This is my 48th and last column for Mint; I am taking a break to focus on projects and write a new book. It made me reflect on what India has taught me over the last decade. In 2006, years before ever setting foot in India, I met Swami Parthasarathy in Amsterdam during one of his lectures. He signed his book Vedanta Treatise. The message of Vedanta made a deep impression, as it connects and extends many of the ideas in western life philosophy that I was familiar with.
Later, when I came to India, friends provided an introductory course to the culture via a series of books. The works of Sudhir Kakar and Santosh Desai laid bare some of the patterns underlying the baffling complexity of the culture and illuminate them in terms that even a westerner could understand.
Pavan K. Varma’s Being Indian was on the list, and years later I had the pleasure of discussing some of the book’s ideas with him at his home in Delhi. One of the things that strike many westerners is the apparent contradiction between spirituality and the relentless materialism one can see everywhere. “Contrary to the notion that Indians are spiritual," Varma writes, “they are really materially minded." The idea in Hindu metaphysics that everything that is material perishes and hence is unreal is “a theoretical construct, valid at the level of hypothesis but spectacularly ignored in practice". The spiritual and the material are divorced in daily life.
Yet, the current crisis in capitalism—the friction between business and society—forces a deep re-evaluation of the relationship between the tangible and the intangible. Society is under pressure, the environment is threatened, artificial intelligence is seen as posing an existential threat to humanity, and an obsession with short-term profits in business is imposing tremendous costs on society and investors. At the same time, we expect more from business than ever before, as companies must now contribute to the common good. How are we to resolve this contradiction?
I think the core problem is our deep-rooted belief that profits are the primary goal of a company. This is a self-undermining idea. Profits-first, as I call it, introduces a decision-making algorithm into a company, which systematically neglects the causes of profits. It shifts the focus of a company away from meeting the interests of customers and other stakeholders, who drive profits, towards its own wants. Profits-first or shareholder value maximization places the company’s own interest before the self-interests of those on whom it depends. It is therefore not just the world’s dumbest idea, as Jack Welch famously said. It is a fundamentally illogical and irrational objective, inconsistent with the view of human nature that most people pursue their self-interest. Profits-first is one of the great misunderstandings in capitalism.
We must abandon the idea that profitability is the primary goal of the company and replace it with a compelling definition of our sustainable contribution to the world and our approach to delivering it. As lofty as that may sound, it may be a more profitable and certainly a more logical course of action. Because it places the interests of those who drive profits at the centre of the company. Purpose first, profits second (PuFPS), as I call it, should be the rational mantra of business.
An equally interesting aspect of this idea is that it carries a strong spiritual dimension. When a company devotes itself to a purpose beyond making money, it defines itself in terms of an objective outside of itself. It aims its activities at a larger cause that transcends its own boundaries. In Indian philosophy, this is called Karma Yoga—or the path of enlightenment through action—which is one of the three ways of reaching enlightenment, and the most powerful one. By focusing on a goal that is meaningful for the larger world, the company acts from aims beyond its narrow corporate self-interests only and works for the benefit of others. It unifies its own interests with the larger good.
When employees find that purpose truly meaningful and work towards it, they, in turn, act less from their personal and self-centred desires and likes and dislikes. And they become less emotionally attached to the immediate fruits of their actions. To use a soccer analogy, we become focused on the ball instead of the score board. And that is accidentally also one of the main recommendations of perhaps the greatest Indian spiritual text—the Bhagavad Gita. As a result, the quality and productiveness of our work increases.
Of course, we may still be motivated by an expectation about the outcome. But the expectation is less for immediate self-gratification and more to help the larger, common purpose materialize. Profitable business as Karma Yoga. Few Indian companies practice it, but those that do which I know are extremely successful. It could be India’s enduring contribution.
I want to thank the many hundreds of readers who commented and wrote to me over the last two years. Onwards!
Tjaco Walvis is the managing director of brand consulting and advertising agency THEY India, and a speaker at the Outstanding Speakers’ Bureau.