388: Srikumar Rao—Achieve Great Success While Remaining As Serene As A Zen Monk

Hear how when you allow life to unfold, you find that miracles happen

I first interviewed Dr. Srikumar Rao in July 2023 and was so deeply inspired by the wisdoms he shared with us that I wanted to have him back so he could teach us more. And he does. The title of his new book is Modern Wisdom, Ancient Roots, in which he offers solid tools we can use to let go of the mental chatter that gets in the way of seeing what’s possible. The universe is benevolent, Dr. Rao says, it’s your friend, and when we understand this, that’s when we can change our story and thus, the direction of our lives. Are you ready to make a change, today?

Watch and listen to our conversation here

Some of Dr. Rao’s wisdoms which you can apply to your own life

  • The most important thing is not what you’re doing but who you are being as you do it. Too often we get hung up on the doing, and we completely miss the fact that being is much more important than the doing.
  • Allow life to unfold. And as you do, you find that miracles happen, and they happen on a regular basis.
  • We never experience life the way it is. We always experience life according to the story we tell ourselves about it.
  • When you change your thinking from the universe is indifferent to the universe is friendly, your experience of life has such a tremendous transformation.
  • Open yourself up to possibilities.
  • The universe is benevolent. The universe is your friend. Recognize that it’s your friend. And the more you do this, the more signs you will get that it in fact is your friend.
  • Your job in this life is to recognize who you really are and cast yourself free from this cage in which you have ensnared yourself. Trust yourself and recognize that the door to your prison is always open and unlocked. All you have to do is open the door and step out of it.
  • Why does the universe give you stuff you don’t want? Well, the universe doesn’t give you what you want, but gives you exactly what you need for your learning and growth.
  • We all have mental chatter. And the problem is not that you have mental chatter, the problem is you identify with your mental chatter. So sit back and observe your mental chatter. Observe yourself feeling worried. Observe yourself feeling anxious. And as you create that distance, you no longer have your mental chatter. You’re the observer of the mental chatter. Then it loses its ability to take you to places you don’t want to go.

To contact Dr. Srikumar Rao

You can reach out to Dr. Rao on LinkedInTwitter or his website, The Rao Institute. Watch his TED Talk here and email him at srikumar.rao@theraoinstitute.com.

More inspiration for finding joy and purpsoe on your life journey:

Additional resources for you

Read the transcript of our podcast here 

Andi Simon: Welcome to On the Brink With Andi Simon. I’m Andi Simon. I’m your host and your guide. And as you know, this podcast is designed to help you get off the brink. The one thing we don’t want you to do is get stuck or stalled. But you can begin to understand how you can change. And that’s what we like to help people and their organizations do.

So today, I have a wonderful gentleman here, and Doctor Rao did a podcast with us earlier, last July in fact, that was just a hit, but he’s got a new book coming out. Actually, it’s out and I have been reading it and you will love it. Let me tell you a little bit about Dr. Srikumar Rao.

He is a creator of creativity and personal mastery. His bio doesn’t fit a bio. It’s a wonderful story about a life well-lived. He’s a speaker, a former business school professor and head of The Rao Institute, and I urge you to take a look at that online because it’s full of rich opportunities for you to begin to see, feel and think in new ways. And I use those words, but they mimic the words he uses.

He is an executive coach to senior business executives, and he helps them find deeper meaning and engagement in their work. He also talks about the fact that work isn’t work. And I love the idea because I love to work, and people say, when are you going to retire? I say, I’m never going to retire. Why is work bad? Because we define it as something that is not fun, but work isn’t work. Work is something that gives us all kinds of things, purpose, meaning, joy. What could it do for you?

My last thought today is to make sure that you understand Dr. Rao has programs and coaching that you can enjoy because they are joyful to help you begin to become the kind of person that you’d like to be. I’m going to call you Srikumar.

Srikumar Rao: Works just fine. 

Andi Simon: Thank you for joining me again. It’s really a pleasure.

Srikumar Rao: It’s my pleasure, Andi. I had such a blast the last time you interviewed me that I was positively looking forward to this session.

