My Life System #30: Religion and God

I am a Jain by birth, but that doesn’t mean much other than dictating my food choices (no onion, no garlic). And I wasn’t even doing that until I got married – I decided it was much easier to order the same food with Bhavana rather than two different dishes! I do go to temples as needed, but it is not a part of daily life. Which brings me to the key question: do I believe in God? And the answer is, Yes. I don’t have to go to a temple to pray to God; I can do that anytime.

For me, God is a force beyond. It is perhaps an alter-ego, a voice within which ensures I stay on the right track. It is an entity that I can turn to when all else fails. Like I did later in 1995 when I had some significant challenges with IndiaWorld. It was perhaps the first time I went to a temple and asked God for help – to prevent yet another devastating failure in my life. The suggestion had come from Bhavana as I sat numb at home – unable to see a way out of the situation I had found myself in. And – call it God, call it luck, whatever – things turned for the better in a way that I could not have foreseen.

My relationship with God has been a selfish one. I invoke his intervention when things are not going well. In recent times, I also say a silent Thanks when things go well. It’s a more conversational relationship. It’s perhaps me talking to myself and attributing the inexplicable to a divine intervention.

Each of us has our own way to manage extreme situations. In my case, to ensure I stay on level ground in both extrema, I either ask God for help or say Thanks. I think of God as a friend, an ally I can talk to 24×7. I know it sounds weird but I think we all need such a friend. One who speaks to us from within (conscience?), one who keeps us straight, one who we fear when treading down a path we should not. God and religion should be an intensely personal thing for everyone. Most of the world’s problems start when they transcend the self.

I am not a believer in previous birth or future births, even though that is one of the tenets of Jainism. I believe that we have one life, and we must do the best we can while we are alive and while we have the strength and health. For me, entrepreneurship now and philanthropy later are my two ways. And having made these decisions, whether it is luck or God, I know there is a force outside of me that will help in my journey.

My Life System #29: Luck

All of us have experienced luck in our lives – some good, some bad. It is often hard to tell when luck comes our way whether it is going to be for making things better or worse. Many times, the initial feeling turns out to be wrong.

It is not easy to identify luck. Our belief tends to be that the good things happen because of our efforts while the bad – that is something or someone else’s doing. And so, we assign smartness where it’s not needed, and ascribe luck when it’s our own folly which caused it to happen.

When I was trying to raise money during my IndiaWorld years and all those efforts failed, was it bad luck? Or was it good luck because eventually I got an acquisition offer which perhaps would not have happened had I been successful in raising capital. And then when I think about the eventual deal, was I smart or was I just lucky?

Was it luck that I picked up a copy of “Competing for the Future” (by CK Prahalad and Gary Hamel) in 1994? The book helped crystallise my thinking over the two days I spent reading it and that became the business plan for IndiaWorld. (Coincidentally, I met CK Prahalad a few days later when I had gone to meet Prof. Ramesh Jain in San Diego, with the book in my bag! Was that luck?)

Jim Collins and Morten Hansen offer a good definition of a “luck event” in the context of a business – “one that meets three tests. First, some significant aspect of the event occurs largely or entirely independent of the actions of the enterprise’s main actors. Second, the event has a potentially significant consequence — good or bad. And, third, it has some element of unpredictability.” A similar definition can work well for the individual also: an event that occurs independent of one’s actions, is consequential, and has some unpredictability about it.

At some level, decisions we make cause us to be in situations where we can get lucky. Had my initial efforts at creating a successful business not failed, I would not have started IndiaWorld. When I got an offer to sell Netcore in 2011, was it luck? And when I look back, was it good luck that the buyer backed out at the last minute? What would my life have been had I sold Netcore a decade ago?

Life is all about a stream of events and decisions. What we think of luck are just decisions either we made or someone else did. At times, it is better to ascribe it to an unseen force than take up ownership especially when things are not going right!

We cannot wait for good luck to come our way. We have to chart our path by making decisions we feel are right. And then there are some events which can help accelerate the journey we are on. Think of luck as a tailwind that can propel you forward when you are heading in the right direction. And bad luck? An unexpected headwind that you have to battle and which will create a better you. Either way, you come out ahead.

My Life System #28: Optimism

By nature, I am an optimistic person. As an entrepreneur, one has to be. You have to believe that tomorrow will be better than today – not just for yourself but for the world too. Without optimism, life will be very difficult.

