Can Rituals Fix Our Soulless Corporate Culture? A Ritual Designer Says Yes, But Some People Fear Giving Even More of Themselves to the Office.
Ezra Bookman founded Ritualist, a creative studio specializing in the design of secular ritual, to give people what they really want: meaningful connection and purpose.
It's no surprise that Beyoncé's "Break My Soul" landed the singer-songwriter her first solo top 10 single in six years: In corporate America, too many people work hard without any sense of joy or accomplishment for the promise of a paycheck. The pandemic mitigated that to an extent, as remote and hybrid work cut down commute times, freeing people up to do more things they enjoy. But the greater physical distance also cast the latent disconnection between co-workers and teams into sharp relief.
"We used to get away with what was an untrue statement," Ritualist founder Ezra Bookman tells Entrepreneur. "'People are in the room together, and connection and culture is just going to happen.'" Now, more than two years into a pandemic, being in a room together still isn't an option for many employees — and that means companies need to be more intentional about building culture.
"There are only so many virtual escape rooms that people can go to before they demand what they really want," Bookman says, "which is meaningful connection and a sense of belonging with their team members. And one of the avenues for that is ritual."
Ritual in the workplace? That's right.
Bookman's journey to professional ritual work began when he was a performance artist and director, eager to explore art's spiritual origins. A research grant took him to South America, where he learned about rituals from indigenous communities. He ultimately returned to New York, where he became the artistic director of Lab/Shul: an "experimental, artist-driven, everybody-friendly, God-optional, pop-up Jewish community." His work with Lab/Shul was a turning point — revealing rituals' full potential for creation and connection.
"I looked around and realized that these ideas, practices and design processes that I had developed were applicable way beyond just the Jewish community and a local community in New York," Bookman says. "These crises of loneliness and meaning and purpose and belonging in the world were felt everywhere. And this tool that we've used through all of human history to build culture and connect communities was being left out of the conversation." Bookman founded Ritualist, a creative studio specializing in the design of secular rituals, in 2019.
"Rituals don't need to be spiritual. They just need to be special."
If the idea of ritual at the office gives you pause, you're not alone. Bookman acknowledges a universal opposition to change and says he's encountered two primary camps of resistance when it comes to his work: those who fear ritual at the office will interfere with their personal religious practices, and those who, already burnt out on the corporate grind, bristle at the thought of giving any more of themselves to companies that over-work and under-value them.
But Bookman stresses that his rituals don't incorporate religious tradition in any way; he has no interest in that. "Rituals don't need to be spiritual," he says. "They just need to be special. So this idea that I'm bringing spirituality, religion or anything into the workplace is just incorrect."
Bookman understands where the other side is coming from too. "It's a manifestation of a deep skepticism and cynicism around the voracious appetite of consumer capitalism," he says, "and the mistrust of any for-profit company, as having [their] best interests as an employee, consumer or citizen of the world in mind." That's why Bookman's very careful about the companies with which he chooses to work, emphasizing that although ritual is a powerful tool, it's also a neutral tool.
Some might dismiss ritual as an ineffective, even trite, strategy in the grand scheme of building a better future for work. Bookman brings up the conversation around Amazon warehouse workers as an example: Shouldn't we care about how corporations are denying employees basic rights like regular bathroom breaks? Of course we should, Bookman readily agrees, but that doesn't mean there's no room for other dialogues too.
"What's left out of the conversation is the people for whom work is a meaningful extension of who they are in the world, and a way of bringing their best self, ideas and sense of purpose into the world, and who find real belonging with their coworkers and a sense of connection and friendship," Bookman says. "How are we serving people who are seeking that, especially our generation, which is seeking it increasingly, because all of the other structures where we used to find that are deteriorating?
"Workplaces are human places, ultimately," Bookman continues. "We bring our full selves to work, whether we like it or not, and our full selves are messy and emotional, and there's shame, blame and fear. So are you going to be brave and courageous in addressing it? Or are you going to try to bury it under the rug and then be confused as to why you have low retention?"
"Rituals are all about transition."
"I talk about rituals as intentional symbolic actions that heighten importance, impact or meaning, and each of those [terms] has a lot of weight to it," Bookman says. In his own life, those rituals can take different forms — from setting his computer password to "deep breath" as a reminder to do just that when he logs on and off, to creating rock stacks every time he enters and exits nature.
People tend to conflate rituals, routines, habits and traditions, Bookman says, but, in reality, each of those practices is distinct. Bookman considers habits "unconscious repeated actions," routines "intentional repeated actions," and traditions "actions that gain meaning through repetition." Because of this, it's not an exclusive taxonomy: Some rituals are traditions, and some traditions are rituals.
Semantics aside, one thing is clear: Since the dawn of humanity, rituals have helped people build community and get things done. In fact, ritual has played such a significant role in the lives of creators that the writer Mason Currey has published two books on the subject, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work and Daily Rituals: Women at Work. Both explore the routines and working habits of artists — from Isak Dinesen, who relied on oysters, champagne and amphetamines to fuel her practice, to Martha Graham, who denied herself the "privilege" of socialization to make progress on her work.
Currey sees ritual as a helpful way to move from one mode to the next. "For me, rituals are all about transition," he tells Entrepreneur. "I think you're trying to mark for yourself, 'I'm going to now shift from "X" headspace into this other headspace that I feel is important.' For writers and creative people, that headspace you need to be in is fairly fragile, and anything you can do to help you get there is useful."
