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From Hustle to Flow: Rethinking The Narrative of Success and Spirituality
Why aren’t more people interested in spirituality as a means to building a life they love?
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I have been noticing how disconnected spirituality is from the perception of worldly success. There seems to be a belief that investing in this internal work conflicts with or has a minimal impact on external goals, rather than seeing it as a way to remove all the blocks to achieving them.
I can’t say that I’m surprised by this dynamic. It’s not like all the most successful people in the world are out there crediting their spiritual evolution for their achievements.
I have encountered many entrepreneurs who are hesitant to earnestly investigate spirituality or psychedelics because they "don't want to lose their edge." They have found meaning in their lives by accomplishing through traditional Western models so abandoning them seems ineffective or even catastrophic!
I find this fascinating because my experience has been the exact opposite; the more I have invested in my spiritual growth, the more abundant and prosperous my life has become, both inwardly and outwardly.
So, how did we end up here? And what beliefs would need to be changed in order to change the narrative?
What Is Spirituality?
I think one of the reasons why there is a perceived incompatibility or reluctance to invest in spirituality is because it means different things to different people. This can lead to many misunderstandings about what it is and how it can improve one's existing experience.
I view spirituality broadly as the pursuit of understanding and connection to something greater than oneself. There came a point in my journey where I had exhausted making meaning through crafting the perfect life professionally, socially, physically, and financially, and this new quest became far more interesting.
I realized the limitations of my old strategy of focusing on everything outside myself to deliver and that it was time to focus inward. This was nerve racking because I didn’t know what the switch in allegiance would mean for my outer world.
Was I destined to be poor?
Would my career disappear while all the effort I had put into my physicality slowly faded away?
I never seriously thought that the inner changes I would make could greatly improve my ability to thrive in the outside world more than the old methods I was using. I just wanted to feel more love and joy.
I believe there are many people out there who are starting to realize that what they have been doing is not working just like I did. There is an underlying feeling of “Fuck, why does this feel so hard?!” And maybe even a sense of exhaustion from living with such conditional joy and fulfillment. However, they are scared to leave the existing paradigm they have been relying on for so long. It feels risky.
Having experienced both sides, I hope to provide some clarity that may encourage someone out there to take the big leap or "get on with it" as Ram Dass puts it.
Where Does The Perceived Incompatibility Of Thriving Externally and Spirituality Arise From?
At the core, I believe there are universal human aspirations to be joyful, prosperous, and find meaning in life; it is how we get there that causes people to diverge.
Let’s examine some underlying reasons why many of us view success and spirituality as tenuously linked.
In American culture, the predominant narratives are that what we have, what we accomplish, and the experiences we accumulate are what make us feel the way we want to feel. This is why we are so driven to succeed - we have been conditioned to think that it will make us happy!
What is so compelling about this strategy is that the outcomes are easily observable; you can easily reflect on what your house looks like, maintain a list of accomplishments on LinkedIn, or go on nice vacations to gain a sense of accomplishment in life as if you are playing the hand you’ve been dealt well.
Spiritual evolution is not easily measured in such black-and-white ways. The changes within our inner landscape are often more gradual and subtle compared to something like our bank accounts or body mass index. This means that your reward may be something that only you can perceive.
Inevitably, a transformation like this will have a dramatic downstream impact on where and how you focus your energy. This is where things get cloudy between connecting internal transformation and external results. Investing in something like inner transformation, which is less known and predictable, instead of focusing on traditional measures of success can feel risky. This makes the trade-off more difficult:
“I can invest energy in this thing I’ve been conditioned to believe will improve my life that is easily understood, or invest in this more nebulous activity with an unclear payoff.”
Because we tend to think of time as a zero-sum game, there seems to be a trade-off. When I was running my startup, I evaluated all activities against what I perceived would make the company most successful. Inevitably, I put spirituality on the back burner because there was no obvious correlation between that investment and my goals relative to focusing on other activities.
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Religious Narratives + Experiences
Many of our beliefs about the incompatibility of thriving in the material world and spirituality come from religious doctrine. It is common for people to equate religion with spirituality. Religions are man-made institutions, whereas spirituality is your own connection to something beyond yourself. Many religions and wisdom traditions are meant to be sources of inspiration and guidance for the inner quest, but spirituality and religion are completely separate things.
It’s like saying school and knowledge are the same things. School can contribute to your intellect, but it’s not an accurate measure of your intellectual capacity.
Many religious and spiritual traditions emphasize the importance of simplicity and detachment from material possessions. In Christianity, there is the concept that it is difficult for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. In Buddhism, the concept of non-attachment is central to spiritual growth, and materialism is considered an obstacle on the path to enlightenment. These ideas seem to minimize one's experience of the external world, which opposes the capitalist happiness narrative that advocates experiencing as much as possible.
