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One can enjoy material things and still be happy: Robin Sharma

The author on why there is nothing wrong with wealth and how one can have a great life simply by waking up early

Rajiv Singh
Published: Feb 27, 2019 11:53:01 AM IST
Updated: Feb 27, 2019 12:02:30 PM IST

One can enjoy material things and still be happy: Robin Sharma
Robin Sharma says his latest book offers a morning protocol to maximise energy, focus, performance and happiness
Image: Madhu Kapparath

Robin Sharma, leadership guru, self-help expert and best-selling author of The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, believes materialism can safely, and easily, coexist with happiness. There is a catch, though. “Let material things be your servants and not your Gods,” asserts Sharma. The Canada-based author, who was a lawyer before he quit the profession over two decades ago, was in India in February to promote his latest book, The 5 AM Club.

Dressed immaculately in his signature all-black wardrobe, Sharma—whose father was born in Jammu and Kashmir—contends that there is nothing sinful in craving material things. “But I don’t think any great life can be built around these things,” says the writer, who doesn’t like being billed as a ‘guru’. “I am still a work in progress.”   

The 5 AM Club, says Sharma, is not only about time management but also self-management. “If you want to live a great life, it’s important to start your day early,” he tells Forbes India in an interview. Edited excerpts:

Q. Can a materialistic person be a happy individual? Can materialism and happiness coexist?
A materialistic person is someone who gets his identity from materialism, but one can enjoy material things and still be happy. There is nothing wrong in wealth. It’s the harmony between living and not losing sight of what’s most important that makes for a happy life.

Society has sold us a set of seductions, like if you get more money, more likes on social media, bigger house, beautiful set of shoes and dresses...they will make you happy. That doesn’t lead to sustained happiness. Look at Mahatma Gandhi… he died without any possessions. If possessions were central to a great life, why did he show us otherwise? In many ways, the world is lost. A lot of people are getting confused. They are measuring their personal worth by how many followers they have on social media. There is nothing wrong with social media followers or eating in nice restaurants. In fact, human beings like sensual sensory pleasures; but I don’t think a great life is built around them.  

Let material things be your servants and not your Gods. It’s all about training yourself and preparation. This can happen early in the morning. There’s a quote in The 5 AM Club from Spartan Warriors: “Sweat more in training and you will bleed less in war”. So, getting up early when the rest of the world is asleep, winning the battle of the bed, putting mind over the mattress, and giving yourself that extra hour to work on the mind, heart, body, spirit will strengthen your four interior empires. If you work on them when the rest of the world is asleep, you can easily construct the exterior empires.
Q. Where are most people going wrong, even if they wake up early?
What most people do, even if they wake up in the morning, is to start checking their emails, WhatsApp or social media feeds. All of a sudden, they lose their cognitive bandwidth. This term—cognitive bandwidth—was used by psychologist Eldar Shafir. Every time you focus on technology, you lose a part of the cognitive bandwidth. Sophie Leroy, a business school professor at the University of Minnesota, coined a great term called ‘attention residue’. It means that people are less productive when they are constantly moving from one task to another, instead of focusing on one thing at a time. So wake up in the morning, watch the news, focus on your phone and you have lost part of your attention. By starting your day in a more focussed way, you are much more productive and perform better during the day.

I believe in karma. Some people are born with these (leadership) traits. But geniuses are much more about daily habits than genetics.”

Q. Is there anything magical about waking up early in the morning?
Yeah. Anybody who gets up at 5 am, even if she doesn’t run my protocol...there is such peacefulness around, there is something magical about the vibration in the air. Why did all the saints and sages get up early to meditate? Because that’s the time when you can be more intimate with your higher nature and deeper wisdom.

 I first started talking about getting up early in The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari. When I studied great women and men in the world, I realised many of them got up early. In fact, 5 am to 8 am is the least distracted time of the day. If you use your early hours well, you can get more done than what most people manage to do in the entire day. Just observing how the most successful and happy people got up early made me interested in the 5 am routine.
Q. The thought or idea of getting up early has always existed. Does your book try to create a formal structure around it?
If you look at religious and wisdom traditions across the world, there is one thing in common: Get up before sunrise. In India, we know that the hours before sunrise allow us to think deeply and with clarity. They allow you to deal the inner work required to become the hero of your life.

