What do Trappist monks and entrepreneurs have in common?
It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but in fact, the answer is quite a lot. In Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks: One CEO’s Quest for Meaning and Authenticity—nominated as one of the best business books of 2013—entrepreneur, corporate executive, and award-winning author August Turak outlines the lessons he learned while living and working alongside the Trappist monks of Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina for 17 years.
OEN Board Member Terry St. Marie sat down recently with August to discuss the core tenets of “service and selflessness” that comprise the book’s refrain. “People think this whole service and selflessness stuff is like tree-hugging or something,” says August, but in fact it is critical to any successful entrepreneurial enterprise.
While we in Oregon may not be opposed to a bit of tree-hugging, August’s advice will ring true to any entrepreneur who loves what they do, is committed to solving a problem, and constantly seeks out new learning opportunities.
Here, August offers 5 tips for the aspiring entrepreneur. (For more, listen to the full podcast below and register for our Angel Oregon Spring 2014 Showcase, where August will be providing the keynote address.)
1. Aim past your target.
[The Trappist monks] only work about four hours a day. They work in silence, yet they have all these successful businesses. They’re in the mushroom business, the egg business, the forestry business, the fertilizer business. They have a gift shop, they have their own infirmary where they take care of their own sick. They have their own library, they have their own conference center.
How do they get all this stuff done, and do it so beautifully and so efficiently when we’re all over here killing ourselves working 90 hours a week and can’t seem to get one foot in front of the other?
I have a concept called aiming past the target. Einstein said, “No problem can be solved at the same level of consciousness at which it is posed.” The problem is, businesspeople are constantly trying to solve business problems with business. That’s the same level of consciousness. You have to think bigger, you have to go higher.
The reasons the monks are so incredibly successful in business is that they’re not in business. They would never describe themselves as businessmen. They are in life for a higher purpose. The monks don’t just make success happen, they know how to let success happen.
2. Have a mission, not a plan.
There’s a difference between having a mission and having a plan. First off, most people I meet don’t have a plan and they don’t have a mission. Neither one. They’re just living randomly. Then the other people, many of the people you meet in business, they have a plan. They want to be a millionaire by the time they’re 30, or they want to own a company, or something like that.
From the time I was 18 or 19 or 20 years old, I decided to dedicate my life to personal development, to being the best human being I could possibly be, to answering the best I could the big questions in life—What am I here for? What is a life worth living? What kind of purpose should I have? This was my mission in life. It opened me up to these happy accidents.
I want to be clear: It’s not that I’m bad at planning. If you put me in charge of sales for your company, I can plan my butt off for you. But I don’t believe that people should have a plan for their lives, they should have a mission. When I had an opportunity to take job A or job B and I saw in job B an opportunity for growth and in job A an opportunity to make more money, I always took B. I always said, what is the place where I’m going to learn something? What experience is going to make me a better human being? And I always sought out those things. That was always my mission.
Plans have due dates attached to them. Soren Kierkegaard says, “The problem with life is that it must be lived forward and only understood backwards.” The nice thing about a plan is that you can live it forward and pretty much understand where you’re going. The problem with a mission is that it’s open-ended.
We’re longing to give ourselves away for something bigger than ourselves.” (Tweet this.)
3. Find the people who can teach you something.
I’m a big believer in coaches. When I would go to a new town, I would go the bookstores and I’d say to the bookstore owners—this was back when there were such things as bookstore owners—who are the coolest people in town? Who are the people who can teach me something?
Some guy handed me this phone number and said, call this guy, and it turned out to be Louis Mobley. He invited me out to his house, and I ended up staying up all night talking to him. And he blew my mind. He was the founder of the IBM executive school. He had dedicated his life to philosophy and personal growth. I called him back a few months later and I said, “Listen, Lou, I have a proposition for you. I know you’ve retired from IBM and you have a small consulting business. So I will come to work for you, I will find you clients for your consulting business at no charge, I don’t expect to be paid. All I want in return is that you teach me everything you know.”
He said, “I’ll do better. You can move into my house with me and my family, you can live in the guest quarters. We’ll meet every morning in my study and I’ll tutor you one on one, and in the afternoons you can go out and find us clients.” He said, “But I have one condition. I insist on paying you for your work.”
My point is that we need coaches. We need teachers, because it is a scary journey. I’ve always had coaches. And you know what? I also listen to them.
4. Give yourself away.
We think we want selfishness. But when you stop and think about it, we are happiest and most productive when we give ourselves away. We’re longing to give ourselves away for something bigger than ourselves. We want to be drawn up and out of ourselves by a mission. We don’t want to indulge, we want to sacrifice.
I used to work for MTV when MTV started out. Everyone was sleeping under their desks… everybody was full of the fervor, we were all ready to die for MTV. That’s where we were happiest.
I came up in sales, and every great salesman knows that the more he forgets about himself, forgets about his product, and forgets about his commissions and his quota and instead fanatically focuses on selflessly serving his customer’s needs, the more products he moves.
[For the Trappist monks], their service mentality spills over into selflessly serving their customers, selflessly serving their vendors, selflessly serving their lay employees, and selflessly serving the government regulators who regulate them. Guess what? It just so happens by accident that this is a tremendous way to run a business.
5. Keep your promises.
What today’s success relies on is persuasion. And persuasion relies on trust. You have to be able to build trust. What is the most important thing you can do to build trust so that you’ll have the persuasive power to achieve your goals? Keep your promises. Become the person who says what they’re going to do and then does what they say. That means keeping track of even the smallest promises, because the smallest promises are the ones that tell me, how much can I trust you moving forward?
Being a trustworthy person, this should be part of your mission. It also means having the guts to extend trust before you receive it. Go first, do not ask other people for things you’re not willing to give yourself.
People like Warren Buffet are not successful despite the fact that they’re honorable people, but because they are. It is in our own self-interest to forget our self-interest. The more completely and utterly selfless you can become, the more successful you will be.