Inside Chanakya’s Mind: Aanvikshiki and the Art of Thinking - Review

Inside Chanakya’s Mind: Aanvikshiki and the Art of Thinking, by Radhakrishnan Pillai

he relevance of Chanakya to today's world has only recently received the kind of attention it deserves. The author's 2014 book, "Chanakya's 7 Secrets of Leadership", co-authored with D Sivanandhan, was perhaps the first mainstream bestseller in this genre. The author's latest book in the series, "Inside Chanakya's Mind", provides many more insights into the mind and thinking of the greatest strategist in the last two thousand years and more.

First off, let's get the meaning of this word - Aanvikshiki - out of the way. I say "out of the way" because beyond the word is the book itself. It is therefore important to understand what it means. This will allow the reader to understand the book better.

Aanvikshiki is the combination of two words - "anu" and "ikshiki". "Anu" means atom, while "ikshiki" means "a person who wants to know."

The author calls it "the science of thinking" and the book is centered on exactly that - the science of thinking. It is, however, not a dry philosophical or scientific text. It is a management book. It is also a psychology book. It is, as the sub-title of the book itself says, about the Art of Thinking.

Interestingly enough, the author also tells us that Aanvikshiki was one of the names of Droupadi.

The very first chapter of Kautilya's Arthashastra is called "Aanvikshiki Sthapana". This should give you an idea of the importance Chanakya placed on Aanvikshiki. Chanakya (or Kautilya), was a "master of many sciences, and the master of many kings." If the wisest and shrewdest-ever practitioner of statecraft since Krishna thought it fit to place so much emphasis on Aanvikshiki, it stands to reason what he had to say on the topic should be of immense interest and relevance even today. It is around this concept and Chanakya's writings that the author, Radhakrishnan Pillai, has built the book.

Per the author, practicing Aanvikshiki requires one to consider three things:
  1. Good and evil (according to Vedic tradition - trai)
  1. Material gain or loss (according to economics - vaarta)
  1. Good policy and bad policy (according to the science of politics - dandaniti)
Dr Pillai then gets the reader started on the path of building these thinking skills, each chapter focusing on a different aspect of thinking - "Types of Thinking," "The Different Models of Thinking," "The Seven Dimensions of Thinking," "The Eighth Dimension of Thinking," and so on.

Let's take an example. In the chapter, "Types of Thinking", Dr Pillai starts off with one type -  "Both-side Thinking". This may be obvious enough to most, but Chanakya sought to deliver this insight through the opening prayer of the Arthashastra itself:
"Om Namah Shukra Brihaspati Abhyam"
(Salutations to Shukra and Brihaspati)
Why is this insightful? If you know your Hindu texts, then you would know that Shukra was the guru of the Asuras, while Brihaspati the preceptor of the devas. So not only did Chanakya exhort readers to look at both sides of an issue, he also went ahead and named Shukra first - a call to first examine the "counter view first and then the good side." This was the sage, practical, timeless advice from a master two-and-a-half thousand years ago! Take an example. If you, as the CEO, are contemplating a merger, think of how the target company would look at the acquisition. Consider how your biggest competitor would view this acquisition. Would they tacitly encourage it - a bad sign. Would they go after the target company themselves? What are the arguments against the acquisition? Only then consider the reasons in favor of the acquisition.

Similarly, there can be more than one solution to a problem. Of course! you may think. Even here, what was Chanakya's advice? "Sama, Dana, Bheda, Danda" (साम, दान, दंड, भेद ), sometimes also referred to as "Sama, Daama, Danda, Bheda". Basically, Chanakya writes in 11.1.3:
"He should win over those pf them who are friendly with conciliation (sama) and gifts (dana), those hostile through dissension (bheda) and force (danda)."
In the same vein, how do you ascertain the integrity of your trusted employees? Chanakya prescribed four tests - the test of loyalty, the test of lust, the test of fear, and the test of material gain. Yes, loyalty is indeed an important facet of business strategy. For some leaders, loyalty is sometimes the overriding and only aspect that matters. That is possibly a mistake. The four tests however would be relevant to almost any modern-day organization.

If you are talking of strategy and Chanakya, then talk of chess cannot be far behind. Sure enough, Chanakya, in book ten of the Arthashastra, talks of chess in the context of war. Business is war by another name, and while war in ancient times had chariots, horses, elephants, and soldiers, if you consider these as metaphors for resources in today's world, then business strategy is all about the optimal utilization of these resources. I felt this section was worthy of a lengthier exposition. In fact, there is a whole book lurking in this metaphor. For instance, what do you take elephants to represent - your cash reserves, your most profitable business unit, your patents, or something else? How do you position these "elephants" against an adversary? How did a Microsoft position its elephants against a Google? How did Maruti position its resources when faced with a resurgent Hyundai a decade ago? Perhaps this is an idea for a future book that Dr. Pillai may write!

