A Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success


These career crises normally happen on a Sunday evening, just as the sun is starting to set, and the gap between our hopes for ourselves and the reality of our lives start to diverge so painfully that we end up weeping into a pillow. This is not a uniquely personal problem. We live in an age when our lives are regularly punctuated by career crises, by moments when what we thought we knew about our lives and careers, comes into contact with a threatening sort of reality. It’s perhaps easier now more than ever to make a good living, it’s perhaps harder than ever, to stay calm, to stay free of career anxiety.


One of the reasons that we might be suffering, is that we’re surrounded by snobs. There’s a real problem with snobbery. Some people outside of the UK think that snobbery is a uniquely British phenomenon fixated on country houses and titles. The bad news is that’s not true. Snobbery is a global phenomena. But what is a snob? A snob is anybody who takes a small part of you and uses it to form a complete picture of who you are. 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 twenty-first century, “what do you do?”. According to how you answer that question, people are either incredibly pleased to see you, or look at their watch and make their excuses.


Now, the opposite of a snob is your mother. Not necessarily your mother or mine, but the ideal mother. Someone who doesn’t care about your achievements. Unfortunately most people aren’t like that, and make a strict correlation between how much time, love and respect they accord us, depends upon our position in the social hierarchy. It’s one of the reasons why we care so much about our careers, and indeed care so much about material goods.

We’re often told that we live in very materialistic times, that we’re greedy people. But this isn’t necessarily true. We live in a society that has pegged certain emotional rewards to the acquisition of material goods. It’s not the material goods we want, it’s the rewards we want. The next time you see someone driving a Ferrari, don’t think this is somebody who’s greedy, think of this as someone who, just like everyone else, is vulnerable and  in need of love.


There are other reasons why it’s perhaps harder now to feel calm than ever before. One of these, and it’s paradoxical because it’s linked to something we all think is nice, is the hope we have for our careers. Never before have expectations been so high about what human beings can achieve with their life span. We’re told from many sources that anyone can achieve anything. We’ve done away with the cast system, we’re now at a place in time where anyone can raise to any position they please, and it’s a beautiful idea.


Along with that has come a spirit of equality, we’re all basically equal, there are no strictly defined hierarchies. But there’s one really big problem with this, and that problem is envy. It’s a real taboo to mention envy, but if there’s one dominant emotion in modern society, that is envy. And it’s linked to the spirit of equality. Let’s think about this for a moment. It would seem strange to suggest that anyone would be envious of the Queen of England even though she’s much richer than most of us and has a big house.

The reason why we don’t envy her, is because she’s too weird. We can’t relate to her, she speaks in a funny way, and she comes from an odd place. When you can’t relate to someone, you don’t envy them. The closer two people are in age, in background, in the process of identification, there’s more of a danger of envy. Which is incidentally why no-one should ever go to a school reunion; because there’s no stronger reference point than people who one was at school with.


The problem generally of modern society is that it’s turned the whole world into a school. Everyone’s wearing jeans, everyone’s the same – and yet they’re not. So there’s a spirit of equality, combined with deep inequality which can make for a very stressful situation. It’s probably as unlikely nowadays that you’ll become as rich and famous as Bill Gates, as you were in the sixteenth century to succeed to the ranks of the French aristocracy. But the point is it doesn’t feel that way. It’s made to feel in magazines and on social media that if you’ve got energy, a few bright ideas about technology and a garage, you too could start a major thing.


The consequences of this problem make themselves felt in bookshops, when you go to a large book store and look at the self help section, if you analyse 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’s a real correlation between a society that tells people that they can do anything, and the existence of low self esteem. So that’s another way that something that’s quite positive, can have a nasty kick-back.


Another reason for our career crises and status anxieties is again related to something nice; that thing is meritocracy. Now, everybody, all politicians on left and right believe that meritocracy is a good thing. That we should all be trying to make our societies really meritocratic.

What is meritocracy? A meritocratic society tells us that if you’ve got talent, energy and skill, you’ll rise 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 get to the top, get to the top, you’re also saying by implication that you believe in a society where those at the bottom deserve to be to the bottom and stay there. In other words, your position in life comes to seem  not accidental but merited and deserved. That makes failure seem much more crushing.


