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Career coaching 

Over the years, I have been posted with questions ranging from career management to higher education, from cultivating new hobbies to managing relationships. Here's some questions and answers. Hope you gain from these insights. 


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"You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It’s their mistake, not my failing."

- Richard Feynman  

Should I listen to my mind or my heart?

What does listening to your heart really mean? It’s about going with your intuition or gut feeling, and not thinking through the situation in its entirety. Daniel Kahneman calls it the System-1, which is fast, furious and error prone. Listening to your mind involves deliberation, a System-2 thinking, which is slow, laborious, and mostly accurate. Since heart is typically incapable of thinking long term, whereas mind has that capacity, it’s better to listen to your mind. Sharpen your mind so that it can function properly under stressful, high-stake situations.

This might sound counterintuitive, as most people would suggest that you must listen to your heart. But my experience has been that if I buy my time over a decision, I decide better. If I park my judgement, I function better. If I think twice, I end up correcting myself. I would rather have my mind controlling my heart, than the other way around. Afterall, Dil toh Bachcha hai ji (heart is just a child!)


How to cultivate lifelong curiosity?

There are societies that value exploration over possession, imagination over knowledge, future possibilities over past heritage. And India doesn’t fit the description. We choose to live more in our glorious past than inventing the future, or even solving for the present. The global dominance of England, and some of the other European countries, chiefly Germany, and France, and, later, the Americas, could well be attributed to curiosity driven exploration. Curiosity is indeed risky, but so is the lack of it.

You can cultivate curiosity regardless of what’s happening around you. It’s a choice. Three tips. Firstly, stop taking yourself too seriously (because nobody takes you seriously!). Your high self-esteem, which is nothing but disguised ego, often stops you from asking the most innocuous questions. Resultingly, you are comfortable with ignorance than being proven wrong. Secondly, pick up new hobbies and interests, as that will increase your failure threshold. When you are learning something new you will fail quite often, and then you would realize that failure is never terminal. Thirdly, surround yourself with different kind of people as it would help you appreciate diversity in life and that what you deem as failure could well be construed by others as success. 


What’s the best way to read books and to remember what you read?

I read a lot of books, but almost always non-fiction. When you read, make sure that you read widely, and with low inhibitions. I would strongly recommend three practices. Firstly, read physical books. Since your mind learns in a multi-model manner, by reading physical books you engage more of your senses in gathering knowledge, and hence your retention also goes up significantly. Else, what’s the point of reading if you can’t recollect and apply when time comes.

Secondly, don’t belabour a book if you have lost interest midway. I tend to pick up another book if I am struggling to finish one. I may be reading almost five books at any time, across genres, and I keep coming back to unfinished books, with rejuvenation. It helps.

Lastly, read with a pen. Make notes, annotations, sketches, draw mind maps and other personalized doodles in your book. No point in keeping it pristine, lest it belongs to a library. You can browse books in the library, but always invest in personal copies. It helps in referencing, summarizing, and teaching.


How do I keep my kids away from devices?

It all starts with the question – how do I keep myself away from devices? If you are neck deep into gadgets, you have no moral authority over your child to demand otherwise. Three simple tips for both of you. Firstly, stuff your home with books, physical books, and on varied subjects. If in her immediate environment your child sees books, better still she sees you reading one, she will naturally pick it up and the interest. It’s a true high leverage investment.

Secondly, have a few musical instruments at home, which are accessible and where there’s a conscious investment in capacity building by all of you. As you take your child to her music class, it won’t hurt for you to get involved too. Why not play with your child.

Thirdly, cut down the number of devices, alerts thereof and the urge to be ‘connected’, always ‘online’. Your smart watch might be making you dumb. Your constant alerts are not allowing you to have any time with yourself, let alone with important others. If you pay heed to these suggestions, you will someday thank yourself for the courage you have shown.


How to manage my emotional and physical wellbeing at work?

Work occupies a considerable amount of your time and attention. Even outside of work, it’s quite common for people to be at work, or at least thinking of work. It’s critical to realise that work is not the heart of life, but just a part of life. Keep it in its rightful place, even if you are an entrepreneur. Or else you will lose the perspective. Here’re three useful practices of maintain emotional and physical wellbeing at work. Firstly, put a premium on yourself. Don’t be always available. Unless you are making a serious value add or getting a serious value add, don’t show up at a meeting. At least don’t be motivated by the fear of missing out. No body gets promoted for showing up at meetings. You get promoted for what you create.    

