Suneel Gupta is redefining our understanding of work, ambition, and well-being. He is a tech entrepreneur, visiting scholar at Harvard, and has been featured in NYT, CNBC and TED. He researches and promotes how ancient wisdom, reimagined for modern times, can help us replace the relentless pursuit of success with a balanced and joyous life.
In a world of hustle and burnout, Suneel presents an alternative—the ancient Indian philosophy of living your “dharma” (your “sacred calling”) to navigate the elusive balance between ambition, work, and well-being. As he learned the hard way after selling his startup, achieving outer success does not lead to inner peace. In fact, our ambition often blinds us to our true essence, leaving us feeling empty and exhausted. In his new book Everyday Dharma, Suneel outlines eight transformative practices to discover, understand, and live your dharma so you can let go of anxiety, produce your life’s work, and experience true fulfillment and joy. Suneel shares his own transformative journey from achieving outer success to discovering his inner calling, and weaves in history, science, Eastern philosophy, Western modalities, and self-assessments to give readers a practical guide.
In this interview, I speak to Suneel Gupta. We talk about how ancient philosophies have relevance in today’s world, and why we need to redefine our work, ambition and well-being.
Q: What is Dharma?
[Suneel Gupta]: If we trace back to the earliest definition of “dharma”, it leads us to the Bhagavad Gita. There, dharma is defined as one’s sacred duty. Naturally, the question arises: duty to whom? It’s essentially a duty to that inner fire burning within you. Different people interpret this fire in various ways. Some call it a ‘calling’, others refer to it as ‘purpose’. My grandfather, who first introduced me to the concept of dharma, described it as your ‘essence’. This essence is an inner necessity that yearns to be expressed. When you allow this essence to shine through, it rejuvenates you. It fosters creativity, energy, and imagination. However, when you suppress it, feelings of depletion, exhaustion, and burnout take over. It’s possible to be productive and achieve external rewards without expressing this essence, but an inner void remains. What’s intriguing about dharma is its age-old roots, spanning over a thousand years. Yet, the inner void it addresses seems more relevant today than ever before.
Q: How do we untangle what we do from who we are? And why must we?
[Suneel Gupta]: From a young age, we’re conditioned to believe our identity is our job. Remember as kids when people would ask, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I bet, Vikas, you were often queried by aunties and uncles, just as I was. Expected answers were professions like ‘Doctor’, ‘Lawyer’, or ‘Engineer’. Had one said, “I love to tell stories” or “I love to make others happy”, it would’ve been deemed too abstract. As adults, this pattern continues. At social gatherings, when asked, “What do you do?”, rarely would someone respond, “I tell stories”. Instead, they’d say, “I’m a comedian” or “I’m a writer”.
We possess an essence deeper than mere job titles, yet society often deviates us from it. We’re conditioned to identify with our roles more than our core selves. Dharma isn’t your job; it’s your essence and how it manifests in what you do. In my journey, I founded two unsuccessful ventures and one successful one. However, even with that success, I felt something was missing. I delved deeper to identify my passion: storytelling. From there, I explored avenues like podcasting, writing, and public speaking, embracing the storyteller community.
We must learn to look beyond job titles, reconnect with our core passions, and determine how best to share that essence with the world.
Q: What’s the importance of rest when developing a work ethic?
[Suneel Gupta]: We both have strong ambitions. I sense you have a drive to achieve, to create, and I feel the same way. I believe many reading this interview share that sentiment. It’s essential to realize that we don’t need to downplay our ambitions to enhance our joy. Sometimes we feel this false dichotomy: that we must lower our ambition to experience joy or reduce our joy to heighten our ambition. There’s a misconception that outstanding work and profound well-being are mutually exclusive. But in reality, both are crucial for lasting success—emphasis on “lasting”.
If you have a short-term goal, sure, work tirelessly, pull all-nighters, and get it done. However, genuine ambition isn’t about overnight results. It’s about creating lasting legacies and making a meaningful impact. Such endeavours require resilience. While grit and hustle are commendable traits, over-reliance on them can lead to burnout. If we embrace grit not just as a tool but as our entire identity, we’re essentially admitting our focus is only short-term.
Q: Why is self-love so crucial for an ambitious career?
[Suneel Gupta]: Your perspective resonates deeply with me. Concepts like self-love once felt nebulous and overly sentimental. If you’d mentioned it to me in my 20s, I’d have dismissed it. I believed that to truly drive forward, I had to be hard and relentless on myself. It often takes a wealth of experience to understand that this approach A) isn’t fulfilling, and B) doesn’t consistently yield desired outcomes, especially for those around us. This high-octane energy might engage others short-term, but maintaining long-term relationships becomes challenging.
