How To Make The Best Decisions — According To Gandhi
The importance of mental discipline and the never-ending search for truth
Reading Gandhi’s autobiography last year opened up my eyes to the importance of mental discipline and training, which is not often as discussed as physical training. But I would argue that mental training is as important (if not more) than physical training. The difference is that when you train your body, you see improvements when you look at yourself in the mirror.
This positive feedback gives you motivation to continue exercising as part of a weekly regimen. In most cases, the mirror is a true physical reflection of your physical self. However, there is no such reflection of an improving mental prowess.
Nevertheless, it is extremely important to train the mind. Think about your daily life — how many times do you need to do heavy physical labor like farm work? As compared to how much time do you spend using your brain to solve complex problems — sitting at your computer, or discussing with co-workers, or teaching someone else?
Gandhi summarizes his life’s work as a never ending search for truth. In the final farewell chapter, he summarizes what he has learnt through years of perseverance:
“To attain [perfection], one has to become absolutely passion-free in thought, speech and action; to rise above the opposing currents of love and hatred, attachment and repulsion”
Gandhi in South Africa
Before reading this book I had some conception that Gandhi spent sometime in South Africa. However, I was unaware how vital his time in South Africa was, for his contribution to India. It was in South Africa that he formed his most valuable ideas, including the concept of Satyagraha. Gandhi spent more than two decades from 1893–1914 in South Africa, in order to practice law and represent Indians in cases.
Considering he went there when he was only 23, shows the impact South Africa had when he was in his formative years. While he went there for a specific case, in order to represent an Indian merchant, he immediately encountered intense racism in South Africa, directed towards Indians. He spent much time organizing peaceful protests, and fighting injustice through the legal system.
As a lawyer, Gandhi was uniquely poised simultaneously as a man of knowledge, reputation, and respect for existing judicial systems, while at the same time his quest for the truth and justice made him the champion of underrepresented and persecuted Indians living in South Africa. For a long time, Gandhi was convinced that these racial injustices were limited to South Africa, and that the British rule was good in general.
Gandhi’s good deeds in South Africa made him famous in India. In 1896, Gandhi visited India to visit his family, and also to educate the people in the Indian National Congress about the plight of Indians in South Africa.
It was then that he started being aware of the defects in the British rule. In one particular incident, for Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee event he decided to join along in the reciting of the British national anthem. A verse in particular stood out for Gandhi, as he describes in his chapter “Two Passions:”
“O Lord our God arise, Scatter her enemies And make them fall; Confound their politics, Frustrate their knavish tricks, On Thee our hopes we fix, God, save us all!”
This marked the beginning of his questioning of the British rule in India, and eventual struggle for India’s freedom.
How to choose?
In today’s world we are faced with so many choices. For me personally, it is often hard to make a choice. There’s so many options of what research to prioritize, which blogging platform to use, whether to invest time in starting a newsletter, and even smaller decisions of what font size to use.
I recognize this as a specific aspect that I need to train towards — efficient decision making. But I’m particularly inspired by an incident that showed Gandhi’s thought process during decision making.
When he had gone back to India in 1896, he started noticing the strain of daily Indian life due to the British rule. When he was speaking with members from the Indian National Congress about supporting the cause for Indians in South Africa, he angered some members, in particular one Pestonji Padshah.
He said to Gandhi: ‘It is impossible to help you. Is there a lack of work in our own country? Let us win self-government here and we shall automatically help our countrymen there.’
Gandhi could definitely understand this point of view and was faced by the important decision: give up work in South Africa and fight for India’s freedom, or go back to South Africa to complete the work to improve the conditions of Indians there? In making a choice, Gandhi went to the Bhagvad Gita, an Indian epic detailing the ambivalence of the great Indian warrior Arjuna during the Mahabharata war, in fighting for the truth, but requiring to make great sacrifices and decisions in the process. Paraphrasing a key paragraph:
“This is better that one do, His own task as he may, even though he fail, Than take tasks not his own, though they seem good, To die performing duty is no ill: But who seeks other roads shall wander still.”
And so, Gandhi decided to stay on in South Africa and take his work to a new level. Ultimately it was there that he originated his now famous principles of Satyagraha, which he took back to India when he eventually returned. This was crucial to his contributions to India’s struggles for independence.
In some sense, making decisions that further your chosen path as opposed to wandering in other’s paths echoes multiple content creators like
Tim Denning who say “find your niche” — whether on Medium or YouTube.
The larger picture
Gandhi’s case study shows how having a self-critical mindset with the intent of finding truth in everyday life can lead to the great outcomes, even the freedom of a country. I must point out the caveat that there are flaws in Gandhi’s personality that have recently come to light, and questions on whether Gandhi’s contributions were necessary for Indian freedom.
Nevertheless, Gandhi is one of the most (if not the most) famous Indians, and his philosophies of non-violence and the incessant search for truth have impacted the entire world.
Interestingly enough, until Gandhi returned to India, he did not seriously consider freedom of Indian under the British rule as a motivating factor. He was just extremely aware of the injustices around him, and did his best to fix them. This mental attitude alone led him to solve societies big problems of the time.
In fact, when he visited India in 1900, with the intent to settle down in Mumbai and practice at the bar, he was immediately summoned back to South Africa to meet the Prime Minister of U.K., Mr. Chamberlain. Throughout his life, Gandhi accepted calls from people who needed his support, and also ultimately — when his whole country needed him.
In summary, the key points I learned from Gandhi’s autobiography are:
- The importance of training the mind — How to rise above the tides and ebbs around you, and focus on the goal at hand. In life’s rocky seas it is impossible to know for sure what are the opportunities and challenges ahead. So why not invest in the one asset that will help you make the best decisions during these uncertain times — your mind?
- How to make the best decisions — find your niche, and strive to do the best you can. Not someone else’s niche (though this is easier said than done). Being good at a few things is more likely to attract opportunities, rather than being OK at multiple different things. Tomas Pueyo has a great article on how to master a niche through skill stacking.
- The incessant search for truth — The truth arms you with great power. Both the truth about your own self, and the truth about your surroundings. Accurate assessments of yourself help better understand what to work on, and continually improve. If you can truly convince yourself that what you are doing is important, convincing others becomes much easier — whether they are collaborators, partners, customers, etc.
As a physicist, I draw parallels with the emergence of large scale macroscopic properties from microscopic interactions. A crystal is composed of individual atoms that don’t know how to place themselves, yet a beautiful structure emerges.
How is this possible? This is due to the microscopic interactions between individual molecules, leading to emergent patterns.
I strive to make the best choice in the moment, without explicitly knowing what results these decisions might make in the larger picture — while being aware of my flaws. But with the hope that decades later, a story that made a difference will emerge.
Senior Data Scientist in NLP. Creator of https://www.answerchatai.com/