Note: While reading a book whenever I come across something interesting, I highlight it on my Kindle. Later I turn those highlights into a blogpost. It is not a complete summary of the book. These are my notes which I intend to go back to later. Let’s start!

  • The agony of decline is directly related to prestige previously achieved, and to one’s emotional attachment to that prestige. If you have low expectations and never do much (or do a lot but maintain a Buddha-like level of nonattachment to your professional prestige), you probably won’t suffer much when you decline. But if you attain excellence and are deeply invested in it, you can feel pretty irrelevant when you inevitably fall from those heights. And that is agony.

  • Great gifts and achievements early in life are simply not an insurance policy against suffering later on. On the contrary, studies show that people who have chased power and achievement in their professional lives tend to be unhappier after retirement than people who did not. Even simply being identified early on as gifted can lead to problems, according to Carole and Charles Holahan, psychologists at the University of Texas at Austin. They looked at hundreds of elderly people who had been publicly identified as highly gifted early in life. The Holahans’ conclusion: “Learning at a younger age of membership in a study of intellectual giftedness was related to…less favorable psychological well-being at age eighty.”

  • Humans simply aren’t wired to enjoy an achievement long past. It is as if we were on a moving treadmill; satisfaction from success lasts but an instant. We can’t stop to enjoy it; if we do, we zip off the back of the treadmill and wipe out. So we run and run, hoping that the next success, greater than the last, will bring the enduring satisfaction we crave.

  • The decline problem is a double whammy, then: we need ever-greater success to avoid dissatisfaction, yet our abilities to stay even are declining. No, it’s actually a triple whammy, because as we try to stay even, we wind up in patterns of addictive behavior such as workaholism, which puts strivers into unhealthy relationship patterns at the cost of deep connection to spouses, children, and friends. By the time the wipeout occurs, there’s no one there to help us get up and dust off. That leads many achievers into a vicious cycle: terrified of decline, dissatisfied with victories that come less and less frequently, hooked on the successes that are increasingly of the past, and isolated from others. And it’s not as if the world is overflowing with resources to help you. No one feels sorry for a successful person. The suffering of a striver with a comfortable life invokes the image of the world’s smallest violin. And yet it is real.

  • Cicero believed three things about older age. First, that it should be dedicated to service, not goofing off. Second, our greatest gift later in life is wisdom, in which learning and thought create a worldview that can enrich others. Third, our natural ability at this point is counsel: mentoring, advising, and teaching others, in a way that does not amass worldly rewards of money, power, or prestige.

  • Get on your second curve. Jump from what rewards fluid intelligence to what rewards crystallized intelligence. Learn to use your wisdom.

  • I asked her why she didn’t remediate the sources of her unhappiness—to take the time to resuscitate her marriage and spend more time with her kids; get some help with her drinking; sleep more; get in better shape. I knew that her grueling work effort had made her successful in the first place, but when you figure out something has secondary consequences that are making you miserable, you find a way to fix it, right? You might love bread, but if you become gluten intolerant, you stop eating it because it makes you sick. She thought about my question for a couple of minutes. Finally, she looked at me and said, matter-of-factly, “Maybe I would prefer to be special rather than happy.” Looking at my astonished face, she explained: “Anyone can do the things it takes to be happy—go on vacation, spend time with friends and family…but not everyone can accomplish great things.” I initially scoffed at this but then thought about it in the privacy of my own mind. And I realized that I have also made this choice at points in my life. Maybe even most of the time, if I am honest with myself. The financier had spent many years creating a version of herself that others would admire—including some who were dead, like her parents. More important, her curated self was a person she would admire—a hugely successful, hardworking executive. And she succeeded! But nothing is permanent, and now she felt like every hour of work was giving her less than the last, and not just less happiness—less power and prestige, too. Her problem was that the “special one” she had created was less than a full person. She had traded herself for a symbol of herself, you might say.

  • “Maybe I would prefer to be special rather than happy.” The financier’s words vaguely reminded me of something, but I couldn’t put my finger on it for a few days. But then I remembered: a conversation years ago with a friend who had spent a long time struggling with alcoholism and drug addiction. He told me that he was desperately unhappy all through his addictions and was well aware of that fact. I asked him a simple question: “If you were miserable, why did you keep doing it?” Like the financier above, he paused before answering. “I cared more about being high than being happy,” he told me. That’s when it struck me: people who choose being special over happy are addicts. Maybe that sounds strange to you. Picture a person desperately hooked on booze. Probably the person you envision is down and out, self-medicating against the traumas of a harsh world. You probably don’t envision someone who is successful and hardworking.

