Meaning Archives - The School Of Life

A distinctive feature of modern times is the extent to which we tend to devote our brief lives to making – or aspiring to make – money. We worry as we approach the end of our education, we worry throughout our working years and we worry in retirement. A large part of mental life is made up of anxious thoughts about our financial position.

However, it’s important to note that our worry about money is – in most countries at this point in history – typically disconnected from any issues of survival. We could keep going – as almost everyone who ever lived has done – on much less than we have. What drives us to accumulate is a psychological necessity, not a material one. We are under the sway of a powerful cultural force: our sense of being able to think well of ourselves has become equated with an ability to generate an impressive income. Earning healthy sums isn’t so much practically important as emotionally significant; it’s grown to be our chief marker of decency.

We operate with a background conviction that a failure to make money could only arise from some form of moral and metaphysical inadequacy: poverty would have to be a sign that someone was too unreliable, self-indulgent, timid, irresponsible or stupid to thrive in the market-place. 

And yet history reveals plenty of highly instructive examples of people who made self-conscious, deliberate, unapologetic decisions to embrace a modest income – in the name of other goals; people who pulled off the feat of managing to think well of themselves despite being poor.

They were followers of a concept known as ‘voluntary poverty’. If the term sounds paradoxical or even perverse, it is because our own era has difficulties imagining that anyone could ever sanely enter into a voluntary relationship with something as appalling as having little money. We can only picture ourselves as having to bravely to put up with poverty, never as opting for it if there were so much as the slightest element of choice. 

History suggests something different. The outstanding representative of voluntary poverty in Classical times was the Roman statesman Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus (c. 519 – c. 430 BC) – in honour of whom the US city of Cincinnati is named. Cincinnatus came from a prestigious but impoverished, family; he’d had a very successful public career but, being honourable and very honest, had never made any money out of his service. Then, tiring of the shabby deals and devious self-seeking of his colleagues, he had retired early to a small farm, where he worked his own land and eked out a modest living. 

The noble Roman Cincinnatus — bare-chested – weighing  up whether to remain a farmer or head back to politics.

At this point, Rome was still a Republic – but a far from mighty one. In 458 BC, as had often happened before, one of the neighbouring tribes launched a major invasion that threatened to annihilate the state. In desperation, a government envoy was dispatched to Cincinnatus, begging him to return to Rome, adopt unlimited powers, and see off the threat. Cincinnatus was surprised in the act of ploughing his field bare chested. He thought of the offer for a few minutes, weighed up his longing for a quiet agricultural life against the urgent needs of his nation, and then asked his wife Racilia to fetch his toga from a cupboard in his simple cottage. He accepted the role of temporary dictator and rapidly succeeded in repelling the attack on Rome. Given his triumph, everything was now open to him: Cincinnatus could have held onto his position as dictator and accumulated boundless wealth. But this was not his way. He loved his family and his life as a farmer far too much. So he resigned and returned home to his plough and his few acres. He chose voluntary poverty over luxury and grandeur.

What motivated Cincinnatus was an intelligent and discerning sense of what truly brought him contentment: marble palaces and gold might have carried prestige, but when Cincinnatus examined his subjective sources of pleasure, he realised that what actually satisfied him was getting up early in the morning to water his oxen, watching his fields slowly ripen and chatting with his wife and children after physically exhausting but rewarding days under the sun. Cincinnatus’s enduring legacy was to be a man of opportunity who took the trouble to realise that there were things he loved more than money.

In modern times, in a very different arena, the Canadian artist Agnes Martin (1912 – 2004) similarly discovered that she had greater concerns than the pursuit of wealth. After college, rather than seeking properly paid employment, Martin began an itinerant life, firstly in New York and then in the deserts of New Mexico. There she built herself – largely by her own hands – a tiny mud-brick house where she dwelt in the most austere way, wearing only the roughest clothes, subsisting on a bare diet of cheese and fruit, and paying no attention at all to money – devoting herself instead to producing some of the simplest and most beautiful works of art ever made. Ironically, by the end of her life, Martin had accumulated enormous sums through her paintings, each of which sold for a few million dollars. But she couldn’t care less. A treat for her was to head to a local diner to have an omelette with a friend.

Agnes Martin at her house near Cuba, New Mexico, 1974. 

It wasn’t so much that Martin hated money, just that she had discovered something that was far more precious to her than material accumulation: the gentle tranquility of mind that she experienced when creating canvases made up of repeated rhythmical patterns and lines against coloured backgrounds, delicate pencil marks interspersed with bands of muted pinks or blues. 

Agnes Martin, Affection, 2001. © 2018 Estate of Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of Pace.

Agnes Martin, Affection, 2001

Our preoccupation with money feels highly respectable, but it has a poignant and unexpected cause: we keep wanting more money than we need and would by extension feel deeply embarrassed about having to rely on old clothes or a simple house because we haven’t as yet identified a passion that could matter to us sufficiently to replace money-making in our minds. We haven’t found what farming was to Cincinnatus or painting was to Martin. We haven’t yet discovered the real reasons why we are alive.

It’s not that we don’t have such reasons. They are inside us and always have been. We carry a range of authentic allegiances for which we could in theory give up so much of our financial appetite. Passions are not only for a few, highly unusual individuals; we all have them and used to engage with them when we were small children and knew how to play. It’s just that the prevailing ideology of modernity doesn’t invite us to work out what our real loves might be. Nothing in our education system allows us to imagine that discovering a few things that matter more than money is the root of genuine contentment and freedom.

It’s understandable if we get nervous about untethering ourselves, even to a limited extent, from conventional views about money and our worth as individuals. It is painfully normal to be terrified of how others will react if we cannot generate a standard respectable answer to the question: ‘What do you do?’ We have learnt to doubt our right to lead the kinds of lives we long for and deserve.

Our standard resignation suggests the path we would need to take to free ourselves: the clearer we can be in our own minds about our true passions, the more we can start to see money (and the socially-sanctioned praise it brings with it) from a more realistic perspective. Money is a mechanism or a means that at best enables us to do the things we love, nothing more or less. It is not or should not be a route to liking ourselves more or an end in itself.

We will be able to choose poverty voluntarily, we will be able freely to forgo luxuries, comforts and the prestige of being prosperous once we focus our lives on what authentically matters to us. We will fall out of love with money the more we learn to fall in love with something else; farming, music, service, writing, God, quiet evenings at home or the painting of slow delicate lines across pale pink canvases.

