PURPOSE: The Nature of the Scorpion





The Nature of the Scorpion

When you protect your dharma, your dharma protects you.

—Manusmriti 8:15

From the outside, being a monk looks like it’s fundamentally about letting go: the baldness, the robes, stripping away distractions. In fact, the asceticism was less a goal than it was a means to an end. Letting go opened our minds.

We spent our days in service; which was also designed to expand our minds. In the course of this service, we weren’t supposed to gravitate to our favorite ways to serve, but rather to help out wherever and however it was needed. To experience and emphasize our willingness and flexibility, we rotated through various chores and activities instead of choosing roles and becoming specialists: cooking, cleaning, gardening, caring for the cows, meditating, studying, praying, teaching, and so on. It took some work for me to truly see all activities as equal—I much preferred to study than to clean up after the cows—but we were told to see society as the organs of a body. No one organ was more important than another; all of them worked in concert, and the body needed them all.

In spite of this equitable coexistence, it became clear that each of us had natural affinities. One might be drawn to tending the animals (not me!), another might take pleasure in cooking (again, not me, I’m an eat-to-live kind of guy), another might get great satisfaction from gardening. We undertook such a breadth of activities that, although we didn’t indulge our particular passions, we could observe and reflect on where they lay. We could experiment with new skills, study them, see how improving them made us feel. What did we like? What felt natural and fulfilling? Why?

If something, like cleaning up after the cows, made me uncomfortable, instead of turning away, I pushed myself to understand the feelings that lay at the root of my discomfort. I quickly identified my hatred for some of the most mundane chores as an ego issue. I thought them a waste of time when I could be learning. Once I admitted this to myself, I could explore whether cleaning had anything to offer me. Could I learn from a mop? Practice Sanskrit verse while planting potatoes? In the course of my chores, I observed that mop heads need to be completely flexible in order to get into every space and corner. Not every task is best served by something sturdy like a broom. To my monk mind, there was a worthwhile lesson in that: We need flexibility in order to access every corner of study and growth. When it came to planting potatoes, I found that the rhythm of it helped me remember verse, while the verse brought excitement to the potatoes.

Exploring our strengths and weaknesses in the self-contained universe of the ashram helped lead each of us to our dharma. Dharma, like many Sanskrit terms, can’t be defined by a single English word, though to say something is “your calling” comes close. My definition of dharma is an effort to make it practical to our lives today. I see dharma as the combination of varna and seva. Think of varna (also a word with complex meanings) as passion and skills. Seva is understanding the world’s needs and selflessly serving others. When your natural talents and passions (your varna) connect with what the universe needs (seva) and become your purpose, you are living in your dharma.

When you spend your time and energy living in your dharma, you have the satisfaction of using your best abilities and doing something that matters to the world. Living in your dharma is a certain route to fulfillment.

In the first part of this book we talked about becoming aware of and letting go of the influences and distractions that divert us from a fulfilling life. Now we’ll rebuild our lives around our guiding values and deepest intentions. This growth begins with dharma.

Two monks were washing their feet in a river when one of them realized that a scorpion was drowning in the water. He immediately picked it up and set it upon the bank. Though he was quick, the scorpion stung his hand. He resumed washing his feet. The other monk said, “Hey, look. That foolish scorpion fell right back in.” The first monk leaned over, saved the scorpion again, and was again stung. The other monk asked him, “Brother, why do you rescue the scorpion when you know its nature is to sting?”

“Because,” the monk answered, “to save it is my nature.”

The monk is modeling humility—he does not value his own pain above the scorpion’s life. But the more relevant lesson here is that “to save” is so essential to this monk’s nature that he is compelled and content to do it even knowing the scorpion will sting him. The monk has so much faith in his dharma that he is willing to suffer in order to fulfill it.


It is my first summer at the ashram. I’ve cleaned bathrooms, cooked potato curry, harvested cabbages. I’ve washed my own clothes by hand, which is not an easy chore—our robes have as much material as bedsheets, and to scrub out food or grass stains would have qualified as a CrossFit workout of the day.

One day I’m scrubbing pots with the gusto of an overeager apprentice when a senior monk comes up to me.

“We’d like you to lead a class this week,” he says. “The topic is this verse from the Gita: ‘Whatever action is performed by a great man, common men follow in his footsteps, and whatever standards he sets by exemplary acts, all the world pursues.’ ”

I agree to do it, and as I return to scrubbing I think about what I’ll say. I understand the basic gist of the scripture—we teach by example. It taps into my understanding that who you are is not what you say, but how you behave—and it reminds me of a quote often attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”

Many of the other monks, like me, didn’t enter the ashram at age five. They’ve been to mainstream schools, had girlfriends and boyfriends, watched TV and movies. They won’t have trouble grasping the meaning of the verse, but I’m excited to figure out how I can make it feel fresh and relevant to their experiences outside the ashram.

The aging computers in our library have an excruciatingly slow internet connection. I’m in India, in the middle of nowhere, and it seems like every image takes an hour to download. After having done research on the speedy computers of a college library, I find the wait painful. But I know that, over in the kitchen, my fellow monks are patiently waiting for water to boil. As they’re doing, I try to respect the process.

