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Samvat 2073 – Blogging Again

It’s been 3 years since my last post here! That’s a really long time… I don’t think any of my erstwhile readers would have stuck around for this long. Some of you might have had a feed in Google Reader but even that’s dead for at least 3 years!

For one reason or another, I have been procrastinating about resurrecting this blog. Till I read “Procrastination Zero” by Darius Foroux this weekend. And I felt inspired to start writing again. I have taken the whole week off for Diwali and what better time to resume writing than on the first day of Samvat 2073!

Over the last 3 years, I feel that I have done a lot of reading but not enough assimilation. This new avatar of 7sabnism would attempt to correct that imbalance. I have been reading a lot about content curation and I had always loved the idea. In fact, I had flirted with creating “Weekly Reading Digests” (see examples here and here) but it was terribly short-lived. I believe the reason it didn’t take off was that I never integrated it into my daily habits. I would end up doing the discovering, reading and curating all at the same time. And that was a sure recipe for a habit that wouldn’t stick!

In this information age, we have a lot of information at our fingertips but that doesn’t meaningfully translate into insights or wisdom. Content curation can provide the vital link to separate the signals from the noise. As a content curator, it’d not be enough to only find great content but also help the reader to discern its meaning and how it fits in the larger scheme of things.

I have been fortunate to find and subscribe to several wonderful content curations such as Farnam Street by Shane Parrish, Brain Pickings by Maria Popova and the weekly newsletter by James Clear. Recently, I added Darius Foroux to the list. But I was most inspired by the weekly newsletter Sunday Reads, curated by Jitha, my friend and senior from IIMA! Suddenly, this art of content curation doesn’t seem beyond my reach; if someone I know is doing it regularly and with such high quality, perhaps it’s worth giving it a shot!

I think the theme for this new attempt will be to reinforce the original theme of this blog,”Quelle est la difference?”. What I will do is pick up things where the popular understanding is not very clear and try to present many perspectives on the chosen topic. I will consciously steer clear of topics that are of interest simply because they are “in the news”. I would rather stick to conceptual topics where a more nuanced understanding can emerge from going beneath the surface.

I shall not limit myself to any specific discipline but given my educational and professional background (I am a chemical engineer and a management graduate, working in a general management role in the chemical industry), you might see more topics leaning towards these areas. But I will not frontload the decision on content and see how things take shape. I am optimistic that I can create something readworthy here! 🙂

Here’s wishing you all a Happy Samvat 2073!

David and Goliath

I recently read Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, David and Goliath. I did so despite some strongly critical reviews including this one by the Economist which brusquely opined “This one [the book] is about as insightful as a fortune cookie. Read something else.

And I am happy to have ignored the Economist’s advice on this occasion. For me, a non-fiction book is a good read if it provides at least one meaningful idea that alters one’s way of thinking (whether the idea is something genuinely new or just something one might have overlooked). In my opinion, David and Goliath provides two such ideas that are worth internalizing – the inverted U-curve of advantages and disadvantages; and the principle of legitimacy when acting from a position of power or authority.

The essential idea of an inverted U-curve is that any attribute which might be an advantage remains so only upto a point. Beyond this point, the law of diminishing marginal returns sets in and more of that advantage attribute has a lesser and lesser impact on the desired outcome. But crucially, there comes a stage when an advantage turns into a disadvantage and more of the erstwhile advantage attribute causes less of the desired outcome. Gladwell uses examples such as the impact of class sizes on learning outcomes and of family wealth on successful parenting, which are quite insightful and relevant.

The inverted-U curve is not only restricted to attributes but also extends to various courses of action that may be undertaken to achieve certain outcomes. For example, if one is working towards weight loss, going on a crash diet or merely focusing on exercise without controlling what you eat might not serve the overall objective of a achieving a healthy life (or even that relatively vague objective of getting “in shape”). Similarly, sleeping too little or too much can hurt the objective of being productive at work. I have an idea of using this to reinterpret a popular management concept but I think that deserves a separate blog post in its own right. (Hopefully, I will write that one soon).

