Our modern brains have learned to seek instant gratification. But when we’re always running to the next opportunity, meaningful connections are left behind.
Nipun Mehta spent some time right at the center of our fast-moving world: he worked as an engineer in Silicon Valley. His family had immigrated from India when he was a child, and as far as his parents were concerned, his well-paid job was exactly what they had moved halfway around the world for.
Mehta, however, had other ideas. He realized that what he really wanted was to serve others.
He left his tech job and founded ServiceSpace, a support network for projects that nurture kindness and compassion. The goal is to create a gift economy, where instead of trading our labor for money, we give it out of kindness. Everyone does what they can for other people, and we all benefit.
It’s a philosophy that extends the timeline on gratification, and in doing so expands the number of people who get to share in it.
Here, Mehta explains why the long way round brings the most satisfaction, how and why to move away from transactional relationships, and why caring is a sign of strength in leaders, not a weakness.
Don’t Take Shortcuts
The fastest route to getting what you want isn’t necessarily the most satisfying in the long run. Especially if it involves hurting other people.
Mehta says that his parents were not on board with his decision to quit his prominent Silicon Valley job. Instead of dismissing their concerns out of hand, and storming off alone, Mehta talked it out with them.
“I had the material resources to do my own thing,” he says. “But I said, ‘I'm gonna disagree, you're gonna disagree, but I'm not leaving this table until we come to a common ground and we bless each other.’”
Jumping to anger in a disagreement is a shortcut. It allows you to stick to your point of view, without having to listen to the other person. That might mean you don’t have to compromise at that moment. But the damage it does to your relationship echoes into the future.
This applies to business as well as life in general. Leaders in every industry have opportunities to choose the quick, easy and ultimately destructive. In the short term, you might enjoy wider profit margins. But will you look back at your career and be proud of what you achieved, knowing the cost?
“Genuinely care,” Mehta says. “[If you take the longer path] the ripple effect is going to be long and maybe slow, but it's going to be sustained. Whereas [if you follow shortcuts], I use you, you use me, and that's not going to work out.”
Jumping to anger in a disagreement is a shortcut. It allows you to stick to your point of view, without having to listen to the other person.
Rethink Your Relationship to Reciprocity
Much of the world’s economy is based on direct reciprocity. Person A provides Person B with a service or product, and Person B pays Person A a set sum in return. Person A uses that money to pay Person C for another service or product — and so on.
Mehta argues for indirect reciprocity. When Person A performs a service for Person B, instead of paying Person A, Person B does something to help Person C. Person C is so inspired by Person B’s kindness that they help Person D. This process creates an ecosystem of kindness that supports everyone.
It sounds radical, but we already do this for the people we love. “My dad doesn't keep track of how many times he's fixed my car,” Mehta says. “My mom's not telling me how many times she's cooked a meal for me. But over a long arc, you trust that our cohesiveness of indirect reciprocity will benefit everybody.”
Extend that no-strings-attached generosity beyond your close personal relationships to the people you work with, neighbors, and acquaintances. Keep moving out from your central circle: Show kindness to strangers — even those that may exhibit rude behavior.
It sounds counterintuitive to business leaders, but to stop thinking about every interaction as a transaction can be quite rewarding. Kindness for the sake of kindness has its own merits.
“If you are caring, if you are compassionate, if you are kind, if you are service-oriented, those thoughts create an inner ecology that supports deeper relationships, which gives you the resilience to weather life's storms, and rebound back with compassion.”
Caring is a Strength, Not a Weakness
The business world has not traditionally viewed a genuinely caring heart as a strength. Only those who are prepared to destroy their competitors for their own gain are supposed to thrive.
Having worked in the highly competitive world of Silicon Valley, Mehta has witnessed this firsthand. But he’s always known that that’s not who he is.
“I've always tried to be kind … I wanted to be nice to other people,” he says. “I'm not trying to pat myself on the back. But I never could stomp over you to get ahead: that wasn't in my personality.”
Under the traditional competitive model of business leadership, this refusal to put your needs before others’ has been painted as a sign of weakness. However, Mehta disagrees. He says that his caring nature has brought him something much more valuable than a $1 billion business: loving, meaningful relationships.
“At the end of the day, what is it that's going to make you happy?” he says. “I was clear that these connections and relationships would make me happy.”
On top of the innate value of those relationships, they’ve also made him a more emotionally resilient person.
“There's a regenerative loop that happens inside of us,” Mehta says. “If you are caring, if you are compassionate, if you are kind, if you are service-oriented, those thoughts create an inner ecology that supports deeper relationships, which gives you the resilience to weather life's storms, and rebound back with compassion.”
You might make a lot of money being cutthroat. But will you ever truly be happy?
Embrace Not Knowing as a Path of Compassion
We’ve probably all had enough uncertainty to last us a lifetime in the last two years! Unfortunately, the lesson that uncertainty has taught us is that any period of stability is impermanent.
The only thing we know for sure about the future is that we can’t predict it. Which means we’d better get on board with not knowing, and with treating every moment as temporary.
This doesn’t have to be bleak. It can actually make us more empathetic. Knowing that your current state of security will pass makes you more compassionate towards those who are already experiencing difficulty.
“As your awareness starts to crack open, you feel at home in that impermanence: that actually nothing ever was permanent,” Mehta says. “Your clinging to that permanence for strength was completely misguided, because if you are rooted in impermanence, what awakens in you is a sense of great compassion, a sense of great metta, a sense of great equanimity.”
Today, you may be in a position to extend kindness to others without receiving an immediate return. Some day, you may be the one who needs help. When we play the long game together, we all win.
The conversation with Nipun Mehta continues on the Leading with Genuine Care podcast. We talk more about the impact his parents have had on his life, his 1,000 km walk across India, what we can learn from the best apples in the world, and so much more. Connect with me on Twitter and LinkedIn and keep up with my company imageOne. Check out my website or some of my other work here.