Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Life (Lessons from the Choluteca Bridge; Success strategy I wish I could give my younger self), Business (Scary long pause plaguing live events; Return of the rumble in the VC jungle), Leadership (Building resilience in team) and Coronavirus (Bill Gates on Covid; Covid-19 pandemic is forcing a rethink in macroeconomics)

Published: Aug 15, 2020 08:38:39 AM IST
Updated: Aug 14, 2020 06:46:54 PM IST

reading_14th august_bgImage: Shutterstock

At Ambit, we spend a lot of time reading articles that cover a wide gamut of topics, ranging from zeitgeist to futuristic, and encapsulate them in our weekly ‘Ten Interesting Things’ product. Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Life (Lessons from the Choluteca Bridge; Success strategy I wish I could give my younger self), Business (Scary long pause plaguing live events; Return of the rumble in the VC jungle), Leadership (Building resilience in team) and Coronavirus (Bill Gates on Covid; Covid-19 pandemic is forcing a rethink in macroeconomics).

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended August 14, 2020-

1) Life lessons from the Choluteca Bridge [Source: Medium]
Have you ever imagined that a river would change its direction after they built a bridge on it? In Honduras, Central America, the government built a new bridge over the river Choluteca to connect it to a new bypass road. For a country known for its fiery hurricanes, they should build a bridge in such a way that it should withstand Nature’s fury. A Japanese firm built the bridge with the latest technology available. The construction began in 1996 and ended in 1998. After a few months, Hurricane Mitch hit Honduras and deposited 75 inches of rain in four days, equivalent to what they received in six months. The hurricane damaged or destroyed most of the bridges except one. The new Choluteca bridge remained unaffected.

But there was a ‘small’ problem. The river changed course. It formed a new channel. It no longer flowed beneath the bridge. The river flowed beside the bridge. The Choluteca Bridge became a bridge to nowhere. The Choluteca Bridge has become a metaphor for many lessons spanning our personal, business, and technological lives. 1) Nature functions by its own rules and self-organizing principles, some of which remain unknown to us. We think we can tame Nature, but its unpredictability and ‘unknown unknowns’ spring nasty surprises when we least expect them, like a river changing its course.

2) The Choluteca River caused a massive disruption by changing its course. A bridge built at an enormous cost became a worthless white elephant. In the business world, such disruptions destabilize existing players who remained complacent about their future. 3) Even the best product may end up without a market. 4) The sudden alteration in the river’s course reinforced the chronic uncertainty of life. Change is the only constant in life. Like the river, we may have to change course in our lives. Adaptability is the key to survival and resilience. In 2003, they reconnected the bridge to the highway. The Choluteca Bridge is a metaphor for change in the face of unpredictable occurrences. The hurricane was the disrupter. The river that carved an alternative route for itself represented the norms of the alternative world. And the bridge standing for the society had to adapt to the new order.

2) Bill Gates on Covid: Most US Tests Are ‘Completely Garbage’ [Source: Wired]
In this interview, Bill Gates talks about vaccines, Trump, and why social media is “a poisoned chalice.” Mr. Gates says that he is disappointed with the way US handled this pandemic. “I’m surprised at the US situation because the smartest people on epidemiology in the world, by a lot, are at the CDC. I would have expected them to do better. You would expect the CDC to be the most visible, not the White House or even Anthony Fauci”, he said. He also believes that the White House didn’t allow the CDC to do its job after March. There was a window where they were engaged, but then the White House didn’t let them do that.

He also says that he is optimistic at this point in time. “You have to admit there’s been trillions of dollars of economic damage done and a lot of debts, but the innovation pipeline on scaling up diagnostics, on new therapeutics, on vaccines is actually quite impressive. And that makes me feel like, for the rich world, we should largely be able to end this thing by the end of 2021, and for the world at large by the end of 2022.” He also talks about vaccines which his foundation is working on, and also the role that social media plays in spreading rumors.

Talking about how the pandemic has changed his life, Mr. Gates says, “I used to travel a lot. If I wanted to see President Macron and say, “Hey, give money for the coronavirus vaccine,” to really show I’m serious I’d go there. Now, we had a GAVI replenishment summit where I just sat at home and got up a little early. I am able to get a lot done. My kids are home more than I thought they would be, which at least for me is a nice thing. I’m microwaving more food. I’m getting fairly good at it. The pandemic sadly is less painful for those who were better off before the pandemic.”

