Author, leadership speaker and philosopher Robin Sharma's road trip from lawyer to life coach has been a fast ride. The writer of The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari shares some pearls of wisdom with Shalaka Paradkar
Instant wisdom (n). The distillation of centuries of knowledge into a sound byte that can be pinged in the air at dinnertime while sitting on the sofa with a TV meal on your lap.
In the past, (in India) there were those odd characters who struck out on their own into the Himalayas, with a firm resolve to remain there for 30 years or more in search of meaning to life's mysteries.
But today, when it's delivered as a series of easy-to-remember steps, why let that mountain beckon?
You could say that people's hunger for instant gratification - ironically, even in matters of wisdom and self-awareness - explains the phenomenal success of Robin Sharma.
From Aristotle and Plato to Bono and Neo in The Matrix, they are all referenced and rendered comprehensible in his writings.
His most famous book, The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari - a fable of a lawyer who turns savant after meeting with Himalayan sages - has enjoyed a devoted following since being published by HarperCollins in 1998.
Sharma's prose is conversational yet clever, peppered with lots of buzzwords and 'action statements' that have readers reaching for the fluorescent marker and nodding in agreement as yet another epiphany hits them.
The 42-year-old's most striking feature, however, is the sense of well-being and serenity he radiates. Yet he didn't get this by watching Dr Phil or reading what other self-help experts had to say.
His journey as an author, life coach and motivational speaker started with a 10-year research period, when he read all he could about strategies for living. His taste was omnivorous.
From ancient Indian philosophies to the works of modern experts such as Norman Vincent Peale, Chinese scriptures to autobiographies, he devoured them all, distilling some of these ideas to craft his own message.
The product of all that research was a slim, 157-page book, MegaLiving! which Sharma self-published at a Kinko's copy shop (after being edited by his mother, a schoolteacher). Sharma stored 2,000 copies in the kitchen and his father helped him sell it from the trunk of his car.
His second book, The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, was also originally self-published until, by chance, he met former HarperCollins president Ed Carson at a bookstore, which led to a book deal.
In the year the book was published, Sharma quit his legal career and he hasn't looked back since.
His third book, Who Will Cry When You Die? was written as he was going through his divorce in 2000. The pain of his personal life allowed him to reach deeper as an author and connect with his readers.
The book's title was inspired by something his father said to him: "When you were born, you cried while the world rejoiced. Live your life in such a way that when you die, the world cries while you rejoice."
Sharma has a fairly ordinary background: he is the eldest of two sons born to parents of Indian origin. He was born in Uganda and thereafter his family moved to Winnipeg, Canada, then to Cape Breton, a town of 300 people.
"I had a great childhood blessed with wonderful, supportive parents who valued education and who encouraged us to dream big. We had a lot of wonderful family times," he reminisces.
His father was a bibliophile and Sharma inherited his love of reading. "In many ways, I can tell a lot about a person by the quality of their library," he says.
He credits his mother with giving him the genes for indefatigability. His brother, Sanjay, three years younger than him, is an eye surgeon.
"I might not have known who I exactly was as a kid, because how many children really know what they are meant to do? But I didn't even think about what I loved to do.
"It was almost assumed by everyone around me that I would become a professional - I would complete my education and become a doctor, lawyer or accountant," he says.
Sharma graduated from Dalhousie University Law School, Halifax, with a master's degree in law and then worked as a litigation lawyer in Toronto until 1998, when his life took a completely new course.
Today, Sharma lives in the Canadian town of Richmond Hill, where he skis in the nearby Blue Mountains as often as possible with his two children: Colby, 13, and Bianca, 11, whom he describes as the No. 1 priority in his life.
Dubai will see a lot more of him in the future, Sharma promises. Last month, he conducted a life-coaching session in a two-day workshop called Elite Performers Series, which was organised by Dulsco Events.
Sharma has carved out a career as a leadership speaker and his company, Sharma Leadership International, boasts clients such as Nike and Microsoft, whose names he is not shy to drop in conversation.
His success stems from the fact that his advice is practical and accessible and, contrary to popular belief, he says it's still OK to covet that Ferrari.
"Ambition is good! It would surprise people to hear that from me. To have a healthy ambition, to live your potential and build a great career is all good.
"But don't forget the balance. Have a healthy inner life as well. Make sure your ambition is well directed - that you're not only serving yourself but also the people around you."
I am a great dad. I can improve, but by most standards I am a remarkably good dad. I don't spend a lot of time disciplining my two kids, because they don't need that much discipline. They are great kids.
Every night, I share four statements with them before they go to sleep.
- Whatever you do, make sure you do it to the best of your ability.
- You can be whatever you want to be when you grow up.
- Never give up.
