A Kinder Gentler Philosophy of Success Alain de Botton

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Alain de Botton: A kinder, gentler philosophy of success Talk presented at TED Global in July 2009. http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/alain_de_botton_a_kinder_gentler_philosophy_of_succe ss.html For me they normally happen, these career crises, often, actually, on a Sunday evening, just as the sun is starting to set, and the gap between my hopes for myself, and the reality of my life, start to diverge so painfully that I normally end up weeping into a pillow. I'm mentioning all this, I'm mentioni
  Alain de Botton: A kinder, gentler philosophy of success Talk presented at TED Global in July 2009.http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/alain_de_botton_a_kinder_gentler_philosophy_of_success.htmlFor me they normally happen, these career crises, often, actually, on a Sunday evening, justas the sun is starting to set, and the gap between my hopes for myself, and the reality of mylife, start to diverge so painfully that I normally end up weeping into a pillow. I'mmentioning all this, I'm mentioning all this because I think this is not merely a personal problem. You may think I'm wrong in this, but I think that we live in an age when our livesare regularly punctuated by career crises, by moments when what we thought we knew,about our lives, about our careers, comes into contact with a threatening sort of reality.It's perhaps easier now than ever before to make a good living. It's perhaps harder than ever  before to stay calm, to be free of career anxiety. I want to look now, if I may, at some of the reasons why we might be feeling anxiety about our careers. Why we might be victimsof these career crises, as we're weeping softly into our pillows. One of the reasons why wemight be suffering is that we are surrounded by snobs.In a way, I've got some bad news, particularly to anybody who's come to Oxford fromabroad. There is a real problem with snobbery. Because sometimes people from outside theU.K. imagine that snobbery is a distinctively U.K. phenomenon fixated on country housesand titles. The bad news is that's not true. Snobbery is a global phenomenon. We are aglobal organization. This is a global phenomenon. It exists. What is a snob? A snob isanybody who takes a small part of you and uses that to come to a complete vision of whoyou are. That is snobbery.The dominant kind of snobbery that exists nowadays is job snobbery. You encounter itwithin minutes at a party, when you get asked that famous iconic question of the early 21stcentury, What do you do? And according to how you answer that question, people areeither incredibly delighted to see you, or look at their watch and make their excuses.(Laughter) Now, the opposite of a snob is your mother. (Laughter) Not necessarily your mother, or indeed mine, but, as it were, the ideal mother, somebody who doesn't care about your achievements. But unfortunately, most people are not our mothers. Most people make astrict correlation between how much time, and if you like, love -- not romantic love, thoughthat may be something -- but love in general, respect, they are willing to accord us, that will be strictly defined by our position in the social hierarchy.And that's a lot of the reason why we care so much about our careers and indeed startcaring so much about material goods. You know, we're often told that we live in verymaterialistic times, that we're all greedy people. I don't think we are particularlymaterialistic. I think we live in a society which has simply pegged certain emotionalrewards to the acquisition of material goods. It's not the material goods we want. It's therewards we want. And that's a new way of looking at luxury goods. The next time you see  somebody driving a Ferrari don't think, This is somebody who is greedy. Think, This issomebody who is incredibly vulnerable and in need of love. In other words -- (Laughter)feel sympathy, rather than contempt.There are other reasons -- (Laughter) there are other reasons why it's perhaps harder now tofeel calm than ever before. One of these, and it's paradoxical because it's linked tosomething that's rather nice, is the hope we all have for our careers. Never before haveexpectations been so high about what human beings can achieve with their lifespan. We'retold, from many sources, that anyone can achieve anything. We've done away with thecaste system. We are now in a system where anyone can rise to any position they please.And it's a beautiful idea. Along with that is a kind of spirit of equality. We're all basicallyequal. There are no strictly defined kind of hierarchies.There is one really big problem with this, and that problem is envy. Envy, it's a real tabooto mention envy, but if there is one dominant emotion in modern society, that is envy. Andit's linked to the spirit of equality. Let me explain. I think it would be very unusual for anyone here, or anyone watching, to be envious of the Queen of England. Even though sheis much richer than any of you are. And she's got a very large house. The reason why wedon't envy her is because she's too weird. She's simply too strange. We can't relate to her.She speaks in a funny way. She comes from an odd place. So we can't relate to her. Andwhen you can't relate to somebody, you don't envy them.The closer two people are, in age, in background, in the process of identification, the morethere is a danger of envy -- which is incidentally why none of you should ever go to aschool reunion -- because there is no stronger reference point than people one was at schoolwith. But the problem, generally, of modern society, is that it turns the whole world into aschool. Everybody is wearing jeans, everybody is the same. And yet, they're not. So there isa spirit of equality, combined with deep inequalities. Which makes for a very -- can makefor a very stressful situation.It's probably as unlikely that you would nowadays become as rich and famous as BillGates, as it was unlikely in the 17th century that you would accede to the ranks of theFrench aristocracy. But the point is, it doesn't feel that way. It's made to feel, by magazinesand other media outlets, that if you've got energy, a few bright ideas about technology, agarage, you too could start a major thing. (Laughter) And the consequences of this problemmake themselves felt in bookshops. When you go to a large bookshop and look at the self-help sections, as I sometimes do, if you analyze self-help books that are produced in theworld today, there are basically two kinds. The first kind tells you, You can do it! You canmake it! Anything is possible! And the other kind tells you how to cope with what we politely call low self-esteem, or impolitely call feeling very bad about yourself. There is a