In closing, I liked the book, and I will recommend it. I want this book to become a success, to be read by as many people as possible. It is an important book, on an important topic, and with a very Indian context. All these should make it an automatic selection for almost every manager. But, I will also say that I felt the book missed at least two ingredients required for making the book successful and "sticky". Sticky - as in making the book "understandable, memorable, and effective in changing thought or behavior." The Heath brothers outlined the formula for stickiness as one that followed SUCCESs in their blockbuster bestseller, 'Made to Stick' - Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Unexpected, and Stories.  Most of all, the "Stories" part was missing. Anecdotes, concrete examples would have elevated this book from the good to great. On the other hand, the book allowed me to view Chanakya from a different perspective. It provided insights that I, or almost any other lay reader, may not have had without reading the complete Arthashastra. Even with a reading of the Arthashastra, I would probably have been unable to extract the same insights as the author did without having to spend considerable time reflecting on the text. The author, Radhakrishnan Pillai, has done all that for us.

Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Penguin Random House India (17 February 2017)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0143427539
ISBN-13: 978-0143427537

Flipkart, Amazon IN, Amazon, Kindle, Kindle IN

Note: this review is based on a review copy I received, courtesy Creative India. This review was first published in Creative India on Aug 6th, 2017.

© 2017, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

The Jobs Trilogy - 1 - How to Add Skills to your LinkedIn Resume

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash
Seeing the gay abandon and effortless ease with which people in today's hyper-connected world seem to acquire skills, I was impressed.
Impressed that skills that should take years to acquire and hone were now within the easy grasp of so many, and apparently with so little effort. Perhaps technology had indeed been the manna that technologists had long claimed and always known to be.

I started thinking just what exactly prompts so many people to add new skills to their resume on LinkedIn. After all, it had to be a process more deliberate than random. What if the ingredients in this heady concoction were exaggeration, hope, aspiration, bravado, and plain envy?

In the end, I decided that these rules-of-thumb, that I list below, were likely the best explanation...

How to add skills on your resume:
  1. Put "Cloud Computing" on your resume if you know how to use Gmail.
  2. Put "SaaS" on your resume if you have heard of "" or "AWS".
  3. Put "Mobile" on your resume if you own a smartphone, any smartphone.
  4. Put "mobile visionary" on your resume if you ever owned a smartphone that ran Android Froyo.
  5. Put "Social" on your resume if you know how to login to Facebook. No, Orkut doesn't count.
  6. Put "Big Data" on your resume if you own a hard drive one Terabyte or larger.
  7. Put "data scientist" on your resume if you can add two numbers using a calculator.
  8. Put "unstructured data" on your resume if you can use Twitter.
  9. Put "NoSQL" on your resume if you have never written a SQL statement in your life (inspired from this cartoon)
  10. Put "local" on your resume if you graduated from a school in the town you live in.
  11. Put "Data Visualizations" on your resume if you have heard of Edward Tufte. Add "Expert" if you have heard of Stephen Few.
  12. Put "spatial" on your resume if you have ever used directions in Google Maps.
  13. Put "product management" on your resume if you have ever sent an email to anyone with the title "product manager".
  14. Put "product evangelist" on your resume if you have hired a product manager.
  15. Put "strategy" on your resume if you've heard of Michael Porter.
  16. Put "disruptive innovator" in your resume if you have heard of Clayton Christensen.
  17. Put "strategic innovation" on your resume if you have heard of David Teece.
  18. Put "leadership" on your resume if you were ever within one mile of any business school.
  19. Add "cutting edge" to "leadership" if you have looked up Stanford University on Google Maps.
  20. Put "executive leadership" if you have sat for any class in any business school.
  21. Add "global distributed management" on your resume if you've attended a conference call where the attendees were from more than two countries.
  22. Put "vision and strategy" on your resume if you have ever attended any 'off-site'.
  23. Put "visionary" on your resume if you have ever installed or used a beta product.
    And lastly....
  24. Put "bibliophile" on your resume if you have written at least one book review on Amazon.
Some Dilbert cartoons on the topic.

The second post in this trilogy is available here - The Six Plus One Types of Interviewers.

(this is a lightly-edited version of a post I wrote in 2013. This also appeared in LinkedIn in Aug, 215)
© 2017, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

The Jobs Trilogy - 2 - Six and One Types of Interviewers

emember Chuck Noland? The character in the movie Castaway, who has to use the blade of an ice-skate to extract his abscessed tooth, without anesthesia? The scene is painful to watch, yet you can't look away.

Interviews have this habit of turning up a Chuck Noland - in the interviewee or the interviewer. You willingly agree to subject yourself to the wanton abuse by random strangers who you may have to end up working for or with. Apart from the talented few whom companies are more eager to hire than they are to get hired, most are in less enviable positions.

