Category Archives: Leadership

Inspiring Leadership

My first interaction with Deepak Parab, the CEO of Metrohm India Private Limited (a leading company in Analytical Instruments and Solutions) happened around two years ago when he called me from his Chennai HQ and said that he would like me to conduct a ‘Managerial Effectiveness’ program for his pan-India team of service managers. “Rajan, I shall ask my National Service Manager, Vinod Salunkhe to get in touch with you to discuss the further modalities.” The call hardly lasted five minutes; a client taking a quick decision in finalizing a 2-day training program was a rarity in my training career of 25 years. I could not help recollecting a MNC client who took approximately six months with more than a dozen meetings to finalize a 1-hour keynote address. (See my earlier blog titled ‘A Tale of Two Key Note Addresses’ – https://rajanparulekar.in/2018/03/29/a-tale-of-two-key-note-addresses/ )

More than the ability to take the right decisions, the leadership traits I admired in Deepak were:

  1. Focus on results: After he took over as CEO and Managing Director, Metrohm India has progressed very well under him and results have been great. They have been able to capture and maintain major market share for their products and increase the turnover and profitability multi-fold. Today, Metrohm India owns all its offices across India and these were bought in the last ten years.
  2. Retaining Talent: His core team of 30 senior managers including the COO, Branch Managers, Service Managers, Application Laboratory Manager and Product Managers are with the company for the last 20 years. The core team has remained the same for the past two decades.
  3. Creating Value through Service: Peter Drucker said that the purpose of business is to attract and retain a customer, which can be restated by the formulae below:

a. Vc > Vp where Vc is the value perceived by the customer and Vp is the value inside   your product or service. You get a customer only when the perceived value is more (short and/or long term) than what the customer pays for.

b. Vc = (Q+U+S)/P where Q is the Quality, U the Utility, S the Service and P is the price. Remember that QUS is not what the salesman claims but what the customer perceives. The four ways to increase the perceived value is either to increase the QUS or to reduce the P. Quite often desperate salespeople reduce price to create value which in turn affects profitability.

Deepak took a different approach to create value. To command a premium, he focussed on the numerator (QUS) rather than the denominator (P). Service was given prominence vis-à-vis sales. In a team of 135 executives for each sales person there are 3 service executives. Normally one service engineer is deployed for 100 instruments, with an equal share of warranty and AMC (annual maintenance contract). Today Metrohm India has 12 Offices and 12 Home Offices from where Service is provided. The home office concept for service was used to extend the reach. For example for clients in Goa, service engineers used to travel every week from Mumbai to Goa. With 250 instruments, 2 service engineers were deputed to Goa, which created value in the following ways:

  • The travel fatigue for service engineers was considerably reduced.
  • Improved work-life balance for the Service Engineers who were back to their home in the evening.
  • Cost of resident engineers was lower than with the travel and related costs.
  • Delighted Customers due to an improved response time and a lower down-time. Customer confidence in Metrohm also increased due to the now closer proximity of the Service Engineer.

Having created value for the customer in terms of QUS, Metrohm was now able to command a premium vis-à-vis the competition. There is a general tendency for companies to club sales and service to control costs, especially in the case of executives operating from home offices. However, Deepak resisted this temptation, as with dual responsibilities, executives tend to focus more on sales and ignore service. Now, dedicated service engineers in turn enhanced the perceived value!

  1. Delegation with empowerment: Ganesha Chaturthi is a major festival in Maharashtra. Deepak belongs to a small village called Hiwale in Sindhudurg District from the Konkan region. For this important festival, Deepak used to take leave for 10 days every year. However as a CEO designate, when he applied for leave now, his boss questioned the logic, considering his elevation to the new role with additional responsibilities. The major concern apart from the leave, was in Deepak being incommunicado due to poor network connectivity at his village. Deepak’s thought process was quite clear. He said, “I shall prepare my team in such a way that my help is not needed in those 10 days.” His communication to his team members went on the following lines:

– “Please take decisions. I am not going to blame you for the consequences, if found negative in posterity.”

– “Please think of the worst–case scenario. The company is not going to sink from any such decisions.”

– “All of you can learn from your mistakes and a wrong decision and its consequence can be termed as the cost of learning.”

– “If in spite of all the above, you still need my advice, please drop me a SMS. In case I go to the village market (which has a better connectivity), I shall respond.”

The discounts and pricing are controlled by the respective Managers and all are empowered to take decisions. As a normal practice at Metrohm India the senior management team does not have any extra power to give additional discounts.

5. Genuine Concern for Employees: Even though a nationwide lockdown was announced on 24 March 2020, Deepak took the call on 20th March to shut down the company’s offices across the country. Most of his team members who were at different locations then, had enough time to go back home.(Contrast this with the 4 hour time frame given by the PM which affected not only the general populace but also the millions of migrant workers!) He announced categorically that there would be no salary deduction, nor would anyone be forced to go on leave. The salary for the full month of March which normally gets paid on the last day of the month was credited on 24th

6.Creative Problem Solving: Every year the company used to invite its Pan-India sales and service team in May to the Chennai HQ for training. The month-long exercise for a team of 130 executives used to cost around ₹ 70-80 lakhs; the quarterly reviews used to be around ₹ 5-6 lakhs each. During the lockdown, the time was used for online trainings and reviews thereby saving a big cost for the organisation, while at the same time keeping the employees engaged. They also ensured that all employees are engaged and connecting with the customers, so that they feel like they are doing their routine work and no health issues crop up due to no work. In the earlier phases of lockdown, the instruments which needed attention were diagnosed remotely, thereby reducing the down time. For the Pharmaceutical industry which is a major customer (as well as the sector doing well during the pandemic), Metrohm’s service support was crucial. In a few cases, even the installation was carried out with the help of the customer along with support via a video call by the Service Engineer. Digital Platforms have been used by the organisation extensively to connect its employees and customers.

7. Effective Decision Making: Be it a minor decision of a trainer selection or major ones like shutdown or salary disbursals, an effective leader does not shy away from taking decisions.

