It is not an exaggeration to say that my contemplation of Camus and Sisyphus planted some early seeds for my lifelong reflection about work and organizations. In fact, looking back on that summer leaves me increasingly convinced that the learning I did then had a lasting impact on many aspects of my career–as a business executive, professor, consultant, author and public speaker.
Consequently, it is worth examining the context I found myself in during that summer. Such a discussion will help explain how the study of literature, together with the work at the winery, influenced my world outlook in such profound and unforeseen ways.
When I think back to that time, I recall my enthusiasm as I set off for Bordeaux at the close of the academic year. Indeed, I saw working in a winery as an exceptional opportunity—a summer job that would help pay for my studies, and also a refreshing break from some demanding university coursework. As a young and somewhat naive student, I was enthused by the chance to enter a context where I could deepen my knowledge of French culture and also participate in an industrial work environment.
Above all, working for a few months in a wine enterprise sounded like great fun.
In actual fact, it did quickly become a time of considerable joy and excitement, even more than I had imagined. Cooperating with colleagues in the warehouse and proving myself worthy of the physical challenges were endeavors that truly lifted my spirit. And, seeing a part of the wine trade from the inside was positively fascinating.
My biggest surprise, though, was the extent to which my daily activities provided fodder for ongoing reflection and learning.
As I mentioned previously, I left for Bordeaux with no particular desire to find links between my studies in Paris and my activity at the winery. In fact, I had thought of this period as something of a vacation from intellectual pursuits.
What I had not anticipated, however, was how much some of the concepts I had recently studied would stay with me during working hours. Specifically, philosophical musings from authors whose works I had recently seen—Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre and André Malraux, among others—kept turning over and over in my mind.
Once I arrived in Bordeaux, I saw quickly that this would be a summer of firsts in my life. To begin with, the work was new and unfamiliar, far more strenuous than anything I had ever done before. Some days were indeed utterly exhausting. Initially, finding the energy to perform the heavy tasks of rolling barrels or lugging cases for 8 or 9 hours was truly a challenge. At the same time, it was a physical adventure whose demands I welcomed.
Another invigorating first for me were my surroundings—a huge warehouse with all its complexities and intricacies. Learning to understand this enterprise by interacting in French with the other employees was yet another element that engaged me fully.
The job itself was clearly a novel and engrossing situation that demanded my full attention. That is why it surprised me that so much of what I was studying in school was frequently present in my mind, at a time when I was both physically and mentally distant from it.
As such, it turned out to be a time of growth, discovery and in-depth thinking. Most days, I went about my responsibilities with two principal preoccupations—learning from the novel work environment, and reflecting on the philosophical reading from my university study. Since many of my tasks did leave some time for reflection, these two passions could readily coexist.
The simple fact that I was in a place where my two centers of interest could come together—and even feed each other—was perhaps merely a fortunate happenstance. On the other hand, the reading that stayed so present in my brain might have caused me to apply a philosophical perspective to any situation.
In any event, viewing the scraping of wooden cases through the lens of the myth of Sisyphus was only the beginning, as other connections and lessons would follow. These will provide subject matter for forthcoming posts.
Image: Flickr user Anathea Utley