What about interviewers? Not all are cut from the same cloth. But there are at least six types that I think we have all met in our lives, and a seventh one.

1. The Interview As an End In Itself - Hyper-excited newbie

You know this guy. You have been this person, most likely. You have a team now. You expect your team to grow. You have to build a team. You believe that you, and you alone, know what it takes to hire the absolutely best person for the opening you have. You sit down and explain to the harried hiring HR person what the role is, what qualifications you are looking for, why the job is special, why just ordinary programming skills in ordinary programming languages will simply not cut it, why you as the hiring manager are special, and how you will, with the new hire, change the product, the company, and eventually the whole wide world. The HR executive therefore needs to spend every waking minute of her time in the pursuance of this nobler than noble objective. You badger your hiring rep incessantly, by phone, by IM, by email, in person, several times a day, asking for better resumes if you are getting many, and more if you aren't getting enough. You read every single resume you get, several times over. You redline the points you don't like. You redline the points you like. You make notes on the resumes. You still talk to every single candidate. You continue interviewing, never selecting, till the economic climate changes and the vacancy is no longer available. Yes, we all know this person.

2. Knows what he is looking for and knows when he finds it

This person is a somewhat rare commodity. This person does not suffer from buyer's remorse, knows that there is no such thing as a perfect candidate, and that the best he can hope to get is a person who comes off as reasonably intelligent, hard-working, ethical, and is going to be a team player.

This person will however also suffer from blind spots. Specifically, two kinds of blindspots. The first is that he will look for and evaluate a person only on those criteria that he can assess best. The second is that he is more likely to hire candidates that are similar to other successful employees in his team, and will probably become less likely to take chances on a different type of a candidate. On the other hand, this manager also knows that conceptual skills are more important to test than specific knowledge of some arcane syntax in a geeky programming language - if you are talking of the world of software for instance. This person is a rare commodity.

3. Hire for Empire

Like our previous type of hiring manager, this hiring manager is also very clear-headed.  But, here the interviewer is hiring to add headcount to his team. Grow the empire. More people equates to more perceived power. This person understands three things, and understands them perfectly.
First, that if he is slow in hiring, then a hiring freeze may come in, and the headcount may no longer stay open.
Second, he (or she) is also unable and equally unwilling to evaluate a candidate, so just about anyone will do.
Third, and most importantly, this manager knows that every additional person reporting to him on the organization chart elevates him in importance vis-a-vis his peers, and therefore hiring is a goal noble enough to be pursued in its own right.
It's a win-win situation for everyone - except the customers, the company, and the team.

4. I have other work to do. What am I doing here? What is he doing here?

This person has little skin in the game. He has no dog in the fight. Pick your metaphor. He is there to take the interview because of someone's absence, or because in the charade of the interview "process" that exists at many companies, there exists a need to do this interview. The interviewer agrees because it is a tax that needs to be paid. You don't want to be labeled a non-team-player. Who knows when this Scarlet Letter may come to haunt you. So our interviewer sets aside half an hour or more, preferably less, of his time, and comes back wondering where thirty minutes of his life just went. That question remains unanswered.

5. Know-it-all and desperate to show it

This person perceived himself as an overachiever. This is the sort of person who will tell you with casual nonchalance that he had predicted the rise of Google in 1999  - just so you can get to know that he had heard of Google in 1999. This person knows he knows everything that there is to know, that it is his beholden duty to make you know it too, and it is your beholden duty to acknowledge this crushing sacerdotal burden he carries. This is the person who will begin the interview with a smirk, sustain a a wry smile, transform into a frown, and end with an exaggerated sense of self-importance.
Do not get fooled.
This person is as desperate, if not more, to interview you as you are to do well on the interview. He will in all likelihood end up talking more than the interviewee.
In every group in every department of every company there exists at least one such person. The successful companies have no more than one.

6. The rubber-stamp

The boss has decided the person who needs to be hired. The charade needs to be completed. The requisite number of people have to interview the candidate so that HR can dot the "I"s and cross the "T"s. Our interviewer here has to speak with this person. With an air of deference. He will ask all the right questions, but the answers do not matter. You sign off with a heartfelt, "Great talking to you. Thanks a ton for your time. Take care, and we really look forward to working with/for you." No, don't belittle this rubber-stamp. He could be you.

These are not mutually exclusive sets. There are overlaps that exist, sometimes in combinations that would warm Stephen King's heart.

Oh, what about the seventh type of interviewer? He is the Interviewer as Saboteur.  I will talk about him in a separate post.

This post appeared on LinkedIn on July 31st, 2017.
This is an edited version of a post I wrote on April 23rd, 2013.

© 2017, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.