In the middle ages in England, when you met a very poor person, that person would be described as an unfortunate. Literally, someone 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’s a real difference between an unfortunate and a loser.

That shows that the four hundred years in the evolution of society and our belief in who is responsible for our lives – it’s no longer the Gods, it’s us, we are in the driving seat – it’s exhilarating if you’re doing well, and crushing if you’re not. This empirically leads to increased rates of suicide. There are more suicides in developed, individualistic countries than any other part of the world. Some of the reasons for that is that people take what happens to them extremely personally. They own their success, but they also own their failure.


Is there any relief from some of these pressures? There is a way. Let’s take meritocracy – that everybody deserves to get where they get to – it’s a crazy idea. It’s insane to believe that we will ever make a society that is genuinely meritocratic, where everybody is graded according to ability. It’s an impossible ideal that can never be achieved; there are too many random factors to be taken into consideration. We will never get to grade people as is fitting for their ability.

St Augustine once said, “it’s a sin to judge any man by his post”. In modern English that would mean it’s a sin to choose who you give your time to dependent on their business card. You don’t necessarily know what someone’s true value is. That is an unknown part of them and we shouldn’t behave as though it is known.


There’s another source of solace and comfort for all this. When we think about failing in life, what we really fear is not the loss of income and possessions, but it’s the judgement and ridicule of others. And it exists. The number one organ of ridicule nowadays is the newspaper. It’s full of people who’ve messed up their lives. They have failed and are described as losers that are fit for ridicule.

Is there any alternative to this? The western tradition shows us one glorious alternative and that is tragedy. Tragic art as it developed in the theatres of ancient Greece in the 5th century BC, was essentially an art form devoted to tracing how people fail, also according them a level of sympathy that normal life would not. At one end of the spectrum of sympathy you’ve got tabloid journalism, at the opposite end, you’ve got tragic art. We can all learn so much from tragic art. We would be insane to call Hamlet a loser. He’s not a loser, although he has lost. That’s the message of tragedy to us, and is why it’s so very important for society.


The other thing about modern society and why it causes us anxiety, is that we have nothing at its centre that is non-human. We are the first society, to be living in a world where we don’t worship anything other than ourselves. We think very highly of ourselves – and so we should, we’ve achieved great things. Our heroes are human heroes. This is a very new situation.

Most other societies have had right at their centre the worship of something transcendent; a God, a spirit, a natural force, the universe, it’s something else that’s being worshipped. We’ve lost the habit of doing that which is why we’re particularly drawn to nature. Not for the sake of our health, though it’s often presented in that way, but because it’s an escape from the human ant hill. An escape from our own competition and our own dramas. That’s why we like looking at glaciers, at oceans, and contemplating the earth from outside it’s parameters. We like to feel in contact with something that is non-human.


One of the interesting things about success is that we think we know what it means. If we try to imagine someone very successful, the things that come to mind would be someone who’s made a lot of money, someone who’s renowned in some field. But as we get older, we become more nuanced about what the word success might mean. One insight about success that we learn is that you can’t be successful at everything. You can’t have it all. Any vision of success has to admit what it’s losing out on, where the element of loss is. Any wise life will accept that there is going to be an element where we are not succeeding.

The thing about a successful life, is that a lot of times our ideas of what it would mean to live successfully are not our own. Rather, they’re sucked in from other people. Chiefly, if you’re a man; your father; if you’re a woman; your mother; as well as the enormous power of the media and other external influences. These are hugely powerful forces that define what we want and how we view ourselves. We are highly open to suggestion.

So, we shouldn’t give up on our ideas of success, but instead we should make sure 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. It’s bad enough not getting what you want in life, but it’s even worse to have an idea of what it is you want, and find out that at the end of the journey, it isn’t in fact what you wanted all along.

By all means, yes to success, but let’s accept the strangeness of some of our ideas. Let’s probe away at our notions of success, and let’s make sure that our ideas of success are truly our own.

Watch Alain de Botton present his ideas of success in his TEDtalk here.

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