Mystic Microsoft, Prologue: A Trend Inverted

Prologue | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | Epilogue | Afterword

It's become popular in business environments to explore the role of spirituality in the workplace: how spiritual principles can be applied to improve one's business and increase employee productivity. Thus two domains that have long been considered as incompatible as a casino and a convent have found common ground in the drive for success. Corporate leaders, for instance, are finding that honesty, kindness, and generosity are effective business tools. Workers take up practices like meditation to manage job stress or hone their mental efficiency. Some take up timeless physical disciplines like yoga to firm their bottoms, perhaps at the insistence of employers who are looking to firm their bottom lines. Others pray for guidance in their business decisions or embrace religion—as reported in one USA Today cover story about a professional baseball team—to improve their performance on the field. The clever ones even find ways to package and market spirituality as a business in itself!

This is all well and good; there is certainly a place for spirituality in the world of money and success. In fact, it's an ancient practice. Some of the oldest scriptures in the world, the Vedas of India, are chock-full of methods to deal with all sorts of needs, from money and healthy children to power over your enemies and increasing crop yield. The ancient Indian epic, the Mahabharata, tells of kings hiring priests to perform rituals on their behalves to acquire certain boons or advantages in warfare. Be it victory on the battlefield, Wall Street, or the baseball diamond, the story is the same: spiritual power can be harnessed for material ends. At least when you pray for success, you're more likely to be grateful to God, when it comes, rather than showering your own ego with self-congratulations. Better to remember God in this way, the authors of the Vedas concluded long ago, than to forget him[*] entirely.

The underlying assumption of this modern trend is that the highest purpose in life is to get rich and powerful. Why so? Why are we caught up in money, power, and success? The answer is simple: we believe that these things will make us happy. We want wealth so that we can acquire those things (including relationships) that promise happiness. We want fame so that people will love and respect us, which we think will make us happy. We want power and influence so that we can control at least some portion of the world, removing conditions we believe cause unhappiness and establishing conditions we believe will, again, make us happy.

Look at everyone around you. Look at your own desires and ambitions. Follow the links in the chain to the real end-game.

Any way you slice it, happiness is the secret hunger behind all human striving, the real purpose behind all that we do. Not just the mere absence of pain or the fleeting satisfactions of sense-pleasures, mind you, neither something static or fragile. We seek an inner state of ever-new delight—a dynamic state of blissful being—that we don't have to constantly defend or buttress against ever-changing threats. For the very fear of loss is what drives us to desire money, power, and influence in the first place. Through them we believe we can both acquire happiness and the means to guard and protect it. If we can just grab hold of happiness—just once—and make suitable arrangements to maintain it, then, perhaps, we'll be at peace in that joy.

Thus it is that we wholeheartedly yoke spirituality and religion, as we do with every other means at our disposal, to the wagon train of material fulfillment. God's grace becomes a commodity, a favor to be won; the Creator someone with whom we negotiate deals; and spiritual practices like prayer, meditation, and right living the secret ingredients to enhance profits and boost the stock price.

Yet there's an insidious irony here. As mystics throughout the ages have declared, the experience of God's presence (however you wish to define it) is the very joy we seek, and experiencing that joy is exactly what spiritual practices were designed for! Take the Ten Commandments—God did not engrave them on stone tablets for his own convenience or as a (rather heavy) book of law to throw at us in some cosmic trial court. He made them for our sake, to help us understand and hopefully avoid those attitudes and behaviors that lead to misery.[†] Derision, dishonor, stealing, killing, and coveting—these blind us to the joy that God implanted in our souls. Reverence, love, generosity, creativity, and contentment, on the other hand, deepen our awareness of that inner bliss.

To harness spiritual power in a roundabout attempt to find happiness through material growth thus misses the point completely. It's like having a bushel of grain with which you could easily satisfy your hunger for weeks, yet sell that grain to buy a single slice of bread. It makes much more sense to just eat the grain—to use spiritual practices for their intended purposes. And it makes even more sense to ask how we might instead harness the opportunities of career and business for our spiritual growth.

That's what this book is about.

