Alain de Botton, the British writer of philosophy books for the masses, is famous for answering life’s big questions in best sellers and op-eds that go viral, but his meditations on work have not been as well-received. It may be, however, that De Botton’s best advice for thinking about your job is embedded in his theories on love and relationships.
In a new video for BBC Ideas called “How to be happy in love (and have fewer rows),” one of his tips is this: Try being grateful that you’re being tolerated by another person at all.
“So long as we think that we’re broadly easy to live with and kinda pretty great, basically—someone should be kinda lucky to be with us—we will be perils to be around,” he cautions.
“We start to be kind people when we realize that, actually, we’re kind of trouble for anyone to be with, and we should be kind of grateful that anyone is putting up with us,” he says, adding, “And that is the bedrock upon which the tolerance of another person can be built.”
De Botton isn’t suggesting that we all become meek or self-loathing in relationships, or that we allow ourselves to be exploited or abused. However, the basic principle of learning to accept and stop judging others by recognizing that they’re accommodating your annoying habits and requests (especially those to which you remain oblivious) seems like a particularly valuable lesson, or reminder, for anyone in a two-way relationship.
It’s a lesson that can also be applied to the dynamic between employee and employer for those in jobs that are, all things considered, comfortable.
The problem with believing that your employer should be happy to have you rather than the other way around is that it’s suffocating. For everyone. Confidence is healthy, but it can shade into arrogance, which impedes innovation, creativity, and kills any chance of developing a “growth mindset.” Self-importance is also tedious, not just for employers or colleagues, but for the person who shares headspace with it. Why live with the hard-done-by feeling of not being respected unless it’s true? Believing yourself to be fortunate, instead, can free you of a mental prison.
I’m not suggesting, however, that gratitude should be used to further exploitation. Any company that’s highly profitable cannot be excused for paying low wages and exacerbating inequality, and laborers in physical jobs, especially, should never be pressured into accepting substandard pay or conditions.
That said, when it’s appropriate, getting over oneself can save a person from daily torture. The message feels timely now, when we’re weeks away from the 10-year anniversary of the day Lehman Brothers went bankrupt . The corporate world realized that we were teetering on the edge of a global economic meltdown of epic proportions, one that could have been worse than the crash we subsequently endured. What followed for many was a kind of mild trauma watching or experiencing layoffs, company closings, and personal bankruptcies.
When the US economic recovery began, it seemed that most people, in my circles, anyway, were initially grateful to be back behind a desk or to have held onto their jobs. Many of us took positions that paid less than what we’d become accustomed to earning, but we welcomed the new reality as the price of staying in the game. There was, to my memory, not a lot of complaining about policies or expectations.
Something similar happened in Manhattan just after the terror attacks of September 11, in 2001. New Yorkers speak with admiration and nostalgia about the feeling of camaraderie and neighborliness that took over the city in the days following the tragedy. People talked to each other, bought lunch for strangers, smiled and made eye contact. But, they say wistfully, it didn’t last.
It likewise seems that the humility we learned in the aftershock of the financial crisis has been replaced by complacency and even brash sense of entitlement that’s hardly limited to the maligned millennial generation. Americans are extremely confident about their job security, according to a Pew Research survey published last year. That beats anxiousness, to be sure, but it also creates the right conditions for entitlement to flourish. Some say our new “sharing economy” celebrates and enables self-centeredness, too.
Philosophers and psychologists often urge us to let go of the myths of blissful love and the perfect other. These notions create unrealistic expectations, the building blocks of profound disappointment. In his popular New York Times essay, “Why You Will Marry The Wrong Person,” published in 2016, De Botton writes:
“We need to swap the Romantic view for a tragic (and at points comedic) awareness that every human will frustrate, anger, annoy, madden and disappoint us — and we will (without any malice) do the same to them. There can be no end to our sense of emptiness and incompleteness. But none of this is unusual or grounds for divorce. Choosing whom to commit ourselves to is merely a case of identifying which particular variety of suffering we would most like to sacrifice ourselves for.”
Acknowledging that, as De Botton says in the BBC video, we bring a more “robust” self to our jobs, and thus would use less emotionally charged language, his case for dropping the romantic view also rings true of work.
Truly grasping that you will, at times, feel empty and incomplete in some jobs, or in part of a job you otherwise love, and that it’s up to you to find tolerance and to infuse meaning or joy is part of process that can take years.
In the meantime, if your grumblings already overshadow either gratitude or awareness of your charmed life, that can be changed. As Quartz’s Ephrat Livni recently wrote of luck, it’s a relative construct. One psychologist who studies luck suggests that if you can see yourself as lucky, you’ll be more prone to spotting opportunities, and others have found that it affects the way you feel and how others experience you. Seeing yourself as lucky makes it easier to look past those work complaints that would normally trigger disenchantment, just as it would minimize your criticisms of a partner, according to De Botton’s take.
Paradoxically, as De Botton has also suggested, drawing from Stoic philosophers, mastering pessimism and recognizing what probably won’t change is all part of finding serenity in love—and in life and work more generally.