Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Quotes from The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

I started reading Alain de Botton's The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work ages ago, when I was on my trip around Indonesia. For some reasons, though, I hadn't been able to finish it until I had been accepted to be a Pengajar Muda with Indonesia Mengajar. I finished the book when I was in a travel to Bandung to catch up with debating friends.

With mere days before we're about to start our camp, the book resonated anew. Here are some of my favorite quotes. Emphases in bold face are mine.

"When does a job feel meaningful? Whenever it allows us to generate delight or reduce suffering in others. Though we are often taught to think of ourselves as inherently selfish, the longing to act meaningfully in our work seems just as stubborn a part of our make-up as our appetite for status or money. It is because we are meaning-focused animals rather than simply materialistic ones that we can reasonably contemplate surrendering security for a career helping to bring drinking water to rural Malawi or might quit a job in consumer goods for one in cardiac nursing, aware that when it comes to improving the human condition a well-controlled defibrillator has the edge over even the [making of the] finest biscuit."

A meaningful job usually isn't the path to riches, however.

"Why in our society the greatest sums of money so often tended to accrue from the sale of the least meaningful things, and why the dramatic improvements in efficiency and productivity at the heart of the Industrial Revolution so seldom extended beyond the provision of commonplace material goods like shampoo or condoms, oven-gloves or lingerie. I told Renae that our robots and engines were delivering the lion’s share of their benefits at the base of our pyramid of needs, that we were evident experts at swiftly assembling confectionery and yet we were still searching for reliable means of generating emotional stability or marital harmony."

Though surely making the production process more efficient by breaking down its steps and improving the efficiency of each step to maximize profit, has externalities.

"But however great the economic advantages of segmenting the elements of an afternoon’s work into a range of forty-year-long careers, there was reason to wonder about the unintended side effects of doing so. In particular, one felt tempted to ask – especially on sombre days when the eastward-bound clouds hung low over the head office in Hayes – how meaningful the lives might feel as a result."

All that, and the following, are from the third chapter, Biscuit Manufacture.

"What a peculiar civilisation this was: inordinately rich, yet inclined to accrue its wealth through the sale of some astonishingly small and only distantly meaningful things"

"You perhaps think, “to waste the labour of men is not to kill them.” Is it not? I should like to know how you could kill them more utterly’."

Chapter One is another favorite of mine, with its descriptions of Cargo Ship Spotting. Transporting cargo from all over the world, the cargo ship passed through places like Tunis and Alexandria.

"A romantic charge [clings] to names like Yokohama, Alexandria and Tunis – places which in reality cannot be exempt from tedium and compromise, but which are distant enough to support for a time certain confused daydreams of happiness."

Carrying countainers--which are touted as the most underrated invention, the cargo ships are by and large invisible.

"What renders the ships and ports invisible is an unwarranted prejudice which deems it peculiar to express overly powerful feelings of admiration towards a gas tanker or a paper mill – or indeed towards almost any aspect of the labouring world."

Other quotes of interests from the book,

"It seems easier to respond to our enthusiasms by trading in facts than by investigating the more naive question of how and why we have been moved."

"Symons preferred a quote from  Motivation and Personality , by the psychologist Abraham Maslow, which he had pinned up above the toilet: ‘It isn’t normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement’."

"Living with science without understanding it forced one to consider machines in the same quasi-mystical way in which a sparsely clothed Waiwai might have contemplated the phenomena of the heavens. What talent and insolence it was on the part of the white-coated fraternity to have succeeded in generating an impression of mystical awe with the help only of an ammonium perchlorate composite."

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