Meet Alain de Botton | Leaders in Action Society


I grew up in Switzerland,
which is, possibly, you know, along with Norway,
the most prosperous country on Earth. Many of the problems
that exist politically in everywhere else around the world,
just don’t exist. There are no debates about education,
there are no problems about hospitals or deficits, etc. And yet,
people are not necessarily happy. And this really interests me because,
for most countries, to get to be like Switzerland
is an amazing ambition. I think a prosperous country
like Switzerland allows you all kinds of freedoms. Your life is free
of a lot of encumbrances and difficulties that otherwise exist. I spent some time last year in Uganda and, what strikes you, if you
spend time somewhere like Uganda is, so many things that just don’t exist
as problems in the rich world are the work of days and weeks. Getting a stamp,
getting a message, getting a permit,
you know, talking to somebody. These things are major hurdles.
Getting some water… These things are all major hurdles. We are simply in the rich world,
able to do so much more with our lives. And this is the kind of tragedy of poverty,
really. Is that it slows you down
it’s like a giant brake that, at every turn, you know, stops the gap between
what you want and what you can do. But, when you grow up in Switzerland
you see even there, there are all sorts of problems. And what are these problems? These problems are broadly speaking,
in the emotional area. So Switzerland
has quite a high suicide rate, it has a very high divorce rate, it has quite high rates
of anxiety and depression… And all of these things. This got me thinking.
Looking at a particular set of problems which is in the kind of emotional arena. When I was a young guy,
one of the first things I worried about when I got to university was:
“What am I gonna do after university?” I was very interested
in what I could do, because I realised that a conventional
job was gonna be tricky for me. I’m a very conventional person,
I love to be conventional. And I would’ve loved
to be an accountant. But, somehow, it just didn’t quite work with
my own kind of inner emotional function. I wish it had, because frankly my life’s
been difficult, more difficult than it would have been, if I just kept my
head down and be a good boy, and become a doctor
or lawyer or accountant. And what was driving me was a kind of impulse to try and sort out emotional issues. My own and those of others around me. And it was just…
It was a drive stronger than me. I didn’t want it to be there,
but it was there. And for me, I had a hunger always
to try and analyse situations. I was an intellectual, not because I wore black clothes
or sat in a cafe smoking Gitanes and reading Sartre.
That’s not being an intellectual. I was an intellectual because
I needed to spend part of every day alone, thinking. And reading and analysing ideas. And to this day,
what I love more than anything else, what calms me down, is to analyse things and situations. And I thought: “Well, that’s not a job.
What does that mean?” And… Then, normally
these types are to steer towards books. and I thought:
“Maybe I should try and write a book.” I’d done very well at university,
in a very conventional way, so, the path seemed to be to go in to university,
setting and become a professor, etc., and I started down that path,
but it all came down to the shoes. I remember looking
at the shoes of the professor and they were so unfashionable, they were so violently
resistant to elegance, that I thought: “I don’t know
if I want to spend time… “I don’t know if I want to be him.” He looked so unstylish. Again, I’m not a very stylish person,
but I’m interested in style because style is again
an attempt to seduce and communicate. And the university,
it’s buildings, it’s clothes sends out a message: “We don’t care.” “We don’t care about beauty, we
don’t care about style. “You’ve come to us
because we’re serious.” And this seemed wrong to me.
Just smelt wrong. Look, I was 21,
I didn’t really know but sometimes when you’re young
you have to go by your nose. You smell. It smelt a bit wrong.
Didn’t really know exactly why. So then I thought:
“Okay, I’m gonna get a normal job, “but before I get a normal job,
I’m just gonna try and write a book, “because that’s really
what I want to do.” I lost my hair very young.
So suddenly, when I was 20, I lost all my hair.
Suddenly I looked like an old man. And it made me think about death. And it made me think… I no longer felt 20.
I suddenly felt 45, because all my hair had fallen out,
it was really weird. So, it made me more serious and I
thought: “Okay, given that life is short “and already I’ve kind of like,
jumped ahead, what am I gonna do?” And I thought: “I really want to write
a book, so I wrote my first book, which was a book analysing love,
it was called “Essays in Love”. Look, frankly,
I didn’t quite know what I was doing, I was just lead by instinct and hard work. And this book
became a big best-seller for me, and it was a great surprise.