The other idea from the book that’s worth keeping in mind is the principle of legitimacy, especially for people exercising a formal power or authority over their subordinates. The principle of legitimacy states that for an authority to be perceived as legitimate, the people being ruled must feel that they have a voice; the rules laid down by the authority must be consistent and predictable; and the authority must be fair and impartial to all sub-groups in terms of implementation of the rules. According to this principle, merely enjoying a formal position of authority is not adequate to favorably influence subordinates and control their behavior. Attempts to forcibly enforce discipline and control behavior, especially in cases of civil or political unrest, can spectacularly backfire leaving behind a problem that is several times worse than before. Gladwell explains this through examples such as the behavior of the British Army in Ireland and the handling of the American Civil War.

The principle of legitimacy often plays out in organizational contexts. How many times have you witnessed elaborate change initiatives emerging from strategy and brainstorming sessions fall apart or seem fake at the implementation stage because employees are too cynical or too resistant to change? When managements look back on such failed initiatives, they might do well to pay heed to the principle of legitimacy. Oftentimes, it is not the solution per se but the legitimacy of the solution-provider that makes the difference between acceptance and rejection (and thereby between success and failure).

Cerebral obesity

The phrase “food for thought” is not particularly uncommon in day-to-day conversation. Farnam Street, a popular blog that I follow (by Shane Parrish) calls its weekly e-mail digest as the “Farnam Street Brain Food”. What food is to the stomach; things that we read and watch are to the brain. Just as the stomach takes in food and digests it, the brain takes in new ideas and concepts (contained in the text we read and the videos we watch) and tries to assimilate them into our existing viewpoints or mental frameworks.

Thanks to the host of little distractions we have at our fingertips today, most of us find ourselves exposed to way too much information throughout the day than our brain can reasonably handle. Isn’t this situation somewhat similar to those evening dinners when we end up stuffing ourselves right till the oesophagus? We might suffer from a little stomach upset or indigestion but in general, we can recover from this anomaly by skipping a meal or two. But what if these evening dinners occur day after day, week after week, month after month without respite? And we do not undertake enough physical exercise to digest this food? Naturally, we would end up physically obese.

Can something similar happen to our brains if we take in too much information everyday and not spend enough time ruminating over it? For example, I spend hours hopping from one news article to another opinion piece to a third blog post constituting an amorphous activity called “surfing the internet”. It often happens that I hardly spend any time to reflect on whatever it is that I have read or seen. When I think of the social media streams and irrelevant links that I end up passing my eyes over everyday, I wonder if this is the mental equivalent of having lunch at McDonalds on a daily basis!

The situation where we have taken in way too many ideas than our brains can process leading to a drop in our cognitive abilities is what I term “cerebral obesity”. An important symptom of cerebral obesity is that one is generally lazy to think things through and prefers situations where choices are clearly laid out (as if real life decisions are a series of multiple-choice questions). The brain is also sub-consciously convincing itself that one is avoiding thinking not out of laziness but because one is too occupied with other urgent matters.

Physical obesity can be countered either by reducing intake or increasing the rate of metabolism through regular and rigorous physical exercise. Though both these approaches might eventually work, exercising is arguably better because it has the added benefits of uplifting mood (by increasing dopamine levels) and strengthening muscular tissues through the necessary process of regular wear-and-tear. Similarly, one can possibly counter cerebral obesity either by reading less or reflecting more and often (perhaps even by discussing things we read with friends or articulating our thoughts on a blog). I personally prefer the option of reflecting more rather than reading less. Reading (and reflecting on what one has read) increases the chances of having interesting subjects for conversation when meeting strangers. These days I find less opportunities to discuss ideas with friends at work (partially because of a lack of a proper peer group among colleagues at work) and I have often lacked the patience to be more frequent on this blog. This is worrisome and I fear early signs of cerebral obesity.

Now that’s another reason for me to be more regular on this blog, irrespective of its actual readership. Writing a blog is a just a form of healthy mental exercise. And needless to say, one should resist the temptation to read every link that one happens to click on; after all, some of it is just junk food for thought! Possibly the Farnam Street Brain Food is equivalent to the food supplement that one might be advised to consume regularly in order to stay healthy.

