By any yardstick, Alain de Botton is among the finest contemporary philosophers. It is only appropriate then that we turn to him to understand the nature of our selves, the idea of focus and our work in a hopelessly noisy world. That we may separate the wheat from the chaff.
That his world view is very different from all that we have been taught to nurture fondly is an understatement.
If you permit me to digress for a moment, may I suggest you subscribe to his superb School of Life series on YouTube? In one of his many talks there, he speaks of how we ought to think of ourselves—and the pointlessness of focus.
He begins by asking us to imagine ourselves as a car—an Audi R8 to be precise. “It’s a highly efficient and compelling car,” he says. “Now part of the reason that it’s efficient and part of what makes us human beings comparatively inefficient is that this car has only one goal. And that goal is exceptionally clear. It has to go very fast on tarmac roads. As a general principle, no machine can be optimally efficient at more than one thing.”
“A robot that has to both climb stairs and make pancakes will be far less efficient than two distinct machines each of which can focus exclusively on a single task. The more limited the goals, the higher one’s chances of efficiency.
“Now unlike the Audi sports car, our brain… is a profound generalist and comes moderately well equipped for a huge range of possible activities. To write a novel, spearfish, bring up a child, drive very fast up Fifth Avenue, sit in a high-rise office writing reports, live in a hut in New Guinea, marry, plot an assassination, live in an ice cave, go into politics, stay single or expand a small business into the Asia market.
“Now the price we pay for being generalists is that we will be less good at any one of the many activities we perform than someone who did only one thing their whole life long. We might not be the very best at inflating party balloons, the house will be a bit dirty, we might be a bit late for the dinner meeting, we might not be perfect, patient and interested dinner companions, we will mess up the public presentation again, someone would probably be better than we are at helping a child paint.
“It might be quite depressing, perhaps late at night, as we look back at the day. But before we get too sad, we should realize that our less than completely optimal performance is down to one very understandable thing—that we chose breadth and variety over total focus and narrow perfection. And that’s a very wise choice. Focusing on one thing to the exclusion of all others has its costs, as anyone who’s ever spoken to an athlete who trains 10 hours a day tends to find out. There’s a cost to being the human equivalent of a sports car.
“Unfortunately, our society has set up an absurd idea. That it will be possible to do many things and do them all completely well. That’s why we have so much talk about an elusive thing called work-life balance. A perfectly optimal career and a perfectly optimal home life, this is a mad idea.
“Work-life balance is impossible because everything worth fighting for unbalances your life. We are not going to be at once the ideal domestic chef and CEO. If we are strung out across multiple roles, all will suffer. But that’s okay. That you are doing too much and none without mistakes isn’t a sign that your life has gone wrong. It’s a sign of a very wise and understandable position: that you have opted for imperfect variety over flawless focus.”
If that be the case, what are we to do?
Allow me to shift attention to Timothy Ferriss. I must confess, I have dissed Ferriss, bestselling author and speaker, as a shameless self-promoter earlier in this series. That said, there are some aspects of what he talks about that resonate with me—the idea of Life Design.
Ferriss’s contention is both easy to comprehend and simple to implement, which he articulates very well in his New York Times bestseller The 4-Hour Work Week. He argues that most people don’t want to be millionaires. They just want to experience what millions can buy. To that extent, having a few million dollars in the bank isn’t the fantasy. The fantasy is the lifestyle of complete freedom this kind of money allows.
If that is the yardstick, there is no point spending all of our working lives chasing that ephemeral pot of gold to be used up in our retirement years.
Once again, what are we supposed to do?
He begins by asking that we answer three questions.
1. How do your options change if retirement is not an option?
2. What if you could use a mini-retirement to sample your deferred life plan reward before working 40 years for it?
3. Is it really necessary to work like a slave to live like a millionaire?
To understand what he really means, we need to get a grip on the math and understand the idea of relative income as opposed to absolute income.
Consider two men. Let’s call them A and B. Man A works 80 hours a week and Man B works 10 hours each week. But they both make Rs1 lakh a year. Who is richer? If you answered Man B, you are right and that is the difference between absolute and relative income.
As Ferriss puts it: “Absolute income is measured using one holy and inalterable variable: the raw and almighty dollar. Jane Doe makes $100,000 per year and is thus twice as rich as John Doe who makes $50,000 per year.”
But, he argues, relative income uses two variables. Money and time (in hours). So, if the math were to be worked out “Jane Doe makes $100,000 per year, $2,000 for each of the 50 weeks per year and works 80 hours per week. Jane Doe thus makes $25 per hour. John Doe makes $50,000 per year, $1,000 for each of 50 weeks per year, but works 10 hours per week and hence makes $100 per hour. In relative income, John is four times richer.”
The only caveat in this is that the relative income has to add up to the minimum amount needed to actualize your goals. Another caveat. These goals cannot be fancy things money can buy like a fancy car or a new apartment. Because the pleasures these acquisitions bring are, once again, ephemeral, and the joy dissipates over a period of time. Focus instead on experiences that can be reminisced over and savoured long after it has ended.
To come to terms with this, Ferriss writes that we ought to take Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto’s principle seriously. As much as 80% of all output comes from 20% of all input. It has many corollaries.
Eighty per cent of a nation’s wealth is controlled by 20% of its population. In business, 80% of a company’s profits come from 20% of its customers. As much as 80% of a company’s sales come from 20% of its sales staff. Microsoft noted that by fixing the top 20% of the most reported bugs, 80% of crashes could be eliminated. Several criminology studies reveal 80% of all crimes are committed by 20% of criminals.
When extrapolated to our lives, Ferriss suggests we ask ourselves two questions.
1. Which 20% of sources are causing 80% of my problems and unhappiness?
2. Which 20% of sources are resulting in 80% of my desired outcomes and happiness?
If all other tasks were to be set aside and these emotionally tough questions were to be answered honestly, Ferriss assures that a brutal stock-taking will ensue, followed by an emotionally nerve-wracking culling of all that isn’t needed in our lives.
It is only appropriate now that you stop at this point and mull over the different approaches as suggested by De Botton and Ferriss. The former insists we choose variety; the latter that we focus.
My contention is both these men are right. De Botton’s premise is we choose variety over the monotony of work. What Ferriss points to is a technique to find variety in what would otherwise be a monotonous life spent exclusively on nothing but work. And monotony of that kind is a terribly bad idea. To that extent, we would do well to take both of these men and their advice seriously—take work a little less seriously than we do now.
[This first appeared in Mint on Aug 9, 2015. Reproduced with permission]