What I ‘Became’ in 2018: My Story of Meaning and Gratitude

diary girl hand journal
Writing my story

I cherish solitude on the eve of a new year. Last night, I read Michelle Obama’s book ‘Becoming’ as I maneuvered my dinner – placing some spicy tandoori chicken onto the soft sweetish rotis. I find her book an extremely apt read at the end of the year. As the author traces the story of her life, it gives the reader the opportunity to trace their own story, and with that guided reflection we find one or two things about ourselves. More importantly, we get more clarity about who we want to become. To do this you need solitude, and that’s why I prefer to spend a new year’s eve alone.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve forged an end of year tradition to make note of landmark personal events during the year. Rather it was an exercise in gratitude and finding meaning in the year gone by – to list down the qualitative events that gave me sense that the long year was not in vain and that I’m in fact moving towards the kind of person I want to be. A couple of days ago, equipped with a pencil and a notepad, I began to list down. I knew this year had been eventful and good for me. But even then I was surprised to find many little achievements that made me feel grateful and believe more in my life project. I’m sure if you list down, you’d feel the same.

I started out the year as a five month old b-schooler who was still only grasping the foundations of management. I had certainly found a joy and thrill in my cases and classes. Yet, there was no light about what part of management I really liked, nor did I have expertise in any particular area. But I could make a reasonable business case and was accustomed to management thinking. My team and I traveled across the country, from the northern end to the western end, to participate in the final round of a case competition. Intense brainstorming sessions, dissatisfaction, long working hours, meeting with a professor, working at airport, checking into our hotel rooms, and rehearsing our respective parts before bed. It was like a precursor to our careers. It was my coming of age at b-school.

Soon after, we were headed to our summer internships. New city, new firm, new people, new challenges, new anxieties. For the first time, I’d have the opportunity to apply our education in the real world, and more importantly, I’d be judged by the people in the firm. But those two months were quite a flourishing period for me. I made an impression with my mentor, had fun staying with half a dozen batch-mates in a large flat, and the city was New Delhi – among my favorite in India. A film festival, ‘fill as many books as you can’ box sale, ice-creams on hot summer nights, and dinner with friends. During the time, I met a few interesting people who nourished me with their conversation and with whom I still keep in touch.

This year, I finally began to do things that I had always aspired to do. Unlike the maddening hours of campus life, the summer internship was a structured experience with clear deliverables. This meant that I had I time for myself on the weekends. I took to writing. Previously, I had written only for myself. I had especially admired William Dalrymple kind of writing – a mix of history, religion, culture and a personal touch. It was the month of Ramzan and a visit to the largest mosque in India on a Friday evening gave me the divine push to write about my sublime experience. I continued to write once every week, and at that time I didn’t know that I had started something that’d grow bigger.

I remember the joyful conversation I had with my mentor about her little son over a lunch of burger and coffee on the last day of my internship. It felt heavy to leave what you called home for two months. As much I was excited to be back in campus, it also made me a little nervous to go through the numbing routine. But as the classes started, I was grateful to be back in the classroom, absorbing the wisdom from the professors, and loving the cases – the opportunity to be a new person, in a place, with a new objective every single day. I was fortunate to be blessed with some amazing professors that term who would leave a lasting impact on me. The learning was substantial that qualitatively raised my confidence to tackle business problems. I learned to figure out a firm’s story from its financial statements, was smitten by the detective nature of management consulting, developed skills to listen to the story data tells us, and traveled the world through International Business Strategy case discussion.

But being back in campus meant that I’d be attending to cases, classes, and assignments all day all week, and would be bereft of the escapades or exciting experiences that I could write about. I wanted to keep my writing thing going. Why shouldn’t I write about what I do at b-school? I made a little decision that is among the best I have ever taken – to write 300 words everyday about whatever we did and learned that day. It was small perfect decision, what my strategic consulting professor would call a SMART goal and probably that’s why it was so effective. I completed a month and then I pushed it to a hundred days. I was quite taken aback by the support and encouragement offered by my parents, friends, and even professors. The diary seemed to be sending out positive ripples to everyone who came to know about it. I did not foresee the positive potential.

