Silicon Valley as Ashram: Wisdom 2.0 Interview with Gopi Kallayil, Google

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.

Wisdom 2.0 Interview with Gopi Kallayil

Soren: What are some ways you try to live consciously amidst your busy, constantly connected life? I’m guessing you get hundreds of emails a day working at Google.

Gopi: Yes. Google is an email-oriented culture, a meeting-oriented culture, and a collaboration-oriented culture. It is not easy to disconnect while working here, yet some times you need to do so in order to have some focused time and solve a big problem.

One thing I do is practice doing one thing at a time. There is a tendency to do too much at the same time and get very distracted, a tendency called continuous partial attention.  When I walk into a meeting, for example, I am often tempted to check and respond to email. However, when I look back I see that my time was actually not that productive. Therefore, I try not to answer emails in the middle of a meeting, unless there is a fire that cannot wait for an hour before it is put out.

The other thing I do is make appointments with myself. I block chunks of time in my calendar that read, “work block to finish project A.” For example, instead of responding to emails as they come, I will block out two hours for them and process hundreds of emails in one sitting.

When I walk into a meeting, for example, I am often tempted to check and respond to email. However, when I look back I see that my time was actually not that productive.”

Do you have set inner practices you do on a daily basis or is it more of an intuitive process for you? Do you schedule time for a practice like yoga and meditation?

Yoga to me can be practiced all the time. In that sense, it is my inner practice from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to sleep. Every single moment of everyday, I try to be mindful, whether I am engaging with a janitor, a chef, an engineer, or a marketing colleague.

Having said that, I do set aside time. Every Thursday nothing comes in between me and an intense yoga practice I do. Every Monday at 5:30, I teach yoga here at Google. I also do a gratitude practice on my drive to work counting ten things that I am grateful for.

It is a little bit of both. I do set aside time, but every moment of every day is my inner work. To me, this is all a part of living with greater peace and happiness. I think this is the true path of life – what we might call self-realization or nirvana. And I want to channel all of my energy, including my work at Google, in that direction.

Yoga to me can be practiced all the time. In that sense, it is my inner practice from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to sleep.”

What are some of the challenges you hear from your colleagues who are attempting to live more consciously in this technology-rich time?

There are three challenges. First is the volume. I get around 500 emails a day. Each of these emails is an information fragment asking for my attention. My grandfather, who was a rice farmer in a small village called Chittilencheri in India, probably received between three to five information fragments in a day.  The postman would bring a single piece of mail once in two weeks and I remember that it was a day of excitement.  So volume is the first challenge.

The second challenge is that in this global environment, work is around the clock. There is no turning it off. For my grandfather, once the sun went down, the cattle were back in the shed and there was no plowing to be done, the rhythm of life changed. The rhythm here in Silicon Valley pulses and throbs 24/7.

The third challenge is that once you decide to work in the technology industry in Silicon Valley, there is no dial that you can turn and decide, “I want a little bit less of it.” If you sign up as I did to be a product marketing manager at Google, there is certain volume of responsibilities you are taking on and a certain pace at which you are expected to respond. You cannot regulate that very much. In other professions for example, a dentist could decide she will see fewer patients every Thursday or a pilot’s jobs ends when he  lands the plane and files his report. His work does not follow him around.  I think this is why some people I know have left a career in the tech industry and chosen to be schoolteachers or life coaches.

If you sign up as I did to be a product marketing manager at Google, there is certain volume of responsibilities you are taking on and a certain pace at which you are expected to respond. You cannot regulate that very much.”

These are three challenges and I have to accept that “these are the conditions I am choosing to have,” and still ask, “In the midst of this, how can I be peaceful, happy, and content?”

It is understandable that people drop out, but it seems you have found that you can live this busy lifestyle and not have it take away from your spirit, enthusiasm, and life energy?

I would not say that I have mastered it. But here is how I choose to approach it. Rather than retract from it, I go towards it. I do this by saying, “I am so grateful to have so many meetings to go to and so many emails because it means I have an opportunity to have an impact.”

I have made peace with this in part because I derive great meaning from my work at Google. It is not just a job to me; I do not just do it for a paycheck. Our primary focus is making information freely available to all of humanity so anyone with a computer and Internet connection has full access to the same information.

I have made peace with this in part because I derive great meaning from my work at Google. It is not just a job to me; I do not just do it for a paycheck.”

For example, my parents grew up without electricity or running water. When I visit Chittilencheri, my home village, it looks mostly the same. But there are a few computers with Internet connections. Now the kids in that village have almost the same access to information as kids do at Stanford or the Philips Academy. That leveling of the playing field is what Google is all about and that is what energizes me.

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