Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Science (Discovery of 'Dragon Man' skull in China), Life & Investing (Getting one percent better with Manish Chokhani), Leadership (Ego can kill a good leader), Digital (Content is king for OTT platforms) and Art (This Indian singer's international musical career has scaled exceptional heights)

Published: Jul 3, 2021 08:52:19 AM IST
Updated: Jul 2, 2021 03:57:47 PM IST

Image: 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: Science (Discovery of ‘Dragon Man’ skull in China), Life & Investing (Getting one percent better with Manish Chokhani), Leadership (Ego can kill a good leader), Digital (Content is king for OTT platforms) and Art (This Indian singer’s international musical career has scaled exceptional heights).

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended July 3, 2021.


1)     Discovery of ‘Dragon Man’ skull in China may add species to human family tree
[Source: The New York Times]
Scientists in China recently found a massive fossilized skull that is at least 140,000 years old. It can potentially change prevailing views of how, and even where, our species, Homo sapiens, evolved. The skull belonged to a mature male who had a huge brain, massive brow ridges, deep set eyes and a bulbous nose. It had remained hidden in an abandoned well for 85 years, after a laborer came across it at a construction site in China. The researchers named the new species Homo longi and nicknamed it “Dragon Man,” for the Dragon River region of northeast China where the skull was discovered. The team said that Homo longi, and not the Neanderthals, was the extinct human species mostly closely related to our own. If confirmed, that would change how scientists envision the origin of Homo sapiens, which has been built up over the years from fossil discoveries and the analysis of ancient DNA.

Today, the planet is home to just one species of hominin — Homo sapiens. But Dragon Man existed at a time when a number of drastically different kinds of hominins coexisted, including Homo erectus — a tall human with a brain two-thirds the size of our own — as well as tiny hominins including Homo naledi in South Africa, Homo floresiensis in Indonesia and Homo luzonensis in the Philippines. There are several questions whose answers the researchers are still searching. Is Dragon Man a Denisovan? Christopher Stringer, a paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London and co-author of two of the three Dragon Man papers, says, “It’s going to be a more complicated plot.”

2)     The One Percent Show with Vishal Khandelwal - Manish Chokhani [Source: YouTube; Vishal Khandelwal]
In this first episode of the One Percent podcast, Manish Chokhani, one of India’s most respected financial market experts, talks about meditation, investing, his life and more. He starts by talking about meditation and how it has been helping him even now in his business and investing. He also tells how he got into stock market and investing though he was learning and training to manage his father’s paper packaging business. Advising youngsters, he says having a great circle of friends, influencers, people who shape you and your personality is essential. Also, he suggests youngsters to experiment till the age of 30. And you should be experimenting for something where the upside, very much like in investing, can be unlimited and the downside is not too much, so you can bounce back from it.

He emphasizes on finding the purpose of our lives. The purpose of our lives is not the goal, it is the journey, so seize the day. Talking about what success means to Mr. Chokhani, he says, “Success is typically a more outward manifestation, that is, someone achieves something in line with their goal and their nature. So, it could be a child in third grade who has got the best marks. It could be a cricketer who achieved the century in the match in which India really needed to win. It could be a politician winning the election which he or she really needed to win. So that is the outward manifestation, when you are in sync with whatever you are doing of what is your kind of yardstick or your goal and is it in sync with your swadharma.” This interview will teach you a lot about life than just thinking, learning, and investing.   

3)     Ego is the enemy of good leadership [Source: HBR
As someone rises above ranks and becomes a leader, it’s natural that his ego blooms. The higher leaders rise in the ranks, the more they are at risk of getting an inflated ego. As we rise in the ranks, we acquire more power. And with that, people are more likely to want to please us by listening more attentively, agreeing more, and laughing at our jokes. All of these tickle the ego. And when the ego is tickled, it grows. David Owen, the former British Foreign Secretary and a neurologist, and Jonathan Davidson, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University, call this the “hubris syndrome,” which they define as a “disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years.”

Because our ego craves positive attention, it can make us susceptible to manipulation. It makes us predictable. When people know this, they can play to our ego. An inflated ego also corrupts our behavior. When we believe we’re the sole architects of our success, we tend to be ruder, more selfish, and more likely to interrupt others. Breaking free of an overly protective or inflated ego and avoiding the leadership bubble is an important and challenging job. It requires selflessness, reflection, and courage. Leadership is about people, and people change every day. If we believe we’ve found the universal key to leading people, we’ve just lost it.

