Some time ago, I was invited to attend a “best practices” session where the language was businessese. As I suffered through statements about how everything can be quantified as numbers and how emotions should be left at the door but creativity should flourish, I began to wonder when I’d become so cynical. I mean, the presenter really believed this–it was clear from his eyes. He’d been so indoctrinated that he really believed selflessness was letting somebody else have their way when they’re your supervisor. Then it hit me. It was so obvious that I felt silly for not seeing it sooner. Corporate culture is a religion. The business world has its own specialized vocabulary, belief system, deity (Mammon), prophets, and ethics code. Those who believe it pass their teachings on to the next generation with the zeal of converts. It gives their lives meaning and purpose. It even has its own origin myth, going back to Adam Smith. All the elements are there.
A point that I come back to repeatedly on this blog is that a solid definition of religion does not exist. I once had a boss who told me there was no such thing as “religious studies.” Too many universities also believe that. When we see terror all around committed in the name of religion and our response is to decide the business curriculum is far more worth saving, I believe we’ve just decided on our religious preferences. Reward and punishment. The price of non-conformity is high. Ironically, our motivational speaker indicated that we shouldn’t be just like everyone else. Only, just don’t be too different.
I couldn’t help but to think back to an episode of Ruby Wax. While living in the UK some friends had a television license and we watched an episode or two. Ruby Wax is an ex-patriot comedian. On one episode she followed a vacuum cleaner salesman for an upscale vacuum manufacturer. Her path took her to a motivational convention which was—there’s no other way to describe this—an emotional religious ceremony. Although their god (Mammon) may not suck, his prophet (the vacuum) most surely did. At the time I saw the episode I thought it was simply entertainment, something at which to laugh. I’ve been to enough business seminars now to find that I’m a heretic in this faith. I may not know much, but I do know selflessness when I see it. And it is a trait that takes a lifetime to master and those who have belong to a different line of work altogether.