Context, and the Perils of Bullet-Point Wisdom

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A few years ago, while studying Rabbinical commentary by a 20th century Hasidic rabbi, I came across a line that resonated with me quite deeply. It seemed to point me to direction, a sense of purpose, and a new perspective to human existence.  Ecstatic, I phoned a friend in Israel to tell him about my breakthrough. This friend, a US-born businessman, converted to Orthodox Judaism in his late 40s, after a secular Jewish upbringing stateside. He is an interesting mix of worldliness and pragmatic spirituality, despite the rigours of his Orthodox Jewish observances. For about a year, he had followed my studies – more out of amusement than the joy of seeing the Tribe increase. With patience born of experience, he listened through a forty minute soliloquy.

“Nate, if you change the context, they’re just hollow words.”

He went on to explain, that the concept in question was a key responsibility of orthodox Jews that included liturgical duties, matters of observance in terms of Jewish law, and crucially, the application of Orthodox Jewish morals in interacting with the world. While the words themselves would ring relevant to anyone who grappled with complex questions of existence and purpose, my interpretation was no longer faithfully conveying what the sage intended. My friend was right. Though I had read several hundred pages in the lead-up to the line, I had conveniently dropped the entire context at the aha moment. I knew what the Rabbi was advising; in fact, I was critical of most of his exhortations – which were delivered to Eastern European Jewry at a terrible time in their history. This realization was the beginning of the end of my interest in religious commentary. At that moment though, I had been a heartbeat away from proclaiming a profound insight to the world via Facebook.

In the years since, Bullet-Point Wisdom has exploded – catchy sayings flood Instagram, Facebook, and Whatsapp. Jalaluddin Mohammed “Rumi” is probably more read in 21st Century than ever before in history – his esoteric concepts of divinity flogged lifeless by nation-hopping trust fund brats and the miserably single. “Listicles” – articles in the form of a list – have emerged as a new class of content with titles such as “seven signs that you’re dating the right man”; “ten signs you’re in an abusive relationship”; or even “seven ways to lose weight now”. These articles offer bullet-point guidance on dealing with complex emotional, spiritual, and worldly crises. This form of content is outrageously popular. Each morning a bunch of usual suspects flood my Facebook and Instagram feeds with their fix of the day. I also receive links to such articles that senders perceive to be relevant to my personal circumstances.

While social media has just made such content ubiquitous, the bullet-point approach has been about for a while. Physicians I know have expressed their exasperation with patients who demand a line of treatment that they saw on WebMD or Wikipedia; fellow Krav Maga instructors complain about students who have been experimenting with fancy but ineffective techniques seen on youtube; qualified fitness trainers I know kvetch about the latest fads that’s affecting their clients’ progress.

Bullet Point Wisdom is dangerous. It almost always lacks context. More than ever, with increasing tools for communication, anybody with a keyboard can ask a question, and anyone similarly equipped can answer. Looking at sites like Quora, it is clear that many people dealing with challenges in areas such as workplace politics, relationships, money, and sexual identity are turning to the anonymity of the internet for answers. The answers, unfortunately, are largely from people out to prove that they are “holier than thou”, and holding the “seeker” in judgment. Also, people who lack the credentials to give qualified advice seek out patterns in their own past and apply the half-baked wisdom of hindsight to the other party’s predicament – this is unwise, ineffective, and in the worst cases, condescending. It can increase one’s emotional burden to be told that the solutions to their problems are simple, and that they just don’t “get it”. With issues like weight loss and health, this advice can be factually incorrect or even harmful. As a secondary consequence, bullet-point wisdom has killed our respect for specialists. Physicians, therapists, physical trainers, and other trained experts are flippantly dismissed in favour of the internet experts at Quora.

