A few insights to chew on in this TED talk from Alain de Botton on why we might be feeling more and more anxiety about our careers and our standing in the world.

He talks about how we think about success and failure, about envy, the dark side of meritocracy, and how tragedies such as Hamlet can teach us the difference between loss and being a loser.

I enjoyed this because there’s some crossover with ideas on innovation and how it occurs, which I’m reading a fair bit about at the moment – particularly in how we see success and failure in relation to our ideas, work, and willingness to take risks.

I’ve transcribed some excerpts below but recommend taking 15 minutes out of your day to listen.

The following are transcribed excerpts from this TED talk video by Alain de Botton:

On equality and envy

“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 and we are now in a system where anyone can rise to any position they please. And it’s a beautiful idea.

“Along with that has come a spirit of equality. We’re all basically equal. There are no strictly defined hierarchies.

“There’s one really big problem with this and that problem is envy.

“It’s a real taboo to mention envy, but if there is 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 to be envious of the Queen of England. Even though she’s much richer than any of you are and has a very large house. The reason why we don’t envy her is because she’s too weird. We can’t relate to her, she speaks in a funny way, she comes from an odd place. 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 is a danger of envy.”

We’re all the same, except we’re not

“The problem generally of modern society is that 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 inequalities which can make 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 enough energy, a few bright ideas about technology, a garage, you too can make a major thing.

(Ed’s note – see Rowan Simpson’s take on ‘The Mythical Startup‘ on Idealog.)

“The consequences of this problem makes themselves felt in book shops… If you analyse self-help books there are basically two kinds. The first kind tells you: you can do it, you can make it, anything’s possible. The other kind tell you how to cope with what we politely call low self-esteem.

“There’s a real correlation between a society that tells people that they can do anything and the existence of low self-esteem.”

The dark side of meritocracy

“There’s another reason why we might be feeling more anxious about our careers, about our status in the world than ever before. And again it’s linked to something nice. And that nice thing is called meritocracy.

“Everybody, all politicians on left and right agree that meritocracy is a great thing and we should all be trying to make our societies really really meritocratic.

“What is a meritocractic society? A meritocratic society is one in which if you’ve got talent, and energy and skill, you’ll get to the top. Nothing should hold you back. It’s a beautiful idea.

“The problem is, if you really believe in a society where those who merit to get to the top, get to the top, you also by implication … believe in a society where those who deserve to get to the bottom, get to the bottom and stay there.

“In other words your position in life comes to seem not accidental but merited and deserved. And that makes failure seem much more crushing.”

From ‘unfortunate’ to ‘loser’: 400 years of societal evolution

“In the Middle Ages in England, when you met a very poor person, that person would be described as unfortunate. Literally someone who had not been blessed by fortune.

“Nowadays, particularly in the United States, if you meet someone at the bottom of society they may unkindly be described as a loser. There’s a real difference between an unfortunate and a loser. And that shows 400 years of evolution in society and our belief in who is reponsible for our lives. It’s no longer the gods. It’s us. We’re in the driving seat.

“That’s exhilarating if you’re doing well, and very crushing if you’re not. It leads, in the worst cases, in the analysis of sociologists… it leads to increased rates of suicide. There are more suicides in developed, individualist countries than in any other part of the world. One of the reasons for that is that people take what happens to them extremely personally. They own their success but they also own their failure.”

The number one organ of ridicule nowadays is the newspaper

“One of the reasons why we fear failing is not just the loss of income, the loss of status; what we fear is the judgement and ridicule of others. And it exists.

“The number one organ of ridicule nowadays is the newspaper. If you open the newspaper on any day of the week it’s full of people who’ve messed up their lives. They’ve slept with the wrong person, they’ve taken the wrong substance, they’ve passed the wrong piece of legislation – whatever it is – and they’re now fit for ridicule. In other words they have failed and they are described as losers.

“Is there any alternative to this? I think the Western tradition show us one glorious alternative and that is tragedy.

“Tragic art as it developed in the theatres of ancient Greece… was essentially an art form devoted to tracing how people fail and also according them a level of sympathy which ordinary life would not necessarily accord them.

“I remember a few years ago I was thinking about all this and I went to see the Sunday Sport [tabloid newspaper] … about certain of the great tragedies of Western art. I wanted to see how they would seize the bare bones of certain stories if they came in as a news item at the news desk on a Saturday afteroon.

“So I told them about Othello… and I asked them to write a headline for the story of Othello. They came up with: ‘Love crazed immigrant kills senator’s daughter’

“I gave them the plotline of Madame Bovary… and they wrote: ‘Shopaholic adulterer swallows arsenic after credit fraud’

“And then my favourite. Sophocles’ Oedipus the King:  ‘Sex with mum was blinding’

“If you like, at one end of the spectrum of sympathy you’ve got the tabloid newspaper and at the other you’ve got tragedy and tragic art and I suppose I’m arguing we should learn a little bit about what’s happening in tragic art. It would be insane to call Hamlet a loser. He is not a loser, though he has lost.”

Success and failure

“Here’s some insight I’ve had about success: You can’t be successful at everything. We hear a lot of talk about work-life balance. Nonsense. You can’t have it all. You can’t.

“Any vision of success has to admit what it’s losing out on, where the element of loss is.

“Any wise life will accept that there is going to be an element where we’re not succeeding.

“A lot of the time our ideas of what it would mean to live successfully are not our own. They’re sucked in from other people.  Chiefly, if you’re a man, your father; if you’re a woman, your mother…  We also suck in messages from everything from the television to advertising, to marketing etc. These are hugely powerful forces that define what we want and how we view ourselves.

“What I want to argue for is not that we should give up on our ideas of success, but that we should make sure that they are our own. We should focus in on our ideas and make sure that we own them, that we are truly the authors of our own ambitions. Because it’s bad enough not getting what you want, but it’s even worse to have an idea of what it is you want and find out at the end of the journey that it isn’t, in fact, what you wanted all along.”

– Alain de Botton.  http://alaindebotton.com/