Talent will not be wasted for much longer: Alain de Botton

Written by
Mary Appleton

04 Sep 2015

04 Sep 2015 • by Mary Appleton

How to have a meaningful career

Meeting Alain de Botton is both exciting and nerveracking. This is a man who, furnished with insights and quotes from the likes of Nietzsche, Maslow and Schopenhauer (which he drops into conversation with remarkable flair and ease), has an extraordinary ability to look beyond the complexities of human relationships and exhume unadorned truth.

While the author has come under intense criticism (he was disparaged by The Guardian for “making a lucrative career out of stating the bleeding obvious”), de Botton is able to connect directly with people’s thoughts, paying close attention to love and relationships. This serves to characterise his work – which resonates deeply with his audiences and readers. 

“For too long they [relationships] have lived in a small space, either in an academy or dusty books,” he tells me. “I want to get ideas out there, in the hope of creating a more emotionally intelligent world.”

Why do we work?

We’re here today to talk about the notion of work. Indeed, de Botton’s novel, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, explores people’s love-hate relationships with their jobs. It exposes us to a range of occupations, from rocket science to biscuit manufacture; accountancy to art – oddly interspersed with a rather amusing chapter in which the author visits a career counsellor. Here, he concludes that: “It is strange and regrettable that in our society something as prospectively life-altering as the determination of a person’s vocation had for the most part been abandoned to marginalised therapists practising their trade from garden extensions.”

Fixating de Botton is his desire to address the question: ‘When does a job feel meaningful?’. I pose this question to him, and his answer is simple: “You feel meaning in your role when you are helping someone to suffer less, or helping someone to enjoy their life more,” he remarks. 

Yet for de Botton, the notion of meaning is surprisingly difficult to achieve. “For most of human history, the idea of work being pleasurable just wasn’t on the agenda,” he says. “You didn’t do work to have fun, you didn’t work to be fulfilled, and there was no notion that a happy worker was a more productive worker. So we should be gentle on ourselves as we try to build a world around that insight.”

Lack of careers guidance

It might seem ironic to some that de Botton could afford not to work. His father, Gilbert, co-founded the investment firm Global Asset Management and the family was estimated to have been worth £234 million in 1999.

Born in Zurich in 1969, de Botton spent the first 12 years of his life in Switzerland and was sent to boarding school in Oxford. He went on to earn a history degree from Cambridge University before completing a master’s degree in philosophy at King’s College. His subsequent writing career has focused on subjects including love, travel, sex, religion and most recently news, where he aims to link the relevance of philosophy to everyday experiences.

But having never been employed in a factory, shop or plant (and only briefly in an office while making TV documentaries), why did de Botton choose to write about work?

“The world of work weirdly doesn’t often enter into discussions,” he says. “The representation of work in the media is unbelievably narrow. In most stories, people don’t work – the story is structured around their love life. A doctor or lawyer might pop up. When did we last see a film about people in IT?” 

Part of the problem, for de Botton, is an “unbelievable” lack of information about careers – and a disproportionate amount of fascination with particular roles. “The media portrays this idea that the only glamorous jobs are acting or playing football, which is unhelpful. The light of glamour needs to fall on careers like engineering, and illuminate the world that we live in.”

Schools are unworldly and unfit

He is hugely critical of the education system, arguing that it is “entirely unfit for purpose” and run by people who have “no understanding of the world of work”.

“We are bringing people up according to a world that does not exist. This is a hangover of a religious scheme of education and it’s entirely unworldly. For example, 99% of maths is for business but we don’t articulate this in school – it’s madness. English literature is not a subject, the real subject is relationships. Why history? That’s just examples from the past – the whole thing needs to be scrapped,” he declares.

“Why don’t we study relationships when so much damage is done to human lives and the economy because we don’t know how to run relationships?”

De Botton argues there is not enough emphasis placed on the development of soft skills, because we do not think logically enough about the needs of the workplace. Developing charm, for instance, is not taught in schools but often the first thing people want to know about you is if you are pleasant. “We’re not working back from need to education and are paying the price,” he says. He would like to see an overhaul of the education system, spearheaded by employers. “The largest UK companies need to join forces to tell the government and education: ‘You are letting us down. We have got a bust workforce.’ 

“Young people don’t understand themselves or their motivations, and they have the wrong skills.”

Is business dishonest?

He also believes that companies are not being honest with the new generations coming into the workforce about the realities of a career. “You might end up underpaid and not feeling respected, but that’s rarely told. Employers shouldn’t pretend they are Disney World when they’re not. Work is, more often than not, laborious. Companies can afford to be more honest about the hoops they put young people through.”

He acknowledges a new shift in thinking is required when it comes to young people, who he says have a new kind of expertise – it’s up to employers to identify this and put it to work.

