As it’s become easier to work for a living, so has it grown harder to find happiness in the work.
Why? Because the further we move away from the notion that non-human entities like fate, gods, or the movement of celestial bodies define our success and failure, the more we hinge upon ourselves. Such shifts in thinking mark an important step forward for society. They inspire us to work harder, to be more considerate of our actions, and to take greater control of our own futures.
Yet it’s not all positive. Our newfound faith in individualism has bred a toxic hierarchy by which we continue to judge ourselves and those around us: meritocracy.
Meritocracy preaches that who and what we are is defined solely by our skills, efforts, and achievements. It sounds great when you’re successful, and have the reputation, money, and power to back up your ability, but on those days when nothing goes your way and it feels like you will never amount to anything? Not so much. No wonder we constantly feel anxious about our work.
That feeling is compounded by the fantastic idea that we are all born with equal potential to be anyone and anything we want. Not living up to that potential? Well that’s on you, and everyone from strangers at dinner parties who conveniently need a drink refill when you tell them what your job is to your parents will let you know as much.
The real sense of failure will come from within, however, as you browse social media or leave your high school reunion. You see, the irony is that individualism has further fueled our innate need to compare ourselves to everyone else. We look up at those who we deem more successful than us with envy, and down at the less successful with a perverted sense of pride. This breeds conflict, gossip, and apathy.
So how do we overcome this feeling, this need, and find true pleasure in our work?
Alain de Botton is a philosopher, author, and founder of The School of Life. In his 2009 TED talk, he touches on a kinder, gentler philosophy of success that can bring relief to career-related stress.
The philosophy is simple, and it begins with a hard truth: you can’t have it all. There is no perfect work/life balance, no job that will make all your problems vanish, no happily ever after. To find success, sacrifices must be made.
What matters is that you feel certain the success you are searching for is your own. It’s disturbingly easy to stake your vision of success on the expectations and experiences of others, but great work only comes when you find the courage to pursue your own path. In de Botton’s words, we must “make sure that we are truly the author of our own ambitions”.
Don’t take my word for it. When next you have the opportunity, sit down and ask yourself “is the future I’m heading towards the future I want?”. In the answers, you will find the happiness you desire.