Recap: When a book opens with a story about a tortoise and a hare, I first have to wonder if I’m reading a copy of Aesop’s Fables. But when the story turned into a version in which the hare loses and then demands a rematch against the tortoise, I knew we were no longer in Aesop’s territory. Thanks, B.J. Novak. The comedian and actor, best known for his role in The Office dives into his funny, sarcastic, sometimes dark and then surprisingly poignant mind with this collection of short stories that made me laugh and think.
The content of many of the stories seemed random: in “Dark Matter,” a guy visiting a planetarium; in “Walking on Eggshells,” a woman set on having sex with Tony Robbins; in “MONSTER: The Roller Coaster,” a focus group selecting the name of a roller coaster. Despite the premises, they often had strong, affecting messages at the end about what matters most to us as people, about whether it’s worth it to be in a relationship that may not serve you, about things not turning out the way we expect them to. With some of the longer short stories, including the one from which the book got its title “Sophia,” I came to expect something poignant at the end. In the case of “Sophia,” I didn’t ever get it.
Some stories, like “The Comedy Central Roast of Nelson Mandela,” were just plain funny, an opportunity for Novak to show off his comedic writing skills. Others were simple plays on words like “If I Had a Nickel” and “If You Love Something,” good for a nice chuckle.
Analysis: As someone who’d never actually read a book of short stories, I didn’t know what to expect and wasn’t particularly excited to read it. I doubted I would enjoy it without a central story powerful enough to keep me flipping through the pages. But color me shocked when I found that I really, truly enjoyed it. Sure, some stories were better than others. Some had me scratching my head (and not in a thoughtful way, more in a what-the-hell-was-that kind of way). But I caught myself laughing several times and stopping to think about some of the stories before going on to read the next ones. I also found that because some of the stories were so short, I was able to fly through the book. How Novak came up with some of the crazy, weird, and creatively thoughtful stories is impressive and delightful.
Recap: Be impeccable with your word. Don’t take anything personally. Don’t make assumptions. Always do your best. These are the four agreements, the four promises that Toltec master Don Miguel Ruiz says will change your life, offer you personal freedom and make you a happier person with less suffering in this highly recommended self-help book. The agreements are simultaneously simple and difficult: simple in the sense that they appear to be common sense. Of course, if we always do our best, we will be happy. Of course, if we are impeccable with our words or stop assuming or don’t take things personally, we’ll be happy. DUH! But life isn’t quite so easy, and neither is making these changes. It’s one thing to promise to make these agreements; it’s another to actually follow through with them.
Analysis: Before Ruiz can make the case for the four agreements, he first must make the case for why we all have an often insatiable desire to be happy. He does this well, by explaining that we spend our lives raised by our parents, taught their lessons, experiencing the world and society around us and essentially accepting everything that’s thrown our way to be “true.” But it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s up to us to decide whether we want to follow societal norms. It’s up to us to decide whether we want to fit in with the crowd or stand out in our own greatness. He explains that if we opt to not care what other people think. to do what makes us happy and to keep a positive outlook, we can be and remain happy. He explains that most of the suffering we each experience in life is self-induced.
For example, maybe someone cuts you off in traffic and you become enraged. You honk at them and start waving your arms and yelling in the car. The other driver sees you and starts yelling back or gives you the finger. The rest of the drive, you spend gripping your wheel, fuming. We’ve all been there. But what if, when that person cuts us off, we don’t take it personally? What if we realize that person is probably in a massive rush for some reason? What if we realize that their actions had everything to do with them and absolutely nothing to do with us? Then we’d just merrily continue driving to our destination, completely at ease. So why do we so often go down the first path? It’s because we’re causing our own suffering. We have the power to change this. We have the power to recognize that what other people do has nothing to do with us. We have the power to take a positive approach and fill the world with joy instead of anger. It will make you feel better and the others around you feel better too.
The concepts are easy. The actions are hard. But they are also worth it. Because we all want ease and joy. Ruiz’s book is at times a little heady and very spiritual, so it might be a bit much for some. But if you really want to improve your life and yourself, this is a book that will single-handedly get you there.