For most of our lives, we’re hard at work: we’re up till midnight in the library studying for a degree, we’re learning a trade, building a business, writing a book. We have hardly a moment to ourselves. We don’t even ask whether we are fulfilled, it’s simply obvious that this is the bit that has to hurt. We fall asleep counting the weeks until the end.

And then, finally, one day, slightly unexpectedly, the end arrives. Through slow and steady toil, we have achieved what we had been seeking for years: the book is done, the business is sold, the degree certificate is on the wall. People around us cheer and lay on a party; we might even take a holiday.

And that is when, for those of us in the melancholy camp, a supreme unease is liable to descend. The beach is beautiful, the sky is flawless, there is a scent of lemon in the air from the orchard. We have nothing unpleasant to do. We can read, loll, play and dawdle. Why then are we so flat, disoriented and perhaps slightly tearful? Why are we so scared?

The mind works in deceptive ways. In order to generate the momentum required to induce us to finish any task, this mind pretends that once the work is done, it will finally be content, it will accept reality as it is. It will cease its restless, persecutory questions, it won’t throw up random unease or guilty supposions. It will be on our side.

But whether by intent or coincidence, our mind isn’t in any way well suited to honouring such promises. It turns out to be vehemently opposed to, and endangered by, states of calm and relaxation. It can manage them, at best, for a day or so. And then, with cold rigour, it will be on its way again with worries and questions. It will ask us once more to account for ourselves, to ask what the point of us is, to doubt whether we are worthy or decent, to question what right we have to be.

Once hard work ends, there is nothing to stop our melancholy minds from leading us to the edge of an abyss we had been able to resist so long as our heads were down. We start to feel that no achievement will ever in fact be enough, that nothing we do can last or make a difference, that little is as good as it should be, that we are tainted by a primordial guilt at being alive and a sense of not having paid our dues, that others around us are far more noble and able than we will ever be, that the blue sky is oppressive and frightening in its innocence – and that ‘doing nothing’ is the hardest thing we have ever attempted to do.

It is as though deep down, the melancholy mind knows that the ultimate fate of the planet is to be absorbed by the sun in seven and a half billion years and that everything is therefore vain and futile against a cosmological sense of time and space. We know that we are puny and irrelevant apparitions; we haven’t been so much busy as protected from despair by the use of deadlines, punishing schedules, work trips and late night conference calls. A grossly inflated local sense of importance spared us a recognition of cosmic futility. But now, with the achievement secured, there is no defence left against the might of existential terror. It is just us and, in the firmament above, the light of a billion billion dying stars. There are no more 8.30am meetings, no more revision notes, no more chapter deadlines to distract us from our metaphysical irrelevance. 

We should be kinder on ourselves. Rather than putting ourselves through the infinitely demanding process of idling (as though a nervous, adrenaline filled creature like homo sapiens could ever pull off such an implausible feat), we should be self-compassionate enough to keep setting ourselves one slightly irrelevant but well camouflaged challenge after another – and do our very best to pretend that these matter inordinately and that there should be no sizeable gaps between them. 

Our work exists to protect us from a brutal sense of despair and angst. We should make sure we never stop having tasks to do – and never make that most reckless of all moves, ‘retire’ or embark on that next most reckless step, taking a long holiday.


For most of history, work was not a topic of sustained reflection because it seemed at once so simple, so inevitable and so unpleasant. It was overwhelmingly focused on the provision of basic food and shelter and offered next to no stimulation or spiritual reward. At best one could describe it as a backbreaking and desperate curse.

The modern age begins with hope. By the eighteenth century, work had diversified, certain trades were growing more prosperous, others less exhausting. Humans began to step back and ask themselves questions: how was work organised, what was it for and what might be its future? There was a new self-consciousness and inquisitiveness. The French Encyclopédie, which set out to condense all human knowledge and was published in 32 volumes between 1751 and 1772, devoted a third of its entries to work. With the help of elegant forensic illustrations, it described hundreds of occupations at unusual depth. There were substantial entries on pipe-organ making, turning and lathe work, baking and sugar refining, paper-making and bookbinding, tanning and soapmaking, mining and metallurgy, porcelain and pottery manufacture.

There was a grateful, childlike fascination to the entries. Humanity was waking up to how beautifully specific and skilled its labours could be. There were people in workshops who understood exactly how to manipulate the forty different kinds of tools required to make a saddle; a relatively everyday object like a bed emerged as a piece of intricate engineering demanding admirable degrees of training and experience. The production process of Gruyère cheese was more interesting than most novels.

Two hundred years later, in a comparable spirit of investigation, the American photographer Bill Owens travelled around Southern California, photographing an eclectic range of people at their work, then married up their portraits with their reflections on their activities. The tone was less heroic – much of the work we do remains minor, bathetic and disconnected from higher ambitions – but it conveyed an equal fascination with the devotion and sacrifice our labours demand.

   “I got tired of selling waterbeds so I opened a beanbag store. Waterbeds were just a fad.” 

“At Dirty Sally night Club I earn $80 a night on tips. Everyone is here to have a good time at the disco, drink and pick each other up. The outfit is just a part of the job. It helps me get better tips and I am careful not to get too familiar with the customers.”

‘As a theoretical physicist I generally don’t tell people what I do. It’s useless explaining because, unless you know about the subject, it’s mysticism. Some of my mathematical problems take a year or more to solve. I carry them around with me. So really I’m working all the time, even when I’m in bed.’

‘Being a salesman is easy. It’s fun to manipulate people, to get a reaction, to find out where they’re at. I used to be in management; I hated it. All I want to do is sell furniture.’

