Small Acts of Kindness can Change the World

In This Podcast
Show Notes
Nipun Mehta
E 143

In This Podcast

  • What we can learn from the gratitude economy
  • The future potential of AI
  • Aligning AI with heart intelligence
  • The 1,000 km journey to himself
  • The long term solution for business

Right now, says Nipun Mehta, founder of Service Space, an incubator of gift economy projects that inspire people to be the change they wish to see, the world needs a little more kindness. And yes, with so many challenges happening globally, it might feel like such an insignificant act isn’t going to affect anything, but says Nipun, that’s how history changes. 

25 years ago, in Silicon Valley, Nipun started Service Space as an experiment with friends. Today it’s a global ecosystem with around 1.5 million members. And they’ve not only delivered millions of dollars in service for free, but they’re also regenerating a gift culture. 

In this incredibly insightful conversation, Vesna and Nipun discuss how small acts of kindness can change the world. To find out more, download and listen to this episode.

Show Notes

Why Leading With ‘Other’ Centered View Leads to Better Well Being with Nipun Mehta

25 years ago in Silicon Valley, Nipun Mehta founded Service Space as an experiment with friends. Today it’s a global ecosystem with around 1.5 million members. And they’ve not only delivered millions of dollars in service for free, but they’re also regenerating a gift culture. 

However, in those 25 years, the voluntary sector has become an insignificant part of society, says Nipun. But when you look at what’s driving society, it’s been shown to be intrinsic motivations, time and again. And what Service Space has shown through its many projects, and the many ripples it’s caused, is that we shouldn’t be throwing away the voluntary sector, because there is a real power to intrinsic motivation.

The thing is, research shows when you have extrinsic motivators connected with intrinsic motivators, the extrinsic ends up crowding out the intrinsic. So how can we create islands of possibility, where all of us collectively on this island are led by intrinsic motivations?

What we can learn from the gratitude economy

Maybe we could learn from Karma Kitchen, a project from Service Space set up as an experiment to see if they could change the way people thought about eating out, about money, and about the limitations of transactions.

Because eating in a restaurant is a typically transactional event: you order food, it gets served to you, you pay for it. But at Karma Kitchen, you walk in, you order your food, it gets served to you, and at the end of the meal your bill reads zero. Not because your meal was free, says Nipun, but because someone before you has paid for it for you. And you in turn are trusted to pay forward for people after you. 

“Most people are like, wait, that can’t work, right? Life is all about transactions. If I don’t secure enough for myself, I will be left behind. That’s the narrative in our mind. It’s a completely untested hypothesis. But that’s nonetheless the dominant paradigm narrative.”

If you serve someone with no strings attached, no financial implications, you will have a deeper relationship, says Nipun. And if you have enough deep relationships, someone’s cup of gratitude, somewhere, will overflow. Because when you set the right context, people respond to generosity with even greater generosity. It’s baffling to our transactional mindset, but really, says Nipun, it’s intrinsically human, to pay it forward. 

“I’m very moved when I see others moved by love. To facilitate people’s experiences of generosity is something that makes me come alive. Even if it’s in the smallest act of kindness, I would be willing to do anything to create a meaningful service opportunity for somebody else.”

The future potential of AI

What Nipun dreams of is a world in which we use AI responsibly, where AI actually helps us figure out what it means to be a deeper human being. 

“I would like to see an integrated scenario where we take the best of the possibilities technology gives us and also the best of humans, and see how those create a virtuous cycle. Not a vicious cycle, where we’re all playing defense.”

The biggest threat AI is already posing, says Nipun, before it even hits with stuff such as artificial general intelligence, is it’s already making the cost of content trend towards zero. Meaning the cost of knowledge is heading towards zero. 

Last year the IQ of AI was 120. Earlier this year it was 160. Einstein was 165, says Nipun, and they’re saying by next year it’s going to be 1,000. So to tell somebody, ‘you’re so smart’, won’t be a compliment anymore. AI is going to be able to do everything, in all languages, in five seconds. And if we don’t see ourselves as intelligent, that’s a massive threat to our identity. 

Aligning AI with heart intelligence

But, says Nipun, if we lead with something deeper than just content, if we lead with an intelligence that is deeper than just intellect alone, we should be able to figure out a way in which AI helps us do all the intellect stuff and all the knowledge stuff and even all the creative stuff. 

What we humans do that AI can’t, says Nipun, is we feel, we love, we care. That kind of emotional intelligence is what will lead AI innovations. When we have a collective consciousness shift where we’re no longer defined by how much we have, but by how much we circulate, how much we do, how much we share, and how deeply we are related, maybe, says Nipun, just maybe we don’t have to feel so isolated. 

Because that’s what a transaction does; it isolates you, it disconnects you. But with gratitude we can reconnect, we can circulate our merits, and when we do that, perhaps we could create a virtuous cycle where we feel a deeper sense of belonging, with a much grander sense of identity, where we’re all in service to each other, rather just being just transactional. 

“My recipe for reconnecting is really to just do a small act of kindness, I would say one other thing that has helped me is silence, just quieting the mind meditation. And the other thing that helps me reconnect is being kind.”

The 1,000 km journey to himself

One of Nipun’s transactional moments was when he and his wife sold everything they had and bought a one way ticket to India, where they then walked a 1,000km pilgrimage to the Gandhi ashram. They ate whenever food was offered, and slept when a bed was provided. 

“And my goodness, when you operate in that way, you are going to reveal a lot of insight into intrinsic motivations, into connection, into community, into systems, everything. It was very profound. Most of us have never had food where somebody borrowed food to feed you.”

Nipun and his wife put themselves in the hands of others, and learnt quickly that nobody cares who you are or how smart you are, what your accomplishments are. But if you can serve others, that’s relevant. Can you help sweep outside a temple? Push a vegetable seller’s cart? Lift an old man’s haystack? When you’re helpful and kind, when you step out of your own concerns and needs, when you can generate an intention of goodwill because you’ve cared for others, that’s when others are going to care for you. 

The long term solution for business

If you look at people’s dissatisfaction at work, says Nipun, at the amount of energy they’re putting in, it’s dismal. So many people are checked out at work, yet so many businesses are trying to simply patch over the cracks. But at some point, we’re going to need more than patches, business is going to need radical innovations. The core of which, says Nipun, is to move from transaction to relationships. 

The question is, how can you create a context which is much more relational than transactional? Because right now, business is very rooted in transaction, which in time starts to crowd out intrinsic motivators. And you see this resulting in all kinds of movements like quiet quitting.

“You can bring in all the inspiring speakers, you can put all kinds of glossy veneer on it. But ultimately you have to say, what is the core operating system for groups of people to cooperate and work together to create something substantial in the world?” 

So what is Nipun’s advice to his 16 year old self? There’s a balance between grit and grace; pay attention to that balance. How much of this is grit and how much of it is grace? We know how to amplify grit, we’ve all seen people persevere and win when the odds are stacked against them, but we don’t really know how to appreciate, acknowledge and regenerate grace. 

“What the world needs most right now, is a little bit more kindness. There are so many challenges across so many sectors that if you change one thing, you alter something else, and that creates suffering for a whole swathe of people. It’s a very difficult time to be alive, and a dose of kindness feels so insignificant given what’s going on in the world, but that’s how history changes.”

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