During my research, I become fascinated by the psychology of communication. I find studies by Albert Mehrabian showing that 55 percent of our communication is conveyed by body language, 38 percent is tone of voice, and a mere 7 percent is the actual words we speak. (That’s a general guideline, but even in situations where those percentages shift, the fact remains that most of our communication is nonverbal.) I lose myself in exploring how we convey our messages and values, analyzing the communication styles of various leaders, and figuring out how it all adds up to be relevant in our lives. Among others, I read about Jane Goodall, who never intended to become a leader. She first entered the wilds of Tanzania to study chimpanzees in 1960, but her research and ongoing work have significantly redefined conservation, attracted women to her field, and inspired hundreds of thousands of young people to get involved in conservation.

Our class gathers in a medium-sized room. I take my place on an elevated, cushioned seat, and the students sit on cushions in front of me. I don’t see myself as above them in any way, except for my elevated seat. We monks have already learned that everyone is always simultaneously a student and a teacher.

When I finish giving my talk, I’m pleased with how it’s gone. I enjoyed sharing the ideas as much as I enjoyed researching them. People thank me, telling me that they appreciated the examples and how I made the ancient verse feel relevant. One or two ask me how I prepared—they’ve noticed how much work I put into it. As I bask in the glow of my satisfaction and their appreciation, I am beginning to realize my dharma—studying, experimenting with knowledge, and speaking.

Everyone has a psychophysical nature which determines where they flourish and thrive. Dharma is using this natural inclination, the things you’re good at, your thrive mode, to serve others. You should feel passion when the process is pleasing and your execution is skillful. And the response from others should be positive, showing that your passion has a purpose. This is the magic formula for dharma.

Passion + Expertise + Usefulness = Dharma.

If we’re only excited when people say nice things about our work, it’s a sign that we’re not passionate about the work itself. And if we indulge our interests and skills, but nobody responds to them, then our passion is without purpose. If either piece is missing, we’re not living our dharma.

When people fantasize about what they want to do and who they want to be, they don’t often investigate fully enough to know if it suits their dharma. People think they want to be in finance because they know it’s lucrative. Or they want to be a doctor because it’s respected and honorable. But they move forward with no idea whether those professions suit them—if they will like the process, the environment, and the energy of the work, or whether they’re any good at it.


There are two lies some of us hear when we’re growing up. The first is “You’ll never amount to anything.” The second is “You can be anything you want to be.” The truth is—

You can’t be anything you want.

But you can be everything you are.

A monk is a traveler, but the journey is inward, bringing us ever closer to our most authentic, confident, powerful self. There is no need to embark on an actual Year-in-Provence-type quest to find your passion and purpose, as if it’s a treasure buried in some distant land, waiting to be discovered. Your dharma is already with you. It’s always been with you. It’s woven into your being. If we keep our minds open and curious, our dharmas announce themselves.

Even so, it can take years of exploration to uncover our dharma. One of our biggest challenges in today’s world is the pressure to perform big, right now. Thanks to the early successes of folks like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Snapchat cofounder Evan Spiegel (who became the youngest billionaire in the world at age twenty-four), along with celebs such as Chance the Rapper and Bella Hadid, many of us feel that if we haven’t found our calling and risen to the top in our fields in our twenties, we’ve failed.

Putting all of this pressure on people to achieve early is not only stressful, it can actually hinder success. According to Forbes magazine publisher Rich Karlgaard, in his book Late Bloomers, the majority of us don’t hit our stride quite so early, but society’s focus on academic testing, getting into the “right” colleges, and developing and selling an app for millions before you even get your degree (if you don’t drop out to run your multimillion-dollar company) is causing high levels of anxiety and depression not only among those who haven’t conquered the world by age twenty-four, but even among those who’ve already made a significant mark. Many early achievers feel tremendous pressure to maintain that level of performance.

But, as Karlgaard points out, there are plenty of fantastically successful people who hit their strides later in life: The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison’s first novel, wasn’t published until she was thirty-nine. And after a ten-year stint in college and time spent working as a ski instructor, Dietrich Mateschitz was forty before he created blockbuster energy drink company Red Bull. Pay attention, cultivate self-awareness, feed your strengths, and you will find your way. And once you discover your dharma, pursue it.


The Bhagavad Gita says that it’s better to do one’s own dharma imperfectly than to do another’s perfectly. Or, as Steve Jobs put it in his 2005 Stanford commencement address, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”

In his autobiography, Andre Agassi dropped a bombshell on the world: The former world’s number one tennis player, eight-time grand slam champion, and gold medal winner didn’t like tennis. Agassi was pushed into playing by his father, and though he was incredible at the game, he hated playing. The fact that he was tremendously successful and made loads of money didn’t matter; it wasn’t his dharma. However, Agassi has transitioned his on-court success into his true passion—instead of serving aces, he’s now serving others. Along with providing other basic services for children in his native Nevada, the Andre Agassi Foundation runs a K-12 college preparatory school for at-risk youth.

Our society is set up around strengthening our weaknesses rather than building our strengths. In school, if you get three As and a D, all the adults around you are focused on that D. Our grades in school, scores on standardized tests, performance reviews, even our self-improvement efforts—all highlight our insufficiencies and urge us to improve them. But what happens if we think of those weaknesses not as our failures but as someone else’s dharma? Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, wrote, “It is trust in the limits of the self that makes us open and it is trust in the gifts of others that makes us secure. We come to realize that we don’t have to do everything, that we can’t do everything, that what I can’t do is someone else’s gift and responsibility.… My limitations make space for the gifts of other people.” Instead of focusing on our weaknesses, we lean into our strengths and look for ways to make them central in our lives.

Here are two important caveats: First, following your dharma doesn’t mean you get a free pass. When it comes to skills, you should lean into your strengths. But if your weaknesses are emotional qualities like empathy, compassion, kindness, and generosity, you should never stop developing them. There’s no point in being a tech wizard if you’re not compassionate. You don’t get to be a jerk just because you’re skilled.

Second, a bad grade in school doesn’t mean you get to ditch the subject altogether. We have to be careful not to confuse inexperience with weakness. Some of us live outside our dharma because we haven’t figured out what it is. It is important to experiment broadly before we reject options, and much of this experimentation is done in school and elsewhere when we’re young.

My own dharma emerged from some experiences I found extremely unpleasant. Before I taught that class at the ashram, I had a distaste for public speaking. When I was seven or eight years old, I took part in a school assembly where kids shared their cultural traditions. My mother dressed me as an Indian king, wrapping me in an ill-fitting sari-like getup that did nothing for my awkward body. The minute I walked on stage, kids started to laugh. I can’t carry a tune for the life of me, and when I started to sing a prayer in transliterated Sanskrit, they lost it. I wasn’t even two minutes in, and five hundred kids and all the teachers were laughing at me. I forgot the lyrics and looked down at the sheet in front of me, but I couldn’t read the words through my tears. My teacher had to walk out onto the stage, put her arm around me, and lead me away as everyone continued to laugh. It was mortifying. From that moment, I hated the stage. Then, when I was fourteen, my parents forced me to attend a public speaking/drama afterschool program. Three hours, three times a week, for four years gave me the skills to stand up on stage, but I had nothing to talk about and took no pleasure in it. I was and still am shy, but that public speaking course changed my life because once that skill connected to my dharma, I ran with it.

After my first summer at the ashram ended, I was not yet a full-time monk. I returned to college and decided to try my hand at teaching again. I set up an extracurricular club called “Think Out Loud,” where every week people would come to hear me speak on a philosophical, spiritual, and/or scientific topic, and then we’d discuss it. The topic for the first meeting was “Material Problems, Spiritual Solutions.” I planned to explore how as humans we experience the same challenges, setbacks, and issues in life, and how spirituality can help us find the answer. Nobody showed up. It was a small room, and when it stayed empty, I thought, What can I learn from this? Then I carried on—I gave my talk to the empty room with my full energy, because I felt the topic deserved it. Ever since then I have been doing the same thing in one medium or another—starting a conversation about who we are and how we can find solutions to our daily challenges.

For the next meeting of “Think Out Loud,” I did a better job of distributing flyers and posters, and about ten people showed up. The topic for my second attempt was the same, “Material Problems, Spiritual Solutions,” and I opened the discussion by playing a clip of the comedian Chris Rock doing a bit about how the pharmaceutical industry doesn’t really want to cure diseases—it actually wants us to have a prolonged need for the medications that it produces. I tied this to a discussion of how we are looking for instant fixes instead of doing the real work of growth. I’ve always loved drawing from funny and contemporary examples to relate monk philosophy to our daily lives. “Think Out Loud” did just that every week for the next three years of college. By the time I graduated, the club had grown to one hundred people and become a weekly three-hour workshop.

We’ve all got a special genius inside of us, but it may not be on the path that opens directly before us. There may be no visible path at all. My dharma was not in one of the job tracks that were common at my school but rather in the club that I founded there after a chance assignment at the ashram hinted at my dharma. Our dharmas don’t hide, but sometimes we need to work patiently to recognize them. As researchers Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool underscore in their book Peak, mastery requires deliberate practice, and lots of it. But if you love it, you do it. Picasso experimented with other forms of art but kept painting as his focus. Michael Jordan did a stint at baseball, but basketball was where he really thrived. Play hardest in your area of strength and you’ll achieve depth, meaning, and satisfaction in your life.


In order to unveil our dharma, we have to identify our passions—the activities we both love and are naturally inclined to do well. It’s clear to anyone who looks at the Quadrants of Potential that we should be spending as much time as possible at the upper right, in Quadrant Two: doing things that we’re both good at and love. But life doesn’t always work out that way. In fact, many of us find ourselves spending our careers in Quadrant One: working on things that we’re good at, but don’t love. When we have time to spare, we hop over to Quadrant Four to indulge the hobbies and extracurriculars that we love, even though we never have enough time to become as good at them as we would like. Everyone can agree that we want to spend as little time as possible in Quadrant Three. It’s super-depressing to hang out there, doing things we don’t love and aren’t good at. So the question is: How can we move more of our time toward Quadrant Two: doing things we are good at and love? (You’ll notice that I don’t discuss the quadrants in numerical order. This is because Quadrants One and Four both offer half of what we want, so it makes sense to discuss them first.)

Quadrant One: Good at, but Don’t Love 

Getting from here to Quadrant Two is easier said than done. Say you don’t love your job. Most of us can’t just leap into a job we love that miraculously comes with a generous salary. A more practical approach is to find innovative ways to move toward Quadrant Two within the jobs that we already have. What can you do to bring your dharma where you are?