I had my share of fortune this year. The recruitment seasons at b-schools are quite unforgiving in their ability to cause stress in the students.  I was very fortunate to be recruited early by a firm that was on the top of my list and in an industry I preferred. This gave me a lot of time to work on things I wanted to in the last quarter of the year. It is another story that I did not do much with the time boon. When has too many options to do with ones time, one does not get much done at all.

I finally wrote about films. It was a wish of mine to draw lessons from films and make more of the films I watch, in general. I was able to do this when I wrote an article drawing management consulting lessons from a Japanese film. I squirmed with it for two months on and off struggling to find a structure before I was satisfied with it. Later, I also drew negotiation lessons from the Cuban missile crisis based film Thirteen Days and some historical documents. Life came a full circle when my interview at the firm I was recruited began with my article on the Japanese film!

Then again, I had some very interesting classes and even more memorable professors. Together, we discovered the world of systems thinking and business dynamics through modelling a variety of problems including the dynamics of a beer supply chain, the unique competitive nature of platform businesses, sustainability of fishing resources, quirks of social media advertising, and driver income on mobile app taxi platforms. We also explored the struggle of organizations as they tried to digital transform themselves, and explored some amazing cases that included a weather forecasting company and a newspaper. Block-chain, internet of things, and artificial intelligence began making sense to me.

It is also a time I developed an interest in the airline industry. I found it really cool. We worked on a few projects on the airline industry from multiple angles – valuation, financial analysis, business dynamics – and also wrote a few articles on it. Look backing, it seems to be only a passing interest. I feel no more pulled by the airline industry but it was a great fling while it lasted – I had a great time learning, analyzing, and sharing the knowledge. May be our tryst is not over yet. But I still definitely love airports.

I definitely had my share of failings this year. I had made an uninformed ambitious plan of getting the blog edited into a book within a month. But when I started it I found it daunting, and could not put in work. For weeks, I loathed myself for not being able to do it. Over time, I’ve realized that the obsession was not healthy and I could let myself more time to work through the editing. In other failings, I’ve left incomplete at least half a dozen books that I started to read, my personal schedule has been a wreck, and I’ve been lazing too much in the last couple of months. Not proud of this, but I will have to learn to manage myself better.

But again there was always a silver lining. I spent time with a few close friends over food and cups of premix teas of various kinds – cardamom, saffron, ginger, and lemongrass. Tea premixes could make Orwell turn in his grave, but I assure you that the tea was excellent. I’ve made some happy memories and a few friends who would be long lasting. More on the people side, I’ve made several mistakes and in the process learned a thing or two about leading a team.

Towards the end of the year, it was a poignant moment to enter the last term of b-school. Probably the last time I get to be in the cocoon of the classroom. If I was given the opportunity to be anywhere in this world, I’d choose to be in a classroom with a great teacher. I’m still amazed by the kind of professors I get to meet. A couple of days ago, in a course on information technology and innovation, the professor was a man with almost 30 years of teaching and researching in one of the top b-school in the country. His enthusiasm for his subject, his kind wisdom, and his self-deprecating jokes on the ostrich-like behavior of the management academia were a pleasurable. He had a lifetime of stories rattling them off whenever the opportunity permitted. I couldn’t help but wonder about myself at sixty years of age.

Would you believe if I said that seven months back I did not have Instagram on my phone. This year I’ve finally embraced social media with a bear hug. Somewhere I realized that these social media platforms, especially Instagram, gave me the wonderful opportunity to express and document my micro-thoughts. My regular blogging and search for more readers only reinforced the general need and power of social media. I hope to write soon about the potential of Instagram to infuse positivity and mindfulness.