  • What workaholics truly crave isn’t work per se; it is success. They kill themselves working for money, power, and prestige because these are forms of approval, applause, and compliments—which, like all addictive things, from cocaine to social media, stimulate the neurotransmitter dopamine. Why? For some I have met, the thrill of success, albeit momentary, blots out the blackness of “normal” life—achievement is a way to pull oneself above a grim baseline mood. Something is clearly wrong when the idea of being “normal” induces enough panic to make someone neglect the people they love in favor of the possible admiration of strangers. But it is strikingly common among some of history’s greatest strivers. Take Winston Churchill, perhaps the most impactful statesman of the twentieth century. He often referred to his “black dog,” a melancholy that he treated with whiskey, obsessive work, and an unquenchable thirst for greatness. Unable to leave his tortured mind unattended during his crushing schedule as a wartime prime minister, he simultaneously wrote forty-three books. Similarly, Abraham Lincoln was desperately sad off and on throughout his life, and at times suicidal, admitting once to a friend that he never dared to carry a knife in his pocket for fear he would use it on himself.

  • The success addict is never “successful enough.” The high only lasts a day or two, and then it’s on to the next success hit. “Unhappy is he who depends on success to be happy,” wrote Alex Dias Ribeiro, a former famous Formula 1 race car driver. “For such a person, the end of a successful career is the end of the line. His destiny is to die of bitterness or to search for more success in other careers and to go on living from success to success until he falls dead. In this case, there will not be life after success.”

  • Pride is sneaky: it hides inside good things. Saint Augustine astutely observed that “every other kind of sin has to do with the commission of evil deeds, whereas pride lurks even in good works in order to destroy them.” So true—work, which is a source of meaning and purpose, becomes workaholism, which hurts our relationships. Success, the fruit of excellence, becomes an addiction. All because of pride.

  • A cousin of pride is fear. A lot of people addicted to drugs and alcohol say they stay addicted because they are afraid of “normal” life, with its struggles, stresses, and boredom. Success addicts frequently have a lot of fear, too—fear of failure.

  • Success addicts experience withdrawal as well. I saw it all the time in my years running a Washington, DC–based think tank. People would step back from the political limelight—sometimes of their own volition, sometimes not—and suffer mightily. They talked of virtually nothing but the old days. They resented the people who came after them but who never asked for their help and advice.

  • In the West, success and happiness come—or so we believe—by avoiding losses and accumulating more stuff: more money, more accomplishments, more relationships, more experiences, more prestige, more followers, more possessions. Meanwhile, most Eastern philosophy warns that this acquisitiveness leads to materialism and vanity, which derails the search for happiness by obscuring one’s essential nature. We need to chip away the jade boulder of our lives until we find ourselves.

  • I started my life fully immersed in the arts; not only was I a musician, but my mother was a professional painter. As such, I have always seen my life as a creative endeavor. This is the perfect metaphor for me. My happiest days are those that start out like an empty canvas, waiting to be filled up with ideas and creative interactions. But as I spoke with my Taiwanese guide and thought later about the lessons he taught me, I realized that the Western metaphor might not be the right one as I live the back half of my life. It might actually be becoming a hindrance to my happiness and satisfaction. In my fifties, my life is jammed with possessions, accomplishments, relationships, opinions, and commitments. I asked myself, “Can the right formula for a happy life really be to add more and more, until I die?” Obviously, the answer is no. Even worse than the inherent fruitlessness of this strategy, it gets less and less effective over time as our first success curve declines and the returns to our efforts diminish. To get off the first curve and onto the second, instead of adding more and more to our lives, we need to understand why this doesn’t work and then start taking things away.

