Alain de Botton: What's A Kinder Way To Frame Success? Alain de Botton examines our ideas of success and failure — and questions the assumptions underlying these two judgments. He makes an eloquent, witty case to move beyond snobbery to find true pleasure in our work.

What's A Kinder Way To Frame Success?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


How have we come to define success? Is it about achievement?

ALAIN DE BOTTON: Look, the word success - it's neutrally defined in the dictionary. It just means excellence in a given field.

RAZ: This is the writer Alain de Botton. He wrote a book called "Status Anxiety."

DE BOTTON: You know, if I said, there's a really successful person, you know, out there in the studio, you know, you would imagine, well, that's somebody who's done well in the entertainment field or in business or in politics. We've all got this idea of what successful means. But of course, what it really means is just doing something well, and everybody who's starts out in life wants to be a success.

RAZ: And Alain says that simple desire to be a success, it actually creates a lots of anxiety - especially on Sunday nights. Here's how he starts his TED Talk.


DE BOTTON: For me, they normally happen - these career crises - often, actually, on a Sunday evening just as the sun is starting to set, and the gap between my hopes for myself and the reality of my life start to diverge so painfully that I normally end up weeping into a pillow. I'm mentioning all this - I'm mentioning all this because I think this is not merely a personal problem. You may think I'm wrong in this, but I think that we live in an age when our lives are regularly punctuated by career crises, by moments when what we thought we knew about our lives, about our careers, comes into contact with a threatening sort of reality.

One of the reasons why we might be suffering is that we are surrounded by snobs. 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. And 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?

RAZ: Every time, you know, like, I talk to people in Washington, D.C. - where I live - they'll say, oh I hate Washington because everybody always asks you, what do you do? - right? But like, that's a - that's like, a normal question.

DE BOTTON: It's kind of a normal question, but it's a very modern question. You know, people weren't doing that 300 years ago. You used to be defined by where you came from, and who your family was. You know, like so and so was the son of so and so. They come from this little village, which is down the river from the forest, etc. And nowadays, our identities are entirely bound up with our work. You can't really understand someone without understanding what their job is, which is all well and good except that many of us are not in the jobs that we really want to be in. Some of us don't even know what the right job would be. Others know what the right job would be, but we can't get it.

In other words, there is a real danger of a disconnect between what's on your business card, and who you are deep inside; and it's not a disconnect that the world is ready to be patient with. So if you say to somebody, look, you know, I'm an accountant, but my soul is to be a rock guitarist. People will go, well, you know, forget about the soul. And you get this in any social encounter. What do you do if the answer is the right answer? You become somebody's friend. And if the answer is the wrong answer, you're abandoned by the peanuts, and left to fend for yourself. So there's cruelty because the dream of everybody is to be evaluated in a complex way as a human being. And the deepest core of every human being - there is a longing for respect, dignity, a sense of being understood; and that's in short supply.

RAZ: The thing is, is that all of this anxiety - all of this job snobbery, Alain says it comes from an inspired place - the idea that each of us can go out and achieve anything we want.


DE BOTTON: Never before have expectations been so high about what human beings can achieve. Anyone can achieve anything. We've done away with the caste system. We are now in a system where anyone can rise to any position they please, and it's a beautiful idea. Along with that has come a spirit of equality. We're all basically equal. There are no strictly defined hierarchies. There is one, really big problem with this. And that problem is envy, and it's linked to the spirit of equality.

Let me explain. I think it would be very unusual for anyone here, or anyone watching, to be envious of the Queen of England - even though she's much richer than any of you are, and she's got a very large house. The reason why we don't envy her is 'cause she's too weird.


DE BOTTON: She's simply too strange. We can't relate to her. She speaks in a funny way. She comes from a sort of odd place. So we can't relate to her. And when you can't relate to somebody, you don't envy them. The closer two people are in age, in background, in the process of identification, the more there's a danger of envy - which is, incidentally, why none of you should ever go to a school reunion because there is no stronger reference point than people one was at school with. But the problem, generally, of modern society is that it turns the whole world into a school. Everybody's wearing jeans, everybody's the same - and yet they're not.

Life used to be simpler. You just went down a certain path. There were three career options; now, it's one of a million. We're all the time aware of people who've used their brains in a certain way and hurray, it all, you know, went brilliantly right; and others who've crashed and failed miserably. So there's a frenetic atmosphere in modern society, particularly in the United States because this is the land of opportunity. And,you know, when I hear your politicians saying, you know, we want to build a United States where everyone, no matter where they come from, can get anywhere, I think two things. One, that's fantastic, fantastic, great. Two, it's got a nasty sting in the tail 'cause what happens if, in this land of opportunity, it doesn't go right for you? What happens?

