The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

m_alainThe British philosopher Alain de Botton could have been a novelist or a journalist. He writes poetically and observant about work. He paints an epic picture of our global economy and modern lifestyles, as if he were an eagle hovering over industrial landscapes, modern buildings, big cities, and then, suddenly, zooming in on an office and joining one of the accountants he finds there, for yet another day at the office.

De Botton’s is not a business book nor an easy read for the busy professional, but I enjoyed the reflective and observant parts, covering diverse occupations and scenes. It made me wonder again about our world and how everything is connected. De Botton describes the organizations we work for, the global implications of everything we buy, sell, do, decide, and the world we create while doing so, both as leaders and professionals, and as consumers, parents, and neighbors. Let me share some sights and reflections on the world of work.

Time is of the essence

m_boyTwo centuries ago, our forebears would have known the precise history and origin of nearly every one of the limited number of things they ate and owned, as well as the people and tools involved in their production. Today, we are as disconnected from the manufacture and distribution of goods as we are close to them – because things are widely available in the developed world. But where do they come from? Welcome to the world of logistics: warehousing, inventory, packaging, and transport.

In the center of England stands a group of 25 gray warehouses – as nondescript as anywhere in the developed world in industrial areas around ring-roads and airports. They are a wonder of efficiency with the horrifying, soulless, immaculate beauty characteristic of many of the workplaces of the modern world. They are like a magnet to the cargo ships making their way towards them, freight planes, and loaded lorries.

Global implications of everything we do and the world we create while doing so Click To Tweet

While we lie in bed, the semi-skimmed milk for Northern-England is loaded up in a fleet of lorries there. Time is of the essence. At any given moment, half the contents of the warehouse are 72 hours away from being edible – a constant challenge of mold and geography. Just because we can, we gave up on waiting for sporadic gifts from above and we want everything now. Like strawberries in December…


Discipline and labor division

Welcome to the warehouse. That we are surrounded by millions of others remains a piece of inert data, failing to dislodge us from our self-centered perspective until we take a look at the stack of ten thousand ham-and-mustard sandwiches, wrapped in identical plastic casings – made in a factory – and due to be eaten in the next two days by our fellow citizens, occupying workplaces, highways and canteens. Fish taken out of the sea several continents away could be in a warehouse in Northamptonshire in several hours – thanks to technology, discipline and legal and economic standardization.

But our world of abundance, with seas of wine and Alps of bread, has hardly turned out to be the ebullient place dreamed of by our ancestors. The brightest minds spend their working lives simplifying or accelerating functions of unreasonable banality. Engineers write theses on the speed of scanning machines while consultants work on minor economies in factories. Others spend 20 years specializing in the storage of flammable solvents.

Our abundance has hardly turned out what our ancestors dreamed about. Click To Tweet

But this drift toward specialization is necessary to provide us with our material joys… It is our collective tastes for sweets and nuts, drinks and tissues, that have summoned gigantic cargo ships from distant continents and thrown up industrial towers vying with the dome of St Paul’s cathedral.

No one is visiting the port or the warehouse for that matter. No one makes photos, except the occasional cargo ship spotter. We are ignorant for this part of our world – we don’t really acknowledge it – while we depend on it. Work can provide meaning, identity, community and structure to our lives. But does it? Let’s visit a modern corporation.

Meet your needs with dough

United Biscuits (UB) is the number-one player in the British biscuit market. One of its brands, the Digestive, is worth 34 million British pounds a year. De Botton meets with the Design Director Laurence who explains that cookies are a branch of psychology nowadays, not baking.

Laurence has just launched “Moments”, a biscuit of chocolate and shortcake, after a 3 million pound development program. He formulated the biscuit by gathering some interviewees in a hotel for a week, questioning them about their lives to tease out certain emotional longings that could be associated with new products to be developed. A number of low-income mothers had spoken of their yearning for sympathy, affection and “me-time”.