  • The happiness strategy of getting and owning and doing more and more and more has a name: the “bucket list.” If you google this term, the search will return about eighty million hits. As everyone knows, this is the list of all the stuff you want to see, do, and acquire before you die. This is precisely the same idea as adding brushstrokes to get a finished work of art: do all the stuff in your bucket to get a full and happy life. I have known many people who follow this strategy, and no doubt so have you. I sometimes think of a man I met when I was still a teenager. He was a very early software entrepreneur, right on the cusp of the revolution that would change all of our lives. He had grown up poor and never amounted to much professionally, until his late thirties, when he was part of the team that had a big product breakthrough—a computer program still well-known today—that made him rich beyond his wildest dreams. After that, his entire identity was “Successful Entrepreneur”: a special person par excellence. But that required more than one big hit to stay special. He cast about, but no other significant professional successes came his way. So he turned to his bucket list. He bought houses. He bought cars by the dozens. He bought gadgets, art, and every expensive knickknack that struck his fancy. His purchasing outstripped his ability to even enjoy the things he bought: He used his dining room as a kind of warehouse for unopened boxes full of things he had acquired. Paintings sat on the floor, unhung. Cars were not driven. He actually said to me once, quoting the entrepreneur Malcolm Forbes approvingly, “He who dies with the most toys, wins.” I remember thinking, “Actually, he who dies with the most toys, dies.” His use of time and relationships mirrored his buying behavior. He traveled constantly, checking off sites on his bucket list—castles in Germany, temples in Cambodia, icebergs in the Arctic. He took lots and lots of pictures to show people what he had seen. Similarly, he had hundreds of people in his life whom he counted as friends but barely knew, but with whom he had pictures. He collected people. And yet he wasn’t happy—on the contrary. He boasted endlessly about his big hit years before—the definition of his objectified self—and looked toward some new venture that might strengthen that self-image. Meanwhile, his growing collection of items, experiences, and people piled up as a substitute for the success he obviously craved. But that craving was never satisfied.

  • People who opt for the worldly path choose “substitutes for God”: idols that objectify the idolater and never satisfy the craving for happiness. Even if you are not a religious believer, his list rings true as the idols that attract us.They are money, power, pleasure, and honor.

  • Money is critical for a functioning society and supporting your family; power can be wielded to lift others up; pleasure leavens life; and fame can attract attention to the sources of moral elevation. But as attachments—the focus of our life’s attention and as ends instead of means—the problem is simple: they cannot bring us the deep satisfaction we desire. We chase our worldly attachments up our first success curve. We work ourselves to death to attain the elusive satisfaction; when the success curve starts to bend back down, the attachments give us tremendous suffering. These attachments must be chipped away to make it possible to jump onto the second curve.

  • When it comes to success, you can’t ever get enough. If you base your sense of self-worth on success, you tend to go from victory to victory to avoid feeling awful. That is pure homeostasis at work. The buzz from success is neutralized quickly, leaving a hangover feeling. Knowing you will be looking for the bump again very soon, your brain ultimately adjusts to a baseline feeling of anti-success. After a while, you need constant success hits just not to feel like a failure. That’s what we social scientists refer to as the “hedonic treadmill.” You run and run but make no real progress toward your goal—you simply avoid being thrown off the back from stopping or slowing down.

  • Dr. Gary Chapman has been helping couples as a marriage and family therapist for over fifty years. During the scope of his career, he began to notice patterns in the way couples showed (or didn’t show) affection toward each other. He found that there were five different ways people tended to express love—what he calls the 5 Love Languages.
    1. Words of Affirmation: People with this love language express their care through spoken or written word—love letters, texts, and verbal expressions of love.
    2. Gifts: People with this love language express their care through small gifts or tokens of appreciation—jewelry, candy, or flowers.
    3. Physical Touch: People with this love language express their care through touch—hugs, cuddles, pats on the back, loving embraces.
    4. Acts of Service: People with this love language express their care by doing things for others—cooking their spouse dinner, running errands, or crafting something for them.
    5. Quality Time: People with this love language express their care with their time. They want to simply be in the presence of the people they care about.
  • Dr. Chapman argues that most relationship difficulties arise when we’re speaking different languages. For example, if a wife’s love language is Words of Affirmation, she lights up when her husband tells her he misses her. However, her husband’s love language is Physical Touch, so when he gets home from work, he doesn’t want to talk, he just wants to snuggle with her on the couch. When she pulls away, he feels hurt, and when he doesn’t ask about her day, she feels stung. Over time, this eats away at the couple.