Suddenly I was 22, and wow, you know,
this looked kind of serious. And… It was the beginning of a strange career. You know, where I’ve just made it up. And as I say, I can’t stress enough
how conventional I am, I want to be so conventional, but I’ve been forced into this life
by my own temperament, which is, extremely entrepreneurial and creative. Because, at every turn,
the things that I really want to do don’t seem to have an easy box. I wanted to make television
programmes, but I didn’t fit naturally the normal
television programmes that you make. I wanted to start a business, but the business I wanted to start
was not necessarily the normal one. So, at every turn
I’ve had to slightly reinvent, in order to try and kind of
match what’s inside me with the world. Philosophy is busted, it’s at an end, it’s broken, and the reason is that the
universities have seized this subject and they have made it in to
the most boring subject on Earth. So Philosophy used to be
the place you would look at after religion or alongside religion to answer the biggest questions: “What are we here for?”,
“What do we do about suffering?”, “How can we understand love?”,
“What about sex?”, “What about beauty… money?” All these things
used to be philosophical questions. This subject
which was a beautiful guiding light, has been killed by academics. So, university Philosophy
is not the answer, there is an older tradition of Philosophy,
outside of the university. This is the Philosophy of Socrates,
of Nietzsche, of Schopenhauer, of Jean-Paul Sartre, these are all people
who lived outside of universities. And they have the best ideas. And my career,
in relation to Philosophy, has been to say: “Listen guys,
we have to try and go back to “what the philosopher
was in Ancient Greece.” Philosophers in Ancient Greece, were
meeting business people, politicians, they were advising governments,
they were helping people to think about their relationships,
about the direction of the State, etc. And this has been my goal. So if I go into number 10
and advise David Cameron, which I’ve done,
or if I go into… … a business, which I’ve done, etc., I’m thinking back, not forward,
I’m thinking back to: “This is a traditional mission
of Philosophy”. To be people who help in this weird thing called “thinking”.
You know? It’s odd, because
we think of thinking as the easy bit. But you all know, that in businesses
and other strategic decisions, often the thinking part
goes by really fast and no one really is looking after it.
Technology someone’s looking after marketing someone’s looking after… Who’s the Head of thinking
in the organization? “Well, we all think, don’t we?”
“Really?” “Yeah.”
“How much are you thinking, really? “How… In what kind of depth and rigour?” We do not have departments
for thinking in our large organizations. This is a problem. We should. We have the idea of “the specialist”
this never really suited me, I have a vagabond intelligence, that
wants to skate over a lot of things. But there is something that holds all
my interests together, broadly speaking, and that is the good life,
the fulfilled life. And my first question in any area is:
“What is the good version of this?” So, if I see people bringing up children,
my first question is: “What is it like to bring up a child well?” “What should go right?”,
and also, “What goes wrong?” “What are the problems and pains
in the area of child raising?” Or, we’re in a hotel now: “What’s a good
hotel? What’s a bad hotel?” “What’s a good business?
What’s a bad business?” I’m interested in suffering and pleasure and analysing
the sources of suffering and pleasure in a wide variety of fields. I started The School of Life
because I realised that, in order to have power in the world, ideas often need institutions. Ideas on their own
are very easy to get lost. Institutions, even though
the romantic Philosophy suggests that institutions are all corrupt
and bad and boring, in fact, they are vital carriers of things. They’re agglomerations of people that can make certain things
more powerful in the world. So I realised that, rather than just writing
books, I should also start an institution. And The School of Life
does everything I do in my books, it looks, systematically,
at the great problems of emotional life. And it does… It’s output is vary varied: it makes films, it writes books,
publishes books, it has a very lively online presence… We consult with businesses
in the area of emotional life, we offer psychotherapy and various kinds
of therapy to the general public and we offer classroom based teaching. We have now ten branches
around the world and we are… We also make
retail products of all kinds. And the ambition is, really,
to create a brand around emotional intelligence
and wellbeing. And it’s an area where, up till now, we’ve had a lot of gurus
and inspirational figures, one-off people, charismatic people…
Maybe who have a very big following. But always based on one person. And the idea of The School of Life is,
it’s really, a team. Plato famously said that
the world would only come right when kings became philosophers
or philosophers kings. What he meant by that was,
you need to ally ideas with power and power with ideas. Replace the word…
Kings are not so powerful nowadays. What is the king now?
Kings are CEOs. Kings are business leaders. And… I suppose I’m very attracted
to the power that these people have. Not for personal enrichment,
or fame or anything like this, but in order to have
impact with people’s lives. And what really pains me is to see, at very often,
the best ideas are around,
but no one’s listening to them. Whereas
the big engines of the world, the big show, is being led by people
with no spiritual or emotional ambitions. And I suppose
I want to try and bring them together. I would like the vigour, the scale,
the organizational capacity of business allied
with the intellectual seriousness, the spiritual ambition
and the emotional intelligence of the philosophical
and psychological world. I would like those two to be united. And when young people
come to me and they say: “Look,
I’m really interested on what you’re doing, “I don’t know what to study at university. “I’m deciding whether to study
English Literature or Philosophy.” And I say: “No, study Management.