I know I had a lot of baggage from this Christian programming when I tried to balance the desire to thrive in my career and spiritual evolution.
What you come to learn is all these ancient traditions are merely trying to redirect the focus from the outer world to the inner world. It’s my belief that the pull from the outside world is so strong that without advocating for such a strong reorientation, most people will just treat their inner experience causally preventing the deepest levels of realization. This dynamic more so than any actual incompatibility is the foundation of these pointings.
But once the inner prioritization and inner transformations occur, there comes a point where you emerge in a way that harmonizes the inner and outer world which now takes on an entirely new perception.
It seems like it is a common archetype to go from entirely outwardly focused → predominantly inward focused → merging of the inner and outer.
I also acknowledge the difficult direct experiences with these man-made institutions that many people have had. I’ve had a number of friends who’ve been the recipient of misconduct by the leaders of religions which made them disenchanted with engaging in the broad category of spirituality.
No Clear Mechanism
The predominant worldview of thriving in our culture is based on a self-deterministic view of reality. Your prosperity in the outside world is based on making great decisions, working hard, and maybe a bit of luck more so than improving your direct connection with the divine. This view is a derivative of the majority’s experience, cultural icons, and the media. It also happens to be something that’s easy to grasp.
The notion that there is some larger force at play quietly orchestrating the events of reality is something that only becomes evident at a certain level of awareness. As we shift our reality view, we shift our attribution model for things like external success.
In some ways, it’s a chicken or egg problem as it relates to an interest in consciousness. You need to expand your awareness to reshape your reality view, but there’s not as much interest in expanding your awareness until the connection is made.
Even then, how can a connection to the divine positively impact the material world practically? This is what the next section is about.
One thing I find interesting is that many great modern-day leaders cite emergent features of expanded consciousness as part of their success, yet don’t attribute it to a divine connection. How many leaders talk about the importance of following intuition as the key to their success, yet fail to cite where that intuition is coming from?
It seems as though there is almost an unconscious competence vs. an acknowledged attribution. Many some people are just born with this part of their awareness turned on which prevents them from the noticing a transformation?
It may also be a literacy issue. Most people don’t know that when they clear the inner gunk out of their subconscious, they become the recipients of clear, inner directives for the greatest good.
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Divergence With Mental Models Of Thriving
Spirituality also competes with existing mental models for what creates success and joy. This includes following the guidelines of cultural icons, science, empirical evidence, or rational thinking which creates a strong allegiance to these things.
For example, people like having a good body and it feels good when they get attention from others. They got the body by diligently following the latest scientific-based diet and workout advice. So they develop a strong association with following the latest science with achieving happiness and joy.
Another example of a mental model would be consumerism and happiness. All else being equal, I think most people would agree that living in a majestic beachfront condo probably beats living in a shack with a dirt floor. It never occurs that there is actually a third door where someone could feel absolutely marvelous regardless of what their body and house looked like.
There are also instances where people believe spirituality directly opposes their lived experience. Many entrepreneurs sometimes fear doing the emotional healing work because they think it will remove their drive to succeed which they credit for their success. This is a common misunderstanding. The baby does not get thrown out with the bath water and unaddressed psychological pain only gets worse over time, ultimately making you more fragile.
Perception That Your Mental Model Is Working For You
I’m in this big text group with 100s of startup founders who’ve sold their companies. What I find interesting is that anytime I’ve brought up any spiritual reference, there’s little-to-no engagement relative to things like QSBS loopholes which is a way to make more money when you sell your company.
If I had to guess, I think most of these people probably consider themselves to be winning the game of life. Society told them that if they make bank and create awesome things in the world, they’d get what they were looking for. And for some, this seems to be enough. As a result, there is no motivating factor to evolve their perception of reality.
It seems like in the absence of life introducing a transformational crisis that breaks down the existing source of meaning or paradigm, most people just follow the default narrative.
Why life seems to serve these experiences up to some and not others, I really can’t say.
The Buddhists and Hindus would cite this as Karma! But who knows?
I’ll Prioritize This After I’m Successful, Rich, and Life Is “Set Up”
The last thing I’ll say is that even if we sense that spirituality might have some impact on our ability to thrive in the world, we tend to deprioritize it relative to traditional narratives.
For a long time, I acknowledged that there seemed to be some wonderful potential associated with enlightenment and spiritual growth. It just felt like something that I could put energy towards when I had everything else figured out. I had the idea that being successful would create a pathway to everything else.
Success -> money -> relationships I wanted -> contribution = perfect life and ability to be happy.
After these dominoes fell, THEN I’d get to the whole enlightenment thing.
