Managing Monkey Business through Interventions 

No, not monkey business but monkeys create actual business. A morning walk in the outskirts of Bangalore, near the airport, took me to acres of lush green grape vines sprawling a few meters above the earth trained meticulously on trellis. A peek inside the vine and you see green and dark bunches of grapes facing downwards, getting ready to be plucked in a few weeks. A glance above the vine and all you can see is meters of plastic net covering the plantation. Why? To keep it safe from monkey menace in the area. A quick Google throws up a list of vendors who have become experts for providing safety nets for monkeys, whether at farms or at balconies. A not so monkey business, a real business for many.

Monkey business, the phrase that stands for silly or mischievous behaviour, must have struck with Netflix engineers when they designed a system to play mischief with their own network system. They called it Chaos Monkey.  Chaos Monkey, Netflix’s resiliency tool  is responsible for randomly terminating instances in the network to ensure that engineers implement their services to be resilient to instance failures. Chaos Monkey, a successful tool available now since 2010 is based on the concept of Chaos Engineering.

Chaos Engineering is a disciplined approach to identify failures before they become outages. By proactively testing how a system responds to failure conditions, you can identify and fix failures before they become public facing outages. Chaos Engineering lets you validate what you think will happen with what is actually happening in your systems. By performing the smallest possible experiments you can measure, you’re able to “break things on purpose” in order to learn how to build more resilient systems.

Chaos Monkey, monkey-like randomness and mischief and the plastic net that covers grapevines are instances of interventions to prevent the systems and farming from failure, especially from monkey-like, random attacks.  Interventions to bring in behaviour change have a similar effect, prevention from wavering away from the goal.

Our work life is replete with randomness, activities and distractions that derail our performance. Most of these activities are not well defined but are as random and mischief as a monkey that destroys the productivity crop from time to time. Reasons like work overload, fatigue, communication gap with the boss, non clarity in the goal and expectation, non cohesive team etc.  could deviate from active performance. Not just external factors, individual habits and way of thinking can also be a deterrent to optimal performance. These external and internal causes and aberrations can be seen as monkeys attacking the system and can be tackled through interventions. In this Habits for Forward Thinking article, let me bring your attention to psychological interventions that help one achieve goals, personal and professional. 

What are interventions? Psychological interventions are any set of strategies that are used to change behaviors, emotions, or cognitions to produce a personal change leading to higher functional results. 

Interventions in Sports: 

Sports personalities are the ultimate example of human level performances. Here is an excerpt from a research paper of Interventions in Sports performance to help you understand the significance of interventions:  

“Psychological skills training” is a term that “was coined to describe techniques and strategies designed to teach or enhance mental skills that facilitate performance and a positive approach to sport competition”

The paper talks about, ‘When researchers and practitioners are developing psychological skills training interventions it is important that they make a clear distinction between psychological qualities, psychological skills, and psychological strategies. “Psychological qualities” are the characteristics or attributes that facilitate optimal performance, and they can be experienced to varying degrees (e.g., high and low self-confidence; Holland, Woodcock, Cumming, & Duda, 2010). “Psychological skills” involve the ability to regulate psychological qualities, such as the ability to maintain self-confidence (Holland et al., 2010; Vealey, 1988). “Psychological strategies” are the interventions or the methods used to purposefully teach those psychological skills and qualities (e.g., thought control; Vealey, 1988).

The psychological techniques that have been most widely used by sport psychology practitioners, and the focus of most intervention research, are imagery, goal-setting, thought management and self-talk, and physical relaxation.

Interventions in Education: 

Schools, especially ones with a focus on the mental well being of students, have a team of special educators to identify, intervene and nurture students for their optimal performance. Interventions are designed to help students that have a slower learning process than their batchmates. Interventions are also designed to make bright, gifted kids in the class to outperform his or her own achievements. Interventions are not necessarily only meant for corrections in behaviour, they are also designed to bring enhancement in performance. 

Interventions in Worklife:

Interventions, as the name suggests, is a set of sequenced and planned actions or events intended to help the organization exercise its effectiveness. Intervention purposely disrupt the status quo. As quoted in a note from McKinsey, “Many L&D functions embrace a framework known as “70:20:10,” in which 70 percent of learning takes place on the job, 20 percent through interaction and collaboration, and 10 percent through formal-learning interventions. These percentages are general guidelines and vary by industry and organization. Today, L&D leaders must design and implement interventions that support informal learning, including coaching and mentoring, on-the-job instruction, apprenticeships, leadership shadowing, action-based learning, on-demand access to digital learning, and lunch-and-learn sessions. Social technologies play a growing role in connecting experts and creating and sharing knowledge.”

 At corporate levels, interventions can be designed to work at the organization level for example- declaring a 3 day long weekend to battle fatigue of the organisation or interventions can be personalised at an individual level like a planned conversation session between two people affecting each other’s performance in a negative way. To adopt diversity and inclusion, L&D teams are strategizing interventions to bring required behaviour change at a cultural level. 

Interventions need not be addressed only by psychologists. Team leaders, managers, human resources team, anyone willing to understand the problem can identify the need for intervention. You and I, any individual, if feeling stuck in a situation can look for intervention as a measure to step out. 

There is a word of caution. Too much intervention or bad timing or a bad strategy of intervention can be harmful. In such cases, one must remember, sometimes doing nothing is an intervention too. There is a word for overdose of intervention- iatrogenics– when a treatment causes more harm than benefit. As iatros means healer in Greek, the word means “caused by the healer” or “brought by the healer.”  Healer, in this sense, need not mean doctor, but anyone intervening to solve a problem.

It is in human nature to react to a situation and take action. If the net outcome result of intervening is negative, then one must refrain from intervening. Doing nothing in some cases to keep a net positive result is an intervention too. At the same time, too much intervention is almost like putting a thick black cover instead of a net to protect the grape farms from monkeys. Thick cover will stunt the growth by stopping sunlight and air and thus kill the plants, so does wrong intervention strategy.  

Planning and designing interventions are like preparing to manage monkey menace. Some are small, some are big, some come as individuals and some come as barrels. Interventions, like the net, or chaos monkey of Netflix, prepare to become resilient and let the growth prosper, before the menace becomes the outage. 