3) The Success Strategy I Wish I Could Give My Younger Self [Source: forge.medium.com]
In this article, Ryan Holiday, the author of ‘Conspiracy’, ‘Ego is the Enemy’ and ‘The Obstacle is the Way’, talks about how just doing your work and not thinking about credit can do wonders. He starts with an example of Bill Belichick — the now six-time Super Bowl-winning head coach of the New England Patriots. Belichick took a low position and worked hard. His insights gave coaches things they could give their players. It gave them an edge they would take credit for. The author feels that this is a strategy all of us ought to follow, whatever stage of our careers we happen to be in: Forget credit. Do the work.

The lesson the author would give a younger version of himself is this: Find canvases for other people to paint on. That could mean coming up with great ideas to hand over to your boss. It could mean finding tasks nobody else wants to do, and doing them. It could mean identifying leaks and patches to free up resources for new areas. It could mean finding like-minded thinkers and introducing them to each other, crossing wires to create new sparks. With the canvas strategy, as the author calls it, you’re helping yourself by helping others, making a concerted effort to trade your short-term gratification for a longer-term payoff.

One of the key to success is by attaching yourself to people in organizations who are already successful, then move forward with them simultaneously. That’s the canvas strategy. It takes humility, but it also pays great dividends. Imagine if, for every person you met, you thought of some way to help them, something you could do for them, something that entirely benefitted them and not you. The cumulative effects of this approach over time would be profound. You would learn a great deal by solving diverse problems. You’d develop a reputation for being indispensable. You’d have countless new relationships. You’d have an enormous bank of favors to call upon down the road. Each time you use this strategy, consider it an investment in relationships and in your own development.

4) The scary long pause plaguing live events [Source: Livemint]
Live events industry has come to a standstill with the spread of Covid-19. With increasing lockdowns, artists are finding it difficult to make money. And it’s not only them. The live events industry is estimated to employ about 10 million people (40% of the workforce is women). While all manner of daily tasks have moved online, from work meetings to yoga classes, realisation has quickly dawned on the fact that the webinar and weekend entertainment are not the same. And simply streaming an event does not automatically create engagement.

A narrow sliver of the events industry, which had broadly shied away from digitisation so far, has quickly moved online—with companies such as BookMyShow and Paytm Insider hosting virtual live events and workshops with prices starting at ₹200. The organised events and activations industry is a ₹10,000 crore industry, according to an EY-EEMA (Event and Entertainment Management Association) report. But as per EEMA’s informal estimates, if the unorganised segment is included, the industry size could be as big as ₹5 trillion. The pandemic is expected to leave behind a hit of at least 70% on annual revenues.

“If the business is not going to happen for nine months this year, the situation will be even more grim. We are pinning our hopes on the third and fourth festive-heavy quarter," said Roshan Abbas, president-elect, EEMA. Ultimately, the sudden, forced digital transition has made many event firms quickly realise the potential value in capturing granular engagement metrics. How many people minimised a livestream window out of sheer boredom; how many clicked on a brand link; how many participated in a quiz—all those things can be minutely tracked online. The new buzzword is ‘hybrid events’.

5) Covid-19 will be painful for universities, but also bring change [Source: The Economist]
The current pandemic has been tough for everyone, especially students. Many must choose between inconveniently timed seminars streamed into their parents’ living rooms and inconveniently deferring their studies until life is more normal. For universities, it is disastrous. They will not only lose huge chunks of revenue from foreign students but, because campus life spreads infection, they will have to transform the way they operate. The number of young people enrolling in higher education rose from 16% of the relevant age group to 38%.

The troubles appear to be souring. China has been a source of high-paying foreign students for Western universities, but relations between the West and China are souring. Students with ties to the army are to be banned from America. Governments have been turning against universities, too. In an age when politics divides along educational lines, universities struggle to persuade some politicians of their merit. President Donald Trump attacks them for “Radical Left Indoctrination, not Education”. Some 59% of Republican voters have a negative view of colleges; just 18% of Democrats do.

Although recessions tend to boost demand for higher education, as poor job prospects spur people to seek qualifications, revenues may nevertheless fall. Government rules will combine with student nerves to keep numbers down. The damage from covid-19 means that, in the short term at least, universities will be more dependent on governments than ever. Covid-19 is catalysing innovation, too. The Big Ten Academic Alliance, a group of midwestern universities, is offering many of its 600,000 students the opportunity to take online courses at other universities in the group. There is huge scope for using digital technology to improve education. Poor in-person lectures could be replaced by online ones from the best in the world, freeing up time for the small-group teaching which students value most.

