A couple of years ago I met a lady from France who was visiting India. It was a journey in search of her roots as her mother is a third generation Indian from Mauritius and like most Indians outside the country she preserves, cherishes and values her Indianness and takes great pride in our culture. This girl had just been through a personal tragedy which had led her into a phase of introspection. This trip was a quest in search of answers to some of her personal questions and re-evaluation of her priorities. Having heard her mother talk about the values and ideals central to Hinduism and the principles that governed a Hindu ways of life, she was keen to find out if business gurus and corporates in India had evolved standards and practices rooted in this culture. According to her, western business models were rooted in greed and lacked principles and their only standard was success by all means at all times. Having headed a company herself, she felt that it was a defective model where success did not always guarantee happiness. She had been highly successful in her career but that hadn’t given her true happiness, she said.
In the short time she was here, we had many enjoyable conversations comparing the western and Indian ways of life. She mentioned a report with the finding that nearly one in four French people are on tranquillizers, antidepressants, antipsychotics or other mood-altering prescription drugs. I found this disturbing but I was a little confused when she attributed it to the loss of belief in God. She seemed to suggest that Faith could be an effective substitute for tranquillizers, antidepressants, antipsychotics and I found it difficult to make the connection.

I finally understood her point only a few days ago when I heard this lecture by eminent author Alain de botton:

in the middle ages, in England, when you met a very poor person, that person would be described as an "unfortunate." Literally, somebody who had not been blessed by fortune, an unfortunate. Nowadays, particularly in the United States, if you meet someone at the bottom of society, they may, unkindly, be described as a "loser." There is a real difference between an unfortunate and a loser. And that shows 400 years of evolution in society, and our belief in who is responsible for our lives. It's no longer the gods, it's us. We're in the driving seat.
That's exhilarating if you're doing well, and very crushing if you're not. It leads, in the worst cases, in the analysis of a sociologist like Emil Durkheim, it leads to increased rates of suicide. There are more suicides in developed individualistic countries than in any other part of the world. And some of the reason for that is that people take what happens to them extremely personally. They own their success. But they also own their failure.

Is that why people need God? As someone who has the power we lack – to make things alright, to work miracles, to make possible whatever seems impossible to us? So that we can still have hope even when Reason tells us that nothing more can be done to make the situation better? Is that why it was necessary to invent Him in the first place? To help us handle our success and failure with equanimity by shifting responsibility?
Today we have a lot more in terms of possessions, comforts and avenues to be happy and yet people are more discontented and unhappy than the earlier generations. Success and happiness seem like mirages which people keep chasing until eventually they die unhappy. Is God the answer? What about those who have outgrown belief in God that it is impossible to go back? In matters of faith, once doubt creeps in however slight, it is never again possible to go back to unquestioning belief.

Botton’s answer is different. He argues that we simply need to re-evaluate our definitions of success and failure.

And one of the interesting things about success is that we think we know what it means. If I said to you that there is somebody behind the screen who is very very successful, certain ideas would immediately come to mind. You would think that person might have made a lot of money, achieved renown in some field. ...
Here's an insight that I've had about success. You can't be successful at everything. We hear a lot of talk about work-life balance. Nonsense. You can't have it all. You can't. So any vision of success has to admit what it's losing out on, where the element of loss is. And I think any wise life will accept as I say, that there is going to be an element where we are not succeeding.
And the thing about a successful life, is a lot of the time, our ideas of what it would mean to live successfully, are not our own...
And we also suck in messages from everything from the television, to advertising, to marketing, etc. These are hugely powerful forces That define what we want, and how we view ourselves. When we're told that banking is a very respectable profession a lot of us want to go into banking. When banking is no longer so respectable, we lose interest in banking. We are highly open to suggestion.
So what I want to argue for, is not that we should give up on our ideas of success. But we should make sure that they are our own. We should focus in on our ideas. And make sure that we own them, 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 idea of 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.

