The last few months have been painful ones for the Technology sector. Twitter, Salesforce, Microsoft, and Google have significantly slashed their employee base, and Linked In is full of stories of people sharing their stories and others supporting them. The ones who have left are doing their best to pick up new roles, while those remaining behind are often left with survivor’s guilt.
The cold-hearted brutality with which the layoffs were executed hurts people more than being made redundant. We are constantly told that the workplace is an extension of our family. Organizations trusted us with managing huge budgets, sensitive information, and intellectual property worth millions of dollars. We are constantly reminded that we are the best of the best, and that’s why we deserve all the perks and benefits showered upon us. However, when it came to redundancy, organizations could not suddenly trust us. Hence, when a mother woke up at 3 AM to breastfeed their kids and decided to check their email, she got the shock of her life. She was locked out of her devices and got an email on her personal ID informing her of the decision. There are hundreds of such stories on Linked In, and it’s gut-wrenching to read them.
The easiest thing is to blame the organization. Almost everyone starts by saying they let people down or are cold and heartless entities. An organization is a legal entity that does not have a soul or a heart. It’s the people and the shared culture that breathes life into that entity, and those people did not become evil overnight. Let’s dive deeper into this truth and examine how Yuval Noah Harari summarizes organizations in Sapiens.
Modern businesspeople and lawyers are, in fact, powerful sorcerers. The principal difference between them and tribal shamans is that modern lawyers tell far stranger tales. The legend of Peugeot affords us a good example.
Peugeot began as a small family business in the village of Valentigney, just 300 kilometers from the Stadel cave. Today the company employs about 200,000 people worldwide, most of whom are complete strangers to each other. These strangers cooperate so effectively that in 2008 Peugeot produced more than 1.5 million automobiles, earning revenues of about 55 billion Euros.
In what sense can we say that Peugeot exists? There are many Peugeot vehicles, but these are obviously not the company. Even if every Peugeot vehicle in the world were simultaneously junked and sold for scrap metal, Peugeot would not disappear. It would continue to manufacture new cars and issue its annual report. The company owns factories, machinery, and showrooms, and employs mechanics, accountants, managers, and secretaries, but all these together do not comprise Peugeot. A disaster might kill every single one of Peugeot’s employees, and go on to destroy all of its assembly lines and executive offices. Even then, the company could borrow money, hire new employees, build new factories and buy new machinery. Peugeot has managers and stockholders, but neither do they constitute the company. All the managers could be dismissed and all its shares sold, but the company itself would remain intact.
Think about this in the context of your workplace. It’s a piece of fiction created and held together by the laws we have created. It has no existential relevance. It’s like the movie Inception — a dream within a dream.
Why Does Being Laid Off Hurt?
If the organization is a piece of fiction, then why does it hurt so much when we part ways with them? The answer is simple and bitter. All of us develop a sense of entitlement in life. When we work hard for something and achieve it, we believe we are entitled to the results and will continue to enjoy the fruits of our labor for eternity. Malcolm Gladwell once talked about how we consistently underestimate the impact of external forces in our lives. He described how, in the Great Depression, conditions got so bad that Ph.D. holders had to work as teachers in school. The generation that followed them joined the workforce during a massive boom and benefitted greatly.
Almost all of us today lead entitled lives. The world has seen a significant period of prosperity, and many economies have witnessed a massive boom. We have grown up believing the world owes us a living. Nothing could be further from the truth. All organizations have cultures and missions because they help unify people and give them a sense of purpose. The benefits and feelings of comradery with teammates help create better outcomes. However, organizations exist to generate revenue, and everything else is subservient to that need. This is not a judgment or a moral statement. It’s simply a fact. That’s why the one attribute that can help employees cope and thrive in organizations is Detachment.
How do you learn detachment in life? I can talk about my own upbringing. We grew up learning Ramayan and Mahabharata. These are the stories of Sri Ram and Sri Krishna, the two great incarnations of Lord Vishnu. The stories and their actions subconsciously sowed the seeds of detachment that begin manifesting at the appropriate times.
Learning Detachment From Ramayana
We hear the story of Bhagwan Sri Ram, who heard his stepmother declare his father’s wish that Sri Ram should abdicate the throne and retire to the jungle for 14 years. Sri Ram bowed his head and walked off to the jungle without even looking back at the throne. He was not even stoic in that he bore the pain with silent dignity. He accepted it as his Dharma and continued doing his best at every single moment.
