Monday, July 26, 2010

"Happiness at Work" Offers a Playbook for Personal Fulfillment.

In The Fifth Discipline, which I reviewed on July 11, personal mastery is the first of five disciplines in which learning organizations must engage.   The central fifth discipline is systems thinking, which in author Peter Senge's approach, integrates and aligns the disciplines of personal mastery, mental models, team learning and shared vision.  "Happiness at Work:  Be Resilient, Motivated, and Successful--No Matter What"  by business scholar and teacher Srikumar S. Rao complements Senge's work on organizational development with a guide to personal mastery.  The book contains thirty-five short chapters, each with a mixture of philosophical arguments, pragmatic advice, parables and exercises--all designed to shift the reader's personal perspective and consequent actions. 

Rao's basic premise is that we create our own reality, not in some magical sense, but through a continuous stream of thoughts and reactions that we incorporate into perpetual internal narratives.  Like Senge, Rao asserts that we are captives of mental models of which we  are unaware, and that there is much freedom to be gained by becoming conscious of our mental strictures.   As the creators and managers of our own mental states, we can perceive new opportunities and gain new energy to pursue them.  Also like Senge, Rao urges us to focus on what we share with those around us and to seek meaningful rather than competitive interactions.  For both Senge and Rao, the value of a vision is the work it inspires us to do, not in whether the end state is realized.  While not explicitly advocating systems thinking, Rao enjoins us to see ourselves as part of a greater whole, and look for opportunities to serve the common good rather than just our own direct interests.  

There is, certainly, a fine line between systematically striving for personal fulfillment and self-interested, Machiavellian conduct.  In a chapter entitled "Standing on Slippery Rocks", Rao instructs readers to progressively sharpen their consciousness of the impacts of their actions.  Rao also asks us to trust that the world is a fundamentally benevolent place that is gradually making moral progress, even in the face of contemporary setbacks.

"Happiness at Work" is largely an artful repackaging of ideas from Zen Buddhism and elsewhere.  Many of the ideas will be familiar to those exposed to the human potential movement.   But understanding is not the same as disciplined practice, so the true value of the book arises from doing the exercises and applying the results.   In return, Rao promises a changed life, replete with energy, anticipation, commitment, fulfillment and joy--although this life may not be what the reader has planned.   

Can this work?  I read the book cover-to-cover this weekend, and did abbreviated versions of a few of the exercises.  Even though I have been exposed to much of the material before, I do feel clearer and more excited about what is ahead of me, and I think I am communicating more effectively about some difficult issues.    I plan to go through the book again, and do all of the exercises.  Stay tuned...       


  1. Some very sound points made. I'll look into getting the book. Currently reading the book, Now, Discover your Strengths by Marcus Buckinham & Donald Clifton. Based on your review of Rao's book, in an overly simplistic view of them they both tend to tell us to focus on the positive.

    PS, I have been enjoying your posts. Keep up the great work.

  2. Redwood I appreciate your comment and encouragement! In a nutshell, I would say that Rao tells us to be an intelligent, conscious observer who is free to focus and act on the positive because s/he can observe and master his reactions and positions.

  3. I've just ordered the book based on your recommendation - via the magic of Amazon's 'Whispernet.' To be fair, it's not only your recommendation that led me to get the book (though that carries a lot of weight for me!) I'm a sucker for this kind of book. I read one a couple of years ago, that while it was pretty trashy and sometimes hard to read (a little too 'touchy-feely' for me, it influenced my approach to work and life, and things actually changed for me significantly - and in very positive ways.

    The Zen masters knew a thing or two - and the power of positive thinking is, I think (if you'll excuse the pun) undeniable.

    Thanks for the review!

  4. Thanks, Vaughan. Enjoy the book!