- Never forget how much your dad loves you.
I love talking to taxi drivers. I spend a lot of time with very successful people, but I also like talking to musicians, painters and taxi drivers. Taxi drivers are some of the most philosophical people in the world, but no one hears their stories.
People get in the back and don't exchange a word. Interesting people provoke me, their brilliance rubs off on me. I often share that with people - spend time with people whose lives you want to be living and their stardust cannot help but rub off on you.
I have a need to write. If that need goes away, I will stop writing. Right now, I write primarily for the readers and to convey my message.
I love to (keep a) journal and sometimes (write about) 20 pages a day … that's how I record my thoughts, clarify my philosophies, learning and thinking.
So I keep on writing; I have a voracious need to create. This summer, I wrote two books, including a children's book, because I felt inspired.
I believe it's not a failure if you learn something from it. As I wrote in The Greatness Guide, the person who experiences the most wins.
I am now a lot more comfortable in my own skin. Before I had a need to please and to fit in with the crowd, rather than to be who I truly was. Now I live life on my own terms.
I have some extremely treasured possessions.
My skis: Some of my life's happiest moments have been spent alone or with my kids on a ski (slope).
My books: My greatest gift to my children will be my library. I have books from all around the world on philosophy, personal excellence, time management, creativity, business success as well as autobiographies.
My photo albums: My dad always said, "As you go through life, record the journey." I have been all over the world - I have seen the sun set in the Arabian desert, the Taj Mahal and gazed at the full moon over the Bosphorus.
I have seen most of South America, been on some of the most gorgeous beaches in the Caribbean. I have skied in the Rockies and eaten pasta in Florence. And I have taken pictures of all these experiences. So my photographs are extremely precious to me.
Me and the changes in my life:
I think a lot of people end up living someone else's life - they end up living a life their parents want them to live or a life that society suggests they should live. They fall into living by another version of success that's not their own.
That's what happened to me. On the outside, I was very successful - I had two law degrees and was working with a very big law firm practising litigation law. Inside, I felt like a hollow man. To say it simply, I wasn't happy.
Like many of my readers, I turned to the wisdom of books. I started reading books on leadership, personal development, mental mastery and relationships.
I started reading a lot of great philosophical books. I read Kahlil Gibran and the autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi.
I read (philosophical) texts from the Near East and the Far East. I discovered some ideas that I started applying. It's nice to learn, but true change comes from acting on what you learn. It sounds very obvious, but for most people there is a gap between what they know and what they do.
Me and being a lawyer:
People said I was a great lawyer. I've always had a felicity with words, so I could express my ideas well. I was very focused and I like thinking on my feet. But I also have a sense of humanity and a sense of understanding as well.
So I don't know if law was the best place for me to be. I like what I do even more now. I feel I am really of service, impacting (on) people's lives, helping them become more successful in their careers and personal lives.
I became a lawyer for many wrong reasons: I thought it was a way to make money, to get prestige, a bigger office and a nicer house. Along the way, I lost sight of who I was and what I loved to do.
I lost my values and my own dreams. I made a profound transformation in my life, not so different from the transformation that (the character) Julian Mantle made in The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari.
I said to myself: "If an ordinary person can find so much of a better life, then I should share my message."
I had an idea to write a little book. Every dream starts off small. I share with my corporate clients that their dream to be world-class starts from exactly where they are, and this was much the same.
Me and learning from adversity:
My life has certainly not been perfect. But I've learnt more from my hard times and disappointments than my victories. The first time I tasted failure was when my marriage broke up.
We separated in 1998 and the divorce followed in 2000. It was disappointing and very painful for a couple of years after that. As any painful time shows you, life can be unexpected. It can show you how to cope with adversity.
It also shows you compassion and understanding. Most people don't get to know themselves until they go through difficulty. People read books like the ones I write not when things are going well, but generally when things are confusing and painful.
Me and my work as a life coach:
(My most memorable speaking assignment was) speaking with Bill Clinton to an audience of 10,000. It was very exciting for me.
I shared the platform with Jack Welch and what was interesting for me was that as (each of us) took turns speaking, the entire time Jack Welch sat in front of the audience taking notes.
That confirmed to me that successful and interesting people are lifelong learners. I don't get a lot of hostile audiences. Many times, I have been warned that an audience I am about to speak to is a cynical one.
But when I start speaking, they see my sincerity, they see that my ideas are very practical and - most importantly - relevant, that my message is universal. Everyone lets down their guard.
Me and getting more out of life:
To get to be extraordinary or world-class (requires) a series of daily steps … if you take a few steps towards improving each day, after a year you'll have come a long way and after five years, you will perhaps be in a fundamentally different place.
