I recently had the pleasure of interviewing the British philosopher and best-selling author Alain de Botton for Your Weekend magazine.
Here’s how the online version begins:
Alain de Botton thinks you’re a hellish proposition.
It’s nothing personal, mind. Basic sanity is simply beyond our reach. Everyone has an appalling amount wrong with them. The only people we can think of as profoundly admirable are those we don’t yet know very well.
I’m eager to establish my muttonhead bona fides as soon as possible, so I botch six separate attempts to secure the Skype connection to London. De Botton waits patiently, gently offering suggestions as if to a rather dim child.
That ought to do the trick. Now we have a clear line, from one hellish human to another.
If you’re interested in my take on De Botton’s new book, I recommend reading the full profile. We cover the cruel expectations of self-help, why we’re all walking trash-fires, the curse of fame, and the uneasy pairing of philosophy and profit.
There were a few other juicy bits and pieces I couldn’t fit into the article, so here’s the transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.
You can use the section heads to jump around:
MEADOWS: Your work is often described as making philosophy more accessible to non-philosophers. But I have to confess that I found some of the book [The School of Life: An Emotional Education] quite hard going. Not so much in terms of the underlying ideas, but some of the vocabulary and prose—I had to look up a few words. And I was wondering, is that some kind of deliberate filtering mechanism to reach a given audience? Or is that just more to do with your personal writing style?
DE BOTTON: Well, I’m sorry about that!
DE BOTTON: It’s very much just a personal writing style. We very much aim to appeal to anybody who’s curious. And we aim to break down barriers rather than raise barriers. And generally, our work is found accessible, fortunately, by quite large numbers of people, whether it’s on a YouTube channel or in the books, so yeah… we’ll have to try harder. But the aim is very much to reach as broad and diverse an audience as possible.
Our Childhoods Influence us More Than We Know
MEADOWS: Do you have any explicit strategies for bridging that inferential divide between you and your reader without bulldozing away the nuance? Because you’re writing about quite complicated themes. How do you go about that?
DE BOTTON: I should say that this book has nothing really to do with philosophy. I did write a book about philosophy back in 2000 [The Consolations of Philosophy], but I haven’t written about philosophy for many, many years.
This book is squarely based on psychotherapy, so it would be mischaracterizing it to say that it has anything to do with attempting to teach philosophy, because as I say, that was a project I did 20 years ago.
So really, it’s based on psychotherapy, and the leading idea in psychotherapy is your childhood has a massive influence on who you are as an adult. And this is a really strange idea, because for most people the thought that who they were at five, might have a guiding role in who they are when they’re 25 or 35 or 45 is just strange—it doesn’t seem true, it seems like it might just be made up. Nevertheless, that is our firm idea.
For most people the thought that who they were at five, might have a guiding role in who they are when they’re 25 or 35 or 45 is just strange—it doesn’t seem true, it seems like it might just be made up.
We are a psychotherapeutic organization. And so a lot of our pieces, a lot of our positions on things, is all about an invitation to look backwards into childhood. And the less conscious bits of our mind, things that may have happened before we had much self-awareness. And the invitation is really to try to raise our level of self-awareness, so that we can make better choices, understand what drives us.
We’re particularly interested in relationships, and the way in which how people choose their partners is hugely determined by how their lives went in childhood. And in many ways, the love we find as adults is a process of re-finding a love that we had in childhood.
The reason why a lot of people get into difficulties around love is that love in childhood doesn’t necessarily go that well. And so when people come to re-find love, and build their adult emotional life, frequently they’re drawn to situations which are pretty problematic, and they feel compelled to end up in tricky situations. And that’s very painful. The answer there, as ever is a kind of self-awareness, so that you can try and make better choices.
The Cruel Expectations of Self-Help
MEADOWS: Yeah, I think that was one of the main things that struck me about the book—this notion that childhood influences us in ways that we might not expect, but also sort of turns the usual rah-rah motivational spiel on its head, because you seem to be saying that all of us are quite deeply flawed, and we just have to figure out ways to live with that reality.
And I wasn’t sure: are you writing with your tongue in cheek a little bit, for dramatic effect? Or is it actually more or less impossible to be, you know, a fully psychologically healthy person?
