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Is modern society's prescription for status and a successful life, even by TED standards, valid?

Recently, after geeking out on Michael Sandel and Alain de Botton's online courses and documentaries on philosophies of life, I realized that I had none of my own! (I mean really of my own). And maybe we don't have philosophy in our lives at all really, to think of such things.

I recognize that today's western values (which are spreading) of business success, fame, recognition, professional and intellectual validation (like on TED here), even with the coatings of social and ecological awareness, are as random as the ones in the past of child-bearing hips, warrior skills and noble birth. We can see looking back, that if you didn't follow those prescriptions, you lived a relatively "wasted" life. And while we may shun obtuse caricatures like the "success" of Reality TV "stars" as if in denial of what is truly valued these days, for many of us, if we don't make VP by 34, have an IPO before 30, don't get a standing ovation at TED or aren't doing something with "reach", we are Losers. Yikes!

I want to strive to be philosophically secure enough to know that my life's definition of crafts and vegan recipes* is worthy (*hypothesis). Or am I just wasting oxygen by not participating in the latest world order, even if it seems relatively nicer? The buy-in is always compelling at every age...and then we all die.

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    Apr 12 2012: Hi Genevieve, good question! I've been thinking a lot about this, because it really does take effort to break free of what society expects out of you. Success shouldn't be a construct of society, the only person who can measure your success is yourself. So in short, no, I don't think it is valid. But here's the long version- I think success is very personal, some people may judge success by the amount of money they make, some people by the lives they've changed, some by the books they've written or even by the people they have made happy. I judge my own success by thinking "if I die tomorrow, will I die happy?" (so embarrassingly cliched but hey it works). If I'm happy, I'm successful, and that works out just fine. This doesn't mean that my happiness relies on a successful career, but rather that my definition of success encompasses more than my career, it takes into account everything that makes me happy.

    As you know, Alain talks about Seneca in one of his philosophical documentaries..While Alain's emphasis was on Seneca's views towards anger, Seneca's "On the shortness of life" is a really interesting read. He ridicules the emphasis we place on status and suggests that instead of wasting our lives trying to achieve and maintain status, one of the best things we can do is to delve into philosophy and truly reflect on life and think about how we're using it. I recommend it, not so much for his answers but for his insights into time and life.

    This is sort of unrelated but I wonder if everyone were given knowledge of their time (or even month) of death, would they be living their lives differently?
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    Apr 4 2012: before I start I gotta say I loved Michael Sandel's Justice course at Harvard university and Alain is one of my fav Philosophers of all time, from his radio show Point of View to his series Philosophy as guide to happiness.

    As a very short answer I refer to Heidegger's claim that western Philosophy only leads to making better stuff and improving technology , not happiness and quality of life.

    it does not matter if you are a rationalist or an empiricist , Modernism after the enlightenment has been focused intensely on products ,

    I totally believe in modernism and I hate conservative and religious ideas , if someone has an answer for sure its not them but no doubt that there are many many things that modern world still can not answer.

    This may sound odd by US had twice as many suicides as homicide in the last 5 years , South Korea is 2nd in the rate of Suicide and Japan is 9th.

    So was Heidegger right ? Are we just making better stuff and unhappy people ?
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      Apr 5 2012: There seems to be no sense of reflection in society at large, and on our own individual scale, every time "progress" is made--whether it be technological progress or a promotion in our jobs. It's too fast and we justify it perhaps by thinking in the secular world, that we only have this life to live, so the "race" is on!

      I think religion does way more harm than good, personally, but I bet that secularism and the realization that this is the only life of maximize: profit, recognition etc. is what makes us go at this un-godly :) pace without stopping to think if it really works. And this is what makes us unhappy even though we have all the stuff we want.
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        Apr 5 2012: I share the same view about religion , I think its a philosophy of life that has been outdated centuries ago

        but the need for transcendent is still there and people need something bigger than themselves to rely onto , though it is missing , a product no matter how good , can give us pleasure but not happiness, as Epicurus says there is a big difference between Pleasure and Happiness and happiness does not come from stuff

        Nietzsche once said God is dead and will remain dead cause we killed him, people did not get it back then but now we understand what he was talking about , the lack of a better bigger purpose in life is taking its toll.

        Modern world is thousand times better than the classic world, but we humans have a great advantage / disadvantage , We get used to things and we want better and better , the race and the urge to go for it is always there and never has been more intense , Schopenhauer's famous WILL.

