The career downhill is certain. Are you ready?

She messaged me to inquire about my background and on what basis I pick up articles for teenagers to read every week. Week after week, for nearly four years, I have been curating articles for parents to read it out to their children. Now called The Read Aloud Club, in the first two years, it was just a nameless circulation of a set of article links. So when asked about my background for selecting articles, I didn’t know if I should reply as a mother of two or author of Habits for Thinking or a design thinking professional or mention my past corporate life. No one had ever asked me about my authority to select articles. Being questioned about my background stumped me for a minute. 

She had the right. Being a teacher in her professional life some years ago, she took her role of grand-parenting with conscious efforts. Parents and grandparents are gatekeepers for their children. Interested in the idea of the Read Aloud Club for her grandchild, she wanted to know the background of the curator. In my reply, I showed her the work. It doesn’t matter to talk about other things to support your work when your work can talk the loudest. There were plenty of editions for her to refer to. Later, we spoke. She signed up. Her happiness reflected in her messages to me. She shared pictures of her grandchildren, her family and how this gift was precious. And, one comment that stayed with me was that I should share these articles with other grandparents. It will be useful for people of her age to find talking points with their grandchildren.The word useful lingered in my mind even longer. 

The conversation took me to life after retirement, the life after years of work, money, fame and recognition. Not only retirement, but life after seeing a peak in your career, the life on the other side of the hill. The thought took me to a few lines I had read in an article, “Whole sections of bookstores are dedicated to becoming successful. The shelves are packed with titles like The Science of Getting Rich and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. There is no section marked “Managing Your Professional Decline.” 

The article, titled your professional decline is coming much sooner than you think, mentions the whole thought process that is required to change when you have peaked at an early career. Downhill not only is inevitable but also happens earlier than most of us expect, what should we do when it comes for us?

In today’s Habits for Thinking, I am bringing your attention to when the expected, i.e. the career downhill comes unexpectedly. I would neither call it a decline, nor a retirement, but a downward slide that one can be prepared for. Let us treat it as the downhill after a peak – it could be a peak in the career, like a high profile position at a young age, or leaving a leadership position due to loss of work or  a successful buyout of your venture or actually retirement. Athletes peak and retire from their profession at an early age. Peaking in a career can be at any time, but what happens when the hill is a downslide. How do you manage the ride? 

1. Peak and career downhill are not age related:

An excerpt from the write up suggests: Entrepreneurs peak and decline earlier, on an average. After earning fame and fortune in their 20s, many tech entrepreneurs are in creative decline by age 30. In 2014, the Harvard Business Review reported that founders of enterprises valued at $1 billion or more by venture capitalists tend to cluster in the 20-to-34 age range. Subsequent research has found that the clustering might be slightly later, but all studies in this area have found that the majority of successful start-ups have founders under age 50. 

While this is true, what is also true is that some people, who are in the business of compounding efforts see success at an age which is much later than sixties. 99% of Warren Buffett’s net worth came after his 50th birthday, and 97% came after he turned 65.1

The father of management thinking, Peter Drucker has written many books; 2/3rd of his writing was after the age of 65. Jim Collins, who had Peter Drucker as his mentor, mentions in The Tim Ferris Show podcast,  “The shelf was all of Peter’s books put out chronologically based on when he wrote them, first editions. And I said, “Where on the shelf is he aged 65?” And the answer was, when you pointed to it, 1/3 of the way across the shelf.” 

So one peak at a relatively young age, whether as the CEO of a company or an entrepreneur, does not preclude you from  high professional achievements later on in life. 

2. The life after peak can be another peak, a different one

Charles Darwin was just 22 when he set out on his five-year voyage. Darwin took enormous pride in sitting atop the celebrity-scientist pecking order, developing his theories and publishing them as books and essays—the most famous being on the Origin of Species, in 1859. But as Darwin progressed into his 50s, he stagnated; he hit a wall in his research. 

Johann Sebastian Bach, born in 1685 distinguished himself as a musical genius. Early in his career, Bach was considered an astoundingly gifted organist and improviser. Commissions rolled in; royalty sought him out; young composers emulated his style. He enjoyed real prestige. But it didn’t last—his career was overtaken by musical trends ushered in by, among others, his own son, Carl Philipp Emanuel.

What’s the difference between Bach and Darwin? Both were preternaturally gifted and widely known early in life. Both attained permanent fame posthumously. Where they differed was in their approach to the midlife fade. When Darwin fell behind as an innovator, he became despondent and depressed; his life ended in sad inactivity. When Bach fell behind, he reinvented himself as a master instructor. He died beloved, fulfilled, and—though less famous than he once had been—respected.

While Darwin stayed attached to his prestige at peak, Bach worked around that status and found a new way of meaningful work, teaching. 

3. Being useful is the mantra

The trend of professional decline is also accelerating. Firstly, democratisation of knowledge means many skills can be acquired across age groups. A teenager can make an electronic device like a graduate. Secondly, technological advancement means dependency on people is going to reduce. All of this is nothing new. This has been in the making. Not just people, a whole set of businesses are wiped out by a newer age company. The transition period of change from one cyclical change to another is reducing. So yes, the professional decline, or what looks like a peak today, may lead to a downhill slope tomorrow. 

To prepare for it, there is only one thought that needs to be nurtured. It is a human need to remain meaningfully engaged. The engagement comes from work place, relationships, interactions. A sense of growth, not just financially but emotionally and in knowledge keeps the mental energy intact. When Jim Collins, author of several books, was considering leaving his day job to become an entrepreneur he asked Peter Drucker for advice2.

Drucker replied, “It seems to me you spend a lot of time trying — worrying about if you’re going to survive. Well, you’ll probably survive. And you spend too much time thinking about if you’ll be successful. It’s the wrong question. The question is, “how to be useful?” 

Everyone will face the career downhill at some point in their work life. That is a given. People with a growth mindset will find ways to remain engaged mentally and will find ways to remain useful. People attached to the prestige of the previous peak will find it hard to move forward. 

The grandmother, a retired teacher, can identify this need for ‘being useful’ in her circle of influence. She knows, there is a peak after the peak. 

  2. The Time Ferris Show

Naomi Osaka redefines quitting and our thinking

Naomi Osaka withdrew from French Open Tournament 2021 last week. Sports teaches us not to quit. Most parents are advised to make children learn some form of sports so that they become tough to handle a loss.  

In another story of a boy, he was not even ten years old when he attained an international player’s rating in his sport and that too a decent opening rating. Within a year, the more he played tournaments, the more he lost his rating points. At ten, you don’t know how you are supposed to think and here was a little boy who was trained to believe that he cannot afford a loss. The more he thought about his rating points, the more he lost, and the more his confidence came down. He would be an aggressive and his bold self with a higher rated opponent and would get stressed with a lower rated opponent, because you lose more points when you lose against a lower rated player. An intervention of a sports psychology counsellor helped the parents understand how to deal with this little life who was living a big one inside his head. Apart from many small suggestions, the parents were advised to not say that they were proud of the child, because it made him build large expectations in his mind. ‘You make me proud’ was replaced by ‘do you want to use the washroom before you start the match’  or ‘would you like to eat a banana’, no matter how proud the mother felt when the boy played for hours together and lost and then woke up again next morning to face an opponent with a fresh mind, hopefully not to lose again. 

