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On Staring Out of the Window: Excerpt from ‘The School of Life’

For most of us, school is about facts and figures. It gets us to learn all about calculating probabilities and Shakespearean sonnets, but there’s not much we find out about coping with heartbreaks and maintaining interpersonal relationships.

Ten years ago, writer and philosopher Alain de Botton found an organization called The School of Life, with a singular aim in mind: to equip people with emotional intelligence to help them survive and thrive in the modern world.

By reflecting on day-to-day instances that almost all of us can relate to, Botton’s book The School of Life seeks to build an emotive understanding of ourselves. Here’s an excerpt that sheds light on a behavior that is commonplace in classrooms, yet ridiculed widely:



We tend to reproach ourselves for staring out of the window. Most of the time, we are supposed to be working, or studying, or ticking things off a to-do list. It can seem almost the definition of wasted time. It appears to produce nothing, to serve no purpose. We equate it with boredom, distraction, futility. The act of cupping our chin in our hands near a pane of glass and letting our eyes drift in the middle distance does not enjoy high prestige. We don’t go around saying, ‘I had a great day today. The high point was staring out of the window.’ But maybe, in a better society, this is exactly what people would quietly say to one another.

The point of staring out of a window is, paradoxically, not to find out what is going on outside. It is, rather, an exercise in discovering the contents of our own minds. It is easy to imagine we know what we think, what we feel and what’s going on in our heads. But we rarely do entirely. There’s huge amount of what makes us who we are that circulates unexplored and unused. Its potential lies untapped. It is shy and doesn’t emerge under the pressure of direct questioning. If we do it right, staring out of the window offers a way for us to be alert to the quieter suggestions and perspectives of our deeper selves. Plato suggested a metaphor for the mind; our ideas are like birds fluttering around in the aviary of our brains. But in order for the birds to settle, Plato understood that we need periods of purpose-free calm. Staring out of the window offers such an opportunity.

A veritable crash course in emotional maturity, The School of Life is a must-read for some much-needed insights into life and self.

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