It is not a monkey business to manage monkey menace.


Habits for Forward Thinking is your place to grow. Read more here.

The Phenomenon called Pradeep Guha

‘Etsy’ said the Facebook representative and a few heads turned towards me. It was mid-morning on a sunny October day in San Francisco, nearly a decade ago. The IAA* Indian delegation of twenty people were seated in a small room at Facebook headquarters with a bright orange wall on the backside. As a part of the delegation,I was attending a session by Facebook’s Paul Adams on building communities. It was 2012, when the words ‘digital communities’ appeared like precious jewels in our conversations, in small quantities. Building communities as a business model was new for the world and Facebook was showing the path, in action and in presentations. The speaker was then head of Facebook planning and had just released a book titled ‘Grouped’ on communities which we later received as a gift. 

Led by Pradeep Guha, IAA had organised a digital tour for the CEOs to the USA to visit and learn from the big tech companies. The 2012 digital tour was the second initiative from IAA  and I had onboarded the delegation to visit Microsoft, Youtube, Facebook, Google, Twitter.

That October morning, at the Facebook headquarters, in the middle of a talk by Facebook, I had earned a special spot in Pradeep Guha’s thoughts. Before the start of the tour, in Pradeep Guha’s Mumbai office, sitting across his large wooden table, I had requested him to include a visit to the Etsy office too. A listed company, Etsy is dedicated to building small, home grown businesses and has been building communities since its inception. Those days Etsy was not widely popular. PG was not familiar with Etsy but he took interest in my conversation on Etsy.  So as the Facebook speaker talked about ETSY as the leading example in building communities, Pradeep Guha, sitting at the centre of the table, leaned forward and gestured a thumbs up to me. And, the heads on the table turned in my direction on this rare appreciation coming from him. I was suddenly noticed. Etsy had marked a respectable spot for me in his mind. 

Pradeep Guha
Pradeep Guha at Microsoft, Seattle, 2012
IAA Team Pradeep Guha Vishakha Singh
IAA- India Chapter delegation at Big Tech Companies. 2012

In today’s Habits for Thinking, I want to bring your attention to the phenomenon called Pradeep Guha. To the unknown, you can read about Pradeep Guha in the tribute written here and a lot over the internet. 

The Curious: 

Techcrunch Disrupt is an annual event held in San Francisco for the tech startup world. It not only showcases new ideas but also the making of ideas, successes and failures. I had described the event to PG and had recommended him to attend it. One fine morning in 2019, I received a message from him on how excited he was to attend it. Curiosity fuels learning and he stayed at the top of knowledge by attending not just Techcrunch but also Singularity University and some other courses. A sharp thinker feeds his mind with new knowledge. He makes efforts to attend courses to learn and unlearn, no matter his age or designation. This is what Pradeep Guha maintained. It was not just an Etsy moment at Facebook, PG made efforts to learn the new from across fields and continents. He displayed curiosity with a proficiency that lacked any arrogance, the arrogance that becomes a second nature for being successful for a long time. 

The secret of making a phenomenon is to live a life with a growth mindset, to stay curious and to hone the knowledge. 

The Contrast:

What is the opposite of grand? Insignificant. To balance the two opposites effortlessly is a magical trait and that is what came easy to the phenomenon called PG. He always came up with a grand vision but stayed true to the most insignificant details in execution of that vision. There was never any room for error in execution of the grandest of the vision. This reflected in all aspects of his work whether it was related to media selling by designing Mastermind or in creation of landmark events or even in maintaining his relationships with the world. He effortlessly balanced the contrast of big and trivial detail. It was neither compromised nor showcased. The balancing of the contrast was a given, it came like yin and yang, always together.

The Compassionate: 

Pradeep Guha, the media stalwart passed away on 21st August 2021. On 9th August, I had a message exchange where he wrote to me saying, “All good, thank you.” The news of his passing filled me with all shades of emotions, primarily being upset. He had hidden the suffering, at the same time, he had responded. When tributes poured in, all of it had the same tone of how he made people feel very special. Losing him became a personal loss on a mass level. Another contrast. His ability to connect, support, bind with people is an ability less possessed by leaders. I was a nobody in his aura of things but from time to time I received a message, sometimes a gentle scolding for staying quiet for months. His ability to keep people in his thoughts, to make them feel important and needed is a lesson in generosity. It was a construct maintained over the years. Not just colleagues and friends, he maintained a magical vibe with celebrities too. Renowned personalities treated him like their closest pal, yet he asked for a picture to keep the podium well defined for both. 

Pradeep Guha and Nandan Nilekani. Kochi. 2019.

Pradeep Guha, the phenomenon, lit the path with his way of life, with childlike curiosity, manlike balancing of contrast and naturelike compassion for people. All we need to do is to keep the lights on.

*International Advertising Association

3 essential tools for leaders to embrace diversity

‘A hand gesture that involves rotating your wrist externally as your thumb, index and middle finger unfurl open.” Do you know what it is? 

That is the name sign for US Vice President Kamala Harris. Name signs, also known as sign names, are an important component of deaf culture. They provide deaf people with a way to identify themselves and others in conversation, while also representing “a Deaf person’s membership in the Deaf community.” 

The selection of the name sign for Kamala Harris was itself a process done by the community which was inclusive and diverse. Five women- Ebony Gooden, Kavita Pipalia, Smita Kothari, Candace Jones and Arlene Ngalle-Paryani — as Black and Indian members of the “capital D Deaf community”* — felt it was important that the selection of Ms. Harris’s name sign be the result of an inclusive and democratic process. Given that Vice President Harris was the first female vice president, as well as the first Black and Indian candidate to fill the role, they agreed that her heritage should inform that process, the women recalled in an interview using interpreters.

Name sign Kamala Harris Deaf club

How did we pick this particular sign name? I want to explain briefly about Kamala Harris. She did ask people to use her name, Kamala, because it means a lot to her. “Kamala” means a lotus flower. I will explain briefly what a lotus flower means. Purity. Enlightenment. Rebirth. A lotus flower has strong roots that can bore through dirt. The flower shows its beauty when it blooms. I am making it an analogy with Kamala, who appears in the midst of a dark and divided America. She brings enlightenment and purity. Rebirth. Why do we use three fingers? It’s because she is the first Black, Indian, and female, and it is represented in the three fingers that bloom. She’s not the “first” but has “three firsts.” Kamala! 

