Confession: I didn’t know anything about Eleanor Roosevelt just one month ago. For years, I’d noticed that older females I admired would reference her name, or have a quote of hers pinned over their desks. But until recently, all I knew about Eleanor Roosevelt was that she was FDR’s wife.
But I had such fun learning about Abigail Adams this spring that I decided it was high time to learn more about the famous women of American history. Eleanor seemed like a logical starting point. I checked the holdings of my local public library–intending to request a biography–but You Learn by Living, written by the lady herself, jumped out at me, its cover shouting: “The distillation of Mrs. Roosevelt’s life experience: How to become a mature person! How to use one’s time effectively! How to get the best out of people! How to conquer fear! How to maintain hope and help others!”
You Learn by Living was first published in 1960, when Roosevelt was 76 years old. It’s striking how fresh and wise her insight seems today, over fifty years later.
Roosevelt’s plucky, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps attitude shines through on every page. You Learn by Living is packed with sound advice, heavily seasoned with anecdotes from her own life. Not knowing her story, I was surprised to find out that her life contained a good amount of hardship.
I’ve only begun learning about Eleanor Roosevelt, but I’m ready to declare her an accomplished woman. She didn’t paint screens or net purses, but this woman has been around the block a time or two–and she has a lot to show for it.
Thankfully, she’s willing to share these lessons with the rest of us:
Learn as You Go.
“Life is interesting only as long as it is a process of growth”–so you must be always learning! Roosevelt advocates a “hospitality towards new ideas.” She exhorts you to take an interest in the world around you, because “we can only grow as long as we are interested.” “This part of learning–learning as you go–gives life its salt. And this, too, comes back primarily to interest. You must be interested in anything that comes your way.”
Roosevelt constantly reminds her readers that life is an adventure–so act like it!
Develop the Ability to Focus–on the Right Things.
If you are going to get anywhere in life, you must do the hard work of learning to discipline your mind and body. Roosevelt believes our lives are the sum total of the things we think about and the choices we make, and we need self-discipline in order to choose wisely.
Roosevelt’s section on time management is especially good. In this age of productivity gurus and time management systems, her old-fashioned tips still ring true: maintain your sense of calm, concentrate on the thing at hand, develop good routines. And take good care of yourself!
Her words focused my thoughts on contemporary things like my computer habits (“you can finish any task much quicker if you concentrate on it for fifteen minutes than if you give it divided attention for thirty”) and my friend who just completed her first triathlon (“women should try to develop some interests in which their whole family can share”). Her old-fashioned advice is still right on the money.
Develop Confidence in Yourself–and a Healthy Sense of Perspective.
Learn to think rightly about yourself. This is not easy and it takes time to develop the self-knowledge to do so. But you need to have confidence in your abilities–just not too much! (I loved this quote: “Because of a variety of circumstances I have to listen to a great deal of praise. If I were to take it at its face value I would become utterly obnoxious, but, knowing myself, I realize that it is nonsense, and simply the result of a combination of circumstances.”)
The world doesn’t revolve around you–and the sooner you realize that, the better! You can best develop a sense of perspective on the world by seeking a wide range of experiences, interacting with all sorts of people, and being interested in lots of things.
Roosevelt encourages her reader to “open windows outside [your] own narrow circle” and mix with people whose lives and experiences are different from your own–people of different ages, backgrounds, occupations, incomes and nationalities. Her life story shows she practiced what she preached.
Aim for Maturity.
“To be mature you have to realize what you value most. It is extraordinary to discover that comparatively few people reach this level of maturity.” Roosevelt’s discussion of what makes for a mature person–and her musings on how to attain maturity oneself–are one of the highlights of the book. Her advice on how to take criticism well is especially wise.
The fact that Eleanor Roosevelt thought aiming for maturity was advice worth giving shows she knows something of today’s woman.
Life Is What You Make of It.
You don’t control your circumstances, but you do control your thoughts and actions: “Nothing ever happens to us except what happens in our minds. Unhappiness is an inward, not an outward, thing. It is as independent of circumstances as is happiness.”
You can create a good life–and a happy one–by being honest with yourself, by doing your best in your life and work, by loving others, and by being useful. All these things are quite doable, but they don’t happen by accident. You have to take action. Roosevelt tells us how she put these ideas into practice in her own life, and prods her reader to do the same.
If you’re anything like me, you’ll want to know what those eleven keys are: learning to Learn • fear—the great enemy • the uses of time • the difficult art of maturity • readjustment is endless • learning to be useful • the right to be an individual • how to get the best out of people • facing responsibility • how everyone can take part in politics • learning to be a public servant. A chapter is devoted to each of these topics in the new edition.