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A Beautiful and Pessimistic Approach To Life - School of Life Conference

I gave up on my dreams and lowered my expectations after attending the amazing School of Life Conference.

Tam Pham
Tam Pham
10 min read

The School of Life is a media company, most famously known for their YouTube channel, that teaches emotional intelligence. The 3-day event went deep on topics like meaning, happiness, work, calm, and love.

They have a pessimistic view on how to approach life which I actually appreciated. Very Anti Tony Robbins. Below are my notes that I stood out to me the most.


For most of history, the real point of relationships were: children, transfer of property, social status. Not about: your feelings of happiness, great sex life, mutual understanding, “love”

Today the expectations of what “love” are higher than ever. We want our partner to have the same taste in Netflix shows, be great travel partners, have some views on politics and finance, etc. Our standards are too high and our dissatisfactions come from not meeting our expectations.

We also have to acknowledge how deeply flawed all humans are. There is no “perfect” partner and we shouldn’t strive to find someone who is even close to that.

School of Life believes that (a) there is no soul mate. We are all capable of loving anyone. “We are all beautifully unusual individuals who have to work out how to accommodate our jagged, irregular characters.”

They believe that (b) “the ideal partner is not someone who shares our every taste. It is someone who knows how to negotiate differences in taste with sensitivity, insight, and humor. Compatibility is not the precondition of love. It is the achievement of love.”

They believe that (c) You should not subscribe that “following your instincts is a reliable and wise way to identify a plausible candidate with whom to spend the next fifty years with.” Our instincts are often deeply flawed for reasons that take us back to childhood. We learn about love in infancy and when we love as adults.

We are rediscovering the ways you have felt love, which can make you naturally attracted to negative/difficult traits because that is what you have grown up with. Our instincts look for familiarity, which may mean something very different from happiness.

School of Life believes that we shouldn’t try to change who we are naturally attracted to because it is not possible. We should, instead, try to change the way we characteristically deal with the difficulties that our types cause us.

I enjoyed their take on romantic love (every romcom movie) vs classical love. Classicism likes calm, continuity, and reason. Romanticism likes drama, rupture, and intuition.

It’s easy to see someone cute at a coffee shop and imagine a daydream where you both are together and go on all these adventures together. Instead, one of the exercises they had us do was the “anti-romantic daydream” where we chose a person from their 4 photographs and imagined in detail 5 ways in which they will be very challenging after three years together. (Try that out next time you see a cute stranger).

Genuine love is less around sharing the same music taste and more around both partners helping each other be the best versions of themselves.

After taking us through the history of love and how it shows up in present-day lives, they present the Seven Emotional Skills for Relationships

  • Communication (learning and teaching)
  • Emotional Translation
  • Closeness (avoidance and anxiety)
  • Comforting
  • Sexual Liberation
  • Humour
  • Love-as-Generosity

There are lengthy explanations for each one that I won’t cover everything. My favorite is the last one: Love-as-Generosity. “Love as the willingness to be generous towards the sides of a partner that are less than admirable. Love as the forgiveness of weakness; not the admiration of strength.”

Tam’s take:

After hearing this for the first time, I have found myself lowering my standards for finding a partner. That sounds like the most tragic thing to say in this modern world. What is more accepting is finding a better partner, making more money, buying a bigger house. I still have standards. I still have preferences. But it’s not the end of the world if I marry someone who is good enough.

I believe I would be very content. I believe that I could build a loving relationship with 1 in every 1,000 women… or something like that. You get the point. I want to look forward to seeing how imperfect people are because that is what truly makes them human.

I’m curious to learn more about how our childhood affects who we are attracted to. I agree that yes, there are negative traits from my mom that have shown up in my past lovers, but on the flip side, there are things that are so negative from both my parents that I have done a complete 180 and have a visceral reaction to never ever adopt those traits. So I’m not looking to be loved in that way but in fact, the complete opposite, to get away from what I did not like to experience in my childhood. If you have any resources to recommend around this point, I would love to read them.


What is the meaning of life? What’s the point of being on Earth? Why do we feel like the most meaningful moments happen when we least expect it? Knowing the framework of meaning can help us reverse engineer these items into our lives.

School of Life’s framework around meaning derives from 6 sources:

  • Service: helping others that are in line with your talents/interests
  • Connection: community, human relationships
  • Transcendence: experiencing ourselves as very insignificant
  • Belonging: identity with something larger than ourselves
  • Self-Knowledge: understanding who we are and what is our narrative
  • Order: finding structure/control in what you do (my least favorite topic of the 6)

Questions to think about around service (my favorite topic of the 6):

  • Through work, what kinds of suffering would you ideally want to reduce for other people — and/or what kind of pleasure would you want to increase?
  • What problems do you want to solve for other people?
  • What obstacles do you face in a quest to serve others meaningfully in the way that’s particular to your talents and interests?

Tam’s take:

My answer around how I want to be of service is to help people be the best versions of themselves. To help them do that, they need to be surrounded by people who can help them get there. This leads to the intersections of my talents/interests with building community.

I want to help people find a community, join a community, or start their own to get to a place where they feel safe, seen, supported, and loved from others. This is why I host dinners, retreats, events, and make introductions all the time. This WHY stems from me not having any community when I first dropped out of college at 18 and how lonely I felt for the next several years.

The 6 sources of meaning is a great framework although I feel less strongly about, order. I also believe Belonging and Connection is different… but could fit under the same word. In the book, The Power of Meaning, by Emily Smith, her 4 pillars include Purpose, Belonging, Transcendence, and Narrative that I highly recommend reading.


