Success

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.

Now, the opposite of a snob is your mother. Not necessarily your mother, or indeed mine, but, as it were, the ideal mother, somebody who doesn’t care about your achievements.

Alain de Botton

I think we live in a society which has simply pegged certain emotional rewards to the acquisition of material goods. 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.”

Envy, it’s a real taboo to mention envy, but if there’s one dominant emotion in modern society, that is envy. And it’s linked to the spirit of equality.

[I]t would be very unusual for anyone here, or anyone watching, to be envious of the Queen of England. Even though she is much richer than any of you are, and she’s got a very large house, the reason why we don’t envy her is because she’s too weird. She’s simply too strange. We can’t relate to her, she speaks in a funny way, she comes from an odd place. So we can’t relate to her, and when you can’t relate to somebody, you don’t envy them.

A meritocratic society is one in which, if you’ve got talent and energy and skill, you will get to the top, nothing should hold you back. It’s a beautiful idea. The problem is, if you really believe in a society where those who merit to get to the top, get to the top, you’ll also, by implication, and in a far more nasty way, believe in a society where those who deserve to get to the bottom also get to the bottom and stay there. In other words, your position in life comes to seem not accidental, but merited and deserved. And that makes failure seem much more crushing.

You know, in the Middle Ages, in England, when you met a very poor person, that person would be described as an “unfortunate” — literally, somebody who had not been blessed by fortune, an unfortunate. Nowadays, particularly in the United States, if you meet someone at the bottom of society, they may unkindly be described as a “loser.” There’s a real difference between an unfortunate and a loser, and that shows 400 years of evolution in society and our belief in who is responsible for our lives.

There are more suicides in developed, individualistic countries than in any other part of the world. And some of the reason for that is that people take what happens to them extremely personally—they own their success, but they also own their failure.

I think it’s insane to believe that we will ever make a society that is genuinely meritocratic; it’s an impossible dream. … There are simply too many random factors: accidents, accidents of birth, accidents of things dropping on people’s heads, illnesses, etc. We will never get to grade them, never get to grade people as they should.

In a way, if you like, at one end of the spectrum of sympathy, you’ve got the tabloid newspaper. At the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got tragedy and tragic art. And I suppose I’m arguing that we should learn a little bit about what’s happening in tragic art. It would be insane to call Hamlet a loser. He is not a loser, though he has lost.

You can’t have it all. You can’t. So any vision of success has to admit what it’s losing out on

Alain de Botton

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