Talks

3 must-know growth tenets from the prepaid success

Kaamta Driver. Kaamta New. Kaamta driver 20. Kaamta Jio. Kaamta is my parents’ driver. Last Sunday, he was there at the airport to receive me. Actually, he has been there every time I have gone back home in the last twenty years. New, jio, driver 20 are the names of his phone numbers saved in my contacts. He has a knack of getting a new number every time I feel I have cracked which one works. It is a routine between us, he gives me a new number, then I ask him – ‘aur, pehle wala?’ (and, the earlier one?) and he has an answer on the lines of ‘Hai, abhi bhai le gaya hai’ or ‘abhi discharge hai.’ (It is there but my brother has taken it or it is discharged). So you can’t delete the old number and you save the new one with a new code name hoping you have cracked it. The last one I saved was driver20, in 2020. It didn’t work. It seems nothing related to 2020 works. 

I had to call my mother to get his number for the pick up. Waiting for the pick up at the airport, I decided I am not going to save his latest number. What is the point, eventually I have to dial my mother to reach him. 

Kaamta is not the only one. There are many who change their phone numbers frequently. The reason could be many. But the most common factor is that these are prepaid numbers. So when I heard Nandan Nilekani in conversation with Haresh Chawla on the topic of All things digital, what stood out for me was Nilekani’s comment on prepaid phone strategy. His comment took me to the success story of prepaid, almost like that of sachet marketing in fmcg, when fmcg brands made inroads in rural markets through packaging of products in small, affordable, sachet form. 

Following is what Founding Fuel has published as an excerpt from the talk of Nandan Nilekani: 

The India opportunity in the next decade, where India will go from a “prepaid” economy to a “postpaid” economy. This will drive a huge cycle of consumption and growth, because credit will boost the system. (The prepaid model was built by the mobile companies in pre-Aadhaar times, when they couldn’t identify the user. It enabled them to reach every corner of the country. As people get to digital payments, build credit histories, they will now be ready for credit.)

Nandan Nilekani talked about the state of Indian economy and opportunities. He brought up the example of prepaid mobile reach in the country and talked about prepaid to illustrate democratisation of credit lending as an idea to drive the growth. Prepaid in the mobile segment is 95% of the market share. 95% is a staggering figure for one particular service in its space to rule the market. Imagine a train commute pass where you have two options – one where you get to use the pass for a month with unlimited rides, like in Chennai metro, and the second one like any prepaid mobile service, where you buy travel points and commute and the second one is so lucrative, like the prepaid mobile service, that it takes a bigger chunk of the two offerings. Similarly, if one looks at other services like education, credit lending, mutual fund investments, and the different offerings in the respective bouquet, there is no particular offer that outshines the rest to the same extent as prepaid mobile. Prepaid mobile is not only about the 95% share that it occupies as the share of services, it is also the only unique service that has reached the nook and corner of the country. And, mostly through offline mode initially. It has not only reached, it continues to be the bedrock of growth in the country. 

In Habits for Thinking, we bring focus on mental models. Mental models are how we understand things. It is our reference point, our understanding arranged in chunks in our mind. Mental models are our thinking tools, they help us form a web of frameworks which helps in decision making and problem solving. We learn mentals models from different fields like economy, from science for example read about entropy here, from sports, from business etc. In today’s Habits for Thinking, here is a mental model inspired by the prepaid mobile market, as a consumer strategy framework. The economy is moving towards a gig economy where a steady flow of income is changing to income in batches with some months to be good months and some to be slow-generating-income months. Understanding consumer behaviour behind the success of prepaid mobile adoption, is a lens to the evolution of current and future services. 

In this model, we look at three tenets that made the adoption of pre-paid mobile cards deep and wide.

The Tenet Of Convenience: 

Convenience is complex. It is not just about the convenience of shopping, but convenience is about the ease of decision making. Is the decision making convenient enough for one to make a purchase? What are the factors that impact decision making? First is the price. To make products affordable, FMCG companies introduced sachet as a packaging variant. Prepaid has gone to another level. They made many sizes of sachet available, meaning you can buy a small amount of mobile time too. Availability, the most visible convenience factor, is most talked about in the field of ecommerce. Let me bring your attention to the availability of prepaid cards ten-twelve years ago. PrePaid cards were not launched through e-commerce but the convenience was added through prepaid sale counters in every corner store in small towns and villages. Selling from the neighbourhood store killed two birds in one. The product was made easily available and the sale through a neighborhood store owner made it trustworthy and for some, available on credit too. The trust that a face to face sale generates is sometimes essential in adoption of a category. People know the neighbourhood store guy and are comfortable buying sim cards through him. Affordability of price, easy availability and trust made the decision making easier.  

Convenience of an offering is not  just about affordability and availability, but it is about the ease of decision making for the consumer

The Tenet Of Flexibility: 

You can recharge not just any amount, you can use it for as long as you want. It has no stopper on the calendar like an expiry date. So there is no pressure on your time. This flexibility over time and spend empowers the end user and therefore aids in quick decision making by the end user. Flexibility about time also takes care of the seasonality of spends. During festive seasons, income rises and therefore the power to spend. If we had a health insurance plan that would allow variable amounts to be paid in the bucket as against a fixed amount every month, it would possibly see more adoption of health insurance. In the gig economy, seasonal spending will only grow and so will the need to have flexible programs

The Tenet Of Respectability:  

It doesn’t judge you. It lets you be you. There is no shame in refuelling a Rs. 20 charge. It doesn’t ask why you recharge three times in a week when you could have done once in the week. It does not judge the irregular flow of liquidity. One day one can have Rs100 in cash and the other day just Rs 20. That’s reality. But no one is judging that. 

It often happens during a sales negotiation, that the buyer starts thinking about how the seller is perceiving him. Luxury brands thrive on perception marketing. Many purchase decisions get influenced by what others will think and these ‘other people’ could be friends, colleagues and sometimes even the sales guy. My years of observing consumer behaviour has noticed that a buyer may get conscious of what he is ordering in the restaurant influenced by people around him but he is never conscious of how much or how little he is paying for a prepaid mobile. The credit goes to building a category where there is no perception marketing. 

There is another advantage of prepaid mobile cards’ positioning and price point. It makes everyone equal. The office boy and the office boss both have access to the same. But health insurance is out of bound for the office boy. Not because he cannot afford it, but because the product doesn’t meet the needs of office boy.  

Prepaid cards are levellers, it not only makes everyone equal, it does not judge anyone for his/her irregular flow of liquidity.

As we move into a transactional economy, the convenience of decision making, the flexibility of the offering to suit needs and the respectability of the product will define the growth of any product or service. Nandan Nilekani brought up the fact that the consumer today has access to digital platforms and has aadhar identity card. He is ready to consume, if we are ready to sell like the prepaid mobile businesses. 

