Sreyas and Preyas: How your choices shape you.
How a three thousand-year-old story from the Vedas predicted the results of the Stanford marshmallow experiment.
This week I'm going to share with you a three-thousand-year-old story from the Vedas that explains the foundation of how to be successful in all walks of life.
The Katha Upanishad, an ancient Indian scripture, and a part of the Vedas dates at least three thousand years old. The name Katha means "story", and the story being told here is of a young boy named Nachiketa. Nachiketa's father was performing ritual donations of his wealth to accrue merit. However, Nachiketa noticed that his donations were of the poorest quality, the worst of what he had. Feeling ashamed, and believing his father would not accrue any merit, he went to his father to ask who he would be given to. Irked by this strange question from his son his father responded angrily that he would give him to Yama (the god of death).
Nachiketa took his father's command seriously and departed for the realm of Yama. When he arrived he found it empty. For three days and nights, he waited at the gate of Yama, until he arrived. Impressed by the boy’s diligence, Yama offered Nachiketa 3 boons - one for each of the days he had waited.
For his first boon, Nachiketa asked for his father's rituals to be successful and all the good results to accrue to him. For his second boon, Nachiketa asked for the knowledge of the yagna (fire ritual) to be transmitted for the good of all humanity. For his final boon, Nachiketa asked for the knowledge of what is beyond death, and the true nature of the self.
Yama agreed to the first two boons readily but asked Nachiketa to choose something else for the final boon. He offered him great material wealth, kingship, fame, and admiration of his fellow people, but Nachiketa turned all of these down. Seeing that the boy would not be deterred by any of these temptations, Yama took the role of the guru, to teach Nachiketa the knowledge of what is beyond death.
Most of the Katha Upanishad is these teachings and this dialogue between Yama and Nachiketa. We're going to focus on one small part of it, Yama's first bit of teaching to Nachiketa. Here Yama explains the concept of sreyas and preyas: sreyas are what is ultimately good for a person or society, while preyas are what is easy and pleasurable. Yama explains to Nachiketa that sreyas may require discipline, but they ultimately lead one to the good, while preyas may be pleasurable, but they lead one towards ignorance.
This concept of the choice between what is easy and pleasurable, and what may be more difficult but ultimately beneficial was also the subject of study in the Stanford Marshmallow experiment initially performed in the 70s. Researchers placed a marshmallow in front of children and informed them that they would be back with another after some time. If the child waited for them to come back, they would get both, but if they ate the one in front of them before then, they would not get the second. The researchers were seeking to understand delayed gratification. What they found over the years was that the children that waited longer for the greater rewards tended to have better life outcomes on measures as diverse as SAT scores and BMI.
The results of the experiment were consistent with Yama's teachings from the Katha Upanishad. This concept of delayed gratification echoes that of sreyas and preyas, building discipline and willpower to seek the better outcome as opposed to the easier less rewarding path that is more readily available.
These choices are a constant in life from choosing to wake up early to work out vs sleeping in, choosing something healthy to eat vs drinking a soda, or choosing challenging work that forces you to grow vs taking it easy with what you already know. Yama actually tests Nachiketa's fitness to be his student by offering him such a choice; all the wealth, fame, and power in the world on one side, and the knowledge he is seeking on the other.
It may seem obvious to see how such choices may impact our lives, and yet we still often make the choice to go with what's easy vs what's good. On the individual level, this has an impact on us, and is a limiting factor on achieving our potential. On the level of a business, or our society, the consequences are even more dire.
In business, there is a constant tension between producing short-term results and investing in long-term strategies & sustainable growth. In order to build support for long-term strategies, executives must persuade investors to believe in their long-term vision. They also sometimes have to stay the course when investors or markets balk at the short-term sacrifices needed to pursue the long-term strategy. However, most management teams pursue strategies designed to maximize the near term, to beat their earnings estimates for the quarter. Doing so not only takes the pressure off, but it also maximizes the short-term value of their awarded stock or options, and thus makes them money.
However this pursuit of the preyas over the sreyas, creates boom and bust cycles for companies and the economy. Instead of steady sustainable growth, the sacrifice of the long-term health of the company for short-term profitability has created a great deal of volatility, and economic pain that requires government bailouts to salvage when things go too far wrong. Warren Buffet and Jaimie Dimon touched on this in their Wall Street Journal Op-ed, "Short Termism is Harming the Economy."
While they speak of some specific recommendations in this opinion piece, they also talk about what they see as some of the consequences: "The pressure to meet short-term earnings estimates has contributed to the decline in the number of public companies in America over the past two decades. Short-term-oriented capital markets have discouraged companies with a longer-term view from going public at all, depriving the economy of innovation and opportunity. Fewer public companies has also meant fewer opportunities for retail investors to create wealth through their 401ks and individual retirement accounts."
On a higher societal level, our embrace of continuing the fossil fuel economy is driving us towards the precipice of climate ruin. A transition to renewables will require significant investment and potentially some short-term disruptions. It will not be as easy as continuing to enjoy our existing infrastructure. But we have to recognize we are choosing what's easy in the short term, to the detriment of our own long-term good.
The good news is that we can reverse course, both collectively and individually, by embracing Yama's teachings to Nachiketa, and focusing on the long-term good. Like the distinction between sreyas and preyas though, this will require us to take the more difficult path.
On a personal, practical level, take some time out from your daily cadence to reflect on the choices you are making. Not just the direct choices you face, but also where you are investing your time. Oftentimes the implicit choices are the less examined ones. Where are you choosing to do what's easy as opposed to what would be best? It is easy in the bustle of life and work to fall into the path of choosing what's easy, because you are "too busy" to take a step back and reflect on what is easy versus what is good.
Lord Yama might argue you have too little time not to reflect.
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Timely piece for me dealing with my own personal struggles.... Awesome article! Can't wait for next week's!