Man is a mystery. If you spend your entire life trying to puzzle it out do not say that you’ve wasted your time. I occupy myself with this mystery because I want to be a man.Fyodor Dostoevsky
Columbia Business School recently published my book Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks: One CEO’s Quest for Meaning and Authenticity. This has led to a number of interviews that I’ve generally enjoyed very much. However there is one recurring question I find difficult to answer: “What do you do for personal development?”
The reason I find this question so difficult is that it assumes that personal development is something we do in order to get “success.” And by success we usually mean having a successful career. It rarely occurs to anyone in our culture that someone (a Trappist monk for example) might become an artist, entrepreneur, leader, or politician as a means to personal development and not the other way around.
As a result “personal development” is compartmentalized; it becomes something we do off the clock and in our spare time in order to “get ahead” in the “real world.” Slowly and unwittingly we become like the real estate agent who religiously accompanies his family to church only because being perceived as a family oriented, God fearing man is “good for business.”
This entire world view tragically puts the proverbial cart before the horse. Whether you call it personal development, personal growth, self-actualization, self-transcendence, or spirituality does not matter. What matters is realizing that the reason you were born is to become the best human being you can possibly be. Personal development is not a tool for reaching a bigger goal. Becoming a complete human being is already the biggest and most noble goal you can aspire to.
Ironically, my entire book is an argument for making personal development the central mission of our lives rather than merely the means to a more limited end—a fact that makes answering a question from a bright, well- intentioned interviewer who apparently missed this argument even more difficult to answer.
Trappist monks have been among the world’s most successful businessmen for over 1000 years precisely because they dedicate their entire lives to personal development. Being on time for work, for example, is not just part of a monk’s “job description.” It is a way to build self-discipline; a way to show the same compassion to customers and fellow monks that he prays God will show to him. In other words being on time is not a result of a monk’s personal development it is a form of personal development.
The secret to the amazing business success of Trappist monks is not that they have managed to establish the mythical “healthy balance” between their personal and professional lives. The secret is that their personal, organizational, and business lives are all subsets of their one, high, overarching mission- becoming the best human beings they can possibly be. Business success for the monks is merely the by-product and trailing indicator of living for a higher purpose. Trappist business success is living proof that when we seek first the kingdom of personal development everything else will take care of itself. And this is true of our personal lives as well.
So back to the question: What do I do for personal development? On one hand I don’t do anything for personal development. Like the monks I simply live my life. Yet on the other hand I’ve built my whole life around personal development, and it remains to this day the only thing I truly care about. It is just that pursuing personal development has become so habitual that I never think about it. In this sense everything I do is filtered through the screen of personal development.
Throughout my career, for example, I sought out companies, bosses, challenges, and mentors that would help me grow. I did so even if it meant baffling friends and family as I repeatedly seemed to trade the lucrative “safe bet” and “sure thing” for an opportunity to learn and grow. Similarly, I’ve spent many years cultivating people like the monks of Mepkin Abbey who continually inspire and challenge me to become a better human being. When in 1993 I decided to become an entrepreneur I did so because I felt that the pressures of entrepreneurship would provide a perfect incubator for personal development; a way to put myself and my principles to the ultimate test. When seven years later my partners and I sold the company we started on a shoe string in a shoe box of an office, it was not the money or prestige that mattered most but what we had learned and who we had become.
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“Man is a mystery….” I have moved many times over the years, but Dostoevsky’s quote has graced the door of every refrigerator I have ever owned or rented since college. Dostoevsky penned those lines in a letter to his brother when he was just 17, and every time I read it I marvel that it was written by a boy so young. But what I love most is that this boy, destined to become one of mankind’s greatest writers, never mentions a job, a career, a profession, or material gain. A few years later he would achieve overnight success with his first novel Poor Folk, but he doesn’t even mention any aspiration to become a writer. Instead all he wants from life in exchange for a lifetime of labor is “to be a man.” Like a good Trappist monk, Dostoevsky didn’t see personal development as a way to become a great writer, but writing as a way to pursue personal development. And if we want authentic rather than ersatz success in life we must do the same.
*Photo Credit: “Self-Made Man” by Bobbie Carlyle at Quent Cordair Fine Art
AUGUST TURAK is a successful corporate executive, entrepreneur, award-winning author, speaker, and consultant. He is the founder of the educational nonprofit the August Turak Foundation. Turak writes and raises cattle on his seventy-five-acre cattle farm near Raleigh, NC.