my itty-bitty interview with Alain de Botton

After reading The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Alain de Botton’s thoughtful look at what our notion of “work” really means, and how different jobs affect the people who inhabit them, I felt like I wasn't really finished. I had to talk to its author. Thankfully, I was naive enough to be unfazed by the unlikely scenario that would involve me talking to a respected and published author-philosopher.

Being an optimist has its advantages.

After a few tweet exchanges and a direct message, I sent him my few humble questions bred from a genuine curiosity to know what the creator of the “literary self-help” genre thought about our time and toil on this Earth.

His answers are itty-bitty, and I wish they were longer. But do I think they would be better if they were? Not really. The more I look back at these pithy responses the more I understand how much goodness is in each one. They are worth revisiting over and over. I've bolded what stuck out to me the most.

Mr. Botton, thank you for giving me this surprising treat. Everyone else, enjoy.

Question 1: You take a look at the sort of philosophical meaning different jobs have in a very objective way 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, it seems to me, envy him in the best of ways. What makes 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. [Mr. Botton visits a man who has been a career counselor, for teens and adults at a mid-life crossroads, for quite some time]. At the beginning, I thought you were falling in love with the idea of career counseling, and saw the good that Mr. Symons and his peers bring to our society. But by the end, after you get back the very general results of the aptitude test you took—which was supposed to tell you what you were put on this Earth to do—and watch him interact with people in search of a career compass, you are disappointed. Why?

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, what do you believe is important when choosing & doing work when it comes to our daily sense of fulfillment?

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? Feel free to drop some praise for procrastination—it will certainly make me feel better.

Alain: I have no time for anything…!

All best