Making the Things You Love
The evolution of work and Rick Rubin’s sacred dance
After spending the last two years Zooming-from-home in your boxers, enjoying quality time with your kiddos, or picking up water coloring (and lowering your blood pressure by forty points in the process), maybe you’ve sworn to yourself never to return to your stale office keyboard again.
Said another way, our pandemic culture has fundamentally asked us to reevaluate the possibility for engaging in more meaningful work in our lives. Maybe, in 2019, you read Derek Thompson’s seminal Atlantic article on workism. Or maybe, if you were dope, you read my “Religion of Work” series from 2020 that draws from Thompson’s insights. I’ll spare you from reading old viral content (his, at least) and summarize the essence here: somewhere along the line, late-stage capitalism convinced you that your dream—what you want to create with your one wild precious life—must be synonymous with your job. Rather than offering a framework for allowing your work to coexist with your dreams and passions, this modern ethos has narrowed your life down to its One True Calling. Work, work, work. A singular obsession that claims ownership to your worth and happiness.
What if I were to tell you that it wasn’t always this way?
For the ancient Romans and Hebrews, for instance, work was considered a curse, a definitely not good thing. In the Middle Ages work was strictly familial, something passed from parent to child. They were all Nepo-Babies! Then, in the sixteenth century, Martin Luther was the first to claim that work should encompass a person’s calling. The ensuing Protestant Reformation allowed people to seek work outside of familial obligation, even encouraging people to reinvest their work profits to realize larger market games, ad infinitum. This fundamentally capitalist ethos, along with the colonial institution of slavery, built early America as we know it. Manifest Destiny espoused that anyone who worked hard could achieve wealth, prosperity, and freedom for themselves. As the American Dream evolved, it became less about conquering (read: stealing) new land, and more about entering the newly minted labor class created by the Industrial Revolution. Back then, our lives revolved around religion, family, community, and labor as separate spheres of existence. The machine of life, if you will.
Fast forward to the scientifically secular past century. All of a sudden, work has taken a much larger space in this equation. In many ways, it has become the machine, rather than one part of its inner workings. Over time, work has replaced family, community, and even labor as an abstract social construct. Today we might as well look at WORK as a form of religion itself, a dominant organizing principle for making sense of our lives. WORK has come to signify far more than being employed; it signals an endless career ladder for securing certain enviable acronyms. To find your way from VP to SVP to CEO is not to just a fancy yacht or a house on Fire Island but a kind of enlightenment reminiscent of what our ancestors were after. Except! in our ancestor's eyes, work was never meant to embody our sole purpose for being.
Instead of enlightened transcendence, our millennial hustle culture has produced nothing but debt, bullshit jobs, and the ubiquitous risk of burnout. Sadly enough, millennials rank “having a job they enjoy” as more important than practicing human “kindness” in their everyday lives. Which brings me back to my central concern here. If we turn to our collective past to understand the origin of work in our lives and how it was never meant to be the primary lens through which we define ourselves, we begin to see the many ways in which we have de-evolved rather than evolved in our self-understanding. How do we return to a more original definition of work that allows us to be more inwardly focused, more creative with the spirit of the larger universe that made us? I am talking about the fact that we are part of the same creative impulse that birthed the stars and galaxies, the ocean and all the landforms that arose out it; a universal life force of unimaginable intelligence. It is as ruthlessly wild and self-generative as it is mysterious and otherworldly.
You know Rick Rubin? The legendary music producer who helped create albums from The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Run-DMC, Adele, and Johnny Cash? The guy whose hair looks like it’s receiving vibratory transmissions from the heart of the universe?
Recently, a clip of him speaking on the Lex Fridman podcast went viral:
“The only advice I would have would be to not listen to anyone and to do what you love. And to make things that you love, whatever it is, make your favorite things… and if you have to get a job to support yourself so you can make your art, that’s fine.”
Part of why this message spread so far is because it came from an older man whom we can trust. I mean, just look at him. It’s not just the hair. Energetically, you can tell he’s comfortable in his own skin, not trying to prove anything—unlike most podcasting bros we know. When a person is so grounded in their own truth, their words become potent forces of collective alchemy. I know that when I came across this clip, it halted my mindless scrolling. I grinned, nodded, and thought: Yes, yes, yes—make shit you love. This is how electrifyingly cool going bald can be.