Of course, I had my quota of films and books this year. I’ve made my list of this year’s roundup of ten books and ten films on Instagram. I began reading Michelle Obama’s book a week ago, and it probably will be my best read for the year due to a personal association I had developed with the Obamas due to my reading of the two books by Barrack Obama. I’ll read this book through the break of the new year.

Well, I did not plan to write a long post. I had intended to make a bullet pointed note for the things I was grateful for this year. But I guess Michelle Obama’s writing had rubbed off on to me and I was driven to write a long narrative. But writing this felt satisfying. I needed to hear my own story. We all need to hear our respective stories. Now I definitely know that it was a meaningful year for me and I had my share of blessings. This was an important year for me. This time, last year, I had ordained year 2018 as a year of transformation. I believe, it was one indeed. I needed this. I shall strive to prevail the better angels of my nature into the new year.

Signing off for 2018.

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10 Commandments of Leadership

president obama
A good leader?

This is an attempt to extract ten actionable takeaways in ten sentences from our on-going leadership development course:

  1. Be always aware if you’re exhibiting managerial attitude or leadership attitude.
  2. Consciously develop your emotional intelligence, especially self-awareness and self-regulation.
  3. Strive to generate confidence in your followers.
  4. Create a psychologically safe environment, where followers can be authentic and open.
  5. Acknowledge that leaders don’t always have the answers.
  6. Avoid the four vices od bad leadership – incompetence, rigidity, callousness, and insularity.
  7. Keep looking for adaptive challenges and help your followers overcome them.
  8. Know your followers by categorizing them into isolates, bystanders, participants, activists, and die-hards.
  9. Populate your inner circle with participants and activist followers.
  10. Lead by asking tough questions; don’t give answers.

The Enlightened Corporation | Episode 1: Resolving Existential Questions

In this pilot episode, I reflect on the need and the reasons for studying corporate governance, explore the connection between b-schools and corporate scandals, understand the pitfalls of economics-oriented management theories, and wonder if we could imagine an enlightened corporation.


The lecture hall was packed. With an uncomfortable smile, the professor confessed that for all the years he’s been teaching corporate governance, there wasn’t a class more than forty students. Though he prefers a smaller intimate setting for his corporate governance session, he said he was heartened by the response to the course.

Why Corporate Governance?

There is a need to set a backdrop for corporate governance. Enron is a useful example. The shareholders of Enron lost $74 billion in the four years leading up to its bankruptcy, its employees lost their jobs and billions in pension benefits, and some other companies are still reeling from the impact. Creative accounting, conflicts of interest, and an ineffective board were some of the causes of the Enron scandal. The question is if the Enron debacle could’ve been prevented. This, in fact, is the mandate of corporate governance.

To limit ourselves to a simple working definition, corporate governance is the mechanism that regulates the management to act in the best interests of the shareholders and other stakeholders while preventing it from acting in a self-interested manner. In recent times, the importance of corporate governance has been growing. In the aftermath of the deregulation of the 1980s and as a consequence of many corporate scandals, there has been a burgeoning focus on corporate governance.

Why corporate governance in b-school?

Personally, my inclination towards business ethics, public governance, and kinder capitalism naturally lead to my interest in corporate governance. But I only knew corporate governance had something to do with boards which held the management accountable, and that companies which had better corporate governance had more credibility. In earlier courses, we had dealt with brief aspects of corporate governance in cases on earnings manipulation, and investment analysis frameworks included the evaluation quality of management. I remember at least once when we closed a case declaring that poor corporate governance doomed the company. I wanted to be in this class to understand more about this.

But there is a need to ponder upon the functional reasons for studying corporate governance when one is just at the beginning of his managerial career. Why is it being taught at all? Research conducted by Aspen Institute has found evidence that b-schools have an influential impact on the future manager’s behavior. Discussing corporate governance could enable the students to adopt the right attitude and behavior towards the corporate governance system in their organization. I agree that I don’t have a complete answer now. But I believe the answer as to why corporate governance in b-school will be revealed gradually as the course progresses and we do the cases.