6) Donald Trump’s linguistic quirks reveal the salesmanship that has made his career [Source: The Economist]    
Underpinning Mr. Trump’s distinctive language is an extreme confidence in his own knowledge. Like Steve Jobs—who inspired his colleagues at Apple by making the impossible seem possible—Mr. Trump creates his own “reality distortion field”. One of his signature tropes is “not a lot of people know…” He has introduced the complicated nature of health care, or the fact that Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican president, as truths that are familiar only to a few. A related sound-bite is “nobody knows more about...than I do”. The fields of expertise Mr. Trump has touted this way include campaign finance, technology, politicians, taxes, debt, infrastructure, the environment and the economy.

His critics have often attributed this to narcissism, but a complementary explanation is that it is also one of his strengths—salesmanship. In Mr. Trump’s framing, he is in possession of rare information. He is therefore able to cut a customer a special deal “not a lot of people know” about. Should you be tempted to take your business to a competitor, he will remind you that “nobody knows more about” what is on offer than he does. Perhaps the most striking element of Mr Trump’s uncompromising belief in his sales technique can be glimpsed in an unusual place: his mistakes. Mr Trump is often presented as a linguistic klutz, saying things that make so little sense that his detractors present them as proof of major cognitive decline.

Also, it is Mr. Trump’s assertive persona that convinces more than his words. In a recent survey conducted by Pew, Americans were asked to rank Mr. Trump and Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, on a number of characteristics. The trait for which Americans give Mr. Trump the highest mark is telling. Despite a notably light schedule and a stated disdain for exercise, the president’s incessant speaking style is almost certainly the reason he received a good score on one quality in particular: 56% of voters, and 93% of his supporters, describe him as “energetic”.

7) The covid-19 pandemic is forcing a rethink in macroeconomics [Source: The Economist]
Macroeconomics began in 1936 with the publication of John Maynard Keynes’s “The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money”. Its subsequent history can be divided into three eras. The era of policy which was guided by Keynes’s ideas, began in the 1940s. By the 1970s, it had encountered problems that it could not solve and so, in the 1980s, the monetarist era, most commonly associated with the work of Milton Friedman, began. In the 1990s and 2000s economists combined insights from both approaches. But now, in the wreckage left behind by the coronavirus pandemic, a new era is beginning. What does it hold?

The Keynesian paradigm collapsed in the 1970s. The persistently high inflation and high unemployment of that decade (“stagflation”) baffled mainstream economists, who thought that the two variables almost always moved in opposite directions. This in turn convinced policymakers that it was no longer possible to “spend your way out of a recession”, as James Callaghan, then Britain’s prime minister, conceded in 1976. Policymakers looked for something new. The monetarist ideas of the 1980s inspired Paul Volcker, then chairman of the Federal Reserve, to crush inflation by constraining the money supply, even though doing so also produced a recession that sent unemployment soaring.

With the current pandemic, supply chains and production have been disrupted, which all else being equal should have caused prices to surge as raw materials and finished goods were harder to come by. But the bigger impact of the pandemic has been on the demand side, causing expectations for future inflation and interest rates to fall even further. The desire to invest has plunged, while people across the rich world are now saving much of their income. The rethink of economics is an opportunity. There now exists a growing consensus that tight labour markets could give workers more bargaining power without the need for a big expansion of redistribution. What is clear is that the old economic paradigm is looking tired. One way or another, change is coming.

8) Return of the rumble in the VC jungle [Source: Livemint]
Getting funding in the current situation has become a tough task for many start-ups in India. On the other hand finalizing new deals has become easy for the VCs. Sanjay Mehta of 100X.VC and his team have finalised about 10 new deals, all with entrepreneurs they have never met in person. Mr. Mehta and his colleagues would do up to eight Hangout calls with entrepreneurs instead of the one or two meetings they would have done in the past. At the start of the pandemic, investors had frozen new investments, pulling term sheets and ordering founders to cut costs. The few VCs willing to invest were demanding cutprice deals, and there was unanimity that the next year or two would be a bleak period for internet startups and investors.

