Thursday, 30 July 2009


I'm stealing someone else's idea for this one.

A friend - ok, a Facebook friend - posted a link to a TED talk by Alain de Botton on success.

It struck me in particular and I watched the whole thing because for the past few years I've been under the influence of success anxiety or status anxiety linked to my job or whatever the exact term is.

De Botton points out that we envy people who are similar to us but have achieved more: they appear more successful, and this is based on the assumption that we all have equal opportunities and therefore any failure or lack of success on our part is a failure to take advantage of these opportunities. In other words, it's our fault. When in reality it may not be.

It also struck me because of a conversation we had last night about beggars in Kraków.
On the way back from Kazimierz at about 11.30pm, a woman with a child heard us talking in English and came up saying 'please money food'.
My flatmate's policy here is not to give, because everyone has a chance to work and these people could get a job somewhere. By giving them money, you perpetuate the vicious circle in which they are already trapped. My policy is that things are more complicated than that: so I feel extremely guilty but still don't give.

I was trying to work out what it is that makes me so reluctant to give these people money. From time to time (maybe one in three) I give money to someone who is sitting and begging with a cup, as quickly and discreetly as possible and with as little actual communication with the person in question as possible. However, I really hate giving money to people who pester me. I feel as though I'm not being allowed the time to make a rational decision. In this case I'm pretty sure it's about more than just resenting the loss of a few zlots.

Another friend said that we give money to beggars because we are purchasing a Good Feeling. We see them, we feel bad, we give them some cash and then we feel as though we are a Good Person.
My argument here is that, up until the guy limped up to me with a sign around his neck asking for money for an operation, I wasn't feeling Bad. So he has created a false demand for this good feeling while at the same time being the nearest and most convenient local supplier.

I also don't like it when people target me in English. I feel as though I am being exploited as a rich foreign tourist (which is sadly something that I am not).

My default reasoning is that begging is a very humiliating thing to do and that if someone is asking for help, there must be a good reason behind it and therefore I should give. But I resent the emotional manipulation that goes alongside it. So I'm stuck with a dilemma. Either I pay, and pretend I didn't for fear of ridicule among my more sensible friends, or I don't pay, and I feel bad. Which instinct is correct?

Going back to success: I went to a very good school and to an excellent university and my friends are all doing pretty well. I'm even aware that some of them look down on me for doing what is perceived as a poorly-paid menial job (translation) and for working as a freelancer rather than for a respectable multi-national with a good pension scheme.

Then again, I think about all my efforts over the past few years to do yet another training scheme, yet another bit of work experience, and I wonder whether the best thing would be just to live somewhere where there is plenty of sunshine, where I can go roller-blading in the morning, where there is a nice river to walk along, and just to earn enough money to travel and to rent a decent space in a nice city where I can sleep undisturbed in the sunshine in the afternoons.

Here's the talk. Let me know what you think:


Anonymous said...

The beggers (and live musicians in tram) in Poland are usually Roma from southeastern europe. They have more than enough money. Do not give them any cent.

If you give them money then you support that women and children work all day on the street and the men buy expensive cars and gold chains.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

I think that if you are happy doing what you are doing you shouldn't worry about others unless you would prefer to do what they are doing.

About success, I think that it is impossible to win this game, there will always be someone more successful than you, you must decide at some stage that you are happy where you are and enjoy life. We all have the potential to be nobel prize winners but sometimes it isn't worth the effort.

About beggers, I don't give money to them, when on holidays I don't give tips unless it is the custom of that country. I think that waiters expect big tips from tourists which is unfair and when they don't get them or don't think they will get them they become surly.

Is tipping expecting in Poland? Personally if tipping isn't 100% voluntary I think that it is another form of begging/extortion.

Anonymous said...

ps: So you dream about a nicer city than Krakow, with a more beautyful river, better roller blading tracks, more sunshine and more "peace" in the afternoons... ?

Austria or Switzerland maybe ?

pinolona said...

Anon 1: yes, a lot are, but not all. I'm cautious about the Roma issue because I'm aware that it's one of the few areas where Europeans are still unashamedly, blatantly racist... surely not all of them are beggars?

Anon 3 - cheers for the advice. That's sort of what I was thinking: more about wanting what you've got rather than getting what you want.
I don't think tipping is begging though. You are paying extra for a service they don't have to give. They don't have to smile, change your order or show up at your table the minute you make eye contact with them (I've been told 'chwileczka!' more than once by a cranky waitress/shop assistant) - lord knows they don't get paid to put in that kind of effort.
By the same token, I'm quite happy not to tip if the service has been appalling.

Anon 4 - Ahhhhh no, now see that's the point: I already have this kind of life in Kraków, so maybe I am successful after all...

Island1 said...

As always with Alain de Botton it's interesting stuff, but a bit obvious. I can never decide if stating the obvious in this way is annoying or helpful – probably both. Success is clearly too amorphous a concept for there to be any simple definition. It's generally a good idea to go after the things you want rather than the things you are told you should want, but then some people genuinely want the things they are told they should want just because they are told they should want them.

For me the really interesting problem about the culture of universal opportunity and possibility is its paralyzing effect and the fact that it ignores the cost of choices. It's something you were saying recently – spend the last years of your twenties living in Krakow and that costs you the chance to spend the last years of your twenties living in Paris. It's also paralyzing because there are so many tempting possibilities that seem to be equally 'cool' it's incredibly hard to choose between them. Very few people in the history of the world have had the huge range of life choices we as middle-class westerners have. I think we often feel guilty or that we are failing if we don't cram in as many of them as possible. Of course we can't because of the cost of choice, but we still feel that we've failed somehow if we haven't ticked off the "50 things you should do before you're 30" list.

Anonymous said...

"grass is greener" syndrome...

pinolona said...

Anon: not at all - I think my grass is pretty green actually. It's just that in terms of traditional idea of success it doesn't look so good.

Island: yeah but we like it when people tell us the comforting, obvious things: we buy their books and reward them with talks on the internet :)
ps what do you mean 'last years' of my twenties?!! I have At Least a year and a half left...

Romain said...

I would be curious to find out how you distinguish things you really want and things you are told to want, Island1. Even if you go against the trend, you are still positioned vis-à-vis them. Gombrowicz's writings about Shape perfectly deal with the matter, the conclusion being that "authenticity" is a lure.

pinolona said...

help... can't answer intelligent comment on a Saturday morning.
I am fully able to distinguish however that what I really want now is some Pepto-Bismol (at a push, Motilium), Ibuprom max and a laaaaarge quantity of water...

Romain said...

Quite a specific definition of "morning", and you cannot even use yet the jet lag pretext ;-)

Without getting into details, it is also possible to interpret the reaction in this manner : your body wants something to feel better after that memorable party and your brain uses its experience to find possible remedies. Come on, who really wants a pill of Ibuprom max ? Its only value stems from the fact we believe it, rightly or wrongly, to be effective against that damned headache.

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