Twenty-five years ago this Spring, I was a freshman in college and had the fortunate experience to hear August Turak speak on campus. At the time, I had no idea what an influence he would have on the next four years of my life.
Even though we haven't spoken in years, his recent book, Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks, continues to call me to the challenge of seeking the knowledge to lead a life worth living. It's not often that we have a chance for transformational experiences, and I wanted to share some of his message with you.
Search for Meaning
“THE PROBLEM WITH LIFE is that it must be lived forward and only understood backward,” writes Augie in the preface to his book. Thankfully there are mentors, books and spiritual teachings that can provide support and guidance for us as we go about understanding our own life. During my college years, Augie played that role for me as I became involved in my own search for meaning.
In his book, Augie shares 11 business lessons that he has learned from his time at Mepkin Abbey. However, his is not a book that can be easily consumed in one reading or boiled down into a few quotable bullet points. The messages in this book are applicable to both business and personal life. Like Augie, his book will challenge you to risk taking the hero's journey and become transformed in the process.
As I read the book, the following themes stood out for me and were lessons that I learned during the time I spent with Augie:
- Service & Selflessness
- Commitment to Quality
During these college years, I came to truly appreciate the value of the community of students that formed around Augie's leadership. We called ourselves the Self Knowledge Symposium (or SKS) and shared the value of seeking truth in our thoughts, words and deeds.
Comparatively, in the monastic tradition, the monks live in accordance with the Rule of St. Benedict. The monastic motto ora et labora (“pray and work”) are the basis of the values by which they conduct their spiritual and mortal lives.
While many books have been written about the Trappist Way, very few have explored the highly successful business methodologies that the monks have preserved and prospered by for centuries. In “Business Secrets”, Augie writes at length about the value of community as a critical component of success in life and business.
Life can be defined as a series of transformations – from conception to birth, childhood to puberty, young adult to middle age, and from old age to death. Augie identifies the following three types of transformation:
- Transformation of condition – e.g., when a thirsty man drinks.
- Transformation of circumstance – e.g., when a poor man hits the lottery.
- Transformation of being – e.g, when Mr. Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning as a new man.
While all three forms are necessary, confusing one for another leads to undesirable outcomes. A common example would be eating for comfort rather than sustenance. Augie makes a powerful argument that what we really seek in much of our hustle and bustle is actually a transformation of being, not condition or circumstance (esp for Westerners).
Are we ready to make the commitments necessary for such a transformation? Or, do we hope that an outside force like Mr. Scrooge's ghosts will goad us into changing? In either case, a teacher can only show us the door; it's up to us to walk through it.
This longing for transformation was certainly at the core of what drove me to spend more time in the library than at the bars. I am thankful to have found a group of people who shared this desire for a transformation of being and sought more prudent means.
Service & Selflessness
Many books have been written about the power of giving. From the spiritual to self-help to social analysis to the golden rule, it is clearly in our own best interest to put selfish objectives aside for the greater good. We reap that which we sow.
Through personal experiences and stories about monastic life, Augie shows how this lesson lies at the heart of Trappist business success. This code of behavior is not about sacrificing growth and profitability for some abstract and elusive “common good.” It's not about dismantling capitalism but rather transcending the inherent limitations in the model by tapping into a bigger purpose.
While involved in SKS, we hosted regular lectures and events around campus in order to foster discussion and find others interested in participating in our community. In addition to our school work, we spent many late nights designing, printing and posting fliers all over campus. I often looked forward to this time with my friends and rarely did it feel like a burden or extra work.
Commitment to Quality
One of the books I read during those college years was “Zen and Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig. In the book, Pirsig explores the idea of quality as a way to get beyond either-or, win-lose thinking.
In “Business Secrets,” Augie explores how the monks' commitment to quality creates successful businesses. During his time with the monks, the monastery underwent a “pivot,” a transition to a new business model. Through their commitment to excellence, perseverance and trust in the process, they were able to survive their novice mistakes and create an even more successful business.
However, the measure of success for the Trappists lies beyond the numbers. In their effort to live for a higher purpose, they look at their business as a means to a higher end. And, through prayer and meetings, they make time to attend to the end as well as the means.
As an entrepreneur, I know all too well that making time for looking past the immediate projects and tasks is no easy feat. It requires discipline and sacrifice and trusting the process. All of which are characteristics of the Trappist Way.
Pass it On
How would you change your words and deeds if you expected your business to carry on for 500 or 1,000 years? Augie calls us to the challenge of thinking beyond our individual biases and selfish desires to aim past the target, to look beyond short-term gains and be open to “happy accidents.”
As actor Michael Keaton urged in his review of the book, this post and the upcoming Transforming Business event hosted by CBEX are my attempt to pass on what I've had the opportunity to learn. I hope you will do the same!
William McKee is a founding partner of Knowmad. As a Web architect & Internet business consultant, he is passionate about applying business knowledge & technical expertise to deliver solutions that advance business online. With over 15 years of Web experience, his current work involves designing strategies and creating processes to help business attract, engage and convert website visitors into customers.