All career issues are religious issues. Maybe.

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I starting to think that the most effective preparation for a good career is religion.

I am writing this post on the eve of Yom Kippur. I am constantly trying to figure out how religion fits in my life. Sometimes I think it doesn't fit. I mean, I'm a Jew dating a pig farmer. And I can't figure out what to do with my kids on Yom Kippur, so I'm sending them to school. I never, once in eighteen years, went to school on Yom Kippur. So I know it's going to feel crappy. I hope my family is not reading this.

Well, of course they are not, because they are in synagogue today.

I wish I could make my religion problems go away. I wish I could not care about religion because I'm an intellectual. Or I wish I could not care about religion because I am fine doing it however I do it.

One thing that nags at me is that I know for sure is that religion is great preparation for being able to get what you want out of your work life. And, if you read this blog regularly, you know that I think the purpose of work is to get you what you want out of your whole life, not just the work part.

So what I'm thinking, while I'm being a bad Jew on Yom Kippur, is that all career questions are really: “What is my purpose in life?” It's very hard to understand what our career problems are, because we never really understand what we are doing here, in our life.

Wondering if you should relocate is really “What's most important to you in life?” And wondering if you should change careers is really “What is my telos?” And where do you learn to find answers to these extremely difficult questions? I think from religion.

All of adult life is about facing terrible choices.

Why do people tell you you can do anything? You can't. I mean, you can. But it's harder to decide what you're not doing. We make enormous sacrifices everytime we want to get anything: You get no alone time when you have a newborn. You get no more sex partners if you get married. You do not get to live in a small city for some careers. You don't get to live in a big city for some marriages. Adult life is often about making horrible choices that feel like blood letting.

Where else do you hear about this except in religion? Adam and Eve face this problem and that's what the history of humankind is built on. That's the narrative of religion. And it's more helpful than the narrative that you can have everything. Because you can't. And you need some preparation for that.

The most important thing to do at work is good deeds.

So many people tell me that Gen Y is difficult to manage. Gen Y wants constant feedback, top-tier mentoring, and they want someone to help them build the right skills for where they want to go.

So what Gen Y really wants is people to care about other people at work.

What are you doing at work that is more important than helping people? Sure, you need to earn a paycheck, but, people don’t get promoted for doing their job. People get promoted for doing good deeds, which cynics call office politics. But the truth is that if you are well-liked at work it is because you care about people and connect with people and look for ways to help them.

People get promoted for office politics, and office politics is about doing good deeds, and I know you know that the people who are talking, week after week, day after day, about the importance of doing good deeds are the religious people.

Good work is about good rhythms.

We need rhythm in life to successfully reach our goals. Whatever they are. We need to have some things we do that are simply not a decision: Make school lunches for the kids. Say no to fried food. And, when you're really rocking, going to the gym. No decision: You have it on your schedule, at the same time each day, and you do it. Because it makes your life better.

And then sometimes, you stop everything, and you shake things up, and then you see the world differently. Like, this is why you need to take an extra long lunch, or a short vacation.

You know what is great training for establishing these rhythms in life? Religion. As a Jew, I can tell you that morning prayers, and evening prayers, and Shabbat, give order to my days and weeks. And interruptions to that order, Rosh Hashannah, or Yom Kippur, for example, shake things up for me. I am used to this sort of rhythm. I've been doing it for a long time. (Religious zealots don’t get giddy: I do this in my own, customized way. I'm the bad Jew of my family.)

Personal responsibility is the most important trait of a successful career.

In order to succeed you do not need more luck. We each have the same amount of luck. It's how you use your luck that differentiates you. Because everyone faces adversity, and the people who are the most resilient to adversity are the one's who succeed. Makes sense, right? Everyone succeeds when things are going great.

So if the differentiator is resilience, the people who are the most resilient are the optimists. The optimists can face adversity and turn luck into a ladder to get past adversity. Do you want to know how optimistic you are? Here are some ways to test yourself. But the big difference between pessimists and optimists is explanatory styles — pessimists blame external factors for circumstances, optimists think circumstances are within their control.

People who think their lives are within their control can overcome obstacles more effectively. And this is personal responsibility. Religion teaches us to take responsibility for being good, and honest, and rectifying things we have done wrong. Religion teaches personal responsibility which could explain why religious people are more optimistic than less religious people.

(A plea for civility in the comments section.)

It’s ironic that I’m looking for a conversation about religion on a day when religious Jews won’t even read this post. But there is a wide range of religious beliefs represented among the readers of this blog, and I don’t think these observations are religion-specific. Also, for the atheists who might want to eat me alive in the comments section: Instead of saying you don’t need religion to get taught these values, which of course is true, why not think about, instead, how interesting it is that the teachings of religion seem to be exactly what we need to face our most common and most difficult career issues?

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  1. Chris M.
    Chris M. says:

    I’m not religious but in my experience being honest and helping others does help our careers, in addition to making us feel good about ourselves.

    I’d add that good parenting can be a good substitute for religion in teaching people to be nice, respectful of others, and generous with our time and money to help the less fortunate ones.

  2. Lance
    Lance says:

    Yea! I’m the first commenter…obviously, I’m not a Jew.

    This post hit me really hard, especially considering I’m an atheist and I usually have an automatic negative reaction when I read religion in the title. Glad I read all the way through. Two points I love: 1) work is about rhythm, which is true. I use working out and physical training in this way. 2) Good deeds. I made this realization about a year ago and I’ve been trying to move my professional life in that direction. Helping people and doing good things is the only way to live and work. Bravo.

  3. Ian B
    Ian B says:

    “think about, instead, how interesting it is that the teachings of religion seem to be exactly what we need to face our most common and most difficult career issues?”