My first seminar was really small: there were 23 people, 21 of whom were members of my family. The dream started one day at a time: one reader, one seminar, one person at a time. But I stayed with it.
The person who first read my manuscript for MegaLiving! - an editor who I had hired - said no one would ever read my book. He said, "Writing looks very easy Robin, but it's very hard."
I was deflated, but I kept on going.
If there is one thing I am sure of, it's that I have a message to share. It was a gradual awakening. I believe this is my calling, this is what I am meant to do - at least at this point of my journey. Who knows what tomorrow could bring? The only thing to expect in life is the unexpected.
Me and being a father:
As a single father, I have to be very good at time management.
Understanding is important to being a great parent. I see myself as a developer of my children, not as a parent of my children. So I believe it's my duty to show my kids great art and to introduce them to great books, great people - to show them great examples.
Two summers ago, we went on a five-city tour of Europe and I took them to the greatest museums in the world.
My children have made me a better man, for sure, and they are definitely the No. 1 blessing in my life. The thing about children is that there is a very small window of opportunity. Someone once said: "Be careful, don't blink, or they'll be gone."
As parents we have to seize that opportunity, influence them and help shape their philosophy before it's too late. From my children I have learnt the importance of dreaming. Of asking for what you want.
Of keeping an open heart as well as an open mind. The importance of curiosity. The importance of seeing life as a mystery. The importance of living life in the moment and of having fun.
What do you rate as your life's biggest achievements, personally and professionally?
Personally: being a great dad to my two children.
Professionally: I have a new book out, The Greatness Guide. I think it's my best book so far - a culmination of everything I have learnt over the past three to four years, working with world-class corporations … as well as working with world-class people who have lived great lives.
That's not just in terms of money, but also in terms of happiness, adventure and balance.
My biggest achievement is also probably my life story: an ordinary man born to immigrant parents, who grew up in a town of 2,000 people, not having had many mentors, facing the chattering voices of critics, breaking out, chasing his dream and doing something that helps people in 80 countries be more significant and more successful.
What is a typical day in your life like? What time of the day do you cherish most?
There are no typical days in my life. One day I'll be in Dubai, meeting business leaders. Another day, I might be in Hollywood, discussing the filming of The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari.
Or I might be at home, meeting with my team in the day and taking my kids skiing at night.
My life is a blend of travel, time with family, time spent running a business, time developing myself and chasing my passions like skiing and reading. Every day, I wake up at 5 am and spend an hour with myself, drinking coffee, 'journaling' and reflecting.
The Independent publishes an annual Good List of people who are doing good for the world at large.
Who would make it on to your Good List?
- Nelson Mandela for his courage.
- Bono for using his celebrity to make the world a better place.
- My parents because they are just great people and I like to honour them as much as I can.
- Bill and Melinda Gates for using their extreme wealth so well. They give away millions of dollars for education and improving the plight of the disadvantaged.
Which is the single greatest challenge confronting humanity today?
Realising our potential and, once we know it, going out into the world and being the best we can be - whether as an entrepreneur, a doctor or a yoga teacher. We get so distracted … we get so pulled into the thick of things … we get busy and can spend our whole life being busy doing the wrong things.
So it's incredibly important to know the right mountains to climb and have the focus and discipline to climb those and to say 'no' to the mountains that won't get you to your dream.
With the plethora of motivational speakers and media out there, do you fear a self-help fatigue setting in?
First of all, self-development, or personal leadership - or whatever you may want to call it - has been with human beings since we came to the world.
These ideas about personal development, about living a great life, about what happiness means and what it is to live a great life, are the same ideas that the great philosophers discussed a thousand years ago.
So I think there's a longing in the human heart, it's part of our DNA to (strive to) become better, to ask questions: Who am I? Why am I here? How can I live a better life?
Secondly, there are a lot of self-help books out there, but the market is only growing. People are actually waking up; more people are realising there's got to be more to life than being on a treadmill.
So more people are turning to these books. I think it's a great thing; the fact that more people are willing to look in the mirror and take personal responsibility to reinvent their lives.
Imagine what the world would be like if more people were trying to be better human beings, showing leadership at work and improving their inner lives!
But not everyone has reached the top of the Maslow pyramid and is yearning for self-actualisation. For the vast majority, getting a meal and surviving are more important. Is what you write about an elitist preoccupation?
I get asked that a lot. At my seminars there are billionaires sitting next to university students, filmmakers sitting next to CEOs and homemakers sitting next to painters.
Staff from some of the biggest companies attend my seminars, as do people who are running a one-person enterprise.
So my experience has been that this message is universal. There are people who are struggling, yet find the money to buy the book; as are people who have too much (wealth) and are struggling to lead a better life. It's not the pursuit of the rich, it's the pursuit of the dreamers.