How do we know that our life’s work is really done?

If the only reason to do the work is to enjoy its fruits, there would be no motivation for leaders to undertake missions that cannot be completed in their own lifetimes

Arun Maira


I stopped at the bend in the road. It was early morning. The sun was shining in the Mashobra valley below. I had been walking through the forest for about an hour. I could see the next bend in the road, only a few minutes away, where there was a small tea shop, a marker on the road, to which I had walked yesterday, and the day before too. “If I turn back now I will not have completed my walk,” my mind said.

I sensed the thought of failure forming in my mind, and wondered, “How did I choose the tea shop as the marker for completion of my walk?” It was as arbitrary an end-point for my walk as the place where I presently stood with its pleasant look out into the valley. Then a deeper question came to my mind. “What was ‘IT’ that I had set out to do when I took off on my walk? The reaching of some milestone? Some amount of exercise? Or was it peace of mind?”

I meet many young people nowadays who have achieved a lot by the time they are in their thirties and early forties and want to do something different. They have set up successful enterprises and made a fair amount of money already. There are older people too, who have retired after successful, well-paying careers. They tell me they are now looking to “give back” to society, and to do something more “meaningful”. They mention the many markers of their achievements so far. Yet they feel their life’s journey is not done. They want to change course, to take another road, one less taken.   

I leaned on my walking stick, and the peace in the forest and the mountains induced even deeper reflection. How do we know that ‘IT’—our life’s work is really done? Do we consciously and deliberately choose the goals we want to achieve in our lives? Or don’t they mostly slip into our minds unconsciously to become markers against which we then measure the satisfactions and dis-satisfactions of our lives?

Walking home, I wondered what purposes an individual human life can fulfil in the grand scheme of things. I happened to be reading a book about Mahatma Gandhi’s work. I wondered whether he would have thought his life’s work had been completed when he was assassinated. The injustice and poverty, to combat which he had devoted his life, persist. Therefore, one may say that Gandhi failed to achieve his goal. On the other hand, most of us would say that Gandhi’s work had fulfilled an important purpose in the evolving story of humanity’s progress and that his life was a stellar achievement.

Back in my apartment in the mountain village, I pulled up a chair against the window. Looking down into the deep valley with many little villages scattered in it, I continued my reflection. I put on an old cassette tape with some very old songs. One was the Ballad of Jimmy Brown. It sang, “All the chapel bells were ringing, in the little valley town. And the song that they were singing, was for baby Jimmy Brown.” In the next verse, the chapel bells sing again to celebrate Jimmy Brown’s marriage. And then, at last, a lonely chapel bell peals to mark his death. What was the purpose of Jimmy Brown’s life? I wondered.

I thought of the local people in my village. The young carpenter and his old father. Their family had lived here for a few generations. And the village grocer and his family too. In the mountains they were born, and here they have passed away too. Their children listen to music on their smartphones: they would not recognise a cassette tape. Though technologies have changed over the centuries, the rhythms of their lives have not. What goals do these people set out to achieve, and what purposes do their lives fulfil? What is ‘IT’ they accomplish, and by what signs do they know ‘IT’ is done?

Doing good work

I meditate to discover my role in the World’s Game

I realize the Eternal is playing its game through me.

Our lives perform roles in the functioning of society and our lives and deaths play roles for the sustainability of nature. Each of our lives is a small means for a much larger system to achieve its ends. We have vocations, chosen by us, or assigned to us. When we perform our vocations to the best of our abilities, perhaps we help to make the world a better place for everyone.

However, the poet Robert Frost says it is not enough to do one’s work faithfully. We should also make our vocations into our avocations. He says (in Two Tramps in Mud Time):

My objective in living is to unite

My avocation and my vocation

As my two eyes make one in sight.

Only where love and need are one

And the work is play for mortal stakes

Is the deed ever really done

For Heaven’s and the Future’s sakes.