“Why are most people broke”? was a question asked on Quora a few days ago. The answers were from scores of holier-than-thou people who claimed to acquired and retained a fortune through astute investing and frugal living. Nearly every answer to the question was a clear or veiled boast of how someone had “made it”. No one even bothered to ask for more information about the question. Was the person posting in despair about the situation of his family or community? Was he desperately trying to find direction to improve his circumstances? Another question by someone who had fallen out of love with a partner had responses full of judgment and condemnation – nary the trace of an answer. This probably has as much to do with the questions asked as the irrelevance of those who answered, but I pity the person who would have to read through those answers – especially in the latter case.

Now, more than ever, this world needs expertise. Human existence is increasing in complexity each passing day. Doctors spend more time than ever studying. Even lawyers and engineers have to turn to super-specialization to thrive. Unfortunately, with easy access to superficial information on almost any subject, anyone can proclaim themselves an authority.

It’s unclear what the future of expertise will be. 50 years from now, will your doctor speak your symptoms into a smartphone app, that will draw up a prognosis and line of treatment? Will we receive legal advice from a text message bot?

Crucially, and this is scary – will we ever again have insightful, compassionate, and objective advice to life’s questions from people who understand the importance of context?

ICOs: Venture Capital for Mere Mortals

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An Initial Coin Offering (“ICO”) is a method by which entrepreneurs raise money via cryptocurrencies. In the typical ICO, a company floats a proprietary digital token on a network such as Ethereum and accepts Bitcoin, Ether, or another cryptocurrency in exchange. These new tokens represent either shareholding or participatory privileges in the fledgling business. Ethereum has been a game changer for such enterprises, having served as a platform for most issuances.

These ICOs represent the beginning of a fundamental shift in how high-technology businesses are funded. In the past four decades, angel investors and venture capitalists got behind great ideas and funded them. Private equity funds then took up the gauntlet in second stage funding and ran to the IPOs. By the time these companies listed on stock exchanges and shares made their way into the hands of individual investors, the venture capitalists and the private equity funds had locked in massive returns on capital. Few individual investors could hope to match the kind of profits that early investors generated. Well, one could certainly invest in a Private Equity fund, but in most regulatory jurisdictions, you would need about a million dollars to join.

The game is changing. Today, lay investors with a rudimentary understanding of how Cryptocurrencies work have the opportunity to make early-stage investments with as little as USD 100. The ICO revolution puts early-stage investing and its profit opportunities within the reach of ordinary investors. For instance USD 1,000 invested at Ethereum’s ICO in 2015 would today be worth USD 230,000!

There are risks though. Venture capitalists are high risk takers, and are comfortable with the possibility that their entire investment in a particular company may be lost. Even Private Equity funds, though somewhat more conservative, play similar odds. For an individual investor with a focus on capital preservation, this may be a poor thesis on which to build one’s retirement portfolio, but this does offer a credible and low-cost opportunity to add some high-reward risk to a conservative portfolio.

The fraud risks are immense. Information on internet directories suggests that the time of writing, there are over 100 companies at various stages of the ICO process. Naturally, performing adequate due diligence on these is a huge challenge. The only resources that investors have are the LinkedIn profiles of the principals of these companies and a webpage that contains information about the supposed product. As the frenzy kicks up, it is entirely possible that fraudsters conduct an ICO and divert the proceeds. The decentralized nature of Blockchain enterprises will make such fraud impossible to investigate or prosecute with the current state of Law, as investigative agencies lack jurisdiction across international borders.

Regulatory risks abound too. Though multiple governments are warming to cryptocurrencies, these are largely considered to be a fad among technology enthusiasts. As interfaces with the traditional financial systems increase and cryptocurrencies become more influential in moving markets, the possibility of stronger regulation increases, and “investments” in these tokens may be challenging to liquidate.

