How To Play Bigger Than Yourself

A call from the author's mentor brings up a transformative idea about how successful leaders can find beauty and purpose in their lives.

I recently reconnected with one of my most important mentors.

Srikumar Rao, a professor who developed and taught "Creativity and Personal Mastery," one of the most popular classes in Columbia Business School’s history, now lives between London and New York and has a massive following of leaders. An inspiration.

But to be honest, as I got on the call with him from the YWCA parking lot after dropping my daughter off at school, I kept thinking of The Exorcist. Not about the young possessed girl spitting out pea soup, but the movie poster. Because Rao’s professional claim to fame was that in his prior life, as a marketing exec, he convinced the producers to look beyond the obvious, beyond plastering walls with scary images to attract viewers, and instead to place the silhouette of a priest, carrying a briefcase, on the stairs. That imagery lured in a far broader segment of viewers and helped propel the movie into cult status.

Since then, Rao has dedicated himself to a far different cause: helping successful, rapidly rising leaders to discover meaning and beauty and purpose in their lives. From multi-day-long seminars, usually sold out, he is moving online as “maestro” on a new platform called the Maestro Market, where anyone from around the world can connect with him and his wisdom.

I can’t summarize his entire philosophy in a brief blog, but here is my attempt. If you think through these steps you may find yourself looking beyond your normal scope and finding inspiration.

  • Even highly successful people often feel they are not reaching their full potential; they feel something is missing.
  • We feel this way often because we attach meaning to things that happen in our lives. We label things as good or bad. We lose our job and we call it “bad,” for example, when actually we cannot know yet if it is. That lost job may get you out of a career that does not inspire you and put you on a path to a new one that does. If we stop labeling things as “good” and “bad,” we open ourselves up to new possibilities. To see this, play what he calls the “alternate reality” exercise. Think of a situation that you currently consider bad, then ask how someone else could view it as good.
  • To find real purpose and passion, “put yourself in service of a cause that is bigger than yourself,” says Rao, like reducing poverty or ensuring education for all. Such a cause will drive you beyond what selfish motivations can do and create a groundswell of support from others. The nature of humans is to want to serve others. This does not mean necessarily selling your Ferrari and home, but the greatest and most profitable companies are often driven by a big, moral cause.

Of course there are so many more layers to uncover, but if we look at just these three ideas, we can already start extracting ourselves from a tumultuous life of good and bad, of fear and regret.

1. Are you truly living to your full potential?
2. What are you labeling as “bad” and how could you see it leading actually to a “good” end?
3. What cause is that quiet voice whispering to you about right now, calling you to be part of?

[Image: Flickr user Ian Sane]

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