Science of Self ™ Knowledge Centre

Alain de Botton on HR & Career Counselling

Feb 16, 2015


“It is surely significant that the adults who feature in children's books are rarely, if ever, Regional Sales Managers or Building Services Engineers." ― Alain de Botton Despite the disproportionately large role it plays in our lives, there is surprisingly little in the way of mainstream literature or TV programming to help us glean insight into the modern mysteries of work as we are growing up. TV shows, for example, that do happen to set the workplace as its stage tend to be overly preoccupied with the dramas of doctors, detectives and lawyers. There's virtually nothing on hand to help us understand the daily lives of data systems analysts, packaging technologists and supply chain coordinators, or even what these jobs titles mean.

“If you go into most bookshops and look at the front table, certainly the fiction area, and if you were a Martian trying to get an idea of what human beings are like based on what’s on the front table, you would come away thinking that the human race spends all it’s time falling in love, squabbling with their families, and occasionally murdering somebody. What never seems to make an appearance is the idea that we go to work.”

― Alain de Botton

In "The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work" bestselling author and philosopher Alain de Botton spends time shadowing people in industries that often get overlooked such as accounting, logistics, and food manufacturing in order to understand what people get up to on any given day of the week as well as the sort of things that make a job fulfilling or soul destroying.

De Botton spent time in the human resources department of Britain’s 2nd largest accountancy firm, reflecting on the experience in this video:

"You know, it's very common to mock the world of the HR department. I hung out with this HR department and was prepared to be a bit sarcastic about them but I came away full of admiration because the challenges they face, it seems to me, are so historically new.

I think HR is such a complicated position because at one level it is the friend of the worker and at the other level it is the friend of management. At one level these are the people you go to with your problems, and at another level these are the people you are going to get your redundancy notice from. In large organisations, people are never quite sure how to look at HR. Are these really my friends or enemies or are they going to report on me? So there's this kind of structural problem in HR. I almost think it should be 2 jobs... current HR is on the way to being a proper job but is currently hampered and stymied by all kinds of intellectual confusion."

De Botton also spent time with a psychologist and career counsellor, Robert Symons, over a number of months to observe his interactions. He notes the odd fact that career counselling, in a sense, should be the most important job in society because it's the job that helps people discover what job they should do, yet most career counsellors and psychotherapists are incredibly marginalised figures.

Botton recounts the sentiment shared by Symons:

"One of the things he kept saying was how difficult it is that people keep thinking that the job of finding out what job you should do is an easy one. He felt very angry against our sort of neo-Christian view that each of us has a calling, and that all it takes is that one day someone from the sky or somewhere will point to us and say 'You should be in logistics or banking.' He very much stressed that this is not the case for most of us; we have fragmentary interests which we must somehow harness and connect up to that rather artificial construct we call a career."

Symons keeps the following quote pinned to his wall:

“It isn’t normal to know what we want. It’s a rare and difficult psychological achievement.”

— Abraham Maslow 

This quote captures the intellectual centre of de Botton’s existential journey, something that he sees as a real opportunity for budding entrepreneurs of the future:

"The whole field of human self-development lies fallow... this should be one of the most enormous industries in the 21st century. Instead, it is at the cottage industry level.

We still live in a society where the big employers tend to be those that deliver cement, and build buildings, that make buttons, or distribute crisps. You know Maslow's famous Pyramid of Needs, where he talks about the needs for food and shelter at the bottom, and then right at the top it's needs like self-actualisation, creativity, belonging? If you look at most companies, they're down at the bottom. In a developed economy, what should be happening, which is slowly happening but not quite fast enough, is there should be more and more jobs catering to people's need at the top.

One of the most valuable things that a human being can do is to go and have psychotherapy. Psychotherapy is sitting down with somebody and thinking about your life. It's a fascinating area and it's so important. It's much, much more important than eating crisps. So it should be that the world of psychotherapy is in the FTSE 100 and is much more highly valued than Walkers Crisps. In other words, we are still looking to institutionalise and commercialise many of the needs at the top."

In a way that will be familiar to readers of Dan Pink’s Drive, meaning is an integral theme of the book and de Botton found that helping others is a major recurring idea that unites people across vastly different roles and industries:

"One of the things I think we want from our jobs is that they feel meaningful and you'll often hear people say 'I'm not satisfied in my job. It pays ok, but it's not meaningful.' And I pondered this word because I kept coming across it... I think ultimately what we want to do through our work is to help other people. Though economics looks at us as selfish individuals out to maximise our own income, really what we want to do, or a secondary powerful drive, is to help other people. Now that doesn't mean just becoming a doctor or a nurse or saving the developing world. It could mean something like removing the squeak in a door, or reuniting people with their lost luggage. But a feeling, by the end of the day, that you've somehow left people better off than they were at the beginning."

Read more in "The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work" by Alain de Botton.

Topics: Human Resources

Theo Winter

Theo Winter

Client Services Manager, Writer & Researcher. Theo is one of the youngest professionals in the world to earn an accreditation in TTI Success Insight's suite of psychometric assessments. For more than a decade, he worked with hundreds of HR, L&D and OD professionals and consultants to improve engagement, performance and emotional intelligence of leaders and their teams. He authored the book "40 Must-Know Business Models for People Leaders."


About this Blog…

Newsletter Sign-Up

Designed For You

Going out every 3 weeks, the Science of Self™ newsletter brings interesting, fresh and topical content to professionals in Talent Management, Human Resources, Learning & Development, People & Culture, Organisational Development, General Management and Consulting.

100% Privacy. No Spam.

Recent Posts

The Future of Work

Looking for a practical guide to help you rewire your business for the future of work?

Read More