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Annotated captions of Alain de Botton: A kinder, gentler philosophy of success in English

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For me they normally happen, these career crises,

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often, actually, on a Sunday evening,

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just as the sun is starting to set,

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and the gap between my hopes for myself,

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and the reality of my life, start to diverge so painfully

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that I normally end up weeping into a pillow.

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I'm mentioning all this,

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I'm mentioning all this because I think this is not merely a personal problem.

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You may think I'm wrong in this,

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but I think that we live in an age when our lives are regularly

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punctuated by career crises,

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by moments when what we thought we knew,

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about our lives, about our careers,

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comes into contact with a threatening sort of reality.

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It's perhaps easier now than ever before to make a good living.

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It's perhaps harder than ever before

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to stay calm, to be free of career anxiety.

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I want to look now, if I may,

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at some of the reasons why

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we might be feeling anxiety about our careers.

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Why we might be victims of these career crises,

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as we're weeping softly into our pillows.

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One of the reasons why we might be suffering

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is that we are surrounded by snobs.

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In a way, I've got some bad news,

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particularly to anybody who's come to Oxford from abroad.

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There is a real problem with snobbery.

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Because sometimes people from outside the U.K.

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imagine that snobbery is a distinctively U.K. phenomenon

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fixated on country houses and titles.

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The bad news is that's not true.

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Snobbery is a global phenomenon.

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We are a global organization. This is a global phenomenon.

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It exists. What is a snob?

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A snob is anybody who takes a small part of you

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and uses that to come to a complete vision of who you are.

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That is snobbery.

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The dominant kind of snobbery

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that exists nowadays is job snobbery.

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You encounter it within minutes at a party,

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when you get asked that famous iconic question

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of the early 21st century, "What do you do?"

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And according to how you answer that question,

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people are either incredibly delighted to see you,

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or look at their watch and make their excuses.

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(Laughter)

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Now, the opposite of a snob is your mother.

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(Laughter)

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Not necessarily your mother, or indeed mine,

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but, as it were, the ideal mother,

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somebody who doesn't care about your achievements.

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But unfortunately, most people are not our mothers.

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Most people make a strict correlation between how much time,

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and if you like, love -- not romantic love,

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though that may be something --

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but love in general, respect,

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they are willing to accord us, that will be strictly defined

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by our position in the social hierarchy.

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And that's a lot of the reason why we care so much about our careers

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and indeed start caring so much about material goods.

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You know, we're often told that we live in very materialistic times,

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that we're all greedy people.

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I don't think we are particularly materialistic.

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I think we live in a society

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which has simply pegged certain emotional rewards

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to the acquisition of material goods.

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It's not the material goods we want. It's the rewards we want.

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And that's a new way of looking at luxury goods.

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The next time you see somebody driving a Ferrari

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don't think, "This is somebody who is greedy."

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Think, "This is somebody who is incredibly vulnerable and in need of love."

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In other words -- (Laughter)

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feel sympathy, rather than contempt.

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There are other reasons --

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(Laughter)

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there are other reasons why it's perhaps harder now

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to feel calm than ever before.

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One of these, and it's paradoxical because it's linked to something that's rather nice,

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is the hope we all have for our careers.

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Never before have expectations been so high

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about what human beings can achieve with their lifespan.

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We're told, from many sources, that anyone can achieve anything.

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We've done away with the caste system.

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We are now in a system where anyone can rise

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to any position they please.

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And it's a beautiful idea.

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Along with that is a kind of spirit of equality. We're all basically equal.

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There are no strictly defined

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kind of hierarchies.

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There is one really big problem with this,

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and that problem is envy.

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Envy, it's a real taboo to mention envy,

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but if there is one dominant emotion in modern society, that is envy.

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And it's linked to the spirit of equality. Let me explain.

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I think it would be very unusual for anyone here, or anyone watching,

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to be envious of the Queen of England.

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Even though she is much richer than any of you are.

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And she's got a very large house.

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The reason why we don't envy her is because she's too weird.

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She's simply too strange.

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We can't relate to her. She speaks in a funny way.

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She comes from an odd place.

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So we can't relate to her. And when you can't relate to somebody, you don't envy them.

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The closer two people are, in age, in background,

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in the process of identification, the more there is a danger of envy --

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which is incidentally why none of you should ever go to a school reunion --

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because there is no stronger reference point

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than people one was at school with.

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But the problem, generally, of modern society, is that it turns the whole world

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into a school. Everybody is wearing jeans, everybody is the same.

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And yet, they're not.