As you have undoubtedly gathered from the title, the story told in these pages involves one of the most successful business ventures in recent decades at the heart of high-tech, corporate multinationalism: Microsoft. I was first employed by Microsoft in various capacities for eight and a half years—from March 1988 to November 1996—during which time the company underwent its most important phase of expansion.[‡] When I began, Microsoft had six modest buildings housing about 2,500 employees; its minimal market-share products were hardly given serious consideration by industry pundits. When I left, there were at least thirty-six buildings, some considerably larger than the originals, plus countless domestic and international locations housing well over 30,000 employees. [§] By then, Microsoft generally ruled the personal computer software market and got more press than many other Fortune 500 companies combined. Technology, success, money, power—all of these defined much of the Microsoft experience during those years.

I certainly shared in that success, achieving a fair degree of wealth, fame, and influence. Professionally, I made important contributions to some of Microsoft's flagship products, wrote two wildly popular programming books, and became for a time a highly-respected industry expert. On the material side, my wife Kristi and I acquired all the trappings of "the good life" and had enough investments set aside for quite a bit more.[**]

All this is a moderately interesting story in itself—I think you'll enjoy the many anecdotes about Microsoft's coming-of-age. What makes it much more fascinating is the added spiritual dimension of my experiences during that era. I won't be saying much, however, about the role that spirituality played in that success. Nor do I have much to share on how I might have brought God and spiritual principles into my work without sacrificing success. Why? Because for most of that time at Microsoft I wanted nothing whatsoever to do with God or religion!

At the point where this story begins I was very much a skeptic: religion had all but disappeared from my personal consideration. Though raised in a religious household, I found more and more that set liturgies, a creed or two, and spending an hour or so each week sitting in a pew just weren't answering my deepest questions about the universe and my place in it. Never satisfied with smallness of purpose, my mind constantly asked the sorts of questions that don't always go over well with pastors and priests.

Shortly after I started at Microsoft, I had simply walked away from religion…just ignoring it at first, then working my way through—and basically rejecting—just about every definition or image of God that had ever been presented to me. I saw them as too limiting, too restrictive, or simply an excuse for people to argue. Religion, if nothing else, ought to facilitate a sense of unity, yet throughout history it's given rise to divisive wars, persecution, social control, and countless other evils (not unlike those we ascribe to modern corporations). Thus my primary interest in "all that religion stuff was to get beyond it altogether. My energies were wholly focused on my career.

Spiritual growth, however, isn't something we can so easily cast aside. The impulse to expand our awareness in some way is inherent to human nature, inherent to the joy that lies within us. No matter how hard we try to suppress it, that impulse invariably finds some form of expression.

In my case it expressed itself as a desire for truth: I wanted to know how life worked; I wanted to know how everything was connected; I wanted to see the "big picture. Consequently, I devoured a great many books and sought to understand life as best I could. I just didn't want much to do with the "God" thing. I wasn't going to go anywhere near churches or temples or even think of the whole process in religious terms.

Such is the difference between spirituality and religion. Whereas religions are defined by their outer forms, spirituality is strictly a matter of whether one's inner awareness—one's consciousness—is growing and expanding toward the greater reality we call "spirit," irrespective of form. What makes any thought or act "spiritual," including the business of making money, is whether it uplifts you toward that greater reality from whatever level of consciousness you happen to be. As such, it's an individual question, not an institutional or social one. Actions that uplift a beggar might be degrading to a saint. Similarly, what makes any thought or act "worldly" or anti-spiritual, including anything done in the name of religion, is whether it diminishes your awareness of that greater reality. Spirituality is a matter of direction, not definitions. It deals with what works to dynamically uplift consciousness. It has nothing to do with blind dogma, sectarian minutiae, or any other kind of static belief system (including skepticism) that refuses to test its own validity.

Spirituality is a real concern for each and every human being. Although one may or may not choose to participate in formal or organized religion, or even "believe" in anything, every person has some higher potential toward which he or she aspires. Kindness, generosity, honesty, courage, and dozens of other noble qualities are not noble because we, as a society, have agreed upon them as such but because they are expressions of this potential. Customs like marriage are valued not just for their practical benefits (providing a stable environment for children, avoiding sexually-transmitted diseases, etc.) but because soul-qualities like loyalty and commitment are much more in attunement with those aspirations than the superficial "joys" of promiscuity. Indeed, we need only examine the lives of those who actively express higher qualities to see that they are the ones who are genuinely happy.

