Alain de Botton is one of my favorite writers. His lyrical nonfiction makes complex concepts relevant to our daily lives. (See his How Proust Can Change Your Life and his latest, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work ).
He's a writer who appreciates the value of psychotherapy. Along those lines, he recently opened a bookstore in London that doubles as a therapy office, called The School of Life (check out the link here). The bookstore offers sessions with bibliotherapists, who can help find you books that are likely to change your habits; offers weekend getaways called “holidays,” with titles “Holiday to Heathrow,” and “Philosophy by Bicycle”; and hosts courses, not in abstract topics like “science” or “philosophy,” but in “How to Have Conversation” and “How to Die.” De Botton thinks traditional schooling has let us down and that overspecialization has shaped a lot of us into brilliant loners.
And...he started a production company to turn smart books into films and an architecture firm to help beautify the urban landscape.
I recently interviewed de Botton about a lot of it: what he thinks about therapy, the loneliness of writing, and how he found his wife. See parts of my interview below. You can read other parts here and here:
You have had a great career disclosing the practical value of intellectual ideas. [You’ve written books about life—but you’ve also] started Seneca Productions, a company that makes smart and accessible T.V. shows; you helped create The School of Life, a venue for life-learning and therapy in London; and you were a founding member of Living Architecture, an organization that aims to create beautiful buildings for rent. Do you feel as if you've moved from books in relative isolation to an increasingly social focus over the course of your career?
…a few years ago, partly as a result of having undergone a very fruitful course of therapy and partly as a result of having studied the admirable career of Dave Eggers, I realized that I could quite easily engage with the more practical world if I really wanted. There was no need to spend my life solely in my [room writing].
I remember drawing up a list of my foremost concerns. This sounds absurd in the cold light of day, but on the piece of paper, I wrote: WISDOM and BEAUTY. In other words, what I really care about is trying to help the world to become a wiser place and a more beautiful place. How on earth to try and achieve these goals?
I started by looking at wisdom - and I was drawn to the example of the schools of wisdom of Ancient Greece and Rome, where philosophers would teach members of the general public about the principles of satisfaction and the root causes of misery. Where were the modern equivalents of these schools? I found that modern universities are not really engaged with such ambitions. If you went to any university and said that you had come to study ‘how to live' or ‘how to become a better and wiser person,' you would be politely shown the door - if not the way to an asylum. Universities nowadays see it as their job to train you either in a very specific career (like law, medicine) or to give you a grounding in arts subjects like literature or history - but for no identifiable reason, beyond the vague and unexamined notion that three years studying medieval literature may be a good idea.
So with some colleagues, I helped to start The School of Life in a modest shop and teaching space near King's Cross in London. On the menu of our school, you won't find subjects like ‘philosophy' ‘French' ‘History' and ‘the Classics'. You'll find courses in ‘Death,' ‘Marriage' ‘Choosing a career' ‘Ambition' ‘Child Rearing' or ‘Changing your world.' Along the way, you will learn about a lot of the books and ideas that traditional universities serve up, but you are unlikely ever to get bored, you'll make friends - and you'll come away with a different take on the world. There's even a bookshop in the school which does away with the traditional categories in bookshops like fiction or history and just sells books according to particular problems. So we've got a shelf titled ‘For those who worry at night' and another titled ‘How to be happy though married.' We call the shop a ‘chemist for the soul.'
It's always tempting to stick at standing on the sidelines complaining about a problem, but it's perhaps one better to try to make a change yourself. The School of Life is a small attempt to alter the way that learning gets done and to remind us that culture, if handled rightly, should actually feel entirely relevant and exciting and always make life more manageable and interesting.
Your latest book, The Pleasure and Sorrows of Work, moves between cynicism about modern commerce and industry and awe for our technical innovations, for our world. When writing this book, did you feel more like the critic or the praise singer for modernity? More simply: Are we modern people in a relatively exciting space, or a really bad one?
You'll be frustrated at me for saying this, but I feel I sit squarely in the middle of this debate. Work has its definite sorrows and pleasures - and I wanted my book to sing of the pleasure and mourn the sorrow.
In the course of writing my book, one of the more consoling ideas I discovered was just how rare and historically ambitious is the modern idea that our work should deliver happiness to us on a daily basis. The strangest thing about the world of work isn't the long hours we put in or the fancy machines we use to get it done; the most extraordinary aspect of the work scene is in the end psychological rather than economic or industrial. It has to do with our attitudes to work, more specifically the widespread expectation that our work should make us happy, that it should be at the centre of our lives and our expectations of fulfillment. The first question we tend to ask of new acquaintances is not where they come from or who their parents were, but what they do - presuming thereby to discover the core of their identity.
