Carolyn Chen: “Technology Companies Offer the Most Effective Solutions to Deliver a Meaningful Life” | Work-Life Balance

Carolyn Chen is a sociologist who studies religion, race, and ethnicity and a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. her new book, The Work Prayer Code: When Work Became a Religion in Silicon ValleyIn-depth interviews with employees and employers to explore how spirituality increases productivity in the world’s tech hub.

What inspires you as a religion professor Interested in Silicon Valley?
I have studied Taiwanese immigrant evangelicals, evangelical Christians, Buddhists in their communities, but I think anyone who lives in western industrialized countries, metropolitan areas, knows that in terms of religious belief and religious participation, religion is decline. For me, it feels like something is missing if I only capture people who self-identify as religious. How do we see religion working in the world? What are the contemporary manifestations of religion? I really want to see the existence of religion in the secular space.

Which brought you to a yoga studio, and what did you learn when you used this spiritual practice to talk to worldly people?
I’ve noticed that works are very prominent in people’s narratives and biographies. When I ask people, “So why do you practice yoga and when do you practice yoga?” it’s usually work-focused. People say, “Well, I practice yoga because after a long day, I feel like I need to relieve stress.” But there’s another saying: “Yoga really helped restore me and made me a better X” – where you can fill in the gaps – a better nurse, a better engineer, a better accountant or a lawyer. I am well aware that work is their true belief in life – work is something they are willing to surrender, surrender and sacrifice for. And, if anything, yoga is just a healing aid – it’s to support another thing they worship, you can say, worship.

So in those interviews it was clear to me that I was looking in the wrong place. Because I’m looking at something that has religious roots and that’s yoga, but what are they actually worshiping, what’s really sacred in their lives? This is not yoga. Yoga helps them worship their work.

Your book documents how Silicon Valley CEOs have used this to their advantage — first, offering yoga classes at tech headquarters and now encouraging Buddhist practices like mindfulness and meditation. Why did the latter take over?
Yoga replaced by meditation and mindfulness as there are thousands of studies [the benefits of] Meditation and mindfulness – it’s a complete cottage industry. However, as I write in the book, a lot of the research is done in controlled labs, so they may not necessarily apply in the workplace. When mindfulness is used in these mundane spaces, it is not even clear what mindfulness is. I just feel like these companies are always looking for the new next big thing, an easy one. It needs to be quick and easy to optimize employee productivity.

This is essentially the crux of your book – tech giants are using spiritual practices to optimize productivity and spiritual concepts (“Mission,” “Origin Story,” “Leadership”) to keep people dedicated to their work for life. But why now? Why optimize employees this way?
This is part of a mid- to long-term trend and a larger shift in the economy – the rise of the knowledge economy and the transition from an industrial to a post-industrial economy. In an industrial economy, the way to increase profits is often by exploiting natural resources. In a knowledge economy, the most important assets are the knowledge and skills of the workforce. How did you grow up? You can increase a person’s value by educating them, but you can also increase their productivity and increase their value by cultivating their spirit. How do you capture their spiritual side, their emotional side, so they can be fully engaged in the workforce? Many of the terms we now use to describe work, such as “enthusiasm” or “full commitment” to work, understand the concept of how to manage the workforce in today’s knowledge economy; it’s not just the skills of the human worker, but also the spiritual aspect.

In practice, this means that companies provide employees with free healthy meals, life coaching, wellness centers… While reading, I kind of thought, “That sounds great. “ How do you convince people to challenge it? What are the downsides of corporate motherhood you speak of?
First, I just want to say that I feel the same way. Because tech companies offer the most effective solutions—efficient is the key word here—delivering meaningful and fulfilling lives. When I spent my time there, I thought, “If I were here, I would be a better scholar, teacher, mother, because the company would handle all of those things.” So I struggled with that question you asked. struggling.

But I as a sociologist see its downsides. In my book I talk about how the workplace can act like a giant magnet for the time, energy and dedication of the community. But what about other institutions? What about families, faith communities, schools, and even small businesses, arts organizations, community associations? In the American model, we believe that these civic institutions are essential to maintaining our democracy. All these other agencies start getting smaller because you have this alpha agency that attracts everything.

Yes – you notice how the janitors and caterers don’t get the same perks as engineers and how the moral drive of the spirit is completely lost. Some of the perks on offer are jaw-dropping: I was shocked to read that Vijay, an engineer, was basically given a dating coach by his employer. What was your most shocking moment in your reporting?
One HR person said, “Well, we can’t have people working 24/7 unless we give them flexibility.” A light bulb flashed in my head as she said that. We really need to think about that as we’re moving towards a more hybrid model. Workers are moving towards flexibility, but what are the consequences? You can work 24/7.

Before I opened the book, I thought it was mostly about the cult of people, like Steve Jobs. is more complicated than that.Who Is God in your equation? What is the image of worship?
Steve Jobs was like a saint — there’s this biography of the saint, there’s a cult of Steve Jobs, and people started practicing meditation because of him. But it is essentially worshipping a system. It is this belief that work will save you, that it will give you meaning and purpose, that it is immortal in a sense.

The Work Prayer Code: When Work Became a Religion in Silicon Valley Carolyn Chen is published by Princeton University Press (£22).to support guardian and observer Order your copy at Guardianbookshop.com.Shipping charges may apply

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