real correlationship, a real correlation between a society that tells people thatthey can do anything and the existence of low self-esteem. So that's another way in whichsomething that is quite positive can have a nasty kickback. There is another reason why wemight be feeling more anxious, about our careers, about our status in the world today, than  ever before. And it is, again, linked to something nice, and that nice thing is calledmeritocracy.Everybody, all politicians on Left and Right, agree that meritocracy is a great thing, and weshould all be trying to make our societies really, really meritocratic. In other words, what isa meritocratic society? A meritocratic society is one in which if you've got talent andenergy and skill, you will get to the top. Nothing should hold you back. It's a beautiful idea.The problem is if you really believe in a society where those who merit to get to the top,get to the top, you'll also, by implication, and in a far more nasty way, believe in a societywhere those who deserve to get to the bottom also get to the bottom and stay there. In other words, your position in life comes to seem not accidental, but merited and deserved. Andthat makes failure seem much more crushing.You know, in the Middle Ages, in England, when you met a very poor person, that personwould be described as an unfortunate -- literally, somebody who had not been blessed byfortune, an unfortunate. Nowadays, particularly in the United States, if you meet someoneat the bottom of society, they may unkindly be described as a loser. There is a realdifference between an unfortunate and a loser, and that shows 400 years of evolution insociety and our belief in who is responsible for our lives. It's no longer the gods, it's us.We're in the driving seat.That's exhilarating if you're doing well, and very crushing if you're not. It leads, in theworst cases, in the analysis of a sociologist like Emil Durkheim, it leads to increased ratesof suicide. There are more suicides in developed individualistic countries than in any other  part of the world. And some of the reason for that is that people take what happens to themextremely personally. They own their success. But they also own their failure.Is there any relief from some of these pressures that I've just been outlining? I think thereis. I just want to turn to a few of them. Let's take meritocracy. This idea that everybodydeserves to get where they get to, I think it's a crazy idea, completely crazy. I will supportany politician of Left and Right, with any halfway decent meritocratic idea. I am ameritocrat in that sense. But I think it's insane to believe that we will ever make a societythat is genuinely meritocratic. It's an impossible dream.The idea that we will make a society where literally everybody is graded, the good at thetop, and the bad at the bottom, and it's exactly done as it should be, is impossible. There aresimply too many random factors: accidents, accidents of birth, accidents of things droppingon people's heads, illnesses, etc. We will never get to grade them, never get to grade peopleas they should.I'm drawn to a lovely quote by St. Augustine in The City of God, where he says, It's asin to judge any man by his post. In modern English that would mean it's a sin to come toany view of who you should talk to dependent on their business card. It's not the post thatshould count. According to St. Augustine, it's only God who can really put everybody intheir place. And he's going to do that on the Day of Judgment with angels and trumpets,  and the skies will open. Insane idea, if you're a secularist person, like me. But somethingvery valuable in that idea, nevertheless.In other words, hold your horses when you're coming to judge people. You don'tnecessarily know what someone's true value is. That is an unknown part of them. And weshouldn't behave as though it is known. There is another source of solace and comfort for all this. When we think about failing in life, when we think about failure, one of the reasonswhy we fear failing is not just a loss of income, a loss of status. What we fear is the judgment and ridicule of others. And it exists.You know, the number one organ of ridicule nowadays, is the newspaper. And if you openthe newspaper any day of the week, it's full of people who've messed up their lives.They've slept with the wrong person. They've taken the wrong substance. They've passedthe wrong piece of legislation. Whatever it is. And then are fit for ridicule. In other words,they have failed. And they are described as losers. Now is there any alternative to this? Ithink the Western tradition shows us one glorious alternative, and that is tragedy.Tragic art, as it developed in the theaters of ancient Greece, in the fifth century B.C., wasessentially an art form devoted to tracing how people fail, and also according them a levelof sympathy, which ordinary life would not necessarily accord them. I remember a fewyears ago, I was thinking about all this, and I went to see The Sunday Sport, a tabloidnewspaper that I don't recommend you to start reading if you're not familiar with it already.I went to talk to them about certain of the great tragedies of Western art. I wanted to seehow they would seize the bare bones of certain stories if they came in as a news item at thenews desk on a Saturday afternoon.So I told them about Othello. They had not heard of it but were fascinated by it. (Laughter)And I asked them to write the headline for the story of Othello. They came up with Love-Crazed Immigrant Kills Senator's Daughter splashed across the headline. I gave them the plotline of Madame Bovary. Again, a book they were enchanted to discover. And theywrote Shopaholic Adulteress Swallows Arsenic After Credit Fraud. (Laughter) And thenmy favorite. They really do have a kind of genius all of their own, these guys. My favoriteis Sophocles' Oedipus the King: Sex With Mum Was Blinding (Laughter) (Applause)In a way, if you like, at one end of the spectrum of sympathy, you've got the tabloidnewspaper. At the other end of the spectrum you've got tragedy and tragic art, and Isuppose I'm arguing that we should learn a little bit about what's happening in tragic art. Itwould be insane to call Hamlet a loser. He is not a loser, though he has lost. And I think that is the message of tragedy to us, and why it's so very, very important, I think.The other thing about modern society and why it causes this anxiety is that we havenothing at its center that is non-human. We are the first society to be living in a worldwhere we don't worship anything other than ourselves. We think very highly of ourselves,and so we should. We've put people on the moon. We've done all sorts of extraordinarythings. And so we tend to worship ourselves.
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