Andi Simon: For our audience, watch out, here comes some really wonderful, wonderful stuff. Give the audience some context, though. Who are you? A man of your journey and why was this book? The book is called Modern Wisdom, Ancient Roots. Now when you buy an ebook, that’s how I can show you the book. And I did buy a hard copy, but it isn’t a hard copy. And as I’m reading it, I think you’re going to find it wonderful. What is the context for this book and who are you? Why should they listen? 

Srikumar Rao: Who am I? As you mentioned, I’m an executive coach, and I have a very well defined niche. I work with successful people, mostly entrepreneurs, who have already done very well for themselves. But they’re driven. They want to have an outsized impact on the world.

But at the same time, they have an explicitly spiritual bent that they would like to infuse into every area of their life. They know that life is about more than getting the biggest toys, or the most expensive toys. And there’s something deeper, and they want to bring that into all parts of their life. So that’s the sandbox in which I play, and to the best of my knowledge, I’m the only person who’s playing in that particular sandbox. I may be wrong, but I’m not aware of any others.

Andi Simon: Well, clearly it’s not a red ocean of lots of competition pushing you away, is it?

Srikumar Rao: No there isn’t. By the time people come to me, they’ve already done their homework. They’ve listened to my TED Talk. They watched many of my videos on YouTube, and they know they want to work with me.

Andi Simon: And when they do the kind of work you like to do with them, can you give us some ideas?

Srikumar Rao: We have conversations. We have deep conversations, and I have an unusual take on coaching. So let me explain that. In my view, the only thing you ever do in life, Andi, is you work on yourself. A benevolent universe has given you many tools. Your husband is a tool. Your daughters and granddaughters are tools. The business you run, the clients you have, they’re all tools.

You want to do the very best you can for your clients. You want them to feel: Gee, hiring Andi was the best thing that I ever did. But in the process of doing that, what you’re really doing is you’re working on yourself. You want to be a great wife. You want to be a great mother. In the process of doing that, what you really do is you work on yourself.

The only thing you ever do in life is work on yourself. Now the universe has given you wonderful tools and running a business is a Swiss army knife of tools. You use that skillfully, but you never lose sight of the fact that in using these tools skillfully, what you’re really doing is you’re working on yourself. Does that make sense to you, Andi?

Andi Simon: Yes. Maybe because it requires you to be reflective of what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, and what the impact or the outcome is. 

Srikumar Rao: Exactly correct. Because the most important thing, Andi, is not what you’re doing. but who you’re being as you do it. And too often we get hung up on the doing, and we completely miss the fact that being is much more important than the doing.

Andi Simon: I’ll stay on that for a moment. I don’t want to lose track of why this new book and how it fits. But as I hear you, you work with successful people who may or may not realize how they have become who they are. They may not be happy with where they are, but they don’t seem to have a toolkit to begin to take them to the next place. And that is a big theme that I’m finding that people find themselves either in retirement or transition or job change or career growth, and it’s being done to them instead of them owning their life and who they are, something that you have found as well.

Srikumar Rao: Absolutely, yes. Because too many people, Andi, go around trying to make life happen.

Andi Simon: Forgive me for laughing.

Srikumar Rao: I love life to unroll, unfold. And as you allow life to unfold, you find that miracles happen and they happen on a regular basis.

Andi Simon: Well, you and I were talking about serendipity, but miracles are a different word. Similar? Your early conversation about a path through life, I think, is so valuable to think about for our audience, who’s either watching you or listening that the steps aren’t necessarily, you can’t necessarily see them, but you can begin to live them.

Srikumar Rao: Exactly correct. You know, let me share something with you, Andi. If you ask people: Are you happy? Most of them will say, Yes, I’m happy. Remember, these are successful people already, but we define happiness too narrowly. We define happiness as there’s nothing really bothering me right now, and there are actually some things that I like, or I’m looking forward to watching a new Netflix series or having dinner with a friend or something like that.

That’s a very low part. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about, do you feel radiantly alive? Do you feel so full of gratitude that you feel as if you’re bursting? Are you not walking, but joyously floating through the air, hitting ground every 100ft or so. Is that your experience of life? And if that’s not your experience of life, why not? Because that is your nature.

So how do you reclaim the joy you felt as a child, when you could spend an hour watching a dog chase its tail? Why have you lost that? And how can you bring it back to your life today? That’s what my coaching is about. And the wonderful thing is that when you’re in that space, your business and whatever else you know just floats effortlessly and you accomplish more than you could ever have dreamed possible. It just happens because you’re not trying to force things. You’re allowing the universe to unfold.

