Can marketing and brand consulting / content work be meaningful?

Can any work be meaningful?

That’s a tough one. But I will try to answer. Let me share some context to why I am even attempting to do so.

At CoreVoice, we have recently started to ask CVlians (people who work at CoreVoice) to reflect on culture level observations about the company. We do that in weekly one-on-ones. One of the questions on which we want every CVlian to reflect / rate their feeling is:

How meaningful I found the work to be – overall (whatever I spent time on since the last 1:1)

A particular CVlian I was having our 1:1 with, shared something interesting. He said he has learnt not to ascribe meaning to anything. So this question doesn’t really mean much from his POV. Yet he wanted to understand what my take on something being labeled ‘meaningful’ was. I shared my thoughts with him. This blog is a summary of that + some more reflection.

There was definitely a phase in my college life (2002 to 2008 – IIT Madras) when I thought a lot about why we continue to live – what is the point? And I will be honest. Till date, I don’t think I have found out any specific point to life. You, me – all of us – we can choose to die today. The world will exist. It will carry on.

But given that for some reason or the other, the majority of us choose to live, day after another – I believe that this decision – to not put a plug to our lives, makes us want certain things – feeling valued, self-worth, love, excitement, joy, sense of having achieved something, sense of having played a positive and ‘meaningful’ role in someone else’s life etc.

Each of these needs & desires that we carry, means something to us – even when in the bigger scheme of things, why does any of it matter? It doesn’t – but, only when we truly exit the game. And since most of us don’t, I think ultimately, below is all that we really need from life (when we choose to accept its meaninglessness and continue to live):

  • control – a sense of freedom and freewill in what we choose to do / how we choose to live our life / on what terms etc.
  • material – the feeling of having as much money as may be needed any day for anything (in a way this is another way of feeling in control – but mentioning it specifically because in our present society its use-case is extremely well understood)
  • excitement and joy – in what we do / how we spend a day
  • social energy from others – it could be in the form of love, or respect or compliments – all those things
  • contribution – a feeling that we made someone else’s life better / created something and put it out there

May be I am missing out on few points – but these are what come to my mind. When I started my consulting job, I could put a check box on material, excitement+joy and social energy, but I was unsure about my contribution. I also didn’t like the fact that the job had chosen me (via campus placement) and it was not something that I necessarily went after (say after considering many options). In short, I didn’t feel I had controlled my life.

When I took a one year sabbatical in 2012 (after four years of corporate life), I was essentially trying to feel more in control of my own life.

Even if I had to go back to the same job, the fact that I took a break to try finding what else I could do, was enough to give me that sense of control.

It’s another matter that I happened to be lucky. I figured out a way to buy myself a lot of paid time to figure out what to settle on to (which in many ways I have). The journey started when I turned into a wedding photographer (been a decade now). That decision allowed me to pick up storytelling, and gave me an opportunity to observe life and human beings from a perspective that would have simply been impossible from a corporate-job vantage point.

What was meaningful to me then, was getting clarity on what I wanted to do in this life (other than the default option that college gave me).

It’s been many years now that I have been super comfortable at being a storyteller.

In the early years of my (3MS) journey, I found it meaningful to get to interview different subjects and get to witness a slice of their lives (and often visit the native spaces they occupied / lived / worked).

3MS is my short video storytelling brand under which I create human interest stories from across India (and abroad).

Then something interesting happened. At some point, the idea of human-interest video-stories stopped being as meaningful to me, as it once used to. It still is delightful – don’t get me wrong – but I have become relatively detached. Let me explain.

What is the point of telling these stories? Does it really matter? As I said earlier, every time I have tried to get the ultimate reason to why anything matters at all, the answer always has been the same – it doesn’t. And yet I continue to live – finding little meanings in whatever way I can. And that’s the point I am making here.

You want to keep living? Then pick up something that matters to you the most right now and in the near term, and go do that. Live that. Be in control. Accumulate the material wealth that you think makes sense. Never do that at the expense of excitement and joy. Seek joy. Be nice and bask in the positive social energy that you will receive. Let negativity not affect you. And when you feel like, contribute. Leave the world a little better than how you saw it. Yes it wouldn’t really matter ultimately, but it may make you see some meaning in what you do, where ultimately, there is none.


CoreInsights Ep2 – Will you buy ugly oranges?

In this second episode of CoreInsights, I share some fascinating insights from a study that measured the impact on sales, if one labels not-so-good looking oranges as “ugly”. Very counter-intuitive findings!

