Branches they bore of that enchanted stem,
Laden with flower and fruit, whereof they gave
To each, but whoso did receive of them,
And taste, to him the gushing of the wave
Far far away did seem to mourn and rave
On alien shores … 1
Those of you who like poetry will have immediately recognized the origin of these beautiful lines. The ones who had to look at the notes to find out which poem they come from have, perhaps unknowingly, already started ingesting the soporific fare it warns against (or recommends?). Maybe, this column will be a timely alarm for them. Of course, there will be some who will neither know nor care who wrote the poem. Their minds have already 'had enough of action' (at least insofar as non-work reading is concerned) and desire rest from such 'long labour'. They are best off turning to less thorny columns or, better still, to binge-watching OTT serials while keeping themselves current with 110 dB TV debates and worshipping the great god WAU (Whats App University).
"Surely an entire column is not going to be devoted to the benefits of poetry", I can sense some of the rugged men-of-action reading this piece fervently hoping. Their trepidation is unnecessary. I have managed to resist that temptation though I resonate with Coleridge’s claim that "… poetry is the blossom and the fragrancy of all human knowledge, human thoughts, human passions, emotions, language."2 It is left for me only to lament with Bennet: "Imaginative poetry … teaches the highest form of wisdom. … [T}here is nothing to compare with it. I say this with sad consciousness of the fact that the majority of people do not read poetry." Fear not, action heroes: we shall use a different medium to fry today’s fish.
Most of us decry (even if we don’t always avoid) ready-cooked meals, predigested news and more-of-the-same movies that minimise exertion on our part and make us passive recipients of food, information or entertainment. At work, however, we are not always equally alert to the dangers of the single-solution (often built into an SOP or handed down from above) answers that leave us in our mental comfort zones regardless of the number of chronological hours we put in or ounces of sweat we exude physically in the process. We can place every process in an organisation on this actively participating versus passively receiving continuum. We shall pick the learning process as our example for this column since it is at the heart of worthwhile HR and runs the entire gamut from energetic endeavour to lazy lapping-up.
The participatory effort required to complete and digest information, instructions and ideas is at the heart of the 'cool' and 'hot' medium terminology popularised by Marshall McLuhan and which will be the usage adopted in this column as well. According to McLuhan: "A hot medium is one that extends one single sense in 'high definition.' High definition is the state of being well filled with data… [S]peech is a cool medium of low definition, because so little is given and so much has to be filled in by the listener. On the other hand, hot media do not leave so much to be filled in or completed by the audience. Hot media are, therefore, low in participation, and cool media are high in participation or completion by the audience." 4 McLuhan goes on to clarify that reading can be of both kinds. "Francis Bacon never tired of contrasting hot and cool prose. Writing in 'methods' or complete packages, he contrasted with writing in aphorisms, or single observations… The passive consumer wants packages, but those, he suggested, who are concerned in pursuing knowledge and in seeking causes will resort to aphorisms, just because they are incomplete and require participation in depth5."