The Nadal Phenomenon

Tennis holds a special place for me in comparison to the team sports I follow (football and cricket) due to its unrelenting focus on individuals – the two gladiators dueling with each other for hours in a knockout competition. And the last few years have been particularly satisfying in terms of numerous memorable duels between the “Big Four” of Mens’ Singles in the latter stages of almost every Grand Slam.

It was no surprise that despite the late hour I was excited to stay up and watch the final of the US Open finals this year between Djoker and Nadal. A long time fan of the regal manner in which Federer in his prime would intimidate and destroy his opponents, I was clearly on the anti-Nadal side. I am certainly a fan of the Djoker style of play but deep down I knew that my support for the Djoker somehow stemmed from his ability to stop Nadal from surpassing the Grand Slam records of Sampras and Federer. Indeed, with the Federer star certainly on the decline after failing to reach a final in any of the four Slams of 2013, Djoker was the best bet to impede Nadal till the latter’s athletic style finally burned him out.

Nadal began strongly and took the first set but after Djoker had fought back by taking the second set and breaking Nadal in the third, I was thinking that perhaps Nadal would lose yet again. Till Nadal did what he does best. He found that last reserve of energy and determination to not only come back on serve but also go a break-up at a crucial point in the match. And at that moment, when he repeatedly pumped his fist in the air, I found myself instinctively applauding Nadal. Surviving grueling rallies that lasted 54 shots, he had shown that his desire to succeed was as strong as ever.

This wonderful piece that appeared after the Djoker’s victory over Nadal in the Australian Open of 2012 does a great job of describing the epic nature of Mens’ tennis these past few years. I wholeheartedly agree that it is Nadal who has been instrumental in raising Mens’ tennis duels to epic proportions. Nadal has admirably adapted himself to age and bounced back from injury to show that he is more than a mere athlete. With Djoker, his athleticism is not as great an advantage as against the likes of Federer and he made it up by playing intelligent drop shots every now and then. And that is what makes me acknowledge that though I would continue to support Federer and perhaps wishfully still dream of him returning to the top with at least one more Grand Slam, I have immense respect for Nadal.

I hope that Rafa stays around for many more years and pushes his opponents to stretch the limits of their abilities and delights us spectators in the process. Perhaps he will soon equal Sampras’ 14 Grand Slams and move closer to Federer’s 17. And I hope that if Federer’s Grand Slam record is ever broken, it is at the hands of Nadal. Vamos Rafa!!

P.S: I quite appreciate this blog post by Peter Bregman on the HBR about Nadal’s victory and how a show of emotions after success or defeat is not a sign of weakness but an indication that you have put your whole self into something. And his blog post had originally inspired me to write a blog of my own on the Nadal phenomenon. Yet again, I failed to finish this blog post on time and perhaps it means a lot less now that it’s almost a month since Nadal’s victory. May be I am yet to put my whole self into sustaining this blog. But nevertheless, it is satisfying to complete a blog post. Better late than never, as they say.  🙂

Sunday Morning

It is always difficult to resume a blog after a long gap.

But if there has been no new post here for the last year, it’s certainly not been for a lack of topics to write about. On the contrary, there have been so many interesting things to write about that one has often felt pressed for time and discipline to sit down and put a few sentences together. And on the whole, that has been rather unfortunate. Quite a few thoughts and ideas that deserved to be crystallized into words are now lost forever leaving only a foggy impression behind.

Now I wonder what post would mark a worthy comeback and there’s too much to choose from. And I now realize that this blog needn’t return with a bang just so long as it returns! So, I take the opportunity of having woken up early on a Sunday morning (something that I haven’t done for over a year) to break this deadlock.

I just watched Chelsea steal a late win against Roma in the last pre-season friendly (that was the reason I woke up early in the first place) and that sets up the perfect mood for a long Sunday ahead. I am super-excited about the coming season at Chelsea with the Special One’s return and just the right additions to the squad.

But now is not the time to speculate and talk about how things will pan out in the future. Having sipped my early morning tea, I am perfectly poised to lose myself into a Wodehouse that I downloaded yesterday on my Kindle! 🙂

There will be more to come soon.

