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book review

Title: The Courage To Be Disliked

Author: Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga

Genre: Self-help

Publisher: Simon & Schuster. Pages: 288. Price: $29.99

On a wall in my bedroom, I have taped up a piece of jaundiced yellow note paper that bears a quote by Hungarian novelist George Konrad. It reads, in part: “Have a lived life instead of a career. Put yourself in the safekeeping of good taste. Lived freedom will compensate you for a few losses.”

It’s the sort of wisdom that affords one a modicum of comfort, on par with that afforded by a “Hang In There, Baby!” kitty cat poster or an inspirational coffee mug embossed with that “Try again, fail again, fail better” Samuel Beckett quote. And for me, it’s enough.

Yet for the ballooning industry of self-improvement, which takes in an estimated US$10-billion annually, enough is never enough. Where once a poster about missing 100 per cent of the shots you don’t take or a feel-good, Chicken Soup for the Soul-style anecdote may have sufficed in buoying spirits, now the work of eking through modern life demands something far more assiduous. It demands a system. Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga’s The Courage to be Disliked, billed as “the Japanese phenomenon that shows you how to change your life and achieve real happiness” offers such a system. The book – which, as the marketing boasts, has sold more than 3.5 million copies in Asia – is something of a Trojan horse.

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Simon and Shuster

While it’s presented as a self-bettering cure-all imported from the East, its actual subject is the work of Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler. A colleague of Sigmund Freud, Adler focused on the role the social world played in constituting the individual, opposing Freudianism’s more egocentric view of personality development. So while The Courage to be Disliked presents as something like “Eastern philosophy,” it’s really a book dedicated to a psychoanalytic framework of a relatively obscure mid-20th century Austrian doctor.

The Courage to be Disliked takes the form of a dialogue between a Youth and Philosopher, a format familiar to anyone who has ever skimmed a Socratic dialogue or Boethius’s The Consolations of Philosophy. The Youth, described as a “young man who was dissatisfied with life,” begs for a road map to a happier life while the Philosopher (who is identified as such despite merely parroting the talking points of a psychologist) waxes on about horizontal relationships, how the fear of being disliked can hamstring social affairs, how all problems are interpersonal relationship problems, how the key to life is to “live like you’re dancing” and how you’re the only one who can change yourself (an insight I had already gleaned during a recent, zonked-out viewing of the movie Daddy’s Home 2). Over 200-plus pages, The Courage to be Disliked dusts off such cornball bromides and remounts them as deeply profound wisdom, bridging Eastern and Western traditions.

Never mind the fact that our dissatisfied young man may feel frustrated, adrift, alienated, burnt out etc., not because he refuses to live like he’s dancing, but because of more pressing material conditions wrought by previous generations. Adler was himself a committed socialist who psychoanalyzed Leon Trotsky, a tantalizing historical detail unremarked upon in Kishimi and Koga’s book. Adler’s focus on horizontally oriented community relationships was not just woozily spiritual, but political and economic. This seems to be deliberately obfuscated when the philosopher remarks that the extremely wealthy pursue wealth not out of shameless greed, but “so they are able to contribute to others, and also to confirm their sense of belonging.”

Taken individually, the advice provided by Kishimi and Koga is good enough. What needles about The Courage to be Disliked is not that it offers mostly welcome (if largely banal) bits of wisdom, but a totalizing worldview. To be happy, the book posits, one must be an Adlerian. And maybe it’s just my hard-earned skepticism (or more easily won cynicism), but any happiness achieved through ascription to one-or-another closed system feels like a cultish panacea.

In the book’s afterword, Kishimi describes how he discovered Adler’s work and the subsequent obsession with it that led in turn to The Courage to be Disliked. “In life,” he writes, “there are encounters in which a book one happens to pick up one day ends up completely altering one’s landscape the following morning.” There’s genuine understanding there, too. But what such modest wisdom forgets is that the pleasure of finding such a book is in the finding itself – in the brief and serendipitous encounter with a book, an author, a particularly well-turned phrase that can, however briefly, bring the hurly-burly into focus.

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