Secondly, schedule thinking time, or ‘my time’ on your calendar. Don’t be the last one to scavenge time on your own calendar, but the first one to claim it. Afterall it’s your time. Let others struggle for it, and not you. 30 minutes per day is decent enough to do stuff which matters to you, including an afternoon nap. Thirdly, minimize devices after office hours. The biggest lesson the pandemic taught us is that the life goes on with you or without you. So, if you think that the 8 pm email cannot wait till 10 am, you are mistaken. It can wait, but your children can’t.


What’s the best time to start a company?

The worst time to start a company is immediately after your graduation. However fertile the funding scene be or the market seems to be, it’s always advisable to grind your axe for a few years in an organization before you chose to venture. Working elsewhere for a minimum of three years teaches you two things. Firstly, it tells you if you are cut out to be an entrepreneur, someone who enjoys working unsupervised and likes to take risk. What I have learnt through my entrepreneurial journey is that without self-discipline you can quickly implode. There is no one checking on you. You are the director and the actor.

And secondly, work experience teaches you what it takes to run a business, at least partly. Or, it is conceptual, through and through. You can always start a company at a later time. Anyways research suggests that mid-40s is a good age to succeed as an entrepreneur. So why hurry? Better to buy your time, sharpen your skills, discover yourself, make some friends, get perspective in life, have a war chest, and then plunge.


Should I start my career with a startup?

I would suggest that you start your career with an enterprise, preferably a large one. It’s okay to be lost in a large setup at the start of your career and learn to get your bearings than assuming that you control the fate of your setup. Three reasons why joining a large setup makes sense, especially when you are starting off right after your graduation. Firstly, enterprises teach you discipline, the power of processes and policies, and how scale is achieved. Startups, on the other hand, are run by personalities, with little discipline. You tend to think that if you are talented it will show in your setup, but history has taught us otherwise.

Secondly, in enterprises you don’t mistake outcome to be a sole factor of your talent, for there are a lot others at play. In startups, it’s very easy to confuse luck with talent. Thirdly, enterprise throw you in a swarm of talent, where you have to figure out your unique position, and this helps you discover and shape your skills. This stint is much valued at a startup later on. That’s the reason most founders look for seasoned lieutenants.

Is design thinking limited to product design and development, or to the world of technology?
Though design thinking has its roots in the disciplines of product design, industrial design and architecture, the technique has come a long way as a new approach to problem-solving that builds on the tenets of the design sphere. The first to embrace this expansive view of design thinking were technology companies, as it was intuitive for them to relate software development and hardware creation to the  principles of design. That is one reason why popular media coverage on design thinking is replete with the cases of tech development and clever consumer products. However, the emerging view of design thinking offers it as a human-centric approach of designing experiences, and from that vantage point, design thinking is industry-, domain- and function-agnostic. Far from the world of technology, we see the tenets and practices of design thinking applied to creating better patient care at hospitals, enabling NGOs serve their communities better, teachers engage with special-needs kids, companies rework their brand identities and talent managers devise new means for engaging with their workforce. The scope of design thinking goes well and truly beyond the tech space, and I encourage you to script your own adoption story here.

If there is a paucity of time, what should be the focus of your design-thinking process?
Of the five stages of design thinking—namely, inspire; empathize and define; ideate; prototype and test; and scale—I find the
second (empathize and define) to be the weakest link in most organizations. On the basis of my research, my reading of popular
literature and my corporate exposure, I have found that most firms have a lot of ideas in search of important problems. Thanks to
idea campaigns, hackathons, innovation contests and various other means, companies do manage to generate ideas, but they often
don’t know what to do with those ideas. This happens because not enough attention is paid to discovering and defining the problems
thoroughly. So if you must pick up specific stages of the design thinking process to focus on, owing to paucity of time or funds,
you are better off focusing on the empathize and define stage.

Where should a design-thinking intervention begin? Top-down or bottom-up?
I believe that change always flows top-down. You must sensitize the leaders before going down the rung. Imagine a situation where you  have motivated, trained and equipped grassroots employees of an organization and that they are eager to go about applying design
thinking, but in the absence of top management’s support, all that enthusiasm goes to waste. Instead, if you first sensitize the top
management and demonstrate the power of design thinking, you could set an avalanche in motion. The senior management would
become champions of design thinking; they would nominate their team members for the programme, create avenues for employees
to practise design thinking and, more importantly, release funds. So, always start from the top if you want your efforts to have a lasting impact.

