Archive | May, 2012

itty-bitty interview: with alain de botton

30 May

After I finished reading The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, I felt like I wasn’t really finished. For whatever reason I felt I had to talk to Mr. de Botton, its author, especially after I mentioned him in my last post. Thankfully, I was naive enough to not consider the high improbability of a published and well-known author with a whole lot better things to do than answer the questions of a little blogger actually answering the questions of said little blogger. But I reached out, and he did, and here we are.

I will admit that I expected him to be more thorough with his answers. I gave each question I crafted for him some thought and figured that he, the creator of the “literary self-help” genre and a writer whose work oozes with deep thinking, would treat each question with care. Meditate. Ponder. And other synonyms that make sense here. So I was taken a back a bit when all I got was what’s below. But the more I read his answers, the more I appreciate them. They may be short, but there’s a lot there. If you think about them, like I did, you not only get a lot of insight into the way this man thinks, but also into great and complex ideas. Maybe he did meditate and ponder and (relevant synonym). I’ve bolded was stuck out the most to me.

So, Mr. de Botton, thank you for giving this little blogger a surprising treat. Enjoy, everyone.


Question 1: You are very objective throughout your book, and treat each occupation and field with consistent empathy. But I did notice that you were endeared to some more than others. For example, you talk about the painstaking work of the painter, and how little visibility he and his work get, but you get why he does it, and even (this is solely my opinion) envy him in the best of ways. What made you feel more connected to some work over others?
Alain: I am interested in work with meaning, that is, work that connects up with our desire to alleviate suffering and create pleasure in people’s lives.

Question 2: The career counselor was an interesting experience. At the beginning, I thought you were falling in love with the idea of career counseling, and saw the good Mr. Symons and his peers brought to our society. But by the end, after you get your aptitude results back and watch him interact with teens and adults, you are disappointed. Why? Also, am I right in assuming that you believe that the human species in the end is just meant to, in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, “fart around”?
Alain: I believe in career counselling but the science isn’t there yet. We don’t yet know how to place people in the right jobs. It’s like medieval brain surgery, on the right lines, but with a lot more development work to come.

Question 3: After surveying so many different types of work, when it comes to our daily sense of fulfillment, what do you believe is important when doing & choosing work?  
Alain: To align your talents with the needs of the world.

Sneak-in question: What do you do with your free time? When you are not writing or chronicling or researching, how do you spend your leisure time and weekends? Feel free to drop some praise for procrastination–it will certainly make me feel better.
Alain: I have no time for anything…!
All best

Thank you! I am currently reading your School of Life colleague Roman Krznaric’s “Work and the Art of Living,” and plan on reading Religion for Atheists very soon.

heartless sundays

23 May

“Reality got her. You work your ass off for months; bite your nails, for what? Heinz, baked, beans.”  – Mad Men

Sunday afternoon is one of the most depressing times in my life. Without fail, the looming sunset after a structured workweek and unstructured weekend feels so much heavier than any other.

Something’s going on at a subconcious level. A little nagging pebble is telling me that this upcoming week is not mine. It will be busy, and it will all be on me, but it’s not for me: it’s for my resume, my pockets, my employer, and its mission.

I love work. I whole-heartedly believe that a person at work is embarking on their own holistic fulfillment. My parents taught me that the two things that make up your character are your approach to work and your willingness to eat onions. I hate onions, but they keep pressing the issue.

I love my job. It requires thoughtful effort, the people are smart and kind, and the mission is full of high-meaning purpose. Yet I feel anxiety. This is what psychologists call ‘cognitive dissonance.”’

In The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Alain de Botton follows the workday of a career counselor. This is not the same person we all ignored in High School (sorry, Mr. Joyner), but someone who dedicates himself to helping adults re-find their way. The majority of his clients are older, going through a mid-life crisis, and willing to ditch their lucrative career. Maybe ditch it for Broadway, or for an apprenticeship as a woodworker, or to stay home with the kids.

In the end, de Botton is disappointed with what career counseling can offer us. Our species has worked for so long, in such differently skilled yet commonly themed jobs, with such an awesome data set of experience and evidence, yet  all we can tell a High School senior is that he has the organizational skills to succeed in an administrative post in the financial industry.

But de Botton realizes something even more disheartening: as a species, we’ve been fooling ourselves.

