My Life System #100: The Centennial

100. Little did I imagine when I began writing this series that I would reach a hundred. But as with the Proficorn blog series, the ideas kept coming as I wrote. Here is what I had said in my introduction to the Life System series: “It is never too late to learn and improve. It requires a realisation that we can be better than we are, a humility to accept when we are wrong, and an openness to change. Every mistake we make should be introspected to see if there is change needed in our core processes. Done repeatedly, we become better. A system is a set of ideas or rules for organising something; a particular way of doing something. Apply it to our way of living and we get a life system. This series is not about providing life hacks – the Internet is full of those. It is about sharing how I think and what I do – the path and system I have chosen to follow, after many iterations and improvements. Each of us has to craft our own life system.” And to think it all started as I was sitting in a waiting room with a question a young girl had posed to me. (As a postscript: I am a published author now!)

Life is about learning and sharing, or as someone put it, “reading, writing, and daydreaming.” This blog has given me a platform for all the above. I don’t worry about who will read and that has freed me from worrying about vanity metrics. I write for myself – perhaps a Future Self. It has worked well for the past many years – the unbroken stream of a new original post daily. For this, I have to keep many ideas floating around in my head. And that itself becomes a habit!

A hundredth post milestone is a good checkpoint to reflect on. I have written much of what I wanted to say on this theme. The last 20 posts were a bit of a stretch, but I was keen to reach my second “series” century.

I hope this series helps you in becoming better. Much of what I have learnt is the collected and observed wisdom from watching and listening to others. Even now, I keep a running list of future ideas and there are many more future themes to write on, should I wish to. That’s a decision for a later time. For now, it is time to celebrate the century!

My Life System #99: Next Books in My Head

Now that I have published one book, I am keen to write more. I have been thinking of many themes for future books. Given my secret for writing books (think 100 blog posts of 500 words each), this blog is a very big influence on what I will eventually decide. Each book is a lot of work with the blog posts serving as a start.

  • New Ideas in Marketing: This is the most obvious one and the one I am most excited about. B2C Marketing needs to be reinvented. I have written 50+ essays on this theme over the past three years. Many of the ideas are original and can be game changers for marketers. At the core of it lies fixing the folly of ignoring existing customers. Only by shifting focus from acquisition to retention, engagement, and growth can marketers lay the foundation for exponential forever profitable growth. But this needs an approach very different from today: Martech 2.0, Velvet Rope Marketing, Email 2.0, Loyalty 2.0, and more such ideas.
  • Proficorns Playbook: This was a suggestion which came from multiple people who have read “Startup to Proficorn”. There are many proficorns in India and the world, with quite a few in the non-tech world. I could have conversations with some of these proficorn entrepreneurs, and then capture their best practices (along with what I have written) into a playbook of sorts for bootstrapping and scaling businesses.
  • Proficorn to Profipoly: This would be a sequel of sorts to my journey in building enduring, great businesses. How does one take a business and create a “profits monopoly”? It would capture the recent past and next phase of Netcore’s growth. I still need to make this happen in Netcore, and then write about it. So, this is a book that may take some time.
  • Life System: This would be a book on a personal system (based on this series) of good habits that each of us can create. As Naval Ravikant told Shane Parrish: “You absolutely need habits to function. You cannot solve every problem in life as if it is the first time it’s thrown at you.” These are learnings from a lifetime of experiments, received advice, and learnings – many with my own lived story. It is similar to how my Proficorn book came about; this time the focus would be on the individual’s personal life rather than the business.
  • Nayi Disha for India: I keep thinking about the path India needs to take for freedom and prosperity. I worked a lot during my failed efforts in Free A Billion and Nayi Disha initiatives during 2015-18. At the core is a proposal called Dhan Vapasi, first proposed by Atanu Dey. Once again, there is a large body of work in my essays to build on. I haven’t been writing much on this in the recent past, but the ideas keep floating around in conversations with friends.

So, these are the five book ideas. Watch this space for more in the coming months. I am not the “one and done” types!

My Life System #98: Curious Listening

 I like it very much when I discover a phrase that captures a habit or behaviour that I engage in. So it was when I came across an article in Financial Times entitled “Listen and you might learn something.”

