Breaking Through: A Memoir – Isher Judge Ahluwalia BREAKING THROUGH: A Memoir eBook: Ahluwalia, Isher Judge:  Kindle Store

On the 26th of September 2020, Isher Judge Ahluwalia breathed her last. An effervescent and endearing personality in addition to being a brilliant economist who juxtaposed vision with common sense, the Padmabushan awardee was also the wife of Montek Singh Ahluwalia, former deputy chairman of the Indian Planning Commission. “Breaking Through” is Isher Ahluwalia’s autobiography penned in a disarmingly candid and refreshing manner. The inspiring story of a pickle manufacturer’s great grand-daughter who influenced the decisions of policy mavens and rubbed shoulders with some of the most prominent economists and powerful politicians globally, warms the very cockles of the heart.

When her memoir was completed, Ahluwalia had lost her reading and writing faculties. Her husband, however turned out to be an able ally and scribe. ‘As my health weakened, he would take dictation, type out the chapters, sit and read them out to me, write out my corrections in hand, and work them into the typed version. He is certainly the highest Qualified Research Assistant that I could hope for.”

However as the memoir reveals, before Isher Judge Ahluwalia succumbed to an insidious and rare form of brain tumour, Glioblastoma, she had laid claims to some Herculean achievements and stupendous accomplishments that marked her as an inspirational woman of substance. A role model worthy of emulation, Ahluwalia had through a combination of sheer determination and uncompromising passion shattered the glass ceiling of stereotypes to scale heady heights of success in both academia and professional career. The ninth daughter amongst 11 children (“a full cricket team of 11”), Ahluwalia was also expected to follow in the footsteps of her elder sisters. A few years of schooling followed by marriage children and a docile and uneventful existence as a dutiful housewife. However this rebellious girl bucked the trend of orthodoxy in thinking and made it to Presidency College in Kolkata (then Calcutta) first before finding herself in the hallowed portals of Delhi School of Economics.

Spurred on by an insatiable love for the subject and encouraged by a phalanx of benevolent professors, Ahluwalia obtained a scholarship and secured an admission into the Economics Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She was taken into the tutelage of future Noble Laureates such as Paul Samuelson and Robert Solow in addition to giants in the field such as Charles Kindleberger. A chance opportunity with the International Monetary Fund results in an introduction to Montek. This chance encounter progresses towards courtship before finally ending in marriage. As Ahluwalia illustrates, in a domain greatly dominated by men, Ahluwalia carved out a niche for herself in the area of policy research. A book highlighting the perils of the Indian economic orthodoxy, courtesy a morass of policy paralysis that was the prerogative of the Left, was published by the Oxford University Press. Ahluwalia also undertook lots of development work for the World Bank and was also involved with ICRIER in India in various capacities. Innovative thinking on Ahluwalia’s part resulted in the Borlaug Institute for South Asia being set up in India and an Infosys Chair for Agriculture being established at ICRIER.  

Throughout the book, Ahluwalia emphasizes an imperative to remain grounded and never to forget one’s roots. Whether it be elucidating on her value system, unflinching devotion to the Gurbani, and a need to accommodate Montek’s career progress whilst concentrating on her own professional career, she inadvertently reveals the importance and indispensability of an element of balance in her personal and professional life. A close friend of Dr. Manmohan Singh and his wife, Ahluwalia wistfully reminisces on the futility of the Former Prime Minister’s attempts to revitalize and rejuvenate the Indian economy during UPA II. Exasperated at every turn, Dr. Manmohan Singh was more a helpless nominee than a powerful leader of a nation. “I wondered why the Prime Minister didn’t just resign”, writes Ahluwalia.

