Live to Work/Work to Live

Monday, June 08, 2009

We spend much of our adult lives at work--yet what makes employment meaningful is not well understood. Alain de Botton, writer, philosopher, and author of The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, takes a look at the modern idea that you can do well by doing good.

Alain de Botton will speak with Paul Holdengräber at New York Public Library tonight at 7PM. Click here for ticket info.

Question of the Day: Do you have to love your work to love your life? Comment below!


Alain de Botton

Comments [56]


Gosh, I'm struggling with this very thing. I'm in a bit of an existential funk and I think it's because I need to find meaning; however, I've convinced myself that meaning resides in how I make a living. I want to do meaningful work, but I have no idea what.

Late last year I started reading Studs Terkel's "Working" to get a better understanding of how everyday people feel about their jobs, hoping I would learn a thing or too.

Anyway, I enjoyed watching Alain de Botton's six part series "Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness." So, I really look forward to listening to this podcast. "The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work" sounds like it's right up my alley. I wouldn't mind reading it--after I finish "Working." :)

Jun. 08 2009 09:29 PM
Eden Maxwell from New Mexico

Alain, as usual, is a keen observer. I have several quotes from his earlier book, Status Anxiety, in my own recent book--An Artist Empowered, which also deals with purpose in life, or dharma--the reason for which you have come here.

If we want depth, we must dig deep--away from the gordian knot of gridlock and rote, known also as mass social conditioning.

Great show. Brian.

Jun. 08 2009 04:49 PM
Sascha M. from Hell's Kitchen, NYC

I think you have to learn to love yourself first, in order to be able to love what you are doing.
Defining yourself mostly through the job you do to make a living, is a sure way to desperation and hypocrisy IMHO.
The question "what do you do?" should be outlawed as THE first question you ask someone. It tells me that that person is not interested in who I really am.

Jun. 08 2009 12:07 PM
Judith Targove from Highland Park, NJ

Are there even enough spaces on a block for all residents?

Jun. 08 2009 11:57 AM
Paul from Long Island City

Ideally everyone would find a fulfilling career that makes them, for the most part, happy to be at work, as well as providing a means to maintain a lifestyle they are content with. I suspect this only pertains to a small lucky percentage, however.

I also believe that one's attitudes towards work can greatly influence whether or not they are happy with their job, i.e. if their concept of work is that it is sheer drudgery, then they will most likely never enjoy any kind of work, even if it is something they "love" doing.

Jun. 08 2009 11:55 AM
Stacy Spencer from Washington Heights

Great show. But I wanted to say that when I stayed home with my daughter for several years after she was born I found -- entirely to my surprise -- that the vast majority of people were extremely supportive and that I was able to connect at parties with all kinds of people I otherwise might not have had a lot in common with over the issue of parenting. I recall attending a college alumni event as a stay-at-home mom and walking in that room quite nervous. There were a lot of very high-powered people in attendance. A successful businessman came up to me and asked the obligatory "what do you do" question and I answered "I have a young baby...." The man's eyes lit up and soon we were discussing children and schools and parenting. That kind of thing often happened. I don't want to discount other people's experiences, but I found that my fears of being disrespected were far greater than the reality.

Jun. 08 2009 11:46 AM
Jeff from Manhattan

Sorry, I am listening to the stream, same volume as always...

Jun. 08 2009 11:45 AM
Jeff from Manhattan

Audio seems to be a bit hot today, Leonard's promo just clipped...

Jun. 08 2009 11:44 AM
j from nyc
journal of mundane behavior. go for it.

Jun. 08 2009 11:39 AM
Paulo from Paterson, NJ

I'm glad I'm being lectured about not worrying about finding meaning in my work from a professional philosopher...

Jun. 08 2009 11:39 AM
Laurel Masse from Manhattan

Loving your work is true gift.
but having your work RECOGNIZED as work - that's something else. I have been a professional singer for 37 years, and make my living that way, yet many people I meet believe that what I do is not work at all. Hobby, pastime, laziness, but not real work.

Jun. 08 2009 11:38 AM
Jaq from Brooklyn

As far as "ordinary work" on TV goes, it used to be that way... But not anymore... Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton were always talking about their jobs. “Cheers” was about working class folks mingling with others in a bar. Fred Sanford and Lamont ran a garbage lot... Heck, look at Mruphy Brown even...

Nowadays, “The Office” is the only show that reflects any real aspect of American life. Might be a sign of the times or the vanity of the age?

