Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Lifelong learning is no longer optional, it's necessary: Ronnie Screwvala

The serial entrepreneur talks about his second book, being a student for life, procrastination, and how he upskills to take on new challenges

Published: Jul 5, 2021 05:06:12 PM IST
Updated: Jul 7, 2021 01:21:25 PM IST

Lifelong learning is no longer optional, it's necessary: Ronnie ScrewvalaImage: Mexy Xavier

Forbes India recently caught up with serial entrepreneur Ronnie Screwvala to talk about his latest book ‘Skill it, Kill it’, and how he keeps himself upskilled, why your habits should also change with the times, and what he’d tell his younger self. Edited excerpts    

Q. What inspired you to write the book? And what is the one thing you want readers to take away from the book?
In the last five years since we’ve founded upGrad, millions of students have applied to us. I saw a serious gap when it comes to their soft skills. Now ‘skill’ means lots of things to a lot of people, but if you don’t practice it and make a real change, you’ll always be a five on ten which is neither here or there. For me, I’d rather be a two on ten or an eight on ten, because at least with a two on ten, you know that you have to change, and with an eight on ten, you know that you’ve got somewhere.  

In my first book, ‘Dream with Your Eyes Open: An Entrepreneurial Journey,’ I aimed to talk about failures for entrepreneurs. I failed my BCom [bachelors of commerce], and then decided to be an entrepreneur. Back then, I felt no one was talking about failures as much as they needed to.

The one thing I hope people take away is that learning never stops. In today’s day and age people are very competitive, so it’s going to be important to realise that soft skills are as important, if not more, as hard skills. I see myself as a product of soft skills. Almost every chapter of the book is about something that helped me through life, like gain more confidence and focus, which helped get better outputs.

Q. Did you learn anything in the process of writing this book?

I learned a lot when we did a focus group with about a thousand working people across the world for this book. I learnt that what people think and what their biggest concerns are today versus what I heard five years or ten years ago, are very different. And the best way to learn is by asking questions. It’s never really about a mentor giving you advice—that’s good learning but not great learning. Really good learning is when somebody asks you a question which makes you go, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’

Q. In your life, do you actively seek change or for things that push you out of your comfort zone?
Yes. I put myself in situations where I'm slightly on my toes. Everyone thinks that you need to be hyper to be in a frame of ‘looking forward,’ but ‘looking forward’ is a discipline. It doesn’t have to be done when you’re in the middle of your career. It actually has to be done at the start. It is a necessary trait for people. If you don’t do that, you’re going to get stuck, and you will think the opportunity is failing you, when it’s actually you failing the opportunity.  

Q. What are your views regarding people who have a problem with ‘starting’ and what do you think are the hindrances to that?

I’ve been there, so I can say that it’s not an easy obstacle to overcome. Procrastination is a very comfortable zone. The visual of sitting on a fence with your legs dangling is a very powerful, comforting thought. It’s like you don’t want to go one way, but you don't want to go the other way either. Getting out of the comfort zone is the biggest crossroad that people face.

If you’re planning to hop off the fence to dip your feet in the water, don’t do it. When you are ready to cross over, ready to leave things behind, running back is no longer an option. Most people tip-toe forward, which is worse than fence-sitting.

Q. Are habits set in stone or do we have to change them with the times?
The one good thing about habits is that they have been challenged during the pandemic for everyone. A habit should always be questioned, because there’s a sense of comfort with routine, and it doesn’t challenge you.

Standing still is actually taking five steps backwards. You’re fooling yourself if you think that you will remain happy with your status quo. Habit is equal to status quo. You’re assuming that you are deciding your status quo but the status quo is always changing around you. When you’re not clear on what you do, take some time off. Take a disproportionate amount of time getting inspired, meeting strangers and reading books.

Q. How important do you think the people around you are in affecting you? If you have negative people around you, how do you deal with them?
It’s very important. First, of course, is your family, the closest circle around you. It can make or break you in many ways. It gives you a certain sense of comfort and a strong foundation. For everyone else, it’s all about energy. You should be surrounded by people with a positive energy. You may have a great friend, for example, but if he’s constantly running you down or trying to egg you, then you’ll become that person. So I would say, sometimes it’s fine if you have a connection with a negative person. But at the end of the day, you are who you are based on your energy and that energy needs to be positive. 

Q. Why is it important for you to keep learning throughout your life?

I think it’s important for everybody. Do you truly believe you have a reservoir of knowledge that is fool-proof three or four years down the line? Earlier, most people were assigned to a factory where they worked throughout. Today, consumers are changing, the approach to marketing is changing, and technology is changing. There is nothing that you can learn at 18 that will be relevant at 28. You’ll need to upgrade and learn on a continuous basis. And not just on-the-job training, you need to specialise more too.  

Q. How do you maintain life-long learning?
I do new things, I constantly interact with new people, and I push the envelope. The first ten years you’re kicked around and the next ten you have failures, and it lets you hone in on what you want to do in life, no matter the industry.

It’s not like I was an education expert when I started upGrad. Five years after doing so, I was open-minded about everything. The year before I decided I wanted to start upGrad, I met with hundreds of people on an ongoing basis. Some twice, some thrice. I read a few industry reports, but they didn’t motivate me at all. Consultant reports tell you the past but nobody tells you about the future. So for me, it’s exactly this that keeps me going—I'm able to use the skills I've honed in the past, especially my learnings and failures, and adapt them to what I want to do.

Q. What are the most important skills you’ve learnt in your life?

Communication is very underrated. Especially in a digital era, we need to over communicate, not under communicate. Most people think that communication is oratory skills or command of the language, whereas communication is actually so many things, including listening and absorbing. Coming from a lower middle-class family and being an entrepreneur along with that, neither confidence nor communication came naturally for me. I wasn’t born with it, and I didn’t learn it in college. I had to fight for it. I think resilience and the ability to deal with setbacks are also very important. I don’t think we move on very easily, which I, however, pride myself on doing quite well.

Q. If you could tell your younger self anything, what would it be?
I would tell my younger self to get a lot more focused on what I wanted to do; I was very opportunistic and excited, and wanted to do a lot at the time. If I was more focused, I would have walked a few more miles. And I would tell myself to stick it out. Because if there’s anything I can say for myself, it’s that through most of the thick and thin, I stuck it out. I think that most people call it a day very early in their lives when they face setbacks.