Andi Simon: Let’s dig deeper into that. Marissa Peer is really a renowned hypnotherapist who often talks about the fact that we live the story in our mind. And our mind also loves to go to pleasure, not pain. Even if the pain causes pleasure, like narcotics might. And the habits take over and you don’t even know that you’re habit driven. You think you have free will.

And so this complicated human where we want to take and know our own selves and take ownership of it, determine our careers, determine our life, give it more intentionality, a purpose, isn’t that easy. And so the question becomes, how do you change the story, modify the habits, begin to not simply just wish, but to begin to actually feel that gratitude, that happiness.

I don’t want to add my ideas, I want to hear yours because our listeners do. But there’s a way of taking where you are. You may have your house, you may have your car, you may have your club. You may think you’re happy, but take it to a whole next level where you are. Every day is a gift, and you wake up happy to be there.

Srikumar Rao: And the short answer to that, Andi, is, you have to work at it. Because we have been programmed, we have been conditioned, and we are so programmed and conditioned that we don’t even recognize that we have been programmed and conditioned. It’s true. And what we have is, we’ve got a lot of extraneous thoughts going on. I call it mental chatter, and mental chatter is always with you. It’s so much a part of your life that you don’t even recognize you have it.

You know, the kind of thing that goes: Oh, drat my secretary screwed up again, and should I keep her or should I fire her? And I’m sick and tired of having to go through these small snafus that keep coming up, which she should have handled. All of that is mental chatter. We live our life defined by our mental chatter, and we never recognize that we’re living a life which is defined by our mental chatter and not by what is really happening internally to us.

But one of the first things that I do with my client is, I get them to understand that this mental chatter, which you ignore, is actually creating the life that you live in. So the first step is to be aware that there is this stuff that is happening. The first step is to recognize that this is happening and this is really running your life. And when you do that and you become aware of your mental chatter as opposed to being carried away by your mental chatter, you start to say, hey, you know, the world isn’t what I thought it was. It’s something that’s different. Yeah, that is the starting point.

Andi Simon: With that in mind, I don’t like to tease my audience, give us something a little bit more illustrative, concrete to take from it. Stop the mental chatter because when you stop it, then you’re going to fill yourself with an opportunity.

Srikumar Rao: Absolutely. Let me share something which I’m sure some of your clients and many of the people listening to this podcast can relate with. I was teaching in London Business School and I had a student who was an investment banker and a very successful investment banker. There were many problems in his marriage. Because he was an investment banker, he was working long hours. And because he worked long hours, he missed many family occasions, dinners. You know, his son’s first piano recital and stuff like that. And his wife would get very upset at him. “You said you’d be back and you weren’t.” And she accused him of not caring.

From his perspective, the very fact that he was working long hours at a job that he didn’t particularly like was evidence of his caring. And obviously they were able to maintain the lifestyle that they did because of the income he pulled in from his job. So the very fact that he was working long hours was, in his mind, an expression of caring.

When she laced into him, he would get defensive, they’d have massive fights. And yet it was just a very uncomfortable, uncomfortable situation. And they were rapidly heading towards divorce. And then in my course, somebody suggested to him that, look, when your wife is lashing it to you for not caring, what she’s really saying is, honey, I miss you. And I wish that I was with you or you were with me.

Totally not convinced but he agreed to try it. And the next time he was late and his wife started getting mad at him and accusing him of not caring, instead of reacting the way he normally did, he said, Honey, it must have been really tough on you. I’m so sorry. Which is so different from what he usually said that she was taken aback. And what would have been an entire evening quarrel petered out in 30 minutes. And as he continued doing that, and each time that she got angry at him or started to get sarcastic, he would simply say, I love you. And I realize it’s very tough on you, I will try to make it up.

And gradually their bitter quarrels faded away. They didn’t entirely resolve the situation, but it became something to be handled as opposed to: this is going to lead to the end of our marriage. I was about to say that’s the way in which we’re always telling stories to ourselves. And we don’t recognize that we’re telling stories to ourselves. We believe this is the reality.

Andi Simon: Let’s stay there. I’m making some notes. In the stories, we’re always a hero. Stories that we’re telling ourselves, we’re always the hero.

