Born in India, Gopi’s life has balanced both the inner work of spiritual practice and outer work of business and technology. He met his Guru, learned to meditate and became a yoga teacher as a teenager. At the same time he continued his academic studies in India and later got his MBA from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. Gopi currently leads the Search Advertising Product Marketing Team at Google. The following interview was held at the Googleplex in Mountain View, California. The following interview was held at the Googleplex in Mountain View, California. This was the second meeting between us.
Wisdom 2.0 Interview with Gopi Kallayil
Soren: In corporate America, there is a great amount of competition, both to beat competitors and increase profits, but also often between employees of the company. From a spiritual perspective, there is no separation between companies or people – we are all the same. Do you find any conflict working in a corporation that, like all corporations, is focused on profit and beating competitors?
Gopi: I don’t see it as a conflict. There is a story in the Bhagavad-Gita where the warrior Arjuna looks across the battlefield and refuses to fight. He says, to the effect, “My friends and cousins are in the opposite side. I can’t battle them. I’m not going to fight.” And Krishna tells him, “You must. It is your duty in your role as a warrior. You need to go to battle and do so with honor.” His message is that this world is not to be avoided but engaged. Work is one area where we do that.
The challenge, of course, is to engage in the world without getting entangled in life — always seeking more money, power, or influence or spending much of your day in anger and frustration. We can of easily get lost in our work and lose perspective. Another metaphor that I grew up with in India is that of the beautiful lotus flower. It always floats on the top of the water, even through the roots are mired in the mud below. When water falls on a lotus leaf, it gently flows off like dewdrops. The message in the metaphor is that we can be involved in life and work without getting mired in it, always floating to the top, letting our problems roll off our self, without forgetting the spiritual realm as well.
What are some ways you try to engage work from this perspective?
For me, it is a function of my attitude. I don’t need to change the world. I only need to change the attitude with which I look at it. Change comes from within. For example, if I am managing a team that is having a great deal of challenges, where team members keep coming to me with problems, I can easily fall into the trap of thinking, “Why don’t these people solve their problems and stop coming to me? They are draining me; they should take care of their problems.” I can view it as an irritation.
Or I can have a different perspective and remind myself that I am their manager and coach. I have the opportunity to help them solve the problem and grow as professionals. With this changed outlook, when team members come to me, I am uplifted and energized by the opportunity to work with them. I see it as a privilege. In these two approaches, the conditions are the same, but I can have two very different responses. All I did was make that inner shift.
So, you are saying that whatever your particular position, play it fully. See it as your unique role in the theater of life.
Yes. Play your role fully. Bring one hundred percent of yourself to the role. It also helps to realize that your self worth, your identity, need not come from your work. That is not who you are. There are these other parts of your self that are equally important – your family, your role in the community, , your personal passions, your inner work. Your life is larger than just your job.
However, this is often the first question people ask at parties. They want to know where you work and what position you hold.
The question I dislike the most at social gatherings is: “What do you do?” I often challenge the person with my response by saying, “I live joyously and consciously. That is what I do.” Of course, I know they are really asking about my job, and if I am at a business conference where that is relevant, I will engage at that level. However, I am usually more interested in the whole person and their passions rather than the narrow aspect of their self defined by their job title.
Many people who have lost their jobs recently are struggling with this. They are accustomed to going to parties and introducing themselves as someone who has a certain position at a company. Now that they no longer have that as an answer, they often feel less than they were, as if who they are has been decreased. It is very hard for them.
Twice in recent years I have been in between jobs. The last time it happened, I decided to take time off to reflect on the next phase of my professionals passions as I call it. I spent five months traveling to nine countries from Iceland to India to Bahrain to Zambia and climbing Kilimanjaro. During this time I asked myself questions like, “What does the next step of my career look like? What do I truly value?” I clarified and wrote down my values. Using this list, I asked myself, “What companies most reflect these values?” I came up with three names, and Google was on top of that list. When I came back to Silicon Valley, I was very focused on where I wanted to work — and had absolute clarity. I received offers from two of the companies and was in discussions with the third.
I think it is important to realize that during these transitions, we cannot always see the final destination. During the last transition in my life, I could not then imagine my current role. However, I could see the next step. I call this the “next ridge” process. It is a climbing metaphor. You can often only see the next ridge you need to get to. Then once you get to that ridge, you can see the ridge beyond it. Then when you get there, you can see the one after, and so forth till you finally get to the summit.
In your process, it seems like you took the time to both ask, “Where do I want to work,” but also did some inner work and asked, “What do I most value?”
Yes. A part of this I think is to see that whatever happens in your life, even the difficult circumstances also hold the gift of opportunities. Curiously, it was through the process of leaving my last job and traveling around the world that this next stage of my life developed. It wouldn’t have, had I stayed in that job. Often when adverse change is thrust on you, though it can be very disappointing and challenging at first, it can also be an opportunity to look inside, reflect, and to align with what matters to you and to then move forward from there.
Of course, depending on your situation, you may need to accept a job where there is not complete alignment. No matter what one’s situation is, I believe it helps to cultivate a sense of appreciation.
I also try to bring this sense of appreciation to other daily events. For example, there is a tendency in our busy lives to eat meals while looking at a computer screen or talking on the phone. Instead, I often leave my laptop at my desk, find a comfortable place to eat, and take time to enjoy my meal. I reflect on all the people it took to for the meal to appear in front of me– the farmers who grew it, the truckers who transported it, and the chefs who prepared it. Then I enjoy the food with a heightened sense of appreciation. In this way, I try to use daily events to help establish a greater sense of gratitude in my life. I think this is important no matter whether one is here at Google, some other company, or in between jobs. It helps to create a positive energy in one’s life. It does not mean that you will be assured of a perfect job, but I believe that the more grateful and happier you are, the more life will flow in positive ways.
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