They went again and again to participate in matches not to simply win and get better but to learn not to quit, not to quit when inappropriate. Mental well being is a real issue. Ill mental health doesn’t make any announcement, it just creeps in. During early stages it is a matter of understanding, addressing and dealing with it. Ignoring or discounting makes it grow in a bigger, worse state. 

Sachin Tendulkar, after years of retirement, shared about his anxiety related challenges which he endured during his career. Decorated swimmer Michael Phelps talked about his depression that he suffered, only after being able to successfully come out of it and face another Olympics, successfully again. Naomi Osaka, the woman who is the top tennis player, the highest paid female athlete ever, the young and intelligent whose bout of mental illness started when she won her first grand slam, is talking about mental health not after dealing with it, but while enduring it. 

While sports teaches not to quit, here is Naomi Osaka teaching valuable lessons by actually quitting a tournament. In today’s Habits for Thinking, I am bringing your attention to Naomi Osaka’s decision to leave the tournament and how it is a wake up call, loud and clear, for people,brands and companies to understand and learn and act from her decision.  Here are some thinking lessons that we can pick up from her ability to walk away.

Naomi Osaka is walking the talk: 

The player announced her reservation towards speaking to the media well in advance. She would have been acutely aware of her distractions towards performance on the court and she took a step towards staying focused so she decided to stay away from media. More than just fine for blacking out any media, the authorities also used social media to pass a slight remark “They understood the assignment” featuring other players who talked to media. Whatever would have led to Naomi’s decision of leaving the tournament, it was just another step by her to keep her mental well being safeguarded. She only walked her own talk. 

The thinking: While businesses and companies are talking about WFH related mental well being, they need to learn to walk the talk. Some people in the team need more effort, more rest than the others.  

Naomi Osaka has changed the narrative: 

Out of the many things that pandemic has changed, one is how people take a stand and support empathetically or remain silent. Rohit Brijnath wrote in Mint – “A summer when many of us saw the heroic from the unknown and silence from heroes.

During earlier tournaments, Naomi Osaka wore masks to support Black Lives Matter. I wrote about it here “medium is the message”. This time she is standing for herself. Naomi has changed the narrative.  She has not only spoken for others silently, she is speaking for herself too, silently, by taking a step away from the noise. 

Naomi Osaka Supports Black Lives Matter

Pandemic has changed the narrative for many, not just Naomi. I was stunned and in awe of the courage of a lady, an author, with more than 12,000 followers on her social media, when she shared her pain of first coming out of hospital alone, leaving her husband behind still healing, then shared his deteriorating condition, to his passing away and to her first day without him. A mother of two children, asked for support through prayers, gathered courage through wishes and is battling grief through her virtual connections. 

The Thinking: More and more people come out to share their deep, personal pain and grief. This creates a real ambience of acceptance. The narrative has changed, not only to speak but also to be heard. Brands and companies have to pay attention to the new narrative and create a safe space for acceptance. 

Naomi Osaka demonstrates that the media is democratized:

The furore started with avoidance of the media. When she left the tournament, she left with a message on her social media, reaching not only to her followers but the world’s media. Today, everyone has access to make themself heard, irrespective of the presence of media persons. 

It is time to realise that the media’s role needs redefinition. Media has the power to change the trajectory of the ball. Media’s consciousness will help the world, not only for mental health but for overall well being and growth. Instead of reacting to the blackout, they had the power to question why an athlete is forced to face a press, during the series, and why not only at the end of any tournament? Why can’t they be given a choice? Is player protection more important than the tournament’s publicity? 

The Thinking: Many times, startups and companies do take a position of power when their social following is large, that they do not need any media. Both, the influencer and the media are important and need each other. It is time we change the norms and define new roles. Instead of fighting the presence of social media and platforms that influencers use, we understand that the media’s role to create an availability cascade is not just to change the trajectory, but can help the world. Similarly, influencers that play big on social media, need to remember the value of power of media and not get carried away.

Mental health is a personal challenge, but it is one illness that gets aggravated by other people and their reactions. Naomi Osaka’s depression started in 2018 with her first grand slam victory. Instead of celebrating a precious moment with bright eyes and open arms, she stood on the stage with drooped shoulders and the tear laden face hidden behind her visor. She had been booed more than she could take during her first big victory.

Each one of us plays a role in the mental well being of others, knowingly or unknowingly. Only empathy and thinking before reacting can help others. Naomi Osaka by leaving this tournament has shown us the path of keeping a promise of care, the path of healing and recuperating by acceptance, and the truth that the biggest influence in life is one’s own thought, not the muscle-flexing outside world.

That is what the boy was taught by shutting the noise, to learn to control the thoughts. And the mother is proud, loud and clear.

2 secrets to improve your deliberate practice

A shoulder pain woke me up from months of sleeping. It had been months since lockdown, workouts had shifted inside the living room instead of the gym, the trainer appeared more on mobile screens than in person and I spent more on computer and phone screens than on yoga mats. A nagging pain in my shoulder took me to a physiotherapist. The first session didn’t seem so alarming but right after that session, during my fitness practice at home, I developed a muscle pull in the neck. The physiotherapist advised rest and called me after two days. On my second trip to the hospital, my neck and shoulders were taped with adhesive medical tapes restricting most of my movements. This was still easy and I thought I would be out of this phase within a few days. I was wrong. My neck, shoulder and back had developed stiffness over months of lockdown. It required a couple of months of therapy including many painful needle processes of breaking knots in my muscles that left me immobile at times and in pain. Today I can laugh, my own workouts had become a pain in my neck, literally and figuratively. The numbness of pain woke me up from my sleep. I have been sleeping about my fitness levels all these months, even though I was working out regularly. Lockdown needed me to pay more attention myself and not be dependent on anyone else for improvement. I had lost the alertness towards that and while I was regular, it was not enough. 

We do not focus on everything in life with the same alertness, especially when it becomes a habit. Workout has been a habit for years, thrice a week in the gym, same trainer,being regular became the only yardstick  rather than the form of the body. Sometimes we go into a slumber, even with the best of the habit. That’s what happened to me with my regular workout habit. I had lost focus from a key habit in my workout- ‘improve.’

In today’s Habits for Thinking, I am bringing your attention to a hard habit : the habit to improve. It is easier to pick up a new habit than to improve a good existing habit. That is why it is hard. 

Lack of awareness keeps you from improving:

In the course SHIFT, there are fifteen habits designed to nurture a growth mindset that is alert, creative and confident. ‘To improve’ is one of the fifteen habits. I wrote about the invisibility and shared responsibility about this habit in an article a few weeks ago. What keeps us from improving? One of the reasons is lack of awareness. Lack of awareness is about two types- firstly, one may not know which part of the habit needs to be improved. Secondly, one may not know how to improve. Both these issues stop us from growing further. But the two secret lines that push one to work on improvement are mentioned below: 

Secret 1: The enemy of great is good. 

What is the enemy of the Great? The good. Yes, good is something that really lets you stay where you are. It becomes the roadblock to being great. A good success makes us settle in comfortably, creating inertia to move towards a great success. A great success is achieved with the mindset. The mindset difference is growth vs fixed mindset which we have talked about in detail in earlier post here. 

deliberate practice

The backbone of a growth mindset is the feedback loop.  The feedback tells you where to improve. It helps you understand the details of the situation. And, you single out one focus area at a time and work on improvement. A growth mindset not only doesn’t shy away from feedback, it actively seeks feedback in its work.