The book is in fact a beautifully thought out paean to all those who were responsible for the uplift of the author. It is almost as though Ahluwalia is bidding a fond farewell to a phalanx of beneficiaries before bidding goodbye. Dr Udham Singh, Walter Robineck at IMF-Washington, LK Jha, IG Patel, are some of the names that are singled out for exceptional praise. However an economist who had a lasting influence on the author and her thinking was the late T N Srinivasan Sanjivi Guhan. India’s executive director-alternate at the World Bank, senior economist of the Brandt Commission, professorial fellow at the Madras Institute of Development Studies and a member of the governing board of Kalakshetra, Guhan brought a revolutionary perspective to economic analysis and political philosophy. Ahluwalia remembers with great precision a letter written by Guhan to her that blended metaphysics and spirituality to convey economic thought. “In Bhartakanda, everything is policy. From policy, policy arises and into policy it returns. Take away policy and policy remains”

The reader is hit like a thunderbolt when Isher Ahluwalia in a matter of fact manner elucidates a craniotomy procedure that reveals the presence of the fatal tumour in her brain. With an incredible sense of detachment and an incredulous vein of astounding practicality she confronts the situation head on and while acknowledging that she might not have much time on the planet, she also confesses as to how lucky and blessed she has been to have had such a full and fulfilling life. One cannot but pause to admire this phenomenal woman and wish that her tribe increases manifold.

Steering clear of political biases and controversies, Isher Judge Ahluwalia focuses on urgent and topical issues that requires bipartisan attention and ones that have far reaching ramifications in the future. Thus issues such as urban planning, Solid Waste Management, Water and Food Security that cause policy wonks to have sleepless nights are addressed in a beautifully lucid and practical manner.

Breezy, warm, witty, and wonderful, “Breaking Through” is not just a dexterously crafted memoir. It is a deliberately intended manifesto for every aspiring schoolgirl who aims to make it big in a world dominated by glass ceilings. For such an indelible manifesto we are all indebted to Isher Judge Ahluwalia. Her legacy and contribution are for the ages.

A Hope called Tanya Coleridge by George Michael

TaniaColeridge Instagram posts (photos and videos) -
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Tanya Coleridge sashaying down the ramp with an uninhibited confidence; Tanya Coleridge winking seductively; Tanya Coleridge crossing a turnstile and hiring a taxi. Tanya Coleridge….

George Michael with a grotesque piece of jewelry dangling from his ear and a cool pair of sunglasses covering his eyes, lent bohemia a bold and licentious meaning with his pop-gospel balladry when he introduced the world to “Father Figure.” A renegade, a rebellious gay and an eccentric when it came to purveying a particular brand of music, George Michael had a fantastic perpetrator in crime, in the form of the sensual Tanya Coleridge when he pushed this phenomenal and controversial song down the alley of his friends and foes alike. Commencing with a confession and having libelous undertones, “Father Figure” is almost akin to cocking a snook at received wisdom and conventional mores. You can feel George Michael showing his finger to the world while he croons to a lilting music that has an indelible haunt to it.

But the genius of George Michael required the daring of the beautiful Tanya Coleridge to convey his message of impetuosity and impunity. “For just one moment/To be bold and naked/At your side”, could not have been even a remote possibility without the bold and arresting Tanya Coleridge. Irresistibly carnal and inimitably metaphysical at the same time, “Father Figure” is a paean to purity and a homily to the peculiarity. It is celebrating the characteristics of fidelity, while also spurring on a venture into the realms of promiscuity. There is not even a blurring line between the pure and the derisive. Right and wrong coalesce into a confounding kaleidoscope of choice and action. Is “Father Figure” incestuous? In my personal opinion, it does not even come remotely close to being ascribed that damning label. Is it against conventional mores? Of course! When compared to some of the controversial melodies churned out by the likes of Prince, “Father Figure”, doesn’t even come close to ascending the rungs of the controversial ladder of provocation. At the same time it is not as docile as the Christmas melodies dished out by its own creator either. So what ground does this fabulous piece of music occupy and claim?

Absolutely nothing! “Father Figure” lays claims to neither oeuvre nor stereotype. It is just an unashamed homage to the fragilities and foibles of mankind. A tribute that is conveyed by a combination of cathartic vocal chords and a curvaceous figure. “Father Figure” asserts that it is perfectly acceptable to err on the side of audacity. Atonement is just a choice. The cross that hangs from George Michael’s ear is not a symbol of confession but a sign of incredulous defiance. As is every twist, turn and tantalizing wink of the marvelous Tanya Coleridge.