Our vocations must transcend into our avocations, Frost urges. We should not remain like a musician who is satisfied by producing music that only sounds good to others. Rather we should become like a musician who is not satisfied until the music he produces meets the high standards he sets himself. His vocation must not only put food on his table, it must also satisfy his soul.


In Frost’s transcendental world, only I may know when I have reached my goal. The world may never know it. This modest view will not satisfy most of us. I want the world to know that I have climbed higher than anyone has so far; that I have run faster than anyone else has; that I am better at what I do than others, and that I am the best. We want the world to recognise our achievements. We want to be celebrated as the best. We need the world to tell us when we have achieved something worthwhile.

What if someone beats my record while I am still alive? Would that make my life a less successful one?

In this worldview my life is successful if I beat a world record. But what if someone beats my record while I am still alive (and perhaps many may do)? Would that make my life a less successful one? Should I then attempt to break the record again before I die to make my life a success again? When, in such a competitive world, will my life’s work be done?

Sadly, satisfaction that comes from public adulation is transient. If public recognition is the only way I know when I have “arrived”, I will feel I am a failure when the public says someone else has achieved more and I am demoted from the top spot. The many stories of celebrities who become depressive and even suicidal when they are no longer attractive to the public should be a warning about the dangers in measuring one’s success solely through the eyes of others.  

I began to read the Bhagavad Gita when I was a teenager, almost sixty years ago. I have been fixed since then on lines in the second chapter, to which I return again and again. “You only have a right to the work, and not to the fruits thereof.” The Gita preaches detachment from the fruits. What are the fruits of the work? The obvious interpretation of the fruits are the benefits for oneself. What about the achievement of the goal? Is it not a fruit of the work? Should not one seek the goal or should one strive only to do good work and do it well? Is this the meaning of the “right to the work”, which is all that one must have?

A story from Chris Bonington’s compilation of stories of great adventurers and sportsmen that I read 35 years ago, when I was struggling with the lines from the second chapter of the Gita (which I still am) continues to haunt me. It is an account of a round-the-world solo yacht race.

The winner, way ahead of the others, had rounded the tip of South America from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean. As he was sailing up towards London, towards the finish, he heard on his radio of the preparations for his reception. The Queen would come, and the media of course in droves. He thought about it. Was this why he was racing—the fruits of success? Or was it for good sailing at his best? He turned his boat around, to sail down the Atlantic and around the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean, to complete another solo circumnavigation of the earth!

Making the world better

Endless forever the vast water,

On its surface surges a wave.

Many have passed and many shall come

But this is the wave of our times

And I a ripple on its back.

As I crest I touch

The sky of ethereal notions

And my head encloses

A little bubble of that infinity too

Claiming it for its own.

Locked within an infinite system, and being only a very small part of it, we cannot know what the purpose of the whole system is, and what, as it evolves, it is choosing to evolve to. However, we have desires to fulfil, and goals we set out to achieve—whether we consciously chose them or not.

What is the nature of these goals? They can be goals of achievements that society recognises and rewards—goals that one adopts, which are not intrinsic to ourselves. Or they can be goals of self-perfection (as Frost implies). They could also be goals of self-realisation (which many spiritual and meditative traditions recommend).

However, there is another type of journey that some leaders undertake, to another type of goal. It is the journey Mahatma Gandhi set out on. He wanted to make the world a better place for people who had been poor and suppressed for generations. He was not competing for honours. Nor was he satisfied with meditations and self-purification, though he pursued these goals too. He wanted to make a change in the world, not just in himself.

Leaders like Gandhi are conscious that they are part of a much larger ocean with large waves that sweep through it. However, they are not megalomaniacs, like King Canute, to command the tide to turn. They strive to understand the nature of the ocean and the sources of its power. They strive also to improve their own abilities to change the pattern of the tides. And they engage in action. Their lives are compositions of reflection, insight, and action. No wonder that Gandhi called his autobiography My Experiments with Truth.

