Confessions of a business owner: How I let my business steal my soul

In the early years of my career, I was the typical “coffee achiever”. I was at my desk before daybreak. Once I dialed in, I burned through my to-do list. Sure, I was tired, but that’s where the coffee came in. I’ve never been so productive. A few years into this pattern I started getting feedback — from my body. I found a tired that coffee couldn’t touch. I found stiffness and soreness in places that I didn’t know could hurt. Fat, weak, tired and depressed, I knew that something had to change. I had reached my physical limits.

pensive

I’ve adjusted a lot of habits over the last few years. No more coffee, for one! Better sleep, exercise and healthier food choices have restored much of my vitality — but it’s hard work. I have to fight the temptation to pursue productivity and neglect my body.

But that isn’t the only place where I’ve run into limits. I can take care of my body but still experience anxiety, bitterness, fear, envy, and loneliness. What do we do when faced with a problem of the soul?

It is with our soul that we experience deep connection with community, the world, and God (your Higher Power, “the universe” — whatever works for you). Having a soul makes us human; connecting with and caring for that soul is an integral part of our capacity for fulfillment. You can pursue success, beauty, money, fame, whatEVER — but if you are not taking your soul into account, you will hit a wall. We see it all the time in those people who seem to “have it all”. We’re always surprised to discover that they struggle with depression, anxiety, or just emptiness. And, we see people who “have” nothing, who seem amazingly content, generous, and satisfied with their lives. The difference isn’t in the stuff. It’s in the soul.

So what’s your soul telling you?

The problem with having a soul these days is that we aren’t taught how to listen to it, or take care of it. There’s a huge industry that tells us to tune into our bodies — to exercise and eat to stay healthy. But how do we “tune in” to the soul? How do we process feedback from the soul? These questions are tough to consider when we live in a world driven by results and measurable outcomes. I use numbers and measurements to evaluate the health of my business or even my body, but I cannot apply them to my soul.

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The soul won’t fit into that kind of paradigm! To talk of the soul we need to use metaphor, analogy and story. To connect with the soul we need a different practice. We cannot force connection with the soul any more than we can summon a wild animal. If we shout, or control the process, the timid soul will run and hide, like a rare bird. Like a creature of the wild, the soul is met in a rare moment, or a place of safety.

To be purposeful about connecting with the soul, we need to cultivate safety. One way to do that is to sit still. Do nothing. Wait. I recently saw a documentary about a man who spent two years living in a hole in the ground hoping to get video footage of Siberian tigers in their natural state. Two years is a long time. It paid off. To date, no one has learned more about the social habits of the Siberian Tiger than this man. I admired him for his patience and commitment, and I thought, this is what it takes to connect with the soul. Like waiting for the tiger, we hunt for signs and hints of its whereabouts. We go there, and we wait.

This fleeting character of the soul makes it tricky to nurture. If we are already disconnected, it is only worse. We may feel anxious, alone, or afraid, but instead of hearing that soul feedback, we check our email, visit our favorite social network, or play a game. In our world filled with entertainment, technology, and consumption, it is safe to say our souls are left in the dust. Without even trying, we relegate them to the realm of some childhood memory, or the nostalgia of a one time experience that left us feeling whole.

Neglect and ignorance are one thing, but as it goes with our bodies, so it goes with our souls. The workplace kills the soul. In fact, my experience of the world of business is nothing short of violence to the soul. The Soul is nurtured by beauty, by connection to community, and by times of quiet. But the world of business is full of functional (and mostly ugly) offices; individualism is rewarded and demanded at the same time; and every quiet moment is another moment to fill with meetings and emails, notifications and “to-dos”. Nothing personal. It’s just business, is a phrase we hear all the time. It casually dismisses the violence that the business place does to our souls. We are socialized to believe that, when something tears the fiber our souls, we should dismiss it. It’s just business. We need a thicker skin.

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In this environment soul damage is continual. It is easy to become further and further disconnected from the part of our selves that sustains our humanity. In such a state, we focus on short term gains and on maximizing our outcomes in almost every arena.

But the soul governs our place in the ecosystem of humanity. When it is displaced; we are displaced. We can no more reap the benefits of community than we can offer them to someone else. Instead of attending to our soul needs we hide, work, run, or medicate. Yet the fact remains: if we want to experience real fulfillment and connection with others, we desperately need our souls. Like a child, our soul needs space, time, and attention, among other things.

