Work. How does it work?

By Harry van Versendaal

After dissecting love, status, travel and architecture, the Swiss-born best-selling novelist and essayist Alain de Botton has returned with a photo essay on what we spend most of our lives doing: work. De Botton, visiting Athens for the launch of a Greek translation of his book “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work” (Patakis), spoke to Athens Plus about his latest project.

Is giving interviews one of the sorrows of your work?

No, it’s actually one of the ways in which you get to realize what you’ve written. Often being asked to describe what you’ve written in other words can help you to focus. Sometimes I get a depressing realization, “oh that’s what I should have said”. You can capture an idea sometimes with a clarity that you were struggling for in a book.

So what are the pleasures and sorrows of working as a writer?

Writing is a very intrinsic need, it’s something that you would do just for yourself, and the idea that you can do something that is a passion as a career is a very nice feeling. That’s the pleasure. The sorrow is that it’s extremely precarious. If you’re trained to be a doctor and then you become a doctor and you have that qualification, you have it for life. Whereas as a writer you always start from zero. There is no intrinsic loyalty from your audience; and there is no intrinsic loyalty – to be pretentious – from your muse.

How did working on this book change the way you see your own work?

Most of us know one area of work, the one that we do most of the time. And so I was very familiar with the world of writing and associated industries like publishing, book-selling and the media. So this is the world I know and understand. But I was complete foreigner to lots of other worlds of work. I didn’t know anything about the world of accountancy, biscuits or satellite launches and yet was incredibly curious. I am generally very interested in other people’s jobs.

I suppose one of the things I learned was that all jobs are quite similar, if that doesn’t sound quite weird. There’s fascinating connections between all jobs. All jobs are at some level about trying to identify and then satisfy a hunger in another person whether that’s a physical hunger or a hunger for data or a hunger for biscuits or a hunger for ideas. It’s kind of structurally quite similar. The other terrible cliché generalization about work is that everything is very complicated. In order for anything to exist, this glass, this machine, this pen, an incredible number of people had to cooperate and coordinate their activities at a level that seems almost unbelievable to me outside. To get anything off the ground, it just involves so many things.  As consumers we tend to forget. You go out there and you look at tea being served. This is an incredible kind of ballet going on to get that room organized. It’s kind of monument of civilization and order. What you actually think of tea or of its ultimate purpose is another question. But it’s an impressive piece of organization; and everything tends to be.

In your book you seem to suggest that modern man is more interested in consumption than in the whole production process, meaning how stuff ends up on our plate or our living room.

I think modern man is almost not allowed to be interested in production because for whatever reason producers are not interested in letting us know about their processes of production. I did this little book about Heathrow airport and I say in the book that it’s far more interesting to look into how an airline meal is made than to eat it. Eating it is not interesting, it’s quite boring, almost horrible. But if you see how it’s made it’s absolutely awe-inspiring. And that applies to so many different jobs. It’s fascinating how tourism is always identified with leisure pursuit. If I went to the concierge now and said, “I’m in Athens and have bit of time, what shall I do?” Museum, church, monument etc. This is what the concierge would suggest. If I said I want to see how Athens works, I’d like to go to an office, they would say “you are crazy.”

Because nothing works, perhaps.

Well, yeah, even that is interesting. Even the non-working is interesting, the bizarre stalemates etc. But that is not on the tourist agenda.

You start out by describing the cargo docks in London. Why did that place intrigue you?

Partly, it was the idea that I had been living in London for 25-30 years and I’ve never actually known about this place. I just didn’t think about cargo really. I just didn’t think about where stuff came from. And there is a kind of almost childish interest and pleasure in working out where stuff come from.

What about the other occupations you describe?

They’re all areas that kind of fascinated me and it’s hard to know exactly why. They were unfamiliar, for example. A lot of them were slightly off-kilter. If you watch TV there’s quite a lot of information about being a nurse or a doctor, there’s always like hospital dramas. There’s quite a lot of information about being a lawyer or a criminal. But there’s not much information on logistics or biscuit manufacturing. So I wanted to pick things that I was kind of curious about but don’t get much media time. And each of the jobs that I chose sits on an intellectually interesting area. Take the chapter on biscuits. It could have been something else, like cheese or soap. What I wanted to look at there was the way in which in capitalist society enormous industries are built up out of selling things which will occupy only a very small moment or place in an individual’s life.

It’s something that leads to curious feelings of dislocation. Because if you’re a pretty highly-paid accountant at the biscuit company, you’ve got a company car, a nice office etc and you stand back from your life and you think “ok, what am I doing? I am accounting the Jaffa cake. That’s my job” Again, there is a kind of disconnection between the seriousness of the means and tools and the relative lack of seriousness, the lack of deeper meaning of the thing you are involved in.

You make no mention of journalists.

No, I guess I’m too close to them. I know them too well. I wanted to go on journeys, I suppose.

You’re quite disconnected from the jobs you describe.

Exactly. They are precisely the sort of jobs that people in my world are disconnected from. And I wanted to correct my ignorance. And I wanted to try and to see if I could do it, to try and describe these worlds in ways that would have any interest for other people. It was an artistic challenge.

You compare a working class view of work to a middle class view – work as a means to self-creation and self-fulfillment. The modern man was the first of its kind to see work as something you can derive pleasure from. Do you think the economic crisis is pushing us back to the earlier view? Someone is happy, I mean, just to have a job.

That’s right. The educational system is predominantly middle class. It is the promoter of a kind of bourgeois ideology. No one thinks that the mere point of work is survival. The idea is that the point of work is some kind of higher fulfillment. And that is the linchpin of a kind of bourgeois ideology. And, of course, it crushes headlong into economic reality. The classic situation now is the guy with a PhD and a masters who can’t find a job. But I think that will pass as the economic crisis eases. The deeper current is towards the bourgeois idea of work as self-realization – which remains a very difficult thing to do. People wonder, “why is it so hard to have a beautiful, creative job? Why is it hard to be Steve Jobs?” And it’s not merely because of the economic crisis but because most jobs in industrial civilization are procedural jobs, they are about making relatively routine processes more efficient. Competition is won by marginal efficiencies which require incredible disciplines of essentially accountancy and systematization. And that’s why not many people are going to be Steve Jobs.

You mention that employers used to hit people, now they are urging them to “have fun.” Surely, it’s not because they are nicer people.

That’s right. If you have the business section of a book shop most of business books are about this thing called “management.” What is management? Management is how do you incentivize people to feel engaged and excited about jobs which they might not naturally feel engaged and exited about. And a lot of jobs are essentially service jobs in one way or another. They are jobs that can very easily be destroyed by lack of motivation or even an unhelpful smile. That’s why there is an enormous investment in pseudo-happiness of employees.

(This interview was first published in Athens Plus in November 2009)

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