The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

Philosopher-author Alain de Botton asks: Why do we work?

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Meet someone for the first time and, within minutes, the tentative small talk will shuffle toward an inevitable question: “What do you do for a living?” It’s not an unreasonable query. After all, our occupations occupy the premium hours of each day and, often, preoccupy our thoughts during the parole periods in between. Moreover, as Alain de Botton observes in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, this conversational icebreaker at cocktail parties illustrates how closely we align our identities – indeed, the very meaning of our lives – with our choice of vocation.

De Botton’s ambitious treatise aims to discover what makes a job either meaningful or a remunerative exercise that saps the soul. As such, each chapter in the book is devoted to the study of arbitrarily chosen professions such as rocket science, accountancy, landscape painting, and even biscuit manufacturing. The author strives to understand the satisfactions and frustrations inherent in each of these pursuits and, by extension, to derive macroeconomic conclusions from them.

By now you may be wondering about de Botton’s own line of work. Put it this way: Pray you never bump into him at a cocktail party. Unless you happen to be a Nobel Prize winner, an astronaut, or Bono, you may feel hopelessly dull and inadequate compared to de Botton, Britain’s most popular modern philosopher.

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A prose stylist whose literary skills have few peers, de Botton is the author of books such as “How Proust Can Change Your Life” and “The Architecture of Happiness.” The self-styled polymath renaissance man is also founder of The School of Life, a London shop where the intellectually curious can engage in big-idea dinner conversations, pay for personally tailored reading lists, or enroll in philosophical courses about love, politics, and family.

Refreshingly, de Botton isn’t a deskbound philosopher. To research “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work,” the writer fills his passport with stamps that even David Attenborough might deem exotic. At one point, de Botton visits a satellite-launch facility in French Guiana, a jungle off the coast of Brazil where the stealthy encroachment of tendrils, spores, and slithering creatures threatens to topple the fragile stilts of civilization.

Here, the author marvels at the fortitude of accomplished scientists who not only choose to live in a habitat reminiscent of that in a Joseph Conrad novel, but also suppress their egos to complete a collective project.“There were no opportunities for individual glory here, no prospect of biographies or street names to be remembered by,” de Botton writes.

These engineers at least have the satisfaction of witnessing a successful rocket launch. The end result of their efforts is fleetingly tangible. By contrast, few individuals get to see others pluck the fruits of their labors. In a biscuit factory in Belgium, for instance, the author observes two women whose horizons extend no further than the conveyor belt they toil at day after day.

“The real issue is not whether baking biscuits is meaningful,” concludes de Botton, “but the extent to which the activity can be seen to be so after it has been continuously stretched and subdivided across five thousand lives and half a dozen manufacturing sites.”

To underscore his point, the author powerfully illustrates how the division of labor is so minutely fragmented in today’s global economy. Over the course of 52 hours, de Botton and master photographer Richard Baker trace the passage of an individual tuna from the bloodied decks of a boat in the Maldives to its final resting place on a dinner table in Bristol, England. (One of the book’s great accomplishments is its awe at the unseen miracle of logistics that daily provides us with goods and services that we take for granted.)

But what about white-collar jobs? During an extended visit to a massive accountancy firm in London, de Botton peers into the cubicles of the pinstriped class and notes that their assignments don’t have a legacy beyond each financial year. As the philosopher wryly puts it, “They have accepted with grace the paucity of opportunities for immortality in audit.”

Throughout the book, the philosopher describes individuals – ranging from aspiring entrepreneurs to a penniless artist who spends years painting a single oak tree in a field – whose life’s work will never attain the lofty acclaim they might have naively imagined during optimistic childhoods. After consulting a career counselor, de Botton discovers that all too many people fret that they’ve missed their “true calling” and feel duty bound to careers “chosen for themselves by their unthinking sixteen-year-old selves.”

The problem with de Botton’s analysis is that it too closely ties satisfaction to the final product or service. Less credence is given to the innate rewards of labor during the process.

Those seeking a clearer understanding of the pleasures and sorrows of work might find a more satisfying explanation in Marcus Buckingham’s bestseller, “Go Put Your Strengths to Work.” The business-management expert makes a compelling case that while some professionals are fundamentally miscast in their roles, most people aren’t far off from the work they’re supposed to do. The problem, Mr. Buckingham says, is that most workplaces fail to recognize, and fully utilize, the specific strengths of each employee.

As a result, many of us are saddled with ill-fitting tasks that leave us feeling drained by drudgery. While no job is entirely free of such frustrations, Buckingham observes that work can feel fulfilling when the greater balance of our tasks play to our unique strengths. The Greeks had a term for this sense of flourishing, Buckingham writes. “They called it eudaimonia, which translates as the feeling ‘of giving your best where you have the best to give.’ ”

De Botton isn’t oblivious to the innate gratifications of work well done. The London accountants revel in their mastery of arcane numbers that make up the modern ledger book; and the landscape painter gains an inner glow from being “an heir and confidente of Titian.” But, from his philosophical perch, de Botton can’t help but view work in the context of lasting accomplishment.

In the book’s final chapter, the author surveys the rotting carcasses of passenger jets in an airliner graveyard in the Mojave desert and contemplates the often ephemeral nature of human achievement. Here, he concludes that the banal and narrow day-to-day focus of our jobs serves a necessary purpose: It staves off a contemplation of mortality and thoughts that could trigger an existential crisis.

De Botton’s downbeat denouement is foreshadowed throughout the book. On several occasions, the writer hints at misgivings about his own career and the point of his work. Given his achievements, it’s a curious admission. Alas, de Botton shies away from sharing introspective insights about the one job he knows best.

Stephen Humphries is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.

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