BOOKS: A job well done - A broad survey of work in the past, and how it could get better, engrosses Leslie Hannah

BOOKS: A job well done - A broad survey of work in the past, and how it could get better, engrosses Leslie Hannah - Blood, Sweat and Tears by Richard Donkin; Texere; pounds 18.99

by LESLIE HANNAH, chief executive, Ashridge Management College
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Blood, Sweat and Tears by Richard Donkin; Texere; pounds 18.99

Work is what we do for other people; it's in our leisure time that we live for ourselves. Yet that is not how Richard Donkin sees it. And, as a journalist who specialises in the personnel and recruitment industry, he should know.

Donkin wrote Blood, Sweat and Tears on a self-financed, year-long career break from his job at the Financial Times. A man who has had this sort of quality time to read and reflect writes with the freshness of someone approaching work in a new way.

Like many gurus who seek to encapsulate the meaning of work, he sometimes lets the gap between ideal and reality widen too far. It is fine to say, as he does, 'I think we work because we want to leave something better for those we leave behind, some signpost of our existence'. How many hewers of wood and drawers of water in the real world recognise that description?

Some would think this inflated nonsense, but others would share his sense of the dignity and centrality of work.

The book starts with a reflective journey through history, including cave-painters, the builders of Stonehenge and the Luddites.

Donkin has an eye for fresh and thoughtful juxtapositions, ranging widely in time and geography. But he comes into his own in his reflections on the 20th century and on the little we yet know of what lies beyond.

He is refreshingly sceptical of contemporary fads: what he calls 'change merchants peddling an often fuzzy futurology'. Indeed, he is more inclined to see good sense in a half-century-old article by Peter Drucker than in modern outpourings. We can see our limitations and our potential in our past experience more clearly than in the 'new, new thing'. We also confront the darker side of modern experience, whether in slave labour under Hitler or the fixations of managerialism's dead-ends.

Although the downside of the 'new, new thing' is not ignored, Donkin is one of nature's optimists. Technological innovation is 'the great leveller'.

Not for him the picture of a world increasingly divided between the cyber haves and have-nots.

Donkin is also a great storyteller, and this is a rich and varied treasure trove. If you ever wanted to know about the first business school, or who the first headhunter was, this is the book for you. Donkin's enthusiasm for ranging wide is infectious, although there are times when a stronger editorial line would have made his themes clearer. Even so, he has obviously enjoyed his sabbatical writing beyond the reach of his FT editor, and I enjoyed it too. Nice work!

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