The Pleasures And Sorrows Of Work: Alain de Botton

The nature of work, at least in the developed countries, has changed dramatically over the last century. We live in increasingly complex societies which deliver apparently simple solutions to the complex problems of everyday life.

We go to supermarkets which have a vast array of products from all over the world; our financiers develop a constellation of financial products that soar and then crash; we have power and water delivered to homes without really knowing how; an artist spends a lifetime creating works that may have mass or only arcane appeal; thousands of ships come and go to our ports crewed by thousands, unloaded by thousands – all invisible to us.

The work we do tends to define who we are yet how many of us make active, informed choices in what our ‘line of work’ will be? Alain De Botton compellingly examines the world of work and how it intersects with our lives.

De Botton travels into different industries to see how they and the people in them work. It is a fascinating and strangely thought-provoking exercise – do we ever think how a restaurant can serve (in the evening) oysters harvested in Tasmania in the morning, or how the vast wholesale food markets deliver to us, day in and day out?

What is the dynamic created when a biscuit company launches a new biscuit – and what constitutes ‘meaningful’ work? What is its impact when it is ‘stretched and subdivided across five thousand lives and half a dozen manufacturing sites’?

In another study, he comes across painter Mark Taylor, who spends five years working, painting a single oak tree; at the end of five years he sell four paintings (one to a couple in Melbourne – are you reading this?) In contrast to the biscuit maker, Taylor has made sacrifices for the sake of ‘creating objects that are more graceful and intelligent than we normally manage to be’.

In another encounter, he meets a Scottish engineer who installs electricity pylons and in his spare time was a founding member of the Pylon Appreciation Society, and who takes De Botton on a tour of the pylons that link London to a nuclear plant on the Kent coast. With Ian, ‘we had experienced things together that would be hard to share with others’.

In the end, our work distracts us, makes our world partially manageable, at times gives us a sense of accomplishment, puts food on our tables and as De Botton says, keeps us out of trouble.

Most of us work or have worked – De Botton provides a fascinating diversion, but perhaps not the answers. Regardless, diversion or not, it’s absolutely compelling.