Over the past few years, I have been part of several time-bounded reading groups on how to live a good life. They’ve been quite rich spaces for me to think, connect to my purposes, and process how I want to be in the world; and I think for others in the groups too.
I’d like to make this sort of space available to more people, so I’m writing this post to:
- Describe what’s good about these reading groups, according to me
- Describe how the reading groups work
- Share a signup link for people who would like to join a virtual how to live a good life reading group
- Flag some uncertainties I have
Before I get into that, I want to explicitly say that the intention of these reading groups is open exploration of what the people in the group actually care about in their lives - rather than to rehearse standard EA arguments, or to practice some particular view of morality. I’m posting this on Forum because I expect there to be people in the EA space who would benefit from this sort of open exploration, not because I think that the good version of these groups is ‘how to live a good EA life’. I’m not interested in ‘a good EA life’: I am interested in people’s lives though, and what living a good life means to them.
What’s good about these reading groups, according to me?
The deep, ambitious purpose of these groups is to help people become wiser, by creating space for a kind of slow, deep thinking that’s hard to access in the day to day.
This may or may not make sense to you as written. It’s also difficult to measure whether it’s happening or not.
I think there are other more tangible good things that come out of the reading groups too:
- Sense of community and connection
- Weekly rhythm
- Remembering how different people are; noticing that assumptions you have are assumptions not truths
How do these reading groups work?
Very concretely, groups of 4-5 people meet weekly for an hour for 4-5 weeks. Each week, someone chooses a reading of <10 pages. Everyone reads the reading beforehand, and then they discuss the reading and how it relates to living a good life for the different people in the group.
The default structure is:
- Check in: once everyone’s arrived, each person shares how they are feeling right now, what’s on their mind, how they are doing more generally
- Someone volunteers to go first
- Each person picks the next person to go
- There’s the option to say ‘pass’ if you don’t want to share
- Some words from the person who picked the reading about why they chose it/what it means to them/what interests them about it
- Organic discussion
- At the end, someone volunteers to pick the next reading
A few things about the spirit of the reading groups feel important to me:
- Non-judgement: everyone in the group is different, they all value different things and interpret things differently and that’s fine and part of the beauty of it
- Some readings will not resonate at all with some people, and that’s fine, and doesn’t mean that either the person who picked the reading or the person who didn’t find the reading meaningful are wrong or bad
- People will engage differently with the discussion, and that’s fine. Some people will want space to be quiet and process, some people will really want to express themselves, some people will zone out of parts of the discussion because the topic doesn’t mean much to them or they are distracted by a work thing or tired or hungry…
- Personal not philosophical: it’s about what living a good life means to us personally in our actual lives - rather than abstract philosophical argument
I have a few suggestions about how to pick readings:
- My main suggestion is don’t spend too long or worry much. The reading isn’t there to represent who you are as a person, it’s there as a starting point for discussion and exploration. In my experience, all sorts of texts prompted deep and interesting thoughts in (some of the) people in the reading groups.
- You might choose something you’ve come across recently which felt resonant, or something that you remember as being meaningful to you in the past.
- You might choose something that you love and wholeheartedly endorse, or something that you find confronting and don’t know what to make of.
- Ideally, pick something people can read for free (so extract the bit you want and put it into a google doc, rather than asking people to buy a book or pay for a paywalled article).
Here are examples of readings that people chose in the groups that I was a part of:
- Poems by Rumi, Walt Whitman, Mary Oliver
- Excerpts from the Lord of the Rings, Isaiah Berlin’s On Liberty, Betram Russell’s autobiography, Sartres’ Existentialism is a humanism, Henrich’s The WEIRDest People in the World, Thich Nhat Hanh's The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching, Shepherd's The Living Mountain
- Video clips from V for Vendetta, Cloud Atlas, Lincoln, Little Women
- A short story by Ursula Leguin
- Articles on friendship and cancel culture and the work routines of creative people
- A song by Karol G
Sign up here by 18th August if you would like to join a virtual how to live a good life reading group.
Some uncertainties I have
The main things that stand out are:
- I don’t know how these reading groups will work with complete strangers.
- All of the people in my past reading groups were working or related to the Oxford EA offices, so they were reasonably closely related socially even where they didn’t know each other.
- I’m excited to find out how this works, and intend to join one of the reading groups myself.
- I don’t know if the value of these reading groups depends on the people in them being skillful in certain ways.
- It’s possible that the groups I’ve been in were valuable because I or others in the groups are particularly skilful, and that other groups will therefore tend to be less valuable.
- It’s also possible that I/others in those groups have average or below average amounts of skill, and other groups will therefore tend to be as or more valuable.
- It’s also possible that the whole ‘skillfulness’ thing is a chimera, and what actually happens is that groups vary naturally because the people in them vary, and this variation tends to be positive because it suits the people in the group more.
Heartfelt thanks to all of the people in the reading groups I was part of. I learned things from all of you, even though we only came together a handful of times, even though in some cases we orient to ourselves and the universe so differently. I wish you well.