Soul Searching

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8 min read

This story appears in the April 2000 issue of Business Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

"The really successful entrepreneurs have learned to fail well." So says Carol Orsborn, author of the bestselling Inner Excellence at Work: The Path to Meaning, Spirit and (Amacom). And she should know: Orsborn has been there, and she has some messages for hardworking entrepreneurs.

Ask yourself these questions: Do you do everything yourself because it's too much trouble to train others to do things right? Do you get anxious just hanging out with family or friends because there's so much work to do? Are you burned out? Do you get high on the feeling of being in control? Are you terrified of ? According to Orsborn, a yes to any of these questions means you're headed for a crash. Just like she was a few decades ago.

In 1971, Orsborn and her husband started a public relations agency that eventually became nationally known. They quickly learned that they and their 21-member staff were working too hard to pay full attention to details. When they announced a more relaxed approach, all but a few of their driven staff decided to leave, and the couple lost most of their 15 clients.

But gradually, success returned. Today, The Orsborn Company keeps the client list down to between five and 10. They've even expanded beyond PR to managing entertainers, and Carol makes for a lot of writing and speaking. Yet, with just one employee, sales are nearly what they were at the company's frantic high point.

Out of experience and a sense of humor, Carol founded Overachievers Anonymous, issuing 12,000 membership cards to the officially overcommitted. The only rules: no meetings, no classes, no fund-raisers. The Orsborns moved from San Francisco to Nashville, Tennessee, where Carol pursued a graduate degree in religion at Nashville's Vanderbilt University, and where she overcame a bout with breast cancer. She began writing books, including The Art of Resilience (Crown Publishing) and How to Speak the Language of Healing (Conari Press); appearing in the media (Oprah, The Today Show); and speaking at universities, at hospitals and to other professional audiences.

Some of the business groups she spoke to weren't receptive to her evolving that nurturing and maintaining a quality of life are the foundation of real and long-term success. After one speech, a comment card came back to her: "Get real."

Some years later, that person is probably reading Carol's latest bestseller. We asked her to share some insight. And if you believe that by working harder and smarter you'll be able to answer that eternal question, "Are we having fun yet?," then you need to listen up and loosen up.

Scott S. Smith:Why is it counterproductive to work harder and harder to get the job done?

Carol Orsborn: It can produce short-term results, but everything in nature needs cycles and balance. It's okay to rise to the occasion in a crisis, but you can easily forget to come down again because it's addictive and then you get exhausted. When you operate on empty, you become fearful and reactive and you over-control. You end up losing perspective and don't see what you're really doing, don't take time to notice how disgruntled your staff is. Noticing takes quiet time, contemplation, listening.

Think of a Chinese finger puzzle. The harder you try to pull out your fingers, the more it tightens. What's counterintuitive is that if you relax you can get out.

Smith:It's hard for anyone with entrepreneurial drive to shut off that overachieving engine.

Orsborn: At the point when the main transforms from inspiration and service to greed and fear, you're in trouble. And when employees operate out of that basis, they aren't productive.

Smith:How do you work fewer hours and yet bring in the sales you had when you had a much bigger staff?

Orsborn: We're more efficient now because we have some perspective. It's amazing how much time is wasted having meetings about meetings. Our goal was to have a company that supported our lives, not the other way around. It takes discipline to decide which clients to take and what promises to make.

Smith:You mention that some of the top business leaders make a habit of walking around the block or doing something creative before a major decision is made.

Orsborn: People know they have subconscious wisdom, but they don't apply it as often as they should. As work-driven as the Japanese are, they don't get right on someone to get back to work if they're daydreaming a bit. Western business tradition doesn't encourage such introspection.

We have this illusion that we can be in control of everything, and that's what some people seem to think is . True spirituality is about coming to terms with the parts of ourselves and the world, including business, that are not under our control and making peace with that.

Smith:What's so wrong about trying to control everything?

Orsborn: It's unrealistic, and what happens when something goes wrong? What will it do to you? So many books teach how to control things with new techniques. But you can't rely on them entirely because sooner or later something will happen to you that you couldn't foresee.

Smith:How does spirituality differ from self-help programs?

Orsborn: Spirituality has to do with finding purpose and inspiration regardless of what's happening to you. The more okay you are with the deeper issues about meaning, the greater your chance of having a real experience of success. Business seminars address logical ways to master things in a world of winners and losers, but they don't really deal with what happens when you've done everything in your power and things still go wrong. Too many companies slap on motivation programs like Band-Aids and don't deal with the underlying issues, like whether there is a of distrust that needs to be changed.

Smith:What do you say to someone who suddenly finds himself or herself dissatisfied with work that was previously fulfilling?

Orsborn: It can mean a thousand things. It might mean you just need to take a break. I've seen people sell their companies because they were unhappy and only later realize they just needed a vacation. I've also known others who had just outgrown their companies. Too often, people think they're uninspired because things are slipping and they need to work harder to get remotivated. That's the wrong thing to do. You need to get in touch with what's going on by contemplation. That doesn't mean you have to stop everything-too many of us are all on or all off, but there is a happy medium.

Smith:What about a step down from boredom, when someone is experiencing pain and fear?

Orsborn: The interesting thing is that every religion values periods of breakdown as part of constructive transition. When you're falling apart, the status quo has the least hold on you and you can make radical changes. A lot of "spiritual" books teach you that if you fall off the cliff, you need to get back up as soon as possible. What I'm saying is that staying on the side of the cliff is a good thing. When things are out of your control, your ability to have faith can keep you inspired even when things are falling apart around you. People who let themselves fall into the void are courageous, and ultimately they learn how to put things back together in a better way. What I found is that this is the fastest road to long-term success.

That doesn't mean you do nothing. The really successful entrepreneurs have learned to fail well. The is, when we confront our fears, they're not as bad as we thought. If we open into the pain and hurt, the wounds have the opportunity to heal.

Smith:You say that we can become enthralled with unhappiness. Why?

Orsborn: If you haven't experienced true happiness for a while, you forget what it really is. It isn't the short-term high you might have by getting a new car or a new client; it's the experience of deep connectedness and love. So many people feel cheated because they did what society said and weren't rewarded like they think they should have been. Yet desperation can be your best friend because you can open up to new opportunities.

Smith:How do you cultivate synchronicities and intuition so you know your inner wisdom?

Orsborn: The ability to be aware of these things is fragile, and the more you try to force things to bend to your will, the less space there is for them to show up.

Smith:What's the role of humility in achieving business success?

Orsborn: It's arrogant to insist you can make it happen, that it's all up to you to do on your own. You can get short-term success from that, but eventually something will go wrong that you won't be able to handle. Some people are making their millions in this economy, and it looks like they're using force of will. It seems like they can never have enough, and then they spend their careers managing these empires while sacrificing personal relationships, downtime and health. There's a difference between what looks like success and the experience of true success.

Pay attention to the nurturing of your heart-your greatest experience of success will come as a byproduct of the growth of your spirit.

Scott S. Smith writes about business issues for a variety of publications, including Investor's Business Daily.


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