While George Michael may have given his adoring legion of fans a raft of mellifluous hits, nothing compares to the electric fervour and tension of “Father Figure.” George Michael’s own contradictions and dilemma in an age that was inclined to look at gay libertarianism more as a counterculture than an accepted way of life, finds full disclosure in “Father Figure.” In fact in an interview that Tanya Coleridge gave years after the video was made, she admitted that it was extremely difficult for George Michael to enact the intimate scenes in the song. The tug and push of his homosexuality was putting up a screen of defiance between the uber talented singer and the magnificent model. It is ample testimony to Tanya Coleridge’s brilliance and accommodation that allowed George Michael to complete the shooting.

In a follow up album ‘Listen Without Prejudice Volume 1’, George Michael pulled off a veritable coup by gathering a bevy of jaw dropping beauties, including Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, Tatjana Patitz, and Christy Turlington. While each one of them acted as a consummate foil to the gay predilections of the immortal singer, none of them could even hold a candle to the exuberance, enthusiasm, and effervescence of Tanya Coleridge.

“Father Figure” was and continues to be a taboo and a Teutonic statement. A statement conjured by the dynamic duo of Tanya Coleridge and George Michael. A combination that stands for resistance, evokes resilience, and restores confidence in humanity.

Thank you, Tanya Coleridge!

Thank you, George Michael. Sleep Well Legend!


Pagglait - Wikipedia
(Image Credit: Wikipedia)

Wikipedia describes Pagglait as a ‘dark comedy drama film.’ The movie is neither comical nor bleak. Elucidating on a theme that is interesting, but not Avant Garde, Director, Umesh Bist has done an appreciable job in assessing the pulse of the viewer. Pagglait is a cathartic experience of a young widow over the course of a thirteen day ritual following the untimely demise of her husband. Sandhya (Sanya Malhotra) loses her spouse Astik (unnamed and unseen) in unexpected circumstances and before she can even come to grips with her monumental loss, she is caught in a whirlpool of intricate family politics, bickering and a gobsmacking revelation.

The film begins with a family beset with grief upon the loss of a young son. Shivendra Giri (Ashutosh Rana), and his wife Usha (Sheeba Chaddha) receive a rude jolt when their son Astik dies suddenly. Even when they are coming to terms with their irreparable loss, a deluge of relatives add to the chaos and confusion. To add insult to agony, Sandhya finds a photograph of a beautiful woman carefully hidden amongst the possessions of her late husband. By a strange quirk of coincidence, Sandhya finds out that her husband’s past lover (or a carefully hidden current flame?) happens to be his workplace colleague, Akanksha (Sayani Gupta). Sandhya is now left to grapple with a new dilemma. Should she weep over the loss of a husband whom she did not even know well, or should she disparage him for two timing her in a remorseless fashion?  

Paggalait is a story of loss, pain, realisation, recouping, relief, and resurrection. Sanya Malhotra as a confused and confounded Sandhya essays her role to perfection. She is the epitome of patience, perplexity, and perseverance. She has an admirable poise that endears her to her audience. Ashutosh Rana as the grieving father is at his muted best. Walking the tightrope between eccentric relatives and the private mourning over the loss of a son, Rana demonstrates why he is easily one of the best in the business. He executes his role with a panache that is effortless. Raghubir Yadav, as Pappu (also referred to as Tayyaji) the elder brother of Shivendra, is irascibly brilliant. Hypocritical, irritating and dominating, Yadav is his inimitable self. Whether it be admonishing family members for their recalcitrance over a neglected ritual or consuming alcohol himself after dictating a period of prohibition for the rest, Yadav is his usual exemplary self. Sheeba Chaddha, in the role of a bereaved mother warms the very cockles of the heart. Helpless, hapless, and hurried, she is a poor women who is shackled to the dictates of not just elaborate procedures but also the damned pestilence of a coterie of a chatty and insensitive group of people.

As a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, with Standard Operating Procedures such as social distancing etc putting paid to the hopes of people flocking to the movies, the Over The Top (“OTT”) segment of the entertainment industry has elevated itself to a new level. The quality of some of the documentaries and movies is enticingly captivating. “Pagglait” squarely belongs to this category. Even though dealing with a topic and elaborating on a theme that is not novel by any stretch of imagination, the movie succeeds beyond any semblance of doubt in capturing the imagination of its viewers.

Here’s to more of such madness!


