The Secret of Work
The philosophy of karma explained in the Bhagavad Gita holds the key to effective, conscious work.
How do you face tough times? There are many moments in life where our will is challenged, where life deals us a setback, where obstacles feel like enormous waves coming to crush us. Your heart beats fast, you want to scream at the unfairness of it all, but deep down you know that none of this will change things. None of this will help you.
On the other side though, how do you keep centered in good times? We've all heard the stories of those who became too successful too fast. Things rocketed upwards, and then inevitably plummeted downwards.
Sometimes it's a roller coaster - up and down, up and down. Facing each part may help, but somehow doesn't provide enough context to fully learn the lessons. Roger McNamee tells the story of how he tried to sound the alarm at Facebook on election interference. Though he had a strong relationship with both Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, they didn't heed his warnings about what was happening on the platform. As he tells it, they had been right so many times when others thought they were wrong, that it was hard for them to understand their blind spot here. Whether you agree with Roger's view about Facebook's role or not, it certainly affected public perception of the company and lost public trust as a result.
Tough times have their problems, good times have their problems, and even the combination can sometimes still leave us blind on how to approach things. So where do we look to understand how to approach these problems and how to learn from them?
The philosophy of karma helps us solve these problems!
If we want to understand this philosophy, there is one thing we must settle first. The Sanskrit term karma is one that has been widely used in common parlance, but is equally misunderstood. Because of this use and misunderstanding, there are a lot of wrong associations. The popular perception is that it's exclusively related to reincarnation or the effects of an action returning back to you over time or in a subsequent birth. In reality, it's incredibly practical, and focused on the here and now.
Let's unpack what it really means for us, and why the perspective it gives is so critical. The word karma comes from the Sanskrit root kri, which means to do. In the simplest sense, it's just action. In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna explains the philosophy of action, or karma yoga:
कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन ।
मा कर्मफलहेतुर्भुर्मा ते संगोऽस्त्वकर्मणि ॥
Karmanye Vadhikaraste, Ma phaleshou kada chana,
Ma Karma Phala Hetur Bhurmatey Sangostva Akarmani
You have a right to perform your actions, but you are not entitled to the fruits of action. Never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your activities, and never be attached to not doing your duty.
You have the right to perform your actions, but you are not entitled to the fruits of the actions. This framing in English may make it a bit difficult to understand, but what's being communicated here is just an acknowledgment of reality.
Oftentimes we put in work, achieve a result, and think “I did that”. Sometimes we put in work and don't get the desired result. We may blame ourselves, or blame our circumstances. But rarely do we take a moment to acknowledge the reality: though we can control our effort and actions, the results are not in our hands. There are many other factors depending on the type of action taken. Nature, with its unpredictability, could be uncooperative with our ends. Other people could be helping us, or be at a cross purpose.
The reality is that while you can control your own effort, often the results are out of your hands. Sometimes this happens subtly and sometimes it's immediately apparent.
Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, a top boxer, was wrongfully accused and convicted of triple homicide, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He spent 19 years in jail for a crime he did not commit, much of the time spent in solitary confinement. To survive such an ordeal, Carter first accepted the circumstances around him. He could not control that he was imprisoned. Then he focused on what he could control - his own actions.
All of these actions were connected—training my body through the discipline of denial, training my intellect through writing a book and studying the law, training my Spirit through the struggle with desire, through daily meditation, and through studying the works of the world’s great minds. These actions or disciplines were steps along the way toward an idea of freedom that I could then just begin to imagine. It was a process in which I eventually learned that even while inside a prison there was no barrier in my life too great to ascend, too wide to get around, and that we live in a universe of unlimited possibilities.
For Carter, accepting that results were not under his control, and focusing his thoughts and energy inwards to himself sparked what he describes as an amazing transformation. Of course, realizing that results are not under our control does not require something as dramatic or unjust as what Carter had to bear. Examine your own experiences critically, and you might realize this fact.