Of all the management techniques, few are as powerful as curious conversation. If one of your staff tells you how their job is going, or how they think it should change, or what the organisation should be doing differently, say “tell me more” and ask some follow-up questions. It has an instant effect. There may be some initial wariness, especially if people aren’t used to having these sorts of chats with their boss. But after that they often widen their eyes, or give an acknowledging nod, and open up. If you haven’t done it, give it a go. It’s magic.

Why does it work? Because people feel listened to. They feel they matter. You can achieve this, too, by repeating whatever they have just told you. Psychologists call it “reflecting back”. A 2009 study assessing randomised control trials of therapy sessions in the US and Norway found that of all the techniques counsellors attempted — including confrontation, questioning and offering support — “the therapist listening carefully and reflecting back what the patient said” was the most effective. The “listening carefully” part is vital. People know when you are only going through the motions.”

… If, as a leader, you are known for eliciting opinions and engaging with them, people are more likely to bring looming trouble to your attention. Having those “so what you are saying” or “tell me a bit more” conversations not only makes for a more engaged workforce. It could save your organisation — and your leadership reputation.

In the article there was a phrase I liked: curious listening. Both the words are very powerful: curious as reflected in the asking of open-ended questions, and listening to learn. It is what I try to do when I meet with Netcore staff or with customers and prospects. The words and phrases they use are very good teaching moments. I make careful notes when listening to stay focused and share learnings with colleagues for next actions. In doing so, I have to resist the urge to respond to critical feedback. Once I start speaking, there is an ever present danger that the other person will simply clam up and not “speak truth to power”.

There is a very good graphic I found on curious listening at Masterpiece Leader which captures the essence:

Anna Kmetova has advice for curious listening:

  1. Listen with an open mind: Each person is unique, and just like us, they have their own, unique qualities, beliefs and experiences. Can you give them space to fully express themselves and make sure you understand?
  2. Ask powerful questions: Open and short questions signify the minimum of assumptions and offer maximum space for the other to explain…Ask follow-up questions such as “How do you see it”, “What is your real challenge here” and let them find their own solution.
  3. Listen for what is NOT said: Can you tell that there is a discrepancy between the body posture of your colleague and their words? Can you tell that something truly matters to them just by the excitement you see on their face when they talk about something?

Try “curious listening” the next time you are in a 1:1 meeting, and then reflect on the conversation. Isn’t this a much better approach?

My Life System #97: Gabriel Allon Day

Every year, on a July Tuesday, a Daniel Silva book is published. It features Gabriel Allon, the now retired Israeli intelligence officer and a master art restorer. Every year, for the past many years, I set aside a day to read the new book in the series. I did the same this year with “The Collector.” I bought it on Amazon Kindle, took the Tuesday it was published off from work (except for a couple Zoom meetings I could not reschedule), and spent about six hours reading the book.

This is what I had written about Silva and Allon a few years ago (July 2020): “Every year for the past many years, I have been devoting a day to read the latest Daniel Silva thriller featuring Gabriel Allon. There have been 20 books in the series so far – and I have read all of them. The latest one, “The Order“, was published a few days ago — becoming available in India before the US. I spent Sunday with Allon. Even though I do like thrillers, there is no other character I afford this privilege to — of reading the book as soon as it has been published. Allon is a character you cannot but help admire. And at times when I face a challenge, I cannot help but ask myself, “What would Gabriel Allon do?” (He is an assassin, but my point is not that — it is about the way he approaches a problem.) In busy times like now, it becomes difficult at times to create contiguous time to read fiction and transport oneself into the world created by the author. The joy of sitting in one place for many hours reading is a feeling that has become increasingly rare in our busy interrupt-driven lives.”

I had written this in Life System #14 on Reading: “I like thrillers. A good story transports you to a different world – it is the equivalent of dreaming with eyes open…The best thing one can do is to set aside some time in the day to read. Be it the serious books or the fast-paced thrillers, some diversion in the form of being transported to the ideas and stories as envisioned by the authors is a wonderful addition to daily life.” I had added the following in #81 on Fiction Immerson [LINK]: “A good fiction book is about immersion – travelling through space and time into the characters that the author creates…We can envision ourselves in the fictional universe a good author crafts, with detailed descriptions and believable dialogue. This resonance provides an escape from the mundane on a lazy weekend afternoon or a late night after a long workday, offering a portal that connects the author’s writing and our imagination. Immersion in a good fiction book fosters a deeper understanding of the human experience – very different perhaps from our own. The book leaves behind questions, some answers, and many memories that linger long after the final page is turned.”