A leadership skill I watched in a thief

Have you been woken up around 7.45am by a burglar? It happened to me. I was away with family and friends for our prized winter break in the last week of December. We were sharing a holiday home, nestled in a residential colony and secured by a tall compound wall with only one main entrance to the house. It must have been around 7.45am, I heard someone push open the door with a force. I had secured the door with a latch the night before but it must have been easy for the barrel to slip down with the brute force applied on the door.  The first thought crossed my mind was of my daughter who was in the other room and I jumped out to check that door when I saw this man walking up the stairs to rooms. The holiday home has a couple of rooms on the ground floor and a lovely, wooden staircase going up to the rooms on the first floor.  The man paused in his steps, turned around and gave me a stare and I thought how rude this housekeeping guy was! 

Later, almost an hour after this, we slowly came to realise that the man was a thief, had walked up to the bedroom on the first floor and taken out laptops from one room and then stepped into the other room and took some more gadgets and a laptop bag. In one room one person was sleeping and another one was inside the washroom. In the second room two people were sleeping when their devices were swept off. Work and school from home means we travel with our computer devices. That man had a big haul of gadgets in a matter of a few minutes that morning. The irony is, he not only saw me briefly, he met another guest on the first floor who asked him for a housekeeping errand as she walked out of the house for her morning stroll. This guest had a few seconds of exchanges with the thief. CCTV cameras on the property have recorded him walking in through the main gate, towards the building with rooms, getting inside it, coming out with a water jug following the guest, walking back in, walking out again empty handed may be to check on the guest’s whereabouts and walking back again into the holiday home and eventually coming out with a laptop bag full of gadgets and walking out of the main gate into one of the narrow lanes. There was no vehicle waiting for him. He had come empty handed and walked out with a backpack full of devices. 

My memory said he wore a white shirt which the CCTV confirmed. The other guest’s memory said he was in red trainers, again confirmed through CCTV footage. He wore a mask, as expected during these times. 

I am not narrating this story to bring to your attention that uncertainties are an everyday phenomenon and that uncertainties come in various forms. I am also not going to talk about how we dealt or how one should deal with such events afterwards. 

Every time I think about the incident, it reminds me of this man’s courage. The courage to walk in broad daylight, the courage to continue on his mission after meeting two adults on the way. But courage doesn’t come alone. We don’t know how he would have reacted if the person would have come out from the washroom while he was packing gadgets in the bag. Courage doesn’t mean absence of fear. 

In the first week of 2021, I am bringing your attention to a leadership skill that Nelson Mandela spoke about in 1994. He said,

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

TIME’s former managing editor Richard Stengel outlined the world leader’s eight leadership lessons, starting with, “Courage is not the absence of fear–it’s inspiring others to move beyond it. Stengel wrote- 

In 1994, during the presidential-election campaign, Mandela got on a tiny propeller plane to fly down to the killing fields of Natal and give a speech to his Zulu supporters. I agreed to meet him at the airport, where we would continue our work after his speech. When the plane was 20 minutes from landing, one of its engines failed. Some on the plane began to panic. The only thing that calmed them was looking at Mandela, who quietly read his newspaper as if he were a commuter on his morning train to the office. The airport prepared for an emergency landing, and the pilot managed to land the plane safely. When Mandela and I got in the backseat of his bulletproof BMW that would take us to the rally, he turned to me and said, “Man, I was terrified up there!”

Mandela was often afraid during his time underground, during the Rivonia trial that led to his imprisonment, during his time on Robben Island. “Of course I was afraid!” he would tell me later. It would have been irrational, he suggested, not to be. “I can’t pretend that I’m brave and that I can beat the whole world.” But as a leader, you cannot let people know. “You must put up a front.”

And that’s precisely what he learned to do: pretend and, through the act of appearing fearless, inspire others. It was a pantomime Mandela perfected on Robben Island, where there was much to fear. Prisoners who were with him said watching Mandela walk across the courtyard, upright and proud, was enough to keep them going for days. He knew that he was a model for others, and that gave him the strength to triumph over his own fear.

Often, during business decisions, leaders crumble not because they do not have the courage to take the decision but because they get crippled by the prospect of failure. New project decisions, a new product design, a new market exploration, a new important hire… there are many decisions that the business leader has to make during his tenure. Most decisions require logical thinking and are supported by data but there are some decisions, decisions that have a consequential impact, that require courage to move forward. Sometimes it is not the data, it is the fear of failure that holds the decision from becoming a reality. 

Like intuition, fear is also an integral part of thinking like we face fear of failure, fear of being judged as indecisive etc. Fear is like a package offer with courage, buy courage, get fear free! Sometimes it is in insignificant form but sometimes it takes a larger space.  This fear takes the path to safe decisions instead of bold, courageous decisions. In business decisions, there are multiple paths that vary in degree of boldness and outcome. Some bold decisions have bigger chances of failure. Safe decisions are decisions that do not deliver spectacular outcomes but these also are not the reason for any failure or may fail only with limited damage. Leaders take safe decisions,well, to remain safe. That is why we see less change in culture, lesser innovations because staying in the safe territory requires less or no courage. 

Courage overshadowed by fear for any leader becomes visible to the team. Nelson Mandela was conscious as a leader that his expression of fear will have an impact on his followers. 

It is an important leadership lesson that while courage is an individual’s experience, it is being watched. So is fear. As a leader, it is important to remember the following:

1. Courage is not the absence of fear.

2. Bold decisions have chances of getting overshadowed by fear. If the decision maker is conscious of fear, he can address it logically and not let fear overshadow bold decisions. 

3. Leaders are watched by team members. At times, it is imperative to display courage and keep fear under wraps. 

If the man in the holiday home would have displayed any fear, maybe, one of us would have sensed misdeed. It is ironic that a burglar, in bright morning light, in a house full of people, brought our attention to the fact – ‘courage is not the absence of fear.’ He enacted it. It takes negative circumstances to show us lessons, it takes a pandemic to teach us many values, it takes a thief to remind us that courage and fear co-exist and managing the balance between our courage and fear is the key to our success. 

SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST, err, THE FITTER

Thirty Four is not an age to go but some people must go. No matter if they have to leave behind some friends, family and even a less than 5 year old son. They touch lives and go. This is how a friend went, all of thirty four, last month, when I was writing about entropy, ironically the ultimate entropy is death. And just the day prior to that he had liked my article on risks and decisions. Out of my many pieces of writing, this was the first time he had liked an article, as in clicked on the like button on Facebook. I will never know if he ever read this one or for that matter if he read any of my work, all I know is possibly this was the way of saying bye to me. Or, maybe this was his way of saying to me, ‘finally, you have started sharing your knowledge.’ He had said that to me ten years ago.

