Progress in the world is all about setting a higher goal

Paradoxically, the only way to achieve this goal is to develop “yourself”.

You are the architect of your fortune; you are the architect of your misfortune — A. Parthasarathy

Productivity, innovation, profit, bitcoin and valuations all seem to be at or near historical highs. Even the setbacks of the current pandemic have not seemingly created significant dents in the ability of humans to march forward in making the world a better place. We have built the most advanced factories to create the most advanced products that continue to make our lives life better, faster, happier, more fulfilled. Yet, the end result is more advanced depression, stress, burn out, divorce & suicide in individuals together with vandalism, militancy and terrorism in the collective.

We spend so much time and effort building businesses to make the world a better place and so little thought, care or action to developing the individual. This is so compelling, when as time has told and will continue to tell that the only way to find true peace and happiness is through the development of the individual. And that doesn’t mean another MBA or a yoga class. These are valiant additions to a CV, but they do not develop the true potential and capabilities of a human being. There is no more important time than now to stop and re-evaluate the relationship between business and spirituality.

On the face of it there seems to be little or no relationship. In fact, most would argue they are at odds with each other: businesses seek material success and spirituality contemplates what exists beyond the material. However, when identifying and analysing the factors that lead to success in business and what it takes to be spiritual or become a Self-Realised soul, the paths are almost identical. Ultimately, both require the complete abolishment of the ‘little self’, the ego present in all of us that is propelled by the fuel of selfishness. There is no happiness until you have clean dropped thinking about yourself: but you must not do it by halves. While even there is a least grain of self left, it will spoil it all — Edward Carpenter.[1]

A dynamic individual that can maintain a peaceful mind will become a beacon of light and achieve success through right action in any field. Equally, a dynamic business that embraces purpose beyond financial or economic gain without losing sight of those measures is destined to find success in any industry.

The Current State of the World

“Laugh and the world laughs with you, weep and you weep alone” — Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Seldom in history has there been such discontentment, anger, rioting, human destruction, unhappiness, depression, and anxiety at the scale that we are witnessing today. A human-created virus has instilled extraordinary fear around the world and wreaked unprecedented havoc on the global economy. At the same time, the tired and ugly human trait that drives one to identify only with people that look and act like we do has again pushed human relationships to mass social disorder, perhaps in the direction of a real reckoning.

And those issues don’t even touch on the catastrophic consequences of our collective long-term behaviours. The environment is at an extreme tipping point. More people go to sleep hungry or malnourished today than ever before. The financial markets seem to be bereft of fundamentals, more resembling casinos today. We’ve also managed to wipe out nearly 30% of all species on the planet in the last 50 years, not to mention parking plastics and microplastics in nearly every square inch of our oceans. There seems to be no end to the ability of humans through thoughtless selfish actions to destroy our social, economic and physical environments.

Interventions in the form of ‘social work’ are constantly being developed to provide some relief to these various crises. Some frameworks intend to more permanently lift the world out of poverty, environmental collapse, and inequality. The most significant one recently adopted is the UN Sustainable Development Goals (“SDGs”)[2], which set out 17 growth and development milestones governments have agreed to pursue in order to create a model for growth and development that includes the planet and the poor. Yet, despite a surge in global financial liquidity (thanks to a persistent bull run in financial markets), the progress made across these Global Goals over the past five years has been relatively insignificant.

According to a 2018 paper Applied Vedanta Philosophy: Improving Stakeholder Relations Through Inner Transformation, “the world is in a disastrous state” [3]. The authors looked at how Vedantic knowledge, ancient Himalayan spiritual teachings, could provide guidance to transformational thinking by sharpening the human intellect so that people could make choices that would lead to better outcomes, not just for themselves but for all living beings.

Vedanta holds that unlike animals, which only have rudimentary abilities to make choices, humans are exclusively endowed with an advanced intellect; an innate ability to judge, reason and choose. Using this ability, humans have the capacity to undertake the choice of right action. However, “this hugely potent piece of equipment has been grossly underutilized and/or misused”[4]. Rather than making decisions that benefit the collective, most decisions that we make as a species are emotive, led by the mind rather than the intellect, and result in chasing individual selfish interests and desires.

We have essentially become separated from our core Consciousness, the Self. We have fooled ourselves into thinking that personal acquisition and enjoyment in the world are the only pursuits in life from which to derive happiness.

The more we acquire, the more we desire. And when we can no longer acquire, we are miserable, despite all that we have. We become more and more agitated as we pursue selfish ideals, leading eventually to discontent, anger, anxiety, depression and ultimately destruction, both individually and as a collective. This progression appears to also be in full stream now at the business level, the policy level and the political level.

There is however a glimmer of hope. Bad actors invoke the uprising of good actors. A generation of more purpose-led, environmentally conscious consumers, investors and entrepreneurs are emerging. They have a sense of connection to something bigger than their small selves. Their higher value goals are literally inspiring the masses. The Greta Thornberg’s and so many others of her kind try not to increase and accentuate the divide, but rather aspire to bring prosperity to the collective. Business as usual that only favours the very few is no longer an option in their opinion. These more community driven, conscious people accentuate true human capability. It is in these people that human spirituality is found.

Business with Purpose

How and why does this affect business?

Well, what is business? Historically, business has been defined as the pursuit of activities for financial gain, principally profiting shareholders exclusively. However, businesses are increasingly being called upon to become a ‘force for good’ to help solve the world’s problems in a financially viable way that serves to benefit all stakeholders.

Businesses whose entire cast of stakeholders, including their leaders and shareholders, go further by aligning themselves to higher goals, such as refraining from harm to the environment or providing benefits to underserved communities, whilst remaining active and financially viable, are sometimes called ‘impact businesses’, ‘public benefit companies’ (“PBCs”) and/or ‘social enterprises’. They do not accidentally improve the livelihoods and environment for others, but are intent on positive impact.

