Karmanyevaadhikaraste in Modern Life

Some of the best modern advice from management gurus, celebrities and other successful people is just a corollary of the famous shloka from The Gita

कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते माफलेषुकदाचन ।
माकर्मफलहेतुर्भूर्मा ते सङ्गोस्त्वकर्मणि ।।

Translation:
To your actions alone you can lay claim
Never to the fruits of those actions
Do not be motivated by the results of your actions
But do not be attached to inaction either

Shloka 2:47 of The Bhavagad Gita succinctly captures some of the most important values needed for success. I see it as 4 connected pieces of advice:

  1. You can only control your actions: the process you follow and the hard-work you put in, so focus on that

  2. You are not entitled to the fruits of your action: you cannot control the outcome, it is not possible to guarantee that you’ll achieve your goal

  3. So, your motivation should not be primarily based on the goal/outcome/results. Success is best achieved by those who find motivation in the process, rather than the outcome,

  4. But, don’t use any of the above as justification to not do anything. You must have a bias to action. Continuously taking the next concrete step, executing on your plan, is the key to success.

One of the most influential modern theories espoused by many successful people is known as “Process-Oriented Thinking” or “Systems-Mindset.” The main point is that focusing on your process, or your system, instead of focusing on the goals, or the outcomes is the key to success. The excellent Farnam Street blog (which you should all subscribe to) explains it in this article “Habits vs. Goals: A Look at the Benefits of a Systematic Approach to Life.” He points out the difference in your day-to-day life between focusing on the fruits-of-action vs focusing on the actions:

  • We want to learn a new language. We could decide we want to be fluent in six months (goal), or we could commit to 30 minutes of practice each day (habit).

  • We want to read more books. We could set the goal to read 50 books by the end of the year, or we could decide to always carry a book with us (habit).

  • We want to spend more time with our families. We could plan to spend seven hours a week with them (goal), or we could choose to eat dinner with them each night (habit).

It is easy to find support for this advice from all kinds of domains.

Chess legend Garry Kasparov has a systems approach for improving his chess game:

Pawn to E4 lost the game

Outcome mindset = "Don't do Pawn to E4 again".

Systems mindset = "What was the mental routines that occurred before I made that decision? Don't do them again"

(Source.)

It is easy to find the top people in various domains give the same advice: science (e.g., Richard Feynman, Neil DeGrasse Tyson), sports (e.g., basketball legend Michael Jordan, Harsha Bhogle), business, writing, psychology, even cracking entrance exams.

Each of the links above is a quote worth reading, and each of them is a variation on karmanyevaadhikaraste.

Why are all of them asking us to focus on our actions, and not our goals? James Clear, author of the best-selling book Atomic Habits, points out that when things get tough, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” In other words, goals give you initial excitement and motivation, but success requires a daily grind which is difficult to sustain purely on the basis of the goals, especially when some of them don’t succeed, and that’s where the focus on the system/actions helps.

Alright, lots of successful people are telling us to focus on actions and systems, but is there evidence that they’re right?

Dean Simonton, a professor of psychology at University of California Davis, conducted extensive research on creativity across many other fields, including science, literature, music, chess, film, politics, and military combat. He collected data about geniuses in all these fields, their individual achievements, successes and failures, the time spent, and the quantity and quality of output. Specifically, he looked at the relationship between “creativity” vs “productivity”. Here he measures “creativity” by counting the total number of instances of high quality output (i.e., hits, or successes) and he measures “productivity” by counting the total instances of output which might or might not be high quality. Think of productivity as number of matches played, and creativity as high scores. Thus, “productivity” ultimately just counts the total effort (or “actions”), while “creativity” counts the fruits (successful outcomes). After analysing this is one of the primary conclusion (based on hard empirical data):

[C]reativity is a probabilistic consequence of productivity, a relationship that holds both within and across careers.

Within single careers, the count of major works per age period will be a positive function of total works generated each period, yielding a quality ratio that exhibits no systematic developmental trends.

And across careers, those individual creators who are the most productive will also tend, on the average, to be the most creative: Individual variation in quantity is positively associated with variation in quality.

(Source.)

In other words, we have empirical data that your actions are the primary predictor of success, and it is not fruitful to focus on the fruits of the actions.

One question I frequently get when I talk about this is: Does this mean that we should never have goals, and we should not plan with goals in mind?

No it does not. What process to follow, which systems to adopt, what actions to take can (and should) be decided based on what gives highest likelihood of success. But, the important point is that once you’ve decided what is the right action, focus on executing that, and do not be affected if you don’t get the outcome you wanted.

This is because actions are deterministic, while success is probabilistic. So keep doing the actions consistently. Sometimes they’ll succeed, sometimes they’ll not, but over the long term you’ll achieve your goals.

Further reading:

Age and the Entrepreneur by Marc Andreessen, Silicon Valley investor, and inventor of the web browser.

How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life by Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert Cartoons.

Atomic Habits by James Clear. (Follow @JamesClear on Twitter, for much more good, actionable advice in short packets.)

My twitter thread on karmanyevaadhikaraste which I keep updating regularly.