VCs now say that the funding downturn that was expected even before the pandemic may not be as severe as previously feared. This is thanks to a combination of factors: a rebound in public markets globally; a boom in US and Chinese technology stocks; an acceleration of digitisation across sectors; and large capital reserves at many unicorns. With large amounts of global capital available, growth will be rewarded, especially at tech companies that are expanding their reach, said G.V. Ravishankar, managing director, Sequoia Capital India. In July, Sequoia announced a fresh sum of $1.35 billion to invest in India and Southeast Asia. Its asset under management in India jumped to about $5.5 billion—many times higher than most of its peers.

Ed tech startups, Byju’s and Vedantu, which raised capital last month, are already in talks to receive fresh funds from investors. Gaming and content startups, Dream11, MX Player, DailyHunt and Sharechat are all in talks to raise capital at higher valuations. Software and payments startups, too, are seeing strong investor interest. “If a company or a fund are performing, there will be ample capital available, even if there’s a small delay," said Ritesh Banglani, partner, Stellaris Venture. “What is far more worrying is the demand slowdown. If it lasts more than a year or if there is a huge second wave of covid-19, all bets are off."

9) Preparing for the uncertainty of a recession [Source: Huff Post]
Recession brings in fear. People are scared of losing their jobs, earning a livelihood and managing debt. Those impacted by the recession of 2008 may already be replaying the struggle over in their minds, with a sense of growing fear over what could happen in the months, and years, to come. It’s a time to be kind to ourselves and to remember: we’re all in this together. It’s understandable to feel anxious – a recession impacts the economy and people’s lives, as Yuko Nippoda, psychotherapist and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), explains. “Some people might lose their jobs, a recession can make it difficult to find a job, pay rises might stop or inequality can occur,” she says. “Lots of negative things happen.”

In such a situation, Nippoda says it’s important to follow trustworthy sources of information. “There is too much information circulating, some of which is inaccurate,” she says. “When we feel anxious, we tend to look for reassurance and go for any information that we want to hear. However, we need to be careful about random information as our life might be catastrophic if we follow fake news.” Psychotherapist Rakhi Chand, a member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), agrees: “Not over-doing exposure to the news could be helpful.” Limit news notifications to your phone and try not to spend hours scrolling social media if you’re feeling overwhelmed by it all.

A report on the 2008-2013 recession by the University of Bristol suggested economic recessions can lead to increased levels of mental illness, suicide and suicidal behaviour. Often, key stressors include job loss, financial difficulties, debt, loss of home and relationship stresses. There’s a big difference between feeling a bit anxious about what the future holds, and feeling suicidal or like there’s no way forward. If you’re in a bad place, it’s imperative to seek help. Speaking to others about how you’re feeling, or what you’re experiencing if you have lost your job or are worried about money, can be a relief – especially if you feel like there is no clear solution on hand.

10) 4 steps for building your team's resilience [Source: entrepreneur.com]
If you wish your team to meet challenges and learn from them, this article provides everything that you need. Resilience is crucial for the success of teams as well as individuals. While typically we think of resilience as a personal trait that someone either has or doesn’t have, resilience is also a team trait. A leader can develop and shape resilience of the team. In the course of business, all teams face setbacks and challenges. Here are some practical ways to cultivate resilience. 1) Be an ally: Trust and safety are critical components of resilient teams. A first step towards building trust and a sense of safety is building healthy relationships among team members. Leaders should set the tone for building strong and supportive relationships by being an ally for all team members.

2) Be purpose-driven: Employees are more engaged when they connect with what they are doing and see their efforts' impact. You want your team to have clarity of purpose and to work together to achieve team goals. You can accomplish this by being a purpose-driven leader. 3) Set clear goals and benchmarks for your team: Teams that have clarity of purpose are better able to overcome adversity and to push towards those goals. Your team should clearly understand long and short-term goals. Avoid the mistake of assuming that everyone knows the goals by taking the time to share goals explicitly and to ensure that all team members understand and align with them.

4) Build a culture of mutual trust: Teams in which employees feel safe and trust one another are more resilient. While natural team dynamics can build some level of trust, don't assume that a culture of trust will naturally develop on its own. Instead, take steps to create a culture of respect, inclusivity and trust. A few ways to build trust include highlighting the distinct roles of each team member, naming the contributions that each team member makes, allowing for times of group reflection to name successes and failures and encouraging honest communication. Resilient teams produce better results and can ride out the inevitable ups and downs that all teams experience.


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