On Anti-Fragility and Growth Mindsets with Anand Kartikeyan

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Anand Kartikeyan is one of those multi-faceted people that always leaves an impression, no matter how fleeting the interaction.

Anand is a veteran banker, with stints with top banks in India and the UK for over the last 2 decades. After leading global banking for HSBC, Anand most recently headed corporate banking for South India for IndusInd Bank. He now operates his own independent consulting practice.

I recently sat down with Anand for an extended conversation on handling adversity, dealing with lockdowns and antifragility.

Something that strikes anyone immediately when talking to Anand is the fact that his conversations are peppered with stories and anecdotes. When he speaks of being antifragile, he doesn’t speak in terms of concepts and frameworks. He tells the story of a Jazz pianist named Keith Jarrett.

Mr. Jarrett is persuaded by Vera Brandes, the youngest concert promoter in Germany, to come over from America to play before a packed audience. On the eve of the concert, Jarrett finds the piano broken and out of tune. Back in his car, ready to leave the venue, he is persuaded by a distraught Brandes, soaked to the bone in the pouring rain, to return and play anyway. Jarrett turns in a virtuoso performance using only the middle registers. The recording went on to became Jarrett’s largest selling performance ever. Anand puts it across very well – we all have “broken pianos” in our lives, which we have no choice but to play or walk away. Its up to us to not be defined by the broken pianos, but to rise above these limitations.

we all have these unplayable pianos. And this is especially tested during the current times, how are we approaching or playing our unplayable pianos

We also spoke about growth mentalities needed to become “antifragile”. The Post Trauma Growth Model (PTG) tries to explain the growth people undergo when faced with adversity, and the necessary critical elements to allow this growth transformation to come to pass. It struck me during this discussion that while there is no panacea to overcoming adversity and we are often given platitudes, in the right context and mix, they can be effective.

Anand does not only speak in anecdotes of course. Of particular resonance to myself during this conversation was the framework of five elements necessary to allow a PTG Model to evolve and a growth mentality to thrive. I’ve certainly seen many exhortations across on the internet to “have a growth mentality”, but few answers to the how. Anand speaks of personal strength – the ability to creative, mature and authentic in the face of challenges; of building meaningful relationships with friends and family and colleagues; and very importantly, an appreciation of life. Human beings tend to over-remember negative memories compared to positive ones, so it is valuable and necessary to consciously appreciate all the good things in life. Closely linked is being open to new possibilities. None of these four concepts are possible without the fifth – being introspective. We tend to introspect as an ‘in-between’ activity – something we do between more active tasks, during enforced quietness. How often do we explicitly introspect?

Dealing with ongoing adversity has been a  theme of the last few months – the challenges of the lockdown, working from home, managing from home, and handling the blurring of boundaries between personal and professional. We need to have structures and boundaries around our lives. We’ve lost the buffers of commutes, lunch breaks, tea breaks and smoke breaks. We need to re-establish the boundaries and structures for this new paradigm. Of course little of this has meaning without adequate preparation before the day’s start and strong discipline during the course of the day.

The crucial partner in our process to be effective in the remote scenario has to be our employers. Employers have to “suspend disbelief”– leaving it to their people to find their new equilibrium, and giving them the tools and frameworks necessary to drive their own performance and accountability; alloyed with a strong dose of patience. Anand stresses the symbiotic relationship between employer and employee and the bipartite need to renegotiate the social contract between both.

It means that you have to trust the employee, you have to suspend disbelief

This relationship is all the more important in the COVID19 scenario. As Anand says, the balance between personal and professional has shifted in favour of the professional for a long time now. When we look at a conventional career, we’ve always found that self-care and well-being have taken a bit of a backseat. We tend to put the system’s need ahead of our own, even now; but self-care has become much more important than before. By self-care, Anand does not limit himself to merely physical but speaks of how this must encompass physical, mental and emotional well-being.

When will the crisis end? When will the lockdown be lifted? There are no solid answers, not from people, government, or experts. Of course, this uncertainty will take a toll. People need to look inward, and give oneself space and time to come out of this. Sometimes it’s okay to give oneself permission to be reasonable and set realistic expectations. Don’t burn out because it doesn’t help anybody. Don’t minimize or deny the emotions, acknowledge them.

This is all the more necessary in the current scenario. For it is a truly unique scenario, wracked with uncertainty. Anand’s insight lies in the true effect of uncertainty on people and organizations, and how it hampers our ability to adapt and thrive. Acknowledging this impact, and the toll it takes, is a mutual responsibility of employer and employee, ultimately necessary to face this uncertain future.

– Anurag Singh

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