Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Online Media Engagement Gone Rogue

I receive atleast 10 newsletters on a daily basis. I don't remember subscribing to any of them. I am definitely not interested in the content. I have got into the habit of Mark multiple and Delete so often that I run the risk of missing out on important mails.

As a user, I have seen a lot of websites use different tactics to get a user to subscribe. Some subscribe you be default unless you specifically tick the tiny box saying "I do not want to ..." during the Sign Up process. Some want you to remember to untick that box if you don't want a weekly mailer. Some others subscribe you by default without first asking for your permission. I have often wondered if an unsubscribe link in the mail is all it takes to protect user rights in the internet space. You would say that sending emails is not privacy violation, but it's never just one email. If you registered using Facebook, the website sometimes automatically adds your Facebook friends to your network on this site as well and shares your updates and activity to them, again unless you specifically ask to remain private. The Privacy Policy states the websites' approach, but it is frankly quite verbose and written with the intention of keeping the site's interest above the users.

I can imagine that online engagement is increasingly difficult with shortening attention spans of consumers and increasing number of options of every kind. However, does raking up the number of likes or the number of your newsletter subscribers translate into raking up of the millions. If anything, this approach annoys the user. Let your content offering do the trick and use the social media as a tool only to reach out to people, but please don't smother them.

Reminds me of Huma Qureshi telling Nawazuddin Siddiqui in GoW-2, "Permission leni chahiye naa".

Sunday, July 28, 2013

(Geographical) Identity Crisis

One of the most difficult questions I get asked these days is where I am from?

This one innocent question triggers a debate in my head. Calcutta? That's where I was born and brought up, that's where my parents stay and that's the place I go to during my vacations. But I relate to the city much. The homeliness of Calcutta for me is really limited to our house in the city.

OK, maybe I am from Rajasthan? - my native place? It explains my roots best, because calling myself from Calcutta is akin to calling myself a Bengali for more people than not. But wait, I have never really lived there, nor have my ancestors for some generations.

I have stayed close to 5 years in Mumbai / Navi Mumbai. That's a city that's been closest to my heart. It's the attitude of the city and it's people that I have resonated with so much. If you have lived in Bombay for any length of time, you know what I am talking about. But it feels factually wrong (and perhaps, wannabe) to say I am from Mumbai. Also, before moving to Pune, it still made some sense. But now who knows if I might have been done with the city for good.

Truth being said, I have practically been a shifter. It's been so long since the question of my geographical origin had a simple answer. When I was a kid, I had some friends with parents with Indian Railways or other Government jobs, who had had to move a lot because their parents got transferred pretty often. Whenever someone asked them where they were from, they would break into a monologue about how they have lived in a new city every second year. Back then, that kind of lifestyle had seemed so out of league. Now, it's been more than 8 years for me having left Kolkata. Creeps me to admit I am a part of the same league.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Difficulty of Being Good

Like every other kid in the world, I heard stories of good vs evil. But I think I took them more seriously than normal kids do. I somehow thought, I should always be on the 'good' side. I think all the appreciation that being good got, got into my head. Now, it would take a psychologist to tell me how much we are born with, and how much of our personality is conditioned by our early experiences in life, but I would think this whole good vs evil thing had a very strong hold on me.

A little disclaimer is worthwhile here. I don't mean to say I went on to become a saint. I think the ways this desire to be good manifested itself needs to be understood. If I dig a little deeper, it was probably a desire to be appreciated that was driving the whole thing. So, I took on habits that were appreciated. I would follow a schedule. I would respect the elders. I would never fight or bad mouth people. I would never make the first choice and would be happy to take what was left. And so on - you get the idea. I must say it was all in innocence. I was not trying to manipulate people into liking me. I would say it was a factor - hopefully a subconscious one.

