On Work

In his excellent book, ‘The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work,‘ Alain de Botton asks: “When does a job feel meaningful?  Whenever it allows us to generate delight or reduce suffering in others.”  This got me thinking.  Is my job meaningful?

Last week I was recording a clutch of Christmas commercials for ashopping centre; it was like living in a Ballardian dystopia, with sleigh bells.  The all-under-one-roof cliches, the generic list of retailers, the opening hours, the appeal for shoppers to take advantage of the free parking, the promise of a magical Santa’s grotto set amidst a winter wonderland in an air-conditioned out-of-town monolith – there was a moment when I felt a crushing sense of having done and said it all a thousand times before.  But it’s what I do.  And to do it well, I have to like what I do.  I have to believe in it, and it has to mean something.


This notion of meaningfulness is hugely important to me.  I need to feel productive.  I need to feel that I’m useful.  I need to feel that my work affects people in a positive way.  This is the writer’s clamour for approval, the comedian’s longing for a laugh.  I take pleasure in working in order that others will enjoy and benefit from what I’ve produced, even if only momentarily.  Perhaps this is a hangover from the Victorian idea of work, based on a hankering for a mythical medieval Golden Age where farmers, stone-masons and monks happily toiled their way through the daylight hours, joyfully putting aside all worries about plague, pestilence and war. This ideology taught us that doing good, honest work glorifies our God-given gifts and fundamentally improves us, heart, body and soul.  This is an ethic that seems to be firmly plaited into my DNA. It’s what drives me to do what I do.


Freud thought that happiness in work and happiness in love were the two axes upon which our mental health pivots; if we achieve either one, we’ll manage to eschew the smorgasbord of neuroses available to the human mind.  If we achieve both, we’ll know nirvana.  He also said that creative output is the successful resolution of internal conflict.  So it follows that creative work and the production of things that give us a sense of fulfillment make us feel good about ourselves.  Work can make us happy.

And what of happiness?  How can we be happy?  The Dalai Lama teaches that:

  • the purpose of life is happiness
  • happiness is determined more by the state of one’s own mind than by one’s external conditions, circumstances or events – at least when one’s basic survival needs are met.
  • happiness can be achieved through the systematic training of our hearts and minds, through reshaping our attitudes and outlook
  • the key to happiness is in our own hands

I believe that this is true.  To be happy, I can either choose to focus on the mundane drudgery of my work or I can embrace the creative challenges I face every day.  Or better still, I can createcreative challenges.  I need this sense of freshness to alleviate the inevitable tedium of my work.

All work – no matter how engaging, satisfying or financially rewarding – can become dull.  The journey to work is so familiar as to be contemptible; the IT department just won’t have it that the printer spontaneously develops a stubborn reluctance to do the single thing it was invented to do; the pain-in-arse customer always phones with the same pain-in-the-arse concerns at the most inconvenient possible moment; your email server appears to be possessed by unquiet spirits; your colleague’s verbal tic irritates you to the point of fantasising about committing grievous bodily harm.  All these things are possible.  Work is a petri dish upon which the mould of boredom can bloom.

I asked a producer if he was happy in his job.  There was a pause.

“Are you having a fucking laugh?” he said.

Hard Times

As we reel from the financial earthquake of The Economic Crisis (TM), we find ourselves working in an uncertain environment.  Many people have been made redundant from jobs to which they dedicated their lives; many more are at risk of redundancy.  People who have jobs find themselves doing the work of more than one person because their colleagues have been ‘let go.’ Customers demand more for their money and bosses expect the sort of devotion usually seen in religious cults.  Cutbacks and scarce resources brought about by financial constraint mean that many people are working in a state of fear.  This is a hard time for good work.  It’s a hard time to find happiness in it.  But to cope, find it we must.


Work, in our society, seems to be closely bound up with our sense of identity.  When we meet someone for the first time, we’ll ask them and be asked back – what do you do?  This question enables us, rightly or wrongly, to form a thumb-nail sketch about someone, to assume what sort of person they are, what level of education they’ve achieved, what size house they live in, what makes them tick.  For me, when I tell strangers what I do for a living they usually laugh.  They either assume my job is unbearably glamorous (it’s not) or outrageously stupid (sometimes it is).


So does my job generate delight?  Does it reduce suffering in others?  I like to hope that my work – guiding commuters through the tunnels under London, urging consumers to avail themselves of the 3-for-2 offers in the chiller aisle, entreating callers to please hold – helps people.  Whether it’s helping them get to where they need to be, achieve their quarterly sales targets or navigate their way around a nightmarish one-way system, I hope my work is useful.  I’m sure though that there are many thousands of people who hear my honeyed tones – a harassed mother in a supermarket, an irritated caller ringing an insurance company, a sweating Underground passenger – who frankly just wish I’d shut the fuck up.

But in my darkest times, when I’m wondering if I can honestly face recording another commercial where I have to be ‘Mrs Christmas, with a West Country accent, in the style of Dawn French,‘ I can always console myself with the fact that I’m not a jingle singer.

down under-ground?

Don’t read this if you’re easily offended. It’s about Brexit.

Hello – a short film by David Richard Birtles

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Emma Clarke

Emma is an award-winning voiceover, broadcaster and writer. Want to find out more about Emma?
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