The Art of the Good Life: Clear Thinking for Business and a Better Life

The Art of the Good Life book cover by Rolf Dobelli
These lessons will help you live a good life.

The good life is only achieved through constant readjustment.

The connection between degrees and workplace success is growing ever more tenuous, while the ability to self-correct is growing ever more important—even though it’s hardly taught at school.

Practice the art of correction by revising the things that aren’t quite working—swiftly and without feeling guilty.

The more complicated the world becomes, the less important your starting point is. So don’t invest all your resources into the perfect set-up—at work or in your personal life.

When it comes to important issues, flexibility isn’t an advantage—it’s a trap.

Accepting reality is easy when you like what you see, but you’ve got to accept it even when you don’t—especially when you don’t.

If it doesn’t genuinely contribute something, you can do without it. And that is doubly true for technology.

The more narrowly we focus on a particular aspect of our lives, the greater its apparent influence.

We find it immensely difficult to view our current situation through an ultra-wide-angle lens. Otherwise we wouldn’t get upset about trivialities.

While you’re thinking about X, you tend to grossly overestimate X’s impact on your life.

There is a class of “goods” whose enjoyment is not diminished by the focusing illusion: experiences.

Your job monopolizes your thoughts; it demands constant, intensive engagement—which is great if you love it. But if you hate it, you’ve got a serious problem on your hands. You can’t hope to be distracted from your shitty career by other thoughts.

Once you’ve left the poverty line behind you and saved up a financial safety net, money is not among the factors that contribute to a good life.

A single outstanding skill trumps a thousand mediocre ones. Every hour invested into your circle of competence is worth a thousand spent elsewhere.

One of the symptoms of approaching nervous break-down is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.

It’s okay to set lofty goals—but only on the condition that you maintain a distanced, level-headed relationship with them.

If somebody in the present day tells you his inner voice left him no choice but to dedicate his life to the guitar, you can be reasonably sure he’s at least one sandwich short of a picnic.

We’ll change almost as much in the future as we have in the past.

A related life rule is “Only work with people you like and trust.”

The world is fundamentally meaningless. So stop looking for the “larger meaning of life.” You’re only wasting your time.

The longer we live with a memory, the greater the value it accrues. If a (positive) memory remains in the bank until the day you die, it will in retrospect be highly valued.

Your life story is compact: if somebody asks who you are, you’ll have a brief, succinct answer ready. It’s consistent: things that don’t fit are comfortably forgotten, and you plug gaps in your memory with astonishing inventive skill (a skill you don’t even know you have). It’s causal: your actions make sense—there’s a reason behind everything that happens in your life.

Our life seems more amenable to planning than it actually is. Chance plays a far greater role than we’d like to think.

Better a life well lived and a few painful days on your deathbed than a shoddy life and a good death.

Only recently have film scholars confirmed what good directors and writers have known from the beginning: there’s got to be a meaningful component, something besides sheer gratification. Even a sad movie filmed on a shoestring budget can be good—if there’s enough meaning in it.

It’s best to switch between meaningfulness and enjoyment. So if you’ve saved a small piece of the world, then I think you deserve a glass of fine red wine.

Focused, fulfilling work is better than meditation. It’s a better distraction than anything else.

Everything you own, value and love is ephemeral—your health, your partner, your children, your friends, your house, your money, your homeland, your reputation, your status. Don’t set your heart on those things.

Envy has a bigger impact on your life satisfaction then physical affliction or financial ruin, and the ability to manage it is fundamental to the good life.

I recommend spending fifteen minutes a week focusing intently on the potential catastrophic risks in your life. Then forget all about it and spend the rest of the week happy and carefree.

Most manmade catastrophes (conflicts, wars, terrorism) are far more complex than they appear, which is why no one can foresee how they will turn out. It’s also why they always last longer than predicted.

Many people fall for the volunteer’s folly—they believe there’s a point to voluntary work. In reality, it’s a waste. Your time is more meaningfully invested in your circle of competence

There’s no reason to feel guilty that you happen to be better off than a bombing victim in Aleppo—your situations could easily be reversed.

Once you hit thirty, life’s too short for bad books.

Avoid ideologies and dogmas at all cost—especially if you’re sympathetic to them. Ideologies are guaranteed to be wrong. They narrow your worldview and prompt you to make appalling decisions.

The quicker you understand that you don’t understand the world, the better you’ll understand the world.

Nearly all progress toward greater understanding—whether in the sciences, the economy or everyday life—is achieved through physical interaction with the invisible world. Through exposure to the unknown.

Role reversal is by far the most efficient, quick and cost-effective way of building mutual understanding.

When we’re engrossed in our campaign to change the world, its significance appears much greater than it actually is. We systematically overestimate the importance of our projects.

World history is fundamentally disorderly, fortuitous and unpredictable. If you study historical documents for long enough, you’ll come to see that all major developments have a touch of the coincidental about them, and that even the most prominent figures in world history were simply puppets of their age.

No matter how extraordinary your accomplishments might be, the truth is that they would have happened without you.

The only place where you can really make a difference is in your own life.

Not believing too much in your own self-importance is one of the most valuable strategies for a good life.

Don’t mimic the behavior of successful people without truly understanding what made them successful in the first place.

The “winner takes it all” effect will help you out if you’re the best in your niche—and I mean worldwide. If that’s not the case, you’ll have to specialize further. You’ve got to run your own race if you want to emerge the victor.

An arms race is a succession of Pyrrhic victories, and your best bet is to steer clear. You’ll only find the good life where people aren’t fighting over it.

Outsiders tend to be quicker and therefore earlier to make an impact than insiders.

You should interview the first thirty-seven candidates and reject them all; meanwhile, however, you should be monitoring their quality. Then keep interviewing until you find someone who is better than the top applicant out of the previous thirty-seven. Hire her. You’ll be making an excellent decision. She may not be the very best of the hundred applicants, but she’s sure to be a solid choice. Every other approach has been shown to produce statistically worse results.

When it comes time to pick a career, a job, an industry, a partner, a place to live, a favorite author, a musical instrument, a preferred sport or an ideal holiday destination, it’s worthwhile quickly trying out many different options at first—more options than you’d like—before making a firm decision.

Stop lumping together necessities, goals and expectations. Keep them meticulously separate.