With Silva’s portrayal of Allon, I resist the urge to skim. I savour every word, delighting in the dialogues peppered with wit. Silva’s writing transcends mere storytelling; it’s an art. Allon isn’t just a character; he’s a masterclass in nuanced character development, brilliantly bridging the realms of art, espionage, and human emotions – against the backdrop of contemporary global challenges involving bad villains. In those hours, cocooned with Silva’s narrative, the world fades, leaving just the words and me. It’s not just reading; it’s a sacred retreat, a digital detox that reiterates the significance of undistracted immersion.

My recommendation: pick an author, and read the newest book not over multiple days, but in a single day. It is what I used to do as a teenager when I used to get books from the local library and finish them as fast as possible. Allow yourself this luxury as an adult and let the world pause for a while.

My Life System #96: South Mumbai Restaurants

Bhavana, Abhishek and I go out for dinner every other week or so. Because of three constraints – vegetarian restaurant (when possible), availability of Jain food options, and my taste buds (no experimentation with exotic food preparations) – our choices are limited. But across these restaurants, we have a wide variety available. Here are our favourites. (As a reference point: we stay at Kemps Corner, so all of these are in about a maximum 20-minute driving distance.)

  • Swati: This is our favourite whether it is for dine-in or ordering. They have two locations: Tardeo and Nariman Point. The latter is less crowded on weekends and a short walk from Inox CR2 (the multiplex). What I love about Swati is the speed of service. The last time we were there, we were out with filled tummies in 20 minutes! The taste has remained the same through the years, and that’s what a good restaurant offers – like Mom’s cooking, a constant in a changing world.
  • Status: Also at Nariman Point, I have very fond memories of this restaurant from the IndiaWorld days when my office was also in the same neighbourhood. Meeting someone for lunch meant Status. Service is quick and the staff is friendly.
  • Cream Centre: Also an old favourite and known for its Chole Bhatura, Cream Centre is a place closer to home to take visiting relatives or friends to.
  • Spice Klub: This one (at Lower Parel) is closer to my office, so it is where I do my business lunches or dinners. The food presentation is different, and if there are many diners, then there’s good variety for everyone. They have recently started a functional business lunch (thali types) which is quite good.
  • All-in-1 Pure Jain: This is a new one (at Opera House). The entire menu is Jain – probably the only one of its kind, outside of Jain dharamshalas. They have almost every kind of food, so plenty of variety.
  • Sahib Room: This is where I do formal long lunches and dinners. It is at St. Regis in Lower Parel. Their Jain preparations are very well done, especially the Dal Maharani. The tables are set far enough to afford privacy.

There are some other ones which we used to go often earlier, which also have excellent food. Dakshinayan at Walkeshwar (South Indian food), Quattro (next to Spice Klub, for its veg Italian and Mexican options), Soam and Govinda (at Babulnath), Samrat (at Churchgate), New Yorker (next to Cream Centre), and Gustoso (pizza, walking distance from home).

There is one I miss: Maharaja Bhog. It was near the office, and I used to go there often for their thalis. But it shut down during the pandemic. As did Grapevine which is in my office complex. The one restaurant I wish would be opened in Mumbai: a veg Pizza Hut serving Jain pizza, like the one in Surat. (It used to be there a long time ago at Chowpatty, but it shut down.)

So, no shortage of good Jain eating options in South Mumbai. Each of them ensures that you don’t really need a second big meal during the day!

My Life System #95: Decadal Decisions

On a recent flight, I was thinking back about my life and some of the key decisions I made and got right. I realised it has been about 4-5. Picking IIT over going to the US for undergrad (1984). Getting married to Bhavana (1992). Selling IndiaWorld to Sify (1999). Recruiting a professional CEO for Netcore (2007). Creating Niti Digital in 2011 for the 2014 elections campaign. Returning to Netcore full-time in 2019 after realising that my Nayi Disha initiative was not working. That’s six in the past 40 years. I concluded that I had got one big decision right every decade or so – I termed them “decadal decisions”. These are big life-changing calls that we make which we should get right for a step-function jump in our happiness and satisfaction index. The accuracy of these decisions renders the errors inconsequential.

