The Spiritual Remedy for Workism

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“So what do you do?”

This banal question we ask to get to know one another can spark an existential crisis.

There is much more to us than our careers and yet we define ourselves by them.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

From an early age, we are trained to think in terms of what we are going to be - doctor, lawyer, engineer, and so on. Once we do, our lives are spent reverse engineering one of those identities.

Careers are what we have to show for all of our hard work. Tens of thousands of dollars, years and years of study, all invested into building the foundation for what will be the work we dedicate decades of our lives to.

It should be no surprise then, that our careers have reached a status in our lives equal to religion. This phenomenon has been termed workism by Derek Thompson of The Atlantic.

“It is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.”

The foundation of leadership and personal development literature pushes people to find where they can “add value.” When you add value, the logic goes, people will reward you with certificates of appreciation (a euphemism for money).

In this way, our self-worth becomes predicated on the value we produce. Disproportionate pay for CEO’s is justified with the same rationale - they get the big bucks because they add the most value. The metric for what deems someone a successful person is how much wealth they can generate.

Beyond the economics, this is a deeply rooted cultural issue as well. For example, how many families specify that their children can only marry a doctor? A certain career title or a particular level of potential income becomes a prerequisite discussion to a person’s faith, character, or other qualities.

All of this creates pressure to succeed … or at least make it look like we are. Everywhere you look are new wannabe entrepreneurs and social influencers all espousing some form of hustle culture. #HustleHarder, #RiseAndGrind, and other such captivating hashtags take over Instagram.

If you work hard enough, you can achieve anything. Work itself becomes the fulfillment of spiritual purpose. We don’t just have jobs, we have callings - which we promote on social media.

Shows like Shark Tank and Dirty Jobs (please listen to this amazing podcast episode by CItations Needed exposing Mike Rowe’s Koch Backed Worker Affectation) continue to propagate the myth of the American Dream. If you work hard enough, anything is possible. The entrepreneurs who gain the most praise from the ‘sharks’ are those who go all in - empty out their life savings, work without taking a salary, and spend 24/7/365 building their business.

“Either you’re slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot” - Notorious B.I.G.

The hustle narrative conveniently ignores a large number of societal and systemic issues. Not everyone has equal opportunity. We do not live in a meritocracy. How is a person that works 80 hours a week at minimum wage supposed to ‘hustle harder’ when they’re still below the poverty line? Where is their upward mobility?

There is an aspect of hustle culture that feels exploitative, especially when it is pushed hardest by those who stand to gain the most from it.

Elon Musk, who stands to reap stock compensation upward of $50 billion if his company, Tesla, meets certain performance levels, is a prime example of extolling work by the many that will primarily benefit him. He tweeted ... that there are easier places to work … “but nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.” The correct number of hours “varies per person,” he continued, but is “about 80 sustained, peaking about 100 at times. Pain level increases exponentially above 80.” -Why Are Young People Pretending to Love Work?

This exploitation happens when the expectation of a job changes from making a living to our purpose and full self-actualization of our human potential. Everyone must aim to change the world, follow their dreams, and only work on things they are passionate about. The elite narrative is one that pushes us to put purpose over paycheck. They stand to gain the most from this arrangement while convincing us we are making a worthy sacrifice.

Social media hustle culture becomes a type of performance art or an escape. It is a defense mechanism people turn to when it feels like there is no alternative. Hustle “serve[s] as a smokescreen for real, structural problems in the modern workplace. “No amount of grifting or endless working” will help alleviate the gender pay gap…” (Rise, Grind, and Ruin)” Many in the workforce are saddled with crippling student loan debts, healthcare costs, and wage stagnation. The only way to close this gap is hustling more hours in a gig economy for inadequate pay - the average Uber driver does not earn enough to qualify for a living wage. These “real life” situations are what force people, such as fresh law school graduates, into taking corporate law positions working 60+ hours a week instead of ‘changing the world’ and pursuing their calling as they originally hoped. It’s why, Jeffrey Pfeffer argues in his book Dying for a Paycheck, that people put up with work-stress, lack of balance, and toxic environments to make a living.

“There is something slyly dystopian about an economic system that has convinced the most indebted generation in American history to put purpose over paycheck.”-The Religion of Workism

The consequence of this lifestyle is a lack of meaningful purpose. Even those who have succeeded, so to speak, still work long hours because they know no other life. Work and money is a scorecard to measure themselves against their peers.

Economist Umair Haque makes the point that this has caused people to turn to solutions like meditation and mindfulness as a form of spiritual heroin - “The passivity of meditation is the perfect antidote, the ultimate American response to aggressively cruel capitalism. Why? It’s personal responsibility taken to an extreme, isn’t it? You are hurt profoundly by broken institutions and failed leaders. What should you do? Challenge them? Rebel? No, go meditate. It’s your responsibility to not feel any pain. To numb it, escape it, bury it.”

Which brings us back to the question that started this all in the first place.

“So what do you do?”

Step outside the existing system and framework to redefine what maximizing your potential looks like. What is the long view of what you want to accomplish? Ultimately, for a Muslim, it means living a life such that is spent in service to Allah (swt).

Instead of sacrificing to hustle harder, it may mean sacrificing hustle for something more important. It might be turning down that jet set consulting job that pays more in order to spend more time with family. It could be a mom choosing to stay home to raise her kids even though she is an accomplished professional.

We need to be far more introspective than we are at assessing what priorities really matter to us. Things like family can get devalued. The day to day hustle of doing the dishes and changing diapers isn’t easily glorified on Instagram. Making seemingly small sacrifices with family is easily rationalized in pursuit of providing them a better life. The negative consequences of this on family relationships are often not felt until years later when it is too late to fix.

“If the decisions you make about where you invest your blood, sweat, and tears are not consistent with the person you aspire to be, you’ll never become that person.” -Clayton Christensen, How Will You Measure Your Life?

Christensen also makes the point that high achievers in particular focus a lot on what type of person they want to be at work, but not as much as what type of person they want to be at home. Life is not meant to be compartmentalized in this way, it is all tied together.  

Meaning can be found in work but it doesn't have to be found in work. Sometimes a job is just a job or a way to make a living. Many times it might not be the most enjoyable thing, but it is the responsible way to enable you to pursue meaning in other areas of life.

One area that gets overlooked is friendship. Islam emphasizes maintaining good company and building the bonds of brotherhood, sisterhood, and community. We need a renewed focus on building stronger relationships with people outside of work. How many friendships have we let go of because we were too busy?

Gratitude is an element missing from hustle culture. Worrying about purpose and meaning in a career is a luxury afforded only after basic life needs are met. Thanking Allah for what you have even when dissatisfied with your situation is actually a means of improving that situation.

"If you are grateful, I will surely increase you [in favor]" (14:7).

Does all this mean we should eschew hard work? No, but we need to reframe the story we tell ourselves about hard work. We need to stop fetishizing hard work, as Nat Eliason says, and constantly making ourselves feel bad for not hustling hard enough.

The approach of the Muslim is to tie the camel, and then trust in Allah. Results require hard work but don’t come from hard work. A basketball player can spend 12 hours a day in the gym working on their game and working hard to win a championship, but only Allah can make them 6’10”.

A mindset of barakah (blessing) instead of hustle shifts the story from working to please our own egos to working hard to please Allah.

Imam Ahmed ibn Hanbal was asked by his son when they would finally relax after facing a lifetime of difficulty and hardship, and he responded, "With the first step we take into Jannah."

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