“I left Symon’s [career counselor] company aware of the unthinking cruelty discreetly coiled within the magnanimous bourgeois assurance that everyone can discover happiness through work and love. It isn’t that these two entities are invariably incapable of delivering fulfilment, only that they almost never do. And when an exception is misrepresented as a rule, our individual misfortunes, instead of seeming to us quasi-inevitable aspects of life, will weigh down on us life particular curses. In denying the natural place reserved for longing and error in the human lot, the bourgeois ideology denies us the possibility of collective consolation for our fractious marriages and our unexploited ambitions, and condemn us instead to solitary feelings of shame and persecution for having stubbornly failed to become who we are.”

de Botton’s conclusion is a gentler way of repeating the advice I have gotten from people when I tell them my zanier ideas and dreams.

“That’s nice, but just find a good job.”

“First work on getting a steady paycheck, then start thinking about this as a hobby.”

“That’s not how life works, honey.”

These are technically true. Doing something new and boisterous is full of uncertainty, and that uncertainty won’t go away until I succeed (if!).

I’ve listened to this advice my entire life. I went to the college with the best track record I could find. I didn’t change majors because I heard that was frowned upon. I desperately sought a job (any job) after college to showcase how viable of an adult I could be in ‘real-world’ society. I chose safe paths, known paths, for places I had already heard were worthwhile. And everything has turned out fine.

I wish I would’ve chased more rabbit holes–they’re so fun and you always get a good story out of them!

Our generation of parents who bought into the idea that you should center your parenting around boosting your kid’s self-esteem and sense of individual self, certainly didn’t sincerely drink the Kool-Aid. It’s sort of like they gave us standing ovations while we were thespians-in-training, but once the actual play was about to start they told us: “you know what, just read your lines and try not to break the set or bump into other people, ok?”

Now that’s cognitive dissonance. Who and what should I listen to?


The career counselor de Botton followed had in his bathroom (he runs his business inside his home) an Abraham Maslow quote:

“It isn’t normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement.”

There’s a question: what do we all want? I thought about this question this past Sunday as the blues dripped down.

Here’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This pyramid encapsulates what we, the human species, need in order to survive. The bottom is pretty self-explanatory, but as you climb the pyramid you start dealing with more nebulous items like “morality” and “achievement.”

What do want? ‘Money’ is certainly not a want; it’s a need, and a pretty boring one at that. Once I make enough money to stop thinking about money I want to stop thinking about money. As long as I have enough to obtain shelter, cloth, and food for myself and my loved ones, I am good. So yes, the bottom two slices are needs.

Do I want my own community: a family, a core group of confidants and friends? No doubt, but this still does not feel like a want. I know I need an authentic social group that gets my jokes and doesn’t mind my accidental farts. Otherwise, I would have to deal with all of that all by myself, and that’s how people go crazy. Yep, definitely a need. That takes care of the middle slice, which=need.

I am starting to realize that the top two triangle slices may be where my anxiety comes from. I’ve been blessed with a lifestyle that has secured most of my needs, physical and social…but what about the soulful? What about my “Esteem” and “Self-Actualization”? I can manage to do without those, but like love, it would be a miserable excuse of a life if I did. I want to achieve Spontaneity on a regular basis, just like I want to eat something delicious right now. But how do I know I’ve obtained that; how can I measure my progress in making those cloudy but important terms come to life?

It’s easy to know what I need to eat and own to survive. I just have to think about it. But everything else can’t be figured with purely mental lifting. It requires heart.

I know what music I love and what morality I raise my arms to, and this sort of gut logic doesn’t come from any mental analysis, but from how my heart beats. Does it beat to a quiet evening listening to Bach, or to an outing with friends in the woods drinking IPAs? Our mind schedules our workweek, our heart schedules our weekend.

No offense, brain, but you get too much floor time.

In things that matter the most to my soul, things that are hard to keep accounting on, the heart needs to be heard much more. Deciding what will make me into a more Confident and Spontaneous being is not something I can find on a grocery list or on my resume. It requires a deeper compass. It requires me to stop thinking in terms of cost/benefit, and just follow the rules of love, which really are the rules of the heart: chase what makes me tingle, gasp, and smirk.

Looking back at every decision I’ve made based on a gut feel, they’ve all felt completely right. Every time I’ve decided to listen to that very hard to articulate but very easy to understand sudden soulful clarity, I’ve moved forward with no regret. It makes sense, because my heart is not separate from my body, and it gets the same information as my brain does, but it follows a different process. It knows and feels, and then decides without hesitation.

