I decided to put Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged on my reading list when I heard of it for the first time a few months ago (my culture isn’t Anglo-Saxon).
So I read the 1343 pages of the book…and loved every one of them!
What followed were days of mental digestion. Atlas Shrugged isn’t a social, psychological, political, or economics book: it is all of them together.
It was probably one of the most insightful books on human nature I have ever read. More than a novel, it is a philosophical treaty.
Having been raised in a catholic family with all of its dogmas, the story helped me set straight more than one belief I had about the world and about myself — beliefs that prevented me from moving forward and being happier.
Here are the 5 life lessons I took from Atlas Shrugged.
This article contains spoilers.
1. You Are Responsible for Your Own Happiness
Atlas Shrugged author Ayn Rand wrote novels to spread her philosophy that she calls objectivism.
Objectivism aims at maximizing human happiness and freedom. It rests on four pillars, among which one is that man’s most important goal is to pursue what makes him/her happy as long as it doesn’t come at the cost of sacrificing someone else’s freedom.
Rand explains that maximizing happiness is not about “traveling” or “retiring in your thirties”, but that it is about doing that which fulfills you the most — even if it’s difficult.
In Atlas Shrugged, Rand tells the story of a group of people who relentlessly work at doing what they do best, experiencing considerable satisfaction along the way.
These people take responsibility for pretty much everything going on in their lives — and this is why they succeed — up to the point when they start taking care of other people’s responsibilities: the villains of the book.
They are characterized as simply waiting to be told what to do and find excuses when something goes wrong.
Rand’s message is that your life is yours and you must take responsibility for it or someone else will for you- and they will take your freedom at the same time.
2. Reality Exists and Is Objective
According to Rand, objective reality exists through facts and must be approached, comprehended, and acted upon with the use of reason. Reason is the only tool human beings have to survive.
Reality exists since it can be influenced and modeled through hard work. Reality does not bend to wishful thinking without action.
In the book, the government manufactures stories to give people hope that the economy will be taken care of by John Galt, while the latter has no plan whatsoever to do anything about it.
“We need to give the people hope that life will be better,” they say. They forget though, that hope doesn’t put bread on the table.
They ignore that “wishing won’t make it so.”
They refuse to believe that only work provides results.
Rather, they look at the world from a non-absolute point of view, where nothing really is, but is what one would like it to be.
3. Self-Esteem Is Critical
“Nothing is more important in the world than self-esteem”, Rand writes.
Rand describes self-esteem as the self-beliefs that one’s mind is competent to think and feels worthy of being happy, alive, and free.
Self-esteem is critical to Rand as it is what compels one to maintain one’s life.
A man which does not let himself die is a man that de facto shows that who he is, is worthy to preserve.
As such, every human holds self-esteem. The question is not whether he holds it or not, but how much of it he has.
The amount of self-esteem one holds can be measured by the amount of joy one seeks to experience. This amount indicates that one thinks of himself worthy of finding this exact level of enjoyment.
Rand believes that the source of self-esteem is reason since a person with real self-esteem rests on the judgment of his own mind only. To quote Rand, he is “absolute about the objectivity of reality.”
Since reason is the only tool man has to survive, ceding this tool to someone else would be ceding them his life.
4. Sacrifice and Suffering Aren’t Virtues
Ayn Rand outlines how self-sacrifice and pain lead to a total collapse. She takes as an example an engine factory that implements a communist redistributive system for its workers.
Here’s what happens.
First: when employees of the engine factory are told that their salary would be paid in accordance to their needs but that they had to work according to their capacity, the best engineer of the company simply decides to leave.
He estimates that the fruits of his work belong to him — because his own life belongs to him — and that his needed sacrifice for the less bright employees is inhumane for the reasons below.
Second: it creates an unfair class of exploiting (consumers) and exploited (producers).
As all of the workers work according to their capacity, the most productive elements are asked to work harder to compensate for the lack of work of the less productive elements.
This leads the consumers to exploit those that produce for an equal or a lesser pay — in other words, a condition close to slavery.
Third: who to decides who needs what?
In a communist system, everyone is entitled to a salary according to their needs. Who can estimate those needs? Oftentimes, it is a central entity. The exercise of such power always leads to despotic drifts.
Fourth: no one owes anyone anything, and you don’t owe anything to anyone.
Men are born free into the world and should dispose of their lives as they please as long as it doesn’t cost the life of another. The benefit of work should be enjoyed at a cost — the actual work — and no one is entitled to steal one’s benefit.
In the words of Rand, “man must not sacrifice himself to others, nor sacrificing others to himself”.
No one gives, no one takes. Everyone works.
The fifth and final point: suffering is not a virtue. It is in fact pointless and does not lead to anything positive or extraordinary, but rather weaken men who become more easily controlled by another entity.
Happiness is the successful state of life, Rand writes. Pain is an agent of death.
5. Some People Produce, the Rest Consumes
In Rand’s world, there are two types of people. Those that consume the basket of goods, and those that produce it.
Most characters belong to the first group.
The heroes of the book belong to the second group.
They are the engineer that works for ten years to find a new metal; the inventor that invents a new engine; the entrepreneur that creates a new train line. They believe the world has needs that can be met only through hard work, dedication, and production.
This group represents Atlas, the giant carrying the entire world thanks to his herculean effort.
While heavily criticized and hated by the very people that depend on them, the producers keep on working until they have enough and decide to stop it all, leaving the world behind them.
The world is then only made up of consumers.
What happens when there is no one left to produce?
Rand’s take is refreshing and helped me lessen the burden I felt for chasing my dreams.
Society, mainstream media, and the educational system have hammered times and again the idea that you should feel ashamed to be who you are and to do what you want because “selfishness isn’t a virtue”.
Ayn Rand demonstrates that rational selfishness is in fact a virtue and one that has the potential to positively impact the world.
Where would society be if Edison had not selfishly pursued the invention of the lightbulb for his own satisfaction?
Rand, through her masterpiece, demonstrated all the nobility and importance to take charge of your own life and do what makes you happy and fulfilled.
Atlas Shrugged completely changed the way I viewed myself, the importance of work, self-esteem, and the importance to live up to your full potential.
It has taught me that the joy I would find in life would be only as great as I would let myself enjoy it.
If you know that this life is all that you have, wouldn’t you make the most of it?”