Alain de Botton on How to Live.

Andrew Leigh:

Alain de Botton is the closest thing Western society has to a secular priest. Born in Switzerland, raised in Britain, he's written books on Proust, travel, architecture, religion, sex, arts, the news, and love. In 2008, Alain founded The School of Life, an educational company that offers advice on life issues like achieving calm, having better relationships, and making sense of a messy world. It's videos with titles like How to Get Attention Without Attention Seeking, The Importance of Kissing, The Charms of Unavailable People, and Why You Don't Need to be Exceptional, have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. His new book is titled The School of Life. Alain, welcome to The Good Life podcast.

Alain de Botton:

Thank you so much. What an honour for me.

Andrew Leigh:

Now you were raised in Switzerland and Britain, what got you interested in philosophy?

Alain de Botton:

Broadly speaking, I was interested in working out who I was, how my mind functioned, and I looked around for tools. And like many bookish teenagers, I fell into the kind of books that sought to explain both me and the world. That was everything from Herman Hess to Freud, to some philosophers. I was the typical, I still remain in many ways the typical confused teenager asking overly large questions in order to learn how to help myself. It's all for me really. I'm just trying to help myself.

Andrew Leigh:

Were there key works in your upbringing that made an impact on you? Do you remember the first philosopher you read?

Alain de Botton:

I remember the psychoanalyst Alice Miller's book, The Drama of the Gifted Child. I remember that having a big impact on me. It's a sort of introduction really to psychotherapy and to how people get messed up by their parents. That had a big impact. I remember reading Freud and being impacted. I remember reading Nietzsche and being impacted. I remember reading Proust and having a big impact. These are all authors who in different ways, very different ways, gave me a kind of vocabulary for learning to put names onto different bits of my mind and the world really. And I think that's why we need literature, broadly speaking. We need literature to give us a map of the territory. So that's what it was for me.

Andrew Leigh:

You did you in fill at Kings College and then started a PhD in French philosophy at Harvard, but decided not to pursue it. What caused you to give up what I assume would have been an academic path at that stage?

Alain de Botton:

Yeah, I mean broadly speaking, I think that I love what academics read and the material with which they build their works, but I don't really like the way in which they communicate only with each other, so very narrow audience in a kind of specialized language. So I was always a populist, and the reason is that some of the people I loved most never got a formal education. I had a formal education, a very good education, and I didn't want to lose touch with the people that I loved. I didn't want my learning to cut me off emotionally. So it felt very important to be able to build a bridge between as it were the world of love and the world of ideas.

Andrew Leigh:

And then not long after that, age 23 you published your first book, Essays In Love, which was extraordinary successful. How does that early success, the sort of Gore Vidal, Joseph Heller kind of early success shape you?

Alain de Botton:

Look, I felt very, very lucky because I think I was the guy with, still have very low self confidence, and I think that early success just gave me enough encouragement to carry on and I think that if I had 10 years of rejection I don't think I could have taken it, psychologically. I felt very lucky, and also I didn't have, success kind of builds up relatively slowly. So I didn't find myself a star the next day, and for that again I'm very grateful. So it was enough to keep me going, not too much to kind of kill me off or make it go to my head. So I feel very lucky with the way that aspect of things has gone in my life.

Andrew Leigh:

Did it help that your father wasn't that impressed by it? He was very successful in business, and to him your success didn't blow him away. Did that bring things into perspective for you?

Alain de Botton:

I don't know, I mean should we have psychoanalysis live on air?

Andrew Leigh:

Please.

Alain de Botton:

I mean my relationship with my father, bless him, he was a wonderful man in many ways. But he was tricky to have as a father. Some of your listeners will have tricky father son relationships and I'm automatically friends with them, because I think anyone who's had a bad relationship with their father kind of, even though the father might have been very different, you've got many of the same issues. So I'm one of those people. And it gives you a special subsection of problems all to yourself. And yeah, I was trying to prove myself, I loved him, I hated him, I wanted him to love me, I wanted him to notice me, all these sort of dynamics. And what can I say? I think that it was difficult for me to get to a stage where I felt that I'd met his expectations and then life moved on. He died, my expectations changed, and broadly speaking I'm over that now and I lead my own life. But for a while it was touch and go psychologically. It was a challenge to meet the expectations I'd been brought up with.

Andrew Leigh:

One of the perennial themes in your writing is love. You have a concept that romance ruins love. Tell us about that.

Alain de Botton:

Yeah, it's one of the big things that we teach at The School of Life, how relationships can work, and a lot of the distress in people's emotional life is around love. Next to work, it's probably the most problematic area. One of the weird things about relationships is that the way that we love as adults sits on top of experiences that we've had as children about love. So in a way, adult love is a process of refinding love, as opposed to merely just falling in love.

