Turning moments at work into lessons for life


The following article is an excerpt from the introduction of John’s book Five Questions.

Everyone gets the experience; some get the lesson. – T.S.Eliot

Imagine two people going to work every day, side by side, having virtually the same things happening around them. One goes home, upset yet again, blaming colleagues or themselves, not having learned a thing – about who they are, about their relationships with others, or about life. The other person goes home more clearly on the path to a significant insight, or even transformation, using what happened that day to learn and grow.

What makes the difference? It has to do with attitude, the way each of those people approached his or her experiences during the day. It’s simple, really. It only requires that you seek a lesson in the experience. The more you want that lesson, the more likely it is to happen. You will find what you seek.

Stuff happens.
You’ve seen the bumper sticker. In fact, you could see life itself as just a lot of stuff happening. All the time. Every day. A constant stream of ‘”moments,'” some positive, some negative. For most of us most of the time, these moments simply blend into a steady stream of indistinguishable experiences. Life becomes a blur of thinking about things, doing things, interspersed with occasional rest. We operate in a kind of trance, walking around, having a life, blissfully unconscious of a lot of what is going on, inside us and around us.

Every now and then, though, one of those moments stands out as different. The emotional needle jumps on the dial, and we become aware that “something happened.” We might even realize that “something is happening right now.” The moment might be more exciting or positive than usual, or more difficult or painful, but the result is that the trance is broken. It is in these moments when we are aware and alive that life can take on new meaning, or even a new direction. The Five Questions will show you how to turn these moments into profound personal and professional development lessons. As a human being, are you a finished product or a work in progress? Over the past few years, I have asked this question of thousands of people around the world and, as you might guess, everyone says, “Oh, I’m not ‘there’ yet; I’m a work in progress.” The next question I ask is, “Well, where do you do your ‘progressing’ or ‘developing’?” People respond with a variety of answers:

  • reading a good self-help or leadership book
  • going to personal or professional development seminars and workshops
  • at my church, synagogue, mosque or spiritual development group
  • sitting quietly alone or with close friends.

These can all be wonderful places to be a work in progress. I know from personal experience, but I want you to consider another arena, one where you spend the vast majority of time during your lifetime: your workplace. Every day at work, you spend eight, ten, twelve hours in a perfect classroom for profound personal/spiritual development. And, as you will see, those people you work with – yes, those same ones – are the perfect faculty for what you are here to learn. As you begin to work with the Five Questions, everything that happens to you on the job can become ‘”grist for the mill'” of your spiritual development – and serve to maximize your contribution to the larger world. This will lead to greater purpose, power and peace. What more could you ask for?

The Workplace School of Life
Every day that you are at work you are having literally thousands of moments, each one chock full of life-transforming potential. In the words of T. S. Eliot, “Everyone gets the experience; some get the lesson.”

The Workplace School of Life has a lot going for it:
· This ‘”classroom'” is tuition-free. There are some costs associated with being in this
school, but, as you will see, the cost is all internal, involving reflection and self-mastery.
· Your faculty is always there-the ones you like and the ones you can’t stand. In fact, as you will see, the ones you don’t particularly like will be the most important ones for your development.
· There are no grades, only your own inner critic. There is, however, continuous, real- time feedback happening all the time. The trick is to figure out what it means.
· School is always ‘”in session'” and the lessons are always the right ones for you in that moment.
· There are never any exams-only moment-by-moment ‘”tests.'” By the time we get tothe final exam – if there is one, it’s too late!

Seva is Sadhana
In Eastern traditions, there is a phrase that says it all. ‘Seva is sadhana.’Seva’ is the job you do, the work you have, what you actually DO, such as washing dishes, talking on the phone, sitting in meetings, selling something. Sadhana is spiritual practice, that which deepens your self-awareness and contributes to your development into the human being you are capable of becoming. That saying is the gist of this book: how to turn what happens at work into spiritual/personal development practice. Let’s start learning how to turn what happens at work into a spiritual practice. By this I do not mean your religion or theology or what you believe. You may or may not have a religion that means something to you. If you do, that religion is concerned with getting at what I am referring to here as ‘spirit.’ The founder of every religion knew that is where the real action is in human beings. What I mean by ‘spirit’ is that which animates you. What has you get up in the morning? What is it that hums or beats at the center of who you are? That place from which you ‘navigate’ your way through your moments. What I am talking about is beneath your mind, beneath anything that lives like a thought you can have. I mean that place from which those thoughts originate. That place to which you yearn to come home. That place.

The Assignment
Every learning experience from kindergarten to graduate school is designed around a set of objectives. If life is a classroom, then surely there must be objectives. I am convinced that, at birth, each of us was enrolled in The School of Life with a three-part “assignment:”

  1. To continuously discover and completely develop into who we truly are,
  2. To allow who we are to be fully expressed from moment to moment,
  3. To have that self-expression make a meaningful and lasting contribution to the larger world.

Those who understand much may be wise, but those who understand themselves are even wiser. Those who are master over many may be powerful, but those who are mastering themselves are more powerful still. – Lao Tzu, 700 BCE

Homework that takes you home
If you decide to take on this program of self-mastery, there will be homework. Paradoxically, the work you will need to do has nothing to do with changing anything about yourself. It’s exactly the opposite. This homework is work that takes you home – home to who you truly are, to the deepest place within you, to that Self which already is a master at being you. It’s hard work to peel back the layers that have covered over this vital center, this core essence of who you are. The arena where your homework will take place is internal, and deep. Some would call it the soul. Your homework will involve some of the most challenging self-development you have ever attempted. If you take it on, however, it will allow you to relax and enjoy your life, regardless of the circumstances, and know that you are doing and being exactly what you came here to do and be – and making the world a better place in the process. Whether or not you are aware of it, this is what you have been searching for, striving for, saving for, maybe even fighting for.