In part two, I reveal how my creative and business activities became overshadowed and undermined by a personal and financial crisis which triggered a profound disruption in my life and re-evaluation of its meaning. I confide the loss of my sense of authenticity and self-worth, the feeling that I had lost my soul and that my accomplishments were meaningless. And I relate my personal quandary to the crisis of meaning that society as a whole is now confronting in the wake of the pandemic and its aftermath. I ask:
“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
Breaking down inner barriers is impossible without Meaning. But how do we do it? The transactional tools of measurability and accountability that we so often turn to in the world of business provide the illusion of certainty. Probe a bit deeper, and you will find that those who relish the mechanisms of returns on investments and KPIs down to the minute detail are those most likely to find themselves uncertain and unmoored, operating within the paradigm and parameters of a flawed system. Instead, to arrive at better decision-making and a stronger society, we must be anchored by Meaning as our guiding principle.
Without Meaning, there is no ‘WHY.’ Instead, the ‘WHY’ has been substituted by the ‘What’ and entrusted to leaders with a transactional mindset. The ‘WHAT’ has been mistaken for the ‘WHY’, success has been mistaken for fulfillment, material accumulation for Meaning. Those transactional leaders find themselves incapable of reenergizing this dying belief system with innovation and transformation. They allow themselves to think and act only within the paradigm and parameters of the system that created the problems in the first place and, thereby perpetuating them, with our societies remaining complacent.
With a dissociated and suppressed ‘WHY,’ quantitative growth becomes the sole measure of success. Financial success becomes our god and demands sacrifices of the transactional ‘WHAT’ behavior in ever-increasing quantities. We no longer ask the question: how much is truly enough? In Buddhist thought, the preta, or hungry ghost, is never satisfied. Humans often also follow this path: like the transactional spirit who lives in want of material possessions, we are addicted to the pursuit of more – quantity instead of quality.
This is where I found myself when I turned 40. I was at the peak of my business success, a billionaire on paper (until the infamous Lehman autumn of 2008 when this paper value vanished), but unable to answer the simple question: Why was I trying to achieve so much? I was highly trained in the execution of ‘WHAT,’ but clueless about the reason for my being, detached from the authentic me. At a dinner with acclaimed life strategist and entrepreneur Tony Robbins, he asked me this simple question, and I realized that truth: I was successful but not fulfilled. Even more telling: I could not tell the difference between the two.
As a result, I lost connection with my inner self, my “soul.” Consequently, every wrong decision I made in my life, every person I disappointed, starting with my family, every enemy I made, was due to this ever-widening gap between the real and the projected me. I had become inauthentic, far from holistic and conscious integrity. I wasn’t the proactive co-creator of my life. Instead, I was only reacting to its shadow. I had lost my access to deeper feelings due to the barriers I built against it within myself.
Life since has taught me that this experience is more common than I thought. The endless pursuit of ‘WHAT’ over ‘WHY’ is common among most driven entrepreneurs and leaders, but it’s also present in most families. Most business dynasties. Most organizations. Even most nations. It is part of our system. It limits our capacity to love.
In the most extreme cases, the negative spiral of detachment from the sources of Meaning and vitality continues until the last bit of the values and principles that once built the WHY — and the individual’s or family’s or company’s or country’s happiness and fortune — vanish forever. Facts and numbers can’t be the only truths on which we base our decision-making. The slow, slippery deterioration of values and principles occurs amongst those who cling to the transactional status quo.
The constant compromise and sacrifice of quality for quantity creates a detachment from others, followed by a severing of ourselves from whom we truly are and from being fully alive. We become stuck to the false belief that the only remedy is a quantitative, fast-paced ‘WHAT’ lifestyle pursuing success and material attainment at any price. All this to escape the loneliness and forlornness we felt inside, detached and alienated from the conversation about the obscured ‘WHY’ within us. “When our humanness becomes the casualty,” as Ambassador Holladay, Founder of PathNorth, once said at a Path North conference I attended, “bad things happen.” The romantic German poet and philosopher Novalis stated: “Where no gods are, ghosts prevail.” Disconnected from our sacred truth and purpose, we are left alone in a realm of hungry ghosts. We fail the great mission given to us of being human. And then, we recognize too late, quoting Robbins, that “success without fulfillment is the ultimate failure.” Or as Lady MacBeth lamented: “Naught’s had, all’s spent, where our desire is got without content.”
When the pursuit of the next reward purely drives us, it sets the stage for disaster. A dopamine-driven state of mind, over the years, desensitizes the neuroreceptors in our brains. It prevents them from receiving the higher echelon hormones within our biochemical reward system. The loss of the ability to feel empathy, gratitude, oneness leads to degenerative states of the human psyche. Depression and anxiety are the guaranteed next steps on the “road to nowhere”: The “hunger for more” becomes the only state of consciousness until the soul dies. This direct correlation between Abraham Maslow’s human needs hierarchy and human biochemistry was ingeniously highlighted by the ground-breaking work of Axel Bouchon in Capitalism of Happiness.
If we examine the victim’s role in this narrative, we find ourselves following Einstein’s definition of insanity—doing the same thing twice and expecting a different outcome. Instead of taking responsibility for our self-delusion, we blame the authorities to whom we have outsourced leadership—managers, politicians, priests, gurus, or others — for not leading us to the promised land.
