Episode 5: Srikumar Rao – Creativity and Personal Mastery

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May 3, 2017

Several years ago, Srikumar Rao left a comfortable tenured position to set out as an independent professional. He now gives keynote speeches and offers his course to corporations and the general public around the world. His TED talk has been viewed nearly a million times.  Learn more about Srikumar at https://theraoinstitute.com/

Srikumar created one of the most popular courses ever at Columbia Business School: Creativity and Personal Mastery.  It is the only business school course that has its own active alumni group keeping the conversation going a decade and more after students graduate – including reunions, and Srikumar remains a beloved mentor by the thousands of students he has taught.

Srikumar is the author of two best-selling books: Are YOU Ready to Succeed?: Unconventional Strategies for Achieving Personal Mastery in Business and Life and Happiness at Work: Be Resilient, Motivated, and Successful – No Matter What.

In our show Srikumar discusses several practical exercises from his courses that students have found particularly powerful



Will Bachman: What are the origins of your MBA program, Creativity and Personal Mastery? 

Srikumar Rao: I did my PhD at Columbia Business School, then went to corporate America. My career took off like a rocket, but I got burnt by corporate politics, so I figured I’d go into academia. By the time I found out how alive and well politics was in academia, I’d already made the transition.  

I woke up one morning feeling really sorry for myself. All my life I’d been reading mystic biographies and autobiographies, and they would take me to a nice place and then I came back to the real world. I remember thinking, “If this is only useful if you’re sitting quietly thinking peaceful thoughts then it’s pretty useless.” I knew that wasn’t true, but I couldn’t figure out how to make use of it. Then I got the idea to create a course that would take the teachings of the world’s great masters, strip them of religious and cultural connotations, and adapt them so they’re acceptable to intelligent people in a post-industrial society.  

The thought of doing that made me come alive. I offered that course and it did well, modified it and it did better. I moved it to Columbia Business School in 1999, and after a couple of years it exploded. My course was the only one there that was a university-wide draw. I’ve taught it at the London Business School, at Kellogg, at Berkeley: I believe it’s the only such program to have its own alumni association. It’s progressed considerably since those days. It was and remains a personal quest. I’m doing it because this is my life path, this is my purpose. Of course, it’s also how I make my living, but it is very much a calling. 

What are some of the key takeaways you hope your students learn? 

The first one is that happiness is a choice. We are as happy in life as we decide we are going to be. We view whatever happens to us through the lens of the mental chatter we entertain and the mental models we hold, and therefore we think the world is a particular way. The good news is that you can deconstruct the parts that are not working and build it up again.  

Part of your course is an ideal job description exercise that has a remarkable impact. Can you explain how that works? 

I regularly get emails saying, “I resisted doing the ideal job exercise, but now that I’ve done it, I find that I’m in it.” What happens is that when you achieve clarity, there’s also an emotional commitment. You take one step and it’s as if the universe takes ten steps towards helping you meet what you want. Serendipitous opportunities come up that enable you to actually live the life that you design.  

I encourage people to visualize what they would like their life to be X years down the road. I invite them to visualize it in great detail, and also visualize the feeling inside. For many people it seems as though they’re indulging in creative fiction, and that’s just fine. They might have to go through three or four drafts before it gets to the stage where it feels like something that is coming through them and not from them. That’s when they find the pieces from the outside world start fitting together to lead them in that direction. My advice is do this periodically. Put some thought and energy into it because it will pay you back in spades. 

You also teach a gratitude exercise. What are its benefits? 

Virtually everybody has something in their life that is troubling them. We spend a disproportionate amount of energy focusing on the two, three or four things that we’ve arbitrarily decided are wrong in our lives, and we completely ignore the 50, 60 or 200 things which are actually pretty damn good. All of the people who attend my programs and the vast majority of people who are going to listen to this podcast are incredibly privileged. But we take all of that for granted and focus unremittingly and resentfully on minor things.  

I propose that people flip it around. Genuinely be grateful for the stuff in your life that so many others would willingly change places with you for. I recommend people do this last thing at night, before they go to bed. In the morning, instead of going immediately to, “There’s so much to do,” go back and recreate that feeling of gratitude in your head. Let it well up. The more you do it, the easier it becomes and the more things you find to be grateful about. What I would like is for everyone to be in a default emotional domain of appreciation and gratitude. When you do, your entire experience of life changes. 

Can you talk about your letter-writing exercise? 

The full exercise is to think of a person who really had a positive impact on your life, then write a letter to them, and the second part is read it out loud to that person. Tell them, “I want to read something to you. Please don’t interrupt. No conversation. Just listen.” I recommend doing it in person, but if you can’t, then over the phone is fine. Leave the letter with them. 