Thus while I thought I could get along just fine by avoiding God and focusing on worldly success, certain spiritual lessons were still necessary for my personal and even material growth during that time. The only way I might have avoided those lessons and experiences would have been to completely squelch my desire to grow at all! But if anything I was at least sincere in that desire—I did want to grow and expand my experience of life, to whatever degree I understood it. As a result, although I'd basically told God that I wanted nothing more to do with him, he didn't bother to wait for me to come around and commit myself again to religious matters. He simply gave me what I needed exactly where my energies were already committed—Microsoft.

In short, God used the circumstances and situations of my Microsoft career—success and failure alike—to effect in me a deep, spiritual transformation. In the course of my eight and a half years with the world's leading software company, I learned and experienced exactly what you would expect from direct training in a monastery or ashram: a fresh outlook on the meaning and purpose of life (what you might call genuine faith); a greater ability to remain even-minded and cheerful through adversity; a deeper understanding of universal qualities like patience, perseverance, non-attachment, and simplicity; and the importance of things like good company, selfless service, and receptivity to higher guidance. I also learned and experienced all this despite the fact that for a good part of the time I considered myself an atheist and wasn't even aware I was learning anything!

As improbable as this might sound, the reason is quite straightforward: the necessary attributes for material and worldly success—namely energy, concentration, and high aspiration, all of which I experienced at Microsoft—are the exact same qualities that are necessary for spiritual success. That's why the power of either can be harnessed for the other. The difference, again, is simply one of direction. Spiritual growth is primarily a matter of increasingly directing one's energies toward an expanded awareness and away from selfish, egoic, and materialistic desires. This is the goal of every true religious or spiritual practice. Ceremonies, rituals, prayer, meditation, hymns, chanting, and right behavior are all ways of raising one's energy and focusing it upward toward Spirit.

As we shall see in this story, an energetic and focused environment like Microsoft can equally facilitate this inner development. Such is the tremendous opportunity afforded by one's career. It simply requires an individual dedication to inner growth because most companies themselves are not spiritually oriented.[††]

This dedication involves two specific qualities that you will see in these pages. The first is sincerity: being free from guile and duplicity, having as your underlying motive the search for truth and greater understanding (as opposed to seeking only power, wealth, or other forms of personal gain), and asking, in every situation, "what's trying to happen here" rather than "what do I want to have happen?" The second quality is self-offering: having the willingness to wholeheartedly accept whatever comes to you, good or bad, and to cheerfully (not grimly) commit your best energies to working through those circumstances rather than trying to skirt around or run away from them.

Your expression of these two qualities is a way of saying to God, Life, The Universe, or whatever else you want to call it, "I truly want to learn and grow—show me the way!" Accordingly, God, Life, The Universe—however you want to relate to a greater reality—will respond and guide you, personally and individually and in harmony with others concerned, toward your next step upwards. I say this with conviction: if it can happen, as this story shows, within the halls of high technology and without the conscious participation of someone who considered himself an atheist, it can certainly happen to anyone, especially if they are more conscious and more open!

Thus for those readers who find themselves committed to a career and/or other responsibilities (including family) and who will, for whatever reasons, continue on that course for the foreseeable future, I hope to demonstrate how these things can be an integral, even leading part of a fuller spiritual experience rather than an obstacle. If you give yourself wholly into your duties while holding to your sincere desire to grow and expand, you will find what you need coming to you within the context of those same duties—including your workplace. Spiritual and material prosperity can walk hand in hand.

This applies also to younger readers who perhaps feel a certain disparity between taking up an active career of some sort, as the world expects and even demands, and an inner calling to go deeper, spiritually. To you I say that it need not be an either/or question: accepting a career need not compromise one's spiritual aspirations. In fact, I hope this story illustrates how the dynamic and conscious combination of the two can be much more potent—and rewarding!—than fleeing to a remote corner of the world or dropping out in some other manner.