This is what separates great athletes from good athletes. This is one reason why great companies have managers with better performance than good companies. The margin between good and great is very thin and is achieved only through continuous improvement. And, continuous improvement can be achieved through deliberate practice. 

Deliberate practice:

Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers From Everybody Else. Author Geoff Colvin, wrote: 

Deliberate practice is characterized by several elements, each worth examining. It is activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related activities, or heavily physical, such as sports; and it isn’t much fun.

G. Colvin

K. Anders Ericsson, the Swedish psychologist and researcher is best known for coining the term “deliberate practice” as the secret of how people can improve their skills. After decades of studying how superstars are made, Ericsson said the reason why his work has captured the public’s attention in recent years is simple: “A lot of people want to be the very best they can be. The deliberate practice notion has kind of opened up the possibility that people can achieve higher levels of performance than they previously thought possible.”

Deliberate practice is a structured approach with a goal to improve performance. Deliberate practice involves trying to exceed one’s previous limits, which requires full concentration and effort. Consequently, it is only possible to engage in these activities for a limited amount of time until rest and recuperation are needed.

Musicians have been encouraged to practice two hours of playing the instrument with full concentration than practice four hours without the concentration. Because  deliberate practice involves being mindful, it is really hard to practice it for long duration. A writer’s commitment to writing two hours mindfully in the morning results in greater work than writing longer hours with much attention throughout the day. 

Coach or no coach, a deliberate practice is an effort of breaking down the goal into smaller areas, identifying weak points and practising with specific aim for improvement of the weak points. For example, stability is a key form for any athlete. But many good athletes, despite being in the top few in their respective category, may not have worked on stability alone. Deliberate practice means focussing on one area of performance, like stability, and improving overall performance through that. 

Deliberate practice is not only a part of athletic performance. It applies to all types of activities.

Secret 2: The power of 1% gain everyday

The beauty of improvement is it is a one way path, it only goes up, it only gets better. However, the challenge in improving is that the gain is so small that it doesn’t motivate further to continue. It is a small, imperceptible gain in most cases, tough to measure and even tougher to fuel growth. However, one should remember that a 1% gain everyday means a 37times gain in a year. If you had Rs. 100 and you gain 1% everyday, it will lead you to Rs.3770 at the end of the year. That is the value of small gains. 

The recipe to bring in deliberate practice in your life:

Step 1: Meta cognition: Thinking about thinking and learning: identify what you want to improve

Step 2: Set small goals

Step 3: Maintain a log, only you can see the improvement. 

Step 4: Create a loop: feedback to yourself, replan, refocus

Step 5: remember 1% improvement is an improvement. 

Now, let us see how it can be actually practiced. For instance, distraction is a major challenge to our concentration and efforts. If one has to improve their productivity, how about setting up a goal of working without any distraction? 

Step 1: Meta Cognition: thinking about distractions while working

Step 2: Set small goal: work thirty minutes without switching to any other tab on computer

Step 3: Maintain a daily journal. 

Step 4: Increase the time gradually. Practice till you stabilise at the new time. 

Step 5: Remember 1% improvement compounds over time. 

Habits require attention and improvement. This can be achieved only with mindful, deliberate practice. One can identify and improve any activity whether it is writing, strategising, playing music, swimming, or even workouts like mine. The secret sauce is to remember two lines: firstly, the enemy of good is great and secondly 1% gain everyday is powerful.

6 impacts of anchoring bias on mind and money

One hour. No, just 5 minutes. Please dad, 40 minutes. No, max 15 minutes more. This is a regular small stake negotiation between the father and the child at home for extra television time. The negotiation begins only when the agreed time is over. Which means, ideally there should not have been any negotiation. Ideally it should have been zero extra minutes but the child ends up winning most of the time, because the negotiation always starts with a large number. This number anchors father’s mind and his quick reactions.  

Anchoring bias is the impact on human behaviour after receiving the initial piece of information. Like in this case, the child says one hour and father’s thoughts get anchored around one hour. Instead of negotiating from zero to fifteen minutes, he actually negotiates from sixty minutes and brings it down to fifteen minutes. Obviously, this behaviour also covers father’s indulgence for the child. 

Anchoring is a concept explained by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in the book Thinking, Fast and Slow. In today’s Habits for Thinking, I am bringing your attention to how anchoring impacts our decision making. Viewing the screen for an extra few minutes is not a high stake decision but there are other decisions that have an anchoring effect and we need to be mindful about it. 

Here are six features and impact of the anchoring bias in our decision making.

Table of content:

  1. Anchoring as priming effect
  2. The anchoring index
  3. Anchoring is a marketing strength 
  4. Anchoring is used in policy making
  5. Anchoring is for focussing mind 
  6. Anchoring in wealth and investing

1. Anchoring as priming effect:

A textured premium paper box in navy blue with lettering in gold and a brown cardboard box with black lettering are identical in shape and size. Both of these boxes are shown to consumers and they are asked to estimate the price of face cream inside it. Unmistakably, consumers vote for the blue box with a higher price than the brown box. The packaging of the box is the anchor here that gives an initial piece of information to people. The packaging suggests that one in blue is more likely to be premium than the other one, even if the facecream is exactly the same inside the box.

This priming effect applies in our lives on a daily basis. Picking up a product from the shelf on the basis of packaging is just one of these decisions. The priming effect of anchoring also applies to first impression. This is the reason we dress up appropriately for an interview, which makes the first impression. 

2. The anchoring index:

“Powerful anchoring effects are found in decisions that people make about money, such as when they choose how much to contribute for a cause.” Quoted from the book, Thinking Fast and Slow. Research has shown during a donation drive, when the anchoring amount or the suggested amount was only Rs 1000, donations averaged around Rs. 500 but when the anchoring amount was made an extravagant Rs10,000 as suggested amount to be donated,  willingness to pay rose up to Rs. 5000 or more. 

Anchoring Daniel Kahneman

Kahneman writes, “a key finding of anchoring research is that anchors that are obviously random can be just as effective as potentially informative anchors.” Even a simple roll of dice with a number on it, can have an impact on the decision unrelated to the dice. The point to remember is that anchors do not have effects on people because they are informative. People just get carried away by the number. 

3. Anchoring is a marketing strength 

Discount on MRP of products work on the basis of anchoring. You like a jacket, you get it on a discounted price and you feel happy about the savings you have made from the anchor which is the original price of that jacket. In another instance of shopping, you end up buying an item because it shows ‘only one piece left’ in the ecommerce site. You click to buy even if the item is not an immediate need. This is priming of the anchor ‘one piece left’ which makes you take the quick decision. 

4. Anchoring is used in policy making

Traffic fine for drunk driving in Mumbai was Rs 2000 and for speeding Rs 400. In 2019, with the new policy change , drunk driving fine was made ‘Rs10,000 and/or 6 months prison’(or Rs.15,000 and/or 2 years jail for repetitive violation) plus for speeding it ranged between Rs 1000-4000 + licence seizure in certain conditions. In 2019, when the policy was redesigned the fines were not only increased for these two offences, but also for other offences like overloading of a vehicle, obstructing the path of an emergency vehicle etc. 

According to a report, approximately 2348 road accidents were reported in Mumbai between January-October in 2019. A dip of about 18% had been noticed in road accidents in comparison with 2018 (January-October) when the total number stood at 2619. The decline in the numbers of road mishaps can be partially attributed to the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act 2019. 

