble with being shy is that you seem anything but: more likely you will appear aloof, cold, or uninterested. It takes a sensitive type to recognize the fact that you’re daunted and have worked yourself into a paralysing frenzy of shame. And it is shame: shame that you have nothing to contribute, shame that you must be a very disappointing guest, shame that you’ve been like this before.
Shyness is not plain introversion. Since Susan Cain’s 2012 book Quiet, we introverts have enjoyed a little more understanding, or at least a better language with which to understand ourselves. We prefer, Cain explained, less stimulating environments, and have a tendency to ‘re-charge’ alone rather than in company, unlike our more outgoing colleagues. Introversion has no inherent connection with anxiety or fear, and may very well be rooted in genetics. Shyness, on the other hand, entails a fear of negative judgement. It amounts to a very common, everyday social anxiety. It can accompany both intro- and extroversion. There are calm and anxious introverts, composed or nervous extroverts.
What are the right things to say and do (when around strangers)? The answer: they are the things you say and do with people you’re comfortable around. Draw from your own experience. Your answers are there.
Take, for example, small talk. No one enjoys it; everyone except the truly tedious is looking for a way out. It feels like a trap because we are unable to show ourselves: conversation is caught around the subjects of trivial things in the external world and we can contribute nothing about ourselves nor hear anything of interest about others. The best response, then, is to provide such a lifeline for yourself and your company, rather than to remain stultified by it. In the company of your friends, this would never happen. If one of them asked you So how was your journey? or How long does it take you to put a show together? or How do you know Brian?, your answer would rarely be straightforward and factual. You would give the information – Ooh, an hour and a half – but most likely you would tack on some personal information: but Giles wouldn’t shut up for the whole journey, and someone was giving me really helpful driving tips from the passenger seat which at one point made me want to swerve into oncoming traffic. If there was really nothing to add, you’d quickly move on to another topic or ask something yourself. The reason why we find small talk so hateful is most likely not that we lack a skill for it or are no good with people. Perhaps you’re actually very interested in people, and want to get to the juicy stuff but can’t find a way out of the useless fact-gathering dirge.
A common difference between charismatic types who make you feel comfortable and those from whom you will walk away certain that you have wasted your time is that the former ask questions that bypass the specifics of, say, your job and quickly cut through to the things that connect us as humans. If you are introduced to someone as a teacher, what sort of conversation would you rather have? One about teaching, or one in which you are both laughing about a weird fear that you happen to share?
Small talk feels superficial, and conversation can feel uninteresting, because it never ventures beyond the level at which you are immediately presented, such as that of a schoolteacher. And likewise, if all people know about you is that you have a connection with Brian who is hosting the party, they will probably ask about the nature of that relationship.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is not to get better at small talk, it is to provide an exit from small talk by offering a lifeline into comfortable personal territory and expanding options for connection. And if you do it gently, people will grab at it. Brian? I met him at a friend’s work thing. He taught me a trick with a glass of water, which I went home and tried and ended up drenching the dog. My son makes me do it for guests now. My son’s a bit of a dick like that. So many lifelines there for connection. What’s the trick? How old is your son? Even, What breed of dog do you have? And then, as things progress, your specific son or dog will turn out to be not as interesting as, say, the ordeals or rewards of having children or pets – subjects which offer further possibilities for relatedness.
According to Festinger's theory, when we have to hold two inconsistent ideas simultaneously, we change them until they can be brought into line. We experience the discomfort, or dissonance, and tend to either rationalize or edit out what cannot be made to agree.
If magic contains any secret worth discovering, it is that we are master editors of our experience, and live out an irresistible urge to form stories from the data we are offered – stories by which we then come to live.
To free ourselves up to an honest relationship with the present moment, there is much in our past we can learn to accommodate on more friendly terms. It is surely the ambiguous interplay and relationship between the past, present and future that we should be encouraged to better understand and embrace.
Part of our task is to place ourselves correctly in time, not to deny it. Only its passage permits change and purpose: meaning requires a story, which occurs across time.
MV: In this chapter, Brown shares the story of losing his father during the COVID-19 pandemic. I did not highlight anything in this section, but it did make me consider the importance of spending time with loved ones. Though it sounds trite and obvious, how often do we take advantage of this undeniable fact? We never know how long we will be able to spend with our families, and depending on how frequently we visit, any day could be our last with them. Distractions seem like an obvious trade-off for moments we will cherish after we’ve laid our loved ones to rest. Yet, we are so often swept away by life's busy streams that it takes a sudden scare to refocus on what's truly important.
Busyness is promoted everywhere: it is a handy form of distraction, a way of tethering ourselves to that outer circumference of life.
Perhaps, if we’re lucky, we are doing well in the eyes of the world or have ticked off some major goals we wanted to achieve. But even if this is the case, we may now struggle to find the pleasure in precisely those kinds of achievement. We know they are supposed to make us feel grateful and content, but they’re not having the right effect. Whichever way it comes, the optimism that drove us forward has been gradually eroded by the crashing waves of reality.
