11 things to explore, learn and reflect on in 2020

Articles, podcasts, books and courses for leaders and learners

R Sriram

[Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay]

The wonderful thing about the end of a year (apart from the Christmas holidays!) is that it serves to remind us of the importance of time, of family and relationships, of endings, beginnings and possibilities.

As we reflect on the year experienced, and prepare for the new one, I would like to share some articles, podcasts, books, and a course that have made a difference to me. I do hope they are of use to you.

Apart from books, I find podcasts particularly helpful in exploring and learning about subjects of interest, benefiting from the knowledge and wisdom of some remarkable people.

Conscious Leadership 

Listen to the Podcast: Jim Dethmer: Leading Above the Line

In his podcast ‘Leading Above the Line’ Shane Parrish (The Knowledge Project) interviews leadership expert Jim Dethmer (cofounder of The Conscious Leadership Group) who shares great frameworks and practical advice about becoming more self-aware, creating a feedback-rich environment, effective decision making and much more.

Their conscious leadership model is based on a simple black line. At any moment a leader is either above the line, or below the line. When we are above the line, we are open, curious and committed to learning. When we’re below the line, we’re closed, defensive and committed to being right. 

The first fundamental building block of conscious leadership is the ability to accurately locate yourself at any moment, asking, “Am I above or below the line?” If you are below the line, you need to shift back above the line. This requires a high degree of self-awareness, commitment to learning and growth, but one that leads to transformation: 

If you would like to know more, you can get their book The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership: A New Paradigm for Sustainable Success.


Read: Outsmart Your Own Biases

We are all susceptible to biases, especially when we’re fatigued, stressed, or multitasking. In his insightful book Thinking, Fast and Slow Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman delineates cognitive biases associated with “System 1” (fast, instinctive and emotional) and “System 2” thinking (slower, more deliberative, and more logical). 

In their Harvard Business Review article, Outsmart Your Own Biases, authors Jack B. Soll, Katherine L. Milkman, and John W. Payne share strategies for anticipating and outsmarting them by nudging ourselves in the right direction when it’s time to make a call. 


Listen to the Podcast: A life in Indian Politics

Amit Varma’s fabulous podcast ‘The Seen and the Unseen’ has many remarkable episodes. The one I would like to share now is ‘A life in Indian Politics’, his inspiring conversation with Jayaprakash Narayan, who was trained as a physician, served in the IAS, and went on to start a political movement. JN shares insights on Indian politics, the nature of the state and what we need to do to change India for the better. Do listen. 


Read: Jeff Bezos’ address to Princeton students in 2010

I often quote Jeff Bezos from his Amazon Shareholder Letters in my strategy sessions (here’s my favourite).

In his address to students at Princeton in 2010, he quoted a life lesson from his grandfather on kindness: “Jeff, one day, you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.”

He went on to tell the students: 

“What I want to talk to you about today is the difference between gifts and choices. Cleverness is a gift. Kindness is a choice.

How will you use your gifts? What choices will you make?

Will inertia be your guide, or will you follow your passions?

Will you follow dogma, or will you be original?

Will you choose a life of ease, or a life of service and adventure?

Will you wilt under criticism, or will you follow your convictions?

Will you bluff it out when you’re wrong, or will you apologise?

Will you guard your heart against rejection, or will you act when you fall in love?

Will you play it safe, or will you be a little bit swashbuckling?

When it’s tough, will you give up, or will you be relentless?

Will you be a cynic, or will you be a builder?

Will you be clever at the expense of others, or will you be kind?’

(I must disclose that my perception of Bezos as a human has changed after his breakup with his wife.)

Listen to the Podcast: Approaching With Kindness

In ‘The TED Radio Hour’ host Guy Raz curates illuminating conversations with TED speakers around various themes such as kindness, love, health, risk, and Anthropocene, among many others.

Approaching With Kindness: We often forget to say the words “thank you”. But those two words change how we—and those around us—look at, and experience the world. TED speakers author AJ Jacobs, author and former baseball player Mike Robbins, therapist Dr. Laura Trice, professor of management and author Christine Porath, and former Danish politician Özlem Cekic, talk to host Guy Raz about the power of gratitude, the difference between recognition and appreciation, of how kindness can disarm hate, and more. 


Online Course: Learning How to Learn

As a student and work-in-progress, I love the convenience, range and affordability of online courses. While we spend much of our childhood and youth in schools to learn, and continue to spend our lives improving our learning, it is remarkable that we are not taught the skills and frameworks to learn effectively.

In Coursera’s ‘Learning How to Learn’ Barbara Oakley and Terry Sejnowski share insights from neuroscience on how our brains work when we process information and develop knowledge, and provide techniques, tips and frameworks to learn effectively.


Read: The Lesson to Unlearn

Paul Graham’s essays are always a rich source of insights for work and life. In his recent essay ‘The Lesson to Unlearn’, he reflects on “how deeply the conflation of learning with grades has infused our culture”.

“The most damaging thing you learned in school wasn't something you learned in any specific class. It was learning to get good grades.

“Getting a good grade in a class on x is so different from learning a lot about x that you have to choose one or the other, and you can't blame students if they choose grades. Everyone judges them by their grades—graduate programmes, employers, scholarships, even their own parents.”

