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Tuesday 17 July 2012

A Visit to The School of Life

A jet lagged shopper

One of my favourite authors is Alain de Botton, who wrote The Architecture of Happiness, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, The Art of Travel, and many other erudite and beautifully constructed meditations on the human condition.

De Botton specializes in relating philosophical ideas to the minutiae of everyday existence. For example, in his recent book A Week at the Airport (for which he spent, as the title suggests, a full week within the confines of Heathrow) he considers the impact of the architectural space of Terminal 5, the ways in which people relate to one another there, and the sense of an airport as a transitional zone between modes of existence.

In 2008 de Botton and several colleagues founded The School of Life in London England (at 70 Marchmont Street; near Russell Square tube station). On a recent visit to London I stopped in to visit with Zoe Langdell, the School’s Retail and Bookings Manager.

The School’s storefront is a smallish space in the Bloomsbury area. It sells books by de Botton and his colleagues, bits of stationery, cards, and various desktop accoutrements to suit the reflective and literary life. It’s a great destination if you happen to be wandering the streets for which the Bloomsbury Group (Virginia Woolf and friends) was named.

The shop, with Zoe Langdell.
The store, however, is only a small part of what the School aims to provide. The main idea is to provide a forum for psychological and philosophical discussion. To this end, the School provides a meeting space below street level where it offers prominent speakers most evenings of the week. Some recent classes include “How Necessary is a Relationship” “How to Live in a Wired World” and “How to Stay Calm.” 

In addition, each Sunday night at a larger hall nearby the School offers nontheistic “Sunday Sermons,” unabashedly adopting the church’s idea of a weekly dose of thought to a more secular age. Zoe told me that these sermons routinely sell out the hall’s capacity of 500 people.

The School also offers “Intensives”, day-long or weekend programs on a variety of topics. Here the School really stretches itself beyond what we might think of as the expected format of self-helpish presentations. For example, in late summer they offer a weekend seaside holiday with a renowned photographer. They also offer a picnic with a guided discussion based on Thoreau, a walk through London with a musician to discover naturalistic sounds, and a drinks-and-storytelling evening.

If you find yourself on a holiday in London, a visit to the School to shop or attend a program would doubtless be a highlight.

Why do I care?

A few years ago Changeways Clinic developed PsychologySalon, conceived as a means of getting psychological ideas out of the clinic and into everyday life. The idea was hatched before I knew about  The School of Life, but when I heard a CBC interview on the School I was immediately interested. The projects seem to share a roughly similar idea.

Our strategy has been to develop public presentations and interactive sessions in which people can explore issues and their own ways of reacting to the world. At first we offered talks through UBC at Robson Square. More recently we have been partnering with Vancouver Public Library, which provides us with broader event promotion and enables us to offer the programs at no charge. (Our series for 2012 is now finished, but we will offer additional talks at VPL in 2013.)

PsychologySalon is a small venture compared to The School of Life, with its daily in-house talks, Sunday sermons, and weekend intensives. We hope to build it up into something bigger, but as it is our presentations attract 100 to 200 people. We also plan to develop full-day programs for the public. The School of Life is an inspiration to us, though frankly I doubt we will ever match their scope.

The School of Life’s How-To Series

Interested in The School of Life? Visit their website at

As well, the School has developed a publishing arm (not entirely unlike Changeways Clinic, which puts out therapy guides for professionals under our own imprint). In the past few months they have released a set of six “How to” titles; the series is edited by de Botton. I’ve read two of them and plan to get through the others in coming months. They don’t seem to be available through Amazon or in Canadian bookstores just yet, but they are coming. The titles include:

  • How to Change the World by John-Paul Flintoff
  • How to Find Fulfilling Work by Roman Krznaric
  • How to Think More About Sex by Alain de Botton
  • How to Thrive in the Digital Age by Tom Chatfield
  • How to Stay Sane by Philippa Perry
  • How to Worry Less About Money by John Armstrong

The books are short, attractively presented, and emphasize practical advice. Just the thing to offer as a birthday present for yourself or someone you care about.

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