    Sure is – I’ve always thought of religion as a tool for dealing with the largest, most complex issues in life that, without a handy tool, would be too much for our little human brains to process.

    The navigation of life and the universe isn’t about knowledge, it’s about building models that help us conceive and interact with the environment around us and with each other. Does physics represent knowledge? Nope. Just models. What about art? More models. Ethics? More still. The answers to the questions that these fields address are ultimately unknowable, but building these models allow us to at least function in the world without becoming completely overwhelmed by it to the point where we simply stop being able to interact with it or with each other. Religion is another example of one of these models, one that creates a framework for understanding our history as well as life’s big, unknowable questions.

    (I’ll ignore the question of whether the historical models presented by religions are literally “true”, since that question is a matter of faith and that thread has the potential to get nasty)

    So yes, it makes all kinds of sense that the religious framework would be applicable to the process of navigating work – that’s essentially what religion was built for. Whether you personally choose to employ this model to understand your particular work situation is another question entirely – but I’m not surprised that someone would find it productive to view work through a religious lens. Interesting observation.

  4. Wayne Allen
    Wayne Allen says:

    A client was stressed to the max. I suggested a daily meditation practice. He said, “How can I fit in antoehr 15 minutes a day?” I replied, “Not difficult if your life is a meditation.”
    You’re waltzing around the same way of being.
    The “problem” comes when people think they have kid problems, and work problems, and parent problems and spouse problems. It’s like that guy that was on Ed Sullivan, spinning the plates.
    If, on the other hand, your “meditation,” as you wrote, is “Who am I?” (“Who is asking this question?) then there is hope that one might take a step back from the plates and truly see the plate spinner.
    From there, and with an answer to the “vocational” question, “Why am I here?” one might, then mindfully make sandwiches, stop the spinning long enough for a trip to synagogue (or zendo) have a meaningful conversation with partner, kids, co-workers, all from a perspective of enacting one’s vocation.
    Short form: take a step back, dear heart, and have a breath, and really ask the above questions, for, say, the next six months. You might just discover something vital!
    Shalom and namaste for Yom Kappur.

  5. JPeep
    JPeep says:

    Beautiful post, Penelope. Made the recovering Catholic/Agnostic me want to become a Jew who is really successful at work.

    I think the best way religion intersects with work (and all of life, really) is when it pushes you to ask questions about what you want out of life and what you can do to bring about the kind of world you want to be in – good deeds, caring about others, making the world a better place for people, seeking truth and justice. Be the kind of person for others that you wish others would be for you. “I believe x, so I am going to do y.”

    I think it intersects badly when it becomes not about you but about rules for how other people should live. “I believe x, so you have to behave in a certain way so I can live in the world that I want to live in.” Then I have a hard time respecting it, in the workplace or in public life in general.

  6. RE
    RE says:

    My former boss used to ridicule me for “trying to be the hero” when I stepped in and helped my colleagues get things done. She also was able to pass off any mistakes to others, blaming her failures and inadequacies on external forces; truly a master of manipulating people.

    I was laid off months ago and I understand she has received a promotion. Still, I think the post points in the right direction.

    One major quibble – no way in hell is luck equal across all people…that’s just absurd…we do not live in a neat, deterministic world, but we are hard-wired to want to, so we see determinism (cause-effect) where there is only randomness (i.e., luck). Still, being an optimist and defaulting to personal responsibility is the way to go imho. However, I think it is dangerous for everyone in an organization to be an optimist – humans are notoriously overconfident and firms that become too one-dimensional in their personality/cognitive style are likely headed for a blow-up (unless they get lucky).

    • Annon for obvious reasons
      Annon for obvious reasons says:

      I think your former boss is the one I just got out from under. I’m now struggling to find billable hours (assigned by other bosses who think I’m a nice person but responsible for all of ex-boss’s projects’ “mistakes”) while she just got a raise.

      I keep hearing “people like you, they think you’re great, but they just prefer to work with people who weren’t on that project.” The lady in the office who doesn’t talk to anyone smiles and talks to me, but I’m still convinced I’ll be fired before the end of the year. Being nice, seeking out work, and trying hard are just making me bitter and it’s getting harder to hide my nonjoyful giver…

  7. Natalie
    Natalie says:

    I am the office Mormon. While sometimes I’m uncool because I don’t drink or whatever, many people know that I am unwavering in my principles of honesty, ethics, and what not. I think that helps.

  8. linz
    linz says:

    One summer in college, I worked for an active travel company in Yellowstone. Each week, I set up tents and unrolled sleeping bags for a new set of families. It was exhausting work, not helped by the fact that many of the guests had attitudes of entitlement, or at least did not show any gratitude.

    The notable exception was the week we had a group of bible-belt families who knew each other from church. They were not what I expected. The kids were eager to help me assemble tents, the parents insisted I get food before them since I’d worked so hard, and I never heard anyone whining.

    (And this coming from a Jew, who is also feeling a little guilty about being at work on the holiest day of the year.)

  9. Matt Secor
    Matt Secor says:

    Reading the title of this post, I didn’t really think I was going to like or agree with much of it. It was a bit better than I was expecting, however. Religion is, of course, a touchy subject. I’ve enjoyed your Christmas rants in the past, but didn’t think this one was as good.

    Your main point seems to be:
    “[I]f you read this blog regularly, you know that I think the purpose of work is to get you what you want out of your whole life, not just the work part.” Religion can provide a sense of purpose. I also thought your point about good rhythms was spot on.

    You can’t really get around the point that you don’t need religion to have the values you describe just by saying religion works for you. I don’t think you’re trying to say you need to “get religion” to be successful at work, but it could certainly be construed that way. It’s not for everyone.

