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Once in a while we all find ourselves wondering what we are doing with the one life that we have on this planet. Having pondered over this question for decades himself, Ravi Venkatesan, Founder, Global Alliance for Mass Entrepreneurship, and Chairman, Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet (GEAPP) has finally penned his musings and theories down in his latest book, ‘What The Heck Do I Do With My Life? How To Flourish in Our Turbulent Times.’
Why is it that some people exceed our expectations on them while some disappoint? Are odds of success the same for everybody? Is a portfolio life the answer to finding “the balance” between what you do and what you love? Catch Ravi Venkatesan, in conversation with Pari Natarajan, CEO, Zinnov answer these questions, much more.
Pari Natarajan: Hello everyone. What the heck do I do with my life? This is a question that we all ask ourselves once in a while and more so during the last two years of the pandemic. ‘What the heck do I do with my life?’ is the title of a fascinating book written by a best-selling author Ravi Venkatesan, Founder of Global Alliance for Mass Entrepreneurship, and I’m Pari Natarajan, your host today.
Ravi Venkatesan is a business leader, author, a social entrepreneur. Ravi was the Chairman of Microsoft India, Bank of Baroda, and Cummins India, and was voted one of India’s Best Management Thinkers by Thinkers 50 and as Microsoft’s Alumini Hero in 2020. He is currently UNICEF’s Special Representative for young people and innovation.
Hello Ravi, welcome to Zinnov podcast, the Business Resilience Series. It’s great to have you here. I’m looking forward to picking your brain on the various thought-provoking themes you have covered in the book.
Ravi Venkatesan: Hi Pari, good morning. It’s terrific to be back in conversation with you. So thank you for inviting me today.
Pari Natarajan: Without further ado, let’s dive into the questions. And Ravi, why did you choose to write your book, ‘What the heck do I do with my life?’ I like to repeat that title name.
Ravi Venkatesan: This is a question that I have struggled with over the years. With unfailing regularity about once every 10 years the question has popped up, forcing me to think through my choices and my life. And then I decided to start giving some small talks about it, writing about it, about a decade ago. And the kinds of issues that I embedded there found huge resonance with a wide cross section of people. So an article on similar themes in the Economic Times had more than a million readers a decade ago. One particular LinkedIn posts by, I think, late 2015 or 2016 got 2.5 million views and it’s still fresh.
And so I realized, look, I’m not the only one struggling with this. And certainly over the years that seems to be a bigger question and for more people at every life stage. And so I said that somewhere, there’s probably a book in here. Not that people read books, but it’s a good way to organize one’s own ideas.
Now, the timing was merely fortuitous. It was actually supposed to be out in 2020. And I took a lot longer to get my own clarity and writing done. So it appears like it’s a COVID book, but it isn’t. It’s just a coincidence, but it turns out that I think COVID has caused a lot more of us to think about the question and introspect. And so the timing couldn’t be better.
Pari Natarajan: And one of the themes in your book is how mindset is the app of your life. So what are the big insights around mindset and how has it changed in your lifetime?
Ravi Venkatesan: Yeah, that’s a great question. I actually have that chapter very early. It’s chapter two, it’s the most substantive foundational one. And the reason is over the years I’ve been thinking, Pari, about why some people achieve and accomplish so much, much more than we would have thought they’re capable of. Conversely, I look back at some of the astonishingly talented, bright people I’ve met in my life, and you know, many of us used to think that they’re going to set the world on fire and they didn’t really accomplish as much as they were capable of.
I look at this issue of why does somebody, who has everything, why are they so miserable? Why does somebody who has nothing to be thrilled about so joyous? Okay. I also look at the issue where increasingly the world is filled with polarizing leaders and false news. And presented with the same data, why do intelligent people come to such different conclusions? So these are all very interesting questions and I, through my reading, conversations, and my own thinking concluded that the biggest reason for all these is what is called mindset and mindset is sort of a shorthand for the assumptions we have, the beliefs we have, the stories we may have in our subconscious mostly about everything… about the world, how does the world work? Is it fair? Is it unfair? Why are we here? It is about each other. Is Pari a good person? What does success look like? What is failure? Am I capable of something? Not capable of something? We have a million stories about all these things and many, many more. I used two metaphors. One is that the iceberg is under the surface. We don’t even know these things. It’s in the subconscious. The other metaphor I use is that of malware, which is we go through life attracting all this, and it’s all clogging up our thinking and without us even realizing it.