We may faintly sense that we have been deflected from our true path, because of the faulty nature of our navigational tools and that relentless need to be planting our flag somewhere. It may feel like our principal social and professional goals have been realized, but at the expense of our happiness, or of our ‘authentic self’, whatever that might be. So a question for this time is: if we hadn’t internalized this or that misguided belief about ourselves, if we hadn’t sought certain rewards or worked so hard to avoid unnecessary terrors, where might we have headed? What was the authentic path we never trod? What are we supposed to be doing?
We can start to pick apart the flawed intelligence which has caused our problems and sent us astray. What are the recurring problems in our lives that might point towards a common source, and where could their origin lie within ourselves?
Here is the strange fact: we may live through an entire life without ever appearing as ourselves. Until now we have led an existence shaped by a conglomeration of wishes: our own, those of our parents, those of the many forces which have pressed upon us. We have hung on to our childish attitudes and avoided so many opportunities for growth. The grand opportunity of midlife, and of the wide space offered by that clearing, starts with finding what we actually want for ourselves.
The two urges will never sit quite comfortably: the growth we are to seek will only happen through bruising. We always have to let go of what feels secure – our familiar, childish ways – to fully face the world as ourselves.
When we wish to succeed in some plan across time, we need to sacrifice certain short-term pleasures for longer-term benefits. Such is our challenge. Perhaps we must face a fear now because we know the benefits will be worthwhile. We must exercise or choose to study rather than socialize, because it will serve us better in the future. We must in essence learn to shore up our reserves, and persevere in the face of temptation. To rely on sustained conscious effort is to fight a losing battle: it invariably leads to diminishing returns, as we struggle to maintain the fight. It’s precisely the worst means of encouraging tenacity.
An effective means of avoiding (reducing emotions) I have discovered, is to employ the Stoic move of lowering expectations about how the day will progress. I no longer wake up with a vision for myself of happily working all morning and afternoon on personal projects; instead I picture the day unravelling first with tasks and duties, after which my time for treats will find its appropriate place. Without such a stratagem, which sounds obvious in the description but is reluctant to appear so in the bleary mess of a morning, the frantic consternation I experience betrays the single-mindedness of my will.
What is our final imperative as we come to the close of this book? I think the answer is this: that we remember to appear in our lives. The close-up view of our lives does not allow us the perspective we need for the big picture. As with any mosaic, we need to first step back. Most people, wrote Schopenhauer, ‘discover when they look back on their life that they have been living the whole time ad interim, and are surprised to see that which they let go by so unregarded and unenjoyed was precisely their life, was precisely that in expectation of which they lived’. The things to which we pay scant attention might turn out to be the things we are living for.
Let everything happen to you: Beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final. – Rainer Maria Rilke
Events and our chief aims can be in most cases compared to two forces that pull in different directions, their resultant diagonal being the course of our life. – Arthur Schopenhauer
The real problem of humanity is the following: we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology. – Edward O. Wilson
How can I begin anything new with all of yesterday in me? – Leonard Cohen
The first half of life is devoted to forming a healthy ego, the second half is going inward and letting go of it. - Carl Jung
In this world, which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other; we have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way – and if we are to live together and not die together we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance, which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet. – Bertrand Russell
Maybe becoming who you are involves getting over who you think you should be. - John Kaag
Most of us live our lives backing into the future, making the choice of each new moment from the data and agenda of the old. With every step forward, we cling possessively to our past. – James Hollis
People are so terribly far apart from each other, and people in love are often at the furthest distance. They throw all that is their own to the other person who fails to catch it, and it ends upon a pile somewhere between them and finally keeps them from seeing and approaching each other. – Rainer Maria Rilke
I am commonly paralysed by an awareness that I only know my small share of the story.
While we choose to ‘own’ certain of our qualities, we also forget that it is precisely what lurks unseen that truly owns us.
An obsession with busyness is certainly no friend to wonder, and might explain why the latter seems so scarce.
We cannot grow without letting go of some comfortable aspect of our former selves.
We seem to absorb into ourselves something of the greatness we perceive.
Some destroy the lives of those around them, while many more never truly claim the one they have.
I am a seasoned enthusiast of the gruelling replay, which keeps me awake on subsequent nights.
We are always looking to control and arrange what we can, and when the world offers chaos, we move our sights to what we can marshal at the micro-level.
The meaning of a thing comes from the relationship it has to us, which in turn is dependent upon our perceptions and memories, the way we use the objects in question, and the ever-changing context in which those objects appear.
Take your eyes off the horizon: the better version of yourself will be found here already, tempered and shaped by the requirements of responsibility and sharing.
Choices I make every day rely on the data I feel I have accrued from analogous events or encounters in my past.
Whenever we are trying to achieve something great, we need time to assemble ourselves, to plan and assess, so that we can bring the best of our natures to the project. If we think it’s supposed to be easy, we may just throw ourselves into it without care. This may be forgivable in youth, but as we grow we will come to know the importance of privately gathering our strength. ‘When you give someone flowers, you arrange them beforehand, don’t you?’ asks Rilke in his letters. Let’s make sure, then, that we arrange ourselves as and when we need to.
Note: Aside from the 'Six Sentence Summary' section, all the text in this summary are highlights from the book. Passages marked 'MV' are my comments for content, clarity, or readability.