What every leader needs to know about personal development


Man is a mystery. If you’ve been spending your whole life trying to fix it, don’t say you’ve wasted your time. I take care of this mystery because I want to be a man.Fyodor Dostoyevsky

“Self-Made Man” by Bobbie Carlyle at Quent Cordair Fine Art

Columbia Business School recently published my book Business secrets of the Trappist monks: a CEO’s quest for meaning and authenticity. This led to a number of interviews that I generally enjoyed a lot. However, there is a recurring question that I find it difficult to answer: “What are you doing 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 achieve “success”. And by success, we generally mean having a successful career. It rarely happens to anyone in our culture that someone (a Trappist monk for example) can become an artist, entrepreneur, leader or politician like a means of personal development and not the other way around.

As a result, “personal development” is compartmentalized; it becomes something that we do off the clock and in our spare time in order to “progress” 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 family oriented, God fearing, man is “good for business.”

This whole worldview tragically puts the proverbial cart before the horse. Whether you call it personal development, personal growth, self-actualization, surpassing oneself, or spirituality doesn’t matter. What matters is realizing that the reason you were born is to become the best human being possible. Personal development is not a tool to achieve a bigger goal. To become a complete human being is already the greatest and noblest goal you can aspire to.

Ironically, my entire book is an argument for making personal development the central mission of our lives rather than simply the means to a more limited end – a fact that makes the answer to a question from a brilliant and well-meaning interviewer who has apparently failed this argument even more difficult to answer.

Trappist monks have been among the most successful businessmen in the world for over 1,000 years precisely because they dedicate their entire lives to personal development. Being on time at work, for example, is not just part of a monk’s “job description”. It is a way of developing self-discipline; a way to show clients and other monks the same compassion that he prays that God shows him. In other words, being on time is not a results of the personal development of a monk, it is a form personal development.

The secret of the astonishing commercial success of the Trappist monks is not that they succeeded in establishing the mythical “healthy balance” between their personal and professional life. The secret is that their personal, organizational, and professional lives are all subsets of their unique, lofty, and comprehensive mission – to become the best human beings they can be. Commercial success for the monks is only the by-product and the flight indicator of life for a higher purpose. The success of a Trappist business is living proof that when we first seek the realm of personal development, everything else will take care of itself. And this is also true in our personal life.

So let’s come back to the question: What should I do for my personal development? On the one hand, I don’t do anything for personal development. Like the monks, I just live my life. Yet on the other hand, I’ve built my whole life around personal development, and that remains to this day the only thing that really matters to me. It’s just that pursuing personal development has become so habitual that I never think about it. In that sense, everything I do is filtered through the personal development screen.

Throughout my career, for example, I have searched for companies, bosses, challenges, and mentors that would help me grow. I did this even though it meant confusing my friends and family, as I repeatedly seemed to trade the ‘safe bet’ and lucrative ‘safe bet’ for an opportunity to learn and grow. Likewise, I have spent many years cultivating people like the monks at 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 associates and I sold the business we had started on a shoe string in an office shoebox, it wasn’t money or prestige that mattered most, but what we had learned and who we had become.

* * *

“Man is a mystery…. I’ve moved several times over the years, but Dostoevsky’s quote has graced the door of every refrigerator I’ve owned or rented since college. Dostoyevsky wrote these lines in a letter to his brother when he was only 17, and every time I read it I marvel that it was written by such a young boy. But what I love most is that this boy, destined to become one of mankind’s greatest writers, never mentions a job, career, profession, or material gain. A few years later, he will experience success overnight with his first novel Poor people, but he doesn’t even mention any aspirations to become a writer. Instead, all he wants out of life in return for a working life is “to be a man.” As a good Trappist monk, Dostoevsky did not see personal development as a means of becoming a great writer, but writing as a means of further personal development. And if we want genuine success rather than an ersatz in life, we must do the same.

* Special thanks to Linda Cordair for permission to use the image of the sculpture “Self-taught man” by Bobbie Carlyle at Quent Cordair Fine Art.

For more good leadership strategies read my book: Business secrets of the Trappist monks: a CEO’s quest for meaning and authenticity (Columbia Business School Publishing; July 2013). Follow me on twitter @augustturak, Facebook http://facebook.com/aturak, or visit my site http://www.augustturak.com/


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