    I couldn’t agree more with the point that a lot of people try to tell you that you can do anything when, in fact, you can’t. But the problems people face with choices and consequences can be found as easily on the evening news as in religious texts. Doing good deeds isn’t the exclusive domain of the religious either.

    It’s more important to have a coherent, philosophy world view. Because religion can be filled with contradictions.

  10. Mike
    Mike says:

    Very interesting post, Penelope. It’s personally very relevant for me. I was raised in a strict Baptist home (gays are bad, don’t have sex, don’t drink, etc.), and while I’ll concede it gifted me with stoicism and a heightened level of personal responsibility, I don’t think the downsides are worth it. I think you’re approaching this from the perspective of the Jewish faith, one which in my opinion is more open minded than most. But that is not the majority makeup of US citizens. I see the value of what you are saying and the value of what an honest meditation on religion and spirituality provides, but I don’t believe that is the experience modern Christianity provides. Yes, these comments come from the prism of my experience, but I’ve spent a lot of time in these circles, thinking about these issues and investigating a better option. The sad truth is religion (Christianity, in particular) has been morphed over the past couple of decades into something small and ideological. On the whole, self-awareness, mercy and growth are simply not a part of the modern experience.

    I’ll respect your plea – no arguments on how you can get all those things without religion. But you can, and you can get them without acquiring a lot of traits which hurt your professional development.

    A life of soul-crushing shame. An adolescence of religious upbringing instills a unique personal identity: “I am a fallen, weak and intrinsically evil person that is nothing without the supernatural forgiveness of God.” It’s a shoddy mentality, and continually forces people to feel unworthy for being what they are – human.

    An unempowered person is an ineffective professional.

    Anti-Intellectualism. The proportion of religious people who lack any sort of intellectual curiosity is stunning. It leads to a majority of people in the US not believing in evolution, global warming, stem-cell research or any other host of scientific concepts that could contribute to the progress of the human race.

    An ignorant person does not progress professionally, because they never adjust, learn and grow.

    Judgmental Attitudes. The merciful teachings of Jesus have long been overshadowed by the Robertson/Dobson/Falwell attitude – “9/11 happened because God wanted to punish gays.” Is everyone that crazy? Of course not, but it lends to a busybody attitude in which people think THEY know what is right for everybody else. It’s egomaniacal, rude and politically terrifying.

    So, I guess I’d disagree with your statement that religion breeds “caring about people”, it fosters “caring about making people better.” That’s obnoxious and will alienate you in the workplace.

    Just Plain Wrong. The truth is, religious folks have it wrong on a lot of fronts. Don’t have sex until you are married. Drinking is wrong. Gays are immoral. Children do not have the intellectual or emotional capacity to fight these arguments, so they buy them, and it genuinely does damage to people. In my own life, I’m confident I would be a more self-actualized person if it had not taken me years to “deprogram” this kind of bullshit.

    I realize this post came off pretty spiteful, but I’m actually not. I see a lot of value in religion and the exploration of human spirituality. I realize not all religious faiths fall into these categories. I readily admit even those religious people that do are not “bad” people.

    The problem is, the institutionalization of religion has become increasingly polarized and generally does not encourage self-exploration, love and mercy but blind faith, judgment and an unreasonable certainty that “I have the answers.” That stuff is dangerous and hurtful.

    • Shawn
      Shawn says:

      You get one more thumbs up Mike! Very well said…I’d like to believe that more people are coming to this conclusion on their own, I think the TV says otherwise because the obnoxious attitudes make for good news.

      My hope is that the religious leaders who choose to spout their form of mind control all eventually get outed for their hypocracy in the end. My personal view is the Universe always balances itself.

    • Shannon
      Shannon says:

      What a biased load of sweeping generalizations. Is it too hard for the “logical” mind to grasp that not all churches are the same? Even within the realm of Christianity, there is a big difference between, say, Episcopalians and fundamentalists. In my Catholic church, for example, there are a number of openly gay couples, and I’ve even spoken to a few parishoners about my abortion. Guess what? They didn’t lynch me. The thing is, church is made up of people. It’s not the building, not the text, not the rules. It’s the people. And it’s sad that so many intelligent people feel they have to reject religion because they disagree with these accessories. God is love. No one is excluded.

    • mysticaltyger
      mysticaltyger says:

      Too many sweeping generalizations here. You’re still stuck at being angry at Christian Fundamentalism.

      Just to name one over generalization in your post…. There are lots of intelligent people, including scientists, who don’t believe in anthropogenic global warming. John Stossel (just look up his segment on scientists who don’t believe in global warming in youtube) and David Icke come to mind. There are politics in science as well as religion, ‘ya know.

  11. Andrea
    Andrea says:

    Lovely post Penelope.

    For those of us who are religious, faith and its surrounding principles apply to every part of our life, including work life.

    The Bible has all sorts of passages about work and toil, and how we are meant to work and glorify God through our work. Sometimes it helps me to pull out a WWJD (only in my own head!) when I’m in a frustrating work situation.

  12. Jen
    Jen says:

    Really enjoyed this post, Penelope; thank you.

    I just finished reading the alchemist, which reiterated for me what I’ve been slowly coming to terms with regarding religion. Which is this; religious practice falls under spirituality which is really just each of us doing our best to live our best life, serving our purpose.

    So the points you make come as no surprise to me. For me, it's less important how you fit these values into your life (whether that be religion or not), but that you do so in the way that works best for you.

    • Kelli
      Kelli says:

      I agree. I have always thought of religion as a (potentially) good system of support and tool for building/maintaining good values, but not the only method for doing so. (Excuse the generalities; it would be totally ineffective to get specific in such a matter.)

