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On the Supposed Pleasures of Work

Business team

photo: Penn State

I’m a great admirer of Alain de Botton’s writing. His critics damn him with accusations that he has ‘forged a lucrative career stating the bleeding obvious’, when I view this as his virtue: he states the obvious, but in a way that brings more clarity to a formerly mundane aspect of life.

Hence I’m generally a fan of his School of Life, and more recently his Book of Life, his attempt to bring together many short essays on Home, Relationships, Culture, Work, etc.

But I have to take issue with the Book of Life’s latest essay, Pleasures of Work. The intention of the essay is fine: to suggest where satisfaction can be found in the minutae of jobs as different as a car designer, or waiter, or just general office team work.

On the pleasures of ordering de Botton writes:

Take the work of a car designer, who finds pleasure in setting every dial in harmony with every other, of creating a fit between the fuel gauge and the rev counter, the air conditioning and the heater buttons […] The architect, the car designer, the waiter, the train engineer, whatever their differences in status and salaries, draw on a common satisfaction in their ability to create or manage small utopias in an otherwise chaotic, irrational and compromised world.

Or on understanding:

Then there is the pleasure of understanding. It is present in the working life of a plumber who must pin down what precisely is ailing the heating system within a myriad of pipes behind the kitchen panels. […] It is the pleasure of the writer, trying to put words to emotions, pinning down rare elusive butterflies of feeling, defining in language what the reader may have felt but never grasped so precisely before.

There is further discussion of the work pleasures of money-making, or serving, or collaborating. And I am not denying that all these pleasures are possible in work. But in my experience, as someone who has had supposedly highly-prized, interesting jobs, any of the above pleasures are only conditional: and are always subservient to work culture. The pleasures may be possible – but their possibility is very largely dependent upon the pressure of deadlines, the stress of multitasking, the waste of time from meetings, the character of bosses, the idea that you are being taken advantage of. And most of all, upon the idea that the work you do is, in fact, perhaps pointless.

Even should you, as a car designer, consider the aesthetics of the car you build as one of your highest personal values in life, you will not feel this pleasure if you have to complete the setting of these dials in a rush, because your boss is an arse. As a writer you will find it hard to pin down feelings in words if your article has to be finished to a tight deadline.

We cannot talk about the pleasures of work without first acknowledging that they are completely subservient to the culture of work.

To be fair Alain de Botton has written a full-length book called The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. But I think it is remiss to include Pleasures of Work in the Book of Life without mentioning the steamroller effects of work culture. The evidence of my and others experiences is that actually managing to feel these pleasures is rare indeed, even amongst those with those highly-prized careers.

As I argue in the The Tyranny of Careers, it is possible to find these pleasures from work. But work for yourself, that is free from the effects of money or work culture. Work that needs to be supported with other work that does pay you money, for sure. But it is a thankless ta go seeking these pleasures in a full-time career for someone else – they are few and far between.

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