Full text of Alain de Botton, a Swiss writer, philosopher, and television presenter, on a kinder, gentler philosophy of success.
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For me they normally happen, these career crises, often, actually, on a Sunday evening, just as the sun is starting to set, and the gap between my hopes for myself and the reality of my life starts to diverge so painfully that I normally end up weeping into a pillow. I’m mentioning all this — I’m mentioning all this because I think this is not merely a personal problem; you may think I’m wrong in this, but I think 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.
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. I want to look now, if I may, at some of the reasons why we might be feeling anxiety about our careers. Why we might be victims of these career crises, as we’re weeping softly into our pillows. One of the reasons why we might be suffering is that we are surrounded by snobs.
Now in a way, I’ve got some bad news, particularly to anybody who’s come to Oxford from abroad. There’s a real problem with snobbery, because sometimes people from outside the UK imagine that snobbery is a distinctively UK phenomenon, fixated on country houses and titles. The bad news is that’s not true. Snobbery is a global phenomenon; we are a global organization, this is a global phenomenon.
What is a snob? A snob is anybody who takes a small part of you, and uses that to come to a complete vision of who you are. That is snobbery. And the dominant kind of snobbery that exists nowadays is job snobbery. You encounter it within minutes at a party, when you get asked that famous iconic question of the early 21st century, “What do you do?” And according to how you answer that question, people are either incredibly delighted to see you, or look at their watch and make their excuses.
Now, the opposite of a snob is your mother. Not necessarily your mother, or indeed mine, but, as it were, the ideal mother, somebody who doesn’t care about your achievements. Unfortunately, most people are not our mothers. Most people make a strict correlation between how much time, and if you like, love — not romantic love, though that may be something — but love in general, respect — they are willing to accord us, that will be strictly defined by our position in the social hierarchy. And that’s a lot of the reason why we care so much about our careers and indeed start caring so much about material goods.
You know, we’re often told that we live in very materialistic times, that we’re all greedy people. I don’t think we are particularly materialistic. I think 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. And that’s a new way of looking at luxury goods. The next time you see somebody driving a Ferrari, don’t think, “This is somebody who’s greedy.” Think, “This is somebody who is incredibly vulnerable and in need of love.” In other words, feel sympathy, rather than contempt.
There are other reasons — There are other reasons why it’s perhaps harder now to feel calm than ever before. One of these — and it’s paradoxical, because it’s linked to something that’s rather nice, is the hope we all have for our careers. Never before have expectations been so high about what human beings can achieve with their lifespan. 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. And it’s a beautiful idea. Along with that is a kind of spirit of equality; we’re all basically equal. There are no strictly-defined hierarchies.
There is one really big problem with this, and that problem is envy. Envy, it’s a real taboo to mention envy, but if there’s one dominant emotion in modern society, that is envy. And it’s linked to the spirit of equality. Let me explain. I think it would be very unusual for anyone here, or anyone watching, to be envious of the Queen of England. Even though she is much richer than any of you are, and she’s got a very large house, the reason why we don’t envy her is because she’s too weird. She’s simply too strange. We can’t relate to her, she speaks in a funny way, she comes from an odd place. So we can’t relate to her, and when you can’t relate to somebody, you don’t envy them.
The closer two people are — in age, in background, in the process of identification — the more there’s a danger of envy, which is incidentally why none of you should ever go to a school reunion, because there is no stronger reference point than people one was at school with. The problem generally of modern society is it turns the whole world into a school. Everybody’s wearing jeans, everybody’s the same. And yet, they’re not. So there’s a spirit of equality combined with deep inequality, which makes for a very stressful situation.
It’s probably 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, it doesn’t feel that way. It’s made to feel, by magazines and other media outlets, that if you’ve got energy, a few bright ideas about technology, a garage — you, too, could start a major thing. The consequences of this problem make themselves felt in bookshops. When you go to a large bookshop and look at the self-help sections, as I sometimes do — if you analyze self-help books that are produced in the world today, there are basically two kinds. The first kind tells you, “You can do it! You can make it! Anything’s possible!” The other kind tells you how to cope with what we politely call “low self-esteem,” or impolitely call, “feeling very bad about yourself.”
There’s a real correlation between a society that tells people that they can do anything, and the existence of low self-esteem. So that’s another way in which something quite positive can have a nasty kickback. There is another reason why we might be feeling more anxious — about our careers, about our status in the world today, than ever before. And it’s, again, linked to something nice. And that nice thing is called meritocracy.