Nishkama Karma – Selfless action and its relevance in today’s corporate world

The other day I was watching the speech of swami Sarvapriyananda on the secret of concentration which he gave at IIT Kanpur, at the end of his session one of the students asked a question related to Nishkama Karma. Its one of the focal points of the ancient Karma Yoga, which means “do your duty without expectation of benefit”. From the outset this goes totally against todays ambitious world, how can a person be working without expecting any credit for their work or any solid return for it? even if someone does that, will he or she be able to reach any heights in life? Can we define someone who focuses on selfless work as ambitious? And can a man or women be successful without ambition?

This was the essence of the question raised by the student attending swami’s the speech; how can you not expect the results for your work?

Swami Sarvapriyananda went on explaining the importance of selfless work in his own way. But when we hear a spiritual person explain a concept like this, we all sometimes have this feeling that it suits them well but not us. We are not likely to be the monk who will sell the Ferrari, are we?,  For us life is a struggle, and everyone is running their own race towards unlimited wealth and power. But if you look deep into the meaning of Nishkama Karma you will see that it has many benefits which can help us in our corporate life as well. Does this mean we should give up our ambitions and goals in life? No. But there can be a co-existence and there are benefits with that co-existence.

Work selflessly and success will follow

You take the most successful people around you, the happy ones, the ones who are up in the morning for the pure joy of life, who can’t wait to get immersed in what they do, these people, they love their job. For them their work brings immense pleasure, it makes them feel alive, it gives them wings, you offer them a million dollars to trade what they do with something else and they would still prefer to stick to what they are doing. They see a purpose in it, from inside they know that it will ultimately bring them recognition, they have a sense that it may make them successful, but at the bottom of their heart they are not working towards that recognition or success, they are just following their inner voice, they are involved in something that they love, for them the work brings joy. 

For me those people are selfless towards whatever they do, they are not working to get something in return, they are not working to impress others, and they are not driven by wealth. Yet they become successful, some immensely successful at what they do, some may become successful after a long time, but ultimately they reach there even though that’s not the destination they started off with.

Mark Zuckerberg did not create Facebook expecting it to be what it is today; it was born out of his love for what he does, he is still taking it forward with the same passion and with a new selfless motive. Elon Musk’s Tesla is still not profitable, but he is as passionate as ever, he poured in all his wealth he gained from his past ventures into it, and now he is looking at mars, when the commercial benefits of such a venture is still far-fetched. Vincent Van Gogh created about 2100 artworks in his life time but only sold one painting before he died, and today he is considered one of the most influential figures in the history of western art. So Nishkama Karma can bring success and fame, but it will be a result of the selfless action, not a destination.

 It helps you to be who you are

Let’s leave the famous people aside and let’s talk about us. How many of us try to be someone who we are not in our daily life just to impress someone, it can be to get to that other role, or to get shortlisted for the next big job, or to save our current job. It’s something that almost everyone does, some frequently and some infrequently. We all try to act what we are not, we try to act like experts when we are not, we try to ask questions at meeting just to show we exist, or prove we are smart; even when we have no clue of what’s being discussed, we try to backstab our colleagues, we try to steal their good work just to claim the credit for it.

We know all these are not right, but we are in a race, we have to prove ourselves, we are under tremendous pressure to impress the boss or our colleagues or the top management. But if you take a moment and think; why are we in this situation at the first place? Why do we have this pressure to show we are better than others?.  When we ask this questions to ourselves we get to understand the real motives behind what we do. It all ultimately points to our hunger for wealth or power. We all have excuses of mouths to feed, the iPhone to gift, the toys to buy, the holidays to make, but it’s never about what we do or the love for it. This is where the Nishkama Karma becomes relevant. If it’s not about the work itself and it’s all about the other things around it, then you are in the wrong job or wrong business.

If you enjoy what you do, you are working selflessly, then you have nothing to prove, you have no one to impress, your focus is not on the paycheck alone. Yes these things are important, and they will follow but for that you need to first be in love with your job. Once you are in love you will be a performer, when you are a performer you will get noticed, ultimately people will get impressed and you don’t have to make an effort towards it. Yes, there are people around us who only notice us when we self-promote, but these people don’t deserve to know you. If you work around clever people, who are where they are because of who they are, then they will definitely take notice and they cannot ignore you.

 It makes you fearless

I remember when I started my career Fifteen years back I was the most nervous person, be it giving a presentation or talking in an office event, or even approaching my senior managers. With time I realized that the fear comes out of the drive to impress others and the thought of failure. When you approach your work from the Nishkama Karma angle this fear or nervousness vanishes. How? Let me explain.

You are being asked to present in front of a panel of senior executives of the company, it’s quite natural for you to be nervous, anxiety of what needs to be presented and what kind of question you can expect will keep you on your toe. But this anxiety turns into fear if you have something at stake. If your objective is to impress the audience with your personality or your knowledge, to ultimately benefit out of it, then you have already put something at stake. But if your objective is to fulfill your duty of sharing your ideas or your work, and you are not expecting any credit out of it, then you are already a step ahead of the person whose stakes are high. Because from your perspective you have nothing to lose or gain from it, you are there to share information and clarify people’s doubt. You are not worried about them judging you, hence you don’t have the fear of an interview candidate. Once you have this mindset, then you have the feeling that you are just standing in front of your colleagues, your equals who have no power over you. If your motives are selfish or towards a purpose, you have already surrendered your power to them, then you are powerless.

This principle of selfless work gives you immense power, it takes away your fear, it lets you focus more on what you love, it lets you excel in what you do and ultimately it keeps you happy in life. This may not be enough to convince everyone of Nishkama Karma, but let’s agree to disagree that it can co-exist in today’s corporate world.