Full text of Alain de Botton, Philosopher & Author on The Theory of Everything
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I’m here to talk about the mysterious disappearance or absence, of what one could call the psychological within the world of modern business, education and life more broadly, but with a particular emphasis on business because that’s partly what we’re here for.
I want to begin my story in ancient Greece fourth century BC, Aristotle, the Greeks used to do some things very good, very accomplished, and one of the things they were very good at was philosophy. And Aristotle famously defined the goal of every human being as that of acquiring two kinds of knowledge. The first kind of knowledge, he defined, as techne, that’s where we get our word technical from, and that’s all the sort of things that make an economy work, in his day it was shipbuilding, silver mining, you know, archery that sort of thing.
And the other form of knowledge that he believed, we very much, all of us need is what he termed sophia or wisdom, and that’s of course where we get the word philosophy from — philo, love, sophia, wisdom. He believed that all of us need to spend a considerable part of our lives in the pursuit of sophia, and through pursuing wisdom, we will reach a stage of what he called eudaimonia, another complicated Greek word that is often translated as fulfillment. We could translate it as happiness but it’s a deeper form of satisfaction. It’s a way of fully exploiting everything that makes us distinctively human. It’s a form of happiness in line with our rational natures and eudaimonia is achieved through self-knowledge Aristotle tells us, and it’s connected up with knowing who to be friends with, knowing what your purpose in life should be, being part of a community to which you’re properly contributing, and other sorts of ingredients like that. So a very important part of the meaning of life at the beginning of the Western journey — the Western experience, the meaning of life is the pursuit of wisdom. We might also nowadays call it the pursuit of the psychological, the psyche of course another Greek word, the interior, the soul the bit of us that is most closely connected up with our emotions and our rational natures.
Now I want to argue that oddly, despite our accomplishments in so many areas, we’ve become very bad at the sophia bit of the economy and our human pursuits. A lot of the blame has to do with religion because when Christianity descends upon Europe, it sucks up all the interest in the soul, the very word soul starts to become a religious word, and the whole study of the psyche gets imported into religion. And it’s not really until the middle of the 19th century that suddenly people start to reconsider the psychological, and concepts like wisdom apart from a religious structure. So we’re still very much in the early days of knowing how to think about ourselves and our interior lives without the particular cast that Christianity gave to the Western mind’s exploration of its own processes.
Part of the really big problem, part of the reason why we’re not so good at wisdom, we’re not so good at the psychological, is this movement that also strikes Western Europe in the 19th century known as Romanticism. And romanticism’s number one concern is the worship of what we would call instinct. Now if there’s anybody in the room who’s made an unfortunate marriage, anyone who’s unhappily married, picked the wrong person to marry? Put up your hand, we’ll talk about it. Okay, yes thank you very much.
Anyone here who’s fallen into the wrong job, who feels they’ve just fallen in love, as it were, with the wrong job? Okay, we’ll come back with that later. But the reason I mention these two things is because love and work are the two constituents of contemporary happiness, also ancient Greek happiness, but they’re also the two things that we imagine we can get right simply by instinct. It would be considered very rude to stop anyone and say, ‘Why are you getting married to that person?’ or, ‘Why are you going for that job?’ We believe that people’s best chances of finding fulfilment comes from not thinking too hard about why they’re doing it. We worship instinct and impulse in the two areas where they actually have catastrophic results, which is in relationships and in the pursuit of our talents and our exploitation of our talents within the workplace. So romanticism has a lot to blame.
So what I’m trying to create for you is a picture of how at the dawn of Western civilization we have this tremendously exciting mission. We can learn to be happy by understanding the mind, the psychological part of our minds. We can pursue wisdom and that should be the highest goal of human beings. That disappears for a long time and we are left with this romanticization of instinct.
Now, let me come to the modern world of business. A lot of the reason why business is incredibly unpopular and has come under a lot of suspicion despite the recent conservative government win, the crisis of capitalism is not over. A lot of the suspicion, a lot of the reason why businesses routinely become under suspicion, is because they stand accused of selling us bullshit. In other words, they stand accused of not selling people the things that they really need in order to have a good life. So the phenomenon we know as consumerism is attacked for generating vain desires, exciting passions in people which the products that are associated and that are being sold, cannot properly deliver on, and that’s a major underlying — there are other underlying complaints around capitalism, including exploitation, environmentalism etc. But if you want to look as it were at the core intellectual complaint it is that we are not buying and selling those things which actually lead to a flourishing life. That if Aristotle walked into the marketplace as it were, he would not see us spending our energies, devoting our energies to those things that really could stand a chance of delivering on happiness.
