Curt Hopkins, former senior Nortel and Vodafone Executive and now CEO of a technology investment firm, finds pleasure in Alain de Boton’s observations, but sorrow in his conclusions.
Alain de Botton, Swiss philosopher, writer and television presenter, whose most recent position was as Heathrow Airport’s writer in residence, addresses work’s most vexing questions in a visual, approachable and authentic way. But a three point self-help book on how to survive the modern workplace, this isn’t.
In the style of a travel writer, de Botton tosses in philosophical zingers and uniquely humorous episodes as he incisively explores a variety of different real-life workplaces in all their beauty and horror – from cargo ship spotting, to biscuit manufacturing, to accountancy. de Botton is on a quest for meaning, and indeed many of us are trying to find meaning at work. de Botton assures us that the modern workplace is potentially “able to provide us, alongside love, with the principal source of life’s meaning.” Unfortunately, he has little to offer, and ends up mired in a cul-de-sac of hopelessness.
Does the beastliness of industrial workplaces bring out the beastliness in man? As de Botton surveys the “soulless, immaculate beauty characteristic of many of the workplaces of the modern world,” he wrestles with the impact that such environments make upon our well-being. More positively, he tries to understand the infrastructure and logistics that keep our supermarket shelves full. But in the end, he believes that the alcohol-inspired fights that break out in market towns on Saturday evening are “predictable symptoms of fury at our incarceration” of having to work on bleak industrial estates.
Is there meaning in tasks/crafts that bring little noticeable benefit to mankind? The Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto, theorised that society would increase in wealth as people eschewed general knowledge and focused on narrow fields of expertise. de Botton dives into Pareto’s theory through an excruciating tour at United Biscuits. He notes that “an endeavour endowed with meaning may appear meaningful only when workers can make an imaginative connection between what they have done with their working days and their impact upon others…people whose labour can be easily linked to the visible betterment of human life.”
He therefore clearly assumes that some jobs are more meaningful than others, which may not be the case if one has a sense of calling to even a menial task. Can a worker in a biscuit factory discover meaning in his work, even if it is only inspecting row after row of cookies for defects? Is it possible for him to take pride in his work and dedication to quality? Is it feasible for him to find meaning in the relationships that he builds at his workplace? God’s calling to a vocation does not exclude the mundane. The command to be salt and light must surely apply to a biscuit manufacturing as well.
Moving on, he rightly points out that the pursuit of narrow interests and task achievement can lead to forgetting that putting relationships first is a foundation for our society (shameless plug for Mark Greene’s new book Best Idea in the World). Task orientation leads to a corporate self-referential view of life. de Botton notes that “many of the proceedings at United Biscuits had to them an air of gravity akin to that of an airport control tower… Perhaps for this reason, I was to encounter no jokes at any biscuit’s expense.” One only needs to watch the unbelievable deification of the new iPad by Apple executives here to see how something as trivial as the launch of a new computer-cum-phone carries the feel of a Pentecostal revival.
Interestingly, de Botton, a Swiss and no doubt keenly aware of Calvin and Geneva’s role in the development of the Western understanding of work, points out that “the Protestant worldview as it developed over the sixteenth century attempted to redeem the value of everyday tasks.” This draws attention away from what one does in favour of how one does it. It suggests that “there might be a continuity, rather than an insurmountable barrier, between work at the top and bottom of the ladder of meaning – and that many of the talents exercised in the most exalted tasks were no less likely to be found” in much more menial tasks. The author realises that meaning derived from work can be achieved through the work itself, and not just only if the work has an inherent positive social impact. God can be glorified by professionalism, and by taking pride in one’s craft.
Has the concept of a vocational calling left a trail of destruction in our society? de Botton spent time with a career coach and this caused him to consider the secularised concept of calling where the coach’s clients were “tormented by a residual notion of having through some error or stupidity on their part missed their true ‘calling’.” As Maslow wrote, “it isn’t normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement.”
As only he can put it, de Botton left the company of the career coach “newly aware of the unthinking cruelty discreetly coiled within the magnanimous bourgeois assurance that everyone can discover happiness through work and love. It isn’t that these two entities are invariably incapable of delivering fulfilment, only that they almost never do so. And when an exception is misrepresented as a rule, our individual misfortunes…will weigh down on us like particular curses…the bourgeois ideology denies us the possibility of collective consolation for our…unexploited ambitions, and condemns us instead to solitary feelings of shame and persecution for having stubbornly failed to become who we are.”