My Sunday blues may just be that: my heart trying really hard to be heard, telling me to risk more, experience more, be more, hesitate less. It’s telling me that if I follow what I know is right, I don’t need to think as much. It’s telling me that when I feel anxious, it’s because even though my needs are met, I still haven’t fully chased what I want, and deep down I know that. In order to climb past the base needs and into richer climate–where needs are rooted deeper and need a more principled organ–I need to change the decision-making mix I’ve relied on for everything else. Time to give smirks and gasps a bit more weight. I need to quit being heartless.

greatness killers

15 May

What can kill greatness? Who is the arch-nemesis of life satisfaction? Is it Mr. Sinister? (Of course, it is, look at that cape!)

There are many obstacles to doing great work, and quite a few of them are illustrated in this fantastic blurb by Forbes. If you don’t want to read the article (maybe ‘laziness’ should be on the list, too, eh?), here’s some of the gist:

  1. Uncertainty about whether greatness is possible doing xyz is a given. Everyone goes through it. Even Zuckerberg started working on a different project to hedge his bets when Facebook was barely lifting off.
  2. Comfort is a horrible thing. The recliner might be the worst invention of all time. If you feel OK on a consistent basis, you may want to question your lounging lifestyle.
  3. Things that keep giving you meh results will not only keep giving you meh, but will make you come to expect meh with everything else. This is what we call a rut. Shake things up, like a snow globe, and enjoy the change in scenery.

Happy Mother’s Day–oh, and women are better than men

13 May

Mr. Ebert makes the right case at the right time. At a moment in our history when emotional intelligence, inter-connectedness, and the long view are in such short supply when in such high demand, we need to acknowledge this very basic truth: when comparing women to men, there are a whole lot more lemons in the Men basket.

Celebrate your mama, everyone. Even if she was not the best at the task, she sure as hell had the largest stake in you from day 1.

Ebert’s post.

sneaky numbers

10 May

I am a simple man with simple goals. Yes, my parents told me to aim for the Oval Office, but right now I just have one dream: to get up earlier. It’s not an earth-shattering ambition, and really, it’s kinda sad. For most of my life I’ve been unable to regularly get up before 8am. My Snooze button routine is a game of stamina between man and machine, where ironically if I win, I lose. But I keep trying. Why, well, because all those early birds who seem so damn chirpy and productive make my ambitious self cry out (in Rob Schneider’s voice): You can do it! It’s hard not to listen to that voice.

For my first attempt I figured I could cheat the system. I understood how much work I’d like to do in a given day to live out my star-citizen lifestyle, so I went ahead and burned the candle from the other end in order to do so. I went to sleep very late doing the work I wanted to get done, woke up around 8am, and felt like a stud. Unfortunately, that stud attitude quickly wore off as I began to doze off during meetings, drink enough coffee to make Mormons cry, and crash early in the afternoon. It wasn’t sustainable. Morningdom it was.

My morning face has improved quite a bit since I began giving morningdom a try. It used to look like I had just come from a week-long bender, and now it’s more of a long-weekend bender. The early light still makes me cringe and my first steps off the bed look like Bambi did jager shots the night before. I am not an early bird, a truth I have to accept. I am merely a grumpy owl stumbling around trying to keep up with the chirpies.

It was a hard sell for me. The entire time, in the back of my mind I kept thinking: 8 hours are 8 hours. It doesn’t matter when you work if you get the 8 hours, right? What makes morning so bombastic? Before I let you know why (it has a cool name to go with it, too), let’s talk about calories.

Dieting, like waking up early, is something you do in large part because you feel the need to keep up with everyone else. It involves eating food you used to laugh at, eating less, and overall being a little bit more miserable. I obviously am not a good spokesperson for dieting, and thankfully, I really don’t feel the need to be one, because for the most part dieting has had it all wrong. For decades people approached dieting with basic arithmetic: eat less calories=losing weight. You subtract from your plate, and that subtracts from your gut. Like the thinking behind when to work, at dusk or at dawn, it was judged by the black-and-white logic we give to numbers. But numbers have a story, dirty secrets, and scandals involving mistresses. Numbers, really, are complicated (in the soap opera sense, not the “How the f*&# does 3(2x-x)=42!?!” sense [because x=14] ).
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