-Explanation on the name sign

A name is an identity. It doesn’t matter which language, spoken or sign, native or acquired. A name marks the place of shared culture, of shared values. Deaf people have become more engaged in the process of selecting name signs for hearing politicians and well-known individuals. It is a way for people to acknowledge those individuals “and show alliance with them,” said the article in the New York Times. 

You create a language to stand in and not out, to come together. You create a name sign to be understood, to include diversity and in this Independence day edition of Habits for Thinking, I want your attention on embracing diversity at workplaces. Embracing diversity in a culture depends on how we think and act. 

In today’s Habits for Thinking, the focus is on leaders who are increasingly working on diversity and inclusion at workplaces, especially gender diversity. Gender diversity is being seeded through several corporate policies. The workforce is growing with more diverse recruitments, the first step in bringing in diversity. Recruitment needs to be followed by adopting diversity across the organisation as a part of regular life. Providing support facilities to attract and recruit  like extended leaves, child care support etc is the easy part of encouraging gender diversity. The tougher part is to genuinely embrace diversity as a culture of the organisation. An embraced diverse culture means everyone has a voice to share, everyone feels heard, everyone belongs to the community equally and everyone becomes responsible for the diverse culture to grow. It is only when people are heard and own a share of voice is when there can be a real growth, growth of people, growth of the organisation and growth of diversity. 

Gender Equality UN Goal 5

Diversity is accepting the diverse opinion and thoughts in a culture. But how does a culture embrace diversity? The culture, unless it is a startup venture, has been around for years, even before the diversity policy came in. To make room for diversity, the culture needs to evolve and that can only happen through a mindset shift of its people. The mindset change has good news and bad news. The bad news is that it is far tougher to achieve behavioural change  than creating support facilities. The good news is more and more people are open and ready to be guided for the shift. All it takes is a leader to walk the path of embracing diversity.  A leader shapes the culture and the culture can be chiseled through three essential tools to embrace diversity: 

1. Show, don’t tell to address diversity: 

Telling people to embrace diversity is not enough. The leader has to show the action by designing processes that bring in change. The processes that are aligned to the mission of diversity drive should be measurable. One must remember, what gets measured, gets done. Showing is not only restricted to action and processes, showing through visuals is critical too. Women are called ‘the invisible workforce’ both at home and at workplaces. In large organisations, to enable women to step up for leadership roles, it is important to create opportunities to showcase the faces behind the work. It is infectious, it inspires others to step up and makes everyone feel heard.

2. Language to weave diversity in the culture: 

The language that the leader uses acts as a moral compass for the people, influencing how they think, act and feel in different situations. An article in Harvard Business Review talks about how languages shape the organisation. The article states, “Your influence over the behavior of your people is not limited to carefully-prescribed internal communications; it lies in the daily sentiments, conversations and values you share. The best leaders understand this — like Horst Schulze of Ritz-Carlton, who shaped his employee’s decorum and conduct with “We’re ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” These leaders used simple, highly motivating and prescriptive words that set the right cultural permission for their organizations. This language, carefully articulated and shared, offers rich opportunities to codify and crystallize what your company is about, and what your company seeks. 

3. Shift mindsets through nudges

Gender Diversity is a fundamental need. It is not only about following a mandated policy. It is a war against generations of societal biases that have made the gap so wide and so large that it is difficult to be ironed out. Deep rooted attitudes about the role of women in society leads to biases like availability bias where you think and react to a situation with what is available as an easy information in your mind. This bias gets ironed out by a disciplined mindset shift. You work on your habits to change your attitude. Behavioural nudges work as reminders at the appropriate time to help in changing habits and behaviours of people, organisations. Read more about nudge here in an earlier article written by me. 

A diverse team of women came together to bridge the gap between deaf and non deaf community by assigning a name sign for the first woman of color Vice President. Using the first three fingers they not only designed her name sign, they showed the path that the bridge of inclusion and diversity can be made through language. All we need to do is consciously change our habits to think and act in the right manner. 

*(a term used by some deaf people to indicate that they embrace deafness as a cultural identity and communicate primarily through ASL) 

The magic that makes good to great: Sindhu, Chanu, Deepinder, Falguni

“She had tears in her eyes. I told her to think it was a gift for me,” PV Sindhu’s father lifted her spirits when the semi final defeat to Tai Tzu-Ying on Saturday weighed her down. 

“Through all your experiences of ups and downs, did you ever come close to giving up in all these 12-odd years?” asked the interviewer. 

“About a couple of times every week,’’ answered Deepinder Goyal, in his interview after Zomato’s IPO.  

The timelines are palpitating with sheer excitement and nervousness floating when history is in the making, whether in the Olympics stadiums or at Dalal Street. Both sports and startups personalities are weaving some magic in the air. It is filled with hope, with ambition and dreams and most importantly it seems achievable. Yes, we can do it. 

PV Sindhu won her second medal at the Olympics last week. It makes her the first Indian woman to win two medals at the Olympics. Also, in the same week Deepinder Goyal’s startup, Zomato rang the opening bell at the stock market. The event makes him the first startup boy, made-in-India, to reach this high level of success. Zomato’s listing is not only impressive because it is the first new-age startup, but also because it is the first company without profits in its books that has pocketed the likes of people. It doesn’t stop here, there are more names. Chanu Saikom Mirabai, Rani Rampal, Ravi Kumar Dahiya, P R Sreejesh, Simranjeet Singh, Savita Punia and the list goes on for athletes who have been shining bright at the Olympics. In a parallel startup world, being successfully listed at the stock market is almost equivalent to securing an olympic medal. Zomato is a new age startup that had its IPO recently. The next in the pipeline is Nykaa. Cartrade, Mobikwik and several others are waiting in the wings. It is just the beginning.

From Olympics to startups, the made-in-India story is not a story of fiction or mere skill, hardwork and grit. It is the story of leadership, leadership of not just excellence but where the ambition for the mission and institution, exceeds the ambition for the self. In today’s column, I bring to you an understanding of a leadership personality trait that takes goodness to greatness, in both sports and startups. It is called Level 5 Leadership. 

