A long road lined with cotton fields stretched ahead.
Gopal Dada’s walking stick hit the pavement before his every step. Clack. Clack. Clack. His flower-printed tote, which contained all his belongings for our three day journey, rocked back and forth.
I’m tired. Thirsty. I thought.
Gopal Dada stopped and the sun gleamed over his vintage sunglasses. It would be our last day meandering along Narmada – a Holy River in Baroda, India.
Why is he stopping?
His skeletal frame bent down and he scooped a fist-sized rock lying in the middle of the road. He tossed it into the bushes.
Funny old man.
“Dada, I’m curious about your life. What’s the secret to life-long health?” I had heard from others that in 87 years he had never fallen sick.
Dada flung one of his thin arms open. “When I was a little boy, I swam in the river and climbed trees. Water is my medicine.” His voice was husky and minted with an impeccable British accent.
Dada stopped and walked into the middle of the vacant road again. He crouched down and picked up another rock. He tossed it to the side and the bush leaves rustled.
What on Earth is he doing?
“Dada, why do you keep stopping to throw rocks?” I crossed my arms. The sweat dripped down my underarms. I imagined the cool water of a shower pouring over me. We were so close.
Dada continued his slow pace.
The words that followed radically shifted my career and life:
“So that motorcyclists don’t slip and kill themselves.”
There are few moments when real wisdom is transmitted to you through a humble breathing example. This was one of them. While I was wondering when the journey would end, Dada was saving lives.
I went to India to do some volunteer work at Manav Sadhna (a partnership organization of Silicon Valley’s local Service Space). During my time, I met Dada – the organization’s well-known elder who once walked thousands of miles alongside Gandhi during the freedom movement. Dada’s teacher was Vinoba Bhave, a nonviolent human rights advocate who organized the largest peaceful transfer of land in human history. It was no wonder that Dada had such a deep sense of service that it had become his second nature.
Before I met Dada, I believed that I *had to* make a really big social impact in the world. I grew up believing I *had to* become a leader who changes millions of lives. To be honest, I felt a sense of pressure and overwhelm coupled with a sense of responsibility which I had somehow inherited from society.
For several years, I became fascinated by the ideas of effective “social return on investment” (SROI) and impact investing. I worked at Anchal Project – a non-profit that supports women out of the sex trade. In doing their grant writing, I understood the utmost importance of two factors: (1) how would we measure our impact? and (2) how would we scale? These factors mattered because money values measurement and scale.
And sadly, many of us have shaped our professional lives around what money values instead of what makes us come alive.
What the heart values is more elusive than what money values: a small anonymous act of kindness. A fleeting moment of connection.
What was the “SROI” of Dada’s rock-clearings? He had walked thousands of miles for decades across India. We can’t say whether he saved any lives or whether any of his rock-clearing gestures made a difference. But that’s not why he did it. He was not attached to the results of his service.
Dada’s example gave me permission and freedom: I don’t need to change the world. I just serve from the heart! Return to myself – my Self. And it’s ok if my work is ridiculously and shamelessly small and immeasurable.
Like another incredible person told me while at Manav Sadhna: “One tear drop of compassion can change the whole ocean.”
If you’re lost in your career, business, personal life – find an elder. Sit. Ask. Listen. Watch.
They’ll put it in perspective for you.
Original photo (modified) by Jochen Handschuh