Srikumar Rao: Yes.

Andi Simon: Right. And so the story you just shared is a beautiful one. Where he was right. She was wrong. She was right. He was wrong until they stopped being heroes to themselves. But literally, he just became, in the words he said to her, caring about how she was. It deflated all of the competition, the animosity. What a beautiful story to share and think about. Yeah, because it’s not complicated. It’s just, you know, change the story and change your life.

Srikumar Rao: Exactly correct. What we don’t recognize is that we never experience life the way it is. We always experience life according to the story we tell ourselves about it. And most of us never understand that this is what is happening, that it isn’t reality. It’s the story we have told ourselves and which we believe without ever recognizing that it is a story, and we have the opportunity to change the narrative. And what I’m very good at, is helping people understand that and to change the narrative.

Andi Simon: That leads very nicely, though, into your new book. Tell us about the timing, the pacing. What was a catalytic moment for another book. Modern Wisdom, Ancient Roots has a purpose, and there’s something at the end of it for you to use to self-assess. But the context is important here because as the listener thinks about their story that’s guiding their life either toward happiness or toward less than, it’s an opportunity to begin to rethink who am I and the story I’m living and what am I thinking. Please, what was the motivation for this book and tell us about it.

Srikumar Rao: A book, Andi, and you can understand this, being a multiple times author yourself, is like a baby. You know, it comes to a point at which it has to be born. Yes, that’s what happened with this. I wanted to, as you know, I’m an executive coach and people ask me questions. And I noticed that there was a great deal of similarity in the questions. And this cuts across countries, cuts across culture, cuts across ethnic and other backgrounds.

They’re human problems, not problems related to any particular occupation, country, or religious or ethnic background. So I figured that if I put this down, it would be a help to people to understand that. And some of them, of course, might want to go deeper. And if so, they reach out to me and we discuss what I can do for them.

But the idea is to give them solid tools, and the heart of it is to understand that the world we’re living in is not a real world. It’s a construct. We build that construct with our mental chatter and our mental models. Now, this is hugely liberating because if the world we’re living in is not real and you don’t like it, then you can deconstruct the parts of it you don’t like and build it again. 

But what do you do if the world you live in is real, and you don’t like it, you’re screwed. But if it’s not real, you can change it. So how do you go about doing that? That’s what my coaching is all about. And some of the tools that I use are given in that book Modern Wisdom, Ancient Roots. And I’ve tried to illustrate it by means of stories, because I find that stories bring it home very, very powerfully. This is a story I shared with you about the investment banker and his wife. And, you know, they were able to make almost a U-turn.

Andi Simon: Now stay on that. I want to talk a little bit more about some of the chapters in there but we often say that we live an illusion. The story creates an illusion that guides our day but isn’t real. And the only truth is there’s no truth. It’s very hard for people not to say, this isn’t real. Well, sort of, but the pen is only real enough when you write with it, and something happens but it’s hard to understand that some of them, the stories that you have in there, though, are really very important for thinking about who am I and what am I doing and why am I doing this. Can you share a few of them? I’ll say the short chapters, but there are a couple of major points.

Srikumar Rao: Here’s one. Now, how do you think about the universe? Einstein said that the most important question you will ever ask yourself is, is the universe friendly? Now we respect Einstein because he was a great scientist, but he was also a philosopher who had a very intimate understanding of how the universe worked. And Einstein said, the most important question you will ever ask yourself is, is the universe friendly?

Now, there are some people who believe that the universe is distinctly unfriendly, and the sole purpose of the universe is to frustrate. The vast, overwhelming majority of us believe the universe is neither friendly nor unfriendly. It’s indifferent. The universe doesn’t know you exist and couldn’t care less. So here you are going around doing your thing. There’s a universe going around doing its thing. Sometimes it seems to work with you, sometimes it seems to work against you. But essentially it’s a random process.

What if that wasn’t true? What if the universe was aware of your existence and the universe was well-disposed towards you? Why does the universe give you stuff you don’t want? You want to go on vacation and the universe gives you pandemics and lockdowns. Why does the universe give you stuff you don’t want? Well, the universe didn’t give you what you wanted, but gave you exactly what you needed for your learning and growth.

