The Mental Toolkit You Need To Live A Good Life
Including the “five-second no” and how to worry professionally.
Some people will tell you that with the right mindset, you can overcome just about anything life throws at you. But how do you get the right mindset? Are people born with an innate ability to handle stress and surmount negative emotions, or is it something that you can learn with a little practice? Hopefully, it’s the latter, or most of us are drifting paddleless along a very suspicious-smelling creek.
In his new book, The Art Of The Good Life, Rolf Dobelli provides 52 short and snappy intellectual lessons that, taken together, form a mental toolkit fit to face down all of life’s troubles. We spoke to Dobelli about the book and a couple of our favourite tools from it.
What’s the premise behind the book?
“The question of what makes a good life is a question I can’t imagine going through life without asking.
“There’s a plethora of answers of how one should lead a life and they fit on a single strand. At one extreme you have maximising pleasure and minimising pain, and on the other is virtues – as long as you stick to certain principles and values it’s great, and maximising pleasure can even detract from a good life.
“I found a middle road which I think is a perfect way to navigate through the 21st century and that is Stoicism. It’s a philosophy that’s very applicable, but it’s not on one extreme or the other. They liked good stuff, but they didn’t have to have luxury to lead a good life.
“I also compared Stoic philosophy with the science of psychology that we know from the past 20 or 30 years and there’s a lot of overlap.
“I realised there wasn’t one button to press and you have a good life. We need a bunch of tools that help you lead a good life. Even then it’s not guaranteed, but you increase the chances.
“So I put together the toolbox of 52 mental tools that help you to lead a better life, or you can say a Swiss Army knife with 52 tools on it.”
That’s a big knife…
“Yes! Coming from Switzerland I like to use the metaphor of a Swiss Army knife. A Swiss Army knife doesn’t solve all the problems in the world, but it helps with a whole range of problems. And in every situation you don’t need all the tools, you just need one or two.”
How long does it take to use these tools to change your mindset?
“Sometimes it just clicks, and sometimes it takes practice, a lot of practice. I think getting toxic emotions out of your life – envy for example – might take half a year, a year, or ten years. It’s a matter of practising.
“Take a screwdriver. The first time you used a screwdriver as a little kid you were not used to doing it, but eventually it becomes natural. It’s the same with these tools. The more you use them, the better you get at it.”
You are inspired by ancient philosophers, but also modern figures like Warren Buffett, who features in the book regularly?
“Yes, Warren Buffett and especially Charlie Munger, his right-hand man. These are guys who are actually modern Stoics. A lot of what they say fits nicely into Stoic philosophy and modern psychology.”
One tool I liked in the book was the “five-second no”. Can you explain it?
“That’s a beautiful one. It’s the simplest one. It’s not my idea, it’s Charlie Munger’s idea – if you say no to 99% of things you’re not missing much.
“People ask you for a small favour – think about how you react. How often do you say yes without thinking twice? How often do you say no? Then looking back how often do you kick yourself for having agreed to it and how often have you regretted saying no? For me, I kick myself way more for saying yes than regretting saying no.
“The problem is you overcommit yourself. Then you’re not only fooling yourself but you’re also fooling the other person because you can’t really deliver. You have to make up excuses, you have to lie and it’s not good.
“It’s better to spend five seconds contemplating something – but not more than five seconds – and then answer. Don’t let people hang. And the standard answer is no, unless it’s really special. That’s how I do it and my life has gotten much better. It’s much calmer, I’m not overcommitting and I think I’ve been much more honest with other people.
“I always thought that yes was a good word and no was a bad word, because I wanted to be liked and loved, but I realised that no is the good word, and yes is the bad word.”
Is there another tool from the book that you think is especially useful?
“A lot of people struggle with anxiety. But they carry these worries subconsciously, which I call worrying in an unprofessional way. I started to worry professionally. You take ten minutes out of your week and write down all your worries. You will realise the list is not that long, maybe 12 points, 20 points – it’s not infinite. Once you’ve written it down, your brain becomes calm. You can go on with your life because you know it’s somewhere.
“You do this a couple of times and it starts to get boring, because you realise it’s always the same worries. Eventually you look at your list and you ask what can I do about it? In most cases there’s nothing you can do. Worrying if your favourite football team is going to win or if there will be a stock market crash next week – these are things we cannot know or influence, so you don’t have to worry about them. It’s the most stupid thing to worry about things you can’t influence – you have to accept them.
“Then with the other stuff where you can have an influence, you try to get the problems out of the way and your worries will decrease. They will crop up again, so you do this exercise again every once in a while. People worry all the time, but once you dissect it, it goes away, at least for a time.”
Written by Nick Harris-Fry for Coach and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.