Bookshelf—The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

It’s been a month or so since I recommended a book. This edition of Bookshelf features The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, by Alain de Botton (2009, Pantheon). For those of you who haven’t read de Botton’s other work—and he is prolific—you can think of him as a British version of Malcolm Gladwell with a broader emotional range.

In TPSW, de Botton takes a careful look at the daily experiences of the ways we make our livings, and the meanings we draw from it. He loves to look at the work we take for granted. For instance, he follows one yellowfin tuna from the Maldives Minister of Fish to a fishing boat in the Indian Ocean to a Maldivian fish processing plant to a Qatar Airways cargo jet to Heathrow to a grocery in Bristol to the table of Linda Drummond and her eight-year-old son Sam, wise beyond years:

He also makes the ancillary suggestion, less often remarked upon by marine biologists, that our perpetual killing of fish has left the seas choked with an array of pallid oceanic ghosts who will one day gather together to exact terrible revenge on humanity for shortening their lives and transporting their corpses around the earth for supper in Bristol.

He finds a deep and powerful joy in work we think of as demeaning, and a brutal sadness in work we might find more professional. The deepest sorrows in the book come in his discussion of manufacture and packaging for a new brand of cookie (“biscuit,” in British usage), in which dozens of people come together in what is clearly an exercise in consumer psychology rather than nutrition or pleasure. They are simply making a thing to be sold. The nature of its uses is irrelevant, the same labor system applies to skirts or shirts, sheets or snacks.

It is surely significant that the adults who feature in children’s books are rarely, if ever, Regional Sales Managers or Building Services Engineers. They are shopkeepers, builders, cooks or farmers—people whose labour can easily be linked to the visible betterment of human life. As creatures innately aware of balance and proportion, we cannot help but sense that something is awry in a job title like “Brand Supervision Coordinator, Sweet Biscuits” and that whatever the logic and perspicacity of Vilfredo Pareto’s arguments, another principle to which no one has yet given a convincing name has here been ignored and subtler human laws violated.

In academia, we too are engaged in work, the provision of our time and talents to accomplish… something. What will that something be? How will we find meaning within our days? After doing research in which I was engaged for ten hours a day among teenagers, I found myself as a director of research for a school reform organization, and in the heart of the deepest despair I had ever known. I was an adult who worked with adults who worked with adults who worked with adults who worked with kids, the equivalent of the Brand Supervision Coordinator, Sweet Biscuits, paid well to make no lives better. Much of the white collar world is this way, engaged in coordination rather than identifiable labor.

So as you move forward with your “career planning,” think perhaps instead of your service planning. As de Botton says, work is meaningful when it allows us to generate delight or reduce suffering. How will you best do that?