The world became modern when people who met for the first time shifted from asking each other (as they had always done) where they came from — to asking each other what they did.
To try to position someone by their area of origin is to assume that personal identity is formed primarily by membership of a geographical community; we are where we are from. We’re the person from the town by the lake; we’re from the village between the forest and the estuary. But to want to know our job is to imagine that it’s through our choice of occupation, through our distinctive way of earning money, that we become most fully ourselves; we are what we do.
The difference may seem minor, but it has significant implications for the way we stand to be judged and therefore how pained the question may make us feel. We tend not to be responsible for where we are from. The universe landed us there and we probably stayed. Furthermore, entire communities are seldom viewed as either wholly good or bad; it’s assumed they will contain all sorts of people, about whom blanket judgements would be hard to make. One is unlikely to be condemned simply on the basis of the region or city one hails from.
But we have generally had far more to do with the occupation we are engaged in. We’ll have studied a certain way, gained particular qualifications, and made specific choices in order to end up, perhaps, a dentist or a cleaner, a film producer or a hospital porter. And to such choices, targeted praise or blame can be attached.
It turns out that in being asked what we do, we are not really being asked what we do but what we are worth — and, more precisely, whether or not we are worth knowing. In modernity, there are right and wrong answers; the wrong ones swiftly strip us of the ingredient we crave as much as heat, food or rest: respect. We long to be treated with dignity and kindness, for our existence to matter to others and for our particularity to be noticed and honoured. We may do almost as much damage to a person by ignoring them as by punching them.
Respect will not be available to those who cannot give a sufficiently elevated answer to the question of what they do. The modern world is snobbish. The term is still associated with a quaint aristocratic value system that emphasises bloodlines and castles. But stripped to its essence, snobbery merely indicates any way of judging another human whereby one takes a relatively small section of their identity and uses it to come to a total and fixed judgement on their entire worth. For the music snob, we are what we listen to; for the clothes snob, we are our trousers. And according to the job snobbery at large in the modern world, we are what is on our business card.
The opposite of a snob might be a parent or lover; someone who cares about who one is, not what one does. But for the majority, our existence is weighed up according to far narrower criteria. We exist in so far as we have performed adequately in the marketplace. Our longing for respect is only satisfied through the right sort of rank. It is easy to accuse modern humans of being materialistic. This seems wrong. We may be interested in possessions and salaries, but we are not on that basis ‘materialistic’. We are simply living in a world where the possession of certain material goods has become the only conduit to the emotional rewards that we crave deep down. It isn’t the objects and titles we are after; it is, more poignantly, the feeling of being ‘seen’ and liked that is only available to us via material means.
Not only does the modern world want to know what we do, it also has some punitive explanations of why we may not have done very well. It promotes the idea of ‘meritocracy’ — a system that should allow each person to rise through classes in order to take up the place they deserve. No longer should tradition or family background limit what one can achieve. But the idea of meritocracy carries with it a nasty sting: if we truly believe in a world in which those who deserve to get to the top do get to the top, by implication, we must also believe in a world in which those who get to the bottom deserve to be at the bottom. In other words, a world that takes itself to be meritocratic will suppose that failure and success in the professional game are not mere accidents, but indications of genuine value.
It has not always felt quite so definitive. Pre-modern societies believed in the intervention of divine forces in human affairs. A successful Roman trader or soldier would have thanked Mercury or Mars for their good fortune. They knew themselves to be only ever partially responsible for what happened to them, for good or ill, and would remember as much when evaluating others. The poor weren’t necessarily indigent or sinful; the gods might never have looked favourably on them. But we have done away with the idea of divine intervention — or of its less directly superstitious cousin, luck. We don’t accept that someone might fail for reasons of mere bad luck. We have little patience for nuanced stories or attenuating facts; narratives that could set the bare bones of a biography in a richer context, that could explain that though someone ended up in a lowly place, they had to deal with an illness, an ailing relative, a stock market crash or a difficult childhood. Winners make their own luck; losers make their own defeat.
No wonder that the consequences of underachievement feel especially punishing. There are fewer explanations and fewer ways of tolerating oneself. A society that assumes that what happens to an individual is the responsibility of the individual is a society that doesn’t want to hear any excuses that would less closely identify a person with elements of their CV. It is a society that may leave some of the losers feeling that they have no right to exist. Suicide rates rise.
In the past, in the era of group identity, we might value ourselves in part for things that we had not done ourselves. We might feel proud that we came from a society that had built a particularly fine cathedral or temple. Our sense of self could be bolstered by belonging to a city or nation that placed great store on athletic prowess or literary talent. Modernity has weakened our ability to lean on such supports. It has tied us punitively closely to what we have personally done — or not done.