Half to two thirds pick a parent. I can’t tell you the number of emails I’ve gotten to the effect of, “Thank you for giving my son or daughter back to me.” My current teaching assistant’s father passed away a couple of weeks ago. She’d done that exercise and said he was so grateful — he kept that letter with him and read it multiple times. I did it to my own mother and she was enormously appreciative. It has a profound effect upon the person to whom you give it and it also has a profound impact on you. 

Do you have any other favorite exercises? 

One I’ve done many times goes back to Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar, where Brutus says, “Whether we shall meet again, I know not.” Think about that as a blueprint for living life. Every time you go out in the morning, you leave your partner and children behind. Is there any guarantee that you will ever see them again? What if you have that consciousness? What happens to all of the petty resentments, the irritations, the niggling doubts and worries that are in your head, what happens to all of them? You have a heightened level of consciousness when you bear in mind that this may very well be the last meeting. It makes life very intense.  

Few of us are capable of maintaining that level of consciousness all the time, but all of us are capable of doing it some of the time. I recommend that the next time you have an interaction with someone who’s close to you, just look at them. Give gratitude to the fact that this person is in your life, what this person means to you and how you would feel if you never saw that person again. You’ll find that it completely changes the nature of your interaction, and it changes you.  

You’re not a big fan of networking and you have an exercise that counters the whole notion. 

In my first week at Columbia Business School, we had a lecture: network, network, network. I felt uneasy with that. The idea of networking is self-serving. I have a different take: forget all about creating a network. Instead, look at the people who have impressed you. Every time you come across someone whose work inspires you, that’s the universe giving you a tap on the shoulder. Don’t ignore it. Write it down. Who’s the person? How did you learn about them? What does this person do and what feelings does it evoke in you? If you start doing that, you’ll rapidly have a list. Then reach out with a sincere email or letter saying, “Hey, this is how I learned about you, this is what you do, and this is how it inspires me.” Don’t stop there. Come up with a specific offer of help. If your offer is accepted, you will in some way make the world a better place and that will make you feel better.  

Do this on a regular basis. Reach out at least once a week to somebody. Some of your offers are going to be picked up, and when you deliver on the help that you promised, you’ll find that you’ve effortlessly forged very deep connections. If you do this regularly for a year or two, you’ll find that a wonderful network of deep long-lasting relationships has sprung up around you. 

What advice would you give to an independent professional?  

Don’t really think of growing your business. Think instead in terms of what overwhelming benefit you can produce. How will the world be a better place as a result of the services that you provide? Really focus on that. When you do, you’ll find that growing your business takes care of itself.  

Most of us set goals, then we become obsessed with whether or not we’ve met them. We live on a sinusoidal curve oscillating between elation and despair, and we tend to spend more time at the despair end of the spectrum. It’s a pretty lousy way to live life. Goals are important, but the importance of goals is that they set direction. Once the direction has been set, forget about the goals. If you live your life according to whether you met your goals or not, what you’re doing is focusing on the destination and completely missing the journey. Put all your emotional energies into the activities that help you reach your goal and you actually begin to enjoy the journey.  

When you detach from the outcome, the probability that you will achieve what you wanted increases dramatically. I have a TED talk which covers this: go to Ted.com and search for Srikumar Rao.  

You have an amazing list of recommended reading. Is that list available on your website? 

It is available to anyone. All they’ve got to do is go to my website, theraoinstitute.com. They’ll find the syllabus for the program, and when they click on that, they can access the list.  

What books do you recommend for independent professionals dealing with the ups and downs of their lifestyle 

I would strongly recommend that they get a copy of my book, Happiness at Work, because it talks specifically about how to live your life so you’re extremely successful but not prone to depression or the niggling worries that happen in entrepreneurial life. Also, go to inc.com and put down my name and “entrepreneurial terror”: a video and a piece that I’ve written are going to pop up that specifically addresses it. Another is a book called The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer. I recommend that very highly. 

What is your practice now? 

I have a range of things that I do. I deliver keynotes. I deliver half-day, one-day, two-day workshops. I have the live CPM program which is currently structured so that it’s three modules of two-and-a-half days separated by about a month, and in between you do exercises which are both individual and group. I’ve also launched an online version of CPM.  

What led you to kind of leave the academic life?  

I found that I was very constrained when I was teaching. As I mentioned, there’s a lot of politics, but the second thing is that I was constrained to their academic semester in terms of the people who could be admitted to my program, constrained in terms of the hours that I had or the teaching arrangements that I wanted. I found it’s much better for me to be on my own, plus it’s financially better for me as well.  

When you have clarity and you take a step in that direction, the universe will take ten steps towards you. Both individuals and companies who resonate with what I do are reaching out, and all kinds of alliances are happening organically. It’s exciting just to see the possibilities.  

If you could put a message on a billboard, what would it be? 

Who you’re being is much more important than what you are doing.