The Undeniable Spiritual Nature of Work

Hidden deep in every job is the opportunity for much more. But how many of us take it?

Mike Sturm
Dec 6, 2018 · 6 min read

Of all of the phrases I hear regularly that bug me, chief among them is “it’s not personal, it’s just business”. I consider that phrase a very special brand of bullshit. I say this because I think many of us have heard it so often throughout our lives that we have come to believe it, and regurgitate it as a way of proliferating a pretty harmful division in our lives: the idea that our work is separate from and mostly irrelevant to the rest of our lives. It’s harmful to our own personal growth, and harmful to others.

The truth is it’s never “just business”. At some level — no matter how much we want to believe otherwise — it’s personal. I hope, dear reader, that you who spend (probably more than) 1/3 of your adult life at work can see how insulting that is. It’s even more insulting if you own a company, and you pour your blood, sweat, and tears into it. It’s never just business, and anyone who tries to convince you otherwise is just trying to end the conversation without admitting the full gravity of the situation.

While this phrase has irked me for some time, it wasn’t until recently that I began to realize why. When you get right down to it, work can be many different things to many different people, but it is always — at least in part — an expression of your values, principles, and habits. Those of us who dismiss work as just a place to go and toss away 8+ hours for around 5 days a week (or more!) are losing a golden opportunity to enrich our character, and our understanding ourselves and other human beings.

To put it another way, work serves as an undeniably spiritual endeavor. But wait, please don’t stop reading because you saw the word spiritual. I know, it’s the kind of word that carries a lot of unsavory connotations. But here’s the thing: spirituality is not the weird, new-age, hippy-dippy kind of thing most people associate it with. In fact, spirituality is an entirely practical thing. If you have even the vaguest idea of what some of your core values are, and you care about what they mean — you’re already doing something spiritual!

Here is the simplest and most informative definition of the term “spiritual” that I can think of:

Spirituality is that area of inquiry and action that is concerned with the possibilities of a uniquely human phenomenon: the vast space between stimulus and response.

Whatever we mean by the term “soul”, it is at least that faculty that makes the choices — the thing that takes in the experiences that reality feeds us, mulls them over (or doesn’t), and forms a will to act. It is that place that spans miles at our best times, and shrinks to the size of a pinhole at our worst.

Those of us that operate mostly on autopilot — where we act and react without thinking, and feel out of control — are the ones that have the most work to do. And that work is surely spiritual work, whether we want to use that word or not. It’s simply the work of settling into and expanding that space between action and reaction — stimulus and response. It’s reflection, contemplation, and character-building. It involves values, volition, and vehemence. It involves work.

For the past few years, articles on mindfulness have been popping up on sites like Inc, Fast Company, and Fortune — sites that used to merely publish about capital, global supply chains, and business plans. And though it is easy to chalk this up to just general trendiness, the better explanation is that people’s work is a spiritual outlet. Whether you initially wanted your job or not, you’re there, you put in time and effort, and you feel something as a result. Whether that is positive or negative is a function of many things, but one of them is your approach to it.

Tucked into every job — big or small — is a chance to hone one’s character and values, a chance to practice what one preaches (or fail to), and a chance to refine the traits that make a person who they are. Many don’t choose to look at it that way, and I am sure they have their reasons. But given that for many of us, our job literally pays for our life choices, it seems a waste to treat it as just some place to go for 8 hours or so each day, and nothing more.

Think of all the things that happen at work. The human drama, the ambitious projects, the coordination and organization, the human connections. Even if you work mostly on your own, think of the times when you successfully pushed yourself to do more, create more, and get more done. That is more than just work for pay, it’s personal development. You’re digging into that space between stimulus and response, and you’re pushing out great things. As a result, you’re stronger, smarter, wiser, kinder (hopefully), and slower to overreaction. If you approach your work in the right way, all of this is true no matter your job.

I am arguing here that work is (or at least can be) a spiritual thing. In the past, many have contrasted spirituality with materialism. And I think that the tendency to treat a job as merely a means to an end (a paycheck) is indeed to turn a blind eye to the opportunities that a job presents to enrich yourself. As cliche as it may sound, it really is a mindset.

If you approach your work as something involving more than just the money you get or the objective metrics you achieve, you can derive much more benefit from it. That benefit carries over into the rest of your life, as well. A person who feels better about the way they’re developing on the job can then go home feeling better able to be a parent, a partner, as caretaker, etc.

But here’s the kicker: when it comes to the spiritual nature of work, you can’t rely on you boss, your title, your company, or your tenure to provide that spiritual fulfillment in work. They can certainly provide reassurance at times, and provide support, granted they care about you. But ultimately, the best kind of on-the-job experience is the self-managed one — where you set goals for yourself each day, week, month, and year, and achieve them. In many cases, these goals are small and simple — like answering all of the urgent emails in the day, or helping out someone in another department. The most fulfilling and character-building experiences in my career have been things that were not measured in my metrics or put as objectives on my performance appraisals. They were “soft achievements”, but they had a hard impact on me.

With 1/3 of your life spent sleeping, the balance is likely to be an even split between work and everything else you do. Refusing to treat work as a deeper, spiritual outlet to help build your values and character is perhaps the biggest folly one can commit. But it is also easily remedied. You can start today, simply ask what value you can strive to exemplify today in your work, live it, and keep going.

The Understanding Project

Applying insights from cognitive science and social epistemology to everyday opinion-forming

Mike Sturm

Written by

Author of “The Wabi-Sabi Way” and “Be, Think, Do”. Subscribe to my newsletter “Woolgathering”: https://goo.gl/UhzUYL.

The Understanding Project

Essays about why we believe what we do, how post-truth societies come to a public understanding about truth, and how we might do better.

Mike Sturm

Written by

Author of “The Wabi-Sabi Way” and “Be, Think, Do”. Subscribe to my newsletter “Woolgathering”: https://goo.gl/UhzUYL.

The Understanding Project

Essays about why we believe what we do, how post-truth societies come to a public understanding about truth, and how we might do better.

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