Book Review: Work Pray Code
By The Mindful Leader Team
As a pioneer in workplace mindfulness, we're always looking for new perspectives on our field. So, when we came across Work Pray Code by Carolyn Chen which was published last month, we decided to do a series of articles exploring this work with you. Our hopes are to encourage conversation and critical thinking. This review is the first article in our Work Pray Code series. Check out the second article in the series here!
What Happens When Work is the Place Where Americans Find Their Souls?
There is that old axiom that you shouldn’t live to work, but work to live. Living to work means that you are consumed by work, with little room for the fulfilling and sustaining aspects of human experience that occur outside the typical 9-to-5. Working to live means that you don’t see your job as an end in itself but as a means to accessing the more dynamic and enriching aspects of life. But what happens when your workplace starts to offer those dynamic and enriching experiences, and the boundary between the personal, the profound, and the professional becomes indistinguishable? In Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley, author and sociology professor Carolyn Chen takes the reader on a deep dive into a world where mindfulness is a mental hack and the best restaurant in town is your company dining hall.
Chen spent six years learning how tech companies have begun to offer the same sort of community and gratification at work that people used to find in civic life. “Work takes more than any other institution today, but it also gives more than any other institution,” writes Chen. “High-skilled Americans are finding belonging, identity, meaning, and purpose at work.” Mindfulness has dovetailed with this transformation, rising in popularity at a time when workplaces are learning more about how presence supports productivity. By making space for mindfulness and other wellbeing accoutrements like gyms, healthy snacks, on-site masseuses, and dry cleaning, companies are hoping to nurture a workforce that is perfectly content…to keep working. In this equation, writes Chen, “interior growth translates to capital growth.”
The Price for Workplace Converts
Much of Chen’s insights come from detailed interviews with many in the trenches (or modern open floor work spaces with ping pong tables) of Silicon Valley. It is through the words of these workers that we learn that this shift has numerous benefits. “My company has changed my life,” reports one woman. “They have helped me become who I am today.” These sorts of “work conversions” are littered throughout Chen’s text. What occurs through the self-improvement courses, professional coaching, and mindfulness opportunities companies offer is no doubt powerful. But, Chen, cautions, there may be something lost in the exchange. “When work replaces religion, religion takes on the utilitarian logic of work,” notes Chen.
Chen deftly points out the Faustian bargain underlying this exchange, and the way that such total care of employees erodes the public institutions that traditionally provided meaning and belonging in society. Yet one could make the case that such institutions were already eroding, and that Silicon Valley’s intrusion into this arena is also a bolstering of a basic need that was not being met. What’s more, it is hard not to point out that the traditional models for achieving belonging succeeded at a time in American history when belonging was a much more fractious and homogenous endeavor.
Techtopia's New Mindfulness and Its Users
Chen distinguishes between the Mystics—the original Bay Area seekers who dropped out, turned on, and tuned in—and the Users—the current crop of seekers who have, on the other hand, dropped in, turned up productivity, and found meaning through and at work. Again, despite the careful examination of this trade-off, one is left wondering whether the Mystics were really better off, with many ending up drug-addled and disillusioned. Workplace mindfulness might be a means to an end, but at least that end is a productive one that has changed the lives of those who have engaged in company programs.
Towards the end of Work Pray Code, Chen looks at all the ways that “techtopia” has co-opted mindfulness practice, and it is illuminating to see how it has been molded, shaped, and stripped of any overtly religious features in order to serve the needs of Westerners. But mindfulness has undergone countless transformations in its rich history, and the implication that there is a purity to one form of practice over another overlooks the inherent openness of a practice intended to cultivate openness.
"Divine Purpose in a Capitalist Cosmos"
Ultimately, however, Chen’s book serves to remind all of us interested in mindfulness of the larger context in which practice occurs. It would be wise for business leaders and corporations to be intentional and thoughtful about the manner in which they introduce practice. By undertaking wellness endeavors inauthentically, workplaces become “meaning-making institutions that offer a gospel of fulfillment and divine purpose in a capitalist cosmos,” in the words of Chen. Despite all the scientifically proven benefits of mindfulness practice, it should not be presented as a magic bullet or a hack to bolstering the bottom line. It should be a real break from work, rather than a pathway to efficiency. Perhaps a contented worker will be more efficient in the long run, but for a company that truly cares, this should be an ancillary benefit rather than the point of mindfulness programming.
“Americans today are looking to work in order not only to believe in something, but also to belong to something,” writes Chen. Providing a practice community in which people can be curious, open-minded, vulnerable, and above all, present, is a meaningful way to create belonging. There need not be any working, praying, or coding when such a community gathers. The wonderful thing about fulfillment that begins at work is that it can extend beyond it as well.
If you want to learn more, read Carolyn Chen's Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley
What are your thoughts on the intermixing of workplace mindfulness and belonging? Please share in the comments!