A kinder philosophy of success

I posted a question on Twitter:

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A raft of wonderful suggestions came back – things that I have now read, watched and pondered over. Friends, you are, of course, uplifting and inspiring! I’m going to pick one item to share back for now. Somewhat unsurprisingly, it is a TED video.

Alain de Botton: A kinder, gentler philosophy of success – from this year’s TED in Oxford. 17 minutes worth watching, but if you can’t hit play, or are after my thoughts, then read on…

Start with “The Sunday Evening Career Crisis” – that moment when the gap between our hopes for ourselves, and the reality of life starts become painfully apparent – and, as Alain says, we end up weeping into our pillows.

Our lives are regularly punctuated by “career crises”, when what we thought we knew is challenged by a threatening kind of reality. From my own perspective, I know only too well how fragile our perception is. The more deeply I study psychology, the more I am amazed that we get through life at all. Our grip on reality is, at best, tenuous and fractured.

It is easier than ever before to make a good living. We live longer. We earn more. We eat more. We have more. But it is harder than ever before to remain calm. There are a myriad of reasons for that. I lay a fair portion of the blame at the feet of the media, in all its forms. Not through malice-a-fore-thought, but through accidental complicity. Alain touches on the topic in his talk: Magazines make us feel that any one us can (even should) achieve something, anything, everything exceptional. The press has also become an instrument for delivering ridicule. Highlighting the mistakes people make. We fear the judgement and ridicule of others like never before.

“it is as unlikely that you would, nowadays, become as rich and famous as Bill Gates, as it was unlikely in the 17th century that you would accede to the ranks of the French aristocracy, but the point is that it doesn’t feel that way.”

Snobery, Alain says, is a global phenomena. The idea of taking a small part of someone and using it to come to a complete view of who that person is. Today’s snobberly? Job snobbery, at pandemic levels. We are obsessed by people’s career achievements and social position.

People make a strict correlation between respect and our position in the social heirarchy. In my experience that is an anachronism that has hung around too long. I’m inspired by people like Zarine of Just Giving, who’s view is that the CEO is at the bottom, not the top, of the organisation.

I’m perplexed by the reactions I get from people when I describe myself variously as a geek, a photographer, a bass player, a CEO or someone who has spent $35 million building a business. None of those things makes me a better or worse person, or any more or less interesting. Yet you would never know that from the different reactions I get from some. Alain’s advice? Don’t judge people. That should be a familiar phrase. Simple advice, but more of a cultural battle that we realise.

We aren’t materialistic Alain says, we have simply pegged certain emotional rewards to the acquisition of material goods. It isn’t the goods we want, it is the rewards we associate with them.

“The next time you see somebody driving a Ferarri, don’t think this is somebody greedy, think ‘this is somebody who is incredibly vulnerable and in need of love’ – in other words feel sympathy rather than contempt.”

There you go. One of the big problems of our society, he says, is envy. The closer people are to us in status, the bigger the risk of envy. We live with a desire for equality, combined with inequality all around us. The hope we have for our careers has never been so high, and tiny differences so large.

This meritocracy that we live in has a flip side. If anyone with talent, energy and skill can get to the top, then by implication those without them end up at the bottom. People’s position at the bottom becomes merited and deserved, rather than unfortunate. The consequence? Increased incidence of suicide, in fact the highest incidence of suicide in the world. People own their success like never before, but also take their failure at a deeply personal level.

The reality is that today’s “meritocracy” is far from being that. It simply doesn’t work that way. The system isn’t efficient, or rather the real-world isn’t that meritocratic – there are too many random influences on where we end up for us to be ultimately culpable for our destiny.

Alain makes another interesting observation about society. We’ve ended up worshipping ourselves, rather than something transcendent that can provide us with an escape from our own human ant hill. Alain, even as a secularist, sees that as a loss.

We think we know what success means, but our ideas of success are fickle, changeable and impressed upon us by others, rather than coming from within. Winning someone else’s battle can be a very hollow victory. Make sure you are fighting a war that you want to win, at a price that is really worth paying. Perhaps there is a kinder, gentler philosophy of success?

  7 comments for “A kinder philosophy of success

  1. Robert McIntosh
    August 5, 2009 at 10:47 pm

    Very interesting post and as it happens I think I have some reply (if not an answer) inspired by the book I read to my daughter this evening. Stone Soup. audioboo coming up

  2. Benjamin
    August 5, 2009 at 11:07 pm

    Thank you Robert – do drop the link in. I’m interested to know which book!

  3. August 5, 2009 at 11:25 pm

    I may be a simple soul, but I do enjoy these books (and the illustrations on this are pretty good too):

    Stone Soup

  4. August 5, 2009 at 11:32 pm

    Good words Mr, the hat goes deep, you’ll pull a rabbit out soon.

  5. Catman
    August 6, 2009 at 6:51 am

    “bingo” “nail on the head”

  6. Paul Brownsmith (@brownsmith)
    August 6, 2009 at 9:07 am

    Great article Benjamin, the video is blocked for me here, but I’ll be watching it later.
    A poignant subject, and one that is closer to most of us than many will admit.

  7. John Duffy
    August 6, 2009 at 9:14 am

    Great post.

    About 15 years ago a friend said 1 simple phrase to me. It made a huge impression on me, and I think is another way of phrasing some of Alain’s thoughts: the secret to happiness isn’t having more, it’s wanting less.

    Whilst I took that on board, the odd thing is that though I’m happier, it seems to vex other people.

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