“If this new generation spoke a different language, we might say: ‘OK, they’re foreign so we will adjust ourselves’ but there are none of the obvious signals. They are different. They are not lazy, but they don’t respond well to certain cues, so you need to find out what they do respond to.”

In de Botton’s utopia, the whole point of school would be to train people for life. Indeed, he set up his own ‘School of Life’ in 2008, which aims to do just that – running courses in “things we all tend to care about” such as careers, relationships, politics, travel and family. 

He believes there is a desperate need for more companies that are explicitly focused on working out what someone’s talents and inclinations are, identifying their potential, then guiding that person towards a place in the economy where this potential is best exploited and mined. “One of the most Googled questions is: ‘What should I do with my life?’” he adds. “There’s a fantasy that there’s actually an answer out there.”

Finding meaning amid a false sense of ambition

De Botton believes that many people are stuck in large organisations, working towards a project or product that will not be ready for years. This is “frightening” in terms of meaning. “Not having a clear sense of purpose in your work leads to cynicism and degrades the relationship between employee and employer,” he says. “Companies need to square up with this.”

Likening the employee life cycle to a theatre show or football game (which he refers to as “90 minutes of condensed drama”), de Botton says employers need to provide the “story” in much the same way that these methods would. This way, he argues, people can start to have a sense of progression.

But when de Botton observes that most jobs seem ‘futile’ – underpinned by his belief that most organisations are geared towards fulfilling “basic” needs (he cites Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to make this point), it seems apt to point out that in the wake of the economic crisis, many people are grateful simply to have a job.

He agrees that there’s lots of anxiety around the workplace, which he partly attributes to the fact that society engenders a false sense of ambition – we are constantly told that we can achieve great success and anything is possible.

De Botton explains: “In years gone by, everyone knew their place – with kings wearing crowns and peasants wearing rags. Now when everyone is assumed ‘equal’, there’s a spirit of a level playing field, which does not reflect reality. Politicians like to use the buzzword ‘meritocracy’ – but it’s just impossible to achieve. This breeds a lot of angst in people.

“We are secular – we make our own destiny. If you say, ‘I’m not doing well, the gods are against me’, people will think you’re a loser. We are wholly responsible for what happens to us – this is the inner angst of the modern worker. People take it really badly.” 

So what, in de Botton’s view, can you do to overcome this angst and work towards finding meaning in your own career? “I think, partly, it’s getting to understand yourself properly,” he says. “When people are unhappy in a job they often have a knee-jerk reaction of, ‘I need to leave, I want to work somewhere more creative, I want to make more money’, without really stopping and thinking. So that’s an obvious thing to say but stop and think – and not just for a bit. Get to know yourself and the world well enough to see where you might fit in. It’s a process of introspection.”

A new world that meets higher needs

In the same way that flight simulators test your responses before you have to test them in the real world, de Botton would like to see a “job simulator” that allows people to understand themselves, their capacities and to try things out.

“People are knee-jerk and unimaginative in their career choices,” he says. “They aspire to work at a certain company or [in an] industry without asking the right questions, which are: ‘What do humans need, what companies are fulfilling these needs and are these companies doing it well or badly?’” By answering these, you are more likely to discover meaning, de Botton believes.

For de Botton, having a meaningful career does not entail simply being happy while at work. The key to meaning is a feeling that you are contributing to something worthwhile greater than yourself, so that at the end of the working day you have left the world ever so slightly better than it was at the beginning.

While he agrees that there is a large amount of misallocated human energy and potential in the workforce, aggravated by the education system and the “failure” of careers guidance; and exacerbated by the scale of the modern workplace, which cannot tell a coherent story, de Botton is hopeful for the future. “When we look back in 100 years at the waste of talent that’s happening now, we will be astonished. We won’t allow it to happen for much longer,” he says.

De Botton is excited by this prospect, envisaging a world where the trajectory of capitalism will move towards fulfilling more of our ‘higher’ needs; commercialising subtle and “more interesting” areas of life. “A few years ago, you’d never have imagined a business built on friendship. Now, look at Facebook – one of the biggest companies in the world based on exactly that,” he says.

He predicts that more employers will begin to see the clear link between long-term profitability and developing services, products and workplaces that help consumers and staff find genuine meaning in their lives.

This new world, de Botton says, is something to be hopeful about. “If we could address our deeper needs more directly, our materialism would be refined and restrained, our profits would be more honourable and our work would be more meaningful,” he suggests.

And, in the meantime, as he aptly tells us in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work: “Death is hard to keep in mind when there is work to be done.”

Video: De Botton at the Future Talent Conference

Do you want to learn more about the future of work? Watch the full video of Alain de Botton's presentation at Changeboard's Future Talent conference 2014.