Book Review: You Learn by Living by Eleanor Roosevelt

In the long run, we shape our lives and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.

To continue my journey on reading books by women about their life and what they have learned from their experiences, I was recommended “You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a more Fulfilling Life” by Eleanor Roosevelt.

For those who don’t know Eleanor Roosevelt was the wife of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the US President from 1933 until his death in 1945. Eleanor significantly redefined the role of First Lady by actively involving herself in the public sphere. Following her husband’s death she remained active in politics and served as the first Chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights. Eleanor was widely respected but was also often controversial for her outspokenness. She even occasionally publicly disagreed with her husband’s policies!

The biggest difference with the other books I have read recently was that this was written in 1960 – almost 60 years ago. While there are obvious differences in perspectives, much of what Eleanor writes about really does stand the test of time and remains true today.

Throughout the book, many instances reveal that the writing is very much a product of its time. Despite stepping beyond the role of a traditional housewife and becoming one of the few women actively involved in politics at the time, there is a sense in the book that Eleanor believes that a woman’s first role is to support her husband and children.

It has always seemed important to me that women should try to develop some interests in which their whole family can share. This is valuable all around. It intensifies family solidarity.

And when she discusses how a person can be involved in public life she always uses the male pronoun. She does however recognise that women are increasingly entering politics and gives a few words of advice.

I have been talking as though men were the only creatures to enter politics, but women are doing so increasingly, particularly in their own communities. They have some advantages and some disadvantages. They will generally find that men will tend to “keep them in their place.”

The references to Communist Russia and Eleanor’s concerns about their way of life are also an interesting read. In one chapter she encourages the reader to be an individual. “Its your life – but only if you make it so.” She then refers to conformity and Soviet training where from two months old babies go to an institute while their mother is at work. It is in this institute that the Russian child is trained to follow routines and punished if they do not.

However, much of Eleanor’s advice is as relevant today as it was in 1960. Some of the issues she discusses are so pertinent to the experiences of today that is it both frightening and amusing at the same time.

Here, perhaps, lies the key to our [the United States] growing failure to win friends abroad, though we have, in every other respect, richly earned that friendship, in money, material support, and human kindness that asks no return. We have failed only in enlightened understanding and tolerance – and respect.

Probably one of her most amusing comments was about how people can inform themselves about political issues.  (Although, I am sure that she didn’t intend it to be amusing.)

We must, for the most part, rely for much of our information on four main sources: the President of the United States, who is, or should be, the great educator of the people, bringing issues to them and explaining the situation…

Later on she refers to;

Sometimes, of course, the citizen discovers that he cannot rely on getting information from this source, even in matters that vitally concern his future and his welfare.

*chuckle* *chuckle*

Eleanor divides the book into eleven chapters, with each chapter a piece of advice on how to Learn by Living followed by examples of what she has learned in her life. I could relate to such much of her great pieces of advice that my Kindle version of the book  is full of yellow highlights.

  • Face your fears.

Courage is more exhilarating than fear and in the long run it is easier.

  • Use your time well.

Each of us has …. all the time there is. Those years, weeks, hours, are sands in the glass running swiftly away. To let them drift through our fingers is tragic waste. To use them to the hilt, making them count for something, is the beginning of wisdom.

  • Change is never-ending.

Every age, someone has said, is an undiscovered country. We are constantly advancing, like explorers, into the unknown, which makes life an adventure all the way.

  • Accept your responsibilities.

We are the sum total of the choices we have made.

For one thing we know beyond all doubt; Nothing has ever been achieved by the person who says, “It can’t be done.”

  • And, learn how to learn and continue learning throughout your life.

If you can develop this ability to see what you look at, to understand its meaning, to readjust your knowledge to this new information, you can continue to learn and to grow as long as you live and you’ll have a wonderful time doing it.

You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life, Eleanor Roosevelt, New York, Harper, 1960, EPub Edition April 2011 ISBN: 9780062078506



2 thoughts on “Book Review: You Learn by Living by Eleanor Roosevelt

  1. Sounds like a good read. Love that first quote – a really important point to remember. Read the “yes” book you recommended which was also a good read. At the beginning it was not so appealing – seemed very self congratulatory but messages in further chapters really good, especially for women. I have just read “Kaizen – making small steps to change” about how to bring about big change with small steps. Good if you have something in mind. Cheers!


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