The Courage to be Disliked – a philosophy that is supposed to make you happy.

The book cover

Let me start by saying this is one of the weirdest and hardest to read books that I have read. It blends fiction and non, setting you as a fly on the wall, while multiple discussions take place between a philosopher and a young man.

I tend to only read books that I think will be interesting or beneficial to me. I tend to only write about them so that I remember them in the future. This book on a number of occasions has straddled being put down. Why? Because the fictitious narrative loses me many times. Yet so many tout it as being amazing.

Marc AndreeSsen of a16z being on of those touters! Source: Twitter.

Having finished the book, so do I.

The TL;DR

This book is an explanation of Adlerian psychology and philosophy. It is an actionable philosophy that holds firm the belief that people can change.

In short, it has a few rules:

  • All problems are interpersonal relationship problems
  • One must be self-reliant
  • One must live in harmony with society

How does it suggest to do this?

  • Self Acceptance
  • Confidence in Others
  • Contribution to Others

Okay, but for real, how do we do this?

  • Don’t compare yourself to others as it will give you excuses not to try
  • Inferiority is situational: people will recognise things but not think of inferiority. It is purely an evolutionary way to get us to improve, but be mindful that it doesn’t become cyclic and a complex is created.
  • Act like no one is there: have the courage to grow, have the courage to try, have the courage to fail.
  • There is no reason to use anger as it simply creates hierarchal relationships
  • Apologising doesn’t cause hierarchal relationships
  • Live your life for you, not for recognition. Refuse recognition. Recognition does not make the best get better.
  • Do not behave without regard for others and do what you believe is right
  • Your tasks are what will benefit you directly: ‘Only you can change you, only they can change they.’
  • Don’t interfere with others’ tasks as they will either rebel for freedom or become dependent
  • Humans have the power to refute natural desires for the good of themselves: promiscuity, recognition and the desire to be liked.
  • Don’t be afraid of being disliked — it shows you are living your life, not pressured by your desire to be liked or by how others want you to live
  • Being self-centred is bad, but being self-conscious is being self-centred too. It is being self-centred in a different way.
  • Be part of multiple communities — never just one. It helps you be grounded and recognise unreasonable behaviour.

So, the story?

I think being a fly on the wall is intended to be essentially a free counselling session to see how the theory can be applied or at least discussed.

The scene I am imagining. Source: Thong Vo (Unsplash)

The young man clearly is in discomfort with his life – pressure from parents and family, but with few friends to ‘lend a hand’. The regular discussions jump between chats, therapy, arguments and disbelief.

The book starts by making the case that Adler should be with the typically known greats of psychology are Freud and Jung. I know little of psychology and Jung is a completely new name to me. So what does it say to convince me of Adler?

Aetiology vs Teleology: Learning psychology words.

Aetiology is the focus on finding cause for psychology.

Teleology is the focus of finding reason for psychology.

Finding a cause is finding the issue by diving into the past. Finding the reason is finding the issue and solving it now.

For example, you may have almost drowned when you were younger, and hence is the cause of why you are scared of the sea.

But the actual fear is putting your head underwater. You can’t change the past but you can take steps to pacify the reason and be able to swim again.

Does this fill you with dread? Source: Matthew Sichkaruk

Another comparison to Freudian psychology

Freudian Aetiology will eventually be deterministic. “If this and this happens, you will be X”. Adler was strongly against this – believing that humans can not be simply “cause and effect” driven. There is power in humans and an ability to change tracks as opposed to fate.

“I am a pessimist

… or I have a pessimistic view of the world”. In Adlerian psychology, this is a decision you choose for yourself.

Adler recognises that this will be implicit and unintentional but highlights the amount of control one may have in their outlook. The key point here is that it can change – but only with conscious effort and recognition.

Measurement of lifestyle?

The youth asks how to improve without measurement. The philosopher highlights that measurement, by comparison, will not cause happiness.

“Comparison to anything else is outside of your control.”

If something amazing happens to someone (they win the lottery, they get a promotion, they find a partner, etc) you will not automatically be able to do the same for yourself.

So you have an excuse for not getting to where you want to be and hence will not change.

Feeling inferior

The philosopher talks about how his height was a source of pain when he was younger.

‘…things would be different if I were of average height…’

He realised that his feelings were subjective. Others may notice it but would not immediately think inferiority. This inferiority stemmed purely from himself.

They go on to state inferiority is always from subjectivity not objectivity.

Why does inferiority exist?

Because improvement is beneficial. A person who feels inferior will want to improve. It begins the pursuit of superiority. Evolutionarily it helps.

It can be toxic though

The issue is that for some, courage may be lost when starting to self-improve and they therefore struggle. When they reject the task to improve, it becomes an inferiority complex.

There is nothing wrong in feeling inferior sometimes.

There is something wrong if you create causation where none exists: I.e. Not educated so can’t succeed, not good-looking so cant marry.

