A Kinder, Gentler Philosophy Of Success

I’m a big fan of TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) talks.  The concept of disseminating ideas worth spreading seems tailor-made for my liberal college-educated self.  In July 2009, author and modern philosopher Alain de Botton gave a talk on redefining success, something that seems to be a continual theme on this blog.

De Botton is an interesting creature.  His career took a turn when he wrote his first self-help essay in 1997, entitled How Proust Can Change Your Life, and began exploring some of the key questions of modern life – Am I happy?  Where do I stand in?  What kind of life am I choosing to lead and why?  His most recent book, The Pleasure and Sorrows of Work, explores ten different careers and is an extremely interesting and well-written analysis of the modern workplace.  He also founded the School of Life in London, which has the mission of making learning and therapy relevant to today’s culture.  In general, he wants people to live wisely and well.

In his TED talk, De Botton opens with an exploration something that seems to be key to most of us – career anxiety and crisis.  He keenly acknoweledges that for many of us, it’s a first world problem:  we have the ability to make a good living, but doing what? Is it fulfilling?  Is it financially rewarding – but not too rewarding so as to make us feel guilty?  What will others think of my job?  As he says,

But I think that 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, about our careers, comes into contact with a threatening sort of reality.

He goes on to discuss job snobbery, something I am incredibly familiar with.  That all-encompassing sense of dread when someone asks “what do you do” and then you have to watch the inevitable look of disappointment when you tell them you’re between jobs or temping or working part-time in retail or stuck in a dead-end job.  De Botton ties this not to an implicit interest in jobs as a way to obtain material wealth but instead posits that we want high-paying jobs (and want to associate with people who have high-paying jobs) because:

…we live in a society which has simply pegged certain emotional rewards to the acquisition of material goods. It’s not the material goods we want. It’s the rewards we want.

De Botton touches on another theme that’s relevant in the life of 20-somethings, as evidenced in the New York Times article posted last week, and that’s the pressure of trying to have it all and do it all.  He talks about the dangers of a living in a meritocracy, where we believe that anyone with enough pluck and personality can rise to the top and the people who are at the bottom deserve to be there.  As he points out, this is a lot of pressure to put on people, especially emerging adults:

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.

He goes on to discuss the word success and makes an observation that I find brilliant – success is easy to define on the surface.  Describe someone or something as successful and a picture will enter your mind – possibly a different picture for every person you act.  That’s the part that’s less easy – if success can be all things, then it’s impossible to be successful because you cannot have it all. We should stop trying to.  As he concludes,

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.

You can watch the entire TED talk here with an interactive transcript.


One thought on “A Kinder, Gentler Philosophy Of Success

  1. Pingback: The Surprising Science of Motivation « Musings on Life After College

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