Learning to be 'Cool'
Of the virtually infinite ways in which learning can be acquired, one ideally suited to 'cool' adaptation is the greatly neglected art of self-study. Learning under one’s own steam and supervision is once again (there was a time when it was the only path to progress) becoming vitally important in new-age organisations that prize agility. 6
Reading is obviously an integral part of self-learning but, equally obviously, not all reading leads to learning. Before carving away and rejecting the rinds of reading that will not serve our 'cool' purposes, let’s spend a minute to eliminate one of the hottest habits of reading that all managers are encouraged to acquire. Unfortunately, in terms of retaining worthwhile knowledge, it is as effective as an intestine after bariatric surgery. I am referring to speed reading which has been a continuing craze in over-busy management circles for several years now despite its claims having been debunked regularly. 7 Even if the comprehension claims on behalf of speed reading were admitted, it would be useless for our goal here which demands 'cool' reflection, filling in the blanks, extrapolating and mentally following the new trails that are opened up for the perceptive reader once some underbrush has been cleared by the author. Sire makes his preference clear by titling his book 'How to Read Slowly' and writes in the introduction: "Reading speed is totally irrelevant… Good readers reread many things many times. When you have absorbed the techniques of reading well, you will automatically find your speed increasing. Don’t take pride in this. The task we set before ourselves now has nothing to do with quantity."8 As Nicholas Carr describes it, with Deep Reading, "[t]he reader becomes the book". 9
As a veteran of the 60-70 hour work week I can empathise with those who barely get sufficient time to sleep, leave aside reading meaningful books at a measured pace. But there is no choice: 'cool' learners have to carve time out from work and other activities if they are serious about learning. I am sure most readers of this column will be able to extract time from the eternity they spend watching games like cricket (as a wit pointed out: "The English are not very spiritual people, so they invented cricket to give them some idea of eternity"), reading pulp fiction or pulpable self-help books and illuminating long-suffering Whats App groups with how brilliantly (or stupidly) the illuminator’s children, company or country have performed. Then there’s that whole reservoir of time waiting to float our reading boats as soon as we open the dam gates of efficiency and organise our work in the e-world better. 10
What should characterise the self-study reading for which you are being asked to give up so much? Very obviously, the domains of study can be limitless in their variety, starting from the directly job-relevant functional expertise (which itself differs from position to position), going through preparations for progression to the next career ledge and extending to the less conventional suggestions an earlier column has carried for building great leaders. 11 In all of these cases, however, there are three characteristics that will mark out 'cool' learners’ choices.
The Cool Trinity
"Constant and frequent questioning is the first key to wisdom … For through doubting we are led to inquire, and by inquiry we perceive the truth." 12 The ideal cycle for learning, described by Abelard almost a thousand years ago, needs to be endlessly repeated as deeper questions yield more profound insights and they, in turn, raise knottier questions. "[T]he problem is that preachers and polemicists want us to accept just one, exclusive set of stories, one vision, which we must believe is true. And many people are happy to do this." 13 To 'preacher and polemicist' we could easily add 'HR practitioner and corporate trainer' in our context. Unfortunately for the single solution sellers, it is not the certainties but the new questions any learning yields that are the most important part of 'cool' intellectual pursuit.
Much of good literature (poetry and drama included) and almost all of Philosophy 14 midwifes more and more complicated questions. "The … world has become immensely complicated and the complex stories of novels help us to see our way through it, to shape a trajectory for ourselves in the increasingly fragmented and ill-defined social environment we move in." 15 Drama, particularly in its tragic form, forces us to confront the unpredictability of fate and how it conspires with the pride and other fatal flaws of the greatest of heroes to bring about their downfall. In contrast, cheerful books that provide tomato soup for the (vegan) soul and most that make it to the 'Management Book of the Year' list are far too 'hot', prescriptive and smug to educate us, build emotional resilience or prepare us for the grim realities that lie in wait. Reality is sometimes tragic but always complex, ambiguous and reluctant to reveal its secrets. Pseudo-profundities lull us into 'lotos'-sated inaction long before we have peeled any layers of the onion of reality.
Our second criterion for 'cool' learning is at a tangent (though, hopefully, not contradictory) to the one just presented. It prompts us to find the inspiration for lofty, crazy and immensely ambitious goals as a by-product of the material one studies. To keep it 'cool', self-study should yield untested paths and unusual directions (rather than specific destinations) which need to be personally charted and are preferably unattainable. Of course, there may be great achievements and recognition along the way "but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?" 16 Quixotic they may well be but do we even remember, let alone idolise, the millions of managers who had prosaic plans and practical ways of extracting profits from them? No. We make legends of leaders who may well have fallen short of their vision but who dared "[t]o dream the impossible dream". 17
Catalysts for releasing these ambition-triggering thoughts in our mind-streams can often be found in the ready repository of great biographies and histories of people and epic events both within and outside business that have left more than life-sized contributions and reputations behind. 18 Unfortunately, few of these are Indian, since we rarely seem to be able to leave the bounds of hagiography when writing about our great men and most certainly not when commissioned to describe our business leaders.