I wasn’t always like this. There was a period in between (1993-1994) where almost everything I did failed. That was perhaps the low point for me. With failure upon failure, I realised that at some point of time my luck will have to change! And it did, thought not before further tests which challenged me.

We tend to go through ups and downs. The problem is when the downs have a deep impact on our psyche. I tell entrepreneurs that when there is a failure, it is not you who have failed, but the idea, the venture. And there can be many reasons for that. You will fail only if you give up and don’t venture out again. Because there is much to look forward to in life.

This positiveness is what has kept me going in many of the difficult periods of life. I have a belief that whatever happens is for good. I know it is too broad a viewpoint to take, but without it, there is a possibility of going down a mental morass, which then feeds onto itself to pull us down for a much longer duration. In the period that there is something not good happening, optimism is what can pull us through. Keeping the spirit high, especially if one is leading a team, is very important. Else, there is no charting a path out of the hole.

When I look back at the worst moments of my life, I also see that a few months later, they resulted in something better. The failure to win the election for School Captain led me to do a public speaking course. The academic downer of my first semester in IIT pushed me to participate in cultural activities. The job offers I did not get after my Columbia Masters led me to NYNEX and a much better experience. The funding I did not get during IndiaWorld led me to a much better outcome with the eventual sale. There are perhaps other words to describe the event and the outcome, but I see it as living life with an optimistic streak that one can prevail over an outcome not of our liking.

On a longer timeframe, optimism is what keeps the smile on our face every morning, the cheerfulness even when something sad happens, the external happiness even though the inside may be hurting so we don’t pull others down with us. The world has a lot to be happy about. Compare our lives today with a generation ago. And the future itself is bringing in a pace of innovation that we could not have imagined. So, be thankful for today, and always look forward to a better future. Every tough time has passed, and even though more will come, we have it in us to rise and climb the next mountain. This quote by Christine Caine sums it up well: “Sometimes when you’re in a dark place you think you’ve been buried, but you’ve actually been planted.”

My Life System #27: Train Journeys

I had to go to Palitana (in Gujarat) recently for a family religious function. The fastest way to get there is a flight to Bhavnagar (an hour from Mumbai), and then about 2 hours by road. On the way back, since there was no convenient flight, we chose to come back by train, a 13 hour journey. I was excited – it had been many years since I had travelled overnight by train. Modern life and air connectivity is such that the long-distance train ride is the last preference.

Lying down on the upper berth in a three-tier compartment and unable to fall asleep (in part because I was so excited to be in a train once again), my memories went back to past train rides. The earliest long train ride that I could remember was when we had gone to Kashmir in the late 1970s – must have been when I was 11-12 years of age. (To date, that remains my only Kashmir visit.) My parents, younger sister and I took the Jammu Tavi Express – it was just under 30 hours to Jammu. I remember sitting at the window and being fascinated with the changing terrain. I counted the states we travelled through. That was the journey which triggered my love for trains.

Of course, there are plenty of short train rides. But the ones I am most excited about are the long ones. For it is on these journeys that time slows and hours can go by staring at the countryside. My first solo overnight journey was a train to Chennai just after I completed IIT in 1988 – en route to Pondicherry to meet a friend.

The journey that has stayed with me is the one I did from New York to Oakland while I was in the US. This was in 1991. I had to go to San Jose for a meeting. I went to my manager (this was when I was working at NYNEX) and requested an extra day’s leave so I could take Amtrak leaving Thursday evening from Grand Central and reaching Oakland Sunday evening – in time for the Monday morning meeting. He readily agreed. And thus began my 72-hour odyssey. It is a train ride that is still fresh in my memories. The long chats over dinner with strangers sharing personal stories, the beautiful views sitting in the all-glass cabin, the time to myself and my thoughts. It is a journey I hope to do one day with Abhishek.

And now back to my most recent train ride. I ventured out at a couple of the stations to see the buzz of night-time activity. I reminisced about similar journeys in the past. And then I finally fell asleep to the swaying motion and sound of the train speeding along.

I know we are now all plane people, always in a hurry to get from Point A to Point B. I hope we can take some time to relive the magic of the long overnight train journey. There are times when we deliberately need to slow down the pace of our life, so we can take stock and think. There is nothing better than staring at the speeding countryside and letting the thoughts and ideas flow.