Level 5 leadership is a concept developed in the book Good to Great. Level 5 leaders display a powerful mixture of personal humility and indomitable will. They’re incredibly ambitious, but their ambition is first and foremost for the cause, for the organization and its purpose, not themselves.

As the events unfolded in both startups and the sports world, it became clearer that how the two worlds are similar in performance and delivery. Like an athlete is developed by a village of experts, startups are run by leaders supported by teams across all functions. An athlete digs deeper inside her for courage, so does the founder. The stories of sports and startups match. The leadership style matches. 

Grit and hardwork:

Mirabai Chanu’s  self-discovery of weightlifting started with carrying firewood from the jungle at the age of 12. To train she travelled 40kms everyday. “At times, she would hitch a ride on a truck or if she got lucky share a tuk-tuk, some days she would cycle, and some days she would come half the way and then walk back home. She never threw in the towel,” her mother Tombi Devi said in an interview. 

Deepinder Goyal’s childhood training was to save himself from terrorists. Here is an excerpt from his mentor and investor Sanjeev Bhikchandani: He was born in Muktsar – a small town in Punjab in 1983. His father was a teacher in a government school. For the first ten years of his life the family lived in the fear of terrorists. As a child he was tutored by his parents that if the terrorists ever came he should tell them that his name was Deepinder and he was a Sikh. That way they would spare his life even if they killed his parents. Thankfully the terrorists never came.

When he was fifteen his parents sent him to Chandigarh to study for the last two years in school. He lived in a hostel – ragging was tough but he survived. Academically he was totally out of his depth initially since the standard of study was far higher than he had ever encountered. But he tried hard and managed to clear the IIT entrance examination. From IIT he went to Bain and then launched Foodiebay which became Zomato later on.

Skill and speed: 

Sjoerd Marijne, the Indian Hockey girls team coach, talks about Rani Rampal’s skills in a story by Sharda Ugra. The secret sauce, he says, about her physical properties lies in the fact “that she is faster with the ball than without the ball.” With the ball on her stick, she turns into an elusive quicksilver with the most minimal feints and dummies, wrong-footing defenders, leaving them behind, earning her extra slices of time. During a training run, Marijne said he asked the faster players to hustle against Rani, press hard and fast around her, but still she slipped through. Later, she told the bemused Marijne, “She might be faster with the ball, but I am quicker with the thinking.”

Pandemic lockdown in 2020 had presented a problem for businesses. Falguni Nayar knew it would take some quick pivots and strategic thinking to keep the business rolling. And Nayar didn’t waste any time. With operations and logistics coming to a halt, she decided to sell everyday essentials online. “Overnight we pivoted to an essentials-only online store and to handle that we utilised our 70 offline stores across the country to do hyperlocal delivery,” says the 57-year-old Nayar. The hyperlocal focus was, of course, because intra-state shipment of products was restricted during the initial phase of the lockdown. “We would match the products ordered online with what was available at the store to deliver to the nearest pin code,” she adds, as mentioned in an article

Like hardwork and determination, skills and speed to execute is an essential path to being successful in both sports and startups. What separates the good to great is the level of leadership that they exhibit. Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great illustrated that long lasting companies are built by level 5 leaders. Level 1 being a highly capable individual, Level 2- contributing team member, Level 3- a competent manager, Level 4- Effective leader, Level 5 – builds enduring greatness.  

Level 5 leadership trait that makes them good to great: 

It is not that level 5 leaders have no ego or self interest. Indeed they are incredibly ambitious- but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.  For Sindhu, who aspired to get a Gold at Tokyo 2020 faced a setback with the loss in semifinals. 

She gathered courage and focus to fight again to earn a bronze, for herself and for the country. 

Deepinder Goyal, continues on giving up: “It is about how fast you can pick yourself up and get back.” In another conversation he gives a peek into his thoughts while talking about delivery partners. He says, “We are always focused on doing more for them, doing better for them” showing his larger mission. 

Nykaa’s Falguni Nayyar has carved her own successful path operating in a highly competitive space with giants like Amazon and Flipkart. She has skillfully built the company in a capital intensive space, has made it profitable and brought it to IPO stage. 

The unwavering resolve, to do what must be done for the success, no matter how deep they have to dig inside themselves for courage and clarity, is what takes them from good to great. 

Level 5 leaders are fanatically driven, infected with an incurable need to produce sustained results. They are resolved to do whatever it takes to make the company great, no matter how big or hard the decisions. 

That is how the leaders have performed and achieved, in sports and in startups. P.V Sindhu, Mirabai Chanu, Deepinder Goyal, Falguni Nayar. The unwavering resolve of a Level-5 leadership to dig to leap from goodness to greatness. 

Good to great


Surviving Availability Bias in Our Decisions

The man behind the counter placed a pair of glasses on my nose and suddenly split his leg wide open, like baby giraffes do. Baby giraffes, whose neck is not long enough to reach parts of a tree, gather food from the ground. But instead of bending the knee, they split wide open their front legs so that the neck can reach the ground. Grown up giraffes also do a split to drink water. It was a Sunday morning and I was in an eyewear store to get a new pair of glasses. The salesman, a tall man, much taller than my five feet six inches, was taking measurements on my selected frame. That moment, when he split his legs to bring his eye level to mine, it reminded me of the giraffe. The man was measuring the centre of my progressive lens. Now to understand the centre, one must understand the way progressive lens are made. Progressive lens are the lens that helps you see clear sight both for far objects and near objects like. But a lens comprises physics. It can’t be merged into one. So there are bifocal lens which have a clear line demarcating the lens for far vision from the lens for near vision and then there are progressive, the seamless lens where you do not see a line dividing a far vision, a near vision. Both merge in the centre for intermediate vision. Intermediate vision is where you look straight, not down, not far into an object, at a closer distance like a computer screen. The centre point is significant because it depends on the shape of your frame, how the frame sits on your nose and the centre of your vision. It is the ultimate personalisation in a progressive glass that is a necessity. It is measured by both machines and opticians to arrive at an accuracy level.  At the store, I had gone through machine measurement and here I was, in front of the tall, gentle-like-giraffe salesman, in a split position to come down to my eye level. He had made a mark on my glass with a blue marker pen. 

