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On the Supposed Pleasures of Work

January 16th, 2015 1 comment
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.

10 Pieces of Careers Advice to My Younger Self

December 11th, 2012 3 comments

1. The majority of career jobs do not involve work or goals you intrinsically value

Traditional careers advice tells you that a full-time career is the one essential source of valuable work, and that valuable work is the source of self-esteem in life. But the majority of career jobs are work towards goals that you do not personally value. Self-esteem does come from valuable work – but only very rarely does this work begin within a career.

2. The rewards of rewarding jobs are suffocated by the stress of a full-time career

Medicine, teaching and working for a charity are all worthy professions with rewarding goals. But these rewards are so submerged beneath overwork and work politics in a full-time career as to make the rewards almost imperceptible.

3. The pleasure of creative work is not found in a ‘creative’ career

Most careers in the ‘creative industries’ are not creative, but administrative. And the positions in these industries that do require creativity do not want ideas that stem from your own personal interests – they require ideas to sell their clients’ products or find the largest audience. This is a wholly different different creativity from taking pleasure in your own creative ideas.

4. A full-time career does not give you control of your life, it takes control away

When you place high value on your career, for both your income and self-esteem, you hand your employer control of your life: control of your time, your ambitions, and your respect for yourself. For fear of losing that hard-fought-for career, you allow yourself to be treated in ways you would not put up with in your personal life.

5. Earning money is less important than your own creative work

The work you do to earn money for rent and food does not need to fulfil you, or be the source of your self-esteem. The real source of self-esteem is work you have originated yourself, not (at least at first) for money. The purpose of work for money is to support the discovery and pursuit of your own creative work, the work that you do find fulfilling.

6. Learn to live cheaply

If you avoid a career you will almost certainly, at least to begin with, need to live on less money than your careerist peers. But you need  less money to treat and entertain yourself when you can spend a significant number of hours a week taking pleasure from your own creative work.

7. Genuine self-esteem comes from pleasure in your own creative ideas

Everyone can be creative. Just because you were not labelled arty at school means nothing. Creative ideas are not limited to the traditional arts, they are found in the setting up of charity, in science, in anything. What would you do if money was no object? Creative work begins by copying your heroes. Everyone who does creative work feels like an imposter until they recognise the progress they make.

8. University or college is not essential

The valuable experiences you have at university – living with your peers, meeting interesting people, further study – can be found elsewhere where they will not leave you with enormous debts. University can be fantastic, but is only essential for a degree in order to get that career job. And if you do want to go, there is nothing that says you have to go straight from school, or after a gap of only a year. Do the minimum number of exams you need for college to leave the option open. And exams can always be retaken.

9. Define your own success

Success need not be measured by the size of your impact upon the world, by how famous you become. Success also comes from the satisfaction of personal, truly valuable goals, even if they affect only a small number of people. Many people who feel successful are invisible in society.

10. A career can wait, perhaps forever

Don’t aim for a full-time career straight from school or university. Find paid work that best supports your discovery of the work you really want to do, that you would do without expectation of money. If you do later come to have a career, let it follow from this valuable work. But it may be that you never have a career at all. This is the life of the happiest people I know.

Read the full essay: Semi-Retirement for the Under Twenties: How Can Work Make You Happy?

A Corporate Career Makes You Less Than Human

October 9th, 2012 No comments

When we take a corporate job we are aware that we give up certain parts of our life in exchange for our salary, that we are making a compromise. But we rarely re-examine this compromise once we have worked a job for a time, and ask whether it is still worthwhile, or whether the balance has tipped too far. For the security of a salary dominates all considerations of the compromise, and we forget to ask what the work we do for corporations does to us.

Because for most full-time corporate career jobs, I consider the exchange to be a bad one. To work for a corporation (and I don’t consider this an exaggeration) is to diminish your humanity. Work in one for too long and you forget many aspects of what it means to be human.

Corporations demand loyalty that is never returned

Your boss may be a nice person. She may be someone who, outside of work, treats her family and friends with kindness and generosity. But if she is your boss in a corporation she cannot and will not treat you in this way. At least not sincerely. Your boss is not your friend.

True friendship requires loyalty. But if there are redundancies or ‘company restructuring’ your boss will not put themselves on the line for you. They won’t even want to talk to you, out of shame. This has nothing to do with whether they are a decent person outside of work or not. They are prevented from being loyal by working for a corporation.

If a friend treated you in this way, you would rightly want nothing more to do with them. But as an employee of a corporation, you put up with such bad treatment of yourself and others, like the victim of domestic abuse. You say nothing of being asked to work hours of unpaid overtime, or to take holiday at times of the corporations choosing, or to take work calls at home from countries in different time zones. So long as you still have your job you say nothing. Even if you lose your job, do you shout and complain, and ask if this is all your deserve for your years of loyalty? You do not, for fear of a bad reference.