These issues have a horrible habit of coming to the fore, I’m sorry if there are people here in the world of advertising but let’s go for it. These issues have a horrible habit of coming to the fore around advertising. Think of the concept of brand, much revered within the industry, much maligned outside of the industry. What a brand promise is often pegged to are all those things, those higher needs, that are associated with wisdom, with flourishing with the good life, but the actual product that is often being sold is very far removed from the actual promises which are being engaged in order to sell you that product. Let me give you a more concrete example.
Remember that famous Campari advert of years ago? It would show, it really struck me, this was my teenage years, Campari were running a massive campaign which would show people hugging, holding hands, hanging out with groups of friendly looking people in beautiful locations and the tagline was always the same, ‘Campari and friends’, and it was a lovely idea. The problem is, and the reason why people hate consumerism, is that you will end up buying a crate of Campari get it delivered to your flat, sit alone at home and you wouldn’t have any friends, and the purchase of those drinks would not in any way have advanced the cause that was really motivating you when you were buying that, which is the pursuit of friendship, which Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics devotes an entire chapter to, as one of the root pillars on which happiness rests. In other words, Campari was exciting, was scratching a desire for something, and it was then not delivering on it, and that’s why people sometimes get angry.
Remember that advert for Dove soap? There was always a woman lying in a bath looking extremely relaxed and the tagline was something like, ‘The road to calm starts here’. Again you buy a crate of Dove soap, get it delivered to your house but actually you’re still wracked with anxiety, you’ve still married the wrong person, you’re still in the wrong job, the bar of soap is lying unused next to the bath, and you haven’t made any progress with one of the major problems of existence, but the soap has been exploiting this. And you know, think of those lovely adverts by Patek Philippe which always show a father and his son and they’re hugging and it’s so poignant and so moving but it’s got nothing to do with buying a $30,000 timepiece, but the problem is that you might, because of the power and the intelligence, the psychological intelligence, of that advert, be led to buy an unnecessary timepiece, and this is why people don’t like capitalism. Okay, because capitalism too often stands accused of sucking out the best energies of workers and consumers in the name of things which do not deliver on the ultimate promise which is what we might in ordinary language call customer satisfaction and in fancy philosophical language called eudaimonia. It does not deliver on this.
Now, I want to paint a much more exciting future. I believe we’re going to get the hang of this. Currently, capitalism, if you think back to Abraham Maslow’s famous pyramid of needs, I know it’s been mentioned a few times, but most of the economy is down at the bottom of that pyramid, right, most of the way in which fortunes are built up is through trading, through buying and selling things which are at the bottom of that pyramid. So it’s food, it’s shelter, it’s transport, it’s communication, not psychological communication, I mean Apple, it does wonderful things in the world of communication, it doesn’t help you actually to have a proper conversation with another human being, it merely facilitates the act the promise of conversation. So a lot of what the world’s largest companies are doing is still remarkably at the bottom of the pyramid. It’s my belief that over the course of this century we’re going to move up that pyramid and the great fortunes are going start to be made up that pyramid where there are those things that Aristotle was talking about, the longing for friendship, for connection, for proper understanding of oneself for wisdom, if you like. These things are going to be the sources of the great fortunes of the future.
Yes, we’ve made money from lumber, and cement and selling Coca-Cola, and that’s got capitalism into lots of trouble. It’s been accused of selling us nonsense, that’s going to change. Some of these ideas crystallized for me a few months ago when I was sitting in my ivory tower looking unperturbed at the landscape below me, when the phone rang and a man was there called Brian Chesky, I’ve never heard of him, and Brian said, ‘I run a company called Airbnb.’ I’d never heard of it, I had heard of it but I’d never stayed in it, I was very suspicious of it, because I’ve got a terrible phobia around germs, and anyway he says to me, ‘I’m having a crisis and I think you can help me. I’d like you to come to San Francisco next Thursday.’
I said, ‘I’m really sorry, I’ve got, you know, my kids to pick up etc.’
He said, ‘I’m just going to make it worth it, come to San Francisco,’ so he made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I flew to San Francisco. It was a fantastic 24 hours in which we had a philosophical conversation and Brian said to me, ‘I’ve realized that I’m not in the business of selling rooms to other customers. I’m not in the business of trading apartments. I thought that was what I was doing, I thought that was my mission, but I’ve now realized I’m in a completely different business, and that business is happy travel, that’s really what I’m after. I realize that my true mission in life is to deliver on the underlying promise of travel, which is that travel is going to go well. Not just that you’re just going to find a cheap room or a nice apartment but that everything about the journey is going to go well.’
