When I visited Japan last November, I asked a few people whether everyone was as obsessed with Marie Kondo, the Japanese guru who inspires millions with her treatise on the magic of tidying up, as Americans were. Sure, they said. They knew about Kondo. But the real phenomenon, they told me, was a book called The Courage to be Disliked.
Publicized sales figures back this up: The Courage to be Disliked, by writer Fumitake Koga and philosopher Ichiro Kishimi, has sold 3.5 million copies across Asia. Kondo’s website boasts book sales of 2.1 million in Japan, 125,000 in Taiwan, and 25,000 in China.
The book is widely-billed as self-help in Japan, an empowering perspective on how to brush off social pressures and trust in your innate self-worth to find happiness. It was even made into a TV show featuring a detective—an unmarried woman in her 30s in a male-dominated field—who lives according to the lessons of the book. The female lead in the show was designed in part to appeal to those women who were inspired by the book to be more independent.
The English version is published in the US this May, meaning I finally got the chance to read the book I heard so much about. Based on its mass appeal and associations with the self-help genre, I expected it to be a shallow book filled with clichés like “just be yourself” and “ignore what others think of you.” Instead, I found a nuanced discussion of a complex theory, with moments of real philosophical insight.
The book explores the ideas of 19th century Austrian psychologist, Alfred Adler—the founder of a school of thought known as “Adlerian” or “individual” psychology—through a Socratic dialogue between a philosopher and a youth. (Kishimi lectures on Adlerian psychology.) Socratic dialog was extensively used by Plato to convey many of the ideas that are today considered foundational to western society. The format has largely gone out of style in the centuries since Plato’s time, though philosopher Rebecca Goldstein recently used it in her 2014 book, Philosophy at the Googleplex.
Socratic dialog, as The Courage to be Disliked demonstrates, can be disconcerting. It typically features a teacher in conversation with a student, with the teacher advancing seemingly counterintuitive ideas, and then systematically dealing with the student’s objections to definitively prove their point. The Courage to be Disliked, like other Socratic dialogues, is conversational in style and individual fragments of conversation can seem glib or superficial, but they collectively build into a compelling and thought-provoking argument.
For example, in The Courage to be Disliked, the philosopher (the Socratic “teacher”) confidently asserts to the youth (the “student”) that trauma does not exist, which goes against all mainstream psychological and psychiatry understanding, and seems to negate the personal experiences of many. He goes on to explain:
We do not suffer from the shock of our experiences—the so-called trauma—but instead we make out of them whatever suits our purposes. We are not determined by our experiences, but the meaning we give them is self-determining.
Once it’s spelled out, it doesn’t sound quite so unscientific. Indeed, in the 2017 book How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett argued that emotions aren’t responses to the environment, but are constructed by the brain and shape our understanding of our surroundings. In other words, we don’t see something scary and react in fear, but experience fear and so perceive something as scary. Or we experience trauma because the brain constructs the emotions, not as an inevitable response to any particular event.
There are also aspects of Adlerian psychology that will feel familiar to many readers. For example, the book describes a wannabe novelist who claims they simply don’t have time to write. In reality, says the philosopher, they’re using their lack of time as an excuse: They’re afraid to try writing, for fear that they would fail. The philosopher applies the same underlying theory to explain all disappointing aspects of life. From Adler’s perspective, every flaw, misery, and complaint is intentionally created by the person suffering from it.
We can all be happy if we so choose, says the philosopher, and so those who are not have chosen not to be. People with social anxiety intentionally create such emotions to avoid close relationships with people, and those who suffer from self-hatred—such as the youth in The Courage to be Disliked—find fault with themselves so as to avoid rejection. It’s an attitude the philosopher describes as follows:
Just find your shortcomings, start disliking yourself, and become someone who doesn’t enter into interpersonal relationships. That way, if you can shut yourself into your own shell, you won’t have to interact with anyone, and you’ll even have a justification ready whenever other people snub you. That it’s because of your shortcomings that you get snubbed, and if things weren’t this way, you too could be loved.
In Adlerian psychology, all problems are interpersonal. If you lived in a universe with no other people, the concept of loneliness wouldn’t come up, says the philosopher in The Courage to be Disliked. After all, he says, “You wouldn’t need language, and there’d be no use for logic or common sense, either.”
The philosopher doesn’t say that the student should act in a nasty way or distance himself from others, but should, rather, have the courage to be disliked—which will lead to happiness. Adler believes no one should intrude on each others’ tasks; we should all be self-sufficient and not depend on each other for happiness. If someone decides to dislike you, that’s their business, explains the The Courage to be Disliked’s philosopher, rather than yours. As such, you need to have the courage to form close relationships knowing that perhaps, yes, you could be rejected.
“If it is a shallow relationship, when it falls apart the pain will be slight,” says the philosopher. “And the joy that relationship brings each day will also be slight. It is precisely because one can gain the courage to enter into deeper relationship by having confidence in others that the joy of one’s interpersonal relations can grow, and one’s joy in life can grow, too.”
I’m not someone who struggles, particularly, with needing to please everyone. I’m aware of how gender norms demand greater passivity from women, and I’m willing to go against that, to stand up for myself and others, when necessary. Besides, I’m a reporter, and consider it my job to sometimes ask difficult questions.
And yet I found this book unexpectedly insightful. It goes against mainstream thought—about the impact of events, and trauma, and how we’re determined, in part, by our past—and presents a compelling alternative perspective. I may not be as convinced as the youth in The Courage to be Disliked; the philosopher, after all, has an all-encompassing and definitive worldview, and no perfectly neat theory of personhood and relationships can fully capture the complexities of existence. But it’s refreshing and useful to read a philosophy that goes against many contemporary orthodoxies. More than a century since Adler founded his school of psychology, there’s still insight and novelty in his theories.