Q&A with Srikumar S. Rao
Srikumar S. Rao, PhD, author of Are You Ready to Succeed? and the just published Happiness at Work has some unusual ideas about how people can experience more fulfilling lives—both personally and professionally—that he has been teaching in his MBA-level class, Creativity and Personal Mastery. Among his beliefs: There is no separation between our professional and personal selves/lives, and we can radically change the way we experience life by using various techniques that he teaches, such as doing exercises in alternate reality and reevaluating the notion of what is a good thing vs. a bad thing.
He recently spoke with Businessweek.com Management Editor Patricia O'Connell about this new book and his work. (O'Connell is an alumna of Creativity and Personal Mastery, which has been taught at various institutions including Columbia Business School, London Business School, the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley, and Long Island University). Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.
There is no arguing that a lot of people are unhappy and dissatisfied at work and disengaged. What is the connection between the level of disengagement people have at work and the disengagement and unhappiness they have with their lives overall?
I don't believe that you have a work life and a home life. I believe that you have one life, and either it's working or it isn't working.
I have had the benefit of taking your class and reading both of your books, which many of our readers won't have had. If you could sum up the important takeaway, especially in Happiness at Work, what would that be?
We have the ability to craft a life where we are completely fulfilled. We think it is dependent on outsiders and to some extent it is, but it is much more dependent on the attitude we bring to life.
One of the things you focus on is that you want people to stop labeling things as bad. I have a hard time characterizing the death of a loved one as not a bad thing. I have a hard time not characterizing losing my job and being worried about paying my mortgage as a bad thing. How do you respond to sentiments like that?
If something comes that it is so extreme that you have difficulty thinking of it as a good thing, don't think of it as a good thing and kid yourself. To the extent that you can, don't label it a bad thing. Refusing to label something a bad thing opens you up to possibilities you would not have even considered otherwise.
Can you give me a concrete example?
Someone losing their job is a perfect example. Of course there are practical considerations about needing money, etc. But if you think about losing your job not as a bad thing but an opportunity to do something that brings you great joy and fulfillment, you are already better off. People look for evidence to support their beliefs, whatever those beliefs are.
You go into corporations and work with people who probably are making distinctions between their work selves and their personal selves, What do people in corporations tend to have the most trouble grasping in terms of what you are teaching?
Many of them are so used to having compartmentalized lives it's hard for them to give that up and realize that they have to be authentic—live their whole life one way. They tell me that when they have made this effort, they feel much more at peace.
Do you find that there is one specific aspect of your teaching that is easiest for them to embrace?
Alternate reality is something that is extremely powerful, and I would say that when I teach a program, somewhere between half and two-thirds of the people have their big breakthrough doing that exercise.
For people who have not yet had the benefit of taking the class and/or doing the exercise, can you explain what you mean?
For the alternate reality exercise, I have people describe in detail something that is of concern to them right now—a work situation, a personal situation, it doesn't matter. They describe the reality that they are living in. What they don't recognize is that this isn't the reality, it is a reality. And it is one they have constructed. With the help of their teammates, I ask them to come up with one that is better and one that they can possibly believe at some level. Then I have them go out and live as if the alternate reality were their reality.
What if it's something that I don't believe?
It's okay for you to act as if it is true as long as you believe it could be. You should note the evidence that supports your alternate reality.
We are always looking for evidence that proves our current reality so I ask people to look for evidence that supports the alternate reality. They are surprised to find out how much evidence shows up to support the alternate reality. Once they start focusing on that, they are able to make the transition, and the alternate reality becomes the one they are living. And since the alternate reality is better than the one they were living, their life is improved.
There are certain things that are absolute. It's 90 degrees outside today. That's an objective, scientific measure. I can't create and alternate reality around that or create one where it's 60 degrees.
Do you have to experience 90 degrees as miserable? Or can you experience it as "this is an interesting situation— let me help my body react to that?"
You say you are not teaching people anything new. So how did you come to amass this collected wisdom?
I did my MBA in a top school in India, did my PhD in Columbia, got tired of corporate politics, and found that even though I was successful, I wasn't passionate about what I was doing. It was intellectually interesting, but much of the time I disliked it. And I realized what bothered me bothered hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people.
All of my life I had read a lot of spiritual and mystical biographies. Somehow I had the conviction that I needed to figure out a way to make [all of what I had learned] applicable. Thinking about it made me come alive.
I took the teachings, stripped them of cultural context and religious baggage and adapted them so very intelligent people in a post-industrial economy could relate to this information.
Do you ever get resistance in corporate settings?
All the time!
So what do you do about that?
There are a lot of people who come in the first day with not chips on their shoulders but 2x4's. They think this is wishy-washy stuff and it's not going to work.
I tell them on the first day, "Don't waste your time wondering if it's true....If you push hard enough, all of these teachings will crumble."
What they don't recognize is that the models they are currently using are equally false. So here's what I say: Don't ask if what I am saying is right or wrong, good or bad, or true or false. Ask yourself, does this work for me in my life better than what I am presently using?
And if the answer is yes—and you are the sole judge—use it. If not, drop it and just acknowledge that it doesn't work for you and move on.
Most people are open to that approach. When they do the exercises with that approach, they experience amazing changes. They go from being skeptics to believers to evangelists.