8. Strong Ethics: Deepak shared that a strong sense of ethics and moral values are a sine qua non for effective leadership. Deepak spent his childhood in the IIT Bombay campus. His father, Raghunath Parab was a governing member of the Co-Operative Society and was entrusted the job of supervising the IIT Staff Canteen operated by the IIT Staff Co-Operative Society. As a principle, his father did not prefer his children to visit the canteen; lest it be perceived that they were availing food free. Some years down the line, when Deepak entered the canteen and when his father admonished him, he told him, “Dad, now I am working as a Technical Assistant in the Department of Chemistry and I have come here as an employee and not as your son.” Caesar’s wife must indeed be above suspicion.

Since 1982, Metrohm AG, with HQ in Switzerland is a full subsidiary of Metrohm Foundation, as the only shareholder. With neither a specific owner nor any other shareholders, part of its profits are earmarked towards charity and R&D. Being a zero-debt company, the obsessive pressure for quarterly results is absent.

rajan@paraadigm-info.com, http://www.paradigm-info.com

 

Relevance of Ambiguous Thinking in Challenging Times

In one of my webinars I posed the following questions:

To swim to and fro across the banks of a river; it takes a swimmer half an hour. What is the maximum number of rounds can he complete  in an 8 hour schedule by diving  into the same river?  Most of the participants responded with the answer as 16. Some considering the fatigue of the swimmer provided answers which ranged from 4-12. When it was pointed out that by the time the swimmer dives for the second time, a lot of water has already flown; and the river is no more the same. The swimmer can dive into the same river only once. After this explanation when the same question was asked once again, everyone responded the correct answer to be ONE.  (How obsessed we are with the correct answer!)  Then it was pointed out that it need not be one as it depends  on the frame of reference and the answers can vary from 1-16.

Welcome to the world of ambiguity which is defined as the quality of being open to more than one interpretation which is going to play an important role in the current situation.

Our education system does not encourage ambiguity and the intelligence of the students is correlated with the ability to give the right answers. This worked in a world which was relatively stable. In uncertain   times, there are no right answers but a range of operands which needs to be tried and tested. Whether the answer is right or wrong is not decided by the technique but by the result. Like in theory it is said that theory and practice are the same but in reality they are different.

The concept of Operant  Conditioning which was proposed by B.F.Skinner. When faced with a problematic situation, an organism retrieves a solution which has worked in the past. It is also called as a trial and error method.  When the problem becomes novel and complex, he tries a hierarchy of potential solutions, each becoming increasingly improbable. In the absence of complete solutions, he recombines potentially relevant operants to find a solution.

Pigeons and rats were made to acquire new behaviours by a phenomenon termed as operant conditioning. The hungry subjects were rewarded by food pellets  by pecking a disk or pressing a specific lever. By  working on a number of combinations, the subject could realize that the specific behaviour has resulted in a reward, which when repeated got reinforced and the subjects learnt a way of getting results.

In short, operant conditioning is nothing but a trial and error method where one does not have THE RIGHT ANSWER but goes on figuring out the approximately workable answer by incorporating ambiguity.

A simple exercise in developing ambiguity is to take a thought and a contrary one and ponder over the feasibility of both.

e.g. Life is not bad as you think. & Life is as bad as you think. Can you be comfortable with them both at the same time?

Which is the most fundamental of all the relationships? Is it of husband and wife? If so which is the most superficial one? Just think it over.

Multi- tasking helps improve your efficiency. Can you juxtapose this with multi- tasking may not help you do any work which needs deep thinking and focussed attention?

One needs to be comfortable with paradox of life called as the yin and the yang of Tao. Logical thinking, language are a part of life. But life is beyond them.

Ambiguous thinking is also associated with childhood upbringing. Some  parents feel that their children should not be exposed even to minor problems in life which in hindsight may prevent developing ambiguous thinking in future.

e.g. This incident happened in one of the upmarket gated communities.  It was around 8 am; father and his 10 year old son were walking towards the main gate. The father, a Vice President in a MNC was carrying his son’s school bag on his shoulder and adjusting a tie knot around his neck. Son was following his dad playing on his mobile lost in his own thoughts. As they approached the main gate, the father took out the tie and put it on his son. Both of them got into a chauffeur driven car.

There is only one thing worse than unhappy childhood and that is having a too-happy childhood – Poet Dylan Thomas

Dean Simonton ( Distinguished Professor of Psychology at University of California) in his book Origins of Genius states that children from too-happy childhood  have role models as their parents, elders and the teachers. Thus they become well adjusted to the system. They may become successful in terms of qualification, job, designation, material success etc but may not walk the road less travelled in becoming original thinkers. However children from deprived childhood have to look out much beyond the above repository. They have to figure out life on a daily basis thus increasing the number of role models which may include an adverse situation, kindness shown by a stranger, a book, or even a newspaper article. This act of figuring out in life, working by trial and error is what makes one comfortable with ambiguity which leads to creativity.

Janus is a Roman God which had two heads looking in opposite directions. Albert Rothenberg coined a term called as Janusian thinking which is similar of being comfortable with ambiguity.

Albert Einstein in one of his thought experiment said that if a man were to jump from a house rooftop and dropping an object simultaneously the object would be stationery in reference to the man but will be perceived  by an observer on ground as accelerating downwards by the gravitational pull.  Both the view points look contradictory; what matters is the point of reference.

Louis Pasteur was able to arrive at the principles of immunology in a similar manner. In one of his experiments some chicken were able to survive bacillus cholera. He injected  a new virulent culture in healthy chicken as well as the one survived. The healthy chicken died whereas the infected chicken survived. Pasteur came to the conclusion that chicken was diseased and non-diseased at the same time.

In 1801,Thomas Young demonstrated a revolutionary theory with a relatively simple experiment. Called as a double-slit experiment, he focussed a laser beam on a plate which had two parallel slits and the light passing through the slits was observed on a screen behind the plate. Alternate dark and bright bands were seen but it was also found to be observed individual particles at discrete points of the screen. Light can be both a particle as well as a wave as in quantum mechanics can be another example of ambiguous thinking.

This paradox is quite crucial in the current times. Physical  hygiene is very crucial and one should wash hands and face regularly. But can it negate the fact that number of bacteria on a square inch of human skin far outnumber the cells? Scientists have come to a conclusion that the human body is nothing but the agglomeration of billions of bacteria.

The theory of relativity, the wave-particle behaviour of light, or the immunology principle are an outcome of ambiguous thinking on the lines of swimmer jumping in the river with both answers of 1 and 16 being true at the same time.

Someone has defined a genius as the one who can hold two  contradictory thoughts in one’s mind at the same time and still be comfortable with them!