Like you’re a small child and you want a tub of ice cream, and the universe gives you fruits and vegetables, and you don’t want fruits and vegetables, you want a tub of ice cream. But the universe through your parents gives you fruits and vegetables. It isn’t until you reach a much higher level of maturity that you can say, thank God I got fruits and vegetables rather than a tub of ice cream. What if the universe was exactly like that?

That is a mental model, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out it’s a superior mental model. And regardless of whether the universe was friendly or not, if you believed the universe was friendly, your experience of life would be a whole lot better. 

How do you adopt this mental model? And the idea is recognize that it’s a superior mental model and look for signs that this is operating in your life. And I advocate people having a notebook where they write down the signs that the universe is friendly, and when you do that, you’ll see them everywhere.

I’ll give you an example. This happened to me yesterday. So I had a plumbing issue in one of my toilets, and I called the plumber and he came and fixed it. And after he did that, he had come to my house earlier, and he was missing a drill, and he thought he might have left it downstairs. So I went to the basement to check, and he noticed that there was a pinhole leak in one of my pipes, and discovered it purely by accident. But he looked at that and pointed to my attention and said, I’m here and I’ll fix it. It could have been quite major, and he fixed it. Completely serendipitous. That’s a miracle. It’s a sign the universe is friendly.

Most of the time when something like that happens, we dismiss it as a coincidence. So coincidence is a miracle killer. But when you start noting the ways in which the universe seems to be working with you and has your back, you notice so many of them that you’ll reach an internal tipping point. And in that tipping point, you will tip over from “the universe is indifferent” to “the universe is friendly.” And when you do that, your experience of life has such a tremendous transformation.

Andi Simon: And I think that the timing of your conversation today is so interesting because I too, I believe in, in those kinds of chance moments which aren’t clearly by chance. And there was nothing that made him go down there, except perhaps he left his drill down there and nothing that said, please take a look at a pinhole in the pipe or anything for you. I started a conversation today talking about where we’re going and the kinds of things we’re in. But, it is an interesting lesson for our listeners, a wisdom to begin to open up your mind to possibilities.

Srikumar Rao: That is the key point. You’ve hit the nail right on the head. Open yourself up to possibilities.

Andi Simon: Because that’s the only way you’re going to grow. As we know that the brain hates change, unfamiliarly. It fights everything that comes in and threatens what’s current. You have to overcome that cortisol that’s produced until it, nope, I want some oxytocin, because I think this is the greatest idea that I could begin to think about. But the only one who can manage that is you.

Srikumar Rao: Absolutely. And when you start living in a friendly universe, then you say something happens to you and you say, okay, you know, there’s a lesson in there for me. And what is the lesson and how soon can I learn it? And you’ll invariably find that the unfortunate situation resolves itself.

Andi Simon: So when you’re up at two in the morning thinking about something that’s really bugging you, let it go. Meditate, quiet the mind. 

So I’m watching our time and it’s almost ready to wrap up, but I want to talk about one thing more and that is meditation, mindfulness, managing your mind. Because unless you understand there are things you can do, in fact, I’m not going to say take charge of your mind, but quiet it, you’re going to think, I don’t know how to do that. I don’t know how to let go of those negatives to absorb the positive. Any things that you particularly like to do? I’ve learned mindfulness myself, but please.

Srikumar Rao: What happens? Andi we have this mental chatter going on, and you can’t stop it. It’s pointless saying, you know something is happening, don’t worry about it. If you could not worry about it, you’d not worry about it. But you’re incapable of not worrying about it. That’s okay. You cannot stop worrying about it, but you can observe and be aware of the fact that you’re worrying about it.

So one of the cornerstone exercises of mine is, look, you have this mental chatter that’s going on. And the problem is not that you have mental chatter. The problem is you identify with your mental chatter. And when you identify with the mental chatter, it can grab you by the neck and take you to all kinds of dark places. So sit back and observe your mental chatter. Observe yourself feeling worried. Observe yourself feeling anxious.

And as you create that distance, you no longer have your mental chatter. You’re the observer of the mental chatter. The velocity and the power of that chatter, it diminishes and it loses the ability to take you to places you don’t want to go. It’s very easy to describe and it’s very easy to start off on that. It’s very difficult to keep it there because you start observing your mental chatter and in seconds you’ve lost it and you become your mental chatter. When that happens, go back to being the observer. This is one of the cornerstone exercises of my programs and my coaching. But as you become better and better at that, you can be an observer for a longer and longer period, and you’ll find that the things that used to bother you no longer bother you because you let them go.