These purpose-led businesses target double or triple bottom line (people, planet, profit) as they set their goals and targets for success both in terms of how much positive social or environmental ‘impact’ they achieve while tracking the economic success of their activities. It is often suggested by the sceptics that investing in impact tends to underperform and is therefore a form of concessionary investment. The myth of lower returns for impact investment is strongly refuted by empirical evidence cited in recent research conducted by global banks.

And the same ‘discussion’ is being played out in many other industries. When a person buys a beef hamburger for $2.99 versus a vegan option Beyond Beef™ burger for $3.99, the argument is that it’s more expensive to eat the healthier version. But for whom? Who paid the price for the cows CO2 emissions? Who foots the healthcare bills for the overindulging unhealthy consumers? Who bears the real cost, the actual price of the meat burger versus the vegan burger? Ultimately, it’s the community, yet the community is still a collective of selfish individuals focused on their own happiness.

It is very important here to concede that not every social or environmental dilemma is solvable within the restraints and constraints of a business model. Businesses must produce financial results to attract the investment needed to conduct the activities required to ultimately produce a profitable cash flow. Business leaders may not have the capability to solve some of the world’s toughest challenges by themselves, but every company and every business leader should have the capacity to ensure that that they are not contributing to or augmenting these challenges. That level of intellect, that degree of right action, that of measure of spiritual reflection should be the minimum that people require of business and business leadership.

And should we not then give our consumers and investors full transparency on the activities of our businesses and their leadership? Should we not welcome validation and verification of right action? People should be informed of production processes, including how animals and fellow human beings are treated, the level of destruction to the soil, air and water channels, the amount of waste produced and cleaned up for that matter. Should we not make this information widely available to allow consumers and investors alike to make rational decisions based on their own spiritual reflections? Everyone would be free to decide for themselves which products or investments are better aligned with their own values. Would this not lead to a ‘values based’ market with a more ‘total’ pricing of products and services?

A values-based economy may actually show vastly different performers and underperformers than in our current, somewhat broken, financial system. We may even find ourselves redefining the true meaning of ‘concessionary’ investments to more logically mean those activities which compromise our society or the environment rather than concede on a profit margin.

The Secret of Success

So how do we arrive at a values-based economy?

It starts and ends with leadership. Leadership is an art, a skill, like flying an airplane. It is the art of inspiring a group of people to act towards a common goal. The definitive key to great leadership is overcoming the ‘little self’, the ego, to seek and set goals beyond self-interests and not interfere with the greater obligation to a business or a community. A values-based economy relies on this. But how do inspiring leaders let go of the ego and become successful?

Spiritual teachings tell us that it is impossible to let go of anything; an object, a person, an idea, a belief system, anything. In fact, the letting go of anything is merely a reaction to the taking up of a thing of higher value. Real growth, both spiritual and professional, lies is recognizing the value we place on the people, objects and activities that make up our lives and striving to attain higher ideals for and from all of them. It’s not as much a matter of giving up the ego as it is objectively recognizing the ego for what it is and striving to take up values beyond one’s own self-interests.

There is a famous story of Lord Byron sitting an exam while at Oxford University where he had to write an essay on the miraculous changing of water into wine by Christ. All his fellow students were ardently writing away, while Lord Byron sat and just stared at the ceiling for hours. A minute before time was up, he wrote a one liner that won the first prize: “The water saw its Lord and blushed”. This work was spontaneous, free, graceful, work of the Self, not the little self.

“Success must seek you, when you cease to seek success” — Rama Tirtha[5]

The trick is not to be fooled by actions alone in pursuing higher values and higher goals. As with spiritual development, it is not what a company or its leadership does that determines the quality of an action, but rather in the intent or purpose of that action. To find out what an individual’s purpose is, requires careful examination of not only the world, but a deep dive into oneself. The intellect, not just passion, helps an individual to gain the necessary clarity to find and fulfil their purpose. “I hardly think the word “passionate” applies to me” said Eleanor Roosevelt. She had purpose. Her actions were not driven by passion, but by reason[6]. The irony is that we often find bigger ego driven initiatives out for name and fame in the non-profit and impact investing space than in traditional business.

After establishing the right values and setting a higher ideal, the leader makes sure all action is consistently directed towards that goal, maximising energy to the goal by conserving it. Energy in life, particularly in business, is dissipated in three principal ways: worrying about the past, having anxiety for the future and being too excited about the present. This often leads to what we commonly refer to as ’stress’.

True objectivity is attaching the right value to things and then not getting caught up or immersed in the action or worse fretting over future results of the action. Be inspired, let the spirit of freedom work through you. Your only responsibility is to yourself. Keep yourself happy, poised, self-contained, the universe will take care of the rest. This is the mindset of inspirational leaders, those that overcome the ego and work toward higher goals.

Only by developing the intellect can one have the clarity to objectively assess and adequately serve all those in need around you. That awareness is called “Social Consciousness”. Far more powerful than all the social work and sustainable businesses combined, it is the only way to lift the world.

The change starts within you.

[1] The Holocaust of Attachment A Parthasarathy

[2] UN Sustainable Development Goals

[3] Applied Vedanta Philosophy: Improving Stakeholder Relations Through Inner Transformation Philosophy of Management Annual Conference 2018, University of Greenwich — Anke Turner , Subhasis Chakrabarti, Joanna Rowe

[4] Fall of the Human Intellect A. Parthasarathy

[5] In Wood of God Realization Volume II — Swami Rama Tirtha Prathisthan (1873–1906)

[6] Ego is the Enemy — Ryan Holiday

Fleur Heyns is a serial entrepreneur who passionately believes in the science of wellbeing and good business

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