Does the awesomeness of scientific and technological advancement bring more meaning and beauty than art? At a launch of an Ariane rocket in French Guiana, de Botton is so dazzled by the technical gadgetry, scientific ingenuity and earth shaking awfulness of it all that he seemed to have a religious experience. “Living with science without understanding it forced one to consider machines in the same quasi-mystical way in which a sparsely-clothed Waiwai might have contemplated the phenomena of the heavens.”
Alain de Botton seems to be a post-modernist trying to find his way in an industrialised, modernist world. He says that he was awkward “having to look up to rocket engineers and technicians as our ancestors might once have venerated their gods…We, more blessed in our gadgetry but less humble in our outlook, have been left to wrestle with feelings of envy, anxiety and arrogance that follow from having no more compelling repository of veneration that our brilliant, precise, blinkered and morally troubling fellow human beings.”
Therefore, when de Botton observes a painter who was spending two years in East Anglia repeatedly painting the same oak tree in different climatic conditions, he seems to find more comfort in this pursuit of beauty than through technological might.
Are large multinationals the opiate of the masses? Perhaps the most amusing workplace that de Botton studied was Ernst & Young’s European headquarters near Tower Bridge. Maybe it was humorous because I have recently been released from the mind-numbing, self-referential environment of a large multinational. In a subject near to my heart, de Botton takes aim at human resources departments by noting that “for most of human history, the only instrument needed to induce employees to complete their duties energetically and adroitly was the whip…The jobs in the world’s glass office towers cannot be administered by the fear of an external power. Wrapping the iron first of authority in its velvet glove is the … human resources department” where very “contrived strategies” are guaranteed success only by their very artificiality. “Like guests at a house party who at first mock their host’s suggestion of a round of Pictionary, they may be surprised to find themselves, as the game gets under way, able thereby to channel their hostilities, identify their affections and escape the agony of insincere chatter.”
But even more so, he takes his aim at the hapless Chairman of the firm, who sees his interview “not as a chance to impart useful information but as a perilous test of his ability to avoid saying anything which might return to haunt him – in other words, to be as boring as possible… After twenty minutes of this, I am tempted to ask when he was last troubled by his bowels in a meeting. But perhaps he speaks like this not so much because he wishes to keep secrets as because years of circumnavigating the earth, breathing conditioned air and headlining conferences, have hollowed out his personality. It may have been a decade since he was left alone in a room with nothing to do. I feel my boredom turn to pity for someone who one might otherwise imagine had precious little to be pitied for.” In these short statements, de Botton sums up the personality-reducing qualities of large multinationals, and why they are the scourge of human happiness.
As de Botton follows a senior director home from work, he comments that the E&Y partner “feels as if he had been playing a computer game which remorselessly tested his reflexes, only to have its plug suddenly pulled from the wall. He is impatient and restless, but simultaneously exhausted and fragile. He is in no state to engage with anything significant. It is of course impossible to read, for a sincere book would demand not only time, but also a clear emotional lawn around the text in which associations and anxieties could emerge and be disentangled… For this particular combination of tiredness and nervous energy, the sole workable solution is wine. Office civilisation could not be feasible with the hard take-offs and landings effected by coffee and alcohol.”
Truly, these workplaces are the opiate of the masses. And so de Botton so accurately summarises the emptiness and depravity of multinational careers that blemish the landscape of many lives.
Is the workplace a comfort blanket to distract us from the realities of life such as approaching death? In a jumbo jet graveyard in a desert in California, de Botton reflects on death (and work). “Death is hard to keep in mind when there is work to be done. Work does not by its nature permit us to take death too seriously. We should be grateful to work…for letting us wear the thought of our own death and the destruction of our enterprises with beautiful lightness…We function on the basis of necessary myopia.”
So, is one of the purposes of work to fog over the reality of death? Is it meant to just dull our senses to life’s greater meanings? This brutally honest view betrays the despair of de Botton’s world view and shows that in the end, the post-modern view of the modernist workplace arrives in the same place of desolation.
Summing up, de Botton provides an entertaining rebuke to those of us who have been seduced by the allure of the workplace, instead of being captivated by the knowledge of our God and the deepening relationships that we have with all of those around us who were created in the image of God.