This ultra famous line from the Geeta is originally in Sanskrit:—
कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन |
Karmanye vaadhikaraste maa phaleshu kadaachana
It translates to:
‘You have the right to perform your duties, but you are not entitled to the fruits of your actions.’
One has to be careful while quoting from ancient canons today. Spokespersons of ‘culture and tradition’ have cropped up from every crevice. The last thing I want, is a reader to club me with ‘nouveau nationalists’—bigots masquerading as purveyors of culture. So allow me to add the disclaimer: I am irreligious. And I run in the opposite direction when someone starts speaking about religion. In fact, I run in the opposite direction when someone starts speaking.
I grew up listening to the above quote all the time. When I was in school, my mother always mentioned it around exam time—“don’t focus on marks, only on studying”. It’s a common story in every Indian household. I admit with great humility that I am only starting to truly understand its meaning now, at the tender age of 34.
In one simple line, the quote takes a massive burden off of you, while also giving you a ‘prescription’ (an ‘actionable insight’, if you are someone who LinkedIns a lot).
"Don’t break your bloody head about how things will turn out, you dumbass. Just do your freakin’ thing and forget about the rest.”
When I hear the above, my immediate response is:
That’s it? Is that all I have to do?! I don’t have to bother myself with how it is received, whether people like it or dislike it, if it is a success or not?!
"No, you don’t have a right over any of that."
This absolves you and sets you free. It brings the focus back to the doing.
The fact that I cannot control the ‘fruits of my action’ is something so glaringly obvious when you think about it, but it rests behind a giant blind spot, probably amidst other age-old truths.
Why then do we focus so much on the outcome, despite knowing that it is not in our control?
One answer I can think of is—we want the glory, the respect and status that society accords to ‘winning’. And often we want that more than we want personal fulfillment from doing the work.
Personal fulfillment is a private affair, has no bells-and-whistles and seems ephemeral. It is unique to every individual and non-transmissible, in that it cannot be signalled to others. It is also a difficult inner journey—to be rigorous in finding what we will enjoy doing over an extended period of our lifetime.
I think a lot of us have our doubts: What if we spend years pursuing something, hoping it will bring us joy and the joy doesn’t even last long enough, or worse, the pursuit makes us disconnected from others? It is also often the case that we have been talked out of doing what we enjoy doing as youngsters, by those who provide for us. Or we simply lack the courage to do what we want to. Money is another pressing issue. So we first reach for the low hanging fruit viz. external validation. We end up approaching life ‘outside in’, backwards. (Yeah, I know the perfect way to approach life. Ask me, I have all the answers.)
It would be foolish to apply this quote to a day job that we don’t particularly enjoy doing. If anything, that is the one situation this quote does not apply to. We do jobs we hate with the singular expectation that we get the ‘fruits of labour’—a paycheck. I am yet to meet someone who hates their job and also doesn’t look forward to payday. How to solve that problem is beyond the scope of this article and something I know very little about; I’ve been quick to exit miserable situations that involves others.
But I’m reminded of the excellent thought experiment, a simple question, which we must ask ourselves: If all jobs paid the same, what would we do?
For whatever it is worth ‘external validation’ at least seems tangible. Someone pats our back and says “you’re really good”, or treats us with respect because we get down from a big SUV; or gives us a raise, or wants to take a selfie with us, or worships the ground we walk on because we wear expensive underwear. In whatever shape or form, it feels real. So our focus becomes that, gaining more status, and thereby on the outcome of our actions.
The quote demands that you show the courage to self-validate, without waiting for somebody else to do it for you. Once you complete the action, pat your back and crack open a cold beer. That’s it; no matter who likes or dislikes it, whether it 'goes to the moon' or tanks. You move on to the next activity. You are already 'worthy' for just doing the activity. It is a lesson in self-love, which can sometimes be nothing short of valorous.
I also interpret it as 'do only that thing which you love doing (inversely, love whatever you do)'. Without love towards the work, it would be unsustainable to continue ‘with no expectations’. We will quickly slip into seeking some form of validation and that would be antithetical to the quote. So I think 'love towards the work' is implicit here.
Expanding on that, there also lies the idea of empathy. Since you fall in love with what you do, you are not to judge what somebody else loves doing. Everybody is on their own journey, pursuing whatever matters to them. Having to empathise with everyone around you sounds as ridiculous as having to be kind to others always. It’s not very easy.
If I were to draw an example from my own life, blogging on my website is the first time I am doing something without thinking about the outcome. My site has minimal traffic. Very few people read my musings; I am immensely grateful to them. But I would have done this even if nobody read it. Because I am committing myself to doing it, like a duty, and that, in turn, is bringing joy and clarity to my life. I am also applying these learnings to my other projects and to life in general. I am leaning into doing things just for the sake of it.
With the creator economy (!buzzword alert) opening up in a post-covid world, this life lesson rings truer than ever before. A creative professional, like myself, can only control what they create and how they promote it, what happens beyond that is left to the algorithms, if not the almighty.
In conclusion, I will risk giving this personal interpretation of the quote: Attached to the activity; detached from everything that follows.
The deed is an end in itself.