Maybe the crossroads in your life happened something like this:
I was in my late-twenties and had been teaching English and coaching football, basketball, and track at a secondary school for eight years. Although I found my role as teacher and coach to be challenging and satisfying, I was growing restless. “What the hell am I doing here? What should I do with my life? I love what I am doing for a living, but is this all there is? What do I want to accomplish before I die?”
I remember jotting down some possible careers on a sheet of paper—surfing instructor in Hawaii, concert pianist, professor, artist, more years as a high school teacher and coach. But, I found it difficult to ascertain why I should choose one career over another. So, I picked up Plato’s The Republic, which I had somehow missed in college, but which I had heard was a “foundational book,” instructive about the art of living. My copy of The Republic was printed in both Greek (on the left page) and English (on the right page) and included all sorts of technical, scholarly apparatus. Although I was motivated to read The Republic and dutifully highlighted eloquent passages in bright yellow, it took me a month of late-nights and weekends to slog through it all. After I finished, I knew a little more about ethics, the virtues of living a rational life, and Socrates’ ideas for good government, but I was no closer to making a decision about my own life than when I initially picked up the book.
Perhaps your story is like this:
I was the middle of nine children and grew up on a farm in a rural community in South Dakota. I loved farm life, but I knew that if I stayed on the farm, I would be welded to that parcel of land for the rest of my days. Before I agreed to don my overalls for good, I wanted to discover what the world was like outside of South Dakota. Will Rogers said that there are two ways to raise your intelligence: (1) Hang out with folks smarter than you, (2) Read, read, read. Given that there were so few opportunities to interact with people outside my immediate family in the outback where I lived, I decided that I needed to start cracking some books. Once I began reading I discovered a "whole new world" beyond the bubble of my secure and sheltered existence. In retrospect, reading—and later, travel—changed me forever. I think I began to figure out how to get a life in mid-adulthood and I am still working on it.
How to Get a Life is the resource that neither of us had when we reached that place when we were ready to make a change, but had no idea how to bring it about. How to Get a Life is both an “executive summary” of the lives of “the greats,” and a practical “self-help” book that describes how the beliefs and habits of some uncommon men and women helped elevate them beyond mediocrity.
Because the humanities and the arts are cumulative, the list of “essential books and classic works of art” grows daily. The philosophy of the Dalai Lama does not supplant the work of John Locke, which in turn, did not negate the work of Aristotle or Plato. Each offers a unique vision of the human condition that has managed to endure over time. Rare is the individual today who has the time to read and contemplate the complete works of any one writer, let alone the hundreds of thousands of new books published annually. How to Get a Life can help you fill in the gaps of your education by giving you an overview of the life and times of a diverse set of humanitarians, spiritual leaders, visionaries, writers, philosophers, and contemporary figures.
The individuals represented in How to Get a Life share a passion for living and a personal ethic for success. This is not to say that they are perfect, squeaky-clean human beings, but our focus is upon how they managed their achievements rather than where they might have faltered. We purposefully chose an eclectic group of individuals, from the well-known to the relatively obscure, from the secular to the divine.
When you enter old age, you have the advantage of having witnessed firsthand how the lives of your friends turned out. The passing of time provides a unique vantage point from which to view the trajectory of a life—how what you believe and what you do in a day affects your outlook, pocketbook, the lines in your face, and the shape of your soul. By reading about the lives of men and women who have lived over the past two thousand years or so, we hope to provide you with a similar kind of “broadening” experience.
How to Get a Life offers a rich repository of advice when the dragon crosses your path, when you feel directionless, or when you are feeling a little too comfortable with the world. It does not matter if you decide to follow a particular individual’s advice for living, if you decide to synthesize a variety of perspectives, or if you reject them all. What matters is deciding upon the life you want, then working towards its realization. How to Get a Life offers the stories of 30 men and women who did exactly that.
Each chapter in How to Get a Life stands alone. You may wish to skip randomly through the book, or if you are predisposed to a particular field of study, you may prefer to begin with a specific section. To glean the most from the book, we suggest reading a chapter at a time, reflecting on it, and perhaps jotting down some notes.
In a journal entry from 1911, Ralph Waldo Emerson (who is included in this volume) wrote, “When I read a good book…I wish that life were three thousand years long.” If you feel the same way after reading How to Get a Life, then we will consider our efforts well spent.