Speeding and drunk driving fines work as anchors for policy making in other areas too. This large fine has an impact on the overall behaviour of drivers thus reducing the accident rate. Anchors are used in policy making to have a large umbrella impact on other aspects of the policy too. 

5. Anchoring is for focussing mind 

In sports psychology, athletes are trained to have winning mindsets. To enter this winning mindset just before a competition, they get into a ritual designed well in advance. This ritual works as an anchor, almost like a switch on button to enter a winning mindset. Like, see this “Micahel Phelps dynamic stretch arm swing on the block. Not only did it tell Michael that he was ready to pounce on the competition, the loud slap on his shoulders of his hands also anchored to every one of his competitors that Michael was ready.”

6. Anchoring regarding money and wealth: 

In our own life, the anchor effect plays a role in many thinking processes. Here is a quote: 

Anchoring to a number is the reason people do not react to their total wealth, but rather to differences of wealth from whatever number they are currently anchored to. This is in major conflict with economic theory, as according to economists, someone with $1 million in the bank would be more satisfied than if he had $500 thousand but this is not necessarily the case. ”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets

Anchoring bias in trading and investing is a common behaviour. Like anchor effects in other areas, anchoring bias in trading is similar. Suppose a buyer wanted to buy a stock at Rs70, but he didn’t buy it then and now the stock price is Rs110. The buyer feels that the stock will go higher after studying the company’s reports but he is still dilly-dallying to buy the stock at Rs110 as he is facing an anchor of Rs 70. A similar bias plays in while selling stocks. An anchor effect of a higher price makes the person hold the selling decision.  

Money led transactions like selling of an old car, buying of a house, buying and selling of companies in businesses can be influenced by anchoring bias. Negotiations, business dealings are a lot more dependent on anchoring. It becomes important to who begins first. As mentioned earlier, the mind has two systems, one that reacts immediately, and the other that thinks, weighs the details and then reacts. To counter the adverse effects, it is important to train the mind to think the opposite. It helps in avoiding decisions that get influenced by anchoring bias. 

As a conclusion, here is an excerpt from Kahneman: 

You are always aware of the anchor and even pay attention to it, but you do not know how it guides and constrains your thinking, because you cannot imagine how you would have thought if the anchor had been different. However, you should assume that any number that is on the table has had an anchoring effect on you and if the stakes are high you should mobilize your thinking. 

Babies are great negotiators, they get their way. But to avoid anchoring bias, grown ups have to behave in a conscious manner and apply thinking. 

Your food habits can teach you how to think

Facebook lunch was the best, their cheese spread was eclectic during one of the meal times. Google’s spread of a variety of cuisines were mind boggling. Never seen before or after, a large spread like that in a corporate, everyday work setting. There were at least three lunch places, each with a wide range of food in a particular cuisine.  Microsoft felt a little more like a workplace lunch, thankfully. Twitter was a small gathering. Each place left an overwhelming memory of food that still lingers years after our trip to the headquarters of internet giants. I was a part of an IAA delegation that visited and spent a day at some of these corporate headquarters in order to immerse ourselves in the way of their thinking. Digital tourism is the name we gave to this trip. While there are several memories and notes about the experiences gathered across several cities in America, one that tops the charts is the food that we experienced at these places. It was lavish not just as our welcome meal, but as a culture of the workplace. 

Food makes the culture. Culture of a workplace, culture of a community, of a family. Food is a necessity, like air, like water. Yet, most of us have been brought up to leave our own decisions regarding food to someone else. Think about it, we have read about Mark Zuckerberg’s uni color t-shirt choice so as to avoid everyday decision making on what to wear. Ever wondered how he makes food choices, so many decisions to be made in a day? Maybe, like most of us, he is largely dependent on someone else for those decisions.  In most households, the decision lies on the lady of the house. What is served on the table is something that is accepted as a matter of fact. There is nothing wrong with it, except that one has outsourced the most important decision about his mind and body to someone else.   

In today’s Habits for Thinking, I am bringing your attention to something as basic as food and to understand how it is a mental model for thinking and for making right decisions. Let us first understand the theory of First Principles.  

To explain, theory of First Principles, here is an excerpt from an interview with Elon Musk: 

I think people’s thinking process is too bound by convention or analogy to prior experiences. It’s rare that people try to think of something on a first principles basis. They’ll say, “We’ll do that because it’s always been done that way.” Or they’ll not do it because “Well, nobody’s ever done that, so it must not be good. But that’s just a ridiculous way to think. You have to build up the reasoning from the ground up—“from the first principles” is the phrase that’s used in physics. You look at the fundamentals and construct your reasoning from that, and then you see if you have a conclusion that works or doesn’t work, and it may or may not be different from what people have done in the past.

I think it’s important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. So the normal way we conduct our lives is, we reason by analogy. And it’s … mentally easier to reason by analogy rather than from first principles. First principles is kind of a physics way of looking at the world, and what that really means is, you … boil things down to the most fundamental truths and say, “okay, what are we sure is true?” … and then reason up from there. That takes a lot more mental energy.

Nutritionists are people who understand the first principles of the food. They understand the value of components and what it brings to the body. To a large extent, our mothers and grandmothers who have spent days in the kitchens managing meals with limited seasonal produce have the understanding of first principles. They can toss a meal with equal panache of nutrition and taste even with limited resources as compared to internet-recipes-driven generation. 

First Principles here means understanding the role of food, its nutrients, its pairing,  understanding the needs of the human body at a particular time, at a particular age etc. Over the generations, as the world opened up to travel and cuisines, the knowledge of first principles passed down from one generation to another as a diluted version, mixed with global influences. 

You would wonder, where does this take you in Habits for Thinking? Why and how understanding food becomes a thinking model? A mental model helps us define questions, seek answers and seek solutions. Food has a direct impact on our body and mind. Yet, we take it for granted and depend on others to understand it for us. In today’s habits for thinking, I bring your attention to four areas where you can think about food and that it can have direct impact on our growth. 

“I don’t know what’s the matter with people: they don’t learn by understanding; they learn by some other way—by rote or something. Their knowledge is so fragile!”

—Richard Feynman

1. Understanding one’s own food habits is thinking in First Principles

Have you been taking Vitamin C and Zinc and other multivitamin supplements? Pandemic has brought attention to our nutritional needs. Each body has a unique requirement not just the quantity, but also the variety. This requirement changes with seasons and age. Understanding one’s own food requirement need not come from a third person who serves the food but by owning the responsibility. An athlete, at a competitive level, irrespective of his age, would know his food needs. He has to think and plan for strengthening muscles, building endurance and most importantly recovery. We may not have a similar need, but we still need to understand our rhythmic requirements like when and what to eat, how much to eat. Understanding is a responsibility. 

2. A mental model to exercise control:

Rujuta Diwekar, nutritionist, talks about overeating and portion control.  One of the ideas  she shares to control portions is something that she picked up on her travels: “On a visit to Jordan for a talk, I learnt that there is actually a rule to how many dates and cups of Arabic coffee you can drink at a time. So, of course, you must drink that one cup that your host offers when you arrive, along with one date. But you should allow yourself the second only if you can have the third (date and coffee). Stopping at two or four or even numbers is not allowed. This, I felt, was such a beautiful way of knowing when to stop eating and such a practical way of stopping before getting full.”