When I first left the ashram, I took a consulting job at Accenture, a global management consulting firm. We were constantly dealing with numbers, data, and financial statements, and it quickly became clear that a talent for Excel was essential in order to excel in my position. But Excel was not my thing. In spite of my efforts, I couldn’t force myself to get better at it. I just wasn’t interested. As far as I was concerned, it was worse than mucking out the cow stalls. So, while I continued to do my best, I thought about how I could demonstrate what I was good at. My passion was wisdom and tools for life like meditation and mindfulness, so I offered to teach a mindfulness class to my working group. The lead managing director loved the idea, and the class I gave was popular enough that she asked me to speak about mindfulness and meditation at a company-wide summer event for analysts and consultants. I would speak in front of a thousand people at Twickenham Stadium, the home stadium of England’s national rugby team.

When I got to the stadium, I found out that my turn at the podium was sandwiched between words from the CEO and Will Greenwood, a rugby legend. I sat in the audience listening to the lineup, thinking Crap, everyone’s going to laugh at me. Why did I agree to this? All the other speakers were at the top of their fields and so articulate. I started to have second thoughts about what I had planned to say and how to deliver it. Then I went through my breathing exercises, calmed myself down, and two seconds before I went on stage, I thought, Just be yourself. I would do my own dharma perfectly instead of trying to do anyone else’s. I went up, did my thing, and afterward the response couldn’t have been better. The director who had organized it said, “I’ve never heard an audience of consultants and analysts stay so quiet you could hear a pin drop.” Later, she invited me to teach mindfulness all across the company in the UK.

This was a tipping point for me. I saw that I hadn’t just spent three years of my life learning some weird monk-only philosophy that was irrelevant outside the ashram. I could take all my skills and put them into practice. I could actually fulfill my dharma in the modern world. P.S. I still don’t know how to use Excel.

Instead of making a huge career change, you can try my approach: look for opportunities to do what you love in the life you already have. You never know where it might lead. Leonardo DiCaprio hasn’t given up acting or producing, yet he also directs significant energy toward environmental advocacy because it’s part of his dharma. A corporate assistant might volunteer to do design work; a bartender can run a trivia contest. I worked with a lawyer whose true passion was to be a baker on The Great British Bake Off. That goal felt unrealistic to her, so she got a group of her colleagues obsessed with the show, and they started “Baking Mondays,” where every Monday someone on her team brought in something they’d made. She still worked just as hard and performed well at a job that she found slightly tedious, but bringing her passion to the water cooler made her team stronger and made her feel more energized throughout the day. If you have two kids and a mortgage and can’t quit your job, do as the lawyer did and find a way to bring the energy of your dharma into the workplace, or look for ways to bring it into other aspects of your life like your hobbies, home, and friendships.

Also, consider why you don’t love your strengths. Can you find a reason to love them? I often encounter people working corporate jobs who have all the skills required to do good work, but they find the work meaningless. The best way to add meaning to an experience is to look for how it might serve you in the future. If you tell yourself: “I’m learning how to work in a global team,” or “I’m getting all the budgeting skills I’ll need if I open a skate shop one day,” then you can nurture a passion for something that may not be your first choice. Link the feeling of passion to the experience of learning and growth.

Psychologist Amy Wrzesniewski from the Yale School of Management and colleagues studied hospital cleaning crews to understand how they experienced their work. One crew described the work as not particularly satisfying and not requiring much skill. And when they explained the tasks they performed, it basically sounded like the job description from the personnel manual. But when the researchers talked to another cleaning crew, they were surprised by what they heard. The second group enjoyed their work, found it deeply meaningful, and described it as being highly skilled. When they described their tasks, the reason for the distinction between the crews started to become clear. The second crew talked not just about typical custodial chores, but also about noticing which patients seemed especially sad or had fewer visitors and making a point to start a conversation or check in on them more often. They related incidents where they escorted elderly visitors through the parking structure so they wouldn’t get lost (even though the custodians technically could have gotten fired for that). One woman said she periodically switched the pictures on the walls among different rooms. When asked if this was part of her job, she replied, “That’s not part of my job. But that’s part of me.”

From this study and subsequent research, Wrzesniewski and her colleagues created the phrase “job crafting” to describe “what employees do to redesign their own jobs in ways that foster engagement at work, job satisfaction, resilience, and thriving.” According to the researchers, we can reengineer our tasks, relationships, or even just how we perceive what we do (such as custodians thinking of themselves as “healers” and “ambassadors”). The intention with which we approach our work has a tremendous impact on the meaning we gain from it and our personal sense of purpose. Learn to find meaning now, and it will serve you all your life.

Quadrant Four: Not Good at, but Love 

When our passions aren’t lucrative, we de-prioritize them. Then we feel frustrated that we love an activity but can’t do it well or frequently enough to fully enjoy it. The surest route to improving skills is always time. Can you use coaching, take courses, or get training to improve at what you love?

“Impossible,” you say. “If I had time to do that, believe me, I would.” We will talk about how to find nonexistent time in the next chapter, but for now I will say this: Everyone has time. We commute or we cook or we watch TV. We may not have three hours, but we have ten minutes to listen to a podcast or learn a new technique from a YouTube video. You can do a lot in ten minutes.