Now this is a classic move to which Aristotle can be credited, because really what’s happening there is that someone, a CEO of one of our major corporations in the world today, is climbing up the pyramid of needs towards the psychological, towards the pursuit of wisdom and a deeper satisfaction associated with that word eudaimonia, because when we travel right, yes, a lot of travel is about finding the right room at the right price etc., but the underlying promise of travel is much deeper, it is that we will be satisfied through journeying abroad, and the reason why Brian was in such crisis about what he was doing with his life, is that he had strapped miniature cameras to a range of customers, and he wanted to study, he did a project in which he was trying to study what people actually get out of their journeys, and the extraordinary thing, or not so extraordinary thing, is that he discovered that up to 75% of people are disappointed by their journeys. Not that the room wasn’t nice, not that the breakfast wasn’t nice, but the deeper promises of travel. So he’s been stripping down what the deeper promises of travel are. One of them is that our relationships will go better when we travel with someone, so we travel in order to revive our relationships, major motive of travel.
Another major motive of travel is that we’re going to travel and connect with another culture. Okay, another thing is that we’re going to travel and we’re going to sort out our heads, about our careers and our futures, that travel will give us that all important thing, perspective. Okay, now if you actually analyze how an average journey delivers on that, on these higher promises, it’s pathetic. Most couples who go abroad the things that bring a couple down are not going to be solved by a luxury soap, or by a scented candle, or by a more attractive view over the skyline of Rome. This does not solve the problems of relationships because that’s not where the problems of relationships arose from. Ditto with the problems of career and also, we can’t connect properly with people when we travel, so we end up going to museums, you know a journey’s gone wrong when you’re ending up in a museum because it’s not really tapping into what you really wanted which was a proper connection.
Anyway, Brian looks at all of this and says, ‘I want to go into these areas, that’s what I want my company to be doing on a 15-year time horizon. I want to be making my money not just from delivering people rooms, but from solving some of their higher order psychological needs.’ So what he was doing, and I think this is a fascinating move, is he was reframing what Airbnb was. So the ordinary common garden definition of what Airbnb is, which is a platform to exchange properties. Okay that’s the simple thing, but if you want to describe it in a Aristotelian way, if you want to tease out what you might call the eudaimonic promise of Airbnb, it is to deliver satisfaction in travel to make you happy while you travel. And when you recast the mission of a company that way, you instantly find and there are about 25 new things you need to go into right now, it totally reorders what the company is about, and oddly we had this fascinating conversation and then he said, ‘You should go and talk to my friend Reid Hoffman over at LinkedIn, he’s one of our own investors, go and talk to him. ‘Anyway, went to talk to him, interestingly Reid had done his MA thesis on Aristotle, so we had lots to talk about, we talked about Aristotle, the disappearance of the psychological in the economy and we had a fascinating dinner in which we talked about what LinkedIn really is.
Now, again, the common and garden definition of what LinkedIn is, is a platform which allows employers and employees to trade their CVs. Okay, but if you step back and take an Aristotelian eudaimonic redefinition of the company, it is much, much deeper. What it really is, is a tool that will enable every worker to tease out of themselves, their latent capacities and connect these capacities to the modern economy which is a huge and very different mission. It’s connected but it’s a much bigger mission, and once you define your mission like this, well there are again 25 things you need to start doing, including you need to start to understand who everybody on the platform really is. You need to get very psychological about who’s using the platform. You need to get to know people better, you know, one of the great tragedies of the modern world is career counseling. Okay, we don’t properly enough understand how human beings work, and therefore people routinely get put into the wrong jobs and their talents are not properly exploited because the psychological has not been properly studied and connected up with the economy.
Once you start to see that something like LinkedIn could be in the business of properly connecting up people’s latent capacities with the economy, well you need to do all sorts of things. You need to get involved in artificial intelligence, come back to that in a minute. You need to start getting involved in properly training people which is precisely what LinkedIn has recently done, and a whole host of other things. What I’m trying to help you to see is how you can re-categorize a business, and the new things that emerge when you do that. You could do this experiment, this sort of Aristotelean experiment with anything.
Let’s imagine that I were to meet the head of a news channel, and I said to the head of the news channel, ‘Okay, what are you doing?’ you know, ‘What’s the purpose of your news channel?’ They’d say, you know, come out with a normal clichéd answer like, ‘I’m trying to get the most important information really quickly without bias, you know, from around the world, etc.’