  • When you know your appreciation language, you are able to: Know What to Ask For: Your partner cannot read your mind. Neither can your boss, your friends, or your colleagues. Understanding your love language can help you know what to ask for when you need support. If your language is Words of Affirmation, you can ask your boss for more verbal feedback and plan catch-up meetings at the end of long weeks. If your language is Quality Time, you know that long-distance relationships or working virtually might not be a good choice for you. Set the people in your life up for success by telling them how you best feel appreciated by them. Understand What’s Missing: Whenever I teach the appreciation languages, the majority of my students have some kind of relationship aha moment. They realize that a fight they have been having with someone in their life has been caused by a difference in appreciation languages. For example, one of my students, Leila, whose primary appreciation language is Acts of Service, is constantly hosting her girlfriend for martini nights, cooking clubs, and brunches. Leila feels like she is the only one who ever does anything and has been feeling bad about the friendship. However, after this lesson, Leila realized her friend’s language is Words of Affirmation and always writes her long thank-you text messages and gushes about how much she loves these get-togethers. While this expression of appreciation doesn’t mean as much to Leila, she now knows what to ask for and where her friend is coming from. When you pair your appreciation language with your personality rankings, you’ll have doubly powerful insights. For example, if you are low open and your primary appreciation language is Quality Time, you would be better off asking a colleague to a monthly coffee date at your favorite place. If you are high open with Quality Time, you might ask your colleague to try a new coffee place once a month. When you get to know yourself, you know what makes you happy, what to ask for, and how to have smooth interactions.

  • A decoding method is to ask about old memories, favorite stories, and recent experiences. These are some of my go-to questions: What’s the nicest thing someone has ever done for you? How do you celebrate your successes? I really want to do something nice for our colleague who just had a new baby. What do you think we should do for them? What’s your favorite thing to do on the weekends? What’s the most interesting gift you have ever received? Given? What’s your favorite activity to do with your friends? Growing up, what did your parents do to celebrate your birthdays or your successes? These questions can be surprisingly revealing. If you ask a non-gift-giver about the best gift they have ever given, they might tell you about something they did for someone else or a letter they wrote to someone else. I recently asked one of my friends this question. He said the best gift he ever gave was writing his grandmother’s life story in a handmade book for her. I instantly guessed his primary and secondary appreciation languages— Words of Affirmation and Acts of Service. He was a great sport and agreed to confirm my guesses with my online quiz. Sure enough, those were his two.

  • Appreciation is the key to life and job satisfaction. We can hack connection by using the five appreciation languages. Know what you need, learn what the people around you need, and find ways to show them you care. Learn and stand up for your primary and secondary appreciation languages. Use the second level of the matrix to decode appreciation languages of the people you meet. Honor and engage the appreciation languages of the important people in your life.

  • Satisfaction = What you have ÷ what you want. Your satisfaction is what you have, divided by what you want.

  • My best friend and I often ask each other, “Aren’t we going to regret we didn’t enjoy this time in our life more?” We agree that we will, and then we hang up the phone and go back to the madness. I don’t think anyone wants madness but we want nice houses and schools and vacations and organic food and college and church and sleepaway camp and then you become tied to your circumstances.

  • I have gone in the other direction instead by compiling a “reverse bucket list”. Each year on my birthday, I list my worldly wants and attachments—the stuff that fits under Thomas’s categories of money, power, pleasure, and honor. I try to be completely honest. I don’t list stuff I don’t actually want, like a boat or a house on Cape Cod. Rather, I go to my weaknesses, which usually involve the admiration of others. I’m embarrassed to admit that, but it’s true. I imagine myself in five years. I am happy and at peace. I am enjoying my life for the most part; I’m satisfied and living a life of purpose and meaning. I imagine myself saying to my wife, “You know, I have to say that I am truly happy at this point in my life.” I then think of the forces in this future life that are most responsible for this happiness: my faith; my family; my friendships; the work I am doing that is inherently satisfying, meaningful, and that serves others. Next, I go back to my bucket list. I consider how these things compete with the forces of my happiness for time, attention, and resources. I ponder how empty they are by comparison. I imagine myself sacrificing my relationships to choose the admiration of strangers and the result down the line in my life. With this in mind, I confront the bucket list. About each item, I say, “This is not evil, but it will not bring me the happiness and peace I seek, and I simply don’t have time to make it my goal. I choose to detach myself from this desire.” Finally, I go back to the list of things that will bring me real happiness. I commit to pursuing these things with my time, affection, and energy. This exercise has made a big difference in my life.

  • Satisfaction comes not from chasing bigger and bigger things, but paying attention to smaller and smaller things. Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh explains: “While washing the dishes, one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes.” Why? If we are thinking about the past or future, “we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes.” We are either reliving a past that is dead or “sucked away into the future” that exists merely in concept. Only to be mindful, therefore, is to be truly alive.

