Seeking the Balance with Michael Sugich
In this conversation series, we explore design as a spiritual practice with creative leaders, spiritual teachers, and startup founders from around the world. Here, Peter Gould interviews author, friend, mentor, and long-term spiritual seeker, Michael Sugich
Like so many other spiritual wayfarers who have passed through the UAE over the years, I’ve had the great distinction of spending my fair share of nights crashing on Michael Sugich’s couch in Dubai.
Every time he opened his doors to me, I would escape the hectic world of meetings, deadlines and jet lag, and enter into a haven of tranquility, filled with learning, dhikr, deep conversations and good food.
With Michael having moved away from the UAE to the more temperate climes of Turkey some years ago, those heady days and nights in Dubai have now been consigned to the past, but the wisdom, guidance and friendship given to me during those precious moments live on, and I continue to learn valuable lessons about this world and the next from this unique and cherished mentor.
Having embraced Islam as a young adult in Santa Barbara, California, Michael adopted the Muslim name Haroon and left behind a promising career in the entertainment world as an actor; instead setting out on a journey of spiritual discovery. He travelled to the Middle East to learn from Sufi masters and lived in Makkah for more than two decades before moving to the UAE and then Turkey.
During his time in the Gulf, he also found success in the business world, co-founding TRACCS (Trans-Arabian Creative Communications Services) in 1997, which grew from a team of three people to become the largest independent public relations network in the Middle East and North Africa. By the time he stepped down from his role as Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer in 2014, the company employed more than 200 people across 14 countries in the region.
Today, however, he is probably best known as the author of hugely popular books Signs on the Horizon, and Hearts Turn, into which he has poured his decades of experience, wisdom, and insight, gifting readers sage advice, beautiful messages of hope, and a glimpse at the depth, wonder and mercy of spirituality in its many guises.
I’m fortunate to speak regularly with Michael about a variety of subjects ranging from the mundane to the metaphysical, and always come away having learned, understood, or gained something important. On one particular occasion, I wanted to ask him about the principle of Rida (loosely translated as ‘contentment and gratitude’, or ‘acceptance of all things without complaint’) – especially when going through challenges within your professional career.
I asked specifically how we might reduce anxiety about provision at a time when people are feeling so much stress about survival, and – not uncommon for Michael – he replied with a film reference.
“Alfred Hitchcock the filmmaker made a film called Rope, and he conceived the film in extremely long takes,” he started.
“Rather than the usual very short two or three minute bits that are then all cut together, he had this idea of making a film where each take was between 20-30 minutes long, which meant that if you got 15 minutes into a scene and somebody made a mistake with their lines, or one of the technical people dropped a light or something, then you’d have to start all over again.
“So people were panicking all the time; they had terrible anxiety and were constantly worried that something would go wrong. And Hitchcock was sitting there and just said: “It’s only a movie”.
“Part of what you have to do in business is say ‘it’s only business’ and not get completely caught up in all the ups and downs of it. Because if you do, you’ll be a nervous wreck.
“You need to have a certain temperament when you get into business, and that temperament is such that you can’t get anxiety-ridden if you have a reverse. Because things will always go up and down. It’s only business.”
We start to discuss this from a spiritual perspective, and touch on the importance of Tawakkul (a reliance on, or trust in God’s plan).
“As a Muslim, you have to remember that everything you do is from Allah,” said Michael.
“All of your power, all of your strength, all of your provisions - it’s from God. So if you have a failed business, it doesn’t mean that Allah isn’t going to provide for you. Maybe he’ll provide in a different way. You have to combine a kind of sanguinity in business with a deep faith that your provision is not coming from the business - it’s coming from God. It’s important to understand that and not be overly worried.
“You have to combine a kind of sanguinity in business with a deep faith that your provision is not coming from the business - it’s coming from God.”
“It’s difficult though. This is why the Prophet (Upon him be blessings of peace) said that the honest businessman has the station of a Shaheed (a martyr), because it’s very easy to slip into all of the mistakes, including being dishonest and doing business in an unethical way.”
I’ve certainly felt that kind of pressure when times have been hard for my business over the years – the invitation to relax my ethics slightly in order to make greater financial or reputational gain. It can be a difficult temptation to resist given the worldly responsibilities we have to our teams, clients, families, and financial commitments, so I asked Michael how we might ensure we’re meeting these responsibilities while maintaining a clean heart.
