The following piece was written as an original post for the July 2016 edition of Blah, Blah Blog, an EngagedBetween.com series. It is shared with pleasure for publication in the July 2016 SIETAR USA newsletter. Though a critique of mainstream U.S. American work culture as reflected in pop music, “Work as Religion” explores opportunity for deepening our work with client-partners by encouraging a shift in how people practice work.
Over a pitcher of Sangria this past Thursday evening—with my own glass full of water—one friend in the group that met at Café Iberico smiled knowingly as she told me that I have no concerns about job security as a global and local diversity professional. Nanye. Ninguna. Neniu. Though I wasn’t born an interculturalist, I converted long ago and I’ll die a devoted follower my religion: Work.
I am not the only one in these so-called post-God, post-history, post-racist United States who has made a religion of my work. We’re generally a busy people who barter our health, time and true talent for a job. And perhaps, like other believers, I hold true to the promise that sacrifice now will be rewarded later. Though in the “hereafter” of my religion, the hearts of humankind are knit together (1).
Work As Next-To- Holy and Hyper-Sexualized
Even as it consumes us, we increasingly sacrifice ourselves for work. Like many other virtues to which people profess devotion and exploit, the so-called Puritanical work ethic of the 1800’s U.S. that influences our work culture has become simultaneously next-to- holy and hyper-sexualized in contemporary society. Witness this fascinating mix in the following “clean” versions  of today’s popular music that are an ode to work.
In about the span of my lifetime, the ritual of work has gone from sacrilege to sacred. Some examples include the following pop-culture songs of the late 1970s and 1980s  .
- “Work” by singing artists Rihanna and Drake climbed to the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 list in Feb. 2016. It’s meaning—beyond the obvious—remains elusive despite the title of the song being repeated 79 times within its lyrics.
- “Work From Home” released in the same month by Fifth Harmony, fittingly features a music hook by a man with the stage name, Ty Dolla $ign. Suggestively, the lyrics read, “We can work from home…/’Cause baby, you’re the boss at home”.
- “Stressed Out” (2015) by twenty one pilots offers a commentary on work culture in the refrain, “Wake up, you need to make money”.
- In Iggy Azelea’s “Work” (2014) she essentially tells her story of “rags to riches” which is reminiscent of the lifestyle portrayed in (the explicit version of) Brittney Spear’s “Work B****” (2013) music video. The video features Brittney using a whip on members of her crew as they “live fancy” with Lamborghinis, martinis and parties in France—all the while enslaved to the need to afford their lifestyle.
- “Take This Job and Shove It” (1977) by Johnny Paycheck doesn’t require comment as the title is fairly self-explanatory.
- “9 to 5” (1980) by Dolly Parton offered a socio-economic and feminist critique of work: “It’s a rich man’s game/ No matter what they call it/ And you spend your life/ Puttin’ money in his wallet”.
- In “Morning Train (Nine to Five)” (1981), poor Sheena Easton lost time with her lover every workday. The lyrics read, “My baby takes the morning train/He works from nine to five and then/ He takes another home again/ To find me waitin’ for him”.
- “She Works Hard For the Money” (1983) by Donna Summers tells the story of a waitress named Onetta who will “…never sell out/ she never will/ not for a dollar bill.” So, you “better treat her right”!
- Written by Prince and sung by The Bangles, “Manic Monday” (1986) protests the turn of the clock to the start of the workweek that interrupts lovemaking Sunday “fun days”. Here, work is a turn off—not fetishized as a turn-on.
Just about an equal number of years after the 21st century began as before it ended, our interpretation of the value of work—as reflected in the select sample above—has changed. No longer are we simply the object and work the subject. Work has become the protagonist that drives the plot of our lives, the “hero” of our story.
How to Make Religion of Work
If we’re going to make a religion of work, let’s make the maximum profit. Our professional accountabilities are often to discover efficiencies, assure quality, check and balance toward the “holy grail” of the bottom line. However, we are not reaching our best benefit. How do we maximize our potential? First, our grounding assumption must be that if there’s such a thing as “doing religion right”, we do well by making a daily practice of our values in the public, professional spaces where we live life.
What necessarily defines work as a value is the act of creating; the “exertion or effort directed to produce or accomplish something”  . Like other values, it’s aspirational, and generally offers benefit for all. Just as faith is “the evidence of things not seen,” the profit produced by creating through work is not always tangible, but no less real. When we make a religion of work, we recognize that the profit gained through work is in the act of craft—not in the product itself. In the classic work by Lebanese writer-poet Khalil Gibran, he preaches work as worship: “…[I]n keeping yourself with labour you are in truth loving life, And to love life through labour is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret. And what is to work with love? It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart, even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth. Work is love made visible.” Work practiced without values is work that lacks value.
By practicing work as religion—day in and day out—we will bring a character to work that tends to be uncommon, and that does not lose value with increased supply. I’m not usually one to proselytize, though I offer “work as religion” as a conceptual framing through which workers may endeavor toward professional development, organizational learning and organizational change. As a reflective practitioner of whatever your profession, how might making a fundamental belief of work in its true essence change how you relate with yourself and others?
Training & Management Consulting | Local & Global Diversity
EngageBetween…people. place. purpose.
Malii Brown is a Trainer and Management Consultant working globally and stateside to equip people with skills to manage the complexities and opportunities inherent to work and life in culturally diverse environments. She has 12 years experience training leadership, executives and high potentials—both face-to- face and virtually—to cooperate effectively in the U.S. and/or across national cultures. Her client list includes Fortune 500 companies, institutions of higher learning, state government and nonprofit organizations. Malii offers a unique perspective to the work as a Millennial woman of color who has worked and travelled throughout the U.S. and 19 countries across Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. She has varying proficiency in Spanish, Japanese and American Sign Language (ASL). Living at times beyond of her “comfort zone”—both outside of, and within, her native U.S. borders—has presented Malii with professional and personal experiences that enable her to relate to, and resonate with, client-partners through cultural self-reflection and discovery. Malii Brown currently lives in Chicago and travels nationally, internationally and virtually for work and pleasure. Connect with Malii at Brown@EngageBetween.com or via LinkedIn.
1 Reference to Baha’i scripture, which reads: “…Strive ye to knit together the hearts of men, in His Name, the Unifier, the All-Knowing, the All-Wise.”
2 Explicit versions of each song—with the exception of Stressed Out—more graphically demonstrate the point being made in this paragraph.
3 No “clean” and “explicit” versions of these songs are available online.
4 Source: Dictionary.com.