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The Plague-Ground – A Masterclass in The School of Life

Feeling a vague need to lead a better life?

Time hangs heavy on most of us. We’re feeling under threat and floundering for a new and better way to……not quite sure what?  Well, a  world of online learning is a click away.

In other words, this is the perfect time not just to dig deep within (which I’ve generally avoided for fear of not finding anything to drag out), but to sign up for –with the help of a trusted guide.

I’m not talking here about the human potential movement and its offshoots like Esalen, Kabbalah, MontessoriScientology, Burning Man and even Mary Kay, these are all “organized” and involve groups. They also tend to over-promise and underperform.

I’m just talking about learning to be a little happier, for a little longer than we are now.

In our past weeks of mutual isolation, Jean and I have called on an old online friend and met a new one. Together, they’ve helped make this more a time of opportunity and less one of fear and loathing. So I’d like you to meet them now, hoping you’ll become fast friends. As Heinrich Heine once said: “Experience is a good school. But the fees are high.”

1. The School of Life. Trust the Brits to start a school (with a real storefront in London) that teaches you about life. Founded by writer Alain de Botton in 2008, it offers courses in finding fulfilling work, mastering relationships and achieving c-c-c-c-calm.

I stumbled across their delicious website last year and quickly ordered one of their Emotional First Aid Kits that offer flashcards for problems such as  ‘I can’t sleep’, ‘I’m in the wrong job’ and  ‘I might be turning into an addict’. I liked it so much that I ordered half a dozen more kits which I continue to give to my friends on special personal occasions, such as after a breakup, a disaster at work, or teens who overnight become thugs. The cards are plain-spoken, practical and witty. In other words, they speak to you in the kind of language you need when life has given you a shake – like now.

The School of Life offers everything from TableTalk placecards with Meaningful and Revealing Conversations Around the Table, to a gift set on how to find confidence.

It also offers virtual workshops for business. Who among us hasn’t endured a corporate workshop on team-building and goal-reaching – whose lessons lasted the time it took to complain to yourself why you ever signed up for such a thing?

But these courses are different in one crucial way:  they assume that most business challenges are just personal problems writ large. Solve the personal and you’ll win the corporate.

They’re a bit like the most popular Freshman course at Yale whose subject isn’t Economics or English Lit, but The Science of WellBeing, now offered free online.

2. Master Class. Recently, I’ve been pelted with lavish email enticements to sign on for a year of online courses on subjects I love by people I admire. Like Margaret Atwood on Creative Writing, Jodie Foster on Acting, and Paul Krugman on Economics and Society. I promised myself that one of these days, I’d sign up, but the cost of $240 a year was too high to experiment with. Until now, of course. And until they created a two-for-one offer. So now Jean gets to watch her courses and I get to watch mine, each for $10 a month, which is less than Netflix and just as addictive.

Courses like?

I love pretty much any music written by composer Hans Zimmer.  And to learn from him how to write a musical score for movies is my idea of Heaven, in 31 lessons from 90 seconds to 15 minutes. Movie music is something I love, but writing movie music – well, it’s something I didn’t even know I could find a way to learn about, and then suddenly, it was all there.

The same goes for subjects where I have some (albeit tiny) direct experience. Like cooking. Jean put on Alice Waters’ “Essential Kitchen Tools” where I learned the revolutionary idea that you shouldn’t shop in a market with any idea of what you’re going to cook, but for the best food you can get. Then bring it all home and figure out what cooks best in what dish. In other words, forget recipes. Shazam!

So, amid the flood of online courses and classes, I urge you to check out these two. They may not change the world. But they could take you both wide and deep in expanding yours.

Here is the link to the Plague-Ground podcast if you want to listen to this blog with your ears instead of reading it with your eyes.

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18 thoughts on “The Plague-Ground – A Masterclass in The School of Life”

  1. Thank you Bob.
    Your blogs are quite valuable for sanity.
    Does Victor Frankl interest you?
    I found his book and messaging so inspirational.

  2. David ouchterlony

    I’ve been a fan of Alain de Botton for years. His books are wonderful. Thanks for reminding me about his school

  3. Judith Richardson

    Love your blog! Wise, practical, and thought provoking. Just what I need while staying home to flatten the curve. It pairs beautifully with my morning coffee to start my day.

  4. Bob, great blog and who ever knew that there was an actual physical school for the School of Life! Will need to check out when we rebook our time in London, post Covid… and we love our Master Class subscription, a gift from a wonderful friend. I have binge watched many of the cooking classes and the wine appreciation course, but especially loved the Chris Voss class on the art of negotiation! It feels as though I was still attending your wonderful Ramsay lunches! Hope to see you and Jean on a future visit to Toronto, stay safe and healthy! Joanne

    1. Joanne — We’d love to see you the next time you come to Toronto which will be…….wel, who knows these days!
      In any case, I trust you are all safe.

  5. thanks for the helpful and interesting blog today Bob…to add to the short list I have liked: Coursera, Skillshare, and note that ‘One Day University’ has some interesting offerings. Thanks again

  6. Bob, nice to see that you have moved your sites up the coast to the joys of New Haven and the Wellness course. The course was so popular that they had to move it to the main convocation and concert hall. One morning last year the students walked in to find a notice on the lectern that the class was not really cancelled . . . as long as each one took the hour to sit somewhere on campus to think about something that needed time, appreciation and contemplation,

    Let us all hope that we do not emerge from this dystrumpian tunnel to regret that we did not find that hour.

    Also recommended: THE GREAT COURSES is having a sale. Any of the music courses by Greenfield are are hoot and a wonderful experience. Find out how Tchaikovsky really died . . .

    Thanks again Bob.

    1. Brian — Thanks for these great tips. I will check them out and trust that you two are safe and sound….

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