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Prasad Kaipa: Shifting from Smart to Wise

--Bela Shah, on Jul 18, 2013

What keeps most of us from igniting our inner genius? Our Global Forest Call guest and author of “From Smart to Wise”, Prasad Kaipa, reflects on his own life journey with Somik Raha and shares a radical and thought provoking insight: Awakening our inner genius and tapping into our inner wisdom is inherently linked with leveraging our skills and talents to serve the greater good.

Prasad: Fifteen years ago, I began to ask myself, “Who am I? What can I do? How can I be myself instead of trying to become someone else?” Before this point, lots of jealousy, greed, and arrogance led much of my initial path of life. I was aspiring to win the Nobel prize in physics and arrogantly thought I could create a pathway to win it. Somewhere along the path, it became clear to me, it doesn’t matter how much I compete to be the best I can, it’s a game I can never win.

Somik: Can you reflect on some events that initiated this inner transformation?

Prasad: At one point I was working for Apple and we were looking at how different people learn and create. In this role, I ended up visiting a large number of extraordinary people, including this gentleman in Israel who works with kids that have downs syndrome. He created something called mediated learning as a way for the child and his entire family to live more productively and intelligently. For some reason, he asked me to translate and explain a Sanskrit quote for him from the Patanjali Yoga Sutras, which I did with a lot of knowledge and arrogance.

The next day, this man turned to me and said, “Prasad, you’re wasting your life. All that you are learning is from the outside but you have forgotten your roots. I showed you a principle from the yoga sutras, which is actually the entire foundation for my work with downs syndrome. You understand the principle in theory but you don’t know diddlysquat about what it really means in life. You don’t even put it to practice in your own life whereas I’m a guy who took just a few principles and I can apply them and my entire practice revolves around creating meaning for 50,000 people. Somewhere you lost yourself.”

Somik: Going through your book “Smart to Wise”, I remember the provocative title and thought to myself, “Finally, someone is going to lay out the steps for me!” Then what I noted after reading it is that you didn’t have a method for how people could become wise but the point of your book was there is no substitute for the heart work in each individual’s specific context. Can you talk more about that?

Prasad: Someone once told me, “The amount of learning you can do is directly proportional to the amount of vulnerability you are willing to experience.”

Definitely moving from smart to wise, if I take my own life, requires a certain amount of unlearning and selective forgetting. Wisdom is our birthright. Somewhere over a period of time we get socialized and conditioned to be smart and we try to put on a show that will get us the kudos in the short term but this is ephemeral. But if we can pay attention to the larger purpose, to mutual interests, and apply our smartness to what will serve people, that is a definite pathway to wisdom.

I interviewed smart leaders of sustainably successful organizations for 20 years and learned that when people went beyond their ego and their self-limitations, they were able to ignite their inner genius, they opened up the wisdom in themselves as well as in others. Moving from smart to wise is based on six principles from the Bhagavad Gita that involve the shifting of perspective from “what is in it for me” to “what is in it for other people”. Then it’s about acting consistent with this shifted perspective when you’re conscious and aware. Ask yourself, “Can I do what my heart tells me to do even though it might not look good?”


Audrey: Can you share a moment where you’ve followed your heart even if it didn’t look good or smart to others?

Prasad: When you talk about your heart, you have to make sure it’s not just emotions that are coming up in the moment. You need to examine it to see if there is a larger purpose to be served or is it that you just feel good about it. Examine your authenticity and the appropriateness of what you want to do.

In 1990 I made the decision to quit working for Apple, which was something that was extremely difficult for me. At the time, my daughter had just been born, I only had $22,000, and I had no other job or form of income lined up. I didn’t know anything about organizational change and there was no such field as executive coaching. But I felt that I needed to pursue my own personal transformation and see what I could learn about myself. I decided that either at the end of it all, I would go back to India or see what emerged.

Someone even got me an interview with Adobe and the guy said to me after the interview, “The job is yours if you stop talking about transformation in the world and how learning and innovation need to be transformed.” It was a large salary and director level position but I decided not to take the job. Everyone was saying, “Kaipa, that’s the wrong thing to do!” But I knew that if I gave up, I would literally die. My head may be present and my body may be awake but inside I would be dead.

Then within two months there was a guy from Xerox that came into my life and opened the door for me to lead some creative workshops. The next thing I know I’m on my way to becoming a workshop leader and that was a complete turnaround. The key was that I not only had to trust my heart, but I had to keep my eyes open in trusting my heart.


Amit: What if you are in a position where you’re not necessary the leader and at the highest level yet you still want to effect this change. How do you do that?

Prasad: It’s extremely important to recognize it’s not the position that you’re in that is critical. The culture change happens when people take leadership in the role that they play, regardless of their position. I recommend whether you’re an individual contributor or a low level manager, pick a problem you want to solve and bring your perspective of how you can get other people involved in that change.

Where are you willing to look bad and take risks and involve others and make a commitment to bring some difference?

That’s where the transformation occurs; the first step is figuring out how to bring awareness to the problem and the second step is creating an impact in a small, measureable ways by bringing in other people. When the cultural transformation starts occurring, you have to figure out how to actually shift it from a static transformation to a dynamic transformation where you stay in touch with the process and it becomes a sustainable culture change.


Somik: Should one trust his guru and follow their advice even if it seems illogical or counter intuitive?

Prasad: I have had difficulty with my own teacher for a long period of time. He has been ruthless with me and even though I felt that what he shared with me was counterintuitive, I found that trust is the only thing that opened my heart. 

So most of my learning seems to come from: Am I creating trust? Am I having faith?"

Even if all the results show that things aren’t working out, do I still have faith in myself and faith in other people? If you can do this, opportunities will arise that transcend into a new self.


Michelle: What is your vision moving forward?

Prasad: After writing this book, there seems to be momentum building up, but what’s amazing is that lots of people go back to smartness.  They say, “This is good, but when I become older I need wisdom. I’m too young to think about wisdom right now.” 

So what is exciting is to recognize that the real job began after I wrote the book. I want to understand what it is that stops people from being continually seduced by the shadow of smartness.  Smartness is good but it has to serve a larger purpose.


I have a lot of work to do in terms of practicing and acting on the book that I wrote.  I have to make sure I’m living in alignment with the principles and the deeper stories that I’ve been privileged to hear and document and I'll be grateful if other people can get value out of it as well.