4)     The hazards of a “Nice” company culture [Source: HBR]
Many organisations pursue niceness, but is it good for them in the long term? The article answers this question. The intention behind cultivating a nice culture is often genuine. A benevolent purpose tends to foster a benevolent culture, and a benevolent culture tends to spawn niceness. So, why do leaders pursue niceness? The top four reasons can be: 1) To avoid conflict and gain approval; 2) To replace genuine inclusion; 3) To show exaggerated deference to the chain of command; and 4) To motivate people instead of holding them accountable. But, the adverse consequences of niceness are not simply inconvenient, they can be catastrophic for an organization.

The downsides include: 1) Crisis activation: At times, inertia becomes so strong in a nice culture that the organization loses its ability to act preemptively. People wait until a problem becomes too big to ignore. Nice cultures tend to nurture the false dichotomy that you can either be nice or you can hold people accountable, but not both. 2) Choked innovation: By its very nature, innovation disrupts the status quo. And yet it’s the lifeblood of growth. Pervasive niceness suppresses this process, creating an intellectual muzzle that can turn teams of exceptionally talented people into dysfunctional groups. 3) Bleeding talent: Talented people want to make a meaningful contribution. A-players want a healthy culture in which they can be rewarded for challenging the status quo. One strategy a company can use to combat this is by creating a kind culture instead of a nice one.

5)     The power of a great mentor [Source: Financial Times
One needs a good mentor to move ahead in life. These days, mentoring takes so many forms — from formal corporate programs established in the US in the 1970s to global training facilities for coaching and mentoring accreditation. But regardless of how one is mentored, it seems to be a much-needed and age-old human relationship, expressed in literature, religious texts and popular culture. The author writes about one of her favourite paintings on the topic is “The Childhood of Christ” (c1620) by 17th-century Dutch painter Gerrit van Honthorst. It is a scene of the boy Jesus with his father Joseph, the carpenter who taught him the trade. The painting is rich in religious symbolism and implications. But it also illuminates some often underplayed aspects of the mentor-mentee relationship.

The author thinks that part of the mutual gift in the mentor-mentee relationship is the presence of the mentee in our lives holds a light to our work and to our own presence, inviting us to peer more intently at what we are doing and how we are doing it — perhaps even surpassing what we imagine is the limit of our own growth and development. In this sense mentoring is a mutual calling. The work of advising, guiding and teaching someone along any stretch of their life’s journey does have an element of sacredness to it. To be entrusted and invited into someone’s life is an intimate act that we often take for granted, focused sometimes more on the status that enables us to be the mentor, rather than on the transformative power that mentoring holds for another life.

6)     Longer WFH hours, more work, but how productive are anymore?
[Source: The Ken]
The pandemic has caused an unprecedented shift in the world of work, speeding up gradual transitions and bringing about a new working culture that has already begun to fray. With the whole white-collar workforce shuttered at home, it has never been harder for managers to track what their employers are doing. In a world where remote or hybrid work are quickly becoming mainstays, companies are struggling to define, measure, and reward productivity. In a survey conducted by The Ken and taken by over 2,000 of their subscribers, 40.6% of respondents said their productivity had fallen in the last 18 months of working during the pandemic. Around 39% said their productivity had improved.

The double whammy of longer hours and isolation has created its own cause and effect. With clients doubling down on digitisation efforts, the demand for IT services has gone up since March 2020. Companies are in desperate search of new talent. To retain employees, IT companies needed to act. TCS, Infosys, and Wipro, for instance, are rolling out their second salary hikes in a year. Also, work from home has increased work hours, but is it really productive? Before the world changed, different functions measured productivity differently. For consultants and IT services, it was billable hours; for salespersons across companies, it was the number of calls/visits made and lead conversions; and for developers, it was the number of lines and quality of their code. But it’s wartime now. And the popularity of tools tracking productivity have soared. Adopting productivity tools is an attempt by companies to restore the balance that was thrown out of whack with WFH.

7)     Interview: Marc Andreessen, VC and tech pioneer [Source: noahpinion.substack.com]
In this interview, Marc Andreessen talks about various topics from building things to crypto and his investments to the competition between China and US. On the software front, he believes that software is our modern alchemy. Isaac Newton spent much of his life trying and failing to transmute a base element, lead, into a valuable material, gold. Software is alchemy that turns bytes into actions by and on atoms. It’s the closest thing we have to magic. Talking about the crypto space, Mr. Andreessen says that there are so many aspects of how it works and what it means that you can interpret it many different ways and seize on one part or another to make whatever point you want.

