Stairway to Success: Pratiksha Tondwalkar

The Journey From Sweeper To AGM

“Give this child to me and I will take care of her studies and expenses,” the woman had asked the child’s father. The child was in grade 7, the father was pulling her out of school to get the child married and the woman was a school teacher. The teacher begged, but the father pleaded and narrated the plight of the lower caste, the scheduled caste tribe that they belonged to, and the only fate any girl had was marriage and not education. The teacher was a Brahmin, an upper caste in the Hindu society. The father got her married at an early age and the child left her school to bear a child of her own. 

Many years later, I was pleading with the then child, now a lady in her late fifties, to give me a few minutes. The seventh-grade pass child is now an AGM with the State Bank of India. Meet Mrs. Pratiksha Tondwalkar, the lady who has walked the stairway to success, one step at a time, with her clear thinking, well-designed processes, and steely determination.

There are a few moments that I am grateful to Twitter for, finding a tweet on Pratiksha Tondwalkar was one such moment. The tweet read, “from sweeper to AGM” and carried a picture of a lady in a rose pink vest, bespectacled in a light-colored frame, hair pressed straight and left open behind her shoulders, a touch of make-up on her face, a wrist watch in one hand, every little thing that oozed her subtle style and made up the elegant look. The only thing that was not subtle was her broad, big-hearted, confident smile that came with holding a trophy in her hands. Just happiness, no pride. 

The picture spoke of elegance, style, confidence, and warmth – some aspects that are very tough to equate with an erstwhile sweeper. A friend helped me get access to her number and after some cajoling and convincing she agreed to answer a couple of questions that were personal and not related to her employer, as she followed the company’s policy on press-related matters. To make her decision easier, I shared these questions through a WhatsApp message. She agreed and I offered to take down her answers over a phone call instead of her replying to my questions in her inbox. What I had expected as a ten-minute call, went on for nearly an hour and it felt like living in a movie, the only difference was that this was for real and not fiction. 

The beginning:

I had asked her about her journey and she had replied, “Mujhe padhne ka bahut Shauk tha.” (I wanted to study further). Studies are often the light in one’s life but study became her anchor too. Widowed at the age of 20, mother of a young child, and educated till 7th grade, she returned to her parent’s place after the death of her husband in a drowning accident. Her husband not just left a child behind but also a critical link that led her to SBI. He had done a small job of binding books for the bank branch and the bank owed money to him. Since the bank didn’t have the policy to pay in cash, an official asked her to visit the branch to collect a banker’s Cheque for a small amount of about Rs250. She couldn’t recollect the exact amount and I didn’t bother her. She had gone to the bank to collect the cheque with her child in one arm. Employees at the bank had pooled in some money and some clothes for her child. There was a long pause on the phone call, so long as if it waited for the image of the tattered, broken, shaken woman whose respect was hurt by receiving kindness, to fade away from the scene. She gathered herself and uttered ‘it is so tough to speak of those days.’ I offered her to move away from the conversation. But she stayed there and at that moment her pain was palpable. The hurt of misery and being dependent during those days was hurting her as an open wound even now. Some cuts are deep. 

The clear thinking of Pratiksha Tondwalkar:

She said I asked the bank people to offer me a job instead of the collectibles. She was hired as a part-time sweeper for the bank. The first step towards coming out of the deep well of misery was the courage to ask for a job. She said I knew if I didn’t study further, I would live a life washing dishes and cleaning houses. She didn’t want that. With a child to look after and a part-time job, she knew her odds were stacked against her studies and would have no time to pick it up from grade 8 onwards where she had left it in the school. Her second, yet giant step, was to register for the 10th exam through an open education system wherein you independently, free of any school, fill up a form with the state education board to get access to take the exam. One day, away from work, she stood in a long queue at Sion, a place in Mumbai to collect the form. That day she had leaped on the second step of the stairway. She said she had gone to the bank employees again, this time asking for help righteously. Help for books, notes, texts, and any study material that anyone had access to through their children in the family, relatives, or even friends’ family. She collected her ammunition like that- all study material. I asked her how did she study? How did she understand the text and subjects? She said she had no other way but to read and write each chapter five times, ok at least five times. In the case of maths – she was focused to practice the same chapter at least ten times. They say 10,000 hours rule for practicing to become an expert. Here Mrs. Tondwalkar at the age of 21 or so, mother of a child, barely managing to make her ends meet through the job of a sweeper, was sitting on dark streets, using thrown away alcohol bottles to light an oil lamp, and was writing the same chapter anywhere between five to ten times to self learn. It is not the grit, not the hard work, it is the process that takes you closer to your goal, many small steps towards one’s success. Even though I was stunned to hear her process, I was perplexed. The lady who is so determined, and was speaking to me in Hindi, how did she manage to read and understand on her own? How did she manage English as a subject? What came as an answer left me speechless. 

“English, though easy in tenth grade as compared to higher standards like 12th, was still beyond my reach,” she replied. “I was determined. I had to learn it anyhow. So every day I would write ten spellings on my left arm on my way to work. In the evening I would come back and write it down and check if I had got them right. Every day a new set of ten words were on my arm. I just mugged it all up.” 

I tried to swallow the idea. Amitabh Bachchan made arm tattoos famous through his movie, Deewar. His drive was the tattoo which was an allegation about his father. A creative tool used by the movie director to deliver a message. Here is the lady, who may not have seen the movie – but had a mission too – a set of English words. “How far can you go? I can make my arm my chalkboard.” 

She said she had passed the tenth-grade exams with first class, higher than 60% of marks, far more than what is needed to just pass. There was no stopping after that, she was flying on the stairway to success. From sweeper, she got promoted to messenger, studied for the 12th grade through a night college program, and earned a clerk’s seat at the bank. All this was still a part-time job, one-third as she called it. Her parents had wanted her to get married again but this time she was not giving control to them. She was determined to study further, the second marriage could wait till her graduation. Graduation led to trainee officer and then further growth. She never declined any opportunity, any project at work. Today, Pratiksha Tondwalkar is an AGM in one of the Mumbai branches of the bank.

The Mantra:

A mother of three children now, two from her second marriage, she understood growth doesn’t come only from professional degrees but also from leadership skills and work ethics. She makes sure she keeps her team energized and motivated. How do you do that? She says, her power mantra is the morning huddle – laugh out loud, clap for a couple of minutes and let someone share one experience from the previous day. I was curious about her elegant look. The credit for her power dressing goes to her daughter, a trained interior designer, who plans her outfits and accessories for a week in advance. Again, a reflection of focusing on the process. Planning every detail, even the physical appearance, is necessary to build the profile. She didn’t stop her love for studying after graduation, she has completed a course in naturopathy. She is currently learning to sing. I had one question for her:

Awards, trophies, and certificates are a way of seeding confidence and trust in the personality. The picture that floated on social media was the picture of her receiving a trophy from the CGM club for fulfilling all the 77 parameters to earn the trophy. There was a tinge of pride in her voice when she narrated that. But the biggest trophy in her life has been the trust of the teacher who wanted to adopt her as a child so that she could pursue studying. Today, her life is an inspirational study. 