Alain de Botton:

We're often not conscious of it, but we make pretty particular choices. One of the big generalizations of love is you can't fall in love with just anyone, nor is one just looking for about kind of beautiful, kind, and healthy. That's too simple. Often what we're looking to do is to recreate some of the atmosphere of love that we knew as children, and that may be associated with all kinds of weird, well to put it bluntly, suffering. Kinds of suffering. And sometimes we reject candidates in later life for the simple reason that they threaten to love us kindly and reliably, which doesn't feel like love to us, because that's not the way love felt in childhood. So that's why you see so many people going from relationship to unhappy relationship to unhappy relationship, and these people have a knack for skirting real kindness because it just feels too unfamiliar and undeserved. So that's very, very sad.

Alain de Botton:

We live in a romantic culture that teaches us not to investigate love too much. We're taught very much to go with our feelings, and when people say things like I met this person in a bar, I've got such strong feelings, we're going to get married in two weeks, this is declared very romantic, and it's nothing of the sort. It's just crazy, because our impulses are-

Andrew Leigh:

As our ancestors would have thought through much of human history, right? This idea that you clap eyes on someone and then you choose to make a life with them is, as you point out, very comparatively recent in the broad sweep of human history.

Alain de Botton:

That's right. It's recent and slightly reckless. Of course there were lots of unhappy arranged marriages in history too, don't get me wrong, but I think that this notion that our emotions always guide us to the best thing is a real problem. This is a really big issue at School of Life. We're built really in this sense on a psychological, psychotherapeutic slash philosophical foundation whereby we think the untrained and unexamined emotion is a dangerous thing. So when people say things like just go with your feelings, we say no, stop, examine your feelings, try and understand them, where are they coming from? Maybe they're not reliable. Maybe we can't trust our feelings.

Andrew Leigh:

You're pretty critical of crushes and the outsized role that crushes play in romance novels such as Madame Bovary.

Alain de Botton:

Well don't get me wrong, I understand the pull of crushes. We all feel crushes all the time. We're very easily susceptible to imagining perfect strangers. That's just the way our minds work, but I think we have to be humorously, kindly, generously skeptical of these feelings in ourselves and watch what we're doing with them because it's much easier to hallucinate the answer rather than actually find it. And I think the crush is a kind of small but intense example of the romantic culture we live in that's constantly encouraging us to believe that there are total, complete answers waiting for us in our emotional lives, and that we don't have to understand ourselves or work with a partner to try and make love grow, that love is just this thing that just washes over you. But that's really not quite true. And so The School of Life is founded on this idea that love is a skill, not an emotion, and that it's a skill that you can slowly and painfully acquire. It's not ready made.

Andrew Leigh:

So as an economist I'll often characterize this argument as being love is more manufacturing than mining. What is it that you teach at The School of Life to people who are trying to build that stronger relationship to strengthen a marriage, for example?

Alain de Botton:

Well, in a way what we're trying to teach often is self understanding, understanding of the other person, I mean it's fairly easy to be angry with other people, particularly our partners, for not understanding, for not seeing things our way, et cetera. One of the things we're very reluctant to do is to communicate. We often sulk in relationships, and the sulk is an interesting one because really what it means is that you hope to be understood by somebody without bothering to actually explain what's wrong, and this is a very, very childlike and it genuinely has it's origins in childhood, this notion that the person who loves us should interpret us. They shouldn't listen to us, they should interpret us, and work out the answer. It's a beautiful dream but it's really a dangerous one because no one can be expected to understand anyone else wordlessly and magically. We have to explain, and we can't hold it against people if they don't guess our moods and our intentions.

Alain de Botton:

So learning to explain, and learning to see that explaining is not an insult is an important part of it. Another thing that we teach is that trying to teach your partner something, and indeed to learn something from them, is not contrary to the spirit of love. One of the very unfortunate war cries of partners in trouble is love me for who I am. Well that's a disaster. Why would anyone love you for who you are? No one deserves to be loved for just who they are, or they deserve to be forgiven, but not loved. We all need to change and evolve to more love worthy people every day of our lives. And so we need modesty here. We need to be able to say there might be things that the other person can teach you and there might be things that I need to learn. So love is a classroom. That's what Plato saw it as. Plato thought that love was literally a learning experience, that's the point of it. That sounds super unromantic in our modern culture. The notion of kind of getting into a relationship in order to learn, that sounds really weird.

Alain de Botton:

But like many things that sound unromantic, they're actually very sensible. In fact as a general rule for your listeners, any time you come across something that sounds unromantic, it's probably a really good idea, and every time something sounds really romantic, it's probably a bad idea. It's just a good rule of thumb. But yeah, so that's what we teach.