And students carry this pervasive mindset and habit of “hacking the test” to their detriment. As PG states,

“They thought this was just how the world worked: that the first thing you did, when facing any kind of challenge, was to figure out what the trick was for hacking the test.

“This is not just a lesson for individuals to unlearn, but one for society to unlearn, and we’ll be amazed at the energy that's liberated when we do.”

Do read the essay (even if you are neither a startup nor a student, there are nuggets). 

Life Learnings

Read: 13 Life-Learnings from 13 Years of Brain Pickings

Maria Popova distils and details the learnings from Brain Pickings over the years—from ‘Build pockets of stillness into your life’, ‘Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time’, to ‘Seek out what magnifies your spirit’ and more: 


Read and Watch: Ray Dalio on the tools and protocols for dealing with reality

Ray Dalio describes principles as “fundamental truths that serve as the foundations for behaviour that gets you what you want out of life.” In his remarkable and insightful book Principles he shares life and work principles that he has learnt and distilled “over a lifetime of making a lot of mistakes and spending a lot of time reflecting on them.” He also shares his thinking behind, and detailed explanations for, each of his principles. He adds: “I don’t want you to follow my (or anyone’s) principles blindly. I suggest that you think through all the principles available to you from different sources and put together a collection of your own that you can turn to whenever reality sends ‘another one of those’ your way.”

A couple of his principles are: 

  • Embrace Reality and Deal with It. 
  • Dreams + Reality + Determination = A Successful Life.
  • Pain + Reflection = Progress.

Apart from detailing the application of the principles, he shares the tools and protocols used at Bridgewater, making his book Principles a valuable guide for life and work. 

Health: Intermittent Fasting

Read: The Beginner’s Guide to Intermittent Fasting

I started intermittent fasting early this year (fasting for 16 hours, eating dinner by 8pm, skipping breakfast and having lunch by 1pm) and find myself feeling lighter, healthier, fitter, with no loss of energy.

Author James Clear in his article ‘The Beginner's Guide to Intermittent Fasting’ shares how he increased muscle mass, decreased body fat, increased explosiveness, and decreased the amount of time he spent training. 

Udemy offers a course on intermittent fasting, there are several TED talks and books on it, but people with diabetes or those who are on medications, and pregnant or breastfeeding women should not attempt intermittent fasting unless under the close supervision of a physician. 

Since women may have metabolism differences, here are a couple of articles and a TED Talk by women, for women, on intermittent fasting:


I would like to thank my friend and fellow trustee Pervin Verma, who helped all of us at Pratham Books reflect on, and articulate, our purpose, what we stand for. Here is mine:

My name is R Sriram and I stand for love, resilience, creativity and achievement of our full potential for myself and others.

My purpose in life is to love and serve, to learn and grow.

My contribution will be to make a bigger difference through love and service to my family, friends, colleagues, clients and community.

You can count on me for:

  • Problem solving
  • Questioning and ideation
  • Figuring things out 
  • Getting things done 

(Pervin uses the frameworks and techniques developed by Dr Monica Sharma, detailed in her book ‘Radical Transformational Leadership. Read more here.) 


In closing, here is something I wrote about change and making a difference:

I may not
be able to change
the world


that need not

stop me
from making a small difference
here and there 

perhaps making
the world of a difference
to me -

As Prof Scott Galloway reminds us in every mail of his, Life is so rich! 

It has been such a privilege, thank you, and have a wonderful 2020!

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About the author

R Sriram
R Sriram


Next Practice Retail

Sriram's passion for books was serendipitous & led him to establish bookstores across India - he started his journey with Landmark in 1988, set up Walden in Hyderabad in 1990 & then the Crossword chain across India.

He co-founded Crossword with Ms. K. Anita in 1992 & helped build it into India's leading bookstore chain. He arranged for the buyout of Crossword by the current owners Shoppers' Stop Ltd. in 2000 from the initial investor India Book House Ltd.

Sriram stepped down from Crossword in August 2006 and co-founded Next Practice Retail that offers business design, strategic planning and advisory services for businesses across industries, sectors and stages. 

Sriram strives to help entrepreneurs and enterprises create, deliver and capture value. He is an Independent Director on the Board of Kokuyo Camlin Ltd. and was an advisor to Seedfund, the early stage venture fund, and to some of its investee companies.

Sriram serves on the board of trustees of the non-profits Society For Nutrition Education & Health Action (SNEHA) and Pratham Books. He serves on the board of advisors of the non-profits Junoon Theatre and Toybank.

He served as President of The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) Mumbai, the global not-for-profit organization that fosters entrepreneurship & entrepreneurs (2010-12).

While at Crossword, Sriram established the Crossword Book Awards to annually recognize & reward the best of Indian writers & books, that he continues to oversee. He curated the Kala Ghoda Literature Festival from 2005 to 2010.

He's a guest lecturer at IIM A, IIM L & other business schools as it helps him keep learning.

He is particularly interested in entrepreneurship, innovation, business models & strategy, purpose & culture, leadership, education & learning, and next practices.

He remains a student & book evangelist.

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