Mrs. Pratiksha Tondwalkar, the lady who has walked the stairway to success, one step at a time, with her clear thinking, well-designed processes, and steely determination.

Pratiksha Tondwalkar

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#DeepWork40 Challenge 

What is Deep Work?

Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It is a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a superpower in our increasingly competitive, fast-changing economy.

Mails, messages, social media notifications, calls, meetings, agendas are all distractions to a continuous flow of attention. Cal Newport leaves a critical message in his book, Deep Work, “Overcoming your desire for distraction is what we need.”

Attention is not merely staying focused on the task at hand but is also how to process other information in the brain. Daniel Goleman, author, “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence,” explores the power of attention. “Attention works much like a muscle,” he writes, “use it poorly and it can wither; work it well and it grows. Just like the muscles in our bodies, attention can become fatigued. Common symptoms of attention fatigue are lowered effectiveness, increased distractedness, and irritability. These symptoms also indicate depletion in the energy required to sustain neural functioning.” Read the article- Pay attention to your attention.

So practicing Deep Work has an impact not only on the work done during the practice, but it helps in efficient productivity, creative thinking, clear decision making leading to growth and success.

What is #DeepWork40 Challenge?

The challenge is to practice Deep Work 40 minutes for 21days to work with your intellectual sharpness and an uninterrupted concentration. 

While 40 minutes every day is a short duration, the difficulty level of this challenge is to maintain it.  As a part of the challenge cohort, you will be guided to create your deep work schedule through productivity tips. 

Practicing together as a cohort with a guide helps in adopting it as a habit. The only failure of this challenge is not trying.

Are you ready for the challenge? 


Who is this for?

If you find that 24 hours in a day is not enough to complete your work, then this challenge is for you. It cannot help you with the 25th hour but it will help you stay focused to complete your work. 

If you want to get better at your work, better time efficiency, more creative thinking, better decision making and more importantly to grow and succeed, then this challenge is for you. 

Do I have to join a class at a particular time everyday? 

No, Deep Work Challenge is your own challenge. You will be guided to create a schedule of your own.

Some dates and details: 

The Deep Work Challenge will begin on 14th March

Saturday, March 12th: Introductory briefing session

Sunday, March 13th: Registration closes 

Monday, March 14th: Start of the challenge

Sunday, April 3rd: Last day of the challenge

Monday, April 4th*: Closing Session 

Fee: NO Fee

Throughout the challenge, you will receive a handful of messages(through WhatsApp, email, and live sessions). You can also interact with me through emails and messages.

What do you need to prepare for this challenge?

Your commitment to improving your work concentration. 

You will be given planning tips and material and reflection prompt. Planning and reflecting will help you achieve your goals.

What is the benefit of joining the challenge?

Creating a deep work habit or strengthening your existing one makes you not just better at productivity but also sharper in your intellectual strength. It fosters creative thinking and problem-solving.  It enables you to quickly master hard things and helps you produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.

Recording of the Introductory Session:

Mr. Nilekani’s Bitfulness and Forward Thinking

Mumbai, Jan 2022

Dear Mr. Nilekani,

We are friends, you may not know my name or my work or my ideas but the truth is that we are already friends, in fact not just friends but great friends. Am I sounding like a troll, the notoriously popular word that negatively impacts human relationships with technology? You may not have been trolled, but a lot of people with or without blue ticks get trolled on Twitter. I wonder if they knew how the word originated in Scandinavian stories as a creature that looks like an ugly person. Now, mostly people relate troll with the one who creates a deliberately offensive or provocative online post.

No, Mr. Nilekani I am not a troll, at least I am not trying to be a troll unless the context of my letter collapses as it does on social media which is another hazard for the relationship with the technology. Unlike troll that chars the internet human relationship, a friend reaches out with a letter. 

Reading your interview on “The Art of Bitfulness”, your latest book with co-author Tarun Bhojwani, brought in a broad smile, a friendly warmth. That makes us friends. The idea of being mindful about technology, its benefits on one’s own productivity, and growth is the idea I have been nurturing through a focus on the right habits suited for forward-thinking. What you call Bitfulness, is what I call SHIFT, an acronym for Simple Habits and Ideas for Forward Thinking, written as a course. What you call ‘not encourage to make a to-do list instead keep 15 minutes to delegate a task and complete the loop,’ I call it to block your time as deep work where you do not get distracted.  Sir, your coauthor, Tarun Bhojwani says, “write notes.” Not just he says write notes, he takes a comment from Richard Feynman who preferred writing notes. SHIFT does the same thing too, it is the third habit out of fifteen habits. 

Now you would understand why it brings a smile to my face. 

I realized I am a friend when you say in your interview on how the book is structured to ask subquestions like : “How can I, as an individual, take back control and how can we as a  society have a greater control say over our data? For the individual bit, the book has a bunch of strategies, but the most powerful is to think through your digital identity. “

While you go on and talk about privacy and other things related to data  and the internet, I stopped at the word ‘Think Through.’ I told you Mr. Nilekani, we are friends. Think Through is what I do for a living now. To make people understand that they can think through most of the challenges and have a growth mindset that has the ability of problem-solving, creative thinking, engaging, and most important reflective mind that is progressive for them and for people around them.  

Not wanting to think is also why habits are so successful. Familiar pathways of action are the ones of least resistance for our brains.‘- The Art of Bitfulness

I borrowed this line from the first few pages of your book. In addition to saying ‘not wanting to think’ that almost sounds like being lazy about thinking, there is another ingrained behavior- we have not been trained on how to sharpen thinking skills. Thinking as an activity has been taken for granted like running as a skill has been. To learn to run has not involved any training. No one trains to run better unless running is a competitive sport you choose. Similarly, there is no attention given to thinking as a skill training. We are trained to read, to study, to become proficient in a topic of our interest be it medicine, economics or what we like, but what we are not trained in is to think clearly and for ourselves. Thinking, as we understand and explained in detail by many academicians and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, is both a conscious and subconscious process.

Habits and thinking are like a circle of growth that feeds on each other. We are not trained to think, but the lack of that conscious thinking leads to bad habits. If we think and therefore consciously change habits, thinking gets clear. The circle grows bigger if better habits feed into better thinking and the circle shrinks if poor thinking keeps feeding poor habits. 

Bitfulness & Forward Thinking

IN SHIFT course framework, behaviour changes are through habits where you are at the center and the course brings your attention to your work processes and helps you interact better with your social surroundings. SHIFT shapes your interaction with your social surroundings by making your more engaged and empathetic and instilling habits that will help you grasp learnings from your ​​social ambience, even technology-led social ambience. Decision making, whether making simple choices or making irreversible, high impactful, life-altering decisions can be made better through thinking skills. These thinking skills are actually mental models adopted and practiced by highly successful people in science, business and sports. I have just curated them together and simplified them as easy-to-adopt habits for us to practice. 