And so what happens is we look at life, not objectively, but through the prism of these assumptions and stories and beliefs and so forth. And so I start out with a quote from Bill Gates, who says, ‘What you believe is what you achieve’ and a 100 years before Bill, Henry Ford said, ‘Whether you think you can, or whether you think you cannot, you’re right.’
I thought both of these are just fantastic. Okay. So, it therefore comes down to saying, look, what are my beliefs and assumptions, which of them are actually true, which of them are actually helping me accomplish things and contributing to my satisfaction and happiness, and which are not.
Pari Natarajan: It’s great that, you know, it’s on some level, it looks like it’s something an individual can control and mindset is something it’s in our control, it’s not dependant on somebody else, but people find it very hard to change their mindset. Why is that? And how do you change that?
Ravi Venkatesan: Look, it’s this sort of very, very deep seated, it’s our fundamental beliefs about ourselves and about the world. And that’s why even when you become aware of it, it is so hard to change. So I give an example, for instance, of being over the years, a fairly chronic pessimist. Okay. That wasn’t a conscious decision I made. It gradually happened over the years and I would always see the glass half empty. Any achievement, I would find the flaw in it. Somebody comes and says, ‘You know, I’ve done such a fabulous job’, and I’d say, ‘Yeah’, but quickly point out what else they could have done, what more they could have done. And then by the time I turned about my early 40s, I realized this is not very good. People are not very attracted towards people with a negative orientation. As a manager, it’s completely painful to work for somebody who only points out what you haven’t done.
So for all these reasons, I said, look, I better change. And I came across a wonderful book called Learned Optimism. And it points out that there’s actually a very precise set of things that happens with a pessimist. When something bad happens that they don’t like, they tend to assume the worst case. They assume it’s forever and they assume it’s personal. They say, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ And so when something bad happens, you catch yourself, you become aware, you become conscious of your reaction. Look, the worst case may not happen. Maybe it’ll actually be a much smaller dent in the road than otherwise.
Number two, nothing’s forever. This too shall pass. And ‘Hey, it’s just random. It’s not deeply personal.’ And so by practicing this over the years, you become less pessimistic, more optimistic. I can tell you I’ve gone from like 2 out of 10, to about a 7 out of 10 on an optimism scale.
Pari Natarajan: Wow! So it is possible to change and you are a great example of being able to change yourself from a pessimist to an optimist. And if we dive a bit more into the book, one of the other aspect you talk a lot about is leadership being the most important skill for the future. It could be an individual. You don’t have to be truly a leader of a company or a country and so on. For every individual, leadership skill is very important. Can you explain why you feel that?
Ravi Venkatesan: Okay. So there’s a whole chapter on leadership and I start out by saying the biggest challenge of our times is lack of leadership. So you look at the world, we have huge problems like climate change. You look at the country, any country, whether you’re living in the US and listening to this podcast from there, or some, you know, Europe or India, each of our countries has giant problems. In India, for instance, we have huge issues around poverty, around health, of extraordinary inequality, lack of jobs, whatever. You look at your own organizations, that are both opportunities and challenges. And the interesting thing is where we are at this moment in time is we have the technology for solving most of these issues. We have resources in abundance. The world is awash with cash, particularly after COVID. Number three, we have tons of talent. These problems are solvable. What’s missing is leadership that is bringing together people to go address these issues in a decisive way. And so the issue is why are we so starved for leadership?
And I think the answer I’ve come to is that we have a very outmoded idea of who is a leader. And we have too often, we are confused about position and title. So we say, ‘Oh, he’s a vice president’ or ‘She is a minister or something of that sort.’ They have a big title, they have formal authority, they must be a leader and we’re waiting for them to act on these issues and they don’t, because they have no incentive to.
So I say, look, if you’re going to be successful as a country, as an organization, or if you’re going to flourish as human beings, we need to have a very different concept of leadership, where a leadership is a verb, it’s an act, and anybody and everybody is capable of acts of leadership.