What karma yoga asks you to do is not to sacrifice the fruits of your labor, but to give up the illusion that you control results. It is a philosophy of acceptance, of giving up the concept of doership, and understanding that results are not truly in your hands. They may depend on your actions, but also many other factors not under your control.
This acceptance can be a powerful tool for directing one's energy to the work at hand. Acceptance prevents wasting energy fretting results. Let's say you are working on an important task, and are stressed out because the outcome is uncertain. That stress saps a portion of your energy that could be additional effort put into making the task successful. Perhaps, despite your best efforts, the outcome was different from what you sought. Acceptance prevents us from wasting energy mourning the result, and allows us to channel our energy towards fixing or recovering.
Acceptance and separating ourselves from doership also prevents us from deluding ourselves based on the results of our efforts. Annie Duke, the former poker champion, author, and decision strategist writes of this in her brilliant book, Thinking in Bets. At the outset, she talks about a famous decision by football coach Pete Carroll that resulted in his team losing the Super Bowl:
Carroll got unlucky. He had control over the quality of the play-call decision, but not over how it turned out. It was exactly because he didn’t get a favorable result that he took the heat. He called a play that had a high percentage of ending in a game-winning touchdown or an incomplete pass (which would have allowed two more plays for the Seahawks to hand off the ball to Marshawn Lynch). He made a good-quality decision that got a bad result.
Pete Carroll was a victim of our tendency to equate the quality of a decision with the quality of its outcome. Poker players have a word for this: “resulting.” When I started playing poker, more experienced players warned me about the dangers of resulting, cautioning me to resist the temptation to change my strategy just because a few hands didn’t turn out well in the short run.
Later she shares:
Drawing an overly tight relationship between results and decision quality affects our decisions every day, potentially with far-reaching, catastrophic consequences.
Understanding life is probabilistic not deterministic, i.e. it's more like poker than chess, is key to making better decisions and not getting caught up in results. This understanding is key to karma yoga - "Never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your activities."
While this acceptance can be powerful - it can also sound incredibly passive and helpless. In reality, it's far from it. Firstly, one might think "if I can't control the results of my actions, and I'm not the cause of the results, does that mean I should just do nothing?" The final part of the verse from the Gita directly contradicts this - "never be attached to not doing your duty".
Karma yoga does not entreat us to abstain from activity. The Bhagavad Gita itself was delivered by Lord Krishna on a battlefield, inviting Arjuna to act. Instead, it helps us to form a healthy relationship with our activities and results. It is not negating our intentionality or purpose of activity. The purpose of your activity, or the goal of your activity is important. But no matter your purpose or your goal, the result may be positive or negative. You could make the right choices and get the wrong result. You could also make the wrong choices and get the right result. Either way, you cannot get wrapped up in the result that you cannot control. Focus on making the right decisions, focus on your intentions and your efforts. It does not mean you cannot learn from results, it means you should weigh your learnings with the understanding of what you could control, and what you could not.
This is an ultimately freeing approach, that allows you to lead unconstrained, with a clear view of the world. A leader who acts in accordance with karma yoga focuses on inputs and right processes, and quality of decisions, more so than simply hammering their team over results. Doing so builds psychological safety, a trait Google identified in a two-year study as the top indicator of a high-performing team.
Ultimately karma yoga frees us from stress, anxiety, regret, and empowers us to focus our energy on our work, see things with a clearer view, and make higher quality decisions. It's something that can free you even within a prison, or keep you going after a high profile mistake. It's an approach that can keep you strong when things are down, and keep you level headed when you are succeeding. It helps us the most, which allows us to be of service to those around us as leaders.
Bhagavad Gita, Chapter II, Verse 47
Carter, Rubin "Hurricane"; Klonsky, Ken; Mandela, Nelson. Eye of the Hurricane (pp. 101-102). Chicago Review Press. Kindle Edition.
Duke, Annie. Thinking in Bets (p. 7). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Duke, Annie. Thinking in Bets (p. 8). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.