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The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work: A Book Review

October 4, 2009

I thought my Blog needed an intellectual boost, so I invited my friend Glynn Young to do a book review as a guest post. Glynn is a public affairs director for a Fortune 500 company in St. Louis. He also writes about books, poetry and business at his Blog, Faith, Fiction, Friends.


The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

By Alain de Botton

Pantheon, 2009, $26, 327 pages


My introduction to Alain de Botton occurred a month ago. I followed a link in a tweet on Twitter, and ending up at a YouTube video from the TED Conference in Oxford earlier this year. In the video, de Botton was speaking about our notions of what constitutes success and failure, and how we usually allow our success to be defined by others who have generally enshrined meritocracy as the guiding principle of people management. In short, meritocracy means we succeed or we fail, and if we fail, we deserve to fail. If we doubt that, he says, just go to the bookstore and look at the hundreds of self-help books available, which can be neatly summarized in two roughly equivalent piles – the books that say you can do anything, and the books that tell you how to deal with poor self-esteem. Those two piles could stand for work life in the 21st century.

But there was another statement in that video that grabbed my attention. A self-described secularist, de Botton pointed out that “we live in a society where we worship ourselves, and we’ve lost the habit of worshipping something transcendent.” (In another video, he also points out the importance of the idea of the Sabbath – to help us understand that we “didn’t create the world so lay down your tools and give it a rest.”) Without that transcendence, and with that self-worship, our work and our life becomes all about us.

This is the idea that suffuses “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work,” published in April in the U.K. and recently released here in the U.S. De Botton, an accomplished author who’s taken on subjects ranging from architecture and love to Proust, status and travel, here looks at 10 examples of work in contemporary society, to explain both the work itself and how it fits into the larger context of how we live. It’s a fascinating journey. The occupations or work he examines include cargo ship spotting, logistics (warehousing and distribution), biscuit or cookie manufacturing, career counseling, rocket science, painting, transmission engineering (monitoring electric power lines), accountancy, entrepreneurship and aviation. Illustrating the text are numerous black—and-white photographs, almost all by the documentary photographer Richard Baker.

Along the way, he discusses a number of questions and (cherished) beliefs. When does a job feel meaningful? (Whenever it allows us to generate delight or reduce suffering in others.) Isn’t our work supposed to make us happy? (We’re the first society to think that; the idea started vaguely in the Renaissance and by the 18th century was firmly taking root, but not until fairly recently did happiness become its own work objective, even though work rarely delivers happiness.) What is art for? (The sensuous presentation of ideas, according to Hegel.) And the explanation for our concern with the environment may have less to do with global warming or carbon footprints than our fascination with “the technological sublime,” a manifestation of self-worship.

For most of human history, he says, the main way to get people to work was some form of the whip. But once work became more specialized, more focused, more technological, more “brain-based,” the whip was no longer effective. Instead, management had to focus on “the mental well-being of employees.” Employees now have to be handled with patience and costly respect. (In another context, a talk on why we have departments of human resources, he has a term for all of the various theories of people management – “pseudo-science.” In the book, he challenges another sacred notion of the workplace by referring to the business plan as a “subgenre of contemporary fiction.”)

De Botton’s idea that we have lost our sense of the transcendent (i.e., God) is never as overtly stated as it is in that YouTube video, but it is present nonetheless. It’s there in how the people he meets and writes about use work to search for meaning, to seek happiness, to look for fulfillment. Our ideas of success and failure, how we compare and differentiate the value of the accounting firm executive and the waiter who serves him in the corporate dining room, the understanding that there is an almost preordained need for people to stay busy at something (if not happy) – all of these suggest that the transcendent is largely missing in today’s workplace and the culture at large. We define the value of people by what they do or how successful they are, not understanding that each of us are created with the same inherent value because we are each made in the image of God.

The people who populate the essays of the book – from the artist who spends two years painting the same oak tree over and over again to the Iranian entrepreneur who’s invented a way to walk on water – display a kind of anxiety, a determination to find something that smacks of meaning, fulfillment, success, happiness – or all of the above. The people who live in de Botton’s writing, and the writing is indeed good enough to say they live, are the same people we work with in our own companies and organizations, or the people we serve as clients and customers. Or ourselves.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 4, 2009 11:27 am

    Wonderful, well-written essay, offering much on which to comment and think.

