On success from TED by Alain de Botton

1 December 2010

Vanesa Weyrauch recommended this TED talk on a new philosophy of success, by Alain de Botton. The talk is clearly directed at us, human beings, obsessed by modern notions of success and the anxiety that the possibility and unavoidable failure to become Bill Gates generates.

It could have, however, been equally directed at the funders of think tanks who demand measures of impact and value for money and the think tanks who (are quick to) claim it for themselves.

Anxiety, he argues is also generated by envy -by competition between peers. This is not helped by a society (or a community) that strives to treat and evaluate (and rank) us as equals even when we are clearly not.

And because we are not equal, the possibility of meritocracy is equally impossible -and the attribution of value to people and organisations based on what is a necessarily (because we can never know it all) flawed assessment of their achievements is fundamentally wrong.

However, still we do assign value to success. We deem organisations that achieve their objectives more valuable than those that don’t. Mind you, not all objectives. No. We focus on particular achievements, small parts of a much broader whole: a policy change, a big idea being adopted by decision makers, a project being redesigned. And we are expected to judge (or be judged) by those.

Our real value then has nothing to do with who we are and all to do with, as Alain de Bottom implies in his introduction, what we do (from: ‘Hello, nice to meet you. So… what do you do?’).

Success, he also argues, implies trade-offs -failures. We need to recognise that we cannot be successful in everything achieve it all (work life balance; great communicators and great researchers).

Therefore, when evaluating think tanks (and when evaluating ourselves) we should not be afraid to focus on our whole -our roles- and consider a more nuanced understanding of success that recognises necessary choices and sacrifices. We should pay far more attention than we do to consider what success means to us because what we aim for is essentially life changing and transformational. In de Botton’s words:

And make sure that we own them [our own ideas of success],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 ideaof 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.