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Just finished reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. This is probably the most important book in recent times. Though published in 2014, anyone from any field or background will find this book relevant from an existentialist point of view at any point in time.
Yuval questions the very point of human existence and why we are doing what we do. The first part of the book charts the history of mankind and all the development yet in agriculture, perception of money, credit finance and how Europeans influenced the world (important) or science.
Biology enables, culture forbids: you may have all the capability bestowed upon you to create and achieve but the prevailing culture you are in may not allow it. Networking and social skills give humans the edge over others and not brute strength.
The last few chapters dwell into the whole point of what we are doing today. Is happiness the purpose of all innovation and development? Is it money or conquest? What makes us happy apart from just secretion of serotonin in our brain? Is the human race improving or worsening? What is the point of advanced intelligence and cutting edge scientific capability? What do we really want? A person who does not crave does not suffer. People who are genetically disposed to happiness will be happy anyway, with what the already have instead of craving for new things.
Some important takeaways for me: Nationalism is fast losing ground. Soon it will not matter which country you hail from but what you can bring to the table for larger communities, how you can improve the current state of things. Your social skills and ability to collaborate and take things to the next level will matter more than your background. Two main examples are India and America. Both countries have been built by immigrants and conquerors who have left behind legacies which make both countries proud of what they have today. Indians love drinking tea, have a huge cricket fan following (both Brit behaviours), are the largest English-literate population and protect British buildings as heritage sites. Taj Mahal was created by Mughals with material from all over the world. Punjabi food is heavily influenced by Persian and Mughal inputs. ‘American culture’ -be it architecture, music or technology is made from inputs by Europeans, Africans and recently- by Chinese and Indians. So what is the fuss about ‘outsiders’?
All big scientific experiments and projects were given funding because the folks who agreed to fund them saw a larger political, social, economic or religious goal. So think bigger; infact things colossal at a much larger level before you propose your project plan to your boss. The goal must be sustainable with a much larger impact.
No concept, idea or theory is beyond challenge. As long as we accept that ‘we do not know’, there is always the path for more knowledge and debunking whatever hindered our ability to go beyond and achieve more. The status quo can always be changed. There is nothing natural about our current situation and that is evident from history.
This book is already influencing my work and my perception of the world- more so after our US trip. Incidentally I read this book half-way while we were touring in Greyhound buses across the states so it was a surreal experience anyway. I feel that’s why its important to read while travelling. One tends to soak in much more in changing environments and the words get hard-baked into the cells somewhere :).
- San Francisco ( < Istanbul < New Delhi)
- Yosemite National Park, 269 km by bus
- Los Angeles (bus) 616 km
- San Diego (bus) 807 km
- Las Vegas (bus) 435 km
- Grand Canyon West rim (bus) 200 km
- Dallas (flight)
- Houston (connecting bus)
- Lake Charles (bus), 505 km, Baton Rouge (connecting bus) 204 km
- New Orleans (bus) 130 km
- Memphis (bus) 635 km
- Washington (flight)
- New York (bus) 360 km
Click to view a snapshot gallery from the DLSR-
we headed for LA via MegaBus. Our original plan was to do West to East coast of US by road. At LA, we were picked up by our French driver Philip who migrated from Paris in 1970 and felt very strongly about how much LA has changed since then. After checking into the Best Western plus Sunset Blvd. walked down Hollywood Boulevard down the walk of fame. Glanced around at souvenir shops. Marijuana is legal in the US so we could smell weed all over the streets. There were also large signs of free HIV checks at one pharmacy. We also spotted a Ferrari painted in weed graphics claiming to be the fastest marijuana delivery service. Did the Hollywood celebrity homes tour. Saw the homes of Silvester Stallone, Paris Hilton, Borat. Later we walked from our hotel to Hollywood Boulevard. Found a freestyle artist at the footlocker crossing. Damn he was good. Check him out-
- Visit to 6th floor museum– from where JFK was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald,
- Perot Science museum,
- Kennedy Memorial
- World aquarium,
- Klyde Warren park,
Dallas apparently has the least corporate tax so this is home and headquarters to many corporations. This place felt a bit like Gurgaon – a lot of glass buildings and eat-outs and food courts on the ground floor. A lot of old traditional heritage buildings still look good around Elm street where our hotel is. We stopped on the way to Houston.
Our trip through the US changed something in our heads; too much of fresh air maybe. But we saw the country differently – for better reasons. We understood people better (and partial reasons for why Trump won). But more importantly we also saw India better. There are good and bad things about every place. Thats what travel does I guess. About Greyhound buses – when we returned we Googled Greyhound buses and found that it was not rated highly and most people mentioned loss of luggage. Others we spoke with had a few things to say about the people on board. Our experience was different all the way. We interacted with so many people at the stations and got back with all our 6 bags we travelled with. Its upto you and how you see things so have a great time on your visit to to the US- by far the greatest country on the planet right now.
