"Not being able to feed my cat.”
There it was: my fundamental fear of the recession scribbled on a post-it note for twenty-five strangers to see at the School of Life, the new cultural experiment in central London.
It was a humbling experience, this, in light of the ‘not being able to pay my mortgage’ and the ‘losing my small business’ post-its also on display. Though, rationally speaking, it’s unlikely that the failing economy would force me to starve my feline – anxiety about keeping my job (and all of its attendant worries about money, battered self confidence, starving cat) was just the sort of thing we came to the School to explore during its intensive two day course about work. Mind you, this is not just self improvement mumbo jumbo. The School of Life takes a cerebral approach to some of life’s stickier issues. While I did draw a chaotic map of my career with coloured pens and write my own obituary (particularly eye opening), these self reflective exercises were balanced with lectures drawing on literature, psychoanalysis, film and history that kept us well clear of the campfire circle, kumbayah territory I was secretly dreading. So, less about soggy emotion, more about expanding the mind to get more out of everyday life.
Tucked away in a Georgian building on Marchmont Street (with fantastical interiors by Susanna Edwards and Joseph Harries), The School of Life was founded by ex-Tate curator Sophie Howarth as a way to address the gaping abyss between culture and those two dirtiest of four letter words: self help. The idea was to provide a platform to discuss big ideas as well as the niggling questions in ones own life – why don’t we have more stimulating conversations with friends? Should everyone be treated equally? What makes some jobs more fulfilling than others?
To lead the way, Howarth compiled a ‘faculty’ of experts including Toby Litt, Martin Parr and founding member Alain de Botton, whose forthcoming book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work touches on many of the same themes as the course.
But the school offers more than just its courses on work, family, politics, love and play. The curriculum involves everything from secular sermons (on punctuality, good design, curiosity and so on), discussion meals, bibliotherapy, lectures and alternative holidays to Heathrow or up the M1.
But instead of espousing a specific philosophy or viewpoint, the School presents a wide variety of ideas, both high and low. This is crystalised in the offering of books in its enchanting shop, assembled like an apothecary to treat what ails you – be it a broken heart, loneliness, a deep-seated curiosity about death or a soul-destroying job. (Ahead of the work course, we were steered toward a number of tomes including Tom Hodgkinson’s How To Be Idle and George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London). Seemingly, the School of Life ethos is very much about giving ‘students’ the tools to recalibrate ways of thinking about love, work or whatever it is that needs attention.
Before launching last September, de Botton worked with Howarth on an outline of what the School should be serving up and, of course, what it should avoid. “There were two fears: one was the kind of Oprah thing, the other was it turning into a neo religious bible study group or something,” he says as we sit in his living room a couple weeks after my stint on the work course. “We thought there were dangers with both and we wanted it to be somewhere in the middle. Really it’s about trying to promote an examined life or a kind of intelligent self-help.” A gargantuan feat in Britain, no doubt, but de Botton believes there is a place for it: “Self help is a troubling term that people often run away from, but I’ve come to almost embrace it with a bit of nuance. The idea of books or lectures that will train you to look at your life in a new way or direct you to new ideas – that to me is what culture should be doing and should be about.”
Another driving factor in providing this particular kind of ‘School’ is that London can be such a lonely city: “Not romantically lonely, but we felt that it was lacking a place where you can go to have sincere, deep conversations about things. It has a million bars and a million clubs, but you tend to go to them with people you already know, and if you do talk to people it may be more about seduction than conversation. The idea was to create a place and a community where people can come to have a different kind of encounter.”
It’s true. During the work course I swapped stories and ideas with an array of people – a rare book dealer, a doctor, a primary school teacher, an IT consultant, a graphic designer, an advertising executive. Despite our obvious differences, we were all there to chat about our jobs and whether we really enjoyed them (me and the rare book dealer), wanted a change (doctor) or thought perhaps there was a way to get more out of it (IT consultant). What was most surprising, though, was to find out that de Botton himself was not immune to career doubts and that being involved in The School of Life was an outlet for him to explore other sides of himself. “I think all of us at the end of our lives will feel that there were bits of us that we didn’t get a chance to investigate and didn’t get a chance to externalise. The great dream of work is being able to take what’s precious in you and give it a shape in the outside world,” he says.
This idea of fulfilment in work – and whether it is really achievable for everybody – is something de Botton has tried to tackle in his book and which our course leader, Anne Braybon, also focused on.
“It does seem to be the 18th century where this bourgeois philosophy takes hold – that you can work for love, as it were,” says de Botton. “Historically, its right there at the beginning of the United States as an ideology and through history gets reflected back onto the whole world. Now it’s become a kind of global phenomenon.” Is this idea of happiness in work a pipe dream, I ask him, because after going through The School of Life I realized that I might be one of the lucky ones. “It is a beautiful idea, but on the other hand you have Christianity or Buddhism telling you that life is essentially frustration and you’ll never achieve anything solid because it’s a constant, ongoing struggle. And the truth is probably somewhere in the middle, it’s not clear-cut. We’re all such bizarre little ants crawling around doing these jobs, and I include myself in that category, and it’s partly sublime and partly ridiculous. At every level, it’s got that tension.”
In his book, de Botton does manage to capture this tension in his portraits of the enthusiastic entrepreneur who made shoes for walking on water, or the rocket scientists who launch a satellite for Japanese soap operas, or the man who painted the same oak tree every day for many years.
“I was struck when researching this book that there is very little writing about work. Very little has been written on what it feels like in the office at three in the afternoon or what a factory sounds or smells like. Some journalists go to Timbuktu to tell us about exotic places and peoples, but I wanted to use those same techniques to go into the most ordinary of places - at the same time keeping hold of some big questions like ‘what’s the point of this?’”
In his book and on the course, all of those questions remain unanswered. There are no positive mantra chants and at times the exploration can be disconcerting or even painful. “At the end of the day I wanted to make a more novelistic, impressionistic sort of book that would simply raise topics and leave questions floating rather than answered.” The School of Life works in much the same way, raising questions and allowing students to come to their own conclusions.