Meaning Is The New Money

This provocative new book on religion and work in the technology sector will make you see life in a different light.

According to 4 U.S.C. §4 the United States is one Nation under God. H.R. 619 (84th) passed and approved by President Dwight D. Eisenhower mandates the official motto of the United States “In God We Trust” to appear on all currency issued by the Federal Government of these United States. Without a doubt, religion and spirituality are deeply rooted in this country. Hence it comes as no surprise when Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley Carolyn Chen posits “Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley” in her new book Work Pray Code

“Today, companies are not just economic institutions. They’ve become meaning-making institutions that offer a gospel of fulfillment and divine purpose in a capitalist cosmos.”

The colorful, borderline-sacred language of this statement illustrates Chen’s ambitions to base the premise of this book on the workplace is replacing religious needs. At her core argument, Chen reasons companies create a meaningful work experience by emulating religious themes, omitting the spiritual or discriminating aspects of faith, which is becoming a substitute for exercising religion outside of work and with the community.

“Religions and companies are collective enterprises. They are ‘faith communities’, communities that support the act of faith. On one level, faith communities do this by articulating the articles of faith– the doctrines, creeds, and sacred texts and teachings. For most companies, and many other organizations, these articles of faith are their mission statement and statement of core values.”

Taken at face value, Chen makes it appear that companies’ mission statements emulate or are synonymous with religious beliefs. However, a closer look reveals that the mission statements of neither Google, Meta (née Facebook) nor Microsoft purport articles of faith. Taking it a step further, if Chen defines religions as collective enterprises, I’d argue companies may as well be independent organizations each governed by unique financial and economic goals, limited by available budget and human resources. A number of technology companies operating out of Silicon Valley engage in eco-friendly sustainability to power data centers and other parts of the organization, but is the water supply division of Meta truly vested in the intricacies of reviewing python code to reign in inauthentic behavior and other automated malicious behavior on Instagram? Could each division link the other’s efforts back to the mission statement? Whose division will shut down first to protect the integrity of the mission statement? I have doubts. 

“In the Silicon Valley workplace, work and life are no longer separate and opposing spheres because life happens at work. In fighting the notion that work and life occupy distinct spaces and times, tech companies are reviving a much older way of organizing society. In agrarian societies, work and life were integrated for both women and men. The farm was both home– where people ate, slept, and played– and workplace– where people labored and participated in the economic system. Industrialization began to impose stark boundaries between work and life, particularly for men. Work became confined to a particular space, time, and logic– the factory, with its rhythm governed by the values of efficiency and productivity. Life– defined as activities that don’t contribute to production– happened outside of the factory in the home, church, neighborhood, bowling alley, baseball diamond, saloon, hair salon, and so on. […] Today’s tech company is returning to the undifferentiated spheres of its preindustrial predecessor, however, by making life a part of work.”

This paragraph resonated with me for its accuracy and insight. Coming from a farmer’s family, I experienced some variation of an undifferentiated sphere where work and life all took place at the same time. Somewhere along the road, it all separated into standalone parts of our day. As a technology company, an unrelenting global market of competition for highly-skilled talent as well as pushing products directly to the consumer in real-time is an incentive to maximize productivity and workforce utilization by ensuring a highly-skilled employee is 100% focused on its division’s roadmap and driving execution of it.

I cannot make up my mind about this book. On one hand, Chen makes a valid point by stating technology companies emulate religious characteristics in order to alleviate their employee’s spiritual needs. Moreover, I subscribe to the general argument of mindfulness in conjunction with corporate materialism appears to create an industrial-technology complex that emanates virtues and exercises characteristics of religions. On the other hand, however, I fail to identify a link between a technology company using methods and characteristics developed to further religious beliefs resulting in a replacement theory that Chen appears to offer in her introduction. I view these efforts as motivated by raw capitalism: to benefit its workforce and increase productivity, utilization, and retention as a side effect. Furthermore, her focus is exclusively on technology companies located in Silicon Valley. In reality, however, technology companies are located all over the United States with varying numbers of full-time employees. Limiting her research on the technology sector alone appears to be a flimsy base for a solid argument too. For example, 3M, General Motors, Kraft Heinz, and even Exxon Mobile have a history of wide-ranging benefits similar to Silicon Valley. Setting aside economic motives, Chen missed out on exploring these other sectors including academia, which is known for its fraternal, cult-esque exclusivity, and the almighty military, which is known for strict indoctrination and behavioral codes

