The summer internship application season has arrived, and I’m starting to question this overwhelming cycle of pursuing employment and money.
When you’re in your twenties, the rush to secure financial stability by pushing yourself to exhaustion becomes almost impossible to avoid. For the past five months, I’ve applied to countless companies to secure a summer internship. I’m getting tired already … but everyone tells me that my work-related stress has only just begun.
As an engineering undergrad, I feel tremendous pressure to fill my resume with experience as soon as possible, and I know I’m not alone. There’s too much at stake for young people to take their time nowadays: everyone has too many student loans to pay off, too many certifications they need to get, too many degrees necessary to get where they want. College has become an overwhelming investment, both financially and emotionally, and more often than not it’s infused with a fear of “not making it,” rather than an excitement for learning.
I recently read this piece in The Atlantic about “workism” in America. It explores how breakneck the American mindset has become in relation to work. More people than ever work overtime, even when they don’t need the money, and value time spent on the job above any other aspect of their lives.
The article also points out a possible correlation between the decline of religious affiliation and the rise of workism. For many people, what might have once been devotion to a higher power has become devotion to their careers—contributing to higher rates of depression and suicide, a breakdown in human interaction, and interests that only become narrower, because most careers have little to offer in terms of emotional or spiritual health. Of course, many corporations have adjusted to enable this trend, because they profit from it.
The more you think about it, the more tempting it is to throw everything to the wind and go live in the mountains in isolation, where you could have some semblance of spiritual happiness.
But work forms the foundation for society, and while the current extreme situation is far from ideal, we should be worried about work. It’s a key part of our development as people, and the main way we contribute to society.
Baha’u’llah has even said that occupation and labor are devotion. All humanity must obtain a livelihood by sweat of the brow and bodily exertion, at the same time seeking to lift the burden of others, striving to be the source of comfort to souls and facilitating the means of living. This in itself is devotion to God. Baha’u’llah has thereby encouraged action and stimulated service.
But the energies of the heart must not be attached to these things; the soul must not be completely occupied with them. Though the mind is busy, the heart must be attracted toward the Kingdom of God in order that the virtues of humanity may be attained from every direction and source. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 186.
So the Baha’i teachings define work as a form of service to humanity—but not the only means to that end. Placing our value as individuals solely on our careers, and forgetting the main cause of our happiness—which always comes from a spiritual source—stunts the development of these “virtues of humanity”… virtues like love, kindness, solidarity, humility and joy.
I hear a lot of talk lately about “entitlement” among the people of my generation—that we assign too much importance to finding a meaningful job, rather than securing financial stability. But why is this a bad thing? As young people, we have become much more aware of the importance of service to society—but corporations and industry push us in the opposite direction. The real injustice is our feeling that we must choose between a meaningful job or financial stability, fulfilling our inner goals or having a family.
This dilemma can cripple us with frustration when we don’t see many examples of people who successfully balance all these different areas of life. It’s hard to fight society’s obsession with work and money when being a part of the system requires moving ahead in our studies and careers. But in the hardest moments, it can be helpful to sit back and gain some perspective. What should be our priority when it comes to work?
Abdu’l-Baha spoke of work as a means to develop spiritual values, and how that development can bring us joy:
Let them be content with their wages, and seek distinction in truthfulness, straightforwardness, and the pursuit of virtue and excellence; for vanity in riches is worthy of none but the base, and pride in possessions beseemeth only the foolish. – Abdu’l-Baha, From a tablet translated from the Persian.
Success looks different for everyone, but at its core it means to develop spiritually, in whatever way best helps our soul and the world around us. Our happiness depends on much more than just passing a class or getting a job. Living a coherent life without falling prey to workism, and embracing a mentality that values spiritual development and service above everything else, can help us stay centered as we advance in our careers.