You don’t need any form of mandate, power, title in order to act like a leader. So I talk about this young boy who was 11 years old, Rehan Sheikh, who lives in a municipal garbage dump in Ahmedabad and is doing stunning things for his community. I talk about my neighbor in Bangalore, who was a homemaker called Padmasree and the way she’s become sort of the leading citizen activist and waste warroir of Bangalore. This is the model of leadership and everybody is capable of it. And therefore, because it’s in such short supply, if you are able to lead by influence in the ways I’m talking about, this is the defining skill, you don’t worry about having to find the next job or opportunity. People are going to come to you, opportunities are going to come to you. So this is the most important, the uber skill for success.
Pari Natarajan: It’s a very interesting, but they don’t teach this in school. You have to go to a Harvard to learn leadership. What about making it like a math or art class from kindergarten?
Ravi Venkatesan: Yes, absolutely. You’re right. Pari, one of the things we are doing in both my own organization called GAME, as well as my work with UNICEF is we’re trying to see how we can intervene with young people from the toughest socio-economic backgrounds, the poorest government schools, and how do you engage them to build up their leadership capability?
And you don’t talk leadership because they won’t identify with that, but you get them to pick some issue, like, a very mundane issue, like the toilet is not working in the school. It hasn’t worked for three years and instead of hoping somebody is going to fix it, you encourage them to get together in groups and address these kinds of challenges.
And it’s remarkable to see how quickly they gain the sense of agency. The belief that they’re not a victim, that they can also make some of these decisions and how shocked they are that others with the same pain begin to follow them.
Pari Natarajan: Very interesting and it shows that you’ve become an optimist now in the way you think about leadership.
Ravi Venkatesan: Indeed.
Pari Natarajan: One other concept I very interesting is the concept of a portfolio life. And when you all grow up… the concept is, you find your passion early in life and stay with the passion. Do what you love and you do well. Your view is there could be multiple passions in life. We can have a portfolio of things you go after and you don’t have to feel guilty about it. And it’s very interesting. Can you explain a little bit more on what you mean by portfolio life?
Ravi Venkatesan: Yeah. Look, when you start out in your career, you’re trying to make a success of something. That’s your job or you started a little venture and and at that time focus, intensity is really important.
You don’t want to be doing 20 things. You want to be doing one thing really well. That’s fairly important. But gradually by the time you reach mid-life in particular, 45-50, you’ll reach a point where there is dissatisfaction with just achievement, the achievement treadmill, and you say, ‘Well, I’m not enjoying this so much anymore.’
And so what I encouraged at that time is, go out and do lots of experiments. Try different things that you think you might be interested in. And usually what’ll happen is two or three things will become quite promising, quite interesting. Now here’s the thing, when you’re doing one thing, let’s say you’re working at Zinnov. You tend to get all your needs met over there. You come to work, you get a paycheck, you meet a community. You’re part of a community of people, some of whom become your close friends. You are learning new things. You’re enjoying tackling new problems and accomplishing things and being rewarded for it.
It’s what is your identity. If somebody meets you at a party, what do you do? I’m a consultant, I work for Zinnov. So your identity gets derived from your work. Now, when you branch off and you go out to do your own thing, what you will find is there isn’t one thing that satisfies all of this. So you take on some projects because you enjoy it. Okay. It could be painting or music or whatever. You take on other projects because you get some satisfaction of impact, making a difference. You do something else and it pays you a little money which is kind of important for putting food on the table. So what you will end up with is not one thing that gives you all your needs, but doing four or five things that together give you all your needs.
So if you look at my life for the last decade, I love writing, teaching, speaking. I do that. That doesn’t pay any bills. So I was on a few boards and advising few companies. Now I just do one, which is Hitachi, that takes care of the financial aspect and the connection with the corporate world. And then 70% of my time I do work on tackling big societal problems through GAME, UNICEF, et cetera. So it’s a nice portfolio of things. And the beautiful thing is you’re much more in control over your time.
Pari Natarajan: Very interesting. I think the role of coaches and mentors also become portfolio advisors in the stock market. It’s a interesting concept.
And going into another concept in the book which is ‘Geography is destiny’. And we are living in a world which is especially, in tech world, people are working remote. 40% of talent working in Bangalore had moved back to their small towns and villages, and same in the US in Silicon Valley and so on. So the question is, is it still true? ‘Geography is destiny’ is it still true, or as we move into a Metaverse it’s going to be different. We are going to be connected in different ways.