Okay, let’s step back and re-categorize what Aristotle would say the news is for. The news is really for equipping each individual with that information which is most important to their flourishing and the flourishing of their community. Now if you redefine the mission of news like this, you will be starting to do lots of things differently. Okay, so if you go up to a banker and you say, “What’s your bank or wealth management firm for?” They’d say, “Well, we’re trying to grow, you know, we’d like to get above 10% per annum, we’re doing well etc.,” and you say, “No, Aristotle would say you’re really in the business – the eudainomic promise of your business is to teach people to live well around money and if that’s the purpose of your business, the true psychological purpose of the business, yes you’ll be trying to grow the portfolio but you may be trying to do a whole host of other things besides.”
So what I’m saying is we’re going to start to see companies go headlong into questions which were previously abandoned as either too difficult or left as the preserve of the odd philosopher, but not properly monetized, or institutionalized or put on an industrial footing which is after all what modern capitalism does so well. And we’re partly going to be able to do this because technology will enable us to create businesses around needs which were previously outside of the capitalist enterprise. Think of Facebook. Facebook is the first billion dollar plus company that is really latching on to a psychological need to solve loneliness. Right, it’s an attempt to take that thing which Aristotle wrote very eloquently about, the need for connection with others, and it’s building a platform around that.
Sometimes people say, “Well, capitalism is coming to an end because we’ve got everything. We’ve got enough fridges, we’ve got enough cars, so it’s all a waste.” This is the left-wing green argument. People who believe in capitalism need to fight back by saying “We’re only at the dawn of capitalism because we’ve only begun to scratch at the true needs of human beings, the true psychological needs that are at the top of that pyramid”. And this is going to be the task of the 21st century, to monetize those higher needs.
Now you might say, “How do I know? Where are those higher needs?” Very simple thought experiment, take an average day and think about everything that has frustrated or made you unhappy in an average day. Write down what those things might be and also note where things are not frustrating. So I get up in the morning, I go down to the kitchen and I’m thinking, ‘Okay, I’m a little hungry,’ so I’ve got a need for hunger, and I open the cupboard and fortunately there are eighteen packets of cereal there, and I’ve got absolutely, a modern industry has satisfied the need for breakfast cereal just beautifully, there is almost nothing more that one can do in the area of breakfast cereal. But then my wife comes to the room and we have a little tetchy exchange. She’s a little off and she goes, ‘Mmm,’ when I say I’m a little anxious but anyway, of one of those tetchy exchanges which some of you, particularly the man over there who put his hand up with the unhappy marriage will know about. So-, but the problem is where do I call? Kellogg’s, no assistance, Weetabix no assistance. Right, there is nothing in that area because the closest thing that modern humanity has developed to deal with tetchiness in the kitchen around our psychological needs is psychotherapy, which is run by five Hungarian psychoanalysts in Hampstead and it’s not really on an industrial footing yet. It will be.
So curiously, and you run right through the day, and we lose our keys, we get frustrated, we feel lost, we feel in the wrong job, we feel a little hungry for lunch etc. and at every step, large and small, sometimes the need is very well catered to, and at other times the need for direction, the need for calm, the need for psychological orientation, the need for better relationships, this is a desert. So if anyone is looking to start a business, there’s mass opportunities in these areas because these lie outside the purview of modern capitalism.
To come back to Demis and his fantastic inventions with AI, we’re of course going to move towards not just AI in the robotic frightening sense that people get very het up about, but we’re going to end up with AEI, what I call AEI which is artificial, emotional intelligence, which is the promise of Aristotle. Part of the reason why we’ve been so bad in the psychological area is that it’s extremely hard to know ourselves, and let’s remember the temple of Delphi in ancient Greece, written over the temple of Delphi was Know yourself. Only by knowing ourselves, our needs, understanding our passions will we properly know ourselves.
Knowing yourself is a nightmare, it’s a real pain, it’s very hard to do, it’s getting a lot easier by the day with the help of computer technology. So a huge promise and already, you know, why does Facebook exist? Partly it’s a psychological need meeting a technological platform, we’re going to see a whole lot more of that. So the future is bright because the future is going to be based on fulfilling the true promise of capitalism which is the satisfaction of the consumer, no longer at that Campari level where it’s just a promise which isn’t properly delivered on. We won’t any more have brands that are over here in that beautiful space of fulfilment and love and tenderness, and then the products over there that’s just selling us soap and watches. We’re going to have actually the marriage of the brand and the promise and part of what’s going to enable us to do this is the proper and adequate marriage of ancient Greek philosophy and modern technology.
Thank you very much.