Altogether I learned a lot about the perception and correlation of both religion and Silicon Valley. Whether it applies to the modern workplaces as Carolyn Chen weaves it together remains to be discovered by the reader. Perhaps concluding with more critique than praise for Work Pray Code is a good thing for it forced me to reflect on some preconceived notions about religion. Chen devoted an entire chapter to the art of reflection and I found Lin Chi’s quote to question more perfect to end: “if you meet the Buddha, kill him.” But before you do, read this book.

Becoming Boss

Do you have what it takes to be a leader? Probably not. But that’s all right. In her mid-twenties, Julie Zhuo answered the call for leadership when she became a manager at Facebook. In her book, she compiled her mistakes, lessons, and strategies to lead people and create better organizations – so you can learn to become a leader.

What do you do when everyone looks to you for guidance and leadership? Some thrive in the spotlight. Others crumble and fail. Julie Zhuo went from being the first intern “at this website called Facebook” to becoming a Vice President of Product Design in her 13.5 years at the social network. Her career is not a career of an outlier but a results-driven, hard-working individual. Managing people is no different. Managers are made, not born. 

The Making of a Manager is a field guide for growth. First, I read it cover-to-cover. Then I realized how powerful each chapter is by itself and started keeping it near my desk to calibrate my thinking against experiences at work. Zhuo describes her growth through a forward-leaning approach to people management. Most notably, her approach seeks to stress test her own leadership protocol to fail – only to allow her a chance to improve it. It’s hard work. Dedication. And (my personal favorite) thoughtful questions directed at peers, partners, reports, but perhaps most importantly herself. After all, leadership starts with managing yourself.   

Any entrepreneur will benefit from her early experience at a company that would grow to redefine how people connect with one another. Any employee in a large organization will relate to her tactful yet challenging questions during individual and group meetings. Zhuo’s relatable and empathetic writing style reels in any reader contemplating a career in people management. That being said, the market for business books is quite saturated with leadership or self-improvement books and to some, her experience might be too far from reality given her unique circumstances coming up at Facebook. To this day, I truly enjoy reading her posts or notes and the general public can do so too on her blog The Looking Glass, or on her website at https://www.juliezhuo.com/

How To Bring People Together And Create Meaningful Memories

Everything you ever wanted to know about gathering strangers, colleagues, friends, or family under a variety of circumstances so they will connect and cherish the event.

Priya Parker is an expert in conflict resolution. Throughout her career, her work often required facilitating high-stakes meetings between different political leaders around the world. This helped her to collect first-hand experience about how we connect with one another and what makes a gathering meaningful. In essence that is what The Art Of Gathering – How We Meet And Why It Matters is all about. It’s a root cause analysis that identifies the levers to make an event become a lasting memory. Her premise is centered around the fallacy of the “chill host”. A chill host is overly concerned about the logistics of an event instead of caring about the people and their experiences. It’s the type of “hands-off” host who sits back on the night of the gathering. Parker argues the event starts at the moment of the first conception and it ends (sometimes) long after people have left the premises. A host needs to identify beforehand the “why” they’re really gathering. What meaning is to be conveyed by bringing a certain group of people together? Who to invite? Who to cut? And where would be the optimal environment to accommodate individuals’ preferences? A host needs to be disciplined, proactive and leveraging pop-up rules. 

An illustration of the former is about her first experience with the female period. When she was eleven years old, she got her first period – at a friend’s house. Insecure about it, she didn’t tell anybody, but went back home and told her mom eventually. Eleven is an age where beliefs and judgments correlate with people’s reactions. Her mom’s reaction to learning about her daughter’s first period was one of celebration. She danced, hooted, and hollered with joy. Inadvertently or intentionally, her mom taught her daughter that being a woman, the unique features that make a woman female, was something to be celebrated, cherished, and embraced. Her mom even threw her a period party. How about that! 