Mr. Nilekani, I haven’t published a book yet, but I explain mental models through a compendium of articles, each with a story to relate to. Like this one which talks about a contextual collapse that leaders can face, or this which talks about the hedgehog concept

Some of us have grown up in an age where the internet and technology came down slowly like some water trickling down the stream and then suddenly there was a gush of water and everyone, no matter what age or size is standing in the river. Then there are some, actually many who are born in the river of technology. The ones who follow bitfulness in their own style, keep themselves dry by standing taller, but the ones who are unconscious, need to be helped to learn to stay dry in the gushing river of technology and the internet. 

Sir, I called you my friend, because you and I are attempting to do the same thing, bring in Bitfulness and forward-thinking habits to more people, by nudging them in the right direction.

I live on hope and action. Reading your interviews on The Art of Bitfulness gives me hope, if visionaries like you take thinking as a skill, it may become a mainstream program one day, like Aadhar is.  And that is a great dream to dream this republic day – a dream that individual lives will get better through making wise decisions, conscious problem solving and designing innovations. That will be an India shining the brightest amongst all. 

Happy Republic Day

Yours truly,

Vishakha Singh

Nandan Nilekani Pradeep Guha Vishakha Singh

P.S. A fan moment with Mr. Nandan Nilekani at IAA World Congress at Kochi, 2019, through my friend, mentor and maverick Mr. Pradeep Guha. I know if you would have been around PG, you would have sent this letter to Mr. Nilekani. Hope you are reading this and watching over us. 

15 Self Nudges for Growth 

One round and a little more. That was the instruction our coach gave. A few years ago a friend of mine and I started to train for a marathon. Two people who couldn’t run 200 meters at a stretch decided to do a half marathon, that is 21 kilometers. The plan was simple, start the marathon, walk and run some distance and then slip out of the route at a point closer to our home covering about 7-8 kilometers from the start. So it was not about the daunting 21kms but it was meant to experience the fun in the air by being a part of the jamboree. Those years, running a marathon was not so popular. Since we didn’t know how to run even 200 meters, we decided to train for the marathon. Half the world laughed at us hearing we were going to learn how to run. I was incredibly lucky to have come under this coach, popular and revered in the Mumbai runner’s community, Savio. Those days the community was small and still growing which meant we received dedicated attention from him. 

After a few weeks of training, during one of the exercises, he gave a small, simple, and subtle tip. Your round and a little more. It meant if you’re doing one round of the track, finish a little more ahead, If you are doing two rounds of the track, run a little extra. So no matter whatever is your run, doing a little extra will trick the mind. There was no definition of that little extra. It could be 10meters or 50meters. One round and a little more became the mantra, slowly and painfully. A little more, no matter how little, compounded. We finished 21 kilometers. 

A lot of things compound in life. And sometimes, different, small things come together in a manner that feels so giant, but they would have just compounded together.  Steve Jobs popularised ‘connecting the dots’ in his commencement address to Stanford graduates in 2005 where he meant that experiences come together to give us ideas in a manner that is very new, leading to innovation and growth.

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” 

Steve Jobs, Stanford commnencement address, 2005

The new identity embodies forward and upward-facing arrow made of a set of 15 circles, representing the course framework of 15 habits and ideas. For me, the circles are also communities of fellow learners, our own community. And you are not just corporate professionals but some of you are also startup leaders, private practice professionals like dentists, chartered accountants, freelancers, students, and even homemakers. Neither the age nor the designation, it is our quest to get better and grow that makes our community of fellow learners. So this identity, the forward and upward moving design is us- you and me together on the path of growth and a better life. 

Connecting the dots is essentially our experiences and principles that drive our habits coming together. This week, as I share the new identity and as it is my birthday week, I am sharing with you 15 nuggets as self nudges that have evolved and stayed with me over the years. These are not the mental models and habits that the SHIFT course has, these are my daily practice. These are the ones that have made me write the framework for SHIFT course mental models. These are the ways that keep me centered, make me more creative in thinking and help me navigate my everyday. Over the years they have compounded in meaningful projects, sustainable ideas, and life-changing decisions. 

These are 15 self nudges as they work as reminders for me for growth: 

  1. To write better, read more. To read better, write notes.
  2. A subtle change of a word brings in a substantial effect, both in written and spoken language. And, stay away from negative words.
  3. You cannot fight time. Accept it. Good time, bad time, beginning time, end time nothing is in your control. The only thing you can do is accept as it comes and act as judiciously as you can at that moment.  
  4. If you respect time, time will respect you too. Being punctual is keeping your promise with the time. 
  5. Promises made to yourself become your superpower. Take care of your own promise. A new year resolution is a promise made to the world. Staying truthful is a promise made to yourself. 
  6. Bring in deep work that is ‘no distraction work’. Start with 30 minutes of deep work, no phone, no social media, no emails… You will be surprised with yourself. Don’t grow from 30mins to 40mins to 60mins, instead grow 30minutes into two or three sittings. It is more sustainable.
  7. Upset your routine if the routine is not working for you, but keep a routine. It is the hardest thing to maintain but is the strongest support in your hard times.  
  8. Say thank you, always and always to the lift door operator and to anyone who opens a door for you. Also, open doors of opportunities for others. 
  9. Learn to segregate trash. E-waste, tetrapaks, and plastics are meant for separate trashcans. While throwing plastic containers of shampoo, handwash, oil, kitchen utilities collect till you have a big bag ready. It is easier on the rag pickers. A little care for green earth makes you empathetic for the unknowns too.
  10. Like fitness, be responsible for your own food, what to eat and when to eat. Help your parent, partner, roomie in the decision and arrangement process. 
  11. Relationships need attention, work, and care.  Also, make efforts to socialize. You don’t have to be a party animal but being social is an inherent need of human nature and keeps you enthused.
  12. While carving a new path and being stopped by others, think if your path is crossing societal boundaries or legal boundaries. If societal, don’t worry, they are just human-made boundaries and your path means you are creating a new boundary for your society. 
  13. If you think about how to achieve the goal, learn to think about how to fail too. Practice inversion thinking. 
  14. Acceptance of failure is going to be hard, really hard. So take your time. Non-acceptance of failure is not a choice. You will suffocate and not move at all.  
  15. Generosity is the single most virtue that separates a great leader from just another leader. Generosity is not just giving money and help, but the ability to forgive, to give attention, to share learnings too.

Things come together, in unexpected, compound ways. Food, fitness, routine helps in good times and hard times. Saying thank you nudges us to open doors for others. Being empathetic makes one creative in thinking. Innovation comes from noticing and experiencing the problem.

The two most important skills to lead a purposeful life are to think clearly and to communicate well.  Several dots join on their own to improve both of these skills. All you have to do is to have clarity about your own set of nudges, practice them, improve and repeat. And when you practice, remember ‘your round and a little more.’


The hidden trait of a leader is to dodge stupidity

Inversion Thinking is avoiding being stupid

On the court, Djokovic continues to pull off magical feats. Last season, every single grand slam tournament seemed to yield a new all-time record, from clinching the record number of weeks at No 1 to the astounding feat of securing every grand slam tournament and Masters 1000 event at least twice. He is the men’s player of the last 10 years by a mile.

