You know those people who always seem to have the best luck?
They know the right people, they always seem to be in the right place at the right time.
Every time they create something new, it’s a hit. You see their names everywhere — it seems like everyone is mentioning them and their new project.
And you wonder…
Why can’t that be me?
Well, August Turak is one of those people.
He’ll even tell you that his life has been a series of what he calls “happy accidents.”
In this interview, we dig deep into the topic of transformation — from whether or not he thinks it can happen through an online course, to the choices he’s made in life that led him to be “one of the lucky ones.”
You’ll want to stick around until the end, because it turns out you can be one of the lucky ones, too.
All it takes is a little transformation.
Introducing: August Turak
It was during his time at the University of Pittsburgh that Turak was bitten by the philosophy bug — in fact, he became so deeply interested in Zen Buddhism that he dropped out of college to study with a Zen master (though he ultimately returned to finish school).
Education and personal growth have been centerpieces of Turak’s whole life, so during his travels with his Zen teacher, he would often go to different bookstores in each city they visited.
Each time he went, he would ask someone there the question, “who can teach me something?”
At one of those bookstores, Turak was given the number of Louis R Mobley, the founder of the IBM Executive School. After graduation, Turak visited with Mobley, and the two spent an entire night talking about everything “from NATO to Plato.”
After that meeting, Turak called up Mobley again, this time with a proposition: Turak would go out and find clients for Mobley’s consulting business for free — only asking in return that Mobley teach him everything he knew.
Mobley’s answer? “I’ll do you one better. Move in with me and my family while I mentor you… and I insist on one thing: I insist on paying you.”
Once his time studying with Mobley came to a close, Turak moved to New York, where he ended up as one of the first employees at MTV, and then on to what would later become the A&E Network.
Eventually transitioning into the software world, he started a software business that he ended up selling for significant profit 7 years later.
And after selling his business, he bought a 75-acre farm outside of Raleigh, NC and retired at the “ripe old age of 49.”
Meet the monks
In 1996, Turak started visiting Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist Monastery in South Carolina.
He has been spending time off and on with these monks for the past 20 years, going to the monastery as a monastic guest. This means that he lives with the monks and lives as a monk during his time there.
Turak believes that the reason the monks are so good at business is because they don’t consider themselves to be in business at all.
He uses the phrase “service and selflessness” to describe their philosophy and the monastic business model.
He believes that the more committed you are to a higher purpose, the more happy and content you’ll be, the more friends you’ll have, they more love you’ll get, and the more money you’ll make.
But the primary driver can’t be seeking love or happiness or money — it has to be that you’re thinking of how you can help the other guy, and how you can be of service to others.
Some people question why Turak would spend his time hanging out with monks — getting up at 3 am, mopping floors, and working in the chicken sheds. Their biggest question is often, “how would that benefit me, or my business?”
Turak would tell them that he didn’t go to the monastery because he wanted to be better at business. He didn’t study under Louis Mobley because he was looking for a way to make money.
He did those things because he was always looking for something bigger.
A different kind of faith
There’s an entire chapter in his book called “Faith” — but it’s not the kind of faith that the monks have.
Instead, it’s the kind of faith that keeps you putting one foot in front of the other when you don’t see the sense in it all, and you have no idea how things are going to work out.
Turak says, “I never had a plan for my life, but when I look back over my life, I see that everything came off exactly as it was planned. It was just a plan too big for me to ever see.”
He believes that you have to have some kind of mission, a higher purpose, or some kind of guiding principle.
When Turak and his 3 business partners sat down to start their company, they didn’t have a traditional business plan. They didn’t know what they were going to do, but they knew who they wanted to be.
Instead, they wrote down their 10 founding principles on the back of a napkin — the things they believed in, the kind of people they were going to be.
Those principles were the things they ran their business based on, and Turak believes that by living this way, you set yourself up for things to work out for you, sometimes in miraculous ways.
A businessman with a side interest in spirituality
People like to call Turak a businessman with a side interest in spirituality, but he thinks otherwise.
He calls himself a “spiritual fanatic with a side interest in business.”
Business was always the way he could take the principles he was learning and put them into practice, where there are real life consequences.
He says, “it’s fine to be ethical when you’re sitting around a round table sipping coffee with other people who are trying to put their best face forward, but when it comes down to whether you’re going to pay your vendor, or whether you’re going to pay yourself, and you have bills — that’s when the rubber meets the road.”
He finds business to be a wonderful place to explore himself and his values, these things he’s supposedly living for.