Alain de Botton:

Another really good tool for patience is understanding that all a person's strengths, all the things that attract us in a person, things we find strong, are related to a weakness somewhere in their character. So the person who's incredibly creative is also likely to be maybe very messy. Or the person who's fantastically well organized might be at points dogmatic, and these are the bad sides of good qualities. Very often when we're angry with our partners, or just friends or other people, we tend to lock onto the weaknesses and we literally ask ourselves, how did this person ever enter my life? What am I doing with this idiot? It's at that point it's very important to understand that A, they're not an idiot. B, there were very strong reasons why you got together with this person related to their strengths, it's just that their strengths like everybody's character and they're connected up with weaknesses, and it's good to bear the links in mind at moments where we're encountering the weaknesses in a particularly acute way.

Andrew Leigh:

My parents commemorated their 50th wedding anniversary this year, and it was interesting speaking with them about the sorts of people that they were in 1969 when they were first married. There's such different, you are such a different person 50 years into a relationship that if you don't do the sort of growing that you're talking about, it's almost inconceivable that two human beings can stay together.

Alain de Botton:

That's right, that's right. And in a way accept, I mean sometimes you have to call it a day, and it doesn't have to be a tragedy either. So I'm not somebody who believes that couples have to stay together forever, however it's definitely worth seriously investigating the reasons why some situation might have grown untenable and trying to do everything one can to keep their children and others involved to try and resolve differences. But as I say, it may not be possible, and some of your listeners out there will have for justifiable reasons have walked away from a relationship.

Andrew Leigh:

It's interesting you've come a couple of points in our conversation to how childhood shapes us, sort of what we think of classically as quite a Freudian frame. Do you think of yourself as coming from that tradition?

Alain de Botton:

Very much so. And again, there's this sort of myth out there that Freud was wrong, and the whole Freudian thing is ridiculous and actually it's not all about your childhood. The bad news for anyone who likes that line is it's not true at all. Of course Freud got a thousand things wrong, but the basic insight, which indeed is not entirely just his insight, it's an insight people have had for a long time, different people, is that the way we function as adults emotionally sits on a superstructure or substructure that was formed in childhood. That is just incontestable, and therefore, many of the dynamics that we're engaged in in adulthood if you seek to understand them you will have to go backwards. You'll have to ask yourself where did I learn about trust? Where did I learn about negotiation? Where did I learn about what my value is to other people, et cetera. And there are answers almost always in the early years, between zero and 10.

Alain de Botton:

And if we're trying to free ourselves from certain feelings, let's say we're trying to change, one of the best ways to change is to go back, understand where a story came from, and seek to change that story, because what happens in childhood is that we're at the hands of people with huge influence on us who are nevertheless just ordinary human beings and sometimes their assessment of us and the way they set up our expectations is quite seriously skewed and biased in really unfortunate ways. So there will be people who grow up, a sizable chunk of your audience right now, will have grown up with a sense that they are not particularly good, interesting, or lovable people. They will be suffers from low self esteem, and low self esteem is always an internalization of the esteem with which we were held by other people in our early years, and we tend to forget as other people in our early years, or start blaming them, or just don't think about them, but the imprint, it's like the shape of a cookie mold in dough. You may not know the shape of the actual mold, but you know the imprint that is left in the character, because every day when you wake up you think I'm a piece of nothing and my life is worthless. Those voices didn't come from nowhere, they were the voices of somebody else that were internalized.

Alain de Botton:

So we have to do some very patient excavation and test our inner voices with the voice of reality. We do a lot of work, psychotherapists call it transference, and transference is the transfer of an emotion that was generated in our early years in a particular context, and it's the position of that narrative onto the modern world, the adult world, in places where it doesn't necessarily belong. So classic example is you're at work with somebody, let's say you're managing somebody at work and you say to them, "Look, I really like your piece of work, but I wonder if you could just at the end add another paragraph, because then it would be better." And they flare up, and they go, "Why do you never respect me?" You go, "Whoa, I do respect you, I just think we need to change-" And they go, "I can never do anything right, can I?" And they storm out of the room.

Alain de Botton:

Right now what's going on there, first of all it's showing us that there are problems in the workplace, this is a big thing that we do at School of Life, are emotional problems as much as they ever are technical problems. We bring a lot of our characters to work that were formed in our early years. But what's often going on there is that somebody is carrying around with them a sense that they're under attack all the time by people, and that somebody is not interested in their wellbeing and survival. So whenever somebody in the modern adult contemporary world comes along and says something, like hey do this, or what if we thought about it this way, they're not hearing reality, like other people. They're hearing you're a worthless idiot and I don't believe that you deserve to exist. So no wonder they flare up and go hang on a minute, a so called defensive person is somebody who reads attack everywhere and the reason they read attack everywhere is that they were attacked very severely at a time before they understood how to master the situation, and where the tools at their disposal were really primitive, all they knew what to do was to punch back.

