Growing up with Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton’s latest foray, into The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, is for the vocationally-challenged, not romantically-inclined

Alain de Botton and I parted company a while ago. As he’s said himself, Essays in Love and The Romantic Movement are books for a certain age and stage.

Alain de Botton, four years older than I, has grown up. He’s writing, again, for a certain age and stage—perhaps, an average Pundit age and stage. Reacquainting myself via his latest, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, was a lot like aging really: equal parts captivation and horror. I would have called the book The Ambivalence of Work and Life.

“The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in ‘68 and he told me, ‘all romantics meet the same fate some day—cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark café … ’”

Alain de Botton is a realist, these days, not a romantic. He thinks we expect too much. From marriage, we want a love affair; from work, vocation and fame and fortune. For most of us, the exception of finding soul mate plus dream job and living happily ever after is misrepresented as the rule. “I don’t say it can’t be done [he said, to Kathryn Ryan]. I simply would say, you’re asking a lot of the world.”

What do you want to be when you grow up? It’s interesting, the way we ask the question: not what do you want to do, but be. Choose your destiny. Shape your life. Shape your self.

I seem to have become a lawyer. One jurisprudential argument is about whether judges make law, or find it. Psychology has the debate in a different guise: nature, or nurture? Folklore: chicken, or egg? Can you decide what you want to be, before you know who you are?

Abraham Maslow, author of the human hierarchy of needs, put self-actualisation at the top: “It isn’t normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement.” We spend whole adult lives working at jobs chosen by our teenage selves. Who, at 16, knows anything much about anything? De Botton visits a career counsellor, his clients plagued by the idea that they should have somehow intuited what to do with their lives—that they have, through some error or stupidity, missed out on their true “calling”. The office boasts a photo of “Atlas’ Slave”, Michelangelo’s unfinished figure, struggling to emerge.

The career counselling chapter is the book’s middle chapter—its tiny beating hopeful heart. But de Botton is relentless. The annex smells of boiled swede and cabbage, the Maslow quote’s pinned in the toilet, and the therapist, too, has his eye on a different prize: “In the end, twelve literary agents read Symons’ manuscript. All replied politely and with encouragement. The Real Me: Career as an Act of Selfhood remains without a publisher.”

De Botton offers a further reason for unhappiness: we live in an industrial world, and cannot grasp our place in the wider scheme of things. He tramps beneath power pylons, and considers grocery logistics, juxtaposing the loss of lyricism with possible new ways of finding it. The customs official doesn’t pause to ask how dawn looked over Malacca Strait, but (if you like that sort of thing) there’s awe in the connectedness and scale of human enterprise.

There’s a touch of William’s truthful Christmas about all this myth-debunking. De Botton plows grimly on, laying bare the energy and preoccupation people give to their working lives, buoyed by optimism and, often, a complete absence of perspective. The venture capitalist receives 2,000 business plans each year, immediately throws out 1,950, scrutinises 50 more closely, and invests in 10. Of those 10, within five years, four will be bankrupt, and four will be stuck in a graveyard cycle of low profits. In the biscuit factory: “Grief was the only rational response to the news that an employee had spent three months devising a supermarket promotion based on an offer of free stickers of cartoon characters called the Fimbles.” An artist spends three years, in all lights and weathers, painting unremunerative studies of the same oak tree.

The artist may be deluded—the chances that anybody, anywhere, will “get it” seem remote—but seized with the possibilities of his next project, he is a happy man. “‘Have you ever noticed water?’ he asks. ‘Properly noticed it, I mean—as if you had never seen it before?’”

I won’t spoil the ending, except to say, I read it with mounting horror. Is there so much wrong with a bit of self-delusion? Half a dozen pages short of the back of the book, it’s not immediately apparent that it is, indeed, the end. I riffled, frenziedly. That is one difference between de Botton and I: he’s accepted the importance of being relentlessly prosaic; another difference might be, he’s quite a lot smarter. But still, at the heart of the book, that little tantalising point of light—the entire book a metaphor for the elusive search for pleasure amongst modern-day sorrows.

“One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice

But little by little
as you left their voices behind
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognised as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do -
determined to save
the only life you could save.”