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So there is a spirit of equality, combined with deep inequalities.

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Which makes for a very -- can make for a very stressful situation.

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It's probably as unlikely that you would nowadays

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become as rich and famous as Bill Gates,

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as it was unlikely in the 17th century

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that you would accede to the ranks of the French aristocracy.

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But the point is, it doesn't feel that way.

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It's made to feel, by magazines and other media outlets,

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that if you've got energy, a few bright ideas about technology,

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a garage, you too could start a major thing.

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(Laughter)

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And the consequences of this problem make themselves felt in bookshops.

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When you go to a large bookshop and look at the self-help sections,

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as I sometimes do,

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if you analyze self-help books that are produced

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in the world today, there are basically two kinds.

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The first kind tells you, "You can do it! You can make it! Anything is possible!"

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And the other kind tells you how to cope

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with what we politely call "low self-esteem,"

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or impolitely call "feeling very bad about yourself."

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There is a real correlationship,

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a real correlation between a society that tells people that they can do anything

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and the existence of low self-esteem.

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So that's another way in which something that is quite positive

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can have a nasty kickback.

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There is another reason why we might be feeling more anxious,

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about our careers, about our status in the world today, than ever before.

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And it is, again, linked to something nice,

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and that nice thing is called meritocracy.

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Everybody, all politicians on Left and Right,

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agree that meritocracy is a great thing,

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and we should all be trying to make our societies really, really meritocratic.

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In other words, what is a meritocratic society?

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A meritocratic society is one in which

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if you've got talent and energy and skill,

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you will get to the top. Nothing should hold you back.

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It's a beautiful idea. The problem is

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if you really believe in a society

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where those who merit to get to the top, get to the top,

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you'll also, by implication, and in a far more nasty way,

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believe in a society where those who deserve to get to the bottom

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also get to the bottom and stay there.

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In other words, your position in life comes to seem not accidental,

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but merited and deserved.

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And that makes failure seem much more crushing.

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You know, in the Middle Ages, in England,

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when you met a very poor person,

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that person would be described as an "unfortunate" --

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literally, somebody who had not been blessed by fortune, an unfortunate.

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Nowadays, particularly in the United States,

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if you meet someone at the bottom of society,

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they may unkindly be described as a "loser."

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There is a real difference between an unfortunate and a loser,

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and that shows 400 years of evolution in society

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and our belief in who is responsible for our lives.

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It's no longer the gods, it's us. We're in the driving seat.

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That's exhilarating if you're doing well,

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and very crushing if you're not.

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It leads, in the worst cases, in the analysis of a sociologist

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like Emil Durkheim, it leads to increased rates of suicide.

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There are more suicides in developed individualistic countries

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than in any other part of the world.

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And some of the reason for that is that people take what happens

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to them extremely personally.

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They own their success. But they also own their failure.

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Is there any relief from some of these pressures

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that I've just been outlining?

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I think there is. I just want to turn to a few of them.

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Let's take meritocracy.

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This idea that everybody deserves to get where they get to,

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I think it's a crazy idea, completely crazy.

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I will support any politician of Left and Right,

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with any halfway decent meritocratic idea.

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I am a meritocrat in that sense.

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But I think it's insane to believe that we will ever

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make a society that is genuinely meritocratic. It's an impossible dream.

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The idea that we will make a society

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where literally everybody is graded,

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the good at the top, and the bad at the bottom,

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and it's exactly done as it should be, is impossible.

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There are simply too many random factors:

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accidents, accidents of birth,

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accidents of things dropping on people's heads, illnesses, etc.

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We will never get to grade them,

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never get to grade people as they should.

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I'm drawn to a lovely quote by St. Augustine in "The City of God,"

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where he says, "It's a sin to judge any man by his post."

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In modern English that would mean

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it's a sin to come to any view of who you should talk to

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dependent on their business card.

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It's not the post that should count.

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According to St. Augustine,

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it's only God who can really put everybody in their place.

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And he's going to do that on the Day of Judgment

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with angels and trumpets, and the skies will open.

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Insane idea, if you're a secularist person, like me.

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But something very valuable in that idea, nevertheless.

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In other words, hold your horses when you're coming to judge people.

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You don't necessarily know what someone's true value is.

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That is an unknown part of them.

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And we shouldn't behave as though it is known.

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There is another source of solace and comfort for all this.

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When we think about failing in life, when we think about failure,

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one of the reasons why we fear failing is not just

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a loss of income, a loss of status.

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What we fear is the judgment and ridicule of others. And it exists.

