Alain de Botton: The Wise Office
The wise office does not make the error of supposing that there could ever be such thing as a psychologically ‘normal’ employee. It knows full well, and is undisturbed by the idea, that we are all, just beneath the surface, in a variety of fascinating ways, distinctively mad, entirely anxious and only just holding it together. This is wholly to be expected and in no way shameful. The wise office has no interest in the fanciful and cruel notion that things could ever be at all times ‘professional’. It recognises the concept of professionalism for what it is; a conspiracy to persuade us that we might be more level-headed than any of us really are.
The aim of the wise office is just to mitigate the worst of our psychological frailties – not deny that these might exist. This process begins with a blanket admission, embedded within the company culture, that there will for everyone be periods of extreme mental volatility. Succumbing to terror, starting to cry, falling into despair aren’t anomalies, they are what happens when talented people get together and try to do difficult things. A good company reveres not just the strengths of its people; it’s ready to remember, and make accommodations for all their peculiarities of spirit. The good office gives itself unalarming accounts of what’s going on when an individual is preternaturally adrift, worried, or thoughtful. They are like this not because they are misguided, weak-willed or selfish, but because they are – like everyone – slightly broken. At a collective level, we’ve given ourselves unfrightened accounts of what’s going on when teenagers sit moodily staring out of the window and can’t answer when someone requests that they pass the salt. We know these young people aren’t heading for a life of delinquency; we can stay confident that a reconciliation with the demands of the world will emerge. We should expect analogous periods of confusion and loss of direction to punctuate the lives of every employee. The good office knows that sanity simply isn’t possible for any of us all the time.