Hankering after likes on Facebook and for retweets on Twitter do we pander

Destroying our bodies for that “perfect” post, the portals of Instagram we trawl and wander

Tossing and turning in bed on many a sleepless night consumed by angst and envy

Devoured by anger and enslaved by complexes, we are zombies intoxicated by greed

Conceiving our own despicable and destructive form of a contagious creed

Ultimately we will forage for peace and solidarity

In our elusive search for finding equanimity

(Word Count: 82)

Sammi Cox Weekend Writing Prompt #204

First Person Singular: Haruki Murakami

Review: 'First Person Singular,' By Haruki Murakami : NPR

Personally, I anticipate the release of every Haruki Murakami book, with a curiosity that is otherwise deserved for rare and unique occasions. The enthusiasm that gripped me prior to the release of “First Person Singular” was thus, no exception to the norm. Regrettably, the newest book by the much acclaimed Japanese writer, containing a collection of short stories narrated in the first person, has left me feeling more dejected than delighted. While “Men Without Women” meditated on the litany of woes plaguing men shorn of the company of women, “First Person Singular” ruminates on the qualitative and literal attributes of a woman’s beauty (or a lack of it to be precise), to a degree, that is condescendingly jarring.

Each story is narrated by a man whose interests range from jazz to baseball. These men also inform their readers about seemingly ‘ordinary’ women whom they have either dated, or met in the past. For example, in “Carnaval”, a man while introducing a woman with whom he was briefly associated in the past, comes up with a disquietingly uncharitable opening. “Of all the women, I’ve known until now, she was the ugliest.” Incidentally, and dispiritingly, he also prefers to address her merely as “F*”, while at the same time scornfully admitting that “her real name had nothing to so with either F or with *.” Immediately after this cringe worthy beginning, the protagonist feebly and almost facetiously attempts to ‘atone’ for this impunity by wading into an agonizing monologue touching upon paradoxical notion of ugliness and beauty in women.

The opening and closing stories of the book commence and conclude with a bang, with a lot of whimpering in between. “The Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey” deals with an elderly monkey that has an extraordinary gift of talking in the human language. “Employed” in a run down boarding house, the monkey is also not averse to sampling Kirin beer and holding forth on the music of Anton Bruckner and Richard Strauss. This, however, is not the only story where the reader is driven to tedium with elaborate discussions on the technical nuances and intricacies embedded in music. “Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova”, the late American Jazz saxophonist and composer, Charlie “Bird” Parker appears in the dream of the first person narrator and plays the ‘bossa nova’, a type of samba developed in the late 1950s and 1960s in Brazil. As a prelude to this scene, the central character, goes on and on about an imaginary roster of musicians jamming with Charlie Bird Parker in tandem. “Who would have ever imagined an unusual lineup like this – Charlie Parker and Antonio Carlos Jobim joining forces? Jimmy Raney on guitar, Jobim on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, Roy Haynes on drums – a dream rhythm section so amazing that it makes your heart pound just hearing the names.”  Not that amazing when a poor reader does not possess a fuzzy rodent posterior’s clue on the pioneers and performers of the jazz world.

There are innumerable passages that suddenly segue into long and complicated treatises relating to music and sport. Robert Schumann, Mozart, Nat King Cole, and a plethora of similar musical luminaries waft in and out of stories with irritatingly regular frequencies.

A refreshing departure is “With The Beatles”. The narrator, upon visiting his girlfriend’s house, is invited in by her brother. Upon learning that the girl is not at home, the narrator attempts to leave only to be reigned in by the brother. The narrator is then made to read aloud the concluding portion of Japanese author Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s dark and bleak story “Spinning Wheels”. Immediately after finishing this story, Akutagawa took his own life. “With The Beatles”, personally for me, is one shining light in an otherwise dull and flaccid book.

French writer and feminist, Simone de Beauvoir, at her searing best put gender inequality in its most appropriate context. “Humanity is male, and man defines woman not in herself, but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other.’ As a fan of the wonderfully gifted Haruki Murakami, I sincerely hope that he does not subscribe to the radically atrocious view about which de Beauvoir expressed her angst and chagrin.

“First Person Singular” – singularly dampening.

Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters and How to Harness It – Ethan Kross

Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It by Ethan  Kross

As human beings, we frequently have silent conversations with ourselves. Popularly referred to as “inner speech” this powerful medium of language governs not only our interactions with the environment surrounding us, but also shapes our unconscious relationships with ourselves. Writer and psychologist, Charles Fernyhough, provided a splendid and lasting perspective on this phenomenon in his book, The Voices Within. Now, American experimental psychologist, neuroscientist, and Professor of Psychology and Management at the University of Michigan, Ethan Kross, in a compelling book titled “Chatter”, writes about the perils and potential of the ‘inner monologue’ before setting out a slew of ‘tools’ to harness the power of such silent albeit eventful conversations.

Kross’ findings represent the outcome of a myriad number of empirical research conducted by neuroscientists and psychologists (including Kross’ own experiments at the Emotion & Self Control Laboratory, of which he is the Director, at Michigan University), about the human brain. Kross unearths a remarkable similarity between conversing with others and talking to ourselves. To back this argument, Kross refers his readers to the work of Belgian psychologist Bernard Rime. Rime discovered that in the same way in which our inner voice is triggered during moments of extreme stress, human beings also feel compelled to talk to one another when caught between a rock and a hard place.   

This inner voice can also be an absolute demon. Incessant and unwelcome chatter when it intrudes upon our day to day activities, may have threatening and unintended consequences. Kross articulates this aspect in agonizing detail, by explaining to his readers the mental block that put paid to the hopes of the much touted Major League Baseball pitcher, Rick Ankiel.

Kross writes about a study that found out that we talk to ourselves at a rate equivalent to spitting out 4,000 words per minute. In comparison, the American President’s State of the Union address, usually runs to about 6,000 words, and lasts more than an hour. Thus in one single day, we talk to ourselves using words that would constitute 320 State of the Union addresses. In order to distinguish constructive from the cacophony, Kross offers a “toolbox” that can be effectively employed to tone down chatter.

For example, Kross urges us to practice what he terms “distanced self-talk”. This represents having a conversation with ourselves as though we were a different persona altogether. This provides an invaluable “fly-on-the-wall” perspective using which we can impartially evaluate our actions, follies, and frailties. When LeBron James made what at that time was a very difficult move from Cleveland Cavaliers to Miami Heat, he reinforced his belief in various interviews by slipping into the second or third person narrative. “And then there was the American historian Henry Adams’s Pulitzer Prize–winning autobiography, published in 1918, which he narrated entirely in the third person. In keeping with this stylistic approach, he didn’t title the book My Education or something similar. He called it The Education of Henry Adams.”

Kross writes about the study conducted by psychologists Stephanie Carlson and Rachel White. This study led to the pioneering of a concept known as the “Batman Effect”. A group of children were encouraged to pretend they were a superhero as they were given an unappealing task designed to simulate the experience of having to complete a tedious homework assignment. “The kids were asked to assume the role of the character and then ask themselves how they were performing on the task using the character’s name. For example, a girl in the study who was pretending to be Dora the Explorer was instructed to ask herself, “Is Dora working hard?” during the study. Carlson and White found that the kids who did this persevered longer than children who reflected on their experience the normal way using “I.” (Kids in a third group who used their own names also outperformed the I-group.)”

A few other techniques from the Kross repertoire include:

Practicing “awe” inducing activities such as getting oneself immersed in a monumental work of art, or taking a leisurely walk in the mountains, or even watching a toddler take her first tiny, hesitant step;

Journaling. Writing a daily journal and also setting down on paper (don’t bother with the nitpicking over grammar) the most negative effects experienced by the writer during the course of that particular day;

Normalization. The realisation that you are not the only sufferer of adverse consequences in the world can help one overcome the effects of negative chatter in the head;

The power of touch. Just the innocuous gesture of putting a hand over someone’s shoulder can have the positive result of providing adequate strength and succour in dealing with negative chatter. However, as Kross warns, this technique can be resorted to only when such a touch is welcome.

Rituals. Getting into a habitual ritual may also be helpful even though there are people who take this technique to hitherto unimagined heights. The well known model Heidi Klum is supposed to carry her baby teeth in a tiny bag to overcome the fear of flying. During turbulence, she is known to clutch her bag tight. Stephanie Rice, the Australian Olympic swimmer swings her arms eight times, presses her goggles four times, and touches her cap four times before every race.

