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Life is Hard: Book Review
How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way
This month we’re reviewing the book Life is Hard by Kieran Setiya. I first heard this book referenced on a podcast (though I can’t recall which one now) and added it to my reading list. And it has risen up to the top of my reading list, especially given so many things going on right now.
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I’ve been having many conversations with friends and former coworkers about the recent layoffs happening around the technology industry, which have impacted many of us, myself included. In the grand scheme of life, being laid off from a job is far from the hardest thing many of us will face, but it is still emotionally difficult, and like any major life event, can cause significant stress to us and those around us.
So that is the background to this month’s book review. Whether you’ve been impacted by recent layoffs, have experienced other major life events, or just want a lens for greater empathy, read on.
Setiya is a professor of philosophy at MIT. He draws upon many philosophical concepts, both ancient and modern, as he tackles the complexity of life and happiness. But this book isn’t about happiness. Nor is it a self-help book as the author says up front. It is about acknowledging the reality of life and living well within the constraints we’re given. Which can be difficult. Because, as the title states, life is hard.
So how can we live well?
The chapter on failure was the most impactful for me. It is so easy to feel like a failure, especially when something you dedicate so much time and effort to doesn’t work out. I know I’ve felt this way.
So how do we deal with failure?
As Life is Hard states, we all experience failure, both large and small. But it is impossible to narrow in on a single event or cause of failure.
“The foundational myth of failure is that it’s our own fault”
The chaos of life reminds us that our control over events is never absolute. As much as we’d like to pretend we have control over events or can turn the tides of life at our whim, so much of life is out of our control.
I see this in my life. As I replay so many previous mistakes or “failures”, I wonder what I did or didn’t do. I often lose sight of the all the complex events surrounding me. From the other people with their own motives, to the circumstances of companies and economies, to just plain time and luck (good or bad).
We also like to think of our lives in a narrative form. When the story we’ve crafted about ourselves isn’t a perfect narrative arc from beginning to next good thing to next good thing, we feel like we’ve failed.
So what can we do?
First, according to the book, we need to stop branding people (ourselves) and projects as “failures.” We are not failures. To call any life a failure or success is to miss the infinite granularity of life.
Second, we need to differentiate between projects to complete (telic work) and projects we’ll never complete (atelic work). By treating ourselves and our lives as atelic rather than a series of projects to complete, we can focus on the process rather than the completion.
Finally, we need to separate wealth/financial success from moral worth. This is certainly easier said than done since our society for hundreds of years has equated success with superior character (rather than luck), and we’ve viewed people as either winners or losers based on their success.
Ultimately, the road is too long to define anyone as a success or failure. And the process is more important than any individual project we do. That can be really hard when we feel like we’re failing, but I know it was helpful for me to think about.
The book begins by relating the authors story of his own chronic ailment. He tells us that “you never forget the first time a doctor gives up.” Which I can relate to. I’ve seen how quickly we reach the edge of medical knowledge and how little modern medicine can really do for us and how little we really know. If you’ve experienced anything beyond a normal sickness, or had a loved one experience anything, you’ve probably seen this as well.
All of us have malfunctioning bodies. It is part of the difficulty of life. Some of us have more malfunctions than others. Our malfunctions can also change over time, especially as we get older. But they can take many forms, some visible and some invisible.
Understanding that we all are suffering in some way—physically, mentally, emotionally—can help us be far more empathetic.
On Making Things Better
But we can go beyond empathy. It is easy to think that any disability or malfunction in our body necessarily detracts from our quality of life. But that doesn’t have to be the case.
As product people, many of us are responsible for understanding and designing the products and experiences that many people use. Too often, our products and even our societal structures don’t accommodate anything less than the ideal. But as we create products and experiences, we can do a far better job at understanding that no one is living in an ideal state and we need to do a better job designing within our own spheres to make those experiences better.
The book also discusses the idea of the “ideal life”, especially as defined by Aristotle and ancient Greek philosophers. They would suggest that anything that detracts from the ideal life is bad. So a disability or bodily malfunction necessarily detracts from life because it is no longer “ideal.”
But that doesn’t have to be the case. The book argues that no one can live the “ideal life”, so anything that is different than the ideal doesn’t necessarily have to detract as long as we can appropriately accommodate it. Which is where so much of our work as product managers and designers can come into play.
Additionally, the author argues we can make a difference more broadly in society by joining with others.
A protest may not change the world, but it adds its fraction to the odds of change
Whether it is advocating for more accessibility in design, better representation in organizations, or any other just cause, we can help make steps in the right direction, even if they are only fractional steps.
The book Life is Hard by Kieran Setiya is a good exploration of living well. It does focus too much at times on current events rather than long-lived principles, but it is also a good exploration of the meaning of living well.
Finding meaning in life—finding our purpose or significance—can vary from person to person. The fact we exist at all is almost an absurdity as the book points out. But there is still value in the everyday things we do, even if only for themselves.
Life is incredibly hard. We can only choose to live well within the constraints we have. Often those will be less than the ideal that many would envision. But as we shift our mindset away from the idea of ourselves as failures, as projects that need completion, as people who need to be perfect, we can progress, empathize with each other, and create meaningful lives.