Blue is the Colour

Note: Writing this post over two months after Chelsea Football Club’s best moment in 107 years of existence might seem rather untimely. But then better late than never, as they say. It’s difficult for me to mentally move on to new blog posts while there’re some pending ones on the dashboard. And then, it did take time and umpteen repeat telecasts to convince oneself that the ultimate dream of the Club had finally made the transition from fantasy to reality! 🙂

Flashback to the first weekend of March this year and the Chelsea season had reached its lowest point. Having lost the first leg of the Round of 16 to Napoli and also having failed to win at home in the FA Cup against Birmingham, Chelsea had now lost to West Bromwich Albion for the first time in over 30 years. And AVB was sounding increasingly delusional as he denied differences with players and insisted that his “project” had the support of the owner amidst clear signs of discontent from many players. For Chelsea fans, the season seemed to be all but over. Forget silverware, even the optimists were left wondering if there would be a Champions League campaign next season. Even Manchester United supporters, who had enviously predicted a round-of-16 exit for Chelsea after their own exit against Basel, had begun displaying signs of pity rather than the usual derision.

The fairy tale ride from then on to beating the best team in the world had brought us to Munich. But it was necessary to raise the game for one last time and achieve the glory that every Blue fan ever dreamt of. Surely this crop of Blues players, the likes of Drogba, Lampard, Terry, Cole and Cech, deserved it more than anyone else. The rope to reaching the Champions League via the Premier League places was no longer available (Reference: The Dark Knight Rises). The Blues had to achieve that through actually winning the Champions League.

The buildup to the day was as nervous as it was exciting. The Blues fans across online forums and social networks were on the edge with anticipation but also mindful of the bitter disappointment at this very stage four years ago. The Chelsea Shed podcast had a special 1.5 hours podcast for this occasion. I heard it on the day of the match and as it comprehensively covered various team and tactical options, it also captured the emotional significance of the moment. Each participant was then asked to nominate three songs that captured the feeling of the moment. One of the songs  “Break on through” by Doors that was suggested in the event this final went to penalties like the one four years ago, will continue to have special significance for me, given the result of the match.

The anticipation before the match was killing. I had my lucky Chelsea t-shirt on for the match and refused to accompany friends to a bar for watching the match. I was too nervous for that. So I ended up watching this match all alone at home. And watching at home meant having to bear with the frequent power cuts of the Gurgaon summer. Playing Bertrand and Kalou while keeping Torres on the bench were brave decisions by RDM but not ones that I was in favor of. I was just hoping that these decisions do not backfire. However, despite the constant siege of the Chelsea goal by the Bayern frontline, I was somehow optimistic that they’d not be able to breach the Chelsea defence.

But then, at 83 minutes, the unthinkable happened. Muller somehow got it past Cech and under the crossbar and suddenly the dream soured one more time. Just immediately afterwards, even before I could see the replay, Gurgaon was plunged in darkness and it seemed the weekend and beyond would be full of tears. But minutes later, there was a rare corner and a glimmer of hope for Chelsea. The perfect delivery from Mata was met by a fierce Drogba header that went past Neuer and I jumped and shrieked with joy!! That moment has been vividly etched into my memory and will stay on for years to come. The conviction rushed back that this was Chelsea’s night and Chelsea’s season!

Even during the extra time when Drogba’s foul on Ribery won Bayern a penalty, I was somehow certain that Robben would miss it. And Cech was able to pull off a save from a weak Robben shot! I was more and more convinced that this could end only in favour of the Blues. I hoped that Torres could play a part in getting the winner and avoid nervous moments in a penalty shootout. He did create at least one good opportunity but we were headed for penalties in the final.

Even when Mata missed, I was convinced that Cech would pull off at least one save, though that confidence was rattled somewhat when Neuer scored making it 3-1. But Lampard kept us in the game with a composed penalty and the moment arrived when Olic’s last kick for Bayern failed to end up in the net. Ashley Cole, one I don’t really trust with penalties, went up and put in a brilliant penalty tucked into the top corner and it was all equal. Until Bastian Schweinsteiger, stepped up and had his shot deflected onto the pole! And as Didier Drogba stepped up to win the Champions League for Chelsea with his final kick, it was the perfect climax for the season! His red card had necessitated Terry to step up in the final four years ago and the ghosts from Moscow were finally erased!  I was down on my knees for a minute with tears of joy and then the deluge of congratulatory phone calls poured in which were largely incoherent speaking as the emotion was overwhelming.