B-Schools Caught Red-handed

Our professor had aptly mandated a pre-reading that pretty much answers the above question. The article titled ‘B-Schools share the blame for Enron‘ by Sumantra Ghosh written in July 2003, post the Enron scandal. The pre-read quite subtly set the raison d’être of corporate governance in a b-school classroom. Ghosh, a late professor at London Business School, argues that the behavior of managers is due to certain theories being taught at b-schools and the academicians who invented them. He elucidates this with three prominent theories that occupy a primary place in management education.

Michael Jensen’s agency theory taught b-school students that due to the fundamental nature of man, managers cannot be trusted to do their job, which was to maximize shareholder value. To overcome this, employee stock options were proposed. With hindsight, it is easy to see the pitfalls of the employee stock options. It gives incentive for the management to indulge in excessive risk-taking to increase short term benefits and bonuses, inflate profits, and cook accounting books. Again Enron is a great example. Oliver Williamson’s transaction cost economics proposed that employees must be tightly controlled by managers so they do what they’re told. Porter’s five competitive forces, suggested that the company has to compete with its employees, suppliers, customers, and regulators in addition to its competitors to make profits. Thus profits come from distorting the market, which is what managers are paid for and must pursue though it may negative social impact.

It is not just the b-school students who imbibed the above theories, it is also the executives who’ve ever taken a business course, and simply anyone because these theories have attained great intellectual currency in our times. Thus, these theories have shaped the general behavior of the managers at firms like Enron.

The late professor says that the problem lay in b-school academics’ effort to pretend that business is a science. They tend to treat business as a kind of physics in which individual choices have no role to play. However, unlike physical sciences social theories including management theories are self-fulling:

A theory of sub-atomic particles does not change the behaviour of those particles. A management theory, if it gains enough currency, changes the behaviour of managers. Whether right or wrong to begin with, the theory becomes “true” as the world comes to conform with its doctrine.

Too much Emphasis on Economics

As we discussed these theories, our professor asked us if there was a common thread connecting the three leading academics mentioned by Ghosh who’ve had a great influence in management studies.

One of my colleagues responded that they were all are from the US. The professor smiled at the obvious, the US was the Mecca of management studies and b-schools. But he did concede that the US socio-economic culture definitely does have an impact on the theories proposed. However, we were looking for something more.

The professor revealed that all three management thinkers had a background in economics. As a result, their management theories were grounded in economics while deemphasizing the other facets. Management, in reality, was a mix of economics, psychology, and sociology.

The professor posed a provocative question, “Does an MBA make you better managers?”

This is among the most uncomfortable questions one can face in a b-school classroom. There was a moment of awkward silence. The professor put an end to our misery by declaring that no doubt MBA’s return better performance. He quoted a study that found CEOs with MBAs to achieve 91% shareholder returns while their non-MBA counterparts achieve 81%. But this was economic performance. None of us know at what cost this performance was achieved?

Judging management performance on shareholder returns alone (financial economics) sounded familiar. It was the strategy simulation we had done in a previous term. The team performance was graded on shareholder returns. Thus, the teams made decisions on the location and shutting down of factories on a strictly economic basis. The loss of jobs and impact on society was not a consideration. We were being trained on a simulated environment where shareholder return trumped everything else. This stands a perfect testimony to Ghosh’s article.

Rescuing Mankind from Evil Corporations

The rise in corporate fraud and the general distrust of corporations and the impact such misgovernance can have on the global socio-economic system is well established. But could corporations pose a threat to the survival of mankind? Brian Moench’s article ‘Mankind: Death by Corporation‘ takes upon this subject:

Ironically, created by and managed by humans, corporations have become almost robotic monsters, perpetrating, even feeding off human misery, threatening every aspect of human life – the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat – and even the future of mankind itself.