Instead of silently or unconsciously accepting and reacting from someone else’s narrative for our lives, we need to re-enter into the conversation with it and by this write our own ticket. Thus, we become responsible and proactive co-creators of our lives, following Gandhi’s advice “to be yourself the change that you want to see in the world” to make “life happen for us and not to us.” To quote the Sadghuru again: “The only way out is the way in.” Only from unconditional life-affirmation, a place of seeking connection, meaning, faith and love are we able to see life’s challenges, hindrances and inevitable tragedies as invitations for us to grow and reach fulfillment.This pivot inescapably demands disrupting the status quo by inner transformation.
In seeking to fill that void, we choose self-pity and selfishness over empathy. We accept the cell blocks of the system we have inherited and confine ourselves to a prison of our own making. And in constructing that prison, we harm ourselves and others.
Let’s take a bird‘s-eye view of the world. We live within a landscape of a triple divide: ecologically, economically, and culturally-spiritually. Instead of a mutually caretaking and enhancing relationship with society and the natural world, life has devolved to a game of “winner take all.” Today, we consume resources faster than our planet can regenerate. The top 1% of the world’s population has greater collective worth than the entire bottom 90 percent, and nearly a million people take their own lives every year, more than those murdered or killed in war.
We live in volatile, uncertain, and ambiguous times. We face challenges with far greater complexity than a thinking paradigm built on transactional-only leadership can solve.
The limitations of the traditional leadership mindset are obvious if we examine their most powerful representatives: Fortune 500 companies have seen their average lifespans dwindle from 75 years a half-century ago to only 15 years today. Open societies and institutions are under attack by demagogues who weaponize fear to fill the void of our missing Meaning with self-serving fiction masked as information, undermining belief in reason. People from all walks of life fall prey to the seductive power of sociopathic narcissism. They mistake the shiny entertainer and distracting noises with true leadership and wisdom.
Simply put: concentrating on ‘WHAT’ alone, on transactional quantitative parameters over holistic qualitative ones, leads to social, and personal ruin. By choosing the measurable over the meaningful functions, over what is fully alive, IQ over EQ, we approach life as a zero-sum game. We don’t ask ‘WHY.’ We aren’t able to align with the universal structures of existence anymore nor can we integrate our indeed valuable instrumental and strategic capacities, our knowledge of ‘WHAT’ and ‘HOW’, by the ever-orienting north star of a meaning-giving ‘WHY’.
Despite all the ideological and utopian “solutions” that humankind has come up with so far, capitalism and democracy have, in principle, proven to be the most efficient distribution systems of ideas and wealth ever invented. Both are not irreparably broken, but they are each cracked.
Those cracks have a simple reason: their conceptual base of thinking has, until today, remained in the rationalistic belief system of transactionalism and scarcity instead of transformation and the abundance of life. The dark side of Descartes’ universal insight into the self-conscious condition of humanity, that “I think therefore I am,” is a fear-based separateness from existence. We seek to overcome this fear by self-empowerment through reasonable insight and strategic control, by becoming “maîtres et possesseurs de la nature” (masters and owners of nature). It is, as the German Philosopher, Christoph Quarch, has discussed extensively, a belief paradigm rooted in a mechanistic mindset that has led to a losing game for people, societies, and the planet as a whole. That machine has now, suddenly and shockingly, come to a grinding, screeching halt.
What has become clear to everyone is that within the increasing pace of changing paradigms, the mechanical, transactional-only belief system is a thing of the past, a relic that should be consigned to a museum if not an attic or ash heap of history. Yes, it is a disease to be cured, a perversion (literally, “turning away”) of and from healthy human needs and values. It is urgent to realign life and the structures of society with it under the unconditional guidance of our universal ‘WHY.’
Without this strong ‘WHY’ guiding ourselves and our societies, we should not be surprised about the low tolerance for uncertainty and diversity. Demagogues have an easy time with followers who have quit the conversation and thus never developed a robust ‘WHY’ – the slogans of a leader’s cheap hero story fill their inner void, at least momentarily. They don’t develop their own personal manifestation of meaning but instead settle for worshipping, or at least tolerating, those of the idol.
Bad leaders produce bad times. But bad times can also produce good leaders. Good leaders then produce good times. But good leaders cannot emerge in the absence of good ideas and nurturing culture. We are in dire need of a new mindset if we hope to produce those good leaders or we will have little chance to see better times return. We need to rediscover or reinvent our personal and our common ‘WHY’—for the survival of our species and planet.
Riel Miller, head of Futures Literacy at UNESCO makes the point in his book Transforming the Future: Anticipation in the 21st Century that the world’s societies need to regain “literacy of the futures.”
We are asking ‘WHY’, so we have a direction. But, so far, we continue on a course towards what has failed, rather than shifting towards something that has proven it can succeed. Conventional wisdom, traditional structures, established ideologies – none of them have delivered the goods or the Good. Not for most people. Not for humanity. Not for Earth. We are out of breath. We are out of time.
Have we overlooked something in our rush to transact ourselves to “progress”? Is it the elephant in the room? Or an iceberg just beneath the surface? This is the “missing conversation” that many of us have accepted, without question, for too long. It’s time for a new conversation.
In Part 3, I relate how I reconstructed the broken fragments of my life with the help of friends and a circle of conversation which opened a new perspective on sharing secrets and discussing deep feelings from a place of openness and trust.
Initiator of The Argonauts, Stefan Beiten, is on a mission of connecting with people for the sake of taking responsibility in the world, today. Alongside his perspective as an entrepreneur, lawyer, film producer, and public speaker, he adds a social mission to his biography as a „from-Idea-to-Vision-to-Strategy-to-Execution Guy“. He had structured and placed over US$1bn investments, founded 20+ companies, raised 3 kids and produced 3 global media classics.
Become part of a community of diverse leaders growing together and changing the world.