Work Archives - The School Of Life

We are used to thinking of what we call the news as a tool that can help us to vanquish ignorance: we will, thanks to its updates, properly understand what is going on and where importance lies. But if we examine the role of this phenomenon with greater scepticism, we may find that it is as responsible for blinding us to ourselves as for introducing us to the complexities of so-called reality.

The presence of the news continuously — albeit slyly — encourages us to forget entirely what we actually feel in relation to certain events. The way stories are told invariably promotes one particular set of responses: this is outrageous, he is bad, this is tragic, she is a victim, they are repulsive… These verdicts may seem entirely fair, but only too often, to an extent we are bullied into forgetting, they don’t quite. We might in our hearts — oddly but authentically — not think that something is such a tragedy after all, we might not really care in the least about something which we have been repeatedly pressed to think is vital. And we might fancy someone we’re definitely meant to hate. The news quietly closes off alternative avenues of investigation and response.

At its core, the news is opposed to introspection. It doesn’t want us to know ourselves better and compulsively disconnects our emotions from their true but often hard-to-grasp targets. It takes our nascent feelings of anger, for example — and redirects them away from our acquaintances or early care-givers to causes that aren’t remotely for us to bother with. It coopts our fears to an ever-changing roster of monsters, and thereby blinds us to what we really need to be vigilant about before it’s too late. 

Because of the prestige that we have collectively accorded to the news, the hurried judgements of skittish third rate minds are allowed to determine nothing less than our view of ‘normality’. It is almost universally taken to be sensible to ‘catch up on the news’ rather than, as is actually the case, for the most part extremely dangerous and irrelevant. There is almost nothing we really need to know outside of what has happened in our own heads and in the lives of ten or so people who count on us. 

We would surely be made to feel untenably odd if we decided — as really we should — that we were from now on going to check the news only once a week, and the rest of the time devote ourselves to exploring the contents of our soul via meditative reflection.

While pretending to inform us about the state of the world, the news has become a formidable instrument of self-forgetting.

The problem with libraries is that they can be so large, impressive, and filled with knowledge that they unwittingly embed in us an idea that everything worth registering, everything valuable and true, must lie ‘out there’, must already have been classed on a shelf with an index number to await our discovery the moment we cease to be so preoccupied with ourselves. 

But what this modest, respectful and quietly self-hating conclusion disguises is that each one of us is an unparalleled and superlative center of knowledge in and of ourselves; our minds have more ideas stored in them than are to be found in the collective catalogues of the Biblioteca Geral da Universidade de Coimbra, the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York and the British library in London; we have vaults filled with a greater number of moving and beautiful scenes than those of the world’s greatest museums put together. We are just failing to wander the stacks and galleries as often as we should; we are failing to notice what we have seen. So convinced are we that insights of worth lie beyond us, we have omitted to consult the treasury of thoughts and visions generated every hour by our endlessly brilliant, fatefully unexplored minds.

The American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson once remarked:

“In the minds of geniuses, we find — once more — our own neglected thoughts.”

In other words, geniuses don’t have thoughts that are in the end so very different from our own; they have simply had the confidence to take them more seriously. Rather than imagining that their minds are only a pale shadow of the minds of infinitely greater thinkers who lived and died elsewhere long ago, they have been respectful enough of their existence to conceive that one or two properly valuable ideas might plausibly chose to alight in the familiar aviary of their own intelligences. Thinking is — in a way we generally refuse to imagine — a truly democratic activity.

We all have very similar and very able minds; where geniuses differ is in their more confident inclinations to study them properly. 

When it comes to deciding what to do with our lives, we are frequently presented with what looks like a very painful choice: the passionate path vs the safe path. The latter involves the slow mastery of a dependable profession; we will be bored — but we know we’ll never be fired. Meanwhile, the former is a high-wire act in which we fantasise generating an income from what we deeply love and yet we constantly fear penury and humiliation. 

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

The choice can feel acute, but it may be less so than it seems, once we properly explore the concept of safety. We are never properly safe so long as we are doing something we hate or are pursuing out of cowardice. In the deeply competitive conditions of modernity, our back-up career – the one we adopt out of fear — will be someone else’s central ambition; our plan B will be someone else’s plan A, which places us at an immediate disadvantage in terms of the energy and focus we are able to muster. The ‘safe’ choice might ruin us.