Brian argues that corporations pursue profits to the detriment of everything else – environment, people, and humanity itself. He cites examples from the tobacco industry, the lead industry in the second half of the twentieth century, Monsanto’s GMOs, the fossil fuel corporations, the nuclear industry, and the pharmaceutical industry.

Should corporations necessarily pose threat to mankind? I think corporate organizations do not necessarily have to be monsters to do well. We had a moment in history when it was acceptable for individuals to be draconian and kill fellow beings. Then, it changed. We have a better moral framework and codes. It could be the same with corporations. They might have been inhuman in the past but they don’t have to be so. There is hope for better corporations. Good corporate governance will lay the path to better corporations and b-schools are the right places to begin.


Coming up | Episode 2: The Building Blocks of Corporate Governance

Savoring every bite of the last term

selective focus photography of woman using white and black slr camera
Capturing the last moments

To begin, the term break was disastrously unproductive. I did not move beyond a page in the writing and editing work I had scheduled. Rather did I read much. But there were more revelations. I found that I’ve lost the ability to be sane in solitude. I’ve temporarily lost the ability to enjoy being. All along, I looked for distractions through videos, social media, or people. With too many things to do, there was a dread of not doing anything at all and being without hope in general. And then, when I come across people on social media or books, who are like what I dream to be, a moment of poignancy sets in.

On the brighter side, I got a couple of days of good work and caring for team members, a couple of memorable outings with my close friends, and some warm moments of companionship with my flatmates. The holiday also helped me understand, I believe, what I should prioritize in life. 

.  .  .

As I step into the final term of b-school, it is a moment to stop and gather my thoughts.  What do I look forward to in this final term at b-school? As I picked my courses for the term, I decided to focus on the wider and higher aspects of career and life. Thus, my choices of courses in Leadership Development, Management Lessons from Bhagvat Gita, Entrepreneurship. My other three courses were also explorative – ‘Customer Relationship Management’, ‘Behavioral Finance’, and ‘IT & Business Innovation.’ In addition, I’m also hoping to gatecrash a course on Corporate Governance.

My focus is to learn as much as possible from the coursework. I wish that I develop a life-long muse for a couple of the above subjects. In the same measure, I also want to do worthy projects in a couple of the above subjects.

It is also a moment of emotions and nostalgia for me. The ritual of cracking open a new case every day, be imported to a new place and new role, and be caught in a decision dilemma, will soon come to an end. The cold calls, the case discussions, the ‘aha’ moments in class, and the team presentations too. Now that I realize that only a little of this experience left, I want to savor it with more attention as one would relish the last few bites of one’s favorite meal. 

I must confess that a certain amount of fatigue had set in the previous term. On more occasions than I’d like, I was not enthusiastic about what I was learning. There could be multiple reasons – the kind of subjects, professors, other pressures, etc., But in this last term, I hope to recover that curiosity and the delight in learning.

On a more crucial note, I also understand that I must use this time to develop greater self-belief, and also believe in the hopes I have for myself and the world around me.  

These final moments are important. My experience of these last couple of months will shape my memory of my twenty months at b-school. I want to chew and savor every bite of this last term.  

Winter, Holidays, Writing, Solitude, Reading

A Winter of Writing and Editing

It’s the term vacation. Which means there are no assignments, no team meetings, and most importantly no deadlines for the next eight days. Eight days to do whatever one wants to.

When such an occasion presents itself to me, the impulse is to take off for home or travel elsewhere. The impulse can be explained by the fatigue that sets in due to constant busyness and the general inability to get out of campus during the term. After these eight days, it will be back to assignments, cases, team meetings, and the deadlines. It makes it compelling to make use of the holidays we have.