Inferiority is the same as superiority, just shown differently

If you go too far with courage you may start to believe in different causation – unable to accept being incapable.

Quickly they will have no confidence in their current self and hence cling to elements past or out of their control. They do this so that their persona is untarnished in the eyes of others. They have the courage to action but now blame what was out of their control.

Once again, if there were no other people, this fear wouldn’t exist and the individual would be freer to exist.

Superiority of misfortune

A more extreme version of this is a focus on misfortune. It is a new way that they may feel superior and hence special. Adler is quoted saying:

‘In our culture, weakness can be quite strong and powerful’

I think he is focusing on peoples ability to say ‘I could do that but I am X’. If you have an excuse you won't complete the goal.

Provocation and Anger

After some more discussion, the pair in the book begin to discuss communication. As interpersonal relationships are the root of all problems, communication is a natural topic.

The philosopher states that anger is never required. If you are tempted by anger, you do not understand that anger is not required.

All anger succeeds in is developing a power struggle – the moment you are convinced you are right the other must be duly wrong and you must show this. This is a power struggle.

Admitting mistakes, apologising or stopping power struggles are not defeat.

Those who may compete in power struggles are typically struggling with their life tasks.

Deny the desire for recognition

…Why do you want to be recognised? Because I do not know that what I am doing actually is beneficial so I want to be recognised so that I know I am wanted.

Codified recognition. Source: https://www.addthis.com/academy/get-facebook-likes/

The philosopher saw this as a product of a reward and punishment education. ‘If no-one is going to praise me, I won't take action’ and conversely ‘if no-one is going to punish me, I will engage in inappropriate actions’.

For me, the key takeaway is:

‘If you are not living your life for you, then who is going to live it for you?’

The youth questions the productivity of this – a focus purely on the ‘I’ would be destructive – ‘Dangerous’ he suggests. The philosopher returns the argument that if you do what you believe is right, others will also be doing the same but it will be a more true view – unclouded by those doing actions on what the one believes another may want.

‘So I should be selfish?’ The youth asks. The philosopher assures a strong no, ‘Do not behave without regard for others.’

The idea that recognition is what will drive the best to be better is false and will not lead to happiness.

Put simply, giving recognition is manipulation and receiving it can lead to dependence and eventually a belief that they are not valuable alone.

What are your tasks

‘Who is ultimately going to receive the end result brought about by the choice that is made?’

If it is you, it is your task to action.

If a child will not study, that is the child’s task they are failing – not the parents. The philosopher says parents that obsess over that typically care more as it fulfils their own goals such as appearance in the eyes of society, or to establish their control.

The parents can create an environment to learn, assistance should be available, but an acknowledgement that it is the child’s task, not the parents should be clear to both. Essentially, “you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink’. Only you can change you, only they can change they.

Intervention in tasks should be avoided too. Intervention is proof you believe you are superior. Offering help is proof you think you are equals.

If a child is struggling to tie their shoes, a mother may tie them for them. This takes away the task from the child and hence you remove an opportunity to learn. Repeating this intervention will cause children to rebel or avoid challenges.

Being liked is a natural desire

Kant, a popular philosopher, called this natural desire of things a human’s inclination. The philosopher in the book says that a stone is powerless on an inclination, and will roll until it is worn and turned into sand. Humans are not stones. You don’t have to act under just one force — the desire to be liked.

By extension, not all natural desires should be adhered to, and humans have the ability to reject them. Promiscuity, desire of recognition and desire of social integration may not benefit you and it is a human’s job to decide to break free of the natural desires.

Freedom is being disliked

‘In short, freedom is being disliked by other people’.

This is intentionally shocking and dramatic.

If you are liked by everyone, are you sure you aren’t simply living up to everyone else’s wants?

To be sure you are free and doing what you want (and only what you want), if someone dislikes you there is strong evidence you are.

‘Don’t be afraid of being disliked’

This is a better quote.

This freedom will allow you to try things you have always wanted to, start things you previously wouldn’t have, and be unshackled by the fear to live up to the pressures of others.

Being Self-centred is being vain

In addition to the usual definition, the philosopher adds that people who intervene in others’ tasks, and who are obsessed with recognition are also self-centred.

He goes further to say that someone who is fearful of being judged by others is also self-centred as they are worried about their image and how others will judge them.

This can never help the community and as such would be a failure of Adlerian thought - counter product to the individual and the collective.

To do this the philosopher states

‘One needs to think not ‘what will this person give me?’ But rather ‘what can I give to this person’’.

Yeah, but who actually will help others?

…the Youth asks. Put simply, someone has to start.

So long as you are happy doing what you are doing, not for recognition or fear of judgement and you still treat people well, do it.

The community need not be one community

Adler believes that one should be part of multiple communities and that interconnection is key to the human experience. When one is painful it should freely be left and another joined. To know if you are in the right place you should have a feeling of belonging, feel that is is ‘okay to be here’.