Link to paper.


CoreInsights Ep1 – Should brands be consistent in their advertising?

Started a new series. Let me know how you like it?

PS: Link to the journal paper from which I share the insight in this video.


Sunglasses and Honesty

This is part of my – Learnings from Human Experiments (LHE) series

In four separate experiments by researchers at Harvard Business School, Duke University, and UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, participants were asked to wear either real or knock-off sunglasses under the guise that they were participating in a marketing study.

People who were randomly assigned to wear the fake sunglasses cheated more on tasks and lowered their ethical expectations of others. Wearing fake sunglasses made people less honest.


Books Gyaan

Some negatives of a positive mood

Most of us are aware that mood affects what we think. In fact the influence is measurable. But did you also know that our mood impacts how we think as well? It does, and I learnt about it from Kahneman’s new book – Noise.

Thinking Fast and Slow by Kahneman is one of my fav books (part of the top reading list that I curated some time back). So when I saw a new book co-authored by him, I had to read it. I have finished almost 1/3rd of the book and frankly don’t think Noise comes anywhere close to TFaS. The focus is much narrow here (how we judge). But the book does offer some fascinating insights – like those around mood.

Studies have shown that people who are in a good mood are more likely to let their biases affect their thinking.

Noise – A Flaw in Human Judgement

Good mood also makes people more receptive to bullshit and extra gullible. And then there are scenarios where a bad mood is more helpful than a good one. For example in case of crimes, eyewitnesses who are exposed to misleading information are better able to disregard it – and to avoid false testimony – when they are in a bad mood!

We are not the same person at all times. As our mood varies, some part of our cognitive machinery vary with it (something we are not fully aware of). The footbridge problem illustrates this.

The Footbridge problem

Imagine you are on a footbridge. You can see the road below you. There’s traffic. There are five people down there too. You see a speeding truck coming towards them, from behind. They are unaware. The truck will most certainly run them over and they will all be dead. There is no time to shout and warn these five people. But there is one thing you can do. There is a large bodied person on the footbridge right next to you. You can push him off so that he falls and blocks the speeding truck. This will save those five lives but of course the person who you push, will die. What would you do? Would you just see all five die or would you sacrifice one life to save five? That’s the footbridge problem.

From a moral point of view, one choice is utilitarian (Jeremy Bentham) – loss of one life is preferable over loss of five. The other choice is in the realm of Deontological ethics (Immanuel Kant) – killing someone, even in the service of others is prohibited.

Very few people (1 in 10) ever say they would push the person.

But here’s the crazy insight – subjects who were placed in a positive mood (induced by watching a 5-min video game) were three times more likely to say that they would push the person off the bridge.

When we are shown a complex judgement problem, our mood in the moment influences our approach to the problem and the conclusions we reach, even when we believe that the mood has no such influence!

Alright, that’s all I had to share. May be I will have more when I read the remaining 2/3rd. Or may be not. Either way, see you soon.


Narrative Vs. Truth – BJP style!

Narrative 1 & 2 – Modi / Govt. didn’t see second wave coming / states were not warned.

The below news is from 08 March. But I guess Harsh Vardhan was just cracking a joke while Modi was busy warning the states! Why take Health Minister seriously?

Narrative 3 – India has the highest number of cases in the world


So let me rephrase what they are probably trying to say? India’s situation is worst in the world because it has the maximum cases – is a misleading “narrative”. Agree. But who the fcuk is saying that in the first place?

Btw, here’s a tweet from the Health Minister again.

Hello sir, India has more people than Europe and North America put together. So in absolute numbers India will obviously be higher.

Why you do this narrative-giri sir?

Narrative 4 – Modi’s Bengal Rallies and Kumbh caused second wave.

The response to this is “Rahul Gandhi bhi push-ups kara raha tha”? Isn’t Modiji 10x better than Rahul Gandhi? So how does it matter what he / others were doing? You yourself are saying that Modiji was busy warning everyone that second wave was coming – then at least he should have done what he could to control it no?

Narrative 5 – Why did India export vaccine while denying it to its own people? “This is nonsense” is how you choose to start your “truth”?

Bakchodi ki koi seema nahi hai. The “truth” itself says 1 in 3 vaccines were exported! And still this is a “narrative”!

I think it’s futile to lay bare this stupid table put out by BJP! I wonder if even Bhakts will feel comfortable forwarding this to anyone! I leave it at this.