Go and be a lawyer. “Come and do some of the hard
technical skills “then come back and see us.” Cause what we really need, at The School of Life,
what I really need around me are not another poet
or another philosopher, we have enough of those,
we have tons of those. What we really need are people
who are sympathetic to what we do but with extremely
hard headed technical skills. And this is what
we’re trying to do that is new. And I always try
and surround myself with people who are not, necessarily, particularly
from a humanities background, maybe sympathetic
on the weak end to this but are very pragmatic. We find that people
have really two problems, when they come
from members of the general public, relationships and work. And what goes wrong in relationships is
they either can’t find someone or the person that they’re with
they can’t be happy with them. And this is because
of an overwhelming idea in the world that it’s easy to find love
and it’s easy to make relationships work. It isn’t. It needs a lot of skills,
a lot of patience, a lot of an awareness that you’d,
you know… Dealing with something
that’s much more complicated than learning to play the violin. You would never
pick up a violin and go: “I can’t play, “what’s wrong with my violin?
I’ll get another violin.” No. Try and figure out how this thing works. In love, I think the real challenge in love is to find another person who you admire and need. And the reason that you need them is
that they bring you things that you are
not capable of and that you like. And, even better, they like you and you don’t have
an impulse to destroy them and they don’t have
an impulse to destroy you. The impulse to destroy
being very strong in love. There are some… For all sorts of
reasons, we are very destructive around the people
that we feel strongest about. These are very,
very high ambitions indeed. We will fail,
by definition, in some areas. Religion, the Christian Church
used to have a very beautiful idea that human beings are all broken and we need God to complete us and to heal us, and we need His mercy
and forgiveness. I’m a secular Jew,
I believe none of it, but I love this language,
because I need it in my own life and I recognize that other people need it.
We all need forgiveness and help with the broken bits of us. I think happiness, in the world of work means doing justice to what you feel to be your genuine talents. Our genuine talents are not things
that announce themselves very clearly: “Here are my genuine talents.”
We feel them. We feel them late at night, we feel them
as we wake up in the morning, we feel them on Sunday afternoons. We feel them, sometimes,
when we envy people. We think: “There’s something…” I recognise an echo
of my genuine talent in that other person. And I think one of the great tasks of
life is to assemble a coherent picture of this, hitherto,
jumbled, collection of signs of your genuine talents.
A good life is when you’re able to exploit your genuine talent and be recognised for doing so,
by the world. And, ideally,
make some money from it, because money
is an important currency. I think that this, you know,
is a situation of great fulfilment. Very few people get there. It’s just very hard, you need a lot of luck, even people
who’ve done it in some parts are… Were all so talented in so many areas that the chance of really doing justice
to what’s inside everybody… Almost no one manages that
in the course of a life. And so it’s a great tragedy
that a lot of us, perhaps most of us, go to our deaths not having been able to exploit or draw out the most sincere
and talented parts of us. The problem with our minds is
our minds are vague. The great error of our…
Look, we’re all evolved apes, but the ape side of us
is not too far away. Our brains have evolved
to take immediate decisions according to stimuli
that are right in front of us. A lot of life, nowadays,
demands long term thinking and analysis, and that is not gonna be
based simply on emotional gut instinct. This kind of thinking is really hard, like, if you ask the mind to do that
it goes: “Can’t I look at Twitter?” No, sit down and think harder. And it doesn’t want to do that kind of
thinking, but it’s really important to do it. My advice is beware of your own brains, they can be very misleading and create a kind of structure,
a safe zone, where the errors of the mind
can be tested and refined and evaporated
before they become too serious and the wrong decisions are taken. I think we need to tell our young people, specially young children
from an early age, first of all say:
“Look guys, there’s not much time. “You’ve got this talent inside of you.” So everything about education
must be about getting to this stage where, age 20, 21 or 22, you’re starting to know what
some of these key talents are and you’re able to train in those areas. And it could be quite an unusual thing
but, you need to know this kind of stuff. So everything,
working backwards from that, everything needs
to have that goal in mind. And so this means having wide
experience trying a lot of things from a very young age, being exposed to a lot of different
industries, sectors, people… If you’re a doctor,
introduce your kid to a sailor, if you’re a sailor,
introduce your kid to a priest, if you’re a priest, introduce your kid to an
IT… Not kid, you know what I’m saying. That kind of thing.
So, to get a broad experience because families are tunnels and it’s very important for the
tunnel always to try and be opened. And tell your kids,
you know, “Work hard at school”, but also, “Working hard at school
is only a small part of the puzzle.” You can be the most brilliant student,
but if you’ve got the wrong mentality you’re not gonna succeed. You need a certain
impatience with the rules and a respect for the rules. Too much respect and, actually,
you become a sheep, a brilliant sheep,
but still a sheep. And sheep have limited lives. But too much untrained brilliance, and you shoot off like a rocket
that’s not been properly calibrated. The Church was an amazing institution. If you think of the buildings,
the schools, the universities, the networks, the political influence, etc. It was amazing.