We understand so much more about who we are at work, but we still grapple with questions of what work is, and what it might properly aim at. We are still in search of a philosophy of work.  We might begin like this: what we call ‘work’ are all the efforts we make to compensate for what nature doesn’t automatically or easily provide us with. We work in order to reduce particular sorts of pain and increase particular sorts of pleasure that nature did not, on its own, take care of. The history of work is the record of all the systematic techniques and processes we had to devise to make life more bearable than it would otherwise have been: nature didn’t provide sufficient food on trees and in bushes and so we started to plant seeds; nature left us shivering in our natural state and so we began sewing. Every time humans encountered a failing in nature, they tried to invent a tool; every tool is an instrument to extend our command over an indifferent environment in the service our needs. When we hear the word tool, certain sorts of objects tend to come to mind: we couldn’t carry sufficient quantities of water in our cupped hands, and we devised the bucket; we couldn’t deliver enough force in our fists to smash a stone and we invented the hammer… 

Paleolithic Handaxe, Lake Natron, Tanzania, British Museum

But if we define a tool as anything we devise because nature hasn’t granted us a power to act in a particular way on the world, far more things are tools than the simple mechanical objects we tend to associate with the term: a book is a tool to correct our inability to hold a great number of our ideas in memory; a painting is a tool to preserve an impression of the beauty of the night sky or the underside of clouds at dusk; a holiday is a tool to organise a succession of satisfactions relating to a foreign climate or culture; a religion is a tool to foreground certain ideas of morality and consolation that might otherwise disappear from our vacillating minds. ‘Civilisation’ is the summary of everything we have ever devised to counteract the harshness and discomforts of  our natural condition.

The centuries show humans learning to invent an ever more complicated range of tools – to address ever more subtle and complicated needs. We have moved from devising tools for simple aspects of survival to tools that address our aspirations to flourish. Along the way, we made a striking discovery: that coming up with and operating certain tools might at points be very pleasurable. This was a surprise. For most of our time on earth, work had been no fun at all: it had been repetitive, physically arduous and mentally unstimulating – which is why the aristocratic assumption had always been that, once money allowed, one would down tools at once and devote oneself to leisure. No rich person would ever think of continuing to work in order to address the needs of others. But at the dawn of the modern world, humanity became conscious of forms of work that, even while they generated money through being useful to others, also stimulated and rewarded those who undertook them. One might please oneself and one’s audience. 

Satisfying work begins with an insight into happiness. What later gets called an enterprise, a profession or a trade is – at the outset – just an idea about increasing pleasure or decreasing pain. We start the long journey towards work when we spot something that we would like others to enjoy – or a friction or discomfort we would want to remove from their lives. For example, we notice how interesting it tastes when a sandwich is made with a particular variety of oil and lemon. Or we see how stimulating the very old and the very young find it to spend time together and wonder how they could do so more regularly. Or we spot that there is a height above the knee where a hem hangs that is especially beguiling. An insight into happiness could begin when we think of combining two earlier disconnected attempts to please: perhaps a delicate high voice can be married up with a deep bass set within a piece of music the length of a choral mass. Maybe the way they handle wool in Norway can be twinned with the way they treat metal in northern Italy. Or we can be challenged to deepen a sort of happiness that is already present but in a relatively undeveloped form. Perhaps a comedian’s routine could be taken to a new level if it could also expound some leading ideas from science. Or we are struck by an impediment to happiness that irks us especially: why do we need to spend so much time filling out of forms, why can’t the system automatically reorder a part, couldn’t we arrange it so that the machine would leave no residue?

The unattended pleasure we identify might be very personal and apparently little known. It can require courage to imagine that it could ever matter to other people, that our secret satisfactions and frustrations might have direct equivalents inside strangers. Successful work requires taking an intelligent guess about the lives of the audience. ‘In the minds of geniuses,’ wrote Emerson, ‘we find our own neglected thoughts.’ And one could add, in perceptive businesses, we find our own neglected pleasures and pains addressed. They know us better than we knew ourselves, what we call profit being the reward for understanding an aspect of human nature ahead of the competition.

But an insight into happiness is not – on its own – yet work. Work is everything we need to do to turn insights into stable, nameable, reproducible and ultimately tradeable things; to turn a particular kind of berry exposed to the sun into the tool we call a jam, a particular harmony into the tool we call a song, to turn a sequence of ideas into the tool we call a college course. Every pleasure needs to be ‘worked on’, farmed, pruned, cultivated and arranged into an assembly line. 

When we think of all work as a matter of tool building, the distinction between art and commerce disappears in an illuminating way. In the 1880s, the largely deserted, rugged coast of Normandy was visited by the Impressionist painter Claude Monet. He was particularly attracted to the cliffs near the village of Etretat. Many local people and one or two rare visitors must occasionally have had the fleeting thought that this was a charming place – as they drew up a fishing boat on the sand or collected the iodine rich kelp. What distinguished Monet is that he sought to place his pleasures on a solid footing. He waited for hours from a variety of vantage points until just the right sort of light emerged from the reflections thrown up by the crashing of the waves – and then tried to arrest, fix and render more tangible his pleasure in a series of tools we now call ‘Impressionist paintings’.

A tool for enjoying the effects of reflected light on water, cloud and rock.

But receptive antennae, highly attuned to pleasures and pains, are not the exclusive possession of the people we call artists. Another way of capturing the beauty of the cliff faces of Normandy was pioneered by entrepreneurs who, in the latter part of the century, raised loans from Parisian banks in order to construct imposing static tools for appreciating views of cliffs – complete with large plate glass windows, bellboys and balconies – and that we call in shorthand ‘hotels’.

     Hotel d’Angleterre, Etretat.

It’s in the nature of most tools that they can’t be made alone. Work is touching to behold when we see a wide variety of people, of different ages and temperaments, physical builds and capacities, united by a single aim; for example, when a gruff handyman, dour accountant, cheery instructor, bland marketing agent, severe government inspector and temperamental cook all come together to create the tool we call a school or a kindergarten. Given what we know of human nature  – how conflictual, tricky and individual we can be – it is redemptive to see that we are also at points capable of laying aside our differences in the name of a unitary mission. Each of us considered singly may not be such an impressive thing but we rise to the grandeur of the projects we collectively engage in: a cathedral turns the humblest stonemason into a servant of the sublime.

At the same time, our work gives us an opportunity to escape from some of the normal difficulties of being ourselves. It imposes a requirement that we be ‘professional’, which might sound inauthentic and deceptive, but can in truth provide a welcome alternative to the intractable difficulties thrown up by our deeper selves. For a few hours, via our work, we can lay aside the doubts and agonies of our inner lives and experience a simpler, more one-dimensional but also more decisive and logical way of being. We can enjoy a professional atmosphere where not everyone feels it their duty to be an uncensored correspondent of their every mood. After an emotionally turbulent weekend, we may welcome Monday morning for the more straightforward image it returns us of ourselves.