Sometimes when we tap into our dharma, it carves out the time for us. When I first started making videos, I worked on them after I got home from my corporate job. Five hours a day, five days a week, I focused on editing five-minute videos. For a long time, the return-on-investment was pitiful, but I wasn’t willing to write myself off before trying to make the most of my skill.

In the years since, I’ve seen people monetize the weirdest things. Spend any amount of time on Etsy, and you’ll be amazed at how many people have found ways to make money off their passions. However, if the world is sending you a very strong message that it won’t pay for or does not otherwise need or want your passion, then fine. Accept that. There’s a critical need for soccer in the world, but there’s no need for me to play soccer. Still, the soccer matches I organized at Accenture were the highlight of my week. If it’s not your dharma, it can still give you joy.

Quadrant Three: Not Good at, Don’t Love

Do whatever you can to crawl out of this soul-sucking quadrant. You will always have unpleasant chores, but they shouldn’t be the biggest part of your life. If at all possible, you should work toward outsourcing the chores in this category. Hurt the pocket, save the mind. And remember, just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean nobody likes it. Can you work out a trade with a friend or colleague, where you take on each other’s least favorite tasks?

If you can’t offload the chore, remember the lesson I learned at the ashram—every task is an essential organ. None is less important than the others, and none of us is too important to do any chore. If you think you’re too good for something, you succumb to the worst egotistical impulses, and you devalue anyone who does that chore. When you’re satisfied in your dharma, you can, without envy or ego, appreciate others who are good at another skill. I have great respect for people who can do Excel, I just don’t want to do it myself. When I encounter doctors or soldiers or people in any number of other careers, I think, That’s extraordinary. It’s amazing. But it’s not me.


You may have been doing this exercise in your head as you read about the Quadrants of Potential. Nonetheless, I want you to go through the exercise of acknowledging how close you are to living your dharma today.

  • Do you like your job?
  • Do you love your job?
  • Are you good at your job?
  • Do other people need and appreciate your work?
  • Is your greatest skill or passion outside your work?
  • What is it?
  • Do you dream of making it your work?
  • Do you think this is an attainable dream?
  • Do you think there might be ways you could bring your passion to your work?
  • Write down any ideas you have for bringing your passion to the universe.

Quadrant Two: Vedic Personality

We want to live in Quadrant Two, where we spend our time using our talents to do what we love. If we aren’t there, we examine the problem the monk way—instead of looking at specific skills you’ve developed and specific activities that you love, we look beyond them, to their roots. The Bhagavad Gita contemplates dharma by dividing us into four personality types—what it calls varnas. There are four varnas, and knowing your varnatells you your nature and competence. In relatively recent history (during the nineteenth century), when British leaders imposed their own rigid class system on Indian society, the varnas emerged as the basis for the caste system. Though castes—a hierarchy of job categories—were based on the varnas, this is a misinterpretation of the text. I’m not talking about the caste system here—I believe that all of us are equal; we just have different talents and skills. My discussion of the varnas is about how to harness these skills and talents to live to your fullest potential. The different personality types are meant to work together in a community, like the organs in a body—all essential and none superior to the others.

Varnas aren’t determined by birth. They’re meant to help us understand our true nature and inclinations. You’re not creative just because your parents are.

No one varna is better than another. We all seek different types of work, fun, love, and service. There is no hierarchy or segregation. If two people are both acting in their best dharma, living for the service of others, then neither is better than the other. Is a cancer researcher better than a fireman?


This simple test is not an absolute determination of your personality type, but it will help as you seek out your dharma.

See the appendix for The Vedic Personality Test.


The four varnas are the Guide, the Leader, the Creator, and the Maker. These labels aren’t directly tied to specific jobs or activities. Sure, certain activities bring us pleasure because they fulfill our dharma, but there are many different ways to live in our dharma. A Guide, as you will see on page 112, is compelled to learn and share knowledge—you could be a teacher or a writer. A Leader likes to influence and provide, but that doesn’t mean you have to be a CEO or a lieutenant—you could be a school principal or shop manager. A Creator likes to make things happen—this could be at a start-up or in a neighborhood association. A Maker likes to see things tangibly being built—they could be a coder or a nurse.

Remember the gunastamasrajas, and sattva—ignorance, impulsivity, and goodness. For each of the varnas I describe what their behavior looks like in each guna mode. We strive toward sattva through letting go of ignorance, working in our passion, and serving in goodness. The more time we spend in sattva, the more effective and fulfilled we become.


Originally: merchants, businesspeople

  • Today: marketers, salespeople, entertainers, producers, entrepreneurs, CEOs
  • Skills: brainstorming, networking, innovating
  • Make things happen
  • Can convince themselves and others of anything
  • Great at sales, negotiation, persuasion
  • Highly driven by money, pleasure, and success
  • Very hardworking and determined
  • Excel in trade, commerce, and banking
  • Always on the move
  • Work hard, play hard

Mode of Ignorance

  • Become corrupt and sell things with no value / Lie, cheat, steal to sell something
  • Beaten down by failure
  • Burned out, depressed, moody, due to overwork

Mode of Impulse

  • Status-driven
  • Dynamic, charismatic, and captivating
  • Hustler, goal-oriented, tireless

Mode of Goodness

  • Use money for greater good
  • Create products and ideas that make money but also serve others
  • Provide jobs and opportunities for others


