Varun Soni is the Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California (USC) and the first Hindu to serve as the chief religious or spiritual leader of an American university.
In a time where it feels like we have never been more divided, this conversation is about unity. It’s about empathy. It’s about diversity. It’s about curiosity and regard.

There is so much to learn in this conversation.

Varun has been personally impacted by some of the most influential thought leaders in history… Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, to name a few.

As a leader (and I’m not throwing that term out there loosely) at the University of Southern California, Varun is deeply committed to helping students become, through embracing the tension between differences and commonalities.

His goal is to run the office of religious life at USC as the office of the future – to envision what religion and spirituality is going to look like 10 years from now rather than what it looked like 10 years ago.

In this conversation we talk about how to master the art of living – this includes the importance of asking yourself the right questions, redefining your metrics for success, and the importance of emotional intelligence.

Varun also sheds light on some of the difficulties today’s college students face that previous generations may have thought inconceivable.

“The philosophy that defines the way I want to live is to really pay attention to what’s happening inside.”

In This Episode:

  • The Unique Mission of the USC Religious Office
  • How his young age impacts the way he teaches his students
  • His experience being a first generation Indian in America
  • Why he rebelled against the expectations of his parents and chose the arts over medicine
  • What he learned from the teachings of Gandhi and the Dalai Lama
  • The reason the scholarly and the spiritual can co-exist
  • How to become a master in the art of living
  • Redefining your metrics for success
  • The current mental illness crisis America is facing and how it’s impacting college social life
  • What he loves about Hinduism
  • How he helps students learn to trust themselves
  • Tactics for combatting self-doubt


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“My goal is to run the office of religious life at USC as the office of the future. What is religion and spirituality going to look like 10 years from now, not what did it look like 10 years ago?”

“We’re here to meet students wherever they’re at. Wherever there at on their journey. Wherever they’re at on their course of study. Wherever they’re at on their professional aspirations. We want to be there for them.”

“If we bring together our spiritual selves – how we find meaning, and purpose, and community and our academic or scholarly selves – what we want to do in the world and how we prepare ourselves to do it – then we can be more effective on both fronts.”

“What I challenge my students to think about and what I challenge my self to think about is how do we redefine the metrics of success.”

On the Dalai Lama: “When I got to spend a little time with him that day, it changed my life forever.”

“For me spirituality is much more about the questions than the answers. I think religion tends to be about answers, spirituality tends to be about questions.”

“I can’t control what’s happening in outer space but I can control what’s happening in inner space.”

“We become the stories that we tell ourselves.”

“I think the thing that I want to challenge my students to think about deeply is how they themselves create the conditions of their own suffering.”

“What I’ve found are the people who are most successful professionally are also really good in terms of emotional intelligence. They’re not successful because they went to the right schools or got the right grades. They’re successful because understand what it means to be human and how others human operate and what other humans need and how to be that person for others.”

On relationships: “Talking with thumbs can’t replace talking with tongues.”

“I think ultimately mindfulness is about choices. I don’t have to react in a particular way. I don’t have to feel a particular way. I can choose to do something in a certain way. I don’t have to fall in patterns. Mindfulness gives you choices you might not otherwise have.”


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Dr. Varun Soni is the Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California (USC) and the first Hindu to serve as the chief religious or spiritual leader of an American university. He is also an Adjunct Professor in the USC School of Religion and a University Fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Public Diplomacy.