is work worship?
deep work and deeper work
I’m thinking again about that David Foster Wallace quote: There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship… is that anything else you worship will eat you alive.
He talks about how we worship many things intellect, beauty, power:
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.
We inherit worship from certain realms. Conditional games that depend on collective rules. There’s a bubble in SF that thinks everyone should be a founder. A bubble that wants every grad student to stay in academia forever. A bubble for corporate jobs and the pipeline that extends infinitely, salaries tripling and recruiting timelines shrinking. The rules are self-evident as long as you stay in the bubble, as long as there are no cracks in your smooth reality.
But I think it’s important to acknowledge when there are cracks in your worldview, and how to pry them open further.
I’m sure you know people who worship work, or at the very least the hazy, splendid notion of ‘ambition’. For some, it’s important to merge their life with their job. To maximize and fulfill their intelligence or potential. It’s a spiritual quest. And isn’t that the dream: to love what you do? Workaholism and actual interest start to blur at some intensity though, and it gets harder to tell if someone likes their work or just likes to work. Perhaps both.
That distinction feels meaningful to me. Because we have so much magnitude, so much striving, so much desire. How do we harness it in the right direction? How do we figure out what to worship?
In truth, I’m struggling to align my professional work with who I am. I was trying to piece together my feelings and came up with a few angles of reflection:
Regulation of pace: how quickly and efficiently are things expected to get done? How often? How soon? “A system of time speaks to a shared world” re: Jenny Odell, after all.
Intellectual freedom: how much does your structure stifle creative or learning freedom vs feed it? Is your learning spiky or holistic?
Culture of connectivity: how accessible are knowledge experts, how much does “networking” matter?
Intensity: how would you characterize the intensity of work? Does it challenge your process? (perhaps it should, to a healthy extent)
Deep work vs deeper work: what type of output is normalized? Does it correlate strongly with neglecting things that make you happy & healthy?
Across these broad questions, I’ve been narrowing in on this idea that the most profound learning, deepest insights occur over longer timeframes.
Surface knowledge accumulates quickly but wisdom emerges slowly. And urgency rarely indicates long term importance. There are lessons I learned years ago I’m only processing now. I don’t sneer at simple things, and take more time to learn them well. It’s easy for a system to get complex, but difficult and painful for that same system to pare down to simplicity.
Where there is rote learning there cannot be elegance, or beauty, or discovery. Mechanical learning gets the grade, but insight and intuition take a tremendous amount of time and sheer effort.
Honing that instinct is why great inventors or writers or artists spent so much energy and focus on true, fundamental, bedrock understanding: Edwin Land (inventor of the instant camera) before trying to even experiment with different glass optics first went to the New York Public Library and read every single book they had on light. Monet was captivated by water lilies and painted a colossal 300 paintings from literally his backyard pond, trying to capture its essence. From David Perell: “David McCullough, a trained painter and arguably America’s greatest biographer once said: Insight comes, more often than not, from looking at what’s been on the table all along, in front of everybody, rather than discovering something new… That’s Dickens’ great admonition to all writers, Make me see.”
I am most inspired when people tell me their work feels like play. Like flow. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, and actually it can also be laborious, but that you wake up every day feeling like you get to do this thing, that you chose it and it feels meaningful somewhere deep inside of you. It has to be rewarding in its process, not just its outcome. I’m extending this definition of work beyond what you get compensated for, what you clock in and out of, what you submit to a manager to. Work can mean a side project, a blog, a relationship, a realm of care, faith. These are ambitions too.
This line in Amina Cain’s A Horse at Night:
Sometimes I’m alienated from my true nature and sometimes I am my true nature. I don’t like the alienation, but to feel it, and then to find it lifted, I wonder if that is valuable too. To know the difference, to not stay stuck… if you are not alienated from yourself, you are more likely to go further into the thing on which you are working
So it is important to ask: when do I feel alienated? When do I feel at home? When can I go further in something out of sheer interest? Pay attention to flow. Fascination. Pull on that thread.
These days it seems to me nothing is pure labor or pure indulgence. Everything is somewhere in between. We don’t opt out of worship. But we bear the responsibility to define what is sacred to us. When it all dissolves, is what you choose worth it?
I can’t stop thinking about this line from a poetry performance I attended recently: noticing can be a weapon of violence or an act of love. My answer to the question — “How do I create good meaningful work in a culture that harnesses speed, intensity, output?” — is making sure what I do have control over; what I put effort toward; my magnitude; my direction; my noticing; is acted on with love.
Special thanks to J for sparking inspiration for this post’s title
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Quote of the Week
There is a vitality, a life force, an energy...that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist... The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open
What I’m reading
Books: Downloaded Escape from Freedom by Erich Fromm (a recommendation from Sundus!) and Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire by David Graeber
This substack on women artists is refreshing:
I enjoyed this ‘list of beliefs’ by Ava and find many parallel themes in my life re: acting in alignment to certain principles, it’s a paid post — but shared a snippet I thoroughly enjoyed on twitter here: