Is success really earned? And if so, do we assume failure is deserved?
In this humorous talk Alain de Botton dissects our idea of success and explains why we’re not jealous of the Queen!
Modern society is more equal than ever. We may be as unlikely to end up the next Bill Gates as a peasant would have been to rise to the French aristocracy in the 17th century, yet we believe we should be able to. The first question asked at many a dinner party remains,’So what do you do?’ Expectations and hope for our careers and lives are at an all time high. Magazines and books describe how we can ‘have it all.’ It may be easier than ever before to make a good living. The ability to rise to where we please is a beautiful thing; or is it?
It turns out that this spirit of equality is closely linked with envy. Ask most people in the world if they’re jealous of the Queen of England and they’re likely to answer in the negative. She lives in a huge house, has this life of endless boring engagements and an odd family. In short, we can’t identify with anything she does. But imagine you went to school with the President of America? Would you feel inadequate, knowing you once beat Barrack Obama in a spelling competition and now you earn ten times less than him? Apparently many of us would. In every self-help section there are dozens of titles on dealing with low self esteem. While there is a high value put on success, the consequences of failure can be crushing, and this has a detrimental effect on our self worth.
Modern society has a lot to answer for. We have nothing at our epicentre that is non-human; most people in developed countries worship human achievement far more than any Gods or idols. Our heroes are human heroes. In
Ancient Greek theatre, the tragic plays examined why people failed and afforded them a level of sympathy they may not have received otherwise. At the other end of the spectrum, today we have the tabloid newspaper, specially designed to highlight failures on a daily basis. In the middle ages, a pauper was described as unfortunate; in modern America, somebody at the lower end of society can be described as a ‘loser.’ It’s probably not surprising that rates of suicide are higher in developed countries than anywhere else in the world.
The unfortunate truth is that we often don’t make our own decisions about what constitutes success. Instead, our impression of a successful life is influenced by media, advertising, our parents, friends, colleagues. De Botton re-iterates that we can’t have it all. Chasing the perfect career is great, but theres always a trade-off. So let’s probe away at our notions of success and make sure our ideas are really our own.