The campus life is like a monastery. The monk of the b-school monastery lives in a plain single room, eats the simple food with your peers in large halls, and congregates in lecture halls to meditate on business problems. With no presence of commercial attractions like the malls, restaurants, cinemas, and neither the spending power, as he is a non-earning full-time student, the b-school monk is removed from distractions.

For an ordinary person like me, I begin to crave for the outside world after a few months. This time, I even hatched a couple of travel plans. One was very compelling. Fly to Goa, catch the International Film Festival, idle at the beaches, devour the seafood, and explore the Portuguese Christian villages. 

It was a compelling pitch I had made to myself. It is also winter here, I’d have loved to go some place warmer.

But I resisted.

This winter, I will be writing and editing in solitude. Much like Daphne, who stayed back in the harsh winter of Sifnos to write One Hundred Days of Solitude. While she was in a Greek Island with a few people to talk and fewer commercial attractions, I’d be on the b-school island. I hope to take walks around the green campus in the warmth of the afternoon sun to shrug of my restlessness.

I want to get my work on the book done. At least to an extent from where I see a less anxious path forward. It’s going to be challenging. But when the nights are uninspiring, I’d have some tea, and remind myself of Obama writing his ‘Dreams from My Father.’  

Why do I want to do this?  I believe that getting my first book done will improve my existence than doing anything else. I will believe that I can produce a book. That belief will change the way I experience everything else. The more I write and believe in it, I will create more meaning out of my travels and other experiences. This is why it very important to finish this book. It gives me meaning.  

Of course, when I’m too lazy to work or crave for a travel adventure, I will catch up on my favorite films – The Sound of Music, Little Forest, Hideous Kinky, The Man from the Earth, Fresa y Chocolate, The Double Life of Veronique. And some books that match the mood – My Family and Other Animals, Hundred Days of Solitude, and a few travel books.

The Cuban Affair and a friend

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I read these papers with fervent devotion as one would read the revelations of God in a holy book for the very first time.

Few nights have been more satisfying than the one I was fortunate to experience a week ago. It was purposeful, engaging, and life-affirming. These moments that put you in the zone of ‘flourishing’ have to be treasured, and probably understood better to recreate them more frequently. I was just sifting through some documents that preceded a probable nuclear catastrophe.

My final assignment for the Negotiation Course was due in a couple of days. We were to present our analysis on a real-life negotiation drawing parallels from the strategies and tactics learned in the course. We chose to work on the negotiations between the US Government and the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis – a negotiation that probably saved humanity. I was first introduced to the affair through the film ‘Thirteen Days.’ The film portrays the decision making in the high offices of the US government during the crisis, closely based on the book ‘Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis‘ by Robert Kennedy, who as the Attorney General during the period had a close view and say on what was happening. I’ve rewatched the film more times than any other film, each time drawing lessons in leadership, communication, and decision-making. I’ve also caught with the book. The Cuban Affair was among the reasons why I chose the course on negotiation. Now, it was coming a whole circle. I was going to end the course with an analysis of the crisis.

But it was not the first time I was working the subject. All through the term, I’d been trying to do a write-up on the subject from a negotiation strategy perspective. I read articles and the even the screenplay of the film. But I get did not get too far. Rather, I did not exert myself enough. But now, I had to do it.

I began my research with a benign ‘google search.’ It threw up a bunch of articles on the crisis. I had read many of these earlier, I was looking for something more potent. As I scrolled down, I noticed the National Security Archives link. It contained documents pertaining to the crisis. It was an epiphany. I could now read the exact words that Premier Khrushchev wrote to President Kennedy. I could also read the CIA evaluation of various responses to Soviet Missile build-up in Cuba. The same documents that the Executive Committee for National Security would’ve used to base their decisions on.

I read these papers with fervent devotion as one would read the revelations of God in a holy book for the very first time. For the first time, I experienced the thrill from a first-hand reading of such documents.

Despite my interest in the crisis, it had never occurred to me to look for the real papers.  Now, it has opened up to me a huge area of curious engagement. I will go on frequent online hunts for more such discoveries and this may provide fertile material for books and novels.

