52 Titles: Alain de Botton’s “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work”

Last year for Christmas, my good friend Jon gave me a copy of Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. When I unwrapped it, I chuckled: I hadn’t been at my first full-time job for long, so it seemed fitting that a book should welcome me into the first years of 30 or 40 at a desk.

There isn’t a person without anxiety about becoming a cog, a single-utility element of the capitalist complex; hammered down into place like a peg that juts out above the others. We spend the vast majority of our waking hours at our jobs, yet spend so little time ruminating on the psychological and philosophical significances of the act.

My favourite passage:

For most of us, our bright promise will always fall short of being actualised; it will never earn us bountiful sums of money or beget exemplary objects or organisations. It will remain no more than a hope carried over from childhood, or a dream entertained as we drive along the motorway and feel our plans hovering above a wide horizon. Extraordinary resilience, intelligence and good fortune are needed to redraw the map of our reality, while on either side of the summits of greatness are arrayed the endless foothills populated by the tortured celibates of achievement.

Most of stand poised at the edge of brilliance, haunted by the knowledge of our proximity, yet still demonstrably on the wrong side of the line, our dealings with reality undermined by a range of minor yet critical psychological flaws (a little too much optimism, anunprocessed rebelliousness, a fatal impatience or sentimentality). We are like an exquisite high-speed aircraft which for lack of a tiny part is left stranded beside the runway, rendered slower than a tractor or bicycle.

I came to know this feeling well while working as a copy/page editor. You do the same thing, day in and out. At this job, I had a co-worker, a huge soccer fanatic (he ran a popular podcast on the subject) who told me he had aspirations of becoming a professional soccer player while we waited for the bus home after our shifts ended at 1 a.m. He had reached the minors, some Ontario-Quebec-New York league, and at one point had aimed at joining the MLS. Of course, that didn’t happen, and so here he was, working the night shift as a newspaper page editor, and feeding his passion where time allowed.

I, too, had those kind of lofty goals — becoming a photographer, a painter. I came to a crossroads when I was 18 or 19, when I started university. I could make a steady living (journalism doesn’t pay much, but at least it pays every two weeks) or I could make pretty pictures and wonder where the next $100 was going to come from.

I chose journalism because it was safer, which is to say I compromised my full happiness for a 3/4 version that also comes with security. Most days I’m happy at work, but it’s the odd day when a nagging feeling comes over me that I am actually Carl in Up, puzzled at how little I’ve done and will do with my remaining years. It takes a brave person to leap into their real passion — it is a rule that there is a negative correlation between fulfillment and wealth. If my tiny part from an aircraft, so to speak, is bravery, then I say without any hesitation or shame that I am not brave enough for that life.






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