The meaning of biscuits

With thanks to a recommendation from AM, this week I have been mostly reading Alain de Botton. This has fed my philosophical need (expressed in Does it Matter... post last week) to find my place in the world and understand a) why I need it to matter, and b) whether the work itself has to be the thing that matters, or whether other avenues of life can be more mattery.

Anyhow, my newly-purchased copy of AdB’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (2009) now has a good number of pages folded at corners. I wouldn’t normally create a post by copying from someone’s book, but AdB has such elegance and lightness of touch in describing the existential angst that must surely face all workers at some point in their lives, and I therefore feel quite justified in a) plugging this book, and b) reproducing pages 78-79 below. (am i allowed to do this? Can someone let me know if this is against the rules please?)

In an ideal Paretan economy, jobs would be ever more finely subdivided to allow for the accumulation of complex skills, which would then be traded among workers. It would be in everyone’s best interest that doctors not waste time learning how to fix boilers, that train drivers not sew clothes for their children and that Biscuit Packaging Technologists leave questions of warehousing to graduates in supply-chain management, the better to concentrate their own energies on the improvement of roll-wrap mechanisms. In a perfect society, so specialised would all jobs be, that no one would any longer understand what anyone else was doing.

…But however great the economic advantages of segmenting the elements of an afternoon’s work into a range of forty-year-long careers, there was reason to wonder about the unintended side effects of doing so. In particular, one felt tempted to ask… how meaningful the lives might feel as a result.

When does a job feel meaningful? Whenever it allows us to generate delight of reduce suffering in others. Though we are often taught to think of ourselves as inherently selfish, the longing to act meaningfully in our work seems just as stubborn a part of our make-up as our appetite for status or money. It is because we are meaning-focussed animals rather than simply materialistic ones that we can reasonably contemplate surrendering security for a career helping to bring drinking water to rural Malawi or might quit a job in consumer goods for one in cardiac nursing, aware that when it comes to improving the human condition a well-controlled defibrillator has the edge over even the finest biscuit.

But we should be wary of restricting the idea of meaningful work too tightly, of focussing only on the doctors, the nuns of Kolkata or the Old Masters. There can be less exalted ways to contribute to the furtherance of the collective good, and it seems that making a perfectly formed stripey chocolate circle which helps to fill and impatient stomach… deserves its own secure, if microscopic, place in the pantheon of innovations designed to alleviate the burdens of existence.

The real issue is not whether baking biscuits is meaningful, but the extent to which the activity can seem to be so after it has been continuously stretched and subdivided across five thousand lives and half a dozen different manufacturing sites. An endeavour endowed with meaning may appear meaningful only when it proceeds briskly in the hands of a restricted number of actors and therefore when particular workers can make an imaginative connection between what they have done with their working days and their impact on others.

And that’s the rub, aint it?

Cubicle slaves, battery hens, office drones and Assistant Senior Corporate Performance Analysts the world over may be able to feed their meaning-daemon with the promise that the thing their organisation makes or does is sufficiently worthy of inclusion in some future Hall of Famous Industries Which Helped People’s Lives Get A Bit Better. We may truly believe in the overall product of our organisation, the vision of a better world through achieved via chocolatey-er biscuits, smoother-writing ball point pens, swifter refuse collections or less alcohol-related disorder in town centres. This is why we joined these organisations, to feel a part of something that made a difference to people’s lives, comfort and satisfaction with their environment.

But by specialising and subdividing the work to the extent that you can’t discern whether what you did in a day was better or worse for society, compared with staying at home eating crumpets and polishing the cat, each individual worker’s Meaning Quota is diluted almost to the point of nonexistence.

And once you realise you’re only one ten-thousandth of the eventual useful thing your organisation does, the net gain or loss of your productivity per day is so infinitesimally small it hardly matters whether you graft or skive. Of course, if everyone was skiving, nothing good would ever get done… but what if everyone was inadvertently grafting at the wrong thing? What if the division of labour had gone so far that you’re doomed to either be distant from the end product, or distant from the process cogs that creak and turn to create the end product, therefore you’ll never know whether you made any impact at all.

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5 thoughts on “The meaning of biscuits

  1. You’re ignoring the importance of ego, empire-building, regimes and greed in the managers who have a vested interest in having “subordinates” and pretending that those subordinates do something in order to justify their existence.

    Note most managers are men.

    • Agreed. I’m deliberately ignoring them. I very much doubt any of the Vested Interest Brigade read this, so railing against their “unexamined lives” of vestedness would have no impact other than making me feel… cathartic? And probably look bitter!

  2. I’m sure you’re aware of the risks of thinking too much about *anything*. I complement AdB with Kurt Vonnegut to keep me on an even keel.

    “Tiger got to hunt,
    Bird got to fly;
    Man got to sit and wonder, “Why, why, why?”

    Tiger got to sleep,
    Bird got to land;
    Man got to tell himself he understand.”

    -Cat’s Cradle. No cat; no cradle.

  3. perhaps we’re all being conned, a bit. Even with the best intentions. Like those dogs that search luggage at airports for the smell of drugs, they love it! Tails wagging etc. But they dont get the enjoyment from contributing to the war on drugs, they have an inbuilt instinct to please their pack-leader (the nice police man handing out the biscuits) and to hunt and find things. They find meaning from that, so if we have a silly job, but a silly job that gives us satisfaction to our need of autonomy, mastery and purpose, then are we being “conned” or just living in an environment different from our ancestral environment, but still getting the satisfaction we need from making biscuits instead of helping the extended family kill a mammoth?
    And I havent even had a drink

    • Much as I hate to admit it, I have an inbuilt instinct to please my pack leader too. No matter that I think my latest version of ABCxyz.doc is about as much lasting use to society as a cocktail umbrella in a hurricane, I still feel validated by the praise. Stupid human instincts. Bet AdB wouldn’t fall into such a pathetic ego trap.

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