"If the road I have shown to lead to this is very difficult, it can yet be discovered.
And clearly it must be hard when it is so seldom found.
For if freedom were close at hand and could be found without difficulty how could it be that it is neglected by almost all?
But all excellent things are as difficult as they are rare."
- Benedictus de Spinoza, Ethica, §5, Prop 42 n.
In reading Tom's new book I was reminded of the famous quotation above from Spinoza, one of the philosophers I most admire. All excellent things are as difficult as they are rare - Rome wasn't built in a day! If personal success, in the form of freedom and happiness, was quick and easy, then more or less everyone would already have it. When in fact, as a psychotherapist I'm acutely aware that most people's lives are more unhappy than they tend to let on to others. In the USA, the home of "positive thinking", the prevalence of mental health problems is so high that almost 50% of the current population will have met criteria for a psychiatric diagnosis at some point so far in their lives. There's actually a lot more misery in the world than people realise. I think the teachings of Buddhism are based on a similar observation: life is suffering. Much self-help literature seems to gloss over the difficulty of life. A notable exception is M. Scott Peck's self-help classic The Road Less Travelled, which notoriously opens with the sentence: "Life is difficult." We have to recognise that a great many people in the world either live in great poverty and hardship or live lives of angst and quiet despair in the middle of apparent first-world abundance. Personal success and happiness can take time and effort and sometimes only come later in life. It's easy to forget that in the legend of Buddha and many other great men, their journeys begin with a period of dissatisfaction. Buddhist tradition claims that even Gautama Buddha only attained enlightenment around age 35; he spent years prior that searching and struggling.
Tom gives many examples of great men and women who only flourished later in life, sometimes after many years of wandering, effort, or even personal suffering. Spinoza's philosophical masterpiece, the Ethica, was only completed a few years before his untimely death, aged 44 from lung disease. Prior to that he had been expelled from the Jewish community as a heretic, having the most shocking curses placed upon his head. His writings suggest great emotional turmoil and misery in his life before he finally achieved a kind of enlightenment, and "emotional remedy", in the form of the imposing metaphysical system he developed.
"I thus perceived that I was in a state of great peril, and I compelled myself to seek with all my strength for a remedy, however uncertain it might be; as a sick man struggling with a deadly disease, when he sees that death will surely be upon him [...] is compelled to seek such a remedy with all his strength, inasmuch as his whole hope lies therein." (De Intellectus Emendatione, 4-5)
All excellent things are as difficult as they are rare, and sometimes take many years to achieve. One more example... Socrates, the pre-eminent philosopher-sage of antiquity, by some accounts, worked as a stonemason, following his father's profession, until around middle age when he began to dedicate himself fully to the pursuit of wisdom. He did not spring from the womb fully-armed with his philosophy but, rather, it appears it may have taken him half his life or more to begin developing into a philosopher, and his views were still a work-in-progress when he died. Now at this point, it becomes apparent to me that I could probably go on offering up similar examples. In fact, if I draw up a mental list of the people I most admire, it strikes me that virtually all of them took a long time to achieve things in life and often went through a period of initial hardship, setbacks, or emotional turmoil along the way. I said that Socrates was my last example but I can't hold back from mentioning another philosopher, discussed by Tom: Immanuel Kant. Any first-year philosophy student will tell you that Kant was an intellectual titan, a giant of the European enlightenment. I recall being acutely aware, when I was a young philosophy student, that Kant's great work The Critique of Pure Reason was published when he was in his late fifties. Somehow that knowledge comforted me. It made me feel there was plenty of time to write a book or come up with a big idea myself. As Tom points out, of course, we're all living much longer nowadays so there's that much more time to "succeed", either personally or professionally, later in life. We now live more than twice as long, on average, as people once did.
Tom is someone I respect as a bona fideexpert on self-help. He has spent years immersing himself in the literature of personal development, studying the works of others in great depth, before developing his own contribution. I think he's right to believe that he spotted a gap, a problem that begged for an answer. In writing this book, he did what seemed obvious to him but it only became so clear and obvious, as I understand it, after a long and patient journey. In that respect, he is, of course, a living example of his own observations in this book. We hear about people when they become successful. For that reason, unless we take the time to delve a bit further into the lives of the people we admire, we're prone to be duped by the illusion that success comes in an instant rather than slowly maturing over time as the result of a slow-burning process, often involving hard work and dedication for many years. That illusion of instantaneous success can make people feel despondent. Tom describes many strategies to help us take the long view. Some of the exercises suggested in this book resemble techniques employed in cognitive-behavioural therapy, such as the method of "time projection" introduced by Arnold Lazarus, in which an individual is asked to jump ahead in time to a point in the distant future and look back on their life retrospectively.
Our relationship with time is one of the great neglected areas in psychotherapy, and personal development psychology. It's no secret that anxious individuals often seem to "run a fast clock", time goes quickly for them. In many of the clients I see in my therapy clinic, particularly those with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), the chronic worriers, there's an overwhelming sense of urgency that goes hand-in-hand with fear of failure - a toxic recipe that creates intense anxiety, ruins sleep, escalates frustration, and leads to a permanent state of worry and apprehension. Something is obviously wrong with this mind-set. Indeed, recent research in cognitive therapy has found the sense of urgency in anxiety to be linked to what's known as the "looming cognitive style" (LCS), a tendency to perceive risks as escalating more rapidly than they do in reality. I think some of these anxious individuals would also benefit from reading Tom's book because it would help them to question the type of time-pressure that they place themselves under: "to be a success by thirty", etc. As the calculations in the book show, by age 30 the average person still has 83% of their productive life remaining. I'll probably suggest reading it to some of my clients. However, I think Tom's book would be good for almost anyone else, young or old. It's a remedy perhaps to a defect in the existing literature. I wish I'd been able to read it when I was young student, I'm sure it would have helped me ease the pressure off and relax into a more flexible long-term sense of direction, but my little anecdote about Kant served me well enough I suppose.
For those interested in purchasing the book, the chapter headings are as follows:
1.Warming Up: Why what you've done so far may just have set the scene
2.Life isn't Short: How increasing longevity is giving us multiple chances to succeed
3.The Long View: A simple way to join the elite
4.Lead Time: It's the `time in between' that matters
5.The 40 Factor: Why many people never do anything remarkable until their fifth decade
6.Mid-Century Magic: `Now for my next half-century'
7.The 30-Year Goldmine: How many, usually without intention, save their best for last
8.The Beauty of People: How background shapes us, but only to a certain point
9.Everything Big Begins Small: And often starts slowly
Tom's a good writer and his style is very easy to follow and engaging. "Once you start reading this book you won't want to put it down" is a cliché but in this case it's true. You could probably read this book in a day or two because it flows so nicely, a bit like reading a novel. Tom's a trustworthy and knowledgeable guide in the self-help field and his distilled wisdom will potentially save you the job of reading hundreds of other books - thereby liberating another decade of your time to achieve personal goals in life!