There is a list of things that make you angry and another list of things that make you sad.

Things that make me angry: rush hour traffic, slow wifi, being late, feeling rushed, losing my wallet/keys

Things that make me sad: friends canceling plans last minute, parents being rude to their kids, hearing people talk about how they lost their loved ones

They actually had formulas for both anger and sadness.

(a) Frustration + Surprise = Anger

(b) Frustration + Expectation = Sadness

Wisdom is turning anger to sadness.

School of Life is a huge fan of stoic philosophy where even if the worst things were to happen, they can survive. This is what’s labeled as Resilient Thinking. An example might be

Fear: My partner might leave me

Resilient Thinking: 6 months of agony, hysterical crying every night, unable to contemplate ever seeing anyone again, greatest betrayal ever, almost back to normal after 3 years, survive!

Tam’s take:

I came to the airport yesterday at 5:50 am to catch my 7:50 am flight. At my flight gets canceled. I wait in a long line to rebook. Next flight is at 12:10 pm with a different airline.

I take the air train to Air Canada and get turned down at security checkpoint because I didn’t properly check into the new airline. I walk out of security to Air Canada kiosk to check in. They said they can’t check me in without my bags, that I had previously checked in with American.

I call American Airlines customer service and they said they shipped it to Air Canada. Air Canada says that is not possible because they don’t belong to the same alliance.

I take the air train back to Terminal 2, walk downstairs, and go to American’s baggage office. They have been looking for my bags for over 1 hour. I sit and wait in front of am empty carousel not knowing if I’ll ever get my bags back.

But after all of this, I’m pretty neutral. The reminder around Stoicism at School of Life grounds me. If my bags get lost and my flight gets canceled, whatever. Life will go on.

I eventually found my bags!

Emotional Intelligence

We did activities where we rated how we scored around self-love, self-honesty, communication, and trust. Then paired up with partners to talk about it.

These areas of our lives were largely inherited by our families. The more we understand where we come from, the better we can watch out for peculiar behavior, feel sympathy for ourselves, explain ourselves to others and, in small ways, change.

Before we can change our inner voice, we must understand the context and where we got it from. Below is an example

  • Situation: I’ve put off something and now have to do it in a panicked rush
  • Something I’d probably say to myself: Never ever keep people waiting
  • Who from my past does this sound a bit like? Father
  • Is this voice kind/constructive/supportive? Yes/No: No
  • The ideal person who might speak to me at this point: Grandmother
  • What they might say: There’s always time

We were then given prompts around noting anxiety => unpacking anxiety => reassuring anxiety. Then noting when you are upset => unpacking that upset => reassuring upset.

Tam’s take:

You can’t change the past and how you grew up with but you can change how you think and process the past. I believe the hardest part for me is around self-love. I have to tell myself that I’m not perfect and that feeling anxious and upset makes me a human and it is 100% ok. These thoughts come from childhood or have been habits for 10+ years. It’s going to be hard to change a 10+ year habit! But the journey will be worth it to have a more gentle inner voice and more self-compassion towards myself.

The amazing Bethany that was used in the presentation!

Failure and success

We are told to dream big. We feel like we can do anything. Reach for the stars!

However, our views around failure and success have changed so much.

They define success by fulfilling our potential. Or as William James put it, “Our self-esteem in this world depends entirely on what we hope to be. It is determined by the relationship between our reality and our imagined potential.”

Traditional Society vs Modern Capitalistist Society

  • You do what your parents did vs You invent yourself fresh
  • What matters is the group vs What matters is ‘you'
  • What things go wrong, you don’t feel personally targeted or excessively responsible vs You kill yourself

It’s pretty sad.

We also need to note that just because you make a lot of money does not mean you have more human worth or social contribution. Money is simply the result of the intensity with which certain people want a job done relative to the number of people who happen to be able to do it.

Basically, money is not an accurate measure of human worth. It’s all about supply and demand. So yes, we do need to make money to survive in this world. And at the same time, we should look down on crafts that may not be as profitable as writing code.. like paintings, music, dance, and so much more.

There are two ways to feel less of a failure:

(a) We can try to be more successful
(b) We can Lower the number of things we want to be successful at we can lower our expectations

Tam’s take:

I’m so proud of giving up my dreams. I’m not going to ever have my own Netflix special. I will never be a chess grandmaster. I will never be world class at Bachata or Pole dancing. I might ever write a book that will sell in the airport book stores. Hurray! Now I can focus on the things that I actually want: making enough money so my mom can retire, being an amazing friend/son/big brother/partner, enjoying my hobbies without the need to be the “best.”

Final thoughts:

What I wrote was probably less than 15% of what was covered during the whole event. But these parts were the ones that were the most interesting to me.

This was actually my 2nd time going to this event seeing almost the exact same content. I get that same feeling where you reread a good book one year later and discover so many nuances that you didn’t see the first time. Over the last year, I’ve been on so many more dates to give me data points on who I’m attracted to and why. I quit my job to teach chess and play competitively for a few months which was unexpectedly one of the most exciting times of my life. I have less money than before. I’m closer to my family. I’m closer to my friends.

Now coming back to this content from the School of Life refreshes me on how (1) life is short (2) life is beautiful (3) life can end before I finish typing this sentence, and that’s OK.


Tam Pham Twitter

I'm a writer and bachata dancer currently bouncing around Latin America. Trying to make the most out of my one wild and precious life.

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