It was around 2010, while running my first entrepreneurial venture, when I met this person to strike some business. Working with an agency, he used to manage accounts of large FMCG brands. We did some business together but that’s not important, what is important is that he prodded me to give some corporate training sessions. He felt my thoughts and knowledge could enrich people at workplaces. I gave no importance to his idea ten years ago. His passing reminded me of those conversations and the fact that he had valued and practiced some of these ideas that I write about today. He was a part of my learning ladder. 

People say Twenty Twenty has been a mammoth learning ladder itself. They say we learnt not to just live indoors, we learnt to work indoors, play indoors, learnt to celebrate indoors and learnt to mourn indoors. Like pandemic, there are colossal events we were never warned about. Like a major technological advancement in one business driving out other companies completely out of the business. Or a simple social media post becoming a seed for innovation of a business idea and therefore creating a disruption in that space. 

The entire game of life has circled back to the theory of survival of the fittest. Now, we need not only physical fitness but also mental fitness. It is about looking inward and thinking on how to grow fitter. It is about the fittest, not the fittest amongst us, but a fitter version of our own. We are now competing with our own version. 

Mental fitness is the ability to grow in our thoughts to be able to make choices and decisions based on our own frameworks of work and life. It is about creative thinking, problem solving, decision making and most importantly, helping the mind grow stronger. And, like in physical fitness we dedicate time and attention to shape our fitness, in mental fitness too we need to dedicate time and attention to grow our thinking through a network of mental models. 

Athletes, sports persons are trained to think in a manner that becomes their driver. Training of mind is not unusual, it exists in pockets of performances like training for leadership or training for sports excellence. What is uncommon is commonly thinking about thinking. Here are three pieces from this year’s edition on how to grow fitter”

3 SIMPLE MIND GYM RULES YOU NEED TO KNOW

Excerpt: 

Abhinav Bindra had said:  “If you are competing in an Olympic final with the very best in the world, you ought to be physically drained. It is inevitable. You have already given it your best and that’s when the mind-body synergy comes into play. At one stage the mind goes numb and that’s when the body takes over. The hours of training that an athlete has put into getting to the top then takes centerstage.”

What Bindra is referring to is a kind of mind and body equilibrium seldom achieved in sport. It is a state where the mind can push the body and vice-versa. If one faculty is tired and fatigued, the other takes over and drives the athlete into a kind of robotic state of functioning.

Read article here

NURTURE A GROWTH MINDSET

Excerpt:

A growth mindset, in contrast, believes that intelligence can be developed. It creates a desire to learn and therefore develops a tendency to embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks and pick up learnings from their failures. As a result they reach higher levels of achievement.

If you are wondering which type of mindset you have, remember, we all have parts of both types. One type may be predominant in our behaviour and we need to, through our actions and thoughts, nurture more of the growth mindset. 

Read article here

THE MAMMOTH POWER OF DHONI’S ATTENTION

Excerpt:

Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings and actions of another person. It is about going out of your own perspective and stepping into the other person’s view. Being empathetic holds one from being judgemental and it helps in touching a chord.

This mental model of empathy helps us nurture the social nature of our mind. It is a powerful tool for innovation and creative thinking explained both in the course SHIFT and in Design Thinking. 

Read article here


Pandemic is just another reason that has brought in uncertainties. Technology acceleration, climate change, our expansive social network, they all disrupt our present sense of understanding of the space. To create better understanding, to navigate more efficiently and to keep growing and innovating, it is imperative that we have our focus on developing our thinking skills. And focus on the rule-

It is the survival of the fitter, the fitter me.  

The terrific value of inversion thinking

“It’s just a joke, I can delete it.” -Jacob

“That doesn’t mean it goes away.” -Andy

Have you seen Defending Jacob on Apple TV? Jacob is a teenage child who is accused of killing his classmate. Andy is his father and as the title suggests, the eight part series is about Defending Jacob. Jacob, like any other teenager, has made social media posts that direct the court’s discussions towards him being the culprit.  

Andy, when he discovers the mistake, confronts Jacob on his post to which Jacob replies that he can delete the post. Teenagers may not understand that deleting or undoing doesn’t mean that the damage caused by that act can be undone too.

Not just teenagers, even adults are not trained to look for negative space or invert their thinking. In this week’s edition, the last edition* for Twenty Twenty, I want to bring your attention to something which we do not see easily, which is thinking in inversion mode, thinking upside down. Andy can see that for his son, he can see the impact of those posts in courtroom discussions. 

Inversion or turning upside down is explained nicely in creative designs. Before I take you to Inversion Thinking, let us see what negative space means through visuals in design. 

Artists, photographers, painters, web designers understand the concept of negative space in their designs and in their creative work. Negative space, when given attention, makes the design unique. By definition, negative space in a design or in a photograph is the space around and behind the object. This is the empty or the blank space in the art form, be it in a painting, a photograph, a logo design or a page on the mobile app. The area is designed in the manner that the object stands out. Imagine a web page with a lot of images and text and no empty space in it? The page loses your attention. 

The negative space gives a form, a perspective, a proportion or placement to the object in the frame. The negative space exists only in relation to the positive space. There is nothing in design called a negative space in the absence of the positive space. It is like the Yin and Yang- without one, the other doesn’t matter. 

The negative space can actually be a designer’s strategy. An artist can focus on the negative space as the composition strategy and use the space to make the work stand out distinctively. Usage of negative space or the prominence given to it creates unique work as seen in some real life examples here:

Negative Space In Logos 

Fedex: The white arrow between the E and the X, once seen is never forgotten. The logo has won ample design awards and is constantly featured in ‘best logos’ lists. The logo was originally designed by Lindon Leader in 1994. 

Formula 1: This clever negative space logo, with a number 1 in white space, designed by Carter Wong studio, served Formula 1 well – it was in use

Negative Space In Book Covers

Testament: Noma Bar is well-known for his negative space imagery, and the cover he created for Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments is no exception. Look closely at the hooded figure’s robe, for example, and you’ll see another figure hiding

Negative Space In photographs 

  • Still waiting by Nathan Kendall 
  • New York City by Steve Kelley

Attention to the negative space is a necessity in design. Ill defined negative space leads to clutter and overload of information. As Aarron Walter author, Designing for Emotion, says, “if everything yells for your viewer’s attention, nothing is heard”.

Our thinking is like that. Sometimes, when there is too much clutter, there is no clear thinking. Like in designing, we need to value the negative space, similarly we need to pay attention to negative space in thoughts as well. It is called Inversion Thinking. And, like negative space can be a designer’s strategy, Inversion thinking can be used as a thinking model at times. 