.  .  .

A friend messaged me today with a reading he found interesting. We had shared a flat during my Summer internship. He was a student of economics and was interning with a data-driven journalistic firm for the summer. But he had his vision set on the economics of drugs and traveling to unusual places. He rattled off stories on drugs and his econometric modeling on the taxation of robots. We connected instantly due to our wide-ranging interests, especially world travel and cultures. I hardly expected him to be interested when he asked me about the book I was reading, a historic novel on Samarkand. But that set off a long conversation between us. He narrated his travel experience in Kazakhstan and treated me to his photos and videos from the trip. Later, our favorite thing was to figure out and catch up with the international film festivals in the city.

While we parted ways within a month, he kept a tradition of sharing the interesting culture stuff he stumbled upon. A few weeks ago he had sent me some Turkish songs, which I had forgotten about until today. As I listened to those songs today and texted him back, he said that these days he has developed an interest in philosophy and was currently reading The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant. I was happy for his interest in philosophy and told him about my own small introduction to philosophy through The School of Life.

We couldn’t prolong our conversation any longer, it was already 1 AM in the night and I had to attend to my assignment on the Cuban Missile Crisis. I knew that he had an interest in history, so I let him know that I was working on the Cuban Affair and casually asked him if he’d ever watched ‘Thirteen Days.’ He said he had. I wished him good night and shared the link to the National Security Archives on the Cuban Missile Crisis I had discovered, hoping that he’d share the excitement I had for these papers. Yup, he did.

I returned to the historic papers reflecting on what a night it is turning out to be. As we journey through life, we across some wonderful people even if only for a brief month. Such briefness should not let us belittle the potential of these relationships. It was a reminder for me to be open to people all the time and create possibilities for life-affirming relationships.

Fishing: A personal reverie, systems simulation, and sustainability challenges

blue fishing boat
Gone fishing

As we entered the lecture hall today, we saw ten placards spread around the class. The twin professors were already there to usher us in. They asked us to form teams of three and sit behind one of the placards. Blue Lagoon, Salmon Fry, Atlantic Crew, Brave Sharks – some of the names on these placards.

When all of us were seated, the professor asked us to guess what we expected to be doing today based on names on these placards. I looked around and found that the names on these placards had a common theme relating to ocean and fishes.

“Are we Pirates?” a classmate asked. The professor denied.

A few more guesses later, it was revealed to us that we were fishing companies. We were going to fish.

Fish, fishing, fish markets, the ocean – these are magical to me. I could observe them with awe for hours. In Chennai, one of my most favorite activities was to walk through the little fish market that ran parallel to the beach. In the evenings, you’d see women seated on both sides of the road with fishes of different sizes and colors brought in from the sea by their menfolk only a little while earlier. You’d feel the cool breeze of the sea and your nose would tingle from the ocean smell of fresh fish. You’d hear the names of fishes crooned by the sellers to attract buyers. Just beside the sellers would be the other women who cleaned and sliced the fish that the customers had bought, an additional service that you have to pay for. People ambled from vendor to vendor, wide-eyed, and all along pregnant with the excitement of a delicious fish dinner later in the night.

I think the certain thrill is because fishing is the only act and fish is the only food that still retains the primeval adventure of hunting-gathering that is no more in poultry or meat or other common food. Most food is domesticated and raised in captivity, while most fish still comes from the untamed sea.

With this elevated mood, I was all set for the simulation. We owned ships which we used for fishing. We would be competing with the other teams in the class. Our task was to increase our net worth by the end of the ten rounds. Our revenue came from our catch. Our decisions were limited to two things. One, we could buy and sell ships; two, we decided where to send our ships – deep ocean, coastal ocean, or keep them in the harbor. Each had its own cost. The decision on where to send your ship rested on the expected catch per ship which was determined by where our competitors chose to send their ships.

