An image of a man holding a book title The Intellectual Life

5 Lessons I Learned Reading The Intellectual Life

The Intellectual Life is worth reading for several reasons. It is short, concise, and full of universal ideas on how to live a life that wrestles with challenging concepts, explores excellent books, and ultimately produces a legacy.

This little book spoke to me because I want to do good work and create something that matters. I want to make a difference. The challenge is that doing good work is a skill, and making time to think takes discipline.

A short note on the background of The Intellectual Life:

Read it in context. The author was a Catholic friar living in Paris during the 1920s. His primary audience was men of the Catholic faith, and much of his message has the overarching theme that intellectual work is a calling you receive from God. While I’m not Catholic, and the religious elements did not speak to me, I still found the book very insightful from a philosophical level and would recommend you read it. Some passages are heavy-handed in the misogyny realm because, during that period, women were seen more as a help-meet to their husbands. If you can see past those remarks, knowing that both men and women can live The Intellectual Life, you’ll find several benefits here.

How to Organize Your Life for Intellectual Thinking

After the first few chapters, which discuss the “Calling from God” to live an intellectual life, Sertillanges gets down to business.

I found the first nugget of value in this passage:

In order that everything in you should be directed towards your work, it is not enough to organize yourself within, definitely to settle your vocation and to make wise use of your powers; you must further arrange your exterior life, I mean in respect to its framework, its obligations, its contrast, its setting. One word suggests itself here before any other: you must simplify your life. You have a direct journey before you–do not burden yourself with too much baggage. Perhaps you are not absolutely free to do this, and so you think there is no use laying down rules. That is a mistake. Given the same external circumstances, a desire for simplification can do much, and what one cannot get rid of outwardly, one can always remove from one’s soul.

This passage was valuable on many levels for me. I have a complicated life, and I’ve over-tasked myself. It’s tough for me to do quality work consistently. Because of this passage, I’ve rearranged several things and delegated many tasks to my team members. Now, instead of wearing ten hats, I wear three. I do have a desire to simplify what I do so that I can create my best work.

Create an Uninterrupted Space for Work

I used to have an office, but once COVID hit, we all learned to work from home, and I’ve just stayed there. While it’s convenient, my productivity level has suffered dramatically.

Sertillanges does a great job of pointing out that it’s my responsibility to design uninterrupted time. I found this passage particularly useful:

Whatever decision you have made, the chosen moments must be carefully secured, and you must take all personal precautions so as to use them to the fullest. You must see to it beforehand that nothing happens to crowd up, waste, shorten, or interfere with this precious time. You want it to be a time of plentitude; then shut remote preparation out of it; make all the necessary arrangements beforehand; know what you want to do and how you want to do it; gather your materials, your notes, your books; avoid having to interrupt your work for trifles.

I took this passage to heart and signed a lease for an office space 4 minutes from my home. It keeps me close to my family if they need me, but it also allows me to create a focus zone in my life. I cannot tell you how excited I am to get back into a state of deep focus and do work that matters.

Choose your work and dive in

Sertillanges showed me that if I want to do good work, I need to choose what that work will be. I’m a guy with many interests, hobbies, etc. It comes from all the books I read. The author challenges us to start by dabbling in many areas of interest but then, at some point, to choose one and get serious about it. You need to pick the work of your life and let the other interests take a back seat.

I love this.

While it’s hard to say “no” to exciting things, it’s very fulfilling to say “yes” to something and give it everything you have got. I decided to say “yes” to books and The Read Well Community. This is my life’s legacy. I love books more than anything (Next to my family), and I want to inspire others to read more.

Here’s the passage from the book that helped me make this decision:

Everyone in life has his work; he must apply himself to it courageously and leave to others what Providence has reserved for others. We must keep from specialization as long as we aim to become cultivated men, and as far as concerns those to whom these pages are addressed, superior men; but we must specialize anew when we aim at being men with a function, and producing something useful. In other words, we must understand everything, but in order to succeed in doing some one thing.

Chose your Books

Along with choosing our work, the author also challenges us to choose our books. He teaches us that books are tools for helping you get your work done. If you read haphazardly, you’ll never really get anywhere. Instead, you should choose who you read and know why you are reading them.

Note: I think it’s perfectly fine, and I encourage you to read frivolously. I have no issues reading a Stephen King or some other gripping plot. Where I fall on this argument is that the reading I do for my work must be valuable and well spent.

Sertillange gives us this passage:

Choose your books. Do not trust interested advertising and catchy titles. Have devoted and expert advisers. Go straight to the fountainhead to satisfy your thirst. Associate only with first-rate thinkers. What is not always possible in personal relations is easy, and we must take advantage of it in our reading. Admire wholeheartedly what deserves it, but do not lavish your admiration. Turn away from badly written books, which are probably poor in thought also.

I love the idea of associating with first-rate thinkers. The men and women who have written the best books can and should be our mentors and guides. Imagine inviting them to your home for a meal and having them sit around the table. Who would you ask and why if you only had a place for eight people at that table?

It’s Time to Produce

Here was the most valuable lesson of all. Sertillanges challenges us to produce. He tells us that if all we ever do is read, that effort amounts to nothing. We must do something with our knowledge! We must craft our ideas, consider what we think, and share our thoughts. We must add to the conversation.

Here’s the passage with the call to action:

You have come now to the moment for producing results. One cannot be forever learning and forever getting ready. Moreover, learning and getting ready are inseparable from a certain amount of production, which is helpful to them. One finds one’s way only by taking it. All life moves in a circle. An organ that is used grows and gets stronger; a strong organ can be used more effectively. You must write throughout the whole of your intellectual life.

It’s because of this passage that I started my essay-writing practice. I now write an essay every week related to what I have learned and what I consider to be valuable. It has changed my life because I now have something to show for my effort. I have something I can share with others, and these essays are creating opportunities for me and my family.

You don’t have to write essays every week. You could email your co-workers, share your learnings with your kids once a week, write a blog, or create a YouTube channel. Regardless of how you want to share your ideas, the point is that what you have to say is valuable, and I (along with the author) encourage you to find your voice and share it.

Should You Read The Intellectual Life?

So, yes, I believe The Intellectual Life by A.G. Sertillanges is worth a read. Many say they will read this book yearly to focus on doing good work. It has encouraged me to make several positive changes in my life over the past month, which will affect my work quality. If you choose to read it, I hope you do so courageously. Take Sertillanges’s challenges to heart and make the changes in your life to help you do the work you love.

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