My Crypto story so far and what you can learn from it

I bought my first crypto-currrency on 31 Dec 2020 (Etherium). I spent 50,000 rupees. The present value of my Etherium asset is 1.45 lakh (May 2021) and I don’t plan to sell it at all. Let me explain.

Before I begin, this post is only for those who are not sure about this Crypto thing and are wondering what the first right step should be.

If you don’t own any stock, then forget about Crypto. That would be just weird. First understand how stock markets work, enter the market – see your money grow and then think about Crypto.

You already hold stock assets? Cool, let’s talk about Crypto. I will not focus too much on short-term trading because I don’t understand that much myself. My focus is on long-term growth of your money.

Buying a crypto-currency (like Etherium or BTC) essentially means buying an asset whose price is totally dependent on supply and demand – there is no physical real-world value. But then even a 500 rupee note is exactly that, isn’t it? After all, the physical real-value of the paper on which a currency is printed is negligible.

So what’s the difference between how a 500 rupee note works and how a Crypto works?

The value of a 500 rupees note is also dependent on supply (mostly) and demand but the supply is 100% controlled by RBI – it prints those notes – nobody else can.

But crypto’s are not generated by any central bank. By way of a technological hack (blockchain), the supply of any crypto currency is fixed (or let me say – severely limited, more so for those currencies that have been around for a long time – like BTC and Etherium). And this means that if enough people keep buying crypto-currencies, the price will keep going up. If people start selling what they have, the price will go down.

Sounds similar to stocks? It is. But the difference is – at some level a stock-price is also supposedly linked with the real valuation / business-performance of the company whose stock you own. In case of crypto – it is 100% supply and demand. It’s economics at its most basic.

And in my opinion, this is all there is to know about Crypto to start buying it.

Why did I begin with Ehterium?

When I bought it, BTC had highest market-cap, Etherium was at no. 2 (am not cross-checking it, but very likely that’s the case even today). So I just went with no. 2 because:

  1. it’s cheaper than no. 1, and
  2. it is still safe because it’s unlikely that people will stop buying Etherium any time soon – and that means the price will keep going up, year after year. It has some solid backers (Google it).

Last week, when BTC’s price went down I bought BTC too (worth another 50k). It is worth 54k as I write this post. I don’t think I am going to invest in random cryptos – there are hundreds of them. If you have high appetite for risk, you can buy whatever you feel like. If your bet is good, you will make more money than buying Etherium or BTC. All that you need to guess right is, will the rest of the world keep buying it year after year or sell it off?

How to actually buy any of the cryptos using Indian money?

When I asked around in Dec, Wazirx and Coinswitch by Kuber were the most recommended exchanges (I have used both). You download their app, do the KYC and then deposit money from your bank account to the exchange.

Using the money deposited in the exchange, you buy whatever currency you want. That’s your crypto asset. You can keep this asset in the exchange itself (if you plan to sell soon) but like me if you don’t plan to sell any time soon, then best practice is to withdraw your asset and keep it with you. Why should you ever withdraw the asset when eventually you need the exchange to sell it and get back Indian rupees anyway?

Well, because exchanges get hacked.

An exchange-hack is very different than a bank getting robbed. When a bank gets robbed, you can still claim your money. When an exchange gets hacked, there is no way to show that it was not ‘you’ who withdrew your asset (the same technology that enables crypto, creates this issue).

So I would suggest you take out the asset from the exchange. You can keep your crypto with yourself in a device like nano ledger (looks like a pen-drive but essentially stores the unique code for each crypto transaction).

Whenever you want to sell your asset – you can transfer the asset to any exchange (using your physical device), sell the crypto in that exchange and receive the money in INR. Then you transfer the money from exchange to your bank account. As simple as that. You may have to pay Capital Gains tax.

What if the government bans Crypto?

Government can ban an exchange (another reason, you shouldn’t keep your purchased crypto in the exchange). But banning Crypto is not implementable.

For example let’s imagine you hold 1.5 lakh worth of Etherium with you and when you plan to sell it, exchanges in India stop working. What do you do?

Well, sell it in some other exchange of any country (if you have to). You will then end up owning “money” in that particular country’s currency (say if you sell it in a US exchange, you will end up owning dollars). That’s still your money though. Figure out a way to transfer those dollars to your Indian account!

There is so much money in BTC / Etherium today that if GoI stops Indian exchanges, multiple startups will flourish just to enable you to receive your foreign currency asset (be it dollars or anything) to your Indian account in INR. So ‘ban’ has zero risk per say to your money – it will only cause inconvenience and raised transaction cost perhaps.

