The great work of your life, by Stephen Cope


I finished listening to this book 10 days ago. I liked this book a lot while listening to it. Now, I am having second thoughts.

The book uses the Bhagavad Gita (a 700-verse Hindu scripture dated to the second century BCE) as a source/starting point to dispense advice about how to have a fulfilling life and career.

The Gita is a dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna right before the start of the climactic Kurukshetra War in the Hindu epic Mahabharata. Two massive armies have gathered to destroy the other. The Pandava prince Arjuna asks his charioteer Krishna to drive to the center of the battlefield so that he can get a good look at both the armies and all those "so eager for war". He sees that some among his enemies are his own relatives, beloved friends, and revered teachers. He does not want to fight to kill them and is thus filled with doubt and despair on the battlefield. He drops his bow, wonders if he should renounce and just leave the battlefield. He turns to his charioteer and guide Krishna, for advice on the rationale for war, his choices and the right thing to do. The Bhagavad Gita is the compilation of Arjuna's questions and moral dilemma, Krishna's answers and insights that elaborate on a variety of philosophical concepts. The compiled dialogue goes far beyond the "a rationale for war", it touches on many human ethical dilemmas, philosophical issues and life's choices. According to Flood and Martin, the Gita though set in the war context in a major epic, the narrative is structured for the abstract to all situations; it wrestles with questions about "who we are, how we should live our lives, and how should we act in the world". According to Sargeant, it delves into questions about the "purpose of life, crisis of self-identity, human soul, human temperaments, and ways for spiritual quest".
It is not those who lack energy
nor those who refrain from action,
but those who work without expecting reward
who attain the goal of meditation,
Theirs is true renunciation.
Gita 6.1
The book has an introduction describing Krishna's counsel on the field of the battle, followed by four big chapters. Each chapter comprised of sections that cover biographies of great people.
  1. Look to your Dharma (Jane Goodall, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman)
  2. Do it full out (Robert Frost, Susan B. Anthony, Camille Corot)
  3. Let go of the fruits (John Keats, Marion Woodman, Beethoven)
  4. Turn it over to God (Harriet Tubman, Mohandas Gandhi)
Since Stephen Cope is English major, writers and poets seem to get more detailed treatment. I enjoyed Mohandes Ghandi's and Harriet Tubman's sections the most. Thoreau's section was also very enjoyable. If you read Deep Work by Calvin Newport, you may recall that Thoreau also got a lot of coverage there. I think Van Gogh would have been a great example to cover in this book, but the book covered Corot, which is also good.

So what did I learn?

One downside of the book is that it is very long. By tradition the book industry wants the books to have around 300 pages, or around 80,000 words. But come on. It is hard to believe that any  book topic requires 300 pages. I don't think I got 300 pages worth of information from each book. Books make a single point, and they can make it in less than 300 pages. Isn't brevity better?

At the end of 80,000 words, and looking back to the book 10 days later, what did I learn? What is the central thesis of the book? What is the main premise?

That we all have our authentic calling and we should pursue it fully, is a very attractive ideal. Stephen Cope defines Dharma as sort of a "true calling of your life" in his book. But when I read online about this, most sources explain Dharma as selfless action in serving of a greater good. The ideas surrounding Dharma are to make yourself zero, and don't wait for fruits of your labor. Krishna is said to be the first motivational speaker in human history, but starting with Dharma as a premise and implying that it solves modern human's existential crisis is a bit off. 

The book gave a lot of examples from very successful people, and a couple examples from the lives and choices of ordinary less-known people. But there were no examples about Johnny, who tried very hard following his Dharma, made all sorts of sacrifices, but failed at it. But maybe this is OK, because the Gita covers all its bases saying that you should let go off the fruits of your labor. So maybe Johnny can still feel he had a fulfilling life. But what if that was not Johnny's true Dharma and he misjudged somewhat. How does Johnny know his true Dharma?

Cope says that you already start somewhere in the vicinity of your Dharma due to your nature/disposition, but if you do not find it exactly and pursue it fully you are at a great loss, you are missing out on fulfillment. I waited to hear a justification for this. All he could offer was an analogy about a man living next house to his soulmate, both of them being married to other spouses. I need more than an analogy to buy this point. Consider these two analogies. One is a discrete function analogy, where y is very high at this one point at x_dharma, and low at the others. The other is a continuous function analogy and for x close to x_dharma, y is already 99% of the apex. Why is the first analogy correct, and not the second?

My main gripe about the book is that it doesn't give much actionable advice than, search your Dharma, find it, and pursue it to your fullest extent. (Dolly Porton said this more concisely, and with the same effect: "find out who you are and do it on purpose".) In comparison, The War Of Art by Steven Pressfield, had more concrete advice. That book also used some of the Bgahavad Gita ideas as starting point, and focused on a narrower domain of creative endeavors and gave more concrete but it then did a very good job of making its advice concrete about the road map, what to expect, and how to cope with it. I liked that book a lot. 

It may be that I am unfair to the book about not providing solid advice. This review seems to think the book provides ten useful lessons about living your best life. 

My criticisms for the book aside, I do agree with a true calling idea. You can see it in my writing about a life well lived, research advice, and even about my weird dreams. A couple years ago, I had a near death experience on the highway at midnight when my car hit two deer while traveling at 80 mph and took a spin. All I could think was that I shouldn't die because I have more distributed algorithms I should invent. I still feel guilty that this was the first thought that popped in to my mind, and not my family and kids. I mean I thought of them as well in that couple seconds, but only after that first thought. I am not a workaholic, and I don't have high esteem for my skills and high expectations of myself, but I do like distributed systems and finding things out. I always did. I just didn't know up until that moment, how much I liked it. 

Comments

Anonymous said…
You mean Mohandas Gandhi.

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