Friday, June 12, 2009
Four questions away from death
Time to read this post: 3 minutes
At the peak of the last tech boom in 2001 many of my friends were dizzy with how rich they were about to be. One friend went to run an online furniture company (www.warbrobesandbathroommats.com or something). I felt unadventurous and not a little stupid as I didn't 'get' the new web paradigm where their projected losses and low revenue streams were going to make them millions. At the time I was a young business consultant working for a mining company in the north of England. Apparently at the age of 24 with no background in Engineering, I was our firm's tunneling expert. I would go underground (yes literally 800 meters underground) with the miners and help them work out how to improve their underground productivity. We would have lengthy conversations about roof bolting and their preferred types of glue (or bolt resin as it was called). We would play squash together in the evenings, at one point the whole mining team went on the Atkins diet and I joined them. Years later I would somehow become a key advisor as the mining roof bolt expert for a large Private Equity deal. I remember questioning the value of my esoteric knowledge.
Alain de Botton in his excellent new book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, goes on a philosophical quest to understand the way business works today and celebrates the world of esoteric knowledge and, by extension, roof bolt resin experts everywhere. He traces the supermarket supply chain: from illiterate tuna-bashing fisherman in the Indian ocean all the way through distribution centers, logistics hubs, supermarket aisles to the home of 8 year old Andy who pushes his fish around his plate. Andy was not aware let alone appreciative of what it has taken to get his evening meal ready for him. He tracks electricity power lines through suburban London. He shadows tax accountants communiting from Kent. He interviews biscuit production design managers in Belgium. Mainly he questions how we can find meaning in our work today.
Our world has benefited from Ricardo's comparative advantage. Very few of us become farmers, or bakers or any other easy to understand profession you might find in a children's storybook. Instead we become Strategic Brand Managers, Logistics supply analysts and many other eclectic names that even our parents struggle to understand.
De Botton ponders how many workers have become separated from the meaning of their work. Separated from the moment a customer delights in their manufacted chocalate bar. Separated from seeing the banking analyst login to his corporate intranet. Seperated from seeing any benefit from the little differences each of us hope to make in the short time we are around on this planet.
Perhaps work is just there to keep us busy before we die. After all, explains De Botton, we are all only about four questions away from death. If we stop to question why we are actually rushing to this next meeting? Why this meeting will make any difference in the shaping the future of this organization? Whether this organization will make any notable impact on the future direction of the planet? Whether anyone will remember anything I ever do at all?
Should we learn to embrace this tragic view of life? Or can we train our minds to marvel at the beauty of logistics centers, airport carparks and corporate intranet home pages? Or to accept that how we experience the present is not how we will remember it; like Susan Sontag said "Just wait until now becomes then. You'll see how happy we were."
We could all do far worse than reading The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.
How close are you in your organisation to where meaning is created?
How does your organization try bring the stories that create belonging and meaning to the employees?
What can you do to remind yourself of the difference you make?