Jun. 08 2009 11:38 AM
Jo from Brooklyn

In addition to difficulties with valuing non-compensated work, there's also a whole host of issues with valuing workers based on how much they are making - i.e. a minimum-wage worker or a service worker is so undervalued when compared to a $700-an hour lawyer, doctor or banker.

Jun. 08 2009 11:38 AM
mozo from nyc

All actual work results in mountains of drudgery. I'm also tired of people talking about happiness as if it were a right. If everybody did work that solely made them happy or fulfilled, the world would be in flames. On the other hand, where would society be without selfless, moral people like anon?

Jun. 08 2009 11:38 AM
Al from Manhattan

Please don't tell me about ex investment bankers or ex CEOs who decide to start a "second career" as a bread baker or a vegetable farmer. People with multi million dollar nest eggs can do whatever they want. I don't want to hear about how wonderful their new job is or how fulfilled they feel.

Jun. 08 2009 11:38 AM
Heidi Upton from Forest HIlls

The "value" of things as connected with the "how much they cost" reminds me of shows like Antiques Roadshow, where objects are evaluated first for their quality but ultimately, it's the dollar sign that gets the "ooh, aah" response, as in "if you were to sell this, you would get....!!" and voila, the value is understood.

Jun. 08 2009 11:37 AM
Karen from NYC

I'm a lawyer and my husband works in construction. Over my 35 year marriage, I have many times dealt with professional colleagues who look down upon my husband, or think he's less intelligent than they are, because he is in a trade. My husband is educated and well-spoken, but is dismissed by white-collar types because of his work. People who don't know us well even theorize as to why I married him! (But not as to why he married me . . . . ) We find this situation funny, albeit occasionally irritating.

Jun. 08 2009 11:37 AM
Susan Knappertz from Morristown, NJ

Stay at home mom and call myself Chief Operations Officer

Jun. 08 2009 11:36 AM
amorris from manhattan

if one feels bad about telling someone at a party that they dont work outside of the home then i think they may have other issues unrelated to employment and more to do with self-image. what you do is just a question people use to put you in a box and judge accordingly.

Jun. 08 2009 11:36 AM
amorris from manhattan

if one feels bad about telling someone at a party that they dont work outside of the home then i think they may have other issues unrelated to employment and more to do with self-image. what you do is just a question people use to put you in a box and judge accordingly.

Jun. 08 2009 11:36 AM

as a hugely successful philosopher and author of books on happiness, is it not a bit disingenuous to promote the idea that intense career striving does not breed happiness? does this mean that you are unhappy yourself?

Jun. 08 2009 11:35 AM
MichaelB from Morningside Heights

I read teh article that Brian mentioned, in defense of working with your hands....

But your guest makes a mistake to dismiss the differences between crafting in the physical world and the virtual world.

I was an auto mechanic for 15 years but have been a software persson for the past 28, and although there ARE similarities, the differences are real and the physical world, like nature's worst disasters, is NOT to be ignored.

I guess an artist working with oils has a different experience than one drawing or painting on a computer screen.

Jun. 08 2009 11:35 AM
LJ from Brooklyn

Brian, This is a fabulous discussion -- one I had at brunch yesterday. I ran a non-profit for 5 years and since it shut down in January, I've turned down 3 jobs because they weren't fulfilling enough. My question is whether this is a uniquely American issue or if millennials around the world dealing the same question?

Jun. 08 2009 11:34 AM

The great majority of human 'work' is directly or indirectly in service to the unsustainable liquidation of the natural world. So many of civilization's current problems and threats are due to humans working too much- our planet and civilization would last much longer is on the whole we did much less.

Jun. 08 2009 11:34 AM
Jay from clinton hill

Brian, your guest is making some very good points, but he is leaving out two important things that contribute to the meaninfulness of one's work: Leadership and Excellence.

I think a good department manager even in some huge company can make the work meaningful for his or her employees by reminding them of why they're doing what they are doing and bringing attention to those that do their jobs well

Also many people really care about excellence and want to be a part of something excellent- to do something well -- this is why we admire athletes or great musicians they are doing what they are doing as well as it can be done- i think the best plumber in the world loves his job.

Jun. 08 2009 11:33 AM
Jersey Jeff from Rahway, NJ

Work is a necessary evil rather than something I love. I'd rather be a home right now lounging in my backyard than goofing around on the Internet at work.

But work makes me appreciate my time spent out of the office even more.

I spent a glorious day down the Jersey Shore with my family yesterday. That is more rewarding and pleasing to me than any job can provide.

