Why do we suffer such existential angst in the 21st century?

June 27, 2010

In the 21st century, the gap between our dreams and our reality is getting wider and wider.

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.


What’s your purpose(s) and have you found your passion(s)?

June 24, 2010

Viktor Frankel said:

People today live in an existential vacuum and this vacuum manifests itself in a state of boredom.

Half the reason why people live in a perpetual state of stress and boredom is because they are in the wrong job.  The reason they’re in the wrong job is because, for many of us, who we are  no longer reconciles with what we do for 10 hours every day.  Most of our jobs were chosen by our 18 year old selves and because society esteems a linear goal-oriented life, it is difficult to jump ship or change paths when you finally realize that your 18 year old self was clueless in the ways of the world.

I am sick of the addiction to achievement and idolization of money and success in the finance world and I am looking for something different – something that will allow me to work out of my identity rather than work in order to find it.

Everyone talks about purpose and passion like it is one specific thing.  I feel guity that at 18 I made a daft decision to become an accountant so I could be rich.  But I shouldn’t beat myself up.  You can have multiple purposes and passions over your lifetime.  It’s ok to change direction and do something different provided you are called to do it for the right reasons.

I was thinking of some Bible characters this week and noticed how many of them had one career and then changed course along the way and eventually achieved something profoundly significant.  Jesus (was originally a carpenter), Joseph (Egyptian politician), Matthew (tax collector), Peter (a fisherman), David (a shepherd), Moses (an Egyptian ruler then a shepherd), Paul (a Jewish official) etc etc etc.


Purpose is not static.  You change and your passion can too.  The caveat to this is that you should always be God-centred rather than goal centred.  If clay is not centred on the potter’s wheel, it goes all over the place.  If we are not centred on the right things, we do the same.

I can see you

June 23, 2010

There was a raging fire that swept through a house.  A little boy escaped to the roof and he couldn’t see anything – he was completely surrounded by smoke and flames.  His father, who was standing on the ground, shouted,

‘Jump!  I will catch you.  Just jump NOW!’

The little boy was terrified and wailed, ‘But I can’t see you!’

‘But I can see you,’ said his father.

That is a picture of the invisible God.  We can’t see Him but He can see us.  Sometimes we are like that scared little boy who only sees smoke and flames.  It’s comforting to know that when we jump, He can catch us.

Ashton Kutcher’s secret to a happy marriage

June 18, 2010

You’ll be thrilled to know, my imaginary reader, that this post is not going to be as intense as the last one.

I love the internet.  I clicked on a link in Facebook and it sent me down a rabbit hole to a blogging wonderland.  Just call me Alice.  Some people are really serious about this blogging business and have swish, professional sites.  Apparently you can even get paid for blogging.  I wonder if it’s lucrative?  One website is dedicated to helping freelance writers find gigs.  I thought of submitting a guest post but then I paralysed myself at the thought of it.  I felt a bit like that Greek mythological figure who turned to stone when she (or was it a he?) looked at some scary monster.  That’s me at the thought of flaunting myself in the writing world.  Maybe that’s a sign that I’m not ready.  Or maybe it’s a sign that I’m a bit of an insecure wreck.

Anyway, I’m wasting time here.  Let me get on with it.

This week I cut out a profound piece of insight from the free London daily paper called The Metro.  It was an interview with Ashton Kutcher.  The interviewer asked what is the secret of a happy marriage.  I absolutely agree with his answer:

It’s like houses.  The average person lives in their house for 6 years and then they sell it and get a new one.  Why?  They become bored with it, right?  So you have to renovate the house constantly, give it a new paint job, change the furniture.  That’s how I look at a relationship, you have to work at it and explore new ways to make it successful.  A lot of people look at getting married as the goal but having a happy relationship is the goal.

My Thai Cowrie

June 13, 2010

Every year when I was growing up, we went to a beach cottage down the South Coast of Natal in South Africa.  We always went with my extended family – aunts, uncles and cousins.  Every morning, we walked along the beach and collected shells.  It was part of the beach holiday daily routine.  There were always hundreds of shells on the sand and some were nicer than others.  The cowrie shell was the best and most elusive of all the shells.  If anyone found one, it was like winning a million dollars.  You were a hero and unbelievably lucky.  Our quest was to  find a cowrie among the more ordinary, mainstream, run-of-the-mill shells.

