Originally published in 2013, Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga’s The Courage to be Disliked quickly became a sensation in its authors’ native Japan. Its English language translation followed suit with more than 3.5 million copies sold worldwide.
The book is often shelved in the ‘self-help’ category, in large part due to its blandly overpromising subheading: How to free yourself, change your life and achieve real happiness. In truth it would be better suited to the philosophy or psychology section. The book takes the form of a discussion between a philosopher and an angsty student. The student is unhappy with his life and often with the philosopher himself, while the philosopher is a contented devotee of Adlerian psychology, the key points of which he disseminates to the student over the course of five neatly chunked conversations. His proposed principles offer sound advice for life in general but also prove useful when integrated into a business setting.
Alfred Adler was an Austrian born psychotherapist and one of the leading psychological minds of the 20th century. Originally a contemporary of Freud’s, the two soon drifted apart. In many ways Adler’s theories can be defined in opposition to his old contemporary; they are anti-Freudian at their core. Freud is a firm believer that our early experiences shape us. Adler is of the view that such sentiments strip us of autonomy in the here and now, seeing Freud’s ideas as a form of determinism. He instead proffers:
No experience is in itself a cause of our success or failure. We do not suffer from the shock of our experiences – the so-called trauma – but instead, we make out of them whatever suits our purposes. We are not determined by our experiences, but the meaning we give them is self-determining.
Essentially, then, the theories are reversed. Adler posits that rather than acting a certain way in the present because of something that happened in their past, people do what they do now because they chose to, and then use their past circumstances to justify the behaviour. Where Freud would make the case that a recluse doesn’t leave the house because of some traumatic childhood event, for example, Adler would argue that instead the recluse has made a decision to not leave the house (or even made it his goal not to do so) and is creating fear and anxiety in order to stay inside.
The argument comes down to aetiology vs teleology. More plainly, assessing something’s cause versus assessing its purpose. Using Adlerian theory, the philosopher in the book tells the student that: “At some stage in your life you chose to be unhappy, it’s not because you were born into unhappy circumstances or ended up in an unhappy situation, it’s that you judged the state of being unhappy to be good for you”. Adding, in line with what David Foster-Wallace referred to as the narcissism of self-loathing, that: “As long as one continues to use one’s misfortune to one’s advantage in order to be ‘special’, one will always need that misfortune.”
Adler in the workplace: teleology vs aetiology
An example of the difference in these theories in the workplace could be found by examining the sentence: “I cannot work to a high standard at this company because my boss isn’t supportive.” The viewpoint follows the cause and effect Freudian notion: your boss is not supportive therefore you cannot work well. What Adler, and in turn Kishimi and Koga, argue is that you still have a choice to make. You can work well without the support of your boss but are choosing to use their lack of support as an excuse to work poorly (which subconsciously was your aim all along).
This is the most controversial of Adler’s theories for a reason. Readers will no doubt look at the sentence and feel a prescription of blame being attributed to them. Anyone who has worked with a slovenly or uncaring boss might feel attacked and argue that their manager’s attitude most certainly did affect the quality of their work. But it’s worth embracing Adler’s view, even if just to disagree with it. Did you work as hard as you could and as well as you could under the circumstances? Or did knowing your boss was poor give you an excuse to grow slovenly too? Did it make you disinclined to give your best?
Another example in the book revolves around a young friend of the philosopher who dreams of becoming a novelist but never completes his work, citing that he’s too busy. The theory the philosopher offers is that the young writer wants to leave open the possibility that he could have been a novelist if he’d tried but he doesn’t want to face the reality that he might produce an inferior piece of writing and face rejection. Far easier to live in the realm of what could have been. He will continue making excuses until he dies because he does not want to allow for the possibility of failure that reality necessitates.
There are many people who don’t pursue careers along similar lines, staunch in the conviction that they could have thrived if only the opportunity had arisen without ever actively seeking that opportunity themselves. Even within a role it’s possible to shrug off this responsibility, saying that you’d have been better off working in X role in your company if only they had given you a shot, or that you’d be better off in a client-facing position rather than being sat behind a desk doing admin if only someone had spotted your skill sets and made use of them. But without asking for these things, without actively taking steps towards them, who does the responsibility lie with? It’s a hard truth, but a useful one to acknowledge.
Adler in the workplace: All problems are interpersonal relationship problems
Another of the key arguments in the book is that all problems are interpersonal relationship problems. What that means is that our every interaction is defined by the perception we have of ourselves versus the perception we have of whomever we are dealing with. Adler is the man who coined the term “inferiority complex”, and that factors into his thinking here. He spoke of two categories of inferiorities: objective and subjective. Objective inferiorities are things like being shorter than another person or having less money. Subjective inferiorities are those we create in our mind, and make up the vast majority. The good news is that “subjective interpretations can be altered as much as one likes…we are inhabitants of a subjective world.”