The biggest risk though, is that most Blockchain startups are based on arcane concepts that are beyond the understanding of the average person. While these systems and platforms represent engineering genius, as a utility, they are irrelevant to 90 per cent of the world’s population. Furthermore, many of these projects are conceptualized and executed by young and passionate entrepreneurs. While their technical skills and intentions are beyond doubt, it remains to be seen if their business skills are up to the mark in riding the wave of disruption that they are about to unleash. Browsing through these ICO Prospectuses (or white papers as they’re called), it’s obvious that most of them are aimed at solving fundamental problems related to service delivery, financial inclusion, and even healthcare – however, whether these platforms will actually make the change that they envision is up for debate.

Cryptocurrencies, as an asset class, have delivered outstanding returns in what seems to be blowing into a bubble. Thankfully, newer digital assets such as Ether, Gnosis and Aeternity tokens have a functional aspect that will add fundamental value to them as time passes. For instance, Bitcoin has notional value like paper money, and there is a possibility that the currency will collapse once mining it becomes unprofitable. Conversely, Ether is the sole mode of payment of transaction fees for a growing number of applications on Ethereum. As these apps increase in number and grow in user base, the fundamental value of Ether will increase.

In conclusion, if the idea of owning a piece of a high-potential technology business is appealing to you, looking up ICOs may be worth your time.

Start your Cryptocurrency journey by buying Bitcoin via Unocoin

Pakistan: Courting the Abyss

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A lot has been written on India-Pakistan relations in the past seventy years. It would be tempting to think that everything that needs to be said on this topic has already been said – but as Tilak Devasher illustrates in this book, like any other nation, Pakistan is a perpetual motion machine of political and economic forces that is alive and evolving even today. In his introduction, Tilak states that this book is neither a comparison between India and Pakistan nor is it about Indo-Pak relations. He does point out that given the State’s genesis, its story and identity is inextricable from that of India. His assertion that this book “is essentially about Pakistan” was the biggest reason that I decided to read it.

The first section of this book describes the Pakistan Movement and its impact on the sociopolitical environment of the newly-created state. The second section, aptly titled “the Building Blocks”, describes the ideological gymnastics of Pakistan’s founders that sowed the seed of what we see as Pakistan’s greatest problems today. These two sections, meticulously researched and heavily annotated, draw on personal papers, contemporary commentary, and the accounts of multiple credible sources to draw up a detailed narrative of the foundation of Pakistan. Tilak describes the feeble attempt by Pakistan’s founders to carve out a national identity by unifying diverse ethnicities under Islam. He suggests that this drumming up of fervor was a hypocritical manipulation of the populace by the landed Muslim elite, who would not have survived politically without support from the British. It appears that this short-sighted tactic is the root of what ails Pakistan today. Tilak traces the anti-Hindu fervor of the country’s early days as it hardened into the anti-India and anti-Hindu Nazariya-i-Pakistan – the Pakistani world-view. For a person looking for an informative source on the forces that led to the creation of Pakistan, these two sections deliver impeccably.

The third section of this book, The Framework, dwells on how the Pakistani Army developed its strong influence on public life, and how it runs a parallel administration and an influential power base despite the Civilians who occasionally play government. Interestingly, Tilak touches on the opportunities that the Civilian Governments could have exploited to wrest control from the military, but failed to do so.  This section also contains a detailed analysis of how the military treats militant groups as “strategic assets” and in the process has been riding a tiger that it cannot dismount. Continuing the narrative of the first two chapters, Tilak points out how the military’s raison d’etre is rooted in Pakistan’s hostility with India, and how it has institutionalized this hostility and made it a part of the nation’s identity.

The fourth section, extends the narrative of how the tactical Islamization that started with the Pakistan Movement has festered into the religious extremism that plagues today’s Pakistan. While Tilak uncovers the depth of Islamization through the network of Madrasas, he points out that a large number of extremist fighters have actually been produced by the Public School system. This frightening statistic is an indicator of how deep Islamization and its anti-India and anti-west currents are playing out in contemporary Pakistani society. This section is an implicit warning to Pakistan and its neighbours – that there exists a deep supply of potential extremists that are likely to explode past its borders given the appropriate trigger.