At the same time, the opportunities for individual achievement have never been greater. Apparently, we are able to do anything. We might amass a fortune, rise to the top of politics, write a hit song. There should be no limits on ambition. Therefore, any failure feels even more of a damning verdict on who we are. It’s one thing to have failed in an era when failure seemed like the norm, quite another to have failed when success has been made to feel like an ongoing and universal possibility.
Even as it raised living standards across the board, the modern world has made the psychological consequences of failure harder to bear. It has eroded our sense that our identity could rest on broader criteria than our professional performance. It has also made it imperative for psychological survival that we try to find a way of escaping the claustrophobia of individualism, that we recall that workplace success and failure are always relative markers, not conclusive judgements, that in reality, no one is ever either a loser or a winner, that we are all bewildering mixtures of the beautiful and the ugly, the impressive and the mediocre, the idiotic and the sharp.
Going forward, in a calculated fight against the spirit of the age, we might do well to ask all new acquaintances not what they do but what they have been thinking or daydreaming about recently.
How to Survive the Modern World is the ultimate guide to navigating our unusual times. It identifies a range of themes — our relationship to the news media, our assumptions about money and our careers, our admiration for science and technology and our belief in individualism and secularism – that present acute challenges to our mental wellbeing.
The emphasis isn’t just on understanding modern times but also on knowing how we can best relate to the difficulties these present, pointing us towards a saner individual and collective future.
Our societies have advanced tendencies to label certain people ‘winners’ and others – logically enough – ‘losers’. Aside from the evident meanness of this categorisation, the underlying problem with it is the suggestion that life might be a unitary, singular race, at the conclusion to which one could neatly rank all the competitors from highest to lowest.
And yet the more confusing and complex truth is that life is really made up of a number of races that unfold simultaneously over very different terrain and with different sorts of cups and medals in view. There are races for money, fame and prestige of course – and these attract many spectators and in some social circles, the bulk of the coverage. But there are also races that measure other kinds of prowess worth venerating. There is a race for who can remain calmest in the face of frustration. There is a race for who can be kindest to children. There is a race measuring how gifted someone is at friendship. There are races focused on how attentive someone is to the evening sky or how good they are at deriving pleasure from autumn fruits.
Despite our enthusiasm for sorting out competitors into neat ranks, a striking fact about the multi-race event of life is, quite simply, that no one is ever able to end up a winner in every genre of competition available. Furthermore, prowess in one kind of race seems to militate against one’s chances of success in others. Winning at being ruthlessly successful in business seems not – for example – generally to go hand in hand with any real ability at the race to appreciate the sky or find pleasure in figs. Those who are terrific at gaining fame tend to be hampered when it comes to competing in the race that measures the ability to be patient around thoughtful but underconfident three year old children.
We cannot – it seems – be winners at everything. Those who appear to be carrying off all the prizes and are lauded in certain quarters as superhuman athletes of life cannot, on closer examination, really be triumphing across the board in any such way. They are bound to be making a deep mess of some of the less familiar or prestigious races they are entered for; in certain corners of the stadium, they’ll be falling over, tripping up, complaining loudly about track conditions and, perhaps, sourly denigrating the whole event as useless and not worth participating in.
If one cannot be a winner at everything, it follows that one cannot be a loser at everything either. When we have failed in certain races in the mille-athlon of life, we retain ample opportunities to train and develop our strength to win in others. We may never again be able to compete in the race for fame, honour or money, but it’s still entirely open to us to compete in the race for kindness, friendship and forgiveness. We may even win at the not insignificant race for enjoying one’s own company or sleeping very soundly and without anxiety for many hours in the sun.
There is no such thing as a winner or a loser per se. There is only a person who has won in some areas and messed up in others. And, to go deeper, someone whose talent at winning in one sort of race means they must naturally and almost inevitably mess up in alternatives – and vice versa.
We never starkly fail at life itself. When we mess up in worldly areas and feel dejected and isolated, the universe is just giving us an exceptional chance to begin the training which means we will one day become star athletes in other less well-known but hugely important races – races around keeping a sense of humour, showing gratitude, forgiving, appreciating, letting go – and making do. These are the noble tracks where those who have ‘failed’ can finally, properly and redemptively learn to ‘win.’
Given how outright mean many people are, it might be odd to single out as particularly problematic and especially painful a kind of treatment that might, on the surface, seem very close to kindness.
When they hear of a problem we have, a certain sort of acquaintance will rush to offer us gentle-sounding words. They will ask us with concern how we are doing; they will enquire if they can get us anything at all at what must be a very difficult moment for us; they will say they imagine how awful things are and how in agony we must be. They will end a call by entreating us to get in touch with them whenever we want – day or night, weekends too – if they can be of any assistance of any kind. They might even briefly sigh – and say in a tender voice: ‘Poor you!’
