My #ThemeWord for 2010: KARMA

Rob Paller introduced me to the #ThemeWord tradition, started in 2008 by Erica Douglass as an alternative to New Year's Resolutions, where you pick one word to serve as an over-arching theme for the upcoming year.


My #ThemeWord for 2010: KARMA

The Sanskrit word karma (literally “action” or “deed”) is commonly misunderstood or oversimplified.  It is a complex concept with deep roots in Eastern philosophy and the religious traditions of Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Jainism.

First and most important—please let me stress that I do not wish to offend anyone's religious sensibilities. 

I am using the word karma in a philosophical and secular sense.  However, I will admit that my perspective is greatly influenced by my non-religious study of Buddhism.  Of the many useful texts I own on the subject, my favorite description of karma comes from the book Lotus In A Stream by Chinese Buddhist Master Hsing Yun (as translated by Tom Graham):

“Karma is a universal law of cause and effect concerned with intentional deeds.  The law of karma tells us that all intentional deeds produce results that eventually will be felt by the doer of the deed.  Good deeds produce good karmic effects and bad deeds produce bad karmic effects.”

Obviously, “cause and effect” is neither only an Eastern concept, nor only a philosophical concept. 

The history of both Western philosophy, perhaps most notably by Aristotle, as well as Western science, perhaps most notably by Isaac Newton, also includes excellent exposition on cause and effect. 

Therefore, please feel free to contemplate “karma” in Aristotelian and/or Newtonian terms.

Some additional alternatives include:

  • Reciprocal Altruism
  • The Whuffie Factor
  • Quid Pro Quo


Reciprocal Altruism

Evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers coined the term reciprocal altruism to explain how altruism, which he defined as an act of helping someone else—although incurring some “cost” for this act—may have evolved because it was beneficial to incur this cost if there is a chance of being in a reverse situation at some point in the future, where the person that you helped before may perform an altruistic act towards you.


The Whuffie Factor

Tara Hunt uses the term whuffie to describe “the residual outcome—the currency—of your reputation.  You lose or gain it based on positive or negative actions, your contributions to the community, and what people think of you.”


Quid Pro Quo

The Latin phrase quid pro quo (literally “something for something”) is commonly used to describe an equal exchange of goods, services, or favors, which can be alternatively described using the far more colloquial phrase:

“You scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours.”

Mean People Suck

So, whether you prefer to use karma, reciprocal altruism, whuffie, quid pro quo, or other terms, we all have some way of expressing the concept of what we expect to happen when we help other people.

We have a natural tendency to “keep score” one way or another.  We usually help others so that they will be more willing to return the favor—so others will be indebted to us.  We use subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) peer pressure techniques.

We remember who turns us down (or simply ignores us) when we ask them for their help.  And we especially take note when it was someone we had previously helped.

Mean and selfish people definitely suck.  But let's face it, nobody's perfect.  We all have bad days, we all occasionally say and do stupid things, and we all occasionally treat people worse than they deserve to be treated.


Quid Pro No

Although I accept the fact I can't possibly help everyone, in 2010 I pledge to help others whenever I can.

Most important, I pledge to practice quid pro no—I will help others without worrying about what's in it for me.

Or to borrow the wonderful words of 8th century Indian Buddhist scholar Shantideva (as translated by Stephen Batchelor):

“Even when I do things for the sake of others

No sense of amazement or conceit arises.

It is just like feeding myself;

I hope for nothing in return.”  

How to Pick Your #ThemeWord for 2010

Karma is my theme word for 2010.  I will occasionally discuss it directly and indirectly in my blog posts throughout the year.

If you are interested in participating in the theme word tradition, then follow these three simple steps:

  1. Think of a word that reflects your hopes and dreams for 2010
  2. Share your theme word with friends on Twitter, Facebook, or your blog
  3. Be sure and use the hashtag #ThemeWord