This is the predicament that former Harvard professor Tal Ben-Shahar tackles in The Pursuit of Perfect, a book about what it means to be happy in a healthy, sustainable way, and how to achieve that happiness.
Split into three parts (Theory, Practice, and Reflection), the book’s overall arching theme is about achieving happiness; it seems to be a book of self-improvement tips, or scientifically-backed life advice.
One aspect that makes the first part of the book so great is the number of mini-scenarios provided after each theoretical claim. Ben-Shahar makes an argument for why a different way of going about work is more effective in balancing out your life, and then gives an example of how he used it in his life, ranging from being a college student to being a parent.
Within this style of writing, my favorite example is when Ben-Shahar speaks about the Pareto Principle, or the 80/20 rule, and how he applied it to his college life. The Pareto Principle constitutes the idea of 20% of a country’s population owning 80% of its wealth. He applied this to academics by boosting his overall productivity by spending his time studying more effectively. Instead of reading every part of the assigned reading word-for-word, he read the most important parts, which still taught him the most relevant information without consuming nearly as much time. By prioritizing what he should focus on, Ben-Shahar was able to spend more time with his friends, family, and pursuing his passion.
While the first part of the book does have example scenarios to help us understand the ideas being presented, the second half of the book contains more in-depth scenarios, more often geared towards adults than kids. I personally found this section to be less enjoyable because of that aspect. Many of the chapters and scenarios are about raising kids (what not to do and what to do), as well as balancing work life with family life, social life, romantic life, and so on.
The third part of the book centers around different “meditations” you can do to feel the effects of the theories presented in the first part. This is different from the second part because it doesn’t require applying theories to real-life scenarios, but sitting down each day and thinking about different topics, with Ben-Shahar providing a handful of prompts at the end of every chapter to help you along the way.  One example is writing a thank you card to someone in your life each day. Ben-Shahar says that simply writing the card without showing it to anyone can make us happier and leave us feeling fulfilled. While I didn’t use any of these meditations, I would like to highlight how the book made an impact on my life—I now constantly think more about the big picture and how I should be spending my time, which has turned me into a more productive person overall.
Throughout the book, there are prompts to make us think about how we can apply everything to our lives, no matter what stage of life we’re at. These are simply separate “Time-In’s” sprinkled in every few pages, forcing us to actively process what Ben-Shahar is saying and just how helpful it is.
Overall, I found Ben-Shahar’s writing style in the first half of the book to be excellent for presenting a theory and then following up with good examples of what that theory really means. There were countless times when I felt as though the explanation and format of the writing was more than good enough to get the point across. It was rare for me to not understand what he was trying to explain.
I would rate the book three stars out of five. The main reason for this rating is that the second part has scenarios that only apply to one age group; being too old or too young renders that section of the book mostly useless. But again, I am not in the target audience for the book, and I could see how anyone within the target audience would find the second part helpful for raising kids.
Aside from all that, the book left me satisfied with the information it gave me. I feel many times wiser and as though there’s a lot more I can do to feel fulfilled with whatever I do. Whereas before reading the book I felt as though I had to do everything perfectly, I’m now more oriented towards “the Big Picture.” The reality is that I don’t have to do everything perfectly to be good at something or to succeed, I just have to do everything well enough and keep myself happy.
Mac Fabens lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is currently in the tenth grade. He enjoys walking his dogs, canoeing, and being able to learn new life skills every day.
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