photo blog_head_zpsonl8fonu.jpg
Meesa gonna kill you!

Get email updates of new posts:        (Delivered by FeedBurner)

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Alain de Botton on Success (and Self-Help and Meritocracy)

"There are several good protections against temptations, but the surest is cowardice." - Mark Twain

***

"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... we might be victims of these career crises, as we're weeping softly into our pillows. One of the reasons why we might be suffering is that we are surrounded by snobs...

A snob is anybody who takes a small part of you and uses that to come to a complete vision of who you are. That is snobbery.

And the dominant kind of snobbery that exists nowadays is job snobbery. You encounter it within minutes at a party, when you get asked that famous iconic question of the early 21st century, "What do you do?" And according to how you answer that question, people are either incredibly delighted to see you, or look at their watch and make their excuses.

Now, to opposite of a snob is your mother. 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 a strict correlation between how much time, and if you like, love, not romantic love, though that 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...

If there is one dominant emotion in modern society, that is envy. And it's linked to the spirit of equality...

The closer two people are, in age, in background, in the process of identification, the more there is a danger of envy. Which is incidentally why none of you should ever go to a school reunion. Because there is no stronger reference point than people one was at school with. But the problem, generally, of modern society, is that it turns the whole world into a school. Everybody is wearing jeans, everybody is the same. And yet, they're not. So there is a spirit of equality, combined with deep inequalities. Which makes for a very -- can make for a very stressful situation...

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 the world today, there are basically two kinds. The first kind tells you, "You can do it! You can make it! Anything is possible!" And the other kind tell 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 that they can do anything, and the existence of low self-esteem...

[On meritocracy] 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 society where 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. And that makes failure seem much more crushing.

You know, in the middle ages, in England, when you met a very poor person, that person would be described as an "unfortunate." Literally, somebody who had not been blessed by fortune, an unfortunate. Nowadays, particularly in the United States, if you meet someone at the bottom of society, they may, unkindly, be described as a "loser"...

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 them extremely personally. They own their success. But they also own their failure...

It's insane to believe that we will ever make a society that is genuinely meritocratic. It's an impossible dream...

I'm drawn to a lovely quote by St. Augustine in "The City of God," where he says, "It's a sin to judge any man by his post." In modern English that would mean, it's a sin to come to any view of who you should talk to dependent on their business card. It's not the post that should count...

When we think about failing in life, when we think about failure, one of the reasons why we fear failing is not just a loss of income, a loss of status. What we fear is the judgement and ridicule of others. And it exists.

You know, the number one organ of ridicule nowadays, is the newspaper. And if you open the 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 passed the wrong 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? I think 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., was essentially an art form devoted to tracing how people fail. And also according them a level of sympathy. Which ordinary life would not necessarily accord them. I remember a few years ago, I was thinking about all this. And I went to see "The Sunday Sport," a tabloid newspaper that I don't recommend you to start reading, if you're not familiar with it already. And I went to talk to them about certain of the great tragedies of Western art. And I wanted to see how they would seize the bare bones of certain stories if they came in as a news item at the news desk on a Saturday afternoon.

So I told them about Othello. They had not heard of it but were fascinated by it. And I asked them to write the headline for the story of Othello. They came up with "Love-Crazed Immigrant Kills Senators Daughter" splashed across the headline. I gave them the plotline of Madame Bovary. Again, a book they were enchanted to discover. And they wrote "Shopaholic Adulteress Swallows Arsenic After Credit Fraud" And then my favorite. They really do have a kind of genius all of their own, these guys. My favorite is Sophocles' "Oedipus the King." "Sex With Mum Was Blinding"...

It would 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...

Here's an insight that I've had about success. You can't be successful at everything. We hear a lot of talk about work-life balance. Nonsense. You can't have it all. You can't. So any vision of success has to admit what it's losing out on, where the element of loss is. And I think any wise life will accept as I say, that there is going to be an element where we are not succeeding.

And the thing about a successful life, is a lot of the time, our ideas of what it would mean to live successfully, are not our own. They are sucked in from other people...

So what I want to argue for, is not that we should give up on our ideas of success. But we should make sure that they are our own. We should focus in on our ideas. And make sure that we own them, that we are truly the authors of our own ambitions. Because it's bad enough, not getting what you want. But it's even worse to have an idea of what it is you want, and find out at the end of a journey, that it isn't, in fact, what you wanted all along...

I am a firm believer in justice. I just think that it is impossible. So we should do everything we can, we should do everything we can to pursue it. But at the end of the day we should always remember that whoever is facing us, whatever has happened in their lives, there will be a strong element of the haphazard."

(Alain de Botton: A kinder, gentler philosophy of success | Video on TED.com)
blog comments powered by Disqus
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Latest posts (which you might not see on this page)

powered by Blogger | WordPress by Newwpthemes