Jun. 08 2009 11:32 AM
peter from Crown Heights

How interesting.

I think often of how, even within one of those "named" occupations (I'm an architect), there's this focus, often, on how little of the job is true serving or creation, etc.

I think, often, of how we were educated and trained to value the parts of this career that rarely, if ever, happen.

Jun. 08 2009 11:31 AM
Tanna from Brooklyn

I've always been frustrated with the immediate question of "what do you do" when meeting someone, feeling it does not necessarily identify who you are. After working for 20 years in three distinct areas I never felt my work encompassed who I was.
Four months ago I became a mother and I am considering not returning to work because of the importance I subscribe to parenting but also because cost of day care would make it not very economically viable...and yet as the guest speaker suggests I feel I have to defend this "lack" of work and yet so far parenting is the toughest thing I have ever done!

Jun. 08 2009 11:30 AM
Tanna from Brooklyn

I've always been frustrated with the immediate question of "what do you do" when meeting someone, feeling it does not necessarily identify who you are. After working for 20 years in three distinct areas I never felt my work encompassed who I was.
Four months ago I became a mother and I am considering not returning to work because of the importance I subscribe to parenting but also because cost of day care would make it not very economically viable...and yet as the guest speaker suggests I feel I have to defend this "lack" of work and yet so far parenting is the toughest thing I have ever done!

Jun. 08 2009 11:30 AM
olivier Marcon from brooklyn

For once i can use in context an o wilde quote:

"The secret of life is to appreciate the pleasures of being terribly deceived..."

Off the top of my "self un-employed" head

I actually just started my own furniture company and plan to at least attempt personal satisfaction via growth... and remaining a one man entity keeping time for my life and wife and hobbies....

Jun. 08 2009 11:29 AM
bint from manhattan

live to work! having meaningful and self-directed work is what makes people happy. to slave away your time and energy for someone else's benefit is no good in my opinion but it's what most people are doing everyday.

Jun. 08 2009 11:28 AM
Christopher Deignan from Middle Village

I've always had trouble with the notion of "loving your work". Liking your work is fine, I mean it's still work for God's sake. When I hear that phrase, "love your work" I cringe a little and at the same time, I'm a little jealous. I liked working as a Census enumerator for the last six weeks because it was something different. I didn't love my last job as a graphic artist because it became very routine and boring but it paid quite well so who was I to complain? Work to live right....not live to work. I love variety more than anything else, I guess that makes me a generalist and I am certainly not defined by what I do for a living. I hate the "what do you do for a living question" and growing up in Ireland rarely heard it used as an opening gambit. Great segment, love your show Brian.

Jun. 08 2009 11:27 AM
MichaelB from Morningside Heights

I understand the guest's point about getting esteem from our work, but as Brian pointed out, there is a great deal of narciccism in our society.

What is the difference between esteem and status? And how do we determine what is real and what is artificial?

Isn't this related to the old ponderable: Do clothes make the man or does the man make the clothes?

Jun. 08 2009 11:27 AM
Theresa from NYC

I hate my work - and it has has taken a toll on my relationship. To put it bluntly - I'm absolutely miserable!

Jun. 08 2009 11:27 AM
Michael West from Brooklyn

I've just traded down to a lower paying job with a lesser social status. Why? Much less stress (and I can afford it)!!!

Jun. 08 2009 11:27 AM
Joe from Harlem

Could it be dangerous to endorse a perspective where work is just about making money? Isn't this "working class" perspective the author identifies just what has lead to robber-barron types who run companies to engage in offensive practices harmful to vast numbers of people and the environment only so they can make money (and lots of it) at work?

Jun. 08 2009 11:27 AM
Martin from New York

I work in a field completely different from what I spent my undergraduate and graduate years preparing. I don't like my job. It does not do justice to my mind and potential.

But the pay is great, the hours are perfect and my job allows me to live to do the things I love to do outside work.

I'm happy and hope to keep this job that I dislike for a long time.

Jun. 08 2009 11:27 AM
Al from Manhattan

I am a mechanical engineer. Manufacturing in north America is dead. Doing what I enjoy for a living ceased to be an option for me well over a decade ago.

Jun. 08 2009 11:26 AM
Karen Booth from Teaneck, NJ

What's the connection, if any, between pre-modern idea of work (as something not necessarily fulfilling) and notions of vocation or calling?