Paying attention to overeating trains your mind to exercise control. Something that is important in life to stay away from distractions like doom scrolling on social media.

3. Food language impacts your decisions

In last week’s article we learnt about the importance of the right language. Have you paid attention to the food talk around you? Not just food conversations, words on the menu to describe food influences our perceptions of food. For instance, a research found that people are more likely to choose vegetables as a meal component when described using indulgent (e.g., zesty ginger-turmeric sweet potatoes) language compared to other types of language descriptors, such as healthy (e.g., wholesome sweet potato superfood) (Turnwald et al., 2017) 

Be mindful of the influence that food talk has on you. For example, following intermittent fasting on the basis of what most friends do is the lack of first principles understanding.    

4. Food binds culture. 

It is the warp and weft of our social fabric, whether at home, at work place or with friends. Even in days of physical distancing, food keeps people connected through images, memories and shared experiences. A good food culture can be a pillar of purpose for a group of people fulfilling our social needs. 

If the pandemic will leave us with something good, then it will be a heightened awareness of physical and mental well being of individuals. Consciousness to work out to stay fit is as important as the alertness of nourishing the body with food. It is time that we not only question our own understanding, we also contribute to overall well-being through sharing of knowledge, control on sharing of fad based concepts and build better relationships through food as a binder. 

Paying attention to food is nurturing a growth mindset. It begins with the responsibility of taking mindful decisions and learning as one progresses in the journey. 

The right word is a powerful thinking tool

Kaun bola mujhse naa ho payega? (Who said that I can’t do it?)

Kaun bola, kaun bola? (Who said it? Who said it?)

Apna time aayega! (It’s gonna be my time, soon.)

Uth ja apni raakh se (Rise like a phoenix from the ashes!)

Tu udd ja ab talaash mein (And now start looking for your destiny.)

Parwaaz dekh parwaane ki (As your wings spread)

Aasmaan bhi sar uthayega (The sky will bow to you)

Aayega, apna time aayega (It will; my time will come soon)

Apna time Aayega! 

Our time will come. Bollywood movie, Gully Boy is based on the rise of street rappers from Asia’s largest slum, Dharavi. Coming from a background of insignificance to the light of fame and glory, the story is ripe with grit, determination, passion and obviously struggle. The director  of the movie keeps the audience pumped up with the slogan Apna Time Aayega not through just a song but also through the background score. The experience is so impactful that I remember coming down on the escalator that was thumping with the rhythmic footsteps of almost every one coming out of the movie theatre. Apna Time Aayega, Apna Time Aayega echoed in the ambience. That is the power of words. Years after the release of the movie, the line continues to linger in our lives. Apparently, the original lyrics were sabka time aayega (everyone’s time will come) and the story goes that Javed Akhtar, the renowned lyricist and father of Gully Boy’s film director, Zoya Akhtar, suggested to replace the word Sabka to Apna. Apna means my own and sabka means everyones. Apna, my own, has a magnificent power to connect with the listeners as compared to sabka. 

One word, just a change of word, changes the mind and makes it more adaptable. In todays’ Habits for Thinking, my focus is on the language that we use and how it shapes up our thinking. There is an immense amount of work done on how language and thinking are intertwined. Roger Martin writes in his book ‘Diaminds: Decoding the Mental Habits of Successful Thinkers”: 

Thinking – especially thinking in words and sentences – is a form of internal communication. In thinking, you-in-the-present communicates with you-in-the-future. But though thinking is a private and covert activity, it is influenced by external interactions – in particular, by how you communicate with others. Communicative patterns become mental habits.

Roger Martin

He further guides: 

Our ‘mind design principle’ for new and more successful mental habits is thus a simple one: because thinking is self-talk, talk and thought are linked. To change patterns of thinking, change the patterns of talking.

How we speak makes a difference to how we think. And sometimes, just a replacement of a word makes a sea of difference in the thought process and therefore in the action that follows. 

A constructive word: 

On a podcast, The Knowledge Project, Angela Duckworth, a professor of Psychology at University of Pennsylvania and author of Grit:The Power of Passion and Perseverance, a New York Times bestseller, was asked what she had to say to ‘follow your passion’ as an advice to people.  She said, I would like to change it to ‘develop’ your passion as an advice and not follow your passion. She went on to explain that many young people, at 18-22 years of age, do not know what their interest is and to give advice as ‘follow your passion’ is not a helpful suggestion to give. She suggested replacing the word follow with develop. Develop your passion gives a constructive path. You work on your interest on one day, and second day and third day and over the years you see it developed into a meaningful purpose that can either be a mainstream of your work life or your defining trait. Irrespective, that developed passion becomes a strength. One word- develop instead of follow changes the mission of the statement. 

A transformational word: 

If you have been active on Whatsapp groups that share lifestyle articles, you might have received the New York Times piece on naming the current state of mind by Adam Grant. It reads: ‘There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing. The neglected middle child of mental health can dull your motivation and focus — and it may be the dominant emotion of 2021.’ The author suggests that giving a name to an emotion, like languishing that means a sense of stagnation and emptiness, helps in managing that emotion.  

A couple of weeks later to this article, Whatsapp circulated another New York Times piece almost as an antidote to this one: The Other Side of Languishing Is Flourishing with suggestions on how to come out of this blah state of mind. Some excerpts are here:

A growing body of research shows that there are simple steps you can take to recharge your emotional batteries and spark a sense of fulfillment, purpose and happiness. The psychology community calls this lofty combination of physical, mental and emotional fitness “flourishing.” It is the exact opposite of languishing, that sense of stagnation Adam Grant wrote about recently for The Times. 

Acknowledging small moments is also important for well-being, research shows. Psychologists call it “savoring.” Savoring is about appreciating an event or activity in the moment, sharing tiny victories and noticing the good things around you.”

This  post suggests replacing the word ‘languishing’ with ‘flourishing’ with a middle path of using ‘savouring’. Words shift mindsets, almost like from languishing to savouring where you move from being in the state of emptiness to being in the state of gratitude. 

Words have the power to influence the way we think and act. Actually, our thinking, like stated earlier, is an internal conversation in words with our own self. A word has the power to lower the intensity of a negative thought to an extent that it starts fading into oblivion. And similarly, a word has the power to manifest a dream into reality. One can start small with everyday lexicon, where you soften a negative impact like ‘devastated’ with ‘upset’ or amplify a positive one with ‘ecstatic’ instead of ‘pleased.’ It works. 

“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

George Orwell wrote in his novel, 1984

A thought can control words 

This week make a mental note of words that you use in your thoughts and your speech. You can change just one word and make it a constructive statement. You can change just one word and allow growth around you. Every thought has a dark side and bright side of it, diminish the negativity and amplify the brightness with your words. The thought will grow too. 

A couple of decades ago, as I joined my first job in a large media house I realised my language was changing. To fit into a new culture, the easiest thing to do is to pick up the language of your colleagues and workplace. At many urban workplaces, language is not clean, sparkly white and devoid of any abuse. It took me a deliberate effort to remove the newly entered F words and other not so pleasant lingo in my everyday language. A constant thought anchored my effort to change words. It is Mother’s Day tomorrow and I am so grateful to my mother for the gift of the right language. The thought that anchored my efforts to change my language was my mother’s saying to us:

“Apshabd na kaho. Labhon se nikla apshabd hamare vatavaran mein rahta hai aur kahin na kahin hamaare saath juda rah jaata hai.” 