DE BOTTON: I think the latter. And I don’t think that’s a cause for alarm, or too much sadness. This book is a work of self help toward life, the School of Life is about self help. And many people associate self help with really overblown promises about what can be achieved: you can be totally happy, you can have a perfect relationship, make a lot of money, and die completely fulfilled.
It’s our little working assumption that’s not possible. In fact, that’s a very, very cruel set of expectations. So we believe that life is inherently problematic for everybody, that everybody dies, in many ways, unfulfilled, disappointed. And rather than this being the kind of moment to jump out of the window, it’s actually the beginning of friendship, kindness, and a touch of humor, to recognize it, and to recognize it not just in yourself, but socially.
We believe that life is inherently problematic for everybody, that everybody dies, in many ways, unfulfilled, disappointed.
You always have to think of it like, if two people would go out on a date, and meet for the first time, and one of them said, “Well, I’m perfect, How about you?” And the other one says, “I’m perfect too.” This couple would be a nightmare.
But imagine a couple where a person goes, “Well, actually, I’m kind of broken and misshapen in all sorts of ways, how about you?” That would be the road to a much more real and genuine sort of intimacy where our flaws are recognized, we don’t need to be perfect. And our reality can be admitted.
It’s our view at the School of Life that no-one is normal. But what can you get to is a situation where your abnormalities can at least be known, discussed, and kind of flagged-up in advance of those who we care about. That’s a mature person. A mature person isn’t somebody with no problems. It’s somebody with the kind of wit to understand their problems, and the generosity and insight to share them with others, while there’s still time, in a way that they might be able to understand. And that’s a very big goal for anybody. But that’s the goal.
A mature person isn’t somebody with no problems. It’s somebody with the kind of wit to understand their problems, and the generosity and insight to share them with others, while there’s still time, in a way that they might be able to understand.
Is Change Possible?
MEADOWS: So that sort of self-knowledge, surely that can only be the starting point, right? Otherwise, you’d be fatalistic about the capacity to change yourself.
How do you think about that? To what extent can we actually help ourselves, and to what extent is it just about coming to terms with ourselves the way that we already are?
DE BOTTON: I think we all feel deep down that we are capable of changing. I think that’s why we keep going. I think human beings have a tremendous energy for change and improvement of their circumstances—not just external material circumstances, but inner circumstances.
And we all have an impulse towards growth as human beings, by which I mean, self-understanding, but also expansion of our talents, capacities, interests, you know, just as children will keep growing physically. So too, an adult will be under tremendous internal pressure of a good kind, to keep developing emotionally.
And sometimes the road is very difficult, because people will have a breakdown or fall into a depression. But very often, if you look beneath the so-called negative events, you find an attempt to grow out of a problem. Sometimes, it will get worse in order to get better. So I think I’m quite optimistic that yes, there is a drive towards self-understanding, and broadly speaking a kind of enlightenment.
But in order for that to happen, you need to be lucky in part, but also surround yourself with the right people, the right ideas, a supportive community. Because there are people who keep us in our place, and others who help us go forward when it comes to self-understanding, self expression, self acceptance, all of these very, very difficult terms.
Optimal Conditions for Introspection
MEADOWS: Something I’ve been wondering about is whether it’s more useful to just sort of put yourself in the right environment to flourish, rather than to try and do things all on your lonesome.
DE BOTTON: It would be nice if you could do it on your own. But I think that we all have our blind spots. And we’re all very keen to run away from certain difficult but real truths about ourselves. And sometimes a stranger can pick up on things about us that we’ve been in the dark about for years. So I think outsiders are really important in our search to understand ourselves.
It sounds odd, you need another brain to plug into your brain, in order to help you to see things that you yourself couldn’t see. So I think partly that’s friends, therapists, counselors, coaches of various kinds. I think all of these people can be a real benefit.
We’re constantly invited to look outwards and worry about other people and other things and look at the news and check information from outside. But often the really important information is from inside—that’s the stuff we need to get a notification about.
When we are on our own, it should be said that most of us like to run away a lot. It’s really hard to spend time on your own. I think, especially now with our phones, the Internet, etcetera, we’re constantly invited to look outwards and worry about other people and other things and look at the news and check information from outside. But often the really important information is from inside—that’s the stuff we need to get a notification about. But it’s often not available. So it’s important to make time and find an environment in which introspection is possible.