I read about Inversion Thinking in an interview with Charlie Munger, Berkshire Hathaway Partner. He had said:

“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

Tell me where I am going to die, that is, so I don’t go there. The maxim forInversion thinking. Apparently Charlie Munger picked up Inversion Thinking from German mathematician’s Carl Jacobi. Jacobi had expressed that hard problems can be solved by inverting them. His thought was, ‘Invert, always invert.’

Inversion Thinking is NOT setting up a goal and thinking backwards on how to achieve the goal. 

Inversion thinking is different. In Inversion Thinking you actually turn the situation upside down and completely reverse the equation. Like in forward thinking you think about how will you succeed, in Inversion thinking you think how will you fail. It is similar to the negative space in any design.  Inversion Thinking is when you actually use the negative space as the design focus, reverse the focus from what you want to attain to what you do not want to attain. 

In a crude way, if I have to ask you, How will one ensure getting infected with Covid? The answer would be by not wearing any mask, by mixing in a large, unknown crowd, by not following isolation rules etc. Somehow, this question has more power to nudge people who avoid masks than making a simple request to wear the mask. Asking this question is inverting the problem.  

By inverting the problem, you outline the results you do not want. This helps you plan your process to avoid those unwanted results. 

How and When to practice Inversion Thinking:

While Charlie Munger practiced and talked about Inversion Thinking in his investing decisions, in my view Inversion Thinking can be brought about while facing a dilemma. In situations of complex problems, or uncertain situations one can invert the problem and start from the end instead of starting from the beginning. 

Tip 1:  saying ‘No’ is one step towards Inversion Thinking. 

Sometimes, we do things we do not want to do and we regret later. Taking too many things on the plate is an example of creating clutter, whether in work life or personal life. Just a no, a simple decline to another work or another social gathering helps in removing the clutter. A NO is similar to the negative space in a design. It always exists with a yes like the positive space always exists with the negative space. We just have to learn to focus on that. 

Tip 2: Many times avoiding stupidity is a better option than trying to be smart and brilliant. 

“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.”— Charlie Munger

Inversion Thinking helps one avoid being stupid. Like, in Defending Jacob, if asked what series of actions will lead to Jacob’s conviction? The answers could be media reports, what his friends said, his past behaviour, his social media behaviour etc. Therefore, his father is worried about the social media post. Jacob only wanted to look smart and made a funny post. Being stupid and keeping quiet would have been a wise step. 

Inversion Thinking also has the ability to make you hold two opposite point of views in your mind. These opposing views firm up your decision in the best direction. For example, if you invest in a company you are in love with, you should practice inverting your decision. How will the business, say a biscuit company, will have the lowest market share? By not focussing on distribution, by not marketing the products and by not having a sales team. If you can evaluate your investment decisions based on these parameters, you would have just practiced Inversion thinking. 

Inversion Thinking is an asset. All that we need to remember is “Tell me where am I going to die, so I will not go there.”


  1. *The next week’s edition will be a review edition, not a new column
  2. ** The cover design has Apple logo, an example of the negative space usage – this was a tribute made by Team Apple on Steve Job’s death. 

The magic of creative confidence

Eighteen minutes. That is all that you get to put across your story. Your life story may be thirty years long or fifty years long, you still get only eighteen minutes as an outer limit to present your story to a room full of people seated in ambient darkness anticipating to get enlightened though your TED talk. 

So when you get eighteen minutes to speak, you don’t tell them what you did when you were five or when you were fifteen, you tell them one slice of that life. Actually, it is not even a slice – it is a sliver of the slice. ‘In fact, some of our greatest TED Talks have been as short as 5 minutes long!’ Says TED Talks website. 

If you were to talk on a TED platform, what would you present? I asked this question to a group of friends last week. An accomplished circle, their bags full of stories but when it comes to sharing one, most had a common answer and that was – ‘Not my cup of tea, I am not so creative.’ The buck stops there. Not creative enough. 

This December, as you await new beginnings, give yourself a promise- a promise to nurture your own creative confidence. This December, as we spread light around us, let us rekindle the light of creativity within.

Creativity is a mindset, not just how we draw or paint or have an eye for art direction. It is how we think and create new ideas and how we find solutions to challenges are also results of creative thinking. What stops us from being creative is not how we have skilled ourselves over the years, but it is how we speak about oneself. Our language becomes the roadblock towards our creative thinking. When we say ‘not creative enough,’ we close all the windows and doors of our mind. 

Creativity, like playing, is equally available to all as a child. You play more and more and maybe  you will grow up as a sports personality. You paint more and more and maybe you will grow up as an artist. Everybody is born with a creative and playful mind. Creativity is not just about painting or being an artist, it is about thinking. Creative thinking gives birth to ideas. And ideas are necessary not only for business, but also important for day to day living. 

While a TED talk is a decent benchmark to introspect for your own creative story, ironically, the most watched TED talk is about how creativity gets killed by education.  

Researchers have defined the construct of creativity as the ability to innovate and move beyond what is already known. This involves the ability to consider things from an uncommon perspective, transcend the old order and explore loosely associated ideas. Creativity can also be defined as the ability to generate a solution to ill-defined problems.

The creative tag is not only useful at workplaces but is also needed in day to day life like as simple as hosting a party or raising a fund for your charity. The creative tag is not to show it to anybody, the creative tag is to nurture our own confidence. The ability to build and hone a creative mindset is not a standalone skill but is the ability to apply several inputs to the way we think and act. Like the ability to be a good leader who is a great collaborator and an empathetic listener, is actually an act of sharpening the creative skills. 

In today’s Habits for Thinking note, we bring the attention to nurturing our own creative confidence. To believe and nurture our creative mindset, it is important to build abilities around certain areas mentioned here: 

  1. The ability to keep a beginners mindset:

“Design thinking uses creative activities to foster collaboration and solve problems in human-centered ways. We adopt a “beginner’s mind,” with the intent to remain open and curious, to assume nothing, and to see ambiguity as an opportunity,” says IDEO founder David Kelley. He emphasises that “creative confidence is the belief that everyone is creative, and that creativity isn’t the ability to draw or compose or sculpt, but a way of understanding the world.”

The ability to take yourself on the path of nurturing your creative confidence is the first step. It is to be determined to make it happen. To nurture the creative confidence one has to believe that we are all born playful and creative and over the years our creativity has been underutilised and now we need to consciously make an effort to hone our creative mindsets. 

  1. The ability to collaborate:

Creativity fosters in an environment. It can flow more easily when you have people to bounce off ideas with. One can collaborate to just hear ideas too. A collaboration can begin by just being a silent fly on the wall in a room of creative people.

  1. The ability to empower:

In a room full of people of different age groups and experiences, a good idea can come from anywhere, only if the team is empowered to share ideas fearlessly. The ability to empower others is the ability to listen to other ideas. The ability to listen seeds your own creative thoughts. 