The fifth section of this book – the WEEP analysis touches on water, education, the economy, and population. One chapter dwells on the impending water crisis – something that most agrarian economies are facing in the 21st Century.  The chapter on education is an extension of the earlier analysis of Madrasas and the ineffectual public education system. Unfortunately, it appears that no emphatic efforts at reform are foreseen in this space. The chapter on Economy highlights the obvious deficiencies of any military-centric economy. The chapter on Population, pointing to a Demographic Time Bomb rounds of this section.

The sixth section touches briefly on Pakistan’s relations with the USA, China, India, and Afghanistan.

Personally, the seventh section – Looking Inwards was the most hard-hitting. Tilak introduces this section as “the Lament of Pakistanis whose writings reflect the pain and anguish at the state of affairs in Pakistan and the trajectory of its future”. This section comprises quotes of social, religious, and ethnic issues that plague Pakistan today.

Overall, this book is a highly informative and engrossing read. Tilak delivers on his promise of a Book About Pakistan. For anyone wishing to form an informed opinion on the beginnings of Pakistan, the first two sections are a strong enough reason to buy this book. For others, wishing to depart from the shallow picture of Pakistan as a political and military opponent, this book will help build an insightful and nuanced understanding of the complex and dangerous sociopolitical forces that are writhing within the country.

To the Thinking Indian, this book is also a warning. It illustrates a 70-year view of how the inflammation of communal passions contributed to a failed terrorist state. It points out how foreign powers exploit fledgling states for their own strategic goals and then abandon them to their own devices. With the current state of affairs in India, where religious identity is being tied strongly to national identity – we risk making the same mistakes that the architects of the Pakistan Movement made 100 years ago. In addition, India’s increasing scarcity of vital resources and a similar demographic buildup require reform and investment on a war footing to avoid the problems that Pakistan now faces.

Buy this book on Amazon

Bitcoin: The Party is Just Beginning

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As of writing, Bitcoin is trading at USD 2,605, having surged from around USD 800 since January 2017. In addition to Bitcoin, other Cryptocurrencies have seen a surge too. Ether, another “digital token” that is intended as a medium for paying transaction fees on the Ethereum computing platform has risen in value from USD 10 to about USD 200 in the same time period. Other Cryptocurrencies such as Ripplecoin, Zcash, and Dash have also seen an explosion in value.

What are people saying?

Public opinion towards Cryptocurrencies has always been divided. However, with the new surge in the market, opinions have become even more polarized. Sceptics hinge on Bitcoin’s first impression as being a black-market currency and call this a bubble, while proponents contend that this is a global currency that is just going mainstream and can indeed go way higher.

So what is actually happening?

A number of market observers are right in noting that Cryptocurrencies are exhibiting bubble-like behavior. For Bitcoin, which isn’t backed by a central bank or doesn’t have a market regulator, this is particularly true, as its value is purely notional. Ether, a digital token that is incorrectly regarded as a Cryptocurrency, has real-world utility, but is still in an early experimental state that does not justify its current market price. In addition, the potential supply of Ether is infinite, unlike the Bitcoin – which has a finite supply hard-coded into its design. Long story short, the critics are right – we ARE in an ebullient Cryptocurrency bubble, and a painful correction is certain – but not imminent.

Why is this happening?

Skepticism notwithstanding, Cryptocurrencies are taking baby steps to going mainstream. In many countries, authorities are actually studying Cryptocurrencies, and exploring ways to regulate them. Even in notoriously conservative regulatory jurisdictions like India, sites like Unocoin are permitting people to buy Bitcoins for cash. Zebpay, another platform, allows you to make small payments using the currency. Each passing day, Bitcoin in particular inches close to mass acceptance and has thousands of new users signing up.