Whereas an example for the latter is what Parker coined “The Château Principle”. Thereunder the host needs to realize that the choice of venue is among the most powerful levers over the guests’ behavior. Her example revolves around the infamous failure of merger negotiations between the French cellphone provider Alcatel and the American telecommunications equipment provider Lucent. (Read this analysis for more details) Initially, both parties prepared the merger diligently in good faith and geared up to create a “marriage of equals”. To finalize the deal, both parties were supposed to meet in a nondescript airport hotel in New Jersey. However, when an Alcatel executive fell ill, they requested the meeting to be held in France in the Château Des Mesnuls, a renaissance style castle. While it’s speculation to find out the real reasons for the failure of the merger, a few Lucent executives recounting the negotiations observed how the château brought out the Frenchness of the French. Alcatel employees became comfortable asserting their dominance on home turf which reflected a certain arrogance and hubris that tipped the negotiations to fall apart. Location, location, location is real-estate wisdom that also applies to gatherings. 

Parker wrote The Art Of Gathering across 281 pages segmented into 8 chapters. It is a quick and easy read yet I found some paragraphs could have been edited more succinctly. Her voice can come across as overbearing or patronizing, but I view this as part of re-learning a part of my life that I neglected for far too long. Notably understanding gatherings as social contracts with certain responsibilities is incredibly helpful. In addition to offering practical tips on how to discover, structure, and select event details I was surprised by how easy it seems to translate her findings to cyberspace, e.g metaverse gatherings in virtual reality or group events and chats on Facebook. Anyone quite interested in the subject of crowd psychology will be able to fill in knowledge gaps and view certain aspects of their social gatherings through a new, fresh lens. 

Book recommendations ebb and flow. Some find me by chance. Others are the product of premeditated research. The Art Of Gathering was recommended to me by my dear friend Nichole. The story of how we met goes beyond the scope of this blog, but I will document this: it was under the most random, endearing, and meaningful circumstances crammed into one weekend somewhere around Seattle. Flying boxed wine bags, neon lights, and deep, mind-absorbing conversations included.   

In case you are not into reading an entire book on the single topic of bringing people together then I would recommend watching this video. Parker says “how we gather is how we live”. How do you live your life? 

A Life In Special Operations

Nobody goes through life and is successful all on their own. In his memoir “Sea Stories: My Life In Special Operations” retired Admiral William H. McRaven chronicles some of his experiences, achievements, and challenges that would not have been possible without the help of others. 

I never know what to expect from memoirs, autobiographies, or personal accounts. “Make Your Bed”, however, made me feel excited to learn more about the life of Admiral William H. McRaven. He first went viral following his commencement speech at the University of Texas at Austin reaching a broad audience at home and abroad. His remarkable career within special operations could be described with an endless list of Hollywood movies that includes the capture of Saddam Hussein, the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips, and the infamous Operation Neptune Spear – the mission to bring to justice the leader of Al-Qaeda – Osama bin Laden. Sea Stories is the rendezvous of his personal account and professional experience. Across eighteen chapters, McRaven tells his story of becoming a special operator. Born into a military family, McRaven gradually evolved his character from a rambunctious average child to a skilled and trusted leader. The early chapters eloquently describe the struggle to follow the footsteps of his family and the generation that ended European tyranny. Finding his profession through an evolution of athletic endeavors combined with the grace and support of good people helping the young McRaven along the way was heart-warming to read but also inspiring when McRaven reflected

knowing I could set a goal, work hard, suffer through pain and adversity, and achieve something worthwhile made me realize that I could accomplish anything I put my mind to

McRaven’s writing style is entertaining yet sometimes a little bland. Each chapter has its own charisma and appeal, which make this book a great read for a commute or as an alongside read to another book.

Critics called out that other communities within special operations have taken a different approach to public relations, one defined by discretion and the principle of the quiet professional. McRaven’s memoir continues to amplify the already romanticized image of the Navy SEALs without critically examining the current issues within the Navy SEAL community ranging from alleged war crimes to mental health to discipline problems. When in reality, the Navy SEAL community is drifting away from its core values prompting retired and active duty Navy SEALs to speak up against the exploitation for personal gain by so many former special operators. McRaven failed the reader in that regard, but perhaps more tragically failed his fellow SEALs. Sea Stories is nothing more than repeating special operation missions already known to the public. In some cases these stories were immortalized by heroic portrayals of Hollywood actors. But it’s also nothing less than a personal account of serving 37 years, almost four decades, in one of the toughest professional organizations within any military industrial complex in the world. I found pleasure reading some of the stories while its sometimes repetitive nature often undermined a true takeaway for the reader.  