  • Originally: artists, musicians, creatives, writers
  • Today: social workers, therapists, doctors, nurses, COOs, heads of human resources, artists, musicians, engineers, coders, carpenters, cooks
  • Skills: inventing, supporting, implementing

Mode of Ignorance

  • Depressed by failure
  • Feel stuck and unworthy
  • Anxious

Mode of Impulse

  • Explore and experiment with new ideas
  • Juggle too many things at the same time
  • Lose focus on expertise and care; focus more on money and results

Mode of Goodness

  • Driven by stability and security
  • Generally content and satisfied with the status quo
  • Choose meaningful goals to pursue
  • Work hard but always maintain balance with family commitments
  • Best right-hand man or woman
  • Lead team gatherings
  • Support those in need
  • Highly skilled at manual professions


  • Makers and Creators complement each other
  • Makers make Creators focus on detail, quality, gratitude, and contentment
  • Creators help Makers think bigger, become more goal-oriented


  • Originally and today: teachers, guides, gurus, coaches, mentors
  • Skills: learning, studying, sharing knowledge, and wisdom
  • A coach and a mentor no matter what role they play
  • Want to bring out the best in the people in their life
  • Value knowledge and wisdom more than fame, power, money, security
  • Like having space and time to reflect and learn
  • Want to help people find meaning, fulfillment, and purpose
  • Like to work alone
  • Enjoy intellectual pursuits in their spare time—reading, debate, discussion

Mode of Ignorance

  • Don’t practice what they preach
  • Don’t lead by example
  • Struggle with implementation

Mode of Impulse

  • Love to debate and destroy others’ arguments
  • Use knowledge for strength and power
  • Intellectually curious

Mode of Goodness

  • Use knowledge to help people find their purpose
  • Aspire to better themselves in order to give more
  • Realize knowledge is not theirs to use alone, but that they are here to serve


  • Originally: kings, warriors
  • Today: military, justice, law enforcement, politics
  • Skills: governing, inspiring, engaging others
  • Natural leaders of people, movements, groups, and families
  • Directed by courage, strength, and determination
  • Protect those who are less privileged
  • Led by higher morals and values and seek to enforce them across the world
  • Provide structures and frameworks for the growth of people
  • Like to work in teams
  • Great at organization, focus, and dedication to a mission

Mode of Ignorance

  • Give up on change due to corruption and hypocrisy
  • Develop a negative, pessimistic viewpoint
  • Lose moral compass in drive for power

Mode of Impulse

  • Build structures and frameworks for fame and money, not meaning
  • Use their talents to serve themselves not humanity
  • Focus on short term goals for themselves

Mode of Goodness

  • Fight for higher morals, ethics, and values
  • Inspire people to work together
  • Build long-term goals to support society


  • Guides and Leaders complement each other
  • Guides give wisdom to Leaders
  • Leaders give structure to Guides

The point of the varnas is to help you understand yourself so you can focus on your strongest skills and inclinations. Self-awareness gives you more focus. When I look at my Guide tendencies, it makes sense to me that I succeed when I focus on strategy. Creators and Makers are better at implementation, so I’ve surrounded myself with people who can help me with that. A musician might be a Maker, driven by security. In order to succeed, they might need to be surrounded by strategists. Invest in your strengths and surround yourself with people who can fill in the gaps.

When you know your varna—your passion and skills—and you serve with that, it becomes your dharma.


  1. Choose a group of people who know you well—a diverse mix of people you’ve worked with, family, and friends. As few as three will work, but ten to twenty is even better.
  2. Ask them to write down a moment when you were at your best. Ask them to be specific.
  3. Look for patterns and common themes.
  4. Write out a profile of yourself, aggregating the feedback as if it weren’t about you.
  5. Think about how you can turn your best skills into action. How can you use those skills this weekend? In different circumstances or with different people?


The Vedic Personality Test helps you begin to see your varna, but just like a horoscope, it can’t tell you what’s going to happen tomorrow. It’s up to you to test these varnas in the real world through exploration and experimentation. If your varna is Leader, try to take on that role at work, or by organizing your kid’s birthday party. Do you genuinely take joy in the process?

Think about the level of awareness we have when we eat something. We immediately do a sense check and decide if we like it, and we wouldn’t have trouble rating it on a scale of one to ten if asked to do so. Furthermore, we might have different feelings about it the next day. (When I have my favorite chocolate brownie sundae on a Sunday night, I feel pretty happy about it, but by Monday morning I no longer think it was the best thing in the world to put in my body.) With both immediate and long-term reflection, we form nuanced opinions about whether we want to make that food part of our regular diet. All of us do this with food, we do it when we leave a movie theater (“Did you like it?”), and some of us do it on Yelp. But we don’t think to measure our compatibility with and taste for how we spend our time. When we get in the habit of identifying what empowers us, we have a better understanding of ourselves and what we want in life. This is exactly what we’re going to do to refine our understanding of our varna.

The first and most critical question to ask when you’re exploring your varna is:

Did I enjoy the process?


Take note of every activity you take part in through the course of a few days. Meetings, walking the dog, lunch with a friend, writing emails, preparing food, exercising, spending time on social media. For every activity, answer the two questions fundamental to dharma: Did I enjoy the process? Did other people enjoy the result? There are no right or wrong answers. This is an observation exercise to amplify your awareness.

