Alain de Botton interview: A working hypothesis

WHEN ALAIN DE BOTTON IS struggling with a turn of phrase, he looks out of the window of his study in north London and dreams of running a bakery.

We all have it, the job we would rather be doing: hedge-fund managers who lift their heads from columns of figures and dream about being bestselling writers, teachers who ponder the money they'd make as accountants, and bestselling writers – well, it seems they daydream about baking bread.

"Really, it's about wanting to be useful to people," de Botton says. "We all need bread and you can actually make quite a nice loaf of bread, it's perhaps easier than writing a book. The more anxious I get, the more intense this desire for the bakery becomes."

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De Botton, 39, who has cast his observant, thoughtful eye on different aspects of human behaviour, from travel to architecture to falling in love, has now turned to the subject of work. Researching his new book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, took him fishing for tuna off the Maldives and watching the launch of a satellite in French Guiana, from a biscuit factory in Hayes to a corporate accountancy firm in the City.

He's the first to admit he's a tourist in the world of work. He had his first book published at 23, and ever since has lived the life of a writer, media type and occasional TV presenter. We meet at the apartment he uses as an office in Belsize Park, all creamy walls and oatmeal carpets, his bookshelves bearing Seneca, Gombrich, Nietzsche.

It's not exactly slogging it out at the nine-to-five. De Botton believes his outsider perspective is a valuable one. "I know a lot about writing, but I don't know much about how other industries work. I've tried to use my naivety to my advantage. I think if you've been commuting for the last 15 years, you're probably not going to find anything interesting to say about it, but if you don't commute, you might have some thoughts about it."

So he becomes a tourist in other people's daily grinds. He shadows workers on packed commuter trains, listens in on corporate negotiations, watches production lines. He is curious and respectful, and instead of sounding patronising and voyeuristic, he finds he is prompted to sympathy and respect.

"Respect was something I felt in many, many different occupations. It's very hard to respect people on holiday – everybody looks so silly at the beach, it makes you hate humanity – but when you see people at their work they elicit respect, whether it's a mechanic, a stonemason or an accountant. Anyone doing a job with halfway decent levels of competence is quite a moving sight."

He lifts the lid on the mechanisms that make the modern world tick, from the stately cargo ships that glide up the Thames from Yokohama, Mumbai, Istanbul, to the vast "logistics parks" in central England which supply supermarkets throughout the UK, via processes of which most of us are oblivious.

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Even work is largely invisible. "If a Martian was trying to understand what human beings get up to by reading most books, particularly novels, they'd think that people spent all their time falling in love and maybe murdering each other," says de Botton. "Those are modest pastimes compared with what we really spend our time doing, which is sleeping and working."

We, the modern middle-classes, are in fact the first society to expect our work to make us happy; indeed our expectations on it are so high that we spend a great deal of time disappointed.

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De Botton says: "I compare it to love and marriage. We all know people who have happy relationships but they are in a serious minority. There are people who are really satisfied with their work at all points of the income scale, but I think there is a similar probability. I think a proper understanding of this would alleviate a lot of the sense of persecution many of us do feel."

However, the credit crunch is making many of us count our blessings. De Botton is publishing a book about work when unemployment figures soar above two million for the first time in 12 years. "One of the things a downturn does is to lead us to re-evaluate our jobs, and if you've got a job you feel newly grateful. It moves you away from the bourgeois idea that work will be everything, to a more working-class view that work is for money. I think many people will be reflecting on their work from different directions."

One of the most thought-provoking points made in the book is that most British adults spend their working lives in careers chosen unthinkingly by their 16-year-old selves. This comes from career counsellor Robert Symons, whom de Botton observes counselling a 37-year-old senior tax lawyer who fears she missed her true calling.

Choosing a career, he says, is a lot harder than it looks. "There's this idea that you will know what you are instinctively from a young age. But in the same way as some people don't recognise their sexuality, they might not recognise their future identities as accountants or architects or astronauts."

So, Alain de Botton, what career did your 16-year-old self choose for you? "I wanted to be in what I thought of as a creative field but I had a very foggy idea of what that meant. Journalism, architecture, film-making, car design, lots of thoughts flitted through my head. I was very lonely with those thoughts, my parents weren't particularly helpful, school (Harrow] wasn't very helpful. I was just confused.

