Alain de Botton, author of The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work examines our ideas of success and failure — and questions the assumptions underlying these two judgments. Is success always earned? Is failure? He makes an eloquent, witty case to move beyond snobbery to find true pleasure in our work.
Some of the reasons why we might be feeling anxiety about our careers
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.
1) We are surrounded by snobs.
There’s a real problem with snobbery, because sometimes people from outside the U.K. imagine that snobbery is a distinctively U.K. 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.
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?” According to how you answer that question, people are either incredibly delighted to see you, or look at their watch and make their excuses.
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.
2) 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.
There is one really big problem with this, and that problem is envy. 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 of modern society is it turns the whole world into a school.
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. In other words — what is a meritocratic society? A meritocratic society is one in which, if you’ve got talent and energy and skill, you will 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’ll also, by implication, and in a far more nasty way,believe in a society where those who deserve to get to the bottom also 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.
Is there any relief from some of these pressures that I’ve been outlining?
Let’s take meritocracy. The idea that we will make a society where literally everybody is graded, the good at the top, bad at the bottom, exactly done as it should be, is impossible. There are simply too many random factors:accidents, accidents of birth, accidents of things dropping on people’s heads, illnesses, etc. We will never get to grade them, never get to grade people as they should.
When we think about failing in life, when we think about failure, one of the reasons why we fear failing is not just a loss of income, a loss of status. What we fear is the judgment and ridicule of others. And it exists.
What’s success, then?
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. So any vision of success has to admit what it’s losing out on, where the element of loss is. And I think any wise life will accept, as I say, that there is going to be an element where we’re not succeeding.
And 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. When we’re told that banking is a very respectable profession, a lot of us want to go into banking. When banking is no longer so respectable, we lose interest in banking. We are highly open to suggestion.
What I want to argue for is not that we should give up on our ideas of success, but we should make sure that they are our own. 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.