Test the description of your varna against your experience to pinpoint what you enjoyed about it. Instead of saying, “I love taking pictures,” find the root of it. Do you like helping families put together a Christmas card that makes them proud? (Guide) Do you like to document human struggles or other meaningful situations in order to promote change? (Leader) Or do you love the technical aspects of lighting, focus, and developing film? (Maker) As monks, every time we completed an activity or thought exercise like the ones in this book, we asked ourselves questions: What did I like about that? Am I good at it? Do I want to read about it, learn about it, and spend a lot of my time doing it? Am I driven to improve? What made me feel comfortable or uncomfortable? If I was uncomfortable, was it in a positive way—a challenge that made me grow—or a negative way? This awareness gives us a much more nuanced view of where we thrive. Instead of sending us on one and only one path, that awareness opens us to new ways we can put our passions to use.


Our heads might try to convince us that we’ve only ever made the best choices, but our true nature—our passion and purpose—isn’t in our heads, it’s in our hearts. In fact, our heads often get in the way of our passions. Here are some of the excuses that we use to close our minds:

  • “I’m too old to start my own business.”
  • “It would be irresponsible of me to make this change.”
  • “I can’t afford to do this.”
  • “I already know that.”
  • “I’ve always done it this way.”
  • “That way won’t work for me.”
  • “I don’t have time.”

Past beliefs, false or self-deceiving, sneak in to block our progress. Fears prevent us from trying new things. Our egos get in the way of learning new information and opening ourselves to growth. (More on this in Chapter Eight.) And nobody ever has time for change. But miracles happen when you embrace your dharma.

Growing up, Joseph Campbell had no model of a career that fit his diverse interests. As a child in the early 1900s, he became fascinated by Native American culture and studied everything he could about it. During college, he became entranced with the rituals and symbols of Catholicism. While studying abroad, his interests expanded to include the theories of Jung and Freud, and he developed an interest in modern art. Back at Columbia, Campbell told his dissertation advisors that he wanted to blend ancient stories about the Holy Grail with ideas in art and psychology. They rejected that idea. He abandoned work on his thesis and in 1949 found a job teaching literature at Sarah Lawrence College, which he held for thirty-eight years. Meanwhile, he published hundreds of books and articles, and did a deep dive into ancient Indian mythology and philosophy. But it was in The Hero with a Thousand Faces that he first discussed his groundbreaking ideas about what he called “the hero’s journey”—a concept that established Campbell as one of the foremost authorities on mythology and the human psyche. As someone who followed his dharma, it’s no surprise that Joseph Campbell is the original source of the advice “Follow your bliss.” He wrote, “Now, I came to this idea of bliss because in Sanskrit, which is the great spiritual language of the world, there are three terms that represent the brink, the jumping-off place to the ocean of transcendence: Sat, Chit, Ananda. The word ‘Sat’ means being. ‘Chit’ means consciousness. ‘Ananda’ means bliss or rapture. I thought, ‘I don’t know whether my consciousness is proper consciousness or not; I don’t know whether what I know of my being is my proper being or not; but I do know where my rapture is. So let me hang on to rapture, and that will bring me both my consciousness and my being.’ I think it worked.” If you follow your bliss, he said, “doors will open for you that wouldn’t have opened for anyone else.”

Protective instincts hold us back or steer us toward practical decisions (Campbell did teach literature for thirty-eight years), but we can see past them and follow our dharma if we know what to look for.


Instead of listening to our minds, we must pay attention to how an idea or activity feels in our bodies. First, when you visualize yourself in a process, do you feel joy? Does the idea of it appeal to you? Then, when you actually do the activity, how does your body respond? When you’re in your element, you can feel it.

  1. Alive. For some people, being in their dharma means they feel a calm, confident satisfaction. For others, there is a thrill of joy and excitement. In either case, you feel alive, connected, with a smile on your face. A light comes on.
  2. Flow. In dharma, there is a natural momentum. You feel like you’re in your lane, swimming with the current, instead of struggling through a resistant surf. When you are truly aligned, there is a sense of flow—you come out of your own head and lose track of time.
  3. Comfort. In your dharma, you don’t feel alone or out of place, no matter who comes or goes or where you are physically; where you are feels right, even if the place where you feel right is traveling the world. I don’t like the feeling of danger, but I have a friend who loves fast cars and Jet Skis. The danger—the worst-case scenario—is the same for both of us, but for him it is worth it, or the danger itself is a joy. On stage, I’m in my element, but someone else would shut down.
  4. Consistency. If you have a great time snorkeling on vacation, that doesn’t mean snorkeling, or being on vacation for that matter, is your dharma. Being in your dharma bears repeating. In fact, it gets better the more you do it. But a single event is a clue to what energy you like, when and how you feel alive.
  5. Positivity and growth. When we’re aware of our own strengths, we’re more confident, we value others’ abilities more, and we feel less competitive. The inclination to compare yourself to others may not go away completely, but it shrinks because you only compare yourself to people within your area of expertise. Rejection and criticism don’t feel like assaults. They feel like information that we can accept or reject, depending on whether they help us move forward.


