Book Review: The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

When you first meet someone at any sort of social function they’re likely to ask you what you do for a living. This question theoretically tells a lot about a person. In many senses, work is the epicenter of our waking lives and we spend more time with colleagues than with friends or family.

In the modern era, we usually get to select our occupations so it would thus seem that you could learn a fair amount about a person by uncovering what they do for a living. In reality, this just doesn’t seem to be true. Ask around and you’re liable to come to the conclusion that most people actually hate their job. Why is this? What should we expect from our work? Can it be meaningful? In his book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Alain de Botton uses his signature shrewd prose combined with his keen philosophical eye to explore the seemingly mundane topic of work.

The book is a collection of 10 field reports from various occupations and beautiful photographs are interspersed throughout the book.  De Botton’s latest book, A Week at the Airport, is similarly organized to The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.  Anyway, the book covers the broader gamut of career options and each type of career is thoughtfully explored in piercing detail.

In the section “Biscuit Manufacture” de Botton alludes to a philosophical point that long plagued the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith. “In a perfect society,” writes de Botton, “so specialized would all jobs be, that no one would any longer understand what anyone else was doing.” At least this would be true in an ideal Paretan economy. Adam Smith brilliantly warned, however, that the division of labor, taken to it’s logical conclusion, will destroy human beings and turn people “into creatures as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human being to be”. Companies like food manufacturing giant United Biscuits, when left to their own devices, pursue the Paretan ideal. Ideal economic efficiency, however, comes at the cost of happiness in real employees. This leads de Botton to ask the following question: When does a job feel meaningful? His answer: “Whenever it allows us to generate delight or reduce suffering in others.” In other words, we are meaning-focused animals who are willing to sacrifice economic efficiency and material wealth in order to improve our chances at being happy; we prefer happiness to optimization.

Perhaps one of the more interesting parts of the book was the section titled “Career Counseling” in which de Botton explores the career of Robert Symons who finds meaning in helping others find meaning in their work. This section offers the simplest, yet most realistic explanation as to why people hate their job. They simply expect too much from it. De Botton writes: “However powerful our technology and complex our corporations, the most remarkable feature of the modern working world may in the end be internal, consisting in an aspect of our mentalities: in the widely held belief that our work should make us happy.” Aristotle, de Botton points out, was under no such delusion. This idea that work can actually make us happy coincides with another strange modern phenomenon: that marriage should be for love instead of practical reasons. The secret to happiness, or at least contentment, with our careers (and maybe even our love lives) requires us to lower our expectations. Most of us, however, fail to give up on this romantic ideal. Enter the self-help industry. In reality, we don’t need the advice of a career counselor, but rather, we would be better suited by lowering our expectations. De Botton reflects further: “I left Symon’s company newly aware of the unthinking cruelty discreetly coiled within the magnanimous bourgeois assurance that everyone can discover happiness through work and love.”

The section on “Accountancy” will surely resonate with anyone, not just accountants, who has had the pleasure of working within the confines of a soulless corporation. This section was littered with passages that reverberate throughout your mind partly because they are painful to hear and partly because you know they are true. De Botton makes the following observation of accountants: “They have no ambition to become known to strangers or to record their insights for an unimpressed and ephemeral future. They are well adjusted enough to have made their peace with oblivion. They have accepted with grace the paucity of opportunities for immortality in audit.”

The thrill of striking out on their own is the fantasy of many wage slaves who believe running their own business can kill the terminal boredom and tyrannical rule that comes with other occupations. For whatever the reason, the idea of entrepreneurship presents the radical notion that one can find meaning in work by doing it for himself. The section titled “Entrepreneurship” in the book was truly a gem. Entrepreneurs must operate with a delusional sense of self confidence, yet, this battle against the odds may very well be where fulfillment can be found. “Here is a vision of success,” writes de Botton, “guaranteed to disappoint 99.9 percent of its subscribers.” He reflects further: “Nevertheless, these entrepreneurs could at least be celebrated for embodying an honorably stubborn side of human nature, one which in other areas causes us to get married with duress and to behave as if death might be an avoidable condition.”

Seldom do we ask the question: are we living to work or working to live? The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work ultimately forces us to do just that. I have the feeling, however, that most people won’t like their answer when they are being honest with themselves.

[click the following for and copies of the book]


3 Comments on “Book Review: The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work”

  1. […] a valuable point to consider. We can find ways to add more meaning in to almost any line of work. Work is, after-all, at the epicenter of our lives and it seems only natural that we want to find meaning […]

  2. […] “Book Review: The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, by Alain de Botton“ […]

  3. […] Read my review of The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work here. […]

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