Yet his breathless ability on the court is paired with his frequent tendency to self-sabotage. It is often said about the best players that their greatest opponents are themselves but Djokovic takes it to new levels.

He chases history and a record-setting 21 grand slam titles, yet he is so taken by alternative science that he was willing to complicate his chances by arriving unvaccinated at one of the world’s strictest borders. It is hubris and it is the single-minded self-belief that drives his tennis but that also so often leads him astray. 

‘It is hubris’, wrote The Guardian. 

Hubris- a great or foolish amount of pride or confidence. 

In today’s habits for thinking, we are not discussing whether Djokovic’s act is full of hubris but will focus on what Charlie Munger popularised – 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

To see where one could die and avoid that route is not a simple decision, definitely not one exercised by Djokovic and his team in this case. The shade of hubris as written in several ‘Djokovic-refused-entry‘ articles makes us notice the absence of inversion thinking practice by his team and decision-makers. 

Inversion Thinking is not turning the goal backward and trying to see how to achieve the goal. Inversion Thinking is always thinking about how to fail, thinking meticulously, step by step, in interconnected and independent ways. If First Principles Thinking is about reaching the building blocks of the problem by deconstructing, Inversion Thinking is playing the part of how building blocks will fail to assemble to make a secure castle. 

Thinking about how to fail seems easy. You just need to remove a big chunk of the building block and you know it will fail. Like, you may think not having a marketing head is going to make the business fail. The marketing head is a chunky building block. However meticulous inversion thinking is looking at various aspects of the marketing team, not just the team leader, as the strength of the entire team, getting the right partners, getting the positioning right, building the right consumer context and connection, etc. If any of these small building blocks fail, the business will face a setback. This is meticulous inversion thinking, thinking in detail on how could one fail. 

How does Inversion Thinking help: 

Not all decisions that are made are reversible decisions. We make some decisions that are irreversible and have a large impact. This is applicable in both personal and professional life. These decisions, the ones that are irreversible and impactful, need clear, noise-free thinking. 

Secondly, the process of inversion thinking also helps one identify the right metrics for measurement. Like in the case of marketing one would keep an eye on measuring consumer connect. In case if the measurement is away from the desired results one would know which aspect of marketing needs rework and corrections to be back on the track of achieving goals. 

How to practice Inversion Thinking: 

Avoiding being stupid is the way to practice Inversion Thinking. How does one avoid being stupid? By learning stupidity from others. It is funny and true at the same time. Why funny? Funny because when you see someone take a stupid step, you laugh- how could he be so stupid? The day Djokovic news came out, the internet was flooded with memes on him.  His name turned as a trend “Novax Djocovid”. Seeing stupidity is funny. Seeing stupidity is learning too. 

“It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.”

Djokovic meme

It is true that stupidity teaches you a lesson in bad judgment. Collecting bad judgments from any other area, unrelated to your scope of work is still collecting lessons in bad judgments. These lessons work with our own set of mental models and help us in our future decision-making, helping us from stupidity. 

Not everyone has the stature of Novak Djokovic and not everyone needs to find this visa issue as a stupid decision. There are many people who are against taking a vaccine. But what everyone can learn from this is a leadership lesson. When you are on the top, assisted by a team of invisible people, you are alone. Your decisions are seen as only your decisions, and not as your team decisions. You may be right in your mind but as being a person on the top, you are presented as an object in the context of reality. 

The Economist writes– Yet although as a tennis player Mr Djokovic’s vaccine hesitancy is exceptional, as a Serb it is not. Despite there being little shortage of vaccines in Serbia, where he is from, just 45% of adults have been double-jabbed. Meanwhile, the country has been battered by the disease. According to The Economist‘s tracker, Serbia suffered the second-highest number of excess deaths in the world per head of population. With as much clout off the court as on it, Mr Djokovic’s public hesitation to take a life-saving vaccine may well be costing the lives of his countrymen

Your audience is not just people from your field, but the audience is from across different sectors. In fact, when you play at a large, global scale, it is not a different set of audiences but it is a singular audience and your context may not hold true for the singular audience. 

This brings to context collapse, where your single decision that should only impact you, your decision to not vaccinate, becomes a decision in the public domain. A decision declaration, at the time of the rising Omicron wave, in a country that is not your own, and when the world is nudging everyone else to vaccinate, is a decision most unwelcomed. When the world wants to stay safer by vaccinating, you stand on the other end and the media finds a target to shoot at. It is a leadership lesson to understand how a personal decision can be caught in a context collapse and come in the way of a professional goal. 

It is a failure of Djokovic’s team to not foresee a sudden change in travel policies when almost all countries are changing travel rules frequently depending on the shape of the pandemic curve. It is also a failure of his team to take leadership for granted and not invert the thinking to test the decisions.

Sports personalities are living lessons. They align their mind, body, and goal in the most effective manner. Naomi Osaka redefines quitting and our thinking, Novak Djokovic accepts his mistake of hitting a line judge are some instances I have written about learnings from judgments of sportspeople. 

The Australian court on Monday decided to release him from detention and restore a visa it had canceled because Djokovic has not been vaccinated for Covid-19. While there is a win on Djokovic’s side, this is an event they could have avoided on their path to the next grand slam title. As an admirer of tennis and his game, it is very discomforting to share his and his team’s lack of inversion thinking as a case of bad judgment as a note in your habits for thinking. 

Inversion Thinking is avoiding being stupid. To avoid being stupid, collecting bad judgments as a lesson is a thinking skill. Collecting bad judgments can be from any sector, any field, even from Novak Djokovic. 


The GOOD More- selection for the mind

Draft No. 4, a book by John McPhee stood out for me across my readings last year. I must admit I didn’t know who John McPhee was till I went for a deep work retreat1 in the summer of 2020. A deep work retreat for me is typically a couple of days, maybe two nights and two and a half days, away from family, friends, and familiarity, staying in a place to spend time reading, reading and more reading. The deal is to go in without an agenda and dig deeper into what you find interesting while reading. Take note of every idea that flashes in the mind and come out at the predecided time. So discovering Draft No. 4 and McPhee this retreat was a delight and it stayed like that for the year. John McPhee, a Pulitzer prize winner is considered a pioneer of creative nonfiction, the subject he taught at Princeton University. Draft No 4 is a book on the process of nonfiction writing.  ‘Writing is a selection’ is a line from this genius work that stayed with me. In fact, ‘writing is a selection’ is the sentence I had read somewhere before making my commitment to read the book. The chapter, Omission, while explaining the concept of selection of words and details in the writing process gives examples of selection from other areas too. Like the book says- sculptors address the deletion of material in their own analogous way. Michelangelo: “the more the marble wastes, the more the statue grows.”

‘The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” Ernest Hemingway, the short story writer, called this concept the theory of Omission in writing where the writer omits things that he knows and the reader will have a feeling of all those things as strongly as if the writer had stated them. The deeper meaning of a story should not be evident on the surface, but should shine through implicitly. 

Writing is a selection. Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one from more than a million in the language. 

