Summer holidays are a chance to pause and take stock. They are an invitation to embark on a new project, rekindle a relationship, or even contemplate a career change.
Wellbeing in the workplace drew added attention during the so-called Great Resignation of the Covid pandemic. But quitting is hardly an end in itself and the academic who predicted The Great Resignation has cited research suggesting employees’ wellbeing can fall after changing jobs.
According to one study from What Works Centre for Wellbeing in the UK, getting out of a dissatisfying job gives a “mental health boost” but this “appears short lived, and has either totally or largely disappeared a year later”.
So if you’re feeling unsettled at work, or conflicted about your chosen path in life, what should you do?
Simone de Beauvoir may have some useful advice. The French philosopher implored readers to avoid quick-fix solutions to existential angst and instead told people to take their freedom seriously. That means risking making a lifelong mistake, cutting yourself off from other possibilities and accepting you will never find rest except in death. “The lot of being torn apart [déchirement] is the ransom for ... presence in the world,” she wrote in a no-nonsense fashion.
Beauvoir’s ideas have been brilliantly brought to life by Skye Cleary in a new book How to Be You: Simone de Beauvoir and the Art of Authentic Living (Ebury Press), the perfect accompaniment, with sun cream and a towel, for introspective folk heading to the beach this summer. Cleary, a New York-based Australian (who has a maternal great grandfather from Co Cork), has a varied CV — she served in the army reserves in Australia and worked as a trader on Wall Street before becoming a philosophy lecturer. She explains further as this week’s Unthinkable guest.
How can Beauvoir help me to decide what to do in life?
Skye Cleary: “Beauvoir won’t tell you what to do exactly, but Beauvoir does give some guideposts.
“Asking yourself is a brilliant start. Beauvoir writes: ‘Do not back away from this questioning, for beyond the distress that it will perhaps provoke within us, it will destroy some of our shackles and open us to new truths.’
“It’s uncomfortable, even anxiety-inducing, not knowing what to do. The art of authentic living is a process of welcoming the discomfort, staying inquisitive, perhaps even learning to love the ambiguity, because that’s the space where we shed old habits and conceive of new possibilities.
“Create your essence. There’s no true ‘you’ that you have to reveal to be happy. The core of the existential idea ‘existence precedes essence’ means that we exist first and then it’s up to us to fashion ourselves — our essence. Orienting our lives in authentic ways is an artistic process. And it’s collaborative because our lives become meaningful through our engagement with other people and the world.
“Untangle the facts of your life from the myths. Avalanches of mystifications funnel us into predetermined paths, such as women into caregiving roles and men into STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths] careers or leadership positions on the basis of what’s supposedly ‘natural’. But Beauvoir argued that masculine and feminine nature are mystifications.
“Immutable facts of our lives include being born, the bodies we find ourselves in, and the existence of other people, but such facts do not dictate what we should do with our lives. Authenticity is a process of exercising our freedom and transcending beyond our facts into an open future towards self-chosen goals.”
You highlight the force of her writing and how it promotes a rebellious spirit. Do you have to rebel against something to be authentic?
“Ideally there would be nothing to rebel against. Beauvoir said she dreamed of every person becoming a ‘pure transparent freedom’. In Beauvoir’s utopia, oppressed people would rebel, oppressors would stop oppressing, domination would be abolished, and we would all orient ourselves in authentic ways towards an open future. Relationships would be based on friendship, not subjugation. Other people will still be obstacles to our goals sometimes, but not oppressors. But the human condition is such that there will always be something to rebel against.
“We may still need to rebel against internal chains, such as fear, self-doubt, or longing for approval. While oppression persists, rebelling is vital because, Beauvoir writes, ‘justice can never be created within injustice’.”
Committing to a project can be daunting. How does Beauvoir help us to overcome the fear of a making a mistake, or anxiety about taking a path we later regret?
“Anxiety is a fact of the human experience. We’re thrown into this world and have to make a life of it. We’re condemned to be free. And with freedom comes responsibility for our actions. But we can’t choose everything because there are social, political and other architectures that frame our situations.
“Meaningfully committing ourselves can be overwhelming because the world is chaotic, rife with tensions and bursting with myriad paradoxes. We can’t predict the outcome of our actions or inactions. Often we fail. All of that is a lot to be anxious about.
“From an existential perspective, we are the sum of our past actions and mistakes, but they don’t define our future in an absolute way. To live authentically calls for us to assume our past, reflect on our current way of being, and shift our focus to becoming. We can only live authentically by engaging in life, which means committing ourselves. Beauvoir says: ‘I take on a shape and an existence only if I first throw myself into the world by loving, by doing.’ And that can be exhilarating.”
Tell us about your own “great resignation”: what caused you to leave the financial services industry in your late 20s and go into philosophy?
“The ecstasy of a good trade couldn’t compensate for the relentless intense stress. Technology shifted the way markets operate. The work didn’t seem meaningful. I wanted more from life than staring at flickering numbers on a screen. During my MBA, some of my professors talked about existentialism in courses on philosophy and psychology of management, organisational behaviour, and entrepreneurship. Beauvoir’s writing fascinated me.
“Around that time I also read Tête-à-Tête by Hazel Rowley which is biography of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. They were asking similar questions to me about how to manage the tension between what we want for ourselves and what others want for us, how to think about freedom and duty, and how to live when life is so full of suffering. While existential philosophers don’t have all the answers, they give us a framework and language to think about life’s big questions and tensions.”
Are there time where you wonder ‘what if?’ Had you had remained as a trader could you have lived authentically?
“It’s possible, although thinking so much about authenticity would have been more challenging because philosophical reflection takes time. But authentic living beckons us to acknowledge our freedom, or lack thereof; accept the responsibility connected to those decisions; be lucid about the context in which we exist; consider how we impact other people and the world around us; work towards opening up possibilities for ourselves and others; and leap courageously into the future.
“None of that necessarily depends on the kind of job you have.”
How to Be You: Simone de Beauvoir and the Art of Authentic Living by Skye Cleary is published by Ebury Press (£18.99)