1-Sentence-Summary: How to Live offers 27 vastly differing but always entertaining and insightful answers to the question of how we should live our lives, showing us that life is not black and white, that it’s okay to change, and that there’s a perfect life philosophy for each season, just none that lasts forever.
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Favorite quote from the author:
What happens after you die? Around 117 billion people have the answer, yet none of them can tell us what it is. In a book called Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, Stanford neuroscientist David Eagleman answers this question 40 times, each one a different story. What if god is real but has no idea we even exist? What if heaven is actually not a nice place?
Sum is Derek Sivers‘ all-time favorite book. Famous for building and selling an early online music store, CDBaby, then giving all the money to charity, Sivers is now a full-time author. For his magnum opus, he took a similar approach to Sum but answered a different, perhaps even more profound question: How should we live?
From originally over 1,000 pages and decades of life experience, Sivers condensed 27 vastly differing approaches to life into a short, concise book. Each chapter believes it has the perfect answer, and we must decide: Which one is right for us right now? But actually, How to Live: 27 conflicting answers and one weird conclusion holds a message that’s far bigger still…
Here are 3 lessons from this book that will help you answer life’s biggest question:
- Life is gray, not black and white, and you can remember this fact with a simple, daily question.
- You’ll always live in accordance with 1 of 3 big life themes, but they still come in many colors.
- Switching life themes is both normal and necessary — just make sure you realize when it happens.
Let’s learn how to live!
Lesson 1: Life is not black and white, and you can remember this with a simple question you already ask yourself every day.
“All misery comes from dependency,” Sivers opens the very first chapter. It’s called “Be independent.” Break all ties, learn to survive alone in the woods, and don’t ever get married. Each chapter instructs you this confidently, acting like a guru hoping to guide you. The next one, “Commit,” makes the opposite point: Pick a lane, and stay in it — for your career, for your friends, even for where you live and who you’ll marry. “When a decision is irreversible, you feel better about it.”
Whacking you over the head with contradicting ideas is Sivers’ great self-help stunt: Instead of serving you a convenient but insufficient answer on a silver platter, he shows you the truth: When it comes to how we should live, there is no right answer. Only an infinite sea of ideas we can choose from — and what we pick will constantly change over time.
Life is not black and white, but it’s important that we see and feel life’s grayness in our own lives on a daily basis. Only then can we have empathy and understanding for others.
Want an easy way to do this? Consider a question you ask every day: “What do I want to eat?” Your answer to this question will vary from this morning to tonight, from today to tomorrow, and with each week, month, and year. Even your spouse won’t always understand your food preferences, but that’s being human, isn’t it?
We constantly contradict ourselves and hope the world will forgive us — and that’s why we should be forgiving to others as well.
Lesson 2: There are only 3 ways to live a happy, meaningful life, but they come in many shapes and sizes.
As I was reading the book, I realized that while no individual chapter had all the answers, all of them could be grouped into 3 distinct themes: focus, freedom, and curiosity. This translates to 3 overarching approaches for living your life:
- Live a small, slow, focused life.
- Live an open, moderate, independent life.
- Live a big, fast, immersed life.
The chapters “Master something,” “Think super-long-term,” and “Value only what has endured” fit the first category. Plenty of happiness to find in even the tiniest village. Stay humble, and find joy in the little things.
“Balance everything.” “Do whatever you want now.” “Reinvent yourself regularly.” These chapters have freedom and independence as their highest value. Go with the flow, keep an open mind, and follow the universe wherever it wants to lead you.
Finally, chapters like “Make a million mistakes,” “Chase the future,” and “Fill your senses” say you should extract every last drop of life you can savor. Travel, explore, and learn as much as possible — about people, about work, and about the world.
We could argue about which chapter goes where, but you can group almost any life philosophy you can think of into one of these groups. Only 3 life themes? If that feels limiting, realize two things: First, they come in many different colors, and second, you can switch between them.
Lesson 3: You’ll switch “life themes” several times throughout your life, and that’s both okay and necessary.
I grew up in a little village. Everything mostly stayed as it was. I went to school, met friends, and enjoyed my hobbies. It was a type 1 life: small, slow, and focused.
Then, I went to college. I had to learn how to do my own laundry, who to trust, and how to think for myself. That was a type 2 life, moderate but independent.
Eventually, while studying abroad, I traveled the world extensively. I went to many countries and met countless new people, tasted new food and explored foreign cultures. It was an immersive, fast-paced time — a type 3 life.
Just like you need different shoes to navigate various terrains, the overall theme of your life will change depending on which season you’re in. This is not only normal, it’s actually necessary. What most people lack, however, is an awareness of these shifts as they happen. Suddenly, you’re 40 years old and feel like you missed the first 10 years of your daughter’s life!
Whether it’s a time for commitment, independence, or exploration, it pays to be truly present for the big inflection points of your life — for only then can you make those big changes deliberately.
This is the last and perhaps biggest lesson from Sivers’ book: You’ll never stop changing, but you should always take some time to reflect about how and why you’re changing. That’s how to live, and it’s as close as we’ll ever get to finding an answer in an answerless world.
How to Live Review
How to Live truly is Sivers magnum opus. His other books, like Anything You Want, are also good, but this one wins in terms of overall insight, entertainment value, and make-you-think factor. Our summary explains the big picture, but there’s no substitute for reading this book. I recommend you buy it directly from Derek. Most of the proceeds even go to charity. A true hall-of-famer!
Who would I recommend our How to Live summary to?
The 18-year-old college freshman who feels lost in a new phase of life, the 46-year-old stay-at-home mom who hasn’t changed life themes often enough, and anyone in need of change.
Last Updated on December 28, 2023