Fame and Haters
MEADOWS: Now, I want to dig into a couple of sections of the book that I found particularly interesting. So, on fame and ambition: what was it like for you to become successful at the tender age of 24 or 25? Or however old you were when you wrote Essays in Love?
DE BOTTON: Well, I think that fame is a problematic thing. It’s a really big ambition for many people to want to be famous. I think often what people really want is love, kindness, respect, community. And oddly enough, none of these things are really offered to you via fame.
Fame is a shortcut to mental illness, disturbance, alienation, loneliness, feelings of isolation. And that’s why so many famous people go mad. It’s just not a particular route to sanity. I’d love a world in which fewer people were famous, in which there were fewer ambitions for fame.
And I think the opposite of fame is not really obscurity—it’s love. What I mean by that is an environment in which kindness and respect is available, not on the basis of achievement, but on the basis of one’s humanity. We’re quite bad at doing that.
Fame is a shortcut to mental illness, disturbance, alienation, loneliness, feelings of isolation. And that’s why so many famous people go mad. It’s just not a particular route to sanity.
If you said to most people: “Look, you have a choice: either you can be loved anonymously by millions of strangers, or live in a community that’s supportive, where you’re known, seen, understood, and you do likewise for other people.” I think the latter is genuinely much more appealing.
So I think it’s problematic. And I answer all this partly autobiographically, but also more broadly, I’ve had the chance to observe a lot of people who have had a lot more fame to me, and my general response would be—it’s not very good for them.
MEADOWS: I hear what you’re saying, and I agree. But I wonder if you take that mindset too far, is there some kind of trade-off between maintaining your own personal equanimity, and doing big things in the world? Perhaps you can have a greater impact, even if you have to sacrifice your personal happiness to some degree.
And I mean, that seems to me like the path you’ve chosen, or the path that you’ve ended up on. So, how do you think about that trade-off, if there is a trade-off?
DE BOTTON: Yeah, look, I think there are ways of making an impact and changing the world in ways that are fairly anonymous. Perhaps not completely anonymous, but anonymous enough. And there are also ways of living that focus on close relationships, rather than the top-down broadcast model, that are properly interactive. And I think that’s definitely what I would advise anyone who is thinking about their relationship to an audience.
MEADOWS: I particularly like the line: “For those who are already famous, the only way to retain a hold on a measure of sanity is to stop listening to what the wider world is saying.”
And I really want to know—do you take your own advice on that? Do you still read your reviews after the Caleb Crane incident? Are you going to read this profile I’m writing about you?
DE BOTTON: I don’t want to sound rude… I think there are ways to do your work, and leave it at that: focus on trying to make the best work you can, and not worry so much about pleasing everybody all the time. I think that’s my philosophy. So if you send me my review, I’ll definitely read it. But I won’t go stalking for it. I would put it that way.
Capitalism and Philosophy
MEADOWS: Now another thing I wanted to ask you about is the section of the book about using capitalism to address some of these higher level self-actualization related needs.
I’ve noticed a trend in recent years of philosophy becoming commercialized, and I know that you have strong aesthetic sensibilities. Have you had to get over any sort of ‘ick’ factor or squeamishness about, you know, effectively commercializing philosophy for profit?
DE BOTTON: I think we’ve built a strange world in which we imagine that things that are valuable and important shouldn’t be sold, whereas things that are not important can be sold. If something valuable is sold, it might get dirty in the process. I think that’s quite perverse really, and quite strange. I think we should try to build a world where buying and selling things is associated with quality, with decency.
We’ve built a strange world in which we imagine that things that are valuable and important shouldn’t be sold, whereas things that are not important can be sold.
And I think that’s the kind of capitalism, probably, we all really want. We don’t want to be selling each other awful things that don’t work, or make promises that can’t be delivered on. So theoretically at least, I believe there’s absolutely nothing wrong with buying and selling. It obviously depends what you’re buying and selling.
And I think that at the School of Life we’ve definitely tried to reconcile the pressure to make a profit, with the absolute necessity of delivering things that really help people.
And I don’t think there’s a particular conflict—I’ve not experienced a particular conflict. I don’t think we need to do anything that is merely commercial, and not quality. Of course, we end up doing stuff that can sometimes be more playful, more decorative, more lively than a lot of the products, of say, a traditional mental health service, or a traditional museum, or indeed a traditional philosophy department.
