The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

Having previously only read Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety (notes coming soon), The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work provided a bucket-load of takeaways that I was left pondering for days.

All of the below highlights are worth a read; and you can skip to the marked passages for the best of the best:

We too are never more than one hard slam away from a definitive end to our carefully arranged ideas and copious involvement with ourselves.

In an ideal Paretan economy, jobs would be ever more finely subdivided to allow for the accumulation of complex skills, which would then be traded among workers. It would be in everyone’s best interest that doctors not waste time learning how to fix boilers, that train drivers not sew clothes for their children.

In a perfect society, so specialised would all jobs be, that no one would any longer understand what anyone else was doing.

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

Though we are often taught to think of ourselves as inherently selfish, the longing to act meaningfully in our work seems just as stubborn a part of our make-up as our appetite for status or money. It is because we are meaning-focused animals rather than simply materialistic ones that we can reasonably contemplate surrendering security for a career helping to bring drinking water to rural Malawi or might quit a job in consumer goods for one in cardiac nursing, aware that when it comes to improving the human condition a well-controlled defibrillator has the edge over even the finest biscuit.

It is surely significant that 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.

As creatures innately aware of balance and proportion, we cannot help but sense that something is awry in a job title like ‘Brand Supervision Coordinator, Sweet Biscuits’.

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

“To waste the labour of men is not to kill them.” Is it not? I should like to know how you could kill them more utterly’.

Amsterdam was founded on the sale of raisins and flowers. The palaces of Venice were assembled from the profits of the carpet and spice trades. Sugar built Bristol.

All societies have had work at their centre; ours is the first to suggest that it could be something much more than a punishment or a penance. Ours is the first to imply that we should seek to work even in the absence of a financial imperative. Our choice of occupation is held to define our identity to the extent that the most insistent question we ask of new acquaintances is not where they come from or who their parents were but what they do.

Abraham Maslow, which he had pinned up above the toilet: ‘It isn’t normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement.’

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

Most of us stand poised at the edge of brilliance, haunted by the knowledge of our proximity.

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

How quiet the nation was only forty-five minutes ago, and yet how much hair-rinsing, necktie-tying, key-searching, stain-removing and spouse-shouting will occur over the next thirty.

The train moves off, resuming its rhythmical clicking along tracks laid down a century and a half ago, when the capital first began plucking workers from their beds in faraway villages whose outlying farms had once marked the boundaries of their inhabitants’ known world.

There is something improbable about the silence in the carriage, considering how naturally gregarious we are as a species. Still, how much kinder it is for the commuters to pretend to be absorbed in other things, rather than revealing the extent to which they are covertly evaluating, judging, condemning and desiring each other.

To look at the paper is to raise a seashell to one’s ear and to be overwhelmed by the roar of humanity.

For most of human history, the only instrument needed to induce employees to complete their duties energetically and adroitly was the whip.

But the rules of employment had to be rewritten with the emergence of tasks whose adequate performance required their protagonists to be to a significant degree content, rather than simply terrified or resigned.

Once it became evident that someone who was expected to remove brain tumours, draw up binding legal documents or sell condominiums with convincing energy could not profitably be sullen or resentful, morose or angry, the mental wellbeing of employees commenced to be a supreme object of managerial concern.

How few are the moments of the day when money is truly being made, and how many are on either side given over to daydreams and recuperation.

Office civilisation could not be feasible without the hard take-offs and landings effected by coffee and alcohol.

Entrepreneurship appears to be almost wholly dependent on a sense that the present order is an unreliable and cowardly indicator of the possible.

They were proof of the extent to which we ultimately prefer excitement and disaster to boredom and safety.

Let death find us as we are building up our matchstick protests against its waves.

Our work will at least have distracted us, it will have provided a perfect bubble in which to invest our hopes for perfection, it will have focused our immeasurable anxieties on a few relatively small-scale and achievable goals, it will have given us a sense of mastery, it will have made us respectably tired, it will have put food on the table. It will have kept us out of greater trouble.

Morning Quotes

Last week me and my My Morning Routine co-founder Michael published a page of the best morning quotes that have ever been spoken, collected together into one place.

This is my current favourite:

I wake up every morning at nine and grab for the morning paper. Then I look at the obituary page. If my name is not on it, I get up. – Benjamin Franklin

For more, take a look here: