Alain de Botton: A kinder, gentler philosophy of success

I’ve never been a fan of “what do you do?” questions at events – the answer almost always ends up being a job title but that’s only just such a small part of who we are. It doesn’t do much in showing what’s inside us – how we think, what we believe in, who are are, etc.

I’ve followed “The School of Life” for quite sometime – but didn’t realise it until this video. Meet my new inspiration: Alain de Botton 🙂 It’s 16 minutes but packed with so much gold.


“It’s not the material goods we want; it’s the rewards we want. It’s a new way of looking at luxury goods. The next time you see somebody driving a Ferrari, don’t think, “This is somebody who’s greedy.” Think, “This is somebody who is incredibly vulnerable and in need of love.” Feel sympathy, rather than contempt.”

Hold your horses when you’re coming to judge people. You don’t necessarily know what someone’s true value is. That is an unknown part of them, and we shouldn’t behave as though it is known. There is another source of solace and comfort for all this. 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 I think I’ve been talking about really is success and failure. And one of the interesting things about success is that we think we know what it means. If I said that there’s somebody behind the screen who’s very successful, certain ideas would immediately come to mind. You’d think that person might have made a lot of money, achieved renown in some field. My own theory of success — I’m somebody who’s very interested in success, I really want to be successful, always thinking, how can I be more successful? But as I get older, I’m also very nuanced about what that word “success” might mean.

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.

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.

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