Derek Sivers

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work - by Alain De Botton

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work - by Alain De Botton

ISBN: 0307277259
Date read: 2010-12-12
How strongly I recommend it: 2/10
(See my list of 320+ books, for more.)

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Thoughtful rambling observations on different lines of work. Personal tales of his time spent observing different industries like fishing, counseling, shipyards, or walking along electric towers. Some tangential insights along the way.

my notes

Bring to the study of harbour life a devotion more often witnessed in relation to art, their behaviour implying a belief that creativity and intelligence can be as present in the transport of axles around the tip of the western Sahara as they are in the use of impasto in a female nude.

It seems easier to respond to our enthusiasms by trading in facts than by investigating the more naive question of how and why we have been moved.

Upon arriving in a new country, were apt to express particular curiosity about its granaries, aqueducts, harbours and workshops, feeling that the observation of work could be as stimulating as anything on a stage or chapel wall.

No one wants to open up to writers, who bring in no money and are liable to cause trouble. Even in an era of increased political transparency, businesses remain uninterested in acquiring observers.

In the hands of an experienced branding expert, decisions about width, shape, coating, packaging and name can furnish a biscuit with a personality as subtly and appropriately nuanced as that of a protagonist in a great novel.

When does a job feel meaningful? Whenever it allows us to generate delight or reduce suffering in others.

The adults who feature in children’s books are rarely, if ever, Regional Sales Managers or Building Services Engineers. They are shopkeepers, builders, cooks or farmers – people whose labour can easily be linked to the visible betterment of human life.

In our society the greatest sums of money so often tended to accrue from the sale of the least meaningful things.

Envy: Symons was a particular admirer of this feeling, and lamented the way that its useful role in alerting us to our possibilities was too often censored out of priggish moralism. Without envy, there could be no recognition of one’s desires.
List everyone you most regularly envy.

Resigned to spending their entire adult lives working at jobs chosen for them by their unthinking sixteen-year-old selves.

One might squander one’s life chances because of a high-handed disdain for books with titles such as The Will to Succeed, believing that one was above their shrill slogans of encouragement. One might be doomed not by a lack of talent, but by a species of pessimistic pride.

The weight accorded to ideas of nurture and to the development of self-esteem in theories of modern education no longer seemed like a sign that our societies had gone mad or soft. On the contrary, this emphasis was as finely attuned to the demands of contemporary working life as instruction in stoicism and physical bravery had been to the exigencies of ancient times. It owed its existence less to kindness than to practical necessity. Like the rearing methods of every age, it was intended to ensure that the young would be granted the optimal chances of survival in a hostile environment.

Most of us stand poised at the edge of brilliance, haunted by the knowledge of our proximity, yet still demonstrably on the wrong side of the line, our dealings with reality undermined by a range of minor yet critical psychological flaws (a little too much optimism, an unprocessed rebelliousness, a fatal impatience or sentimentality). We are like an exquisite high-speed aircraft which for lack of a tiny part is left stranded beside the runway, rendered slower than a tractor or a bicycle.

Our individual misfortunes, instead of seeming to us quasi-inevitable aspects of life, will weigh down on us like particular curses. In denying the natural place reserved for longing and error in the human lot, the bourgeois ideology denies us the possibility of collective consolation for our fractious marriages and our unexploited ambitions, and condemns us instead to solitary feelings of shame and persecution for having stubbornly failed to become who we are.

Nature, meanwhile, had become an object of concern and pity, like a former foe arrived at one’s gates, bleeding to death. No longer standing as a symbol of all which surpassed us, the natural landscape instead everywhere bore the scars of our quixotic powers. We could look up at the diminishing snows of Kilimanjaro and reflect on the ill effects of our turbines. We could fly over denuded stretches of the Amazon and perceive the rain forest to be no more robust than a single flower in our hands. We had learnt to feel respect for circuit boards and pity and guilt towards glaciers.

Works which ordinary gallery visitors might regard as inert entertainment are, for artists, living prescriptions.

We might define art as anything which pushes our thoughts in important yet neglected directions.

The great works of art have about them the quality of a reminder.

Wishing that the rest of mankind would follow the engineers’ example and agree on a series of symbols which could point incontrovertibly to certain elusive, vaporous and often painful psychological states- a code which might help us to feel less tongue-tied and less lonely, and enable us to resolve arguments with swift and silent exchanges of equations. There seemed to be no shortage of feelings to which the engineers’ brevity might be profitably applied. If only a letter could have been identified, for example, with which elegantly to allude to the strange desire one occasionally has to elicit love from people one does not even particularly like (β, say); or the irritation evoked when acquaintances seem to be more worried about one’s illnesses than one is oneself.

United by their belief that the manner in which the world was presently organised was in no way representative of its full potential.

His varied activities had furnished him with an unusually keen sense of how things worked, freeing him of the naive and childish perspective from which most of us still see the world. He regarded the large artefacts of finance and industry which surround us, and which we often assume to be as inevitable as the earth’s natural features – our warehouses, shopping centres, control towers, banks and holidays resorts – not as the products of remote or obscure processes, but of efforts by people a little like himself, plucky and hard-working types who felt that destiny was theirs to mould. He knew how things fitted together: he knew how to finance a supermarket and go about building a fifty-two-storey skyscraper. He knew which city lawyer could help him to acquire an oil platform and how to negotiate with the government of Australia to buy up private schools in New South Wales. He could look out across any landscape and be confident that it was not the gods who had made it, but people a little like himself.

These energetic men and women were undermined by their obvious misunderstanding of how people actually went about making decisions on such matters as how to cross a lake or eat crisps, how to store products in the bathroom or put out a fire. These individuals were writing their stories in a subgenre of contemporary fiction, the business plan, and populating them with characters endowed with deeply implausible personalities.

The ideal entrepreneur: In character a judicious fusion of the utopian and the practical, he or she would succeed not only in identifying an important need but also in mastering the challenges of bureaucracy and finance in order to give the resolution of that need an institutional form, and thereby affect others’ lives in ways that theory alone could never do.

These enterprising types had not – like me – fled back into their own dreams at the first mention of a sales tax or an employee ledger; they had instead managed to survive the challenges of finance, law and recruitment and, as a result, they had been able to give their flights of fancy a lucrative and consequential dimension. These paragons bore much the same relation to the mere intellectual as a restaurant-owning chef might to a writer of cookery books.