At its best, work allows us to park what is most valuable about us – most creative, sensible, kind, perceptive – in an object or institution that is more stable and accomplished than we are. We may vacillate, get cross, fall into doubt, behave pathetically – but with any lucky, the tool we make will bear no trace of our weaknesses. The good tool gives no hint of the frailties of its maker. The very definition of sound work is that it should be better than the person who made it. It should also ideally not fall apart so easily. We have to die, but it might go on – continuing to deliver pleasure or alleviate pain when our name has long been erased. It constitutes a victory of sorts over the forces of entropy and extinction. 

All this said, there is so much that can stop us from finding the work that would help us flourish. We might not have the courage to think about what is missing from the world or to follow any of our insights into the nature of happiness. We might fall back on a feudal mindset in which we assume that some people are allowed to develop their vision and others – by some arbitrary rule – are not. A hard, submissive childhood may school us in resignation. Without any plans, increasingly afraid of survival, we may panic and fall prey to the plans of others, losing sight of the contours of our unique mission.

The education system doesn’t help: for years, we are given instruction in a random range of skills but without an overview of what our lives might really amount to – and what work is ultimately about. We aren’t helped to fathom what we in particular are interested in and how it might map onto what is possible in the world. We lack a career counselling service that could combine detailed explanations of available work with help in understanding our feint and untrained signals of enthusiasm: a service that would track down the fertile zone in which the needs of the world and our aptitudes connect, a service to highlight the spark of genius inside every one of us – so that we might one day contribute to a tool that counts and die without regret. 

The pain of modernity here as in so many other fields is that we have raised expectations without teaching ourselves how we might meet them, to have left ourselves unaided in a painful intermediate zone between expectation and reality. We need no longer toil like our ancestors. We have the right to discover the tools that could redeem each us even as we diminish the sufferings and raise the pleasures of strangers.

History is filled with stories of extraordinary figures who died tragically young: John Keats (26), Emily Bronte (30), Alexander the Great (33), Mozart (35), Sylvia Plath (30), Van Gogh (37). In The Death of Gericault, the brilliant Romantic artist – who a few years before had won international reknown for his Raft of the Medusa – is shown stretched out on his bed in his Parisian studio in the rue des Martyrs, having just succumbed to a typhoid infection developed after a riding accident: he was 33 years old.

Ary Scheffer, The Death of Gericault, 1824. 

Given the extent of their contributions, it seems appalling how young these talents died. But when we zero in on the oft-remarked detail that they seem to have achieved more in a few brief years than many of us achieve in eight decades, a new thought opens up. The very discrepancy between us and them suggests that we are perhaps being overly blunt when we choose to measure lifespan in a unitary way without reference to what someone happens to be doing with the years that they have been allotted. A year in the hands of a person who is open to experience, who creates, feels, loves, connects and delights is a lot ‘denser’ and in that way therefore longer than exactly the same amount of time in the hands of a less responsive and less inwardly alive or giving human being. We might go so far as to propose that a year in the life of the former should be given a different numerical weight than one in the latter – that a year in the life of Gericault or Emily Bronte should not be counted in exactly the same way as a year for someone else, and might more rightly be doubled or more. We know in travel that two days in one city can feel like a year in another less inspired place – and the same is true in life more broadly; not everyone who is living is equally alive. Just as we calculate dog years to take their size and anatomy into account, so we might recalibrate lifespan according to the depths of meaning one has plumbed – not the gross years one has breathed. Adjusted for the intensity of experience, we might hence judge that – whatever basic chronology might claim – Mozart really died at around 120, Sylvia Plath at 80 and Gericault in his mid seventies.

All this matters immensely because our sadness at the idea of death frequently reduces itself to the thought that our lives have not been, as we put it, ‘long enough.’ But we shouldn’t measure a life by the hours it contains; rather by the wisdom, love and intelligence with which these hours have been spent – by which score, many of the people most legendary for having had brief lives really had nothing of the sort.

It doesn’t matter in this if we have no genius-level capacities at poetry or painting; it still remains for us to choose how purposefully and beautifully and therefore ultimately how ‘long’ we can live. We should not stay transfixed, or devastated, by the simple number of days liable to be ahead of us, we should concentrate on how to sprinkle them with emotional stardust. 

In the novel The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, there’s a powerful death scene. The elderly Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, who is the psychological centre of the book, is about to die. He’s lying in bed with his weeping relatives around him. And he asks himself the terrifying, fundamental question: how much of my life have I actually lived? The answer is deeply disturbing: he can pick out a few months here and there – two weeks before his wedding, two weeks after; a few days around the birth of his first son; certain hours he spent in his observatory (he is a distinguished astronomer); a few hours of fliration her and there; times when he was reading aloud to his children; conversations with one or two friends, particularly his nephew. But not much in total: perhaps a year or two out of seventy. If we measure the reality of our lives by the quantity of time we have passed in a state of genuine happiness the answer is going to be distressing. But it might be the right way of measuring the length of a life. We should be more focused on how well we have lived rather than the absolute number of days we have existed. 

We are not, in the end, ever really very short of time. What we’re truly short of is affection, open-heartedness, kindness and tolerance. We’re short of the ability to create peak experiences in which we are sufficiently unfrightened, approachable, and responsive. We may have a lot to mourn, but it isn’t necessarily the imminence of death, it may more be the difficulty of living with courage and sensitivity. The challenge of our lives is to learn to live deeply rather than broadly.

The artist John Sweeney depicts a ravaged corpse in a gallery; its stomach hangs out, its ribcage appears to have been hacked at like a butcher’s carcass. But the real horror and rebuke lies in the title of the work: ‘Are you still mad at me?’ The tone is calculatedly banal next to the ghoulish fate that has befallen what we take to be someone’s erstwhile partner. The poor corpse before us might only a little while ago have spent their time in an apartment, squabbling with their loved one, asserting their point of view, not forgiving, not being able to move on – sure they were right but not being able to see things through another’s eyes. And now their pettiness is being judged from the perspective of death. Are we really to spend the only lives we will ever know in yet another argument about who disrespected whom, when outside the narrow casern of our embittered relationship, so many opportunities for joy and wonder remain? Are we going to walk towards death without properly filling our lungs with the beauty of existence? We aren’t here being warned that we’re going to die, that is eminently survivable as a thought, we are being warned of a far more appalling but less often mentioned danger: that we might die in a sulk about not very much.