I mentioned this to a friend, and he suggested I read Morgan Housel’s Tails, You Win.

Long tails drive everything. They dominate business, investing, sports, politics, products, careers, everything. Rule of thumb: Anything that is huge, profitable, famous, or influential is the result of a tail event. Another rule of thumb: Most of our attention goes to things that are huge, profitable, famous, or influential. And when most of what you pay attention to is the result of a tail, you underestimate how rare and powerful they really are.

Warren Buffett once said he’s owned 400 to 500 stocks during his life and made most of his money on 10 of them. Charlie Munger followed up: “If you remove just a few of Berkshire’s top investments, its long-term track record is pretty average.”

A takeaway from that is that no matter what you’re doing, you should be comfortable with a lot of stuff not working. It’s normal. This is true for companies, which need to learn how to fail well. It’s true for investors, who need to understand both the normal tail mechanics of diversification and the importance of time horizon, since long-term returns accrue in bunches. And it’s important to realize that jobs and even entire careers might take a few attempts before you find a winning groove. That’s how these things work.

My life is an example of “tails” and a lot of things not working. I have failed 30 times as an entrepreneur, and only succeeded twice (IndiaWorld and Netcore). Three, if I count Niti Digital as a political entrepreneur. That’s one success for every decade as an entrepreneur. And when I look ahead, if the pattern holds true, I can hope for another two big successes in my next 20 years. Which means I should be giving some thought to what I want to accomplish going forward. What I also do is try many things without fear of failure – which also increases the odds of a few things working out well.

Try this exercise: look back at your life. Which were the decisions that worked out well? There will be many which didn’t, but focus on the ones that did, the ones that were transformative. Then, think back to how you made the decisions and how you can increase the odds of future success.

My Life System #94: Speaking Truth to Power

Many years ago, I was at a meeting in San Francisco with a global investment fund manager. The discussion veered to my views on the Indian political climate and opportunities. I gave a candid view of what I thought, without couching my words in niceties. At the end of the meeting, as I was leaving, the fund manager said to me, “Thanks for your inputs. You have spoken truth to power. We don’t find too many people doing that nowadays.” This was the first time I had heard the phrase “truth to power.” I was curious what it meant and about its origins. My host then explained to me that it was a Quaker leader and meant the act of voicing one’s beliefs to those in positions of power.

Here is a explainer: “The specific phrase speak truth to power is credited to Bayard Rustin in 1942. Rustin was a Black Quaker and a leader in the Civil Rights Movement, advocating nonviolent methods in his fight for social justice. In a letter written that year, Rustin stated that “the primary social function of a religious society is to ‘speak the truth to power.’ The truth is that war is wrong.” The phrase was picked up in a 1955 text about pacifist strategies to achieve justice, Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence, published by a Quaker organization in conjunction with Rustin. The work became a guide for many people organizing against violence during the Cold War.”

Since that day, the phrase “speaking truth to power” has stayed with me. It is what I have always done; I just didn’t have a phrase to describe it. I have always believed in giving candid feedback when asked. I also ask for frank inputs on what I could have done better. This is the only way we can all improve. Speaking the unvarnished truth is something that is happening a lot less in a world where sensitivities on both the right and left of the political spectrum are high. Even in the workplace, we are extra careful not to ruffle feathers. I don’t subscribe to this view. I believe we must speak our mind. In interviews that I do, I do not put any boundaries on the questions I can be asked and neither do I ask for the questions to be sent to me in advance. I speak my mind.

As leaders and even in families, we must learn to speak truth to power. If something is wrong, we must call it out. When I speak in internal meetings and reviews, I do not mince words because that is the culture I want within Netcore. At a review recently, I was quite brutal with a colleague who I thought was going down a wrong path. I wasn’t sure how he would take it, but at the end he appreciated the directness and said he will think deeply about the points I said.

My advice: never hesitate in speaking truth to power. It is always the right thing to do – for yourself and for those being spoken to.