  13. Doug K
    Doug K says:

    the evidence is thin that religious people are more optimistic. if you took that same survey of high-schoolers in Afghanistan, it would necessarily exclude all the girls who aren’t allowed to go to school. You’d never know if the religious beliefs that forbade them to go to school correlated with their optimism levels: or not.

    On the other hand, both optimism and religious belief are comforting delusions. It’s not surprising to find them together.

    On choices, I like Isaiah Berlin’s formulation: “We are doomed to choose, and every choice may entail irreparable loss.”
    We’re pessimists, what can I say ;-)

  14. Gay B
    Gay B says:

    From a writing perspective, I had a hard time reading this post. I felt the thoughts jumped all over the place and I found myself rereading sections to understand. Not your best writing, I think.

  15. Dee
    Dee says:

    Au contraire @Gay B, I think the post flowed, in fact I related alot to what she said given my own religious background and how it influences my experiences in the workplace about how I ought to treat others.

    No longer religious, I still really have a hard time thinking only of “self” when I make decisions about work. Growing up in church, I was explicitly taught to always think of how my actions affect others, and this, among other things, has stuck.

    • Bonnie
      Bonnie says:

      I thought this was one of your most compelling and well-written posts. I grew up without religion and honestly haven’t given it much thought as an adult. But you just put together for me how certain things I struggle with, like establishing a work rhythm as a writer, might be connected to that lack.

      I disagreed on one point; not everyone has the same amount of “luck,” do they? I mean, certainly someone born healthy and middle-class, with a supportive family, is luckier than many.

  16. Jim
    Jim says:

    So far so good, Penelope, with civil comments.

    The challenge for each of us is to find our own spirituality (or religion, if you wish) and figure out how to do something positive for the planet.

    There’s still way too much hate in this world, based largely on religion.

    • mysticaltyger
      mysticaltyger says:

      Religion is merely a vehicle for hate, not the foundation of it. If religion were to go away, people would just find another vehicle.

  17. Will at Virtualjobcoach
    Will at Virtualjobcoach says:

    Great topic, post logic is bit loose and fast. The foundation of your logic seems to be “All of adult life is about facing terrible choices.” And religion is there to help us accept this certainty? And it’s tied to work where you should “do good things” to get ahead?

    I would posit that only those who are pessimists take this view and that religion, irrespective of how you feel about it, should be balanced in your life and not simply “tied to career success”.

    I would say that 95% of us work for money, especially Gen Y-ers who realize that living in your parent’s basement isn’t a boon to the social scene.

    So yes, you should try to do ‘good things’ in life and work, irrespective of your religious beliefs but to believe that is a solid strategy for ‘getting ahead’ isn’t based on the standard corporate-norm in this society. If you go into your bosses office and say “I didn’t hit any of my goals this quarter, but I did a whole lot of GOOD things” they will kindly tell you that they didn’t hire you to ‘do good things’ they hired you to fill your functional role.

    So an interesting topic, but as career advice, not so good (unless you want to be very liked, but out of work)

    • Kay Lorraine
      Kay Lorraine says:

      Will, I didn’t get to read this immediately because I was at shul observing Yom Kippur. While I agree that living in your parents’ basement isn’t socially cool, I found that my life improved substantially when I left the for-profit world and began working in the non-profit industry. You get to make a living (well…. sort of) but you get to do good, it does allow you to get what you want out of your whole life rather than just the work life.

      I’m not suggesting that everyone enter the non-profit field. But even when I had a for-profit production company, I managed to go three times a week to work in the kitchen at a homeless shelter. And I do mean “work,” as in mopping floors, scrubbing the stove, etc. It didn’t pay anything, of course, but it made my life a little better. By the way, as a practicing Jew I worked in a shelter run by the Methodist Church. No one saw this as odd. Not them and certainly not me. I did it because it seemed like the right thing to do. And I totally considered it part of my “work.” I didn’t do it when it was convenient; it was simply understood around the office that Kay doesn’t schedule any meetings after 4:00 on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

      It was part of my work. It was part of my religion. It was part of my job on this earth. I’m not trying to get all sanctimonious here. I'm certainly no Mother Theresa (my husband jokes that I'm a Jew just because I like to wear hats), but I do find that the
      rhythm of religion does help with the discipline needed in work.

      Yom Kippur was about forgiveness. Asking for it and giving it. It’s about taking responsibility for your own actions, acknowledging your mistakes and honestly trying to do better in the future. Doesn’t mattter if you’re religious or not. We could all use a little more of that around the workplace.

  18. Jess
    Jess says:

    I think much of your post is right on target. And I think no matter where one stands on religion, it is not surprising that religion teaches many of the skills we need in life and in our careers.

    If you believe in God, God gave us religion, so of course it’s what we need. If you don’t believe in God, religion is a man-made construct that has only survived over thousands of years for one reason: it works. Religion meets a whole host of societal and personal needs.

    G’mar Chatima Tovah

  19. MJ
    MJ says:

    I’d just to love to get religious in-clubbyness out of the workplace. I’ve been excluded from the in-club twice already for this, once for not being Catholic and then for not being Jewish. Worst of all, of course, is being female – you can’t convert out of that one without costly surgery. Nothing like having a boss stagger over to you, drunk, at a company fuction and slur “we’re having a debate on the role of women in the Catholic Church and the Da Vinci Code…whaddda you think?” Um, I think who cares?

  20. L. Hernandez
    L. Hernandez says:

    1. You wrote the post before Yom Kippur, you can set it to post the day after Yom Kippur. Or perhaps you just needed a Shabbos goy to post.

