What do you do when the person next to you on the plane is reading Deepak Chopra?
The title of this post pretty much says it all. I recently flew from South Africa back to the US after flying on four flights: Cape Town-Johannesburg-Dakar-Washington, DC-Boston.
On the Johannesburg to Dakar leg, I was lucky enough to have the seat next to me empty, so I stretched out, enjoyed my two blankets and two pillows, and tried to sleep a little. The airplane landed in Dakar, Senegal to refuel, take on food and drink, and also take on a new crew and new passengers. I was a little disappointed when a man took the seat next to me on the plane, but he turned out to be a friendly man from Ghana who was well-educated (a degree in engineering as well as a PhD in business administration), well-spoken, well-traveled, and had interesting stories about his work for the World Bank over the past ten years or so. The man travels all over the world managing various projects for the World Bank, such as providing start-up money for coffee farmers in Ethiopia and managing various grants and investments in his home country of Ghana.
About halfway through the 9 hour flight, the man took out the book he was reading. I was dismayed to see that he was reading “The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success” by Deepak Chopra. I had to mask my momentary shock and disappointment when the man praised the book and said how he hoped it would make him more successful. I didn’t know how to respond, but I decided that the tactic of “Deepak Chopra is dumb, spiritual laws are dumb, and you’re dumb for reading this book” was not the right approach. The man sitting next to me on the airplane was far from dumb; he was very successful and intelligent and also doing very good, important work in Africa and other places around the world.
So, I tried another approach. I inquired about the book and politely read the introduction and the description on the cover jacket. For those of you unfamiliar with the book, here is a description from wikipedia:
The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success – A Practical Guide to the Fulfillment of Your Dreams is a 1994 self-help, pocket-sized book from author and physician Deepak Chopra, freely inspired in Hinduist and spiritualistic concepts, which preaches the idea that personal success is not the outcome of hard work, precise plans or a driving ambition, but rather of understanding our basic nature as human beings and how to follow the laws of nature. According to the book, when we comprehend and apply these laws in our lives, everything we want can be created, “because the same laws that nature uses to create a forest, a star, or a human body can also bring about the fulfillment of our deepest desires”.
The book has sold 1.5 million copies in the United States alone and about 3 million abroad, and appeared in the top 10 list of New York Times.
I then handed the book back and said something along the lines of, “Well, this looks interesting, but I’m a little skeptical of both Deepak Chopra and of self-help books in general.” Yes, I used the word skeptical, but I tried not to sound too bitter or condescending. My tactic seemed to work– the man asked why I was skeptical and listened to my reply.
I continued with something like, “Well, first I am not a fan of Deepak Chopra in general. He’s a medical doctor, but he often praises dubious alternative medicine. I feel that his writings about alternative medicine– which hasn’t been proved scientifically– can keep people from receiving real medical help. I don’t think he means to, but he harms people in this way. I also don’t like him because I think he’s often just out to make money. Many self-help books are just money-makers, and that makes me skeptical of their contents.”
I decided to stop there, though I wanted to say some harsher words about Deepak and what I thought about “spiritual laws.”
The man paused, took in my words, and asked me some more about Deepak’s medical beliefs. He apparently didn’t know much about Deepak Chopra. I told him some more about the alternative medicine rubbish and why I felt it was harmful, and the man seemed to consider that deeply. He frowned a bit and said he would look into it more.
Eventually, he also said, “I still think these laws are good, though. But maybe they’re just more common sense. I don’t think Deepak was the first person to come up with these laws; maybe he is just trying to make money from them.”
Again, I wanted to condemn the spiritual laws in stronger language, but I let it go, saying only “maybe.” I felt that shouting and stronger words would not necessarily help, and I felt that I had at least planted a seed of doubt about Deepak and the book. Hopefully that is enough for a smart, educated man to figure out the rest on his own. Time will tell, though perhaps I’ll never know. Though the man did leave his business card with me, so maybe I’ll follow up with him by email sometime to see what he thinks about Deepak in a few months.
Let me just comment here quickly on the “Seven Spiritual Laws for Success.” I haven’t read the book in detail, but I think I have a good idea of the contents. Deepak says in the book that success is not a result of hard work, precise plans, or driving ambition. Rather, you just need to relax, help others, and give into the universe or some nonsense.
Certainly, helping others and being a nice person in general can help your success in the long-term. People are more likely to help you if you help them, and if you’re friendly and nice to people this can help you make contacts, hear about opportunities, and so forth. So, the advice in the book is not all bad. However, if I can be considered successful in my career as a geologist (I guess so, though some days I don’t feel like the best student or geologist), it is not just from helping others or being friendly. No. I’ve had to work extremely hard, and I still work extremely hard. And not just in graduate school– I’ve worked hard in science and mathematics my whole life. Or at least since I was five or six or so. I was lucky that I was born into a middle class American family with a strong belief in the power of good education. I went to excellent schools, and my parents pushed me to do my homework well. I’ve also been ambitious and driven– I’ve applied for internships, research positions, graduate school. All that takes ambition and drive. All of this has also taken planning– filling out the applications on time, obtaining letters of recommendation, researching projects, and so on.
My fiance– from a poor South African family and the first to go to college in his family (even his extended family)– would agree that success takes hard work, planning, and ambition. He did not have the same support and luxuries that I did growing up in middle class America, so he’s had to work even harder than me and be even more ambitious than me in order to be successful.
So, yes, in my experience success requires hard work, planning, ambition, and some luck– though maybe in some cases it’s a Richard Wiseman sort of luck.