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How to be an Existentialist

Author: Gary Cox

Publisher: Continuum Books

ISBN: Mick Yates

Summary:We need to become both more tough minded on defining our situation and what to do about it, yet more dignified in our relationships with others. Net, we need to become more Authentic.

How to be an Existentialist

ISBN 978 1 4411 8843 4

So why would a Leadership Development website feature a book on Existentialism? Isn't that the rather sombre, nihilistic philosophy of Jean Paul Sartre and others? Wouldn't we be better to talk about such things in dark rooms in cafes with smoke curling to the ceiling?

Well, no. Existentialism is not just about despair, it is about accepting the reality of our own lives as a first step to everything we do. The roots of Existentialism date back to Soren Kierkegaard, a remarkable man who contended that "Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced." Put another way, facing our personal realities is essential if we are to make progress of any kind, both for ourselves and the social system we find ourselves in.

How often have you heard people talk about how they cannot cope with things, that it is all too hard, and they find it easier to make excuses? Well, that is the reason for Cox's book. As the blurb says, it is:

" … a humorous introduction to existentialism. This book shows how existentialism can be an honest, positive and uplifting philosophy - and how it can be applied to our everyday lives."

Think of it as a serious self-help book for the perplexed.

Cox's short but very engaging work starts with a clear explanation of Existentialism, with a focus on the work of Sartre. Existentialist philosophers believe that things only have meaning and purpose relative to other things - and the entire system only has a meaning and purpose because of the activities and effort that we put into it. A critical concept is that we are all "being-for-itself" - in other words we are not only conscious of the world but we are conscious that we are conscious of the world. We are contextually aware of our role as a thinking being. Shades of Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence, perhaps? Yet we also live in the world of "being-for-others". Other people are not just objects in our world, but they are constantly judging us and they, in turn, reduce us to an object in their world.

So how do we use all this? By embracing our inherent individual freedoms to do what we decide to do, yet also by embracing our responsibility to others. It is not just about rampant and individual hedonism - it is about our relationships with others. We need to become both more tough minded on defining our situation and what to do about it, yet more dignified in our relationships with others. Net, we need to become more Authentic.

Kierkegaard wrote that "The highest and most beautiful things in life are not to be heard about, nor read about, nor seen but, if one will, are to be lived." We are masters of our own destiny, should we choose to be. And Abraham Lincoln noted "In the end, it's not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years".

This is an absorbing book, quite off the beaten path for business or self help volumes. Yet I found it a stimulating read, which forced me to re-think some of my current perceptions.