Over the past few weeks there have been a few articles describing and decrying the growth of workism, or the quasi-religious commitment to extreme work habits, in American society. Performative hustle, hustle porn, glorification of lack of sleep, and the general all-consuming nature of work are the hallmarks of this harmful workism.
Reading these articles has been uncomfortable in that I keep seeing glimpses of myself. I do think work is a wonderful arena for creating meaning in my life. I do believe that work should and could be meaningful and that it’s worth striving toward that. I think obsessively about what it means to work hard, be productive, and I’m constantly experimenting with new ways of organizing and completing my work. I love work and I love when other people love their work. Am I part of the problem? Am I just another disciple preaching the harmful gospel of workism?
Toward a Reformed Workism
The workism dominating the news right now seems to be externally focused. It’s all about working long hours, not getting enough sleep, and generally conspicuously performing “hard work.” It’s a type of self-flagellation that is ugly to witness (and experience) but is also impossible to ignore. It’s easy to tell who is worshiping at the altar of workism. If you’re an adherent of this school of workism then everyone will know and you stand to reap the reputational reward this community bestows on its members. Whether through the bags under your eyes, or the hashtags on your Instagram posts, or the 3:00 AM emails you send your team — your allegiance to workism will be known. When the burnout eventually arrives you may be miserable but at least you will have company of your fellow adherents. There is solidarity and community in this externally-facing practice of work.
But what if there was a more internally-focused workism? A workism less focused on the “what” (long hours, burnout, lack of sleep) and more on the “how” (the internal experience of meaningful work)? A workism marked not by how many hours you work but by how much value you could pack into as few hours as possible? A workism all about moving skillfully through your day. Not overreacting or under reacting to anything. A workism where there is deep commitment to crafting a meaningful experience at work but without the performative elements. No pride in burnout. No pride in lack of sleep. In fact, taking these results as signs that one’s approach must change, not that one is on the right path.
To push the religion metaphor to a potential breaking point, Reformed Workism is quiet contemplation and self-reflection whereas traditional workism is big tent revival, put-on-your-Sunday-best, speak-in-tongues and public exorcisms. You can do the former without anybody knowing whereas the latter is more spectacle than substance.
Reformed Workism operates on a micro-level. It’s focused on the moment-to-moment reality of work. It’s the world of Frankl, Csikszentmihalyi, and Seneca rather than Musk, WeWork, and VC-driven booms-and-busts. It is an ongoing practice that must be renewed each day and with each email written, meeting attended, conversation held, and presentation given. It’s the constant decision to choose private excellence and skillful engagement with the world even when those around you are using public exertion as a crude proxy for providing value (and potentially celebrated for doing so).
I anticipate exploring this topic much further in the near future so rather beat it to death in this first attempt at articulating it I’m going to capture some of the open questions I hope to explore soon:
If nobody knew how hard or how many hours you worked how would you decide whether you had a successful day?
What are the internal signs that you’ve responded skillfully to a situation?
What are the personal practices that help with adopting Reformed Workism?
What would an organization look like if it celebrated Reformed Workism in its employees rather than Traditional Workism? How would it be different from the typical organization?
Is Reformed Workism steeped in privilege? Can folks in terrible jobs experience it? Should they be encouraged to?
What obligation does society/government have to create the conditions under which Reformed Workism can exist?