Most people have a discrete collection of their favorite books. No one person’s collection is the same. And why is it so individualized? Because sequence matters.

The first books you read on a given topic can have a very strong influence over future books you read. There is an imprinting effect that causes you to judge all later works through the lens of the first work that shaped your thinking. For example, if you were introduced to the fantasy genre by Harry Potter, nothing will ever be as good. Everything will be an ersatz mimic at best.

This happens in all media, all art, and virtually all manner of personal preference. It’s what makes our brain a recommendation engine built on a neurological IFTTT of past likes and dislikes. This is why, for me, William Irvine’s book A Guide To The Good Life: The Art of Stoic Joy is one of those special works that I read at a specific time, in a specific circumstance, that allowed it to have a tremendous impact.

I was highly receptive to its content. Thus it made an indelible mark. Every book I’ve read in the realm of philosophy has paled since.

Is it the best book ever written? I suppose not.

Does it provide the best advice ever? I don’t know but it does feel faultless.  

Do the opening lines deliver the hardest gut-check a person could ever read? Absolutely.

Here are those opening lines (emphasis added):

What do you want out of life? You might answer this question by saying that you want a caring spouse, a good job, and a nice home, but these are really just some of the things you want in life. In asking what you want out of life, I am asking the question in its broadest sense. I am asking not for the goals you form as you go about your daily activities but for your grand goal in living. In other words, of the things in life you might pursue, which is the thing you believe to be most valuable?

Those words walloped me the first time I read them. The very first question just knocked me over. What do you want out of life? I didn’t have a real answer at the time. I had no idea. And Irvine argued right away that I needed one.

A grand goal in living is the first component of a philosophy of life.

And why is a philosophy of life so important?

Without one, there is a danger that you will mislive.

This is why I was reading Irvine’s book in the first place. At that time, I was deeply afraid that I was already misliving. I felt stuck, confused. I had achieved the only real goals I had set for myself and they were superficial, conventional things. Once they’d been achieved, I felt like I had nothing left to pursue. I looked around and wondered: is this all there is?

Of course not. But I didn’t know what to do next. Irvine’s question, and my lack of an answer, explained why. I lacked a grand goal for living.

But Goals Are … For Losers?

Compare Irvine’s opening lines to that of Scott Adams, famous cartoonist and author of what I argue is the best book on self-improvement. If Irvine’s words hit my squarely in the gut, Adams’ words had the same effect. For different reason. His advice also comes in the opening pages. He writes the following:

Goals are for losers.

This, too, has always stuck with me. It is a powerful idea that is also wildly contradictory with Irvine. How can we square this with idea against the need for a grand goal for life?

It starts by recognizing a bit of nuance in Adams’ statement. It’s a four-word sentence so one doesn’t expect there to be much depth to the idea. However, Adams argues for people to operate a system rather than pursue a goal. A properly-designed system of regular habits can keep one healthy, wealthy, and wise. As he later writes:

A system is something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run.

Which shows that there is still a goal. The system is designed to be a more reliable means for  increasing happiness. That is Adams’ grand goal. I suppose it is everyone’s grand goal. He just wants you to pursue it systematically. Without the mistakes that had led me to Irvine in the first place.

I’ll be more specific: our typical goal-driven pursuits perpetuate what is known as the arrival fallacy. We commit this error when we peg our emotional well-being on a specific thing.

Once I get X, all will be fine.

Once I achieve Y, life will be easy.

Both Adams and Irvine want us to eliminate that thinking. They want us to formulate a better understanding of the human condition. They want us to formulate a philosophy of life.

We can start with the ones that are readily available. There’s plenty to choose from. Some come from religion. Some come from actual philosophers. Some come from marketers.

Once you buy X, you’ll be fine.

Once you join Y, for a low monthly fee, life will be easy.

Just remember: sequence matters. None of the philosophies of life will make sense if you’re not ready to receive them. That readiness tends to only come after we’ve run into some dead end roads.