Corporations make you subservient in a way you would never endure outside work

Look at how we react when, through no fault of our own, we know we are going to be late for work. We are desperate to call our boss to excuse ourselves, and if we can’t get hold of them we worry about how that might affect their opinion of us. Why do we worry so? If this was a friend we know we could explain that the train was delayed and that they would understand. But with a boss we worry they do not trust us, we worry we are going down in their estimation, that this will be a black mark against us. Then we stay late to make up the time, but do not view this as having paid back the time.

Corporations take control of your time

That we hand control of our time to a corporation is a terrible thing. Control of your own time is a pleasure that we do not even realise is missing until we work for ourselves. To start and finish work when we like, to take a lunch hour when and for as long as we like, to go to the cinema in the middle of the day if we feel like it, to make keeping in touch with friends as important a part of our life as our work, these are all marvellous things that we do not even know that we are missing.

A corporate environment is the opposite of what you need for creative work

Business leaders can be often heard declaring the need for creativity from their corporate employees – they need creative ideas to fuel the next generation of their business. But creativity within a corporate job is almost impossible.

Creative ideas comes from daydreaming, from an unspecified length of time spent musing on an idea, from unpredictable influences out in the world. None of these are to found whilst sitting at a desk burdened by a list of tasks. Unless you are Jonathan Ive<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonathan_Ive> you are very unlikely to be paid to sit around daydreaming for a large part of your working week. Each penny the corporation spends on your salary must be accounted for.

In addition, the structure of corporations sucks out creativity from tasks within its working day where you might be able to use even the smallest of your own ideas. If furniture is to be moved around an office, corporate employees cannot just rearrange as they like. Corporate rules insist this is done by trained removers, trained in health and safety guidelines, to avoid litigation for employee injury and to keep insurance premiums down.

Corporations are not doing this to be awkward – this is how any large organization has to work. But it dampens your creative spirit until you forget you had one.

You do not have to work for a corporation. If you feel you would like to leave, but cannot because you need the money, then stop needing the money. Or at least stop needing the same amount of money. Leave the corporation and take back your humanity.

Steps to Escaping Your Full-Time Job

September 11th, 2012 No comments

A few weeks ago I was contacted by a reader of this blog, who asked what advice I had for someone who wanted to give up their full-time career. Nothing gives me more pleasure than to think that the posts here have been some kind of encouragement for this. For semi-retirement is not just advice for teenagers starting out in the world of work – anyone can chuck in full-time work at any stage of their life.

This post is an extended version of my reply.

Before you go ahead and take the glorious step of telling your boss that you’re leaving, it’s a good idea to have put a few things in place. Here’s my suggestions:

Start investigating the creative work for which you have a passion

Do this whilst you are still in your full-time job. Assign to it as many hours as you currently have free, and be disciplined in how you work. (You will need your discipline later, for no one tells you to get on with your creative work.) This is the most important thing to do – if you have an idea of the direction of your creative work when you do hand in your notice, you stand less chance of feeling lost.

Reduce your current expenses

You will soon be living on part-time wages and you need to understand how you are going to do this. If you have a partner or children you will need to discuss with them why you will have less money in the future. (I have explained to my children on a number of occasions that the flipside of not having as much money spent on them as their friends is that I get to spend more time with them. They don’t understand the argument. But they do like me spending more time with them.)

Reducing your expenses is easier than it looks. And when you have creative work that brings you pleasure you find you have less need of stuff that costs money. Creative work gives you a different feeling of status from the one that you take from stuff, but a feeling of status all the same. People admire the choice to control your own time, to live in a way that they view as insecure. (So long as you are working on your projects and not just watching daytime TV.)

Investigate how you will work part-time

It may be possible to work part-time hours at your current job, hours that give you the time you need for your creative work. But if your employer will not allow this, see if you can use the skills you have picked up in your job to work freelance. It may be that you do just a small amount of freelance work to begin with, that you need to supplement with other part-time subsistence work.

If freelance work is not possible, look for other part-time work. Remember it does not have to fulfil you or give your life meaning. It is subsistence work to support your creative work.

Find other semi-retirees for support

You need to associate with like-minded people, either who are interested in the same creative work or who simply understand your reasons for doing what you are doing. I rented a desk space in an artists studio, and these people have become my main inspiration and support. Associating with other semi-retirees who have an interest in living cheaply has the added side-effect of helping you spend less money.

If you have made steps towards these – go tell your boss that you’re leaving…