“Wonder, Gratitude and Guilt”
A Review of
The Pleasures and Sorrows Of Work.
by Alain de Botton.
Reviewed by Ragan Sutterfield.
The Pleasures and Sorrows Of Work.
Alain de Botton.
Hardback: Pantheon, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
The odd thing about the modern world is how little of it we think about. We wake up under sheets manufactured in some unknown place like Mauritius, we drink coffee shipped from Latin America or Africa or Asia, we sit down to work using hundreds of bits of software and hardware that someone, somewhere created, marketed, sold, transported, bought, placed, and sold again. And yet we think very little about who created these things and all of the people and places involved in bringing them to us.
Our own work is often a part of this same vast system in which we play one small part in a process that is far bigger than any one of us. Unlike the workers of generation ago we usually never meet the people who made what we sell or buy what we made. This reality has created an extremely efficient economy, creating wealth and commerce on levels never seen before, but at the same time our work has increasingly become disconnected from the very realities and interactions that make work meaningful and fulfilling.
In his new book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work Alain de Botton delves deeply into the realities of modern labor and the complex and often alienating economy we find ourselves in. His approach is one of unveiling the hidden undercurrents of our society and that exploration works not unlike Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time in the way in which it opens up the mind to the deeper realities of our everyday lives. The book is accompanied with excellent photographs throughout by Richard Baker that help to punctuate and illustrate the exploration.
Aristotle said that the beginning of philosophy is wonder and in this way de Botton certainly wears a philosopher’s hat. But unlike a book of abstract theory, de Botton approaches the world of work by exploring it with an almost childlike vision. I remember my own fascination with the hidden processes of things as a child. I was as entertained by a visit to a tortilla factory with my grandparents as much as I was by the local natural history museum. There was something vast and wondrous and incredible about it. De Botton has the same wonder as he visits a cookie factory or watches ships arrive in the port. He sees something that is an incredible creation of human minds working out problems and fulfilling their desires, but he also sees the ways in which our rush to fulfill every desire (like apples year around or fresh tuna far from its fishing grounds) has created a lack of fulfillment and alienation from our work. As he writes, “We are now as imaginatively disconnected from the manufacture and distribution of our goods as we are practically in reach of them, a process of alienation which has stripped us of myriad opportunities for wonder, gratitude and guilt.”
Restoring a bit of each is what de Botton accomplishes through his exploration of the world of work. His approach is kind of “bring a philosopher to work day” form of exploration. He goes to actual workplaces and visits with actual workers. He takes objects that we think nothing of such as fresh tuna and follows it on its path from swimming in the Indian Ocean to its arrival in a European market 50 hours later. How are such feats accomplished? Who is involved? How do participants view their work? What gives them fulfillment on the job? These are the questions de Botton asks.
What he finds is that the workers who are most fulfilled are those who feel like they are making a difference in someone’s life. We fantasize about such work and our representations of work on television and in movies almost always centers around such roles. We see doctors, lawyers, cops—workers who have a very concrete relationship with the people and outcomes of their labor. But most of us simply aren’t a part of that reality. De Botton suggests that we move past this impasse by working with the end in mind. If we are on the cookie factory floor we should think about the thousands of people who will take pleasure in that cookie as they take a break for a mid morning snack. It is in this way that we will come to see our work as more meaningfully tied to someone else’s life.
This is an imperfect solution to be sure and we are certainly in need of changes in the ways in which we work, but de Botton is something of a realist. He is interested in helping people find greater fulfillment in their lives now, realizing that everyone isn’t privileged enough to find their perfect job with maximal fulfillment (an idea as much a product of the modern economy as anything else). De Botton wants people to find a way toward more pleasure and less sorrow in their work. This is an important task and his book is an important reflection with useful tactics for the good life now, tactics that might open us for deeper changes and better work in kingdoms and economies to come.
Ragan Sutterfield is a writer and farmer in Arkansas.