I think that’s fine. I mean we’ve been running a YouTube channel for the last five years. Many people would say, “Why are you guys delivering ideas on YouTube like that, it doesn’t belong there, you guys should just be a university.” Our view is, this is a medium that can reach millions of people. That’s fantastic. If we have to animate a film—brilliant, why not?
We look to religion for guidance on this. In Europe, Christianity was decorated and accompanied by all sorts of inducements and seductions that were not problematic at all from many people’s point of view. If you think of what music has done to Christianity, the interplay between religious music and religious ideas, it’s been fantastic. Also, architecture has been brilliantly enhanced by the patronage of religion and philosophy.
The world of ideas doesn’t doesn’t belong in a completely isolated realm. The simplest reason for that is that we are sensory creatures—we have eyes, and we have fingertips, and we have ears that strum to the music.
So, I think that those are kind of invitations really to say that things like design, music, architecture—even food—all of these things kind of belong to the world of ideas. The world of ideas doesn’t belong in a completely isolated realm. The simplest reason for that is that we are sensory creatures—we have eyes, and we have fingertips, and we have ears that strum to the music.
We can be stimulated, and we can learn from all kinds of different sources—we don’t really learn in a classroom on a book printed on grey paper—although of course we do that as well. But the learning experience can be can be aided by by all sorts of things.
MEADOWS: Yeah, and I think with regard to your own projects the numbers speak for themselves, really. We might have to add ‘entrepreneur’ to your many titles.
Doing Good & Daddy Issues
[Context: Alain has written about his difficult relationship with his father, Gilbert, who was a business magnate and all-round formidable man. Alain hasn’t touched the enormous trust-fund left to him, but became a multimillionaire through his writing and other interests.]
MEADOWS: We were talking before about the ways in which childhood experiences influence our choices in life. So, your pivot towards business: do you think that’s in any way about doing something that might have impressed your dad? Or is that too reductive?
DE BOTTON: Business is an incredibly powerful force in the modern world. Businesses are the main tools for changing the world, in many ways. And there’s a terrific divide in our society between those who are in the arts, and those who are in business.
And I think it impoverishes both sides. It’s always been my inspiration, my wish, to bring some of the best from both camps. And you’d probably be a better psychotherapist than me in this area to know where that comes from.
There’s a terrific divide in our society between those who are in the arts, and those who are in business. And I think it impoverishes both sides.
I’m really interested in effectiveness, and I think that you can bring the disciplines of business to bear on humanistic areas, like we do at School of Life, and it’s very effective. Over the past few years I’ve grown highly respectful of the accountants and business planners who work in our team, and they do amazing things.
You might go, “Oh that’s just the cold hand of money”. But it’s not. Because the people helping us in this area are helping us to deliver more psychotherapy, at a cheaper rate—at a more sustainable rate—to people who really need it.
So there’s in that area no conflict between the disciplines of business and doing good in the world. One really is helping the other. It’s not to say that’s always the case, but you can certainly run a business where that is the case.
MEADOWS: Yeah, and I think it’s not a perfect proxy, but it might be a reasonable proxy for producing value in the world, which is obviously quite fuzzy and difficult to measure.
I’m interested in effectiveness as well, to give you a little bit of personal background, and finding ways to deliver messages to people in the most useful way, that meets them on their own terms.
So, how would you assess the relative impact of the School of Life workshops, versus the YouTube videos, versus the books that you’re writing. Do you have a sense of which is the best use of your time?
DE BOTTON: The way we think about it is that it’s often a trade-off between numbers, and depth of impact. So I’d say that we have a very big impact into the millions at a relatively shallow level, and that is through our films, and our social media digital activity.
That’s not to put that impact down: it’s just to be realistic that we can’t change your life in a three minute film. But maybe if you watch 500 of our films—we’ve now got 500—maybe something will happen. But that’s the shallower end, and that’s sort of the mass end of things.
And it goes right down to the deepest but also the most expensive thing that we do, which is psychotherapy. Someone might do that for a year, and be paying really quite a lot of money. And that’s going to be for a very, very small audience measured in hundreds of people, rather than in the millions of people.
My view is that we should be hitting a few of those points along the way, with the different things that we do. So when it comes to our books, they’re probably halfway between the hundreds, and the millions. And that’s fine. Because you have to meet people where they are, in terms of their level of interest, their level of problems, but also their level of income. We can’t do everything for everybody, but we can at least have a few offering in those different categories.
