R eligious holidays were some of my favorite days growing up. Hindu holidays in the U.S. didn’t result in days off of school, but they were all accompanied by rich traditions. We’d make elaborate chalk drawings outside to welcome good fortune into our home, or play on the swings to celebrate spring’s arrival, and there were always sweets involved. I was raised with religion in the background of my life, but the focus was on culture over strict adherence to scripture. Unlike my classmates who took afternoon classes in Catholicism or spent weekends at Hebrew school, I didn’t worry much about learning “the Word.” However, one Bhagavad Gita quote that I repeatedly heard referenced was:
“You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of your action. You have a right to your labor, but not to the fruits of your labor.”
The passage goes on to state that people should never assume credit or responsibility for the outcomes of their work, because only their duty is theirs, and the rest is in fate’s hands. As a child, my mother used the quote to put my mind at ease—when I had studied hard for a math test and was worrying about my grade, or when I wondered if I’d made the cut for some team at school. As I’ve grown up and taken on professional, results-focused roles, I’ve often thought back to those moments and wondered if I was breaking some implicit rule by caring about outcomes.
We were a Hindu household, but, like many other first-generation Americans, we were an ambitious one, too. Education was always at the center of my life, and eventually, so were the accolades that came with it. My parents spared me the so-called “tiger parenting” that is stereotypically associated with Asian immigrants, but that didn’t mean I didn’t care about results. No amount of parental love and support can spare a child the increasingly competitive experience of growing up in the contemporary American school system, in which, by sixteen, many children have made decisions that could dictate their educational and financial future. In light of this social context, perhaps it’s unsurprising that I found myself deeply concerned with the “fruits of my labor” from such a young age—whether my grades, tangible impacts in the office, or other measurable outcomes that I associated with my professional identity.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this focus. In fact, most of my highly successful classmates and friends seem to possess it. Yet, the older I got, the more I found myself wondering if the intense focus on a goal—the pride I felt when I achieved it and the pain I felt when I failed—was somehow sacrilegious. At best, there seemed to be a clear tension between strong professional ambition and the religious teachings of living simply in your duty, trusting God with the rest.
Though perhaps most explicitly stated in the Bhagavad Gita, this idea echoes across many religions and philosophies. Versions of it appear in the Christian duty to serve others, the Mormon discipline, and the Buddhist emphasis on filial piety—all of which center around duty over personal reward. Other religions include implicit checks on external ambition through stated restrictions on wealth, like the Muslim tradition of Zakat (almsgiving) or giving a tithe to a church. Still others give no explicit guidance on ambition, or have mixed guidance that religious scholars debate to this day. For instance, in Luke 18:15, Jesus states “how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." In contrast, Psalm 128 reads “You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you."
Of course, restrictions on wealth are merely one manifestation of this concept and a focus on results can extend far beyond earning money. To different individuals, it might mean maximizing one’s personal potential, beating a numerical goal for the sake of the challenge, leaving a legacy of positive change behind them, or some combination of the above.
In fact, many of these motivators seem to explain the younger generation’s trends in the workforce. More and more millennials and members of generation Z are rejecting traditional paths through hierarchical organizations in favor of self-directed careers. These involve several organizational and sectoral switches in pursuit of greater professional development, impact, and value alignment. Albeit noble, a focus on altruistic outcomes is nevertheless a focus on outcomes, as opposed to simply one’s “duty” of clocking in a solid eight hours per day.
Moreover, according to a 2010 Pew Research Center study, the value placed on salary and stability has only increased for the cohort of individuals raised amidst the 2008 recession and growing economic inequality. The concept of working hard for the sake of good results, be they religious or economic, has long been embedded in our national history by the Protestant work ethic and the spirit of capitalism. The Calvinist belief that hard work and its accompanying success were guarantees of spiritual salvation tied work ethic, measurable outcomes, and faith together in one complex knot that sits at the center of early American history. In this sense, the country’s simultaneous focus on professional and religious identity is as American as ambition itself.
The 2015 Pew Religious Landscape study also called millennials the least overtly religious American generation in modern times. By all traditional measures, this is true. Just 27% of millennials attend religious services on a weekly basis while 38% of baby boomers and over 50% of the greatest and silent generations do the same. Roughly 60% of baby boomers and over half of generation Xers say religion is “very important” in their lives, but this number falls to roughly 40% where millennials are concerned. However, Pew also reports that millennials seem just as likely to be spiritual as previous generations. Like older generations, over half of millennials say they think deeply about the purpose of life on a weekly basis. Even many unaffiliated individuals reported praying regularly.
We have no reason to suppose a causal connection between the generation’s increased focus on outcomes and decreased focus on organized religion, but the mere fact that these trends are developing in tandem is an interesting one which highlights the complex position young Americans have found themselves in. Many don’t feel bound by the constructs of a specific religious tradition, but clearly still have both faith and goals driven by something beyond themselves. Perhaps it is in this liminal space that a professional and spiritual identity can exist in harmony.
I expect that the drivers that have motivated me and countless others in the past (a desire to excel, to honor our parents’ sacrifices, and to create positive change, to name just a few) will stay with me as time goes on. I further expect that our generation will continue to walk the tightrope between goals and greed. My sincere hope is that these factors push us to fulfill our duty to ourselves and others with stronger resolve, rather than neglect it entirely.
Encouraging people to trust in God is a lovely sentiment, but it shouldn’t be interpreted as guidance to have blind faith in a divine future which requires no work on our part. A climate change researcher must consider whether corporations are actually utilizing their recommendations or not, or our planet won’t heal. A first-generation college student striving to lift their family out of poverty must consider their starting salary so they can experience upward social mobility. Indeed, anyone concerned with the betterment of themselves and their world in any respect must carefully consider the results of their own work and course-correct when those results aren’t what they intended. Much as I might wish it were, one’s “duty” isn’t clearly inscribed anywhere.
In a contemporary world, the proverbial quest to live with purpose is a messy journey of self-discovery and prioritizing competing duties during different seasons of life. Now more than ever, our country needs a generation of individuals who are actively mindful of the fruits of their labor and the legacy they leave behind them. Dharma, or any other version of a concept of following one’s duty, remains close to my heart. However, I am conscious of the fact that discovering exactly what it is requires a focus on my external impact, and now believe it is one that can be achieved even by those with big dreams. Though I now try to avoid worrying much about what implicit rule I’m breaking each time I anxiously await a performance result, I don’t mean to imply that I’ve provided a definitive answer to this question, or even that such an answer exists.
I am neither a religious scholar nor a spokesperson of my entire generation—perhaps someone more orthodox than I would argue that ambition and devotion can’t peacefully coexist. However, from my perspective as a young believer—a member of both the “spiritual but not strictly religious” generation and a cohort of impact-focused Americans—it seems there is an acceptable overlap between the two which lies at the intersection of being ambitious and fulfilling one’s unique direction rather than for ambition’s sake. To others who feel a similar tension and calling, I believe we can start by simply being driven by faith—in a higher power, yes, but also by faith in ourselves and the impact we can make on this world if we are cognizant of it.