Regarding personal development, I’ve come to differentiate between self-esteem and self-confidence. I once thought they were synonymous. However, self-confidence is about believing in your capabilities, while self-esteem is loving yourself irrespective of outcomes. Both are crucial. It’s essential to believe that you can overcome challenges, but it’s equally important to ensure that your self-worth isn’t dependent on specific results. Merging these attitudes doesn’t diminish your drive. In fact, it amplifies it. When you’re cushioned with self-assurance, you become more daring, more willing to take risks, secure in the knowledge that even if things don’t pan out, you’ll remain intact.
Q: How does the scientific concept of FLOW relate to Dharma?
[Suneel Gupta]: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the acclaimed author of “Flow” and a distinguished psychologist, presented two approaches to work. The first, “exotelic”, is centered on achieving results, milestones, and goals. The second, “autotelic”, emphasises the pleasure derived from the process itself.
Conventionally, it was believed that exotelic individuals, with their goal-oriented mindset, would achieve greater success in life, while autotelic individuals might find more happiness and be more present in their personal lives. But Csikszentmihalyi’s findings were enlightening. Autotelic individuals were just as, if not more, successful than their exotelic counterparts.
The key takeaway? Focus on activities that offer intrinsic joy regardless of the eventual outcome. This doesn’t negate the importance of goals, rewards, or wealth. However, if these external achievements are your sole driving force, recognise there’s another path. And this alternate approach doesn’t curtail ambition; there’s substantial evidence suggesting it might enhance your chances of success.
Finding joy in the journey provides a unique advantage. By revealing in the process, without being fixated on outcomes, you become better equipped to navigate challenging situations. When things don’t immediately go your way, there’s an innate understanding that the journey itself is worthwhile.
Q: How can the tools of dharma help us in a world which is becoming secular?
[Suneel Gupta]: My fascination with dharma stems from a contrasting background in science and numbers. I’ve dedicated years to computer programming, running businesses, and meticulously analysing spreadsheets. Even with my deep dive into dharma, my analytical mindset remains intact. What bothered me was the perceived dichotomy – the idea that one had to choose between practicality and spirituality or believe in some supernatural force to derive wisdom from ancient texts.
Take the Bhagavad Gita, for instance. Out of its 18 chapters, it’s only in Chapter 13 that anything supernatural is introduced. Until then, it’s essentially a profound dialogue – akin to a coaching session – between a charioteer and his rider on leading a fulfilled life. I didn’t gravitate towards dharma due to a religious inclination; rather, I felt an overwhelming sense of burnout and a yearning for meaning in my work, sentiments echoed by many around me.
Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” resonates with me. He argued that past generations perceived wealth as a path to meaning. But as he neared his life’s end, he noted a shift: the younger generation prioritised meaning over wealth. This paradigm shift persists today. Gen Z, often criticised for their challenging questions, are simply amplifying this change. Today, it’s not just about our job roles, but how these roles resonate with our identities.
With the increasing life expectancy, someone from Gen-Z could well live beyond 100 years. This extended lifespan, coupled with uncertainties about social support systems like healthcare and social security, especially in the U.S., underscores the importance of a career that spans decades to align with inner meaning. It’s only natural for them to question how their work correlates with their intrinsic values and inner experiences. And, these queries are becoming more mainstream and relevant by the day.
Q: Are we scared of asking ourselves questions?
[Suneel Gupta]: Indeed, the reluctance to question one’s path is common. For me, when things seemed decent enough, I hesitated to delve into deeper introspection, fearing it might upend everything I knew. However, what I’ve realised about dharma is its subtle nature. Embracing it doesn’t necessitate dramatic life changes, like quitting a stable job to pursue art in Florence. Instead, it’s about realigning with your true self, even in incremental ways.
For instance, I’ve encountered individuals with artistic inclinations working in professions like accounting. By aligning closer to their dharma, they’ve incorporated elements of design into their presentations, offering a fresh perspective to clients. Such tweaks don’t require a complete life overhaul. Yet, aligning even slightly with one’s inner calling can invigorate daily life, making every moment feel like a true expression of oneself.
Q: What does legacy mean to you?
[Suneel Gupta]: Legacy occupies my thoughts frequently. Nowadays, more than ever, I view myself as a bridge connecting my immigrant parents — with my mother being a refugee — to my children. I am driven to ensure the valuable lessons and wisdom my parents acquired aren’t lost simply because they moved to America. Essentially, I aim to convey the enduring philosophies and insights from generations past to the next, ensuring that a mere geographical shift doesn’t cause them to vanish but instead continues to resonate with my children.