After "lots of angst", and some unsuccessful attempts to break into journalism and TV, he started a PhD as a smoke-screen for writing his first book, Essays in Love. Though he is often dubbed a "popular philosopher", he studied history at Cambridge and considers himself first and foremost an essayist.

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He still smarts at the vitriol he has attracted from academic philosophers. "If you make a bad loaf of bread, you don't get an 800-word review in the Times about it," he says. "Reviewing is a tremendously difficult thing to adjust to, I think I'm not the only writer to find that extremely hard."

He is the son of a millionaire Swiss financier, but says that instead of putting pressure on him to follow in his footsteps, his father did the opposite. "Out of a fear of rivalry, I think. I think sons need approval from their fathers, but there can be rivalry. One way around that is to do something the father approves of and is not involved in."

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For him, that was writing, but what about his two sons (admittedly, both still pre-school)? "I feel the important thing is to open up other avenues. I've chosen as godparents for both boys people who are not involved in the worlds I'm involved in: visual artist, architect, businessman, doctor.

"I suppose my dream for both boys is that they will do things which I admire and like but don't do myself, but if one of my sons decided he did want to be a writer, there would come a time when I say: 'OK, sure, give it a go'."

He challenges our elevating of so-called "creative" pursuits above all others, saying how delighted he was to meet a 19-year-old with a gift and passion for number-crunching. "It's almost a blessing when we meet people who naturally want to do the sort of things that are in high demand in society. What a gift to do that, as opposed to other people who would say, 'I want to be a novelist but actually I have to be an accountant'. "

In The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, he chose to focus on an artist, photorealist painter Stephen Taylor, who enjoys little recognition or reward, while sacrificing many personal comforts for his art. De Botton follows him as he spends months painting a single oak tree. When his work is exhibited in London, sales are "slow" and I get the impression that the two oak trees on his study wall were a significant contributor to the total.

Neither, it seems, is entrepreneurship the answer. At a small business fair, he encounters the inventor of the crisp bar (if you ever needed to eat a packet of crisps one-handed, this is the answer) and a man who has designed a pair of shoes for walking on water. A venture capitalist tells him that out of 2,000 business plans, he might invest in ten, but expect only two to make money.

While he considers the increasingly specialist nature of work, and how it is often divorced from meaning, creating "this very typical modern feeling that you are earning a salary but you feel a bit empty inside", he also emphasises the value of work in keeping our minds occupied, away from the bigger questions of the meaning of life.

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"Often, the large imponderable questions that weigh you down at 5pm on a Sunday afternoon have a wonderful habit of disappearing when you get into work on Monday morning. You may not solve everything but you've got nine things to do before midday and there's a way in which that's a relief.

"For philosophers and artists, the idea of being distracted is a negative one. But the older I get, the more I feel quite positive about distraction. There can be something wonderful about being saved from their large answerable questions by having to do the washing-up."

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It could be that's easy for him to say, a best-selling writer cocooned in his study doing the kind of job of which many people dream. But strangely it does help to know that he spends at least some of that time fantasising about baking bread.

• The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton is published by Hamish Hamilton on 2 April, priced 18.99.

ONE OF ALAIN DE BOTTON'S AIMS in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work is to open up and appreciate the behind-the-scenes mechanisms that make the modern world tick.

Mingling with cargo ship spotters on the Thames at Tilbury and walking the length of a pylon line with a founder member of the Pylon Appreciation Society, he points out the unexpected beauty in mechanical things.

"I was struck by the ship spotters, their extraordinary passion and the lack of any status that their activity has compared with looking at medieval churches, which is considered interesting and noble. What is this prejudice? It seems like an unfortunate art/science divide," he says.

"Within this society we're not taught to have feelings towards technology or machines, even though we're in the machine age.

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"I think a lot of it is because of the traumatisation of art and artists and cultural commentators in the face of industrialisation.

"Of course, there are huge degradations at the hands of machines, but it has to be balanced up. This book is shot through with admiration for men and women who make machines, make stuff go around, do all these things which tend never to crop up in books."

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