By Wendy Carlson
When he was in college, August Turak taped a quote by the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky to the brokendown refrigerator that he shared with four roommates. Every time he opened the door to grab some leftover pizza or bottle of Pilsner, there it was staring him in the face: “Man is a mystery. If you spend your whole life trying to puzzle it out, do not say you have wasted your time. I occupy myself with that mystery because I want to be a man.”
“That quote has adorned every fridge I’ve owned or rented since,” says Turak, now an award-winning author, businessman, speaker, and contributor to Forbes.com and the BBC. Turak is the founder of Self Knowledge Symposium Foundation (SKSF), a spiritual and educational nonprofit. His book, Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks, was published by Columbia Business School in 2013; last fall his Templeton Prize-winning essay, Brother John: A Monk, A Pilgrim, and the Purpose of Life, was published in hardcover by Clovercroft Publishing, featuring 22 original oil paintings by artist Glenn Harrington.
Now, with two more book ideas in the works, Turak has finally found the answer to one of life’s deep questions — what is a life worth living.
Turak has been on a spiritual path since he was a student at Hotchkiss. Raised in a large, Catholic, lower-middle-class family in Pittsburgh, he arrived in Lakeville as a lower mid. As a scholarship student, he quickly experienced “a cultural shock of epic proportions,” he says.
“My first two years at Hotchkiss were traumatic. I was deeply homesick, failing in my studies, underachieving at sports, and finding it extremely hard to fit in and make friends. I was failing, and my attempts to explain this phenomenon to myself made me introspective. Those first two years were the crucible that formed my character. I was wedged between the irresistible force of my parents, who refused to let me quit and come home to my comfort zone, while Hotchkiss was the immovable object that refused to lower its expectations just to accommodate me. In this sense, Hotchkiss became my first Zen koan — a problem that can never be solved but only transcended.”
At Hotchkiss, he began to question the deeply held beliefs and assumptions he had always taken for granted, which helped to transform him into the deep thinker he remains today. By his senior year, everything fell into place. He learned the value of determination; and he knew what it meant to transcend a problem through personal transformation.
“I came to Hotchkiss with very limited dreams and expectations. I graduated with the sense that anything was possible if I was just willing to make the sacrifices and pay the price,” he says.
Turak went on to attend the University of Pittsburgh, where he studied Russian history. He took a five-year hiatus when he was a junior to study with the mystic and Zen teacher Richard Rose, whom he met when Rose was giving a talk in Pittsburgh in the summer of 1972. Soon after, Turak cut his shoulder-length hair and began scheduling lectures for Rose on college campuses. While still in his early 20s, he began giving talks himself on Zen Buddhism and mysticism. He traveled throughout the eastern United States, working to support himself as an independent carpet installer, sometimes living out of his van and showering in college gyms. In Cleveland, he lived in an abandoned ice cream parlor with four likeminded Zen followers, sleeping on wood pallets covered with carpet scraps. At that time, he had zero interest in business, but his stint as an itinerant carpet installer gave him his first taste of the challenges of entrepreneurship.
During this period, he was always hungry to meet anyone who could shed some light on the spiritual questions that constantly plagued him. One day he buttonholed the owner of a Washington D.C. bookstore.“Who do you know around here that can teach me something about life?” he asked him. The owner gave him the phone number of Louis. R. Mobley, the first director of the IBM Executive School from 1956 to 1966. Mobley was a spiritual seeker, too: He had become so successful at IBM precisely because he informed the curriculum at the IBM Executive School with spiritual and philosophical ideas, Turak says.
Mobley made a deep impression on Turak. After returning to the University of Pittsburgh to finish his senior year, he contacted Mobley, who ended up inviting him into his home in Maryland and tutoring him in leadership and spirituality. In turn, Turak offered to find clients for the small consulting business Mobley had started since retiring from IBM.
“I got a priceless education from a great man. But even then, I was not interested in business,” Turak says. “Carpet installation and Louis Mobley taught me so much, but the business benefits of my education were accidental. They were simply the by-product and trailing indicator of my aspiration toward things so much bigger than business.”
In 1981, he started working for a fledgling company that launched MTV. After working for MTV, then for the Entertainment Channel, which later became A&E, he was offered a job in 1985 with a software startup in North Carolina. Later, in 1993, Turak and three of his spiritual buddies started their own highly successful company.
“While I looked like a businessman who happened to be interested in spirituality, I was actually a spiritual seeker who happened to have a pretty good sideline in business. In fact, my main interest in business was what it could teach me about myself, other people, and human nature generally.”
Meanwhile, he had resumed working with college students at North Carolina State University, and later at the University of North Carolina and Duke University, where he gave lectures on his spiritual journey. Although a financial success, Turak faced a major life crisis in 1996, after several Duke students convinced him into going skydiving with them as a “team building activity.” Upon landing, he shattered his right ankle and ended up in the hospital for a week. There, he began having panic attacks accompanied by deep depression. “Despite all the spiritual work I thought I had done, I suddenly realized how afraid of dying I was,” he says.
Shortly after his accident, another one of his Duke students called to tell him he was spending the summer at the Trappist monastery of Mepkin Abbey outside Charleston, S.C., as a monastic guest.
“Instantly and without thinking, I asked if I could come that very weekend,” he says.
That winter, Turak returned to the Abbey as a monastic guest. On that rainy Christmas Eve, Brother John, who ran the guest program, shared his umbrella with Turak as they walked together back to their rooms. This simple, but profound encounter, was the beginning of Turak’s journey of recovery from his skydiving accident and his bout of depression to embracing a purposeful life. In 2004, the transformative time he spent at the Abbey inspired him to write his Templeton prizewinning essay, “Brother John.”
“In the beginning, I wrote the piece from the experience of what it is like to feel broken, desperate, and alone, and later from the experience of what it feels like to be transformed and miraculously put back together through grace.”
Winning the $100,000 Templeton Prize for his essay was a pivotal moment for Turak: It turned him into a writer overnight and launched a second career. After that first visit to the Abbey in 1996, he spent years, off and on, living and working with the monks at Mepkin Abbey. The experience informed his first book, Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks: One CEO’s Quest for Meaning and Authenticity.
Today, when not traveling for lectures and interviews, he lives on a 75-acre cattle farm in North Carolina that he shares with his brother, Tom. His non-profit helps people find a sense of meaning and higher purpose in a world that for so many seems increasingly bereft of meaning and purpose.
Meanwhile, he is mulling over two book ideas: the story of how he met Richard Rose, and the miraculous things that happened to him when he was a student under Rose’s tutelage. The other is a series of real-life stories documenting the amazing encounters he has had on his spiritual odyssey.
And he still heeds the passage by Dostoevsky taped to his fridge — though he seems to have found his life purpose. “For 30 years my life was all about searching, trying, and hopefully, finding. It was all about becoming,” he says.
“My life now is one of just being. Being and boundless gratitude.”