By contrast, what we love is what we are obsessed by anyway, we’d do it for free — which decisively increases our chances of mastery while reducing the price of failure. A decade of mixed results on a passion-project is inherently less onerous than unspectacular returns for a whole career in a hateful field. 

It is in the end not very safe to use the one life we have forcing ourselves to do what we know from the outset we won’t enjoy — simply in order to keep living. This isn’t safety; it’s masochism. We may all have to spend our first two decades suffering through the education system; but at some point, we are allowed to leave school; at some point, we need to have a shot at answering what life could be about beyond obedience and timidity.

It is not very common to have a passion; most of us don’t. Yet if we are blessed enough to have one, we are risking far more than we should by failing to heed its call.

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

Nicolaes Maes, The Old Lacemaker, c. 1655

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.

Nicolaes Maes, Portrait of Jan de Reus (Burgomaster of Rotterdam and director of the Dutch East India Company), c. 1658

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.

Nicolaes Maes, The Virtuous Woman, c. 1658

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
New Book Out Now

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.

Shop Now

From an early age, kindly people are liable to leave us in no doubt that gossiping about the private lives of well-known or prestigious people is despicable. At the same time, as our search histories and clicks prove, we evidently enjoy gossip very much.

Photo by MTSOFan on Flickr

It would, for example, have been very hard not to read at length in the Chinese media about the actor Wang Baoqiang and his wife Ma Rong. After a heady romance and years of apparent marital idyll, things fell apart for the couple when Ma Rong had an affair with Wang’s manager Song Zhe. For weeks, Chinese media reported on Wang Baoqiang’s rage and sense of betrayal, Ma Rong’s dissatisfactions with her often absent husband, Song Zhe’s attempts to justify his behaviour, and elite Beijing’s surprise and condemnation. To read such stories is obviously demeaning and idiotic – but plainly irresistible.

If there is any way out of the conundrum, it is offered to us via the peculiar recognition that most of what we call great literature is in the end not so very far from gossip. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina could be described as little other than 800 pages of quasi gossip about an apparently idyllic couple, Anna and Count Karenin, torn apart by the former’s affair with Vronsky, a cavalry officer, much to the surprise and condemnation of St Petersburg society.

But if in the end we resist calling Tolstoy a gossip, it has nothing to do with the topics he considers. It is entirely possible to talk a lot about someone’s intimate existence, to take an interest in the details of their divorce, to wonder about their career or to reflect on their disgrace – and still not to be guilty of gossiping in any way. The activity is not defined by a particular subject matter, solely by the manner in which it is being considered. The China Daily or the Sankt-Peterburgskie Vedomosti could easily have turned the bare facts of Anna Karenina and Vronsky’s affair into gossip, just as Tolstoy could have transformed news of Wang Baoqiang and Ma Rong’s breakup into a masterful slice of Sino-Russian literature.

What identifies gossip is the pretence that only certain people are foolish, sexual, embarrassing and prone to lose their tempers or say things they regret. The gossiper holds unfortunate specimens in their tweezers, turns them over with glee and refuses to see any connection between every new shamed or ruined personality and their own flawed nature. They withhold the truth, on which every act of compassion is based, that we are all sinners, every last one of us, not merely this or that miserable creature unlucky enough to have attracted the malicious attention of the latest hard-hearted journalist.

We don’t need to be great writers to avoid treating the intimate difficulties of others as gossip. We just need to keep seven important ideas in mind as we ruminate on the travails of people in the news: That insofar as they hurt anyone, they are extremely unlikely to have set out to do so.

1. That insofar as they hurt anyone, they are extremely unlikely to have set out to do so

2. That the difficulties they caused are almost certainly unwitting by-products of passing weakness and idiocy.

3. That they are liable to be mortified by what has happened and to long to make amends.

4. That despite their possibly prestigious position or fortune, they were once a child, and, like all of us, are desperate be held, treated with consideration and forgiven.

5. That if you knew them properly, you would probably like them.

6. That if you saw them sleeping, you could not hate them.

7. That if you dared to look at them adequately, you would recognise a version of yourself.

We can of course, and in terms of our psychological development probably should, spend time discussing the turmoils in the lives of influential people. Their difficulties present us with a chance to reflect on the powers of fate and the entanglements of the heart; we just need to remember our humanity and our vulnerability as we do so. The difference between gossip and literature is love.

