This is a title that will stop you momentarily as you scan through a shelf of books. What do Trappist monks have to do with business? Is this some form of ecclesiastical wordplay?
Yet the world of work is key to the rule of St. Benedict and its motto “ora et labora” (pray and work). Here the author takes an insider’s view of monastic life, acquired through a 17-year association as a frequent guest of the monks of Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina, USA and weaves this in with business experiences and case studies to bring forth an interesting and fresh viewpoint.
The relatively-enclosed nature of a monastery reinforces the necessity of cooperation and community cohesion and this can in turn be an essential “corporate lubricant” that is often missing in many businesses. Some business gurus seek to flatten a corporate hierarchy yet even monastic life has a necessary hierarchy of sorts. Determination towards a common series of goals can have a rather cohesive, beneficial effect.
Egg production was the commercial powerhouse of the Abbey with over 40,000 hens literally sitting on a veritable production line, until they switched gears and moved to mushroom production after alleged controversial practices were highlighted by an animal welfare group in the late 2000s. Business is not so uncommon within religious orders either. Some brew beer, some sell preserves and other products yet a philosophy seems to be that they sell to live and not live to sell (meaning that profit is not their sole objective).
This is certainly not your typical business book. It is not dry and full of jargon, it is not full of positivity and rah-rah-you-can-do-it praise. It is a more personal storybook-style, albeit a little awkwardly written and defocussed in places – fortunately the subject is so different and engaging that these little niggles get overlooked. Whilst naturally this book does reflect deeply on religious matters it might be important for some to highlight that it does not seem to be promoting a specific religious agenda or advocating a given spiritual pathway. Irrespective of your religious viewpoint, or lack thereof, a path of certain “behaviour” can be quite interesting to examine.
There is a lot more to this book than just business. The reader gets a wonderful look behind-the-scenes at what can go on in a monastery and how some of the monks function. A sort of human interest look and even a general reader with no specific interest in business or religion may still gain rather a lot from this book if they just pick it up and plough through it. This reviewer was curiously sceptical as to whether this book could possibly work or not. Maybe there was some divine intervention for the author but this turned out to be surprisingly engaging, rather different and a bit of a good read to boot.
If you view this solely as a business book, consider reading it to get a possibly different series of opinions that may shape your future thinking and behaviour. If you are more open to a bit of a broader, general read then you might find yourself getting rather more out of it than you possibly imagined. This might be one of those better books you’d not ordinarily consider purchasing but once you have it in your hands you might not put it down for a long time!
Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks, written by August Turak and published by Columbia Business School Publishing. ISBN 9780231160629, 224 pages. Typical price: USD29.95. YYYY.