Alain de Botton on success and anxiety

Thinking more deeply, or at least differently, about success seems to have become a genre. Malcolm Gladwell has done it, I am doing it right now in the manuscript which I am rewriting, and now Alain de Botton, another young author, is doing it in this TED talk below.

His key points:

  • we live in an age of anxiety.
  • the problem is our egalitarianism. We no longer believe that people who are worse off are “unfortunates” (the old term). Instead, they are now “losers”. It is their fault.
  • So we fear failure more than ever, because it is our fault. This is the flip side of meritocracy, which we consider a good thing, but which is really a tyranny of expectations.
  • The dominant emotion in this age of equality/anxiety is envy. We envy everybody who does better.
  • With it comes fear: the fear of the judgment of others. If we have a boring job, others will look down on us and we will feel bad.

I think he underestimates the anxiety that previous generations had, but he does have a point.

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5 thoughts on “Alain de Botton on success and anxiety

    • Ah yes, I remember your comment, Richard NZ.

      It made me wonder about a tangential point (since I happen to be polishing my own book manuscript right now): If a book can be summarized in a 15 minute video, is there any point to reading the whole thing?

      I like his insights, but I sort of feel that I can save myself the trouble of getting the book now.

  1. All the more reason to remember these words from “The Great Gatsby”:

    Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.

    And to remember these words whenever you see an “unfortunate” on the street:

    There but for the Grace of God go I.

    And this from Shakespeare’s Henry lV (Part 2):

    Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

    Here’s something else:

    From shirtsleaves to shirtsleaves in three generations.

  2. «The dominant emotion in this age of equality/anxiety is envy. We envy everybody who does better.»

    No, it is not envy — it is spite. Winners hate and despise the losers who are regarded as worthless ballast, moochers and looters who are just out to parasitically exploit their superiors. That it is spite is pretty obvious from the use of the very term “loser”, which is derogative:

    «people who are worse off are “unfortunates” (the old term). Instead, they are now “losers”.»

    Even “aspirational” winners (the 60% of Usians who think that they will become rich and enter the top 10%) have only spite for losers, and even losers do (self-hating losers).

    Not that this anything new — the noble and/or learned classes of England had the same spite (and hatred) of their losers, the Irish,
    as this collection amply proves, where many British voices rejoiced that what they saw as despicable beasts were being eliminated by a providential famine:

    «In October, 1846, Trevelyan wrote that the overpopulation of Ireland “being altogether beyond the power of man, the cure has been applied by the direct stroke of an all-wise Providence in a manner as unexpected and as unthought of as it is likely to be effectual.” Two years later after perhaps a million people had died, he wrote, “The matter is awfully serious, but we are in the hands of Providence, without a possibility of averting the catastrophe if it is to happen. We can only wait the result.” Later that year Trevelyan declared: “The great evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.” (36.) In 1848 Trevelyan was knighted for his services in Ireland.»

    «The lead story in the August 30th, 1847 edition of the English newspaper, the Times said, “In no other country have men talked treason until they are hoarse, and then gone about begging for sympathy from their oppressors. In no other country have the people been so liberally and unthriftily helped by the nation they denounced and defied.” (37.)
    In another edition: “They are going. They are going with a vengeance. Soon a Celt will be as rare in Ireland as a Red Indian on the streets of Manhattan… Law has ridden through, it has been taught with bayonets, and interpreted with ruin. Townships levelled to the ground, straggling columns of exiles, workhouses multiplied, and still crowded, express the determination of the Legislature to rescue Ireland from its slovenly old barbarism, and to plant there the institutions of this more civilized land.”

    «James Wilson, the Editor of the British publication, The Economist, responded to Irish pleas for assistance during the famine by saying, “It is no man’s business to provide for another.” He thought it was wrong for officials to reallocate scarce resources, since “If left to the natural law of distribution, those who deserve more would obtain it.”»

    The illustrations are also very clear and modern: the depiction of the Irish people as degenerate, exploitative parasites seems to illustrate the many arguments on how privileged minorities are suckering taxes from the hardworking middle classes that struggle to get to the end of the month on $250k/y:
    «“The workingman’s burden” shows a gleeful Irish peasant carrying his Famine relief money while riding on the back of an exhausted English laborer.»

    The more things change, the more they stay the same (and did Ayn Rand pay tribute to James Wilson?).

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