    2. My opinion: Its easier to rebel against the stricter religious upbringing one had as a child than it is to rebel against a non-observant upbringing, so why not find your kids a youth/education program that lets them build up their resentment of you for forcing them to examine some decent religious texts and practices. Of the 1,001 things they’ll grow up to claim they hated, this usually ends up far down the list, unless there is a pedophile involved. You think you’d be the only parent that had serious doubts about the teachings your kids would be exposed to? HA!

    3. Your religious problems go away about 4 hours after you pass away, but they reoccur all through life. Unless you’re a narrow-minded idiot, so I wouldn’t wish an end to your religious problems.

  21. Dan
    Dan says:

    Not one to question your Religious beliefs as I don’t care that much about your life, BUT, I have never met a truly Religious, traditional Jew that wasn’t deathly against abortion or who didn’t pray for victims of abortion???

    At any rate, Family is the center of happiness in life and life is the center of the family. I would never put my career above my family as the work is a means to an end to take care of my family and not vice versa. So many successful men put their work ahead of their families and I wonder how these men can be happy. Our Divsion President is a “good guy” but he’s constantly crabby and worrying about everything even though he’s a multi millionaire. I assure you I will be retired the second I have enough money to do so.

    Now my catholic neighbors from Michigan are having a baptism for their son, who’s a newborn and about the same age as my four month old daughter, and my wife and I will attend this reception as we knew how important this event was for us and would like to share in their joy as well, and I view it as a privilege we were invited. Quite the juxtaposition with the pro abortion, baby killing posts done earlier last week, our baby was the CENTER of attention at our Catholic church this last week as babies and being paretns are both celebrated in our church as the center of life. The priest asked questions about her, how old was she? Congratulations, etc, and the rest of the parisioners made faces or admired her.

    I can’t imagine life without my wife and child, and hopefully more babies on the way, not choices, no one in their right mind would ever choose to die by an ice pick, she’s a real baby and has just recently grown out of her fourth trimester, or first three months outside of the womb.


  22. Honey
    Honey says:

    I disagree with your premise that religion teaches anyone anything that is useful in any context. Religion taught us, what – that it’s okay to kill people who are different from us, or otherwise exploit them so our piece of the pie is bigger?

    Religion is the SINGLE MOST HARMFUL thing that humanity has ever created. It has EASILY done more harm than good in every context in which it is invoked.

  23. Crystal
    Crystal says:

    In a “nothing to do with the actual post” comment–what’s up with your RSS feed doing that annoying “Here’s the first sentence of the post…oh, and you have to click to read more” thing? I love reading your blog and will continue to do so, but one of the things I love is that I can read it in my RSS feed reader (which makes it look more “boring” and thus more like “work” if someone walks by. If it’s for ad reasons or whatnot, I understand, but let us know what the deal is. Those of us with RSS readers like them for their ease of use and having to click to go to the actual individual blog negates that.

    • Jorrit
      Jorrit says:

      Works fine in my RSS reader. It sounds like your RSS reader is only displaying the description field instead of the content field.

  24. Dee Bee
    Dee Bee says:

    Thank you for the thoughtful post. I work two part-time jobs, one of which is for a religious organization. (I am not a member of that religion, but my work is fairly secular and technical in nature on that job.) I have noticed how well people are cared for and treated by this organization, and I think it makes a difference in day-to-day experience. On the flip side, I have also see poor organizational and management skills, along with “personalities” that would not be tolerated in a for-profit business.

    I have found for myself that non-religious meditation and yoga practice has done wonders for me to lower my stress levels and increase my acceptance of others, without making me a “doormat” at work. I can see how respecting the sabbath or holy days can give people time to reflect in their lives without having their brains on auto-pilot for business work. For the non-religious, I could see how a “meditation” day or “reflection” day or even half-day per week could serve the same useful purpose.

    Dee Bee

  25. Grace
    Grace says:

    "This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for people to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them – for this is their lot. Moreover, when God gives people wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their work – this is a gift of God. They seldom reflect on the days of their lives, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart." – €“ Ecclesiastes 5: 18-20

  26. Melissa
    Melissa says:

    A lot of your post made sense to me. I grew up Catholic and I agree, a huge part of religion is participating in the rituals, creating a practice, and living that. I see the connection to work-life and family-life. It conditions you to do good, make hard choices, ect. Is it an absolute must? Not at all. But for whatever reason its helpful for these purposes for A LOT of people for THOUSANDS of years.

    What I cannot figure out, is why, if it is SOOOOOO important that you have to write about it every year – that you literally can’t take one day off from work with you kids to partake in something you find spiritually meaningful.

    Seriously, one day. It makes no sense.

  27. Fermi
    Fermi says:

    I know you know that the people who are talking, week after week, day after day, about the importance of doing good deeds are the religious people.

    I am sorry if someone already said this but the key word here is TALKING about doing good deeds.

    Yes religious people do a lot of Talking.

    But KIND people actually DO the good deeds and often don’t talk much about doing them.

    For the record, I was raised religious- and I am a much Kinder person now that I don’t think I am better than everyone because I know more bible verses than they do.

    Growing up made me Kind.
    Religion only made me holier than thou.

  28. Steve
    Steve says:

    Well, I don’t see religion as a way to answer the question of what my purpose is in life. I see religion as another way for humans to control humans. Further, religion doesn’t have the same good deed connection for me as it seems to have for you. I see too many examples of lip service in religion. It is the people that reject organized religion that are doing good deeds for the sake of good deeds or doing them for the betterment of the human race. When I can commit all kinds of crimes; yet, I can simply ask for forgiveness after the fact. It is not something that promotes good behavior in my opinion.