Alain de Botton:

And what you have to try and tell these people is the past is the past, the present is the present, you have to separate out the two and in a way feel sad for yourself that you learned to punch back with such viciousness but see that that isn't necessary in the modern world because you're an adult, and that all belongs to the painful job of maturity, to be able to unstick the past from the present and to put emotions if you like where they belong, and no longer to get angry with your boss when really you were enraged with your father. And I know it sounds simplistic, but some of the rules, some of the ways in which our psyches work are at least in their structure quite simple, easy to understand, and nevertheless they can ruin our lives.

Andrew Leigh:

You have a section of your new book which talks about the self help genre, and I know in the past you've distinguished between what you do and what people like Tony Robbins do. Let me read you one of your favorite Tony Robbins quotes, and you can tell me your reflections on it. Tony Robbins writes, "I discovered my power and used it to take back control of my physical wellbeing, I permanently rid myself of 38 pounds of debilitating fat. Through this weight loss I attracted the woman of my dreams. I then married her and shortly after created the family I long desired. I used my power to change my income from subsistence level to over 20 million dollars a year. This moved me from a tiny apartment where I'd been washing my dishes in a bathtub because there was no kitchen, to my family's current home, the Del Mar Castle, worth 65 million dollars."

Andrew Leigh:

So that's an approach that Tony proposes which allows us to step beyond the constraints of our childhood. What's wrong with that?

Alain de Botton:

Look, I think that passage, though very well meaning, is humiliating for a lot of people, because it ramps up the pressure almost unbearably on people. I believe that change is possible. I believe that you can move through problems, et cetera. Do I believe that everybody's capable or indeed should amass a fortune and imitate the career path of Tony Robbins? I don't think that's necessary or important or indeed sane. So I think that the notion that we can make our lives totally perfect is in itself a rather imperfect and cruel philosophy, and I think that part of what makes American life difficult is that American's believe in the perfectibility of human nature, and they get very, very intolerant whenever they come across evidence of that not being the case. It's a breeding ground for intolerance.

Alain de Botton:

So at The School of Life, we're very careful that we are a self help organization to say no life is ever perfect. Unhappiness will still exist forever, a certain incompleteness is normal, melancholy is part of the deal. These are not messages of defeat, they're messages of compromise with reality, which we all need to do in order to have a sane life. So it seems important to, I'm not just being a gloomy English guy, it's important to have a philosophy that correctly adjusts itself to reality.

Andrew Leigh:

I played my 12 year old your sermon on pessimism last night because I thought it would help him put some of his school issues into better perspective. It's a lovely talk drawing on the stoics to think about what it is to have a little bit of dark in a good life.

Alain de Botton:

Yes. I mean look, the stoics are a fantastic group of philosophers from Ancient Greece and Rome and one of the things that they have to remind us is that a lot of your happiness or unhappiness in life is dependent on your expectations, on what you think is normal, and very often our sense of normality has been kind of played around with and is deeply unrealistic, and so a lot of anger is a result of frustration that we haven't budgeted for and that we don't think is in some ways normal. So think of the guy who shouts every time they get into a bit of traffic on the way to the airport, they're screaming away because they're somehow imagining a world in which the roads are mysteriously traffic free, and whoever gave them that promise, or if you shout every time you lose the house keys, you're basically suggesting that house keys never go astray. That's not the reality that was promised to you. So there's a lot of misplaced anger because there's a lot of expectations out there that are not quite right.

Alain de Botton:

So broadening our picture of reality, our life is not endless, everyone we love will frustrate us, that our children will need to disrespect us at a certain stage in order to develop the energy to eventually leave us and start a life of their own, this is all part of reality, and therefore not something to kick against in a kind of ill tempered way.

Andrew Leigh:

You're one of the most sophisticated thinkers about the role of religion, coming from the standpoint of an atheist, and your book, In Praise of Religion, makes the points that sometimes what we need isn't the latest and deepest philosophical insight, but to be reminded of simple truths about how to live well. How has the process of writing Religion for Atheists, shape how you engage with organized religion and with critics of organized religion like Richard Dawkins?

Alain de Botton:

Yeah, so look, I'm an atheist, I'm a secular person, religion has never been something that I've practiced or been drawn to. Nevertheless, and I came at this really through psychology rather than an interest in religion, I can't help but observe that a lot of what makes modern life difficult for people are things that are missing that religions used to be quite good at doing. And I mean by that things like reminding us of the importance of community and binding us together around the shared admission of fear and vulnerability and dependence, that's disappeared. We live in fiercely individualistic times where it's yourself and your career and your love life, that's what matters, very narrowly defined. I also think that religions were very good at putting us in touch, and I'm going to use a fancy word for transcendent, putting us in touch with the transcendent, in other words, things that transcend human beings, that are bigger, older, wiser, nobler, more dignified. They regularly put us in touch with that in order to in the process what happened was we were relativized, so that the human world was seen to coexist among the world of divine forces which was infinitely more magisterial, more impressive than anything that humans could come up with.