    I recently read that long Atlantic article titled “What Makes Us Happy?” The article, by Joshua Wolf Shenk, looks at the results to date of a Harvard study, directed by George Vaillant, that began tracking 268 men decades ago. A fascinating piece documenting both the “shimmering successes” and “darker hues” of mental crises, with the need for love, work, and “psychological adaptation” seemingly paramount. Reading it, I kept wondering about the role of spiritual fulfillment, of faith, in these men’s lives. Perhaps it would be interesting to contrast de Botton’s story-telling and findings with those of Vaillant?

    That paragraph mentioning HR departments rings so true. For more than 24 years I worked as a writer and editor for a firm that published everything imaginable for HR. I was struck by how the terminology kept changing (e.g., “human capital”!) with the reorientation of the function as it struggled to be “of value” (more than a “cost center”) to the organization, of how, too often, the “assets” were treated with too little commonsense and understanding of human need.

    I had planned an interview on religion and faith in the workplace, a trend that had been developing for some time. Life intervened and I retired from the company before doing it. This essay has me thinking again about fulfillment and the meaning of work and to what we turn when work for many now is simply the thread to hold onto.

  2. October 5, 2009 2:34 pm

    it sounds as if debotton is what some call a soft secularist.

    as a person that has done things that i was paid money for doing, and things that i have done that were different reasons, i often ask myself what a job is, and what work is. when i left my job at tektronics as an illustrator, i was met with a feeling that i had given up the power of money. i had to realize that my worth to other people is what ever they regard or believe is worthwhile.
    the worth of myself to me is always in question, as i can not help but compare myself to others. however, as i grow in my faith in Jesus, i am learning that to learn more about myself and my worth, i focus on Jesus instead of myself or others. if i look at Love instead of judgment and comparison, i am not bound by the ego that is not ever satisified. i am finding a power that is greater than one i can find anywhere else.

    it feels good to be in a place where people show appreciation, there is pay, it is fun, makes us happy, we get paid, or we get along with the people. what ever it is we do, these things are nice. but, i find that life also has struggle no matter what you do or where you are, there is no perfect situation. a lot of us expect this, we expect the doctor to be able to fix us, we expect to be treated well, we expect to have fun, to be happy, to live long and healthy lives. we expect, we expect, we expect…more and more. we become like children with a whole room full of toys we don’t play with yet, looking for more.

    we look for Love, and do not know what Love is.
    we don’t know where to find it or how to give it.
    lost and alone, searching, wanting, longing for Love.
    looking at our selves, others, money, things, and expecting to find it there. the longing for Love, to know what it is, to receive it and to give it. and that my friend can only be found in one place, in one way, through One Savior, Christ Jesus the Lord, our way back home to our Creator, our God, Love.

  3. October 5, 2009 7:12 pm

    Maureen — thanks for your comment. I, too, believe that faith is a critical element in workplace success (success as defined by God, not man). And your experience with HR sounds like my experience with HR. I used to be an employee, then human capital, and now I’m talent.

    Nancy — I think you put your finger on it — as we measure worth and value in the workplace, our worth is always in question because it’s always determined by people just as flawed as ourselves. Our worth in God’s eyes is a different story — we have intrinsic value and worth (1) because we’re all made in His image and (2) because He sent His son to die for us. You don’t send your son to die for what’s worthless. Thanks for commenting.

  4. donkimrey permalink
    October 7, 2009 7:45 pm

    Every time I drop by I find reason to stop and think. This post is no exception. In addition, I find those who comment on what STC says are pretty savvy. They think intelligently and make their points without going off on some tangent or racing around in circles like a dog chasing its tail! I was especially impressed by nAncY’s response. She seems to have the heart and hunger of a little child and the mind of a poet. Even when she writes prose and disregards punctuation and all rules of grammar, she has the soul of a poet, an artist with words. My best to all of you who wrestle with real issues out in the business world. Lately, I’ve devoted attention to David (a King, an executive with large responsibilities who messed up when he had too much time on his hands. Some principles he learned early were he only things that kept him from total ruin.). Thanks to each of you! dk

  5. October 7, 2009 7:52 pm

    Don — thanks for the comment. You’re right — there are some pretty savvy people who comment on Camel’s blog — attracted by the thoughtfulness of his posts (and I do mean his posts as opposed to mine). He says things here with an original voice.

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