Ravi Venkatesan: It’s a question that’s very much being debated up in the air and people are voting with their feet. But my view is, unlike what Tom Friedman said 15 years ago, he said Geography is History. I actually think Geography is Destiny. And the reason for saying this is I’ve come to the belief that values of a society determine a lot of whether a place flourishes or not, whether it is harmonious or not. And in particular there are values which the Nobel Prize winning economist, Ned Phelps calls Modern Values. So for instance, in Bangalore, the city where we live, we don’t care whether a person is Hindu or Muslim, upper caste / lower caste, male, female, went to the right school or didn’t go to the right school.
We don’t care about all this when it comes to looking at what are they capable of? Are they capable of doing a startup? Are they capable of inventing, tinkering, innovating? We don’t care. We’re just blind to these things. What matters is talent and now that is not the case in many other towns, cities, et cetera.
I think this may be the biggest reason why that is a flourishing of innovation and entrepreneurship in places like Bangalore. And therefore, I think this explains to a very large extent why economic activity all over the world is concentrated. It’s concentrated in certain geographies, in certain cities, et cetera. I think it’s perfectly fine to say, look, I want to also be remote and live in a place where the air is clean and that life is less pressured, in any case, there’s the internet, but you will find that humans are social creatures and therefore there is no escaping this and you will need, overtime, to plug into these communities, these dense economic opportunity zones. And you can, of course, choose to straddle both. But I do think that because of the values argument, Pari, it’s going to continue to be more concentrated. I also think that as the world becomes more polarized and divided on the basis of ideas, you will have a lot more strife of different sorts and it can be communal conflict. It can be conflict over ideas like you have between Republicans and Democrats in the US or whatever. And it was not inconceivable that the city where you live can suddenly be seized in violence. And so the biggest determinant of that is again societal value.
These days there’s a very real conversation going on about what is the probability that the US will have a civil war again by 2050. I mean, this is a real thing. Equally there is a real discussion about genocide in India in the next five years. Where does it most likely to happen? It looks like it will most likely happen in a state like Uttar Pradesh, which is divided around all these lines. So I just encourage people to not dismiss these ideas, but think about them. I’m no, you know, I don’t have a crystal ball. I’m not smarter than anybody else. I just think these ideas are worth thinking about and you draw your own conclusions.
Pari Natarajan: So there’s clear linkage between the value system of a society and the economic superiority of that location over a period of time, and people have to put themselves in those locations, by definition, to do well, because of the reasons you’ve mentioned. That’s very interesting. And the final question I had for you Ravi is, the book is largely written for leaders, people who have accomplished a certain level of things in the life, but I’m also starting to see even within Zinnov, there are a lot of people, young people who are picking up the book and reading. What do you think could be a key takeaways for younger generation? For folks who are just joining the workforce
Ravi Venkatesan: The key takeaway, I would say is, look, the 21st century is going to be a period of just incredible change. The world will change more in this 100 years than all of human history. That’s both good news and bad news. It’s going to throw up extraordinary possibilities, but also extraordinary challenges. But if you have the right mindset and the right skills and approach it with a sense of explorer or adventurer, you know, there’s never been a better time to be alive. But you have to be very intentional about these choices that you make. Equally, if you don’t adapt, and you’re saying, why is all this happening and when am I going to be rescued, I think life is going to be very tough. What is different about this century versus our times, Pari, is that the middle ground is shrinking. You’re either going to do exceptionally well, or you’re going to find it exceptionally hard. And the book is written to nudge more people towards a good outcome. I’m thrilled that more young people, particularly in Zinnov are reading it. I hope many more of our listeners choose to pick up the book and think about what fits and what applies.
Pari Natarajan: Thanks, Ravi. Thanks for writing this book. I know it would have taken you years to put this together, but it was fascinating book I’ve read so far this year, and I’m hoping that everybody in my team reads it and it becomes a cultural phenomenon for folks to think about the life going forward.
And we talked about great concepts, leadership, I liked the concept around optimism, and the societal value, and putting yourself… aligned to yourself to the value system you fit in and that will drive your career forward. Thanks for the great insights and hopefully we will talk about your next book, we don’t have to wait for a few more years, probably sooner. Thank you.
Ravi Venkatesan: Thanks, Pari. You’ve always been a great friend and supporter. Appreciate it.