Value as a currency aside, the Blockchain technology that cryptocurrenices are based on has tremendous potential. Ethereum, as a technology platform, has just begun to explore this. A number of Ethereum projects such as the DAO, Akasha, and Gnosis have received an enthusiastic response from the market and have been successful in raising millions of dollars in funding. Today, hundreds of companies, in technology, banking, media, communication, and logistics are looking at ways that Blockchain technology can be leveraged for profit. When these efforts mature, platforms like Ethereum will achieve their true potential, as their Software as a Service (“SaaS”) offering will give users access to obscene computing power at a minuscule cost.

The most prominent factor in this bubble right now, is the Cryptocurrency casino. The utility of the Blockchain and the growing acceptance of Bitcoin do not entirely justify the surge in Cryptocurrency prices. However, millions of people around the world have discovered the speculative opportunities in Cryptocurrencies and have begun to trade them for profit. In fact, all Cryptocurrency trade today may be attributed to speculative trading, as the amount of Cryptocurrency used for actual transactions is microscopic. This is not unprecedented. According to the Bank for International Settlements, global trade in foreign exchange (“FX”) was about USD 5.4 trillion per day in April 2016. Incidentally, the total value of the world’s money – currency and bank deposits – is about USD 81 trillion (Source – CIA World Factbook – 2015). To put this in perspective, money equal to all the notes, coins, and bank deposits in the world changes hands every 15 days on the world’s FX exchanges. This entire market is speculative – run largely by multi-million dollar computers playing against each other. In comparison, the cryptocurrency market, valued at around USD 60 billion, is negligible.

The Cryptocurrency market is gaining in speculative appeal, but this journey is just beginning.

The Japan Factor

Japan is the most mature market for FX speculators in the world. Ordinary Japanese citizens generate a trading volume of hundreds of billions of dollars each week. Starting April 2017, Japanese regulations have made it easier for their citizens to trade Cryptocurrencies, especially Bitcoin, and as the chart below shows, a large part of Cryptocurrency trading today is in Yen. Bitcoin, with its massive swings, is the perfect currency for a bold FX trader. In fact, the mainstreaming of Bitcoin will accelerate now that Governments are taking notice.

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The party is just beginning

The number of people trading Cryptocurrencies is increasing. Global events that harm public faith in institutions are accelerating acceptance by lay people. Major moves in cryptocurrencies can be seen after events such as Brexit; the demonetization of high-denomination notes in India; and anti-speculation measures by Chinese regulators. An increasing number of freelancers are accepting Bitcoin for international payments to avoid expensive bank fees. With each passing day, people are finding new use for Blockchain technology and are solving complex technological problems with platforms such as Ethereum.

The market for speculation is growing rapidly, as a number of highly secure and versatile trading exchanges are offering investors the option of trading Cryptocurrencies against regular currencies. These exchanges form strong and influential interfaces with the mainstream financial system. Indeed, a number of derivatives houses are already writing “exotics” pegged to cryptocurrenices. As such activity grows, Cryptocurrencies will attract more investors and the resultant demand will drive prices higher.

The entire market will see expansion. Unlike conventional currencies, Cryptocurrenices are freely traded against each other. This creates arbitrage opportunities between pairs and exchanges. All major Cryptocurrency exchanges permit algorithmic trading by end users. Large scale exploitation of arbitrage opportunities will cause prices to even out in the long term. The wide swings seen in recent years will become increasingly uncommon, and as platforms like Ethereum increase their operational utility, the trends in individual currencies and tokens will lean towards fundamentals.

There WILL be a crash

From Tulip Mania to the Dotcom bust, rabid speculation has always led to devastating crashes. This is likely to happen even with cryptocurrencies. Thanks to platforms like Ethereum, there is now a low barrier of entry to Cryptocurrencies. Today a lay user with minimal experience with solidity – Ethereum’s programming language – can institute his own currency and even make it freely tradeable with minimal effort. Projects like DAO and Gnosis are large-scale examples of this. Additionally, rapid advances in computing, networking, and storage technology will uncover deficiencies in existing cryptocurrencies, leading people to newer products and causing obsolescence of older ones. Many people who trade wildly will be completely wiped out.

