Monday, October 12, 2009

"The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work" by Alain de Botton

I came across Alain de Botton’s “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work” from this BusinessWeek review and just finished reading this interesting book.

As the BW review details, de Botton is a fascinating guy as an heir to a financial asset management fortune who then renounced his trust fund in order to live off his writing. Even if you assume he always had family money to fall back on, it's still admirable.

Looking at de Botton's website it appears that he's done well for himself with a number of books in print that take a philosophical bent on daily activities... with his latest tackling the notion of work. The approach taken in this book was for de Botton to immerse himself for a period of time in multiple occupations and then write at length about them. The chapters and topics covered are below:

Chapter 1 – Cargo Ship Spotting
Chapter 2 – Logistics
Chapter 3 – Biscuit Manufacture
Chapter 4 – Career Counseling
Chapter 5 – Rocket Science
Chapter 6 – Painting
Chapter 7- Transmission Engineering
Chapter 8 – Accountancy
Chapter 9 – Entrepreneurship
Chapter 10 – Aviation

de Botton's book for me was one of those reads that covered a lot of ground... with some pretty mundane sections, but also some incredibly interesting concepts...

CREATING SOMETHING – The chapter on painting delved into what for me is the extremely meaningful idea of working at something that provides an output of someone’s efforts… even if not always for great monetary gain.


HAVING A THINGCargo Ship Spotting was an interesting chapter because it wasn’t even about a money making enterprise. Rather, it described a group of people who as an avocation immerse themselves in a specific and fairly obscure enterprise.

What’s appealing about this is that even if they didn’t do it as their vocation, these people had "a thing” they immersed themselves in. For some people, their “thing” is their work (which is great for them), for other’s it’s not their work (which can still be ok) and for others, they don’t really have a “thing”… which for lack of a better word, sucks.


HOW THE WORLD WORKS – The concept in two of the chapters seem like it could jointly be described as “how the world works.” Logistics takes an interesting look at how a tuna steak goes from line capture in the Maldives to a family in England... basically a look at the world you live in and how it functions.

Entrepreneurship as a chapter meanders around quite a bit, but has some fascinating stuff around the most financially successful entrepreneur mentioned. This person’s statements showed a view of the working world different than many might have. Rather than seeing a haphazard collection of objects and services mystically provided, he appeared to view the world as a place built for profit by people with intent.

While it’s still very true that someone taking this view of the world isn’t necessarily going to be successful or happy (as this entrepreneur didn’t seem to be so), it probably could be said that taking this big picture view of things and figuring out how you can function in them is likely a key ingredient to the success held by many.

Taking it a step further... for someone to figure out their function in that chain (and make money) combined with it being “a thing of theirs” (and be happy)… that’s the good stuff there.


COG IN THE MACHINE – The chapters on Biscuit Manufacture, Accountancy and Aviation could I think be described as the more depressing chapters in the book. While it’s certainly possible that the people featured in these sections do have interesting avocations where they spend time on their “things” (whether those be family, hobbies, or whatever else interests them), they certainly didn’t seem to be getting much out of work.

Instead of great fulfillment, their non-monetary take-aways from jobs appeared to be the not so inspiring concepts of work as a way to pass the time. As de Botton describes it, their jobs winds up making life “no longer mysterious, sad, haunting, touching, confusing or melancholy; it is a practical stage for clear-eyed action."

I think the thing out of these sections of the book is about how one views work. Jobs in and of themselves are not bad, in fact they can be necessary to make money in order to finance a life. Where jobs can be bad, though, is if you view them as either a distraction from things more important or as something that negatively impacts the person.

Having a vocation that provides money, fulfillment and everything someone would want in an avocation is great, but not always practical or available to all. If it’s not, there’s still a lot to be said for the idea of work that may not provide you everything you want, but lets one make a living… while still making a life outside of work.


Interesting read with some interesting ideas contained within...