A lot of people are losing themselves. They are busy being busy versus focusing on things that are truly important. What I have tried to do in The 5 AM Club is to give people a morning protocol so that they can start their day in a way that will maximise their energy, focus, performance and happiness. After all, what’s the point in being successful if you are not happy and peaceful? The 5 AM Club is not only about time management but also self-management. If you want to live a great life, it’s important to start your day early. The way you begin your day sets up how you live your day. If you can consistently have great mornings, you will consistently have great days, which means great weeks, quarters, years, and life.

 A great life is built on a lot of principles. The first is realising your personal potential. India is one of the first nations in the world to start yoga or meditation…that’s about maximising the potential one is born with. That’s how you find happiness. Great life is also about being helpful. The more people I help, the happier I become.   
Q. You are considered to be among the world’s top leadership gurus. Of late, the term ‘guru’ has been in the news for the wrong reasons...the word has been abused as well. What’s your take?
Years ago, I wrote a book called The Greatness Guide in which the first chapter is on guru. From what I understand, ‘Gu’ means darkness in Sanskrit and ‘ru’ means dispel. So a guru is someone who dispels darkness. A real guru is one who helps people leave their shadow and walk into the light. Do I see myself as a guru? I honestly don’t. I see myself as a work in progress. If you look at the companies that were once great, like Nokia or Myspace, I think one of the things that happened to them is that they fell in love with their winning formula and success. I just want to be a servant and help people.

My father used to quote Rabindranath Tagore and tell me: ‘Robin, 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’. If I start thinking of myself as a guru, I probably won’t be able to study as much as I do.

Q. So you do not like to be called a motivational guru either?
To me, motivation is not something that can be sustained. I do not see myself as somebody who teaches motivation. All my books, including The 5 AM Club, are full of neurosciences and real routine that have helped successful people and heavyweights.

Q. Can leadership survive without motivation?

I don’t like the word motivation because it has got a bit of a bad name, but using motivation as a synonym for drive is okay. The job of a leader is to get things done. Great leaders are the ones who talk less and do more. That comes from drive. Ambition is not a dirty word...it’s not a swear word. Ambition is what allowed a Taj Mahal to be made. A great drive comes from purpose.

Q. Can leaders be made? We keep hearing about born leaders…
I believe in karma. Yes, I do believe that some people are born with these (leadership) traits. They do have natural gifts. But geniuses are much more about daily habits than genetics. Yes, leaders are born, but are also educated. It is stunning how any human being through the power of learning can transform.  
Q. Do you intend to retire?
Retirement is a dangerous sport. I don’t have any intention to retire. I want to be writing and giving presentations until my last breath.  

Q. Are there enough readers? Are people buying books?  
People are going back to reading books. So the book is not dead. Everything is cyclical. Ten years ago, social media wasn’t dominant, but now there are a lot of people leaving social media or at least managing it better because they realise that it’s not only addictive but also wasting a lot of our time. Addiction to distraction is the death of creative production. We are putting our phones away and focusing back on building human connections.

Q. You were a lawyer before you quit the profession to write books. Should one put everything at stake by listening to one’s heart?
Your instinct is always wiser than your intelligence. We should all listen to our heart. The great men and women of the world...if they had listened to their intellect, we wouldn’t have had a Gandhi, a Nelson Mandela, or a man on the moon. We have to listen to the deeper wisdom inside of us because that’s where the genius lives.  

Q. What’s your India connect?
My father was from Jammu and Kashmir, so coming here brings back some great memories. I love India very much, whether it’s art, culture, food or people. It’s a special place to me. I was born in Uganda and then moved to India. Though I didn’t spend my childhood here, I have been to the country many times. The last time I was here was five years ago. It’s exciting to be here. The progress that the country has made is incredible.

Q. Have you picked up Hindi?
I understand Hindi, but haven’t watched much of Bollywood stuff. One movie I remember is Mother India. It is an iconic movie and I watched it when I was very young.

Q. What about Indian food?
I love tandoori chicken, hariyali chicken, butter naan, onion kulcha, raita and mango pickle. My good Indian meal is incomplete without an ice-cold Kingfisher.  

(This story appears in the 15 March, 2019 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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