(RNS) Driving through the Spanish moss-draped gates of the Mepkin Abbey Trappist monastery in Moncks Corner, S.C., businessman August Turak felt as if he had just lost a whole lot of weight.
Not physical weight, but the weight of emotional and spiritual burdens.
After a corporate career with companies like MTV, Turak sold two successful software companies for $150 million, but shattering his ankle in a skydiving accident “brought me face to face with my own mortality.”
“I was one of those people who was very successful but felt empty inside,” said Turak, who became a lecturer at Duke University.
One of his students suggested he might find a way to fill that void at Mepkin.
Something in him changed during that first visit 17 years ago, and he’s returned three or four times a year from his home in Raleigh, N.C., wearing a gray smock garment and working alongside the monks.
With each visit he became more fascinated with how the elderly monks conduct their businesses. This month, Turak released his book, “Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks: One CEO’s Quest for Meaning and Authenticity.”
Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What questions were you asking yourself as you watched the monks work?
A: I was thinking how do a couple of guys at the average age of 70 years old, who only work four hours a day and do so in silence, how do they manage to run 3,200 acres of land, a gift shop, library, conference center, an egg business, a timber business, a fertilizer business and a oyster mushroom business?
When people are passionately committed, they can do miraculous things. So I noticed that these guys are passionately committed to the high, overarching mission of selflessness, of something bigger than themselves.
Q: So can you share a few of the key secrets you learned?
A: Selflessness. When people feel like they’re on a mission from God, they accomplish incredible things and with a sense of satisfaction. We may think we want selfishness, but we’re happiest not when indulging but when we’re being selfless.
The real secret to the monks’ success was they were not in business at all. Great leaders are like that. The less I cared about making money, the more I make. Once people realize or sense that you’re not in it for yourself, they begin to trust and turn to you, and you have the power to achieve your goals and your mission. The amount of trust you gain is directly proportionate to how selfless you are in business.
Q: You say the way the monks run things could apply to any business in America. Can you name a few that operate similarly?
A: I have a problem with Nike’s mission, “Just do it.” There’s not a moral component to Nike’s mission. For me, a mission has got to be worthwhile. It’s got to be higher. What people today are looking for is a noble mission.
It’s not a trade-off that the more good you do, the less money you’ll make. What Warren Buffett proves, what the monks prove, is the more ethically you behave, the more you grow and better you do.
Q: Everyone talks about finding work/life balance. How do the monks do it?
A: The monks don’t worry about balancing work and prayer; they are equally important. Work is a form of prayer, and prayer is a form of work. I found that one of the best praying times I had was while I was at work, standing at an assembly life.
Your ordinary life is your spiritual life. Every single challenge can be an opportunity for transformation if you look at it in the right way. You serve God through work and serve God through prayer.
Q: How does this philosophy of integrating prayer with work compare with prosperity gospel?
A: To me, this is the thing I’m always fighting against. The problem is that most people think that if I help this old lady up the street, I better buy a lottery ticket because I’m sure to win. But that philosophy short-circuits grace. I’m a grace guy, not a luck guy.
You have to give because that’s where you get your true joy and pleasure. As long as you’re trying to use God like a lucky rabbit’s foot to make you better in business, you’re not going to make it.
Q: Did all of these trips make you want to become a monk?
A: I do not have a vocation to become a Trappist. I am not a contemplative. I like to teach and talk, and if I would stick with the Catholics, I would be a Jesuit. Teaching and working with other people is far more my calling than being a contemplative.
It’s becoming more and more difficult to find someone who wants to dedicate themselves to religious principles. They seem to get a decent amount of guys, but they stay a year or two and then leave. In our society, that kind of life is just too difficult for many people. They’re like a beacon shining on the hill for the rest of us.
(Amanda Greene is the editor of Wilmington Faith & Values.)