Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Why A Company Is Like An Idol

Chapter 1: My Corporate Idolatry Part 3

When I remembered the phrase “you need to do what is best for the company” I was suddenly uncomfortable.  The moment lasted a long time.  Idolatry is the worship of a statue or a false god.  I don’t worship statues or…  I remembered my company’s brand logo. That symbol was displayed in practically every room of every building of the company, including in Europe, Asia and South America.  It was on every piece of paper.  It was on some of my favorite clothes.   Trying to reassure myself, I thought about the nature of a corporation.  It didn’t help.   A corporation is an artificial person as recognized by the Supreme Court of the United States.  It’s a formless and shapeless entity.  There are a lot of them, and they have different cultures and values.

I thought about the time I was scolded for an innocuous suggestion to embed the brand symbol in as one part of a cool graphic in a marketing piece.  It kind of puzzled me at the time.  What’s the big deal?  But it was a big deal, like an unwritten commandment.  THOU SHALL NOT MESS WITH THE BRAND SYMBOL.

It’s like an idol, I thought, and when we do “what is best for the company,” instead of “what is best,” we are worshipping, giving blind obedience.  I also realized that we only used that phrase to justify something unpleasant, like a canceled project, a layoff or shipping a product that wasn’t ready to go, knowing the customers were going to be mad.

All of this took less than a second.  I describe it sequentially, but it all arrived at the same time.  There was more.

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My Corporate Idolatry: A Surprise On The Day Of Repentance

Chapter 1: My Corporate Idolatry Part 2

No one is more surprised than me that I am writing a book inspired by religious teachings. I was raised in a mostly secular Jewish household, where we attended services only twice a year for the major holidays.  I was a scientist for ten years, getting a Ph.D. from MIT in Molecular Biology, and doing my post-doctoral work at Stanford.[1]  For the next ten years I was in marketing.  My scientist friends teased me for going over to the dark side.  It was more true than they realized, but I loved it.  To this day, I cannot believe how much I enjoyed writing ad copy.  Life is full of surprises, and on Yom Kippur I got a surprise that changed my life.

I take Yom Kippur seriously every year.  It is the Day of Atonement, when Jews around the world take a day off of work, don’t eat or drink, go to services, and well, atone.  I look forward to the chance to reflect on my life, to think about what I’ve done wrong, and to make amends.  One of the most important principles is that while prayer is sufficient for “sins against God,” prayer is not sufficient for sins against other people.  We must apologize, make it right if we can, and resolve to behave differently in the future if a similar situation arises.

One year, I called a coworker somewhat sheepishly at three in the afternoon, to apologize for a practical joke that had gotten out of hand six months earlier.  I felt better afterwards.  Another year I realized that the Jews invented the day off.  Prior to Shabbat (aka the Sabbath), we were expected to work all the time.  (I later learned that the Greeks and Romans used to lampoon the Jews over Shabbat, calling it a waste of time.  The purpose of rest was to prepare for more work, while leisure was something reserved to the wealthy.)  To be honest, I was not then or now particularly good at taking a day off from work.

But this idea about the day off inspired me to pay greater attention to the words of the prayers the following year, and I made a discovery that truly changed my life.   I was sitting alone with my thoughts in the Flint Center, an old-school performing arts auditorium in Cupertino, California, big enough to fit my entire Reform Jewish congregation of 2,500 members.  It was late in the day, and I was feeling tired and a bit woozy.  It is my favorite time of the day, as my mind sometimes goes to new places.

That afternoon, I noticed how often the prayers made reference to one God, and I wondered about the sin of idolatry.  I started to dismiss idolatry as an archaic idea, no longer relevant in the modern world when I remembered a phrase I had heard many times from my bosses and colleagues:  “you need to do what is best for the company.”  I was suddenly uncomfortable.

[1] I get almost as annoyed at people who say that science disproves religion as I get with people who say that religion invalidates evolution.  Science explains the way the world works, but it is silent on the most important question, what we should do with that knowledge.

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