The essay that changed everything
Turak received an email one day from a former Duke student, telling him that he should enter the Power of Purpose Essay Contest from the Templeton Foundation.
The essay: “What is the purpose of life?” in 3500 words or less.
Though he had never written anything before in his life, Turak decided to submit an essay to the contest.
He ended up writing an essay about Brother John, one of the monks at Mepkin Abbey, and how Brother John’s example of transformation on an individual level had taught him the real purpose of life.
Lo and behold, Turak ended up winning the $100,000 grand prize — another in the long line of “happy accidents” in his life.
When a friend of one of his brothers commented, “you mean to tell me your brother went up against professional writers from 47 different countries and won with something he wrote over the weekend? Boy is he lucky,” Turak’s brother responded, “no, you don’t understand. My brother has been working on that essay for 35 years.”
The essay went on to be published in several “best of” publications in 2005, but he still believes that the best compliment came from his brother.
And winning the Templeton essay contest started Turak into a whole new career.
He sat down one weekend and wrote a white paper about why Trappist Monks are so fabulous at business, which ended up getting picked up as a (very successful) four-part series on Forbes.com. This led to an ongoing series writing on leadership for Forbes.
And when the editor of Forbes suggested that Turak turn the article into a book, he did — the Columbia Business School picked up and published the book, finishing up yet another series of “happy accidents.”
The biggest challenge of turning a book into a course
When we asked Turak what his biggest challenge was around turning his book into an online course, he challenged us to open our thinking even broader, countering with the fact that in order to accomplish anything worth doing in life, it means living the life.
He uses the example of helping people get into shape: sometimes you can’t even get people to go to the gym.
Many times when they do, they go at it like crazy for a month – going to the gym every day, and dieting – and then after the month they crash, go back to doing what they were doing before, and put all their weight back on.
It’s the same thing for getting people to take action on whatever you’re trying to teach them — people have to become what you’re teaching them.
And as something that Turak learned firsthand, the monks at Mepkin Abbey live it every single day.
Don’t put the book on the shelf and forget about it
Turak also told us the story of Warren Buffet, who when asked why he has been so successful, always mentions that he took the Dale Carnegie course when he was just a young man.
But, unlike most of the people who took the course, read the book, and then put it up on the shelf and forgot about it, Buffet continually works the system. Even when he falls off the wagon, he gets back up and comes back to the system.
The real challenge comes in how you change people enough that they’re inspired and have enough context to be successful.
One of the biggest components that Turak sees in bringing a successful course (or any challenging endeavor) to life is joining community.
He says, “we cannot do it alone. Americans are absolutely, hardheadedly determined that we can do it alone. But whether it’s Weight Watchers or the gym, when you get other people involved, you make more progress.”
Turak and his team are also trying to figure out how they keep the progress going longer term, after the participants are done with their course.
Since he believes that you need to live the material that you’re learning to experience the real fruits of it, and the challenge is turning knowledge into behavior, they want to create an online space that allows for this to happen.
Coming back to his earlier example: we all know that we need to get into better shape. Do we really need to read another book that tells us we need to be healthier? Do we really need to read another blog post that tells us what to do when we get to the gym?
No! The big problem is just getting to the gym — by the time you get there and do something (anything!), 90 percent of the job is done.
We have a superabundance of knowledge, and we keep piling on the books about this and that, when we really should be focused on building character.
We already know 90 percent of what we need to do, but Turak believes what we lack is the will or the energy, the drive or determination to do it.
These are the things that Turak is continually experimenting with — how to change knowledge into behavioral changes. Not just in online education, but in education in general.
“Watch your thoughts, they become words;
watch your words, they become actions;
watch your actions, they become habits;
watch your habits, they become character;
watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”
Transformation and success
The basic premise of Turak’s book is that the purpose of life is to be transformed from a selfish to a selfless person, and that organizations that are able to tap into this desire for transformation can achieve great success.
As Turak and his team were preparing to turn the book into their first beta course, they wanted to build in transformation as a part of the course. They wanted to figure out how they could create transformational experiences in an online format, and they have been greatly pleased with the initial results.
One of the things that Turak believes really gave the book “teeth” is that success and everything that people want is actually a byproduct of living your life for a higher purpose.
The monks at Mepkin Abbey don’t just know how to make success happen; they know how to let success happen.
Turak hears people say all the time, “the purpose of corporations is to make a profit.” He believes that only the stupid corporations think that’s the truth, and that’s what he’s trying to help other people see — the more you live for a higher purpose, the better things are going to turn out for you.
Looking back on his life, Turak never had a plan for his life — but he always had a mission for his life. He didn’t know what he wanted to do, but he always knew who he wanted to BE. And he thinks that makes all the difference.
