The Wisdom of Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton is a philosopher and essayist who thinks new and interesting thoughts. While I didn’t love his book on travel, I still find him stimulating and will continue to read him.

Colin Marshall recently interviewed de Botton for his radio program. Here’s the one hour MP3. It’s a great conversation, focused his latest book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. I recommend listening to it on your iPod on your way to…work.

I took some notes while listening. Some are direct quotes from de Botton:

  • There’s remarkably little about work and careers in modern literature. This might have to do with the professionalization of writing — writers are somewhat disconnected from the day-to-day office grind most people endure.
  • In the last 50 years expectations for both work and marriage have become crazy high. People now expect their work to be interesting (not just put food on the table) and their marriage to be one of everlasting love (not just an institution in which to have children and manage a household).
  • The current economic crisis is helping re-adjust work expectations. You are starting to hear things like, “Well, at least I have a job.”
  • Often what people think is the most boring part of their job is actually the most gripping. You have to really probe and prod to get people to talk about what they do, hour by hour.
  • When little children play grown-up and pretend to be professionals, they love to serve. They like to serve other people (as a doctor, waiter, etc). There might be something telling in this natural tendency.
  • Work can serve as an agreeable distraction from thinking about the big questions of life. Sometimes just staring at a blank wall and asking the big questions doesn’t get us anywhere.
  • Too much of self-help is relentlessly optimistic. More self-help should paint an accurate picture of the pains and hardships of life, and then reinforce the message that most people need to hear more often: you are not alone.
  • The point of reading is to make us feel less alone and less confused.

There’s more, too, including commentary on entrepreneurship and career counselors.


One of de Botton’s most interesting projects is the School of Life. It’s a handful of courses about big picture life issues — like work and love. The accompanying blog, while not updated in a bit, has some great stuff as well. Here’s a representative post on silence.

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