This week guest host Rohan Gunatillake of 21awake.com interviews spiritual entrepreneur Nick Jankel. They explore the notion of “enlightened entrepreneurship,” discussing why it is that spirituality and business often seem at such odds. Nick shares some of his own background and aim in business and speaks about the secular path of an entrepreneur as bodhisattva. The conversation winds down with a discussion of the “cult of the individual” and how egoic behavior is so often rewarded in business, the nature of unhealthy power in enterprise, and a call to a more peer-to-peer form of spirituality.
Vincent: Hello, Buddhist Geeks. This week we have a guest host, Rohan Gunatillake from 21Awake.com. Rohan, it’s good to have you back, buddy.
Rohan: Hi, Vince. It’s great to be here.
Vincent: So who are you speaking with this time?
Rohan: Well this time I spoke to a guy called Nick Jankel.
Nick Jankel: Hi, my name’s Nick Jankel. I currently live between Los Angeles and London, developing a number of media and multimedia and tech projects all focused around where personal transformation and social change intersect.
Vincent: Cool. I understand you and Nick go way back as friends, so it must have been a pretty interesting conversation exploring this stuff together.
Rohan: Yeah, it’s really great. Nick and I have known each other for a few years now and we had a really wide-ranging conversation. Everything from the potential of new innovative spiritual products, all the way to how being an entrepreneur can actually be a spiritual practice in itself.
Vincent: Nice. I can’t wait to hear it.
Rohan: Now Nick, I thought it would be really fun to start with a really classic quote, which we both really like and is used up and down meditation halls and satsang rooms and any spiritual classes. And maybe it’s the most famous saying of the great 20th century Indian sage, Mr. Nisargadatta Maharaj. So why don’t you say the quote and then we’ll start from there.
Nick: “Wisdom tells me I’m nothing. Love tells me I’m everything. Between the two, my life flows.”
Rohan: What’s this got to do with entrepreneurship?
Nick: Well, the entrepreneur is set up in society to create ideas, to create businesses, to create change through their own personal efforts, their drive, their ingenuity, their brilliance. And of course the rewards are that you get fame and fortune, hopefully both, for most entrepreneurs. And therefore you need a very keen sense of eye. You need a sense of your own genius, your own creativity, your own talents. Otherwise you can’t get stuff done, basically. At the same time you also… well I personally make sure I remember that the world doesn’t need me at all. The world will carry on just as it is without me. And as soon as my ego becomes uncoupled and takes control of the project, rather than my heart and the purpose and the compassion that I’m operating from, things start to go awry for me. And I see the same for other people.
So this quote just keeps me remembering that it’s the middle way. There has to be an absolute balance between knowing that you are a force of change. You are important. There is something you can do. If you see something that hurts you or you feel is suffering that need not be there, then it is your job to step up and do something. At the same time, it reminds you that if you lead with that energy, you end up being what I call the con-activist, which is essentially judging the world or forcing your view on the world, which also then obviously creates personal suffering. Because as soon as you are an entrepreneur that is out of balance, you start to realize you haven’t done as much as you wanted to do. You haven’t got as far as you wanted to get. You haven’t made as much impact as you want to make. You haven’t made as much money as you want to have made. And you start to sort of suffer from a sense of lack.
So this kind of quote really keeps me in the kind of target, the sights, of my personal journey, which I’ve mentioned to people is a kind of… my personal koan is to resolve the seeming paradox or the tension between being an entrepreneur, committed to social and spiritual rejuvenation and regeneration and creativity, at the same time as a practitioner of non-duality around melting myself constantly into Big Mind, Big Heart, oneness, the void, whatever you want to call that.
And it’s an amazing challenge for a life. I live it every day. From the minute I get up in the morning, I’m looking at my emails, to the minute I get back, you know, go to sleep at night, I am living this balance between action, doing, solving problems, and being a nothing.
Rohan: You have a lovely phrase for this, which is “enlightened entrepreneurship.”
Nick: Yes, exactly. Because entrepreneurship is deemed by society, or certainly a lot of spiritual practitioners, as exceptionally unenlightened. I think that’s actually the spiritual traditions have lost out a little bit in today’s modern world, through sort of rejecting entrepreneurship. And also a key part of that, which is marketing, branding.
Which really, when you really discern beneath them, they are actually agnostic, or they can be agnostic. They don’t need to be attached to the worldview that they usually are attached to, which is about making money for big companies or making money for yourself. So, I believe that entrepreneurship can be reframed, and be not just a source of enlightening projects, enlightening media, enlightening tools, enlightening ideas, but also a source of enlightenment for oneself, by living this kind of daily practice of doing lots and having plans and goals and lists and ambition, I guess.
Rohan: Sure, and let’s talk a little bit about those two things.
Rohan: So, you mentioned that you’re involved in a number of different projects. You’re sort of quite prolific in the number of things you’re involved in. Could you just sort of say a little about what sort of things are keeping you up at night at the moment?
Nick: I’m working on a number of TV shows as, I guess, a life coach is the easiest way to say what I do to most people. But within that, my kind of angle is to bring a sense of the mystical, the spiritual into people’s living rooms without them realizing it, really.
