Alain de Botton – A kinder philosophy of success

Brilliant speech by Alain de Botton, on success and failure in modern society careers – via Signal Vs Noise.

Alain de Botton is a Swiss philosopher living in England. It is not just because he also was born in 1969 and has lived in both Zürich and London : I like him because of his very pragmatic approach of philosophy, which I’ve discovered a few years ago reading The Consolations of Philosophy. The latter suffered very hard critics mostly reproaching him for trying to democratise philosophy. But critics never really like it when philosophy tries to simply talk to regular people, do they ? Anyway …

I really liked the part dedicated to the drawbacks of very positive things such as equality (envy) and meritocracy (depression)

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. There are few reasons for that. One of these and it’s paradoxical because it’s linked to something rather nice, it’s the hope we all have for our career. Never before have expectations been so high about what human being can achieve with their life span. we’re told from many sources that anyone can achieve anything, we’re done with the cast system. Along with that come the spirit of equality : we are all basically equal. There are no defined kind of hierarchy.

But there’s a real big problem with this. And this problem is envy.   It’s a real taboo to mentioned envy. But if there is on dominant emotion in our society then it’s envy. And this emotion is linked with the spirit of equality. When you can’t relate to somebody (eg the Queen of England), you can’t envy them. The closer the people are in age, background, etc .. the more likely the process of identification and the danger of envy.

If you analyze self help books that are produced today, you can see two kinds. The first kind tells you You can do it, Anything is possible etc … 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.

Everybody agree that meritocracy is a great thank and we should all try to make our society a meritocratic one. The problem is that if you really believe that a society where the ones that really deserve to the top get to the top, you 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 deserved. And that makes failure much more crushing.

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