And then a resurgence

However, like the Dotcom bust preceded a fundamentally sound expansion in the Hardware, Internet, and Mobile sectors, the fundamental appeal of Blockchain technology WILL drive resurgence in the industry and bring about mainstream businesses in Blockchain. Indeed – a Blockchain-based ERP system would be impossible to manipulate in order to deceive investors, regulators, or tax collectors. Corporate entities structured in “smart contracts” on platforms such as Ethereum could do away with Audit and Compliance functions entirely – saving massive amounts of money that could be better applied to innovation or worker welfare. Cryptocurrencies and Blockchain are here to stay. Will we one day have a global economy where money and services flow freely across international borders free from protectionist measures and oppressive taxation? Blockchain and Cryptocurrencies can deliver – but today, we can merely dream.

Trump Is Just a Symptom

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‘Trump rode into the White House on a wave of xenophobia, fear-mongering, misogyny, helped by blatant boasts and brags.’  – Sandipan Sharma on Firstpost.com; 17 May 2017.

The press needs to stop saying stuff like this. This would imply that the majority of Americans are racist, misogynistic, and paranoid. As much as sections of the non-US media would support this assertion, I reject this. The incessant repetition of this half-truth has become somewhat tiresome, so I decided to go back to the New York Times’s Exit Polls to see if I had any fresh ideas.

Note: The percentages mentioned in the following paragraphs are not absolutes, but are based on the respondents to the exit polls cited by the New York Times.

So, did he really ride a wave of racism? Well, the fact that he won 8 per cent of Black votes and 29 per cent each of the Hispanic and Asian votes doesn’t really support that assertion. Despite open support from organizations with anti-Semitic leanings and other religious prejudices, 24 per cent of Jews and 29 per cent of those of “other” faiths too voted for him. Misogynist? The 42 per cent of female voters who voted Orange may disagree. Oh yes, there was his bragging of groping women, but obviously, the aforementioned female voters were willing to let that slide – perhaps given other factors that they considered to be more important.

So, what were the big questions? Coming back to the NYT’s Exit Poll, 59 per cent of those who foresee a better life for the next generation voted for Hillary. Conversely, 63 per cent of those who saw a bleaker future voted for Trump. Let’s tie this to another question – that of Family financial situation. 72 per cent of those whose financial situation had improved since 2012 voted for Hillary, while 78 per cent of those who had seen a decline chose Trump. So who were these people?

According to the Bureau of Labour Statistics, the unemployment rate has plunged from 8.3 per cent in January 2012 to 4.7 per cent in December 2016. The DJIA has risen from about 12,200 in January 2012 to about 17,000 at the time of the election. The S&P 500 has rocketed from about 1,427 in November 2012 to 2,400 today. So more people are working, and people’s investments are doing well – so whose financial situation has declined? I’ll hazard a few guesses. Perhaps the underemployed – those who have college degrees and student debt, but haven’t been able to find jobs that would afford them a dignified life. According to a study by Accenture, more than half of US workers who graduated in 2016 stated that their jobs do not require their college degree. Maybe the ageing – having built lives in America’s golden age of growth – they find themselves pushed to the wall by healthcare and living expenses after a life of honest toil. There are other factors too – Trump’s support base came from suburbia and small town America. Evangelical Christians overwhelmingly voted Orange – despite Trump’s arguably unchristian ways. They likely saw him as the candidate whose agenda was not centered around gay rights, abortion, or bathroom privileges.

The conditions that led to Trump’s victory did not come up overnight – they were probably building up over the years. Let me conjecture – a labour gap caused by putrid educational system triggers an inflow of foreign professionals who advance financially and professionally and build a privilege base for their children. Automotive jobs get moved to Mexico – cities that came up around these companies decay without the social or urban rehabilitation that such a drastic shift requires. Rising income inequality triggers radically divergent health, education, and social outcomes, creating a greater social and ideological divide. I could conjecture all day.