How could we so ungrateful as to mind, when other people might at this very moment be calling us a loser or worse? Yet the latter approach might almost be preferable; however bracing, we would at least know where we stood.
What can make honey-coated kindness unbearable is its entanglement with one of the most pernicious emotions we can ever be on the receiving end of, namely pity. To be pitied is to be placed in a special category of loneliness and freakishness, and accorded an exceptionally strong pariah status, at the very moment when what we long for is solace and our confirmation of our right to belong to the human race. The pitying person recognises how desperate our condition is, but what subverts their efforts to be kind is the energy with make they make it clear that our sorrow is ours and ours alone – and that they will not, and could not ever be touched by any similar horror. They want to be sweet to us of course, but what they will not do is recognise that they are as open to madness, foolishness, accident and suffering as we are. They need – from fear – to create a solid wall between our condition and theirs. They need to remind us, and most importantly themselves, that they are firmly rooted on dry land, while we are out there in the ocean swell drowning. They will throw a small life raft perhaps; what they don’t want to imagine is ever needing one themselves.
Pity is troubling because it lies so close to something we all desperately want, which is sympathy. Both the pity-bearing and the sympathetic person will say ‘poor you.’ Both will recognise our troubles and the extent of our fall and our pain. But the pity-bearing person then does something unwittingly very cruel: they manage to imply that the mess we’re in is only ours. They won’t hint at something which is – in the grander scheme – a great deal more accurate as well as more humane: the truth that we are all of us at all times a hair’s breadth away from agony.
The pity-bearing friend can’t directly say this, and may not know it themselves, but dread explains the assiduousness with which they keep our catastrophe at arm’s length. They must remind us of the distinctiveness of our situation because they aren’t strong enough to accept how much trouble they may be in line for in the future. They may be coming to our hospital for a visit, but it’s quietly evident that they couldn’t ever picture themselves in such a bleak place. They may help us to pay for our groceries but heaven forbid that they would ever one day have to ask a friend for money in turn.
The truly heart-warming and consoling friend is someone robust and mature enough to be reconciled to their own exposure to pain; they know that though they are not on the ward right now, they might easily be soon enough; they understand that everything we are suffering from could touch them one day too, that our sins have echoes in their own hearts; that they haven’t been granted immunity to folly and horror; that they may as yet be fine, but that they almost certainly won’t be in the end, because life is long and because they are human – and therefore condemned to exquisite kinds of suffering, as we all are. This is the emotional background that will discreetly lend their words consolation and their hugs sincerity.
In the end, we should not resent the pity-bearing person long. They are not causing us suffering on purpose – and generally they have no clue what they are up to. They are just very afraid of being like us – unreconciled to one day having to drink from the giant cup of suffering we’ve been forced to down. We frighten them; we are ghoulish evocations of everything they are in flight from. We are not imagining a problem; we are right to sense how delicately we are being kept at bay by an imaginary long stick and surgical gloves. They may have called us up to see how we are, but as we take in their well-muffled terror, we should turn the tables on them and reassert our sense of agency and dignity in the face of their sweetly patronising concern. We have become explorers of regions they are still too brittle and apprehensive to know how to travel to. If anyone is in need of a dose of reassuring kindness, it may be them.
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
Sonnet 29, written around 1592, finds William Shakespeare, then in his late 20s, in a highly melancholic state. He is worried about failure. He is contemplating a future in which he will be a social pariah, where his mention will be enough to provoke revulsion. He will be in agony, pondering his stupidity and bad luck. He will lament that he can’t practice the job he most enjoys – and he will look around and feel desperation and envy at all those who remain so much more successful than he is and who will still enjoy esteem and their good name.
It is – of course – a paradox that the most acclaimed writer in English literature should have worried so acutely about failure, that he should have been so like us in fearing that he would one day – through a mixture of his own idiocy and unfortunate outside events – be a disgraced nobody. Then again, ‘greatness’ in literature doesn’t come from living pompously among high flown abstractions; great writers are ultimately simply those who know how to speak with special honesty about the panic and sadness of an ordinary life.
What had brought Shakespeare to this anxious vigilant state? Why was he so afraid he was going to lose it all? Partly, because he was not yet very well established. He’d only written Richard III and the three parts of Henry VI. In the coming years, he would write – in quick succession – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It and Twelfth Night. But these would – as yet – have been, at best, mere sketches in his mind. There was another problem. Shakespeare had a famous and very vicious enemy who was spreading rumours about him and seemed determined to bring him down. He was a fellow playwright called Robert Greene.
