News makes us go crazy

We live in unusual times. Our age is unlike any other in the extent to which it emphasises opportunities for individual opportunity, chiefly the opportunity to make money. You can do it! Dream big! Seize the day! are the resounding slogans. For most of history, we lived and died on the same rung of the social ladder. Our parents’ occupations determined our own. Prospects for betterment did not exist. Financial markets were primitive and capital was not easily available. Technological discoveries came along every 200 years, and political change even less frequently.

Not much social climbing here

But now, there are (apparently) no limits to what anyone can achieve. Everything is possible for the creative and the tenacious, perhaps… Right now, across the continents, the cleverest ones among us are finding ingenious ways to raise money, draft scripts, write code, invent formulae and design machines that will change the fundamentals of existence. Resignation to a modest condition has come to seem not only a mistake, but possibly a sign of mental illness.


© PA

Welcome to the land of opportunity

There’s one main way we get to hear about the successes of others on such a regular, unremitting basis: the news. Every day, the blogs, the colour supplements, the style sections and the interview and profile pieces let us know about the amazing ones among us. In just an hour or so of browsing, we might learn about the twenty-five-year-old chef who runs four successful seafood restaurants in Lower Manhattan, about the fashion label started up by the daughter of a well-known film director, about the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who has set up an online university backed by $1 billion in Qatari venture capital money, about the revered German artist at work on his own museum in Berlin and about the former Wall Street banker who is about to open twenty boutique hotels across China – all of this on a morning that began with a sense of inner ease, calm and dedication to domestic goals, with the sun filtering through the curtains and the sound of birds in the garden outside.


© Diane Bondareff/AP/Press Association Images

Famous French chef decides it’s time to open another successful restaurant

The news invites us to feel content and mature about all this: quietly pleased by the tycoon’s success, impressed by the entrepreneur’s initiative, thoughtfully interested in the artist’s global fame. News organisations that otherwise warn us of the damaging side effects of strobe lighting, nudity or profane language see no need to prepare us for the consequences of witnessing the success of others.

But they should, because in truth, these stories of success have a power to drive us insane with envy. As we take them in, we start to regret the fate of our tragically ignored and soon-to-be-forgotten egos in a world of apparently infinite possibility; we feel the contrast between the hopes that were once invested in us and the reality of what we have done with our lives; the difference between what others our own age (and even some much younger) have shown themselves capable of achieving and the trivial accomplishments to which our hesitant, timid and directionless selves can lay claim.

Existential panic may not, of course, seem like the most reasonable reaction to an upbeat, glossily illustrated feature entitled ‘Silicon Valley’s Top Twenty Investors,’ but after scanning such a story, we may nevertheless come perilously close to hurling the supplement to one side, banging our fists on the table and, with an anguished sob, screaming at a world that doesn’t care, ‘I can’t take being me anymore!’


© Alastair Grant/PA Archive/Press Association Images

Tech millionaire Nick D’Aloisio sells business – at 18

The news should help us with our feelings. It shouldn’t pretend that it is normal to present an audience with repeated evidence of the accomplishments of the most energetic and inventive members of the species and not expect that it will be driven a little crazy as a result. It should admit that it takes an exceptionally unimaginative person to read of someone thirty years their junior who has bought and sold businesses, consorted with the mighty and attracted the attention of millions – and in response, experience only a broad and serene pleasure. It should be generous enough to recognise that we urgently need help in understanding, interpreting and living with the envy it so regularly unleashes upon its unsuspecting and undefended consumers.

Envy has always been a target of fierce and moralistic criticism. But recognising pangs of envy is an important feature of a decent life. In many cases, envy is a call to action that should be heeded. Envy may contain garbled messages sent by confused but vital parts of our personalities about what we should be doing with the rest of our lives. Listening to envy can help us to take some painful yet necessary step towards exploiting our potential properly.


© Jens Meyer/AP/Press Association Images

Celebrated German artist opens three new shows

Instead of trying to repress our envy, we should therefore make efforts to study it. We should keep a diary of every envious attack – and then analyse the contents fully, to start to map what we should be doing next. Each person we envy potentially possesses some piece of the jigsaw puzzle depicting our possible future condition. There may be a portrait of our ‘true self’ waiting to be assembled out of the hints we receive when we flick through a magazine or hear updates on the radio.

But alongside exploring envy as thoroughly as we can, we should also have a chance to admit how deeply it tortures us, how stubborn our problems are and how sad we are about how little we have been able to achieve. News outlets should acknowledge they are destroying our peace of mind. They should help us by being more honest about statistics. While we’re always hearing about success in the news, success itself remains desperately unusual, achieved by no more than a few thousand out of many millions – a detail that the editors of most news outlets carefully (and sadistically) keep out of our imaginations.


© REX/Startraks Photo

Suri Cruise, age 7, launches fashion range

At the Philosophers’ Mail, we believe in making use of envy, but also in recognising that, in the end, most businesses in fact fail, most films don’t get made, most careers are not stellar, most people’s faces and bodies are less than perfectly beautiful and almost everyone is sad and worried a lot of the time. We shouldn’t lament our own condition just because it doesn’t measure up against some deeply unrealistic benchmarks that the news exposes us to daily, or hate ourselves solely for our inability to defy some breathtaking odds.