For most of history, however disappointed you might have been with people close to home, with your own hurtful family or maddening colleagues, you were at least able to hold on to a broader faith to tide one over the moments of despair: you could keep believing in humanity as a whole, in human beings in general, as opposed to this or that flawed, irritating or nasty local example. You could look over a large crowd celebrating a national event and – without knowing any of them in detail – could feel a warm and broad assurance that among these cheering neatly turned out people, there were sure to be plenty of sincere and kindly souls. You could be certain that for all of your frustrations and let-downs, you dwelt among fundamentally decent types, that even if you were very angry with your mother or full of resentment against the foreman, there was solace to be found in your nation and its peoples.

Yet patriotism and a benevolent sense of community are ultimately based on the privilege of not knowing too many of our fellow citizens very well. The closer we come to understanding anyone’s real nature, the greater the risks of disappointment. Our own family and work colleagues aren’t exceptionally awful; we simply know them uncommonly well.

Unfortunately for our powers of endurance, modern technology has done us one incalculable disservice: it has introduced us to one another on a global scale. There are no ‘strangers’ any longer, there are simply billions of people one can peer in on via their social media accounts and who are ready to introduce us to their ideas, their puppies, their relatives – and, along the way, their prejudices, their blind spots, their conspiracy theories, and their dispiriting enthusiasms for rage and cruelty.

It is the particular curse of our times that we can read the diaries and streams of consciousness of everyone on the planet. We can see them lining up to punch anyone who is down; displaying obtuseness around views they don’t agree with; painting their ideological enemies in unforgiving colours; caricaturing, envying and resenting; acting sanctimoniously around every transgression; behaving as if they were flawless; leaving us certain that if ever we needed help or sympathy, we wouldn’t get it.

We may be saddened but we shouldn’t be surprised by what we have learnt. The broad ranks of humanity have been educated by the most influential force in society for a century or more; they are the dutiful pupils of the mass media. They have been carefully taught to hate and to misunderstand, to gossip and to resent, to attack and to slander – and now do so with enthusiasm and predictability.

But this genealogy also offers us a route back to hope. People aren’t cruel to begin with and they aren’t inevitably committed to remaining so. They are – more than anything – malleable; and they have been schooled in the very wrong ways. Yet they could one day take inspiration from other, better sources were these to be offered to them. There might eventually be as much kindness at large as there is currently viciousness or lack of empathy, were the role models and public messages to alter. The digital citizen armies don’t really want to drive others to kill themselves. As a wise and pained observer realised long ago, they simply know not what they do.

There is a complicated truth behind our nastiest impulses: we are nasty chiefly because we are unhappy. The paradox is that if only we could understand this about ourselves, and forgive ourselves for the origins of our hard-heartedness, then we would have the energy to do good – and could, in time, have so much less to be unhappy about. But for now, it seems far easier to cheer on the destruction of others’ lives and take satisfaction from sackings, scandals and the most dreadful court cases.

We can catch an inkling of our lust for misery at work in an apparently disconnected and unusual area: our attitudes to hurricanes and winter storms. The strange truth is that we like these extreme weather systems enormously – as the media well know. We love it when, towards the middle of September, the first of the tropical depressions build in the mid-Atlantic and start to mass and whirl off the Gulf of Mexico. We can hardly wait to see the shutters blowing off stores in downtown areas and National Guards talking of the dangers of broken levees and downed power lines. By February, we are equally gripped by the possibility of a complete shutdown of all schools, workplaces and transport centres. We love to see metres of snow piled up at railway sidings and to watch airliners – once proud and relentless – lying prostrate like smashed toys across icy runways.

It satisfies something deep in us to see so much chaos. Apparent creatures of order, we appear to have a lot of time for images of doom. The reason may come down to how silently unfulfilling our own neat lives are. We take pride, day-to-day, in our spotless kitchens, laundry cupboards and account books, but really, in our hearts, something aches for more: for love, heroism, sincerity, a chance of a new beginning. Our world can feel like a prison and we secretly want to put a bomb under our quiet misery and start afresh. That’s why we don’t really mind the storm at all. It could dump fifteen metres of snow on us and might offer us a chance to burrow out and discover new ways to be.