It’s not a question of learning — it’s a question of becoming
Louis R Mobley and Turak’s Zen teacher both shared an overarching belief: that the difference between someone who is successful and someone who isn’t comes down to whether they can become the thing they want to accomplish.
Likening it to golf, Turak believes that you can learn the rules of golf — you can know everything about the golf swing, the course you’re playing, but you can’t learn golf. You have to practice, until you become a golfer.
Mobley also taught him that what differentiates really successful people is their values and attitudes. It’s not that leaders know different things, it’s that they think in completely different ways.
The greatest teachers use experiential models of teaching in order to bring about a change in their students.
It’s what Turak calls a “change of heart”, and it’s something that the monastery life is centered around.
We’re really good at changing people’s minds in our society, in the sense of our typical education system. “I didn’t know the Egyptians built the pyramids, but now I do, so my mind has been changed.”
Turak says that we’re great at this left brain education — tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them.
But when it comes to the “aha” moment, the “I never realized that before,” it requires a special kind of education.
The three kinds of transformation
Turak writes in the last chapter of his book, “reading this book and a thousand like it will not do you any good unless you start working at changing your heart, at really going through a transformation of being.”
He believes that all human motivation is driven by a longing for transformation, and he explains the three main types:
- A transformation of condition: when a thirsty man drinks,
- A transformation of circumstance: when a poor man hits the lottery,
- And a transformation of being: when Mr Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning a completely changed man.
And when we try to accomplish the transformation of being by changing our condition or circumstance, we always fail.
He says, “if you have a hole in your soul, and you try to fill it up with donuts, you end up with a transformation of condition. You get fat. But you still have the hole in your soul.”
Turak believes that the only way you can help people achieve this transformation of being is through experiential learning.
Facilitating transformation using the Ruzuku platform
The limitation, however, is that you can’t enable this kind of transformation with a book — because books don’t allow for this kind of experiential learning.
So — is it possible to make deep, experiential learning happen… online?
Last fall, Turak and his team ran a beta test of their online course using Ruzuku with about 20 people, and they were extremely impressed with the results.
They came up with interactive exercises and activities in which their students were able to actually learn by doing.
And the online interaction became a conversation — a way of communicating what the exercises were like to experience, and of participants reporting what they discovered as they went through the course.
Turak had done this kind of work in small in-person groups before, but he was dubious about whether it could be done well online. Turns out, he was blown away.
Even though no one had met in person, the course participants really dug down deep, and were very raw, candid and honest about their lives and their limitations, their fears and their flaws.
As they did the exercises offline, they came back to report their findings to the group though the online community interaction.
Being a long time salesman, Turak is a self-described “press the flesh” kind of guy, so he was pleasantly surprised how well the intense interaction, collegiality, and the community aspects were able to translate online.
A mission of education
But, Turak doesn’t really want to be in the online course business — it’s not his mission.
His real mission is to continue to experiment with any kind of educational tools that can help facilitate the change of heart.
He also doesn’t consider himself to be “in business” anymore.
He’s old enough that he doesn’t want to be on the cover of Rolling Stone — his mission in life is to help other people, to pass on what’s he’s learned, and to hopefully repay a bit of the debt he’s run up in his life from so many people like Louis Mobley.
Focus on delighting your customer
One of the themes Turak comes back to a lot in his book is that it’s in our own self interest to forget about our self interest.
Every great salesman knows that the more he forgets about himself, his product and his commission, and instead focuses on delighting his customer, all the other stuff takes care of itself.
Corporations who forget about profits and focus on their customers make more profit.
And, the most successful organizations have really highly motivated people working for them.
The truth is that we all like to think we’re working for selfish motivations, but when it comes down to it, we want to give ourselves away to something larger than us, we want to be part of something bigger than ourselves.
When you offer that to people, an opportunity to be part of a mission that’s all about service to something bigger, you’re offering them a chance to transform their beings.
That’s when entire companies get uplifted.
And that’s what the monks are all about.
Your transformation of being
So there you have it: maybe those people who seem to have it all aren’t just lucky.
Maybe they have set their feet on a path with a mission bigger than themselves.
And hopefully this interview has shown you that with a change of heart, and a transformation of being, you can set yourself up for a life full of your own “happy accidents.”
To find our more about August Turak, visit his website to read his Forbes articles, buy his book, or follow him on social media.
What takeaways do you have from the post? Is there a way that you can focus more on serving your audience, and creating experiential learning opportunities for them? Let us know in the comments!