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  • For me they normally happen, these career crises,

  • often, actually, on a Sunday evening,

  • just as the sun is starting to set,

  • and the gap between my hopes for myself,

  • and the reality of my life, start to diverge so painfully

  • that I normally end up weeping into a pillow.

  • I'm mentioning all this,

  • I'm mentioning all this because I think this is not merely a personal problem.

  • You may think I'm wrong in this,

  • but I think that we live in an age when our lives are regularly

  • punctuated by career crises,

  • by moments when what we thought we knew,

  • about our lives, about our careers,

  • comes into contact with a threatening sort of reality.

  • It's perhaps easier now than ever before to make a good living.

  • It's perhaps harder than ever before

  • to stay calm, to be free of career anxiety.

  • I want to look now, if I may,

  • at some of the reasons why

  • we might be feeling anxiety about our careers.

  • Why we might be victims of these career crises,

  • as we're weeping softly into our pillows.

  • One of the reasons why we might be suffering

  • is that we are surrounded by snobs.

  • In a way, I've got some bad news,

  • particularly to anybody who's come to Oxford from abroad.

  • There is a real problem with snobbery.

  • Because sometimes people from outside the U.K.

  • imagine that snobbery is a distinctively U.K. phenomenon

  • fixated on country houses and titles.

  • The bad news is that's not true.

  • Snobbery is a global phenomenon.

  • We are a global organization. This is a global phenomenon.

  • It exists. What is a snob?

  • A snob is anybody who takes a small part of you

  • and uses that to come to a complete vision of who you are.

  • That is snobbery.

  • The dominant kind of snobbery

  • that exists nowadays is job snobbery.

  • You encounter it within minutes at a party,

  • when you get asked that famous iconic question

  • of the early 21st century, "What do you do?"

  • And according to how you answer that question,

  • people are either incredibly delighted to see you,

  • or look at their watch and make their excuses.

  • (Laughter)

  • Now, the opposite of a snob is your mother.

  • (Laughter)

  • Not necessarily your mother, or indeed mine,

  • but, as it were, the ideal mother,

  • somebody who doesn't care about your achievements.

  • But unfortunately, most people are not our mothers.

  • Most people make a strict correlation between how much time,

  • and if you like, love -- not romantic love,

  • though that may be something --

  • but love in general, respect,

  • they are willing to accord us, that will be strictly defined

  • by our position in the social hierarchy.

  • And that's a lot of the reason why we care so much about our careers

  • and indeed start caring so much about material goods.

  • You know, we're often told that we live in very materialistic times,

  • that we're all greedy people.

  • I don't think we are particularly materialistic.

  • I think we live in a society

  • which has simply pegged certain emotional rewards

  • to the acquisition of material goods.

  • It's not the material goods we want. It's the rewards we want.

  • And that's a new way of looking at luxury goods.

  • The next time you see somebody driving a Ferrari

  • don't think, "This is somebody who is greedy."

  • Think, "This is somebody who is incredibly vulnerable and in need of love."

  • In other words -- (Laughter)

  • feel sympathy, rather than contempt.

  • There are other reasons --

  • (Laughter)

  • there are other reasons why it's perhaps harder now

  • to feel calm than ever before.

  • One of these, and it's paradoxical because it's linked to something that's rather nice,

  • is the hope we all have for our careers.

  • Never before have expectations been so high

  • about what human beings can achieve with their lifespan.

  • We're told, from many sources, that anyone can achieve anything.

  • We've done away with the caste system.

  • We are now in a system where anyone can rise

  • to any position they please.

  • And it's a beautiful idea.

  • Along with that is a kind of spirit of equality. We're all basically equal.

  • There are no strictly defined

  • kind of hierarchies.

  • There is one really big problem with this,

  • and that problem is envy.

  • Envy, it's a real taboo to mention envy,

  • but if there is one dominant emotion in modern society, that is envy.

  • And it's linked to the spirit of equality. Let me explain.

  • I think it would be very unusual for anyone here, or anyone watching,

  • to be envious of the Queen of England.

  • Even though she is much richer than any of you are.

  • And she's got a very large house.

  • The reason why we don't envy her is because she's too weird.

  • She's simply too strange.

  • We can't relate to her. She speaks in a funny way.

  • She comes from an odd place.

  • So we can't relate to her. And when you can't relate to somebody, you don't envy them.

  • The closer two people are, in age, in background,

  • in the process of identification, the more there is a danger of envy --

  • which is incidentally why none of you should ever go to a school reunion --

  • because there is no stronger reference point

  • than people one was at school with.

  • But the problem, generally, of modern society, is that it turns the whole world

  • into a school. Everybody is wearing jeans, everybody is the same.

  • And yet, they're not.

  • So there is a spirit of equality, combined with deep inequalities.

  • Which makes for a very -- can make for a very stressful situation.

  • It's probably as unlikely that you would nowadays

  • become as rich and famous as Bill Gates,

  • as it was unlikely in the 17th century

  • that you would accede to the ranks of the French aristocracy.

  • But the point is, it doesn't feel that way.