Leaders who want to transform society, with its complexity, and against the momentum of its history, to make the world better for everyone, cannot accomplish their goal in their lifetimes. Yet some devote their lives to this mission, and even surrender their lives for it. As did Jesus, who gave his life on the Cross so that mankind could be saved. Jesus did not complete the mission in his lifetime or even with the sacrifice of his life. Though his life and sacrifice did give his mission an enormous thrust. The message of his life continues to reverberate around the world.

Gandhi was inspired by the story of Jesus. He referred to the Bible and to the Bhagavad Gita throughout his life. Inspired by Gandhi, I too read the Gita. The lines in the second chapter, which I have mentioned before, continue to haunt me.

“You only have a right to the work, and not to the fruits thereof,” they say. Great leaders, even those as great as Gandhi and Jesus, cannot produce the change they aspire for in their own lifetimes. Because the world is complex and many forces must interact to change the world. If the only reason to do the work is to enjoy its fruits, there would be no motivation for them to undertake missions that cannot be completed in their own lifetimes. Yet they persist.

Because complex changes are produced by many forces coming together, no single action or person can claim credit

There is further wisdom in those words in the Gita. Because complex changes and their fruits are produced by many forces coming together, no single action, nor any one person, can claim to be the sole producer of the fruit. Even Mahatma Gandhi and Jesus Christ are only a part of a larger process. There is history before them. And there is history after them too.

When I sit by the water

The waves pass unremembered,

The ripples unnoticed

Like my momentary existence.

We must be humble suggests the Gita. Should we be fortunate to be at the helm of affairs—at the top of the tree as it were—when the fruit ripens, we must not claim the most fruit.  We must be humble, because the fruit was produced by the efforts of many.

The Gita’s lesson of the right to the work and not its fruits, and of the humility that must come with it, has been lost in the present mad increases in CEO compensation. Now CEOs earn many hundreds of times more than the average salaries of people in their own organisations, whereas, thirty years ago, CEOs used to earn only dozens of times more. The justification given by CEOs (and executive search firms—who too are beneficiaries when levels of executive compensation rise), is that those who produce the results must be given a “fair” share of the results so that they are motivated to do their best. However, “fairness” cannot justify paying CEOs so much more than they were being paid before. They were certainly not a deprived lot earlier, when too they had much more than others to satisfy their needs.

If fairness cannot provide a moral justification for the sharp increases in the proportion of fruit claimed by those at the top of the tree, “adequacy” of compensation is an even weaker justification. For those who earn ten crores of rupees a year to even suggest that they “need” another few crores seems obscene. It is also insulting to those who live quite happily on a few lakhs a year.

Choosing the Game we want to play

Great leaders believe they have a right to the work and not to the fruits thereof. Their goal in life is not to make more wealth and fame for themselves. It is to increase well-being in society.

On the portals of the Military Academy in Dehradun, from which Indian Army officers, who will lead men even to give up their own lives in service of their country, pass out, is a sign. It says, “When the one great scorer comes to write against your name, He will not ask whether you won or lost, but how well you played the game.”

We can choose the sort of game we want to play with our lives and the types of rewards we want. Long-distance running and the World Wrestling Federation’s contests are different types of games. With different goals, different rules, and different ways of keeping score.

Many successful people I meet say that they want to improve their work-life balance. I often think there is an imbalance in their end-means equation. There is too much focus on achievement of ends (wealth, size, fame) that society measures and applauds. And too little attention to the means. Companies burn up the environment to create more profits and shareholder value. And people burn out, to stay ahead of others in the rat race.

Wealth and popularity are visible markers of success in the game of life. If these become over-riding measures of the worthiness of one’s life, then one must have more of them than others to be successful, no matter how well one lives one life. With such markers it is the quantity of one’s having, rather than the quality of one’s being, that determine the games one will play with one’s life.