When work is not going well, it's useful to remember that our identities stretch beyond what is on the business card, that we were people long before we became workers - and will continue to be human once we have put our tools down forever. As an entirely secular person, I'm struck by St Augustine's injunction that it is a sin to judge a man by his status or position in society. In other words, when work is not going well, we need to remember to distinguish our sense of worth from the work we do.
Like many of your books, your latest contains a strong strain of loneliness. In interviews floating around online, you've said that you've known loneliness all too well for various reasons: your parents sent you to an English boarding school at age 8 when you could not speak English; your Jewishness is a possible source of alienation; you started going bald in your twenties and were undersexed in college. You don't feel at home in any one genre and gravitate toward topics of transience, like airports. Talk to me about loneliness? Sometimes I wonder if you exaggerate the image of your loneliness in certain spots as an aesthetic move--to touch us. It is a move I think works well in books: an author (who's not, when in the stage of editing, in a dire existential crunch) speaks of loneliness, and so touches a reader who's also alone. Can you talk about the aesthetics of an author's self-description, as humble or as lonely?
I do feel that loneliness is one of the great themes of all lives --whether we are objectively on our own or surrounded by friends and family. Our need to be understood is immense, and yet of course, we are rarely able to explain ourselves, to earn the attention of others, or to find people who are interested enough to care. So we end up alone and one of the things we do in this state is both to read and write. It hence feels natural to me that my own tendency to loneliness should surface in books. Writing is for me an act of communication with anonymous strangers--and perhaps the confession of my vulnerability acts like an invitation held out to the reader.
Can you also tell me a little about the psychological services you offer through The School of Life? Why is this context for therapy different than another context?
I know this may sound odd in an American context, but in the UK, there is still an extraordinary amount of prejudice against therapy. The dominant assumption about anyone seeking therapeutic help is that they must be close to madness and disintegration.
So I was very keen that the School of Life offer therapy in a stigma free way, that it treat the idea of having therapy as no more or less strange than having a haircut or pedicure, and perhaps a good deal more useful. We spent a lot of time writing the copy and leaflets for the therapeutic services. The idea is to suggest that therapy should be a part of any educated self-conscious person's repertoire. Also, therapy tends never to be branded. One finds one's way to a therapist through slightly shamed means; one might have to ask one's doctor (as if one had a disease). So the idea with the school was to put therapy on the high street, to offer it as something you could consume like anything else; to normalize it and hence give it a more reliable position in our lives.
We have a huge amount of trouble understanding our motives and feelings. We are too close to the source. Therapy is an arena in which another person can listen to us with extraordinary attention while we describe ourselves - and can help us to make sense, a little sense, of who we are. The results are not always going to be extraordinary. So much depends on the attitude we bring to the process (this isn't like medicine, where a pill will work whatever the attitude of the patient), and of course, on the quality of the therapist. It isn't a magical solution, but it's a hugely intriguing development in the self-understanding and maturity of the race.
Circulating online is a wonderful story about how you met your wife. At a party, you listed your detailed criteria for a love match to some friends ("a doctor's daughter who grew up outside London and works in business or science" ), and you were set up the next weekend. You married her. Can you be your own analyst here? If you'd avoided marriage thus far because of a fatal idealism, how did the idealist in you accept the actual woman?
The dominant assumption we have about love is that we shouldn't have a shopping list: that we should let ourselves be 'surprised' by our love matches, and that there is something controlling and sterile about having too sharp an image of whom one would want to be in love with. I suppose I was playfully challenging this one evening by giving a friend an incredibly detailed list of who I wanted to meet. Miraculously, this description jogged her memory and I was introduced to my now wife as a result. Naturally, the person I have married is complicated and diverse way beyond my necessarily sketchy initial description-but the things I love and admire in her remain those I knew I was seeking in her before I met her. This is a vision of love that would be instantly familiar to an Indian young man or woman - but it can sound odd in the Western context, so imbued is it with notions of the ineffable qualities of the beloved, whom fate will reveal but whom one shouldn't seek out too directly.
Are there organizations in the U.S. that serve similar functions to the School for Life? I'm thinking, perhaps, of Philoctetes or even the New York Psychoanalytic Institute. Are you collaborating with any spots here?
I'm not familiar with these two institutions, but they do sound like they have similarities. It's my dream one day to be able to open up branches of The School of Life in NY and perhaps San Francisco-so collaborators and funders are most welcome.
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