Harry Nelson

Integrating Professional and Inner Spiritual Life: 6 Takeaways

Several weeks ago, my friend Avner Shapiro asked me to address a group of about 20 of his former students, mostly in their 20s, on the challenge of integrating a busy professional life with an inner spiritual life. I was nervous both about addressing a topic that is outside my usual repertoire of healthcare and organizational governance (as well as one which is so personal), but was also intrigued by the challenges of articulating essentials that link professional and inner spiritual growth, and doing so with a group of millennials.

The opportunity gave me a useful chance to reflect, but even more importantly, to learn from this group. These post-college graduate students, recent college grads, and young working professionals were much further along in their own thinking about integrating their professional and spiritual lives than I was in my early 20s. I’m sharing some of the reflections that came out of our conversation in the hope that they are useful in spurring more people to have similar conversations.

I want to make the disclaimer I made at the discussion itself: this topic is inherently challenging because it goes in many different directions for different people — based  not only on different faith perspectives, but on different styles, needs, and comfort in speaking about the subject. I know many people who are squeamish about talking about their spiritual lives in professional contexts. It risks heightening consciousness about religious or denominational differences, and the divide between more religious and more secular people. I share this precisely because I believe that, if done in the right way, dialogue about integrating our professional and spiritual lives offers a powerful additional dimension to mentorship and professional development. What follows are my six takeaways about integrating professional and inner spiritual life:

1. Not paying enough attention to our inner spiritual lives can be risky. If we do not actively tend to our inner spiritual needs, we are at risk of passively being victims of their neglect. Our deepest needs are not for professional success or accomplishment, but to feel loved, respected, and valued (whether by God, or, for all of us, by the important human relationships in our lives). Paying attention to our inner spiritual needs offers the best chance we have of avoiding distraction or obstacles and finding soul-building, healthy ways of meeting these needs.

These are fires that need tending. We live in perhaps the most consumerist time in history, when trillions of dollars are being spent to persuade us at every minute of our waking lives that we can spend our way to happiness through assorted goods or services. We are inundated with other people’s judgments about success that ultimately leave many people feeling they aren’t good enough in one way or another. Is it a coincidence that suicide rates are soaring around the world, and that highly educated, highly paid, successful professionals most able to act on the consumerist impulse are among the most at risk? Consider also the rates of depression, alcohol, and drug abuse by profession. Not paying attention to this issue can amount to being “asleep at the wheel” and therefore at risk.

2.  Our inner spiritual lives require a different level of honesty with ourselves. In our professional lives, we spend our days asking each other how we are doing and often giving superficial answers. These questions are usually just a formality, no matter how sincere the questioner; the time, place, and context, whether with colleagues, co-workers, or clients, don’t allow for a full, real answer. With ourselves,  by contrast, we need to be committed to avoiding self-deceptive answers to the question of how we’re doing. We also need to focus on who we are, as opposed to the constant professional focus on what we do.  We need to check in with ourselves, look at the evidence, and figure out where we are acting in a manner that is consistent with the outcomes we want. Often how we want to be doing is not how we are doing.  Paying attention is the only way to flex and develop the “muscles” of inner spiritual reflection and, hopefully, to get a handle in the process about what we really need, whether we are “on” our path and, if not, how to get back to it.

3.  Spiritual development is a personal journey.  Whether or not you are part of a faith community, inner spiritual life is an essential part of inherently an ongoing process of individual learning, marked by evolving perspectives and insights each of us acquires for ourselves at our own pace. All of us are at different places. It’s not just that each of us has a different path, but that we need to view it as just that — a path, not a static point of adherence to a set of fixed truths.

Our lives hit points where we’ve achieved what we set out to do earlier on, and need to set new goals. Or, we get to points where we decide to give up on goals that we set that are getting in our way. Both are moments of risk, where we must take stock and plot a new course next or, alternatively, founder for lack of direction. We hit road bumps that we could never have prepared for, which test our resilience. We have different needs at different times. Inner spiritual life holds out the most potential to be a source of strength and inspiration when we treat it as an ongoing process of learning and something that is constantly evolving, like a path unfolding in front of us. We need to focus on whether we are on the path (i.e. taking action consistent with the goals we’ve set for ourselves), and if not, how to get there.

4. We need to wrestle with the tension between how much to push towards our goals and how much to accept where we are. As we get to know ourselves and our needs better, part of the challenge is calibrating when to push ourselves and when to go easier. Many successful professionals are their own worst critics. That can be a healthy impulse when it motivates us to work harder (complacency can be a recipe for mediocrity), but can also turn destructive when it doesn’t enable us to appreciate the gifts that are in front of us. This is an important, personal, and sensitive calibration point. I believe there are times when we need to push, and times when we need to go easier on ourselves. The essential challenge is to pay close attention to which is right for you in that moment. No matter whether we decide to push ourselves or ease up, we have to make sure that we forgive ourselves (and others) for what hasn’t gone as planned, so that we can focus on our new plan and not get stuck in a loop of denial, blame, or self-victimhood.

5.  Gratitude, humility, and openness are critical to our inner spiritual development. Professional success can sometimes nurture a sense of personal accomplishment and pride. While this can be healthy in building confidence in our ability to get things done, there is a significant risk that, unchecked, they turn into a sense of entitlement and arrogance, which can close us off from the world. To prevent this, we need to work on cultivating a deep sense of gratitude, humility, and openness: gratitude for the abundant blessings bestowed on us each day, humility about our own limitations and the value of others, and openness to opportunities to share, connect, give, and collaborate with other people. Getting these three fundamentals right sets on a course for growth, learning, and treating everyone around us with dignity and respect.

6. Begin with baby steps, no matter how big your endgame. While I am a big believer in the value of having a strategic plan, stretching to imagine the possibilities, and reaching for big goals, the work of integrating your inner spiritual life with your professional life stands the best chance if you begin with small steps and building daily habits in a supportive environment. My biggest mistakes and personal disappointments have come from trying to do too much, too fast. One of the things that impressed me about the young professionals that I spoke to was that they had the wisdom to use their connections with each other and with Avner to support one another. Even if your long-term plan involves radical change, start small, and check in regularly with those who support your progress.

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How do you approach the integration of your professional and inner spiritual life? What are the challenges you face?  I’d love to hear from you.

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