  1. The ability to get rejected:

A new project needed a name. The team was asked. Out of 12-14 people on the group chat, only two suggested a few names. The fear of your idea getting rejected is the bottleneck in creative thinking. The ability to get rejected is actually a skill. There is no ego here. One must learn that an idea getting rejected doesn’t necessarily mean that the personality is getting rejected, but it is the line of thought. 

But failure is a big word. Before failure, at a granular level, comes the acceptance of being judged and being rejected. In a creative process, one starts from a large pool of ideas. Sometimes a rejected idea strengthens the idea that finally got accepted. That is also important. 

  1. The ability to ask questions and reframe problems: 

Sometimes simply asking a ‘why’ gives us an opportunity to look into the details of the matter. Sometimes reframing a problem and asking it from a different perspective gets us to find a solution. Creative confidence sharpens with the ability to ask questions. Here is more on how to ask the right questions.  

  1. The ability to work in ambiguous situations: 

Not every solution that you come up with shows up a clear path and that is an ability that a creative mindset is willing to work within. To tolerate ambiguity is an ability that is needed to nurture and build creative confidence. 

Keep a beginner’s mindset, collaborate, empower, handle rejections, ask right questions, learn to navigate ambiguity are all work processes that sharpen a creative mindset.  

Here is an excerpt from the book, ‘Creative Confidence’ by Tom Kelly and David Kelley about Steve Jobs: 

Steve Jobs had a deep sense of creative confidence. He believed that you can achieve  audacious goals if you have the courage and perseverance to pursue them. He was famous for his exhortation to “make a dent in the universe,” which he expressed this way in an 1994 interview: 

“The minute that you understand that you can poke life and actually something will… pop out the other side, that you can change it, you can mold it, that may be the most important thing… once you learn that, you will never be the same again. 

He urged, “think differently.”

There is truly magic in nurturing our own creative confidence.

Please pay your complete attention to attention

Hello December!

It is a good feeling to step into December. It has the ability to carry hope and light. 

December, like every year, is the month of looking back and at the same time looking forward. December, unlike every other month, has stayed focused on what it brings to us. This year, every month derailed our line of focus. Our attention shifted from what we called a regular life to keeping ourselves safe. It shifted from growing at the workplace to simply being able to deliver work from home. It shifted from parties, vacations to online celebrations and condolences. It took effort to keep the attention on the broader picture. It took the attention away from our own attention. 

December, brings the entire year in focus. We have the ability to review our highs and lows, love and loss, innovations and misses. In business, we saw new launches, we saw new adoption of old launches, we saw technology becoming seamless. The attention shifted from offline to online. It opened up a whole new world. And sometimes, an unwanted world. 

In China, a company in the business of live streaming is based on fake attention, actually true attention but of fake people, not people, but bots. On a live streaming platform, influencers showcase real time videos of doing activities like cooking, make up, singing for fans and viewers can send them cash gifts or purchase products featured in the videos directly from the stream. 

YY live is a live streaming venture of JOYY, a China based social media firm listed on Nasdaq. Last week, JOYY reported a 36% year-on-year increase in revenue, 390 million global average monthly active users (MAUs) across all platforms, and 92 million average MAUs on its live-streaming services. But a report by Muddy Waters Research, an online research publication that produces due diligence-based reports on publicly traded securities, accused YY Live of extensive fraud, the fraud of using bots instead of people as audience. 

Muddy Waters made a statement that it had been investigating YY Live for a year and stated that “YY Live is about 90% fraudulent.” They said, “it was clear to us from early on that YY Live was almost entirely fake. YY Live is an ecosystem of mirages. Its supposedly high-earning performers in reality take home only a fraction of their reported totals. The purportedly independent channel owners are largely controlled by YY in order to facilitate continuous sham transactions. The legions of benefactor fans are almost entirely bots operating from YY’s internal network (~50% of YY Live gift volume), bots operating from external bot farms, and performers roundtripping gifts to themselves. We conclude that YY Live is ~90% fraudulent.” 

The allegations are unusual in accusing the platform of creating its own fake users. “Technological complexity and minimal human oversight means the ‘attention economy’ is full of virtual eyeballs,” says the Economist.

Back at home, according to the Mumbai Police, rapper Badshah confessed during questioning to having bought fake views for one of his music videos, in a bid to break a world record. He has denied the allegations.

All this attention grabbing attempts means there is a world of people fighting for our attention. Which in turn means, we are left with scattered, divided attention for everybody, including for ourself. 

This December, as we look back in review and look forward in hope, let us keep our focus on one thing in the attention economy- focus on our own attention. In today’s Habits for Thinking, please focus your complete attention to attention.

Satya Nadella spoke at the Future of Work conference last month and made a point. “People are saying, ‘data is the new oil,’ but I fully agree with you that attention is the new oil,” he said. “Data is plentiful. Attention is scarce, and we’ll never get more of it. Thinking about how we focus that correctly, I think, is one of our most significant opportunities.”

Attention is the cognitive process that makes us respond to stimuli around us. 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.”

There are three types of attention that each of us are required to pay attention to: 

  1. Attention to your own thoughts 

Inner focus or attention to our thoughts, is our understanding of our emotional needs, our values, how we make choices and take decisions.The more we understand our values and motivations, the more capacity we have to direct our own attention instead of having it scattered. It also helps us to direct our attention to what truly matters to us most. 

  1. Attention to your work process

There are two areas of attention that one must understand at work. Firstly, the ability to function in a focused manner without any distractions, secondly to have a relaxed attention towards work to avoid tunnel vision. Yes, relaxed attention means that you should not be so focussed in your work that you miss out on the opportunity arising from another direction.  This is especially critical during critical thinking. 

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.”

  1. Attention to your social being

We are a sum of people in our lives. Typically, a mother pays more attention to a child’s needs as her cognitive process is more tuned in with the child, than the father. With training and effort, father pays attention to details too. Parenting is just an example where we are naturally responsible to pay attention. As humans, we have social needs – to work with teams, to enjoy with friends, to be responsible about the family and it is imperative that our mind stays attentive to our own social needs. When we are distracted some of our social attention takes a back seat. While chasing a goal at the workplace, we may miss paying attention to reasons behind a colleague’s poor performance, this may further reduce the entire team’s productivity. Practicing empathy is one way to pay attention to social needs. 

Attention is needed in different styles in different situations. For example, a focussed and sustained attention is needed while doing a  single work for a longer duration of time. The power to disengage our attention from one thing and move it to another is also essential for our well-being. 

What is therefore important is to pay attention to different attention needs. If we do not control how our attention muscles are grown, some bot may start controlling us too. 

And yes, this December, as I am thankful for many learnings throughout the year, I am eternally grateful for your attention. 