I carried my DSLR throughout the trip – a Canon 6D Mark 2. Though it is heavy, it did two things – I got high quality photographs and it opened up conversations with total strangers in shops and buses. One also tends to look more carefully and compose a picture while looking into a DSLR.
Our trip was organized by Dewberry Holidays LLP, Mumbai. A great team stayed online with us throughout the trip. Our friends wanted to know what difference really does an organizer bring to the trip. Well, somewhere you need the experience of others to optimize your trip. The organizer will at the most suggest the most popular, relevant, best or historic things to see. Its upto you if you want to go there or not. Either this or you do your own research and travel.
Looks like we stuck gold here in the land of ‘books of insights’ for the workplace. Published first in 1987, this 30-year-old gem still shines through all the changes the corporate world has seen. Just like Iacocca’s biography, Ogilvy also puts people first at the workplace; making this book very relevant today. Random takeaways-
On writing: Knowledge is useless unless you can put it down in writing. Avoid jargon, being boring, standard sales talk. The copy must be human and simple. Every word counts. Do your research on the client. Talk about your own company and what it can do for the client. Be definite, factual, tell the truth.Your ad has to carry the big idea, followed by position and promise. Write down every idea, and atleast 20 headlines. Edit ruthlessly, bring story appeal. People who think well, write well. Write the way you speak- naturally. Use short words, sentences and paragraphs.
On hiring: Be imaginative and unorthodox in your hiring. Character is the most important thing of all. Hire people who are better at things than you. Pay peanuts, get monkeys. Never hire friends and relatives. Avoid negative people who spread gloom and negativity. Encourage people who bombard you with ideas.
On competition: Never mud-sling competition.Be a leader in your space. Let competitors follow you. Anyone can do a deal, but it takes time and guts to build a brand.
On clients: Earn their respect. That matters most.
At client meetings, do not assume the posture of a servant. Both need each other.
The consumer is your wife. Do not insult her intelligence.
On leadership: A good leader must look confident at all times. Advertising from research give you an edge. Great professionals may not make great leaders.
Avoid excess in all things.
Hard work never killed anyone, boredom does.
Vacations are most important to charge the batteries.
Creative people do not have a monopoly of ideas. So create a culture where anyone can contribute.
Succeed in public, fail in private.
Have a divine discontent for your own performance. Its an antidote for smugness.
I think I found the Bible and handbook for advertising and messaging.
Edit If you are looking for a book to read and can’t decide between biography, management and or general inspiration, pick up ‘Iacocca’. This is the autobiography of the former president of Ford and chairman of Chrysler corporation. An old colleague mentioned this book 6 years back and I made a mental note to pick it up. Finally, I managed to read this and I am only wishing I had earlier. Some books are just supposed to come your way at certain points in time.
What a man, life and book. Though this book was published in 1984 and the product and industry is of an era gone by, the learnings shared are still relevant today. That’s because its about managing people. There are people who live amazing lives, but don’t bother to write about it. Even if they do, not everyone has the charm and ability to spin an engaging story till the end. Mostly written straight from the gut, the book is easy to read and flows like a movie at times. Lee Iacocca was always a brilliant marketing genius and clearly his writing shows. Some random takeaways –
Be the best in your field. All the talent in the world doesn’t excuse deliberate rudeness. Why walk when you can run. You need to compare happiness to something to know its worth.
For marketing folks – People dont read stories, only headlines. Headline writers influence people’s perception of the news. Always prepare, rehearse before presenting to a customer. Play out the relevant consequences and details, all conceivable options and scenarios. Put your great idea on paper. If you can’t, you haven’t thought it out. Its a shame when a talented executive cant tell a board whats in his head. Always work with a script.
For managers – Quarterly reviews force managers to talk to their teams. It changes the boss’s role; he becomes less of a authoritative figure and more of an advisor. The conversations remind people not to lose sight of their dreams. Regular reviews make it self regulating. Managing is all about motivating other people. When giving credit, give it in writing, when giving hell, do it on the phone. Play it with your heart. Nobody goes far kicking people around. Speed of the boss is the speed of the team. Everyone in the world is accountable to everyone.
General observations at the workplace – when the secretaries are goofing off, you know the place has dry rot. One incompetent manager brings along another. If morals is low, the place becomes a sieve. If you stand still in this business, you get run over quickly. All business operations are reduced to – people, products, profits. People come first. Unless you have a great team, you cant do much with the others. Build quality products. Its all that matters. In the end, what counts is performance.
Life is about timing. Sometimes you just have to take a chance and correct our mistakes as you go along. Coming out with a new product too early is as bad as being late. You can only sell what people are ready to buy. Work can kill you. So can not working. Always think in terms of other people’s interest. In a disposable society like ours, nobody is a hero or lasts too long. People are hungry to be led. If you are not Number One, you have got to innovate.
Thats my copy – with postits and notes all across the book. What a treasure.
What’s interesting about Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book is that the iPhone, Barack Obama, 2008 financial crisis and other unforeseeable events happened after this book was published in 2007. So in retrospect, Black Swan makes you wonder why one accepts theories from suited experts without questioning or encouraging the imagination for alternatives.