When I was at university (or was it when I was working? … can’t remember), I went through a rough patch.  I felt as if my life was out of control and I longed to sense God’s presence in my life.  Every year I would watch my cousins scream with delight as they found cowries and I never found one of my own.  But, the year I was struggling, I found my first cowrie.  I was beside myself with excitement, but more than that, it gave me a deep sense of the presence of God in my life.  It was almost as if He was saying, ‘I have some unexpected surprises in store – just chill and wait on me’.

Back to May 2010.  My future feels very uncertain, I lack direction and cannot picture where I’ll be this time next year.  I feel like I am in a fog.

During our Thai holiday this month, Al and I were surprised there were no shells on the beaches – they were completely bare even after a storm or high tide.  I had spurts of anxiety about my future and sometimes I felt utterly alone, as if I have a big mountain to climb, all on my own.  Every day I asked God to help me trust Him more and I began to ask for a sign from Him that He was in control.  I felt I could endure hardship and uncertainty if God had my back and was in control.

On the last day of our holiday, we walked along the Chaweng beach one last time.  I never looked at my feet while I walked as there was no point – there were no shells so I might as well focus my eyes ahead.  That day, I glanced down at my feet and immediately saw a big cowrie lying right in front of me.  It was bizarre.  The beach was completely bare, we hadn’t seen shells all holiday, I hadn’t been looking at my feet much and it was our last day.  I picked up the cowrie and it was the biggest one I have ever seen. It seemed so random that this beautiful big cowrie was on a bare Thai beach.

I am keeping this shell as a momento because the way I found it was random and bizarre and so I believe it is the sign I asked for.  I feel it is God telling me that he has my back and knows the desires of my heart.   God is in control and my cowrie (my dreams, purpose, goals, future) will be revealed to me when the time is right.

Is this odd behaviour or is it just me?

June 8, 2010

The recent shootings in Cumbria have shocked me to the core.  I have since combed news web sites to understand what drove Derrick Bird to commit such a barbaric crime.  One of the things that disturbs me most as I read about it is the apparent zeitgeist of modern Britain.

According to the Daily Mail, Derrick Bird had a Thai girlfriend who was a originally a prostitute.  They interviewed one of his travel buddies called Terry Kennedy who described how, when they were in Thailand, Bird met girls in clubs or bars and took them back to his hotel room.  This is what he said,

He chatted to girls in the bars, bought them drinks, took a couple back to the hotel – nothing outrageous or out of the ordinary.

WHAT!?  Nothing out of the ordinary?  Nothing outrageous?  I think this is highly abnormal behaviour, at least I hope it is.  Terry Kennedy goes on to say that Bird’s other friends didn’t partake in similar, lecherous antics because they had wives or girlfriends back home.  Oh, good for them!  How moral!

I then studied readers’ comments and the gist of them was, ‘why don’t men learn that bedding Thai women in bars is a recipe for distaster.’  Does this mean it’s really a common occurrence?  God help the human race if it is.

Life is a collection of marble moments.

June 6, 2010

I’ve had a major epiphany and it’s changing my life in a big way.

I recently listened to a talk by a girl who had a cancerous tumour in her throat. When she looked at her life and future as a whole, she was paralysed with depression and soul-grinding despair.  Instead, she shifted her focus and divided her life into little, bite sized chunks.  When she spent time with her family, walked in the countryside or had coffee with a friend, she thought ‘in this moment, right now, I feel really happy’.  She started to collect these special, happy moments like a child collects marbles.  These become her ‘marble moments’.

When I was little, I swopped marbles with kids at school.  Marbles were precious and some were more valuable than others.   A little, shiny marble was so treasured and valuable.  It is difficult to say to people, ‘enjoy life, ‘ be grateful for what you have’ and ‘think positively’.  That is telling people to be happy from the top down and it doesn’t work for me.  I am going to teach myself to be happy from the bottom up.  That means I will find as many happy, treasured, precious ‘marble moments’ as I can.

As you can probably tell from my blog, I am desperate to find happiness and contentment.  When I look at my life as a whole, I am dissatisfied and want more, more and more.  But, if I look at the little things, I feel really blessed – my husband, my health, my family, my friends, our recent trip to Thailand, the summer weather in London today …

What has been a marble moment for you today?