The enormous value of note taking in being successful

His darkness sharpened the contours of his light. Wrote Rory Smith for The New York Times on Maradona. And I thought, I should write it down in my notes. I belong to an age that even if you are not a football follower, knowing Maradona was a given. The images of his blinding bright success stories and in equally sharp contrast, his bloated pictures and drug stories, always sat together in the memories. So when I read the line, ‘his darkness sharpened the contours of his light,’ I felt the urge to write it down. Not for Maradona. But for my own reflection. The line defined my memories. It also led to something more . A shadow gives the contour of the light. To think not from the angle of the light, but from the side of the shadow, is a new thought. Somebody seeing the glass half empty should remember, that the emptiness drives more attention to the full part.

A line in an obituary evokes a chain of thoughts. And, these thoughts from ‘darkness- contours-light’ to ‘emptiness-embodies-full’ creates a lattice of mental models. Simply put, this is how the mind builds and stores ideas and deploys a framework of connected dots when needed. They come in the form of ideas, concepts, thoughts and not necessarily as words as written in the notes.  

A few years ago I was attending a design and creativity conference. The event had speakers from a wide variety of areas like sound design to art projections to technology. What was startling for me was to look around people sitting in that design conference. If you have attended one, you don’t look at the faces, you try to peep into their notebook. Varieties of doodle. Get friendly and they will share some more pages. With the change of speaker, I had changed my seat. New set of doodlers as my neighbors. That’s an ultimate power that some people have, the ability to draw their thoughts in shapes. In most other situations people take notes on their phones or in diaries. Scribbles. Bullets. Mind maps. Very few as doodles. All shapes and sizes of notes. 

Taking notes as a student, in an academic environment is a chore. Taking notes as a working adult is a learning necessity. You see heightened activity of note taking in events and conferences as these are time bound appointments for learning. But what makes a remarkable difference is when you develop the habit of note taking, as part of your learning ladder. Especially taking notes as you read. It helps you retain the knowledge better, which further helps your mind build interconnected mental maps or models.

There are several styles of taking notes. Cornell note taking system is one. You can write with pen on paper or you can do on apps on your devices. Two or three years ago, I  started taking notes on small, visiting card sizes, paper where I scribble down what I like. I picked up the style from Ryan Holiday. If you search on how and what to take notes, you will find elaborate details on how to write a summary after each chapter or just highlight in the book. Some people put the two sleeves in first while wearing a t-shirt and some people put the neck in first while wearing the t-shirt. It doesn’t matter how you take notes. Writing and reviewing those notes later is what that matters. 

You can write a word, a phrase, a full paragraph. You can write from a business leader or a sports personality. You can write inspirational quotes or concepts, you can copy behavioural insights or just ideas. You can write about anything that you like when you read. Eventually, it all comes together in your mind like a web of knowledge. Here, in today’s column on Habits for Thinking I am sharing some of my notes. It will give you an idea on what to write. Below each example is an account on how it connects with our thinking. 

  1. A WORD

Thrum:  meaning -a continuous rhythmic sound.  

In such a culture, we should not be surprised that deep work struggles to compete against the shiny thrum of tweets, likes, tagged photos, walls, posts for no other reason than that they exist.”

Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

Vocabulary expands our world. A good communication skill makes  a confident person. 

  1. A PHRASE: 

Strategy is just long term tactics.”  

Viswanathan Anand in his book, Mind Master.

Catchy phrases stay in our mind and shape our thoughts and actions. I have written about Risk hai toh Ishq hai here. 

  1. A PRODUCTIVITY HACK 

“I am actively irresponsible.” 

-Nobel Laureate Physicist Feynman used this sentence on his productivity style to avoid any administrative work in the department. He chose not to take any administrative position that could take away time from his work. 

Sometimes we take up responsibilities which makes us look and feel good but may be harmful to our productivity or the way we spend time. Learning to say a ‘no’ is an art too. 

“Improve is a truth that nags at them than an old ache. How small does that gain have to be? Wrote the Olympic Champion rower Steven Redgrove, “virtually imperceptible as long as it was a gain.”

Written by Rohit Brijnath, a sports columnist in Mint Lounge in January 2019. He wrote in the context of goal settings done by athletes and sports personalities. For top performers, improvement is very little, but they still strive to become a better version of their own, no matter how small that difference is.  

To improve is a sign of a growth mindset. Sometimes, believing in perfection may inhibit change and growth. It happens to products and services and ideas. Staying true to improvement keeps the product evolving. 

  1. A PEEK INTO THE STRATEGY:

“Nike picks a side in America’s culture war. It is doing something more novel and calculated than other multinationals that have weighed in on immigration, gun control or race: It did not stumble into this controversy; it sought it.” 

Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson, Financial Times, September 2018

“It did not stumble into this controversy, it sought it.” This is the sentence that reveals Nike’s strategy to rope in Colin Kaepernick as their brand ambassador. Footballer Colin Kaepernick demonstrated protest by taking a knee during the National anthem before the start of the match. Nike, encouraged by studies showing that consumers reward brands for speaking up on divisive social issues, took the social issue as a brand strategy. 

Here is another note: 

Aditya Puri, ex MD, HDFC Bank spoke in an interview in 2019 about consumer initiatives that HDFC bank had taken. His philosophy included a few tenets: A financial experience, an omni channel experience, two clicks- shopping experience that is safe for both merchants and consumers and fully digitised bank. What he said at the 11th min of the interview

“Amazon gives four days of sale. Hamare paas aao na, teen mahine ka sale hai.” 

He says, come to HDFC Bank, we hold sale period for 3 months as against 4 days sale of Amazon. HDFC Bank through its apps and cards hosts a plethora of sale offers on products and services for a longer duration of time. A financial services business acts like a retailer to drive transactions.

  1. A BEHAVIOUR CLUE:

“Had the children come from a more privileged background they would have perhaps panicked or felt dispirited because their sense of entitlement would have been offended.” 

A group of young boys got trapped in a cave for a few days. The above lines are from an article after they were rescued. ‘The sense of entitlement’ mentioned here refers to the fact that privilege can cause more harm than good especially in times of crisis. Many people have suffered setbacks as they have not been able to travel out of the country as their summer destinations, unable to handle their sense of entitlement.

“The right to free speech does not give us the right to shout fire in a crowded cinema; there was the risk of a fire and we might have let the spark by shouting about it.” 

Financial Times columnist on Lehman Brothers crisis in an article titled- “Sometimes in a crisis, you don’t tell the whole story.”

You do not have to be a columnist to understand the value of shouting fire to create panic but you will understand the comment and act wisely in a crisis situation. You will understand the value of how these unconnected notes form a web of knowledge and models in our thoughts. 