John Isaac, Are you still mad at me?, 2001

We can’t command how long we live, but it is very much in our remit to try to adjust how colourfully and how deeply we will live. We may have to rethink what a ‘premature’ death actually is. It isn’t necessarily what happens to a young artist gone by thirty. He or she may – in a fairer assessment – have been a nonagenarian or more. It is we who might right now, even if we are well passed middle age, be heading for a regrettably ‘early’ death. Our goal shouldn’t be to lay claim to yet more decades we won’t necessarily know how to spend, it is to ensure that we can do everything in the days ahead to learn the art of not dying ‘tragically young.’

The modern world treats education with unique seriousness. Never in the history of humanity have so much thought and so many resources been devoted to the development of the minds of the next generation. In all advanced nations, until a human is 21 or so, there is little else to do other than study. In sensible households, homework has the power of a sacrament. An army of teachers and educators, colleges and pedagogical bureaucrats is set up to feed industrial quantities of the young through complex staging posts of scholastic achievement. Politicians on every side of the spectrum outstrip each other to prove their devotion to the educational cause. The central government-mandated examinations claim a power to determine the course of our whole lives; the dread they provoke can be felt in dawn terrors decades after the event. It may, in rare, tragic but telling instances, feel like there is simply nothing left to live for if the grades go wrong.

And yet despite all this, it is very rare to find a thoughtful adult who – by middle age or earlier – does not at certain moments of crisis and difficulty look back in a somewhat puzzled and even incensed ways at their school years and wonder why, amidst all the study, the disciplines, the earnest commitments and the panic, so much managed to be passed over in silence. How come, in all those hours sitting in classrooms, did certain fundamental concepts and notions that would (it now seems) have been so important to a half way decent life somehow slip through the net? How come there was so much time for calculus, the erosion of the upper glacial layer, the politics of the Burgundian states of the 1400s, the poetry of Emily Dickinson and trigonometric equations, and yet so little time for a range of puzzles that have rendered the passage through grown up life so tricky? Why – in short – did no one ever tell us?

There are, at present, few places for this thought to go. The debate is overwhelmingly focused on how best to deliver an education to a child; not what he or she should be educated in. School curricula are not reverse engineered from the actual dilemmas of adult life. The subjects in the timetable, and their distribution across the week, in no way reflect what will actually go on to make life such a trial; otherwise, we would be hearing a lot more from our teachers about how to approach the dilemmas of relationships, the sorrows of our careers, the tensions of families and the terrors of mortality… To the surprise of any visiting alien, humans blithely educate themselves as if the chief requirement of adulthood were the possession of a set of technical skills, without acknowledging the fact that what mostly runs us into the sands is not any shortfall in our knowledge of matrix algebra or the French pluperfect but our inability to master what we could call the emotional dimensions of our lives: our understanding of ourselves, our capacity to deal with our lovers, children and colleagues, our degrees of self-confidence, our handle on calm and self-compassion. It is failures in these zones that, far more than anything we might pick up at the best schools and universities, ensures the repeated betrayal of humanity’s best hopes for itself.

When we turn over the thought of what we should have learnt, it typically feels far too late, and far too hopeless. Despite our vigour at innovation in so many areas of the economy, a lethargy can fall over education. It is meekly assumed that it may simply be impossible to teach ourselves the sort of emotional skills whose absence we pay such a heavy price for. As the heirs of a misplaced Romantic philosophy, we assume that we should be guided in the emotional realm by our untutored feelings, that one couldn’t possibly instruct anyone in love or wisdom, fulfilment or kindness, that these have to be the occasional and sporadic fruits of time, not concepts that can be harvested systematically from the start. The collective cost of this resignation is vast. It means that every new generation must collide afresh with problems that are, in theory, already worked out in the minds of their aged predecessors. Every young person is compelled once again to discover, in midnight sobs, what is already theoretically very well known about ending relationships, finding a career or dealing with damaged but well-meaning parents. We set ourselves up on our individual islands, and force ourselves – with needless pain – to reinvent the wheel and rediscover fire. The education system is, in this sense at least, the purveyor of a willed myopia. The focus on those glaciers and the laws of motion become unwitting excuses not to learn the laws of kindness or the principles of family diplomacy. The struggles at court in early modern Europe blind us to the need to make time to learn the history of our own anger and the mastery of the sources of despair.

It is in this context that The School of Life sets itself up, both in its name and its practical activities, as a provocation; a reminder that the task of a school must stretch far beyond the current agreed curriculum to encompass everything with the power to wreck an adult’s life. The emphasis on the word ‘forget’ in the title is not coincidental, it draws attention to the essentially haphazard ways in which we have let important topics fall outside the standard educational remit. There is no conspiracy, that would almost be easier, it is just a form of oversight and happenstance. There is no good or interesting reason why we have to wait for quite so long to discover lessons that might have made such a difference – nor is there a need for every one of us to stumble around in such darkness when brightly illuminated accounts and theories already exist. 

Some of what we have to suffer in this life is unavoidable; the premise of the School of Life is that a lot more than we might ever have dared to hope is, with the right sort of homework in hand, absolutely not.

We end up asking ourselves, often in some distress, what we should do with our working lives because of a painful quirk of our minds: they tell us with particular clarity what they don’t enjoy doing (even if the work is well-paid and socially prestigious) but they are prone to be stubbornly confused about what would satisfy them. We have inside us an innate working identity which strongly demands recognition and yet is extremely vague, shy and hard to get to know. Most of us are forced to feel our way towards it through long trial and error accompanied by self-observation and reflection rather than encountering it ready-made at the moment we leave higher education.

We may have to endure years of confusion and a troubling awareness that we are not playing to our strengths and interests, even if what we are actually good at and passionate about is not yet clear to our piloting consciousness. The goal, however, is evident from the start: that we should be doing work which is deeply in line with our real selves, which isn’t merely about earning our way; which – though it may sometimes be very hard and filled with frustrations – answers to the distinctive movements and character of our own souls, work that, as we put it, feels properly authentic.

