Bertrand Russell is considered one of the greatest polymaths of the first part of the 20th century. He was a renowned logician, mathematician, historian, writer and philosopher. His writing won him the 1950 Nobel Prize in Literature.
He enjoyed all kinds of success later in life, however early in life he was not happy and even contemplated suicide. His life was not turning out the way he wanted, his parents and siblings died when he was a small boy and he was raised in a very strict manner by his other relatives.
In his book, “The Conquest of Happiness”, he describes his childhood in this way:
“I was not born happy. As a child, my favorite hymn was: “Weary of earth and laden with my sin”. In adolescence, I hated life and was continually on the verge of suicide, from which, however, I was restrained by the desire to know more mathematics.”
He managed to pull through and to become happy. He learned how to turn negative thoughts into positive ones and how to focus his attention on things that brought him joy.
“Now, on the contrary, I enjoy life; I might almost say that with every year that passes I enjoy it more. Very largely it is due to a diminishing preoccupation with myself. Like others who had a Puritan education, I had the habit of meditating on my sins, follies, and shortcomings. I seemed to myself-no doubt justly-a miserable specimen. Gradually I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies; I came to center my attention increasingly upon external objects: the state of the world, various branches of knowledge, individuals for whom I felt affection.“
He even came up with a technique to make sure that these dark thoughts never haunted him again. This technique helped him vanquish limiting beliefs and irrationality in his own mind and set him on the path to happiness:
“It is quite possible to overcome infantile suggestions of the unconscious, and even to change the contents of the unconscious, by employing the right kind of technique. Whenever you begin to feel remorse for an act which your reason tells you is not wicked, examine the causes of your feeling of remorse, and convince yourself in detail of their absurdity. Let your conscious beliefs be so vivid and emphatic that they make an impression upon your unconscious strong enough to cope with the impressions made by your nurse or your mother when you were an infant. Do not be content with an alternation between moments of rationality and moments of irrationality. Look into the irrationality closely with a determination not to respect it and not to let it dominate you. Whenever it thrusts foolish thoughts or feelings into your consciousness, pull them up by the roots, examine them, and reject them. Do not allow yourself to remain a vacillating creature, swayed half by reason and half by infantile folly.
But if the rebellion is to be successful in bringing individual happiness and in enabling a man to live consistently by one standard, not to vacillate between two, it is necessary that he should think and feel deeply about what his reason tells him. Most men, when they have thrown off superficially the superstitions of their childhood, think that there is no more to be done. They do not realize that these superstitions are still lurking underground. When a rational conviction has been arrived at, it is necessary to dwell upon it, to follow out its consequences, to search out in oneself whatever beliefs inconsistent with the new conviction might otherwise survive.
What I suggest is that a man should make up his mind with emphasis as to what he rationally believes, and should never allow contrary irrational beliefs to pass unchallenged or obtain a hold over him, however brief. This is a question of reasoning with himself in those moments in which he is tempted to become infantile, but the reasoning, if it is sufficiently emphatic, may be very brief.“
His advice can be applied in such varied situations as taking risks and getting rid of worries. Whenever confronted by doubt, always think of the worst thing that can happen. Usually, you will discover that the worst thing that can happen is not that bad at all, and probably the chance of it happening is miniscule anyways. This can then drive you to take that first step, or to get rid of your fear.
“When you have looked for some time steadily at the worst possibility and have said to yourself with real conviction, ‘Well, after all, that would not matter so very much’, you will find that your worry diminishes to a quite extraordinary extent. It may be necessary to repeat the process a few times, but in the end, if you have shirked nothing in facing the worst possible issue, you will find that your worry disappears altogether, and is replaced by a kind of exhilaration.“
You need to face your fears. This is at the basis of winning at life. You cannot run away from your fears and the more you try to avoid them, the more powerful they become. You cannot get rid of them by thinking of something else, because they will come back to haunt you. It’s like those experiments where people were told not to think of the pink elephant. What was the first thing they thought of?
A pink elephant!
Instead you need to confront your fear head on. You need to think about it rationally and calmly. Don’t let emotions get hold of you. By thinking about it rationally, it will go away.
“A man who has learnt not to feel fear will find the fatigue of daily life enormously diminished. Now fear, in its most harmful form, arises where there is some danger which we are unwilling to face. At odd moments horrible thoughts dart into our minds; what they are depends upon the person, but almost everybody had some kind of lurking fear. With one man it is cancer, with another financial ruin, with a third the discovery of some disgraceful secret, a fourth is tormented by jealous suspicions, a fifth is haunted at night by the thought that perhaps the tales of hell-fire told him when he was young may be true.
Probably all these people employ the wrong technique for dealing with their fear; whenever it comes into their mind, they try to think of something else; they distract their thoughts with amusement or work, or what not. Now every kind of fears grows worse by not being looked at. The effort of turning away one’s thoughts is a tribute to the horribleness of the spectre from which one is averting one’s gaze; the proper course with every kind of fear is to think about it rationally and calmly, but with great concentration, until it has become completely familiar.
In the end familiarity will blunt its terrors; the whole subject will become boring, and our thoughts will turn away from it, not, as formerly, by an effort of will, but through mere lack of interest in the topic. When you find yourself inclined to brood on anything, no matter what, the best plan always is to think about it even more than you naturally would, until at last its morbid fascination is worn off.“
Einstein’s Tip on Learning: Einstein’s tip to his son on how to learn almost anything