Some interesting takeaways (randomly) – no one can predict the future. And predicting is not the approach, but preparation is. From Louis Pasteur’s ‘chance favors the prepared’, preparing for unseen, exercising thoughts for other possibilities, and creating and encouraging the same culture is more important. But alas, this is most difficult to do when amidst situations at the workplace in meetings and discussions. Also don’t look for the precise and the local. Jump at opportunities that may not look that appealing at first. You never know what you are going to get. Those with big reputations are worse predictors than those who have none. True self-confidence is the ability to look at the world without looking for signs to stroke one’s ego. The best way to increase exposure is to keep researching. Luck favors the prepared.
We take risks not out of bravado but ignorance of risk and probability. We favor the sensational and visible which may cloud our vision. Go for empirical observations and not incidents. Beware the narrative fallacy- others’ theories and judgments based on the lack of further research and imagination. There is nothing usual about the future – it is not a platonic category. Beware tunneling, and conclusions based on the normally distributed Gaussian bell curve. We can learn from data but not much. People only know enough math to be blinded by it!
We look for correlation between two variables. When it does not yield, it emotionally upsets us. A lot is happening outside the observed and expected. Avoid platonic, definitive, closed beliefs. Infinite vigilance is not possible. Knowledge may decrease the ability to forecast; there is such a thing as a gut feel.
Overall a great book. Despite reading this piece on behavior science after a decade of its publishing, it still makes a ton of sense. Hope is a huge driver.
This classic Hemingway action adventure and quick 99-pager in a sunny park is the sort of perspective in a metaphor that frames your professional life in a snapshot. Whatever big fish you chase obsessively will run you into rough sea and wake you up with a tight slap across an overconfident smug face you think you can walk around with for life. And it won’t matter how damn good you think you are at what you do because incoming hungry sharks don’t care.
Hemingway is a man’s man and this 1950s work of art is still gold. Talk about seeing a book like a film in your head- more so if you can enjoy ocean adventures like In the heart of the sea, Castaway, and Life of Pi. There are scenes in the book which have undoubtedly inspired today’s film makers. Totally recommended for anyone and I wished I had read this earlier. But some books are meant to be read at certain points in our lives and their meaning changes every time. But in the end, you can nevertheless dream of lions.
Best takeaway from this one – “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”
My third read on future tech points at the usual suspects that will shape our future economies – mixed reality, Ai and in this offering – quantum computing. Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft (MSFT) has an optimistic view of the future where Ai and robotics will aid humans and not fight; unlike Hollywood’s view etched in our minds with sinister computers like HAL and its diabolical intentions. Along the way, a few things will need to complement technology- empathy, sense of collaboration with competition, great culture and a growth mindset.
Some insights – we would need to empathize with users, colleagues and the larger world when creating any product. People will always be at the center so a diverse and inclusive culture will always lead to innovation. There is also a different view of managing competitors. Though MSFT lost game-changing opportunities to Amazon, Apple and Google since 1999, the way ahead is to collaborate with them to create better products across platforms, so ultimately customers wins. This is where a growth mindset comes in. Also for new business leaders in technology, what is required is a creation mindset, and not a labor saving or automation mentality.
Lastly, intense use of technology is most important along with training and creativity. It’s not enough to just make the technology available. Trained employees and regular, diligent use of cutting edge resources will lead to growth and innovation.
My view: Though the book illustrates most of these points with certain achievements of the company in the last 3 years since the new CEO took over, the story of MSFT will go from good to ‘great’ only if the company is truly loved for products they make, by taking risks and going against the grain. Today, regular folks love creations of Tesla, Apple, Google and Facebook for creating a craving need for innovations which none saw coming. All founders started with nothing, had a ton of faith in what they were onto and made it big. Though MSFT owns proven productivity tools like Office and LinkedIn, is it really ‘loved’ by its users? There is an emotional attachment to a story provided the company inspires users in some way. Example- I would really like to read Steve Jobs’ and Elon Musk’s bio because I truly admire both companies for their innovations and daring thought processes. I want to know what the bosses were thinking when their personal convictions contradicted the way of the world, but despite everything they stuck to their guns and eventually succeeded. Like this book talks about trust that is built with consistency, MSFT needs to stick to their innovations and be consistent. Today Chrome is preferred over IE, Windows Phone shuttered down and we still don’t see HoloLens, MSFT fitness band, Surface tablets and Pro Studio desktops as much as we see Apple products in stores everywhere.
Microsoft has all the resources to create awesome products like Kinnect and Xbox and be truly loved by its users. The CEO shows commitment to his vision which a business leader should, and its a good read overall. For now, ‘Hit Refresh’ is PR checkbox with a ‘year-ahead’ memo to the world. This book is recommended along with ‘Kranti Nation’ and ‘The 4th industrial revolution’ – all talking about disrupting tech that will dominate in coming years. This review ends with the most inspiring tech quote of all-
“One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man.”
– Elbert Hubbard