Adler is of the opinion that: “A healthy feeling of inferiority is not something that comes from comparing oneself to others; it comes from one’s comparison with one’s ideal self.” He speaks of the need to move from vertical relationships to horizontal ones. Vertical relationships are based in hierarchy. If you define your relationships vertically, you are constantly manoeuvring between interactions with those you deem above you and those you deem below you. When interacting with someone you deem above you on the hierarchical scale, you will automatically adjust your goalposts to be in line with their perceptions rather than defining success or failure on your own terms. As long as you are playing in their lane, you will always fall short. “When one is trying to be oneself, competition will inevitably get in the way.”
Of course in the workplace we do have hierarchical relationships. There are managers, there are mid-range workers, there are junior workers etc. The point is not to throw away these titles in pursuit of some newly communistic office environment. Rather it’s about attitude. If you are a boss, do you receive your underlings’ ideas as if they are your equal? Are you open to them? Or do you presume that your status as “above” automatically means anything they offer is “below”? Similarly if you are not the boss, are you trying to come up with the best ideas you can or the ones that you think will most be in-line with your boss’ pre-existing convictions? Obviously there’s a balance here – if you solely put forward wacky, irrelevant ideas that aren’t in line with your company’s ethos and have no chance of success then that’s probably not helpful, but within whatever tramlines your industry allows you can certainly get creative and trust your own taste rather than seeking to replicate someone else’s.
Pivotal to this is whether you are willing to be disagreed with and to disagree with others or are more interested in pleasing everyone, with no convictions of your own. This is where the book’s title stems from. As it notes, being disliked by someone “is proof that you are exercising your freedom and living in freedom, and a sign that you are living in accordance with your own principles…when you have gained that courage, your interpersonal relationships will all at once change into things of lightness.”
Adler in the workplace: The separation of tasks
The separation of tasks is pivotal to Adlerian theory and interpersonal relationships. It is how Adler, Kishimi and Koga suggest one avoids falling into the trap of defining oneself by another’s expectations. The question one must ask themselves at all times, they suggest, is: Whose task is this? We must focus solely on our own tasks, not letting anyone else alter them and not trying to alter anyone else’s. This is true for both literal tasks – a piece of work, for example – but also more abstract ideas. For example, how you dress is your task. What someone else thinks of how you dress is theirs. Do not make concessions to their notions (or your perceptions of what their notions might be) and do not be affected by what they think for it is not your task and therefore not yours to control.
This idea that we allow others to get on with their own tasks is crucial to Adler’s belief in how we can live rounded, fulfilling lives. The philosopher argues that the basis of our interpersonal relationships – and as such our own happiness – is confidence. When the boy asks how the philosopher defines the “confidence” of which he speaks, he answers:
It is doing without any set conditions whatsoever when believing in others. Even if one does not have sufficient objective grounds for trusting someone, one believes. One believes unconditionally without concerning oneself with such things as security. That is confidence.
This confidence is vital because the book’s ultimate theory is that community lies at the centre of everything. The awareness that “I am of use to someone” both allows one to act with confidence in their own life, have confidence in others, and to not be reliant on the praise of others. The reverse is true too. As Kishimi and Koga state, “A person who is obsessed with the desire for recognition does not have any community feeling yet, and has not managed to engage in self-acceptance, confidence in others, or contribution to others.” Once one possesses these things, the need for external recognition will naturally diminish.
For high-level employees, then, it’s important to set a tone in the workplace that allows colleagues to feel that they are of use. But as the book dictates, do not do this by fake praise – all that will do is foster further need for recognition (“Being praised essentially means that one is receiving judgement from another person as ‘good.’”) Instead, foster this atmosphere by trusting them, showing confidence.
The courage to be disliked
The Courage to be Disliked is at odds with many of the accepted wisdoms of the day. Modern cultural milieu suggests that we should be at all times accepting and validating others’ trauma as well as our own. Many may even find solace in this approach and find that it suits them best. But there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to fostering a successful workplace and even less so when it comes to leading a fulfilling life. For anyone who feels confined by the idea that there are parameters around what they can achieve and are capable of because of some past event or some subjective inferiority that has been harboured too long, perhaps look at those interpersonal relationships, perhaps find the courage to be disliked, and in doing so hope to find a community that you’re willing to support as much as it supports you. There is no need to be shackled to whatever mythos you’ve internally created.
As the book states: “Your life is not something that someone gives you, but something you choose yourself, and you are the one who decides how you live…No matter what has occurred in your life up to this point, it should have no bearing at all on how you live from now on.”
Kishimi, Ichiro & Koga, Fumitake. The Courage to Be Disliked: How to Free Yourself, Change your Life and Achieve Real Happiness. Bolinda Publishing Pty Ltd. 2013.