What also happened was that I developed a strong sense of right and wrong; I began to dislike people who did things I thought were wrong. I would get uncomfortable with people who would smoke or drink, or with people who would lie, or not follow the rules, or even not do the homework on time. At the same time, I would rarely protest against any of these people. Because I think I was not comfortable with any sort of confrontation as well. As a result, I also became a little reserved, I think. It's better to keep shut and let people wonder if you are a fool, than open your mouth and confirm the doubt, I guess. I don't think I ever explored assertion when I was younger (lest it should come off as aggression?)

Anyway, I think it's a lot more complicated than what I write. But I think I started realizing I was letting this go to the extreme when I was nearing my teens. I became a lot more 'liberated' but some old habits die hard. I retained a bit of my introversion, I guess. This desire of wanting to be appreciated got narrowed to people I thought were good/nice/respectful/awesome, etc. (this also included some of my early crushes :) In most social gatherings, I would usually recede to a corner away from the limelight whenever I was unsure of my company and secretly hope that people notice the talent/skills in me and pull me to the center. And then, I would bask in the glory, perhaps.

I guess the realization became much stronger when I realized I made very few friends because I would rarely talk to new people on my own. People who knew me would usually swear by me, but the number was so small that I was invariably left alone. It was ironical I guess. Because being alone was never part of the plan. Who would really show appreciation if I were alone, yeah?

I realized the want of attention and admiration from people was pulling me down, and pulling me down badly. I think I have made a significant improvement in how much I care about what others think about me - sometimes to the extreme that I have become somewhat cold-hearted. I think there still are a set of people whose appreciation (or in it's milder form, acceptance) matter to me, and it's still bothers me a little. But I am happy with the progress I have made and I hope to continue to do so.

An integral part of this whole transformation was the realization that appreciation / acceptance doesnt necessarily come from outstanding habits or actions. In fact, everyone's definition of what is acceptable behaviour is different and it keeps changing. I used to think people who drink or smoke don't do well for themselves and are not good people. One by one I met people who I came to deeply respect/admire/love for who they were and who later turned out to be smoking or drinking. That's when the disassociation started happening. More such things followed. I still instinctively think people don't usually lie. I was surprised recently when someone denied the truth on my face. I could either point it out to him, or let it pass, and try to understand what made him do that, so that I don't hate him for it.

Don't get me wrong. Righteousness is a positive thing. And, I hope we all have a sense of the same. But it is not the only thing in the world. It's a reality I am coming to terms with. Hopefully, you already know it. Else, I hope this post makes you think a little.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

5 Awesome Recent Life Lessons

Among all the different things people say about life decisions, I think the following 5 stand out for me. I chose these 5 because they struck a chord with me. Will hopefully benefit you in moments of dilemma.

1) Life is not like a mathematical equation:

In May/June of 2012, during the course on leadership at the Young India Fellowship, we had all just been sorted into our MB personality types and the discussion regarding suitable professions for each type had sprung up. In a personal exchange, Prof Dwight Jaggard, told me that life is not like maths. In maths, you have 'n' equations and 'n' unknown variables, and you can solve for definite answers. Life's problems have more variables than answers. You will have to make some assumptions to find your way. The trick is to make assumptions based on some understanding of the self and the environment around you.

2) Don't worry too much

This was during a guest session by Mr Sanjeev Aga. I had asked him how does one let go of the tendency to micro-manage as you progress higher up. He told me that one has to learn to let go and not worry too much. I didn't understand it fully back then, but I get it very much now. Things never happen in the way you would like them to happen. Live with it. As lumps of snow roll downhill, they are not perfectly round to start with, but they get rounded along the way.

3) Getting recognized means you have been doing it right

Going from a ranking of 141 in the world back to No. 1 was not an accomplishment; it was the reflection of an accomplishment. It was the symptom of good choices; it was the result of being careful.