Rajan Parulekar , rajan@paradigm-info.com  98450 14098

Meta Talk: The Art of Reading Between the Lines

A couch potato father while watching TV admonished his son, “Ajay, it is high time you should start with your home-work. Watching TV will do you no good.”

S: Dad, do you mean what you say.?

F: Certainly, I say what I mean.

S: Does it mean that I see  what I eat is the same as I eat what I see?

Meta-Talk ( based on Meta-Talk : Guide to Hidden Meanings in Conversations by Gerard Nierenberg & Henry H Calero) connotes the hidden or the real meaning behind what we communicate; also called as reading between the lines. Cliché are the worn-out words or phrases which are normally used when people are either lazy or not imaginative in conveying the right meaning. Some examples of the divergence between what people say and what they mean are discussed below:

False Modesty: A friend of mine, a HR manager is a regular at the conference, training circuit. He ensures to take his pictures during the events, like being at the lectern, receiving bouquets, or in a panel discussion. The linkedin post invariably starts with the phrase: I have been humbled by receiving the certificate, bouquet, getting the best performance rating etc. The other day I saw a speaker at a raised platform, stretching his arms to the fullest, shouting at the top of his voice and saying, “I am not boasting but, in my humble opinion etc?” Rest assured these phrases indicate that they are simply bragging about themselves. That is false modesty.

Incidentally & BTW: These words are used to introduce a statement. The intent may be to convey just by chance I happen to think. They are generally used by shy people not sure of themselves. However as a cliché, both words may indicate that the speaker wants to say something very important catching the listener off-guard. E.g. Husband says, “Incidentally I have to go to Delhi for an urgent meeting.” Or a lady telling a friend, “ BTW do you know Shruti is opting for a divorce.”

Alternatively  the words can be also used to mislead the listener in believing  the message to be unimportant or of a routine nature.

Sales manager saying to his executive, “BTW Suresh, the credit for this Rs. 50L order shall be going to Ramesh as he has generated the lead.”

I’ll Do my best/I’ll Try: Patient,” Doctor, what are my chances?” Dr “ I’ll do my best.” Meaning there is no hope.

Manager: “You have reached hardly 50% of your target. I want you to meet your targets come what may.”

Executive: “ I’ll do my best.” This may  mean the executive cannot do anything better. When he says I’ll try, it indicates que sera sera. (whatever will be,will be) Both the manager and the subordinate after the meeting feel they have discharged their duties to the best of their abilities.

We and they: Generally these words look quite simple. But sometimes the meta talk may reveal the biases and prejudices we carry about a community. Sudhir Toro, a friend of mine is a liberal thinker. Once while discussing the Bangla Desi migrants issue, he put up whats app post about how Bangla Desh is performing well in terms of economic indicators like unemployment rate, GDP growth etc. Considering the data, the migrant issue might have been blown out of proportion. A group member responded ‘So why don’t you go there?’ Can you see the metatalk in the word there?

‘Why do they oppose CAA and NRC? We are vegetarians but they eat anything. They are not supposed to drink water from our wells.’ Can you see the alienation between we and they?

Using We instead of I: The General Manager tells the assistant manager during the performance appraisal, “We have decided that you do not have the desired skill set for promoting you to the next level.” By using we, the GM has achieved the following purposes.

  1. Apportion the responsibility: The GM would like to soften the blow by saying the decision was taken primarily by the MD but in consultation with the GM
  2. Increasing the distance: The distance between the appraisee and decision maker has increased thus preventing the former in reaching the latter.

Only: According to Sigmund Freud, there are several repressed thoughts and images in the subconscious mind (be it sexual or otherwise) which may try to force their way in the conscious mind. Denial of the entry is achieved by using different processes, one of them being the word only. E.g. if a person were to have a worst nightmare which he may not like to enter his conscious mind, he will say, “It was only a dream.”

A slick salesman selling a beautiful dress may  say, “ Ma’am, it costs only Rs. 2,995,  “conveying a message it is NOT EXPENSIVE.

Adrian and John  were two devout Christians who had missed observing the fast on Good Friday,  the most solemn religious fasting day for the Christians.  When asked for atonement, the pastor asked, “ Adrian, what do you like the most?” “Sharing the marital bed with my wife.” Said Adrian. “In that case, sleep in the other bedroom for the next four weeks” said the pastor. When asked a similar question, John replied, “Pastor, it is smoking my favourite cigar”, Pastor said ,” In that case refrain from  smoking cigars for the next four weeks.”

Some days later, Adrian’s wife enters his bedroom. Startled Adrian says,” Honey, it’s ONLY the third day. We have still a long way to go.” To which the wife replies, “ Adrian, I came here ONLY to tell you that John is smoking a cigar.”  You may notice the degree of denial in the above. What they said and what they meant or the intent  was different.

But: But is a conjunction used to connect two or more clauses.  However it may negate the original meaning. E.g. an executive telling his manager, ”Sorry, I could not reach the office in time, but I was stuck in traffic.” Son telling his father, “I want to go to the gym daily but it is quite far”. Or a waiter telling the customer, “Sorry for the delay in serving you, but there are too may orders.”

By using but, the apology rather than sounding authentic now looks fake and a justification. What is justified as a reason may be perceived as an excuse. One suggestion is to use and instead of but. Better still, say sorry and give no justification.

Dr Sandor Feldman in his work Mannerisms in Speech and Gestures says that people often consciously or unconsciously conceal what they genuinely want to say using Meta-Talk.

So next time whenever you are using words like only, incidentally, BTW, but, or phrases like in my humble opinion, I am not boasting etc. be careful, you are actually conveying  something different than what is being said!

As Eleanor Roosevelt said, ‘ What you are shouts so loudly in my ears, I cannot hear what you say.’

Rajan Parulekar, rajan@paradigm-info.com,

 

On Humility

While working for a company called Toshniwal in Mumbai around 4 decades back, my boss narrated a story of his friend’s son, Ajay who had returned from US for vacation. Ajay a young guy in his late 20s, had completed his MBA from an Ivy league school and was working for a Wall street company then.  Ajay had gone to Bombay House to meet his school mate. It was around lunch time and Ajay’s friend was out on a client visit. As Ajay was waiting in the lobby, an old man looked at him and asked,” hey young man, whom are you waiting for?” Ajay gave the details. “Till he comes, you may come to my cabin.” Ajay followed suit. Half an hour later his friend turned up went to a nearby restaurant.