Progressive lens

This was my second trip to the store, an old chain of eyewear. Nearly six years ago I was here to get my first pair of progressive glasses.The between years, from the first one to this one, took me to a new age, online-offline integrated eyewear retail that had mushroomed all around in the city and screens. They had made the second one for me and were quick to replace my frame and lens when pandemic restricted services. It was all easy-peasy, until a prolonged neck stiffness took me to physiotherapy sessions and I circled back to this eye-wear store to treat my neck. My neck and shoulder have been ruined due to hours of being on the computer and due to the error made in my progressive glass where the centre was not in the centre. It was meant to look at the computer screen straight, while I had been lifting my neck to get clear vision from the bottom of the lens. 

That Sunday morning, I had shared this challenge with the optician at the store. They had just taken my eye measurement through a machine. The good part of the machine is that it makes you less judgemental about yourself. Have you ever sat on an ophthalmologist’s chair where he tries minutely differing lenses and you get confused which one is the clearest. So in a way it was good that the guys used a machine to measure pupil’s centre, eye movements etc through a machine. But it was not enough, as here I was, against a counter, looking straight wearing trial lenses and he, on the other side, in a split position, marking on my lens. He took three measurements. Two differed so he used a blue and red pen to mark it. To verify, he called another colleague- a man of a similar height of mine, to see which one was accurate. The man announced a color. But they were still not satisfied. So they called another gentleman, in a uniform which clearly designated him as a senior of all other salesmen in a crisp white shirt with a tie, while others were people wearing blue. This man had to stand on his toes, in a tippy toe way to be at my level. One color mark on my lens was pronounced the winner. From a giraffe split to a straight standing man to a ballerina tip toe, I had men measuring my lens and it’s centre or the fitting height. 

Here I was, a customer amongst two-three trained salesmen, perfecting their skill on the progressive lens and reminding me of how my biases failed me. 

In today’s Habits for Thinking let me bring the focus to availability heuristic. In simple words, a heuristic is a shortcut in decision making.  

What is the availability heuristic?

The availability heuristic describes our tendency to use information that comes to mind quickly and easily when making decisions about the future.

Availability heuristic has been extended to machine heuristic. In a study, people who trusted machines were significantly more likely to hand over their credit card numbers to a computerized travel agent than a human travel agent. A bias that that machines are more trustworthy and secure than people—or the machine heuristic—may be behind the effect, said S. Shyam Sundar, James P. Jimirro Professor of Media Effects, co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory and affiliate of Penn State’s Institute for CyberScience (ICS). “This tendency to trust the machine agent more than the human agent was much stronger for people who were high on the belief in the machine heuristic,” said Sundar.

This is what happened to me where my lack of knowledge regarding progressive lenses coupled with machine heuristic, read trust in technology, led me to ignorance about wrong fitted glasses. 

Excerpt from my previous article on : 
What is Availability bias: All of us have the tendency to use information that comes to mind quickly and easily when making decisions about the future. Our memory is stronger of things that have vivid narration. This availability of our thoughts impacts our decision making.Studies have shown that victims and near victims spend on insurance purchases and protective action after disasters. Another example is you tend to handover a new project to a team member who has a clean recent record and not to an equally competent member who committed a small error recently. This is something similar to recency bias in investing where one tends to take investment decisions based on recent memorable events.

Availability heuristic in the case of trusting that a new age eyewear company is following all the processes is a natural phenomena. For example,  Amazon has made us believe that delivery and return is the easiest thing in e-commerce. So when a delivery is delayed or a return is cumbersome from another e-commerce business, we tend to get upset because our availability bias makes it tough to accept the delayed delivery. 

The first step is to understand the existence of availability bias as mentioned above. The second step is to think methodically about it.

1. Ask for Facts to avoid availability bias:

Availability bias means the mind retrieves the information that is easiest to recall. The mind anchors the latest memory. The last event, like a failure of a recent project, can stay in memory and may make you ignore the entire year’s performance of a person.  In such a case, an effort to take a look at the entire year’s report about the performance needs to be anchored around. 

A habit of presenting your mind with long term facts helps in clearing the bias. 

2. Practice Inversion Thinking to deal with availability bias:

Incase of high impact and irreversible decisions, practice inversion thinking while making decisions. For example, making an investment decision is sometimes colored by availability bias. One example can be the entire team thinking on similar lines. Inversion helps in questioning areas that could have been missed. (Read more about inversion thinking here)

Three men at the eyewear store took turns to remind me that my availability bias, the recall of online and technology trust, didn’t let me question my ill-fitted lens. It is a natural human behaviour.  It happens with us many times. We think the coach we have for the team is the best and knows the job, because he has been a star coach for so many others. We think that this stock has to be bought during the IPO because it is all over the newspapers. We think of what is available for us to think. 

To drink, giraffes first have to splay their forelegs and/or bend their knees, and only then can they lower their necks to reach the surface of the water. To protect the giraffe’s brain from sudden changes in blood pressure when it lowers its head to drink, it has valves to stop the back-flow of blood and elastic-walled vessels that dilate and constrict to manage flow. These are survival of the fittest adaptations. 

We humans need to have thinking adaptations too to survive. Availability bias is a mental model that needs to be worked upon consciously, through processes, to survive decisions.

Survival GIraffe

SHIFT, the online-offline course, next Cohort is starting 16th August. See the introductory video here. Reach out through this form for details/queries:

The Flywheel Of Growth: Three Essential Tenets

“Dig in and pull only when you hear go,” shouted my friend, a father of two little boys. Before I could repeat for the children standing closer to me, at the far end from where my friend was, I could hear him shout three, two, one and… A few of us were helping some little kids play a tug of war between two neighbouring housing societies. As the kids lined up, we realised the kids from our apartment were little children in their fives and sevens, definitely looked tinier than the kids on the other side, who were more like ten year olds. A fun game, but there is no one who doesn’t want to win. Realising this difference between the two sides, my friend and some of us who were standing on the sides, jumped closer to our gang of little kids, screaming instructions, lining up height wise and just getting them more organised. As some more kids ran and joined the tug of war on both sides, suddenly the attention shifted to this area and we noticed the imbalance. I remember the friend shouting three, two, one and I joined him in … GO. 

