The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work
Alain de Botton :: UK :: Hamish Hamilton (Pinguin Group) :: April 2009
Standing at a party with drink in your hand, leaning against the mantelpiece, you find yourself listening to someone trying to explain what they do for a living. As the description drags on into details of a procedure you know nothing about, you make a conscious decision to just remember the name of the company and that it was something administrative, and, embarrassing as it would be if you were caught, to just stop listening.
Working life has become exceptionally specialised in our global complex economy, making us knowledgeable in our field but necessarily making all our results a group effort, reducing much of the honour of success. Often it is hard to see the big picture of what is going on around us. In his latest book, Alain de Botton tries to bring us a little understanding of the interaction of the little picture with the big one, sketching the functioning of the economy for the working man.
The book has no grand argument. The ten case studies are presented as near independent expeditions, from tracking a tuna fish from its capture in the Maldives to a plate in Bristol, to biscuit manufacturing and from tree painting to accountancy. He follows people on the job, to walk alongside them, to see what they see, trying to understand the world around them. As he observes and describes, the case studies are accompanied by photographs of Richard Baker, making the whole work as much a photographic essay as a book.
Work is, he explains us, together with love, at the heart of our lives, but making it meaningful is not quite as easy. De Botton’s musings give us an appealing answer when he suggests work can become meaningful “whenever it allows us to generate delight or reduce suffering in others.” It is perhaps a pity that the book is not a series of case studies of the maxim, but the idea does transpire through the pages.
It is fascinating to read De Botton. His wit and philosophical outlook are applied to the world around him as he finds it. He is overwhelmed by the complexity of the world economy as someone discovering it for the first time, but as the details of each outlook unfold, he shares his wealth of understanding and insight, inter sped with comments of a more personal nature (In the Maldives he remarks that there is an uncanny physical resemblance between the president of the Maldives and his late father).
As we are carried along through the melancholy of the working lives of different people, De Botton reaches several insights. About society he remarks that it puts unrealistic expectations of our working lives as slogans before our eyes, provoking a collective dissatisfaction with ourselves. He says we feel a shame at not having given in to the call to discover our hidden talents or possibilities for development in this world, and have condemned ourselves to the mundane life which we lead, a life which does not correspond to the one we could have had if we only had pushed ourselves more (if we believe the slogans). It is an observation which would put career orientation at the heart of our lives.
Tragically, I think he is right. Tragically, because so many people work to earn money and remain stuck in a work routine. They do not get around to a self-analysis, and a search for possibilities as they have their minds preoccupied with other matters and do not readily see how they could move ahead in their professional lives anyway. De Botton looks on as the well-meaning intellectual who can never really understand his subject, because no matter how hard he tries, their differences are just too great.
This comes back later on as well, when Alain de Botton remarks that people no longer travel to see the marvels of how things are done differently elsewhere, or to see the origins of products they use, or the marvels of local technology – people today only travel for fun, for the consumption of cultural goods, the entertaining part. He makes a good point (which comes back in his other work and in his School of Life) but I think the origin of the problem comes forth from the clash between the world outlooks of a poetically inclined philosopher and a corporate accountant or a fisherman.
Notice that that is the result of the overspecialising, that people no longer over see the world around them. The Renaissance Man no longer lives. People on holiday can choose to either see what their professional life is like in the other country (presumably about the same as in their own country or they have already seen it with a seminar of some sorts), or just enjoy their time away, forgetting about the complexities of work and the economy by staring at the waves and tasting new wines.
Another effect of this economic complexity, is that we can no longer really follow its importance. If a certain foreign multinational decides to use some component rather than another, the consequences can be the booming success of a company producing some seemingly unrelated product in your home town. The workings of the economy as water springing up at the other end of the house from a leaking pipe, condemns people to read about other issues because the laws and contracts companies sign are just too abstract to understand how it relates to you.
It seems as if over-education, or at least over-specialization, has led to and estrangement and an under appreciation of the rest. There is a dominant sadness or melancholy in the poetic descriptions of people at work and the trouble with “meaningfulness” is evident. The project is important to our era and commendable, even if his method brings about painful omissions – he stumbles upon a factory full of widows and does not elaborate! This is perhaps not his strongest book to date, but it is an insightful, wise, adventurous and witty read.
Alain de Botton was born in 1969 and is the author of essays on themes ranging from love and travel to architecture and philosophy. His bestselling books include The Consolations of Philosophy, The Art of Travel, Status Anxietyand The Architecture of Happiness.