Each question on this poll opens up new questions. Who really is looking for answers?

The Current anti-Trump discourse in the US suggests that not much thought that gone into the reasons behind the election’s outcome and where the Democratic Party lost the plot. Trump opponents are waxing delusional – “the electoral college will do the right thing” or “He’ll be impeached within a month” and so forth. There is no indication that any serious thought is going into what has just happened. People are amusing themselves with satire – which may soothe their bewilderment, but will not solve anything. Let the Democratic Party sit down and run a detailed analysis of the reasons they lost. No, it wasn’t the Email scandal; no, it wasn’t Russian interference, no it wasn’t an image issue. They must resist the temptation to break this into bullet points. There are complex causes that led to this outcome – the analysts need to come up with one MASSIVE fishbone diagram that should lead the structure of the Party’s manifesto into the next election.

In one way, Trump’s rise to the Presidency has been the manifestation of the Gandhian proverb – “first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win”. He’s won. The mocking must stop. If anything, it alienates the people who voted for him. There is no dialogue if your interlocutor feels that he is being treated like a fool. Contempt and scorn breed anger. Anger will pave the way for the next beast that will be far more hideous than we can possibly imagine.

Own It: Leadership Lessons from Women Who Do

IMG_5214A well rounded book of personal stories and sound advice.

Books on professional development, more often than not, tend to be a uni-dimensional and disguised boast. Authors of such books – often successful executives – use the benefit of hindsight to weave a “strategy” to help one succeed. These books often lie within demographic bubbles that make them irrelevant to people from other cultures. The bullet points at the back of Aparna’s book seemed like generic career advice – but it was the Preface that sealed my decision to buy this book. Aparna claims that she interviewed 190 women in senior leadership positions, and I was eager to hear what they had to say. Divided into six dense chapters, this book certainly says a lot!

The first section on Biases, Bullies, and the Boys’ Club contains a number of first-person accounts. Those hoping for a string of happy endings will be sorely disappointed. While there are some stories of women who have been able to prevail over the patriarchy ingrained in corporate systems, there are poignant accounts of the emotional and psychological damage that such workplaces can cause. More often than not, the woman leaves the company for a workplace that is more woman-friendly.

The second section, Pinstripe Predators, deals with sexual harassment. Here too, there are few happy endings. Most of the accounts in this section describe the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that ways that companies protect their predator stars. There is a balance though – the section mentions cases where sexual harassment laws have been unfairly used against men – for instance – to cover up a consensual affair.

The third section – The Man and his Mother – is particularly relevant to the Working Woman in India. While I know that married women face challenges at home when it comes to balancing work and a career, I had no idea that this affected even women at the top of the corporate ladder. This chapter was very interesting, Aparna mentions strategies that women have used to manage their relationship with their husband’s family. If you’re a working woman who is married or plans to get married, this chapter is the strongest reason to buy this book.

Pregnancy, pumps, and paternity, the fourth section, dwells on the challenges that pregnancy and children pose to a woman’s career. This section too, is rich with strategies and sound advice on delegation and enrolling spouses and family to pitch in. Like the other sections of this book, this too tells the other side of the story. Aparna includes case studies of how companies today are establishing support systems for employees who take a break to have children. Crucially, she cites real-world instances where corporate leaders prove that this makes business sense.

Diversity is just a ‘Danda’ discusses how diversity initiatives range from being merely a checkbox to functional programmes that lead to an inclusive workplace. Aparna’s interlocutors highlight regulations such as the mandate for female independent directors on company boards and comment on how these can be used effectively.

The sixth section, the Woman Impedimenta, was the most valuable section of this book to me personally. Aparna is really in her element as a coach and communicator, and has very sound advice for anyone in the workforce. She prescribes actions, attributes, and development goals for anyone seeking to advance in corporate life. I read this chapter three times, and now, starting a new job, plan to read it again. Man or woman, college fresher or middle management, you NEED to read this chapter.