John McPhee

In this first edition of 2022, when we are tempted to make a new year resolution or a commitment to keep at least one thought in our minds, I want to bring your attention to the concept of selection. But there is an irony. While in today’s habits for thinking we talk about selection and omission, it is our heart that is always seeking more, there is never enough.

Many years ago amongst a group of friends, we decided to share our new year resolution with each other. Many new year resolutions had happened before and after but this stayed in my mind for years, not for any other reason but trying to find an easy explanation for others to understand. The resolution was to adopt simplicity. Holidaying in a fancy resort, playing and partying with friends, planning the year ahead full of travels didn’t help me in explaining my meaning of simplicity. I tried saying simplicity doesn’t mean austerity but it didn’t work. As the weeks and months and years progressed, my framework of simplicity became clearer to me.  As the weeks and months and years progressed, I also became conscious of the fact that we chase abundance in day-to-day life, both materialistic and non-materialistic gains. More money, more success, better car, bigger house… it doesn’t end. The word enough is always in the backseat of the car, maybe even locked in the boot but not in the sight. That is the human design and that is also the human drive. This inherent human behaviour of ‘seeking more’ reflects in real life like in the book, Joyful, the author Ingrid Fetell Lee describes ‘abundance’ as an aesthetic that creates joy. ‘More’ reflects in the Veblen effect in economics where it means that the more the price goes up for a luxury product, the more demand comes in.

The ‘seeking’ behavior is explained by science.  

Neuroscience confirms that to be truly happy, you will always need something more, writes Quartz. Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp argues that of seven core instincts in the human brain (anger, fear, panic-grief, maternal care, pleasure/lust, play, and seeking), seeking is the most important. Huffpost reiterates in an article– “The minute you wake up, the SEEKING system is in gear: where is the coffee, where is my cell phone, what is going on, and where can I find it.” Quartz reaffirms., ‘Whether we’re striving for a new job, more meaningful relationships, or personal enlightenment, we need to actively want something more in order to live well. In fact, neuroscience shows that the act of seeking itself, rather than the goals we realize, is key to satisfaction.’

Yeh Dil Maange More! is an advertising slogan coined for Pepsi at JWT by Anuja Chauhan in 1998. It combines Hindi and English, literally meaning This Heart Desires More, which later became a popular slogan.

Bringing the two together – Selection and More

If it is always about seeking a little more than being satisfied with what one has, then let us accept and acknowledge our inherent behavior of seeking more, but accept it with a little difference, select the one that is a ‘good more’ over the one that is the not-so-good more. Making choices is a thinking selection and thinking, though done both consciously and subconsciously, also reflects the voices that we keep in our head. A new year resolution is just that one voice. Like the theory of omission keeps a lot of knowledge omitted out of the text and retains and showcase only like the tip of the iceberg, in this article the urge is to choose carefully and select which ‘more’ we want to chase and how that more will shape our thoughts and actions. My simplicity resolution practice comes from choosing the good more. 

Seeking more money no matter how rich one gets is a good more.

Seeking more money no matter how rich one gets is a good more when the hows and whys of seeking are right. Seeking more money turns bad when one leaves the moral ground.  Ms Chanda Kochhar, the illustrious woman banker lost her reputation and years of hard work while seeking the not-so-good more money through other channels. There was no harm in seeking more, but it was not a ‘good’ more. 

With seeking more, there is always a not-so-good more too. Keeping ‘The Good More’ as a voice in the head can be a selection framework for peace, health, happiness that comes from growth, success, money… 

The good more can define the control lines. 

Like instead of saying I will quit youtube to control my distraction, I will focus more on the quality of accounts that I follow. I can choose the good more

The good more is in tracking happy moments.

The good more is in tracking happy moments vs tracking the number of parties. Pandemic-related controls are tough to accept and cause worrying impacts on social well-being. If you have missed or have fear of missing out the social circle, channelising the focus on the good more may help. 

The good more is keeping more positive words in the vocabulary.

Showing somebody or something down doesn’t necessarily mean that one gets elevated. Elevation comes from practicing empathy and respect. Just one actionable way of adopting ‘the good more’ is to omit the negative, foul words and focus on using more positive words2.  

The good more is more focus on the process vs focus on the goal.

It can get dizzying to keep any eye on the goal only. Ask Neerja Chopra or Abhinav Bindra or The Hockey Team or Mirabai Chanu or P V Sindhu or any person in the competitive sport and they will tell you that all their energies go towards the process. Every single effort is to get better than their earlier state in order to reach the goal. The good more is more focus on the process vs focus on the goal.

The good more is just a selection in the choice making. If ye dil mange more, make it the good more. 

The Good More

1Deep work retreat- an article on the grand gesture

2The right word is a powerful thinking tool

3Measuring the right metrics

The purpose of a business purpose

“My mom told me I had a big jaw.” 

“My chin protrudes a little bit. Especially when I smile.”

And, now read these descriptions: 

“She was thin, so you can see her cheekbones. And her chin was a nice, thin chin.”

“She had nice eyes, they lit up when she spoke.”

Not a huge difference between the first set of descriptions and the second set of comments, but created a huge impact.  Let me show you how:  

Have you heard of forensic sketch artists? You may have seen them in the movies creating a visual description, a sketch of the criminal on the basis of description by witnesses. They are trained to sketch based on verbal descriptions. The bath soap brand, Dove hired a forensic artist to sketch a few women. For a change, these were not missing or in-search-of women, but regular women who described their own features to the artist who had to make a sketch without seeing them. Separated by a curtain, women sat next to the artist and spoke about their own features. ‘A big jaw,’ ‘protruding chin,’ ‘fat face’… kind of descriptions. 

Dove was on a mission. A mission to showcase mirror to reality. The forensic artist made sketches of these women. The same artist was then requested to sketch the same women again, this time described by women’s friends and their acquaintances. This time words that filled the air were, ‘nice, thin chin”, “eyes lit up when she spoke” etc.

Not a huge difference between the two descriptions of the same person, but a big revelation on how most women think about their own beauty and hence confidence. 

We believe beauty should be a source of confidence and not anxiety. That’s why we are here to help women everywhere develop a positive relationship with the way they look, helping them raise their self-esteem and realize their full potential.

This is not just a marketing campaign, this is the purpose of the brand Dove, a Unilever brand. 

In todays’ Habits for Thinking, I want to bring your attention to ‘purpose,’ with a focus on Business Purpose. In the leadership course on Habits for Thinking, one of the fifteen habits is ‘aligning to the purpose.” In this article, at this time of the year, a time to reflect and make new plans, the focus is on business purpose and the impact on individual growth.  

The dictionary meaning of Purpose:

  • the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists.
  • a person’s sense of resolve or determination. 

Purpose, business purpose, the reason why the business should exist, was brought back in focus at Unilever by Chairman Paul Polman. He made sustainability the core of the company’s corporate strategy, embedding it in every stage of the value chain. It reads on their website as:

Our purpose is to make sustainable living commonplace.

It’s why we come to work. It’s why we’re in business. It’s how we inspire exceptional performance.