“Do remember the times we cried, break on through to the other side…” was indeed a fitting background score to the final. Now there need be no more sacking managers who fail at the European stage and finally everyone at Chelsea can concentrate on building a team for the future without worrying about immediate results in the coming season. For the moment though, Blue is the Colour! 🙂

Thou Shalt Not Pass

After having watched the game a second time (just to convince oneself of the reality of the fantastic achievement), the euphoria and emotional hangover from beating the “best team in the world” has somewhat subsided enough to string together a few words. That the feat was achieved in a season when the club seemed to have lost sight of the present as it tried to break away from the past in search for a wishful future is doubly satisfying. Battling back from two-goals and a Captain, Leader, Legend down against the divine Barcelona seems to have come straight out of a fantasy fiction plot where a limited army stretched for capability and resources successfully keeps out a marauding adversary through sheer courage, discipline and desire. A modern-day equivalent of epic legends.

But this was more than a regular Champions League semi-final, given the not-so-small matter of seeking retribution for the injustices from three years ago. It was in May 2009 that I had witnessed my first moment of real footballing passion when Chelsea went out to a cruel, late equalizer from Barcelona.  (Till that time, cricket still held the majority share of mind in terms of sporting enthusiasm for me,  but it had a rather weakened emotional connect after two seasons of IPL mockery, leaving an emotional vacuum for football to fill into.) I look back at that match as the defining moment when I truly committed my heart to the Blues from London.

Since then, King Carlo delivered the domestic double but the most elite European prize was still elusive. And every European campaign seemed to end with a red card to Didier Drogba. May be the club was very impatient with its managers and sought instant success. We bought the prodigious Fernando Torres and turned him into a “has-been”. Detractors labelled our team as mercenaries who were only motivated by money rather than footballing pride. (It’s quite intriguing how they fail to see that the Chelsea team has had a more constant core of key players including Terry, Drogba, Lampard, Cole and Cech than most other teams in England.)

Then came AVB, who tried to change the philosophy of the club but showed an utter failure to grasp the ground situation and the need to still continue to succeed as he went about the transition. For the fans, the season seemed to have gone way out of control and it seemed that damage limitation rather than any success would be the expectation from the interim coach Roberto di Matteo (RDM).

It was rather fortunate to have RDM, who intimately understands the club from his past association, at hand to salvage the situation. Overturning a two-goal deficit against Napoli was the first indication that the season is far from over. Goals from Terry, Drogba and Lampard showed how wrong the press were in writing off the Chelsea old-guard. And then the winner from Ivanovic following a delightful turn from Drogba threw the Stamford Bridge into ecstasy. Oh but how I digress from the current moment of joy!

Barcelona has been the toughest test so far for RDM as a Blues manager. Not one person from the press or from among the experts gave Chelsea a chance of passing this challenge. Most went to the extent of stating that Chelsea would be “torn apart” by Barcelona. In a week when Chelsea first faced Spurs in the FA Cup semi final and then Arsenal away between the two Barcelona games, there was every chance that Blues would be destroyed, physically and emotionally, at the end of it all. That is, if one were to objectively analyze the situation without paying heed to the reservoir of passion, desire and energy that such big games inspire.

