The Necessary Inner Work

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Sep 29, 2020

We must be willing to get rid of the life we've planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.

Joseph Campbell 

Once a mentor told me that your business will grow to the exact proportion to your personal growth. Hence working on yourself as a founder is as much a critical work as your work on growing your business. Inner work is an equally important work for founders who want to grow their business. 

Often we are the biggest obstacle to our own personal and professional growth. As I wrote in my previous post, our decisions are often dictated by our personal history. We seldom can overcome our personal experiences, taste, preferences, and habitual patterns. As a result, we often operate in an autopilot. Our habitual patterns are so deeply ingrained that we seldom notice them even when they are detrimental to our growth. Consequently, we make suboptimal decisions and bad choices. Inner work allows us to overcome the limitations of our personal history and transform our world view to more productive ones. 

Every one of us has immense potential to grow. As Beatrice Chestnut writes in her excellent book The Complete Enneagram: 27 Paths to Greater Self-Knowledge, “we are the seeds of what we may become”. But few of us eventually manage to achieve our true potential because we often fall asleep to our potential and avoid the conscious work required to find our true home for growth and excellence. 

“Once upon a time, in a not-so-far-away land, there was a kingdom of acorns, nestled at the foot of a grand old oak tree. Since the citizens of this kingdom were modern, fully Westernized acorns, they went about their business with purposeful energy; and since they were midlife, baby-boomer acorns, they engaged in a lot of self-help courses. There were seminars called “Getting All You Can out of Your Shell.” There were woundedness and recovery groups for acorns who had been bruised in their original fall from the tree. There were spas for oiling and polishing those shells and various acornopathic therapies to enhance longevity and well-being.

One day in the midst of this kingdom there suddenly appeared a knotty little stranger, apparently dropped “out of the blue” by a passing bird. He was capless and dirty, making an immediate negative impression on his fellow acorns. And crouched beneath the oak tree, he stammered out a wild tale. Pointing upward at the tree, he said, “We…are…that!”

Delusional thinking, obviously, the other acorns concluded, but one of them continued to engage him in conversation: “So tell us, how would we become that tree?” “Well,” he said, pointing downward, “it has something to do with going into the ground …and cracking open the shell.”

“Insane,” they responded. “Totally morbid! Why, then we wouldn’t be acorns anymore.”

As we grow up, we become identified with a “personal ego,” which represents both a false (acorn) self that is necessary for survival and a vehicle for the self-work required to realize the fullness of the larger (oak tree) Self we may become. The perennial wisdom tradition teaches us, however, that we can create a useful separation between our false self and the rest of our consciousness through a concerted effort to know and experience our depths. Through this space between the pure awareness of our inner witness and the habits of the false self, we may effectively “dis-identify” with our personality’s programming and make room for more conscious choices, which are both directed by and supportive of our higher (oak tree) Self.”

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The true work of personal transformation begins with realizing that we can become so much more than what we already are. We have to dis-identify with our ego and break open our hearts. As Rumi said, keep breaking your heart until it breaks open. We have to accept the difficult work of self-transformation. Beatrice Chestnut puts it beautifully: 

“Before we do the conscious work of self-development, we are the seeds of what we may become. To transform from our “acorn-self” into our “oak tree–Self,” we must traverse our underground territory—allow our defenses to crack open and break down—and consciously integrate our disowned feelings, blind spots, and Shadow traits so that we can shake off the limiting outer shell of our personality and grow into all that we are meant to be. Nature brings us part of the way, but to fully manifest our potential, we need to make conscious efforts to grow—and the Enneagram can guide us in this transformation.” 

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Building a company from scratch is an all-consuming endeavor. We always have so much to do. Busyness can take over the other important aspects of our life. We forget that while working hard on our company, it is important to work on ourselves. Because to become the CEO we want to become, to become the founder we want to become, achieve the growth we want to achieve, working hard on our business alone is not enough, working hard on yourself is equally important. We have to know who we are. Understand our deepest desires. Be willing to go deeper into our true self to bring out our best.

We have to be willing to be the dead seed in order to eventually become the tree. As Jerry Colona writes in Reboot

“Learning to lead yourself is the hardest part of becoming a leader. That’s one of the things new CEOs and aspiring entrepreneurs come to me for. They come because they feel lonely; they don’t have anyplace else to put the feelings. They’ll sit on my couch or pace while they talk on the phone, pausing as we grapple with issue after issue after issue. Learning to lead yourself is hard because we are wired to look outward. We feel pain and we look up and out to see who’s hurt us. We feel loss, and the hurt gives rise to anger as we look for someone to blame. Learning to lead yourself is hard because it requires us to look at the reality of all that we are—not to fix blame on ourselves but to understand with clarity what is really happening in our lives. Learning to lead yourself is hard because it is painful. Growth is painful; that’s why so few choose to do it. Moreover, the common denominator in all our struggles is always people. When I first take on clients, I warn them that I don’t have a magic wand. Nevertheless, their wish for some elixir to mend their relationships is heartbreakingly visceral.

Learning to lead ourselves is hard because in the pursuit of love, safety, and belonging, we lose sight of our basic goodness and twist ourselves into what we think others want us to be. We move away from the source of our strengths—our core beliefs, the values we hold dear, the hard-earned wisdom of life—and toward an imagined playbook listing the right way to be. We are inevitably knocked on our asses by the demands of leading. And when we make mistakes—when we fail to lead—our identity; our sense of self; our self-esteem; our deeply held beliefs about what it will take to feel loved and safe and that we belong, as well as that most the basic ability to provide for ourselves and our loved ones, seems to implode. All too often we break down in the work of becoming a CEO, a manager, a leader. But in that breaking is the promise of a making.”

Photo by Matthew T Rader on Unsplash


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Ruhul Kader is a technology and business analyst based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He is also the co-founder and CEO of Future Startup and author of Rethinking Failure: A short guide to living an entrepreneurial life. He writes about internet business, strategy, technology, technology policy, and society. He can be reached at ruhul@futurestartup.com

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