The Mystery of Work
Over the course of history, work has long been transformed from being just a way to make a living to some means to personal fulfillment. For most people, work occupies the majority of ones waking hours and, in fact, ones life – especially now that the retirement age is increasingly extended in many societies and people after retirement may tend to engage in other forms of occupation rather than sitting at home.
Work has also for long begun to confer a person his perceived status in the society, that a business card nowadays may mean far more than just the information for establishing contact and communication. It is obviously for this reason, but not the nature of work itself, that the anachronistic aristocrats or the contemporary benefactors of opulent inheritance, or even the likes of Steve Jobs, so look down on the ordinary salary-men – as they no doubt consider themselves beyond any fixed-sum remuneration.
But status aside, can work itself be a source of happiness in our modern world? In his latest work “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work”, Alain De Botton wittily outlines the evolution of historical attitudes to work, and infers from the eighteenth-century bourgeois thinking that there could be enjoyment within a paid work as there could be romance within a marriage. This was a big leap forward from the ancient Greek philosophers’ view that only a private income and a life of leisure could afford citizens adequate opportunities to enjoy the higher pleasures gifted by music and philosophy.
However, the joy from work so glorified in literature both ancient or contemporary is, more often than not, implicitly referred to those sense of satisfaction or fulfillment arising from the results, and even the process of deployment itself, of physical labour and/or “specialized” skills of art and craft – including those endowed by unique qualifications in the modern world, eg, surgery, dentistry, engineering, etc.. In other words, perhaps only from those kinds of work for which the output can be more or less directly traced to a person’s input of physical effort or mental capacity may one readily find real pleasure.
Sadly, that probably excludes a lot of office jobs. In fact, the office as a workplace is often more associated with sorrow and misery than otherwise in satires. Tim Harford convincingly explains it with the “tournament theory” in “The Logic of Life” – that by paying or promoting workers through judging their relative performance against each other, the office life is effectively turned into a tournament, the kind of environment conducive to back-stabbing or other behaviour of treachery. This may be an extreme manifestation of plausible vices in reality. But the office is indeed where the sense of hierarchy is most acutely perceived, ie, where most likely as the source of so-called status anxiety. It may be true that the only positions of happiness in the office are those beyond the rat race, ie, those belong to the winners of tournament.
But as far as an occupation is concerned, perhaps the pinnacle of happiness, if happiness could be calibrated as such in a generic sense, belongs to those who makes a more than comfortable living out of doing what he genuinely loves to do – the likes of Tiger Woods and Roger Federer – more so than the Chairman or CEO. Otherwise, for the ordinary salary-men, like myself, the thinking of Hermann Hesse (what the German-Swiss novelist wrote in “Demian”) may be more enlightening and consoling than anything else: each man has only one genuine vocation – to find the way to himself.
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