My Life System #26: Walking – 2

Ferris Jabr explains in New Yorker and echoes my views in a much better way:

What is it about walking, in particular, that makes it so amenable to thinking and writing? The answer begins with changes to our chemistry. When we go for a walk, the heart pumps faster, circulating more blood and oxygen not just to the muscles but to all the organs—including the brain. Many experiments have shown that after or during exercise, even very mild exertion, people perform better on tests of memory and attention. Walking on a regular basis also promotes new connections between brain cells, staves off the usual withering of brain tissue that comes with age, increases the volume of the hippocampus (a brain region crucial for memory), and elevates levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them

… Perhaps the most profound relationship between walking, thinking, and writing reveals itself at the end of a stroll, back at the desk. There, it becomes apparent that writing and walking are extremely similar feats, equal parts physical and mental. When we choose a path through a city or forest, our brain must survey the surrounding environment, construct a mental map of the world, settle on a way forward, and translate that plan into a series of footsteps. Likewise, writing forces the brain to review its own landscape, plot a course through that mental terrain, and transcribe the resulting trail of thoughts by guiding the hands. Walking organizes the world around us; writing organizes our thoughts. Ultimately, maps like the one that Nabokov drew are recursive: they are maps of maps.

Shane O’Mara wrote this in the Wall Street Journal: “Before you start a creatively demanding piece of work, prime yourself by writing down a few questions about what you need to do. Then head off for a 20-minute stroll and bring a voice recorder or a notebook. You’re likely to find that you generate more ideas than you would have while sitting at your desk. A walking brain is a more active brain, and more activity in the brain can bring colliding ideas and associations at the edge of consciousness to mind—resulting in the “a-ha” moment of insight … Walking is the movement that we all profit from and have evolved for. Walk we must, and walk we should, to keep our mental and physical worlds open and to stop the walls from closing in.”

So, there is a science behind walking. Make it a habit. Not just the daily exercise walk, but also the periodic random walk – alone or with a family member or friend. These 30-40 minutes of time free from the mobile and sameness of the home or office can do wonders for the brain, mind, creativity and clarity. To quote Friedrich Nietzsche: “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.”

My Life System #25: Walking – 1

There are two types of walks. One is the daily walk for exercise and me-time. Another is about changing one’s environment and doing something different. For me, the first is a must-do. Mondays through Fridays, 35 minutes daily. What I want to discuss is the second type. Done right, it can be a great source of me-time, ideas and enhancing relationships.

I had recently gone to Four Seasons for a lunch meeting with a friend. Post-lunch, I decided to walk back to the office. The weather was cool and pleasant, very unlike the hot and humid Mumbai weather experiences much of the year. It was an 18-minute walk. While I liked the change from just getting into a car, as I was walking, I realised how little attention we have paid in Mumbai to creating walkable footpaths. For most of the time, I was actually walking on the road because the footpath was either encroached on or non-existent.

As I walked, I realised how much of a contrast this was to New York. When I am in NY whether on work or for a vacation, I walk to as many destinations as possible. Anything in a 2-3 kilometre radius is a walk rather than a subway or cab. The vibrancy of a city cannot be experienced from behind glass in a car. I wish there is an effort to get walkable footpaths in Mumbai.

In recent months, Abhishek (my son) and I have been going out for long walks on weekends. Our routine begins with a visit to Kitab Khana, the bookstore at Fountain. And then we walk around for about 60-90 minutes. There is no specific destination. “Where our feet take us” is our approach. I let Abhishek decide which roads and neighbourhoods he wants to explore. The other day, we ended up in Kalbadevi – still as crowded as ever. It brought back memories from childhood when my mother used to take me there to visit relatives. Many places have associated “blasts from the past” which serve as take-off points for our conversations. Fort and Ballard Estate, for example, make me relive the IndiaWorld days of 25 years ago, when we were doing websites for many companies who had (and perhaps still do) their offices there. The walk is one of the “intersection points” between a questioning son and an answering father.

When I go to new places, my preferred approach is to walk around the neighbourhood or wherever possible. Early mornings are the best. The inner mind has put the ups and downs of yesterday behind, and has a clean slate. The day’s distractions of incoming messages armed with To-Do requests haven’t yet been unleashed. There is a freshness and welcoming pleasantness in the air. The world around me is much more silent. I was reminded of this when I was in Goa recently to give a talk at a conference. When I woke up the next morning, instead of sitting in the hotel room, I got ready and ventured outside. The big hotel property offered many paths for walking around. It was just me and the wonders of nature around.