Placebos can also be a powerful medium to control and reign in negative chatter. Self-belief and conviction combine to induce commensurate physiological changes that result  in various positive outcomes. The placebo effect was demonstrated in somewhat unusual circumstances in the eighteenth century by Franz Anton Mesmer. A physician trained in Vienna, Mesmer laid claims to a path breaking development in the field of medicine. According to Mesmer, a whole horde of physical as well as emotional ailments could be reversed by an alteration of the flow of an imperceptible force that coursed through the universe using magnetic principles alone. Armed with a plethora of magnets, Mesmer repeatedly pulled rabbits out of multiple hats. He miraculously cured people’s conditions by channeling this invisible energy with magnets and his hands. He called this technique ‘animal magnetism.’ It would later be immortalized as “mesmerism.”

He even cured, albeit for a temporary period, the blindness of Maria Theresia von Paradis, an Austrian musician and composer who lost her sight at an early age, and for whom Mozart may have written his Piano Concerto No. 18. Benjamin Franklin, the great American inventor, and scientist who happened to be in the same location as Mesmer, was commissioned to investigate the veracity of the physician’s techniques. Franklin’s study concluded that the cures had nothing to do with mesmerism. The technique of animal magnetism invested in the patients a sense of conviction and positive affirmation which, in turn led to the curing of their ailments. What Mesmer did was just encourage a placebo effect.

At the end of the book, Kross informs his readers about a curricula which he, in tandem with his team, has devised on the cause and consequence of chatter that can be taught in schools. Kross is steadfast in his view that children should be imparted the science behind the inner conversations. Such lessons would greatly help them in self-regulation.

With an insidious pandemic wreaking global havoc, mental fragilities have exponentially increased leading to depression and mental fatigue. Kross’ timely work could not have been published at a more relevant and appropriate juncture. His work on channeling, harnessing, and dumbing down on our voices within is an indispensable salve to be applied liberally.

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less – Greg McKeown

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown, Paperback |  Barnes & Noble®

Greg McKeown keeps his message extremely simple. He just wants us to say “no”. Whether it be to an obstinate boss, a nagging relative, or to a friend who takes us for granted in perpetuity, we are always held to ransom by the affirmative word “Yes.” This, according to McKeown, is one of the unfortunate attributes of a “Non-Essentialist.” In his compelling book, “Essentialism”, McKeown attempts to instill a change in his readers that would transform them from non-Essentialists to Essentialists. Reduced to its simplest essence, essentialism means “less but better.” Concentrating on a bare minimum of tasks with unwavering focus, invariably results in the garnering of maximum benefits. For example, as the author illustrates, Vitsoe, the furniture making company offers furniture designed exclusively by the designer Dieter Rams. Vitsoe offers just three products: the 606 Universal Shelving System, the 620 Chair Programme, and the 621 Side Table. In fact the 606 Universal Shelving System finds a place in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, while the 620 Chair Programme finds a pride of place in collections of both the V&A and the Design Museum. Vitsoe’ s hiring policy is also equally focused and concentrated. A candidate needs to undergo a most rigorous recruitment policy before she is deemed fit to be part of the Vitsoe workforce.

Salient Features of Essentialism

McKeown exhorts his readers to consciously create “space” in their lives to “escape.” In a digitally connected world where the flow of information is 24/7, 7 days a week, and 365 days a year, separating the professional from the personal is next to impossible. However, essentialism mandates a deliberate creation of space which over time becomes indicative of a default behaviour. Clayton Christensen the best selling author of “The Innovator’s Dilemma”, strictly informed his employer when asked to work over a weekend, that while Saturdays were for his family, Sundays were exclusively meant for God.

Routine is not the enemy of Innovation

Taking recourse to various empirical research findings, McKeown emphasizes the importance of adhering to a set routine. The key to achieving essentialism is to set small incremental, achievable goals and tirelessly working on them every day. Michael Phelps, multiple Olympic gold medalist and possibly the greatest swimmer in the history of the sport adheres to a fixed routine which he follows uncompromisingly every single day. An essentialist thus sticks to a self-instituted routine which is invariably not broken unless and until forced by unavoidable exigencies.

A rested mind is a recharged mind

In his bestselling book ‘Why We Sleep’, sleep expert Matthew Walker proposes a causal link between sleep-deprivation and depression, heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s. According to Walker sleeping less than seven hours on a consistent basis constitutes inadequate sleep. McKeown subscribes to this view wholeheartedly and even argues that Science postulates increase in creativity following a short nap. An essentialist thus, ensures that she is never sleep deprived while a non-essentialist dangerously crams unearthly hours toiling away in utter futility.