Greene loathed Shakespeare. He wrote an open letter warning that ‘There is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers heart wrapt in a Players hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you.’ He nicknamed him ‘Shakescene’, that is, a show off and a popularising fool, and, to further rub in how untalented he was, a jack of all trades or ‘Johannes Factotum’. In different circumstances, and with equal unfairness, we all have Robert Greenes around us. The world abounds in them and makes life a good deal more terrifying and nasty than it should be.
The London theatre world was small, mean and very gossipy. This kind of review from a respected playwright was intended to damage and it would have done huge harm. One can imagine Shakespeare, still young and finding his feet in the capital, panicking at how bad the sniping was getting, worrying that such insults would never stop, knowing how many people had had a mean laugh at his expense, fearful that his good intentions would never surface and that he would forever be known as a cheap, unscrupulous idiot.
Furthermore, there was a bad plague on. The bubonic plague returned continually to England in the Elizabethan age. The year before Shakespeare’s birth, an outbreak had killed 80,000. And now it was back. Between August 1592 and January 1593, 20,000 people died in the south east of England, 15,000 of them in London. There was rioting in the streets and Queen Elizabeth moved out to Windsor castle for safety. The government shut down all pubs and theatres for six months. Every actor and playwright was out of work. Not only was his name being trashed, Shakespeare was facing financial ruin.
How to bear the terror of failure? With Shakespeare as our guide, though the impulse may be to turn away from fear, what can calm us down is to sit with what scares us most. We should dare to investigate the terrifying scenario so as to drain it of its strangeness, and stop apprehending it only through the corners of our eyes in shame. Shakespeare openly meditates on what might happen: he pictures the worst that could unfold in order to see how it might be borne. He also renders himself cathartically vulnerable in the process; he makes no bones about his suffering, to us in the future and – one imagines – the people more immediately around him. He is going to admit just how bad things are for him in order to break his isolation and sense of unacceptability. He will try to universalise what could otherwise feel like only a very personal and embarrassing affliction. He will dare to see if anyone else has ever suffered as he has – and hold out an imaginary hand of friendship to all his readers, as writers will.
But then comes the core of the consoling move. He recognises implicitly that what is driving his wish to be successful is the desire to be respected and liked. It is money and fame he is drawn to, but beneath these, there is another hunger: to be treated well and avoid humiliation. There is a quest for love hiding within the drive to be somebody. Once that idea is established, a deeply redemptive manoeuvre comes into view. We don’t actually ever need the whole of society to love us. We don’t have to have everyone on our side. Let the Robert Greenes of this world – and their many successors in newspapers, living rooms and social media down the ages – say their very worst and nastiest things and be done with them. All that one needs is the love of a few friends or even just one special person – and one can survive.
The love of a single sensitive and intelligent being can compensate us for the loss of love from the world; one can, as Shakespeare says, with such a gift, be in a better place than ‘kings’. Popular success is an unreliable goal at the mercy of fickle fortune: there are so many jealous people and we are prone to make mistakes that they can use to bring us down. What we must therefore try to do – and look forward to leaning on – is the affection and regard of sympathetic companions. Others may be scoffing, others may sneer every time our name comes up in conversation, but we will be secure; we will be somewhere far from the gossipy and plague ridden city, living quietly with those who properly know us and for whom we won’t need to do anything to deserve a place in their hearts.
Shakespeare’s sonnet 29 has been prized for four centuries because it latches on with such sincerity to an anxiety that afflicts us all – and proposes a solution that we know must be correct. In the end, things may turn out alright: the plague might recede, business may pick up, the rumour mill may die down and leave us alone. But if none of this happens, if it does all go wrong and we become a definitive byword for awfulness, then in our moments of high anxiety, especially late at night, we should know the fallback: a few generous, sincere, emotionally mature souls who know about forgiveness and kindness, sympathy and charity, who won’t reduce us to one horrid nickname, who will love us with the complex regard that a parent might bestow on a child or a god on its creations. Love will redeem us. We may well fail; but we don’t need to fear it will be hell – and so we can afford to approach challenges with a little more freedom and lightheartedness. The cleverest and most humane writer who ever lived knew as much; and in our panic, we should trust him.
It’s a rather simple question that quickly gets to the core of someone’s sense of well-being and legitimacy: did your childhood leave you feeling that you were – on balance – OK as you were? Or did you somewhere along the way derive an impression that you needed to be extraordinary in order to deserve a place on the earth? And, to raise an associated question: are you therefore now relaxed about your status in life? Or have you become either a manic overachiever or filled with shame at your so-called mediocrity?
Around twenty percent of us will be in the uncomfortable cohort; alternately refusing to believe that anything could ever be enough, or cursing ourselves as ‘failures’ (by which we in essence mean that we have not managed to beat insane statistical odds). At school, we probably worked very hard, not because we were drawn to the topics, but because we felt compelled for reasons that were – at the time – not entirely clear; we just knew we had to come close at the top of the class and revise every evening. We may not be exceptional right now, but we are seldom without an acute sense of pressure to be so.