    Good business is the opposite of religion. Good business is genuine. While good religion should be genuine, it rarely seems to be.

  29. MDTaz
    MDTaz says:

    It seems that religion has been hijacked (again).

    I’ve never been particularly religious, and I grew up in a home that was Jewish and Catholic, so we learned about both religions and celebrated the holidays and passages of both. At that time, in America, Church and state were mostly separated (or so it seemed to me). America was proud to be a melting-pot of different nationalities, cultures and religions all co-existing because of a common belief in human rights, dignity, democracy and the constitution. It wasn’t good or bad to be religious, it was just a choice.

    Now religion has been co-opted by political forces and any cause looking to make their stand in win-lose or us-against-them terms. The profound meaning of religion – the do unto others as you’d have them do unto you spirit – has been lost.

    Thanks for doing your part to remind us what it’s really supposed to be about.

  30. Anthea
    Anthea says:

    Growing up christian, religion was all about obedience for me. You do what you’re told, you believe what you’re told, and you don’t ask uncomfortable questions. Because when you ask uncomfortable questions you get answers like “because” or “God has a reason” or “just have faith in God.”

    A useful upbringing for producing worker-drones who do what they’re told at work, but not terribly useful for helping those worker-drones actually seek out fulfilling employment or create their own work. Happiness only comes through serving God, after all, you don’t deserve to be happy on your own.

    Sorry. Bitter.

    I do like your points about personal responsibility, optimism, and building rhythms of activity into your life though. Maybe what would be more helpful than religion itself is simply finding ways to embrace personal responsibility and optimism, and to build patterns into our work and personal lives. Because from my point of view, religion is just a way to keep the working class quiet and obedient, not happy.

  31. Rick Smith
    Rick Smith says:

    What hit me was the comment about luck being equal across all people. Certainly, this is a controversial statement for some (particularly the pessimists). I like to think about it not as luck, but that you are constantly presented with opportunities and setbacks. Its very much like weather patterns. Some years severe draught. Some years way too much rain. Then it will be blue skys and perfect for nearly 3 weeks in a row. Add them all up, and over a long period of time, everyone experienced the same thing (just at different times).

    Luck then, is simply a state of mind. Want to tip the odds in your favor? Start thinking about significant negative things as being lucky breaks. The first 4 great opportunities in my career came directly from something negative happening. I am to the point now, where if something negative happens, i immediately think…”Hey, what great thing will come from this?” Perceptually, I guess i am much luckier than most.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I think that’s true about luck, Rick — that it’s an optimist vs. pessimist approach to luck.

      Maybe what I meant to say is that some people leverage all the luck they have, and some people squander it. I see people all the time who are faced with luck and don’t bother to figure out how to use it.

      I think we are all better off thinking luck is equal because people who are good at turning luck into an opportunity very rarely feel like they don’t have enough.


  32. Paul Horan
    Paul Horan says:

    Lapsed Irish Catholic checking in…

    So there’s this guy in my office that just survived a massive heart attack. Sales rep, late 40s. A solid performer, family man, and an all-around decent guy. Not somebody I’d hang out with, but I have nothing bad to say about him…

    Well now that he’s “seen the light in the tunnel”, he’s gone OVERBOARD with the religion. Every day at noon, on comes the streaming audio with some fundamentalist preacher telling us all about the Lake of Fire and whatnot. (We have cubicles, so everyone in our area gets to enjoy the broadcast…) Nobody says anything, because we all know exactly where this is coming from, and I’m sure we all dread the sermon we’ll get for being “the Satan Worshiper” that complains about “God’s Holy message”.

    I wonder how quickly HR would be at my office if I found a similar broadcast of someone reading the Torah or Koran or Bhagavad Gita??

    Q: Is there an appropriate way to put an end to this, without looking like a complete ass? Or is just tolerating it, “the right thing to do”?


    • Editormum
      Editormum says:

      Paul, you ask how to put an end to the problem of loud religious broadcasts in the workplace. Simple. You go to the person and say (kindly, gently, and without rancor of any kind), “I appreciate your desire to learn to be a better person by listening to this broadcast, but it is distracting me from my work. Would you please lower the volume so that it cannot be heard outside your cubicle?”

      If the person gets nasty or if the problem continues, take it to HR. Your company is not paying this guy to listen to radio broadcasts or to proselytize the others in the workspace. While there would be no issue if it’s not distracting him or others from their paid work (just as they wouldn’t object to your playing jazz in your cube), if the broadcasts are distracting, then they have to go (just as your music would have to go if others were distracted).

      Make it an issue of “this is keeping me from my work” and NOT “I don’t like the content of the broadcasts.” HR couldn’t care less what your likes or dislikes are (Muzak, anyone?), but if it’s affecting job performance and efficiency, then HR has a mandate to address the problem. It’s also less confrontational to say “I can’t work with the loud talking” than “Your holy-roller preacher stuff is annoying.”

      Hope that helps! Good luck!

  33. Ron
    Ron says:


    Very nice post.

    No F bombs. You’re a much better writer when you leave out this useless word that society has accepted as normal.

    As a Catholic, a phrase I try to live by is “Let go,and let God.”


  34. Michael
    Michael says:

    Penelope – your post and actually your blog is a form of journaling, which can help us stay centered in life.

    Sadly religion is a bad word, because people of all religions have messed up what religion was supposed to be . . . a relationship of heart, soul, mind and body with God. We’ve lost that aspect. As a Jew turned Christian turned pastor, there are no questions off limits, since most of life is about discovering who we really are and if we’re willing to live an extraordinary life as the person God created me to be.

    A great passage to follow comes from Proverbs 4:23, “Guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” All of life flows through your heart, so guard it, filter out the bad, and let the good in as you seek to discover and find who God is calling you to be.