Also, most likely, when GoI will finally realize that it cannot ban Crypto, it would rather let the exchanges run so that at least the capital gain tax flows to the Government and not gets wasted.

So yeah, this is all that I have learnt and had to share. Before I end, few cautionary words – only put that much money in buying Crypto that you don’t need now and would have used to invest in buying more stocks / MFs / gold etc. anyway.

Some people do make money by short-term buying and selling but I am too busy doing other interesting things in life to waste it on becoming mildly richer by continuous buying and selling. My post is only for those who are in it for the long run and understand that eventually the benefit of compounding pays off so much more than this whole daily-trading business.

Alright, hope this post helps you get started. The best way to learn is to put in some real money. All the best.


Here’s why everyone should read ‘The Tyranny of Merit’

I grew up believing that opportunities in life – from job to everything else – should be merit-based. May be you did too. This book challenges all of that. When you do read the book, I hope you find the arguments as fascinating as I did. Let me take you through some of them.

Meritocracy or the idea / philosophy that society should allocate economic rewards according to merit is appealing for two primary reasons – efficiency and fairness. As per the meritocratic ethic, we do not deserve to be rewarded, or held back, based on factors beyond our control. So far so good. But wait a second, do you notice the contradiction? Is having (or lacking) certain talents really our own doing? And if not, is meritocracy really all that ‘fair’?

All of us will agree that our having this talent or that is not our doing. It’s just a matter of luck. We do not merit or ‘deserve‘ the benefits (or burdens) that derive from luck. But what about those of us who ‘work hard‘? Talent or luck is not everything, right? Really? Just look around at any poor person – your maid, your driver, the guy who delivers you Swiggy or Amazon. Do you really believe they don’t work as hard as you do?

For decades, meritocratic elites have believed and propagated the mantra of the “rhetoric of rising” – those who work hard and play by the rules deserve to rise as far as their talents and dreams will take them.

But the same elites often fail to notice that for those stuck at the bottom or struggling to stay afloat, the rhetoric of rising is less a promise, and more a taunt!

In the book, the author sums up the issue beautifully (an eye opener for me): the meritocratic ideal is about mobility, not equality. And that’s where the problem lies. Meritocracy does not say there is anything wrong with yawning gaps between rich and poor; it only insists that the children of the rich and the children of the poor should be able to, over time, swap places based on merits. How often does that happen though?

In reality, the explosion of inequality in recent decades has not at all quickened upward mobility! To the contrary, it has enabled those on top, to consolidate their advantages and pass on to their children. Today’s meritocracy has hardened into hereditary aristocracy.

The meritocratic ideal is not a remedy for inequality; it is a justification of inequality.

There is another consequence – under conditions of rampant inequality and stalled mobility, reiterating the message that we are responsible for our fate (“rhetoric of responsibility”) and deserve what we get, erodes and demoralizes those who get left behind. The principle of merit can easily take a tyrannical turn, not only when societies fail to live up to it, but also – indeed especially – when they do.

Allocating jobs and opportunists according to merit does not reduce inequality; it re-configures inequality to alight with ability. This reconfiguration creates a presumption that people get what they deserve.

The Tyranny of Merit – Michael J. Sandel

Confusing value with price

The assertion that people morally deserve whatever income a competitive free market assigns them goes back to the early days of neoclassical economics. In reality, what people earn depends less on their native abilities and more on the vagaries of supply and demand! Water is more valuable than diamond but priced at a fraction of what diamond costs.

Isn’t meeting a demand a valuable thing to do, you ask? Sure, but most of the times, the demands which the economic system operates to gratify are largely produced by the workings of the system itself.

Being good at making money measures neither our merit nor the value of our contribution.

All the successful can honestly say is that they have managed – through some unfathomable mix of genius or guile, timing or talent, luck or pluck or grim determination – to cater effectively to the jumble of wants and desires, however weighty or frivolous, that constitute consumer demand at any moment.

Education & Meritocracy

To the liberal class, every big economic problem is really an education problem, a failure by the losers to learn the right skills and get the credentials everyone knows you’ll need in the society of the future. But it’s really not an answer at all – it’s a moral judgement.

In the mid 1970s, Stanford accepted nearly 1/3rd of those who applied. In the 1980s, Harvard and Stanford admitted about one in five. In 2019, they accepted fewer than one in twenty. It is difficult to emerge from this gauntlet of stress and striving without believing that you have earned – through effort and hard work – whatever success may come your way.

