1 Sep 2011

A Kinder Philosophy of Success.

Dreams of success and the fear of failure seem inevitable components of the writing life - or life in general.

Because it is something so many of us are dealing with, I wanted to share a video of a talk by the famous writer and philosopher Alain de Botton.

At TED Global in 2009, he examined how modern society thinks about success and failure and asked interesting and thought-provoking questions about what drives us in our everyday lives.

To quote but a few of my favourite passages:
'I don't think we are particularly materialistic. 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.'
'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.'
'So what I want to argue for, is not that 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 themthat 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 a journey, that it isn't, in fact, what you wanted all along.'
'But at the end of the day we should always remember that whoever is facing us, whatever has happened in their lives, there will be a strong element of the haphazard.'
 - Alain de Botton, TEDGlobal 2009 

Here's the complete 17-minute talk:

or watch the video (with interactive transcript) at TED.com.

What's your definition of success?

Photo 'Zarko Drincic - Master Key' by Zarko Drincic, available under a creative commons license© 2005, Zarko Drincic.
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  1. I never really thought about it. One thing I know for sure, it has nothing to do with money and possessions. I'll have to think on it a bit.

  2. 'But at the end of the day we should always remember that whoever is facing us, whatever has happened in their lives, there will be a strong element of the haphazard.'

    Seems to be along the right lines.

  3. Only for you would I watch 17 minutes of video during the middle of the day. :)

    He makes some interesting points. Can't help but feel (very American of me) that luck is made. We're taught very early that anyone can be anything they want to be if they work hard enough for it. I don't know if that's true in every case, but for many I think it is. For others, though, random bad luck does seem to rain down.

    I think I have somewhat vague ideas of success when it comes to my writing. Finding an agent and getting a publishing contract are goals of mine, so I suppose if I come up short I will feel less than successful, but some days I also feel like if I write something well enough to please me then that's enough. I waffle a lot on what I want. :)

  4. Delores: great. I'd be interested to hear what you come up with. :-)

    ratatoskr: that rang true with me as well. I often acknowledge how different my life would be if I had made different decisions at key points in life (key points that are of course only recognisable when looking back). No regrets, though. :-)

    L.G.: =) =) =)
    I also believe that we are an important factor (possibly/probably the most important one) when it comes to our luck. I know I've been pretty lucky in certain aspects of life, made good decisions in other parts and a bunch of really bad ones that fortunately didn't kill me so I have been able to learn from them.

    Still, on the whole, I feel lucky, mainly because I've got a good foundation in life. I think life, luck & decisions become a lot harder when you don't have that kind of mental / emotional / physical solid ground under their feet.

  5. Excellent post KC... I often ask myself what I want to see when my life flashes in front of my eyes... and I have a pretty good idea of what that is.

    "Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever
    encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost
    everything - all external expectations, all pride, all fear of
    embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of
    death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are
    going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you
    have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to
    follow your heart."
    --Steve Jobs, Stanford commencement speech, June 2005

  6. Perhaps I'm just not being kind enough, but the whole rewards thing is something that has always bothered me. Like children wanting a stuffed animal at the fair. ~Mary

  7. I can see how people extend the idea of emotionally being attached to materialism. That's why teachers *promote* intrinsic rewards as opposed to the latter. We should strive to do something because it betters us, not because it betters our situation. Better said than done though. Great post!

  8. My husband told me something really odd, at one point. He said, 'You're afraid of success. You're afraid of how it will change everything.'

  9. For a few days now I've been wanting to write a post on money and why we feel the need to keep how much our income is such a secret. I haven't done it because of my fear of being perceived as a loser. Perhaps now I will write it.
    Financial or work success is seldom not manipulated.
    I kind of like this guy. Thanks for the intro KC.

  10. Munk: I love that speech. It made me a little bit more appreciative of death: 'Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.' (same speech)

    Mary: I do agree with AdB that we're reward-driven. There's a 'needy' component in there that I'm not fond of, but that doesn't make it any less real. One of the biggest differences between individuals is the kind of reward(s) we're after, but I think the underlying principle is pretty similar for all of us.

    AA: so true! I love the idea of striving to do something that betters us rather than our situation. Best case scenario we strive to something that does both. And again: better said than done. :-)

    Suze: definitely something to think about, there are so many layers to that sentence. Did you agree?

    Towanda: pretty sure he's an INTP too (or close enough). ;-) I think he's spot on about our fear of ridicule, and not just in how we think we're perceived by others. For many there's also the fear that we might discover a part of ourselves we're not too fond of, and like ourselves a little less.

  11. I agree with Suze's husband, we are sometimes afraid of success because it often changes everything.
    I also think loss and failure are also necessary and even welcomed in life, because they teach us important lesson, make us stronger and they add important pages in the books of our lives

  12. This is too true. We always have to sacrifice one thing for another. In the end it's all about priorities.

    Feeling successful is something I seriously struggle with. For starters I have some very "successful" siblings: an older brother who's a principal, and a younger brother who's a big time lawyer.

    Add gender roles to this and you really have something to think about. I stay at home with my four children, a financially sound and logical decision, and not an easy role either. But so often I hear disparaging things about stay-at-home moms, read disparaging things about stay-at-home moms. And it isn't as if I'm bringing home money, even if we're saving on the cost of childcare.

    I'd like to measure my own success less by how much money I make, and more on whether I feel right about my present choices.

  13. DEZZY: I fully agree. I don't like the pain that's usually involved, but if it doesn't kill us ... (it could make us stronger / scar us for life?) ;-)

  14. Angela: Like you say, it's all about priorities. I/we've chosen not to have children, but not because I don't consider it a worthy or valuable choice. I also know it's a difficult job - I've been a teacher for nearly 15 years.

    If it's any consolation: lots of people say disparaging things about women who choose not to have children either. For some reason our personal choices in life are often perceived as criticism on other people's lifestyles, whereas they're not.

    I try to measure success by the value we add to the greater whole, however we choose to define that (as our tribes & communities, society, mankind, nature, the universe, ...). And in order to sustain adding value over a long period of time, we need to feel good about what we're doing. That's the real challenge to me: find out what we're good at, and use that to contribute.

  15. "So what I want to argue for, is not that we should give up on our ideas of success. But we should make sure that they are our own."

    I really needed to read this right now. THANK YOU :)


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