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The lessons of Siddhartha

When Nobel Laureate Herman Hesse wrote Siddhartha, his enigmatic novella about the search for enlightenment, he broke away from his intellectual and spiritual European roots. Though the story follows the arc of the Buddha, the Buddha is a minor character in it, and Siddhartha is the main character, a man seeking enlightenment. A wealthy Brahmin’s son, he has been brought up with everything a person could desire, but he is unsatisfied. So he leaves with a group of ascetics (Samanas) and goes into the forest, renouncing all material things.

After three years of deprivation he realizes he has made little progress. He hears of the Buddha and goes to learn from him but realizes he must find what he is seeking elsewhere.

Coming upon a beautiful courtesan he asks her to teach him about love, but she says he must have money and nice clothes to court her. So he goes to a wealthy merchant to offer his services. The merchant asks what he can do and he offers up a core teaching for anyone embarking on a venture:

“I can think, I can wait, and I can fast.”

The merchant asks what the value of fasting is. Siddhartha replies that if he has no money for food, he can fast and not be driven by hunger. But when the merchant finds out he can read and write, he takes him on.

The book continues but I am always struck by these three skills. As I’ve written about recently, our society has a real problem with patience. We want everything faster, with less effort. All three of Siddhartha’s skills won’t work if we are impatient. Thinking clearly requires time, waiting calmly will often give you an advantage over those who rush in, and the ability to not be driven by various hungers offers perspective.

For three years I was a teacher/mentor to an early stage startup program, eventually working with 36 teams. They were required to do a customer discovery process where they would talk to one hundred people about their concept over three months, refining it along the way. Without exception those who were most successful were the ones who talked to the most people. There was a direct correlation and their ability to do this required an infinite amount of patience, and a capacity for hearing things you might not want to hear. And reaching out to people and waiting for their time.

Thinking, waiting, and fasting, in various forms, will always yield better and longer lasting results. As a writer I have learned far more writing a novel than a blog post or marketing piece, more about myself and the ancient craft. There is a writing fad called micro-fiction that is very popular with entry level writers. Personally I think this is not a healthy thing to pursue from a craft perspective. It offers instant gratification but I don’t believe there is much depth to glean experience from. We learn from doing difficult things.

Siddhartha’s skills are difficult things, but he was pursuing the highest imaginable goal, one that required unimaginable sacrifices. He had to go very deep over a lifetime to get there. I’d argue that anyone truly successful in our society, both materially and spiritually, has to have the same level of dedication.

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