Alain de Botton: A kinder, gentler philosophy of success (2)
The idea that we will make a society where literally everybody is graded, the good at the top, bad at the bottom, exactly done as it should be, is impossible.
There are simply too many random factors: accidents, accidents of birth, accidents of things dropping on people's heads, illnesses, etc. We will never get to grade them, never get to grade people as they should. 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. According to St. Augustine, only God can really put everybody in their place; 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 something very valuable in that idea, nevertheless. In other words, hold your horses when you're coming to judge people.
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 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 reasons why 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. The number one organ of ridicule, nowadays, is the newspaper.
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, taken the wrong substance, passed the 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? I think the Western tradition shows us one glorious alternative, which 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.
A few years ago, I was thinking about this, and I went to "The Sunday Sport," a tabloid newspaper I don't recommend you start reading if you're not familiar with it already. (Laughter)
And I went to talk to them about certain of the great tragedies of Western art.
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. I mentioned Othello; they'd not heard of it but were fascinated.
I asked them to write a headline for the story.
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 they wrote "Shopaholic Adulteress Swallows Arsenic After Credit Fraud. (Laughter)
And then my favorite -- they really do have a kind of genius of their own, these guys -- my favorite is Sophocles' Oedipus the King: "Sex With Mum Was Blinding.
In a way, if you like, at one end of the spectrum of sympathy, you've got the tabloid newspaper.
At the other end of the spectrum, you've got tragedy and tragic art. And I suppose I'm arguing that we should learn a little bit about what's happening in tragic art. 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. The other thing about modern society and why it causes this anxiety, is that we have nothing at its center 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 put people on the Moon, done all sorts of extraordinary things. And so we tend to worship ourselves. Our heroes are human heroes. That's a very new situation. Most other societies have had, right at their center, the worship of something transcendent: a god, a spirit, a natural force, the universe, whatever it is -- something else that is being worshiped. We've slightly lost the habit of doing that, which is, I think, why we're particularly drawn to nature. Not for the sake of our health, though it's often presented that way, but because it's an escape from the human anthill. It's an escape from our own competition, and our own dramas. And that's why we enjoy looking at glaciers and oceans, and contemplating the Earth from outside its perimeters, etc. We like to feel in contact with something that is non-human, and that is so deeply important to us. What I think I've been talking about really is success and failure.
And one of the interesting things about success is that we think we know what it means. If I said that there's somebody behind the screen who's very successful, certain ideas would immediately come to mind. You'd think that person might have made a lot of money, achieved renown in some field. My own theory of success -- I'm somebody who's very interested in success, I really want to be successful, always thinking, how can I be more successful? But as I get older, I'm also very nuanced about what that word "success" might mean. 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're not succeeding. And the thing about a successful life is that a lot of the time, our ideas of what it would mean to live successfully are not our own.
They're sucked in from other people; chiefly, if you're a man, your father, and if you're a woman, your mother. Psychoanalysis has been drumming home this message for about 80 years. No one's quite listening hard enough, but I very much believe it's true. And we also suck in messages from everything from the television, to advertising, to marketing, etc.
These are hugely powerful forces that define what we want and how we view ourselves. When we're told that banking is a very respectable profession, a lot of us want to go into banking. When banking is no longer so respectable, we lose interest in banking. We are highly open to suggestion. 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 the journey, that it isn't, in fact, what you wanted all along. So, I'm going to end it there.
But what I really want to stress is: by all means, success, yes. But let's accept the strangeness of some of our ideas. Let's probe away at our notions of success. Let's make sure our ideas of success are truly our own. Thank you very much.
Chris Anderson: That was fascinating.
But how do you reconcile this idea of it being bad to think of someone as a "loser," with the idea that a lot of people like, of seizing control of your life, and that a society that encourages that, perhaps has to have some winners and losers? Alain De Botton: Yes, I think it's merely the randomness of the winning and losing process that I want to stress, because the emphasis nowadays is so much on the justice of everything, and politicians always talk about justice.
Now I'm a firm believer in justice, I just think that it's impossible. So we should do everything we can to pursue it, but we should always remember that whoever is facing us, whatever has happened in their lives, there will be a strong element of the haphazard. That's what I'm trying to leave room for; otherwise, it can get quite claustrophobic. CA: I mean, do you believe that you can combine your kind of kinder, gentler philosophy of work with a successful economy?
Or do you think that you can't, but it doesn't matter that much that we're putting too much emphasis on that? AB: The nightmare thought is that frightening people is the best way to get work out of them, and that somehow the crueler the environment, the more people will rise to the challenge.
You want to think, who would you like as your ideal dad? And your ideal dad is somebody who is tough but gentle. And it's a very hard line to make. We need fathers, as it were, the exemplary father figures in society, avoiding the two extremes, which is the authoritarian disciplinarian on the one hand, and on the other, the lax, no-rules option. CA: Alain De Botton.
AB: Thank you very much.