Jun. 08 2009 11:26 AM
Bradford Lawrence from State College

How does this apply to the/a younger generation when they are forced to take minimum wage jobs strictly because a lack of maturity or education, a generation flipping burgers and waiting tables at ages 14/15 years old?

Jun. 08 2009 11:26 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

I fully agree with your guest, that since the expulsion of the Garden of Eden, that misery has been the norm of man's existence, and we should cherish misery more than we do. Misery is the norm, so don't feel too bad if you're miserable :) You're normal. But if you are among the relatively few who are not miserable, you are truly blessed. Consider yourself lucky, at least for now :)

Jun. 08 2009 11:26 AM
the truth from bkny

It would be nice if you were in the profession that was also your passion but that is not always the case. One thing is for sure, when you leave a job you hate you certainly appreciate being at home at the end of the day.

Jun. 08 2009 11:26 AM
T from New York

I have really struggled with this idea lately. I am unhappy with my current job (I have been there for 2 years) and due to the decrease in jobs in NY, there are not many options. I have been trying to separate my idea of my self worth and my job. It overwhelms me. Any suggestions?

Jun. 08 2009 11:26 AM
David Hume from Staten Island, NY

Are these all anecdotes, or is there scientific data behind any of this? Not another self help book loaded with opinions.


Jun. 08 2009 11:26 AM
Peggy Sutton from NYC

Sorry - must correct M. De Botton about Buddhism. It's about happiness, not suffering. The Buddha, like a doctor, described or diagnosed the human condition as one of suffering and then he offered a prescription - a means of overcoming suffering. Crucial distinction there.

Jun. 08 2009 11:25 AM
Andrew B. from New York City

The idea that a majority would prefer a doubling of prestige with a halving of salary over the reverse is completely preposterous.

Jun. 08 2009 11:24 AM
HC from brooklyn

Doesn't this just correspond to the idea that we are just cogs that spend increasingly more time and energy in working for the profit of others (ceo's etc.), that if we just embrace a sort of stoicism we will be happier and, so, more complacent? I mean the change in the nature of what work is, how much people work, how dependant they are on it for survival and how alienated it makes them from their identity, interests and loved ones?

Jun. 08 2009 11:24 AM
Jennifer from NYC

Hmmm... I don't love my job - but I do enjoy the act of working - completion of tasks - participation - hopefully a touch of creativity here and there - I am no longer obsessed with the perfect job - i think since I had a child that went away - and these days I feel lucky to be working - that being said - i do feel like a bit of a corporate slave - and would love to find a way to have a more meaningful participation in life - and a little less concern with my material acquisitions and lifestyle image - I am currently working toward detachment.

Jun. 08 2009 11:23 AM
Paulo from Paterson, NJ

Seriously? People used to actually take the names of their occupation. That's why we have names like Smith, Miller, Reeve... People were stuck in the same occupations their parents were whether they wanted it or not. How can you POSSIBLY say that one's work as a part of one's identity is a new phenomenon?

Jun. 08 2009 11:23 AM
Jaq from Brooklyn

Oh thank goodness! I have been saying this for years: A job is a job and a life is a life.

And the polarized idea that work is either loved or hated is even worse. You should be surrounded by people (co-workers and others) you like even if you have a job you can’t stand. THAT makes work great and enjoyable.

Identifying yourself via your job is simply an intellectualized version of being a workaholic.

Jun. 08 2009 11:21 AM
Peter from Sunset Park

There is a saying in poker, "Poker is an easy way to make a hard living." Work is work honeys. I have several great jobs, but dealing with people at any level means lots of stress, needs, hopes, dreams, etc. Sweeties, work is work, even if we love it.

Jun. 08 2009 11:19 AM
anon from brooklyn

I love working and contributing to the world. I feel it is my moral obligation to society.

Jun. 08 2009 11:18 AM


Jun. 08 2009 11:16 AM
Mike M from Short Hills, NJ

The more I love my work the happier I am with life in general. I'd prefer to be somewhat detached from my jobs but I just can't seem to do it. A big part of loving my work is feeling that I'm good at it and get great results. I guess this feeling bleeds beyond the workplace.

Jun. 08 2009 10:57 AM
Seth from Washington Heights

In short, no. Your work is what you do, not what you are. Unless a horrible work environment or situation spills over into the rest of your life or causes you to not be able to enjoy your life, then it can be kept separate and not all-consuming.

Jun. 08 2009 10:36 AM
Tony from San Jose, CA

Live to work... definitely, that is why I left France

Jun. 08 2009 10:35 AM

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