Over lunch when the friend asked what was the topic of discussion, Ajay replied,” When he came to know about my background, he asked about my opinion on  India and the Indian economy, I shared  my thoughts on the real problems ailing our country.”  By the way who was that old man?” The friend replied, “Ajay, he was JRD Tata. You should have thought twice before giving your advice to such a man!”

I was narrating this incident to a stranger while waiting for a local train in Vile Parle station. He shared an interesting personal experience. He used to wait at Asiatic bus stop at around 6 pm which was near Eros cinema at Churchgate station in Mumbai. Every day while standing in the bus queue, he used to notice a car which used to stop just 10 feet way from the bus stop and the first person in the queue used to get in the car.  It was a bit surprising; the same car every day, but the person who boarded was different. One day this man decided to solve this mystery and left the previous two buses to be the first in the queue when the car was to arrive. He got onto the front seat. The person in the backseat was JRD Tata reading his newspaper. The driver used to drop JRD at his residence in Peddar Road via Chowpatty & Wilson college. The empty front seat was getting filled up for that routine journey.

Sudha Murthy while working as a trainee engineer in TELCO (now Tata Motors) narrates an incident when she was waiting for Narayan Murthy in the lobby of Bombay House after office hours. JRD waited along with her till NRN arrived. Young Sudha Murthy still recollects the anxiety she felt when she was with this grand old man.  Sudha Murthy was to put in her papers when NRN and his team were to start Infosys. She happened to run into JRD once again. When she told him about the new company, JRD said, “All the best for your new venture, beyond profits think of building a great institution which can be also used for the social good.” Such simple and yet profound message has left deep impact on the work Infosys foundation has been carrying out.

Two years back Ratan Tata was to be felicitated with Lifetime Award for contribution towards philanthropy by Prince Charles at the Buckingham Palace. Ratan Tata declined to attend the function as his dog was not keeping well.

Dr Albert Schweitzer was on his new hospital project at Lambarene at Gabon in Africa. One afternoon, while on the rooftop he asked a young passer-by to help him lift the tiles on to the roof. The young African said, “I am an intellectual, I do not do such menial work.” Schweitzer replied, “I also struggled to be like you but could not succeed.”  Albert Schweitzer though from Alsace in France did phenomenal work for the poor and the downtrodden in Africa. He established hospitals for the lepers.  He had PhDs in Philosophy, Theology and then on Bach Music. He has around 25 books to his credit including one on Indian Philosophy.

Considered as one of the most significant persons of the 20th Century, he was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1952 for the exceptional humanitarian work in Africa. When the Swedish Academy sent him telegram to grace the award function, he expressed his inability to receive the award that year as his hospital work was in full swing and felt that the long journey from Gabon to Sweden may affect his work, He received it later in 1954.

H W. Fowler (1858-1933) and his younger brother Frank published a book called as The King’s English in 1906 and The Dictionary of Modern English Usage (MEU) in 1926. The books have become a de-facto standard in the English-speaking community for the right word usage. MEU suggests an apt usage of a word with guidelines in avoiding jargon, e.g. During the second world war, Winston Churchill said to the Director of Military Intelligence, “Why do you write the word Intensive here?  You should be using Intense instead. For clarity refer the Fowler’s Modern English Usage.”

Fowler the lexicographer who worked on MEU for two decades was known for his spartan simplicity. Clarendon Press oversaw publishing and printing his works. The secretary of Clarendon wrote to him offering him the wages of a servant in addition to his remuneration.

It was the month of November, Fowler was 68 then living in London. His message to the secretary read:

Quote

My half an hour from 7 to 7.30 am was spent in:

  1. Two-mile run along the road &
  2. Swim in my next—door neighbour’s pond, exactly as some 48 years ago. That I am still in condition for such freaks; I attribute to having had for nearly 30 years no servants to reduce me to a sedentary and all-literary existence. And now you seem to say: Let us give you a servant and the means of slow suicide and quick lexicography. Not I know it: I must go my slow way.

 

Rahul Dravid was the chief guest at the annual gathering of Design for Change in Ahmedabad. The students asked him: What makes you nervous:

RD: Would it be OK If I say it is my wife?

What is your greatest fear?

RD: In my dreams I feel I have forgotten how to bat. And when I wake up realize that that dream has come true.

What is unique about you?

RD: I can bat well but so can many others. So, there is nothing unique about me.

What is common between all these great people with a high level of competence and intelligence but the humility of not wearing it up on their sleeves? Be it JRD., Ratan Tata, Schweitzer, Fowler or Rahul Dravid? I think it includes active listening, thought clarity, a great sense of self-deprecating humour (sometimes black too). Shakespeare described Brutus as ‘his life was gentle and the elements so mixed in him that nature might stand up to the world and say, this was a Man!’ Genuine humility may be an essential quality towards becoming one.

Sometimes it may be difficult to differentiate between genuine and pseudo-humility. it cannot be deciphered from the body language or what one says. E.g. When a question is asked, both the idiot and the master smile. The idiot smiles as he has not understood the question, the master smiles as he has understood the futility of the question.

Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism

Chogyam

Cutting through Spiritual Materialism by Chogyam Trungpa is a collection of his talks delivered at Boulder Colorado in 70s. On the main path of spirituality (which is supposed to lead us away from suffering and towards enlightenment) there are a number of sidetracks, bylanes which hoodwink us in believing that we are on the right track. The author calls such misleading tracks as Spiritual Materialism.The book delineates the bylanes first and then takes us to the main path. One such bylane  is the belief that  an external entity like a book, a discourse is going to help us towards salvation. A Guru  will provide us answers for all our problems. You download your problems on your Guru and he will take care of you. The process of initiation into spirituality clears the road towards enlightenment is also one such misconception. A master once told his new disciple after the initiation process; remember, wearing a robe does not make you enlightened and if you are enlightened you do not need a robe.

The author says that a true Guru actually does not give you answers but helps you look into yourself ; the frustration, the anxieties and guides you in facing and penetrating them. Most of the activities  that are carried out on the path of Spiritual Materialism like chanting a mantra or a Sutra or thinking about the  positives and eschewing the negatives may help us feel better but it may not lead us towards  self-realization. In fact most of such activities are nothing but ego-enhancing tricks played by the mind.  We may watch endless youtube videos, read multiple books and listen to a number of audiobooks but unless and until we realize that knowledge like gold, has to be burned, hammered and beaten before wearing as an ornament. Now it becomes your wisdom, otherwise it is just a downloaded information of others. On this line I remember Carl Rogers’ statement that most of the cognitive knowledge is useless.

