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Shelf Life

Why we love or hate our work

Marketplace Staff Sep 7, 2009
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Shelf Life

Why we love or hate our work

Marketplace Staff Sep 7, 2009
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TEXT OF INTERVIEW

TESS VIGELAND: Author Alain De Botton likes to muse on the big topics in life. He’s written sweeping tomes on love, happiness, travel, and now, work. His latest book is “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work” and in it he explores why we love, or hate what we do all day long. Welcome to the program.

Alain De Botton: Thank you.

Vigeland: So there have been journalists who’ve gone behind the scenes in all kinds of industries, philosophers who’ve pondered work, but your book is not quite either of those things. What did you set out to do here?

De Botton: Well, it is a mixture of philosophical journalism, in the sense that I head out into the workplace, but rather than simply reporting on what I find there, I drive into the material certain really big questions that we all tend to ask ourselves of work, like where’s all this headed, what’s the meaning of it, what the purpose, what are it’s up sides and its down sides? And the book has a very simple structure. It’s made up of 10 chapters, each of which looks at a particular occupation, like logistics, power transmission, accountancy, rocket science, biscuit manufacturer, the sort of jobs that people have in the modern economy.

Vigeland: I want to pick up on something you said, which is that this the exploration of what is the meaning of work, what are its ups and downs. Frankly, those are the questions that we all ask about life in general. What does that tell us about how much work has become our lives?

De Botton: Well, it’s true that for most of recorded human history, work was something that people did, but it wasn’t where they expected to put their center of meaning and their hope for a good life. But ever since about the middle of the 18th century, in the UK and the U.S., we’ve moved towards a different system that really identifies work with the meaning of life. So you work for money, sure, but you work for deeper reasons: for identity, for self-fulfillment, for growth. Not having a job, not being in employment, is kind of a shameful condition. Because you’re not only lacking any money, but also an identity. If you go to a party and someone asks you, “What do you do?” You won’t have an answer

Vigeland: And I guess with so many people losing their jobs these days, how does that affect your relationship with work in general? Not just by the place you were laid off from, but the whole notion of work and a career?

De Botton: Well I think it all depends on how much you believe the world is a meritocracy, i.e. a society where literally, if you’re good, good things happen to you and you get to the top. And if you’re bad, well, you might get to the bottom and you might be fired, etc. The world simply doesn’t work that way. Luck, accident, biology, weather, chance: all these things are playing a huge part. I prefer to take my cue from religion. I’m a secular man, but there’s a lovely bit in At. Augustine, where he says somewhere it is a sin — very strong word, a sin — to judge anybody by their post. We would mean by that, their job. The terrible thing about unemployment for many people is they feel horrendously judged. You know how all of us think there’s something horrible and unacceptable about us. When we’re unemployed, we think, “Hm, somebody’s just discovered that horrible and unacceptable part.” And my advice to anybody who’s lost their job is, genuinely, it is not your fault. We are not the center of everything that happens to us.

Vigeland: In one chapter you write about cookie production — or “biscuits” as you call them in England — and in that chapter you talk about job titles and how specific our jobs are now. And on page 80, maybe you can read from the paragraph at the bottom of that page.

De Botton: Yup. “It’s surely significant the adults that feature in children’s books are rarely, if ever, regional sales manager or building services engineers. They are shopkeepers, builders, cooks or farmers. People whose labors can easily be linked to the visible betterment of human life.”

Vigeland: So why do you think that is?

De Botton: Well, we keep many things hidden from children. And I think one of the things we keep hidden from children is just how overcomplicated the world economy has become. Few of us have these boldly defined jobs left anymore. Most of us are doing a tiny bit of a tiny bit of a tiny bit of a vast project. And I think that’s a dispiriting thing to say to a four-year-old. I’ve not yet broken this dark truth to my four-year-old.

Vigeland: So what do you tell him your job title is?

De Botton: Well I say that I’m a writer. And he has a lot of conversations about have I not thought about doing something more interesting.

Vigeland: Perhaps being a train conductor?

De Botton: Yes of course, or an astronaut. Can’t understand that.

Vigeland: I want to ask you about your work. You are certainly not a cog in any sort of wheel. You are a writer, you get to design your own work day. Have you ever had an experience of working in an office? And if so, did you like it?

De Botton: I have. I’ve worked in a lot of journalists’ offices and a lot of television production offices. But what I haven’t had is a sense of myself as an office worker for life, you know, with a pension scheme at the end and health insurance, etc. I’ve never felt owned by one large organization. I miss it, I sometimes have nostalgia and fantasies about what it would be like.

Vigeland: I could tell you all about it.

De Botton: Well, you know, it’s pretty scary in a way, being a freelancer. On a good day, it feels tremendously free. You feel like you really are designing your own life and succeeding at it. On a bad day, you think you’re headed for disaster with no safety net. It’s definitely a riskier sort of thing. But I think the pleasures and sorrows of work as a writer are quite similar to the pleasures and the sorrows of a brain surgeon or somebody in a data office. Many of the same these are there: Do you feel in control of the work you’re doing? Do you feel it’s making a difference? Do you feel it’s being appreciated? All of these things work right across the board, whatever work it happens to be that you’re doing

Vigeland: Alain De Botton is the author of “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.” It’s certainly been a pleasure having you as part of my work today. Thank you so much for coming in.

De Botton: Thank you for having me.

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