Andi Simon: And that letting go is a lot like what you have to do to grow up. Yeah. Let it go. And at any age, you can be, you know, still a child, let it go to get to the next stage in your own personal growth. I’ve enjoyed this so much. I do want to say one thing for our listeners and our viewers, that when you’re working, when you’re in an organization that may have gotten toxic or may seem to be unpleasant to get to work every day, or your folks are beginning to struggle, time to sit down with them and think about that mental chatter that’s going on. It may come from outside of the workplace or inside. Or maybe somebody said something to someone.

Think about the investment banker and the different ways he can deal with his wife, one of which is caring about the fact she’s been alone, or the other is angry that she cares so much about herself that she’s not thinking about him and the work he’s doing. Same situation, two different stories.

But, if you have an organization that seems to be fragile and it’s not a bad methodology to begin to sit down and listen to the conversation, observe, be an anthropologist, hang out, listen to the conversations at lunchtime. Begin to pull out of the stories people are telling that mental chatter that’s creating noise instead of joy. Because so much joy is there waiting to happen. The universe is joyful. Let it happen.

Srikumar Rao: Absolutely. The universe is benevolent. The universe is your friend. Recognize that it’s your friend. And the more you recognize it as your friend, the more signs you will get that it in fact is your friend.

Andi Simon: And then every day, coming to work isn’t work. It’s about growing and learning and teaching and gratitude and just having joy.

Srikumar Rao: Exactly, exactly, exactly right, Andi.

Andi Simon: Last thoughts? Dr. Srikumar Rao has been with us today, talking about his new book, Modern Wisdom, Ancient Roots. But it’s about you and about how you can turn work into growth. Begin to think about that, that chatter in your mind as something to let go. Some last thoughts.

Srikumar Rao: Your nature is happiness. You’re not this shell of skin and bones and blood that you think you are, who you really are is pure awareness. Your job in this life is to recognize who you really are and cast yourself free from this cage in which you have ensnared yourself. Trust yourself and recognize that the door to your prison is always open and unlocked. All you have to do is open the door and step out of it.

Andi Simon: This has been a pleasure. I could keep talking. I’ve enjoyed our conversation and I know our listeners and viewers will as well. Let me wrap up. It’s such fun to share people like Dr. Rao with you because it takes us to the next stage in our own growth. And I don’t care where you are, that noise in your brain is going to get in the way of seeing what’s possible. And in fact, the little challenge here or a little opportunity there if you let it turn into an opportunity. Next thing you know, you’re rising with it. And he’s smiling and so am I. So thank you for coming today.

Srikumar Rao: It’s been my pleasure. And I look forward to a wonderful association. And I don’t know which way it’s going to go, but I know it’s going to go exactly the way it’s supposed to. Thank you.

Andi Simon: Thank you. But the joyful universe is going to take us on its own way, and we’re going to have some fun. The timing couldn’t be better. Now, for those of you who come, remember, I love to help you see, feel and think in new ways. I can’t thank you enough for coming. Refer to us anybody you’d like to hear on our podcast. We are getting booked up for the rest of the year and so sooner is better.

My new book, Women Mean Business: Over 500 Insights from Extraordinary Leaders to Spark Your Success is doing extremely well. It’s full of wisdoms and people are learning. We often say, turn a page and change your life. Who knew? The book has an energy and a force well beyond being a book. There’s more. You’re smiling. The books aren’t books, are they?

Srikumar Rao: Books are in books. Books have a life force in them, and they reach out and grab the persons who are right for them. I could not agree with you more.

Andi Simon: Couldn’t say it better than you have. So I’m going to say goodbye. Let’s say have a great day. Please turn your observations into innovations. Don’t wait around. The world is waiting for your new ideas. Bye bye now.

Srikumar Rao: Let’s go further than that, Andi. Have a wonderful rest of your life.

Andi Simon: I love it. Everyone’s cup should be overflowing like yours and mine. Thank you.


WOMEN MEAN BUSINESS® is a registered trademark of the National Association of Women Business Owners® (NAWBO)