By definition, not everybody can win the race. The United States is a society that believes in fairness at the beginning of the race. But then once the starting pistol goes, it's winner takes all. It's very frenetic to live in such a society. That said, you know, the United States rewards its winners like no other country on Earth. But in many ways, it punishes its losers. Now, that word is an American word - loser, you know. Pause. In the Middle Ages, in the United Kingdom, the word for somebody who was at the bottom of society was an unfortunate. Literally, somebody who, perhaps through no fault of their own, had failed because of the actions of fortune - the goddess of fortune - an unfortunate.

RAZ: Wasn't their fault.

DE BOTTON: It wasn't their fault. Nowadays, in America, you're a winner, or you are a loser. Now, what is a loser? A loser is somebody who has failed according to the rules of the game that they have signed up to. In other words, we have made, in the United States, a meritocratic society where success is deserved, but failure is also deserved.

RAZ: So this is, like, a little bit depressing, right? I mean, this is - all this pressure and stuff, and I don't know. I mean, how do we end it? Like, how do we change this?

DE BOTTON: Look, the first thing is to recognize it and to treat ourselves with compassion. We are, on one level, an extremely privileged society, and so there's nothing to complain about - but yes, there is. The psychological pressures are enormous. We should be able to recognize it and - I don't mean this trivially - make jokes about it. What I mean by that is show a compassionate, tolerant regard for the pressures that we live under.


DE BOTTON: There's another source of solace and comfort for all this. When we think about failing in life, 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. The No. 1 organ of ridicule nowadays is the newspaper. It's full of people who've messed up their lives. They've slept with the wrong person. They've passed the wrong piece of legislation. Whatever it is, they have failed; and they are described as losers. Now, is there any alternative to this? I think the Western tradition shows us one glorious alternative, and that is tragedy. Tragic art was essentially an art form devoted to tracing how people fail, also according them a level of sympathy.

I remember a few years ago, I was thinking about all this and I went to see The Sunday Sport - a tabloid newspaper that I don't recommend you to start reading, if you're not familiar with it already - and I went to talk to them. And I wanted to see how they would seize the bare bones of certain stories if they came in as a news item. So I told them about "Othello." They had not heard of it, but they were fascinated by it and...


DE BOTTON: ...I asked them to write the headline for the story of "Othello." They came up with "Love-Crazed Immigrant Kills Senator's Daughter" splashed across the headline. I gave them a plot line of a "Madame Bovary." Again, a book they were enchanted to discover. And they wrote "Shopaholic Adulteress Swallows Arsenic After Credit Fraud." And then my favorite - and they really do have a kind of genius all of their own, these guys - my favorite is Sophocles' Oedipus the King - "Sex with Mum Was Blinding." It's...


DE BOTTON: 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. And I think that is the message of tragedy to us and why it's so very, very important, I think.

RAZ: It's really not possible to be successful at everything.

DE BOTTON: No. We have to make a choice. All success involves choices. Succeeding in one area will probably mean neglecting other areas. Well, right now, I'm being a bad father, but I'm being a good author, right? So I'm, you know, I'm succeeding in the author space, and failing in the father space. We've got one of the most ridiculous and paradoxical ideas at large in modern society - is this idea of work-life balance. In other words, you can be a success at work, and you can be a success at home with your family.

RAZ: Yeah.

DE BOTTON: The bad news for listeners is that you can't.

RAZ: It's impossible.

DE BOTTON: You have to make a choice.

RAZ: Can't do both.

DE BOTTON: And, you know, I've met many very successful CEOs. And almost down to the last man or woman, they are not especially successful family people.

RAZ: Right.

DE BOTTON: You know, there's a problem because - well, you know, as anyone who's ever tried to do anything well and wholeheartedly knows, there's only so many hours in the day. So we have to make some choices. What do we want to be successful at, and as? Do we want to be a successful parent? Do we want to be successful financially or in terms of reputation, or in terms of changing the world or - you know, there are many, many criteria. And I think we're not given enough of a guidance by our schools, families, the surrounding environment, at the idea that there's going to have to be a choice around that word "successful." So don't get me wrong. I'm not against success. It's very important to strive to be successful. But before you do that, I think it's even more important to try and tighten up the definition of what success might be for you 'cause it's unlikely to be something that will be, you know, a one-size-fits-all.


DE BOTTON: 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 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. So by all means, success - yes. But let's accept the strangeness of some of our ideas. Let's probe away at our notions of success. Let's make sure our ideas of success are truly our own. Thank you very much.


RAZ: Alain de Botton - he wrote a book about all this. It's called "Status Anxiety." His most recent book is called "Art is Therapy." And you can hear both of his talks at


RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show about success this week. If you missed any of it or you want to hear more, or you want to find out more about who was on it you can visit And you can download this program through iTunes or through the NPR smartphone app. I'm Guy Raz. You've been listening to ideas worth spreading, here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.