And then I’m working on a couple of exciting online projects. One is a peer-to-peer life coaching and emotional intelligence website that fits on Facebook, so it’s community-led co-creativity-type stuff for young people. That’s very exciting. And then my big project I’ve just launched is a travel project. It’s kind of like a travel business, really, which is all about transformational travel. So, helping people and encouraging people and informing people of the cultural traditions and rituals and festivals that they can go and experience that will help them uncover themselves, let go of some of their pain, suffering, trauma, and become more committed to shared creativity, collective creativity, and the relief of suffering. So yeah, that’s the travel site.
So yeah, basically I work in the nexus of technology and media. One reason I’m in California is I believe it’s five of the big ingredients for global and individual rejuvenation are really hot in California. There’s a very big innovative spiritual scene here. You’ve got the tech scene in the Bay, Silicon Valley. You’ve got the media scene in Hollywood, very powerful, very open to transformational content. You’ve got the social change movement, social entrepreneurs, that whole movement. And then to sort of underpin it all you’ve got some of the greatest scientists in the world, and loads of science on meditation, science of altered states, etc.
So I’m kind of here because I believe that they need to interweave together to really do some of the stuff that we’re doing, and I think that’s what Buddhist Geeks is doing so brilliantly, is interweaving some of these disparate fields to create joined-up offers, content that’s both content-inspiring but also enabling. It’s got tools, and has a underlying business that makes it sustainable.
Rohan: Yeah, so that’s a really good picture of the types of projects you’re involved in. I’m really interested in this idea of entrepreneurship as a practice in itself.
Rohan: Because that’s almost an anathema, because like you say, there’s a bit of baggage. It’s the whole sort of issues around money, issues around business being bad…
Nick: Totally, when you experience the word business as a 1980’s Gordon Gekko or champagne on Wall Street, etc. it’s very easy to discount it. But if you actually strip away what business is, you can actually see it as the greatest force of ingenuity on the planet, because one person essentially goes, “Oh, why is that done that way? Maybe there’s a better way of doing it.” And in fact, if you think of it, most of the great sages have essentially been people who have been disruptors, who have gone, “Hold it a minute, this way of doing things with all these Indian gods and everything, it’s all a bit much. Maybe there’s another way of doing things.” So, if you see business as just a seed of one person going, “Why this? Maybe there’s something else possible,” then you suddenly start to see business as an opportunity for creating social and spiritual transformation.
Nick: Essentially. But, and then there’s still the hard work afterwards of stripping out all the other parts of business which do come along with it.
So, one of the things about entrepreneurship, as a practice, which is really challenging is building the right set of rewards and drivers for oneself, because obviously we need to live with money, but if it’s the fundamental driving force you’re going to get trapped. And again, I’m no expert on Buddhist texts, but I see myself as some kind of contemporary, maybe more secular version of the Bodhisattva vow around my purpose is to bring a sense of liberation to as many people’s lives as I can, using the richness of media and technology to do that.
Rohan: A couple of things really struck out when you were talking, but one is this idea of the entrepreneur as Bodhisattva, and how framing your work and your mission, because we often in spiritual circles, we talk about service, but that’s almost in a Christian charitable type way. That has those overtones, really.
Rohan: But taking very much on the sort of entrepreneurial angle seems really important. And something I’m also interested in asking you about is: in all the, be it sort of business literature or management books and all these things around entrepreneurialism and so on, the “cult of the individual” is really important, and it reminds me a bit of the position of the guru or the teacher in spiritual circles or in Buddhism around how people aren’t important unless they’ve written a book, or people aren’t important unless they’re heading up something. And so, there is this real cult of the individual, and if we are going to become quite actively engaged, be it through activism or, in your case, through enterprise, how do you manage that dance between a system which rewards egoic behavior and in a way, that’s the way in which you can get your messages out there to some extent?
Nick: Great. Great insight. That is probably one of the uiding features of my life at the moment. When I applied for my visa to America, which is a O-1 visa, just the name of it alone will tell you what the [unintelligible]. The name of the visa is an “alien of extraordinary ability.”
Nick: So, I’m at the kind of cutting edge knifepoint of this cult of the individual, and I had to play into it. I had to put together a dossier of everything I’ve ever done that’s impressive and important, and trying to get people to write references about me. And it was a real journey for me, because I didn’t feel comfortable doing it. I spent years, as we talked about, unpicking that, and not being worried about that, and not being worried about having a PhD–in a way, not feeling like I needed to have a PhD to be a great source of ideas and change in the world. And then I’ve been forced by the nature of my choices to be in America to get back in that, and when I’m now here in America, it’s even more intense than Europe. People here, literally, if you don’t have a PhD, and/or a book, and/or 10 famous friends telling the world how good you are, it’s exceptionally hard to get cut-through and to get your name out there.
On the other hand, the internet has provided us with a way for ideas to disseminate that don’t play so much into those rules. So there’s a kind of balancing act there, but again, as we all know, getting attention on the internet isn’t the easiest thing either.
Rohan: And Twitter and TED are very individually based as well, to a certain extent.