He explained that one key to overcoming this challenge is to work hard, do our best, but also surrender to God’s plan and not fear what we would usually call ‘failure’.
“As a believer, you turn to Allah and ask for Allah’s help,” he said. “As a businessman, you have to make all the practical steps that are necessary to preserve your business, but not be afraid of poverty. People are terrified of poverty.”
“You have to make all the practical steps that are necessary to preserve your business, but not be afraid of poverty. People are terrified of poverty.”
He draws on a lesson from history to show that making and losing money has always been a part of business – an inescapable aspect of the professional world.
“In England, for example, during the period when the East India Company was expanding and England was becoming a mercantile power, many people lost their entire fortunes at sea. There were storms, pirates, and all kinds of things.
“So you had people who were debtors, and they owed huge amounts of money after losing their fortunes, and many of them took refuge in the old Catholic enclaves, where they could claim the right of sanctuary. One of them was Daniel Defoe, who wrote Robinson Crusoe. He was a debtor and he escaped to one of these refuges to get away from his debts.
“It’s part of life. Businesses make money, businesses lose money. It’s not a modern problem - it’s always been the way.”
What is a modern problem however, he continued, is the worship of success – something he believes is a serious distortion perpetuated by the media, and a trap that can have a profoundly negative impact on your life.
“I think people have really fallen into the trap of worshiping success. The media shows you vast success stories – people who have huge, huge amounts of money – and people start to believe that this is the norm. People think that they’re supposed to have all of that.
“It creates all kinds of anxieties in people who start to ask themselves ‘how come I’m not a multi-millionaire? How come I don’t have three cars and a mansion and a private plane? How come I’m not wearing a Rolex?’
“This is the modern paradigm. You’re told you need to do it all before you’re 30, and it distorts everything. You have no wisdom, no experience that you’ve gathered over the years. Someone told me that Malcolm Gladwell spoke about this – how you have 25-year-old CEOs and they have no long view of anything. They have no wisdom. They can’t see what’s ahead of them.
“This kind of thing can actually ruin your life. It’s a trap. Because you start to think you’ve done it all. I saw this in the Gulf with the oil boom. You had all these people who through no real effort of their own suddenly became incredibly wealthy - guys who made $100 million because they hit the market at the right time. And they somehow think that they’re geniuses - that it’s because of them. But it’s not. It’s either a test or a gift or it’s both.”
We discussed this idea of money being a test, and how part of overcoming this test is making a distinction between money and wealth.
“It’s important to always distinguish one from the other,” Michael said. “Health is an aspect of wealth, wellbeing, feeling at ease, having a family, having a beautiful place to live, enjoying your life, doing what you like – these are all kinds of wealth.
“It’s not a matter of how big your bank account is, it’s a matter of how you're living. Some people can have huge amounts of money and be utterly paralysed by anxiety for one reason or another. They have money, but do they have wealth?
“We have to look at what wealth really is. You have spiritual wealth - isn’t it better? And if you increase in worldly things, you decrease in spiritual things – this is kind of the rule. So finding that balance is important. Part of that balance is asking yourself what you want money for in the first place. Do you want it so that you can buy yachts and fancy clothes? Or do you want money so you have the means to help people?
“We have to look at what wealth really is. You have spiritual wealth - isn’t it better? And if you increase in worldly things, you decrease in spiritual things – this is kind of the rule.”
“If you bind yourself to a good intention, you can have all of that – you can find that balance of a wonderful life while being generous towards others. There was a murīd (spiritual student) of Sheikh Mohammed Ibn Al-Habib who was quite wealthy. I think he had an agricultural business, or something like that. His Sheikh instructed him to feed 40 people every single day for the rest of his life. Which he did. Every day. That’s a lot of money if you think about it. He fed 40 people, maybe more, every single day.
“That kind of discipline and generosity and openness and caring for other people is really what money is about. And doing it actually increases your wealth.”
It’s gems such as these that make it such a pleasure to sit with Michael. His easy way of bringing home important points has helped so many of us over the years, and with his experience and success in balancing the spiritual and professional worlds, it’s heartening to hear such simple and sound advice from a man who has been there and done that to the highest degree.
Peter Gould is the founder of Gould Studio, and advocates for Heart-Centered Design to inspire meaningful products & brands that align with spiritual aspirations. He teaches The Heart of Design program and is currently writing a book on the subject. For more interviews, news and insights, please sign-up to the Gould Studio newsletter.