Sunday, May 10, 2009

Who we are and what we do

In his new book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Alain De Botton reflects on the intricacies of biscuit manufacture. He wittily observes the minute sub divisions of labour necessary for the launch of a new range of indulgent chocolate fancies, Moments. And he wonders, in the face of such absurdities, how we can possibly find meaning in the modern workplace.

De Botton's essay made me smile; almost certainly because the most successful humour plays on our sympathy with the objects of our laughter. His meditations rang true, not least because of the high minded claims that pass for 'mission and purpose' in my own profession.

For years I told myself that distributing newspapers was a vital cog in the wheel of a diverse and pluralist democracy. Whereas now, I passionately believe that newspapers -and especially the quality titles - tell us next to nothing of the truth. Worse, they present a veneer of facts, which (to stretch the metaphor) deter us from questioning the rather dodgy chipboard underneath.

Some years ago I attended one of those excruciating management sessions when you write down six words to describe yourself. My list went something like: father, painter, kayaker, climber, husband, thinker. My new boss asked, 'But what about work?' What about it, I replied. We didn't get on.

The more surprising outcome was that he was sacked and I prospered. A fact, which I like to think demonstrates that truth to yourself can sometimes - just sometimes - win out over bullshit.

In the world of Middle England's mid-size PLCs, defining ourselves by our professions is a pretty shallow existence. And yet, the higher up the corporate ladder we get, the more tempting it is to succumb. In much the same way that crap television and junk food provides us with instant if temporary gratification, our careers provide us with an easy and equally unsatisfying answer to the question of 'who we are and what we do.'
As if by epilogue to these thoughts I walked today along the green lane to Tretower. The house at its beginning is owned by Dick Renshaw, a famous climber, the first man to climb the South East ridge of Dunagiri. A friend told me he had taken up kayaking, paddling some of the hardest if obscure white water rivers in Wales; as we passed this morning, wooden sculptures were in progress in his garden.

I wondered if he had found meaning in his career - how indeed, he defined it - and whether, living aside a two thousand-year-old Roman Road, was inspiration to live more fully, or a cursed reminder of our own insignificance.


  1. I love the sentiments in this post and it is a song I've sung many times myself - and will write about one day. When you are a housewife, married to a successful career person, you are asked so many times at functions, 'so what do you do?' or 'Do you work?' It is a question which used to leave me squirming - and I am yet to find the perfect combination of words to respond with. And yet I know that having to define myself and my existence on a dailly basis, by myself, without 'a job' to hide behind, is one of the hardest things you can do. It is existentially lonely. And at the same time as I'm asked this bloody annoying question, I also know that 'I don't work' is a rubbish answer too. I probably work harder than most people round the table with 3 young kids and a largely absent husband, a large house and garden, no grandparents in easy reach and very little paid help. And that's before we even start on what I'd actually LIKE to be doing, as someone with loads of interests and energy, rather than loading and unloading the dishwasher and the washing machine.

    Completely agree about newspapers too. Despite fact that father is a died-in-the-wool journo, I am increasingly disillusioned with the print media. It just irritates me within about the first 30 seconds of reading. And if you know a little about a subject, you realise how superficial the knowledge being thrown around in print often actually is. Chipboard being disguised as rosewood, just as you say.

    And finally, congrats on keeping your job while Tosser Bloke lost his! Can't bear those management type courses - even WORSE if they involve rollplay. NIGHTMARE! and all so bloody pointless. In fact I once left a job two days before they were about to involve me in some arsey in-the-middle-of-the-night crisis management rollplay. I'd rather be sleeping.

    (sorry - the longest comment ever! - but you struck so many chords with me)

  2. What an interesting post. The most amazing experience I ever had was to spend a week on a silent retreat. There were about ten of us and we rubbed along wonderfully, having absolutely NO idea what we each did for work. It simply didn't matter - we just met one another as human beings. Totally liberating.
    Now when anyone asks me what I do it feels like a) an intrusion and b) a total irrelevance

  3. Oh God, sorry, absolutely CANNOT let that typo go - I meant DYED in the wool, ahem!

  4. btw, having just read HotH's comment (which was being posted as I wrote mine) have to say I concur totally with the newspaper analysis (and also hold my paw up with shame to admit that I contribute to the general nonsense....)

  5. Possibly the typo was Freudian??

  6. Jane - You write the only stuff I like reading - and believe in!

  7. Well that certainly stuck a chord!

    When I turned forty I went five years without reading newspapers - in fact, without listening to, viewing or reading any news at all! It became a sort of 'living art' thing in the end, with some quite bizzare consequences, but overall it changed my life. I wrote a long piece about it, which when I work out how to put PDF's on my blog you might be interested to read.

    It's difficult as bloke to fully understand how it must feel if you have to stop work to raise children. My sense is that we have lost (never had?)any concept of 'different roles but equal worth'. My wife does not 'go to work'in the traditional sense but we function much better as consequence. I think one of the saddest things today is the number of couples who would like to return to 'traditional roles' but simply can't afford to.

    And lastly, your response to the question of what you do ought to be clear: writer!

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