Currey also sees a lot of value in the repetition of rituals. "There's something really powerful about doing it every time you sit down or every day at the same time, because it really trains your mind to find that that means something. It's a way of telling yourself, 'Okay, now I'm doing this.'" These repeated rituals don't need to be elaborate either, Currey says — even sitting at your desk with a cup of coffee or opening your notebook can be enough to signal that productive transition.
Bookman agrees that repetition can deepen the meaning or experience of a ritual, but he also says that it's only one tool among many. "The first time you do something, it's still a ritual, even if you never do it again," he says. "And the danger also is that through repetition, [the ritual] can lose its meaning and just becomes a rote repetition." The key is to always keep your intention in mind, Bookman explains.
"It's not that rituals are gone completely. We just don't have good ones."
If ritual is the antidote to social fragmentation, loss of values and deteriorating relationships — all of which are center stage in today's world, Bookman notes, with no exception for corporate settings — it might seem reasonable to assume that we as a society have all but lost ritual entirely. But that's not the whole picture.
"It's not that rituals are gone completely," Bookman explains. "We just don't have very good ones that are connected to the actual purpose of how we want them to serve us in our companies." Bookman is unable to discuss the specific issues at some of the bigger-name companies he's worked with because of nondisclosure agreements, but he shares an example from one client whose attempt at ritual completely failed to have the intended effect.
One of the teams at the company had developed a software that brought in several million dollars, resulting in a very successful quarter. To mark the contribution, the company sent each person on the team a Christmas ornament that was laser cut out of wood and embellished with the name of the new software.
"The intention was really great," Bookman says. "You did something beautiful; we want to thank you and give you a little gift. But it was this disposable swag that really meant nothing to the people and didn't accomplish what [the company] wanted, which was to, I would imagine, cultivate a culture of gratitude, recognition and celebration of success."
What would have been more appreciated by the team? "A handwritten personal note from management," Bookman says. "It has much more of an impact than a bag of swag."
"Rituals need to be invitations, not obligations."
Nearly every company has some kind of mission statement, an official summary of its goals and values, and Bookman acknowledges that some companies do activate them well, which contributes to that greater sense of purpose and connection so many people crave. But, by and large, company mission statements are a lot of words on a page without much follow-through. "It's usually a PDF that you get when you're onboarded and then never hear about again," Bookman says.
But ritual can serve as a way to activate those goals and values. When it comes to designing them for his corporate clients, Bookman follows a process he calls Ritual Lines, which involves looking at an experience through seven universal lenses to explore how to deepen its impact. "It always starts with identifying the goal or the purpose," he explains. "What is the purpose of this action? I define 'intentionality' with three Ps. Purposeful, personal and particular. And I ask three questions. Why are you doing this? Why are you doing this? And why are you doing this?"
Bookman reiterates that he doesn't mine different cultural-religious traditions or rituals he can reinterpret for the modern world. Instead, his process comes down to a lot of questions, research and Google docs. "I'm often looking for keywords that then I can just take and creatively crack open," he says.
For example, a client might say they're trying to get rid of the tension in the air following a rocky leadership transition, and Bookman will drill down on the word "tension." What does it feel like to put tension in the body? Maybe there's a rope? Is it a rubber band? Are we releasing the rubber band? "That's the kind of creative process that I might do to bring in symbols that might bring theoretical concepts into embodied space," Bookman explains. "That's the kind of play, iterative process, ultimately."
Additionally, Bookman always wants the creation of rituals to be a collaborative process. "Rituals need to be invitations, not obligations," he says. "That's one of the complicated things about working in corporate spaces, where everything kind of is an obligation. If you're forced to be there, you're going to feel resistance no matter how beautiful it is. But if you've been involved in the process and you've been like, 'Yeah, I also want a team that trusts each other deeply, and that is capable of having the difficult conversations, even though they're difficult.' Then you're going to show up to the ritual that helps [the team] share those values."
"Burnout has become a badge of honor in our culture."
Currently, Currey is at work on his third book, Time, Strength, Cash and Patience, a history of making art and making a living, from the Renaissance to Late Capitalism. One takeaway from his research so far? Just how much more expensive it is simply to be alive today. Currey cites an example from a memoir he read recently: A painter graduates from art school, gets a part-time job as a cashier at a restaurant, and can afford a two-bedroom loft apartment with his friend in Greenwich Village. "There just wasn't the same kind of crazy financial pressure with housing, education and healthcare that everybody faces now," he says.
The high cost of living is forcing people to spend more time at work than ever before just to survive, and making many of them miserable in the process. "Burnout has become a badge of honor in our culture," Bookman says. "And it's a manifestation of a culture that values and idolizes work above all else. So to say, 'Oh, I'm burnt out,' is to say 'I've been working so hard. I care about my job. I'm giving this my all.' It's sort of coded language, and, again, it's a reflection of our value system.
"Ritual could be a tool that we use to reframe that value," Bookman continues, "and distinguish a company as saying, 'You know, burnout is not something that we celebrate here. This is what we do celebrate.' Switching that psychology would be significant."
Bookman also notes that the conversation around burnout tends to focus on personal responsibility: What are you doing wrong that's blurring the line between home and work? But burnout is a decidedly systemic issue, he emphasizes — not a personal one.
That's why you won't hear Bookman suggesting people "just meditate" or do other things that ignore the root of the problem. Ritual is the other side of the coin. It's a way to become present in the moment and feel connected to something larger than ourselves, Bookman explains.
"That's one of the biggest, most powerful effects of participating in rituals," Bookman says. "And that bigger thing can be our deepest purpose in life. It can be our team. It can be the Constitution. It can be God. It can be nature. It can be our moral value statement. There are a lot of things it can be, but it's intoxicating to feel a part of something bigger than yourself."
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