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.