You Learn by Living


They say the best way to learn is to go out and try.

If you keep up with FromBrownEyes, you saw that I read My Year with Eleanor accidentally for my book club, and it was a pretty happy accident because I loved it. Well, this is the book I meant to read: You Learn by Living by Eleanor Roosevelt. Unfortunately, the sentiments aren’t quite the same.

Here is the Amazon summary,

Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the world’s best loved and most admired public figures, offers a wise and intimate guide on how to overcome fears, embrace challenges as opportunities, and cultivate civic pride: You Learn by Living. A crucial precursor to better-living guides like Mark Nepo’s The Book of Awakening or Robert Persig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, as well as political memoirs such as John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, the First Lady’s illuminating manual of personal exploration resonates with the timeless power to change lives.

You pretty much have a sense of what the book is going to be about from the title, but the summary’s honest esteem of Roosevelt really pulls you in.

So then, why didn’t I like this book?

It isn’t that I didn’t like the theme. I really like the theme. I spent a year of my life doing exactly what Roosevelt preaches: learning by living. I traveled to new countries, took up new hobbies, dated new people and made new friends. I moved to a new state, started a blog, and went back to school. I am living, and I am learning.

But this book didn’t really inspire me to set it down, go outside, and live and learn the way I thought it would. Instead, I felt weighed down by fluff. Fluff advice that Roosevelt dished out the way a hostess passes around napkins when red wine is being served over white carpet. The advice was thin, disposable, and, at the end of the day, really wouldn’t do much good.

It is not so much what Roosevelt says that I have a problem with, but how she says it and the examples she uses to back up her claims.

Roosevelt talks about so many subjects in this short book, without going into detail with any one. Most subjects are a paragraph or two before it is on to the next lesson and accompanied example.

But her lack of detail does not keep Roosevelt from coming off as the authority on everything. And I understand that people are looking to her to be just that.

Over the years I have received hundreds of thousands of letters – at the present time about a hundred a day. The vast majority of them contain questions that run the gamut from the personal problems that beset us all to the world problems that, now and henceforth, also beset us all. What these letters add up to is this: What have you learned from life that might help solve this or that difficulty?

But I think her work would have been more effective if she narrowed her list of key elements or (dare I say it?) wrote a longer book.

The examples are – as you would expect – outdated, which would be fine if they more inclusively spoke to the population as a whole (I know her sections about how to run a household of servants didn’t do me much good when I asked my cat to bake a chicken and clean the toilet). Roosevelt also fails to acknowledge her privilege and position as the First Lady. I again understand that she is writing from her unique position, as we must all do, but would it have been too much to include a footnote such as this?

*If you do not have access to Air Force One to help uneducated children in Africa, please look into donating books to your local library.

Us paupers want practical advice too, Eleanor.

OK, now that you know of the overall reasons why I did not enjoy this book, let’s get into the sections that I did like.

Ask Why

There is a wonderful word, why?, that children use. All children. When they stop using it, the reason, too often, is that no one bothered to answer them, no one tried to keep alive one of the most important attributes a person can have: interest in the world around him.

This is a great point and something that I am superbly guilt of. I rarely ask why. The household and society in which I was raised taught me to be anti-confrontational, and in many respects that means not challenging an idea, policy, or person. Asking why creates a challenge: either answer the question correctly, quickly mastermind a lie, or admit ignorance. But asking why is how our world evolves and our lives grow.

Instead of indulging children as Roosevelt suggests, I am going to wield my why in the business world, asking questions like: “Why can’t we offer this new service?” or “Why don’t we create this new product?”

Be the Bigger Person

So it is a major part of maturity to accept not only your own shortcomings but those of the people you love, and help them not to fail when you can.

Advising someone to accept another’s shortcomings is like telling someone panicked to “calm down”: it is easier said than done. The key for me here is the last eight words. All too often we sit and watch failure, popcorn and soda in hand. Whether it is not helping a parallel parker avoid the impending collision, or stubbornly refusing to admit to your boyfriend that you want to be invited to his family dinner, you are only creating a lose-lose situation. Uplift the people around you and cut competition by refusing to let people fail.

What Makes Happiness

Someone once asked me what I regarded as the three most important requirements for happiness. My answer was: “A feeling that you have been honest with yourself and those around you; a feeling that you have done the best you could both in your personal life and in your work; and the ability to love others.”

Although it took a moment to think over and process each of these requirements individually, I would truly agree with Roosevelt’s definition of happiness. But my personal definition would be a little more singular: Happiness is embracing and evoking your truest sense of self. I am happy when I do things for pure self-indulgent pleasure. I am happy when I am with my best friend because I know she loves and accepts “the real” me. I am happy when I work because my job was carefully selected to provide me with fulfillment and joy.

Life Goals

Your ambition should be to get as much life out of living as you possibly can, as much enjoyment, as much interest, as much experience, as much understanding. Not simply to be what is generally called “a success.”

Again, Eleanor hits the nail on the head. We’ve got one life and we need to go out there and live it up. Of course there are bills to pay and mouths to feed, so reach your ambition with responsibility. But what you may find is that enjoying your interesting life filled with experience and understanding leads to success.

Go For What You Want

I am always interested when I find a youngster with the courage to change his mind in regard to his life work. This does not mean that I think it is wise for anyone to try a number of occupations or professions, hit or miss, before deciding on the one he wants. But I think if you have learned to make choice, to analyze the situation, and to use a certain amount of discipline in making yourself try a thing out so that you know whether you want it or not, you can reject it as wrong for you, while accepting the fact that you made a mistake in your first choice, and plan to do better a second time.

Again, my actions are perfectly inline with Roosevelt’s advice. I took a long, hard look at myself before deciding to leave my corporate job in 2015. It wasn’t until I spent a year learning by living that I began to realize what exactly I would want to do for my second choice.

Well, there you have it. Eleanor offered sound advice, but I don’t know if I should have to read the whole book just to get the few golden nuggets. It felt like a chore to read this book and I honestly only finished You Learn by Living for the book club. However, it is the first Eleanor Roosevelt book I’ve read and the amazing woman wrote almost 30 books – so there is bound to be one you like (and this one might be it!).


What are your thoughts on You Learn by Living? Let us know below.




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