I was standing on the edge of a cliff, trying to catch my breath and looking down, then up, then down again. My heart was beating so fast and my body was so full of anxiety that I couldn’t lock my eyes on one spot even for a tiny second – desperately, they were jumping from one mountain peak to another.
It’s been a long hike, with heavy spiky snow boots on my feet and icicles on my eye lashes. There were supposed to be many more hours to come, but nature decided otherwise – continuing the climb would be no less than a suicide attempt. We had to go back. We had to drop all the plans and weeks of preparations for reaching the peak, to forget all the expectations of that all-absorbing happiness which you only experience when you set your foot on the top. It was devastating.
Do you think this is a story about a hike? No, this is a story about my life and, may be, yours as well.
When I was growing up my world was clearly defined. Like a puppy gets a cookie for doing what a master wants, I was trained to expect acceptance and recognition if I was graded nicely. Inevitably, it would bring me a feeling of happiness and satisfaction. Later in life when I became my only personal “grader” I would punish myself for not getting the desired result or pat myself on my back if I thought I did it right – and little else mattered. It took me a very long time to break this link between an action and a reward in my head.
In one of the greatest works of humanity, The Bhagavad Gita, the simple wisdom, which should be the base of all our actions, comes in a few sentences. Before the most important battle of his life Krishna instructs Arjuna: “Arjuna, you have work to do. Do it! But give up all interest in the fruit of your work.”*
You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work. You should never engage in action for the sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction. Perform work in this world, Arjuna, as a man established within himself – without selfish attachments, and alike in success and defeat.
The strength of our attachment to results of whatever we do is often beyond our understanding and is much out of our control. We are taught that result is synonymous to purpose and that any hard work without it is stripped off meaning. A rare active and ambitious person would see a result as a by-product of their work rather than an ultimate goal, but surprisingly those who do often achieve things beyond imaginable.
You might be frowning sceptically right now – but wait a minute. If I told you to not concentrate on a potential failure while doing your work, would you feel more comfortable with this exercise? It is the widely accepted truth that you should never think about negative outcomes to stay motivated and nobody teaches us that an attachment to your success is as harmful in a long run. There are numerous examples of individuals and companies, who lost their way after achieving success. They either became slaves of their obsessive desire to “stay on top” or settled down with what they’d done and stagnated.
Don’t get me wrong – indifference towards results doesn’t mean an absence of goals. It means freedom and ability to perform your work the best you can. It means staying true to yourself and your values. The goals indeed should be continuously set , but they are nothing but milestones during our personal life-long journeys. Many of us stop half-way and ask ourselves about the reasons of everything we do, and often reasons are found in future potential rewards instead of our every day routine actions.
It is not the fruit of our work that matters. It is the work itself that matters. It is not the fruit that makes the change. It is the work itself that makes the change.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Professor of Psychology and Management in Claremont Graduate University, discovered a phenomena which derives from the similar life principle, and he called it a “Flow” (you can read about it in detail in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience). He talks about it in the context of happiness and satisfaction, which can only be achieved when people are absolutely absorbed in their work or activity. When a person enters such a state, he looses track of time, becomes one with his own work and feels a deeper connection to something much greater than himself. In other words the “result” of such detachment from the outcomes is much more significant than one could expect – it grants us happiness and satisfaction.
The best examples of people living the “flow” are great athletes, artists and entrepreneurs. I’m talking about those people who do not get swept away by their first success, but continue to work selflessly, and through their absorption in their work they achieve incredibly high level of skills.
(here is the famous talk by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, explaining the concept of “Flow”)
If you enter the state of flow there is no space to think about the results. The only question is – how to achieve this state? Here are a few things to learn from Csikszentmihalyi:
- Set your goals which can get clear and immediate feedback
- Immerse yourself in the particular activity
- Pay attention to only what is happening in the moment
- Learn to enjoy immediate experience, without thinking
- Proportion your skills to the task that you face – do not underchallenge yourself, but do not overwhelm yourself either
To practice the flow and detachment you don’t need to set yourself on a grand task or be on a mission to create the greatest art – it is an approach that can be integrated in any of the daily activities.
On that hike, when I was standing on the cliff and looking up and down I couldn’t admire the almighty mountain peaks and I couldn’t feel the air which you can only feel above the earth. I couldn’t think of how my muscles toned and stretched with every step up. I had no ability to realize how much stronger the bond with my fellow hikers with every meter going up became. I was so absorbed by the expected result which couldn’t be achieved anymore that I missed the essence of that journey. The essence of it was in every step and effort, regardless if the peak was reached or not.
If you start thinking about the outcomes of your work when working – your focus will be easily shifted by fears or excitement about something that hasn’t happened yet and is merely an illusion. Immersing yourself in daily activities completely and not thinking about the results doesn’t mean loosing motivation – because you find motivation in work itself. If you are an entrepreneur, you find motivation not in making big money, but in solving an existing problem, creating useful product or service and making lives of others easier and better. If you are an artist, you find motivation not in your recognition as the greatest among creators, but in expressing your longings and bringing ideas closer to others. Whatever work you do – the motivation will be found in itself. Later, if money and fame come or not, you will stay true to your vision, to your balance, to your true goals and to yourself.
*one of the possible translations