Another dimension of Spiritual Materialism is a misplaced sense of humour. Some people feel that humour is a roadblock on the path of spirituality and are serious all the time. Others try to be funny likewise. As Buddha has said, an extreme of an error is another error. Both the situations, where one is  trying to be serious and the other trying to be funny are equally ridiculous. A truly evolved person sees both sides of a situation and thus takes an aerial view. It involves seeing the basic irony of the juxtaposition of extremes so that one is not caught taking them seriously. Thus there are rare chances a truly spiritual person taking extreme views.

After discussing the sidetracks the author discusses about the main paths of surrendering, the four noble truths and the most important concept of Shunyata ( emptiness)

 

This book has been my companion for the last four years. It was never on any best-seller list. There are no anecdotes, no jokes, no one-liners, no quotations from eminent people at the beginning of each chapter, not even any endorsements from celebrities.  It does not even try to impress you. It simply states the truth as it is.  Just sample this:

The conventional concept of enlightenment is that you aim for a higher level of consciousness from a lower level by silencing the thoughts. For some, the targetted goals may  include understanding past lives, predict future, becoming one with supreme consciousness etc. Compare this with what the author says. The journey of enlightenment is not that that you go up but you fall down, Every day you fall down to such an extent that you hit the rock bottom that you cannot fall down further. And what is this act of falling down? It is to see through your negativities; be it anger, jealousy, frustrations, pain, the games you play.  It does not mean that you detest such negativities but simply acknowledge them as a part of you being human. And then you start accepting others as they are. And when you hit the ground, you become a sane person, you know how to make a cup of tea with simplicity and precision, how to communicate with others in a non-judgmental way. And that is enlightenment. The first approach is an ego-boosting activity ( spiritual materialism) where one wants to achieve a goal of becoming extraordinary like the  celebrity who struggles hard in life to become one and then wears dark glasses to remain incognito. In the second instance it is to become thoroughly ordinary, the right path towards self-realization. As someone has said one of the most ordinary things in life is to become extraordinary.

Putting your best foot forward- Does it work all the time?

As a startup founder, if you were to make a presentation to your potential investors, with an opening slide: Few Reasons why you should NOT Invest in our Company, what would be the outcome? You would sum it up as nothing but a disaster!

Rufus Groscom and Alisa Volkman started a company in the US called Babble which was an online magazine with blog network. The company had positioned on the new paradigm of parenting by  challenging  the dominant parental clichés. In 2009 when they approached for the Venture Capital (VC) funding, their first slide was:  Five reasons why not to invest in Babble. They received a $3.3 Mn funding.

Looks a bit counterintuitive! Isn’t it? Normally the convention is to highlight your strengths which works well when your target audience is either neutral or has a positive disposition towards your offerings. But does a typical investor look upon you in a similar way?

Just imagine when you say that you have a ‘killer idea’ and that you will reach your breakeven in the first year and  will scale up to 20x revenue in the next two years what must be going on in the investors’ mind? Rather than getting impressed, a conventional sales pitch is normally looked down with scepticism. The investor is also operating from a position of strength which is due to the funds at his disposal as well as the number of ‘killer ideas’ he has encountered in the past.  Psychologically he is tuned to find out the follies in your sales pitch. What happens when you take a counterintuitive approach of focussing on your weaknesses?

  1. You create Trust: When you put your cards on the table you look vulnerable which makes you look trustworthy. Your investor feels that if you are speaking about something wrong, there might be a lot of things you may be doing right. You are perceived with a positive intent. In the conventional sales pitch, the intent is perceived as getting the funding by hook or by crook! (for details refer Trust: The Difference that Creates the Difference, from Contextual Selling)
  2. You look smart: You may speak about your strengths but if they are hyped the investor may feel you are beating your own trumpets. However, when you critique yourself, you may be perceived as smart.

Teresa Amabile, professor of Business administration at the Harvard Business School conducted an experiment on how a writer is perceived by her audiences. A sample of a New York Times book review was taken. The book review which was primarily of a complimentary nature was modified with a critical tone; major part of the content remaining the same. Minor modifications were made from inspiring to uninspiring, tremendous impact to negligible impact etc.

People rated the ‘critical’ reviewer 14% more intelligent and having 16% greater literary expertise vis-à-vis the ‘complimentary’ reviewer. After all an amateur can appreciate art but only a professional can critique it!

  1. Objections are Pre-empted: There are two groups who have been given a task of identifying reasons for being happy.  Group A has to list three reasons whereas group B has to list for 12 reasons. Which group according to you should be happier between the two? Most of us would opt for group B.

Norbert Schwarz (Professor, Department of Psychology, University of California) in his article Ease of retrieval as information has given an interesting example on Availability Heuristics.  Also called as availability bias, it refers to the mental short cuts that come to people’s mind while evaluating and solving a problem. Group A may think the reasons of happiness can be attributed to spouse, children and the career. The available answers which were quick to find makes them happy. Group B may explore possibilities beyond the first three which may include vacation, hobbies etc. but may find it hard to reach the magical number of 12 and they start questioning themselves whether they are happy in the first place or not. So, the counterintuitive answer is A.

Looking at the Startup founder’s admission about his challenges the investor now has to struggle hard to find out new problems (as those have been already pre-empted in the first slide) and he concludes that the startup’ s problems are not that significant!

Coming back to the Babble story, a few years later Rufus and Alisa approached Disney for a takeover. The opening slide was:  Why you should NOT buy Babble? And the reasons included

  1. Poor user engagement,
  2. Only 3-page views per visit
  3. despite being a parenting website 40% of posts were from celebrities etc…

Disney bought Babble for $40 Mn.

A note of caution: Aspects like technology model, IP, revenue stream, scaling, breakeven, competition, manpower cost, future disruption etc are going to be equally important and the presenter needs to be focusing on the strengths too. The article only wishes to point out that speaking about the negatives may be also relevant at appropriate times!