  • Once, my wife and I were at the home of close friends, eating and drinking out in their garden. It was dusk, and they asked us to gather around a plant with small, closed flowers. “Watch a flower,” one of them instructed. We did so, for about ten minutes, in complete silence. All at once, the flowers popped open, which we learned that they did every evening. We gasped in amazement and joy. It was a moment of intense satisfaction. But here’s the interesting thing: Unlike most of the junk on my old bucket list, that satisfaction endured. That memory still brings me joy—more so than many of my life’s earthly “accomplishments”—not because it was the culmination of a large goal, but because it was a small and serendipitous thrill. It was a tiny miracle that felt like a free gift, freely given.

  • Leaders are particularly prone to loneliness, in no small part because real friendships at work are difficult or impossible with people under one’s authority and supervision. Loneliness at the top doesn’t come from physical isolation—who spends more time in meetings than a CEO?—but from an inability to make deep human connections at work as a result of the leader’s position. At work, successful people are lonely in a crowd.

  • One famous study from 1972 found that subordinates in a workplace tend to lose their sense of free will about being friends with the boss—you are unfriendly to her or him at your peril—which makes things uncomfortable and weird. More recent research has shown that subordinates objectify leaders by seeing them not as people per se, but as dispensers of power, information, and money. People with authority isolate themselves as well. The authors of the famous 1950 book The Lonely Crowd claimed that leaders are lonely because their success requires manipulation and persuasion of others. As such, they objectify subordinates every bit as much as subordinates objectify them. Later research found that leaders often purposely distance themselves from employees so they can appraise their performance fairly. In plain terms, if you might have to fire someone, you are unlikely to form tight bonds with that person.

  • Successful people are good at marginal thinking: making sure each hour is spent on its best use at that moment. The trouble is that this always marginalizes the things in life that don’t have a clear payoff in the short run—like relationships. This is why an extra hour at work, even when we are exhausted and unproductive, can crowd out the first hour at home, day after day, year after year—leading to the problems of loneliness and alienation. To avoid this error, I take an hour one Sunday afternoon each month and start by imagining myself at the end of my life, surrounded by the people I love. I think about what they are saying about me. Then I come back to the present. I think about how I want to allocate my time in the coming weeks. What do I want to do with my time this week to cultivate the relationships that will result in that end scenario? I might make the decision to leave work on time, leave my work at the office, get home for dinner, and watch a movie after dinner with my family.

  • We give our families and friends the opportunity to spend time at our convenience, doing what is interesting to us. And it makes sense—if I am the king at work, I am the king at home! It doesn’t work this way, of course. Love relationships are not hierarchical, but reciprocal. They require giving what people want and need, not that which is most convenient to the giver. I regularly write out a list of the people with whom I need a stronger relationship. Then I list next to each of them what they need from me that only I can provide. For example, there are things that only I can do for my wife. There are some things only I can do for my adult children. When those things are neglected, relationships starve.

  • When I left my job as president of the think tank, it felt a little bit like facing death. It was the end of a whole style of life, set of experiences, and—I knew full well—relationships. Many readers of this book know exactly what I mean here. Perhaps you don’t love your work, especially if you are past your prime and tormented. Perhaps it is like a tense marriage. Still, quitting feels like death or divorce, and before you do it, it is like standing at the edge of a cliff. You’re letting go of what you have, what you’ve built, a professional life that answers the question “Who am I?” It is a professional death with a rebirth that is uncertain. You are looking out over a precipice, unsure whether what awaits will bring net pleasure or pain—or, most likely, both. But you know what you have to do. Don’t think, dude. Just jump.

  • Use things. Love people. Worship the divine.

  • Don’t misunderstand what I am saying here. I am not exhorting you to hate and reject the world; to live like a hermit in a Himalayan cave. There is nothing bad or shameful about the world’s material abundance, and we are right to enjoy it. Material abundance is what gives us our daily bread and pulls our sisters and brothers out of poverty. It reflects the blessings of our creativity and work and can provide comfort and enjoyment to humdrum days. The problem is not the noun things, but the verb to love. Things are to use, not to love. Love is at the epicenter of our happiness. Around the year 400, the great Saint Augustine summarized this lesson as the secret to a good life: “Love and do what you will.” But love is reserved for people, not things; to misplace your love is to invite frustration and futility—to get on the hedonic treadmill and set it to ultra-fast.