These words are from Andre Agassi's Hall of Fame acceptance speech. No, I wasn't there when he said it. I don't even follow tennis. I read this online. For me, this was a very profound statement that I have not been able to fully appreciate till this date. But I think what he meant is that the achievement is in the journey that led to the recognition and not in the manifestation of the journey or the recognition in itself. And, while setting out on a journey we do not know what the outcome is going to be, we should concentrate on making the journey beautiful. I had myself touched upon the idea of journey in the sense of pursuit of happiness in an earlier post.

4) Follow people, not roles:

An outright People's person, Pramath Raj Sinha, summed up his career advice to the Founding Batch of YIF in these words. You learn from your peers and your boss about doing business more than from any management book. And, if you are following the right people, they do see you through along your career. Opportunities do not float in the air - they exist in the form of the people around us. The source of recommendations and responsibility are people who trust you to do things and with whom you have a personal professional relationship. I am beginning to see this in action in my work and I am sure there are many more experiences in the days to come that will remind me of this.

5) When evaluating opportunities, risks are involved. But you need to keep the risks separate from the opportunity scope.

This one is from my boss, Tushar. I also read something similar in a preview of The Start Up of You by LinkedIn's founder Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha. When you have thought about the worst-case scenario and if you are comfortable with that, your mind clears and you can see the opportunities for themselves. Now, traditional risk-benefit analysis asks you to factor in the risks, but in most cases, you have no answer to the probability of the risks actually turning true and hence, have little way of quantifying the risk. So, think about the worst that can happen. Unless it means you being homeless or dead or something that's severe, you are covered. And, it's possible that we have been overestimating the risk because of fear. This approach really helps you to evaluate the opportunity for the content with a clearer mind.

What have been some of your most important life lessons in recent times?

Friday, March 15, 2013

Remove the Clutter

It's important to remove the clutter and focus on the important things. Peripheral concerns and issues often cause us to deviate from the core and we get lost in too much detail.

At the very inception, all things are simple. As they evolve, their scope expands till we often reach a point where the original idea gets side-tracked and we have is a bubble waiting to be bust. So, write down your goals and aspirations in simple terms before you set out to achieve them. When you get lost, these written notes will guide your way. Everything else is incidental.

I am not against mid-course corrections. However, if we strip down the layers from our seemingly dynamic goals, we would find that on a higher abstract plane, we are more consistent in what we aim for than what appears.

So, empty your backpacks, like George Clooney asks you to do in "Up in the Air". Take only what's important and forget about the rest.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

How our Phones got Smarter

A visit to any mobile phone store would tell you that the market for phones in India has completely changed from where it was less than a decade ago. For an average Indian consumer, mobile phones have become much more than a means to communicate and I am not even talking about the shift from voice to text and data. These devices have managed to capture the middle class imagination and have attained an aspirational status. Especially the smartphone category. So much so that the erstwhile market leader Nokia had to undergo a massive shift in its product offering to stay competitive. While Apple might have broken into this market first, Samsung really took the people off their feet with its Galaxy offering. Catching up with them are HTC and Blackberry who are fighting back to stay relevant.

Here are 3 possible reasons behind this tectonic shift in the market trends:

1) Social Media on the move:
Let's face it. Mobile browsing and gaming had not been able to do what social media has done to the Indian mobile phone market. People got addicted to Facebook and Gmail so much that they wanted to stay hooked on - every moment. Mobile phones and network providers did everything they could to enable this experience for the users by way of better applications or data plan offerings. While the users were constantly checking their Facebook feeds, receiving emails or chatting over messengers, they got hooked onto blogs, news sites and other social content. More and more people made the shift to mobile platforms and a host of apps ensured that they stayed on.

2) Visibility, Market Reach and Distribution:
They are everywhere. The mobile phone distribution network is matched these days perhaps only by FMCG companies. When Apple moved in first, their phones were not available easily. They stayed with a very limited premium distribution network for a long time. However, Samsung went all out with its reach. Not only did exclusive stores come up, small and big dealers began to stock Samsung phones too. Sony and HTC missed out too in the initial days because of limited reach while Nokia missed out on the product innovation wave. Hence Samsung enjoyed the top position for a good while before HTC and Apple decided to go deeper and broader into the market and gain back some share.

