Please learn from our mistakes

No-bullshit lessons in business and careers. One mail every day. 15k+ readers love it. Join in?

Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
2 Jun

“Jaa, dukaan pe baith!”

I was recently watching The BarberShop with Shantanu podcast with Pramath Raj Sinha (Educationalist and Founder — Ashoka University, ISB, Harappa Education, Vedica Scholars) and heard Pramath talk about quite an interesting factor in his childhood that shaped him to be what he is today.

(Emphasis on certain sentences and the stuff in brackets is added for saliency and clarity.)

“An interesting attribute of that time was that even though I was the late child, I was the only son, and had all the trappings of being spoilt, when I look back, my father, I think, either deliberately or inadvertently, really trained me up to be what I am today.

And what he used to do is give me lots of errands. He would make me do things.

So, train ka ticket, kabhi kabuki plane ka ticket, seeing off people, receiving people, any arrangements, sisters' marriages...

Shuru main toh I was chhota (a small kid), toh,

“Coordinate the cars or pickups.”

As I grew older,

“Sab kuch dekho: tent wala, khan, dinner, baaraat ka receive karna...”

you know... hospitality.

And then constantly ki “Bank jaao, deposit karo, cash le aao, draft banwaao, post office mein iska interest le aao, isko renew kar aao...”

We had a small printing press. Toh,

“Paper khareed ke laao, yeh galat paper lee aaye, jaao waapis jaao, bohot paise de aaye jaao waapis jaao renegotiate karo...”

I remember one time he was unhappy about something and I'd already worked very hard on fixing whatever the problem was, so I started crying.

“Kitna karu main, baccha hu!”

(“How much do I manage, I'm just a kid!”)

I must've been 12-13 years old when he said something about

“Usne diya nahi jo promise kiya that, tumne paise kyu de diye? Tumhe nahi dena chahiye tha.”

(“He didn't deliver what he had promised, why did you give him the money? You shouldn't have given him the money.”)

And I'd already gone and tried to negotiate as a kid who... this guy was... whatever it was... this guy was not willing to take a lower sum. So, I just gave him the money and came and he was like

“You should have negotiated.”

So, anyway.
When I look back on all this, I think he taught me a great deal about getting stuff done. And the more I think about my life, it has been very much about:

I love getting stuff done. I love doing things.

In fact, one of the reasons why I left McKinsey was that I was there for other reasons which I'll come back to, but it was when I went from McKinsey to ISB, that I realized that I was actually good at getting stuff done. I was not just a consultant or advisor. And in fact, then I started hating advising.

In fact, now also when people ask me for advice and they say,

“I'll pay you, become a consultant and I'll give you equity,”

I say,

“Nahi boss, advice free. Yeh advice ke liye paise nahi chahiye. Aur mujhe really engage karna hai toh mujhe kuch karne ko do. Advice de ke mujhe kuch mazaa nahi aata hai, I'm happy to give you advice. It's easy to give advice.”

So anyway, going back that was one defining part of (my childhood).”

There's something really interesting about shop owner families in India.

I have usually seen it within Gujarati and Marwari cultures, but I'm not sure if it is limited to just these communities. Probably not. And that is:

If the father runs a shop, the children, right from a really young age, will be asked to man the shop after school. In many families, children are taken out of formal schooling at a really young age and asked to oversee the operations of their father's business.

A father commanding his kids like, “Ghar pe kya kar raha hai, dukaan pe koi nahi hai. Jaa dukaan pe baith” is almost a meme and has been used as material in many standup comedy routines.

(For those who aren't well-versed in Hindi, this translates to:“What are you doing at home? There's no one at the shop. Go man the shop!”)

And I personally think there's a lot of wisdom embedded in giving people stuff to do and instructing them in the process of them going about running these errands.

First of all, what does sitting at the shop do?

Manning a shop, or playing second fiddle at one, is mostly a mundane experience. Every once in a while, a customer comes by asking for what is usually a low ticket-size purchase.

But what makes the activity so educational for the kids is that over a long period of time, they get to learn a lot of stuff about how the world works, how business relationships work, what people's incentives are, how to negotiate with vendors and customers, and what drives business in the world — just by observing their fathers going about it in certain situations, as and when these situations come up.

They learn via — what founders today call — Osmosis.

This, in other words, is also what people achieve to do when they talk about apprenticeships and the apprenticeship model of instruction.

What's good about working as an apprentice is,

  • You learn principles and rules of thumb around how the world operates within the context of an activity
  • You absorb a lot of tacit knowledge that is never explicitly articulated in words or documented in textbooks

In short, you learn

  • What good work looks and feels like
  • The process of getting to a good outcome

And obviously, you learn how to get stuff done.

Not only is this a good learning model, it is also a good management model.

The venerable Andrew Grove in his seminal book High Output Management talks about the importance of what he calls “know-how managers” in transmitting tacit know-how around systems and processes to their subordinates.

“Another group should also be included among middle managers—people who may not supervise anyone directly but who even without strict organizational authority affect and influence the work of others. These know-how managers are sources of knowledge, skills, and understanding to people around them in an organization. They are specialists and experts of some sort who act as consultants to other members of the organization; they are, in effect, nodes in a loosely defined network of information. Teachers, market researchers, computer mavens, and traffic engineers shape the work of others through their know-how just as much as or more than the traditional manager using supervisory authority. Thus a know-how manager can legitimately be called a middle manager. In fact, as our world becomes ever more information- and service-oriented, know-how managers will acquire greater importance as members of middle management.”

Further on in the book, he writes about the importance of one-on-ones:

“One of the fundamental tenets of Intel’s managerial philosophy is the one-on-one meeting between a supervisor and a subordinate. Its main purposes are mutual education and the exchange of information. By talking about specific problems and situations, the supervisor teaches the subordinate his skills and know-how, and suggests ways to approach things. At the same time, the subordinate provides the supervisor with detailed information about what he is doing and what he is concerned about. Obviously, one-on-ones take time, both in preparing for them and in actually holding them—time that today’s busier manager may not have.”

The message here is loud and clear:

Context is King. And learning happens best within context.

You might have read a tonne of books, newsletters, essays, and watched hundreds of YouTube videos on the thing, but unless you do the thing, you will not encounter those tiny details and parts of the work where you get stuck: parts, no one mentioned or told you that you will face and will not know how to get out of.

So, if you wish to really coach someone (I'm talking to you, dear managers), you need to instruct them within the context of the work. Because that's when principles and heuristics actually get internalized and registered in long term behavioural memory.

Because you aren't trying to nurture tape-recorders for teammates — who simply keep repeating platitudes and catchphrases without really employing them in their processes; you're trying to nurture people who actually embody and imbibe the principles on a behavioural level.

Let people take ownership of small tasks initially. Oversee them and instruct them on the right way to do things in the context of the task, whenever good opportunities for instruction present themselves. Then gradually, increase the responsibilities they can take, as they grow to imbibe more and more of the core values and principles you espouse.

Who taught simple errands could be the best ground for learning? For a long time, I didn't. But the more I observe people learning (and not learning, despite the best instruction and content) the more I realize that learning happens best within context.

Jaa, dukaan pe baith!




If you enjoyed reading this essay, you will also enjoy:

Teaching: Soulcraft or Salescraft?

The BarberShop with Shantanu episode with Pramath Raj Sinha

Feeling Lucky?
Subscribe to get new posts emailed to you, daily. No spam.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
15k+ business professionals act on our advice every day. You should too.
Subscribe to get new posts emailed to you, daily. No spam.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
15k+ business professionals act on our advice every day. You should too.