        Buckle up WILL , the race is well and truly on and it push people like never before
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    Apr 9 2012: I think that my comment will perhaps be perceived as off-topic, but... have you watched Susan Cain's talk about introversion?

    Actually, as Carl Jung put it nicely,"there's no such person as a complete extrovert or completel introvert. Such one will be in a lunatic asylum".

    Susan Cain questions the value of the hyper-extroverted western culture, in which you have to be loud, fast-paced and ubiquitous to be called "successful". What do you think about this?

    A relative of president Sarkozy, Mr. Séguéla, famously said that if by 50, you have no pure gold Rolex watch at your wrist, you're a failure!

    I'm quite puzzled by how far western culture has pushed its values, which are highly debatable.
  • Apr 4 2012: This is a great topic.

    I think today in modern society we have two parallel trends. As you said many people are pursuing their career (sometimes causing their family and friend relationships to suffer), pursuing wealth and accumulate stuff. There is also a constant pressure at workplace for change and everyone suppose to do a better job every day.

    The second trend is for some people to realize that life is not necessary about achieving, planning, working more and having more stuff but rather about relationships, doing more with less and focusing on small things. I think this trend is gaining popularity and I can list a few sites I found really useful for this mindset.

    I think that it is not bad if one is trying to work on career or pursue their passion and vision. However working hard should not be about making more money or be at the top of the company corporate ladder but rather about self-actualization if that is what you need in life while not forgetting about family and friends.

    Those people that just want to do their job and relax afterwords already doing great work by being productive members of their society and let others do "magic" in terms of performance or great accomplishments.

    So in summary I think your life style should depend on your personality and needs but it should not be based purely on making lots of money or engage in unhealthy competition with your coworkers or others.


    P.S. "Or am I just wasting oxygen by not participating...". I think you do not waste any oxygen =)
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      Apr 5 2012: How can we come to define what self-actualization is? There is too much noise and it's difficult to distill the difference between what my voice is, and what I'm being manipulated into thinking "success" should mean. How have you isolated this realization if you've managed to? :)
      • Apr 5 2012: I think the question is important, but I'm not sure it can be answered in a way that could do it justice for everyone and is the answer important? I feel that the thinking about questions that have no answers is the important thing, especially if we find the questions pertain to ourselves.
      • Apr 5 2012: I think one way to remove noise is simply to avoid watching TV (which has mostly skew view of reality including its reality shows) and news channels.

        Then I would look at what people that seems happy are doing:

      • Apr 5 2012: Genevieve, I share the same concern about our definition of "success". I feel that I cannot really distinguish what I deeply think a successful life is and what's I've read on the web about this topic. There are so many voices out there and it's difficult to elaborate them. Most of the times I read websites only from people I trust, but still the visions are so different. I guess in the pre-internet era things were a lot easier, when all the daily interactions were with people living in the same environment. You might had come across a professor/senior with particularly disruptive/challenging ideas once in a while, but it was a rare occurrence. Today I feel that my values/convictions are challenged almost weekly by people who live in a different country/social environment. And I struggle to adapt. Is this continual adjustment of our objectives beneficial or not? Should we try to stop this continuous flow of challenges (that may become noise after a while) and focus on what really matters for us at the time being? even if it is not perfect?
      • Apr 5 2012: In my opinion true success is if you do what makes you happy. If earning a lot of money makes you happy, go earn a lot of money. If helping others makes you happy, go help them. And if simply focusing on the present and doing what you want to do, then do so.

        However, I do think that (but possibly that is just my personal perception of success) one should try to always make decisions based on one's idea of what is best for everybody, try not to hurt anyone, not oneself either and try to bring happiness to others as well. That is, if you ask me, true success.

        In the end a truly successful person shouldn't have to think, I could have done better, but just be able to say: "I always did, what I thought was best for everybody. (also myself)"
        • Apr 6 2012: I agree. You said it very well !
        • Apr 16 2012: Great post but i wouldn't even consider success as what you think is good for everyone, but i would leave the part that it won't harm anyone. Realistically most of us will be fortunate enough not be making such decisions as Robert Oppenheimer would.

          If you don't follow what is widely accepted as success, i.e. your career, having a family, gaining material wealth, I think it's really up to you what you think success is.

          I think as long as you can find something you enjoy and strive to be the best you can be at it, then that's my definition of success.

          My impression of TED seems to be sharing of ideas, not to define what is meant to be successful. I guess they are on TED because they helped changed people's lives in some way (for the better) They can't include everyone or I would post some rant on TED myself HA
  • Apr 4 2012: More philosophical debate is not only beneficial, but necessary.