Alain de Botton:

We now live in very much a human made world, and we see ourselves as the measure of all things. And that drives us mad because we're all jostling and competing and trying to assert ourselves in this sort of human ant hill without taking a step back and going we do live under a broader cosmos. I should say, that's part of the reason why people nowadays value nature so much and the experience of the natural world because I think people get a little bit of what used to be available within religion which is this experience of something larger, more mysterious, and awe inspiring.

Alain de Botton:

If you want to put it like this, Andrew, we need to be able to feel small every now and then. Not to be made to feel small by another human being, because that's quite unpleasant, but to be made to feel small within the larger order of the cosmos. We don't do that very often. You mentioned news. We're constantly being told to keep up with the news, and the news is always the achievement or some horror story of another human being somewhere on earth, and what we don't hear enough of is the news either from things that transcend us, or the news from inside our own hearts and a lot of what we need reminding of are not strangers and terrible things from the other side of the world, it's really truths that we've allowed to go dead inside our own minds, but that are very important. Things like your life is short, what are your priorities, what is important to you? To learn to value our own kind of knowledge and insights.

Alain de Botton:

It's striking to me always how seldom most people spend time on their own. We do everything other than spend time in our own minds. Even if we're alone we get distracted by the phone or by something, but we very rarely interrogate and make friends with our own thoughts, largely because those thoughts are often quite scary, but we should. It's really important, it's so useful.

Andrew Leigh:

I want to come to the news in a moment, but first before we leave religion, you have some fascinating insights on a number of religious traditions, fasting, pilgrimages, confessions, how do you think some of these religious traditions can be part of a good life for a non believer?

Alain de Botton:

I think the fact that religions did certain of these things should always set us thinking, what were they after? Take a lot of the religions of the East, were very interested in getting us to sit in a certain position, breathe in a certain way, and have a cup of tea. And that's kind of [crosstalk 00:31:44], that's kind of odd. Why is that? They knew something that we've allowed to slip through our culture. They knew that the body and it's posture is hugely important to the contents of your mind and the outlook of your mind and ditto with breathing, and that food and drink has a role to play again in shaping your world, and religions knew that a journey in the outer world can be very important to spurring a journey in the inner world and cementing a journey in the inner world. And that's what the whole notion of a pilgrimage was. It was precisely you needed to move forward inside, so you orchestrated a journey outside to do that.

Alain de Botton:

We're not so clear about what we're trying to do with many of our outer journeys. You look at [inaudible 00:32:29], how you're intending to move your life by heading off to Europe or something, and yet maybe that should precisely be what we keep in mind as we write in our journal on the long flight over. And also religions are very good at bringing people together, and at breaking the barriers down between strangers. Nowadays, we constantly hear that Sydney and Melbourne might have a vibrant night life. What does that mean? We don't meet strangers. People don't talk to each other in the large cities of the modern world. We may go to a bar but the chances of striking up a conversation or really opening our heart to a stranger are slim. We live in a lonely world. We have built a very lonely world, even without realizing it, and again, looking at how religions function can just alert us to some of our forgotten needs. And the answer isn't to go back to religion, I think it's to learn from religion and invest some of the lessons from religion in the secular world.

Andrew Leigh:

Yes, I'm often struck by what you can achieve if you're speaking to a large group of people, when you give them a moment to introduce themselves to somebody they haven't met before, and the odds are that they would have otherwise walked out of that room without ever meeting a new person, and so you can fundamentally change their experience of being in that room by that simple act. But it's entirely a religious tradition, that moment in church when that minister says now turn to the person next to you and say peace be with you, and everybody chats to somebody new.

Alain de Botton:

Now at The School of Life, just to frighten you, at The School of Life we do a version of this, but we take it one step further. We say explain to a stranger one thing that is troubling to you, that is making you sad, that you regret or are ashamed of, something. And so often in life, we imagine that what will win us friends is to be impressive and to be fantastic and flawless and achieving things. What we don't realize is that the only way really in which humans bind themselves together is by a revelation of their mutual dependence, vulnerability, and fragility, and what makes you friendly with somebody ultimately is always when you dare to make yourself vulnerable. It feels dangerous, and in a way it is dangerous, but it's the only way. If we're not going to be alone, that's the way that friendship begins, so we like to create the kind of safe space where that is done and almost kind of mandated and the results are beautiful.

Andrew Leigh:

Now perhaps your most prescient book was the 2014 book, The News: A User's Manual, published a full two years before Donald Trump took the White House and managed to blow out the news consumption of every hard line conservative and progressive on the planet. How should a thoughtful person build news consumption into their lives?

