Work Pray Code (a book review)

Lately I’ve been picking up new reading by wandering around the “new books” section of the library and grabbing a few interesting books off the shelves after doing exactly zero research about what the book might be about besides looking at the cover. Yes, this is literally me judging books by their covers, but I’ve had some good luck with it. I try to pick up one fiction and one non-fiction book, and last trip the non-fiction one was Work Pray Code by Carolyn Chen. The description on the inner jacket cover starts with “How tech giants are reshaping spirituality to serve their religion of peak productivity”. You could read this two ways, either the way I did, where that sounds awful and makes me want to live in a cabin in the woods, or where that sounds great, what a novel idea, using spirituality to increase productivity, hmm have we considered selling copies of the Bible as NFTs?

The book begins somewhat neutral in tone, describing how in the absence of social/civic/religious organizations in the United States, large corporations attempt to fill the void. They do it for a few reasons:

  • A sense of belonging — see every company that has a “cute” name for their employees, and, in some cases, even ones they’ve let go!
  • Having more “perks” like on-site food and daycare and access to special doctors and programs is a way to compete in hiring against their competitors.
  • Someone who feels they belong and has their needs taken care of by work will spend more time at work.
  • People who are indebted to their company on multiple levels are much less likely to complain about work, or do something silly like attempt to start a union.

If you read the above list and felt strongly suspicious of their motives, you might be like me, someone in what is described as the “nonbelievers” group:

Who then, are the exceptions, the “nonbelievers”? Who doesn’t drink the Kool-Aid? And what relationship do those holdouts have with religion? As it turns out, there is a clear demographic pattern to who becomes a “true believer” and who doesn’t. “True believers” tend to be the young, single, and more recent migrants, who are also the majority of the tech workforce. “Nonbelievers,” on the other hand, tend to be older workers (forty-plus) and people with families. I found one exception to the pattern. Religious people-people who identify with a religious tradition and belong to religious communities—are”non-believers” in the religion of work, regardless of age, family status, or timing of migration.

The book digs in to the cult of high-performance found in Silicon Valley companies. It’s parodied in the show Silicon Valley, but the book keeps a straight face while describing things like:

In several workshops we assumed psychologist Amy Cuddy’s “victory pose”. — arms stretched out above the shoulders in a V — to activate testosterone and put us in a state of confidence and success. And in a few workshops, we danced to “get into our bodies.” In all these practices, the goal is to get engineers out of “their heads” so that they can attend to their bodies and emotions.


At another workshop geared toward entrepreneurs, the speaker encouraged the participants to engage in a “spiritual practice” of asking three questions of themselves: “Who are you really? And keep double-clicking…. What do you really want? And double-click…. And what are you in service to? And double-click. Is it your ego… validation?” Through this practice of re-flection, practitioners go deeper into discovering the “real self” with each spiritual “double click”

Falling strongly into the “nonbeliever” crowd I’d assume anyone asking me to “double-click” myself is an idiot, but apparently there’s a market for such idiocy that pays well, so what do I know.

The book transitions in it’s latter half to how Eastern religions (primarily Buddhism) became popular in the Valley, and how over time they have been repackaged in various ways to appeal to the cult of productivity and corporate Capitalism. Chen brings up the transition in Coke ads from the 70s to today, which had me think of the ending of Mad Men, a perfect encapsulation of her point here: Buddhism, meditation, mindfulness, they’re stripped of all their original religious purpose to drive sales and productivity.

The book’s final chapter is a pretty scathing critique of the Valley (and places like it, some of which aren’t too far from home), wherein tech workers resemble the chosen ones of a cult, who are socially supported by their employers with little subtext that if you don’t work for them, you run the risk of being like everyone else, who struggles to get by as housing costs rise and existing social services disappear to only be found in the campuses or benefits packages of the tech giants.

But what do you do to stop work from being the primary source of fulfillment for people as religion and other forms of social engagement decline? There’s no definite answer. I do worry sometimes about younger coworkers who jump right into the lifestyle of a “tech worker” from college. They have little insight into what alternative realities are, and little time to even contemplate them. But they’re paid well and deemed smart and it’s a sure path to a decent middle class life — a path to salvation, of sorts.

Tagged: book notes