Exploring our spirituality is largely about exploring who we really are. A major element of that is figuring out what it is we are here to do in the world.
Dharma is a Sanskrit word without a thorough English translation, but we could call it our calling, our purpose, or, as Stephen Cope refers to it in the book The Great Work of Your Life, the Gift.
This isn’t something to be taken lightly. It’s not something we should throw aside for what we might consider to be more practical endeavors. In fact, Cope brings up the Bhagavad Gita, where Krishna says, “The attempt to live out someone else’s dharma brings extreme spiritual peril.”
You read it right. To not pursue your dreams, that goal you know in your heart of hearts is what you’re meant to pursue in the world, is to put your very soul at risk.
I don’t mean “at risk” in the religious sense of suffering purgatory or going to hell. I mean risking your happiness, your contribution, your idea of who you are.
But that’s not all. By rejecting your own dharma, you’re not only cheating yourself and putting “your very spirit at risk,” you’re putting all of us at risk. You’re denying the world.
This denial creates a wild domino effect. Cope points out that “Every base is somehow covered, but only if everyone acts on their authentic calling.” Just because our dharma doesn’t include the presidency or internet fame doesn’t mean it’s not equally important. Cope says that one of the major mistakes we make when it comes to seeking our dharma is believing that it’s not big enough, that if we’re not Elon Musk or Steven Spielberg or Angela Merkel, we couldn’t possibly be living up to our potential. But that’s absolutely not true.
There are those among us who have the Gift to be parents, artists, caregivers, scientists, organizers, motivators, meditators, and bakers. There are those meant to fight (not necessarily in the physical sense) and those meant to heal. Those who naturally create ease in a difficult situation. Those who naturally lead entire nations into greatness. None of these gifts are more or less important.
When we ignore our true calling to pursue something others think we should do, it leaves a gap that has to be filled by someone else—perhaps someone who also ignores her calling in order to fill the gap.
As entrepreneurs, we must know this intuitively, whether or not we consider ourselves to be religious or spiritual. Starting a business is challenging for a lot of reasons, ranging from finances to moral support. Our society seems to promote a you-can-do-anything attitude, but in practice it picks and chooses “appropriate” dreams by encouraging the idea of “getting a good job,” taking arts and music out of schools, and valuing a nice house and car above any fulfillment that might be found in other things.
These difficulties produce a lot of internal “what if, what if, what if” thoughts. What if we fail? According to Cope, “Success and failure are not your concern,” advice that seems contrary to everything we’re told. Sure, we’re constantly reminded that failure is good, in failure we learn, by failure we know that we’re trying—but still, the goal is ultimately success.
So, another what if: what if it weren’t all about success? What if simply acting in the spirit of our dharma, our purpose, was enough? I have a feeling that by doing this we’d create more success than we could ever imagine, even if we had to redefine success in the process. Part of that definition might include the simple pleasure of peace of mind; as Cope says, “Those who cannot commit, who cannot say ‘no’ [to the distractions that derail us from our dharma] are doomed to everlasting conflict.”
Not a place I want to be. That’s not what I’d call successful.
Entrepreneurship is not required. There are many people living out their dharma as employees or while unemployed: parents and volunteers, nurses at hospitals, artists at advertising firms, leaders and support teams at various companies they didn’t start themselves. But when the entrepreneur says, “I’m going to do this my own way. The world needs this. I can provide this,” that is dharma in action.
The process of reaching our potential is a spiritual act. It’s above ambition and success. Though we think of entrepreneurs as being more driven and determined than average, we’re also more tuned in (or more willing to pay attention) to what it is that makes our souls sing, and we’re brave enough to buck tradition, buck expectation, and take steps toward our dharma.