Distinguish the Trivial Many from the Vital Few

In a globalized world characterized by frenetic economic activity, we lead a life that is itself a never ending to-do list. Like a gazillion bits of post-it notes smeared all around us, we are perennially sucked into a quagmire from which extricating ourselves is a Herculean endeavour. McKeown articulates that an essentialist disentangles from this imbroglio by making conscious choices. A closet characterised by  accumulated clutter creates myriad confusion for its owner while a sparse but carefully selected closet represents well thought out priorities. The CEO of LinkedIn Jeff Weiner, schedules two hours of blank space on his calendar every day.

Elimination Works, Addition Sucks

McKeown with the example of the failure of the Concorde jet brings home to bear the fallacy of continuation. Even when it was leaking like a sieve in terms of profits, the Governments of Britain and France continued to pump inordinate sums of money on the Concorde operations, in a vain attempt to justify its existence. Both the Governments unwittingly had fallen prey to what in psychology is commonly known as the ‘endowment effect.’ In fact as McKeown writes, “psychologist and Nobel Prize winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman discovered that students on campus trying to sell a coffee cup they owned had a tendency to value it at least 100% more ($5.25 versus $2.25), than those who were simply trying to sell a cup.”

The 90 Percent Rule

This Rule simply asserts that “if it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.” When faced with a decision conundrum, all the essentialist does is think about the single most important criterion for a decision, giving such a decision a score between 0 and 100. If it’s any lower than 90 percent, the essentialist then automatically changes the rating to 0 and simply rejects it. This assists significantly in avoiding getting caught in the indecision trap triggered by ratings of 60s or 70s. In order to expedite the process of making the 90% rule a habit, McKeown urges his readers to apply certain selective criteria to the choices facing them:

  • Jot down the potential opportunity;
  • Introspect on three “minimum criteria” the options would need to “satisfy” in order to pass muster; and
  • List down a list of three ideal or “extreme criteria” the options would need to comply with for it to be

Saying No is not just an option

Personally, the biggest takeaway of McKeown’s book for me has been the elaboration of a myriad ways in which one can refuse to do something which one perceives to be genuinely inessential. While a firm and polite “no” may resolve ambiguity, a strong refusal also comes with its own set of difficulties. Interpersonal relationships might be impacted, and associations impaired on account of a downright refusal. To paraphrase Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of Netflix, “Entrepreneurs succeed when they say ‘yes’ to the right project, at the right time, in the right way. To accomplish this, they have to be good at saying ‘no’ to all their other ideas.”  McKeown encourages his readers to pause for a while before saying an abrupt no. That pause enables one to gather one’s thoughts, evaluate the relevant tradeoffs before offering a concrete, polite and yet firm refusal to a proposition, demand, or request placed before her.

Essentialism is a vigorous and rousing read that bolsters its suggestions with solid empirical evidence and dollops of common sense.

Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why it Matters – Richard Rumelt

Good Strategy/Bad Strategy by Rumelt, Richard (ebook)

A uniquely distinguishable book from its normal run of the mill compatriots, “Good Strategy Bad Strategy” by Richard Rumelt, makes for some refreshing as well as ambivalent reading. While the author by juxtaposing real life examples and management theory, rivetingly differentiates good strategic making capabilities from the bad ones, the reader at the end is still left ruminating on the one differentiating element that separates strategy from other routinely employed measures such as vision, long term and short range planning etc. Rumelt bemoans the fact that the experts and the unsuspecting alike seem to be perpetually yoked to certain misconceptions when it comes to strategy. Such misconceptions lead to unintended consequences for both the executives as well as their corporations.

