Alain de Botton: A kinder, gentler philosophy of success

Speaker

Alain de Botton is a Swiss-British writer, philosopher, and television presenter resident in the United Kingdom.

Summary

We live in an age where our lives are regularly punctuated by career crises – it is easier to make a living, but harder to avoid an anxiety about what we do. The reasons are

  • We are surrounded by snobbery – people who will imply everything about you based on your career. “What do you do?” is a common question to rank you when you first meet someone. This flows on to a need for material goods – to makes you feel more valued. This is true for a lot of conspicuous consumption – if you see someone with a Ferrari, assume they are vulnerable and in need of love & sympathy, rather than contempt or greed.
  • Expectations are high about what we can achieve – there is no class system, anyone can do anything with a spirit of equality. This clashes with envy – which is felt harder by people who are from similar backgrounds. We have a feeling that everyone comes from a similar background as everyone else, but the result is not equal. By telling people they can do anything, it is linked with low self-esteem.
  • Everyone encourages the idea of a meritocracy – it implies that the most skilled and driven will get to the top. However it also implies that anyone at the bottom deserves to be there – they are the worst. In the middle ages a poor person was called an ‘unfortunate’, whereas now they’d probably be called a ‘loser’.

These result in higher suicide rates in developed, individualistic countries than any other region. How can we change our mindsets to tackle these issues?

  • Meritocracy: We need to recognise it is impossible to create a perfect meritocracy – there are too many random factors in play.
  • Failure: when we fail, we don’t fear the loss of income or position so much as the ridicule. Newspapers are full of stories of people’s failures, and often presented salaciously without sympathy. At the other end of the spectrum is tragedy in art: Shakespeare makes us sympathetic to the flaws of his characters. Hamlet is not a loser, but he has lost.
  • We worship humanity: All our heroes are human, we are excited by human achievements and the concept of a spiritual has started to disappear. It could be why people are now so drawn to nature – one of the few non-human forces left.

We have a lot of ideas about success – that someone successful will be rich or renowned in their field. However, noone is successful in every aspect of their life – someone renowned in one field has sacrificed another. Most people’s ideas of success are not their own – taken from family, friends, marketing. Rather than giving up on success, we need to make sure that the ideas are our own. Because it feels bad to fail to achieve success, but much worse to achieve it and realise it wasn’t really what you wanted.

 

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