Do not use bad words. Once spoken, it lingers in the air around us and affects us in its own way. 

Beware of fatigue and its impact on your decisions

“Ram, oh no, you can’t use Ram as a name in these sentences.” My reaction was loud and strong as I corrected my 7th grader’s Hindi idioms exercise. Her notebook read, in Hindi, ‘Jhooth pakde jaane par, Ram ne apni aankhen chura li’ (meaning, as Ram’s lies were caught, he was ashamed). Not just one idiom, she had made a template for all idioms that meant being ashamed of. The sentences she had made were in series and each example followed the same template- Jooth Pakde Jaane par, Ram ne… (when his lies were caught, Ram… ). 

The idea of making a template, to use it for various idioms is a shortcut that my Hindi averse girl had adopted. Less thinking, same work. The problem was not with the template. The problem was with the name.  She chose a name that is easy to spell. But well, Ram and lies… You know how our brain reacts. 

We have a way to find shortcuts when we want to escape from hardship. This is how our brain is designed. There are two minds. One is slow and deliberate. The other one is quick and intuitive. Daniel Kahneman has  defined the functioning of the brain as System 1 and System 2 thinking. System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration. When a person is tired, distracted or stressed, they are more likely to revert to less rational ways of solving problems and less on deliberate thinking. Simply said, mental tiredness leads to poor decisions. 

Continuous hardship and mental tiredness leads to fatigue. And, this is our reality today. Fatigue is in and around us. It is not just due to illness but also due to boredom, a series of bad news, stress and anxiety. It is real and it is everywhere. It is in my city, in my house, on my workstation. It is in my neighbour’s house, my colleague’s home, my clients workplaces. It is everywhere. 

In an article, how affluent Indians became covid superspreaders in Mint lounge, blame to some extent is on fatigue and therefore poor decision making.  Response fatigue is real, says Anoop Amarnath, head of geriatric medicine at Manipal Hospitals, Bengaluru, and a member of the Karnataka government’s critical care support unit for covid-19. “It was a huge lifestyle change for people to stay locked in their homes, wearing masks, keeping physical distance and not meeting friends and family. People were waiting to meet and talk to each other. Man is a social animal and if you don’t let him socialise, fatigue is bound to set in,” he says. He adds that such fatigue played a significant part in the covid-19 peaks in September last year.

And, this mental fatigue, individual or as a community, leads to bad decisions and therefore to further tiredness. Managing a routine, a physical routine, as mentioned in the previous article, helps in finding a balance. In today’s Habits for Thinking, in addition to the routine, here is a template, almost like the Hindi Idiom template that helps in managing the fatigue. One can follow these at home, or as a team leader at workplaces. It can be practiced, taught, nurtured to save from bad decisions and breakdowns. 

1. The realist optimism- understanding the Stockdale Paradox

“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” — Admiral Jim Stockdale.

The Stockdale paradox has been written about in Jim Collins’s bestselling book From Good to Great. Admiral Jim Stockdale was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for eight years. Tortured over multiple times, living in uncertainty of whether he would survive to see his family again, Stockdale did everything he could to create conditions that would increase the numbers of prisoners who could survive unbroken. Collins read Stockdale’s memoir and found its grim details hard to bear, despite his knowledge that Stockdale’s later life was happy. Collins wondered, “If it feels depressing for me, how on earth did he survive when he was actually there and did not know the end of the story?” 

When he posed that question to the admiral, Stockdale answered: “I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

Collins asked him about the personal characteristics of prisoners who did not make it out of the camps. “The optimists,” he replied. “Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart … This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

This became known as the Stockdale Paradox. To be a realistic optimist. To accept the reality and yet keep the faith to prevail in the end. Leaders demonstrate that with  acceptance of reality yet keeping up the hope.  

As a realist optimist leader, one would accept the changes in the reality but still keep the faith. One would not follow that all of this will be over by May 10th or May 30th, one will just believe in managing and seeing it through week by week. 

The Stockdale Paradox

2. The ability to listen 

My daughter’s school arranged for a meeting with parents to explain about the process of online exams. Since it is the first year for middle school to be taking online exams, parents, in videos, on switched-off mode, were waiting for a list of dos and don’ts. But wait, the meeting started with the school authority asking parents to share how they were feeling. A family has been suffering with covid and the parent suggested canceling the exam, a family has been worried about their child’s well being, a family has sent the child to stay with some other people for safety reasons. Different stories tumbled out of square tiles of the zoom screen. While it started with suggestions on canceling the exams, it turned out to be almost everyone in favour of the exam as it is a constructive way to keep children engaged at home. It was not that the school authority had concluded the decisions, in-fact, the school authorities were just listeners. The moderator only thanked each parent for sharing stories but as the zoom video tiles lit up one by one, the narrative of the group changed. The ability to listen to the pains and agonies of others is managing the fatigue too. Fatigue is impacting both parents and school authorities, but the leaders demonstrate the ability to listen and make others feel heard. It changes the energy level of the room. 

3. Nurturing a learning mindset 

A growth mindset, or a learner mindset is more resilient to failures and has the ability to come out of it step by step.  It believes that intelligence can be developed. It creates a desire to learn and therefore develops a tendency to embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks and pick up learnings from their failures. It is important to build the culture of learning mindsets in homes and workplaces to face the challenges. In crisis, it starts with every morning to be treated as a fresh day to deal with. 

Like the 7th grader uses a template for sentence making, it is ok to make a template for fatigue handling. Your template could be on the lines of, ‘‘I manage fatigue by being a realistic optimist, by listening to feelings and emotions and by nurturing a learning mindset.” Fatigue is manageable. And yes, you can use whatever name you wish to, even Ram. 

Don’t want to miss an article? Join the weekly mailing list! Click here

My annual letter: The basic need of our minds

21st April had a special place this year for me. It was Habits for Thinking’s first birthday. It was my father’s birthday by Hindu calendar. It was a friend’s birthday as well. However, it was a mentally tough day, like most days these days. Father, a doctor in his late seventies, contacted Covid19 after nearly six weeks of his second vaccine shot. Both him and mother had been suffering from Covid since fifteen days and were not showing signs of improvement. And, then unexpectedly, on 21st, he replied to a birthday message on the family chat. Thankfully after fifteen days of illness, marginal signs of improvement glimmered as a message on the group chat. He wrote ‘Khush Raho’ (stay happy) as a blessing to all. 

It is hard to stay sane during this pandemic. There is a  helpless feeling everywhere. Forget being happy, as the message urged, it is impossible to stay unaffected with the gloom all around. Anxiety, stress, anger, fear these are predominantly ruling our minds. In this pandemic wave, there is no one who doesn’t have a loved one or friend who has been affected. 

This is the birthday week of Habits for Thinking. While several ideas were explored for a big bash weekly article, today, as the country is on its knees, here I am, sharing the only thing that matters today. “Follow your routine”. The ability to stay sane and calm lies in our own hand. Cry, you must, if you need to, but learn to get back to normal. And to remain normal, follow your daily routine. The routine of staying safe – mask, being indoors, minimising exposure. It is a big help to the health infrastructure. The routine of doing work, no matter how little it seems. The routine of physical care like exercise, nutrition, sleep. The routine of mental care by being empathetic, generous, helpful. Self care, both mental and physical is a big responsibility.

