Silicon Valley is neither model nor mirror.

I’m having a difficult time with Carolyn Chen’s piece for The Atlantic purporting to show “what the anti-work discourse gets wrong”, and I think in part it’s because she seems to generalize from conversations she had with people who work in Silicon Valley.

Contrary to the new wisdom, work does love us back. That’s what I found while researching my new book, Work Pray Code, a study of work and spirituality in Silicon Valley tech firms, which are sometimes seen as models for American work culture. Despite professionals benefiting in several ways from our jobs, many of us talk about work as extractive: We say that we sell our souls at work; we describe it as draining. But in Silicon Valley, work is where many people find their souls. Over the course of five years, I interviewed more than 100 tech-industry professionals who echoed this sentiment. One young engineer, a former evangelical Christian who moved from Georgia to join a San Francisco start-up, told me that he had transferred his fervor for religion onto work. His company became his new faith community, providing him with the belonging, meaning, and mission that he’d once found in his church back home. In the fellowship of his start-up, he developed the faith that their enterprise social-networking app would “change the world.” The engineer was one of many people who described themselves as becoming more “whole,” “spiritual,” or “connected” because of work.

It might seem from this that she’s distancing the Silicon Valley work ethic from that of others, given that she mentions how people describe their jobs, but the bulk of the piece appears to be suggesting that these complaints we have about work are lies we tell ourselves. In reality, Chen seems to be saying, we love work—and, per the above, it loves us back.

That last bit especially is ludicrous. The mere fact that human resource professionals claim they create environments where workers can “be that fulfilled person”, or that their job is to “nourish peoples’ souls when they are working so hard”; or the fact that Silicon Valley behemoths “bring in Buddhist teachers and have dedicated meditation rooms”, or provide senior leaders with “spiritual advisers”—none of this is proof that work loves us, let alone loves us back.

Silicon Valley is not the world of work that most people experience, in pretty much any way, shape, or form. The religious fervor with which the denizens of Silicon Valley see themselves and their “callings” is a kind of lunacy; it’s not Chen’s new religion. It’s a cult.

The fact that “70 percent of professionals said that their sense of purpose is defined by their work” doesn’t confirm that most workers in general view work the way Silicon Valley does. That people find their purpose in work doesn’t mean they find their fulfillment there. That they find their purpose in work might not be because work is satisfying an existential need but because our society doesn’t let people find their “purpose” anywhere other than work. We are very nearly required to do so.

That same survey cited by Chen also found that “nearly two-thirds of US-based employees we surveyed said that COVID-19 has caused them to reflect on their purpose in life” and “nearly half said that they are reconsidering the kind of work they do because of the pandemic”. This is not a sign that people consider it fulfilling that they’ve little choice in that their job is their purpose.

One of the problems with the way Silicon Valley has “pioneered” some sort of woo-woo work place wellness program is that it treats the problem of existential dissatisfaction as an individualized problem of personal actualization. To paraphrase Jonathan Malesic today (who was speaking of burnout), the answer to this existential dissatisfaction isn’t individualized; it has to be more collective.

To be fair, my problem is that I don’t understand what Chen is after, because on that one hand I think she misconstrues the “purpose” thing. On the other hand, Chen, too, sees that the answers can’t come from the individual.

Even for those of us who have started looking elsewhere for fulfillment by starting a new hobby, taking a sabbatical, or securing a better, more meaningful job, all of these solutions leave the theocracy of work intact. These individual actions do nothing to change a system that concentrates all of its material, social, and spiritual rewards in the institution of work. The only way to reorient is by revitalizing and building shared “houses of worship” outside of work, changing the structures that organize our fulfillment. These houses of worship would have to claim our time, energy, and devotion like work does. We would have to sacrifice and submit to their demands, as we do for work. We would have to build communities of belonging, together seeking meaning and purpose outside of our productive labor. These houses of worship needn’t be only religious ones; they could also be our co-ops, neighborhoods, unions, reading groups, or political clubs—anything in the panoply of civic organizations that can help us visualize human flourishing that rises above a company’s bottom line.

Yes, to all of this. What I can’t seem to grasp is why Chen thinks that the way Silicon Valley thinks about work is the same as the way everyone else thinks about work. There’s a certain sort of messianic culture in and around Silicon Valley, and I do think many people there truly believe in what they are doing. That’s simply not true for everyone else.

Do most people not want to be bored at work? Do they not want to feel like they are wasting their time? Do they want to feel some degree of satisfaction? Sure. But I simply don’t think it’s the case that most people actually want work to be the source (originally I typo’d “course”, which does also fit) of their purpose. They see it as their purpose because we’ve given them no choice in the matter.