There can be no generalisations about what authentic work will actually require us to do. A job may, for instance, require us to stick with a set of almost intractable mathematical problems for a long time. This would sound awful to some people; but we may powerfully enjoy the long, slow sense of nibbling away at a major task, trying out several options before landing on an especially good solution. But perhaps authentic work will involve making many urgent and decisive financial interventions in a fast-moving, somewhat chaotic environment. While this might induce panic in some, for others, calmer circumstances would be hellish. Or it could be that to feel authentic, we need our work to involve a subordinate, supportive role where we can be admiring of, and loyal to, someone else who is in command – a pleasure stemming back, possibly, to the satisfaction we had as a child around an older, quite bossy but very impressive sibling.

What makes work authentic isn’t a particular kind of task; it has nothing to do with making pots or being a carpenter (jobs often superficially associated with the idea of authenticity). What makes work authentic is the deeply individual fit between the nature of our role and our own aptitudes and sources of pleasure.

One of the benefits of having identified authentic work is that we will substantially – at last – be freed from envy. There will always be someone doing a job that pays better, that has higher public status or more glamorous fringe benefits. But, we stand to realise, there is no point yearning for such a role, because it would not fit what we know of the distinctive timbre of our own character.

The other benefit to having found work that feels authentic is that it changes our relationship to the modern ideal of achieving ‘work-life’ balance. There is a degree of pessimism about work within this fashionable concept, for it implies a need to shield life, the precious bit, from the demands of work, the onerous force. But work connected in quite profound ways to who we really are, is not the enemy of life: it’s the place where we naturally find ourselves wanting to go in order to derive some of our highest satisfactions.  

The wider world will always be a mess. But around work, we can sometimes have a radically different kind of experience: we get on top of a problem and finally resolve it. We can bring order to chaos in a way that we rarely can in any other area of life.

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The Zen Buddhist monks of medieval Japan had an intuitive understanding of this kind of benefit to work. They recommended that, in order to achieve peace of mind, members of a monastery regularly leave behind their studies in order to rake the gravel of their intricately plotted and bounded temple gardens around Kyoto. Within the confines of a large courtyard space, the monks could bring total coherence and beauty to fruition. It wasn’t completely easy. The monks loved to make ambitious patterns of swirls and circles. The lines were often on a very small scale; they might inadvertently tread on a bit they’d already done. They might struggle to keep the rake going at just the right angle. It was sometimes maddening, especially when it was autumn and there were leaves everywhere. But it could – eventually – all be put right. With time, a bit of careful correction and a well-trained hand, they could get everything just as it should be. The problems were real, but they were bounded – and they could be solved. The raking had something in common with our own experience of doing a jigsaw. At an early stage, one feels that one has no idea where all the pieces could possibly go; they are spread in confused heaps on the carpet and some have gone behind the sofa. Yet, deep down, one knows that all it takes is time and patience. Every piece will eventually find its home. It is tricky, but reassuringly, delightfully, redemptively pliable and controllable – unlike so much else with which we have to engage.

We are not wrong to love perfection, but it brings us a lot of pain. At its best, our work offers us a patch of gravel that we can rake, a bounded space we can make ideally tidy and via which we can fulfil our powerful inner need for order and control, so often thwarted in a wider world beset by an intractable mess that will forever defy our urge to fix it.

Our lives have to be lived in appalling ignorance: we know nothing of when and how we will die; the thoughts of others largely remain hidden from us; we often can’t make sense of our own moods; we are driven by excitements and fears we barely make sense of. This aspect of the human condition was summed up in the 8th Century by a Saxon warlord, as recorded by the first historian of England – a monk named Bede.

It seems to me that life is like the flight of a little bird through a firelit hall on a winter’s evening where the soldiers are feasting; out in the forests the storm is raging; the bird flies swiftly through the bright room then vanishes back into the cold darkness from which it came. So too we live: moments of brightness engulfed in the vast unknown.

The Venerable Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People

Work is one of the areas where – over a sustained period – we can build up a very accurate and extensive field of understanding. We can amaze with the precision of our explanations: a wine marker might reveal that the slight taste of caramel comes from the fact that the grapes were left unusually long in the back of the truck just after they were harvested; a picture restorer will point out that a painting was relined, probably in France, in the 1850s; a dance instructor will be able to tell from the way you walk that you probably sleep on your left side. To the specialist, some small (but not insignificant) aspect of life has no mysteries; they understand why the boiler is leaking or how voice recognition really works or how an apparently profitable corporation can be on the verge of bankruptcy.

Our brains crave order. They want to understand: we want to live in a fully comprehensible world. But this natural longing will always be thwarted. The understanding we come to possess via work might not always sound especially thrilling in itself. But it speaks to a larger, more ‘metaphysical’, theme in human existence. In a small but real way, through our work, we are clearing and cultivating a tiny portion of a wild surrounding forest and turning it into a harmonious, comprehensible garden.

One of the most extraordinary and yet quietly routine features of our age is the assumption that we should be able to find work that we not only tolerate, or endure for the money, but profoundly appreciate – for its high degree of purpose, camaraderie and creativity. We see nothing strange in the remarkable notion that we should try to find a job we love.

It is possible to be highly sympathetic to this wish – and yet refuse to see it as either normal or easy to fulfil and to insist that in order to stand any chance of honouring it, we will need to lavish concentrated brain power, time and imagination on the underlying complexities.

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For most of history, the question of whether we might love our work would have seemed laughable or simply peculiar. We tilled the soil and herded animals, worked down mines and emptied chamber pots. And we suffered. The serf or smallholder could look forward to only a very few moments of satisfaction, and these would lie firmly outside the hours of employment: the harvest moon festival next year or the wedding day of their eldest child, currently 6 years old.

The corresponding assumption was that if one had sufficient money, one would simply stop working. The educated classes among the ancient Romans (whose attitudes dominated Europe for centuries) considered all paid work to be inherently humiliating. Tellingly, their word for business was negotium – literally ‘not-enjoyable activity’. Leisure, doing not very much, perhaps hunting or giving dinner parties, was felt to be the sole basis for a life of happiness.