Who our role models are will shape what we want to be and how we will live our lives. Are our role models those who have achieved the most wealth and the most popularity? Or are they those who strive on, with evidently no personal gain, towards goals that are in their own minds, and progress towards which cannot be mechanically measured by society’s conventional scorecards?

The young, high achievers by conventional scorecards who tell me they are missing something in their lives are searching for another type of game to play, which has different goals. They must drop out of the mass race (the rat-race?), with its public drumbeats egging on the competition. They must march to a different drum, the beats of which only they may hear. The markers of progress to their goals will not be visible to those who do not know the goals of the journey they are on. Only they will know when they have attained the standards they have set for themselves. Such journeys can be lonely. But they are very worthwhile. They can be deeply satisfying for the traveller. And they can help to make the world better for everyone.

(P.S. After writing these reflections, I took another walk. I walked up to the tea-stall, and even beyond it—just for the heck of it.) 

Was this article useful? Sign up for our daily newsletter below


Login to comment

Prashant Kashyap on Jun 29, 2017 5:13 a.m. said

Well articulated and conveyed . Nice to read thought processes .

About the author

Arun Maira
Arun Maira

Former Chairman, BCG India &

Member, Planning Commission

Former Member, Planning Commission of India
Former Chairman, Boston Consulting Group, India
Chairman, HelpAge International

Any discussion on policy, the future of India, and indeed the world, is enriched with Arun Maira’s views, and not just because he was a member of the Planning Commission of India for five years till June 2014. Arun is one of those rare people who have held leadership positions in both, the private as well as the public sector, bringing a unique perspective on how civil society, the government, and the private sector can work more closely to improve the world for everyone. He has led three rounds of participative and comprehensive scenario building for the future of India: in 1999 (with the Confederation of Indian Industry), 2005 (with the World Economic Forum), and 2011 (with the Planning Commission).

In his career spanning five decades, Arun has led several organisations, including the Boston Consulting Group in India, where he was chairman for eight years till 2008. He was also the chairman of Axis Bank Foundation and Save the Children, India. He was a board member of the India Brand Equity Foundation, the Indian Institute of Corporate Affairs, and the UN Global Compact, and WWF India.

In the early part of his career, he spent 25 years in the Tata group at various important positions. He was also a member of the Board of Tata Motors (then called TELCO). After leaving the Tatas, Arun joined Arthur D Little Inc (ADL), the international management consultancy, in the US, where he advised companies across sectors and geographies on their growth strategies and handling transformational change.

Recognising his astute understanding of both macro as well as micro policy issues, Arun has been involved in several government committees and organisations, including the National Innovation Council. He has been on the board of several companies as well as educational institutions and has chaired several national committees of the Confederation of Indian Industries.

In 2009, Arun was appointed as a member of the Planning Commission (now replaced by the NITI Aayog), which is led by the Prime Minister of India. At this minister-level position, he led the development of strategies for the country on issues relating to industrialisation and urbanisation. He also advised the Commission on its future role.

With his vast experience and expertise, Arun is indeed a thought leader. He is invited to speak at various forums and has written several books that capture his insights.

His most recent book, A Billion Fireflies: Critical Conversations to Shape a New Post-Pandemic World and Transforming Systems: Why the World Needs a New Ethical Toolkit before that, talk about how systemic problems of social inequality and environmental unsustainability are becoming intolerable. Prevalent precepts of good business management and best practices in government as well as civil society organisations are failing the needs of humanity. This calls for a whole new toolkit founded on systems thinking, ethical reasoning and deep listening. And that civil society, government and private companies need to work together to encourage a variety of local systems solutions for deep-rooted issues that impact different communities differently.

His previous books include An Upstart in Government: Journeys of Change and Learning (2016); Redesigning the Aeroplane While Flying: Reforming Institutions (2014)Remaking India: One Country, One DestinyTransforming Capitalism: Improving the World for EveryoneShaping the Future: Aspirational Leadership in India and Beyond; and Listening for Well-Being: Conversations with People Not Like Us (2017).

Also by me

You might also like