Monday, 3 December 2018

Unlocking the spirit of Enterprise: Lesson from Swami Vivekananda

This is a summary of a talk I gave on the occasion of celebrating 125thyear of the Chicago address of Swami Vivekananda “The modern monk”.  The talk was arranged by the Vedanta Centre (Bourne End) and hosted at the Indian YMCA on 2ndDecember 2018.

It is not often I get a chance to think about the deeper meaning and purpose of my work and how it affects the lives of others. I hope that in sharing this I can connect with one of the teachings of Swami Vivekananda and how his message may have been helpful to many lives.

In 1986 when I completed my PhD I had concluded, that one way for Management and Business Schools to be socially relevant would be for them to embrace entrepreneurship development as this would make a difference at the grass roots. It was all very well equipping young people for life in corporate but what was the bigger purpose?  

My parents, in particular my father had been feeding me on a diet of philosophies throughout my childhood and early twenties. In fact, one of the strong memories of his words was that of being a “Karma Yogi”. While he was light hearted in the way he described this character of himself – he was very serious in the way he lived his life.  And I can also recall various in the 1970s and 1980s when my parents hosted musical concerts. They did not need to do any of this. It was not their job. But they felt it was their work – to promote Carnatic music and culture at the highest levels. 

What do I mean by this? To get ready for today I recalled  my memories but also looked up the “Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda”, a wonderful legacy of my late father-in-law. Luckily for me I only needed chapter one of volume one!! 

Karma is defined by the notion of doing work, the notion of constant activity and the effects of those actions.  Of course Swami Vivekananda goes much deeper into the definition but I want to focus only one small part of it. 

In defining Karma – Swami Vivekananda says the main goal of mankind is knowledge, rather than seeking pleasure or avoiding pain, because as we find that inner knowledge so we find our goal. He argues that pain and pleasure are transient and although they can mould character they are not the goal.  He also argues that good and evil help to mould character and.  it is the light and shade moments of life that help to shape us and sometimes the harder times, the pain and the disappointments can be more powerful in making us who we are.

What is it that I have learned from the principles of Karma that has enabled me to educate, mentor or inspire the students into either stopping or taking action?

One of the most common starting points of a conversation with me from my students – and there have been several hundred each year for the past 20 years – is “Dr Shai I have an idea…” Many of these ideas just fizzle out and a few take shape into ventures – which are either profit making or social enterprises. What is our role in this?

One of the lessons in understanding Karma Yoga is that we may be driven by the nature of who we are and this in turn is thought to be built on three characteristics;– being Sattva; Rajas and Tamas. In simple terms these are the desire of equilibrium; the pursuit of activity and the pursuit of happiness which itself can lead to inactivity or darkness.

When I see students who are seeking Sattva – or equilibrium – I feel they will find their own way into entrepreneurship or other form of employment that enables them to achieve the balance they seek. Their priority is to have and seek balance. What a wonderful gift.

An amusing side story is that I was a Visiting Professor in Denmark at Aarhus University, I learnt about their philosophy of Hygge – which is to strive to be content. I do not wish to oversimplify Scandinavian culture or misrepresent it in any way but I did get the “vibe” that the desire to be contented was a powerful motive. There is a bigger question, but that is outside the scope of this talk.

What is an enterprise educator’s role in this? Is there a common set of ideals that can inform us in how we can act? Are we even relevant to a society that seeks contentment? How does one unlock the entrepreneurial spirit in such an environment? Do we touch on the right motives if we say that those who seek a life through Sattva are to be introduced to the material successes of entrepreneurship? Unlikely. It may be more effective to help them see other forms of contentment that can be derived from entrepreneurship.  Possibly those who seek the path of Sattva are driven more by altruistic or quasi altruistic motives and we need to find out what these are or how they can be linked together?

For me the challenge of this drive for Sattva – or Hygge is that it somewhat flies in the face of the entrepreneurial character, which is driven so much by restlessness and need for action.  Is there not a conflict between desire for action and desire for contentment. I am still puzzling over this. 

Those who are driven by activity – Rajas if you like - only need guidance on the small detail and practicalities of making their idea happen. The inner drive is there – and the work ethic that goes with it. They are curious, strive for the knowledge and only need a gentle steer to help them on their way. 

Sometimes they also need to think about the meaningfulness of their venture. Not all ideas are going to make meaning in society or touch humanity. Many ideas are just there because it has excited the founder, but if the idea did not exist no one would miss them. In other words, the idea has been driven either by the desire to get pleasure from bringing it to life – it could be a technological solution, it could be something aesthetic or it could be to make money believing that wealth will bring happiness. So the pursuit of happiness overtakes the desire for making meaning. 

Another aspect of being driven by Rajas is to overcome problems that we see on the planet. We are driven to, for example, deal with the UN -  Sustainable Development Goals – reduce poverty, provide clean water, care for human health and so forth.  These are more purposeful manifestations of Karma – when they are driven by some inner goals to make a difference.   Our work as educators and mentors would be to help find and define what these motives are that can make meaning.

Those whose nature is driven more by Tamas – is more of a challenge for us educators. It seems to us, that the entrepreneur is not motivated, nor takes the necessary set of actions. They seem not to dig deep into themselves nor to seek the knowledge they need to flourish. 

Beyond the lack of action, sometimes the Tamasik ideas, seem irrelevant to the needs of humanity.  For example, there is an average of over 6,000 Apps launched per day on the Android store!!  This is wonderful at some level as every so often there is an accidental gem that is launched but the vast majority is nothing more than ideas. They are, for me, a lazy form of enterprise creation. And if we look at the content of the App Stores, we have to ask ourselves,  in what way do they, if at all make a difference to humanity? Maybe they cause a sparkle of action among those who develop and launch the App and eventually the confidence and learnings results in more meaningful future directions.
The other element of Tamas, the darker side,  are clearly unethical. And it seems to take society a while to get a grip over them and to ensure that we do not just turn the other cheek and avoid conflict. The kind of conflict that will help erase them but cause upheaval on the way. I am referring here to betting websites, pay day loans, the uncontrolled spread of fake news and many other such businesses that prey on the weaker members of society.
How does the enterprise educator unlock ethical aspects of business ventures or encourage action from those whose motives are either Sattvik or Tamasik when our comfort zone is to attend to those who have a preference for action? This is a really big question and one tiny step towards answering this was provided to me at the top of a chapter in a book I saw in the library of the Ramakrishna Ashram in Bangalore in 1996.
There had been an issue of priorities that had been on my mind, so I was grateful to go to a quiet corner to reflect. And as chance would have it I found the answer in a short “soundbite”.
The statement is: When the mind is full of little things where is the space for the big ideas?

It is this message that caused me to ask myself and all the entrepreneurs I have met throughout my career; what is the big picture? What is the purpose? How does what you do help humanity? And what action will you take.

Not all at once, but these questions have informed me in ways to inspire and teach some 30,000 students and entrepreneurs about entrepreneurship 

I would like to thank Swami Vivekananda on behalf of all these people for having given me this knowledge and empowering their futures.