Lastly, he advises youngsters to not follow their passion. He says, “Seriously. Don’t follow your passion. Your passion is likely more dumb and useless than anything else. Your passion should be your hobby, not your work. Do it in your spare time. Instead, at work, seek to contribute. Find the hottest, most vibrant part of the economy you can and figure out how you can contribute best and most. Make yourself of value to the people around you, to your customers and coworkers, and try to increase that value every day.”

8)     A new phase in the financial cycle [Source: The Economist
Strategists like to talk in terms of early-, mid- or late-cycle investing. It is tricky to say when one stage ends and another begins, just as it is hard to delineate adulthood from adolescence. The markets drop some hints, though. The slope of the Treasury yield curve is one. In the first quarter, the message from the yield curve seemed clear. A steepening in its slope—a rise in long-term yields relative to short-term yields—said the economy was accelerating and inflation was coming. A standard measure of its slope is the gap between two- and ten-year interest rates. The wider the gap is, the steeper the slope. At the start of the year the gap was 0.82 percentage points. Three months later it had widened to 1.58 percentage points, almost all because of a rise in long-term yields.

Yet in early April the curve began to flatten. The yields on two-, three- and five-year Treasury bonds perked up as money markets began to price in the prospect that the Federal Reserve would raise interest rates in 2023. The bond market is hinting that the early-cycle phase in which risk assets are embraced almost without discrimination has come to a close. The peak in economic growth may have passed. There are echoes here of early 2004, says Andrew Sheets of Morgan Stanley. When America’s unemployment rate peaked in 2003, it was a cue for economic recovery and a strong early-cycle rally in risky assets. The outlook is similar, reckons Mr. Sheets: a period of consolidation in the stockmarket; a slight widening in credit spreads; an episode of modest dollar strength.

9)     No item numbers or excess drama, digital blockbusters have only one star — the content [Source: Economic Times
When the current pandemic created havoc in March 2020, everything shut down. People were locked in their homes. The pandemic hit most of the businesses, especially the cinemas. It hampered TV production, as digital shows and OTT platforms became the entertainment mainstay. And they have changed the way content is consumed. The pandemic has brought to the fore the ‘power of the ideas’ folks as opposed to just stars, who can connect with the audience. Consumed largely on the small screen (smartphones) it has made one thing clear — you need a strong storyline and a set of good actors to hold the audiences’ attention.

Alfred Hitchcock said, “To make a great film you need three things — the script, the script, and the script”. When it comes digital shows, content is truly the king and scriptwriters are the real heroes. With the creative freedom to express, various scriptwriters are showcasing their talent on digital. There was no dearth of talent in them, but opportunities were few and far between, and the box-office success remained elusive. Following their authenticity and relatability, the demand for digital content is increasing. As a result, there are ample opportunities opening up for artistes across spectrum. Even the attitude towards the raw talent has changed, and unlike before, artistes don’t need the backing of Bollywood’s big daddy.

10)     Malavika’s Mumbaistan: Amazing Grace
[Source: Hindustan Times]  
When the West was discovering The Beatles and Ravi Shankar through Indian music, there was a girl who sang blues like she was a singing legend. For a girl from Bandra, Asha Puthli’s success in the international music scene of the Seventies was nothing short of extraordinary. Puthli’s international musical career had scaled exceptional heights. What’s more, her astonishing four-octave range was matched by her effortless segueing between genres as varied as the blues, pop, rock, soul, funk, disco, and techno. As the convent educated daughter of an upper middle-class family which featured stalwarts of the Indian Independence Movement such as cultural doyenne Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and poet Harindranath Chattopadhyay, brother of Sarojini Naidu, Puthli had studied Indian classical music as well as opera.  

“As far back as I can recall, Asha Puthli was always a star,” says former NYT journalist Pranay Gupte. “I saw her several times at Studio 54, in the company of people like Françoise Gilot, Picasso’s former partner, and Woody Allen and Zubin Mehta. Her songs frequently graced radio stations and she was a sought-after guest,” he says. Today, in her mid-seventies, she says she is spending what she describes as the happiest days of her life, with her beloved son and their pet pooch, and later this year there is a plan to release a much-cherished album of classic jazz covers titled All My Life, as a tribute to her many mentors and collaborators. Meanwhile, thanks to the internet, her status as a cult icon keeps growing, with her original records becoming collector’s items on E-bay.  

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