Fifteen men and women are chatting before class begins. The professor takes a pair of Tibetan bells-- brass discs about the size of a silver dollar--and strikes them together. As the sound dies away, the students sit, eyes closed, for ten meditative breaths.
Then work begins.
The class discusses a surprising topic for such a successful and enterprising bunch. It's mental chatter--our constant inner dialogue that sometimes turns to harsh self judgment. Mental chatter and its cousin, brooding rumination, are associated with poor mental hygiene, and the group discusses how these unwanted guests appear in their own lives. Then they brainstorm on how to show those guests to the door.
Business of Creativity
This is the scene at a study group for executives and others who want to work on a new project: themselves. It's called Creativity and Personal Mastery. The professor, Dr. Srikumar Rao, originated it at Columbia's business school, where it was consistently the most popular course at the master's level. He then took it to London Business School and other universities, before converting it to its current, private effort.
"I saw all these hard chargers coming back to Columbia after a couple of years. They were disillusioned that all their striving didn't bring happiness. So I decided to give them some ancient wisdom--a proven alternate perspective--as a means of protecting the students from their own blind ambition," Rao says.
Creativity and Personal Mastery--"CPM" to friends--still carries many of the trappings of a university course. There are the readings and writing assignments, as well as group study sessions. There's even a teaching assistant. But the students are generally already-successful people who are ready for a new approach.
The Energy Price
The need to seek answers is especially strong in the business world, where it is common to believe that material wealth or powerful positions can bring you a feeling of contentment. "Many people pay an energy price for their success," says Mark Green, a Warren, NJ-based business coach. "They get overloaded, then they get sick and tired of being sick and tired. But the answer is never found in management techniques. It's 'What are the processes in my mind?'" Green often suggests these executives take a meditation retreat, and has developed his own techniques for executive intervention.
There are a lot of work-on-yourself alternatives out there. Some seek larger group sessions, like Tony Robbins's 'Unleash the Power Within.' His weekend seminars are famous for starting with a fire-walk. To Robbins, once you've walked on fire, you can pretty much address anything going on in your life.
We are the Ones
Others seek a reset with the Landmark Forum, a seminar that takes a long weekend to complete. Jaime Campbell, a co-founder of an outsourced CFO services firm in Naples, Florida, is one. "Before I took Landmark, I thought of myself as living a small life," she says. "But now my journey starts with the idea of taking responsibility--for relationships, work and creativity." And the result? Campbell, who was once a music teacher, gives a musical example: "I used to love sad ballads. Now my theme song is 'We Are The Ones We've Been Waiting For.' And my purpose is now clear: social justice."
When you work on yourself, you'd better be ready for some dramatic changes. I'm thinking of the story told by Praveen Ramanathan, CEO of Ayantek, a Burlington, MA, digital strategy and solutions firm. He started it in 2008 and grew it dramatically over five years. By all accounts, he was an amazingly successful guy, running a worldwide organization. "But inside, I was miserable," he says now. "As I dressed every morning for work, I had a vision that I was putting on battle armor. I was going out to fight in the world to make money and to be successful."
This approach had its costs, however. "I remember one day I wanted to hole up, just feeling sad and depressed."
He attended the CPM course and started to feel almost immediate relief. "I learned I was using a bad mental model of success. I started to think of healthier alternatives, and decided to try a new model. I said I'd give it two weeks to see if it worked better for me."
Dressing for a new definition of success
Guess what? The alternate stuck. "Now when I get dressed, I am genuinely joyful. I have a new purpose."
One of the tangible changes is an attitude toward time. "I used to wake up and immediately grab my phone. Then it was non-stop "fighting" until about 3 PM, when I would be exhausted. But now I start my day with yoga, reading and meditation. It takes about an hour an a half. And I feel I have all the time I need in my day."
What about those fighting images?
"I'm not putting on armor any more," Ramanathan says. "I'm preparing myself to be of service to the world."