The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work Book Notes

As a general rule, I like reading books by Alain du Botton.  He explains in plain English some very messy or confusing aspects of life and human behavior.  For example, what is the cycle of romantic love, and what is the nature of long term relationships?  Why do people seek status and what should they aspire to do instead?  Unfortunately, this book is not one of his better works.  In fact, I would recommend passing on this book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work [public library].

This book is a collection of essays on various types of work in different industries and their relationships with society and individuals.  For example, the miracle of logistics that allows us to eat fruit year-round, how people derive meaning from work, how it’s sad that modern society shames people for not finding their calling, etc.  Sometimes there are interesting tidbits hidden in these essays, but for the most part Botton’s writing is too wordy and descriptive in a way that is not engaging.  The lack of a story or narrative makes it very easy to get bored, and I ended up skimming through most of the book.  The deeper gems (e.g. how do people derive meaning from their work?  How should they?) are glossed over rather than explored in full glorious detail.  As a result one ends up with a book that was better off as mere articles in some magazine that does not require much brainpower to read.


Book notes:

‘An endeavour endowed with meaning may appear meaningful only when it proceeds briskly in the hands of a restricted number of actors and therefore where particular workers can make an imaginative connection between what they have done with their working days and their impact upon others.’

People are happier/find their jobs more meaningful when their work is linked to some “visible betterment of human life.”

“…the most remarkable feature of the modern working world may in the end be internal, consisting in an aspect of our mentalities: in the widely held belief that our work should make us happy. 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.” Work defines your identity

From Aristotle to 2000 years after, financial needs=for slaves and animals. “Only a private income and a life of leisure could afford citizens adequate opportunity to enjoy the higher pleasures gifted by music and philosophy.”

The Renaissance turned this idea on its head. Work was noble and gave happiness. Laziness and art is for slackers. Interestingly, around the same time romantic love became a thing–you could have sexual passion and raise a family with the same person.

“It isn’t normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement.”–Abraham Maslow, Motivation and Personality

“[a career counselor] knew that it was hopeless to try to guide people towards more fulfilling vocations simply by discussing with them directly what they might like to do. Concerns about money and status would long ago have extinguished most clients’ ability to think authentically about their options.”

Envy is also a useful emotion to know what you really desire. Who do you envy and what do you envy about them?

The norm is not to find your passion and true calling and true love and live happily ever after. The exception is not the rule. But when society represents it as such, it makes everyone have unrealistic expectations and feel bad about themselves. “…the bourgeois ideology denies us the possibility of collective consolation for our fractious marriages and our unexploited ambitions, and condemns us instead to solitary feelings of shame and persecution for having stubbornly failed to become who we are.”

Usually our work and efforts don’t result in enduring visible physical effects. “We are diluted in gigantic intangible collective projects, which leave us wondering what we did last year and, more profoundly, where we have gone and quite what we have amounted to. …How different everything is for the craftsman who transforms a part of the world with his own hands, who can see his work as emanating from his being and can step back at the end of a day or lifetime and point to an object…and see it as a stable repository of his skills and an accurate record of his years, and hence feel collected together in one place, rather than strung out across projects which long ago evaporated into nothing one could hold or see.”

“Entrepreneurship appears to be almost wholly dependent on a sense that the present order is an unreliable and cowardly indicator of the possible. The absence of certain practices and products is deemed by entrepreneurs to be neither right nor inevitable, but merely evidence of the conformity and lack of imagination of the herd.”
“The field seems to require a painfully uncommon synthesis of imagination and realism.” It’s disturbing how many ppl have been encouraged to give it a go, since that combination is super super rare.
“Our era is perverse in passing off an exception as a rule.”

“Work does not by its nature permit us to do anything other than take it too seriously. It must destroy our sense of perspective…” We are incentivized to focus on work, put too much importance on work, and thus forget the things that are larger and more important. Sometimes this is a good thing, since work is a distraction from death and our own mortality.
“What is interesting is that we may take it upon ourselves to approach tasks with utter determination and gravity even when their wider non-sense is clear. The impulse to exaggerate the significance of what we are doing…is really life itself coursing through us.” (As a distraction from death)[–but it also distracts from larger questions!]


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