When the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP) launched, Paul needed everyone on board, not just a department. The company also embedded purpose in its brands. From Lifebuoy soap’s global handwashing programs to Dove’s positive-body-image campaigns, dozens of Unilever brands have connected in a genuine way to a larger need. 

Paul Polman in an interview: Well, what’s very clear is, small or big, you cannot be a sustainable company if you’re not sustainable yourself. You cannot be a purpose-driven company if you’re not purposeful yourself, finding your purpose, fighting for things that you believe in, be it our children or future generations.

Let me tell you the story of another company, Patagonia, an American company that sells outdoor and adventure clothing. Its mission since its inception, even before sustainability was a common conversational topic, has been “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” Recently, the company revisited the purpose by being more direct-  “Patagonia is in business to save our home planet.” Patagonia, in the business of making activewear, is not only actively involved in supporting climate guardians, but the company is also an activist. It has taken bold steps including filing a lawsuit against President Trump over national monuments. 

According to Kendall Bronk, a researcher at Claremont Graduate University who studies how purpose impacts wellbeing throughout the lifespan, Bronk defines purpose as having a goal in life that you care deeply about and that contributes to the world beyond yourself in some productive sense. She breaks down purpose in three components:

  1. It’s an ultimate goal that shapes your short-term choices and behavior.
  2. It is personally meaningful, coming from within. In other words, no one is standing over you forcing you to pursue your goal; you are self-motivated. The goal imbues your life with importance and value.
  3. Finally, a purpose in life goes beyond the self, leading you to want to make a difference in the world.

The purpose is not a strategy. The purpose is why you exist.

Often, the brand purpose is mistaken for CSR initiatives. The mission and vision statement of a company is also often treated as the purpose. Simply, a brand purpose is the reason which brands stand for and thinks beyond the bottom line. A brand’s purpose defines the role of the brand in society. 

Purpose at business defines action, brings new ideas

Patagonia, the seller, encourages to use your product for a longer period of time. Instead of offering new product, it nudges the customer to mend it, repair it and keep it in play. 

Keep It in Play.

One of the most responsible things you can do as a consumer is to keep your stuff in play as long as possible—and our care and repair hub can help you do that.

Purpose shapes your communication:

When the brand is driven by a purpose, it looks to connect with its consumers deeply and meaningfully. The brand through its communication shares values, its belief and becomes a leader in showcasing a path. Communication attracts the right kind of employees, builds a sustainable, focused culture, and works on the mission collectively. 

Purpose is not absence of profit:

In 2018, Unilever reported that Sustainable Living Brands grew 69% faster than the rest of the business, compared to 46% in 2017. Continuing the mission to be purpose-driven, in 2021, the current CEO Alan Jope, announced, “Win with our brands as a force for good, powered by purpose and innovation. Purpose-led brands have been at the heart of Unilever throughout our history and purpose continues to dominate our thinking and our portfolio today as it becomes even more relevant to consumers. We will underpin our focus on purpose with differentiated science and technology that ensures our brands and products have superior quality and efficacy.’

Patagonia’s purpose drives consumer behavior and increase in revenues. Patagonia has always given 1% of sales to fund grassroots environmental organizations. This year they announced that 100% of global retail and online Black Friday sales will be given directly to grassroots nonprofits working on the frontlines to protect air, water and soil for future generations. This is what their CEO reported after the sale:

“We’re humbled to report the response was beyond expectations: With your help, Patagonia reached a record-breaking $10 million in sales. We expected to reach $2 million in sales—we beat that expectation five times over. The enormous love our customers showed to the planet on Black Friday enables us to give every penny to hundreds of grassroots environmental organizations working around the world.”

Very few companies have a well-defined purpose. A purpose is a drive and one can align his own purpose with his work. Like, a school bus driver’s purpose is to ferry children safely. Safety becomes his purpose, not just a duty. A team manager’s purpose could be to lead with empathy. The purpose is a drive, both a personal drive and a business drive. Purpose evolves over time and it takes a shape that may not be the same as what it was during its inception. 

A purpose-driven venture is a determined venture that navigates both highs and lows with ease. 

The two descriptions of the same women had a little variance in words but a massive difference in the impact. One description was filled with confidence and positivity and the other with doubt and anxiety. Similarly, there is a difference between a purpose-driven team and a team without a purpose. Purpose kindles energy that not just fuels growth but powers the walk through the crisis too. Seems small, but has a larger than life impact. 

What a face wash can teach about reflective thinking?

You name it and it is there. Avocado, Apple Cider Vinegar, Orange, Chamomile Tea, Rice, PinaColada, Grapefruit Margarita and more. It has all of these and even coffee- cappuccino, espresso etc. And most of the stuff is organic. No, it is not the menu list of a bar. It is not even a salad bar. It is the e-shop window for guess what- search for a face wash. 

Do you know the price of an avocado? A single fruit can range anywhere between Rs. 250-500. Not so widely popular as a fruit yet it is an ingredient serving the hungry consumer. 

It is not sophisticated enough that these face washes have edible ingredients, it gets another posh layer with the label, ‘organic’. Skincare products with expensive, exotic, empirical personalities!

This kind of variety is not only reflected in the skincare range but also in food. Try buying a natural peanut butter box or a healthy protein bar or breakfast cereals and the variety will leave you either crazy or confused. Each product description seems to be competing with another one. Not just skincare or food or fashion, this woke-age consumerism, where consumers are social and environmentally conscious drive a different shelf order on the retail stores. 

But today’s story is not about the new range of skincare, these are just reflections of consumer behavior. Today’s piece is about reflection, a reflection of events and behavior in and around us. 

Reflection is an important step in the thinking process. As we roll out the first edition of the last month of December, the month of reviews and reflections, in today’s Habits for Thinking, I want to draw your attention to something that is simple, yet not frequently practiced and that is to practice reflective thinking consciously, methodically and timely.  

How do we gain wisdom: “By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third, by experience, which is the bitterest.”

Confucius

The great philosopher, psychologist, and education reformer John Dewey, author How We Think, examines what separates thinking, a basic human faculty we take for granted, from thinking well, what it takes to train ourselves into mastering the art of thinking, and how we can channel our natural curiosity in a productive way when confronted with an overflow of information. He writes:

Reflection involves not simply a sequence of ideas, but a consequence — a consecutive ordering in such a way that each determines the next as its proper outcome, while each, in turn, leans back on its predecessors. The successive portions of the reflective thought grow out of one another and support one another; they do not come and go in a medley. Each phase is a step from something to something — technically speaking, it is a term of thought. Each term leaves a deposit that is utilized in the next term. The stream or flow becomes a train, chain, or thread.

Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, author of the iconic book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, has explained thinking and decision making. He describes the functioning of the brain in two systems: 

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.

The system 1 mind is a reflexive mind that reacts without considered thought while the system 2 mind is a reflective mind that takes time to react. 

Both, Kahenman and Dewey, throw light on reflective thinking. 

Dewey defines reflective thought as our single most potent antidote to erroneous beliefs:

Active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends, constitutes reflective thought… It is a conscious and voluntary effort to establish belief upon a firm basis of reasons.