Alain de Botton:

Look, I think ultimately, our primary responsibility is ourselves and those around us that we are able to have a massive impact on them. So I think that we should invest our curiosity and our energy, proportionate to our capacity to impact on people. So let me paint you a kind of desperate portrait. Imagine a family where the two parents, let's say there are two parents in the house, and they're very upset about Brexit let's say. So they're all lamenting how awful Brexit is and how terrible the rumors are, and how awful everything is and how terrible it is. Meanwhile, they're neglecting two children who are full of curiosity, who are full of energy and insight and potential to shape the world. Now I'd like to say to them, guys, weep about Brexit like the next person whenever you want to, but don't use this as an excuse for neglecting your own life, or neglecting the responsibility you might have towards people around you.

Alain de Botton:

We are all capable of a massive impact, and when we say things like I'm powerless, I can't impact, yes you're not the prime minister, of course you can't impact at a mass scale for that level, but there's all of us, even the so called least powerful, have great power. It could be over a parent or over a child, or over a coworker, or over a friend. We all have the capacity to determine the lives of others in the way that a president might. A president can do it times a million, or times a hundred million, but we can all do it at lower but still real increments and we should use that power and not use the knowledge that we have of the problems of others and the dilemmas of others to distract us overly from an engagement with the lives around us, and I think that's the danger of the news, that it makes us jumpy and sad about things which we simply cannot alter and that is wasted energy.

Andrew Leigh:

Conversely, how do you see us being able to better incorporate music and art into a good life? Do you have tips as to how to consume art in particular, which I think many of us find a little daunting?

Alain de Botton:

Yeah, I mean I think the first thing we need to recognize is that art and culture are tools. They're not things that you need to pass an exam, or impress the neighbors, or to sound fancy, they are tools. Just like a saw or a hammer or a bucket is a tool. So art is a tool. You need those tools to solve certain problems at some points. The way to think about art for example is when you're a kid, your parents maybe at some stage say you can decorate your room, and you start looking around you and you go okay, how can I decorate my room? And let's say you like horse riding, so you put a picture of a horse, or you like motor sports, so you put a picture of a formula one car, whatever it is. But decorating the room is the beginning of your love of art, because what it's doing is showing you how pictures and objects can help to reinforce the things that you love most in life and in yourself. They are tools of self definition, and self kind of enhancement. And you might go, well what does that have to do with walking around the Louvre Museum when you go to Paris?

Alain de Botton:

Well let me explain. Our engagement with art and museums should follow exactly that pattern. We should be drawn and deep in our engagement with works of art that speak to us and we should use them mercilessly. So let's imagine you see a picture of a field painted by some guy in the 19th century. Buy the post card and think about why you like it, and maybe you like it because it's reminding you of moments in your life, maybe straight after university, where you have time to engage with nature. Now maybe you haven't, maybe you've drifted away, you're no longer quite that person, but something about post cards bringing that mood back to life. My advice is that means that that work of art is capturing important emotion, is bottling it as it were, and you need to put that post card where it matters, maybe on your desk, maybe on your fridge door, wherever it is, as a constant call to be more the person that that work of art is inviting you to be.

Alain de Botton:

So I'm arguing for a very intimate relationship with works of art. These are not distant grand objects that belong to kings and that's the end of the story. [inaudible 00:40:01] grand objects that you should use with the same level of naturalness as a kid decorating their first bedroom. That's what works of culture are really all about.

Andrew Leigh:

Do you think we should change the artworks on our walls more frequently? I'm often struck by the fact that art that spoke to me when I first got it no longer seems to have much of an impact on my soul six months on.

Alain de Botton:

Yeah, I mean why not? One of the great questions is why are we drawn to certain works of art when we're drawn to them? Why do people have such different tastes in art? I think that our taste in art is a guide to what's missing from our lives. So if you have a very stressful life that's full of too many meetings and too much agitation, you may be very drawn to some empty interiors, or shots of a beautiful empty church in the morning, or something like this. But let's say your life is too routine, lacking in passion, lacking in a certain intensity, you may be drawn to some very vibrant prints from Peru or something, because that's putting you in touch with an energy and a kind of vibrancy that you need. Now that may change over your life. You may no longer be, the things that are missing in us change over time and therefore the works of art that are often the bearers of those missing ingredients may also legitimately need to change with time.

Andrew Leigh:

I have to ask you on the musical front, what makes Peter Gabriel pop music for grown ups?

Alain de Botton:

I should explain that Peter Gabriel is someone who came to speak at The School of Life, we were very fortunate to host him a few years ago, and he spoke very interestingly about all sorts of things.

Andrew Leigh:

And the talk is available on your website and highly recommended.

Alain de Botton:

That's right. Look, I think that he's somebody who's felt very deeply. He's suffered deeply, and he's felt very deeply, and I think that what we catch in his music is somebody who kind of understands pain, but is ready to put that pain in a really broad and uplifting and consulting kind of context. So if you think about that wonderful song, Don't Give Up, that he wrote many years ago now, but it's a beautiful song for anyone who's just maybe close to suicide, maybe close to despair, it's channeling a voice that maybe we're not capable of creating for ourselves at that time. We need it, but we don't know how to speak to ourselves in that moment, and it's at that moment that music can come along and say I'm going to supplement that voice. I'm going to be that voice for you because our own capacities to generate a more optimistic and compassionate voice have run out of steam.