So what according to this reputed and renowned Harry and Elsa Kunin Emeritus Professor of Business & Society at the University of California, Los Angeles Anderson School of Management, are the attributes of a good strategy and the pitfalls of a bad strategy? Let us dive deep into the world of paradoxical decision making:

A good strategy according to Rumelt has the following three “kernels”:

  • Diagnosis
  • Guiding Policy and
  • Coherent Action

Rumelt’s solution and definition of a proper strategy is one that confines within its nub the ‘discovery of critical factors in a situation, and designing a way of coordinating and focusing actions to deal with those factors.’ Thus the first step in any good strategy is to identify and candidly acknowledge the existence of a problem. The second step is to chalk out a guiding policy to address the problem and finally, employ a set of coherent action steps that overcome the seemingly insurmountable obstacles in an implementable, rational, cohesive and logical manner. These were the kernels that enabled Steve Jobs to bring Apple back from the brink when the company had lost sight of its priorities and focus, and aided and abetted General Norman Schwarzkopf to pull off the impossible in the Iraqi war which had, at the outset forecast some terrible loss of lives for the US and Coalition Forces. “Good strategy requires leaders who are willing and able to say no to a wide variety of actions and interests. Strategy is at least as much about what an organization does not do as it is about what it does. The second natural advantage of many good strategies comes from insight into new sources of strength and weakness. Looking at things from a different or fresh perspective can reveal new realms of advantage and opportunity as well as weakness and threat.”

So is there something called a bad strategy?

As Rumelt informs his readers, Bad strategy does not mean an absence of good strategy. A bad strategy is emblematic of specific misconceptions and leadership dysfunctions. Rumelt argues that there are four inimitable “hallmarks” characterizing a bad strategy:

  • Fluff: A form of gibberish masquerading as strategic concepts or arguments.
  • Failure to face a challenge
  • Mistaking goals for strategy; and
  • Bad strategic objectives where strategic objectives are set by leaders as a means to an end.

Rumelt illustrates the example of fluff by taking recourse to an excerpt from an internal strategy memoranda of a reputed international bank. “Our fundamental strategy is one of customer-centric intermediation.” According to Rumelt, “The Sunday word “intermediation” means that the company accepts deposits and then lends them to others. In other words, it is a bank. The buzz phrase “customer-centric” could mean that the bank competes by offering depositors and lenders better terms or better service.”

Rumelt also warns his reader on the perils of falling prey to a ‘template style strategic planning.’ More often than not strategies are a concomitant of a template that determines what a “strategy” should look like. Being an imprecise concept, leaders have this understandable tendency to adopt a tenuous template that is amenable to easy and uncomplicated “filling in.” These templates then double up as “strategy documents.” Thus, a plethora of vision and mission statements, corporate values and of course, overall holistic strategies.

Sources of Power

Part II of “Good Strategy Bad Strategy, titled “Sources of power” dwells into the various practical strategic approaches and their advantageous application. Some of the most common means of such application, according to Rumelt are:

  • Using Leverage
  • Proximate Objectives
  • Chain-link Systems
  • Using Design
  • Focus
  • Growth
  • Using Advantages
  • Using Dynamics
  • Inertia and Entropy

The complete inability of Blockbuster to perceive the threats posed by Netflix that ultimately led to the former becoming bankrupt or Microsoft’s pedestrian response despite having a large early lead in mobile phone operating systems, that accorded a gigantic  opening for Apple and Google represent classic illustrations of the Inertia and Entropy facets.

The concept of proximate objectives simply means focusing on an objective that is close enough at hand to be feasible, i.e. proximate. For instance, while the first moon landing has been eulogized unrelentingly, many miss out on the fact that in the year 1969, the objective of landing a man on the move was already a proximate objective. This was mainly due to the fact that President John F. Kennedy realised the requisite technology and science was within arm’s length and it was just a matter of allocating, focusing, and coordinating resources in a systematic fashion.

Similarly, a system has chain-link logic when its performance is limited by its weakest link. This implies that every department is dependent on other departments and any inefficiency in one department will adversely impact the overall performance of the entire system. For example, IKEA designs its own furniture, constructs its own stores, and does not outsource even its supply chain. This is a perfect example of a chain-linked system. IKEA will be rendered vulnerable if even one link in its chain underperforms.

Rumelt rounds off the discussion on the Sources of Power and their harnessing to achieve comparable and industry advantage by elaborating on the strategy adopted by Nvidia, the computer graphics entity that dominated the market for 3D graphics.

While Rumelt’s book is definitely one of its kind, the author could have devoted more time to drive home the quintessential elements that constitute strategy thereby differentiating the term from a whole horde of confusing and mimicking management jargons.