Mostly though, storms pass without destroying too much. Order returns, the cyclone relents, the ice melts. But still the ache within us persists and seeks fresh targets for its dissatisfactions. And here the media is, helpfully, on hand. There may not be a meteorological cataclysm available at all times, but what can reliably be served up almost every day is evidence of yet another human being imploding. It might be a sex scandal, an outburst of violence, an ill-judged phone call, a sudden sacking – something to bring down someone who was once elevated and mighty and (inadvertently) made us feel small and inconsequential.

How we enjoy the winds blowing through their life. We follow how they are dragged from home, bundled into an SUV and taken to the courthouse for an initial hearing about the shocking allegations. We hear a confused neighbour, who borrowed a lawnmower from them only a week ago, explain that they never suspected this of them. We love the storm of outrage and follow the pitiful suspect weeping for forgiveness in front of a pack of taunting journalists.

On other days, we adore looking at pictures of how once beautiful people have been gnawed by time or study how lottery winners have evaporated their winnings at gambling tables. There is fun to be found in following the hurricanes of infidelity shattering once-beatific marriages or in learning of a formerly influential pop star now living forgotten and penniless in a shack in the wilds, in rereading the embarrassing messages the adulterer sent to their lover or in hearing how the proud head of a film studio had to resign after a storm of allegations by an intern.

Without quite realising it, we have become truly failed people – that is, people who need other people to fail.

The solution, as ever, is not to condemn us but to be extremely compassionate for the many reasons why the downfall of others provides us with so much relief. We are not evil, we are simply – far more than we know – deeply unhappy. We shouldn’t be brutally ordered never to experience schadenfreude again, we should be allowed to explore what made us so angry and so sad in the first place, why the world appears to us to have let us down so badly – and why we now need everything to go wrong for strangers.

We should be allowed to mourn that we don’t look as nice as we had hoped, that we haven’t earned the money we wanted and that no one has properly recognised our talents or our potential. We should be allowed to complain that it isn’t fair and have someone gently take us in their arms and repeat in a gentle voice ‘I know, I know’ while they stroke our brow with patience and tenderness.

To wean us off our bitter delight, we require not sermons, but help to lead lives that don’t feel so regret-filled and forlorn. We will be in a position to be a little less excited by disaster when – at last – we are no longer so alone and unconsoled.

Of course, we’re supposed to shrug it off. We’re supposed to have a quick look at a gallery of images – the kiss in the ocean, the breakfast on the veranda, the evening walk by the candle-lit restaurant – and move on. We’re meant to say it’s ridiculous and mean it.

Except that in some moods we’re no longer capable of such sangfroid. We start to follow what they are wearing every day; we go with them on their plane; we know what dog they bought; we stop talking to our family so that we can look up their new partner; we watch them making a juice in their kitchen; we look in on their exercise sessions. It’s as if they were right here, with us, all the time. We can almost taste the sea salt drying on their tanned legs; we trace the fine hairs on their arms; we are intensely knowledgeable about everything they’ve seen and eaten in the last six months.

Photo by Pietro Luca Cassarino on Flickr

Not only this, we know – deep down – that it could have worked with us. We’ll make light of this in public, but in our heart we know that we are their spiritual twin. If things had worked out differently, if we’d lived in Paris or New York, if we’d been the right sort of age and looked slightly better and had more convincing careers, we might have bumped into them at a gathering and the connections between us would have grown undeniable. We’re soulmates dumbly separated by a sequence of arbitrary barriers – over which the media nevertheless allows us to peer.

On certain days, the scale of the missed opportunities grows unbearable. How ugly, mean-minded, joyless and loveless our lives are. How ugly and unappreciative are our partners, how little of what we are will ever be noticed. Why do we even exist?

The celebrity stalker isn’t simply ‘mad’, their principal error is credulity. They have been unable to resist the suggestions of desire and communion that have been artfully embedded in the infatuating work of the media’s army of paparazzi. A vulnerability in their psyches has meant that they have taken seriously what the more defended and contented among us have had the wherewithal to resist – and treat as a sophisticated fantasy. Their unhappiness has made them helpless before a cruelly devised fiction – and opened them up to a distinctive kind of torture.

But what is evident is that the celebrity crush isn’t a simple inanity; it’s a serious prism through which we glimpse, with rare clarity, certain of the agonies of modern existence: Why can I not become who I really am? How can I both know the life that I should be leading and be so unable to lead it? Why do I never meet particular people whom I am convinced – perhaps not wrongly – I could have loved properly and who would have redeemed me?

There are no good answers to such questions. They are among the most melancholy and grave we can raise. That we may be nudged towards them by an actor or singer on a beach is no argument against them. Right now, in a luxurious bedroom a few hours’ flight from where we are, the person we suspect we could understand without limit is sleeping with somebody else and will in a few days go back to a life from which we will always be excluded. If we existed in a different era, we might at this point get down on our knees and pray for our wracked souls. We should now at least be afforded an opportunity to let out a cry up to the indifferent cosmos. What we should never be forced into is the belief that this constant ache might merely be a joke.

One of the most common and deeply-cherished fantasies of our times is the idea that we might ‘retire early.’ Websites abound promising to help us with the dream, managing our finances, working out where we might live and deciding with us how close we might want to be to a beach – or perhaps a mountain.

But what we often miss in glowing discussions of early retirement is the extraordinary work that is being done for us across this subject by the apparently innocuous term ‘retirement’. This word manages to pull off an astonishing feat: it momentarily anaesthetizes all those who hear it into forgetting their society’s founding pressures and most ingrained competitive values and renders deeply desirable states of inaction that could – without the word – simply have appeared contemptible or downright lazy. 

Someone in the prime of life who loses any interest in going to the office, who doesn’t care about promotion and who isn’t trying to accumulate ever more money would standardly be described as a loser. Unless, of course, that is, they could declare that what they wanted to do was ‘retire early’ – at which point they would be transformed in our eyes into fascinating and near saintly figures. We would know that they had stopped working not because they were incompetent or got sacked or were mentally weak-willed. They were almost certainly very good at their jobs; they just gave them up freely to focus their attention on a host of intriguing things that gratified them far more. 

Strikingly, at present, we only invoke the idea of retirement around employment – which is a profound pity because there are so many other things that it might be extremely important for us to stop doing, but which we feel obliged to continue with because we are under punishing pressure from others to conform. ‘Retirement’ is the word we should learn to use to explain quitting a host of activities otherwise deemed crucial without forfeiting our claim to be classed as honorable and dignified.

Ironically, it might not even be work that many of us most want to retire from. We might be far keener to retire from, let’s say, late nights, going to the theatre, using social media, holidaying abroad or having sex with new people. Take the idea of announcing ‘early retirement’ from parties. Usually, if someone turns down every invitation and stays at home, they’d be seen as lonely and withdrawn – and probably unfit for human company. But suppose we could say that we’d ‘retired’ from social life; our decision would instantly acquire nobility and prestige. We’d be seen to be giving up not because we couldn’t stand other people or because we were gauche or unpopular. The implication would be that we might have been perfectly capable of making witty conversation over cocktails – but that we had decided we’d done enough of that sort of thing and were going to concentrate instead on deepening our friendships with just two or three people or on learning a new language by ourselves in bed. 

The same could hold around material competitiveness. We could step back from having an impressive car or a large house and declare that we were ‘retiring from consumer society’. While such a move would typically be seen as a mark of failure, with the word retirement in tow, we can imply that our interests have been willingly and intelligently redirected towards new more aesthetic or spiritual targets.  

A flaw in the current notion of retirement is that it is unimaginative about what an individual might retire from. Mostly, the vision is that one stops working so as to be able to undertake outdoor leisure pursuits – tennis, gardening, sailing – and perhaps move to a place with a milder climate. But we can get more ambitious about what we unshackle ourselves from: we could retire to connect more deeply with our own minds, to develop our creative potential, to keep a handle on anxiety, and to explore who we could be if we stopped caring so much about what other people thought of us. 

Reference to retiring also softens the blow for others. When we retire from work, people don’t feel we’re letting them down – our colleagues will perhaps throw a party for us, congratulate us and say how much they’ll miss us. Likewise, by announcing our retirement from social life or relationships, we’re making it clear that there’s no suppressed personal hatred at work. We’re just rejigging our priorities.

It’s ironic that life-advice for the young is so overwhelmingly focused on what to do in one’s career. In a wiser society, the emphasis would at the same time be about retiring – as early as possible – from a host of supposedly necessary demands which, on closer inspection, are entirely unsuited to who and what we are. 

Our societies are very keen for us to have busy, competitive, complicated lives. We should express thanks for the well-meaning suggestions and then, without causing anyone offence, make our moves towards announcing early retirement from a host of areas that torment us in the name of the simpler, kinder lives we long for.

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.’