My Life System #93: Travel Tips – 2

 Handy Extras: Other travel essentials I pack for international trips include a power strip (to cater to the ever-growing number of devices needing charge), a compact umbrella, and energy bars. I also carry Girnar Tea premix sachets which need just hot water for a quick Indian masala chai fix.

Comfort Items: For long flights or train rides, I pack items that make for a more comfortable travel. An eye mask is always good to have because it is not always possible to control external lighting conditions. Also keep a Covid-19 face mask – in some parts of the world, it is still needed. I carry my Bose QC45 headset for creating my own private space. I also keep a physical book handy.

Strategic Bookings: My company’s travel desk takes care of all my bookings, but I always guide them regarding flights and hotels based on my research on Google Flights and my knowledge of meeting locations. Once, the travel desk chose a cheaper Airbnb for me, but it was inconveniently located 30 minutes away from the conference venue. The time and hassle spent on commuting negated any savings made on accommodation.

Extra Legroom Seats: As space becomes increasingly premium during travel, especially in Economy class, it may be well worth the investment to secure seats with additional legroom. For any flight that lasts longer than a couple of hours, you’ll appreciate the decision. I make a point of always booking an aisle seat – it offers easier access to the restrooms without the need to disturb co-passengers.

Loyalty Programs: I make it a point to join every available loyalty program since they’re free, and there’s no downside to them. Even if it takes years to reap the benefits, the accumulated points can come in handy.

Travel Apps: I download apps from airlines and hotels I am using. These provide added convenience for tracking flights, selecting seats, attempting upgrades, and performing check-ins. Moreover, it’s beneficial to pre-install the local public transport apps of the city you’ll be visiting. By adding your credit card info in advance, you eliminate potential delays upon arrival, making transit as smooth as possible.

International Roaming: Despite the cost, activating international roaming on your mobile is a must, especially for shorter trips. For longer stays, consider getting a local SIM card as a secondary one. (I use the Samsung Duo phones which have slots for two SIMS.) This way, you’re not reliant on sporadic free WiFi availability, which is essential since most cab bookings now require apps.

Advance Tipping: When I use a rental car or stay at a hotel (essentially any situation not involving a single transaction), I prefer to tip pre-emptively. I’ve noticed that this approach dramatically improves the level of service I receive.

Itinerary Sharing: Sharing your detailed itinerary with a trusted friend or family member serves as an important safety precaution. In case of unexpected occurrences, someone else will always be informed of your intended locations. Prior to embarking on a multi-city international travel, I give my family a printout of all my flight details and hotel reservations. Upon reaching each hotel, I make it a point to share my room number.

Digital Backup: Always have a digital backup of your essential travel documents like your passport, ID, visas, and itinerary. This can be a lifesaver in case you lose the originals or need quick access to them. I have these saved in a Dropbox folder.

My Life System #92: Travel Tips – 1

Here is a list of travel-related suggestions which I follow and could be useful.

Essential Checklists: Undoubtedly, checklists are vital. As human beings, it’s common for us to forget certain things when in a hurry, especially during last-minute packing. To combat this, I’ve created a Word document with distinct checklists for both domestic and international travel. Each time I realise I’ve forgotten an item, I add it to this living document. It serves as a comprehensive and ever-growing reminder of what I need for each journey. It also reduces pre-departure tension on what to remember to pack!

Packing Extra Clothes: I always ensure to pack an additional set of clothes, even for brief trips. This practice has come in handy in several instances such as unexpected trip extensions, flight cancellations, or overnight stays.

Intelligent Distribution of Clothes: I remember the one time a few years ago when my baggage got misplaced and I ended up at the hotel with no clothes other than what I was wearing. I had a conference the next morning and while the airline assured me that the bags would be delivered around midnight, I could not be sure. I went out to a Gap outlet and bought some clothes – just in case! It is also when I realised I should distribute my clothes across all my bags, ensuring to carry a set or two in my hand luggage.

Medication Kit: I always travel with a small pouch containing around a dozen common medications from India. This way, if I feel under the weather, I am not left stranded in a new city, attempting to locate a pharmacy, and deciphering the local equivalents of what I require. It is especially useful when one is travelling in non-English speaking countries.

Pack a Travel First Aid Kit: Apart from usual medication, I now carry a small first aid kit for minor accidents. I started this after I had a fall in New York on my last trip.