Elitism and YouTube
MEADOWS: You’re almost straddling this world of the elite—philosophers and academics—and then regular folks. You want to broadcast the useful elite messages as far as possible.
But some of the elites have not been very kind to you, and it seems like the common folks are often likely to be your champion. So, whose company do you feel more comfortable in? Which world do you identify with more?
DE BOTTON: We’re talking about the humanities, the arts, literature, visual arts, sculpture, architecture, music—these are things that belong to everybody. Yes, they’re studied in universities, and universities often cost a lot of money. But the works of art themselves are the common resources of the whole of humanity. And therefore, when they’re discussed, it should be in a way that everyone can, in theory, understand.
The university system is based on a slightly different idea, which is that you really need to be an expert in order to understand these things, and they’re not accessible to everybody. One of the great things about the Internet is that it has genuinely democratized knowledge, and there’s now a serious question mark about whether you need to go to university in order to study say, literature, or art, or art history. Many of these topics that in the past you just needed to go to university—you couldn’t get the books, couldn’t get the ideas.
One of the great things about the Internet is that it has genuinely democratized knowledge, and there’s now a serious question mark about whether you need to go to university in order to study say, literature, or art, or art history.
But because lots of amazing work has been put out there for free by different organizations, you can now really educate yourself and enter that world. I’ve personally been thrilled by that development. And the School of Life is in its own very modest way a part of that.
I can understand that’s very threatening to academics, who really stake their reputation on being experts in these areas, and therefore having something that other people don’t have. It’s quite threatening to think, “Oh actually you can watch that lecture on YouTube and get the whole thing—you don’t need to go study at Harvard or Oxford or wherever.”
And that’s upset certain waters. Look, you can’t please everybody. I think there’s room enough in the world—
MEADOWS: Do you think they might benefit from reading your book?
DE BOTTON: I would never be so arrogant, but you know, why not.
Getting to ‘Good Enough’
MEADOWS: I just want to ask one last question Alain, which is to do with this idea that if you write a self-help book, you should eat your own dog food, so to speak.
So: does status anxiety ever abate? Do you feel content with what you have achieved right now? Have you hit the point of ‘enough’ in your own life, or is that just a constant?
DE BOTTON: That’s a really good question. Without wishing to sound arrogant or self-satisfied, I have reached the stage of enough, yes. I’m really happy.
You know, I’m turning 50 at the end of the year. And I’ve written some books. And I’ve been around the world a few times. And I feel very grateful.
I don’t need to achieve in the way that I felt I needed to achieve when I was 20. And I think that’s fine. I know there are some things that could still be done, and that I hope to do one day.
But I’m much more relaxed, and much more focused on other people, and their welfare. Family, but also, you know, a wide circle of responsibility to other people. Part of what’s nice about the School of Life is that we are a collective, whereas the early part of my career was very much about me.
I’m really happy to forget about me, and focus on others. So sometimes I’ve got to take to the stage, just to help to rally things and garner interest. But I’m really very happy these days to be a backroom guy, and let others do the talking. That’s not to say I’m not grateful to have this conversation!
But you know, it’s a good question, because people change. I’m not who I was when I wrote my first book. I think writing Status Anxiety did help.
MEADOWS: Yeah. That’s funny. That’s actually really reassuring for me to hear that you can actually get to the point of ‘enough’. Congratulations!
DE BOTTON: Thank you. I think there are always problems, always new problems. But they’re different problems. There’s always something new to think about. There’s always something alarming on the horizon, something to worry about, but also to be deeply grateful for. Some problems are overcome. And then new problems keep you on your toes.
MEADOWS: Yeah, I’m not so much suggesting that you’re now living in a state of constant bliss—
DE BOTTON: Yeah, exactly.
MEADOWS: But just that, the drive to keep doing more and more, actually, you can satisfy that perhaps that after a certain point in time.
DE BOTTON: Yes.
MEADOWS: Well, it was a pleasure to speak with you. Thank you for your time.
DE BOTTON: Thank you. I’m glad we overcame our technical problems.
MEADOWS: Cheers Alain. Catch you later.
The School of Life: An Emotional Education is available on Amazon and in good bookstores. I took notes on vulnerability, how to argue well, butt stuff (!), infidelity, and the Greek notion of tragic failure, among other things.