UB attempts to meet the need for sympathy with dough Click To Tweet

UB attempts to meet those needs with dough. It was decided that the biscuit would be round rather than square. Laurence spent a half year working with colleagues on the dilemmas of packaging, resolving that nine biscuits should be settled in into a black plastic tray in a glossy cardboard box. Next, they spent just as much time and efforts on finding the right font for the brand name.

5,000 full-time cookie bakers

Five thousand full-time employees spend their work weeks on biscuits at UB. Activities that we carry out in our kitchens on a rainy afternoon with the kids (heating the oven, mixing dough, creating cookies in shapes, baking them, storing them) are isolated, codified and expanded at UB to occupy entire working lives. Some operate the forklift trucks, others create fonts for brand names, some people buy flour, others do machine maintenance or analyze sales data from supermarkets. They have esoteric job titles as Packaging Technologist, Learning Center Manager, or Strategic Projects Evaluator.

This unremitting division of labor results in incredible levels of productivity – but do our specialized jobs still feel meaningful? When do you feel that you make a difference?
De Botton states that we feel meaningful whenever we generate delight or reduce suffering in others. We are meaning-making animals, rather than simple materialistic ones.

Do our specialized jobs still feel meaningful? Do you make a difference? Click To Tweet

Meaningful work, however, is not to be restricted too tightly, focusing only on doctors, therapists or shamans. There can be less exalted ways to contribute to the common good and perhaps, making a perfect chocolate cookie which fills an impatient stomach during the long morning hours in a dull office, is another way to alleviate the burdens of existence…

The real issue for De Botton is not whether baking biscuits is meaningful, but whether it still feels meaningful when the tasks are subdivided across five thousand lives (for the sake of efficiency and maximizing profit).
Here’s one of the weak points of our modern workplaces. We have to use more imagination to see how we contribute anything than the professions in children’s books. Those shopkeepers, cooks, and farmers can be easier linked to the betterment of human life in their little village.

Exhaust thyself for thine investors

The production of biscuits at UB requires a dedication and self-discipline that might otherwise have been necessary to become a top athlete or save lives in a hospital. De Botton writes: “A question of motivation appeared: whether the company could succeed in providing its staff with a sufficiently elevated set of ideals in whose name they were to exhaust themselves and surrender the greatest share of their lives.”

The activities at UB are taken very seriously. Biscuits make money in quantities that would have overwhelmed the greatest monarchs of history. UB makes more money every year than Henry VIII and Elizabeth I acquired in their entire reigns combined. The leaders of UB are clear what divinity they are worshipping.

m_bakerWhat do we value? De Botton wanders around the head office and sees a young woman typing up a document about brand performance. She doesn’t look very happy. De Botton: “I wondered whether the biscuits might not be part of the very problem they had been designed to address, whether their distribution and marketing was not indeed contributing to precisely the feelings of emptiness and nervous tension which they claimed to alleviate.”

Dedication to salvation

Next, De Botton visits the plant in Belgium where a particular brand of biscuits is manufactured. The manager, Pottier, tells him about the ideal viscosity of chocolate , the need to cool the dough rapidly enough to prevent it from melting the chocolate. He shows a surprisingly intense pride in the plant and its workers.
His task is to keep the factory line rolling at all times. He’s solving problems such as avoiding stray hairs in chocolate coatings, motivating staff to wear cotton hats and deliver quality cookies.

In Catholic dogma, the definition of noble work was limited to priests in the service of God. By contrast, the Protestant thinking that developed since the 16th century redeemed the value of everyday tasks – as a means to develop your soul. Humility, wisdom, and kindness could be practiced in a shop no less sincerely than in a monastery. Salvation could be gained at the level of ordinary existence. Pottier embodied this Protestant ideal – it didn’t matter so much what he did as how he did it. He was dedicated and enthusiastic.

Humility and kindness can be practiced in a shop as well as a monastery. Click To Tweet

De Botton is amazed that Pottier and the factory workers are doing their jobs – without going crazy. According to De Botton: “Grief is the only rational response to the news that an employee had spent three months devising a supermarket promotion. (…) Were there not more important ambitions to be met before Death showed himself?”

