“We seem to have forgotten that the expression ‘a liberal education’ originally meant among the Romans one worthy of free men; while the learning of trades and professions by which to get your livelihood merely, was considered worthy of slaves only.”
“Those who see foreign affairs as made up of questions of right and wrong begin by supposing they know better than other people what is right for them. The more passionately they believe they are right, the more likely they are to reject expediency and accommodation and seek the final victory of their principles. Little has been more pernicious in international politics than excessive righteousness.”
Arthur Schlesinger, historian
Joshua Greene, from his book “Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason and the Gap Between Us and Them”
“NASA is a national treasure, and it’s total bull that anyone should be frustrated by NASA. The only reason I’m interested in space is because they inspired me when I was five years old. How many government agencies can you think of that inspire five year olds? The work NASA does is technically super-demanding and inherently risky, and they continue to do an outstanding job. The ONLY reason any of these small space companies have a chance of doing ANYTHING is because they get to stand on the shoulders of NASA’s accomplishments and ingenuity.”
Why does work seem to both imprison us and set us free?
I’ve been a fan of Alain de Botton’s work for just shy of a decade now, ever since I read The Consolations of Philosphy. I find that his books have a bit of a self-help slant to them which makes his style of philosophy more accessible. Much more accessible than, say, Slavoj Žižek.
Though there are large stretches of the book where I found myself less interested in the topic being discussed (rocket science, transmission engineering), de Botton did manage to bring me back to a place where he would step back and look at how specialization really is subjective at heart.
The chapter entitled Biscuit Manufacture details all the time and effort spent on marketing, packaging and designing products as seemingly trivial as cookies, and the vast amounts of profits the companies who produce them make. I juxtaposed that with the excruciating effort it takes for our society to provide the barest of support to the poor and weak among us. It highlights our priorities, doesn’t it?
I gravitated most obviously toward the chapter on office life (Accountancy), but found myself fascinated by the topics that, even though I wasn’t directly involved in those kinds of careers, did touch my life in an indirect way. The opening chapter (Cargo Ship Spotting) in which de Botton explains what inspired the book (people who watch cargo ships) and the second chapter (Logistics) where he decides to follow the travels of the food we find in our grocery stores by going all the way to the Maldives and tracing the lifecycle of a tuna fish as it is caught, processed, packaged and shipped back to the UK, and even sits down with the family who purchases said fish to enjoy it for supper.
The theme that weaves its way (almost invisibly at times) throughout the book points out all the things we pass in our day-to-day lives without so much as a thought to how they got there, and the surprisingly large number of other humans (sometimes on the other side of the planet) who spend a significant portion of their waking lives contributing to them. I daresay I may never look at electric pylons the same way (though I can’t say my level of interest will have risen too far from indifference).
One thought that came to me involved my car. I’ve had it for 11 years and it has seen some rather significant moments of my life. (This nostalgia is a result of shopping for vehicles as the realization that it’s beginning to cost more to maintain than it’s worth has become rather apparent.) If a stranger passed it on the street, they would judge it solely for its appearance and perhaps mechanical capabilities. “Oh, another Corolla. They’re everywhere. Geez, that one’s seen better days.” I can’t say that I’d disagree with that synopsis, except this Corolla has also seen my moving out and across 2 provinces, over 10 years of summer adventures, white-knuckled winter storm drives, crises, romances and heartbreak, celebrations, and the tedium of the daily commute. All those events–life–are attached to a scratched up, dented, slowly rusting mass of metal, plastic and cloth. No one sees that but me (and to a lesser extent the people involved in those events).
“It’s easy to judge. It’s not so easy to understand.”
I think what that awareness affords us is appreciation–even if only appreciation for our own ignorance and by association the specialization of others–and wonder. That those things we find boring, even ugly, have so much more behind them. Our boredom or disgust tends to come from our placing a value on things without acknowledging our ignorance as to their complexity, significance to our level of comfort or even beauty. Behind those things are the livelyhood of many people, some who are passionate about their professions, others who slog through it day-by-day on their quest to find themselves.
Another particularly interesting chapter was focused on our desire to find our true calling (Career Counselling). de Botton spends time with a psychotherapist who runs a business out of his home aiding people in discovering what it is they really want to do with their lives. We often forget or are unaware of how much what we do forges our own self-image. It’s one of the first questions usually asked of a new acquantance and from there we formulate a rough sketch of who that person is. (We continue to fill in that sketch with each new bit of data and sometimes opt to leave it incomplete as incompatibilities become apparent.) But how many of us truly identify with what we do? How many of us delude ourselves because “it pays the bills?” How many of us settle because of our fear of failure? (Or in some cases, fear of success.)
“It isn’t normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement.”
In the end, de Botton concludes that perhaps the meaning of work is to aid us in life by distracting us from the inevitability of our own mortality. I agree. It’s a distraction that both enables us to function on a day-to-day basis without the paralysis of knowing we’re unable to alter our own fates, as well as a way for us to grow as flawed creatures and wrest at least some modicum of control over the seeming chaos of existence. It helps us understand who we are.
So when it comes to figuring out what we should do with our lives–what kind of work we should be throwing ourselves into–the trick, I think, is figuring out who we want to become.
It’s funny. I started the new year by hoping to set up a self-hosted WordPress blog only to decide that it’s too much work (read: I’m lazy) and it’s much easier to just use what I’ve already got. I did still decide to have my own domain, so at least there’s that. Still, a lot of what I was intending to put up as my first blog post stands:
Setting up your own self-hosted blog is actually a lot of fun, if not time-consuming. (Ed. note: I’ve since decided it isn’t.)
The idea behind this blog is to have a place where I can write about the things I’m interested in on my own terms, which isn’t to say that I can’t do that on Facebook or Twitter but that those places have limitations. Twitter’s is pretty obvious (character limit), but even on Facebook there’s the audience consideration.
There are some things I plan to focus on, like movie reviews. I watch a lot of movies but my reviewing skills are (I feel) a little on the n00b side. This will give me a place to work on that. I also post a lot of music stuff and I think I’ll be able to expound more on that here than in a tweet.
Of course, one of the benefits of posting directly to Facebook is that a direct music post may get more views than a blog post about a particular album. (At least, that’s my theory.) Writing about it on a blog will mean an extra click for some of those people. But then were they clicking on the links I posted before? Who knows.
I think the blog may also push me to take more photos again because I want to try and have photos to accompany the pieces. That might be more difficult when I start tackling topics like politics (since I don’t really have access to the PM… yet), but perhaps I’ll figure something out. Photos that have nothing to do with the subject matter but still contribute to the piece… Is that possible?
What I’m going to try to avoid is making this a place to vent about personal issues. This will probably not be that kind of a blog. I have a journal for that and I think I’m comfortable enough with myself that I don’t need to clamour for attention with woe-is-me melodrama. Day-to-day stuff can be caught on Twitter or Instagram, etc.
In fact, I’m hoping that having this blog will get me more active on those other services because I’ll be thinking about what to write more often. In those cases I’ll have to decide whether it warrants a lengthier blog post, or if I can simply tweet about it. I really would like to increase my tweeting because I tend to find myself thinking at the end of the day, “Gee, I really could have tweeted while I was doing [activity]. Why didn’t I think of that at the time?”
No, this will be a place where I get deeper into the things that interest me but affect more than me.
So that’s it. I’m back.
“In the age of social media, when cell phones come with camera lenses optimized for selfies, that last question gets asked regularly. So I am going to answer it, once and for all: No. There is no such thing as TMI on the Internet. We are living in a post-TMI age, and everyone needs to deal with it. Preferably by using the ‘unfollow’ button.”