Reflective thinking is the deliberate practice of going through learnings. Reflective thinking can be practiced both as an individual and as a team.

Being a reflective thinker by analyzing and revisiting your experiences and decisions enhances critical thinking skills. For instance, spending time before taking a big, irreversible decision is reflective thinking where one goes through the pillars of decision and challenges beliefs around it. Learning from mistakes is reflective too as so is learning from new learnings. The world moved inside homes as workplaces and as it comes back to offices, the learning from WFH can be added to the new workplace regulations. This reflection will help bring new ideas to working environments. 

Reflections can be done with the teams. These can be about good and bad decisions, processes, and trends, both related and unrelated to the business. Take the case of the facewash trend. It throws light on some more learnings like: 

  1. The rise of direct-to-consumer brands is due to digital growth. Businesses need not wait for months to establish a distribution network to reach brands. It can be done almost immediately through e-commerce channels. 
  2. A conscious consumer is showing awareness of ingredients and aversion towards chemical products. 
  3. Irrespective of price points, the packaging is all glitz and glamour. One cannot judge the price by seeing the packaging. 

There can be many more learnings that can come through reflecting on these trends. It is a generic example and these learnings can impact our thinking in other decision-making irrespective of the business category. Learning about reflective thinking from trends in facewash is like washing one’s face and looking up in the mirror at the freshly cleaned glowing reflection. 

Reflective thinking develops higher-order thinking skills by applying new knowledge to prior understanding. Enhancing thinking expertise is like a glowing face after a good wash!


Elon Musk and First Principles Thinking 

Some words enter our lives with authority and stay there as if there is only one meaning, one context. Now just look at the word, “Elon Musk.” It is a name I know, but it is also a personality that resonates with different meanings in different people’s heads. Take the case of him asking his Twitter followers whether he should sell his stock in Tesla?  Now, who does that? 

He may have done his tax calculation earlier yet he went on to Twitter to ask if he should sell stocks. Millions of people voted. Not everyone understands wealth gain tax, the policies, the stock market, its functioning yet the voting must be done. 

You could have one or many word associations for Elon Musk. Weirdo, Bold, Maverick, Genius, Wealthy… it need not be just one. But what comes to my mind is that he is a practitioner of The First Principles Thinking. He not only practices it, but he also brought The First Principles Thinking into the limelight years ago. In today’s habits for thinking, let me bring your attention to the concept. 

During a one on one interview with TED Curator, Chris Anderson, Musk reveals this missing link which he attributes to his genius-level creativity and success. It’s called reasoning from “First Principles.”

Musk: Well, I do think there’s a good framework for thinking. It is physics. You know, the sort of First Principles reasoning. Generally, I think there are — what I mean by that is, boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there, as opposed to reasoning by analogy. Through most of our life, we get through life by reasoning by analogy, which essentially means copying what other people do with slight variations.

It is not that Musk coined it. The thinking style is an old framework of a mental model. Aristotle, writing on First Principles, said:

In every systematic inquiry (methodos) where there are first principles, or causes, or elements, knowledge and science result from acquiring knowledge of these; for we think we know something just in case we acquire knowledge of the primary causes, the primary first Principles, all the way to the elements.

Later he connected the idea to knowledge, defining the first Principles as “the first basis from which a thing is known.”

First Principles Thinking is a way to break down a problem into smaller bits and question every assumption associated with it. Once you do the exercise and remove the assumptions, what remains is the bare essentials. Now, these essentials can be looked at in a new light and will give birth to innovative thinking. 

Elon Musk illustrates it through an example:

Somebody could say, “Battery packs are really expensive and that’s just the way they will always be… Historically, it has cost $600 per kilowatt-hour. It’s not going to be much better than that in the future.”

With First Principles, you say, “What are the material constituents of the batteries? What is the market value of those material constituents?”It’s got cobalt, nickel, aluminum, carbon, some polymers for separation and a seal can. Break that down on a material basis and say, “If we bought that on the London Metal Exchange what would each of those things cost?”It’s like $80 per kilowatt hour. So clearly you just need to think of clever ways to take those materials and combine them into the shape of a battery cell and you can have batteries that are much, much cheaper than anyone realizes.”

In the case of product-led discussions, it is simple to break down the exercise into smaller parts-  as one can focus on each input unit that goes in the making of that product as illustrated in the battery example. But how do you apply First Principles Thinking in a subjective situation? It is easy to remove one petal after another of the flower to dissect it but how does one unfold layers of a subjective issue like ‘the beauty’ of the flower? 

Let me explain this to you. Three weeks ago we were in a workshop for ‘Show, don’t Tell’ communication at workplaces. ‘Show, don’t Tell’ is a tool used in descriptive writing where the writer is encouraged to illustrate the details through words, encouraging her to show and not just tell. So for example to show ‘he was nervous’ could be shown like- ‘he couldn’t stop biting his nails.’

Show, don’t tell is one of the fifteen habits in the course SHIFT. This mental framework not only empowers users with effective communication tools but also hones thinking skills by focussing on detailing. 

In the workshop, we had an exhausted participant who was not able to adopt Show, don’t tell in his work. His writing reflected a lot of telling and less of showing. In peer correction, he received the feedback- ‘go deeper’. It has no meaning unless applied logically. This is how we used First Principles Thinking in a subjective field like thinking to write. We helped him break down the framework of the ‘show don’t tell writing assignment’ into smaller pieces by identifying the essentials that were needed in the writing piece. Firstly, the structure of the writing and secondly the content for the description. The structure can be detailed further – like two or three paragraphs, closing statement, etc. The content needs to be broken further into smaller details like the adjectives and the verbs. Can we now elaborate on each of these adjectives and verbs and see if we get closer to the objective?  The participant who had started at a sub-zero level of writing skills ended up being a confident communicator. To work on his problem, he disassociated himself from the statement – ‘not a good communicator’ to ‘the problem at hand in a structured manner ’ and through The First Principles reasoning, was able to improve.

In creative thinking and innovation, a subjective process, reasoning by First Principles helps open up more areas to look up for ideas and innovation. 

The mental model, First Principles Thinking, is an effective strategy to induce creative thinking in solving problems. To bring this framework into practice, one has to look at two steps. 

Step 1: Breakdown the challenge into smaller chunks 
Step 2: Check if each chunk can be further broken down
Step3: Address each chunk with a fresh approach

Elon Musk’s style of challenging assumptions exhibits a First Principles Thinking approach. You may have your descriptive phrase for him but what you cannot deny is his ability to think in a unique manner, courtesy First Principles Thinking. 

