I have always considered myself to be a lifelong learner. Throughout my life, I have always been curious, obsessed with exploring the infinite knowledge of the universe and constantly unsatisfied with the fact that I’ll never be able to discover it all. From reading books at the library in Bombay about math and physics as a child to listening to history, business and evolution podcasts on my runs today, my seemingly insatiable curiosity has always driven me to question what I think I know.
Early in life, I didn’t think this way. I wanted to be #1 in school, I wanted to get the best grades and know more than any of my peers on any topic—I was competitive! While I was growing up, education was extremely important in my family and being in India, of course, science, technology, engineering and math were what I had to set my mind to. I focused on engineering—and being the best at engineering. At IIT-Bombay though, something clicked for me, and I realised that I wanted to learn more about connecting the dots.
I realised that it wasn’t about knowing everything, it was actually, about knowing nothing. I realised that it was about choosing to be humble and learning from others. I realised that being successful meant communicating with others, working on a team, seeking out people who think differently.
Over the years, I have learned the importance of having a cognitively diverse team. Learning from people who think differently, have had different experiences than me, and have different strengths than me keeps me humble and helps me build trust.
For instance, very early in my career, I had the opportunity to lead a team where most people had 20+ years of experience than me. There was always the chance that they would resent me, that they would assume I was just a kid and not a real boss, that I would be insecure about my lack of experience and fall into the trap of acting like I knew it all. Instead, I took this challenge as an opportunity to learn from my team. I asked them to teach me what I didn’t know, which built trust with them. Ultimately, we came together as a successful team—leveraging the strengths of each other—because I was willing to admit to myself, and to them, that I didn’t know it all.
Throughout my career, I have sought after people with backgrounds and skills that are different from my own. This means being self-reflective to identify my strengths and weaknesses and being humble enough to admit them. Sometimes this might mean recognising that you don’t have enough experience to be an expert, while other times it might be about the way you think. For instance, as a STEM major myself, I actively seek out liberal arts majors; as a person with a logical-mathematical way of thinking, I look for people with strong creative skills. While I tend to naturally use the analytical left side of my brain the most, I know how important it is to work with people who primarily use the intuitive right side of their brains.
Above all, I search for other curious people. Curious people embrace humility and cognitive diversity. They are open to different approaches in search of the best outcomes. They are able to tap into the collective intelligence of many to make decisions in situations with limited information.
The unprecedented, unforeseeable events of the last 20 months have reinforced the importance of curiosity, humility, and cognitive diversity. There was no playbook to reacting to Covid-19 and the best responses were those that were led by teams that leveraged diverse perspectives to grapple with challenges and moved agilely to quickly correct mistakes.
As the cycle time for work moves from months and weeks to days and hours, as almost everything in the world gets more volatile, the ability for businesses to adapt and be flexible will be a key factor to their resilience and long-term success. Encouraging a culture of continuous learning where everyone—from the CEO to the interns—is focused on learning new skills to react to changes in the market is critical to building resilience for the future. While skills in areas like cloud, analytics, and data engineering are hugely important to learn—given the remote ways of working most of the world has today and the hybrid model of tomorrow—executive presence, communication, and empathy are equally important.
Continuously learning new skills across the left and right sides of the brain is incredibly important to succeed. It’s not about being #1 or knowing everything, it’s about admitting what you don’t know and surrounding yourself with people who can teach each other. It’s about working with others and drawing on your complementary skills to find the best solutions to the challenges you face. Curiosity, humility and embracing cognitive diversity have been the keys to my success at pursuing my passions. I will always be unsatisfied with the fact that I’ll never be able to discover all the infinite knowledge in the universe, but I’m excited by what I will learn—and who I will learn it from—after all I am a lifelong learner and always will be.
The writer is a CEO of Genpact.