The Trappists, an order of Cistercian monks, are well-known for their business savvy. After spending years visiting Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina, August Turak, a successful software company chief executive, realized that he was learning a lot more than just how to keep in touch with his spirituality: He was learning how to be a better businessman. Here are 10 helpful hints from his book, “Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks.’’
The Trappists constantly seek to transcend what they can see here on earth. They constantly strive to improve themselves and their relationships with others in order to better serve the community.
Entrepreneurs should strive to make their employees and customers feel like they’re a part of something bigger than themselves. Aiming high means that no matter what your overall goal or mission is, you should always be thinking of new ways to achieve it.
…and then aim past that target
The Trappists have a very broad goal of trying to serve God and the community in everything they do.
Entrepreneurs should have equally broad missions. By having such a loosely, difficult-to-reach purpose, it’s easier to innovate and consider new ideas.
Be consciously transformational
Many Trappists entered the abbey because they didn’t like where their lives were going and weren’t satisfied with who they saw themselves becoming.
Entrepreneurs should consciously work on making their employees—and themselves—into better people. Personal transformation should be built into the (big!) mission of the organization, and there should be an established method to create that transformation. Turak compares it to the classic Hero’s Journey: Nobody likes a movie or book character who doesn’t change over the course of the story.
At Mepkin Abbey, wake up call is at 3 a.m. The brothers sacrifice extra time asleep in order to start praying and working as soon as possible, because they believe that their sacrifice brings them closer to God.
Entrepreneurs should see sacrifice as a similarly transformative experience. The more you have to sacrifice, the more passionate you are about your goal. Sure, cold-calling potential clients is a drag. But isn’t it a great feeling when one of those calls pays off and brings you the satisfaction of having helped your startup grow?
Be great, just to be great
The Trappists do everything to the best of their abilities, even if it’s something small, because their personal and professional lives are one and the same. They offer everything they do up to God and, because serving God is their mission, they try to give everything 100 percent of their effort.
Entrepreneurs can channel the same mentality by always trying to do their best, whether it’s in designing a new product or cleaning up the office. Being great just to be great means that there might be no reward other than the satisfaction of a job well done— and that could lead to a renewed dedication to the business.
Selflessly serve others
Life at Mepkin is very simple, meaning that the brothers can dedicate themselves to serving others instead of worrying about insignificant details. They don’t focus on making money or turning a profit. Instead, they focus on creating products of the best quality and always keep the well-being of their customers, visitors, and anyone else they interact with in mind.
Putting people—not products—first shows that your startup isn’t just trying to make money, it’s trying to make life better. Treat everyone well and do your best to help them, and the money will follow.
Manage the culture, not individuals
A guiding principle of Trappist business is that the job of the individual is to serve the community, not the other way around. Instead of competing against each other to get ahead in their business, they work to foster a supportive community that constantly pushes its members to work towards a common goal.
In your business, focus on changing the community and culture, not on trying to change individuals. Create an environment in which everyone is working to do the best they can to help the company, not just themselves. When people focus less on their own agendas and more on what they can do to help the business grow, they tend to outperform expectations.
Keep moving, but don’t forget your roots
Turak tells the story of Father Francis, who agreed to become the abbot of Mepkin if the community was open to change. He rebuilt parts of the monastery, expanded the library, and extended Mepkin’s reach into the community by creating the guest program that allowed Turak to spend so much time there in the first place. He moved the abbey forward, but didn’t compromise its original mission.
Entrepreneurs shouldn’t be afraid to do the same thing. Accept and embrace change, but keep your core values intact. If that means expanding your services or line of products into uncharted territory, then do that, as long as your purpose stays the same.
Discern and detach
Mepkin Abbey was known for its eggs. Shutting down that operation and instead growing mushrooms was a difficult decision, and many of the monks were unsure as to whether they really should be trying something so new. But Trappists spend hours each day in deep in thought, or contemplation, to help them reach the right decisions in their daily lives. They’re also able to detach, meaning that they let go of ideas—business or otherwise—that do not propel their mission forward.
Entrepreneurs should “focus on principles, values, and virtues rather than specific stocks, products, and services,’’ Turak writes. This makes it easier to make difficult decisions about those assets and evolve with the markets.
The Trappists believed in themselves and their abilities enough to risk starting a new business in mushrooms, despite the fact that none of them knew anything about growing mushrooms to begin with. But their desire to succeed, faith in themselves, and commitment to making it work eventually led to success.
Entrepreneurs also have to have faith. If you believe in your mission, employees, and values enough to work hard for them every single day, then the money and recognition will naturally follow.