Here, de Botton discusses why opening a coffee shop is
often the dream of corporate refugees, what kinds of skills and thinking are
essential to increasing your earning power, and why he sometimes wishes he were
an accountant instead of a writer.
OK, so what makes work meaningful — besides a big salary?
Just drawing a salary doesn’t do it, actually. A
feeling of meaning comes from having a sense that you’ve been able,
in some way, to improve someone’s life. It’s an absolutely
essential part of working. But many of us don’t have that feeling at
all. If we’re a nurse or a doctor, we might, but many of us are
working in vast organizations with more than 500 people. It’s very
hard to think at the end of the day, "What have I really done that’s
helped make a difference?" That can be profoundly disorienting and could
lead people to quit their jobs, even though those jobs objectively seemed fine.
The bigness of corporations means that individuals are so far away from sources
One of the fantasies that people have when they leave
large corporate jobs is to open a coffee shop. Is it the coffee? No. It’s
about feeling that you can make a difference to people. My advice for anyone
running, let’s say, a vast data-storage center is try and make it
more like a coffee shop — in its spirit.
Is there anything an individual worker can do to make their work more
The whole problem with corporate life is that you can’t
do very much alone. If you were a farmer working on your own, you can change
your fortunes on your own. You don’t even have to ask anybody. But
the whole point of a large corporation is that change will not come singly. And
it’s hard to be a Nietzschean hero in a company of 500 people.
Did you see any common threads among the people you interviewed who were
the happiest and most successful?
A very satisfying job keeps you distracted. This could
sound strange, but I think that if you look at why people who are retired or
ill often go out of their minds after being alone at home for a while is that
they have too much time to think in the wrong ways. Their thoughts chase each
other in unhelpful circles. The great thing about work is that it keeps us
focused on a relatively small agenda that we can sort of just get through.
Between 9 and 10, this; between 10 and 11, that, for example. The larger,
imponderable questions disappear, and what’s left is the ability to
focus on a tight agenda.
A lot of conventional career advice tells people to do what makes them
happy and material success will follow. Do you agree?
It’s not quite true because the capitalist
system has not been so good at harnessing many of the things we love most. If
you look at the world, there are an awful lot of people working in management
consultancy. I can’t believe that that many people love management
consultancy; it doesn’t really stand to reason. Now, very few people
are marriage therapists, even though people love discussing people’s
relationships and love helping each other. What explains the difference? Money.
Management consultants earn 25 times more than marriage therapists. I think the
problem with the modern world is that we find it hard to harness some of the
more desirable jobs due to the mechanisms of commerce. And that’s for
a whole host of reasons having to do largely with industrialization and
Are there any prescriptions or observations you can make for somebody who’d
like to increase their earnings potential?
One of the things you really have to do is understand
human nature. If you look at many underperforming businesses, what’s really
going wrong is that they do not understand their clients. They’re
trying to sell people things they don’t really need. And that’s
based on a failure of psychology. I think the way to improve profitability is
not to invest endlessly in marketing and advertising, but to look at the
product and ask, “Does this generally fit into people’s
lives?” A lot of business failures have to do with the fact that the
product was wrong. It just didn’t suit how people live. It’s
what happened to the U.S. car industry. They didn’t stop and think
hard enough whether you really, really need this. In the good times, you
don’t have to ask that question so much, but in the bad times, you
How do you develop that skill or intuition?
It’s about being honest with yourself. It’s
about coming up with an idea and thinking, Right, that’s bullshit,
let me rethink that. It’s about arguing against yourself and finding
a devil’s advocate who, every time you think you’ve reached
some stable, good idea, comes along and tries his best to rubbish it. It’s
only when the devil’s advocate is running out of steam that you feel
like you’re building something solid. So attempt to destroy an idea
in the workshop way before it hits the marketplace.
What surprised you most about this topic?
I was surprised by some people’s ability to draw
happiness from occupations that I’d never thought could be that happy
— like accountancy. I spent a lot of time with accountants, and they
were really a jolly bunch compared with writers. And I wish I was part of them
and had those talents and interests, but I just don’t. They were good
at what they were doing, they were passionate, they worked in teams, and they
were well rewarded. There’s a romantic idea that accountants must be
bored. The truth is you’re only bored as an accountant if you haven’t
got certain skills and interests, but if you do have them, then you’ll
be reaching a level of stability and satisfaction, which many people should