My Life System #24: Lists

I live life through lists. To-Do lists. Key priorities. Ideas. Books to read. What to blog about. Discussion points pre- and post-meetings. And so on. I find lists very helpful. Writing things down in my notebook keeps the mind clear. It is something I had read in David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” book many years ago. The idea is not to keep the To-Dos in the mind because they can crowd one’s thinking. Better to have them part of some list and out of the mind. Also, crossing off items as they get done gives a sense of accomplishment.

From The Guardian: “Psychologist and author Dr David Cohen puts our love of to-do lists down to three reasons: they dampen anxiety about the chaos of life; they give us a structure, a plan that we can stick to; and they are proof of what we have achieved that day, week or month.”

The most important list is the To-Do list. We all have an endless list of tasks to accomplish. I have a page in my spiral book to which I keep adding. When I don’t have access to my book, I write it on a folded page that I keep in my pocket temporarily before moving it to my book. At the end of the day, I will create a shorter list of things I need to get done the next day. I don’t use any apps for this. I find the paper-pen combo gives me the most flexibility. I can scribble around a task. I can create sub-lists. Perhaps, much of this can be done digitally also, but in some matters, I am very much an analog person!

Take this series for example. I made a list of topics that I could cover. Then, I typed it up in a Word document. New ideas keep coming which I write down in my book as soon as they emerge, and I add to the Word doc. Word helps me reshuffle the order. I do the same for the Blog themes. These are lists that don’t have to be updated frequently.

The To-Dos are constantly growing. An email or WhatsApp needs some action. Someone at home wants something done. Meetings create many follow-ups. I list them down as they are called out. And then at the end of the day, I scratch out the ones which have been done, and then aggregate the others together.  The one thing I have learnt is that it is never possible to do every task. In fact, at times, let some time elapse, and many tasks which appeared important and urgent when they were listed, perhaps don’t even need to get done! The To-Dos list will always be an infinite stream; it is for us to decide which ones to do to move life and relationships forward.

I carry a folded page and pen even when I go walking every morning. I find that the best time for my thinking, and random ideas float across, which I add to the list. Some will eventually get discarded, but by writing them down, I keep the mind clutter-free for new ideas to enter. Also, there are times when something said or read triggers a memory or new idea. By ensuring I capture it in the moment, I am not loading my subconscious to ensure that idea is not missed.

Lists have helped me keep my mind clear and unencumbered, have more productive days knowing there are some key tasks that just have to be done before I sleep, go into meetings and conversations prepared with a clear plan, and ensure that when others expect me to do something I do not disappoint them with an “Oh, I forgot.”

My Life System #23: Future

An entrepreneur has to necessarily live in the future. Any new venture one begins is creating solutions for an imagined future because it takes time to get the product to market and then create a scalable growth model. Much of my daydreaming / timepass is about imagining the future. As such, I like to read about new technologies and what tomorrow’s world will be like.

It was this anticipation of the future that helped me recognise the potential of the Internet in 1994 and launch IndiaWorld in 1995. It is the same imagining of tomorrow’s world at Scott Brinker’s 2014  Martech conference that began Netcore’s journey in automation and then towards developing the full stack. In 2011, as I thought about India’s future, I charted a path for the BJP to get a majority on its own in the 2014 elections. In 2015, I wondered about the course India needed to take to become as rich as Singapore and America – but this was a venture which failed.

Every so often, I imagine Netcore 3-5 years in the future, and what it will take to get there. I also imagine myself in the further future, in a world outside of Netcore, creating transformational institutions that will last beyond my lifetime.

A great tool for glimpsing the future is to read and think. There are many authors who take their learnings and discuss the impact innovations will have. At the turn of every year, dozens of individuals, enterprises and think tanks publish their take on what the key trends for the coming year are. Science fiction shows and books help us peer into the long future and ponder the course of humanity.

There is of course not a single future. Every entrepreneur has a view on what it should look like and therefore works to make it happen. In that sense, entrepreneurship is a battle between different futures.

I use vacations, the Diwali holidays, the year-end, my birthday, and long travels to ponder about the future. This gives my daydreaming a specific focus. I use my notebook to write out my ideas, and then over the course of time, refine them. Eventually, I have to carve out a small place in that future to stay relevant and create business and personal success.

