In Pursuit of the Mind and Spirit
In college, I realized that my life was going to unfold differently than I’d always thought. I was a biology major at Lawrence University and hoped to go to medical school. But halfway through, I realized I’d rather work with the mind and spirit than the body. I found that in my free time, I was reading books by authors like Mohandas Gandhi, M. Scott Peck, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Many books were science-related, but more were about psychology, spirituality, and development. I came to understand that I was more interested in personal growth than physical growth. I stuck with my biology degree but decided not to go to medical school.
The problem—at least temporarily—was, even though I knew I was following my passion, I wasn’t sure how to translate that into a career. Luckily, a local school needed some help. For four years after college, I was a science teacher and football coach at Xavier High School in my home state of Wisconsin. I’d come from a family of hardcore Packers fans, and football was a big part of my life. But in the back of my mind, the desire to go to graduate school wouldn’t go away. I just didn’t know what to study.
Someone said to me, “Why don’t you go for what’s important to you?” I came to realize nothing was more important to me than my spiritual journey. It had been a gradual awakening, but there were some peak experiences like my decision not to go to medical school and the summer I’d spent living at Madonna House, a Catholic community in Ontario. That question— Why shouldn’t I go for what is important to me?—unlocked new thinking and clarity. I made up my mind and decided to get my master’s degree in spirituality.
The Slow Path I started applying to graduate schools. I was most excited about the University of San Francisco...and the program would kick off with a 40-day silent retreat. Intense.
The priest who had taken on the role of spiritual director in my life asked me, “Greg, have you been on a 10-day silent retreat?” I hadn’t. In fact, I had never been on any kind of silent retreat. He asked, “Don’t you think you should go on a three or five-day retreat before you go on a 40-day?” Thanks to his insight, I realized that I was potentially taking a leap too far, too soon.
I took a left turn and decided to go to Boston College. The program at BC included classwork, reflection, and a master’s thesis but did not have an intense silent retreat component.
It’s amazing how someone who loves and respects us, who really listens, and who asks questions that make us think has the power to affect us. That mentor changed my life forever because of a 10-minute conversation and a couple of simple questions. It’s also a reminder that in spite of the fast-paced world we live in, sometimes it’s best to take things at a slower pace. Starting graduate school with a 40-day silent retreat could have gotten me on the right foot faster, but it could have burned me out just as quickly. One Step at a Time For nine years, I stayed at Boston College, first as a graduate student, then as a chaplain designing and running leadership programs, mission trips, and retreats. Within a few years, I was hosting community-building workshops and studying group dynamics. Based on my work, companies began asking me to work with them. When a few of them offered me retainers, I realized each one would pay more than I made in a whole year as a chaplain. I decided that I had better give training others a try. I left the university and embarked upon what has been my career ever since.
I didn’t plan any of it in advance, nor did I think that one step was going to lead to the other. But the combination—my degree in biology, training in spirituality, and work in mindfulness, meditation, and emotional intelligence, merged with my understanding of the importance of serving and building communities led me to where I am today. It was crucial that I took this all one step at a time and that I slowed down when the instinct was to act fast, like with that 40-day meditation retreat. The world changes. We change. Often, building the lives we want to live isn’t about meticulous, years-in-advance planning, but in slowing down, reflecting, and adapting.
Taking the Journey Spiritually, we’re all individuals from different traditions and life paths. But most of us struggle with the same questions. We want to serve, be happy and content, and use the most of our gifts. Getting there is a journey of questioning, community, feedback, ups and downs, and discovery.
I’ve worked with quite a few mentors and spiritual directors in my life, but their role is to open up your own conscience, not to tell you what to do. The spiritual journey is one you have to walk yourself. And, increasingly, that journey is relevant to other areas of your life. I find it fascinating how much businesses, even masterminds and personal development circles, are being called upon, not necessarily consciously, to do work that used to be handled by churches and spiritual centers. In his seminal 2000 book Bowling Alone, Robert D. Putnam explores the decline of institutions that fulfilled Americans’ need for social connection and spiritual fulfillment. Two decades later, his message is even more resonant. Those needs don’t go away. So now, how do we, as entrepreneurs, business leaders, and executives fill that role in a way that has integrity and depth?
It’s not an easy task. When I go into the corporate world, I might not even mention the word spirituality. But, it is important that I listen, serve, and stay calm in a crisis. And it’s important for the people I work with to know there’s something bigger than themselves. When they do and when they share their personal agenda in a calm way, they can bring others together. That’s the ultimate form of teamwork and connection. That’s human spirituality. We have learned this through the centuries, and today we can adopt these truths within the framework of technology to fit our 21st-century world.
Daily Rituals Creating rituals has significantly aided my journey. My rituals include:
I begin every morning early with meditation. It helps me stay focused and calm even when things get difficult. I started with 15 minutes and now I am pretty consistent with 45 minutes every morning.
Your tribe. Find people who can support you and keep you on track. These are the people you trust enough to ask for opinions on your ideas, methods, and challenges. They’re the ones who will challenge you by asking you what you really want and what decisions you ought to make. I can tell you, going to my three or five confidants helps balance me and keep me on course. Without them, I would potentially be doing fine, but I would quite likely be 10-15% off the trajectory of my desired course. At first, 10-15% isn’t much, but over time, as you get further from your launching point, that difference amplifies and becomes a big problem.
Journaling. Keeping a productivity journal in which I map out my intent for each day and my schedule helps me get clear and stay focused. Since I have implemented this practice, I have seen huge improvements in my mindset and what I can get done. It allows me to set and accomplish realistic tasks every day.
How to Create Miracles One of my favorite phrases from entrepreneur and motivational speaker Jim Rohn is, “You do not have to do extraordinary things to get extraordinary results. You only have to do ordinary things extraordinarily well to get extraordinary results.” Miracles aren’t random or reserved for rare geniuses; they happen because you’ve been diligent. Miracles happen because you decide to read all the books you need to, do all the action steps you need to, talk to all the people you need to, and walk the path until you get your answer. Teams are looking for these miracles, and helping them achieve them is priceless. Diligence is so mundane in theory, and yet so few people follow their journeys with this mindset.
We live in a world that simultaneously worships the idea of “move fast and break stuff,” a phrase made popular in Facebook’s early days, and the expectation that you have your 5- and 20-year plan sharply in your headlights. Neither is realistic. Committed, slow discipline gives you the expertise to create miracles in your work. It’s wildly under-appreciated. But it works.
I’ve gained immense advantages in business from obtaining a graduate degree in spirituality and serving as a chaplain. You have to get good at contemplation. Everyone’s looking for a better bottom line, more productivity, better efficiency, and ways to find and retain talent. Most companies either want more of the market share or to create an innovative team that can find that next leading edge. The tricky part is that when problems show up, many companies and executives are quick to look for solutions to these challenges outside their companies. They don’t stop to breathe and contemplate. When I work with companies, I’m there to show them that their real challenges are likely on the inside.
People who have spent years meditating can tell you that there is beauty in slowness, in turning inward. As it turns out, it may also be key to solving some of the most pressing issues that face your business, no matter how intense they seem.
If you are too busy to think and reflect, you are too busy. Slow down and give your journey the reflection it needs.