3) Premium pricing and constant innovation:
iPhone's prices were well in tune with their positioning. However, they also began to serve as the anchor point for this new animal in the jungle called smartphones. When other players followed suit with high prices, the product in itself gained a premium status. As soon as smartphones came in 10k to 20k range with almost similar features, people started buying because these prices were much lower than the anchor price set by the first movers and for similar phones. Also, there was always something to look up to. With constant innovation, upgrades and new product offerings, people were kept wanting. They were never satisfied with what they had. While phone makers made such a huge cry about their new launches, users began wanting to stay updated and relevant, even if it came at a price.

The willingness to pay for a mobile phone today is much higher than that for computers, watches, cameras, shoes and other lifestyle accessories. They have also become the first purchase out of the pocket for a lot of youngsters with new jobs. Besides what I talked about, why do you think such is the case?

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Power of the Mob

Disclaimer: The intention of the author is not to target any particular group or community. In fact, the intention is to bring to surface the underlying currents that draw us into constant conflict situations with one another. The ideas expressed would hold true if you lay the same context with any two different groups.

It's always easy to rationalize behavious patterns in isolation. And, even easier to blame it on the other person/group/community. We absolutely love to believe that if it were us, we would never do it. That we would not differentiate.

I would say that the fact that we are conscious of the existence of different groups implies implicitly that we differentiate. Actually, I think it's foolish to say that one treats everyone equally. We unnecessarily strive to eliminate differentiation. What's different from differentiation is discrimination. In other milder forms, it gets manifested as preferential treatments, superiority-inferiority complexes, better-worse debates. We are conditioned to partition the sample population into constant Us vs Them constructs. Men vs Women, Rich vs Poor, Master vs Slave, White vs Black, Hindus vs Muslims, Winners vs Losers, I vs the Neighbour, and so on and so forth. And then, we get really competitive against 'Them'.

Our social environment forces us to unite under a common cause and against a common enemy. The driver for that is the want of inclusiveness in a group and the fear of being left out of the group. You are either with a group or against it. And, when in the group, you lose your individuality. You become part of the mob. You would not protest against the notions or norms of the mob you are a part of. Because if you do, you become an outcast. The ideas and notions of the mob is decided not by majority, nor by rational deliberation, but by the select few who speak first and speak the loudest - the self-proclaimed leaders of the group.

So if you really believe that it would be different if it were you, then what we need to do is to speak up instead of getting carried away when you think that the others in your group don't make sense. Defy authority of these self-proclaimed leaders and break out of the mob mentality. You would be surprised at the amount of support you will get. Your speaking out will create a new group - hopefully a more sensible, positive one - which will act as a shelter for those who wish to breakout. So, the next time you find yourself a part of the mob, instead of quietly believing that you are not like the rest, stand up for your opinion and oust the mob.

Ofcourse, this new group formed is also exposed to the risk of a negative mob mentality and then another group needs to breakout and re-form. What's also important to note is that these mobs are formed in the first place because those who are a part of the mob saw something in it for them. Or they felt a common ground. What that means is that you probably already had a bias against the other group - whether conscious or not. Sometimes these groupings are forced upon by us by the people around by the virtue of our existence. I think then the first thing to do is to accept for yourself that you have that bias. While it can be really hard to accept that, I think it is really important. Let's shed the myth and let's see through the truth for ourselves.

I will narrate a recent personal experience here (at the risk of making this post too long).