Occasionally, I do peer into my past. But I don’t do a lot of it. Because that takes me into the “what-if” game. I see many of my missed opportunities and failures, and start to ponder about what I could have done differently. Since I cannot change the past, I tend to limit the rear view mirror. The future that hasn’t happened and therefore can be shaped is much more exciting!

My Life System #22: Timepass

“Timepass” is one of those classic Indian words which are so hard to translate and explain! It is about doing nothing – decompressing, idling, sleeping in the day, non-focused browsing, or random reading. But this timepass should be an important part of my life. It is where the mind becomes detached from the present and its problems. It lets the subconscious organise itself. To use another classic Hindi word, it is about being “vela.”

I see too many people with completely packed schedules. Every minute of the day is a meeting or some activity. One has to be busy or else one feels one is wasting time. The constant flow of adrenalin, the continuous hyper-ness, this “always-on” mindset keeps one on the edge through the day, round the year.

This is not something I subscribe to. I feel a day must have empty moments, where one can think about what has happened, or just daydream. Maybe pick up a book and read, and get lost in the world the author has created. Or simply sit, look out of the window or balcony, and let the mind wander. I am not sure of the science, but I find such times extremely helpful. Suddenly, an idea will come, or a solution to a problem will float by.

Here is some advice from Rebecca Renner: “Set aside a few minutes every day for daydreaming. Start each session with brainstorming exercises. Pick the medium that feels most effortless and enjoyable, whether it’s writing, drawing, playing an instrument or something else, and use the task as inspiration to plumb your subconscious for ideas. Pick one idea to focus on as you daydream. You should also record a goal for the session. Your goal might be to enjoy your thoughts for a few minutes. You could use the time to process something that’s making you anxious, or to envision the steps you’ll take toward achieving a goal. The more details you can use, the better.”

Sometimes, I will just sit in a chair, open my spiral book and write out my innermost thoughts. It is time without a meeting, without an agenda. And each of us must have some time through a day to let time just pass – slowly, second by second, minute by minute. It is about letting the mind roam – pulling up past memories or imagining new futures. Whatever it is, “timepass” or the more politically correct “daydreaming” must be part of our lives. It is about freeing our imagination; it is like being a child once again without any cares. It is, for a brief period of time, forgetting about the real world, and creating a parallel universe where we can construct realities the way we want. It is where the breakthroughs happen, and our life’s journey gets elevated.

My Life System #21: Family

I stay with my parents. My wife is Bhavana. We have been married for 28 years. Our son, Abhishek, will be 18 in April. Bhavana and I have worked together for most of our married life – IndiaWorld and Netcore. Our domains are different and non-overlapping, so that makes it easy! Our “company” has been our life – as is the case with many entrepreneurs. Bhavana has been equally instrumental in building both the ventures. Her versatility and people friendliness more than make up for my narrow focus and aloofness.

What I want to discuss is my approach to building a relationship with Abhishek. In his early years, thanks to advice from Bhavana, I made sure I spent time with him. That helped lay the foundation. As he has grown, I have tried to find intersection points which enable time together and conversations. We find OTT series that we can watch together. We go to Kitab Khana, a bookstore, once every couple weeks. For the past many months, we have been taking long walks after doing our book shopping. Abhishek is always full of questions, and I do my best to answer them.

The past two pandemic years have brought him closer to understanding my life. Pre-pandemic, I was out all day. During the pandemic, with both of us at home, he wanted to know all the conversations I was having. He has full freedom to go through my inbox and WhatsApp. (I don’t yet have the equivalent right with him, but I respect his space and freedom.) So, there are plenty of conversations about my meetings and the decisions I am making. He is very good at making connections, and many times has suggested actions and replies to people that I had not immediately thought of.

Many times, as parents, we think of even our teenage or grown-up children as less than equal partners in decision-making. I think that is a mistake. While we may have more experience, they have a way of looking at things which is refreshingly different. The more we share with them, the more we get. Patience in answering their questions, however trivial it may be, is an essential element to creating an enduring, great relationship. As a friend put it, parenting is about giving roots and wings.

A happy family life is very important for an entrepreneur. Building a new business or even growing an existing one is never easy; there are plenty of daily battles to fight at work. You don’t want to be coming home to have challenges with family. At the same time, growing up children also need time else before you realise it, an unbridgeable chasm develops and then it is too late. Building a balance with being always available at work and sharing quality time with the family is very important.