In the company of monks
Trappist monks are unlikely practitioners of successful business management. American entrepreneur and corporate executive, August Turak, however, knows their secrets. After all, he’s lived amongst them for years
Words: Malcolm Triggs
Illustration: Sergiy Maidukov
August Turak began his professional career as a salesman for 3M business products in Boston, MA. In 1979 the founder of the IBM Executive School, Louis Mobley, became his mentor, and before he knew it, he had embarked upon a career with the then nascent network television company, MTV, and later with what is now the A&E Network. In 1993 he founded Raleigh Group International, a software company that by 1996 was named the 18th fastest-growing company in Research Triangle Park, NC.
In a short period of time, August had found himself flying high, and not just figuratively either: a group of college students whom he was coaching at the time had managed to talk him into going on a skydiving expedition. As he likes to say, “I was brave enough to jump out of an aeroplane, but not brave enough to tell these students that I was too damn old to be jumping out of an aeroplane.”
Consequently, he found himself back on solid ground; solid enough to send him for a week-long stint in hospital. Fortunately, the result of the impact sustained by his ankle was not irreversible. The impact the jump had on his life, however, was.
In hospital, August suffered a series of panic attacks. He couldn’t tell where they were coming from at first, but gradually came to realise their profound origin as he lay in that bed, not in a life-threatening condition, but surrounded by patients who more or less were: “I was, for the first time in my life, confronting my mortality.”
It’s both a terrible and an inevitable realisation that everyone must ultimately confront the same fate. “Hey, Augie,” he thought, “I really am going to die one day.” It was a thought that terrified him. Moreover, all of the spiritual research and work he had done over so many years, going right back to his university career, and coaching college students on such issues — absolutely none of it was helping. He had nothing to fall back on. Sure, he had his companies and a successful corporate portfolio under the belt, but of what value were these now?
When August came to leave the hospital the panic attacks had ceased, but he still felt like a broken man. “I returned to work but for months afterwards I had no energy. I was depressed and felt utterly hollow, cast into uncertainty and unable to address the ultimate question: Why am I here?”
Five months after his discharge, August received a phone call from one of the college students whom he’d been coaching at the time of his accident. “Augie, I just wanted to let you know that I’m taking your advice this summer.” August explained that he couldn’t recall giving the student any advice for his summer. “You did!” the student replied. “You told us to do something meaningful during our summer vacation instead of drinking beer and chasing girls, and so I’m spending mine at a Trappist monastery called Mepkin Abbey as a monastic guest.”
That student called up on a Wednesday. August went down to Mepkin Abbey on the Friday and stayed for the weekend. After that he wrote a letter asking for permission to become a monastic guest during the Christmas period that year, and ended up staying for three weeks. The following summer he stayed for three months.
“That was 18 years ago,” says August. “I still visit Mepkin Abbey as a guest on a regular basis, for my experience living with the monks began to address my insatiable need to understand my existence.” Just as the monks were searching for God, he was searching for meaning, and so, here were a people with whom he could relate.
It may seem incongruous; since when did successful entrepreneurs, corporate executives and MTV employees enter the cloisters as monastic guests? For August, though, the monks embodied a mentality so contagious that he couldn’t help himself from returning, and he soon came to realise that this was in part due to an altogether more worldly aspect of Trappist monastic life. You see, Trappist monks are experts in an unlikely field. Not only was August living with some of the most pious men in the world; he was also living with some of the most successful businessmen in the world.
Orare et laborare
Mepkin Abbey is beautiful — 3,200 acres of mossy woodland, pastures and gardens in which the monks spend their entire lives, adhering to a highly structured daily routine conducive to a traditional life of work and prayer. They rise at 3am, attend church at six specific times throughout the day, and spend several hours in solitary contemplation and prayer. The remainder of their time is allotted to their work conducting the abbey’s numerous businesses.
Within the monks’ business ‘portfolio’ are a library, a conference centre, a guest centre, more than a dozen retreat houses, a gift shop, a timber business, a fertilizer business, a mushroom business and, until recently, an egg business. The efficiency with which the monks conduct these businesses is remarkable. All the more so when one considers the fact that the average age at Mepkin Abbey is 70, and that they only work part-time. In almost total silence.
Such is the life of the Trappist monk. The Rule of St Benedict, the document upon which Trappist life is based, dictates that monasteries must steadfastly abide by the principle of orare et laborare — to pray and to work. These two activities are of equal importance to Trappist monks. In fact, they consider work a form of prayer and prayer a form of work, thus affording them a constant opportunity to extol the virtues of their mission in everything they do.
Trappist monks consider work a form of prayer and prayer a form of work, thus affording them a constant opportunity to extol the virtues of their mission in everything they do.
It is easy to be astonished by the success of the monks despite their commitment to their calling. The thought of rising at 3am before a day’s work, for one, would seem nothing short of madness to most people, not to mention the silence and the prayer.
It is not despite but rather because of their commitment that they manage to achieve as much as they do,” says August, and herein lies an ancient economic model applicable to the secular world of modern business.
August remembers an incident that occurred during his first day at Mepkin. Standing in the lunch queue he watched as an aged monk in front painfully stooped to obtain a tray from a stack on the floor. As August suppressed his impatience the monk turned and, with a look of childlike delight spread across his face, handed him the tray.
Later, whilst packing eggs August encountered a similarly aged monk called Father Malachy who was once asked by Mepkin’s abbot to write summaries of 50 French theological textbooks. Malachy, whom the abbot incorrectly assumed was capable of understanding French, set about his task without complaint, and just a few months later presented the abbot with the summaries. He had learned French in the meantime.
Such acts are second nature for the monks of Mepkin Abbey. Moreover, they are a constant reminder that the monks are subconsciously working in accordance with a higher mission. Theirs is a life of unquestioned commitment to an overarching mission to which they are selflessly devoted in everything they do.
There’s historical evidence of this dedication in the secular world. “When Cortés arrived in Mexico from Spain,” says August, “legend has it that he burned all of his ships, telling his soldiers that they were either going to gain victory in the New World or die trying. Ambitious Americans once adhered to their nation’s mantra, ‘Go west, young man, and grow up with the country!’ during the conquest of the western frontier. And imperial Britain, her people used to be so determined: ‘What do I want to do when I grow up? I want to make Britain great.’
“But what of today, where would one go to hear such words? Striving towards such overreaching causes is something from which businesses shy away instinctively on the grounds that they are ‘unrealistic’. We simply remain satisfied when a job is done, especially if it meets our ends.”
The fallout caused by the absence of such motivation runs rife throughout our world in August’s view: “It is little wonder that today’s youth find themselves tangled up in gang culture, or that, dare I say it, young Muslims are turned to extremism, for the opportunity to selflessly serve a higher (albeit illegitimate) mission is one too great, but often too rare, to be neglected.”
Louis Mobley once told August that the most important question every single business leader must ask is this: “What is the business of our business?”
“That is a mission question,” explains August; “a long-range, open-ended, big-picture conceptualisation, and the kind all too often absent from today’s workspaces and boardrooms. We should be constantly addressing it in our professional lives, just as the monks do at Mepkin, in order to ensure that we stay committed to our causes.
“In golf we aim for the back of the cup. In basketball we aim at the back of the rim. In archery we aim past the target. In business, then, we should do the same. Aiming past the target corresponds with the business’s mission, and the target corresponds with planning. It’s not a profit game, and it’s not about golden handshakes. There are people in this world with neither plans nor missions; there are people with only plans; and then there are people with missions, and it is these people who ask the questions, ‘Why do I get out of bed every morning? What is my business doing with itself? What am I doing with my life?’”
Excellence in everything
Trappist products share one thing in common: excellence. Fertiliser, mushrooms, eggs, vegetables or preserves, the commitment Trappist monks put into producing these prosaic products is a continuation of their devotion. The popularity of their products is undoubtedly influenced by the culture surrounding their production. Perhaps the best example of this is the beer produced by the monks of Saint Sixtus Abbey in Belgium, Westvleteren 12, widely considered the best beer in the world.
To reach such a status, though, a product’s popularity cannot be purely based upon the culture that surrounds it, and Trappist monks refuse to allow this to determine production. August remembers Mepkin’s Father Stan, with whom he often delivered the abbey’s eggs, once rejecting a substantial offer from a distributor who was convinced he could sell the eggs at a premium price. Although the eggs were of a high quality, Father Stan wasn’t prepared to set them at a higher price; he simply understood that in order to support the monastery’s mission the monks had to produce a product that would return a sufficient profit.
Excellence isn’t found only in the products of Trappist monks, though, but in the monks themselves. Take the elderly monk on August’s first day at the abbey going painfully out of his way to provide a lunch tray despite his frailty, or Father Malachy’s seemingly superhuman effort in learning French. Such acts reflect the monks’ collective motivation, whilst also affirming excellence of character. “They, like Cortés did in the New World, make their vows, begin their mission and from there on have their backs against the wall,” says August, and from this we can learn a considerable amount.
As the top salesman in the New England area, August was once accosted by two salesmen intent on learning his ‘secret’. “OK,” August said, “I’ll let you in on it. If you make a certain number of telephone calls, a certain percentage of them will be answered; a certain percentage of the ones that are answered lead to an appointment; a certain percentage of those appointments will want to see your product; and a certain percentage of the people who look at your product will purchase your product.”
It’s a numbers game for August, but that’s not what matters. “What matters,” he says, “is the back against the wall mentality. When my partners and I launched our first software company, we were pretty well-off financially, but we decided as a discipline to only put $2,000 into the business, and in the very first month, we agreed that if we can’t return enough to pay September’s bills, we close the company. It was tough, but we weren’t going to reach into our pockets and come up with another $2,000 just like that. We had to do something, so we ended up scrubbing floors and digging ditches for the first few months. This attitude worked for Cortés, and it’s been working for Trappist monks for over a thousand years, so why not make it work throughout the secular world of business?”
Even outside of business we can adopt the approach. “Look at magazine counters,” says August. “Every health magazine tells us that we can lose fourteen pounds in ten days, and we believe them simply because we don’t want the truth. The truth is, being in good shape is a way of life. It means chipping away every single day at it, doing the little things that make the difference. It’s not a question of losing fourteen pounds in ten days, and it isn’t a question of eating nothing but banana peels because there is no silver bullet.
“It’s so difficult because human beings are more often concrete than conceptual. We want a Cadillac, or a BMW, something we can touch. To me, though, the greatest people have dedicated themselves to excellence of character above all else, as have the monks at Mepkin. Every refrigerator I’ve ever owned has been graced with the following Dostoyevsky quote: ‘Man is a mystery. If you spend your whole life trying to figure it out, do not say that you’ve wasted your time. I occupy myself with that mystery because I want to be a man.’ And that resonated with me as a young man starting out in business.”
The monks at Mepkin don’t have to spend half their time looking over their shoulders worrying about what the next brother is doing, or if there is someone after their work, or looking to take credit for something they did. They are clear on their mission and help each other on the way.
“After my software company was sold to the Israeli firm, MuTek Solutions,” says August, “they pushed out the CEO who had bought it from me, and they brought in this hard-charging venture capitalist to run the company. I was still running the company’s US operation, and he said to me: ‘You created this bug-tracking product, Visual Intercept. It’s your baby, and you made it the number one product in the marketplace. If someone was to say to you that a new CEO is doing nothing but trying to kill off your product, they wouldn’t be far wrong — yet you haven’t squawked a bit. Not only that, you’ve been helping me to kill it. Now, I’ve been in business for more than 30 years. You have to explain this one to me.’
“I had read his business plan, and I understood what he wanted to do with the company. The product I’d created simply didn’t fit into his strategy. It wasn’t about me, my ego and my little product. It was about everyone involved in the company, and it was my job to do what was best for them. What’s more, it was a product. ‘I don’t expect to have a logo of that product on my tombstone,’ I told the new CEO. ‘It’s not me! It’s just a product.’ He was absolutely gobsmacked by this, but it opened up a whole new relationship between us with so much more trust, and he began to realise that he didn’t have to fear me.
“In business, when you’re there with the same people day in, day out, it’s not what you say but what you do that matters. Your colleagues pick your actions up through osmosis, but in order for your values to be absorbed you need to have good, secure people at the core of the business who really believe in them, and really live them.
“Insecure people are so easily threatened, and therefore want neither the best nor the strongest people around them because they see them as threats. They become paranoid, and they worry that their colleagues will want to divide and conquer and undermine other people. Who wants to work in a company where everybody’s fighting and struggling, and nobody trusts anybody? It’s like working in the mafia.”
Faith and trust
A few years ago August visited a friend in Volgograd, where the greatest battle of WWII was fought. There, his friend said: “There’ll never be a battle like that again.” August asked him why and he said: “Because people don’t believe in anything enough to fight that hard for it any more.” On the one hand August thought: “Good, good — half a million men died in that city, so maybe that’s a good thing that no such battle will happen again.” Yet on the other hand he thought: “There’s something sad and pathetic that we don’t believe in anything enough any more.”
This is the reason why monasteries are dying out; people don’t believe in anything enough to commit themselves to it. August sees the same thing in divorce rates, too: “Men and women don’t have the commitment to slap a smile on their faces — the old British ‘stiff upper lip’ — and tough it out for the benefit of their children. They get up in front of the priest and say: ‘Till death do us part,’ but they don’t really mean it.
“Likewise, it’s hard to start companies today because a lot of people tell you a lot of bullshit about being one for all and all for one, but as soon as somebody offers them $5 a day more, or as soon as they get discouraged when things get tough, they jump ship.
“What I’m getting at is this: I’m not some kind of academic jerk or college professor who came up with the idea of going down to the monastery and hanging out, studying monks. I’m not telling people theoretically like a tree-hugger, ‘Oh, we should all be nice and get along in business.’ No, I’m not saying any of that. I’m saying: ‘I did this.’
“I started my two companies on a couple of thousand dollars and a couple of friends, and nothing else. It was my partner who said: ‘We don’t have a business plan, but we’re smart people, we’ll figure something out.’ And although we didn’t know what we were going to do, we knew who we wanted to be, and we trusted the process. The first thing we did was sit down and write a list of our principles and our mission.
“It’s not a matter of taste or opinion, and it’s not relative; every person is put on this earth to be transformed from a selfish person into a selfless person.”
“Anyone can be nice when the pressure’s off, but when you’re in business and you’re faced with the prospect of either lying to somebody to get a sale or telling your employees that you’re not going to be able to pay them, then you’ve got some really hard thinking to do. This isn’t some kind of intellectual exercise from your armchair general or academic — this is real-life stuff.
“We chipped away at our receivables, and never let them get out of hand. We worked day in, day out, bending over backwards according to our mission, and it produced some tremendous results. I was in business for seven years, and I took purchase orders from anyone who wanted to give them. I never ran any credit checks, and I collected 99% of my receivables. I never sued anybody, and I never took anyone to court.”
All of this August and his colleagues achieved because of their faith in their mission and their implicit trust, and he believes such an environment is the root of the monks’ success. He once asked a middle-aged monk there why he had entered the monastery. “I almost didn’t,” the monk replied. “I was meeting with Father Stan, and I said, ‘If I join and take care of all these old men, who’s going to take care of me?’ Father Stan explained, ‘I don’t know. All I know for sure is that I’ll be here.’” The monk was so moved by the answer that he signed up on the spot.
The school of life
“I didn’t go to the monastery in 1996 because I had a plan that in 2004 I would win the $100,000 John Templeton Power of Purpose prize for an essay I wrote on my experiences,” says August. “Nor did I have a plan to sell my company which was started on $2,000 and which ended up worth $150 million. People suggest that I must have had some sort of exit strategy, but none of it was planned.
“Trappist monks don’t make success happen, they know how to let success happen. They know how to put themselves in the right position so that when the skies open up and start raining money, they’re underneath. This is what happened to me, because my life hasn’t been lived in accordance with a plan, but a mission.”
The next time you’re watching a classic like Star Wars or The Matrix or The Truman Show, August urges that you look out for the common theme: the hero gets a call or a vocation which he initially resists. He is trained in the desert, and then he has a trial in which he has to decide whether he’s going to become selfish like Darth Vader or resist this pull and become selfless like Luke Skywalker.
“In America we say: ‘Money talks and bullshit walks.’ In other words, if you want to know what people care about, look at what they’re spending money on. And what is it? They spend billions and billions to watch people take the hero’s journey from selfishness to selflessness. It may take place in modern New York City, or in the future, or long, long ago, but the theme is always the same.”
This is August’s mission in life: to find out who he is and be the best person he can be, and to face his fears. “If you want to be great,” he says, “you’ve got to work on yourself. I didn’t go into business with any romantic notions. I was the kid who joins the Marines because he wants to find out what he’s made of. What’s more, this purpose is the same for everyone. It’s not a matter of taste or opinion, and it’s not relative; every person is put on this earth to be transformed from a selfish person into a selfless person.”
His success may seem extraordinary, in the same way that Father Malachy’s superhuman efforts to learn French do, but such achievements can be made if you live your mission every single day. “I became an entrepreneur to see what I would learn about myself through personal development under pressure,” he says. “I wanted to see whether I could do it the hard way to see what it would reveal about myself, and if I would stick to my principles when the shit hit the fan.
“Life must be lived forwards but only understood backwards. It is one big school in which we’re supposed to be learning. And if you live such a life of seeking and searching, people will begin to look up and admire you.” Just as August did when that frail old monk offered him his lunch tray all those years ago.
This story is taken from the second issue of Poppy. Our print run is strictly limited but, if you are based in the UK, you can request a printed copy via the ReadPoppy.com website.
August Turak, founder of Self Knowledge Symposium Foundation, is a successful entrepreneur, corporate executive, teacher, speaker, consultant and author who attributes much of his success to his experience as a frequent monastic guest at Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina. A regular contributor to Forbes, he won the John Templeton Power of Purpose prize in 2004 for his essay “Brother John” and has recently published his first book, Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks: One CEO’s Quest for Meaning and Authenticity. Find out more at www.AugustTurak.com.
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