Review: You Learn by Living by Eleanor Roosevelt

To many Eleanor Roosevelt remains one of the most respected first ladies our country has ever known. She is considered a leader in her own right, apart from her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and in fact, remained active in politics long after his death. She is associated with many human rights issues and continues to be seen as a lifelong social activist. 

In her book, You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life, Roosevelt outlines her philosophy for maintaining a fulfilling life, particularly as a woman. First published in 1960, it is now 57 years old, and while its age it starting to show, many of the points that she makes are still relevant today. 

The eleven keys that she shares are as follows:

  1. Learning to learn.
  2. Fear, the great enemy.
  3. The uses of time. 
  4. The difficult art of maturity.
  5. Readjustment is endless.
  6. Learning to be useful.
  7. The right to be an individual. 
  8. How to get the best out of people. 
  9. Facing responsibility.
  10. How everyone can take part in politics. 
  11. Learning to be a public servant.

Each key represents a chapter in which she explains each key, providing some examples from her life, as the wife of a politician and as a diplomat herself. One thing that I had to keep reminding myself of was that the book was written over 50 years ago by a woman, who had been born into and raised in a wealthy family. As I read, I often found her tone to be off-putting. More than once I thought that her comments smacked of privilege and that she wasn't addressing the typical woman, like myself, but rather socialites and the like. 

But as I read the book a second time, I found myself less offended, and while I could still pick up on her tone, I now simply see it as her way of speaking and seeing the world. The fact that she's well-bred and well-heeled (or was) is not her fault or a flaw. I cannot simply dismiss her thoughts or opinions because she sounds upper class. If I do that, I lose the opportunity to benefit from some helpful advice.

That said, nothing the Roosevelt says in this book is actually new, and perhaps that's because it's now 2017 and I've read a lot of books about how to lead a more fulfilling life. Some of those books may have even been inspired by her, as she has inspired the lives of many women (and men). Self-help books were not nearly as common in 1960, as they are today. Today, her list almost seems obvious and trite, to some extent. If provided with these headings, I feel I could have written just as well about all of the topics, except for, perhaps, the one on political responsibility, as I've never really served in any political capacity and don't feel qualified to do so. 

Instead of advice, the keys feel more like reminders. There's nothing new here. But they are good, solid reminders. For example, she advises that, "You must do the thing you cannot do." She is right and we all know this. We tell it to our kids, when we tell them that it's okay to be afraid, but they have to still do the thing anyway because that is what helps them develop courage. In fact, that really is courage. It good advice. 

Roosevelt also argues that we must embrace individuality and believe in ourselves. She goes on to point out that we shouldn't hope to be accepted by everyone or agreeable to everyone because if we were, we would certainly be compromising ourselves, on some level. What's funny is I think this of every single successful politician, and I would consider her to be a successful politician, even though it was her husband who was President. That said, I get it. But has all been said so many times before, but every politician has won some sort of popularity contest. And, of course, that doesn't mean convincing 100% of the people of anything, but it doesn't mean convincing a large number, and I have to think some level of individuality is sacrificed. I'm assuming. I could be wrong. 

And so, while I agreed with much of what she said and found her book to be filled with wisdom and practical common sense, I didn't walk away with any new way of thinking, though it did really remind me of my commitment to overcoming certain fears, embracing my individuality, and living a purposeful life in which I serve others. 


This is a recommended read. Tone aside, it's a practical and well-written guide to living a purposeful life. 

4 out of 5