a kinder philosophy of success

Mood- Me Waheeda in bed on a Monday morning, mentally preparing for the fresh hell that is the start of every workweek and also choking back the urge to throw up

For me they normally happen, these career crises, often, actually, on a Sunday evening, just as the sun is starting to set, and the gap between my hopes for myself and the reality of my life starts to diverge so painfully that I normally end up weeping into a pillow. I’m mentioning all this because I think this is not merely a personal problem; you may think I’m wrong in this, but I think 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. 

It’s perhaps easier now than ever before to make a good living. It’s perhaps harder than ever before to stay calm, to be free of career anxiety. I want to look now, if I may, at some of the reasons why we might be feeling anxiety about our careers. Why we might be victims of these career crises, as we’re weeping softly into our pillows. One of the reasons why we might be suffering is that we are surrounded by snobs… 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. 

Here’s an insight that 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. 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 the thing about a successful life is that a lot of the time, our ideas of what it would mean to live successfully are not our own… 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. 

So 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. 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, excerpts from A Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success


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