Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Alain de Botton: A kinder, gentler philosophy of success

I found this absolutely fantastic TED talk via Thejeswini:

There are far too many brilliant quotes to choose one as a teaser. Truly one of those instant epics that we'll refer to frequently for a very long time to come. As always, I'm too lazy for structure, so here's ever-reliable SoC.
  • de Botton's definition of a snob is perfect. Superiority complexes, looking down on people, elitism, etc. are all important features, but quick judging is a very important part of snobbery. I am reminded of this little anecdote I read a long time ago:
    It is reported that former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George was once introduced by a chairman who jokingly said, "I had expected to find Mr. Lloyd George a big man in every sense, but you see for yourselves he is quite small in stature."

    Not amused, Lloyd George rebutted, "In North Wales we measure a man from his chin up. You evidently measure from his chin down."

  • His insight into the fixation on society-set emotional rewards was bang on target - as was the one on fearing ridicule and low-opinion more than the direct consequences of failure themselves.

  • Equality causing Envy - brilliant! Absolutely true! Equality is the necessary cause, randomness is the sufficient one. "Anyone can do anything" is pernicious!

    I also think it applies to positive emotions - I think people can only fall in love with people who they somehow imagine to be 'equal' to themselves. Extending it a bit further, I think any kind of engagement happens only on the premise of equality. The fact that you cannot engage with everything is a glorious gift - "The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents." - H.P.Lovecraft

  • Meritocracy-illusion bashing - absolutely agree. I have never understood why Meritocracy is held as such an achievable (oˆ Shreevatsa), infallible ideal, when there is no way to reliably measure merit. I won't comment on the ideal itself, but surely there should be no misunderstanding that such a thing is even remotely possible!

    Of course, in the very limited context of education in India, 'Meritocracy' has a very specific and mostly sensible meaning. But while the other options available are worse, that doesn't make this good - just marginally better. It is carrying the problem of giving opportunities to deserving people one level further - to the level of measuring peoples' deservedness, and I am utterly unconvinced that any exam has that kind of resolution. I'm not in the least comfortable with that, and find it dishonest that we wring our hands saying "We can't do any better, can you?" and think we've solved it.(In this context, I am reminded of Churchill's quote - "Democracy is the worst kind of government, except for all the others that have been tried.").

  • "Nothing at its center that is non-human"  - My thoughts exactly! "Escape from the human anthill" is a brilliant way of putting it.

  • "Your ideas of success are sucked in from others" - Absolutely! Related must-see documentaries: 'Century of Self' and 'The Merchants of Cool'.

    I remember seeing a trailer for Mad Men in the Wabash 9 theatre in July 2007, and one quote from it was branded onto my memory. The protagonist is a successful advertising executive in the heady 1960s, when the true power of PR was being discovered. His secretary tells something naive about love, and looks straight into her eyes and says in an inimitable tone: "The reason you haven't felt it is because it doesn't exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons." I didn't (want to) believe it then, and neither do even today, but there's something to the idea. (The line is in the first episode, which you can find on Sidereel).

  • "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." - That could be the headline of my blogdungsroman :-)

There were some ideas I wasn't too happy with - the one about showing sympathy for a guy with a Ferrari for being 'insecure' sounded extremely naive and somewhat self-deceptive (or maybe condescending?). The needless focus on the idea that every successful man has some aspect of his life where he wasn't successful also made it seem like he stubbornly didn't want to believe there could be a successful life without a stain. The talk could have done without that bit of whining. Overall though, it's hands-down fantastic :-)

As a person, too, he is quite interesting. For one, I absolutely love his acquired British accent. Acquired accents tend to be more 'perfect' than natural ones, because there is an active effort in identifying what defines the accent. There's a kind of maturity, power, smoothness and elegance associated with his British accent that I can't quite explain. The few minutes starting from 10:00 are just brilliant in this aspect!

His family is Swiss, and is insanely rich. His father was one of the founders of UBS' Global Asset Management group, and left the family £200 million in a trust fund. The wiki claims that in spite of that, de Botton has made a living solely out of his book sales. Do take a look at his wiki page - his books, especially everything he has written after, and including, The Art of Travel seem very interesting.

In one of his interviews, he says this:

Why did you pick Cambridge?

I was attracted to the prestige of either Oxford or Cambridge and picked Cambridge because I liked the flat, rather Dutch quality of the surrounding countryside. I also hoped that I would meet beautiful and intelligent girls with whom to have long conversations about love and truth. It didn't quite turn out that way, in fact rarely have I felt more starved of female company than at Cambridge.

LOL :D Anybody's who has thought that of any university and met with that fate is hereby instantly promoted to the highly coveted rank of "Co-suffering Comrade" :P

(Harsh's epic jab to this: "I see you've been flying Virgin America too" :D )

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