Survival by biscuits

But then again, workers were occupied with the ancient task of trying to stay alive, which simply requires to do their monotonous micro-tasks with dedication – to satisfy a few peripheral desires in a consumer economy. Survival is serious motivation for anyone with a job…

Salvation could be gained at the level of ordinary existence. Click To Tweet

The same counts for UB. It’s not merely greed and maximizing profits that makes the organization focus on efficiency. They work for survival just like the workers do. They have one equal competitor, owned by the French Danone group that produces cookies of the LU-brands. The two enterprises regularly lock horns. Every product created in Belgium is immediately imitated by LU. Which makes De Botton realize: The manufacture and promotion of these biscuits is no game, but an attempt to stay alive, therefore no less worthy of respect and dignity than a boar hunt on whose successful conclusion the fate of a tribe depended. The biscuits carry lives on their backs.

Despite all its disadvantages such as greed, De Botton notices that capitalist consumer economies nevertheless have made our lives easier and saved lives – because in addition to the superfluous, six hundred varieties of ice cream they produced, they also invested in hospitals, culture, and arts. The only problem is that we struggle with the banality of our labor, every now and then.

Or, with making meaning of your life while you lack a job. Economics dictated the superior logic of hiring a few engineers to develop hydraulic machines, then firing two-thirds of the staff and paying them unemployment benefits so they could stay home and watch television, subsidized by revenues from corporate taxes such as UB….

Who are we without work?

m_man-on-keyboardsWithout work, we may drown in a sea of possibilities – or starve from no possibilities at all. The start of work means the end of freedom but also of doubt and wayward desires. “The accountant’s ten thousand possibilities have been reduced to an agreeable handful. She is a Business Unit Senior Manager, rather than a vaporous transient consciousness in an incidental universe.”

Life is no longer mysterious, sad, haunting, touching, confusing or melancholy: it is a practical stage of clear-eyed action when you’re at work.

Even when your workplace is not Utopia – work gives structure, meaning, and identity. Even when you don’t like your job. Like those many adults who spend their entire adult lives working at jobs chosen by their sixteen-year-old selves….

Without work we may drown in a sea of possibilities - or starve from no possibilities at all. Click To Tweet

That’s not easy because our modern world believes that work should make us happy. Aristotle however, was convinced of the incompatibility between satisfaction and a paid position. Financial need placed one on a par with slaves and animals. Early Christianity held the still darker doctrine that the miseries of work were an appropriate means of expiating the sins of Adam. In the early Renaissance, in the biographies of Leonardo and Michelangelo, we hear the first glories of practical activity. By the middle of the Eighteenth century, Diderot and D’Alembert published the “Encyclopédie”, filled with articles celebrating several occupations. The bourgeois thinking started to align the pleasure that Aristotle had reserved for leisure, with practical work. So – when you don’t like your job, you are doing something wrong in the 21st century.

m_pleasures-sorrows22De Botton, however, is not so optimistic about our possibilities to create our lives as we please. He finds the bourgeois assertion that work and love can make you happy – cruel.

“For most of us, our bright promise will always fall short of being actualised; it will never earn us bountiful sums of money. We have hope and dreams we carry with us, but we need extraordinary resilience, intelligence, and good fortune to create something in reality.”

I tend to be a little more optimistic than De Botton but I value his realism. Let’s not get carried away by the happy-hype. Let’s acknowledge that creating a positive workplace, learning to deal with continuous change and doing fulfilling work to make a difference – that all takes a lot of effort and is an ongoing journey for the majority of us.

* What is your take away? What stands out for you?
* How do you practice dedication and kindness as a way to develop yourself at work?
* How do you think about work? Should it make you happy or is it a necessary evil to survive? How would you change that?
* How can we help ourselves and others see the whole that we are part of – while doing our isolated tasks?
* How does work define who you are? And keep the doubts of existence at bay?
* How do you see the meaning of your work?

Portrait by Vincent Starr

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Marcella Bremer is an author and culture & change consultant. She co-founded this blog and

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