We learn from what we see, we read, we hear, we do. We learn everyday. Note taking helps in retaining what we learn. The lattice of knowledge fuels our success. 

Extraordinary work will make you see a new perspective

56 is not a number that sounds like an uphill target. Just Fifty Six. Not in millions, not in thousands and not even in hundreds. Her annual target was actually fifty or around twelve in three months. She achieved fifty six in three months, she has rescued and united fifty six minor children with their parents. All children aged between 11-14 years old. Meet Seema Dhaka, 33, a courageous Delhi police officer, one of the three heroes of our story today. 

Ms Dhaka has been awarded Asamanya Karya Puruskar (Extraordinary Work Award) and has earned an out-of-turn promotion at her workplace. For one of her challenging cases, Seema had crossed two flooded rivers in West Bengal to reach the place in search of the child. 

While Seema has crossed the rivers once, Relu Vasave, 27, rows 18 kms everyday to reach a hamlet where she doles out medicines and nutritional food to the tribe settlement. Relu, our second hero, has been doing this everyday, day after day, through the pandemic. She only stopped when the rivers were flooded and were overflowing for a few weeks. 

The third hero of this story, Pooja, a young lady who runs a milk store, does not cross a river or two, she crosses boundaries. Boundaries of doing business, boundaries of recruitment, boundaries of training, boundaries of cash flow. She crosses many boundaries. In this story, an advertisement for Facebook, the plot might be fictional but is not unreal. It is close to the reality. Like Seema Dhaka. Like Relu Vasave. The story exists. 

Pooja Didi, the hero of the story, hires jobless people for her milk products business. Electricians, plumbers, carpenters join her store. The story shows that even though she is strapped for cash, she is concerned about these people’s livelihood and stays hopeful. There is a turnaround when her own people narrate the story on Facebook and she generates business. 

“It is not easy to row every day. My hands ache by the time I’m back home in the evening. But that doesn’t worry me. It is important that the babies and expecting mothers eat nutritious food,” says Relu about her work. As an anganwadi worker, she has been serving a tribe. When the pandemic spread members of the tribe stopped coming to the village to collect their doses of medicine and nutrition. That is when Relu decided to row everyday to reach them and distribute medicines. Most of the days she rows alone, on some days her sister in law, another anganwadi worker joins her. 

Seema recalled one of the challenging operations, far away, in West Bengal, in an interview: “It was my husband’s birthday but the thought that my efforts could lead to a child being found kept me going.Not many trains were running that day. We managed to reach the village with the help of state police after crossing two rivers. The child was finally found. I took him to a hotel, fed him and made him watch TV and after which he narrated his ordeal.” 

While Pooja Didi’s story is a work of fiction and hits us beautifully because of the lovely video narrative, it is Seema Dhaka’s work of rescuing children or Relu Vasave’s work that is real, hard hitting and truly extraordinary. 

Seema Dhaka in Delhi, Relu Vasave in Maharashtra, Pooja Didi in online communities are people with a single common notion. Their work is worship and is driven by a force which cannot be powered just by monetary incentive. It is their ability to be empathetic. Their style  of work is purpose driven, the purpose of being empathetically dutiful. 

At large organisations, leaders work meticulously to define the purpose of the brand and the business. Managers and teams work on building the company’s culture aligned to the same purpose. The purpose becomes the compass for making decisions. Unilever’s purpose is to make sustainable living commonplace. The company follows its well defined purpose diligently. So do many other organisations. At these workplaces you get to see innovations sprouting to meet the purpose-driven goal, business processes walking the same path and customers experiencing the delight of the purpose. It is easy to be an employee of such a business and work with its framework of purpose. But what do you do when you do not have a business like that to guide your work? Or you do not have a purpose of your own? Or you wonder why you do what you do?

Your purpose is your compass. It prioritizes your choices. Relu Vasave may not be able to define her purpose in words, but her words about her commitment reflect her purpose. Being empathetic is shifting your perspective and looking at the world from the point of view of others. This is what fuels Relu’s boat. Her urge to make medicines and nutrition available to people without access, is her everyday fuel. When Seema Dhaka says, ‘my efforts could lead to a child being found kept me going’ you know her work is driven by compassion for the unknown. 

Your purpose is your ‘why’ and it connects what you do and how you do it. Purpose evolves over time and with changing careers. Staying true to the purpose of the moment enables decision making. It is absolutely ok to not have a well defined purpose for your work. But it helps to be mindful of how purpose enables you to perform significantly better at work. You can choose your purpose to be ‘empathy driven work.’

SHIFT, Simple Habits & Ideas for Forward Thinking, the course to develop critical thinking skills recommends aligning to the purpose as one of the fifteen habits. At Habits for Thinking, we learn by developing new mental models through people and events around us. We have picked up lessons from extraordinary people like MS Dhoni, Michael Phelps, Ruth Ginsberg etc and here, in today’s article, there are lessons from extraordinary work of ordinary life, the lessons from Asadharan Karya. 

To define your purpose as empathy driven work, it is essential to look at the following: 

  1. Purpose driven work helps you prioritise basic needs A company required a driver for a pregnant officer. The manager interviewed two drivers. The first one had worked with a taxi rental company and the other one had experience of driving school buses. When asked about their traits, the first one said, “I am very punctual, I have never reported late to work.” The school bus driver said, “I am very cautious about children’s safety. Sometimes they take time to get down the bus or they jump around in the bus.” The bus driver was hired. Empathy driven purpose must fulfill basic needs of the people involved. Safety is one such basic need. While Relu Vasave supplies food to her clients, Pooja Didi in the ad takes care of the needs of her own employees. 
  1. Purpose driven work helps you shift your perspective: You lean forward to understand your own people, your customers’ point of views. You step into their shoes, shift your perspectives and then take work decisions. You listen more, you make people feel heard and you shift your stance. 
  2. Purpose driven work helps you make choices: It was Seema Dhaka’s husband’s birthday but the thought of rescuing the child made her move towards work. You make several choices in a workday, your purpose guides you and shows you a path.

Purpose driven work creates a competitive advantage for businesses as well as people. To work with empathy is a powerful purpose. Adapt it. You will thank me one day. Actually, thank Seema Dhaka, Relu Vasave and Pooja Didis of the real world. 

असाधारण कार्य  👏🏾👏🏾👏🏾

Our 31,962 words journey on Habits for Thinking

My dear reader,

This week I was going to publish an article on nurturing our creative confidence. While I was toggling between open tabs on the screen, I chanced upon some stats from Habits for Thinking. 31,962 words, 30 articles. That is the amount of writing I have done and that is the amount of reading you have done on Habits for Thinking.

I feel it is important for me to take a pause and thank all of you for encouraging my work through your comments, likes and shares.