Once you have a sense of your dharma, it’s up to you to set up your life so that you can live it. We’re not always going to be in a place or a situation where others recognize our dharma and bend over backward to help us fulfill it. As we all have experienced at one time or another, bosses don’t always tap into their employees’ potential. If you’re reading this chapter thinking My manager needs to understand dharma—then she’ll give me the promotion, you’ve missed the point. We will never live in an idyllic world where everyone constantly lives their dharma, with occasional pauses for their bosses to call and ask if they’re truly fulfilled.

It is our responsibility to demonstrate and defend our dharma. The Manusmriti says that dharma protects those who protect it. Dharma brings you stability and peace. When we have the confidence to know where we thrive, we find opportunities to demonstrate that. This creates a feedback loop. When you safeguard your dharma, you constantly strive to be in a place where you thrive. When you thrive, people notice, and you reap rewards that help you stay in your dharma. Your dharma protects your joy and your sense of purpose and helps you grow.


A person who isn’t living their dharma is like a fish out of water. You can give the fish all the riches in the world, but it will die unless it’s returned to the water. Once you discover your dharma, strive to play that role in every aspect of your life. Follow your passion in the workplace. Take up community issues using the same skill set. Be in your dharma with your family, in sports, in relationships, during days out with friends. If my dharma is to be a leader, I’m probably the one who should be planning the family holidays. I will feel meaning in that role. But if I’m a leader and I’m not playing that role, I’ll feel insignificant and frustrated.

Perhaps you are thinking, Jay, it makes no sense to stick to your dharma. Everyone knows that you should push yourself. Try new things. Venture out of your comfort zone. Though your dharma is your natural state, its range is further than your comfort zone. For instance, if your dharma is to be a speaker, you can go from an audience of ten to an audience of a hundred, scaling the size of your impact. If you speak to students, you can start speaking to CEOs.

It’s also important to stretch your dharma. I’m not the most outgoing person in the world, but I go to events and meetings because I know connecting with people serves my purpose. Going against your dharma is a bit like roller skating. You feel off-balance, slightly out of control, and exhausted afterward. But the more you understand yourself, the more solid your footing. You can consciously skate off in a new direction for a higher purpose. Understanding your dharma is key to knowing when and how to leave it behind.

Our dharmas evolve with us. A British expat, Emma Slade, lived in Hong Kong, where she worked as an investor for a global bank managing accounts worth more than a billion dollars. “I loved it,” says Slade. “It was fast, it was exciting.… I ate balance sheets for breakfast.” Then in September 1997, Slade was on a business trip in Jakarta, Indonesia, when an armed man pushed a gun into her chest, robbed her, and held her hostage in her hotel room. She says that as she lay cowering on the floor, she learned the value of a human life. Fortunately, police arrived before Slade was physically harmed. Later, when police officers showed her a photograph of the man slumped against the hotel wall surrounded by spatters of blood, Slade was shocked to feel sadness and compassion for him. That feeling stuck with her and led her to pursue the question of her real purpose.

Slade quit her job and began exploring yoga and the nature of mind. In 2011, she traveled to Bhutan, where she met a monk who left an indelible impression on her (been there!). In 2012, she became a Buddhist nun, and Slade (now also known as Pema Deki) felt she’d finally found peace. Yet that feeling of compassion she’d felt for the man who attacked her returned, and Slade realized she needed to do something to put her compassion into action. So in 2015 she founded a UK-based charity called Opening Your Heart to Bhutan, which seeks to meet the basic needs of people in rural areas of East Bhutan. Though she found fulfillment in becoming a nun, it was never her dharma to sit in a cave and meditate for the rest of her life. She now deploys her financial acumen in a way that serves herself and others more richly. Says Slade, “The skills of old have been very useful in bringing me now a very meaningful and happy life.” Slade compares her experience to the lotus flower, which begins in the mud then grows upward through the water as it seeks light. In Buddhism, the lotus represents the idea that the mud and muck of life’s challenges can provide fertile ground for our development. As the lotus grows, it rises through the water to eventually blossom. The Buddha says, “Just like a red, blue, or white lotus—born in the water, grown in the water, rising up above the water—stands unsmeared by the water, in the same way I—born in the world, grown in the world, having overcome the world—live unsmeared by the world.”

“Jakarta was my mud,” Slade says in her TEDx Talk, “but it was also the seed of my future development.”

   Remember the whole equation of dharma. Dharma isn’t just passion and skills. Dharma is passion in the service of others. Your passion is for you. Your purpose is for others. Your passion becomes a purpose when you use it to serve others. Your dharma has to fill a need in the world. As I’ve said, monks believe that you should be willing to do whatever is needed when there’s a higher purpose (and monks live this fully), but if you’re not a monk the way to see it is that the pleasure you feel in doing your passion should equal how much others appreciate it. If others don’t think you’re effective, then your passion is a hobby, which can add richness to your life.

This doesn’t mean every activity outside your dharma is a waste of time. For all of us there are activities in life that are competence-building and activities that are character-building. When I was first asked to give talks, I built competence in my dharma. But when I was asked to take out the trash, it built my character. To build your competence without regard for character is narcissistic, and to build character without working on skills is devoid of impact. We need to work on both in order to serve our souls and a higher purpose.

    Knowing your purpose and fulfilling it is easier and more fruitful when you use your time and energy wisely every day. In the next chapter we will talk about how to get the best start to your day and how to follow through from there.





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