Friday, February 10, 2012

Is the universe benevolent, malevolent or indifferent?

Myshkin Ingawale, co-founder and CEO of Biosense Technologies
(Image: Myshkin Ingawale)

On the way to give a talk at the recent TEDx Jaipur event, I had a bit of a surreal experience on the flight over from Mumbai. I was sitting next to a gentleman called Nithya Shanti, a spiritual teacher. He was having the following conversation with the other person in the row -
NS: "Do you think the universe is benevolent, malevolent or indifferent? I think it is most definitely benevolent"
Now, to many people, this might seem an innocuous enough statement. Not to me.
Me: " the way, I couldn't but help overhear you talking about the nature of the universe. Interesting topic!"
NS: "Yes, indeed. In my experience..."
Me: "But it most definitely is indifferent. It has no benevolence and no malevolence. "
NS: "Yes, but..."
Me: "Consider, if you may, the engineer designing this Boeing aircraft. We are lucky he or she designed the aircraft bearing in mind the indifference of the universe to it. Winds at 20000 feet are not benevolent to a flimsy aluminum tube with wings. They may blow hither, thither, and at whatever speed they wish. The engineer has to assume the wind is indifferent to his or her design and will not be the slightest bit benevolent. In fact, we are lucky the engineer did not assume the universe is benevolent!"
NS: "That's a great way to put it. However..."
The reason he believed that the universe was benevolent, NS told me, is that, believing so made it so. Going through life thinking that everyone is against you is harmful to yourself. He reasoned that you can always find what you are looking for in the world; if you look for happiness, you will find happiness. Therefore, it is better to believe in the universe's benevolence, and be happy.
Me: "That makes sense, at some level..."
Like any bona fide academic, I was ready to launch in with the magic words - "however, in this context..." As in, "In this context of utter-self-delusion-to-make-one-self-happier", this made sense. However, being wiser than I was at 17, I let it drop and ended up having a great conversation about pretty much everything with NS.
Later on, after I had given my talk at TEDx about the twists and turns of my entrepreneurial journey, I started thinking about NS's question again.
If you are an airplane designer, please believe firmly in the universe being indifferent. Once you are done with your design and can do no more, take a break and feel free to indulge in a little "belief in benevolence" - this is going to work out. My dog loves me. They're going to serve mango ice-cream in the canteen today. Whatever works for you.
However, if you are an entrepreneur, believing in some kind of universal benevolence is almost a prerequisite. For entrepreneurship, you need more than a plan, you need more than logic, and more than an analysis of all the indifferent ways your plan could fail. Dare I say it - you need faith.
You need faith in your team and faith in yourself. Faith that things will work themselves out at some point. Faith that even if they don't necessarily work out in the way you planned in that fantastically complicated Excel workbook, they will work out in some other way that you hadn't planned. Faith that you will land always on your feet, come what may. If that isn't blind faith in the benevolence of the universe, I don't know what is.
Entrepreneurs are not people who believe the universe will be indifferent to them. They tend to be the kind of people who buy into corny lines like "If you truly want something, the universe conspires for you to get it".
For all my dispassionate talk of "the universe is actually indifferent", a year ago almost to the day I voted with my feet by jumping off an airplane (in other words, I left a comfy, well paid consulting job). I was only able to do this because somewhere, deep down, I expected that the universe, in all its benevolence, would teach me to fly rather than leaving me hurtling me towards the ground.
So far, the blind faith has paid off.

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