If his sacrifice and detachment were supreme, think about his brother Bharat. His mother, Kaykeyi, sent Sri Ram to the forest so Bharat could have the throne. Bharat refused to speak to his mother and begged Sri Ram to return. When he refused, Bharata took Sri Ram’s sandals and placed them on the throne of Ayodhya. He stayed in a small village bordering the forest and waited fourteen years for Rama to return and rule the throne.
Learning Detachment From Mahabharata
We all grew up watching BR Chopra’s magnificent epic Mahabharat on our television screens. Lord Krishna and his sermons did not mean too much as a child. We wanted Arjuna to start fighting so that arrows could start flying. However, as we grew up, Srimad Bhagavad Gita brought new meaning to our lives.
Here are two of my favorite quotes that help develop and maintain detachment.
Karmanye vadhikaraste Ma Phaleshu Kadachana,
Ma Karmaphalaheturbhurma Te Sangostvakarmani (Bhagavad Gita. 2.47)
In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna tells Arjuna – You only have a right to action (karma) and not to the fruits of your karma (read karma quotes from the Bhagavad Gita). Do not become a person who constantly meditates upon (gets attached to) the results of one’s karma. Do not get attached to inactivity (no karma).
Reflect on this for a few moments. If you don’t get too attached to the perks and lifestyle offered by the job, you can focus on enjoying the work. Since you don’t expect the fruits of your actions all the time, you spend conservatively, don’t indulge in politics to protect your turf, and can view the results of your work objectively. Hence, promotions and retrenchment would not shake your equanimity.
yoga-sthah kuru karmani sangam tyaktva dhananjaya,
siddhy-asiddhyoh samo bhutva samatvam yoga ucyate. (Bhagavad Gita. 2.48)
“O, the finest archer!” Krishna says to Arjuna, “the yoga of equanimity is to maintain your steadfastness in the face of both success and failure, it is to act with a degree of detachment.”
Mistaking Detachment as Lack of Passion
One of the easiest mistakes to make after reading these slokas is to assume that detachment means a lack of passion. That’s why it’s essential to have a spiritual master in your life. Here is how my guru Om Swami explained detachment in his blog.
Often, I’m asked, shouldn’t we be passionate about our pursuits? Of course, that’s correct. Detachment is not a sense of resignation but the understanding that to make objective decisions, I must now and again distance myself from my pursuit so I may gain a different and a better frame of reference. You get to see the complete picture, then the three sides of the coin: left, right, and standing.
Detachment is not laziness or avoidance. If anything, it is razor-sharp awareness and a heightened state of consciousness.
All this talk of detachment is good, but it may take a lifetime to develop that skill. How do we cope with losses in the meanwhile? How do you cope with the grief and the pain of being let go by an organization? Swamiji suggests that creativity is the best antidote to such emotions. When we indulge in creative pursuits and learn new skills, we stop the brain from spiraling into negative thoughts, and the dopamine rush from learning new skills helps us begin new journeys.
Surviving the Corporate World as a Detached Being
One crucial question I often ask myself is if we can survive the corporate world if we have the detached attitude of a saint. In his book, Heart of Success, my guru Om Swami describes how he followed his principles to set up a multimillion-dollar company. His philosophy is summarized in a beautiful story he shared about Bhagwan Sri Ram. Lakshman, his brother, asks Sri Ram how a saint (who is detached by definition) should react to stress. Sri Ram gave the example of how when you use an axe to chop a sandalwood tree, the axe also starts smelling of sandalwood. A saint will always leave a trace of their goodness, even on their attacker.
Lakshman, like many of us, felt that this was absolutely unfair. The Sandalwood tree suffered for its saintly behavior while the axe met with no consequences. Sri Ram smiled and explained that when the axe is blunted, it is plunged into the heart of fire. Then it is beaten with a hammer to sharpen it. Meanwhile, the sandalwood paste is smeared on the lord’s forehead in almost every Indian temple.
So when you encounter a difficult situation like layoffs, ensure that everyone you meet leaves with a faint whiff of sandalwood, not the wound inflicted by an axe-like sharp tongue. Embrace creative action and spend time learning new skills. Also, now that you have a moment, ask yourself the most important question. Who are you? The moment when our identity is severed is crucial because it leaves space for questions. Here is a beautiful video that can kickstart that inquiry.