I found it a truly inspiring and insightful lecture. Things they don't teach in the universities but ought to.Ideas that young people should consider before they get sucked into the rat race. Perhaps they could then find a way to be successful and happy as their struggle would not be to meet someone else’s definition of success but their own.
21 Responses
  1. Soin Says:

    but somehow this searching for roots and stuff seems a bit superficial..mayb coz i dint have the

  2. Anonymous Says:

    too good Amit..
    I am mesmerised..
    And the thing about a successful life, is a lot of the time, our ideas of what it would mean to live successfully, are not our own...

    its sad yet true....

  3. Usha:
    There is a Japanese proverb that goes something like this [I think I may have referred to this in my comment on one of your earlier posts]: Lucky are the ones who know what they want, luckier are the ones who get to do what they want, and luckiest are the one who not only get to to do what they want, but also do it well. That in a sentence sums up the lecture, I think, even if only the excerpts.

  4. Sraboney Says:

    I think God was created to shift responsibility for human failure...Success and failure are anyway subjective and so we have to decide on our own what we want and how to go about getting what we want...

  5. We live in a world today obsessed with giving labels. In the huge effort to fit in with them under titles such as ,"successful", "business savvy", and so on, we cast doubts on ourselves, and slavishly follow stuff . A great recipe for a troubled mind, and the rest of the problems follow.

    I always get the feeling that those of us, who grew up in reasonably god fearing households, (which excludes illogical fanatics), were emotionally more balanced about the possible fluctuations in the meaning of, "success". It could be because of a belief in God, a sense that somethings were not in our control, and that, basically , we deserved what we got. ...

  6. Anonymous Says:

    I am very sorry ma'am..
    I called you as amit..
    it is due to the very similar blog my blogger friend amit has...

    please pardon me for this silly mistake..

  7. I am glad I hopped over here.

    Wonderful blog and wonderful posts.

    I mostly end up thinking along the same lines on today's rat race, definition of success etc. And thats when I end up wishing 'peace of mind' for all. That solves everything, innit?

  8. Anonymous Says:

    Indeed, an idea worth pondering!

  9. shoba Says:

    I think it is easier said than done. And as one of the commentators said, God was created to shift responsibility for human failure.And when one is deemed a loser by society , it is tough for him to perceive himself to be successful in his mind.

  10. hillgrandmom Says:

    Thanks Usha for acquainting us with Alain de Botton and his idea of success.I am in absolute agreement with him I find--after all 'There are no free lunches'

  11. Chitra Says:

    That's a very insightful lecture Usha! Thanks for the blog about it. Agree with Botton that our perceptions about success is different - for my mother, it was raising up kids (ahem hell-raisers would be more apt!) like us. For me, first I thought that I was still in search of that elusive thing called success. However, on retrospection I find quite a few firsts in my life so far that I've acheived single-handedly without anyone's support. And I can view it as success on my terms :-)!

  12. Jane Turley Says:

    A interesting and yet enertaining lecture from Alain De Botton whch deserves to be more widely heard. Thank you for bringing to our attention Usha:)

    One's things for sure somewhere along the way we, as a society, went a little bit wrong:(

  13. hijabiamma Says:

    Dearest Usha,
    Your posts always cause retroflection, and today I really felt that what you wrote is exactly what I needed to hear, as this semester is a really tough load and I was feeling like a failure myself for not being able to balance my home life and school life as well as I thought I should be able to. I never thought about the notions of success being a concept that people constructed, and have always abhorred people looking up to others simply because they have a lot of money, so this post was really helpful.

    If I ever attain such writing skills as you, with the wisdom of where to hone the pens jottings, I will have considered my life a success. Even if you only do this blog as a hobby, I check for your entries every day. They have affected me personally, (I thought you should know that).

  14. dipali Says:

    Such an insightful post and quotations. Yes, success is relative, and we need to define our own. Absolutely.

  15. Anonymous Says:

    Been a silent lurker on your blog for a long time.