Signs of Misliving

Marie Kondo has helped a lot of people recognize signs of misliving. On her show, brave souls welcome her into their home and allow her to assess the clutter. Once a diagnosis is made clear, Kondo helps her clients undergo the excruciating process of course-correction. It usually sparks tears. Multiple times over.

Kondo helps them through the pain, which gives the show it’s necessary heart, but it ain’t easy. The work is astonishingly difficult.

It is also deeply inspiring. As audience members, we watch these people use the act of decluttering as a means for beginning a new chapter of life. We even get the full story for why a new chapter is needed. The narrative is always different in its details but one common theme remains: the inciting incident.

Every change effort starts with a break in the normal trance of self-delusion. For some, it is a loved one’s death. For others, it’s a family intervention. Whatever the case, some event sparks new information that knocks each person out of their stupor and leads them to accept what they view as the error of their ways.

They discover that feeling of misliving. Note the word “discover”. They aren’t “told”. They find the signs of misliving themselves.

Every adult has been there.

So it’s Kondo to the rescue, right? Sort of. On the show, Marie Kondo is a charming, effervescent person who immediately wins our admiration. But the positive change that occurs isn’t the result of her personality. It is the result of her philosophy. And the person’s willingness to accept it.

The real change, in other words, comes about when each host/client recognizes that they do not have a coherent philosophy for managing their home. They seek out such a philosophy, find it in Kondo, and begin the work of applying it.

So all the clutter? All the hoarding? It’s the stuff of an incomplete philosophy that focuses primarily on acquisition. We know it isn’t good to just acquire things and toss them into a pile. But without an inciting incident, and a great example from someone like Kondo, it’s hard to know you’re doing anything wrong. Her philosophy gives us a broader, more holistic view of material things and how a home should be used.

Is Kondo’s way the only way? No. But it’s a complete view that we can all recognize and adopt when we realize we’ve gotten off-track.

Looking For A Sign

What if you invited Kondo to examine not just your house but your life? Your daily routines, habits, and aspirations? Do you think she’d find something that should be course-corrected? Probably so. She doesn’t exactly espouse a formal “philosophy of life” but she’d find something.

I bet you can guess what she would point to as a bit of “lifestyle clutter.”

I bet she doesn’t even need to do an assessment to tell you what you already know.

If that’s the case, it’s a clear example of how the signs of misliving are made evident by our own insecurities. The instant we see a coherent philosophy that resonates, we feel our insecurity rise. Give people an ideal, as Kondo has, and you make it easy for us to find ways in which we fall short.

This is also where hope emerges. So again, we need an ideal. All of us. We need a grand goal and a coherent philosophy that can be easily understood and readily applied to our circumstances.

Kondo is brilliant and her work gives us an easy way to “audit” our home. Irvine helps us do the same for our life. Through Stoicism. But the metaphysical nature makes it a little harder. At first.

Until you realize that you can just follow the insecurities. Think of all habits, routines, theories, and practices that you adhere to even though you’re kinda unsure of why. Wherever these insecurities exist, there is tremendous opportunity to do some tidying up.

Should you keep those habits or eliminate them? It depends on your grand goal of living and the philosophy therein.

What if you have no insecurities? No questions? No uncertainty? Then chances are you have a coherent philosophy. Maybe it’s a good one. Maybe it fulfills and achieves happiness. I hope so.

Just remember that it can fade. It can eventually lead to a point where all is achieved and nothing remains. At that point, you’ll discover your proverbial house is more cluttered than you thought.

That’s okay. That’s what has to happen. Because again, sequence matters. You have to find yourself at that point of insecurity for Stoicism (or any other philosophy) to make sense. You can’t tidy up until you know you have clutter.

Kondo and Irvine help us see that. Until you reach that point, enjoy whatever ride you’re on. Celebrate it all the way to the end. Just remember that there are great people—and books—waiting to greet you when it comes to a stop. They’ll be there to help you move to the next.

Image by lisa clarke from Flickr