In childhood, the story might have gone like this. A parent needed us to be special – by virtue of intelligence, looks or popularity – in order to shore up a floundering sense of their own self. The child needed to achieve and could not, therefore, just be; their own motives and tastes were not to be part of the picture. The parent was – privately – in pain; unable to value themselves, battling an unnamed depression, furious with the course of their own lives, perhaps covertly tortured by their spouse. And the child’s mission, for which there was no option but to volunteer, was to make it all somehow better.
It seems odd to look at achievement through this lens, not as the thing the newspapers tell us it is, but – very often – as a species of mental illness. Those who put up the skyscrapers, write the bestselling books, perform on stage, or make partner may, in fact, be the unwell ones. Whereas the characters who – without agony – can bear an ordinary life, the so-called contented ‘mediocrities’, may in fact be the emotional superstars, the aristocrats of the spirit, the captains of the heart. The world divides into the privileged who can be ordinary and the damned compelled to be remarkable.
The best possible outcome for the latter is to have a breakdown. Suddenly, after years of achievement, they can – if they are lucky – no longer get out bed. They fall into a profound depression. They develop all-consuming social anxiety. They refuse to eat. They babble incoherently. They in some way poke a very large stick in the wheels of day-to-day life and are allowed to stay home for a while. A breakdown is not merely a random piece of madness or malfunction, it can be a very real – albeit inarticulate and inconvenient – bid for health. It is an attempt by one part of our minds to force the other into a process of growth, self-understanding and self-development which it has hitherto been too cowed to undertake. If we can put it paradoxically, it is an attempt to jumpstart a process of getting well, properly well, through a stage of falling very ill.
In an apparently ill state, we might cleverly be seeking to destroy all the building blocks of our previous driven yet unhappy careers. We may be trying to reduce our commitments and our outgoings. We may be trying to throw off the cruel absurdity of others’ expectations.
Our societies – that are often unwell at a collective and not just an individual level – are predictably lacking in inspiring images of good enough ordinary lives. They tend to associate these with being a loser. We imagine that a quiet life is something that only a failed person without options would ever seek. We relentlessly identify goodness with being at the centre, in the metropolis, on the stage. We don’t like autumn mellowness or the peace that comes once we are past the meridian of our hopes. But there is, of course, no center, or rather the centre is oneself.
Occasionally an artist will make things that bring such bathetic wisdom home. Here is Montaigne, capturing the point in the third volume of his Essays, written a few years before his death towards the end of the sixteenth century: “Storming a breach, conducting an embassy, ruling a nation are glittering deeds. Rebuking, laughing, buying, selling, loving, hating and living together gently and justly with your household – and with yourself – not getting slack nor belying yourself, is something more remarkable, more rare and more difficult. Whatever people may say, such secluded lives sustain in that way duties which are at least as hard and as tense as those of other lives.”
In the late 1650s, the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer painted a picture called The Little Street, that continues to challenge our value system to this day.
Perhaps success might – after all – be nothing more than a quiet afternoon with the children, at home, in a modest street. You catch a similar point in certain stories by Chekhov or Raymond Carver, in Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, in Thomas Jones’s study of A Wall in Naples (1782) and in the films of Eric Rohmer, in particular Le Rayon Vert (1982).
Most movies, adverts, songs and articles, however, do not tend to go this way, they continually explain to us the appeal of other things: sports cars, tropical island holidays, fame, an exalted destiny, first-class air travel and being very busy. The attractions are sometimes perfectly real. But the cumulative effect is to instill in us the idea that our own lives must be close to worthless.
And yet there may be immense skill, joy and nobility involved in what we are up to: in bringing up a child to be reasonably independent and balanced; in maintaining a good-enough relationship with a partner over many years despite areas of extreme difficulty; in keeping a home in reasonable order; in getting a lot of early nights; in doing a not very exciting or well-paid job responsibly and cheerfully; in listening properly to other people and, in general, in not succumbing to madness or rage at the paradox and compromises involved in being alive.
There is already a treasury to appreciate in our circumstances when we learn to see these without prejudice or self-hatred. As we may discover once we are beyond others’ expectations, life’s true luxuries might comprise nothing more or less than simplicity, quiet, friendship based on vulnerability, creativity without an audience, love without too much hope or despair, hot baths and dried fruits, walnuts and dark chocolate.
What is reputation?