    This post is very very timely and relevant - and the analysis/insights from Alain de Botton are painfully true

    Rethinking our ideas of success and failure would be an illuminating and worthwhile exercise

    Keep writing ! Hope your laptop keys have been repaired - or you got a shiny new one


  16. Hip Grandma Says:
    This comment has been removed by the author.

  17. Hip Grandma Says:

    I was just toying with the idea of blogging about the God factor in our lives ever since i heard from friend that among the current bunch of college going teenagers taking anti-depressants and stuff is very common and these children know exactly what it means to be on such drugs and are quite open about it.These kids aim high and expect to reach there in no time.It is no wonder that very often they trip and fall.They then feel lost and directionless.I may sound an escapist but religion offers an explanation and consolation - at least to those that are receptive.It also motivates them to try again without getting addicted to drugs or in extreme cases end their lives.

  18. Pamela Clevenger Says:

    Hello Usha, I've be sitting on the couch reading your blog for the last hour, when was I'd intended to do was just shoot you an email. I do enjoy your topics and your writing.

    I apologize for not contacting you sooner and not bring Kali by to visit. We have had such a problem with Satish, though we have no idea what is going on at this point. He wants money from us - we've said we won't pay it. He had threatened to have us arrested if we come by the house. Apparently he hasn't paid Rathnama for the past few months work - and threatened to have her arrested if she quit working before he told her to go. I just don't understand this stuff ;)
    On the bright side are loving our new place. We still struggle with having a driver who is much too involved with our live, but that too is changing.

    I went home for a brief visit in September as my friend I told you about was become more and more ill. He has since passed away, so I'm happy yo have spent time with him.

    I'd love to visit with you sometime if you are available. I'll be around all next week. We are right near the Ranga Shankar theater and the food there is very good.

    All the best.


  19. Usha Says:

    Soin: She was trying to make major changes to her career and life. She had to get her priorities re-organized. She felt conflicted between part-Indian and part-Italian family values, her own upbringing in France. And she was genuinely in search of her self.

    RSV: Sad yet true. But something we can change.

    The RF:Yes I remember that one and yes, you are right.


    Ugich: And then there was always the Karma explanation when we got what we didnt deserve or did not get what we deserved.

    RSV:I was initially confused but later understood. NO problem.

    Sowmya: Thanks. Peace of mind cannot be wished. It has to be attained through personal effort no?

    Anon: That's what I thought too. :)

    Shoba: That is why it is important to have your own ideas and not be a slave to what other's define.

    Sue:I find him very inspired and inspiring.

    Chitra: I am happy for you.

    Jane: Agreed on both counts.

    Havah: Thank you for your nice words.
    And don't be so hard on yourself. I am sure you gave it all your best.
    I love your posts too although I have not been able to come around much in the past month due to some personal difficulties. Will come by soon.
    Cheer up.

    Dipali: Thank you. Isn't Alain's speech just wonderful?

    Anon PV: Yes Alain's words need to be heard by a lot of your young people.
    Still at the mercy of the external Keyboard. Hoping I'll get a shiny new laptop soon.

    Hipgran: I look forward to reading your post.
    When we were growing up religion wasnt imparted explicitly but it was a way of life that we imbibed by what we saw practised around us. Today's children seem to have missed out on that perhaps because their parents have not been able to practice it effectively. And this is a generation that questions everything rather than accepting everything that their parents tell them. So they are conflicted and they do doubt. They are agnostic. When things go horribly wrong they do not have the faith to believe that God there is a reason why God allows them to happen. Naturally they seek escapist routes. And you know more things seem to go horribly wrong these days.

    Pam; Thank you for the comment.Welcome back. My response via email.

  20. manju Says:

    Such a thought- provoking post! .

    I think if left to themselves, most people would have no problem coping with their situation in life. Living up to other people's idea of success or failure is what is difficult!

  21. Mama - Mia Says:

    so so so true! you know every now and then M wonders about how all his friends are doing better (read: earning more!)and i keep telling him that you have to measure your success against your life. see where we were about 5 years ago and where we are today and we know what a huge change ife has been in every sense of the term. and mostly it has been good!

    like manju also said most of us struggle with other people's idea of success and failure rather than making our own.

    i would like to be in zen like mindset whatever be the situation. maybe someday we will get there?!