But the fact remains that even the best, most inclusive educational system would be hard pressed to equip students from poor backgrounds to compete on equal terms with children from families that bestow copious amounts of attention, resources and connections.

On this topic I highly recommend you watch the new Netflix documentary on the 2019 US college admission scandal.

Back to the book. See, encouraging more people to go to college is a good thing. Making college more accessible to those of modest means is even better. But as a solution to inequality, the single-minded focus on education has a damaging side-effect – it erodes the social esteem accorded those who have not gone to college. The notion that the system rewards talent and hard work ends up encouraging the winners (wrongfully) to consider their success their own doing and in turn they start to look down upon those less fortunate than themselves.

One last thing – dumb Vs. smart

In every age, politicians and opinion makers, publicists and advertisers, reach for a language of judgement and evaluation. Such rhetoric typically draws upon evaluative contrasts: just vs. unjust, free vs. un-free, progressive vs. reactionary, strong vs. weak, open vs. closed and so on and so forth.

In recent decades, with the rise in meritocratic modes of thinking, the reigning evaluative contrast has become “smart vs. dumb”.

Everything and everybody must be smart – smart city, smart-phone, smart parents, smart students, smart thinking, smart farmers and on and on.

You are opposed to climate change? You are not smart. You are dumb. But is that always true?

If the primary source of opposition to action on climate change were lack of information or a refusal to accept science, one would expect opposition to be stronger among those with less education / scientific knowledge. It so happens that this is not the case really. Studies of public opinion show that the more people know about science, the more polarized are their views on climate change (rather than converging). What about those who oppose government action to reduce carbon emissions, not because they reject science, but because they do not trust the government to act in their interest? Meritocracy creates the illusion that everything can be split into smart vs. dumb.

Sorry for making this post so long. I appreciate your patience. Let me try to wrap it up now.

The term meritocracy was invented by a British sociologist Michael Young who wrote a book in 1958 called The Rise of Meritocracy. But for Young himself, meritocracy described a dystopia, not an ideal. In his book, he already anticipated that the toxic brew of hubris and resentment created from meritocracy would fuel a backlash. In fact he concluded his dystopian tale by predicting (all the way back in 1958) that in 2034, the less educated classes would rise up in a populist revolt against meritocratic elites. I guess his prediction came true 18 years before time (both Brexit and Trump happened in 2016)?

May be the real problem with meritocracy is not that we have failed to achieve it, but that the ideal itself is flawed.

If you learnt something useful by reading my blog, I’d appreciate if you dropped in a comment. Thanks.


Have we been doing networking wrong all our lives?

Consider the following statements:

  1. I frequently catch up with colleagues from different departments, and
  2. I use company events to make new contacts.

A study that followed 279 employees over the course of two years to understand what predicted career-success, found that agreement with either of these statements, significantly predicted their current salary, the salary growth trajectory over two years, and their career satisfaction.

Which group do you think had better salary / career outcomes – the one that went with the first statement (focusing on network-management) or the second (focusing on building new connections)?

Here’s the finding: agreeing with the first statement predicted close to half of the variance in salary growth and career satisfaction while focusing on meeting new people (second statement) was much less important!

Net net, existing colleagues matter more than new contacts. I learnt this while reading Social Chemistry by Marissa King. However this applies only to work-colleagues + when money / career-growth is the desired outcome.

Outside of work, it is new friends – not the old – who make us happier and create a greater sense of well-being.

Marissa King, Social Chemistry

So have we been doing networking wrong all our lives (trying to get more professional contacts at work and sticking to same old friends outside of work)? You tell me.

This post is part of my LHE series.


MEE: the mere exposure effect

Robert Zajonc – a psychologist, presented some subjects with a variety of photographs. The photos were of different white men taken from a yearbook. Some photographs were shown only once, while others were shown up to 25 times.

Each subject was then asked to rate how much they thought they’d like the person (in the photograph) if they happened to actually meet them, in-person.

Seeing a photograph 10 times led to about 30% increase in perceptions of likeability – compared to a face that was shown only once!

This is called the ‘mere exposure effect‘ (MEE) and in the decades since Zajonc’s original study, this finding has been replicated across more than two hundred studies.

Merely being exposed to people, objects, and ideas leads us to have more favourable evaluations of them.

I learnt this while reading Social Chemistry by Marissa King. A little bit of additional Wikipedia-reading explains why MEE happens.

Hope you learnt something new. This post is part of my LHE series.