A version of this article by Alison Beard appeared in the May–June 2018 issue (p.160) of Harvard Business Review.
At age 45, Chopra left his career as a prominent physician and hospital administrator in Boston to start his own center, in California, focused on integrative medicine. The author of 86 books and a seasoned public speaker, he also advises organizations and individuals.
HBR : What’s the key lesson you want leaders to take away from your work ?
Chopra : I give them the opportunity to reflect on important questions: Who am I ? Why do I think I exist ? What is my purpose ? What does a meaningful relationship mean to me, both professionally and personally ? What is my contribution ? What brings me joy ? What will my legacy be ? Who are my heroes, mentors, role models in history, mythology, religion, business ? What are my unique strengths ? How do I use them ? Who benefits ? Why am I choosing this course of action ? What do I want to get out of it ? What is my motivation ? Is it going to make a difference ? The process is not seeking advice but deep reflection, and at the end of it they chart their own course. Why do I want to be a leader ? Whom do I want to lead ? How do I get others to buy into my vision ? We might study amazing leaders in history : Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy, Nehru, Óscar Arias. The idea is for them to work toward taking responsibility for not only their own well-being—social, emotional, physical, financial, professional—but also that of others. I teach them how to harness creativity, whether they’re artists or scientists—intention, information gathering, analysis, incubation, insight, intuition—and how to serve the people they influence. Those are the basic elements. If they’re receptive, I then take them into meditation practices for tapping into higher consciousness. I teach them how to eschew resentment or grievances, hostility, fear, guilt, or shame; how to go beyond the mind to a deeper level of awareness; about hierarchies of needs and response; higher vision. As I’ve met and coached leaders, even heads of state, over the years, I’ve heard many say, “I was lucky,” or “I was in the right place at the right time,” or “I was a beneficiary of meaningful coincidences.” If they happen to be religious, they use words like “God” or “grace.” But I think success is opportunity and preparedness coming together, which happens only when you’re aware. So I teach them how to be aware.
How do you decide who to take on as a client ?
These days I’d rather do a workshop than advise an individual. I find that everyone gets more out of it because people share their experiences and insights. I’m about to do a retreat like this in Israel.
How do you get high-powered executives to share ?
Most people who come to me have self-selected, so they’re already in that frame of mind. Of course, everyone wants to see who else is on the list, to make sure they’re all of the same status. But once they see important names, they don’t mind sharing.
And how do you persuade them to carry on the practices you endorse in their day-to-day lives ?
There are five things they need to do: sleep, eat nutritiously, exercise, engage in some contemplative practice, and have healthy, nonviolent emotion and communication. When they do this, they start to feel so good, joyful, and energetic that it becomes addictive. When people tell me they don’t have time to do these things even once a day, I tell them to do them twice a day, because if you don’t make time to take care of yourself, you’re really in trouble. I have a very busy life, too, but it’s structured: relationship time, mindful eating time, technology time, meditation time, sleep time. And I get much more done.
You were a prominent doctor and health care executive before opening your center. What prompted you to shift gears ?
Several things. My training was in neuroendocrinology, or brain chemistry, and I could see the connection between what happens in our minds and our biology. These days everybody is talking about serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine—molecules of emotion—and we have drugs to manipulate them, but it wasn’t that way then. As a practicing physician, I was also fully aware that you could give two patients with the same illness the same treatment by the same physician and get different outcomes. We like to believe that medicine is an exact science, but it’s not; biological responses are never predictable because people have not just a body but also a mind. I started using the phrase “body-mind,” just like “mass-energy” or “space-time,” but it was not accepted. I was hearing that my colleagues thought I’d gone off the deep end and were embarrassed about what I was saying. I had the feeling that if I stayed long enough, I would probably be fired. Also, I was stressed. I had 35 patients in the office and 20 patients in the hospital, five of them in the ICU. I didn’t have time to sleep. I was smoking cigarettes. I was a bit of a mess myself. So one day I decided to drop almost everything and leave. The administrator of Sharp Memorial Hospital in California asked me to open a mind-body center with his group of hospitals, which I did. Unfortunately, the doctors still didn’t buy into the integrated medicine I was suggesting. I had to leave that partnership, borrow money, and start my own center. And for whatever reason, it took off.
Have you ever regretted making that break from the establishment ?
No, because I’m back in medicine in a pretty big way. I have a professorship at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine. I have written three books—most recently The Healing Self—with Rudy Tanzi, a professor at Harvard and the vice-chair of neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital, and we continue to publish papers that get a lot of attention in the scientific world.
How do you respond to criticism that you’re more salesman than healer or spiritual leader ?
In the beginning, I used to get offended and defensive. I’d say the most innocuous thing and people would say: “You’re a charlatan,” “You’re a fake,” “You’re a fraud,” “You just want to take advantage of people.” But I would also get immense validation and flattery. I realized that no matter what you say or do, you get both kinds of responses, so you need to be immune to both, to develop a thick skin. If you are convinced that what you’re doing is valid, you just persist, relentlessly. And now there’s been validation of my work. I get invited to all kinds of organizations to give talks, and at hospitals I find lots of young residents and medical students responding. You know, health care providers have the highest rates of depression, burnout, alcoholism, and suicide of any profession, so they might turn out to be the most important group of clients we have.
The self-help field is so crowded. Why do you think your message and persona have resonated ?
Well, my credentials are important. I’m a board-certified internist with licenses to practice in both Massachusetts and California. I’m a medical school professor. I have consulted with the NIH, and although I have many critics, I also now have many people whom I would consider allies in my thinking. Most hospitals have integrated medicine now, and at our center we have medical students and residents and a group practice of highly qualified physicians.
I’ve also delved into mostly Eastern wisdom traditions—not just physical and emotional healing but understanding consciousness—and that’s become a big movement, too. Other than that, maybe it’s my Indian accent ? I don’t know. I agree that the self-help field is a motley group. You have sages and geniuses, but also psychotics and people with no training whatsoever who had a personal experience and decided to write or give lectures about it. Still, no matter how flaky you think somebody is, they have a following. So who am I to judge ? In every endeavor, you find people who speak from their level of consciousness and people at that same level of consciousness who respond.
You’ve said that fame isn’t something you sought out, but you’ve obviously taken to it well. How did you get comfortable in the limelight ?
My wife and my children still don’t take me seriously, and you need people in your life like that, so you don’t buy into your fame. I’m perpetually surprised what the fuss is all about.
How do you prep for important appearances ?
I don’t. I have about 50 different talks that I’ve created over the years. If I’m going to church, it’s one. If I’m speaking to Millennials, it’s another. If I’m in a hospital, that’s another. So I have those frameworks, but then more than anything else I feel the mood of my audience and respond to it.
You don’t seem any less busy now than you were when you were as a physician in Boston, so how do you manage your schedule, your stress, and the business of being Deepak Chopra ?
At my center in California, which is for-profit and affiliated with UCSD for educational purposes only, we have 120 people, including a leadership team of 12 women and a faculty of physicians, oncologists, neurologists, and other specialists, as well as medical students and residents coming through on an elective basis. I spend about 25% of my time on that. The rest of the time I’m either involved with my nonprofit foundation, which funds research on mind-body medicine at various institutions, or working on my own lectures, workshops, and books. These are three different compartments. I have an executive office of three people, who take care of my schedule. I have spurts where I travel the world, go to every continent. I have spurts where I teach at the center or I am writing. But I make sure to sleep, meditate, go to a yoga class every day, so I don’t have stress right now in my life at all.
Alison Beard is a senior editor at Harvard Business Review.