A kinder philosophy of success
Now, most of us are familiar with the Sunday night blues. The kind that comes with the sunset and brings with it questions like: “what am I doing with my life?” and “will I ever live the life I have envisioned for myself?” These questions are not new, nor are they unique to the individual – they are wholly universal.
While this thought should bring us comfort in knowing that we’re not alone, it does beg the question: why do so many of us feel this way? This week during my internet wanderings, I came across a TED Talk by Alain de Botton titled ‘A kinder, gentler philosophy of success’ that attempted to answer this.
The age of envy
Botton argues that part of this unhappiness comes from the fact we are “surrounded by snobs.” We may have mostly discarded our attachment to patronage and titles, but we’ve simply replaced it with another kind of snobbery: job snobbery. Many of us will know the feeling well. It most often appears at parties when we’re asked the terrifying question: ‘what do you do?’
Those four words define us and trap us in a hierarchy we never asked for. We are judged wholly on whatever occupation comes out of our mouths, never mind the course our lives took to get us here. We abide by a strict correlation of age against perceived success, yet it seems that we favour the wrong things.
He explains: “We're told, from many sources, that anyone can achieve anything. We've done away with the caste system, we are now in a system where anyone can rise to any position they please.” Yet, aside from being a rather lovely idea, it isn’t true. The sad fact is that despite signalling from politicians and business leaders, our country just does not function this way.
Botton notes the barb that comes with meritocracy; those who don’t succeed do not do so because of their own life factors – for instance, socio-economic background, family life, health (mental or otherwise) or opportunity – but because they simply didn’t try hard enough. Aside from penalising those less fortunate and teaching people that their worth is solely contingent on their output, this mentality also does a number on our brains.
Botton explains how a short walk around the self-help section of any given bookshop offers a good glimpse into the human psyche. On one side, we find books with emblazoned covers that shout of shortcuts to success, while the other hosts books that comfort when we fail to do so.
The problem doesn’t necessarily lie with the desire to be successful, but rather in how we define success. He says: “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.” What’s important, he notes, is that the success we choose is for ourselves.
We must change the way we frame success. We must learn to value what doesn’t come attached with an arbitrary monetary sum. We should listen more and judge less. We must choose to follow the trajectories of our own dreams rather than follow those given to us. Perhaps then we may find some solace come Sunday night.