  35. Kristin
    Kristin says:

    I was born a jew and celebrated many jewish holidays growing up, but we were not very devoted–my mom had too much Hebrew school as a child. Then I found Christianity, and stuck with that for a while, but now I am falling away from that b/c I see too many terrible things happening in this world to innocent people. So I know what religion is like, and how it can help people find a sense of stability and optimism. However, I do not think it helps one overcome difficult choices. Choices are made for you! The rules are written! Most people have their own interpretation of the Bible, or whatever book it is, and they will not veer from that interpretation no matter what kind of logic you send their way. If you want to get some experience making difficult decisions, try making them without the aid of a religious framework.
    And I really disagree with religion helping you to learn to do good deeds for people. I believe this comes from the heart and from home. If you have a good, true, example in your parents, you will grow up with the same ideals.
    Rythms, ok, I’ll agree with that, but you can get that kind of training with meditation, yoga, pilates, lunchtime rituals…anything.
    As for learning to be responsible, there are a number of activities–boy and girl scouts, civic club memberships, volunteering at schools and other organizations…
    I think religion provides a sense of routine and community. It teaches you to live and be part of a group that is bigger than oneself, but I also think that can be found elsewhere. Unfortunately, religion also teaches, in many cases, intolerance towards those who do not believe the same things, which is another reason I have walked away from it.

  36. Hope
    Hope says:

    Good post!

    Thanks for making me look up “telos.” And for not mentioning your ladyparts for a change.

    Also, I join others who prefer “spirituality” over “religion” (echoing the lists of nastinesses perpetrated by organized religions over the years.)

    How’s that novel coming?

  37. Pat Rocchi
    Pat Rocchi says:

    My comment is a little off center from others. I respond to one of the statements that was NOT about religion: “In order to succeed you do not need more luck. We each have the same amount of luck.”
    I am sorry, but we do not have the same amount of luck. That’s why they call it “luck”: it is capricious and random. Luck does not exist when all of a sudden you are working for a psychopath who flew in from outside your organization and decides that, because he did not fire you, nothing that you accomplished prior to his arrival amounts to much.
    Luck has nothing to do with an industry for which the bottom fell out. I was working in a U.S, defense-related company when the George Bush Senior administration decided to drastically cut the U.S. defense budget.
    Luck has nothing to do with being hired by a company that suddenly changes directions and reorganizes your job and your department out of existence.
    Luck has nothing to do with being born with certain health conditions and competing with people who don’t don’t what it’s like to have a cold.
    Luck has nothing to do with having your mentor and sponsor suddenly disappear, leaving you isolated and disrupted, any more than being an orphan is lucky.
    And then returning to your religious theme, luck is irrelevant when you hold tight to ethical and religious standards but must compete with others who think nothing of destroying your career in order to advance. (This “Comments” section is rife with such examples of virtuous people who were victimized by others.)
    I know that this was of the main point of your post, but please do not continue to tout the justice of “luck.” It is mythical.
    PS Kudos to you, Mike, for your sensitive, insightful and well expressed post. Well done.

    • Jake
      Jake says:

      Pat, Most of examples do follow her definition of luck. Except being born with a health condition, your examples are change events – – not good luck or bad luck. Change is a constant that we all have to deal with.

      The manager ignoring your prior accomplishments; sounds like most M&A and corporate reorgs that I have experienced.

      Defense industry cuts. Whenever a business is completely dependent upon one customer, they are totally at the whim of the customer. When that customer is the government, expect to get hammered whenever the political winds change. Been through this and going through it now.

      I seen reorgs or mergers ever year for at least a decade. They all have include job changes & terminations.

      Mentors & Sponsors get promoted, terminated, quit, retire & sometimes die. People are not chained to a position or company for all eternity. Staffing changes will occur.

  38. Don
    Don says:

    Disappointed to not see more Christian comments and the post from Mike and then his cheering section and everyone else. I believe that faith can help a career and know it helps life. Also agree that many people do nuture some of the attributes you attached to religious people even though they are nonbelievers. Also agree that organized Christianity at many times has failed in its purpose and deviated from the truth and thus alienated people it meant to attract. But in the end those who think everything is nothing and it all just happened break my heart. We are created beings living on a miraculously well placed planet that was created by God but I am uncertain that my knowing this helps my career but do know that because I know this, my career is not the most important thing in my life.

  39. Ron
    Ron says:

    The qualities you speak of, I think, transcend mere religion. They are part of the human experience that pre-dates any of the formal religions, who in large part, borrowed from these early teachings to form their own canons. So, while there are lots of people who will say that “part of being a Jew”, or “part of being a Christian”, or whatever, is following some set of precepts as a way of life, they are actually following a set of “life rules” that were set down before the formal religions came along and borrowed them as their own. So, while I agree that the things you speak of in the workplace are all virtuous, I don’t believe that they are as tied to religion as they are tied to the human experience.

    I wouldn’t worry too much about being “a good Jew” as much as I’d be worried about just living a good life. Otherwise, you’re tying yourself to not only the Jewish belief system, but also the politics that arise from that. And that’s true of any formal religion, I think.

  40. Editormum
    Editormum says:

    I am a Christian who did a lot of seeking and searching in my teens and 20s. I studied with a rabbi when considering conversion to Judaism. I studied with a priest when considering conversion to Catholicism. I’ve studied with various pastors while seeking a denomination that was a “fit” for me and my beliefs.

    The problem that I have observed in ALL religions I have studied is that SOME people take things too far and become rabid proselytizing zealots who fail to respect individual choices. When that happens, atrocities and outrages are the result.