Rajan Parulekar, rajan@paradigm-info.com

Personal Growth Companion by D.M. Silveira

Circa 2002, while visiting the IIM Bangalore library, I came across a book titled Personal Growth Companion (PGC) by DM Silveira. PGC addressed the  dilemmas faced by people and takes them through a simple process of self-assessment which paves the way for new awareness of capabilities and potential. Some of the chapter titles were: Have you met yourself recently, what is your paradigm? Do people feel good about you? It is not a typical self-help or a how-to book telling you about success or a millionaire mindset but more on introspection and reflection. It helps you through the limitations of psychological categories and transcends scientific classifications, a few sample questions to illustrate the point:

On Busyness: Am I caught in a hurry? What am I trying to tell myself and others through my tearing hurry? Is it tied with my ego? Do I lack an inner focus and am I hurrying as a compensation?

On creativity: Is my life over-organized and repetitive? Does the routine enslave me? How much of novelty and surprise is there in my life?

The elaborate questionnaire was more on reflection rather than pigeonholing you into a category like introvert, extrovert etc.  The book was written in a simple yet a profound manner.  I got literally hooked into it. I carried the book while on a trek in the Sandakphu-Phalut range of the eastern Himalayas (near Darjeeling) and the book truly lived upto its title. By the time I returned to Bangalore, I was so impressed by the book, I penned a book review. The Sunday Supplement editor of Deccan Herald replied that it could not be published as the paper had a policy of putting up the reviews of books published in the current year. PGC was published in 1996. I searched for PGC in a number of bookshops but could not succeed. In retrospect, I felt relieved the review was not published considering the unavailability of the book.

DM Silveira, the author was living in Vashi, New Mumbai. I called him over phone and asked him whether I can buy a copy of the book from him. He said, “I am happy to note you liked Companion but I have to express my apologies. I publish only one edition of my book. And the only copy is on my dining table.” That statement revealed DM’s (as he preferred to be addressed) paradigm about the triviality of success and ephemerality of phrases like ‘Million copies sold,‘ #1 on New York  Times Best Sellers List’ etc.  There were no celebrity endorsements on PGC either.

Curiosity had the better part of me. I decided to meet him at his home in Vashi. A fair, slim and bespectacled person around six feet tall with a cheerful disposition was indeed much different than my expectations.

I also came to know that DM had to his credit a book called Human Resource Development. It was acknowledged as a scholarly work and was appreciated by the practising HR professionals then. Once he narrated an interesting anecdote. Reserve Bank of India had placed an order for 200 copies. DM used to publish his books under his own company called Classic Publishers Pvt Ltd. which was based in Kandivali Mumbai. DM along with his son Nikhil had been to the RBI for delivering the consignment. As DM was carrying the boxes on his shoulder, Nikhil said,”Dad, you are the author of this book, you are not supposed to carry the boxes on your shoulders to the stores. Let me take it.”

DM started his career as a clerk in Goa Secretariat in late 60s. His boss coaxed him to go to Mumbai for completing his graduation and explore better career opportunities. Working part-time as a journalist he completed his graduation in literature. One day I asked him about his journey of authorship, he said he decided to write full-time and live in Pune for an year. He said,” Rajan it was  a tough call. Actually India Today had offered me the number 2 position, but then I insisted on #1 position. But then Aroon Purie ( founder of India Today) did not find the idea too interesting and so I am here.” For some time I thought he was pulling up a fast one on me or a case of sour grapes. The second possibility was difficult to digest for a person who earlier was the editor of magazines like Newsmag, Onlooker and later on for a newspaper called Free Press Journal.

DM was the one who coaxed me into writing a book while cautioning it to be a painful process.

Whether in person or on a mail his opening sentence used to be ‘Patrao kosso assa, chennagiddiraa? ( meaning bossy, how are you, all well, smattering of Konkani, Portuguese, and Kannada) He connected me with Union Bank of School of Management in Bangalore where I conducted a number of lectures for the executive MBA program. His recommendation to clients used to open doors with a number of corporate clients for me.

For few years while in Delhi, he used to publish a yearly book of facts called India Book. DM, writer of great books, editor of FPJ and other magazines, Gold Medallist in Masters in English Literature from Bombay University was truly a humble man.  He had no qualms interacting with a much younger and inexperienced person like me. He used to be in his elements while sharing interesting anecdotes about Piloo Modi, LK Advani  etc

On 31th March 2009 he passed away due to a massive heart attack, while brushing his teeth; just shy of two weeks of his 60th Birthday on 16th April. It is said little knowledge makes one arrogant, a little more makes one reasonable and the final knowledge makes one truly humble. DM, the maverick, belonged to that rare but a truly humble creed!

 

Lust for Life- The Story of Vincent Van Gogh

The year was 1986 , when I was working with Larsen and Toubro,my colleague Amrit Gangar (now  a noted film critic and a scholar)  said, ”Rajan, this craze for MBA is a pure hype. If you really want to know what life or passion is;then you should read this book, Lust for Life.” He handed me a copy of the book which was more than a decade old, worn out yellowish tinged paper with a semi torn cover. The first impression being the worst impression, the book literally remained unopened for six months in a corner of my book shelf in Goregaon Mumbai.

One day I had to leave for Mysore for an official trip from Mumbai. As a junior executive, I was entitled for train travel. Being an unplanned last minute Journey, I could not get a confirmed ticket. I had to opt for a general compartment. (Tatkal quota did not exist then.) The journey from Mumbai to Mysore was of 24 hours. By happenstance I picked this book. and literally got hooked into it. By the time I reached Mysore, I had completed the 500+ pages book; oblivious of  the cacophony and the discomfort of a typical second class general compartment.  And then I recollected the adage: Don’t judge the book by its cover (or the lack of it)!

I narrated this incidence to my friend Dr. Vally D’Souza,  ( Ph. D. in Botany) with whom I used to travel in the mornings from Goregaon to Churchgate in the 8.50 local. Dr. Vally who borrowed the book used to work in a company in Flora Fountain then.  At Churchgate station we parted ways for our offices.

The next day I asked him, “How did you find the book?” He said, ”The  book was so mesmerizing that while passing through Azad Maidan, I dropped the idea of going to office. I finished reading it lying on a bench using my briefcase as a pillow; returned home taking the 6.13 Borivali slow local.”