Our little gang, as instructed, pulled at one go. And yeah, despite being tinier than the other lot, they were able to pull the opposite team down on the grass. We won. No one expected it. Everything happened at a fast pace, the coming together of kids on both sides, cheering and running parents and the referee standing in the centre blowing the whistle to begin. Ecstatic was the word for the winning team’s reaction. Magic was the word that the losing team thought of when they saw a younger team pulling them down. Collaborative effort is what my friend smiled as his timely strategy worked. He had noticed that kids on both sides of the rope were not organised, it took him a loud voice to get them together and act. 

Business life is also a tug of war, not with another competitor but with the market forces itself. It is not about winning just one tug of war, but it is about continuously winning many tug of wars. In this week’s Habits for Thinking, I want to bring your attention to a concept highlighted by Jim Collins, author, Good to Great  – called the Flywheel effect. 

Here is an excerpt: 

Pushing with great effort, you get the flywheel to inch forward, moving almost imperceptible at first. You keep pushing and after two or three hours of persistent effort, you get the flywheel to complete one entire turn. 

You keep pushing and the flywheel begins to move a bit faster, and with continued great effort, you move it around a second rotation. You keep pushing in a consistent direction. Three turns… four…five… six… the flywheel builds up speed, seven … eight… keep pushing… nine… ten… it builds momentum… eleven… twelve…. Moving faster with each turn…. Twenty… thirty… fifty…. A hundred. Then at some point- breakthrough!  The momentum of the thing kicks in your favour, hurling the flywheel forward, turn after turn,,, whoosh!… its own heavy weight working for you. You are pushing no harder than during the first rotation, but the flywheel goes faster and faster. Each turn of the flywheel builds upon work done earlier, compounding your investment of effort. 

What was the one thing that caused things to go so fast? You wouldn’t be able to answer. Flywheel momentum is not an act of one big innovation, it is a combined effort of many small activities. 

For example, free shipping by Amazon is considered to have greased the flywheel for Amazon. “People who want something in 2 days are going to pay for it, but everyone who wants free shipping will get their stuff in 5 days,” says Jason Child, who describes the 2001 shipping fees debate as fundamental for the Amazon Prime program and Amazon’s explosive growth. The team was debating whether free shipping would cannibalize their revenue from shipping. The decision to offer free shipping to Amazon Prime customers was a journey from a debate to trials to a success story today. 

Not every idea is successful. Amazon too had launched and withdrawn other ideas. For example, placing a button on the fridge of the household for monthly repeat orders. These were called Amazon Dash buttons. It was rolled out only in a few markets. Designed as a stick-on button to be placed on the fridge or any convenient location, the button made it easier for customers to quickly reorder frequently used household items like paper towels, detergents, soaps etc.  The idea was to make it effortless for frequently ordering items. It didn’t roll out in many markets and after a few years of being in the market, Amazon pulled it out of the market a couple of years ago. 

Free shipping is not just one push in the giant flywheel of Amazon. There are several other activities too. Like getting to put the customer order in a package under a certain time limit in the inventory team. Or, to work on the ease of returns and refund. Every step that solves a customer problem was not taken as one giant step but  was seen as a small push in that area. The only common thread across all teams is focussed towards the goal: customer satisfaction. 

Several initiatives by Amazon have kept the Amazon flywheel in momentum. 

Flywheel is not one giant push. It is a matter of gaining momentum through multiple initiatives. Keeping the flywheel in motion is about keeping the business in good shape. The Flywheel of growth is fueled not by several push initiatives but is also strengthened by three tenets: 

1. Discipline fuels the flywheel: 

The discipline of remaining aligned to the mission. The discipline of keeping the momentum going. The important part of the flywheel growth is it doesn’t stop turning.It takes a disciplined approach to keep the pace of the flywheel. Success often makes businesses complacent. The discipline of turning customer knowledge into action, reading market pulse and maintaining the rigor does not allow any complacency to set in. 

2.Innovation adds to the flywheel momentum:

Flywheels do not move overnight. As a startup, a new innovation in product or service, customer engagement gets the flywheel moving. But as the startup moves and the flywheel gains momentum, the culture of innovation starts working on creating the next push for the flywheel. In established companies too the innovation culture has to keep the flywheel moving in the new digital world. A discipline of prototyping, testing, redesigning or embracing failure for that product or service makes the culture of innovation.

For example: UPS, the global shipping and logistics firm, took an innovative step. Realising the growth of small medium enterprises and e-commerce, UPS launched a new technology company called Ware2Go aimed at connecting small- and medium-sized businesses with warehouses to help streamline online orders. “This is really a technology and platform company – more than a services business – with merchants on one side, looking for order fulfillment capabilities, warehouses looking to fill space appropriately. We wanted to build that using the best of both worlds,” said Nick Basford, vice president of global retail and e-commerce strategy for UPS. Ware2Go is one innovation push to UPS flywheel. 

But it doesn’t stop there. Recently, Ware2Go has added another offering – NetworkVu that analyzes merchant sales and transit data using machine learning with the aim of recommending ideal warehouse placements to small and medium enterprises. This is to maximize delivery speeds within ground networks and control costs.

Ware2go is a new business offering. It is further aided by recommendations for warehouse placements. Each of these add momentum to UPS flywheel business.  

3.People keep the flywheel in motion

The culture of flywheel is dependent on people- not just leadership but also on the middle management. To get teams aligned, especially the middle management aligned towards innovation is not an easy task as this set of people are focussed on regular work delivery. Also, flywheel can stop if the momentum drops due to leadership change, management change. If the business holds a strong culture of innovation and keeps the team aligned to the main purpose, businesses  get built further on with that culture. 

Discipline, Innovation and People are three essential tenets for keeping flywheel in motion. Getting complacent in any one area will initially slow the speed and later will bring it to a halt. It is almost like being in the tug of war and getting all three, the discipline, the culture of innovation and people digging in and pulling together with the sound Go. 