One of our team members who knew a little about this game warned that this was about sustainability. The teams would buy a lot of ships initially to rake in the revenues but they do not account for the fact that the stock of fish depletes as every team indulges in over-fishing. The average catch per fish then drops to a nadir that it is not economically sustainable to operate the business.

From this insight, we tried to formulate our strategy. While we understood the perils of owning too many ships, we also understood the need to have enough ships in the initial stages to rake in some revenues. The broad idea was to buy more ships initially and auction the ships when there is still demand for ships in the market. If we’re too late, the competitors would figure out that low fish stock and would not be interested in buying the ships. We debated what would be ideal time to start selling the ships. One said it shouldn’t be before the sixth round, another said that it might be too late. The professor leaned in to listen as we discussed our strategic options.

The game began. It was year one, the catch was good. Both coastal and deep ocean were equally attractive. We bought a few ships. And then, into the fourth round, a gap developed between the profitability of coastal and deep ocean based on what the other teams decided. We had to play a guessing game about where the nine other teams would send their ships. Being overly rational, we started to simply assign our ships equally to diversify our risk. A round later, we managed to sell a couple of our ships. One team which had too many ships on its balance sheet was desperately trying to off-load it. It came to a point when they were tried to sell their ships at a price lower than the price of a fish!

The game came to a close. The team with the most ships was at the bottom of the table. We were in the middle. It was expected. We followed a risk-averse strategy, we couldn’t have hoped for more returns.

We then played another cycle of the game. This time with the addition of an ‘association’ formed out of one member from each team. The association met after every three rounds to discuss matters regarding industry regulation. However, the decisions made are not binding on the members. But the association did not have any impact on the game, in fact, no decisions made. The association was hijacked by a few loud voices who believed they understood what was happening in the industry and also had the solutions to it. Much of it was targeted at the player with the highest number of ships who was raking in a lot in revenues. No one spoke about the need to protect the resources.

Soon, the fish stock in the ocean went to zero. The industry crashed.  Everyone, along with the player that owned the highest number of ships lost. Self-regulation did not work. Everyone was a loser in the end. Even nature. It was a tragedy of commons.

It was half past ten in the night, well past the scheduled class time. We had to break for the night, quite reluctantly. The simulation was surprisingly effective in demonstrating the tragedy of the commons, and self-preservative decision-making that leads to this outcome. When we discussed in our team if we should propose a rule of alternating between coastal and deep ocean fishing for the whole industry, we dismissed that reasoning it would hamper our revenues.

But it is not just a game. This situation is too close to reality that it is terrifying. Over-fishing is a danger that is imminent. Today, there are parts of the ocean that are wiped out of fish population. How the world’d oceans could be running out of fish is an interesting BBC feature that narrates the danger we face. Meanwhile, countries like China, who have exhausted their own fishing resources are now subsidizing and sending large fishing carriers into African waters, hitting the livelihood, the food source, and the marine resources of the African coastal nations like Senegal. This could be the next biggest geopolitical tension.

Last year, I had picked up an interesting travel book on a related theme. In Following Fish: Travels Around the India Coast, author Samanth Subramanian chronicles how fish intertwines with the history and the culture of the coastal regions of India. He explores it through food, religion, history, fishing communities, sport, ship-building, and many more. It is a riveting read. Recalling the book reminds me of the smell of the ocean.

A couple of days from now, we will return to class to apply systems thinking to the fishing simulation and do policy analysis to tackle issues of tragedy of the commons and sustainability. It is all very important and critical to our world. If we continue to do business as usual, my enjoyable walks in the little fish market, the livelihoods of many a people, the fascination of the ocean, and the above-mentioned author’s chronicles would become a thing of the past. It would be a shame to lose our blessings.

.  .  .

The simulation is MIT Sloan School’s Fishbanks: A Renewable Resource Management Simulation. It can be accessed by anyone. Try your hand at it.