Lust for Life by Irving Stone is a fictionalized biography of Vincent Van Gogh the Dutch post-impressionist painter considered as the most influential figures in western art. He lived a short life of 37 years. Without a formal background in painting, he developed a passion for this art and in the last decade of his life  created 2100 art-works which include 860 oil paintings. He did not earn a single penny throughout his life and was ably supported by his younger brother Theo while Vincent was painting with a passion. However some of the most expensive paintings are credited to him, The Portrait of Dr. Gachet being one of them was sold for US$82.5 Million in 1990.

Irving stone: was a native and a budding playwright from San Francisco who went to Paris in 1926  intending to write plays. By happenstance, he came across an exhibition of Vincent Van Gogh and was truly fascinated by his work. After returning to New York, he started doing his research not for writing a novel but merely to understand Van Gogh. At one stage  Van Gogh possessed him so much  that at midnight the author  used to wakeup and write the dialogues between the brothers.

Having sold more than a million copies with a 50th Anniversary edition, a film by the same name starring Kirk Douglas which had four Oscar Nominations, the going was not easy for Irving stone when his manuscript was ready by 1931. For three years he had to run from pillar to post. Seventeen publishers rejected the manuscript; most of them found the novel to be too insipid and boring. At last Longmans, Green and Company published the novel in 1934. And lo behold! it appeared in the New York Sunday Mirror bestseller list in just four days.

I thought Dr. Vally and I may have the unique distinction of completing this book in a day. Alas, I was wrong!  A number of readers have expressed likewise on the book reviews!

Irving Stone (1903-1989) was known for his fictionalized biographies which apart from Lust for Life include Agony and The Ecstasy  ( Michelangelo) , The Origin ( Charles Darwin) and The Passions of the Mind( Sigmund Freud). This year happens to be his 30th death anniversary, he passed away on 28th August 1989.

Rajan Parulekar|rajan@paradigm-info.com

Who is Responsible for Our Actions?

Imagine you plan to write on a piece of paper. You have a pen and the paper on the table. If you were asked to describe the event the logical sequence would be:

  1. There is a thought in the brain that you wish to write.
  2. Associated with the thought, there is an electrochemical reaction in the brain called as the readiness potential.
  3. Based on the readiness potential the brain sends a signal to the hand to perform a desired action of writing.

Man has a free will and when he makes a conscious decision, the sequence of events would be first the thought or the decision, then the brain getting ready for the implementation of the thought through readiness potential followed by the impulse to the organ culminating in the desired action.

This theory of free will received a rude shock when Benjamin Libet, a pioneering neuroscientist performed a simple experiment in 1985. While performing an experiment on his participants, he asked them to take a simple action of raising their hands and also indicate the time when the decision to raise the hand was taken. While monitoring the brain activity, he found that the readiness potential had occurred in the brain not after the decision was taken but about 200 ms before the decision was taken. The decisions we feel we are taking consciously are actually not taken by us but already by our unconscious mind. A number of psychologists and scientists questioned the validity of such an experiment. A series of such minute readiness potential -thought –action sequence happens so rapidly that we feel that there is someone inside our body termed as the self who has a free will and takes conscious decision.

23 years later, the April 2008 issue of Nature Neuroscience has published a research paper on similar lines. The experiment was simple. There are two buttons. The participant has a choice to press any button, in a random fashion. He was asked to indicate the time at which he has taken a decision and the subject was asked to press the button. While the experiment was going on, the brain scan was carried out by Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging. (FMRI) which can record the activities happening in the different parts of the brain.

The patterns generated does not tell what a person is doing. However different parts of the brain were getting brightened depending on which activity was being performed. .The surprising observation was that the computer was able to predict which button the subject will press based on the FMRI scan. And the brightening of the specific part was happening at least 7 seconds before the subject said that he was taking a decision. The experiment was repeated 100 times and the computer was able to predict at least 70% of the time which button may get pressed, based on the part that glowed corresponding to  the decision whether it was right or left. Prof John Haines and his colleagues who conducted this experiment in Germany came to the startling conclusion that when we feel that we are consciously taking any decision, the unconscious mind has already taken the decision 7-10 seconds before and the conscious mind just has to follow its unconscious counterpart.

In another experiment, Prof. Eric Candel and others conducted an experiment to see the linkages of the conscious and the unconscious mind A group of 17 participants were shown a series of pictures with associated with different emotions fear, anger, hatred, disgust etc. While showing the pictures the brain activity was similarly monitored. Let us assume 100 pictures which can evoke such  emotions were displayed at a normal frame speed of 5 seconds. In between these 100 pictures 2/3 pictures at random with extreme emotions were shown for a fraction of a second. The participants were not able to recollect that they have seen such pictures. Amygdala which is the seat of emotion in the brain used to get brightened when such pictures were shown. However a specific part of amygdala used to get brightened depending on whether the fear was experienced on a conscious level ( picture shown for 5 secs ) or at the subconscious level.( picture shown for 0.1 sec) The amygdala is the seat of primal emotion like fear, anger etc. and the response is used to trigger the fight-or-flight response used for the survival of the organism. The responses are instantaneous.

There are some people who get panicky for trivial reasons or flare up on small issues. This can be correlated with their  amygdale make up. In the same event of traffic jam A may get easily angry whereas B may not get too upset. For sake of simplicity we can say that a short tempered person may operate at a higher level of amygdala arousal say at 900. wheras a cool and composed person may operate at a level of 200. So when a picture  was flashed for a fraction of a second both A and B got panicky but at their respective levels. So A gets angry at a level of 900 and B at a level of 200. However when the same picture is shown at a lower speed the level of arousal corresponding to fear is not proportional to the base level but at a constant level . A goes from 900 to 1000 whereas B goes from 200 from 300. Stated otherwise,  when confronted with an emotion like anger or fear at an unconscious level, the panic response dependent on the individual genetic makeup and while facing the same at a conscious level it was not that terrible.

This research has some interesting fallouts. When people face irrational fears of closed places, air travel or swine flu, they need to bring that experience into the conscious level  where the unwanted emotion is seen and felt in real time and by doing this exercise, the amygdala arousal can be reduced.

Sigmund Freud had propounded the same thing by talking oneself out and thus reducing the unwanted emotions.

Gautam Buddha has proposed the same technique in his Vipassana meditation where such emotions are faced head-on by watching one’s breath continuously and by doing so, the impact of the irrational fears comes down.