Jeff Bezos: the best Gatekeeper for Wally Funk

Chances are you would not have heard of Wally Funk a couple of weeks back. Chances are you are reading this name for the first time here. I learnt about her while curating articles for the weekly edition of The Read Aloud Club last week. Who is Wally Funk? I want to tell you the story of this 82 year old lady who featured on Jeff Bezos’ instagram post last week as his guest to be a part of the inaugural space shuttle, Blue Origin’s crewed flight,  along with Bezos. At 82. 

Wally Funk is 82 years old. At 22, 60 years ago, she had spent 10 hours 35 minutes floating in a water tank in a sensory deprivation room, dark enough to not see anything and soundproof to not hear anything, as a part of the Women Astronaut test. She was pulled out of the dark room water tank not because she didn’t cope with it, but because she had broken the record for staying the longest. In another test at the same time, icy cold water was injected in her ear to test tolerance of vertigo pain induced by it. While she passed all the tests, gates were kept closed for women in space. The program for women in space was called off. 

This week, Jeff Bezos opened the gates to space for Wally Funk as he chose her to be the guest on the Blue Origin space trip. Here is his announcement on his instagram post:

Gender stereotypes are real. Across most cultures and most countries. But this article is not about women and equal rights, this is about you and me and every adult with the ability to make decisions. In today’s Habits for Thinking, I am focussing on our role as the gatekeeper, a role that each one of us plays in personal and professional life. I am bringing your attention to the gatekeeper’s mind. 

The Gatekeeper Mind: 

We make several small and big decisions in our daily life. Some decisions have an impact on others’ life and that impact is like a gatekeeping job. For instance, as a team leader, you may deny a trainee to negotiate a deal. This decision is based on two notions: firstly, trainees are not experienced enough to negotiate a deal and secondly, your judgement of the person as you assess his capability to handle it. The fact that he is a trainee influences your judgement. The two notions are not independent of each other. Typically a trainee would not be assigned the role. But, your judgment surpasses the first notion and you find him smart to take up the job.  As you allow the trainee to negotiate, you open the gate for him. 

But most gatekeeping doesn’t earn much thought- these happen because our society has made them as norms that have been accepted across cultures and generations, at workplaces and at homes. That is what makes gatekeeping a not-so-obvious, passively active, process in our minds. Passive because we don’t give much thought to it, active because we are always doing the job of gatekeeping. 

Wally Funk, the 82 year old shows us the two sides of the gatekeepers mind. One, that closes gates for her and the other that she keeps it open inside, her own mind. 

The Gatekeeper told Wally Funk: You are not a man

In 1962, a congressional hearing considered the question of adding women to its astronaut corps, and John Glenn, the first man to go to space, had gone through capability tests along with Wally, fresh off his historic journey, dismissed the possibility: “The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them. The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order.” That fact stuck for more than two decades, until Sally Ride launched into orbit in 1983, the first woman to go to space. 

The Gatekeeper told Wally Funk : You are not an engineer

For the next few years, Wally Funk sought out more tests to prove her capability.She applied to NASA’s astronaut corps four times, but the agency wanted its astronauts to have engineering degrees, and Funk didn’t have one. Today, NASA has different requirements for its astronauts; prospective candidates can have degrees in other science fields, not just engineering.

Wally Funk is the best Gatekeeper of her own mind. Everytime a gatekeeper stopped her, her mind continued marching forward. She may not have gone to space, but she didn’t deter either. She continued working as a flight instructor and later became the first female investigator for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), looking into plane crashes.

How did she feel when it ended? “Well, it’s not going to stop me. It doesn’t matter.” Wasn’t she disappointed? “I don’t have that kind of a life. I’m a positive person. Things were cancelled? So what? Wally’s going on. Why are people so negative? I’m not a quitter.”

An excerpt from an interview in The Guardian

Gatekeeping is a necessity. How to live and let live, how to behave are some of the norms that have been defined as the law. That is why inclusivity, gender diversity are some of the new changes in the law that will change lives. Gatekeeper is an individual mindset that functions in a non existential way. Covered by  societal norms and bound by cultural threads, it works on its own framework of decision making.

Each one of us plays the role of a gatekeeper, mostly sub-consciously, both for oneself and for the circle of influence that one has. Here are some of the reference points to seed the consciousness in you: 

1. Gatekeeper of your own thoughts:

Wally Funk

So when the opportunity for space travel does arise, Funk will be ready. 

And if it doesn’t, she’ll be ready anyway. 

Wally Funk didn’t stop. We are often stopped by our own thoughts. It seems unachievable because no one in and around has been that far. That is gatekeeping of your own ambition. I have gone through internal resistance on a couple of occasions and everytime one has to fight one’s thoughts with logic and clarity, and keep the gate open.  There is always a gatekeeper in one’s own mind. 

2. Gatekeeper of people’s dreams and potentials: 

Parenting taught me the lessons of gatekeeping. It made me conscious to define if I was holding the gate open or close to people at work. Parenting teaches you that your job is to create opportunities for children to find their interest and passion. You open more and more gates. As a leader at the workplace, this is what you have to remind yourself and see if you can open gates to achieve higher potential. 

There will be occasions that you may not agree completely to an idea proposed by the team. It happens in creative pursuits and I like the Jeff Bezos way of working: to disagree and commit. Read more about it here. 

3. Gatekeeper of the right and the wrong:

We are born in a culture built years ago. Similarly, when we walk into a new leadership role, we walk into a culture that has been nurtured by previous leaders. One need not accept every nuance. A gatekeeper of the culture has to keep moral intelligence awake where you make decisions not because all generations have been doing it but because you need to do it. Some offices have the culture where during the meeting, juniors will sit on the side while seniors on the table, even if the junior is an integral part of the discussion or the boss will be called only when all attendees have arrived in the meeting room. If you have worked in Nariman Point offices, the original high rise workplaces in Mumbai, you would have experienced elevators reserved only for Directors. When the offices shifted to Bandra Kurla Complex, this culture was plucked out. 

It might be a PR stunt for him but look at what Jeff Bezos has done – a woman ✓, a woman with a space dream ✓✓, a woman with a space dream and rejected on gender issues ✓✓✓. ‘Taking Funk on this ride may be a great PR stunt, but at its core, it is a real gift, to a real person,’ writes The Atlantic. Jeff Bezos has been the best gatekeeper for Wally Funk. 