I also hope that this story will be helpful to those who are making or would like to make a career transition, perhaps to something more serviceful or more directly spiritual. I would help you make the joyful discovery, as I did, of a divine thread running through the tapestry of your past and the deeper purpose of those experiences. With this discovery you can see your schooling and career achievements neither as something you're throwing away, an accusation that friends and family may direct at you, nor as a spiritual waste. You can rather see them as an essential part of who you've become. In this light you can truly honor your past with gratitude for having brought you thus far, then courageously step into a new realm of possibilities.

I'd like to emphasize that the experiences I had, the lessons I learned, and the order in which I learned them, were what I personally needed in each phase of the process. The specifics of those experiences and the environment in which I learned my lessons are not particularly important. They're just a backdrop that you need not and cannot duplicate. That is, whether you're educating children, operating machinery, writing reports, or being on-call 24-hours at a stretch for brain surgery, what matters, again, is your sincerity and self-offering. With these, your unique path will open before you.

Let me also mention that this journey wasn't always easy for me. Although there were abundant successes and joys, I certainly had my share of frustration, failure, and even persecution. Nobody said the path was strewn with soft moss and rose petals! But don't expect to see any juicy gossip, dramatic suffering, or bitter finger-pointing within these pages—I'm simply offering an honest account of my experiences.[‡‡] From the convenient distance of some years I see that both joy and sorrow played necessary and important roles. Thus when I talk of Microsoft, its people, and its leadership, I've made the conscious decision to emphasize the positive. I do this neither to defend them, apologize for any mistakes, or somehow sugar-coat what many people perceive as a big, bad, domineering corporation. I have simply chosen to love the light; let others condemn the darkness. After all, we become what we concentrate on.

That said, this story begins in the fall of 1987, shortly after my nineteenth birthday, when I was just heading out to fulfill all those dreams of worldly success. I had already completed a year of college and had, thanks to scholarships and various mundane forms of summer work, no debt and some small savings. My future (and still present) wife and I had also become engaged during the summer with the wedding set for July. And now, opportunities to get my career going began to make themselves known.

It was just then that God began his work as well.

[*] I've chosen the masculine pronoun here for simplicity and to keep with common convention. I've also kept such pronouns in lower case, contrary to the usual convention, except where grammar demands. No disrespect or irreverence is intended. It's simply a stylistic choice to keep the text more personal and immediate rather than formal or distant.   [Return to text]

[†] As Jesus said, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath."   [Return to text]

[‡] I later returned in 2008 as explained in the Afterword.   [Return to text]

[§] The number of employees as of 2016 exceeds 100,000.   [Return to text]

[**] For the record, I am not one of those spend-thrift high-tech millionaires who collect vintage helicopters as a hobby. Though I did effectively retire from Microsoft at age 28 (and became busier than ever!), our net worth at that time was under a million dollars. We chose to live on a modest income from investments that met the expenses of a focused lifestyle (see Chapter Fifteen) but certainly did not lend enough to indulge in opulence.   [Return to text]

[††] Indeed, a personal dedication is always necessary, even in spiritual organizations. It's actually more necessary in a spiritual environment where there's the temptation to think that the environment will do the work for you. People satisfied with their own self-righteousness can go through all the motions for years without actually growing at all. As a great teacher once put it, "it's a blessing to be born into a religion, but a curse to die in one."   [Return to text]

[‡‡] Most of the persons involved have allowed me to use their real identities. A few have been changed by request to protect individual privacy. Besides an occasional exaggeration for the sake of humor, these names are the only fictitious content in this book. I will also add that my experiences were in no way influenced by mind-altering substances, legal or otherwise. I have never done drugs of any kind, I drink no alcohol whatsoever, and have pretty much avoided even caffeinated beverages since high school. If you must know, my biggest vices during the time of this story amounted to Twix bars, Grandma's cookies (Double Fudge and Iced Molasses), and caffeine-free Pepsi.   [Return to text]

Prologue | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | Epilogue | Afterword

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