Reputation might be defined as the claim that one can make on the goodwill of strangers; it is what your name will mean to those who don’t know you, who spend almost no time thinking of you. It’s what you will get reduced to when you aren’t illuminated by love. How your reputation is assessed depends on the extent to which you have fulfilled, or violated, the ideals and aspirations of your society. Most of us are properly known to, and liked by, five to ten people. When it comes to everyone else, reputation is what will decide what we have been worth.
Why do we want a reputation?
Reputation can’t buy us love, but it can provide us with those valuable proxies: respect, honour and politeness. Those who are kind to us may not mean it, but they are at least making an effort. Not all of us crave equally the warmth that comes with a good reputation. Those with a particularly strong need for applause tend to be those with a weak sense of their own acceptability. The cheer of the crowd is asked to compensate for an innate feeling of shame. We seek the validation of the world when we are inside unconvinced that we are quite deserving. The more we have been humiliated, especially when young, the more the good will of strangers will matter; and – conversely – the more we have tasted genuine affection, the less interesting reputation can be.
Instability of Reputation
Reputation is gossamer thin; or like a soapy bubble or an unstable chemical compound, some metaphor to suggest the ease with which it can be torn or destroyed. It is so prone to disappear because it isn’t based on knowledge or experience of one’s deep self, it’s made up of the candyfloss of hearsay and third hand gossip. It’s the unconscious supposition of people who haven’t thought very deeply about who one is and have absolutely no wish to do so either; it’s what people who don’t care about us think about us. This is what makes reputation so delightful when it is going our way. Our nobility becomes part of the unthinking common-sense of the community. But this is also what makes things so tricky when reputation falls apart. The only way in which our good name might be rescued in the minds of others is if they gave us some thought – which is precisely what they have never done before and won’t now begin to either.
Reputation will rise and fall according to how closely we track or depart from the ideals of our society – and these tend to be pegged to financial success, sexual propriety, decorum, marriage, sobriety, the sanctity of family and the purity of children. The more of these ideals one flouts, the harsher will be the penalties.
Unfortunately, we are – all of us – error prone animals or, to put it more bluntly, idiots. We should say sorry to the universe every day, given how we are. We’re impulsive, greedy, lustful, vain and selfish. Which means that every year, a small but significant section of the population makes an apparently minor mistake that causes terrible damage to others and blows up their life along the way. Not for nothing does western civilisation have at its heart the example of Greek tragedy, which tells us of averagely good people brought low by highly understandable, everyday kinds of folly – for which they pay an ultimate price.
When Reputation disappears
The whole community hears in an instant and one is done for. The punishment may be financial or legal, but the ultimate damage is psychological: one becomes a pariah. In the minds of all those who don’t think about us properly (which is almost everyone), one is now a monster or a numbskull. For life.
From now on, we will need to be looked at through the eyes of love before we re-emerge as in any way human, that is, deserving of even a little pity or understanding. Only through love can we be remembered to have once been baby, who was innocent, who struggled, and who later made mistakes from passing weakness rather than evil. Only through love are there any other sides of the story.
As a result, all those who are not our intimates become sources of sure-fire damning judgement. We know from the outset that they will hate or condemn us. It becomes impossible to go to a party or (even) walk down the street. One probably has to move town. Suicidal thoughts become harder to push away.
Ambitions have to change entirely. Everything that depends on the minds of people in general is now impossible. ‘What people might think’ disappears from the calculation; it’s a foregone conclusion. They’ll think – always – that one is a demon.
When the reputation-less rediscover close friends and family (and they almost always do), it isn’t coincidental or a cheap excuse: it’s because they can see, more clearly than ever, that these are the people, the only people, who know them properly and can therefore examine them with any degree of subtlety, as one might a character in a novel. For everyone else, one has disappeared into a single word of insult.
The Lack of Redemption
In older, more religious societies, there was the possibility of apology before a divine being, a period of penance and then, eventually forgiveness. But thats one of the handy mechanisms we unknowingly dismantled when we decided that God was a fiction. We have been left with only one tool, the legal system, which levies fines and prison sentences, but isn’t in the business of restoring reputation – and doesn’t get involved in most of the errors which cause it to be lost in the first place. There is, quite literally, in most cases, no way to recover reputation. The sentence is life-long.
We suffer also because we live in such vast societies. Recovery of reputation might have been possible when we lived in tribes of a hundred or so. You could go around and explain things in person, tent by tent. No such chance when it’s a case of having a few hundred million minds to change.
Life without Reputation
So begins that peculiar challenge, leading a life without a reputation, a feat in its way as arduous as hanging on to a cliff-face with bare hands in high wind.