Overall, Own it was an enlightening read. While this book is aimed at women in the workplace, Aparna steers clear of the slippery slope of criticizing and commiserating. She deals with difficult topics and relays sound advice from women who have shown up, owned it, and prevailed. The anecdotes, told in graphic detail, enroll the reader in the situation, the issue, and the solution. The section on “Man and his Mother” is unique, and is a must read for any Indian woman. The Woman Impedimenta has crisp and actionable career advice for anyone at any stage in their corporate career.

There are some rough points though – a financial planner interviewed in this book suggests that gold jewellery is a sound investment. In my opinion, this is inaccurate, and the realizable value of gold jewellery can be as low as 50 per cent of the sticker price. People would be much better off learning the basics of investing – deposits, mutual funds, etc, and self-manage a small portfolio. The information is freely available, and all it takes is a few hours each month to keep oneself abreast of market movements. Investments in equity, real estate, and alternative assets would need help from a professional.

An account in the book describes the disintegration of a marriage after a couple repatriated to India and the man, who was no longer working became a couch potato and a slob. This account, I felt, offered an overly simplistic view of what could have been depression triggered by a transition to “trailing spouse”.

You need to read this book if:

You’re a woman in the workforce

You’re a woman about to enter the workforce

You’re a people manager or aspire to be one

You’re an entrepreneur with an idea who is planning to start a company

You’re a man who has been a mute spectator to sexist or predatory behavior and has been at a loss for what to do

Buy on Amazon 

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

img_5213-2A chronicle of human despair with hope for the future

Yuval Harari is a historian and a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His earlier books (which I haven’t yet read) appear to be on military subjects – “Renaissance Military Memoirs: History and Identity”; “Special Operations in the Age of Chivalry”; and “The Ultimate Experience: Battlefield Revelations and the Making of Modern War Culture”.  With Sapiens, Harari has made an ambitious attempt to chronicle the journey that Homo Sapiens has taken over the past 100,000 years.

In Sapiens, Harari suggests that three “revolutions” have played a pivotal role in getting humans to where we are today. The first, the Cognitive Revolution, enabled humans to develop fictive language that allows people to tell stories, and further, believe in “shared delusions” such as God, Human Rights, and Peugeot. The Cognitive Revolution supposedly allowed humans to unite in larger social groups under shared fictions such as religion and national identity to thrive in an environment where competing humanoid species such as Homo Rudolfensis, Homo Erectus, and Homo Neanderthalensis failed. Consequently, it is either through genocide, or winning the contest for shared resources, that Homo Sapiens prevailed and remain the only Human race on the planet.

The second revolution, Harari postulates, is the agricultural revolution, which marked a transition from the forager lifestyle to the creation of human settlements. The consequent food security permitted human energy to be directed to the development of arts, commerce, and science.

The third, the scientific revolution, brought colonization of the entire planet, improved lifespan, and a more integrated global society. Harari tracks how science, politics, religion and business worked hand-in-hand to bring humans together. Despite what the media would have us believe, Harari suggests that we are currently living in the most peaceful and just period in human history.

This book, however, is not a history textbook. Harari points out that while historians have kept track of events, they haven’t really chronicled human happiness. Are we happier? Harari suggests that given the workings of human consciousness, a peasant in the dark ages who believed in heaven may have been happier than a modern atheist trying to amass experiences and achievement before a final oblivion. This thread segues into a subtle plug for the Buddhist practice of mindfulness. A criticism of the cruel treatment of domesticated animals is another key feature of this book.

In his conclusion, Harari stops short of offering a prediction for the future – perhaps his publisher wanted him to save that for the sequel – Homo Deus, which is also on my reading list.

Harari has an easy, immersive style, peppered with witticisms that relieve the intellectual stress for the lay reader. That being said, this book is dense, both in information and insight. Meticulously researched and heavily annotated, Sapiens is a brilliantly written book that I highly recommend.

Buy on Amazon – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind