Business secrets from Trappist Monks?

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

Most people I know, across virtually every political, philosophical and economic spectrum, consider faith and business distinct, if not polar opposites.

After all, we work on week days and worship (if we do) on Sundays. The schedule most of us live on demonstrates perfectly this divide.

But could we even begin to imagine a world where commerce and money and work merged seamlessly, painlessly (and even joyfully) with earning a living?

The ever-so-brief opening scenes of Genesis offer us a view of what could have been. The Garden of Eden story begins with satisfying work (taking care of the garden) and ends in “toil” and exile.

Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks (by August Turak, Columbia Business School Publishing, 2015) shows us not only what could be, but shows us in a variety of practical settings, that work need not be toil and that our prosperity need not be at someone else’s expense.

Our work, Turak asserts, could and should be, truly a service to others. And our work, at its fullest, could be rewarding in areas far more than merely financial.

Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks (by August Turak, Columbia Business School Publishing, 2015)  Photo by Morf Morford

Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks (by August Turak, Columbia Business School Publishing, 2015)
Photo by Morf Morford

What kind of legacy do we want to leave behind? What kind of a community do we wish to live in? What is the world/ economy/ neighborhood/ reputation that we will, or want to, be leaving to our children and grandchildren?

What if we could make a living – and provide a good or service – and actually build good will and respect in our businesses and communities?

The focus of this particular book is as radical as it is commonsensical, as futuristic as it is historic, and as profitable as it is sacrificial; service and selflessness. Turak explores these two concepts as aspects of the universal (yet absolutely personal and individual) human journey of transformation. Turak expands the idea of transformation into three core areas; condition, circumstance and being.

An example of condition transformation might be hunger. Once you eat, your condition of hunger is eliminated, however temporarily. If you get a new job, move or develop (or lose) a relationship, your circumstances have been transformed, and if you have a life-changing experience, you might have a transformation of being – you are a different person because of that experience.

Businesses can, and do, or promise to, address any one of, or all of these levels of transformation.

But the real problem (or temptation) is to confuse these three levels; how often for example do we seek transcendence or escape (or even comfort) from something (or someone) when we know that they can never give it?

There are entire industries built on our spiritual or psychological longings, but all they really give us is fantasy and distractions. How many people do we all know who find some level of comfort in food, drugs, sex and shopping when what all they really need is someone who cares or listens?

What if we worked, or ran our business, in a way that people actually looked forward to doing business with us? Could there actually ever be a sense of mutual respect and appreciation in an everyday business transaction?

There’s nothing mysterious here – unless embracing the unknowable and unforeseeable, and ever-contradictory human psyche is considered mysterious. And there is nothing more memorable, and Turak would argue, more profitable, in the long term than honesty and authenticity.

There’s something approaching a monastic vow in Turak’s exploration of service and selflessness, but I can’t help feeling that the world – especially the market place – would be a far better place if more people adopted it.

While I find this business model encouraging, enduring and human-scaled, I marvel that the exact opposite business model retains – if not expands – its appeal.

We see recurring revivals of the slash and burn, exploitative, near-looting, get-rich-quick, debt driven prosperity gospel, gold-rush mentality that leaves us, our economy and environment depleted and exhausted.

The “Back to the Future” movie franchise featured “Biff” a crude, loud-mouthed bully, who in the first movie finds a (not-quite honest) way to become wealthy  and sets up a series of sleazy casinos and strip clubs with his gold-plated name prominently displayed across the landscape of what had been a charming and welcoming small town. He “wrecks” the future and sets up the need for a  sequel.

“Biff” was based on an actual real estate speculator, who thrived on debt, controversy and veiled (if not direct) threats, and took New York City by storm in the 1980s. This brash and crude young man hosted sex and cocaine parties, was featured in several porn movies, profited from questionable real estate deals,  was personally named in well over 4,000 fraud cases, had a long history of deals with organized crime figures, wove his way through continuous scandal, bankruptcy and divorce, and yes, had his gold-plated name across hotels and casinos.

I am convinced that it comes down to two opposing definitions of “wealth”.

One is the grasping accumulation of centralized – if not individualized – wealth. The wealth gained at the expense – if not weakness and desperation – of others, perhaps best memorialized in the winner-take-all “Monopoly” board game – where “winning” the game literally means to drive the other players into bankruptcy.

The other is the enduring, ever-expanding, shared wealth of resources and opportunity which builds – and facilitates -societal cohesion, safety and yes, prosperity.

The choice, as always, is ours.

Tacoma is not the kind of place that attracts the high-rolling, glitzy office towers and corporate headquarters. Tacoma is the natural home of the upstart, idea-taking-shape approach to business. Tacoma already is, and should market itself as, the ultimate incubator city. Many global businesses, from the Mars candy company to Russell and Weyerhaeuser started here. That’s what we do.

The gold-plated name across the skyscraper is not our style. We don’t focus on self-promotion, the latest trends or hype. We do actual work here, we create things and come up with our own ideas and plans.

Some business plans work out, and many don’t, but we learn from our mistakes, and when we succeed, many of us move on and never look back. But the spirit of Tacoma always seems to linger in the background of those large companies.

Above all, Tacoma is a small town, and we know, perhaps better than most people, that our community is all of us. True wealth is never at the expense of our neighbors. True wealth isn’t taken from, it is invested in, our schools, our parks and our children.

We in Tacoma value our history and our future. We don’t always appreciate what we have, and we rarely forget offenses.

We all know that our identity is always in flux,  our reputation is as murky as our past, and our future is, as always, barely out of reach, even as we consider who we, as a community, are in light of continual legal, political and technological changes.

If you want to start a business – and stay in business for a long time – I can’t think of a better place to start than this book.