Life of purpose

By Ret Boney

An encounter with a Trappist monk on a rainy evening translated into $100,000 for August Turak, the North Carolina entrepreneur and nonprofit founder who won the grand prize in the first “Power of Purpose Awards” essay competition sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation.

“I wasn’t planning on the grand prize,” says Turak, who plans to give the money to charity, including the monastery that inspired his essay.

The foundation, established by famed global mutual-fund developer Sir John Templeton, created the competition to “investigate the evidence and benefits of purpose in the world,” says Pamela Thomson, vice president for communications for the foundation.

The foundation awarded $500,000 to 19 winners culled from over 7,000 entries from 97 countries.

Turak’s winning entry recalled his experience with Brother John, a monk at Mepkin Abbey, during one of his many retreats to the South Carolina monastery, and the profound effect it had on his life.

“The whole idea of Brother John and his selfless application of purpose seemed to exemplify what we were looking for,” says Michael Reagan, president of Lionheart Books, a producer of books for publishers and administrator of the contest.

The panel of five judges included Rick Warren, the author “The Purpose Driven Life,” which has sold over 20 million copies, and Marion Wright Edelman, head of the Children’s Defense Fund.

August Turak

Job:  Founder and board chair, Self Knowledge Symposium Foundation

Education:  B.A., Russian history, University of Pittsburgh

Family:  Single

Born 1952, Pittsburgh

Hobbies Vegetable gardening, working on his farm

Recently read “The Dark Path,” by Walter H. Hunt; “The Origins and History of Consciousness,” by Erich Neumann; Sherlock Holmes stories

Book to recommend:  “The Denial of Death,” by Ernest Becker

Inspiration His parents, teachers, spiritual mentors and students.  “The college students.  They have inspired me and broken my heart.  They’ve kept me on the path these last 15 years.”

Turak is founder and board chair of the Self Knowledge Symposium Foundation, a Raleigh-based group that encourages people to develop their own personal, ethical and spiritual values and then live according to them.

The effort began 15 years ago when, after giving a lecture at N.C. State University on his early experiences with a Zen teacher, several students approached Turak about meeting with them regularly in a small group setting to discuss spirituality and the purpose of their lives.

“I try to galvanize them to take a hard look at their lives and convince them that they should build their lives into their spirituality,” Turak says of his students, “not their spirituality into their lives.”

Self Knowledge has since grown to include chapters at N.C. State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University, and offers classes, lectures, retreats and weekly meetings for students, adults and business leaders.

Turak, a Pittsburgh native and the oldest of eight children, was raised as a Catholic.

As a 19 year-old college student, coming out of his “rebellious period,” Turak began looking for what he terms a higher purpose in his life.

“If we’re here for a few years and there is no God, then life probably isn’t significant,” he remembers thinking.  “I wanted to feel like my life counted in some way.”

After three years of college Turak left school and his family to explore his own purpose in life, first working with a Zen teacher he still credits for laying the foundation for his spiritual journey as well as sparking what Turak terms a “spiritual experience.”

“I got a glimpse of something so wonderful,” he says. “We don’t want self-gratification, we want self surrender – we want to give ourselves away.
“But we want it to be worth it,” he says. “I got a glimpse of that thing, and it made me want to figure out a way to merge with that thing.”

He spent five years as a carpet installer, a job that taught him how to work with his hands and make a living, while allowing him ample time to meditate.

After completing his degree, Turak moved to Washington, D.C., to work under Lou Mobley, former IBM executive and head of the IBM Executive School, who provided him mentoring on leadership for two years in exchange for help in finding clients for Mobley’s consulting business.

Then came a stint as a sales and marketing executive in the broadcasting industry, where Turak helped with the initial launch of MTV and the Arts & Entertainment Network, now A&E.

In 1985, Turak moved to North Carolina to consult in the cable and software industries, founded Self Knowledge four years later and started a software reselling and publishing company called Raleigh Group International in 1993.

“I started my own business with a spiritual friend,” he says. “We wanted to prove that we could be successful with spiritual values. We ended up selling it to an Israeli man for a lot of money.”

He stayed on with the company after the sale, and retired in 2002 to focus more fully on Self Knowledge, to continue his own theological studies and to pursue executive coaching.

“I believe that when push came to shove, more often that not, I did stick my neck out and do something that seemed crazy to everyone, but seemed to work for me,” he says.

Turak, who now lives on a 75-acre farm in Franklinton, N.C., has stepped back from day-to-day activities at Self Knowledge, but still serves as board chair and mentors the group’s employees.

He now plans to spend more time writing and teaching, which he sees as the next phase in his life.

“I’ve got to resist the temptation of the doing and get more into the thinking and saying,” he says.

“The nicest compliment I got was from my brother Chris,” Turak says of the Power of Purpose Award. “When asked about the award, he said, ‘Well, he’s been working on this article for 35 years.’”

Turak’s winning essay can be viewed at

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