This was the web I had created which put investing in inner joy and realization at the very end.
What I didn’t realize at this juncture was that my equation was entirely conditional. Moreover, even if I did thread the needle and accomplish all these things, which some would say I actually did, looking around it seemed like this calculus often didn’t check out.
How many people have the first 3 boxes checked and are miserable?
I think this is how most people in the west think.
A New Narrative Of Spirituality and Thriving
I could talk non-stop about all the ways spirituality has enhanced my ability to thrive in the external world, but I’m going to do my best to boil it down to a few big ideas that I think are poorly marketed. These are my attempts to distill and illuminate the “unclear” mechanisms that are missing from the narrative that spirituality and worldly success can go hand in hand.
Chasing Blips vs. Improving The Baseline
For most of my life, my experience looked like chasing blips of happiness. I was constantly playing a game of achieving like crazy across all aspects of life to get these temporary hits of feeling good. One example of this would be the long haul of striving to sell my company and eventually doing it.
The truth is you enjoy feeling epic for a few days, are more secure with your finances, and enjoy mini ego hits when people acknowledge the achievement in the aftermath. But outside of that which is 99.99% of your life moments, you’re stuck with how being YOU feels inside.
At some point, you realize you’ve been on this achievement treadmill to feel good and there’s no end in sight. You see how fragile this experience is and recognize that maybe there’s another way to work directly on what it feels like inside. You wonder if it is possible to find more joy in everyday things vs. solely around the goalposts of achievement.
After the introduction of a crisis, what became clear to me was that going inward through spirituality was an opportunity to work more directly on improving my baseline state. It was less about tarot cards and sound bowls and more about adjusting my strategy to feel good for the vast majority of the time I wasn’t completing a major accomplishment. In addition to the exploration of improving the baseline, there was also the concept of decreasing the variance from the baseline; said another way, having less shit bother me and take me out of peace. The word for this is equanimity.
Having both an improved baseline state and more equanimity makes you function more effectively at everything in the world. I’m a more poised entrepreneur, loving partner, patient son (mostly), and thoughtful friend. Juxtaposed to when I was trying to control everything and everyone to achieve happiness blips, both my inner and outer worlds are vastly improved.
You come to realize that your relationship with your inner world is the source of all joy and meaning in life, but sadly, most of us are programmed to focus our gaze outside ourselves for what can only be found within.
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Hours worked in the day are not what is responsible for the most transformative creations in the world. Creativity and breakthrough ideas, aided by doing the work, are what changes the world. If you have the hard work without the creative genius, there’s a pretty obvious ceiling.
The amount of expanded creativity one experiences as one removes all the inner blocks from greater levels of awareness far exceeds anything than I could have ever imagined. Sometimes I wish I could clone myself to birth all the amazing ideas that magically take form in my awareness into existence. This is hard for anyone besides you to measure in the short term, but over time I suppose what and how you create evolves will leave an obvious signature.
I don’t really see many religions or spiritual traditions talking about how spirituality can transform you into a creative dynamo. And obviously, there’s the credibility issue again due to the tenuous link between the world’s greatest creatives and spirituality. However, there does seem to recent world class creatives making the connection.
Flow & Ease
The notion that things could come together easily vs. having to grind for it is so foreign to our cultural narrative that it seems like an impossibility. For the first 30 years, I was grinding it out for every achievement. I viewed reality as entirely self-deterministic; you get out what you put in which includes the quality of decisions you make!
Over the past few years, my view of reality has changed quite a bit. It’s not that the previous narrative is completely off, I just now think there is more going on here.
The notion of being separate agent struggling to control everything outside myself has been replaced by the idea of being part of an interconnected system. With the recognition of the system and it mirroring your total consciousness, you begin to exercise more power in the system as you purify your unconscious programs.
Practically, this means that the things you desire just flow into your life much easier because there are no longer conflicts between the unconscious and conscious mind. You come to see the degree of flow and ease with which life comes together is directly correlated to your depth of awareness.
What can be challenging about getting buy-in on this idea is that the expanded awareness must come before the ease and flow. It’s why many people experience such poor results with concepts like manifesting and then relegate it as bullshit. No one tells them they need to transform their consciousness first for it actually to work.
Realizing this phenomenon is one of the most awe-inspiring experiences you could ever have. Unlike what many people might infer, this doesn’t mean you don’t do anything. That would be boring as hell. Instead, it empowers you to spend more time doing what you are uniquely good at and enjoy. Spending more time in flow is one of the biggest keys to our happiness. It becomes much easier to do this when you have removed the unconscious blocks that prevent things from coming together easily.
