by Sarad Davenport
George S. Clason wrote in his classic book, The Richest Man in Babylon, among many platitudes, that, “Hard work is the best friend I’ve ever had.” As a young person, more than 20 years ago, I devoured this book and applied this framework to my life. I was convinced for most of my life that work in and of itself was the answer to all of life’s problems. I believed work would help me to achieve the economic mobility that many Black men growing up in poverty sought after.
I applied this formula and was relatively successful, yet it seemed at every advance, at every elevation, I was asked, seemingly by inference, to shed some of who I was — parts of my core identity. I became a master of morphing myself into something that was safe and palatable and offered comfort to people who certainly could not fathom the situational awareness required to escape dire and often dangerous social circumstances.
I became culturally bi-lingual, by necessity, believing that sacrificing the full presentation of myself at work was a means that justified the end. I operated in what W.E.B DuBois called double-consciousness and as he described it further, “Always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.” What work often requires Black people to do is build strength in order to carry the load of existing in a reality where we are permanent outsiders with a veneer of inclusivity. It’s heavy.
It all worked perfectly though. We were so busy working and believing that effort and merit would ensure our mobility, not realizing how much of ourselves we were losing and sacrificing along the way. Then came the pandemic.
In the tragedy that the pandemic was and is, there is also an undeniable collective introspection and reflection that is taking place. As many of us wrestled with questions of mortality in a real way, we also wrestled with and looked with clear eyes at our relationships with persons, places, things, and also work. I had suspicions prior to the COVID-19 pandemic that I had an unhealthy relationship with work. The pandemic only confirmed those suspicions.
Work was never a place where I felt I had license to be misunderstood. There was a constant tension as revealed in the words of Nina Simone when she sang, “O’ Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.’ I had to pretend—but with clarity. It’s how you survived. But the pandemic made it clear to me that I no longer wanted to just survive. I wanted the right to be misunderstood. I was going to redefine reality in such a way that my orientation and ways of being were going to be honored if only by myself.
Where I am now, I hold no contempt for those who have employed me in the past. At the outset, I said that my own beliefs led me to this unhealthy and unsustainable worship of work. I now define work as conscious co-creation. I have a futurist outlook on reality and believe that co-creation in and of itself can be a liberating and actualizing effort that sets us free.
Employers are now faced with people who have had time for deep reflection about how they want to engage with the world and what quality of life means. People have found ways to create realities where their full selves not only survive but flourish. The task for employers is to intentionally design environments that have more than the veneer of inclusivity and work is not worshiped, but people are supported in their effort to fully actualize.