    Jesus did not operate that way. When the rich young ruler came up and asked Jesus how to get to Heaven, Jesus told him. And then watched sadly as the young man walked away. Jesus didn’t tell His followers to cram His teachings down others’ throats. He DID tell them to go and teach and baptise, but He did not tell them to force their beliefs on others. In fact, He said that if they were rejected, to simply leave, shaking the dust off their feet as they went.

    Jesus reacted harshly against dishonesty and cruelty, but to sinners who were open to the truth, He was gentle and compassionate, even when pointing out gross misconduct. It was the “holier-than-thou” people who condemned others for their failures (while glossing over their own issues) that raised His anger and incited Him to harsh words.

    My goal, as a Christian, is to live a life of rectitude and humility, serving others as I am led, and presenting them with the example of a godly life. If they ask, I will tell them how and why I do what I do. But I’m not going to bang them over the head with the Bible and condemn them to Hell if they don’t do as I do.

    Unfortunately, too many Christians have lost sight of what their light is supposed to be. But then, so have many Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists. Human failings corrupt the greatest spiritual teachings, reducing them to mere systems for personal aggrandizement. That doesn’t mean the teachings are wrong or worthless; it means that human nature is difficult to tame.

  41. Dobharchu
    Dobharchu says:

    I always do my own religious abstinence on Yom Kippur – I give up all substances that don’t contain alcohol for 24 hours.
    It’s ironic that the holiday has developed a whole new non-religious aura in Israel, of all places – driving is banned across the country from dusk to dusk, and TV stops broadcasting, so an astonishing silence descends on Tel Aviv, and by midday the city’s air is crispy country clean. The deserted streets and highways are taken over by thousands of kids on skateboards and bikes – and by pedestrians who belligerently exercise their right to walk down the center of every “empty” street.
    Just as Leopold Bloom (Ulysses) enjoyed being one of the rare Jews wandering the streets of Dublin, on Yom Kippur I particularly enjoy being one of the rare Irish Catholics wandering the deserted streets of Tel Aviv.

  42. econobiker
    econobiker says:

    “Sure, you need to earn a paycheck, but, people don’t get promoted for doing their job. People get promoted for doing good deeds, which cynics call office politics.”

    Disagree: No, people get promoted for maximizing the businesses capital either by sales or cost savings. People also get promoted for the appearance of good deeds in maximizing sales or cost savings (ei the boss who take credit for his underlings’ work and ideas).

    Business worships capital (cash, dollar, euros) and seeks to maximize capital- no matter what the social costs – as long as the capital gaining actions are considered legal by a government. Business sometimes uses capital gaining actions even if the actions are not legal by the government but the business is able to marshall greater legal powers to cost society more capital to fight its actions than for the government to require the business to just pay a fine in capital and move on. If the fine cost to the business is much less than the profits gained, it is often considered successful.

    Business and religion are not compatible concepts. Business legal does not equal business ethical all the times. Business ethical does not equal socially/religious moral all the times. Socially/religious moral does not equal business legal all of the times.

    “Religion teaches us to take responsibility for being good, and honest, and rectifying things we have done wrong.”

    Business teaches responsibility for not being good unless it maximizes capital (i.e.: Walmart’s encouragement of donations and volunteering from associates barely making living wages), to be dishonest (maximize the capital acquired from others via any method), and to hide things done wrong since this can reduce capital via lawsuits, fines, penalties: admissions of mistakes or wrongdoing can reduce/limit a person’s ability to get promoted by showing that person is not maximizing capital for the business.

  43. EllenSka
    EllenSka says:

    I used to say, “I’m religious but not spiritual.” I was so tired of hearing people say sanctimoniously, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” which I took as a reference pleasant feelings one gets while mountain biking, watching a sunset, or reading an inspirational book.

    That doesn’t pass for religion to me. In community, there’s a strength of numbers and vision that makes small contributions significant. Churches are picking up the slack for government these days in areas such as feeding the hungry and rebuilding the post-Katrina Gulf Coast. Sure, you can do that with other organizations. But you miss the experience of coming back to church week after week to look at the Big Picture.

    I grew up in a conservative Lutheran tradition that didn’t make sense to me intellectually. Now, as a Unitarian Universalist, I get to explore my own path to the Sacred, within community, which was always the best part of my childhood church anyway. Having a group of committed fellow travelers takes those sweet little “spiritual” feelings and tests them on other human beings. That’s the difficult part, really — the letdown of finding that other people in my church are just as hypocritical and lazy and selfish as I am. I’ve seen people leave churches because “those people” didn’t live up to an ideal that they themself couldn’t achieve either.

    My sister is an Episcopal priest, and her religion is far from the knee-jerk Christian fundamentalism that people love to cite when throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

    Anyway, I started a Zen meditation practice 5 years ago, so I had to retire my “religious but not spiritual” homily after I began to experience a deeper connection to something bigger than myself. Call it God, or the Milky Way, or (as my minister does) “The Great Big Thing,” but it’s why people seek out religion and don’t merely do good works.

  44. Cary
    Cary says:

    Penelope shalom,

    Interesting post. Instead of feeling crappy and kvetching about sending your kids to school on Yom Kippur, why not do something positive? Keeping your kids home without an alternative does not make for a holy day, just an excuse to watch more television.

    Hebrew school was a crappy experience for you? I have news for you. It was crappy for most of us. That does not mean you have to throw out the baby with the bath water. There are places that would fit your lifestyle and outlook. Even Madison has a Jewish community with all denomenations represented. Why not connect and network? Pick the level of observance and commmitment that fits you and where you will make a positive contribution. Also, why deprive your kids of their heritage?

    Go for it!

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