Nick: Absolutely. I mean, for my own place, I am deeply suspicious, in what I’d call a Foucaultian way–Michel Foucault, the French philosopher of the ’60s, who basically looked to see where where there’s any form of hierarchy, or claim for knowledge, there’s usually a power imbalance and usually some form of injustice and domination and that kind of stuff. So I’m deeply suspicious of any form of hierarchy, whether it’s in spiritual circles or business circles. And I, for one, with my own work and my own teaching, am very much along the lines of “I’ve got some tools. I’ve got some ideas. They might help, they might not, but I don’t have the answers for you because it’s your life.” And I found something quite interesting in America: that doesn’t work very well.
Nick: They want me to be famous. They want me to be a big name. They want me to be the guy who doesn’t really share the vulnerability of my journey; they want me to just say that I’ve got the answers for them. And one of the things that I see challenging for a lot of gurus, self-proclaimed or otherwise, in the US and UK, is that, I believe that when someone’s sort of learned everything they have to learn from you, you’ve got to kick them out. Go and find another teacher, so they get another angle. And yet, people don’t like to do that here. They like followers. There’s a whole sense of having followers, which makes me very uncomfortable–the idea that someone will follow me. But it seems like the people want you to be a guru who claims knowledge, and direct transmission or whatever it is you claim. And yet, I’m very uncomfortable with that and I don’t think that’s the way the world’s moving towards. I think we’re moving towards peer-to-peer spirituality, both literally, in terms of dialogic truth–truth emerges between us, in conversation, in meditation together, in presence together–but also, in terms of learning from each other, peer learning.
And that’s where I think the world is going. I think there’s a reason for it. I think there’s an emergence of a zeitgeist that’s kind of balancing out the cult of the individual, but it doesn’t make running a business in this space particularly easy.
Nick: And I’ve made choices that have made my business harder to run, because I’m not a single-minded self promoter. But I kind of have to be, and that’s a real interesting balance for me. I’m living that right now. I mean, I’m developing an email list and whatever around my name. Before a year ago I didn’t have my own website with my own name.
Nick: And I got to America and people were just like, you’re mad. You know you should have been doing this 10 years ago with your own name. I know you’ve also gone on a similar journey, in terms of it’s not my name, I don’t want my name to be about what I do.
Nick: It’s an active authorial stand, a brand. And ultimately I’ve reflected, I have a unique set of experiences. It doesn’t mean I am somehow special, but conditions over my life, and the synergies and serendipitys, have led me to have a set of skills that not many people have. And I guess I’m becoming more comfortable with blowing that trumpet, whilst knowing I’m not the blower.
Nick: I’m certainly not the music.
Rohan: So what do you see as the opportunity now for enterprise or business which have sort of spiritual ends? When you think of spiritual business we often think of shops selling crystals and stuff like that. [Laughs] To be crude.
Nick: That’s kind of a few you got round me in Los Angeles, let me tell you.
Rohan: I bet, and like, what other things I talk about personally, is how the aesthetic around meditation, and certainly around Buddhism, this is sort of the area that I look at as, the aesthetic is broken, it’s one of my provocative… That’s an aside, but I think my question is around what do you see as the opportunity here? You talk about this nexus, certainly in California of all these different elements of science, technology, wisdom, traditions, all sitting together. Are we on the verge of something special here? Or is it just all going to be more crystals and incense?
Nick: Well I like to think of myself as a trend spotter, I’d used to do that professionally. And I’m very perceptive to cultural shifts, entrepreneurs have to be. And certainly innovation consultants have to be. And I get the sense that there are vast audiences, new audiences interested in wisdom, backed up by science, practical, everyday stuff.
But the key is, the aesthetic is very key, is it has to be packaged in a way that makes sense to them. The way I talk about this is if the kids just been playing with a PlayStation game that had 100 million invested in it. And then they watched a couple of ads from Coke. And then they watched an HBO show or Avatar. And then you come with your wisdom media. And it’s cheesy and bad production values and poorly written and poorly conceived and stuck in a color 1960s purple patchouli aesthetic. Then you just lose them. The cost of entry is the brand, the marketing, the media, the shininess. That’s the cost of entry.
But once you’ve entered, I think there is a generation hungry for meaning. Hungry for what I’d call a mystical path. When I was 14, I was deeply into mysticism, but there was no path for me. There was no way of accessing it that was kind of acceptable. So I think there’s a massive opportunity for all kinds of media and technology products that are delivering wisdom. And in fact a conference I went to this year, Wisdom 2.0, is beginning to look at that. But I’m also talking with a number of people in LA about the conference around transformational media. But the thing is not… when the people hear that, I think of films like The Secret, or that kind of stuff.
Nick: And my start point is “no, we need to just start as if we are just making brilliant…”
Rohan: You need to start with the culture, and the audience.
Rohan: And meet them on their own terms.
Nick: User-centric thinking. But the great thing is, there are people I’m meeting from HBO, from Disney, from MTV who are all interested in this area. So there is interest, and there is really a hunger. And the challenges is, it’s getting the interests at the right moment, at the right time, connected to someone with money. That’s the key.