Andrew Leigh:

Yes, I'd put Nick Cave in the same category of singer who is just extraordinarily, has an extraordinary depth of lyricism.

Alain de Botton:

Definitely.

Andrew Leigh:

Let me ask you, Alain, how do you do your work? Do you have particular routines that you employ as a writer? Do you have a special writers garret, are you one of these people that has to get up and listen to certain pieces of music and do all your work between five and six AM? How do you do what you do so impressively?

Alain de Botton:

Well I think that's a very good question. I think that ultimately I try and understand why I write, and the reason I write is to sort out ideas that feel vital and emotionally rich to me at that time. And so one of the good things, if writing is not going well, rather than kind of force myself to keep doing that bit of writing, I often say to myself what's actually really a problem now? And can I write about that? So I'll drop whatever I'm writing and start something new that's more closely aligned with what is actually paining or delighting me, because I think both pain and delight are the sources of kind of motivation in writing. So writing is a desire to interpret emotions for me, and so it's just about trying to identify what the emotion is and I think so writer's block is literally just a moment when you don't really understand yourself well enough, you're trying to give birth to an idea but it's not ready yet, it's not ready to come out. So you've maybe just got to wait or try and find something else that is nearer to gestation.

Alain de Botton:

And I think if you're hitting the right spot, if you've identified the thing you're trying to work out, then writing comes anywhere. You could be on the back of a bus, it could me the middle of the night and you're just writing on the back of an envelope, it doesn't matter. So the setting doesn't matter, the context doesn't matter, none of that matters. The only thing that matters is have you hit a rich emotional seed inside you? And if you have, it's just going to work, maybe you haven't, it's not going to work.

Andrew Leigh:

So do you find you have long periods of fallow and then you hit the seam and then you're just writing constantly for a number of days or weeks?

Alain de Botton:

Yeah, I think it does work like that sometimes, yeah. Or I've just learned to drop things and move to other things. So often I have a lot of things on the go at the same time and something's just not ready, so I'm like a cook with many things on the hob, and something may be ready in a year when I sort of have further evolution. Often books, I was trying to write a book about religion for years, it took 20 years kind of thing. So the moment a book is written can be very far from the moment the first itch comes along.

Andrew Leigh:

Can you share with us some of the things that are on the hobs at the moment?

Alain de Botton:

Yes, so now I do a lot of my work via and through The School of Life. We've got this thing called The Book of Life which is our kind of blog, but we also have a little publishing house called The School of Life Press, and we do a lot of books there. So I'm writing a cookbook, isn't that strange? About food and ideas, food and feeling, food and emotion. Really it's about the body and our relationship to it. So I'm having a great time with recipes and putting that all together, and it will be out in a few months actually. It's not going to be too long until it's out, so that's the next project.

Andrew Leigh:

And I also want to ask you about responding to criticism. I know this famous incident a decade ago when you wrote a response to a negative New York Times review, I will hate you until the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I thought the review was pretty unfair, I thought you were very gracious in apologizing afterwards, but I'm curious what that incident taught you about how to respond when we're attached, with the benefit of a decade's hindsight?

Alain de Botton:

Yeah. I mean I think, well you realize of course with social media is that something you do in five minutes is going to be around forever. People mention it when you die, and it's crazy because something that, it's like imagine if every conversation with your partner was being recorded and kind of broadcast, and something you say in the heat of the moment literally becomes immortalized and seen as kind of the essence of you, and there's no point in complaining about it, that's the way the world works, so basically don't go anywhere near social media unless you're really, don't put anything down on a piece of paper really unless you're prepared to stand by that for years. It's very hard rule to live by, and I think none of us entirely do. But it's a chilling reminder of how digital footprints follow you around.

Alain de Botton:

To come to the broader point, I think that it's impossible not to care what other people think and be a responsive human, and the advice people are like grow a thick skin. It's like how can you grow a thick skin and do what you do? The reason why writers are all so thin skinned is because that's what they get paid to do. They get paid to have gossamer thin skins, because how could you write well and be an elephant? You can't. It just doesn't go together. So I think, my advice to people is hold onto your thin skin, because it's the result of, we're talking about weaknesses and strength, it's also plugged into some great things about you. However, be careful, because people will use it against you.

Andrew Leigh:

Alain, you've moved increasingly in recent years from being a writer to being an entrepreneur in setting up The School of Life. Do you see that evolution as continuing? Do you see yourself being much more a teacher and a manager in the decades to come than being a writer?

