August Turak

Author Consultant Speaker

Let Go of My Ego

In 2002 three of my brothers were snowmobiling in the mountains of Colorado when, snow blinded by a sudden squall, they daisy chained over a 400 foot cliff. One of my brothers, Jamie, was killed. Dan and Tom badly injured and frost bitten, spent all night at 14,000 feet in the -40° temperature and -60° wind chill that sent several rescue workers to the hospital.

Arriving at the Denver airport, I will never forget the stacks of searing newspaper headlines that greeted my father, my brother Jon, and I. Headlines insisting that there had been no mistake as we made our way to the hospital and eventually, the morgue.

Tom and Dan eventually recovered and Dan returned to work as an executive with a major media company. One day he told me that one of his sales directors had called a few days earlier about rumors of impending layoffs that were permeating the company. Dan repeatedly told her that he had no more information than she did, but these assurances only seemed to make her more frantic.

“Elizabeth,” Dan finally said, “I don’t even know whether I’m going to be laid off. But I do know this. This is not the end of the world. I’ve been to the end of the world and this is not it.”

The next day the woman called back. “Dan, I just want to thank you. I went home and told my husband what you said. You’re so right…you’re so right...”

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In an article for, Business Secrets of the Trappists, I outlined the monastic principles that make monasteries the world over so successful in business. But a monastic principle I overlooked is detachment. Detachment is usually associated with a slacker mentality: a cold, dispassionate, uninterested, apathetic, even condescending attitude toward life and others. So how do we square a monk’s cultivation of detachment with the passionate commitment that permeates every aspect of the monastic day? The same passionate attention to even the smallest task that makes monastic businesses so successful?

In the monastic tradition commitment is not the opposite of detachment. Ego identification is the opposite of detachment. This take on detachment and the pitfalls of identification is not unique to monks. Wall Street addresses the dangers of identification by admonishing investors to “never fall in love with a stock.” Countless careers have been ruined by sexual escapades engendered by a deficiency in detachment. Even Mafia Dons try to remember that it’s “just business.” It’s when they become identified and “take things personally” that rivalries rapidly get out of hand.

One of my clients is probably the best CEO I’ve ever known, and his mantra is that success relies on the courage to “face facts.” He constantly challenges his number crunchers to come up with data that prove him wrong rather than right. Facing facts means “putting things in perspective” and “getting some distance.” When we become identified or “attached” to a business plan, product line, sales model, or pricing strategy this is exactly what we fail to do.

Monks are not successful despite their detachment but because of it. A monk’s detachment is not rootless, free floating, ethereality. The monks make business decisions objectively because they are passionately rooted in something bigger than business that puts business decisions into perspective. For monasteries business is a critical subset of their mission in life: not the mission itself. A monk may have a business card but he is not his business card.

In 2000 we sold our company to an Israelis company, and shortly thereafter the venture capitalists replaced the CEO. The new CEO was incredibly intense, hard charging, and all business. He was so coldly calculating that he struck me as just plain cold. On a visit to the US he asked to speak to me privately. He reminded me that before the acquisition I had invented a product line and, by leapfrogging a dozen entrenched competitors, had made it number one in its category.

“Ever since I took over you would think I’ve been doing nothing but trying to kill your product,” he said through a tight smile and thick Israelis accent, “and you haven’t said a word. In fact you’re helping me kill your baby in any way you can. I’ve been in business 25 years and I’ve never seen anything like it. You’re on the board, you own a lot of stock, and your contract entitles you to a share of your product’s revenue. I have to know…why aren’t you fighting me?”

I told him I had carefully analyzed his business plan. I could see that it was in the best interest of all the stockholders and that my product didn’t fit. I added that despite his cold veneer I was convinced that he was a decent human being with a good heart who was only doing what he thought best.

“But most importantly, it’s just a product. It’s not me. I have no plans to put the logo on my tombstone.”

Something like stunned surprise settled over his face. Then he told me about the death of his father when he was just 3, and the death of the step father he loved like a father when he was barely 11. I learned how much he loved his wife and children, and how hard he was working to overcome the fear of intimacy that he traced to those tragic early deaths.

My own detachment, cultivated at the feet of the monks, triggered this frank exchange of vulnerabilities. This in turn led to the open and trusting relationship that was essential to executives separated by many thousands of miles who rarely saw each other.

Several years later my trust in this man and his business plan was vindicated; our combined companies were sold to a much larger firm for 150 million in cash…

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In this Wall Street Journal article; Meanwhile, in the War in Afghanistan… a Marine tells an embedded reporter in Afghanistan how difficult it is for him and his fellow “grunts” to understand our attachment to Charlie Sheen. “Back home a bad day is a flat tire on your way to work. Over here it’s a double amputee.”

Cultivating the detachment that pays off in business starts with rooting ourselves in something bigger than business. Something that reminds us of what really matters and how much we have to be grateful for. To maintain this detachment we need others like the monks who share our perspective. People we will use as talismans of grace in our daily struggle to keep things in perspective. Detachment is not easy, but as my mentor Jim Collins used to say with a smile whenever I complained, “Sure it’s hard. If it weren’t everyone would be doing it, and I wouldn’t have to pay you the big bucks.”

My brother Dan and his director were not laid off. But he did marry a wonderful woman, and they have two beautiful children. Ironically they live in Denver because Dan went looking for a corporate culture that shares his new found priorities and appreciates his new found perspective. Not only is his company doing extremely well, but Dan is far happier and a far better leader than he was before that sudden squall. The squall that robbed him of the brother he loved the most and radically transformed his life.

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What three factors should you consider in every challenge from picking a stock to picking a spouse? Find out when August Turak reveals, 3 Factors to Avoid Fear in Every Challenge.

August Turak meets a young man whose brush with icy death creates the broiling urgency to find the truth about life, death, and God, once and for all in Faith and Doubt at Forty Below.