Our third test targets the technical learning needed for remaining current in professional roles as well as in adjacent fields of management and technology. On the face of it, non-fiction, professional text-books and serious journals would appear to be the definitive antitheses of 'cool'. This is, however, a misconception as scientifically conducted research is always tentative (in contrast to dogmatic guru-speak – whether managerial or spiritual) and leaves room for (in fact, points out) new directions for further investigation. Moreover, a technique called 'Fractal Learning' can squeeze out any residual calories out of material that appears 'hot'. It simply involves pursuing every interesting reference where it leads and then doing the same from the newly reached way-point (why not follow the notes appended to any of these columns that particularly interest you, as an experiment?). With 'Fractal Learning' even poorly written research papers (provided they are from reputed journals) and tedious (but annotated) books that seemingly leave no 'i's undotted or 't's uncrossed can prove to be fecund sources that can lead to foundational texts and seminal papers. 'Fractal Learning' is obviously a mortal enemy of speed reading.
Cool-laboration Without Losing Individuality
Learning is just one way to make the case for 'cool' HR. Other equally promising illustrations could be 'cool' leadership, 'cool' meetings and 'cool' work. 19 In keeping with the spirit of this column, I leave these (and other HR terrains) to be worked out by mentally agile readers who wish to be 'cool'.
If it’s the individual who plays such a pivotal part in every 'cool' activity, is HR only to spectate and applaud? Were the process as automatic as that, every organisation would inevitably reach close to 0ºK in short order. In reality, there are at least three important steps HR can take to beat the heat.
The sourcing schemas, for corporates that can afford it, limit themselves to 'hot' qualifications like pedigreed MBAs and prestigious B Techs. Not only are these highly prized in the market but the way they are imparted, particularly in India, produces people with an attitude of 'there’s one right answer and I know it'. Not every corporation has the luxury of setting up a 'Think Different Corporate University' like Apple did and which Richard Tedlow, who heads it, calls a "therapeutic alliance between technology and the liberal arts". 20 But surely most corporations can acquire Edu-diversity by recruiting from a mix of educational sources. 21 Fred Phillips (and his coauthors) punch the message home tellingly: "Before the advent of modern b-schools, companies – even Wall Street banks – hired liberal arts graduates. There’s a lot to be said for this practice, and businesses would be wise to return to it. Those grads had a sense of history, a way with words, and some idea how their actions would affect society." 22
Diverse educational streams are a long gestation cure. Introducing leading lights from the disciplines mentioned in the previous section into management retreats, executive development programmes, awards juries and house journals, can materialise much quicker. The idea is obviously not to provide degree-level learning in another discipline but to expose highly focused leaders to totally divergent thinkers who are comfortable with non-optimality. Sometimes celebrity (or imported) catalysts are an essential requirement for senior teams to listen. Normally, however, the frequently ignored riches of Indian (non-MBA) academia yield outstanding and cost-effective thinkers for nudging 'cool' non-conclusive ways of thought.
Much of this effort will be wasted if executives cannot follow up, through self-study, the new ideas that have been planted by differently thinking colleagues or savants. For this to happen the organisation needs to provide an excellently stocked (or available-on-order) library through which people can freely access books in the open-ended, question-posing subjects. Equally importantly, they should be able to follow the pleasures of 'Fractal Learning' by finding and following the trails of scientific research through papers appearing in a variety of journals, without having to subscribe to each individually. Company-wide licences for research databases are irreplaceable aids for the Magellans of the mind.
Ultimately, 'cool' thinking has to be one’s own thinking. Whatever may have been the trigger that started the process, unless individuals participate in the idea to create something of their own, they will ultimately get shown up like the crow who stuck peacock feathers to himself but was quickly exposed as a pretender. After all, even admission to hell isn’t available with only borrowed ideas. Without independent thought 'hot' learners may get the same report and rejection as Tomlinson did from the devil’s assistants:
"We have threshed a stook of print and book, and winnowed a chattering wind,
"And many a soul wherefrom he stole, but his we cannot find.
"We have handled him, we have dandled him, we have seared him to the bone,
"And, Sire, if tooth and nail show truth he has no soul of his own." 23