You’ve got a friend

The second instalment in your trusty correspondent’s reflection on the incidents, accidents, milestones and landmarks of 1969 looks at an erudite thinker’s simple premise: be a buddy to yourself.

Born in December 1969 in Switzerland to fabulously wealthy but emotionally distant parents,  Alain de Botton spent most of his childhood at exclusive boarding schools in England.

Eventually the bookish de Botton found his way to Cambridge University, where he read History and then Philosophy.

It is in this classic realm where de Botton has found his calling, having written about 15 or so tomes dealing with, related to or riffing on philosophical themes.

These have varied from modern reinterpretations and reframing of the old-school masters, to monographs on travel, architecture and work life.

One might be forgiven for thinking that de Botton turned 50 many years ago. And it’s not simply a long-bald pate that provides this deception, either, but a worldly sagacity and self-possession usually associated with those who have logged time on our planet, read considerably and travelled widely (both of which de Botton has done in spades) as well as made and learned from mistakes.

Truth be told, as the recipient of a considerable trust fund established by his financier father, de Botton need not (for financial reasons, anyway) have bothered with the workaday world.

Yet a seemingly genuine desire to have a positive influence on his fellow human beings and our “faulty walnuts” as he refers to our brains, has seen de Botton forge a reputation as a provider of eminently sensible advice for improving everyday living and happiness.

For instance, in reply to the question of just how you can forgive yourself for terrible mistakes (and possible move on, having learned from them), de Botton’s answer is that “we need to try to become an imaginary friend to ourselves”.

“This sounds odd, initially, because we naturally imagine a friend as someone else – not as part of our own mind,” de Botton says.*

“But there is value in the concept because we know instinctively how to deploy strategies of wisdom and consolation with our friends that we stubbornly refuse to apply to ourselves.

“If a friend is in trouble, our first impulse is rarely to tell them that they are fundamentally a shithead and a failure. We try to reassure them that they are likeable and that it’s worth investigating what might be done. A good friend likes you pretty much as you are already. Any suggestion they make, or idea they have about how you could change, builds on a background of acceptance. They don’t think there’s anything wrong with giving you a compliment or emphasising your strengths.

“It is ironic – yet hopeful – that we know quite well how to be a better friend to near strangers than we know how to be to ourselves. The hopefulness lies in the fact that we do actually already possess the relevant skills of friendship. It’s just we haven’t as yet directed them to the person who probably needs them most – namely, of course, ourselves.”

*Quote from The Kinfolk Entrepreneur, edited by Nathan Williams