In the search for answers to 21st century dilemmas, most people wouldn’t revisit the ideas of those who lived before the Common Era. But Alain de Botton isn’t most people. His non-fiction work is often where philosophy, self-help and enlightenment merge, touching thoughtfully on every facet of the modern human condition: love, work, travel and finding our place in the world.
But reinterpreting the teachings and preachings of long-gone philosophers isn’t Alain’s only talent: the father of two has also recently opened a 12th branch of The School of Life, a kind of psychological university that he co-founded to act as the emotional extension of our formal, (sometimes) limited experience with education, where attendees can eat cheese while discussing Descartes and the importance of empathy. What began as a quest for personal enlightenment has evolved into a career leading the way for others through the complexities of modern living. Here, Alain talks us through his journey, creativity and what we need more of in the workplace.
I was an incredibly confused teenager, and I was looking for answers – answers about myself, the world I’m living in, [so] I started reading. Not reading for entertainment but for illumination. Naturally, I get thrown to the big books, [thinking] maybe there the answers lie, and there’s this word ‘philosophy’ that kind of seems like it’s going to contain the big truths about things. So, I started reading about philosophy. Many philosophers don’t make life easy for their readers. They write in incredibly dense and unfriendly ways. And many of their concerns are quite weird and actually not necessarily the most important things in most people’s lives today. The discipline as a whole has got a really good mission statement, which is about trying to live wisely. ‘Philosophy’ literally in Ancient Greek means the love of wisdom and that’s a beautiful idea. For me, wisdom is about wise living as opposed to just living. It’s about trying to soften some of the crazier sides that everybody’s got in them and trying to find a slightly saner path through the challenges of life.
I think that Monday morning at 9.00 is a really bad time [to write], whereas when it’s 9.00 in the evening, even on a Monday evening, when there’s not that much to do, and you’ve got a pad and paper, actually then you’re more relaxed. So anywhere where nothing is expected of you is more creative, so that can be the middle of the night, it can be sitting on the train, in the bath. Places that are really in a way not associated with writing can give you the freedom of mind to get going. Obviously, the great battle is always anxiety and fear that it’s going to be terrible.
I think people need to get better at telling ourselves the story of the purpose of the organisation. It’s almost like a person: sometimes all of us lose the thread of our own lives and we’re like, ‘What am I doing?’, ‘Who am I?’ Well, what do you do in those moments? Sometimes you have a bath or you go for a walk and you literally try and explain yourself back to yourself: ‘Okay, so how did I come to be here?’ You’re kind of retelling your story and eventually you’re reconnecting what you are doing with who you are. And there’s a corporate version of that, which is a sort of corporate ‘taking stock’, a corporate ‘telling of your story’. But too often companies forget it, they know how to do it in front of a stranger but they don’t necessarily do it internally. And they forget how many employees day-to-day have slightly fallen asleep and they no longer engage. And they need to do it regularly, like literally on a weekly basis, not in some boring, horrible way but just find a way to reconnect with the higher purpose of the organisation because people do really hunger for it and I think employers sometimes miss [that].
People need love and we know this in relation to children. I mean if a parent were to say to a child, “Look I’m a bit busy at the moment, but can I just give you some money?” Well, first it might be fun, but eventually the child will go, ‘This parent doesn’t love me, all they are giving me is cash.’ Yet that’s how employers work and I think to some extent we need to remember we are creatures who, yes, we need the money, but we kind of need the love as well, pretty strongly.
We are not good communicators. No one is a particularly good communicator. We tend to imagine that other people can read and understand what we want without us having ever told them. Children start like this, imagining that their parents can read their minds. So we sort of believe in the implicit mind theory and we are also then not very good at teaching. And to work in most organisations requires a lot of teaching skills. A good teacher is someone who is able to get an important idea from their mind into someone else’s mind, in a way that the audience is going to get. That is a very distinct sort of skill, a lot of it’s to do with timing, making sure that whoever you are speaking to is in the right frame of mind that they might hear it, rather than run away or protest or just be bored by it. It’s to do with remaining calm enough so that you’re able to get the message out without insult or humiliation, which again can be very hard in a corporate environment where basically you’re quite scared yourself, and there’s a lot of anxiety in an average office, a lot of fear of failure, fear of disaster, all the time. And against that backdrop it can be hard to feel that you’re able to patiently take someone through an issue.
I think I wanted to write fiction because I think that fiction is incredibly important to the way that we love: our ideas on love are very much shaped by the stories we read. And I think many of the stories are wrong in their suggestions to us. The main reason why of our love lives go wrong is because we are actually reading the wrong stories, stories that don’t actually place the emphasis on the right place in the relationship – stories that give us the wrong ideas of love.
I wanted to try and write a kind of corrective some of these love stories. It’s a very different sort of love story, I think most love stories are either skewed far too much towards the optimistic end of the scale, that they take a couple through a certain set of hurdles and then its happily ever after and bye-bye. Or else they are too catastrophic and they’re about murder and disaster and beheading and the body at the end of the garden. And it’s like actually most of us don’t exist in either of those two extremes, we exist in the middle and that’s remarkably neglected in stories. The great thing about fiction is that you can invent stuff, you can go further than your own experience, you can hypothesise, dramatise etc. There’s a lot more freedom to move around.