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Then, at the close of the Middle Ages, an extraordinary shift in mentalities began: a few people started to work for money and for fulfilment. One of the first people to pursue this highly unusual ambition successfully was the 15th-century Venetian artist Titian. On the one hand, in his work he delighted in the pleasures of creativity: depicting the way light fell on a sleeve or unlocking the secret of a friend’s smile. But he added something very odd to this: he was extremely interested in being paid well. He was highly astute when it came to negotiating contracts for supplying pictures and he upped his output (and profit margin) by establishing a factory system of assistants who specialised in different phases of the production process, like painting drapery (he hired five young men from Verona to do curtains in his work). He was one of the initiators of a profound new idea: that work could and should be both something you would love doing and, at the same time, a decent source of income. It was a revolutionary idea that gradually spread across the world – and nowadays reigns supreme, colouring our ambitions without us perhaps even noticing – helping to define the hopes and frustrations of an accountant in Baltimore or a game designer in Limehouse.  

Titian introduced a complicating factor into the modern psyche. Previously you either pursued satisfaction making or doing something as an amateur and didn’t expect to make money from your efforts, or you worked for money and didn’t care too much about whether you actually enjoyed your work. Now, because of the new ideology of work, neither was quite acceptable any longer. The two ambitions – money and inner fulfilment – were being asked to coalesce. Good work meant, essentially, work that tapped into the deepest parts of the self and could generate a product or service that would pay for one’s material needs. This dual demand has ushered in a particular difficulty of modern life – that we must simultaneously pursue two high ambitions, although these are far from inevitably aligned. We need to satisfy the soul and pay for our material existence on the planet.

Interestingly, it’s not just around the ideal of a job that we have developed high ambitions that combine the spiritual and the material. Something very similar has happened around relationships. For the far largest part of human history, it would have been extraordinary to suppose that one was meant to love (rather than merely tolerate) one’s spouse. The point of marriage was inherently practical: uniting adjacent bits of land, finding someone who would be good at milking the cows or who might bear a brood of healthy children. Romantic love was something distinct (it might be nice for one summer when one was 15 or might very well be pursued with someone other than your spouse after the birth of the seventh child). Then around 1750, a peculiar shift began to take place here as well. We started to be interested in another extraordinarily ambitious idea: a marriage of love. A new kind of hope started to obsess people: that one could both be married and properly admire and sympathise with one’s partner. Instead of there being two distinct projects – marriage and love – a new more complex ideal emerged: the marriage of passion.

The modern world is built around hopeful visions of how things that had previously seemed separate (money and creative fulfilment, love and marriage) could be united. These are generous ideas, democratic in spirit, filled with optimism about what we can achieve and rightfully intolerant of ancient forms of suffering. But they have also been – in the way we’ve tried to act upon them – catastrophes. They constantly let us down. They breed impatience and feelings of paranoia and persecution. They generate powerful new ways of being feeling frustrated. We judge our lives by ambitious new standards by which we are left to feel that we are continually falling short.

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It’s an added tragic complication that though we have set ourselves such impressive goals, we have also tended to tell ourselves that the way to attain them is not essentially difficult. It is simply a case, we assume, that we should follow our instincts. We’ll find the right relationship (which unites passion with day-to-day practical stability) and a good career (which unites the practical goal of earning an income with a sense of inner fulfilment) by following our feelings. We trust that we’ll simply develop a special kind of emotional rush in the presence of the right person or will – once we’ve finished university – sense a reliable pull towards a career that is right for us. We put a decisive share of our trust in gut instinct.

A symptom of our devotion to instinct is that we don’t readily recognise much need for training and education around getting into a relationship or in the search for a career. We take it for granted, for instance, that children will need many hundreds of hours of carefully considered instruction if they are to become competent at maths or learn to speak a foreign language. We entirely understand that instinct and a bit of luck can’t ever lead to good results in chemistry – and that it would be cruel to suppose otherwise. But we’d think it odd if the school curriculum included an almost daily strand over many years of classes on how to make a relationship work or how to find a job that accorded with one’s talents. We may recognise that these decisions are hugely important and consequential. Yet by a strange quirk of intellectual history we’ve come to suppose that they can’t be taught or educated for. They really matter but – we seem to believe – somehow the right answer will just float into our brains when the moment is ripe.

The aim of The School of Life is to correct such unwittingly cruel oversights – and to equip us with ideas with which to better accomplish the admirable (but actually very difficult) ambitions we harbour around our emotional and working lives.

We’re a culture that’s highly attuned to what’s beautiful and moving about love; we know its high points and celebrate its ecstasies in films and songs. By comparison, work is the dull, tedious bit – the thing we have to do to pay the bills.

And yet what’s striking is how often work, despite its lack of glamour, in fact turns out to be the easier, more enjoyable and ultimately more humane part of life.

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There are a number of reasons:

Firstly: You have to be professional

Work demands that all who walk through the office door must behave ‘professionally’. And what behaving professionally essentially means is that situations where you’re deep inside tempted to explode, insult, curse and weep require you to handle yourself with Stoic calm and reserve.

At work, you can’t really ‘be yourself’ and nor can others around you – which could sound a little fake and therefore inauthentic and plastic, but this lack of honesty may in fact be an extremely welcome development after we have spent a little too long in an atmosphere where everyone feels it their duty to be an utterly frank, uncensored correspondent of their every inner mood and qualm.

Secondly: You get trained

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The assumption of most jobs is that people who begin them don’t have the first clue about what’s going on. You’re not expected to know the machinery or the protocols by intuition alone – therefore you’re sent on training programmes and given extensive manuals to read. It might be two years before you’re supposed to understand very much at all.

There is no such luxury for lovers, who are meant to ‘get’ one another by immediate instinct and take this speedy comprehension to be a proof of the sincerity of their love. Sometimes lovers will even say they just knew they were meant to be together because they could communicate ‘without needing to speak.’ But outside of the initial weeks of love, such Romantic aspirations are a pure catastrophe, which lead lovers to a bias against ever explaining themselves and their desires with appropriate patience and thoroughness.

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Fatefully for our chances of happiness, in the Romantic ideology, love is understood to be an enthusiasm, rather than what it really is: a skill that needs to be learnt.

Thirdly: Feedback is more sensitive

Everyone hates reviews at work, but what deeply kind phenomena they actually are compared with what goes on at home. Reviews are steeped in a culture of tact. One rather tough remark has to be wrapped in at least seven compliments. Work culture knows that people don’t improve and can’t take new ideas on board if they are feeling threatened and humiliated.

Home life finds us able to be far less competent teachers. We’re so panicked and frightened by the thought that the other person can’t do what we want them to (even if we haven’t actually ever explained it), we take to trying to teach them by slamming doors and calling them idiots or worse. Sadly, no one has ever learnt very much under conditions of hysteria.