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You know, the number one organ of ridicule

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nowadays, is the newspaper.

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And if you open the newspaper any day of the week,

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it's full of people who've messed up their lives.

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They've slept with the wrong person. They've taken the wrong substance.

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They've passed the wrong piece of legislation. Whatever it is.

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And then are fit for ridicule.

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In other words, they have failed. And they are described as "losers."

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Now is there any alternative to this?

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I think the Western tradition shows us one glorious alternative,

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and that is tragedy.

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Tragic art, as it developed in the theaters of ancient Greece,

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in the fifth century B.C., was essentially an art form

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devoted to tracing how people fail,

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and also according them a level of sympathy,

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which ordinary life would not necessarily accord them.

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I remember a few years ago, I was thinking about all this,

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and I went to see "The Sunday Sport,"

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a tabloid newspaper that I don't recommend you to start reading

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if you're not familiar with it already.

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I went to talk to them

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about certain of the great tragedies of Western art.

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I wanted to see how they would seize the bare bones

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of certain stories if they came in as a news item

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at the news desk on a Saturday afternoon.

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So I told them about Othello. They had not heard of it but were fascinated by it.

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(Laughter)

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And I asked them to write the headline for the story of Othello.

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They came up with "Love-Crazed Immigrant Kills Senator's Daughter"

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splashed across the headline.

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I gave them the plotline of Madame Bovary.

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Again, a book they were enchanted to discover.

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And they wrote "Shopaholic Adulteress Swallows Arsenic After Credit Fraud."

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(Laughter)

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And then my favorite.

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They really do have a kind of genius all of their own, these guys.

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My favorite is Sophocles' Oedipus the King:

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"Sex With Mum Was Blinding"

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(Laughter)

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(Applause)

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In a way, if you like, at one end of the spectrum of sympathy,

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you've got the tabloid newspaper.

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At the other end of the spectrum you've got tragedy and tragic art,

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and I suppose I'm arguing that we should learn a little bit

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about what's happening in tragic art.

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It would be insane to call Hamlet a loser.

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He is not a loser, though he has lost.

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And I think that is the message of tragedy to us,

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and why it's so very, very important, I think.

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The other thing about modern society

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and why it causes this anxiety

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is that we have nothing at its center that is non-human.

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We are the first society to be living in a world

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where we don't worship anything other than ourselves.

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We think very highly of ourselves, and so we should.

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We've put people on the moon. We've done all sorts of extraordinary things.

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And so we tend to worship ourselves.

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Our heroes are human heroes.

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That's a very new situation.

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Most other societies have had, right at their center,

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the worship of something transcendent: a god,

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a spirit, a natural force, the universe,

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whatever it is, something else that is being worshiped.

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We've slightly lost the habit of doing that,

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which is, I think, why we're particularly drawn to nature.

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Not for the sake of our health, though it's often presented that way,

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but because it's an escape from the human anthill.

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It's an escape from our own competition,

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and our own dramas.

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And that's why we enjoy looking at glaciers and oceans,

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and contemplating the Earth from outside its perimeters, etc.

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We like to feel in contact with something that is non-human,

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and that is so deeply important to us.

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What I think I've been talking about really is success and failure.

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And one of the interesting things about success

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is that we think we know what it means.

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If I said to you that there is somebody behind the screen

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who is very very successful, certain ideas would immediately come to mind.

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You would think that person might have made a lot of money,

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achieved renown in some field.

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My own theory of success -- and I'm somebody

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who is very interested in success. I really want to be successful.

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I'm always thinking, "How could I be more successful?"

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But as I get older, I'm also very nuanced

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about what that word "success" might mean.

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Here's an insight that I've had about success.

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You can't be successful at everything.

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We hear a lot of talk about work-life balance.

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Nonsense. You can't have it all. You can't.

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So any vision of success

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has to admit what it's losing out on,

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where the element of loss is.

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I think any wise life will accept,

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as I say, that there is going to be an element where we are not succeeding.

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Thing about a successful life

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is, a lot of the time, our ideas

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of what it would mean to live successfully are not our own.