Alain de Botton:

Look, I'm always first and foremost a writer. The question is how I do it and in recent years I've had amazing fun, I'm putting together a fantastically talented group of people at School of Life, and we operate around the word, and these are great people and they do a fantastic job broadly in psychotherapy, broadly that's what it is. It's helping people by sharing insights, talking to them, and helping them to move on in their lives. And I do a lot of the writing and intellectual work to get that ball rolling, and it's fantastic. For me it's a hugely creative way of life. I now write a lot of books not under my own name, but under The School of Life imprint, and it's liberating to be unselfconscious and spontaneous and free in a way that it's sometimes hard to be if you're the only guy on stage.

Alain de Botton:

So I've enjoyed being, I used to have a big ego, by which I really mean a small ego that was looking to get bigger, and now I'm older and a little bit wiser, and I don't really care, I've been on stage. I was at the Sydney Opera House, I don't know, four years ago or something, and I remember coming off stage, and I did something like four events in two days at the Sydney Opera House, sell out events, and it was an extraordinary honor and privilege, but I remember coming away and thinking right, I've done that. Any narcissistic bit of me that needed the applause of wonderful strangers is exhausted. I don't mind if I never see an audience member again, and that's not to be ungrateful. It's not to be ungrateful, it's just I moved on, I out grew that. But that's not who I was when I was a younger person. When I was younger I needed applause. I needed to get a sense of the love of strangers. I don't feel the need for that anymore. Indeed, I love being a much more private person now. And so I love working with colleagues at School of Life putting together a really fascinating and interesting program and I hope it can continue.

Andrew Leigh:

Alain, what advice would you give to your teenage self?

Alain de Botton:

To my teenage self, calm down. It might be okay, and even if it's not, it will be okay anyway. There will be time to get the stuff done that you want to do, and like yourself a bit more. That's what I would say.

Andrew Leigh:

What's something you used to believe that no longer do?

Alain de Botton:

What did I used to believe? That I had to be worried about everything all the time, and I don't necessarily believe that's true.

Andrew Leigh:

What's shifted your view on that one?

Alain de Botton:

I think I came to understand that I was brought up in an atmosphere of catastrophe, and I came to realize that atmosphere was not necessarily necessary and that the whole point of being an adult is that you can deal with catastrophe. It's not that catastrophes don't happen to adults, of course they do. But that you can deal with it. So I think I learned to be a bit more resilient. Resilience was lacking. Babies, one of the things that good parents do with kids is soothe them, babies. When a baby's screaming and it seems like the world is collapsing, the baby will be soothed and will learn a hugely important lesson about life, and I think that probably a lot of us, maybe whole societies need soothing. And to be told that it can be okay, we'll get through this, and even if we don't, that will be okay too. And we lack that soothing voice. It's something that feels very important to me and something that I try to correct in my own work and life.

Andrew Leigh:

When are you most happy?

Alain de Botton:

I'm most happy when I understand something new that was puzzling me and suddenly becomes clear. That's gold dust for me, that's so exciting. That something previously dark opens itself up. That could be in the course of writing, but it could also be with somebody else. If I'm in a conversation with a friend or even a stranger, and something becomes clear, it's a beautiful moment. So connection and understanding are for me the real luxuries of life.

Andrew Leigh:

What's the most important thing you do in your life to stay mentally and physically healthy?

Alain de Botton:

Use up massive amounts of empty time, so called empty time. So free time, time without commitments to other people is a vital part of my kind of mental hygiene.

Andrew Leigh:

Do you have any guilty pleasures?

Alain de Botton:

Like many people I eat a bit too much. So I do love food, I love chocolate, I love cakes and pastries and these sort of things.

Andrew Leigh:

Working on the recipe book can't of helped.

Alain de Botton:

No, it can't of helped. No it didn't. So I do love these things, and yeah, it's bad.

Andrew Leigh:

And finally, Alain, what person or what experience has most shaped your view of living an ethical life?

Alain de Botton:

Living an ethical life. Well living a thoughtful life it's probably my friendship with a wonderful Scottish Australian colleague and best friend of mine called John Armstrong, who's based in Tasmania, and he's part of The School of Life team and we do a lot of our work together, and my friendship with him has been absolutely vital to giving me courage, giving me support, but also opening my eyes to so many thoughts and ideas. So some of us are lucky in life to hit upon somebody who really makes the big, big difference, and the day I bumped into my friend John was very much one of those.

Andrew Leigh:

Alain de Botton's new book is The School of Life. Alain, thanks so much for taking the time to appear on The Good Life podcast.

Alain de Botton:

Such a pleasure, thank you.

Andrew Leigh:

Thanks for listening to this week's episode of The Good Life. If you enjoyed this conversation, I reckon you'll love past interviews with Julia Gillard, Ronni Kahn, Carl Vine, and Martha Nussbaum. We appreciate getting feedback, so please leave us a rating or a comment on Apple podcasts, mainly because it really helps other people find the podcast. Next week we'll be back with another inspiring guest to discuss living a happier, healthier, and more ethical life.

 


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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | Andrew.Leigh.M[email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.