A few moves suggest themselves. For a start, acceptance: of oneself, of the situation, of one’s misdeeds and of the darkness. Then, the construction of a new kind of communal life, one built around astonishing sincerity and vulnerability. One says it like it is. There is no need for yet more shame. A whole new set of friends is called for – before whom one can be truly oneself, in a way one never could be before things fell apart. It helps immensely if these friends have themselves lost reputation. Ex-convicts might be an idea. And fallen business people and politicians. They will have a kindness to them open only to those who have suffered infinitely for their errors. There is only so empathetic and thoughtful that blameless people can ever be.
Animals are good too; they rarely judge. The immense open spaces of nature offer valuable perspective, as do history books.
On good days, one feels that there might almost be a kind of relief and freedom now that there is nothing left to lose, and impressing the world is – perhaps for the first time since one was an infant – truly off the agenda. We enjoy the particular lightness and indifference that is the privilege of all those with a reputational calamity to their name.
Lots of thoughts have to be avoided in order not to howl with agony. It isn’t the life anyone would have wanted at the high water mark, but it’s a life nevertheless – and one we should all contemplate, whatever our situation, to prepare ourselves for the day (which can’t be guaranteed never to come) when we might be forced to walk the earth without the cloak of reputation.
It’s often hard not to feel envious of them – as they ascend the stage to collect another prize, float their start-up company, are promoted a decade ahead of their peers or dominate the music charts or bestseller lists. Over-achievers torment us rather a lot.
But we should, more rightly, combine our envy with a little compassion. It is likely that these gifted souls are paying an oddly elevated price for their extraordinary successes, so much so that – once their full psychological profiles are in view – we should start to feel a bit sorry for the trajectory of their lives.
What distinguishes over-achievers from the simply highly talented or driven is what powers them in their work. They labour principally or primarily not because they uniquely enjoy what they do or have more urgent material demands than the rest of us, but because they are subject to unusually intense internal, psychological pressures. Behind their relentless activity lies an emotional rather than professional burden. It may look as if they simply want to sell more books, accumulate more shares or have their name in lights. But these over-achievers are all the while trying to secure something far more tricky, unusual and unmentioned: they are trying – through their work – to correct an aspect of a troubled emotional past. They are trying to impress a father who felt withholding and severe around them three decades before. They’re hoping their triumphs will compensate a parent they loved for the loss of a sibling in childhood. They are hoping to assuage a feeling of catastrophe they experienced in the deprived chaotic home of their birth.
In other words, over-achievers are trying to solve a range of psychological problems through material or worldly means. This is why their efforts must, in a deep sense, always be doomed to failure – even when it appears to most of the world as if they are succeeding beyond measure.
Because success is the moment when over-achievers are likely to notice the doomed nature of their ambition, it is a particularly troubling and dangerous eventuality. Depression may set in just after the company is sold; the star will fall into a crisis just after they finally gain worldwide recognition. At exactly the point when their work is acclaimed or finds its audience, over-achievers are at risk of severe breakdown. So long as they are merely running, they can forget to notice that their goal is misaligned with their true inner ambition. They must wait for success to reveal the fateful nature of their life’s quest.
This also explains why holidays are a particular trial for over-achievers, for even a few days off can allow emotional insights to break through (amidst the palm trees). No rest is really the optimal state.
The cure for over-achievement involves pausing to address the psychological wounds that made hard work feel like the only defence against intolerable trauma. It means returning to the situations that made achievement feel life sustaining. It means a confrontation with moments of loss, disconnection, lack of love, sadness and humiliation.
The recovering over-achiever should allow themselves to feel compassion for their earlier self, acknowledging how much they wish could have gone differently and grasping how their present so-called successful personality has been shaped as a response to grave wounds. The cure for over-achievement lies in mourning and analysis in an atmosphere of love.
The over-achiever may eventually come to believe that they deserve a place on the earth whether they work or not. They aren’t there just to perform. The greater need is to connect and to understand.
We live in a world very interested in huge achievements and very uninclined to notice the trauma behind them. We are equally not encouraged to note the way in which contentment with modest achievement can be a sign that things have gone very well for someone emotionally. It is evidence of health to have no particular wish to be famous and not to mind too much if one doesn’t have a fortune; to be able to have a so-called ordinary life, to take pleasure in holidays and to place friendship and love at the center of things. We should, on occasion, dare to feel rather sorry for over-achievers – even if that can mean starting to feel sorry for ourselves.
A fundamental belief of the modern world, which explains a lot of our anxiety around failure, is that we are what we earn.
When we say this, we mean something very particular: not just that it’s nice to have a lot of money but that our income is the source of information, crucial, decisive information, about our character, our intelligence, our moral fibre: in short, money is the key indicator of our worth in human and not just financial terms. The more money we make, the more we deserve to exist.
Walter Gay, November (1885)
By extension, it feels impossible to imagine ourselves as good, decent – and still poor.
But can this really be true? Must we hate and deem ourselves despicable beings because our salary is not elevated?