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They are sucked in from other people:

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13:13

chiefly, if you're a man, your father,

tedtalks 13:13
13:15

and if you're a woman, your mother.

tedtalks 13:15
13:18

Psychoanalysis has been drumming home this message for about 80 years.

tedtalks 13:18
13:21

No one is quite listening hard enough, but I very much believe that that's true.

tedtalks 13:21
13:23

And we also suck in messages

tedtalks 13:23
13:25

from everything from the television, to advertising,

tedtalks 13:25
13:27

to marketing, etc.

tedtalks 13:27
13:29

These are hugely powerful forces

tedtalks 13:29
13:33

that define what we want and how we view ourselves.

tedtalks 13:33
13:36

When we're told that banking is a very respectable profession

tedtalks 13:36
13:38

a lot of us want to go into banking.

tedtalks 13:38
13:41

When banking is no longer so respectable, we lose interest in banking.

tedtalks 13:41
13:44

We are highly open to suggestion.

tedtalks 13:44
13:47

So what I want to argue for is not that we should give up

tedtalks 13:47
13:49

on our ideas of success,

tedtalks 13:49
13:51

but we should make sure that they are our own.

tedtalks 13:51
13:53

We should focus in on our ideas.

tedtalks 13:53
13:56

and make sure that we own them,

tedtalks 13:56
13:58

that we are truly the authors of our own ambitions.

tedtalks 13:58
14:00

Because it's bad enough, not getting what you want,

tedtalks 14:00
14:03

but it's even worse to have an idea

tedtalks 14:03
14:06

of what it is you want and find out at the end of a journey,

tedtalks 14:06
14:09

that it isn't, in fact, what you wanted all along.

tedtalks 14:09
14:11

So I'm going to end it there.

tedtalks 14:11
14:14

But what I really want to stress is

tedtalks 14:14
14:16

by all means, success, yes.

tedtalks 14:16
14:18

But let's accept the strangeness of some of our ideas.

tedtalks 14:18
14:21

Let's probe away at our notions of success.

tedtalks 14:21
14:25

Let's make sure our ideas of success are truly our own.

tedtalks 14:25
14:27

Thank you very much.

tedtalks 14:27
14:43

(Applause)

tedtalks 14:43
14:45

Chris Anderson: That was fascinating. How do you reconcile

tedtalks 14:45
14:50

this idea of someone being --

tedtalks 14:50
14:53

it being bad to think of someone as a loser

tedtalks 14:53
14:57

with the idea, that a lot of people like, of seizing control of your life.

tedtalks 14:57
15:00

And that a society that encourages that

tedtalks 15:00
15:03

perhaps has to have some winners and losers.

tedtalks 15:03
15:06

Alain de Botton: Yes. I think it's merely the randomness

tedtalks 15:06
15:08

of the winning and losing process that I wanted to stress.

tedtalks 15:08
15:10

Because the emphasis nowadays is so much

tedtalks 15:10
15:12

on the justice of everything,

tedtalks 15:12
15:14

and politicians always talk about justice.

tedtalks 15:14
15:17

Now I am a firm believer in justice, I just think that it is impossible.

tedtalks 15:17
15:19

So we should do everything we can,

tedtalks 15:19
15:21

we should do everything we can to pursue it.

tedtalks 15:21
15:23

But at the end of the day we should always remember

tedtalks 15:23
15:26

that whoever is facing us, whatever has happened in their lives,

tedtalks 15:26
15:29

there will be a strong element of the haphazard.

tedtalks 15:29
15:31

And it's that that I'm trying to leave room for.

tedtalks 15:31
15:33

Because otherwise it can get quite claustrophobic.

tedtalks 15:33
15:35

CA: I mean, do you believe that you can combine

tedtalks 15:35
15:37

your kind of kinder, gentler philosophy of work

tedtalks 15:37
15:41

with a successful economy?

tedtalks 15:41
15:43

Or do you think that you can't?

tedtalks 15:43
15:45

But it doesn't matter that much that we're putting too much emphasis on that?

tedtalks 15:45
15:48

AB: The nightmare thought

tedtalks 15:48
15:52

is that frightening people is the best way to get work out of them,

tedtalks 15:52
15:55

and that somehow the crueler the environment

tedtalks 15:55
15:57

the more people will rise to the challenge.

tedtalks 15:57
16:01

You want to think, who would you like as your ideal dad?

tedtalks 16:01
16:04

And your ideal dad is somebody who is tough but gentle.

tedtalks 16:04
16:06

And it's a very hard line to make.

tedtalks 16:06
16:10

We need fathers, as it were, the exemplary father figures in society,

tedtalks 16:10
16:12

avoiding the two extremes,

tedtalks 16:12
16:16

which is the authoritarian, disciplinarian, on the one hand,

tedtalks 16:16
16:20

and on the other, the lax, no rules option.

tedtalks 16:20
16:22

CA: Alain de Botton.

tedtalks 16:22
16:24

AB: Thank you very much.

tedtalks 16:24
16:34

(Applause)