The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

Alain de Botton


I've been pondering recently about how I feel about work. What I do is largely pointless, in the grand (or even not-so-grand) scheme of things, and although I will miss some aspects of it when I stop doing it - primarily the social ones - I find myself thinking about retirement more often, even though it's still probably nearly ten years away. So in the meantime, how do I stop myself becoming overly cynical about it?

I picked up this book again, not just because I enjoy de Botton's elegant style and ability to articulate the private thoughts we've all had, but because maybe it could provide some insight. Indeed, the blurb on the back poses the questions:

Why do so many of us love or hate our work?
How has it come to dominate our lives?
And what should we do about it?

Judged solely by its response to these, the book is a failure. It's not a sociological history concerning the development of the idea of "jobs" or "work" since the Industrial Revolution, nor is it a self-help manual claiming to change all or part of your life. It touches on these things, yes, but fundamentally de Botton is a philosopher, looking to inspire thought and discussion, not provide answers. 

But really, this is just a failure of the back page's hyperbole rather than the book itself. This is one of his lighter books and the tone is gently humourous, as he travels to different countries, chats to people about what they do and points up the more amusing oddities about what we choose to fill our lives with. You could make a case that it's a small step away from observational comedy (Kate Fox makes the same point about herself, in typically self-deprecating style, in Watching The English) but it's a good read and provokes some thought.

So what are my conclusions? I think we all need to find meaning in our work somehow, because otherwise it's hard to keep going. That meaning could be attached to what you achieve for others or for yourself. In my case, I try to take pride in what I do, help my colleagues and pass on some of what I know to those just starting out. And hope I keep being paid for it for another ten years!

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