In this journey, your learning experience has enhanced mine too. So, thank you for being together on this path.

Wishing you and your loved ones a very Happy Diwali.

Stay safe, stay happy!

Regards,

Vishakha

Your learning lessons from big, remarkable events

A twitter post circled as a forward on Whatsapp. It read, “Monisha Beta American Politics discuss karo. Yeh Bihar election is too middle class!!” (Darling, discuss American Politics, discussing Bihar elections is too middle class) 

To the middle class it makes no immediate difference whether it is the elections or the arrest of a noted media personality. These are just conversations on social media and in the hood.

But not paying any attention to big events is what keeps the middle class there, in the middle. And it is this burgeoning class that suffers in the battle of growth, be it political, social or economical. The only way out is to change how the middle class thinks, adapts a growth mindset, learns and stands out. If there is one thing that is common between Arnab Goswami and Donald Trump – then it is the use of media, creating an availability cascade and the use of this powerful tool on the middle, ordinary, most-times-gullible class. That is why it should matter. Because, the middle class is the pawn in the sacrificial game. 

This week, when I saw Arnab Goswami, the noted media personality, asking people around him to video record his own arrest, I realised how Arnab has trained himself to create eye catchy content. Even under the dark, cloudy moments like getting arrested, his instructions were clear. It is a negative example, but it is true that when the mind has been trained in a certain area, the mind performs well even when the going is tough. A positive example would be of Air Force Wing Commander Abhinandan responding on video under Pakistan’s captivity.  Each of us consciously or subconsciously trains the mind and becomes expert in certain areas. Each of us has our own unique learning ladder. Each of us is capable of building, maintaining and growing our own learning curve. The only thing that is always common with these unique learning ladders is that at the opportune time, the training kicks in. 

Adaptive expertise and the learning ladder: 

The hunger to grow is compelling enough to attend courses. Many of us have done courses during this pandemic. Some of us have picked up new skills like podcasting, some have picked up cooking. Reading these articles has been a training too. Learning a skill, especially learning thinking skills is not just about learning the technical knowledge, but to learn how to connect the dots. The most famous example of connecting dots is that of Steve Jobs when he used his calligraphy lessons to design Apple products. The way you design your learning is the way it will help you in developing adaptive expertise– the expertise where you apply knowledge and skill from one field to the other.

What is your learning ladder? 

First and foremost, it is a ladder, not a circle or a loop, the ladder of learning. It is a never ending ladder that goes up and comes down too. Learning grows on learning. The more you learn, the more growth you experience. 

  1. Observe. The first step of the ladder for thinking skills is to observe. Observe your own thoughts, your own processes of work, your social neighbourhood. For instance, observe what were your thoughts around events happening this week. 
  1. Learn. The second step is to learn the concept or the skill. Events around us develop new mental models, whether we are consciously thinking about it or not. These mental models develop our thoughts. If we consciously learn the concept, it helps us develop a skill – the skill of holding two opposing points of view before arriving at our own decision. There are several ways that we learn new concepts or ideas, like by reading articles, by joining in conversations, by listening to debates and videos. As you learn, it helps to take notes. Writing a concept is a way of committing yourself to deeper understanding.
  1. Practice and assess: Richard Feynman, the brilliant physicist, suggested that the best way to know if you have learned something is to teach someone that concept. Nothing like sharing your new acquired thoughts and mental models with a colleague, friend or a community. The other way is to write a story around it.
  1. Go down: Move down on the ladder if you feel you have not completely understood the idea. Go back, learn, rephrase, explain and practice. This is the reason why it is referred to as a ladder, to go up and down to firm up the learning. 

Applying these learnings in real life: 

Application: We learnt about the concept ‘Availability Cascade’ in this article. Let us now build the learning ladder for the concept and events around us. 

  1. Observe:  Let us observe the event around us this week: the arrest of a renowned media personality. 
  2. Learn: The concept of availability cascade: Here is an excerpt from the book,Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman on the concept ‘availability cascade’ as defined by Cass Sunstein:

An availability cascade is a self sustaining chain of events, which may start from media reports of a relatively minor event and lead up to public manic and large scale government action. On some occasions a media story about a risk catches the attention of a segment of the public, which becomes aroused and worried. The emotional reaction becomes a story in itself. Prompting additional coverage in the media, which in turn produces greater concern and involvement. The issue becomes politically important because it is on everyone’s mind and the response of the political system is guided by the intensity of the public sentiment. The availability cascade has now reset priorities. Other risks, and other ways that resources could be applied for the public good, all have faded into the background. 

We make our mental models by reading. This is what a publication wrote about Indian media on the coverage of suicide case of Sushant Singh, thus confirming the concept of availability cascade: “The case has become an obsession that knocked India’s record-breaking coronavirus infections, China’s aggressions at the border and the worst quarterly economic recession since records began off the news agenda.”

A cascade was created by Arnab Goswami and it led to politically driven actions. The Guardian wrote on the arrest, ‘Most recently, Goswami had antagonised the Maharashtra state government, controlled by the Shiv Sena party, by accusing it of involvement in the death of the Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput, who killed himself in June. Shiv Sena is a former ally of the BJP, but the two parties are now bitter rivals. Goswami was accused of exploiting Rajput’s death in order to smear the BJP’s political rival in Maharashtra, as were other BJP supporters who pushed the narrative that Rajput was murdered, which has been proved unfounded.’ This statement reaffirms the political agenda. 

As your learning ladder helps you observe current events and understand with fresh mental models, you will react in a knowledgeable way. You will find yourself as an observer of political parties at play and your judgement will be measured. Your reaction on social media and in conversations will be measured. As you realise that this event has a negative impact, you will not add further to this cascade or succumb ignorantly. 

Typically the cascade is created to get a policy change, a shift in direction by using media and public’s attention. 

3. Practice: How does this learning apply in my life?  Mental models like availability cascade, nudge theory, communication skills etc. apply in everyone’s life. These help you bring clarity and develop your own critical thinking skills. For example, you will be able to spot a rise of an availability cascade at your workplace if you see an agenda being spoken by many departments. 

In a real incident, a resident of a building used the concept to change a simple movement- the dropoff point of residents by their drivers at the porch. She noticed that children played at the open space near the porch every evening, which was an accident prone area due to cars returning homes during evenings. She requested the managing committee to change the dropoff point from porch to parking lot during those hours. The request was ignored. She circulated a news story about a girl coming under a car to gain attention from both the committee and other residents. Eventually, a rule was made to not use the porch in the evenings when children played. A case of availability cascade where an information was used to persuade a change. 

Like ladders can be of stone or wood or concrete and of different shapes and designs, your ladder is unique to you. It doesn’t matter how you design it, what matters is how much you practice climbing up and down on it.  

Observe, Learn, Practice, Assess.