For an answer, we must look to economics and in particular, to the way that salary is determined. Here we find something striking: wages are not decided by the extent of someone’s human worth or social contribution per se. Wages are simply the result of the intensity with which certain people want a job done relative to the number of people who happen to be able to do it.
If many people can complete a task, however humanly important it might be (holding a hand on a cancer ward), little money will be offered for it.
Pieter de Hooch, Woman Nursing an Infant, with a Child and a Dog (1658-60)
And if there are very few people able to do it, however trivial it might be (kicking a ball 60 metres into a goal), if there’s intense demand, salaries will be elevated.
Money is in fact no accurate measure of the human worth of the work in question; the determinant of wages is just the strength of demand in relation to supply.
We may not be able easily to change how much people earn; but we can change how we judge earnings. This isn’t an issue of politics; it’s an issue of appreciation. We can change how we assess what a modest wage means.
We can use our imaginations to remember and hold in mind all that is not quantified in a salary – in our lives and in those of others; all the degrees of intelligence, care, dedication, empathy and creativity that may be present, undetected by the blunt aggregated marker of a wage.
Daniel Ridgway Knight, Coffee in the Garden
However tempting it might be to settle the question of the value of humans in stark financial terms, the truth remains beautifully and redemptively more complicated – as we must realise as soon as we’ve spent some time around a person at work and got to know what sides of their character their labours will call on through an average day. We’ll then have no option but to reach a dauntingly complex conclusion: we are not what we earn.
There’s a large and prominent tradition of philanthropy that wishes to serve civilised values and seeks to promote them via sometimes enormous donations to the arts. A portion of the surplus wealth created in one area (oil, supermarkets, construction, the media) is deposited in another: public art galleries. The paintings and sculpture on display often murmur quietly about the deepest and loveliest things: compassion for the secret sorrows of existence, the splendour of nature, harmony, the honour of sacrifice, the strange glory of a sunflower, the sweet moodiness of dusk. The hope is that, by a circuitous route, these values will become – even if only a little – more powerful in reality. In the ideal scenario, they will radiate out from the gallery and shape the way we live our lives.
Yet the money that paid for them may very likely have been accumulated under a very different vision of life: workers were paid the least possible amounts; only the responsibilities enforced by law were embraced; governments were lobbied to reduce consumer and environmental protection; quality was reduced as low as the market would allow; debts were paid slowly but creditors were hounded. Oddly, in their business, the artistic philanthropist has the opportunity to make real – on a large scale – the qualities they seek to honour in their gifts. And yet very often they do not.
It would be better to repatriate the ambition and for the capitalists to be themselves the agents of the same virtues they admire in the arts – and the cost (in terms of cash) might be approximately the same. Their business might be a little less profitable year by year and they might not feel they have enough left over to lavish on the arts. But it would be no loss, for instead of hanging reticently on a wall, those values so ably captured in art – values of friendship, love, wisdom and beauty – would be enacted day to day in the boardroom and the canteen, the distribution center and the factory – in other words, in the vastly more consequential realm of commerce itself.
We don’t anymore nowadays much believe in Luck – or what was, in earlier ages, known as Fortune. We would think it extremely suspicious if someone explained that they had been sacked, but added that this was simply the result of ‘bad luck’. And we would think it equally strange if someone said they had made a fortune, but ascribed their triumph to mere ‘good luck’. We resist the notion that luck can play a significant role as much in our failures as in our successes. Luck is a substantial offence against modern ideals of control, strategy and foresight. We understand ourselves to be – for better and for worse – the authors of our own destinies.
Modern civilisation itself could be viewed as a gigantic protest against the role of chance in human affairs. Science, insurance, medicine and public education take up arms against luck, and have won enormous battles against it, so many in fact, that it has grown devilishly tempting to believe that we may have vanquished it altogether.
However, luck is a fearsome enemy; its territory is fluid and its power unpredictable and tempestuous. Wisdom requires us to accept that it will never be entirely tamed. Within every success, however ardent our efforts, there is sure to be a substantial degree of luck. And, more redemptively, within every failure, there is sure to be much that cannot be ascribed to our foolishness alone. We make small mistakes all the time; it is only occasionally that a modest error turns out to have devastating consequences.
There are some who already believe too much in luck; who are excessively willing to assign all the outcomes of their lives to chance. They need to hear more about responsibility and the capacity of individuals to transform their circumstances. But, in many ways, these passive actors are ever less common in the modern world. For the rest of us, those who operate with a daunting feeling of personal responsibility, who will constantly push themselves to match their highest expectations and berate themselves for failure, a reverential belief in luck should be far more than a historical curiosity. It remains a crucial concept to take the edge off our arrogance and, when fate has turned against us, to temper the violence of our self-contempt.