The first game was Stamford Bridge was a crucial one and the entire team responded with exemplary discipline and belief. It was expected that Barcelona would have the lion’s share of possession and Chelsea’s game plan was always to respond to outstanding attacking with resolute defending with fast counter-attacking when the opportunity arose. Many refer to it as negative football and the “parking the bus” approach. But what good is an outstanding attacking prowess unless it succeeds against world class defending? And it was a mere matter of accepting the reality of one’s shortcomings and adapting to the situation rather than trying to beat Barcelona at their own game. And this ability to adapt is what is the hallmark of a great team for me. Sure, Chelsea had a few instances of good luck, especially when Alexis Sanchez chipped over Cech to hit the cross-bar and when Ashley Cole cleared off the line. But that luck is of a different nature than refereeing errors in your favour. Come to think of it, hitting the cross-bar is the same as missing the target. You don’t get half a goal for hitting the cross-bar! And Chelsea took the one good opportunity to hit on the counter. Lampard provided a sublime pass to Ramires who then sprinted off like his life depended on it and crossed it to Drogba and it was in the back of the net. Classic counter-attack just before half time; the best way to hurt the opponent and go one up on the scoreline as well as in the mental game. And then follow it up with another 45 min of pass-pass-pass-shoot-block. Parking the bus is as much an art (ask any bus-driver! :-P) as doing your little tiki-takas. Getting the 1-0 victory at home and preventing that away goal was pretty much mission accomplished from the first leg though the goal cushion was too slender to sit back on.

Camp Nou, a bigger stage and a bigger and more hostile audience. The mind games on whether or not Drogba will start were well-played by RDM. The opening was again along expected lines with Barcelona trying to find their rhythm and Chelsea thwarting the moves at the key moments. Losing Cahill to injury, letting a goal in, then losing John Terry to an absolutely unnecessary aggression off the ball and then letting in another goal from an error from Meireles, it seemed that things were coming apart for the Blues. But great players shine through moments of adversity. Super Frankie Lampard produced another sublime pass for Ramires, like in the first leg, but this time, Ramires went all alone with a delightful chip over Victor Valdes, that could be a contender for Chelsea’s goal of the season. Chelsea were back on front on aggregate (via away goals) and the belief had returned just before the half time break.

Barcelona got the dreaded penalty decision early in the second half when Drogba was a fraction late and Fabregas promptly went down. And Chelsea would have to score again if Messi converted from the spot. Utter heart-in-mouth stuff. And what great joy when the shot hit the cross-bar and rebounded beyond danger! Lady Luck and the footballing gods were clearly on the side of the Blues. There was a sixth sense whispering that we would not succumb on this night. Barcelona shall not pass again. More patient tiki-taka and defending excellence followed and the crowd was getting nervous. Barcelona simply had no answer to this sort of defending and their belief was ebbing. Till they were completely knocked out by Fernando Torres, their nemesis during his Atletico Madrid days, who ran from the half line and went past a diving Valdes to bury it into the unguarded net and get Chelsea the well-earned place in the finals of the Champions League. Torres hasn’t been in the best of form since donning the Chelsea blue and despite great effort has somehow missed the net too often. The miss from an open goal against Manchester United in the early part of the season comes to mind. That was a sucker punch to his confidence in his finishing abilities. Perhaps this goal in the most important match of the season so far would give him the confidence to resurrect himself. May be he will start repaying the faith and the 50 million that the club invested in getting him to London. Too early to call but this could be the defining moment of his Chelsea career.

Barcelona were like the dinosaur, immensely powerful and seemingly invincible, but unable to adapt to the situation. They went on doing more of the same that wasn’t working. Their brand of football is quite impressive to watch but their shortcomings are more visible than ever before. And unless they adapt themselves, they are bound to lose the dominant position they have commanded in Europe over the last few seasons.

For Chelsea, taking the old guard into confidence and going one game at a time, RDM has done much more than salvage the situation. The old and young seem to be jelling well together and there is a palpable desire and unity of purpose in the team. And more importantly, with some strokes of good fortune (which have been rather difficult to come by over the years),  we find ourselves in the finals of the FA Cup and the Champions League. There are still six more games to go before the end of the season and the injury list is lengthening. There is a chance that all the hard work might still come to nothing in terms of silverware at the end of the season. But the passion and resilience on display and the fact that we got our retribution by eliminating Barcelona will fill every blue heart with a sense of pride.

We have taught Manchester City how to beat Napoli, we have taught Manchester United how to beat Benfica and we have taught Arsenal and the rest of the world how to beat Barcelona!

Keep the Blue Flag flying High! Munchen, hier kommt die Blues!