What problems are best suited to be solved using design thinking?
Design thinking is not a universally suitable or even advisable approach for problem-solving. It is highly recommended in the context of high uncertainty and when human emotions are involved. If both the problem and its possible solutions are reasonably well-known, the adoption of design thinking might be overkill. However, some of the tenets of design thinking, especially empathy and visual thinking, could be adopted while solving any problem. Even if there is no involvement of humans, it is still worthwhile to consider the impact a solution would have on its users, for technology alone cannot offer you a winning solution.

How can one leverage design thinking towards fostering an innovation culture?
An innovation culture is typified by three attributes: first, a wide-scale participation of people from across functions and levels in generating ideas; second, a well-governed mechanism to take the ideas through to their logical conclusions; and third, the supporting incentive mechanisms to ensure continued engagement of employees. Design thinking, with its humancentric, systematic approach of problem-solving can help on furthering each of these dimensions of innovation culture. The emphasis on empathy, stakeholder management and visual artefacts can further enable wide-scale participation; the five-stage process model can offer the discipline of channelizing ideas from insights to implementation; and the associated skills and tools can offer sufficient learning incentives to employees so that they stay committed. Companies such as IBM, Microsoft, Amazon, Intuit, PepsiCo, 3M and Dr. Reddy’s among others have harnessed the power of design thinking to shape an innovation culture for their respective employees.

How do children gain from learning design thinking?
As discussed throughout this book, design thinking is more about thinking than designing; or, to put it differently, it is about designing your thinking. Have children been taught how to think? When I was growing up, there weren’t any courses or discourses on thinking clearly or systematically, as everyone assumed that thinking skills are acquired through experience. But that is not true. If children are taught how to think systematically and approach their problem-solving endeavours in a more methodical manner, they would certainly grow up to become more confident and productive. Tools such as mind maps, stakeholder maps, journey maps and general methods of root cause analysis would serve children very well in short-term tasks, like school assignments, as well as long-term ones, like crafting a career for themselves. Especially, the skills of listening with intent, observing with purpose and being less judgemental can help children become better problem-solvers. As for thinking clearly, the earlier the better.

How do I apply design thinking to my work when my role offers limited avenues to do so?
Even with extensive interest in and appreciation for design thinking, there are hardly roles titled ‘Design Thinkers’ or ‘Chief of Design’ at corporate firms, including tech companies. Boxing design thinking into a job title would kill the spirit of what the method has to offer. If you understand design thinking as a human-centric, systematic approach of problem-solving, a wider canvas will open for the application of its tools and techniques. Every role or job could gain from adopting a systematic approach of problem solving. Whether it be supply-chain management, talent sourcing or managing network security, the application of design-thinking tools for problem diagnosis, ideation and idea validation would help the cause. Remember, you are not required to apply the entire process of design thinking and use all the prescribed tools and skills, but rather pick the ones most relevant to your job. I reckon there is no task that cannot be improved by being a little more mindful and methodical, which is all the more urgent and important for an economy like India.

What aspects of design thinking are most suitable for start-ups and small enterprises?
The popular discourse on design thinking might make one mistakenly conclude that the method is most suited for tech companies that are into consumer products. The narratives from Apple, Amazon, Nike, Ikea, Starbucks, Google, Samsung, Netflix and Microsoft have led many to believe that design thinking belongs only to the world of the fast and nimble. As a result, non-tech start-ups and small enterprises find the approach too complex. However, if one distils design thinking into its constituent toolsets, skill sets, and relevant mindsets, it becomes apparent that some of these are universally applicable to problem-solving, on any scale and of any complexity. Especially for small enterprises, the virtue of empathizing with the end-customers and listening to their unstated concerns, performing quick and dirty prototyping, generating and validating hypotheses before scaling solutions and engaging in emphatic storytelling could offer significant value. Similarly, firms in their early stages of development can teach their scarce workforce to systematically conduct root-cause analysis, be more methodical while ideating and adopt storyboard to validate promising ideas—and some of these techniques can take away a lot of guesswork from the growth equation.

What is a good starting point to learn about design thinking?
There are several useful books on creative problem-solving in general and design thinking in particular that could serve as a good starting point. I would recommend The Art of Innovation by Tom Kelley and Jonathan Littman; The Ten Faces of Innovation by Tom Kelley and Jonathan Littman; Creative Confidence by David Kelley and Tom Kelley; Change by Design by Tim Brown; Sprint by Jake Knapp; The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman; and Business Model Generation by Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur. You would also find a lot of useful reading material and case studies on the IDEOU and Stanford  websites. Further, TED Talks by David Kelley and Tim Brown offer insights on how design thinking can be applied in real-world contexts, beyond product design. 

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