We all face gatekeepers. We all are gatekeepers. Gatekeepers of our thoughts, of opportunities for others, of societal norms. Let us remember to keep gates open. 

Your growth is in your hands, err minds

Decoding Design Thinking, Stephen Covey habits, Atomic habits and Habits for Thinking

“Oh, she has a mind too!” This is a comment hard to understand by the new age workers in the new age companies like startups and technology driven ventures. I still feel offended about it. It was nearly eight years into my work life then, not too many years, but considered young for a role designated as Director – Strategy and Marketing. I was young, much younger to the lady in conversation. She headed an outdoor advertising agency and had proposed an alliance concept to our company. In one of the meetings, where I joined the Managing Director’s office midway into the conversation, I must have made some comments. I don’t remember what she had proposed, I don’t remember what were my comments, but memory is weird, I remember the sofa she sat in, the angle her body was tilted to and obviously her sarcastic tone that said, ‘she has a mind too’. And, my boss had smiled, “Yes, she has a mind.”  I don’t know if his smile had a hint of pride, ultimately he had appointed me.

Having a mind, a working mind, was a matter of surprise. Having a mind means clarity of thought, the ability to simplify decision making matrices, having a mind means creative thinking, having the ability to handle people and comments without losing focus. In 2008, when this comment had happened, younger people were viewed as interns, novice at workplaces.  Now, younger people are the ones seen with the knowledge. Nobody passes such comments anymore. Senior people, with years of experience, accept the younger generations’ mindful approach sometimes easily, sometimes with a pinch of salt. This is not because they do not know, this is because they lag the pace of the technological growth that their mind has been challenged to. 

Let me ask you a question. How do you measure your growth in work life? Designation at work, salary raise every year, bonuses, etc.? It is ironic, the higher up  you reach in your organisation, the fewer options are available to you to grow. 

Goodhart’s law says “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” 

It is wise to remember this law when you reflect on your growth in work life, it is even wiser to reflect  on how your mind is growing with the changing world. 

So in today’s Habits for Thinking, I want to bring your attention to your own growth. And, to the fact that your growth is driven by your habits. The ability to learn, unlearn, embrace failure and success with the same feeling are all a part of the ability to develop a growth mindset.

To illustrate, the feeling of what you miss, like the one mentioned in the above tweet, here is a description of what are the qualities that a Stripe Manager is looking into while hiring product managers:

“We want technical product managers, strong product instincts, lead by influence, channel multiple points of view. At Stripe, we look for not just smart people but quick people. You will do well if you’re very, very agile. Being able to ingest a lot of complexity and then find a path of clarity through that. Quick-thinking, quick-acting people do really well here. We also want people who will not be held back by a lack of somebody handing them a checklist of all the steps to go through. Being able to thrive in ambiguity. You may have something in mind, but you go talk to customers and learn something totally different. People who are fluid with that will do very well.”

The business expects quick thinkers, doers, playful with ideas etc. This can only be achieved when the business leaders and people think of their own growth. Growth will come from developing the right habits. When you have nurtured habits to become an innovative thinker, problem solver, decision maker, you become a quick thinker too.

L&D (Learning and Development)teams across organisations focus on getting training that serves an immediate need like customer service, team building, leadership needs etc. To develop agile mindsets of people is not a focus yet across most organisations. The mindset shift is a continuous process through habits and ideas. Here are three popular and a baby new concepts that work on habits and ideas and growth thinking. 

This week, on habits for thinking, think about your own growth. 

1. Design Thinking:

Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.

—TIM BROWN, EXECUTIVE CHAIR OF IDEO

Design Thinking is a process for innovation of products or services. There are dedicated teams in corporate culture designated to run the process. But, the beauty of design thinking is the ability to develop a mindset for empathy, team brainstorming, problem solving etc. 

Note: If your organisation has a Design Thinking team, ask your L&D team to get you to learn from them.The process will introduce you to a lot of new ways of thinking. 

2. Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:

You may have read his book, his writing,workshops etc. Here are the seven habits for a quick reference:

  1. Be Proactive
  2. Begin with the End in Mind
  3. Put First Things First
  4. Think Win-Win
  5. Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood
  6. Synergize
  7. Sharpen the Saw

The last habit in the list encourages continuous improvement and renewal professionally and personally. Sharpen the Saw means preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have–you. It means having a balanced program for self-renewal in the four areas of your life: physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual. Here are some examples of activities:

Physical:Beneficial eating, exercising, and resting
Social/Emotional:Making social and meaningful connections with others
Mental:Learning, reading, writing, and teaching
Spiritual:Spending time in nature, expanding spiritual self through meditation, music, art, or service
From https://www.franklincovey.com/habit-7/

3. Atomic Habits by James Clear: 

I haven’t read the book Atomic Habits, Here is the latest review from a reader taken from Atomic Habits website: Three major takeaways from this  book are:

  • An atomic habit is a regular practice or routine that is small and easy to do and is also the source of incredible power; a component of the system of compound growth.
  • Bad habits repeat themselves again and again not because you don’t want to change, but because you have the wrong system for change.
  • Changes that seem small and unimportant at first will compound into remarkable results if you’re willing to stick with them for years.

4. SHIFT: Simple Habits & Ideas for Forward Thinking

I have referred to my extensive experience, my Design Thinking skills and my learnings through research, reading and observations to author SHIFT. A collection of fifteen habits and ideas, SHIFT is designed to develop a growth mindset. It keeps you at the centre with the work process on one side and your own learning from people and communities around you on the other side. Each habit is continuously sharpening the saw. 

Simplicity is the key because habits need to become a part of life, habits to make your work process better, habits to channelise your creative energies, habits to develop new ideas and habits to make decisions. If one thinks that one knows it all, try this one: Improve

Growth

The idea is not to plug in the course here, the idea is to make you realise that you are a sum of your choices and habits. While Design Thinking gives you ideas, Stephen Covey urges you to sharpen the saw, Atomic Habits shows you the path on how to adopt it, SHIFT suggests which ones to take up and how it will impact. 

Measure your personal growth with the right yardstick, or someone will comment, “Do you have a mind?”

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. 

  1. https://www.collaborativefund.com/blog/standing/
  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.