Notes & Quotes: The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain De Botton

The following are my favorites notes from Alain De Botton's The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.
  1. That fish taken out of the water several continents away could in a matter of hours be here in a warehouse in Northamptonshire is evidence of nothing short of logistical genius, based on a complex interplay of technology, managerial discipline and legal and economic standardization.
  2. Like someone running into an old friend in a strange land, I am surprised and a little moved when I stumble across a reel of bright-orange labels long familiar to me from my local supermarket. With the picture of the fisherman clubbing tuna to death burnt into my memory, I recognize that I am now a veteran of the blood-soaked processes lurking behind the labels' serene photograph of a fishing jetty and an azure sea.
  3. While the idea of answering psychological yearnings with dough might seem daunting, Laurence explained that in the hands of an experienced branding expert, decisions about width, shape, coating, packaging and name can furnish a biscuit with a personality as subtly and appropriately nuanced as that of a protagonist in a great novel.
  4. The company's success appeared to bear out the principles of efficiency laid down at the turn of the twentieth century by the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who theorized that a society would grow wealthy to the extent that its members forfeited general knowledge in favor of fostering individual ability in narrowly constricted fields.
  5. In a perfect society, so specialized would all jobs be, that no one would any longer understand what anyone else was doing.
  6. When does a job feel meaningful? Whenever it allows us to generate delight or reduce suffering in others.
  7. I wondered out loud to Renae why in our society the greatest sums of money so often tended to accrue from the sale of the least meaningful things, and why the dramatic improvements in efficiency and productivity at the heart of the Industrial Revolution so seldom extended beyond the provision of commonplace material goods like shampoo or condoms, oven-gloves or lingerie.
  8. The mechanization had been introduced not so much because human beings were unable to perform the tasks in hand, but because labor had grown prohibitively expensive. Economics dictated the superior logic of hiring a few engineers to develop three-armed hydraulic machines, then firing two-thirds of the staff and paying them unemployment benefits so that they could stay at home watching television, subsidized by revenues from corporation taxes paid by the like of United Biscuits.
  9. Workers were occupied with the ancient task of trying to stay alive, which simply happened to require, in a consumer economy overwhelmingly based on the satisfaction of peripheral desires, a series of activities all too easily confused with clownishness.
  10. Modern commercial endeavors may not be of the kind that we have been taught to associate with heroism. They involve battles fought with the most bathetic of instruments, with two-for-the-price-of-one specials and sticker-based bribes, but they are battles nonetheless, comparable in their intensity and demands to the tracking of furtive animals through the deadly forests of prehistoric Belgium.
  11. What a peculiar civilization this was: inordinately rich, yet inclined to accrue its wealth through the sale of some astonishingly small and only distantly meaningful things, a civilization torn and unable sensibly to adjudicate between the worthwhile ends to which money might be put and the often morally trivial and destructive mechanisms of its generation.
  12. All societies have had work at their center; 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 financial imperative. Our choice of occupation is held to define our identity to the extent that the most insistent question we ask of new acquaintances is not where they come from or who their parents were but what they do, the assumption being that the route to a meaningful existence must invariably pass through the gate of remunerative employment.
  13. The most common and unhelpful illusion plaguing [people] was the idea that they ought somehow, in the normal course of events, to have intuited -- long before they had finished their degrees, started families, bought houses and risen to the top of law firms -- what they should properly be doing with their lives. They were tormented by a residual notion of having through some error or stupidity on their part missed out on their true 'calling'.
  14. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the dominant catalyst for that feeling of the sublime had ceased to be nature. We were now deep in the era of the technological sublime, when awe could most powerfully be invoked not by forests or icebergs but by supercomputers, rockets and particle accelerators. We were now almost exclusively amazed by ourselves.
  15. 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 -- whether a square of canvas, a chair or a clay jug -- 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.
  16. "Have you ever noticed water?" he asks. "Properly noticed it, I mean -- as if you had never seen it before?"
  17. I thought of our indifference towards the electricity network. The only humans truly in any position to feel grateful towards it were likely to have died a long time ago, in the 1950s, for it is rare to admire a technology which was already well established when we were children. The bulb is dependent for its prestige on a contrastive grown-up memory of the candle, the telephone on that of the carrier pigeon, the plane on that of the steamship, suggesting that histories of technology should usefully identify not only when a particular innovation was introduced, but also, and more interestingly, when it was forgotten -- when it disappeared from collective consciousness through familiarity, becoming as commonplace and unremarkable as a pebble or a cloud.
  18. The start of the day in the office has burnt off nostalgia as the sun evaporates a coat of dew. Life is no longer mysterious, sad, haunting, touching, confusing or melancholy; it is a practical stage for clear-eyed action.
  19. It is by posing as a regular employee that the chairman stands his best chance of preserving his seniority. His subordinates admire the sincerity with which he pretends to share their fate, while he privately recognizes that only a convincing show of normalcy will prevent him from ever having to be normal again.
  20. Capitalism as currently developed remains in its infancy. We may think of ourselves as living late in the history of consumer society, but the most sophisticated contemporary economy stands to be perceived by subsequent generations as no less primitive than we judge Europe to have been in the Dark Ages.
  21. 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. Yet the millieu also demands that its protagonists develop a hard-headed awareness of certain intractable financial and legal truths, as well as an accurate sense of what other human beings are actually like. The field seems to require a painfully uncommon synthesis of imagination and realism.
  22. The obscurity of these events, on which depended the livelihoods of many in factories across continents, only served to underline the marginality of the stories normally found in the daily paper, which has no option but to focus on murders, divorces and films, for its readers cannot be expected to follow in detail any of the real developments which unfold obscurely in the realms of science and economics and on which our future depends.
  23. The arguments for our triviality and vulnerability are too obvious, too well known and too tedious to rehearse. 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, far from being an intellectual error, is really life itself coursing through us. Good health encourages us to identify with all human experiences in all lands, to sigh at a murder in a faraway country, to hope for economic growth and technological progress far beyond the limits of our own lifespan, forgetting that we are never more than a few rogue cells away from the end.
  24. Our work will at least have distracted us, it will have provided a perfect bubble in which to invest our hopes for perfection, it will have focused our immeasurable anxieties on a few relatively small-scale and achievable goals, it will have given us a sense of mastery, it will have made us respectably tired, it will have put food on the table. It will have kept us out of greater trouble.