I have a little story to share to showcase the importance of following a routine. Not too long ago, in 2018, as I shut down my startup, I found myself at a loss. I had never been at home in nearly eighteen plus years of work life. To close a firm and leave the people and commitments was numbing me. In search of ideas and desperate to have a work life, I stumbled upon a line, “I read like it is my job.” This became my motto too. I pasted it at my home workstation. “Reading is my work.” Every morning I would get ready by 8.15am, my usual time for leaving for work, I would wear shoes and sit down at the workstation to work, yeah you right, actually just to read. Read a book, an article, a research paper. I don’t remember from those moments of reading and note taking, how and when I slipped into an idea of launching Right Box, a unique service for unused gifts items. One thing led to the other and these small routinely efforts compounded into ideas and work that got executed. The more important part was the ability to form a routine and maintain it. To work, to read, to follow a fitness regime as I always did and all of this helped. Following a routine meant I could add new things on my plate like learning something new or a new project. The more I lived in routine, the more it opened new avenues for me. Routine, when built on the basis of right habits, has a way to compound itself into bigger things. While being performed as small steps on a daily basis, it creates a bigger impact at the right time. Look at the habit of maintaining a fitness routine, or sleep routine or reading routine. A mundane routine is powerful.  

As it gets harder everyday these days,  one has to remember to do the hardest thing in the day. And the hardest thing is to maintain a routine. For me, I have seen maintaining a routine starts with showing up. Show up on the yoga mat. Show up on the workstation. Show up on the bed at your sleep time. Show up on your book to read. Show up on your ideabook to write. Show up and the practice forms a habit and thus follows a routine. With every little gain, you grow. It adds up to what my father blessed, ‘stay happy.’ 

Positive thoughts, optimistic words, state of happiness do not come through words. These come through actions. Small, consistent actions. These routine actions manifest to keep one optimistic and on the path to growth. 

Last year, during this pandemic, course SHIFT and was launched. I must say, the journey has been truly satisfying. And here I am, as a routine worker, sharing my weekly post with you. In this annual letter for your learning journey, I bring your attention to the basic need of our minds, the routine work. Learning is a routine work too.  

Here are some nuggets from previous articles on Habits for Thinking.   

A growth mindset

To acknowledge and accept imperfection is a giant step towards getting better and learning. Not hiding from a weakness gives a vantage point of change and growth. 

On choice architect:

Being a choice architect takes efforts and failures. But, it is better to be a failure in your own choice architecture than to be a loser who has been influenced by others’ choices. 

Courage is not the absence of fear.

Often, during business decisions, leaders crumble not because they do not have the courage to take the decision but because they get crippled by the prospect of failure. Bold decisions have chances of getting overshadowed by fear. If the decision maker is conscious of fear, he can address it logically and not let fear overshadow bold decisions. Courage is not the absence of fear. 

Inversion Thinking

“Invert, always invert: Turn a situation or problem upside down. Look at it backward. What happens if all our plans go wrong? Where don’t we want to go, and how do you get there? Instead of looking for success, make a list of how to fail instead. Tell me where I’m going to die, that is, so I don’t go there.”

– Charlie Munger

On Moral Intelligence: 

When a community comes together morally, it forgives and extends help. The compass for Moral Intelligence towards a community could be the one like this popular social kindness quote, “We are all just walking each other home.”

Business leaders need to become mothers as they practice moral intelligence. They must remember, a mother teaches her child by not just preaching but by practicing.

She doesn’t say only “be kind”. She says, “let us be kinder today.”

3 simple traits of responsible self-leadership

I had said thank you and she had welled up. This is my first memory of making a friend. Adulting means you remember odd things like your first interaction with some people who later become friends. I have a memory of such a meeting years ago. I was meeting a teacher during parent teacher interaction in the school for my then sixth-grader kid. The teacher, new to the school, had marked zero for an assignment. As I sat down with my child in tow, I thanked her for marking a zero for late submission of his assignment. A good way to teach children the value of time, I had thought. And, this was only sixth grade and a small class assignment. The teacher’s reaction had surprised me and probably the reason why the moment is etched in my memory. She revealed, most parents had complained about the zero and had suggested that she should have cut some marks for the late submission instead of cutting all marks. Not only a sense of entitlement was being pushed at her but also her way to nurture children was being questioned. She was only teaching responsibility to the children. 

“The only approach I know that gives parents any hope of truly providing their children with around the clock protection is that of instilling within them the internal desire to make right choices, even when no one else is watching. And the only way to do that is to teach children correct principles- and the earlier the better.”

Stephen R. Covey in the book, The Leader In Me. 

One of the biggest responsibilities of parenting is to make the child a responsible human being. The book, Leader in Me by Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,  taught me that parenting needs to inculcate responsible decision making skills. Let kids learn to make choices and therefore decisions and therefore take responsibility for that decision. What is good to eat, whether you should play truth or dare, which sport interests you want to pursue further, should you submit the work on time or it is ok to delay? Making your own decisions teaches you to be responsible. 

Responsibility is a skill that is taught since childhood, yet adulting tends to skip the steps of responsibility from time to time. In this week’s Habits for Thinking, I am bringing your attention to a basic trait where a single irresponsible behaviour can lead to a fatal end. 

Stephen R. Covey writes:

“Not all parents want their children to grow up to be CEOs or a nation’s president, but I cannot think of a parent who does not want his or her child to be able to lead his or her own life, to be a strong example for others, to live by principles, to be an influence for good. And that is called self leadership- doing the right thing when no one is looking. Every child has that kind of leadership within. The challenge is how to bring it out, how to nurture it.”  

This week’s piece is triggered by the missteps of responsibility trait, not just by individuals but also by companies, big and small. The tsunami-like second wave of pandemic is an ongoing proof of irresponsible behaviour by human kind. Responsibility is the reverse of a zero-sum game. If one grows responsible, it lifts others’ levels too. As one gets responsible in one area, it multiples in other areas too. There is no full stop here. 

Responsibility fuels moral intelligence. Moral intelligence was first developed as a concept in 2005 by Doug Lennick and Fred Kiel, Ph.D. They defined that the construct of moral intelligence consists of four competencies related to integrity, three to responsibility, two to forgiveness and one to compassion Responsibility’s three competencies are 1) taking personal responsibility, 2) admitting mistakes and failures, and 3) embracing responsibility for serving others. (see article Moral Intelligence – the remarkable trait for leaders). 

In Habits for Thinking, here is the illustration of three competencies. The point to remember is that responsibility is a lifelong process and there is always a scope of improvement.  

1. Taking personal responsibility  

Self leadership, as defined by Stephen Covey, not just stands true for children but also for each one of us. Responsibility is actually a self-care act. Adulting is hard, because one doesn’t remember the right things. Like the responsibility of self care – mental and physical. The care means to ensure both physical fitness and mental growth. It is not just about wearing a mask but it is also about staying away from triggers that cause anxiety and negativity like doom scrolling on social media apps. That is a hard responsible behaviour to follow.  See a tweet below, nudging towards a responsible behaviour.

2. Admitting mistakes and failures:

A responsible person takes the ownership of his actions. It is about being accountable for mistakes and failures and accepting responsibility for consequences of our actions. This is a trait that develops the growth mindset of the practitioner as he works to improve on his mistake. 

