Notes from ‘A design for life’

design for life

I read this article on Alain de Botton’s take on the world of work and couldn’t help but note down some important ideas. Alain is in the business of selling ideas for improving people’s psychological/emotional well being. He attempts to work out what ideas belong where and do structuring an order to a topic. Here are a few that I thought are worth sharing.
1. He says that businesses, especially those in the US, look at the TED talks that can potentially bring a lot of consulting opportunities for the speaker.
2. Social media has helped writers bypass the two main gatekeepers of the past, publishers, and mainstream media. These days there is no need to get your work reviewed as it is already out there on social media. This is a very comforting position to be in as it used to be a real bottleneck. Now the cost of doing that is nil.
3. Books are a unitary thing. They cannot be easily divided. Unlike a newspaper or a CD, you cannot rip the bit out as it will not make sense.
4. It is possible to have a relationship and a job that’s satisfying, theoretically speaking. However, it is really hard in practice partly because human beings have so much imagination. So, we are ambitious, and we think all the time and there’s a constant rise of expectation. This applies to both work and love.
5. All of us different potentials in us but the modern world responds and rewards specialization, people who know how to zero in on a particular thing. The ideal sweet spot is that you are in a specialization that the world needs but there are few other competitors, and you can draw a good salary. However, that happens for very few of us.
6. Most of us at the age of 16 or 17, start making some choices and by the time we are 21 or 22, those choices are hardening. We have actually reduced that kind of options for ourselves. By the time we are married and have a family, it takes unbelievable courage and effort to change our careers. As a result, even though we might be drawing a good salary at work, we are not deeply satisfied. It is excruciatingly painful to be in this situation.
7. We live in a world partly driven by the ideology of the US that is very forward-looking, very optimistic, very much placing the emphasis on the individual achievement and possibilities that are open to everyone as long as we work hard. It is a beautiful philosophy of life, but also, a very punishing one. It places a huge responsibility on the individual to perform and leads to deep shame if there is a failure. As much as we worship success, we also, punish failure implicity, psychologically
For example, the psychological consequences of unemployment and professional mediocrity are very severe. The answer to this is the collective consolation that it is not any one person’s fault. It is not a personal but, a social and historical phenomenon. This philosophy of success is going to leave many of us to feel that we’ve underperformed.
8. “Every time a friend succeeds a small part of me dies.” – Gore Vidal
9. The number one fear that people in developed societies have been the fear of professional failure. It happens in your head but, it has a history and philosophy. For most of human history, people have been terrified of starving, being killed or falling on the wrong side of court politics but, they never had this feeling that they should create themselves afresh, where every person is this kind of self-created being who has to be very special and start doing something extraordinary. This is very modern. This story is very central to America and then it spreads across the world.
10. It is a nasty sting in the tail that you can get in a society that wants equality of opportunity for everybody but isn’t going to have an equality of outcome for everybody. That is the psychological position we are in today’s world.
I looked at the role of religion in appeasing some of those doubts, the concept of an afterlife where some of the pressures of this life are taken care of. Then what happens when religion declines – the role of culture, nature, and art. My books will hopefully, remain alive in a way. Hope they become something people keep coming back to.
11. It may not sound like an ideal and a cheerful solution to many problems in our life surrounding work and relationships, but, the best response to these would be a kind of stoic response. Stoicism does not give us the comfort of thinking that life can be made perfect. What it tries to do is to steel us for the challenges and make us feel in a sense heroic about the difficulties. Accepting and bowing down to certain necessities, understanding where they come from and using understanding to kind of blunt the force of bitterness or anger and essentially not seeing it as a personal plot against you but as something that is endemic and structural to being alive. There are very very few people who get through this life thinking that they’ve done justice to their talents and have answered their romantic longings. This is just a privilege that’s open to very few. Moreover, yet the world leads us to expect that this for the many.
12. Critics of capitalism say it is hollow, it is meaningless, it is soulless. It is all about more running shoes and pizzas. It is not about the stuff that matters. Capitalism has been making its profit and centering its energies around the bottom bit of the pyramid. The challenge for the future is how can money and labor be made and employed towards the top of the pyramid. There is a divorce between the financial, logistical organization and good ideas. Moreover, this is a reason the net value of music and arts is probably way-way below landscape gardening or particular kind of dental hygiene.
13. The real challenge is not just how to find someone in space and send them a text message; it is how to get through to them in the tough areas of life. Communication between colleagues, between friends, between family members, remains very challenging, despite the iPhone. Technology is still at the dawn of cracking some of the harder issues, and businesses are still not capitalizing on those more thorny psychological needs that lie outside of business as we currently, understand it.
14. When people celebrate religious rituals to do with human development, I look at it from a psychological perspective as a kind of mechanism that’s trying to make people suffer less and trying to answer to their needs. So, again it comes back to the idea of enlightened capitalism.