Ted Talk by Alain de Botton: Is What You Know About Success Wrong?

Title image for the article "Ted Talk by Alain de Botton: Is What You Know About Success Wrong?" showing a close up of the definition of the word success in a dictionary
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I​n the Ted Talk by Alain de Botton “A Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success”, he challenges everything you think you know about success.

In the Ted Talk by Alain de Botton, he argues that each one of us must define what success is for ourselves. This is different from the commonly held view in modern society that success is an accumulation of power, prestige, and wealth. Alain also debunks the current notion that a person should be successful in all areas of life all the time. He says that is impossible, you must choose what you will be successful at, and other areas of your life will pay the price. Read on to dive deeper and find out how to apply his “kinder, gentler philosophy of success” to your life.

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Table of Contents (so you can skip ahead to what interests you most):

  1. Dictionary Definitions of Success
  2. The Old-School Definition of Success
  3. An Even Older-School Definition of Success
  4. Modern Society’s Definition of Success
  5. The New Alain de Botton Definition of Success
  6. Tools To Help You Succeed
  7. What Does Success Look Like To You?

Dictionary Definitions of Success

O​xford Languages:

  1. the accomplishment of an aim or purpose.
  2. the attainment of fame, wealth, or social status.
  3. a person or thing that achieves desired aims or attains fame, wealth, etc.

Merriam-Webster:

  1. degree or measure of succeeding
  2. a favorable or desired outcome
  3. the attainment of wealth, favor, or eminence
  4. one that succeeds
  5. obsolete: OUTCOME, RESULT

The Old-School Definition of Success

Picture of a modest wood house with a porch as an example of What success looked like in the 1900s. The Ted Talk by Alain de Botton says success looks very different today. Photo Credit: davelogan, Getty Images Signature
What success looked like in the 1900s. The Ted Talk by Alain de Botton says success looks very different today. Photo Credit: davelogan, Getty Images Signature

T​here was a time in American history when success was viewed as having a spouse, a couple of kids and some pets, a house in the suburbs, and a car that could take the family on a vacation or two every year. In other words, most people were satisfied with being solidly middle-class average. You were somewhat in control of your success or failure, although the family and neighborhood you were born to still played a big part in your ultimate success (or failure). In those times, the idea of success was more attainable. The goal was a good place to raise your kids and live a good life with your family. No one cared much about how you paid for the house, the car, or the family’s needs. If you lived in the green lawns and fresh air of the suburbs, you had made it.

An Even Older-School Definition of Success

I​f you look further into the past, success wasn’t up to each individual. God determined your fate, which included the family you were born into, your status, your occupational choices, your mate, your health, and everything else in your life. Sure, you could make an effort to improve your lot in life, but the chances of significant change to your social position were rare. But, so was guilt, shame, and otherwise feeling bad about your social position. People accepted that God had given you your lot in life for a reason, and that was not to be questioned. Those with too much ambition were targeted and even persecuted for daring to question the wisdom of God, but overall society was mentally healthier. It may be surprising, but the more individualistic and meritocratic society is, the higher the rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide.

Modern Society’s Definition of Success

What success looks like today, according to the common definition. The Ted Talk by Alain de Botton says that in the past success looked very different. Photo Credit: aimintang, Getty Images Signature
What success looks like today, according to the common definition. The Ted Talk by Alain de Botton says that in the past success looked very different. Photo Credit: aimintang, Getty Images Signature

I​n today’s world, and particularly in the USA, success is viewed as an accumulation of wealth, status, and power. Your career success is equated to your worth. Consider the following quote from the Ted Talk by Alain de Botton:

“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. At the same time, the media bombards you with images, videos, and messages that tell your subconscious that you are supposed to be successful in all areas of life all of the time.”

Alain de Botton, Ted Talk, “A Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success”

I​t is no longer enough to be middle-class average, it seems. The rise of super-successes like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and J.K. Rowling, combined with social media culture makes it seem less like everyone has the potential to do anything and more like everyone should be a super-success at everything and if you aren’t, there’s something wrong with you.

The New Ted Talk by Alain de Botton Definition of Success

I​f you feel, like I do, that you can’t live up to the expectation that you can be a success at everything all the time, don’t sweat it. Alain says that’s all bullsh*t. If you take away all the preconceived perceptions, success comes down to achieving a goal or desired outcome. What that takes is single-minded devotion and dedication to your goal. Single-minded. Not well-balanced over all areas of your life.

W​ait, isn’t the whole mission of this blog to teach people how to achieve balance? Well yes, but as Simon Sinek says in another Ted Talk, balance is more of a constant motion, not a static state of being. The art of balance is not to stand still in the exact center, the art is to be able to stay standing when things are off-kilter. If you’re working towards a big career goal, your time with family and friends will suffer. If raising children is your focus, your career will suffer, and let’s be honest, your house will probably suffer too. You are not a super-human. Neither am I. You can’t do it all perfectly all the time. It’s not possible, no matter how much Instagram tells you otherwise. So let go of that.

I​n the Ted Talk by Alain de Button he gives the challenge to forget everything you thought you knew about what success is and looks like. Then, once you have a clean slate, dig deep and find out what success looks like for you in this stage of life. Work towards that. Re-evaluate often, and shift your goals or course as needed. Success, like balance, is a fluid thing, not a static state of being.

Tools To Help You Succeed

N​ow that you’ve determined what success is for you, it’s time to set a plan to work towards it. Here are some tools that can help you on the road to success.

“Status Anxiety”, the book by Alain de Botton

S​o that he could go into more detail than a brief Ted Talk allows, Alain de Button wrote a book on his kinder, gentler philosophy of success titled “Status Anxiety”. You can get a paperback copy here, a Kindle summary here, or an Audible book here. Want an Audible subscription? You can grab one of those here.

Create a Vision Board

Hold on, you’re thinking, is this a trick to get me to click that Vision Board button she has in the sidebar? No, it’s not. I mean, I would be stoked if you subscribe to my weekly emails and get a free Vision Board printable but it’s not required, and that board is not maximized for one-goal-at-a-time use. All you need to create your own one-goal-at-a-time Vision Board is:

  • a piece of poster board or paper for a background
  • cut-out words or images that represent your goal
  • tape or glue to stick the words/images to the background
  • and some imagination

Or, if you want to be fancy about it, you can buy a Vision Board Kit.

Cover Image for Alain de Botton's book "Status Anxiety"
Image of a Vision Board kit available on Amazon
Image of a Vision Board kit that can be purchased on Amazon if you don't want to make your own
Image of a Vision Board kit available on Amazon

Once created, hang your Vision Board where you see it all day long, like over your desk at work or on the fridge. Visualize what life will be like and feel like once you achieve your goal at least once a day. Take daily actions to achieve your goal. Then watch your dream come to life!

W​hat Does Success Look Like To You?

N​ow that you’ve taken the time to reconstruct what success means to you, and you’ve created a Vision Board to help you achieve it, it’s time to share your goal. Those that share their goal are more likely to stay motivated because of a little thing called peer pressure. Oops! I mean, accountability. So, send me a picture of your Vision Board or tag @basicbfindsbalance on Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn, and I’ll give a shout-out to you and your board in my story!

T​hanks for reading about Alain de Button’s kinder, gentler philosophy of success. I hope it helps you feel better about where you are in your life and where you’re going. I believe in you!

Image of the author of Basic B Finds Balance working on a blog post
Your favorite Basic B, hard at work on a blog post

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