The conventional wisdom propounded by the motivational speakers, and evangelist says that one should always think positive and if one gets negative thoughts they should be driven away or rather put under the carpet. And then we tell our children , “you should be seen not heard”, “don’t act like a sissy, boys don’t cry” etc. .But such facades of confidence actually crumble over a period of time making the situation worse. Let me give another example: Let us say at night you are not able to get the sleep and you are tossing from one side to the other. Under such conditions it is logical that most of us get negative thoughts like Why I cannot sleep and try to make the maximum efforts like counting the numbers etc. On the contrary if you just watch your thoughts and then say, “ At this moment I am not able to sleep and that is the current reality. If you go on watching the breath and focus on the process without bothering about the end result there is a greater possibility that you may get  quality sleep much faster.

The conclusion of the above research as corroborated by Gautam Buddha is:

  1. You can handle your irrational fears by bringing them into the conscious mind.
  2. The impact of the fear reduces drastically by repeating such exercise.
  3. The subconscious mind does not have the word NOT in its dictionary, as such whenever unconsciously we say a negative thing the subconscious mind rebounds in an opposite manner. For example, The more you say I will NOT get angry you tend to feel more angry. The more you resist, the more it persists.

One of the greatest hoaxes of life is to feel that that there is a self which goes on directing ourselves. However the truth is otherwise. Most of the conscious actions which we feel we do by choice are actually done by the unconscious. As the difference between the action and the readiness potential is  small, and such actions are happening at such a rapid pace that first we take action and a conglomeration of such rapid actions make us feel that   there is a self inside that that I am doing an action.

Let us see what the ancient Buddhist text say on this subject which has now been confirmed by the latest neurological research:

  • There is no Self as the agent of any action..
  •   There is no Self as the feeler of any sensation..
  •   There is no Self as the experiencer of any perception..
  •   There is no Self in or outside any bony frame of body..
  • There is no Self in or outside any shortly sensed feeling..
  •   There is no Self in or outside any experienced perception..
  •   There is no Self in or outside any remembered memory..
  •   There is no Self in or outside any constructed intention..
  • There is no Self in or outside any momentary consciousness..
  •   There is no Doer experiencing any effect of any action..
  •   There is no Definable Entity transmigrating at Rebirth..
  •   There is no Stable Identity lasting even for a moment..
  •   There is no Owner of anything, whether material or mental..
  • Yet beings, since an endless beginning, passionately maintains this mere IDEA of a stably enduring yet invisible entity, supposed to be the Self, I, Ego, Me,  Identity or Personality, with which they fall deeply & dramatically in love.

Assuming such an IDEA, constructing such an Imagination, Defining such an Invention is more than FATAL, as it causes the constructer to come back to  birth, ageing, decay & death & thereby suffering again & again for aeons.

Winning a Jackpot: How do you decide?

Situation: Imagine you are participating in a game show and after going through qualifying and elimination rounds, you have reached the finals.  The game-show host presents you three options A, B & C and you have to select one of the options which are the respective doors. One of the doors leads to a jackpot (say a Mercedes) and the other doors to an insignificant prize, say a tennis ball through each door. Now let us say you have selected option A. You are curious and excited to see if you have hit the jackpot. The host asks you to be patient, opens the door C and what you see is a tennis ball. Now he asks you whether you would still stick with option A or switch to option B? What would you choose and why?

When this question was put on different platforms like linkedin, what’sapp it was observed that 95% of the respondents voted for A. Now read on:

Analysis: Generally people tend to stick to option A, the reason being they would not like to regret their decision. If A is selected leading to a jackpot, then he would be happy; however if otherwise, then he  blames  the circumstances or his fate. But at least he has the consolation that he was firm in his decision. However if he were to choose B, and were to lose; he would regret his decision and also for not being firm in his decision making process.

Let us see how this situation can be seen from a statistical probability basis. Generally people make decisions through their self-interest and do not look at a situation objectively. For example we tend to discount the impact of the environment on our decisions. When a person selects option A, the  probability of success is 1 in 3. However when door C has been opened with a tennis ball, the probability of B has increased to 50%. Assume instead of 3 options you were given 100 options. And now 98 doors are opened without any jackpot. Would you still bat for A? Now you will appreciate that at the beginning of the game the probability of winning A was 1% but after the events have unfolded B has risen to 50%. So in a single event even though A and B has equal chances, over the long term it makes sense to switch over considering the environmental factors.

What happens if the game of ABC is played 100 times. or 100 people play this game simultaneously? Now you will understand that the human mind is not programmed to think in a statistical manner. During most of programs our clients ask us to train their executives to think out-of the box. But sadly they  are hardwired to think otherwise.

Most people tend to overestimate fatalities and death in aeroplane crashes more than car accidents even though statistically air travel is much safer than car travel. One of the main reasons people tend to assign higher risk to air travel is due to wide publicity in media to such rare events.

A survey was carried out in the US after the 9/11 disaster. More people died in the three months  on  roads than those killed in the aircrafts during  the twin tower tragedy.  People tend to fear dread risk of low-occurrence and high consequence events such as the twin tower attack. ( Dread Risk : September 11 and fatal traffic accidents, by G. Gigerenzer) .There are two types of risks,  actual risk and dread risk, the latter is more out of anxiety quite often overestimated than the actual risk. This in part may answer why people would still go on playing option A.

Another reason for dread risk is an illusion of control. A person driving a car feels more in control of the situation than while flying in an aircraft driven by someone else. Most of our unconscious processes control our thoughts and behaviour, which in turn creates an illusion of self- I or the soul. It also makes us feel that I exist, I am in control and thus I can make my own decisions. But the truth is otherwise. Most of the events in life are beyond our control; there is no self.  And to create that illusion we tell stories, we fabricate them saying how intelligent we are.

The above problem is called as a Monty Hall problem ascribed to the presenter of the famous game show in USA,  Let’s Make a Deal. Monty Hall Problem states that there are two errors people make while taking decisions:

  1. They ignore the influence the external environment makes on their decision making and
  2. How their perceptions are shaped by the external environment. In fact we feel we are making decisions in a neutral environment and our decision making is rational. We feel we are safe when we are in control of our destiny. Rituals and routine give us more control of the situation. However truth is otherwise, Dan Ariely, author of Upside of Irrationality says we are poor in risk analysis and are irrational animals.

Rajan Parulekar|rajan@paradigm-info.com|98450 14098