Last Sunday I was heading towards the CST station hoping to board a train to Vashi as I quite often do. That evening, some religious congregation had just gotten over and swarms of people were also heading towards CST. Afghani Pathans, Sufis - basically Muslims in various shapes and sizes. Being a Hindu by birth, I got really cautious. There were several reasons for my insecurity in that train station. First, there was this group of easily over 20,000 people potentially united (all coming from a particular event and of the same religion). Most of this group might be conditioned to a sense of minority in our largely Hindu nation. Today, they were in clear majority. Also, I think trains and train stations are a big trap for a victim - the exits are limited, the security not enough and no one to hear your cry for help. But I think more importantly it was my conditioning of Muslims as more hard-hearted & aggresive because of my historical, cultural and social influences. Ofcourse rationally I know that the conditioning is a big generalization and means nothing. I have a few Muslim friends and aquaintances who are really nice and friendly actually, and I would never associate any violence with them.

In the midst of my active consciousness of the existence of a majority of the Them group, another scary thought creeped in my head. If more people were similarly insecure got united even for want of security, another mob could have formed. If you turn the tables around, a majority population also makes for an easy target on the community at large. A Sabarmati Express of Muslims, if you will.

And, I think that experience taught me first hand, what can conditioning do to you, what being a minority felt like and what is the power of the mob!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Within or Without

I finished watching the movie OMG: Oh My God! just now. And, am quite pleasantly surprised at the maturity with which the subject was dealt with. No wonder it is based on a play. Because apart from the likes of Aamir Khan or Rajkumar Hirani, Bollywood has rarely produced such cinema. What is a little dissappointing is that the movie received only a lukewarm response from the public. What is surprising is that it did not draw critics from religious fanatic groups (atleast as far as I know), because I think the message was loud and clear in this one.

If you summarize the message, it is really old wine in new bottle. However, I think in our age where the public imagination of the modern-day God wears a suit and rides a Harley, the way the message is communicated is critical. Today, conventional wisdom is considered rudimentary and even irrational at times. So, the wisdom needed to be out in a more contemporary fashion and presented such that the rational-minded and 'aware' people buy the idea. What adds a little to the freshness in the approach is that the first intense conversation about God and Religion happens quite early in the movie instead of saving it for the climax. The climax is in fact underplayed, in my opinion. The audience has evolved and has little taste and belief for stories with all the action packed in the end.

However simple and powerful the idea of a formless omniscient God might (or might not) be, there aren't and probably won't ever be a lot of buyers for that. The movie itself (forgive me, I have not watched the original play) gives you the reasons. Religion, along with all it's fanfare, has become the way of life. We idolize people who appear Good and Benevolent. And, then we seek solace in the demi-God's Greatness. Believe gives us Hope. And, we are suckers for that. Big Time. Bal Thackeray was one such man in whom Maharastrians believed. And so, people either protest when you take their God/Hero away from them, or find themselves a replacement quickly.

I don't believe I am an expert in any of this. But I was recently having a discussion with my mother on if the concept of a God was born to 'embody' Spirituality. The rational in me was arguing that God is actually just an Idea, a Divine Message, the Truth. Somewhere we gave it a Form, an Entity so that we could relate to it more than we can relate to abstract notions. I think that we have come to perceive God as a physical entity external to our being. With this external entity gets born the need for a symbolic representation. The human form was perhaps the easiest to perceive. We added the extra limbs and gave some special powers to portray God as greater than other beings. As people move up the 'spiritual ladder', God becomes a very Bright White Source of Light. Further up, God is said to be akin to a Force/Energy field. As you are considered more and more awakened, the physical form becomes more and more hazy and the scope widens. In the end, it is said that the one's search for God ends with oneself, that is God is within and not without. At this point probably the entity of God merges with one's own identity and the two become One. I see this as Awakening/Enlightenment/Knowledge of the Truth. And, I bet the Truth would be something simple and elegant, something very obvious in hindsight. And then you will probably realize it was really about reaching there than about what lay there.

It would fit all the pieces of what I have heard about Spirituality/God. It would also make for a more believable story in the end. A magnificient journey almost always ends in the most uneventful way. Remember how Robert Langdon felt after discovering the Holy Grail?