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Ballet San Jose School Student

If our status depends on our achievements, then what we may need to succeed is talent. If peace of mind is a priority then we also need reliable control over it. In most activities, however, talent is impossible to direct as we please. It can make an appearance for a time and then vanish, leaving our career in pieces.

We cannot call the best of ourselves to the fore at will. So far are we from owning what talent we do on occasion display, that our achievements can seem like a gift granted to us by an external agency. A gift upon whose erratic presence and absence hangs the course of our lives.

It was the ancient Greeks who came up with an image to evoke our volatile relationship with talent. According to Greek mythology, it was the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne who held sway over abilities. In poetry, history, music, tragedy, the writing of hymns, dancing, comedy or astronomy. They would grant these to humans at their own free will. Success came with a reminder that their gifts were those of the god’s and that the god’s had a right to change their minds.

The areas in which the Greek Muses operated hardly reflect contemporary concerns. And yet the myth continues to capture something about the weak hold we have upon our own powers to achieve. About the subservient, anxious position we must adopt in relation to our future.




Our status also depends on a range of favourable conditions we often define as luck. It may be good luck that places us in the right occupation, with the right skills, at the right time. It may be bad luck that denies us the self same advantages.

But pointing to luck as an explanation for what happens in our lives has become unacceptable. In less sophisticated eras the idea of our having no control over events was commonplace. Gratitude and blame fell to external agencies. Demons, goblins, spirits and gods.

This changed as our power to control and understand our environments increased. The concept of luck or of guardian deities lost its potency. Today, few would deny outright that luck has no role in the course of careers, yet in practice the role of chance is dismissed. The evaluation of individual’s proceeds on the assumption that they are responsible for their own fates.

It would sound modest for someone to ascribe a personal or professional triumph to “good luck.” And pitiable to blame defeat on the opposite. Winners make their own luck, so goes the mantra. A phrase that would have puzzled the ancient worshippers of the goddess of fortune.

It is alarming enough to have to rely for one’s status on contingent elements. It is harder yet to live in a world so enamoured with notions of control. One that has dismissed “bad luck” as a credible explanation for defeat.


This essay draws on the work of Alan de Botton, particularly his book Status Anxiety. To learn more click here.

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