Listen! We don’t take our to-do lists into the afterlife! No one ever died wishing they spent more time at the office! But I’m sure that the extra time I take to care for my soul — “unproductive” as it seems — is something I will never regret. Whether it is in silence, a slow walk outside, or extra time with my pre-schooler, I need to make room for my soul. That is how I balance a perspective that is too often skewed toward “efficiency” and “the bottom line”.

I’m not the only one on this journey. How do you care for your soul?

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Photo credit: Waag Society,  Will Claytonmendhak

Brad Farris

As principal advisor of Anchor Advisors, Brad Farris has experience leading businesses & business owners into new levels of growth and success. Through his work with over 100 Chicago area small businesses he has experience in guiding founders and business owners through the pitfalls and joys of growing their business. Prior to joining Anchor Advisors, Brad spent over 10 years managing business units for a family-owned conglomerate with sales of $2 million to $25 million.
When not working Brad enjoys cycling, cooking and the NFL. He is married with 5 children and lives in Chicago, Illinois. Connect with him on Google+, Twitter and LinkedIn.

  • http://www.aperturemarketing.co.uk/ Brian Canavan

    Been there, done that, worn and then sold the t-shirts….

    Too many of the people I know and work with have lost site of the reason for having their business and your message resonates so well with what we are finding with so many business owners.

    We all need to start planning downtime in our lives, but not the nth degree where trying to have joy becomes a burden in and of itself.

    For some money may seem to be the only driver, and that is reflected in their lives and behaviours, but we have to realise that not every one is built this way, or even should be.

    It should be LIFE:WORK balance, not the other way around after all.

  • http://www.enmast.com/ Brad Farris

    If your work leaves no room for your life then you are doing it wrong. If the priority is always 1. Work, 2. Life then you will end up with a lot of work and not a lot of life.

    It’s a hard lesson to learn — there are so many fears involved. I feel like something is needed beyond just telling people to STOP.

  • Helen Sanderson

    Brad, music to my ears! I feel like I have been banging this drum alone for years. Tell people to take quiet time out in a busy office, feed the soul, re-connect with self away from the hustle and bustle and no one hears me. So great to read this and connect.

    I am going to quote you: “The Soul is nurtured by beauty, by connection to community, and by times of quiet”. Because this is why I set up my business to design beautiful quiet spaces to give people a space to unwind in the work place, to reconnect, to see beauty and remember their soul, even if just for 20 minutes!

    I would love to hear your thoughts on this?
    thank you
    Helen

  • http://www.enmast.com/ Brad Farris

    Helen;

    That business sounds fantastic. I also saw this Tony Schwartz piece in the NYT that echoes this same thought.

    http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2014/02/14/more-reflection-less-action/

    So we’re not alone. I think we are part of a (growing) tribe.

    Thanks for your comment.

  • Helen Sanderson

    Thank you for this, more music! Time to stop, rest and think is so under-rated!
    Keep in touch :-)

  • Andy Crestodina

    You first paragraph described me to a T, Brad. I was at my desk before sunrise today. How very productive of me. I think of myself as an endurance athlete. Business is my sport.

    Thank you for this reminder to slow down, wait, breathe. I welcome it. And good news: vacation coming soon. I’ll be diving in Belize in just… 9 short weeks.

  • Diane Yetter

    Brad – thanks for such a great and open perspective. I struggle with this every day – although I’m not the up before dawn – but maybe just going to bed much too late. Winter is the toughest as it is hard to take an escape walk outdoors – particularly this winter.

  • Guest

    It may depend on the length of the race and how early you start. 13 years is a long time to be slowly growing a business – and I was 13 years younger then. In the first 5 years it was arguably necessary to put in the long extra hours – sometimes it felt like week-long sprints. But now we are established. I think the internal conflict comes from the need to feel hungry, and the self-inflicted pressure can create an artificial hunger that we once thrived on to survive. However, if we are anticipating another 13 years, we’ll need to pace ourselves – become long distance runners rather than sprinters.

  • Nancy

    Brad I think you’re right. There are fears, and there are filters people hear things through. I think sometend to hear STOP as “drop the ball and leave everyone thinking you’re a jerk” rather than as step back, slow down, connect with yourself and identify what truly makes life worth living. Do the things that matter, stop doing those that don’t. Ask for help. Take on only as much as you can handle without harming yourself.”

  • Kriss Marion

    “Like waiting for the tiger, we hunt for signs and hints of its whereabouts. We go there, and we wait.” I love this – well done, Brad!

  • http://www.enmast.com/ Brad Farris

    Thanks Kris, it’s where things are at right now — always trying to catch a glimpse of the wild animal….