Learn To Lead With These Simple Strategies And Tactics

Jocko Willink’s field manual translates leadership theory into a practical guide for your everyday leadership. 

Leading people to achieve sometimes abstract business objectives is arguably among the most intricate human endeavors. Leadership Strategy and Tactics: Field Manual by Jocko Willink is a step-by-step guide on leadership strategies and how to become effective in leading other people. 

The book is structured in two parts spanning seven sections. Each section covers a specific area and appears to answer a specific question. For example, in part two section two, subsection e. titled “Decentralized Command or Lazy Designation?” Willink explores different styles of leadership to illustrate that a decentralized command can have the collateral appearance that a leader is constantly avoiding work or taking responsibility. A solution to this problem is a blend between observation and readiness to perform. This means, a leader should be aware of attitudes or misperceptions before they bloom into problems. Any inkling of that should be mitigated by taking over a task or taking charge of the most challenging project. This requires a leader to maintain a certain level of involvement and skill training. At this point, it becomes clear that Willinks advice finds its boundaries in the complex, corporate world where an upper-level manager is unlikely to maintain involvement in the ground operations of his reports. If one or more reports turn out to intentionally undermine the decentralized command to get rid of work, then, according to Willink, a leader should seek means to replace those reports, which is also not feasible and oftentimes can expose the company to legal risk. Nevertheless, the subsection provides important clarity on appearances and perceptions for both leaders and reports. Moreover, the mere awareness of an attitude within the team or certain individuals can help preempt certain leadership decisions in favor of a more collaborative solution. 

Another interesting subsection covers “Everone Is The Same, Everyone Is Different”. Therein Willink explores the concept of scaled leadership in moderation. In most organizations, large or small, there will be a high degree of individuality, but also a clear, common denominator across the employee pool. It is the responsibility of the leader to create basic leadership tools applicable across the entire spectrum of employees whenever a business’ need requires a specific team to perform. At the same time, the leader must retain an observant mindset to effectively modulate these leadership tools depending on the situation and the individual members of the team. In his example, Willink suggests understanding the drivers of the situation first before taking diplomatic steps that might result in increasing or decreasing a reports’ responsibilities. While it may be common sense in theory, these concepts rarely translate well into the real corporate world without a modicum of friction or confusion among reports. Tact, diplomacy, and subtlety, therefore, make or break an effective communication which is the foundation to successfully drive a critical business need to completion. 

In his conclusion titled “It’s All On You But Not About You” Willink reiterates the importance of keeping your ego in check and making it about helping others to succeed. All responsibility stops with the leader of an organization or team. But it’s not about the responsibility or about the leader. Leadership is about making informed, inclusive decisions to effectively drive company objectives together as a team to succeed as a team. It’s about forming effective relationships of trust across all levels of the organization. This requires discipline over ego and emotions. Failing to enable others to perform at the highest level possible will inevitably invite corrosive attitudes into an otherwise well-performing team. Understanding that a leader only succeeds when the team succeeds is true leadership. It really summarizes the theme of this book: be humble and if you take care of the work, the work will take care of you.

Jocko Willink spent his formative years in the military. His leadership as a commanding officer of SEAL Team 3 aka “Task Unit Bruiser” led to the most military decorations of a Special Operations unit during the Iraq War. With all that in mind, his writing style is militaristic, relies on military terminology, and often draws premise from complex, military regulations. Altogether this really undermines creative extrapolation into everyday leadership. If you aren’t familiar with his previous publications this book can appear too detached from everyday business issues for the non-military, mid-level manager of a brick-and-mortar business. Overall Leadership Strategy and Tactics: Field Manual is a good book. While it rides and repeats common sense concepts it creates value as an everyday guide for early and experienced leaders alike. It does compete with other business and management books on leadership in a rather saturated market. This makes me believe the audience for this book would be found in the military, government or other large-scale corporations. I’m having a hard time seeing this book attracting an audience in more progressive sectors.

You can find Jock Willink on
Facebook @jkowillink
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