3. Embracing responsibility for serving others:

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is a means through which a company incorporates environmental, social and human development concerns into its planning and actions to ensure that its operations are ethical and beneficial for society. CSR in India has traditionally been seen as a philanthropic activity. However, with the introduction of Section 135 in the Companies Act 2013, India became the first country to have statutorily mandated CSR for specified companies. The Act requires companies with a net worth of ₹500 crore or more, or turnover of ₹1,000 crore or more, or a net profit of ₹5 crore or more during the immediately preceding financial year, to spend 2 percent of the average net profits of the immediately preceding three years on CSR activities.

Imagine, without the purview of the law, if there were corporate leaders who took responsibility for the well being of people during these times. Ten unicorns have been announced this year raising millions of rupees for their businesses, six of them just in a few days in April. The Economic Times writes- Half a dozen Indian startups raised $1.55 billion (Rs 11,580 crore) to enter the unicorn club between April 5 and April 9.  Large, deep pockets of unicorns means large power to influence and great capacity to help. There are ways to help people, customers. Pharmeasy, one of the recently anointed unicorns, uses its social media presence to remind people about mask and responsible behaviour. Maybe they could do more. Cred, Meesho, Groww and other freshly funded unicorns can use some influence too- for example see the images. 

As the onus of being a responsible person doesn’t lie on the lawmaker, similarly the onus of corporate responsibility should not be on the 2% profit spend CSR law, but it should be on the leadership. Unicorns can be responsible self-leaders too. 

My teacher friend who cut all the marks to teach responsible behaviour to kids would have given a full score just on the attribute of shared responsibility to these companies. After all most unicorns are young in age. Well, it would have mattered somewhere! 

A Map Is Not A Territory

“I have seas but no sharks, rivers but no water; forests but no birds; cities but no people. Who am I?”

My daughter nagged me with a riddle while I was busy taking pictures of the sky outside the plane window. The simple joy of flying after a long time enhanced with a beautiful setting of the sun outside the window had my attention. She nagged again and then she blurted the answer, “a map.” A map, the word, took my husband seated next to her, to the GPS in his car and how the car starts beeping at every point where he crosses the defined speed limit. His frustration came out animatedly especially when he talked about the speed limit of 30km/hr. 

Cars are getting designed with behavioural controls like alarm beeps if you cross a certain speed limit. These frameworks exist to guide and maneuver human behaviour. Google Maps and other inbuilt GPS systems work as useful guides through their easy, nearly accurate navigation systems unless they start beeping. At that moment, to get away with the annoyance, you remind yourself, a map is not the territory!

“A map is not the territory” is a statement coined by Alfred Korzybski. The mathematician presented this in a paper in 1931 in New Orleans. He used it to convey the fact that people often confuse models of reality with reality itself. In Korzybski’s words,

“A map may have a structure similar or dissimilar to the structure of the territory.” 

He meant that people in general do not have access to absolute knowledge of reality, but merely possess a subset of that knowledge that is then adapted through the lenses of their own experience. In today’s Habits for Thinking column, I want to bring your attention to a way of thinking which hinges around this concept that, ‘a map is not the territory.’

The map here means the tool to understand reality like theories and models. Like a physical map helps us to understand a space, similarly a mental map, is an abstract way of understanding things that our mind adapts to. To understand the complexity of a subject, the human mind creates a map or a model internally. It is just an understanding in a short form. What we have in our mind  may be flawed because it is just a version of the actual explanation. Secondly, it may be incomplete, as one can miss out on a point. Also, it may not be interpreted in totality as the reality. These understandings, that a model can be flawed or incomplete or under-interpreted reflects the understanding of the statement that the territory, the reality, can be different from the model. 

Let me explain to you how it impacts our lives: 

Several models of explanations that are in our head and in our workflows and decision making are just models. These are not realities. When we repeatedly get into the habit of using that model, without questioning or analysing them, we may not be able to identify the problem in our decision making and therefore may end up in a failed outcome. This stands true for both personal life and work life. 

An illustration in a personal life: 

In architecture and urban planning, there is a term called desire lines. What are desire lines? 

“Desire lines” are paths & tracks made over time by the wishes & feet of walkers, especially those paths that run contrary to design or planning. Free-will ways. Aka “cow-paths” & “Olifantenpad” (elephant trails) says Robert Macfarlane

These are essentially short cuts or paths made away from the actual path, or in absence of a path by walking through a hedge, or a sharp corner of green patch as the shortcut etc. Despite well laid walking paths, these human footprints made paths sprout in areas where they are not designed to be, all created by a certain human behaviour. People create desire paths for three primary reasons: time efficiency, experience, and resistance, in the sense that why would I do ‘X’, if I could do ‘Y’, as quoted in an article. Some places are left marked with desire-paths, but some well maintained urban places like manicured green lawns prevent pedestrian behavior crossing  by creating a series of design elements like rope fences or some extra pots and plants as vertical hindrances. 

Our mental models are also like that. We know we have to behave in a certain way but we find routes as shortcuts, like desire-lines. Because why not? And, sometimes that shortcut becomes a habit which gets difficult to change later. Take an example of a mother reprimanding his child for a misdeed and cancelling his screen time as a lesson and the other parent, the father, quietly letting the child watch the screen, because he is just a child. The map here is a discipline model and the child with his misdeed creates his desire-line. The mother aims to mend that desire-line created by the child by cancelling his screen time, but the other parent allows it. This leads to an altered model of discipline and ethics in the child’s mind. Small example, but it compounds over the years.

At workplaces:

At work places, in management, in education, models or frameworks are extensively used. These are great reference tools. However, these are not end goals but just tools to aid decision making. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of Black Swan, Fooled by Randomness and other books does not believe in the entirety of a model.  

‘A model might show you some risks, but not the risks of using it. Moreover, models are built on a finite set of parameters, while reality affords us infinite sources of risks.’ 

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

He talks about a specific model used in investing called as VAR and how the model is limiting in its capacity. “It summarizes the expected maximum loss (or worst loss) over a target horizon within a given confidence interval. It is the uniqueness, precision and misplaced concreteness of the measure that bother me. I would rather hear risk managers make statements like -’at such price in such security A and at such price in security B, we will be down $150,000.’ They should present a list of such associated crisis scenarios without unduly attaching probabilities to the array of events.” He continues, “If financial engineering means the creation of financial instruments that improve risk allocation, then I am in favor of it. If it means using engineering methods to quantify the immeasurable with great precision, then I am against it.” 

Immeasurable is the keyword here. Many models that work on risk analysis do not have the capacity to measure the risk in entirety. However people still use and accept such models. Sometimes these inadequacies in the models cause failure. 

#Ideastoaction: A map is not a territory is a concept that needs to be used in the decision making process. 

  • Models, as explained, are maps that are not territories.
  • Through varied and unique experiences, these models develop desire-lines, which may lead to a good decision or a bad decision. 
  • When making decisions based on models, one must step back and understand if there could be flaws or incomplete interpretation. This will help in better decision making. 

Google Maps has introduced a few new features this March where it allows you to draw a missing lane or to share actual photos as updates of a place. Maps evolve to be flawless, so should decision making models. 

Leaving you with Nicholas Taleb’s statement:

Never cross a river because it is on average 4 feet deep.” 

Nassim Nicholas Taleb