  • It's made to feel, by magazines and other media outlets,

  • that if you've got energy, a few bright ideas about technology,

  • a garage, you too could start a major thing.

  • (Laughter)

  • And the consequences of this problem make themselves felt in bookshops.

  • When you go to a large bookshop and look at the self-help sections,

  • as I sometimes do,

  • if you analyze self-help books that are produced

  • in the world today, there are basically two kinds.

  • The first kind tells you, "You can do it! You can make it! Anything is possible!"

  • And the other kind tells you how to cope

  • with what we politely call "low self-esteem,"

  • or impolitely call "feeling very bad about yourself."

  • There is a real correlationship,

  • a real correlation between a society that tells people that they can do anything

  • and the existence of low self-esteem.

  • So that's another way in which something that is quite positive

  • can have a nasty kickback.

  • There is another reason why we might be feeling more anxious,

  • about our careers, about our status in the world today, than ever before.

  • And it is, again, linked to something nice,

  • and that nice thing is called meritocracy.

  • Everybody, all politicians on Left and Right,

  • agree that meritocracy is a great thing,

  • and we should all be trying to make our societies really, really meritocratic.

  • In other words, what is a meritocratic society?

  • A meritocratic society is one in which

  • if you've got talent and energy and skill,

  • you will get to the top. Nothing should hold you back.

  • It's a beautiful idea. The problem is

  • if you really believe in a society

  • where those who merit to get to the top, get to the top,

  • you'll also, by implication, and in a far more nasty way,

  • believe in a society where those who deserve to get to the bottom

  • also get to the bottom and stay there.

  • In other words, your position in life comes to seem not accidental,

  • but merited and deserved.

  • And that makes failure seem much more crushing.

  • You know, 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 there any relief from some of these pressures

  • that I've just been outlining?

  • I think there is. I just want to turn to a few of them.

  • Let's take meritocracy.

  • This idea that everybody deserves to get where they get to,

  • I think it's a crazy idea, completely crazy.

  • I will support any politician of Left and Right,

  • with any halfway decent meritocratic idea.

  • I am a meritocrat in that sense.

  • But I think it's insane to believe that we will ever

  • make a society that is genuinely meritocratic. It's an impossible dream.

  • The idea that we will make a society

  • where literally everybody is graded,

  • the good at the top, and the bad at the bottom,

  • and it's exactly done as it should be, is impossible.

  • There are simply too many random factors:

  • accidents, accidents of birth,

  • accidents of things dropping on people's heads, illnesses, etc.

  • We will never get to grade them,

  • never get to grade people as they should.

  • I'm drawn to a lovely quote by St. Augustine in "The City of God,"

  • where he says, "It's a sin to judge any man by his post."

  • In modern English that would mean

  • it's a sin to come to any view of who you should talk to

  • dependent on their business card.

  • It's not the post that should count.

  • According to St. Augustine,

  • it's only God who can really put everybody in their place.

  • And he's going to do that on the Day of Judgment

  • with angels and trumpets, and the skies will open.

  • Insane idea, if you're a secularist person, like me.

  • But something very valuable in that idea, nevertheless.

  • In other words, hold your horses when you're coming to judge people.

  • You don't necessarily know what someone's true value is.

  • That is an unknown part of them.

  • And we shouldn't behave as though it is known.

  • There is another source of solace and comfort for all this.

  • When we think about failing in life, when we think about failure,

  • one of the reasons why we fear failing is not just

  • a loss of income, a loss of status.

  • What we fear is the judgment and ridicule of others. And it exists.

  • You know, the number one organ of ridicule

  • nowadays, is the newspaper.

  • And if you open the newspaper any day of the week,

  • it's full of people who've messed up their lives.

  • They've slept with the wrong person. They've taken the wrong substance.

  • They've passed the wrong piece of legislation. Whatever it is.

  • And then are fit for ridicule.

  • In other words, they have failed. And they are described as "losers."

  • Now is there any alternative to this?

  • I think the Western tradition shows us one glorious alternative,

  • and that is tragedy.

  • Tragic art, as it developed in the theaters of ancient Greece,

  • in the fifth century B.C., was essentially an art form

  • devoted to tracing how people fail,

  • and also according them a level of sympathy,

  • which ordinary life would not necessarily accord them.

  • I remember a few years ago, I was thinking about all this,

  • and I went to see "The Sunday Sport,"

  • a tabloid newspaper that I don't recommend you to start reading

  • if you're not familiar with it already.

  • I went to talk to them

  • about certain of the great tragedies of Western art.

  • I wanted to see how they would seize the bare bones

  • of certain stories if they came in as a news item

  • at the news desk on a Saturday afternoon.

  • So I told them about Othello. They had not heard of it but were fascinated by it.

  • (Laughter)

  • And I asked them to write the headline for the story of Othello.

  • They came up with "Love-Crazed Immigrant Kills Senator's Daughter"

  • splashed across the headline.

  • I gave them the plotline of Madame Bovary.

  • Again, a book they were enchanted to discover.

  • And they wrote "Shopaholic Adulteress Swallows Arsenic After Credit Fraud."