Stay Hydrated and Healthy: Air travel can often lead to dehydration, so make sure to drink enough water. It’s also advisable to pack some healthy snacks to keep your energy levels up during long flights or layovers. I am never sure about whether I will get an acceptable Jain meal, so I always keep some Indian food in my carry-on baggage.

Travel-friendly Lunch Box: Given my dietary restrictions, carrying food while traveling is non-negotiable. I also bring along a small lunch box and disposable cutlery (which can be replenished from any Starbucks or equivalent). This way, I’m always prepared, especially when the availability of Jain food is uncertain.

Multi-Currency Travel Card: If you are traveling internationally, a multi-currency travel card can be a convenient way to carry and manage money. It can also save you from fluctuating currency exchange rates. I use Thomas Cook’s Borderless Prepaid card. This is very handy because Indian credit cards sometimes don’t work everywhere. (At times, the fraud detection algos stop first transactions in new cities.)

Travel Insurance: Always have travel insurance in place. It’s an extra expense but can save you from high costs in case of emergencies or unexpected incidents such as medical emergencies, trip cancellations, or lost baggage.

My Life System #91: Books and Bookstores – 3

During a short business trip to Singapore, I had some time between meetings. Given my love for bookstores [see Part 1 and Part 2], it was no surprise that I found myself at Kinokuniya. It is one of the largest and best stores I have ever come across – possibly after Strand in New York. While I went in with a few titles to browse, I love the way a good bookstore organises the books – the adjacency of arrangement opens so many new possibilities. And that is exactly what happened to me. I came across many books that I had not previously come across. I ended up buying seven books in under an hour of browsing. And therein lies a story.

I start by going to sections I like: Business (especially Leadership, Marketing, Sales), Investing, Asia, History, and Science. What I especially like is that each section has its own New Arrivals collection which is very helpful. I normally have a list of books for future purchase as an Amazon Wish List. As it turns out, the only book in my purchases which was on my list was Material World. The book What A Unicorn Knows is one I had heard of when it was first announced almost a year ago, and had forgotten the title. Seeing it there on the shelves was a delight – because it was a book I was very keen to read. Some of the other titles were too good to not pick up: Chinafy, Centennials, Seeing the How among them. I like books on China tech companies because it is so hard to get English language content on the successes there. Centennials was about building enduring, great companies and it also gave me a new word to use, and Seeing the How was about how to spot marketing trends and better understand consumer behaviour. Business Storytelling is a book which I figured could give me ideas on how to shape the Netcore narrative.

The book I deliberated a bit about was The Imperfectionists – it was quite different from the ones I normally seek out. But the description persuaded me. How could I say No to: “Imperfectionists are curious, they look at problems from several perspectives, and gather new data and approaches, including from outside their current industry. They deliberately step into risk, proceeding through trial and error, utilizing nimble low consequence and reversible moves to deepen their understanding of the unfolding game being played, and to build capabilities. They accept ambiguity and some apparent failures in exchange for improved learning and market position. Imperfectionists succeed with dynamic, real time strategic problem solving, confidently moving forward while others wait for certainty, or make impetuous and foolish bets.”? I thought it applied well to me!

I don’t worry about the price. I know books in Singapore are priced higher, but this is where my $100 Delta Decision Rule comes into play. Each book was a treasure of wisdom, and I didn’t want to wait till cheaper editions became available in India.

As I walked out with the books in tow, I thought about bookstores and the experience they create – seeing similar books next to each other (decisions made by a thoughtful category manager), ability to pick a book and randomly browse through the pages, and discovering titles one wasn’t aware even existed. This is what I look for in a physical store – an experience online hasn’t been able to create. I wish someone would create a “book metaverse” – a 3D model replicating the ability to scan dozens of thoughtfully organised books. A search or section-wise scan should not be the only ways to browse books online. This image from TripAdvisor is what needs to be replicated online, along with a “Look Inside” option.

To end, here are three suggestions:

  • Always keep a “books to buy” list handy – an Amazon Wish List does the job well.
  • When you have some time during your travels, go to a bookstore in the city. The world (of books) as seen from there will be different, and you will find some titles you would not otherwise have known.
  • If you spend more than a few minutes with a book, buy it.