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Furthermore, we’re likely to feel that being taught anything by a lover contravenes the rules of love: we think we need to be loved just for being who we are. Though we are all of course very flawed, we imagine that love has nothing to do with education, and that the lover who tries to point something out to us is therefore always just being nasty – rather than doing what all lovers should actually do, which is try their utmost to improve those they care for through lovingly-delivered lessons.

Fourthly: You depend on a job less

We rely on work of course, but we’d survive if it came to an end. That’s not the feeling we often get around love, especially when there are a couple of kids and a mortgage in common.

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And the more we depend on someone, the more alarmed we get by any disappointment at their hands. We aren’t nastier around love per se; we’re just a whole lot more dependent – which can end up looking like the same thing.

Fifthly: Work is just easier

Running a nuclear power station or landing large jets is hardly simple but –  one should insist – still very much easier than trying to be happy around another human being in a sexual relationship over many decades.

There is simply nothing harder in this world, so complicated are we, so high are our expectations and so very poor is our Romantic culture at helping us to raise the quality of our levels of patience, our insights, our feedback sessions and our training manuals.

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No wonder we’re often really quite happy when it’s finally Monday morning again and we can leave the house and do something properly simple with our lives once more.

One of the ideas that circulates below the surface of modern life is that work diminishes our personalities. We get paid in return for giving up a vital part of who we are. We look forward to holidays and retirement in order to nurture our true selves.

This analysis is a legacy of the Romantic movement. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, influential writers, artists and philosophers developed the view that the kind of work most people actually do – management, sales, manufacturing, logistics – is detrimental to the human spirit. The only exceptions to this analysis were a few jobs that were, and remain, not widely available in most societies: being a poet, novelist or artist.

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Lord Byron: an influence on the assessment of modern logistics

The French Impressionist painter, Edgar Degas (who spent some time in the US), often painted the deeply unheroic characteristics of the trading world. His brokers and speculators are presented as people who have a limited outlook. They are dull, uninspiring figures. They confirm our worst fears about how we might end up, after years in trade.

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Edgar Degas, Bureau du coton à la Nouvelle-Orléans, 1873

It’s only when we are off work that we can begin to be the interesting, real version of who we are.

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Dark Satanic Mills, Cyril Mann, 1925

In the 1840s, Henri Daumier won great success portraying lawyers as arrogant, greedy and dishonest.

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They may not have started out that way – they may have been eager reformers and crusaders for justice. But it was a profession (like most others) designed, Daumier thought, to crush anyone’s better nature.

Our culture has taken to heart this sad Romantic notion of work. Sometimes it is more than deserved. But there is an important alternative view, which starts by being alive to some of the drawbacks of the Romantic idealisation of ‘home’. Of course there can be some pleasant times over the kitchen table on the weekend, but life outside of work is often full of challenges, humiliations and displays of the very worst kinds of behaviour. Home can be where we’re short of skills; a place of difficulty. One longs for Monday morning, for sanity to return.

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He goes to the office to calm down; she finds it easier to run her business than manage her marriage

Our labour is not merely something we unfortunately have to do; it is ideally part of our development. Work is a place where we can learn the skills – and ultimately the maturity – that we might otherwise be very short of in the rest of our lives. Via the experience of work we might develop some crucial abilities:

How to Learn

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Most workplaces are devoted to the idea of the progression and development of employees. They know how much easier it is to work with who they have, rather than constantly part ways with people. The fact that someone doesn’t yet know how to make an excellent presentation or how to manage an IT team isn’t seen as terminal. They can learn. They can do a course; get some practice; find a mentor, be assessed to check they’re making good enough progress. They can sit down with someone and determine what didn’t go so well and focus on what needs to be improved. Work has an idea of development inherent within it.

By contrast, the domestic sphere is opposed to learning. We’re meant to know it all already: how to be a good friend, lover and parent. Except we generally have no clue – and never make much progress.

How to express truths without causing upset

Business life constantly gives us lessons in the art of how to tell someone a tricky bit of information without them panicking or being horrified. Home life finds us far less tactful.

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In need of classes on feedback

We say nothing and fester or are brutal and give the blunt version of the hard facts. There are tears and slammed doors.

Clever businesses know they need to be experts in the arts of good communication. They can only function well because tricky news reaches the people who need to know it without destroying their esteem. So negative facts are not regarded in a personal light; there’s a protocol of giving plenty of support before firing the arrow, and there are traditions in which being open to criticism is seen as a major mark of character.

How to listen to strange views

Romantic love is based on the notion of perfect agreement. One gets together with people because they see the world as one does. It’s a beautiful ideal – until there are conflicts, at which point the entire edifice of a relationship may be called into question. If we loved one another, would we ever disagree or see things differently?

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Rembrandt: The Cloth Merchant’s Syndicate, 1662

Work isn’t like this. These people (painted by Rembrandt in the 17th century) were the members of a ratings agency: grading the quality of bales of cloth, so that merchants could trade with confidence. This was central to Dutch trade. Each of the six individuals around the table has a very distinct personality, and would have come at many issues from quite alternative perspectives and yet they are united by the task at hand. They seem to bring their better selves to work: one imagines them as good at solving disagreements; they would have listened to each other with respect (‘I see your point; however, I wonder if perhaps …).

How to be patient with fiddly things

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Almost all work is fiddly. It requires patience, it demands that we slow ourselves down and master hurdles. The cloth cutter has had to put aside a lot of his natural wildness and impulsiveness in order to make his living. To learn the trade means not just to acquire a means to earn money; it’s a coded lesson in growing up.

Contrary to the Romantic view, it might be that we are quite often simply the better version of ourselves at work. We’re more dignified and more patient, more tolerant and more loveable. Furthermore, we are developing skills that – tantalisingly – are needed and can be used elsewhere, especially in the bedroom and kitchen. Rather than leaving work in order to relax, it might be that we need to come to work in order to be a better person and lover.

As yet we’re not quite fully focused on this potential and so don’t see how big a contribution work could be making to our private lives. Being a good employee shouldn’t be that different from being that truly important thing, a good person.

If we were sketching the utopia, we’d not be looking for a society in which people didn’t have to work. It would be one in which many more people had the chance to acquire via their work the skills which would be useful to them across the whole of their lives.