Nykaa and the hedgehog concept

I used an entire hour on the flight to clean my whatsapp. Delete images from the groups, exit unwanted groups, delete chats that were no longer relevant, blocked some spam messages etc. That was like Diwali cleaning my whatsapp. As the aircraft touched the ground and the network was back, there were umpteen messages again, mostly of Diwali greetings and then there was this one, a special one: 

The sender had a couple of queries regarding the forward thinking course SHIFT and had messaged me through the website contact page. The concerns I heard and yet didn’t help her with answers, were her own doubts related to age/work experience and if her profile was fit enough to attend a forward thinking course. To clear someone’s self-doubt, one can help only by showing the path, but the bridge has to be crossed by the person herself. That is what I did, I showed the path and left the conversation. By evening, she had paid for the upcoming course cohort starting 19th November. She had crossed the bridge herself and seeing that I smiled, ‘Tum hi ho nayaka’. (You are the heroine of your story)

It is not my line, it is a beautiful line borrowed from Nykaa’s ad1

Kahani koi bhi ho, tum hi ho nayaka 

As the nayaka of her own unique story, each woman in the film charts a journey fraught with challenges to achieve her own success. The film journeys through hardships of women like a biker who tries stunts, a mountaineer, a rapper in hijab, an entrepreneur and some more. This is what the lady, who had signed up for the course did- she created her own storyline. 

Nykaa got its name from the word Nayaka, the heroine. But if I had to relate Nykaa to an animal today, it would not be a beautiful, strong, graceful animal but it would be a small animal with a cone-shaped face, short legs and body that is covered with porcupine-like quills, the hedgehog, the one that remains focussed on its mission. In today’s Habits for Thinking, let me introduce you to a ‘Good to Great Companies’ concept by Jim Collins, called the Hedgehog Concept.  That is what Nykaa is, a hedgehog. 

The Hedgehog Concept is developed in the book Good to Great. A simple, crystalline concept that flows from deep understanding about the intersection of three circles: 1) what you are deeply passionate about, 2) what you can be the best in the world at, and 3) what best drives your economic or resource engine. Transformations from good to great come about by a series of good decisions made consistently with a Hedgehog Concept, supremely well executed, accumulating one upon another, over a long period of time.

The hedgehog concept

Are you a hedgehog or a fox? In his famous essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” Isaiah Berlin divided the world into hedgehogs and foxes, based upon an ancient Greek parable: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” 

Those who built the good-to-great companies were, to one degree or another, hedgehogs. They used their hedgehog nature to drive toward what we came to call a Hedgehog Concept for their companies. Those who led the comparison companies tended to be foxes, never gaining the clarifying advantage of a Hedgehog Concept, being instead scattered, diffused, and inconsistent. 

Here are three circles of the Hedgehog concept explained: 

1. What you can be the best in the world at

(and, equally important, what you cannot be the best in the world at). This discerning standard goes far beyond core competence. Just because you possess a core competence doesn’t necessarily mean you can be the best in the world at it. Conversely, what you can become the best at might not even be something in which you are currently engaged. 

Example: Gillette – could become the best at building premier global brands of daily necessities that required sophisticated manufacturing technology. Notes: Gillette ability to manufacture low cost, high tolerance products, ability to build global consumer brands. 

NYKAA: Could become the best in cosmetics shopping. 

Just some of several initiatives that the company has taken to become the best:  a) understand the customer cosmetics shopping journey- customers like to read blogs, reviews etc. before buying a product. Nykaa has focussed on creating content both on its platform through customer reviews and outside on the internet space through influencers, videos etc. Nykaa has a strong ecosystem2 which includes Network, TV, Beauty Book, Army among others. There are >1,350 influencers; YouTube based platform has >1m subscribers; 3.1m members are in the peer-to-peer community.  b) catering to the sachet market: Nykaa understands the market and has made available samples and mini product sizes for sampling and consumption. 

2. What drives your economic engine?

All the good-to-great companies attained piercing insight into how to most effectively generate sustained and robust cash flow and profitability. In particular, they discovered the single denominator—profit per x—that had the greatest impact on their economics. (It would be  cash flow per x in the social sector.) 

Example : Gillette-Shift from profit per division to profit per customer reflected the economic power of repeatable purchases e.g. razor cartridges.

NYKAA: Strong Unit economics, a key differentiator3 

While most e-commerce players in India have been burning cash to acquire new customers and drive adoption/ penetration, Nykaa stands out given its strong focus on unit economics. At an Ebitda level, the company has been making steady progress with break-even achieved in FY19, and since then, Ebitda margin expanded to 6.6% in FY21. With growing scale, Nykaa also achieved PAT break-even in FY21. A high Average Order Value, good intake margins and focus on assortment over discounting are the key factors that drive Nykaa’s strong unit economics.

I remember visiting one of the first stores of Nykaa, in 2015 or so. This one was at the airport. Barely stocked with some perfumes, the store was barren of both products and customers. Over the years, not just that store but several other stores came up. Had it been a focus on profit per store, it would not have survived even a few months. Focus on unit economics has been a great strength for Nykaa. 

3. What you are deeply passionate about.  

The good-to-great companies focused on those activities that ignited their passion.  The idea here is not to stimulate passion but to discover what makes you passionate. 

Example: when Gillette executives made the choice to build sophisticated, relatively expensive shaving systems rather than fight a low margin battle with disposables, they did so in large part because they just couldn’t get excited about cheap disposable razors. “Zeien talks about shaving systems with the sort of technical gusto one expects from a Boeing or Hughes engineer.”wrote a journalist about Gillette’s CEO in 1996.

NYKAA: Customer experience:

Nykaa, from its early days and unlike other market places, initiated stocking of inventory to manage customer experience for timely, quick delivery and for authenticity of products. “We didn’t want to be a discount store,” Falguni Nayar said in an interview. “We’d rather sell the right color of lipstick at full price, than the wrong shade at half off which would make the buyer unhappy within minutes of wearing.”

This is just a suggestive hedgehog4 concept for Nykaa. It takes years for companies to find the right hedgehog alignment. When asked how do we accelerate the process of getting a hedgehog concept- Jim Collins replies- “It is an inherently iterative process, not an event. The essence of the process is to get the right people engaged in dialogues to ask right questions guided by three circles.”

The Hedgehog concept is not only applied for companies but also for individuals. It is not a strategy but it is a reflection tool that helps one understand what one can be best at. 

I feel that I was just born to be doing this/ I get paid to be doing this/I look forward to getting up and throwing myself into the daily work

 A Hedgehog Concept is not a goal to be the best, a strategy to be the best, an intention to be the best or a plan to be the best. It is an understanding of what you can be the best at. The distinction is absolutely crucial.   

Falguni Nayar, the nayaka of Nykaa, crafts the path of a success story. The Hedgehog concept, very similar to Ikigai, stands true for both companies and individuals. The framework to reflect, build, reiterate a growth path is a necessity for both an individual and companies. This is the path to growth, this is the path from good to great. 

This Diwali, this festive season, like the lady who signed up for the course, like Nykaa, remember to be the Nayaka of your own story!



  • 1Brand: Nykaa; Advertising Agency: Sideways 
  • 2,3Excerpts from Nykaa IPO: Growth and Profitability Need Not Be Mutually Exclusive by Jefferies dated 18 August 2021.
  • 4I, the author of this piece, have not spoken to anyone from Nykaa before writing this piece. The Hedgehog Concept for Nykaa is based on my years of observing Nykaa, conversations with people in the industry, secondary research that is interviews and equity analysts’ documents. 

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