The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain De Botton

21 Nov

Why do we work?  It’s a good question, and for it taking such a significant part of our lives, it’s really not a question that is often asked.  A better question is why do we work the way we do?  What does work mean?

De Botton tries to get to the heart of these questions in “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.”  Starting at Cargo Ships and ending at an airplane graveyard, his scope is breathtakingly wide.  In each workspace, De Botton functions as a sort of platonic questioning observer and offers occasional commentary at the end.

The beginning is focused on supply–and a thread that goes through this whole book is how extraordinarily much goes on behind the scenes, for instance the journey of a fish in the sea to somebody’s dinner table involves logistics that are unbelievable to even contemplate, from fishing boat to cargo ship to warehouse to lorry to supermarket to dinner table, each step involving the livelihoods of whole cultures, and yet the understanding is so limited as to how this works.  This gives us a wide overarching landscape from where all the other careers stem from.

The next part, Biscuit manufacture, focuses on the interest on how involved people get in creating an item with relatively indifferent social worth.  The most interesting bits are the creation of the Moments series of biscuits, which cater to a social need–a person having a moment to themselves to give a little treat–that social need is created by the pressures of work.  Every detail of the moments line is thought out to excruciating detail, from the print on the package to how the biscuit should look.  There’s a great since of inflated importance to this whole endeavor.  At the same time, he looks at the actual factory workers, whose tasks have gotten so specific that they lose meaning.  De Botton’s biggest theory here is that through hyper-specialization the intrinsic worth of work goes down for the individual doing it.  They become more like a cog in a machine than a person providing a service.

That’s where the sort of cynicism creeps in, because in the world that De Botton paints, work is a great machine, where each person is so small that they do not comprehend the whole.  He does not seem to think that anybody is in charge of this machine, but it still goes because people participate in it.  And he also comments that one of the characteristics of work in the modern world is to make every item in it completely banal, repetitive, and measurable.

The next chapter is on Career Counseling, focusing on a specific counselor who works from home.  The man believes in his job, but his expertise is limited.  He guides people who are clearly unhappy in their current positions.  De Botton questions work’s ability to make anybody happy, and thinks that this might be part of the problem.   Also he mentions that as important as work is in our society, there are precious few resources allocated to understanding how an individual can find fulfillment through it, while at the same time there’s an expectation that fulfillment will be had.  The last item I found interesting is how individuals in the workplace have status based on how useful they can demonstrate they are, regardless of actual function.

Then we fly off to French Guiana to where a group of scientists are sending out a satellite for a Japanese Television station.  The scientists hold a higher social cachet, yet their ultimate goal was for another non-essential outcome.  Danger was mentioned, and though the launch went right, a safety instructor handed them all completely useless gas masks in the event that the rocket misfired.  A reporter was there, spreading misinformation and focusing most of the action on herself.  De Botton wonders if scientists have replaced priests in the modern world, and science magic.  How nature is now viewed as extremely vulnerable, as scientific progress is seen as indestructable.

I question the points he has here a bit, though the image of the scientists in this country that they have no idea as to their culture or beliefs, and a reporter who has no clue as to the scientists and their aims, resounds.  The western world is driven by impersonal connection.

We continue in this manner for the rest of the book–the most interesting parts being an entrepreneur fair where a vast majority of people will go nowhere for their ideas because what is making money here is none of the products that people have thought out and presented, but the fair itself. Also an airshow where industry shows off the different airplane implements and parts and industry members can shop and see what’s going on.  Each scene and each part drips with pointlessness, and the book isn’t exactly a pepper upper in terms of worldview.

De Botton’s theory seems to be that we work, that we identify so strongly with our work, because of a fear of mortality, that burying ourselves in daily nonessentials lessens existential dread.  That may be.  (And for those who say we work to have money, consider this, as a society we could provide all the necessities for people with much less effort than this, work seems to be a purposely inefficient system in this regard. )    There is also a sense that people want security, however most workplaces are extraordinarily indifferent to the welfare of the people they hire.

All in all a very interesting book, and though I’m not sure I’m completely on board with all its conclusions, I do know that De Botton is much smarter than I am, and I trust that his thinking here is much deeper than mine has been.

Oh and also there’s a series of photos in this book, of decent to just ok–not a reason to buy the book in and of themselves, but not distracting from it either.


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