I mean, any student of Management should look at the Church as the supreme institution
and organization. There’s nothing like it on Earth,
that has last this long. People say things like:
“The Church is corrupt.” Yeah, of course it is,
it’s gone through many crisis. Think of an average organization:
an average business lasts ten years and in those ten years it will probably
go through two years of utter corruption and collapse. So,
it’s doing quite well, the Church, in grander terms. So, nevertheless, unfortunately, there’s one big problem with the Church,
they really believe in God. I wish they didn’t,
but I think they really do. I come from England, the Church
of England is probably the most secular, most priests come out, at some point, in the Church of England
and say things like: “Well, Jesus wasn’t really supernatural,
he was kind of like a really nice man.” But, when push comes to shove, these guys still tell you
that Jesus is a son of God. And for most people, me included, in the age of science,
it’s just not gonna work. And this was the crisis of the
19th century, particularly, in Germany, where Nietzsche comes from,
the Death of God, etc. It’s just not gonna be possible
to persuade most people, in an age of science. All the supernatural bits
of religion will just disappear. This is a real pity, because there’s so much else
around religion which is fantastic! The gatherings,
the sense of community, the support,
the kind of pastoral care… It’s all great, but it’s just hooked up to this,
you know, very unfortunate thing. I think we need forgiveness. This is
what the Church always understood. That if you’re gonna have justice,
you need forgiveness. Otherwise, you have to lock up
pretty much everybody because everybody has done bad stuff. And if you examine
everyone under a microscope and you don’t give them any leeway… So anything they say in social media, any indiscretion
they might’ve committed 15 years ago, anything like those…
If you make a drama out of this, humiliate them, etc., you’re gonna start
making life more difficult. And I worry that we’re advancing
towards a world, particularly in the USA, of zero forgiveness. I’m not saying
indiscretion should be allowed, but there should be a process from sin,
to forgiveness, to moving on. And this has always been how
societies dealt with things, village elders would gather around, somebody would’ve
done something wrong, it would be worked through. I worry about our capacity
as a society to work through things. Largely, it’s the work of the media, who’s energies are all spent in the
exploitation and humiliation of people and has no interest in improvement.
Cause ultimately, what we need to do is to improve people,
not just condemn them. The first thought ought to always be:
“How do we avoid this happening again? “What do we learn from it?,
How do we move on?”, rather than: “Ha-ha, what an idiot.” Self-knowledge is absolutely key.
To understand ourselves is the thing, the puzzle. Once we work that out,
a lot of things become clearer. It’s very, very hard. We don’t have anything like
the support structure, the institutions, the guidance we need to achieve this. Most of us are walking around
blind and ignorant… No wonder
we make catastrophic mistakes and regularly blow up our lives and the lives of those around us,
even those we care about. We are steering blind. This is part of the tragedy
of the human condition, at the moment. However,
there are reasons to be hopeful. The good scenario involves
various bits of technology allied with various bits of Philosophy. So, you know… There’s a real chance that we will get
energy prices down to almost zero, that many
of the basic struggles for survival will be solved, that economics,
as we see it today in a very bad place, will, you know, be solved. So,
there’s a kind of Switzerland option. We will still have all kinds
of human problems. Hopefully our brains, these walnuts that sit
on top of our spinal columns, will be getting a handle on them. Neuroscience, psychology,
artificial intelligence will be giving us more of a handle
on why we’re crazy and how we’re crazy. And we still live in societies
where we have the therapists, we have drugs… Lot of people
are on drugs. Why are they on drugs? Cause they don’t know how to control
their minds. Drugs are a horribly crude violent attempt to control minds. My hope is, that with time we’ll be
able to make more use of our minds, control our minds
in more productive ways. We’re on the cusp
of a really exciting age where we can move away from the idea
of technology as merely distracting us and feeding us things we don’t need towards an idea of what I like to
think of as an emotional technology, in other words, technology
that is properly adapted to us and our emotional needs. Many of the tools we have now,
think of the world of dating, of friendship,
messaging, etc… These things are still very random.
We’ll look back on them as very rough. And they do… When we complain saying
that they’ve distracted us, what we’re really saying is
that they haven’t engaged with the most fundamental parts of us. But I look forward to a time
where technology is able to help us in the really big areas, guiding us towards our biggest talents, uniting us with the areas
of the work place, where we have the most to contribute, helping us to interpret our emotions
and communicate those emotions to others. And we’re on the cusp
of some major discoveries in the world of artificial intelligence, and this will have an impact on the way
that we think about ourselves, communicate with others… Up till now,
we’ve had this thing called art, and art is the main tool with which we
understand ourselves and communicate. I think we’re gonna see, in many ways,
a merge of art and technology in the area of emotional intelligence. Translation and Subtitling
Ana Luísa Aguiar / PSB Studios

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