A benefit of this is that a common sense from a larger community is built and understood. If someone is being highly authoritarian, you know and recognise this, have more power to reject the unreasonable demands and are far closer grounded to not react but reflect on what causes them to do it.

This is possible as you will see them as just another human being, not an authoritarian god that holds all you require. You will have freedom, be happy to be disliked and know what is reasonable.

If you do these, you do not have horizontal relationships

  • ‘I will follow A’s advice, but not Bs’

Because you do not think about the advice but instead the person. A has control over you.

  • ‘I don’t mind breaking my promise to C’

Because you believe they are beneath you or you have committed to something to please someone else.

Responsibility of actions

Take the scenario where your boss demanded you do something, and it fails. Do you have responsibility? Even if you knew it would fail? Would you jump off a cliff if your friend told you to?

Essentially the philosopher is saying that you have autonomy of yourself and must be able to refuse. If you cannot, you do not have a horizontal relationship and only have concern for your own accountability.

Dancing in the kitchen

When we are alone, we do not have the pressure of others. We feel comfortable enough that we can sing our ‘putting the kettle on song’. This is all about community feeling. You need:

  • self acceptance
  • confidence in others
  • contribution to others

Acceptance not Affirmation

If you get 60% on a test, you could say ‘I was unlucky. I know I would usually get 100%’ or you could say ‘How do I improve?’.

Somethings can not be improved, and hence it is useless to try to change them. You must be selective in what you accept and do so knowing that it can not change.

You can resign so long as you have fortitude and acceptance that no more can be done.

Confidence, not trust, in others

Trust comes with conditions. It relies on how creditable you are and will expect trust in return.

Confidence expects none of this. Don’t expect anything in return other than a good feeling. It is unconditional.

The youth shouts it is naive and will be abused. The philosopher rebukes, better to live having confidence in people than having constant doubt in all relationships. If you expect wrong doing, you will find evidence that will convince yourself that your expectations are correct.

Contribute

That’s not to say self sacrifice, else we aren’t living for ourselves, but giving value or service to others. Contribution should be for one’s self ultimately — to feel of use. To have people say thanks.

Learning from Religion

Multiple parts of these are aligned with religion — community feeling, trust in others, acting kind to one another.

One clear example the philosopher gives is a quote from Judaism. He states that of 10 people you meet, 1 will criticise you, dislike you and you will dislike them. 2 will become friends. 7 will have no impact. It is your choice to focus on which one will drive your behaviour.

Workaholics and life harmony

A balance in life is purely optional if you have freedom unabated by pressures of others. You choose where to put your time. If you say you don't have time, you are avoiding the truth.

Work is not just your job. Your work should go into the home, your family, your communities, hobbies and more. You must find your own balance, not lie about your priorities.

This is not to say put yourself in situations you don’t like, but you should face and solve challenges.

What is happiness?

‘… a subjective sense that I am of use to someone… happiness is the feeling of contribution…’

It will allow you to like yourself, it will tell you that you have worth and that you are wanted.

It must be subjective though. If it is based on recognition, you are living your life driving by others’ wishes, not your own thought. If you have confidence in yourself, and courage to be disliked for not doing what people want, you will have happiness.

Easy superiority and normality

People who do not feel part of a community still have the desire for attention, to be special.

Much like how recognition is the sugary foods we crave that boost our mood, easy superiority is sweetener, the sugar with no nutritional value. It is being reckless or disturbing in a situation for no real gain. Its commonly observed in schools, the kids causing a ruckus.

Aiming to be special is dangerous. Self acceptance must include accepting you are normal. Now normal is not less capable, but simply acknowledging that you are not superior.

The youth states they do not want to be normal, they want to be recognised as one of the greats. Making people think they are normal will restrict the world of their best.

Mountaineers

If we were all climbing a mountain to get to the top, to get to greatness, the majority would be en-route. Now suppose you didn’t get to the top of the mountain, would your life be a failure?

Adler proposes that we should only live in the now — not dreaming of greatness, nor running straight at it. This is because if you plan a life for yourself, how can you be sure that it is what your future self will want and how can you adjust for unforeseen changes?

No-one has stuck to a path they have set completely as we cannot predict the future. It is not the destination but the journey. If you died halfway up, have you enjoyed the route? If you got a helicopter to the top of the mountain would you enjoy the achievement as much?

Image source: https://viva-naija.com/dont-hurry-road-success-never-straight/

42

Nearing the end, the youth asks what is the meaning of life. The philosopher quotes Adler, saying there is no meaning. The person must define their own meaning for their life.

One of the authors, Fumitake Koga, in the afterword, gives a summary better than I can give:

‘…all problems are interpersonal relationship problems, …people can change and be happy… and the problem is not one of ability but of courage.’

Time to put this into practice.

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