But, hold up, you might be thinking: isn’t “do what you love” part of the meaningful work trap we’ve been talking about this whole time? The kind of sentiment that gets you to care about work over everything else in your life? Maybe you’re feeling extra confused because you recently read some of the extensive discourse about WORK on Substack. One corner tells you the system is rigged, another tells you to freelance and experiment, and a third insists that you must reclaim the magnificence of ordinary labor—like bagging groceries, which, sometimes, you must do to survive.
What Rubin’s words crystalize, and what I believe this discourse is missing, is that we are inherently creative beings. We each possess an instinct for innovation that wouldn’t have evolved unless it was meant to be utilized.
Harley Swift Deer, a Native American teacher, explains that at the center of our existence, we each have a survival dance and a sacred dance. The survival dance is rooted in self-reliance; in modern terms, it is what we must do to earn a living, and it must come first. It might not be fancy or ego-boosting. The art of survival in our economy is about embracing its necessities. As I’ve written, blaming every personal problem—whether career or mental health—on “capitalism” is a form of cope: a useless, yet symbolic utterance that telegraphs an avoidance of personal responsibility and often only exacerbates the problem.
But, as Swift Deer teaches, once you have established your survival dance, you can wander and begin the search for your sacred dance, which is what your soul longs for, the “work” that you were born to do. This “work” might look nothing like a conventional job.
“We long to discover the secrets and mysteries of our individual lives, to find our unique way of belonging to this world, to recover the never-before-seen treasure we were born to bring to our communities. To carry this treasure to others is half of our spiritual longing. The other half is to experience our oneness with the universe, with all of creation.”
—Bill Plotkin, Soulcraft
Ideally, you nurture your survival dance until it merges with your sacred dance. Said in another more Silicon Valley way, consider your survival dance a primary investor in your dreams. And in case you need permission: it’s okay to have BIG dreams, even in confusing times when ambition is sometimes viewed negatively! A deeper part of you wants to dance, to create something deeply meaningful for your life.
Part of why Rick Rubin’s message went viral is because it’s not about WORK in either a conventional or postmodern-Substack sense. He says nothing about sabbaticals, schedule hacking, capitalism, freelancing, or the abundance mindset. It’s about the simple act of making things, of embracing love and the art of creation. The way I orient to life, I hear Rubin’s words as a spiritual rallying call, one coming at just the right time on a planet falling apart, urging us to reclaim what is possible for our lives despite everything that has happened. Rubin is holding us accountable.
Meaningful work does not have to be a trap, a contradiction, or a lie. Especially if we are willing to see and define what work means for us within the larger roadmap of our existence. Remember that the creative drive of human evolution is encoded in your DNA. When you are willing to hold this impulse as sacred, suddenly life on earth becomes suffused with meaning and purpose beyond the constructs of ordered reality. Through this perspective, suddenly your future becomes a vast place of discovery, introspection, and curiosity—one that feels akin to a child navigating the world for the first time. See yourself building sandcastles or stacking pebbles by a stream or tumbling with your lover for nothing more than the simple joy of doing it and getting lost. I am talking about an exploratory, often sensual dance that defies reason, cause, and even explanation. The kind of dance we do because we must. But more importantly, because we can.
Once again, you have published an essay that is strikingly congruent and timely with my own considerations of late. I have been thinking about creativity in the context of building community (which is, in my view, the highest expression of human creativity) and how the survival and sacred dances converge in the experience of living in community.
I also dig the historical context you have given about work as a social phenomenon. The survival dance of communities living close to nature involves a set of moves (hunting, fishing, farming, building) that ultimately synchronize with the rites and rhythms of the sacred dance; art, music and the poetry of devotion spring from that space of bare, essential humanity, where the will to create is the place of communion with God.
Also, historically, it is anomalous for people to do just one 'thing' as their work; the space of collaborative, integrated life-affirming work in/for community (as a basic economic unit) favours the dilettantes, polymaths and autodidacts of this world, whereas the brand-persona ideal favoured by the algorithms (in a consumer-driven economy) means that a creator can only make one sort of thing in order to build an audience and thereby make money out of it.
In that sense, I think that the whole question of work and creativity comes down to valuing the survival moves (dishes, admin, childcare) as intrinsically sacred and aligned with a purpose greater than individual or capital gain. You get that in community-based projects: there is a chance to really appreciate the person who has chopped the wood or cooked the food for everybody, because those little efforts all help to weave the magic of togetherness and allow the space for the sacred dance to emerge collectively.
Thank you so much for this essay!!
Reading Rick Rubins book currently, quite the gem! Love the perspective on survival vs sacred dance, thanks for sharing. Seems like you have managed to merge the two 😊