Learning to live a digital life

Season 2, Episode 2: How do we craft sharp, yet authentic digital personas? That’s a necessary skill since so much of what we do has moved online—how we learn, meet friends, work, and apply for jobs. Haresh Chawla and his son Shiv debate that all important question

Founding Fuel

The word “Virtual” prefacing events—office meetings, happy hours, classroom sessions, family reunions—no longer sounds odd. In fact, everything that we did in the real world is moving to digital: how we learn, how we engage socially, how we work, and how we apply for jobs.

Haresh Chawla, a leading investor and Founding Fuel columnist known for his incisive commentary on digital transformation, and his son Shiv, an 18-year-old undergraduate student at Brandeis, debate why a social media presence, and using your smartphone to “listen in” to all that’s shifting around us, matters.

Haresh says, Covid is creating a digital-first world “and the skills required to succeed in this world are not available, nobody can teach them to you.” The only way to learn is to experience it yourself.

Now Shiv is unlike many “digital natives” his age, in the sense that he lives resolutely in the physical world. (Haresh calls him a digital caveman.) He creates mindmaps of everything because of his learning disability. “I'm very used to using physical stuff. I print everything out. I sit and plan everything out and that's because I have a learning disability,” he clarifies.  

Yet, though his dad had to push him to get on Twitter (and by Twitter, Haresh explained to us later, he means any form of online communication/exposure—a blog, a newsletter, a microsite) he’s slowly coming around to seeing the positives. “I just got used to it because I had nothing else to do at the time. I'm enjoying Twitter now,” he says.

How does one face the new world? How does one thrive in it?

Edited excerpts from the discussion, anchored by Harsh Mall:

How do we process this change?

Shiv: But why is any of this important though? I'm a bit of a digital laggard, I get that. I'm probably the exception. But generally speaking, eventually we'll go back to normal, or something similar.

Haresh: My intention to push you to do that, is to learn how to flex your muscles in this new world. It's not just about Twitter, it’s about all the change around us.

The suddenness is the important point.

There’s nothing new about it—that digital companies are becoming bigger trillion dollar companies; that everything had to go digital, slowly; that some companies had five year plans. But we were all frogs in water, in that sense, a little boiling water coming around us. But now it's like an earthquake.

We just need a new lens to look at the world and you flexing your muscles will help you develop that lens. Every sector is changing—how you consume, how you buy medicine or buy groceries, how you take tuition, how you take yoga classes, what skills become valuable.

You cannot be a digital laggard anymore. And my generation is fine. My generation is probably going to enjoy seeing your generation do things. And your generation has this ability to use these platforms, and unleash your personal creative imagination as well.

Shiv: But the physical world is important.

Haresh: India has been a bit behind on this—on personal brands becoming a business, but that's coming soon. In the West, you see Kylie Jenner becoming a 100 million dollar brand, you see Simon Sinek being suddenly known all over the world.

Of course, the core rules of business will stay the same. I don't think that people will change how they consume what they consume. But the process of reaching it to people, your digital persona, the digital avatar of your business, of yourself—all of that will lead to the physical interaction.

How do we approach this?

Haresh: What has your experience at Twitter been?

Shiv: My Twitter account is anonymous. There are no consequences. But I think it has helped me articulate much better.

Haresh: Twitter forces you to learn how to communicate well, to put your viewpoint across, to take feedback, to take criticism, and to be able to contextualize what you want to say in a very short space.

It's not about Twitter alone. It's not about tweeting. It's about learning how to express yourself in a concise manner.

Shiv: Why is social media so important in and of itself? Why do we need a social media presence? Because there are still people who are very successful who aren't on social media.

Haresh: The point is not social media, I think it's a vehicle by which you start engaging with the world.

Look at the smartphone. One role it plays is, it broadcasts you into the world. Only when you broadcast out in the world, the chances of your serendipity goes up, that you'll get discovered. Remember, connections are made online, people will probably look up your profile, look up your digital trail, before offering you a job or promotion. My sense is companies actually will start hiring people who are digital natives. Because companies themselves are not digital, and they want digital natives to help propel them forward.

Second, the smartphone is a device from which you learn as well. Billions of dollars of R&D is going into building and digitizing this world. Use your smartphone as a place to understand what's happening in businesses.

It’s a two-way device and it's transformative that you spend time on it, not just to watch Netflix, but to really understand what's going around.

How do we navigate this?

Shiv: If I woke up tomorrow morning and decided to cooperate completely, what could I do?

Haresh: You have to say that I need to get into learning mode. You stop viewing the app itself, and try and look at the business behind it.

A smartphone is not just like a Jeeves at your convenience. You make it your teacher.

How do you balance it?

Harsh Mall: But how do you protect yourself from some of the unsavoury aspects of social media—the echo chambers, the extremist content, the inescapable tracking by platforms?

Haresh: It is true. I think social media is almost driving people to extreme points of view. One of the reasons is that you do not give context to what you say.

I write long Twitter threads on many issues. But I watch what I say. There should be no intention to hurt. And you have to wrap it with context.

Enter debates that are sensible. Slowly grow into it. It's not necessary for you to engage.

You don't have to go and tweet out. Can you be tweeting in? Can you follow the right people? Because the latest information [is from them]. Listening is important.

Harsh Mall: In the US, I see parents, especially those who work in the tech industry—they tend to aggressively limit their kids screen times.

Haresh: It comes down to the age and what the child is doing. Till a certain age, you have to restrict it. And after that age, well, if they're playing PUBG for eight hours a day, then you should have a problem.

Is it just an entertainment device? Is it a broadcast device? Is it a listening device? I think that balance needs to be there.

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