Alain de Botton explains why.
His talk at TED was an epiphany for me because it helped me understand why, in this day and age, we all suffer so many career and existential crises. We have more money, better earning potential, amazing technology, superior transport and connectivity but are we really happier than our great grannies who rode on horses and spent their days baking, sewing and raising kids?
Alain de Botton gives 4 reasons why we suffer such soul-corroding anxiety in the 21st century:
1. We are surrounded by job snobs
De Botton says that a snob is someone who takes a small part of you and uses that to come to a complete vision of who you are. People are job snobs. We are very concerned with what others do for a living. When you meet new people, what’s the first thing they ask you? What do you do for a living? It’s an easy conversation starter but the problem is that people naturally correlate who you are with what you do and how much you have. We crave the emotional rewards that come with status, certain careers and the acquisition of material goods.
2. Expectations are too high
Never before in history have the expectations been so high about what human beings can achieve. The modern day mantra says that ‘everything is possible’ and ‘everyone can achieve anything’ – it puts so much pressure on us. There are two types of self help books – those that say we can do anything if we put our minds to it and those that help us cope with low self-esteem. The reason why we possibly have such low self-esteem is because people keep telling us we can do and be anything if we put our minds to it.
3. Society is meritocratic
Meritocracy says that everybody deserves their place in society – the good people are at the top and the bad people are at the bottom. The modern way of thinking tells us that you will be a success if you put in the time, energy, skill and effort. You are in the driving seat of your life and can be successful, if you try hard enough.
A meritocracy mindset makes you feel great if you are successful but makes you feel like a total loser if you’re not. Meritocracy doesn’t make space for random events such as illness, accidents and recessions over which people have no control, regardless of how much time, effort and skill they put into things.
4. We no longer have anything transcedent at the centre of our lives
We are the first society that lives in a way where we worship nothing but ourselves. Our heroes are all human and they constantly disappoint us (Tiger Woods is a classic example!). People in the past used to worship something transcendent that was constant, reliable and genuinely larger than life.
What is your definition of success? Is it really your definition or is it society’s definition? You cannot be successful at everything and you cannot have it all. If life is not going your way, it doesn’t mean you are a failure. A task, job or activity can be a failure but you are not. Life is not predictable and linear. If you leave room in your life for the random and unexpected, you are likely to be more calm, less anxious and free.