It’s not so much the contents of life that make it challenging, it’s more our reactions to it. I spent most of my life trying to control things because I was afraid of what would happen if I didn’t. In doing this, I created an inner prison of worry and stress that detracted from the moment-to-moment experience of life itself. When I was trying to achieve something, there was an ambient worry that I’d fail. When I did achieve something, there was a subtle worry that I’d lose it, not have enough time to experience it, or fail to replicate it again.
One of the most profound shifts that occur at certain depths of awareness is moving into unconditional trust. This trust arises from the inner work vs. from reality perfectly conforming to how you want it. One source is stable and the other is fragile. The biggest thing that helped me move into greater depths of trust was to notice when I was not trusting and work with these emotions and thought forms.
Over time the texture of my experience moved from needing to control to curiosity and wonder. Something that previously might have been viewed as an inconvenience transformed into “hmm I wonder where will this take me?” I began to trust the direction of life itself which empowered me to move through the world more at ease and confidently. Part of trusting life became learning to trust the inner guidance that arises from stillness vs. defaulting to the rational mind. As I did this, many amazing synchronicities in my outer experience followed.
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Love, Bliss, and Interconnectedness
As discussed earlier in this article, there are universal human desires to experience joy, prosperity, and meaning; everyone is just taking different strategies to get there. My original tact was to try to create more moments where reality gave me this by working outside-in vs. inside-out.
What I came to realize is that the capacity for heightened and more frequent high-quality emotions is actually a process of removing the inner programs that block them. I know this might sound like a crock of B.S., but your natural state before the world molds you is joy, love, and interconnectedness. Then the imprinting of life’s events cause us to forget.
When you start to focus inward on untangling lots of imprints and patterns responsible for covering your natural state, you begin to restore your original essence. There are countless metaphors for this across wisdom traditions, but one I discovered recently is blowing the dust off the mirror. As this happens you just have more love for everyone and everything around you without all the conditionality. This makes you a more effective partner, parent, co-worker, and leader. It also makes the whole damn thing more enjoyable! I’ve always loved the Tony Robbins quote:
“You can achieve to be happy or you can be happily achieving.”
I think a lot of people place themselves in the second camp, but they’re really in the first. They just aren’t even conscious of what happily achieving even feels like.
The Paradox Of It All
My teacher once told me that with greater levels of realization come greater levels of love and power. When the ego is the predominant actor this is music to your ears. More power? Hell yeah! This usually transpires into using spirituality to get something which is a natural part of the early phases of the expansion of consciousness.
The irony is that once you have the power, many things you previously cared about no longer seem compelling. When my teacher told me this would happen, it scared me. Does this mean that I’m destined to be poor!?
No. In fact, quite the opposite if that’s what you want.
The funny thing is that all the stuff that you used to hold on a pedestal like lots of money, status, lavish experiences, possessions, and even fitting in just no longer have the pull that they used to. Material goals provide direction and opportunities to learn and evolve, but they aren’t seen as a source of happiness. This doesn't mean you can’t have or appreciate these things, it’s just that they’re not as interesting as discovering deeper levels of truth, reality, and the unlimited potential of your own inner space. I consider exploring this to be the greatest of all living adventures.
I’ve gone hard on both sides of how to approach cultivating a prosperous and joyful life experience. For me personally, prioritizing the investment in inner transformation has yielded better outcomes in the inner AND outer world. Though my definition of success has changed, I think this all will result in more of what we traditionally deem success to be. Mechanically, we can attribute this to improvements in my inner state, creativity, flow, trust, and divine intuition. And if it doesn’t materialize, I’m totally okay with it.
Obviously, many people will read this and say well where’s the proof dude? Well, I don’t think I’m a schlep, but obviously, there are a lot of people out there who've achieved a lot more than me and who are clearly advocating for a different path.
I’m happy for them and want inner/outer joy and prosperity for everyone. I’m only here to share the observations of my own experience. Perhaps it will speak to someone who's timidly dangling their foot in the waters of prioritizing working inside-out that it’s okay to finally take the big leap.
We are all on our own evolutionary timeline as a part of the interconnected system of consciousness. This means that there is no need to change, fix, or convince anyone. But this does not prevent us from following the inspiration to share that which we hold dear to us; to wish the same profound transformations for all that are open to a new approach to the same universal aspirations we all have: joy, meaning, connectedness, and love.
I am optimistic about the narrative of spirituality evolving from something that takes us away from succeeding in the material world to a vital component for us thriving. And part of this story changing is a greater emphasis on connecting the dots between inner transformation and outer expression.
Let us watch closely as it continues to unfold!
Big thanks to, , , T Callahan, Makela Picher, and Prateek Singhal who gave some great feedback in the drafting of this piece.
If you liked reading this, feel free to click the ❤️ button on this post so more people can discover it on Substack 🙏
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